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Authors: Marjorie Kowalski Cole

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BOOK: Correcting the Landscape
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“Let's see what you can do for us,” I said, handing back the résumé.

“That's a copy for you,” he said.

“Where would I file it?” I gestured at the mess of papers all around us in the office. “If I need it again, I'll ask for it. Start tomorrow? Start today?”

“He's still on Irish time,” No protested. “And he hasn't a place to stay.”

“Ahadoe's dear,” Felix murmured.

No and the Sheedys always said “Aggadoe.” His voice was like an animal's breath. No and I smiled at each other. A different way of doing things, of looking at things.

“You've landed here in the midst of a few breaking stories. I could use some help,” I said. “There's a book down at the public library I'd like you to read. You could do a story on speculation for us. If we like it, we'll buy it. And I think we probably will like it. You're welcome to stay at my place for a few nights, while you get settled—I have an extra room. Don't I, No? Sometimes I forget, I'm there so seldom.”

“I'll take you out there,” she said to Felix.

“Isn't anybody going to work today?” I said. “We have a paper to get out.”

“Oh yeah,” said Noreen, as if she were telling Felix where to find the bathroom. “Deadline is Thursday at five. Then the paper goes downtown to press.”

“Heaven,” I said. “An unusual name.”

“Think of Evans,” he said. “It's a local form of Evans.”

“The perspective of a newcomer would be useful on this book, and the whole controversy. I'd be curious what you think of it, Felix Heaven. Read the book, talk to both sides, stick with other people's words as much as you can.”

He touched his mouth with his fingertips. An odd, delicate gesture.

“So this would be a book one could easily find in most big cities, but not here?” he said.

“What do you make of that?”

“We have some experience with censorship back home. In the long run, it makes life hard for young people, I think. So much to catch up with, later on.”

I felt a certain relief at this mild expression of opinion, and to hear something of a personal nature from this cool young man. As if the initiation into our group was one simple item of personal revelation. Who are you, Felix? I'm a man who can be honest, if not forthcoming. Noreen smiled. Nice to see that, after her recent distress. She hadn't been too happy with me either, lately.

Felix looked around at our modest, chaotic office. A messy crib signals much increase, it says in one of the psalms, or something like that; these three small rooms signaled plenty. I heard the thump of a columnist, bringing in his latest tirade. The wooden floors creaked with his approach. My paper, the
Mercury
, bold and unmistakable.

“As free and independent as the birds,” said Felix, reading the masthead on an old issue, and looking satisfied.

I didn't quiz him about his visa or green card. Writing stories, freelance—that's not any kind of serious job. Not the best pay either. But second day in America and the kid had work.

FOUR

Communities in which controversy does not thrive are dead on their feet
.

—K
EN
P
ARKER
,
B
E
I
NDEPENDENT
! S
TART
Y
OUR
O
WN
N
EWSPAPER

S
OMETIMES WINTER CLOSES DOWN ON FAIRBANKS
like a cell door. This was one of those winters, arriving with a bitter Halloween. Poor trick-or-treating kids, feeling real pain under their masks and bedsheets, could hardly see as they stumbled from door to door on frozen feet, their fingers burning with cold, Mom or Dad waiting in the car. My neighbor's boy wore a battery-operated mask that was supposed to drip blood when you hit a hidden switch. The whole thing broke apart in the cold at the second house he visited.

People were naturally drawn to the warm firebox of controversy. A challenged book at the library and an extremely provocative timber concessions bill promised halfway decent newspaper sales; the subscription list even grew a bit. You never can predict what will fire up the community. In Anchorage this year, it was breast-feeding in public; their newspaper finally had to put
up a stop sign. “We will run no more letters on this subject,” they announced after several months. Who could have guessed such a thing? In Fairbanks, where we make a certain show of self-sufficiency, Christians and hippies alike expected women to breast-feed, and a glimpse of breast in a shopping mall was not the end of the world.

However, a single frame out of hundreds in this graphic novel did the trick.

Few people read the novel, but the photocopied page went from hand to hand. Hundreds of petitioners didn't even see it; they just heard about its existence, and that was enough.

Felix Heaven interviewed several players in the drama, including librarians, parents, the principal of the Catholic school, and the bishop's secretary. He guessed correctly when his subjects had plenty to say, kept his accent and his opinions to himself. The young man must have had some experience in keeping most of himself locked away, off-limits, while accepting new information. Except for the bishop's secretary, who was wild in her rage (“incensed,” Felix wrote; I deleted that) and wanted the book to be burned, most complainants wanted it made “less accessible.”

That word again.

Apparently in the old days in Fairbanks, a complaint was always enough to get a dubious or sexy book removed from the shelves and tucked out of harm's way in the director's office. People were angry that their disapproval alone wasn't enough to solve the problem this time. Soft words in a back room got them nothing. The bishop's letter to the library director, nothing. The subtle mention of the library trust fund, nothing. That was good, I thought, a sign of the library's maturing; but it was this very neutrality on the library's part, this refusal to play the old game, that continued to fuel the fire. The word
accessible
was waved about as if to prove that complainants were not censors so much as
housekeepers, merely trying to keep the poisons on the top shelf of the broom closet. Close to half of the complainants' letters began, “While I do not believe in censoring what others read…”

It bothered me. There was something so—unread, about this fear of accessibility.

