Walking Along the Edge
Can you ever change and do what’s right?…
–from Jeremiah 13:23, CEV
The Anchorage Correctional Complex lay at the end of a short spur off 4th Avenue. Like the rest of the downtown, its parking lot was still bogged down in snow and icy ruts that passed for driving lanes. This less-than-hospitable environment was the end of the line for the three young men exiting a van from the Point McKenzie Correctional Farm in the early hours of a February morning. They were returning from the low security prison out of town to the municipal jail’s parking lot, ending the journey where they had begun. Each of them rummaged in his plastic bag of clothing for the layers appropriate to the temperature and whatever walking or transport lay ahead of him. Billy, the youngest, unceremoniously stripped to bare chest and re-attired himself in a fresh tee shirt, button overshirt, and a heavy hoody. No scarves, gloves, or hats for a one of them. Pure elation, sparked by freedom, warmed them well enough. Besides, should they choose, they could find what they needed at Bean’s Café and Rescue Mission around the corner. It was with some calculation that the driver had delivered them to this particular juncture.
“Hey.” Thomas’s farewell was curt. He hoped he’d never see these jokers again. Though he could fend for himself on the streets of Anchorage pretty well, his dream was to return to his village to hunt and fish with his uncles.
Thomas walked carefully within the compressed tire tracks to what he hoped was the snow-covered crosswalk. As he waited for a break in traffic, he tapped the envelope of family photos in his inside chest pocket and smiled. Life would be good again.
The farm was behind him, forever, but at least they had kept him busy there. He’d spent the summer in the fields, or in the barn, fixing and then running large machinery. When the season ended, he’d used their computers to complete certifications designed to make him more employable. And he’d written a few letters home. That was the least he could do. He’d caused enough worry.
Thomas crossed the intersection and walked down the block to the Mission, looking for a familiar face in the line of stragglers at the kitchen door.
“Thomas, is that you? Quyana!” The stained teeth and sideways grin of his sister’s husband lifted his heart. The village had come to him.
“It has been a long time since I heard the language of the village, Charlie. Ain’t you a sight for sore eyes.” He embraced his brother-in-law and shared a breath with him in the old way, nose to nose, before he let his arms drop to his sides.
Charlie clapped him on the shoulder, “How’s your dad?”
“Pop’s fine. I got a letter from him last week. He and his brothers are mending the boats, dreamin’ of all the seals they’re gonna catch.” Thomas wasn’t as close to his dad as he was to his uncles but he kept in touch. His dad had moved away from Thomas and his mother when he was still a kid.
“My lovely Martha is visiting your Auntie Marie in Bethel. That girl been goin’ stir crazy in the village this winter. Missing you, I reckon. You two always had a special connection.” Charlie noticed Thomas recoil slightly and changed the subject. “You know, we dun have to stay here. I was just waiting for you. Let’s hike up the road and get you some breakfast at Stella’s Place. She cooks real good.” Thomas knew Charlie meant that she used Crisco and wasn’t shy about serving fish for breakfast. He knew Stella’s. His mouth watered.
They walked through the icy hillocks and berm along L Street until it turned into Minnesota, then veered left at the sign of Romig Junior High’s ten-foot-tall Trojan and entered the low-rent neighborhood known as Spenard. Stella’s was a hole-in-the-wall café next to Mama O’s and the movie theater. They slid into the large booth that rounded a back corner and studied the menus out of habit. They always ordered the same thing.
“Two fish ‘n chips, extra tartar sauce, and black coffees?” The waitress smiled and winked at both of them in recognition. They nodded and watched her sashay back to the kitchen. Some things didn’t change much, thought Thomas. Right now that was a comfort. Sixteen months out of circulation and he picked up where he left off. He cautioned himself to pay attention; some things needed changing and they were totally within his purview. He could start by choosing better company than the Farm had provided him. He shook himself like a dog shedding rain and scanned the dining room.
February’s Fur Rendezvous, or Fur Rondy as the locals called it, drew together a mass of unlikely people to the city of Anchorage: sled-dog racers, fur traders, jewelry artisans, ivory and ice sculptors from the North Slope to Sitka, tourists, and the glitterati of money lenders and office holders who came for the Miners and Trappers Ball. It was a circus. It was a party. Mostly, it was a circus. In this context, the predominance of fur ruffs did not indicate extreme weather as much as photo op or fashion statement, and they graced the heads and necks of native and non-native alike.
Thomas growled to himself when he caught sight of Terry, one of the guys he’d left in the parking lot just an hour or two ago. Trouble. He didn’t need any trouble. He sucked air between clenched teeth, hissing, as Terry made his way toward their table.
