snow cave

I’m nine years old and our apartment is filled with smoke. Yellow, heavy, cloying smoke, the cumulative exhaust of thousands and thousands of cigarettes. It’s been a long winter- cold, dark, blustery, trees popping in the night-time, bitter stars, snow piled up against the window panes. The electric wall registers are cranked to full-blast and they tick-tick-tick, steaming up the dull white walls. There hasn’t been an ounce of fresh air in the apartment since fall.

My eyes burn from the smoke, and I can’t stop coughing. The kids at school (even the teachers, sometimes) tell me that my clothes smell like an ashtray. The apartment IS an ashtray. There are ashes everywhere, on every surface, in plastic gas station cups and overturned jar lids. The overfull trash can in the kitchen brims with cigarette butts. Cigarettes in Alaska are expensive, and it’s where all our money goes, that little bit of cash we get from the state after DHS pays our rent. We lost our foodstamps years ago, it was too many paperwork hoops to jump through for a schizophrenic mother who could hardly string together coherent sentences, much less fill out paperwork. So all we get is that little bit of cash, and it all goes to cigarettes for Barbara. My brother and I get one free meal at school a day and on the weekends, we’re fucked. I’d like to say that we make due somehow but we don’t. We suffer.

There isn’t any food in the house, and the house is filled with smoke. And I can hear Barbara in her room, muttering at the radio, and what’s worse, laughing- which is what she does, often, when she’s interacting with her delusions, and not in a pleasant, funny way, but in a terrible, horror-movie, stephen-king-evil-clown-novel sort of way. The edges of her bedroom door glow gently, and a thin stream of smoke flows out from them. It must be even smokier in there than it is in the rest of the apartment.

I check the cupboards again, but there isn’t any food in there. There’s an old potato in a plastic sack. I open a pizza box from the stack that leans against the wall, and pick the cheese from its corrugated interior. The fridge is empty, but smells like a dumpster, and is coated in rough, sticky food residue. There’s mold growing in the crisper drawers.

In my bedroom it’s silent at least, and sometimes tidy, and if I lay on the floor there’s a pocket of cool, clear air. My pink snow pants are in a pile in the closet and I pull them on, along with my coat and hat, and finally my snowboots and thick winter gloves.

Outside the world is cold and clean, and the snow squinches companionably underfoot. Our apartment complex is edged in forest, and there’s a slope where the long branches of the spruce trees meet the deep snow, making secret, hidden snow caves. Clambering up the slope in my warm snow-suit, I dig at the snow until one of these caves is exposed and then crawl inside, pushing snow out to block the entrance behind me. I lay down on my back, my head resting comfortably on a pillow of snow. The sky is clouded and dark and I take deep breaths of the fresh, biting air. The deep snow insulates my body and the smell of snow intoxicates me. As I look up fresh flakes begin to fall and I watch them, spinning widely in the light from the streetlamps. They land on my face and melt, like little gifts from Jesus.

I am nine years old, and I believe in God. I like all the artifacts that go along with god, the stained glass windows and wooden rosaries and plastic prayer cards with the virgin Mary on them. But most of all, I like the sense of largeness- the sense of mystery, the fearful, vaguely pagan incomprehensibility of my mother’s Catholicism. I believe in Santa, too, even though my only Christmas presents are from the big Christmas tree in the mall. I’m one of those kids whose name and age gets written on a paper tag for someone to pick off and buy presents for.

I am lying in the snow, watching the sky, and the trees are sleeping all around me. The world is peaceful, the world is patient, and my small self hums with life and presence.

You’re safe, say the trees, as they breathe in my cigarette-smoke residue and breathe out oxygen. We’re here, say the trees, as I run my gloved hands along the underside of their green, fragrant boughs. The snowflakes land silently, gently, cleanly. The dark sky turns around, splits open, blows away, and the stars glitter, so far away, the universe so big and empty. I start to cry, thinking about the big empty universe, and the tears mingle with the snot from my cold, red nose. It’s ok, says the forest, as it holds me in its branches. It’s ok.

