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Authors: Marjorie Kowalski Cole

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BOOK: Correcting the Landscape
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The place started to fill up. Noreen arrived looking dark. Her brows low, her lips crushed together as she chewed them.

“What is it?”

“Felix is going to be exited,” she said. “What a mess. How could they?”

“He mentioned that,” I said. “What a shame.”

“It's a crime.”

“Do you know when?”


SSSh
.” Bruce Fields had arrived and sat down with us, crush
ing his long frame into a wicker chair. His knees barely fit under the table. He had red spots in his eyes—shingles, or broken capillaries. The smell of wood smoke, or more likely marijuana, drifted from his jacket. His presence meant Felix was here. Sure enough, the poet was chatting with Trudy, calm and detached as always. I get it, I thought: staying calm, he is also alert, at all times. Never distracted by his own panic.

The Aardvark is a small place, as Tad well knew; he was right to stay away, given his claustrophobia. The main space is a former living-dining room; seating was at a premium. It was soon crowded and hot and excessively intimate. Gayle arrived at last, sliding behind people, smiling and energized from her class.

“How was Tai Chi?” I said, crushing against Noreen so that Gayle could squeeze up to the table.

“We learned Repulse Monkey. I can't demonstrate here, I guess!” But she tried to anyway. She bent her knees, took a small step back, pushed her left arm out before her as if pushing something away and holding her right hand in front of her belly, palm up like she was cradling something, or maybe acknowledging a stomachache. She took another small step backwards, switched arms, did it again, looking over our heads at her foe.

“What a name,” said Bruce.

“You step back, you sink in roots, you're very solid. Your energy goes three feet into the ground, and your arm goes out to ward off that monkey. See, the monkey is quick, restless, all surface, above the surface.” She sat down and turned to him. “Though some people say that in this arm, next to you, you are actually carrying the monkey. Carrying the very thing that you are fighting against.”

“I get it,” said Bruce. “Like in Shakespeare. Yin and Yang.” Shakespeare? I thought, but he explained himself. “This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine.”

I know that much Shakespeare, too. Who doesn't?
My gorge rises at it
. That's from
Hamlet
.

“The mind of the monkey,” Gayle began, still facing Bruce so that I could barely hear her, and when I looked at her I saw the back of her head. I couldn't hear what she was telling him about monkey energy.

Hey she's with me
, I wanted to say. As if Bruce was a threat.

“Noreen,” I said softly, “I think I'm having a midlife crisis.”

My sister looked directly at me. Her eyelashes were short and light, the same color as her hair. When she smiled, skin crinkled up like sand around her eyes. Creases at the corners of her small mouth deepened.

Her hand came down on mine.

“Felix is going to read,” she said. “It'll be all right.”

So, for the next forty minutes, we didn't talk much. Felix stood behind a microphone that was Trudy's favorite objet d'art—the mic rose out of a tower of Reader's Digest Condensed Books, glued together, with a hole drilled through them for the microphone pole and cable. Felix's soft voice changed when he read; it was slow and clear. He read poems about Ireland and one that seemed to be about Bruce and him sitting in Bruce's cabin, wanting to know each other better, not daring. I thought it was pretty good. Four feet apart they could feel the heat from each other's bodies, the weight of the other's thighs. Then he read “Correcting the Landscape.” Gayle turned and looked at me after that one. Something in her eyes I was supposed to understand, the flame of a new idea.

I leaned forward to whisper, “Did you like it?” and she had already turned back to look at Felix, so the leaning forward put my mouth into the cloud of her soft, dark hair, where it wanted to stay. I was so stunned by this, what I had done and how good it
felt, that I didn't hear another word of Felix's. I did notice, finally, that Gayle wore an interesting piece of jewelry, a pansy made of green, white, and purple trade beads stitched to a bit of hide, pinned to her turtleneck shirt. It was pinned rather low, carelessly, on the curve of her breast. A pansy resting on a perfect slope.

