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The Cry of the Loon by Karen Franklin

The Cry of the Loon by Karen Franklin

 Fiction, Vol. 2.4, Dec. 2008

May 15, Homer

The wind balloons at Alison’s back as she perches on the shoulder of a remote coastal road, thousands of miles from home, and with an air of audacity lifts her thumb. She’s bundled against the salt air and glacial chill—long underwear, wool hat, heavy socks, boots, and a greasy anorak that smells of woodsmoke. Homer, Alaska, 1982—jobs, oil dividends, easy money. The perfect place to make a pile of cash while you figured things out, a place where you could mine your inner strength like gold. She feels glad, glad to be 23 and unattached and in the moment, glad to find herself beyond the reach of her parents and their verdicts, glad to stand on the verge of something huge. She’d had a lonely childhood, so that spring when she ditched her life and left for Alaska, she went searching for a breakthrough, an epiphany, a clean metamorphosis. Out for the adventure of her life, she packed her shit in storage and planned never to go back.

A spaniel appears on the road, wagging his whole hind quarters. Alison starts to stroke it and croon at it, and right then a guy she’s never seen before steps off the beach onto the gravel in front of her. He wears a wool watch cap, a rusty beard, and a buck knife sheathed in leather.

“You’re back,” he says. “I saw you hitching into town earlier, and here you are again. Workin’ at the cannery?”

She toes the gravel. “Who wants to know? Are you?”

He smiles a slanted smile. “Nah, I’m here fishing.”

“Well I’m just camping with my girlfriend,” she says, tilting her head toward the beach. “Waiting to get hired along with the rest of the world.”

Behind her, Bishops Beach blooms with tents, lean-tos, and driftwood huts wrapped in see-through sheets of Visqueen. Converted school buses, Airstream trailers, and campers occupy every square inch of parking space along the road. Nomads. Hundreds of people from around the country and the world—students, migrants, transients, outlaws, outcasts—descend on the 4.5 mile Homer Spit each summer to fish salmon or work in the canneries and with any luck get in on the fabled Alaskan killing. All around are artifacts of the fishing industry—towers of crab pots, heaps of net, mounds of coiled line, and brightly-colored buoys and floats. Pickups weighted with gear rattle up and down the road, shotguns swinging in the rear windows. Boats everywhere—boats in drydock, boats listing on the mudflats, boats belching in and out of the harbor.

Alison sizes the guy up for a few minutes and then agrees to walk with him across the road to the Harbor Grill, where they sit facing each other at a Formica table. Outside the dirty windows, the tide is low and the beach looks as wide as a football field. The Kenai Mountains mapped with snow rise straight out of the sea, serrating the cinder-colored sky. He’s 26-years-old, and his name is Marco Di Amato, a beautiful, musical name compared to her own homely one of Alison Blum. She rolls Drum tobacco and they chain smoke, lighting their cigarettes off each other’s, and they drink refill after refill of bad coffee in Styrofoam cups. They brag about themselves and interrogate each other and make pleasing assumptions. He’s grimy but so is everyone else on the Spit, including her, and the grime gives him a boyish affect that appeals to her. She finds him amiable and attentive. His gray eyes appear clear and frank and endearingly sad.

“What’s a girl like you doing in Alaska?” he says.

She cradles her cup, rotating it in her hands. “I hear you can disappear here.”

“Running away, eh? What from?”

“My life. The usual. My job. I worked in a law office. I was in charge of Xeroxing.” She laughs. “I studied art history in college. Good one, right? Now here I am. My parents will probably never get over it.”

“Well, I guess we’re here for a reason,” he says, leaning on his elbows. “Myself, I was fishing off New England, but Alaska’s where the opportunity is. This is where the big money’s at.”

“Gonna get rich overnight?”

“It happens. Right now I’m on a halibut boat. Hey, you gotta start somewhere.”

After an hour of banter he says, “Want to see my boat?”

