The Kitchen Midden

 

 

 

 

 

Dedications, Clarifications, Thank Yous

It’s important to say that this is a work of fiction. Some of the people described here may still be alive. Some will have had good careers and are likely to have good reputations. Nobody should have to answer for their misjudgments of fifty years ago, especially when they’re alleged in a novel. My plan was always to move the story from moment to moment strictly via the stepping-stones of remembered facts, chronologically, and stick to the facts. Which I did do. But it’s a novel. So it’s a spectacle whose rules of invention always must veer toward entertainment, as well as explainability, unlike life. It’s one of the limitations of fiction, that it depends on explainability.

Thus I’ve done plenty of minor filling-in, plenty of scene-creation that required outright invention, and some combining of events into a single timeframe. I’ve also changed certain important circumstances in order to protect individuals’ dignity, or in order just to skip over boring irrelevant periods. In sum, this story wasn’t shaped by the rules of historicity, it was shaped by the laws of art. Still, the facts all remain. The facts are still the objects of the reader’s moving gaze. But the facts are only the mosaic of loose, shiny fragments I set into the larger squishier medium.

The reader I like to imagine is a young person. This though there are sections that will be considered too explicit for consideration by virginal people, and too bleak. Young people are more discerning and more judicious than we like to remember. It’s at that stage of our lives that we will have found books that were honest and saved us. I keep my story intact for them. And with apologies, warn off those of a more careful sensibility.

This will never be published commercially. It can be read here on a screen, or copied and printed out on paper or uploaded to any electronic device. It may disseminated by any means or media. I make no claim of copyright.

Finally, thanks go to people and institutions. To my wife of thirty-five years, Brett, who supports me in all this impractical unprofitable work, and even rejoices in it – to her not only my thanks, but all my dedication. To the National Endowment for the Arts, which long ago helped this project in its beginnings. To G. Snyder and M. Chabon, for advice on the text and for counsel on the moral advisability of writing such a book at all. Finally, thanks to someone no longer alive: Isidor Solovyov (1849-1912), the so-called blind storyteller of Unalaska. Solovyov was born on the outer island of Adak. Then mostly, until his death, he lived on Unalaska, where he made a practice of telling stories, among a cohort of Aleutian tellers of Anangan tales. His body of work is, if concentrated, Homeric. He never claimed “authorship” of his narratives – he prefaced each story in the traditional way by announcing, first, “The work of my country,” implying a long heritage he was drawing on, Homeric not only in the mark of his blindness, but in his standing as a kind of editor of an oral tradition. Then, too, like “Homer,” he made artistic choices that are an original consummation of the tradition.

The few bits I’ve used in these pages are only rough – I have to say, unworthy – pastiches of Isidor Solovyov’s art, which I’ve refashioned for my own purposes, reproducing only basic storylines. The body of his work, in order to be appreciated, must be read in its original form; and Mr. Solovyov’s actual words were recorded in 1909 (on wax cylinders, under a pup tent in the rain). Their translations, along with transcripts of the original language, have been collected in a volume called Aleut Tales and Narratives, edited with great love and care and insight by Knut Bergslund and Moses Dirks, brought out in a handsome, durable paperback edition by the Alaska Native Language Center. I can’t recommend Isidor Solovyov’s stories highly enough. I think they’re in our future; I think they’re important American art – if that adjective, as I hope, will apply. It wasn’t American art when it was made.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Kitchen Midden

 

 

Lo, the stone that was rejected by the builder Has become the head of the corner


On a June day in 1970, a small, old oil tanker lay along the Standard Oil Refinery pier in San Francisco Bay. I was sixteen years old, far from Chicago, just released from my hitchhiked ride at the refinery’s front gate, when I climbed a certain gangplank of green-painted iron and crossed from pier to ship, wearing a parka in the summer heat, carrying a duffel bag of all my provisions: a flashlight of brown tin fluted like a Doric column, a sleeping bag, penny loafers, miscellaneous clothes, an old Boy Scout poncho (canvas coated in shattered flaking rubber), a plastic sausage of Pillsbury cookie dough I’d been feeding on all morning by gouging out fingerfuls, and four hardcover archaeology textbooks, still in see-through jacket-protectors, which I’d stolen from a public library in a town along Highway One.

I was wearing tall lace-up boots of solid green rubber, ill-chosen, wet inside from sweat. The coat was a typical Air Force parka I’d gotten at an army-surplus store on State Street in Chicago, in its large right-hand pocket always a Bic pen and a few blank typing-paper pages, folded. Under my free arm I carried an electric guitar I couldn’t play, in a folk-guitar case held shut by a length of clothesline. I had no driver’s license, nor any kinds of cards, nor ever needed a wallet, but I had a roll of $80 in cash. It was my understanding that this oil tanker, the Chevron Bryant, went to the Aleutians and that I could be dropped off on a windy treeless island, at a place called Dutch Harbor, in the Bering Sea, where the nearest thing was an Aleut fishing village. A dormant archaeological project was supposed to be there; and in exchange for shelter and food, I had offered to work as a laborer, having claimed to know something about archaeology. Alaska in 1970, before oil-extraction, before industrial fishing, before tourism, was only a zone of forgetful tectonic churning in the upper-left hand corner. Even this oil tanker’s general outline was irrelevant to me while I boarded, my vision shortened by a pair of roadside-stand sunglasses I stopped to put on, standing mid-gangplank above the dark strip of detergent harborwater twinkling far below, while I thought to myself, He pauses – briefly, ironically – smiling his famous ironic smile – to glance back, at the world he’s leaving behind …And that, according to legend, was the last of him ever seen.

During the school year back home, in what the Yellow Pages called the Greater Chicago Area, they had tried sending me to a child psychologist, because I was mysteriously lazy and unforthcoming. The psychologist’s name was Albert Alan Hauptmann, a specialist in the maladjustments of people my age, and his office was within walking distance of school. For months, with my off-campus pass, I was expected to show up as a regular Monday-Wednesday-Friday patient, and I did show up, but I almost never said anything in that office. I just held still in the big square armchair, side-by-side with his armchair, and each session was passed in silence, an incredibly expensive silence per hour, while the air was perpetually washed by the gentle sound of traffic on Green Bay Road, the sound of wives on errands, their two-ton stationwagons hurtling softly. Dr. Hauptmann kept relighting his pipe, with whistles and gurgles of saliva in its bowl, and kissing noises on the bit where, within his beard, the shining giblet of his lip bunched. I kept my hands busy with lumps of colored modeling clay that had been set out on the side-table for clients’ amusement, or maybe pacification. On my thigh I would make a little pinch-pot, or I would roll out a flopping worm, then I would strangle it all again into a soft pebble and start making another. I was aware the lump of clay might have been set out just for me before each session, because I was taking a ceramics course in school, which my parents would have told the doctor I “seemed to connect with.” And I was aware, too, of the Freudian symbolism the doctor might see in the clay, having to do with excrement, but I went on crushing and stretching it anyway. In the bowl of the doctor’s pipe, the saliva ink went on making screams that were tiny but very audible. The wad in my hands crazed as it lost moisture and reverted to dirt.

Then, when that fifty minutes was over, I would go back to lurking through school. In the remotest desks of the classrooms I kept my head down and doodled in my notebooks. I regarded with hooded wonder and hopelessness the angels in the corridors, their pleated plaid skirts’ hoplite invincibility, their blouses’ collars secured by gold circle pins, their shampooed hair obedient to new laws of motion strange and heavenly. In defense I bought a pack of short little Lucky Strike cigarettes and began writing some kind of poetry, the poetry-plus-nicotine smudge a poisonous, protective narcotic on my skin. Once, in the World Civilization class of the venerable Dr. Gertrude Derry, I waited until the room had cleared after the bell and I approached the front desk, to ask about forgiveness in the matter of an unfinished essay. She stopped me and said, “I’m not Dr. Derry.”

“You’re not?”

“I’m the substitute teacher. Dr. Derry has been ill for the past two weeks.”

I lifted my eyes to the generally beige woman who had taken a step backward behind a manila folder, with a lively shine of real nervousness in her eye, because admittedly, my hair hadn’t been cut for a while. The woman told that she was sorry – and it was a genuine apology, for its meaning was, There’s something wrong with you.

I begged her pardon and left. She was right, I knew, I also had noticed. An inability to concentrate, a generalized shame, a stupid baloney smell. I spent much of my time walking alone messianically on the beach. Or, for entire days in Chicago by myself, a miniature spy, I roamed the streets and I roamed the museums, the Art Institute’s cool hospital hush of frozen violence, the all-forgiving ruin of Navy Pier’s rubble. On Rush Street, on Clark, on Lincoln, on Halsted, on Michigan Avenue, on State, I narrated myself in the third-person, so maybe rehearsing some mystery of the world. At sixteen, in a vanity I knew to be the beginning of bad luck, I thought my own window-reflection might be unbearably handsome sometimes if the light was right and ordinariness was planed away. The El train dived noisily underground, into the dark, and in the mirror-black window, my reflection flashed as the endless roaring tunnel, at intervals, swallowed wall-lamps. I seemed to be going through a period without friends, or at least no close ones. Instead at school there was, like crows, a gathering of a few sarcastic boys, in the cafeteria or on the auditorium steps, who shared criticism, the keenest appetite for criticism, the sheer delight and malice of it, criticism of music and fashion and all the world’s sham, criticism of car models and shoe styles, describing and classifying all the many evolutions of Error: We were in Dante’s rings of hell lounging on the auditorium’s broad granite steps among little black spots where cigarette butts had been screwed out, watching the world pass, its pageant of mistakes. We were artists, actually. Criticism itself was a way into the world each day via the world’s chinks.

Then in the evenings at home, far from homework, all winter I grew close with the schedule of TV shows. I sat in that radiation by myself, and people left me alone. The Breck Girl’s lustrous hair swung in slow-motion churning the whole world. Jimi Hendrix banged the guitar against his tiny hipbone. This was a springtime semester when everyone at my school seemed to share in a strange general pause, following the diligent, conscientious suicide of a student named Mike McCavity, a nondescript junior-year student. His parents were remembered for making him retake and retake the SAT exam, over and over until he could get a score that would qualify him for certain good colleges, enrolling him in prep courses, driving him far and wide on weekends to new test sites, to try again and improve his record. The news that penetrated the school on a Monday in February was that Mike McCavity had more permanently disqualified himself, considerately, by a well-planned solitary swimming death, so that his parents could still believe it was just an accident befalling a boy whose only problem was that he wasn’t yet working up to his potential. So Mike McCavity entered fame as a victim of society. Everybody had, by then, been assigned everything from Huck Finn to Catch-22, and in the case of Advanced Placement English, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” So everybody had learned well how repressive society is, and how innocence and integrity will be crushed. Which, even if you skipped the reading and flunked, you couldn’t avoid getting the point of.

Still, while you may know that suicide is ennobling, yet in the deep secret liberty of the heart, people seem to despise a suicide. There must be some reason for that. Myself, I had an abiding knowledge that I myself was strong and I was an instance of the norm. To be strong and normal, I thought all you need is patience. There was one cold night when I loitered in the Village Laundromat’s open corridor of steel portholes, alone by myself, contemplating the idea of following a passing stranger down the street, for instance a woman getting off the commuter train – and trying to wheedle love out of her, that is, physical, instant love, not friendship or acquaintanceship, rather the kind that maybe only takes a few minutes. The project could work if there were one piece of good luck: that she was as lonely as I. And ideally randomly sex-crazed. It would involve getting her into a shadow and delving into her clothes, and soon somehow all inhibition and caution would fall away and the two of us would share this, like miners in a dream who together at last break through to blue sky.

The Village Laundromat seemed never to have anybody inside. Never a single customer. But the heat was always on. And it was a sanctuary, too, because it was the only place in town that stayed open past five, shining its lights, in a town where, so far, no “7-Eleven” had ever intruded. Also, in that conservative suburb a laundromat was linked with seldom-seen social conditions like divorce, or with unmarriedness in general, or at least with unfortunate people who lack washing machines of their own. A laundromat was a place with a “bulletin board,” and all the implied bleak promiscuity of that. All that pinned litter. People in Wilmette didn’t have much to do with people who consulted bulletin boards. All day it had rained. It was a moonless March night, and from the silent, sour, lime-dusted bright storefront I watched a lone woman – solitary commuter from the Chicago evening train – in a puffy insulated coat across the street walking past the warm window of Paul’s Hobby Shop. What I pictured was something more like surprised persuasion. Because I knew beyond the first unthinkable impoliteness, for both of us there could be a mutual anointment, in a weightlessness I pictured. A grown woman seemed likelier, instead of a girl, because you don’t want it to be any sort of unpleasant surprise, but rather a not-unwelcome one. Also, someone better experienced would catch on fast, knowingly, and I imagined a dawning look of wisdom in her eye, so that the ideal outcome would be a swift winning past startlement, to healthy collaboration, right there, wherever, in a near wedge of shadow. It would be necessary to be lucky and pick an unusual kind of woman both brave and lonely, which must be a pair of traits that rarely coexist – but once you’ve parted the blouse, once you’ve established that this is a dreamy interlude of anonymity and you’re obviously taking responsibility, she could stop worrying and, herself, start taking some initiative, to get you past certain awkward or unfamiliar parts.

Well, but everything out there was cold and wet, for one thing. Sometimes a TWO HOUR PARKING sign shivered and vibrated outside in wind. Also I had to imagine the specifics of the embrace, her specific lipstick, the troublesome shirt buttons, each with its own pause, her body’s stale ordinary Xerox smell of a commuter’s devout 8-hr workday, an actual moral human being’s flesh – the radiance of insult packed into her body, possibly, if things went badly – my own debility of politeness – the fact that she would not be as desperate or alone as me, but would have friends and family and a net of worries to sustain her. And be tired from a day at the office.

So I stayed in the laundromat and watched my victim walk on up the block, past the big intersection in town where three tall churches competed together like gas stations, Catholic, Episcopalian, Congregationalist, in whose basements, with Troop Two, I had earned all my merit badges, in Fingerprinting, First Aid, Stamp Collecting, Furniture Restoration, Emergency Preparedness, Mammal Study. The days went on and the weather kept coming from the west – it was the spring, coming from Iowa and Nebraska and Wyoming and farther out, where the great engines of weather were wilder – and I went on earning safest D’s at school, sealed by a crusty magical sleep and mucus, smoking Lucky Strikes in an outdoor stairwell, or on the granite auditorium steps of the world’s public mockery. During classes I drew my habitual five-pointed stars in my notebook, or I sketched pictures of heavy-metal electric guitars like fantastic weaponry with four or five pickups and a tremolo bar and clusters of mysterious knobs and switches for creating unheard-of guitar sound effects with a vengeance like nuclear blast. Whenever I was in class, my intense notebook doodling served as a fairy-tale Cap of Invisibility. Thus I was never called on. There was a girl I sat behind, whose innocent shoulder was only inches from my eye. Between classes, I made a path through the crowded stairwells, where the crush of students sometimes locked tight and inevitably you’d be brushed against girls’ bodies, their copper forearm, their new hip. Their bodies had an alien construction where you could see the new looseness of pullover-material above the hip implying in the spine’s base a powerful planetary swivel. More incredible was the sovereignty of their eyes. They were all A students. In their ruling intelligence, they pretended to be unaware. On another very warm night deeper in spring, I happened to be out walking alone when the last-scheduled commuter train arrived, in the shadow of the village train station, the English Tudor-style cottage beside the platform and the iron rails. I stayed there while the train slowed, just in case the perfect sex partner should get off and present herself, right here in our town, complete with miniskirt and long kindling thighs and huge mussed hair and a nymphomanic’s blind indiscriminacy, a blaze I could imagine myself walking straight into. The train rumbled to a halt, and the doors slid open, and no one at all stepped out. Not even a businessman. From the empty rectangle, light was shed on the platform. The floating golden portal hung there.

Then panels slid over it and the dark train pulled away, making its murmur, which multiplies as it dies and gains distance, because it reflects off all the thousands of garages, basketball backboards, elm boughs, roofs and dormers and gables, dark storefronts, the echo mirrored in cubist reverberation on up north through the suburbs, Kenilworth, Winnetka, Highland Park, Lake Forest. On the following day, Saturday, I showed up at the gym entrance for the SAT college board exams. I had my four sharpened #2 pencils in hand, and I’d been given a nutritious breakfast in order to do my best work. But then, because I really hadn’t been listening in class all these years, I put all four pencils on a cement windowsill and left them there, and I turned back outside, where the morning springtime air was already smelling of lawns’ hose water. Dark wet soaks lay on sidewalks at intervals, stretching far ahead into the distance along Essex Avenue. It was a turning point in my life. Now I would be someone who hadn’t taken the SATs.

But nobody knew it yet. I still looked like just a boy walking along Essex Avenue. On both sides, deep lawns forbade footstep. When Monday came, I went to find the substitute teacher, in the offices of the History Department, to apologize for mixing her up with her similarly beige colleague.

Because I could see, the world does cancel out some people. It’s obvious all around. Just walk down any street, look at Michigan Avenue or State Street, or Division or Halsted or Wabash. All around, we always have a certain number of people engaged in the dire work of self-erasure, some fast and efficient, some slow and inefficient. I could see it was probably time for me to at least start learning to ingratiate myself. I stood by the teacher’s desk in the History Office – she was standing, too, and she wouldn’t sit down until I left – and I told her, with maximum charisma, the words I had rehearsed:

You do resemble Dr. Derry, if I may speak frankly. It would be easy to confuse you from a distance, frankly, because you’re both young and beautiful and, you know, rather attractive.

That was the entire speech. She smirked irritably and she thanked me and dismissed me.

I held my head high, walking tall, down the long corridor toward an exit, while being overtaken fast by shame, just as fire travels fast in a collapsing building. I had seen my flattery fail at the moment it left my lips. Flattery was something I had seen in movies or on television, practiced by typecast cowards and phonies. Which, I could see, was what I was. Before leaving for the West and Alaska, I went to a barber and had my head shaved in a crewcut. The crewcut astonished and offended people. People in those days had flowing locks around the collar, forehead-curtains, sideburns like lambchops. A crewcut looked monastic, or psychopathic, revealing acne and a pallor. I told everybody – and it was true – that if I hoped to ride an oil tanker with a crew of hard merchant seamen, I wouldn’t want to look especially stylish. But then by the time of crossing the green iron gangplank in San Francisco Bay, with the Pacific breeze’s tiny hooks in my scalp and behind my ears, I had already said to myself I wouldn’t have to go back at all, ever.

 

§ § §


Once there was a man who had had no luck. So he set out to obtain some charms. He tied his seal-bladder coat down tight and went alone in his baidarka. When he reached a land he had never seen, he lay down his baidarka. He hid his baidarka far off, then he lay himself down so that he washed up on shore. When he had floated up to the beach, a beachcomber came past him, and found him, and lifted him up, because he seemed to be drowned, and he carried him home to his barrabara to spread him upon a grass mat at the foot of the ladder. Then the man who seemed to be drowned began to think: “I wish that child there in the corner would ask to have my big toe.”

And it was so! The child asked for the dead stranger’s big toe, and he received it.

Then the man who seemed to be drowned began, again, to think: “I wish now that that child might choke on my big toe.”

And it was so! The child choked on the big toe. So all those in the hut turned aside, they turned to the child, and in that moment the man realized that all the ceiling was hung with many charms. So he leaped and leaped and grabbed them all, then ran to his hidden baidarka.

On the voyage home then, a great sea animal rose and offered its flank. And so, he who had left with no luck returned bearing carcasses and he was happy with his wife and children in his hut all his life, until the day, at last, when the cold came to get him and he turned away.

 

§ § §

 

My parents weren’t a consideration. At that point they thought I planned on coming home to Wilmette in the fall and finishing my last year of high school. They consented in all the plans – they helped me find the duffel, and a few things in the attic and the basement, like the flashlight – and they felt all right about it because they’d had a telephone conversation with the archaeologist in charge of the excavation, Professor Charles Grant, Jr., who taught at a college downtown.

This professor was the son of Colonel Charles Grant, Sr., a business friend of my father. “The Colonel” was a man with a vest and a watch chain, white-moustached and small like the tycoon on the Monopoly board’s cards. He was always looked on, by my mother, with a quiet, diagonal skepticism; maybe because she considered the watch chain an unnecessary addition; or because in all “business” and “business friends” she saw something insubstantial; or because the Colonel and his wife seemed to make a living partly by buying big run-down properties, living in them while restoring them, then reselling them at higher prices. Once at the dinner table, she referred to the Grants slantwise as “the bedouins,” because of their constant migration within the grid of streets that was called (by realtors) The Cage. In that angle of my mother’s vision, I first started to get the feeling of a structure in society. One time she said, You notice something interesting about the North Shore: how many people live here who really can’t afford to be here. I didn’t know then that we were those people. I supposed she was speaking with compassion about some unlucky others.

She said it on an afternoon when she and I were together looking out through a leaded-glass front window – I was getting to be taller than my mother – looking across Ventnor Avenue and St. Charles, to the east toward Park, regarding other people’s lawns and houses. I did have a sensation that we were spying together, from behind the drapes like trespassers, or like housebreakers who yet cleverly send a mortgage check out through the front mail-slot each month, in its small windowed envelope with a postage-stamp correctly affixed. All my years in the American West were foredestined then by that remark of my mother’s – especially by what I didn’t understand yet about it – the years of working on landscaping crews or busing tables or doing construction, uninsured but healthy, years of living in simple, rented spaces where yet sunlight and order and peace prevail, the satisfactions of work and necessity, all foredestined when I stood at the window with my mother and looked out at a neighborhood that was considered desirable.

Later in that spring, there’d been a sunset dusk when Colonel Grant and his wife came to visit. Everyone was sitting in the backyard on lawnchairs holding drinks. It was a warm evening in May when springtime letters from the ETS (Educational Testing Service) hadn’t yet arrived in homes. The Colonel sat down in his chosen lawnchair, and in that moment while drinks brimmed, he set the terms of conversation thus, “Well, the Sears Roebuck account is switching to video.”

His advertising agency employed my father, from time to time, as a script writer and, less often, a director and a producer. Whenever a commission check would arrive I would know it, because maybe our family wouldn’t do anything special but the atmosphere would be freer for a while.

“Mm-hm,” my mother said over the surface of her drink smiling her crocodile smile. “It’s a race to the bottom out there.”

“I guess one has to learn video finally,” said my dad.

“No-no-no, Jim. Let Chicago Commercial take over the video. Face it. You’re not a hack. Genuine film will always have a place.”

Some response seemed required – “Gee, I can be just as vulgar as the next fella, ha ha.” I had never heard my father force a guffaw.

“You’ve got too much style for video. I want to save you for film.”

My mother – I checked on her – was letting her eyes slide aside toward the far depths of the lawn, and I loved her, her wit, her quiet impatience, always a starlet miscast on the set of a wrong movie. She was wonderful.

“Jim, Chicago Commercial is absolutely crass. I’m always going to prefer, personally, anything I can do with you at any point in the future. Face it, you’re not a hack, you’re an aristocrat.”

The Colonel looked back and forth between my parents, wanting a response, as if he’d made a gift.

My mother sang, “It definitely is a special responsibility: having an aristocrat on your hands.”

“Somebody someday is always bound to walk in the door who’ll pay for film. That is something that’ll never die.” The Colonel’s wife said nothing during this. She kept her attention on her lap, or shifted it to the overhead branches, the lovely light.

The Colonel said, “If it’s purely money you’re after, you really ought to take my advice and get into rentals. I know you’re tired of hearing this. Twenty years I’ve been buying properties and renting them out. It’s what makes all the extra things possible. That’s my advice.” He was finished expressing his point of view, and in satisfaction he looked down into his drink.

At that moment I saw in my mother the slant glance, a lever, prying and relocating the Colonel in an instant, Colonel Grant suddenly toy-sized in perspective, totally unaware he’d been miniaturized, sitting over his gin, inside his senile square chuckling inwardly over his own wisdom, oblivious, while yet soaking up his new position – then in a spasm and a jerk, the Colonel looked up at me beside him uncomfortably close.

With alarm, as though I had just come crashing through the hedge, he told me I ought to get the hell out of here right now and go to Alaska, where his boy was digging up cavemen. His boy was an anthropologist. Middle of nowhere. Wrote a book about it. Untrammeled wild places. Primitive, primitive. Down at that little university.

People laughed and sipped – it was funny, picturing me in the wilderness. Somebody commented that, of course, I was too young to be out there. They all agreed, my grades would have to improve, I would have to show a little maturity and responsibility, it was out of the question.

People chuckled, people all lifted their drinks and sipped them, and the topic was dropped.

The university campus was easy to reach by the El train, yanking and jerking over the city from the Loop, and in a corridor of the Anthropology building I presented myself to Professor Charles Grant, Jr. I was aware I had a way of carrying myself, cloth goblin on a clothesline-pulley. Which now I knew I must overcome at least for this one encounter. Professor Grant looked at me. I’d never taken any initiative until now. However, I was peculiar, and I was hanging on to this tight by one secure stitch. Maybe he could see that. He cradled an armful of books, standing there. He had a rich beaver beard and a golden bald dome, and he wore an intrepid canvas vest of many zippers and pockets and mesh pouches, here in the middle of civilization. He looked fifty-something, medium-sized, or even less-than-medium-sized, but he was enlarged somehow, by some kind of seriousness. His first response was to scold me, “You know the earth only has a few places left that are still in deep sleep.”

I lowered my eyes, and in my unsureness I repeated the words deep sleep, wanting to indicate that this was sinking in.

“You have to understand anthropology is serious.”

I kept my eyes down, because I was absorbing that seriousness.

“This is really still virgin out there. The land was still in a deep sleep when Lewis and Clark went up the river. Like, it was a parting of the mists. This is like that.” 

He seemed, for some reason, to be blaming me for something.

But yet this same tone made me begin to think he actually might consent.

“It was the original state. The people were still so innocent, they helped them. They welcomed them. This is the kind of place. In some ways still. I mean the openness.”

I asked if he was talking about Alaska.

“Transportation is hard, all up there. I could provide a way to get you out to the place. But there’s no guarantee of a specific return, especially when weather comes in.”

– I didn’t dare lift my eyes –

“We’ve already got an Aleut boy on the island. We will need someone, but someone who can help. Help with actual excavation. Which is hard work.”

I said, while making a flicker of eye contact, that in fact I knew a lot about excavation, from reading and study. He didn’t ask me to prove it. He just looked at me for a minute while his face dwindled, then he turned away saying, “Fine. Whatever.” 

 

§ § §


This island was something that condensed from the sea. Everything comes from the cold, and will one day go back to the cold. And the boy Andy, whom no one wants, is one more thing. He has to sit on the parlor stool in the Kiroffs’ overheated house, and he looks out the window at Iliuliuk Bay and the Bering Sea – somewhere across that water is Anchorage and freedom – while his aunt berates him, in her ignorant Aleut accents, “Your daddy’s gawn take away all your rock and roll,” she says, referring to a certain skinny drunk. Andy’s real father long ago made himself originally absent. This woman uses words like daddy to make this look like a family, because she sees herself as important in this village. Her white house on the town front. Her muddy effort at a lawn. The only such effort in Dutch Harbor. Maybe the only “lawn” in the whole Aleutian chain.

“You think now ‘rock and roll,’ rock and roll.’ But when they say in church ‘Lord have mercy,’ that’s what matters. ‘Lord have mercy’: that’s the only thing you got in this world. Don’t matter if you’re a movie star, you’re rich as Croesus, don’t matter if you’re poor, don’t matter if you got Rolling Stone Magazine. ‘Lord Have Mercy’ is one day gawn be all you got in the world. Just, you ain’t old enough yet to know it.”

She of course must know in her heart, it was wrong to take away his albums. He didn’t steal them, he bought them, in Anchorage, with money that was his. Now he’s stranded in this one-saloon town, without anything proper to himself, without any dignity. That’s what they really want. To take away all dignity. It’s what their so-called Lord wants, too. They’ll make him go to the fish camp in August, where everything is so Aleut, where the wind off Summer Bay is hard, and all day the fish-gut slime will make grains of sand stick so the Aleutian smell is ground deep in his flesh.

“It’s for your own good,” she tells him. “You’re gawn stop playin’ those records, and you’re gawn stay out of trouble, and you’re gawn work for the Americans this summer.” Stupid woman, you’re an American, he thinks of telling her.

 

§ § §


When I crossed the green gangplank at the Pacific, I was carrying something new, an electric guitar in a case, second-hand, red in color, very thin, very light, which had cost twenty dollars from my roll of cash, and which I hadn’t yet tried to play. Hadn’t even touched its fretboard or strings. It rattled back and forth in a case too big for it, the latches broken so the whole thing was held shut by a length of clothesline knotted around its waist. In the suspended interval between ship and pier I stopped in the middle, to put on the pair of brutal-looking sunglasses I had picked up on the road – then, better dimmed, I reshouldered my duffel and lifted the guitar case and went ahead to board the ship.

I, for some reason, didn’t find it intimidating. That a working merchant-marine tanker should carry hitchhikers was an arrangement – probably unusual but evidently allowable – made by Professor Grant with Standard Oil. On the ship, I was supposed to meet up with three other passengers like me who would be making their way toward the same expedition: Terry and Cristie Smale, from Kalamazoo, Michigan; and Nicole Powell. This last, Nicole Powell, was someone I planned to avoid. She was supposed to be a genuine archaeologist. So I would have to pick my way around her until I had studied my public library books.

There, against a railing, were the Smales, obviously, on a catwalk that stretched lengthwise over the center of the ship, a young couple looking like they were honeymooning. They watched me approach, sharing between them an indefinable atmosphere of Kalamazoo, Michigan, visible as something touristy and easily delighted. I let my duffel bag drag me to anchor in front of them. He saunters to a stop – mysterious, charismatic, ironic – while his sunglasses cruelly mirror their own image back at them.

After an exchange of names, the first thing Cristie Smale told me was, “Terry and I are schoolteachers.”

It created a lull. The Smales would have seen themselves reflected in my sunglasses as a hopeful-looking couple crowding together against the railing under a snatching wind. The husband, Terry, had a look of habitually scanning for a far-off joke that might materialize, a  man always flexing his toes, his thin amber hair flipping in the gusts. His small, better-focused wife clung to him as if he might lift away. She, Cristie, was maybe twenty-one or -two, wide-eyed, tiny-nosed, blonde, quick. I, myself, was making an indelible impression. He holds his peace, contemptuous of idle chitchat. Hopefully they wouldn’t ask about the guitar or even notice it. It was Cristie who then broadened the conversation, “Well, it certainly is exciting, though.”

“What is, exactly?” her husband asked, turning to her.

“Going to Alaska, sweetheart.”

“Ah. Oh. Yes. Alaska. And associating with the great-and-powerful Wilderness Man Grant. That’s exciting.” He’d turned to share these remarks with me personally. I hadn’t read the book Professor Grant supposedly wrote, but I was starting to get the feeling that Charles Grant loomed large and famous if the world were viewed along a certain rim. My ignorance would be a scandal; keeping it a secret would be constant work. Cristie said, “Tell us. You’re so young. Why are you on the expedition? I guess you’ll go home in the fall.”

I don’t have to go back. I can do what I want,” I said, surprising myself by an untruth, with an immediate uneasy sensation that the words, as I spoke them, appeared over my head in a cartoon dialogue-balloon.

She smiled, in a cracked sort of way. “You’re like us, then! Gosh! Actually, I’ll tell you. You know what? We’re just using the expedition as a way of getting to Alaska. We don’t know anything about archaeology! Isn’t that awful?”

Her husband was looking away. “She was Grant’s little student,” he said. “That’s how we get to see a bit of history.”

“What history?” Cristie said.

“Charles Grant is history,” he kept looking away, one topmost amber lock flipping in a pinwheel.

She asked him, while petting his bicep, “Why is Professor Grant history?”

She turned back to me. “Oh, yes, wilderness and all that,” she answered for him, because he had veered into the wind. She clamped his forearm tighter inside her own, as if to hold him down, and she told me directly, eclipsing her husband but being cheery about it, “We just want to get someplace. And make a new start.”

 

§ § §


I knew it might have something to do with sailing over the edge of the world, but within an hour I was in love for the first time, completely, in a chivalrous kind of way that I knew was unrealistic. Not only was it love, but I knew it was love and could name it. Since, in the case of a married woman, it was unthinkable, it could be total. She might be a little bit older than I, but she was so delicate, so delicately poised, in a pert withholding of remark, so pale in the sun and peachy – but also tentative, as if with an anxiety about things going off. In her carefulness and her imperfect grammar was something vulnerable, something already sore, so I was suddenly protective of her, even at my age. As soon as I turned my back on them to haul my stuff toward my cabin, I started immediately applying remorse about the unbelievable boast I’d made. (I don’t have to go back. I can do what I want.) The strange thing was, they looked like they believed that. They even seemed impressed. Maybe they were completely gullible.

Or else possibly I’d said something that could be true. Was the whole world so unresistant to this slightest pressure? A boy in the world only has to declare something and who would bother to contradict it? I don’t have to go back. I can do what I want. So, after I’d been shown to my cabin, for a while in the despondency of chivalry, moping in there, I waited only for dinnertime, to see her again. I poured everything from my duffle out on the floor, amounting to a heap I could live out of, and I freed up a shirt to wear at our first meal together, where I would sit at the table and begin my vigil with purest desire and jealousy. It was as if I’d had never seen a “marriage” before: the whole concept: licensed public pairing. Looking across the dining room table at them, I tried to frame a picture of the marriage bond, which was an obscenity legitimized and sanctioned. But a marriage, too, looked worrisomely non-erotic. When they sat down she moved the waterglass a little closer to her husband and then sent him an icy smile that meant, in general, Isn’t this nice, grimly. A minute later, she moved the water in further, and nodded at it. Terry, for his part, acted incarcerated during the meal, gripping his armrests, lifting his shoulders, rowing in his chair, with brisk sighs. Dinner was in a small room in the most “aft” section, a room referred to as the officers’ mess, though the only officer who ever showed up was the captain, who was there that first night only. After this first meal, he went back to his (he said) usual practice, of taking his meals alone in his cabin. His name was Harrison, a full-bearded man who didn’t take off his visored cap at dinner. He sat down and started rotating his plate by degrees in his fingers, to orient it, and he said, “So where’re your two interns, so-called? We had to telephone your university to learn they’ve been scrubbed.”

Cristie said she hadn’t heard anything about two interns. She’d been told there would be only us four passengers on the ship.

That was what I was told, too. This was a disappointment. Having a bigger crowd to blend into would have been a good thing.

“Right,” said the captain. “Now an extra berth been prepared, linens and the whole bloody kit, by a steward who’s already got enough work. And extra stores been purchased for the galley. Your professor goes cancelling passengers without informing anyone, I guess his little expedition is shrinking.”

Nobody tried to add to those remarks.

The genuine archaeologist had showed up, however. She was on board – but she’d sent word she wasn’t going to come up for that first night’s dinner. So it would be just the Smales, Captain Harrison, and me. The so-called officers’ mess, at the very back end of the boat, had walls of thick metal painted a dull color, with two portholes decorated by little curtains of green rubber. The floor, in this one luxurious room for officers, was actually carpeted, wall-to-wall, in red tartan plaid. A small refrigerator stood on a table in the corner, where presumably an officer could find a snack at any hour, even at midnight, under an eternal desk lamp. The dining table, of some maroon hardwood highly varnished, had a clever bead of raised molding running around its edge, as a curb to catch sliding plates in high seas. At the moment, it stayed level, for the ship was still tied fast alongside the refinery pier.

The captain, who was drinking scotch, turned to Terry Smale. When he breathed upon him the fumes of alcohol, Terry’s face went forward. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do, exactly, on Amaknak.”

Terry exhaled, and said, “Amaknak?”

“Amaknak is the island in Dutch Harbor. That’s where Grant is every summer. What will you do there? Are you biologists? Anthropologists?”

His wife answered for him, “We’re looking for permanent work. We’re schoolteachers. I majored in recreation. But I can teach math and all kinds of things. Whereas Terry, he can teach English.” Her Michigan cornsilk hair was cut in a squared-off helmet, and her face, her frugal face, was gold and apricot and pollen.

“I see. Yes. Now it’s possible to major in ‘recreation,’” the captain grumbled of things onshore.

“Recreation,” she scofffed about her field of study, “it’s just plain old phys-ed.”

I could see from this angle a pointiness in her chin, marking her all the more my own, secretly. “…But I can teach all kinds of things, home ec, civics, algebra, you name it. Drivers ed. We’re going to be very adaptable in Alaska.”

The captain sneaked one look at her, then looked down again and started improving the arrangement of his knife and fork on the rim of his plate. A cigarette smoldered in his fingers. “Your Professor Grant. You know who he is.”

What I knew about Professor Grant was one thing – that he had found a thousand-year-old mummy in a cave and written a popular book about it. The captain went on, “Grant is the big hero who wants to give the whole country back to the Indians.”

“Well, I’m a former student,” said Cristie.

“Nixon, too. The democrats, too, want to pay ‘em off, what they deserve. Let Indians be millionaires. Your professor wants to keep them from getting the money. Let ‘em go crap on the snow.”

The captain drew on his cigarette and tapped ashes on his porkchop. Apparently he hadn’t come with any intention of eating, just drinking.

“Well,” Cristie said merrily, “We did steal the land.”

“Stole it fair and square. They’re just lucky we’re a conquering race that sets up welfare programs. And gives food stamps. It’s more than they’d do.”

Cristie hesitated to speak.

“Indians took over Alcatraz Island right here last week. So what do they do? They claim it’s their land, then they set the place on fire. Just yesterday it was still smoking. These Pit River people, my sister married one, they want all Mount Shasta back. They want three million-something acres. So what they do is, they conquer back a little public playground. More damn TV cameras than Indians. Now I’ll tell you. Indians are good people, nice quiet people, sensitive people, almost kind of womanly, sweet like that. I know how they think. My sister married one. I’ve been up there, Elk River, I know how they think.”

Cristie said, “You say ‘womanly’ but of course they were warriors, too.”

“Oh. Men can always be violent, that’s men. But just naturally, they’re gentle people. Nature’s way is, they would become extinct. Or else intermarry. The plan is to get them off unemployment. Well, maybe Indians are way out there out on the Great Plains or some place and they don’t want to drive all the way down to the Interstate to work in a motel, you know, make beds. Or work in a gypsum factory. Maybe that’s something white people think is a wonderful thing, day-in day-out. Maybe those Indians, they like an old shitty car. And smoking cigarettes, and fry-bread, and a life expectancy of – what – fifty. So fine. Free country.”

Again, he seemed finished, and Terry spoke up, “Do you actually go? Like, to the reservation?”

“I go up Pyramid Lake, so I know some Washoe people, and my sister’s man.”

“Aren’t you afraid?” Terry was frowning, but his eye was finding this ridiculous.

The captain didn’t look at him but went on watching his own pork chop, trying to determine Terry’s exact level of sarcasm. By way of explicit illustration, Terry with one hand hoisted a sack of air. With the other, he made a tomahawk chop at it. This amusement was directed at me, the young person at the table.

The captain rolled on one elbow on his armrest. “Tell me,” he said to Cristie, with a wince at the onset of a thought, “Whom do you intend to teach, when you be schoolteachers in Dutch Harbor?”

“Whom…?” said Cristie in a total spun blur, and I loved her defenselessness against the captain. I was entering the real world now with a whole new generation’s enlightenment, and it exalted me personally to discover a genuine specimen of a racist, just as described in books and movies and English classes, out here in the world thriving like an old terrapin in its natural habitat. The captain said, “There ain’t enough people on that island. Who’ll you teach?”

Terry spoke for her, “We’ll teach… Eskimos!”

He gloated over the victory of obviousness, looking to me across the table to share it.

“Aleuts. They will want to be called Aleuts.”

“Oh!” Terry’s face misted over in delight. “That would be why they call it the Aleutian Islands!”

The captain then elbowed around and made a permanent new shift in his chair, reframing the Smales’ whole future, a painter shifting perspective, to establish a whole new vanishing-point out there for them – and in a kind of toast, into that distance he lifted the glass of fermented golden oil. Which Terry’s eye followed like a wasp in the room, with a mellow dislocation of his features. Holding up the glass, the captain said, “Mrs. Smale now? Let me tell you. What you’ve got up there on those islands is just the one village, no trees but all rocks and moss. Grass and stuff. Zero trees. Sea lions. Ravens. Little buildings down where the wind can’t get. Those Aleuts, as far as education, they don’t want to do anything they’re not already doing. They don’t want to go anywhere else. They’re not going to the University of Whatever to learn about how to major in recreation. White people been coming up and try and tell ’em. But they just don’t. They don’t want to live in a city and pay the water and the property taxes and the mitigation bond and find a parking place. Your cities to them smell bad, like maybe how you’d feel in someplace in Mexico. Aleuts like it clean. I’ve had plenty of Aleuts. They’re smart as hell, but, see, they’re like otters. They’re just exactly like otters. They like the cold and the wet, and just clean. They don’t need algebra. Or drivers ed either, ‘cause wait till you see what they call a road. On that whole island of Unalaska there’s altogether about ten kids of a school age ain’t drinking yet. And even those kids don’t show up, betcha. There’s no tax base, either, for a school. So that would be how it is,” he finished.

Both the Smales were gazing with complete belief.

Then Terry, not looking at his wife but, again, at me, leaned back as if he’d won at cards, a jackpot.

Cristie knotted tighter in her chair and made one of her frowns, a frown of contemplation. She picked up her fork and said in contradiction, “Well, we’ll see.”

The captain inserted his cigarette deep into his mashed potatoes. “Probably the other one won’t lay up for mess because she’s got her hair in curlers.” He downed the last of the golden venom. Which Terry swallowed, too, vicariously.

Then the captain pushed his chair away. Dinner was over, at least for him. It was the last conversation anybody would have with Captain Harrison, or anyway the longest, and he moved out through the door with a characteristic herniated way of favoring one side.

Terry smiled, rubbed warmth into his palms, then slapped the arms of his chair to grip them white-knuckled. “So! Where’s the shuffleboard court?”

 

§ § §


We three stayed to finish the meal. Cristie made a few light observations, about what a charming cranky old curmudgeon Captain Harrison was. Terry, for his part, apologized for having been too playful, again directing himself to me, across the table. I left dinner feeling put on alert – but not sure exactly how. In the corridor, between steel walls, a red floor led back to my cabin. There would be nothing to do back in my room, but where else was there to go? In the evening light of San Francisco Bay, they were untying ropes from being wrapped around iron stumps on the dock.

My porthole didn’t look out at the water, it looked ahead, toward the bow. Seen through it, this looked like the kind of ship that’s mostly flat in the middle, with a little castle on the front end and a little castle on the back end. The back-end castle was where my room was. A long catwalk, above the central flat part, extended all the way from the rear castle to the front castle.

No one had yet asked me how much experience I’d had in archaeology. It would be too late to stop this trip at the moment when a watery gap opened, too big to leap, between the dock and the ship. My own berth’s porthole rim was screwed down under huge wing-nuts, where rust showed through the paint. I knelt at the guitar case and undid the knot in the cotton rope and got out the thin red guitar, which then sat naked and hard in my lap with the peculiar hostility of a musical instrument that won’t yield to understanding. I plucked the six open strings under my thumb: the six notes tolled over an open landscape of incomprehension. It probably wasn’t correctly tuned. The floor was linoleum, poured red linoleum of the old serious kind, heavy and soft and gummy. I put the guitar back in its case and retied the twine. A door led to a closet-sized room where there was a toilet along with a shower, together unseparated. The shower was just a drain in the floor with, overhead, a pipe protruding. Under its stingy dribble, I would have to learn to step back and forth while it swayed with the ship’s slants.

For now it was starting to move. A shudder, and a snap noise in the deep floor – followed by more motionlessness – meant that one of the tugboats’ heavy cables had lifted up from the water, a dripping hammock, and then tightened in one yank like a guitar-string, a huge guitar-string, and then slackened again. I went outside to the catwalk to see it happen, to see San Francisco surge slowly past in the dusk. The air was dark violet. And that small town, all painted in sand-colors from pink through ivory, San Francisco, was a city of dice glowing on its own hillsides in the dusk. I was on deck and I was far from home. Nothing happened after that one big lurch. If the boat was moving, I couldn’t feel it. I walked further out on the central catwalk that stretched along the ship. Its diamond grid carried me above mysterious panels and lids, hydrants and manholes. At the front of the ship I climbed a steep set of iron stairs, to go up one storey and get around closer to the front. The balcony of the second storey had a railing, which I could follow around to a point overlooking the bow. There everything was. I could see toward China through the mouth of the Bay. On the summer ocean, the horizon was dissolving its ounce of grenadine. San Francisco was turning on its yellow lamps in the ultra-violet dark.

“You’re the kid,” said a man in a doorway behind me, a small man with a big tough belly. “Come on in. I’ll show you how this works. I’m the mate.”

I had been standing in front of his big window: it was the window from which he watched the sea ahead, its glass steeply down-tilted against reflective glare. Captain Harrison wasn’t on the bridge – seemingly, the captain stayed in his cabin during the spectacle of departure and trusted everything to subordinates. Inside this room, to improve visibility ahead, all lights were out. Everything was dark except for the bright coal at the tip of the mate’s cigarette darting then hovering, and a few glowing meters, and two big green disks: two radar circles were swept by eternally revolving squeegees of green light, brushing up green blemishes. “We’re just locked on Angel Island beam,” the mate said, with some kind of pessimism. “My only shift nowadays is to stand around wi’ me thumb in me bottom. For this I get fifty thousand a year and five months’ shore leave.” A man held rotting in place by the protection of an ancient maritime union – habituated even to the accent of a pirate, as if by centuries’ constraint of custom – he lifted his cigarette and drew hard on it, as if that were his assignment now.

“So,” he concluded.

The cigarette’s red glow made an empty magic gesture.

It was amazing out in the world, how people trusted me with information, the mate with his sadness about his job, Cristie Smale with the secret that they knew nothing about archaeology and were trying to make a fresh start in their lives. People’s assumptions made me a sort of impostor. I cleared my throat and said, “Is the ship in motion right now?” Because I really couldn’t tell.

“Ah. Gotta move slow. You get a few hundred tons moving, even an-inch-an-hour, it’s got momentum.” He laid the palms of his hands on his own big belly, which rose slow as a moon, metaphor for momentum: “It can crunch through a dock real slow.”

Then there was another lurch – the tugboats had pulled again – I could feel movement – the floor underfoot floated up the slightest bit.

The two of us stayed silent to watch the great arms of San Francisco Bay loom around, its islands fading back into the twilight, erotic pinpoint lights coming forward in Tiburon and the Marina – and North Beach and Pacific Heights and Telegraph Hill and Russian Hill, none of these places I knew yet – all a journey through the heart of a moving constellation, a nebula in the shifting placental cloud that contained a future, the actual future waiting hidden in code there, like a chromosomal code, indecipherable except by risking contact of flesh. There were fateful streetcorners in there that I knew nothing of. The first mate, in the manner of a man perhaps lacking a son, instructed me in the technicalities of the job on-ship. Then mostly we both fell silent in basic awe while the Golden Gate Bridge floated overhead and the ship emerged between the great dark mounds, and we were freed from the tugboats and a brass handle was swung to FULL AHEAD on a post that stood in the center of the floor – and somewhere the engines’ deep song began. He and I were isolated together in our silence, joined like family members, dwarfed together. He said softly, “Feel that?”

I tried to tell what he meant. I knew I was far from home, in a greater world, and I was coming to fundamental laws.

“We’re out on the swell,” he said, and of course I could feel it. The floor had begun to lift, in a prying majestic motion, an iceberg’s rhythmic vast prodding. The mate – he was probably getting to be sixty years old – took a deep breath, and his chest grew and his shoulders sank, and he looked younger, and he said, “When I feel that, I always just go, like, fffffwsh.”

“The sea, you mean?”

“Out past any breakwater. Out where the motion starts. Then I’m away from all the bullshit and the. Money and the. Women.”

 

§ § §


I learned there’s “pitch” and there’s “roll.” Pitch is the hobbyhorse forward-and-back rocking. Roll is the side-to-side tossing between left and right. Shipwrights have a word for every motion of a hull. There’s “lift” and there’s “drop,” and there’s “thrust” as well as “thwart.” It’s thrust when the ship is squirted forward, and thwart when it’s halted by a swell in front. Also, there’s “yaw,” the swing of the bow off direct course when it slams into a big one. Every few seconds – (it seemed to me that, by looking hard, my eye could almost visually detect my bedroom wall’s tilting away) – every few seconds, everything would be released, from a pinnacle, into a lull, where gravity was partially void, and then I could never know from which direction the recovery would come. I missed a meal or two and stayed in my room. But in my room, too, the floor kept tipping downhill. Soon, I had to limit myself to bed.

But I had my books, on the techniques of archaeology, all the starch taken out of them by the years of use in the San Luis Obispo Public Library in heavy-duty cellophane jacket-protectors whose scrubbed cloudiness dimmed the books’ relevancy to the world. They got me through seasickness. I could prop a book open above me and get up enough consciousness to, at least, look at the pictures. First remove all surface vegetation from the site. Taking special care not to pull up any roots. Then drive stakes into the ground and put up strings describing a quadrilateral. In the photographs, men and women squatted, in boxy khaki shorts in a noonday sun. One man, with a scowl, wielded a mallet upon a wooden stake, while the others squatted to watch. In other photographs fingers strummed through soil, and I drifted off in my nausea and let the book fall and let sleep come over me. If I were exposed as a fake, it would already be too late to send me back. They would have to find something else to do with me. The boat’s motion was a bowl to hold me. I was too sick to think of Cristie except deliriously as a fogged-over remote sequin, and so in that lapse of fidelity I fell asleep.

 

§ § §


The path of the Outside Man is by transformation. He doesn’t have to work to become himself, he’ll always become something new. He can leave himself behind. Andy Kiroff can look back at where he’s been, and he can see, he might be young but he’s a hero already because, already, he has taken more than one form. It’s like having been a fox in one place, a crow in another. Now on this island, he lacks any perspective to see what his present form is. He’ll only know by looking back later. He’s sitting drunk in a heap of ropes behind the Panalaska boathouse yard with his bottle of vodka in the warm fog. It’s almost like a heroic transformation, that he can escape, and what he’s escaping is the that family’s dinner of fried Armour.

The nest of ropes, where he sits, is supposed to provide his day’s labor tomorrow. They’re broken and frayed, and he has been told to splice them to make them useful for crabbing. But he himself has changed the heaped ropes to a throne. He doesn’t need to be redeemed out of all nations. He’s got his vodka and his hempen throne. Soon he can reach a point where the whole world wheels and he will tingle in his blindness. Any minute, amidst his coils he might twist to some new monster.

The Brothers at the Mount Edgecumbe said it every day: the good news for the Aleut was that Jesus came to redeem even the barbarian, then Brother Aloysius loved to go on and on about his own race, the Scots, and their barbarity in the years when Jesus was walking the roads of Galilee.

Well, redemption is nothing to a hero, a hero can be redeemed over and over again, he has wiliness, he has inconsistency. He can have that most important attribute – absence – and in that way, he must take after his father.

 

§ § §


The next day, I met Nicole Powell, the actual archaeologist. Who did turn out to be intimidating. The Smales and I were leaving the mess quarters after lunch, where I had succeeded in swallowing soda crackers and jelly beans. We were heading toward the vertical-oval door at the end of the hallway when Nicole Powell’s silhouette came inside from walking against the blinding sea-surface, with the fresh quality of someone just coming off a tennis court, so flushed and dazzled she couldn’t focus specifically in the corridor, tripping over the high threshold. She didn’t really see me, either – I was still sick and tended to melt from notice. She herself was only a shadow against the sun, but I could tell from the sound of her voice, she was altogether of a different class, not my type at all, so much in demand she had developed a shy way of making herself scarce on any scene, dodgy and sketchy, withholding her presence. “Well, hello at last, everyone,” she said. The three of us seemed to stand vying, as she folded one arm against her breast in her probably-routine endurance of others’ gaze foaming all over. Terry was debonair and took the responsibility of introducing everybody. His wife Cristie, he said, used to be a student of Grant’s, just like her.

Nicole Powell contradicted him: “I’m not Charlie’s student. I’m an instructor. I’m a contributor to the field in my own right. This trip is just time-off between things.”

But the two women had begun focusing on each other with a distraction and a misgiving, and Nicole said, “Cristie? Were you in his class a few years ago?”

Cristie said, “I gather you know Professor Grant pretty well.”

“Charlie? Ih! Charlie and I!”

“I guess you work side by side.”

“But then you would be Cristie Smale.”

“Has he mentioned me?”

“No,” said Nicole. “Or actually yes obviously he has mentioned you. I mean, what am I saying? Charlie has fond memories of all of his students.” She smiled and dug her folded forearms tighter together.

In the suddenly cleared central space, she said, “Have you guys already eaten?”

Cristie said, “We have to go take a nap, but it’s nice to meet you,” escaping by the oval to the windy catwalk outside, leaving her husband standing there looking happy and confused.

 

§ § §


The ocean. The mid-Pacific. It was a shining hill the Chevron Bryant was always on top of. At the very back end of the boat I found a deck where nobody ever went, the iron floor painted Band-Aid beige. Bolted-down boxes (also painted Band-Aid beige) held coiled ropes. Dominating the center of the area, welded to the deck with steel scars, was a huge mechanical thing, rusty, looking seldom-used, whose gears and sprockets and rollers were kept packed in rich purple grease. A rash came through decades’ coats of paint. Everywhere was a certain pervasive smell – I’d been noticing since I first boarded – old brass polish? I sat and watched the sea slide away in the east where, for miles, the ship left an unfolding veil of blossoming water that never closed over.

The railing, at the very back end, was nothing more than a chain strung on posts. I had seen a “Man Overboard” routine posted in the navigation bridge: a placard screwed to the wall, with a diagram describing the arc the ship would make if it had to suddenly turn back. But someone would have to first notice a man overboard. The Pacific at that point, somewhere between California and Japan, might be warm enough that a boy treading water would succumb to fatigue first, rather than cold. At first the hull would loom overhead while I flipped and gasped in the boil after its screws. Soon the boat would shrink as small as a house, standing exactly upon the horizon, like houses in crayon-pictures. Eventually it would diminish to a bathtub toy, glimpsable only when a swell lifted me high. Then at last it wouldn’t be glimpsable at all anymore. The ocean on a still, windless day would have no sound. Maybe not even the plash of a wavelet. The sound of my own human breath. Would I die while the ship was still visible on the horizon? Or would I have some time alone, among the tall hips of water to think about whether jumping off had been a bad idea? The gooney birds, so-called, who followed the ship, would circle back and contemplate me. Was I food? Would I be food soon? To them, my head and arms would look qualitatively different from the panfuls of spaghetti that sometimes flew out of the galley and flopped onto the water for them, or the balls of mashed potatoes, the stale Roman Meal Bread slices floating in fans.

I didn’t hop the railing of course but I could feel my mischievous one percent, its deep reserves of seizure, and the twitch of the one percent made me keep my distance from the iron links that served as a railing. Warding them off, I wandered the ship, and in an above-deck compartment toward the front, I met old Matthew Krim, the radio operator, in his squeaky office-chair, with a novel propped up on the keyboard of his typewriter (The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James), reading with weak happy sated eyes, rubbing his forehead with the eraser end of a pencil, making color-coded pencil marks in the text to analyze how fictional characters were introduced and “weighted” (as he always liked to say), convivially lighting a new cigarette when I met him, while another cigarette went on burning in the ashtray, beneath his wall of rack-mounted steel radio equipment (wooden knobs, toggle switches of dull nickel), Matt Krim with his sparse grey beard, his freckled forehead, his tall scholarly stoop, Matt Krim inexplicably intoxicating to women, with his benign glance over the tops of his glasses-frames, the glower of affectionate criticism, with his shirt clipped together by a binder clip where it was missing a button. Four times divorced, soon to divorce for a fifth time and marry a woman half his age, he was a novelist, a real novelist, a genuine novelist (if unpublished), with a big cheap apartment on the waterfront in Sausalito – 203 Bridgeway – where a great California oak screwed right up through the center of the staircase, like a treehouse, where lived his lonely teenage daughter, he said. He occupied this perfect job as a radio operator but had been working for years on a novel – magnum opus he called it. I never did read the actual text of that novel. No one ever finally saw it. But over the years we discussed it, all too much, around the big octagonal table in Sausalito. It was called “The Twilight Idyll,” and sometimes “The Old Gods’ Dusk,” an unfinishable Wagnerian epic, based on his years of scholarly research into myths and legends and fairy tales and their psychological structure. The theme of the novel was going to be art itself, how it rescues us, from chaos and savagery. When he died, the notes and manuscripts were still boxed up in Sebastiani wine cartons in Sausalito in the water-heater closet. Increasingly, he liked to say, he found himself to be unpublishable, given the world’s low standards. Actually, he had once been published. Fifteen years earlier he’d published a short story. It was in Story Magazine, back in the days when a certain Whit Burnett (a name he seemed to revere) was editing it. It was titled “The Model Railroad,” and it had the distinction of being printed right alongside J.D. Salinger’s first published story. So Matt had once touched glory, and he was hopeful. The first day I passed in the gangway outside the Radio Officer’s hatch, he looked up at me and asked whether I knew Passage to India?

“Do I know…?”

“E.M. Forster died.”

I tried to think. E.M. Forster sounded familiar.

Passage to India,” he said. “Room with a View. An obituary is just coming over the BBC service.”

He indicated the beeps coming from the radio’s speaker, a brown cloth circle where Morse code from all over the world arrived softly round-the-clock, the volume always turned down to a sub-conscious level.

I had seen an E.M. Forster in a bookshelf at home, but I’d never taken it down. I declared, “He wrote Howards End.”

Matt was concentrating on the Morse code, prodding an eyelid with his eraser. “You’re one of our hitchhikers,” he told me, while he turned his swivel-chair to take a paperback from his shelf. It was Passage to India, by E.M. Forster. I let pages tick under my thumbnail. It seemed to have a lot of description. He reduced the radio volume, put his large clown-feet up on his desk, cocked back in the tilting chair, and launched into his personal obituary of E.M. Forster, eyes pinched and remote, sighting his subject. It was as if I had appeared in the corridor and caught a curveball he’d flipped in the doorway. Since I’d heard of E.M. Forster, he started sketching me as a prince wandering the world in disguise. And for many years, while I worked in California’s restaurant kitchens or weilded push-brooms or labored with shovels, Matt was the friend who went on seeing me that way. He did that with people. He acted as their public-relations agent, introducing them to each other as celebrities and dignitaries already. He pulled open a drawer and set a puzzle on his desk in front of me, of red and white plastic triangles, which was supposed to be a measure of I.Q. I left the radio shack that day sick from cigarette smoke, carrying a stack of books, “Love Story” by Erich Segal, Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” the big orange hardcover “Chicago Manual of Style,” Fowler’s “Modern English Usage,” E.B. White’s “Second Tree from the Corner,” and two cartons of Benson & Hedges DeLuxe Gold cigarettes, because out here in international waters he could get them duty-free for a few cents a pack.

 

§ § §


Andy doesn’t have them anymore, because at Mt. Edgecumbe they took them away: his two tortoiseshell guitar-picks, on a string around his neck, high like a choker, both picks punctured by a paper-punch for a hole to string them on, with the “Fender Medium” inscription facing outward. Brother Innokentiy took them away. They were talismans of evil. Now in Andy’s open shirtcollar there’s nothing at all to cover the pit of his throat. Newcomers like these archaeologists on Amaknak will have no idea who he really is.

One of the old stories is like this: A man went out to get a sweetheart for himself on the far shore of Ilidam-Unmiga. His parents first said to him, “Your Uncles and your Grandfathers and your Great-Grandfathers all went to Ilidam-Unmiga to get sweethearts for themselves, but they never did come back.”

He sang to his parents, “I will have a beetle for protection. I will have an old bear for protection. And I will have the dripping fat of a dead man for protection. And I will have a mosquito for protection.”

“Your Uncles and Grandfathers and Great-Grandfathers, each one took a beetle for protection. Each one took a bear for protection. Each one took the dripping fat of a dead man for protection. Each one took a mosquito for protection. And yet none of them ever returned from Ilidam-Unmiga.”

