|Jul/Aug 2017 Fiction|
I. Precession and Trepidation
The night flight from LA to Anchorage had a two-hour layover in Seattle, giving the gang of thunderheads lurking on the horizon plenty of time to move in and start wreaking havoc.
Pummeled by savage airpackets, our plane rhumbas into a midnight sky the color of a deep bruise. Lightning reveals monstrous cumulonimbus towering away on all sides, and electrons seethe across our fragile outer membrane like fire ants. How much longer till this puny, hollow tube splits open and dumps its screeching cargo out into the cyclone?
Clutching the armrests, I recall my bonehead physics professor explaining seasonal change to his classroom of slack-jawed liberal arts majors: "...the obliquity of the ecliptic." Wonderingly, we mouthed the unfamiliar consonant clusters, imagining our hapless planet spiked through and through by its cruel axis, yawing away from light and warmth into the long, black, icebound winter nights.
I shudder, and my seatmate, whose name is Kitty, puts her hand over mine and gives me a little grimace of commiseration. She is about 35 and busty in a pale blue sheath dress, tight in the hips. Her homemade platinum hair is teased high into a '60s bouffant, a blue velveteen bow stuck above the bangs. Her black-lined blue eyes remind me of an animal peering from its lair. When she smokes, she rolls the ash off instead of tapping it.
By now, the stewardesses are pouring free wine and helping themselves, too. They are dressed as bimbo Cossacks, a tribute to Alaska's Russian past: gray miniskirts and tunics, black boots and karakhul hats. One of them, a blonde with a mischievous, ferretlike profile, hoists a half gallon jug of Mountain Red and swigs smoothly to raggedy cheers. Her hat falls off, and the man sitting across from me puts it on and tries to dance the Kozatsky in the aisle but topples over. Kitty applauds him with fingers wide apart like a child's. He lies on his back in his orange paisley shirt and doubleknit bell bottoms, grabbing at the stewardesses' legs.
After a couple more glasses of wine, Kitty and I make our way up to first class, staggering and bouncing off the seats as the plane jolts. "What're they gonna do, throw us out?" Kitty says, settling herself and kicking off her shoes. "At least we've got enough room now to kiss our asses goodbye." She tells me she is moving to Anchorage to find work as a "dentical assistant." I reply that I am traveling up to stay with my boyfriend, a UCLA law student who is interning with the Alaska Public Defender office.
"I had a public defender," Kitty says, and drops her gaze. "I did eight months in Sybil Brand, you might as well know." She searches my face, and I smile warmly, as if that were a classical music camp instead of a women's penitentiary. "I coulda pulled two to five," Kitty says, "but I got lucky. That's what the judge said. Some luck."
"Here's to luck," I say, and we click our plastic cups and drink. If I am lucky, Cliff, who has been in Anchorage all summer while I traveled around Europe with an old roommate, has not yet replaced me with a local girl.
"It was coke, possession for sale," Kitty is saying, "but it wasn't mine, I swear to God."
"I believe you."
"I hate the stuff, makes me sneeze." She mauls her buttonish nose with her palm. "The cops pulled us over on Pico for a taillight out, and we knowed they was gonna search us, so Duke, he planted it in my purse. He said it was only fair 'cause he had two priors."
"Fair?!" I straighten my back with indignation, and wine slops over the rim of my cup. Lifting my skirt primly, I suck the fabric. "I hope you're through with him."
"What do you think I'm going to Alaska for, the weather?" We laugh and drink to this, the plane joining in the merriment with an aerobatic plunge.
"Here's to new beginnings," I say around my bitten tongue.
"Did you ever hear of an old beginning?" Kitty says. A stewardess comes by and refills us, and Kitty makes her joke about old beginnings, and we all drink to it. The stewardess moves on, taking Kitty's high spirits with her.
"I've made a messa my life. Go ahead and say it." Her iridescent, candy-pink lips twitch downward, and her eyes brim.
"Not at all," I say, though I have been thinking just that. "You're another Moll Flanders."
She stops dabbing her eyes with the cocktail napkin. "Who's that, a friend of yours?"
"A literary character," I say. It comes out lirarry.
"Well I'm not lirarry, but I sure am a character." We drink to that, and I write down Cliff's phone number for her, wondering if I will regret it. You always pick up strays, I can hear him saying. All because your mother rejected you.
At some point Kitty and I make a run for the restroom and throw up side by side. Later, the landing gear drops with a shuddering spasm, causing me and one of the stewardesses to scream. By now, Kitty is sleeping across our seats in the fetal position; I pick up my head from her stockinged feet in my lap and watch the alien city rise up to swallow us.
Suddenly, I am stumbling around a glaring, fluorescent arena, frantically trying to decode senseless signs amid the babble of lunatics. One keeps calling out to me—Paul Bunyan in a plaid flannel shirt and jeans, hair hanging lank to his shoulders, eyes crazy blue above a grizzly-colored thicket of beard. I flee, but he catches up and grabs my elbow.
"Meghan! What the fuck?"
I blink. "Cliff?"
He laughs and strokes his beard as if calming a small animal. "Don't worry, I'll shave it off."
"No, don't. I like it!"
Grinning, he hoists my suitcase. "So, how was Europe?"
"Lonely." This second lie in under ten seconds glides out slick as a soap bubble. Cliff drops my suitcase to enfold me, then holds me at arm's length.
"Whew, you blow chow?" I try to explain about the cosmic cyclone and the fire ants, but the syllables just roll around in my mouth like marbles. Cliff's head keeps duplicating itself, and my efforts to merge the two versions make him laugh.
In the parking lot awaits a battered green Travelall, its flanks corroded with rust, a vehicle so manly, it does not know how to contain a woman. As we carom down the wetblack streets, I slide around helplessly on its bench seat in my silky skirt, grabbing at the dashboard, ending up with my head in Cliff's lap and my heels braced against the passenger window. His elbow pokes me in the side when he shifts gears.
"We're staying with Solly, my boss," Cliff says. "He's the state public defender. His wife left him and went back to Brazil, so he rents out rooms. It's quite the trysting place now for married judges and their lady friends."
Cliff glances down at me mischievously. "If those walls could talk, Anchorage would sizzle like Death Valley." I laugh, and he suddenly yanks the van to the curb. "God, I've missed you." We kiss, and for some reason, probably the booze, I start to cry.
Solly's house is brutally large: a colonial of white brick and wood with Doric pillars and mighty evergreens in the front yard ideal for hiding bears in the branches. Despite the late hour, the lights within are blazing.
"Looks like Solly waited up to meet you," Cliff says, navigating the long, curved driveway. He seems pleased. "Then again, he might just be getting ready to take off." Since his ex-wife Lhosa's departure, Cliff explains, Solly has become a compulsive traveler who leaves town on any pretext, even in the middle of the night or during a storm. When home, he paces like a caged animal.
The internship program was Solly's idea, supplementing his overworked staff with second-year law students like Cliff from the lower forty-eight. Lacking a license, they cannot actually try cases, but can enter pleas or make appearances in a poor man's version of legal representation. Remote native villages welcome even these novices to help them handle crimes too serious for their tribal councils, those that raise the bloody spectre of retaliation and vendetta.
"But aren't those the very cases that need experienced lawyers?" We are standing in the entryway, and Cliff drops my suitcase.
"Why do you say that, Meghan? You think I can't handle a real case?"
"Of course you can. It just seems..."
"You've been here a whole hour, and you're already full of opinions. And just drunk enough to voice them."
"Guilty on all counts," I murmur, and he quickly puts his arm around me.
"Sorry. But believe it or not, I've been kicking some serious ass in court. Just wait and see."
At the opposite end of the cavernous room, a thin, fiftyish man in a suit and black-rimmed glasses sits beseeching a pregnant native girl, who is crying and shredding her kleenex. At a card table near the fireplace, Solly is playing backgammon with a boy who looks about fourteen. I can almost feel Solly's radar homing in on our mini-tiff. He misses nothing, I think.
Cliff had spoken of Solly with the worshipful deference law students reserve for alpha lawyers who are particularly feared. So I had conjured up one of those flamboyant, womanizing legal warriors with a long gray ponytail, a white buckskin suit, and perhaps a tie tack made of walrus penis bone. Instead, I am introduced to an unremarkable man in his late 40s of medium height and blurry physique, wearing a threadbare green wool cardigan, white T-shirt and worn ochre cords. With his curly, receding brown hair, rosy, near-beardless cheeks, and mild gray eyes, Solly looks almost cuddly. Within moments of shaking hands, I realize the mildness is deceptive.
