Jan/Feb 2006 Nonfiction

Best Ever Yet Christmas

A true tale of (among other things)
bad drunks and a good one,
a meditation on marriage proposals,
chain-saw carpentry as applied to meat-cutting,
how to cook caribou ribs on a Yukon stove,
and what, finally, makes a cabin home

by Kat McElroy

Stephen went off the deep end one night at the Trophy Lodge, after nipping away at a bottle all day while trying to fix our old broke down chain saw. I think he must have been cocktailing some other assortment of chemicals that day, too, as he was quite unhinged when he hit the bar, getting worse and worse as the evening progressed. I was bartending and cooking that night, and Rhonda was waiting on the tables. She was bantering with Stephen and taking his weird shenanigans in stride until Stevie himself popped in on us and began the Whores, the Bitches, the Cocksuckers routine. "Dabblatza motokafy," he announced, and starting bopping up and down on the balls of his feet, whirling and hula-ing his arms about. He took his shirt off and wrapped it around his head when Rhonda scolded him and told him to cool it. She shot me a kinda lost helpless look which I returned, shrugging. Even for the weird little village of Delta Junction, Alaska, this was a bit Out There. I sure as hell didn't know what to do with him when he got like that. "Makabuddle ratzadazzle beedleharp," he quipped, and swung away from her, heading into the dining room. Rhonda grabbed his arm, a dangerous thing to do with Stevie, I had learned, and swung him back onto his bar stool.

"Goddammit, Steve, now knock it off," she said to him, sharp and furious, the same as ya'd say to a kid pitching a fit. I plucked his shirt off his head and his hair fell forward in an electric disarray. "You can't act like this here, Stephen," I said to him, trying to catch his eyes.

"You stole my balls, you filthy slut," he spat at me, his voice getting louder and louder, "Ball snatching cunts, ball breaking bitches," he declared, lapsing back into English. "You stole my balls, and now you're gonna wear 'em on a string around your neck, I bet."

Rhonda started laughing, a sorta high nervous giggle, and pushed him back onto his bar stool. "You shouldn't leave your balls lying around where they can get lost, goofus," she said. "Kat didn't steal your balls. You threw them at her." Then it was Stephen's turn to laugh, which he did, with a vengeance, a low animal growling laugh, like nothing I'd ever heard in all my born days.

He took off out of there into the subarctic dark like a shot, and I followed quickly behind. I caught up to him out in the parking lot and stopped him, asking, "Stephen, why are you doing this? What in the hell is going on in your mind?" His eyes were unfocused, and he turned away every time I tried to get him to look at me. "You're just like my mother," he declared, flat and cold. "You say you love me, but you don't love me, you love the idea of being in love."

"I'm not your mother," I told him, angry and scared. I couldn't figure out where he was coming from. "You ARE like her, JUST like her," he insisted. "You want to put me in a box and only take me out when you want to play with me." Well, how can you argue with a drunk? I should know better. "I'm splitting," he said. "I'm going to Anchorage. I gotta get out of this fucked up town." The last thing I said to him was, "You can't leave like this, you don't even have your overcoat with you," so maybe I was like his mother, or somebody's mother. I felt awful stupid, standing in the parking lot, watching him run up to the highway, where he started walking along with his thumb out.

"He's just drunk," Rhonda told me when I returned to the bar. "He doesn't mean what he says when he's been drinking like that. He probably doesn't even know what he said." But, in fact, most of what we said and did made no sense, drinking or not, and my belly was all tied up for several days every time I would think about it. Bryn and I were staying in the small cabin, the plywood shack we called Stephen's place, and it sure seemed empty and small with him gone. She talked about him every night, asking me where I thought he was, but I didn't know. "I think he gets to feeling penned in when he stays in any one place too long," I told her. "I think he's bounced around so much that he doesn't know how to hold still."