Where darkness lives

I woke up this morning thinking about my mother. I invoked her, yesterday, by talking about her, and when I woke up this morning she was there, in the room. Her spirit, her energy.

My mother exists.

It’s hard to believe that something still exists when you do not see it with your own eyes. It’s hard to know that something exists when you do not pass it on your daily walk, talk about it in casual conversation, or read about it in the newspaper. Environmental catastrophe, prisons, endemic poverty, my mother. These things could all be one and the same- my mother is environmental catastrophe, my mother is endemic poverty, my mother is in a prison built for one. My mother is second-hand cigarette smoke, yellow fingers, and gas-station popcorn. My mother is isolation, alienation, hopelessness, and despair. My mother is fear.

My mother is homeless and schizophrenic. She lives in a halfway house in Alaska, and she suffers. Part of her suffering comes from inside, from her f-ed up frontal lobe, from genetics combined with environmental exposure combined with whothefuckknows. The other part of her suffering comes from outside, from being homeless. The inside and the outside feed each other, make a great cycling loop of isolation-alienation-hopelessness-despair that our culture will never interrupt. Round and round goes the loop, isolation and lack of treatment making her illness worse while the paranoia of her illness causes her to isolate herself even further. The upside is that the suffering that comes from inside of her is so huge and real, that the conditions of her physical environment must pale in comparison.

My mother has been a victim of the horrors and hallucinations of her own brain (which are modeled after her deepest, most secret fears) for the past 25 years. My mother’s paranoia causes her drive away those closest to her, or those who would try to come close. She is angry, spiteful, elusive, psychotic, and often violent, and for this reason she is without a single friend.

My mother is crouched alone somewhere, in a room that I have never seen, arguing vehemently with the voices in her head. She is trembling and rocking back and forth. She is chain smoking. She will not eat. She will not talk. She is hallucinating. And yet she lives, and lives, and lives.

My mother exists.

What I don’t understand is how my mother can suffer so much, and for so long, and have such a low quality of life, only to die someday, and then just be dead.

There’s no story arc to that. There’s no “Life is beautiful, life is hard” in that equation. There’s no dignity, no simple pleasures. There’s no “Things got shitty but we were brave and now we’re stronger for it”. There’s just badness, on and on and on, a black and infinite badness, like how you feel on the very worst day of your entire life, only forever, and with no ending or beginning. One single, endless moment, of suffering.

My mother didn’t do anything wrong to go crazy. She was just a regular person once, a sort of american archetype- young, beautiful, working class, small-minded, and racist. She was petty and shallow, bad at math but good at basketball. Just out of highschool she met my father, and they moved to Alaska to try their hand at life. There were jobs in Alaska. It was the seventies, and white people were moving there in droves. The quarreling, drama-prone couple settled in the mountains outside of Anchorage, half-built their house, and had two kids in the first four years. (In Alaska, if your house is not “finished”, you do not have to pay property taxes.) Somewhere in that murky, convoluted time, which no-one in my family will talk about and which contained a messy divorce, a restraining order, and my brother and I spending a total of two years in foster homes (apart)- my mother’s frontal lobe broke. The next seven years are, for me, mercifully blank, although I have been trying recently to get the memories back. (How to do this- therapy? Hypnosis? Writing?) I do not remember what my favorite foods were, what clothes I wore, or what kinds of toys I liked to play with, before the age of nine. I do not remember if I had any friends, if we had pets, where we lived, or anything about school or any of my teachers. And after the divorce (restraining order?) I never saw my father again.

