It’s true our qualities didn’t lend themselves to easy corporatizing, and our romance included a heavy dose of us-against-the-world. Blame it on her Catholic upbringing or my too-ideal individualism, but you get to feeling crowded and dirtied by the culture. Her fable was God and mine Selfhood, but either way life comes at you as a series of assaults.
After medical school she could have pursued a regular illustrious career on the East Coast or in Hawaii, but she opted to do her residency in Alaska. Maybe agreeing to go to Alaska was her way of holding on to me, but she needn’t have worried. I was madly in love with her.
You know the reasons people go. You know the reasons they give: the deadening routines, the cruelties and compromises, day after day, until you begrudge the day its morning. The crushing burdens of the Coach purse and the Rolex watch. Too many cemeteries. Too many others with the power to shape your destiny without having to win your respect.
From the dream-defying deaths of the city, we chose exile: deprived ourselves of what we had known in order to transcend what we had become. We carried the future in our hearts and were happy to fly together and not to stay and make war on the world.
Seoul, Mexico City, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Cambridge, New York, London, Madrid, oh, you beautiful cities, goodbye!
In the heart of Alaska we found a crevice in reality that opened straight up into heaven. We passed those years hearing the pure tones of ice and snow and wind and sun. But we remained man and woman. We heard the pure tones of new life, the laughter and cries of a child, and of a second child. But we remained man and woman. And we never quite knew how the dream ended, if it ended, or if we only exchanged one dream for another.
1 Free Bird
I have come to recover the lost survey lines on a parcel of state land which I intend to make my own. Northwest gales confined me to Kodiak town for three days before a Super Cub on floats was able to set me down in this bight on the north shore of the island. The pilot saw treacherous-looking rocks looming under the water, and not wanting to put a hole in his floats he actually landed me two miles east of my goal in country he’s more familiar with. Now that he’s gone, I’m filled with cautious excitement, hoisting my pack and stepping across the beach. The air is quiet and all the proportions of life seem altered. Up on the cliffs there’s the skeleton of a cabin, and the beach is strewn with the relics of a boat wreck. Something I have noticed before in Alaska: what the human element loses in eminence, it gains in tragic grandeur. Here is the rusty, barnacled box of a diesel engine stamped Detroit, and here’s a broken foredeck pierced with hand-forged nails.
I hike west, a curious otter keeping pace in the shallows. Deer and bear have tracked the beach—I am certainly not alone. The pebbles and coarse sand are spitted by lines of black rocks and boulders thrusting down to the sea. Spruce trees grow in checkered stands on the cliffs and on the mountains that run the length of the peninsula. It’s the fourth of October and the mountain slopes are yellow in the sun.
These are strange shores to me, but I am nevertheless aware, tramping the rough strand, of a peculiar thrill of homecoming, a fullness in my throat and chest. The Pacific Ocean is familiar to me from my childhood, as familiar to me as a parent, but I haven’t been back in many years, during which years I was busy being made into a citizen, molded and sanitized according to the prevailing notions. I was like that old diesel engine on the beach, passed along to the stamping factories where a useful unit was to have been made of me.
Having rounded a rocky point, I pause in the middle of the beach and survey the shoreline, the shore curving inward to form a broad cove. This appears to be the place. Fresh water spews from the cliff and fans down the beach to the sea. Ducks paddle away into Wildwood Strait. And that must be Salmonberry Island three miles yonder.
I drink my fill from the foaming pool at the beach head and stand back, gazing up at the mountains. Alder thickets and clusters of spruce trees grow in dark, irregular patches on the grassy yellow slopes. A waning half moon is up in the day sky and reminds me to keep moving. Having climbed to the grassy clifftop, I compare the views on all sides with what my map and aerial photo tell me. Yes, this is the place.
