Miss Sue Ann Bonnet

Dave Barrett

I was packing the catch in the ice holds below deck when Old Judge Peterson and his half-crazy, half-Tlingit Indian daughter-in-law, Miss Sue Ann Bonnet, sidled up to the Western World in their purple, plastic skiff. I’d poked my head above deck just in time to see Swanson greet our dinner guests: down on a knee with one hand bracing the shaky skiff alongside the trawler and the other extended to give our guests something to climb aboard with.  

“Thank you, Philip,” said Miss Sue Ann Bonnet, climbing aboard with the measured grace of a true lady boarding a yacht.

Old Judge Peterson’s boarding was more difficult. He was a large man with a bum leg which fell asleep on him when bent-up in one position for too long. Such was the case now as I watched Swanson and Miss Sue Ann Bonnet drag him out of the skiff.

“Keerist, almighty!” Old Judge Peterson bellowed once they’d flopped his six-foot-seven carcass onto the damp deck.

The old man staggered to his feet, spanking the flat of his dead leg’s foot on the deck in goose-step fashion to get the circulation going again. “Keerist! Where’s that big greenhorn I thought I saw working the lines for you the other day? Did he up and scare off on you already, Phil?”

At this mention of me, I quickly ducked back below to my chores.

We were anchored in a quiet little cove five miles north of Pelican, Alaska. With our engine shut down, poles stacked up, and lines drawn in, we, and the thirty-odd trawlers assembled here, resembled a congregation of rented row boats on the first day of fishing season back home. Fragments of conversations from our lamp-lit wheelhouses skipped and scattered across the dark, still water of the cove. Bald eagles lined the tops of dark green cedars along shore, waiting to see what surprises we slopped out on the waters from a day’s worth of garbage tonight. Black, molecular-like clouds of mosquitoes drifted from trawler to trawler, seeking out the boats which had neglected to spray the outer wall of its wheelhouse with insect repellent. The weather and the fishing had been so good we’d anchored in this cove for three nights running—putting off our stop over in Pelican for the time being.

“Naw,” I heard Swanson say. “I ain’t figured this one out yet. It’s like he should have run off days ago . . . yet . . . somehow . . . he’s still around. Been almost a week! Got him down packing the catch right now.”

“Well, just goes to show,” Old Judge Peterson said, still stamping his leg about. “A fella just can’t tell with these kids nowadays. Flighty as a young gal with too many suitors! Don’t got that stick-to-it-iveness my generation had—or yours, I suppose. Just never can tell. Ain’t that so, Miss Sue Ann Bonnet? Sue Ann?”

Miss Sue Ann Bonnet was standing directly above me, but to that side of the hatch so I could only see her shadow cast by the deck lights overhead. From her shadow, I could see that she was absently twirling a long lock of her hair with a forefinger.

“Oh, Miss Sue Ann Bonnet?” I heard Old Judge Peterson say as his shadow put a gentle arm around Sue Ann’s shoulders. “Won’t you come join us for dinner? Let the boy finish with his chores so he can join us when he’s done.”

And without protest, I watched Sue Ann’s shadow move off with Old Judge Peterson’s as their footsteps followed Swanson’s down to the hull.

Hurriedly, I stuffed chopped ice into the slit bellies of the last half-dozen salmon, simply using what would lie in the open palms of my numb hands. Whereas I usually stacked the salmon neatly like cords of wood along the bulwark, I carelessly chucked these last half-dozen any which way atop the current pile, intending to straighten them later. This much done, I scurried up the ladder leading out of the shadowy holds, wondering what I’d already missed.

“I’ve a feeling you’ll get a kick out of these two,” Swanson had informed me that afternoon during a lull out back.

“Old Judge Peterson’s been here as long as any of these old Scandies. Didn’t come up from the old country though. Came up from a little one horse town of Jackfork, Oklahoma! or—excuse me—the little one mule town of Jackass, Okie-homa—as Peterson puts it! Came up during the early 30’s. . .was up in ’36 when they set the all-time record salmon catch of 126 million fish! This was before technology, kid! Before depth gauges, CB radios, hydraulic power blocks! Hell, yes! I’d give me left nut to be in on something like that. No closure dates. No regulatory commissions. No Indians whining about treaty rights. None of these enviro-fascists from California telling us Alaskans what we can do with our fish! Just pure fishing, kid . . . pure fishing. . . and wait’ll you get hold of Miss Sue Ann Bonnet! Little crazy, but a real looker. That ain’t her real name—Sue Ann Bonnet. That’s the name Old Judge Peterson’s son, George, gave her when they wed. Father was some kind of chief—Old Crazy Eyes—something. Mother a Swedish whore. Claims she’s some kind of witch-shaman—something. Goes on and on about Mother Earth and Father Sky—about the end of the white man’s world and new dawn of the Indian’s—that sorta shit.  Real looker though! And a good sport. Did a little dancing up in Dutch Harbor before her and George Peterson wed . . . if you know what I mean.”

