1. Howl Palace HOWL PALACE
THIS SEPTEMBER, I FINALLY PUT Howl Palace up for sale. Years of poor financial planning had led to this decision, and I tried to take some comfort in my agent’s belief in a buyer who might show up with an all-cash offer. My agent, Silver, was a highly organized, sensible woman who grew up in Alaska—I checked—but when she advertised the listing, she failed to mention her description on the internet. “Attractively priced teardown with plane dock and amazing lake views,” she wrote under the photo. “Investment potential.”
I am still puzzled as to why the word “teardown” upset me. Anybody who buys a house on Diamond Lake brings in a backhoe and razes the place to rubble. The mud along the shoreline wreaks havoc with foundations, and the original homes, like mine, were built in the sixties, before the pipeline, back when licensed contractors had no reason to move to Anchorage. If you wanted a house, you either built it yourself, or you hung out in the parking lot of Spenard Builders Supply handing out six-packs to every guy with a table saw in the back of his vehicle until one got broke enough or bored enough to consider your blueprints. Which is why the walls in Howl Palace meet the ceiling at such unconventional angles. Our guy liked to eyeball instead of using a level.
To the families on the lake, my home is a bit of an institution. And not just because the wolf room, which Silver suggested we leave off the list of amenities, as most people wouldn’t understand what we meant. About the snow-machine shed and clamshell grotto, I was less flexible. Nobody likes a yard strewn with snow machines and three-wheelers, one or two of which will always be busted and covered in blue tarp. Ours is just not that kind of neighborhood. The clamshell grotto, on the other hand, might fail to fulfill your basic home-owning needs, but it is a showstopper. My fourth husband, Lon, built it for me in the basement as a surprise for my fifty-third birthday. He had a romantic nature, when he hadn’t had too much to drink. Embedded in the coral and shells are more than a few freshwater pearls that a future owner might consider tempting enough to jackhammer out of the cement.
Silver brought me a box of Girl Scout cookies to discuss these matters, and so I tried my hardest to trust the rest of her advice. When she said not to bother with pulling out the chickweed or flattening the rusted remnants of the dog runs, I left both as is. But then I started thinking about what people say about baking blueberry muffins and burning vanilla candles. Buyers needed to feel the atmosphere of the place, the homeyness. Fred Meyer had some plug-in tropical air fresheners on sale. I bought a few. I shoved them into the outlets. Within minutes, the entire downstairs smelled like a burning car wreck in Hawaii.
SILVER SCHEDULED THE OPEN HOUSE for the first Saturday in September. “Noon,” she said. “Before families have put the kids down for a nap.” The night before, I lay back in my recliner and thought how every good thing that had ever happened to me had happened in Howl Palace. And every bad thing too. Forty-three years. Five husbands. Two floatplanes. A lifetime. It felt as if I should honor my home, that strangers shouldn’t come around poking through the kitchen or kicking the baseboards, seeing only the mold in the hot tub and the gnaw marks on the cabinets from the dogs I’d had over the years, maybe even laughing at the name. “Howl Palace” was coined by Jamie Donovan, Danny Bob Donovan’s little daughter during a New Year’s Eve party in 1977. She said it with awe, standing in the middle of the wolf room with a half-eaten candy cane. “Mrs. Dutch,” she said, “this is so beautiful, I think I need to howl a little.” And howl she did, cupping her hands around her mouth and letting loose a wild, lonely cry that endeared her to me for forever.
Howl Palace was still beautiful, in my mind. And could be to other people, given the right welcome. Silver had said to just relax, to let her finesse the details, but buyers needed to experience how the house would feel if they lived in it—friends coming over, kids in the backyard pitching mud chunks at mallards, a little music going on the speakers. I went to the locker freezer and pulled out fifty pounds of caribou burger, plus four dozen moose dogs. All we needed now were a few side dishes. And some buns.
THE NEXT MORNING WAS BUST a hump. The menu for the cookout had expanded to include green bean casserole, macaroni salad, guacamole, and trout almondine. Trout almondine requires cream for the cream sauce, which I forgot on my eight-thirty run to Costco, leading me to substitute powdered milk mixed with a few cans of cream of mushroom soup. My fifth husband, Skip, used to call me the John Wayne of the Home Range, not in the nicest way, until he got dementia and forgot who I was or that he had to follow me around explaining how I’d organized the produce drawer wrong or let too much hair fall off my head in the shower or failed to remove every single bone from his barbecued salmon because I didn’t fucking ever think. Shipping him off to a facility in Washington near his daughter wasn’t exactly something I struggled with.
