He heard it before he saw it: a rattling coming up behind the tree line and growing as it hit the ruts formed by a particularly hard winter. It reminded him of a long ago time when he had nothing except a rusted out truck and a restless willpower so tenacious it was almost feral. That’s what had brought him here to interior Alaska, to this homestead—that truck combined with an animal persistence.
Although, he decided, maybe it had been animal fear. Because hadn’t his arrival also involved a sudden leaving? He stood motionless considering the sound, an unsplit log in his hands. He had just been preparing to stand it up, divide it, bend and pick up the pieces.
He imagined it before he saw it too, and he saw his truck, the long ago thing from those vanished days, so that the sight of this other one at the top of the dirty driveway spoiled it all. A small thing rusting at the wheel wells, with a spider web crack through the windshield. Almost it, but not quite.
Michael remained still and the truck paused too, and he could just barely see the shape of a bearded young man in there with both hands on the wheel. He thought those two words, young man, with a casual dismissal, and then, as if one was the cause of the other, he’s lost. People were always doing that out here. They’d get confused up in the hills while searching for someplace and decide Michael’s driveway was a road despite the handmade sign saying no trespassers.
But the truck moved further toward him at walking speed.
That’s when he put two and two together. It was Becca’s ex.
This was not unexpected. Michael had heard about some of his exploits so he quickly called out. “Kevin, come out here now,” more angrily than he would have liked. Kevin appeared in the doorway, shirtless and bewildered, emerging from the house as if from a cave. “Take the dogs inside now.” Because Bug and Gretel and Chicken were all wandering around the property somewhere. Whenever Michael worked outside he left them to their own devices and they knew enough to stay close, orbiting him just outside his sight.
First Bug appeared from the side of the house, a husky with one blue eye and a tail severed in a battle with other sled dogs. Kevin opened the door to receive him. Then Gretel, part greyhound and part husky, food thief and ear biter, and Chicken in the rear, the short legged mutt, moving through the heavy snow in a dolphin motion, up and over, up and over.
“What’s the matter?” Kevin asked.
“Nothing,” Michael said. “Just keep them inside.” And then, as an afterthought, “You stay inside too unless I give you a yell.”
Compared to those rushing, exuberant dogs Kevin seemed impossibly slow, his eyes squinting in the sunshine, a thin naked chest, his back and shoulders dotted with pimples. Then he was gone and so was Michael’s embarrassment. The truck stood idling. The driver crawled from it with a fumbling, almost bashful step forward. “I own that one,” he said with a smile, and he pointed at the house where the dogs had run. It was spring, but it was still cold and the wood stove was burning inside. The dogs had probably already curled up in front of it like vassals at the feet of their king, each to their own usual position on the rug. Michael could see Kevin watching still from the window, just his head and shoulders, his expression blank and almost fish-like. What would it take to change that look?
“How has she been?” the kid asked.
Michael decided to stack the wood he had already split. It was a way to show casual disinterest. “She’s fine,” he said. “They get along really well together.”
Which was not exactly true. Gretel had been nipping Chicken’s extremities, producing delicate droplets of blood. Michael would kick them apart, then kneel and stroke Chicken’s ears, her neck, until some sort of happiness had been restored, some respect. Last week he had even begun letting her into the bed while the other two slept on the floor. There was room for her, room for them all, but Margaret didn’t like animals in the bed and he’d been trying to maintain civilization while she was gone. The first time he had patted the bed and told Chicken, “Come on, girl,” he had felt the joy people must feel when committing crimes. Judging from the dog’s scrambling, desperate leap, she must have felt it too.
The kid said, “I’m here to pick her up. Did Becca tell you? I spoke to her the other day. We made arrangements.”
“I’m sorry,” Michael said. “I don’t know anything about that.”
It was a more delicate job than it first might seem. You had to arrange the logs so their own weight held the pile together. He had almost three cords of wood running alongside the garage and along the back and it was becoming a work of art, an assertion of order in a confusing world. He had already decided it was not something this kid would appreciate. “I’d like to play with her,” he said. “If you let her out here you’ll see how crazy she is about me.” He smiled and made his voice into a keening high-pitched call, “Chicken. Chicken.” The words broke into three, four stuttering syllables, as if it were a song. “Chicken. Chicken.”
