Fish Kicker

by Margaret Mendel

Sharon sat with her back resting against a scrubby pine tree. She closed her eyes. The heat from the afternoon sun dulled her mind like a drug. The end of summer had been unseasonably warm this year on the Kenai Peninsula. And the Alaskan fireweed had finished blooming weeks ago, which meant the first snowfall could happen any time now, and Sharon wondered where she'd go once it turned cold.

Ned and Bill, two guys she worked with, were throwing horseshoes not far from where she sat. She liked the thud the heavy metal shoes made as they hit the ground. It gave the game an earthy sound.

Sharon had just dozed off when a pick-up loaded to the top of the truck bed with salmon drove passed her on the dirt road that led up from the Kenai River. There were two ways to get to the weigh station where she worked. Most folks used the exit off the main highway while some fishermen drove straight up from the river's bank on the road that Willie, her boss, had constructed a few years ago. She watched as the rusted pick-up loaded down with fish made its way over the ruts and then pulled into the open doors of her boss's weigh station.

"Sharon!" Willie called. He didn't need to shout. She knew her job. But he was a white man and he thought all Natives were lazy, stupid, shiftless, and she'd begun to think by the way he hollered for her, that he also thought they were all hard of hearing, too.

She stood up, stretched, yawned, then walked down to the weigh station and waited beside the truck while Willie's son, Herb, the only person allowed to operate the forklift, positioned a large wooden crate just below the tailgate of the pick-up. When everything was in place, Sharon climbed onto the bed of the truck and made her way across the mound of slippery fish. Willie unlatched the tailgate and called up to Sharon, "All right, let'm go," and he backed off.

Open net fishing season, a short run of excess salmon, every year put into play a frenzy of underemployed men and women scrambling for the mother lode of Sock Eye and Reds that swam close to shore. Willie owned a stretch of the bluff above a bend in the Kenai River and each summer he turned an old shed on his property into a weighing station and became a middleman for the fish canneries.

Sharon's job was to kick, push and shove the fish off the bed of the trucks into the waiting crates. Her official job title was fish kicker, and she'd gotten pretty good at it. She had stout, muscular legs that gave her an advantage as she walked atop a pile of salmon. A taller person would have had difficulty balancing as she made her way across a slippery mess of fish, but Sharon quickly got the cargo moving.

When most of the salmon had been removed from the bed of the truck, and there was no longer the natural slime of other dead fish to move the creatures smoothly, Sharon resorted to kicking individual fish into the crate. The fish were no worse off for this treatment. Most salmon had already seen a lot of damage from their ocean voyage and the Beluga had usually taken bites out of a good many fish by the time they'd reached this far.

Sharon had just jumped out of the empty pick-up when the local sheriff's car pulled in next to the weigh station. She didn't know his name, but she had seen his face enough times to recognize him. And no matter what the weather, he always wore those ridiculous sunglasses, the kind with rainbow mirror lenses. Sharon never trusted people who lived with their eyes hidden.

"How you doing, Willie?" the Sheriff asked as he stepped into the doorway of the weigh station.

"Can't complain," Willie replied. "What's going on, Allen? You come by to get some fish? "

"No. Just checking with the places along the river to see if they saw anything out of the ordinary." Sheriff Allen peered into the crate of salmon that sat at the entrance to the weigh station. "Fishy smelling place, ain't it?" he commented, and then looked at Sharon. "You this year's fish kicker? "

"Yep," Sharon replied. It sounded more like she had taken a bite out of the air, than actually made a comment.

"Where you from?" he asked. Sharon heard the suspicion in his voice.

"Up north," she replied.

"How far?"

"The North Pole," she said and walked away.

"What's going on, Allen?" Willie asked.

"One of the fish nets came up with more than just fish last night. Someone caught a dead guy. A few seals had gotten to him before he was snagged, but it was the bullet hole that made us take notice. Know anything about it?" Sheriff Allen sniffed noisily, cleared his throat, took out a hanky and blew his nose. "The cotton wood's driving me nuts this year. Nothing I take for my allergies seems to work anymore." He wiped the yellowed rag across his nose several times then shoved it into his back pocket.

