I was born with the umbilical cord curled tightly around my neck, my face as blue as a bruise, and as the midwife tried to extricate me from my predicament my mother leaned forward and grazed her fingers lightly over my full head of black hair.
“She’s beautiful,” she said.
This is the story my father told me as we sat across from each other at the worn kitchen table in his small cabin in Fairbanks, Alaska. There were many reasons to tell it. My father and I had not seen each other in more than a year, and in the bedroom one of his dogs was going into labor on a nest of blankets pulled from the bed and tossed to the floor. We could hear her panting and whining and it did not sound much different than what I imagined a person might sound like going through the same thing. “It’s going to take awhile,” my father said. “Finish your bread. Then we’ll see how she’s doing.”
I had never tasted warm bread before, at least not that I remembered, and I liked the heat on my tongue. He tore pieces from the loaf in chunks and slathered it with butter before handing it to me. “That’s what she said, huh?” I asked.
The other dogs scratched against the door, trying to get into their mother, and occasionally my father yelled at them, but in a fake-angry way, smiling as he raised his voice and slapped the table. He seemed infected with their energy, their joy at what was happening in the bedroom, and some of their anxiety too. I could tell because of the way he ate—ripping pieces of bread in half with his hands and then eating first one half whole, then the other—although maybe he ate that way all the time. It was hard to say.
“A little,” I said.
“It was the first time and last time your mother ever complimented you on your appearance,” he joked, as he stood up, wiping crumbs on his jeans.
I stood up too and followed him, trying to copy the assured swing of his legs. The simple way he could cross a room was a wonder to me.
He had covered the bedroom windows with blankets and the room was dark and cool. It felt good to escape from the sunshine, which streamed into the house even though it was ten at night. My father knelt down and I knelt down behind him, a polite distance apart.
“You were amazing,” he added, after the first of the slick little puppies was in his hands. “And strong too.” The second followed, wet into the world, and then the third. I was trying very hard to be quiet, to listen and watch and remember it all, as if this might be something I would be called upon to use in the future. I had seen so much already in my short time here.
His white T-shirt was covered with blood and sweat as he held the mother’s jaws with one hand, pulling her head up and away so I could see the squirming mass of arms and legs and faces. One had been born dead, a still shape at the center of all the writhing movement.
"We don't want the mother to eat that one," my father said, as he twisted her snout upward. Her eyes were rolling back, lost in some kind of reverie. “She doesn’t know who I am right now,” he explained. “She just knows I’m not one of them.”
This was why we had rushed from Anchorage to Fairbanks two days before—any day now, he had said before we were even out of the airport, any day now—and it cast that whole crazy trip in a new light, made it seem small and less important, although I knew that was crazy. My sister would have called it crazy, right?
The puppies didn’t really seem like dogs at all. Eyes shut, bodies thin and slick, they looked like amphibians; and the dead one did not look any different than the healthy ones except he wasn’t moving. My father held it gently—as if it were still alive—and began rubbing its belly with two fingers. “Watch this,” he said.
I could see the dog’s bones under its loose skin, the points where the legs met the shoulders and hips.
My father began to rub harder, pushing down his hand against its chest, and for a moment I wanted to pull it away from him—to save it—but I knew the time to save it had passed. It had been probably been dead in the womb.
Its mouth opened and it coughed up something milky yellow. It was twitching in his hands. “Sometimes you just have to remind them to breath,” he said.
“Okay,” I said.
He placed the dog back with the others and I lost it in the mess of bodies, until I couldn’t figure out which one had almost died.
“A damned fighter,” he said. And then his voice changed, grew softer. It had all the delicate control of a good actor approaching the lip of the stage for a final speech. “I’m sorry about all that talk earlier. You were a captive audience, I guess, in the truck. And there’s not many people I can speak to about that stuff. I know it probably doesn’t mean that much to you at all. But I’m telling you about your heritage too. I’m trying to pass along something. Too late, probably. I know that. But then again it’s never too late, right?”
It was summer then, his first year in Fairbanks, Alaska, and something had opened up in his heart. He told me many stories I had not heard before, not from him, not from my sister, and especially not from my mother who, after all, was not exactly cast in a good light in most of them.
