My five year old daughter, Bryn, and I kept bouncing back and forth between the far north and our old stomping grounds in California and Nevada. We finally came to ground in a little town called Delta Junction, Alaska, known locally as Malfunction Junction, the summer of 1980. It had been my lifelong ambition to live in a little cabin in the woods, in Alaska, and it had taken me ten years as an alleged "adult" to get my shit together. Somehow, I'd always been too busy getting loaded, or looking for a job, or getting fired, or worrying about a relationship, or having a baby. But, that year I saved up all my tips and ran off to meet my destiny in the wilderness. I'd bought an old rattle-trap school bus we'd yanked all the seats out of and crammed our worldly possessions into, higgledty-piggledty, and I figured we were set.
Delta's not exactly what ya'd called the wilderness; it's an after thought. Delta is one of the windiest places on the face of the Earth. In fact, the locals contend, "The wind doesn't blow around here. Delta sucks." This explained why the windsock at the airstrip whipped around from North to West to North to East to West to South and North again, all in the space of a few minutes. I came to Delta, rather than to any of the other of dozens of tiny towns in the interior of Alaska, merely because my little sister, Maureen, had moved there right after she got married. I couldn't believe she had beaten me North! I set my bus up on the riverbank behind her trailer and with access to her running water and no rent to pay, I was in hog heaven.
Natives had never lived in this area, too windy, too open and desolate. Big Delta had grown up around the riverboat crossing at Rika's landing, and the gold mine camps on Tenderfoot Hill at the turn of the century. Delta Junction proper had only existed since the highway was built during WWII, "and ruining this country,” I was told many times by the old-timers who hated change and new-comers.
Delta had eleven bars and liquor stores, thirteen churches, three gas stations, a store, a post office and a couple of restaurants. "Two Deltoyds, three opinions,” I was informed which fairly summed up the divisive nature of this small community, the population of which was around three thousand odd souls scattered around an area about the size of the state of New Hampshire. "You build your cabin and I'll build mine,” was another sentiment I heard expressed frequently. It was best to mind your own business, I was told, by the same people who immediately set in to tell me everything they knew about everyone else's affairs.
I put in a job application at the store and two restaurants and the third day we were in Delta I wandered into the Buffalo Bar and asked the woman working there, "Where can I get a job in this town?" It was bright noon outside but dim and cool in the Buffalo, the sun barely able to pierce the grime of the old windows. "You can have my job, if ya want it,” she replied, wiping the bar. I looked up and down the bar where a few people sat nursing beers.
"Really?" I asked, somewhat taken aback.
"Yeah,” she said. "I don't wanna work this summer. I wanna play softball. I can't do both and I'm ready to drag on up out of here." I had never heard this expression before although I sure wish I had a buck for every time I've heard it since. To drag on up out apparently is an Alaskan-specific sentiment. The meaningless string of prepositions says it all. On up out. When boredom strikes or the wander lust sets in or ya got enough money in your hand to pay the current bills or the boss looks crosswise at ya or the grass appears greener in other fields, we drag on up out, never looking back. I fell in love with the expression, realizing that I had just dragged on up out of Reno. I also fell in love with the bartender, who was an extremely odd looking female.
"Name's Lizzie,” she said, putting her hand out to shake. "They call me Crazy. It fits." I looked at her, long reddish hair pulled back at the nap of her neck, big blue eyes behind thick glasses, bright pink face from a combination of too many days working outdoors and too many nights drinking till dawn, and I thought, Poor dear. She wore a blue paisley cowboy shirt, tucked neatly into her tight faded jeans, bright garish hand-tooled cowboy boots, and a wild grin.
"Name's Kat,” I replied. "I just came up the highway with my daughter and I need a job, like today."
"Can ya tend bar?" Crazy asked me, looking at me closely.
"I s'pose so,” I decided. "I've done every other kind of work in the world. Can't be much different." I watched her serve a round of drinks to three fellows that were shooting pool at the far end of the bar. She rang them up and returned their change and sauntered back to where I sat at the front of the bar.
"I'll tell the owner and ya can come back and talk to her tonight. Far as I'm concerned the job is yours. But, I'll warn ya, the only way ya get a day off around here is to find someone else to pull your shift. You'll see what I mean. This place is a real zoo. Tell Wanda you've worked behind the bar before, I'll show ya everything ya need to know. Pouring the drinks is nothing, it's putting up with the drunks that's a chore."
What the hell, I figured, born and bred in the briar patch, it might be fun. Crazy said to come by when she got off shift at six and she would make sure the boss was around for me to talk to. She asked me if I wanted a beer but I told her, "Nah, I don't drink much. That stuff makes me sick."
"Well, we'll see about that,” she replied mysteriously and popped a beer for herself. I decided the last thing in the world I needed was to get started drinking now if I expected to be able to function at 6 this evening.
My interview that night was very strange. The owner, Wanda Mann, known as Wanta Man, of course, was a carefully coifed and made-up woman of an indeterminate age. She could have been in her forties, or sixties, I couldn't tell. I was fascinated by her Betty Boop lips and her fluttering white hands which flew around in constant motion, looking like swallows, as she spoke. She didn't let me get a word in edgewise.
"You're too old,” she stated flatly, "My experience is we need a young girl, and pretty, to hold a crowd here on the day shift. The boys like an attractive face and a soft way behind the bar. But, I'm in a jam, since Lizzie's leaving, and I'll let you work here till we find someone, uh, younger."
My feelings were hurt, being just thirty and knowing I am plain but not ugly. I was trying to figure out how to tell this woman to stick it in her ear but she continued without pausing for breath. "I don't want to see any gambling in this bar and I'll fire you on the spot if you're drinking behind the bar. I run a clean operation here and my advice to you is to abide by my rules. If ya don't, I'll hear about it quickly. I have eyes in the back of my head, ya know?" and she laughed, a high tinkling laugh. "I'm a lady and I expect my girls to act like ladies. I'll put you on salary, a straight thousand dollars a month. You work 8AM to 6PM but have to come in an hour early to swamp. If ya want a day off, ya have to pay 'em out of your own salary. I don't want to be bothered with scheduling or any other problems. Inventory every Monday, keep your till straight, if you're short, it's your job, no questions asked. Day shift is responsible for ordering, Lizzie will show you about that. If a fight breaks out, stay behind the bar. If blood flows, call the cop shop, number's next to the phone behind the bar. My customers all think they own this place. Don't argue with them, don't talk politics behind the bar, they'll give ya a hard time but just act like a lady, and smile. Too bad you're so old,” she remarked again, and then she was gone in a cloud of White Shoulders, waltzing through the bar, pausing to talk to the fellows still shooting pool, and thence upstairs to her quarters above the bar.
"Did she hire ya?" Crazy asked, a beer in one hand, a pool stick in the other. I hadn't noticed that she had started shooting pool with the boys in back. "I guess so. She said you would show me the ropes,” I replied, my head still spinning from Wanda's long list of Do's and Don't's.
"Good,” Crazy said, "Come in about seven in the morning and I'll show you how to run the buffer. The rest of it's a snap." She offered to buy me a beer and I slowly sipped it but when she offered a second, I begged off, telling her I had to get back to my kid.
"I got a job! I got a job!" I announced when I got to Mosie's trailer where she and Bryn were making supper. "I start tomorrow at the Buffalo." Mosie gave me a look like I told her I was gonna sell Bryn down river. "Oh, Kathy, that's horrible. Wanda'll work ya to death and she doesn't pay shit and the Buffalo is a zoo,” Mosie said. But Bryn was jumping up and down, singing, "We gotta job, We gotta job."
"Well, " I said to Mosie, in all seriousness, "Crazy says the place is a zoo and you say the place is a zoo. But, that's OK, I'll be the zoo-keeper. Besides, I can always quit when a better job comes along." We ate our supper and Bryn and I fell asleep out in the bus, both of us tickled pink that I would be going to work in the morning.
