“The Alaska Girl”
David Crouse’s “The Alaska Girl” was the winner of the 4th annual Hamlin Garland Award in 2018. Rebecca Makkai, author of The Great Believers and judge for the award had this to say about the story:
I was drawn in on the reader level by “The Alaska Girl,” but I was
intrigued even more as a writer, by the rules the author was willing
to break. Here we have a character who’s fundamentally unlikable, who spends the whole story wandering around, and who’s essentially alone for the whole story. That’s three separate things that should send this story to a screeching halt in the gutter, and yet I was perpetually drawn forward by the character and by the writing. When I love a story I’m always holding my breath by the last page, hoping the author manages to stick the landing and that happened beautifully here. This is a story that shouldn’t work but does; and that’s my favorite kind of story.
The Alaska Girl
September and he was still talking to the girl in Sitka. She was up there in her one room cabin, playing with her dogs and occasionally texting him dirty, misspelled sentences. He knew what she looked like because there she was, eureka, in the background of the single picture she had sent him. In the foreground stood four dogs, all huskies, all from the same litter but one charging toward the camera, the one with the single blue eye and torn ear: the one she said she said she loved best.
In the photograph her face was hard to see, but she looked seriously annoyed with the person taking the picture. One of her hands blurred, as if she were bringing it to her face to mask herself. But then she shared it with him, along with a text that explained what she wanted to do to him, a couple of sentences as systematic as a grocery list, a set of instructions.
Spring had not been a time of renewal: divorce papers in April and then increasingly bad news about the house throughout May. And yet he had floated through the entire summer with the buoyancy he remembered from long ago, when he was fifteen and sixteen and the opposite sex was as new to him as the sudden strength found in his own body. In July he had made a promise to stop, and relented, and then rededicated himself to abstinence for a whole week before sending her a flurry of ridiculous messages. He had stood in the same indie record store he stood in today, waiting for his phone to vibrate in his palm, occasionally flipping through the musty vinyl, taking in the somber faces of rock stars. Then he’d send a burst of words to her across thousands and thousands of miles. It was a miracle, in a way, and he had used it to tell her she had beautiful breasts, the mouth of a porn actress. He was trying to convince himself. Possibly he was trying hard to become an unlikeable person, to don that invulnerable armor.
The last week of September and there was snow in Sitka, and not just a dusting. Although she didn’t describe it to him—he longed for her to describe it in the same mechanical style she had described her list of sexual desires—he imagined it as a complete picture, down to the level of the ice hanging from the eaves of her cabin, the water collecting around her boots left by the heavy door. The dogs would run on trails, up ahead of her and then back, circling her shuffling body and then spinning out again. Was she thinking about him? Most likely no, but she probably wasn’t thinking about any other man either, or if she was, it was a slew of men, their faces kaleidoscoping into a pleasant haze. Enough to be one of them.
Rough times. That was the last thing he had messaged her, in a moment of weakness, and there had been no reply. Indian summer in Massachusetts. People still wearing shorts, ordering iced coffees, it was like the good weather would never end, and the week before she had sent him a text asking if he could buy her a new winter coat. It was simple. Just go to this link. Click on it.
He had not known what to say, so he hadn’t replied, and he wondered if this was the new pattern they were settling in before the whole thing developed rigor mortis. He thought of her slightly wild stare—the stare from the picture—and considered what it would be like to have those eyes on him, scanning his body and looking for flaws. And calling her up in his imagination seemed to make his phone ring, although of course, the caller wasn’t her. It was the man from the bank, polite to a fault, always introducing himself by his full name and then saying, “Do you have a moment to talk Mr. Flannigan?”
“Sure,” he said, and he moved to the end of the aisle, where the records beginning with X, Y, and Z were displayed in one meager row: Neil Young’s frown, over and over again, and a picture of a zebra standing in a posh bedroom.
He was only half listening as the voice on the other end as it explained that they were into the home stretch, and that there was more paperwork to fill out, but nothing overwhelming. “You’re going to get some very angry letters from the parent bank threatening legal action but don’t get too upset about that. That’s just part of the process. They want to throw some muscle around, put the fear of God into you. It wouldn’t be finished if you didn’t tremble a bit by the end.”
