The beginning of 1981, I was staggering around behind a broken heart and a bruised ego, having been dumped by the woman-of-my-dreams that winter who claimed, "You're not only crazy, you're dangerous," and I guess she was right. I was a 31 year old single mother with a six year old only daughter, a small drinking problem and a large dope habit. I was just a little gender-confused, falling in love with women but ending up having sex with men whenever I needed to get my truck tires changed or my generator rebuilt.
We were living in a little road village in Interior Alaska called Delta Junction, known locally as Malfunction Junction, a town where anything that can go wrong, will. We resided in a little tar-paper shack behind the Buffalo Bar where I worked seven days a week, twelve hours a day, bartending and babysitting the drunks to whom the Buffalo was not just home but social central and jobs center as well. I was feeling semi-suicidal as winter eased into spring and so had sent my daughter, Bryn, to California to stay with her Other Mother, our friend Rebecca. I wasn't safe around my child, I knew, and that was the only thing I could think to do to protect her from me.
With Bryn gone, I hardly ever cooked, let alone ate. But, every once in awhile, I would drag some poor soul home and force a home-cooked meal on 'em. I had started keeping company with a fellow we called Big Chief Long Pole Know It All, Long Pole for short, a man who prided himself on not having held an actual job since the pipeline. The Long Pole handle came from fish camp where he had the longest pole and the rattiest net around. The Big Chief Know It All part has gotta be self-explainitory. To hear him tell, he'd been everywhere and done it all and back again.
I teased him all the time about being a bum. His real name was Darrell, so I also called him Derelict, as well as Bum-one. The Bum was a meat-cutter by trade but had gotten to Alaska just in time to be ruined by the oil-field trash mentality, the big-bucks pipeline work. Setting choker chain on a drill rig, he had come to believe that his time was worth 28 bucks an hour and he wasn't gonna work for a penny less. Consequently, he simply didn't work.
The Bum-one was a big guy, dark hair, dark eyes, everybody thought he must be at least half Native. Like the old joke, "You look like you must have a little Indian in you. No, but my mother did, once." He claimed his parents were both 100% white but he had the nose and eyes and cheek-bones of the Plains Tribes and absolutely no ass, hitching his trousers up with a belt to keep them from slipping down off his hips. I grew truly fond of the Bum, like Kevin who had shown me how to panhandle in San Francisco in the 60's, he taught me a different way to survive, the Deltoyd Way. Being a Bum is hard work, after all, it takes far more energy to avoid work and figure out how to survive broke in a cash economy than it would to just give up and become a wage-slave.
Bum-one was my favorite victim to feed. The first time I forced him to come over to my cabin for supper, he asked me in all earnestness, "Why the hell should I ruin a hundred dollar drunk on a free meal?" Logic like this is difficult to refute and it is probably what caused me to like him so much. He didn't give a flying fuck about anything, sacred or profane, God, mother, country or a free meal. And, he had a wildly perverse sense of humor.
Once, when I was headed out the back bar door, with a different victim in tow, that Bum hollered out for all to hear, "Hey, buddy, watch out, she'll make ya eat!" which, I couldn't help it, just made me crack up laughing and appreciate him all the more. His indifference was his most attractive feature.
The Bum was the meat cutter of choice for all the Deltoyds who just loved murdering animals but didn't know what the hell to do with them once they were dead. He taught me how to cut and wrap meat, too, so I got to become his number one assistant in the midnight meat supply enterprise. I really loved hanging around with the guys in the meat room, wrestling quarters of beef, buffalo or moose, and halves of pigs and caribou off of hooks and onto the saw, drinking whiskey and pushing scraps through the grinder, trimming the steaks, rolling and tying the roasts. What great fun! Bum-one took great pride in his skills butchering and cutting meat and became positively unhinged to see an animal badly killed or cut. Often, someone would get half through a meat-cutting emergency, realize they were screwing up and send for the Bum who would throw tremendous temper tantrums regarding their ignorant efforts which had done nothing except create much more work for him.
"What the fuck is this, a morphidite steak?" he hooted, stabbing some ragged piece of meat up off the scrap pile with his long slender butcher knife. "Typical rinky-dink outfit, no system, no expertise, Jesus Christ. Ya ruined this meat, ruined the fucking sirloin, lost the rib steaks, it ain't good for nothing except burger now. Fucking amateurs anyway." I, who always said I hated the anger of men, was particularly fascinated by the Bum's rages in the meat room, for it was absolutely harmless, a habitual blowing off of steam with no more meaning than the ritual of sharpening the knives or cleaning the saws and the cutting tables after we were done. In fact, I took a certain glee in watching him storm about, hollering and gesticulating, ending up inarticulate with fury. The man was simply incapable of doing the job without ranting and raving and tossing the meat about for awhile first.
