"He's Out At Fishtown"
By Fred Owens
You have to fight for your life. That's the chief condition on which you hold it.
― Saul Bellow, Herzog
“Have you seen Keith Brown? He’s been looking for Lisa again. He came to the Lighthouse and started giving Ernie Benson a hard time. This is putting me on the spot -- I gotta watch out for him now.” It was Larry Yonally asking.
“He’s out at Fishtown,” Jimmy said, leaning into the window of the police car.
Larry was the LaConner police chief. He had one full-time deputy and a part-time reserve officer on his staff, which was enough to keep the peace in a town of only 650 souls. Larry had slicked-back dirty blonde hair and pretty blue eyes. He was close to thirty in age, but he wore a 12-year-old grin at times. He had a prepubescent pudginess in his torso, like he had been eating large boxes of buttered popcorn at the movies. That was how he looked -- youthful. Thankfully, Larry did not compensate for his physical immaturity by assuming a tough-guy pose.
A tough-guy cop would never do in LaConner -- you had to just go easy on people, let the drunks find their way home after the tavern closed, maybe just walk into the bar around midnight and say a quick hello, but not stick around, not watching people like a cop, but just being officer friendly – Larry did that well. He kept the peace. That was his job.
He lived with his wife in a doublewide on Caledonia Street in South LaConner and kept his police “vehicle” (cops like to say “vehicle” instead of “car”) parked in his driveway face forward, ready to go, being on-call at odd hours.
But this was day time. He drove down Caledonia to South First Street and saw Jimmy and Hitch walking down the middle of the road, which people did because there was no sidewalk and no traffic either. But Larry spotted them and waited at the intersection to ask about Keith Brown.
Keith was certifiable. He lived out in Fishtown and had been out there for ten years already. In the fabled saga of Fishtown, 1982 was part of the “Empty Years.” The poets and artists who had enriched the river cabins had since departed. Charlie Krafft had taken a studio in Chinatown in Seattle. Steve Herold started a graphic arts business, also in Seattle. Beau Diller and his wife, the Turkish Terror, had rented a house in LaConner. Paul Hansen was still on the river, but he was occupying a decent rental, meaning a house with electricity and plumbing, up at Al’s Landing.
That only left Keith and Art Jorgensen and the empty cabins between them. Art was becoming a true hermit, he never came into town, and you never saw him go anywhere. He just stayed in his cabin and worked a little on his boats. He was a master craftsman, woodworker and sculpture. He was just not projecting out into the world.
So that left Keith all by himself at the other end of the boardwalk, with no one to talk to and he began hearing the voices again.
A lot of people wondered where Fishtown was and how to get there, and the poets always said if you look for it you won’t find it, but if you don’t look for it, well there it is.
Anyway, you had to walk across Ken Staffanson’s field, which he rented from the Chamberlain family, to get to the cabins. Or you could drive up to Margaret Lee’s farm at the top of Gages Hill, where Margaret kept a few dairy cows and she had the finest river, bay and skyline view in all of Puget Sound. But you needed her permission to drive up there and park your car, and then traipse down the hill and then get on the boardwalk which was built to go around a gigantic rock and there you were – in Fishtown. Charlie Krafft would come out to Margaret Lee’s farm and when he got to the boardwalk, he would gratefully say hello to the blackberry branches which fell over the path, and he would greet them, each branch, and carefully push them aside, so they might spring back into place – that was the kind of place that Fishtown was. But Charlie and the others were gone and Keith was by himself.
Charlie said, “Keith only made any sense about half the time. You would be talking about something, like fixing a hole in the boat, or going into town for groceries and having a normal conversation, and then in a split second it was like you were on the north pole of Mars -- totally disconnected. But we were all like that back then, so it didn’t matter.”
Keith was no artist but he had his projects – building solar collectors that empowered 5-watt tiny light bulbs and collecting manure for methane-powered generators, which he built from scrap parts and then, by candle light on windy winter nights, he read mail order catalogs fat as phone books for obscure electric diodes. He could turn a lawn mower into a computer or vice versa, a real electronic genius.