"Fish kicker," the sheriff called out to Sharon. "You see anything out of the ordinary in the last week?"

"If I did, you'd be the first one I'd tell," Sharon said.

"You got a feisty fish kicker on your hands, Willie. Well, if you hear anything let me know." Sheriff Allen turned and headed out the door.

When the sheriff was out of hearing range, Willie said, "Don't be such a smart ass, Sharon. It's bad for business."

"You want me to be polite to the local Dick, pay me more. Six bucks a truck doesn't give you anything but my stubby old legs to do some kicking, and that's all."

Willie grunted. Then he began to work the adding machine tallying the last haul. "Herb," he called as he punched the keys. "Where's that lazy son of mine?"

Several minutes later Herb stepped into the weigh station. "Where'd you run off to?" Willie snapped. "Take that crate off the scale. "

"All right, all right, don't have a coronary," Herb replied, then he jumped into the forklift and moved the box of salmon to a corner of the weigh station. "What'd the sheriff want?" Herb asked as he jumped out of the vehicle.

"Looking for someone, I suspect," Willie replied, more occupied with his figures than with the sheriff's business.

"He say who?" Herb asked.

"Sheriff Allen doesn't say much of anything. But it looks like he's on the trail of a murderer."

Herb turned and was about to leave when Willie said, "Hose-down the driveway out front."

"I'm busy," Herb replied. "Have the fish kicker do it. She's not doing anything now."

Willie gave his son an angry look then nodded to Sharon, and returned to his bookkeeping.

Sharon picked up the garden hose, turned on the water faucet and watched Herb walk across the driveway to where he had parked his motorcycle earlier that day.

As long as the daylight held, which this late in the summer was another nine hours, Sharon would sit near the weigh station and wait for trucks loaded down with fish. When the last truck had finally driven away Willie locked the bay doors for the night.

"We'll start about seven tomorrow morning," Willie told Sharon, and he gave the padlock a yank.

"O.K.," Sharon said, and she made her way up the road. Willie knew she didn't own a car and that she walked from wherever it was that she lived. But no matter how late they worked he never asked her how far she had to walk or offered her a ride. She wouldn't have told him where she lived if he had asked, and she certainly wouldn't have taken a ride.

At the end of the driveway, Sharon turned left the way she always did and walked in the ditch that ran alongside the highway. Herb roared passed her on his Harley Davidson. The shiny bike was Herb's pride and joy and he polished and fixed something on it every spare minute he got.

Sharon walked until she came to a small cut-off that led into the underbrush. She'd stumbled across an abandoned hunter's shelter on the bluff about a mile from Willie's weigh station, and that's where she went every night. She'd rigged a cooler with a rope and pulley system to keep the wild dogs in the area from getting into her provisions. Nothing she ate needed refrigerating, but the cooler kept the bugs and spiders from messing with her food.

She'd made a home out of not much more than a pile of boards, a couple pealing sheets of plywood, and a piece of rusty corrugated metal for the roof. Since the structure sat not too far from the bluff, with the beach and river right below, the wind could get pretty fierce up there some nights. When a squall blew across the bay, the shelter usually needed a bit of anchoring the next day, but the place had kept her comfortable all summer.

The winter though would be another story. She didn't think she was tough enough to make it through the cold weather living up there. She had no idea where she'd end up. As long as she stayed away from the bottle, she'd be all right. Maybe she'd head back up north to her mother, see if she could get her daughter out of foster care. Or maybe she'd just keep heading south. Who knew where she'd end up? Fate would tell her where to go, she thought, as she crawled into her shack. Too tired to eat tonight she pulled a ragged blanket over her shoulders and closed her eyes.

The wind howled through the cracks in the walls, a lonely sound that made the ground feel harder than usual. Several hours later the pack of dogs that came by every night on its hunting foray whined and barked at her shanty's door. She kicked at the makeshift entrance to her shelter. "Beat it," she shouted. They didn't frighten her, just annoyed her. She knew that later that night she'd hear the mother moose and her calf walk past her place, chomping at the underbrush as they worked their way along the well worn trail.

