I slammed the door shut behind me and kicked my boots against an old milk crate filled with puffy, futuristic gloves. Snow dusted the carpet. I pulled down the hood of my parka and felt the blood return to my ears in prickly waves. The arctic entryway, referred to as a cunny-chuck by the locals, was crowded with cast-off winter boots, scarves and faded Carhart jackets. The insulated doorway trapped the cold air in a sealed pocket and reduced the whipping wind of a July squall to a soothing hum. I leaned against the wood paneling and rubbed the feeling back into my face. When I was a child I sought out similar spaces: clothes hampers, closets, and the space beneath the sink, where I could hear the water flowing through the pipes around me while my mother washed the dishes. It felt like being inside something living.
This place was new to me. I was just another tanik, a whiteboy, working the summer in Barrow to make some money before returning to New York for another dose of progressive, impractical education. I had no focused intentions. No sense of my own agency. My wandering mother had been living in Barrow for years, editing the local paper and documenting the summer whale hunt with her trusty, manual Nikon camera. She summoned me north and I answered the call. There would be work and a cheap room in a friend’s apartment overlooking the Arctic Sea.
Barrow was the creation of the British mercantilist imagination, named for an English baronet who never set foot in the Americas. The city became a center of commercial whaling in the late 19th century before petroleum, then plastic, destroyed the market for whale oil and baleen. The remains of the original, Inupiat hunting settlement lay a hundred yards from my apartment building buried under a thousand years of frozen earth.
The Inupiat sod houses of old were modeled after the body of the whale and fashioned from its bones. The ribs of a Bowhead framed the walls of the dwelling and it’s concave roof. Inside this central hearth, the whale’s belly, families slept together in a tight, collective embrace.
The entryway to the sod house or katak, as it was called in Inupiat, was shaped like a whale’s mouth. It signified the transition between the outside world and the mythical world that lay hidden in the whale’s body. In Inupiat legends, the wives of hunters could both conjure and hunt whales through the katak, where the inside meets the outside, and the real mixes with the imagined. The origin of the word cunny-chuck is disputed, but it signifies the space between the home and the outside world, the same space where I rested my head against the wood paneling on that frozen summer evening.
It was Friday night and I was worn thin from the week. I’d spent the day working with little kids over at the Teen Center, and I only had a few hours before I was due to start the night shift at the Search and Rescue Hangar where I worked as a security guard. I was putting in close to 70 hours a week. The twenty-four hours of sunlight had tricked my circadian rhythm, but the loss of darkness, of visual silence, was taking a toll on my psyche. I was disassociating again, becoming further removed from the banal tasks and conversations that made up my life while the imagery of my dreams became more visceral and immediate: writhing tentacles, deep-sea eyes, and multi-clawed crustaceans waited for me to sleep.
I took a breath and opened the door to the modest apartment I shared with Janae, a social worker from somewhere Down South. She and her friend Solomon, Sol for short, were propped up on opposite ends of the couch like oversized stuffed animals. Sol worked as a DJ at the local radio station and was something of a local celebrity. The local governing body, the North Slope Borough, had banned alcohol some years before, but there was an active black market, and homebrew was commonplace. Silly grins greeted my entrance.
“Hey—hey! Look who appears from eye of the storm. It’s Dimitra’s boy—the tanik with sooooul.” Solomon dragged out the vowels and tugged at his beard comically. His eyes sparked to attention.
Janae righted herself, and picked up the riff. “Oh—he ain’t white. He’s just light.” They both cracked up.
Janae glanced at the counter. A plastic pitcher filled with a dull orange liquid perched on the linoleum.
“What’s the mystery juice Isaac?” I raised the pitcher, swished the liquid inside and peered at it through the foggy plastic.
“It’s peach wine. Let me pour you a glass.” He pulled himself up from the couch, banged his shin against the glass coffee table and took an extra beat to recover.
He lifted the pitcher with one hand and held my hands around the glass, pouring the wine with fixed concentration.
His hand stayed wrapped around mine.
“Take a sip… it’s good.”
“I bet it is,” he released his grip and settled his weight against the counter. He smiled and I lifted the glass. “Cheers.” I took a drink. It tasted like a cross between a wine cooler and peach Shnapps. Sol looked at me expectantly.
“It’s good… you should bottle it.”
He moved a bit closer to me. His eyes widened from their half stupor, animated with a sudden urge. I glanced at Janae. She faced the window, her eyes fixed on the churning surf. Sol ran his hand along his sparse beard. The hairs were uneven, randomly dispersed across his chubby cheeks and chin—a careworn Buddah. I took a step back.
