Hatchery

by Warren Buchanan

The double-crested cormorant waned and waxed in the wind, flapped its wings to catch upswing, then bowed and dove towards the water. Its pointed beak aimed at the rainbow trout that glistened under the light of the mid-morning sun. The bird’s eyes narrowed against the rushing wind, its mandible tense, ready to tear into the fish’s rubbery flesh and steal it away to a nearby nest. It neared and neared and its hunger grew stronger and stronger and the fish got larger and larger and then the double-breasted cormorant exploded into an orgy of feathers and bone and flesh as a blast of 20-gauge buckshot tore it apart.

What remained of the bird twirled towards the ground and landed with an anticlimactic thud a few feet from the water.

Gary took a large gulp of warm Coors Original out of a 32-ounce can and set it down next to the plastic leg of the lawn chair he was sitting in. He sighed, the shotgun warm in his lap, and shielded his eyes with his hand. Feathers drifted down from the sky and sprinkled across the small concrete pond full of adolescent rainbow trout. It was the first bird he’d shot all day. Which meant he’d have to get the skimmer. Which meant he’d have to go to the trailer. Which meant he’d have to get up.

After much deliberation, and a few more pulls of beer, he decided to get up and do his goddamn job.

*  *  *

Mountain Farms Trout Hatchery was just outside of Sonora, CA; gold country, technically, though nowadays it was more of a silver or bronze country, if you asked Gary. The local cormorant population had grown too quickly over the Summer and was getting pretty damn hungry before they split town for the Fall. Just outside of their migration pattern lay the hatchery, a manufactured breeding ground for rainbow trout used to stock local lakes and tributaries. The trout lived in big uncovered manmade pools until they grew large enough to be farmed out for fishing. Naturally, this was an all-out buffet for the hungry, hungry cormorants. Gary’s job, if you could even call it that, was to blast the predatory birds full of buckshot. An acquaintance of his who’d worked at the hatchery had set him up with the gig for the summer. While things “evened out”.

His words, not Gary’s.

The trailer looked and felt like an Easy-Bake oven. A small metallic circulating fan screeched from atop a plywood desk. Hot light poured in from an uncovered window the size of a kitchen magnet. The carpet had been spray-painted on. No computer, no TV, no cell service, nothing. Sort of like his apartment, only this place had a desk.

Gary grabbed the skimmer off the wall, holding his breath to try and keep some of the slightly cooler air from outside inside of him. When he passed by a Girls of Hawaii 2011 calendar he’d pinned to a corkboard, he couldn’t help but exhale. The calendar was permanently fixed to May. The May girl, Leilani, a beautiful, caramel-skinned goddess, lay in a bed of sand wearing a barely-there lime green bikini. Her eyes beckoned for Gary to come back to Lahaina, where he’d met her at the Hard Rock Cafe bar a year ago on vacation, if you can believe it.

“No way,” he’d said, legitimately impressed when she’d told him who she was.

“You find one, I’ll sign it for you,” she said. “But they’re hard to come by now. No one wants calendars from three years ago.” Actually, he wanted a lot of things from three years ago, he thought. They didn’t talk for long, a half-hour, maybe, but it was long enough for him to fall in love, or at least what he approximated to be love. It was the last real connection he’d had with a woman since Cindy, but that connection had been as strong as a Wi-Fi signal coming from an underground missile silo. In the Antarctic. So. His flight had to leave in three hours but he contemplated staying there with her, forever, his own little slice of paradise to wake up to every morning. He told her this.

“You have to go, papio,” she said in return. She touched her soft hand to his cheek, and he melted. And then, he was a mile in the air, on a plane, getting carried off to the mainland. He watched through the window as the tiny island of Maui turned into a speck in the distance. He hoped an anti-aircraft missile would strike the fuselage and send the plane spiraling towards the ocean. He’d swim back to her, fighting the fiery wreckage, strong currents and vicious sea beasts to arrive on shore, rush into the Hard Rock and swoop her up in his arms to hold her forever.