“Mind if I join you?” Terry didn’t wait for a response but slumped into the vacant end of the booth.
“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea, Terry.” Thomas glared at him.
“You guys know each other? Small world.” Charlie gave the well-muscled man a look-over and held out his hand. “My name’s Charlie. Pleased to meet you.”
Terry shook Charlie’s hand and flashed a grin of relief. “Terry, my name’s Terry.”
Charlie discounted Thomas’s resistance as momentary on account of his just getting out of prison. Native hospitality was engrained. It wasn’t Thomas’s true nature to be unkind, just a shadow he was living with for a spell, a shadow Charlie recognized. He missed his daughter something awful but he kept the expression of his grief within the circle of the village and his immediate family.
“Hey, Tom,” Terry nodded a curt greeting, “it’s just that with Fur Rondy all the tables are full and my plans to head south are fucked for the same reason; all the flights to Ketchikan are booked.” He shrugged off his jacket and continued his appeal, “Not to mention half the people I need to see from down home will be on the streets of Anchorage for the week.”
Thomas gave him a grudging nod. They were in the same boat, weren’t they? Most of his own village would be here, too, for the crafts or the dogs. He looked away from Terry to scan the room–what the heck?
“Tom, Terry, can you slide over? This place is really packed!” Billy nodded to his fellow “farmers,” previous inmates at Point McKenzie. He, too, realized their common dilemma. “We gotta survive a week of partyin’ with this mob before we can get on with our lives–is this some kinda test or what?”
Resignation and its twin crow, Foreboding, parked themselves on Thomas’s shoulders for a visit. His precious little inner space was getting overcrowded real quick. He looked to Charlie who was methodically drenching each fry in a puddle of ketchup. “Hey, Charlie, you got a place to stay?”
“I ain’t checked yet, Thomas but I stayed at the mission last night so I could meet you at the drop-off. I was planning to call your auntie. You know, the one that lives off the bike trails at the south end.”
“Yeah, but…” Auntie Julie had a nice place. Thomas had crashed on her couch before. He turned to Billy and Terry whose faces had suddenly turned hopeful. Was he really obliged to bring them along? Yeah, he reckoned he was. His auntie would kill him if she found out he left them stranded. “Guys, you gotta know up front Julie don’t tolerate no drinkin’. She’s pretty fierce about that. You dun wanna cross her.” He stared at the two of them until he was sure they had heard him. “And no coarse language, neither.”
“It’s alright, bro, I hear ya.” Terry nodded his assent. “We gotta stay clean anyway cuz there’s no way I’m goin’ back to jail.”
“You got that right,” Billy chimed in.
We’re all in agreement; that’s pretty remarkable, thought Thomas, because they didn’t agree on much before now. Terry was a body builder who got caught using steroids; he just craved putting on more mass. It juiced him up somehow, and it made him mean which was a problem because he had the physical power to be quite “expressive.” Thomas had the memory of a lump or two as evidence.
Now Billy, he was another story. He just did stupid stuff, like swiping his brother’s four-wheeler and taking it for a joy ride across Merrill Air Field—could’ve decapitated himself on a Cessna’s tie-downs, pulled the wing off its struts instead. His brother just laughed, but the owner of the Cessna wasn’t as forgiving. Billy had served eight months at Pt. MacKenzie, just long enough to mourn the loss of his dogs—his ex-girlfriend took the pair of mutts to Palmer–and his other “dogs”, ten pair of Adidas he’d left in storage at his brother’s. Thomas had never known anyone to carry on so much about his footwear.
Thomas saw his own craziness as another flavor entirely, born of shock, grief, and guilt. His niece had drowned on his watch—he had jumped in to the cold water to save her but the current was too strong, too fast. The accident, which he had replayed over and over in his mind the last several months, had shattered his vision of his own goodness. He’d drunk and brawled as if in retaliation to himself. Thomas was slowly putting the pieces together but dark emotions still threatened to pull him under. He shuddered involuntarily and brought his attention back to the table.
“Billy, you gun’ call you brother?” Thomas looked up from his plate, and speared another bite of fish, still carrying a hope of freeing himself from his companions.
“Naw. He’s on the slope till the end of the month and his ol’ lady’s a bear; she don’t like me much. I’ll get my stuff when Ray’s home again.”
“Terry, how ‘bout you? Got any people to help get you through the week?”