“Yeah.”

Homer claims one of the busiest fishing ports in all of Alaska, and the harbor is jammed with hundreds of boats primed to partake in the annual haul—salmon, halibut, and crab.  Marco points out the different boats:  seiners, long-liners, gill-netters, trawlers, draggers, crabbers. Alison pictures her mother, what she would think about this, how her mouth would compress into a puckered frown, how her father would “tsk, tsk” and say, “This is why I sent you to college?”

Marco guides her down a steep ramp to the floats. Rigging cables clink and clank in the wet wind and cormorants perch on pilings like gargoyles and gulls screech and lunge among the spars. Thick green saltwater sloshes against the hulls. She follows Marco across the decks of several rafted boats to the Clarisse, a long-liner on which he works and, as it turns out, lives. They go below and he offers her a seat on an upturned bucket. The boat smells like bait. They eat clam chowder and drink tea. He digs half a joint out of a Camel pack and lights it. They talk on about what they’ve done and what they want to do.

After high school he spent a couple years working at Serafina’s, a popular Italian restaurant in Providence that his dad built from scratch, and that the family had expected Marco to take over one day. “My father was a pain in the ass,” he says. “Let’s just say there wasn’t room in the kitchen for both of us.”

“My father is a fuckhead,” she says.

“Let’s hear about that.”

“Let’s not.”

Marco says he plans to run a boat someday. Meanwhile, he’s acquired a small sailboat, a ketch-rig charmer he calls the Clipper that has a three-horsepower engine and a mast fashioned from a bamboo pole. He’s got this soft purring voice. After a while he tries to kiss her, but she backs away, and then he says, like an incantation, “Let’s take a walk.”

They wind up at the Porpoise Room, where they order identical cheeseburgers. She likes watching him eat, his hands big and blackened. Later, back on the Clarisse, they laugh when they discover they’re wearing matching red union suits, and they laugh in the cramped bunk that’s too small for both of them when he keeps bumping his head on the low ceiling.

*

June 1, Homer

Something about the summer light sparks a charge between them. The sky never going all the way dark, sunsets the color of fireweed merging with the sunrises, lasting for hours, the radiant energy burning all day and night. Alison is staying on the Clarisse every night now. Her friend split for Denali, taking her tent with her. Alison likes watching Marco sleep, curled in a ball like a kitten with a dreamy little smile on his face. There’s no work in Homer, and as they wait for fishing season to start they sail the Clipper and make out at the beach and throw stones in the water to tell the future. The wide open future.

One evening they meet the halibut charters at the dock. They laugh at the pukers who pay a phenomenal 90 bucks to go out and catch two fish. They watch the charter crew slice off the fillets and flip the carcasses into a bucket. Marco finagles the cheeks, which he cuts out with a pocket knife, and they bake the fish over a beach fire with potatoes wrapped in foil. He rests his arm around her shoulder and whispers in her ear, his beard brushing her skin.

“Know what I like about you?”

It’s a game they play.

“Everything.”

At this she feels alarm, shock, flattery, and relief. Her parents liked nothing about her, apart from their ownership of her. They were intellectuals—all head, no heart. They taught at the University of Michigan, English and psychology. They read The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The New York Review of Books. The emotional tenor at home ran from indifference to hostility, with an undercurrent of blame. But she’s broken loose now. She’s free. She doesn’t need anybody or anything.

Two days later, the Homer harbor is in a frenzy as the fleet gears up for a three-day halibut opening, 63 hours of nonstop fishing. Marco borrows his skipper’s truck to pick up supplies, and Alison giddily tags along. Back on the deck of the Clarisse he shows her how to splice line with a marline spike. She watches him work the hydraulics to wind ground line onto a giant spool.

Finally, he asks, “Where you gonna stay while I’m out fishing?”

She says, “I’ve been looking for a used tent. I bet I can pick one up for cheap.”

