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Authors: Marjorie Kowalski Cole

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BOOK: Correcting the Landscape
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Instead of all that, a penniless soon-to-be-ex-publisher is trying to outrun mosquitoes in these misbegotten woods. I am being eaten alive and tortured first. I broke into a run again, both arms flying around my head. These creatures hadn't seen so much flesh on the hoof in a year, maybe never in their short horrible lives.

When I burst into the office and Felix and No looked up, I don't think they expected to see me jubilant and restored. But I was so relieved to breathe again. A drowning man surfaced, I heaved into a chair and rubbed my face to rub out the memory of all those flying devils. Indian legend has it that mosquitoes are the pieces of a hacked-up giant who once harassed the villagers. They killed him and cut him to pieces, but the hundreds of pieces returned to life, came back to the village in this new form.

“Advertising,” I gasped. “We'll sell more ads. Maybe we'll fly on fumes for a while. I'll think of something.”

“Gus,” Noreen began.

Happy to be on this life raft, out of those cursed woods, I
waved a hand and smiled. I drew a few breaths. “The Mercury is the community's newspaper,” I said, when I could breathe easily again. “Either they want the paper or they don't. If we can skid by and they want us, we'll fly, if not, not—no one thing is going to drive us under. Hell, Felix, you haven't landed on your feet in America by a long shot. How'd you get mixed up with this?”

“Kismet,” he said.

Nice to have a guy on your team who does not require a soft bed and clean sheets every night. Used to sleeping rough, his ancestors probably went to school in hedges or ditches, and that toughness pays off. You could rely on Felix. Noreen, too.

Mercury, that slippery messenger god, did he ever get into trouble, or did he remain immune from all the news, good and bad, which he delivered? I couldn't remember.

“We start brainstorming, we start making lists, any idea at all, no self-censoring: we consider everything,” I announced. “Advertising, donors, fund raisers, you name it.”

When I went back into my office a short time later and saw that press release from the Native corporation, twelve thousand dollars to every shareholder, I took my own advice and considered everything. Distribution is always the sticking point, isn't it. That cash was going to cause problems for a lot of people. Still it's a large corporation, doing well this year, looks like.

Gayle's corporation.

Did she have this windfall coming her way? Take some burdens off.

But did she need the whole thing?

What if she would like to invest in the
? Would she like to be a partner? For several minutes I couldn't see anything wrong with this notion. I couldn't think of anything better she could do with her money. Twelve thousand so close: I wanted to put my hands on it. Some devil of desperation inside me kept say
ing, Why not? Let's consider it, let's walk this idea around awhile and see how it feels.

A single mother, going to college, working for peanuts. I happen to care for her, and this is my best idea? When I came to my senses I wanted to ball the press release and hurl it across the room; instead I smoothed it out, wrote “drop in page 3, edit for length,” and slammed it into my Out box. What I suddenly wanted to do for a minute there was go to confession.

were sins, I could have gone to confession over that thought. Of course coveting a friend's money wasn't what the priest meant by impure thoughts. Wasn't the reason I quit going to confession. I quit because I enjoyed my impure thoughts, couldn't see a reason to give them up, but I wouldn't have minded some help now, a cleansing from the inside out.

It shocked me, how quick I was to consider exploiting her. Exploiting our friendship, our what-do-you-call-it.
Our relationship

There's a fancy word. Did we have a relationship? This had become mysterious to me. Oh hell, of course I'd never even allow her to part with her money. The idea just went through my head, that's all. I put it aside with some effort and it was gone. There will be no suggesting to Gayle that she invest in the
, not now, not ever, not even if…

No, not even if.

Even if what? It had been days since I'd seen her. She was ex
tending her stay in Allakaket. I hoped it was okay for her, that a good solid dose of kinship, familiar scenery, favorite foods, would buoy her up. Good to see how thick that ring of family is.
, I thought—that very word means family, doesn't it?


to possible donors” on it, but I knew of only one sure prospect.

Tad Suliman had become dark-browed and sullen these days. With the warm weather, Judy Finch had announced that she would be migrating south. If I might mix metaphors pretty severely, it seemed that what she had wanted all along was a really good pit stop in Tad's affectionate embrace and no more. She got what she wanted, a magnificent tune-up, and she was off again. Judy Finch followed her own path as mysteriously as other wild creatures follow theirs—the arctic tern, the Monarch butterfly, the circuit rider. How could Tad not have known that her undomesticated, self-serving spirit guaranteed her inevitable departure, even while the two of them were ice-fishing, reading poetry, healing each other with art, massages, and vegetarian meals? Coming at him all the time and he didn't see it.

It was hard to feel sorry for him but not impossible. I determined to do my best.

