“The ice is rotten there,” my father-in-law said to me, pointing out across the frozen river. His hands were bare, gloves tucked away in the pockets of his open parka.
“What do you mean, rotten?” I asked. I still had my gloves on. My borrowed anorak was zipped up to my throat. It smelled like wood smoke and musk.
“Rotten,” he said. “Weak.” He looked me dead in the eyes when he said it. He turned and walked up the bank and onto the road where his old battered Cadillac DeVille was parked. He circled the car and opened the boot.
“You don’t mean to walk out on it,” I asked him. “Right?”
He looked at me, his mouth drawn down in a cartoon grimace. Wrinkles were etched into his face, as deep as the dredging river. “What do I look like,” he said, “some kind of asshole?” He pulled out an ax and stomped back down the riverbank.
I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. In truth, John Tinker was some kind of asshole. He was that special kind of abandon-your-family, live-in-the-Alaskan-bush kind of asshole.
“Let’s go to Alaska, meet my father.” I couldn’t think of a worse idea than my wife trying to reconnect with a man that had left her and her mother high and dry, but I’d been on the wrong side of Shawna’s abandonment issues for too long, so we hopped a flight from Orlando to Atlanta, from Atlanta to Seattle, and then from Seattle to Anchorage. From there, we hired a bush pilot to bring us the rest of the way in on a little soup can tied together with chicken wire and voodoo.
John hadn’t met us at the landing strip. Instead, we’d walked almost a mile to a little pizza place at the village limits and waited there. The waitress had called the chief of police, who used his CB radio to call out to John — or rather, “Hillybilly Bear” as he was known across the radio waves. It took the Hillbilly Bear another two hours to finally make his way into the village to collect us.
His cabin was small and hot, a wood burning stove blaring top heat. My internal organs immediately felt desiccated. “Is this a smoke house?” I asked Shawna when we moved our bags up into the little loft.
“Shh,” she whispered. “He’ll hear you. Don’t be rude.”
From the living area below, I heard John mutter, “Cheechako.”
Clearly, social niceties weren’t in high demand in the fucking frozen tundra. I looked over the rail but didn’t see John anywhere. The cabin was sparse — no mementos of a life left behind in the Lower 48, nothing sentimental at all. I pointed and called Shawna over. “What the hell is that?” I asked. It looked like a large cage or a dog kennel pushed into a corner.
“I don’t know,” Shawna answered. “Maybe he has a dog.”
“You don’t know if your Dad has a dog?” She didn’t answer me. She was pulling clothes out of our backpacks and refolding them into a pile on the floor. “Probably has a wolf,” I said under my breath. “A rabid wolf.”
When John called up, telling me he needed my help with something, Shawna smiled. “Go,” she said and shooed me down the ladder. She had dreams of a bonded family. Thought she could pull it together like a pot of chili.
John edged out closer to the frozen river. He began to strike at the ice in very careful, controlled movements. Mechanical motions, I thought. Such deliberate thwacks. I took four steps away from him. I told myself it was to keep from being pelted by flying ice debris.
“So, what are we doing here?” I asked. We weren’t ice fishing, I knew that. It was late May and the weather was turning warm. Besides, this didn’t seem to be a bonding moment between us, despite what Shawna had cooked up in her brain. All he’d been willing to say to get me into the car was that we had “men’s work” to do.
He didn’t answer me, just kept whacking away at the ice until frigid water bubbled up and over the hole he’d created. Tinker was breathing heavy, wheezing out a thin whistling sound from his chest.
“River is getting set to break up,” he said and pulled the Carhartt toboggan off his head. His thick black hair stuck straight up. He could have been a sundial except the sun never seemed to move in this place. I checked my watch — 9pm at night and the sun was still high.
“What does that mean?” I asked him. He dropped the head of the ax to the pebbled shore off the river and sighed. River biscuits — smooth water-worn rocks — scattered across my feet, all tan and black and white. The air smelled like cold stone and moss.
“Cheechako,” he mumbled under his breath and hauled the ax back up to the car. “The ice is melting,” he finally called out as he pushed his ax into the trunk. “The ice will start shifting, breaking up. Ice sheets, chunks will start jamming up the river. Creates dams sometimes. Lots of flooding.”
“What does ‘Cheechako’ mean?” I asked, wondering if I was supposed to stay on the riverbank. He called me up with an impatient wave of his hand.
“It means you’re an asshole,” he said. “Now get up here. Help me get this kid out my goddamn trunk.”
“Help me get this kid out my goddamn trunk,” I called down to Dawson.
Jesus. What the hell kind of name was Dawson Smiley, anyway? Who were his people? Where did those assholes come from? I shifted the ax to the back of the trunk and began to unwrap the body. Shawna Smiley. Jesus.