But people got busier and had less time for long talks with Keith. They stopped hanging around all day – they had paying work and lived in town, and Keith just got crazier and paranoid in a bad way. He started talking about the anti-Christ and the CIA and how his mail was being intercepted by the FBI and how he would be going on a special mission to restore the True Order of the nation, and how there were bodies buried underneath the Lighthouse Restaurant in LaConner.
He spoke with Jesus as well, and became conversant with the thunderous condemnations of Old Testament prophets and he began writing their instructions and verses in felt-tip pen on his brown field jacket, and then on side of his van -- “Woe unto you,” quote Jeremiah. And, going into town -- a small town where people had a great deal of patience for eccentricity – he began to worry people and then to frighten them. “I hope he gets all right,” someone might have said. “I hope he doesn’t have a gun.” Other people said Keith would never hurt anyone, but they said it with less confidence.
Larry knew Keith Brown and he hoped to monitor the situation, but the reports were disturbing – Keith was looking for Lisa again and that could be very bad.
Jimmy and Hitch didn’t have any fresh insight to offer Larry and he drove off.
“What’s wrong with Keith?” Jimmy asked.
“Nothing,” Hitch said.
“But Larry is worried.”
“Well, he’s a cop.”
Jimmy and Hitch continued down Caledonia Street on their journey to the Frog Hospital.
Two key South LaConner personalities lived on the north side of Caledonia Street. Guy Anderson, the famed artist, lived with his piano and cats in a self-designed hutch with large blank canvases and the luscious ivory-white pigments of man-loving torsos in celestial poses.
The basal granite of LaConner’s hill began even in his backyard and swelled upward steeply to the Sacred Heart Catholic church, built in 1899, but Guy Anderson was of and for the people of the South LaConner lowlands. He would greet Jimmy and Hitch with a broad smile, and Jimmy didn’t feel small or look at his shoes.
“He’s one of us,” Jimmy said.
“Guy is all right” Hitch said.
But Caledonia Street had the dynamic tension of a border region between the lowlands of South LaConner and the hill. The two adventurers, bound for the Frog Hospital, turned the corner on Caledonia going one block westward to the Don Wright estate, he being the flipside of Guy Anderson’s aesthetic, he being called Don Wrong by Sam Cram, he being for many people the defining personage of South LaConner, defined by his yard’s abundance of un-pruned blackberries concealing rusted riding lawnmowers and old tires, surmounted near his front door by the most gorgeous abundant climbing yellow roses which were the envy of every serious gardener in town, and yet all he ever did for those roses was flip filter cigarette butts on them on his way out the door to his job as a fork-lift operator at the Moore-Clark fish food factory right next door to his house.
It was a blue whale of a building, the old Moore-Clark warehouse, with mighty timbers of old-growth fir beams, a cathedral space filled to the rafters with 100-pound sacks of fish pellets -- pellets made from the guts of dead fish, ground up, processed, vitaminized, packaged, shipped around the region, and fed to nursery stocks of new-born fish that would one day die themselves and be fed to the next generation.
Moore-Clark and the 25 men who worked there, including Don Wright on his fork lift, were an essential part of the cycle of fishing life in Puget Sound and the wages were good too. It smelled like dead fish and it smelled like money to the townsfolk.
And the smelt loved it. Schools of tiny smelt flooded Swinomish Channel in winter months, dining on the unfiltered effluvia of Moore-Clark’s fish food factory. So the big fish ate the little fish out in the ocean, but then the little fish came back to eat what remained of the big fish. It went round and round, and a man could stand on the dock with a pole and a jigged hook and catch a mess of smelt for his dinner, being a part of this grand drama. And sail boats slow-motored past rafted gillnetters on the channel, past purse seiners, past dinghies and skiffs, underneath sea gull skies.
Jimmy and Hitch walked by the Moore-Clark warehouse. They saw Don Wright on his fork lift. He said hello, nodding his dark-rimmed glasses and his gimme hat and his pre-grizzled beard. Don was maybe half-redneck. He drank as much beer as anyone on the Sand Spit, but he had a job too.
