Your sister-in-law Jean calls you because Jack has been gone for too long—one night she understands, she knows that it means he’s passed out drunk at Goodtime Charlie’s or at his buddy Butch’s or Chako’s again, and he always comes stumbling back, either by himself or because you’ve gone and driven him home. He’s never been gone past noon the next day and she knows this is your day off but he’s probably dead and she has to keep pretending for the kids and, “You have to find him, Gracie. You have to find him and bring him home and I can’t call the police and I can’t ask anyone but you and I love him and I don’t know why but I need you to.” You tell Hyde that you have to go pick up Jack.
“You’re not going out in that,” says Hyde, like he always does—the two months since he’s moved in.
“I have to,” you say.
“Let me drive then,” he says.
Your brother has told you on many occasions that Hyde is a “pussy-whipped fuckshit” and that you better not end up with him. In other words, Hyde is the kind of man that is sewing you a mini-skirt out of a pair of his old Carharrts for the Miners and Trappers Ball at Fur Rondy in Anchorage. In other words, Hyde is a kind man. Jean gave you her old sewing machine and you said, “What am I supposed to with this?” You and Jack, well, the only things you know how to mend are fishing lines tied to sharp hooks.
You grab the keys from Hyde. “Someday you’re going to have to say no,” he says.
“Someday,” you say.
It’s, as Jack says, Fucking February, when everyone goes crazy and shoots themselves in the head. Jean locks up his guns from Christmas to Easter, baby Jesus to dead Jesus to just kidding Jesus. You and Hyde go to church with Jean and the kids every other Sunday. You know that the both of you don’t fill in the gap that should be Jack sitting beside her. But he says fishing is his religion, the river is his sort of god—will drown the shit out of you, an eagle, or a goddamn mosquito, and it makes no difference, and nothing is half-assed. Days like this you tend to agree with him: when it’s ten below and you’d sell your right arm to chug a few bottles of cheap wine that would knock you out long enough to forget it’s winter and that you decided to stop drinking four days ago after taking a pregnancy test that Hyde may or may not know about. He’s been acting a little too concerned lately and hinting at the future with words like “someday” and you know if you tell him he’s going to stick forever because he’s been wanting to get married for a year already and sure, he’s the first guy you’ve been with that didn’t make you want to see how far you could push him. Is that enough? To marry someone because he doesn’t make your stomach queasy with that “Baby, baby, I need you” look that means you could tell him to eat fish guts and he’d do it? Hyde wouldn’t. But he thinks everything happens for a reason. He is usually happy and in a good mood so there must be something wrong with him. He’s a goddamn optimist. He’s a morning person. He hums in his sleep.
The first place you always check is Good Time Charlie’s, and they have a phone in the back office, but no one answers it; no one can hear it over the strip-pole music. In the summer, Jack might be passed out in the parking lot, sleeping in his truck. In the winter, Sasha might have let him sleep in the office behind the bar she tends because she went to high school with him and has, you suspect, always been in love with him. You think it is only a matter of time before Jack mixes up his seasons and goes out to his truck to sleep it off in the middle of winter and freezes to death. He did once, but Sasha found him and dragged him inside.
Good Time Charlie’s is a strip club that used to have the best fish’n’chips in town, which you know because Sasha would give you an order to go while you were rounding up Jack. But Charlie died along with the “no one knows but it’s not beer” batter recipe. And there was sawdust on the floor until one day it was gone, and Sasha told you that the strippers had threatened to quit because G-strings and sawdust don’t mix, you can imagine. Before that, and the sinking-in-the-ground look of the roof, Good Time Charlie’s was a bustling place back in the oil days, the pipeline days, the “let’s conquer the frontier” days. There are tinted photos on the wall to prove it—and one with Charlie next to his ancient fryer.
And now, the place is staffed with those who were pretty enough at fifteen to ruin the rest of their lives and have worked at Charlie’s too, too long. So Jean doesn’t mind that Jack goes there, but she won’t step foot in the place. Which leaves you in the middle. Charlie’s has a few trucks in the parking lot that are already inched up with snow, but no sign of Jack’s. Inside, the straggly locals are somber and quiet and most have their backs to the dancers—no hooting and hollering tourists just off the river from a guided king fishing trip. The Kenai is frozen. Sasha says Jack was here last night with Chako.
“I was hoping he was somehow still here,” you say. And if not here, then you were hoping he was with Butch.
“I tried to make Chako leave without him,” says Sasha. “That dumbass was making up his own shots again. I can’t stand that shit.”
“I hear you,” you say.
“You want a drink?” she says.
“I’ve got another long drive ahead of me,” you say. “No thanks to Chako the Chugger.” From what you can tell, Chako and Jack have only two things in common—drinking and the Navy.
“Jack in trouble?”
“He’s never in it,” you say. “He’s just always next to it.”
Something falls and lands on your shoulder, a lacy push-up bra.
“It wants to go home with you,” says Billy, an older drunk you know.
“Hell, I want to go home with you,” says Billy’s friend, whose beard is twisted into three pointy dreads. Above the bar is a moose head with bugged-out gaga eyes and a tongue falling out of the side of its mouth. Bras hang from its antlers, and there’s a sign underneath the moose head that says, “Nice Rack.” You’re about to throw the bra back up on the antlers but stand on a bar stool instead. You lengthen the straps and tie each one around the base of the antlers so the cups cover the eyes, a push-up blinder.
