I can no longer remember certain things about the past. Faces dissolve…. A gentle touch… gone… like a candle blown out by the wind. There are still shapes in the fog…. A sort of lingering form in the darkness. I can still remember the disjointed rattling of the el train as it passes by my window. I can still remember the sensation of familiar voices in the street… scenes of sidewalks buttressed with snow, and cars buried underneath… smoothed over by the dim orange street lights. These things remain with me.
The time is gone to me now… beyond reach. Yet, its remembrance is suffused with rich melancholic hues…. It all seems better, or at least easier, to forget. Ideas, like pages ripped out and cast into flames, have dissipated… their effect no longer distinct, their totality lost. Only corners… disjointed corners remain. But, I still feel their importance… with all the desperation of one caught in a flood.
All these places have merged in my remembrance…. An alleyway, still cobbled, at the edge of the black-top, in Philadelphia… or San Francisco. A motel room, the walls yellow from smoke, the TV glowing with white noise… somewhere in the north woods. An apartment looking over Broad or Main Street. A bar, caddie-corner, where formless crowds mill about smoking cigarettes. A path in the woods… up some New England mountain or other… gnarled tree roots, bent, jutting out from the eroding earth… Brown leather shoes, pacing inflexibly across the ashen grey sidewalk, casting long shadows across the illuminated pavement. I cannot remember, anymore, if this is me.
I have rest my weary head too many places. They have all become the same upon waking, and I no longer know one from the other. Each seems unlikely… too much like a dream… and I am troubled by the lost time.
I am restless now, and I wish to repeat certain things… if only to be sure they are real. I don’t know how much longer any of this may go on… how much longer I will be taken with these visions. After all, it was ten years ago, perhaps…. I’m no longer sure… perhaps it never was. It seems a ghost to me now….
I had been living near the ocean… at the far end of Rezanoff, near Fort Abercrombie. For weeks on end it would rain. I can still see the dense fog, the mountains lost behind it… the eerie, constant turning of the wind turbines on Barometer Peak… the puttering engine of the 4 pm plane coming in.
Kodiak was an isolating place. Only really Coast Guard and fishermen. I would walk up Rezanoff to the bar, drizzling rain ever falling… the wide streets illuminated by the sickly, overcast white-nights. In the square, ancient looking Alutiiqs lined up around the welfare office… faces neither menacing nor friendly… almost amorphous in the shiftless fog.
The bar was filled with dim light and bearded men lining the counter drinking pints. The fishing ships hadn’t yet put out for the late summer salmon runs, and all the men got drunk while waiting.
When the fog broke enough, from the wind coming in off bay, you could just make out the blue domes and triple crosses, of the Church of the Holy Resurrection. It’s one of the oldest Orthodox Churches in the United States…. A reminder of who got here first. There seemed to be a lingering presence of the Russian Empire on the archipelago… hermetic cabins, deep in the woods, emblazoned with the triple cross…. Monks in long robes and Rasputin beards pacing the grounds. The only thing truly American were the sailors.
Somehow, Aida was always present at the bar. She was 22, with dark hair and fair, freckled skin. Her eyes were light blue, almost grey like the fog. Her husband was a fisherman. I kiddingly asked her once; “how do you put up with the smell of dead fish when he comes home.”
“He stinks like money,” she said.
She was the kind of woman who had grown up around men, so she tried to be tough like the men. She would cut firewood in her husband’s absence, even refusing her father’s help. She was fiercely independent, in a way many people only pretend to be.
Growing up in Alaska was a tough life, I gathered…. Once, while we walked the trails on Near Island, she told me about how her father had been a fisherman. While out in the Gulf of Alaska, his boat was capsized from a stiff, high-pressure wind. This was common. Overnight the cool air would build around the Chugash mountain peaks on the mainland. The chinook winds would channel down the steep hollows, blowing across the gulf at over a hundred miles an hour. All the fisherman knew this; they said you could see it a long way off…. But, by the time you’d see it, it was too late…. His boat got caught, nets in the water, with a heavy load on the wrong side.
The coast guard called Aida, asking if she knew any reason why his emergency beacon might have sent out the signal…. “Some reason that would not be an emergency, you mean?” She asked the dispatcher. She suggested, strongly I imagine, that they mobilize the search.
For three days, she didn’t know whether he was dead or alive. When he came home, he didn’t bother to buy another boat. He became a welder. The only one on the island.