Still the man went. He took the beetle for protection. He took the old bear for protection. He took the dripping fat of a dead man for protection. He took the mosquito for protection.

And when he was arrived as a stranger in Ilidam-Unmiga, at first the people were afraid of him. They thought he was a mosquito. They thought he was a bear. Then he revealed himself, and they accepted him as a son-in-law, and they wanted to contest with him. There in that barrabara, many sinews of twine were leaped. He leaped them all, better than all the others. And then he saw what he hadn’t seen before: a terrible uncle lay beneath the hurdles of sinew twine, so the young man called on his mosquito, he called on his beetle, he called on his old bear, he called on his dead-man fat. He danced for him, and he just scoffed and laughed, so he danced again. And again, he only scoffed. So his mosquito flew from his nostrils, and the bear flew from his mouth, and his dripping fat of a corpse was splashed, and he slew him. And when he opened his eyes and looked, all the people in that house were dead. He had slain them all. Then there was one old woman left. He had not slain her yet. She told him, you may go up now, to the sweetheart who survives for you. He went up the ladder but she was not there no more. So this young man did return from Ilidam-Unmiga. His Uncles and his Grandfathers and his Great-Grandfathers had all gone for sweethearts in Ilidam-Unmiga and none of them ever returned. But this young man did return. He returned with his mosquito and his beetle and his dead-man’s fat and his bear, and he survived well until the end of his days at home, until the cold came for him and he turned inward.

 

§ § §


The sky clouded over. We began to pass volcanoes. I was always welcome in Matt’s cabin up front. We passed a peninsula called the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. Mists enveloped the Chevron Bryant. The sea grew rougher and colder. I was able to keep my characteristic self-assurance, and never be the slightest bit anxious, if I erased both where I had come from and where I was going, and thus exist on a line-segment. In such a manner, I spent most of the days in the so-designated “radio shack,” learning to chain-smoke cigarettes, talking about the Hemingway I had been loaned, and about “Love Story” by Erich Segal, a new book of the season, which Matt said was an example of a well-built novel: he predicted “a long arc” on the bestseller list for it. Then he asked me my opinion.

However I answered, it made Matt chuckle in agreement, subsiding in his desk-chair. Whatever I’d said was wonderfully trenchant. And in that chuckle, in his assent with a toss in his chair, I could feel the roller-coaster, the scoop and powerful lift and swell of the world, the world outside home, the world in all its buoyancy, all its crashing tonnage of underlift. The weakest, tenderest, most peculiar embedded sensations, which at home had always been irrelevant, were exactly hard cash out here, at least in this one room. Whenever I wasn’t making idle conversation in Matt’s cabin, I was reading in my berth. Catwalks and decks were poor places to spend time, now that we were in the old dark weather nearer the planet’s axis. I saw little of the other expedition members. The Smales were visible only at dinner. On Cristie, I was beginning to get a better, fairer, more mature perspective, and in my heart concede her to her husband. As for Nicole Powell, she had the repellency of charisma and she was a serious genuine antropologist and I kept my distance.

Until we ran into each other in Matt’s radio shack. She was coming out of his door one afternoon just as I arrived. Matt sank further in his chair and said to me, “I think you know Nicole.”

Nicole said, “Yes, this is the young intellectual.” Her small fists were on her hips.

Matt explained to me, “Nicole just did the I.Q. puzzle. This girl is off the charts! Did you know she’s a Fulbright Fellow? And did you know they’re paying her expenses to take a job at a certain prominent college?”

“That is top-secret,” she warned Matt. She told me, too, “Top-secret.”

“She identified my two heavies’ pictures here without a minute’s hesitation, and now I’m trying to stop her thinking I’ma philosopher.” Two of Matt’s favorite philosophers’ pictures, Kierkegaard’s and Nietzsche’s, were stuck to the wall beside his desk.

She remarked – explaining this to me – that people who put up lots of office wall decorations are better-adjusted personalities. Studies show.

Psychology Today,” Matt seemed to dismiss the idea, then told me, because apparently I was the one people bounced things off: “I don’t think she means, for instance, the decorations in the below quarters,” referring to the magazine photos taped to every surface in the crew’s bunks, even to upper-bunks’ undersides, of lustrous mounds, gleaming under a photographer’s operating-room glare, a woman’s nauseous smile out-of-focus in the background. The one time I was down there, I glimpsed it all and I was so unready for it I was struck blind, while the laughter of men rang in my ears.

“Oh, I can imagine,” said Nicole, folding her arms. “But those guys make my point.  That, for them, is ‘well-adjusted.’ That is ‘well-adjusted’ for them.”

“May I say something in defense of my fellow men? Sailors at sea are like cowboys on the range. It isn’t misogyny exactly. We’re woman-fearers. We make mythological beasts out of them.”

“Everybody’s being a perfect gentleman. They’re all polite and bashful. I believe now the theory is, I might be a manatee.”

Matt, beaming on her, told me, “She’s Professor Grant’s star pupil.” He was using a toe to pull out a desk-drawer, and then swung his huge shoes up onto it, thick soles of corrugated black rubber, standard issue for a Chevron employee. “…Having surpassed her teacher now.”

She said, “Oh, Charles. Charles is sweet.”

That one compliment had the strange effect of modeling Charles Grant, with a stroke, into a lesser shape. As we got closer to Dutch Harbor, a vacuum seemed to be opening ahead. The cancellation – the “scrubbing” – of two interns had created some of that vacuum.

Matt then raised his arms above his head, convulsed lazily, and rose out of his chair – which was something he almost never did, an ungainly tall man standing there permanently sprained by his lifelong chair. Personally I’d never want to be a novelist. It was too prosaic compared to poetry, which was the higher calling. He said, “I’ll be back. It’s zero-hundred hours in Greenwich, and I have to get the weather.” He left with a piece of paper. At the door, he ran into Cristie Smale, arriving in the passageway. “Mrs. Smale! Sit down. Come in. I’ll be right back, I’m just going up to the bridge. Sit there in my place. We’re having a party.” Cristie backed into the trap-like tilting chair at the desk.

With a last instruction that she should go ahead and get herself anything she’d like to drink, he was gone. Down the hall. Up the clanging steep stairs.

To Nicole, Cristie said, “Hi.” Then she added, “So we meet.”

This was several days into the voyage, and still the two women hadn’t talked. Their only encounters had been blinded, tinselly ones at the dinner table. While Matt was gone from the room, Morse code kept arriving from the four corners of the earth, an endless thread of information, the world’s fate being knitted in Matt Krim’s cave day and night. One of his neglected cigarettes went on sending its incense straight up from an ashtray in a vertical thread that shattered at an altitude.

At last Nicole said to Cristie, “I really didn’t know you would be coming on this trip.” Then she added, “I really had no idea.”

To which Cristie said, “Me neither.”

“Ah. Hmm,” said Nicole.

The two women looked at each other in soft consternation.

“That Charlie,” said Nicole. A cluck of the tongue. “Always a surprise.”

Cristie didn’t answer but just bobbed her head thoughtfully. She was uncomfortable.

Nicole chirped, “Well I’ve heard so much about you!” in a sharp, like quoted, tone. Both women found it amusing while painful. Cristie answered in a similar pre-recorded tone, “Nothing bad I hope!” That, too, made them both smile, if dimly.

Nicole pushed herself back higher on the bunk and arranged a pillow behind her. As for me, I was sixteen years old, sitting against the wall in the side chair, making a special private smile: Melancholy and wise, he amuses himself gently with the bittersweet ironies of life. I, via perfect un-critical incomprehension, could vanish from others’ notice in the room. It was the privilege of being genuinely uncomprehending.

Nicole – the more relaxed one, the more generous one – mused, “What on earth could Charlie have been thinking?”

Cristie said, “Oh, you can have him.”

That took Nicole by surprise, then she realized it was a joke. She said, “Oh. Yes. Right. You’ve got Terry.”

Cristie said after a pause, “…Really, I think Charles never knows what he has in mind.” She spoke as if to share an old amazement. “He has no self-knowledge. Do you know what I mean? So often? Lord forgive ’em all?”

Nicole answered, “That’s the risk all right.”

“The risk?”

“He goes ahead and does things to see what will happen,” said Nicole. “And then maybe the crash-and-burn. They’re the crash-and-burn gender.”

“Well, and that could fit the other gender too, probably,” Cristie said. “But yes, that would be Charles Grant.” 

Nicole, frowning at her warring thumbs in her lap, seemed to have a new respect for Cristie. She was visibly girding herself to be a friend. As far as Nicole Powell’s renowned beauty was concerned, I was beginning to get a clearer view, and she really was honestly a little bit homely. She must have satisfied certain conventions of proportion and symmetry, but her face was fundamentally ordinary and likable. She said, “Risk is good. That’s what a stockbroker would say.”

Cristie didn’t answer. She did make a receptive shrug of the eyebrow.

I, in the corner, quietly strangled, “…I think I’ll go back to my…” I finished, “cabin.”

Nicole said, “However! I am not having any kind of relations. I promise you that.”

“Oh, I believe you!” cried Cristie.

“I have always been very clear with him. I got into this expedition because I wanted to go on a trip with my friend Kevin Pinne. He’ll be there, you’ll meet him, Kevin is wonderful. Only then does it turn out Charles is apparently trying to fall off the edge of the world.”

For a minute Cristie went on looking at Nicole, attentively, as if she were still speaking. Then she said. “Well – this is good. I mean, I’m glad you’re here.”

Nicole said, “If I weren’t here to keep Charles away from the cliff at the edge of the world…” she made a gesture of passing a baton off to Cristie.

Then for a while, because that was witty, they were smiling away into separate orientations. Still, I was invisible by virtue of my irresponsibility, and my obtuseness. I could be a stowaway wherever I was. Morse code kept quietly drip-drip-dripping. At any given moment, somewhere in the world, information is always being wasted.

Cristie said, “Then let’s both keep him from the cliff. Because you know something? He has always been very good.”

“You don’t have to tell me. I know how he is. He’s under the influence of this, like, pulling-apart force. Centrifugal force. Native Claims has become his only obsession.”

“I know. I’ve heard. We weren’t communicating since Terry, naturally. But rumors.”

“Have you heard about his supposed deal with National Geographic? For a TV special?”

Grimly, Cristie didn’t answer. She knew all about it.

“He’s having fantasies about the voice-over narration of famous actors. He says he’ll hold out for Orson Welles.”

Cristie’s mouth kept creeping sideways. She didn’t want to hear any more.

Nicole said, “He resigned, you know. He quit.”

“At the school?” This was something Cristie didn’t know.

“The department’s attitude was ‘Okay, thanks, bye.’”

“He resigned? He was chairman!”

“Did you notice his two undergraduates got cancelled?”

“Is this trip just him? Whose money is it?”

Nicole made some kind of gesture that was an answer to that question.

She said, “I’ll tell you Charles’s misfortune in his career, professionally. He’s got all pre-contact people as ethically and spiritually, like, superior beings. It’s actually Noble Savages. Which is popular, that’s the problem, it’s sentimentality, but it’s popular. Also, departments and deans don’t like professors with, like, suntans, and safari jackets – as if they could do anything about that. His whole career has been built on his feud with Ale^s Hrdli^cka. It’s established that the first people came across the Bering Strait, but he has devoted his whole career to proving—”

“I know, I know. I had the course.”

“—that they island-hopped. Well, he’s just wrong. All his ethnography is, like, television Indians. You know? Who’re never litterbugs? And stand by the road and get a tear in their eye?” That was a humorous remark. She’d shifted her explanation partly toward me, there. As if I’d understand.

“He’s fifty-five. Why would he resign?”

“But listen,” said Nicole. “No one is supposed to know about that. Including me and you. I’m serious. We have to pretend he still has a job. He still wants to use the leverage, the university affiliation, and it’s a pride thing too.”

“He’s too young. To be going off. Or else too old. What does his wife think?”

Nicole lifted a shoulder, hopelessly. “Ruth.”

A steep stairway was clanging, two decks above. Matt was coming back down and the conference would end, but now the two women, again looking off in different directions, shared a new, remote elsewhere, all their own, which they could gaze into. I was sitting against the wall, the attendant aborigine who doesn’t know the language. Nicole got in one last remark, “The ‘hunt for a golden samovar’ on a sunken Russian ship: that’s supposed to attract the National Geographic. But he only wants to use such a thing, to call attention to the Native land claims. Because otherwise National Geographic never does anything political. His whole life is indigenous land claims.”

Cristie had clasped her hands between her clamped thighs. Her head was bowed over them.

Nicole went on, “However, he does like to imagine himself on TV. In the sunset, standing on the bow of a ship. Can’t you see it? Fabulous profile. His eyebrows are spectacular.”

Almost those exact same words were spoken later, on the island, by her friend Kevin Pinne: “Oh, but His Nabs has a marvelous profile. The eyebrows are spectacular.” Kevin Pinne wasn’t a scientist but a former English major, and within the immunity of that status, he had come along for a pleasure excursion. He was speaking, at the time, while sitting on the kitchen floor prying open a crate of artifacts left over from the previous summer that was about to be shipped back to the university – removing a small neolithic stone oil-lamp, because he wanted it as a souvenir for himself. But it appeared on excavation records, so he was substituting a thawing Jeno’s Pizza Roll, settling it into its cushioned place in the crate, nailing the crate shut again.

“Something like eyebrows can be crucial,” he went on. “Not in the little podunk schools but in the highest ranks of American scholarship, in the truly most prestigious institutions, a career can be made or broken by something like great eyebrows alone.”

 

§ § §


“O My Boredom!” The voice of Kevin Pinne below my porthole woke me. He had been sent to meet the ship, and now he was outside standing on the floor of a rubber raft. “Nicole? Are you in there? I’m in this Godforsaken Place.”

No one on ship was responding.

“Yare! Avast! Ye Chevron Bryant, y’old rust-bucket, y’fudgepackers, send down yer lettle cabin boy for punishment. And send more prophylactics. Decent ones. Vulcanized. The good stout India-rubber.”

That morning began my awe for Kevin Pinne, the flabby, bodily decomposing former English major with the many accents. I tended to keep him in sight for the rest of the expedition, even though he, from our first meeting, was above making eye-contact. At everybody else he looked freely, yet never once during the entire expedition did he give me a direct look. It was strange, though of course it was oddly fitting, too. All I ever saw of him was profiles, fending me off, so his glamor, or rather its withdrawal elsewhere, tended to pull one into his traveling vacuum.

When I woke the ship was lying still, in a foggy mountainous cove where walls of green climbed from the flat water directly into the low cloud-ceiling. A little village was held out on a hand of emerging earth. It was unreal and storybook-like, how still everything was, how steady the few scattered buildings lay in their beds of green earth. For the previous day and night we had traveled through a heavy storm at sea and my seasickness had come back. I had stayed in my cabin watching through the porthole, while walls of water rose, right beside the ship, green hills with suds sliding down their faces like spilling chains. Or, suds sliding wrongly up their faces, while they towered. The hills would rise up and then drop sometimes directly on the deck – then water exploded, everything would shudder, and for a long period, foam would chase and drain everywhere among the deck’s steel facets and hydrants. If I had been out on that catwalk I would have been torn away. All the oval doorways had been screwed shut, with big wing-nuts around their edges. Then the ship’s bow kept aiming for another mountain of water, which might have been almost vertical, except you couldn’t tell, because the boat’s slant canceled everything – the sense of any horizon was lost – so that the face of the waters forgot its original two-part division, established in the Book of Genesis, and the ocean became instead a single punishing mouth of deliverance. I would climb toward my bed. On shipboard, bunks are cleverly sheeted and blanketed, with the blanket lapped deep under the mattress so that the sleeper may abide in a bight held fast by his own body weight. Then when I was awakened by Kevin Pinne’s voice, the boat wasn’t moving. In level water around, mountains of earth stood still. The near ones were green and rounded. I got dressed and packed in one minute, while Kevin went on talking ineffectually below, “Before Nicole puts down a ladder, or even a rope, let her know. Warn her. Let her know about the shortage of women.”

Still, no one answered or put down the gangplank.

“Ahoy!”

I went up to visit the radio compartment, to say goodbye to Matt and return all the books. He insisted I keep the big orange hardcover Manual of Style because he always had extra copies; and also the Fowler book about grammar; as well as his copy of The Sun Also Rises, because I wasn’t finished with it and I could “return it someday in Sausalito.” That’s what he said. And he piled my arms with more cartons of duty-free cigarettes.

Outside, Captain Harrison, one level above the ship’s main deck, was standing at the rail talking down. Professor Charles Grant, himself, was below on the dock. Toward him, a crane was lowering a large box, printed “METEOROLOGICAL – USA – DEPT OF THE INTERIOR.” He looked happier here than in the Anthropology corridor, handsome, sharp-eyed, bald at the age of fifty-something, the skin on his head tanned and lustrous. His beard was thick and brown and well-trimmed, his eyebrows devilishly arched, his smile a dazzling threat. His jacket had a battered military look, with epaulettes. “Come to Papa, baby,” he was saying, spreading his arms wide, while the box, big as a fridge, was lowered to the dock. It was dangling from an iron crane that had the stencilled word “PANALASKA” rusting off its arm. At the end of its cable the box swung. Then it touched down safely on the dock.

He said, speaking to Captain Harrison above, “It’s a University snafu. Just forgive it. Just forget about it.” He started right away tearing up the cardboard flaps.

The captain said, “You suppose it’s easy finding two fancy berths on a little ship like this one. My steward goes out and purchases extra stores. Then nobody shows up.” He made a chewing motion in his beard for a while. “What do you want a weather station for? You’ve got Fish and Game right there on the peninsula.” He was leaning on the ship’s rail holding a mug of coffee.

“I’m building my empire. I know that strikes you as a fraud sorta thing, Ron, from within your particular ivory tower, but we’re accomplishing things down here. See, this here is the anemometer.” From the box, he was pulling out a carton. “Probably it fits on top.”

“So how does it happen two students decide not to come on your expedition, bollocks people’s plans?” The captain liked this topic.

“Those of us who don’t have a ship to pilot, Ron, we live in a more ambiguous world.”

Professor Grant then looked straight up at me, while holding an “anemometer” he’d freed from the carton. It consisted of four spokes, each tipped with a hollow cup for catching wind. He supported it as if to measure a breeze, and told me, by way of welcome: “Your tax dollars at work.”

In my room, I’d stuffed my clothes in the duffel. The gangplank was steeper here than in San Francisco – for some reason the ship was taller, as if more of the hull showed above water. I was able to carry everything in one trip, including the guitar, because Matt’s books and cigarette cartons all fit in the duffel. In the dinghy out there, Kevin Pinne was laying himself out in the floor, to work on tucking in his shirt, while his rubber boat, against the pilings, softly rebounded and rotated.

Captain Harrison said, “Two berths is a lot, for a sailor whose pay is not increased when we take on civilians and the extra stores—”

“It’s a snafu. That’s all. It’s just an error. Lay off it.” He was repacking the box he’d opened. “Ron, you know how a project goes. Always a string of failures. For the pioneer and the innovator, it is always thus. This is the frontier: of course it’s failures. That’s what progress is. Zig-zagging from one expensive crash to the next: that’s what it is.”

“Yeah.” The captain spoke down into his coffee mug. “Looks that way.”

Kevin Pinne – houndstooth jacket, sweatpants, wingtip shoes – was flopping sidewise in the boat to make room for me. It was a raft of gray rubber with the word “Zodiac” printed on its rim: an oval of fat tubing, floored by a plywood sheet that protected the diaphragm of its bottom. An outboard motor was mounted on the rear. Carrying my duffel and everything, including the skinny guitar that rattled back and forth inside its case, I stepped into the boat and sat down fast. Now I had crossed another gap making all the more inevitable the moment when I would have to stand, holding a trowel, on a platform of sacred earth. From those archaeology books I had learned nothing. Even when I studied them closely and underlined parts, somehow I still knew as little as before. All “excavation techniques” were too obvious and boring for words, so that they couldn’t even find a decent place in memory. When it came time to get down on the dirt with a trowel, I hoped to perform the absolute minimum without any obvious incompetence or obvious ignorance, and catch on by watching the others around me. Be a minnow and move parallel with all the other minnows.

“Make one trip now,” the professor snapped. “Come back for Nicole and the others. They’ll be a while.”

So I was in the boat. Kevin Pinne looked like the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Actually, that was an observation Matt Krim began making later, in months and years after these events. But in the undersea coral of my memory, the figure of “Dylan Thomas” has over the years completely replaced, atom-by-atom, the decomposing Kevin Pinne. My version of Dylan Thomas was, like Kevin, tousle-haired, walrus-shaped – sleepy-eyed in a way that amounted to insolence. The first thing Kevin said to me was, in a downstage grumble, “I say. It’s a jolly good thing at least you showed up.”

Professor Grant raised his voice sending it high on ship, where no seamen were now visible, not even the captain anymore, “Do you fellows have the ATV up there? Should be a great big wooden crate?”

Kevin was pulling on the cord that was supposed to start the outboard motor. “This is not the Real Me you’re seeing,” his voice minced everything as he seemed to recite a prepared speech. “You ought to have been fetched by our Aleut slave, but our Aleut slave is now officially in revolt. I’m not really supposed to do anything.”

He was speaking toward the horizon while, in a swirl of the arm, he went on pulling the cord to start the motor, without success, and meanwhile he wanted to know if I was an assistant professor. Or perhaps a graduate student. Because I seemed extremely extremely youngish for an archaeologist.

“I’m not anything.” When asked anything directly, I had to be honest. That was instantly obvious right now.

“I mean at the University of Chicago.”

I told him I was from Chicago, not the University of Chicago.

His response was to marvel, a happy new blur in his eyes, “I see. Yes. The plot thins.” The motor caught. It was running. So he made the boat swivel on the water by a swing of the burbling engine. He sighed, “Well, everyone will be so happy you’re not important! And! You’re so… how shall I say…!” both his shoulders thrust up to his ears. “We’ll have champagne.”

Professor Grant shouted, “It’s an All-Terrain Vehicle,” sending his voice to the upper deck.

Kevin said, “If there were a bottle of champagne on this entire dirty-great wart.”

A voice came from within the ship: “We need the crane on it.”

“Well, don’t drop it in the water, I got it from Westinghouse.” – Professor Grant was bellowing up at the ship while looking, with a grin, straight at me. Hands spread on hips, he beamed. “Willkommen, bienvenue. Glad you made it. Good voyage, I hope? I have an orientation briefing I give. After that, we’ll have a tour of the site. See you back at base camp.” He had no idea what my name was, clearly. “Make yourself comfortable. Kevin here can show you where to bunk.”

Kevin had lain down on the floor again undulating to tuck in a shirttail that spilled over his waistband. While the motor murmured underwater, the rubber boat was revolving. “So,” he gloated, “You will have come for your Wildah-ness Expeddience.”

My immediate concern was that nobody ask about the guitar. I’d arranged the duffel so it would be somewhat hidden, and I sat in front of it. “Yes, right,” I murmured, but Kevin wasn’t paying attention, he was undulating to drag himself up, to take the tiller and get control of the boat, letting his shirt overflow again – it looked like a pajama shirt, flannel and big-buttoned and loose – it was definitely a pajama shirt – and began steering away, toward a path across the water, speaking outward into the wind – he must have already made the one visual assessment of me which would suffice for the rest of the trip – “O, I can’t tell you! What a relief it is, that you’re not, as you say, ‘anything’!”

 

§ § §


“All right. Listen up. I will tell you right now what’s at stake.

“First of all, picture your house and your lawn back home. Picture your yard. It’s your own personal little square. You believe you own it, because maybe the mortgage is paid off. But here’s the truth. Nobody ‘owns’ real estate. Only governments can own real estate, that is, sovereign powers, political entities with weapons. At least more weapons than you got. This is a legal fact of your life. You don’t own it. It’s a legal fact about your backyard. It says so on your Deed of Title. Go home and look at the Deed of Title. The men with all the guns and missiles, they own the land.

“Now, here we are on this island, in the last open space at the end of Manifest Destiny from Europe. Longitude almost one-seventy. Way the hell out. End of second millenium. So, what’s at stake here is real estate. You can call it literally genocide, here. But we’re doing it. It’s us. And guess what. You’re helping. You’re helping destroy a beautiful way of life. More beautiful than yours! Objectively speaking! No joke! Because I’ll tell you. Once we’ve cleared out everything except us, then we’ll regret it. We’ll look around, and it’ll be just us.”

Professor Grant’s well-broadcast voice made me sift back deploying my high school technique: a fallen gaze and absolute stillness. No one so far had said anything to me about my role here. It hadn’t come up. I was being a good minnow. As I looked around, everything was makeshift. This place had been called a church, but it was basically an empty wooden box. There was nothing here. And the little village, where we’d landed, was strung along the shore like a clothesline, with not a single sign. Nothing legible. In the whole town nothing to identify or announce or advertise anything. As if there were nothing special to know about. I was starting to think maybe, at the end of the summer, I would have to be realistic and go back home.

“In fact, I’ll tell you specifically what’s at stake. Now there’s something called ANCSA.” He swung and, on a blackboard, with a piece of chalk, whacked out those five letters.

“This is a bill in Congress. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. You haven’t heard about this. But it’s enormous, and it’s the last great swindle of the originary people. It’s the last, westernmost swindle. Immense unbelievable tracts of earth are going to pass from the status of divine phenomenon, into being real estate. Legally, you possess your backyard ‘in fee simple.’ That’s the term. That’s what it says on your title documents, if you go look, it will say you own a ‘fee simple.’ It means ‘fief.’ It’s a feudal thing. It’s old English law. Real estate is ‘the royal estate’ – it doesn’t have anything to do with ‘real.’ It’s from ‘royal’ – and you’re allowed to be on one little feudal section of the royal estate. Legally, all property reverts to the government. But once upon a time, all property reverted to God or Nature. Imagine. Imagine living inside a concept like that. God or Nature. Your little backyard, well, it’s just a freehold they let you stay on. They fooled you when they told you it’s yours. They’re able to do that because you think small. As a group. You think cowardly. You don’t really want to know.”

I did want to be back home right then, in the shade of the two elms, the lawn chairs with seats of plaited plastic bands, the rectangle nourished on Scott’s Turfbuilder, tender, and also deep, where ice cubes, by gin eaten soft, could be tossed aside to melt harmlessly.

The professor gripped his own breasts, “So what do scientists do, in all this? They help with the genocide. Scientists here dig up old human skulls to prove the native people are just migrants with no rights. There’s oil here, you know. There’s so much goddamn oil. Also there’s plenty of unexploited fishing. Scientists tend to do what they’re paid to do. In this case, we anthropologists are here to help drive out culture. Drive out people. You know, genocide.

“But this was a place,” he ground his palms together and started pacing. “This was a place where people lived a hard free brave life. Yup, sure, free and brave, you’re Americans, you know about free and brave, those are cliches to you. Right? Heard about ’em on TV? ‘Free and Brave.’ Well, in fact, I’ll tell you, you’re a group of suburban white kids. You wanna prosper and succeed. That’s what you want. Prosper. Succeed. Generations ago, you lost the nerve. You’re a rodent population. Take my word for it. You are the problem. There are too many of you, and you’re overpopulating and taking over and you are the problem, and you want to have a nice ‘lifestyle.’ And you’re spineless about it, too. People tell you this and you go, ‘Yap, I guess so. Yap. We’re the problem all right.’ Because it’s a commonplace. Well, what this expedition is doing here in the Aleutians – what we’ve been doing every summer since 1962 – is we are trying to preserve a little bit of what was good. What was quite human. Human in a way you’re not, quite. You’re going to see what I mean, saying you’re not human. I know that must sound like a strong opinion, but you’ll see.”

He had set up a blackboard on an easel in the empty space of the open floor. This was where we would all be living. It was an abandoned church built by the American Army during World War II, of boards and two-by-fours, painted leaden green, or in places left unpainted. Even the pillars were two-by-fours holding up the balcony bedrooms. He had put a few folding chairs out, and he stood in front of us holding a stick of chalk, wearing a shirt with pleated pockets, arms folded in a stance I recognized from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, the tall stance of an explorer who has subdued the planet underfoot. In a teacher’s habit, he addressed a populous space above our heads. The canceled interns weren’t being mentioned – but this did feel like a too-thin congregation for this lecture.

“At one time, twenty thousand Aleuts lived on this whole island chain. Today there are less then nine hundred. And the few that are left are discouraged. And sorry. And largely drunk and eating Spam. And wearing crappy Sears parkas and looking at Playboy magazine, wishing, you know, their women were that unbelievable. But patience, humor, frugality…” He started pacing up and down, watching his own boots. “Forbearance. Love of family. Love of children especially. Those were the virtues of a people who lived for thousands of years on these rocks. And humor, especially humor, lots of humor. No trees! Did you notice? No trees! Just think about that. There is no source of wood here on this rock in these winds. So imagine a pre-metallurgic technology without any wood. Or only bits of driftwood and logs from the Japan Current. And pre-ceramic! Cedar and pine are over on the peninsula. They basically lived on a windy beach. The main materials came from marine animals, bones and skins and organs, bird skins. Hey, sneak up on a bird sometime. These people lived here, here in this place, in an intense way you don’t. The suburbs isn’t a place. The suburbs is nowhere. It’s a big abstraction you live in. Or sleepwalk through. You all live on impatience, and envy, you live on envy, and, well, these Aleuts were very patient and very generous and very alert, in a way you can’t imagine anymore. Every piece of driftwood that came their way, every fishbone, had a use and was cherished and enhanced and improved. You even use your urine for washing and curing, in there, inside your barrabara all winter. You save your own hair for decorative weaving on the border of your sealskin coat. We’re talking about a profound human culture based on a thrift and an elegance you will never know about anymore.”

Kevin beside me whined softly in his sleep, “Professor, tell about the see-through gown.”

He seemed not to hear, his eyes piercing imaginary distances. “Or imagine this. Imagine a raincoat made entirely of seal-stomach membranes. It’s completely transparent. You can actually see the fisherman’s body right through it. And imagine a wooden hat, because wood was so valuable. Imagine an actual hat carved from mainland cedar in a bowl-shape, decorated with fine bird-feathers. That’s what the hunter wore, when he went out all by himself in a kayak to slay one of the big sea-monsters out there. The kayak, that thing is made of bones and skin. I mean bones. You know? Bones? And driftwood? You ride in it, and your life depends on it in the surf, and it’s made of bones, like the bones you personally ate the meat off of. The kayak is as finely put-together as a violin. Just like a Stradivarias. The skin on this thing is stretched so tight it literally rings. You tap it and it goes bong. The joints are all sealed with, like, blubber, like, sticky-stuff they would render down from seal fins in a pot. So you sit in this thing, with your legs out straight. You made it yourself by your own fireside, and you have to go out in the big ocean in this thing. Nobody’s gonna rescue you. There’s no Coast Guard anywhere. So. Your friends literally stitch your coat to the rim of the kayak. Then they seal the seams with more of the same stuff. So you’re sewed down to your boat. So now you’re one unit. Now you are a marine mammal. Now you’re equipped. You don’t have claws of your own, so you’ve carved some claws of your own. See, technology is mythical. Myth serves as science-and-technology. To kill a beast, you have to be a beast. Like really be it. Like, no foolin’. You’re the beast. This helps you have courage.

“And then your friends pick up the kayak. They pick up the kayak and they carry it – with you in it – they carry it up to a bluff over the ocean where the water is deep enough – and they throw you into the water. You and your boat, together. They throw you in. Into the swells by the rocks. You’ve entered right into the myth. So you can go harpoon a thirty-foot whale. I’m talking about waters where the riptides – the tides here! – Jesus! – nobody in this expedition is allowed out on the water alone – because sometimes you’ve got the whole Pacific Ocean trying to pour into the Bering Sea, and all that water gets combed through these islands. This dotted-line of islands acts just like a comb. That’s how it catches debris. So you’ve got tides here where sometimes a standing waterfall just appears in the middle of the sea. And tidal whirlpools. They suck you down. Well, these Aleuts could pilot a sealskin baidarka through that kind of churning. They did it all the time. They lived out there. Nowadays, what they’ve got these days – what they all prefer! – is one of those little aluminum skiffs with an Evinrude. And workin’ for the white man. For a twenty-dollar paycheck. The cannery’s right over there. When they don’t work, they—” he was making a gesture like having sticky fingers – “I mean, the traditional steam bath in a village will be littered with butts and cigarette filters, where they all get tuberculosis, and candy wrappers. This used to be the most elegant culture, all made out of ivory and birdbones and beachcombing debris. And patience. And humor, wonderful humor. These people knew how to have a good time. Their stories! In school, you’ve probably been forced to admire the – what – the Iliad and the Odyssey, and you’ve been told to admire Homer’s humaneness and Homer’s cleverness and Homer’s insights into human nature. But you have no idea. Humor was of course the warmth and the glue that made life possible in this incredibly arduous place. It was incredibly finely developed. And now it’s going. The westernmost Native people of America. In the deepest wildness. This was always the most forbidding extreme.”

He paused. His nose chuffed. “I look at you.” He let his eyes fail and turned to face his blackboard.

In the silence, Kevin Pinne cleared his throat, disrespectfully.

The audience was mostly just us newcomers. Kevin had already heard the lecture, but claimed he could never get enough of it. Also present were a pair of graduate students named Gutmacher and Schoonover, who had been on the island for a month already and were planning soon to go back to the University of Washington. Their only job seemed to be counting seals, at least that’s how they were introduced. As soon as Charles’s lecture was over, they were planning to go across the island to a place called Summer Bay, to count more seals.

Elsewhere, also, were two other members of the expedition: the cook and the wilderness guide, named Tom and Arlen, who met us when we first arrived. They’d already heard the orientation lecture, more than once, and, unlike Kevin, didn’t need to hear it again. So they had gone around the island to catch a salmon for dinner.

“Therefore…” Professor Grant went back to pacing up and down, petting his beard. The masculine life-obstacle of facial hair, the ham-shape of forearms, the tympani voice, the extra meat at the belly, all were a future I supposed I would be able to avoid, by some miracle staying always reedy as a boy. “…Therefore, let me tell you what’s at stake specifically.”

He turned and started writing on the blackboard. When he finished he stood back and looked at it – the name Hrdli^cka.

He pointed at the name, “Human skulls. In the nineteen-thirties Ale^s Hrdli^cka went around here on Smithsonian money finding a great deal of evidence – archaeological evidence – that the Aleuts were a warlike, grubbing-around, backward, violent people invading from Mongolia. That’s what the Smithsonian was paying to hear. That is the traditional view of originary peoples, that they’re all backward, and that we white people are closer to the angels. Well, the native people had this spiritual integrity in ways European people will never get back to. Which maybe is largely why they got run over.” He turned to the blackboard, and, with windmills of the arm, started to sketch big colliding continents.

“The Pacific hemisphere. Here’s North America – with Alaska – and over here is Russia – Siberia, the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Japs. Here’s the Aleutian Islands, flung out like a string of jewels. Blop. Blip. Blop. Now. Everybody agrees, the Mongoloid ethnic features of the American Indian are basically straight out of Asia. Cheekbones, eyes, epicanthal fold. However, Hrdli^cka believed they came across the land-bridge, way up here at the Bering Strait, hacking and killing and burning and driving species to extinction, so he finds a lot of skulls to prove this. I, on the other hand, want to preserve the possibility that populations were diffused, by a longer, more gradual process, of gradual island-hopping here on the Aleutian chain.”

Silence. He had paused, glowering, arms folded high.

Then he swung around and started slashing with his chalk. “The other problem plaguing Aleut archaeology is—” He wrote on the board, beneath Hrdli^cka:

POTHUNTERS

Then he underlined the word twice. “Idiots come in here hunting for souvenirs. They’re called pothunters. They dig around in registered archaeological sites which are protected by the State of Alaska and protected by the federal government. This is a sacrilege and a desecration. They rip off stone oil-lamps, and harpoon blades and even human bones. People like this have destroyed the record. These people are the bane of archaeology.”

Kevin made an intimate squirming motion toward Nicole, and whispered, Here comes the Cyrillic alphabet. – Nicole behaved like a professional. She made no sign. Didn’t even incline her head or adjust an eyebrow.

“Now,” the professor said. He turned and began working at the blackboard. “I want you to memorize this. It’s the alphabet in Cyrillic script.” – He was putting the Russian alphabet up on the board, each letter with a corresponding letter in translation.

Having predicted this, Kevin closed his eyes and let his head fall forward, chin on chest.

“We are extremely close to the Soviet Union. Soviet reconnaissance trawlers and submarines have been known to prowl these waters,” he went on speaking while he wrote. “If you have any run-ins with Russians, you need to be prepared. You need to be able to communicate.”

People shifted in their chairs: the little audience was re-knitted in a new, looser way, while the professor’s back was turned.

“Also,” his voice lifted against the board’s powdery face, “Russian became the language of the Aleuts here, transliterating using the Russian alphabet. Russians came here first. They wanted pelts. The Aleuts were so gentle, and so generous, they had so little acquisitiveness, it was still customary for them to share their wives for the night with visiting guests! The women got swapped around all the time! There was no possessiveness. It was paradise. So you can just imagine. The Russians ravished all the girls and killed all the men. There was one Russian commander, right here on Unalaska, who wanted to determine how many humans a cannon-shot could travel through. So he experimented. He lined up Aleuts in a row and fired a cannonball through them. Not just once, but over and over again.”

“I have a question,” said Nicole.

“Wait a minute, Nicole,” the professor said, and he turned back to the board and went on writing the Russian alphabet. “I’ll leave this alphabet posted here. The corresponding phonemes in the English alphabet are here in this column. At your leisure, you may copy the characters down and memorize them. You’ll find plenty of Russian words derive from Greek and Latin roots. And plenty have English cognates.”

Still writing, he said, “All right, Nicole. Question.”

“Of the skulls found so far on this island, how many are dolichocephalic?”

He kept on writing and didn’t answer.

As the silence went on, her gaze lost its insistence and she looked down at her notebook. The notebook’s page was blank. I, sitting beside her, just kept very still, because dolichocephalic might be something I would be expected to know. I didn’t even own a notebook.

At last, having finished the entire Russian alphabet, Professor Grant turned, clapped chalk dust off his palms, and said to Nicole, “This is a query deriving from Dr. Tremanian’s course in ethnology.”

Nicole seemed angry. She was looking down, making a kiss-shape with her lips.

He said, “I should explain for the benefit of the uninitiated among us. We poor pathetic anthropologists. We actually have to go around with calipers, for measuring people’s heads. Living people’s heads. Isn’t that pitiful? You know? Calipers? Like big tongs? ‘Dolichocephalic’ means long-headed. As opposed to ‘brachycephalic,’ which means broad-headed. It’s a ratio, of longitudinal to latitudinal skull-diameters. Well, the long-skinny-headed people are the warlike people Hrdli^cka found the skulls of. What we have here,” he poured one hand toward Nicole, “is an enemy in our camp. Fundamentally, it’s the traditional Hrdli^cka view. The traditional Western view is that the lives of original native people are ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’”

She answered (while going through the gesture of standing up, closing her folding chair, and leaning it gently against a 2-by-4 pillar), “I don’t want to oversimplify, but right now I’m going to go unpack.” She walked across the open floor of the chapel.

The building resembled a church only in the interior peak of the ceiling, where rafters showed, and in the row of tall windows on one side. Stripped of pews, the whole floor was an expanse of dusty wooden boards. At the head of the room, where an altar might have once been, was an open kitchen. A narrow second-story balcony ran high along one side, accessible by an exposed staircase, leading to a few upper doorways, where people’s bedrooms would be. I had my own room up there. The walls upstairs were unfinished, black tarpaper stapled to wooden lath and studs. My own bed, where I had already laid my duffel, was a rack of wire coils without a mattress. Nicole climbed the stairs and went into the doorway next to mine.

Having watched her climb the stairs, the professor said, “That’s enough for today. I’ll conclude the orientation tomorrow.” So it was over. Gutmacher and Schoonover were instantly standing up to trudge toward their appointment with the seals in Summer Bay, while the professor went on, “Our excavation team is trimmed-down this year but nevertheless tomorrow we’ll go out and visit a site or two. So until then, you’re all at liberty. Get some rest after your journey. Explore the perimeter. Accustom yourself to the long subarctic day. Now, if you have any other questions, this would be a good time to ask. No, the Aleuts no longer share their women as a form of hospitality. They are all devout Russian Orthodox Christians now. So I can head off that particular line of inquiry. Paradise is long since vanished here. Are there any serious questions?”

Silence. This was the moment I might be called on. I stayed motionless.

Terry Smale, raising his hand like a student, said, “I wonder, how many Aleuts does it take to stop a cannonball?”

The professor turned and began erasing the blackboard, but preserving the Cyrillic alphabet. “Let’s not take an unseemly levity, Terry,” he said.

“Really. You mentioned it, and I’m serious, I’m curious.”

Kevin Pinne joined him, “Oh, I’m sure it was at least a hundred.”

The professor said, “No it was not a hundred,” speaking with distaste for this whole enthusiasm. “I don’t want to get into it, just take my word for it.”

“Ten?” Kevin started the bidding. “More than ten?”

“How did they make ‘em do it?” said Terry. But he had turned to ask Kevin, instead of the professor. “Would they line up? Like, ‘Hey, you. Move a little more to the left.’“

“Somebody had to hold them still, naturally,” said Kevin.

“Wouldn’t some guys wiggle out? Or at the crucial moment, dodge? That’s the sensible, natural thing to do.”

While this debate livened, Professor Grant left – crossing the floor to follow his angry mistress upstairs and try to make amends, strumming his chalk-dusty palms on his pants’ hips, touching his little finger to his tongue, using a dab of moisture to model one eyebrow, then the other.

 

§ § §


I’d made it this far without being called on. And I had cigarettes, which could make me look serious as well as occupied. And after the lecture I was sitting outside smoking, on the church’s wooden front steps in tall grass, when a skiff came across the bay carrying two people: a man at the tiller and a long-haired boy sitting in the bow looking captured. It would be the Aleut boy, the one who was supposed to help with excavation. When its keel ground to a halt in the gravel, the boy didn’t get out but sat there on his aluminum bench, while the man – who I thought must be his father, a worried-looking man – seemed to upbraid him. The boy looked unrepentant. The outboard motor went on bubbling below the water’s surface while he talked.

At last he stopped talking. The boy, turning away from his father, said something, apparently something bitter. Then he hopped over to the shore and stood there. His father – with some kind of muffled complaint that looked like it involved the f-word, eyes down – made the skiff swing around and he gunned the engine, so the boy was standing alone on the shore.

The event had brought the others to stand within the doorway. Kevin told Nicole, in a murmur, “That’s Andy. Andy has an attitude problem. The statistics are, he’ll commit suicide or become an alcoholic.”

She played deaf to that remark. She knew all too well about the statistics.

The boat disappeared around the point. He’d stood there till it was gone, then he came up from the shore and picked a place to stand, an odd spot at a certain distance from the church gazing away at distant snow-streaked mountains, aware he was being watched, his Aleut features set in an intimidating smooth stoniness, a mane of hair like a woman’s, so black it was purple in its depths.

“He has to haul firewood for anthropologists,” said Kevin. “He’s been colonialized.”

“I would kill for hair like that,” said Nicole. “Look at that. Literally, I would kill.”

They both watched him for a while, from back inside the doorframe behind me.

She answered Kevin, at last. “—Those statistics aren’t so much here. More on the mainland. And he’s fortunate, he went to that school in Sitka, didn’t he? He’s a lucky one.”

I asked Nicole, over my shoulder, “The statistics?”

They both watched Andy for a while. Then Nicole explained, “Now the women are all the wage earners.”

The professor had come to the door. He said, “Not all. It’s just some families can’t afford a trawler. And Panalaska’s right there.”

Then he spoke up louder, “Afternoon, Andy,” and he broke through, coming out, “Feeling ready to work today? Everybody, this is Andy. Andy is absolutely indispensable to the expedition. I don’t know what we’d do without him.”

The boy said something too quiet to hear. He was still standing off away from the church showing a side of his face half hidden by hair, his features relaxed, his eyes weapons at rest. Professor Grant asked him to repeat himself. The boy said something else equally indistinct, but obviously the professor had no intention of hearing.

“Fortunately, your only job is to haul the wood. How ’bout it, today? A lot of the kids around Dutch Harbor would consider this a pretty fine opportunity.”

He didn’t say anything.

“When is your father coming to pick you up?”

He didn’t say anything.

“Are you aware that any boy in Unalaska would consider this a privilege?”

Everybody watched while he started limping downhill tapping one elbow against his side, heading for a pallet on the shore. It was heaped with twisted branches and broken old lumber. That was the firewood. It’s what he was supposed to start hauling.

The professor came back up and, in passing, dropped a heavy hand on my head. “He’s just your age,” he told me as he went back inside. “You’ll have fun.”

They all started filtering back inside, leaving me.

Kevin said in leaving, “He’ll be a help for you on the excavation.”

I didn’t want to sit there watching, so I went inside, too, up to my room. It would always be wisest to avoid looking conspicuously useless, and luckily I would have a room of my own to go to. It was dim in there – it would be dim always, because there was only the daylight that came from the door. And, oddly, no door on the hinges. So I wouldn’t exactly have privacy. No electrical outlets in this room. I had my flashlight if I wanted to read. As a way of setting up housekeeping, I opened one end of my duffel bag and shook all my things out. However hungry I might be, I didn’t feel entitled to ask about food.

Nor would there be any television in this place. No glassy green mystic oval. With an incredible lack of foresight, I hadn’t thought about getting along without television. After my clothes were dumped out, one thing I could do was work by the light of the doorway – so for a while I sat on the mattress springs memorizing the Russian alphabet. Which I had gone back to copy off the blackboard, onto a blank back page of the Hemingway. Hours lay between now and dinner.

Since I didn’t hear anyone nearby, I crept over the floor and I unchambered the guitar and I set it in my lap again, the light wooden thing with its bolted-on hardware. I had managed to get it up to my room without anybody remarking on it, or even noticing it. Unamplified, it wouldn’t be audible. My finger pressed a string on a likely-looking fret. My thumb plucked: it made one flat segment of sound. This musical instrument wouldn’t reveal its secrets, and I didn’t know how to start asking. I put it away. And knotted the cord again around its case. Then for a while, in The Sun Also Rises, I read about the protagonist Jake Barnes’s fixed contempt for the foolish trivial people that surround him in cafes, and I envied him, I envied his, or maybe Hemingway’s, arrival at disappointment and uninflected contempt. I couldn’t have that yet at sixteen, but it seemed something to look forward to. I came back outside only after I’d heard the outboard motor – coming up to the shore to pick up Andy – then departing again around the point.

 

§ § §


It used to be, when Andy lived in Anchorage with his mother, she would send him out for beer. Later on, if you reach a certain age they won’t sell it to you anymore. Those were fine days: too bad he didn’t realize it at the time; because those were the best. When he went with his three dollars to the Alaska License Outlet, he was protected on the road by a story. This was a story he only learned later in life, but it protected him anyway.

Once there was a chief who killed all the boy babies. Only girls were allowed to live, to hunt with him, to wash him and keep him warm and bring him pieces of meat. But there was one mother who gave birth to a boy and hid him. She hid him in the reeds, where he grew up, and later she dressed him as a girl.

When the chief reached under the boy’s skirts, he found he was a boy. So he invited him to hunt birds. But the mother prepared him: she gave him an eagle skin, and the boy put that eagle skin on, and he practiced by himself. When the chief took him hunting, the chief pushed the boy off a cliff, but the boy used his eagle skin and flew high above the chief. He flew far away and picked up a big pelican in his talons, and he dropped it into the barrabara of the chief, and he told him, “See, I have brought you meat.”

The chief then invited the boy out on the sea to capture a whale. But the mother prepared the boy: she gave him the possibility of a sea lion, and again the boy practiced. When the chief took the boy out in baidarkas to hunt whale, he tried to push the boy underwater. But again, the boy put on his sea lion. He swam deep down and captured a whale, and brought it back to the village to drop it into the barrabara of the chief, saying, “See, I have brought you whale.”

Then the chief was angry. But the mother had provided the boy with an ulu. When the chief attacked him, the boy cut off the chief’s head. After that, he lived with his mother all his days, until at the end of his life the cold came for him.

 

§ § §

 

At the end of that day I was waiting for dinner time, sitting outside again on the wooden stair smoking Matt Krim’s Benson & Hedges cigarettes, trying in general to look both competent and, at the same time, indisposed. Down along the shore two figures, Nicole and Kevin, sat on a boulder talking like old friends. Which was what they’d been at school – until Kevin dropped out and went to live in San Francisco. When they’d met that afternoon at the shore-landing, they’d collided with cries and then immediately vanished together into confidential talk. Now on the boulder at the shore they sat close together, Kevin speaking with flights of his hands, while Nicole listened. They seemed to be discussing the events of his life in San Francisco, treating it all as sad. They were happy. It made me feel unnecessary here all the more. My physical presence, my inevitably being in everybody’s way, might be hard to sit still for. Clouds of cigarette smoke, sucked ex nihilo from the paper tube, could seem to have a magical effect of passing me to invisibility.

Dinner was still a long way off. The two who’d gone out for salmon, Tom Sample and Arlen Petitta, hadn’t yet come home. The professor called them “the support personnel.” Arlen, the wilderness guide, had said there was a stream he knew about, where salmon were so big and plentiful and languid, they could be batted up onshore with a stick. So before the orientation lecture got started, they went off, along the beach carrying a narrow strip of plywood as a weapon to hit them with, and a burlap sack to store them in. Now in the late sunlight, I could see them coming back together, one short and one tall.

I’d wondered if I might fit in with “the support personnel” but I had to be realistic – there wasn’t much hope of that. Arlen was maybe in his mid thirties, a professional guide, short in stature, sharp of eye, faded in appearance, an actual bona fide resident of Alaska, a bachelor. He had been asked on this trip because of his knowledge of the area, though in fact he had never been on these islands before. Tom Sample, taller beside him, was a Vietnam vet who had just been discharged, and seemed to have come on this trip because he wasn’t doing anything else. I liked him right away. When we all first met, on the church threshold, he took a step back and held up his palms as bumpers and happily warned everybody that he was on this trip “strictly as chief cook and bottle washer.” Clearly, his way was to thrust cliches between himself and the world, and clearly, he would add a sibling harmony to the expedition, a gladness to work along with a judicious slipperiness in escaping it, and a wise tolerance, virtues that had maybe been stamped coin-like on him in the army, a sociable ability to slide around friction-free. He announced, “Mox nix, that’s my motto. It’s German for ‘No Big Deal.’ People used to say it when I was stationed there.” In the army he’d been a cook, and in packing a basket for salmon-fishing, he moved like a short-order cook, around the church’s kitchen in baggy military fatigues tucked into his boottops, swinging around the galley as if it were a gym, with a hooked momentum, in a way that made Kevin Pinne, for his part, pointedly stay out of the kitchen.

When the two of them reappeared coming up the beach, Arlen was carrying the sack where a heavy salmon was hammocked in burlap. He was short, but his stride was vast. Tom, taller, hurried to stay alongside, carrying the fish-killing weapon, the plywood board. I was still sitting on the front steps, and beside me was a lashed-together bundle that had come over in the rubber boat: When Arlen saw it, he said, “My stuff. Yay.” He handed the burlap sack to Tom, and he knelt to start picking and unwhipping the cords, to let a pair of rifles fall out on the ground, along with clear plastic zip-bags of books and maps and socks. Old shirts with quilted linings. Binoculars. A plastic Baggie of minuscule dried bones.

The last he explained, “Hobby of mine.” With a knuckle he poked the bag toward me where I sat, while he repacked. (We’d been briefly introduced but that was the extent of it.)

“Do you carve them? What are they?”

“They’re fish hooks,” he said. “They’re raven pelvises. These ones here ain’t finished. There’s a glue you can make after you tie on the gut. It dries hard and shiny like a varnish. This little thing’ll hold a big old friggin’ halibut. ’Course I could buy fish hooks, but,” he shrugged.

A metal rifle-part lay at my feet where I sat – which I picked up and handed to him. It had the tickle of an inner spring. It was the ammunition magazine probably.

“Won’t be any shooting on this trip.” He was stuffing things away. “Ain’t no game on these islands, except for fox and some tough old caribou maybe. And the eating from the sea is fine. We can get some caviar off this girl.” With a garotte-like yank of a cord, his pack was sealed again. He stood up. “That little store stocks cream cheese and Ritz crackers just for the salmon roe.”

People had mentioned, there was a store. It was somewhere on the Dutch Harbor side. Which I was glad to hear of. It was something. Maybe there was candy, maybe a Mountain Dew. I had some cash, $80, and making purchases was one ambition I could have, in this otherwise embarrassing place.

Arlen picked up his pack and said he should get cooking, while he went up the stairs. Kevin and Nicole were coming up the slope from their distant boulder. They shared a flush in the cheeks, belted loosely together by their secrets, or their gossip, while they climbed the slope in the grass – and then up the stairs – past me, falling silent, sorting to single-file. I waited for a minute. Then I came inside, shunted by my portable cloud of smoke.

In the kitchen at the far end, Tom was saying, as he stirred the big fish under running water in the sink, “Oris orbicularis. That’s the name of Charles’s sailboat back home in Belmont Harbor. Know what it means? It’s the kissing muscle. Oris orbicularis is a circular muscle around the mouth that lets you kiss.”

“Gluteus maximus man myself,” said Arlen, dropping his pack in the corner. “If it’s personal favorites.”

Kevin inclined to Nicole’s shoulder and murmured something, and with a thrill of revulsion she slapped him away and glared at him. Later that night, while I lay in bed in the dark, I heard Professor Grant enter the room next door, sit down on the mattress there, and screw up his voice to ask Nicole, “How… old is Kevin Pinne?” His bootlaces whipped and clicked as he raked at the knots.

I stayed still. The two bedrooms were separated by tarpaper stapled to two-by-four studs, in some places wooden slats, and in some places plaster, rough and unsmoothed. I imagined that, in 1945 , a soldier was plastering those walls just at the moment when World War II was declared over, so he put down his trowel and went outside. Near the floor beside me was a rectangle, small as a shoebox, where only tarpaper came between the two rooms. The professor and Nicole had no idea. Everything they said was clear enough to make out, especially if they spoke in an area of their room near the black paper membrane. It was an arresting responsibility, that maybe inevitably all summer I would hold the office of eavesdropper, like it or not.

Nicole answered about Kevin, “He’s twenty-three, twenty-four, basically.”

I lay still in my sleeping bag: a bedspring might twang. I had spread out my two terrycloth towels between myself and the wire basketry. But the springs would always be tense like a musical instrument.

“Sweetheart, I’m very open-minded” said the professor. “I’m very free-minded. No one could ever accuse me of being in any way illiberal.”

“He’s a dear friend, and he’s going through some personal issues. You’d be surprised.”

“Since I arrived, I’ve been afraid to ask. Like I’m running a safari, just for him. This is U-of-I money. I had to lie and cheat and grovel for this money. What is going on in his life that, at the age of, realistically—”

“I’ll be responsible for him.” Nicole popped the buckles on a suitcase, then unzipped an inner pouch.

“What do you mean you’ll be ‘responsible’ for him? He wears makeup.”

She was putting things away. They had a shelf in there, made of two cardboard boxes, stacked. She said, “That’s Clearasil.”

“Yeah. Clearasil is makeup.”

“No it isn’t.”

“And the weird way he’s constantly falling apart. It’s alarming. He looks like an unmade bed. And he rolls his eyes.”

“He does not.”

“Well, he’s about to. He’s on the brink of it.” Then the professor’s words were hidden, because of a scraping noise of Nicole’s dragged suitcase, “How long does he intend to enjoy this trip? I mean, when will he go home?”

“Charles? You know something? You used to be so sophisticated.”

“Yeah, back when I had a job.” He was getting into bed, thrashing blankets around. “Now I’ve started saying unsophisticated things. Something I notice.”

Nicole said, “Well, he’s enthusiastic about helping dig. He’s not going back. He gave up his apartment.”

“Oh sure,” said Charles.

Then his voice rose up, “To be here with us? He gave up his apartment? So those are his worldly belongings. Oh great. He’s a drifter. He’s a rolling stone. What is he going to do? Nicole, for Christ’s sake, what are his plans? He’s going to be an Alaskan now. He’ll go out in the Brooks Range and live on—”

“Charlie, you don’t know the first thing about anybody, and then poof.”

“Does he think he’ll live in Anchorage?”

She didn’t answer.

He went on waiting while she went on not answering. She wasn’t going to answer. For her, he had gone past some point.

“Listen, I cannot afford to have someone like that on this trip going through an identity crisis. Now I see he’s a homeless drifter.”

“Wonderful. Well, you’ve got it all figured out, so then let me ask what is she doing on this trip. While we’re on unhealthy dependencies.”

The slithering sounds of disrobing, or else putting on night clothes, were coming from Nicole’s end of the room. Charles responded by muttering, something I couldn’t make out.

Then she got into bed with him. Their mattress was inches from my ear, next to the tarpaper weak-spot in the wall.

“I’m asking you,” she said.

“Her husband hasn’t been working out—”

Then nothing was further explained about that. In a minute, the professor spoke with a whole other kind of unhappiness, “I see, you’re really armored against – against all my – what’s the word when you’re trying to sweet-talk somebody?”

“You bet I am, Professor Grant.”

“Is this how you’re gonna be every night?”

“You were saying, about Cristie Smale? You were saying Terry hasn’t been ‘working out’—?”

He said, “I guess I have to get used to you not trusting me.”

“In what sense was Terry ‘not working out,’ as a husband?”

“You’re all wrapped up like a package for shipping.”

After a minute she prompted him again, “Terry.”

“‘Terry.’ Back home he’d hit some kind of wall. He was working for his father-in-law, Kalamazoo, Michigan, working in his father-in-law’s car dealership. Okay? They thought they’d get outta town. Get away from the in-laws. And you know: make a go of their marriage. Neither of them actually believes there are teaching jobs in Dutch Harbor. That’s a pretext. They thought they’d throw themselves at life. And that’s not a bad thing.”

She said, “You know about their arrangement with Child Welfare. One drink. Bang. And he loses custody of their daughter.”

He hesitated. “I guess she told you. You and she talk.”

“And you notice Terry. He seems constantly on the verge of a binge. Combined with the fact that, here she is with you. The poor guy. He must know.”

“Oh, phsh, Nicole, you know it was years ago. Student-professor affairs, phsh.” In their sleeping bags, he was somehow working his body around. “Which, I wish one would happen right here and now, Sweetie-bean.” At my listening spot I dreaded the inner steepness.

She said, “If anybody there has my sympathy, Terry does.” Her voice was subsiding, wanting to go to sleep, the sleeping bags rustling. “I mean considering. I mean all this way.”

“Let it rest. Relax. Now you’re here with me. Now I can at least pretend. Lemme just dream now. Lemme just put my hand here in the wilderness, the mouth where there is no central tongue to speak – Now who’m I quoting? – the bell lacking a clapper that cannot ring…”

“Charlie, stop right now.”

“Oh, yeah. Imagine. The satyr of Lincoln Hall. You don’t know about middle age yet, sweetheart. Something ethical happens.” He was rooting in his pillow getting comfortable. “Isn’t this place great? This church? Got beds, got electricity, got a gas oven. There’s a little Franklin stove we could hook up. Got a convenient shoreline. Last year it was tent platforms in Summer Bay. That was dreadful.”

“When Cristie lived in a trailer park, did you promise her the house on MacArthur Loop?” She was teasing him, but joylessly. “Is the Satyr of Lincoln Hall that obvious?”

“Ugh,” he answered. “Ruth gets the house. Always. I don’t promise my casual girlfriends the house. And now listen, Nicole, that day when I said that, I obviously mean it as a joke.”

“I know, I know you didn’t mean it. You never mean it, you’re so transparent. But jokes are never completely jokes. You’re always ‘just joking.’”

He had no answer. He sighed, “Well, Cristie’s not a fool, and I may seem like an asshole and even wish I could be an asshole, but unfortunately…” Something now had made him angry.

“Okay, I take it back. Zip zop. See, I never said it.”

