Yukon River

It’s mostly drunk Indians where I’m working at the moment.  Better than mostly white guys. Indians just drink. White guys, it’s got to be you look like somebody.

One night this guy Len shows up; he’s stopping in Seattle to get some final stuff before heading up to Alaska.  He’s bought land way out in the bush, up the Yukon River hundreds of miles from the nearest town. He’s heading up to settle on it.  He doesn’t think I look like anybody but he wants me to come too.

 Every night he waits for me in the Doughnut Hole two doors down.  It’s a dump and nobody’s ever there but him and this lady Irene. Irene tells Len things she has learned from messages coded into license plates of cars that go by on First Avenue.  She tells him he was burned at the stake in a previous life so not to worry about that again.  He should watch out for green death rays though.  Don’t worry about the other colors, Irene says. Len frowns, listening carefully so that Irene won’t feel bad. 

In the dead white light of the Hole, Irene looks like she’s a hundred. But if you look close, you see she’s not all that old. Forty maybe.  Maybe less. Maybe a beat-up thirty five even. I’m twenty-nine so I probably look about sixty.

Len, though, with his clear, bright eyes and his long, soft, gently waving hair, is always beautiful, no matter the light.  My first thought was: he’s too good for me. My second thought: I know him from somewhere. My third thought: he looks exactly like the picture of Jesus Grandma kept on the piano. 

Len is beautiful despite no-good parents and bad foster homes and even prison. In fact, it was on a top bunk in the never-ending roar of the California State Prison at Folsom that he started reading about Alaska, going every night into its immense and perfect emptiness. He read everything there was on Alaska.  Then he got an idea. Go there really. Go someplace where you can make up your own life. Where nothing is ugly. Where there’s nobody else to screw things up. Go someplace that’s the opposite of prison. 

When he got out he did a few big but careful drug deals to fund the Alaska thing.  Once he had the money, he found somebody with a place to sell. He had enough left over for a truck and a lot of other gear.   Now, he’s finished with all that drug stuff forever. He won’t need it any more.

He looks at me, wide-eyed with wonder and belief. 

It was the final drug deals that sold me on going along with him; I’m not sure why.  Just, I guess, it’s not all magic. 

 

“What would we do,” I ask. “Once we were out there?” 

Len can tell me because he knows everything about subsistence life in the bush.  He knows how we’ll pull salmon out of the river, cut them in strips, brine them and dry them.  How those pickled salmon strips will eat like candy all winter. He knows how we’ll collect berries in the hills around our place--blueberries, blackberries, salmon berries, all in unbelievable abundance—and make them into jam and pies and berry bread. He knows how in the summer we’ll float the gleaming river at midnight, and how in the winter we’ll sleep tight and warm as goslings in our fify-below goose down bags. 

He knows how we’ll build a log sauna, and how we’ll sit there together, glowing and cleansing during even the longest and darkest nights. 

 

He knows too that this isn’t really my question. 

“What do you do anywhere?” he asks back, looking so deeply into me that I shiver.  “What do you do here?”

 

We leave Seattle and drive up the Alcan Highway in the big pickup truck Len he has outfitted for the Arctic. He’s from California; I’m from all over.  Neither of us has ever been in really cold country, but he’s read everything about surviving in the cold, keeping your truck running and so on. He’s got everything planned and most things we’ll need are packed in a carrier on the roof.

 It’s February but it’s still cold, around fifteen below, as we drive north through British Columbia and then into the Yukon Territory. When we have to get out of the truck to gas up or take a pee, the cold washes effortlessly through the soles of our boots. It freezes the hairs in our noses; it freezes our eyelashes.

 We take turns driving until we are both exhausted, then pull off to the side to get in back and heat canned stew on the little kerosene stove; we sleep close and tight in our zipped-together bags.  

Len loves the power of this cold.  The cold, he says, purifies everything, killing all the putrid crap.  It is purifying us. He can feel it. 

 Do I feel it?  Maybe.