"Meghan and her ex-con seatmate got wasted on the flight up," Cliff tells him.
"Thanks, Cliff," I say, and to Solly, "We ran into a storm."
"Even the stewardesses got stewed," Cliff says. Solly watches us narrowly, a smile playing around his lips. At the galvanic word "stewardess," the skinny judge glances quickly at me while the pregnant girl hiccups and mops her eyes. I have the uncomfortable sense that Solly's cold lawyer's brain has already classified me as a lightweight. I give him what I hope is a worldly, Simone Signoret smile, but it must look more like a sheepish, crooked grin.
The house has three stories, one underground, where Cliff now conducts me. The walls of our subterranean bedroom are white and damp. A couple of narrow crank windows look out at ground level on a muddy backyard where forlorn, rugged tufts of sawtooth grass bend in the stiff, wet wind. Blisters of paint on the windowsills crumble at the slightest touch. The carpet is a coarse, loopy shag of artificial fiber in eerie shades of bright blue—royal, aqua, indigo. Its toxicity has not deterred the growth of a healthy crop of mushrooms along the baseboards.
A mattress on the floor, a particle-board chest of drawers bearing many glass stains, and a beanbag chair the color of dried blood complete the decor. Beside the bed sits a clock-radio whose hour and minute notations turn over on little flip cards with unnerving clacks.
"I'm sure I'll love it," I say, without irony. Cliff smiles, proud as a child, and we hit the bed, in which I do not notice the crumbs for a good two hours.
Cliff grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, in a tiny town whose roots as an Okie labor camp persist in the deteriorating wooden shanties on its periphery, used now for lovemaking and score-settling. Cliff's generation had come of age along the deadly two-lanes that string together charmless hamlets with names like Firebaugh and Oildale. They learn very young to hide family secrets and to put their deepest faith in the laws of chance.
The town's rise from its origins has been painfully slow, like an overmatched boxer climbing up off the mat. Cliff was the sole member of his graduating class to attend a four-year college; the too-smart son of the town's surly postman, lugging his mailbag along its dusty streets for 30 years. Cliff's parents managed to be both insanely reckless and stubbornly traditional: devout believers in the power of cards and liquor to fill the empty places.
My own parents' mercurial marriage had recently collapsed in the wake of bankruptcy and foreclosure. These days, happy, peaceful homes feel like a too-tight garment; something is sure to give way, a button or a seam, and reveal the stained, scarred truth of me. It was a relief to be around Cliff's family. Spending the night in his parents' flimsy house, I had been awakened at two AM by their drunken shouting of years, love, and money squandered. I had soon fallen back to sleep, comfortable amid the familiar, bitter heat.
My father, a failed entrepreneur, now advertises his romantic availability with a hairy chestful of beads and a dyed combover bracketed by creepy sideburns. Sometimes he tries to pass himself off as a doctor. My mother's conversation is divided between spiteful tattling and maudlin recollections of a past that never was.
Cliff and I had met on a blind date, set up by our respective roommates, who did not particularly care for us. At UCLA, Cliff walked around with a chip on his shoulder, a provocative smart-ass who arrived late to class and exploded over trivia. When he applied for the Alaska internship, his long-suffering professors had given him suspiciously hearty recommendations.
II. Lhosa's Angle of Inclination
At first, I spend a lot of time alone in Solly's house, which like Alaska itself, gives an impression of space unoccupied but far from empty. Mornings, I lie drowsy in bed amid the pattering splash and warm fog of Cliff's shower. Fragrances of coffee and bacon and aftershave make their way downstairs. The voices above are mostly male, punctuated by the trebles of women overnighters. The phone rings incessantly, the front door slams over and over. Finally, I come to rest in a silence that echoes faintly, like background radiation of the frantic activity just past.
Soon, amid that diffuse white noise, I begin to sense Lhosa's presence. I can almost hear her giggle when I stumble on some piece of dorky judicial underwear; I imagine her basking catlike in the weak sunbeams stealing across the carpet.
An avid student of marital failure, I follow the snippets of information about Solly and Lhosa that Cliff drops like breadcrumbs. Solly, the son of a New York City union organizer, had been called to the law as to primal combat by his father's bruises from the truncheons of strikebreaking goons. At Columbia, he had absorbed the battle words, challenges, and tactics, girding himself for a lifetime of conflict.
But suddenly, days from taking the Bar, some crisis of destiny had impelled him to join the Peace Corps, journeying to the slums of Rio de Janeiro, ears still ringing with his father's curses and his mother's tearful pleas.
He had met Lhosa when she tried to pick his pocket one day in the train station. As Cliff told it, Solly had chased the ragged teenager outside in a pelting rain, and she had wheeled to confront him, as glorious as an antelope run to earth, water streaming over her taut cheeks and bosom. And he had known with finality that his mission in life was to serve not his father or the American Left, but this woman and her tribe.
In a country where the beauty of the poor is so little valued, it is tossed out as trash, Lhosa's family had somehow scraped together enough money to fulfill their daughter's genetic promise: the long limbs and queenly carriage architected for walking in sand and for dancing; the smooth, ample breasts and buttocks, all destined to deliver her either to a poor, drunken husband or to the prostitute's bed. But now Solly discovered his own power and put forth his claim, changing her fate as profoundly as an earthquake does the landscape. Buoyed by her glorious image, Solly returned to America and passed the Bar effortlessly, re-entering Rio as a conquering warlord to claim his soulmate, the saga complete.
But after practicing in New York for over a decade, Solly's spirit had again grown restless, and he had headed for Alaska, this violent, haughty land he now thought of as his spiritual origin. Here, as Cliff tells it, Solly's family legend grew a little soggy from the countless storms and freezes and thaws. Words, like voracious Arctic mosquitoes, drained it; paper bounded it. More than anything, the routine of family life and the passage of years ate it away. Gradually, Solly returned to his first love, the law, which had only bided its time.
Two years ago, Lhosa had reached the dangerous age of 39 and been suddenly besieged by a swarm of insights and fears. They circled her head, buzzed in her ears, woke her at night. Alaska had never been her home. Marooned, she had only endured the craggy, alien terrain and deadly cold water and frigid, mountain-walled sky. Here, the sun itself was a capricious visitor who sometimes overstayed his welcome until he drove you half mad and other times went missing for months.
Then, whole cities would barricade themselves within ugly, drafty walls, under siege from perpetual night, from the earth itself. If you ventured out, you had to wrap yourself in animal hides like a savage—or worse, in impervious artificial fabrics woven tight as steel. The very air was not life-giving and warm, but fierce. Every breath hurt.
Gradually, Lhosa pulled away from her life. Solly hosted frequent gatherings, and Lhosa became surrounded by the transitory, potent beauty of drunken young women fetched up from the lower forty-eight as I had been, or poured home from local bars. She was now a matron, expected to make welcome Solly's tiresome students, freshen their drinks and listen by the hour to their tedious, paper-pushing dreams. How she must have seethed, she whose radiant bronze beauty had once flowed through the streets like a river of lava.
No student had the imagination or courage to woo Lhosa herself. Solly, comfortably uxorious, failed to notice his wife's dread or her gnawing hunger. He had murderers to defend. So this husband, who had once seemed such a prize, not only ceased to please Lhosa but began to repulse her.
Most of all, she loathed the Law, her adversary triumphant, with its prissy pleadings and precedents, its self-congratulatory arrogance and pride in its own pretentious bulk. Its deference to scoundrels. "You are nothing but sinners," she shouted drunkenly at Solly. "You defend the guilty, all puffed up with pride. You don't care what people do to each other, it is for you all a game, a wicked sport! Prostitutas!"
Though nobody believed that legal ethics were Lhosa's issue, it was true the Public Defenders competed personally and relentlessly with the District Attorneys, their mirror image and evil twin. Whatever transgression the DAs held against a defendant, the PDs instantly, reflexively, denied it. The two offices yipped and tugged at the law like hyenas with a thigh bone. Away from court, they turned into chess teams, spending days trying to outflank their adversaries and negate the opposition's next move.