"But, what about we were gonna all live together and be a family?" she wailed in eight year-old bewilderment, and began to cry. "Doesn't he love us any more? Is this like Patrick? Is he gonna be gone, too?" But, I had no answers to questions like that. Curiously, Patrick had bounced back into our lives and had been in and out of the Junction several times in the past year. I always felt angry to see him, especially when he would start in telling me what I should do, and shouldn't do, like he had some right to interfere with our lives. He was always making promises to Bryn that he wouldn't follow through on, which just burned my ass. Bryn had a wary relationship with Patrick and was much fonder of Stephen, who had long been her playmate, ally and advisor. "I don't know, honey," was all I could tell her. "I don't know what the fuck is going on. I know that I have you and you have me and that's all I'm sure of, for a fact."

November came, the snows kept flying. My old trapper buddy, Schultzie, said he would come out and put the roof on the cabin after trapping season, and I was resigned to wintering over in Stephen's place. Bryn and I had our little routine. She hiked out the trail in the morning and caught the school bus. I hitched the dogs up and drove the sled to the Trophy. Bryn got off the school bus at the Trophy in the afternoon and did her homework back in the office with Penny, who was always working on the books, arguing on the phone with suppliers, and worrying about how to keep the place open for another month. In the evening Bryn and I would mush home, taking turns riding and running alongside the sled, hauling home water for drinking and dog scraps in five gallon plastic buckets. We really loved the adventure of this. The trail was the same and different, every day. We saw fox and moose and snowshoe rabbits. Ptarmigan flew up into our face and we watched families of spruce hens, arctic grouse, walk along the trail, mama leading her young 'uns in search of food. There is no more beautiful sight on this earth than a dog sled trail in the dead of winter by moonlight.

A drinking companion of mine named Uncle Willie came out to my cabin site and reckoned as how he could put that roof on for me. I told him I had no money to pay him, but he said he would do it for free, for old time's sake, and because he couldn't stand to think of me and my daughter trying to live in that little shack. Uncle Willie had asked me to marry him on more than one occasion, usually when he was pie-eyed, back when I had first hit the Junction and I was receiving marriage proposals on about a weekly basis. I used to go home to my cabin and look at myself in the mirror and wonder about that. Same beetle brow, same hatchet face, same McElroy mouth, always turned down in a scowl, even when smiling, same flat profile, no nose, no chin, what was the sudden attraction? But, it was sheer statistics at work. There are more single men in Alaska than single women, that's all there is to it. Welcome to the land of the Frozen North, where the odds are good but the goods are odd.

Uncle Willie had long proven his loyalty, picking me up off bar room floors and pulling me out of the middle of various fist-fights, telling the poor stupid sucker I had just swung on, "Come on, buddy, leave her alone. She's just drunk." A confirmed alcoholic of the maintenance variety, he somehow had hung on to a basic goodness of nature and gentlemanly manner despite his own downward spiral into drunken insanity.

A former logger from Washington State, Uncle Willie had a crooked back, from having a tree come down on him twenty years earlier. He was a log man, by trade, and now that he didn't murder big trees for fun and profit, he built cabins. He was a wonder with an axe, an adze, a chainsaw and a little device called a pee-vey hook with which he could single-handedly wrestle the largest logs about as if they were pick-up sticks. Uncle Willie came to camp out with us for two weeks. We fed him and he listened to us read by lantern light at night, and in the morning when Bryn went to school and I left for work, he dinked around on my cabin.

It took him several days just to dig the cabin out of the three feet of snow which had fallen since Schultzie abandoned camp, and his efforts were rewarded with another blowing storm which undid most of the work of the previous two days. "That's the way it goes," he joked, "First your money, then your clothes," by which he meant No Big Deal. I was amazed to see him climb right back up there and begin anew the laborious task of sweeping the snow away once again. He used a come-along to hitch the purling beams to the top of the cabin. He notched those logs into place. He monkeyed around up there for hours, finally pulling the ridge pole up and setting it onto the apex of the very peak of our roof-to-be.

