The Alaskan Laundry

The Alaskan Laundry

by Brendan Jones

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544325265
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 04/26/2016
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 463,755
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Brendan Jones lives on a tugboat in Alaska and works in commercial fishing. A Stegner Fellow, he received his B.A. and M.A. from Oxford University, where he boxed for the Blues team. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Ploughshares, Popular Woodworking, The Huffington Post, and on NPR.

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CHAPTER 1

THE CAPTAIN'S VOICE ECHOED off the mountainside. "Port Anna. The town of Port Anna, twenty minutes. All passengers exit through the car deck."

She watched off the left rail of the ferry — port, starboard, whatever. Bleached driftwood and tangles of seaweed were strewn across the beach. Above the sand, trees carpeted the mountains up to the dark peaks.

She squinted but couldn't make out much in the thickening fog, just clouds caught in hazy wisps among the treetops. Shouldn't there be factories on the outskirts of town? Suburbs? The air smelled piney, faintly citrus.

She punched her sleeping bag into its sack, tossing salami ends and scraps from her meals during the last four days into the trash. With her thumbnail she chipped duct tape from the cement deck where she had camped. The bottom of the tent was still wet from the first night on the boat, when she had woken to the crack of the rainfly, shiver of the ferry as waves slammed into the hull. Huddled in her sleeping bag, nylon walls contracting and expanding around her like a lung, she had been certain the tape lashing down her tent would give. She'd be trapped in a sail, skittering across the ocean, never to be seen again.

When she finally gathered the courage to step out, as the sky began to lighten, a wave streaked with foam reared up in front of her like some nightmarish opponent, before slapping down, sending salt spray over her cheeks. She spent the next three nights sleeping on a chair beneath the solarium heat lamps, reveling in the warmth.

The ferry heaved toward a break in the trees, threading two islands, crescent sweeps of ash-colored beach on either side, outlines of mountains, faint in the dimming light. Since boarding the ferry she had spoken to no one, feeling like a ghost among the passengers. That's how it had been since she left Philly, as if her vital organs continued to function while her mind went elsewhere, into some alternate universe, the laws of which she could not explain.

She zipped her duffel and returned to her spot. A tall man with a white beard and a weathered face, eyes the color of Pennsylvania bluestone, settled on the rail beside her.

"The Rock home for you?" he asked. H-A-R-D-W-O-R-K was tattooed over scabbed, swollen knuckles. She caught a whiff of oil, and something else, maybe alcohol.

"You mean Archangel Island?"

"The Rock, that's what we call it. A fifty-mile-long, fifteen-mile-wide slab of rock. You're lookin' at the northern tip of it right now, with Port Anna just around the bend."

"I'm from Philly," she announced. Her throat felt sandpapery.

"Yeah, I woulda noticed if you'd been around." He stepped back from the railing, stretching his sinewy arms. "Philadelphia. Capital of America. I got that right?"

She looked to see if he was joking. The wrinkles etched into his cheeks didn't deepen.

He set a palm into the rain, breaking into a jagged smile. "Liquid sunshine. Welcome home, friend. That's what we say to folks from the lower forty-eight when it looks like they might stick around."

"I guess I'll see you," she said, shouldering her duffel.

"For sure. Petree Bangheart." He set out a hand.

"Tara," she said, shaking it.

"Pleasure, Tara."

As she moved toward the car deck she thought how nice it was that someone from around here might think that this could be her home, instead of the brick-and-mortar houses built over the crumbling Wissahickon schist curbs of South Philadelphia. Her mother had always spoken about the magic of living by the sea, her memories of sleeping on a boat open to the stars, cradled by the waves. "Let the hands of Saint Anthony carry you." And now Tara was doing it, signed up to work in a fishing village. This year would be a fist to knock her open, a right cross to shake loose the grime and sadness.

From the protected lower level of the ferry she watched as a broad wooden dock resolved through the mist. Workers tossed ropes, easing the boat to the moorings. Cars were lined up beside a low-slung building in the middle of a parking lot, clouds of exhaust rising from the tailpipes.