I venture inland, the old survey map and a compass in one hand, a machete in my other hand, a roll of surveyor’s tape hanging from a carabiner in my belt loop, and my pack and shotgun on my back. There is no path to speak of. The way ascends among scattered Sitka spruce trees, and a grove of cottonwoods descends to my right. To pace off large distances on foot while holding a compass bearing in wild country, and not to be diverted by every stump, gully, briar or noise in the shrubbery, and then to locate at the far end the last traces of an earlier survey expedition, hopefully not yet obliterated—a survey monument just three inches in diameter—and to do all of this in bear country, the green-black mounds of bear manure frequently materializing underfoot—it’s a job that requires a certain finesse. Earlier, on the beach, I had placed my foot beside the hind track of a brown bear, and my foot, even enlarged by the dimensions of my hip boot, was by far the loser in size. The rustling grass and dead fireweed are head high and I can’t see beyond the compass in my palm. Finally surrendering to my apprehensions, I unzip my backpack and crank up the Highway Rockers tape. “Highway Song” and “Open Road” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” are supposed to resound in a wide radius and announce my presence to the brown bears, but the notes sound faint, the musical decibels dissolve in the wind, and I find that the tape deck which at home within the walls of our house generated a heavy volume, here under the open sky doesn’t measure up, just doesn’t compute against the acoustics of the infinite.
Encased in this feeble bubble of sound, I’m frankly ashamed of myself, and when the player malfunctions and the cassette tape unspools, giving a mess of brown coils into my palm, I’m relieved to have to bury the machine at the bottom of my backpack.
Two hours into my search, a quarter of a mile from the sea, I literally stumble on the lost survey monument that will mark the southeast boundary of my homestead. The so-called monument is a metal pipe surmounted by a round tablet or aluminum cap bearing various inscriptions. Kneeling, I disentangle it from the dead ferns and grass, reerect it in its original hole, and hammer it down with a rock. State of Alaska…Division of Technical Services…
I rub the cap with my sleeve and try to read the legend engraved on it. The Rosetta Stone wasn’t translated in a day. What confronts me is a monumental gibberish of letters, numbers and ciphers. The cap tells me nothing. It’s a fool’s cap. All the same, the fool takes a rubbing to prove that he’s been here, and the rasping of the pencil on the paper reminds me of making tombstone rubbings with Brenda back in Boston’s colonial burying grounds.
Later I come to a solitary, splendidly branching spruce tree. There’s a yellow metal plate, small and square, attached to the tree’s trunk by a rusty nail, and the numbers on it, discernable after I have cleared the deadfall of branches, alert me that I have reached the southwest boundary of these acres and that if I search eighteen paces behind me I will be rewarded with the discovery of the next survey monument, which I indeed find, partly buried in the moss.
Grateful to this communicative tree—it belongs to the priesthood of trees sometimes referred to as Wisdom Trees, on account of the knowledge they impart—I shake my pack off and eat a meal of bread and cheese under it. My hands and arms are scratched and bloody; I got into trouble in a ravine choked with alders and salmonberries, and in fact it has never in my life taken me so long to traverse seven hundred feet. Done eating, I consider the tree branches above me. I remember making love to Brenda in Mt. Auburn Cemetery on a day in March when we were seniors, getting Warburton’s muffins and a bottle of cheap zinfandel and strolling among the graves in our thrift-shop overcoats, talking easily and kissing long deep kisses until we had found a perfect tree to rest under. Everything was sufficient back then.
The water running in the creek sounds like feathers brushing my closed eyelids. I recline in the moss. Homesteading remained a fairly theoretical idea until just a few days ago when I told Brenda over dinner that I was leaving for Kodiak. When you have been married for a long time, you feel like a heel or conspirator to be acting on your own, and I hadn’t hidden from her that I had submitted paperwork to the state, but over the summer we had hardly talked about homesteading in a way that suggested it was more than the usual Alaska pipe dream.
“How long will you be gone?” she said.
“No more than three days.”
“Three days this time. What about next time?”
“You were going to homestead on the road system,” she said.
“Look, we can’t get the go-ahead permit unless I stake the land. It’d be a shame to throw the chance away.”