I kept asking him if I couldn't help. I was racked with guilt to watch this bent-backed old guy up there all alone. "Just keep the kid out from under foot and make supper," he said. Uncle Willie had brought jars of sheep meat and a rack of caribou ribs with him when he arrived. The sheep meat was the sweetest and most tender I have ever had the privilege to eat. We cooked it in a gravy from the juices and served it on mountains of mashed potatoes. Uncle Willie fired up the chainsaw and cut the caribou ribs into strips crosswise, about two inches wide. This crude meat-cutting would have given The Bum One conniption fits but was quite effective.

Yukon Stove Braised Boo Riblets With Purple Potatoes.

Penny's husband, Sig, whom we called Swig, had always kept quite a large garden, and while they were fighting over every single item of their collective household goods, Penny made midnight raids on the garden and hauled trunk loads of produce back to the Trophy, including gunny sacks fulla blue potatoes, Swig's pride and joy, which she gave to Rhonda and me with great glee. These potatoes are an odd variety, particularly suited to Northern climates, having been bred in Scandinavia for generations. They are thin skinned and bright blue, cooking up into an incredible purple that practically glows in the dark.

First ya gotta melt enough snow to wash that caribou meat. Scrub it vigorously with yr knuckles to get every stray hair and loose bone chip and speck of old blood out, then soak in salt water with a little vinegar for a few hours. Cut those rib strips into manageable pieces, three or so inches or ribs long. Sear in some hot fat or bacon grease, get 'em good and brown. When they have all browned off in that fat, place them into a large Dutch oven. Brown some flour in that fat and add enough water to make a gravy which you must pour over the meat in the Dutch oven and then set to the back of the Yukon stove to simmer gently for several hours. A little salt, some pepper and a handfulla rosemary will flavor this dish. The joy of cooking on a Yukon stove comes from building a roaring big fire to get the pot to boiling, then shutting that stove down tight. The stove will continue to put out a slow even heat for up to eight hours, keeping yr snug little cabin nice and warm while also cooking yr victuals. Thus you use the heat twice, to warm and to cook, and the sweat ya work up chopping and splitting yr firewood will get ya hot as Hades from the get-go. Can there be anything nicer in the world than working hard outside when it's way below zero, then coming into a bright, warm cabin that smells of cooking meat, shucking out of yr outdoor gear and pulling up to the stove to bake yr feet?

Ya can cook those potatoes right there in that same pot with the riblets, just clean 'em good and stuff 'em down in there. Alaska potatoes are watery and that's just the way it is. They make lousy bakers but they sure boil up nice. Quarter a couple of big onions and tuck those in there as well. Put a pot of water on for tea and read a book about the Andree hot air balloon expedition to find the North Pole. Nothing will ever make ya more grateful for a small cabin and a hot stove. About the time ya think ya need to feed the stove again, the grub will be ready to eat. Heat up a small pot of peas and carrots and get out a bowl and spoon for each of ya, then dish up. Keep a large pot of snow melt to clean up after supper. It's an art to juggle all those pots and pans around on the tiny stove top. Wipe them out and oil 'em down and hang 'em up on hooks from the ceiling, over in the corner where tall people are less likely to bang their heads upon them. Good grub, good meat. Good God, let's eat.

Uncle Willie fitted the rafters into place and wrestled batts of pink fiberglass insulation up onto the roof-in-progress, explaining to me how to put the visqueen plastic sheets in to create a vapor barrier. He used rough-cut lumber for the ceiling and pounded nails while hanging upside down from the beams. I didn't get it; why would he go to all this effort for us? I knew he wished I would change my mind and marry him, or at least shack up, but of all the crazy things I ever did, this was one I somehow avoided. I had great pity in my heart for this kind and lonely man. But, I just couldn't picture myself in any kind of long-term relationship with him. It touched my heart, however, to watch him work so diligently for no other pay than the knowledge that he had done a good thing for a bad woman.

