Amber stuffed the hollow stalks of old cow parsnip with dried grass, lit the end, and smoked it like a roll-your-own. We were so young, first or second grade. Our babysitter Buffy, a brown terrier-poodle mix, investigated nearby bushes but never wandered far. Leaning against the log-sized roots of the Traffic Tree, we pretended to be older, like the big kids who smoked “weeds” out of Pepsi cans here. In the very spot we enjoyed our first cigarette, we’d once watched a game of Spin the Bottle, secretly observing locked-lip teenagers. We could be ninja-quiet in the right circumstances, but there was no need for it that day. We passed the smoke between us like old pros.
Amber’s well-worn sweat suit hosted an alphabet collage, A through Z in multiple colors, the white letters yellowing, and the knees threadbare. Amber lived next door to me with her father, brother, and sister. I was a little jealous that she had a dad and he was home most of the time, while my mom was rarely around. Learning my father’s name was growing into an obsession, and Amber understood—she had her own mysteries to solve. A couple years before, her mother went out for drinks and never made it back home. She might have been somewhere called Seattle, Amber thought.
Amber held her makeshift cigarette with her whole hand, sucked in as hard as she could, and coughed when she exhaled.
“Does your mom smoke?” she asked when she could talk again.
“Yeah, I guess. I broke all her cigarettes a long time ago, when I was like 3,” I said. I didn’t really want to talk
about my mom. I didn’t really want to smoke either, yet the fake cigarettes had been my idea. I closed my throat and tilted my head, letting the smoke escape from my open mouth before it got too far inside.
Sunshine filtered through the spruce in tiny patches, spotting us with yellow. Buffy, satisfied that the woods were safe, lay down and rested his head on my knee. He smelled like moss and wet dog and I probably did too, sitting as we were on damp ground.
“Did your mom smoke?” I asked to be polite. Amber always wanted to talk about her mom.
“I don’t remember,” she said.
On nights when my mother didn’t come home, I watched HBO with my big brother: Children of the Corn, Friday the 13th, Creepshow, Fraggle Rock. When she did come home, she smelled like pancakes and sausage and fries—the Bamboo Room aroma, a scent that wafts off all diner waitresses. I would sleep in the living room with her, just to be near it. If the tooth fairy left quarters they were sticky with maple syrup. Every day I asked my mother for information about my father and she pretended not to hear me. My older brother told me it was probably Frank, and I understood that was likely the truth, but I needed her to say so.
It poured in Southeast Alaska, pennies and frogs and buckets of rain. When our straw-stuffed cow parsnip got too soggy to light, I took Amber to the place I knew only as the Old Folks Home; Frank lived there in an apartment across the hall from my grandfather.
“My mom wants to know if she can have a cigarette,” I said when the door opened.
“She does?” He sounded surprised, delighted. We waited in his TV room while he went into the bedroom.
The apartments in Frank’s building were for really, really old people, over 55. My grandpa called it the Wrinkle Farm. There were no steps or raised floors and everything smelled weird. A single brown couch faced a small, colored television with two round knobs and rabbit ear antenna. The carpet was forest green and hard as tile. My favorite thing about Frank’s TV room was a glass-encased stack of paper with a dollar bill on top. He kept it on his coffee table by a candy dish, a cribbage board, and an enormous ashtray. When I was really little, like 3, I thought the whole stack was money. I saw Amber eyeing it and the dish of candy and I felt wise.
Frank came from his room and handed me two packs of Winstons. Amber and I looked at each other, surprised that our plan had worked. It was enough cigarettes to last until the next year.
“Any time, Sweetheart. You tell your mom I said any time.”
Inside my Anchorage apartment 20 years later, a man lies naked on my bed. The sheets and blankets beneath him are still neatly made. We never get under the covers because there is no means to control the temperature. Heat hisses from the furnace at the same rate, regardless of season. It’s early in the evening, just past seven, and the relentless light of Alaska’s July squeaks in through the sides of my blinds.
The man will never be able to sleep here. He’ll never get used to the light and the planes at the neighboring Air Force base erupting into the sky. Dust from the Glenn Highway seeps in through the window screens. Before he came over I meticulously wiped gray soot from all the surfaces, knowing that by the next day it would creep back and he would be gone.
