Premonition of Winter
*Below is a short story I completed in December. It's an excerpt, as it is being considered, I hope, for publication. It's a long-shot, but it didn't seem fair to publish the whole thing on my blog in the event some generous editor decides to put it out. If you just have to read the last 15 pages or so, shoot me an email or leave a comment with yours, and I'll see what I can do. Otherwise, feel free to guess how the story goes from there in the comments. that might be fun.
Happy New Year.*
Premonition of Winter
Matt stepped out of The Pipefitters' Club and let the cool Alaskan air dispel the sluggishness of four beers. The others from the night crew were still throwing darts inside, but he had decided to turn in early. It was nearly 10 a.m. Fifty yards away, a pile of snow in the parking lot across the street stood glimmering in the early sun. Matt had been watching that snow pile all summer, and with August just days away, it now seemed certain he’d been right that the snow pile would make it through to another Valdez winter.
Matt pulled his parka closer. Despite the mid-summer sun, there was something about Alaska that made him want to husband his strength, to store up his assets, even if all they amounted to were the clothes on his back and those piled up in his room, smelling of fish guts and too much bleach.
Matt walked downhill along the road that bent around the little marina below and led to the bunkhouses back at Seahawk Seafoods, where he had come to make a pile of cash and forget about the people and things that had caused him to need it so badly.
So far he hadn't made much money, with even less saved, and the forgetting had been harder than he expected.
"Lerner!" called a voice up ahead. Matt looked up from his scuffed boots and saw Sully Salander waving with a package in his hand. "Got something for you. It is addressed to you, but it was in my box."
Matt walked closer to his friend, an ex-college wrestler who had busted a knee and busted out of school a few years before, and had been spending his summers in Valdez ever since. He worked with Matt on the night shift, slamming frozen racks of salmon just out of the overnight freezer hour after hour and was always ready with a story or a joke though he rarely went drinking with Matt and the others. Matt never could figure out what Sully had done in the off seasons, when the snows piled so high in the endless dark that Lower 48ers either fled or went near mad by Christmas. He had stories of the circus, of traveling Central America, constant, casual talk of women and experience that always left Matt off kilter. Sully didn’t drink much with the crew, but his was the dorm you found when you needed a pill. He liked to say, “Tell me where it hurts and I’ll tell you what you need.”
Matt didn’t take advantage of the pills, but he liked hanging out with Sully. He was tall where Matt wasn’t, strong where Matt was slim, and had an easy confidence that reminded Matt of his younger brother, who was on his way to setting sports records at the same high school Matt had graduated from two years before.
"I brought it for you, since I knew I’d want to go to bed before you’d likely want to quit throwing darts," he said, reaching out to grip Matt’s shoulder in the roughhouse way he had.
Matt took the box and smiled. "You brought it for me because you’re hoping there’re some cookies from home in it. Even a redneck from Kentucky knows that much, Salander."
Sully laughed. “If there is anything red about you, Lerner, it ain’t your neck. Maybe your over-handled cock, that I’d believe.”
Matt made as if to put the box under his parka and move on, but Sully thumped his chest gently. "Not so fast. Open the box, already. If your mom sent more snacks, and you're still determined not to eat them, I might as well have first dibs."
He handed the box over. "Open it yourself."
Sully looked at Matt for a moment, but took the box. Care packages from home were as valuable in Alaska these days as gold had been back when the Klondike got hot. He pulled a lock-back Case knife out of his belt holder and sliced through the layers of tape. Matt liked that knife. It was the same one he had bought as a Boy Scout years ago with his allowance, now sitting back at home in a drawer somewhere. He figured it'd be a long time till he saw it again.
"Same as last time." Sully rummaged in the box. "Sausage, cheese, crackers. Little Debbies. Spaghetti. And yes sir. A package wrapped in your mom's flowery napkins. I'm feeling good. Must be chocolate chip."
Matt felt a grin spread across his mouth. As bad as things were between him and his mother, her chocolate chip cookies had been a constant in his life since summer camps. But as quick as the smile came it left. Your father is right, Matt. This thing with Erik has to stop. You have to remember who you are, who your family is.
