A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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WHAT’S on my mind, what I want to talk about, all happened last February — a month that used to mean bone-hard winter this far north, but not anymore. All that afternoon, warm Chinook winds bashed the cabin my husband, Herb, and I have called home for twenty-two years. Unseasonable rain slashed the windows and drenched the sagging snow berms along the driveway. Still, Herb was out there in it, splitting wood with the heavy maul. Never mind that we had a new oil-fired furnace — part of our plan to enjoy ourselves a little, now that our twins, Megan and Joan, were off at college in Anchorage. Along with the furnace, we had finally gotten a well, running water, our first indoor toilet, a hot-water tank, and a pink fiberglass bathtub big enough for two. We had electricity at last, a real refrigerator, a washer and dryer — all the planet-destroying luxuries I’d always longed for. We figured we were due. Before, if we had a carbon footprint at all, it would have shown five skinny toes and a naked heel. Now it was our turn not to care.
Herb had finally hit the jackpot in the herring-roe fishery and decided that, with the girls gone, I might enjoy some creature comforts to take the edge off being alone in the cabin so much. Unfortunately I had already come to the same conclusion, and one of the comforts I’d treated myself to was named Jimmy. He was a guy from my yoga class, and although the affair had actually ended by February, here was Herb, standing out in the nearly tropical downpour in a wool shirt, splitting firewood we didn’t need. You hear more and more these days about climate change, unusual storms all over the world. But let me tell you, it’s the weather inside a house that matters.
I was at my new sink, finishing the dinner dishes, when Herb finally came in with an armload of spruce, rainwater dripping from the visor of his hat. He kicked the door shut behind him and went to the old wood stove we were still using to offset the cost of the fuel oil the new furnace burned. He dropped the wood from chest height, turned, and glared at me. I’d been trying to get him to talk all day, but I could pry just three words out of him, the only three words I had heard pass his lips for a week.
“Herb,” I said, “I was just trying to help the guy.”
And Herb kind of tiredly said, “Go fuck yourself.”
Herb was between fishing runs at the moment. The gray-cod season had just ended, and halibut hadn’t started yet. Or maybe it was the black cod that was ending and the herring about to begin again. I’d once been able to keep track of it, but now one fish was pretty much the same as another to me. The names of all the places Herb went in search of them had started to blur together too: the Gulf of Alaska, the Shelikof Strait, the Bering Sea — places that had shaped our lives; places I have never seen. Even when our daughters were small, it didn’t really matter what Herb was fishing for or whether he was a mile offshore or a hundred; I wouldn’t hear from him for weeks. The ship’s radio was for emergencies, he said, and my being cooped up in a two-room cabin with twin babies all winter was not, in his estimation, an emergency. And I suppose he was right. Although it was something. Something I do not recommend, by the way, whatever you choose to call it.
IN THE second year of our marriage, Herb bought a huge boat, named it the Twin Angels (after the girls), and took it out scallop dragging in the Aleutians. I didn’t see him that whole winter. He did phone every couple of weeks when they came into Dutch Harbor to offload. To wait for his call I would drive the ten miles into town and stand at the pay phone in front of the little grocery store that had not yet become a big, fancy Safeway. That was when winter was still winter. I’d wait in the bitter darkness, hopping from foot to foot like the local sea crows, trying to picture my husband out there somewhere, halfway to Korea.
After one of those calls, I was in the store warming up, picking through the unripe tomatoes we were stuck with in those days before reliable air freight, when I overheard the words “Twin Angels.” There were two young men at the apples, talking about work on fishing boats: one a redhead and the other dark eyed with dusty black dreadlocks and the first pierced nostril I’d ever seen in town, though many more would follow.
The dreadlocked one said, “I thought you guys were scalloping.”
“Fishery Division shut it down,” the redhead said. “Some beef with the Japanese or something. Herb sent us home.”
I stood there, my babies asleep in the shopping cart, a gray-green tomato clutched in my hand, and listened to him say that the Twin Angels was not going back out for three weeks at the earliest.
Herb had not mentioned anything about this on the phone.