But the thick envelope of documents had already arrived yesterday and left no mark on him at all. He was a prize fighter dodging punches and even the big swings didn’t hurt if they didn’t land. The envelope resided, unopened, in the glove compartment of his car, and that’s where it would stay, until all of this was far away and he could open it and look at it as if it were a postcard of a place he visited long ago. The Alaska girl would be a memory then too, although maybe she had always been that, in a way, even when she was talking to him more often. “You should also find a new place to rent soon,” the voice said. “When this happens, it happens quickly, and you’ll have to vacate fast. And you want to find a rental while your credit history is still solid.”
“Right,” he said. “I understand. Good advice.”
The voice began talking about the specifics of the paperwork. There were forms that still needed to be signed and notarized. He was supposed to have signed them yesterday and he had completed one of his vanishing acts. “End of the day at the latest, okay?” the voice said. It was the first sign of irritation.
What had he been doing yesterday? He remembered driving right past the bank, sticking out his tongue as he made the turn, then eating tacos in a parking lot with his engine still running. He said, “What about tomorrow morning? Today is bad.”
“Tomorrow is too late. Today is also too late, but we can’t do yesterday or the day before, obviously, which is when you should have come in.”
“Okay,” he said, and thought of similar conversations he might have had with his grade school teachers. So he played the part and he added, “Are you sure I can’t just come by in the morning?”
“Do you think this is funny? Because this is your life.”
It’s not really my life, he wanted to say, but he lowered his voice to the appropriate level of gravitas and said, “I’ll be there by the end of the day, okay? I’ll be there soon in fact. And I’ll be smiling. I want to get this done as much as you.”
He stepped into the no man’s land of soundtrack records and various artist compilations, some of them dog eared and smelling of damp. The covers were especially interesting if you flipped through them quickly, taking in the general impression of psychedelic landscapes, film characters, cheesy images of half-naked ladies on beaches. Taken together, they made a complicated mess of a story, and just enough of a distraction that when the voice said, “Do you have any questions?” he had to catch himself and think about the meaning of the words. Yes, he had a lot of questions, and he thought of asking one and waiting for the scandalized reaction. What do you think of a man like me?” he’d ask, after explaining what he was up to lately, pride and shame so intermingled that they formed a perfect soup of intense feeling. The anticipation of that feeling was enough to collapse it into some smaller shadow form, like a prelude to sex. He called it up and let it slide across his mind’s eye, as slow and stupid-happy as a parade. Then he said, “No, no questions at all,” and the schism between what he was thinking and the tedious outer world gave him a kick of gratification. His fingers had found a wonderful image: a girl covered in whipped cream, posed on a blank green background. Her expression was the opposite of the one the Alaska girl wore: compliant, passive, vaguely moronic. He had wandered into the discount dollar bin.
“Well, good talking to you,” the voice said, and then it was gone, and he decided to text the Alaska girl while he had his phone in his hand. He began to type, I am thinking of you, and decided that it was a foolish thing to say. He had been infected by the talk with the bank man. A four hour difference, which meant she was certainly not awake to receive it. She was curled up in her messy bed, dogs gathered around her legs. The world there was silent and empty as the middle of the sea. Whatever he held in his head seemed like static. So he erased it and sent the message to Shannon instead, because she lived in the same time zone and because she loved middle-class romance. I’m thinking of you as I walk through a record store, he typed. I’m looking at the cover of a Miles Davis album, at a model with your haircut, which he was not, and I’m wondering when I will see you again, which he also was not. He was actually heading to the exit, and the shrunken teenaged clerk behind the counter gave him a dirty you don’t belong here old man look as he passed by.
The door shook open and then he was free from that part of his day, moving on to the next part, the part that didn’t contain even the slightest residue of his previous phone conversation. He tried to think of his house, but all he could think of was the girl thousands of miles away, sleeping with the blankets pushed down to her ankles. The dogs were awake, watching over her. She sprawled in the middle of them like a princess.
Out on the street, he texted, I’m going to buy this album because it reminds me of you. I bet it’s beautiful music.
The fiction he created tugged his feelings along in its wake, and soon he was missing her, and wanting her to visit again, even though the last time had not been successful at all. He would give her the album when he showed up at her door, and they would listen to it together, although he did not even know if the album existed except in his head. But he knew how it would sound: lyrical and old fashioned, with an edge that came from loneliness. Did people listen to that kind of music anymore? He knew that he didn’t. He waited for the walk signal and typed.
