———————–a s t o r y——————————–
———- H A P P I L Y F O R E V E R —————————
The lake is ringed in gravel, and sits on the outskirts of town. It smells of soaked leaves and phosphorus, and above it, the sky is empty and blue.
I park my van next to the lake, and roll down all the windows. I fling open the side doors, letting in a big rectangle of sun. The sun goes over the beige carpet, and comes to rest on the wooden cabinet that holds my dry goods. On top of the cabinet is a cast-iron skillet. I found the skillet at the dump.
I climb into the rectangle of sun and sink into the captain’s chair next to the cabinet. The captain’s chair is like a recliner. I put my bare feet up on the back of the passenger seat. I am wearing sweatpants. The sun is in my lap. I feel as though I could sit this way forever, my muscles popping like steel cables. I work as a gardener, and my work is hard. At the end of the day I am tired. It’s summer in Alaska, and the sun doesn’t ever set. I can’t sleep very much.
I look at my arms. My arms are getting tan. So are the backs of my feet. At work, I wear cheap flipflops from the drugstore. The flipflops get wet in the water that dribbles from my watering can and slide around on the soles of my feet, chafing the spot between my first and second toes. Today, my feet are tan in the shape of the flipflops. My calves are tan too. I wear rugged shorts at work, men’s work shorts that come to the knee and have a hammer loop and a cellphone pocket. They’re hot and thick. I steal them from sears.
If I sit any longer I am going to fall asleep. I get up and walk through the trees at the edge of the lake. I take off all my clothes and wade in. The water is the color of broth. Through it, I can see every rock and bit of grass. As I wade in deeper, long leafy plants brush my legs. The lake is cold today. There was rain a few days this week. The rain cools the lake down. I drop all the way in, and rise up, and wave my arms and legs around. I lay back in the water. I am weightless. The lakesmell is on my face. I am not tired anymore. I splash my hands in the water. The water is all around me, holding me up with its million tiny hands. I kick my legs along the shore, pretending I am a small boat. There is a mallard in the grasses along the shore. She retreats as I come close, and keeps her ducklings out of reach. There are barn swallows, they fly over me, just above the water. I can see their soft white undersides. And on the lake’s elastic surface, right where my nose rests, there is another layer- the parasols of dandelions, small beetles, spiders.
I swim the whole circumference of the lake. I finish in an hour. I take two breaks- one on a little shore strewn with rusted engine parts, where the lake floor is mucky and green, and the other on a rocky beach full in the sun. On this beach I squat, my arms around my calves, and catch my breath. I pile warm rocks onto the tops of my feet. The last ten minutes of my swim, the sun has clouded over. The wind makes little wavelets, they slap my face. They try to drown me.
Climbing out of the lake, I put the bricks back on my feet. I put the bricks back on my arms, back on my chest, back on my legs. I am still made of bricks but now I am cooler, and cleansed by the lake. The tannins of decomposing forest, fallen into the lake. Duck shit. Fish. Small clear worms that work like snakes through the impossibly thick water. With my bricks back on, the small shore rocks hurt the soles of my feet. Now I have to be a land mammal again. I tired land mammal. I feel like I’m dying. I feel like I’m old.
I take the towel from the backseat of my van and wrap myself in it, and sit in the rectangle of sun, head back, in the captain’s chair. I take a deep breath. I close my eyes. I feel contentment. And hunger! There is the hunger that comes with exercise. There is that. So I’ll eat eggs for dinner, poached in an inch of curried soup. I’ll cook them in my cast-iron skillet. There is a cooler under the seat, it fits perfectly there. I pull it out to make a table, and set up my propane stove. I pull the eggs from the cabinet. I store my eggs in the cabinet instead of the cooler, because eggs do not need refrigeration. I learned this a long time ago, when I scored most of my food from dumspters. I lived in a house where there were always too many dumpstered eggs, and no room in the fridge, what with all the dumpstered vegetables we found. So we stored the eggs in a big ceramic bowl on top of the fridge. They never went bad. But we always ate them fast. I think that is the secret.
