Tundra

Impossible, the flower. If it could even be called one, the thing a scraggly stalk of yellow and green wilting from the yet unfrozen tundra as if frightened by the azure sky. Nikolas stopped on the road, twin ruts that ran east from the improbable huddle of Aldo, the only village on Dendt Bay, a few dozen shacks and trailers like debris cast ashore. To the north along the bay’s curving lip hulked the cannery’s dark mass. To the west, the glacier, a glittering mountain. Nikolas knelt to peer at the flower. He plucked it, roots and all, then shrugged his backpack sideways from his shoulders and tucked the fragile thing, already dying, into the side pocket. Ahead of him rose the southern bluff; at its base lay the cemetery. Two men worked within it, digging graves.

They had finished one already and started on the second. The metal blades of their shovels sliced again and again into the earth. Their steady movements seemed mechanical and Nikolas could almost imagine them as machines were it not for their misty plumes of breath. The dirt pile behind them grew taller with each tossed scoop. Which meant the hole they dug grew deeper, too.

Nikolas slipped his arm through the backpack’s strap and shrugged it onto his shoulders. The first grave would be for Jasper Kingfish. The old man’s mind was already far gone. Each day he vanished further within himself. Old Timer’s disease. His wife Mary took care of him, fed him soup through a straw and whatever else he needed. They had lived on the bay for thirty-two years, real sourdoughs, and Nikolas was sure that when Jasper finally passed, as he would in the next month or two, Mary would not be long to follow. Though none of the graves being dug were for her.

“It’s sad to think about,” he’d told Jeanne last week. They had been lying together in the dark, pressed close on the twin bed in the guest room of his mother’s trailer. His trailer—his mother had passed eight months before. But the back bedroom was still hers in his mind, had remained such even after he purged the trailer of her things. It would not be right to sleep there, and Jeanne had never raised the question. She pushed her scalp against his forehead and scratched it slowly back and forth, like a bear against a post. Her scalp itched constantly from her hair growing back.

“He don’t deserve this,” Nikolas added when she didn’t respond. Jasper had been his first shift manager at the cannery when he’d started there three years ago. A fair man, strict about timeliness but willing to listen. Forgetful, though, even then. Always losing his keys, the day’s schedule, even one time his wedding ring.

“Lots of people don’t deserve what they get,” Jeanne said, and of course there was no reply to that. It was still an hour before his shift started, though, so he wrapped his arms around her and touched her earlobe with his tongue. She slid her hand down his stomach.

“Are you sure it’s OK?” he whispered. They had tried it only twice since she’d come home; both times, he had hurt her and they’d stopped.

“Don’t start what you can’t finish.”

Near the end, he started to pull out like he always did but she grabbed his hips and held him inside her instead. He thrust hard against her, groaning, then lay down and pressed his face into the warm curve of her neck. He felt her pulse against his lips. Her hands scratched circles on his back as his breathing slowed. When he felt her shift beneath him, he rolled sideways and stared up into the dark. “Thought I wasn’t supposed to do that.”

It was several heartbeats before she replied. “It doesn’t matter anymore.”

 

* * *

 

The men had almost finished the second grave. This one would be for the infant, Tom Proudfoot’s newborn son. The men shoveled their last spadefuls of earth from the hole and hoisted themselves up and out. They tossed aside their spades and, together, lifted the tarp onto which they’d been shoveling the dirt and shuffled toward the aluminum shed. The heaped dirt sagged between them, swinging like a pendulum.

The baby had been born almost two months too early, his lungs unfinished and frail. He’d barely survived the flight back from Fairbanks and required a ventilator to breathe through the night. A miracle that he’d survived these past three months, but he would not live through winter. It was one evening in the early days after he’d come home that Tom Proudfoot finally showed up at Jack’s and slid without speaking onto one of the empty barstools. A brief lull silenced the smoky room; Jack poured a mug of Budweiser and set it on the bar. “On the house,” he said.