The pool table, where I planned to lay out the buffet, was coated with so much dust it looked as though a fine, silver fungus had sprouted over the felt. I dragged an old quarter sheet of plywood from the snow-machine shed and heaved it on top. If you are looking for a reason to split five cords of wood by hand each year for forty-odd years, consider my biceps at age sixty-seven.
The air had the bright, whistly feel of coming cold. Even as the grass on the back lawn lay in drunken clumps, flattened by twenty-hour days of summer sunlight. Out in the garage, I found a flowery top sheet from a long-gone water bed. That went over the pool table. Soon followed the side dishes, the salads, the condiments. On went the grill, the meat at the ready on the little side table that folded up, with an indentation to rest your tongs and spatula. All that was left was the guacamole. Which was when Carl’s pickup pulled into the driveway.
Carl wasn’t my husband. Carl was the beautiful, bedeviling heartbreak of my life. His hair had thinned, but not so you saw his scalp, and age spots mottled his arms. His smell was the same as ever: WD-40, line-dried shirt, the peppermint soap he used to cut through fish slime. For one heady second, I believed he had come back to say in some soft, regretful voice: Remember when we ran into each other at Sportsman’s Warehouse? It got me thinking, well, maybe we should give it another try.
As Carl told me long ago, “Inside you hides a soft, secret pink balloon of dreams.” He wasn’t incorrect, but the balloon had withered a little over the years. And it was not a reassuring sign that Carl had a dog in the back of his vehicle.
“I thought you might need a new Lab,” he said. “She’s pedigree, real obedient.”
I had some idea what he meant: She jumped ducks before he got off a shot and went after half-dead birds in the rapids despite the rocks he threw at her backside, trying to save her from injury. Once, she had eaten a healthy portion of his dishwasher.
Over my years at Howl Palace, I’d had a lot of dogs, all of them black Labs with papers proving their champion field-and-trial bloodlines. I loved every one of them and loved hunting with them, but no matter how you deal with these animals at home—stick or carrot—they just can’t deviate from the agenda panting through their minds, an agenda born of instinct and inbreeding, neither of which suggests that they sit there wagging their tails when a bumblebee flies through a yard. Or a bottle rocket zooms by.
I have seen my share of classic family retrievers on this lake—black or yellow Labs, dumb, drooling goldens, the occasional hefty Chessie—who live only to snuggle up with the kids and ignore the smoked salmon you are about to insert into your mouth. But I have never had one in my kennel or my house. My last dog, Babs, was a hunt nut, willful, with a hole in her emotional reasoning where somebody yanked out her uterus without a fully approved vet license. I picked her up for free from an ad in the Pennysaver, and maybe that had something to do with it. She drowned after jumping out of a charter boat to retrieve the halibut that I had on the line, unaware of the tide about to suck her into the Gulf of Alaska.
Still, I enjoyed her company more than Skip’s and Lon’s combined. Babs slept not just in my bed but under the covers, where we struggled over the one soft pillow. When she died, I was ready to retire from a lifetime of animal management. I was sixty-three years old and single, and I vowed to myself: no more Labs, no more husbands, no more ex-husbands either.
The kennel in the bed of Carl’s truck only confirmed the wisdom of my decision. The whole thing lay flipped on its side, jumping and heaving from the campaign being waged against the door. Nuthatches flickered through the yellowing trees, made frantic by the sound of claws against metal. Squirrels fled for other yards.
“Carl,” I said. “I’m about to have an open house. I can’t take your dog.”
He looked over at the woodpile, where the remains of the chain-link runs sagged along the ground. “You could put her in the basement. In the clamshell grotto,” he said. Then laughed. He had a wonderful laugh, the kind that tickled through you, slowly, inch by inch, brain cell by brain cell until you were mentally unfit to resist him.
“No, Carl,” I said—not even talking about the animal.
“She can drink out of the fountain.”
“No,” I said. “N. O.”
“I’m not a dog,” he said, his voice quiet.
