The Trick to Fish

It was the first thing Terri learned when she began work for the Pike Place Fish Market.

She had wanted to work there since she had first seen it: a flying-fish spectacular, pulled off by surly, full-bearded fisherman and college boys who still thought burping loud was funny. You told the cashier what you wanted, and as soon as he barked out a few words your order was airborne, flying from worker to worker like a bowling pin in a juggling competition. The guy behind the desk would pluck it from the air as soon as the crowd surrounding the market had gotten enough of a thrill, throw it to a wooden slab, lop off the head right in front of you, and tell you that the king salmon is ten nintey-nine per pound, how much do you want?

Terri had started work there as soon as she was tall enough to pass for an adult—which was early, because Terri was taller than most boys her age. The manager had been against it—Pike Place was famous for their teamwork, and thowing an extra cog into the machine had potential to screw everything up—but after a few weeks of begging, he had given in and decided to give her a trial run for a day to see if she could keep up with the rest of the group.

That first day, Terri hadn’t known the Trick. She had thought the hard part would be catching the crabs and lobsters, because they had sharp edges.

Turns out she was wrong. The crabs had been easy; just grab them by a leg when they sailed by, and send them swinging onto their next target like a hard-shelled Indiana Jones. It was fish that thwarted her.

She had fumbled the second one tossed to her, and it had dropped—cold and slimy, like a jumbo slug that had been refrigerated over night—into her too-big orange waders, smearing down her leg and settling in the cleft right near the pit of her knee.

Like a girl (she was ashamed to admit) she had screamed, and did a little jig which only succeeded in driving the pacific salmon deeper into her pant-leg. The crowd thought it was all part of the show, and kept laughing as one of the fishers who was about three times her width walked over, grabbed her by the waist, and shook her upside down until the fish fell back out of her waders and onto the cement.

Terri had been slimy in places she hadn’t wanted to be slimy, and positive she was fired for dropping a fish, but as the fisherman flipped her again and set her on her feet, he gave her a wink that was only barely visible behind the wall of hair that his whiskers and eyebrows made.

Then the show went on, and Terri didn’t drop another fish that day, or the next week. Half the time she had to make diving catches, slinging herself over the crab display to catch an incoming halibut with both hands and most of her torso.

It wasn’t long before the tall girl with the bouncy pigtails who fell on her butt every other toss was a crowd favorite. She had a little cheering squad, even, which provided her with a constant exited hubbub which crescendoed into a football style WHOAAAAAH every time she dove to catch a sea creature.

She had thought, going in, that the Trick to fish was to not drop any.

She learned fast, like everyone else who’s ever worked at Pike Place, that the trick to fish is to make the folks watching you smile. You did that, you’d be just fine.

She’s still one of the crowd favorites, after three years of work—famous for over-the-counter diving catches, an internationally renowned mackerel-in-me-trousers dance, and a particular flair for the fish-toss, which was a long standing tradition of the market.

She’s standing in the middle of the audience—the regulars who know what’s coming are standing back a few feet. She’s got her waders on, and and some gloves to increase fish-traction. Her hands are held up, palms parallel with the ceiling, like a samurai preparing to accept a ceremonial blade. Behind the counter, two guys are flinging scallops back and forth between themselves like a pair of harlequins playing with brightly colored balls.

Behind Terri, though, is someone who’s clearly new to the fish market. The girl’s talking on a cell phone studded with pink rhinestones, and isn’t really paying attention to the fact that she’s only about two feet behind the waiting fish-monger.

Terri checks the girl in her peripheral, and decides to be annoyed by the cellphone chatter. When a king salmon suddenly arks out from behind a counter at a perfect forty five degree angle, Terri doesn’t catch it like she’s supposed to. She steps aside.

The fish is a little larger than a normal salmon, The cellphone girl gets only a flash of warning before twenty pounds of sea-flesh lands on the pavement in front of her with a wet slap, sloshing her jeans with fish-juice and almost ruining her hundred dollar shoes.

The cellphone drops from her hand as panic steps in after the danger is over, and she burbles a stream of profanity just loud enough for Terri to hear.

The tall girl grabs the fish by the tail and swings it up over her shoulder. Lifting a finger, she points at the cellphone girl like and angry mother and says, “Don’t cuss.” The crowd starts to laugh.

Then she goes about face, and swaggers back to her post like William Wallace returning from war, salmon resting on her shoulder like a Claymore.

She brings it down across her cutting board, and takes its head off with a butchers knife in one stroke.

Then she glances up to the woman who ordered the thing, who is still chuckling, raises one thin eyebrow and says “That’ll be ten nintey-nine per pound. How much do you want?”


This is one of the experiments I’m doing with a character I’m working on. It has nothing to do with anything, no significance and no meaning, but I like it nontheless. The tenses were terrible to work out, and I’m pretty sure there are still a few errors in with the was/had-been switches, but given that this particular piece isn’t going anywhere, I’m not terribly worried about it.

If you don’t know what Pike Place Fish Market is, shame on you. Go to Seattle now, and look for it. Or just go to youtube, although I haven’t found a video yet that quite catches the energy of being there live. I exaggerated it up a little for the sake of the story, but not much, and anyways it’s fiction so I’m allowed to do that.



  1. chughes said,

    July 6, 2007 at 9:24 pm

    i think that the setting is well done and situation has intrigued me. i can see Terry developed into a complex character with a little more story.

  2. Cameron said,

    July 29, 2007 at 5:31 pm

    Bloody brilliant–one of my favorites from your characterization pieces. And this feels like you, stylistically, as opposed to a delicate mixture of Pratchett or Stephenson. Your voice is all over this, and I think the narrative benefits greatly. One of your best that I’ve seen thus far–good jorb.

    Thanks, friend.
    It was fun to write, I have to admit. If you ever have a chance to get to Seattle, definately visit the fish market. It’s something to see.

  3. Hannah said,

    August 4, 2007 at 12:24 am

    This is real? Something like this exists? *shakes her head* I do need to travel, I do need to broaden my mind. This is amazing! …if you’re interested in criticism I suppose there were a few confusing verb tenses, but not enough to distract me from laughing and enjoying this thoroughly. Fabulous!

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