The curried soup sputters, and I crack the eggs into it. They cook, but slowly. I spoon hot soup over the yolks to make them cook faster. I flip them in the soup. Cooking eggs is not like anything else, I think. The food smells good. I switch off the stove and put the skillet on the cutting board, which is on my lap, where I sit in the sun of the open door, in the captain’s chair, where I could stay forever. I cut my food on one side of the board, the other is a trivet, and has the dark rings of skillet-burns. I eat the soup with a spoon. I dip cold, stiff slices of rice bread into it. The soup is salty and hot and sweet. The egg yolks run everywhere. When the soup is gone I pour water in the pan from my gallon jugs and put the pan back on the stove. I click the stove on. With a fork I scrape at the bottom until all the food is loose. I pull the skillet off the flame and fling the water outside, into the gravel. Once more on the stove to dry, and the skillet is ready to go back on top of the cabinet.
The sun is lower now and the shadows are long, the way they’ll stay for the rest of the night. I’m tired. I climb into the front passenger seat and put my feet up on the dash. I check my cellphone. No-one has called. My phone is expensive, prepaid. Ten cents a minute. My friends are all far away. I think of going to the library and checking my email. I could read celebrity gossip. Bits of plant matter float in my open window, carried by the air. I pull a book off the dash. It’s covered in dust from the road. The Devil Wears Prada. It is the exact opposite of Alaska.
On Thursday there is a show at the Sea Otter saloon- Girl Haggard, an all-girl Merle Haggard cover band. There’s a wedding on the grounds at work that night- I have to set up the big canvas tents, lug a hundred plastic chairs across the grass, hand out Costco mushrooms stuffed with breadcrumbs and tiny glass flutes of champagne. The bride is beautiful. At the end of the night I carry the demolished cake back to the kitchen and set it on the stainless steel counter. The rich chocolate edges are left, the buttercream fluting. The heel of a slice. It is chocolate cake, and each crumb glistens. I eat the leftover slice. It tastes incredible. The buttercream fluting, not so much. I throw away all the cake-stained paper doilies. I wash the crystal champagne glasses. I feel ill. There is a muslin bag of jelly beans, knotted with a ribbon that says happily forever. I put these in my pocket for later.
At ten the sunlight is long, and filled with dust from the road. Wedding guests, driving up and back. I edge between them in my van, the happily forever jelly beans on my dash. It feels good to drive the long road back into town. There are three country stations and a top forty station, and I switch between them. I like Taylor Swift, and she is on all four. I roll the window down. A good wind comes in, and stirs the dust that coats everything. As I round the last bend I can see town spread out before me. And beyond it the Tanana river valley, stretching all the way to infinity or the Alaska range, whichever comes first. There is the curving flat Tanana river, there are the lakes that shine like coins. There is the short, needly forest. No roads. And Denali. Denali is so big it appears on the horizon in different spots depending on the angle of the light. A trick of space. Denali is so big it’s an illusion. It makes its own gravity, like a planet.
That’s not true. I pass the Sea Otter Saloon. I need food in my stomach besides cake. I go to the store and buy a package of sushi with my foodstamps, then park in the lot next to the Sea Otter to eat. The show has started and there are folks milling about outside, smoking cigarettes. They are gathered around a man selling hotdogs. They are young and have beards. They watch me, in my van. I’ve never been to this bar before. I don’t like to drink, but I am trying to make some friends tonight. The men are pointing at me and saying something. I furrow my brow and eat sushi. I squeeze some wasabi on my sushi. Tamari is everywhere. CLANG! there is a noise like a chain against the metal of my van. I put down my sushi, confused. Suddenly, my van lurches backwards.
I open the door and jump out. My van is moving backwards. There is a tow truck behind it, the kind with the big flat bed that lowers to make a ramp. My van is being pulled onto the ramp. Hey! I shout, above the noisy rumbling of the truck. HEY! The man standing next to the truck looks over at me. The winching motion stops. There is a winching motion in my guts.
“I was in there!” I shout. “I had just parked.” I laugh, ridiculously.
“You’re on private property,” shouts the man. He’s my age, wearing a crass t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. His upper arms are soft, he has tattoos. The side of the truck says Fairbanks I tow. “You want your van back, it’s a hundred dollars.”
“I just parked!” I say. “There aren’t any signs! I hadn’t even gone inside!” I think of my cell pone, inside my van. I think of my paycheck, of all my worldly belongings.