I am not tired, will not try to sleep for many hours; instead I’m outside enjoying the unhurried setting of the northern sun, scheduled to dip below the horizon around 2 a.m. I’m seated atop a milk crate on the second floor walkway, inhaling and exhaling with the slow practiced breaths of a longtime smoker. The man’s name is unimportant. When I talk about him with my girlfriends I call him The Firefighter. The man before him was The Artist, and before him there was The Ex. The Firefighter is a decent man with a job to keep him busy and by next summer he will have forgotten all about me, or so I tell myself. But I’m not thinking about this while I smoke.
I’m thinking how I resent East Anchorage, loathe the way a bad part of town can suit me so well. The street I live on wakes up after dinner. Grandiose subwoofers punch bass out all night, neighborhood children squeal and scream, military planes roar overhead, and streams of semis whoosh down the highway on the other side of a chain link fence. This is my place in the small city I moved to five years ago. I breathe the familiar exhaust and feel at home.
When the cigarette burns to the butt I flick it into a bucket and light another. I go hours without smoking for The Firefighter because the smell will only make him leave sooner. Although we’ll never really know each other, I do feel safer when he’s around.
My efficiency is on the top corner of a two-story apartment building in south Mountain View, a notoriously rough neighborhood. The windows face north to the Air Force base and highway, and west toward downtown. I watch a mother who walks in my direction with her daughter. They have a small dog on a leash and it excitedly weaves between the gravel of the driveways they walk past and the pot- holed road they walk on. Many in this part of town rely on bicycles or the bus, yet this street has no sidewalk. The woman catches my eye, sees that I’m watching her, and pulls her daughter a little closer. I am not the danger.
The black sedan rolls soundlessly behind them, but my eyes are all for the pup, a Scottish terrier mix. He’s on a leash that connects to the mother. He’s spry and bouncy, thrilled to be out with his people. The little girl, maybe 5, stays much closer to the woman. Pup darts slightly into the road and the car—it happens fast—has no time to stop. Both right wheels bump, bump, and halt.
They have all reached the intersection by my apartment. The woman and child stand perfectly still. She reaches down to grip her daughter’s arm in slow motion, cementing the child in place. The passenger side window of the sedan rolls down and the woman says something I can’t hear to the driver. By now the child has begun to process that the other end of the leash is still, that something isn’t right.
“Snoopy?” the girl asks. “Snoopy?” A note of hysteria enters her question. The woman drops the leash, lifts her child into her arms and turns in a run up the street.
I am also trying to process what I witnessed, life and death in the span of a minute. The black car inches forward slightly and I hear myself yelling, “Don’t you move,” and run down the steps to cross the intersection and reach the sedan, thinking I might prevent a hit and run. I try to memorize his license plate. Closer to the vehicle, I see that the sedan is an unmarked police car and the man behind the wheel is in a uniform.
“What do you want?” he says.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you were an officer. I just wanted to make sure you didn’t leave.” When I say it, I realize how ridiculous it sounds. So what if he wasn’t a cop? What if he did leave? But the officer seems not to really hear me. His hands are still on the steering wheel and he looks straight in front of him, jaw clenched.
“You have to keep them off the road!” he says. “You don’t put them on a leash and then let them run in front of cars. I didn’t even see him. I didn’t even see the leash.” I note his dark hair and good skin, the fit body wrapped in a neat uniform. He seems to want me to understand where the fault lies. Perhaps he’s talking to himself, or practicing how he will report this.
My pity shifts from the little girl to the officer and finally to myself for having to witness his shame. I throw my cigarette butt down and stomp on it, realize self- consciously that I just littered, and stoop down to pick it back up.
“The dog should have been walking on the inside,” he says. But we both know the child was walking on the inside where her mother could better keep her from running into the street.
I walk around the car. The dog isn’t bleeding; he just looks a little misshapen. I reach down and touch his still body, his warm fur that is as soft as winter fleece. Just two minutes ago I was on my deck smoking while Snoopy filled his senses with the smells and textures of our neighborhood, leash attached as securely as a training wheel. What am I doing here? I wonder. My breath shortens to a pant and I try to swallow down a panic attack. The cop looks at me curiously. I’ve been touching the dead dog for too long.