The clerk told me the songs were written for his wife, and that they came out sadder than he had intended. One of them is called Shannon’s Song. That’s the one I’m most interested in. Guess why?
He was digging himself a very deep hole, but it was a comfortable hole. The cars pushed across the intersection toward the center of downtown, stopping and starting, and he was apart from it all, walking through them to the other side of the street and then texting, I’m sorry for the way I acted when you were here. I’ll take responsibility for that, although obviously it was hard time for me, with my wife taking the kids to Florida. I didn’t want to make you part of that drama though. That wasn’t fair.
He thought of typing, I was nasty to you, but he stopped short.
He would save that for the Alaska girl, change it to, I’m going to be nasty to you.
He joined the flow of traffic and became anonymous, still typing out words when the procession slowed or stopped, and then the words began to come back in a dribble. A twinge of disappointment that they were so passive and conciliatory. Was this the same woman who had made him sleep on his own couch, had thrown a box of Kleenex at his head, and told him he was a child? The exact words, actually, had been, “How can you have children yourself when you’re such a child?” They hurt at the time but now, remembering them, he took them on as part of the puzzle that made up who he was, a confusion he presented to the world and made him as special as a complicated film. Because he did have children, and he was a good father, or at least passable, and here she was, telling him, you really hurt me, you know.
Of course he had. It had been impossible not to hurt her, what her hair trigger responses to everything he ever said and did. It was not that he was unkind—he had sent her flowers, he had called her sweet things—but he had to admit that later on he had made a game of poking at those tender places to draw out her anger and pain, the way a better person might have tried to coax out love.
He had used that word often, but she said it was a word she did not just throw around, she wanted it to mean something, and remembering that, he decided, it did mean something, it meant a lot. But he couldn’t use it anymore, not honestly, so he wrote, I’ve lost twenty pounds, you know. I don’t eat the way I used to eat. I don’t think about food at all. It actually feels good to be hungry. It’s like any other little pleasure. It’s like shaving or walking.
None of this was true, but he wanted it to be true with surprising conviction. He could see himself at the bathroom mirror, inspecting a changed face, probing his own eyes. In his imagination he was a sorrowful man, a regretful man, but he was also thinking about what the Alaska girl had promised she would do to him if they ever found themselves in the same hotel room. And the mismatch between those words and the words Shannon was just now typing—tame, sentimental words—gave him a sexual jolt that made him drive faster. He was breaking the law twice over and it was pretty cool. The idea of being cool expanded his generosity to include first the people around him, then this silly little town, and finally Shannon, who at least had been passionate in her failures.
But by the time he was at Wal-Mart they were fighting. At least as much fighting as a person could do while pecking at keys on a phone.
He marched down the aisle toward kitchen goods, head bowed, his thumb twitching against the letters, and he was agitated enough that he passed the blenders altogether and had to make an about face at bath goods. She typed, there are people in the world who are like poison to me.
He let that sentence hang there in the no place between send and reply while he sized up the kitchen appliances. They moved from cheapest to most expensive, from flimsy white plastic to perfect chrome, and buying just the right one seemed a very difficult task requiring an act of heroism and pure will. The wrong one—too cheap, too expensive—would cast judgment on his life. Its wrongness would be his wrongness. He wanted to explain this to her, or to someone, maybe the Alaska girl, but he knew the thought would lose something in its articulation. Its truth would come out all shabby and torn like a dollar out of the clothes dryer.
So he typed, the clerk knows the band leader on this record. He says he was shot while taking a shower, by his girlfriend. He passed the phone from hand to hand like a hot potato, reluctantly put it into his pocket.
The blender he preferred had 7 speeds, a 600 watt motor, sleek black and chrome finish. He touched the buttons and they felt good against his fingers. He didn’t know what a watt was–the word called to mind black-and-white images of power cables and wooden radios–except that he figured 600 of them was a very nice thing to have at his disposal. But more importantly than that, it was the weight of the thing he liked best. The box had real heft to it, like a bowling ball or hammer, and lifting it with both hands to his chest made him feel much more fully that he was part of the world of physical things. This was what shopping did to him, he decided. It made him closer to the earth.
His best jokes were private ones, often at his own expense. They made up the inner monologue that carried him through his days. This was one of them.