Crazy had a different cowboy shirt and a different pair of fancy cowboy boots the next morning and she was drinking a beer when I arrived at five minutes till seven. "The first thing ya gotta understand about this job is Wanda's rules,” Crazy said, taking a long pull off the bottle in her left hand. "Rule number one: No having FUN,” she said, with a wicked grin. "Rule number two: See rule number one." She threw her head back and laughed in a most unlady-like manner. "But, we have a third rule around here, and it's really the most important one, so listen up. Rule number three, and don't ever doubt or forget this one: What Wanda doesn't know can't hurt you! Got it?" I admit that I laughed, too, but more important, I was relieved to hear that Wanda didn't run quite as tight a ship as she believed she did. And, I was to find that Wanda had quite a way of making sure that her rules stood unchallenged.
For instance, everyone gambled at the bar despite Wanda's constant assertions, "I don't want to s ee any gambling going on in my bar." She came into the bar the second day I was there and I about swallowed my tongue, glancing guiltily down at the bar where a hot game of Four, Five, Six had dice popping around like Mexican Jumping Beans. My face blanched as I watched her make a bee-line towards us where her very favorite customer, Joe Jinks, was shaking the dice cup. "Hey Joe, what do ya know?" she asked him, patting him on the back like a baby. "Not much, Wanda. Just trying to beat your new girl here out of a buck for the juke box,” he said, staring her right in the face and telling her the fattest fib I'd heard in a month of Sundays. She looked down where there was fifty or more bucks sitting in the pot on the bar, and then turned her gaze on me. "Make sure Joe wins once in a while, won't you Kat?" she said just as sweet as could be. In that moment I KNEW that Wanda knew, she must know, that Jinks was gambling, and so was I. And, it clicked in my brain exactly what she had said, "I don't want to see any gambling in my bar."
Obviously, she wasn't going to see it. It was a twist on that old game of Flip Flop. So long as Wanda didn't see it, the bar was wide open. Wanda was very good at not seeing anything, even when it was right under her nose. I couldn't figure out if she was very smart or very dumb, but ignorance is bliss, it's said.
Crazy showed me how to use the buffer, a monster floor polisher that wrenched my wrists and spun me around the floor like a drunken dancing partner till I caught the knack of letting it have it's head, and then I could guide it with two fingers, just the same as Crazy. She showed me where the alcohol was stored down in the basement, which had a steep set of stairs that ran almost straight up, like a ladder. She showed me how to stock the beer coolers and how to operate the ancient cash register, which had a hand crank on the side for when the power went out, which happened frequently, I was told. She showed me how to beat on the side of the old generator, down in the basement, which supplied the electricity for the bar, the service station in front, the three cabins behind the bar and the four trailers out back which Wanda rented to work crews at exorbitant rates. Keeping the generator running, and knowing who to call when the well froze or the toilets flooded or the furnace went out were the most important tasks of our job descriptions. Crazy introduced me to the night bartender, a young, pretty girl of barely nineteen who came in at noon for breakfast, a beer and a glass of tomato juice. "Kat, this is Tiny. Tiny, this is Kat. Kat, here's my bar hook,” she continued. "Keep your hands on it, they have a nasty habit of disappearing around here and ya'll get bad callouses on your hands if ya have to twist the caps by hand. I'm outta here."
Well, I was a little shocked to be trusted with the bar alone after a scant four hour training program but Crazy HAD told me everything I was gonna need to know. I poured shots and mixed drinks and popped beers open and kept my till straight and turned up the jukebox and kept track of the tab box (another thing that Wanda didn't want to see as it, too, was illegal as hell) and by the time Tiny wandered back in at 6 that evening, I felt like I had spent my whole life behind that bar. Wanda came into the bar at least once on every shift. She inspected me carefully and conceded I did OK, despite my age and face. "The boys seem to like you and that's half the battle,” she said, "Just remember that you are a lady and don't forget to smile." I didn't know how to tell her that I WAS smiling, all McElroy's look like this when we smile. I was pleased as punch to have gotten through my first shift with no problems and Crazy came in when I got off shift and suggested, "Let's go introduce you to all the other bar-tenders in town." I called Mosie to ask if she would keep an eye on Bryn while I went out and we jumped into Crazy's big red pick up truck and made the rounds.
Everyplace we stopped, we rolled for drinks. Every time we rolled we won which meant we had to roll again to give the bar tender a chance to get even. Crazy introduced me around and filled me in on all the details of everyone's life, private and public. We started at the Buffalo, then drove out to Big D bar, then to Tom's Inn. We shot a game of pool then headed out to the Clearwater Lodge where we ate hamburgers and had three more drinks. From Clearwater, we cut across to the Cherokee Two and had two drinks, then headed back into the Junction, having a drink at the Trophy Lodge, another at the Evergreen and finally back to the Buffalo. I was cross-eyed and painless at this point but apparently I had passed some kind unspoken test for by now Crazy was pounding me on the back and hooting and hollering. We had about five more drinks and then I begged off, insisting I had to crawl home. It was after midnight, after all, and I had to be at work in the morning.
Mosie just gave me a funny look when I got home. Bryn was already asleep, on the couch, and I curled up there with her. "People around here are pretty serious drinkers, I guess,” I said. Mosie agreed, and she left to go to bed. I had a hellacious hangover the next morning but made it to work on time, with only a small case of the jitters. Crazy showed up around ten AM and we shot dice for a round of drinks. She won and I poured. Thus began my new life in the wilderness of Malfunction Junction, a town so small, I was told, we couldn't afford a town drunk and all had to take turns. I laughed. I was also told that to climb on the wagon in Delta, ya had to throw two other Deltoyds off first, which I also thought was funny. Joe Jinks told me, "There's a rumor going 'round that there's a serious drinking problem here in the Junction,” he paused for dramatic effect, then continued, "Fortunately, or unfortunately, no one has ever sobered up long enough to investigate it properly,” I howled. This was the funniest thing I had ever heard in my life.
The Buffalo had big, old-fashioned, over-stuffed, padded, red nagahyde bar stools and my favorite trick was to hook my ankles around the lowest rung and hang upside down off the back and have long rambling conversations with my daughter Bryn, who was always playing on the floor with the dogs and other kids that littered the bars in Delta the whole time I lived there.
"Hey, kiddo,” I asked her, "Are ya hungry? Ya want some supper?"
"No, Kat," she replied, as she had always called me Kat except when she was sick or hurt, "But I do want some quarters to play Pac-Man."
"Well come on up here and roll me for it,” I replied, and she would crawl up on the barstool and roll Horses for a buck. Bryn got to be a pretty good dice player and I got to be pretty good at hanging upside down off the stool. One time I slipped and fell backwards, cracking my head a good one on the floor as I went down. I was laid out there on the floor, calming discussing the nature of gravity with Bryn when a runty fellow with an unruly beard walked in the front door and stepped over me and sidled up to the bar and ordered a shot of R&R. "And," he announced loudly, "Six pack this poor bitch. She has fallen and cannot reach her drink." Tiny poured six shots of Yukon Jack into a chimney glass and tossed in a straw and the little elf who had six-packed me handed it down, introducing himself, "The name"s Akvik,” he said, shaking my hand, "You can call me Ray." Thus I met the first of my gang of fellows who would spend the next six years trying to teach me how to drink, if not like a lady, at least more sensibly.
"Timing is everything,” Akvik instructed me.
"Especially for the long haul," his partner, a grizzled old guy who was 40 but looked 60, named Schultz, interjected. "Any one can drink a great deal of alcohol but only the truly dedicated can drink a great deal of alcohol over a long period of time."
Akvik continued, "Never gulp your drinks. That's your problem. You're a gulper. That's the hallmark of an amateur.” Schultzie added, "Ya'll fall over if ya gulp. Ya gotta sip. Slow but sure, just like the story of the rabbit and the turtle, remember. It doesn't do any good to shoot offa the starting block if your just gonna end up crawling around in the bushes. Sip. And never mix. That's the secret." He winked at me and made a lewd gesture with his mouth. Akvik hit him in the head and told him not to act like an animal. "But, I am an animal,” Schultzie declared and took a long gulping pull off his double shot. I watched these fellows with curious eyes. They didn't seem to drink any less than me but they ended up on their lips much less often, so it would seem that they knew something I needed to know.