It was a lie. And somehow, a lie to which you could subscribe.

The crowd of conservative parents was subscribing to a lie. They really wanted the book gone, but that wasn't it, either. In truth, to complain about accessibility was to complain about something that did not exist. Literature isn't accessible. I mean people no longer read that much, and maybe only one person out of fifty who complained about this book had even looked at it, let alone read it cover to cover and judged it as a whole. It's not that easy.

The heart isn't that accessible. It doesn't end up naked on the page. The truth in our hearts is well hidden. Maybe it only comes out in the story itself—and story isn't that accessible, when we can't even agree on what the story is, or where to focus our attention. We are so easily distracted. That's the scary part.

People didn't read the book, so of course they didn't allow themselves to be disturbed by its hidden story. They didn't follow the thread of the action all the way into the puzzle at its very center. The sexy pictures were only a distraction from the story, and the hero paid no attention to the sex around him, not even to the naked blonde sitting on him, once he understood that his friend and mentor was in trouble. He throws the girl off his body and runs to his friend's aid. The complainants didn't see that happening. Why? Because it wasn't so accessible, after all.

My editorial came together into a reasonably coherent whole. I was proud of it. Tad Suliman came by a week later as he did sometimes when he was feeling lonely these days, stuck his head in my office, and said, “Nice editorial, Gus. What we're paying you for.”

His soon-to-be-ex-wife Shelley, Realtor of the Year last year and part-time director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, had her picture in the big daily several times a week, attached to classified ads in the Real Estate section. She was a gregarious woman, not bad looking, with strong features, a wide smile, and bright yellow curls. Once he showed me a picture of her in his wallet from ten years ago—they had been camping. She was thinner, wearing a loose flannel shirt and flirting with the man behind the camera. Her hair was frizzing out of long braids, coming loose after several days of camping and fishing. Her broad smile was directed at only one person. I imagine he missed that woman most of all; with the current Shelley, beaming her can-do grin at the entire city, he was snarling mad.

I gave Felix a personal check for seventy-five dollars after his first story, which he put toward a used mountain bike, modified for winter riding. He surprised us with a well-written feature story about the bike shop where he found his bike; the owner made a specialty of replacing standard rims with locally welded wide rims on which a rider could keep going through the snow all winter long. Felix rented a twelve-by-sixteen cabin and rode his bike to and from the office. When he'd peel off his face mask, there were stripes of windburned red skin under his eyes. The bike looked like a torture machine to me, but he was exhilarated. Leaning in the hallway, piled with his gear and helmet, it gave the place life. To see the bike against the wall and Gayle Kenneally's blue corduroy Eskimo parka on the rack delighted me; the
Mercury
, I'd think: what a happening place.

Sometimes Gayle's son, Jack, walked over after school and waited for her in the newsroom. He was a big, shy twelve-year-old in half-unlaced Sorels, usually reading a copy of
Off-Road
or, when Gayle scolded him, scowling line by line through his assigned paperback copy of
To Kill a Mockingbird
. He seemed to
spend half an hour on each page. I couldn't imagine what he made of Atticus and Boo and Dill. Once I walked around him where he slouched at a vacated desk behind a math book, and saw inside it a Garfield comic book. I felt for him. Who wouldn't? She wouldn't let him go home alone.

“You don't trust him?” I overheard Noreen say once.

“Why should I?” Gayle said softly. “Teenagers never tell their parents anything. God knows what he'll get into and he won't tell me. We never talked to our parents back home. Not about what we were getting into.” She laughed at herself, a kind of snort.

They lived downtown somewhere, and I noticed they rode the Fairbanks bus home, which meant an uncomfortable wait in the open bus shelter down the road. At thirty below it's not that much fun. I began to feel my way toward offering them a ride.

You feel your way, then you grab the chance like you just thought of it that second.

“If you're going that way,” said Gayle, after a minute, in response to my offer.

“Almost always have a reason to head into town,” I said. “I'll go start my car.”

And of course, the Honda would not start.

The heater had died some time ago, and in the cold, everything plastic inside had started to break and fall off in my hand. The speedometer needle was stuck at 80 mph; the dashboard was basically gutted of knobs and controls. The emergency brake was a chunk of six-by-six post, a leftover from mounting my newspaper box out on Bad Molly. I sat there alone in the frozen shoebox of my car and pounded my forehead once or twice on the steering wheel. Then I thought, It's just as well. This would be a mighty unpleasant ride. What would they think of me, the two of them.

“I spoke too soon, Gayle,” I announced. “That car is not going
anywhere tonight. I'm getting the message. It's time for a new buggy. I'm really sorry.”