The visit today from the sheriff had been upsetting. She'd never tell him, but she had seen something several nights ago. She'd been sitting on the edge of the bluff drinking a cup of tea, looking out at the northern lights, when she'd heard two men shouting on the beach below. There was no way that Sharon could have made out who the men were, but they got into a fist fight and were going at each other pretty good. One of the men fired a gun. From the sharp, cracking sound she thought it was probably a 38 pistol. One man had fallen to the ground and the other guy ran away.

A short time later she watched as someone came hustling up the beach, picked up the guy she thought had been shot, threw him over his shoulder and staggered away. She had no way of knowing if either one of these guys had ended up in the fish net. And she didn't see any reason why she should get mixed up in more trouble than she could handle. Let the law to figure it out, she thought.

Fewer loads of salmon were coming into the weigh station each day, but Sharon kept showing up to work. Sheriff Allen came by regularly and even when the sky hung thick with low, dark clouds, he still wore his shades. Sharon wondered if he wanted to look like a tough guy. The only thing they did, as far as she was concerned, was to intimidate a few weak-minded locals and make the Sheriff look stupid.

"So, where do you live?" Sheriff Allen asked Sharon.

"Up the road."

"Yeah? Now, isn't that a coincidence. I live up the road, too."

Sharon ignored his comment and pulled on her rubber boots. She turned her back to the sheriff and signed her name in the worker's book.

"I took a walk along the beach last night," the sheriff said. "Not far from where we suspect this body might have been dragged into the water. It's about a mile from here. I thought I saw a little fire glowing up on the bluff. You wouldn't happen to know anything about hunters sitting up there in the night?" He took out a pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket, offered one to Sharon.

"Don't smoke," she said.

"So, you know about anyone living up there? You living up the road and all."

"Don't know a thing," Sharon said.

Just then a pick-up truck loaded with fish pulled into Willie's weigh station. "Got'a get kicking," Sharon said, and headed for the truck.

Sheriff Allen walked away and began to talk with Bill and Ned. Sharon stood by the pickup and watched as Herb tried to jockey the wooden crate into place with the forklift. A grubby full bearded man climbed out of the truck. Two small children, a boy and girl, tumbled out of the front seat and ran close behind the man.

"How's it going?" the bearded man asked Willie.

"Same'ol, same'ol," Willie responded.

"You hear about the guy they found in Pete Clauson's net? "

"I heard. Anyone you know? "

"Don't think so. He wasn't in the water long enough to change him much, but the wildlife down there did a number on his mug. Who knows who he was."

Herb had a dickens of a time getting the crate lined up with the truck. He kept backing up and then coming forward again. Sharon thought he looked a bit out of sorts today. Big, dark circles hung under his eyes and she recognized the drunkard in this young man. She'd been there plenty times herself.

While Sharon waited for Herb to get it together, she watched the little boy and girl as they made their way to the horseshoe pit. The girl looked over at their father. He paid no attention to what the children were doing, and she picked up a horseshoe then tossed it at the metal stake. Then the little boy tried his luck at the game. Neither one of them hit a ringer. The horseshoes fell into the dust with hardly a sound.

Sharon thought about her own little girl, not much older than these children, and wondered if her daughter would ever forgive her for deserting the family. Sharon's mother had been furious when she heard that social services had taken the little girl away. That all seemed like such a long time ago.

The sun had broken through the thick clouds and its light played in the little girl's hair as she lifted the horseshoe once again. Fish scales dotted the child's long, dark, straight hair, and as the sunlight hit the scales, they sparkled as if she were draped in jewels.

Then she heard Willie shout, "What the heck's the matter with you, Herb. Get that box in place."

"I'm trying," Herb bellowed. Then with one more backward and forward motion the crate was finally aligned with the bed of the truck.

"You're hanging out too late at night," Willie said. "If you can't do the job right, I'll get someone who can."

"Forget it," Herb growled.

"Not with all the money you owe me for that bike of yours."

Sharon had heard the father and son squabbling for weeks. She knew that if Herb had a choice, he wouldn't have been living with his parents. As far as Sharon could figure out, Herb had tried to make it on his own in Anchorage, but something had happened and he came home this summer, his tail between his legs. Willie had raised a cocky son, and there was nothing he could do about it now.