While he’s gone she has nothing amusing to do. Salmon hasn’t opened yet and there’s still no work in Homer. Every day there are rumors—when salmon is starting up, who’s hiring, who’s picking up fishing crew. Each morning Alison crowds into the coffee room at Seward Fisheries, the big cannery on the Spit. It’s wall to wall people, everyone vying for a low number to be called first.

One morning the talk in the coffee room is about a shooting, someone from the circus tent at the far end of the beach getting killed. The story in the Homer News circulates around the room. The guy got caught in the general store stealing a bottle of Wild Turkey, and the clerk shot him. There’s also buzz about a car rolling onto the beach from the road and flattening Dave the Dealer’s tent. He was out fishing at the time. Lucky.

Alison buys a two-man dome from someone on the Spit for $25. It’s beaten and punctured but structurally intact. She pitches it a short distance from Bishops Beach next to Alaska Sea Ventures, the smallest of the three canneries. “You gotta be at the right place at the right time,” is the Homer credo. With nothing better to do, she hangs around outside the cannery reading. She’s reading Sometimes a Great Notion in honor of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and their mutinous roadtrip. In the novel, Hank and Viv have just met and they’ve just finished making love in the back of a pickup. And as he lay in the sweet-smelling straw beside her, feeling the stars on his bare stomach, had asked for the girl’s story:  where was she from? what did she do?  what did she like?

There’s a spitting rain and it’s cold outside the cannery. Alison’s hair flaps against her face and her jacket billows and snaps. Her nose stings. Her fingers go stiff. Her knuckles burn, chapped and raw. She takes cover drinking coffee at Land’s End, where the waitress scowls at her. The waitress is broke.  Everyone is broke. Alison walks to the harbor, but finds nothing there to divert her. With Marco gone, she feels as weightless and invisible as air.

After three days he’s back, and Alison is relieved. The Spit is crawling with crazy people. Joe Giaponi, toothless and gleaming with nostalgia, tells how he busted across the Mexican border on a motorcycle, bullets torpedoing after him. He figured he was safe because he had a girl wrapped around him and she’d catch a shot first. This loser who goes by Buzz gimps around town claiming to be a fisherman. One night at the Salty Dawg he limps over to the table where Alison and Marco and a few others are drinking beer, and he lets out a moose-like roar, grabs a bench, and threatens to flip it against the wall, but the bartender yanks him out the door. A lion-faced guy called Dino rambles on one night about how he started the Vietnam War. He ends with a nod and looks at each person around the fire and says with a wink, “You guys noticed how much I look like Jesus?”

*

June 10, Homer

Alison is one of the first to get hired at Alaska Sea Ventures. The cannery is a stark glary room that smells of chlorine. It has stainless steel tables, a cement floor, and a five-gallon bucket for fish guts at every station. Vic, her foreman, is a looming, lurching, flirtatious drunk. He talks in her face and he’s stupid. The place is filthy, a disaster. Salmon scales and bits of dried fish gurry flecking everything. But it’s work and her money’s about out.

Her first shift, she works all night with a crew of students and Israelis, gutting salmon and packing the prized roe into freezer boxes to be shipped to Japan. Vic vanishes halfway through the night, and at around three in the morning things start coming undone. One of the Israelis holds a string of viscera up to her neck like pearls and Alison can’t stop laughing. Whenever she steps outside for a break, the trippy ruby sky undulates over the water, hour after hour, until daylight.

*

July 1, Seldovia

After six weeks in Homer claustrophobia sets in. Exposure forces them to live inside the confinement of close walls—tents, outhouses, wheelhouses. The Spit itself, hemmed in by the sea. On the other side of Katchemak Bay, behind the mountains, lies all of Alaska, a mostly roadless, endless wilderness too colossal to comprehend.