I had one serious handicap as a professional drinker, besides my propensity to gulp; I was a mother and I thought I needed to go home once in awhile to feed my kid. The truth of the matter, however, was she enjoyed the bar every bit as much as I did, at first. She liked being there and she found an endless stream of suckers to get quarters from to play Space Invaders and Pac-Man and she adored the beef jerky and pickled sausages and eggs that all the bars sold in lieu of real meals. Nevertheless, sometime between 10PM and midnight, I would haul her home to our bus where I would fix some sort of supper and we would eat and watch the sky and have long philosophical conversations regarding the nature of reality and the responsibility of all individuals to doubt the state. "Question all authority,” I advised her. "Never believe something you're told unless you try it yourself. Empirical evidence is the essence of belief." She had turned five years old this summer and she soaked all this up from her crazy, loaded mom, the same as my Dad had propagandized me. Then we washed our hands and faces and brushed our teeth and hit the sack
One Pot Cornish Game Hens For Busy Mothers.
In the morning, cut the game hens into halves and put into a cup of soy sauce and a half cup of honey with an incredible amount of minced garlic all stirred up to marinade. Turn 'em around in there and get 'em good and coated. Come home in the evening to change yr clothes and stir them around in the marinade again. Put a couple cups of rice on to soak so it'll cook faster later when ya get around to making supper. Run over to the bar for a couple of hours; they might be having too much fun over there without you. Tell yr kid at least three or four times that ya gotta be getting home, but buy one last round for the house before ya go.
Pull the halved game hens out of the marinade and let drip onto the counter while ya heat a little sesame seed oil up in a big heavy skillet. Brown the game hens off when that oil gets hot, then pour in the rice and double that amount of water. Bring this up to a boil and then cover and turn the heat down to just simmer. Go for a long walk, about three quarters of an hour will do, with yr nosey daughter who will have to ask about a hundred and eleven questions about everything ya see along the way. Never admit that ya don't know, make things up if ya have to as ya go along. Pick her up on yr shoulders and carry her the last of the way home. She's got short legs, after all. She's just a tyke, ya know.
The hens and rice will be cooked all the way through and ya've got two choices here. Go for a salad, or open a package of frozen Oriental vegetables and stir them down into the rice where they will heat up in a matter of minutes. Either way, tell the kid how important it is to eats lots of vegetables every day, if ya wanna grow up to be big and strong. Dish out a half a game hen and a healthy helping of rice for both of you and salad or vegetables onto each plate. The game hens will be moist and tender and tasty and yr kid will think you are a clever mom. After ya eat, put the whole pot of left-overs down into the cold box for lunch or dinner tomorrow and hit the sack. Good night and Scott bless, it's been another wonderful day.
Crazy was playing softball every night and insisted that I try out for the team. I broke off every single one of my heretofore long fingernails fielding pop flies and I practiced sliding and pitching and hitting but I was an abysmal failure at all these skills. The team let me play, anyway, I think because I had a good loud cheering voice and could razz and harass the opposition, who for the duration of our games was known, simply, as The Enemy. Our team was a motley collection but we won most of our games. Our secret for success was to take The Enemy out and get them shitfaced the night before the game. That and the fact that it rained every afternoon and our softball field was a sloggy bog which put visiting teams at a distinct disadvantage made us the winners we were.
We play in mud, we love this crud..
Don't mess with us, we're out for blood.
But, if you do, you'll learn it's true,
The Delta Gals'll come ALL OVER YOU.
Crazy got her picture on the front page of the sports section of the Fairbanks Daily News Miner smacking a ball into the stratosphere. She looked like Babe Ruth and when she came to bat the other team all stepped way the hell back out into the field. Sometimes, when we had bases loaded, she would fake 'em out and punt and then run like hell while they scrambled around for the ball while one after another we all ran home. I could hardly ever connect with the ball but if I could get on base I could count on my team-mates to bring me in, eventually. I made my reputation the third game we played when I popped a fly ball and actually managed to get to first base at almost the same time the pitcher tossed the ball to their first base woman, a big military gal with fire in her eyes. We had been practicing sliding the night before and I saw that she was gonna tag me out so I came in low and horizontal over that base, clipping her with my spikes, knocking her head over tea kettle and engendering a lengthy debate amongst the umpire and referees and coaches before I was declared Safe. Sliding into first was unorthodox but apparently not actually against the rules and my team-mates fell over laughing and called me Slide for the duration of the season.
We had a young woman playing first base we called Stretch because she seemed to be able to be on first and second bases simultaneously. She had incredibly long legs and was another one of our power hitters, good for a home run almost every time she came to bat. Our short stop was called Mack, as in truck, and she played hard ball and could really burn 'em in. Told once by an Army guy who was helping referee, "You play as good as a guy,” she replied, "I play as good as a DYKE. Don't ever forget that, mister. There's a helluva a difference between dykes and girls that play like guys." He looked kinda shocked but nodded his head and next time the team went to tournament in Fairbanks, they came back laughing as all the military teams up there were talking about the Delta Dykes, truck-drivers and bull-dozer operators, mean 'uns, crazy women with fire in their eyes.
Yikes, yikes, worse than dykes.
Play all day and drink all night.
I never went on tournament, what with working seven elevens, but I played all the home games and cheered my team on and was shocked to death to realize that this was fun. I hadn't enjoyed physical activities since the summer of '62, the year my tits happened. I found out that as long as I was about half fucked up all the time, I could more or less play softball without all the old tapes going off in my head about what a klutz I was. I never got very good at the game but I sure enjoyed myself. After the games, we all went to the Trophy or the Buffalo and just raised hell and hollered till we were hoarse. What surprised me the most was that these women all seemed to like me OK and let me play with them just as if I wasn't the last one picked for every PE activity throughout six long horrible years of Junior and Senior High School. After awhile I even forgot to be too nervous when I came up to bat. What the flock, it's only a game. Everyone got shit-faced and everyone had hang-overs the next day. It just came with the territory. We were all fairly young and pretty tough.
Crazy and I spent more and more time together as the summer wore on. I just hung on her every word. She had done all the things I ever wanted to do, working as a fire-fighter for the Forest Service, operating an honest to Goddess bull-dozer, chaining down black spruce forests to open up land for the Delta Barley Project, a boon-doggle that became known as the Delta Barely Project as farmer after farmer went bank-rupt and none of the promised technical or material support from the state of Alaska came through. She fixed her own truck and had built a big cabin way out on the project, on a road called Snot-bottom Way. She wore a funny-looking baseball cap which looked extremely weird with her cowboy clothes and when she set in to do some serious drinking, she turned the bill around backwards, a signal to all the bartenders in town that she was on the schnapps and they should batten down the hatches. She played a mean game of pool and she was loud and rude and vulgar and obnoxious, red-headed, cross-eyed, left-handed and just wonderful. Yeah, I was heads over heels in love and hadn't a clue what to do about that.
It was coming onto autumn, the end of August. It started getting cold at night and Bryn and I fired up our little kerosene heater which took the chill off the air in our bus. "Where are ya gonna live this winter?" Mosie kept bugging me, but, hey man, it ain't winter yet, so why worry. One thing I had learned along the way is don't sweat the small shit. Wanda was asking the same thing, too. "You can't spend the winter in that bus, not with a child,” she remarked. The more often she said stuff like that, the more I wanted to stay in the bus forever, just to prove to her I could. Finally she offered to rent me one of her two-room tar-paper shacks out back for a hundred dollars a month. Truthfully, the bus was in better shape than these cabins, but the heat and electric were free and there was plenty of running water when the pipes weren't frozen up. So, the second week of October, we moved in.
Bryn and I had a ball wrestling our furniture in and setting up housekeeping in our first real home together. The front room was the kitchen, the back room had two beds and two dressers. The bathroom had a shower so small we couldn't both fit in at once and marred with rust stains that would not scrub out. But the place was all ours. "And, for only a hundred bucks a month!" my daughter kept reminding me. We hung tapestries over the nasty water-stained walls and put rugs down over the dirty, shabby carpets, and hung our lares et penates up around here and there to make the place familiar. We went grocery shopping and filled the ice box with fresh fruit and vegetables. We set up an alter and we were to home.