My siesta done, I get up and study the country. The land makes a broad shelf here after having ascended from the beach and before it rises again steeply to become the 1200-foot mountain on the south. From the Wisdom Tree I tramp north a hundred feet or so, to a sunny elevation flanked by spruce trees, a fireweed meadow that overlooks the descent to the sea, and from here, visoring my eyes, I gaze across the blue waters of Wildwood Strait to Salmonberry Island on the other side. My heart beats louder. Uncanny feeling. It’s as though I were dowsing for a spring and homing in on the prize, only here it’s my destiny I seek. I look back at my pack under the Wisdom Tree, my hat perched on it and my shotgun leaning against it. I look seaward again. Below, in the tallest clifftop spruce tree, there’s the telltale white oval of a bald eagle perching. Yes, this is the place. I’m sure of it. I’ll build Wildwood here. It’s right here underfoot.
* * *
The light softens and the air has cooled. Descending through the dense, humid alder thickets, through a quarter of a mile of jungle, I stop now and then to hang a strip of red flagging or to hack with my machete. At length I break into the open grassland above the bluffs, and by nightfall I have found all five of the survey monuments—just.
How badly do I want these twenty acres? I stow the last pencil rubbing into my backpack and sit on the cliff’s edge feeling elated and very tired. A vast potential is out there, a freedom I cannot see but only feel as an inward expansion. Is it because I haven’t made it anywhere else in life that I am here? Maybe this is what I was being saved for. But am I seeing things clearly? The impossibility of arrival is the mark of a doomed voyage. Have I gone mad?
My greed for meaning is as unbecoming as any greed for gold. But still, the questions are vital to me. Thinking of Brenda and the children, I foresee a difficult winter in Fairbanks. How do you make the case that actions taken out of self-respect are distinct from selfish actions—how, I mean, if you aren’t sure of it yourself?
The wind whips the dry grass and the tide sweeps in over the rocks. There’s an hour left of usable twilight. I check the shotgun—the safety, chamber, magazine—and then I hike eastward along a broad bear trail that unwinds beneath the spruce trees.
When it’s dark, I unroll my sleeping bag in a hollow on the cliffs. The tide slops below among the rocks. It’s funny to think of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett and their ilk grousing about modern life and striking out for Kentuck and Caroliny to find freedom and elbow room. You could be crammed into Japan or Jakarta nowadays and maybe not mind it if you’re accustomed to it. But more than custom determines us. To yearn for a space the world hasn’t squatted on yet and built its gimcrack structures on, to dream of a pure, simple life lived in the bosom of creation, a life that never stops being passionate and holy—that’s something anyone can understand.
The Big Dipper spreads before me in the northern sky. The night is huge and inspiring. I roll onto my belly and by the light of my flashlight I sketch a map of Wildwood, from the ocean precipices to the Wisdom Tree to the soft high meadow where I vow to raise a house at the foot of the mountain, from the brooding spruce trees to the cottonwood glen at the heart of the homestead to the V of the creeks that merge below in a torrent and, cascading over the bluffs, spew white and foaming onto the beach.
Wildwood! Wild cliffs, wild nights, wild dreams!
What clerk in the back office of the Lands Division will open the manila envelope next week and stamp Received on this map and add it to my file? Will the clerk even look at the map, or only at the wall clock? I know how many brothers and sisters are out there, their hearts broken or languishing, kindred souls out of synch with the world, imagining new beginnings and new lives.
The spruce trees fold their branches above me. The ocean laps below against the cliffs. For a long while in the darkness the faces of Brenda and the children vacillate over the starlit map.
2 Dear Mr. Everblue
He was gone six days instead of the three he had promised. Not that I blame him for “forty-knot winds and heavy seas,” as he puts it, but with a five-year-old and a one-year-old in the house, it doesn’t make it any easier, and I’m afraid it’s a sign of things to come. One of the schools phoned to offer him a week’s work and I had to tell them he had lit out for the bush. Where is it all going?
“Why is it called the Wisdom Tree?” Ashley asks him.
“Because it’s a very wise tree, and tells you where you are if you’re lost,” he says.
“You mean it talks?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
Ashley, delighted, turns up the palms of her hands, saying to Nicholas, “In a manner of speaking,” and Nicholas laughs and beats his spatula on the tray of his high chair.