The halibut was rolled in a thick yellow dough that tasted like donut. The warm white meat inside had a strange, sweet flavor that was surprisingly not fishy. After five days of eating salmon smoked, baked, fried and reheated at leftovers, the halibut tasted like the most marvelous dish in the world. I scraped my paper plate clean as I watched Miss Sue Ann Bonnet pour fresh brewed coffee into three styrofoam cups.

Sue Ann handed a steaming cup to me. I was sitting on the floor next to the stove with my back braced against the baseboard of the Western World’s sleeping birth.

“It’s cowboy coffee!” Sue Ann said, apologizing for the coffee grinds swirling around the top and clinging to the inside of the cup. “You’re supposed to use the grinds like tabacca. See!”

She tucked her tongue under the corner of her bottom lip so it looked like a plug of tobacco was underneath.

“Worked my first summer on a purse seiner out of Ketchikan!” Judge Peterson continued. “These here modern boats are luxury liners compared to what we worked on in those days. We had to haul our own anchor, chop our own wood for the stove. Didn’t have no hydraulic power blocks bringing the nets right up to the boat! Had to haul the catch every inch of the way! Our hands would be so balled shut in the morning from gripping and pulling and twisting on them raw manila nets we’d have to soak ‘em in bowls of whiskey just to get ‘em moving again. Then we’d chug-a-lug what was left in the bowls to make us dumb enough to go out and do it all over again! One of these fellas had a still hooked-up to his stove, see. . .”

Miss Sue Ann Bonnet was staring at me with a dark thoughtful expression on her face. When I smiled at her, she did not smile back. I looked away, trying my best to concentrate on Old Judge Peterson’s words, the whiskey already taking effect.

“Yes, siree, Adam, my boy! We were an all-around different breed of man back then. Tougher, maybe. Not so much ‘cuz we was born tougher, as we became tougher by just surviving the world we was living in then. Do you follow me, Adam?”

I nodded, refilling my own cup this time.

“We was coming out of the Depression then.”

When I motioned Sue Ann with the bottle for more whiskey, she again showed no sign of recognition. Just this far-away staring.

“. . . those of us who came up—and lasted—weren’t necessarily looking to get rich. A little food in our bellies, some clothes on our backs, and we was happy as a lark! If there was anything left over, well, that was allotted to what you might refer to as the ‘candy fund’.”

He squeezed Sue Ann Bonnet’s leg good-naturedly.

“Those of us who stuck around generally broke ties with our kin. We were sorta cut off up here, see. No phones. No jet planes. As for mail service then. . .” He grunted and made a waving gesture with one of his big arms. “Might as well stick your letter in a bottle! If any of the fellas received a ‘Dear John’ letter, chances were he wouldn’t find out about it till he’d plum forgotten what that little farm gal that had him in such a whirl looked like in the first place!”

At this time, Swanson’s crooked figure came clambering back down the 5-step ladder. He had that strange half-smile, half-grimace on his face. There was a Philip’s screwdriver in his hand.

“Sorry to cut in on the soap box, old man,” Swanson said. “But I need a extra pair of hands on a busted exhaust hose and since my new puller here’s off-duty—“

“At your service, Captain!” Peterson bellowed, leaping off his upended bucket so fast I was amazed he hadn’t cracked his head on the low ceiling.

“That’s all right, Judge,” I said. “I’ll help with the hose. You and Sue Ann just relax while I—“

“No,” Judge Peterson said, holding me back with one of his giant hands. “Rest up, Adam. It’s good for an old dog to be of service!”