Michael bent and grabbed three more logs. He could feel it in his lower back, but he bent through the pain and came up standing, facing the kid. “You can do that all you want,” he said, “but she doesn’t know how to open doors.” The kid looked at his boots and up again, at the house and then around at the long wall of logs. He seemed to be considering his next course of action, even though they both knew there was really only one choice: climb back into his rusted out truck and drive out of here back to whatever dry cabin he lived in. Then Kevin would come outside and ask, “What was all that about,” and Michael would answer, “Eh, nothing. It’s fine.”
Except the kid didn’t do that. He just kept standing there, as if he could wait the whole thing out. Michael half-expected more name calling. It had sounded ridiculous, funny, as if he were calling an actual chicken, and Michael sort of wanted him to start up again. He practically felt nostalgic for it, a thing that had happened just ten seconds before, but that was his mood lately: nostalgic. Everything seemed better even a minute ago, and the possibility of it returning seemed remote. Even the image of himself stacking wood with the dogs running free seemed incredibly far away, as far away as that long ago trip up the Alaskan Highway with a forth dog, long dead, and three hundred dollars in the glove compartment. “I just can’t let you take her,” he finally said. “I’m not going to throw myself into the middle of this.”
“You are in the middle of it,” the kid said, and he bent over, his hands on his knees, and looked at the ground. A whine came into his voice as he added, “It’s my dog. She’s mine.”
Michael bent down and picked up more logs, moving in and out of the pain. Kevin would be this kid’s age in, what, three or four years?
“Listen,” Michael said. “You have to go. I know this is hard. But trust me, it’s better if you leave now.”
That seemed to get through. The kid looked like he had just received horrible, shocking news—a death in the family—but at least startled him into angry motion. He lurched back to the truck, revved the shuddering engine, and reversed up the driveway. When he was gone Michael expected his son to appear and complete the script, but he must have lost interest in watching the little drama and gone back to whatever he had been doing. And that made Michael more annoyed than he had been throughout the entire episode. It was not much to expect Kevin to watch, to judge, to acknowledge the importance of what had just happened and then talk about it afterward.
* * * * *
The call from Becca came in three days later. Her voice sounded far away, tinny and small, and he imagined her on the bow of the ship with cold rain flying sideways against her shaking body. Why he imagined her in this kind of crisis when he knew she was warm and safe below deck mystified him, but he allowed himself the fantasy of her hardship matched against his own. “Hello?” he asked. “It’s difficult to hear. What did you say?”
His hands and forearms were covered in fish scales. He held the phone with a towel. He could hear some kind of clicking, voices in the background.
She said something else, but her voice was enveloped in the clicking. Then it came back again, clear, as she finished up. “Fucking idiots.”
He laughed. He had met her last year at the Midnight Mine. Her second sentence had been, “Are you an asshole?” He remembered taking the question seriously and being unable to reply until two heartbeats later she had let him off the hook by adding, “You don’t look like one.”
He cupped a palm over one ear and tried to position the phone perfectly to the other. The drop sink was full of pinkish blood and he could smell salmon. “It’s going okay?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Except we’re stuck.”
“Stuck,” he said.
Sometimes she had to repeat herself, but eventually he understood. Fishing boats had blocked the harbor, more than sixty of them, playing loud music from boom boxes through the night. It was a year after the big spill and fishing was still rough. People were angry. “Everybody’s drunk,” she said. “The guys in the fishing boats. The guys on the tanker. We’re just trying to stay out of the way.”
By ‘we’ she must have meant her and her partner. Since the spill in Valdez every tanker had at least two reps from the Environmental Protection Agency onboard monitoring safety procedures. It was a great job, a job Becca couldn’t turn down when it was offered to her, as it required no special education and paid well. All you really needed, Becca had explained to him over drinks, was a willingness to annoy people, and definitely had that.
“They’re drunk every night,” she said. “”It’s like a cruise ship without the pool.”
It wasn’t even that funny, but he couldn’t help but laugh. She was saying something else, something about safety protocols, but he couldn’t hear the details. “You’re breaking up,” he said.
“Let’s try next week,” she said. And then, “Chicken.”
“She’s good,” he said. “She’s Chicken.”
“She sure is,” she said. And then more noise taking apart her laughter.