“So I lay under the Wisdom Tree,” Jason says, “and I saw something six feet up, moving in the wind.” He climbs on a chair and shakes a clump of red-gold fur over us, a witch doctor wielding his charm. “What was it? What giant rubbed his back on the tree?”
“It’s a bear,” Ashley cries, “a brown bear!”
“That’s right.” And the lock of fur falls to the tabletop.
So Jason is home. In my arms, he sighs deeply, his mane of hair flung back, his lips shining as he takes his time over me.
The weeks go by and things seem normal enough until the night I come home and find a letter nailed to the slab door of the house.
Dear Mr. Everblue: I am pleased to enclose your homestead entry permit... approved…requirements for proving up on the land and obtaining patent…effective date, deadlines, notarized signatures…subject to automatic expiration if you fail to comply…
I tear the paper off the nail and stand under the porch light hearing the boisterous voices of the children inside, my thoughts revolving around an outraged center. Hammering the letter to the door as if to give notice to the world! It’s a gesture of joyful pride, of exuberance, I see that, but there’s something defiant, too, arrogant, as if he’s preempting objections by serving me before I’ve even entered the house, a kind of Look, the terms of our life hereby change or See, I have marching orders or Ciao, darling, I’m assigned a new parish.
“Did you ever want something so bad that God seemed to come down and make it real for you?” Jason takes me by the shoulders, lowering his face to mine, his eyes shining blue and feverish. I haven’t seen him this intense since last spring when he first raised the subject of homesteading. His excitement was so contagious back then, I jumped up and down thinking what a lark it would be. Homesteading!
“If you can muster every ounce of conviction about something, Brenda, if you can say it with all your heart—I want that—and truly mean it—doesn’t God love you for it?”
“I suppose, Jason, but—”
“Suppose?” He wants my conviction. He’s a strong, limber man, Jason, with a brooding, emotional temper, and even his bouts of worldliness have something unreal about them. “It never won anybody the lottery, Jason. I can’t answer for God, only for me.”
His eyes flashing, he returns to the cutting board, scoops the vegetables into his hands and drops them in the saucepan. The hot oil splashes his wrists. Red pepper juice stains his fingers. “Did you read it?”
“Yes.” There’s nothing unclear about the entry permit. It’s specific—specific to the deadline five years from now by which he has to have proved up on the land. “But what are your plans? How can we make it work?”
The sizzle of the saucepan brings the children, the smells of hot soy sauce and sesame oil and garlic. Ashley and Nicholas plow into us, crying out to be included, and we aren’t able to talk further until they’re in bed.
Jason mixes us Black Russians and lays out the homesteading rules:
“I’ll have to build a house. I’m supposed to live on the place for twenty-five months. I figure I’ll spend the summers there.”
“The numbers don’t add up.”
“True. I’ll have to put in a full year at some point. Eat the clock up.”
“No one’s making you do this, Jason. You make it sound as though you had to.”
“It’s something I have to do.”
“We have a life here. Are you bored with it?”
“I want to see things differently.”
“What about seeing things as their father? I left the cities because of you, Jason. We live on five acres in the middle of Alaska. How wild do you need to get?”
“I have to dig down.”
“You again. That’s all I hear: you.”
“It’s not a bad word.”
“You’re talking about leaving us for two and a half years.”
“Twenty-five months. It’s a legacy for the children.”
“It might be worth more if you got a regular job.”
“And you could have gone into plastic surgery instead of public medicine. You could have hooked up with a rich kid, Harvard girl.”
“Bastard! I followed you here. Are you leaving me? Is that what this is about?”
“I want to know.”
“It’s not that.” His voice breaking, Jason lowers his eyes. “I have never stopped loving you, Brenda. I guess after everything I just never picked myself up again. I have to go back, or in, or through, or something. Before I go on. I have to cut through all the garbage. It just piles up and up until you forget there was ever anyone down there. To somehow start from scratch. If—”
“Don’t. Say. Anymore.”
