The Alaskan

map The Alaskan

by Joseph Love

Published in Issue No. 191 ~ April, 2013

Photo by Shawndra and Simon

The foreman with the stiff, protruding belly hands me a harness, a bucket of rope, and a rope ascender. His skin has this sheen—a gloss of sweat—that all mainlanders have. They never notice it. Never think twice about it. People in Alaska—people who don’t sweat so much—look cleaner. That’s the first thing I noticed when we moved south.

“Jug,” he says. “Up that tree.” He means the enormous chestnut oak with the bark that looks like gray bricks.

I hold the equipment like pieces of shit. I dig into the bucket and pull out a beanbag filled with steel shot, a long, thin cord tied to it. I entertain the foreman and his crew for half an hour, hurling the beanbag into the oak and missing the crotch, tangling the line, and eventually tossing the bag overhand against the trunk and giving up. The crowd of men has gone. The foreman shakes his head.

“Just get in your little truck and drive away.”

“No way I’d get on the job training?”

The foreman walks away. That’s the way they’d do it back home. They’d just walk away if you weren’t cut out for a gig.

The Nissan’s battery has been dying for nearly a month. And when I twist the key, it’s gone. I glance up. The tree-juggers haven’t noticed. I turn the key again. Nothing. I glance up again. One of them sees. My face burns. Two of them see. Three. Four. The whole crew. The foreman approaches my truck. I open the door.

“Battery’s dead.”

“Are you a mechanic?”

“No.”

“Then you don’t know.”

“It’s dead.”

“You have a phone?”

I stare at him.

“Of course not.”

The foreman turns to his crew and waves his hands and the men get back to work. His crew tosses up the beanbags with perfect accuracy.

“Let me turn the truck around and I’ll push you down the street.”

I nod. The men have already climbed into the trees. They swing small chainsaws around like jugglers.

The foreman pulls the bucket truck behind the Nissan. Even bracing myself against the steering wheel, my body still jars as the mammoth bucket truck nudges against my rear bumper. I hear the truck rev, but we don’t go anywhere. The engine dies down. The door opens. The foreman approaches my window.

“You’re gonna get out of here, stop somewhere, and that thing’s gonna die again. You don’t have money for a battery, do you?”

“Not today.”

“Jeesus.” He stares at me. “Jeesus,” he says again.

I consider saying it back to him, he seems to like it. I stop myself.

“Take this,” he reaches in his pocket and pulls out two wadded-up fifties. “Batteries are expensive, you know.”

“I can’t take this.”

“You aren’t taking it. Come back tomorrow. You’ll run the chipper a couple days and work it off,” he walks to the bucket truck and turns back. “You don’t show up,” he points his finger at me hard, his face serious, “then the next time my wife says I need to do a good deed every day, I’m going to tell her to go fuck herself.”

I stare back at him and for a moment we just squint, trying to figure out whether the other is human, if the dream is going to end soon. We’ll wake up in different lives. And then he turns away and we are wide-awake. We have been awake all morning. Conscious. He starts the truck, slams it into the back of mine, and we cruise up to thirty before I pop the clutch. His giant truck shrinks in my mirror. Soon it disappears. The wadded up fifties find an eddy in the passenger seat and swirl around themselves.

The clerk at Autohaus has a misprinted nametag. It reads Danniel. The replacement battery for my truck is one-hundred ten. I don’t have the ten. I follow him through the aisles and he picks up a battery charger. It’s only forty. I take the charger and as Danniel breaks one of the limp fifties, I notice the other arm—the one he’s not using to press the buttons for the register—is not there. His sleeve is neatly folded and there are two safety pins keeping the world from seeing what a torso with no arm looks like.

He hands me the change as I stare at his arm. “Is the tag a typo? Or are you Danniel with two Ns?”

“Typo.”

“That sucks.”

He glares at me. “It’s really not that bad.”

“Oh.”

Baby clothes are cheap. Even with no money, Alyssa and I can afford to buy one article a week—about three dollars. That was Alyssa’s idea. If we can’t scrape together three dollars a week for nine months, we’d have to consider putting her up for adoption. So far, we have our layette and enough clothes to last us about six months. We also have a stockpile of diapers, baby food (Alyssa and I spent a weekend making seventy jars of purees), and wipes. Driving home, I stop at Baby Town and spend the rest of the hundred that was supposed to go towards my battery. We don’t need it, but Alyssa keeps saying how much she wants one of those diaper bins where you can’t smell all the diapers. And I buy three outfits—all matching, one for newborn, one for three months, one for six months. There is some change, a quarter and pennies or something, and I drop it in the donation cup by the register. One hundred dollars all gone.