If my mother hadn’t been in Alaska, so far away from her (controlling, hostile, small-minded) family, and so stubborn about staying there, then she might’ve ended up like my aunt. My aunt is also schizophrenic. She’s on a toxic cocktail of medications that took many decades to perfect and many cycles through the revolving door of the mental health system. These medications cause my aunt many unpleasant side effects, but she is functional. She has her own little house, her own interests and hobbies, a job, friends, and community. My aunt suffers, but it is closer to the way that we all suffer- endlessly, but with bright spots, flares from the infinite darkness, bits of poetic justice, hope. She has been known to keep geese, watch interesting documentaries, and ride her bicycle in the sunshine. She is a tireless fountain of trivia, very curious, and endlessly engaged with life.

She was also her mother’s favorite, the first-born, the one closest to her parents. And so it wasn’t hard for her to stick close to home and get support when she needed it, and when she ran away it wasn’t as far, and her parents were always able to bring her back.

In the beginning my mother was too stubborn to leave Alaska, too stubborn to admit that she had failed. She had no marketable skills, she had no clue how to raise children, and the friends she had made she was driving away, one by one, with her paranoia and her anger. But she was too stubborn to give up, and in the end Alaska and total destitution were the only things she knew. The life she’d had before Alaska was slowly eclipsed by the life inside her busted frontal lobe- a life that was like a movie projected onto the empty space around her- god, satan, the virgin Mary, and most of all, demons who knew her most secret insecurities and taunted her, day after day after day.

In a way, we are all like my mother. We all suffer, and we all occupy realities that we create inside of us, with our thoughts and our spirits and our expectations, and that we project onto the world around us, like a movie. Each of our movies is different, and yet each of our movies is real.

We are all like my mother, and we are none of us like her.

Once, in a crowded, wooden kitchen in the forest, I met an old man who told me that we humans are meant to experience the goodness, joy, and beauty of life about sixty percent of the time, and to dwell in the darker, more painful places for the other forty percent. This balance is based on the golden ratio, he said, which is a pattern that pops up often in nature, architecture, art, and the patterns of galaxies. It is one of the patterns of existence, a spiral and, mathematically, a sort of tilted balance, a leaning scale that lists towards Life and keeps us from slipping back into that dark abyss of pre-existence.

If my mother’s life is meant to be 60/40 goodness/badness, then do her pre-marriage years count as goodness? Did they consist entirely of flawless, sun-filled days, of flips on the trampoline, of sewing pinafores, of bickering breezily with her siblings? Is this why she was spit out into the world so helpless, without any skills, so small-minded and so shallow? Was it because she had never experienced suffering? Because she had never really been crushed by life, had never experienced the blackness of despair? Would a little bit of suffering have inoculated her against the dark hole of badness that she was about to stumble into?

And if my mother’s young years were pure goodness, and her adult years were pure suffering, then she has, as of this writing, spent equal time in each. Which makes the ratio of her experience 50/50, and counting slowly higher on the side of darkness. And what of that, universe? Does the irregular nature of her suffering to not-suffering ratio create imbalance somewhere else in the cosmos? Does it alter the fabric of space-time? Does it contribute to global warming? Does it speed us towards environmental catastrophe and ecological collapse?

Or is her unwarranted burden of suffering just a reflection of a larger trend, a mirror in which, if we are brave enough to look, we can see the grossly unjust worldwide distribution of resources, the disparity between the rich and poor in our own country and others, and the vague, far-flung wars we participate in but whose purpose we do not understand and whose aftermath we will never have to see.

A mirror in which, if we are brave enough to look, we can see all of the individuals, in our culture and in others, who must carry the burden of suffering and who will never be forgotten, because we do not bother to know them in the first place.

(In honor of the fact that my mother (still) exists, I am going to write about her every day for a week. This is the first post.)

happily forever

———————–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.