Sharon jumped into the back of the truck and sloshed around atop the mound of fish until finally she'd emptied the load of salmon into the crate. She'd just kicked the last fish off the truck when Sheriff Allen walked over toward her. "Why the heck doesn't he leave me alone?" she mumbled.

"So, you in a better mood to talk now?" he asked.

"I smell the same don't I?" she said as she jumped off the back of the truck.

"Probably," Allen replied.

"Well, then my mood's about the same as my smell."

Herb slipped the tongs of the forklift under the crate that was now filled with fish. He must have done something wrong because the wooden box toppled sideways and scattered half of the contents across the concrete floor. "Shit," Willie shouted. "What's wrong with you boy? Can't you do anything right? "

Herb jumped off the forklift. "Go to hell," he shouted and stomped off to his Harley, revved up the engine, and within a few seconds he raced down the gravel road heading for the highway, leaving the mess for someone else to clear up.

"That boy giving you trouble, Willie?" the sheriff asked.

"Since he came back from Anchorage, I haven't had a moment's peace. If it's not his loud music, it's his Harley. He's out all night and he can't do a thing right. He's a hopeless case, I'm afraid. His mother gives him money behind my back, and won't hear a word of criticism about her son. Too bad we can't lock his ass up in your jail house and see if that would put some sense into his thick skull."

"Sorry, Willie, I don't get involved with domestic situations unless one of you happens to beat on the other." Sheriff Allen removed his glasses and wiped off a bit of slime that had splashed on his face from the spilled fish.

"It might come to that," Willie grunted.

"I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that, Willie," Sheriff Allen said with a warning tone in his voice.

"What about my fish?" the bearded man grumbled. "I can't wait around all day to get my load weighed."

"Sharon get Ned and Bill to help with this mess," Willie said. She didn't hear anger in his voice, but she heard the exasperation, loud and clear.

When Sharon returned with Ned and Bill, Willie had righted the crate and the little girl and her brother were lifting a salmon together, one child at each end of a twelve-pound Sockeye, and were trying to heave the slippery thing into the large wooden crate. They stood on the tips of their toes to reach the top of the crate, grunting and huffing all the while. Then they shoved the fish over the edge and into the box.

Willie drove the forklift for the remainder of the afternoon and Herb still hadn't shown up by quitting time.

Sharon felt a chill in the air as she made her way through the woods to her encampment. She'd lived in Alaska all her life, and knew the seasons could change abruptly and figured that she'd have about one more week of work at the weigh station. Willie hadn't said when he thought the net fishing season would be over, but Ned and Bill had told her they planned to pull up stakes in a couple of days.

She looked forward to a little food and the quiet night. She certainly wasn't in the mood for what she found once she got to her campsite. The place had been knocked to the ground. The walls of the rickety shed lay atop each other in a mess that made her meager home look like a garbage heap.

At first Sharon thought a moose had gone on a rampage and stomped her living quarters to shambles. She looked for hoof tracks, but the only thing she found was boot treads on one of the sheets of plywood. The corrugated roof had been dragged to the edge of the bluff and lay teetering in the wind. No animal had done this.

Her cooler had been pulled down from the tree, the lid torn off, and the contents scattered among the twigs and underbrush. The few possessions she had from a life she barely remembered were stomped and broken. A picture of her daughter lay face down in the mud. Sharon cleaned the image of the little girl as best she could, but a long crack in the surface of the paper cut the innocent smile in half. This was an act of meanness, she thought, and then went about fixing things the best she could.

The lid had popped off the plastic peanut butter jar when the vandals must have thrown it against a tree. A few ants crawled about in the gooey mess. "I'll bet you guys thought you hit a windfall," she said to the bugs as she picked them out of her food. She placed the tiny creatures on a leaf, and looked around for the lid to the container.

She really liked her cup of tea in the evening but every little bag from the Lipton box had been purposefully stomped into the ground. Not one looked useable.

She began to set the walls of the structure back into its square shape. As she lifted the corrugated metal back onto the top of the structure, she wondered if it would be wise for her to crawl inside this thing tonight and sleep. What if the vandals came back?