A few minutes later I push open the door to my apartment. The Firefighter covers his head with a pillow and says, “I don’t know how you sleep in here with all this light.”
“I like it,” I say. “I don’t know how you can sleep so early.” I attempt to wash the cigarette smell off my hands and slide back onto the bed with him. I rest my head on his chest but the heat is too much and my bed and my apartment are just the right size for me and my cat. The Firefighter leaves within the hour.
I make myself a glass of ice water and lie down on the floor where I can’t smell The Firefighter’s spicy shampoo on my pillow. My breath shortens again. The little girl is a still frame, secured in her mother’s arms. For the rest of my memory they will be heading home, and Snoopy’s soft body, warm forever. I have split my mind in two: I’m in the sedan replaying the scene, asking myself if I’ve really been paying attention; I’m a lonely woman laid out on the floor, panting, because it’s hot and bright and excruciatingly empty.
Buffy and I walked my brand-new birthday bicycle to the hill in front of the Old Folks Home around 5 a.m. It didn’t feel early. The tireless light of Alaska’s June meant the sun never really set anyway.
My bike was so cool. It had pink tassels on the handlebars and a big basket situated behind the banana seat. I had yet to successfully ride anything without training wheels, but I imagined myself pedaling all over town (or at least all the way to Amber’s grandma’s house) with a basket full of daisies and kittens, the wind ruffling the tassels at my hands. My big brother had spent hours holding the seat and running behind me the night before, trying to keep me up straight, but every attempt ended in a crash. We finally gave up, defeated and cranky, me in tears—not for how much I crashed, but from embarrassment.
That morning I resolved to ride all the way around Deishu Drive before my brother woke up. We lived in a horseshoe-shaped neighborhood set off of another road. My mother was working poor and proud. Not once did she apply for welfare or assistance, even when we likely needed it. However, she was comfortable securing a rent-to-own modular home on Deishu Drive, available to single parents and low-income families. It was a leg up, but she was still paying her own way. My grandfather, like Frank, lived two minutes away, in low-income senior housing.
No one was awake yet so I wasn’t worried about people seeing me fall. I mounted my bike at the top of the hill and put my feet on both pedals, which is where they remained as I tipped over and slammed the side of my arm and leg into the asphalt. This won’t work, I thought. I’m not even going anywhere. At least when my brother was pushing me I was moving when I crashed. That seemed better somehow. I stood back up, gripped the handlebars, and slid one leg over the seat to mount it. Maybe if I push off with my other foot, I’ll at least be able to go down the hill a little before I wreck.
Launching the bike forward with the foot still connected to the ground, I managed to get both feet on the pedals and the wheels rolling, but I wasn’t going straight. I veered off the road, smashing into a car parked in front of the Old Folks Home. I felt Buffy’s tongue on the back of my neck.
“Go home, boy!” I said.
Buffy loitered at the top of the hill, unwilling to leave me alone. My hands were bleeding when I pulled myself up against my bike. Frank had opened his curtains and stood at the window watching. Shame burnt up my neck and spread across my cheeks.
“Get out of here!” I yelled towards Buffy.
I was resolved. I walked the bike back up to the top of the hill and tried again. And again, and again. I didn’t need a father or even a mother, I told myself, yet I was acutely aware that Frank watched. Some other pain superseded the sting of road rash, pushing me on. The feeling snapped into place like a puzzle piece and my body learned what it had to do to keep me upright, to balance.
Perhaps this was the first time I had focused my will. It is the first time I remember. I pretended to ignore Frank and the other old people who had come outside to the common deck with their morning coffee. I pedaled fast around the block all that day and all that summer. Each morning Frank watched for me, leaning out of his window with his big mug of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Some mornings he sat on the common deck with his neighbors. Once he said, loud enough for me to hear, “That’s my daughter, you know.” Mmmm-hmmm, said some other old person, like they didn’t believe him either.
Lou pulls himself from a brown Lincoln, cane first. I sit on the top step smoking and journaling and drinking tea. Lou lives two doors down from me in #5. Technically he is the building manager, which means he collects the rent for the landlord once a month. No one can really manage this building, but his presence reminds tenants that someone owns this property. In theory that should keep the parties quieter and windows unbroken.