“You’re a good young man, Alex. I want you to be happy here. I want you to have whatever you need.”
“Thanks Sol… you’re a good guy.”
He put his hat hand on my shoulder and looked straight into my eyes. I held his gaze. I didn’t want to betray any weakness. I was expecting a confession, the kind of story I usally received from drunks—cathartic discharges of condensed pain, fathers and wives, children and jobs. Private things. Intimate things. But they never involved me, or asked something from me. I preferred to keep it that way.
“I just want you to have everything you need. I want you to be happy. I know you have a tough life, and I want you to have everything you need. You like my wine? I’ll get you a jug.”
He brought me in closer and I feared that if I broke away from him, even if I glanced down for a moment, his inner pendulum might swing suddenly, and I would be faced with the unconscious rage of a three-hundred pound man. I glanced over his shoulder. Janae was passed out on the couch.
“You like coke? I’ll get you coke. Don’t worry. You don’t have to pay me. I just want to do it for you. I want you to have a good time here.”
The pearl of personality had dissapeared from his eyes; he was deep in a blackout.
I finished the wine in one gulp, his hand still resting on my shoulder—time to go.
“No, I don’t need any coke. I’m all set man. I gotta get going. I got the night shift at Search and Rescue. But thanks. You’re a good man Sol—a good man.” I backed away from him carefully and made for the door.
“Oh—well you know. If you need anything call me. You can call me at any time.” His shoulders slumped, and he turned back towards the couch.
I stepped into the cunny-chuck, closed the inner door behind me, and pulled out a pack of American Spirits. I laced up my boots, zipped up my parka, and stepped out into the cold. The truth was that I didn’t have to be at work for hours, but I needed to get away. My hand shook a little as I lit my cigarette.
I surveyed the town. From the top of the landing I could make out the neat geometry of lots and boxlike houses contained by the umbilical curve of the coastline. The architecture was simple and practical—the landscape minimal. The city was built on the treeless tundra and set between the sea and a freshwater lagoon that supplied the population with drinking water. If it weren’t for the houses, painted in shades of blue with an occasional rebellious red, the only color variation would be found in the green-brown patches of cottongrass and the potent dark-blue of the Artic Sea.
I climbed down to the staircase, hopped over a drainage ditch and onto the gravel road. I passed the lone grocery store, its fridges filled with five-dollar gallons of milk and twenty-dollar chuck steaks. Snow whipped across my body. I could just barely make out the massive whale skull installed in front of city hall. Ripped from its context, the skull was almost entirely sculptural. It only suggested that it had once been part of a living creature, something that inhabited a world that was both nearby and inaccessibly alien. I had trouble imagining that it had once been the housing of a brain, tied to a throbbing network of nerve and muscle, of chugging heart and coiled intestine.
I turned the corner and passed a trio of one-room houses. The drying skins of walrus and fur seals hung from backyard clotheslines. They swung in unison with each gust of wind—pulleys squeaking in protest. Two young boys played outside my coworker Rick’s house. The younger of the two wore a soiled white parka. He was struggling to pedal a pink huffy over a grass-fringed mound. The older boy, he must have been about eight, was throwing stones at a piece of plywood propped up by a stack of cinderblocks. Neither boy seemed to be having much success.
“Hey! What’s up? Your dad around?” I raised a glove in greeting.
The older boy waved without expression, and pointed to the house. I nodded in greeting at his younger brother. He ignored me and flipped the bike upside down suddenly as if seized by a bolt of cosmic inspiration. He spun the front wheel with one hand and dragged a car antenna across the spokes. The sound triggered a childhood memory: I was careening down a steep hill in my Big Wheel as the plastic tires struggled to gain traction on the hot asphalt. The sound recalled that loss of control.
Rick and his family lived in a pre-fabricated, two-room house. I rapped on the heavily insulated door, but got no response. I turned around to see both boys staring at me blankly. The older boy motioned just go on in, so I pushed the door open and was surprised to find that the door opened directly into the children’s room—no cunny chuck. A thin curtain separated the boys from their parent’s bedroom. Four bunks were built into the walls like shelves, two on either side. I thought of submarines and sleeper cars. What would it be like to hear every thing your parents said and did, to live without secrets with your brothers stacked around you like kindling?
Two more young boys sat on the bottom bunk watching television. They wore matching t-shirts featuring a professional wrestler known at The Undertaker dressed in funereal garb.
“Alex. Just a minute, man. Have a seat. Watch some TV,” Rick called out from behind the curtain.
I raised my hand to give each kid five, and they obliged, smiling as I slapped their palms. They turned back to the film Slam Dunk Ernest. Ernest, a slack-jawed yokel, had obtained a pair of sneakers that enabled him to leap over professional basketball players. He was at the height of his NBA career when I interrupted the story.