"Bingo! I was right. Chocolate chip,” Sully said with a smile, bringing Matt out of his reverie. Sully looked up with a sly face. “But not enough to share. Mind if I take them?”
Not waiting for an answer, he began wrapping the cookies up, minus the one between his teeth. “Want one?" he asked.
“Keep it all, buddy. You can buy me a beer tomorrow morning after darts, ok? It's about time you stopped standing us up."
Matt saw Sully’s wide brow crease for a moment, and then go smooth. He put the cookies back in the box and the box under his massive arms. Matt could feel him looking hard at him, even as Matt turned away to fix his gaze on the nearby boats. Wind from the bay was blowing his short hair back.
“Matt,” Sully said softly, taking the half-eaten cookie out of his mouth. “You alight?”
Matt started to answer, but instead merely nodded, keeping his gaze on the water.
“You going to talk to that chick with the red bandana from the box room? What’s her name, Melinda? The one from Utah.”
“It’s Melissa, I think.” Matt said. “And I doubt it.”
“Why not, she’s been asking about you for two weeks.” Sully looked at Matt’s eyes again, but they were still aimed at the boats. “She ain’t ugly, my man.”
Matt smiled wryly, and turned his head back to look at his friend. He pulled his hoodie up over his head, and began to walk past him. “What can I say, Quinn the Eskimo, she’s just not my cup of meat.”
"Hey Lerner, wait." He heard his named called, but suddenly he was more than just tired. He wanted to get back to bed and away from Sully, away from the box of cookies and all the feelings he had come to Alaska to sort out. The ones he had found, once he arrived, to be just as heavy here as they had been back home. He felt tired.
He was walking faster and the voice behind him grew muffled as the boats sitting in the marina loomed closer. Up ahead there was one whose sign had frequently caught his attention. It was called Misty Marine, but with the n missing, it read like Misty Marie, which is just as well because the faded logo next to the name was of a bar wench with big tits and welcoming smile with sailors jostling each other to get her attention. It was maybe 24 feet long, with a squat cabin roughly in the middle, a staircase descending to a half-visible door, and more stairs snaking down to the hull. Up top, closer to Matt, was a pulley system that he recognized as the muscle behind the massive nets that would be strung up had the boat been in use. He couldn’t see the engine but he knew it would be big for the boat’s size. Only a fool captain would feel safe in those freezing waters without a good deal of reserve strength.
Matt had wanted to come to Alaska to work on one of the fishing boats. The money was a lot better and after living so cautiously for so long he had felt the call to do something bold, something that would surprise his friends and his family.
But at the last minute, he had been dissuaded. Most of the boats were run by experienced crews of two or three men who had survived what might have been their deaths. Each summer they took on a new hand or two, but it was the original crew who counted as family. The idea of being the stranger in a group of rough, competent men had appealed to him somehow. He felt he had much to learn. But what he found out when he was asking around last spring when he got off the plane in Anchorage was that the kind of wet suits that mattered in Alaska – the kind that actually would save your life if the boat went down – cost about ten grand each.
Most small ships only had a couple or three of these suits – and if the ocean began rising, it wouldn't be the new kid looking for college money who would get one that worked. "Three minutes to live in water that cold," a gin-drinking man had said that first night off the plane in Anchorage, in the back of the bar when Matt was still getting used to the idea of ultra long days. "That's all you get." Matt had thanked the man, pushing back the fourth drink across the table, and left the bar to find a room to rent. The advice had seemed after a while to be the kind meant to protect an investment.
Walking back along the streets in Anchorage, with the passed out natives sleeping off heavy drinks along the way, he felt another fear tickling his shoulder blades. It wasn’t new, and the advice had stayed with him. In the end, the warning had been enough to keep him on land.
Four months later, he was poorer for it, but still alive. He counted it a bargain, but he knew it had been fear, fear that had pushed him out of the bar and off the boats, a fear so familiar he had come to count on it. That knowledge had cost him something. Like chewing a tough bit of steak with a sore throat: you can't swallow the gristle but pushed over against the side of the mouth, you can work around it. But you can't ever really forget it's there.