“Not sure, but I’m goin’ over to the gym when we finish here. The manager will usually spot me for a few bucks; I’m good for business.” For emphasis, Terry flexed a bulging bicep which happened to be attached to the hand holding his forkful of omelette.
“Easy there, Terry.” Thomas fended off the fork. “Charlie, you gotta phone?”
Charlie handed him his cell. “Your Auntie Julie’s goin’ be happy to hear your voice, Thomas—“
Thomas grunted and excused himself, retreating to the parking lot for quiet and a little privacy to make the call.
“Aieeee! Is that you, Thomas? Been too long, eh? When can I see your face?” Julie’s voice was like a song to Thomas. He pushed down the jumble of feelings stirred to life by his auntie’s voice and murmured into the phone.
Thomas returned and stood at the mouth of the booth. “We’re all set. Julie says she’s ready for the challenge. We got exactly one week. Next Monday morning, we gotta scoot. Everyone in?”
Thomas nodded to a chorus of “yeahs” and reached to swig the last of his coffee, tepid and bitter, but a good foil for the grease of fried fish. Though it wasn’t the grease making his stomach flutter.
For once, the city didn’t have to import any snow for the dog races; downtown yards were waist-high in the white stuff. Snow removal, slow as it was, left plenty at hand for the sled dogs to get a good start. Thomas threaded his way through the crowd at the end of the street, looking for Lucy or Jack who, together, were handling a dog team out of Nome. He wasn’t sure who was running the team today, but he expected to find their familiar faces somewhere on the deck.
The street was cordoned off to accommodate the two dozen kennel campers fitted to every kind of pickup truck. Shutters or flip-up windows lined the sides of the camper shells, two- kennel-high to fit the whole team. Inside each, a honey-comb of kennels, stash of cold weather gear, extra tack and rigging. The sleds transported on the camper roofs were on the ground now, runners and brakes checked, gear stowed. Racers and family lined up the ganglines and hooked up the teams—the raucous noise of excited dogs bouncing off the towers of the Captain Cook Hotel.
The racers were easy to spot as they were dressed for wind and cold, head to toe. The swish of Gortex and flash of numbers and sponsor logos also helped them to stand out in the crowd. Thomas spotted Lucy leaning over to talk to her lead dog. She was wearing royal blue and the number “59”—he made a mental note so that he could find her in the TV footage later.
“Hey, Lucy!” Thomas carefully stepped around the team of dogs to avoid any sniping. The dogs were generally motivated as a team to run as fast and far as possible, but that didn’t mean they didn’t have issues with one another, territory and supremacy, the top two. Kind of reminded him of prison: the inmates at the farm had their peculiar pecking order, too.
“Thomas? Quyana! I thought you were getting out soon. Stayin’ to watch the start?”
“I was hoping to find you and Jack. Did he come down to help you out or is he back home?”
“He’s home. Tryin’ to save for a new 4-wheeler. We need it for haulin’ stuff to the cabin. I ain’t carryin’ no hundred pound sacks o’ feed no more!” Thomas smiled. Lucy was lean and fit, but older than some of the other racers by maybe a decade. The woman’s experience had taught her what her frame could handle. And she listened to it. Now that was wisdom.
“Mind if I hang out with the team for a while? I could help you get ready–”
“Sure. We got at least an hour before the start.” Lucy was all business now. “Check the booties for me—Ma packed them in the duffle behind the seat. Just make sure I got at least two dozen pair and pack ‘um in the sled. Thanks, Thomas.” Lucy continued her rounds with the dogs, tightening collars and adjusting the harnesses, talking low to her favorites.
Thomas climbed into the pick-up, grabbed the duffle from behind the seat, and unzipped it. Before he started counting, he glanced at the dash pebbled with nicks and one long landscape of a crack that ran from side to side. Given the roads and distances traveled north or south, it was no mystery. Just another Alaskan windshield.
Unlike the Iditarod or the Yukon Quest, the Fur Rondy race offered three days of ninety-minute sprints. Thomas knew Lucy didn’t expect to win because her huskies were bred for the longer races, but she and the dogs would learn more about functioning as a team, tuning out the distractions of spectators and testing the variety of trail conditions—roadways, park trails, and walking bridges. It was a rush to run for speed, even if you weren’t the best.
Thomas felt some of the same tease, a quickening of his pulse, in the rush of finding friends from back home. It made him more anxious to get through the week. It made his heart glad. These were the real people, not because they were native, but because they were family, his family of choice.