The ragged blanket she slept in every night had either been dragged away or thrown over the edge of the bluff. She couldn't see it anywhere. She'd spent worse nights than this out in the open. One thing about being a drunk in the country, you learned to sleep where you passed out. Many mornings she'd awoke surprised at how the night had comforted her.

She scooped out a bit of the peanut butter with a finger and put it into her mouth. It's a pretty meager dinner, she thought, but probably better than some were getting tonight.

She took a walk around what had been her domain and found a tree with plenty of moss growing at its base. Stepping on it several times to test its softness, she knew she'd found her bed for the night. Gathering handfuls of branches, mulch and other forest debris, she began to weave together a makeshift covering for the night. She sat down on the moss, leaned against the tree trunk, pulled the stiff earthy blanket up over her shoulders leaving only her face visible. Even though she'd be hidden from the naked eye, she still had a clear view of her shack.

The sun settled behind the ridge of mountains on the other side of the Kenai River and a light purple hue filled the sky. Night would take over the land eventually but until then the glow of a setting sun would last for hours. Sharon leaned her head back against the tree and knew that she could not let herself fall deeply asleep. She closed her eyes, her mind in a semi-wakeful state, something she learned from her grandfather when he'd taught her how the old-time trappers used to survive.

In the still of the night, the image of the little sister and brother carrying the heavy fish floated across her mind. She smiled. They were such serious, hard little workers. Sharon's mind drifted to thoughts of her own daughter and wondered if she cried for a mother.

The swooshing sound of an owl's wings startled Sharon to attention as the bird landed on a tree near where she sat. The night had passed quietly, softly, and then she heard the roar of a motorcycle engine in the distance. It came closer, and closer, until she saw a single light gleaming through the underbrush, traveling up the moose trail toward her camp.

Sharon lowered herself deeper into her covering, peering out through a small opening in her earthen blanket. She watched as the driver of the cycle positioned his headlight to shine on her shack. She heard the heavy boots of the driver step onto the ground, cracking twigs, clumsy, awkward footing, and a stranger to the wilderness. The driver came into the light of his own vehicle. It was Herb. He pulled off his riding goggles and kicked at the side of her shack.

"I hate the smell of you, fish kicker," he shouted, and with a heavy boot he pushed roughly at the wall. The place easily slid to the ground.

Sharon's breathing, soft and slow, would not betray her as she watched Herb stomp on the rickety structure. Then with the angry eyes of a man gone mad, he looked down at what he had done. He walked to his bike and turned the front wheels from side to side, casting the bright beam of the headlight across the underbrush. The light slid past where Sharon sat. She closed her eyes, not wanting her pupils to reflect in the glare. He revved his engine several times, and shouted, "I know you're out there, fish kicker. It'll be safer if you just go back to where you came from."

He let out a howl like a triumphant warrior and then spit into the darkness. He then turned his bike around and made his way along the moose trail, headed for the highway. He had not frightened her. He was too much of a fool to be feared.

She remained in her hiding place, and in the morning, at the first light, she crawled out from her earthen blanket, dusted herself off and walked along the edge of the bluff, headed for work.

Sharon sat waiting near the horseshoe pit when Willie arrived at the weigh station.

"You're here early. I didn't know you liked your work that much," he said.

"I don't. Today's my last day. I'll collect my pay after the last pick-up drops its load."

Willie didn't seem surprised and said, "O.K."

Sharon saw the Harley parked at the edge of the driveway, near the house. "Herb come back last night?" Sharon inquired.

"God, knows when," Willie replied.

Herb did not come out of the house until after the noon break, and then he sat on the ground polishing the wheel rims of his bike. At one point Sharon caught him watching her. His eyes were mean, angry, threatening.

Willie did not say a word to his son, and worked the forklift himself. Willie gave Sharon a few extra tasks, jobs Herb would have ordinarily done. Tomorrow Willie would have to manage on his own. How this thing worked out between father and son wasn't any concern of hers.

It didn't surprise Sharon when she saw the sheriff's car drive up the road. The police officer had been there every day since the body had been caught in the fishnet. She suspected he'd have the same nonsense questions to ask her again, but this time, he walked directly to Willie.

"Season's almost over, I hear," Sheriff Allan said and took off his sunglasses.

