Authors: Marjorie Kowalski Cole
“Gayle, are you overloaded? Don't let this get to be too much for you,” I said.
She finished her burrito, scraped up the last of the sauce and the cheese, licked her fork.
“I like to keep busy,” she said, “while I'm thinking about things. I like myself better, when I'm working.”
With that remark, a door slid partway open. I didn't know what to say in response, but it seemed I'd been invited to know her a little bit better.
I paid for the lunch and we walked back to the office, past the skijoring pair, taking our time.
HE NEXT FRIDAY, THE FIRST MORNING OF
the big-block competition, Gayle and I went down to the Ice Park, where she intended to interview the sculptors at work. She would take Jack with her on Saturday, using her press credential.
An ice arch greeted us in front of the main gate; we walked through it into a shoulder-high labyrinth built of snow blocks, like the walls of a Canadian igloo, which spilled us out onto the main thoroughfare of the park. Halogen lights behind colored lenses cast exotic colors onto an ice castle.
Cat drivers like Tad Suliman had spent the past week getting two- and four-ton blocks of ice into place. In just a few minutes, when the competition began, carvers would work against the clockâseventy hours from start to finishâto create scenes that would last only three days to three weeks, depending on the weather. Last year, one team carved a few baseball players, and the slim, tapered baseball bat softened and drooped down to the ground after only a couple of days' exposure to sunlight, even while the slugger waited for the pitch, as solid as ever. Blue tarps
now shielded works in progress from solar radiation, although this morning it was perfect weather for carving: ten degrees.
We were standing next to a Russian team as the buzzer sounded. A carver attacked his tower of blocks with a rotary drill, and after a couple of minutes he was covered in white crystals, from eyebrows to beard, a thick mask built up of the powder that flew back from his drill.
I was in a rare, perfect mood: I came here to be tickled, to be astounded, by the things that happen when an artist's ideas take shape, and Gayle Kenneally walked alongside me, in her calico parka and diamond-patterned mukluks. A field trip like this was dessert for a newspaperman. I put timber legislation and unpaid bills to one side. Time to enjoy living in Fairbanks, I thought.
The emerging creatures around me were transparent. The clarity of pond ice from Fairbanks was world-famous, even being shipped to competitions in Canada and Minnesota. I reminded Gayle to include that in her story.
A team from Sapporo, in matching red snowsuits, used small chain saws to make their first cuts. Handsome Kazakhs stood smoking, while one man chipped and scraped, checked his drawings, chipped some more. Another team had set their design on top of a sawhorse: it was a large rubber cricket. Or was that a good luck token?
Poets talk about April being the month of despair and insanity, but up here I wonder if it might actually be March. The days are getting a little longer, but the cold nights and dirty snow are saying, “not yet, not yet.” Maybe that's where this crazy creative impulse comes from, this ice carving. Maybe it's a subtle little madness that comes from spending too much time in winter's featureless landscape.
I wanted to find Judy's team, and a little edge of curiosity and impatience crept into my serenity. I tugged at Gayle's sleeve. She
turned to me, smiled, and lifted my hand away. “I'm soaking it in,” she insisted. “Like you said to do.”
“Uh-oh, what did I say this time?”
“You said,”âshe smiled againâ“think of your head as a big wad of flypaper, let things stick to it, as if you're writing notes to yourself without even knowing it.”
I put my hands behind my back. “How can you remember stuff like that?”
“It's good advice. Well, anyway, it stuck. That's all.” She laughed like she was having a good time, too.
I caught a glimpse of Felix among the wanderers. And then Tad Suliman, holding a tray of coffee and nachos from the concessions shack, caught up to us, grinning.
“This way,” he called. “Good going on the timber bill, Gus. You'll catch flak for it, I bet. Come on, Judy is over here.”
We followed him to Judy's site. Two women lay on the ground scoring a block of ice with a rotary tool. Judy crouched above us like a cat, on an elevated platform, her fuchsia helmet and blond curls frosted with white. She knelt nose to nose with the ice while her black-gloved fingers chipped and then caressed the surface. Those blue eyes seemed to be drilling right through the transparency, as if she expected to find something.
Gayle studied the drawings one of the crew showed us. “What is a griffin?”