After the reading Felix sat down and had a coffee with us. He said he'd probably be gone in a couple of weeks. I couldn't believe it. Nothing was holding together. I shook my head in disbelief. Bruce's eyes were spots of blood. Were the two of them feeling that heat he wrote about, right now? Used to be I'd always throw something at a problem, a meal, an editorial, anything. Just make a reaction. That wasn't called for anymore. It wasn't even that my quiver was empty, so to speak, it was more that the most important response was silence and sadness, avoid bluster, don't show off. This doesn't have anything to do with you, a voice said, although I'd miss Felix, too.

Repulse Monkey. Step back and stay low. Draw strength from the energy that sinks in. Back away with respect. Ward off the monkey mind. Noreen said something and they all agreed, and looked at me.

“What?” I said.

“People who work for you, go on to do better things,” said Noreen.

“Yeah, thanks, for Pete's sake.”

“I didn't mean it like that! I'm talking about self-actualizing,” she said. “In its way the paper is a nurturing environment and people grow, they—they evolve. They blossom! Even though we'll miss Felix.”

“We all agree,” Noreen insisted.

“Fine, fine. What is this, some kind of wake? Come on, now. Felix, wherever you are when your poetry blossoms into a book, let me know.”

When the party broke up I walked Gayle out to the door of Lucerne's rusty Nissan.

“I'll see you again,” I said firmly. Steam bath and a meal. Let's see, Peking Pagoda or Bad Molly Road?

“I think we ought to do a little alteration on that First Family statue downtown sometime,” she said from the driver's seat. “Do you?” She grinned up at me.

“Oh Jesus, Gayle, what are you talking about?”

“Just a little something I never thought of before. I mean what an idea! I heard someone say once there was a body hidden inside it.”

“Gayle, that's lunacy.”

“Of course it is, Gus. But I guess, you've never heard that, have you?”

“No. Of course not.”

“I guess maybe we hang out with different people.”

I leaned closer to the car. “We don't hang out with different people.” Put a stop to that. “We hang out with the same people. We are the same people.” I love you, Gayle. How about that? “We're friends,” I said. “We don't let each other have such lunatic ideas.”

“Oh, I'm just pulling your leg. Can't help it, all this
chi
is racing through me. Thanks for, um, asking me to the reading. And yeah. Why don't we do it again? Good night, Gus.”

“Tomorrow? Saturday?” I said, my hand on the door to keep her from moving.

She looked me over. This was it, now. Yes? Don't play that hot and cold thing with me, Gayle.

“I have to see what's up with Jack,” she said. “Okay?”

“Of course. Saturday?”

“Maybe. Yes. If Lucerne can stay home.”

“I'll pick you up.”

“Okay.”

I was so scared that I stepped back then without another word, into the snow, let her back up and around me. Breathing shallow. But happy, Christ I was happy all of a sudden. Not a perfect exchange, not smooth as axle grease but that's all right. Gayle and I are going to have a bit of a social-cultural gap sometimes. What of it? We've been given something, I've been given something. Can't define it. But don't forget to fall down and say thank you to whomever for whatever exactly this is, Gus, don't forget. In all the excitement. Don't step on the good part!

FIFTEEN

There came this bright young thing

with a Black & Decker

and cut down my quince-tree.

I stood with my mouth hanging open

while one by one

she trimmed off the branches…

—N
UALA NÍ
D
HOMNAILL
, “A
S FOR THE
Q
UINCE
,”
TRANSLATED BY
P
AUL
M
ULDOON

T
AD THOUGHT I OUGHT TO GET HELP. I
wasn't averse to the notion, but few people understood the weird complexity of this problem. Besides, I'd tried it—getting help.