Bum also liked me because I was eager to learn what he knew and he took great pains to teach me the intricacies of finding the proper places to cut to turn an animal on the hoof into recognizable pieces of meat. One night in bed he made me laugh so hard I wet myself, wrestling me around in the covers and holding me down so he could locate my hams, loins, brisket, the cuts he would make to release my t-bones and porterhouses, poking along my backside with his calloused fingers to indicate the imaginary dotted lines that would guide his knife if I were destined to end up in the freezer. We had a loud, rough relationship, but it was basically good natured. While he was teaching me how to be a bum, I must have been teaching him something, too, but I'll be damned what it was unless it was that a woman could be every bit as careless and indifferent as any man.
The first time I spent the night at his cabin, a half-finished plywood shack way the hell out in Clearwater, he glowered and growled at me, "And, don't be mentally measuring the windows for no fucking curtains, either. This is my fucking place and no woman's gonna clean it up or plant flowers or domesticate the place in any way, shape or form. So, just get that idea smack out of your little female head." To which I could only reply, "You will die waiting. I have no intentions of ever taking any man on to raise. Worse than babies, they NEVER house-break. I got windows of my own to make curtains for, you dumb asshole." Thus the parameters of our future relations were set. "Make sure you remember that later, when you start liking me,” he warned. "Don't hold your breath,” I said, "So far as I am concerned men are for fucking and fixing trucks. I wouldn't EVEN want one's boots cluttering up my floors. Besides, ya all stink of testosterone. And Budweiser. And the gotta-gets. So, don't you start thinking this is any kinda permanent arrangement, either, asshole." Sweet pillow talk between the walking wounded, eh?
Spite Stew or Deltoyd Ragout
That Bum maybe knew how to cut meat but he sure as hell didn't know what to do with it after the fact. His idea of food was burn till done and left to his own devices he would have subsisted entirely on C-rats, canned spaghetti and hunks of meat roasted over an open flame till they twisted and turned black. Therefore, I felt compelled to teach him how to cook from scratch but it was a hopeless cause as it required planning ahead.
See this morphidite steak, you asshole. Instead of just cooking it whole, ya gotta cut it up in little pieces, yeah, I know, against the grain. With a piece of meat like this, that'll take some twisting and turning it about but just keep yr fingers out from under the knife. When the meat's cut up, roll it around in some flour with a whole helluva a lot of pepper and fry it in some hot oil to turn it brown and crusty. Put that whole mess into a big cook pot with a couple of quarts of water and cut a half a dozen potatoes in half and stick them down in there, just the same as ya do to a pound or two of carrots, just hunk 'em in half and toss 'em in. These things are called boiling onions, sweet and juicy. Peel 'em and put 'em in the pot. Now, check this out, these are called spices, ya big dummy. Marjoram, savory, parsley flakes, a big bay leaf, a pinch of thyme. Stir it all in and let it simmer here for an hour or two.
Ya got nothing better to do, make up a batch of biscuits and wash up those dishes. Christ on a crutch, there's something growing in the sink here. When the stew's cooked through, the potatoes look like they're about to fall apart and a fork will poke right into those carrots, stir in a cup or so of this sour cream and a sprinkle of paprika till it's all mixed up, just like you. Now, dish up a bowl of this stuff, beats C-rats all to blazes. No, you don't eat the bay leaf, ya pig, that ya toss out the window for the camp robbers to puzzle over. Of course, SOME people have to put ketchup all over everything they eat.
Thus, I began a five year off and on relationship that was mostly on as we both held good to our vows to remain unlovely, dishonorable and uncherished one to the other. The Bum was a good friend and a fun play mate and he worked harder to remain unemployed than any other person I have ever met, a remarkable accomplishment amongst his peers, the legions of the Deltoyd Unemployed. My sister Mosie used to ask me, "Jeez, Kat, why him? He's a bum. He's vulgar and he has no goals in life." I didn't know how to explain that those were the very qualities that I found the most attractive. No chance of messy emotional complications here. I liked the Bum because there was no chance in hell that I might accidently start loving him.