Wind riffled through the aspens, exposing the silverish undersides of the leaves. A plane buzzed by overhead. Carl jammed his hands in his pockets. “Besides,” he said, “you can’t sell Howl Palace.”
I looked at him, daring him to tell me that he and I needed to live here together. The way I had always wanted. He had a suitcase in the back of his cab.
Carl looked back at me—as if about to say all this. Then he said, “It’s your home, Dutch. You love it.” He smiled, the way he always smiled. Time drained away for a few moments and we were back in the trophy room at Danny Boy’s, thirty-five and tipsy, his finger laced through the loop of my jeans. The Eagles skipped on the turntable and my second husband, Wallace, ceased to exist. Tiny, dry snowflakes clung to the edges of the window like miniature paper stars. Carl kissed me and a dark, glittery hole opened up and I fell through, all the way to the bottom.
“I hate you, Carl,” I said, but as so often happens around him, it came out sounding backward, fraught with tenderness.
The kennel creaked all of a sudden. We both looked over and, blam, the door snapped off. Seventy pounds of black, thundering muscle shot out of the truck and into the alders.
“Oh boy,” he said. “Not good.”
“Hand me the zapper.”
“She doesn’t have a shock collar.”
I tried a two-fingered whistle. Nothing. Not a snapped twig.
“I hate to say it,” he said. “But there’s this appointment—”
“Carl, I’ve got an open house.”
He toed something, a weed. “It’s a flight,” he said. “To Texas. I’m fishing down in Galveston for a few weeks.”
All the dewy romance inside me turned to gravel as I watched him move toward his vehicle. When he bent down to pick up the door to the kennel, his shirt twisted. The shirt was a fly-fishing model, with a mesh panel for hot Texas days, through which I caught a glimpse of the pager-looking box strapped to his side. It was beige. A green battery light blinked on top.
Everybody our age knew what that box was. Carl was not here in my driveway to romance me all over again. Or even piss me off. Carl needed someone to dog-sit while he went off to get fancy last-ditch chemo down in the Lower 48. Houston, probably.
I took a minute to organize my face. “Get your animal,” I said. “Get her back in the goddamn kennel and take her with you.”
“Or what?” he said. “You’ll hang her on a wolf peg?”
The cheapness of his comment released us both. I turned and went inside to not watch his truck peel down the driveway. Carl and I had always disagreed about the wolf room, which was the only thing that he, Lon, Skip, Wallace, and my third husband, RT, might have ever had in common. None of them liked it, and I respected that. But it didn’t mean I had to rip it out. I was proud of it. It was beautiful. It was mine.
BACK IN THE KITCHEN, A case of avocados sat on the counter, waiting. People wail about chain stores ruining the views in Anchorage, but if you lived through any part of the twentieth century up here, when avocados arrived off the barge, hard as the pits at their centers, you relish each trip to the vast cinder-block box of dreams known as Costco. All forty-eight in the case were packed with meat. Out each one popped under my spoon like a creamy, green baby butt headed to the bottom of the salad bowl.
Next came mayonnaise, then mashing. I didn’t hurry. Carl’s dog needed to run off her panic and aggression. And I needed not to envision a wonderful, loving couple arriving for the open house—the husband in dungarees from the office, the wife in beat-up XtraTufs because she wanted to wade around in the shallows and check out the dock for rot. Across the lawn they went, admiring the amazing lake views, telling Silver that the place was underpriced, actually, and sending their polite, unspoiled toddler to go catch minnows. At which point Carl’s dog came charging in, fixated on a dragonfly she believed might be a mallard, knocking over the toddler and grinding him into the gravel beach.
I also needed not to think about Carl being sick, Carl not getting better, Carl having left, and how I had acted on the steps. He didn’t have the money for a kennel, I suspected. Or for cancer.
Mashing avocados helped. I mashed away, thinking how RT—a man I yelled at daily for three years just because he wasn’t Carl—once said, “Maybe the reason you shout so much, Dutch, is that you really long to whisper.”
RT was an orthodontist, a World War II model airplane builder, and an observant man. But all I thought at the time was that if Carl had realized about the shouting instead of RT, he and I might still be together.
Luckily, I had moose ribs in the freezer. Labs are not spaniels or pointers, they don’t have the upland sense of smell, and Carl’s was deep in the alders. I couldn’t call her over to my hand and grab her collar. She didn’t know my voice, and I didn’t know her name, and even if I had, a few hours in a kennel had no doubt left her suspicious of my motives. A rib tossed in the bushes and dragged in front of her nose, however, might kindle some interest.