“A fabled creature,” said the crew member, shyly. “Alice in Wonderland? Sort of a wise guardian.”
“Ice inspires the fabulous,” Judy called down. “I think because it is a young medium.”
“Young?” said Gayle, writing in her notebook. Judy ignored challenges when she wanted to, I already knew that about her. She went right ahead.
“The griffin has appealed to me since my first visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art when I was twelve years old. There are stone griffins there, like the gargoyles at Notre Dame. They are filled with the masculine energy of the intellect.” She pulled off her neck warmer and shook it out. “They are gatekeepers of the shadow side.”
The crew member on our level added, “We were looking for something to combine solid with graceful.”
“Can I come up on the platform?” Gayle called.
“There's only room up here for one person, dear,” Judy said.
Tad set the Styrofoam cup next to her on the platform.
“Don't forget,” he warned me, “these guys are on the clock. Lots of crazy critters going to be showing up out of the ice in the next few hours.”
“What is man without the beasts?” Gayle said.
“How's that?” Tad asked.
“Chief Seattle said that,” she said. “Where would our imaginations be without animals?”
“Now you have a point,” said Tad, putting a handful of nachos to his mouth. They had been hot and bubbling a few minutes earlier. He bulldozed them into his mouth with a bare palm before they froze. Orange cheese spotted his mustache.
“You learned this in Montana?” Gayle called up. “How long have you been carving?”
“Buffalo,” Judy replied. “I'm from Buffalo.”
“She apprenticed in the Russian far east,” Tad said proudly.
“I've been sculpting for twenty years.” Judy called down a correction. “If all goes well, we'll have time to create a small girl standing next to him, to show, as you said”âand with a sudden unexpected warmth she looked down at Gayleâ”the relationship between human and beast, male and female.” Her mouth re
mained open a minute as if she'd like to say more; her cheeks were red with cold. She smiled at us, pulled the helmet back on, and resumed chipping.
I could hear Buffalo in her voice, then, not an accent but an assertiveness, as if her self-presentation was the product of an urban school of hard knocks. You learn to shove to the front whenever a gap opens. So Judy Finch was human, too, shaped by her environment like all of us.
Tad was heading back toward his machines. I left Gayle to her interviewing, promising to pick her up later at the main gate, and followed Tad.
“Something I want to ask you,” I murmured.
“You have that muckraker look to you now.”
“Who did buy that land from you? The riverbank next to the highway?”
“Dumped the whole thing on North Spur Construction finally, didn't you know that?”
“No regrets? Just curious. Have you seen the cabins he put up?”
“What's your problem, Gus?”
“It's a major change, what's happened down there.”
“Gus, I didn't put up the damn cabins and I didn't make this town look the way it does. People change things. It's what we do. Christ, look at dogs, the way they wear out the ground around their doghouses. People need territory, just like dogs do. The landscape takes a beating sometimes, right around the doghouse, okay?” He took a few steps, then turned. “You and the borough, Gus, with this new junk ordinance. It's getting so a guy can't store his own junk around the place. Realtors don't think it looks nice.”
“Now pull out, Tad. I'm trying to follow something up. The lady across the river's a friend of mine.”
“I'll let you in on something, Gus. There's going to be tourists
coming here if we make it worth their while.” He wiped a gloved hand over his mustache. “So what is your question about it?”
“I listen to borough meetings on the radio, but I don't remember any public testimony on that construction. No impact statement, no zoning change required?”
“There was not a whisper of opposition, far as I know. Look, go down the river twenty minutes more and it's nothing
trees. So we live in an ugly town. Is that news to you? But there's plenty of trees out there. And you know, we're working to keep it that way, aren't we? Isn't that what you all are doing, over at the paper?” He took a few more steps. “Besides, if I hadn't sold it first, Shelley would have got half the money. I saved myself a hell of a lot by selling that. Once I cleared it to open it up, sold it right away.”
“It was the only disposable thing I had at the time, you fucking Catholic priest. Satisfied? I confess, gimme three Hail Marys, I'm going to move ice.” He walked away, his body language easy as ever.