* * *
“It’s the cancer talking,” my sister said the next day, when I told her what my father had said about my birth. Her voice sounded tinny and faraway, which of course she was, back east with her husband and young baby.
As I told the story to her I slanted it even further toward danger and death. The cord had been tighter, my breath harder, and the doctors told my parents that I might not make it, that I might simply tip back toward the darkness from which I had just emerged.
Something about this possibility thrilled me. I imagined my frightened mother and father wondering what might happen me as my small body was connected to tubes and wires, the patient words of a kind nurse, my befuddled sister, slumped in a chair in the waiting room. She would have been ten years old then, smart and cynical. “It’s what he said,” I told her.
“Bullshit,” she said.
She had begun to use words like that recently. She dressed crisply, in ironed black skirts and expensive high heels, with a tight knot of hair at the back of her head, and I think she liked the contradiction that kind of language created. She was more like my father than she would ever admit. “It’s what he told me,” I repeated, voice low but insistent.
It was mid-June and we had not spoken in the days since I had arrived in Alaska. But guilt had gotten the best of me and so I had decided to make the effort, which involved more than just dialing her number. My father did not own a phone—he said that if anybody wanted to see him they knew where to find him—so I rode his old two-speed bike on the dirt road into town. It was white with a red flame painted up the side and although my father must have bought or likely found the bike recently, I could picture him as a child my age, painting that flame and thinking it was cool. To change speeds I peddled in reverse until I heard a click as the gear caught. I did this as often as possible, moving from forward into reverse like I was shifting speeds on a car. I dropped it into the dirt alongside the diner.
“Hey, Nancy,” one of the waitresses said as I came through the door and made my way to the counter. My father had told her about me, his daughter from New England, and she seemed to think it was amusing that a fourteen-year-old girl had come all that way on her own, to visit a man like my dad. But as long as I ordered a piece of pie they didn’t seem to mind me using their phone.
My sister and I, we had arranged a secret signal. I would call her collect and give them the fake name I thought was beautiful. “Would you accept a collect call from Grace MacDowell?” the operator asked. My sister knew to refuse. “I don’t know anybody by that name,” she said, and then she called me right back.
The phone rang, the waitress slid a piece of blueberry pie to me, and I began to tell my sister everything. It took a real act of will, though, to not talk about the dogs. This seemed to be the more important story to tell, although I knew that it wasn't. “It took us twelve hours,” I said, about the drive from Anchorage into Fairbanks. “We got into town around midnight and the sun was still in the sky.”
I told her about why it had taken us so long, the people on the side of the road, the land strewn with busted metal and rubber, and road curved and broken from what my father called frost heaves. I began to tell her about the bearded man sitting all alone on the grassy slope, his face tilted up to catch the sun, his pale, distended belly. He looked, I began to tell her, like someone who had wandered out of a fairytale, but he was just a little older than me, a boy really.
She stopped me and said, “Do you want to come home early? It’s okay if you do, you know.”
“No, really,” I said. “I’m okay. And Dad’s okay too.”
An elderly man came up next to me and pushed a few dollars across the counter, quarters and dimes. His face was sunburned and pinched and he looked angry, but when he saw me watching him, he smiled and moved on. I cut my pie with the side of my fork, but didn’t eat any. “Well,” she said. “You know best. I do trust you, okay?”
“I understand,” I said.
“You really don’t,” she said, and she laughed. "I'm the one who remembers everything. You were just a little thing."
Which pushed me back into telling her my story. I wanted to show her that yes, maybe I didn’t understand, but she didn’t either, and our ignorance was something that could help us.
The news of the puppies, I kept that to myself. I wanted it to hold onto it longer, savor it before sharing.
“He was lost,” I told her. “I felt bad for him.” And then I tried to tell her the rest, the things my father had said, the stop at the gas station to call the police. I tried to tell her about the way the light fell on the hill, and then the discovering we made farther up the hill, almost at the tree line.
"Are you really okay?" she asked me.
"I'm on the edge of something," I said.
When I arrived back at my father’s cabin I leaned the bike against the back of the outhouse and walked to the side door. The blender was running inside—I could hear it through the open window, whirling up another one of his health shakes. He stopped it as I came walking through the door. “Evening,” he said, and then he started it up again. I walked into the other room and clicked our little portable television. The blender drowned out the sound, but I was more concerned with the pictures.