Last night, in my van, after work, the rain wouldn’t stop falling. Flooding! Endless! Dark and dampening rain! And the rear doors on my van don’t seal properly, it was in an accident, the water drips down on my collection of books- What We Leave Behind, Mrs. Dalloway, Shadows on the Koyukuk. I sat watching the rain, not rain like I’ve known it here, in the last three weeks- not thunderstorms, the sun fighting with the wind, clouds like wadded clothing thrown across the sky. This is the proverbial rock’s underside- a wetness that saturates every happy soul- thorough- like how they do it in Portland. Portland! I am nearly two weeks past the three-month mark away and my homesickness has reached its fever pitch. How I miss my friends! How I miss them! Kindred spirits! I’ve stopped caring about minutes on my overpriced prepaid cellphone (orphans don’t have family plans) and I call them up whenever I fell like it, except always it’s too late, there, or someone is working, or the connection is bad, and I end up feeling like the last living person on Earth. Last night I got through to Toby on the second ring, dear close Toby, and as always she was having the very same thoughts and feelings that I seem to have, only she tempers hers with coffee and notcaring and I try to temper mine with nature.

“We’re going to die!” She said. “I don’t give a fuck!” And then I laughed nearly hysterically because it’s true, true, true, and I had just been thinking (writing in an email) that very same thing in the morning, that I am, in theory, unafraid to be myself and not tempted in the least by conformity and moderation and self hatred because I am, truth be told, along with every other thing, going to die, and for this very reason I should listen to my soul and my heart and my intuition and no-one else, not ever, ever, ever. I have to keep reminding myself that, these days, here in the land of self-doubting, where everything seems for naught, and I don’t remember who I am, or why I care, or where I came from, and I don’t have any friends.

I am going to die. I am going to die. I am going to die.

What is there to be afraid of! What is there to lose! Nothing! Nothing nothing! Tell me what you are afraid of. Tell me one single thing. And then imagine you are dead. You are dead right now! You are dead forever! You never get to be alive again! That’s it! It’s over! You never get to put together another outfit, or eat another pinto bean. You never get to have one single more crush on a living human being. You never get to tell someone to fuckoff! Never again! What a shame!

And then guess what? You are alive. You are not dead yet. You have been beamed down from space, mysteriously, after you were sure that you were dead. You are like a spy! No-one knows that you have died and now you are alive again. You can do anything you want! You have this strong and functioning body, fifteen fat leather suitcases stuffed with privilege, like a season’s pass to all the world’s theme parks. You can, in essence, do whateverthefuck you want. No more lingering in the clouds, watching, being nostalgic, having regrets for all the times you were dishonest or indirect or cowardly. A L I V E ! What are you going to do with your million living dollars? Your twelve thousand days? Your five hundred waxing moons? How often has a waxing moon passed and you haven’t even seen it? How big a number is five hundred? How long do you think you will live? What if you were already dead?

It’s a cheap trick, I know. But it works, like beads on a rosary. There is the part of me that believes it, and there is the part of me that is tempted by immortality, laziness, and cowardice.

“Does it ever get any easier?” asked Toby, the Toby that lives in my soul but also in the telephone- “Why can’t people like us have someplace to live that’s not in the city, with good air and water and stuff?”

“I think that life is just hard,” I said, laughing. “like a hundred years ago people were like, ‘I wish I didn’t have to haul water in this bucket, and I wish I had a comfortable chair and stuff’, but it didn’t make anything easier, life is just hard now in different ways.” We are both laughing, and when I hang up the phone I am crying. Sob, sob, and then I swallow it and reach for Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters To a Young Poet, which I have just acquired and which, of course, has been written just for me.

“You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you – no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your while life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose. Don’t write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance. So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty – describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is not poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attentions to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. – And if out of this turning-within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to inte4rest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it. So, dear Sir, I can’t give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take the destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and must find everything in himself and in Nature, to whom his whole life is devoted.”


“In your opinion of “Roses should have been here . . . ” (that work of such incomparable delicacy and form) you are of course quite, quite incontestably right, as against the man who wrote the introduction. But let me make this request right away: Read as little as possible of literary criticism – such things are either partisan opinions, which have become petrified and meaningless, hardened and empty of life, or else they are just clever word-games, in which one view wins today, and tomorrow the opposite view. Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism. Only love can touch and hold them and be fair to them. – Always trust yourself and your own feeling, as opposed to argumentations, discussions, or introductions of that sort; if it turns out that you are wrong, then the natural growth of your inner life will eventually guide you to other insights. Allow your judgments their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened. Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.