I staggered to the register with that awful tomato in my grip, as if I believed it would somehow ripen on my windowsill in the constant gloom of winter. Still in a daze, I filled our five-gallon jugs from the potable-water spigot in front of the store. I was loading them into the car when I met a man.
I’m only five-foot-one and small boned. Five gallons of water is almost half my weight, and I was killing myself wrestling the jugs into the hatchback of our old Subaru with the thought of Herb staying out in Dutch Harbor — for reasons he had chosen not to share — spinning through my head. One of the jugs got away from me and smashed a bag of rice cakes I was treating myself to, and I looked at them and started crying. (You have to have lived the way we did then to understand how sad a bag of smashed rice cakes can be.) Just then a nice-looking guy walked up, took a water jug from my hand, and swung it into the car. I wiped my nose on my sleeve and smiled at him. He was wearing bib overalls and a watch cap. He had a neatly trimmed beard and warm eyes, and when he said, “I hope you’ve got someone to unload this for you at home,” I knew that it was the last thing he was hoping.
I thought about it for a second or two, still stung by Herb’s decision not to come home. The girls wouldn’t know anything; they were babies. I thought about it a second longer. Then I shook my head and got in my car and drove off, flattered and flushed and a little proud of myself for leaving that good-looking guy standing in the parking lot in the cold wind with the crows pecking crushed rice cakes off the ice around his feet.
THERE is something to be said for being desired. I’m forty-six years old now, with lines in all the places you’d expect them and a chest as flat as the economy around here. But men are not as simple as they may seem, and sometimes a good smile is worth more than a blouse full of tits. Let’s just say that I don’t have any trouble making new friends — that guy Jimmy, for example. Let me also say that I did not intend to hurt Herb. When I met Jimmy, I saw a lonely, desperate guy in need of a friend. I mean, really: a grown man taking a yoga class by himself is a cry for help if I ever saw one.
Between the fire now roaring in the wood stove and the mild weather outside, the cabin was stifling. I put away the last of the dishes, mopped the sweat off my forehead with my apron, and took it off. Herb was still crouched at the open door of the wood stove.
“Come on, Herb,” I said. “You’re going to burn the place down.”
“Seriously. Before you have to go back out again, we really need to talk.”
“OK, then,” he said. “Go fuck yourself.”
At this rate it was going to be a very long evening.
Luckily I had a hockey game. My best friend, Terri Destino, had talked me into joining the Kenai Peninsula Ladies League. She said it would keep me out of trouble, although there had not been dramatic results in that respect. That night we were playing the Cook Inlet Whales. The team’s real name is the Cook Inlet Lynxes, but Terri started calling them the “Whales” because somehow all the biggest, heaviest women in this part of the world — the ones who can skate, at least — are on that one team. It’s also no secret that the Whales refer to our team, the Peninsula Wildcats, as the “Side Stripes,” a type of local shrimp, because everyone on our team, me and Terri included, is as scrawny as a swizzle stick. Terri and I together weigh maybe 210 pounds carrying our skate bags, our hockey sticks, and the big thermos of vodka martinis we drink before every game.
I picked up my gear and headed for the cabin door. “Herb, honey,” I said, “I’m going to the rink.”
Herb prodded the fire and gave me a look like he wanted to bend the poker over my head. But Herb is a gentle soul and has never raised a hand to me or our girls, which is probably one reason I had let myself get carried away with Jimmy: I wasn’t afraid of what Herb might do. And then there was the fact that, when the girls started high school, I got a job with the Fish and Game Department, which came with first-class health insurance, something Herb couldn’t do without. He is fifty-five and has spent nearly forty of those years at sea. He’d be hard-pressed to pay out of pocket for his tizanidine, Vicodin, and Celebrex, much less for the physical therapy and the epidural cortisone shots that reduce the pain enough for him to keep doing the one thing that gives him joy: fishing.
Terri, best friend and queen of understatement, once said, “Girl, if this country ever gets a national healthcare system, you may have a problem.”
But I was betting that, insurance or no insurance, Herb did not want to be single in a town this small any more than I did.
I reached for the door handle and said, “Listen, Terri and I are going out for pizza after the game. I may be late.”
Herb opened his mouth, but before he could speak, I said, “OK, honey, I know. Go fuck myself.”