I don’t keep these purchases secret. If we have two of something, we’ll trade it for something else or take the cash. Alyssa keeps track of all that and she’s very serious about it. So I can’t keep anything secret. At home, I show Alyssa the outfits one by one, then have her close her eyes and sneak in the diaper bin to surprise her. She looks at it straight-faced.

“You didn’t use the card did you?”

“No.”

“What’d you use?”

“Cash.”

“Where’d you get cash? Did you get a job?”

“Not exactly. For a couple of days.”

“A couple of days?”

“A guy loaned me money. I have to work it off.”

“He loaned you…” her voice goes tiny. “You don’t have a job?”

“I might. He might offer me a job.”

“How much did he give you?”

“A hundred.”

“A hundred for what? Not clothes, not the diaper bin.”

“For a battery.”

“For your truck? So you got a battery and this stuff? That’s good, right?”

“I didn’t get a battery.”

She closes her eyes. “Jonathon, what the fuck?”

“I got a charger. The battery was too much. We can use this. We need this. I’ll walk if I have to. Ride my bike. Whatever.”

“How long does it take to charge your battery?”

I stare at her. “Oh. I don’t know.”

“Don’t you think you better start it now? What if it takes twelve hours? It won’t be ready in the morning.”

In the dark, I fumble with my flashlight and six extension cords run through the kitchen window and into the driveway as I try to figure out the voltage settings. My father used to warn me about car batteries, but it’s hard for me to remember what he warned me about. I connect each clamp to the terminal slowly, shielding my eyes in case it explodes. The bar slides over—which the manual says means the battery is dead. There is a small, warm hum. I listen to it for a long time. I listen to it until Alyssa opens the storm door and knocks on the doorframe.

When I look at her, I do not see her face but I see her belly propping open the door. I gently close the hood over the battery.

I wake up early, excited for a fresh battery and to have a job, even if it’s only for a couple of days. Alyssa doesn’t stir until her alarm goes off, but I always tiptoe around. It’s hard for her to fall asleep now. I make a thermos of coffee, eat two bowls of cereal, and put on the thick working pants Alyssa’s dad bought for me a year ago—the kind with an extra layer of fabric on the knees—just after I got laid off from the mill.

The engine compartment is sweltering when I raise the hood. And the battery casing bulges out on all sides. The charger still says it’s dead. I unplug the charger and remove the clamps carefully before rolling up all the cords. I hesitate before trying to start the truck. I duck below the dash and press the clutch and turn the key. Immediately there is a shotgun blast, the truck shakes, and my eardrums ring. I pat myself—the way characters do in movies when they think they’ve been shot—but there is no pain, no bleeding. I crawl out of the truck to investigate. The engine is covered in steaming liquid. It smells like burning plastic. I shut the hood and as I pull my hand away it starts to burn. It’s bright red it’s getting worse. The redness swells. I rush to the storm door as Alyssa opens it wearing only her underwear. She blinks slowly as I rush past her.

“Was that your truck?”

“The battery exploded.”

“It sounded like a gun.”

“It exploded.”

“I didn’t think they could really do that.”

“It did.”

“Are you all right?”

“I think I got acid on my hand.”

I spend half an hour running cold water over my palm. I try squeezing ice cubes and blowing on it, but this burn is deep. When I took my first-aid class at the lodge they said to run water until the burning stopped. I see now the burning never stops, and so you run the water forever.

An hour and a half later the burning turns into heavy throbbing. Alyssa left for work forty minutes ago. With the water off, I’m left to stare at the mid-morning sunlight—the kind that feels uncomfortable when you’re a kid and you’ve faked sick and stayed home to play outside but the beauty of a perfect day is ruined by your guilt.

I loosely wrap my hand, which makes it even harder to maneuver my bicycle out of the laundry room. On bike, it takes another half hour to head across town to the worksite. The tree-climbers are already up in the trees, swinging back and forth from their ropes, belts clanging, wielding chainsaws and tossing down piles of brush.

The foreman is on the phone in the driveway. He stares as I ride up, but he focuses on the call. I prop my bike against an air conditioning unit and try to stay out of the foreman’s line of sight. The foreman is still on the phone so I wait. A couple of guys haul cans of fuel and chain lube. I look around for the wood chipper but I don’t see it.

“What the hell are you doing on your bike? I was going to have you pick up the chipper and some tools in your truck.”

“My battery exploded.”

“Your new battery?”

“I charged it.”

“Give me back the hundred. You can work for it like everyone else.”

“I spent it.”

The foreman opens his mouth. It hangs open a long time.

“I bought a charger. And clothes.”

“Clothes.”

“It’s…not important.”

“You didn’t bring a lunch.”

I didn’t realize until now. I nod.