We drive north. The sky pales and expands; the trees shrink and the landscape empties.  The sun must be somewhere, but I don’t see it. It seems that we are driving along on Mars.

We are tired and cold, stiff from driving.  Yet we are happy and in perfect harmony. We are already becoming free, Len says. See? 

 

We drive north.  We cross into Alaska from the Yukon.  Now the truck’s heater can’t keep up with the cold, and we bring the sleeping bags up to the cab to put over us as we drive.   We keep the water bottle in the cab so it won’t freeze. At night, we put the bottle in bed with us so we’ll have water for coffee in the morning. 

 One morning the truck won’t start and I’m scared.  We are alone in the middle of frozen nowhere; it seems that if something goes wrong, it won’t take long to die.  But Len has read up on what to do if this happens. He gets out his little primus camp stove, fires it up, rolls under the truck to position the stove beneath the oil pan.  In fifteen minutes the truck catches hold. 

Len smiles the wondering smile of a six-year-old genius.

 

“Doubt if you’ll find a place to stay,” a service station guy in an insulated jump suit tells us when we finally and triumphantly hit Fairbanks.  People are still flooding in to work on the pipeline, he says; they come in from the airport by the busload, even though most of them don’t have a prayer of a job.  Too, the pipeline companies have grabbed up most of the apartments and motel rooms for their own big shots. 

“You’re probably thinking campground,” the guy says, glancing out at our truck.  But the campgrounds are full, even now, he tells us. Everything that can be divided up already has been;  people even started dividing their trailer houses up into three or four cubicles. 

“This one lady in the paper,” the guy says. “She rented out the space between her washer and dryer for somebody to sleep.”

The guy says he’s tired of it and he’s going back down to Minnesota when he gets the money for a plane ticket. 

“It’s mostly guys from Texas and Oklahoma that get the pipeline jobs,” he tells us.  “They’ve got it all fixed with their union. If you’re not one of their boys, forget it.”

 

We pull out into the clogged traffic of Airport Way. It’s trucks mostly, everything stop-and-go, everybody pumping out exhaust that freezes into a fog.  The snow that edges the roads is a filthy gray. 

It’s 1975, and Len had known about the pipeline.  But he thought it would be far away, lost in the immense space of Alaska, a little trickle of silver sliding alone silently in the vast slope of snow.  He had not thought of it being right here, a fat ugly snake of greed and pollution; he had not imagined it strangling the little snow-covered log town he had fallen in love with as he lay on his bunk in Folsom.

 We keep driving until we finally get out of town and can pull over onto a bare piece of snow-gray ground.

We sit for a while, our engine running, as we pump our own frozen exhaust into the air. I look for myself in the side view mirror but everything is frozen and fogged and I can’t see anything.

Len sits and thinks for a long time.  Then he turns to me and smiles his Jesus smile.

“Good,” he says.  “Now we see even more why we have to go out to our place.”

  

It looks for a while like we might have to sleep in the truck until spring.  Then a guy working in a hardware store tells us that for three hundred a month we can set up a tent alongside his cabin out on Chena Hot Springs Road.  Since we don’t have a tent, the guy says for another couple hundred he can rent us a double-sided tent he has, and the insulation to go between the walls. He rents us flooring and a chunk of carpet to help hold the heat.  We have one wood stove with us, but the guy in the store—X-Man he says his name is—convinces Len that since it’s a tent we need two wood stoves, one at each end. He rents us the extra stove for fifty a month. Len tries to give him a check on his California bank, but X-Man says, that’s alright, he can carry us until we get to the bank and get cash. 

X-Man says he guesses he knows where we live.   Len nods and puts his checkbook back in his pack.

X-Man says, only, the interest rate up here for loans is ten percent a month, what with all the coming and going. He’s got to remember he’s a business man, he says, much as he’d rather just help us out.

Len smiles his Jesus smile.

“Sure,” he says.

