The cabin was in the wilderness, many miles from a post office. Besides the old car they shared, Smith was all she had, except her painting supplies, and clothes, and her reflection in a mirror, and the letters she was receiving from Florida. Her private game, every night, just before falling asleep, was wondering about the quickest way to die in Alaska. Over and over her last sight in her mind before falling asleep was a brilliant, melting, dangerous-looking icicle, about to fall, like a gravity-powered spear.
For months, in the cabin, she knew she soon had to find a way to tell the Englishman, twice her age, who was writing to her, who loved stamps and pale blue paper and envelopes the color of old postal aerogrammes—a very slightly-purplish blue, a mountain color—that she was not alone in Alaska; she was with Smith. So he could rescue her. Smith, who had glittery blue eyes, was prematurely balding and had a thick mustache, early on in their relationship in Florida had displayed a showing-off, pipe-smoking habit, after frying eggs in his oiled, black, I-go-camping-and-canoeing cast-iron pan. She couldn’t really remember how she’d met him, or precisely when; it had had something to do with her roommate’s roommates, and her tiring of the roommates she had, and his roommates moving elsewhere. Economics.
But every night in the cabin sleep came fast, closing in on her like the sudden presence of a shaggy moose, pushing away thoughts of icicles, which were her way of punishing herself for leaving Florida, where the courtly, slow-moving, older-than-her art historian was. Always in the morning there was the something hot to drink, sometimes in one of Smith’s red grocery-store cups with febrile white swirls in its glaze, swirls added by a factory to make them look handmade. The cups did hold heat well enough, and the red had a bright Santa look; she realized her insomnia, at least, in the North, was less. Cold made you more grateful for sleep; the cold also made Smith, mostly, forget about sex.
Smith often told her he might be descended from gypsies: that’s what, he said, the Smith name was secretly famous for. And we’ve done something gypsy, he said, one day, after they had been in the creative-residency cabin in Alaska two months, and they’d run out of eggs and tobacco, even, and he’d had to shift from frying eggs to making small thick pots of oatmeal. There was no more pulling out his pipe, after frying eggs. We didn’t, he said, pay any of our last utility bills in Florida. Can we let the old man pay? Isn’t he a millionaire, at least? Or is he making up that stuff about The Louvre?
They would laugh; it meant, she realized later, they would probably never be returning to Florida, that he considered the man in Florida abandoned, too, though the letters kept appearing. Or that he was suggesting he be abandoned, for a new Alaska future. For a full three months, extendable to six if they decided they needed more time for what the national park system called their creative projects, they had had, blissfully, no bills to pay, except by statement: what they had accomplished in Alaska, creatively, thanks to their wilderness residency.
Each day they discussed whether they should just stay on, in Alaska. They did not even have a storage unit, still, in Florida; it would be, really, much cheaper to stay than to travel all the way back, return. Economics. So, five months later, they stayed on; and they stayed together. They had very little money and rent was cheaper for two. They would not have guessed it could happen, but somehow, five years later, they were still in Alaska, together, living in a rented house on stilts in the warmer, populated-with-boats-and-people Homer. Tourists loved Homer; it was a picturesque harbor, always complex with boats. The tourists who came and went made them feel almost like Alaska natives in comparison, until truly native Alaskans appeared, like the fierce Athabascan men, who were given special status, still allowed to hunt and kill one whale a year. Their glowers, when they visited Homer, made you know you were over-hearty, over-confident, over-new.
Tourists were easily pleased: they wanted to eat well, to listen not very well to music (does that singer Jewel ever come home to Homer, guests would always ask). Guests liked the big flat pale varieties of fish you could have filling your plate for dinner, all the bright frosty brave cheery colors of houses and ships in the harbor. The ships tied up in the harbor kept moving, on their ropes, looking as if the sea inhaled and exhaled powerfully, constantly, beneath them, urging them to go out to sea. The house on stilts they rented even swayed slightly, too. That magical sway, Smith liked to say. (Smith, though he no longer wrote, was still occasionally poetic.)