It was the first time he had smiled in days. He was still smiling when he hung up and Kevin came in. He scanned the fish guts spread across the counter with the same look he had cast on the incident a few days before—disinterest bordering on revulsion. “Was that mom?” he asked.
“Did it sound like I was talking to your mother?”
Michael didn’t mean for his response come out so curt. He tried to keep smiling to take some of the edge off. “It was Becca,” he added.
“Is she going to live here when she gets back?” Kevin asked.
Of course not, but he could see how Kevin might think that. She had already moved her dog in, right? Except that they were separated by fifteen years, about a hundred different personality traits. Michael considered her attractive, of course, but not in a way that had anything to do with him. It was Margaret he wanted back, and Kevin should have known that.
Except now that imagined life entered Michael’s head as he split the fish with his filet knife. Kevin had put it there: dinner late at night, drinking too much, a near constant sense of thrilling unsteadiness, as if he were the one standing on the ship’s bow. It was this imagining that sent him to the truck the next morning and down into town and up out of the valley into the hills opposite his house to the cabin. A crow could have flown across the valley in a straight line, but it took him almost an hour and by the time the place came into view at the top of the ridge he had forgotten the little speech he had prepared in his head.
He knew why Margaret liked Becca’s cabin: a bright blue tin roof, the romantic carnage of broken pallets and old dog houses, and the loft with a cracked skylight. Two weeks before he had helped her move some of her things in there, had sat on the floor and drank instant coffee when they were done and felt proud as he left, proud that he could still lift a heavy box of books, and especially of his grace in the face of calamity. Sitting there on the floor drinking from an old mug it had felt like a prelude to everything they already had experienced: love, marriage, a child. Like they were just starting out. It had taken real effort to stand and groan and wash his cup in the dirty basin in the dry sink. It was Becca’s cup, with a bank’s name on one side and a crack running down from rim to bottom.
So returning seemed a defeat, and yet he found himself walking with the air of someone who belonged here, striding across the pallets making a walkway up to the cabin, steadying himself as they shifted to match his weight.
“Michael,” Margaret said, when she opened the door, like she had been expecting him. He could instantly smell something sweet. Cookies possibly. She wore a dirty white T-shirt, a shirt he had never seen before, and her hair was a mess. And there they were, the scratches on her face, three lines healing into a series of dotted scars. For a second he imagined another body up there in the loft with her, but he pushed the thought away and performed some mental gymnastics, trying hard to come up with a reason why he might be here. And there it was—that same wave of pride—because he thought of something that made perfect sense. “Some kid came out to the house,” he said. “Becca’s ex. He was trying to get Chicken back. We had words.”
“Of course you did,” she said.
“He might be back,” he said.
She turned to the oven and checked whatever was happening in there.
“I was wondering if maybe you could take the dog?” he finished.
“That stupid dog,” she said, but she was smiling. “Do you realize how annoyed I was that you told that woman you’d take care of it?”
“Becca,” he said.
“But sure, Give it to me. I think I need the company.”
He wanted to say, if you want the company you could come back, but he smiled like he understood. And maybe he did understand. It could probably get really lonely out here as she pursued whatever soul searching she had to pursue. He glanced at the simple square table and chair. She would eat her meals there while looking out at the timber. Becca would have done that too, but the meal would have been different, of course. He glanced up at the open cabinets at the cans of tomato soup and chili. Those were hers.
“Let’s do it then,” he said.
“Great,” she said.
“Good,” he said.
They hovered there in the center of the room for a moment before he moved to the door, stopped, turned to her. “Kevin misses you,” he said.
* * * * *
The kid returned exactly a week after he had first arrived, as if according to some schedule made from a hidden logic. Michael stood over another tree he had dragged up from the gulch and there it was, the sound again, and his own truck again, in his mind’s eye, crossing the Yukon. That was 1971, more than twenty years ago, but he did not feel like he had changed all that much. The strongest parts of himself had just been distilled by the winters here, until he was, what exactly?
It seemed a question he should have asked Margaret when he had visited her that first time. He had been thinking about it the second time, when he had dropped off Chicken, but she had left a note for him explaining she had to go into town and she should just open the door and let the dog inside.