He had rolled to the wall so his voice was aimed right at me through the tarpaper, inches away. On his own side, probably he would be seeing strips of wooden lath. He observed, remotely, “…Every town has a MacArthur Loop. The equivalent.”

“I came out to break your fall, remember? I take it back.”

“Every little town,” he said. “Or big town,” he added. “And anyway, Ruth would deserve the house. You girls didn’t put up with me all these years.”

“Poor Ruth, yeah. She earned it. Here. Where’s the rest of the pillow.”

“Mmm, poor Ruth.” His voice mopped around the lower registers, “Poor me, rather.”

“Have some pillow.”

“Poor me ‘cause I had the work of turning her into a monster all these years, at peril of my soul.”

“You know, that makes a slight amount of sense.”

She seemed amused and also impressed. She said, “Charles, she wasn’t a monster. Isn’t a monster.”

“Hm.” He thought about it. “The raw material was there.”

She said, “You’re ridiculous, Charlie. It’s a good thing I’m here.”

“You girls are just a matter of somebody I can pester. That’s all.”

“With your ‘monsters’ you’re exactly like a little boy running away from home. Every summer out here. Poor Ruth.”

He said, after resettling his head in the pillow, “…but that raw material is in everybody.”

“Charlie, you can’t be turning people into monsters.”

“‘I’m perfect. I’ve been fattening her up. She always got everything, whatever, paintings, house, things, friends, opinions. I, by being absolutely perfect, I’ve been fattening her up. She could just break off at the stem naturally. At this point now I’m an annoyance to have around. Yes, house, of course, yes. She’d be a lot happier, believe me. What guys generally do. Wander off and expire.”

She held her peace for a minute, then said, “You’re not expiring, you’re just ridiculous.”

Once more he was wrestling his pillow around. From their tones of voice, they might be going to sleep now.

He said, “Is that water in there?”

On my side, I understood little, and it all sounded so faithless and mistrustful, but the fact was, somehow I loved it, I loved their tones of voice, a kind of warmth of insult which, however, presumes a forgiveness, and a tender chest-resonance. I had never heard anything like this before, not in Wilmette.

Then they put out their electric lantern. In the highest tarpaper, pinhole stars winked out. This was the frustrated twilight that would be the Alaskan night, and I was alone, alert in the vacuum, within a whole new universe, a universe of betrayal and deceit and illicit rapport, a universe apparently navigable, navigable by specific applications of humor, or of a mysterious local forgiveness. Next door, it was staying quiet.

But then Nicole seemed to grind against the bed and she moaned, “For Christ’s sake, Charles. I don’t know.”

“What.”

“Do you get this cynical from the Department all these years?”

He thought, then he said, “In fact, I’m the opposite of cynical.”

Nicole said, “You’ve got all these people out here now.”

He thought about that for a little while. “Yeah. Who knows,” he said. “Fuck ’em.”

That wasn’t much of an answer. She went on waiting.

He added, “I’m not going back, you know. I’m staying.”

I thought she wasn’t going to respond right away.

Then she joshed him, “Oh. I see. You plan to become a Beast or a God.”

“You haven’t been a middle-aged man yet, as I say.”

“Is this the Native Claims legislation? Is that what this is?”

“There’s going to be a big meeting this month right here. Including all the villages. This is my reason for being here. Don’t make little groans. Once again, historically, babe. Now I’m the only man who sees it. I’m the only man in the whole scene who wants to prevent this, basically, ‘treaty.’ These people trust the U.S. government. So there’s going to be a meeting. Big tribal meeting here, right here in Unalaska Village. It’s in three weeks. And I’m going to explain it to them. This is the last place. Literally. In fifty years there will literally be Burger Kings and McDonalds here, literally. You think I’m crazy. But it’s no joke. You’ll live to see it.”

“—Okay, I’m going to tell you something,” Nicole’s voice became both sharp and patient. “That’s an excellent kind of pursuit, Charles, but I believe in a little balance. A little moderation in all things. I mean, a scuba consultant? You’ve got a scuba consultant coming up? Well, how much does he cost? When he gets here, he will certainly feel lied-to. A lot of people’s lives have started to revolve around this.”

Charles said, “You know I’ve got to have the spectacle. It’s the Department. And the expense. It’s just a necessity. And he needn’t feel lied-to. You never know. He might turn out to be the perfect guy. Not everybody is a tight-ass. The perfect guy would have a sense of adventure, and be willing to go outside the rulebook, and probably be young. And he’d have to love the place. This place. Such people exist.”

Her silence was unconvinced.

Charles rolled himself deeper in the blankets and he said, more muffled, “Well, I didn’t expect a sermon, Nicole. I thought you only came out here to – I had this picture of you being, like, my nurse and aide and concubine.”

“I’m predicting.”

“…while I go into romantic ruin, fighting the windmills, fighting the big bad windmill of them all.”

“You’ve involved some people.”

“Who cares. Nobody happened to show up for digging this summer, except little-old Wilmette. Anyway, so I’m going to do one thing, I’m going to prevent Washington DC from buying Alaska once again. The ANCSA meeting is next month. It’s the last piece of the real world. Hey. But go to sleep now. Go to sleep, my ice-queen virgin. You’re going to lose me. I’m going into my death spiral. Lucky for you, us winos are impotent. Put your cute bottom here.”

She was quiet for a minute, then she said, “Death spiral is right. This scuba diver is getting – what.”

Grimly he agreed, “Yup.”

“And people like poor little Cristie Smale.”

“She’s smart. She’s smarter than you think. Don’t think ‘poor little.’”

“Oh she’s smart,” said Nicole.

“Come on. Sleep. I’m glad you’re here. Now just cuddle.”

Nicole lay still without answering. Then, “Jesus Chr—,” she softly muttered, trying to get comfortable in bed, “—st.”

She was giving up.

But there had come a new diplomacy in her tone: somewhere in this conversation, she had hit against something she hadn’t foreseen.

“The girl’s got faith, and the husband thing will work out. She’s going to be another little spear-carrier, Mary Magdalene-type in my Passion Play, as you call it. Remember at Pentwater? Now goodnight, sweetheart. I’m so glad you made it. You’re the best.”

In an adaptive nuzzling they seemed at last to agree to fit together into sleep. It was quiet.

Then, with an indignant yip, she made a stung, fish-out-of-water leap, “Charlie. I’m moving to a separate room. I’m getting out of here right now.”

But she didn’t. She just slapped and punched her pillow together. And then they did seem to try to sleep. On my side of the wall I went on listening, shining in a deep twilight where the stars in the tarpaper had winked out, sleepless now, because of a new sense of responsibility distributed mysteriously everywhere.

 

§ § §


On that first night, the salmon was cooked according to a recipe of Arlen’s, roasted on a lot of spongy moss that wasn’t supposed to be eaten, sprinkled with something from a mountainside plant. At home, if fish was ever on the table, I would have a bowl of macaroni as my special personal portion. But now here I was.

The sink was deep and made of cement, and Arlen laid out the dead fish, as long as an arm, and cut its belly open, lengthwise, throat to anus. I stopped watching when two huge long orange bladders inside – which lay alongside all the digestive and fecal parts – were gently scooped out.

Arlen said, “Wait, don’t go away. This part is your job.”

It was no good pretending I hadn’t heard, and I drifted back in the general direction of the sink.

“These are the eggs. You’ll love these.”

My work was set up at one corner of the central table. This table was a big expanse of Masonite, which plainly, all summer, would serve everybody’s every use: working or eating or socializing. I was outfitted with a bowl and a scrap of rusty chicken wire mesh. The two large bladders were as orange as candy. When their outer skin was slit open, the thousand eggs were freed, each little egg traveling in its personal small glob of mucus. But they tended to stick to the membrane, and that was where the square of chicken wire was useful: for rubbing. When I scrubbed the membrane gently against the chicken wire, eggs fell into the bowl through the big open hexagons. It took forever – the eggs dropped only one-by-one – and I had to go slow because it was easy to pop/squish individual eggs. Which was an appalling, sinful, unforgivable waste.

I did finish the work of separating all the eggs, but in the end, that night, I was able to avoid eating any of them. As an appetizer before dinner, served with Ritz crackers at the opposite corner of the big table, it was popular and disappeared fast, and I was able to keep my distance from it without anyone’s noticing. People were all standing around it, and I sat at my own far corner of the table and I lit up the occasional cigarette like somebody who was occupied with smoking and didn’t need fish eggs.

But when the main course came, I was far from home, and I lifted my little tin fork and pried apart the inter-nested flakes of flesh, the color of the Chicago sky in a cold winter sunset. The fishy taste had been somehow cooked out of it. Actually, an unavoidable vigor came through. It gained some flavor from the story that came with it, a story retold and enlarged at the dinnertable, that the fish had been hard to kill. After it had been knocked up on the bank, it pounded and kept squirting from the fishermen’s hugs – “strong! like a big thigh muscle!” – and when it started banging its way uphill into the grass, they threw big rocks at it and kept missing. A billion years of ocean water had whittled it to this purity. Supposedly it wouldn’t die until after several minutes of embraces and blows from the fishermen with their sword of plywood. It was brought to the table with a steamed, celery-like vegetable from the slope above the church, which had to be carefully peeled, because its outer skin would sting and blister the mouth. I avoided that altogether. Also, with every meal, there was going to be always either rice or potatoes. A big bag of each leaned against the wall.

When dinner was over, everyone sat around the table in the harshly lit space. It was one big room, illuminated by bare lightbulbs with metal gooseneck conduit running everywhere in the rafters from WWII. There were a couple of empty chairs, because Gutmacher and Schoonover were late – then before the food got cold, they did come back from their day-trip and they sat down and shoveled it in without speaking much. They had been counting seals all day. Counting seals, literally just counting them, was Schoonover’s reason for being on this island. Nicole asked,”They look so much alike, how do you know you’re not counting the same ones over and over? I mean, field biologists!” she said in awe.

Schoonover’s answer (without looking up from his plate) was that, in fact, he was double-counting the same individuals much of the time. That wasn’t further explained. They just kept filling their mouths with food. They had to get their rest because the next morning they were going to get on a boat to cross to another island, to count more seals. Kevin Pinne asked, “Do you count them out loud? Or silently under your breath?” The answer, from Gutmacher: “Out loud. Always out loud. It’s a rule.”

“I believe I saw a guitar,” said Professor Grant. “Our young friend here brought a guitar. Would you like to play a few songs for us? We’re all going to need a break from Simon and Garfunkel.” For Simon and Garfunkel – and The Band – were the only two cassettes on the expedition.

I said, while almost blacking out, “I don’t play for anybody.”

It was one of the first public utterances I’d made, and there must have been authority in my speech, because people didn’t ask again. Dinner was mostly over, though the two seal-counters still ate. Arlen Petitta sat sideways in his chair, picking his teeth with a splinter. Professor Grant, who seemed to have brought up cases of wine, was subsiding behind a coffee cup of purple juice that stained the inner porcelain gray. My own Cristie, her brief body, moved around clearing the table, and the traditional motions of plate-lifting – stretching to sort through air, extending a swimmer’s reach toward a distant platter, standing one-legged, or on tiptoe between chairs on a floor-space as small as a bathroom scale – these common rites all elevated her above my sordid love and made her truly somebody else’s wife in my eyes. I’d receded almost comfortably to an irrelevance, in the arctic sleepiness a child again, full-stomached. Nicole Powell, sitting beside the professor, acknowledged my presence by bumming a cigarette from my pack. It made me feel included. She held it up distastefully while it smoldered. She bounced taller in her chair, so her legs were clipped together beneath her, and she pointed with her cigarette, toward the pair of rifles leaning in the corner with Arlen’s pack. “What do you shoot?” she said.

Arlen kept picking his teeth. Notches in his face darkened. It took him a minute to answer. “Not much. I mostly miss.”

“Probably grizzly bears? I’ve never understood this. What is the pleasure?”

His toothpick finished work on one tooth, then moved on to the next. He said, “Alaska now, you get off lighter for killing a man.”

Sensing conflict, I stayed melted in place, pretty much as always.

Tom’s voice came from the kitchen, “Than a bear, you mean.” He was at the big trash can scraping salmon skins off plates. “Didn’t they kill all the grizzlies in California? So they’re extinct? But it’s the state mascot. There’s a picture of a bear on the state flag but it’s extinct! So whaddya-know!”

In the lull, Arlen said, “Californians, yeah, they’ve still got plenty of black bears. Black bears are pretty things. Very different temperament.”

Nicole said, “The people who hire you, are they coming up for trophies? I mean, is it recreation?”

Arlen didn’t answer.

“So what do you kill? I know, I know. Supposedly it’s a sport. But that’s a machine gun over there. It’s got the side-thing for bullets.”

“It’s a semi-automatic.”

“Oh, ‘semi-.”

Arlen said, “You got a wounded animal suffering, you’re pretty much both in trouble.”

“The rich Texans and Californians, then. They just come up to – get something stuffed at a taxidermist.” This wasn’t an assertion, she meant it as a question.

Arlen got up and walked to the corner where his pack and his rifles were. He knelt, gathered them all in his arms, and stood up, then he walked off, toward a side room behind the kitchen, which was his bedroom, separate from the others. As he went, he said, “I’m not accustomed to having to explain anything I do. Especially—” he added, but then didn’t finish. “Good night, everybody. Thank you for the dinner, Tom. It was excellent.”

He went around the corner and closed the door of his room.

There was a general silence. Nicole cast her eyes up to the ceiling admitting that was probably tactless. Schoonover and Gutmacher, both chewing, seemed secretly amused, eyes dancing. Arlen Petitta had some separate status on the expedition, symbolized by the remoteness of his bedroom, or having to do with the fact that, as I’d been told, he was the only one who was paid to be here.

Cristie’s husband Terry was leaning in the kitchen doorway, and he levered off the top of a beer bottle, with a pop. From watching this small conflict, he had gained some kind of joyfulness. “I guess we’re in the Wild West now,” he said, and he drank from the bottle.

Cristie was looking at him, however, with a new defenselessness.

He toasted her with the beer bottle and said, “Come on, babe. There’s no alcohol in Budweiser. Look.” He took another big swallow. Then lifted both arms to display himself: not one bit drunk.

She didn’t say anything but looked down at her hands.

His wrist wiped his mouth and he whined happily, “Oh, lighten up. Relax. Get used to it. It’s the Wild West from here on out.” 

 

§ § §


In the earliest days, before there was an Aleut, the first whale condensed from the cold, because that whale’s mother was the first warm place in the ocean.

He was lonely and he wanted a woman. So he came out, he came onto the land, and he walked over all the islands. When he found a woman, their first baby was the mosquito, their next baby was the otter, their next baby was the raven, the next baby was the fox, the next baby was the seal. When that woman conceived an Aleut, she bore it too soon. Still she washed it and wrapped it in a soft mat and gave it her nipple. But that Aleut bit. It had no eyes or hands, because she had borne it too soon. However, it talked and talked and talked. It talked so that she, the mother, was annoyed with it and ashamed of it, so she covered it with rocks. Then the next baby was a good baby. They said the first baby would not rest. It still talks and talks, even yet today, when you go by there, in those rocks, you can hear him talking. So people don’t go near those rocks. But all the babies thereafter were good babies.

 

§ § §


In the morning, the orientation continued, this time “in the field.” The professor was going to take a group of us to an excavation site. It was Nicole and Kevin and Tom; and me, making an effort to hide within that crowd; because at this point, I would be discovered as a fraud and a liar and a danger to important artifacts. Or else, maybe, people might have already seen my ignorance, as well as my lying about it, and they were already knitting everything around it. I held myself back from looking at anything directly. They would have to feed me and keep me, anyway. Because here I was.

The weather was soft and wet and green when we set out. It was true that there were no trees. All over that island, a mossy lichen grew along with a dense cabbagey stuff, springy underfoot, sometimes in layers so thick and deep, it offered the feeling of walking on a trampoline. The islands all around on the flat sea surface heaped up in strange ways, green clouds on a misted mirror, land masses that interlock, then part, then reclasp around the forgetful hiker. On faraway volcanic mountains, permanent snowfields shone in a remoteness where a vast distance is strangely intimate. This peculiar land arrives underfoot from past geologic ages. Charles said, “Now you’ll see what we call a kitchen midden,” striding ahead in his khaki shorts, the buttocks of a scoutmaster. I hung back carrying the burden of a smoldering cigarette, sustaining a general look of quiet patient expertise. Charles said, “We’ve been working this site for several summers, on and off.”

He stopped in his tracks. He lowered his center of gravity.

“Oh, look… There… Aleuts foraging for sea urchins.”

A boy and a girl were crouching by a tidal pool, both dressed from the Sears catalogue, both wearing heavy horn-rimmed eyeglasses.

Charles spoke softly (and it was the mellow sentence of a narrator in an educational movie): “Inside the prickly urchin, Aleuts traditionally find a sweet salty marrow, which they eat raw and consider a great delicacy. Ah, look. See? They know we’re watching and they’re embarrassed. Look. They’re ashamed of the old ways. It’s always like this with white observers.”

The kids, with a glance over their shoulders, got up and went down the beach. But the professor raised his voice. “Don’t be embarrassed. Urchins are good. They’re very nutritious.”

They were escaping around a point of rock. The rest of us followed while Charles pursued them, around a big boulder. The rocky shore ended there, as if the tide was in. So they were trapped. He asked them, “Finding any urchins?”

They stood together, holding hands – then they ceased holding hands and stood separately, under arrest. Charles said, “If you find any, my friends here would like to taste some. They’ve never had urchin. Don’t think we believe there’s anything ‘better’ about American food. The old subsistence way is much better. Spam and Swanson Dinners and Jeno’s Pizza Rolls. Bah! All unhealthy.”

The couple’s eyes flickered up to him. They weren’t sure he wasn’t joking. The girl looked puzzled but the boy had a tendency to smile. At last the boy rubbed his forehead and remarked, with now a tolerant frown, as if he’d scolded Professor Grant about this before, “You brought more archaeologists.”

“I know you kids!” Charles said. “This is Peter and Nancy Krupotoff. Am I right?”

“I’m Anselm. Peter is my cousin. This is Anfesia Semenov.”

The professor turned, “All Aleuts have Russian surnames. The original Aleut names are lost. It’s the same thing we did to the African: take away the name, then rename everybody George Washington. It’s worse than the enslavement. Steal the original name and you take away their connection to the earth itself. Each of us could go back to some unique place – somewhere back in the mountains of Europe or Ireland or Cornwall or someplace – and we could find a village and we could point at a spot on the ground. I mean we could point right in the dirt, and say, Here. My name starts here, meaning My flesh starts here, too. But the Negro and the Aleut, no.”

He indicated the boy and the girl. They were instances.

Both kids then made a bow, to begin parting. Holding hands again. “It’s nice to meet you,” Anselm said. He turned to go away. Anfesia, who was smaller, curtsied. In her tall rubber galoshes with jingling buckles, she made a skip of merriment catching up to Anselm, whispering something to him. Anselm for his part trudged along unamused by whatever she’d said.

Charles watched them go. He said mistily, fondly, “At any rate…” with arms folded high.

Then he set out again, his stride uphill. The rest of the group followed. I brought up the rear, with my cigarette. Kevin was gripping Nicole’s elbow, hissing, “Could it be? Jeno’s Pizza Rolls? At that little store?”

“In abundance, I’m sure.”

“Why don’t you have a Swanson Dinner party with that hunter?”

“Arlen? Oh, yes, fuck you, Kevin.”

“Solitary hunter? Brute? Out here? Bachelor like him? And don’t think I didn’t recognize – “

“Oh, no. No witchcraft-sorcery here, Kevin. Simply because you’re falling to bits. I’m going to have Charles on my plate. I’m not prepared for one of your little dramas.”

“Notice!” Professor Grant spoke generally into the spaces ahead, “As we leave the littoral zone, notice how the soil changes. Notice the bands of volcanic activity. You’ll see these cuts. Now, here’s more of the emptrum mat. Kinda like muskeg. Muskeg is a boggy soil phenomenon peculiar to the Arctic. In places, it’s been known to swallow tractors and tanks and buildings. Of course the Corps of Engineers had no idea how to build, and there were many famous snafus during the war. Much of the airstrip kept sinking.”

Kevin held on tight to Nicole’s elbow: “Crab has been suggested for tonight. Why are we eating crab when we could be eating Swanson Dinners? Let’s go to town. Look around. Do some shopping. Get out of the littoral zone. Have a drink at The Elbow Room. Stock up on frozen food.”

“Kevin, you’ll get sent home.”

“I’ve said I’m willing to dig. I’ll dig. Why don’t we all dig? The poor man seems so—”

“Not me, not in a little post-colonial midden.”

She’d started lowering her voice, because the professor was standing ahead waiting, among three shallow pits. This was the excavation area, and it wasn’t mounds at all, which was what I’d pictured, it was more like three neighboring golf-course sand traps. They looked like they had already been dug through and churned up in other years, then rained on a lot.

The professor’s arms were lifted wide, holding the whole landscape, and he said, “Wherever there’s a midden, you’ll find the vegetation is unnaturally lush and green. The old Aleuts threw their garbage here. You might say this was ‘out back,’ for them. It’s simply a trash heap. So the soil is richer. In here, you’ll find whatever was discarded from an Aleut kitchen over the centuries. But, as I’ve said, they were careful with their resources and didn’t discard much.”

I was staying quiet, but I happened to be standing a little apart – and Charles turned to me demanding, “What’s the first task?”

“Well,” I said, my voice breaking up mature tar phlegm of Benson & Hedges. I brought out the one thing I knew: “You need a compass. So you can show north on your diagrams.”

“Precisely. Right you are. Yes.”

I carried on, “And remove surface vegetation. Being careful not to pull up any roots that go below the surface.”

“Excellent. From now on, you are in charge of the dig. Everyone here is to take orders from you. You hear that? Everybody? This here is the excavation boss on this site.”

All the older people didn’t protest. All around, I recognized a withdrawnness of gaze.

The professor went on talking, far beyond the ringing in my ears, while I stood in the sand-trap, bodily a fraud. At that moment my whole personality felt like one of those impossible theoretical shapes turned inside-out in geometry. I had seen it in the big TIME-LIFE picture book called Mathematics: a simple sphere, peeled-back from its navel, could be somehow pressured into popping out of ordinary space and reappearing in the Wrong dimension as an inside-out naked bubble. While everyone started hiking back to headquarters, I felt obliged to walk nearer to the professor, now I was the boss on the site. The others straggled behind and I could hear them talking back there – about what might be in the freezer-case at the village store; about whether music cassettes could be bought there, because all they had in the church was the “Bridge Over Troubled Water” album and one cassette by The Band; about the possibility of going swimming; about whether the Panalaska fishery in town ever hired people for part-time work; about the cannery where Aleut women’s fingers get cut off. I had to stay walking ahead with Charles, who was describing the digging tools left over from last summer. Which he said I would find in a closet behind the kitchen. Then I could assign various tasks, or work by myself – whatever I wanted to do. I needn’t consult about anything, he said. I could just dig to my heart’s content, all summer long, though I should bear in mind that if I wanted to get off the island and go home, that would have to be arranged before the end of summer, because travel would start to get more difficult with the weather. From now on, in that one midden out there, I could handle the excavation any way I wanted to. I needn’t come and bother him about the details.

 

§ § §


The next morning, everybody had an excuse for not helping on the dig. To write a letter, to sleep late, to go across to the harbor. It was an insult to my new authority but also it was a relief. I didn’t want to give orders or be the boss.

But there was one person who was willing to go down in the trench with me, Kevin Pinne, though the sight of me continued to repel his vision. When I came downstairs he had been awake for some time, moving around the kitchen packing a picnic of cold salmon, and a small portion of the professor’s white wine, which he was decanting into a lidded jar while the professor was outside. Sensing me by his third, all-seeing eye in the back of his head, he greeted me with the remark that this little drizzle outside was bound to let up soon.

I, in the center of the open room, stopped at a heap of archaeological tools, obviously put there by the professor. I bent down and picked up a camera – Kodak, mud-daubed, encased in snap-on black hide, with a dented aluminum bowl for reflecting a flashbulb. There were other things, all shedding the dirt of some other year – a coarse sieve, an oven rack, a can of barbecue lighter-fluid, a shovel and a pick, brushes, stakes and twine, a plastic Tyrannosaurus rex that was dusty as if it had been buried, polyethylene sheeting, trowels. All in a big cardboard box. The camera was so dirty, it looked like it, too, had been underground. I knew from my books, real archaeologists take photos of everything, having laid a special yardstick alongside. In this camera’s chamber, crumbs of dirt rattled, and there was no film.

Tom appeared from his bedroom, in his undershirt and khaki fatigue pants walking blind, stiffly barefoot, toe hoisted off the floor, scratching himself under his shirt. Kevin and I both watched him while he headed like a sleepwalker toward coffee. He intersected with the equipment on the floor, squinted at it, plucked the blade of a shovel with his extended toe, and and moved on past.

“You can’t come,” Kevin told him. He was moving rings of pickled red onion, from a huge tin can into a Baggie. “You’re not invited.”

“Where?”

“The excavation.”

“Yeah mox nix. I’m easy.”

Kevin’s remark seemed to waken Terry Smale, who was face-down at the table. He lifted his face from his forearm and looked back and forth between me and Kevin. “Just you two?”

“Jealous?” said Kevin.

Terry laid his head back down. Cristie hadn’t come down yet, and so a plain Michigan light was missing from the room. I was standing at the heap of archaeological equipment in the middle of the floor. Before the open fridge Kevin squatted, and he complained, “No capers?”

Terry said, “Can’t go,” speaking down into the pool of breath on the table within his forearm. “No capers. Can’t go.”

“You’re not invited either. Scientists only.”

Terry sat up, and he took hold of his coffee cup. “Expedition out without capers. You’d think the National Geographic Society could come across with a few bucks.” 

Tom pointed out, “We don’t have National Geographic money.”

“No but we will,” said Terry with menace. “When Charles Grant, Jr., finds a golden samovar, we will. And then? Capers! Capers up the wazoo! Right, Kev? Am I right, buddy?” He got up from the table and moved to the kitchen counter, making Kevin edge guardedly, while he went on tucking the lunch together. Terry Smale in fact wasn’t particularly “meanacing” but Kevin’s way of giving him space made him seem so.

“Am I right? It’ll be capers and champagne after Charles Grant reaches into the mud and pulls out a shiny Russian samovar. Or else one of these seagulls flies over and excretes a golden samovar directly on Charles Grant’s head.”

“Where is the professor?” said Tom, sensing insubordinate talk.

Kevin looked up and focused a grief-stricken look in my general direction and told me, “…I hope you don’t like mayonnaise.”

“Me?”

He turned away to a cupboard, “Whose thermos is this? I’m taking it. It certainly is filthy.”

“Gutmacher and Schoonover’s,” said Tom. “They’re in Lost Faith Bay. They won’t care.”

Kevin opened the basket and started bedding the lunch away inside. I was still standing over the heap of digging tools – there was no coffee to pour, because Tom was making a fresh pot. For a while nobody spoke. In a tableau, Tom made coffee, Kevin packed lunch, and Terry leaned on the counter sighting down through his coffee cup, which was pressed to his sternum. Somehow he could seem drunk, even when sober. Tom, at the coffee pot, spoke, “What is the problem with the Aleut boy? It looks like not one single stick of firewood got moved.”

“He’s disgruntled,” said Kevin. “White people stole his ancestral land and then enslaved him to a professor.”

“There’s some genetic thing there. Is he a hunchback?”

“That’s not a hump, that’s just bad attitude. His mother was Japanese, actually, and his father was from here.” Kevin put down the mustard jar and directed his comments at the room’s distances. “He is an Outcast From Every Race. She died in Anchorage in a clinic. So poor Andy is an orphan. Plus being marooned here. Nice life. Why did God make poor Andy?”

Tom guessed, “So those are his relatives. He lives with.”

“Shall I tell the True Creation Myth?” Kevin sang. “In The Beginning, There Was Europe. And Lo, It Came To Pass That Europe Wanted A Savage, Because Europe Was Without Form. And Void.” He lifted the picnic basket and slid it up his forearm and patted its handle there. “Well! I’m ready.”

I was still holding the dusty camera. My body radiated irresponsibility. In fact, I was preoccupied with digesting Kevin’s series of pronouncements – he was sometimes incomprehensible while yet brilliant –  a fascinating and somehow opportune person to have met up with.

Kevin said, “Don’t you want to wear a jacket? It’s damp out.” – I got a glimpse of Cristie then. In her bedroom door she appeared for an instant, checking on her husband out there, and then she vanished again in a wife’s twilight, oh, a wife’s twilight. I put the camera down and headed back to my room. I needed to put my boots on, and get out my waterproof poncho.

Tom, who could see out through the open front door, said, “—And speak of the devil.”

There was Andy outside, standing by the water’s edge, where a light rain was drifting down on everything making things shine. Professor Grant stood at a distance from him, talking to him. But Andy wasn’t responding, simply looking down at his feet, or else away over the water.

Nicole came up the steps and in the front door, lifting off her wet canvas hat. “Well, he’s here again. For another two hours of inaction. Good morning, everyone. Kevin?” she said. “Kevin, where are you going?”

“Where am I going?” Obviously he was going somewhere, dressed in his poncho, carrying the basket. He swung one forearm up on top of his head and rolled his eyes. “We’re in the Aleutian Islands, darling.”

“I know we’re in the Aleutian Islands.”

“A certain amount of scientific research has to happen.”

“Well but Kevin,” she said.

“I thought, rather than fart around uselessly, this is an opportunity to shed a little light on mankind’s shared past. Scout’s honor. I’m an archaeologist.”

Nicole just kept looking at him.

Terry Smale, on the bench, had finished his beer and was sitting with his back against the table, his arms draped out to left and right, to open himself wide as audience.

“Archaeology,” Kevin told him. “She likes to think I’ve sworn off archaeology.”

Nicole walked off to the kitchen, giving up.

Kevin said. “It just comes over me sometimes. I have to get down and start excavating.”

Charles came walking in the front door. He threw some coiled rope and other things on the floor and explained, “He’s going to hang out there on the shore again for another two hours.”

I could see Andy outside at the shore sitting down on an old concrete footing. Meanwhile I was putting on my own poncho, trying to get its childish side-flaps snapped together. Nobody spoke while Charles crossed the floor.

Tom Sample said, “Why doesn’t the boy’s father make him work? He comes over here and stands around.”

Charles said, “He’s just feral. That’s not his father.  Cyril – Cyril Kiroff, the step-father, is a prominent citizen. He’s very well married here in Dutch Harbor. His wife is a Mershenin. The Kiroff family,” Charles finished, grimly, “is devout.”

“But he’s supposedly smart, though,” Tom said.

“They tried a school in Sitka, and it’s true, he’s good in English. I complimented him on his English, and you know what he said? He said, ‘Yeah, now I know how to say “fuck you.”’ Which I find rather witty. He’s not going to get another chance at that school. Who made coffee?”

“Let’s go,” said Kevin, pushing the picnic basket up his wrist.

My poncho was on. I picked up the box with the equipment. With a shovel clipped under one arm, I followed Kevin to the door.

Charles watched us leave. “Where are you two going?” he said.

“Excavating,” said Kevin, preceding me out the door.

“With him?” Charles asked Nicole.

“What am I? The mom?”

So we were leaving. Somehow, with these people, it was inspiring, it was like some kind of television family, I’d never been in an environment like this – all their insult was affection, or even admiration: I was buffeted on all sides. I’d started to feel myself, though marginal, yet also somehow cherished here, disposable while yet indispensable and central. Kevin was already outside and I followed. The “Aleut boy” had gone down the shore in the opposite direction, there to wait for his ride back home. Kevin talked ahead in the drizzle. “And Lo, Europe Wore Big Wigs. And Europe Walked in the Bois de Boulogne. And Europe Saw That It Was Good.” He was performing for my audienceship, obviously, though still he never looked at me. We were going off as amateurs to an actual archaeological site. It was beginning to feel like nothing mattered here, and things might work out fine.

 

§ § §


When we got to the site, we dropped our tools in a pile in the rain. The excavation itself was all sandy hard mud. For the first time now I could see something: that archaeology would be uncomfortable. And also that it would be tedious. Kevin seated himself on an old shelf of dirt, and by a lot of plucking motions he spread himself around, saying: “Good thing I left back my canary spats.” Then he said, “So. What are the Young People thinking these days? I always like to stay in touch with the Young People. What’s The Latest Trend?” He was looking around at the sky, drumming lightly on his knee with his fingertips. Standing in his general field of view, I made an appreciative sneer that meant Ah, yes, the irony – the pathetic irony of The Latest Trend. I happened to be leaning on a shovel, and I screwed the tip of its blade in the ground. 

“I suppose you’ve got a Girl Back Home?” he said. He was still scanning, looking away in a direction where there might be a visible slice of the sea.

“No,” I said.

“No? Really? Nobody to Play Doctor with?”

“No!” I repeated in a grin more strangled. I was idly spearing the tip of the shovel into the soil – probably crushing valuable artifacts – so I stopped that, but then I went on doing it anyway.

“Well now. Let’s see. The only thing that’s known about you is that you say you’re not going back home. That is pretty fascinating! What could cause such perversity? Wilmette is a perfectly fortunate little place. No Shadow of Misfortune ever penetrates north of Rogers Park, or at least Evanston. What could cause a boy to Leave the Nest?”

I shrugged, chopping the kitchen midden with the shovel blade.

“Let me tell you something. There are layers to people. What people need is to be phlegmatic. And stoical. That’s what you need.”

Maybe I’d done something wrong. I stopped hacking at the sacred earth.

“Ah, it’s so hard,” he wailed. “It’s so difficult. Well do I recall this period! Really, stoicism is the only thing required. You won’t be anyone for a long while, and you need to be phlegmatic about that. Don’t you find the Oceanic Boredom coming over you sometimes?”

“No,” I said, while having no idea what was meant.

“Doesn’t the Meaninglessness of Every Passing Minute torture you?”

This I understood. With the shovel blade, meanwhile, I kept on idly disturbing surface-level culture.

“You are in love with Cristie Smale, I notice. It’s pretty obvious. The maid in distress.”

“No I’m not,” I lied. I reversed the shovel – to examine its blade and rub at its tip with a finger, mending a nick, which required close concentration.

“It’s the only interesting event right now. But you can’t have her. Sorry. Not that she’s not available. She just isn’t what you want. What you want is an interval of play and pleasure that is completely inconsequential. ‘The Self Infinitely Replicated.’ Rather than ‘The Encounter with The Other.’ And there’s nothing ‘Wrong’ with that. Do you think there’s anything ‘Wrong’ with that?”

I sneered appreciatively again. He was unanswerable – everything was a rhetorical question, the way he seemed to talk in movie titles.

“Ah, well. Too bad. What a disappointment.”

I’d flunked somehow and an anger had arisen. He said, “When you look what she has done to her unfortunate husband.”

“Cristie? What she’s done to him?”

“He’s not an alcoholic. All you people! Maybe the girl is Working Out a Relationship With Her Father? Who can say? We certainly do like to inflict miseries on the people we reproduce with.”

I of course tended to disagree strongly – and with a certain amount of authority, as I’d been observing Terry and Cristie from the first days on the ship – while also I did my best to be fluted by a whole new doubt.

With my shovel I speared at the dirt.

“Now, from my vantage point,” – he flopped his head, looking at the sky, while his mind seemed to get stalled in some huge defeatedness. We were out there in the drizzle, both with our poncho hoods up over our heads. Attacked inwardly by something, he dragged the picnic basket onto his lap, lifted the lid, and began occupying his attention by rearranging things inside with a gardener’s weeding grasp – “From my vantage point, to me it’s all very clear. Cristie Smale is not ‘hard-hearted’ but she is efficient-hearted. Her heart is in excellent condition to outlast us all. You’re just an example. Of a very Wrong-Headed Boy with no Observation of Human Nature, your own or anyone else’s. It’s a myopia, and you’ll pay the price all your life. That’s your fate. I’m sure you put mayonnaise on everything.” He sighed, to his depths. Mayonnaise was a grave intractable difficulty.

He went on, “Her father is the largest car dealer in that town. I’m sure he’s a Small Town Gangster, figuratively speaking. Looking at her, I say to myself, ‘That girl has Big Father.’ If you can’t see that, well then! Poof! Perhaps it will all become clearer to you when you Enter The Fray one day in some lowly form. Right now you’re still a sleeping prince. You’re a virgin, aren’t you?” He was looking upward, “O, god, sometimes I see myself! Sometimes I see myself as purely an abstraction. I’m a Genie Inside My Little Bottle, Unvisited All These Centuries. Okay, all right. I’ll tell you the story of our two Escapees.” He put aside the picnic basket, and, with a visible cramp, began plumping royally, to work his body around to face the sea – “Basically, she and Terry have a little two-year-old daughter back in Michigan. They have lost custody of her temporarily.”

“Oh,” I began contradicting him, while also glad to be hearing this. Because a daughter did get mentioned. “I’m sure if there were a daughter, it would have come up.”

“The daughter is in the custody of Cristie’s parents. Her name, believe it or not, is Desiree. Here is the story. Back in Kalamazoo Terry went through a period of being a drinker of canned beer—”

Kevin was a constant spectacle, arranging his poncho better by a splashing of his flippers, tossing to new positions, always adjusting, so that it felt impolite to keep looking at him and I picked up another tool, a trowel, and squatted down and did a little bit of scraping archaeologically at the soil. According to him, the key to Terry Smale was that he was a Spoiled Prince. At home he had been a treasured boy with an overprotective mother, a high school athlete in a small town, a Trophy of a Golden Youth. But to all his mixture of charms, marriage had added a Final Catalyst, turning him leaden, worthless. Married, he was unambitious and unemployable, Protected Only By His Utter Carelessness. His last employer had been his father-in-law: Father hired him as a redundant manager at a car dealership. It was a last-ditch kindness. At the car dealership, he played solitaire all day, on a coffee table in the showroom’s front window. His climactic escapade – the cause of their Emigration to the Frontier – was to plop down at his desk one afternoon, drunk, and place telephone calls to all the competing car dealers in town, inviting them all to a great Business Luncheon, where he wanted to announce a plan to collude with them, to fix new-car prices throughout Kalamazoo. When one of those car dealers pointed out it would be illegal, Terry ranted over the phone about a spineless fear of innovation.

That was just the sort of mistake the father was waiting for and he called an excellent child custody lawyer. Also, the judge in the case was the father’s friend. The result, now, was that this judge had forbidden Terry to see his own daughter: not until he had been sober for a period of one year. But Cristie was being loyal. The judge was requiring her to send a letter every week to the Michigan court, vouching for her husband’s sobriety. Desiree was to remain in the grandparents’ custody during these few months of testing Terry’s mettle. “So the Smales,” said Kevin, “have come up here to Begin New Lives and get away from Terry’s friends. Friends are an evil influence. Also, Alaska is widely known as a good place to give up drinking.”

During the telling of that story, as if soliloquizing, Kevin had dragged himself from the dirt ledge and reared up in an unstable mermaid stance that looked out to the water. The Bering Sea was out there. The Boring Sea, he liked to call it. That sea hid the actual North Pole, somewhere right out there, behind its convexity. The perpetual olive twilight of the planet’s birth. We were actually in a flooded mountain range, dreamily. Kevin added, with a sudden venom completely inappropriate, “But people who have no observation of the world around them – are fated to go on leading limited pointy little lives.”

I preferred to think myself out-of-range of that weird remark, irrelevant in my sand pit where I was hunkered down supposedly an archaeologist, scraping with a trowel. There were a few wooden stakes in the box, for stringing off the site, but instead I thought I might go ahead and just start digging. Then supposing I did come across something, I could set up the stakes and twine and start making little area diagrams.

Kevin said, “…speaking of whom.” In the east, Terry Smale was approaching. I stayed where I was, squatting with my trowel.

Terry didn’t speak but walked past – not lurching like a drunk – rather sauntering, almost slithering, in slow-motion, with an excess self-consciousness of his own panther-like grace – drawing up to the rim of the next pit – where he unzipped his pants, lifted his shirt high to suspend his unexpectedly round, hairless potbelly over the edge, and started peeing, into the adjacent archaeological site. With both hands he held his shirttails up under his chin, like a bib.

Kevin had clambered down to join me, in this our pit, and he tightened his mouth in a show of disgust.

While he peed, with his back turned, Terry began singing a song, out toward the Bering Sea – gripping his shirttails up high at his neck, elbows out – to the tune of “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” mincing the notes, in little sobbing yips like a country-western singer –

    I hung my hog…

    In San Fran––CIS!––co…

Getting to the end, he was gyrating his hips to make the last drops whip in the air. Kevin closed his eyes securely and laid his fingers on my wrist: “We just won’t excavate in that area.”

 

§ § §


But I wasn’t shocked. I wasn’t insulted or worried. I thought it was funny – it was funny, and I was glad for the anarchy. It was clear, those particular middens were probably unimportant and the professor had put me there only to be rid of me. Some digging had once been done there evidently – there’d been shelves cut in the dirt, since eroded – but this summer the only thing the professor cared about was Native American claims to the land. The next day, in the morning, he came back from the village in the rubber Zodiac and beached it at the shore without thinking to tie it up. With his fists opening and closing at his sides, he strode stumbling up the slope to the church, to where Kevin and Nicole and Tom and I were sitting by the front door. “I hate shit like this,” he said and he seized a corner of the wooden crate, causing Tom and Nicole to hop off it, because he was going to start rocking it. As if to push it over and break it. The intent wasn’t clear.

People had been breakfasting peacefully and now backed away holding their cereal bowls and their toast crusts, to stand around this wooden crate while the professor shook it. It was the box the all-terrain vehicle had arrived in. The ATV was something he had persuaded a corporation to donate, on the understanding that he was testing it for them; it was still inside there with the seals unbroken. He pulled and pushed but it was heavy and it only rocked on its uneven ground, and he said, “Somebody help me get this thing on the boat.”

“Charles, wait” said Nicole, “it’s worth something.”

“I absolutely hate shit like this.”

“…The meeting didn’t go well,” she guessed.

In the village, he had met with some visiting delegates from the Alaska Federation of Natives. Later that morning, when asked to explain the professor’s temper, all Nicole could say about it was a vague summary: I think nothing especially horrible happened: they just disagreed with him, and Charles isn’t accustomed to that. And they may have treated his views a little lightly, meaning disrespectfully. These are new times.

Charles stopped trying to rock the crate, but he kept a grip on the corner. He said, “They’re all thinking like a bunch of assholes, like they’ll get their ANCSA money and they’ll get – whatever – Cadillacs – and off-road vehicles and drive over the muskeg going yee-haw.”

“What were the AFN like?” asked Nicole. “Tell me what happened and calm down.” She put a hand on the crate. Everyone else (not wanting to stand around viewing the tantrum) was dispersing, Tom down to the shore to secure the boat because Charles had forgotten to tie it, Kevin and I up the stairs and into the church. – Still, we lingered inside by the door.

“Yeah, it’s dirt. Okay. It’s dirt,” Charles said in a weird non sequitur. “But they don’t see the dirt is just a cloud. So then sound pretentious. I tell them it’s a cloud. You can’t grab it. It’s a cloud. It’s all a cloud.” His arms had lifted to swim in the cloud he was talking about. “They sit there in The Elbow Room looking at me, with their Weyerhauser caps. And their Rainier Ale they think is such a big deal, looking at me, like I’m some kind of Methodist lecturing them.”

“Which dirt, exactly, Charles?” said Nicole.

“Do you think I can’t see what I’ve got here? Nest of rats. Where nobody’ll help.” Having stopped rocking the crate, he’d gone limp. “Asswipes.”

“You mean Alaska is dirt,” Nicole concluded. She started to touch him and he didn’t lurch away.

“So they want to treat it as a commodity. They have no right.”

“First have some lunch and then not dump this thing in the bay. Open it up. Put the wheels on it. And hook the motor up. Don’t discard an asset. You’re the empire-builder, right?”

It was quiet then, and I peeked again to see around the doorframe. Charles, who was wearing a knitted cap, took it off his bald head, looked at it, and then put it back on again. He intended all along to be talked out of dumping the crate. Nicole glanced away, into the breeze, and her head made a bridling toss. There was a theatrical dimension to Charles. He seemed essentially a performative man, far from his wife and his office, hoping for the notice of the National Geographic Society. And Nicole seemed to despise him, right now. Which made me pity him. He had shrunk to the size of an anecdote, and the whole trip felt over, in that sense.

Which meant, then, other things must be beginning.

“I’m going to get you a beer,” said Nicole but she stayed there where she was.

“I gave them my little speech, ‘real’ is ‘royal,’ blah-blah. You warn these people—” He was cut short by some kind of hiccup or burp.

She tried to steer him to sit down. But he stood taller and reached across and took hold of her shoulders. “The AFN is not ‘radical.’ They’re the opposite of radical. They’re going to bend right over and take the money.” He had a grip on Nicole’s shoulders. Tom Sample was standing at a distance by the shore, keeping an eye on this, in a soldierly way. Nicole snaked her arms through Charles’s saying, “Come on inside. You’ll see.”

He did let himself be led toward the stairs. I, along with Kevin, moved away from the doorway, smooth and fast, with our cereal bowls.

While she brought him in, she was saying, “Once it’s built, it will be funny-looking – and possibly useless, and probably noisy, and it might not even work. But building it will be therapeutic. I’m getting you a beer.”

He stayed standing where she’d left him. He combed his beard by raking both hands’ fingernails through it.

She said, “Just, you mustn’t just sit around getting neurotic till the ANCSA meeting. Doing things to worsen it probably.” She was in the kitchen getting a bottle, popping the cap.

Everything, now, would have to fall back to earth in a new arrangement. He had thrown a tantrum and been on the brink of violence. Beginning that afternoon, like a convalescent needing a hobby, he dragged out a little toolbox, and he opened it up, and he pried open the wooden crate – with loud creaks as nails released their grip – and he started pulling out the elements of the vehicle, two vinyl-covered seats, a chassis of welded pipes, four aluminum wheel rims, a windshield that had been padded with cardboard. He spent a number of subdued overcast days assembling it, outside the front door in the sun, while a bottle of beer stood on the steps and “Simon & Garfunkel” alternated with “The Band” on the tape-player inside the church. Sometimes he would stop work for a while and he would sit alone on the stair looking out over the waters, the green mountains emerging in the flooded present era. Then he would get up and go to work again. The ATV, when it was built, turned out to look like something made for exploring the moon, a two-seat open chassis, with immense soft tires, so soft you could push a dimple into them with a fingertip – the tires were soft because they were supposed to ride lightly over the flora without doing any damage. It was powered by batteries, which were mounted behind the seats. In effect, it was four big balloon bagels, attached to a cockpit. It had a top speed of about ten miles per hour. Charles did hate it – that is, he hated the physical object and he hated everything it stood for – which I supposed was the old academic “empire” he’d been building. Nevertheless, driving it seemed to satisfy him and he took the girls out on rides, especially Mrs. Terry Smale, as more and more (in Kevin’s tones) “She Reaches Out for Friendship and Counsel Outside her Unfortunate Marriage.”

 

§ § §


“You want to know something funny?” said Tom Sample, inhaling an actual marijuana cigarette, passing it to Kevin.

Below where they sat, I was kneeling and scraping with a trowel in the hard sand. It was a warm morning under blue sky, but the sand under my knees was cold. Over the days, I was slowly covering the bottom of a cardboard box with pebbles and soggy twigs, which I was calling potential artifacts. One thing there was a lot of: discarded fish vertebrae, because this was once a food preparation area.

Kevin said, “I know one thing funny. Not one person around here is doing anything scientific. Except him.”

He meant me, beneath them.

Tom said, “Don’t look at me.”

“Of course, there’s been Schoonover and Gutmacher. That’s science. They’re scientists.”

“Don’t look at me, I signed on strictly as chief cook and bottle washer. And Arlen and the Smales, they-all never did claim to be.”

With the sun on my back, in the shelter of my pit, I was happy to be scraping in the dirt while my older friends talked. The Professor had given me a stack of damp pages with rectilinear grids dittoed on them in purple ink; every minute or two I made a pencil mark on a page, indicating a location. And put a pebble in the box. But the professor was right, this was an Aleut garbage heap. My grids were evenly filled with a sparse static, representing fish vertebrae, mussel shells’ flakes, sandy pebbles. But I was content to keep on working. Out here in the world, and down where the wind couldn’t reach, I was far from the Educational Testing Service.

Kevin said, “Okay, what’s funny?” He was responding belatedly.

In my crouch below I was stabbed with miscellaneous irrelevant gratitude for my vague little family on this island.

Tom answered, “Terry Smale.” – That was what was funny.

“Mm,” said Kevin.

“He went to the Fish and Game Officer to apply for schoolteaching jobs.”

Kevin was inflated by a withheld gulp of smoke. “What does Terry think Fish and Game would know about teaching jobs?”

“Exactly. But there’s no Fish and Game here on this island.”

Eventually Kevin said, “Mm,” admitting it was amusing – or pondering the story’s general absence of logic.

“Poor woman,” said Tom. “Way out in this place.”

It was somehow a little thrilling, that Cristie could be unhappy in her marriage. But I wasn’t the slightest bit ambitious. Mostly I was oddly proud of the fact that I was able to live with and cherish a beautiful woman. The marijuana cigarette went from Kevin to Tom. It was never passed to me. Which was exactly right. The one time I’d tried marijuana, the previous winter, it mostly just made me worry: on a cold afternoon I’d sat alone for a harrowing, blind hour behind a boat-storage rack by the Wilmette Harbor. Here, I was perfectly happy not to be offered a puff.

“Weird guy,” Tom added, of Cristie’s husband. “What the hell his problem is.”

“His problem, my dear man, is that he doesn’t want a job. You can surely sympathize with that. He gets a job and by the time he reaches his Golden Years, he’ll be too tired and achey to go to Paris. He’ll never see Paris.”

Tom looked at Kevin and then turned away again, “Paris?”

“Bake a pie. See an opera. Read Proust. You know what the problem is? Americans don’t consult their own feelings. They don’t consult their own stomachs. They don’t consult their own tastebuds. In life, the only doorway to enter is The Doorway of Love. The Doorway of Whatever You Happen To Love. The Doorway of Love leads to The Garden of Paying Close Attention.”

Whenever a conversation became abstract, Tom always made an effort for a while, but then at some point you could see his eye flip to loneliness. It was sad in him. To make it worse, Kevin was playing at being an oracle. I sat back on my heels and took a rest.

“Ah, but the Path of Not-Paying-Attention! Ah! That leads to the ‘Dark Hopeless Forest of Putting-Mayonnaise-On-Everything.’“

“Well…” Tom lifted the joint and, his lips hard, took a drag on the little twig – then he exhaled. “All I can say is, he wasn’t showing any love for his baby daughter when he started drinking again. That’s all I know.”

“Terry will stop drinking as soon as he gets away from the marriage. Terry Smale is a manservant in rebellion. This is his way of getting out: covering himself with soil. All soiled, he will reach freedom. And then he must decide whether he likes freedom. He may well not! Almost nobody likes freedom. Very few.”

Tom made a sidelong glance at Kevin Pinne, mistrusting him, mistrusting his generalizations, because they were put-downs – then he lay down on his back, and adjusted his spine against the grass, under the rare blue sky of Alaskan summer.

I didn’t want there to be bad feelings. I wanted them to be friends innocently, like boys in funny-papers cartoons who sit atop a wall and pass the day in philosophizing. I went back to keeping my head down and worked onward, in my scab-picking way, prying up an urchin-shell fragment or a broken woody stem, putting things in the box. Lately I had started making deeper scoops of the trowel, unprofessionally.

Kevin kept expanding, “Terry resembles our Aleut slave. Society provides him with no proper language for his oppression. He can’t discuss it with himself inside his own head. There are no words for it. When society wishes to maintain a permanent slave class, it prevents them from developing a proper language to contemplate their condition. Deprived of a language, he merely thrashes about.”

Tom lay on his back not responding.

Kevin spoke down to me, “Catchin’ anything down there?”

I said, “…Pardon me?”

Tom rolled over, and he got to his hands and knees, horsey-style, and before going anywhere, took a big sigh. “I’m going back,” he said as he started crawling downhill. Stoned, he was openly fed up with Kevin. It was unlike him. Usually he was so nice.

“I’m hungry,” he said.

He wasn’t making much progress crawling. So he staggered to his feet, and kept on going.

Kevin, jilted now, made a shrug of awe, at the inexplicability of Simpler Souls.

 

§ § §


I found the skull on a cloudy morning when I was alone. The ring of her eye socket emerged first. There were no other bones, just the lone head. That she’d been beheaded, or even that it was a female, didn’t occur to me. Those were likelihoods Nicole and Charles pointed out later. I found nothing else, no ribs, no arms or legs, though I stabbed near and far, and churned deep. It was just a head.

With feathery strokes like a real archaeologist I erased the soil around the face, the eyeholes, the missing nose’s pronged hole, the row of old ivory teeth, our two faces in very different historical circumstances. The dome below had collapsed, where it separated mostly along its natural fissure lines. The face and jaw were complete and intact. Also complete was the entire rear sphere, if I carefully juggled all the dirty shards together into a bowl in my hands. There were no brains or flesh or organic matter sticking to it anywhere. For days I had been filling an empty cardboard carton with pebbles and twigs and shell bits, but now I dumped all that out and used the box to carry my trophy home. Later, if I had to, I could always draw a diagram of the head’s position in the soil. But I knew right away, I didn’t want to enter it on the records. I wanted it to be mine. Obviously that would be wrong, but I had a feeling that now my digging days were over, here at the westernmost point. While digging was my pretext for being here, it was lonely. The ground put bone-deep cold in an archaeologist’s shins and kneecaps, and a steady wind off the sea came inside my clothes. Back at the church, where it was warm, was the big central table, Masonite-topped, steel-rimmed . It was our dinner table at night and our work table during the day, laden with muddy botanical specimens whenever Schoonover and Gutmacher came through; or Nicole’s notes on Aleut language and basketry during industrious days when she went to town and did interviews. I spread the skull there to assemble it, out in the open for all to see. Everybody happened to be home, and while I worked they all visited my workbench with jealousy and dread, including Professor Grant. Carefully I picked off stuck dirt and brushed the pieces clean, then I laid them out separately to dry, because in the soil they’d been damp forever.

The professor didn’t intervene. Nor did he require any tedious ceremonies of the scientific method. He visited my work table like the others, and like the others, stood around putting in advice. It was he who identified it as a female, by the molars ground smooth: the old Aleuts cured sealskins by chewing on them, which was women’s work. The crown surfaces of these brown molars were polished flat like the shiny caramels in the bin at the Wilmette Safeway. Along the dome’s and the temples’ break-lines I spread a clear glue, using a brush on the inner lid of the jar, then I wiggled the pieces into place, where they interlocked nicely. It turned out I had all the parts. On the tape player, at softest volume, Paul Simon sang about a girl named Cecelia who was breaking his heart. Or, The Band sang about pulling into Nazareth and being unable to find a bed; or about a night when Old Dixie was driven down.

Also looking over my shoulder was Nicole, lately less perfect in beauty, less blurred by motion, so that a few friendly flaws had come forward, a hint of a Nixon-nose, a beige rusty stain on her jaw like a cornflake, a habit of compressing her lips in a duckbill when she was concentrating, sometimes an over-seriousness, an inability to pause and get the joke. Which could open her to people’s ridicule. When she visited my work table, her breath beside my neck was sisterly. She said, “Here’s something I didn’t notice. It’s a girl.”

“Charles noticed,” said Tom Sample, who was in the kitchen. “She’s got flat molars.”

“No, I mean it’s a young girl. Her wisdom teeth haven’t come in yet. See her very back one? It’s still high up above the gum line in the dental bone. It hasn’t descended yet. She was probably sixteen years old. What in the world was she doing, just her head, all by itself in the kitchen refuse? When do wisdom teeth come in?”

“Ask Charles. He’s old.”

“Frick you,” said Charles genially. He could hear though he was working outside the front doorway in the sun, tinkering with the all-terrain vehicle.

“Charles, when do wisdom teeth come in?”

After a series of tapping clanks came an answer. “Late teens? I don’t know. Don’t ask me.” Then he added, “She probably had her head chopped off.”

“By Aleuts then. Not Russians,” said Nicole. She wasn’t asserting it, she was putting it out tentatively.

Charles must have heard but didn’t care to elaborate. She elaborated for him, “The old-time Aleuts were big decapitators. It lets the soul escape. In all the folklore, everybody’s always chopping off somebody’s head. The Russians just shot people. It’s hard work cutting off a head. You have to really want to do it.”

Kevin Pinne was at my shoulder too. He said softly Wow, observing the brown molar hidden high in a chamber, loose, like nutmeat shrunken in its shell. I kept working, with my soft brush making each separate piece clean, so they could dry well and they could be glued. In my own mouth was breath, while in hers was none. Her front teeth were so small and clean and healthy, it was strange to touch them.

Nicole said, “So maybe she was sixteen when she died.”

“Just your age!” Kevin told me. “I knew somebody would turn up. The Blue Moon saw you standin’ alone.” He walked off on the open floor.

 

§ § §


 The skull began to cause trouble. Already the next day, the professor and Nicole were arguing about it. Everyone had been invited out on the water with some Aleut fishermen in their commercial boat for a pleasure excursion.

It was another sunny warm morning, the eye hurt by sparkling light on wavetops all around. The boat might have been an old trawler, small, bouncy and heavy, an old smell like chop suey, a crane for dragging, probably, nets. It had a cabin on deck, which was just an empty room with windows and a steering wheel. Below deck, the kitchen was stocked with a dozen jars of “Best Foods Tomato Cocktail Dressing,” little else. These fishermen would lower a crab trap to the floor of the bay, and twenty minutes later haul it up glittering with tiny shrimp, blue as sapphires, clinging all over and dripping off in clumps, which would be scraped off the mesh, into a pot of boiling water on the open deck, then scooped out of the boiling water in a wire basket. There was a method of breaking off the tail and leaving a wick of meat exposed, to be painted with red sauce in one stroke. Everybody was outfitted with a paper plate, for this.

In these festivities, I kept to the margins. I was narrating myself again. He drifts along the railings – and withdraws mysteriously from publicity. Professor Grant and Nicole were standing together at the back end, and she didn’t know I was behind them when she said, “So you’re only recording aristocrats’ graves.”

“She is an old murder. A murder isn’t culturally interesting.”

“Plenty of things are an old murder,” said Nicole. “Though at this point the matrix is all ruined.”

“What am I supposed to do, send him home?”

Nicole said, “Well, his parents. What do they think he’s doing out here?”

Charles took a swig of his beer. “Nicole, it’s only a kitchen midden. I think it’s a murder, it’s just random.”

Of course I knew it ought to belong to science. I would have to part with it if anyone noticed or cared, or just simply asked.

Charles added, “She’s not a ‘burial.’ She’s somebody who got tossed on the garbage heap.”

“And she’s dolichocephalic,” said Nicole.

“Is she? I wouldn’t know.”

“She’d be a mid-seventy. She’s one of Hrdli^cka’s people.”

“…A ‘mid-seventy?’”

“On the cephalic index.”

“Oh babe, it makes me tingly all over, whenever you say ‘cephalic index.’“

“She’s a migrant from the Bering Strait. You have to face it when the evidence is piling up over years.”

Charles got sharp. “You guys. Craniometry. You can show Aborigines are from Norway. You know that as well as I. Whatever the skull shape, she’s a blip. She’s a random blip. She’s noise. She’s not a true ‘burial,’ either. She’s a victim of some mishap, and I’m doing ‘burials.’ I’m limiting my findings to ‘burials.’ I’ve always limited my findings to burials. And she’s not a true burial.’”

Nicole gave up, flattened by repetitiousness. She put a shrimp in her mouth. I edged back along the railing and tried to revolve away from so obviously listening, and then, just as I got around the corner of the boat’s little wheelhouse, our Aleut worker, Andy, presented himself before me, with reluctance, prodded in my direction by his elders. He had been taken along on this excursion for my sake, because we were the same age.