His phone buzzed in his shirt pocket. He could imagine Shannon standing frozen in the middle of a grocery store, the only motion the pecking of her fingernails. The neatness of the parallel images—him in one store, she in another—changed their argument into something a little more elegant, or at least it gave it a weird kind of purpose, like some pretty architectural symmetry. Before even reading her message he typed, He died instantly.
He felt badly for her, as if she was in trouble in some much more immediate way and she was calling for help. But he knew that he only felt badly for the person in his mind, the image he had created, and to say, “I’m sorry” to her would be to spoil that particular spell. He gripped the phone in one hand, blender under his arm. Teenagers down the other end of the store were throwing shit around and laughing.
At the register he checked his phone again, and found two more messages from her, the first explaining that she never wanted to talk to him again, the second saying that she could at least give him the decency of a proper reply.
There was also a message from his sister wondering what was going on with the house and another from her inviting him to dinner anytime he wanted. He could even stay with her for a week or two if he wanted.
He typed back to her, Thank you for thinking about me. I would love to see you during these dark days. But only if I can treat. You have to let me do things like that, even under the circumstances. But as he was typing this he was thinking about the Alaska girl, the deep brown of her imagined nipples and her thousand yard stare. What would it be like to sleep with her in that faraway place, to part her thighs and cope with casual indifference?
The clerk told him, “It’s not accepting this credit card, sir. Do you have another one?”
He produced another one from his pocket. The clerk swiped it, tried again, then a third time. That one didn’t work either. The woman behind him, a teenager really, holding a tiger striped pillow, looked impossibly embarrassed for him, but the clerk was a machine. She asked him if he had any cash and he found two five dollar bills in his wallet.
He knew Shannon was typing another message to him, one of apology, but that was just laying the groundwork for another insult. That was how they battled, like experts. He said, “Try this one,” and he gave her a third card. This one she took slowly. He turned away and scanned the front of the store, watching the faces of all the morons with their shopping baskets and jelly faced children. He was definitely included among their number, and when the clerk said, “Do you have another?” he looked back to her with real compassion. The stupidity she had to put up with, hour after hour after hour, as a procession of clowns and idiots moved their way through this narrow slot with whatever miracles they placed hope in. He was just the latest in that series, and if she had known the full expanse of his history it probably wouldn’t have made him any more sympathetic to her. She gave him back his Mastercard and he held it and felt the nervousness in the crowd behind him, the monkey pulse of bodies nudging forward.
“Can I just leave it here?” he asked.
“You can do that if you want,” she said, because she was already forgetting him, moving onto the tiger pillow.
“I’ve had a rough day,” he joked, and he laughed because she didn’t. “I feel like I’ve been all over the country.”
“I feel like I haven’t moved from this spot.”
Although he had decided to leave the box at the register, he picked it up and held it and the girl behind him finally said, “I’ll be paying with cash.” He set the box down again and thought of turning around, telling her to hold on, okay? But that would have just made him seem older and stupider than he already appeared, someone’s fumbling dad venturing out for his weekly trip into the real world, fearfully bumping into everything newer and hipper than him. He told the clerk, “I don’t mean to cause problems.”
“You haven’t, sir,” she said, but she was sliding the tiger pillow across the bar code scanner. He moved forward and found himself escaping to the exit, empty handed, and then he was holding his phone again, typing madly to the Alaska girl, It must be getting cold there. I want to bury my face between your legs and listen to you talk. Write me back and let me know about what you’ve been doing. There’s no reason to hold back. This doesn’t mean anything.
Still no answer. He thought of her in her knit cap, her crazy unwashed hair, and that look born of many hard winters. Those dogs were named after the three stooges, the fourth most loved one christened Shemp, and she played folk guitar, fished in the summers and ate Salmon all winter. She had a boyfriend but he worked for the forest service and was gone for more than half the year, living up in a tower and watching for forest fires through binoculars. Dating sites and message boards were the answer to that, she said when they first talked, and she described the weather, the ice at the window, at the electric sockets, at the seams of the cabin door. Her body, reclined on the sofa naked except for black panties, might be covered by a blanket, might not, depending on his mood. It offered itself up to the apparatus of his imagination without conceding an inch of who she was: completely impervious, not just to the weather, but also to whatever crap he might throw her way. But he did it anyway and he was still doing it. Touch yourself and think about me, he typed to her as the car engine idled, but the only reply was another message from Shannon, and then, as the car turned to the exit and out onto the main road, a single sentence from that woman he met a couple of weeks ago at the Yellow Door. Are you going to be around this weekend?