My father said the TV was a gift from a friend, but I knew even then that he had probably pulled it from somebody’s trash. The back of it was splashed with white paint and the longer it was left on, the shakier the picture would become, until the image was flipping rapidly. So I watched it with my fingers on the vertical hold knob, adjusting the images as the show went along, trying to stay one step ahead of the defect.
My father revved the blender like a car engine, grinding down apples and eggs and fish oil into a thick formless mass.
“Want some?” he asked me, when he was finished and standing there in his gym shorts, holding the heavy metallic shake cup in his hand. It was a teasing little joke, because I was at the age that even a slightly burned piece of toast would make me curl a lip in disgust and push back my plate. “Can you feel it?” he said, taking a deep breath of the dry air. “All your synapses are coming alive again. The city isn’t good for a young girl.”
Clarity was a word he had used on the road, to describe the feeling he had from living so close to the bone. The snack food in the small cabinet next to the wash basin, the local newspapers in the outhouse, and especially the TV, I knew these were all concessions, something he might see as small hypocrisies.
“The dogs have taken over my room,” he explained. “Looks like you’re stuck with me.”
I nodded but kept my eyes fixed on the TV.
“What are you doing?” my father asked, although obviously he knew what I was doing.
“Nothing really,” I told him. “Just watching my show.”
“Our little window on the world,” he said, with a hint of irony and disgust. He tipped back his shake and drank a big gulp, made a show of wiping his mouth with the back of his arm.
I don’t remember the name of the show, but I remember the faces of the actors, the cheap little stagy sets and costumes, and vivid little fragments of the storylines. One of the shows depicted insects the size of a human hand—dozens of them—crawling on a windshield, although I don’t remember the rest of the plot, or the actors, or anything else but the shapes moving across the glass, the car going dark inside.
“You could be writing letters,” he said. “It’s a lost art, you know. Think about what you did today. Write it down. I’ll mail it for you tomorrow.”
He was talking about my sister, but he did not write to her either, at least not that I knew, and the only pencil I had seen in the place was a thick carpenter’s pencil. “How about a journal?” he asked me. “You should be writing all this down, Nancy. Seriously. Time is finite.” What he meant was that our time was finite, but the idea of time itself having an end made my heart beat a little faster. It was like an idea dredged up from the TV and put in my father’s mouth to speak.
“I know,” I said.
“I’ll buy you a notebook,” he said. “What’s your favorite color again?”
“Blue,” I said. “Electric blue.”
“Right,” he said. “I knew that.” He seemed satisfied with this, and he retreated to his bedroom, where he did chin-ups on a bar he had suspended in his doorway. I could hear him count from one to twenty, then stop and start up again. He seemed strong and confident and happy. I could imagine myself dying, in my infancy, or even from old age at some remote point in my future, the idea of him dying was the most impossible thing I could imagine. He was at number twenty-seven, and soon he’d be at thirty and I’d hear him grunt and drop heavy to the floorboards.
I think my father wanted to be preserved, even if just by his daughter’s simple sentences, written in messy handwriting in this notebook he offered to buy me. I wasn’t a good writer, though, and the responsibility of setting down all the finely tuned things I had experienced made my head spin. The way the sun bathed the debris, my father’s slow, even walk after he had climbed from his truck to the stream of wreckage running along the gulley, and not just that, but the clicking of plates as I washed the dinner dishes in silence after that first meal at his home, how could I get any of this right? I had made a mess of it on the phone, after all, and even in my own head.
* * *
“I think we gave up too easily,” he said, we meaning, I think, all the dead Pequot. For a moment when he said this, it seemed like he had been alive then as the settlers moved into Connecticut, converting some natives to Christianity, killing others. His regrets flowed back that far and deep.
We had not been in his truck for more than twenty minutes when he had started in on this, his new subject. My sister had warned me, but it was still a surprise—the sheer feeling in his words as he talked, his eyes scanning the road. The truck swayed and rose like a ship navigating a difficult wake, and sometimes he moved into the oncoming lane to avoid especially bad road damage. Occasionally, when a car passed us going the other way, he opened his hand in a wave. They always waved back.