We met for lunch at Dan's, a steamy spoon not far from the
. This was not the Conscious Palate. If I consumed a burrito with sour cream at the Palate, it didn't feel quite the same as if I wolfed the same amount of fatty acids and whatnot at any number of other restaurants. The political sympathies in evidence at the Palate surrounded me with an illusion that the food was safer, less clogged with traditional American vices. It's all a matter of accessories, isn't it, but the food was good at the Palate. Well prepared.

Thing is, it's just as good at Dan's. When I arrived Tad was already digging into a platter of eggs, hot links, and buttermilk pancakes the size of hubcaps. It's hard to mess up with such outstanding ingredients. My conscience immediately hopped the border and I ordered the same thing. Tad is a big guy who clears land for fun; he'd burn it off and I wouldn't. But there you are.

“How's my favorite charity?” he said.

The hot links were bright red with cayenne and Red Dye number 3, and they looked delicious. Tad forked a piece of pancake.

“Your charity has fallen on some hard times,” I began.

“Hey, Gus I was joking, but I can see you're not.”

“Let me know when you're ready for the pitch.”

“I'm feeling less and less ready by the second.” He swirled pancake through syrup and egg. “Maybe she was right.”


“Food like this, Judy tells me, is poison. The meat's full of antibiotics and nitrites and look at this grease. Look at the shine on this plate, like the shine you see on the street after rain. But I can't live on greens and tofu even if it kills me.”

“The wise man chooses the middle way,” I said.

“That would be you, Gus?”

At that moment the waitress set my plates down—it required two plates to hold all that food—and turned my coffee cup right side up. The round glass pot hovered between us as she poured. The food steamed, the black coffee stood ready to wash it down, and everything was a vision of perfection, antibiotics or not.

“I confess to Almighty God,” I said, “this looks good.” I wanted to cry for a moment; my skin prickled, and my eyes teared up. Perfection was possible, after all, desires could be met, even those of the unworthy. My eyes stung with the contrast between this meal and the other thing, the disturbing imbalance over at the

I was so profoundly affected by this mix of feelings that I
wanted to make a human connection immediately, to grip Tad's arm, meet his eyes, see him nod in understanding. But between bites, he continued his lonely reminiscence.

“You would not guess what a difference she made in my life,” he said. “She made me feel—lightweight. Invincible. Chosen.”

I said to myself, pour a little cold water over your eagerness, Gus, patience, patience.

“I think about it now,” he went on, “and a voice says to me, what's so unusual about that? But I'll tell you what, Gus. It was unusual in this man's life. That's what it was. Shit. What am I trying to say?”

Unusual in this man's life. I couldn't add anything to that. What is love, but a funny experience in which we are picked from a lineup for no merit at all, maybe just on account of a God-given constellation of qualities that appeals to someone else's peculiar constellation. Whether you choose or whether you are chosen. What an unexpected gift.

“So the silver at the
is dropping,” he said after a few more bites. His sympathetic pun brought me a moment's hope.

“The bottom hasn't dropped out,” I began again. “Take ad sales, for example. There are entire markets out there we have yet to tap.” Adult entertainment. Limousines, clubs, showgirls, and novelty lingerie. The Butterfly Club out near the airport. Cordiale Lingerie, near the public library, where you could buy corsets and garters and “Mother's Day Gifts.” We had never considered going after these places, despite looking at their display ads in the big daily. Well, things were changing.

I knew that Cathy Carew had danced at the Butterfly for a couple of weeks at least, when she first came to Fairbanks. And, tell the truth, the ads that ran in the daily had always both attracted and puzzled me. There was one of a smiling girl in a bikini, but she was so pretty, her long midriff so slender and taut,
she could have been seventeen or eighteen and she was healthy to boot. Hands on hips, a smile like she was standing on the edge of a swimming pool, rather than in front of a crowd of men in a club. Girls! Girls! Girls! the copy read.

She wasn't Cathy but sure could have been. The kid was a dead ringer, almost, except she was clearly blond America and Cathy was village Alaska; those were dyed streaks of gold in Cathy's hair.

Tad looked into space over my shoulder.

“This past year, it's been easier to solve problems,” he said. “I'd have a problem, I'd solve it. Like I could really see right into the heart of whatever was happening. For a change.”

Maybe he was right. Maybe Judy had divine vision or something like that, lasers for eyes. She nailed me without hesitation that day at Unity Auto Parts.

“She was a lamp,” he said.

I didn't dare comment.

I ate the last slice of hot link and used a triangle of pancake to clean my plate. All these calories, the salt and sugar, grease and caffeine, had a warming effect. I unbuttoned my cuffs and shoved them up my arms, drank some ice water. Maybe I would regret this meal. I'm adaptable to a fault when it comes to food, way too eager to do as the Romans do.

Adaptable, I thought.

“Tad, over at the
, we are adapting to changing conditions, in order to stay afloat. We've added three new advertising accounts this week.”

“She started insisting I read these books,” Tad said.

“You could say we're taking a much more aggressive, creative approach to advertising.”