She was standing in the background, on the other side of the bar, talking tough with the sailors—most of whom, it seemed, knew her father. When she noticed me, she smiled and waved…. She was wearing the kind of knee-high rubber boots the fishermen wore at sea, a thick gray sweater and a beanie. I remembered seeing and old photograph of Ernest Hemingway dressed the same…. I waved back but didn’t go over. When she finished the conversation, she came around the bar to where I was sitting.
“Why so glum, chum?” She joked in a hoarse, raspy voice… patting me on the back the way working men do.
“I’ve decided to leave,” I said, almost ignoring her attempt at humor, but cracking a half-smile to let her know I had caught the attempt.
“I can’t say I’m terribly surprised,” she said. “But why are you sad then? I thought you wanted to go home…”
“I always get sad leaving,” I said. “Circumstances don’t matter. It’s like all the things you take for granted, or fail to fully appreciate, remind you they’re there….”
“It’s not like you’ve been particularly happy here…. Won’t it be better?”
“Yes, I’m sure it will be…. Once I get over it.”
“Tell you what, I’ll write you letters so you can remember how much this place sucks!” We both laughed, and I took a long drink off my pint.
“It’s been nice to have you around,” she said, looking at me over her glass, which she held in front of her face with both hands.
“Bullshit it has,” I scoffed. “I’m a regular ray of sunshine….”
“No it has. But I understand… You miss your old life… You miss…”
“Yea… Caitlin…. I do miss her.” It was a sore spot. I didn’t really want to talk about it, so I stuck only to what was vaguely true. “Don’t you miss Sam when he goes away?” I asked.
“I do… But I keep myself busy. I don’t let it get me so upset. But, then again, he isn’t 3,000 miles away.”
“No, but what he does is pretty dangerous. Don’t you ever worry that what happened with your dad could happen with him?”
She looked suddenly distant when I said that, and I felt immediately that I shouldn’t have brought it up. It was a journalist’s question… one of disinterested fascination.
“Sorry,” I said.
“No. It’s fine. I just try not to think about it. It’s kind of a way of life around here. If I had a penny for everyone I’ve ever heard of disappearing in a float plane, or not coming back from sea…. But, you get a thick skin… You have to.”
“Yea, I guess so.”
“When do you leave?”
“Tonight’s my last night…. Tomorrow I leave on the 4 pm.”
“Yea…” I said. I suddenly felt drunk.
I motioned to the bartender and settled up. Aida settled up too. We went out of the bar and wandered around somewhat aimlessly in the fog. I felt nervous somehow, like so much wasn’t being said… like a lot of it shouldn’t be. Sometimes we walked in silence. I could feel her standing next to me without looking at her. It felt strange.
We walked past the church. I admired its Russian domes, all carved of Sitka spruce. “I’ve always liked this place,” I said.
“Well, the island’s nice, but I meant the church. It’s been standing in this place since we were fighting our revolution, bottled up on the other coast. We hardly even knew it was here.”
“It still feels that way sometimes,” she said.
We walked up Kashavaroff and back down Rezanoff towards Mill Bay, where I lived. There was a fog horn resounding somewhere off in the harbor. It reminded me of the Presidio in San Francisco…. All of that seemed so far in the past. Years past.
It was a long time before we came to the house. It was a drab-brown chalet style house, with a wraparound porch and a large window facing the ocean. It appeared to blend in with the Sitka spruce and alder that surrounded it, especially in the fog.
We were shivering and wet. I invited Aida in, to sit by the stove while I packed. She came in and sat down on the bed. We talked intermittently.
“It almost doesn’t seem right,” she started, “that they brought you all the way out here to do a story on the oil spill.”
“What do you mean? Somebody had to write it.”
“Yea, but for three months? That’s long enough to start a life… to start to feel like you belong somewhere.” She drawled the world ‘belong’, as though it held some special significance.
“It’s part of what I do,” I said.
She thought about that a moment. “You don’t ever start to get attached?” She asked.
“I do, but only once I’m about to leave. It has nothing to do with the amount of time…. I’ve missed places and even people after a day with them. Most of them I’ve never seen again…. But, I’ve been doing this for a long time…. I’ve lived in just about every city at one point or another. While I’m there, I never really feel like I belong, per se. I just feel like an interloper…. It’s only right when I’m leaving… then I start to miss everyone…. Before they’re ever even gone really.”
“Have you ever tried to keep in contact with anyone?” She leaned back against the bed and stared up at the ceiling. It seemed like a loaded question.
“No,” I said, kneeling on the floor, fussing with odds and ends… shoving them into my suitcase. “Keeping in contact makes it worse. You’d start to regret where you are and where you have to go…. You’d just wish you were in that place again. I try to only feel that way as long as I have to.”
“I understand.” She said.
