End of the Beginning
You can’t drive from Juneau to the lower forty-eight. To hardly anywhere, for that matter. There are about fifty miles of pockmarked road, a mini freeway to the mall out by the Mendenhall Glacier, and a boondoggle bridge connecting Juneau, default state capital of Alaska, with Douglas Island, a tussock in the archipelago that is the southwestern boundary of the state. That’s about it. The locals drive around believing they are going somewhere. The glacier and the snow-dusted peaks and the bald eagles fishing in the Gastineau Channel remind the citizens of something called freedom, but those natural wonders are the perimeters of a prison yard. Once you land in Juneau, you have come to the end of the road.
I met Cody, the man of my dreams, in a rehab at Redondo Beach, California, and followed him up north to try normal life. I carried my clothes and my pink hot rollers in a backpack and lugged my Featherweight Singer sewing machine as my personal carry-on item. It actually fit under the seat in front.
When you fly into Juneau, the mountains on either side of the landing approach just tickle the wings of the plane. Delays in Seattle, or coastal fog, regularly torpedo the schedule, even in summer when it’s light all the time; if you come up in the winter, the wind will blow the plane sideways, and you will pray for a minor slide to the end of the runway.
When I first came to Alaska, it was August and everybody was loony with the perpetual daylight. Cody was at the plane to meet me. Even though we had been together for a year in the spin dry, we hadn’t seen each other for a few months. He was as beautiful as I remembered. When we held each other, I could feel the sudden vibration of my heart doing flips in my chest. It was embarrassing and exhilarating at the same time. He seemed sober, at least not smelling of alcohol, but he had that Red Bull jitter in his eyes.
He commuted by bush plane to a teaching gig in a one-room schoolhouse at Gustavus. Great state benefits, even though the salary wasn’t much at first. He stayed there in a rented room over the drugstore on the main drag of the town. Weekends, he would be with me in Juneau. The plan was, if he liked Gustavus, we would move there in a year or two. At least I thought that was the plan.
He had gotten us a rental in the older part of Juneau, on one of the sloping side streets up from the harbor. It had two bedrooms, a small kitchen/front room combination, and a bath that had been added on years after the house was originally built. There was no heat in the bathroom, a big problem for me. I like a warm bathroom.
The place was probably only seventy-five or eighty years old, not a real antique by lower forty-eight standards, but an oldie up north. A glance at the kitchen told me that a diligent housewife would have a field day with the sludge under the refrigerator and the mummified mice behind the kitchen sink. This would require more than wallpaper and a coat of enamel.
We brought in my stuff, the sewing machine, the backpack, and a bag of groceries we had picked up on the way. He was thinner and fitter, his chestnut hair long and glossy, a soul patch on his chin. We just stood there for a while, leaning against each other, and I waited for something else to happen.
“Come on,” he said. “I want you to meet someone.”
Cody brought me around back, through a patch of weeds, and showed me a little house, a shack really, that belonged to our backyard neighbor.
“This is Wallace Reid’s place. I thought he might be around outside. He’s an offbeat guy. Kind of solid, but with a little weirdness.”
“What does he do?”
“Yeah. Work. You know.”
“He doesn’t work.” Cody leaned over and pulled a foot-high dandelion from the tall, scruffy grass. “Maybe he’s a counterfeiter,” Cody said and laughed.
From across a crop of wild shrubbery and the remains of a peeling white fence, a tall figure advanced. The sun was behind him, so I couldn’t make out his features until he was up close. When the man came near, I saw a handsome, sturdy guy, forties, with heavy shoulders and a big gold cross on a chain around his neck. He wore a leather aviator jacket, and when he smiled he displayed well-cared-for teeth. Trotting behind him was a yellow mongrel, a bitch with a massive head and eyes that matched the color of her coat.
“Hi,” said Wally.
“Hey, buddy,” said Cody. “Like you to meet my friend.” He held me by the arm and pushed me in front of him, like a food offering. “This is Charlene.”
I held out my hand.
“Hi, Wally. My friends call me Charlie.”
Wally gave me a fingers-only handshake.
“Welcome to paradise, Charlie.”