She patted her coat, wet with rain. In the pocket was just under two thousand dollars, most of it tip money after a summer scooping water ice at John's, bills still sticky from the cherry and lemon syrup. (She never earned a dime working at the family bakery. A roof and food was pay enough, her father reasoned. Cheap bastard.)

She scanned the coast. She had envisioned Alaska lush and open, wide-skied and dramatic. This world of passageways and forests that seemed to swallow the light felt like some different planet. Where was the spire of the Russian church Acuzio had described? The volcano looming over town? Cabins with smoke curling out of their chimneys?

Inside a ferry attendant unhooked a chain, and passengers filed downstairs to the car deck. The steel ramp leading up from the boat jolted as vehicles drove off. She joined a few pedestrians crossing the parking lot to the terminal, where people were gathered in dulled raingear. One girl, overweight, with small glasses, wearing a pink waterlogged fleece, wet hair plastered to her cheeks, stared vacantly ahead. No one spoke. Her new boss had told her when she had called him from a payphone in Ketchikan that he'd meet her here.

Afraid that he might have forgotten, she started toward the terminal. She thought of a game Connor loved to play, insisting that she choose one word to describe her state of mind. (Her feelings changed with the weather, while his were so annoyingly consistent.) With this army surplus duffel packed with the damp tent and sleeping bag, and her ponytail pulled through her Eagles cap, she'd take "homeless." But homeless with a plan.

As she opened the glass door of the terminal a potbellied man dressed in stained work jeans held up by faded rainbow suspenders elbowed his way out. His brown boots, extending from the frayed cuffs of his pants, appeared clownish. She was about to say that God gave him arms so he could open doors by his own goddamn self when he held out a meaty palm.

"Tara Marconi? Fritz. Welcome to Port Anna."

She shook his coarse hand, then stepped back, taking in his bulk. "How'd you know it was me?"

"Hell," he said, looking her over with small eyes half covered by wrinkled lids. "Not too many curly-haired city gals we get stepping off these boats. Those all your things? Leave town in a rush?"

"Sort of," she muttered.

With his bulk and grizzled face, Fritz resembled one of those Jesuit missionaries she had studied at St. Vincent's, hardened from years spent at some far-flung outpost.

"All set? Truck's right over here." He pointed to a dented gray flatbed with a bumper sticker that read CUT KILL DIG DRILL. Which struck her as strange. Wasn't he running a fish nursery? A stench, some combination of sweat- mildewed boxing wraps and rotting meat, hit her.

"What's that stink?" she asked.

Fritz smiled, showing yellowed teeth. He went around the side of the truck and pointed into the cab. "You stay right there, buster. Toss that bag on the bed, Tara. Let's go take a look-see."

She followed him along the shoulder of the road. He gestured toward a square orange street sign that read END. "Fourteen miles of hard-top on Archangel Island. Seven miles from town one way, seven miles the other. Beyond that, just spruce and hemlock — brown bear territory. Upwards of twenty-five hundred. More bears than people."

A tremor moved through her as they turned onto a gravel road. Trees were on one side, a river on the other. Drops from the branches thudded onto the bright carpet of moss. She looked deeper into the woods, over the plush green mounds along the forest floor. "Do bears actually eat people?" she asked.

Fritz reached for the pouch in his back pocket. "Not if you got your trusty sow stopper."

He took out a gun, big and silver, the kind men with sideburns used in those crime movies her father loved. She stopped walking. "Relax," he said, easing it back into the case. "I'm not holding up gas stations." But all she could think was GUN, in the hands of this tired-looking man with blueberry juice staining the tips of his whiskers. Who had a sticker that said KILL on the bumper of his shitty, rusted-out pickup.

"Kid, it's for protection," he said in a soothing voice.