When I was wondering how to survive in the same market as the
Sentinel
, how the two of us could inhabit the same territory, I actually did talk with a fellow I knew in the journalism department on campus. He said my idea that we join forces with the shopper was so counterintuitive that it was therefore probably brilliant. He did not have much to offer. But while he was out of his office doing something or other I looked through some of the
textbooks stored on his walls. In an oldish one about the business of journalism I found this pearl of a sentence: “Another way of combating shoppers is to publish an exciting newspaper.”

No help there. I put the book down immediately, but the words lingered in my mind like a splinter under my skin. It was like advising someone to be funny, or to be good. Oh Maybelline why can't you be true? Nonetheless in an effort to add a little “excitement” I made some missteps. The journalism student who wrote like Hunter S. Thompson pleased me but no one else.

For the honest excitement of breaking news,
HOMICIDE A POSSIBILITY IN DROWNING DEATH
and headlines like that, we didn't have the staff. Writers are plentiful and that's the truth, but money to pay reporters who will do the legwork and write like professionals, that's another story. For every young man or woman willing to bend herself over a desk and analyze interviews with biologists, Fish and Game spokesmen, subsistence hunters, environmentalists, and big game guides, willing to study wild animal populations enough to understand the terms for herself, for every seeker after truth of that caliber, there are twenty writers handing me columns that claim Alaska's wolf-control program is a “war on wolves” or that those opposed to it are “emotional animal lovers from Outside.” I was coming to hate all this froth. Those columns aren't exciting, I had found out over the past three years; they are suds in the dishpan, gray water, and they don't sell papers. Everybody's got an opinion.

But an informed opinion, expressed in an original, crafted, and once in a while even a compound, sentence? To me that's Chopin. That's poetry.

Maybe if I set everything out in front of me and stared at it, my account books included, really stared at my inventory and my possibilities, I'd get some ideas, I'd see some less-than-obvious connections that might save our skin.

I was doing that on a Saturday morning later when Noreen stopped by. Gayle, who had promised me that Lucerne would stay with Jack on Thursday evening, was in the newsroom entering a short update on the governor's most recent appointees to the forestry board. They both shrieked a bit at each other in that high-pitched way women have, that jocular code that seems to express affection and humor. As if to demonstrate how well they're holding up in a man's world.

They chatted awhile, their voices like gurgling faucets, a pleasant sound.

“Five years I was with that one,” Gayle said. Sometimes when they're happy and their voices rise, seems like they abandon discretion. I looked up from the mess on my desk and held very still. “He used to say I was like a third grader! Could hardly pick out groceries without that voice in my head,
you bought the wrong meat again
.”

They laughed again, the two of them. I couldn't make out Noreen's response. Then I heard “steam baths” and “Chevak” and I wondered if Gayle was talking about us, her and me. I turned on my radio, low, to block them out. Suddenly I didn't want any previews, any advance information.

I wanted it to be all firsthand, I wanted it to be new. I deserved that.

Most of Saturday is music day on public radio. Sometimes it gets a little too sad for me, but suddenly I looked at the radio. John Prine was singing “An Angel from Montgomery.”
And I ain't done nothing since I woke up today
…I turned up the volume and leaned into the radio. What was he saying, he was saying it to me. Directly to me.
Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery, make me a poster of an old rodeo. Just give me one thing that I can hold on to
…

I stood up and walked to the window, looked out at the snow,
still falling, so full of second chances, bringing all of us its beautiful and unscripted page.

To believe in this living is a hard way to go
.

The skinny dark trees were getting filled up, getting frosted with promise. My eyes burned. If desire had the power to break glass, that window would have shattered.

I wanted to be forgiven for letting the newspaper come to this. More, I wanted to be forgiven for this closeted life. Gays aren't the only ones hiding out. I'd gotten dirty, hiding out for so long with my daydreams and my artificial self-reliance. And the only thing that would lead me out of here was an angel. Please.

I couldn't have written an essay about that moment, it didn't hold up to scrutiny or to prose, but it was real; something had run its course in me. I needed an angel. I had nothing else to give but this very thing, myself, the molecules of desire left in the bottom of the glass. And yet, sitting on top of nothing at all, I knew that I was worth saving. I had something to look forward to. Even as soon as this coming Thursday. My soul, emptied of all bluster, was worth something.