In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!”

What it feels like to be stoned

Jack was at a party in the woods, and there was no-one in the whole world that she wanted to talk to. The sky was a bright, billowy grey, and it rested like a solid thing, tiredly glowing, on the needley tops of the spruce trees. Before her was a picnic table and a blackened ring of fire, around which crouched flushed young revelers, clutching cans of watery beer. There were brownies, two foil packages of them, on the picnic table beside the barbeque potato chips and vegan kabobs. She was allergic to gluten, it made her face redden and her gut seize, but she ate a corner of a brownie, anyway, picking it awkwardly from the foil, and from the taste she could tell that it was either a pot brownie or a vegan brownie, or both. Everyone at the party was drunk- not just drunk but way beyond it- drinking like young people in Alaska, apparently, do- as if attempting to pound oneself into the very earth, to drink until transcendence, to drink as if drinking will lead to somewhere other than drunkenness. Looking around, Jack felt invisible, on a plane of sobriety all by herself. She pulled a whole brownie the size of her palm from the foil and settled on the hood of a car, which was still warm from the sun, to eat it. Her friend Meadow sat on the carhood to her left, properly and thoroughly intoxicated, which was the only way that Jack knew her. Meadow was one of those people who seemed to collect the stray threads of themselves when drinking, to come home. What some might call an alcoholic. She was wearing a shimmering print dress that hugged her ass and scrunched up over the tops of her knee-high doc martens when she crossed her legs beneath her. On her shoulders was a shrunken burgundy sweater with a rusted, dented button pinned to the breast- it said “fun meter”, with a bit of metal you could move from left to right. It was set all the way to the right, for maximum fun. Meadow liked to describe her style as “nineties revival”, and when they went to the thrift store together she littered the dressing room floor with scoop-neck floral tops and black leggings.

“The mosquitoes are bad,” said Meadow, waving, as Jack ate her brownie on the carhood, which was spray-painted red and, although she did not know it at the time, would leave a pink stain on the ass of her light-wash jeans.

“My mosquito bites don’t itch,” said Jack.

“You’re becoming immune,” said Meadow, jealous.

“Those are pot brownies,” said Jack, slowly chewing the last bite of hers and pointing at the foil packages on the picnic table, which were emptying fast.

“Duh,” said Meadow.

After finishing her brownie she rested her hands on the hood and stared at the fire, where the drunkest people huddled, vacant, the smoke like a shroud against the mosquitoes, and some of them sprawled out on flattened cardboard, and seemed to become even drunker. They were too far gone for Jack to try and make friends with them, and besides not really her type. Other than talking with Meadow on the carhood, her only conversation that night had been when she’d set a jumbo hot-dog on a wooden skewer over the coals of the fire to heat.

“That looks gross,” she’d said to no-one in particular, as the skin of the hot-dog puckered and grew black, and the hot-dog sort of shrank in on itself, and the wooden skewer burst into flame and then went out.

“Are you a lesbian?” Asked a man at the fire. His eyes were red and dry, and he had gel in his hair.

“Yes.” she said.

“That’s why.” He said.

“No, it’s not,” she said. “it looks gross just because it does.” But he wasn’t listening anymore, and she pondered the merit of arguing the idea that a blackened, shriveled hot-dog was gross in its own right and not because it looked like cock which she supposedly didn’t like, which wasn’t even true, to the other anonymous partygoers who were now looking at her, curious. “It just looks gross!” she cried, but they were too drunk to see. She was a lesbian. One must choose one’s battles.