In the past, Lhosa had gleefully boasted of this dance to her awed family in their Rio tenement, using much legal jargon to impress them. But now, she smoldered with the rage of the misled. She fled Solly's voice and hid from him in her own home, first in bedrooms, later in shower stalls and even closets.
Having seen Five Easy Pieces, she considered just climbing into the cab of some logging truck headed for parts unknown, but she feared being murdered and dumped. She imagined her body eaten by animals—or worse, persisting frozen, mummified in some glacial crevasse to emerge thousands of years later and be put on museum display like a mammoth carcass, shriveled and gray, her mouth open in a silent scream, a thing to frighten children.
Desperate, she tried to create her own Brazil here. She greeted Solly's friends barefoot, thonged and saronged as if on a Rio beach, but she only felt ludicrous. If her wrap fell open, the men actually looked away, shamefaced. Failing to provoke, she grew bolder, flouting the sacred Code of Criminal Justice itself. First came shoplifting, then hashish was discovered on her person during a barroom tiff.
Solly set his weak jaw and called in favors from the police department and the DA's office. So far, they had obliged, but they still had their jobs to do, and Solly realized it would not be long until his wife's behavior would begin to erode his fearsome reputation. She was his Achilles Heel.
He inflicted on Lhosa a dry, unctuous little therapist, who perched above her on a long-legged stool, tic'ing and clearing his throat, writing observations precisely with skinny, pale, and hairy hands in a small black notebook. He smelled unwashed. After each session, he shared his notes with Solly for hours.
Lhosa knew that if her sanity were to survive, she had to act. But how? To whom could she turn? And then, as if dispatched by some Amazonian magic, her salvation arrived: A gardener knocked at their door—in the dead of winter! That was how she knew he was a magic man, a thief of hearts, but in this case there was no theft. He owned the sultry, homesick housewife the moment she opened the door.
I could envision him in my mind: Aleut and African-American, a graceful, viperine faun of 20 years, with seraphic amber eyes and fine-pored skin whose subtle hues seemed to shift like the sea under the sun. He had arrived to release her from the spell of the dry-rotted, crumbling Law and save her from incipient madness. And finally, to return her to Brazil, finding in the course of this rescue, the home he himself had sought all his life.
The couple did not leave at once. Lhosa needed time to heal, to reclaim the woman she had been. Her body, replenished with love, swelled and grew young again. Her tears and saliva returned, and her female moisture. She presided now over the nightly parties in her home with a wise and serene sensuality; the heedless young tarts brought in by the interns and randy old judges began to watch Lhosa with the envious side-eyes she had been accustomed to. Oddly, she grew happy now and began to cook and clean and shop again, tallying her household accounts meticulously.
By the time Solly realized he was in a battle, it was lost. He was not armed for it anyway. Failing to intimidate or shame her, he tried to cast Lhosa off to the other man as used up and crazy, but by then he did not have the standing for that.
When the time was right, Lhosa simply decamped, first to her lover's tacky apartment off K Street in Anchorage, and from there a month later, to Rio. She left long letters for Solly and Matt, which both now carry around in their wallets and pull out at odd times to study, as if to verify some fact or sudden insight.
The divorce had got underway like a lazy monster, a cyclops provoked, lurching into battle ugly and brutal. But Lhosa was ready for everything. She revealed an unsuspected talent for litigation, conducting brisk, tough negotiations over her alimony, defiantly selling off community property and driving hard cash bargains. Nearly every day, somebody arrived to pick up furniture or a household item Lhosa had sold them, including the marital bed. All transactions were conducted now from Brazil, even those phone charges appearing on Solly's bill.
Solly and Lhosa's son, Matt, is a gangly, fresher-faced version of his father. I see nothing Brazilian about him but a slight, fortunate fullness of the mouth. He has his father's shy grin and boneless cheeks. His skin has the ivory tint of a Martindale-Hubbell page. Some of the resident lawyers have remarked to him—by way of compliment—that he would have no trouble passing for white.
Since the breakup, the lawyers have informally adopted the boy, stocking the refrigerator, doing his laundry, and tracking his homework. They monitor his emotional development in their clumsy, confrontive way and assure him that, despite the current turmoil in his life, he can still grow up to be a lawyer. Matt, who already knows how to choose his words, responds to this encouraging news with mumbled platitudes and a noncommittal smile. Sometimes, lubricated by the liquor in Solly's bar, the lawyers segue into tearful confessions of their own infidelities and excesses. They share with the boy the deepest fears of their tribe: of failing the bar, of being overturned on appeal, of an open fly during cross examination.
To compensate for the steadily emptying house, the lawyers have hauled in their own contributions: furnishings accepted in lieu of fees or held for imprisoned defendants. The result has been a melange of lamed recliners, tables, and highboys. Sofas run the gamut from stabbed and taped-up naugahyde with drug detritus among the cushions to "The Goddess"—a massive French antique worthy of Versailles, upholstered in silken petit-point. The Goddess displays a droll Louis XV-era bewigged swain strumming his lyre to a mistress who coyly displays her cleavage, while at her feet, a maltese lapdog attempts to mount a greyhound.
But no matter how much furniture arrives, the house still feels oddly vacant. The vaultlike living room is framed in picture windows looking out on the surrounding upscale neighborhood. There is nothing particularly Alaskan about our cul-de-sac. We might be anywhere. As the days shorten into October, Cliff and I lie before the fireplace scanning the yard for moose who never materialize, drinking heavily and gorging on salmon dropped off at the door every morning like milk.
III. The Nodding Sphere
Cliff finally finds me a job as a legal secretary with a former public defender who had recently left to start his own practice. My new boss, Fred Carroll, has rented a small walkup office downtown, paneled in a strikingly phony wood laminate over hollow walls through which the wind sometimes whistles. The roof amplifies the steady drumming of the autumn rains. Movers somehow hoist a mammoth legal desk up the narrow staircase and into the adjoining room, facing me. The waiting room chairs, upholstered in scratchy red burlap, will make sure that no client gets too comfortable.
Fred's peremptory wife Annette, a former legal secretary, comes in to help me set him up. We order stationery and business cards, office equipment, file folders and gummed labels, while their three children draw with felt tip pens and fold origami cranes from the yellow legal pads. Bored stiff, I try to weigh whether I would be happy doing this for Cliff.
After a week, I notice Fred has fallen for me, displaying the labored deference of a man who much prefers ordering people around. Tall and disturbingly strong, he has reddish curly hair and pitted skin. There is something sharklike about his face, his eyes as cold and lightless as the deep ocean.
One evening, when Cliff and I are dining at his house, his eight-year-old son makes some childish joking retort to Fred's order to eat. Without warning, Fred strikes him across the face, sending the boy spinning onto the floor. Wordlessly, Annette kneels and raises the sobbing boy and walks him into his bedroom as Fred resumes eating.
"So who's Solly backing in the city council runoff?" Fred says, deftly slicing himself a piece of rare roast beef and holding it dripping before his mouth. Cliff gathers his thoughts for a halting answer, and after that the conversation resumes. Annette returns and seats herself, looking at nobody.
"Looks like it'll be a close one," she says, settling her napkin in her lap. "The election."
"What the fuck do you know about it?" says Fred, with a complacent chuckle. Annette forks in a mouthful of food and chews briskly.
"You know," I say, "I feel like I'm getting a migraine." Fred's face instantly dissolves into real alarm, the deep creases of his meaty forehead torqued with solicitude. "Nothing," I say, "helps these things but sleep. We'd better hit the road before it gets bad."
"You take the day off tomorrow," Fred says. "With pay. That's an order. Annette'll sub in for you." Annette's mouth opens and quickly closes.
"Oh, I wouldn't think of it," I say smoothly. "I'll be fine by morning." I rub my temples.
"Cliff," says Fred. "you've got a very responsible wi... I mean girlfriend." His cunning little gaffe gives us an excuse to exit laughing.
"He's a very sick man," I say to Cliff in the car as we wave goodbye to Fred and Annette, framed by their front door like any happy couple.
"What are we supposed to do, turn him in?"
"Yes, and soon."
"All that will accomplish is losing you your job and getting me in hot water at the office. He still works there part time, and he's got a lot of buddies. The kid'll be fine."
"You know that's not true." We drive in silence. "And what do you care about his buddies? We're going back to LA in a few weeks."