I went back to my desk and surveyed the chaos, and noticed there tucked into a dish of paper clips, among the cans of pens and the coffee cups, that little business card Tad had left. Polly Swisher. Professional Legal Services. Real Estate. Bankruptcy. What kind of a name is Swisher?

 

A LAWYER IN HER MIDTHIRTIES, POLLY SWISHER TURNED OUT
to be tall, athletic, and horsey in an attractive way. She had a long white face broken by deep dimples and a broad, level, matter-of-fact smile. I brought in all the books and business plans, past and present, and the unpaid statements, and sank into a chair while she asked me questions. On every surface were dishes of candy
that she bought by the tub at the discount warehouse. A birch-bark canoe on her desk overbrimmed with Walnettos and a bowl next to a reclining chair held fruit chews. I reclined as deep into that chair as I could, unwrapped a candy, and sank my molars into the sugar.

“You should have come to me sooner, Gus,” she remarked.

“I bet you say that to everybody.”

“Oh, but for differing reasons. You'd be surprised how many times I tell people, go home and try again, you're not that desperate yet. Some people are too eager to throw in the towel. Must be something else in their lives bothering them. But what we have here…”

She beamed at me. Why? I unwrapped more candy.

“Your investors were generous but perhaps imprudent,” she said. “They didn't protect themselves. You're the sole publisher, it looks like.”

“I've been running the place.”

“So you worked out a trial venture with the
Sentinel
, and now that three-month trial has expired. You don't have the resources to re-negotiate, and you're wise to admit it, because from the looks of things…” She gazed at me over the mess of papers and raised a hand, as if to indicate our road home. “From the looks of this, you are insolvent. That's a legal term. It means there's no hope.”

“That is good news,” I mumbled around the fruit chews. I wasn't paying her to be nice, after all. “Thought I was not understanding things, but you're saying—”

“It's not you, Gus. It's the situation. No need to doubt yourself. You're just not making any money. It looks like reorganization isn't the answer, either. I see no source of income.”

“Neither do I.”

She laid out the options, neutral and pleasant. Maybe just a
touch of sadism in her constitution, like a tiny bit of pepper. Why weren't there professional soldiers like her in every walk of life? I should be glad that I hired her before the creditors did.

“Once you decide to go this route,” she continued, tactfully not over-using the word
bankruptcy
, “you'll need to run legal ads for four months. The same ad, repeated. Put the word out.”

“Why?”

“That's the law, Gus. It's to alert any more creditors, investors, those with a stake. Ex-wives.” She raised her eyebrows.

“No problem there.”

“And, it's the law.”

Reality drove its ugly square head into my stomach. My reputation. What else do I have to lose? I couldn't look up at her.

After a minute she said with a touch of gentleness, “It's the easiest part of the whole thing.”

For a moment I wondered if I could call the whole thing back. What have I let loose, what kind of change is this? I looked up at her deep dimples, her steady smile, around at her office, which was not ostentatious—no expensive decor, just a few outdoorsy photographs, herself and friends next to a bush plane on a lake somewhere. All this candy. She looked trustworthy. My guide. And God knows I'm far from the reclusive sort, my mug and my name have been in the papers for years. I used to love running for that assembly seat.

Grin and bear it
.

What will Gayle think of this. Noreen. Mostly, Gayle.

“I see that you've been improvising for a while,” Polly said kindly. “Things get very messy that way. Good thing we stop now, and start to disentangle. If it's any comfort at all, you don't have to improvise anymore. Instead we'll take some steps together, one at a time. Like when I'm hiking and I come to a river with stones across it I take them one at a time. It's a nice, methodical way to
do things.” She looked down at her small bark canoe, handed it to me. I took several Walnettos.

“Think it over,” she said.