Thorns snagged her jeans as they picked their way along the sandy bank. Scrubby dim beaches with stalks of flattened, sodden grass stretched out on the far side of the stream. Screeching gulls, white as paper, wheeled against the dark sky. The sight of water comforted her, how it curled behind rocks, shadows of stones beneath the rush. One of the stones freed itself from the streambed and darted upriver. A few others followed. With an intake of breath she realized these were fish, thousands of fish, finning in the current.

"There's your smell," Fritz murmured. "Dying salmon."

She watched, stunned, as a gull took a couple of steps in the shallows before jamming its beak into the stomach of a fish carcass. Orange eggs spilled into the current. Tara cupped a hand over her mouth. A grotesque-looking creature, backlit, tore a strip of flesh from a salmon struggling in its talons. It swallowed the meat in gulps, head cocked in her direction. This was an eagle, she realized, not much smaller than the brass statues outside the central post office in Philadelphia.

"Pink salmon. We call 'em humpies," Fritz said. "Males like that" — he pointed to a fish with a hump along its back — "it'll be your job to toss them down the chute. Females we give a whack on the head with a stick of alder, slice open the stomach, and shuck out the eggs."

She put a hand up. "Hold on. Cooz told me this was a hatchery. Like we're hatching fish, not killing them."

He gazed at her, his melon of a head tilted to one side. Behind him the eagle lofted into a tree.

"How about you hold that thought until tomorrow," Fritz said.

But tomorrow suddenly seemed far away. Right now she was thinking of getting back on that ferry, zipping up in her sleeping bag, and snuggling beneath the heat lamps. Far from this gun-toting man, these zombie fish decaying on the banks, blood-hungry bears, and prehistoric birds.

"So if the females are killed, what about the males?" she asked, ignoring his comment.

"We get a few studs to spray semen over a bucket of eggs. And the rest, like I said, go down the chute. Which dumps" — he ricocheted one hand off the other — "right into my crab pots. Skookum setup. Makes for great stuffing come Thanksgiving."

She bit her lip. The question of whether she'd make it to the holiday hung in the air. This man was challenging her, she decided, some manner of Alaskan hazing. A dull anger lit up beneath her breastbone. The last thing she needed was some fat fuck of a boss ordering her around. If she wanted to, she could be in New York City, by Connor's side, in less than a week. She could reassess. Make a new plan.

When they returned to the parking lot she saw the bright brake lights of one last car receding into the boat. She stood by the flatbed. Her shoes were sandy and damp. Fritz heaved himself into the bench seat.

And then, across the water, behind a number of smaller islands, a thumbnail of sunshine along the rim of the volcano. Just like Mount Etna in the photos her mother had shown her, a dark cone to guide the fishermen of Aci Trezza home each night. Above her, clouds opened to a patch of blue.

"Call those sucker holes," Fritz said. "For the suckers who think it's about to get sunny."

She looked away, leaning into the truck window. Among the squished muffin wrappers and Styrofoam coffee cups, stretched out on the bench, was a hefty white dog with a black and gold streak up his back.

"This here's Keta," Fritz said. The dog peered up at her with clear brown eyes, his whiskers twitching. The smell of mildew and tobacco and wet fur in the truck was almost worse than the dying fish.

Fritz hooked his thumbs into his suspenders. "Listen, Tara," he said, staring ahead through the mud-streaked windshield. "I sure wouldn't think any the less of you if you got right back on that ferry. Save us both a lot of trouble." She waited, listening to his heavy breathing. "Your cousin Acuzio, he was here, what, ten years ago? Long enough to forget what the winters are like, and the sting of hard work."

He was right. Cold sky, the coming winter, the nauseating smells, even this lumbering, weary man — I don't need this. Not now. If she didn't go crawling back to Connor — and part of her wanted to, to explain that this was all some awful mistake — she could at least find someplace dry. The Southwest. Santa Fe, even, where Acuzio was working. Get a job scooping ice cream. Find a boxing gym. Train in the afternoons. Just be alone and get her head on straight.

"I should add," Fritz said, rubbing his eyes, "that the last thing I need this fall is someone dragging ass at my operation. We got production goals. It's hop- skip, and I sure don't take well to slackers — especially as we start prepping for next year's run."