The man shrugs, blank-faced, and points to a concrete barrier, two-feet high, that sits at the end of the row. Beaver Sports, it says, in stencil spray-paint. Lot closed 10 pm to 6 am. Unauthorized vehicles will be towed at owner’s expense.
It’s ten thirty. I look over at the bar. The men outside are laughing loudly, slapping their pantlegs. Raising their glasses of beer in the air. Shouting. They’re laughing at the tow-truck driver. They’re laughing at me.
“I don’t have a hundred dollars!” I shout. “Why can’t you put my van back down?”
“Hundred dollars.” says the man. His partner steps down from the cab and joins him. The truck rumbles. “More if we have to wait.”
There is no strength inside of me. I do not understand why everyone is laughing at me.
“You’re not taking my van! What is this, some sort of scam?” against my will, water comes out of my eyeballs and fucks up my vision, ruins my voice. Now I can hardly speak.
“A hundred dollars or we take the van.” The tow-truck drivers look at each other. “You want us to call the trooper?”
“Yes! Call the fucking trooper!” I am shameless now, screaming through my snot, pacing along the concrete. One of the men gets on his cellphone. He is bearded and wears dirty carharts. They could be brothers. I imagine them in their house in the woods. It is cluttered and has no siding, only tyvek.
A few minutes later, the trooper appears. He greets the tow truck drivers by name, and nods at each of them in turn. My cheeks are flushed, and I can’t stop crying.
“I had just parked and was eating sushi in my van and had only been here four minutes-”
“ID.” he says.
I had him my ID. He looks it over and hands it back.
“This is private property,” he says. “you got an issue, you take it up with the beaver sports.”
He tips his hat at the drivers, gets in his car and leaves. The men stand sideways, watching him go. They do not look at me.
“It’s a hundred fifty now, for the wait.” they say.
The thing winches tighter in my guts. It is a taut rope, pulling my insides too close together. I walk away, and then I turn and screech at them, through my snot- “Is this fun for you? Is this what you do? Wait for the lot to close at ten, then circle around, looking for people still parked here, who have no idea they can’t park here? I have never even been to this bar before!”
They say nothing. They are being strong. It is good money for them, predatory towing. And beaver sports allows it. Not every business will allow it.
“You can pick up your van from the impound lot tomorrow,” says the one with the Crass t-shirt. He looks down at the black pavement. “It’s three-fifty. You want a receipt?”
“No!” I shriek. My voice warbles. I am frantic, inconsolable. I want to kill them. I want to take out a knife and gouge their eyes out. I want to steal their tow truck. The chain clinks, the truck rumbles, and my van begins to move onto the bed again. I do not have my cellphone. I do not have my money, hidden under the cutting board. I do not have a blanket. I do not have a place to stay or a way to get to work tomorrow.
“Ok! I’ll pay you the hundred and fifty dollars!” The van stops moving. I jump onto the truck bed and climb inside, find the money, a small stack of twenties. It is my first paycheck. So insurance will be late again this month.
The man hands me a receipt on yellow paper. He still cannot look at me. Hostility wafts off of him like cologne. Things are spelled wrong. Bever sports, says the receipt. My van comes back down slowly on the chain.
“You’re a fucking douchebag,” I say, as he lowers my van. I am cursing him. I am Durga, the goddess of vengeance. A plague upon his household. Unhappiness forever.
He looks straight ahead. “I don’t care what you think of me.” he says. “I don’t care what you think of me.” I want to shoot him with a paintball gun. I want to chase him through the woods. It doesn’t do any good. He is already unhappy, I can tell. The whole world is unhappy. Nothing does any good.
I am shaking. I get in my van, circle the lot, and, laughing hysterically, park on the opposite side. The drivers look at me and jump into their truck, rumbling to life and peeling out across the lot, trying to tow me again. I scream and pull into traffic. I am insane. I am insane.
I drive east out of town. The sun is low, the sky glows golden, like fire. The dust glows golden. Everything. This week I am house-sitting for my boss’s next-door neighbor. They are leaving on a fishing trip in the morning. “Park in our driveway tonight,” they had said. “We’ll be gone when you get up. You can let the dogs out then.” I am headed to their house, driving fast. It is a nice two-story place in the woods. They have a big garden, a greenhouse. Three dogs.