Life went on. Winter ended. Break up began. Delta disappeared into a sea of slush and mud and everyone moved over one bed. We used to say, ya never lose your partner, ya just lose your turn. Spring seemed to bring this out.
There was one female in town, named Helen; we called her Hell On High Heels because she was always getting all gussied up in her slut suits, with a push 'em up bra, shirt unbuttoned down to her navel, tits hanging out, skirt hiked up to the bottom of her ass. Hell On asked me one day, "How come men never look me in the face when they talk to me? How come they're always staring at my tits?" What could I say?
"Maybe it's because your tits are hanging out all the time,” I offered, staring at her tits. I mean, who could help it? She left her husband, a nice, bright, quiet guy that worked for the Forest Service and moved in with a fellow we always called Brain Worms, who was not so bright but had a good eye for a well-displayed breast. Brain Worm's live-in left him for a man who worked at the school district whose wife had gotten a hair-cut and moved to Fairbanks, to live with another woman! So many wives got hair-cuts and moved to Fairbanks that spring, I got to calling it the Divorce Hair-do. "Oh, got your hair cut, eh? Planning a divorce?" I asked one startled woman.
"I don't think so,” she replied, but, sure enough, three weeks later she was hauling her household goods to Squarebanks, to go back to college.
There was one funny looking female that had been waitressing at the Evergreen all winter long, a certified teacher who was waiting for an opening in our local school system, an Oakie, educated far beyond her station in life, named Nancy Williams. I was in no way surprised when she wandered into the Buffalo one morning and announced that she had run away from home, grabbed her thirteen year old son and left a note to her husband and two step-children that said, basically, "I've had it,” and split. She was living in her van with her son. We laughed about that. It is very difficult to be homeless or a street person in a place that is frozen up tight seven or more months of the year. Maybe that's why break-up causes so many break ups in Alaska, ya don't have to come home and keep the home fires burning. With the warmer weather comes options. Nancy was a mouthy soul, opinionated and smart. A writer and book worm, we were natural born allies. She eventually moved into an apartment building owned by a friend, another woman, a teacher who had run away from her husband a half dozen years ago and been so content she had found no need to marry again.
That spring Nancy was a morning regular at my bar and we read our scribblings to each other and had long rambling philosophical conversations regarding the position of women in our culture. Nancy was no rabid feminist, she liked men just fine, paraphrasing WC Fields, "They are quite tasty." She did however have an over-developed sense of independence and autonomy that matched mine and we became quite close friends. Nancy broke her foot, mushing dogs in a local dog sled race, and was limping along on a series of casts, using her crutches to poke at people and reinforce her point when holding forth at the bar. Brain Worms said one time, "Where I come from women like that end up in the river with a mouth fulla concrete." Pushy is the only way to describe this short, loud, smart woman who's dark hair and flashing brown eyes would indicate that she, too, must have some Cherokee or other Indian blood not too far distant in her family lines.
I had started getting attitudinal at work. My boss, Wanda, never offered to give me a raise in pay but it seemed like my job description kept increasing. "Honey, run my wig over to the Hair Doctor, will ya. It needs a brush out,” became a familiar task. Those wigs need some lighter fluid and a match, I thought, but oh-oh, it's a hair-care emergency and so I was schleping the things around, holding 'em with two-fingers like a drowned rat. Next thing it was, "Honey, will ya run a couple loads of laundry for me in the morning while the bar is quiet?" and me, I'm such a schmuck, I hated it but I didn't know how to say No. I finally finagled a two hundred a month raise, when I pointed out that I was doing all the ordering, all the stocking, all the inventory, every day, every week, every month and threatened to quit.
Then, Wanda upped my rent a hundred bucks a month, like to split the difference with me, I guess, so what the fuck, I gave two week notice. Yep, I'm dragging on up outta here, folks. 'Course I hadn't a clue what I might do next, but, Wanda doubled my rent when I gave notice so one thing I knew for a fact was I was gonna move. So, there I was, no place to live, kinda like a turtle, hauling all my worldly belongings on my back and in the pick 'em up truck.
I ran into Nancy one night at the Trophy Lodge. She was about half in the bag, the band was loud, she had just thrown her crutch across the parking lot at her latest boyfriend, Skoj, a Finn from the state of Washington, who had the gall to tell her she was a bossy bitch. She looked kinda pitiful, hobbling around on her cast, and she asked me if I would go fetch her crutch. Well, naturally, I would, and we sat, sipping rather that gulping our watered-down drinks, and discussing the state of our affairs. Nancy and her now former husband had built a huge house out in Clearwater just before they broke up and he was in the process of declaring bankruptcy and was gonna let the house go back to the bank, about a dumb thing, we agreed. Putting our heads together, we figured that if I rented a room from her and she could just rent one other room out, she could make the thousand dollar a month mortgage payment and we decided it was a done deal.