Sitting on the carhood, Jack could tell that she was starting to be stoned. Someone had turned the wooden deck of the yurt they were all drinking around into a sort of stage, and someone was playing home-made punk songs on an amplified guitar. Someone else was on the ground in front of the yurt dancing, flinging flat beer into the air around them. Inside, the narrative in Jack’s brain was slowing down, like a string of flatcars pulling into a siding at sunset. And she seemed to stand at a crossing in the tall grass, watching rapt as each word of her thoughts made its way past in the falling yellow light. WHERE. AM. I. WHO. ARE. THESE. PEOPLE. Big capitals, and she could see their dull red corners, the places where the dust had gathered on their long overland journey. WHERE. AM. I. WHY. AM. I. HERE. I. DON’T. LIKE. THIS. PARTY. True, true! Thought Jack to herself, with a sort of delight. What truth! Oh, beauty! Gathering momentum from her epiphany, she pulled herself off of the carhood and walked down the pitted dirt road to where her camper van was parked in the trees, the strange din of the party receding a bit behind her. The steady drip of time was slowing, but if she hurried, she thought, she might be able to sequester herself away in safety before it stopped entirely.

Jack’s van was a nineteen ninety-five econoline with four giant, overstuffed “captains chairs” and a bench in back that folded down into a “bed”, or more accurately, it folded down into three distinct panels which were each about five feet five inches long, meaning that she could sleep comfortably on one of the panels so long as her feet were on the windowsill. The entirety of the interior of the van was upholstered in camel-colored fabric, some of it in the form of fuzzy velour, the rest of it as carpeting. There was nothing at all utilitarian about the interior of the van, although there was a set of “party-effect” track lights set into real wood paneling along the ceiling, and tinted windows throughout. Being inside of the van, which she called “Grandpa”, generally gave her the feeling of existing on the inside of a sofa which, although stained and lumpy and badly colored, was also comfortable and sort of womb-like, and so did serve some purpose.

Locking the doors, turning on the college radio station and opening the narrow screens on all the little windows, Jack then crawled in slow motion into the bed and set about stringing up her army-green mosquito net to make a sort of fort. Next she lined up her comfort objects on the window-sill- earplugs, good well-water in a glass jar, hanky, calculator watch, cellphone. She managed to change into her new heather-blue sweatpants that fit her just so and her black hoodie with the wolfs on the back, but before she could wrangle her sleeping bag and dumpstered quilt from their hurried mounds into a suitable position for nesting, she was Stoned. Suddenly stalled, she stared out the window at the crowded spruce forest, where the trees tipped and bunched together like bristly darning needles, and the ground was a trampoline of moss. The clouds had broken open, now, and the sub-arctic sun had worried through, piercingly clear and yellow, to make shadow-play with the particulates in front of her face. The noise of the party was an indecipherable hubbub in the distance, like water flowing. Coming back into her body, she abruptly realized that she was cold, but also that she wasn’t sure how not to be cold. The blankets, she remembered, the blankets! But which side of the bed to put her head? This all depended, you must realize, on the slope of the land on which Jack had parked her van- sometimes the left side of the van was a little higher, sometimes the right- and to the higher side went her sleeping head. But now that she was Stoned, it was impossible for her to tell which side was higher- she tried them both, and both ways she felt as though she was hanging from the air by her ankles- which was, of course, because she was Stoned. The thought of sleeping with her head on the wrong side of the tilted van seemed incomprehensibly tragic, and Jack began to cry, sitting upright beneath her green mosquito net, cold. Poor Jack. Poor Jack! What a mess she was, what a mess. Here she was crying, all because she was stoned and couldn’t figure out which way to lay herself. And what a hard life she had! she continued, on the outside looking in. Always having anxiety about this or that, always and forever!