 

The store is warm, and there are rocking chairs in back beside the stove. It’s nice to sit in a chair after so long on the road; we both kind of go into a trance.  We sit there for a couple of hours. When X-Man finishes waiting on customers and he comes back and talks. He’s a big guy and a big talker and he seems glad to have us sit there and listen. He’s a native Alaskan, he tells us; his great-grandfather was a Klondiker in 1898, one of the few to make it on foot over the White Pass Trail with his hundred pounds of supplies. Most people fell by the wayside, he tells us. Thousands of men either gave up or died or sometimes went insane, it was so bad. 

 X-Man goes on to tell us we don’t know how lucky we are to actually have land.  Everyone in Alaska wants land, he says, even people who’ve lived their whole lives here, people you would think had a right.  But no such thing, X-Man says. The Feds own it all. Do we realize what percentage of Alaska is owned by actual people, not counting Natives?  One percent. And why is that? Why can’t people get land to live on? Why don’t they open it back up to homesteading like in the old days, when America was really America? 

We don’t know. X-Man says he sure as hell doesn’t know either.

Why Alaska ever wanted to be part of the United States, he says, is beyond him.  If people would get off their rears, maybe they could get up a secession movement.  But people just don’t have that much balls. Balls, he says, went out in the old days

.

Len shrugs and smiles 

X-Man smiles too and stops ranting about everything.

“I’m glad you’re here, man,” X-Man says. “You and your lady.”

He winks at me.

“Hard to keep a good lady up here,” he says.

 

 The next day we go out to where X-Man lives and set up our tent next to his little house.  It’s hard working in the cold; despite thick gloves, we don’t have long until our hands start to freeze and we have to get back in the truck with the heater on.  Len hates to sit in the truck with the exhaust pumping out into the environment, but neither of us can do anything with our hands frozen. Neither of us is big, but we are both pretty strong in a stringy, little person way and we work well together setting all this stuff up. Once we get the floor boards set and the outer tent up, we come inside, light a kerosene lantern and start putting   up the slabs of insulation. Then it’s not too hard to set up the inner tent. We set up the wood stoves and cut careful holes in the tent canvas so the stove pipes can go through. We bring in some of the wood we bought from X-Man and get a fire going.

We put up folding chairs and a table from the stuff packed on top of the truck. We get out the tea kettle and put it on the stove. The tent starts to get a little warm and the water in the kettle boils; then here we are sitting at our table drinking tea. 

Len smiles.

“See?” he says.

 

X-Man comes by when he gets home from work.

“Pretty good,” he says looking around.

We all sit by the stove and drink tea. 

 

 X-Man says he still can’t believe how lucky we are to actually own land in the bush.   He just thinks we are so darn lucky.

He says he sure hopes the land we bought is one of the old homesteads.  These days, he says, lots of people think they’ve got land to buy and sell. Turns out it’s usually federal land and nobody has a right to it.  Sooner or later, the BLM’ll find you and throw you off, no matter how hidden in the bush you think you are.

Those BLM guys are mother-fuckers, X-Man says; you don’t leave that very minute, they burn your cabin and kill your dogs.

He sits and shakes his head over how bad the BLM is to kick people off like that. 

Len pours more tea.    

X-Man tells us a bunch more Alaska stories.  He tells a story of this woman living out in the bush who went crazy and started building a wooden walkway that started at her cabin and then just headed nowhere.  All she would do was work on that walkway, even though she was about two hundred miles from anywhere.

“Lots of people go crazy out there,” X-Man says.

“Lots of people go crazy lots of places,” Len says, smiling. 

 

Is our place an old homestead, I ask when X-Man is gone.  Len says yes; he’s got the original papers from the 1960s to prove it.   He says he’ll dig them out and show me if I want.

I say no that’s OK.  If he’s sure.

“I’m sure,” he  says. “But I would go anyway.  Even if I weren’t.”

And so we settle in to wait for the spring thaw, breakup they call it.  Just about all we have to do is wait and Len is happy waiting. He can sit beside the stove all day, drinking tea and poring over the plans that he has laid out on the little table, studying up on how to build a nice, tight cabin out of three-sided logs. There’s an old cabin up there now, Len tells me; but it’s probably pretty dilapidated. We’ll need something better by winter.