Nikolas had been shooting darts with Mike and Hung. Mike shook his head at Tom’s hunched figure. “Be a mercy if someone left that baby on the glacier,” he muttered, then looked surprised at their astounded faces. “What? It’s how them Inuits did it, back in the day.”

“Be a mercy if someone sewed Mike’s mouth shut,” Jeanne said later, after Nikolas told her what he’d said. She was wearing his red flannel shirt and nothing else, furiously ironing the slacks she would wear tomorrow when she flew down to Fairbanks for her one-year checkup. The red mass of her hair shook with each sweep of her hand.

Nikolas sipped from the tall glass of water he’d poured himself to stave off any hangover. He had the early shift. “You got to admit he had a point.”

She set down the iron hard enough to rattle the board. “What point would that be, Niko?”

Too late, he realized his mistake. “No, I didn’t mean…” Her eyes fell away from his. “I mean, it’s just this little baby, you know? I mean…”

Jeanne picked up the iron. “I know what you mean.”

He set down his glass. She turned aside when he leaned over the ironing board to kiss her. He could feel warmth beneath his palms from where she’d been ironing. “I’m sorry, baby.”

She wiped the back of her hand across her nose. He stepped around the board and put his hands on her shoulders. She resisted a moment before crumpling into his embrace.

“I know you’re scared,” Nikolas whispered. “It’s going to be OK, you’ll see. That doc’s going to scan you and he’s going to tell you that it’s all OK. You’ve got to trust that.”

“It wasn’t okay before.”

“You just wait.” He held her at arm’s length and smiled. “And you better believe I’m going to say I told you so when it happens.” The corners of her mouth fluttered. “I’ll be there when the plane comes tomorrow,” he said.

“I thought you had the morning shift.”

“They’ll let me.” Whether that was true or not didn’t matter.

It was later, his mind fuzzy from their lovemaking as they lay together in the dark and the summer night’s wind rattled the panes, that Nikolas again forgot himself. His fingers worked gently at the tangles in Jeanne’s hair and he said, “Have you thought about calling your folks?” When he felt her body stiffen, he realized his mistake.

“Why the hell would I do that?”

He slid his hand across her stomach. “Don’t be like that, baby. I mean, how long’s it been?”

She rolled away from him to the edge of the bed. “Not nearly long enough.”

 

* * *

 

The men had started on the third grave. One of them looked his way, then the other. Nikolas realized that they had noticed him some time ago. He turned to scan the bay’s glittering expanse, the shore’s long curve from the cannery to the disheveled sprawl of village to the gleaming glacier that cut the flat gray sky.

He thought about the night that he and Jeanne had gone camping, two weeks after they met. Grotto Cove on the bay’s north shore, a jagged inlet surrounded by high stone bluffs. Nikolas had pulled ashore the launch he’d borrowed and together they’d set up the tent. Jeanne held open a trash bag while he shoveled out the beer cans and charred bones scattered in the old fire pit, then they built a fire with the dry wood he’d carried over in a sack. They ate sardines and crackers, then roasted marshmallows as the sky continued to darken. The Milky Way appeared above them, a gauzy white trail across the sky, and as the temperature plummeted Jeanne slid closer to him on the log they shared. He draped his arm around her and she nestled her head on his shoulder, and he did not complain when she suggested they retire to the tent. He felt a sharp stab of disappointment when she began to unroll her own down sleeping bag, but then she unzipped it all the way open and flapped it over the floor. “Let’s use yours as a blanket,” she said. They lay down together and kissed for awhile, then undressed each other in the dark and lay nose to nose, breathing each other’s breath. She pressed her finger between her legs and held it to his face. “Smell the ocean?” she whispered.

He caught her wrist in his hand and pressed his lips to where the thin vein ridged her skin. He licked from her palm to her finger. “I smell it,” he said.