“Whatever for?” said Gayle. “I'm sorry about your car. We're hunky-dory, Jack and I, we have an agreement. If we're getting home after six we stop in at KFC on the way. He likes those mashed potatoes.”

I watched her get into her parka, while Jack tumbled toward us in his big, loose boots, grinding someone's loose pages underfoot. He knocked into the light table; a canister of pens tumbled off. Gayle turned him around to clean up the mess. She did seem content, after all; she seemed just fine, heading out into that version of hell that is a Fairbanks street at thirty below. Car exhaust freezes in front of you, so you have balls of fire and burning cold in your face at the same time. And no visibility.

I brought the battery inside for the night, and the next day it started up, but it was only a matter of time. I didn't have the ready funds to replace my car, but I couldn't tolerate being without ready wheels. Without a dependable car I was stuck inside the office all day and my own head as well. My thinking was boxed in. Ideas for interviews, field trips, hands-on experiences weren't possible anymore. I don't have to do that sort of thing every day, but I have to believe that it's possible. Without a car I couldn't escape myself. Tad Suliman came by, cheerful for once, which surprised me, and made a recommendation.

“Let's go out to Unity Auto Parts,” he said. “I know the guy owns the place, and they got a totaled truck last week that isn't totaled by a long shot. Might be just the thing.”

I took a look at the
Mercury
's account book. Perhaps I could justify purchasing a truck with
Mercury
funds, if it was dirt cheap and if I took on a chunk of the delivery route, which I'd been planning to do for some time. Fresh stacks of the
Mercury
hitched a ride with the Friday edition of the daily to Nenana, Delta Junc
tion, Haystack, and Coffee Dome, communities at the borough's perimeter, but if I could handle delivery to other locations around town, we'd save a few bucks a week. And I could consider the truck a business expense.

On a sunny, warmish afternoon—five below—I arranged to meet Tad at Unity Auto Parts. I parked just outside the fence of stakes, peels of log with the bark still on, which I took to be sawmill refuse. At the driveway into the yard a sign had been propped against an old deuce-and-a-half The sign consisted of the detached hood of a truck. The word
OPEN
had been cut into the metal with a torch. Four elongated letters let daylight through like movie credits cut into celluloid. The whole thing had been spray-painted a weird metallic blue. I braced myself for a lunge from some huge chained junkyard dog as I walked past the sign and up to the usual ATCO unit, a portable building the size of a trailer, left over from pipeline days. Over the door was a sign:
OFFICE
. It might as well have said,
ABANDON ALL HOPE
.

Unity was a godless place. The office was dark, the walls black and grimy, and twists of metal hung from chains strung across the ceiling. A plastic bucket with Red Vines in it shared a windowsill with an empty heart-shaped box that had once held candy. The box and the red licorice were the only touches of color. What got to me was that chain strung across the ceiling. At new auto parts stores you get those bright lights and colorful boxes piled high, but here at Unity a homemade system prevailed. They were parts salvaged from collisions, I guess, hanging naked from the chains, each tagged with an identifying number.

Without any sound except the scratch of his claws on the floor, a black Lab wandered up to me and put his square head forward to be rubbed. There was something human about him. I massaged his skull and tried to get the hang of the place, its remorseless lack of color and the coating of grime on everything. A
youngish fellow behind the counter watched a small TV and didn't look up.

That's when Tad Suliman and, to my surprise, a small blond woman in ski clothes, a puffy down jumpsuit, came in. She pulled off a fuchsia helmet and golden hair leaped out, floating wild and thick around her face. It glinted like polished metal.

“Gus,” said Tad. “Judy Finch, Gus Traynor.”

Perhaps she was the reason for the cheer in his voice.

She turned to me with remarkable blue eyes. Her square, mannish hand rested in mine for a few seconds. Then she looked around and took a good survey of the place. She took in the complete absence, I guess you'd say, of a woman's touch. Except for the warm, persistent head of the black Lab and the cardboard box on the windowsill, the interior of Unity Auto Parts held out no hope that women, or beauty, or softness even existed in this world. Not even a swimsuit calendar in sight, though I doubted she would find that a comfort.

“So this is what cars are made of,” she said at last. I laughed.

“It's a guy place,” said Tad with some uncertainty. Judy smiled, as if she liked his discomfort. The dog shoved its head between her legs. She took its temples in both hands and gave it a good scratch, smoothing back its ears.

“What are you doing here, puppy?” she said. “Have you been bewitched?”

“So Gus, see the truck yet?” Tad said.

“How do you know so much about what's on the market?” I said. “I thought it was boats you drove.”

“Those were the days. But you know it's been a while since I pulled a stunt like that. Gus, I'm a new man.”

“You found God?”

“I found art. Art heals. Judy's in town to teach ice carving. I've been moving blocks of ice from the pond to the Ice Park this past
week.” His soft, heavy voice took on a reverent tone. “I've never seen people work so hard. Jesus.”

BOOK: Correcting the Landscape
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