“Judy makes it hard for you not to do what she wants. Go along with her ideas. Christ, she's loaded with ideas. I never met a woman so loaded with ideas.”

Judy Finch was sounding a lot like Tad's ex-wife, Shelley Suliman of the Visitors Bureau. He seemed to veer toward women who were loaded with ideas. I finished my coffee and pancakes and watched Tad dance his fingers over the cellophane on a package of Camel filters. Back to those again. His personal trainer leaves town and he goes smash. Well, he sure enough was upset.

“We're both in trouble,” I said, a little louder, with emphasis.

He looked at me then. The waitress set down two checks. I reached for Tad's; he beat me to both of them, scooping them out from under my hand.

“Come on,” I said.

“There's still a chance.”

“A chance?”

“She has an artist-in-residence thing back in Montana. You know she left here really fried because of that public art thing. Convinced there's nothing for her here.”

“What public art thing? Bring me up to date.”

“She was all but awarded a One Percent for Art. She thought she had it, then all of a sudden people froze on her, and next thing she's not even on the short list anymore because she's not an Alaska resident. Which is not a requirement to begin with. Told she had it, then told
, because of a last-minute political decision to give the project to a bunch of Alaskans. Public art. Fuck. What a weird thing.”

“Local hire's a big problem in Alaska,” I said. “There's constant debate as to whether it's constitutional or not…”

Tad stared at me.

I tried again. “Sounds like, for a while, she thought seriously about hanging around here.”

“Well, I think she did. Now it's my turn. Am I maybe ready to leave Alaska? What's here for me, anyway?”

Maybe, I thought, Judy got cold feet and found it hard to give
herself up to this place, to Tad, to such an irrevocable gamble. So maybe a fight with the One Percent for Art people became her push out the door, just what she wanted. Why would a woman like Judy fold her tent and slip away when she can summon up a heap more drama than that?

I liked the way she picked you up by your ankles and swung you upside down and showed you the world from a new perspective. But once a girl like that leaves town, the world returns to normal pretty fast. You're still a debt-ridden publisher and the universe never did provide.

“Tad, you've always told me how dogs wear out the ground around their doghouses. There's plenty of room around the doghouse here, for some of us. Feels to me like you need that kind of room. Think of how much habitat a bear uses. How would you get used to another place, after all the habitat you've had here?”

He chuckled.

“Now give me the goddamn check,” I tried again. As if to suggest it wasn't nickels and dimes that were hurting me, it was big, big sums.

“Don't be so impatient, Gus. It's bad for your blood pressure.”

It amused him to fend me off. Like he was brushing off a dog that wanted to go for a walk.

The cigarettes went back into his breast pocket. He paid the bill and scooped a dozen toothpicks from the little glass tub next to the cash register. We stood outside the diner and Tad dug at his teeth while we watched a line of cars on University Avenue pile up behind the railroad crossing. Oil tankers from Anchorage inched toward the railroad yard at the pace of a baby just learning to walk. A few drivers gave up, peeled out of their lane, and did a U-turn.

“I know you need money,” he said at last.

“No kidding.”

“I never should have told her some things.”

“What things?”

“Oh, Christ I'm not going to say, but you know, she was into that whole thing of how men don't talk enough, share their feelings whatever, so I like an idiot I probably told her stuff she wasn't really counting on. I lost my head. Why do I open my big mouth sometimes?”

“What did you tell her?”

“Oh, whatever. This and that. I don't remember. One thing, that land I cleared on the riverbank that you gave me a hard time about. She talked about how Fairbanks
, and I had to go and confess I'd done my small part to make it look even shabbier around here. Lowered the beauty ratio some all by myself. If someone else had told her those damn stories, maybe it would have been okay, she could have thought she was rescuing me from my past. I guess I didn't sound repentant enough.”

“Maybe you aren't repentant enough.”

“I try to be. I try to be Mr. Fucking Repentant, every chance I get.”

“It doesn't come easy to some people.”

“No.” He tossed a toothpick.

The crossing arms went up and traffic began to move, a pipe unblocked, hearts lighter.

“Time is it?” Tad said. “Maybe I'd feel better if I bought a new table saw. I'm gonna go over to Alaska Hardware, then maybe a couple of beers at the Last Gravel Bar. You?”

It had been a year or so, maybe longer, since he drank in the afternoon, since he and I sat in a barroom together. I thought he'd given it up, and for good reasons.

“I'd follow you there for the sake of conversation,” I said, after a few seconds. “But it is a workday.”

“So it is. Well, Gus, what's all this money trouble about?”

“I can eat,” I said. “I have a roof over my head. But the newspaper, I see it changing, Tad. It's time for us to get deeper into this community. I want to—buy the
Highway Sentinel
, I mean to merge with it. We're going to get into every home in Fairbanks.”

“Jesus.” He stared at me.

“I don't see any other way.”

BOOK: Correcting the Landscape
7.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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