 

* * *

 

He was surprised by the men’s progress when he turned back to face the cemetery. They were like machines, methodical and untiring. He started down the road, but paused at the gate to wait until the men looked his way. The first man nudged his partner and then the two of them stabbed their shovels into the earth and faced him.

Nikolas walked through the gate as the men lowered their hoods. He knew them both from the cannery. “Niko,” Ed Compton said. “I’m sorry, man.”

His partner was Tom Fieze. “Yeah, Niko, I’m really sorry,”

Nikolas nodded. Were they sorry for digging the grave or sorry for Jeanne? “Thanks, fellas.”

Tom shifted on his feet. “We ain’t…” he said, but his voice broke.

“Hell, Niko, she might not need this, you know?” Ed said. “They got all kinds of new treatments now. You ought to put her on a plane, that’s what you ought to do. Fly her down to one of them fancy hospitals in the Lower Forty-Eight, see what they say.”

Nikolas nodded. It was not worth explaining to them that there would be no more treatments; Jeanne herself had made that much clear. They’re not pumping any more poison into me, goddamnit. If I die it’s not going to be from that. Although very little if yet remained. Jeanne would be gone long before the spring thaw, long before any shovel could again dent the tundra. “Thought I might dig some,” he said.

Tom glanced at Ed. “We just got our two shovels, Niko.”

“Maybe you could loan me one,” Nikolas said. “I’ll bring it back when I’m done.”

“You don’t got to do that, Niko,” Tom said.

“I won’t tell anyone,” Nikolas said. “They’ll still pay you for all three.”

“Ain’t what I meant,” Tom said.

“I know.” Nikolas held out his hand. “So can I borrow your shovel?”

“Use mine,” Ed said. Tom glared at him, but Ed only threw up his hands. “The man wants to dig his girl’s grave, for chrissake. The hell business we got telling him he can’t?”

Tom sighed. “You going to be able to finish this before dark, Niko? We can wait, if you want.”

“You don’t have to wait.”

Tom sighed again. He pulled his shovel from the ground and slung it over his shoulder. “You be up at Jack’s later?”

“Maybe,” Nikolas said. He nodded as they passed, watched as they walked through the gate and trudged back toward town. He shrugged off his backpack and pulled out his canteen for a drink, then replaced it and tossed the pack aside.

It was easy, digging, to fall into a pattern. Strike and throw, strike and throw. Strike, scrape, and throw. The mound of dirt behind him grew by inches. The height of his calf. The height of his knee. Eventually it became more efficient to jump down into the hole and shovel dirt up and out. He realized that the pile would be too large to carry into the shed by himself, but there was nothing he could do about that now. Ed and Tom would understand.

He thought about that first time Jeanne had visited his trailer. His mother had died only three months before. The stroke that killed her had hit without warning well before the thaw, and they’d had to store her body in the cannery freezer. For weeks, Nikolas had studiously avoided entering that place, but on one of the last days some switch had failed to trigger in his brain and he’d walked inside without thinking and there she had been, shrouded in a blanket as if she’d only decided to take a cold nap. Her grave now lay beside the one that would be Jasper’s.

For long weeks after she’d died, Nikolas had not even thought to begin clearing his mother’s possessions from the trailer. When Jeanne came, everything that had been his mother’s still lay scattered as she’d left it—her jacket draped over the chair, her slippers in the corner, her purse a sagging heap on the table. He’d opened it only once to get her ID for the paperwork he’d had to complete and felt guilty for days after, like a child caught stealing. The purse had been the first thing Jeanne noticed. “That yours?” she asked from the middle of the room. Not committed yet to taking a seat beside him on the sagging couch where his mother’s knitted blue scarf lay like a deflated snake.

“My mom’s,” Nikolas said, and only then did it start to dawn on him how bad this all might look. Why hadn’t he told her about his mother? She would think he was some kind of psycho.

“She here?” Jeanne asked.

“She died a couple of months ago,” Nikolas said. “A stroke.”