At last she chose the right side for her head and the left side for her feet, which was the opposite of the way she’d been sleeping for the last week or so, parked on the gravel turnout next to the bog where people went to pick blueberries, but also she was fairly certain it was the correct way in which to sleep, tonight. That thought-train all built and headed out of the station, Jack pulled her sleeping bag up to her chin and simply lay, waiting for the cold to go from her and the warmth to wrap its gentle arms around her. After a moment she became aware, like a sleeper waking from a dream, of the college radio station playing in her van, and also of Music in general. There were speakers throughout the whole length of her van, in true 1995 luxury fashion, and so one could hear quite well whatever music might be playing, no matter where one might happen to be in its interior- front captains chairs, middle captains chairs, or bench-that-becomes-a-bed. And so she was wrapped, now, in gentle mid-night college-radio-station surround-sound, and she became quite certain, after one indefinite moment of non-judgmental listening, that this music she was listening to was Total Crap. And she could tell, of course, because the song was playing extra-slow inside her brain, and each small noise rang like a bell inside her skull, and each simple lyric was as gentle and indecipherable as rain beating on a car window. And she understood, suddenly, how one might make music, how one might cobble together sounds from nothing, and how one could be bad at it just as one might be bad at anything, and as each single tone bleated out from the college basement and she collected them carefully beneath her green mosquito-net, she could see clearly, like she was looking straight into the bottom of the lake in which she liked to swim, at the waving water-plants and crushed aluminum cans, that this was not Music at all- this was a farce, a free-write, an unfortunate jumble of notes.

Eventually her frustration built up to motivation and she lifted the mosquito net, walked past the windows of the van, turned off the college radio station and then turned, retreating back into her nest. After this slow-motion journey that took her, it seemed, to the very edge of infinity and back, she was once again under the blankets and alone, now, with the slow string of her thoughts and the slanted mid-night sun whose rays continued to defeat the van’s miniature window-blinds with a thin burning light, as if no trick of fabric could stop the glory of this one Alaskan summer. Jack took a drink of water, sitting up, her mouth dry and coarse like a prune, and the clear water pooled on her tongue, and trickled over her teeth, all of it unbelievably cold and impossibly wet. Having not been stoned in a full year, and four full years before that, Jack had forgotten all of the different ways of feeling that come along with being stoned. She thought, then, with her hand around the water glass, which was a mason jar that had once held spaghetti sauce, and had been rinsed at the lodge where she worked as gardener, of that last time she had been stoned, almost a year ago exactly, and that time from a pot brownie as well. But she didn’t think so much of being stoned itself, for she had forgotten it, as she remembered the person she had been stoned with, who seemed to come to her, now, a year later, at the least expected times- like a lost thought, a forgotten treasure- or something bad sometimes, too, like waking up late for work or remembering, suddenly, that you had left your favorite hoodie in the park. And now, in the amber light of midnight with this slow thought-train moving through her, she couldn’t remember, it seemed, a single ordinary thing about this person- she couldn’t remember her drugstore smell of roses, or where she put her glasses when she slept. She couldn’t remember the kinds of shoes she liked to wear, or whether the cloth labels were worn inside the soles. She couldn’t remember, either, the bad things- her sugar and spite, her tourettes-like temper, the way she refused take anything at face value. Her ability to hold a grudge for infinity, whereas Jack could only hold a grudge for a few months at a stretch. All of these things were blurred and indistinct; faded, nearly, into nothingness, and the only thing that Jack could remember clearly, it seemed, was the way it had felt to hold her hand. Her small, warm hand with its straight, uncomplicated fingers and muscular thumb. She’d look at Jack over the top of her glasses when she put her hand in hers, and it had felt, always, as if she’d unlocked a box inside of herself and taken out its contents and put them straight into Jack’s palm. And this small thing wasn’t coated in spines or glistening with armor, no, this thing was barely breathing and precious and new, and infinitely old, and Jack could feel it in her very being, the thing’s vitality, its potential for wonder. And she couldn’t help but ask her how she thought it was a good idea to give it to her at all.

Of course Jack had loved her. How could she not, with this small bird of her soul in her hand? It had reminded Jack of the summer she had spent in Portland many years ago, when she had gone, depressed, to the pet shop on Broadway to hold the baby hamsters there, as a sort of therapy. She would walk through the door with its jangling bell and straight to the cages in back, where she would find a cage that was open and lift out a hamster, thumb-sized and minutely pelted and perfect to the smallest detail, with cargo-pocket cheeks and two glistening bb eyes. It would sit, bewildered, in the palm of her hand, this small yet brightly glowing being, immensely warm and dear, with small paws that hugged her fingertip like a thimble. She had put her soft hand in Jack’s, with its clean neat fingernails, and it had reminded Jack of that.