“Good. You’re going to drive my truck and pick up the chipper. These men are about to take a three-hour lunch. You need to be back in twenty minutes.”

It takes twenty minutes just to figure out how to attach the chipper trailer to the ball hitch—I have a hitch on my truck but I’ve never used it. It takes less than a minute for me to get pulled over for not having the taillights connected or the trailer secured. I don’t know what either means. The sheriff’s deputy kindly helps me connect the lights, then shows me how to wrap and bolt the chain to the truck. I still get a ticket for one-hundred fifty.

When I get back to the tree crew, I park by the curb and take the foreman his keys. He hands them back.

“You have to back that chipper into the yard there,” he points between the fence posts and a tree. I hop back in his truck and cut the wheel sharp, immediately I notice the trailer in the opposite direction, almost perpendicular to the truck. The tires skip and squeal—and over it I hear the tree-climbers laughing. The foreman watches from the driveway, arms crossed. I cut the wheel the other way but the trailer is stuck. I pull forward and try. The trailer hops the curb and I run through some shrubs. I twitch the wheel left and right, trying to outsmart and outmaneuver the trailer. I get to the fence posts and stop.

I shut off the engine and open the door.

“That’s it,” I say.

“Keep going.”

I shake my head and walk around to remove the trailer. The foreman is right on top of me.

“You can’t run the chipper here. You’ll get shit all over their patio.”

“I can’t back it up. I’ll wreck your truck. I’ll wreck their house. They’re laughing at me.”

“All of a sudden it makes a difference?”

I get back in the truck and drop it into reverse. I stomp the gas and cut the wheel without looking. I feel the trailer sink into the grass, then the truck. I stop somewhere in the backyard, my face sweaty, my palm burning again. I remove the trailer from the foreman’s truck and step out into sarcastic applause and hollering. The chipper sits smack on top of a birdbath, now in several pieces.

I toss limbs into the chipper for hours, the pile growing so large I wonder where it will all go. The foreman explains I’ll be forking it into wheelbarrows and hauling it to the flowerbeds, into the compost pile, around the young cherry trees they just planted. I have several more hours of work ahead. I zone out as I stare into the gaping mouth. Just as I imagine my hand getting sucked into it, a thread from the bandage on my hand catches on a branch—it is not imagination—but before I can panic, the bandage is unwound from my hand. It disappears into the chipper. I stare at the acid burn on my hand. The skin is wavy and sick white. It is numb, but it is painful to look at.

At the end of the day, after I dump the last wheelbarrow of mulch in the flowerbed, the foreman approaches me with the ticket I got earlier in the day.

“A ticket for not knowing how to set up a trailer?”

I hold out my hand, “I’ll pay for it. I didn’t mean to leave it in there. I thought it was in my pocket.”

He folds up the paper and stuffs it in a small binder. “We’ll call it even on the hundred from yesterday, but you owe me for this ticket plus whatever that godawful birdbath cost.

I nod.

“That’s at least two more days.”

I nod.

“You need a ride?”

I look at my bike—I can’t imagine pushing the pedals or even sitting up long enough to make it home. There is a good burn across my back and neck that reminds me of the mill. I nod. “Just today.”

The foreman’s name is Pat. He tells me to call him that instead of Sir. But riding with Pat, I don’t get much chance to say his name. We don’t say much of anything. Just ride along, bumping and sliding around the cab. He pulls into Autohaus, the same one I was at the day before. He leaves me inside and stays gone a long time. I consider stepping out and pulling my bike out of the bed. I put my fingers to the door handle and wait. In ten seconds, I’ll leave. Twenty seconds. Just thirty more seconds. But the burning in my back makes me stay, he crashes out of the store with a car battery in hand, he stands up straight like it weighs nothing. He gets in the truck and tosses the battery next to my foot.

“This should keep you busy for the rest of the week.”

I nod.

“You haven’t ever stretched a fence, have you?”

“No.”

“It’s not hard.”

“I’m sure I can learn.”

We leave the parking lot and I notice as we pull onto the highway he rests his right arm on top of his belly. It just sits there. Occasionally scratching. His button-up shirt is stretched so tight I can see his skin between the buttons. I point him onto my street. Alyssa’s car is not in the driveway.

“I can weld,” I say.

“That’s good. I don’t use welders much. Best of luck with it.”

“I made that bicycle frame.”

“The bike you ride?”

“That’s right. Back when I wanted to be a bike mechanic.”

“There’s you a job.”

“I already tried all the bike shops in the area.”

“If you want to run the chipper, that’s fine. Since you’re new to town, you probably need help getting on your feet.”