Marco lands a job out of Seldovia on a halibut boat called the Taku. Seldovia is a scrap of a town across Katchemak Bay nested in a sheltered cove at the base of the mountains, unreachable except by boat or plane. There’s nothing in Seldovia but a quiet fishing harbor and Galley Seafoods, a small cannery. The only traffic in or out is a few fishermen, half a dozen summer workers, the occasional inspector from Alaska Fish and Game, and a handful of drifters and castaways. The locals are poor. They subsist on salmon, bear, moose, berries, and clams. You see them beachcombing for bidarkis, little shellfish they pry off the rocks. Seldovia’s idea of local charm is an outhouse on Main Street plastered with plastic flowers and American flags. There’s a coin-op shower at the harbor that costs two dollars, a ridiculous expense. When the fish come in everyone works at the cannery. When the boats go out the cannery shuts down and half the town gets drunk.

Alison and Marco live in her tent at the Outside Beach a mile from downtown Seldovia, with their sleeping bags zipped together. From their campsite they enjoy a view of Mt. Illiamna and Mt. Redoubt, two snow-coated volcanoes that mark the start of the Aleutian archipelago. The two mountains stand over the sea like gods. At low tide Alison and Marco take turns carrying their canteens a quarter mile down a bouldered beach to a freshwater spring. They climb a steep crag and make love at the top. Every night a pair of sea otters floats past their site, clicking clams on flat rocks balanced on their chests. Behind the tent a ravine choked with devil’s club backs the unbroken Alaskan bush.

*

July 17, Seldovia

The voltage at camp is supercharged—fights, sex, love, need—one extreme spilling into the next in a gulf of passion. Alison works at Galley Seafoods seven days a week. Halibut has been closed since they got there, almost three weeks, and Marco is broke. She gripes about living hand to mouth on her cannery income. They bicker about idiotic things like who should pack the peanut butter back from the store, the best hitchhiking techniques, Marco’s sloppy camp habits, which she’s sure will attract bears. And she can’t get enough of him. There’s a physical tension, a psychic fusion, and she grips him as if her life depended on each embrace. Their lovemaking ends with her crying and laughing through her tears.

By week four, Marco finally agrees to work at the cannery until fishing starts. The old timers at Galley Seafoods bring their own knives, like orchestra musicians. Alison can’t find the magic angle of the blade against the steel that sharpens her knife instead of dulling it. The foreman stops at the fillet table to help and Marco gives Alison an amused sneer, as if she’s failed a test, as if she’s just a puker. The locals feign oblivion. The locals are hard. They never look at you at all.

But she discovers she enjoys butchering. She enjoys the feel of the machete as she chops off heads and lops off fins. She masters the trick to disemboweling a fish, sliding the knife point in just far enough to release the guts without spilling the stomach contents. As she sends the fish down the belt to the fillet table, she enjoys a certain pride in making herself useful in a way that her father would reject.

She loves the long walk home together at the end of the day, across a tidal slough lined with shingled shacks built on pilings, past head-high clusters of fireweed sidling a panorama of mountains, along a picket-fenced cemetery with white picket grave markers overgrown with wildflowers, to a Russian orthodox church, a blue and white dollhouse with a gold cross. From there the road disintegrates into a two-track path to the tent.

*

August 5, Seldovia

Marco and the rest of the Taku crew are forever machinating on how to cash in on Alaska’s limitless opportunities. Captain Dave has hatched an idea to spend a million and a half bucks starting a cod fishery in Nuka Bay, some primordial fjord on the Gulf of Alaska. In Alaska anything is possible. Everyone says it. Dave plans to spend two grand on hooks and catch enough cod to get a grant from some fishery association that dishes out cash to innovators starting out. Marco’s all over the idea. He’s proposing that they stay the winter with Alison salting cod. He’s talking about deploying a fleet of dories and making $3,000 a week. Alison is mute as a shadow. As someone at the cannery recently said, “You’ve got a college degree and you’re up here cutting fish?”