Therefore I had been carefully avoiding him, within the enclosure of the boat railings, constantly aware of his whereabouts. To impress me, he had brought an electric guitar he owned. Or likelier, he’d been forced by his uncle and aunt to bring it. When we’d boarded, it was strapped securely down to floor-rings inside the cabin. I’d noticed it there. As for my own guitar, it never left my bedroom in the church. It would have been awkward if Andy and I were supposed to have “guitar playing” in common. His was in a case unusually designed: rectangular, with a circle of grille-cloth set into one face. Which was a speaker. A speaker as small as a radio’s. So it was a guitar case with an amplifer built-in. “SEARS Silvertone” appeared on a small tin plate.

So it was a cheap, laughable guitar. My own wasn’t much better, but at least it wasn’t a Sears. And at least I had the discretion to avoid ever owning up to it. He’d set the case up on one end and he squinted away into the horizon enduring this show.

“So now show him that,” said his uncle.

In his free hand, he had a block of wood from which a bowl shape had been gouged. Whatever it was, it wasn’t finished. Splinters and threads of wood still clung. On one flat side, the ink of a lumberyard stamp remained. Several bird-feathers were Scotch-taped to the bowl’s rim. He set it down on the deck, grumbling in explanation, “‘T’s a stupid fuckin’ hat.”

“Tell him ‘bout it,” said his uncle, standing around enforcing this encounter. “Go ahead, tell him.”

“They make you carve ‘em.”

“Where at? Tell him ‘bout it.”

“They make you carve ‘em in Culture.”

“Yeah where at?”

“At Mount Edgecumbe.”

The uncle, confirmed now in his pessimism, said, “Well now play your guitar for him.”

Mount Edgecumbe was a Bureau of Indian Affairs school in Sitka. The uncle had told us about it before we left, standing on the dock, and while he spoke, he’d held his nephew like a captured escapee and Andy had kept his face as unfocused as he could.

He laid out the guitar case on the boat’s deck and unsnapped its buckles, kneeling, favoring half his body, hanging his hair at a bias. He had the impassive face of a Siberian warrior and he was so fierce about this exchange, he might have been, as he lifted the lid, displaying to me the smothered body of a hostage taken from his continent to mine. Revealed, it was a cheap gaudy guitar, shaped from cartoons, blue in color, its body a frisky amoeba. Its plastic and chrome fixtures were sparse compared to the powerful dream-guitars I had made in classroom doodles – or the real guitars on album covers.  On the inner wall of the case, there a little cluster of circuitry and tubes, radio-sized, which was wired to the speaker – therefore it was a guitar case that contained also a little amplifier. The lining wasn’t plush, it was thin felt, the color of Campbell’s Tomato Soup, glued in place. So it was a pathetic instrument.

The uncle drifted away, arms folded. But a few fisherman had come around. Some seemed prepared to laugh, and others watched with dire respectfulness. Andy, resentfully, assembled his guitar and its amplifier on the deck before me, and I had to stand there for this. He propped the guitar case up tall, as if the small speaker could broadcast – though there was no electrical plug on the boat – then he stood in front of me, lifting one thigh to hold up the guitar because he had no strap, on one foot pivoting and skating to stay up – and he started to play.

How guitar players are able to form chords placing all four fingers in the exact right spots without looking down, it had always been a mystery to me – they do it without even glancing, let alone watching with eyes glued to the fretboard. Guitar chords are strenuous-looking, in the hand, but he was able to twist through them fast, keeping up with the rhythm of the other hand as it chopped. There were only three chords and they kept repeating. So as it went on, it was monotonous, and too quiet to be heard well over the sounds of the sea.

“Great,” I remarked levelly.

Since that stopped him, it seemed to put an end to the concert. So I got out of there, holding my empty paper plate with its cocktail sauce smear, and I went to the opposite railing.

Andy, with evident relief, put the guitar back in its case. That would be the end of the encounter, and the semicircle of fishermen broke up. Out on the waves in the sunshine, bombs of cupped light exploded. On this side, Professor Grant had moved over to talk to the captain by the railing. Nobody had really noticed anything. The concert had been no great spectacle. At the stern were Gutmacher and Schoonover, together scanning the far beaches – Gutmacher curly-haired and scraggy-bearded, Schoonover blond, taller, balding but long-haired – both wearing jeans that sagged at the seat from weeks of hiking and camping without laundering their clothes. Tomorrow they were going to get on a small plane and go back to the university, because apparently now Schoonover had counted enough seals. Gutmacher, too, was happy. He had photographed plants in summer bloom stage, and he’d brought their limp bodies home to the big kitchen table to be pressed flat with weights. Meanwhile, inside the boat’s little galley, a few steps down, Terry Smale could be heard bickering happily with the tolerant fishermen, Cristie beside him silent.

He was belaboring a topic he couldn’t get off of today. He had been idly peeking into galley drawers, where he found uncashed checks from fish-processing corporations – “Three thousand dollars!” “Twelve hundred dollars!!” He was mystified. The checks were all weeks or months old. He found this to be completely nutty. What the hell was going on with the monetary system of Unalaska village? Why didn’t people cash their checks? Don’t people buy things? And, meanwhile at the general store, why were people passing around such shredded old paper dollars? Last time he bought something at Peter’s Commercial, the damn paper dollars in his change were so rotten they fell apart right in your hand. You couldn’t tell where one bill left off and another one started. His argument kept coming back to the same refrain – “There’s something not working here, that’s all I can say, there’s something not working here” – while he rattled a pair of old uncashed checks in his hand. He’d had a beer or two already. “There’s definitely something not working here.” The fishermen in the doorway, trying to be patient hosts, hung their heads and smirked, as if the economy of their island depended on some personal sweet mischief.

Meanwhile, the water was beautiful. It was so clear, you could see forty feet down. We didn’t have water like that at home. Lake Michigan was cloudy by comparison, and the Skokie Lagoons, in the Forest Preserve, were famously too poisonous to go in. At the railing, Professor Grant was talking to the boat captain. They were discussing the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The old captain was gesturing over the water. “What we are asking for,” he said, “is sixty thousand surface acres, and one-and-a-half million subsurface acres,” while his elderly dusty-looking hand lifted and moved to sculpt the earth, its seas and its volcanoes.

 

§ § §


The next morning I lay in bed listening through the wall, because Nicole’s voice lifted up clearly. “—So you’re just going to pretend she never existed. A beheaded girl.” At a tender hour, a new inward lump can declare itself. I could feel this morning, more solidly, the idea that I was the skull’s true owner, if only because she’d been so alone, for so long, and I’d been her discoverer. I’d been the one there in the cold with the patience and the constancy. I had cleaned the dirt from her face with the bristles of a brush soft as mink.

Charles audibly flipped over on his side, away from Nicole, presenting his voice directly to the tarpaper. “You think I’m fudging data but, sweetheart, I think I don’t believe in data anymore. ‘Data.’ You have to be old and wise, like me, to relax and just watch the militant new forces. Each generation has to cook up their own new data for themselves. Reinvent the world for themselves. So fine.”

She didn’t answer. There was no motion. After a minute Charles sighed, “Ah, I’m looking forward to a long and complicated decomposition process.”

“Poor Charlie.”

That was worse than sarcastic. She was angry.

“Poor me.”

“I’m going across again today,” she said. “I need a ride in the Zodiac.”

“Women always used to rather like my self-pity advertisements. How come this doesn’t work on you?”

“Just because she didn’t have an aristocratic burial, that doesn’t mean—”

“I know, I know. You think I operate within this cloud of cynicism and politics. But that’s exactly what I don’t do anymore.”

“Cynicism and politics,” she said. “I happen to believe – in my naivete, I believe the scientific method is a whole separate thing.”

“In fact, you know something? You know that coffee shop off campus? On West Taylor?” his voice had gone way back home. “With the mezzanine? They have little art exhibits?”

Stealthily, not to cause a twang of my bed, I put my head back down, settling down to listen in earnest. This would go on indefinitely, this eavesdropping, there was no avoiding it. Their voices this morning were coming through clear.

“I was up in the mezzanine part, with my coffee, you know it’s right across from campus,” he said. “And right beside my table was a little sketch-print kind of thing – I guess a lithograph – and it was titled An Unrested Bird Faces the Facts. It was by some art student. It was just a like-Kandinsky, Paul Klee little birdshit thing, with little bleebs and blobs. But the title meant something to me. An Unrested Bird Facing the Facts.”

Nicole’s sleeping bag made its sound of unzipping. “And you are the Unrested Bird. Facing Facts.”

“The bird was just like a little pear, with a certain expression. Sitting there facing facts. Its eyes had those little anxiety lines.” Audibly, Charles rose up in his bedclothes. “Well. Anyhow. All that will change when I pull up a golden samovar from the Three Saints.”

“Three Saints?”

“The ship down there.” He was getting out of bed. His feet patted and brushed on the floor. The snap of an elastic waistband against a belly. He said, “This diving consultant is supposed to arrive by noon. Maybe tomorrow I’ll get him out over the water. You criticize. But a hint of a golden samovar will bring a National Geographic Special. Or else that Dictionary of Aleut Words. If there does exist a Dictionary of Aleut Words, that’s as good as a samovar, almost. Definitely not as telegenic. Golden Samovar’s more telegenic. I’m calling Washington. You want to be my personal secretary?”

“No.”

“Oh, come on, you’ll be across anyway. It’ll only take a minute. You’re so good at it. You wake up in these moods.”

I was always amazed: With nakedness in the room, how could grown-ups concentrate? Were they so blind? In the room next door, a woman’s actual form was revealed, but there was no rapture, there was no compulsion, there wasn’t even any suspense, in that strange room. Just as youth is wasted on the young, so maturity is wasted on the mature.

“Charles, listen to me. Just because you happen to be tired of academic politics right now—”

“Maybe it is a cynical manipulation. Okay. Maybe this is an example. But something as absurd as a golden samovar can bring a lot of funding. Unfortunately, that’s how the world works, babe, the tawdry world.”

“I’m talking about your decision to leave the Department and just stay out here. It’s too romantic.”

A pants-zipper was zipped. “Oh, hm. I like ‘romantic.’“ A belt buckle jingled. “Won’t you please be my secretary?”

“No I told you.” She was in a far corner of the room, bending over. “Use Wilmette.”

“Wilmette. Ah yes. That’ll be gloomy.”

“Wilmette writes poetry, you know. Wilmette is profound.”

“Wilmette,” grumbled Charles, “is an abyss.”

He was pulling on a shirt or something. He added, “Why won’t you be my personal secretary? I really need you to do this.” 

Nicole went on musing, “Wilmette, as an anthropologist might say, is ‘pre-contact.’“

No, I knew what my problem was. “Profound” wasn’t it. It was the opposite, it was shallowness. That was the secret. I simply wasn’t brave enough to face the life consequences of having walked out of the gym building, where all the multiple-choice grid pages lay face-up on individual desktops and test booklets lay face-down.

Charles’s boots had eyelets to be laced. Nicole in the mornings seemed to have a stretching exercise, something that didn’t take more that a few seconds. She added, “Don’t his parents care?”

“I think he’s some kind of misfit back home. And hell. He’s the only one digging. I can concentrate on the Three Saints. Honey, everything is to create political power, because everything is for the Alaska Native Claims meeting. Everything is for that. Including this samovar. I don’t care about a samovar.”

“The scuba guy will need a considerable sense of humor, coming all the way from San Diego, Charles.”

“No, he’ll need a sense of adventure. Some people still have that. Just ’cause he’s Navy doesn’t mean he’s tight-ass. Maybe it’s awkward, still, don’t laugh at this. People look ridiculous when they’re not funded.”

“When is the ANCSA meeting?”

He half-spoke and half-groaned. Or even half-sang, “It’s all meretricious politics, sweetheart, everything but you. You’re my one stupid thing.”

“Always the—” her voice sounded crushed because he was hugging her, grappling her “—always the highest tribute—”

“Aren’t you flattered?”

“I’m actually beginning to believe you’re this… unprincipled person.”

“Whoa, Bay-buh!” It was an Elvis impersonation. “Bay-buh Bay-buh.”

“I need to go over in about an hour, and I won’t make your stupid phone call for you.”

“You are my fatal error. You are my tragic flaw. Let’s go down for some of Tom’s hash browns. Some of Tom’s ‘Fort Jackson Hash Browns.’ I want a lot of cholesterol this morning. See what you do to me, you cute little post-modern Professor-teaser?”

 

§ § §


I liked the word “misfit.” It seemed like a solution. Because now this was good. Now here in this faraway place, I was starting to feel what objectivitymight be like. I was rising through mist, and through layers of draining delusion, and I could see the useful facts of the world coming within reach. The last thing Matt Krim said, when I left the ship, was that I could always return his borrowed books “someday in Sausalito.” That doorway, as it receded farther into the past, kept growing larger. I could see there a pathway leading into the world, this world everybody seemed to take for granted and just use for their own purposes, this world of forgetfulness, or maybe forgiveness, of low standards and accidental cruelty, or just inattention, inattention, that’s all, just blesséd inattention everywhere. The potential reality – the reality of never returning home – would be a kind of bravery, but also, I knew, it carried me into a more fundamental cowardice, the cowardice of never going back to that school, its long ceilings of acoustic tile, all the happy shadowless people generating their own light. A lifelong marriage to cowardice was something one needn’t face immediately all-at-once but could descend through in a gradual way, even over years. All I had to do now was wait for something to come through, a mail boat or an oil tanker, some kind of transportation back to the mainland, eventually to Sausalito. In Sausalito, there was the image of a house with an oak tree growing up through it – and there was the rumor of a daughter, and the promise of wit and literature – but moreover, presumably, there were “jobs.” That’s what people do, they have “jobs.” They can go through their whole lives that way. In my own situation, all I needed was to dip my toe in that life for a while.

Meanwhile, I could stay on in this expedition with these people and be helpful, and then be free of it. When Charles confronted me in the kitchen downstairs and told me he wanted me on his trip to town, I was already dressed and ready, my green rubber boots laced up. “I’ll explain it,” he said. “I need your help with a telephone.”

He needed to make a call, and the only phone on the entire island was in the general store. Then, afterward, we would go to the harbor. The scuba consultant was going to arrive by seaplane. He was supposed to taxi up to the Panalaska dock at noon – and therefore we left early.

Nicole rode along in front, with sketchbook and notepad, because she planned to talk to an elderly woman in the village about traditional basketry. We were also bringing Schoonover and Gutmacher across the bay, so they could take that same plane out. They were done. They had scarcely spent any time at the church, and now their research sojourn was over. “Another fine summer, Charles,” said Gutmacher grimly, while we plapped across the bay in the rubber Zodiac. The boat rounded the point and aimed for Unalaska Village.

Charles said, “Well now, let the truth come out. How many seals are on this island?”

Schoonover answered with a relevant shrug. Which plainly meant it made no difference.

Gutmacher added, “I got a few new irises.”

And the conversation ended there. Conversation had become sometimes so atomized, in this far-off place, and so condensed to essentials – I loved it. I was riding high on it. Where I came from, people thought they were being nice and they made efforts to fill the air with excess remarks, information, advice. When we arrived on the stony shore before Peter’s Commercial, Nicole went up the road in one direction, and Schoonover and Gutmacher left to walk over the hill, where they could store some gear in Panalaska lockers. We would no doubt see those two again at the dock before they left.

But then came the droning sound, the crucifix’s advent in the eastern sky, the scuba diver’s plane. It was ahead of schedule.

Nevertheless, Charles didn’t want to go straight to the dock. First, there was the general store, for the telephone. The scuba guy might have to wait for a minute. The one telephone in town, operated by the Alaska Communication System, was available for use only during certain hours of the day. It was housed in a room along the road, adjacent to Peter’s Commercial, a store that combined grocery and post office and government liquor distributor.

The phone was in a bare room by itself on a table. A side-door joined it to Peter’s Commercial. Charles made the connection and handed the receiver to me, and a woman’s voice answered. Hello. National Geographic Society.

I spoke as Charles had rehearsed me: “Hello, this is the Charles Grant Aleutian Institute Expedition, calling from Dutch Harbor in Alaska. I have Professor Grant on the line. Would it be possible to speak to Mr. Carstairs?”

Then when Mr. Carstairs picked up his phone, I went on as instructed, “Good morning, sir. This is the Charles Grant Aleutian Institute, calling from Dutch Harbor. I have Professor Grant on the line.”

I handed the phone over.

“Mr. Carstairs, this is Charles. How is everything in Washington. You remember our conversation of last month.” Meanwhile, his elbow pushed me to the doorway. He made a gesture, a hinge in the wrist, to indicate I should close the door behind me.

“…Mr. Carstairs, we’re on a shoestring out here. Yet at the same time we’re at our most exciting point. We’re zeroing in on the sunken hulk I mentioned. I have a team of scuba divers arriving today.”

I closed the door. I was facing a shelf of kerosene lamps’ replacement glass chimneys, in a store smelling stalely of rubber or powdery corrosion or whatever hidden puddle is distilled by freezer-cases. At that moment a trio of Aleut boys were being driven outside, by the storekeeper who came out from behind the counter and followed them to the door, banging his hands like cymbals. One of them was Andy. With him were two others in old nylon parkas, one with dried mud stuck in his hair in white medals. Having driven them out, the storekeeper turned and frowned at me, discerned that I wasn’t one of them, and left me alone, going back behind the counter.

They were still outside when the professor and I came out of the store. Andy was by himself. The two other boys were walking up the road – they seemed somehow like a pair of closer friends, maybe brothers. Andy was sitting on a low wall that might have once been a foundation, and the professor and I turned up the road in the opposite direction. It was a day of dark weather. The road was grey gravel, its roadbed sadly combined with the beachy, stony edge. The little town consisted of shacks strung out like laundry hung out to dry. There were lanes but some houses simply sat in turf far from any lane. All this was viewed by me only peripherally, in a polite, averted shame of other people’s squalor. Each of the many fates in the world outside Wilmette was so strangely specific, and so irreversible.

The whole village, in all, seemed like maybe twenty structures. Human motion was not visible anywhere. An actual, century-old Russian Orthodox church, rumored to be too decrepit to go inside – wooden, complete with two onion domes covered in red tarpaper – stood by the water beside its graveyard, each grave marked by one of those dandified crosses of Russian Orthodoxy with their added jaunty slantwise strokes, all variously atilt in the tossing green earth. The Panalaska Fishery building of rusty metal, its bunkhouse and stranded trailers, a plywood box called “The Elbow Room” with a lavender door – all delimited a small, quiet world. The cold came from a huge whorl of unfaceable meaninglessness, far out north. Andy’s two friends had parted from him without words – there was nothing to say in this town. Charles, as we walked away, had noticed him sitting there and spoke low to me.

“That fellow Andy. His stepmother’s family has a lot of power. They’re his aunt and uncle, but they’re his stepparents. We want to get their help on the Native Claims Settlement. They’ve got people on Atka, and one old guy there has an Aleut dictionary. It’s literally a dictionary, written out by hand, from the days of Veniaminov here, possibly. And I think possibly they have no idea what they’ve got. It’s in the possession of an old elder there – a shaman – whatever you want to call him. Angakok, they say, like a word for shaman. He’s like the patriarch on Atka.”

Andy, sitting back there, didn’t seem to pay attention as we walked away, but when I turned he looked, making a solemn shove of the jaw like either a promise or a threat.

 

§ § §


Dave Angel, the diver from San Diego, looked like one of the average nice guys and athletes whose photographs appear on packages of breakfast cereal. But there was an unforgivingness, a certain something that seemed folded-in with his Navy training, high standards and high expectations. This was going to be a disappointment for Professor Grant. He was standing beside his stack of equipment cases, his hands clasped high behind his back – and when he saw us coming, he checked the time on his oversized black wristwatch. He was young, half Charles’s age, but he took immediate authority, reaching down across space with a basketball-grip hand and telling him, “You’re Professor Grant.”

“I’m Charles. Call me Charles. You must be Dave. Glad you made it. Hope you had an easy trip.”

I was not introduced, which seemed a fitting military etiquette. Dave Angel picked up his cases, slipping a strap over his shoulder. “Good flight,” he said. “I really prefer these single-engine props. In an engine failure you’re far better off in a little craft, than one of those new so-called jumbo jets.” He led the way down the dock, while Charles went along beside him saying, “The boat is right this way. I think you’ll be impressed by our little operation.”

At the boat, Nicole was waiting. Her appointment with the locally famous basket weaver hadn’t worked out – “I’m going to try another time. Old Sophie had to nap” – and Dave Angel was introduced. “So great. I guess I’ll be riding back with you guys.”

Dave Angel shed his baggage into the Zodiac. I, mute aid-de-camp, settled it better in a corner. Charles said, “I’ve been talking to a buddy of mine at the National Geographic Society in D.C. As it happens, just now we happened to be chatting—”

Dave Angel, while he climbed in, didn’t seem to be listening – dipping a hand in the water, examining the steep hills that enclosed the bay, looking increasingly congested in mind. “Professor Grant, you know, much of this bottom has never been charted.”

Charles started the motor, pulling the cord. “The Navy would have charted a lot of it during the war.”

“Were you aware how bad it is underwater, much of this?”

“Oh, it’s notorious.”

Dave looked at far geological formations.

Charles added, “As I say, we have to be very seat-of-the-pants.”

“The Reeve Airlines pilot had some charts I looked at. What makes you think your ship went down in this particular bay?”

“Where else?”

“What evidence do you have that a ship did go down at all?”

“Oh, it’s well known. A Russian trader named Three Saints.”

“Why Iliuliuk Bay? These islands are full of bays. Why not Akutan? Why not Captains?”

“We could do that. We could dive there. We can dive anywhere you think.”

Dave didn’t answer.

Charles watched ahead, making a hard smile, while his hand behind him steered the outboard motor. The village sank behind us as we moved out.

Charles said, “We have some reconnoitering to do, eh? But first have some lunch, then I’ll give you the tour of the operation.”

Dave Angel watched the distant water. “What do you—? What do you do out here? I mean normally.”

For a minute it seemed Charles wasn’t going to answer. He just kept grinning ahead over the bow. Nicole, riding in front, was going to spend the whole ride looking into the wind, not seeming to hear any of this. I was failing him, too – we weren’t doing a very good job of impressing Dave Angel. At last Charles said, “Archaeology, ethnography. A couple guys are botanizing this summer. And we’re excavating an Aleut village. Different things every summer. This year we’re still gearing up, you know, still getting our ducks in a row. Always a lot of little snafus. Hell, you know how an outpost operation can be. When you’re pioneering in something – something new – progress can always look like a zig-zag of damn expensive mistakes and snafus. That’s what progress is, right? Bunch o’ mistakes? In my own case, I’ve been preoccupied with a political project, something called the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Have you heard about this legislation? It’s momentous.” 

“Well, I wish we’d been clearer when we talked. If you recall, I suspected this, but I’m willing to look at your operation. Why not. Sure. Let’s look at your operation.”

 

§ § §


The operation, when we got there, consisted of Kevin Pinne at the table chowing down on a full meal in a compartmented tray of tinfoil, for some reason barefoot with his pants rolled up, and Terry Smale sitting on the floor against a wall fondling one of Arlen’s rifles. Terry’s gaze was happy and sleepy-looking – a bottle of Budweiser was open beside him on the floor. The tape player by the door, almost beneath hearing-level, played a song by The Band, once again the song about the night when Old Dixie was driven down.

Dave Angel, who in his self-sufficiency could walk like a camel with all his baggage hanging on him, chose a spot beside the door and started shedding it. Charles put a hand on his shoulder, which was to steer him out of the place, “Let’s go out to the ATV. I can drive you around so you’ll get a general picture of the terrain.”

“You must be The Diver,” purred Kevin, turning on the bench seat, draping out both arms on the rim of the long table (where the skull was half-assembled, on newspapers). “Welcome. We’ve all been waiting for you. We’re the Excavation Team. Just call me Pinne. Pinne’s the Name. Archaeology’s the Game.”

“Pleased to meet you. I’m Dave Angel. I am the diver, but I was just saying to your professor, diving in these waters would be tough, just solo.”

“Oh! We’ve all been hoping! Don’t say!”

“I didn’t come equipped.”

“Equipped! Surely we have something we could loan you,” he sat up a little. “Surely we have a few old things lying around.”

The professor said, “Come on outside, Dave, and hop in the ATV.”

“What more do you need than a long tube, you know, to breathe through?” – Dave Angel got that this was a joke, and appreciated it, and he tossed a loose hand, meaning Hey, why not?” Kevin said, “Or I could throw together something out of seal-bladders in a jiffy. But first how ‘bout a beer? There’s one left.”

“As a matter of fact,” Dave turned to Charles, “a beer would be perfect.”

There seemed to be some unspoken agreement, not to even mention the man with a rifle against the wall. Nevertheless in a stalled moment, everyone risked a glance at him who, oblivious, was plucking at the fabric of a stretchy beige bandage that was wound around his ankle.

“Whoops, but you’ll have to excuse me, just a minute,” Kevin stood up and jogged heavily to the tape recorder. He turned it off and he picked it up to carry it away. We all watched him. The music had stopped, and in the lively silence of an unplugged electric prong, he disappeared into his own bedroom with it, and slammed the door.

This was a fixed circumstance of our lives together in the church. Canned beans provided an important part of everybody’s diet and Kevin happened to be flatulent by nature. He was boastful of his flatulence, and sometimes he would lurch up and locate his tape recorder, put in a blank tape he had labeled for this purpose, and quickly get to another room. He promised that the tape, when finished, and when played whole, would be melodious. He thought the project was funny, and I thought so too, while everybody else seemed to consider it, along a spectrum, either tiresome or just easy to ignore. Whenever Kevin was visited, which seemed to happen mostly during dinnertime, he would struggle up from his bench and go trotting away on careful pig’s-feet, and at least my eyes would shine, and look around for a confirming twinkle.

His bedroom door had closed and Charles got an arm around Dave Angel’s shoulder – “Let’s take our tour, lunch will be soon” – and he moved Dave toward the front door. The big-wheeled vehicle was outside in the tall grass. Still no mention – no mention at all – was made of the man in the corner with a rifle.

So everybody was gone, and Nicole wasn’t around – she’d gotten off the Zodiac and headed straight uphill to talk to Tom Sample – so I was left alone with Terry Smale. I was standing in the middle of the open floor by the doorway, and Terry looked up from his relationship with Arlen’s rifle and said in a chuckle of contempt, “It isn’t even loaded.” He put his head back against the wall. While one hand fell to the Budweiser bottle, he opened his eyes to the sanctuary rafters and he complained again, “Not even loaded.”

I said, “Yeah.  Probably a good thing. That it’s not loaded.”

“What?” He looked irritably wakened. My being there was a headache.

I said, “Probably Arlen keeps the bullets somewhere.”

“Yes. Right. Probably he does.”

“Is he back from his trip?” I said.

“Him? Arlen? Oh yes. He’s back.” – Arlen had been gone for a day, on a journey of reconnaissance around the southern side of the island. “He didn’t find anything. He’s not a ‘wilderness guide.’”

“Did you find a school to teach in?”

“What?”

“Have you—” I said. “Did you have any success? You were going to look for work.”

“Bunch of Indians. Eskimos. Whatever. Inuit. He’s not a wilderness guide, he’s just some guy who happens to live here. You know what’s good about here? A whole lot is irrelevant, here. You just connect the dots. You just connect ‘em with a straight line. No clever little squiggles. Just go ‘voop.’ You know? This is the exact opposite place on the earth, from where everything started. Have you ever considered that? Started in Egypt. Started in the Fertile Crescent. Right? The Fertile Crescent? And then it spread out and traveled both directions. It traveled west and it traveled east. And now it’s meeting here. But it hasn’t completely met. There’s still some room here in the Cold War, where the Cold War is. You know what the antipodes is? Are?” He dragged a wrist across his nose, sawing in both directions.

“Antipodes?” I said.

Annoyance crossed his face visibly. “You know what the International Date Line is?”

“Sort of,” I said. – In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, somehow time itself leaped up in an impossible waterfall.

“It’s right out there.” (His finger was worming its way into the trigger.) “It’s right out there, somewhere. This is the point opposite everything. We’re at the other side. But it’s still wide open. It’s totally wide open.” He lifted the rifle and aimed it with a squint at the blank wall across the room.

He squeezed the trigger.

The gun made a clack of solid metal.

“Mm-hmm,” I said, and I drifted toward the exit. When I got outside and down the stairs, I could see the rotted-out old wooden dinghy in the tall grass behind the church. Inside it, Tom Sample and Nicole Powell were sitting on its benches. They were sharing bits of a lunch he must have made, looking accidentally romantic out there. I thought I should go get them – or at least tell somebody – that Terry was drunk and potentially belligerent. Kevin Pinne was in his bedroom, but the door was closed, and anyway, he didn’t seem like the proper sort of responsible adult to summon.

 

§ § §


I stood and waited in the high grass beside the dinghy without interrupting, while Nicole and Tom sat inside it and talked, ignoring me. She was in lecture mode. “The Bering Strait is 135 feet deep. Ten thousand years ago, it was the Wisconsin Glaciation. Sea level was three hundred feet lower.”

Tom said, chewing his sandwich, “Mm.”

“He wants to suppress or at least ignore—” (for some reason she pointed at me standing there) “– a whole body of scientific evidence. Because now he thinks everything is so subjective and science is so political.”

“What is his higher truth?” said Tom. “You said his higher truth.”

I didn’t want to alarm anyone, so I waited for a break. Tom, sitting there, peeled an orange at the far end of his hanging arms. Something simian always in Tom’s repose – his wide parting of the knees when he sat, his munching – made him seem always relaxed in a bivouac, still in Vietnam. He had been out of that jungle less than a year, and all his habits and motions were still bent around that war. He often remarked how homey it felt, here in an old ugly-ass Corps-of-Engineers building.

“Charles’s ‘higher truth,’” Nicole said. “You heard his lecture. Indians were spiritually superior. We’re the corrupt creatures. Indians are connected to a place but we’re like these marauding locusts.”

“In fact, Indians were pretty savage! Indians were not, like, peaceful hippies in the state of nature.” This seemed a subject Tom liked. “The things they did? To their enemies? They were major soldiers. And how they treated their females?”

“Well, Tom, there were different tribes and individuals. Just like anybody, there were individuals.”

“You know what they used to do? They’d make a big slit in your throat, and then they’d reach around inside and grab the base of your tongue…”

Nicole said, with closed eyes, refraining from biting into her poised cookie, “The point is, Charles is being a law unto himself now and I guess we have to take care of him.”

She took a bite and chewed sadly, feeling icky with her own thoughts. She was beautiful, and at the same time, homely. Tom stole a glance up at her while his two thumbnails dug into his orange. Deep in his eye a blade of light shifted, interrogating her, probably about her seeming to sleep with the professor – while she chewed her little cookie-bite.

“Supposedly the Native Claims bill,” this was a tone of lament, “now says the indigenous people will receive some billion-some  dollars, but Charlie! – he’s so unrealistic! he’s so absolute! – Charlie actually wants them to accept no offer at all. It’s how intransigent he is. He’s going to try to make them be an obstacle.”

Then she turned to me and said, with a fresh sigh, “How’s the scuba guy? We heard the ATV leaving.”

I affirmed that, yes, they’d gone out, the scuba guy and the professor.

“Does he seem to be doing any better with this?”

“The diver? Better with what?”

“With the Charles Grant Aleutian Institute. Like, for example, will he stay?” she was speaking toward Tom again.

I suggested that maybe he would start to like the project once he’d seen the territory, riding around in the ATV. Then I said, “Anyway, Terry is in there.”

“‘In there?’”

“He’s been drinking beer and now he’s got a gun. It’s not loaded but I thought somebody should know.”

“One of Arlen’s rifles?”

“It’s not loaded. He says it’s not loaded. And it’s not.”

“How would Terry know whether a gun is loaded?” Nicole asked Tom in all seriousness.

“Where’s his wife?”

“I don’t know.”

Terry could be heard inside the church sneezing repeatedly. He had caught a cold and had been sniffling for a few days.

“Better go in there,” said Tom, standing up.

 

§ § §


“Everybody would feel good if you put down the gun, Terry,” Tom said. The three of us were standing outside the open double-doors, Tom and Nicole and I.

Terry turned around. He had been headed for the kitchen, using the rifle like a kind of walking-stick, setting its butt on the floor beside his path.

“It’s not loaded. I’m just fooling around.”

“Yeah but anyway. Just set it down gently on the floor. You never know.”

Terry tilted his head, and a smile dawned on his face, an evolving smile, a smile of surprise, then amusement, then maybe insult. He looked to the left and he looked to the right, checking offstage, grinning. The wooden butt was resting on the floor and he propped the muzzle against his thrust-out belly. He lifted his arms straight out to left and right, along his personal global meridian in the middle of the church. “It’s. Not. Loaded.”

“I know, Terry, but it’s the principle of the thing.”

I, in my wisdom and discretion, backed a little further out. Out where the doorpost could partly cover me.

“The principle of the thing,” Terry said, “is that you don’t trust me.” He hoisted the gun and got it turned around, lifting its barrel limply toward us. “You think I’m a complete fool who would brandish a loaded gun.”

Nicole, too, edged out of the doorway. Tom, however, remained standing. Both doors were propped aside, creating a big square opening that Tom stood in the center of, and he held up his palms before his belly. “Terry. Man. Just stop fooling around.”

Kevin Pinne came out of his bedroom then. He walked in his bare feet across the open floor and stopped in the middle of Terry’s line of fire. His hand was propped on a hip while he looked at Terry, then at Tom and the rest of us in the doorway. He told the intervention team, “It’s not loaded.”

Tom said, “How can you be absolutely sure if a gun’s not loaded?”

Kevin came over toward the open doorway. “He was pulling the trigger and it always went click.”

Tom pointed out, “Even so? Terry? Man? It might have rounds in other chambers. This is how terrible accidents happen, just ’cause people didn’t know and they thought something. Just put the gun down, why not.”

 “You ask why not,” Terry said. “Because it is, yes, a matter of principle.” He had lowered the barrel. “Can’t I just inform you that this gun is in good hands?” This seemed a matter of grief to him. “I’m able to tell if it’s loaded. I’m able to handle it. I’m not going to surrender it to you just because you were in Viet… Nam,” he finished with a weird hornet-like pulse of his posterior. I’d never been embarrassed on behalf of a grown-up before.

“Terry, man, you’ve already been pointing it at people with your finger on the trigger.”

“My finger. Is under my control. Do you know that? I am able to move my finger? Or keep myself from moving it? I’m not a baby? I’m not a child?”

“Where’s your wife?”

“What the goddamn hell does she always have to do with everything?” he said and turned red. Tom had said the wrong thing. “She doesn’t tell me what to do. She’s a…” He exhaled, rolled his eyes, and said in a smaller, neater voice, “She’s a very nice person.” He was holding the front fabric of his own shirt in a fist.

Kevin Pinne, for the enlightenment of those within earshot, whispered musically, “What have I been say-ing?” Meanwhile he went down the stairs and hobbled barefooted over the tough grass, to sit on the big rusty tank out there.

Terry said, “Okay. I’m sorry. There I am. If I happen to be touchy on these topics,” his fist on the front of his shirt did a little knuckle-scraping, up and down, “it’s because we’re out of our usual environment. Establishing new contacts. Adapting. Acquiring new skills and social skills. All this naturally takes a toll.”

Tom said, “Well, just put the gun down.”

“Obviously, obviously, I’m in a situation where I seem to earn everyone’s mistrust. How do such things happen?”

“Nobody mistrusts you, Terry. People admire you. Everybody likes you.”

“As a matter of fact, you know something? This is the end of this situation.” He bent down and set the rifle on the floor, gently. It didn’t look like the sort of gun to have a “magazine.” It was an elderly-looking, somehow historical-looking rifle with a lot of wood, the whole barrel covered by a wooden handgrip almost all the way out to the tip. It lay in the middle of the floor, and the rest of us stayed where we were, while Terry went to the side room where he and Cristie slept. His left ankle was wrapped in a stretchy bandage: he had sprained it somehow, in a fall or stumble on a doorstep in the village, and for a day his foot hung as a useless dogleg. Now he wasn’t limping much. But still he wore a canvas tennis shoe on one foot, the bandage on the other. He raised his voice within his bedroom, “It’s time for me to go somewhere people have different ‘preconceptions.’”

Kevin, sitting outside, hummed the same little tune, the tune in which he’d sang a minute ago, What have I been say-ing?

I peeked further inside. There was nothing to see. Just the gun on the floor.

In his bedroom, by the sound of things, Terry was flipping open suitcases, knocking around among his and Cristie’s possessions. (Church layout: By carpenters long ago, one side of the open space had been partitioned to make separate little rooms, three on an upstairs level and three downstairs. The Smales had a downstairs room.)

He came out carrying a small zippered case – which must have contained documents or cash or a few necessities – that’s what it looked like. Now he was wearing an unlaced suede Hush Puppy shoe on the sprained foot; a tennis shoe on the other.

Tom backed down the stairs, away from the door, and so did the rest of us. We were opening a clear path – to the water, where the Zodiac had been pulled up onshore. An aluminum case belonging to Dave Angel, which he hadn’t brought up to the church, was still standing on the shore there.

Terry seemed sober now. “Without a weapon I’m—” He had to sneeze and he stopped on the outer doorstep, closed his eyes and sneezed loud. He held up a finger, waiting for a second sneeze, then closed his eyes and barked again loud. Then he came downstairs. “Without a weapon I’m keeping you all at bay. I almost like this idea I’m a mean mother. Unpredictable psychotic. Tom, do me a favor. Would you just get it going for me? I can never start those motors where you pull the rope. I promise it’s the last favor I’ll ask.”

For Nicole’s hearing only, Kevin complained, “Oh, Lordie, now he’s taking the boat. We’ll be marooned here. All winter long. Stranded. Saving our urine for washing. Our hair for decorative weavings.”

“He’ll be back,” grumbled Nicole. “He’s not going anywhere.”

“And probably fingernail parings. You know, the life of a true pioneer so often looks like a zig-zag series of disasters and snafus.”

“How would he get off the island?” Nicole said. “There’s no way. Unless he has a lot of cash there.”

“I predicted this. Did I not?”

She whispered, standing beside him, “But you always oversimplify, darling, in your ideal little elitist world.”

“But they’ll get back together. They’re a good couple. They are. She brings a bit of money, while he brings a bit of class. Or some vestige of it, on a Kalamazoo scale. And darling? Fuck you. Fuck you and your things about my elitist little world, because you’re exactly right, like-it-or-lump-it.”

He wasn’t kidding. But Nicole seemed not to take him too seriously. She said, over her shoulder, “I know, Kev.”

“He’s not gonna get far,” Tom Sample opined. “There’s another boat we could inflate and we’ll have to go get him.”

At the shore, Terry was pushing the rubber boat into the water. Tom, still keeping his eye on him, went on, “He’ll get drunk in town, that’s all. There’s no way off these islands without chartering a plane.”

Terry was standing by the boat, and he called, “Come on, Tom, please? Would you help me get this motor started? You never know: I might have a little pistol here. Why don’t you say I threatened you. It’s a little handgun hidden here in my pocket. Then you can say I coerced.”

 

§ § §


The high sound of the Zodiac’s motor sank in the distances of the cove – Terry seemed to pilot it accurately, not veering off course. The four of us were standing in the church’s open doors, still sharing a a ransacked, violated thrill, when Cristie herself came over the low hill. She was in the company of Arlen, who, by his recent absence on an explorative trip around the island, had gained a sunburn and a remoter blue in the eye. They were coming home from a walk together looking like lovers as they came over the hill close together, both with their hands in their pockets, Arlen talking freely.

But I could see I was wrong, of course they weren’t lovers, she wasn’t attached to Arlen. If she had been, she might have at least glanced toward him at some point when we told her Terry was gone. She didn’t turn her eyes to anybody in the circle, but instead bowed her head and looked into her own inward resources. I stood silently by, with a faint chance at gallantry now maybe. Though in fact rightfully, Tom Sample or Arlen or anybody else would have been in line for the responsibility of her trust.

Nicole told her, “He claimed – or at least he implied – that he was leaving for good.” Cristie looked away, into the doorway of the church, her new home, pocketing her minnow hands in her jeans, focusing with clairvoyance on a future she could see for herself without Terry, her sharp eye picking through an imaginary landscape. She might truly need someone now – but I was still a child, obviously. Nicole added, “He did take some stuff,” in a tone extending to the Smales’ private bedroom. “You’d better check. It could have been – I don’t know – travelers checks or anything valuable. It was more than just his wallet.”

Tom asked Arlen, “You don’t keep your rifles loaded, do you?”

Arlen, before he spoke, always seemed to pause and collect himself, implying an inward vastness. “That?” he cleared his throat. He could see it in there on the floor. “That is an old 303 British. I doubt there’s any bullets for that gun anywhere in the Fox Isles. You could go to Anchorage for bullets for that gun.”

“Oh, it’s a fancy rifle.”

“No, not fancy. Just hard to get bullets for.”

Cristie at last said something. “How long ago?”

“Just now,” Nicole said. “The boat just went around the point.”

“He can’t get out, can he?” said Cristie. “Without a plane?”

“I doubt he really intends to go anywhere,” Tom said. “I wouldn’t worry.”

“We did have an argument. And he has mentioned this.”

She was looking out at the expanse of water her husband left by – and her gaze adjusted toward tenderness, a tenderness I could never have foreseen. It was perfectly humbling, how ineligible I was for a woman’s love, the shallows and unpredictable depths of it.

Tom was persistent in comfort: “He’ll be back. He can’t get off the island.”

She said, “Isn’t it possible to radio? For a plane to come?”

“The only radio is at the harbor, and they won’t let him use it, he’s obviously been drinking. I really wouldn’t worry, Cris.”

“Don’t we have a radio here?”

“It doesn’t work. It’s got a bad tube or something.”

“There’s a new one,” I said. I had noticed a radio in a box. “It’s a kit. You have to assemble it.”

“Couldn’t we put it together?” said Cristie. “Now?”

“Why? What for?”

“To call for a plane,” said Cristie. “To come and take him.”

 

§ § §


I happened to know exactly where the radio kit was – it was in the corner of the big room, and I went to get it, with almost a secret glee because this was one more ingredient in a calamity. The box was among stacks of gear at the room’s far wall, an area where packages of equipment and supplies were piled, donated by corporations or universities, never opened – tents, a gas-powered generator, Just-Add-Water meals, the weather station that arrived with us, collapsible canvas shower-stalls – all of which the professor referred to as his “empire.” Tom Sample picked up the rifle in the middle of the floor, and he probed its orifices, finding no bullets. Cristie, condensing a new majesty, sat down on the bench at the big table.

I carried the radio box into the center of the room and left it there, then went back to the margin again. I was discovering a new mistrust in my own insights – it felt like life, to me, was a game of checkers, while all around me, others were playing by the rules of mysterious chess, seeing angles and threats. Angles and threats I should be content to have no idea of. Having provided the radio, I went to the the far end of the big table, where my skull was. All the pieces were just as I’d left them. The latest glue had dried overnight. Now I could fit another piece of the occiput onto it. The seam there, where it had naturally separated, was like a jigsaw puzzle joint, and I would be able to work the two pieces back together by a gentle hinge-motion. I got out the glue jar. All these days, a feeling of being strangely guilt-free kept clinging to me.

In the silence Cristie spoke up, because she seemed to owe everyone an explanation. “Terry is good with people. He really does have people skills. Maybe it isn’t apparent.”

Nicole was carrying the other Hush Puppy across the room to her. “Better bring him this if you go over.” She set it on the table. “He got away wearing one shoe, and one tennis shoe.”

Tom began popping big staples and opening the box. It was marked Polaris Marine, with a blue silhouette of a radio, lightning-bolts around its antenna. “If we want to get across the bay, we’re going to have to call the Coast Guard or somebody. Where’s Professor Grant?”

“There’s a second boat. It’s in one of those boxes. It’s deflated.”

“The professor is out driving around. He’s with the scuba guy.”

“I’m right here,” said Professor Grant, in the doorway. “What’s happening?”

Tom was the one to explain, “Well, Terry got drunk and he took the boat. Either to buy more beer or else leave the expedition altogether.”

“The latter,” Nicole said, “was what he was saying.”

“So I’m building the radio to raise the Coast Guard or the harbor, to come and get us. We’re stuck here on this side.”

“That other Zodiac doesn’t have an outboard motor,” said Nicole. “You’ll have to paddle.”

The professor had stopped listening. He was watching Cristie at the table, where she sat with her face turned aside.

“Did you talk to him?” he said, focusing his voice across the room. “Or was this his own idea?”

Cristie, not lifting her head, answered, “We’ve been talking, yes.”

Arlen – who had been quiet, leaning by the door – now cleared his throat. One hand gripped and regripped his opposite wrist in a cuff. He always wore old shirts that were expensive-looking and indestructible-looking. He said, as if with regret, “Well now, Professor?” –There was some difficult issue he seemed to want to raise.

“Wait, don’t use the radio,” commanded the professor, turning to Tom. The box was open and Tom had started pulling out cardboard that was supposed to cushion it for shipping. “I don’t want to bug the harbor about every little thing. We can inflate the second Zodiac.”

“He did warn us he might have a pistol. So who knows?”

“A pistol?”

“When he left, he did say he might have a pistol.”

“He doesn’t have a,” Cristie scoffed and then sighed, “pistol.”

The San Diego diver came up the outer stairs and stood tall in the wide-open doorway. His presence arrested everyone – Cristie in her slump, me with my skull, Professor Charles Grant standing amazed centrally among the other witnesses, all characters in a painting of Christ’s empty tomb. Dave waited for a minute, seeing that nobody was going to speak, then he said, “Professor? I’d like to take your Zodiac to the harbor launch, if I may, to get a hold of the pilot. I’d like to catch him before he gets away back to the mainland.”

The professor said, “Does everybody know Dave Angel? Dave, this is Arlen, he’s our outfitter specialist. And this is Tom Sample, he’s interning. And this is Cristie. She’s out from Western Michigan University.”

Everybody had to wait for a minute, for those slight mischaracterizations to dissolve. Tom helped out, genial Tom: “We’ve been looking forward to you. You’re going to dive for the sunken ship.”

“Yeah. I have to tell you, though, unfortunately. There won’t be much diving, ’cause I don’t think it’s feasible. You can see by looking. I could have told you from Scripps. I’ll be taking the next plane out.” He broadcast his explanation to include everybody. “The little that’s known down there is just deep gullies with profound tidal rips. To go down there in scuba gear, you couldn’t pay enough. You’d need a crew. You’d need a boat, too. People don’t dive off a Zodiac, seriously. And something people know from experience: random pokes are not rewarding. You’d have to know where you’re going. You would need to know more about the whereabouts of this ship Three Saints. More than a local legend.”

The professor rubbed his hands together, “I’d like to try to persuade you to come back out with any kind of crew and equipment. Anything you want. You just write your ticket. Price would be no object.”

“It’s too expensive. Boat with full crew and sonar. Topside people, air line. Anybody you do talk into flying up here, I really suggest you describe the situation fully. I’m sorry. Because, you know, if you can get that radio assembled, I’ll call that little Beechcraft. He might still be here, or he might be near Kodiak or someplace, but he’ll come back for me.” He shrugged. Which was supposed to be a form of apology.

Nicole told him, “If it’s that same plane, it was already taking two people, of our party.” Meaning there might not be enough room.

The professor said, “We had two graduate students going to Anchorage for a connection. I’m not sure you can squeeze in.”

Dave wasn’t listening, he was looking around the room. “Nevertheless, I wish you all the best of luck, in this,” he was distracted by the place around him, “project you’re all on.”

Arlen, who had been on the brink of speaking, cleared his throat again, “Well, sir? I’ve gotta say I was hoping there would be room on that plane for me. My name’s Arlen, Arlen Petitta. I’ll be heading for Kodiak myself, if that’s not out of your way. I would gladly split the flight fee with you, if it can work.”

“Dave Angel,” Dave answered, offering a handshake.

Arlen turned to Charles, “I’m sorry, Professor. The halibut is running. You’ve been generous, and naturally I’ll forego the rest of the money, but I honestly I ain’t been much use on this trip.”

Cristie was looking up from the table: “Can three more people fit?”

Charles told her, “You don’t want to go anywhere right now, Cris.”

“Not me,” she said, was holding the empty shoe. “They can squeeze him on while he’s drunk.”

 

§ § §


That night just three of us, the professor and Cristie and I, ate together at the big table, chili con carne from a huge can. Everyone else had gone to town, some to meet the seaplane with their baggage, others to see about Terry, and then also have a drink at The Elbow Room.

Cristie had opted to stay here and, if Terry did get on a plane, not even say goodbye. She’d long ago been Charles’s student, which seemed to furnish the basis for long silences; there was a lot that didn’t need explaining. I felt tipped forward, stealthy in my eating, ready at any minute for this expedition to be declared over. After a long while Cristie said, “It was asking a lot of him.” From this angle by candlelight I could see a golden fur glistening on her temples and hairline, her little stubborn chin still marking her as mine in secret. She went on after a minute, “He’s very hard on himself. Judgmental about himself.”

Instead of eating her chili, she’d been turning it absentmindedly with a fork. She was drinking Charles’s red wine, something she had never done when Terry was here.

“Between you and my family, he was…,” she shrugged.

That thought freed her to eat a little. Which she went ahead and did. Chewing and swallowing seemed to take concentration and even be annoying to the throat. In a high sigh she added, “You know it’s just terrible being female. Things don’t stick to men. They really don’t. Things just fall right off men.”

Charles – who had seen his plan for underwater exploration fail that day – was holding his porcelain coffee-cup of wine to his temple, lying back against his chair. He was able to make a quiet clink sometimes, rhythmically, moving a finger to tap his wedding band on the rim of the cup. – “Supposedly,” he answered. Then, having thought – having tinked the rim of his wine-cup a few times – he went on, “No. Harder being male because things aren’t supposed to stick. And ’cause in fact, nobody’s very good at it. Or ever gets it right. Being male. Put on your eagle feathers, bison head.” He added, “Poor guy,” referring to Terry. Then he took a sip and went on. “In any society. Aleut. Maori.”

He had been drinking all afternoon, and a trusting blindness had come into his manner, as well as a lazy, muffling acoustic baffle in the mouth. “Margaret Mead said something: she said the principle challenge facing any society is figuring out what to do with the males. Warriors, what-have-you, priests, artists, bullshit, yadda-yadda. Create this big…,” he lifted his elbows into chicken-wings, vaguely, listlessly made a flap.

He’d put his cup of wine on the table, but now reached for it again, and he finished his little disquisition on gender differences, “Women don’t have to devise a big…”

She gave no sign of listening. But I could tell she was thinking, Oh yeah they do. Her mouth had sharpened at a corner.

He said, “A female arrives already hip-to-the-scene, I mean compared to boys, completely pretty-much…” Then he brought his eyes up to her and said, “Was it because you refused to write the letter? To Kalamazoo?”

She didn’t answer for a minute. “Oh, it was going to come to the letter. But there’s other things. I mean, there’s us. Even though it was years ago. He was showing an amount of tolerance.”

“That was stupid. That was always stupid.”

“What was stupid?” she said, the candles in her eyes unwavering, though she still looked downward.

Charles said, “Us.”

Charles’s eyes by contrast were canceled.

“I know, I agree,” she said.

That made him wake up and look at her – and she at him – and suddenly I was in the presence of desire in the air like the atmosphere before a summer storm. I’d never seen anything like this – for that minute these two people’s whole lives were veering. Charles broke it off, rotating in his chair with a sway of walking on his hams, addressing emptiness out there in the rest of the room, “Well, that diver might have been perfect. It was a long shot and it failed. It wouldn’t’ve been the first time I’ve made something out of long shots.”

She said, “Mm-hm.” She seemed on the brink of smiling, but about something unrelated.

Charles, still facing away, scolded her, “As if there were so many teaching jobs up here.”

She had no defense. Or, didn’t care to try.

Charles remarked, “I guess Terry was – or is – an innocent.”

Her voice climbed: “It really is reasonable to suppose, Charles, that there would be teaching jobs anywhere you go. Especially here. Terry did hear everything beforehand. We both did.”

Charles pushed back deeper in his chair, with a motion of trying to reenter his stupor. “My heart goes out, frankly. He’s been eyeing me so querulously – as if I’d ruined the Smale family’s plan. It’s only my ingrainedheroic discretion, sweetheart, prevents me.”

Lifting his mug, covering his muzzle with it, he admitted, “So now everything is pretty much spinning-off-at-angles.”

She went on looking at him, as if for some reason disapproving of that remark. Then abruptly she looked down cradling a proud shame. She drew her wine cup toward herself but didn’t drink.

I supposed my own being so young, and their having such sophisticated problems, let them talk as freely as if I weren’t there. Indeed, I was insight-free, I knew it. But I felt necessary to the expedition, precisely through my very incomprehension/ignorance, the necessary vacuum at the eye of the storm, holding the centrifugal forces together responsibly. Charles said, “Does Terry care about his daughter?”

“Oh god yes, oh god.” She then looked up seriously at Charles. “Oh, he plans on coming back. He’ll get work in Anchorage and come back here and get me.”

“Does he love Desiree? Is that a factor?”

She gave out a soft puff and said, “Love, yes of course.”

I supposed the concept of love had been damaged.

Charles kept an eye on her, and he said, “Eat your chili. Have some chili.”

“He loves Desiree, you have no idea,” Cristie said. “And me too, for that matter.”

“In case it makes you feel any better, I don’t have any reason for being here, either.” It was a recognizable prelude – one of Charles’s songs was coming on.

“You?” she said. “For being here?”

“I’m an ‘unrested bird facing facts.’ There used to be a little artwork with that title, in a café off-campus. Unrested Bird Facing the Facts. A lithograph, I think. Just a little bird sitting there looking at you. I’m the last romantic in anthropology. It’s my market position.”

“You’ve always talked that way. The fact is, you’ve still got your career, you’ve got Ruth, you’ve got tenure, and if you want to go back to that Department—”

“Nope,” he had leaned back and he tucked his chin down, condemning all those possibilities and condemning himself: “I’m comfortable now.”

He added, “I have no—” With a lifted cup, he toasted her. Or he was toasting himself, his fate.

She leaned back and avoided looking at him and didn’t respond, arms folded.

I was still hungry and I had finished all the chili in my bowl. I stood up to get more, rising with a smoke-like effort to be inconspicuous, murmuring a query about whether anybody else might want a second helping.

Charles said, “Anyway, do you remember the little student coffee house? This picture was just all spattery with little blobs like leaves. And a tree branch. You could sort of make out a bird sitting there.”

I came back to the table and reseated myself, with more brown soup of red beans and hamburger.

Charles went on, “Like my job, my marriage. My not having anything. Not loving anything.”

Cristie said abruptly in a daze, spring-loaded, “Not loving is the only sin. I’ve always thought that.”

She was watching her own forefinger: it prodded her kneecap, tracing its outline, through the fabric of her white jeans. She always wore white jeans. Always her shirts were tucked in tight. Always narrow shoes of pink canvas, her pithy chest in pastel shirts, and a nylon windbreaker. Tonight, at dinner, she was wearing the windbreaker.

“You’re way too young to be sad,” Charles told her, having looked at her for a minute. “Don’t be sad.” It made her look up. In the air between them, desire fused again. They had to get away from it.

Charles pulled himself taller again and focused on me. “Our young friend is having to watch some pretty grown-up little melodramas this summer.”

The only sound from me had been my steadily scooping in the chili. I looked up, as if surprised to be noticed.

Charles went on, “You brought your guitar, eh, but there’s no amplifier to plug it in.”

In the world, I didn’t want to always have to give some account of myself. To have motives all the time. And reasons and explanations.

I came out with, “I’m just practicing,” though in fact I almost never took it out of its case.

Cristie, still bowed over her knee, took in a long breath and said, in a new resolve, “Anyway, it’s not true that you didn’t ever love anything.”

“It isn’t?”

“You loved this place.” She was again watching her finger on her crossed-over kneecap, poking it, outlining it. Charles obviously liked being described, and wouldn’t mind hearing more. Somehow they were both drunk even though she hadn’t taken much wine. She proposed, “You really do love this place,” while she sat up better, crossing one leg high over the other, which wedged the pelvis in a fresh tilt, the whole mysterious form finding a new equilibrium, the blade of a hip levering her spinal column, two breasts nibbling the inner fabric of her shirt, her small-boned wrists crossed, upon the kneecap that had slid past the other kneecap, her body a fascinating machine of revolving scythes. “You always did love these islands and these people.”

A doubt was in his vision. “I’m an anthropologist. I’m an anthropologist – but I’m not sure if that’s love. Maybe that’s not love. Maybe that’s some kind of erasing thing. I mean, it’s what I devoted my life to.”

“Oh sure,” she said impatiently. With a soft lunge she reached for the bottle. She never drank while Terry was with us, and now she was pouring herself a second cup.

“See, I know something about universities, Cristie. They encourage a certain kind of person who’s always in the right. Literally, they’re always right, ’cause they have to be. It’s what they’re hired for. It’s their job. And I’m one of them. The actual world outside, off-campus, is built on being wrong half the time. Or most – most! – of the time. Go directly across University Avenue, in any office building, or restaurant or pizzeria or any little retail shop. People keep being wrong: business, art. Love. Or science, too, really. If it’s real science. That’s the world: ‘Wrong wrong wrong.’ But on the campus each year the professor – who is always right, see? – he’s always got the answer sheet, ’cause he wrote the answer sheet – each year he gets a new crop of Wrong little people to boss around, and the professor exists in an artificial world, where maybe he needs to seem so liberal and open-minded—”

“You’re such a talker,” she said lovingly. She had reached across and set two fingers on his wrist – like pulse-taking, but on the back of his wrist.

“No, I’ve done a lot of thinking about this. If you love something, you go be with it. And take on the weakness of it. Take on the wrongness of it And be it. Even if it’s wrong. Go ahead and be wrong and suffer.” (His hand on the table was staying where it was, under her two fingers.) “But an anthropologist, he comes around with his notebook. His little notebook. ‘I’m so enamored of you people, I’m going to write about you and be an expert on you.’ I don’t know what that is, but that’s not love, possibly. Possibly, the saving grace, for me, is that I’m not a real anthropologist.”

“Stop drinking now. Switch to water now.”

“Whereas anthropologists come around with calipers and anthropometer—” He lifted his cup.

She watched him for a minute, then wrinkled her nose, finding him absurd. She made her own kind of candlelight. I wanted her so uselessly, so irrelevantly, I tended to hold my breath in witness. It was getting to look like a possiblity that the two of them might sleep together. Together they were sinking toward something, and she took her hand back from his wrist and reached for her empty wine cup and said, “What’s an anthropometer?”

“A ruler,” he said, looking up at her, swimming in the hopeless joke. “It means people-measurer: anthropometer. It’s just a damn goddamn ruler.”

“It wasn’t stupid,” she said, her eyes shining.

“What wasn’t stupid.”

He took up his full-to-the-brim water glass. “I don’t need to be irresponsible any more. I don’t need to be destructive. Your Terry person is someone who is still taking shape. Probably he’ll always be insecure, what he married into.”

She smiled with the serenity of somebody who’d had a serious setback, fair-and-square, and could be grown-up about it.

She’d been gripping the bottle without pouring, and now at last she poured herself more wine, with a momentum that sluiced in the cup and spouted a little on the table.

He scoffed, “…‘Jobs in Alaska.’”

Somehow, that remark might have amounted to his concession that they had now entered into something illicit. To which her next remark could have been assent in complicity:

“He’s not stupid. He’s really smart. He, too, wanted to get out of Kalamazoo. I agree with you, he’s a good investment, and a good man. I’m telling you. Terry is somebody.”

“I can see that. Good. So let me join you in that endeavor.”

They couldn’t look at each other.

“You know, Charles, Terry actually will stop goofing around, and we’ll get Desiree out of there, and everything will be fine. You know that will happen. I’ll tell you what else. I love him. He’s mixed up at the moment. But I do love him. One day Terry will get on a certain wavelength.”

They were both hanging their heads, waiting. They’d raised this picture of a husband before them and praised his potential, then their eyes met, and Charles looked deep into the whole idea of Cristie Smale, an inward terrain his vision could keep skimming forever.

Her tender white Chapstick lips parted. Then she turned to me – I’d been watching them openly, stupidly – and she said, “It is definitely way way past your bedtime.”