It had felt like a broken promise. But he let himself inside and stood in the middle of the cabin. It smelled of oranges, which must have been Rebecca’s doing, and sure enough, there was a small pot of water and orange rinds on the stove. There must have been some other smell she had wanted to eradicate. He had to push himself to leave. Maybe the kid in the truck had fought the same battle and lost. Except, of course, that the kid was nothing like him. Kevin maybe.
“Hey there,” the kid said as he climbed from the cab. This time his hair fell around his shoulders in a dirty cascade. Last time it must have been up in a bun. “I come bearing gifts.” He slung the dog food from his shoulder—it was one of those oversized forty pound bags—and let it fall to the porch. “This is her favorite,” he said. “Did Becca tell you?”
“She’s not here,” he said.
“I know she’s not,” the kid said.
“No,” he said. “Not Becca. The dog. Chicken’s not here.”
What prevented him from just taking the food, smiling, saying thank you? Some dark arrow of intention he had no way of controlling except to aim it in this kid’s general direction. He wanted to teach him a lesson, except that he didn’t know exactly what that lesson might be, just that it would be a difficult one. He said, “She’s staying with someone else now. You’ll have to take it up with Becca.”
“We don’t talk anymore,” the kid said.
“Exactly,” Michael said. “I wonder why that is?”
“You could let me see her just now,” he said. “Right out here.”
“I told you,” Michael said, but it came out wrong, as a kind of plea. The kid didn’t believe him. Why should he? He wanted to tell him that he missed her too, and so what? Everybody missed something and someone.
“If you let her out right now,” the kid said, “she’ll come running right to me like a bullet. Then you’ll see.”
Michael focused on the stories instead of the kid’s smiling face. Becca had told him he had been nasty. He imagined the yelling in that small cabin up on the hill. “If you had a sandwich in your hand she would,” he said.
Later that night Michael was in the garage pushing around a stack of old boards when Kevin found him. “Dad,” he said. “You’ve been out here for hours. Don’t you want to come inside?”
“I’m just trying to straighten all this out,” he said, but as he lifted himself from his work he realized he had just made a different sort of mess. His hands were cold and he could see his breath. He hadn’t even bothered to wear a coat. He felt like a man coming out of a trance as Kevin told him the time. It was getting dark and he could see a sliver of the moon through the wide open garage door as they stepped outside. Bug and Gretel following them, Bug watching with his single blue eye.
“I made dinner,” Kevin said.
That was a first. He sounded ashamed.
Which of course he was. Dinner was a way to make up for all that. Michael realized he still held a two-by-four in his hand. He turned and threw it across the garage in a long arcing toss. The sound reverberated against the concrete and made his son flinch. “What did you make?”
“Macaroni and cheese,” he said. “Instant.”
“Your mother would be proud,” Michael said.
He had meant it to sound sincere.
When he had first come to this spot in the hills he had stood out here beneath the stars and heard absolutely nothing. That had pleased him. No house then, not even the driveway, nothing except the water table beneath his feet and trail made by moose. He said, “When I saw your mother the other day she said she’d be back soon. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
That was assuming a lot: that they shared the same definition of the word soon, and that Kevin was worried. And she hadn’t said anything of the sort anyway. Michael reached out and touched Kevin’s arm and did not look because he didn’t want to see him flinch again. His son had thrown his boots on over bare feet and was wearing pajamas and he looked vaguely ridiculous, all gangly arms and bony elbows. Michael wondered exactly when his body had become this thing instead of the rounded shape he could remember laughing in the bathtub. And as he remembered this that other memory came sliding in behind it: his son, this son, turning and striking his mother full in the face. Michael said, “I sort of always thought you’d end up living in this place when your mother and I are gone. It’s a good place. But you probably want to get out of here, don’t you?”
“I don’t know,” Kevin said.
“She misses you,” he said. “She told me to tell you that.” And they stood there in the silence for a while. From far away he thought he could hear something moving, and he wondered if the dogs had wandered off, but no, there they were, right by his hanging left hand.
He had held the cloth to her face and repeated the word accident in his head until he was actually speaking it. Saying this word erased the second punch following the first, and the fact that the first punch was not a punch at all, but an awkward clawing motion as Kevin turned over his chair and the computer screen went black.