“The meek inheriting the earth, that’s a lie,” he said. “That’s a line they feed you. We were as meek as they come.”
Ever since the diagnosis, my sister said, he had become interested in what he called his heritage. He said he was half Pequot Indian, although he had never mentioned this while we had been living back in New Hampshire, and he did not look like any Indian I had seen in the movies. His hair was short and brown, graying at the temples, and his face was like mine—round and flat, although on him the features had come out handsome.
“Did you know that our ancestors, they never waged war? They were as peaceful as deer, and when the white man came, they greeted him with open arms. That’s why there are so few of us left. We didn’t run and hide, and we didn’t attack. We just assumed they were like us. We walked out of the woods and shook their hands.”
I imagined my father walking out the woods and shaking hands with these new visitors. He looked like a white man to me, a white man with a ruddy complexion maybe, but a white man, and he had been raised in a tenement building in south Boston. But I liked that he was angry and fighting, and he drove with casual assurance. The road, he explained, was one straight shot all the way into Fairbanks, a busted up little line running north to a busted up frontier town. And he was smiling, driving one-handed, as he explained it all to me.
“Dad,” I said. “What’s this?”
“Fires,” he said. “We've had them all month. We’ll pass through.”
A white fog hung around the road, and blocked our view of the birch trees that lined both sides of the road. It grew harder to see ahead too. It was like the world was dropping away from us bit by bit. But I didn’t feel afraid. He was still smiling, and he said he was sorry, because he had done all the talking and he wanted to hear more from me. How was high school? The first year would be the hardest, he said, but then I’d make good friends, and it would be smooth sailing from there. I said, “Is this dangerous?” meaning the fires. I pictured them moving quickly across the land, destroying everything, just like the settlers my father had been talking about.
“They’re farther away then you might think,” he said. “Miles and miles.”
“Sure,” I said, because that seemed like it could be true. I wanted to tell him that school was harder than I had anticipated. Not the work, that was easy, but all the alliances and double-talk. I had gotten in a good deal of trouble just a couple of weeks before for punching a girl who had made fun of my clothes, and I had already decided that I would do it again if she tried it twice.
After a while my father said, "I love your sister and she loves me. We just don't understand each other very well." I wasn't sure what to say to that so I said nothing, and neither did he. The road moved under us in waves of jagged land and coughed up asphalt.
It took almost an hour for the world to come back to us, bit by bit, tree by tree, until the sun was strong in our faces and the road stretched out in front of us to the horizon. “There we go,” he said, when we had been clear for a good twenty minutes. We were both quiet, but he seemed to be thinking about something. The windshield was spattered with overgrown mosquitoes and sometimes he ran the wipers, smearing them all over the place.“There’s only 500 of us left,” he finally said, meaning the Pequot nation, the string of people who had come before him. Most of them, he said, were back in Connecticut. Some of them did not even know who they were and what had happened to them.
“It’s a crime,” he said.
“What is?” I said, thinking he meant the settlers moving across the country.
“Not knowing who you are,” he explained. “It’s a crime against yourself.”
I asked him what he meant again, but he didn’t respond except to say he had a surprise for me when we hit Fairbanks. He asked me if I liked animals.
“Sure,” I said, and then, “Depends what kind.”
“The pregnant kind,” he said, and then, “I’ve been taking care of a few sled dogs. Greyhounds, really, well greyhound and husky mixes. Amazing looking animals. Bodies like daggers.”
“Is that what you’ve been doing?” I asked, and I didn’t mean it to sound rude.
“A little bartending,” he said. “The people here are good people. Everybody here is from somewhere else, so that makes me feel less lonely.”
“Do you like it more than Raleigh?” I asked, which is where he lived last, the summer previous, doing seasonal work for his brother’s landscaping company.
He made a face like he had just tasted something awful. ”That town is history,” he said. “It was probably a good place once, but not anymore. It’s all chewed up and spit out.”
What had my sister said? That my father was the kind of man who had to run to the edge of the world to find himself. It was certainly not the kind of thing he could do sitting in chair, surrounded by his family, and he had discovered through experience that South Carolina, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, none of these places were far enough.
