The lake

I work in paradise. There are three hundred acres that overlook a long river valley. There are hundreds of weak annuals, a murky pond that spits water from rusted cannons. In the pond are one thousand goldfish. The long river valley, which can not be seen on smoky days, has the ends of the earth in it. I water the flowers for an hourly wage. The flowers are infinite, so my work is infinite. It’s like I’m dead already, and in a way I am. I water the flowers with an antique watering can and ride a four-wheeler down the dusty trails through the emerald green woodlands until my teeth are coated with grit and my eyes water. The woman I work for teaches me how to shift- like a motorcycle- and how to brake- like a bicycle. One kick up to shift to second, another kick up to shift to third. Are you opposed to alcohol? She asks me. Her arms are tanned a shiny gold, her black apron spattered with dust. What she means, I think, is- Are you opposed to my drinking problem? She is grumpy in the mornings. At the strike of noon she drinks, big plastic tumbler of margarita clutched in her rough hand as she patrols the grounds on her four-wheeler. Her cheeks grow ruddy from the sun, she laughs. She is alive.

Later I am happy so I pick up Liani and Erin and we go to the lake. I pick them up at the coffeeshop where they are sitting outside, on the gravel at the side of the building, smoking weed. The lake is by the gravel pit. At the lake we eat a pint of coconut bliss and then Liani and I swim all the way across the lake and back. It isn’t a big lake, but it feels big, neither of us having ever swum across a lake before. And the water smells good and fresh and the floor is seaweed and soft underwater grasses like shag carpeting. When we finish crossing the lake we are gasping, triumphant in the warm light, naked. I set up the mosquito net and Liana and Erin sit in my van and chainsmoke. They are both from Anchorage, born and raised, but we went to different highschools and they’re too young to remember Atari. They drove up here to Fairbanks in a station wagon whose starter quit when they got into town and they exclaim constantly about the heat, as if every day is Christmas. The good evening light comes in the open back of the van and streams through the smoke of their cigarettes and the mosquito net, and we read Mary Oliver poetry. Liana is wearing a short white dress and a hundred-year old key on a string around her neck. On her forearm are the figures 2 + 2 = 5, tattooed.  Erin wears flip-flops and rolls up her sleeves kind of sloppy, has long hair the color of wood. I know that Erin is gay because our plaids are goodwill cousins, and because she looks me in the eye and sleeps in my van, after I watch her finish a quarter of a bottle of rum in Jake’s little cabin that stinks of stale cigarettes, with his shrine of goodwill knickknacks, an old brass clock with an army man who wears a tea-strainer for a hat and his black cat, Shady. You’ve got a pretty face, he says, and she laughs and hands back his bottle of rum. He’s working her over, wearing her down. I pet the cat. I am the only one not drinking. Every single person in Alaska drinks but me.

Liani and Erin are too young for me, and they have nothing interesting to say, because they have, before this trip, only ever lived with their parents. I seek them out because I do not have refrigeration in my van, and I cannot eat a pint of coconut bliss alone.

You can sleep in my van, I say to Erin. We park next to the field with the birds in it and in the morning it’s hot and folks with butterfly nets and safari hats are swarming around our little house, talking loudly and slapping mosquitoes. We walk to the swamp-pond where the fearless phlebotomist fleet crank their whiners into gear and dart from the backsides of the poplar leaves, needles raised. The folks in safari hats swat their necks and remark on a passing butterfly, golden something-or-other. Alaska, I say to no-one, is the only place I see butterflies anymore. The field with the birds in it has sandhill cranes in it today, eating the seed that was scattered there for them. The emerald green of the spring-grass is having some sort of sex with the blue of the sky and the syrupy yellow sun. I wonder what it would be like to spoon Erin, to put my arm around her hip and smell the base of her hair. We eat sunflower butter and apples on brown rice bread for breakfast, and share a slice of quiche that the coffee shop threw away, warmed in the sun on my dashboard. It has artichoke hearts in it and I pick pieces off, leaving the crust for Erin. I’m allergic to pie crust.