PHILIP SWANSON (Chapter 4 of GONE ALASKA)
“Got a match?” was the first thing Philip Swanson said to me.
I found Swanson sitting at the wheel of the Western World, almost Buddha-like with his feet propped up in semi-lotus position on the dashboard, fitting a joint he’d been smoking onto a roach clip. In spite of the 70 degree heat, he was wearing a copper-paint flecked sweatshirt overtop of a flannel shirt. Scattered across the wheelhouse floor were a dozen burnt match sticks. He hadn’t answered my first call from the docks, so I’d taken the liberty of climbing aboard.
“Light?” Swanson restated, politely enough.
From a side pocket of my backpack, I produced my Bic Lighter. I lowered the flame, and held it out as Swanson leaned forward to relight his joint.
Philip Swanson was not an easy man to look at. There was something unhuman to his appearance. His face had that granite quality which indicated he could be anywhere from thirty to fifty years of age. His skin was weathered as wood on an old boat; his eyes like two blue marbles that have been sanded so all that’s left is a chalky pale blue core. His hands were stiff and white and always around his face: holding an earlobe or stroking his lips or his short beaky nose. His lips were thin and drawn tight at the mouth—as when two flaps of skin are held together with stitches on a cut. Because of this tightness of mouth, it was often hard to tell whether Philip Swanson was experiencing pain or pleasure whenever he smiled or laughed. But perhaps his most discriminating peculiarity was that one of Swanson’s shoulders was set higher than the other. Later, I would learn that this was because of an accident from his early childhood. While aboard his father’s trawler they’d been caught in a sudden offshore storm during a run and, before his father had been able to draw in the lines, the gear had snagged onto a reef. Usually, when this happens, all it does is strip the expensive gear. But, in this case, it had snagged just so that it slipped one of the large trolling poles right out of its fitting. Young Philip had been cleaning the last of the catch on deck and had not been able dodge the falling timber in time. The wound had healed, and would in no serious way keep him from his work, but it had left him with a slight hitch in his walk. This too had added to the unhuman quality of the man. For, from a distance, one might easily imagine Swanson a puppet tied to strings from the riggings as moved about on deck.
“So,” Swanson said, exhaling his smoke. “Where’s the rifle?”
“Rifle?” I answered.
Grinning, shaking his head, Swanson leaned forward threateningly and said:
“The gun, dumb ass. The one my wife gave to you in Juneau. You remember my wife, don’t you?”
I was completely taken aback.
“No,” I said, shaking me head; realizing, by now, that he’d mistaken me for someone else. “You’re wife never gave me your gun. I’ve never even met your wife. I think—“
But those two mentions of his “wife” must have done it for me. Next thing I knew my head was pinned up against a corner wall: facing a Pin-Up calendar of a topless dairy maid in the straw on all fours; playing the part of a cow, I suppose.
“Ss-stop it. Idiot—“I choked, trying to loosen Swanson’s boney fingers from my neck. But it was no go. His hands were just too powerful for me. When I started to kick, he simply shoved his knee into my groin and held it there.
“I’m not him! Wrong guy!” I finally managed to say. “You got the wrong guy! Porter. My name’s Adam Porter.”
“Porter?” Swanson said, loosening his grip an nth of a degree. “You ain’t from the agency?”
Swanson let go of me so suddenly that I fell to the floor like a framed-picture slipping off a nail. Standing, nearly stumbling to the floor a second time over my famous backpack, I didn’t know what was worse: the fact that I’d been attacked or that I’d been completely overpowered by this little man at least 30 pounds lighter than me but with a grip like a pit bull dog.
Apologizing, Swanson explained that he’d been waiting here three days for a puller he’d hired through an employment agency in Juneau. He’d had his wife give the guy his .30-06 rifle to bring with him. It was dumb ass stupid of himself, he told me, yet he’d gone ahead and done it anyway.
Rubbing my neck and collarbone, I tried my best to sympathize with him.
“Where you from?” Swanson asked, smiling as though our little scuffle was ancient history.
“Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho,” I said, looking round the room for a place I wouldn’t need to stand hunched over.
“Coeur d’ Alene!” Swanson said. “Ain’t that up near that place where that Aryan Nations guy, Randy Weaver, got in that big shootout with those U.S. Tobacco and Firearms boys?”
“Yep,” I said.
Swanson smiled big, obviously impressed.
A famous place, this hometown of mine.
