Authors: T. C. Boyle
For Paul Slovak and Bettina Schrewe
Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat our tunes to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.
There were a hundred and seven of them, of all ages, shapes and sizes, from twenty-five- and thirty-year-olds in dresses that looked like they were made of Saran Wrap to a couple of big-beamed older types in pantsuits who could have been somebody's motherâand I mean somebody grown, with a goatee beard and a job at McDonald's. I was there to meet them when they came off the plane from Los Angeles, I and Peter Merchant, whose travel agency had arranged the whole weekend in partnership with a Beverly Hills concern, and there were a couple other guys there too, eager beavers like J. J. Hotel, and the bad element, by which I mean Bud Withers specifically, who didn't want to cough up the hundred fifty bucks for the buffet, the Malibu Beach party and the auction afterward. They were hoping for maybe a sniff of something gratis, but I was there to act as a sort of buffer and make sure that didn't happen.
Peter was all smiles as we came up to the first of the ladies, Susan Abrams, by her nametag, and started handing out corsages, one to a lady, and chimed out in chorus, “Welcome to Anchorage, Land of the Grizzly and the True-Hearted Man!” Well, it was pretty cornyâit was Peter's idea, not mineâand I felt a little foolish with the first few (hard-looking women, divorcÃ©es for sure, maybe even legal secretaries or lawyers into the bargain), but when I saw this little one with eyes the color of glacial melt about six deep in the line, I really began to perk up. Her nametag was done in calligraphy, hand-lettered instead of computer-generated
like the rest of them, and that really tugged at me, the care that went into it, and I gave her hand a squeeze and said, “Hi, Jordy, welcome to Alaska,” when I gave her the corsage.
She seemed a little dazed, and I chalked it up to the flight and the drinks and the general party atmosphere that must certainly have prevailed on that plane, one hundred and seven single women on their way for the Labor Day weekend in a state that boasted two eligible bachelors for every woman, but that wasn't it at all. She'd hardly had a glass of chablis, as it turned outâwhat I took to be confusion, lethargy, whatever, was just wonderment. As I was later to learn, she'd been drawn to the country all her life, had read and dreamed about it since she was a girl growing up in Altadena, California, within sight of the Rose Bowl. She was bookishâan English teacher, in factâand she had a new worked-leather high-grade edition of
wedged under the arm that held her suitcase and traveling bag. I guessed her to be maybe late twenties, early thirties.
“Thank you,” she said, in this whispery little voice that made me feel about thirteen years old all over again, and then she squinted those snowmelt eyes to take in my face and the spread of me (I should say I'm a big man, one of the biggest in the bush around Boynton, six-five and two-forty-two and not much of that gone yet to fat), and then she read my name off my nametag and added, in a deep-diving puff of a little floating wisp of a voice, “Ned.”
Then she was gone, and it was the next woman in line (with a face like a topographic map and the grip of a lumberjack), and then the next, and the next, and all the while I'm wondering how much Jordy's going to go for at the auction, and if a hundred and twenty-five, which is about all I'm prepared to spend, is going to be enough.
The girlsâwomen, ladies, whateverârested up at their hotel for a while and did their ablutions and ironed their outfits and put on their makeup, while Peter and Susan Abrams fluttered around
making sure all the little details of the evening had been worked out. I sat at the bar drinking Mexican beer to get in the mood. I'd barely finished my first when I looked up and who did I see but J.J. and Bud with maybe half a dozen local types in tow, all of them looking as lean and hungry as a winter cat. Bud ignored me and started chatting up the Anchorage boys with his eternal line of bullshit about living off the land in his cabin in the bush outside Boyntonâwhich was absolutely the purest undiluted nonsense, as anybody who'd known him for more than half a minute could testifyâbut J.J. settled in beside me with a combination yodel and sigh and offered to buy me a drink, which I accepted. “Got one picked out?” he said, and he had this mocking grin on his face, as if the whole business of the Los Angeles contingent was a bad joke, though I knew it was all an act and he was as eager and sweetly optimistic as I was myself.
The image of a hundred and seven women in their underwear suddenly flashed through my mind, and then I pictured Jordy in a black brassiere and matching panties, and I blushed and ducked my head and tried on an awkward little smile. “Yeah,” I admitted.
“I'll be damned if Mr. Confidence down there”âa gesture for Bud, who was neck-deep in guano with the weekend outdoorsmen in their L. L. Bean outfitsâ“doesn't have one too. Says he's got her room number already and told her he'd bid whatever it takes for a date with her, even if he had to dip into the family fortune.”