“So—he’s got some magic sneakers, right?” I inquired.
“Yeah… they’re magic. An angel gave them to him,” the boy explained. He brushed his hair from his eyes.
“How can an angel be involved with magic? You mean they’re blessed … like, did God bless the sneakers for Ernest or something?”
“No. No God. The angel said they were magic,” he repeated, a bit frustrated at my ignorance. His brother stared ahead vacantly.
Ernest had been relegated to the bench scratching his head in a way that indicated he was having an ethical dilemma.
“Just go ahead and use the shoes Ernest!” I tried to generate some enthusiasm from the boys. They were completely engrossed, but utterly disengaged.
“What? What did you say Alex?” Rick emerged from behind the curtain. I could just make out his wife’s sprawled form on the bed, and an inner curtain that hid the “honey-pot,”—the Alaskan euphemism for a chemical toilet.
“I was just talking to the TV. How are you doing?” I stood up from the bench.
“Not so good, Alex. Not so good.” He enunciated each word slowly, drawing out the vowels and pausing between each phrase.
Most of the locals spoke this way. I assumed it had something to do with the pace of their lives and the historic need to preserve energy in an environment where the most abundant resource is time.
“What’s happening? I haven’t seen you at the hanger lately.” I enjoyed our workplace banter. He teased me for eating muktuk and queried me about life in New York. He kept promising to give me some leftover baleen from last season’s whale hunt so that I could take up scrimshaw.
His shoulders dropped in resignation. “Some bad stuff happened… let’s talk outside. I have something for you, too. I didn’t forget.” He pulled the door open, and we stepped outside.
The snow had died down a bit. A couple of four-wheelers skidded around the corner, kicking up clouds behind them. The riders wore Raiders football jackets and fitted caps pulled down over du-rags, like LA gangsters.
Rick pulled a crumpled pack of Winstons from his sweatshirt pocket. His face was heavily lined from outside labor and faded from drink. He pushed a smoke through his wiry moustache, and presented the pack to me.
He smiled and the wrinkles around his eyes branched upwards.
“My cousin … he got a new car. A Cadillac. He flew down to Anchorage for the week. So he left it with me to watch. Beautiful car. Brand new.” He frowned and flicked his unfinished cigarette into the road.
“So… I drove out to my brother’s house on Friday. He lives out in Browerville. And I stayed late. We were drinking vodka and I drank too much. I crashed the car. Rolled it into a ditch over by the lagoon.” He shook his head.
“Damn, Rick. Well at least you’re all right. Were you alone?”
“Yeah … yeah. Wife was home. Kids were with annaga, grandma. But my cousin, he’s coming back tomorrow. What do I tell him?”
“You tell him what happened and offer to pay him back. Or you tell him about the crash but leave out the part about the drinking. But he’s probably going to think you were drinking anyway, right?”
“Yeah, he knows me. He knows how I am.”
“Then you tell him what happened, let him know that you are going to pay him back and that you are going to stop drinking, or if you get too drunk you are going to take a cab.” I shrugged. How many options were there?
“Wait right here,” he turned and walked behind the house.
Rick returned with a garbage bag wedged beneath an arm. The tip of a baleen plate hung out of the bag; the plastic bunched around it like wrinkled foreskin.
“I remember you told me you were looking for some baleen, and I got some left from last year’s hunts, so I thought I’d give them to you.” He handed me the bag and I pulled out one of the long, thin plates. I held it from its base, where it had once been buried in the gum line of a bowhead whale, and flexed it in the air like a rapier.
“Be careful. It can crack.” He took it from me and ran his hands along the fibers that lined the baleen.
“That’s what catches the plankton… right?”
“Yuh. That’s the hairs.” He handed it back to me. I knew it was made from keratin, but it felt and looked just like plastic.
“Thanks Rick. I need a hobby, man. I go crazy here sometimes. I just need some way to occupy my mind.” I slid the plate back into the garbage bag.
He reached out his chapped hand and we shook affectionately. His handshake had the heft and texture of a chunk of stucco.
“Are you going to the party at the Teen Center tonight?” Rick asked. Even though Barrow was officially dry, but the city sponsored parties at the Teen Center on weekends where the locals drank black market liquor and danced to Top 40 music.
“No—I got the late shift. I tucked the baleen under my arm, waved goodbye to the boys, who were either making something or breaking something.