She’d let her hair grow very long, and then she’d cut it short, and then she’d let it grow almost long again. He’d told her repeatedly they didn’t need to bother with children or marriage; she’d agreed it would be best to be simple, free people, untethered, in wild Alaska. They were tethered by their jobs, in Homer, at The Blue Moose, described as “an almost vegetarian café, plus fish, and bacon.” Somehow their working hours were almost exactly the same for five years. She worked days; Smith, late afternoons to closing time, sometimes very late.
Sometimes they didn’t remember seeing each other anywhere but the café, or each other asleep in bed, for days, nights in a row. But the mornings were clear and bright for her, and the nights, for him, he said, were just as he liked them: night people were more relaxed and happy than all morning people put together.
He had not become a novelist; he no longer tried to write. And she had not found enough energy or money to fund or find a separate painting studio. The same words they repeated day and night to customers had long ago made most poetic thoughts and impulses flee. It was soon true, however, they had almost no debt, except their student loans, which for a long period would indenture them. They were far too young and healthy to need health insurance. Very little they needed, beyond simple things; relatives they disliked, Smith had been quick to point out, were too far away to ever turn up to visit. And if they did want to visit, she agreed, they could always tell them their little house on stilts was much too small and uncomfortable for them to stay in.
Now and then they ran into others who had had the same wilderness residency, very far from Homer. (Though Smith and she had each, officially, had a residency, it was always referred to by the park service as a single thing, as if one of them had been the other’s servant, or they were identical twins, in one womb). Other residents had had the same problem with the furnace, and the slightly over-leaning roof at the back you hit your head on as you went out the door. The noisy, dripping refrigerator, a yellowing Kelvinator with a curved handle like a long lobster claw, which had somehow kept on through more than half a century; the undeterrable raccoons who ate through roof shingles, finding a way to nest in the attic. Leaks from the roof filled at least one perpetual bucket of water in the turquoise linoleum-tiled kitchen. The whole cabin seemed to weep; this planted in her head the idea, or the fact, that their residency had really been an period for her own intense silent weeping, not just onto canvas: and that all residencies must serve as a way of relieving a need to weep.
Raccoons, she guessed, were a lot like people coming to Alaska for the first time, to live. Finding food and warmth however they could, taking whatever advantage they found, to turn it to more advantage. You found a way to settle in, nest, in a place which during the day was so bright it made your head ache, and then became a sunset as tragically brilliant as a lover’s forever goodbye: the operatic sunsets. I can’t go, but I must, the sun always seemed to say. Don’t you forget about me.
As an artist in that cabin, she’d really had no decent working space, storage. Really it was best only a writer’s studio; and really, she thought, it would have been best for only one (writer). One computer. All her paintings began as canvases stretched flat over wooden stretchers; but once dry they had to be removed, rolled around a spindle, to save space. Before arriving, she’d imagined she would paint mountains and trees, on easels, outside. Or from inside the cabin: whatever she saw through the windows, at first. But the cabin had so few windows (two), the cold was so great, the dripping water from trees on warmer days so distracting, she gave up. Add to all that, her fear of bears, and she had no choice—she hated working from photographs—she had to begin to paint everything from inside her head, from memory, from emotion. On her work-desk beside her indoor easel were all her paint tubes, twisted, smeared with paint, and a lavish spill of all the letters she had been receiving: a confusing mass of faintly-purple blue paper, and very dark blue, almost black, ink, mixed in with her paint tubes and her rags.
These letters were always strewn across her work-desk’s top because to hide them, she had decided, would be to announce some guilt about them was more important than the letters. It would be futile, too, to hide them. The cabin was as small as a treehouse. The letters came from Florida, but sometimes, from England, or France. Once, Croatia, which made her look it up on maps.
It was good his handwriting was difficult to decipher. It made it code: Smith claimed he could not read any of the words, except for an “if” or a “the.” (She pretended it was almost impossible for her to read, too; with repeated effort, she could actually read almost all of them.)
How old is he, said Smith. Ancient? And how many people really write letters on stationery anymore? Stamps? He lives in Florida now but he’s British and he works for art museums? Why? He claims he really does things for The Louvre? If he does he must write on a computer at the art museums. Why not to you, too?