She seemed to be somewhere far off…. Thinking of Sam on some boat somewhere, I imagined.
“If you actually did write me, I would write back,” I said, somewhat sheepishly.
“No, nobody writes anymore,” she said. I got up off the floor and sat at the edge of the bed, feeling worn out.
“I have appreciated my time here… even if it doesn’t seem like it.” I said. “It’s weird to say. It would’ve been harder if you hadn’t been around… Just a young man trying to talk to a bunch of old fisherman.” A long silence passed between us. The gulf seemed unbridgeable….
“I think I got married too young,” she said. “It’s part of this place… part of living here. But then you can’t ever leave.”
“This place seems so much a part of you, I can’t imagine you leaving.” I said.
“I mean it is home… and it’s a hard place to get back to. So I just stay.”
“It must be nice to feel grounded… like there’s a place that’s definitely, solidly home,” I said, trailing off.
“What’s Caitlin like?” She asked abruptly, out of the silence that had occupied the space between words. She was still looking up at the ceiling when she spoke, as though she weren’t really talking to me.
“She’s fine,” I said.
“Fine?” she screwed up her eyes a bit… like she couldn’t quite place the remark. After a moment she said, “You seemed to miss her…. Isn’t she the reason you’re such a miserable bastard?”
“No, honestly, it hasn’t been that exactly.”
“You don’t miss her?”
“I do, in a way, but I don’t even know if things are working out,” I said, not really grasping the weight of it. “But, I feel like I should be there… whatever that means.”
“To try and fix it?”
“No…” I said, trying to find the right words. “To try and end it. To try and start over from scratch… find a… place that feels like… home….” I must have sounded a bit cruel, but I had put a lot of thought into that. Things were not going well before I left. They hadn’t improved while I was gone. I wrote her letters, but never got any in return. I started to feel the distance.
“I don’t know, at your age, that you can just find a place that feels like home,” she said. “It doesn’t really work like that…. It takes having had the time to attach all your memories to a place. You don’t get to just make one….
“I grew up here as a kid. All of the sensations of childhood are attached to real places here. I fell in love for the first time here. I had everything happen around this place. I get why not having one would make you feel adrift, but you have to put in the work… and maybe it’s not even work….”
“Sometimes I get to thinking I feel that way about my town, but then I get there and I wonder what the hell made me so homesick. I always think I miss my friends, but none of them live there anymore, or they have jobs and don’t have time anymore…. The things I idealized to myself are all gone. I’ve been to a lot of different places, and none of them felt like home either. I keep hoping one day I’ll just have that feeling, you know? Like the nostalgia you get for a place when you’re idealizing how it used to be. I imagine that to be what home feels like.”
I stopped to gather my thoughts. I didn’t really know what I was talking about anymore. I knew what nostalgia was, what that felt like, but that was it.
Aida was no longer staring at the ceiling. Her eyes had closed, but she wasn’t asleep. I gently touched her shoulder, pretending to try and wake her. It seemed like the best way to break the silence. She reached up and trailed her hand along my arm, until it reached my shoulder. She pulled me towards her. I stiffened and pulled away weakly. “What about Sam?” I whispered. She pulled me more urgently and kissed me deeply.
In the night, she left while it was still foggy. I wanted her to stay until I had to go, but I understood that she wouldn’t… or couldn’t. When the light came up, I went to the café for the last time, and watched the morning plane come in. I decided to climb Barometer one more time. It was early August, but already it smelled like fall. There was a persistent chill to the air. The peaks, which remained snow-capped year round, had received a fresh coating overnight. I got up to the snowline, and it became difficult to walk in the slushy wet snow.
From the top you could see all of Old Womens Bay. It was a clear-blue day. The blue was punctuated only by the white-caps, which went on as far as you could see. Out past the town there was nothing. No roads, no houses… just mountains, alpine meadows and stunted Sitka spruce. Looking out at it was like looking at the farthest reach of civilization.
The plane came in on time. I watched it swing around the mountains, wobbling back and forth on its wings. I had hoped Aida might come to the airport to see me off, but she didn’t. I knew there wouldn’t be any letters. I just hoped to say goodbye. To stamp something firm and final on the whole thing.
The plane took off at five. I took a seat by the propeller, so I could watch that tiny island disappear.
Glenn Nelson is a writer and forester currently living in the small Pennsylvanian town of Kutztown. He has travelled throughout the United States for work, and the nomadic lifestyle required of seasonal forestry work has been a well-spring of inspiration for stories. He has been writing for more than a decade in obscurity and, while his articles relating to wilderness preservation have appeared in print, this is his first fiction publication.