 

§ § §


By the time the posse came back that night, I’d been asleep for hours. It was Nicole and Tom and Kevin – they were pulling off their boots, dropping their coats, noisy and merry on the open floor below. I put on my pants and went out to the 2-by-4 railing. The professor, below in his stocking feet, came out from the kitchen area with his wine cup, carrying a scoop of old refrigerated mashed potatoes on his fingers. Nicole told him, “Everybody got on the plane. Terry got on the plane too. They’re all gone.”

“Yeth! …It’th jutht uth now,” said Kevin, sneaking up on Nicole hunchbacked, gasping, tapping at her with one fin. “The little band of thientists in the old church keepth thrinking. The old people thay there’th a curthe!” She patted his chest, meaning he should behave. Tom, putting two wooden oars in the far corner, said, “We got the Zodiac. Both boats are back here now.”

Charles was standing there looking, from my point of view, permanently disgusted. But no one seemed to notice.

“He didn’t have a pistol either, of course,” said Kevin.

“We had fun,” said Nicole. “I hate to say it but Terry is fun. In The Elbow Room, seems like everybody in this town has uncashed Panalaska checks. Terry was trying to convince people he could deposit them in Anchorage. It was ridiculous. He’s like a salesman.”

“There was a fellow who was at sea for a month, and he had a check for two thousand dollars. He was literally ready to give his check over to Terry Smale.”

Nicole specified, for Charles’s information, “So Dave Angel and Arlen and Terry all fit on that little plane. Where’s Cristie? In bed?” Nicole was climbing the stairs toward me and she said, “Hi there. What kind of evening did you folks have here? Did you leave us any chili?”

Tom asked, about Cristie, “How is she doing with this?”

Charles, all this while, hadn’t said a thing, looking down into his wine cup.

Tom was bringing a newly acquired case of beer to the table.

Charles at last spoke.

“Where do you think you’re going?” he asked Nicole

She was coming back down the stairs hugging her sleeping bag and her pillow, carrying hangers on hooked fingers. She didn’t answer, or even look at him, but reached the bottom of the stairs and vanished into the downstairs room that was unused. Then she came back out, empty-handed, and went up for another load, while Charles watched, holding his wine cup.

Kevin was in the kitchen. “Diver Dave certainly was a bore. Jolly good thing.” Meaning, apparently, it was a good thing he’d gone.

He swaggered into the center of the room with a beer bottle. “So hear me now, people. Now we’ve got some of the dead wood out of this outfit. Maybe we can Accomplish Something Around Here. Perhaps – perhaps! – the Golden Samovar has slipped from our grasp. But don’t you think we owe it to her?” He swung an arm toward the skull on the table. “Don’t you think we owe it to her memory? To Civilize the Last Wild Place?”

Professor Grant said, “All right, you, all of you.” For emphasis, he dropped the heavy ceramic cup he’d been holding. It hit the floor without breaking, but it was loud.

“I’m only kidding, Professor, really.”

“And you too,” he spoke to Nicole, who was coming down the stairs with another armful of her possessions. He said, “What do you think you’re doing?”

“I’m moving,” she said. She’d stopped on a stair. But she got going again, looking too sick-and-tired to discuss anything anymore, her lips going duckbilled in that way of hers.

“Well, listen up. All of you. I’m one inch from kicking you all out. A certain kind of frivolousness is very destructive. Those who are not on-mission may leave. Out that door right there. Tomorrow I’m taking the mail boat to Atka with Cristie. We’ll be gone for a day or two, and you’ll be on your own. Anybody who is not on-mission will cause the whole batch of you to be thrown out. Is that clear to everyone?”

Silence. People were trying to think about what being on-mission was.

Kevin said, “I’m sorry, Professor. I make these attempts at comedy, and I know they’re not always funny. From now on I’ll be on-mission.”

Nicole said, “What’s in Atka?”

Charles said, “Let me just say this. Let me put it this way. It certainly does look as if the underwater exploration is postponed. However. However. What do you, for example, think you’re on this trip for?”

“Me?” said Nicole, she’d stopped again, in the doorway of the spare bedroom she seemed to be moving into.

“Why did you come on this expedition? What was your purpose? Would you say.”

“Charles, for Christ’s sake.” She disappeared again into her new bedroom.

“You,” he turned to me then. I was the next person in his field of vision, up above at the railing. I tried to wear on my face exactly the right amount of blamelessness, combined with honest blameworthiness. I thought he was going to take away my skull, which I would surrender immediately under any conceivable ethical system. The expedition might be collapsing and maybe now people would be sent home – and what came to mind was the #2 pencils I’d left on the cement window sill of the gym building. Four of them, freshly sharpened,

“Tomorrow you are going to make yourself useful by hauling firewood. It’s pretty plain that your little buddy Andy is not going to do it. If he comes over here tomorrow, then you help him do it. You make him help. There’s that big pallet of firewood down there by the shore. So that’s your job for tomorrow. We may be in warm weeks right now. But soon this place is going to get cold.”

He turned to Tom Sample, “Your job is to be in charge of day-to-day operation in my absence. I’m going to Atka.” Nicole was visible to him, in her new bedroom. He told her, “I have to accomplish some business there. And Cristie is coming with me. On Atka, there’s an old elder of the Philandron family. I want him to come here for the Native Claims meeting. He has an Aleut dictionary.” This was professional information for Nicole. “It’s a handwritten dictionary that’s been kept over the generations by the Philandron ancestors. Moreover, he’s on our side.” He pulled a pipe and a tobacco pouch out of a side pocket. I didn’t know he smoked a pipe. His thumb packed tobacco into the bowl.

Nicole seemed impressed. She’d come to her open door, but, having no reply, turned back in, folding a sweater.

But she stopped and swung around angry. “When I get back to Chicago, what am I supposed to say? You’ve got these people milling around in an empty church.”

“I’m here for the ANCSA meeting. You’re obviously here to play with your little friend.”

He turned to Kevin Pinne, “And as for you…” He started across the room to go outside, putting his pipe in his teeth. “I have no use for you.”

He left. He went outside to smoke his pipe.

The door swung shut and he was gone.

Kevin gloated, massaging his throat, “Privilege of my gender.”

Nicole came back out and approached Cristie’s door.

Gently she knocked. While everyone watched, she disappeared inside, and gently closed the door from within.

Kevin and Tom had been gravitating toward each other all this while, in the characteristic way that meant it was time to go off together and roll one of their special cigarettes. Therefore, Tom was digging in his shirt pocket, Kevin bringing up the rear, as they headed for the kitchen. The rear door there led to a never-visited slope out back.

It was just me, then. The room was empty and I came down. The new-arrived case of beer was there on the table, and I thought, rather than go back to bed, I’d make myself useful by helping to put it in the fridge. Also, maybe Nicole would come out of Cristie’s room.

I didn’t hurry. It was twenty-four bottles in a low wooden varnished Coca-Cola crate with partitions. Carefully transplanting them one-by-one into the icebox, I took my time while keeping an eye on Cristie’s closed door. It looked like Nicole wasn’t going to come out anytime soon. It was quiet in there. Eventually I went back up to bed.

 

§ § §


Once there was an old Aleut man and woman who wanted a child. But they had no child, so the man took a piece of driftwood and carved a boy. So they had a boy, but he was only a doll made of wood.

Then one day, the woman saw the boy moving. It was alive, but it was still made of wood. She was so happy then.

Then the boy left the hut all by himself. When nobody knew, he walked out, far over the observation hill, past the point of land, until he got to the place where you can’t walk any further. There is a place where the sky there comes down to the earth. He could see there was a bulging place right there. So he took out his little knife and he sliced open the bulging place, and all the wind came out. There was never any wind until that time. Everything had been quiet before then. Now all the different ones came out together, warm wind and cold wind, wet wind and dry wind, good wind and bad wind. Also all the animals came out, good and bad. And all the smells came out good and bad. After that, the boy had skin, not wood anymore, and he went back to his parents’ barrabara. The two parents rejoiced. That wasn’t Andy Kiroff’s story, Andy had been a real boy all along. In reality, nobody is a wooden doll.

 

§ § §


The next morning I stayed in bed. There were no sounds out there. In the daylight from the door, I spent some time looking at books, unwilling to appear out on the open floor, because it seemed now anything could happen. I was long ago done with the Hemingway, and the archaeology textooks didn’t matter anymore. Matt Krim’s reference books – like, for instance, the Chicago Manual of Style – were actually, oddly, diverting to look through. The E.B. White book I put off. It looked boring. It was essays. And nonfiction was a pedestrian form way beneath poetry, beneath even fiction.

When I did come out, the church was empty. Tom and Nicole had taken the spare boat and paddled to town – I’d heard them inflating it and setting out. Kevin wasn’t evident, and Charles and Cristie were gone, to Atka. I was alone under the rafters, in the emptied-out speaker cabinet that is a stripped church. From the tall windows, sunlight lay on the floor slanting in long cautionary zones. Nothing appetizing was in the icebox. My baggy socks swabbed around on floorboards nabbing specks and crumbs. I stood over my girl’s exploded skull on the work table. I poked at one concave piece, setting it rocking.

Having nothing better to do, I put on my boots and went outside in the damp sunshine, down to the shore. It was where firewood was piled on a platform. I took off my jacket, and on an empty stomach, I started carrying armloads of firewood uphill, alone, with very soon a rising moral, or ethical pleasure in labor, far from home now. Outside the rear door was an overhanging eave, where I stacked the wood. The weather again was mild, and the work was hard, causing a light sweat, a sensation of virtue in my body. It’s good all around just to be doing anything.

While I worked, the sound of the Kiroffs’ skiff came around the point. I kept hauling wood while the boat landed – I carried up another armful and laid it against the shed wall – and by the time I’d come around in front again Andy was there. Standing onshore, he spoke shortly to his father. His father said something terse, while swiveling the motor to make the boat point elsewhere.

Andy said to the old man, “Hey!”

The single word was a threat. Mr. Kiroff kept his back turned, as the boat swung against a pillow of water and pulled out and got up some speed.

I was coming on down the hill and I said hi – Andy in greeting seemed to make a shrug – my palms were sweaty and dusty, and I went to the woodpile for another load. He watched me get down and gather sticks in the crook of my arm.

Seeming peeved, he came over. “Propane is the way to go,” he told me. Meanwhile he started stacking pieces of wood on his arm. With our separate loads we went uphill behind the church, and he said, “Wood is not the way. Out here, propane is the way. Or else oil.”

“It’s not me, it’s the professor.”

His obsidian eyes were so shallow-set they showed no motion, not ever. They might have been painted on.

I said, “Maybe we don’t have propane. Who knows.”

“You got propane right there. See that tank? I been everywhere all over here. I know this whole island. I could tell you where the burial caves are. You’re looking for burial caves, aren’t you. I know where all the mummies are.”

He was boasting and also jeering, both at the same time. We had arrived behind the church. I poured my armful out on the pile along the wall. “Isn’t that…,” I said, lifting my shoulders in what was supposed to be a shiver toward superstition, “Is that allowed? Going inside them?”

He dropped his armload on the pile. “You scared? You scared of mummy grease?”

“Mummy grease?”

“It’s stupid. Forget it. You don’t want to know.” He was going back downhill. “It’s for old timers.”

“What is mummy grease?”

“No such thing. It’s a myth. No such thing as mummy grease.”

“It sounds pretty disgusting,” I said, with relish, as I followed. But he wasn’t going to say any more.

I told him, “As a matter of fact, burial caves aren’t interesting to me. I say let them rest in peace.”

He was picking up another load. “If you want to see burial caves you have to do a ceremony of initiation.”

“What kind of ceremony of initiation?”

“No,” he scoffed. “You have to go out alone on Makushin and stay awake all night.” He loaded firewood on his arm, and I was doing likewise. He added, “And cut off the little tip of your little finger.”

Instantly, I got the feeling there was no such ceremony – he was making it up. How was I so sure? Maybe I knew by the tough leer, and then his turning away. For that matter, he might have no idea where any caves were. Or, there might actually be none.

“How come you aren’t missing a fingertip?”

“I never done it.”

“You live here. And you’ve never done it.”

“Maybe I don’t feel like it. It’s old superstition.”

I started back up the hill with my firewood. “You’ve never done the initiation but you’ve seen the caves.”

“Everybody knows where the caves are.” He followed me uphill, then he answered, “Initiation is old Aleut shit. Forget about it. And that mountain is scary. Big winds up there. Too scary for you.”

We dumped our armloads and went down, gathered more, and went up the hill in silence – slaked, quenched, even reconciled, by a dispute that felt oddly like accord. I suggested, “Surely people don’t mutilate their hands.”

He said, “It can be anything. It can be a little cut. It’s just a ceremony.” He was making all this up. This didn’t exist. “The hard part is going up on Makushin, with the winds up there all night. That’s the big part, not a little cut on the finger.”

Neither of us in great shape, we were growing dirty and damp and raw with the work. The sun was low, white in the sky, the silence of a world muffled by moss and mist, the sea in the cove calm and flat, tiny waves arriving with no far-off prelude, just a throb at the water’s rim, a swish in clicking pebbles. When soon the pallet was empty, we stopped and sat on it. In the distance, in their own remote mists, levitating snowfields shone. Andy said, “That’s going to be my kingdom.” He was looking away in the direction of Makushin, the central elevation on the island. “This is something you don’t know nothing about.”

“Kingdom?”

He pulled his sweatshirt’s hood in on his neck, keeping his eyes fixed on the mountain. The glamorous power in his face – “dolichocephalic” maybe – was in its never dimpling or showing an inward reflection of any kind. He said, “In a couple years, the Aleuts will have all their land back. Every single person who is a real Aleut will get a big amount of money from Washington and a big piece of ground he can choose. Won’t be any U.S. government. Won’t be any government at all. It will be free again here.”

“You mean you personally? Just for you?”

He kept looking at the mountain, and I envied him, not for his expectation of personal land ownership – which was no doubt a partly delusional boast – but with a vast, non-specific envy of the bitter winds and the cold where he lived, an envy of his hard choices. My own choices, in my comfort, in a suburb, I could never explain to him. It would make sense that he should be treating me as a rich sophisticated American to try to impress, way out here in a backward place.

“You’ll see,” he said, his eyes on the high elevations.

 

  • § §


I came inside the church when all the wood was stacked. Andy’s stepfather had come and taken him away, a wordless encounter in which the stepfather handled the tiller while Andy sat in front and rode.

Kevin Pinne was at the kitchen end – he’d slept late and was making a sandwich. The tape-player on the floor was repeating, for the hundredth time, a Paul Simon song from that album. I sat down at the big table before the scattered skull of the girl. “Kevin, do you happen to know, is it true that the Aleuts are getting part of Alaska returned to them?”

“I don’t know anything about it, really.” His back was turned, where he worked at the counter. “I believe I hear the sound of Nicole and Tom coming back from town.” I’d heard it, too, the Zodiac coming around the point. “Now they’ll want sandwiches. But Tom will see something wrong in how I make a sandwich.”

He folded his bread together and came around and sat down at the far end of the table. He bit and he chewed. The beheaded girl’s face was tilted back as if to watch him eat, through the eyeholes. “Here is what I understand about it,” he said lifting his gaze into his performative distance. “There is a bill in Congress called the Alaska Native Claims bill. People think primitive people are entitled to own places they used to roam all over. The government wants to put a stop to this belief, once and for all, by giving the natives a billion dollars. In addition to a billion dollars, the natives get to pick all the best real estate for themselves to own legally. However, the professor thinks they shouldn’t accept a cent, because they are Better Off Poor. In my own opinion, the whole thing will probably happen. Then what will we have? We’ll have Another Treaty.”

“How long will you stay on the expedition? What are you going to do?”

“Ah. So you ask. I see my true role now, as the Author of this little botched version of ‘The Tempest.’” He got up from the table to get something from the icebox.

“I’ll wager you don’t think of Nicole Powell as shy. In fact, she is a Social Failure. Lonely lonely. I’ve known her for years. She frightens men. Men frighten her. She needs a delightful virgin, who might be procured. It would have to be limited. You’d call it a dalliance. She’d have to be drunk, too.”

I did understand what he was saying and I knew it was lewd – that is, all the words did convey their meanings – but I wasn’t willing to think specifically what the words might have to do with Nicole’s life. The only picture that came to mind was university dorms, those corridors, and the hard-to-imagine social life there. Supposedly, some schools actually had coed dorms. Females and males used the same bathrooms. Which was bizarre to think of, and that was the kind of world Nicole lived in. Kevin came back from the icebox and he sat down, lifted his sandwich, and bit and chewed, while looking off toward the tall windows, the view of overcast sky. “I bother with this because you’re all so boring. And here she is! Right, Nicole?”

She came in the front door carrying a cardboard box of groceries. Tom followed, carrying a similar box.

She announced, “Crackerjacks.”

Little cartons of the candied corn were piled on the top of her box.

My mind was sometimes one of those sea-mud slugs whose only defense was an ability, when prodded, to just toughen and shrink. Kevin’s pronouncements had the effect, only, of seeming oddly threatening. He had deep resources of power, power over everybody including even the professor, and I was a little afraid of him, I think everybody was, while yet grateful, too, for I knew I was lucky briefly to be around a brilliant person. Once, early in the expedition, Nicole had told him he should stop controlling, stop manipulating, and he answered by asking if she remembered Archimedes. Archimedes claimed that if he had a lever-and-fulcrum, and if he could stand on a spot just a little outside the earth, he could move the entire planet. That, Kevin said, was where he was always condemned to stand.

Tom said, “Mail,” putting down his box.

“Really? Ah! Let’s see. Marvelous.”

“Peter’s Commercial. The supply boat brought it through. But there’s nothing for you.”

The groceries had been set down directly in front of me, and I took a box of Crackerjacks and started scratching through the shiny paper. Kevin Pinne was empowered to take analytic, critical views of people’s inner lives. Even Nicole’s inner life. Kevin was part of the real world outside Wilmette, a world where complete honesty, complete non-hypocrisy, was an invigorating risk which you could enter into freely.

Tom was sorting through the mail, “One for Charles from the school… One for Mr. and Mrs. Terence Smale… One for you—”

He handed me a blue airmail envelope, addressed in my mother’s exemplary Palmer-method handwriting from the Depression, with that force in its grace. I slipped it away, knowing what would be in it – and I later confirmed I was right – only a lot of news about the lawn, and what they’d been having for dinner, and the weather – so nothing had yet arrived from the Educational Testing Service. The Smales’ letter, which had landed on the table, was from Kalamazoo County, Ninth Judicial Circuit Court, Family Division.

“—There’s another one, too, for Cristie. Looks like her parents. And one for Charles from an anthropology thing. That’s all.”

Charles – that was another bracing part of the world: people called grown-ups and even professors by their first name, insolently, and it was absolutely fine. Tom took a Crackerjacks off the top of the heap and twisted a cardboard corner off. He told me, “That’s a doozie, that skull. What are you going to do with it?”

In my own Crackerjacks box, the Surprise Toy floated on top, in its paper packet. Which I ripped. The toy inside was an inscrutable prong of ivory plastic.  “What is this?” I asked wanting a general opinion, holding it up.

“It’s a cotter pin,” said Tom. “Obviously.”

He took it and looked at it.

“Yeahp. The cosmos sent you a cotter pin.”

Nicole said, “It’s a raven bone. Maybe these are Crackerjacks for distribution in the Aleut market. Actually, what it looks like, it looks like a nasal septum. The missing piece for your skull. It’s a vomer.”

Kevin said, “Oh, it’s a vomer! A vomer! Of course! I should have recognized a vomer.” He reached across for it. “Some beachcomber’s vomer. Mayber it’s Homer’s vomer, and it gives me a, well, you-know-what.”

Nicole said, “The structure in the middle of your nose. It’s called a vomer. It means plowblade. Latin.”

Whenever Nicole said something erudite, her mouth afterwards flattened in a duckbill. Today her ears were protruding elfin-wise through straight hanks of unwashed hair.

“It’s an IUD, hon,” Kevin handed it to Nicole, keeping it going around the table. “It’s your missing piece the cosmos sent.”

“Well,” Nicole said to me – and she set it down among the bone fragments – “You’ll just have to decide for yourself where it goes,” a happy mouthful of shellacked puffs muffling her words. My face felt hectic, cherished in a general mockery while I ate sticky popcorn in confusion, sitting, as always, before my trophy. It hadn’t been long since we’d all been warned that pothunters were the scourge of archaeology. But I’d been allowed to commit this desecration publicly, and now everyone was treating the bones as my personal souvenir, the corpus delicti spread out on the table for all to covet.

 

§ § §


Charles was going to be gone for who-knows-how-long. So Tom and I went across and got ourselves hired at Panalaska as longshoremen, easily on asking.

Early the next day at 3:30 AM, a fishing boat was due in from the Pribilof Islands to be unloaded, and we were supposed to show up at the dock wearing work gloves to protect our hands and carrying rain gear in case of weather. When we arrived the next morning, the boat was already there, on the dark waters shining its lamps.

Inside the Panalaska building, in an office that was like a storeroom, a bare bulb cast a glare on an inner world of cardboard boxes. A foreman was in there. We were given timecards – they were ordinary 3×5 index cards, to write our names at the top of, and the date and hour on the first line of – and we handed them to the foreman to be initialed: he was a middle-aged villager in a heavy shirt of beige plaid, whose thumb looked like a toe, missing a joint. He led us through this routine without speaking a word, keeping a cup of coffee never far from his lip. It was the first job I’d ever had in my life, and I impaled my timecard on a standing spike on his desk. Topmost card in a stack of many others.

Then the foreman buttoned his jacket, separated himself from his coffee with a last kiss, and led us out to the dock in the darkness. Out there, another man at the far end was standing up tall, gathering volumes of air in his embrace, to invite a floating weight to touch down. The foreman, still without speaking, pulled over an iron cart, iron wheels rumbling on old timbers’ mushy corduroy: the same kind of soft timber underfoot as, back home, the wooden threshold at the edge of the skating rink, at the Village Green, where skate-blades over the years had chopped and mashed the woodgrain, where girls, whose lips by inward blood had been stained swollen like cherries, swam high on a layer of air, their skirts’ flip defining a radiant division in all moral space, blinding me in politeness. In that rink’s slush border, where older, tougher kids’ hockey zone-lines blurred under the ice, the soft corduroy threshold was a friend to the eye, a rest, a fellow.

But I was nowhere near there now. In the dark on the wharf, already several craneloads had been set down. These were crates that looked like they’d been made by a cabinetmaker, a cabinetmaker from some antique Asian civilization – essentially cages, cube-shaped, their wood mullions varnished against seawater. Within each cage, a load of silver, dead salmon lay interwoven. The Aleut foreman (using a razor-beaked knife, which appeared with a tap at his back pocket) cut twines to release the lid, then went over and got a galvanized tub from a stack that was right there, and set the tub on the iron cart. He picked up a slimy fish from within the crate and dropped it into the tub. He looked at both of us, up and down, then decided to hand the knife to Tom, not me.

For both of us in turn, he gave a brief glance of salute, before he turned and walked back to the office, where it was warm.

That was what we would do all day, move slimy fish from a crate to a tub – and when it was filled, start another tub – in a limited, simplified world where I wouldn’t have to form words, or govern my wandering thoughts, but could swing in repetitive motions. I took off my gloves – because they would be useless, and only get soaked right away – and I leaned to Tom and said, “Notice his thumb?”

He didn’t answer. He picked up a trial fish – it took both hands – then turned and set it in the galvanized tub. He said, “What do you think we’re supposed to do when the tub is full?”

“Drag it to the building. Get another tub. Ask the guy.”

He said, “Maybe the fingers get chopped off by machines in there. Whatever they’re doing. Cleaning salmon.”

I put away Andy Kiroff’s half-formed ridiculous idea that Aleuts underwent some initiation ritual involving the mutilation of fingers. From inside the big shed, I could hear a constant sound of whacking. Arriving this morning, I’d seen, in a glimpse, a few Aleut women lifting heavy knives at a counter heaped with gleaming guts under a light bulb.

“Well…” Tom sighed, going in with both hands to get a grip on a second fish, “The only employer in town.” It was a general spacy remark, for prologue to the many long hours.

I got hold of one – it wasn’t slippery at all – and found it just about as heavy as I’d imagined. None of this smelled bad. So there we were. Keeping out of each other’s way by an alternation of stooping and reaching, we kept it up as the day dawned pearly and cold and the joy of work expanded in my body, while my stomach grew emptier and my lungs grew purer of tobacco tar, until hours had gone by, and tubs kept coming, to be filled and dragged away, and the whole world had come into my possession, now and in the future, through the faith of labor, I loved the rhythm of it, and I loved the entitlement to time it gave, to the passing instant itself. Which maybe I’d never really had before. And there was the purely muscular pleasure of creating a result in the world, moving a few tons toward the markets on the U.S. coast. The sun climbed behind its wall of clouds. With daylight, the world came up oddly colder, rather than warmer. But the heat of my body filled my clothes. Only my hands were being abused, numbed by contact with cold fish. Tom said, after a great succession of wooden crates had gone by, something he’d clearly been thinking of saying for a while. “I didn’t eat any breakfast. Neither did you. Let’s go to Peter’s Commercial. I’ll treat.”

“Wouldn’t we sign out?” I said. “On our timecards?” I had reached a point of mad repetitiousness, it actually felt a little crazy.

“I’ll go ask.” Tom groped the small of his back as he walked up the dock toward the office. He was right, we should eat, the swinging to and fro had made me lightheaded. I stopped work, then. And with a shove from re-channeled momentum I shambled down the dock in the direction Tom had gone, while right away he came back up the dock with his hands held up, slimed by the passage of ten thousand salmon. “There’s nobody in the office. Let’s just go get some food and bring it back.”

“Did you look?” – I was nervous about simply going off on a break.

“There’s just all those same gals, hacking up fish.”

We walked off the dock and onto the dirt road, with dreamy muscular arms, now in repose hanging lighter-than-air. As we went inside the store, a supply boat was just arriving, killing its engines in puffs of fumes in the general purity, drifting to the dock: And when, with our Fig Newtons, we came back out of Peter’s Commercial, the boat had released Charles Grant. He was hopping down to the dock, turning to catch the canvas duffels thrown down to him, transferring them to a small skiff . Above on the boat was Cristie, waiting for a helping hand, then leaping the little gap from high to low, wearing a new handmade parka of stiff, genuine sealskin, which fit her like a box. As soon as she landed on the dock, she got out of that parka.

When we saw them, we stood still, and then slowly – as if motionlessly – we slipped back behind the rim of a quonset hut. He hadn’t seen us. But now we couldn’t go back to the dock anymore. From that moment, our longshoring job would be over. It would have felt too illicit, using Professor Grant’s expedition and living on his premises while working for a good wage elsewhere. We started sharing our Fig Newtons while we went off – behind the store, and then behind another corrugated metal shed – back to where we beached the spare Zodiac.

Tom said, “Very weird lady.”

He seemed to be judging her, and perhaps unfairly. But then, he was older – indeed everybody was older – and I didn’t really have insights or opinions, to differ with anybody. He added, “Weirdest whole fuckin’ trip ever.” He closed the flap on the Fig Newtons and put them in the boat – so we pushed out in the shallows.

For that matter, Cristie probably wouldn’t appreciate Tom much, either. She was a fine creature, comparatively. Maybe she was honoring an old, bygone affection for her former professor. Also, maybe her husband was a hopeless mess and she needed a way out of that. I got in the boat after Tom, while he sat folding away the decrepit dollars he’d received in change – typical of the money on this island, dollars rubbed almost to the softness of flannel, locally. It was what happened to money that got stranded on this island, it got worn down over the years to tender little scraps, sometimes even in separate halves to be kept together by the reverence of its bearers. Tom finished laying it in his wallet without breaking it up any more. He said, “I’ll go back tomorrow and get whatever paychecks.”

Those were my first hours on a job, ever. Two days later, Tom went over to the Panalaska office and came back with a check made out to me for the sum of “Twelve and no/100’s DOLLARS,” typed in the soot of a typewriter ribbon with a typewriter’s hopping, clogged letters.

 

§ § §


By the time Professor Grant arrived back at the church – his boot-thump on the outer stairs – Tom and I were there sitting around the table with the others, while Nicole got in a last remark. “If we’re inviting the Aleut fishing crew, we should invite that guy Larry.” 

The idea of throwing a party had taken shape during Charles’s absence. She added, “—if he doesn’t kick us all out now.”

He walked in the door and everybody shut up and realigned, a shoal of fish that could all slash to a new direction. The stained brown skull, too, was out of sight. I had finished gluing it together and it was complete, the grinning, cliché image of death to be befriended, and I had put it upstairs in my room, in a corner on the floor. So, the big central table was empty among us when the professor came in, his face red from wind, followed by Cristie, who was carrying a duffel. She wore her blue nylon windbreaker, white jeans, tennies. Kevin warned in a low murmur, “Look like you’re on-mission.”

“That was fast!” said Nicole. “All the way to Atka and back!”

“The boat does twelve knots,” said Charles. “Successful journey, though. Quite beautiful. Little place down in a dell.”

So the tone would be amicable. Everyone would stay. The expedition was still on, in some sense.

Nobody seemed to be doing anything else, that summer. It was strange. This even though they were all adults.

Charles rubbed his hands together in homecoming, crossing the floor, “The navy had an impressive establishment there on Atka. Much of it is classified. I got a sneaky feeling that’s part of the DEW Line, maybe. Or possibly on Adak. Which, for the benefit of you ladies, is Distant Early Warning.”

Nicole and Tom made friendly queries (was the weather okay, did he locate the Aleut dictionary) but the professor paid no attention. “They are very politically astute, those people on Atka. And they ought to be! They were the group that was displaced during the war when the Japs were expected here. American troops burned their homes. Those people sat offshore in LVNs and watched their own homes burn. I remember seeing them right here in Dutch Harbor during the war in 1945. Well now that group can definitely see what’s at stake. And I did talk to their old angakok, his name is Bill Philandron, and he said he would come for the meeting here. And he said he’d bring his copy of the family dictionary. So now, let me just get something to eat and find my phone numbers.”

As he passed, his hand dropped on my shoulder: “I’ll need your services as my secretary. I’m calling Washington.”

 

§ § §


“Good morning, Mr. Carstairs. This is the personal secretary for Professor Grant, calling from the Charles Grant Aleutian Institute. I have Professor Grant on the line for you.”

Having handed the phone off, I went out to stand among the plank shelves of Peter’s Commercial, while Charles’s loud voice chimed among the rows of dusty glass lamp chimneys, dusty shovels, dusty canned food.

—Since we last spoke there’s been excellent progress. We’re zeroing in on the probable site of the sunken hulk. But the underwater currents here are strong. My diving team has scouted the area in question, and we’re all getting somewhat excited. Some of the team has gone back to San Diego to resupply…

The connecting door was propped open by a tall stack of boxes, so this time it was impossible to avoid hearing. I drifted further from the sound of Charles’s exaggerations, down the aisle, letting my eye wander over the equipment of civilization, stacked workgloves, big cans of tar, paperback Westerns, a hernia truss in a box, rows of stiff canvas pants.

Yes, I understand you don’t fund capital purchases. But my committee could authorize me to rent. Rent it. A diving bell of some kind.

“Transportation, supplies, and daily subsistence. Well, I would say a diving bell fits under the category of ‘transportation.’ Ha ha ha. Yes.

Charles’s voice carried all over the store. Wherever you went, you had to listen to it. The owner could hear it all, too, sitting on a stool behind the counter.

However, I’ve located something else. This is somewhat exciting. This is a new development here. A bilingual dictionary of Aleut words that’s been kept by hand by an Aleut family since the nineteenth century. Aleut into Russian. Father Veniaminov, he devised special Cyrillics. An ancillary team has just returned from a trip to the outer island of Atka. I haven’t seen the actual physical dictionary myself. But my understanding is…  Well, it would be a significant contribution to the anthropology of the region.

Yes, I know, sir. I feel obliged to report such news to the Society, simply because of its significance. Yes. Thank you, sir. The Explorer’s Club, sir. It was Mr. Lowell Thomas who suggested your name. Oh golly, I’ve been a friend of Lowell’s for years. Yes, sir.

Actually, I was stationed out here during World War II, and one day taking a walk, I simply just fell into a burial cave. I was far out west of the base, and I went through a hole in the ground, and there I was underground, looking into the eyes of a thousand-year-old Aleut noble sitting up in his kayak. I was just a kid. So it was Kismet, so to speak.

Of course! I’d be happy to write something up. Schedule of field work, yes. I’ll make an estimate of total costs. I could provide that. Some of our distinguished team members may not have an up-to-date curriculum vitae here on the island.

I had come back to the doorway. Professor Grant, while catching my eye, made a languid pumping mime of masturbation, yawning. I was so shocked, with a fake smile I swung back into the aisle of Peter’s Commercial.

…That’s right, kayaks and harpoons. Ha ha, yes, and sealskin. No, sir, they don’t share their wives anymore sir. Ha ha. Yes, thank you sir. Even the Aleuts don’t give a damn anymore. And goddamn Secretary Hickle seems determined to destroy what’s left.

I appreciate your help, Mr. Carstairs. I’ll definitely write something up for you.

Yes, thank you, sir. I’ll keep you posted. Thank you very much, sir.

He hung up and came out into the store frowning, grinding his palms together, “Well, I hope you guys didn’t drink my wine. This calls for a celebration.”

 

§ § §


Late that night I lay suspended on my web of woven wires, sleepless again. I’d been getting a happy, perilous sense lately that I was succeeding in navigating the world now like a mature person, picking out the rivers that surge in mid-ocean. It was a turbulence I could float on, by being light and small and watertight, and frankly by being empty, being young. The perilousness, and my bobbing on it, made me surprisingly snug in the midst of things, a nutshell. I knew it was possible that Mike McCavity had carried a lot of the faith in the world away with him, when he so discreetly went alone at night to the school swimming pool (“The Natatorium”  was what the high school called it, a high-ceilinged, windowless space, tiled everywhere in white; boys in Phys Ed were always required to swim naked, in some traditional effort to recall a rigor of ancient Sparta and the Classical gymnasium), where, alone above the still, flat, blue window, he consumed two half-pint bottles of gin in a short period, replacing the caps on the empty bottles, setting the bottles against a far wall (where, investigors surmised, they wouldn’t endanger anybody’s bare feet by breaking), then disturbed that blue window by slipping in, to begin doing laps in the dark. Or maybe not in the dark, maybe in blazing overhead lights. He kept all his clothes on while he swam, including his shoes. That was an odd detail; probably evidence of his drunkenness. What one imagined was the sound, in Mike McCavity’s ears alone, the slaps and splashes of a single swimmer reflected from the high ceiling. It was described as an accident officially, but people knew. The shoes seemed a sign of how far gone he was. Mike McCavity and I had been friends in a merely tangential sort of way, in Phys Ed, sharing adjacency in the line-up alphabetically, side-by-side doing our sagging push-ups. If we ever happened to walk to or from school together, we were united only by the cruelty of humor everybody adopted. Then later I worried, maybe you can turn that same funny cruelty inward, thinking that’s the way things are in the world. I remembered once, for some reason I was at his house, because it happened to be along the route home from school. We were in a den and he unwrapped a candy, then he looked at the empty waste basket by the bar – but then carried the wrapper through several rooms to the kitchen to throw it out, saying that the maid goes to a lot of trouble to keep the waste baskets fresh. It was the impressive thing about his last deed, how courteous was its efficiency. The sheer ardor of the solitary effort, the personal dedication of, so young, swimming so hard alone, toward something – you had to respect that, really respect it, because he’d shown competence in something, in that place, where the pool’s curb was a genuine edge of the world, i.e., more genuinely than this edge of the world I’d come seeking here. Of course, you had to suppose, possibly Mike McCavity might have had some good reason, some solid personal reason to end his life that would always be a mystery to others. In the end, I found there was little to understand about Mike McCavity’s death, except as an anecdote buried deep within the student population, the particulate crowd that buoyed me up, myself. I was just happy to be where I was, sleepless and brimming on my wire bed in Alaska, the real world.

Then, through the tarpaper wall, I heard Charles cry out. He was having a bad dream. Cristie was with him in there. I rolled stealthily on the sensitive bed. Charles was thrashing in his sleep and he cried, “It’s something. Oh god.”

The voice of Cristie beside him said, “You’re dreaming.”

“It’s something.”

“Sit up. You’re all tangled.”

“I always have that…” he struggled.

“What is it? What happens in it?”

He was lying still.

She gave him time, while he lay on his own far shore, then she said something I couldn’t make out. 

Cristie’s voice, compared to Nicole’s, was harder to hear. Maybe she habitually took a more remote part of the bed. Or her voice was just less penetrating by nature. He made noises of resettling. That bedroom had two hard thin mattresses laid out together on the floor.

“I always have it,” he said.

“Have what?”

“I’m pushing this big wall.”

She gave him a minute, and he said, “It moves. The wall does. It’s so easy it’s nothing. I feel like I’m on a big map and I’m pushing this wall, out in a kind of outward direction. But it’s a disgusting wall. Like it’s made of fish skin, or feathers, or something. Something soft and pushable. But it only gets disgusting when I think about it and realize it. The worst thing is, I barely have to push it to move it – it moves too easy, there’s no resistance – so it’s all kind of obscene and miserable, and I’m all alone. I’m far from home. Pushing it is like it’s falling.”

“—Sounds like a nightmare, all right.”

“I can never see over it. It’s tall as the sky, and it keeps moving too easy. I suppose it doesn’t sound very scary.”

Cristie said, “You know, people are going to miss you at school. Can I just say that?”

Charles didn’t answer. Relevance unclear. The subject of school had nothing to do with the nightmare.

“The dream symbolizes how too-easy it’s always been for you. Get whatever you want. Call the National Geographic Society. Buy a second place in Pentwater. Get schoolgirls like me up there. Get funding.”

She was speaking warmly, as if these rebukes were a familiar form of comfort. At last he said, “Is there something in that cup?”

Having accepted the cup and taken a drink, he lay down and said something unclear.

Cristie said, “The dream is more cosmic than that, no doubt.”

After a short space he grumbled, “No doubt,” the words deep-buried somewhere in flesh. The bodies of old full-grown males had resonances deep-chambered and dark, in the incalculable grief of men’s gravity, or just inertia. A silence had come again between the two of them. They were still awake, but there were no sounds.

Cristie said, “You know something? What will you do? – I mean after all this.”

“Yup,” he agreed, pessimistically.

They were both quiet again for a while. Some new thought they were sharing was like a big moon that had risen over them. Which there was nothing to do but look at.

Cristie said, “But I’m not going to fret about you. There’ll be somebody after me, that’s how you are. Not Nicole. You’ve burned that bridge. But somebody. There’s always somebody.”

“Plenty,” he said. “All lined up.”

“I’ve got my daughter. Real love, you know, is not fun.”

“Ah, thanks, yeah, well, sorr-ree.”

There was a pause – and a little sigh from Charles – because his nightmare still clung a little.

Somehow, from a terrible depth of sleep they had soared, all dripping-dry, to the strange bright place where they were now suspended.

Charles said, “And you’ve got real love in the form of that alcoholic you’re lying to the authorities for.”

She said, “Terry’ll come back first.” Her tenderness had a peculiar resilience. She couldn’t be provoked. “You have this idea that life is supposed to be delightful, interesting – easy, fun—“

“No I don’t.”

“—And as soon as it stops being fun, then bang.”

“No you absolutely misunderstand. I simply don’t think you should be naive about that guy. Sometimes a certain amount of purely self-preservation is in order. Even if he does come back. Yes, you go back to your daughter, yes, by all means, that’s fine. But don’t wait around here for Terry. He’s in Anchorage in a bar sitting around making snide remarks. Picture that. And everybody loves him there. People in the bar think he’s clever. He’ll be a successful salesman, like, selling something. I mean this. He’ll be a member of the world’s big army of salesmen-drunks. You’re right, Cris. You’re right when you say life is short. Life is too short. It’s too short to waste on liars and people who can’t even be honest with themselves. He’s wasting you. I don’t want you to be saying to yourself when you’re fifty, ‘He wasted me. I got thrown away.’ Because that can happen to people. Good people. Faithful people.”

He stopped. Then he went on. He was like a child too excited now to go back to sleep. “Here’s what I mean about carpe diem. It’s not supposed to be ‘fun,’ it’s just that life is short, life is irrecoverable. Your Baptist Christian upbringing is what you’ve got to overcome. Christianity is about not getting what you wanted. It’s too hard hanging out in ‘radical uncertainty’ with the rest of us.”

He’d lifted his head, but now he laid it back on the pillow.

She started repositioning herself and – I could guess from the sound – rewrapped herself around him. “Okay, go to sleep now,” she said. “I’m sneaking back to my room.”

“Oh don’t go.”

“I’ll stay for a little. But I’m going.”

“Why don’t you stay with me? Out here in Radical Uncertainty. My luck: I seem to always invite just-teasers on these trips. Chastity is back.”

She didn’t go anywhere and stayed quiet. Then she seemed to be inwardly nettled by a thought, and she said something I couldn’t hear – probably something skeptical about Charles’s plans for the future. Because he said, ““Would you please just let me? Spend it at my own risk?”

She waited a bit, then she said, “They’re not going to want to pay for you to be here convincing Aleuts not to trust the government.”

“They can take it out of my retirement, probably legally. They can go ahead and do that.”

“You’ve got too much depending on this meeting next week.”

“Yeah.”

“It means too much to you. And maybe you don’t need to worry about it. It’s not realistic to think half the state of Alaska is going to be given back.”

“Oh no, it’ll happen. It’s just the sort of thing that’ll happen,” he complained softly.

“I just think you might want to think about a back-up plan.”

He wasn’t going to answer that. He wasn’t even going to really hear it. He angled his murmur against his pillow, “One wishes one weren’t in history,” small words, spoken not for her but into a personal close crevice leading to an infinite void.

She said, “Go to sleep, Charles. I’ll stay for a little while. I’ll protect you from that mean old wall. That mean old wall won’t get you.”

 

§ § §

 

By the time I got up the next day, Charles and Cristie were already planning on leaving the island again, this time on a pleasure excursion, without even bothering to pretend they had any anthropological business out there. Again, we would be unsupervised. When I came downstairs, Charles was out at the shore putting duffels in the Zodiac, while Cristie and Nicole talked behind a closed bedroom door. I had to wonder what those two talked about.

In the kitchen it was explained to me how the new elopement began. Charles had gotten out of bed claiming he knew a Japanese restaurant in Juneau where people ate raw fish, literally uncooked flesh, still cold from the refrigerator. Cristie was so disgusted, Charles wanted to take her there right away. And a plane happened to be in Dutch Harbor. I wasn’t sure I believed it, that people ate raw fish. It wasn’t only that it was repulsive, there were obvious sanitation risks. However, Tom, who’d been in Asia with the army, said he’d heard of it; in general, I was beginning to learn to reserve judgment on aberrations of all kinds. The center of the world had always been Chicago. The exact precise center would have been in the general vicinity of Michigan Avenue and Adams Street – somewhere around there is the point from which all street-addresses begin at zero, and unfold in squares, north and south, east and west, and it also happened to be where the Art Institute’s entrance was, its two stone lions guarding the stairs.

But now I was seeing that this, here, was the origin point, these silver or black mountains, more vast than imaginable, the deep fogs, the spun-off wisps of storms coming from forbidden seas, the silence of Creation, everywhere the wet salad underfoot starred by wildflowers. Professor Grant – because life is too short to waste – went to the huge expense of chartering the small plane, to take himself and Cristie to the mainland for a meal of raw fish as well as other diversions during a few days at a hotel. After the Zodiac’s motor sound sank to nothing in the open doorway, we were all on our own again in the church. And people once more formed the circle at the big table, this time around the topic of the neighborhood party, planning it in detail.

Which I escaped, however. I put on my jacket and went out the front door, not hungry for breakfast, to take a long hike by myself around the shore despite a light drizzle, to go farther than I’d ever gone before. It was the power of youth and health and two strong tireless legs, for in this world anything is possible, I was seeing that now. People do all right in the world. Two legs alone is an infinite superpower.

Out the door, zipping my jacket, it felt good, the air itself outside felt good. It was morning. According to Charles, the U.S. Army had only surveyed small portions – much of this place had never been mapped. Moving west along the shore created a current against the face, of strangeness, on one side rock and soil lifting up, on the other side the constant threat of cold water, far-off the green volcanic islands on the smoking broth. I felt I could go on walking forever, west toward unity. At home I was the boy who spent hours by myself walking on the beach of Lake Michigan rehearsing my grandiosity, the boy who could sit in a psychologist’s office through three sessions a week, at some appallingly high cost per hour, and say nothing. I was the boy at school who lost the entire edition of the annual student literary magazine, by accidentally pushing a laden cart, borrowed from Audio-Visual, over the threshold of the elevator shaft. The janitor and I shared looks of shining unhappiness, when we heard the sound it made at the bottom of the elevator shaft, the sound of a splash in a collected puddle, where all two thousand copies of Inklings, that year, soaked and swelled. The cover-art of that year’s Inklings was a black-and-white photo of bare branches, against a winter sky. I had volunteered to serve on the editorial board and had thought of submitting some of my own poetry, but then I was intimidated by all the talent – like a short story about society’s materialism, which ended tragically; and a poem called a “villanelle” by the girl who would turn out to be class valedictorian – so it was a kind of relief to serve instead as a proofreader and a printing supervisor, working over the layout table’s glowing warm slope. On the day the bound-and-trimmed magazines arrived at the school’s loading dock, I was excused from study hall to bring all two thousand new copies up to the second floor. The elevator was a seldom-used freight lift in the PE wing, and its door got stuck so a janitor had to help me. He pried the door open. But the elevator car itself wasn’t there, and the large metal cart tumbled quick over the brink after the front two wheels had gone over. The basement was three floors down. Not one single copy survived. They were all on that cart. There was no 1969-1970 edition of Inklings. After that, I was head-and-shoulders visible above the crowd. Thus, in fact, I wasn’t there anymore. I was already gone. And here I was now – walking alone at the westernmost extreme, my feet moving on ground that had never been mapped. It was the outcome of being so mistaken, to be here, free, in fresh wind from the whirling primary engine of winds, leaping from boulder to boulder. Moving west, I was exactly that Spanish explorer in the Keats poem we’d read in 3rd-year English – the poem about the conquistador who climbed a mountain peak and stood on it to spy the Pacific Ocean “with a wild surmise.” I reached a point of almost running, cloven-hoofed on immortal knee, hopping shattered boulders above “the place where the sea breaks its back [in the Aleut language].” By now I had to be approaching the furthest Western ledge. I came around a rocky point and fell, almost, into the carcass of a dead sea lion, bloated, rimmed with a white foam or gel, big as a crashed motorcycle, hollowed out at the center, an abyss, inside everywhere shimmering with maggots, so dense and busy they made a rustling sound, and a couple of slow boils constantly welling up.

I caught my balance before falling in, but it yawned at my feet, tooth embedded, eye of butter or margarine. It wasn’t the smell or the idea of contamination that made me turn back, it was some higher scare that made me turn around and repent and walk right straight back toward the church – then run – then walk again, in gratitude – which was as far west as I ever got.

 

§ § §

 

They were happy days while the professor was away with Cristie. I sat out front on a step reading, and I was dimly aware that Kevin had drifted into the open doorway, eating cereal out of a bowl – for it was his habit to eat his breakfast while ambling around. At which point, Tom trotted down the stairs past me in his combat boots, saying, “Here comes your friend.” He strode away swinging his little plywood board at grass-tops.

It was the Kiroffs’ skiff, Andy in front, the stepfather at the tiller. Kevin, standing there, took in one more spoonful of Cheeri-O’s, blessed me with the censer of his spoon, and went inside still eating.

So, while the skiff came to shore, I stood up from the stair and wandered sidewise vaguely and, in the tall grass, planted myself at a kind of ambivalent distance from the church. When Andy hopped over the rim of the boat, I strolled down, host-like, self-banned by my folded arms, and I told him, “No work today.”

The skiff had already parted from shore, the stepfather not looking back. He’d be stranded here for a couple of hours.

“The firewood is all moved. And the Professor ain’t here to tell us anything else to do,” I added, using local grammar for some reason. “Where were you yesterday?”

He was looking away, in his habitual manner. “Church,” he said.

“You go to church?”

To affirm, his lips made a little whistling spit, like ridding his lip of a speck.

I said, “Was yesterday Sunday?”

The same affirmation: a little puff pushing his head back. His hands hung by their thumbs from his belt loops. He shook his hair back. He seemed so indifferent to everything, he was like a rock star and I sensed myself peeking at him in adulation, which I broke off, turning to look at a horizon far away, like him.

He said, “Come on. You can see the smoke from Makushin today.” He started going uphill from the water, onto the deep cabbagey growth. I followed, with a sure-footedness like his, and the offering came to my lips, “There’s a dead sea lion up along the shore. I actually saw it.” But he didn’t give a shit about a dead sea lion and just kept going ahead. I’d released the information with a kind of ridiculous jubilation.

Mount Makushin was visible as we came around the bulk of the slope. Attached to its peak was a scarf, which might be steam. He said, “Pretty clear today,” but disgustedly.

The wind was stronger on this hillside and the collar of my jacket was tapping. Having shown me the volcano, Andy turned and looked out to sea. His head commenced a faint nod – appreciating an inner joke of disappointment – or so it seemed to me, disappointment at the series of errors and misjudgments that had led him to stand idly around today with a visiting white boy. I thought maybe I should leave him alone till his father came back. I could go inside and eat the left-over crème brûlée Tom made last night.

“You want to fight?” he said, and then he turned around and faced me.

No I didn’t want to fight. I sagged a little on one side: it was an exact mirror-imitation of him. He gave me a shove in the chest and repeated, with a smile, “You want to fight? Hey?” I made a slap at his hand, actually pretty hard. But then he got one punch into me, into my middle.

I was taller, but I was more ill-focused. Plus it was his island. In going down I made one actual effort to strike him, with real vengeful anger, but my fist landed hard on the bony side of his hip. A punch in the hipbone inflicted no pain at all, and was almost amusing to him, or even to both of us – but it made my hand hurt so sharply I stayed sitting down, on the dense green mat. I actually said, “Ow.”

This whole quick event seemed a surprise to us both.  Andy grinned, in a way that was embarrassed and jarred and maybe apologetic. The wind then came up and blasted us, blasted everything, with a force that made even the threads of moss on a boulder vibrate. He said, “You okay?”

I made a shake of the head meaning I was indifferent to stupid questions about whether I was okay.

He said, “You know where the wind comes from?”

“Do I know what?”

“Where the wind comes from.”

I stood up, rebuilding myself, revolving one shoulder, rubbing the hand bones that led to the knuckles. “Are you asking me?”

“No, man, I’m telling you this. I’m telling you what they say. Once-upon-a-time.”

“Okay. You’re telling me where the wind comes from. Where does the wind come from?” It occurred to me then that, despite his being a Native American and a member of a vanishing people, Andy was an asshole. I would have to stand there and listen to his stupid story anyway.

“Old Aleut man and his old lady didn’t have any children. So the old man made a doll out of wood, from a tree he dreamed of.” He was launching into this story while turning away looking out to sea. “He dreamed of a tree, then he went there and carved a doll out it. It’s a great doll, okay? Looks just like a real boy. Okay? The old lady is happy. Then at night the old lady hears something. It’s the doll. The little doll’s eyes are moving. He’s almost alive. But he’s not yet completely alive. He’s still made of wood.”

I thought maybe this was his way of making peace. He was lucky I was a polite person, or maybe just a weakling. Because not many people would stand here listening. I said, “It sounds like Pinocchio. We have Pinocchio.”

He kept looking away into the distance, now with a grin.

“We have Pinocchio,” I explained. “Pinocchio is a wooden puppet. Geppetto is an old man, and he carves a puppet.”

“You think you got Pinocchio. Everybody has Pinocchio. I seen that movie when I was a kid a million times in Anchorage. Aleuts got Pinocchio too. Okay?”

“I’m just making a comparison.”

He turned and went downhill to the shore. The point of that exchange was that, like most things white and civilized, my Pinnochio was better. And that was a valid implication. Mine had a million-dollar, theatrical-release Disney cartoon all its own, there was no way a story could compare. He’d gone downhill but I stayed where I was for a minute, summoning actual generosity and tolerance, remembering that he did have a stupid life in a crappy little place. Then I followed, toward the shore. Slopes of snow floated far off. A nearby green island was topped by a lone cloud above. The cloud matched the lower green heap in every dimension – they were two triangles, stacked.

I granted him this: “Actually, I believe Native stories are just as true. Just as true as the Western scientific stories. Like creation myths or the Big Bang theory. The scientific explanation is just a myth, too!”

These were approved, legitimate views. They’d been discussed in classrooms, explained in assigned essays. Still, at this moment they sounded like lies, and fawning lies.

He kept his arms folded, looking out over the water, seeming to accept that pious remark at face value, to add it to his inner heap of wampum but only grudgingly. I looked around. I said, “I’m going inside.”

“Better not take a claw or a tooth from that sea lion, though. You can’t take nothing from it for a souvenir to bring back to California.”

He seemed to think I was from California and I let him go on thinking that.

He said, “Can’t take nothing from an animal you didn’t kill yourself.”

His not moving kept me stuck there, rather than just going inside; or my own obedience to some kind of hospitable courtesy. Why would I want a piece of a decayed sea lion? It would never have occurred to me. Not in a million years. His whole way of framing things was built on misunderstandings.

He said, “Tell you this. You know what? When I get my land next year, I’m going to let people stay on it if they’re cool. Hang out. Hunt and fish. Do whatever. Be free.”

“That sea lion probably isn’t even there anymore. It was rotten already when I saw it. I’m sure by now, animals have completely gotten it.”

He turned and said, “I’ll show you something.”

Obviously, whatever this was, we’d have to go somewhere for it. That is, we’d have to hike.

I told him I wanted to know what he wanted to show me.

“This is a secret.” He was facing me, and he put a hand on my shoulder. “You have to promise you’ll never tell anyone.”

“What?”

“I never took anybody there. You have to promise. This is a very secret place.”

 

§ § §

 

 It was a concrete-rimmed hole in the side of a hill, hidden by tall grass, something left over from World War II. The opening was sewer-like. To enter, it would be necessary to crouch. I didn’t want to go in because I knew it would only contain his secret hideaway, and for some reason I didn’t want to be involved. He went in first. So I was standing outside alone in the daylight, while he went on talking as he entered deeper, his voice multiplying in there. I ducked and hung my arms low around my knees, caveman-walking into the dark.

I couldn’t see anything. But my cheeks and forehead were aware of nearby damp walls. Then I could hear, echoically, a large concrete space. “You have to let your eyes get used to it,” he said. We were able to stand up straight then, inside the hill’s square stomach. In the daylight that came through the tunnel, what materialized before my vulnerable eye was a fancy dinner plate. Actually a stack of dinner plates. There were folded blankets. Heavy velvet drapes – they really did look like velvet – were folded over a carpenter’s sawhorse. I was in a kind of storeroom. The dinner plates I reached out and touched. The rims were encircled by white leafy wreaths, raised as if applied in cake-icing on a blue background. There were a few matching teacups and saucers and shallow bowls, all in the same design, collected together on top of a pile of stacked lumber. “Did you steal all this?”

“It’s old army stuff,” he said. “By the old airfield, used to be a officers’ club. It had a whole library they could use. They took a lot but they left some things. The island used to be full of this. You can’t see the carpets back there in the dark. I got a-plenty of carpets.”

A full-length mirror was bordered by a wooden oval with inset pearly lozenges. Stretching back into the depths, old lumber in different dimensions had been sorted into piles; a little stove of white enamel; pots and pans and ladles; a record turntable that wasn’t connected to anything. There was a rubber satchel that – he picked it up and demonstrated – unfolded in a tricky way, to reveal a supply of wooden kitchen matches. There were record albums, old books – I could see a Sports Illustrated and some comic books that looked Japanese. He pulled up a wine bottle from a box. “Is this a good year?” he said – he was joking – and slid it back into the case.

“Is this where you’re going to live?”

“Right now this is just storage. My kingdom, my kingdom will be up on the mountain.”

“This is a good turntable actually,” I said because I recognized a brand name. It was a Garrard, sitting there on the lumber pile with its wires disconnected. I picked up a comic book – indeed Japanese, to be read backwards, with the front page on the back.

“The turntable’s mine, from Anchorage. I didn’t find that here. But they took away all my record albums. They confiscated.”

He added, “Really, wind is just low-pressure zones.”

Beside me in the pale dark was a set of books with uniform bindings. PRESCOTT’S the COMPLETE MAN’S EDUCATION. It looked like something you’d subscribe to, in another era. And collect the whole set. I picked up a volume, and inside, it was all separate articles – “How to Tie the Windsor Knot and the  Four-in-Hand”; “The Fabulous Construction of the Panama Canal”; “What Women Want”; “Three Steps to Financial Solvency”; “Pericles’ Immortal Address to the Athenians”; “Yosemite: Gem of the U.S. Park System”; “Three Famous Speeches from Shakespeare”; “Manners Count!”

The book’s binding was creaking because, obviously, it had never been opened. I closed it and put it back in its place. “Pardon me?”

“Winds don’t ‘blow,’ they pull,” Andy said. “A low pressure zone makes a vacuum, pulls air in. Just so you’ll know I’m not just a dumb Aleut.”

There was no right response to that and I answered, “…Low pressure zones,” because I couldn’t picture what he meant.

He said. “You know Felix Pappalardi?”

Among dim outlines of furniture, our own bodies were less visible than the objects. All this treasure was either sad or admirable. Or maybe both.

I said, “Let’s go out. I want to smoke a cigarette.”

“Felix Pappalardi did all the Cream albums. I had whole lot of them in Mount Edgecumbe, but they took ‘em away. Cream has Eric Clapton, and Ginger Baker on drums and Jack Bruce on bass. Felix Pappalardi is the producer. He made them a supergroup. He’s the kind of man, you audition, he can just give you a record contract.”

“Let’s go,” I said. Andy’s doomed sincerity chilled a new cruelty in me. Which I thought I was in danger of getting to like.

“You have to make sure you get a contract where you have the final mix. That’s what you do. They give you whatever you want. I’d get all Gibson guitars. And all Shure microphones. That guitar I got. That’s another thing I bought myself, with money I earned – but it’s not a Gibson. A Shure microphone costs a hundred dollars. I’d get three of those, right in a row. People don’t know shit.”

I said, “You sure do know a lot about it. But I really want to go out and smoke a cigarette.”

“Total recording studio,” he said. “Sixteen track, thirty-two track, however-many.”

“Let’s go out.”

“Those’ll kill you, man.”

“Yeah but anyway.”

We shuffled out through the entrance. The sandpaper pop of concrete grains under soles.

“I got posters too,” he said.

“Posters?”

“For the walls.”

Outside, I lit up and I stood tall, stretching my spine, looking around at the sky. Andy said, “Big enough aerial, you could get any station here. You could have Gilligan. Sister Bertrille the Flying Nun. You could have every damn TV show they have.”

This seemed to be his day to beseige me with every evidence of the sophistication he’d acquired. I drew the rough silk through my throat and didn’t try to come up with an adequate response. No aerial out here could ever be tall enough. The little knoll we stood on would be isolated by the horizon. I’d seen the whole ocean cup me like that for days as we sailed on the Pacific. I had to admit, though – and I dragged on my cigarette again – I had to admit I had a new kind of admiration for his envisioned place on a mountainside with, now, carpets on the floor, and books and a gas stove and magazines. At the same time, I was cheered by how limited his chances truly were, on this island where he liked to punch visitors in the stomach as a way of establishing who was in charge.

He said, looking out at the sea, “Yeah, Pinocchio was different.”

Another remark that didn’t need an answer.

He said, “You know what Pinocchio had to do to become real? Get swallowed by a fish.”

Maybe he was sorry now about punching me. Maybe this was more peacemaking. Or, all of this was.

I commented randomly, “He turned into a donkey because he’d been bad or something. He lied. So he grew ears and a tail.”

“Nope. Had to go inside a fish.”

“That wasn’t what made him real,” I said. “He had to start telling the truth. Telling the truth was what made him real. Because he lied. So he had to start telling the truth.”