Lou shuffles around the other cars and I wait until he arrives at the stairs to offer help. With a cane in one hand and groceries in the other, he won’t be able to hold the railings. One of Lou’s legs is a few inches longer than the other, and he’s old enough that he can no longer pretend he doesn’t need help now and again. Still, he’s proud and I don’t offer to carry things until he reaches the stairs.
Lou has thinning white hair, missing teeth, yellow skin, and the exploding nose of an old alcoholic. He’s been sober for 20 years, maybe less. The lines in his face and the spots on his hands are telltale signs of a man who lived hard for a time and lost everything more than once.
“Thanks, sweetheart,” he says when I grab his bags. “You’re a good girl.”
I’m a good girl by Lou’s standards—I work, pay my rent, go to school. I don’t smoke meth, snort coke, shoot dope. I’ve never been in prison, never even been in jail. I’m pink-cheeked and chubby and helpful, not like some of the sunken-eyed, skinny women who wander in and out of the downstairs apartments always asking for a dollar or a smoke or a ride.
Lou and I became acquainted in the mornings when I would smoke on the deck where he shaved willow branches into canes. He’s straightforward, warm, but not nosey. Trustworthy. He loves wood, shapes it deftly with hands bent and arthritic. I wonder that he doesn’t get hurt or robbed—the landlord doesn’t accept checks, only cash and money orders, so Lou is vulnerable around the first of the month. Also, he never locks his door when he is home. When I go over to play cribbage, he hollers to “just come on in, Sweetheart,” like it’s only ever sweethearts who come knocking.
I lean on Lou’s doorframe, holding his bags while he limps up the stairs. Today he sounds winded, and he’s looking especially jaundiced.
“How you doing, Lou? You had lunch yet?” I ask.
“According to the doc, I might make it through the day,” he says. Lou unlocks his door and I walk in behind him, setting his shopping bags on the counter. His efficiency layout is the mirror opposite of mine. Boxes fill the area that acts as a living room and bedroom.
Lou’s apartment is almost packed up. I ask when he’s leaving. He plans to go to Arizona for the summer, to visit his daughter one last time. Over the winter Lou’s doctor discovered his liver was failin
g, giving him an indeterminate amount of time to finish his projects and make amends with his estranged children. That’s all that matters now, he told me, this wish to see his daughter, to be forgiven.
“Cowboy is coming over later tonight to load up all my boxes and take me to the airport.” Cowboy is the maintenance man, an old friend of Lou’s and another old bachelor type who will be moving in and taking over the Building Manager title.
I don’t like saying goodbye and I don’t want to make a scene that would just embarrass Lou, so I give him a quick hug and spend the rest of the day trying not to be on the deck at the same time as him.
The summer of 1990, weeks before Frank died of a heart attack, I asked my aunt to tell me, once and for all, who my father was. I was almost 10 years old and found the not-knowing totally unfair, I explained.
“Mary Beth,” she said, “I already told you who your father is, as has your brother. It is Frank. You know that!” she said it with finality, closing the subject. I would not be able to ask her the same thing in a different way and get a different answer.
Why won’t they just tell me the truth? I thought. Frank was clearly too old to be my father. He was at least a hundred and something. He was pot-bellied and bald, had big cow eyes and floppy jowls. He even wore suspenders. Like my grandpa. The hard candies on his coffee table were so stale they picked up in clumps that had melted together. He didn’t even have Tang on his counter. He couldn’t be anyone’s dad.
But while I thought of these things I grew aware of something else. It’s like that moment in a dream when you begin to question how it is that you’re flying or how a house made of Play-Doh doesn’t just crumble: if Frank wasn’t my dad, why was I always visiting him? How come I couldn’t remember the first time I met him? Why did he open the door to the hallway whenever I visited my grandfather in the Old Folks Home?
And so I found myself at the door to Frank’s apartment, curious and horrified when he opened to my knocking. I must have looked a sight: a quiet child in his doorway, contemplating him with strange and serious eyes. I was trying my hardest to picture him as my dad. This just can’t be, I concluded. I forced myself to say the words, “Hi, Daddy,” to gauge his response.