He could not think of a single detail to describe her face or body. She was simply that single sentence and the place where he had bought her a White Russian and there was a good chance he would see her there again, buy her another one, put his back to the bar and smile and make a joke about the crowd. To Shannon he wrote, you’re batshit, you know that, don’t you?
He braked quickly for someone backing out of a parking space and held the phone up, waiting for her reply to beam in. But it was the woman from the Yellow Door again who messaged. It would be nice to bump into you again. I wasn’t myself that night. He toggled from her words back to Shannon and wrote, this has nothing to do with me. This is just you talking to yourself.
He thought of her ridiculous father, ex-hippie, ex volunteer fireman, who had left her an old Toyota truck and six figure debt when he died. Maybe she was talking to him too. Their first long talk had been about him, and he had shared the story of his own parents, married for fifty-one years. High school sweethearts and dead one two weeks after the other, like it had been something they decided together in secret. Their marriage reminded him of a horse and carriage, rotary telephones, smaller diners with big haired waitresses. It was all sliding into the past and good riddance, right?
He made a circle around the parking lot and pulled up directly in front of the ATM. Standing in the aquarium of the glass booth, he punched up numbers, glanced over his shoulder at his car idling at the curb, took the four hundred dollars as it tongued out of the slot. More than half his balance and it felt stupidly weightless in his hand. The other guy in the booth—he had come in while Doug was punching up his pass code—stood a polite distance away, waiting for his turn.
He smiled when their eyes met and Doug smiled too, and felt confident enough to add, “You look like you’ve seen better times.”
Because the man’s face, his nose and cheek, were covered in white bandages. He grinned and said, “Melanoma. But they think they got it all.”
He didn’t understand what got it all meant. Had they taken a big chunk out of the bridge of his nose? The man was handsome, maybe in his fifties, with a full head of gray hair and he wore a nice button down black shirt. They switched places, the man at the machine now, his own body held at attention near the door, but it seemed important to continue the conversation. He said, “It’s not life threatening, is it?”
“Not really,” the man said. His attention was on the keyboard. He was trying to remember.
“Well,” he said, “you wear it well,” because he did. He hadn’t even noticed at first.
The man took his money and opened his wallet and slid it inside. He said, “Everybody who doesn’t have cancer wants to talk about cancer. But if you have cancer you never want to talk about it.”
And with that he was plucked from his very exclusive group of two—a pair of dignified men exchanging small talk in the lit display case of the ATM booth—and cast into a much less exclusive group consisting of nearly everyone. This was a place where idiots resided. “Look,” he said. “I was just trying to be nice. Really. I saw a person with a chunk taken out of his face and I was curious. No, not curious. I was sympathetic. To a stranger. So maybe you could be sympathetic to me in return, right?”
“I didn’t mean to insult you,” the man said, but he seemed more interested in putting his wallet into the side pocket of his pants. He had the long body of a former basketball star, still lean, a curl of gray hair visible at the collar of his shirt. His watch was five thousand dollars if it was five and its face was designed to simulate the cracked granite surface of a national monument. He lightly touched it with his left hand as if to guard it against philistine eyes. “We should both be going don’t you think?” he asked.
“I’m sure you like to think of yourself as a man who doesn’t make mistakes,” he continued, “but some of us do makes mistakes, very bad ones, and we’re worthy of notice as the rest of you. I might not be disfigured but my year hasn’t exactly been a good one.” But as he talked on his anger fled him with every word and his voice lowered back down to the level of casual chat. He said, “Stupidity, maybe, hubris, maybe, but nothing a million other people weren’t doing.” And there he was again, back in the kingdom of idiots, each with their overpriced house. The man with the cancerous face stared ahead out into the parking lot where cars came and went, so impassive that for a moment he seemed to be in shock, but no, he was just waiting for the words to end and then he stepped forward to the door and pushed outside into the open air, as if nothing had been spoken at all. He must have decided that this was the best way to deal with a crazy person.