The same questions, over and over, usually while he dried dishes with a rag. She would always nod and smile after the word ancient; throw both her wrists up in the air in response to what does he want. All to appease him, make him feel like master. You couldn’t explain to Smith what it was like to be read to, for an hour, as the Brit read to her, from a book written a continent away, a hundred or two hundred or five hundred years ago. Smith liked Charles Bukowski, and poets who spaced their words out twenty words to a page.
But she wasn’t hiding the Brit. His letters were on her work-desk, beside her easel. Written in his code, which sometimes she wished translated to a repetition of I will save you. Come back to me. Be done with your adventure in Alaska. But he was polite, never said those things. Till the week before moving to Homer, she never mentioned Smith; hoping, really, that he might finally say he was eager to have her come back. To be really with him. That he missed her. She remembered his scent: he smelled like wet tree branches, and talcum. Baby powder.
Her paintings unwrapped from her tall spindle became, eventually, in Homer, dozens of framed paintings on the walls of The Blue Moose. For sale: The Blue Moose had become her gallery. Why, she heard sometimes, from diners, so much blue; and why weren’t there blue moose in the paintings? Visiting tourists wanted blue moose in the paintings; they wanted a souvenir. They wanted to be able to say they bought it at The Blue Moose Diner.
She loves blue envelopes, she’d heard Smith answer back to some of the diners. An old guy from Europe keeps writing on blue paper. With blue envelopes. His hands have cramped up or something. You really can’t read his writing. He lives in the Bastille, or something.
He must love you, one older woman, waiting for her lunch, one day said. Letters in this day and age mean love. You keep putting the color of his blue paper and envelopes in your paintings. Why don’t you send him one? He’d be so happy.
Smith, overhearing this, said: She can’t. He likes paintings at The Louvre.
But she was far more secure than she had been in Florida, with a constantly changing cast of female roommates; she now earned money each week, had a roof that didn’t leak over her head, though the house on stilts, worrisomely, sometimes swayed a lot in the wind. Month by month she was secure, surviving, something artists find almost impossible to achieve. Alaska was the opposite of The Louvre (where yes, he, the Brit, was occasionally a consultant). Her small square paintings hung above almost every table at The Blue Moose. About once a month, one would sell. She would, at this rate, however, someday be out of paintings; she no longer painted new paintings. She waitressed, only.
The admiral, Smith sometimes jokingly called the British man, a quarter century older than she, the man who once, five years ago, sent her seasons of letters. This placed him not in the English past, but in the American almost-present, the first year of Alaska, in the cabin. Where she had painted daily, where that divine purple-blue pile of envelopes and letters had started. And ended. Because, finally, mere weeks before the move with Smith to Homer, she included in her last letter that she was not alone, that she was not going to Homer alone. There was a man, her age (that was all she said about him). Quickly, quietly, as an admiral would stop a campaign, after realizing suddenly he’d lost his ground, his letters to her on delicate sheets of purple-blue stationery stopped.
One mid-afternoon when Smith was likely still half-asleep in their house on stilts near the water, just beginning to dress, and just as she was nearing the end of her daily shift, her older man of letters, whom she had loved, though she had never said the words, appeared. In Homer. In the restaurant.
She felt the shock people feel when they see someone recognizably famous. She kept snapping her head to look at him, surprised he was not still the way he should be, in a photograph.
He appeared with someone: a dark-haired woman. You could tell she was a visitor, a tourist, because she wore too much impractical, golden, jewelry. But at first she did not much see her: she saw only the miracle of him beneath her paintings full of the purple-blue of all his own vivid blue letters and envelopes, sailing in invisible breezes, wafting like small magic carpets, twisting and turning, high above the trees and even some of the mountains and clouds. Glowing suddenly extra-blue. Beneath them, he looked properly placed as if in her mural. A mural which had been designed for him, a series of paintings which were like a series of wordless but pictorial letters, to him. Beneath them he blended in: to her the woman with him looked like an intruder, surprising.