The sun is in my rearview mirror, the clear blue of the sky. I grip my steering wheel and scream as loud as I possibly can. My body shudders. I have no tears left. I open my mouth and scream again, as loud as I possibly can. It is a perfect summer night. I scream again, and the noise terrorizes the empty space around me, bounces off the wind from my open window. I keep screaming, all the way to the house. I pull in the gravel driveway, and park next to the trees. It is around midnight. I step out and pee in the grass. Outside, the air has gone grey. A gentle dusk has settled.
Pulling the van’s mini-blinds down against the light, I crawl carefully under the mosquito netting and curl up on the bed in back. I lay on my side, my knees pulled up to my chest. I make myself as small as possible. I hardly breathe. I shake. I have brought my cellphone with me into bed and I push the buttons, look at its gently glowing face. I scroll through the contacts. I count forward. In Oregon it is three a.m. There is no-one I can call. I shudder. I try to breathe. I am hyperventilating now. I have an ache inside of me. It eats my bone marrow. It is a sort of scurvy made from missing. All of Alaska hates me. And the hate is attacking me. There is no-one who wants me to live, and so I am dying. I am hyperventilating. I am dying. My bones are hollow gourds, my stomach is bottomless, my lungs are echo chambers. There is no-one in the world to talk to, so I am dying. My only friends are the petunias and the bumble bees, so I am dying. My boss is a grumpy lush and I have spoken aloud to no-one but her and the bank teller in the last three weeks, so I am dying. I have no-one. It makes perfect sense. I have ceased to exist. I am dying.
I die until five a.m. The horror of dying makes me shake and sob and hyperventilate. At five a.m. I turn on my phone and dial 1 800 suicide. I do not know if it will work, but suicide has seven letters.
“I need to talk to someone and I don’t have anyone to talk to,” I say to the man who answers the phone. His voice is quiet and flat, like the voice of someone watching television. Uh-huh, he says.
“I live in my van and I don’t have any money.” I say. “I am small.” I say. “I am helpless. I am barely alive.”
I tell him everything that happened and everything I am afraid of, my voice squeaking higher and higher like a cartoon mouse. When I am finished talking I don’t know what to say so I hang up the phone. The man doesn’t offer any solutions. There aren’t any solutions. There was only the pressure of my own existence, cracking the heart in two. Now this man has it. He has grown special pockets so that it does not crush him. He carries pieces of many people, in special compartments. The pieces are heavy, but he carries them just-so, so that they cannot hurt him.
In the morning when I wake, the world is empty. They world has gone and left me with its house, and three dogs. A small terrier and two springer-spaniels. A big house, with big, empty rooms. Antique couches, sad lamps. Still walls. Little light. There is a wrap-around deck with wooden chairs. I sit there after work and watch the light move across the grass. In the kitchen I open all the cupboards and rifle through the snacks. Fat-free potato chips, boxes of jell-o. Fat-free mayonnaise. There are lots of prescription medicines. I take them out and line them up on the counter, one by one. For the heart, for the blood pressure, for the joints, for things I do not know and cannot imagine. I open the fridge and eat slices of fat-free american cheese.
I am reading a book on the deck. The book cannot hold me. The potted flowers need watering. There is a wilting sun, and a bucket of miracle grow. The afternoon is silent. The terrier is tied on his lead and he bites at the grass where I peed next to the steps, he bites and tears and rips at it, swallowing the grass.
I unleash the dogs and herd them into the woods. I chase after them. We go running down the leafy path, sticks and plants swiping at our ankles. The sun comes through in bars and patches, the air rushes past us. The little terrier carries a stick larger than his own body, joyously, like an ant. The springer-spaniels bound stupidly, afraid of nothing. We run down a hill, through the woods. I trip and stumble over fallen logs. The mud of decomposition smears my calves. We run fast, to keep ahead of the mosquitoes. The mosquitoes hide on the backsides of leaves, in pockets of shade. We have to run fast to keep the damp away, the coming evening.
At the bottom of the hill is a meadow. A mud path, a clutter of raspberry canes. The ground is sponge and blueberry bushes. Moose tracks are everywhere. We keep running, through the meadow, through the grass, into the woods again. I cannot see it, but below us is the valley. There is the river, the horizon to infinity, the silence of the huge blue sky. I urge the dogs on. The sun or rain falls down on us. It doesn’t matter.