While Swanson and Judge Peterson fussed over the exhaust hose at the other end of the hull, Sue Ann and I watched. Some of the sparkle had returned to her eye, but I was still curious to know what she had been thinking about during Peterson’s monologue. When she accepted my second offer of more whiskey, I noticed that alongside the diamond wedding ring on her finger she wore a thin, gold band. It was one of those cheap promise rings I’d seen on a few girls back home at high school. I wondered why she still wore it. From my limited savvy on these matters, I’d always thought the woman took off the promise ring when she got the wedding band.

“Why don’t you two go up for some air,” Swanson suggested, “Better than sitting there like a couple of kids on a blind date!”

I helped Sue Ann clean up the paper plates, cups and utensils. Then I followed her above deck.

A big yellow moon was hanging over the cove as we came out on deck. Sue Ann made her way to rear of the trawler, standing beside the galvanized pipes of the steel hayrack. I sat on the lidded picnic cooler and lit the joint I’d been carrying in the back pocket of my jeans since that morning. The joint was damp and it took a few flicks from my lighter before I got it going okay.

Sue Ann removed her bandana now, letting her raven-colored hair fall to the middle of her back. The midnight breeze coming off the open channel loosened and played with individual strands of her hair so they moved like thin, electric shadows across the side of her face. She did not push them back from her face. She was staring towards the wooded shore. I noticed that that same dark, melancholy look had returned to her eye and seeing this made me shiver. I took one more toke from my joint, then passed it on to Sue Ann Bonnet.

I became aware of the Western World slowly rotating on its anchor. Our deck lights had been turned off. Only a few trawlers anchored here still had any lights on. From a trawler in towards shore, I could hear the faint, electric twang of a country-western song. Outside of this, the only other sounds I heard were the plastic skiff bumping up against the rib of our trawler and Judge Peterson and Philip Swanson joking and cussing from the hull.

“Listen!” Miss Sue Ann Bonnet said, in a hushed whisper. “Along shore!”

Spooked from my reverie, I straightened on the cooler. Sue Ann had moved past the hayrack to the edge of the boat, one foot on the sluice railing and an arm around a steel cable.

“Listen to what?” I said, after a pause. I expected to hear a bear or deer breaking through the brush along shore; or maybe a pod of orcas blowing somewhere out on the channel. But I heard none of these sounds. Just the same ones from before.

“Sssh!” Sue Ann answered, still leaning over the side of the boat. “The trees, Adam! You can hear them crying!”

Looking towards shore, I could just discern the subtle swaying of great trunks in the blue light.

“Yeah,” I said, holding in a long toke. “I hear the trees creak. Their creaking sounds nice.”

“No, Adam!” Sue Ann said—the urgency in her voice making me cough a little as smoke escaped my lungs. “Listen with your heart, not your ears. Listen closer.”

I stared down into the black green waters and, for a moment, the sound of the great trunks swaying did sound more like crying than creaking.

“Wow,” I heard myself saying in the same hushed whisper. “I hear it now. A second sound, like people murmuring and crying softly at a funeral.”

I looked in towards the yellow light overflowing into the wheelhouse from the hull. Judge Peterson and Swanson’s cursing and banging away on things rose up from the engine room as before and I was struck how they were part of a very different world than the one Miss Sue Ann Bonnet and me were experiencing here on deck—if only for a moment.

“Wild stuff,” I said, passing the joint to Sue Ann again. “Kind of spooky. But if all living things have feeling and a tree is a living thing, I suppose it has as much right to cry as the rest of us.”

Now Sue Ann was crying and laughing at the same time. She took a long hit, so the end of the joint lit up cherry red.  

“You all right?” I said. I made to get up, go to her, but remained seated when Sue Ann motioned me to remain so.

“Yes,” she said, laughing again. She wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “It’s this goddamn dope. That, and you remind me of someone I knew a long time ago.”

I began to ask her who this was, but stopped when she shook her head to signify the subject was off-limits.

She sat beside me on the cooler.

“Thank you,” Sue Ann said, taking hold of my hand. “I feel better now.”

I could feel the warmth of her body next to mind and feeling this made me shiver. When she turned towards me, her eyes were still soft and wet from crying. She looked into my eyes and I into hers and—for an instant—I was sure we were going to kiss. Then, just when I thought she really would kiss me, she looked away—breaking out in a loud, but warm laugh that made me laugh unknowingly along with her.

“Oh, Adam. . .”

When her laughter died down to a few snorting chuckles, she threw an arm over my shoulder and kissed me on the cheek.