When she told me this I had scowled and said nothing, watching the planes out the wide airport windows, because things were different now since the diagnosis. This was a man with a black spot on his brain, and the old jokes didn’t work anymore.
* * *
When I had spoken to my sister on the diner phone the complexity of my recent experiences had overwhelmed me. There was so much to tell, and I did not know how to start, and if I did not know how to start then how was I going to know how to end? So I told her the simplest of stories, and not even that. I told her a part of the story, something that showed my father in the worst possible light, as someone who dragged his daughter through threat after threat without thought of the consequences. I did not tell her that, just three hours outside of Anchorage, we stopped at a roadhouse with a sign that read Beer Inside and another one, a metal one, that read Coke Refreshes. That one was shot up with bullet holes from so long ago that the holes and dents had turned brown with rust. My father ran up the steps to the entrance two at a time, held the door open for me like a gentleman.
The inside was as dark as a cave and smelled of damp, but the woman behind the counter smiled to see my father. “I thought you might drop by again soon,” she said, and then she smiled at me. “Is this your new girlfriend? Should I be jealous?”
“My daughter,” he said. “Nancy. She’s a long way from home.”
“Not really,” I said, because I did not really think of New England as my home. I never had, although maybe I didn’t even realize it until that moment. But this was a conversation for just the two of them, so I tried my best to recede into the background as they talked. I wasn’t even sure if they had heard me, because my father, he said, “I bet you didn’t think I had a daughter. But I have two.”
“What other secrets are you keeping from me?” she asked, and she was still smiling, handing out little paper menus.
“I think you know everything now,” he said.
She glanced at me and said, “Do you think I should trust him? He’s a charmer, but I’m not sure I should trust him.”
“You should trust him,” I said, surprised at the conviction in my voice.
“She’s had a rough life,” he told me when she had gone back to the bar, and I looked over my shoulder at her cleaning a glass with a white rag. She looked happy to me, or at least content, and I wondered what it would be like to trade places with her. “I’ll tell you sometime about Tlingit women,” he said, and I guessed there was some connection between her hard life and this new fact, although I didn’t know what that could be. She had opened a newspaper and had spread it open on the bar. Someone was talking to her from the kitchen and she was talking back, but I couldn’t make out the words.
When our food came she pulled the extra chair back from the table and sat down. “Don’t blame me if you don’t like it,” she said. “Blame the cook.”
We ate slowly, and the food was good. She talked about her family, five brothers and four sisters who were scattered all around the state, and her cousins, and her grandmother, who was sick in a Seattle hospital. My father seemed to have heard some of this before, but he asked questions, and complimented the food, and then he threw his napkin on the plate and said, “I want to stay longer, but we have to hit the road. We have some obligations back in Fairbanks. We’re going to tear up the road today.”
He looked at me and grinned and winked.
“Sometimes I think he loves those dogs more than he loves people,” she said, and there was an edge her voice even though she was still smiling. He was standing, reaching for his wallet. He said something about loving all of God’s creatures, including people, but he was the only one laughing.
“Two girls,” she said. “I can hardly believe it. You really are full of surprises.”
“I try not to be,” he said.
She was looking at him but talking to me. “Nancy,” she said. “Your father thinks we’re the same, me and him. But look at him. Does it look like we’re the same?”
I considered the question, but I didn’t answer. Nobody really seemed the same as anybody else, really, and I wanted to tell them this, but we were already at the door, squinting our eyes against the sunshine. Once we were outside everything changed again then and they hugged each other briefly. She said that it was the most beautiful day she’d seen lately and that we were really lucky people. There were lucky people and unlucky people and we were definitely on the lucky side of the ledger, she said. She felt lucky just being around us. They were both joking and relaxed again, and when we were pulling out of the parking lot my father said, “I hope you liked her. She’s a nice person.”
“Do you really think that?” I asked after a while.
“Of course,” he said.
“I mean, that you try not to be full of surprises.”
“Sure,” he said, and I could tell he didn’t want to talk anymore. But I asked, “Does she know you’re sick?”
“I don’t think of it that way,” he said. “That’s a defeatist word.”
“Okay,” I said.