"What if I want to practice here? Besides, it's kind of chickenshit to take the man's pay and then report him."
"What's chickenshit," I say, "is smacking an eight-year-old kid around."
"How about fucking up your boyfriend's job?"
"I don't recall that covering up a crime was included in your job description."
"Don't twist everything around, English major." I wave that blunted old weapon away.
"Your father used to clock you like that, didn't he?"
"So that's why you almost choked him to death when you were seventeen."
Cliff looks at me blandly, staking out the calm, professional terrain, a mannerism he has picked up from Solly. "No, I almost choked him to death because he'd lost another week's pay in the fucking Bayview Card Room." Unable to hold the pose, he clenches his teeth, his jaw working, nostrils flaring. "And because he'd poked his fat, fucking tobacco-stained finger in my face one time too many." Cliff suddenly pounds the steering wheel. "Goddammit. Can we just drop the subject?"
"I don't understand. How could you let that abuse happen to another child?" I see him thinking, not about the question, but how to get out of answering it. "And while we're on the subject, how are you going to deal with defending monsters, anyway? Have you thought about that?"
The question is pure flattery—he is still years away from even defending litterers—but I want to reassure him that he matters, despite his father and Solly and Fred and all the patronizing professors, not only to me, but to the spinning earth itself.
"You'll help me," Cliff says.
"You sound very sure of that."
"Isn't that what wives do?"
I keep my eyes carefully on the road, but my breathing gives me away. "Boy," I say at last, "you really do want to change the subject."
"And you really do have a hard time accepting love." But he turns to me looking worried. "You do want to, don't you? Marry me?"
I nod, because I daren't speak. For some, love can't wait to arrive and take up residence, but that has not been my story. Rather, love has been rare and elusive, an anomaly. And conditional. So I've learned to be a tough sell, to greet proffered love distrustfully, like a package delivered to the wrong address or bearing someone else's name.
"A nod, indicating yes," Cliff says. "I'm holding you to that." I put my head on his shoulder and think now about the wonderful, sacred earth precessing on its axis just as it was meant to, everything happening in accordance with divine destiny, the whole crazy universe a symphony of love and hope.
IV. Axial Tilt
Now that I have set up Fred's office, the only task remaining is to hire him a secretary to replace me after Cliff and I return to California at the end of December. I write a couple of want ads for my position and compose another ad announcing Fred's grand opening, specializing in criminal defense.
After a couple of suffocatingly empty days alone in the office, I decide this is an ideal time to tackle Proust and find Remembrance of Things Past in paperback at a secondhand bookstore. The first 15 pages are filled with somebody's careful, penciled notations, but these soon dwindle away to phone numbers, a shopping list and some doodles of female flip hairdos. The rest of the book is pristine. The story instantly envelopes me like a stimulating second skin, a total escape from the bleak, flimsy K Street office to the world of Fin de Siecle France. I keep the book in my desk drawer where I can feel it glow and pulse like a magic ruby, beckoning me with its riches. Fred must go through my desk, because I overhear him asking an applicant if she has read Proust.
"How tall are you?" Fred asks me one morning when I bring in his mail.
"About five-ten," I tell him. "Last time I measured."
"I bet you towered over the boys in school."
"'Towered' is the word."
Fred leaves his desk and comes around to stand beside me. "Well, it all turned out very nicely, if I do say." He looks me up and down approvingly, a connoisseur. I can feel the heat of his lust barely contained, and a wave of contempt washes over me. I am angrier at him on Cliff's behalf than on my own.
"It always seemed to attract bullies to me," I say, turning on him what must have been an icy glare, because he backs away instantly with a slight apologetic cough and pretends to search among the papers on his desk.
I refrain from telling Cliff about this, because in the world he comes from and whose social parameters he still accepts unquestioningly, even a hint of encroachment by another male provokes—if not demands—a violent response. I also understand that this means I can never tell him—not in years to come, not in the heat of an argument or even casually in passing. He will see this as a betrayal of gargantuan proportions, depriving him of the opportunity of reprisal, making him seem even more a fool than if I had responded to Fred's pass.
Love, I am discovering, demands careful management. Even casual acts hold the potential to damage it profoundly. And this insight brings with it the realization that I must indeed love Cliff, deeply and helplessly. Feeling exposed and vulnerable as a molted crustacean, I worry Cliff's successful conquest will cause him to lose interest in me. I try to conceal the depth of my love, feeling guilty and manipulative. Cliff, on the other hand, relieved of restraint, showers me with all the affection of his hungry soul.
Fred, embarrassed by his clientless state, now gives me time off to accompany Cliff to appearances and investigations in other parts of Alaska. We take off in the Travelall on trips to Homer, the Denali National Park and the Kenai Peninsula. Ironically, I recall the interior spaces of Alaska better than I do this scenic diorama, whose beauty easily overwhelms my conceptual memory. In fact, all my outdoor recollections of Alaska are suspect now: the haughty snowcapped vistas and green-gold valleys, azure glaciers and salmon thrashing in their pebbly deathbeds—are those recollections even mine? Or are they pilfered from dentist office travel magazines and TV documentaries, pasted over spaces left empty by my preoccupation with myself?
Instead, what I do recall in fine detail are narrow office aisles and beige fabric cubicles, the dowdy dress and bad haircuts of minor bureaucrats, and the hard stares I got from miniskirted receptionists. I remember the sawdust-covered floors of dingy downtown bars where the lawyers went to slum, the cheap storefronts and lunchtime restaurants packed with workers slurping soup.
And the drunks, of course, weaving wearily down the Anchorage city streets, ignored and stepped around daintily. Or sitting with their boots in the gutter holding cigarettes in grimy, mittened paws, their faces darkened, bloated and bloody from last night's brawls, eyes squeezed shut against the dagger sun, awaiting the night—which obligingly arrives earlier and earlier.
Many of the drunks are native, many are not. The men watch Cliff with flat, anomic stares. To them he wears the mantle of unearned power like a princeling. But the women venture their shy, hopeless smiles at me, and I smile back uncertainly, thinking of my own growing alcohol consumption with vague unease, trying to conjure up some massive, unbridgeable gulf separating me from them, my fate from theirs.
I stand in the dim, candlelit bathroom analyzing my shadowed face and body in the mirror, my teeth already beginning to chatter. It is mid-December, and somebody has neglected to pay the utilities bill, causing the company to promptly turn off the power. No warnings, apologies, or appeals. This is Alaska. Cash money is now mandatory, along with a punishingly large deposit before we can bathe again in warm water or turn on the heat.
Solly is off on one of his endless excursions, and suddenly none of the regulars has any money or knows how to pay a bill. Dropping Matt at the home of a school friend, the regulars quickly scatter to back-up locations for conducting their trysts. Only Cliff and I, improvident spenders who have depleted our loan stipends for the month, remain in the massive house, burning logs, zipped into a common sleeping bag before the fireplace in a welcome if frigid solitude.
Now, I hold my breath and plunge into the 30-something-degree shower, the air exiting my lungs in an indescribable, involuntary sound, a gutteral death-huff. I curse and scream. Teeth clattering, I soap myself and shampoo my already numb scalp with stiffening fingers.
"You are truly nuts," Cliff shouts and ducks into the icy torrent beside me, bellowing curses and laughing at his shriveling male parts. Afterward, we rub each other dry with coarse towels until our skin turns red. I light a couple of candles with violently shaking hands so we can see to get dressed, but instead we see one another in the strange, dim light and fall into bed consumed with ice age passion, warming quickly, entwined in a primal, mutual glow.
As a newcomer and stranger, here solely at the bidding of another, I am finding Alaska attracts many footloose migrants who believe the place is their spiritual destiny. These feel a deep and abiding connection with its wildness; there is a place within them only Alaska can find and touch and make its home. They treat Alaska as some sort of moody friend whom they need only woo or placate with great tenderness and understanding in order to be provided for, even sheltered and protected by the place. They remind me of people who keep ferocious pets because they imagine they have an ancient and ineffable bond with their fierceness.