Jeanne nodded without speaking and then walked to the couch. She sat down gingerly, her back stiff, an entire seat cushion of space between them. “It looks like she still lives here,” Jeanne said. “It looks like she could walk in at any moment.”

“I think I’d jump out the window if she did.” Nikolas laughed to show he’d meant it as a joke, but Jeanne only sat poised at the edge of the couch, her eyes picking out the random pieces of his mother that lay strewn about the room. Nikolas sighed. “I’m sorry, Jeanne. It’s just I haven’t got around to cleaning. I should’ve by now but I haven’t. I didn’t even think twice when I asked you over. I understand if you want to get out of here, but I promise I’m not some kind of freak.”

“I don’t think you’re some kind of freak,” Jeanne said. And then, with her hands fidgeting in her lap, she told him about her diagnosis, about the cancer they’d found in her lymph nodes that had turned her own body against her. She told him about all the time she’d spent in the hospital, about the weeks of radiation and chemo, about her lost hair and waking up at night to the blaring alarms of the machines they’d hooked to her. “I told myself that if I lived through it, I’d pick someplace I’d never been, move there, and start over,” she said. “Like being reborn, I guess. So here I am.”

He had only just met her a few nights before, and he thought then about what she’d told him. “And you really haven’t talked to your folks at all? Not even once this whole time?”

“I told you, Niko.” A hard bitterness at the edge of her voice. She picked up the scarf and regarded it for a moment like something she’d plucked from a swamp, then draped it over the armrest. “Your mother is more here to you than either of my parents will ever be to me.” She leaned back against the couch and crossed her legs. “Please say you have something fun planned for tonight.”

He’d wanted to talk more about this, but then hadn’t seemed the time. “You hungry?” he asked. “I got spaghetti in the kitchen.”

“Spaghetti.” She laughed. “Very fancy. Is there wine to go with it?”

“Nope.” He sprang from the couch and yanked open the fridge door to hoist the full six-pack from the bottom shelf. “But I do have a very exclusive bottling of Bud Light.”

She laughed at that, and everything was fine, and they ate dinner and then, afterward, he slid his old copy of Raiders of the Lost Ark into the VCR and she slid closer to him on the couch. After a while, she slipped her hand across his chest. They kissed a little, nothing too heavy but enough that he wanted more, and that’s when he told her about Grotto Cove. By the time they went camping that next weekend, Nikolas had boxed up his mother’s things.

 

* * *

 

The sun had nearly set by the time the hole was as deep as his shoulders. Nikolas tossed up the shovel and pulled himself out of the grave. It was later than he should have let it get; night would bring worse things than cold to the tundra. There were wolves in the hills, and polar bears. One dog already had vanished from town, only a beagle, but still. He picked up his backpack and slung it over his shoulder, then took up Ed’s shovel and looked once more at the dirt pile he’d have to leave.

He passed through the cemetery gate and saw that the lights had come on in town. Beyond it, over the glacier, the setting sun’s waning rays painted the fleecy clouds a fiery hue of orange and red. He thought about that first day Jeanne had arrived. He and Hung had just finished the early shift, had been tailing the loose cluster of men walking home. The wind whipped at them, flapped their clothes, frothed the bay into slapping white caps. Hung pointed toward the glacier. “There supposed to be a plane today?”

Nikolas squinted to see it, dropping from the huddled clouds like a white stone. “Late for it.”

By the time they were back in town, the plane had landed and was bobbing alongside the dock. Nikolas and Hung watched from shore as the pilot swung open his door and stepped onto the pontoon. He offered a hand up to his passenger, a slight figure in a knitted black cap and thick Army coat with upturned collar who stepped carefully onto the pontoon, then up to the dock, then pulled off the cap to reveal a slender woman’s face and red shock of hair.

Hung gave a low whistle. “What have we here?” The woman walked to the edge of the dock and stared across the bay. She stood with her feet apart, hands propped on her hips. Hung elbowed Nikolas in the ribs. “What’s her story, you think?”