No such luck.

His consolation was the calendar. He found it on eBay, $175 plus shipping.

The green waters of the pond made tiny waves as he flecked it with the net, gingerly scooping up feathers. Fish swam in large schools beneath the water, their myriad colors dancing and shining, earning the fish their name. He thought about Leilani. Her eyes, green like jade, could pierce you. She held her head at an angle when she talked to you, but kept her body pointed directly at you. Her laugh was soft but confident. Her legs could cross islands. Her smile could command ships. There sure weren’t many women like that out here in “Gold” Country.

Still, he thought, his blood warm in his body now, his head full of fruitless hope, it couldn’t hurt to look.

*  *  *

The Settler’s Inn in Jamestown used to be just that: an old prospecting stop during the rush. In 1912 they converted it into a bar, and they hadn’t made any upgrades since. The old hotel rooms off the main lobby had been demolished into what was now just a gravel parking lot. The lobby, which even back then had just been a few tables, restaurant and bar, was now a few tables, a popcorn machine, and an old wooden bar that you could still get splinters from if you leaned on it the wrong way.

It was the nicest bar in thirty miles.

The sun hadn’t set, so the moths hadn’t come to the light yet. Gary’s steps made the floorboards whine, but not enough to get the attention of the bartender, apparently, so Gary cleared his throat, ordered a Coors and a shot of Beam, and ate from a bowl of stale, unsalted popcorn. He’d have to wait a bit longer for anyone to come in, but he was good at waiting, so he didn’t mind. He’d already learned the names of all thirty-two bearded men who had posed in a black-and-white photo that hung above the bar. They had big hats and long suspenders and they stood in front of an old mine. Script said: Valley Hill Mine, Struck Gold 1891 – Jamestown. They stood like they were half proud and half wary, like guys do when they show off their nice cars to people they just met.

The jukebox played ten David Allen Coe songs in a row before people came in: two guys dressed in leather, with some insignia on the back from some biker gang he’d never heard of, that probably didn’t even exist anymore. They slid up to the other end of the bar and drank Jagermeister and never once looked in his direction.

More time passed and then more people came in at a frequent pace and he could see when the door sliced open for a moment that it was now dark outside. He was on his third Coors Original by the time a woman walked in, but she had her arm tenderly wrapped around a man four times Gary’s size, so he kept on drinking. His bladder felt full, so he put a coaster on his drink and got up to use the restroom. On the wall above the urinal someone had carved Jesus Saves into the wood. Under it, in thick black ink, someone had scribbled his toenails. Gary washed his hands. A worn sign where the mirror should have been informed him it was state law to do so. It was a shame people had to be reminded of that from a sign, he thought.

When he got back to the bar, he found a woman with short blonde hair sitting in the seat next to his. She had on a thin green coat and grayish-blue jeans, light brown boots, and a multi-colored scarf. Not exactly dressed for the weather. Or the scenery. She unraveled her scarf and placed it on his chair, oblivious to his approach. When he got close enough to catch her eye, she turned to him, looking guilty yet apologetic.

“Oh, sorry, is this yours?”

“Not officially.”

“I can move it.”

“If you insist.”

She moved her scarf and smiled. Somewhere, an armada set sail.

“Sorry, there aren’t any hooks,” she said. Her voice was raspy but vibrant. She sounded old, but looked young.

“Yeah, I usually just leave my purse in the car,” Gary said.

She laughed. “Smart. Are you from around here?”

The bartender shot a glance their direction, so Gary carped the diem and put two fingers up, and the bartender went towards the fridge.

“Yeah, sorta. You?”

“I go to school in Sonora.”

“Cool.”

“Well, grad school. Don’t worry, I’m old enough,” she said as she put a hand on his shoulder.

“I’m a cop.”

She yanked her hand away. “No shit?”

“You’re under arrest.”