She wore a silk shirt with long, loose sleeves and deep cuffs, and she folded her arms and smiled at me. People are sure able to do different things in life, with ease. Some people pull teeth, some people staple stomachs, some like to shoe horses I suppose. It was unbelievable to me that this woman wanted to sort out my finances. I put the candy in my pocket, without thinking how it looked. I might need it for later.

We're folding
.

Back in my truck I tried to say it out loud a few times. The words were strange, blocky, unappealing. Hard to get my tongue around them.

Cut my losses. Bankrupt. Chapter Seven. Augustine Traynor dba Gus Traynor dba the Fairbanks Mercury hereby declares
…

One thing's for sure, I thought, I had no right and no willingness to coax new staff aboard. They were out there, plenty of writers eager to see their words in print, eager to submit stories, until the utility company turned the power off and that pressroom foreman in his orange coveralls crooked his inky finger at me and said, “Gus…You havin' a little trouble meetin' the bill again.” What did he know.

I've been my own Sancho Panza and this adventure was just about over.

Polly Swisher had called my attention to the dates on several of the statements.

“These dates are here for a reason, Gus,” she said. “Each day makes a difference. Give it a good think overnight but do make a decision.”

One winter night years ago, out on Bad Molly Road, a big moose stepped out of the brush and into my headlights. A big old
moose swung its suitcase of a rib cage right at my bumper. Nothing to do but hit the brakes and slide; and while I was skidding toward that brown hide, I shouted into the silence with the grim satisfaction of at least knowing the right words for the occasion, “Oh, SHIT.”

I lucked out that time. The moose got a bad side-ache and disappeared into the woods, and I got a smashed hood and one thousand dollars from the insurance company. Wish I could hit another moose. About this catastrophe, there was nothing to say. No satisfaction of any kind apparent to me just yet, despite Polly's reassurance.

 

THURSDAY NIGHT LUCERNE AND JACK STOOD IN THE LIVING
room and looked me over as if they were Gayle's parents. What was that amusement in Lucerne's face? She was always too ironic, that woman. Maybe she knew all about my visit to Polly Swisher?

Gayle zipped herself into a midnight blue corduroy parka with a wolverine ruff around her face. The corduroy was deep and rich like fur. The parka hung to her knees. Her fluffy dark hair shone with light, and now we were going to head up to Well Street for a hot bath, and she'd shampoo it all over again. Me too, I was going to peel off and start over. Seemed like a crazy thing to do, but she seemed to want it.

“You might think I'm overprotective,” she said in the truck. I had to think for a minute; what is she talking about? “When I was little we kids were left alone all the time. Bet you were, too. Actually I was taking care of the others at age six. My folks had eight kids, I have one. Seems like it ought to be easier for me, not harder.”

“You do a great job with Jack, Gayle. No, I wasn't thinking…”

She unzipped the parka slightly and rested the hood on her
shoulders. Swathed in fur next to me, like a beauty from New York City in a limousine.

“I try to keep an eye on that kid. Lots of drug use around here these days. I go overboard, but on the right side at least.”

“No, I'm sure you're wise to…Kids don't tell their parents much.”

“We never did. Did you?”

“It was a different world back then, wasn't it?” As much trouble as I could get into, up to a certain ceiling. Used to lift those little lemon pies and cherry pies from the A&P. Took a Rolling Stones album out of Woolworth's inside my jacket. Drove a friend's dad's Buick into the Elwha River at fifteen. That's not what she means, though. Not what she means at all.

“This morning I took him to school in the ice fog, let him off, watched him join the crowd of kids…and this taxi drew up. A pink Diamond taxi. And a boy got out in a T-shirt. Round face just like Jack's. No backpack, no mittens, no lunch. And no jacket.” She stared at me. I tried to assume an appropriate expression of concern. “I thought to myself, the mom is sleeping it off. Times, this is a scary place to raise a kid.”

BOOK: Correcting the Landscape
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