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Authors: Marjorie Kowalski Cole

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BOOK: Correcting the Landscape
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But at the office, a note from Noreen: Sheedys are canceling their display ads: not comfortable with our editorial policies!

I was dumbfounded.

For the past two years, they'd run two display ads, every week, for their Equipment Rental and Aghadoe B&B. Both now canceled.
My chest got tight with anger; I had a sense right away of what was going on. I called Mary Sheedy and heard that defensive silence in her replies. “Gus,” she said, “I don't want to argue with you. It just doesn't make sense anymore. It's not where we are.”

“Mary, if you don't agree with editorials in the
, you can argue with me about them, that's the whole point, isn't it? To have debate? The paper goes Outside in Visitors Bureau mailings, did you know that? Thousands of visitors see it!”

“I won't argue about it, Gus. Liam and I…we can't sign on with the range of things that you support.”

“It's not me, Mary, it's the

“Oh come on.”

“There's six, five, whatever, columnists, there's letters to the editor, it's a forum, Mary, for God's sake you can't…” Angry and begging at the same time. Why did it matter so much? “Mary, listen. Editorial and advertising—these are separate things, as separate as, well night and day, liver and ice cream, church and state.”

“Speaking of that, Gus.”

“Oh no.”

“Let me say that this is how we're expressing our opinion, Gus. It's personal. Look, we're old friends; please don't think we don't appreciate that, value the good times we've had. I want you to come over this weekend for a barbecue and bring your Irish friend. I hope we can set all of this to one side. I mean do we have to see eye to eye on everything?”

“Aaaagh,” I said.

“Gus, please.”

“No, really it's okay, Mary. Okay.”

Bring your Irish friend
but not his pal Bruce
, I'll betcha.

Don't savage this friendship, I told myself. You might need it later. You might reach a point where you need human contact, for Christ's sake, one never knows. And Felix could use a dinner of
caribou ribs and mooseburgers. I didn't know what to do but try to subdue my confusion and go on out to the Sheedys' with Noreen and Felix, for a barbecue that turned out to include a birthday celebration for Natalie Sheedy, age eight. No real harm in sitting down to a feast of good food with old friends. But it turned out to be painful: sitting there, pretending to be mollified in their cleaned-up version of the world, it was painful to me.

We'd all been in our twenties together up at Galbraith Lake Camp in the Brooks Range, Liam and Tad and me. In the carpenters' warm-up shack hung a couple of posters from
or some other such magazine, one in particular of a voluptuous young woman, her thighs lightly covered with sunlit blond hairs, opening her own pussy to the camera. “Bubble gum,” muttered the female bus driver who shared our coffeepot. Liam Sheedy was not bothered by such pictures one way or the other. He did not go to the trouble of finding and reading that controversial graphic novel he now felt should be removed from the public library.

These three kids of his, their arrival over the years had kept pace with an increasing conservatism on his and Mary's part. World too painful to present to his children, so you just pretend it's different? Pretend these painful, ugly things don't exist? Maybe if I was a parent I'd get it.

Natalie Sheedy was a thin girl with a huge forehead, deep dark eyes, and limbs like peeled sticks. As we slouched after dinner on the Sheedys' deck she appeared at my elbow with her hand out, and resting in her palm was a dead turtle the size of a cheeseburger.

“Nat!” shrieked her mother.

“Nat, is Salty unburied again?” said Liam. Apparently the turtle had been found dead in his aquarium the day before, and Natalie had dug him up from his grave in the garden three times already.
She couldn't leave him alone. This was the little girl who needed protection from library books.

“Natty,” fussed her mother, bewildered. “Salty needs to rest, to sleep a deep and restful sleep for a long time, don't you know that?”

Felix stroked the shell with long, white fingers. “Salty's dead all right,” he said. “His spirit's not here anymore. But his spirit is restless. What we do back home, Natalie, when it's time to say good-bye, is to build a cairn. Shall we try that?”

At the base of a spruce tree, two sticks nailed into a cross leaned to one side over the open grave.

“We'll lay some fern over him,” said Felix. “Or spruce needles.” He gently ripped a few twigs off the tree before him and laid them in the grave. We waited. Natalie placed Salty on the twigs, and Felix gave her more. “Cover him like it's a quilt,” he said.

“Rest in peace, Salty,” said the little girl with solemnity. She had done this before. She was getting lots of practice.