“All right then to hell with it.”
“There is no such thing as scratch, don’t you get it! We have two children. It’s too late for scratch.”
3 What to Wear and Who to Be
Months of snowy cold have settled on interior Alaska. Four days a week Brenda sees patients at the public medical clinic on Airport Road. Once a week she moonlights at the office of a senior colleague, a family doctor like herself. Meanwhile I phone around to the middle schools and high schools to see which teachers are on radiation therapy or pregnancy leave and need me to cover for them. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s chemistry or creative writing: I’ll substitute for as many days as possible this winter in order to put some money by for the summer.
Schools are like salmon canneries—factories where the latest catch is purged of undesirable parts, rinsed, processed, and passed on to their fates. The main difference is you don’t see the teachers and administrators pulling on their rubber gloves every morning. Nevertheless, when I get a dispatch, I slip into a jacket, with or without a tie, I put the truck in four-wheel drive, and, though there isn’t much self-respect in it, I go. A substitute teacher is always a sub, a pretender, a person filling a role more obviously temporary than the rest.
One day, looking in my closet at the empty shirts and trousers hanging there, my impression is the strange, slightly embarrassing one of bumping into somebody I don’t really care to know anymore. I rub the cloth between my fingers. This one is rough and that one is smooth. This one, women notice me in; in that one I’m nobody. Even in Fairbanks, where the clothes define the man less than anywhere else I have lived, even here it’s all about donning the jacket. Here are my firefighting duds, waiting on a hanger, the green trousers and the yellow top, ready to get between me and the world, to protect me from the flames I am paid every summer to fight. Put on the firefighting duds, I can be suddenly flame retardant, and it’s anyone’s guess if I’m a hero or a fool. Or pull on the mohair jacket, or, if I’m feeling fine, the silk one, and, magically respectable, I’ll deliver a lecture, command a teen to be seated, and in general make myself more disliked than if I had stayed in denim.
I am heartily sick of it. These limp garments are like the different philosophies I’ve grasped at through my life, the fashionable attitudes I’ve tried on, hoping to be found not wanting by good society, or, if my interest was in bad society, the unfashionable attitudes, all the hand-me-down ideas that were really too big or too small but made me feel bright for a day or two, the wrung-out rags of history that covered me but left me shivering.
* * *
Winter drifts on. Like the oil in the pipes, like the sap in the trees, our blood gels, mine and Brenda’s. Our arguments reduce everything to a concrete and troublesome plane. I don’t know what fulfillment my life is meant for, but I believe my destiny is at stake, and frankly I despise the drip-drop verbiage that adulterates a great enterprise. Bickering with a woman is love’s peck on the cheek, and I hate it. When I shut my eyes a radiant Wildwood Wildwood pulses like a living heart.
Our house encloses warmth, light, and the loud, happy cries of the children. Every log in the wall conveys the brawny goodness of the earth. This is Ashley’s home, far from the Los Angeles of my childhood, the arid land of riots, oil embargos and war news. Nicholas toddles after her, rustling the world by its lowest branches. I am dizzied, literally, with a swirl of blood to the heart, to watch the children in their sweetness and trust, their ignorance of the raw stuff they’ve emerged from, their innocence of the upheavals they bring into the house. Ashley is secretly enraptured with my Wildwood adventure. I see she will become my greatest ally.
The map of Kodiak Island spreads before me, a window in the windowless wall of winter. In bleak moments my vision of a house at the foot of the mountain over the sea seems impossibly distant. I pore over the statutory regulations governing Alaska’s homestead law. But my resolve falters. Does Brenda expect me to ask for forgiveness? You would think I had confessed to an infidelity. Well! If a man is restless and dissatisfied with the world, the course should be to try out another and see how much of the problem is himself.
Many years ago I had a dream. It was brief, vivid, and very private. It happened during the springtime of our love. Strange that in the middle of my highest happiness I had a dream that spoke to me of a realm beyond happiness.