He looked at his own money, separated it, crumped it and smoothed it down and then put it away. Then he followed, head down, typing, sorry to bother you but I can’t stop thinking about you. He wanted to tell her that he was forty-three years old and had never dreamed of pursuing a younger woman like this, but that sounded like something he should share with a therapist, and he wanted to tell her that if she just replied once to him that would be enough to sustain him through the entire week, through this whole ordeal maybe, but that sounded like something he shouldn’t share with anyone. And he wanted to tell her that she was a tease and a whore for hurting him like this, for being as inert as a stone and impossible to understand, and then he wanted to follow that up with a string of bigger insults, but that seemed like something he should say to Shannon who—speak of the devil—was just now telling him that he should go to hell and stay there.
He wrote back the string of insults and capped them off with, That’s the final word, okay? Don’t write me back.
Don’t tell me when this conversation is over, she said.
Crazy crazy crazy, he wrote, in all caps.
More symmetry. All caps right back at him.
He answered, I’m going to dinner with someone special right now, so I’m going to turn off the phone. So don’t even bother replying.
Liar and if you’re not a liar then I feel sorry for her.
The Alaska girl was probably feeding wood into her stove, watching the flames rise up around the kindling. She has told him she chopped wood, and that birch was her favorite because of the white bark and the way it split, like the seam had always been there and each time you were finding it with your maul.
He liked to place her there at the stove, in his mind, her palms raised to catch the heat. Maybe she was crouched, squatting, with a knit cap on, or maybe she was sitting on a stool, but the image of her face lit by the fire was frozen there. It wasn’t a beautiful face, not really, but he could tweak just slightly and make it beautiful, or at least even more interesting, and the mountains she might be able to see from her window were beautiful, right? That was more than enough beauty. Were there even mountains so close to her? He guessed not, but he put them there anyway, just like he put her in those black panties. He typed, Shannon please leave me alone for Christ’s sake.
He entered the Wal-Mart again, watching his phone for the next message, headed to the girl who had waited on him before. She stood with her back to her register as if waiting for him. Not a customer around. “I have cash now,” he told her.
“Okay,” she said. “Great.”
“Where is it?”
“It’s back on the floor,” she said.
The text message from Shannon read, Prick. It read, your face is fat. It read, you do not know yourself. They came in fast and the second he had read one the next appeared. It was like eating cookies, that instinctive and unhealthy, and he was disappointed when there was no forth. He found the display case of blenders and decided to buy the next one up the scale, thirty dollars more and twice as sexy, and then finally it was there for him. The message read, I don’t say this lightly but I want you to die. He paused long enough to reply, what did I do to you? Nothing that people haven’t done to people since there were people.
He wished he could stop but he couldn’t, because even when he was carrying his purchase to the front of the store he was typing with his thumb. Can’t we be cordial?
No we cannot be fucking cordial. What the hell does cordial mean anyway?
He stopped to get his bearings and saw that he had wandered in the wrong direction: a million different colored bottles, shampoos and gels and hair dyes. Each box of dye showed a different woman smiling, a different shade of blonde moving brighter and brighter. Each woman impossibly happy, captured in their own pretend ecstatic world. He grabbed some shampoo, because he needed some, and then moved up the aisle to the aspirin, because he needed that more. He picked up a cart and threw it inside. You’re scum, she wrote, you’re practically a criminal. A criminal against women.
He retreated to the kitchen aisle again and traded in the blender for an even better one, then threw in an espresso maker after that, a spatula and a mixing bowl with a red clearance tag. He must have looked like a man moving into a new home. He felt like it too. He paused long enough to read the next insult and then spun away from the kitchen supplies toward the discount dvd’s. He glanced some over, put some back, chose some others, and told the kid next to him, “This is a good movie,” even though he had never seen it. There were more texts coming in—he could feel the vibration—but he didn’t check them. He was talking to the kid about the Blue Ray players. Which one would he recommend?
There was a line at the girl’s lane now but he didn’t care. Even when someone from an open register called him over he waved her off and stayed where he was. He wrote back to the featureless woman from two weeks past, I’d love to see you again. I was just thinking about our talk. Are you going to be there tomorrow, because I might swing by and get you another White Russian. He wrote to the Alaska girl, I’m beginning to get a little worried. He wrote to his sister, What are the symptoms of a panic attack?