I had been drawing some of the images from my dream in an old notebook, and I wanted to begin etching them into the ridged, obsidian plates of baleen. As was the practice in Barrow, I had covered each of my bedroom windows with layers of aluminum foil to block out the light completely, to manufacture darkness. I was trying to trick my mind into thinking that the sun had fallen when in fact it was making slow oval laps around the perimeter of the sky. When I did fall asleep, my dreams acquired a disturbing quality of detail and dimension, and I struggled against the sensation of weight. Something was heavy, both within and outside of myself.
In one of the dreams I was both lying in bed and watching myself lying in bed. The aluminum foil had disappeared, and I could see the beach and the slow approach of the rising sea. I felt that I was unable to move beneath an invisible weight. I struggled against the dream state, pushing upwards towards consciousness while the sea rose gradually as in a time-lapse film. Its approach was accompanied by a rising sense of dread and abject fear. I felt the approach of creatures that I would not be able to recognize or control. Imagining them was terrifying. I followed the progress of the water as it tracked across the beach and began climbing the seawall.
There were no ice chunks to disturb the clarity of the seawater. It crept along with animate patience. It swallowed the seawall. I breathed in deeply. There was a long pause. I was aware that the sea was slowly rising above the wooden foundation, creeping into all the vacant spaces. My point of view elevated for a moment, and I saw the town from the perspective of the looping sun. The ocean rose. When I returned to my body, the water had reached the window. Somehow I wasn’t afraid of the glass crashing in, of the tons of pressure packed against the pane. I was afraid of what the sea meant to show me, of the things that lived in its depths. Shapes began to form beyond the glass, floating in and out of focus. They were the spineless, nameless things that lived close to the surface of the earth, but far from the surface of the sea. They lived down there somewhere, waiting for the flood.
I stuffed my hand in my pockets and started out towards the airstrip, which was both the bridge from the village to civilization and the boundary between the inhabited world and the silent expanse of tundra. This is what it’s like to be the last community on earth, or maybe the first—the wilderness encroaching upon our modest industry on all sides.
My mother lived in a small one-bedroom on the far corner of the street. I imagined her inside, shuffling in the kitchen. I imagined her making tea and reading the newspaper, then talking on the phone. The old black and white photograph of us hanging in the living room. She is seated in a rocking chair her mother upholstered with blue and white striped cotton. It’s a platform rocker—the kind with springs. I am in her lap. She looks young and anxious. There is too much for her to handle, but it is not clear what the too much is. There is a look of concern on my face that seems too mature for my age. I know what is going on, but I am powerless to affect it.
I continued on towards the hanger and passed another of the neglected archeological sites in town—a cotttongrass covered hillock. The ancient sod houses had been built so closely that they collapsed into one another over the years. It looked more like a burial mound than the remnants of a community.
The Search and Rescue Hangar was one of the largest structures in town. Their unoffical motto was emblazoned on the building: “If we can’t find it, it ain’t lost.” The North Slope Borough logo, a parka-swathed hunter, flanked the sign lettering. I could not tell whether this anachronistic hunter, whose image recalled the smiling Eskimo of ice cream sandwich packages, was the searcher or the lost.
I passed the front door of the building’s office and walked around back to the hangar itself. The colossal, sliding steel door stayed closed throughout the night, grinding open on tracks to reveal a two-story maw inhabited by a helicopter, two orange and blue rescue planes, and a jet the mayor had somehow justified as a necessary expenditure. Co-workers had shared rumors of late-night party flights to Anchorage, the mayor returning with blow and hookers in tow, but I never saw the jet leave the hangar. The night watch was relaxed and solemn. Rescues were rare: a snowmobile broken down deep in the tundra, a hunting party lost its way. But I never saw the action. I was Albert of the Bat Cave, dusting the computers and listening for the alarm that would signal me to open the hangar door for the heroic pilots and their vintage, Magnum P.I. moustaches.
I switched on the the overhead lighting array; it responded with a comforting, industrial clunk. I liked having the hangar to myself. The machines hummed with the possibility of adventure. I dropped a couple quarters in the soda machine and cracked open a Grape Crush. The hangar smelled lightly of diesel fuel. A mini gym sat unused in the corner, the bars and pulleys set at mysterious angles. Where did the body fit into it? The helicopters, bright blue and orange, stood by silently. I climbed the stairs, and headed towards the office to make sure I had the place to myself.
I walked into the lounge, and called out, “Hey-yo! Anyone home?” The desks and dustbins did not respond. I got to work: emptied the garbage and cleaned the kitchen before stretching out on the couch.