Felix scraped the dirt over the green shroud and patted it down. Then the two of them set about gathering rocks and piling them in a pyramid over the grave. One rock after another, a sturdy, ancient-looking cairn arose. Natalie straightened the cross, which was now diminished next to the cairn. She looked up at Felix expectantly.

“Like an Irish king he sleeps in Aghadoe,” said Felix.

We returned to our drinks, the Sheedys enchanted, almost speechless. I doubted that Salty would be disturbed again.

In the next week, I'd have to downscale the paper. Gayle wouldn't be in. We'd do our best to follow up the story of Cathy Carew. My hosts tonight, specialists in the hospitality business, strong and healthy folks, had worked hard to put up this log B&B on this green hillside, get these hanging planters to overspill with
showy annuals by the first week of June. They didn't want to read about the death of a Native girl in the Chena River, any more than I wanted to devote my diminishing resources to more lost causes.

But it was all connected, all these stories we covered were connected. In a minute someone's going to say, you're awfully quiet tonight, Gus, and I'll have to say something in response. I want to say, if we can't look at sexy pictures in a library book, how can we face the death of a young woman?

Fine, they'll say, let's not look at that either.


…dense forests filled with trees—I do not exaggerate—of a kind you never saw before, probably hybrid trees resulting from the mating, it could be, of white pines and willow trees, grafted together out of sheer loneliness. I mean, these are odd-looking trees, barbaric and sad, and there are entire forests of them growing unobserved and unlabeled up there


a few days. Noreen kept after the police department over their investigation into Cathy's death, and I forced myself to stay at my desk for a change and go through the nonbreaking news. In the
Federal Register
the EPA reported progress with the cleanup of a salvage yard near the military base where drums of toxic chemicals had been stored for decades, above the water table into which hundreds of nearby homeowners sank their wells. I looked wearily at the announcement and wondered if I had time to follow it up. Just this once could I please slap this verbatim in the paper? And
here was something else I ought to try to sort out, Mental Health Trust Lands.

This one had been around since statehood, at least. So that the mentally ill would not have to be shipped outside to Morningside Hospital, in Oregon—“inside, outside, Morningside,” they used to say, an Alaskan's three choices—the federal government had transferred land to the new state expressly to raise money for a state-run hospital. Over the years the land in question got lost, sold, and traded, nibble by nibble. Under the hawk eyes of developers, however, every bit of land to which the state of Alaska held claim was suddenly more valuable, and legislators in Juneau had introduced a bill to find these acres and use them to fund health services. It was a boring, complicated issue, like most public policy issues, but it mattered.

Finally a press release got my attention. The local Native corporation announced that they will distribute cash dividends at the end of this quarter, twelve thousand dollars to every stockholder. Holy Toledo. A lot of that cash was going to go up in misery. To be flush with cash so abruptly was going to put a lot of people in an awkward position. Who could doubt it? What would Cathy Carew have done with twelve thousand dollars?

I needed either to sort through these stories right now or force myself to confront the problem of our own revenue here at the
. I couldn't decide which task was less attractive to me.

Within a couple of days Noreen made herself unwelcome downtown, probably by not bothering to conceal her fear that the death of a Native person in the Chena River was going to become a low priority for the detectives. Noreen wanted to be loved by the right person, but to her credit she was not at all afraid of being disliked. She managed to arrange a conference call between the two of us and the lead detective.

Lieutenant Phil Sloan talked fast: his nickname was Class Four, after a Class Four river—rapids and waterfalls. With funds as meager as my own, when you consider the job he had to do, he explained that he was doing everything he could to uncover the exact sequence of events that led to the arrival of Cathy's body under the Cushman Street Bridge. Yes, she drowned, but what happened first? The unhappy events of her short life were of interest to him only insofar as they may have led to her death. When Noreen asked him what his assumptions were, he came right back.

“We don't make assumptions,” he said. “Let me rephrase that. We make them, some of us more than others, but we don't rest in them. I fight against them all the time.”

“People say,” I ventured, “and for good reason, that her death comes at the end of a long series of catastrophes, of bad decisions, of people around her looking the other way. Her lifestyle killed her.”

“People can say whatever they like.”

“But you're still looking at evidence.”