Bryn started school, first grade, at Delta School, out on the end of School Road, of course. Her teacher's name was Judy Pease, a short stout no nonsense woman with a butch hair cut and a smile as big as all outdoors. Bryn liked her right off the bat and adjusted fairly quickly although she simply couldn't believe that in Delta school ya had to stay in your seat, the same seat, all day, every day. "Don't they know ANYTHING?" she asked me. "Apparently not,” I replied. After two full years of Montessori method, changing over to a closed classroom was tricky. Bryn was always an independent soul by nature and she honestly believed she should have the right to leave her seat and go walkabout when she needed a break.
Crazy went to work bartending at the Bay Hotel after softball season. She worked nights and would often spend most the day in my bar, shooting pool, dicing for the jukebox, lifting a few and talking and teasing. "All the guys in town gotta crush on ya,” she informed me, with a knowing grin. "Ya stole their hearts 'cause ya cuss even worse than they do. They're all in love with the crazy hippie woman from California."
"Nah, it's just their fantasies,” I told her. "They sniff around here 'cause I'm a new bitch in town, fresh meat. That's all it is, a novelty."
"Well, I listen to 'em talk over at the Bay all night long. They're all betting who'll get into your knickers first,” she said. She wiggled her eyebrows comically and told me, "Better be careful. Winter makes for strange bedfellows. It really isn't safe around these parts for a woman living alone." I just looked at her blankly and said, "Well, I'm not alone. I gotta daughter. We're a package deal. My experience is that guys just run the other way when they see a kid in the picture. I don't think I have to worry too much."
Often, after I got off shift and picked up Bryn, I would wrestle up supper and feed her and then we would take a plate of food over to Crazy at the Bay. Then I diced her for the jukebox and Bryn sat with me at the bar and we joked around and watched the nightly drama. What I kept thinking more than anything else was, "I could live in a town like this. It isn't a bad place."
Steak Strips With Mushrooms for Three
Buy a nice piece of steak. Rib eye is best. Yeah, it'll cost ya half a day's wages but what the hey. Slice that sucker into thin strips and marinade in lemon juice, mashed papaya and a dash of sugar. Squish it all around and let it sit all day. At night, slice up a mess of white mushrooms, yellow onions, red and green bell peppers all into thin strips, too. Get a heavy skillet hot and brown off a couple pieces of bacon and remove them from the fat, then toss the meat in there and brown it well. Stir it around and watch out the hot fat doesn't spit on you. Toss the vegetables in there and let them fry up till the onions turn translucent and the peppers begin to go limp. Slice a loaf of french bread lengthwise, spread with butter, sprinkle all over with garlic, paprika and parsley, then broil quickly till it begins to brown. Pour the steak and vegie strips into the french bread, fold over and cut into three or four healthy hoagie sandwiches. Serve with Tabasco and lots of napkins. This is a good fast meal, very tasty, the papaya makes the meat so tender it'll melt in yr mouth.
Delta had more drunks per square foot than any other place I'd ever seen. For instance, there were three fellows shooting pool one night at the Bay, really whooping it up and making a racket. "See those jerks,” Crazy said to me, pointing them out when she returned from bringing them another round of drinks. "There's la creme de la creme of Deltoyd society. That old fart's the mayor and the one who's going bald is the Superintendent of the school district.
" "Who's the one that just fell over?" I asked her, watching them acting worse than any bunch of little boys.
"That's the Assistant Superintendent. He's running for the state legislature. And, I betcha he's gonna win, too." Boy oh boy, good old Delta.
Crazy filled me in on all the old and latest scandals, she was a pipeline of gossip. "That's our doctor,” she told me, another night. "That woman he's with is NOT his wife. She's sitting at home, I bet. Eating her liver. See that other bozo, that's the minister at the Presbyterian Church. He's been married twice so far, looking for wife number three. He's been keeping company with the kindergarten teacher but she's too wild for him. She's not what ya'd call the marrying type. And, that red-head over there, she's in here every night with a different GI. Her old man's a slope head, up in Prudhoe, snorting cocaine faster than it can be manufactured and shipped up here. He comes home once every three months and they get into a fist-fight at the Trophy and she gets a black eye and a new diamond ring. Honest. look at her fists. She's packing half of South Africa's annual out-put on her fingers. I'm telling ya, this place is a soap opera. As The Barley Burns. Except, no one would ever believe it if ya put it on TV, too many plot twists. Get real."
Get real was one of Crazy's most oft-repeated expressions, along with Show Me and Wanna Bet? and Give me a break! I adored her twisted sense of humor. Plus, she was the most fiercely independent females I had ever met. We made a date to run out to her place once on one of her night's off. It was cold, dipping below zero already, and we stopped at the Buffalo gas station to fill up her truck on our way out of town. "Check your oil?" the gas jocky asked, a pimply faced high school kid. "No, you dumb fuck, you'd probably put the dip stick back in upside down. You just put the gas in, I'll check the oil."
"OK, Crazy,” he sang back to her, not in the least offended by her opinion of his abilities.
I had a terrible crush on her by now. We were together just about constantly and I had quite lost my heart. The only fly in the ointment, so far as I could see, was that she and Bryn just rubbed each other the wrong way. Crazy told me one night, "Can't you get that kid to chew more quietly." Bless my soul, I never noticed that she chewed loudly, maybe I do, too. As much as Crazy thought Bryn was like a creature from outer space, Bryn returned the compliment.
"You're supposed to say Please and Thank you,” Bryn informed her primly another night, act two of what I came to think of as Space Invaders In Delta. Bryn and Crazy just couldn't stay out of each other's faces. I began to have more sympathy for Mom all those years, running interference between her husband and her children, all four of us. Crazy would say "It's gonna snow,” and Bryn would chime in "Is Not." And damned if Crazy wouldn't get the bit in her teeth and say, "Is too,” so Bryn could say "Is not, not, not." Mother Mary help us now and in our hour of need. I didn't have one kid on my hands, I had two.
And, of course, the plot sickened. I could feel all manner of vibes going on between me and Crazy, all manner of subcurrents, unspoken things. We went everywhere as a couple. People said, "Hey Kat, come on over Saturday night, and bring Crazy." When I showed up somewhere without her tagging at my heels, I was asked, "Hey, where's Crazy?" And, of course, I always knew, for she'd call me up at work and tell me what her schedule was gonna be just like I called her up at work to tell her where I'd be.
Everywhere I went. people told me, "You're nothing like your sister. I can't even believe you two are related,” which always made me and Mosie laugh. "Same Mom, same Dad, but different planets." I always replied. For, looking at us, you can tell we are sisters, same flat faces, same pug nose, no mouth, McElroy frown, chin, eyes. But, on her it all looks sweet and on me it looks like "Wanna fight?" Mosie is very soft-spoken, too, and wouldn't hardly say shit if she had a mouth full of it, whereas I cursed a blue streak and always at a full-tilt boogie pitch guaranteed to catch your attention. Mosie noticed this coupleship between me and Crazy but she just wrinkled her nose and gave me The Look, like, well, whatever. Mosie sometimes seemed to be a mirror to what I was thinking or feeling inside. Whatever was going on between Crazy and myself, I liked it and I didn't want to examine it too closely.
We had an on-going Cribbage feud down at the Buffalo. I guess I'd better explain that the Buffalo wasn't just a bar, you see, it was our social club and it was our office. It was a Jobs Service as well. Mornings at the Buffalo consisted of reading the newspaper, out loud, and commentary on those assholes in Juneau as well as Washington DC, coffee and gossip, a shot or so to take the edge off the day, some Cribbage to sharpen the brain, and what the hell, maybe someone would show up looking for a body or two to do a piece of work. Topics of conversation were pay scales and upcoming jobs and who went off the deep end last night and why the hell couldn't Detroit build a decent motor anymore, anyway? Yeah, car parts and trips to the slope and who was screwing who's old lady, another cup of coffee and then I gotta get out of here and do something, even if it's wrong. Crazy was hand's down Crib champ and when I could ever beat her out of a game, I was like Peter Pan, I just had to crow. When I skunked her, I would holler about it all day long. Once I double-skunked her and she wouldn't even talk to me for about three hours. We played cut throat and she had beat herself, missing the count on several double marriages, which shot my score into the stratosphere. "Dirty cheater, wins on all my points,” she muttered. "You snooze, you lose,” I gloated.