Was he supposed to get angry? Was he supposed to show his son what a real punch looked like? He had wanted to, but only after the fact, days later as he ran through the accident in his head and decided on a better use of his time: turning two cords of wood into three.
He moved his hand up Kevin’s arm to the back of his neck and held him there hard. He could feel his body tense and hunch. He thought of the pleading, not from Kevin, but from himself, as he repeated that word, accident, until he had convinced himsef. He was just grabbing for her hand as she reached out. Because to say it wasn’t an accident seemed an act of violence too, against the family and his part in it.
“Let’s eat,” he said.
* * * * *
“Hello, stranger,” he said when she called at the usual time.
“The party got a little out of hand,” she said.
“The never ending party,” she said. “The one in the Valdez Narrows. It’s laugh-a-minute out here. The coast guard has joined in.”
“Are you still just observing?” he asked, “or are you joining in too?”
He thought of all those angry men and felt an oddly jealous.
“In the party? A little bit. I have to admit it. It’s hard work out here. You want to let loose some in the night. In the blockade? I wish. I’m way up here, and all those fishing boats are way down there. They like to scream up at us. You should hear the words they use.”
He picked up the dog dish with his free hand and dropped it in the sink. “Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked.
“I never said I was okay,” she said. “When did I say that?”
“Your ex has been trying to get on my good side,” he said.
“I didn’t know you had a good side,” she said.
He wasn’t in the mood. “I have a feeling he’s going to be back,” he said. It was the same thing he had told Margaret.
“Do not give him that dog,” she said.
As if he would even consider it. “Don’t worry about that,” he said. “She’s fine. She’s right here.”
But of course she wasn’t. He glanced where she might have been and the other two dogs looked back. They were waiting for some sign from him that he might let them outside or open the fridge or raise his voice to them and disperse them back to their corners.
She was still talking, but her voice had been chopped into parts and then it disintegrated completely and it seemed like she had never called at all. He thought about the two punches—what his mind had turned into the two punches—and he thought also of his own rushing forward through the doorway, following Margaret into the other room. She took her hand away to show him the blood and he wished she hadn’t done that, as if showing him that was an insult against him, a way of saying, look what you did.
He should have asked her, what do you mean? Except she hadn’t said anything. And then, as if as a reminder of the fallibility of his own willpower, it was there again, the sound of the truck, and he remembered that it was Sunday, and that the truck had come just a week before, a week before that. He imagined the kid losing his strength on those lazy days and giving in to temptation. He swung open the door and stepped outside just in time to see it appear.
It was a nice thought: that trouble came from outside instead of in. He was happy to see him lurch the truck to a stop and climb from the cab. “I told you,” Michael called. “She’s not here.”
“How about just for the night?” the kid said.
Michael didn’t look in the direction of the house, but he imagined the dogs in there, Kevin at the window again, watching it all play out. “Look,” he said. “Can I give you some advice?”
“I don’t want advice,” the kid said. “I just want my dog.”
If Kevin was watching this, would he see himself in this ridiculous drama? Michael couldn’t help himself. He was going to give this kid some words of wisdom, except that the words he wanted to say didn’t come out right, and he found himself trying to explain. “I’m trying to tell you,” he was saying, “the dog’s not even here. She’s with my wife. It seemed like the right thing to do. I’ve been trying to do the right thing.”
He wished he knew the kid’s name. That would make it easier somehow. Maybe he was getting somewhere? It was hard to say. Maybe if Kevin was watching he would see them talking it out.
Except that as he was speaking he was also aware that Kevin might not be seeing that at all. Michael’s voice was loud. He was on the verge of yelling. And he had put his hand on the kid’s shoulder. He had meant it to be a friendly gesture, but now the grip had tightened.
And as this unfolded he thought of his son’s scratching, clawing motion, and his own strange embarrassment at its girlishness. The embarrassment returned in its weirdness and doubled and tripled in size and he was yanking on the kid’s shirt. “She doesn’t love you anymore,” he said.
“I just want my dog,” the kid said.
“I know,” he said, “you told me that,” and he gave him a shake, but instead of moving him to truck he was tugging him to the house. They were at the door and Michael swung it open. Bug and Gretel appeared, moving in circles around their legs, and followed them as they headed through the kitchen into the living room.
“Look for yourself,” Michael said.
That seemed to knock the wind out of him.