The line cleared and he placed his box in front of the girl and she looked at him as if she had never seen him before. This was a good and bad thing, because he did want to be recognized, but not as the bumbling moron from earlier. And yet the only way for him to vindicate himself was for her to acknowledge his previous stupidity. It wouldn’t take much, just a nod of the head or a comment about the blender as she turned it around, searching for the barcode. But she didn’t do that. She just read the price off to him and asked him if he wanted it bagged, to which he said no, and then she dragged shampoo across the scanner, the aspirin, the dish towels and pillows and everything else. She held each thing but she did not even bother to recognize it as an object. She turned the box over and scanned it and the total price of his purchase doubled. Then he was making room for the next person.
Outside the message came in from far away, two sentences beamed off a satellite and then appearing in the palm of his hand. It seemed to be just in time. The snow was already covering everything, she explained, and it had made her sad. Paralyzed, she said, and he imagined her with her knees pulled to her chest, watching the window. Just the beginning and it was already bad.
He didn’t know if she was just making excuses or begging for help. Did she even remember who he was? They had not talked much. The wind was coming across the parking lot, sending plastic bags and other flotsam across his vision like it was all on the way to somewhere special. What did he have to tell her? Nothing at all, really, now that he had the opportunity, but maybe he was going to try anyway. Amazing to think that she was waiting just for him. He wrote, did you get the check? But of course she had received it. It had been cashed last week. He wrote, what did you spend it on? Something sexy? He wrote, are you there? But nothing came back except a picture of a dirt road covered in snow, a distant figure in heavy clothes holding something above its head. It was impossible to make out but maybe it was a gun or a branch. It might not even be her, hard to tell with the bulk of coat and hood. The hills behind the figure divided the sky into two shades of white. He wrote, Beautiful. He wrote, Almost impossible to believe.
Where is that? Is that near where you live? Is that you?
He waited for the blip and the flash of new information but the phone had become an inert thing in his palm, a piece of toast, a brick. He dropped it into the passenger’s seat and clicked through stations. When had music become so awful? Each song, no matter the demographic, had the same shouted chorus, the same desperation to please. He could not find himself in any of it and he decided that was probably because he was growing old, had grown old. When boiled down to their essence all the songs had one singular message: go for it, go for it now and go for it hard and go for all of it. As he pulled into the parking lot of Wells Fargo the phone rang. It was the bank, the man from the bank, calling from just a few hundred yards away, but he imagined the call coming from that frozen place in the photograph. The desire was so forceful that when he finally answered on the third ring it was with a crazy kind of joy. The voice said, “Where are you?”
“Don’t worry. I’m almost there,” he said. “I’m coming to you.”
“Do you understand how important this is?” the voice asked.
He did. He did. But he sat in his car imagining the turning of pages, the repetition of signatures. His journey had not been a straight line but it had been a journey and this was its final stage. It would not take long. Then that would be that. He knew the inside of that house the way he knew his own mind, the slant of the dining room floor and the hairline crack on the back wall in the girls’ peach-carpeted bedroom, the old paint stacked in the basement and the attic’s sweet arboreal smell and exposed nails. They had only been there for two years as a family but they had been good ones. Well, at least that first year. He turned and smiled into his phone, the fish eye lens waiting to make a record of his happiness that could be transmitted back to her. But he remembered the half-face of the bandaged man, his ugliness and his dignity, and he hesitated, although still smiling, thumb on the button. The phone made its chirping noise and he turned it around to look inside. Another picture: mountains rising in the distance, then hills, then a plain of ice with that same figure holding the same unidentifiable object aloft. Was it standing on a frozen lake? He could almost convince himself that he had just snapped this one, that it was him out there on the ice. That is a human being in the middle of all that, he reminded himself. The snow made peculiar wind-blown shapes on the surface of the ice, lines of force and motion curling in long arcs as if by premediated design. The figure seemed to strain to hold its position within the center of the space but it did remain, second by second, as he watched and thumb pecked and watched and waited for the next small thing. It was only a captured moment but the figure’s willpower to stand steady within that frame seemed as immense as the jagged range behind it where people regularly died seeking adventure. He had never seen anything so beautiful in his entire life. That was the truth and that was what he wrote to her.
He also told her what he wanted to do to the nape of her neck, the fleshy inner thigh. But all of that had become lies, a pretend place sandwiched between his old life, the life in that four hundred and fifty thousand dollar house, and the new one waiting for him inside a third floor office of Wells Fargo. In a moment he’d go in and write his name over and over, his real name, the one he had never told her, like a kid practicing penmanship until it was right. But for now he held as still as the figure in the frame.