 He sits all day in the light from the kerosene lamp, studying things. He loves all the lore about how to live in the bush. He especially loves an article he has about how to set nets under the frozen surface of a river to catch fish year round.

It’s late February now, and every day there’s more light.  If it’s getting warmer, though, it’s harder to tell. 

“Be careful,” X-Man tells us on one of his visits to the tent. “When it goes up to ten below after it’s been forty below, you think it’s warm.” 

That’s a good way to freeze to death, he tells us. 

“It happens to newcomers every spring,” he says.  “Just because it’s not as bad as it was, you think it isn’t bad. But it is.”

“That guy,” Len says when he’s gone. “He thinks he knows what bad is.”

 

However bad or not bad the cold is, we are fairly warm, in our double-sided tent.  During the day we keep the fire going in the two stoves. At night we let one stove go out and just keep a fire in the airtight.  It’s a good stove because it will hold a fire all night. Because it’s so efficient, it doesn’t pollute too much.

We spend a lot of time in bed, snuggling in the goose down bags.  We cuddle and screw. Len dreams out loud of our place on the river.  How the water will gently gleam in the soft white Arctic light, how the nights will glow and the stars will dance.  How tired and innocent and good we will be when, after our long days of fishing and berry-picking and water hauling, we come in, finally, to the warm lamplight. 

“Don’t be afraid of X-Man,” he whispers in my ear.  “I’ve known a hundred X-Men.” 

Then, as if drugged by his dreams, Len drops into a deep sleep, barely moving for ten or twelve hours.

I can’t sleep the long hours he can.  Sometimes I light a lantern and just lie there, warm in goose down, watching him sleep.  With his shining eyes closed, he looks different. Smaller. Older. Worried. This, I guess, is the part of him that was in prison.  

 

Len has never asked me for anything, never said anything about me kicking in some cash.  And I’ve never asked him how much money he has. He’s careful what he spends though, and I worry it could cost more than he thinks to get out of Fairbanks and up to the land.

“Why don’t I see if I can pick up work,” I tell him after a week. “While we’re waiting. Might as well pull in a few bucks.”   

He looks up from the book he is studying.  It’s a book about geodesic domes. Seeing how well this double-sided tent works, he’s wondering if, instead of the log house he has planned,  he could maybe build a double-sided dome with insulation between the sides. X-Man has been telling him how expensive it will be to have the three-sided logs floated in on the river. And how, what with the pipeline, you can’t hire people to do things even if you have the money.

Len looks at me like he sometimes does, like he is seeing me there for the first time and is thinking: Wow, who is this girl I’m lucky enough to have?

“OK,” he says.  “Good.”

“Len,” I say. “You are the most beautiful person I’ve ever known.”

He smiles and dips his head a little, like, yeah, I can’t help it.

 

It’s not hard to get on waitressing at a steak house on the dinner shift.  It’s a hassle driving to the restaurant on the clogged roads, and sometimes when the ice fog is bad I feel like I’m driving blind; I expect a pipeline truck to plow into me any minute.  But when I get to the restaurant it’s warm and bright. The salary is good, and the tips are the best I’ve ever seen.

It’s true this place is up to its neck in money, and money seems to be all anybody can talk about.  Up on the line, it doesn’t matter if you are an engineer or a cook or what, you can make four thousand a month.  So people say. Your room and board are free and all you eat is steak and lobster.

 Just about everybody is trying to figure how to get on the line somehow.

The other girls working at the restaurant are friendly enough but rowdy.  All of them are from someplace else—Texas and Oklahoma, lots of them--and they’ve all come up with boyfriends or husbands who were out on the line.  All of their boyfriends or husbands are trying to get them on, working as chambermaids or cooks’ helpers. Anything. It doesn’t matter; it’s big money no matter what you do. 

 In the kitchen they all yak about their plans for being Alaska-rich when they get home.  It appears they all want a split level house with a swimming pool. Their husbands are going to set up in business, and they are going to have kids and be the foxiest PTA moms ever. They’ll make all the moms who’ve never been out of Tulsa just burn.   