Frank looked delighted. His enormous eyebrows lifted; in fact, his whole face changed, unwrinkled. “Well, come here then, Sweetheart,” he said. He opened his arms and waited for me to run into them. The moment was eerily dissonant. I couldn’t reach the man who wanted to hug his daughter, and never would. I clung instead to feeling rejected.
This was the last time I saw my dad’s face and the first time I split myself in two—I was the girl who smoked in the woods, wistful for a father, and I was the girl who taught herself to stay upright and told herself she didn’t give a damn.
When I could move again, I ran down the hallway with the hard green carpet, and out the door.
“Kate and I would sometimes meet after work at the Pilsen dressed in proper business clothes and still feeling both a little self-conscious and glamorous, as if we were impostors wearing disguises,” Peter reads. I reach up and flip the lamp off, burrowing further into the covers.
“How long is this story?”
“Just a couple pages. You’ll like it. The ending is lovely,” he says.
Stuart Dybek is tonight’s writer. Last night Peter read “Cathedral” and choked up when the narrator started drawing with his eyes closed. I’m not used to men who cry when they’re sober.
“Is it happy?” I ask.
“The ending? Yes, it lifts off the page.”
Lifts off the page?
It has to be happy. Last week, when he read “The Things They Carried,” I cried to the point of hiccups after he hung up. After my brother died, I stopped watching drama and horror. I stopped reading anything I couldn’t buy in a grocery store. But I’m not ready to tell Peter that. Right now it’s best that he think of me as a girl who likes happy endings.
This slow speed of Peter is hard for me to understand. By the end of our third date I was perfectly perfumed and ready to finish the evening inside. I stood pressed against my front door, panting from the silkiest, most thorough kiss I’d ever experienced in the open air.
“Come inside,” I breathed into his ear.
“I don’t know…” He trailed a finger down my neck. “I don’t know if it’s the right time. I have to think about it.”
“There’s nothing to think about but this. Right now,” I entreated. He tipped back his head and laughed, pulling far enough away that I could no longer feel his warmth. “I’ll call you when I get home.”
That was the night of our first story.
As he reads I listen sometimes to the story, sometimes to the sound of his voice. My cat curls into the crook of my arm and Dybek’s leading man falls in love, “‘this time, seeing her reflection hovering ghost-like upon an imaginary Prague was like seeing a future from which she had vanished. I knew I’d never meet anyone more beautiful to me’.”
“Hey Peter,” I interrupt. “I have to ask you something serious.” “Umm. Okay,” he says, sounding hesitant.
“Are you ever going to put out?”
He laughs for a minute. “Yes, Mary. Just listen to the story.”
Outside a winter storm pushes wisps of snow into the corners of the windowpane. I can’t hear any cars on the highway or planes overhead and I might be able to fall asleep earlier than normal. I wish I had the courage to ask Peter if he can sleep with the phone by his pillow, with the line still open.
“…It was as if I were standing on that platform with my school books and a smoke,” Peter’s voice spills out and in. He’s trying to summon the courage to tell me something of himself as well. “…I stood almost outside of time simply waiting for a train, and I thought how much I’d have loved seeing someone like us streaming by.”
It was the last summer I would spend in my shoebox Mountain View apartment. Things were going to get better soon, but I didn’t know that. I woke up late on a rare day off, set a pot of coffee to brew, and grabbed my journal. My favorite breakfast nook was the dirty green milk-crate seat I kept just below my wind chimes.
The apartment building had never looked so tidy. Cowboy was mowing the patches of grass beside the parking lot and picking up the litter that accumulated in the driveway each night. Even the rosebush, grown so wild it had crept into the visitor parking spot, was clipped and neat, reined in at the base by a brick hedge. Cowboy and I had built it together the week before with materials he found proudly on one of his dumpster-diving excursions.
I let the smell of cut grass, exhaust from the highway, and the fresh air underneath all of it fill my senses for a second before I lit up. That cigarette was to be bittersweet enjoyment. It was time to quit smoking. The day before Peter had stopped taking drags and asked for his own. At first he would just join me on the deck while I smoked, to keep me company. But things had progressed and I felt I was making a mess of him.