I stare at the back of my truck. Pat isn’t stupid. The Alaska tags are still propped up in the back window. I just registered it in Ketchikan a month ago, hoping perhaps Alyssa wouldn’t make us move. But we moved. We loaded all our things in the bed of my truck and covered them with a large green tarp that flapped every bit of the three-thousand mile drive. When we got to Knoxville, the edges of the tarp were just fine green threads, torn apart by the wind.

In the mirror, I see Alyssa park her hatchback on the street. The bucket truck takes up three-fourths of the driveway. Carrying a pair of jeans, Alyssa walks slowly up to the truck and taps on Pat’s door. He opens it. She doesn’t see me, she’s fixated on Pat, his belly that looks much like hers, the hair that crawls out of the top of his shirt.

“Can you move your fucking truck?”

I wave to Alyssa. She sees me now.

“Oh, sorry. Can you guys move? It’s supposed to rain and I don’t want to walk out to my car and get all wet and sick.”

“Sorry, ma’am. I’m about to leave,” Pat says quickly, then fires up the truck.

“My mother says hi,” Alyssa yells over the engine. “She patched your jeans.” She hold up the pants, scarred with half a dozen mends. “She says she can’t patch them again.”

Alyssa walks back to her car and waits for Pat to move.

Pat twists his mouth all over while backing up the truck. The beep-beep echoes through the neighborhood. The cab rumbles and shudders. I hadn’t noticed how big the bucket truck was. It’s larger than our house.

Pat leans forward against the steering wheel and stares at the sky.

“Fuck. It’s going to storm.”

He leans back.

“I didn’t mean what I said yesterday.”

“What’s that?”

“That’d I’d tell my wife to go fuck herself. I’m not even married. I don’t know what it’s like to be married.”

“We’re not married. Just dating.”

“She was pregnant before you met?”

“No. We’re still just dating.”

His face relaxes, he looks relieved. “And the clothes…“

“For the baby. And a diaper bin. For her. Well, for the baby, but she wanted it.”

He grips the giant steering wheel. It’s the size of a manhole cover. The bench seat large as a sofa. He eyes my hand. “The hell’d you do?”

“My battery exploded. I burned myself.”

He sighs, stares at me and punches the seat between us. “Hell, you don’t owe me anything.”

“I owe you for the battery. And the birdbath. And the ticket.”

He holds up his hand. “I don’t believe in doing something good every day. I try to do what’s right. You see someone that needs help and you take pity. You come back tomorrow and I’ll put you on payroll.”

I put my hand on the latch and let it rest. I will stand outside the truck and wonder if I did the right thing. I will kiss Alyssa and we will sit on the couch and prop our feet on boxes we haven’t unpacked and we will wonder how to make life work.

“You can keep the battery. And my bike. It’s worth a birdbath and a ticket.” I open the door and step down to the curb, then slam the door behind me.

I walk quickly to the house. My face is sweaty, something in my lower back feels pinched, irritated. I stand alone in the hallway and stare at Pat through the wavy glass window. I wait for Pat and his house-sized bucket truck to drive away. After fifteen minutes, Pat gets out of the truck, climbs in the bed, then carefully lowers my bike to the street. He rolls it up the driveway and leans it against Alyssa’s car. He returns to the truck and drives away.

The bathroom door creaks open.

“Did you just get in? I was in the shower.”

“Yeah. I just got in.”

“How was it? Do you have a permanent job?”

“No. He doesn’t have any openings. He let me work off what I owed him.”

“That was nice of him. What are you staring at?”

“I left my bike outside. It’s still there. Right by your car. It’s about to rain.”

“You should bring it in, you don’t want it to get ruined. You worked hard on it. Besides, it might get stolen. This isn’t the nicest neighborhood.”

“You’re right. One day we’ll live in a nice place. Out in the country. We’ll be able to leave our house unlocked.”

“I hate the country. There’s nothing to do.”

“Boring.”

“Yeah. Are you going to bring your bike in?”

“Of course. We were talking about the country.”

“Go get your bike.”

“Of course.”

“Tomorrow you should take a break. You’ve been looking for jobs nonstop.”

Thunder bellows faintly through the house. In Alaska it was so simple. Hard workers find work, not pity. When I get my bike I do not rush. The sky flashes white. Leaves whistle and the rain starts slowly. Even in the rain this place is stifling—sweltering—and I’m covered in sweat. I try to slow down time, my forehead and cheeks are so hot I need to cool them with the rain. But I see the burning will never stop. I need this rain to last forever.

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Joseph Love is a Pushcart nominee whose fiction and nonfiction has appeared numerous publications, such as Greatest Uncommon Denominator, West Branch, McSweeneys.net, Raritan, American Forests, and is forthcoming in Grit and Drunken Boat. His zombie novella, Kill Town, USA, is available as an ebook on Amazon.com.