I stepped out of the sweltering cabin into the fresh wind. It was only six o’clock but near dark already; however oddly mild the weather, it was still February, after all. Global warming may bring us a whole new earth, but the sun still moves in its old, old ways.
I got in the Subaru. Rain was running over the ice on the steep slope of our driveway, and even with four studded tires, the car basically free-fell to the road and ricocheted off the snow berm on the other side. I careened out into the two-lane, praying there were no moose on the pavement that night. Not for the first time, I tried to remember when this lifestyle in Alaska had last sounded like a good idea.
AT THE rink the Whales skated onto the ice for the national anthem, and Terri elbowed me. “Look,” she said, “the Thighs Capades.”
That Terri has a way with words.
As usual the Whales kicked the living Jesus out of us. There was no way I could face them without Terri’s thermos of Smirnoff and green olives. All I could do to keep them from skating right over me was foul them constantly. In the first few minutes of the game I high-sticked Mary Godowski, clipped Ann Reston, and blatantly tripped Glenda Brevnik. Glenda slid headfirst into the boards, jumped back up, and punched me with a fist like a canned ham. The gloves came off, and the crowd roared. How they love a girl fight. It took two refs to pry the furious Glenda off me.
I got into another fight later and spent more time in the penalty box. By the end of the second period I had a loose tooth and a nostril packed with Kleenex. But it paid off: their defense was keeping their distance from me, and I was wide open when, in the final minutes of the game, I caught a pass from Terri right in front of the Whales’ goalie, Lucy Pevoworcek — the biggest player on their team.
Poor Lucy is very large, and I feel for her; I really do. I have seen her parked in front of the Safeway, wedged behind the wheel of her van, pushing sweet-and-sour-chicken chunks into her mouth and then throwing the carton out the window so there will be no evidence when she arrives home with the bags of healthy, low-fat groceries lined up in the back. What else can she do? When people judge you for the things you desire, you start keeping secrets.
I faked right, and Lucy spun in a way that tangled her skates and went down like she’d been harpooned. I slapped the puck up and over her and into the net. The buzzer sounded. Our team went wild. We’d lost, but they mobbed me anyway, pounding on me like we’d just clinched the Stanley Cup.
The Whales disputed my goal, saying it went in after the buzzer, even though they had won seven to one, but Marty, the new young referee, sided with us. I thanked him with my friendliest smile. Marty responded with a grin that could defrost Greenland. Terri caught our little exchange and glared at me with her tiny terrier face. More than once she has accused me of purposely racking up penalty minutes so I can sit in the box next to the cute timekeeper.
I do get a lot of penalties, it’s true. But I can’t help it. I get excited. I’m covered with padding and wearing a helmet. And when I’m on skates, I’m three inches taller than I have ever been in my life. It’s very empowering. I have a half a thermos of vodka in my blood and a big wooden stick in my hands: of course I’m going to start hitting people. And then there are all those confusing rules about where you have to be standing when the puck is dropped and all those lines painted in the ice. The truth is, I’m not good with rules. Ask my husband.
After the game I skidded through a sleet storm to the Aztec Boathouse, a Mexican-Italian place on the bay, overlooking the marina. They pour tomato sauce on cheese enchiladas and sell them as manicotti, but the important thing is they have a full liquor license and stay open late.
I sat with Terri and our teammates Lauren Jones and Theresa Sweeney in a booth with a view of the small boat harbor, drinking margaritas the size of wading pools and eating something with a lot of oregano on it. The light poles over the docks swayed in the storm, mercury lamps reflected in the quivering water below. I could just make out the hulking black stern of the Twin Angels in slip number 45. Way back when Herb first started talking about taking the money we were saving to buy a real house and putting it on a boat instead, he said, “If we owned our own boat, we could have all the things we ever wanted.” How could I have known that the only thing Herb wanted was a boat?
I hadn’t been on board the Twin Angels in years, and I was feeling bad about that for some reason. Or maybe it was having lost yet another game to the Whales. Or maybe I was missing my girls, who hadn’t been speaking to me since Herb had told them about Jimmy. Or maybe it was this freakishly warm, end-of-the-world weather. I was starting to think I needed to go home and patch things up with Herb right then, maybe get him to try out that big new bathtub with me, when the young referee named Marty walked in. He sent me his heat-wave smile, and I returned it before I even realized what I was doing. Terri kicked me under the table.