“It’s not as big a deal as your sister thinks,” he added, and his voice had a real edge to it. It reminded me of the way he could talk to my mother, those times he came to visit, and I didn’t want to be talked to like that—I didn’t want to be like my mother—so I quieted down and let the scenery slide past. He smiled and began to talk about the next town about two hours up ahead, a little place he had only visited once, when he had first arrived. “You can stand on one end and throw a rock across the thing,” he said.
“More fire,” I said, after a while.
He put his hand out the window, palm up, like he was checking for rain. “This isn’t fire, Nancy.”
He was right. It was dust and dirt, billowing around us in a cloud. He put his left hand, slowed down to a crawl. “What is it?” I asked.
“I’m not sure.”
We drove at almost a walking pace, my father’s window still open, and I could feel the dust tickle the back of my throat. “There’s something in the road,” I said, when I saw what I thought was a small black animal, crouched right in front of us.
It was a piece of tire, a long strip of threads and rubber, and that was followed by a few more pieces, and then a hubcap, a litter of broken wood and bright red plastic. My father, he leaned forward close to the windshield, and then he pulled over and stopped the car altogether.
“An accident,” he said, although there was no sign of a car.
I opened my door and peered outside. Either the dust was clearing or I was getting used to it. The embankment was covered with small birch trees, and some of them were ripped up and broken, like a tornado had just passed through. “Where are you going?” he asked.
“I’m just looking,” I said.
“We need to head home,” he said. I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or to himself. Then he added, “There’s a gas station about twenty minutes ahead. We can make a call there.” That seemed to be for me, but my feet were touching the ground now. My hand was still on the door handle. Maybe I was driven by curiosity or maybe concern—probably a weird mix of both— but as my father said, “Wait,” I released the door handle and stepped into the dust cloud.
The truck was about fifteen feet up the embankment, turned on its back like a dead beetle. I felt the odd urge to sneak around the edge of the spectacle, watching for signs of life. If I was discovered, it seemed, I would be in serious trouble.
I could hear my father hollering out my name.
This was the part of the story I had tried to share with my sister. The boy sat on the grass, his hands on his knees, his face turned up to the sky. By boy I mean he couldn’t have been more than twenty, although maybe he was older, and he simply seems young in my mind’s eye. He wore a peach fuzz beard, long hippy hair, ripped jeans and sandals, and it was the mix of his little costume and his circumstances that made me feel sorry for him. I walked over to him and said, “Are you alright?”
“No bones broken,” he said. My father came up behind me and put his hand on my shoulder. The boy seemed to finally notice us completely, and he turned his head and gave us quizzical look. “It wasn’t my fault,” he said.
“Do you need a ride?” I asked him.
“You should get back to the truck,” my father told me, and he stepped forward to the boy, still five or six feet off, like there was something poisonous about him. He said, “Which way were you headed? South?”
“Anchorage,” the boy said. “Homer. All over.”
“And it wasn't my fault at all."
“Back to the truck, please,” my father said again, but I stayed where I was, watching them talk. It had the feel of an interrogation—the quick questions, the simple answers. It’s true that he didn’t seem hurt at all, although he did look starved and dirty. There seemed to be a little defiance in this, in his relaxed pose, his casual answers. After all, couldn’t he have just stood up if what he said was true?
"He might be hurt," I said, and suddenly we were talking about him like he wasn't even there.
"I don't think he is."
“What do you want to do?” my father asked, and the boy said he wasn’t sure, that he felt fine though, and that none of it was his fault. “Are you the only one?” he asked him.
“I’m fine,” he said.
“Stay here,” my father said, but I didn’t listen to that command either. We walked together to the truck and he bent down and looked inside the cab. The windshield had been blown out and playing cards, cassette tapes, and scraps of food covered the ground. He reached inside, straining, found the keys in the ignition, and gave them a turn, then stepped back. It was an old truck and it seemed to have been involved in many smaller accidents before this big one. The driver’s side door was bright yellow, and the words Young and Poor and Happy were spray painted down one side, in increasingly smaller letters. Flowers too, painted with brightly colored paints, blues and greens and pinks. I could imagine a party where all this happened, the crazed hopefulness of it. “Christ,” my father said. “What a mess.”