“We are looking for evidence not only with this case but a number of others. We don't put them away. I live with them. Come down here and look at my office, my walls are papered with ideas, names, connections I'm experimenting with. We're looking for people who have any knowledge of her or her friends. Let me tell you something.” He stopped and cleared his throat, took a breath. His words would roll into each other and become unintelligible. Every few sentences he paused, swallowed, and started over. “When there's been violence done to a person, more than ninety percent of the time, it's someone they know. That simple. I don't rest in that assumption, but that's our experience of cases like this, just the same. I can't solve lifestyle problems, but I am trying to
find everyone she knew. It's a slow, awkward process. People don't come forward. We tend to run out of money. We don't have enough to begin with. So, well, I hate to say this, but some of these cases do not get resolved. Things get cold.”

“Is that going to happen?” Noreen said.

“I hope not.”

When I heard Noreen and Felix murmuring to each other in the newsroom a few days later, somehow I thought they were keeping to hushed tones on this same unhappy subject, the subject of Gayle. I thought that was why Noreen flashed me a strange look as I entered my office.

Then I noticed that the silences between their words to each other were not the right length for a workday conversation. Long, uneven gaps. As if they were waiting for something. As if they were lost.

I stood up after a few minutes and listened.

“Hey,” I called, standing in the door.

Noreen looked up at me. “Tino?” she said. I didn't like that at all. “Tino” is a family nickname for Augustine, the unfortunate baptismal name I have not used since I escaped the nuns at Our Lady Star of the Sea Parochial School in Tacoma, Washington. She used Tino when she needed me to be a small boy again. When she was hurt, or even afraid. Afraid of me?

Her face, a small clear heart-shaped pond, shows emotional disturbance immediately and powerfully. She did not look well.

“What's the matter, No,” I said. Maybe something to do with a new boyfriend. Maybe she'd been consulting with Felix on the mysteries of male behavior. Felix, gazing off to one side, looked serious but not sorrowful. The most I've learned to read in Felix's expression is engagement: there's an engagement in his face, sometimes, when he is intensely involved either with a poem or
with Bruce Fields; otherwise he gives nothing away. His reserve is not an unpleasant quality.

The fixed suffering on Noreen's face now went through me and I crossed the room to her chair. Love gone sour: had to be.

“Well now,” I said. “What's wrong?”

“The foreclosure list,” she mumbled and put her head in her hands.

“It sounds like you said the foreclosure list,” I said after a minute, when nothing more emerged.

“I did.”

I looked through the back window behind her, at the mossy, bearded black spruce trees, leaning every which way.

“What about it?”

She looked up, her face a crumpled map. “Well, Gus, it went to the
Highway Sentinel
.” I thought I saw tears.

“No,” I said. “Why are you crying? Why do you take everything so personally?” I turned around and went back into my office.

Twenty-five thousand dollars. A dozen bills coming due, and something left over to compensate Felix and Gayle. Our one and only bird in the hand.

I thought I was used to being broke, but here came a variation: zero prospects. A great white space. Why in the hell did the contract go to the
? A lousy shopper, for Christ's sake, a throwaway, ads and announcements of every description. AA schedules and honor rolls galore, the names of every B or above student in every highway community from Deadhorse to Denali.

Noreen stood in the doorway. Her reddish blond hair a spiky uncombed mess, her eyes red-rimmed. Face marked with self-reproach.

“They changed the process,” she said. “You weren't supposed to submit the bid the way we've always done. I didn't know that
until the last minute, so I had to kind of, well I thought I had to, come up with some new figures at the last minute. And so I did, but the
came in under. They underbid us by three thousand. I screwed up, Gus, you were counting on me, and I don't know what we're going to do.”

going to do,” I said, cutting off sentiment like you'd cut off a limb that offended you. Just like that. “You're looking around for something else, remember? It's hardly your problem.”

“Tino, it never occurred to me anyone else would even

This stiff, robotlike response to bad news is the best I can do. I just wanted her to go away. Five minutes ago, it was big brotherly concern for her broken heart. Now I had nothing to offer her. Or to anyone, for that matter.

“The process was described in an attachment,” she went on. “I just caught it at the last minute. I was sitting in my car in front of the borough building, and I thought, ‘Oh, look, they want some figures written down here,' and I put something down and that was it. I could shoot myself.”

“No, don't talk nonsense.”

“What are we going to do?”

“It is a lot of money,” I said, and laughed as if getting a joke. “But hey, it's not your fault. If we were more solvent this wouldn't be the end of the world.”