We lie on a blanket on a gently sloping expanse of green grass. Brenda sleeps. Her legs are tan and bare to the thighs. A shadow flickers across her, and looking up I see an eagle turn in the sky. The great bird wheels above us, and I have a sense that the bird is aware of me—has, in a sense, come for me. The eagle flies on beyond the tops of the evergreen trees, and I’m drawn to my feet, watching it go. Brenda sleeps on. I look at the sky again, gazing after the eagle, and I start across the grass with long strides toward the trees.
4 Strong Opinions
“Why not? Doctors are always going off to Congo and stuff. Or is that only French doctors?”
“I’m a physician, Jason. I don’t get summers off.”
“Is it in the Oath?”
“You haven’t offered to take the kids with you.”
“You’d say no.”
“You don’t fight very hard.”
“You want to fight?”
“I want you to acknowledge in a meaningful way that your actions have an effect on me.”
“A meaningful way no less.”
Broken cabins, the ghosts of abandoned dreams, litter this land called Alaska. The homesteading failure rate is something like ninety per cent. Yet he wants to uproot our lives for it. “What makes you think you’re different?”
“I am different.” He hits the table with his fist, glaring at me out of bright, uneasy eyes. I flinch in my chair, knowing I’ve misspoken. Have I taken him for granted? Did I let him languish during some fateful moment of private pain when this bitter resolve formed in him?
“Yes, you are different, Jason. I don’t doubt you.”
Next thing I know, I’m sitting in his lap and he’s biting my throat, working his hand under my camisole. Our hearts beat together. “Would you like the full English breakfast today, madame?” And I’m laughing and holding him close, his temple pounding at my breast.
We restrain ourselves, smiling at the children. They’ve set up a puppet stage on which Ashley is performing a fable for Nicholas.
“I was thinking, Jason. You have a purchase option on the land.”
“Theoretically, yes—if we fail to prove up.”
“You won’t fail, I know you won’t. But still…”
“It wouldn’t be the same.”
“Hear me out. What’s the appraisal?”
“What if we could afford it?”
“I want to take it back from the state.”
“But you’d own it either way.”
“I could buy a whore or a kidney, too. It’s not the same. Think, Brenda. We don’t have feudal lords anymore, just the state. We turn the soil over, we claim it for ourselves—it’s a revolutionary thing.”
“God, can’t you stop living your life like a damn book!” I abruptly get off his lap. “Why do you have to see it that way? I’m thinking about us and the children and the effect on all of us, Jason. Listen to me,” sitting in my chair and rattling the newspaper, “I’ve seen ads, lots of ads. Land at Haystack Mountain, land at Salcha. Acres and acres of it. Why don’t we buy a piece that’s close to home—on the road system—”
“Fuck the road system! I don’t need the road system!” Roaring the words, Jason rises from his chair, dark-faced and clenching his fists. Whatever fabulous thing was playing on the puppet stage is done. The children, the fox, the duck, the dragon, the bull—they all peer over at us. My hiss trails off in the silence.
Jason’s neck swells and relaxes. “Go on, my friends. The show must go on. Mom and dad are merely disputing.”
“We’ll buy land close to home. We’ll build when we’re ready.”
“And when is that, Brenda? Never. The deadline is now. Look around you. Be honest what you see. Everybody’s glum about their lot. If life is such a sorry affair, why not change it? They bitch and snicker about everything under the sun. They live to cheat the system of a buck and justify it by blaming their neighbor. They withhold their love and their vote, but on Monday morning they’ll bow down all the same. Open their mouths to snarl and close with a bit between their teeth. Tequila on Saturday, a bloody mary Sunday morning. Screw it.”
“It’s the easiest thing in the world to tell other people to throw caution to the wind, Jason.”
“I’m not telling anybody anything. To hell with changing anyone. I don’t give people enough credit. I used to think, These people must be joking. Do they really believe it matters what brand of purse they carry or shoe they wear? And do you know what I’ve decided? They do. Yes, they do. And most will go to their graves thinking the same. Haha! And I don’t give a damn. Not the smallest part of a damn. To each his own. I make no apologies.”