He put the tin roofing down, using screws with rubber gaskets to keep it water tight, and capped the roof and set rain gutters into place. "This'll give ya plenty of water in the summer," he assured me, and hauled in an old, cleaned, 55-gallon barrel to catch the rain water. He banged three windows into place, framing them in with rough cut, and hauled a scavenged oak door, high-graded from the dump out at Ft. Greeley, up the trail and hung it and put weather stripping all around to keep out the drafts. He built a half loft across the back of the cabin which was Bryn's sleeping place and afforded her some privacy, albeit cramped as it was but four and a half feet at its tallest point. He banged a few shelves up from various scraps of lumber and installed a big Yukon stove he had scavenged from God only knows where. "Make sure ya knock the creosote out every week or so," he warned me, and left a ten foot length of heavy anchor chain for that purpose, after showing me how to climb to the roof and drop it down into the stovepipe and rattle it around. "Ya don't ever want a chimney fire to get going in there," he said.

Two days before Christmas, he declared the cabin complete. "That's as good as I can do her," he told me. The last thing he did was to make a kitchen counter by the front door and hook my old two-burner propane camp stove up, drilling a hole smack through the logs for the copper tubing which he fitted with a valve to a small propane tank outside. "This'll freeze up after 40 below, but any warmer than that and you'll be cooking with gas." He hung two Coleman lanterns from the roof beams and made me clean and fill and light them several times before he was satisfied that I wouldn't blow us up. "I just'll never understand why ya want to live out here all alone in the fucking woods," he said, curiously, as he certainly lived all alone out in the fucking woods himself. "I'm not alone," I told him. "I've got Bryn, you know." But, I was thinking, "I've got Stephen, too," visions of Mama Bear and Papa Bear and assorted little Baby Bears wandering around in the wilderness of my mind. The fact that Papa Bear was missing in action and Mama Bear and Baby Bear had moved into a cabin of their own didn't seem to disturb my fantasy that somehow, now, we could be happy together, you know, like separate but equal, or something.

Uncle Willie had a nervous, thirsty look the morning he drug on up out, packing his tools and gear into his old pick 'em up truck and ploughing through various snow drifts, wending his way down our trail and thence back to town, back to the Buffalo, where I was informed by the gang that he went on a monumental three week binge. I thanked him as best I could but felt I could never repay my debt of gratitude. Bryn and I spent the next two days moving all of our clothes and kitchen utensils and pitiful few belongings into our new home. We wrestled the wooden cable spool in for a table and set stumps in place for seats. We dismantled and reassembled our old bunk bed, the top bunk of which we used as a shelf for clothes. We set up banks of milk crates for storage of our books and food and plates, hanging our cups on small hooks we screwed directly into the wall. We hung up our pots and pans and laid out our altar items on the back window sill and called it home.

We waded through the snow, armed with our old bow saw, and cut down the scraggliest little black spruce tree ya ever did wanta see, dragged it home and set it in a bucket with rocks and water and decorated it with strings of popcorn and cranberries and little dolls we had made from corn husks. We hung feathers and shiny stones and a set of tiny gold glass balls and garlanded our ugly Charlie Brown tree with yards and yards of lace trim. "Merry Christmas," we kept telling each other. "This is the best Christmas ever yet. We got a new home and look how pretty the lantern light shines out upon the snow." Ever after, the sight of our brave stronghold when I came around the last bend in our trail and saw those squares of yellow light casting out into the gloom of the black spruce forest all around our little cabin brought a huge lump to my throat, a very pleasant pain. Our Home. All Ours. No one would ever again tell us we had to move along now. This was ours, our nest, our cave, our den. I cannot describe the depths of emotions this knowledge brought to me. I had dreamed of this for as long as I could remember and now, suddenly, here it was.


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