“What’s the dog’s name?” I asked, just filling air space.
“Lucifer,” he said. “I named her after my first wife.”
I looked at his long, tanned face. “That’s a man’s name.”
“You don’t say,” he said. “I thought Lucifer was a star fiend.”
I let it go.
Next day, Cody and I drove across the Douglas Island bridge and took the road that landed us opposite the glacier. The best views were from the island. The ice shimmered in the heat haze, and the blue-streaked face, three hundred feet high, glared straight at us. The long tongue of dirt-streaked ice that formed the moving body of the glacier swung up and around the south-facing mountains to the hidden source. You could imagine it grinding and groaning from deep in the Canadian interior on its punch to the sea.
“Pretty tame,” said Cody. “Doesn’t calve hardly at all, even though it’s melting all to hell.”
After we looked at the glacier, we drove on a little way and then stopped for a walk into the woods. Everything was damp and lush, smelling of leaf mold. In the meadow just before we went in, there were lupines four feet tall and Queen Anne’s lace the size of dinner plates.
He started to walk ahead at a quicker pace, gradually increasing the distance between us. All around the trees and shrubs were burdened with growth, and the dripping trees closed overhead. It felt like the entrance to the underworld. At spots along the way, curves in the track hid Cody from view, and I was alone in the wet silence. I called out once, my voice small and pointless. Finally I saw him ahead, facing me as he walked along the path, swinging a stick and knocking branches.
“Guess we better head in. Sun’s getting low,” he said.
“Boy, am I glad to see you.”
It was after nine in the evening as we started back home along the two-lane road under a bluish-gray sky already dotted with the first pale stars. It would not get truly dark but would remain a limitless half-light until morning, when the sun skimmed the horizon. I kicked off my sneaks and found I had started a blister on my right foot.
We went on in silence. Then, out of nowhere:
“A girl got attacked by a bear on that path. Just a few weeks ago.”
I looked over at him as he stared straight ahead.
“Well, thanks for telling me now.”
“If I told you before, you wouldn’t go.”
I didn’t say anything, trying to think what it meant.
“You’re kidding, aren’t you?”
“Yeah,” he said and touched my knee. “Just kidding.”
On Monday the routine started. Cody left for Gustavus on the bush plane, and I started working on the place. At the hardware store out on the highway, I bought some paint, a roller, and a few cheap brushes so I could change the look of the kitchen. When I moved the fridge and pulled the stove away from the wall, as I suspected, the place was crawling. Rather than start on the cleanup, I showered and put together a sandwich for dinner. The tube didn’t work, so I pulled out a book and a couple of magazines and settled down in the cockeyed wicker chair slumped on the front porch. I watched the return of that ghostly blue blanket of twilight. The sky was clear, the air filled with the scent of barbecue. Back in the woods above town, a two-cycle engine revved over and over.
I must have fallen asleep in the chair. About ten o’clock I felt a wet, hot tongue on my arm and jerked awake to find Lucifer and Wally beside me on the porch.
“All by your lonesome?” he said.
“Hi. I guess it was the dog’s tongue?”
“Yeah. My loss.”
He took a seat on the top step, and the dog looked from him to me, then decided on a neutral spot just behind her master.
“Got a beer?”
“I don’t think so.”
He stood, stretched his arms overhead, and groaned. His half-buttoned shirt crawled up, and I saw a flat belly and wide-sprung ribs. He had a small tattoo on his right biceps, a fleur-de-lis. Before I could move he was in the house, the screen door whacking his behind. The fridge opened and closed, a drawer banged, a chair slid across the floor. When he came out he had two glasses, both filled with clear liquid.
“Could only find the Popov. Cheap shit, but it works.” He threw back the drink and wiped his mouth with the back of a square hand. “Bottoms up, kid. It’s gonna be a long winter.”
“Where’d you find that?”
“If I told you, you’d know.”
“So he’s hiding it from me?”
“I guess.” He poured an inch in his glass. “Cody and I have no secrets. He keeps me up to date.”
Funny. Cody never mentioned this guy to me.