“What do you mean?” Dawson asked me. “You got a kid in the trunk? Seriously?” I waved my hand at him again. If he moved much slower, he would have started burning backwards. He finally walked over to me. I sniffed the air. I could smell the fear on him. I don’t mind saying it lit me up inside.
I thought of the doe I’d shot the week before. She’d been curious, too curious. Could have had a baby nearby, tucked in the woods around my cabin. They’ll do that — sacrifice themselves for their fawn if they don’t got a stag nearby. I’d called to her, crooned to her. She’d stepped forward, stretched her neck down wide with each hesitant step. Nothin’ more beautiful than that sliver of neck, the mottled fur along her antlers. I took the shot clean, straight through her big brown eye. I saw that doe when I looked at Dawson.
He looked down at the trunk, stood there, staring. “That’s a goat,” he said.
“No shit, asshole,” I said and pulled the plastic up over the edge of the car. “Help me take it down to the river.”
“Wait. What?” he asked. “You want me . . . to help you . . . carry a dead goat down to a frozen river?”
“No,” I said. “I want you to carry it down by yourself.” In truth, I did want his help but if he was going to be stupid about it, he could do the whole damn thing himself.
“John,” he said and took a deep breath, “why is there a dead goat in your trunk?”
I looked out over the road behind me and counted to ten. I felt like an asshole doing it but it was either that or push him in the trunk and lock it on top of him.
Finally, I answered. “Because I put it there.” I didn’t want to tell him about Buttermilk. How I’d spent nights nursing her because her mother up and died. How I’d kept her in the cabin, kept her warm. How I’d lined that goddamn metal cage with flannel blankets so she’d be comfortable. And she died anyways because goddamn it, that’s what happens. You love something and it dies.
Dawson wasn’t moving so I pushed him closer to the car. He toppled over, almost landing inside the trunk. If he wasn’t careful, and I was real lucky, a good strong breeze would roll down off the mountain and sweep him away.
Buttermilk wasn’t small, even for her age. Just a kid still. Dawson bent down and lifted her up, wincing at the weight. Just a kid, but not slight. This was Dawson’s chance. If he made it down to the river without dropping her, I wouldn’t push him into the water. I wouldn’t let the frigid drink suck his piss ant body in and float him out to the Bering Sea.
Shawna could have done better. Christ but she looked just like her mother. It was hard to look at her face and not see every mile I’d walked to get away from them. They’d been better on their own. Cities weren’t fit for me. I wasn’t never some Lower 48’er. I was a sourdough through and through. I might have tried and pretended otherwise for a while, but if it won’t stick, it won’t stick.
Dawson tripped over rock and snow, almost dropped his ass down on the bank. I grabbed his collar and pulled him up straight. He choked a little but I held tight until he righted himself.
I heard the sound of wheels churning on gravel and looked back up to the road. It took a moment — my eyes aren’t as good as they used to be — but I recognized the green police cruiser.
Chief Wallace parked his car and sat in the front seat for several seconds. Damn fat ass was probably working up the energy to hoist himself out of the car. When he did, the first thing that asshole said was, “Tinker! What did I tell you about dumping animals in the river?”
Well, he’d told me not to do it, and that was the goddamn truth. That son of a bitch was always telling someone not to do something. Busybody, is what he is. Self-important asshole. The river don’t care.
“What do you want me to do with it?” I asked him. Ground was too hard to dig a hole. If I just left her body out in the woods, I’d call every bear in within a twenty-mile radius.
“You could burn it,” the chief said. “We talked about this already.” My stomach clenched at the thought of burning up Buttermilk. If I slipped her beneath the ice and water, she’d float away peaceful-like. Nothing peaceful in the smell of burnt goat fur and bone. “The river isn’t a dumping ground,” the chief said. “People rely on this water.”
I looked over at Dawson, his eyes round, sweat trickling down the side of his stupid face despite the cool air. “You give me that goddamn goat,” I said to him. I wrenched her body out of his arms. “How about I put her in your trunk, chief? How about I let you deal with it then, since you’re in charge of every goddamn person in the world.”
The chief closed his eyes, slow blinked like a half-witted child. Finally, he said, “How about you don’t make your problems mine, Tinker.” He hauled his fat ass to the cruiser, and left me there holding Buttermilk like a goddamn asshole. I looked down at Dawson, who was still staring at me.
“Fuck you,” I said.
“How about you don’t make your problems mine, Tinker,” I said, panic-sweat dripping down my shoulder blades beneath my thick bulletproof vest. It squeezed tight like a corset. It squeezed tight on the extra twenty pounds Amy had wanted me to lose. I reached the cruiser and hauled open the door. I had problems of my own.