He and the woman were looking up at the paintings. She felt glad, seeing his looking: this meant more to her than his looking directly at her own, actual, self. The woman with him was looking at the paintings as if perturbing uninterpretable wild birds were flying all around them, and she was trying to figure out how to make them go away.
But at first the dark young woman was pointing, with delicate hands, toward one painting, then another. She could be one of the ones who might ask her why there were not blue moose in the paintings. But she had an accent, it sounded French: a barrier.
His hair was more silver than before, more closely trimmed at his neckline than she remembered. But more wave in it, which caught the light. Or perhaps it was the Alaskan light. He wore a heavy shirt with deep chest pockets, and her eyes were drawn to his wrist by his large and shiny and golden watch. She remembered the watch. She found herself staring at it, the watch, as if it was a treasure, lost, which had suddenly surfaced, was no longer hidden. Oh, the lost compass, she heard in her brain. The lost courtyard fountain. Sundial. His watch.
Coincidence he’d found her? Or was he dismally chasing her, like a ghost? But if hunting for she who was lost, he would have come alone. Romance was signaled by the woman’s intense cosmetics, eyes so shadowed her eyelids were purple like smoke-on-water sunset. Her eyelashes were dark as shadowy brambles. There was even something dark-blueish about her eyelashes. They seemed specially coated by a dark blue mascara. She was not from Alaska.
Now, he saw her. For a second she was looking back at him: he was looking at her.
He remembered her name. Perfectly. He didn’t say it. But she could tell from his eyes her name was passing through his head; she could feel he was feeling out in his head all its four syllables.
She wished now, hard, she’d let Smith go alone to The Residency in the North. Raccoons’ invasions could have kept him company. He might have written more, might even have persisted in trying to become a writer. He would have only had to fight and outmaneuver the raccoons, could have eventually found a girl just as raccoons found warmth in a roof, would never have had to bother to worry about her mysterious, received, letters, collected every other week from the post office box. The only regret, for her, would be never having received his marvelous shy letters.
She also computed, swiftly, the hourglass: someday this young woman and she would have their own silver hair. He, the Brit with silver hair now, would be gone. Time would eventually sell them all off, dull all love.
She could have walked to their table. Said out loud all the Brit’s ridiculous names. (His complex first name revealed the adoration of his parents; his ridiculous last name showed his family had insistently, persistently, refused to change it to help people pronounce it.) (Actually, she knew his names were not ridiculous: they were admirable.)
Now here he was, with a girl whose smoky purplish eye-shadow clarified, to anyone, despite their age difference, she was not a daughter. Who looked slightly annoyed about being here, as if she’d prefer a different place. Was the new young woman also—being read to?
Her gorgeous set of blue letters had ended.
The young woman, still somehow keeping her chin low, her eyes big, charming but serious, pointed up at one of the paintings. Expressionless, she said something to him, a question; he answered, blinking, suddenly with a look as if reluctantly identifying bodies at a morgue, looking away from the paintings and the woman beside him.
And then the woman double-blinked at her, signaling—something.
She double-blinked back, became busy re-stacking cups and glasses along a back counter where coffee machines were.
What would he think of her house on stilts by the harbor, with Smith now asleep in it or just waking in red pajamas which made him look like a confused, unemployed fireman? He’d assume she must be in love with him, perhaps even bought him the fire-red pajamas (she had); she must be in love with him to live in such a small house on spindly stilts, with him! They couldn’t know, as she did, he had no desire to marry her, nor any interest in being moored to her through offspring. She was just a girlfriend-eternal, paying exactly half the rent.
Was it bad continuing to live with Smith? No, not really; you had to be practical, economical.
The silver man who knew people in London and Paris and Key West and Boca Raton—lived in a house covered, in a very un-Floridian way (yes, she had been there, something Smith would never know; he had no right to know) with dark red and dark blue Persian and Indian carpets criss-crossing each other—now brought his white plain restaurant mug of hot tea closer to himself, as if to guard himself. The young woman drew her white mug closer to herself, too; they even both sipped small sips, simultaneously, then pushed their cups slightly away from themselves again, now, as if their cups were chess pieces, protecting them.