“What are we going to do about Keith?” Jimmy asked himself, but out loud. “He’s my friend. If he comes into town and he tries to find Lisa, this could get pretty bad.”
“Trouble comes when it comes,” Hitch said. “Just listen to the voices.”
Orville Riggles grew red potatoes on the west side of Mount Vernon. He was stubborn about that, growing three acres of spuds, which you couldn’t do. The real farmers grew 40-acre fields of potatoes and had the equipment for that – plows, drills, and harvesters. And home gardeners planted a few 50-foot rows and put the potatoes in their root cellars
But three-acres didn’t make sense – way too many potatoes to eat yourself, but way short of a commercial profit – Orville Riggles didn’t care about that. He was a good enough welder to build his own harvester complete with hydraulic fittings. By God, he was his own man for all that.
Marc Daniel, being his own man for all that, came by Riggle’s farm that July day in 1982, to pick up a sack of new red potatoes. He made an offer to pull weeds for an hour or two, but Riggle’s just waved him off and handed him a big sack.
Marc was learning to be organic and countrified, but he mainly fueled his interests with cocaine deals. You buy the cocaine, you step on it, you sell it, and you can keep plenty for yourself and buy a quart of Wild Turkey bourbon into the bargain.
He was from New Jersey and he talked very fast and loud, between cigarettes, hoarsely shouting, walking and stomping from car to field, to shack, back to town, running his mouth, three steps ahead of all-out crazy, and going too fast for the law which had not seen his likes in these parts.
Marc Daniel had just enough sense to stay out of jail, and people called him Zappa because that’s what he looked like. “I look more like Frank Zappa than he does,” he said and he grinned and shouted and kept talking.
He drove out to the Sand Spit with his sack of new red potatoes, hoping to see Joy Helen Sykafoos, hoping she would make him some potato latkes like his mother made him back in New Jersey. You make latkes with shredded potatoes and grated onions, bound with flour, salt and eggs, fry them in hot oil until they get crispy brown on the outside and melting warm inside. Just like home.
Joy was home on her float shack. She cooked on a two-burner stove fueled by a 5-gallon propane tank. She had three beautifully seasoned cast iron skillets in different sizes. And she had curtains, not dainty, but feminine, and the red heart tattooed on her forearm to remind her about not being a fool for love.
Guys like Zappa would barge in – or try to. But Joy would slam the door shut and scare them off, mumbling something about witch craft and herbal potions, which wasn’t true, but it worked, because she did not, not, not want that kind of company.
The trouble is that Zappa came all the way from New Jersey with a head of cocaine-fueled steam and made it all the way into her one-room kitchen and cabin. She had to feed him to get rid of him. He was too skinny. He talked all day and he never ate. Someone needed to take care of him.
“This was meant to be,” she said. “I will make you latkes. But you understand, I am part Indian. I am from Oklahoma. I’m not your mother and I don’t know how to cook latkes.”
“But you said it,” Zappa answered. “It was meant to be.”
His eyes were on the bed.
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Plot Summary. Today’s passage is the fifth installment in a story about Jimmy and Hitch, two Sand Spit shack dwellers on the outskirts of LaConner, a small fishing and tourist town at the mouth of the Skagit River in Washington state. In the story, Jimmy and Hitch are making a beer run to the Frog Hospital, which is their nickname for the grocery store in the Quonset hut in downtown LaConner. Along the way they keep running into people they know, which is what happens in a small town, but things are going to get dicey and even dangerous. Today’s installment concludes with the pair coming round the corner from the Moore-Clark warehouse and about to enter downtown LaConner -- it’s gonna get complicated, and it might seem that they never make it to the Frog Hospital. I don’t even know myself, and I’m the guy who’s making this all up. I should re-state that Jimmy and Hitch are fictional characters, although some of the people they meet, like Don Wright, are as real as rain.
My blog is Fred Owens
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