“No, Pinocchio was real because he went inside the fish.” He contradicted me with astonishing casualness. If going inside a fish was part of an Aleut story, then it was only another form of copying from Western civilization. He hopped off his little green mound where he’d been squatting, and went down the slope – he was leaving, he’d decided the tour of his hideout was over – and I got moving and followed him, out from the shelter of the hill, down the long slope. In the wind, my cigarette smoke was torn away from my lips, torn from the shell of my hand.

“I’m pretty sure about this,” I said. “The wooden nose got longer when he lied. He made a promise to his fairy godmother, that he would always tell the truth.”

He kept moving ahead. “Didn’t have no fairy godmother.”

“Yes he did. She made him promise to tell the truth. She was like a guardian angel.” – But I was starting to mistrust my memory. Because maybe there was no fairy godmother. Maybe it was the little cartoon cricket who was the moral guide, who then made the wooden pole sprout in the center of his face. But I argued only half-heartedly, against the permanency of ignorance in this dark corner of the globe, where shedding a little light was surely futile. Heading back downhill, he kept out in front of me. Which served like a way of winning the argument. So I gave up, as all the while, he went on intermittently arguing, insisting on the necessity of going inside the big fish, with a kind of total smug self-assurance possible only for the innocent.

 

§ § §


 There was the Koniag Lad. The Koniag Lad thought often about the hunters who went out in baidarkas but never came back. The baidarkas were made of whittled driftwood, lashed with strips of ligament, and the taut skins were rubbed with boiled seal-oil. The Koniag Lad sat on the observation hill.

Then the Koniag Lad started walking, and he walked until he was out of sight, and everything was out of sight. He went for many days, then he saw a baidarka coming in. He covered himself in seaweed, and when the hunter beached his baidarka and went inland, then he threw off the seaweed and crept to the baidarka. He couldn’t get in. It was far over his head and beyond his reach. Then he saw the strap hanging down, where the hunter secured his skirts. So the Koniag Lad was able to grip the strap and pull himself up over the rim of the baidarka. In the foresection were briskets of monsters. In the aft section were sections of baleen. Then he heard the hunter coming back. The hunter was returning with two big stags he had killed. One of them he would eat raw, standing before his baidarka. He leaped up and severed his feet at the ankles, but he still chased him. He severed his head, but he still chased him. Then he struck him a blow, and then he sent a spear into his beating heart.

Then in the barrabara on the hillside, right there above him, was the old woman who lured girls in, so girls had to be careful. She told the Koniag Lad she had a girl for him, and she invited him to enter, to partake of a porridge. So he did. The pot was on the fire, and she said, “I never did have a spoon. So this is how I eat,” and she put her whole face down in the pot.

Quickly he pushed her so she went in the pot and that old woman never again emerged. The Koniag boy was then the girl’s guest in her barrabara. The old woman at the top of the ladder instructed the girl to lie down with the Koniag boy. They therefore did as she said. The girl said, “There are two down there, for which you have come all this way.” And so it happened, so they tell the story, when he came back to his own village, he was one who brought his girl back with him.

 

§ § §


The big party in the church was planned for a night when Professor Grant would still be away – as if with the idea that, not knowing about it, he couldn’t veto it. The Masonite table was moved aside, for reasons unclear – because there was already plenty of open floor space. The tape player was on the table, with our two cassettes: Simon & Garfunkel and The Band. As decoration, bunches of long grass were hung on the walls in the spaces between windows, the work of Kevin and Nicole. Kevin, claiming he would Probably Retire Early, moved his bed up to the empty room beside mine further along the balcony. He seemed to be making a permanent move, bringing some enviable furnishings with him, like an old floor-standing lamp he’d found in the village, a few woven grass mats, and a wooden chair that was the only non-folding chair in the place, a number of books. And for some reason an ad torn out of the Yellow Pages in a small town somewhere. Which was a memento he pinned up but never explained. 

For atmospheric lighting at the party, Kevin put out four kerosene lamps in various places – but then anyway, the usual harsh lightbulbs overhead were left on. The kitchen counter was crowded with beer bottles, a tower of paper Dixie Cups, a couple of whiskey bottles. While we waited for people to arrive, Paul Simon sang the song about a boxer standing in a clearing, or about a girl named Cecilia who broke his heart, or about troubled water being bridged. The guests, when they arrived, all came at once in a single crowd. They were mostly the crew of the fishing boat we’d gone out on, with the addition of a couple of men from other boats, who’d come along because it was an open invitation. The harbormaster came, too, and so did Andy and his father. It was all men. Women seemed not to come out, maybe out of shyness, maybe out of a higher seriousness. An added, unexpected guest was the old angakok the professor had met on Atka. He had come to the island as a delegate to the political meeting later that week, and he was staying with Andy’s family. At that meeting, the Native Claims Settlement legislation was going to be discussed, and dignitaries like the angakok were beginning to arrive from other islands.

When the fishermen arrived in the front doorway, they migrated across the floor, to the bottles, where Tom poured straight whiskey into paper cups. Then, not talking, nor sipping, they held their Dixiecups out at a distance like urine samples and looked around the room. Kevin, so socially skilled, went into their midst and started speaking about the pleasure of going out on their boat and eating little blue shrimp dipped in sauce. I tended to stand by the wall, with a cigarette. When Cyril Kiroff arrived, he brought Andy, who came to stand beside me. Tonight I was all too glad to see him, and I made a place for him. He pointed out a fisherman who could play the accordion, but luckily would not play tonight, and our shared contempt for accordions saved us both together on the spot. With the Kiroffs, also, entered the old angakok, Bill Philandron, possessor of the rare Aleut dictionary. He didn’t look like a shaman. He looked like, say, a retired optometrist, with combed, thinning black hair – and, indeed, an optometrist’s practical glasses-frames, holding heavy bifocals. The glasses were thick, and it became obvious that his vision was very bad. He said, “How do you do,” and “I’m very pleased to meet you,” to each of us in turn, groping each hand as it came, his eyes applying themselves like snails to the inner surface of his lenses. He wore an old down-filled parka mended by tape on the shoulder. When Nicole met him she looked perturbed. She retired in dismay to the wall beside me, and she told Tom Sample, “You know who I think that is?”

“Who?” said Tom.

“Him. Philandron. The old man,” said Nicole. “He’s slightly famous, if it’s who I think it is. Do you know the Tundra Times? It’s like an Inuit newspaper. Howard Rock edits it in Fairbanks. They had a famous exchange in the editorial page. Some people are worried archaeologists say the first people first came over from Asia, and that makes Native Alaskans just another group of immigrants with no special rights. The radical Native story is, they were always here.”

“Here since creation,” said Tom.

“In primordial times a big female sea creature sank to the bottom, and her fingers and toes fell off and floated up and became all the people and animals. Different stories like that. It’s the Native title to the real estate.”

Tom seemed to think she might be joking, and looked mistrustful. “What is?”

“So this man – Bill Philandron, if it’s the same person – sent letters to the Tundra Times. He’s a lay reader in the church on Atka. Or I’m not sure exactly how their hierarchy works; if they even have a regular church on Atka. Deacon, whatever. But he’s reactionary. In his letters he said – in all seriousness he said this – that the Aleuts didn’t originate in the New World. Because, in all seriousness, he said they wandered here after the Great Scattering after the Tower of Babel was destroyed. For their sins, they were driven by God back out of civilized existence. That’s actually an old Orthodox folklore thing. Origin of the Aleuts: the Tower of Babel.”

Tom seemed to have snagged, there, at a number of places. “Will he… oppose the professor?”

“‘Oppose’…?”

“Does he think Alaska should go back and belong to the Natives?”

She was watching the old man, who was shuffling toward a chair, hands lifted, elbows out. She said, “…At least he’s a loose cannon.”

The fishermen had been sipping from their cups, but it turned out vodka was universally preferred, so everybody switched. One middle-aged fisherman broke the ice, by going out to the open floor and dancing a solitary dance to the tune of “Cecelia.” It was an Irish-looking dance, arms hanging straight while feet stomped and kicked, not a traditional Aleut dance but merely his own personal style, as his friends explained. He frowned while he danced, or alternately flashed a smile. Nobody acknowledged him; few in his group even looked. Then Nicole came out and joined him, doing the Twist, wearing her usual jeans, which tended to distract the fishermen in a shy forest of sidelong glances. Kevin in his role as social director, making branches of his hands in air to get everyone’s attention, started telling them that their island wasn’t quite civilized unless they knew all the popular dances that had Swept The Known World, beginning with the Twist. The decree made the crowd of fishermen grin worriedly, and wish they could mill away, because they could see they would be expected to do the dance Nicole was doing.

Andy and I went outside when the dancing lessons were getting started – there was a summery damp warmth in the air, and a starless sky – these islands, strangely, seemed to warm up when clouds came over. We climbed inside Professor Grant’s all-terrain vehicle to sit in the bucket seats with a bottle of scotch. It was called “O’Shaughnessy Genuine Scotch Whisky” and the label displayed a Scottish highlander in a kilt. The backside label was in Chinese, or Japanese, but the front label bore the words, in English, “Experiance the last reward. Sit down. Smile.” I gave the bottle across to Andy. He ignored it in his hand and told me, “I’ll tell you something about me. I always do what I say.”

I was settled at the ATV’s steering wheel. He was on the passenger side. He rephrased it: “When I say something, that’s it.”

“Yeah me too,” I said. – That actually seemed true, too. Especially from here on out.

He handed me the bottle, then he threw a shoulder against the seatback, squirming, to get a hand in his pocket. “Show you,” he said. “When I say something, that’s it.”

What he pulled out of his pocket was a rifle shell gleaming in the faint light. He handed it to me, not the simple blunt plug “bullet” that flies in cartoons, but a complicated missile as long as a finger, staged with shoulders like a NASA rocket, dressed in various metals, brass or lead or nickel. Its dense weight was explosive. I wanted to get it off my palm. But Andy wouldn’t offer a hand to take it back. He said, “It’s my lucky charm. When you leave here, what are you going back to? Having a job or something. You’ll be sitting at a desk, man. From now on, forever. Desks. I know, you think I don’t know anything. You think, ‘Way out here.’ But I know everything, you name it, Joe Namath and Rolling Stones, The Iron Butterfly, Johnny Carson, you name it. And Newsweek magazine. I see the damn Newsweek same as you. Same as you do in Chicago. Ain’t no different.”

So he knew I was from Chicago, but yet also seemed to think I was from California – maybe he thought Chicago was in California – but none of it seemed a mistake worth clearing up. He took the bullet out of my open hand, picked up the O’Shaughnessy bottle, and wiped its rim with an unscrewing motion. “So I’m just saying.” He got his mouth on the rim and tilted it up high so a piston of scotch banged back, then he bowed his head. Listening to him, that worldview made sense – it did seem that everybody’s in the same boat, no matter where they live, and pretty much know the same things. Everybody lives within a planet of rumors – rumors of the Rolling Stones, of television shows and athletes, rumors of wars and nations – but yet each person’s actual life story depends on what’s happening in a fifty-foot radius.

“I’m not going back,” I told him. I was serious, my voice traveling out. He was right about the desks, the series of desks in my future. “The only thing to do back there is being a bum and riding the rails. You know what riding the rails is?”

“Don’t drink this. It’s no good,” he croaked, handing me the bottle. “There’s vodka in the kitchen. I’ll go steal some.”

“Somebody’ll catch you,” I said. But he’d already thrown an ankle over the ATV’s rim and started levering himself out, pouring his hips over the low sill of the vehicle. I brought the whiskey up to my nose. Like a struck match, there was the ancient whiff in my sinus. For a minute, in that smell, I was blinded against a dark unreflective surface. It seemed true what I’d said, about not going back. I had never felt so alone. But that was all right. It was a good thing. It was bracing.

“Hello, gentlemen,” said Nicole’s voice. She was on the church steps above, in the open doorway. “Where is Andy going? My goodness! He’s like a commando!” She came down the stairs – or her haloed shadow came down.

“He’s getting vodka,” I told her.

He was gone already, around the corner, headed for the church’s back door.

To where I sat in the ATV, Nicole came swaying over, poking at ice in her drink with a finger, stroking its rim, sucking the finger. “Kevin,” she said, explaining the noise inside. “He’s got ’em dancing.”

She had had a lot to drink.

She tapped her drink. “Brandy Alexander. Tom.”

“…Tom made it,” I told her, redundantly.

“His specialty,” she said.

She smiled – down at it, then at me – then back down at it – and sprinkled with her fingertips over its top surface. “Nutmeg.”

I was trying to think of remarks. I said, “It looks like a milkshake.”

She sighed fondly over it agreeing it looked like a milkshake.

The sound of laughter came from inside, where Kevin was in charge.

“He’s an awfully good sort-of writer, you know,” she said, on the topic of Kevin. “My god, you should see a photograph of him when he was fifteen. In Indiana! He was fifteen and he was in a band? With maroon blazers? And white turtlenecks? He is absolutely handsome standing there with his little electronic organ on stilts – and skinny! – like one of those pop singers named ‘Bobby.’ There used to be a lot of pop singers named ‘Bobby.’ He was a dreamboat. You wouldn’t recognize the – the sort of baggy person he is today. Transformation?” She staunched her mouth with the brandy Alexander that had been hovering near.

It was as if drinking had benumbed her so that she’d lost the sensation to know even who, exactly, she was talking to. My only thought was, I was too young to have a woman’s recklessness entrusted to me. As a way of trying to make conversation, I said, about the mystery of Kevin Pinne, “Hm. I wonder.”

“Oh, it’s so difficult!”

I’d said something provocative. She leaned forward and looked deep into my eyes – but unseeing – too close – her gaze pained, though her lips kept smiling. “It’s just so difficult the things people deal with.” I was pinned in the seat. Without altering her bitter grin upon me, holding her gaze close, she said, “I’ve been drinking. I’m actually drunk. I’m going to stop now.” She stood away and held her brandy Alexander out at arm’s length and poured it out.

The strange quarantine around Kevin Pinne seemed to me a loneliness somehow preferred by himself, a choice, never to put himself fully into the world but rather to float in a space of exemption, a space of delight, enviable, superb, so that it was the kind of thing I could actually imagine for myself, someday – though I lacked some special leavening ingredient, some brilliance, some license, a permission that could only be self-granted, even an essential, scary coldness.

“He’s an editor, you know,” Nicole said. “You ought to show him your poetry. You do have? Poetry? Assuming? It being sort-of reputed?”

“Oh, I’ve been approached by publishers,” I informed her, my nose lengthening as I lost any progress I might have made toward ever becoming a Real Boy. Meanwhile, in my grip I held the steering-wheel on a straight course, looking ahead through the Plexiglas windshield.

She said, “Oh?”

“But the commercial side of publishing is too…” I shuddered indicating my scorn for commerce.

I was being regarded with fond irony. I knew it from the blaze on my own cheeks, and I changed the subject, “What does Kevin edit? Are they books?”

She sighed, “I think it was a scientific press. He was an assistant. So.”

“How old is he?”

“Oh for pity’s sake,” her voice veered upward, “Can’t people just leave him alone?”

I really didn’t care about Kevin’s age. I was only making trivial conversation. She went on, “You would think that people would have a little latitude and a little normal worldliness. Why is it such a big temptation to put people in boxes?”

She let her eyes readjust and she stood up taller. “Let’s go in.” She put her empty glass on the fender, sudsy foam still sliding down, and tapped my shoulder with her knuckles, “Let’s go. I think something is happening. Obviously there’s no aurora borealis out here.”

She started up toward the door, stopped, and held an open hand back toward me, like a wife at bedtime. “Come on. Something’s happening.”

 

§ § §


Inside the church, the crew of the fishing boat were dancing the Twist, but not apparently liking it. On the tape player The Band was playing something like bluegrass, and Kevin waded through them clapping his hands on the beats. The Twist was a dance I’d never seen in person, and it was funny. The hip swivels; toes pivot on the floor; at waist-height the fists softly weave.

However, there wasn’t a smile among the group but instead flat expressions of forbearance. Only one or two were making a genuine effort. The life of a commercial fisherman doesn’t keep a man’s body limber. They were only doing this out of politeness and a kind of diplomacy. A few who stood far off along the wall were either looking sorry or else putting their attention decidedly elsewhere. The angakok sat with a fixed smile, alone on a folding chair, beaming with tolerance, his gaze adrift in a middle-distance, his two hands squeezing his thighs. Andy was in the kitchen watching from that distance. The harbormaster stood against the wall, a Mississippian named Larry, who said almost nothing all night, but held his cup and looked around amiably at everything. Kevin meanwhile was moving among the dancers, “There is no sense of rhythm here.” He started showing them how, bending his knees, prodding his belly in air, punching out.

Then the music stopped, with a click.

Andy’s stepfather had turned off the tape player. With a frown, he said, “That’s enough dancing.” The dancers, released from a spell, turned gratefully in other directions, toward their paper cups. Mr. Kiroff – a small solid man, lipless mouth, eyelids that tonight seemed to want to harden and swell comfortably closed – thanked Kevin for the instruction, while he turned away.

“They were just getting the hang of it,” Kevin whined.

“It’s a good dance for Americans, I think.”

“You are Americans,” Kevin proclaimed. “You’re Americans!”

None of these guests could have known about Kevin, how everything was curated and savored for triteness. Triteness only. Nothing was exactly sincere for him. For these men, probably everything was sincere – they worked on a dangerous boat every day. Some had already found their coats and started hauling sleeves up their arms. Andy, who had moved to my side, told me, with a nod indicating his stepfather, “They all know he’s a fool.”

Kevin cried, “Why else was the War fought? Why did we defend this strategic outpost in the Pacific? Come on. Be Americans.” He stamped his foot. “I hate it when people won’t assimilate.”

“Sweetie?” said Nicole, drifting forward. “Humor?”

Kevin hadn’t been drinking, but we’d all seen on other occasions, he had a way of being spun by contact with others. He told Nicole, “Humor is central. This is according to His Nabs. You were there. You were at the orientation lecture.” He turned to the guests. “Really. Don’t go home.”

He seemed then mostly to address Andy’s stepfather. Who, in turn, looked to the angakok in the corner.

The old man sat up very straight in his folding chair and – smiling, a little bit startled – he lifted his open hands to vibrate them like tambourines: “The party is just beginning. Learn a few dances. Drink some more. Hear music more. I like the song ’bout Cripple Creek. So he wants to be like that. OK. Let him teach more dances.”

Kevin wanted to reach out and embrace the whole idea of the old man, “‘Ah, you’ve only scratched the surface—” but Nicole was snaking a hand around him, “Kev-Kev-Kev, let’s let them teach us a dance.”

“They can’t do the Twist yet. They were making the Twist look like a fistfight. It looked exactly like a general fistfight. That’s exactly what it was like.”

“There’s a whole level that’s not getting across.”

Kevin reduced his voice, “Here we are. We’re out here in the Aleutians. We’ve got some anthropologists here. Can we please get these people assimilated?”

“He’s joking, Cyril, man,” said the fishing boat captain – he actually came over and put an arm on Kevin’s shoulder. “Cyril, you go home if you want. We’ll all stay and do the Twist, then tomorrow my buddy and me can go in the skiff. He can help me pull in seines.” That caused some giggles among his friends.

Kevin put his own arm around the captain. “Fifty thousand GIs. They made the Supreme Sacrifice. Why? To make the Pacific Basin safe for the Twist.”

 “Wasn’t our war,” Mr. Kiroff said, not looking at Kevin or anybody.

Kevin added, “Safe for the Charles Grant Institute.”

“Wasn’t our war,” Mr. Kiroff repeated the words in a voice that shrank smaller. All night he had stood mostly in the same place, drinking steadily, and in the terrain of the party he had come to represent the dimple in hourglass-sand that marks the drain. Now, behind him, the old angakok rose and plodded over in his sunken-kneed way, to stand with him, shorter than Mr. Kiroff – and he reached up to lay a hand on his shoulder. “Cyril. He’s kidding you.”

Tom Sample spoke up, “It’s true, though, too.” He stood holding a fan of floppy paper plates in one hand, beer empties in the other.  “On December 7th, 1941—” 

“A day that will Live in Infamy.”

“—I mean nobody has to dance all the dances, but hey. Might as well. It’s a state of the Union. It’s a state.”

Mr. Kiroff’s eyes were dulled. He said, “You don’t know, how come Unalaska right here had military curfews and blackouts, all months before Pearl Harbor. Months before that. How come they was putting guns on commercial crabbers, all in 1939, way before, and saying Japanese trespassed in Bristol Bay, way back then.”

“No. Pearl Harbor was a surprise attack. Pearl Harbor took everybody totally by surprise.”

“Them surveyors was here for the supply-plane airstrip. Put that airstrip on ’Maknak. Built all the barracks on ’Maknak. And looking out for Jap submarines that never did come. Calling every Jap trawler a spy boat.”

Tom put down his paper plates and beer bottles and came over. “Pearl Harbor was a Sunday morning.” He’d had some amount of whiskey, and he entered into the middle now. “A Sunday morning.”

He turned for some reason to Nicole. “And! As if the Aleuts didn’t benefit! Look what’s in that store today. Food and clothing, Corn Flakes and Sugar Frosted Flakes. Radios, eyeglasses whatever, hospitals, refrigerators and freezers, schools, aspirin, life-saving drugs. Life-saving drugs!”

At a dead-end of his logic, where he’d shoved together a mountain of evidence in a central heap, he put his hands in his pockets and got out of the middle, to regather his bottles and paper plates.

Mr. Kiroff said, “Andy. Let’s go, boy. Time to go home.”

“Don’t leave angry,” Kevin said. “Don’t listen to Tom. Tom is an imperialist lackey. Tom’s a running dog of the capitalist warlords.” Kevin seemed, now, to be aiming his humor at the boat captain, who liked it. 

But it made Tom turn around, and Nicole was there and she put an arm around his waist, saying, “Tom knows a lot about military history because he just finished a stint with the Army. Isn’t that right? So he’s informed about all that history.” Being embraced by Nicole Powell seemed to empty Tom’s mind, understandably, and he was neutralized.

“Mr. Philandron. We can go now. You, too, Andy, let’s go.”

“What! Ain’t no problem!”

It seemed possible that the old man might be hard of hearing – as if maybe he hadn’t followed any of this. “What’s the problem? Have another dance, maybe teach him a dance.”

“Did you know this man is a archaeologist?”

“What man, Cyril?” Big smile.

“This professor who is running this expedition. Did you know he’s a-working against ANCSA?”

The old man said, “Cyril, the professor invited me here. I’m here for the meeting ’cause of the professor.”

Mr. Kiroff’s eye sought out Andy again, “Time to go, boy, get your coat.” He said to the old man, “We don’t want his help. Let’s go now. We’re goin’ now, Mr. Philandron.”

The old angakok hung his head and pulled one earlobe down hard. Standing there, with a sudden plunge into gravity, he was keeping everyone from moving. He lifted his face and said, “The Anangan people already been saved, Cyril. Cyril, now listen I’m talking to you. Doesn’t help you, pretending to be so mad all the time. The Lord pick you up and hold you in His great hands while you struggle and bitch and all complain. The Lord, He is holding you up right now, this minute. You maybe gonna be the chief of this important village if this village gets back a chief. You got a responsibility. They’re gonna call you old-time Qawalangin again. The big fishing boats and processing boats are coming. And ANCSA is coming too, Cyril. But listen, the Lord holdin’ you up He ain’t a respecter of persons. The Father in Heaven, it don’t matter to Him what ‘tribe’ you think.”

Having spoken, the old man lifted his hands and made patting motions in air, tamping down what he’d said, while, with a shuffle, he started unparking himself.

Mr. Kiroff looked betrayed on the spot. Letting his glance move around the floor, he buttoned his canvas overcoat. “Come on, Andy. We’ll bring Mr. Philandron home for bed. You thank your friend for the nice time.”

 

§ § §


While people were finding their coats, Kevin went on following people out the door, carrying on in a way that only the boat captain seemed to think was funny. As the place was emptying, Andy punched my shoulder, and turned and led me back to the kitchen – where, between us, he held up a cup. From his seriousness, this would be vodka. He passed it across, meaning, You first.

The O’Shaughnessy Whisky I’d only pretended to drink. This vodka was watery and tasteless by comparison. A swallow went down easy. He took the cup from me and said: “So I’ll tell you.” He tilted it back into his mouth and swallowed. He said, “With me, it’s do or die. That’s how I am. I never go back on what I say.”

“That’s a great way to be,” I said jovially behind a façade.

“Do you really think you’ll never go back home? Or was that just big talk?” He waited for me to answer.

“Oh, I’m not going back,” I said. The cup came back to me and I held it without drinking.

He said, “Okay, then you can be in my kingdom.”

I knew this was coming.

I couldn’t respond. I knew deep inside, my several forms of amazing superiority, though genuine, would also always be a disguise of laziness and incompetence. Which were weaknesses perhaps even racially deep and permanent, but anyway irremediable.

“It’s too late for the Congress to go back now. Nixon gonna sign this bill. The land and the money are going to come. So you can, man. Live in the kingdom. And with me it will be total freedom. Anybody, if they’re cool, they can live on my land. I don’t believe in laws. Just whatever, man.”

He drank from the cup and handed it back.

I said, “Okay, I’ll do it,” looking him square in the eye, somewhat blindly. Because at that moment I had no choice. Such an unrealistic huge and really planetary gift – entry to an imagined kingdom – made my soul thin to an edgewise vanishing, in that midnight, because, at that moment, the inevitable reality of leaving the island loomed up – that is, catching an oil tanker back home – and for the first time that summer I let my mind begin turning in solstice toward a return journey, my own high school’s central, domed rotunda rising up in my imagination, the lockers along the hallways, all those classroom chairs with their desktops shaped for elbow-rests, the linoleum tile floors, the lighting overhead in radiant rectangles. I took my swallow and handed it back. The alcohol wasn’t having much of an effect, though a cap of skin shrank on my scalp. He accepted the cup, and he stared down into it before drinking. He was happier than he’d ever been, it was in the new slope of his shoulders, believing my promise.

 

§ § §


While the dinghies and skiffs were pulling out I stayed back in the church doorway. Bye. Thanks for coming. See you later. Don’t let the bedbugs bite. A lantern sank in the void in stages, going down to the shore. Another lantern out on the water gradually rose. Flashlight beams lopped this way and that.

I was alone in the doorway, and the more I considered it – that is, the more I remembered how everything was back home – the more it was interesting trying to imagine myself living on this island for just a short time, where there was a shelter with a stove and carpets and money was easy, and people said the climate in winter wasn’t “arctic,” exactly, just stormy. Andy was right about the series of desks if I went back. Years of desks. My physical body was too restless, too lightweight, to spend even ten minutes at a desk. If I were to be realistic and picture living here, the first priority was, I’d need to be practical and think of more than just a campfire and a cigarette and a coffee cup. For instance, at Peter’s Commercial, it was true that Jeno’s Pizza Rolls existed in the freezers, along with plenty of other things, like frozen pizza, a brand with the commercial name “Tombstone Pizza.” Frozen foods didn’t require an oven, necessarily. They could be thawed, then probably cooked in a pan over a fire. Or, as I knew from experience, frozen foods could be nibbled while still icy-solid and be delicious. There would always be work at Panalaska, and possible shelters were all over the island in old wartime bunkers and sheds, not just Andy’s alone. In which case, then, there would be campfires, with whatever beverages we might happen to choose, and there would be time to teach myself guitar, and seriously write some poetry, because the blank pages and Bic pen in my jacket pocket hadn’t had any use. Eventually, unavoidably, a person will have to go back to school and graduate, it’s inevitable – and then at least hold a place in the world, the way most people do, the way everybody does, really – even the greatest worldly success being only a matter of place-holding, in the long run.

The blanket hanging over the doorway, watching the weather a lot, the mystery of self-sufficiency, the boredom sometimes, the coffee pot and the charred bone in the fire circle, far-ranging explorations of the inner island, eating whatever I pleased, whenever I pleased. I would have to come to terms with missing the Fall Season of new TV shows. Also, I now had a human skull that wouldn’t be a real trophy until it was brought back. As long as it was here, it didn’t signify anything.

While I watched the boat lamps lifting away in the dark, I became aware of Nicole behind me. I’d thought I was the only one in the church. She attached herself to my shoulder, and she inhaled a little gasp. I want to be in your room tonight I’ll sneak up later, she whispered like a child on my ear, her breath scented parsley, her humidity conquering me along with a woman’s actual body smell, an atmosphere floral as all the poets insist, but also deadly serious. Having said those words against my cheek, she unstuck herself and went outside, exposing me alone in a whole new chilled hemisphere, an unthought-of hemisphere. Maybe she hadn’t meant exactly that impossible thing. Maybe it was my own wild misunderstanding. Maybe she was referring to something much more simple. That was the likeliest thing. Outside, farewells kept crossing between hosts onshore and guests in their boats. Everyone had pretended it was a trouble-free party unmarred by any awkwardness. The last boat motor began its rumble. A lantern, as it climbed, scattered winks of light on the water. Nicole had wafted out the door, down into the void with a drunk’s dignity, a bicycle-rider’s freedom from earth-sole contact. Kevin Pinne called to the boats, “Next time, you assimilate us. Do. Assimilate me first.”

Nicole complained as she came downhill, “Kevin, assimilating is something blobs do, like engulfing.” She was picking her way down the slope to the shore. “Assimilating is what lymphocytes do.”

“You think I wouldn’t be engulfed in a minute?”

“‘Bye now,” she called past him to the rising boats. “Thanks for coming.”

One of the crew shouted back, “You come fishing again. You all come.”

Yes! Can we really? Wonderful!” To Kevin she said, “If you’ve offended these people, if he comes back from his trip and finds these people are alienated, picture that. The ANCSA meeting is next week. If that goes badly, just picture him.”

“The fishing boat captain and the old man, they thought I was funny. They like me.”

Tom was coming up from the water’s edge, “Whaddya know. The medicine man is a Christian.”

“Please,” she said to Kevin. “Just lay off the San Francisco irony. It’s amusing to you alone, inside your little self-absorbed space.”

“Woop? Woop? You think I fail to see the implications of ‘San Francisco irony.’”

“If he comes back and finds we’ve screwed up relations—” 

Kevin turned and came uphill toward the church, his flashlight beam slashing. I disappeared back inside the doorway. “You need a drink, Nicole. The Night Is Young.”

I, inside, started picking up bottles and paper cups. The secret peppermint chill still attached to a spot on my neck, I went in the kitchen to put some things away, while Kevin came in the door talking.

“Irony, God forbid. I reckon it’s a good thing His Nabs wasn’t here for our little knees-up. He would have forbidden all the Jeno’s Pizza Rolls. He would have made us serve kelp. He would have made us serve blubber. And sea urchins.”

His Nabs was a sort of acronym for the professor, deriving from Kevin’s having said, one time, that the professor himself was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”; then Nicole remarked that Charles was not exactly “solitary,” and far from “poor.” So it was abbreviated. For a while Charles was “Nasty Brutish and Short,” which then shrank to NABS.

“He would have forbidden The Twist,” Kevin went on. “He would have made people do the Sea Lion Dance. And the Sea Urchin Dance, and then he would have spent the whole time haranguing them about how much nobler they used to be before Sears Roebuck.”

“You might have seriously stayed in San Francisco,” said Nicole.

“Before Jeno’s Pizza Rolls. Back when they called April ‘The-Month-of-Eating-Leather-Straps.’ Those were the good old days.” He sat down with an elderly grunt on the floor in the center of the room. He bowed his head and grumbled, “I know, I know, I just came out here for you,” and then laid himself out on his back in the center of the empty floor. Nicole was drifting across to him. “We need to talk,” she said, using a close-focused voice which, I felt, depended on my not being around. I was mostly out of sight, in the kitchen, by cupboard that projected out.

Kevin addressed the ceiling’s empty pyramid, while his hands lay on his chest, “When do you have to be back in Cambridge?” She didn’t answer, she just stood over him.

Tom Sample arrived inside and he pulled shut the double doors. The doors had no locks, but people pulled them shut anyway. Then he put into action a plan to go around the place cleaning up.

Kevin lying on the floor launched a great sigh. His feet were tick-tocking. “If I thought for one minute that Aleut society could possibly make a place for a San Francisco Ironist,” his forearms dropped out on either side, “Wham.”

Nicole was standing over him and she toed him in the hip.

I stayed where I was, near the cupboard vaguely putting things away.

He was lying on his back with his eyes closed. He returned his hands to his chest. “Isn’t it interesting?” he said. “Having me for your pet? Your little experiment in Abnormal Psychology?”

She stared down at him. “I’m not even gonna dignify that. Listen, yeah, I would be in Cambridge right now. Which professionally is where I should be. I would be on Pearl Street right now if you hadn’t called me. I would be hooking up my stereo.” She forced a fake little laugh and turned to start drifting away again.

“No you wouldn’t. You’d be here for His Nabs.”

“No, but basically.”

Kevin rolled over, and lay there on his face, then started pulling together his limbs, getting up on all fours, with a quiet song in his throat, a little song for himself alone, “…No-thing chan-ges any-thing…”

Nicole said, “Charles might’ve not come out.”

“Don’t be silly. He’d be here.”

“And those poor Smales would be I-don’t-know-what, but at least not here.” She had shambled away toward nowhere on the floor.

“Okay, okay. You can trust me again.” He staggered to his feet and headed for the double doors leading outside.

“Honestly, what a manipulator.” She drifted after him.

 

§ § §


I lay out on my rack in the dark like a patient with my arms at my sides. One didn’t know what to do with oneself: for years one had owned and ignored this attached hyphen, straining too often toward hyphenation in some other, unimaginable space-time dimension, whose first and primary characteristic was that, as a hyphen, it could come to have an impossible wrong heft, and second that it was disobedient of Earth’s basic fundamental law, gravity. That women should be repelled by it was common knowledge and perfectly understandable, but according to popular culture a certain small, outlying, peculiar percentage were said to actually prize its sight, or their grasp of it without sight, and even unhappily cherish and want to heal it, certain lonely women, maladjusted ones or psychologically complicated ones, of restless intelligence but low self-esteem, like the kind of woman I’d hoped for when I waited in the laundromat back home, for whom a moment of superficial connection, alone, could be a motive.

But Nicole Powell. It was perhaps drunken, and boy-like, the way she’d proposed to come to my room, but Nicole Powell was an ideal instance of that alien gender, owner of that other landscape within the collar of her shirt. Now that the, famously, most desirable thing in the world was coming to me, the only ruling need at this moment was for mettle. For mere follow-through. I believed I was staying wide awake, listening, hearing not a sound anywhere in the church. But then, when I became aware of her in my room, all the lights had gone out on the floor below, and she was bumbling into my doorway, coming from further along the balcony. On the ceiling swung sails of light, for she was carrying lanterns, two of them. She was burdened like she was moving in for a long stay – pillows were clutched under her armpit, the two lanterns hung from their wire bails in her fingers, a big cloth purse hung from a shoulder strap. A sleeping bag dragged.

She came in the door with a rhythmic squeak of the lanterns’ bails, squinting and rotating, in the funny shortsightedness that hampered her every night when she’d taken out her contact lenses. The doorframe bumped her shoulder and she whispered softly Shit, then everything in her orbit began to drop after she’d gotten past the threshold: pillows and purse, a terrycloth robe she’d thrown over her shoulder, a roll of toilet paper. But she held onto the two lamps. I watched her guide them to safe resting places, one in each corner. Her boots were on her feet, the laces loose, making her walk swampily. By that point in the summer, Nicole Powell in my sight was no longer so glamorous, transformed into a plain moon I could look at, pedantic, over-serious, spatulate-nosed. But there were still moments when the basic contessa was revealed, accidentally in wind or by lamplight, or in some spontaneous kindness, some grace. Tonight she was so clumsy I loved her, her endangerment by nearsightedness, which made me get up from my bed, and stand behind her and actually touch her, to lay a hand on her hip – to still the vague revolving, to bless her arrival – or just bless her strange hipbone, so exotically shaped it might have been a marine mammal’s. But my bravery looked foolish right away as she smiled and set a hand on mine and said, “Whoa boy,” with an aura of Dial soap lifting off her face. Kevin did say she would have to be drunk. But she seemed less drunk now than she’d earlier been. Men’s flannel pajamas were what she wore. On the hip, beneath the flannel I could feel thermal long-johns. I, too, was wearing long-johns. In my case, sleeping in them had stretched and wrung them to baggy slings. I whispered, “Is everybody asleep?” – not because I cared to know, but just because I wanted to give myself an audible remark.

She aligned herself in the room.

“What a dump.”

My skull stood in the corner, her eye-holes black in the lantern-light, her toothy jaw fixed in the eternal expression, a missing upper molar, a missing lower molar – so that you had to wonder if they fell out naturally in the earth over time, or if she lost them during the struggle of a violent death. After all, she was beheaded. I had dug around deeply in the area where the skull was bedded. Wherever the rest of her was, it wasn’t there in the kitchen midden.

“I brought pillows. I know you don’t have a mattress.” She picked up her purse and a pillow, and she started kicking her unfurled sleeping bag toward the bed, snagging as she waded. “Can I have one of your cigarettes? I don’t smoke but I want one when I see you smoking, going around looking wounded and poetic not to mention sixteen. Do you have any poetry here?”

“I don’t write poetry, that’s all a facade,” I said, for some reason, in a surrealistic moment like truthfulness. I had a new personality tonight, through whose mouth-hole I could listen to my voice either “lie” or “tell the truth,” which seemed in effect the same thing.

She said, “I suppose that goes for your guitar too. It’s just a prop.”

The guitar was underneath my laundry pile. I held out the cigarette she’d asked for.

She didn’t shift a fond gaze that had welled up. Maybe she was still a little drunk. She said, “How can you sleep without a mattress?”

My stupidity about sleeping arrangements seemed as winsome as my rumored poetry. I said, “My sleeping bag is excellent. Also, see, I laid my bath towel out so the metal doesn’t poke me.”

Somehow we’d both sat down on the edge of the mattress rack, where she could see me. Her hand rose. The pad of her thumb wrote on my chin – an initial, a dollar sign, a cancellation X.

“I do enjoy this cradle-robbing aspect of this,” she said. She added, “I’m being completely terrible.”

She lit up the cigarette and drank from it, an expert smoker. Increasingly now, a chill at my core – not just from cold, but also a kind of metaphysical chill, of excitement – was giving me a tremor, which originated in my spine. Therefore, to prevent trembling, I tended to keep my forearms laid together hard across my lap like sticks of stovewood.

“Were you able to eavesdrop?” she said. She tilted her head toward Professor Grant’s now-empty room. “Through the wall?”

“No,” I said. And then I said, “Sort of. A little bit.”

In her eye, I could see patient insight.

“Actually, yes,” I amended.

“I started to think that might be the case.”

I said, “Why did you come on this… expedition?” – though that wasn’t the word anymore.

She glanced. She knew the larger things I was referring to: the sadness of Charles Grant; the futility; the fact that she herself wasn’t doing much real, professional anthropology here. “Big ears,” she said, and her knuckle daubed the same spot on my chin. She took in some smoke, withdrawing to a mental distance. “My young runaway, plundering archaeologist, protégé of Matt Krim, wanderer from home.”

“Isn’t he great? Matt Krim?” I said.

“Matt? Yes. Matt. A beatnik” – so she threw him away. It struck me as an injustice. She was looking across the room and she said, “But you know what’s funny?”

I waited.

She seemed unsure, suddenly, about what was funny. In fact, she was looking like it wasn’t very funny.

“What is?” I said.

“Well, I see your girl over there,” she gestured to the skull in lanternlight. With a drag on the cigarette, she took a minute to let her thought form. “You’re going to end up with that skull ’cause she’s like a little old fumbled football. It’s funny because you’re typical.” Then she focused back on me, on my typicality, a stencil laid over me. Seeing the future through the cigarette’s rising wisps, her eyes were on me, but they were more generally glazed.

“Anyway…” she grasped her elbows and made a nice, nestling shiver, to ward off whatever future she’d been seeing, “Why did I come on Charles’s excursion? Just for fun.”

Which brought her right back to the subject of me, here before her. Her eye seemed to fall to my mouth, or my chin, where she’d written a rune. Turning aside to frown straight at her cigarette, she said, “Ick,” and drilled it in the bedside saucer until it went out. The pajamas gave her a man’s form – but at her waist as as she leaned forward, where thigh and torso fold, was surely the female mystery. “And – it’s good for me to get some exposure to societies other than my specialization. Would you like a beer?”

She leaned further out – over the floor – her hand moved around deeper inside the big bag, and she came back up with a can opener, and applied it to the cylinder, its cleat gripping the rim’s underlip. “My specialization has always been the Copper Eskimo.” She aimed the open can first at me. I shook my head. “From the standpoint of what we anthropologists call ‘structuralism’ – because you see, these are post-modern times. It’s the new thing. You won’t have heard of this. We’re all going to be post-modern now. We’re right on the threshold of that. Whatever it may actually mean, everything now is ‘postmodern.’ Everything,” she said with a kind of delight in an absurdity, pushing back her shoulders displaying her physical body as if it, too, were an instance of the postmodern. Lust could concentrate my mind, all too much. “–So it’s good for me to begin making observations in different societies. The Aleuts are remarkable. They’re wonderful. Everything here was bone and skin. They had this life. Like clinging to the side of a rock in the wind. Amazing. I really share Charles’s reverence for all that. So wait,” she said, and put her beer down.

She crawled away and sat in front of her purse cross-legged like a Cub Scout, and she began pulling out elements of a kit, in a cloth pouch, first pressing a pillow out on the floor and spreading its surface smooth, then laying out her instruments. There was a little box. Inside was a squeeze-tube of lead foil, like a toothpaste tube. And there was a plastic lidded dish, the shape of a cosmetic compact. She lifted the lid to reveal a thin disk-shaped gasket of stretchy rubber.

It was interesting. She flipped it over and uncapped the squeeze-tube and started decorating the rubber with a drizzle. “We in civilization have no idea. The Copper eskimos eat raw, sometimes. They still do, far up. Just imagine everything that means. Where I come from, nothing was ever raw. Everything had to be cooked and it was a matter of, like, sacrosanctness. In Massachusetts in the fifties I didn’t eat a single raw vegetable until I left home, except maybe a carrot. Boiled broccoli. Canned fruit. Frozen peas and frozen spinach in, like, this frozen brick. Even a carrot: your mom had to had to peel it first. And cut it. You’ve gotta cut it. If you pick up a nice big hairy carrot, your mom’ll say, ‘Don’t eat that, sweetie, let me cut it for you.’“

I still tended to shiver, so I kept folding forward over my forearms. It was a shiver that began high in my spine or my heart. “Eskimos?” I said. “Eat raw meat?”

She inspected the icing on the rubber disk, then set it back carefully in its open case. In her purse was more equipment, a squeeze-bulb with a rounded tip, and a shampoo-sized bottle. These she laid out in an upper corner of the pillow, and then went back into the purse to get a rubber plunger, blunt-nozzled, like a baster.

“They don’t always eat raw, of course. And not the whole thing, but parts. I’ve never actually seen it myself. But God! Jesus! Imagine!”

The baster’s nozzle could be cleverly screwed to the mouth of a dispenser of gel; and then by drawing back the plunger, she could draw gel into the barrel. It was nifty. It was exactly like a caulking gun. All her tools prepared, she crawled around to me, where I sat on the edge of the bed, and she positioned herself between my knees, holding her beer can. “Like the liver and stuff. It’s just so fundamental. Drag the fresh kill to the doorway. Flint knife, obsidian knife. Blood. Blood in the snow. Share out to the women first. Eat the liver hot. Blood on the wrists. Jeez. You know? And how blood gets tacky! What a way to eat together!”

My lungs had stopped accepting air now that she was kneeling between my knees.

“Did you ever?”

“Well, I’ve eaten sea lion cooked. And even cooked, it is so terrible. It is so stinky. All the pinnipedia are like that. But raw fish? Or sashimi like that girl is getting this week in Juneau? Sashimi is wonderful. One time I was on a boat in the Marquesas and we caught a tuna and cut into it with big knives, right on the deck. The meat was still vibrating, virtually vibrating with – with happiness! With fish happiness! Eating it, I just felt huge. I just felt absolutely huge.” Saying so, she did swell erect to a giantess between my knees, an insult to my face in wielding paired beauty, so that, like hunger, a swallowing-space opened at my palate. “The animal comes up? – right? – it just rises? – and appears at the hole in the ice. The hunter is waiting. He has to wait for hours, holding his harpoon up, watching the hole. Then it appears for one second and he stabs it. And then he has to hang on while it tires. That might take hours. Then he hauls it out and brings it home while it’s still hot – because these things are endotherms, exact same as us – and maybe it isn’t completely dead yet! – so it’s still at blood-temperature. I mean they’re gonna cook it, but first, it’s so wonderful. It’s so gross, but I mean gross-wonderful. They just make ventral cuts and they reach in and share it around, and feed each other with their hands…”

I myself was harpooned and tiring and weak. Then her eye sharpened and she noticed me. “Do you realize? How old I am? I’m twenty-nine years old. I might as well be your evil aunt and you are just trouble,” she said, and she turned away and she sat down on the floor again before her tools like a greedy child, then she pinched her rubber gasket into a butterfly-shape and she rolled back, a failed somersault, awkwardly, hands under the waistband of her jammies. I lay on my back in the mattress rack and I looked at the rafters, with an agreeable sensation of being framed, on my bed in the footlights of the theatre she had made in my room. Before she came back to me in her smell of sealant petroleum, I thought of something. This would inevitably turn out as a kind of public deed, here in a close family temporarily assembled on this island. I could be setting loose forces of trouble that were incalculable. Still she laid herself alongside me, a fellow creature I was supposed to enter into some kind of purely mechanical relationship with, and she’d already reorganized my own clothing, and hers, with the magical quick ease of impatience, and the strangest thing about the storied act, at its threshold and beyond, was that it wasn’t a matter only of unstoppable desire – though that – but of duty and honor.

 

§ § §


The next morning I when I woke up, I was alone, but Nicole’s things still lay all over the room. There were voices. It was Kevin and Nicole in the next room, but I couldn’t make anything out. Then Nicole moved, or turned – it sounded like she was sitting in the corner in Kevin’s one chair – and I could hear her say, “What’s the rush? San Francisco will still be there when the summer’s over. Also, there won’t be a plane. You’ll have to wait for a plane.”

Kevin said something I couldn’t make out, and Nicole answered, “I love your place on Sanchez. I love Twin Peaks. I love your roommates. You’re unfair to them.”

“Clones,” Kevin said. “A scene.”

Nicole didn’t respond, then Kevin shifted position and spoke more clearly: “I don’t want to be part of a little club or little Polk Street. They have their little attitudes and they make you join their. Join their little party.” Then he added, “All the immortals. All the immortals with their infinitely interlocking—”

He was moving around the room just as if he were packing.

“Where do you think you’re possibly going to go? I’m serious.”

“Chicago. Back to Chicago.”

He was packing. I could hear the woven grass mats being rolled up. Earlier, coat hangers had been jangling.

“Those will be valuable,” Nicole said, in a little backward drift, “Nobody is going to know how to do them like that anymore.” Then she said, “Kevin. Forget this line of self- …of thinking.”

He just went on stowing away his grass mats.

She added, “I mean, yes, but Chicago.”

“Chicago is Chicago. It’s not some kind of party where you’re guaranteed – guaranteed – ”

“We both know what’s inevitable then. I’m sorry. And I won’t be there to rescue you. It’s going backwards from San Francisco. Who do you have in Chicago now? Besides me? Nobody.”

“San Francisco is for the immortals and I’m just not like that.”

In a far corner there was a noise of sliding books or papers. “You say this stuff about ‘immortals.’”

“—And I’ve got plenty of people. You don’t know.”

Packing his suitcase again, he made a sound of scorn and parroted her, “‘Rescue’ me.”

There were more creaks of woven grass, and the sound of crumpled paper.

He went on, “The Native Real Estate Meeting is coming. I don’t want to be around for that. You can be around for that if you want.”

Nicole said, “Well, okay, hon? In Chicago I know you’ll wind up at Riverview, and that’s just not smart.”

“Move, will you? I’m packing.”

“I recognize my responsibility of friendship when I see it.”

He said, “You and I aren’t in Chicago anymore, and people aren’t each other’s responsibility, Nicole. Nicole, you’ve been good. And you’re sweet, I know. But you’re not me. Just think: you get to be good. You are good. I will always be ‘interesting.’ But part of being interesting is just being temporary. In fact there’s no Riverview anymore, Riverview’s gone. In fact, you know what?”

“What are you talking about, Kevin? Kevin, relax, just stop moving, honey.”

“Can you imagine? I was thinking of living in Alaska? On this trip? Of, like, living in Anchorage and having a life? With all the – handlebar-moustache guys?”

“Oh, Kevin.” A chair scraped. “You’re going back to Margot.”

He paused and made a sigh and then kept on packing.

She said, “Margot is waiting. In her house.”

Kevin didn’t answer.

She said, “Marriage is not temporary, marriage is the big Grand Prize Game. And Margot! She’s an awfully good person, Kevin.”

This elicited nothing from him. He seemed to be silently folding clothes, or else doing nothing at all, it was so quiet.

Finally he said, “‘She’s a great person.” Suitcase buckles clacked. “And so am I.”

“Better keep the volume down.”

“Yeah, you think,” he snapped.

“She’s been faithful.”

“Do you suppose Margot and I – do you suppose we haven’t discussed this? ‘Faithful,’ yes. You make it sound like some kind of problem of hers.”

“Marriage is not… Marriage is ‘no-foolin’’. With marriage, there’s definitely somebody else in the room with you. You’re not the only person in the room.”

“The point you’re trying to make is, marriage is not for egoists, total egoists.”

“What does Margot get out of it? Security against loneliness?”

“Good point, though: I’ll bear that in mind: marriage is not for pathological egoists.”

There seemed nothing to say after that. He went on packing. Then he spoke as if he’d given the question some thought, “She gets me. Imagine that. She gets the probably-better part of me. Besides, grow up, dear.”

“It would be artificial. Society is not like that.”

“Oh, no. It’s not. It’s something that’s definitely not.” He took a pleasure in making this point. “You can say ‘artificial.’”

“Does it have to involve lying-and-duplicity-and-marriage?”

“Just look around. And besides, that’s a bridge I can cross when I come to it. You don’t know Margot well enough to have such a low opinion.”

“Oh great. A bridge. Margot is going to like that bridge. You know on Wabash under the El, that’s trouble. It’s like Riverview, it’s literally like getting-arrested trouble. And marriage is not going to change anything. When you’re married, you’re married, and there’s another human being in the room, who was not always just part your personal drama. It’s somebody. That’s serious.”

“Don’t be jealous, and don’t be saying things you’ll regret.”

His voice this morning was issuing from a puncture, a deflation. That alone, his fatigue, was an authority she was powerless against.

“I’m saying this as your friend.”

“I know it’s how you think,” he said. Then he sighed, “O, Sweetie. Listen, you’ve got a good life.” He was trying to set a better tone.

Nicole seemed to think for a minute, then exploded: “What is that? What is that? Is that you speaking from on high? I’ve got a good life? Is that The Curse of the – of the Undead Vampire People? I’ve got a good life? Meaning you’re so tragic? Jesus, you are an asshole.” She was going out of his room.

She came around on the balcony, then through my doorway. I lay still, pretending to sleep. I could hear her standing in the center of my room, angry, dithering, and I opened one eye a slit. She was wearing only the shirt of her pajamas, her long legs impossible.  Her one hand gripped the other hand and squeezed it. Then, for my grateful vision she tore the shirt off over her head, standing with her back to me, showing the strong sapling of her back and of course the immemorial valentine, and she swung her hair, reached down into her big purse, found there a brassiere – to be teased from within the purse in a snagging string – and she walked to the open doorway to put it on. She took a deep breath to calm herself down.

Naked, in the confidence that no one was below on the church floor, she stretched, in the doorway reaching up with twining arms, hanging her small ribcage as high as she could, then she suddenly shrank as if she’d been pierced by an arrow, and said. “Oh!”

“Hi, Babe,” said the voice of Charles Grant, below.

“How long have you guys been home?” she said, crushing her breasts with a forearm.

“Oh, just forever.”

 

§ § §


I sat up in bed. There was no rear exit from the room, not even a window. The only way out was by going down the staircase and crossing the main floor. So in one instant I decided several things: that my goal was to get outdoors, fully dressed and wearing shoes; but that for the time being, I should stay up here until the coast was clear; and that, in the meantime, Nicole should be the one to go down and answer to the professor. I’d sat up in bed, and she looked at me, and in our gaze we shared all these same thoughts. Knock-kneed, she snatched up her bathrobe, her amazing streamlined female body, lacking the knobs and cables of a man’s. She got the robe on, but before she went out, she stopped and turned back to give me a look, wrapped tight in her own arms, a bit cross-eyed in distress. Then she tiptoed over, kissed my forehead goodbye, and went out to face the professor.

She called downstairs with fake delight, “So you’re back.”

The professor made an ambiguous noise, somewhere between throat-clearing and grunting, and he could be heard walking away on the floor below.

“We met some people in Juneau. Just fortuitously. Two guys from the Alaska Federation of Natives.” His voice was going to the kitchen and the cupboards. “They all want to accept the big pay-off. Real estate and tourism: it’s the future of everywhere, the whole globe: real estate and tourism. Better buy now.”

He, actually, seemed not to care what we’d been doing. His mind really did seem a million miles from that. He wasn’t saying anything about the party debris. But I hadn’t been down there: maybe last night it had been cleaned up after I went to bed. Nicole was standing out at the balcony railing in her bathrobe. “Were you talking to the AFN in some official capacity? Or just some guys? …Hey, we had those fishermen over last night.”

“Supposedly they hired a lobbyist, the AFN. All very sophisticated now. They’re going to have an office of their own in Washington, D.C. They’ve already got somebody in Juneau.”

The fridge was closed, with the snap of its latch. He was crossing the floor again.

Nicole said, “Aren’t you back earlier than you’d planned?”

“The ANCSA meeting is tomorrow,” he said. “Custer’s Last Stand.”

He was by the double doors at the front. The right-hand door’s hinge made its peculiar pop in being pulled open. He said, “I’m going out,” and was gone.

I pulled on my long underwear. Nicole was standing at the railing above the main floor. She came back into my room, and while our eyes met, the whine of the ATV’s electric motor came from outside. We listened and we gazed at each other unseeing. Probably Cristie was in the ATV with him. I found a shirt and some pants, while Nicole picked up her equipment, and together we went – down the stairs, fast and quiet, crowding together to the front door to see.

Cristie was in the passenger seat. He seemed to be taking her for a ride. It was evident that they’d been home for only a little while. Their baggage was piled by the door. Books and paperwork were stacked on the table.

The ATV’s batteries had been dying for the past week – it had been sent with no way to recharge them – and it lurched away at a toy-like rate, making a new grinding hum that got deeper and slower as it bogged down – the big wheels were thwarted by even a small hummock of earth. Which it mounted, gradually, and then humped over.

Nicole and I hung back and watched while they toiled over the hill and out of sight, the grind of its electric motor vanishing, rising to a higher pitch as it began to benefit from a downhill slope. Nicole said to me, in relief but also a certain awe, confirming a premonition she must have already had, “He doesn’t care.”

I wanted to believe it, but I couldn’t. Of course he must care. He was only pretending not to. Pretending not even to notice.

Then he and Cristie were coming back over the hill, on foot, because obviously the ATV was stuck in a grassy depression on the other side of the hill, its batteries depleted. I could even picture the precise low-spot where it was nose-first at the bottom of the far slope, never to be lifted out. The ATV’s failure, precisely now, seemed to add extra blame to me and Nicole, and she pecked me on the cheek and we went fast to our separate bedrooms, hers downstairs, mine upstairs.

From then on, for at least the rest of this day, I knew I would stay in my room as much as possible. Nicole seemed to do the same, though not as completely. During the whole day, everyone seemed to avoid everyone else. I listened from my room. But I couldn’t hear Nicole. If she wasn’t in her bedroom, maybe she was with Kevin somewhere. Or with Cristie. Or working on something anthropological. I just stayed in my room. Tom Sample woke up and undertook, that day, to wash the four tall windows on the one side. Why, I didn’t know. I couldn’t imagine. It was an activity that tended to drive people out of the place. Lacking a ladder, he had to drag the big table over under the windows, set a chair on it, and stand on that to reach the highest panes. Later in the day, I took a walk outside, a long one, over the spongy hills to the south, where I wouldn’t meet anybody. When I came back, near the shore, I saw Nicole in the distance, with Kevin – they were walking together – so I reversed my direction.

Another time, I overcame stagefright and came down from my bedroom to the kitchen to make a snack, which I took back to my room, rather than eating in public. Maybe she and I weren’t communicating, but I felt we were mostly keeping track of each other’s movements via peripheral sounds. I was ashamed. In one night, I had torn a membrane separating me from everything. New kind of currents were in the world, and an old kind of plain light was in the world. She did send me one sign. When, eventually, I went to the kitchen to fix a snack, she was sitting at the big table with some others – with Cristie and Tom – while Charles worked at the far end of the table writing a curriculum vitae for each of us, to be presented to the National Geographic Society’s funding committee – and Nicole chose that moment to idly tear a heart-shaped slip of paper from an envelope, and then found a way to set it beside me on the kitchen counter where I was making a sandwich.

The gift caused gratitude all-important and saving. Also, for some reason, it had the effect of distancing me, too, with a new, vague kind of anxiety.

Charles, too, spent a lot of the day in his room. Cristie was in there with him, in a nurselike role, judging by the tones of voice that came through the wall. They seemed to know, now, that their words penetrated the tarpaper. Once after an hour of silence, Cristie said, “What?” Presently Charles answered, “Nothing.” Another time Cristie said, “You okay?” Which he didn’t answer, at least not audibly.

In the afternoon, they were talking in there. They came upstairs from the kitchen and they thought I was still out on a long walk. Charles said at a normal speaking volume – with the slap of punching pillows to plump them up – “You know what? I’ll tell you. I’m a happy man.”

But it was spoken with a deliberation, a self-diagnosis. “Yup. Happy man.”

Cristie didn’t say anything, not wanting to venture near that particular bear trap. I stayed ultra-quiet. I had an idea they might be referring to me in some oblique way. Everything and anything could refer to the fact of my inert but central role in the general collapse.

Charles said, “All I have to do is stop this particular settlement. Get the bill redrafted. They’re under the influence of a billion dollars. All I have to do is show them a billion dollars is shit. That’ll be easy.” I decided the last remark was sarcastic. Then he went on, with a different grip on himself: “Also, I’m happy because I’ll get funding from National Geographic. And I’m happy because I’m in the Aleutians at all. That’s a good thing. And I’ve been sleeping with two beautiful dames this trip, if not exactly carnally, still. The only thing – the one thing I’m annoyed by – is this expedition. So-called. I’m going to send Kevin Pinne home. Pow. Like that. Today. What do you think?”

Cristie thought for a minute. “Nicole would have an opinion.”

“Yeah but hell. He’s a prick and a troublemaker and he foments this terrible attitude. Single-handedly. He’s only here because he’s Nicole’s friend, staging his little psycho-dramas. And after all, I am responsible. You could still say this is under University auspices.”

Cristie said, thoughtfully, “All pretty weird of Nicole.”

She was chewing something, probably Ritz Crackers she’d brought up from the kitchen.

“Ah, but,” Charles said, “I’m afraid if I call for a plane to get him— Come on over here. Sit beside me. C’mere. – I know if I call for a plane, I’ll probably lose you. I know you’d like to get on that plane. It’s really time to get Desiree, isn’t it.”

She ate some more. She said, “I’ve been a bad mom for a bit. It’s been okay.”

She’d spoken sadly: This wasn’t okay at all.

He had asked her to come sit beside him yet she was staying across the room.

“Of course it’s been fine,” Charles said. “You’ve been out here in ‘Radical Uncertainty’ with me. Of course that’s fun. For a while.”

“I’m missing out. Every minute I’m not with her.” I could hear the rumpling of stiff waxed-paper, definitely the Ritz Crackers’ inner lining. “It was a mistake leaving her with mom. It was my idea – or, it was my original suggestion, but now she’s eighteen months.”