*

August 8, Seldovia

A survivalist has arrived at the Outside Beach. Rodney has long greasy hair, a grubby army jacket, and black haunted eyes. He lives in a well-armed truck with a German shepherd named Rusty that he keeps on a harness and doesn’t let anyone touch, talk to, or look at. “He’s not a pet,” he says. “He’s a guard dog.  He protects me.” Marco seems unperturbed but Alison is afraid of Rodney, who is trying to persuade them to stay the winter. “I could loan you some kerosene lamps and run you into town,” he says.

On a rare day off, two neighbors at the Outside Beach invite Alison and Marco on a picnic out the road. It’s a welcome break from the slime and the stench of the cannery. The rutted road winds into the bush for maybe 30 miles, across rivers and waterfalls and patches of flowers, until it empties into a ring of mountains with basins filled with snow. The road leads nowhere. They get out and smoke some dope and trip around the river looking for gold. Spent salmon languish in the current, their skin mottled and fleshy, waiting to die. On the way back they stop to pick up a hermit they meet tramping along in the middle of nowhere with a knapsack and a rifle slung across his back. He calls himself Yogi, like the bear. Yogi says he’s clearing land to build a cabin and he’s hiking to Seldovia to round up some help and supplies. Says he’s never been to Seldovia. Alison thinks, Who the hell are these people?

Later that week there’s a halibut opening. Marco goes out fishing and the cannery shuts down. Alison is invited to put up blueberries with Roz, a friend from the fish line and one of the few nice people in Seldovia. On the way to Roz’s trailer in town Alison passes cannery workers lying in the street, drunk. Roz’s husband’s just back from deer hunting. In the lean-to outside the trailer eight dead deer droop from the ceiling, their heads flopped over on broken necks. Alison threads her way through the corpses and bangs on the screen door. Roz opens the door holding a piece of raw meat on her eye.

“What’s that for?” Alison says.

Roz removes the meat and reveals a yellowy purple shiner. “He gets drunk and beats the shit out of me when he gets back from hunting,” she says. She starts to cry.

Alison crosses her arms in front of her, shield-like. “Where’s he now?”

Roz places the meat back on her eye. “Up at the Lodge, getting shitfaced no doubt.” She stands aside for Alison to enter.

“When’s he coming back?”

“Don’t worry. Hours.”

Alison smells the musky smell of the deer and she feels a ripple of nausea. “Should I call the cops?”

“Honey, you’re not from around here. They’re getting drunk together right now. They’re up there swapping hunting stories.”

“Look, don’t think I’m a weasel, but I’d rather not run into him. I think I better bail.”

She wanders to the harbor, which is mostly empty. Her foreman is there fiddling with an outboard engine that appears to be shitting yellow gear-oil diarrhea. “Come on, motherfucker,” he says, wrestling it with a wrench. She gives up and goes back to the beach. At the campsite, she drags her sleeping bag out of the tent to read more about Hank—now in love with Viv, disoriented, and not himself. He passed the heaps of driftwood and finally stopped at the foam’s edge to wait, stopped the cycle propped between his legs on the hard wet sand to actually wait for something to happen, for some mystic revelation to explode in his mind, making all things clear forever, holding his breath like a sorcerer just finished with all the steps necessary to some world-shaking spell. 

At seven the next morning, Alison makes camp coffee, swirling the grounds in boiling water till they sink to the bottom. She looks up and spots the Taku chugging past the beach toward Seldovia Bay. She sprints the mile to the harbor to greet the boat, with its hold full of fish. Marco tells her, “Baby, it’s like you’re in color and everything else is in black and white.” The boys pose with a 200-pound halibut suspended by the tail from a hoist and she takes a picture.

*

August 15, Seldovia

Marco has been eyeballing abandoned cabins for the past month, talking nonstop about staying the winter. He takes Alison out to see one that he’s ecstatic about out toward Jacalov Bay, out the road. He boosts her up to look in the window.  Rough, dirty, a dilapidated remnant of someone’s failed dream.