By this time I had decided I was gonna live, I guess, for I had sent for Bryn and she and I went from living in a dumpy cabin behind the bar and then living out of our truck, to residing in a four bedroom mansion on the river. Nancy became Bryn's other Other Mother and I took Nancy's son Joey on to raise although Joey was a self-sustaining unit and resisted all my mothering efforts, especially in the food department where he believed food should NOT be green, or at least need not always have green stuff floating around in it.
We got a third housemate, a woman who's name, I kid ya not, was Northstar Willouby, just Star for short. It was just Bryn and me, the mother's three and poor skinny Joey who suffered manfully with this surfeit of females. Nancy worked and I cooked and no one's exactly sure what Star did but she was very busy all the time, nonetheless.
The Bum took me fully under his wings and showed me how to apply for unemployment benefits, called Rocking Chair Money, and we spent the summer cutting a little meat, going on day trips in the canoe, fooling around a little with a garden and murdering salmon in fish camp, of which more anon. That Derelict also taught me the art of selling fire wood that hasn't been cut yet and selling the same load of wood twice to two different people and this was the wildest enterprise yet. Delta, ya see, is fairly split right down the middle between oil-furnace heating Deltans and wood-stove heating Deltoyds and half the Deltoyd population are more often than not incapable of getting in a proper wood supply. Avoiding real jobs, Bum-one had discovered a veritable gold mine in the wood cutting business.
"Check this out,” he cackled one day as we pulled into the parking lot of the Cherokee Two with just shy of a full cord of burnt spruce wood loaded into the back of his truck which we had just cut from the bogs out past the barley project where the big fire in '79 had burned over thousands of acres of black spruce trees. We walked into the bar, crack of noon, and ordered two beers and waited for our future customers to ask us what's going on. "Gotta good load of spruce wood this morning. Nice and dry, burn hot as hell this winter,” the Bum announced, taking a long swallow of his bottle of Bud.
"Spruce, you say?" an old codger named Fred asked. "Boy I sure could use a couple loads of that stuff. My chainsaw's shot and truth to tell I'm getting too old to wrestle around out there in the wet and skeeters to get the firewood in any more. What did ya say ya'd sell it for?"
"Never named a price,” Derelict said, taking another drag off his bottle. "Just cutting ahead for me, really. Never aimed to sell this load,” he added, and smacked his bottle down against the bar top. "Christ, it's hot out there. And, wet? We were up to our armpits in the bracken bog. Nope, just don't pay to sell firewood no more."
"Well, hell, I'd give ya sixty bucks for the load, right here, right now,” old Fred said and started rooting around in his back pocket for his wallet.
"Shit, I'd be a fool to let it go for any less'n a hundred, time it took to cut and wear and tear on my rig and my saw, say nothing of my back. I'm getting too old for this shit, too, you know. Them skeeters ate us up alive today,” said my dumb Bum-one, scratching his head and looking slow and stupid. Fred started getting pissed at this point, "Hundred dollars, that's highway robbery, I wouldn't give ya a penny more'n seventy-five,” he said, pulling fresh green out of his tired old bill-fold and slamming it down on the bar.
"Tell ya what, ya old fart. I always did like ya, no matter what the rest of these assholes say about ya. Make it an even eighty and I'll deliver it to your door."
"Done!" said old Fred, his loose lips a flapping. Money exchanged hands and the Bum said he'd bring the wood over in the afternoon. We finished our beers while the lady bar-tender started talking about maybe she'd like to buy a load or two, just to get a jump on the winter, you know. Derelict dickered with her a bit and said, "Well, maybe,” and we went out and climbed into the truck. "Hey, that was pretty good. We sold one load and gotta maybe order for two more,” I told him. "Shit, you ain't seen anything yet,” he said and fired his truck up and pulled out onto the highway, turning south, out towards the barley project again rather than heading north back into the Junction.
"Where the fuck ya going now?" I asked him, looking over at him where he was grinning like a Cheshire cat behind the wheel. "Hang onto your hat, you poor dumb female. I'm gonna show ya how to make a killing in firewood futures,” he said and laughed all the way back out to the burn area where three other Deltoyds were out cutting wood. "You just look cute and keep your fat mouth shut,” he said to me as we pulled up to an old battered grey '62 Dodge truck where two of the Murphy brothers were cutting firewood and piling it up like to beat the band.