Nikolas shrugged as the pilot set the woman’s mismatched luggage on the dock. “Same as anyone’s.” But even as he said them he thought the words weren’t true.

It was later that evening that she showed up at Jack’s. She sat alone at the bar and held her drink cupped between both hands, staring into it as if reading the future. Nikolas had been playing pool with Mike and Hung and when they saw her, Hung nudged Nikolas with his cue. “You should go talk to her,” he said, and after they’d finished another game and the round that came with it, Nikolas decided the hell with it, he would. He walked to the bar and leaned over the empty stool beside her to signal Jack for another beer, then slipped onto the seat. When Jack brought his drink, Nikolas drained half in one pull before he leaned sideways on his elbow to say hi.

Her eyes, hazel, flicked toward him and then back to her glass.

“What’s your name?” Nikolas asked.

She didn’t look at him. “Jeanne.”

“I’m Nikolas.”

She nodded.

“Saw your plane land.”

“Congratulations.”

Jack smirked and slapped his bar towel over his shoulder. Nikolas glanced back to where Mike and Hung were whispering at the pool table. He felt his cheeks start to burn and cleared his throat to try again. “So how’d you end up this far north, Jeanne?”

She waited a while to respond. “It’s where the dart landed.”

“The dart?”

She nodded.

“Must of been a hell of a throw.”

At that she laughed, and when he smiled at her she smiled back. He finished his beer and raised his mug toward Jack at the far end of the bar. “Two more here,” he said. He winked at her. “I’m buying.”

It was later that night that she told him about her parents. Jack had just announced last call. They’d had three more beers apiece by then and Nikolas could feel his head spinning. He would be hurting come morning. He’d been talking about his father for some damn reason, talking about how he’d been a Texas roughneck before getting six years in Lubbock County, and Jeanne was swaying a little on her bar stool and almost toppled what was left of her drink when she tried to set it down. “He still there?” she asked after she made sure it was steady.

“Hell if I know,” Nikolas said. “Last time I talked to him was five years ago, right before I graduated high school.”

“That’s almost how long it’s been since I talked to my dad,” Jeanne said. “My mom, too.”

Nikolas weighed this fact in his fuzzy mind. “You haven’t talked to your folks in five years? Why not?”

“They haven’t talked to me.”

“But why?”

She swallowed what was left of her beer and pushed the glass to the far edge of the bar. “They didn’t like who I was with.”

“What, your husband?”

“Not exactly.”

“What, then?” He had a sudden urge to wrap his arm around her shoulder.

She sighed. “My dad, he’s a minister. A Baptist one. My mom, she’s a minister’s wife. And me? I went away my first year at college and came back at Thanksgiving with a girlfriend.”

“A girlfriend?” Nikolas tried to concentrate on this thought. “You mean you’re a…”

“Dyke?” Jeanne snorted as Jack, wiping down the far end of the bar, looked their way. “No.” She leaned closer to him. “I was just experimenting, I guess. It didn’t last long.”

“So what happened?”

“They gave us each one of the guest rooms,” Jeanne said. “And that first night Michele—that was her name, Michele—she sneaked into the one where I was staying. Just for a while, you know? But then I guess my dad heard us.” She shook her head. “He didn’t even let us get dressed, just kicked us right out on the spot. Told me I was going to hell.”

“Jesus.” Nikolas tried to imagine the scene and realized that he could not without becoming aroused. He blinked away the thought. “What’d your mom do?”

“Nothing,” Jeanne said. “She stood there beside him in her pink night gown and watched us drive away.”

“But…” Nikolas hesitated. Her hazel eyes locked on his. He tried to frame the question in his mind before he asked it. “If you’re not that way now, I mean…”

“Why don’t I let them know?” When he nodded, her mouth curled into a crooked smile. “In their minds I was broken and they turned their backs.” She shook her head. “They didn’t want me then, they can’t have me now.”