I don't get along well with these rather arrogant romantics because I radiate the skepticism and irreverence of the city dweller. I had instantly grasped that this place is a killer and not to be trusted or cut any slack whatsoever. Nothing is to be assumed. From the moment of your arrival, Alaska tests you in myriad ways you never see coming. It lies in wait for inattentiveness, despondency, miscalculation, bad luck—for that careless moment, that forgivable, playful impulse or that weak spot, whether in your tire or in your ability to read a stranger. And that is how it delivers you your fate.
The independent spirits seem to go missing a lot, not always lethally, but often enough. Though they are rarely aggressive and almost never have problems with alcohol, they are attacked by other people with greater than usual frequency. They have a puzzling tendency to die prematurely, sometimes by their own hands. They are particularly attracted to bears, whom they seek out and bedevil on their turf with lofty intentions and sometimes tragic results. They get lost halfway up or down some mountain or are discovered in a ditch outside town with an empty gas tank or a busted hose or a missing wallet or a bloody box cutter.
"What's wrong with this place?" Cliff finally asks me late one Saturday morning. We are getting dressed—these days a race with the sun, which hovers teasingly just above the horizon before ducking out of sight by early afternoon.
"With Solly's place?"
"No, with Alaska. You aren't... content here."
"Are you asking what I think could be improved?" Or what my problem is?"
"I guess it bothers me that for a lot of people, Alaska is not a beginning, it's... the end."
"You could say that about any place."
"But I'm saying it about this place."
"And I'm saying that it can be a beginning. For us."
"I don't think so."
"What if I decide to practice here?"
"Is anybody inviting you after you graduate? Solly?"
Cliff looks away quickly. "Not exactly. I mean, it depends on how well I do." We potter about for a few moments, our mutual irritation swelling like a blister.
"Are you implying I'm a liability?" I ask, and as Cliff opens his mouth to answer, the phone rings.
"Goddammit," he says, because we both know who it is. Predictably, Kitty has not thrived here. Duke, with his usual sense of entitlement, had followed her up mere days after her arrival, bringing a luxuriant fleece blanket as a housewarming gift for her chilly furnished flat. That blanket alone would have overcome far firmer determination than Kitty's. Their problems had soon begun all over again. Duke found work easily in boat construction, which paid well, but money never had been their issue, as Kitty explained to me in one of her frequent calls.
Cliff extends the ringing phone toward me like a dirty diaper. "Because you care about our relationship," he says loudly, "you're finally going to enlighten Kitty that sitting together on a plane and drinking yourselves into a stupor does not give her a perpetual claim on you or the right to commandeer all your free time."
"She's not 'commandeering' anything, Cliff," I say and pick up the receiver. "Hello?"
"Where were you?" says Kitty, "In the shower or making push-push?"
"You won't believe this," Kitty says, a signal she is geared up for a nice long chat.
Cliff gives me a glare that belongs in silent films. The change of seasons is having an odd effect on him. While he had relished the endless days of summer and could be found cheerily washing his car or briefing a case at three or four AM, he now behaves as if he is being cheated of something vital as the daylight contracts. The faster-approaching sunsets make him increasingly jittery, and he feels obligated to squeeze more and more frenetic activity into the shrinking daylight hours.
Every weekend, he rushes around doing chores, checking the angle of the sun anxiously against his watch in a losing battle. He cannot to seem to realize that one PM is still only midday, even if it is already growing dark outside. I reiterate this patiently to him, and while he acknowledges the logic, something still has him frantic. The dying of the light, as Dylan Thomas would have it.
"Goddammit, we shot the day to shit again," Cliff grouses, the moment I disengage from Kitty. I have spoken to her for only ten minutes or so, and it is still barely past noon, but Cliff has been watching suspiciously for the shadows outside to lengthen, and now they have. He is antsy to "do something with the day," and my conversation with Kitty is pure theft of his precious time in this zero sum game of light versus dark.
"Come on, Cliff," I say. "Kitty needs a friend." Brushing back the hair from my forehead, I graze my eye and wince in sudden pain that manifests as inexplicable anger. Shut the fuck up about her already, I want to scream at Cliff—and then, as if some trigger has been pulled, go on screaming. But I clench my teeth, and in a few seconds the pain subsides, along with the urge to unload. Sometimes the whole edifice of love rests on just such a slender pedestal as the ability to be quiet at a certain moment.
"You know, she got herself tossed out of the bar at the Captain Cook again last Wednesday. In the middle of the day."
"You told me that already."
"Did I tell you she'd have gone to jail for drunk and disorderly if I hadn't talked the manager out of pressing charges?"
"But isn't that your job? To keep people out of jail?" Cliff gives me a sardonic look. He is not particularly fond of women in trouble, I am discovering, nor of troubled women. But he shows an almost brotherly compassion toward men in similar straits. Consequently, he has developed an infuriating sympathy for Duke, a handsome, ruddy mesomorph with a thick shock of black hair and the low, dense hairline of the chronic alcoholic. Duke is making a decent living in Anchorage, but of course he cannot stay away from Kitty, nor she from him. They are already known around town as trouble.
Having been in and out of jail for half his life makes Duke compatible with the Alaskan style of lost years and vague resumes. Even when sober, he has a barroom volubility, a confiding, almost touching need to unburden himself to strangers, along with the disarming talent of lying with the utmost self-disclosing sincerity. I have seen others with this amoral, hypnotic charm, and they are not all defendants, nor are they all men.
But the package is particularly effective on Cliff, who fears he is an undeserving fraud in constant danger of being unmasked. For this, he can probably thank his bitter, unappeasable father whose favorite word is liar, pronounced laar, from the side of the mouth like a snarl. Cliff and I had discovered early on that we fit together in all the jagged places.
So Cliff was set up to be easy prey for a true fraud like Duke. "I actually like Duke," Cliff says now—using "actually" as a wedge into my indulgence. "Believe it or not, Duke actually means well."
"Do you have to provoke me like this?" I reply. "Actually?"
"Kitty's just never satisfied unless she's stirring the pot," Cliff says, provoking me.
"And you've been listening to Duke, the ultimate pot-stirrer. He goads her and then puts her down—after she did time for him, for God's sake."
"Don't get mad at me. What can I say? Duke is the kind of guy that only other men understand."
"Stop normalizing him." I add, "you should see yourself smirking."
"It's just, Duke can be a very funny guy,"
"Funny as cyanide." Cliff and I face each other, flushed.
"Truce?" He says, using his disarming ability to fold his tents at just the right moment.
"Why are we fighting so much over Kitty and Duke?" I ask him.
"Because she's taking up so much of our time."
"No," I say. It's because they're some kind of lightning rod for us. Or... a test."
"A test of what?"
"Of who we are."
"I can't. I don't know what that means. Just leave Kitty alone."
"Happy to, when she leaves us alone. And I'll tell you who we are. We're us. There's never been an 'us' before. We're better than any of them—Solly and Lhosa, our parents..." Cliff takes me in his arms.
"That's what every idealistic young couple says."
"Boy, are you cynical," Cliff rocks me back and forth. "We're just starting out. We can make our lives what we choose to." I nod, beating back words like luck, fate, heredity that bubble up—and then he adds as if talking to himself, "I thought Kitty was going to be a 'dentical assistant.'" We always had a laugh over that, but now his mockery angers me again.
"It's hard for her. You talk about work as if it's the measure of everybody, but it's really the measure of women you don't happen to like. You hold women to a higher standard than men—unless they're young and beautiful, of course."
"Guilty of being a man. Anyway, that should reassure you, since you're young and beautiful."
"So was Lhosa."
"Ouch! Is that what I've got in store?"
"I thought you liked her." Cliff is always going on about Lhosa's 'grit'—out of Solly's hearing, of course—but he really admires her greed triumphant, and of course her overt, contrived sexuality. He also nurses a secret satisfaction from her nose-thumbing at Solly.
But Kitty—poor, plump and a lousy romantic strategist—is nothing but a loser to Cliff. It is his worst label for a person. I turn away, deriving a cold, unexpected comfort from this argument, relief from the gnawing guilt of my own casual infidelity in Europe. Perhaps I was only "claiming my freedom," as Cliff often says of Lhosa.
"Kitty is a simple person. All she really wants is to keep house and prowl the secondhand shops. But she keeps trying to please Duke, and now that he has her figured out, he just keeps raising the bar higher and higher."
"Why did you give her our phone number?" Cliff asks.
"Because she was new here. And alone."
"No," Cliff says. "You gave it to her because she asked for it. Do you see the difference?"