Evenings I would play Cribbage with her at the Bay, we kept a running tab on who'd won last and most. Sometimes she would come over to my cabin when she closed down the bar and insist on a rematch. "Loser comes out first,” she reminded me. I joked, "I already came out, kiddo, down in Berkeley, about a hundred years ago."
"Yeah, well, that's there and this is here and you're toddling along on Two Street but I'm coming around the corner onto Fourth Avenue,” she replied, banging her pegs around the board. Often we sat at the table in my little kitchen till three or four AM, smoking joints, joking, shuffling the cards and dealing another hand. "One more game. A chance to get even."
One of my regular customers at the Buffalo was a ratty little fellow named Bandana Bob. He had a jail-house tattoo stippled across his neck, blue wavery dashes in a line from one jugular to the other with a legend beneath that said Cut Along Dotted Line. I told him, "Some night you're gonna run into some subliterate asshole with just enough brains to read that and not enough sense to know it's a joke. Some creature with barely enough intelligence to follow simple directions and they're gonna find ya in an ally somewhere, bleeding to death."
"Yeah, that's the plan. No one's ever been able to follow through, yet, though,” he replied.
Bandana Bob worked as a dishwasher, when he worked, but he really made his living, such as it was, dealing drugs back and forth between Squarebanks and Delta and Tok. He was always peddling something, always saying, "It's the finest kind, man, finest kind." Finest Kind became one of his handles around the bars. I bought speed from him about every third day, black beauties and cross tops, to get me up in the morning. 6AM comes so fast when ya've been up till 3AM, again, the night before. Speed became my vitamin X, washed down with a quart of cold coffee, while I was swamping, to get the cobwebs out of my head and pump me up for the shift. By the time I had finished sweeping, mopping, buffing, wiping puke up off the bathroom floors and putting all the stools and chairs back down on the floor, my heart would be pounding, my head roaring, my whole body drenched in sweat, little pulsing lines, tracers of starbursts, running across the peripherals of my vision.
Always a talker, the speed caused me to go into rap frenzies, carrying on two and three conversations at a time as I poured drinks, wiped the bar, played cribbage, rolled dice for the jukebox, answered the phone and took and relayed messages for the dozens of people who used the Buffalo as their primary answering service. I chewed gum like crazy, too, to relieve the cotton mouth from too much speed and not enough sleep, and my jaws ached when I would realize they were clenched tight and I would wiggle 'em to try to relax them. But, it never dawned on me that I was crossing over some kind of line in the chemical dependancy department. In my mind there was a kind of ledger keeping a running balance all the time. Two hours sleep and too much pot last night, gulp down ten crosstops, or three black beauties. Oh oh, got the jabber jaw, blood's pumping too loud, I can hear it in my brain, a shot of whiskey to tone that down. Nice and easy, keep it all on an even keel. I'd gulp soda water and lime juice all day long to rehydrate myself and ran a track in the floor between the bar and the bathroom, having to piss ever half hour. A beer or two in the afternoon, just to get me through to the end of the shift, so I could go get Bryn, smoke five joints, make supper, run errands and get the chores done in time to hit the Bay and have a few shots and sharpen my cribbage skills. I might gobble another couple crosstops during the evening if it was gonna be a long one, when the dope and booze started to catch up with me and I got the yawns and gulps because my body was forgetting to breathe.
This was standard operating procedure. I am a member of the Better Living Through Chemistry generation, after all; we had been self-diagnosing and self-medicating for years. At no point did I wonder what was going on with me. I was on an incredible runner, a rush, a binge of going and doing and being, without the aid of chemical stimulant and control I would not have been able to function. Once Mosie asked me, "Jeez, don't you ever sleep?" to which I replied, "No time for that." I justified this by saying I worked hard, long hours, if I was to have any kind of life, beyond my job, I would have to squeeze it in between the hours of 6PM and 6AM. I aimed to savor every single second of it. What else could I do?
Crazy took to sleeping at my place some nights, curling up in the easy chair, feet out on the hassock, a blanket pulled up over her, and still we would be talking, giggling, teasing, as we drifted off into slumber. Mornings were rough. The alarm screamed mercilessly and getting Bryn onto her feet and fed and into her school clothes and off to Tiny Tots day care by 7AM was the hardest part of my day. Bryn is a slow riser, a contemplative awakener, staring at her feet and blinking, stretching and falling back over into the bed, grumbling and mumbling and wanting to tell me about her dreams or some big thought she's just cooked up. I was always rushing around, tossing her clothes at her. "Into the shower. Come on, hit the deck. Up and at 'em. Breakfast is on the table. We gotta go. Jump!" I would brush my teeth while dressing, drying off from the shower, pulling my shirt and trousers on, running out to start the truck with my hair still wet, guzzling coffee and gobbling a piece of toast while forcing Bryn to drink her orange juice and gag down oatmeal. She just looked at me like I was a lunatic, and I was. By the time I dropped her off at day care, I was on a roll. Another day has begun.
Crazy showed up at my door one night around 2AM. I had been sitting, playing my guitar, listening to Bryn snooze in the other room, smoking joints and enjoying a time of peace and quiet. Crazy had a crowd at the Bay that night, hockey players after a practice, all hyped up and drinking hard and a Girl's Night Out contingent of military wives whose husbands were off on maneuvers. I heard her truck pull up and a smile came to my mouth. I put the guitar down and went to the door just as she knocked softly on the other side. It was dark in the cabin, three candles flickering from the alter and the table. Crazy stood in the doorway, her face framed in candlelight, her body surrounded by the cold and gloom of the winter night. "I wasn't gonna come over tonight,” she said, quiet and small, "I'm about half shot, dead on my feet. But, I gotta ask. I gotta know. What the hell is going on between us?"
"What do you mean?" I asked, standing there at the door, knowing exactly what she meant but wanting her to be the one to say it. I watched her face, her eyes searching mine, a puzzled half grin and her Give Me A Break look flickering across her eyes.
"I mean, half this town thinks we're lovers, they just assume it's true. They see us everywhere together. We're flirting all around this thing. I just thought I might ask you. What's going on, between me and you?"
"What do you want to be going on?" I asked her, toying with her, pressing her to make the first declaration, watching her teetering on the edge and laughing inside, a bubble of glee rising inside of me.
"I don't know what I want,” she replied, definitively, "I just know it can't go on like this. Is you is or is you ain't. Something's gotta give here. I don't know what it is, but something's happening and I gotta know how you feel."
I opened the door further and pulled her inside, along with a cloud of ice fog, and closed the door behind her. "Every body thinks we're lovers? Maybe we are,” I said and put my arms around her. She leaned against me and whispered in my ear. "I think I love you. I don't know. I'm pretty confused. I always avoided relationships. I hate this kinda stuff. I don't know what to say or what to do."
I whispered back. "I know I love you. I just don't want to screw this thing up. I like you too much. I don't know how to do relationships either. And, I'm scared to death." We held each other for a long time, there in the dim yellow glow. I could feel her heart pounding in her chest and I put my hand down on the skin where her shirt buttoned at the top. "Look, it's like a bird fluttering around in there, trying to escape,” and we kissed and she began to tremble, that same all over shiver I remembered so well.
I took that woman to my bed that night and it was like being a virgin, again, or for the first time in my life. We lay together in the dark and whispered back and forth. "What's gonna happen now?" she wanted to know. "I dunno. I dunno,” I kept telling her. We made love and it was as if we had done this thing together forever and also like I had never made love before. Both of us were hesitant and uncertain, yet driven by a power that had grown up between us all those nights we sat together, talking, sharing the stories of our lives, learning to know each other, laughing at the absurdities. Now we came together to know each other on another level, where we were both strangers and strangely familiar to one another.
"What are we gonna do?" she asked me afterwards.