 

We have the best steaks in Fairbanks—so we claim anyhow —and now and then we get a guy that the girls will peg as a pimp.  One of them, Harold, takes a big interest in us waitresses. He//// ’s OUT plump and black and //// shows up most nights for dinner.  He’s always laughing a big pink laugh and always hinting that for classy girls like us there are better ways to make money than waitressing .

 In the kitchen everybody laughs and screams about who will be first to take Harold up on his offer.  Maybe it would be fun, they say. For a little while. Just until their husbands come down from the line. Maybe it would be an adventure before going home.  

 

Harold seems pretty small-time, but there’s one guy who comes swishing in around ten like he owns the place.   He’s dark and flashy and supposedly from New York. He wears a white shirt and tie under a wolf-fur parka and he keeps his money in a clip that he leaves on the table while he eats.  When he’s ready to pay, he rolls a hundred dollar bill off the top and you can see all the hundreds underneath.

 The girls don’t want to wait on him because they think he’s wearing eye liner and they can’t stand queers.  

I take him because he tips better than anybody.  

His drink is a White Russian and every time he orders, he asks me to sniff the cream they use in the bar to make sure it’s fresh.  I say I will, but I don’t. I’m not quite sure why. Maybe because the girls who come in with him look way too young.

 

It’s a fairly nice restaurant, but like all restaurants, it stinks.  The kitchen stinks of grease and food rotting in places you can’t reach to clean. In the bar, you smell all the booze that’s been spilled on the floor since the Gold Rush probably. The ashtrays of course stink and even the clean napkins smell of a thousand people wiping their mouths. The carpets are always filthy, though we vacuum them every night.  I breathe it all in and think of the land we are going to, so pure, so clean, so crudless. 

When I get home I take water from the tea kettle and fill a basin; I sponge myself all over so Len doesn’t have to smell the dirty restaurant on me.  I’m afraid he can still smell it on my hair. 

 

X-Man is always dropping by.  Len is nice to him, but I notice that his face gets the old, small look when X-Man is there.  

“You’re just plain lucky,” X-Man keeps telling us.

 “Some people got all the luck,” he says.  “That’s all there is to it. Let’s just hope that land of yours is good.”

“It’s good,” Len says.

X-Man says he bets it is. He sure does hope it is.  He shakes his head and laughs.

“What’s funny,” I ask him.

“Oh,” he says. “Nothing. I was just thinking about this guy who was up last spring.”

“What about him?” 

X-Man says, oh, it’s just a story about a guy who came up from somewhere. Arizona or somewhere.  X-Man got to know the guy because he was always hanging around the store. Anyhow, breakup came, and this guy loaded all his stuff in a boat and went out to some land he had title to. Come to think of it, this guy had two boats; he had his sled dogs with him, so they had to go in their own boat.

“Are you taking dogs?” he interrupts himself to ask.

Len says he’ll see.

 Anyhow, X-Man says, this guy landed somewhere way up on the Porcupine River. One of the boats was a motor boat and it was pulling the second boat that had the dogs in it. The guy had had to figure out how to tie the dogs in, so they wouldn’t get away.

“That must have been quite a sight,” X-Man says. “Must have looked like Noah’s ark.”

He laughs to think of it.

Long story short, he says, when this guy got to his land, where it had been described to him to be, he nosed his boat in and jumped off.

“What do you think happened?” X-Man asks us.

“The dogs got untied and ran off?” I guess.

“Worse’n that.  Oh, much worse’n that.”

Neither of us asks him what happened.

“What happened,” X-man says, “is that the guy jumped off his boat and he sank up to mid-thigh.  Nothing there but marsh. He tried wading but there wasn’t anywhere to wade to.”

“What did he do?” I ask.

X-Man shakes his head.

“Nothing to do but come back.  And I believe, come to think of it, he did lose the dogs on the way back down.  Boy, that guy was busted when he got back.”