To be a security guard you don’t need to have a superior sense of awareness or a keen instinct for a slightly altered scene: the desk drawer left ajar or the appearance of muddy tracks in a gravel drive. You just have to be able to make sure things are locked, and to stroll with quiet authority. So I strolled, grape Crush in hand, past the cubicles, down through the hangar, and then outside for a circuit around the great steel box that had somehow, miraculously, been deposited at the edge of the neverending tundra.
As I made my round of the building, I found myself humming a few lines of a Sesame Street jingle, “Which one of these things is not like the other? Which one of these things does not belong?” The wind had died down a bit, and the sensation of night had descended; the quality of light drawn down a shade, the collective pall of sleep had fallen upon the rooftops of Barrow.
I lit a cigarette and began recalling the awkward moments of the day, screening the moment when Solomon had come on to me. Would he remember the things he had said? I imagined possible scenarios: dramatic confrontations, a fight. But it was much more likely that he would simply not remember. He could not afford to remember; it would shatter his understanding of himself. Would I tell anyone about it? I decided that I would not. At the time, I only told stories that burnished my perception of myself as a brilliant but troubled young man, a wayfarer. I tucked Sol away and he was forgotten.
I had just stepped out onto the runway when I heard a distinct clink, followed by a louder clank. Although I heard the sound quite clearly, I doubted for a moment whether I had actually heard it. One of the paradoxical qualities of complete silence is its capacity to make you doubt your hearing.
I cocked my head.
The sounds seemed to be coming from around the corner. Each click and clank grew progressively louder and presumably closer. Whoever or whatever was making the sound was approaching me, the figure of authority for this particular building. I composed my face into a stern, but friendly grimace, shifted into my I don’t really give a fuck, but it’s my job walk, and prepared a short lecture for the young teen I expcected to encounter.
I turned the corner. A large Inupiat man, bent over at the waist, was combing through the gravel that bordered the building’s exterior. His chapped, gloveless hands sorted through the stones. He handled a small rock, then dropped it. He was being selective; maybe it was the quality of the sound he was after, or perhaps he was being cautious about throwing too large a rock. The man swayed a bit in that awkward position; his center of gravity overextending momentarily then readjusting—definitely drunk. I was going to turn back and just leave him be, but he straightened up and stared at me; the rock remained in his hand in a subtle gesture of defiance.
“What’re you doing there sir?” I asked with a smile on my face, attempting to feign playful curiosity.
“I … I don’t know,” He readjusted his baseball cap. He seemed unsure of himself. My appearance had broken whatever spell he had been under.
There must have been something meditative about the rock throwing; a reassuring choreography of action and sound. It makes us feel tangible. I thought touching him might help, but I thought better of it.
“Can you do me a favor sir, and not throw rocks at the hangar? I have to keep things together here, so if something happens the pilot’s can come in and get to the choppers.”
“What things could happen?” He asked with genuine interest.
“Like if someone gets lost out on the tundra.”
“There’s no one out on the tundra. No snow for the snowmobiles.”
“Well … if someone gets caught out on the ice during a hunt.”
“There’s always the rest of the crew to save you. You’re never alone on the ice. It’s a rule. What are you anyway?”
“I’m not a pilot. I’m the security guard.”
“No … I don’t mean what you do. I mean … what are you? You look to me a little Yupik.”
“No, I’m Greek and Irish.”
“What’s that?” He leaned against the siding.
“I’m white … white. You know tanik.”
“Oh…” He seemed at a loss again. There was an awkward pause. The wind whistled between us.
“Well, I should probably go back in. I have to clean the offices before morning.”
“Yeah, I should probably go home.” He dropped the rock and stuffed his hands in his jacket.
“Do you know why you were throwing rocks?” I asked.
“I was throwing rocks?” He rubbed at his patchy beard, turned to survey the tundra and uttured a few words in Inupiaq.
“What did you say?” I followed his gaze. Maybe he could see something that I couldn’t.
“There is no one out there now. No one out there.”
“You’re probably right.” I kicked at the gravel.
“Well. I should go home.” He nodded to me and turned to leave.
“Get home safe. You don’t want us to come and rescue you,” I joked.
“I don’t need to no rescue. I’m here—with all the other people. I’m not by myself,” he called back to me.
I watched him walk away until he turned the corner and dissappeared. The great expanse of tundra laid out before me, the long horizon unbroken by tree or telephone pole. On the other side of town, the surf gnashed against the shore. Further out to sea, polar bears slept on floes of ice. Whales dreamed as they swam beneath. We all live so differently, I thought. Then I went back inside and imagined someone was lost out there without shelter. The alarm would sound, the lights in the hanger would flash and spin, and the pilots would wake them from their slumber. If that happened I would open the great hangar door, and the helicopters would spin up into the sky and seek out whoever needed to be found.