All I needed was something to spice up that rib. My neighbor Candace Goddard was at home; I sighted her with the scope I kept in the kitchen. Candace’s decor scheme is heavy on the chandeliers. Every room features at least one upside-down wedding cake made of cut lead glass, and this was generally how I found her when I needed her. Where the crystals wink.
It was ten a.m., two hours before the open house, and she was still in her nightgown, bumping into furniture. By the time I got over there, she was playing acoustic guitar. The guitar was supposed to help with her anxiety when her husband, Rodge, flew off to go sheep hunting and forgot to check in by sat phone every three hours. Stopping to call home while halfway up a shale-covered peak under a sky so blue you taste the color in your lungs pretty much ruins the moment. Not surprisingly, Rodge often forgot.
Candace was fiddling around on the guitar, picking out some prelude number by Johann Sebastian Bach. Like more and more of the younger wives on the lake, she had dealt with turning forty by investing in injections that left her with a stunned, rubberized expression. Her hair was many, many shades of high-voltage blond. Her guitar playing, however, told a different story. Listening to her was like listening to butterflies trip over each other’s wings. You wanted them to flit around inside you for forever. This was one of the many reasons why we got along, and drove to book club together.
That day, unfortunately, the anxiety had gotten the upper hand. Her eyes were two dazzles of pupil. When I asked her to borrow a little medication from her supply, she answered me in her floaty voice. “Pills?” she said with a kind of delicious enjoyment of the word. “What kind?”
“The sleepy kind,” I said. “Enough for a seventy-pound—well—female.”
She looked out the window, as if the world beyond the glass was just one vast, sparkling diorama. “I think it’s going to be fine, flying through the pass,” she said. “What do you think?”
What I thought was that Rodge didn’t put in enough flight hours, but had a great touch with short landings. The odds of him smashing his Cub into the side of a mountain were the same as anybody’s: a matter of skill, luck, and weather.
It wasn’t as if her concerns were that far-fetched. Flying in the wilderness, all your everyday, ordinary b.s.—being tired, being lazy, trusting the clouds instead of your instruments, losing your prescription sunglasses, forgetting to check your fuel lines—can kill you. And if it doesn’t, a door can still blow off your plane and hit the tail or your kid can run between a brownie and her cub or your husband can slip on wet, frozen shale and fall a few thousand feet down a mountain, lose the pack and sat phone, break a leg, and that is that. Which is something you’ve got to live with, chandeliers or no chandeliers.
“I made him a checklist,” she said as I rummaged through the bottles at the bottom of her purse. “Mixture. Prop. Master switch. Fuel pump. Throttle.”
By the time she got to cowl flaps, I had long stopped listening. One of the biggest shames about Candace is that she still has a pilot’s license. Her not flying, she said, started with kids, strapping them into their little car seats in the back and realizing there was nothing—nothing—underneath them.
Sometimes I wish I had known her before that idea took hold.
“Play me a song, Candace,” I said. “It’ll make you feel better.”
“You know what Rodge doesn’t like?” she said.
“Natives,” I said, because he doesn’t. He got held up for a “travel tax” by one random Athabascan—on Athabascan land—and now he is one of those cocktail-party racists who like to pretend to talk politics just so they can slip in how the Natives and the Park Service have taken over the state. He and I nod to each other at meetings for the homeowners association and leave it at that.
“Anal sex,” she said, her voice as light as chickweed pollen. “He won’t even try it.”
“Look,” I said, holding up a pill bottle. “How many of these things did you take?”
“I could live without him,” she said. “I know how to waitress. I could get the kids and me one of those cute little houses off O’Malley.”
I had some idea of what she was doing, only because I had done it myself, which was leaving her husband in her mind, in case he did die out in the Brooks Range—which he wasn’t going to—so that, hopefully, she’d fall apart a little less. But the thing about having gotten divorced four times and widowed once is that people forget you also got married each time. You and your soft, secret, pink balloon of dreams.
“If you want anal sex, Candace,” I said, “just drive yourself down to Las Margaritas, pick some guy on his third tequila, and go for it. Just don’t lose your house in the divorce like every other woman on this lake. Buy him out. Send him to some reasonably priced, brand-new shitbox in a subdivision. Keep your property.”