"Over there," I said.
I indicated the baby's car seat further up the hill. It sat there as if it had been placed there carefully, by the boy, by someone else, and for a moment it seemed as if it was not part of the accident at all. I began to walk toward it, my father just behind me, and when I reached it I bent down and saw the baby's face, staring out at me from its safe place. "Christ," my father said from behind me. "Jesus Christ."
"It's okay," I said.
I unstrapped the buckles and only when I lifted its tight weight into my arms did it begin to cry. I patted its back and shifted it to my shoulder and then carried it down the hill to the boy. "Everything is fine," I said, when he looked up at me. It was like he was seeing me for the first time.
"Take her," I said, and I held her out.
That's when he began to cry, and he reached up and took her and pulled her in close. "She's very important to me," he said.
He began to ramble, something about a divorce, a girl in Montana, parents in Arizona, a brother in Florida, and how he had decided to become a gypsy, escaping all of those stupid places, all those people who told him he was a failure. Nothing was working out as he planned, he said. All his troubles came spilling out, but the baby was quiet and content. They seemed to fit together perfectly, her small bulk against his skinny chest.
"You're both fine," I said, although I did not believe it. Saying it made it feel as if it might be true.
“I wanted this drive to be fun,” my dad said, when we back on the road.
“Dad,” I said.
He laughed. “It’s been interesting, at least.”
We pulled down the long, dirt road that lead to the box of a gas station. He left the car engine running while he climbed out and headed inside. I could see him through the plate glass window explaining it all to the guy behind the counter. He put the phone to his ear and turned and noticed me and he smiled and waved.
“Man,” he said, when he climbed back into the truck. “No good deed goes unpunished.” But he refused to talk about the phone call. “Only good things,” he said.
“Okay,” I said, and then he reached out and gripped my hand hard.
I thought of the baby looking up at me and realized that I did not know if it was a boy or a girl. Its hair was thick and black, its eyes floating as if seeing the world through a haze.
“I want every second to count,” my father said, and then, gripping even harder, so that his nails pinched my palm. “I’m sorry. I really am. I’m not sure what I was thinking.” I wanted to ask him, what for? Because I wasn’t the one to whom he should apologize, right? There was the boy thirty miles back, after all, holding his kid.
“Helpless,” he said.
“People like that,” my father said, as he released my hand. It was as if he knew what I had been thinking and was angry with me for thinking it. “The moment I saw him, I could tell what kind of person he was. He reeked of it. His family was right.” He put both hands on the wheel and we listened to the engine idle. He seemed to be considering the right words. “He’s just doomed, Nancy,” he finally said. “If not now, then sometime later. And I'm not even going to talk about the little one.” He pushed the truck into drive and backed us out. “Still a couple of hundred miles to go,” he explained.
I did not tell my sister that postscript to the story, but when I called her a week later, from that same diner phone, I was not finished. Maybe I was scrambling around blindly, trying to find an ending. “We should have insisted,” I told her, and she asked me, insisted on what? “The boy. He should have come with us,” I told her, because we had left him there, sitting on the hill. I’m sure he was still sitting there when the police arrived, bemused by his own predicament, stroking the baby's thick hair. What did he do when he saw them walking up the hill toward him? Did he still pretend that everything was okay? He had not seemed upset by our leaving.
My sister said, "There was nothing you could do."
* * *
My father’s dying was an impossible thing to imagine, but that’s what he did. Not six months after my visit to see him a woman called from a hospice in California and explained that he had passed away quietly and peacefully. She wanted me to know that he spoke often of me and my sister, and that he was proud of us. He could see what we were becoming. Alaska hadn’t worked out for him, she explained, but she didn’t tell me the details. He had never shared them, except to say that the winters were too long and dark. Somehow he had saved some money and she wanted to send it to me. “Who are you?” I asked. “A nurse?”
“No, nothing like that,” she said. “Just a friend. I helped take care of him though.”
“You can keep the money,” I said. “I don’t need it.” Although I did. My mom wasn’t working again, so the checks from her had stopped, and my sister had decided to go back to school part-time.
“I don’t think he would have wanted that,” she said.