They sat there for a while as Jack wiped and re-wiped the same spot on the bar. Nikolas glanced over his shoulder. Mike and Hung had left a long time ago; in fact, the place was empty save the two of them. He had no idea of what to say.

“I think it’s time to go,” Jeanne said.

Outside, the night was crisp and clear. The pale moon gleamed on the horizon and the Milky Way glittered overhead. They stood awkwardly in the dirt street and Nikolas thrust his hands into his pockets. “So can I see you again?” The words sounded terrible out loud, like something a kid would say.

“Place like this, Niko, I think that’s bound to happen.”

“I mean on purpose, like.”

She smiled in the moonlight. “Yeah, Niko. I think we can do that.”

 

* * *

 

The sun had set by the time he reached the outskirts of town. The rutted path widened into a dirt road that sloped straight down to the dock. The crescent moon’s light cast a path across the bay that made Nikolas think of a rippling white highway. He imagined that he could follow the road past the low shacks and trailers, cross the dock’s wooden planks, step down onto that watery white path like Jesus himself. Each splashing step would carry him further across the waves from this place and he would keep walking and walking until finally the sun rose behind him and turned the road from white to red. As long as he kept walking, though, everything would be okay.

The lights were on at Jack’s and he knew that Tom and Ed would be inside, but he did not want to see them now and so let the shovel lean against the steps where he knew they would find it later. He followed the side lane to his own dark trailer and let himself inside. He switched on the light and shrugged his backpack onto the floor, then tip-toed through the living room. He paused at the bedroom door and eased it softly open. Jeanne lay in bed, asleep.

He watched her awhile, a vague lump under at least six blankets. She always felt cold; they had the thermostat pegged at 76 degrees and were burning through heating oil faster than he wanted to think about. It barely helped, though. The new round of poison the doctors had dumped inside her body in a failed bid to beat back her returned cancer had stripped away any insulation she might have once possessed, left her with little more than drum-tight skin stretched over bones. I understand if you want me to leave, she had said to him that first night back as they lay in bed, only their shoulders touching. This after they’d flown home from her death sentence in silence, staring out the plane windows at the folded landscape passing beneath them. That’s one hell of a thing to say, he told her, but the horrible truth was that he’d been thinking exactly that same thing, that she would be the second woman to die in this trailer and that he was as much condemned to experience her death as she was. Self-pitying bullshit, thoughts he’d never express, but still.

She would be the second woman to die in this trailer.

He crept back into the living room. Jeanne’s purse lay on the table in the same place where it always sat. He hesitated for a moment before he opened it to paw through the jumbled contents: a loose assortment of pens, her checkbook, her Chapstick and compact. A bundle of stamps, a mashed pack of gum, her change purse and folding hairbrush. At the bottom, like some sunken treasure chest, lay her address book. A flimsy, battered thing.

They were listed under P, for Parents. Mom and Dad, the second line read, then the phone number she had vowed to never call again. He carried the book to the phone and sank down into the armchair, then scooped up the receiver and listened to the dial tone until it turned to harsh beeping. He dropped the handset onto its cradle, stood up, and walked to where he had dropped his backpack beside the front door. He picked it up by one strap and unzipped the side pocket. The flower he’d plucked looked smaller than he remembered it, less yellow now than beige.

He brought the flower to the table and opened the address book again, bending it back over its spine so it would stay open. He set it down beside Jeanne’s purse and studied the listing. Mom and Dad. When he set the flower there it reminded him of some cake decoration. He turned away before he could change his mind. He knew that he would wake Jeanne if he got into bed beside her and so he walked past the bedroom to his mother’s at the end of the hall. He stepped off his shoes and sat down at the edge of the bed. Through the window, the stars glittered cold in the sky and that white path gleamed across the bay. Nikolas lay back and stared up into the swirling dark, sore in his arms, so tired, but sleep did not come for a very long time.

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