“Maybe it could work,” she says.

The next day, they pick up a broom at Stamper’s Market. This modest domestic purchase gives her that pit-of-the-stomach feeling you get when life’s getting ahead of you. At the cabin the place stinks of mildew. Marco starts sweeping a film of spider webs off the walls while Alison pulls up a strip of decomposing carpet.

“God, this is nasty. This place is like trying to mop up Seldovia Bay with a sponge,” she says.

Marco sets down the broom. “Shit, Al, I thought this is what you wanted.”

“This?”

“Well it ain’t your parents’ upper class life you been living. I was under the impression you wanted to get away from that.”

She flicks a piece of crud off her hand and says, “There’s more to life than just struggle and survival.”

“I see nothing wrong with struggle and survival.”

“Well guess what? Running water and electricity kind of appeal to me.”

“Babe, we can do this, we just have to give it a try. You could try harder.”

“And you could think about us both for a minute and not just about you.”

That night, Alison dreams she’s floating to Hawaii alone in a Zodiac, an inflatable boat with a motor. Only in the dream there’s no engine, no food, and no supplies.

The next morning at the campfire, it’s Round 10 of the Prudhoe Bay vs. Lower 48 vs. Nuka Bay vs. the Seldovia cabin discussion. Stay or go, stick together or split up, meet up again later or break up for good. Marco leans against the massive fallen tree that demarks their site. He takes out his buck knife and starts whittling a stick, shaving off little curls with measured strokes. “What do you think you’d be doing now if we hadn’t met?” he says.

Alison peels off a chunk of moss and breaks it into pieces. “Impossible to say. Possibly getting my passport and going to Israel—you know, work in a kibbutz and discover my roots and all that. Maybe New Zealand. There are jobs in New Zealand.” She wraps her arms around him and speaks into his neck. “What would you be doing right now?”

He stoops to sprinkle a pile of wood shavings onto the campfire, and watches the flames flare up. “Fuck if I know. Maybe getting ready to sell my boat and heading back to the East Coast, maybe try to put some money down on a piece of land. Who knows, maybe I’d store my boat and come back next spring.”

*

August 21, Homer

Marco gets ready for an 11-day trip. He stuffs his heavy clothes and his sleeping bag into his backpack. He stands up and reaches for Alison, kisses her, presses his forehead against hers. “I’ll be missing you,” he says.

“Me too.” She steps back. “But I’m not hanging around here in Hell dovia.”

“Huh.  You’re not.”

“No way. I got a lot of Alaska left to see. Don’t be surprised if I’m not here when you get back.”

“I guess I can’t stop you. Just be careful.”

“I can take care of myself.”

He leaves that night. The next morning, she packs her shit:  stove, knife, bear whistle, camera, pad, bag, tarp, tent. The late summer nights are pitch black now and she stumbles around breaking camp in the dark to meet the five a.m. ferry.

Underway on the ferry Tustumina, the water is dead still. A sun ray shoots through the clouds and spotlights a seiner, where two fishermen are setting their nets. The blue Aleutians emerge in relief from a bank of fog. Alison goes ashore in Homer and stashes her pack at the ferry dock. She starts off to look for her friend Carol, someone from Ann Arbor who showed up in Homer a couple months ago, hoping she’ll be up for hitchhiking to Portage and taking the ferry to Cordova. Last Alison saw Carol, she was serving burgers to drunks at the Waterfront. But the bartender there says the restaurant shut down a couple days ago and he’s never heard of Carol. Alison finds that Sea Ventures has been shut down by the Board of Health. Bishops Beach is shut down to camping due to excessive drunkenness, violence, and crime. She plods along, feeling like she’s dragging sandbags. She recognizes a few faces—fishermen, Spit rats—and wonders if anyone knows her.