“Then go. Do. I’m capable of being a little unselfish and letting you go. You can cut me loose. On my floating iceberg, as Nicole says. But don’t wait around here for him. He’s not coming back. He’s really a drunk. Picture this: there’s a street in Anchorage, Fourth Avenue, with saloons where they cash paychecks. Drunk natives. There’s a gutter. In the gutter, Terry is lying there in his own piss. And he’s got a big smile on his face. Like, a smile on his face like you’ve never seen as his wife. He’s really happy at last.”

She didn’t answer. I could hear her closing up the Ritz Crackers box.

She said, “Look at this, I’m going to ruin all your maps if you don’t pick them up.”

“Hi,” said Nicole Powell’s voice. “Can I come in? The expedition Comfort Woman?”

“Nicole! Welcome! Come in!” Somehow she had arrived without a sound.

“The expedition floozie,” she added, wanly.

“Oh, Nicole. ‘Cast the first stone,’ and so on,” said Charles. “I’ve been making an all-out effort myself, to be.”

She said, “This whole place today. Feels like – “

“Ah!” said Charles. “Yes. It’s like the Garden after the Lord came and yelled at everybody: everybody is dragging around in their own separate little place. But I kinda like it.”

Cristie added her own impression: “An infirmary.”

“Except Tom Sample. There’s uprightness.”

“Where is Tom?”

“Out somewhere.”

“Tom might only feel ashamed because he’s the one person not going from room to room.”

Cristie offered, “Maybe I’ll—?”

“No no, stay,” said Nicole. “The only reason I came up here,” she went on, “is really two things. First, to make peace.”

“Hey, relax, I love you. You can still have the Tuesday-Thursday seminars.”

That, oddly, made Nicole laugh, with affection. “God, Charles,” she said, “I thought I was sleeping my way to the top.”

“Yeah. Uh-huh. Little did you know. You were sleeping your way off to one side.”

“Actually, I didn’t tell you this. I’m accepting a job at Harvard. So first I’m going to take a semester off. Then I start there.”

“Oh? Are you serious? Harvard! With Alan Gold? You never mentioned.”

“It was all very tentative.”

“That’s great. Nicole. That’s truly good. How come you didn’t ask me to write a recommendation letter?”

“Well, I will. Thanks. I will. I want it in my file, definitely. But the reason I came up here now was just to ask about the schedule of those Standard Oil tankers. I’m wondering. Can we arrange passage back to San Francisco for Kevin? He wants to go home. He’s feeling homesick. I think he’s too poor to afford a plane.”

Charles said, “Kevin is not poor. And Kevin isn’t allowed to leave voluntarily. Because I’m kicking him out. I’m expelling him. And anyway, who is this woman?”

“—What woman?”

“This woman in Chicago who’s willing to marry him.”

“If I thought your interest was anything… Charles, she’s absolutely a very classy sophisticate, so don’t flatten everything.”

“A ‘sophisticate,’ exactly.”

“Her name is Margot Kleindienst.”

“Oh, so he’ll stop going, wherever, Union Station. I can picture her. She has a great wardrobe. And she has her own money and she scares off men. She supports the arts. She’s six-foot-something and she wears weird sarongs.”

“Wow, Charles. You’re actually a shithead. And out here is where you can be a shithead. I mean, I know that doesn’t bother you—”

“I told you Kevin Pinne is a trouble-maker. ‘Kevin Pinne.’ Didn’t I tell you that, way back in, like, the cafeteria? And in the case of that boy, I certainly don’t stand in loco parentis but if he’s being corrupted, then I could get in trouble.”

Cristie spoke up and put in, “He’s of an age, Charles,” in Nicole’s defense.

“I don’t mean by you,” he kept addressing Nicole.

Cristie kept it up, “Since when are you so moralistic?”

“I’m not moralistic about anything. But I did say long ago there was no reason for Kevin Pinne. And Nicole! Normal! Is normal life a theatre? Is normal life some kind of a skit?”

“You know he’s right next door,” said Nicole.

“Who? No he isn’t. He’s outside. He’s out walking around somewhere.”

“No, he’s home. He’s here. I saw him come in. He’s right next door in his room.”

Charles said, “Oh.”

Now, among the partitions, there was a shared open rink where everybody, includng me, held still.

I stood on my side of the black paper and didn’t even shift my weight.

Charles said to Nicole, “Okay. I’ll look into the Standard Oil tanker schedule. You want me to use my influence and wire them. But Kevin Pinne is not allowed to voluntarily leave, depriving me of the pleasure of throwing him out.”

Nicole then said to Cristie, “And Cris? You’ll stay?”

Cristie told her, “I’m here.”

“Just let me know,” said Nicole. The two women’s voices were flowing together into their own separate stream.

Cristie said, “It’s not as if everybody didn’t have resources and alternatives.”

Charles interrupted, “Listen, if you two want to stand here—“

Cristie went on, “Think about it: Plenty of resources and alternatives.”

“Why don’t you both just talk,” said Charles.

“So Charles. You’ll ask? About the Standard Oil tanker?” said Nicole.

“I’ll ask,” he said. “I will. I’ll ask.”

“I really do appreciate it. And you know something? I thought I already did have a recommendation letter from you in my file. Because, are you sure? That’d be a terrible omission! Would you write me a letter? I’d be really surprised, frankly, to find I don’t have a letter from you already in my file. But just in case.” And she added, “I mean it.”

Her voice was moving to the doorway. “Okay, well – see you later. Thanks, Charles,” and she went along the balcony and down the steps. She must have been in her stocking feet, or barefoot.

Her going away brought back my physical presence, flash-photographed by their consciousness, standing next door inside my black box. I didn’t move. I could conceivably stay in my room all afternoon, without coming out at all, until I slept for the night.

Charles and Cristie were also not moving. She said presently, “These maps – I’m trying to step around them.”

He didn’t answer.

She started putting some effort into moving something – something slightly bulky – coats or bags possibly. They had a clothesline in there, strung up on nails, where they hung all kinds of things, not just clothes. Charles made a sound of changing position in bed.

She said, making no effort to talk quietly, “Now the day is at a crossroads. Either you start drinking or let me make you eggs. We’ve got eggs. I’m going to make you a cheese omelet. And we’ve got some of Arlen’s funny parsley Tom found.”

“Listen to me,” he said suddenly, in such a strange tight voice, it was as if a third person were in the room, “None of you are going to that ANCSA meeting.”

A minute passed, then she whispered, “You have got to get a hold of yourself. You’ve got to get some perspective. You’re driving people crazy. You treat this meeting like it’s the biggest thing in the world, like this is the Louisiana Purchase.”

“You and that girl – that ambitious girl and her friend – none of you is allowed. Because it is! It is like that! Because of the amount of what’s at stake. All this Alaska is not just something pretty outside the window to look at. And people want to piss it away. Just stay out of this one thing.”

Cristie was across the room. Nothing happened for a while.

“This community, right here where we happen to be, is influential. They’re being stupid. I have a chance here.” He was laying himself out in bed on his back.

Cristie said after an interval, “People aren’t against you.”

He didn’t move, lying on the mattress. Then his voice rose feebly from the base of a chute he was gazing up into, “…in the shape of a female descending a gangplank.”

“Come on. Let’s go. I’ll make you an omelet. You’ve had nothing but peanuts all day. But Jesus you change gears fast.”

I, in the center of my room, just kept standing still.

I could see I might be doing something like this for most of the day, standing up, equidistant from the four walls.

 “Don’t lie down, Charles. We’re going downstairs. You begin making these jokes, only, and then the jokes become reality.”

“Well of course,” he said. “But you try and leave something behind. Or nothing behind. The pack-it-in, pack-it-out rule.”

“Look at these old maps. They don’t make them like this anymore. They’re beautiful. They’re obviously expensive, valuable old maps, and they’re getting dirty and ripped and stepped-on and totally wrecked.”

 

§ § §


The next day was the ANCSA meeting. Around the church people stayed out of Charles’s way. Conversation seemed limited to practical necessities, in hospital tones. I could hear them down there. Everybody seemed to be moving around pretending to be occupied. When I did show myself out on the floor, I spent some time working at the central table, spreading out my few excavation notes, creating archaeological records. I made up a lot of grids showing “potential artifact” locations which, in fact, were not imaginary. That is, I was setting down dots randomly but it was legitimate in this case, because each layer of the actual dig was a square of static, containing twigs, bits of mussel shells, pebbles, I had a shoebox full. I put dots anywhere. Nobody bothered to look in on my work, or seemed to care. My only motive was, I thought it important to leave behind some evidence that archaeological work had been done.

So, quietly, began everybody’s last day on the island.

Charles left before lunchtime, for the big regional meeting across the harbor. I saw him come out of the church – I happened to be up along the shore – he strode down the slope toward the Zodiac, then he stopped in mid-path and stood still. Cristie appeared in the church doorway. He walked back up to her to give her a little talking-to, all the while tapping his own breastbone. She listened, arms folded, while he talked. He was patting his chest with the heel of his palm. She just kept her arms folded, while steadily watching him talk.

At last he turned and started down toward the boat, and she stayed in the doorway. But he stopped in the path and turned and came back, up the stairs, and started talking again, while one arm thrust out behind him, hanging there pointing at something. This time she broke it off, and slipped back inside.

So Charles went down to the shore, boarded the little boat, and sat there alone for a while. His hands were joined and, lifting his shoulders, he thrust his wrists between his knees. Something about the gesture made me feel sorry for him, the handcuffed look of it. Who knows, maybe he was right, maybe the Alaska Natives shouldn’t sell their land. I had no clear idea what was at stake. He was wearing today a black knitted stocking cap covering his radiant baldness.

At last he started the engine, spun the boat in its half-circle, and motored across the water.

I stayed sitting on the boulder I’d adopted, where I was working on my rubber boots. They had been giving me blisters, but they could be made more comfortable if I lined the soles with paper. I was using one of the blank pages of typing paper that always rode in my jacket pocket. By folding a page, and ironing it down against the sole inside, I could create a surface that didn’t chafe. Meanwhile, a motor sound rose on the water. Another boat was coming around the point from town.

It was the Kiroff skiff. Andy was alone at the tiller, his face tented by the peak of a sweatshirt hood. I laced up my relined boots. He turned off the Evinrude motor and hauled it up to a new tilt as the boat kept drifting in. When the keel had crunched in its sheath of gravel, he said, “Old man wouldn’t let me go to the Native Claims meeting. Want to ride through Akutan Pass?”

“In this?” I said.

“I’ll show you whirlpools in the middle of the sea.”

I didn’t want to do any such thing, and I changed the topic, “Why can’t you go to the Native Claims meeting?”

“Fuckers,” he explained, hopping the gunwale.

He picked up the boat’s sopping rope and pulled it in toward a big rock.

“Can I ask you something?” I said. “The other day the professor was talking about the Native Claims. He said it was a billion dollars and some-million acres. Can it be that much?”

“That’s for all Alaska. That’s not just for the Aleut. That’s for Koniag, Cook Inlet, Bristol Bay, see, all that. They’re dividing up in twelve. The Aleutians is just one of the twelve. The amount they say will be three-hundred-twenty acres for each person. But three-twenty is a lot. Three-twenty is enough for me. And everybody gets shares of the money.”

“I must admit – I didn’t believe it at first, considering the history with Indians.”

“We ain’t Indians.”

“What will people do with the money?”

He finished tying up to an old foundation piling, then he stood up straight. His novocaine face suggested mockery: “You’re scared to go through Akutan Pass. Okay. But if we’re going to live in my kingdom, it’s different. You ever kill anything? No. There’s reindeer up there. Reindeer is what you got for hunting. Living up there on the mountain, it’s different. It’s just different.”

I said, “Well, tell me. What exactly are the plans for food and fuel and whatever? Because the fact is, I might consider that,” I claimed, my voice historical, because I seemed to be saying – I plainly was saying – that I might stay and live on the island. Because, in fact, it was imaginable, a tin cup on the embers, blankets on the floor, Andy’s stolen U.S. Army pots and pans, and charred salmon, which I’d been getting to like, and the shrewd pleasure of living without money, except for the occasional longshoring job to finance – whatever – sugar and flour and coffee. Or on the other hand, maybe I would show an innate weakness of character. That was the other possibility. It was a possibility just about equally feasible. “For example, how cold does it get in the winter?”

Then a rising sound – a whole swarm of boat engines – made us look out to the bay.

Every craft in town, large and small, was coming right at us, looking so much like an invasion, a person might have almost turned and run uphill. Professor Grant was out front in his Zodiac leading an armada of boats, large and small, back to this cove.

The ANCSA convention had been ejected from the little cinder block church that was the all-purpose meeting place in Unalaska Village. The other church, the old onion-domed Russian building, needed repairs and was unsafe. No one ever went in there. Instead, they held their religious services and other community meetings up the lane from Peter’s Commercial in a square building made of cement blocks. I and the others had gone inside once, when the place was empty, just to see what Russian Orthodoxy was like. (Nicole pointed out that the inscription painted over the door, “Lo, the stone that was rejected by the builder Has become the head of the corner,” was amusing on a structure made of cinder blocks.) Inside, in a rectangular low-ceilinged room of the simplicity of an oven, there were no seats, oddly, as if people had to stand through services. At the front of the room was a free-standing screen, made of lattice like you might get at a hardware store’s garden department, painted with pink housepaint. Displayed on the screen were Russian Orthodox ikons of bearded men and spoon-faced madonnas. The ikons weren’t paintings but instead decals on wood under a gloss of Varathane. Supposedly there were real ikons but they were still in the old church. I and the group didn’t stay long, we just snooped around lightly, satisfying our curiosity, keeping our hands to ourselves, among the coffee percolators and paper napkins and stacked hymnals for various denominations, Baptist, Russian Orthodox, Anglican, Baha’i.

That was where the ANCSA meeting was supposed to take place. But the meeting had been ejected, according to Charles. When his Zodiac boat hit the gravel of the shore, he climbed out and told Cristie what had happened: a Russian Orthodox priest from Sitka had banished everyone from the building.

“All the way from a monastery on the peninsula,” Charles told her while he was standing on the shore waiting for the rest of the delegates to land.

“He had the big robe, like a monk, and the big belt. Unalaska has no deacon right now, and this guy came all this way, just to obstruct the meeting. The Metropolitan, so-called, wouldn’t let us use the premises, because there were AFN representatives in the room. So I said okay, come on over to our church.”

“What does the church have against the AFN?”

“He was waving people out of the room, with his arms waving, like wafting smoke. He kept his face turned because of the presence of evil, and he was wafting people.”

“What’s ‘evil’?”

“They think the AFN promotes a return to shamanism.”

Charles, while he spoke low with annoyance, kept beaming at the arrivals. Big fishing boats anchored out. Smaller skiffs served as taxis. Andy and I sat far to one side, on a little shore ruin, while the delegation collected, altogether about forty people, of both sexes, this time as many women as men. People picked their way up the slope, mostly not talking, unacquainted with each other. Many could have been visitors from far islands. One wore a parka that looked like real sealskin. We followed, and inside the church, people were making places for themselves to sit on the floor in swirls of shed coats. Many stood against the walls. There were only a few folding chairs, for the very dignified. Andy’s stepfather arrived, in someone else’s boat – he walked past us not raising his eyes to the boy who had stolen his skiff.

I would have found a place for myself inside, but I was caressed on the shoulder, by Nicole. She said, “Let’s talk now.”

 

§ § §


In the aftermath of lovemaking, evasion and shirking were a part of manliness. This was a form of decorum natural and inevitable – though it was, also, so hypocritical it was paralyzing. But Nicole, she was able to be brazen. I followed her downhill, while everybody else was going up and entering in. When we got to the shore, she didn’t say anything. Her hands were clasped before her.

I asked if she didn’t care about the meeting. She was missing it.

She squared off to me. “What are your plans, broadly speaking?” She reached across and pulled up my collar, which was sucked down inside my shirt. “I’ve been wanting to do this all morning,” she said, ironing it up around my neck, while I wished she wouldn’t do that in public.

Then she reclasped her hands and began, “So, everybody is starting to think about figuring out what’s next.”

Which meant, in effect, now goodbyes were in order. I focused out on the sea, looking self-reliant, as well as resourceful.

She said, “There’s a plane going out tonight. I’m leaving, you know. Kevin’s in a big hurry, and he got a plane and I promised I’d go with him. So—” she shrugged.

She was looking at me.

She said, “Here, give me a hug,” and she enclosed me, while I may have lifted my shoulders, not wanting to be seen. “I have to be Kevin’s guardian angel.”

“I can always do longshoring,” I said. “Hunting, fishing. Live off the fat of the land.” All those options did in fact exist – longshoring being, of course, the more dependable backup.

She craned back to a distance. “I hope you don’t feel like the Corn Boy. You know the Corn Boy?” she said. “He had to be a youth who’s never been kissed. He was chosen from the village. It ensured the fertility of the crops. He had to go inside and spend the night with the priestess. Then the next day he’d come out and everybody in the village would stone him to death.” Her gaze, in flickers, sorted through a haze around me. What I did have was stoicism, my saving strength. I’d passed these days desiring not only her body – wanting one more impossible chance at it, this time more debonair, expert, leisurely – but desiring more to be lit by the light of her eyes. All of which boiled down to the weaknesses and delusions of my being young. It was clear she didn’t want me on the plane with her. And that was good. It was fitting. It made sense. Actually, it was an absurd unimaginable notion, that I might join her in flight like some kind of elopement. It hadn’t even crossed anybody’s mind. It was ridiculous.

“Charles doesn’t give a shit what happened. You have to believe me on this. He’s in his own little world. You seem so worried. You’re not responsible for everything. Charles has plenty of other things to focus on. Think about it: His scuba-diving plan failed. His expedition has no report to make. In his career, he’s reached the point of having to exclude other scientists’ nowadays-complete-settled-orthodoxy. You know what will happen? The worst thing that could possibly happen to Charles?”

Everybody was in the church and we were alone out here – but she checked back over her shoulder for a second.

“…The worst thing for him would be, his wife will rescue him. He has an amazing wife he never mentions. She looks exactly like Queen Elizabeth. Not this Elizabeth, the old Elizabethan Elizabeth. Like, she has the little beady eyes – and that, like, pad of hair going around?  What she could do, possibly, is fly him back home. That would be hitting bottom, for Charles. So don’t worry about him. At this point this community is lining up against him, too, but he’s a grown-up. He’s allowed to crack up any way he chooses. You’re the one with some choices to make.”

“Me? I can make three dollars an hour longshoring.”

Three dollars was an unheard-of wage by any standard, but she didn’t seem impressed.

“If I get tired of it here, back out West I can always ride the rails.”

That seemed to delight her. “You have to go home. You’ve got parents back there. And finish high school.”

She didn’t see the true situation. – Nor did I think I could describe it to her. For I, too, hadn’t completely grasped my situation. Whatever it was, I did know it was my job alone to master it. The “alone” part: that was the whole point. It was the part I had a chance to be eager for.

She said, “All kinds of boats come through all the time. You should look out for that Standard Oil boat, the Bryant. It does a regular triangle, and you could get Charles to arrange that. Will you write to me? We’re at different points, you and me. But I’m going to write to you. May I?” She laid her palms on my chest, just where lapels would lie, and she looked me deep in the eye and said, “I’ll tell you something, though,” whorishly, “Somewhere in the world, there will be a very lucky girl.” It was intended as a lush sarcasm, going straight to my debonair skills in bed. She even added a roll of the eyes toward swooning.

 

§ § §


We meant to go back inside, but something was happening. Villagers were coming out. Pulling their jackets back on.

We went up and, in the church, people were drifting, greeting each other in fresh conversations that obviously had nothing to do with politics anymore. The meeting was spreading. Andy stood just inside the open doors, and I asked him. He said he didn’t know but it looked like it was moving again, to some third location – nobody wanted Professor Grant to be in charge. At the head of the room a few remaining delegate types, maybe from the Alaska Federation of Natives, were talking with Charles. One was telling him, “The Alaskans will not live on reservations.”

Charles said, “Well, no, but then, white people will buy it all. Gradually over the years they’ll come up here like an army buying it. That’s a road the American Indians have already been down, bit by bit.”

The feeling was, Charles had ruined the meeting, probably by expressing offensive points of view. I stood over against the wall. The AFN delegate said, “Only the fools want Welfare payments, and the BIA in here.”

Andy’s father Mr. Kiroff, on one side, said, “He’s an archaeologist, Wally. You don’t have to ask him.”

The delegate went on, “If you call the land unalienable, you see how it’s childish? ’Cause, really, everything is alienable.” He patted his own physical body, evidently also alienable. “That’s how come it’s got value.”

“They are asking you,” Charles’s finger was poking in his open palm, where an imaginary paper lay, “They are asking you to give up all original rights, all hunting and fishing grounds, all ancestral claims. Then, in payment for this rather cosmic, cosmic concession—”

“That’s right. Yes. And pay federal taxes.”

“Good, so they’ll tax you to death gradually. Don’t give up land, Wally. Land is fundamental, and you’re one of the last remaining people.”

This man was buckling his coat, standing up taller. He gripped a thick accordion file under an arm – an arm that ended in a prosthetic steel hook. His left hand nimbly operated his coat buckles. “Thank you, Professor. We always appreciate. I know you’re a ally.”

Extremely soft-spoken, almost sing-songy. A small, middle-aged man with a massive powerful chest and a ponytail, wearing a black shirt whose collar was lined in quilted red, his snapping-turtle mouth and hooded eyes a little bit grandmotherly. I supposed he had journeyed from distant inner mountain ranges for this. By turning away slightly, he released everybody, “I always want your view, but this is not a matter for visitors.” With one hand, he pulled his gray ponytail out from under his coat collar.

Our Professor Grant now, with his considerable dramatic skills, had called attention to himself by shrinking shorter, holding up his hands to grope against the shape of an idea, then in a whine he began, “I guess I think it’s the substitution of cash that bothers me. It’s the whole monetary cash economy. ‘Here. Here’s electricity, magical all-powerful electricity. Pay ten times the fair price for it, but you don’t have any job-base in your village.’”

“Jobs, we’ll create ’em. The multiplier effect comes in.”

“Exactly. Create jobs out of what?”

“I admit there’s all-different folks up north who’s gonna have a different kinda experience with this, adapting. But Aleuts, no. What with the Aleut literacy rate. The literacy rate higher than you got in American cities! No problem here! No problem here in Ounalashka.”

Jobs,” Charles said, seeing some hopelessness in the word. He looked out the window, “What people have always had here – is a very close connection with the world here. Not just ‘close’ but intimate. ‘Intimate’ where a long-distance kayaker can navigate blind on open ocean by wave-feeling. You know? In a total black-out situation in night fog. Wally, that’s really something. And it still exists here. By how the waves feel. That is something not materialistic or economic.”

Wally had hung his head. “Yeh, we’re pretty impressive, yeh,” he said in a kind of embarrassment, or sneering. It was an odd moment.*

FOOTNOTE * A year after these events, in 1971, President Nixon signed into law the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, providing 1.1 billion dollars in cash to Native Alaskans, as well as a share of all future Alaskan oil revenues, and granting them ownership of 44 million acres of land, of their choosing. Twelve Native corporations were established, over twelve geographical regions roughly corresponding to tribal affiliations, among them the Aleut Corporation with dominion over the Aleutian chain. The Aleut Corporation received $19.5 million in the settlement, with 66,000 acres of surface land and 1,572,000 acres of subsurface land. Ownership was divided among 3,249 Native Aleut shareholders, each of whom received 100 shares of stock in the Corporation.

For fiscal year 2001, the Aleut Corporation’s after-tax net corporate income was $1,801,233, deriving from government contracting, aviation support services, office and commercial real-estate development in Anchorage and Denver and Southern California, aggregate mining, tourism, and securities. The Corporation’s wholly owned subsidiary, Spacemark, Inc., generated $1,358,000 in after-tax revenues and paid a $400,000 dividend to the Aleut Corporation. In 2001, the Shareholder Permanent Fund increased by 33%, to $4.8 million. When the fund reaches $10,000,000, half of it will be liquidated for distribution in cash equally among all shareholders. Additionally, in 1999, the Aleut Corporation took ownership of the recently decommissioned military base on Adak Island, to be developed as an aerospace facility and business park.

Gross revenues of the Aleut Corporation during fiscal year 2001 increased from $28,511,000 to $40,749,000. Total assets increased from $21,083,000 to $27,810,000. Anticipated earnings for the 2001-2002 Fiscal Year are expected to be offset by start-up expenses associated with the development of the new business park facility on Adak Island. A complete corporate financial statement is available online at http://www.aleut.alaska.net, along with a Virtual Tour of the new Adak facility, accessible by clicking on the ADAK icon.

While the rustle departed – clink of boot buckles, remarks and laughter in the double-doors, jackets’ zippers – Charles kept trying. “The corporate model, Wally, involves a complete disconnect. It involves accountants and nontangible wealth and all kinds of creative accountancy which is fundamentally a kind of lying, by any standard.”

He was also trying to include, now, the angakok, Bill Philandron, who was sitting and listening with his mouth open, his hands gripping his kneecaps. Now that he’d been appealed to, the old man made a sour expression. His hands began squeezing his thighs as if to massage blood-flow in them while he said, “Money’s not bad. Nothin’ wrong with money.” He told the AFN delegate, “The man is trying to help, Wally. You just got to explain things better.”

Charles said, “Money in this form is really not good, Mr. Philandron. I really disagree. It’s a corrosive alienating force. Take my word for it. The whole ‘corporation’ entity was invented so men could avoid responsibility. A corporation allows people to make money at a distance. At a remove. That’s what corporations do. They distribute responsibility. Some nice little old lady in Peoria is the bad guy.”

The old man’s hand lifted and made an adjusting, fine-tuning wobble, “O, you can’t stop money. It turns into other things. Shut the door, it goes under the crack. Money is caused by work in the world. Work in the world. Money has love in it. It’s got love in it, that’s why you ’fraid of it.”

“Mr. Philandron, this form of money, this is influence from people who’ve never seen Alaska. Who don’t know anything. If you give up native claims, white corporations will offer any amount it’ll make your head spin it’ll seem like such a fortune at the time. You need to be a sovereign nation. Or else you’ll end up in Anchorage in a…, well, in an apartment.”

The old man had been struggling up from his chair, and he came across to Charles, not speaking till he’d come into close focus. With a pat on the breast, he told him, “You don’t got to protect the Aleut. That’s for the Father in Heaven.”

Which only made Charles smile harder. Andy beside me whispered, “Freaking out.” The two of us, along with Tom and Nicole, were standing against the wall in the chill as the room emptied.

“Hear me out,” Charles said in his painful grin. “Who does the fish camp anymore? Nobody. They’re eating out of tin cans. And the old stories. They’re going. They’re vanishing.”

The old man had heard Andy speak and he moved his attention to us. Having swabbed his tongue at each mouth corner, he said, “You know something? I don’t like the old stories.” He told Andy. “I’ll tell you the new story. You listening? You’re a bad kid, I know it, hair like that, kicked out of school. Smell like booze sometime.”

Andy was limiting himself to looking out through the open double doors.

“You wait, I’m gonna tell you the new story.”

He turned back to Charles. “The Father in Heaven don’t give a shit about whether I’m a Aleut, whether you’re a white, rich man. Don’t give a shit. Or whether anybody got a baidarka or a good Grumman, see? See, I think Father in Heaven is glad I got a good Grumman. ’Stead of putting pitch on it every time, like the old people used to and still it leaked. Father in Heaven don’t like the old stories, either. People killing each other, people choppin’ everybody up, Raven crappin’ on people.” 

The AFN delegate had bowed his head – with an expansion of the chest – repressing mirth. It would have to be a respectful sort of mirth.

“Well he did!” cried the old man, switching to Andy and me. “Raven crapped right on people’s heads. Crap on people and think it’s funny. Chop off some poor man’s head, just ’cause the guy is a Kodiak man. I know they tell about it at the BIA school. But they forgot to say about the new story.”

His new story, beyond a doubt, was going to be the Bible.

Andy grumbling something averted (it had the consonants of obscenity, but lazy). He pushed himself off the wall and got going, and went for the open front door.

The show was over. People were tipping away. This delegate named Wally, who’d been listening to all this with a flickering, shining glance, patted Mr. Philandron on the back with his intact hand, and he turned to go.

Professor Grant was going to be left alone now, smiling in defeat. He watched people head for the door. Then he turned on the expedition members – me and Nicole and Tom – the ones standing nearby.

“All right. You all can get out,” he said. “This is finished.” He brought his wristwatch up to his eye and he held it there, while he started winding it. “I’m locking the doors. You can pack and get out right now.”

Decree of banishment, it felt somewhat righteous, actually. It had a certain clang, and it felt inevitable because I did feel deeply at fault, in general, whether because of the skull, or because of Nicole, or for some larger, vaguer reason. I was somehow typical, merely.

“Pack your gear.” He kept his attention hard on his watch, screwing the little brass pill on its rim. “You can all go ahead and swim home for all I care. You’re on your own.”

 

§ § §


It was slightly unbelievable. We were evicted. Outside the church, Tom and Nicole and I stood in a ring in the grass, half expecting to see a padlock appear right away, or even half hoping, in the thrill of being so wronged. The little constant motor inside my own ribcage was going to be a strange thing to live with, now. On the one hand this was exciting: we had each other. But on the other hand I had just been told, Go ahead and swim home. Which I tried not to focus on.

Nicole said to Tom, “Won’t be much room on Kevin’s airplane. Pretty crowded already.”

“There’s always the bunkhouses at Panalaska,” Tom said. “Work in the cannery.”

“…Until another oil tanker comes through,” she said. For a minute her hand had rested on my shoulder, unconscious. Then unconsciously she took it away again, with no idea how her touch had held me still. Strange, differently-evolved creature to stand beside, female, ruler of situations, the passage between her legs that night evidently curiously nub-textured like a mouth’s inner cheek, with an interesting anointment slipperier than anything in the world. Her hand on my shoulder holding me and readying me where I stood, she ruled as if she had no idea at all of her rulership. The thing I would most miss was her sense of humor. Her sense of humor was all wisdom and insight. Soon she’d be gone and I wouldn’t have her anymore. I’d only have having had her. In the midst of my own troubles right now, this was crazy but I actually felt lucky. Unforgivably lucky, unconscionably lucky this summer, I was like some nursery-rhyme boy who had gotten away with what was forbidden and hadn’t faced any consequences, and was to be admired for it. I knew I should be worried, about, for instance, the prospect of having to go back in and make myself inevitable as a guest in the church with Professor Grant – indefinitely – with no plan at all – but at this moment I was too exultant to worry, just standing beside Nicole, and of course Tom, too.

Tom said, “How much does the little airplane cost?”

She shrugged. “Kevin. Kevin’s paying.” She folded her arms and turned to consider me beside her. She looked at me for a minute, then said, “Charles is going to have to let you stay. He’ll make an exception for you.”

“Where is Kevin all this time?”

“Oh. Not feeling well.”

“Could anybody get passage on an oil tanker? Without using his influence? Assuming a boat eventually comes through. Or just, like, get on.”

– We could be stowaways! I might have said that aloud but I was more mute than ever, outside in the wind with these people under the overcast sky where the grass bowed. The circle that was made by our three backs excluded Andy, who was standing down on the shore. He was stranded because his father had taken their skiff. Tom said with a nod down there, reaching the same thought at the same moment, “We have to offer him a ride. When we’re in town we can check on the plane. Maybe ask about other ways to get off the island. He’s your friend, you ask him.”

So I called down the beach saying we were going to the village and he was welcome to take a ride with us.

He accepted only by not responding. He answered in the affirmative by merely whipping a pebble hard into the water with a scythe of the arm.

So, across the slapping green water, toward the opposite shore we took the Zodiac, without having asked Charles’s permission. While we talked about our options, Andy rode facing the wind and said nothing. But of course he listened, and when we got out on the other side, he kept hanging nearer me, and while the boat was being tied, he got me alone, saying, “If you want to sleep in the bunkhouse, they make you pay twelve dollars a night. That’s how they get back your pay. They always do that with Outside Men. You’ll be like a Outside Man now.” He was grinning.

“Outside Man?”

“Outside Men, they live out. They got kicked out by their wife or something. Got to live in a old quonset, or in a outhouse by the fish camps. Live in caves. Lots of Outside Men on Unalaska,” he said, with a narrowing of the eyes. “Since before Father Veniaminov. Hide in the rubble. Scare the little Aleut girls and boys that go past.”

When some account of his went into made-up territory, he took on an expression of testing me. Heading for the harbormaster’s shack, we were following behind Tom and Nicole, and I wished I were walking ahead with them. I said, “Of course naturally the bunkhouse costs money. But I can earn twenty-four dollars a day.”

“You don’t have to worry, man. You can live off the land. We can live in my Kingdom.”

I knew he was coming back to this. “Oh! Of course! I forgot about that!”

“We can go out and live on it now already. Right now. Do it before the law gives it to us. Who’s gonna care? Who’s gonna stop us?”

“Tell me,” I said. “Just so I can picture it. Does that place, that bunker, does it have some kind of a heat thing?”

“I’ll show you. It’s great. Don’t worry.”

“Just for winter time.”

“I’ll show you, man.”

“I’m just wondering.”

“You got lace panties?”

“… Me?”

“Well, don’t be a worried old lady.”

“I’m asking, for example, because of the weather. Just to get an idea.”

“It’s all cement, man. You could bomb it. It’s great. It’s all concrete. Got a square hole on top to let smoke out. Got a square hole in the floor too, to crap in. Stay in there, stay drunk all the time.”

So with a queasy new loyalty, on the dirt road, I was letting Nicole walk ahead and get farther away from me. In one night by lantern-light, the same Nicole Powell had revealed herself in a blaze, then folded her plumage back in, and now had reentered the body of this familiar person, anthropologist wearing a baggy sweater and hiking boots, keeping her distance, preoccupied, clearly happy. At the foot of the dock, she and Tom greeted the harbormaster. Then I could hear the harbormaster say, “A pilot’s coming and he radioed. He’ll be here any time now. And he has a passenger. Terry Smale. He’s one of your expedition. He’s coming over from the mainland right now.”

 

§ § §


When the plane taxied in, Terry was visible inside the small smudged window. It was a while before the hatch was opened – the pilot in the little front windshield was taking his time, seeming to write on a clipboard – then when the door did open, Terry hopped from the pontoon to the dock with a nice agility, wearing new, heeled boots. He said, “I bet you’ve all found plenty of lost civilizations.”

“You’re looking prosperous,” said Nicole. She made that an insult. “You look like one of these western businessmen.”

 “Got a job,” he said. He was wearing a tweed jacket.

The pilot, standing on the pontoon, said, “Pardon me, sir, will you be wanting this?”

“No, leave it. I’ll be back. Thanks.”

“I guess you’ve come for Cristie,” Nicole observed. “She’s here.”

There was an extra weight of meaning in the words She’s here. But Terry – with an eye wandering over the village, and a tug hitching up his waistband – stood there not absorbing it.

Tom told him, “Kevin and Nicole are leaving. They want to take this plane out.”

“This plane? Out?”

“To Anchorage,” she said. “And home.”

“Expedition in disarray?”

“Disarray? No,” she said. “It’s just time for us to leave. But you might say ‘disarray,’ yes.”

“He’s a petty tyrant,” Terry confided to her, having stepped closer. We were all standing together at the foot of the dock. In this quiet village, we were pieces of a dwindling old chess match. “I don’t care what he thinks he’s been doing, what he even thinks. Him and Cristie. She’s a smart woman. She’s a good woman.”

That declaration caused a silence – measured by a rhythmic clanking that came from the Panalaska building. Tom asked, “What is this new job of yours?”

“Anchorage,” was his answer – turning away, with another hitch of his belt.

Nicole said,  “We might as well take you back to the church. We’ve got the Zodiac.”

Tom said, “Say,” to the pilot, and on the boards of the dock, he went up. He was going to ask about the size and passenger capacity of the cabin.

But the pilot was busy climbing around back, tying down pontoons. At which point the harbormaster, Larry, came out of a shed on the dock – he’d been at our church party, tall Mississippian with a helmet of feathery, prematurely white hair. Terry Smale hailed him. “Larry! You see I’m here. Made it. I’ll get the checks on the way out.”

The harbormaster seemed to know what that referred to. Then with Terry leading the way, everybody was going to start moving. Tom caught up, having talked with the pilot, and Terry spoke backwards to him, “Pretty big plane.”

“He said he’ll see. He said he can take on fuel here.”

“I’ll tell you,” Terry then began providing answers to questions nobody had asked, “This is about a bank. I sit on the phone in a bank in Anchorage and I set up offices. Offices in places. Lots of geologists. A whole bunch of people are saying there’s oil in Alaska. I’m here on bank business but I’ve got my own plans here, too.”

We were moving up the shore into the town. He reached over to me, and his fist scrubbed the top of my head, “Good to see you, young man.”

“Are you drinking?” said Nicole.

“Nicole. I’m surprised at you.”

“It’s what Cristie’s going to want to know.”

“Well, I’m not drinking right at this moment. I’m just going to drop by the store.” His path began to veer. “I have a small amount of business to accomplish.”

Tom told me, “We’ll get some boxes for packing.”

Andy was there. Down past Peter’s Commercial, he was leaning on a post, my inevitable friend – whom I might have to depend now for a while, in this place. No tanker was coming soon. And I would be the last person to get on this outgoing plane. Andy might be useful. He would know about jobs in the cannery, or a place to stay in the village that was dry and safe, and inexpensive if it cost anything at all. He was down the road, out of earshot, and Nicole complained low, for Tom’s hearing only, about how unfair it was that a boy should have the most beautiful black head of hair in the Western Hemisphere.

She didn’t want to come inside – she’d meet us at the boat – so we went in for empty cardboard boxes. Terry had gone first, and he swung his briefcase up beside the cashbox and called, “Hey Peter? I’m back.”

The storekeeper came out from among the shelves.

“They sent me the lawyer. There’s going to be a whole prospectus. What they need from you are just two things: already-cashed checks and, eventually, a place suitable for doing business. I can get a copies of payroll from Panalaska. They need to show that there is some sufficient ‘currency velocity’ out here. That’s what they call it. They’ll get payrolls from fisheries and everybody up and down the chain. But they say it won’t hurt to have copies of physical checks in the file, too. Having a place will be hard. I told them you would know about that. The physical premises. They have all these requirements.” He had opened the briefcase and was picking through it.

The storekeeper said, “I’ll send ’em. I got some.”

Terry said absently, while looking into his briefcase, “The FDIC has to insure it.”

“I told you, the airbase had a bursar’s office, with a big vault. You go see it. It’s on the Amaknak side. Did you come in on Reeve? Storm coming in, I thought you’s gonna get weathered out.”

“Here are the forms. They’ve got this whole checklist. Requirements about exits, floor plan. You have no idea.”

Tom and I were making ourselves all too obvious as an audience, so Terry had to turn and explain, “It’ll be a bank. It’ll be a Bank of Alaska branch.”

 

§ § §

 

Over the bay again, we all rode back in the rubber Zodiac, except Andy. We left Andy back on the shore. I did promise him I’d be back, and we would meet in the village and begin making plans for mountainside living.

But I would be working on betraying that promise, finding ways out of here. While the boat crossed, I sat on the built-in bench that was an inflatable rubber tube. All my life, I’d shied away from oncoming events. Shied even from the next hour. It was my special, doomed way of keeping my famous poise. Now I’d said I would meet up with him and – I had to allow for this – I might have to prepare for self-reliance in a concrete bunker, and for a while at least, actually live life authentically. It might be a good thing. Borrowing airplane money was impossible. Who from? The professor? It was obvious I wasn’t a courageous person and that I wasn’t cut out for a hard honest life – but calling my parents long-distance, via the phone in the store: That was an extreme I planned not to reach. Talking to them about my immediate plans would bring us up against all the undiscussed matters, for instance that I wasn’t good material for a real education. Consequence of my mysterious, lazy irresponsibility. Or call it arrogance, whatever it was, it had no foundation, nor any inner, stiffening backing. Ships did come through this place. The luckiest eventual outcome, for me, would be to get an actual job, in Sausalito, where Matt Krim had offered a welcome. Because people can have jobs. Jobs are a reason for existing, for plenty of people. Moreover, best of all, jobs are also a means of existing.

As the Zodiac rounded the point, Terry told me (sitting and shifting, with a new, prickly, businessman’s discomfort in the rubber boat, because he was somehow bulkier than he used to be), “You know that friend of yours, the Aleut boy, Andy Kiroff. The harbormaster told me about him. He says he’s the worst hooligan in town. The boy’s father drinks a bit, and the boy robs him.” – Terry had started distributing this story generally around the boat. “He and his little pals go through his dad’s pockets. Imagine that. Imagine doing that to your dad.”

“That’s not his dad. It’s his stepdad,” Nicole remarked.

“Cyril. He’s been trying to do the right thing, but Andy is just a juvenile delinquent, and there’s no police in this town. There’s nothing. There’s some kind of visiting sheriff on a circuit. If somebody breaks the law, people have to send for a sheriff till next week. A couple years ago they had a murder, and the murderer just went on living here with everybody until they got somebody to come out. There’s no law. At that Elbow Room, all kinds of things happen. There’s just no law of any kind.”

Nicole said, “Good. You can brawl with Charles then.”

She had such a healing wit. Unfailingly, by joking about the worst thing imaginable, she could neutralize it.

“Brawl? I’m incapable of violence. I’m like Mahatma Gandhi.”

“Oh. It would have been so romantic.”

“I’m going to get Cristie and leave, that’s all. Very peacefully.”

That declared intention caused people to fall silent, maybe trying to picture it.

Nicole then said, “So. What is this about a bank?”

Terry didn’t answer, he just watched the far water go past.

 

§ § §


Charles was sitting on the front stoop when we arrived, his elbows resting on his knees, both hands pressing his beard, testing its springiness, while he watched the Zodiac pull in at the shore. Then he turned and spoke over his shoulder into the open door. He was summoning Cristie, no doubt. But she didn’t appear.

When Terry stepped onto the shore, Charles spoke across the distance: “Find work?”

Terry said, “Is Cristie in there?” He didn’t move but stood on the stones with his hands hanging at his sides.

“She’s here. Yes. C’mon in.”

The cowboy boots made him taller. In a fight the boots would be a disadvantage, unbalancing him. Better to have your feet flat on the ground, I decided. Since my quick defeat by Andy, I knew something about fighting. To win a fight, I figured the secret would be that you had to want to win. You had to have an unmixed, uncomplicated desire to hurt your opponent and then you could do a decent job of it, paying close attention to weaknesses, guiding blows with your weight thrown in. But it would be like anything else. You have to want it.

For a minute it looked like a fight might actually develop when the professor spoke. “I’ve told Cristie she ought not to go with you. That has been my advice. I’ve told her you can’t be changed.”

Terry turned up empty hands, “It’s up to Cristie. I didn’t come here to abduct her.”

Nicole said low, as she passed, “Abduct her. Go ahead.” Then she lifted her voice to the professor, “The plane is here, Charles, at the dock. It leaves as soon as we can pack and get on. It’s a four-seater but—” An empty cardboard box she was carrying slipped from her grasp, and she stopped to stoop for it.

“Mm-hm. ‘Four-seater but’—?

“Kevin and I aren’t light packers. Got a lot of stuff.” She was going up the stairs and through the door.

Then Cristie did appear in the doorway, her arms folded, and stayed up there, telling him hello.

Terry said, “Here I am.”

It was the eloquent thing to say in the situation.

She pushed her hair back and said, coldly, “Would you like to come in? Or what.”

It didn’t make Terry move.

But it made Charles stand up from his seat on the steps and climb up, going past her into the church.

Tom and I were loading ourselves up with empty boxes, perhaps somewhat taking our time doing it.

Terry, his hands still hanging empty at his sides, said to Cristie, “Honey, I want to bring you to Anchorage,” in exactly the right tone, it seemed to me, a tone mixing desire and sorriness. To which she replied, after a long wait, and still coldly, “I didn’t write. I didn’t tell Kalamazoo County.”

“That’s good. That’s good.”

They were having this conversation across a gap: she in the doorway, he at the shore. A light, bright rain was condensing in air and everything had begun to shine. This place in the Bering Sea, where storms are born, seemed a pure lung of the whole world’s weather, compressing a stillness, and sounds traveled intact through surprising distances. Across the bay at the Panalaska building, a big door or gate clanged, which must have been loud because it carried all the way around the point. Tom and I toted our our gravity-free boxes to the church steps.

Terry said, “You know, I’m not always this dumb, you know. It’s only when I’m around you. I’m serious. You should see me. My whole I.Q. goes up.”

She bowed her head. With a breath toward maybe facing anger, she turned half-around, to lean in the doorway. Her fingers took up a pendant at her neck, and she stroked her chin with it. Tom and I, and our boxes, got past her through the door.

In the kitchen with Charles, Nicole was speaking. “He says he’s non-violent. He says he’s like Mahatma Gandhi now. I was hoping for a big fistfight, all around the church. Of course he’d win, because he’s the good guy now. You’re the bad guy. Sorry. And then he’d stand over your broken body and speak some perfect insult. Wouldn’t it have been romantic?”

“Could still happen.”

“—And then take his woman away. He’s a businessman now. He says he’s going to start a bank in Dutch Harbor.”

Charles said, “A bank bank? In Dutch Harbor?”

“Remember how obnoxious he was, that the fishermen don’t put their paychecks in savings?”

“There’s no population, you can’t start a bank. He has no connections or influence or – credibility.”

Kevin Pinne, who hadn’t been seen all day, appeared in his upstairs bedroom doorway. Nicole told him, “The plane is here. It’s there.”

He said, “I’m almost ready.” Over his arm hung shirts.

“The pilot’s going to wait. And guess who’s back. Guess who arrived on the same plane.”

Kevin’s eyes lit up. Which in him amounted to a drooping of the lids. “Will there be a fight?”

“I’m trying to create one. You get packed.”

“Oh, there won’t be a fight,” he went back into his room.

The professor watched with the unamused, level gaze of a highway patrolman, while Kevin went behind his door and closed it.

Then he bestirred himself and started shuffling around, took down the old heavy coffee cup he used for wine, ran some tapwater in it, and came around and sat down at the table.

I was tiptoeing up the staircase carrying the smallest box, a good size to pack my books and the skull, which no one would notice me leaving with. Which no one had even mentioned lately. I could store everything in a locker at Panalaska, while – I supposed I’d have to explore the possibilities – working at the docks? – staying in the mountains with Andy? At the moment my only plan was to get out. Out of that building. Then see. I might have no choice but to come back here to the church.

Charles said to Nicole, “You’re leaving, too, babe. Aren’t you. On that plane.”

Nicole didn’t answer.

He sipped from his water cup.

“Kevin is going home,” Nicole said.

“Oh. Yes. Right,” said Charles. “Have you noticed? The world is filling with sensitive children. I’m the last grown-up.”

“Yes you certainly do have a lot of opinions,” said Nicole’s voice, as she went into her bedroom. Upstairs, I knelt at my bed and began packing my things, laying away the hardcover reference books Matt had given me, the Hemingway and the E.B. White. Among crumpled newspaper and balled-up socks, I nestled my head of a girl. I was getting away with it and nothing felt unjust or illegal about it. Nothing, really, was.

In a stack by the bed were the four books on archaeology I’d stolen from a public library – which I decided could stay here in the church. They would be my contribution. To the Charles Grant Aleutian Institute.

Charles – still sitting by himself downstairs at the big table – aimed his voice at Nicole’s bedroom, where she was packing:

“It’s hard to start a bank. You have to be somebody. The government has to approve it. You have to capitalize it. There has to be enough of an economy in a place. You have to get chartered by the state or something. Not just any jerk can start a bank. He’s somebody’s errand boy. People don’t need a bank.”

Nicole, in her room, didn’t respond.

“I’ll tell you something, too. About what’ll happen at Harvard. Nobody’ll go out and study real people. Everybody’ll be a French theorist. They’ll all stay home. They’ll all stay home and sit around drawing those damn diagrams, little shitty little diagrams.”

Tom came out of his room, with a clinking of backpack clips. “That one Zodiac will be needed to get people across to the plane,” he offered in a subordinate tone from the Army.

There was no response. I looked out my doorway to see what was happening. Charles was still at the table, tipping his coffee-cup around, making the water circle inside, while not spilling any. He absently asked, “Where are the Smales?”

“Outside talking,” said Tom.

He downed the last of his water, stood up and walked around to the kitchen sink, rinsed his cup and set it on the drainboard.

Then after thinking, he picked the cup up again and filled it with more water at the tap. He said, “Terry Smale is going to come in here and tell me a thing or two. He’s gonna settle my hash. Fix my wagon. That particular scene is inevitable. We’re all going to have to go through it. It’s something he needs to do in order to go on with his… marriage. And save some purely personal idea—”

“Charles?” Nicole said – she was in her room moving around, packing. “You could still go back to the Department. You want to be like this. The last buffalo. ANCSA doesn’t need you, and you’re staying out here because you like it.”

“I’m sure he doesn’t even want to,” Charles went on, speaking of Terry Smale. “Ancient code makes him do it.”

“Look,” said Tom. “That’s the oil tanker. Isn’t that the same oil tanker?” He was standing in the double doors in front.

“Hm, I do believe it is,” said Charles. He went over toward the doorway. “I believe that’s the Bryant. The Chevron Bryant. Now they’ll all want to go home on that. Cancel the plane.”

Tom said, “Unless all oil tankers appear alike.”

Charles, in the open doors, observed, “Yeah but no. They can’t take on passengers. The bureaucratic wheels in Standard Oil – I had to wheedle with them for months, on letterhead.”

After a minute, he said, “They look lovey out there. The Smales. He got a job in Anchorage, did he?”

He watched the Smales outside for a minute and then said, “Maybe they’ll be fine.”

 

§ § §


I brought my duffel bag down, my guitar case making a brief appearance in public – under one arm the skull and books in a plain box. The professor spoke of me as if I weren’t there, “Our intern, now. They might make an exception, but it might be headed for Long Beach, not San Francisco.” He watched me putting my things by the door and told me, “Goes in a big triangle: San Francisco, Dutch Harbor, Long Beach.”

I’d packed everything for a locker at the Panalaska building, but maybe things had changed. Because definitely, there it was. I could see it in the bay through the front door. It looked like the Bryant, against the far mountain its misty profile the same key-edge serrations. It was surely the Bryant. I could see the shape of the rear structure where my bedroom was. I could see the bridge where I talked to the First Mate, the lower storey where Matt’s roomful of radio equipment was. I wanted to get straight to the harbor and, if it were the Bryant, ask about boarding. In the meantime not knowing what to do with myself, I sat down and stayed with the baggage. Sitting on my own duffel by the door, I’d been childish and lazy on this expedition, I’d been dead-weight, the whole time. So I just sat and waited. Terry came up the outer stairs hand in hand with Cristie. At the door they parted, and he crossed the open floor, placing his cowboy-boot heels softly. “Well, Professor Grant,” he said, “Cristie is leaving.”

Professor Grant was sitting at the table again.

Cristie said, “We’re going back.” She was heading for her room.

“Back Kalamazoo?” the professor asked her.

Terry answered for her, “Back Anchorage.”

She said, “But hey, there’s always next year, Charles. Next summer. A whole new group for the orientation lecture.”

It was a poke at him, but also affectionate, affectionate in its very unfairness, and intimacy. He took it with a considerative tilt of the head, eyes upcast and drifting. She was going to her room to get her things. Her husband arrived and stood at the table, leaning forward, his knuckles on the tabletop. Seated across from him, Charles toasted Terry with his cup and said, “All she could talk about was you,” and he faintly smiled.

Nicole said, “Terry? You can’t win.”

She was coming out with her trunk, battered Army-surplus hardshell, which she dragged to a spot by the front door. “He has defeatedness on his side, Terry. You can’t beat that, it’s unconquerable.”

She was speaking with reference to all the nighttime quarrels, the ones I’d eavesdropped on. Charles looked now as if he wasn’t in a position to completely disagree, contemplating the shallow water in his cup. Which again he rolled around by tilting.

“Right? Charles?” She was curiously swaggering her way up to him where he sat.

He lifted his cup of water, closed his eyes, and inhaled at the rim as if it were wine. He said to Terry, “Trying to start a bank, eh? You’re really quite a go-getter.”

She had come around behind him and she put her hands on his shoulders and started rubbing, massaging her old professor. Then she addressed me across the room, for some reason, above Charles’s head – which caused me to put a tentative grin on my face – “He’ll just want one tiny little favor before we go. Somebody to nail down his free hand, on his cross. He won’t be able to get the last nail in by himself.”

“Oh, I’ll manage, sweetheart,” said Charles. He patted her hand where it lay on his shoulder. “You know, that oil tanker is back. Maybe you could try to save yourself a costly plane fare, if you’re feeling kinda charming.”

“I know, I heard that, but we’re committed. The plane is from Reeve Aleutian. The guy is basically leaving any minute.”

Then she came around to stand beside him, unfolding in her voice a tenderness, “Listen, Charles. In the Anthropology Department, it’s nice and warm and dry.”

“Oh,” he smiled. “All too!” He swirled the cup of water under his nose, then took a sip. He told Terry, “This little economy can’t support a bank.”

Terry said, “It’s not me, it’s the Bank of Alaska. They’re who I work for.”

“Well. Give a man a job, and suddenly he’s filled with…” he gestured toward Terry, indicating whatever he was filled with now.

Terry said, “Nobody is sure they can get a bank in. Who told you anybody was seriously planning on locating a bank?”

“The news is everywhere. It precedes you. But Terry, I’m telling you, the last thing this island needs is a bank.”

“Could be,” Terry admitted.

“There’s no economy here.”

“The Aleutians generates a quarter-billion dollars a year. You’re supposed to have a higher ratio of cash to GRP. There’s probably a hundred thousand dollars in cash money on the whole chain.” He added, “…‘Gross Regional Product.’”

Charles was looking up at the whole idea of Terry Smale, his gaze dimming.

Terry said, “I’m only supposed to bring them some information.”

“Well, I always did have defeatedness on my side,” Charles turned stiff-necked toward the already-gone Nicole – wrinkling his nose in a way that perhaps was sure to charm her, at one time. But she was going into Cristie’s room and the door was closing.

 

§ § §


Once we had the Zodiac packed, it was so heavy with luggage, it sat too low in the water. Only three people would fit – Nicole and Kevin and me. Nicole knelt at the back end and handled the tiller with a doubled grip, though for a minute one hand had rested on my knee before flitting away, another contact numb to her.

The rubber craft made slow progress away from shore. It was so overloaded that, as the motor sped faster, the boat seemed to gouge deeper in the water and slow us down the more. Kevin Pinne sat high on the pneumatic squish and he looked around himself and remarked, “This is cute.” Then he commented, of the whole past month back there, “Well… that was pointless.”

“For all concerned,” said Nicole. But she meant it. Kevin had spoken lightly, but she was angry, her voice coming from a very different acoustic space.

Kevin looked out over the water for a minute. Then he reached over and patted my knee and said, “But the Corn Boy made out all right.”

“Oh stop, Kevin.”

“I’m just saying.”

“Some people still have feelings,” she said.

Kevin, for my benefit, tried to look meek and henpecked.

I could have told her, she needn’t worry about me, I had no special feelings, nor deserved any special sympathy. To me it was obvious, it was axiomatic, that I myself was peculiarly central to the ruin of the expedition, that my innocence was like one of those dam projects or superhighways with the legal right to condemn anything in its path. I just kept quiet and rode, and I didn’t look behind me at the spreading, sinking shoreline. For these past days of mounting blame everywhere, I had felt muffled, padded, and now I was being transported from the island, in all my inertia. If that was the Bryant, it should be a sure thing, in any moral universe, I should be able to get on that oil tanker. Or even if it wasn’t the same ship but some other one.

Kevin said, gazing far off, “Husband material in Boston.”

Nicole didn’t want to banter with him. She just kept steering, both her hands on the outboard motor’s handle, her vision over the bow. Maybe Kevin wasn’t always a good friend.

He went on, “Without me, this whole picnic would have had no formal dramatic structure.” 

Nicole complained, “Well the poor guy,” meaning Charles back there at the church.

“I know. He’s the tragic figure. He’s the scapegoat.” Kevin was propped on one elbow, basking. “Now he’ll pace alone. On his deserted beach. All his powers of sorcery are gone. Exeunt. Ruth will never come fetch him.”

I had a dim idea of what they were talking about but bewilderment was accustomed. I knew full well this was all, still, a world like an empty paint-by-numbers picture, made of white voids, where it was generally more comfortable not focusing, or even trying to focus. I had my skull in the box and the oil tanker was on the horizon. The Zodiac made its slow progress. Beyond the point of land, the village came into view. Kevin went on, “I Have Been the Primordial Great Sea Mammal, decaying to make the universe. And it has been very lonely down here at the Bottom of the Sea.”

Nicole’s didn’t like his jokes anymore. Her nostrils had been red-rimmed for some time, her hands impatient. It worried me, her being angry. It was unlike her. Something had changed between them.

Kevin looked at her. “Oh Nicci.”

He watched her, waiting for an answer. He was spoiling for a nice argument.

At last she said, “You won’t pass. In Lake Forest or wherever.”

“Everybody passes. What do you think Lake Forest is? It’s just another place. Take my word for it: Lake Forest particularly! I’m so disappointed in you, Nicci. I’m trying to step down from my constellation.”

That seemed to be another witticism, and Nicole smiled but in a guarded or resentful way.  Kevin was a different person now. He used to have a shimmer that kept him at a distance but today seemed up-close and almost brutal, so that Nicole could only make a counterfeit of a smile and she avoided eye contact. The boat was slowing down, pulling in at the Panalaska dock, the vertical iron-pipe ladder there. A smell of fish guts, today, rose from the water’s edge and wreaths of bloody entrails nuzzled the rocks. The plane was still there, floating on its pontoons. On its riveted, patched fuselage the words “REEVE ALEUTIAN” were spray-stenciled.

The Zodiac bounced against the dock ladder, where I tied it. The ladder was made of screwed-together pipes, and when I got to its top, I stood above them on the planks to receive the baggage.

“You’ll see,” Kevin said. “I can’t wait to get you married. Then you’ll see.”

Nicole grasped a duffel by its strap and tugged it out of the pile, meanwhile complaining, “I’m Margot’s friend, too, and someday I’ll visit you and–” the exertion made her speech halting “–have a drink on your lawn in Lake Forest and admire your children and be their Aunt Nicole.”

Standing above them, I gave up waiting for baggage and wandered away from the edge. Beneath a cloudy sky, the village lay in its old, olive-green light. I never did get to know the place.

Kevin made it to the top of the ladder, rung by rung. “Hand the suitcases up to the boy, sweetheart. I’ll inquire into Whether The Pilot Is Sober.”

“I’ve got it.” She pushed her own trunk up on the dock. “I can do it.” But Kevin stayed there to pull things in.

I looked out, and open sea seemed to be visible in the gap between pieces of land. In Sausalito there would be an apartment, with supposedly a tree growing up through the middle, and there would be the urbane conversation of Matt whenever he was on shore leave, educative, elevating conversation. And there would be jobs. Now that I was leaving I could turn and give a tourist’s glance at the place, green land heaped by alien laws of erosion and eruption, in a steaming misty time when the world was newly torn and nothing had a name. And mostly still didn’t! Across the wide water, in the remote north, nameless mountains would be rising in echoing chains, into ranges, and ranges beyond those, too far-off to visit, shores where maybe a human foot had never been set down, maybe not even Aleut or Inuit or Inupiat or Copper Eskimo. There were places where there’d never been any reason for going. The village of Unalaska, on the other side, looked motionless. Which was how it looked on any hour of any day: motionless. Andy wasn’t visible. I’d promised I would meet him. Until I could get on the Bryant, I would limit myself to staying on the dock to avoid him. Or even hide inside the harbormaster’s office and keep out of sight completely until the tanker left, with me on it.