“Fuck you,” I heard Tinker say. I could have arrested him right there. I was sick of his lip, but I didn’t dare today. Amy was forever telling me to pick my battles. Of course Tinker would be at the river. On the day I needed him, and everyone else, to be far away.
I could hear the river cracking up below, creaking like a rocking chair swinging slow back and forth. My chest felt like that, like I was splintering from the inside out. Like the sun was thawing me. I cranked the engine and pulled back out onto the road. I drove a few miles down and pulled off to the side, shut the car off and leaned my head against the steering wheel.
I’ll wait, I thought. I’ll wait and he’ll go. He just needs to go. Tinker. Just another bush-league native. I was so sick of all the white and sun. I missed the darkness of winter. I missed the shorter days when it was possible to sleep.
I thought of Amy, of what she’d been when she first made her way to the north, to the west, to this village. A flower child, I thought. A suburban middle class Baptist kid. Pot and Phish concerts and all that free love she’d been willing to give away. But, she settled. She settled herself down after we’d met. That was what she’d told me. Thinking it didn’t make me smile this time.
I never would have thought Amy would do me dirty. I never saw it coming. In our life together, she’d been as predictable as that river there. I looked out over the ice, honeycombed now with air and dirt, cracking into pieces. We were all just one big joke to the river. It would dam up, flood us out, year after year. And yet we stayed. We stayed year after year.
The biggest joke of all is Tinker and his stupid goat. I rolled down the window and stuck my head out into the cool air. The world would be a better place if Tinker would just slip into the river and disappear into the murk. I felt sorry for his daughter, Shawnda? Shannon? Hell, it didn’t matter. I wanted to laugh at the absurdity of it. Of John Tinker hauling that dead goat down to the river. He’d always been more willing to show kindness to an animal than to a human being.
I knew what he’d been doing. Nursing that stupid goat back to health after catching its dam in a trap. And now, mourning the loss of it. A lot of things drive people north. Guilt was as good a motivation as any. People don’t leave perfect lives behind to suffer through cold and isolation.
“Its a maze,” Amy said to me once. “Looking back to how I got here. It’s such a maze. I couldn’t find my way back if I tried.” No, she’d never find her way back.
Amy always had a soft spot for Tinker. Because he lived off the land and ate what he hunted. Because he said what he thought and damned the consequences. Because, despite his gruffness, Tinker had always been sweet on Amy and she’d known it. I’d been so blind, sun blind. So blind to it right there in front of me. Maybe it wasn’t Tinker, but it had to be someone I knew. God knew the woman had options.
Men out numbered women two to one in the upper northwest. The river washes the women south while the men jump upstream like salmon, desperate to spawn. Gold miners, oil workers, hunters, trappers, fishermen. Lawmen. You could love one woman your whole life in Alaska and she’d never have to settle for just you.
I opened the car door and vomited onto the gravel. She’d done me dirty, dirty like the snow after the plow had gone through Front Street. I checked my watch and cranked the engine to life again. Pulling out onto the road, I made a wide U-turn and drove back the way I’d come. She’d known I was the law. Goddammit, she’d known.
I couldn’t do it upstream, not with Tinker downstream. I’d have to find a cleaner place to do it. I hadn’t expected anyone out on this stretch of road this time of night, despite the sun. I drove past where Tinker’s car had been parked. It looked like he had pealed out onto the gravel. Stupid hot headed Tinker. But, that was the thing about being a man. All those things that melted down inside you, that drove you north, pulled you away from your family; all those things that shut you up tight. They didn’t make you cry when you were a man. They made you furious.
I pulled over again, my hands shaking. I didn’t know how much farther I could go. I looked down to the river, could see where Tinker had dropped the goat. A hoof was caught on the ice shelf, preventing the kid from floating on down the river. It made me think of Amy.
I circled around to the trunk of the police cruiser. I was a lawman, a frontier man. She’d known. I opened the trunk. She lay, as if sleeping, wrapped in our old comforter. I wouldn’t cry, I thought. A man had too much mad inside him for tears.
Brianne M. Kohl is a fiction writer residing in Chatham County, North Carolina. She is a graduate from Kent State University and a 2013 Pushcart Nominee. Her fiction has been published in Foghorn, Black Heart Magazine, Ohio Edit, Bop Dead City (Summer 2013 Best Fiction Award), Crack the Spine, The Corner Club Press, The Bohemyth, See Spot Run and Epiphany Magazine. Her work has been anthologized in Crack The Spine Fall 2013 and Spark: A Creative Anthology Volume IV. To find a full list of her publications and other writings, please visit www.briannekohl.com.