The Smell of Smelt
“You two!” Dad barked sharply at Buddy and I. Through the constant roar of the ocean we could barely hear him but with a wild animal’s instinct for danger we were instantly alert. “You’re gonna scare the fish.”
Not daring to argue, but wondering how fish could hear us with their heads covered in the roaring ocean and their bodies raging with hormones that urged them onto the beach and into the sand, Buddy and I trudged reluctantly back to Dad. He was dressed by now in an old black wetsuit. The neoprene was worn and mended at knees and elbows with rectangular patches and glue that looked like it was oozing even when it dried to a rubbery pus.
The suit was nearly impossible to get into—so tight Mom had to help manipulate it’s arms and legs over his hands and feet. Years later, Dad would pull on a pair of Mom’s old pantyhose laddered from many Sundays at Church and his legs, at least, would slip right in. His body, armored by the surplus of her devoutness, was rendered slippery so he could enter into the tight constraints of the suit just as he used to joke that his soul would slip into heaven on her coattails. But this was years before Dad put anything like a woman’s panty hose on his thin, sinewy legs and his wetsuit took 15 minutes to struggle into.
Afterwards, he was always angry.
Dad leaned the net against the Ranchero and took a sip from the Coors’ can that he was nursing—the luxury of a six-pack was supposed to last him a week and usually did in those days. Buddy and I waited quietly by the car. Our bodies were soon cooled and we began to tremble a little with the cold. Just before we started to whine, Dad pointed to the waves’ edge. I didn’t see anything but I knew they were there. Dad always saw everything first. He prided himself on his 20/20 eyesight and, in matters of the natural world, he was never wrong. Soon even Buddy and I could see the tiny silver flashes of fish flopping in the shallows as they rushed in to lay their eggs. Mom, though, was buried in her book oblivious to our quiet but rising excitement.
Dad set the now empty beer can on the hood and gathered the net, striding out waist deep into the waves. He plunged the net in, front down like a giant dustpan. Then with a quick jerk he yanked the front of the net up over his head and swirls of fish, like pieces of silver, slid down to a loose bunch of netting near the point of the net’s V shape. With a fast twist of his fist, he wrapped his hand tight around the net. A pulsating balloon of seafood now thrust wildly against their white cord cage. Again and again he dipped—sometimes gathering just a few, sometimes dozens. When he could barely hold the load, he came staggering back to shore. He angled the net down into the bucket and let the fish flop out. They flapped and jumped and many fell onto the sand. He strode back into the water leaving Buddy and I to gather the many escapees and toss them into the bucket. At first we reveled in the work. We laughed and called as the slippery lives sought water and sanctuary.
We filled one bucket and were starting on the second when the run began to peter out. Dad was determined to keep going though and one or two fish at a time still kept dipping his net. With nothing to keep us busy, Buddy and I were soon whining at Mom through the window. She wouldn’t let us have any cookies because our hands were still slimy with fish. She wouldn’t let us wrap up in blankets because our hands were still slimy with fish and she wouldn’t let us wash our hands with the warm wet washrags wrapped in plastic and kept on the floorboards where the engine heated them because she had just enough to wash us once and we still had to pick up any more fish that flopped out of the bucket.
While we were complaining, far off lights came around the corner and onto the beach. The vehicle forded the stream and headed towards us. They must have been locals because they knew where to go and they were polite because they kept their lights off the waves. Soon they drove up and parked in the soft sand above us.
“Any luck?” they hollered down to Dad after nodding politely at Mom.
Dad waded back in holding up his net so they could see the small pocket of smelt he held captive.
“Have they just started runnin’?”
“Nope, just finishin’.” Dad didn’t try to keep a slight bit of triumph out of his voice as he reached down by the tire, pulled up a heavy black Maglite its cracked handle patched with duct tape, and shone it on the two buckets. The light glinted off the thrashing fish.
“Sheee-it! We missed ‘em. I had my mouth all set for some tomorrow mornin’ for breakfast,” said the passenger as he leaned further out the window.
“We got plenty. I was gonna give ‘em away anyhow so I might as well give some to you. How much you’d like?”
They refused at first–as was polite. Dad insisted and Mom joined in so they brought their bucket down and Dad filled it almost half full. He would have added more but they maintained they only needed enough for breakfast and that was more than plenty. They hung around and talked and pulled a beer from their ice chest for Dad. He tried to say no (because he wanted to say yes so badly) but theirs was the right to return the favor and so he took one and chatted for what seemed forever but he politely refused a second saying he needed to get the kids back to camp. Mom had wiped our hands and we had a cookie each while we huddled half frozen in the Ranchero waiting for Dad but it was bedtime so we couldn’t have more. Our hands still reeked of fish so the cookies tasted almost unpleasant and oily anyway.
The guys in the pickup told Dad, “Hey now, we left this crazy ass hippie off out here a bit ago. He wanted to go to Humboldt and said he needed a place to camp the night. We just thought he might find this a great place to stay… a week or two. ” Dad shared a mean laugh with them and I knew they meant it could be awhile before someone gave him a ride out and it was a long hike back to the Highway 101.
As the guys drove away, Mom helped Dad pull off his wetsuit. To get the pants off, he had to sit on the tailgate and she had to pull hard. When the left leg came off rather suddenly, she landed solidly in the wet sand with Dad’s cold wetsuit on top of her like a black octopus. He laughed. She didn’t. But Dad didn’t laugh long. Sitting naked and pale on the chilly tailgate was not conducive to lengthy laughter at Mom’s expense. Somehow the press of bare genitals against damp metal made him just too vulnerable not to appreciate the position she was in.
“Come on, Norma,” he said standing up and pulling her so that her form melted into his for a moment. His arms wrapped around her and one hand slapped lightly against her bum. “Let’s stop messin’ around and get back to camp before we both freeze to death.”
Once we were at the tent, Buddy and I went straight to bed with our sweatshirts on to keep us as warm as possible. Our wet pants were draped over a tree–though not to dry out. The coastal fog was rolling back in heavily and anything outside the tent was going to be sopped by morning. I never really understood why our pants had to stay outside but my best guess is that this way the tent looked neater and cleanliness was more important to Mom’s happiness than even being practical.
At first I went right to sleep but within an hour or two I awoke half froze and half nauseous with a full bladder. I was too scared to get out of bed and crawl out the tent flap into the dark mist to go pee. The smell of smelt mixed with moldy canvas, damp neoprene (the wetsuit was hanging up outside, too, but Dad still stunk of it), beer mouth, and stale cigarette smoke slid up my nostrils and half down my throat like thick oily snakes. There the stench seemed to push wetly against my tonsils and coat them with petroleum jelly before reluctantly crawling back out my mouth. Outside my mouth it lurked, waiting to be inhaled again. Waves of oily nausea came and went for hours, alternating with uneasy sleep, before gray dawn slid over the hills and I crept out into the cold fog barefoot to relieve my burning bladder in the bushes at the edge of camp. I would have gone farther but the dam burst before I could get to the thickets. The pee squirted between the fingers I had been clutching myself with and I had to hurriedly spread my legs to keep from wetting myself any more.
As my bladder relaxed, the fresh air cleansed my throat and helped ease the nausea. With a small grin I sauntered over and wiped my hands on Buddy’s damp pant legs. Chirruping birds cheered me and soon I stole a cookie, barefoot and bare bottomed in the gray wet fog, and even the smell of smelt lingering on my hands couldn’t dim my joy at camping out and eating cookies before breakfast.
A semi autobiographical piece