Randy Weaver was a member of a growing organization in our neck of the woods known as the Aryan Nations; headed by a Reverend Butler, out of Hayden Lake, Idaho (about ten miles north of my hometown). The organization is growing in part because of an incident that occurred on the mountaintop property where Weaver lived with his wife and children and other Aryan Nation members. The ATF had attempted to get Weave to rat on the going-ons of his fellow members, and when he wouldn’t, they decided to raid his mountaintop compound on illegal weapon sale charges. Of course, something went wrong. When the first wave of smoke had cleared, Weaver’s 13-year old son and guard dog were dead and so was a deputy U.S. Marshal. 48-hours later the standoff between Weaver and the ATF was national news. When ATF agents killed Weaver’s wife with a sniper shot while she was holding her ten-month old daughter, even the most unsentimental of us found ourselves siding with Weaver. Why hadn’t the ATF simply waited to arrest Weaver when he came to town? Why had they put the women and children at such risk? There were even humorous moments: when the Weaver clan took a pot shot a news reporter Geraldo Rivera flying overtop of the compound in a helicopter. The standoff had all the makings of the rugged individualist versus that State drama so popular especially here in the Wild Wild West. We watched ex-Green Beret, one time libertarian Presidential candidate Bo Gritz, walk like John Wayne into the Weaver camp and talk them into laying down their arms. Later, when Weaver finally did surrender, we watched this same Bo Gritz walking practically hand-in-hand with Reverend Butler and a small army of Weaver supporters coming down from the mountain at the end of the standoff. Suddenly, because of the media hoopla, our town was filled with skinheads from Seattle and Portland, Oregon and all points in between. It was a strange sight to see these tattooed, milky-white Nazis crawling over our beach turf like that maggots that they were; but it was horrible also, reminding us of the black Jewish student at the University of Idaho found swinging from a tree, his hands tied at the wrist behind him with bailing wire; or the explosion set off at the Catholic Church in Coeur d’ Alene by the Aryan Nations two years before.
Great theatre, this.
“Hmm. . .” Swanson said, resuming his semi-lotus position on his stool. “Idaho. I like that. Last jackass I hired was from some preppy college back East—Dortmouth or Princetown or Harvard—something like that. Couldn’t get a day’s work out of him if I gave him a week. It was all ‘what’s this’ and ‘what’s that’ and ‘what for’ with him. All back talk and no back. Did us both a favor and fired him second day out. ‘This is a fishing boat,’ I told him, ‘not a goddamn classroom.’”
It occurred to me that Swanson was getting round to offering me a job. Yet, in spite of the luck of such prospect, I was having second thoughts about signing on with this half-crazed dope smoking Weaver-sympathizer who’d practically crushed my voice-box over a case of mistaken identity.
“Something wrong?” Swanson said, holding up his roach clip. “You don’t go
for this stuff?”
“No. I mean yes. I mean no I don’t mind—“
“Good,” Swanson interrupted. Then asked,
“Ever done any pulling before?”
“Pulling?” I repeated.
“Fishing?” Swanson restated.
“Sure,” I said.
“What kind of fishing?”
“Oh, a little of everything, I guess. I mean I don’t know how to fly fish or anything . . . but living by a lake like I do. . .”
Swanson or no Swanson, I know I’d get stumped here when a skipper asked if I had any actual experience on a commercial boat. My actual experience of fishing in Coeur d’ Alene consisted largely of cutting the cobwebs that had gathered round my pole and gear each spring and then throwing it back in that same Godforsaken corner of the garage come mid-July: cursing my luck and vowing never to bother again. I’d figured my actual lack of skills as a fisherman would be overlooked once they saw how big and dumb and ready I was to haul in them ropes or nets or whatever it was they used to catch the things with.
“How old are you?”
“Eighteen,” I said. Then, thinking better of it, “I mean nineteen.”
“Well,” Swanson said, obviously having sport with me now. “Which one is it?”
“Eighteen,” I said. “But I’ll be nineteen—“
“O.K.,” Swanson interrupted, grinning ear to ear. “Nineteen. Good enough.”
Then—leaning forward threateningly like when he’d asked me about his wife and the rifle—added:
“You ain’t on the lam, are you?”
“Lam?” I repeated. “Like from the law?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Any kind of criminal record?”
I shook my head, getting pissed with his third degree.
“How about a girl?”
“No,” I said, continuing to shake my head.
“Big good-looking guy like you—“
Tapping his chin with one finger, Swanson said,
“’Cuz if you got some girl pregnant back home and go running off on me the minute you find out she’s fucking Fat Joe—“
That did it. The hell with this! The hell with all these bloody fishermen! I’d take up some new hobby. . .maybe go out on that whale watch. . .get a job washing dishes at the Ivory Inn. . .see if I couldn’t get back on the construction crew I’d quit in Juneau to come here in the first place.
And I was already one foot out the door when Philip Swanson called out:
“Hey, now! Hold your horses, kid! I was just trying to figure out what in the name of God’s green earth gave you the notion of wandering out here to the edge of the world?”
I moved back inside the wheelhouse, my pack slumping on my shoulder.
“A job,” I said. “What else?”
“Oh,” Swanson said, letting his head fall a little on his chest so has face was at the same diagonal as mine. “Why didn’t you say so in the beginning. . .”
He rolled up another joint. And we smoked it before he set me to salting herring out back.
About the Author: Dave Barrett lives and writes out of Missoula, Montana. His fiction has appeared most recently in Midwestern Gothic, Prole, Toad Suck Review and The MacGuffin. An adaptation of four previously published excerpts from his novel GONE ALASKA will appear in the August 2016 issue of Overtime (a chapbook from Writer's Work! magazine) under the title of WHEEL OF THE WESTERN WORLD. He teaches writing at the University of Montana and is at work on a new novel.