I didn’t think of the emergency tips I had been taught in the rehab center, of calling anyone, of asking Wally to leave, of saying no thanks. Forks in the road are only recognized after they are taken. I didn’t think of all those circle sessions in Redondo Beach as I stared at my shoes and wondered how my life had landed me in that room full of hopeless losers. All I can remember is that Wally was offering and I wanted it. Besides, I hadn’t stayed off the stuff. I was still chipping until a few weeks before I got on the plane to Juneau.
Instantly I knocked the vodka back and coughed.
“Maybe you’d like some juice in there,” Wally said and got up again and reentered the house, banging the screen door behind him, a man with possession rights to everything in his vicinity. When he came back he had a can of grapefruit juice and the nearly full Popov.
I saw it coming. Wally did not waste time.
I woke up on the daybed in the living room, my clothes draped over the one upholstered chair in the house, a black Barcalounger with cigarette burns on the armrests. An empty Popov stood on the floor next to the TV, and three beer cans, bent double, were strewn across the maroon shag rug. When was the last time I had been embarrassed?
That night Wally was over again with his own stash of vodka, a better brand; I think it was Smirnoff’s. Wally had fixed the tube, and I remember later lying naked on the daybed, watching a 3 a.m. fishing show. Before morning Wally had returned to his own abode with his faithful dog, Lucifer.
On Thursday, finally, I was embarrassed. I told Wally he couldn’t come over, never again, because Cody would be home on Friday, and I wanted our deal to have a chance. I wanted to be clean, inside and out, clean of the smell of the man and the dog and the booze and the tobacco.
“You’re such a fraud,” Wally said.
“Well, yes. But…”
“No yes, buts. You’re the purest kind of weasely, uncommitted fraud that wants a steady guy and a meal ticket, with rights to be a harlot when it suits.”
His face was calm and his shoulders seemed mountainous.
While he was talking he stroked the massive head of his loyal bitch, Lucifer, threading her ears between thumb and forefinger every third or fourth stroke. The animal stood patiently accepting the gesture and blinked her eyes every time her master pulled at her ears.
“I didn’t ask you over here. This was your idea.”
He smiled. Turned.
“Yeah,” he said. “You were seduced.”
He walked away, across the beaten, weedy yard, and threaded through a break in the rotten fence to his own place. The big dog trotted at his heels, her tongue flapping. He left me alone, but I always knew he was back there. He threatened me without even trying.
I met Cody at the floatplane dock—freshly showered, clean hair, starched blouse. In the cab of the truck, I had two cold ones in a cooler under the seat along with a bag of chips for the short ride home. A few blocks, actually. He kissed me on the mouth and pulled back. I had brushed my teeth, but he knew.
“Not again,” he said as he slid behind the wheel.
“It’s only beer.”
He was silent and when I offered him an opened can, he shook it off.
We got to the house, and I showed Cody the base coat on the kitchen walls, the clean floor. He responded dispassionately, looking everywhere but at the things I had worked on. He opened cupboards and checked the dishes and the glassware, pulled at drawers, and examined the fridge.
“Hungry?” I said.
“Mmm. Not very. Have any cheese?”
“Some cheddar. Would go nice with this beer.”
“I told you. Don’t want to go there.”
I shrugged and sat in one of the bentwood chairs.
“I see you did the Popov.”
“Wally was over. He knew where it was.”
“Really.” He sliced off a chunk of the cheese. “Good old Wally,” Cody said.
“He’s an interesting guy.”
“Interesting? That’s a hoot.”
Cody came across the kitchen and stood over me. When I looked up at him, he glanced away.
“Do you love me?” he said.
“Of course I do.”
“Did you miss me?”
“I missed you.”
“Yes. A lot.”
“So, do you have anything to tell me? Like a confession?”
You know, it irritated me, the way he was pushing. For a minute I thought of telling him about Wally and me. But I didn’t.
“What are you driving at, Cody? I said I missed you a lot.”
“Oh, something about Wally being over here drinking my booze, entertaining my woman. It seemed like a natural thought.”
“Your woman, is it? Is that what I am? Your woman?”
“What of it?”
“What of it, he says. What gives with you and this guy?”