My laugh was a bitter, strangled thing. Bud was just out of jail, where he'd done six months on a criminal mischief charge for shooting out the windows in three cabins and the sunny side of my store on the main streetâthe only streetâin downtown Boynton, population 170. He didn't have a pot to piss in, except what he got from the VA or welfare or whatever it wasâit was hard to say, judging from the way he seemed to confuse fact and fiction. That and the rattrap cabin he'd built on federal land along the Yukon River, and that was condemned. I didn't even know what he'd done with his kid after Linda left him, and I didn't want to guess. “How'd he even get here?” I said.
J.J. was a little man with a bald pate and a full snow-white beard, a widower and a musician who cooked as mean a moose tritip with garlic and white gravy as any man who'd come into the country in the past ten years. He shrugged, set his beer mug down on the bar. “Same as you and me.”
I was incredulous. “You mean he drove? Where'd he get the car?”
“All I know's he told me last week he had this buddy was going to lend him a brand-new Toyota Land Cruiser for the weekend and that furthermore, he was planning on going home to Boynton with the second Mrs. Withers, even if he did have to break down and shell out the one fifty for the party and all. It's an investment, he says, as if any woman'd be crazy enough to go anyplace with him, let alone a cabin out in the hind end of nowhere.”
I guess I was probably stultified with amazement at this point, and I couldn't really manage a response. I was just looking over the top of my beer at the back of Bud's head and his elbow resting on the bar and then the necks of his boots as if I could catch a glimpse of the plastic feet he's got stuffed in there. I'd seen them once, those feet, when he first got back from the hospital and he came round the store for a pint of something, already half drunk and wearing a pair of shorts under his coat though it was minus thirty out. “Hey, Ned,” he said to me in this really nasty, accusatory voice, “you see what you and the rest of them done to me?,” and he flipped open the coat to show his ankles and the straps and the plastic feet that were exactly like the pink molded feet of a mannequin in a department store window.
I was worried. I didn't want to let on to J.J., but I knew Bud, I knew how smooth he wasâespecially if you weren't forewarnedâand I knew women found him attractive. I kept thinking, What if it's Jordy he's after?, but then I told myself the chances were pretty remote, what with a hundred and seven eager women to choose from, and even if it wasâeven if it
âthere were still a hundred and six others and one of them had to be for me.
There were thirty-two women out of a population of 170 in Boynton, all of them married and all of them invisible, even when they were sitting around the bar I run in the back room of the store. Average winter temperature was minus twelve, and there was a period of nearly two months when we hardly saw the sun. Add to that the fact that seven out of ten adults in Alaska have a drinking problem, and you can imagine what life was like on the bad days.
I was no exception to the rule. The winter was long, the nights were lonely, and booze was a way to take the edge off the loneliness and the boredom that just slowed you down and slowed you down till you felt like you were barely alive. I was no drunk, don't get me wrongânothing like Bud Withers, not even closeâand I tried to keep a check on myself, going without even so much as a whiff of the stuff every other day at least and trying my best to keep a hopeful outlook. Which is why I left the bar after two beers to go back to Peter's place and douse myself with aftershave, solidify the hair round my bald spot with a blast of hair spray and slip into the sport coat I'd last worn at Chiz Peltz's funeral (he froze to death the same night Bud lost his feet, and I was the one who had to pry him away from the back door of the barroom in the morning; he was like a bronze statue, huddled over the bottle with his parka pulled up over his head, and that was how we had to bury him, bottle and all). Then I made my way back through the roaring streets to the hotel and the ballroom that could have contained all of Boynton and everybody in it, feeling like an overawed freshman pressed up against the wall at the weekly social. But I wasn't a freshman anymore, and this was no social. I was thirty-four years old and I was tired of living like a monk. I needed someone to talk toâa companion, a helpmeet, a wifeâand this was my best chance of finding one.
As soon as I saw Jordy standing there by the hors d'oeuvres table, the other hundred and six women vanished from sight, and I knew I'd been fooling myself back there at the bar. She was the
one, the only one, and the longing for her was a continuous ache that never let up from that moment on. She was with another woman, and they had their heads together, talking, but I couldn't have honestly told you whether this other woman was tall or short, blond, brunette, or redhead: I saw Jordy, and nothing more. “Hi,” I said, the sport coat gouging at my underarms and clinging to my back like a living thing, “remember me?”
She sure did. And she reached up to take hold of my hand and peck a little kiss into the outer fringe of my beard. The other womanâthe invisible oneâfaded away into the background before she could be introduced.
I found myself at a loss for what to say next. My hands felt big and cumbersome, as if they'd just been stapled on as I came through the door, and the sport coat flapped its wings and dug its talons into my neck. I wanted a drink. Badly.
“Would you like a drink?” Jordy whispered, fracturing the words into tiny little nuggets of meaning. She was holding a glass of white wine in one hand and she was wearing a pair of big glittery dangling earrings that hung all the way down to the sculpted bones of her bare shoulders.