“Act your age,” she said through a mouthful of breadstick. “Jesus! You’re a married woman.”
Yes, I was a married woman, and starting to feel my age too. The left side of my face was still numb where Glenda Brevnik had sucker-punched me. If I ended up with a shiner, there would be no stopping the rumor that Herb had finally given me what I’d been asking for.
I almost called it a night and headed for home, but then, over Terri’s shoulder, I saw the lights of the Twin Angels flicker on. Herb was not waiting alone in our empty house. When the wind clocked around and dropped, he would be on board the boat, ready to sail. I could hardly blame him.
Marty came up and stood at the end of our booth. He removed his cap — still young enough to play the gentleman. He had a beautiful head of dark brown hair and teeth like a wall of fresh snow.
“Good game, ladies,” he said, but he barely acknowledged the others.
Terri cut me a look, but Lauren and Theresa were such straight arrows, they hadn’t figured out what was going on. They said hi to Marty and went right back to talking about their children’s SAT scores and what colleges they would apply to. I wondered what they would do with all their free time after their kids left home and their houses were empty.
Marty was saying something I barely heard, something about the game. I looked at the lights on the Twin Angels once more and then stood up and threw some bills on the table. “I gotta go,” I said.
Terri just shook her head grimly. She was unaware that I knew it was her — my so-called best friend — who’d told Herb about Jimmy from my yoga class. Like I said, she has a way with words. I should have been finished with Terri for that, but in this town friends are even harder to hang on to than secrets.
I yanked my coat on — Marty helped me with a sleeve — and I said to Terri, “I’ll see you at yoga.”
“I’ll walk you to your car,” Marty said.
“You be careful, hon,” Lauren said. “It’s slippery out there.”
She had no idea.
Marty held the door open, and we walked out into the roar of the Chinook winds. He clutched my elbow as we navigated our way to my car. “This weather!” he said. “So warm! Can it be breakup this early? It’s only February!” I slid into my car and rolled down the window. He was saying, “I don’t know what’s going to happen if it keeps up this way —” when I interrupted.
“Marty,” I said, “I don’t want to go home.”
That stopped him. “Really?” I could tell he was thinking about it.
“I could use a drink.”
“I have some gin at the house,” he offered. “Or we could go to the Grog Shoppe and pick up —”
“Gin’s fine,” I said, and he practically ran across the ice to his truck.
I started my car and turned on the wipers. The night sky was cloud smothered, moonless, darker than dark. The Aztec Boathouse blocked the view of the harbor, so I didn’t have to see the Twin Angels again; didn’t have to think about Herb settling into his bunk out there on the boat, getting ready to leave once more. But I did.
I was tired suddenly. My shins ached from skating. My hips burned. I felt my injured eye swelling. Marty’s truck eased out of the lot and turned left, toward the neighborhoods on the hill above the bay. Somewhere up there was his empty house, his empty bed. Ten miles down the road in the other direction I had an empty bed of my own in a house full of things I’d thought I wanted. I could have gone home and flicked the lights on and off, sat on that nice warm toilet seat, stood under the hot shower until I melted. Or I could have driven down to the marina, to the Twin Angels. I could have tried to convince Herb that what we were going through was not climate change but just a spell of uncommon weather.
There are things you can fix and things you cannot.
Do I believe that carrying a canvas bag to the Safeway will help stop global warming? Riding my bike to work? Sorting my recycling? I do not. I’ve lived my entire adult life without modern conveniences, yet the polar ice caps are still melting, and the sea that my husband loves more than me is rising up to swallow the land anyhow.
Do I believe that if I were a better wife, a better person, Herb would have more than three words to say to me? That my daughters would speak to me again?
I put the car into gear. There are only so many things one small person can do.
Richard Chiappone’s story “Uncommon Weather” [October 2009 ] made me wish I played hockey. If I did, I would have danced around my hermit hut with a hockey stick, smashing my typewriter and burning all my half-written manuscripts. What I’m trying to say is: I loved it.