Beneath her bronzer, Candace looked a little taken aback. “Gosh, Dutch,” she said. “I didn’t mean to make you upset.”
I shook a bunch of bottles at her. “Which are the sleepiest?”
She pointed to a fat one with a tricky-looking cap. “Was it Benny?” she said. “Was it because I brought up crashing in the pass?”
“I’m having a bad day,” I said, but only because there was no way to explain how I felt about Benny, my first husband, crashing his Super Cub, or about the search for the wreckage, that smoking black hole in the trees. Even now, forty-one years later. The loneliness. The lostness.
Not to mention what it had been like, being the first and only female homeowner on Diamond Lake. If I had been cute and skinny and agreeable like Candace, it might have been easier. But I was me. The rolled eyes during votes, the snickers when I tried to advocate for trash removal or speed bumps, the hands, the lesbo jokes, the cigars handed to me in tampon wrappers—which I laughed about, seething, but smoked—I got through it all. What hurt the worst were the wives, all of them women I had known for years, who dropped me off their Fur Rondy gala list every time I was single. And stuck me back on when I wasn’t.
Benny was a world-class outdoorsman and an old-school shotgunner who did not believe in pretending that everybody got to make it to old age. On trips he took without me, he always said, “Dutch, if I don’t come back, hold tight to Howl Palace.”
Four-plus decades later, I still had my property, and it had come at a sizable cost. Wallace put me through a court battle after I left him for Carl. RT needed an all-cash payment to make him run away to Florida. Add to that Lon’s rehab and Skip’s long-term care. The Cub and the 185 were gone, all the life insurance money, the IRA. Howl Palace was all I had left. And now I had to sell it in order not to die in a state nursing home, sharing a room with some old biddy who liked to flip through scrapbooks and watch the boob tube with the volume cranked up high.
You can’t cry about these things. But you can’t sit around and contemplate them either.
Luckily, Candace’s youngest boy, Donald, turned up at the top of the stairs. His electronic slab was tucked under his arm. “Where’s the charger, Mom?” he said.
“Donald,” I said. “Let’s go fish for a dog.”
“Donald has asthma,” said Candace. “He can’t handle a lot of dander.”
“Get your boots on, Don,” I said. “You, too, Candace.”
“Really?” she said. “I get to come? Do I get to see the wolf room, too?”
For all the obvious reasons, I didn’t like people on drugs in the wolf room. Or people with drinks, food, or mental issues. Despite our friendship, Candace had never seen it. “If you help me with these safety caps,” I said. “And fine-tune the dosage.”
DONALD WAS A LITTLE WHEEZY fellow with glasses attached to a sporty wraparound strap. He knew how to hustle, though, and stuck to my side as I laid out the plan. Your mom’s job, I said, is to crush up some medicine and roll the moose rib in it. Your job is to take the spin rod I give you and cast the moose rib at the end of the line into the bushes. Then slowly, slowly reel it in. The minute the dog bites on the rib, you sit tight, play her a little. We’ll have only a few seconds for me to grab her by her collar. Then we’ll stick her in the kennel with the rib. Nighty-night.
Fifty feet from the house, I got a feeling. It was a sucker-punch feeling—my meal prep left on the deck. I started running. Donald ran, too, the way kids will, without asking questions, as if there might be matches and a box of free Roman candles at the end of it.
“Hey, guys?” said Candace. “Wait up.” In her peaceful, freewheeling frame of mind, she had put on Rodge’s size 12 boots.
The last, short stretch of the path, I kept telling myself that I would not have taken the meat out and left it by the grill, that I would have not put the dishcloth over it to keep the flies off, that I could have, for some reason, left the meat in the fridge, even though everyone knows that meat can’t be slapped cold on a hot fire, it needs to mellow out at room temperature. Except that I knew exactly what I had done and why I had done it—believing, at the time, I didn’t own a dog.
I also knew what I was going to find, even as I ran through the backyard finding it: bits of gnawed plastic and butcher paper pinwheeling all over the grass. Here a chunk of hot dog casing, there a lump of caribou burger. Blood juice dripped down the steps. The grill lay on its side on the deck, blue propane flames still burning.
I knelt down and turned off the valve. The birches were in their last, tattered days of September green. A leaf whirled down and landed by my foot. It was small, the yellow so fresh and bright it belonged on a bird.