"I see you patronizing me right now."
"She was not with you on that plane for more than a couple of hours," Cliff says. "But she figured out that she had a potential patsy, someone she could lean on to solve her problems."
"That's exactly what Duke has done with you."
"Defending losers is my job. I just don't care to associate with them socially. So—bottom line—can you please unencumber yourself of Kitty? And do it before she ruins our whole stay in Alaska?"
"Just tell her you're busy and stick to it. Eventually, even she'll get the idea." He looks so smug in his cruelty that it makes me want to rip into him with some pointed confession or revelation.
"Whatever makes you happy," I manage.
"She said, dripping with sarcasm."
"What did Kitty ever do to you?"
"It's not what she did. It's what she can do."
"We should just stop right here."
Kitty, however, is not in the least deterred by my halfhearted tactic of unavailability. In fact, trusting me at my word, that I am busy, she calls even more persistently. In truth, I am far from bored by her yarns of Anchorage after dark, and of her life in general, a living fable she adorns with truths, lies, and wishful thinking as needed. For Kitty, the boundary between fact and fantasy is conveniently amorphous, an ever-shifting line coiling around and including any incident or story that appeals to her, however implausible.
At her best, she delivers bawdy jailhouse and bedroom tales with total disdain for propriety, embellished with her sly talent for mimicry. At her worst, she falls into an irritating and discomfiting boastfulness. She drops the names of movie stars and international playboys who were once infatuated with her, recounts orgies on yachts and anecdotes of Vegas high rollers who draped her in jewelry and haute couture.
"She's a pathological liar," Cliff says flatly when I relate these excesses.
"Not necessarily. Think of her 15 years younger. Some of those stories just might be true." Cliff snorts. To him Kitty has always been what she is now. But then, Cliff finds the present so intense, he is almost unable to reflect backward—or beyond. People call him a "hothead," but the truth may be more complex, a weakness in his ability to link cause and effect, to anticipate accurately. This trait sometimes makes for casualties—or heroes.
Last week he was nearly held in contempt for calling an elderly judge "a disgrace to the bench." Solly, suppressing a smile, had gone downtown to "defend" him. I even appeared as a character witness, attesting straight-faced to Cliff's frequently voiced "respect for the judiciary" in our personal conversations. Following this, the judge summoned the penitent, scolded him, and released him. We departed for the Anchorage Westward, where for fun Cliff retained his pose of wholly inauthentic contrition almost until the third drink.
I sometimes meet Solly's colorless gaze after one of Cliff's outbursts and see in it a message directed at me. I look away, feeling disloyal and collusive, because I already know what Solly is trying to tell me.
And then one morning, almost as if two bills have been paid, the electricity in the house, and that between Cliff and me, magically returns. We awaken in luxurious warmth, spooned on The Goddess, which we have pushed in front of the fireplace. Outside, the snow sweeps earthward in vast diagonal sheets of undersized, dingy flakes.
Framed in the massive picture window directly above us is a moose the size of a T-Rex. I gasp and nudge Cliff, and we gaze in wonder at the browsing creature, its velvet muzzle dripping with strings of grassy saliva, lugubrious eyes watching us with calm and majestic indifference. It is so close, we dare not move, worried it might come thundering through the glass and trample us into patties. After endless moments, it turns its massive brindle flank to us and then its incredible Pleistocene rump, flaunting its bulk and balls brazenly as it ambles off. Awed, we begin joking about his armamentarium and are suddenly flooded with laughter and the wonder of being here, together in this moment that neither of us will ever forget, the sweet intimacy and hilarity ours alone now, forever.
And I understand, too, that we cannot help but precess away from this magical time, even as the earth departs its seasons. I vow inwardly to do whatever it takes to remain with Cliff, even if that means becoming worthy of Alaska, too. But in the calm flowing through me as we cuddle back to sleep, I suddenly become aware of Lhosa. I can almost sense her watching me, her mouth twisted into a cynical, rather ugly smile.
Days later, I am standing before the same window, but my audience is now a group of the young and not-so-young regulars who spend their nights at Solly's. They have returned with the electricity and brought a few more of their ilk along with them. I notice a couple of judges, and Solly, too, is in attendance, standing beside Cliff, who had asked me to come home early from work that day for a "meeting." Everybody is drinking, and it almost feels like a party, but beneath the socializing and shop talk is some mystifying agenda: the men have a proposal to present for my approval.
Standing before them, Cliff looks professional and correct, as if shouldering a major responsibility. He clears his throat and winks at me, searching for a way to begin. I feel like a bug in a jar until I notice the assembled men are watching him, not me, studying him closely, as they would a man getting ready to leap a gorge on a mountain bike or confess he wants to start seeing other women.
I have no reason to suspect anything shocking or new. I already met the young women who had been his flirtations before my arrival and reassured myself they were not serious threats.
"Hey," Cliff says softly to me, as if to steel us both for some ordeal. By now, I am curious enough to put on my sanest and most forgiving face, which consists of adjusting my eyebrows slightly upward, and softening my mouth and eyes. Whatever you have to tell me, this look says, I forgive you in advance because I am that kind of person and because I love you. It is the type of expression people should be wariest of.
"I... " Cliff looks around. "We... need a... a bit of a favor." A small sigh of relief passes among our audience: Iacta alia est.
"Sure," I say, as if it is already granted. "What is it?"
"You might want to hear it first, before you agree to it."
"She said yes already," one of our auditors blurts with a fatuous giggle. It was probably Matt the kid, because Cliff wheels in annoyance and then catches himself and turns back to me.
"Meghan, there's this woman, this lady, who needs a place to stay—just for a few days," he adds quickly.
"Oh. Sure." I say. "Of course. What's the big deal?"
"She's a hooker," Matt blurts, and giggles again.
"Cool it," Cliff says, and to me. "Okay. So? Do you want to take it back?"
"Take what back?" I say.
"Why would I?" Cliff smiles and reaches out to take my arm as a small cheer goes up. I roll my eyes and leave the room.
"I owe you one," Cliff says after me. I turn and smile like a Washington hostess. And somehow it's that smile of mine and not his disingenuous public gratitude that leaves me with a feeling of nauseous trepidation.
I am alone in Fred's office when the banging on the door begins. I had already locked it because although it is only two in the afternoon, it is dark as midnight outside. Some people deal with the premature night by drinking their way into it, and a number of these are now wandering the street good and drunk, looking to raise a little mischief and perhaps snatch what there is for the taking.
"Meghan! Open up." Kitty's whisper penetrates the cheap, hollow door so urgently, I fear her fist or her shoe will follow it. I hurriedly put aside Proust and rise and make my way through the tacky waiting room with its giveaway newspapers and Fred's old Sports Illustrated magazines. The minute I slide the bolt, Kitty floods in, smelling of sour wine, her mascara coursing clownlike down her cheeks.
"C'mon." I say, leading her to my tiny office, where she flings herself into a chair and picks up a manila folder to fan herself. She glances at it. "Curland versus Curland." Somebody suing themselves?" I take the file away. "Meghan, he's gonna kill my ass."
Kitty looks up at me, and I battle the impulse to laugh, she is so comically forlorn. I would counsel flight, but she has already tried that. Duke eventually follows her wherever she goes anyway. I feel oddly envious. I cannot imagine a lover—even Cliff—becoming so obsessed with me that he would put his very freedom at risk. That has not been my experience of love. Kitty and I stare at each other in the universal, uncomprehending dilemma of women trying to access the vortex of the male mind. She looks away and scans the office, as if to fix the moment.
"I should have stayed in Vegas," she says, with a mock pout. Her eyes flatten and assume a look I am now familiar with. "Lance used to take me there all the time. Lance Reventlow, you know who he is, of course."
"Cary Grant was his stepfather, did you know that? They never got along. Lance died a couple of months ago in a plane crash." She leans forward. "He was a fully rated pilot, but he let this... idiot student fly his plane. No one will ever know why."
"The kid didn't even know how to fly! Lance could have flown that Cessna in his sleep. So this kid takes off and then flies the plane right into the ground."
"I couldn't stop crying," Kitty says, eyes brimming. "I almost had to be hospitalized."