She felt the words I wish I’d never been born run through her head. She went to the kitchen to hide. If only that girl would disappear for a while; she could talk to him. But, worse, Smith also was due soon, at the restaurant. She only wanted to be with her Brit, uninterrupted.
If only that girl, woman, was not here. If only Smith overslept.
A timeline, a number line, she was thinking, was heavier—than gravity. Heavy as fate, icicles. Even in summer, as it was now.
She went to bend over one of the deep sinks in the kitchen. The kitchen was very dirty and white simultaneously, every white door and cupboard and shelf and corner of the floor imbued with dark, shadowy soil the mops and rags couldn’t ever reach. She almost hung her head as she stood in front of one of big double dark gray galvanized steel kitchen sinks, rubbed her hands on one of the big kitchen-sized bars of soap, castile, almost began to wash her hands.
She felt like a ghost. How long since someone had read her a book, or she had even read a book, herself? Smith would soon be coming in, with the bit of an angry look he always had about turning up for work when the first hint of dusk was just about to come, the magic hours: another day gone by, and when everything looked beautiful and uncatchable, things only a poem or a novel or a painting could capture.
She didn’t like the idea of seeing Smith, unless she could send him into a room with the purple-eye-shadowed woman, to get him out of her way. To give her five full minutes with her man of arts and letters.
Then she heard, through the thin kitchen door, a sudden voice.
Bandages, a man was calling out. She could slightly see him and hear him through the boatish porthole of the kitchen door.
Bandages, he was saying again.
She picked up dishtowels from the stack beside her at the sink, took them to him. Dishtowels, she said. Why, she said.
One of us on the boat, he said. Fell. Doesn’t want to get up.
I can help, she said. Red Cross training. High school. But Red Cross training.
Yes, he said. Anything. We don’t know what to do. Kind of afraid of blood. Hurry.
She followed him, grateful to be taken away from the restaurant where the couple was. Grateful to have something real to do, something important. Soon, on the ship’s deck, a confused grateful wounded man’s watery eyes were looking up at her, as if he and she were connecting magnets, as if she was divine mother. Who cared. Looking at her as if she was meant to be there, and as if he would never, ever, forget her. She was needed. Blood in his hair made it difficult to tell what color his hair was. She knotted five striped dishtowels together to make one long strip, bound his head so he was almost—turbaned.
Now you look faraway, she said. Turbaned sailor.
Lots of sailors in old lit, he said. Don’t remind me. I studied lit.
Oh, dear, she said. Lit major confesses?
I never finished Moby Dick, he said. Today I fell fast on the deck. Decked me.
She laughed. Punishment, she said. From Melville.
Captain Hook. Smee, he mumbled, rolling his head. Looked at her, closed his eyes. Opened them, shut them again. Did not roll his head back up.
I love Disney, she said. Don’t mind Gregory Peck.
But there were no more words. No more wit. His head, she thought, must be becoming a dark theater. Dark book. Ambulance: not there yet.
The Blue Moose across from them looked like a small place on a model-train board. She could see her silver man (the admiral and his new woman) now out on the deck; she could even see small, thin Smith arriving for work, hands in pockets of his jeans, crossing the deck in front of them, his wisps of dull brown hair indifferently cut, combed.
We share the rent, she heard in her head. We use each other, for rent. And that older man there? He loved me, but he didn’t have courage, in time, and he’s lost me. It was as if, in her head, she was explaining her own self to the unconscious man, explaining her situation.
She was grateful this situation had made her actually be needed. The Brit was busy, his woman was busy, Smith was busy, The Blue Moose and Homer and its harbor were busy; even the injured man was busy, silently traveling through seas of brain-dark.
He looked approximately her age: thirties. His skin was pale; he must be new on the boat.
Life, she thought, was full of strange, rebounding accidents: Smith just walked directly in front of the British man he had mocked for half a decade, but was completely unable to recognize him: she’d never described his physical appearance to Smith, never owned even one photograph of him. She’d once even told the Brit not to take a photo of the two of them together. Not really yours, now, am I, she’d said, hoping to tease either a wish, or a declaration, from him.
The ambulance with its whirl-in-a-circle red lights would arrive.