He felt a big hand on his right shoulder spin him around. He almost tripped. "Lerner!" A panting Sully was in front of him, traces of annoyance running across his face. "What the fuck? Slow down. I am trying to talk to you."
"What?" Matt said, annoyed at his clumsiness and half-worried that the thoughts he had been stewing on had been spilled out onto his face by the sudden interruption. "I'm right here."
"You were practically jogging, dude. Didn't you hear me? I said you have a message."
Matt looked down and Sully was holding an envelope from home. It had his dad's business logo on the right corner, the outdated ones with his former partner's name still part of the firm's name. Lerner and Truth, counselors at law. His dad had always loved that name, even after he found out that his partner, Solomon P. Truth, had been a liar and a thief.
"Sorry, Sully," he said, taking the envelope. "I'm just in a hurry. But thanks."
He turned around again and pulled his poncho even closer. The sun had gone in, and though it was late July, Matt had been in Alaska long enough to know that the permanent condition was always "Chance of snow and freezing,"--no matter the month or the temperature. The snow might have last fallen months ago, or just that morning, but what counted was the threat of the winter coming. It was a feeling that made the summers shorter than they really were. Valdez woke up every spring like a bear coming out of his winter cave: Slowly, as if driven by hunger for sunlight after the deep dark and long cold nights, where the sun shone two hours a day, if at all. The snowfall the winter before Matt arrived had totaled 550 inches, which is why the sun never got around to melting all of the big ice piles in parking lots around town.
Bears were probably different, less bothered by the sense of things. But it seemed to Matt that it had taken weeks of warmth to really convince anyone in Valdez that the winter was gone, especially among the year-rounders. The summer sun was still a regular fixture in the blue skies, when the rains held, and midnight still as bright as the summer evenings back in Kentucky in which Matt used to run around looking for lightning bugs with his brother just ahead of their father’s come-home whistle. But sun or no sun, thoughts here had already turned to the winter ahead.
Matt shivered. Bundled up now, he walked home as a light rain began to fall. The water was making puddles in the bay, where the boats were lined up. Most of the smaller crafts were out, but a few of the bigger boats were still there. He hadn't been there long enough to understand the schedules, but the empty spots on the docks gave the place a lonely cast. He had seen eagles that summer, but none flew high today. And there was a kind of quiet due to the rain that seemed to blanket everything with an additional layer of soot or sleep.
He looked down at the envelope. It was addressed to Matthew Lerner Jr., and he was surprised to see it was his dad's handwriting, not his secretary Joyce's. Looking at the envelope, he suddenly knew that it contained bad news. He stopped walking and leaned against a red metal post that marked the entrance to a slip on the dock occupied by a boat he was mildly surprised to see was the Misty Marie. He could hear bustling from within the cabin, but saw no one. He leaned more fully against the post and looked down at the envelope again.
Flee, all is discovered!
He smiled at the whimsy, remembering the phrase from a novel by Robert Penn Warren he had read during the last semester he had been at college. It was one of the reasons why people went West, Warren had written, when they come home late and night and open the telegram with the message, Flee, all is discovered!
He had fled already, though, and not just West but North. And yet the message, whatever it said, had found him anyway. He was considering tossing the envelope, like some unwanted telegram, into the water when he found that his fingers were working the flap.
Warren had also written, he recalled, that when faced with the yellow telegram sitting on the ground in front of the door, a large part of you wants to not know what is written there. To stay warm in the not-knowing.
Still, the end of man is to know, even if he can’t know whether the knowledge will kill him or save him. One way or the other, you open the fucking envelope.
Matt opened the fucking envelope. Whatever his father wanted to tell him from his Olympian perch would be aimed at either hurting him or changing him. Even as he ripped it open he knew that he had been a fool to think that he had moved beyond caring. Four thousands miles might as well be downstairs in the fucking basement, he thought as his brow darkened and stomach clenched.