“Dutch,” said Donald. “I saw her! She ran right by me.”
“Don’t chase her,” I said. “She’ll think it’s a game.” I stayed down there, delaying the cleanup ahead, folding the leaf along the stem. The edges of it were tinged with brown.
Footsteps thunked across the deck. Carl’s footsteps. Carl’s boots. He had not taken off and left me with the dog apocalypse. This was so unlike him, it took me a little longer than it should have to understand. “Your animal,” I said, “ate sixty pounds of meat.”
“Most of it, she threw up,” he said. “By the looks of the grass.”
“I have an open house, Carl.”
The flies were moving in—a throbbing blanket of vicious, busy bottle-green. With the sun out, the smell would be next.
“I could always run to Costco. Pick us up some steaks.” His tone was kind, even understanding, but steaks were not what I wanted. And there was no way to explain what I wanted, which was everything the way it was years before. Neighbors in the backyard. Charcoal smoke. Bug dope. A watermelon. People showing up with a casserole, leaving with their laughter and wet hair after a dip in the hot tub. Whatever my private upheavals, there was always that at least.
A duck paddled past my dock, blown over by the current that was ruffling the surface. I missed wind socks. Everybody on Diamond Lake used to have a rainbow wind sock tied to their deck. It added a cheerful note to the shoreline.
“I had her by the woodpile,” said Carl. “But she gave me the slip.”
“I think you should go,” I said. “Just go get your flight.”
He shrugged, scratched a bit of dry skin on his neck. “I can get another.”
“Right,” I said. “The fishing trip to Houston.”
He looked at me, as if ashamed, and I felt a little bad about calling out his lie. As far as he, I, and everybody we knew understood Houston, it wasn’t even a city, just a mythical, cutting-edge treatment center, the Shangri-La of last-hope clinical trials. You went there to get a few more months to not die.
“Well,” he said. “You got me, Dutch.” He laughed. I didn’t. Another leaf blazed down toward us. Fall lasts for weeks now—which, despite my best efforts, still befuddles me. All my life, fall took about three days in August, the leaves dropping almost overnight, followed by a licorice snow taste in the wind. Global warming, the papers say, though almost all the articles talk about are the dying caribou and the starving puffins, never the less obvious, alarming changes of every day and the guilt about living in an oil state that goes along with it. As if the rest of the country, sucking up all that oil, wasn’t also to blame.
Donald ran by us, headed for the water with a moose rib in his fist. Candace followed with my snow shovel and a garbage bag. She was still in her nightgown. Watching her try to scoop raw-meat dog vomit off the grass while wearing a gauzy orgasm of white chiffon was one of the more moving experiences of my life. She really did want to help.
I sat down on the steps. Carl sat next to me, close, then an inch closer.
“Dutch,” he said. “What a fucking corner we have found ourselves in.”
I smiled. It felt like a small, broken snowflake in the middle of my face. There was a list of questions I was supposed to ask: what kind, what stage, what organ, herbal teas, protein smoothies? Instead an image floated through my mind. His trailer. His kitchen. The byzantine mobile-home cabinetry he built himself.
For each of the six days that we lived together, I lay there in bed every morning, watching Carl make coffee, memorizing where he had stuck the cups, the creamer, the filters, so that I could make the coffee for us one day—an idea that made me so happy I had to shut my eyes and pretend to be asleep.
It was September then too. Mushrooms bloomed in the corners of the walls. Carl scraped them down with a pocketknife he wiped clean with a chamois cloth. We made spaghetti and played gin rummy and dragged ourselves out of bed only for glasses of cold well water. I was careful where I left my clothes, though, careful not to leave them on the floor, where they would take up room. I had left Wallace. And the dog. And even Howl Palace.
On the morning of the seventh day, Carl sat me down and said, in the stiff, unsettled way he had adopted the minute I arrived, “It’s just that I didn’t know it’d be so close.”
“Me neither,” I said, still thinking he was talking about square footage.
How lonely it had to be, to realize that the only resource he had left—besides his trailer and a few truly world-class stuffed rainbows—was me. Maybe getting sick had made Carl softer. Maybe this was why he had shown up. Maybe this was why he had not left, despite my need for him, as fresh and pathetic as ever. The idea broke my heart, and into that jagged, bleak crevasse, all my fears rushed to fill the gap. “I’m out of money,” I said. “Just so you know. In terms of helping you with your deductibles.”