 

§ § §


The harbormaster, who had come to the door of his shack, said to Kevin, “Pilot? Of this plane? He’s in there.” Meaning The Elbow Room. He spoke absently, watching Nicole as she went back down the ladder to the rubber boat, the fold of jeans between hip and thigh, a rare sight in the Bering Sea. All the baggage had been brought up to the level of the dock, and it needed to be moved to the harbormaster’s shack, and sorted in better order. Which was what I was doing, dragging them in under the eave. Nicole, turning the boat in the water, said over her shoulder, “I’ll be back in a few minutes.” Then she triggered the higher engine noise. The boat tilted and moved away, she was so intrepid.

Kevin told the harbormaster, “We want to leave our things here to keep them out of the rain.”

“It does look like rain in earnest. Doesn’t it? Real weather.”

“Oh?” said Kevin. “Storm?”

“Your pilot will get you out. Take-off isn’t a problem in weather. Landing is hard. Landing, you can get weathered-out and have to turn back all the way to the mainland. But take-off he’ll manage.”

I, stacking the luggage under the eaves, spoke up, “I wonder. Excuse me. Is that the Chevron Bryant? Can you contact it?”

“Ship you came in on.”

“Can you contact it?

“Well, sort of. She’s on radio belay at the Standard Oil pier. As far as your plane goes, the guy’s in The Elbow Room.”

“The Elbow Room,” said Kevin, and he slung his backpack-strap over one shoulder and he walked off. It was the last I ever saw of Kevin Pinne, conquering the dock with his slurp of a stride, his backpack tapping his dorsal hump, wherever he went erasing the world around him and redrawing it according to his requirements. There were no goodbyes because I thought we’d see each other before we left. Nor any goodbyes between me and Nicole. We all thought we’d see each other again.

Then I saw Andy. A small form in the increasing gray drizzle far off. He was standing in the road halfway through town among the scattering of buildings that made his life. He was watching from a distance. The electric space-heater in the shack was giving my leg a sunburn through the denim. I said to the harbormaster, “I want to find out if I can get on the Bryant to go back to San Francisco.”

“You can’t get on the Bryant,” he said. “You would have to ask permission, and they’d have to grant permission. You’re gonna find they say no. I think y’all made the voyage here on some special deal with Standard Oil. There’s no scheduled ship-to-shore radio except till six o’clock, but I can bring her up on telegraph. It’s possible Sparks might happen to be around the radio shack and answer right away. But the bridge will say no, I can promise you.”

While he spoke, I saw Andy Kiroff turn and go back up the road through town in the drizzle. I got the feeling he somehow knew what we were saying. That is, hear my betrayal. He could see the suitcases and duffels. “Yes, could you do that?” I said. “Could you telegraph them and ask if a passenger can get on?”

I knew the Bryant would reply because Matt would be at his post. Probably making light pencil marks in some new book propped on his typewriter keyboard. I stood in the harbormaster’s doorway, and while I waited for a response, the rubber boat reappeared coming around the point, carrying the rest of the deserters, Cristie Smale’s cornsilk hair fluttering as a visible flag in the bow where she sat with the authority of the aggrieved. Her husband behind her. They didn’t stop at the dock – they kept going around past, to land on the stony shore by The Elbow Room.

I watched them beach the boat, then carry their packs up the slope and disappear inside the lavender door. The Elbow Room’s entrance, painted a witty lavender with a flimsy brassy knob, looked surprisingly like a cheap hollow-core door, by Wilmette standards more of an inside door, not for an exterior. It was something of a consolation, the lower architectural standards in the world. Somehow it was congenial, maybe, but also it felt like practical good values.

Then, in the harbormaster’s office, a buzz came from the Western Union machine – which was an exotic piece of machinery for that place – penned into a corner by a railing made of iron pipe, it looked like a big typewriter under glass, and it banged out the Bryant’s message. The note, when lined up end-to-end, was recognizably Matt Krim’s prose, E.B. White-influenced, plus his nautical piping.

SALUTATIONS.

UNFORTUNATE NEWS.

I HAVE SPOKEN TO CAPTAIN ABOUT YOUR BOARDING AND HE INSISTS HE WILL TAKE ON NO PASSENGERS WITHOUT CONSENT OF CORPORATE EXECUTIVES OHIO.

IN OHIO RIGHT NOW IT IS LONG PAST CLOSING TIME AND ALL EXECUTIVES WILL HAVE GONE IN THE DIRECTION OF MARTINIS.

IN SUCH A CASE ADJUDICATION OF THE SKIPPER IS FINAL.

BUT HE IS DISINCLINED.

WE ARE IN DUTCH THIS TIME ONLY TO DISCHARGE TRANS-SHIPMENT LIGHT CRUDE.

WE WILL LIE HERE ONLY UNTIL 00:00 HOURS THAT IS MIDNIGHT YOU LANDLUBBER AT WHICH TIME WE PUT OUT FOR SF.

SORRY FRIEND THIS CAPER DOESN’T SEEM TO BE WORKING OUT.

THE CAPTAIN IS VERY DECIDED IN HIS VIEWS.

IN YOUR PROGRESS BACK TO THE MIDWEST, IN SAUSALITO WE ARE A LAMP BY THE SIDE OF THE WAY.

YOU ARE WELCOME ANY TIME.

203 BRIDGEWAY IN SAUSALITO.

LIFE IS LONG.

MATT.

The thing to do, right now, was to begin some kind of negotiation with the harbormaster. Devise some new appeal. Which I couldn’t begin to imagine. I was in a new condition, the light of day brighter all around me, as suddenly I was the main character in a movie about things going badly. I did speak: I asked where that tanker would be tied up, at this moment, and whether a skiff might go there, and I was told it was out at “the Standard Oil Spit,” which was “out along the ’Maknak shore,” and that no transportation existed that would take me there. The Spit was pretty far away, a few miles, and anyhow, if I’m thinking of getting on that ship, I oughta give up thinking about it, because I’d just been forbidden. That captain was Ron Harrison. Shouldn’a been on that ship in the first place.

I had no idea of the cost of a flight, on one of these special pontoon planes. I only knew it was more than the $80 in my pocket. Nevertheless, I imagined myself somehow squeezing myself on, just to reach the Alaska mainland, and then hitchhiking through Canada, all the way to Sausalito in California.

Or, if not a plane, a mail boat or something. If – somehow – I could get to the Alaskan mainland, there existed a famous long two-lane highway, it went through the Yukon, and it went all the way down, and at this time of year it probably wouldn’t be snowy. Sausalito was in the San Francisco area, and it should be easy to find. Meanwhile, I’d been standing under the eave of the shed, seeing the little village, a village always motionless as if uninhabited – and while I watched, the lavender door of The Elbow Room opened and Terry Smale came out.

The harbormaster gave me this advice, “If I were you, I’d go back to your Dr. Grant and see if he can’t keep you hired as a digger. On his excavation.”

Terry, striding up, carrying his briefcase, lifted his voice before his bootheels had even sounded on the timber at the foot of the dock. “Larry, forget it, I don’t need your checks, I’m getting everything I need from the fishing companies. All I need is the harbor payroll and the mooring. But then, do me a favor.” Coming to the doorway, he accepted an envelope. He hoisted up the briefcase and unbuckled it. “Do me a favor. Dr. Grant is looking for me. He’s coming this way. You might say he disapproves of my work for the bank. And honestly, just do me a favor and don’t tell him I’m collecting data. He’s having some problems right now. I don’t know if you’ve had much of a chance to observe him—”

“Oh, we all know Professor Grant.”

“He’s going to come across the bay when he gets his boat going.”

“What would be his objection to a bank branch?”

“Oh, to him, it’s just one more thing. – Is Mr. Ross in his office?”

Already he was walking away, back down the dock while rebuckling his briefcase. The harbormaster didn’t answer and just watched him go; he came over alongside me, to share the sight of Terry walking off, and advised me, “See that? That’s one of those good Harris tweeds.” – A good jacket was a secret to success. At the side-door of the Panalaska building, Terry paused and lifted a hand to knock. But then he refrained. Without knocking, he went inside the office, and closed it after himself, the plain steel door under a lightbulb.

 

§ § §


Inevitably, then, there was Andy. He was standing in the road just past the store, watching from that distance – wearing a serious-looking, peculiar rain poncho, holding a bottle that looked like it was probably whiskey.

Now here I was. In this situation, my true fiber came out. My most important elements of character were that I was privileged and pampered and, thus, self-centered, and I wanted to stay that way. Moreover, I was able to own up to the fact that I fully intended to stay that way. In a quick sweat, it raised me to an embarrassing version of myself: I didn’t want to be here on this dock: I wanted to be, and in fact deserved to be, in my own home all summer watching TV by myself in the large, ugly swiveling armchair of sticky vinyl, drinking a can of Hawaiian Punch at room-temperature. When I was younger, I used to have a special way of levering a can opener, to just barely notch a Hawaiian Punch with a pinprick puncture in the metal drumhead, where only a sweet dribble might seep for a prolonged hour. I was probably too old for that now, but still, I didn’t belong on this dock. The knowledge of my own incompetence in this place would be a solid rational justification for my simply going inside – going inside the harbormaster’s shack – or inside The Elbow Room, where I’d never been – and making myself the responsibility of the harbormaster or whoever else. There was also the option of going back to the church and forcing myself on Professor Grant, living there as a charity case until somebody got me out. That was probably the best choice, realistically.

Andy had begun coming forward, and I needed to make a gesture of going at least partway down the dock. Because there he was, with his own demands. He was staying out on the dirt road, as if he must’ve once been forbidden to set foot on the boards, pacing up and down, and he raised his voice to speak across the distance, “You can stay in the bunkhouse and be a pussy and eat Panalaska potato stew, or you can come up with me on the mountain. And live.” It seemed a speech he had rehearsed.

I answered with a demonstration of insult, “I been here half an hour.”

Which was a kind of fakery, indispensable right now as a show of preserving everybody’s dignity. His especially, as much as mine. I’d come partway down the dock, and those few steps must be what bravery is, because in that circuit-breaker instant, it was possible to get moving and recover, instead of being frozen next to the harbormaster’s shack.

I needed to have a few serious practical thoughts. Realistically, I would never hitchhike through Canada on a two-lane road. And people were right in saying there was work at the cannery and sooner or later another boat would have to come through. Up on Andy’s hillside, nothing too terrible could happen – he lived on this island, he would know how to stay dry and warm, and keep fed. If being up in that concrete bunker did turn out to be stupid, or in any way dangerous, I could always walk right down. Walk right down the hill. I got to the end of the dock, in the sinking mist where he’d stopped pacing, and I said, “I’m leaving my stuff here till I’ve checked it out. I don’t need all that stuff up there, and if you think I’m going to drag all my stuff through the rain, you’re fucked.”

Braced by that obscenity, he swung up his square whiskey bottle and, with its underside, stamped my central chest: “Okay then. You think we got all day?”

I went back to my duffel – the poncho was packed topmost, as I’d learned to do in Boy Scouts, easy to drag out through a hole in loosened drawstrings. Ducking my head into it and pawing through its plastic curtain was always an undignified ordeal, and my dignity wasn’t completely restored by tugging it around so my face would show through the hood.

I knew full well that, in order to do this, I was perhaps keeping myself luckily blinded. The oil tanker – not visible from this part of the bay – was something neither of us was going to mention, but Andy was probably aware it was there. I thought I ought to go find the others in The Elbow Room to say good-bye. But then they would ask where I was going, what my plans were, et cetera, and that was all part of a mysterious web. Of which no one must start picking at a single knot. So I just went with Andy in the opposite direction, at the foot of the dock turning west on the mud, up the road through town. I cast a look back – the harbormaster seemed to have gone into a back office – but my duffel and guitar would be safe. And the cardboard box, too, with the skull. The harbormaster knew they were my personal possessions. They were stacked in the corner by the electric space-heater’s toasty orange stripes.

 

§ § §


Once we got going on the climb, we were burdened with some extra things we’d stopped for, and they were giving me a clearer picture of life on the mountain – a paper bag of groceries from Peter’s Commercial; the Sears guitar in its case; a glossy, new-looking rifle, which I had a feeling he’d taken without asking; and an institutional-size metal can of A1 Steak Sauce.

The rifle would be the thing I didn’t want to even come near – and I knew I wouldn’t have to. He would know how to use it, if it were used. But the groceries were reassuring: we would always be within hiking distance of a real store; and in the bags I could see potato chips, a package of bacon, KoolAid, Hostess Snowballs, canned beef stew. Everything seemed an indication that this living arrangement might actually work out at least for the short-term if I needed to wait for a boat to come through. The water separating us from town, it turned out, could be crossed at its narrowest point by – another of Andy’s secret resources – a leaky plastic canoe. It was almost too small for both of us to ride in, and it only had one paddle, but it was easy to hide in tall grasses. 

He’d said before we’d left the village, when we were passing the big white church, “Here’s my hiding place,” and he’d bumped our path off the road, through an opening in the white picket fence, only knee-high and decorative, that surrounded the churchyard. The old Orthodox building itself was unsafe to enter because it needed fixing. Tearing it down was said to be unthinkable, it was such an important, cherished fairy-tale hallucination of the Russian past, topped by two actual domes in that shape of Hershey’s Chocolate Kisses. The building was locked up apparently indefinitely. But a shed stood behind it, whose door was loose, and that was where Andy had stored his provisions. I waited outside while he ducked in, then he came out saying, “OK, now we’re OK,” brandishing the rifle and the A1 Steak Sauce. Which I’d first thought was turpentine because it was in a gallon square can, with a little screw top.

On the path up the mountain, Andy stayed ahead, looking broad-shouldered from happiness – happiness and authority. He kept wanting to stop for sips of bourbon, but I was mostly feigning to swallow, disliking the drug in my head. Also I wanted to stay alert especially now that there was a firearm. We carried all our supplies in our arms, past the last backyards, a refrigerator standing alone, some sawed-off ends of boards, rags pounded by rain into scum, an outboard motor lying in tall weeds, the bright papaya of a plastic Wisk bottle. Andy’s home was probably like that, squalid, which must be why he’d gone to the effort of hiding his things in the churchyard, to prevent me from seeing his home. It was sensitive of me, I thought, and considerate, to think of that.

I raised my voice and asked, as a way of coloring in a blank area, “Where is your mom all this time?”

He didn’t answer but just kept walking. Said, “I mean, your stepmother.”

After long enough to make the question seem beneath consideration, he said, “Playing cards and bitching.” I didn’t pursue it and we kept on climbing in the quiet – the crunch of salad underfoot, the regular pops of my plastic poncho as I strode. The light rain made a shish-sound everywhere. A clink of bottle-on-bottle. There were two bottles of whiskey now, an opened one and an unopened one, both packed in the grocery bag I was carrying. Which I kept beneath my poncho because, in the drizzle, the brown paper might disintegrate. Andy had the rifle in the crook of his arm, the guitar in the other. The really burdensome thing was the gallon of steak sauce – with its sharp metal strap-handle not meant to be carried long-term, long-distance.

In a vale on a high slope, out of sight from the village, he stopped to shift his load, trading the guitar case and the rifle between his hands. He asked me for the whiskey from the bag – which I gave him – so he could take a drink. Holding it up, he said, “Tell you one thing. I never bellyache. That’s one thing. How ‘bout you?”

He handed back the bottle and made a toss of his chin. So I had to take a drink, or at least seem to.

“How ‘bout you?” he repeated.

“Me? Bellyache? No.”

Then we started moving on again, and I recapped the bottle.

“Good,” Andy said. “‘Cause that’s one thing.”

The ground underfoot was all soft mounds of cabbagey shrubs. In places it felt to be a few feet deep, it was so springy under my weight sometimes. We were climbing the pathless main slope when I heard a low drone – the plane – start up in the harbor below. Then the engine song rose to a new pitch and I knew it was gaining speed, taking off. I stopped and looked back, but I couldn’t see it. I could only hear the sound. It must have quickly lifted into low-hanging clouds, carrying its burden of pontoons. Inside the tubular cabin would be everybody, even Tom Sample, and the Smales beginning again their mysterious lifelong work. Also Kevin Pinne, supposedly headed toward his own marriage. I imagined him wadded into a central, too-small airplane seat under a low ceiling, talking brilliantly, paying no attention to the tilting, sliding mountains outside the little window, or then the onslaught of torn clouds exploding while Creation was warred over by the massed armies of Darkness and Light, at last crashing free into silence and blueness. Beside him would be Nicole, Nicole Powell, whose mythological body had flared, once, from a vent in the earth – that whole night was as if it had never happened. That was how she’d seemed to feel about it, and now she was gone, they were all gone. All of them, I would never see again. Now only the Professor would stay on, alone in his church, making trips to the village to place phone calls to the National Geographic Society. Then maybe he, too, would leave before winter. My own school back home, without me, would be a fine place. It was actually nice to imagine. The flotilla of parked yellow school buses. The crowded rotunda at the meeting of four corridors before First Period. In September, the names on attendance-sheets would be called from teachers’ desks. Mine would not be among them. A full complement of other people would be there, to pipe up from around the room saying “Here.” There was still plenty of summer left, and these new developments could all be explained to my parents once I’d put a plan into action, found some kind of footing, had something to show, or at least discovered what would happen.

Andy, too, was stopped on the slope watching for the plane. Only its song rang in the overcast sky. The plane itself never became visible. The sound seemed to be all around us in the sky, welling in every valley and vale. Standing higher on the slope, he read my mind and said, “There they go. Back to where they came from. Right? Come on, let’s go. This is the real thing.”

 

§ § §


The first thing to do, when we got to the concrete mouth of the place, was put the groceries inside with the lumber and the velvet curtains and everything else – but then to climb around back on the slope and try opening up what he called the hatch. It was embedded in the ground up there – and if we could get it open, it would create a square hole in the roof. So the underground room would get some daylight. And be more cheerful, more navigable. Also, smoke could escape when we built a fire.

That, then, would be the second job. A nice cozy fire.

The hatch wasn’t easy, though. It wasn’t really a true “hatch,” as with hinges – it was just a big stopper, a rectangular bar of solid concrete, forming a monumental lid, about the thickness of a suitcase – altogether the dimensions of a suitcase – it must have weighed some-hundred pounds. It was immovable. Embedded in the top were two loops of thick rebar, like huge staples. They were supposed to serve as handles. Held down by its own weight, it lay in the square hole it served to plug.

The whole surface was flush with the ground, and old dirt and grass clumps had accumulated. So we cleared that off, kicking around at it. Then we each took hold of a rebar staple and put our backs into it, but of course, we found right away, our combined strength wouldn’t even give it the slightest idea of moving. Not only was it massive, it probably hadn’t been moved since World War II. Dust and grit would have trickled in. Locked it in place over the decades.

It really felt impossible – so the next thing was to go back inside the bunker and get into the bag of groceries. Actual Hostess Snowballs had been visible, when we were coming up the mountainside. Coca-Cola was in there, too. At the tunnel, we bowed low and we duckwalked in, into the stomach of the hill, and we sat inside the dim space on the stack of lumber, moving aside the fancy plates and teacups he’d collected. Of course, first we opened the Hostess Snowballs. One for him, one for me, twin half-globes, white coconut icing on chocolate cake mounds, glued by sugar-sweat to a cardboard backing, they’d been factory-manufactured in some big dirty industrial city in the Lower Forty-Eight. Now, out here in the Bering Sea, where fresh fruit was nonexistent and everything cost too much, Hostess Snowballs and Coca-Cola were delicacies both prized and, yet, abundant. Wherever the red flag of Coca-Cola is exposed, nothing can go too terribly wrong. My mouth full, I thought about our situation from a wide perspective and I realized that, living here with a store only a mile or two away, we were making an existence at the wild edge of the world like Thoreau’s. But this was more brave and authentic than even Thoreau’s.

Because, junior-year English, everybody had to read Thoreau, and the word on Thoreau was that, in fact, his famous cabin wasn’t in the wilderness. It was only a short walk from his home, in a town in Massachusetts, where his family had a big house on a street among other houses. I pictured him bringing his dirty laundry home once a week. Living here with Peter’s Commercial near us at the wildest edge of the world was a little bit like Thoreau’s being near his hometown; but this was authentic. I figured either Thoreau’s mother did the laundry or else a maid did, the latter more likely. I pictured him coming in by the side door of the big house, arms full of his characteristic shirts, woolen socks, underwear. Having taken care not to drop a sock along the forest path.

I said, “This is like Thoreau. You know Thoreau?”

Of course he didn’t. He just carried on licking his fingers, one by one.

Presently he said, “When that ceiling hole is open, you’ll see. There’s the other hole in the floor right under it I told you ’bout.”

The floor hole, I realized, must be the one where, he’d said, we might have our latrine. Which seemed like a completely terrible idea. But he, too, would realize that. We would work something else out.

He said, “So when it rains, the rain’ll fall right through and down in the other hole. Stay dry’n cozy in here.” Swaying over, he looked down into the grocery bag alongside – we were sitting on the stack of boards – and he reached in and hauled out the six-pack of canned Coke.

He was right, rain was going to be an important circumstance, and I was glad he’d done some thinking ahead. Just during our efforts to lift the lid, the drizzle had started to feel like real rainfall, not just heavy mist. It couldn’t be heard inside here, but I had a feeling, when we got back out, it would be wetter and stronger.

The Cokes, yoked together by plastic bracelet, had metal pull-tab rings, to be peeled off, creating a separate small artifact of litter. To be drinking so modernly, it wasn’t very Thoreauvian; and with pleasure I reminded myself again of the imaginary picture I’d developed, of Thoreau tramping through the woods hugging an armful of laundry, a sleeve trailing. The Coke was warm but it went down fast, and I stood up. “Let’s go. Let’s try again.”

But I was hatching an idea. I was thinking on my feet. Because among the salvaged wooden planks, I could see a few 2-by-4s. Some of them were long.

I said, “Here, let’s get one. One of these. It can be like a lever. We can hook it through those two handles and lift. We lift at one end, and we’ll have leverage.”

He didn’t seem to understand the plan. That I should be the one who had ideas seemed fitting, while embarrassing, Andy lacking the education or the intellectual development. I demonstrated with prying motions of the elbow: leverage.

So he seemed to catch on. We went deeper in and found a long 2-by-4. Then, when we were ducking to go back outside, he stopped and went back for a minute, because he wanted to bring something else, a short, broad plank. I asked what he thought that was for. It was a useless little panel of wood.

But he insisted, and I had to suppose maybe he didn’t yet see the “leverage” idea.

But right away, his plank came in handy. At the spot where the far tip of the 2-by-4 needed a solid resting-place on the ground, he laid the flat plank down. When we both went off to the other end and lifted, that far weight-bearing tip would have a hard floor. Instead of squishy soil.

Anyway, the plan failed, right away. We slid the long board through the two staples – they were like a pair of heavy-duty croquet wickets – and when we went to the far end and lifted the lever, the wood snapped. The concrete lid was too heavy. We’d broken off a segment, and were left holding the long end.

Andy stalked over to the concrete lid and stood atop it. He was thinking.

His arms vaguely lifted. Like a baseball umpire.

Then he went back downhill. “This’ll be better this time. I’ll get another one.”

Which would be a waste of good lumber. Any 2-by-4 would snap, just as fast as the first. I drifted down after him and I waited outside in the rain, not wanting to insult his idea, if he thought a second try would work.

When he came out, he’d brought another, just like the first, but also a blanket, an old skinny one.

He was only going to use the blanket as padding. It would go between the wooden board and the iron staples. He went up and moved the little board on the ground farther away from the hatch. So the lever’s footing would lie at a much bigger distance. Then, threading the new 2-by-4 in under the two handles, he slid it deeper in. The board’s other tip met earth much farther away, so when we lifted, the concrete block would hang closer to the middle of the 2-by-4 span. Actually, it would hang almost near us, where we held up the other end. His idea was, the first board got snapped off because was the weight was too close to one end. Closer up to our end, the board wouldn’t get bent at a weak point.

He scrunched up the blanket and stuffed it in the space between our board and the rebar handle-loops. Altogether, when we lifted, the weight of the block would be better distributed. That is, the wood might not break, if the block hung from a point almost up near where we gripped it.

 

§ § §


There was daylight in the bunker and we stood inside in wonderment, pulling off our ponchos now. All around us was a good-sized, clean space, a real room, nicer than anybody could have supposed. Andy seemed surprised himself. The square hole overhead was directly above the square floor-hole – the drizzle from the sky fell neatly down through. One approached that area of the floor and leaned over and looked, and maybe on a day of direct sunlight something would be visible, but now was only an abyss. Which was all right. Though I was going to oppose using it for a bathroom.

Now that the room was lit, there were things I hadn’t known about – empty glass jars and old coffee cans and cast iron pans, a heap of old, basic tools like hammer and screwdriver, rolls of black roofing stuff (or perhaps flooring stuff), a kerosene lamp, in the corner a heap of ropes of many thicknesses, a tarp that looked soaked with some waterproofing treatment like paraffin or grease like Andy’s peculiar poncho. Of course the fancy stereo turntable, too. Which wouldn’t be useful. It would be useless like the electric guitar amplifier, because there was no electricity, and no conceivable way of getting electricity. Also, it seemed to lack speakers. But it was a valuable thing. The manufacturer was “Garrard,” which back in civilization was the best that could be bought.

I’d left my cigarettes behind with my duffel, but it felt fine not to be smoking. The only place to sit would be the lumber pile: the concrete floor was saturated at basic death-chill. Lacking a fire, the present sources of hospitality were the bags of groceries and the whiskey. And the electric guitar; and of course the rifle was a kind of lively presence, leaning on the lumber stack, its woodgrain stock engraved at its shapely ankle with a diamond-grid texture. Along the barrel ran a black telescopic gunsight, importing into these squishy mountains the advanced, predatory idea of parallelity. He’d promised that up on this slope, reindeer stand around dully to be shot at.

“Now,” he came edging over, unbuttoning a shirt pocket. “Got my secret weapon.”

The button was stubborn. Or his fingers were clumsy. He was more gleeful about what was in his pocket than I’d ever seen him, a glee that could thrive in facial features that never altered. “Gonna party, man.”

When released, what came up was a music cassette. I knew that’s what it would be, by its shape in the pocket, and the rattle of it. It danced on his fingertips when he came to display it. “Look what I got.”

It was the movie soundtrack from “Woodstock,” the festival of the year before. For an Aleut, he had an amazing – almost hard to believe – amount of sophistication about the world. It was a little annoying, actually. It felt like almost a kind of theft, or even insolence, that somebody so deprived could get culture so easily, so effortlessly, without schooling or having paid some kind of dues, to leap directly from a fishing village to owning the latest music. He displayed the cassette at eye height where I was meant to admire it, the famous cover photograph. In the smoky haze of a long-distance lens, a multitude of blesséd tattered people stretched to the horizon in a golden light, on the sunny mud looking like penned-up tribes but in fact reduced to bliss, as everybody knew then. The little photo under crystal plastic had a granular haziness, a preciousness, and Andy Kiroff’s exclusion from all that, out here, was obvious in the way he handled the thing as if it were a specimen of a lab culture, level on his palm, not quite willing to pass it to me.

“This has everybody, man, you know. We could have our own Woodstock right here.”

Meaning, probably, with his guitar. Our own rock festival.

Then he did edge around and let me hold the cassette, happy just to stand in the light of the revealed object, while telling me what an important event Woodstock was. How historic was this gathering of musicians.

He seemed, maybe, to think I’d been there, at the actual concert. It was true I’d seen the movie, I saw it twice in fact, as soon as it came out – but I didn’t say so, I let him go on assuming maybe all American kids were at Woodstock. Hefting the cassette’s slight weight, I approved of it. Which made him more proud, and he gently unstuck it from my hands and stored it in his shirt pocket, saying, “For later. For when the winter is in. Get a music player. Get some batteries for it.”

“Listen, how’d you get that guitar? Where’d you get it?”

Suddenly I wanted to start getting to the mystery of his knowing so much.

“Bought it. Bought it with my own money. The Kiroffs ain’t allowed to take it away. I got to keep it. It’s mine.”

But he swung away in a tour of the room, lifting his arms, “Gonna need firewood. We can use some of this construction wood here for tonight. You din’ see that little army shed we passed. Break up that one little shed, we got firewood and it’s already cut nice. Whenever we come up, we’ll bring some wood. Place to cook venison. Get a fire here, right here by the smoke window.”

I could reckon by looking around, while his back was turned: maybe life in a concrete box could work, at least for a while.

The Chevron Bryant would leave at midnight, and ever since I’d gotten that information in Matt Krim’s message, I’d been been picturing myself standing on the floor of a dinghy beneath the tall hull, asking to be let on.

Or – if the gangplank was out, I could simply walk up it, unseen in the dark, and go straight to my same old room. And hide until the ship started moving. Maybe lock the door.

Here, now, with a view of venison and a cassette player, an existence on a hillside had started to seem conceivable. With kind of venomous spikiness naturally bristling up, l pointed out his present plan’s ass-backwardness. “We can’t build a fire – first we gotta shoot a deer.” I was like a dissatisfied tourist. “It’s gonna get dark and we’ll need meat, not just potato chips. All that food you brought will last about one night.”

“There’s bread, and there’s bacon.”

“But first you have to get the deer. You have to do that before you build a fire. You can’t build a fire and then leave it. Leave it and go hunting. And that there is Wonder Bread.”

I wasn’t going to try explaining what was wrong with Wonder Bread. At the bottom of the groceries I’d seen the wrapper, random colored polka dots, universally identifiable. I’d never eaten any actual Wonder Bread but everyone knew it was weightless, squishy, inferior, with little nutrition.

“I suppose that gun doesn’t work when it’s raining,” I said.

That was meant to be an insult. He said, “It works in the rain.” His arms had been folded, but he dropped them to hang at his sides – then folded them again over his chest. For a second, he’d let his gaze spread. “It works in the rain.”

 

§ § §


He was right about the deer. We came on some right away. The rain had eased up and the climbing was easy – distances were deceptive – you might think a ridge wasn’t far off, and you’d aim for it. But then you’d never really arrive there. You’d keep hitting yet more slope. Andy was going ahead, because he had the rifle and I didn’t want to be in front of the muzzle.

Then on one side, in a long grassy crease, a few reindeer were standing in the drizzle, with no barrier at all between us and them. Just open ground. All the while, I was picturing myself standing below the railing of the Bryant, on a dock, or on a dinghy’s wobbly floor, asking to be let on. If it was true that the captain would refuse me, then venison would be something I might have to learn to roast, for a while. These animals had stopped actively grazing and were standing there watching us, some straight-on, some sideways. I didn’t want to get nearer. The antlers looked damaging, and maybe one of them was a male who was supposed to protect the rest. Flabby white chests. I hadn’t expected reindeers’ ungainliness in rump and leg, like people who spend their lives in office cubicles doing paperwork. In their eyes was dull peacable gaze of employees, looking up from their work, finding an interruption tolerable. They did have antlers like Santa Claus’s reindeer, of velvet coral, in curves that swept back and then forward and, so, cast that spell. Now that I was seeing them, I didn’t want to kill one. Wonder Bread would be all right. There was bacon and Coca-Cola. The one standing nearest, who was the likeliest victim, looked dusty and smelly, with a majesty, or just a dignity, minding its own business, while starting to see us on the horizon as a source of unpredictability. Maybe as tall as me, it probably would weigh twice as much as me, and I pictured the ligaments, tendons, muscle bunches, all live resilient stuff. Living on roasted venison would be a lot of bother and work, and still, I hadn’t gone out to the “Standard Oil Spit” – which was a long walk from here, and also a leaky plastic canoe ride – to force the question of whether or not I was allowed on the ship.

“Should I just do it?” Andy said. Wielding a gun, he had lost all authority. He lifted it and settled its butt against his shoulder, but then he lowered it. “We should get closer.”

“You’ve got a telescopic sight. This is close enough. He’ll run away now.” Goading him gave me some courage.

“I don’t want to waste it. I only got one bullet.”

“There’s only one bullet? How can that be?”

“It’s in the chamber. I checked. He always just keeps one in the chamber.”

“Your father?”

“They lock up the ammo.”

“You’d better make it count, then.”

“Yeah but.” He looked around. “The ground is pretty slippery here. These things have a big kick. Knock you right back.”

Some of the deer had lowered their heads and started grazing again. But not the nearest one. He kept watching us.

“You want me to do it?” I was able to offer safely – for he was the Aleut, I was the visiting white person – and that did shame him into getting more serious. He waded around toward a better stance, lifted the gun and aimed, and he held that squint for a long time. He kept shrugging, to reposition the butt against his shoulder.

Then he lowered the gun and started inspecting its side. “It’s got a safety right here,” he said – and he flipped a catch.

He lifted it and aimed again. There was still a chance to stop him from going ahead, because this unfortunate animal was going to be an innocent sacrifice in the more general small wreck I supposed I must be helping to unfold. The reindeer we’d picked was a genuine, gross, self-sufficient animal with rights of its own, and after we had killed it there would be the corpse to deal with. This particular one was a male (it was obvious). Cooked without benefit of a kitchen, the meat might be just hard strings in clear grease. It was surprisingly quiet, making it fall down by a squeeze of the trigger. The sound of the shot was a pop among the hills, with no echo. The animal lay down fast under the impact. One hoof seemed to pedal – a climbing tap-tap-tap of the ankle – then it slowed, and then went still. The other reindeer hardly flinched – one or two just sidled uphill, where they found new places and bowed to start eating again, but keeping us in view. They seemed to get skittish only when we went down the slope to have a look at the dead animal. Then it was that they trotted away, in their more royal postures. Up and over the ridge.

Leaving us with the carcass.

In the rain, we went over and arrived at it. There was a surprisingly mule-like aspect to a reindeer, mule-like in the large chin, a hairy cow-nostriled nose instead of the cute black button of Christmas books. The eye was open in repose. Behind that peaceful gaze, and below the ear, a red crucible had been blasted open, as big as a golf ball.

Lying on its side, its belly made a big mound. It would weigh a ton. Dragging it back to the concrete bunker would take all the strength of both our backs – the return path was uphill and downhill.

I thought of reaching down, taking an ankle, and lifting and dropping it, just to get an idea of the mass involved with the whole corpse – except that I didn’t want to touch it at all. Andy didn’t seem to, either. So maybe this alone – the impossiblity of getting the whole thing back to the bunker – would be the final obstacle and put an end to the trip.

 

§ § §


Back in the bunker, the only knife he’d brought was a kitchen bread knife. We’d run all the way back there and it turned out to be plastic-handled, with a serrated blade. He had no other knife. Sawing through the moosey animal’s hide with it was hard to picture. This knife was really for bread.

We had had the happy realization that we didn’t need to drag the whole animal back, we could butcher it out there on the slope piecemeal – because anyway it would never have fit through the tunnel entrance, antlers and all. (Also, if we tried pouring it down through the square ceiling hole, it might possibly go through, but then there’d be the instant risk of losing it into the abysmal hole in the floor, directly beneath.) – So we we got the idea of carving it up right there, at the scene of the crime, bringing it home bit by bit.

But then, here was this knife. When I saw it, the project seemed doomed again. I did try imagining the pointy tip stabbing a hole. But realistically I could only picture it making a trampoline depression in the hide, failing to break the surface, even at a vulnerable spot like the neck or the downy loins.

The other discouragement was, the rain had started coming down harder.

I said, “So, let’s just build a fire.”

I was speaking impulsively, of course. But everything was on impulse. And clearly Andy’s impulse, too, would be to forget about the deer for now, and stay inside and eat potato chips and Coke and Wonder Bread, and maybe cook the bacon. The storm was getting steadier outside. Watching me, he mused, “Leave it out there and go get it in the morning…” – not really asserting the idea, just putting it out in the open, voicing it aloud.

In any case, leaving it out there was what we were going to do. A wind had come up, sometimes with sudden long blasts that could devastatingly raid any little thing you might be trying to do. My own physical person, standing there, looked like a good argument for staying in, because I felt best when I stood with my arms levitating away. My clothes were wet around the wrists and the shoulders. Andy would be all right: his poncho was heavily infused with antique paraffin-looking stuff.

At that moment a big gust rose. Through the ceiling hole came a burst of spray. Andy went to get the hatchet – it was lying with the tools – and he gave it to me saying, “You do kindling. I’ll get the matches,” handing it over in correct Boy Scout fashion, handle-first.

So, as the plan of staying in this place began to look like it might succeed, through sheer dogged perseverance, I kept climbing toward despair. The ship was supposed to leave at midnight. The light outside was dim, but that might be partly the effect of the storm. Plus, the Alaskan twilight went on for so long, it always might have been any hour. Meanwhile, I felt unsure of my authority to stand on a Standard Oil dock and demand to be let in. Getting a fire started here was a kind of commitment to life on a hillside above the Bering Sea. Also, I was literally starting the work of chipping splinters off an old board for tinder, getting down on my knees to do it.

“It would be nice if we could get that turntable going,” I remarked irritably, actually wrathfully, because this was like one of those “absurdist” plays at the Goodman Theatre behind the Art Institute, Samuel Beckett, or Ionesco or Pinter. It was long past time, already, to just be a coward and admit my duplicity and go downhill and betray his stupid faith. The turntable was never going to get any electricity.

He was producing his supply of matches. They were in an old satchel of folded rubbery green material, and he sat on the lumber pile with it, watching me hack at the wooden board.

“Want some whiskey?” he said, because the bottle happened to be standing beside him where he sat. I didn’t want any whiskey and I simply didn’t answer.

Apparently he had no plan except just to watch me while I worked. I said while I chopped with a vengeance, “That’s the most expensive turntable on the market.”

He went along with that view. Not saying anything. The blade of the hatchet kept sometimes striking the concrete floor, which you’re not supposed to do, obviously.

“How did you pay for that? It’s too expensive for me. Did you have a job or something?”

“Stole it,” he said.

“Oh. Cool. Did you bring it home and say you ‘found’ it?”

I hacked and hacked. The blade of the hatchet kept striking the floor. “How did you explain that to your mom?”

“My mom—” he said. Having not responded for a minute. Then, that was all he was going to say on the subject.

According to people’s account back at the church, the Aleut Boy’s “birth mother” was some kind of prostitute or alcoholic. In fact both. As far as I could guess, he’d lived with her until he was taken off to the boarding school.

He said, in explanation of his mother and his thievery, “Anchorage, there’s plenty places to sleep in. You don’t have to go home.”

I chopped for a minute and then I said, trying to get a picture of his past, “So your mom lived in Anchorage. She lived there.”

I’d paused, looking up. When he didn’t answer, I went back to chopping. Apparently, there was the time in Anchorage with his mother; then his mother’s death; then his time at the boarding school; then his adoption here in Dutch Harbor by his aunt and uncle.

“What do people do in Anchorage instead of go home?”

“There was a cool bar. They liked me. They thought I was cool. It was a all-night, so it was cool.”

“What do you mean ‘all-night’?”

“No closing time. Three in the morning, four, five, six.”

A certain something heroic, then, was in his past: independence. I had to picture him sleeping in a booth in the back. A booth would have upholstery. The bartender would look out for him.

I didn’t do any more inquiring, because while this did qualify as heroism, it also would involve shame. If you’d rather sleep in a booth in a bar than go home, your home life must be complicated.

“They liked me. I could do anything. Mai tais, pink ladies, daquiris, whatever I want.” He flicked at my work on the floor, “You should make ’em smaller. You want little dry splinters so the match can light ’em up.”

Again the wind blew up and dampened an area of concrete around the square floor-hole. Sometimes, with a strong gust, this room was like a whistle: a whole blast of air tried to spin inside. If these gusts kept up, we would have to move some of Andy’s things. The Complete Man’s Education, for instance – all six matching volumes, with “PRESCOTT’S” engraved in gold capitals on each spine – stood on the lumber pile where they could get damp.

I said, “‘Pink ladies’?”

“Grenadine, booze, vanilla ice cream, do it up in the blender. You never had a pink lady.”

It occurred to me that something interesting was going on. The pages of Prescott’s Complete Man’s Education could have been tinder. They could have been torn out and balled up. Andy had actually mentioned that: the other time he and I visited up here, we’d been going back down again into the valley, and he’d said, jokingly, that if nothing else, those books could be useful starting fires – it was a joke, but it seemed intended as a grim one – as if that would be a ridiculous possibility, but an actual possibility. Now here I was chopping at lumber to make splinters, while we both knew those books were there. Somehow in this experiment in pioneering, all logic was released. I wondered again what time it was. How close to midnight.

I suggested, with maximum absurdity, “Maybe we should move those books. They’ll get wet.”

That was an actionable idea and he bestirred himself to move over and pick them up. One by one on a forearm he gathered them, and he put them farther from the ceiling hole. I went on making tinder, unbelieving that we were continuing on with this.

He sat back down again in the same place.

“My mom. She’d sleep with anybody. She was a whore, but she wasn’t even a smart whore. She just begged money, she just asked for money off every guy. Din’ even know she was a whore.” He was saying all this while watching his hands as they worked pinching together the folded rubber lips of the bag that kept matches dry. “Stupid whore she was.”

Now, Andy and I didn’t know each other well enough for him to be confiding this kind of information. I was nobody to him. It wasn’t as if I couldn’t sympathize, or that I might feel it too heavy a load – it was more that I wasn’t enough part of his world to have any useful, relevant response. There could be no practical result, or help, in telling me.

Well, I had to suppose that he wasn’t thinking of getting any result. He’d just been living with the information tight-packed waiting to spurt out at the merest touch, and I happened to be the first to come anywhere in the vicinity.

“I had my bar, the North Star. Which was cool. So I didn’t want to go home. Also, thing about Anchorage, people have heated garages. For their cars. Which is also cool.”

“Where’d you steal the turntable?”

A change of subject, brisk enough and insensitive enough, might display my uselessness as a confidant. For maybe a show of “indifference” actually goes to the real thing: indifference. And indifference was the only – the exactly right – medicine. That’s what I had to think, that maybe I’m training myself in a kind of decent indifference, a kind of salutary, helpful indifference, and him, too.

I said, “In a stereo store? Like, in Anchorage? Just walk in and take it?”

A little scorn took the form of a chuckle or nose-chuff. He was grateful for a change of subject. Yes and grateful for an indifference when offered, a solid comradely incuriosity. “A guy. A teacher at Mount Edgecumbe.”

“A teacher at a school owned that turntable,” I said, just to be clear.

“He was from New York City, so he had everything the coolest. Him and his wife. They were nice.”

“Wow. Was this the boarding school?”

“You got enough, man,” he said of the pile of splinters I’d made. “We can break up kindling and get this started.”

He stood up. Behind the lumber stack, thinner pieces of wood were piled, and he picked one, laid it slantwise, and stomped on it to break it easily.

I got up to start doing the same. The blasts of spray through the ceiling hole wouldn’t be so bad, once we had a big blaze in the room. The heat would create a current that could rise through the opening. I found a brick like Andy’s and propped a piece of narrow wood on it. One stomp was enough. There were plenty of thin boards.

“You know what we could do?” I said. “This would be weird.”

The reindeer was on my mind, because I knew honestly we’d never bring it in. And a dead reindeer on a mountainside would simply end up as part of the wreckage. So, in the case that this were a genuine effort of self-sufficient survival, I proposed in all seriousness, “I’m thinking we don’t have to cut it up.”

“The deer?” he said. “We gotta try the knife. The knife might work, it’ll just take a little work. When the rain is over, we gotta try the knife, you’ll see.”

“But here’s my idea. We bring the whole thing back here. I know it’s hard to drag, it would take a long time, but we drag it back here and we put it down through the ceiling. We just have to take care it doesn’t keep on falling – and go down in the hole and go in the basement. We could put some kind of boards over the hole when we do it. So it wouldn’t go down.”

He kept his gaze on me, picturing this.

“Have to cut off the antlers,” he said. “The antlers are too big. It’d just hang there by the antlers. Stuck in the hole hanging. Have to cut ’em off.”

“Whatever. The point is, here is my idea: we don’t have to carve it up. We bring it back and we cook it before it’s cut up.”

He’d paused in stomping on kindling, and I stopped, too, because this was a pretty interesting idea.

“We get a good fire going and we prop the animal up right here, so one side cooks. Like, one end will cook.”

He was having trouble thinking about that, waiting for me to go on.

“The whole animal, right here,” I said. “We pick which part we want – I’m thinking the butt end, the rear end – and we prop that up by the fire. After a long while, that part of it is cooked. Easy to carve up. Then, salt and pepper!” This last I added though he’d early mentioned, there were no spices of any kind up here. Just the A1 Sauce.

He said, “Prop it up,” meditating on that. Maybe he was getting to see it as doable. He said again, “Prop it up.”

“Prop it up right there. Right here.”

It was of course crazy-sounding, but could be improved with practical planning and trial-and-error.

“We only cook the good parts, and we don’t ever have to totally butcher it. The guts are gross, you know. Guts are gross. I don’t want to have to deal with the guts. We just cook the outside parts, the best parts. Like the butt. When you roast it, the hide probably falls off. The hide gets a little black and falls off.”

He went back again to breaking up kindling underfoot.

He said pessimistically, “Be hard getting it here. Dragging it. Be hard.”

That observation, however, was the beginning of a vulnerability to the idea. He was admitting it was at least possible to picture. I knew – deep in my selfish American discerning heart – I was aware it would never work. It was a fantastic idea, honestly. The corpse was immovable. Who would ever have expected a reindeer to be so moosey? Out on the mountainside, we’d given it one good effort, grabbing its ankles and pulling – reindeer ankles definitely weren’t the dainty, pointy things of Christmas illustrations, they were more camel-like, with wrong-shaped feet that splayed flat (instead of tapering balletically, airborne in flight above rooftops) – and in the end we found, if we tugged at the same time, we could make it budge slightly. Or rather, we were able to make it revolve a little, where it lay. After some synchronized tugging, we’d only changed its orientation from north-south to east-west. And twisted its antlered head uncomfortably. The half-mile back to the bunker was too far.

He’d started laying together the first, narrowest splinters, kneeling at the spot where our fire would be. “We’ll see,” he said, more doubtful now.

I said, “It’s too hard to get a knife through raw meat and hide. And through bone and stuff. When it’s cooked, it’ll be easy. It’ll be ‘succulent.’ We can cook, like, whichever end!”

To build his pile of campfire tinder, he had first laid down a big flat board on the floor, a plank that must have once been a shelf when the Army had offices on this island. On that surface, he was making a teepee, leaning together kindling. The supply of old sawn-off lumber scraps was enough to feed the fire all night. He struck a match, lit the center, and having watched for a minute, started laying on bigger pieces.

And the flame didn’t die. It was wonderful, while it was also steeply sad, to welcome the little bright goblin into the cold place. During a fortunate lull, no gusts of wind were entering. He’d built it wisely far from the lumber pile or from anything flammable, so it wasn’t in danger of getting out of control. And it was near the hole in the ceiling. The little flame prospered and he sat back, fresh pieces in hand, being patient,. He said again, “We’ll see,” pessimistically – about the idea of cooking one end of the whole reindeer, right here on the concrete floor.

Between now and the ship’s departure, I estimated two or three hours. Possibly four or five. You don’t go to college if you haven’t taken the SATs. Going to college was a cliff; not going to college was also a cliff. Both cliffs.

But none of that was news, or a revelation, I’d been able to see the mechanics of that choice way back in those lawn chairs in Wilmette, the four grown-ups, the gin-and-tonic glasses, a warm afternoon in an Illinois spring. After the Colonel and Mrs. Grant went home, my mother dumped all the drinks out in the Dispose-All, and I heard her say, Well, that’s that.

My father didn’t say anything by way of self-defense, though somehow that felt called-for – so I knew she was talking about Colonel Grant’s decision not to hire him anymore. Except for special, more artistic projects.

She put the four glasses into the top rack of the dishwasher. That broken dishwasher – you had to run it first on the “NORMAL” cycle, then when it was done, go under the sink and unplug it, and plug it in again. And then run it once more on the “RINSE-AND-DRAIN” cycle. She added, “He’s a user. He’s a main chancer. Pompous ass.”

But then, from where I knelt on the cold concrete floor, I looked up and – I’d worried that this might happen – the first smoke wasn’t going out the roof hole, it was creeping against the ceiling. Andy wasn’t noticing and I didn’t raise an alarm – because maybe it would start finding the hole. Soon a real column of heat would start rising.

“Wow. You just stole it,” I said with admiration. “You just broke in. Into the guy’s apartment or something.”

Maybe I was trying to sound cheery. Provide him a little ego boost by seeming awed. Awed by his fancy turntable and his theft.

Instead, I got the sense that he thought my enthusiasm childish, or ignorant. Anyway it was beneath response. He just watched the fire and laid on another stick.

I said, “A high school teacher shouldn’t be able to afford a turntable like that.”

“They were nice. Him and his wife, they always made extra when I came.” He was staring into the fire, too, the way I’d been. “It was nicer than the bar. They were different. She was so nice to me. And pretty. He was a visiting poet. He gets three thousand dollars for being a visiting poet.”

“What’s a visiting poet?”

“Back home he’s a poet. He comes out here to teach and he’s a visiting poet. Three thousand dollars, man.”

We were not discussing the air quality in the room. If Andy had lifted his eyes from the fire, he’d have seen a haze. Maybe this was what Aleuts do, they live in smoky places and it’s all right. I said, “I see, so you stayed there some nights. Instead of the bar.”

Kneeling, his hands gripping his knees, he was looking into the fire.

“North Star Lounge,” he said, as if he could see the North Star Lounge before him, there in the fire, but was seeing something increasingly puzzling about it.

I said, “Well, it must have been easy to take the turntable, then. The guy sounds rich. He’s back in New York now, I guess.”

“He was stupid. I just sneaked out with it when they’re sleeping,” Andy said. “What an idiot. Where was he when they handed out the brains?”

I thought I’d make another change of subject.

“Still, you got your turntable, man. Why couldn’t you go home?”

He was staring at the fire. He said, “If she had a friend.” I could tell he was referring to his mother.

“Well. It’s a Garrard. A turntable is the important part. Amplifier and speakers are what you need, ’specially speakers, but the turntable is the most important component.”

“They always did extra food and I could sleep there. They didn’t suspect nothing, not the slightest. He was a stupid fuckin’, stupid fuckin’ idiot.”

His voice had sharpened, and he rocked forward to get up into a standing position, “What a fool. Get what you deserve.”

He staggered to his feet and he walked to the exit-hole and crouched and went out. He’d left his poncho inside. He hadn’t cried while he was sitting here at the fire, not the slightest dampness, not the slightest weakness in the voice.

I supposed now I had to just sit inside and wait for him to come back. He would come back all wet. Impossible to stay out in the rain for long. But time was a consideration. The hike back down to the village would take almost an hour, and after that, the Chevron Bryant might be reachable by taking a dinghy – that is, “borrowing” a dinghy, because Andy’s little plastic canoe was, in fact, not much more than a toy. It would never get me all the way to the “Standard Oil Spit.” Then there would be figuring out how to start an outboard motor – though I really wasn’t the type, either to start an outboard motor or steal a dinghy – or else (this was what would actually happen) walking all the way to the Standard Oil Spit. Which was somewhere along the shore if you just began simply by setting out leftward from the harbor and then keeping to the water’s edge, no matter how dark the night might get. You’d have to come across it eventually. My own poncho was leaky only around the neck and hood area. And midnight was surely still far enough away, I would have enough time to do the whole thing on foot. My things, including my skull, would all still be in the harbormaster’s shack beside the space heater. It might be awkward but I could carry everything hiking around the point until the Standard Oil Spit came into view.

Meanwhile, the smoke wasn’t going up through the hole. The smoke really had no idea the hole was there. It all just kept creeping and crowding, so I gathered up a few short pieces of old sawn-off wood. I wanted to make a real column of rising heat. When I poured it all-at-once onto the flames, it threatened to kill the fire and just create a lot more smoke – so I spent some time pushing it together with my toe, and with taps of my fingertips, making vulnerable dry sticks slide up against glowing coals.

Andy reappeared, standing up straight after the crouch of the tunnel, and he said, speaking of the smoke, “What’s going on?” I told him I was trying to create an updraft. In fact, I’d only put out the fire, and it was creating a much thicker haze. I needed to cough, now that I was standing up in it.

“This isn’t working,” Andy said.

Then an unbelievable gust of wind came through the hole. It lasted a while, and it intensified, again to make the room a whistle. The whole cement box howled. We went to stand against a far wall, but it wasn’t much different over there. Everywhere in the room, a fine-spray damp was penetrating. Without discussing it, we pulled on our ponchos and went out through the tunnel, to where the air was clear and we could breathe and couldn’t go back inside anymore.

 

§ § §

 

Within a couple of hours, under a brass lamp, the skull and jawbone were together, assembled on the green baize desktop in Matt’s cabin, where its dome, maple-colored, drank the light. The cabin’s louvered wooden door, contrary to routine, was closed, because now I was hiding. I was genuinely a stowaway. Once the ship was underway, at 00:00 hours, I would leave Matt’s cabin and walk quickly and unnoticeably over the long catwalk back to my old berth and fall asleep, where it would be too late for Captain Harrison to find me and put me off the ship.

Clinging raindrops glittered and shivered against the thick lens of the porthole – there must have been wind out there, though it was inaudible. I had put on dry clothes in my cabin, but I was still muddy and scratched and pale from coming down the mountain, and then climbing over rough parts along the shore in the dark, carrying everything. Sitting in the side chair at Matt’s desk, I watched my own drowned-looking fingers while, numb, slightly palsy-blessed, they removed the cellophane wrappers from twins of Saltine crackers, which had come from Matt’s hoard in his desk-drawer. Inside my personal halo, I thought myself a little bit delirious, but safely so. The blistered wafers were supernaturally dry, rising to my mouth while Matt talked.

One thing I hadn’t hallucinated: when Andy slipped inside his house in the village, it wasn’t the plain, poor box I’d imagined. The Kiroffs had a two-story house of white clapboard, possibly the nicest house in town. They even seemed to have tried for a lawn. Enclosed in a white picket fence exactly like the Orthodox church’s, the lawn was actually just a square of mud, crossed by a plank, where Andy had taken off his shoes before entering, closing the door behind himself under a porch lamp. They’d  even made an effort at decorative shrubbery, Midwestern-style, which didn’t belong in that climate, juniper bushes stunted by wind, needles torn off down to naked twigs. I’d thought I was befriending somebody who lived in hopelessness and disorder. This seemed like the fanciest house in the village, and it occurred to me maybe the stepparents were tolerant of the electric guitar because they might have a little bit of the permissiveness that comes with being comfortable.

Matt leaned sidewise and tucked one wrist under his armpit in a wing (a tic that for a few years I would find myself imitating), and he gestured with cigarette fumes at the skull on the desktop’s green felt. “Got a trophy, so I guess the trip was a success.”

My mind was squeezed inside the bands of iron shipboard colors dating from before the war: iodine, cigar, dough, the brass hardware, the maroon teak. Book spines stood behind an elastic ribbon that was supposed to keep them from leaping out in high seas – though this particular old strap was stretched flaccid. Rumor was, the Bryant was on its last voyages. Someday soon it would be taking its final trip “to China.” On my knee was a flat oval tin. Its pleated paper wrapper advertised “Smoked Baby Oysters in Oil.” A narrow tongue of metal at the rim could be inserted into a tiny eyelet slot in a key. Then the lid could be scrolled back to reveal dozens of little wads of captured brown flesh, in rows glistening. I had unbent a paperclip, to make a harpoon for spearing them. When I chewed, my ear ached, from the winds on the mountainside, but I was greedy and each oyster had a penetrating lubrication, a sharp nicotine, a tough center as well as a nutritious flab. To sneak aboard the ship, I didn’t have to “shinny up the anchor chain,” which was how Matt joked when I showed up in his door. I just walked right on. It was easy. Nobody stopped me. Or even saw me, in the rain. I just came out on the pier and went up the gangplank, then straight along the catwalk and into my old cabin, where I dropped my duffel and things on the red floor. First, hungry, I crept to the back end of the ship: in the dining room the long polished table shone in the dark. The little fridge there contained no sandwich makings – it contained nothing at all – only an empty jar where pink-tinted water trembled in the ship’s engine-vibration. I tried the galley, too – and it was open. But every cabinet was padlocked.

Matt said, “Of course, you’ll go back to school in the fall,” while he watched me eat. We’d been talking about my coming to Sausalito to stay. “And of course I’ve got to call your parents. Keep them informed. They’ll want to know what you’re doing.”

To turn down Morse code’s eternal drip, he reached behind himself, a wooden knob. On his desk, pages of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo lay open. With his cigarette he sketched the skull again, “But this is marvelous. I guess you’ll impress girls with it. Or at least certainly Althea,” he seemed to lament, paternally.

“—However, I’m serious.” He took on his scolding, warning tone. “Marin County has all too many low-grade distractions and naturally Althea’s found a lot of feckless type friends. I plan for you to be a good influence.” He scowled. “Can you stand that?”

I’d been here only twenty minutes, and I hadn’t explained anything, personally too illegitimate to feel entitled, exactly, to explanations or extenuations. About Professor Grant’s expedition, I’d said little. Too complicated. And nothing about this night on the mountain, or the existence of Andy Kiroff. A separate world. All I had to do was lie low, here on a ship where (an oddly comforting fact) the galley cupboards were padlocked each night against the time-honored, ancient implication of mutiny. Altogether I’d spoken very little at all, my mouth presently stuffed with Saltines, and with oysters, too, feeling historically that perhaps betrayal is a civilized skill and everybody has to learn it. Andy, while he kept ahead on the path, had gabbed and gabbed, all the way down, about what better preparations we might make for another expedition, the very next day. (We should’ve used the hatchet! The hatchet to cut up the reindeer! And we need a windbreak over the ceiling hole. Or some chimney-thing.) Against the Chevron Bryant’s iron wall, hemp ropes creaked, and also ticked, an antique kind of sound. Inside the cabin, my vision was shortened within a golden mist of lamplight on brass, and I concentrated on harpooning oysters one-by-one with my paperclip, streamlining myself in sleep’s ambition, one scapula wanting to make a digging motion on clean cotton sheets, deep in my inner cabin, when the boat at midnight would begin to move on the dark water in the steady rain.

I did notice when the tin oval of oysters was removed from my hands, and I remembered Matt’s grip on my elbow, and being conducted toward my cabin, in a sleepwalk through the short, iron corridor, then along the catwalk. I remembered cradling the skull in its cardboard box. On the catwalk I was favoring one foot, because all day, inside my boot, the cushion of paper had become packed into the toe. I was wearing my old penny loafers now, from the duffel – I’d put them on when I got out of the wet clothes – but still, my toe hurt from the rubber boot. After I closed the door inside my room, my ears were literally still ringing, from the weather on the mountain. I put the skull down safely in the corner on the red floor. I didn’t even bother to kick off my shoes, I gripped the rail of the bed – these were tall beds – and I floundered up on the mattress and got under the blanket, thin gray wool, with the old Standard Oil logo: stacked, nested Vs like a sergeant’s shoulder patch indicating rank. I was still fully clothed, still wearing the loafers, laying myself in under the blanket as if for some long labor, like swimming all the way home while yet staying within the rectangle of the bunk. Would I sleep? My whole new body was a weapon in a sheath. At some point then, on the mattress, I could feel it: the sea motion had begun: the ship had cast off.

Everything here, except the skull, had been a failure. I’d seen a grown man fall apart. Charles Grant wasn’t somebody I had a lot of sympathy for. Personally, I knew I would never arrive at such an impossible stupid place, I would always have integrity, that is, simplicity. In that sense, I was going back the same boy as the one who had come out. Somehow, between Andy and me, equal insults had been exchanged on both sides, conferring a kind of decency. I could leave him there with the alcoholism rate and the suicide rate and all the rest of it, and I reckoned he would survive it. I didn’t have to understand every little thing. At this point I only had to know one thing. All I had to do was stay in inside the cabin with the latch bolted, and I would be carried back and my skull was safe in the corner. I myself had knelt over it in the earth, close as a reflection, the eye and then the teeth coming up in the draining soil while I brushed, with sketching motions like applying make-up. Now her head was in a box. While I slept, tireless, non-English-speaking, brawny seamen (there was Tagalog, there was Spanish, there was Portuguese) would go out on deck to haul in heavy ropes in the storm. Things pretty much work out as you imagine they will. In the morning, the sun would rise shining on the open water ahead. The unmapped ground back there, which I had once measured with my own footstep, in the morning would be only flat forgetful ocean, miles of it, carrying me home to my place.

 

 

END