She bumps into Ray Parker, a crabber she and Marco know. He invites her to breakfast at Land’s End. Marco wouldn’t like it, but that was tough shit for Marco. He’s already accused her of flirting while he’s fishing, which is not her intention but face it, with a male to female ratio of 10 to one talking to men is life in Alaska.

“I just bought a gun,” Ray says. “A sweet little .22 automatic. Want to try it out?”

“Okay, sure.”

After breakfast, they drive out to the firing range, a patch of gravel somewhere in the forest outside Homer. Ray wears a fedora and looks like a gangster as he lines up a shot, his arm outstretched and a cigarette clamped in his teeth. She’s nervous, but she likes blasting cans. She likes the power that fits in the small of her hand.

Back on the Spit, they drink a few beers at the Bidarka Inn. Ray takes a rubber band out of his pocket and plays it like a trumpet. Walking back to his truck it’s raining. They drive over to the ferry dock to get her gear, which they find soaking in a pool of water.

“You can crash at my place,” he says. “I got a deal in town now, house-sitting for a friend. Did I tell you?”

She hunches to keep the rain out of her collar and peers out at the squally sky. “Okay, thanks.”

They pick up some groceries and drive over. At the house she takes a long shower, does her laundry, and cooks a meal in a real kitchen—a roasted chicken and cauliflower from the garden. Thoughts of Marco come and go as she tries to focus on the moment—the warmth, the good kitchen smells, the little delights like a table and chairs and a real lamp to write by in her journal. The TV hums in the other room where Ray watches a horror movie, hollering to her what’s happening. After they eat he plays the blues on his sax. They smoke some weed and watch TV. He puts his arm around her and they start to kiss.

“When’s the last time you slept in a real bed?” he says.

“Three months ago.”

“How about it.” He leads her up the stairs, holding her hand.

The next day, burdened with all her crap, Alison boards the Tustumina again for a five-day sail around Prince William Sound, with stops in Kodiak, Valdez, and Cordova, detouring to the Columbia Glacier, and finally landing in Seward. That first day rolls out like the huge, flat sea. It is soundless except for the throttling of fishing boats. Coming into Kodiak, she focuses her binoculars on each boat, searching for the Taku. It could be anywhere. As she scans the scene she feels a surge of anger, anger about how much she misses Marco, anger about how miserable she feels, anger about how it wasn’t supposed to work out this way.

For five days on the ferry she keeps to herself. Families of tourists gather in the galley to gawk at the scenery, their binoculars glued to their faces. The locals play cards in the bar. There’s a space in her gut; she never even knew about it until Marco came along and filled it, but now the hole has broken open, as wide and empty as the sky. Maybe the thing with Marco isn’t real, maybe it’s just lust. Alison sees herself in a maze of spirals and ditches, stairs and doors with secret locks.

…and boy oh boy, the cry of the loon when you’re out at night with the dogs and you hear that bastard calling across the dark slough, a sound like something lost and lonesome and stark gone crazy in a stark old world where it always knew it didn’t belong—that sound can give you the willies so bad you don’t know if you care to go outside in that stark old world ever again.

*

August 26, Seward

At sunset on the fifth day, silhouettes of chimney rocks disappear into the freezing fog. At midnight the boat docks in Seward. She lugs her backpack to an RV park near the harbor and sleeps hard under the stars with her wool hat pulled down over her ears. She wakes at sunrise, opening her eyes to a screen of fireweed and fronds of tall grass against a candy-colored sky. Beyond is Resurrection Bay ringed with snow-packed peaks. It’s the annual Silver Salmon Derby and the water churns with leaping fish. But she has no one to marvel with.

Alison deposits her gear at the ferry dock and wanders pointlessly around town. At the Seabreeze Café, she reads the bulletin board: Top jobs from Anchorage to Prudhoe Bay, North Temporaries working for top firms in choice assignments, work in all industries, oil, banking, construction. Riders Wanted down Alcan to Minot, ND, loaded ’82 Chevy, after moose season, Christians need not apply. For sale: 1969 Oldsmobile, good engine, new tires, seven month old battery, $700 or best offer.