And so Jack couldn’t help but think of her, now, as she lay back beneath her mosquito net, and since she was stoned she became somewhat fixed in her thoughts. She’d jumped Jack’s slow thought-train, ran it down in the dimming light, climbed aboard among the stark jumble of capital letters and gentle music and settled down with her back against an “N”. Or maybe, thought Jack, she’d been there all along, like a pop song whose unsurprising refrain gets stuck on a loop in your head, day after day, until you forget it’s there at all, and then you lose the song entirely to the accumulation of passing time, until years later when you hear it on the radio and realize that you know all the words.

And Jack thought, too, of when she’d been driving home from work earlier that day, cresting the hills outside of town, the Tanana river valley spread out before her with all its illusion of infinity and forever, like it went on and on and on, as if anything, ever, could go on and on and on- and on the radio station someone or other had been talking about a man whose quest it was to discover and write a book about why it is that we make music, why we make music at all, the only problem being that no-one knew, and he had yet to find the answer himself. But Jack knew, now, under her mosquito net, with the sleeping bag pulled up to her chin, her thoughts like clear warm honey. Jack knew.

It’s because we’re in love with patterns, she thought, each word pulling slowly through the crossing on its own gently rocking flatcar. It’s because we’re in love with rhythm. It’s the same reason we dance, it’s the same reason we string words together into sentences, make syllables that lope like a two-step or rise and fall like a waltz. It’s the reason we plant our corn in rows, our orchards too, make grids that spin like spokes on a bicycle wheel when you pass by them on the highway. It’s the reason we make our days into months and our months into years, our seasons like quadrants that fall, whole and unbroken, into the grand canyon of time. It’s the reason we wear stripes and dots and plaids, it’s the reason we drum our pens on our desks when we’re thinking, it’s the reason we count seconds like a metronome. It’s rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. Patterns, patterns, patterns. And the original rhythm, of course, is the beating of our own hearts.

secret chicken

I lost my digital camera, I think. It was wrapped in a boy-scout smokey-the-bear hanky, last seen on my van dash, next to the open window, outside the gas station. I left my phone at my new job, on the edge of the stainless sink, in the darkened kitchen stuffed with vintage rootbeer flavoring. I left my calculator watch at the lake where we went swimming, in the weeds along the edge of the water, where we left our clothes, where they got wet in the rain, while the thunder tore the sky, as we were swimming. Without time devices, I have no alarm for the morning. So I stole an analog wind-up clock with glow-in-the-dark numbers and a cheap plastic face and real ringing bell from Fred Meyer and now it sits ticking on the oak cupholders next to the steering wheel. If the clock runs fast, says the slip of paper that came inside, move the regulator towards “-“. If the clock runs slow, move the regulator towards “+”. As humans we long to be such simple machines. In the morning this clock will tell me when to go to my new job, which I have not lost yet. It seems a miracle that I have it, that I’ve had it for three days now, and each day I count and recount this chicken, and the chicken grows more real. I really have a chicken. I really have a chicken. Most likely, the first instant I write about the job on this blog everything will change, making me self-conscious and embarrassed at my own sheer humanity and the fluidity of my life. We all would feel the same way, if we all wrote it down and put in on the internet. It grows tiresome, this exhibitionist recording. Up, down, back, forth, this, that, and this other thing. When I find my digital camera, when I find my calculator watch, when I collect my cellphone and when I have enough money to buy a pillow for my bed, a two-burner propane stove and a cast-iron skillet, then I’ll take some pictures of the flowers I spend all day watering next to the hay meadow that overlooks the entire world while the sun shines down on the backs of my hands and tell you about my new job.

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.