We sit there and drink tea and wish he would go away.

How did Len manage to get his hands on the land, X-Man wants to know. 

Len says it was just one of those things..          

“Where’s it at?” X-Man asks.  

“It’s on the Yukon,” Len says. “North of Circle City. We’ll put in the river there at Circle. Just as soon as they open the road back up.”

“You got it on the map?” X-Man asks.

Len gets out one of his maps and puts a little pencil dot where our land is. 

X-Man takes the map. He pushes his glasses up on his forehead and looks hard at the little dot.  He measures how far it is from Circle with his finger. He asks us who the guy was we bought it from. Len says it was somebody he met in California. 

 “California,” X-Man laughs. “Probably couldn’t stick it up here.”

“Could be,” Len says. 

X-Man says that sounds real believable because it’s only a certain type of person who can make it in the bush.  He tells a story about a couple of guys who’d been out there too long and started thinking a Sasquatch was prowling around their place.  One of the guys got so freaked he ended up shooting his buddy by mistake. Shot him dead. Tried to hide it and ended up in prison.

“You’re taking guns, I suppose,” X-Man says.

Len smiles.

“Sure. Want to see my guns?”

But X-Man doesn’t want to see them.

“I didn’t know you had guns,” I say when X-Man is gone.

Len smiles and shrugs like Jesus would shrug if he didn’t want to talk about whether he had guns or not.

 

The guy who may or may not be wearing eye-liner knows to sit in my section. He’s not particularly nice and doesn’t want to chat, but he does let me know that he has a strip club out on the Old Richardson Highway.  The strippers there are professionals he tells me. Only the best. He flies them up from Vegas.

He gives me a look like don’t even think you could be a stripper.

On the other hand, he tells me, he’s always looking for local talent as dancers.  It’s just regular girls. Not too fat. Not too short.

He nods toward the girls he’s got with him.  They eat and don’t say anything. They are not too fat or too short, I guess, is the point.

 All you do is dance in a t-shirt and hot pants up on a stage, the guy says. There’s a couple of bouncers and nobody gets close.  Afterward you can walk around for tips.  

He gives me his card with his personal telephone number handwritten on the back in case I decide to try out dancing.

The girls watch me to see if I turn it over to look at the number.

 

Supposedly spring is coming.  

“Careful,” X-Man drops in to warn. “Spring is when most people commit suicide.  I never heard why. Maybe they get their hopes up too much.”

Even though spring is coming, the bowl Fairbanks sits in is still filled up with ice fog.  It seems like the fog is getting, if possible, thicker. Coming back from the restaurant one night I lose the road and end up on an abandoned train track.  I have to hitch a ride home; we hitch back the next day to try to get the truck loose. But it’s stuck between the ties and Len says we’ll need a tow truck. 

“Oh, you won’t get a tow truck inside six weeks,” X-Man says when we ask him if he knows anybody. “If tha. They’re all up on the line.”

X-Man gets a laugh out of it.

“Guess you won’t be going anywhere anytime soon,” he says.

 

Len and I hitch back out.  We dig and push and spin the wheels for half a day and don’t look at each other.  Finally a couple of guys stop to help us. They have a winch on the front of their truck. They hook up to us and we push from the back and finally manage to lurch the truck up over the ties.  

Len has his little stove and he crawls under the truck with it to thaw out the oil pan.

Overhead, I notice, are northern lights, the first I’ve seen, dancing all crazy colors.

Len comes out to look.

“Would you call any of that green?” he asks.

“No,” I say.  “I would call it blue and white.”

 

X-Man’s truck is there when we get back and his lights are on.  He doesn’t come out to congratulate us on getting our truck out though.

“Poor old X-Man,” Len says. “He’s stuck in the wrong dream.”

 

We all bet on when breakup will come.  For two-fifty you can fill out a little card with the day, hour, minute and second you think the ice will melt at a certain spot on the Tanana River. The person whose guess is closest gets several thousand dollars.