"What do you want to do?" I countered, still leaving the decision firmly in her hands, not out of amusement any more but out of fear, both wanting and not wanting to hear her put words to what was going on, the happening of us becoming we. She was very quiet for a long time, her breathing slow and deep, so that I thought she might have fallen asleep, and then she said, "Well, I'm gonna go move my truck. I'll be right back."
Writing this today, I want to jump up and ask, "You're gonna do what?" The absurdity of it is just too much. In the past three months, her truck had spent the night in front of my cabin a dozen times at least, I'm sure. I want to laugh and ask her, "Whose reputation are we worried about here? Who do we think we're fooling? What's up, kiddo? Is this guilt or shame or just a hideously overly developed sense of privacy on your part, or is it secrecy, or what?" I have so many questions I would like to ask, and even then, these words rose to my lips. But, instead of voicing my doubts, I said that same thing all the woman in my family seem to say when we're presented with something that's Not Making Sense. I said, "Oh, OK." Like, whatever.
And, Goddess bless us, Crazy hauled up out of our warm blankets, and tugged on her pants and shirt and boots and parka and wandered off into the night, firing up her truck and moving it down the road, to the Bay Hotel, and hiked back over to my cabin and shucked out of her clothes and climbed back into my bed, thus setting the pattern for the rest of our relationship which reached the ultimate heights of weird before we were through. The closest I came to naming my doubts and confusion was to tease her a little as she snuggled back in, saying, "I suppose we've kept the town free from scandal, for tonight, at least,” and she snapped at me, "What do you mean by that?" But I just kissed the nape of her neck and said, "Nothing,” and we must have gone to sleep because the next thing I knew the damn alarm was screaming in my ear and another day had begun.
I have to say that Bryn took this latest turn of events much better than either Crazy or I did. She had been raised with different people climbing in and out of my bed. So many of our friends were gay and sexuality per se was no big shocking revelation to her, in all of it's many forms and manifestations. The one thing that she had some trouble with was a kind of feeling displaced in her mother's affections and she never let an opportunity go by to graphically illustrate that she was my first sweetheart and would always be the best. "Who do you love best?" she took to asking me, only when Crazy was around. And, I always answered, "You, of course, you silly goose." Bryn teased and tormented Crazy with a well-developed sense of marksmanship, there being no such word as marksgirlship. "She's my mother, you know. I'm her kid,” she announced one night when Crazy was waiting to play Crib and Bryn begged me read her one more story. "You let that kid walk all over you,” Crazy remarked, and I heard my step-father's words echoing down through the years. Oh, Poor Mom.
Crazy was real phobic about anyone touching any of her stuff. "Hands off my cowboy hat,” she informed Bryn, the same as she always said, "Nobody messes around with my truck." That was part of knowing Crazy, you learned not to move her drink on the bar, pick up her pool cue between shots, peg her points on the crib board, pick up her jacket from where she hung it on the floor next to her feet when she sat down. She was just very sensitive about her space. Bryn recognized this even before Crazy and I became lovers and took a perverse delight in pushing the issue, like a two year old when told No.
Bells should have been going off, and red lights and whistles. But, I chose not to look at all the odd little pieces of stuff that we're spelling out TROUBLE in our little paradise. Crazy got crazier and crazier about no one should know we were sleeping together and we went to absurd lengths to keep that fact hidden in this little town where there was no such thing as a secret. She would call me from work, "Met me at the Clearwater,” and I would drive twenty miles round trip to pick her up out there, bringing her back to my place, then returning her there in the morning so she could pick up her rig. She took to spending more and more time out alone in public, too, so that someone in the bar asked me one morning, "Did you and Crazy get into a fight?"
"No,” I replied. "Why would you think that?"
"Oh, I dunno. It's just that I used to see you two together all the time and now I hardly ever do and I thought ya might have had a falling out, or something,” they ended, lamely. I wanted to explain, well, it's because we've become lovers, you know. So, now we can't be seen together in public. People might think we're in love. But, I just chewed on my gum and said "Hmmm". I didn't understand it myself.
"It's this town,” Crazy explained to me. "Every body's always got their noses up every one else's tails. My business is no one else's business and I intend to keep it that way." Said like that, it almost made sense, except for the fact that people kept asking me if Crazy and I were mad at each other. "I don't think so,” I replied. But, I wondered. What's wrong with this picture? A Crazy woman and a Kat, looking like she swallowed a canary, but really what I kept gagging on was my gall, or maybe my pride.
Crazy and I went to Fairbanks for Hallowe'en, to a costume ball, a dance put on at the Grange Hall by the local gay community. Mosie said she would baby-sit and Crazy arranged to get the night off and we drove up there in a 40 below ice fog, both nervous as teenagers. I was surprised when we got there to see so many women I knew and they teased Crazy like, well, like crazy, about her girlfriend, the big secret. We danced and drank shots of schnapps out of a bottle Crazy had in her jacket, and went out into the parking lot and smoked joints in the frigid darkness and came back inside to dance some more. Crazy got drunk as a skunk, really sloppy drunk such as I had never seen her before, and I ended up driving us back to Delta, which is just an indication of her state of incapacitation, she let me drive her truck and no one EVER touches Crazy's truck.
We got into a stupid fucking argument on the drive back to Delta that night. "How come every body likes you so goddamned much?" she wanted to know, and I could tell she was itching for an argument. "I dunno,” I replied. "I guess I'm just likable." Real flip, like, what kind of a dumb question is that? "Well, I don't think you're so fucking special, just because ya lived in California and read so many books,” she said, concentrating to focus on my face as I drove. She was quite cross-eyed by this time. "You've been every where and you've done every thing but you're still just a dumb cunt with a bastard kid and a lousy job in a dumpy bar in an ugly little town in Bumfuck, Nowhere, USA,” she let loose, and drew a deep breathe, continuing, "I'm not so impressed."
"Me neither." I agreed.
Being agreeable just pissed her off all the more and she ranted on and on as we came down off Tenderfoot Hill and wound our way past the pipeline and The Hollow, where my friends Akvik and Schultzie lived, and through Big Delta towards town. "People all think you're neater than a peter, but I think you're just a fucked up chickie with no goals and no plan, drifting around, screwing other people's life up." I wanted to ask her if she meant I was screwing with her life but this was thin ice we were inching out onto and really I just wished she would pass out and sleep it off. "You should go easy on the schnapps,” is all I said, which caused her to grunt and give me a look like to kill.
A few nights later Crazy showed up at my door in a different state of agitation. "Jesus, what's the matter with you?" I asked her as fell in through the door. Her face was flushed bright red, her hair wild sticking out of her cap and she had a kinda spooky quiet about her. She was pretty drunk but still negotiating under her own steam and we went to bed after smoking a joint. "I'm really, really drunk,” she said, and there was no disputing that fact. "I think I might be an alcoholic,” she whispered to me in the dark. I raised up on one arm and looked down at her face in the pale blue moonlight. "What do you mean ?" I yelped, my heart hammering.
"I mean, I think sometimes I'm losing it. I think I might be an alcoholic. It scares me. I shouldn't drink as much as I do but sometimes I just can't stop or I just don't give a fuck. I dunno what I mean." She was shaking and about half crying to tell the truth and I wrapped my arms around her and rocked her like a baby, saying, "Hush. Hush. It's OK. We don't sweat the small stuff, remember?"
"No. Listen to me. This is important. I got up this morning knowing I had to make a run out to my place to pick up my tools for that job I'm gonna start tomorrow, working with Jinks, knocking together the trusses for the place he's contracted to build for his Dad. I had a couple of drinks with you, then ran out to the Clearwater to see Vick and pay off my tab out there and I had a couple of drinks and ended up back in town, drinking at the Bay. About 4 this afternoon, I figured I better get going if I was gonna get gone and I jumped in my truck and ran out to my place. When I got out there, it was already getting dark and I pulled up in front of my cabin and got really pissed, someone had been out there and run smack over my sign in the drive way, run up into the garage, left deep ruts all over the place, the snow was all churned up like someone had gotten stuck. I got outta my truck to check it out and there were tire prints, clear as day, and the were MY tire prints. Then, I looked in the garage and my tools were gone and I checked the back of my truck and my tools were IN THERE. Fuck, I really freaked out. I drove all the way out to my place, got my tools, got stuck, got out, came back into town and musta pulled a blank on the whole scene."