The bartender, greying around the temples and balding around the top, slid two beers to Gary, who replied by tapping the bar with his knuckle.

“Here’s your ticket,” Gary said, and slid one of the beers to her. She looked relieved.

“Shame, I always did like a man in uniform.”

She grabbed the beer and took a deep drink. She burped lightly. It made her blush. Gary swooned.

“So, what do you go to school for?”

“Business,” she said. “Just business. Exciting, huh? What do you do?”

“Ehh,” he said, and took a drink.

“A secret, eh? Come on.”

“You don’t wanna hear it.”

“Why not?”

“You won’t like it.”

“You don’t know that.”

“Most girls,” he corrected himself, “…women wouldn’t like it.”

She put the beer down and leaned into him with a stern look. “Try me.”

He sighed. “I shoot birds for a living.”

“Like, a hunter?”

“Not really.”

“Photographer? Like, you shoot photos-”

“I shoot birds so they won’t eat fish.”

She nodded like she had deep understanding. “I see.”

“I work at a trout farm.”

“Oh,” she said, drawing out the word.

“I drink beer and shoot birds all day.”

Gary waited for her reply. He was good at waiting.

“That’s awesome,” she said without a hint of sarcasm. Gary could tell.

“That doesn’t weird you out?”

“Hey, it’s your job, you know? I mean, it’s not like you’re having fun or anything.”

“True,” Gary said solemnly, and drank from his beer.

She looked around the bar, which probably meant she was losing interest, so Gary adjusted himself away from her a bit, pointed himself at the row of whiskey bottles on the top shelf behind the bar that he would likely become acquainted with before the night was over. She stopped looking around the bar and snapped back to him, stuck her hand out.

“Corrine,” she said.

Surprised, he turned back to her and shook her hand. “Gary.”

“Nice to meet you, Gary,” she said in a mock-professional tone. Her eyes widened. “Wow, strong grip. You sure you’re not a cop?”

“Nah, I just do a lot of heavy lifting.” He raised his beer can to his mouth, lowered it, then raised it again, pretending to struggle.

She giggled. “You sound like my dad.”

He took the comment in the gut, and tried to hide it from his face.

She slugged him in the arm. “Not like that. Jesus, I’m not that much younger than you.”

She probably wasn’t, he thought, even though everything about her looked soft and smooth, like polished stone.

“My dad was a hunter. He took me out to shoot pheasant one time. You ever shoot pheasant? He let me shoot a couple times, but I wasn’t any good. But my dad, he was real good. See, you have to aim ahead of the bird, and I was never good at this, looking ahead. But my dad…he’d sneak up real quick and raise his gun and just when they thought they’d gotten away, blam!” She clapped her hands together and it startled Gary.

“Dead pheasant.”

“That’s cool,” Gary said. “My job’s not that exciting.”

“No? I bet it’s exciting. You’re like, their guardian, you know? Watching over them. Making sure they’re safe. Like Denzel Washington in Man on Fire.”

“Just not as handsome, right?”

“I never said that,” she said with a coy smile. He melted. Her eyes sparkled, and Gary took a high dive into them and just swam around in them, kicked his feet around. She swept her hair back and it glistened like metal. He could have had that moment last forever and been fine with it.

But then a tall, dark-haired girl stomped up to them, dressed in all black except for her brown cowboy boots that banged loudly on the aging wood floor.

“There you are. Jesus, I got caught up in the corner with some asshole in a trucker hat,” said the girl. She had on tight leather pants and a loose fitting top, a get-up you didn’t see often in a bar like this. She was clutching her designer purse like it was a football. “And he wasn’t wearing it ironically.”

“No way,” Corrine said. Her voice took on a pitch it hadn’t yet. Gary didn’t like it.

“Yeah, anyway, we should go. Mike’s probably wondering where the fuck we are.”