"Lance wanted to marry me. He told me I was the only woman he could ever see himself being faithful to." I smile with my lips closed and look at the ground, blinking rapidly. Kitty sits back and studies her nails. She sighs. "Nobody understood him like I did. That's what he said." She seeks and catches my eye. "I would have inherited the whole Woolworth fortune. I mean, if we'd stayed together. I told him I wouldn't stand for him cheating on me, though. That was the one rule I had. Anything else, well, I could probably be talked into." She giggles slyly.
"I wish..." I begin, and stop. I had been about to say, "I wish people would stop putting me in these impossible situations," but Kitty looks at me with the clear and innocent expectancy of a child, and I blurt instead, "I wish you had married Lance."
She smiles sadly. "When we're sure we're doing the right thing, the only thing we can possibly do, that's probably when we make our biggest mistakes. I read that somewhere." She laughs. "That's what makes life so crazy. Like when I let Duke put that dope in my purse." I laugh, too, and show her to the restroom, where she reapplies her cornered-subterranean-creature eye makeup, hugs me, and leaves.
Later that week, I am alone in Solly's house, tidying up, when I hear a timid tap at the door. Imagining that Kitty has found her way out here, I pull the door open with a put-upon expression and am brought up short at the sight of a beautiful native woman in her early 20s, looking around nervously.
"I... I'm Erika," she says to my blank stare. "Some of the guys told me it was okay if I stay here a couple days?" For some reason, I had expected a blowsy aging woman with wrinkled cleavage and brassy red hair... but that was absurd, of course. The effusive concern of the men would never have been expended on such a woman. Erika, however, was a different story.
For his part, Cliff had been evasive and laconic, other than to explain that the girl was merely trying to avoid her pimp long enough to get on a plane. The pimp, who was capable of lethal rage over such issues as the temperature of his dinner, was sure to have an opinion about Erika's pending departure and take action accordingly.
"Come in." I open the door wider, and she glides past me.
For the second time that week I hear the words, "He's going to kill me." But the Athabaskan girl speaks with as flat an affect as mentioning it looks like snow. Even run to earth like this, she maintains an almost regal bearing. Tall and slim, she moves with an antelope grace not diminished by the clumsy quilted jacket she wears, frayed at the cuffs, held together with frog closings, only two of which are intact. Stuffing protrudes from a tear in the shoulder. Her black, sloe eyes scan the roadway and the woods beyond the property. Her parted lips are beautifully shaped but dry.
Even at my age, I know that terror so abject and lovely can drive a certain kind of man to provoke it over and over merely to enjoy the sight. Her hair courses past her waist, and a thought occurs to me that this shining banner could soon belong to a dead person.
So this is the kind of woman men kill for, I am thinking; themselves or each other. Or else they kill her, because they cannot bear the idea of her escaping them, prevailing over them, perhaps loving their friend or rival. As the girl moves around the living room, I notice each and every window offers a perfect shot.
"I'll pull the curtains," I say.
"It won't do any good."
"Shall I call the sheriffs?"
"Ya, sure. Do that." She smiles at me with true amusement. "Sheriff is his brother-in-law. And a couple of the deputies, they all grew up together. They only want to save him."
"Then they should... try to talk some sense into him."
"This is sense to them: If I die, then his spirit will go free. He will be healed of the sickness I cause." She laughs bitterly. "This is all my fault, you see. It's cultural."
I understand now that the lawyers in this house, those vaguely comic characters, are engaged in a battle to save her, not only from the crazy pimp lurking somewhere outside like a savage predator—but from the fate such a woman seems to attract. In a way, this isn't about her at all. The men on both sides are each doing what they believe must be done.
And I suddenly realize how very difficult thwarting her fate is going to be, and I wonder if this rather bookish bunch is up for the job, if all the legal tricks they have memorized will be sufficient to conquer the bear. Their very whiteness makes them seem so weak to me, although in reality, the very opposite is probably true. And while some of them will bend every effort to put the pimp behind bars, others, their adversarial reflex fully aroused, will be scheming feverishly to keep him free. It is all madness.
With Erika's arrival, a silence takes root and grows between Cliff and me. I notice he and Erika avoid one another, though the other men seek her out and counsel her obsessively, an attention she endures with downcast eyes. I can think of many reasons why I don't wish to start dissecting her odd behavior towards Cliff. Rather, I let the questions hang unasked between us like a fog, telling myself that he owes me nothing, least of all fidelity. When I can stand it no longer, I choose a topic he will find irresistible, so that he has to answer.
"What's going to become of her?"
"I told you. We're going to get her out of here on Monday morning on a flight to Minneapolis."
"I don't know, Meghan," he says wearily and with such finality that I busy myself with something out of the room, and after a while he comes and finds me and puts his arm around me.
"Are you in love with her?"
"No." He looks at me. "It didn't mean anything. Not a goddamn thing, okay?"
"Okay. But I think it did."
"Actually, I'm relieved."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
My cheeks are burning, and my stomach feels as if somebody has planted a boot in it good and hard. "I'll tell you someday. Maybe," I try to toss off.
All Friday night and into Saturday morning, Erika retains her wistful aura, truncating all efforts to draw her into conversation. Several men I have never seen before drop by and spend time in her bedroom, then leave by the back door. Everybody is drinking a good deal, and arguments break out among the lawyers—brief, sharp, and revealingly mean-spirited.
At midday on Saturday, Erika taps at my bedroom door and asks me to accompany her to the Anchorage Westward, where she has a "date." Cliff and a lawyer visiting from Homer have gone down to the office to work for a few hours.
I join her in the living room, and we gaze out into the bleak, frigid twilight.
"I don't think you ought to leave here," I tell her. "Bobby could be lurking right outside."
"You're right. I guess." Erika subsides for about half an hour but paces the living room restlessly. She finally mentions her "date" again. She needs me to drive her downtown in the Travelall since she has no car. At last, feeling crazy, I agree. I, too, am eager to get away from here.
The moment we are free of the house, Erika becomes talkative and confiding. She seems to believe she owes me something in exchange for the favor I am doing her.
Erika parks me in the cavernous lobby of the Westward, one of Anchorage's two upscale hotels, and finds me a Sunset magazine to read.
"This won't take long," she says and disappears into an elevator. The clerks and bellmen pay little attention to her but make no effort to conceal their interest in me.
"Don't worry," Erika giggles when she has rejoined me, giddy, her eyes alight with mischief. "I told them you're not a pro."
"Thanks, I guess." We laugh at the thought of it, and Erika feels so good that she stops at a nondescript, green-walled cafeteria near Fort Richardson and has herself another brief date with a serviceman in the Travelall while I wait inside, stirring my watery coffee. Though on the way home she feeds me the conventional orthodoxy about prostitution—that she abhors the life and once settled in Minneapolis will never turn another trick—it is apparent she is having a ball.
"I'm leaving you my date book," she announces. "And my bed, too. You brought me luck. Maybe they'll bring you some, too."
"It's practically new. It ought to go to a good friend." That my tentative companionship qualifies me in her mind for that status saddens me momentarily.
As we pull into Solly's driveway, she hands me the worn, black, tabbed address book. "You might need money sometime. It's like insurance, you know? Everybody's in here... the big shots, you know, the guys who run things here. I knew 'em all."
"You just gotta remember one thing: Always ask to see a man's penis first."
"If he's a cop, he won't show it to you. Simple thing, but it can save your ass."
"Thank you," I say.
There is no midnight on the planet darker than Anchorage at five AM on a Monday in late December. The lawyers have assembled to accompany Erika to the airport, knocking back shots of whisky with the sharp, assertive whip of the head fitting for men about to risk their lives for a beautiful woman. Revolvers bulge from the side pockets of their business suits.
Cliff looks at me deadpan, swirling whisky in his mouth, and something about his expression sets me off laughing, which puts him at pains to swallow the liquor quickly before it comes out his nose. Erika is standing by the largest window in full view of the world, despite the lawyers' frantic efforts to conceal her. There is no sign of the pimp, which is probably the reason for her sullen silence. She actually has to be coaxed into the Travelall, which is so packed with lawyers packing heat, there is thankfully no room for me. Two other cars follow in a little caravan, and I am left alone in the house to watch the tail lights disappear into black, bone-piercing sleet. Pleasantly high, I wander downstairs to where her bed has just been hauled in and ensconced. After a moment's hesitation, I fling myself onto it, and it is indeed the most comfortable and commodious bed I have ever experienced. I fall asleep instantly. When Cliff returns, we christen it and claim it for our own.