* * *
When I read of a wealthy socialite who has renounced her fortune and entered a convent, an artist who has wandered off into oblivion, or a New Yorker or Chicagoan who has turned wrangler and moved to Wyoming, I wonder: How sincere are they really? How long will their resolution last? How does their story end? Does the socialite say her millionth ave? The artist create an unknown masterpiece? The New Yorker surrender to the slow charm of the provinces?
I should have known when I asked him What makes you think you’re different? I was asking him a question he was only too happy and well qualified to answer. This is more than a bout of frontier romanticism. Look how many years he’s held on to the old Mother Earth News with the wild bear on the cover and the magical banner Free Land in Alaska. While the Harvard boys stampeded to Broad & Wall or Hollywood & Vine, Jason just wanted to get past Whitehorse before winter. God, I’m a fool. He would give up our bed for this. He’s in his study, warming his hands over the campfires of will and destiny, his maps spread before him—topographic, aerial, nautical, geological—reflecting the intricacies of his brain while pointing him toward some region beyond it. Explorer, conqueror, general, freethinker, anyone who was ever at odds with the world, who dreamed of a terra incognita of his own, every man who wouldn’t sacrifice his private dignity for a public peace, every woman who wouldn’t barter her self-respect for a reputation, every malcontent, outcast and rebel soul willing to forsake society for the idea of a freer or grander one, renounce its protections in exchange for the wonders and terrors of a wilderness—just so long as he is king—just so long as he answers to no one!
In April Jason shows up at the medical clinic and enters my office without an appointment. Bile-colored corduroy jacket, red eyes, his hair blown out to the sides: “You look terrible,” I tell him.
“Can I have a prescription?”
“Giardia. Beaver fever as we laymen call it. No offense.”
“Are you ill?”
“Let me explain.” Jason sits in the nearest chair and crosses his legs, playing the patient. “I’m leaving for Kodiak Island soon. Getting supplies together. I drink the creek water, and it’s good water, but I’d like to have a remedy in case of emergency.”
“I don’t normally prescribe a drug before it’s needed.”
“Understood. You see, it’s very isolated. No roads. No medical help.”
I write him an Rx for metronidazole. “Kodiak Island. It sounds like an adventure.”
“Baby, you said it.”
“When do you leave?”
“May Day, give or take.”
“I envy you.”
“May I ask,” he leans forward, watching me pace the office, “are you married?”
“I don’t know anymore.”
“Well, don’t envy me, join me. There’s a berth open.”
“I can’t leave this, Jason.”
“You need to ask?”
“I estimate fifteen hundred dollars in gear and expenses for the summer.”
“You’ll leave the kids with me of course.”
“I’ll have my hands full with the chainsaw.”
“My hands aren’t full?”
“All right, I’ll take the kids.”
“You’re out of your mind.”
Jason tucks the prescription into his pocket, getting to his feet. “Come with me, Brenda.”
“We’ll have no income.”
“Suspend your notions of necessity for a moment.”
“I fix bodies all day—we throw out the broken ones.”
“All the more reason—”
“Jason, we’re not hearing each other.”
“Before you bring up marriage counseling, let me say I hear you beautifully. The voice of convention never had a lovelier mouthpiece. What if everyone behaved like you, Jason? Oh, horrors! They never will, baby. There’s not a thing on earth to worry about. Come with me, dammit.”
“You don’t understand.”
“Understanding has nothing to do with it. Curse your understanding. Say yes.”
“Oh, Jason, I don’t know, I wish…”
“Kodiak Island.” He steps nearer. “Listen to the sound of it. The waves crashing on the rocky capes. The smell of the sea. I had choices, Brenda. Craig Lake, Crazy Mountain, Talkeetna. I struck them off, one by one. Listen! Do you hear it? The giants roaring. The flowers unfolding. You can smell the sap of time dripping. Put your little tap in the tree of life and taste its honey. Or you can stay here and rot.” He seizes me by the wrists and pulls me against him. “Say yes, Brenda, I beg you.” He’s holding me, pressing me close, crushing me to his chest. “Say yes or say goodbye.”