About a month later, Cody didn’t show up on Friday. He didn’t call either. But the following weekend he was in Juneau as usual, his hair still long but freshly washed, his fingernails relatively clean, I supposed a hat tip to the teaching profession. Then, again about a month later, he failed to show on schedule and also didn’t call. Finally, around May, just as the trees were starting up again, he didn’t show up at all.
On a Saturday I flew to Gustavus in a floatplane piloted by a guy who took the tickets, checked the bags, and then, turning his bill cap backward, slipped the plane’s lines from the dock, hopped in the driver’s seat, and revved the motors. He took off with a tremendous blast of power, pinning me and the two other passengers to our seats. The front door to the cabin was held slightly ajar with the toe of his boot so he could peek ahead and gauge his progress over the water. It was impossible to see over the instruments and through the windshield until the plane lifted off and attained a fairly level pitch. It reminded me of those days when I drove drunk with the car door ajar so I could follow the white lane markers on the freeway.
Gustavus is a settlement on a flat point of land just south of Glacier Bay. Silt from the glaciers has built up a loamy soil that grows spectacular strawberries, hence, Strawberry Point. The dock where the floatplane tied up was a short walk from the center of town, and I found the address for Cody’s place with no trouble. Up the long flight of stairs carpeted with rubber treads, I wondered what I would do if he wasn’t at home. At the door I heard music, a lot of violins, something classical, very pretty. There was the smell of toast. I rang the bell and it buzzed, a sound out of a 1940s noir movie. There was a pause and then the door was opened.
A young girl stood there, her hand braced on the doorjamb. She was blond, a yellow-gold blond. She wore a white T-shirt and was thin, almost frail-looking, slightly hunched into a protective, but rather fetching slouch. She didn’t say anything, but I found myself without words too. Then, from inside, I heard Cody’s voice.
“What is it?”
The girl nudged the door open, and I saw a large, comfortable room with decent furniture, a few prints on the walls, a figured carpet in front of a small cast-iron stove. Cody was lounging in a leather-covered chair, his legs propped on a matching ottoman, a coffee cup in his hand. His face was changed, maybe younger looking, and he met my eyes with a vacant gaze, as if he didn’t quite recognize me.
I took a small step back and smiled at the young girl holding the door.
“I guess I made a mistake,” I said and started down the hall.
The flight back to Juneau was bumpy. A low pressure cell hung over the lee of the Canadian Rockies, pumping water from the Gulf of Alaska into the lowland in front of the city. The plane twisted and dove, fighting off the gusts. We were landing on the receiving end of a water cannon, rain pummeling the fuselage like it was a bum in the drunk tank. We bounced onto the Gastineau Channel and taxied to the dock with a tail wind that drove us into the pilings. When I climbed out of the cabin, I was close to puking.
Up at the house it had turned quiet for a Sunday afternoon in late October. The rain stopped abruptly, and the gusty wind shredded the clouds over the mountains to the east. The sun had already disappeared behind the stark trees; the leaves had been down for a month. Snow dusted the flanks of nearby hills, and the taller peaks were already deep in white. I sat on the porch in the broken-down wicker and looked out on the town, with its yellow street lamps glowing along the harbor front. There were no visiting cruise ships and would not be any until late next spring.
I found a half bottle of cherry brandy and brought it out to the porch along with a bag of Cheetos. The liquor was soothing to my rumbling digestion. I hated the Cheetos, but what can you do?
It looked like I would have to seek employment or go back to Redondo Beach. I knew a return to California was impossible. My mother would have a hissy fit if she knew I had slipped, but any month now Cody would stop paying the rent. None of it made sense. I came up here for him, not for me.
Around midnight, I wandered into the house and showered, washed my hair, and dried it fluffy. I pulled on one of Cody’s hoodies, a dark green one that was big for me, but covered my butt. My red lizard cowboy boots were stiff, but they would do. In fact, they looked pretty good. Through the backyard fence, by the light of the stars, I found the little path that wound to the house in back. A light was on somewhere in the small cabin. Lucifer trotted to the screen door when I knocked. She huffed, but didn’t bark. Walter came out of the darkened house and stood in the doorway, the smoke from his cigarette twisting through the screen.
“Well, well,” he said.