Big rains blew into northern California that November and December. My kid and I were living along an unnamed creek on a sizable acreage between Petaluma and Point Reyes. My employment entailed the feeding and care of horses, cattle, sheep, hogs, dogs and poultry, including too many peacocks. One peacock is too many. Three is way too many.
It was the holiday season. The boss lady, a patroness of the arts, had invited several artsy types to share a Christmas meal with her.
“Wouldn’t it be cool,” she reasoned, “to stuff an entire turkey with anchovies? Wouldn’t that be a mind-blower?”
I suggested that it would be almost as mind-blowing to feed them peacock. She peeled off a fifty dollar bill. The job also entailed running to town for anchovies.
I went to the bunkhouse to change clothing. Two weeks of solid rain and wind, coupled with several power outages, had reduced my trousseau to a hamper full of muddy Wranglers infested with hog snot and peacock crap. I managed to dig deeply enough in my foot locker to retrieve one ratty pair of jeans with the left rear pocket blown out at the bottom seam. That was normally my wallet pocket. I shifted it to the right rear.
Petaluma was once the egg capital of the world, and still sports an eight-foot concrete chicken in its city park, but it is only a 35-minute Porsche ride from San Francisco. The herd of gentrifying bedroom commuters carried their notion of culture with them when they bought Petaluma’s charm. Old Italian corner markets were supplanted by gigantic shopping complexes, with supermarkets at both ends. Downtown was deserted. All commerce took place in chain stores that circled the old city. Even in Pendleton I think of this phenomenon as California ringworm.
In all the glitz and shuck of modern food retailing I could not find one stinking little can of anchovies, let alone 50 bucks worth. Finally, while wandering down the condiment aisle of a Lucky Supermarket, about the time I was beginning to think that artists all over Marin country must be jamming rotten little fish into the gut cavities of turkeys, I ran across a small printed sign saying:
“We are terribly sorry to inconvenience our anchovy customers. Due to the effects of El Niño on the Peruvian fishery, there has been an indefinite interruption of the North American supply of canned anchovies.”
I stole the sign. Rich patrons of the arts don’t like to believe that there are such things as anchovy shortages. On the way back out of Petaluma, I stopped to buy a pack of smokes at a 7-Eleven. Ten minutes toward the ranch, while leaning over to fight an ashtray fire, I realized that my wallet was not in my right rear pocket. I slapped my left cheek. Not there either. Aw Shucks! Habit had over-ridden carefulness and I’d put the billfold into my shredded left rear pocket. My driver’s license and forty-eight dollars of the bosslady’s money was laying back there in the 7-Eleven parking lot. I flipped a U-turn. What were the chances? Maybe I could at least salvage the driver’s license.
Lady Luck works in mysterious ways. In my former parking spot was a chromed, engraved, air-brushed panhead Harley hog, equipped with ape-hangers, studded saddle bags, and a twisted barstock extended springer front end. Old school. The motorcycle’s skinny front tire was sitting directly on my wallet.
It was not difficult to figure out who owned the Harley. Inside the store was a large fellow munching on Cheetoes and slapping a pinball machine. I approached him with my dilemma, and offered to buy him a six pack of his choice if he would move his motorcycle backwards six inches. He looked through the plate glass, spied the wallet and broke out in giggles.
“Wow, far out. Never even saw the goods. I’m lucky to get the kickstand down without tipping her over. Sure.”
His name was Darrell. The ranch bought us each a sixer and we communed in the parking lot. He mentioned that I should put a chain on my wallet. I mentioned the anchovy famine, showed him the purloined sign.
Darrell had been a meteorologist in the Navy. He explained that El Niño was the Spanish word for the Christ child, that around Christmastime of some years prevailing westerly trade winds along the equator in the Pacific change to easterlies, pushing a big wave of warm water against the coast of South America. There are not enough nutrients in the warm water to support the 20 million-member schools of anchovies, so the fish either starve or head for cooler waters, leaving the Peruvian anchovy canneries with nothing to can. The year before had been a very major El Niño year.
But he knew where to score anchovies. His brother was managing a pizza joint that was about to belly-up because a new Pizza Hut had opened in the mall. Give him 30 bucks and he’d become an anchovy dealer. Fifteen minutes later Crabby rumbled back into the parking lot, with a $60 case of Pearl Brand Anchovies tied to his sissy bar.
The bosslady did carry out her culinary experiment. I will never know how an anchovy-stuffed turkey tastes. We could smell the admixture of roasting bird and fish oil clear out in the bunkhouse. The cats were very interested in the odor. Delta and I opted to eat our holiday meal at the local Wendy’s. I bought a chain for my wallet on Friday.
J.D. Smith is an accomplished writer and jack-of-all-trades. He lives in Athena.