For the next week, Cliff and I get along better than we ever have. Perhaps it is the knowledge his internship is finally ending, and that we have come through some sort of crucible. We treat each other tenderly, shop for Christmas gifts, leave corny little love notes on the pillows, and exchange frosty kisses while ice skating. We meet for lunch every day downtown and plan to spend Christmas and New Year's in Hawaii, celebrating with luaus and mai-tais.
So when Duke is arrested late one Saturday morning for taking a couple of swings at Kitty, Cliff only shoots me a look of mild exasperation as he throws on his jacket. A freezing rain has been falling since last night, and the weather is too nasty anyway to do much with the rapidly dwindling day. At least this will get him out of the house, he says. He'll stop by the courthouse and put in an appearance for Duke, then go into the office and work for a couple of hours on a brief he wants to finish before his internship ends. Once Cliff leaves, I pour myself a cup of coffee, adding a shot of brandy, and decide to cook up a big pot of chili for dinner while awaiting Kitty's inevitable call.
After a while, Solly's son Matt comes into the kitchen and confesses to me that Erika had turned him on to cocaine.
"Why did she do that?"
"She said she wanted me to know what it is, so I could, like, avoid it."
"That doesn't make a lot of sense, Matt."
"No, I guess not." He giggles.
"Did you like it?"
"No. It made my nose itch." I smile, thinking of Kitty.
By three o'clock, I am feeling vaguely neglected at not having heard from anybody. I resist the urge to call Cliff at the office. The place, awash in romantic intrigue, is a nest of gossip. Calling one's boyfriend is often interpreted as a sign of weakness or insecurity.
I wonder what kind of a lousy weekend Kitty is going to have now, whether cooped up alone or with Duke, who has been losing steadily at cards for the past month. By the time the phone finally rings, I am a little tipsy from my second—or is it third—coffee and brandy. So it takes me a couple of minutes to comprehend what has Cliff so agitated.
I finally realize he is telling me he went straight to Duke's bail hearing and argued so effectively that he succeeded in getting him released on his own recognizance. Whereupon Duke, not neglecting to praise Cliff as "the best of that bunch," had returned home and beaten Kitty to death, so precipitously that Cliff was still at the courthouse and had not yet gone back to the jail to finish up the paperwork on Duke's release.
And that is why, Cliff tells me, he thought at first that somebody else must have murdered Kitty, until told by an officer that Duke himself had actually called from the apartment to confess.
"He called you? At the courthouse?"
"No. Aren't you listening? He called that little smart-ass assistant DA Tom Koenig and confessed to him." Tom had been Cliff's adversary at the bail hearing that morning and had returned to his own office to sulk at having been bested by a law student. But even Tom had trouble believing Duke could have gotten home so fast and carried out the crime, first with his fists, and then, panicked at the gravity of the injuries he had inflicted, "putting her out of her misery" with the lug wrench from the toolchest on the back of his pickup.
Within minutes of murdering Kitty, Duke was on the phone, feeling remorseful, helpless and sorry for himself, as well as hungry. He had gone and done it, hadn't he? And she didn't even have it coming, that was the whole thing, Duke wept. She had even gone shopping for a big steak dinner when she heard he'd been released. What a worthless sonofabitch he was. Duke's tears fell into the frying pan in which he was attempting to cook the steak. His remorse knew no bounds. It was time to just give in and let the system put him where he belonged.
He should never have been let out, Duke wailed to the arriving deputies as they handcuffed him. That inexperienced little shit of a public defender wasn't even a lawyer for Christ's sake. And that was what had actually cost Kitty her life, didn't they see? He had a lot to answer for, that PD.
To their credit, the deputies proceed to simply throw Duke in a cell and manage to neglect to feed him both lunch and dinner, despite his bawling for hours and making such a din with his aluminum mug on the bars that they could hardly hear themselves think.
Solly appears magically that very evening from wherever he had been wandering. He declares himself deeply concerned for Cliff's state of mind, as are the other lawyers who gather to spend the night with us. I have been crying and drinking all day. In fact, everybody gets very drunk very quickly, except for Cliff, who keeps to himself in our bedroom, head bowed, bearing his pain in stoic silence, running through the hearing over and over again in his mind.
I tell him I have never loved him as much as I do at this very moment, and he raises his head and looks at me, probably trying to think of a way to say that he does not feel the same without hurting me. I am warned by the lawyers not to intrude on his grief and not to overdo the crying. Nobody even guesses that it is Kitty I am grieving. In fact, most of them do not even mention her name. She is just "that woman" or "that crazy woman."
At about 11 PM, the lawyers coax Cliff out of the bedroom and form a protective cordon around him, as if to keep away the guilt. I remind them of the obvious: their touching solicitude for the beautiful Erika had probably saved her life, while Kitty had been, as I said, "an object of condescending amusement" to them.
"Speak English for once," Cliff says nastily from his seat on The Goddess, where he is drinking from a bottle of Schnapps. "She was the butt of our jokes is what you mean. My jokes." I sit beside him and smile thinly out at them all. I do not dare to put my arm around him because I am afraid he would shrug it off like a stinging insect.
Moments later, I retreat to our room unnoticed and light all the candles remaining from our days of the power shutoff. Kitty had given us a joke candle shaped like a penis, which Cliff and I had been unable to bring ourselves to light. I light it now and stand holding it in the flickering gloom, knowing how Kitty would laugh at the sight of me. And the weight of my loss rolls over me like a juggernaut. I try to tease out my own responsibility for her death: had we not met on the plane; had I refused her Cliff's number; had I traveled on a different flight to Alaska or not even gone; had Solly sent Cliff back to California after his intemperate remarks and mock trial for contempt. While I am puzzling this out, the clock heaves over a flip card and it becomes December 22. The solstice is over. For some reason, I feel vastly relieved.
I intuit by the rash talk now emanating from upstairs that my own inability to keep Kitty at a safe distance was the fundamental problem. They, too, have been trying to circle back and assign complicity to me in Kitty's death. It had been my ill-starred friendship with her that had set the tragedy on its inevitable course, its axial tilt just right. Moments later, I hear the lawyers, an informal lynch mob now, huffing with indignation as they make their way downstairs to confront me.
If, says Rob, a lawyer who is conducting an affair with a local married woman, I allow every flake to entangle my personal life with hers, it bodes ill for Cliff's career. Even though Cliff is too much of a gentleman to tell me this in so many words.
"No, he isn't."
"Meghan, listen to me. Distancing oneself from one's cases is critical (cri'cal), for the very reason we are now seeing."
"To you being in my fucking bedroom uninvited."
"All we're saying is that you have the potential to hurt Cliff's legal career at a very early phase."
"C'mon Meghan, We don't mean it that way. Come back upstairs and put out these fucking candles. Cliff needs you right now." Rob extends a bottle of scotch, and I take a drink, blow out the candles, and troop back upstairs. Here, correspondingly, the lawyers are all at pains to assure Cliff that "these things" happen, are bound to happen, must, in fact, happen sooner or later. Better to get it out of the way early in his career, so he can toughen up. And of course whether Duke had been O-R'ed that very day or served a week, a month, or a year, Kitty was doomed. Her fate could not be escaped.
At about 4:30, somebody recalls a parable about a man who saw Death menace him in the Baghdad marketplace. And the man had instantly fled to Samarra, the very place where Death, coincidentally, had been traveling to keep an appointment with him. We sit around pondering this for quite a long time.
The next day, as soon as Cliff and I are able to rise, we go out into the rapidly encroaching dark for steaks and more whisky. In the front yard, amid the eerily lengthening shadows, I snap a picture of Cliff standing before the mammoth fir tree, holding his briefcase. His shoulders droop, and he looks sad and small, although he is six-feet-two and in the prime of his life. His attempted smile seems only to beseech. We end up drinking too much again and get into a spat, over what, I could never recall.
"Cliff," I always say to him in the fantasy I have concocted of Kitty's last day, "maybe Duke just needs to stay in jail and cool his jets this weekend." And in my reconstruction, Cliff hesitates and takes his hand from the doorknob, as if something I said has given him pause. I never get farther than that in my mind, just his hand lifted ever so slightly, but that is enough. That makes all the difference.