“Okay, send it,” I said, and then, “What did he think we were becoming?” That question seemed to surprise her. She said she didn’t know what to say. “Because I’m not sure,” I added. I was finding danger without my father's help, and finding amazing pleasure in it. I was discovering a certain kind of lean, sullen boy, and I liked to skip school with one or two of them, hang out at home while my sister was away, smoking and kissing and talking dirty. I laughed and tried to make it into a joke—I figured I should give this woman an easy way out, a clearly marked exit to our conversation. But I closed it up as soon as I opened it. “I went to Alaska to visit him, you know,” I told her. “He had a good life there.”
“I’m sure,” she said. “I think your father could make a good life anywhere.”
“Not here,” I said.
She was quiet again, polite to a fault, because she didn’t just say good-bye. I would have been fine with that. She was waiting for my address, I suppose, so she could send me the money, or maybe she had more to tell me, instructions from my dad. She said it wasn’t just the money. There were things to send too, things he had wanted to give to me in person.
I did not bother asking what these things were. I had noticed the plastic beads and eagle jewelry around his cabin, the leather-banded watch he seldom wore, imprinted with animal symbols. I tried to explain about the light, the sheer intensity of it, enough to make you crazy. I remembered—but didn’t speak about—the way that light had fallen all over that wreckage, and the expression on my father’s face as he came away from the overturned truck. It was a blank, just a set of features and nothing more, and I had allowed myself to hate that impassive face, just for a second, as a sort of experiment.
My second and last week in Fairbanks my father hung signs on telephone poles with arrows pointing in the direction of his cabin. Or rather, I did. We drove around and he’d stop and I’d jump from the truck, hammering the sign into place. Then I’d scramble back to the car and we’d be off. “Good job,” he’d say. This was how I got to know the town a better, and him too, because he talked and talked. He told me more about the Pequot, how they fled inland as the settlers came and then kept moving around, from state to state. "I guess they weren't really states then, though," he said. "It was all Indian land, and it was beautiful. More beautiful even than all of this."
And it was beautiful. We rolled on the broken dirt roads through stretches of untouched land, emerged to clusters of little cabins nestled in the valley.
Sometimes a moose stood in the road and me father would brake slowly and carefully and we'd watch it lope off into the trees from a safe distance. He did not talk about his illness, but he did say once, "Sometimes I wish they'd stay longer for us to look at, you know?" and he seemed sad. It was a moose and its calf he was talking about and they were almost out of sight.
At his cabin we were quiet. Occasionally a car drove slowly up our long dirt road and someone walked along the side of the place and knocked on the door, probably surprised that anyone was living out here. It was my job to speak to them, to show off the puppies one by one. "This one is kind of shy," I'd say or, "She's a real handful."
The dog mother stayed close to the puppies—she knew what was going on—but the males were even more energetic than usual, testing the limits of the cabin and then the land beyond. Sometimes I chased them like I was one of them—filling in for their missing pack member. Or at least that's how I wanted to see it, I suppose, because when I was playing with them I became someone half my age, someone who had grown up out here, under this wide sky, breathing this pure air. The magic of my father’s broken two-room cabin had done this to me, made me feel as if innocence could recede, then return as simply as a tide.
We gave away three of the five dogs, one to a kid not much older than me, two more to a woman and her young children, who stood waiting by her car where she had commanded them to stay, like the kids were her pets as well. She eyed the place suspiciously, as if I might be selling all kinds of things out here, and asked me if my mother was around. I told her no, she wasn’t, and showed her into the bedroom where the puppies were waiting for her. Behind the house I could hear my father chopping wood. I could tell from the sharpness of the sound how clean the cut was, if he split the log on the first swing or if he had to lift it up again, held aloft by the axe, and bring it down a second time.
David Crouse is an award-winning short story writer and teacher. His collection of short fiction, Copy Cats, received the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction in 2005 and was nominated for the Pen-Faulkner the following year. A second collection, The Man Back There, was published in 2008 by Sarabande Books and was awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. His stories have appeared in The Greensboro Review, Chelsea, Quarterly West, and The Beloit Fiction Journal. His comic book writing has been anthologized in The Darkhorse Book of the Dead, published by Darkhorse Comics.