“Now Billy, if you want to eat, you have to help me cook.” Julie handed the boy a five pound bag of russets. “The cutting board’s behind the toaster. You’ll find a sharp knife in the drawer by the stove.” Julie waited until he had the tool in hand. “Now quarter the potatoes and toss them into this pan. Let me know when you’re done.” Julie wove a path around her “volunteer” and dragged the cast iron skillet to the stove where she browned the stew meat, onions, and garlic. Then she added chopped carrots and celery. Moose stew and mashed potatoes—a proper feast. She had used the nose meat in a soup last month, but the aroma filling the kitchen told her the stew still had plenty of flavor. She would leave it to slow-cook on the back burner till the troops gathered. She figured they were living hand-to-mouth during this transition. She would offer what she had and, in return, they could shovel snow from the driveway and the back deck—or so she hoped.
Billy had arrived mid-afternoon, cold, tired, and hungry. He came back to life when she fixed him a chili dog with chips and a glass of root beer. He was about to crash in front of the TV when she pulled out the sack of potatoes. While he continued chopping, she searched the closets and garage for sleeping bags and extra blankets which migrated from one spot to another with the influx and departures of family. Her place was a portal for kin traveling in from the bush. By the time she got back to the kitchen, Billy was asleep on the couch with a hoody for a blanket. She draped a warm down bag over him and stepped onto the porch to call Charlie.
“Charlie? Oh, good. So you’ll be back here in about an hour? And what about Thomas? That sounds great. I’m sure he’ll be along soon after.” Julie could see her breath escape in little puffs of white clouds. The temperature was dropping fast. She looked at her flower beds in the twilight, each raised bed, a labor of love. In three or four months those peonies would thrust through the crust of dirt and nothing would be able to stop them—such a glorious blossom! Her backyard was a testimony to her singular love of peonies, every bed full of them.
“Hey, Tom, is that you?” Terry trudged toward C Street from Arctic Boulevard at the Fish and Game building, peering into the twilight at the figure across the road.
“Hey, Terry.” There was no mistaking that hulk of a figure, thought Thomas. He was actually glad to see him. Working with the dogs had calmed his spirit; their needs were easy to comprehend—food, warmth, praise—his needs weren’t so different.
Terry stepped out to the edge of the road. Thomas crossed to meet him. They walked along the edge, wary of traffic, but happy to be out of the deeper snow.
“So what are we going to find at your auntie’s? Think she’ll feed us?”
Thomas laughed. Terry was always ravenous after a workout. “Oh yeah, she’ll feed us, and it’ll be good food, too.” They let the conversation drop as they creaked and shuffled across the frozen surface, Terry’s over-sized zipper pulls jangling a tune, Thomas’ jacket sleeves swishing in response. The thought of warmth and food occupied both of their minds comfortably as they navigated beyond the glare of street lights and into the dimmer light of reflected snow.
As they rounded the corner to Ptarmigan Place, they heard the rhythmic scraping of a snow shovel, or was it two? Charlie and Billy were widening the narrow channel of access which was Julie’s drive. Julie was stepping out the door just as they approached.
“Hey, you two! Take this leash. Coot needs at least a walk around the block.” Julie handed off the black lab to Terry and gave Thomas’s arm a squeeze before she turned back to the house, stomped her boots on the porch, and stepped inside.
Julie believed that everyone should contribute something before they sat down to eat. It made them more grateful and deserving for what they had. She was pleased that all three of the young men had made it back to the house without incident. Ten hours of freedom and they were still in the clear. It all counts, she thought to herself, every minute of success counts, no matter the fall that might come later. This is a moment we can celebrate. And Thomas needs this.
Alone in the big kitchen, she set the table with large open bowls of stew, mashed potatoes rising like floating islands in the center of each. She filled the water glasses and lit the candle. It had been almost two years since Thomas’s niece had drowned at the edge of their island community. Only six years old and gone faster than a shooting star. Thomas had struggled with his survivor’s guilt and made some bad choices—mostly drinking and fighting— but it wasn’t anyone’s fault. He just needed to be around family again to let the healing happen.
Julie slid the candle to the center of the table and carefully guided the hurricane glass over it. She could hear the guys in the entryway, shedding their boots and jackets. She watched them file in, sock-footed. First Terry, then Charlie and Billie. Julie frowned. “Where’s Thomas?”
Charlie signaled with a thumb over his shoulder. Julie walked to the entryway where she found Thomas, one boot off and leaning against the door jamb, his head bowed. She moved forward, quiet as a prayer, and stood in front of him. He looked up, his eyes glistening. She nodded. He took a deep breath and they walked inside together.
© 2017, Rachel Barton