We had been dating for almost a year. I couldn’t explain to Peter (or understand myself) why smoking was excusable in my case, but horrifying in his. I didn’t know what I thought of myself but the truth was all around me in a crime-ridden neighborhood, glazed doughnut breakfast, waffle-waitress job, and a pack of brassy friends. I knew I didn’t want to be a bad influence on a good man. Maybe this was love. I decided I would relish that last pack and quit a habit I had fostered since childhood. Even if it meant worrying over the cost of nicotine patches or several months of withdrawal.
Cowboy had turned off the lawnmower and was crawling on his hands and knees in a patch of grass. This was awkward to watch: Cowboy was tall, maybe 6’2″, had thick glasses and an ungroomed gray and white beard that blasted off from his face in all directions. He covered his male-pattern baldness with a crusty ball cap. He usually wore paint-stained work jeans and flannel, even on warm days. I’d come to think of the whole look as standard, blue-collar Anchorage. He kept a set of tools on his person—screwdrivers and pliers in his breast pocket, hammer in a belt loop, screws and washers in his pants pockets.
“You looking for rocks?” I called down to him.
“No, Ma’am.” He stood, walked up the steps, and handed over two four-leaf clovers. He then pulled a pack of Marlboro filters out of his overstuffed pockets, and lit up. “I’m a lucky man,” he said.
“Why do you say that?”
“Did you know I grew up on a farm? That’s why they call me Cowboy.” “What’s your real name?” I asked.
“David Boyton. Long story short: I got kicked by a cow right here.” He pulled
off his cap and pointed to the front of his bald spot. It looked like every other bald spot to me.
“So now you have an affinity with cows?” I asked.
“No. But I’m lucky. I can go down there right now and pick you ten four-leaf clovers with my eyes closed.”
“Is that right? With your eyes closed?” Cowboy could make himself the hero of any anecdote.
“Yep.” He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a cluster of clovers, holding open his hand in front of me. All had four leaves.
“How do I know you haven’t been collecting those all morning?” I said.
“Hold this.” He handed me his lit cigarette and stuffed the four-leaf clovers back into his pockets. He went to a different patch of grass directly in front of the parking lot. “Watch me now,” he said. With his eyes closed he put out his hands and started walking in circles like a zombie. After a second, he stopped, hands out still, and dropped to his knees. I saw him pluck grass but couldn’t tell if his eyes were still closed. He pushed himself up and came back, taking his still-lit cigarette from my hand and replacing it with four more four-leaf clovers.
“You can keep those too,” he said.
I looked at the clovers, thinking he must have done some sleight-of-hand maneuver and grabbed some that were in his pocket. But the clovers weren’t crushed or wrinkled. I slipped them into my journal with the first two he’d given me.
“When I was a boy I got kicked by a cow and it knocked me out. When I came to I was lying in a patch of clovers. Ever since, I can feel for them,” he said.
“What does it feel like?”
“I don’t know. Maybe like electricity or something. But it’s not just that. I can feel when I’m going to get lucky.”
What is so lucky about Cowboy? I asked myself. Almost 60 years old, living alone in a tiny apartment in a bad neighborhood, kicked in the head as a kid and now he feels lucky. But I wanted to believe him. I liked his good outlook and now I had a journal full of lucky charms.
“Thanks for the clovers, Cowboy. I need all the luck I can get. I think I’m going to try to quit smoking. After this pack.”
“Oh yeah? Well if I could quit drinking you can quit smoking,” he said.
“How long you been sober?”
“Fifteen years,” he said, then changed his mind. “Maybe five. It took me a few tries. It doesn’t take luck though. It takes balls. Big balls and hard work.”
“So it’s a lot like everything else.”
Cowboy tossed his cigarette in the Folgers can and sat on the top step, looking outward or inward, I couldn’t tell. It was a good silence, an easy silence. I smelled the coffee brewing in my apartment, and a sweeter smell wafting up from the rose bush. I’d read that the sense of smell is the first thing a body recovers in nicotine withdrawal. I arranged the remaining clovers into my journal and wondered if I could capture that luck—the essence of clover, green and fresh, pushing up and up and into the summer.