“You’re a beautiful young man!” she said, mussing with my hair a little now. “Christ—if I was a young woman again—I wouldn’t let you out of my sight for a minute!”

I smiled.

Then she said something that made me stop smiling.

“Adam, get out of this place!”

Just like that, point blank.

“What?”

“This place!” she repeated, throwing her hands up and looking round us. “I know how wonderful all this is, but, truth is, we are killing the thing we all love by fishing it so hard it can’t sustain itself. I’ve seen so many boats on Bristol Bay the night before a sockeye run that it’s lit up like a floating city. We take every salmon we can get and then wonder why each year the fish counts get lower. The Canucks blame it on the Americans and the Americans blame it on the Canucks—and everyone blames it on the tribes. But we’re all to blame! No one is willing to step back and give Mother Earth a chance to heal herself. We take and take and take.”

She paused to finish tying her bandana around her hair again, and then continued.

“Adam? Can you promise me one thing?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Promise me you’ll consider what I’m telling you tonight. I know it’s not as simple as I’m making it out to be—we all have bills to pay, roofs to keep, children to feed—but there has to be a better way. We’ve got to put Mother Earth first, give her time to heal so they’ll be something for future generations. Alaska is not a whore, Adam. It’s not something to hump and dump on. We’ve got all the gold-diggers we need. If this is why you’re here then go back, Adam. Go back to wherever it is you come from and see if you can’t heal the place you’re from! Promise me—“

Suddenly, from the wheelhouse, came the stumbling, thudding sound of Old Judge Peterson and Philip Swanson tramping up from below. As they emerged through the wheelhouse door, Judge Peterson was leaning on Swanson with the finished fifth of Jack Daniels dangling from the crook of one finger. At the top of their lungs, the duo was singing, “Rye whiskey! Rye whiskey! Rye whiskey, I cry! If you don’t give me rye whiskey, I’ll lay down and die—’ stopping mid-verse when Judge Peterson saw me and Sue Ann sitting side to side on the cooler.

“Well, well, well!” Judge Peterson bellowed. “Aren’t you two a cozy pair?”

We sprang to our feet.

“It’s not what you think!” I began to explain—but never got to finish as the old man’s body suddenly went limp.

Sue Ann and I came quickly to Swanson’s assistance. Peterson had passed out in Swanson’s arms. Just like that. I grabbed him by the legs while Sue Ann and Swanson got hold of his arms. We lugged is 250-plus frame to the skiff. There, we loaded him in—in much the same manner he’d been unloaded.

“You gonna be all right on the row back to the Mighty Mert?” Swanson asked, once Miss Sue Ann Bonnet had found her position at the oars. She had to sit herself down between Peterson’s stilt-like legs, using his armpits as foot locks for her boots.

As they shoved off the Western World with an oar, Swanson called out, “Hope George don’t get no ideas about you two rowing off in the moonlight like this!”

“Don’t get my hopes up!” Sue Ann called back.

Swanson and I watched as the skiff waddled farther and farther away, until the only way we knew the skiff was still out there was by the sound of oars still slapping the water. I thought it strange how Miss Sue Ann Bonnet hadn’t said goodbye to me, hadn’t even looked at me since Swanson and Peterson appeared.

“What were you two up to back here?” Swanson said, jabbing me in the ribs with a stiff finger.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“She mentioned something about me reminding her of someone she knew a long time ago.”

“Hmm,” Swanson said. “That’s probably it. You probably remind her of the fella’ she knew when she was a young gal. Engaged to the guy, I think. Indian—like her old man. Haida? No—Tlingit! Grew up on the rez together. Anyway, this fella’ went out on a crab boat one summer—but never came back. First time out. Judge Peterson said she went a little ding-dong after that. Got messed up in all that 60’s hippie shit. Then on to Dutch Harbor where she worked as a stripper for a few years until George came along and made an honest woman out of her. George treats her real nice—but I guess she still trips out from time to time.”

“Course,” Swanson added, stiff-fingering me in the ribs again. “I’ve never been with Miss Sue Ann Bonnet when she was trippin’!”

Author Portrait

Dave Barrett lives and writes out of Missoula, Montana. His stories have appeared in over a dozen literary journals, most recently in Prole 13 (U.K.), Potomac Review and Green Hills Literary Lantern. He teaches writing at Missoula College and is currently at work on a second novel.