"Oh shit,” I said, a non sequitur if ever there was one.
"I stopped at Cherokee Two on my way back and Kathy asked me if I'd come back to pay my tab and apparently I had been THERE, too, already, earlier and had a couple of shots. I don't remember any of that. I've had blackouts before, but nothing like this. It scared the piss out of me." Crazy ran out of steam but I could tell she was still really shook up. She was trembling and pulling deep breaths there in the dark, her face half buried in my bosom. "What if I'm turning into an alcoholic. What the fuck am I gonna do?"
Oh, dear and gentle readers, and what did I tell this woman that I thought I loved. What hope did I offer her, what inspiration to still her vague shadowy horror? "Jeez, Crazy," I said, "You can't be an alcoholic. You just drink too much sometimes. Every body has black outs, once in a while. You can't be an alcoholic. You don't drink any more than I do, or any oftener. One thing I know, I'm not an alcoholic, so I know you can't be one, either. You just need to learn how to slow down when you drink. And stay away from that fucking schnapps."
Talk about the blind leading the visually impaired, down the primrose path, to hell and ruination, paved with good intentions the whole freaking way. "But, what if I had run over some ONE instead of just my own dumb sign post?" she asked, looking miserable and scared, like a little girl, in the dark there, in my bed. "It's no big deal, Crazy, it's just the schnapps. It's kinda funny, when ya think about it, ya had your mind so set on getting your tools. You went twice. Typical over achiever,” I teased and soothed her.
I can't believe now what I said then. I can't believe how automatic my denial was. The word alcoholic was like a nasty snake and I was extremely uncomfortable hearing it said in my bed. It was like listening to my brother say he was an alcoholic. Alcoholics are stupid people who can't hold down a job any more and beat their wives and kids and are too stupid to see what the booze is doing to them. Young people, people with jobs, people who can still laugh and joke and shoot pool and fix our own trucks, we can't be alcoholics, can we? This is one of my worst memories and regrets of all the crazy years of my crazy life, that I wasn't able to see it, to say, "You're right,” and admit we were probably both alcoholics, going down the tubes. But, I didn't know, I swear. So far as I knew, every body DID have black-outs, once in a while, when they drank too much. Sad, sad, sad. Poor us.
We had a Thanksgiving pot luck at the Buffalo, a sorta anti-Thanksgiving, actually, all of us loners, cast adrift together, with no family except the others strangers we called friends, down there at the bar. I made my world famous aspic and baked three turkeys and people brought ham and pies and potatoes and stuffed eggs and chips and jars of pickles. We had a day-long, all night party, that slopped well over into the next night. Crazy and I ran down to the Big D Bar where the usual gang of idiots were sitting around playing guitars and singing up all the favorite old tunes. I found myself crying when Vernell sang that old Patsy Cline saw, Crazy, almost as good as Patsy herself ever did. I was sitting at the bar watching my Crazy who was playing grab-ass with a couple of fellows over at the pool table. All of a sudden, I had tears in my eyes, spilling down into my drink, and I thought, "Jesus, what's the matter with me?" and I honestly didn't have a clue. So far as I was concerned there was nothing more ridiculous than some poor bitch sitting at the bar crying into her booze and looking like No Tomorrow. The band broke into, "I've got tears in my beer, 'cause I'm crying over you. You were on my lonely mind,” a bluesy swing number by Hank Williams, and I thought, "Oh Christ, I'm really losing it here." But, all I knew to do was to order another drink, ring the bell, round for the house. Are we having fun, yet?
Tomato Aspic For Women Who Never Wanted To Be Ladies.
This is a fussy recipe and there's just no two ways about that. Get a couple boxes of lemon jello and mix them according to directions, adding two small packages of extra gelatin and substituting tomato sauce for three-fourths of the water. Make sure the water you use is boiling hot when you whisk it into the dry gelatin and jello mix so it will all melt. Stir in the tomato sauce and add a grated onion, a big dash of Tabasco sauce, a dollop of worcestershire sauce, a touch of horse radish and the juice of a lemon. Put that outside to cool and begin to set which will happen fairly quickly if it's 40 below. Dice up a bunch of celery, the more the merrier, I always say, and slice up a can of black, pitted olives. Oil the inside of your mold. If you don't have a mold, a bowl will do. Slice a couple of avocados and place these slices in an arrangement around the inside of the bowl or mold. Bring the aspic mix back inside, it should be starting to get thick by now. Stir the olives and celery into it and gently pour this stuff into the mold. Hopefully the avocado pieces will stay in place and not float up to the top. If the aspic is still warm and liquidy, it's all over and you're gonna get a low-tide look going on down in there. Set this outside or in the icebox till it sets firm.
To unmold, hold the mold or bowl down into warm water for a few seconds to release the aspic, then upend onto a plate. The best way to do this is to put the plate upside down over the aspic and then right it quickly. Serve with mountains of fresh mayonnaise with an incredible amount of dill stirred into it. If ya wanna really impress the pants off yr friends, add a couple of cups of fresh-cooked or canned crab meat to the aspic when you stir in the celery and olives. This aspic will look so sweet and dainty on the plate, surrounded by fresh parsley, that even though they've know ya from day one, people might look at ya and wonder if maybe, just maybe, there might be a lady in ya, somewhere, after all.
Life went on. Bryn's teacher came to see me one afternoon at work. "That kid of yours is a corker,” she told me. "I asked her this morning why she was so sleepy and she said she had been bartending at the Richardson Roadhouse till 3AM." I looked at Ms. Pease wondering what the hell should I say about that. It was true, Bryn had been behind the bar, mixing drinks. Everyone else was shitfaced and the owner thought it was a riot. "Got the shortest bartender in town!" he kept hollering. "Got the best-looking one around, too,” he added. Bryn was quite adept at popping tops off beers and pouring shots and she did a wicked impersonation of Crazy, telling every one, "No one touches my bar hook, see. Hand's off."
Ms. Pease wasn't exactly scolding me but her little visit kinda let me know that I oughta be more careful. I always admired her for coming to me rather than talking about it behind my back. I felt extremely grateful to her, a woman who obviously cared about the children she taught. A few weeks later, Bryn got the flu and waking up barfing and shivering from fever, she announced, "I think I have a hangover." Poor Bryn, she had never heard of the flu before but she knew all the symptoms of being hung. Stuff like that gave me a kinda nervous Oh-oh feeling but we always made jokes about it. What else was I gonna do?
By Christmas, my relationship with Crazy had gotten so bizarre that even she and I were kinda wondering what to do. "I think we oughta just call it quits,” she said, but continued to show up at my door at night. "You think we can't work it out, think it's doomed?" I asked her one night. "I don't know if it's 'cause we're too alike or too different,” she replied. "Something sure as hell isn't right." She was much better at looking at the hand-writing on the wall. I didn't want to see it. I was willing to go all the way off the deep end rather than just face facts and cut our losses. For one thing, I really loved her, liked her, admired her. For another, I liked the feeling of being a couple, of being half of a we.
"If we break up I might just kill myself,” I said once, flat as a new pane of glass coming off the roller. I wasn't trying to be dramatic, I just was saying what I felt every time I thought about not being with her any more. That really pissed her off, though. "Don't think you can manipulate me,” she hissed, "I am NOT responsible for whatever crazy stupid things you do."
The weirdest part was that life went on just as if I wasn't coming unraveled at the seams. I was always writing, writing, writing, letters, stories, poems, stream-of-consciousness think pieces and Crazy always got defensive when she'd see me scribbling away. "Don't write about me,” she said. "I won't,” I lied. But, I could see she felt paranoid about the power of the written word. I had a couple of women friends who were writers too and we would meet at the bar and read each other's stories and stuff and offer feedback and encouragement. "You should try to publish some of this,” my friend Sharon told me. "Yours is a remarkable voice and some of these pieces are truly witty."