“Is it the end of the world?”

“In a manner of speaking. Where can we get twenty-five thousand dollars? Or while we're at it, fifty? So as to pay the press bill and upgrade the place and maybe hand out paychecks for once?” I looked out the window. “Doesn't grow on trees,” I announced. To think I'd considered having the body damage on my new pickup repaired. Wings. That was what I needed, wings—why bother with a truck at all, as long as we're living in a fantasy world now?

“Gus,” said No, drawing a deep breath, ready to dry her eyes and roll up her sleeves. “Gus, I'm sorry.”

There; that was hard for her to say, and she wouldn't say it again. No didn't like to make mistakes. But this business, writing an ongoing record of a community, was nothing but mistake, correction, mistake, correction. No liked to be once and for all objectively unarguably

“Maybe we've been sidelined, guys,” I said.

“What can we do?” said Felix, suddenly appearing behind No.

“I've got to think this one over,” I said. “For now let's carry on. Next issue coming up. No rest for the wicked.”

“Gus,” said No.

“I'm going to stretch my legs,” I said.

“I can do something,” she said.

“Pray. Are you at all religious, Felix?”

I shut the door quietly, a model of cold serenity, and headed for the black spruce forest behind the house.

As soon as I was behind the curtain of trees I plunged into self-pity. The foreclosure list, twenty-four pages of names of people behind on their property taxes, had paid a good chunk of our bills the past two years. Every name and every amount owing had to be right out there in the public record before the borough could seize the property; though quite a few people owed thousands, some were in danger of losing their property over an unpaid twenty-four dollars, or ten dollars, with a late penalty of a maybe a dollar and ten cents. Thanks to all these transients, failed entrepreneurs, and creative bookkeepers who had lost track of their own bills, the
stayed afloat.

I swung at mosquitoes. Ask not for whom the bell tolls. Look who doesn't have ten dollars now.

Tamarack and skinny spruce leaned every which way around me. This low, tangled mass of forest smelled good, fecund, though
I knew the soil was poor, a few inches of organic stuff above permafrost. Houses built back here broke in two after a few years. The ground beneath them melted and they started to fall into it. My path forked; I went down a narrow trail toward the glint of a small brown lake. The air was alive with birdsong. Signature tunes of summer arrivals, just here from Iowa or something. It was a noisy terminal.
!” Summer arrivals, like a guest in your heart. I walked down to the pond into a crazy chirping of baby frogs. There was a lot of careless joy out here.

I waved away the mosquitoes with both hands. All this life thriving on a thin margin of soil. Digging a posthole for my mailbox out on Bad Molly Road one time, I hit what felt like a flat rock. But everywhere I dug, this same hard surface, like buried treasure. As I chiseled away I discovered frozen ground at an even depth around my whole yard. I broke up a chunk or two and hurled it at my porch steps; it bounced off like a rock. Everywhere, under the June sun, this muck as hard as cement, molecules clinging together out of cold as if out of fear. It was pale yellow stuff, and it smelled of minerals and dampness, as old ice cubes have a distinct smell.

These mosquitoes were interfering with my sulk. Though I swung my arms violently and beat my neck and shoulders, they lifted back only a few inches and came at me again. They were noisier now than the frogs and the birds. There was a roaring inside my head, of growing panic and fury. I turned to walk back, but they weren't going to let their Easter ham get away that easily. They were driving up my nose, into my ears, under my collar, they discovered the part in my thin hair; I slapped my face and started to run. There, I can outrun you, you bastards. I stopped running after twenty steps, panting now for real.

Damn it.

I walked along, puffing. I had hoped for ten, fifteen years at the helm of the
. Sometimes I even dreamed of recognition, like the Businessman of the Year Award or to be asked to address the Boy Scouts, or, yes, an honorary degree from the University of Alaska. How humbly I would have bowed my head, while the dean placed a blue-and-gold mantle around my neck. Maybe a lady dean. I liked that part. An academic powerhouse, a woman whose signature transferred hundreds of thousands of dollars from here to there—but standing behind me on the podium, she would be a woman adjusting a man's attire, with those magic fingers that can make a collar or a necktie or an overcomplicated mantle lie just right. A woman fussing with a man. Then she'd grin at me and step back, and I'd give my speech. How my small success was dependent on the generations before, the independent journalists before me in the
's eighty-year history.

BOOK: Correcting the Landscape
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