The heat beneath her breastbone spread. She thought of her father, at the foot of the stairs, mustard cardigan tucked into his sweatpants, calling her a spoiled brat. How dare he. She had grown up walking each morning to the family bakery, switching on the tiny incandescent bulbs of the Marconi's sign, rolling dough, cleaning display cases, wiping down the aluminum cladding on the storefront. Maybe she hadn't given work at the bakery her all over the past year — but after what had happened ... Spoiled brat, my ass.

The dog perked up as Fritz keyed the engine. The ferry horn blew. Her anger grew hot in her chest. And there, at the far end of the flame's heat, something new. Quieter, reassuring.

An attendant stretched a chain across the pedestrian entrance, as if to say, No, you're not crossing these thirty-five hundred miles back to Philadelphia. Not yet.

She opened the door and got in.

CHAPTER 2

AFTER SPENDING most of the muggy Philadelphia summer in Connor's room, scooping water ice during the day, raging about her father at night, she couldn't take it anymore. The "it" being herself, subsisting on Wheat Thins and chive cream cheese, hardly getting out of her torn sweatpants, taping episodes of The X-Files to watch over and over, showering only when she and Connor started sleeping together. She had thought the sex would help — and it did, briefly. But after the rush of blood and warmth she only felt emptier. She wanted to disappear, like the dot when she turned off her TV, reduced to a point. To reanimate on some different planet, find some new sun to orbit. Connor tried to help, going out to fetch another box of crackers, a block of cream cheese. If she heard once more that he was there if she needed to talk, she thought she might scream.

One day in early August, while Connor was at his job bricklaying, she woke up barely able to catch her breath. At first she thought she was having a heart attack, or her lungs were shutting down. The walls seemed to close in. She panicked. That same day she tracked down her cousin Acuzio Marconi in Santa Fe.

She remembered his stories about working in what he called the Last Frontier. Catching salmon with his bare hands, running into grizzlies, working at the hatchery, then a fish processor. "Place is huge!" he said. "Instead of America it should be called Alaska and Its Forty-Nine Bitches." Her father at the far end of the table, silencing Acuzio with a glare.

"Are there girls too?" Tara asked, from her chair beside her mother.

"If they're born there. But it's a man's world, shows you what you're made of."

Afterward, as they did dishes in their burnt orange and avocado Formica kitchen, her mother shut off the faucet and took Tara by the shoulders. "This young man, your cousin, he don't know nothing. Alaska, it is like where I come from, where these" — her mother held up her hands and spread long sudsy fingers in front of Tara's face, her nickel-sized medallion dangling over her breasts — "these are how you grow strong. Si? It doesn't matter what is here." She patted between her thighs. "Capisce?" When she was in fifth grade Tara did a social studies report on Alaska. She glued eight stars onto purple construction paper, coloring them in with the yellow highlighter her father used to mark late orders at the bakery.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "The Alaskan Laundry"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Brendan Jones.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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The Alaskan Laundry 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
brf1948 More than 1 year ago
The Alaskan Laundry is an excellent coming of age tale, peopled with colorful folks from the commercial fishing industry in Alaskan waters in the late 1990's. This is a well written novel, the story line tight, peopled with complex characters you can't help but like and understand. I would not have thought this a first novel. I will watch for more from Brendan Jones. He brings to life the joys and trials of commercial fishing, the beauty and fierceness of the land and sea that holds the hearts of those who know Alaska intimately. Thank you for sharing your world with us, Brendan Jones.
Tangen More than 1 year ago
I received this Goodreads Giveaway in hope of a review. A life-changing decision sends Tara into the harsh world of Alaska commercial fishing. There, she learns that she can do almost anything that she sets her mind to. It is a lot of hard work and she, a young female from the lower 48, meets the challenges. Seamlessly and knowledgeably well-written, this narrative grabs you by your curiosity and holds you there until the end! Characters are real and trials engaging. Don't miss this one!