Except he did take a moment to glance around, a quick pivot that took in everything, twenty years of slowly acquired stuff. It was as if that was what he had wanted all along: to see, just for a moment, the evidence of Michael and Margaret’s long life together. Then he squared his shoulders and headed outside. Had he learned something?
Michael stood listening as the truck started up and the clattering sound grew distant. He glanced around at the place. In that corner, a bowl Margaret had made at a pottery class years ago holding a few desiccated oranges left over from her last grocery trip. In the other corner a crate of old cookbooks she had meant to bring to the transfer station, and the dogs still shaking with anticipation because they knew something important was happening. She had told him before she left she wanted two or three days. Even a single day would be good, A day by herself, she had said, to see what she might do when nobody was around.
Downstairs he found Kevin at his computer in the dark. He was smiling and typing in flurries of motion. Then he’d stop, his face lit by the screen, blanket thrown across the window. He was speaking to someone through his headset and sometimes he’d snicker and mumble. Spasms of light and meaningless explosions and a window to one side scrolling with multicolored words. Finally, he raised his voice a little and said, “Did you kick his ass?”
* * * * *
When she called again he asked her, “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she said. “Really.” But her voice sounded even more distant. “We’re back to work.”
“Good,” he said.
“We’re just getting started,” she said, “and I’m ready to come home.”
“Yes,” he said.
“I miss you,” she said. “But I’m stuck.”
He didn’t know what to say to that.
“By the way,” she said. “Do you want to know what happened?”
“Tell me,” he said.
“First all the boys came to the bow of the boat. And they threw stuff down. I think they were improvising. First they started with the beer cans, but then they started throwing other things. Hammers flying through the air. I’ve never seen so many hammers and wrenches. Of course, the coast guard joined the party after that.” Sheets of static seemed to be rolling in from somewhere in the upper atmosphere. It was like listening to someone get swallowed up by insects.
“I’m going through a difficult time too,” he said.
She could hear her laughing through the noise. Twenty years ago he would have been one of those men, lifting a screw driver and sending it through the air and then losing track of it in the frenzy of other flying objects. It would have felt like a celebration, would probably still feel like that if he did it right now, if he were there with her up above everything. She was talking, but he couldn’t quite make it out. What did it feel like when she found herself surrounded by them all?
Without wood to split and stack he did not know what to do with whatever force resided in his chest and shoulders. This winter ending and he was already prepared for next. He was that kind of person, wasn’t he? The kind of person who knew what was coming and was ready for it. Except she had been gone for more than three weeks now and each day was a surprise. He was surprised by her and surprised by himself and surprised by Kevin when he entered and said, “Was that mom on the phone?” again with a sort of casual disinterest, as if she had been gone for a couple of hours.
What if it were? What would they be talking about?
Just that she loved him and that she would be back soon. But she might not. She was determined to get something right this time. He had not seen it before—that determination—but it must have always been there. He just hadn’t noticed. Possibly that’s what the kid had seen in the house, the traces of a secondary presence stronger than Michael’s, and that’s what had helped him give up. He had felt sorry for him. She said, “You’re missing me too. Finally you admit it.”
Later that night the cabin glowed in his high beams. In a moment she’d appear, shielding her eyes. He knew he was not exactly welcome, but she’d make room for him. The door would open and the dog would come charging across the sheet of ice. Imagining this made him feel as if he were returning home after a long time away. Except that the door did not open and the dog did not come and he had not been away for a long time. It only felt that way because of the passage of years. He could not escape the feeling that he had been tricked, that he had tricked himself.
He left his lights on and walked in their glare, small steps down the sloping ice. It was always this way in the evenings: the afternoon melt frozen to a hard sheen. But for some reason the small journey from his truck to the cabin window seemed especially precarious. Twice he stopped and looked back into the light coming from his truck and imagined someone behind the wheel staring at him. And then he was at the window, hands cupped to the glass, looking inside. Where was she? He thought he saw a shape moving in there. Then the barking started. He could hear the dog’s body on the other side, scraping and climbing halfway up the door. The more he struggled with the doorknob—she had locked it this time—the louder the noise became, until it seemed he wasn’t trying to get inside at all. He was just seeing what crazy noise they might make together. And then he fell away, breathing hard, while it continued on without him.