"Nah, I'm just a bartender that scribbles,” I told her, wondering why I didn't try, after all, at least send some out and see what might happen. "I couldn't write for a living because all the things I write about just makes people nervous. And, I couldn't write on assignment, if my heart wasn't in it." Sharon continued urging me to publish and I was so envious of her, watching her be able to pursue that goal while I just drifted along. Crazy, meanwhile, got more and more skittish and made me promise I would NEVER write about her. It was a stupid promise, all I have ever written has been about my life, my experiences, my perceptions and thoughts and desires and failures. It was like asking a carpenter to promise to never use nails or telling a mechanic he could fix whatever he wanted as long as he didn't use metric. Inside, I was about to explode with things left unsaid.
The Presbyterian minister came over to my cabin to visit me one night with a couple of cheerful Christmas boxes. "From the church,” he tried to explain. "From our family to yours." "Who the fuck said I need any charity from you?" I wanted to know. "I don't need your pity and I don't want your boxes. I work. I support my kid just fine. I'm not a charity case. Thanks a lot but no thanks."
"We just want to let you know that we are thinking about you during this season of giving,” he continued, dully, looking nervous as all get out in the tight quarters of my little cabin. I was really offended. Who were these people and why the hell were they picking on me? I cooked the turkey they gave me and took it to the Buffalo to feed my Deltoyd friends.
We went out Christmas Eve, to Tom's Inn, run by Tom's wife Maggie, a nice Native woman with a bunch of kids. Tom was in prison on a homicide beef, having shot a fellow one night in the Evergreen parking lot a few years earlier. Some guy had been drunk and obnoxious and said some Not Nice things about or to Maggie and Tom had followed them into town and waited outside with his pistol but too bad he shot the wrong critter and left poor Maggie to run the bar on her own. I liked Maggie; she had a wide Yup'ik face, always smiling, always laughing, always talking nice to people over the bar.
I was wearing my black Chinese silk dress and all new silk under clothes beneath and I was in a rare femme mood, sitting at the bar, drinking with the guys while Crazy shot pool, another typical date. Life in the closet. I was three thousand miles from Mom's house but I couldn't get out of the freaking basement. I have to admit that all the sneaking around and acting as if we were just friends made me angry inside. But, I didn't know how to talk about it. Years of loving women while messing around with the guys had trained me to this role. Miss Maggie was teasing me about the fellows who gathered around me at the bar and it's true, I was flirting outrageously.
I had black silk stockings on, and black lace up, high-heeled boots and between my silk dress and silk teddy and silk panties and stockings and my old friend Yukon Jack, I was sliding around on the bar stool, in serious danger of losing my seat. I popped my butt up onto the bar and was talking to Maggie while one guy was playing with my one leg and another guy was playing with the other. I kept pushing their hands away, calling them oafs and worse, and watching Crazy kinda steam over at the pool table. "You can look but you cannot touch!" I told those boys, slapping their hands away and winking at Maggie.
"Oh, come on," one of the guys said, "You say we can look, but you won't let us look." It's another one of those scenes that I can't believe but I can't forget. I grabbed my skirt and lifted it up over my head and said, "OK, see?" and pulled the skirt back down again. Their shocked faces were priceless and Maggie about fell over laughing. In fact, it was so funny that I lifted my skirt up over my head a couple more times, still slapping the guys hands away every time they would try to touch me. "Lookee but no touchee,” I sang out, kicking them away with my feet. Poor Kat, dress up, inhibitions down, playing out her sad stupid part in the never ending saga of Is There Life After Birth at Ground Zero.
Well, Maggie fell in love with me and for years afterwards fellows would say, "Oh, yeah, I remember you! You're that girl that was sitting on the bar showing everyone your underwear,” but Crazy was livid, absolutely. "What the hell gets into you?" she wanted to know. I didn't have the words to say that it wasn't hell getting into me but me trying to get out of hell that was the problem. We drove home in stony silence and she did not spend the night.
We went to a Christmas party at the Trophy. Crazy was housesitting for a friend of a friend, actually, out of town, and so we agreed to meet there. She was about half in the bag when I arrived after dropping Bryn off at another friend's house. Crazy was shooting pool, as always; the band was loud, the customers were three deep at the bar. I had a screaming conversation with Mosie who was there with her weasly husband, Don, but sitting at the bar by herself while Don was chatting up some cutey on the other side of the dining room. I was feeling pretty pissed about that and then had a half-assed conversation with Crazy while she was at the bar getting another drink. She brushed me off, kinda brusque and Don't Bug Me and so I sat there with my little sister, slamming shots down while she sipped at one of her girl drinks, Panty-droppers or some such nonsense. Most of the rest of the evening is pretty sketchy to me.
I do remember having a kind of a conversation with a fellow we called Rainbow Bob, to differentiate him from Bandana Bob and Biker Bob and Bonzai Bob, so many Bobs in this world. Rainbow was the drug and alcohol counselor on base, recently unemployed, and he was just shitfaced. He was telling me about his wife who just left him, the bitch, and took the kids and now what the hell was he supposed to do way up here in the frigging wilds of Alaska.
"Well, that's nothing,” I hollered back at him over the noise of the Boys in the Band, "My girl friend won't even talk to me and I see her every goddamned day." I knew I was on dangerous ground here and he gave me a look like I was a lunatic and I blipped out and in again and then I was talking to Mosie, asking her why everything was so screwed up in out lives. Then I was talking to some fellow I didn't even know and he was trying to put his hand inside my shirt. "If you don't stop that,” I told him, "I'm gonna tell my girl friend on you and she's gonna come over here and break her pool cue over your head because she is Crazy." Well, things went from bad to worse and I don't remember what the hell happened next except a woman friend of mine told me years later that I made a long speech, at the top of my lungs, to every body and anybody, about unrequited love and life in the closet, hollering, "And I love her and her name is Crazy and I'm crazy and I love her and I don't give a flying fuck who knows but for God's sake don't tell her..,” which is pretty funny considering I am also told she was standing right behind me, turning bright red, and if she was gonna break a pool cue over anyone's head, I imagine it would have been mine. But, instead, she left. I don't remember any of this, I had to piece it together from the recollections of others, who God knows, were probably as drunk as I.
I don't remember getting Bryn, but I did. I don't remember going home and taking a shower and tucking Bryn into bed although apparently I did that, too. What I do remember is getting back into the truck, in my nightgown and slippers and parka, and starting the truck up and the next thing I remember is banging on the door at the place where Crazy was house-sitting, hollering like a maniac and pounding my head against the wall of the house. Crazy came to the door but she was still livid. "Leave me alone,” she said, colder than ice, "Get the fuck away from me. You're crazy and I've had it. I don't wanta see ya or have anything to do with ya. Just go and leave me alone." I sat out there on that porch, on those steps, for what seemed like a long, long time, curled up around myself and saying, "I'm not crazy. You're Crazy. I just love you, that's all. I don't know why you're so mad at me."
I don't remember going back home but I remember getting home. My hands and feet were so cold they were blue and I was shivering so bad I couldn't light a cigarette. I sat at the table in the kitchen and looked at the cribbage board and watched my hands and felt like this must be the end of the world, there is no way I can go on. The worst of it was I knew exactly why she was so mad at me. I had done the one thing guaranteed to make her so angry she never would want to see or talk to me again, and I had done it on purpose, with perverse pleasure, to hurt her the same way I felt hurt inside.
To this day, Crazy glowers or stares right through me whenever we bump into one another, which happens periodically no matter how wide a birth I cut around her. I've never been able to talk to her about it, to try to explain, and it's one of those raw wounds that just can't heal, no matter how long it's left to fester. I think about Crazy often and I always regret that I could never voice those feelings of fear and rage and love that were so twisted inside of me.
This is one of the stories of my life I hardley ever tell. Some part of me remained loyal over all the years to that promise I'd been forced to make, not to write about her, not to talk. I put the words onto paper to let go of the pain and I laugh to realise that somewhere inside I am still afraid. I imagine she will show up at my door, pool cue in hand, fire in her eyes, "You promised, you said you wouldn't tell..."
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