“Oh,” Corrine said. She turned to Gary, who took a sip of beer to avoid saying anything. She turned back to her friend. “Gary, this is my roommate, Ashley. She goes to school with me.”

“Nice to meet you,” Gary said. He stuck out his hand, but she didn’t shake it, so he withdrew it.

“We were just talking. Hey, tell her what you do,” Corrine said to Gary.

He shook his head. “I don’t think I-”

“Come on, tell her, she’ll love it.”

“I don’t know.”

“He shoots birds that are trying to eat fish,” Corrine said to Ashley. Her eyes did jumping jacks when she spoke, and her mouth massaged every word.

“Birds?” Ashley asked to Corrine. She spun to face Gary. “So, what, you just shoot birds all day?”

“They’re trying to get the fish,” Corrine said. “Trout or something, right?” She looked over at Gary, who remained silent. “He gets to drink beer and shoot birds all day. Pretty sweet, huh?”

Ashley was still aimed at Gary. “Why do you have to, like, shoot them? You can’t just shoo them away? Or put a net over it or something?”

At a nearby pool table, a cue ball cracked against the triangle formation of solids and stripes and sent them scattering across the table.

“Why can’t you just let the birds take a couple stupid fish?”

She stood at an angle like she was brandishing a weapon. Gary sat there and didn’t say anything, because he didn’t know what to say, really. He turned to Corrine, who looked the same way.

“Because the fish don’t want to leave,” Gary said, and shot the most serious glare in Ashley’s direction that he could.

There was a pause in the air, as if the entire world were waiting to see what Ashley might say next. Finally, she turned to Corrine.

“Mike’s in Twain Harte with his roommate and says we should meet up with them.”

Corrine looked at Gary, and he wondered if she was thinking about asking him if he wanted to come. But Gary knew better than to let her.

“I gotta get back. Work early in the morning,” Gary said. He pantomimed shooting a gun and drinking a beer. He was hoping for a laugh. He didn’t get one.

“Oh,” Corrine said. “Okay, yeah, I guess we better go then.”

“It was nice meeting you,” Ashley said with the inflection of a customer service rep who couldn’t solve your problem. She practically yanked Corrine up out of her seat and Gary got the first full view of the beautiful young girl and suddenly he felt very small.

“Good luck with the birds,” she said over her shoulder. “Remember: look ahead!” She gave him one last smile as her roommate stomped her out of the bar like a pissed off horse, each boot heel tap making the floorboards creak and whine and kick up dust. They passed through the door, and Gary waited for Corrine to turn around at the last minute, rush back into the bar, into his arms, where she could stay forever if she wanted to.

Alas, she was gone.

When he turned back to the bar, the bartender was sliding another bottle of Coors his direction.

“Tough break,” he said, then shrugged.

“Yup. Until her fucking friend swooped in and stole her away.”

Gary took a large swig of the beer and then slammed it onto the bar. When he looked up, the bartender was still there, staring off at the door.

“Don’t think she was the one swooping in,” the bartender said with a smirk, and then went back to cleaning the bar.

*  *  *

Aloha ‘oe…

            Aloha ‘oe…

The sun rose over the hills and warmed Gary’s face. He took a drink from a fresh can of beer and it sent icy liquid down his throat and throughout his body and he shivered with satisfaction. His head hurt and his stomach felt weird, but he didn’t care. He had on his board shorts, a tank-top, and five-dollar sunglasses, while a portable stereo on the ground next to him danced out a melodic tune sung by a 600-pound Hawaiian man playing ukulele.

In front of him, the pond was alive and bubbling, a cauldron of chaos as scores of cormorants swooped into the ponds and plucked young trout with their gaping maws.

He leaned back in the metal folding chair, kicked his dusty sandals up on the Rubbermaid cooler he’d dragged from the trailer, and smiled. He watched the birds as they bombed into the water and then flew away, fish in tow, and dissolved into tiny silhouettes in the distant sky no bigger than planes.

 

THE END

 

 

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