"That's what they tell me," Willie responded. "You find any more unknowns floating around in the river?" Willie said as he picked a few fish scales off the back of his hand.

"No. No more bodies. We found out who the dead guy was though. His name was Butch Benton, from Anchorage. He'd done a good amount of jail time. Had his prints on file."

"Well, you've been busy, now haven't you?" Willie rubbed his hands together. A cool breeze blew into the weigh station.

Sharon stood in the doorway. The sheriff glanced over at her. "How you doing today? "

"Fine," she said and turned her back to the sheriff, but did not leave the doorway.

"Butch was last seen at the Irish Eyes Tavern. Someone said they saw him leave the bar with Herb. And they never saw him again."

Willie did not reply to this but stood looking at the sheriff.

"Willie, you own a .38?" Sheriff Allen asked.

"I own a couple. Doesn't everyone around here?" I couldn't tell if suspicion or anger raced across Willie's face but his gaze had not moved from the sheriff.

"Your son, Herb, he own one, too?" The Sheriff looked out into the yard where Herb sat polishing his Harley.

"What are you getting at, Allen?"

"I think I'll have a chat with Herb," Sheriff Allen said and he walked out into the sunlight, passed the horseshoe pit, and then he stopped and stood behind Herb.

All the color had drained from Willie's face and Sharon realized that he most likely knew all along what his son had been up to.

She watched as the sheriff said something to Herb, then put a hand on the biker's shoulder. Herb quickly stood up and started off running down the road that led down to the river. Sheriff Allen might have looked awkward, but he out-ran Herb. Grabbing him by the collar, the sheriff pulled the young man down to the ground.

"Oh, God," Willie gasped, and Sharon saw fear strike the tired old fishmonger's face as if he'd been hit with a fist in the gut.

"I'm sorry about this, Willie," Sheriff Allen said as he walked Herb passed the weigh station headed to the patrol car. "Maybe it'll all work out, but I got to take your boy in."

Sharon watched as the sheriff clipped cuffs around Herb's wrists. Herb no longer resisted and he willingly lowered himself into the back seat. When the sheriff's car turned and headed out of the road, she thought Herb had a smirk on his face as he glanced out at his father.

Willie looked ashen now. He pulled the doors of the shed closed. "Wait here," he said. "I'll bring your money down to you."

Sharon slipped out of the smelly rubber boots and leaned them against the door. She felt sorry for Willie. He hadn't done badly by her. A few minutes later she heard the screen door to the back porch of the house slam shut. Willie walked toward her, and handed her an envelope. "Thanks," he said.

Sharon did not count the money, but she nodded, shoved the envelope into her pocket and walked down the gravel road. This time when she reached the highway, she turned right, not left. She had the picture of her daughter in her pocket. Everything else back at her camp amounted to trash.

She had walked several miles down the road when Sheriff Allen drove by. He parked his vehicle in front of her and stepped out, still wearing those stupid shades, but he was grinning.

"Where you headed?" he asked.

"You tell me," Sharon replied.

"I have no idea where you're going, fish kicker."

"Sharon. My name's Sharon Wolf."

"Well, Ms. Wolf, it's going to get pretty cold out here soon. I brought you something." He opened the back door to his patrol car and took out a heavy winter coat and handed it to her. "Thought you could use some comfort," he said.

She took the coat, nodded, but said nothing.

"Well, maybe we'll see you again next fish kicking season."

"Maybe," she replied.

Sheriff Allen got back into his car and sped off down the road.

Sharon walked a few more miles. The clouds hung close to the earth this afternoon and a wind had begun to blow a sharp whistling breeze into her ears. She put on the coat the sheriff had given her, and she wondered if anyone had bothered to come by her mother's home and chop enough firewood for the old woman's winter stash.

BIO: Margaret Mendel is an award-winning author who lives and writes in New York City. Her stories have appeared in various literary journals including the October 2008 issue of Bartleby Snoops where her story "Fish Kicker" was the Story of the Month. She is also an avid photographer and drags not only her laptop, but her Nikon wherever she goes. She has an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Most of her work life was in the mental health field, though for the last 10 years she has devoted herself full time to writing. Learn more about Margaret on her website at: http://www.pushingtime.com/