The Murphy boys all looked exactly alike and to this day I cannot tell one from the other, there's about five or six of 'em, although I can always recognize one a block away. Red-headed, gap-toothed, dressed in ragged Carrharts and flannel shirts with their boot laces flopping loose, winter or summer, there's been Murphy's running wild in Delta since day one. Old man Murphy could never tell one from the other, either, and called them all collectively, "Hey Boy" as in Hey boy, get this or Hey boy, do that and that's exactly how the Bum addressed 'em, too, "Hey boys, sure cut up a mess a wood here already today. Ya selling it, or what?"
The older of the two spit a big wad of chew out, scratched his head, and looked over at us as we sat there, a picture of innocent neighborly curiosity, and said, "Maybe yes and maybe no. What's it to ya?"
"Well, I'll tell ya what," quothe the Bum, looking for all the world like a TV evangelist, "I got a load here for a fellow but he wants five and my saw just froze up and I'm inna jam. He's paying me fifty a load and I'd be willing to give you forty-five of that if ya cut the stuff and I'll haul it out as it comes."
"Well, shit, that's no deal,” said the elder Murphy, dipping another load into his jaw out of his Skoal can. "We could run this into the Junction ourselves and get at least sixty a load right now. Besides, Maw said if we didn't come home with a load for her she'd skin us both alive for supper."
"Money talks and bullshit walks,” the Bum said and flipped his wallet out, pulling out old Fred's eighty and throwing another ten in to sweeten the pot. "Here's the ninety for the first two loads and when I get back from dropping this load off I'll bring ya a case of beer, What do ya say? You're taking advantage of me, all the gas and wear on my truck and all ya gotta do is stand out here in this nice fresh air and cut another three or four loads."
At the mention of a case of beer, baby brother's ears perked up and he plucked at his brothers frayed sleeve and gave him a Come On, Bro look. "Well, OK, fair enough, we'll cut and you haul and maybe we'll even letcha have one of our beers,” said big brother, the sun glinting in his curly reddish brown hair.
Bum-one fired up the rig and we hauled ass back to the Cherokee where we sold the first load to the lady bartender for eighty bucks and the Bum told her, "If ya throw in a case a beer, I'll get ya two more loads, just like that, for eighty a pop and ya don't even have to get your hands dirty, we'll stack it up nice and neat for ya, just tell us where." She gave him two hundred and forty bucks, cash money, a case of bear whizz beer and showed us where to put the wood by her trailer out back. Quicker than ya can say it, we took the Murphy boys their beer, picked up another load of wood, hauled it back to the trailer behind the Cherokee, dead-headed back to the burn area and repeated the whole procedure, that Bum laughing the whole way. "Gotta use your brain, ya know, if you're gonna make it in this man's country,” he told me. "Any fool can work for a living, takes a fucking genius to figure out how to get someone else to do the work."
We picked up another load and hauled it over to old Fred's place where he reckoned he might as well buy two more loads so we got another hundred and sixty cash money from him and shuttled two more loads between the Murphy boys and Fred's place. By now it was almost eight at night and I figured we had done a good day's work for not a bad day's pay but the kicker was yet to come. Derelict loaded up the truck one more time and paid the Murphy boys off who were happier than hell with their hundred and seventy five dollars cash money, belly fulla beer and a load of wood on their truck to appease Ma Murphy. The Bum and I ran that truck into Delta and had a couple of beers at the Buffalo and damned if he didn't sell that last load of wood right there at the bar, twice, to two different people who both paid him in long green during the course of the evening. "I might just sit here and sell this damn load another three or four more times, too,” he announced proudly to me. "See, girly, nothing easier in the world than making money in Alaska."
So, that's is how I learned to eek out a living in the firewood trade, but I have to admit that I never did get as good at it as the Bum who once had three different people cutting the wood he was selling. "Everyone's a sucker for cash,” he told me. I once saw him sell the same load of wood on two different days to the same guy and somehow convince him that he'd gotten both of 'em delivered when we finally showed up with the one. I thought this might be taking unfair advantage of the None Too Bright but Bum-one contended that some people have more money than good sense and the ethics of it didn't seem to bother him a bit. As a matter of fact he chuckled every time we drove past that man's place.
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