the well

I drove with a friend into Fairbanks today to do some shopping. I hadn’t been shopping in weeks- I’d been living off roadkill caribou stew and my housemate’s non-organic potatoes, and the odd organic cabbage, the size of a grapefruit, that another friend had picked up for me. Then today we left early and drove the long road to Fairbanks in my friend Debbie’s little Subaru, arriving in the late morning with the sun breaking through the clouds over the river valley, the treetops a hazy pale green spreading on into infinity, the promised land, dotted with lakes and small softening hills. The town of Fairbanks itself is not, of course, the promised land, but it is where the stores are. There are queers there too, I have been told, at least five or six of them, but I am afraid of them- at least, I’m afraid of meeting them and hanging out with them and finding that all they do is drink, and gossip, and talk just to hear themselves talking and don’t have anything interesting to say besides.

Debbie likes garage sales, so I followed her around to a few of those, and she found a nice mountain bike that was hiding under a thick jacket of rust, and I promised her that we could spruce it up with four shining new cables and a wheel true and some chain lube, and get it into tip-top shape, and she could ride it the five blocks to work, instead of driving in her car. So we stuffed it in her trunk and went to Value Village, where I found a black, white, and blue Pendleton, which immediately became my Favorite Flannel, knocking the red, blue, black and green flannel I’d been wearing out of rotation, the flannel that made me think of the northern lights in the winter sky and was from the very same Value Village and had succeeded my large-check red-and-black lumberjack flannel, a long-standing favorite that had survived two winters, many rotations and even an alteration, and had been chosen as my sole flannel for the long trip north.

After Value Village we went to the Literary Council bookstore, which is this used bookstore where everything costs two dollars, and I found not one, but TWO copies of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which is good because Debbie wanted one, because I talk it up so much. I also found a copy of Mrs. Dalloway, which I’ve been meaning to read for some time, and a book of short stories that, although it won the Pulitzer prize in 2000, has so far threatened, like most books of short stories, to disappoint me, and also makes me question the Pulitzer prize, and prizes in general. What are these prizes, and who gets to say who wins them? What if I just started handing our prizes? Would anybody care? I would give them all to Annie Dillard, or course. And a few to Farley Mowat. And a whole airplane-hanger full of them to Phoolan Devi, posthumously. I guess Augusten Burroughs could have one too, but he’s really rich from his writing and gets tons of validation from it, and he’s not even dead, so I think the effort would be lost on him. Who else would get an award? Tara, of course, for the messy perfect real-time pre-manuscript of the best book ever written that is But only if she would finish the book, and title it “My Awesome Life As A Homeless Sexworker.”, and throw it in the face of all the people on TV who think that sexwork is all underage girls in indentured servitude locked up in massage parlors crying, and that if only all sexwork was illegal then all the women of the world would finally be safe and no-one would hurt them ever again, and the ones who WANTED to be sexworkers would all come to their senses and stop being cheap trashy whores. Or something.

After the bookstore we drank some tea and it wasn’t very good, and then we looked at a van but it was a really, really big van, like it sat 15 people inside, which is too big for me. I want to buy a van to live in for the summer, I think, so we’ve been looking at them. But I want to manifest an econoline with a tall lid-thing on it, post 1989, that doesn’t have any problems, for less than $1500. So we will see.

Then we went to Fred Meyer, which is where I do all my shopping, depressing as it is. I bought a whole cart-full of vegetables, zucchinis and cauliflower and broccoli and cabbage and carrots and onions and cucumbers all the way from Mexico. I bought a pound of delicious prunes and some sad tired apples and two oranges- one big, one small. I bought some sour cream and some cream cheese and two dozen eggs. I bought a sack of potatoes. I bought two bunches of short spotty bananas. I pushed my cart down the hot sauce aisle, vaguely titled the “Hispanic” aisle, and thought to myself- Hispanic- by that, do they mean all the foods indigenous to this continent? Beans and corn and hot peppers?

Debbie bought some Doritos and a flat of fried chicken. We drove out of Fairbanks headed home, the sun lower in the clear pale sky, the flats stretching out before us, little lakes glinting. The birch trees shook their tiny leaves. I ate one of my cucumbers, and then some of Debbie’s Doritos. They were nacho cheesIER kind. “You know,” I said as I licked the orange powder off my fingers, “the taste of these Doritos is such a huge part of my cultural memory. Maybe the reason that the branding of food is so successful is because as humans, we’re used to having staple foods. We want to eat the same handful of foods, year in and year out. And the taste of Doritos, for a lot of people, that’s one of their staple tastes. And it never changes, like the taste of a plum. So reassuring!”

“We forgot to get lard!” said Debbie, suddenly. Her hand has been hurting, and I’d promised to show her how to make salve from the comfrey she’s got in a plastic bin under the kitchen table.

When we got home it was nearly midnight, the last of the light finally drained from the sky, and the parrot screamed his blood-curdling scream of welcome, and I made an injera and put cream-cheese on it. And as I ate my injera I thought of my potential for happiness, and how really, it is bottomless, and I have only just lifted the lid off it, like a well that had been hidden under the grass. The next week, the next month, the future, for me, looks bright. I think of what I might do, live in a van or a cabin and work here or work there, and all of it fills me with pleasure. And I think of myself growing strong and tan, and sleeping in the thin cool air of night-time, and walking in the trees all alone, and eating roadkill caribou stew that I plan to make in quantity and can, in clear gleaming mason jars, before the month is up, so that I have a stash after I leave this house, with its giant chest freezer. And all of it, all of these thoughts fill me with pleasure. And I know, I really do, how rare it is for any one of us, for any amount of time, to feel this way. And at the same time I am surprised- because I did not know that all along, this well was in me, this secret reservoir of bright calm happiness, this precious rare contentment. I had always thought that when the whole world was dull and drained of color, that then my Chi had left me, gone like a small candle flame in an airless room. But it doesn’t go. The grass grows over it, maybe. It calcifies, turns to stone, becomes buried in sediment. You forget that it’s there, that you ever had it at all. But your potential for contentment, it never goes.

8 thoughts on “the well

  1. When you hand out The Carrot Quinn Prize for non-fiction, please consider Ellen Meloy and Stephen Jay Gould.

  2. I love Mrs. Dalloway, and haven’t thought of it recently. I have access to some really interesting articles on the book, through Jstor, and I can send them to you, if you like. The one I’m looking at is about gender in the narrative, but there are others on Freudianism or Marxism in Mrs. Dalloway.

  3. River- yessssss! and then we could make people submit their work to the contest, and we would have a $15 “reading fee”. Like magic free easy money!

  4. You might want to check out the yahoo newsgroup called Vandwellers. I got a lot of good tips from there when I started living in a van. And occasionally there’s people buying/selling vans and RVs.

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