At long last the pure gorgeous red lights of the ambulance slowly did come, its red lights making her think of Sting’s song Roxanne. As she moved out of the medics’ way, she looked over toward The Blue Moose, saw the silver man in his deep navy-blue heavy shirt, dull gray denim jeans, rising to stand. He and new woman were both now standing on the restaurant’s deck. Her eyes could see the foxlike burn of reddish-orange leather of his shoes, and in the way you did when you loved someone, she felt, as she looked at his feet, his weight in his shoes, and a little bit of the weariness of his feet.
The ambulance carried the damaged young man away. She did not go back into the restaurant; she went home. You don’t have to put on the red light, she heard in her head all the way to the yellow house on stilts, that Sting-song. But then, just after going inside the door of the house almost-tall on stilts, next to other houses almost-tall on stilts, she saw, in her head, Sting singing another song, so seriously, on a stage somewhere—she’d seen it many times—the video. With Josh Groban, who was looking like a noble sheep-herder who’d come to sing for a king. Both singing about spades and clubs and diamonds, singing the words: but none of those—the shape of my heart. A thrilling song for women, because it represented two men, Sting and Groban, vying for their love. The men knew and the women knew she would have to choose one, fierce-eyed gambler Sting or the sad-eyed shepherd Groban. Which one was the better man, or, better put, the available man? Because most of the men you considered were not at the time you considered them—available. They were already busy in their card game of life, pledging, losing many things, and sometimes you were not something to even be thought of, except in a moment which was like a book closing or the opening of a door, or tide filling in the sand, washing all silvery up on the sand, soon to slip away again, back to sea creatures hiding in much deeper water far from shore.
In the dark of the tiny house on stilts she saw for a moment a face of the son she would love to have: she saw him full-grown with a large head and a fine nose with an interesting bump in it, and eyebrows very full and fierce; his eyes were, wisely, afraid. The kind of son who knew how to say yes or no and would always be there when you needed him, and would make whatever woman he found laugh, laugh all the time, almost, and then would ask her how to fix things and then she would ask him how to fix things, and the ridiculous salt and the tang of the ocean was nothing compared to his ability to move a boat wherever he wanted it to go. And now she was realizing, suddenly, the son-face she was imagining was exactly like that new young fisherman’s, on the boat. Truly, she felt motherly toward him. It was a confusing feeling, but a happy one.
On one of the floors of the Homer hospital, he could be dying; she drove there, to find out about him. In the hospital’s lobby under its cruelly bleaching fluorescent lights—was there a law? Fluorescent lights had to torture you in groceries and hospitals and schools?—she was suddenly seeing as if for the first time how looping plastic medical tubing glowed, even beneath fluorescence, in a phosphorescent, periwinkle-blue, beautiful way. Clear but with a glow of that same strange purple-blue as her silver man’s imperial, insistent-for-a-time, stationery. Medical tubing, simulation of the magic of the umbilical cord, and veins; as important as pipes and tunnels were, as upright vent pipes and chimneys were, carrying away dangerous fiery air and sparking ashes away from your dwelling-place, so your house would not burn down as you slept.
Would he ever be all right? It had taken too long for the ambulance to arrive. Far too long. Perhaps he would make it, could tell her how long he’d been in Alaska; who he’d left behind. Whether he was going to stay, whether he knew whether the Athabascans who were allowed to hunt and kill only one whale a year now would ever suddenly decide they did not want to. If instead they would ever simply make dreamy paintings of them, show their glossy gray mantle turning blueish in some areas, and that creamy, almost icy, whiteness rising up parting the grayness and blueness up their fronts. A creamy whiteness like old bones or old buildings in Europe, a whiteness in her head like the way her hand felt when she heard a phone ring but she didn’t want to answer it, whiteness like the constantly fading/growing/begging headache which had now been punishing her for, was it five—or six— years? Since she’d moved from the cabin in the wilderness, since she’d left Florida. Since she’d lost, given away, sold, her own whale-soul. It was bound up still in all the letters she had sent, which she herself had not been courageous enough in. She could not remember anything she had said in them, except the last. She would never know if he still kept them.