I admit the skinned riverbank didn't sadden me, like it did Gayle. But it irritated me, like I ought to pay attention. Then I got to thinking about those chips he was eating, and I realized I was hungry. There was time to drive down College Road, check the mail, and grab a bite. I had promised this story to Gayle; I ought to leave her alone to do it. I headed out of the maze of ice tunnels and arches that guarded the park.
A semi hauling a flatbed trailer piled with ice blocks parked off to the side, and two forklifts, one of them Tad's, approached it like drones approaching the queen bee. Nearby, watching this, I saw the lanky slouch of Felix Heaven, wheeling his bike. I called to him.
“I'm going to grab a bite,” I said. “Any interest in some lunch? You can throw your bike in the truck.”
We walked among the parked cars while he gave me his opinion of the Ice Art.
“A bit daft,” he said. “Adds to the fun of it, that they'll melt away in a couple of weeks. Better if more monuments were like thisâif they'd just melt away.”
“Pure fantasy,” I said. “That strikes meâno politics, just pure children's literature. Not like, say for instance, the Family.”
“Which family is that one?”
“Downtown on the riverbank. You've missed that? A giant bronze mom and dad and two-point-five kids, and a couple of dogs sort of jammed together back to back, huge thing. The Unknown First Family.”
“Sounds political, all right.”
“No, no,” I said, “it's not the president or anything. They are supposed to be pioneers. Or maybe a Native family. The door is wide open. Though the size and attitude of them, they don't look like Native people. These guys are behemoths, Nordic types, defiant, heroic. Very traditional. That is, to our tradition. Yours and mine. Or at least mine. I mean this country's.”
At that moment we passed an idling Subaru. The driver, waiting for someone, was reading the
. I recognized last week's issue. This sight I never took for granted. I swiveled my head to take in any bumper stickers he might be sporting, a clue to my readership. “Proud Parent of a McGuire Middle School Honor Student” and “Question Authority.” Sort of didn't go together, did they? A family man with liberal values, proud of his kids, but not quite ready to give up on the promise of the sixties. So, we're a family paper!
“Native people,” Felix said. “That means Eskimos?”
“Indians and Eskimos. Athabascans, like Gayle Kenneally's family, they lived in the interior, and Eskimos lived mostly near the coast, but the term is general.”
“Sure, I understand.” He smiled. A smile I was coming to understand, with Felix. It meant a thought, held in reserve out of politeness.
“You do, huh.”
“Like the Irish. The indigenous people.”
“Aw, come on.”
“Sure. To a new arrival, it jumps out.”
“This Family, this statue, it's just stupid. Because they represent no one, in particular, except maybe the stone and cement industry.”
“But when there is a history, a very particular history, and public art ignores it,” said Felix, “that's a political statement, isn't it?”
“You're going to fit right in at the Conscious Palate.”
We had nearly made it to my car when a woman's call lassoed me. “Gus Traynor!”
It was Shelley Suliman, Tad's ex-wife. Realtor of the Year, cochair of the Visitors Bureau. Shelley was a good-looking, highly kinetic woman, all energy and ideas.
“Gus, could we get an extra two thousand copies of the next couple issues or soâfor a mailing outside? I called and talked to your sister, but here you are. Don't you love that about Fairbanks, you'll see everybody you need to sooner or later just by getting out. We'll pay in advance. We want to send some local color to travel agents. Especially of wintertime activities.”
“With pleasure, Shelley.”
“But Gus, one thing. Let me know what's going to be in it. Or maybe I could see a proof beforehand, you know?”
Maybe this wasn't a bizarre request, but I realized it was a private request. I felt uncomfortable with Felix nearby. It must have sounded like she was asking to approve editorial content. He wouldn't understand.
“Gus?” she said.
“Shelley, we never offend. We're the soul of the community. I've never even run any dubious ads, no showgirls or clubs.”
“A thousand copies. Just let me take a peek at what's brewing. Let me pick the issue.”
Sure thing. No way. Can't do that. Fifty cents a copy, she'd pay me. I could have introduced Felix in order to change the subject, but that unusual name would get her attention, and I didn't know if he had a work permit. Where was he, anyway? Moving away between trucks, making himself invisible.
“I'll catch up to you,” I called to him. “Now, Shell, what you're asking me hardly sounds kosher.”