He looked at me—puzzled, or maybe stunned.
“Out-of-network is expensive,” I said. “That’s how it is, I hear, down in Houston.”
“Dutch,” he said. “And you wonder why we always go to shit.” He stood up. He started walking down the backyard toward the dock, where Donald was standing with the rib tied to a length of frayed plastic rope he had found in the snow-machine shed.
“Wait,” I said and stood up. “I’ll keep your stupid dog.”
“I don’t want your money,” he said. “And you don’t even like her.”
“Sure I do,” I said. “She’s kind of spirited, that’s all.”
“What’s her name?” he said, not stopping, not slowing down in the least.
“Rita,” I said. All his dogs were named Rita, one after another.
He stopped to scrape some dog puke off the bottom of his boot. But he waved. “I call her Pinkie,” he said. “After your secret balloon of dreams.”
That was how I knew it was the last time we would see each other. Carl always liked to leave me a little more in love with him than ever.
EVEN BEFORE THE OPEN HOUSE had officially begun, people were pulling into the driveway. Silver had sprinkled baking soda all over the grass, then hosed down the entire yard. There was nothing else to do, she said, but hope for the best. One of her ways of hoping was to stick Donald down on the dock with his rib and his rope, where he would look like an imaginative, playful boy. Calling to his dog. With all the innocence of a kid in a lemonade commercial.
Candace was subject to a similar redecoration. Silver laid her in a deck lounger under a blanket, so it would look like she was just dozing, enjoying the sun. I sat beside her for a while, wishing she could get herself upright enough to come up to the wolf room with me, the way she had always wanted and the way I was finally ready to let her—high or sober or even just a little brain-dead from the chemicals. Carl was gone. I had no one. All over again.
I did consider pouring water on her face. But she was curled up on her side, her hands tucked under her cheek—not because her high had brought out the child in her, I saw only at that moment, but because the child kept surfacing despite the pills she took to keep it asleep.
There was nothing to do but tuck her in under the blanket and take the back stairs, which are the only stairs to the wolf room. The air in there is climate-controlled and smells just faintly of cedar from the paneling. I sat down in the middle of the skins and tried to look dignified, as if ready to answer any questions that a buyer might have. Questions that only I knew the answers to.
A young couple with matching glasses stopped in the doorway, looked in—politely, alarmed—and wandered off without a word. Over and over, this happened for the next few hours. A couple with fake tans. A couple with a baby. A couple with matching man buns. Single people and old people, apparently, didn’t buy houses at my price point. Every time another couple turned up, I told myself to smile. Or invite them inside. Or leave so they could marvel at it openly. Or disparage it. Or discuss their plans to replace it with a master bath.
Silver had told me that it was better for the closing price if the owner went out for lunch with a close friend during the open house. Now I knew why. Nobody was being unkind, but you couldn’t tell, just by looking at it, that the wolf room used to be a nursery.
That’s what it said on the plans that Benny and I ordered from Sears. The baby for the nursery didn’t work out, the way it doesn’t for some people. And so Benny and I did other things. He was tight with the Natives, as we called every tribe back then, as if they were all one big happy family or we just couldn’t bother to learn the phonetics. His parents had been Methodist missionaries in the village of Kotzebue, trying to convert Inupiat until they had stumbled down to Anchorage, confused about their life’s agenda. The Arctic Circle is not the place to go if you have even the slightest existential question.
That was something Benny always said. He knew Alaska better than me, mostly because I showed up on a ferry at age five, with a baby-blue Samsonite and a piece of cardboard hanging from my neck: FLIGHT TRANSFER TO ANCHORAGE. DELIVER TO MRS. AURORA KING. My parents had died in a head-on crash outside Spokane. Aunt Aurora was my nearest relative.
Aunt Aurora was a second-grade teacher in the downtown school district. She was deeply into young girls being educated in the ways of our Lord, and I met Benny at yet another Sunday at United Methodist. I was seventeen. He grabbed me the last shortbread cookie at coffee hour and spilled tea on his flannel shirt so we would have matching stains.