She drifts into the Yukon Bar, a dark cavern decked in Last Frontier paraphernalia—elk racks, moose racks, a Territory of Alaska liquor license, old mining gear, and old photos of the gold rush and the climb up the Chilkhoot Trail. An attractive guy in cowboy boots parks next to her at the bar, and introduces himself as Nick Flood. He’s long-legged and clean shaven, and his hair and clothes are neat. Flood starts right in on all the opportunity to be found in Alaska. “If there’s any place you can make things happen it’s here,” he says.

“Huh.”  That tired old line again. He buys her a Bud and she listens to his bullshit for a while. “What’re you into?” he asks finally.

“Art history.”

“Well there’s a lot of great art here. Native art is a big deal.”

“Huh.” She swigs her beer.

“Hey, want to check out my boat?”

“Sure.”

Seward is all sailing and sport fishing. Marco would have no use for it. Fuck Marco. Flood lives aboard the most beautiful boat in the harbor, a double-masted wooden schooner. He sailed up from the Bay Area six months ago. “I’ll never do it again,” he says.

“You mean you’re here for good?”

“That I can’t say.”

He’s getting set to sail around Prince William Sound. “I’m looking for crew. Ever sailed?”

“Nothing serious. Would you consider going to Homer?”

“Probably not. But I maybe could be talked into it. Want to smoke some weed?”

“Sure.”

He lights up a pin joint, and passes it to her as he unfurls a roll of nautical charts. He plots a course with his finger and taps it on the Homer Spit. “Looks like about a three-day sail.”

“No way. It’s a day.”

He laughs. “Not quite.”

“I guess not then. It’ll only take a few hours to get back by hitchhiking.”

“By yourself? That doesn’t sound so smart.” He eyes her with one of those looks people give you when they think you’re out of your mind.

“I’ve been doing it all summer.”

“Hmm. What about tonight? Need a place to stay?”

“No thanks. I’ve got shelter.”

In the morning Alison wakes up to the popping sounds of the wind battering her tent. She packs up right away and heads to the Seabreeze for something to eat before leaving town. She orders coffee and picks out a greasy bear claw in the doughnut case and takes a booth near the window to stretch out the time before heading back. I wanted that last look of goodbye. I wanted the reserve to be shed for that final glowing gaze of farewell that is traditionally awarded two souls that have touched, that is deserved by two people who have been so daring as to have truly shared without reserve or fear, that rare hope-filled moment we call love.

An hour later, she’s on the road. She feels both excited and worried about seeing Marco. Within minutes a rusted out Toyota stops. Two women, Rachel and Rhonda, going all the way to Homer. Alison climbs into the backseat and Rhonda floors it. She lurches around curves, testing the limits of the mountain road. She guns it behind a car she’s already tailgating and shouts, “How about this asshole?” She twists around and says to Alison, “Don’t worry, Hon. I used to drive a taxi.”

“I changed my mind about Homer. Just drop me off at the fork.” When they get to the Y between Anchorage and Homer Alison gets out. She dumps her pack on the shoulder. It’s just wilderness, empty and still. Two bald eagles soar along the mountain face across the road, casting a cold shadow. The emptiness, the starkness, the enormity of the place strike her fully. She feels a sensation of receding, as if shrinking to the size of a pinpoint, invisible, nearly nonexistent. She thinks about Marco, trying to get a clear fix on his face, and she wonders if he’s aching for her. She thinks about how he has no idea where she is, how no one does. She considers letting the next car decide which direction she’ll take. She waits nervously in the silence, eating raisins and reading out loud to notify the bears of her presence.

Alligators, Crocs, & Men I Have Loved by Janet Freeman

The Head of the Meadow by Marc E. Fitch

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