I don’t win. But when breakup comes in XXX, Len and I go out to a bulk store where people from the interior—Natives mostly-- stock up for six months at a time.  We load up on flour and sugar, bulgar and rice. We get cans of honey and of lard. We get dried fruit for vitamins until we have our own berries. We buy a couple of gallon jars of dried salmon until we can start getting our own fish. We throw in some canned sausages in case we get the craving for meat before Len can shoot a moose.

“I’ll shoot a moose for food,” he tells me.  “But I don’t want to catch anything in a trap, even there’s good money for the fur. OK?”

“OK,” I say. 

 

X-Man stops by and tells us we need to pay up pretty soon. We are into our second month now and we still owe him for everything. X-Man says we’d better go ahead and pay up because he’d hate to have to take our truck. He would sure hate to have to do something like that. He says he’s really not cut out to be a businessman, that’s his problem.

Len smiles and tells X-Man not to worry. He won’t have to take our truck.

 

A few nights later the guy who owns the strip club tells me I should come out sometime and see how good his dancers have it. He’s got a shortage of dancers right now, he says.

You can make a lot, he tells me.  If you’re good. If you’re into it. If you’ve got the legs. It’s more of a leg job than anything.

The girls make so much, they take trips to Hawaii every month, he says.  They leave Fairbanks on the midnight flight and they’re in Hawaii by seven in the morning. 

“Who gets to go to Hawaii?” the girl with him says. It’s the first thing I’ve heard her say, though she’s been in a few times. “I never got to go to Hawaii.” 

“If you tried a little harder you could so shut up,” he tells her. 

The girl reaches out and knocks over her drink on purpose.  She’d had a sloe gin fizz so now everything is blood red. There’s red splattered on the guy’s white shirt.

He slaps her and knocks over his drink with his elbow.  His glass and his money clip and a plate of onion rings crash to the floor.  The bus boy runs over and starts sopping at the guy’s shirt with a towel. I crawl under the table to pick everything up; I manage to get ten or so bills out before I slide the clip back up onto the table.  The guy is busy shaking the girl so her head bobbles.  

 

“Some guy in the restaurant dropped his money clip,” I whisper to Len that night when I get in bed. “I took out some bills, twelve hundred dollars.  He didn’t notice because he was hitting a girl.”

“Wow,” Len whispers. 

“Did you know you can fly to Hawaii in six hours,” I say. “There’s a flight every midnight. The hookers fly there every month.  Supposedly.”

“Do you want to fly to Hawaii?” Len asks.

I think about the warm air and the warm water and the gleaming beach.  I think about the hookers lying in the sun, their bodies brown and oily, their faces behind sunglasses only a little beat-up.

“No,” I say. “I want to go out to our land.”

“Then,” Len says. “Let’s go.”

We get up and get dressed.  We don’t light lanterns but we open the stove doors; in the low light, we pack our clothes and dishes and books and the supplies we have brought inside. We take down the shelves Len has put up and tie the boards together. At four we are all packed up; we get back in the bags and sleep for a few hours, then get up and stuff the sleeping bags and roll up the mattress.  When X-Man’s truck pulls away at nine, we knock the fire out of the stoves and break down the stove pipes. We load them in the truck. We take down the tent and load it. It’s a tight fit, but we get the insulation and carpet in too. Len stands looking at the platform, but decides it will take too long to knock it apart and load it on top of the truck.

We fight the morning traffic out of town.  But instead of heading up the Steese Highway toward Circle, we get back on Highway 2 driving south.

“This isn’t the way,” I say. “This is the way back.”

“We’re not putting in at Circle,” Len tells me. “We’re putting in at Eagle. We have to drive down to Tok Junction and cut north.”

He pulls over to the side of the road and gets out his map and a pencil.  He erases the dot he showed X-Man and makes another dot on a little river that shoots off the Yukon, not far from Eagle.

Len smiles at me.

“Poor old X-Man,” he says.

 

We drive all day, the spring sun in our eyes.  We only stop long enough for Len to take off our California plates and put on some Oregon ones he happens to have.