A week later he took me to the Garden of Eatin’, which was located in a Quonset hut in a part of Anchorage I had never been to. It was the fanciest place I had ever eaten. Tablecloths on every table. Real napkins. We ate Salisbury steak and vanilla ice cream, and I was careful not to lick my plate. Two months later we were married.
Benny loved me, but he also loved men. He was not that different from a lot of guides and hunters at that time. They wanted to be out in the wilderness with another man without anybody seeing. For weeks. For whole summers. He never lied about it, I never asked beyond the minimum, and we never discussed it. We understood what marriage was—the ability to hold hands and not try to forgive the other person, not try to understand them, just hold hands.
After my fifth miscarriage, they removed my entire reproductive system while I was asleep and couldn’t stop them. As soon as I was well enough to sit up, Benny dumped his shotgun buddy—a guy he had been affectionate with, in secret, for most of his life—and took me up to the snowfields to go after wolves.
“You have to have a taste for it,” he said my first time. How else could he explain why you would shove your gun out the open window of a single-prop plane drilling hell for the horizon, your face a mask of eyes and ice, your hands so cold that when you aimed for the animal fleeing across the white, your fingers did not move the way they were supposed to. Or mine didn’t. The first time, I cut my finger on the window latch and had to pull back on the trigger still slick with my own blood.
It was warm blood, at least. And I was alive. Despite any wish I might have had to be otherwise, which was maybe what Benny was trying to show me.
Most of this is to say that despite the local gossip, the wolf room was probably smaller than anybody at my open house expected. There are no windows. There is no furniture save 387 individually whittled pegs. On each peg hangs a pelt, most of them silver, black-tipped fur. Others reddish brown.
The ones staple-gunned to the ceiling are all albino white. The ones laid down on the floor are all females, with tails that can trip you if you don’t watch out, though no one watches out. Walking into the wolf room is like walking into a forest of fur. Or a feathery winter silence that lets your brain finally go quiet.
“You’ll never trust anyone like you trust your shotgun buddy,” Benny told me the night before my first hunt. Though he did not say it, he was speaking about his shotgun buddy and how much he missed him and who I had to be for Benny from there on out.
Our fire was huge and fantastical in the flat, white dark. I was afraid of the morning and what might happen, and I wasn’t wrong to be afraid. Shotgunning, as shooter, you have to aim into the wind and snow behind you—the plane going faster than the racing pack—while at the same time compensating for the dive of the plane, so that you not only don’t miss the wolf but also don’t get disoriented and shoot the propeller. And kill you both.
Up front, the pilot has to get so low to the ground and swoop at such radical angles to keep up with the pack—who keep spreading out over the snow like dots of quicksilver from a broken thermometer—but not stall and crash. And kill you both.
“Think about it this way,” said Benny. “We live or die together.” I was nineteen by then and he was the age I am now—sixty-seven. I held on to his words as though they were special to our situation, not an agreement you enter into with every person you ever care about. Even just in passing.
THOUSANDS OF FEET ABOVE HOWL Palace, Carl was on his way to Seattle, where, changing planes for Houston, he bought a balloon for a girl in a gift shop who was being rude to her mother. Downstairs, Candace was stumbling through some demonstration of my dimmers in the dining room, while her future next-door neighbor—Californian, all-cash, above asking—was pretending concern about “the whole hot tub, mold problem.” A poorly constructed staircase below, Silver was sitting in the clamshell grotto, dipping her toes in the fountain, surrendering to what she felt, at that moment, was a lost commission.
Outside, at the far end of the dock, Donald went on tossing out his rope, calling across the water, “Here, Pinkie. Here, Pinkie,” his voice squeaky with anticipation, his casts surprisingly sure-handed.
Pinkie, I almost told him, was long past coming to anybody. Pinkie was charging down the shoreline, trampling kiddie pools and sprinklers, digging into professional-grade landscaping while mothers chased after her with shovels and fathers contemplated lawsuits and the implications of those lawsuits at the homeowners association meeting—all of which they could avoid if they just jumped in the plane and took off for a few hours to remember why they had moved to Alaska in the first place.
The wind died down. Rainbows slicked along the shallows, bright with the smell of algae and avgas. Donald hardly noticed when I sidled up beside him, so intent was he on his task. He tossed out another cast—a perfect one, ending in a satisfying thunk as the rib hit the surface of the water. He cast again. And cast again. “Pinkie!” he said, unable even now to give up.