“Darling,” says Billy’s friend. “He got a right to look. We all got a right.”
“Darling,” you say. “I fucking hate that moose.”
There are worse things than death. Such as someone who keeps trying for it and failing. You wonder how many times you’ve risked your own life on patches of black ice to find Jack and drive him home to Jean. And each returning you tell yourself never again. But there’s always a good reason. Jack is your brother and he protected you from a lot of shit growing up. Jack doesn’t listen to anyone else but you. Jean is seven months pregnant. Then, Jean has three kids. Jean is taking night classes. This list is long and longer, an endless river, and it’s easier to float than fight.
One of the longest nights was a Friday two summers ago, right before you met Hyde, when chapter 576 of the Cornhole Association of America from Diddly Squat, Iowa—Sasha said they wore matching blue T-shirts—took over Good Time Charlie’s. They were trying to dance on the stage with the strippers and Jack must have said something like, “Hey farmboy shiteaters, what the fuck is cornhole?” and soon a bunch of cornfed fists were swinging at Jack. Sasha called and said she and a bouncer had wrestled Jack away and she had locked herself and Jack in the office and then they both climbed out of the office window and were now down on Sterling Highway behind the Tesoro gas station in Jack’s truck. You needed to come get him, he couldn’t drive, and she needed to get back to Charlie’s before the police came. You sped to the Tesoro, dropped off Sasha, and took Jack to your place and told Jean he was in a little brawl and was fine and would be home in the morning.
You wetted a towel with warm water and handed it to him for his busted lip and somehow-not-broken nose.
“Just head shots,” he said. “Don’t worry. I’m still a beauty queen.”
“You’re going to scare your kids,” you said.
“They need a little excitement.” He yawned.
“You might have a concussion. You can’t go to sleep.”
“Where’s your cribbage board?”
You pegged point after point and played round after round and didn’t talk about what had just happened, how he could have been killed. One more punch. One broken bottle. A driving kick to the ribs. Instead, you bet ridiculous things for winning by five points and ten points and skunks and double skunks—the north pole, a Cessna airplane, a lifetime supply of king crab legs, a law that bans tourists from Alaska the month of July, three more hours of daylight during the winter, a cabin on the Kenai with its own boat launch—and then you slipped up and said, “You never having another drink.”
He didn’t look up from the cards he was shuffling, and then he slammed the deck on the table like it was an empty shot glass. “You’d have to triple skunk me,” he said. His black eye gleamed.
“Impossible,” you said.
“Well, then how about a tiny humpback I can keep in my bathtub?”
“Now that,” he said, “I can do.”
He told Jean how he risked his life to keep the Cornholes from harassing the strippers. He had the whole town calling him a hero for a few weeks. There are breaks in the routine. Jack stopped drinking for a month after that night. He has intentions. He stopped drinking four months after his first kid was born. Three months after the second. Two months after the third. The phone calls stop but you wait for them—hear the ring of alarm when there is none. He is mostly a weekender, and by Friday you’re on edge on the edge of the edge. You drive by Charlie’s just to make sure his truck isn’t there. You’re ashamed to admit that it is a relief when you do get the call, and after dropping him home you curl up into a deep and dreamless sleep. Then you cook an enormous breakfast of eggs and biscuits and tater hash and sheep sausage and eat almost enough to fill that hole in your stomach that says you’re goddamned gutless.
How many drives in the middle of the night, in the middle of a blizzard or frozen shitstorm, until you’ve paid him back? Hyde says, “This has to stop, Gracie.” Jean says, “This has to stop. I know better.” “Stop” is one of those words that sounds like what it means. You don’t know if it will.
One trip in July, you dragged Eagle Rock for kings in the combat zone, boats packed in the drift. A guide boat came too close and Jack said, “I only have room for one asshole in my life and that’s my own, so get the fuck off me.” Doormat and Hazmat, one boat over, laughed and Doormat said, “You sure you only got one?” You’d been on the river since three, the fog as thick as cigar smoke, your hands stinking of cured king eggs. Come on, sixty pounder. Come on, you hawg, you hen, you motherfucking monster. Boats ahead had stood their nets up, the flag for a hooked fish.
“Get ready, Gracie,” said Jack. “We’re next.”
You felt the hit and said, “Here we go,” and cranked the rod back to set the hook.
“Goddamn, she set that bitch,” said Hazmat.
“All for nothing,” you said. There wasn’t a lot of pull.
When kings run too soon, they’re small and you don’t want to waste a tag on one of them. They’re not worth the meat, unless you’re commercial. They can’t spawn. A waste. Good for jack-shit, which might be why they’re called jacks and you had one on your line.
“Another one of your bastard sons,” said Hazmat to Jack.
“Poor little shit just wanted to get laid,” he said back.
In the net, the fish that was pretending to be a king flicked and flailed. Jack held him against the side of the boat because if you brought him onboard you’d have to keep him. You leaned over with the pliers and worked on the hook that had gone through the black gums and out the side of the lip.
“I taught you how to set that hook,” he said.
Because of his small size, the markings along the spine were inky and sharp, the exact shape of flared wings. “Look,” you said. “He’s got a flock of eagles on his back.”
“Well, shit,” said Jack. “He does. Now you really have to kiss him before you throw him back. That’s super damn lucky.”
This time you didn’t argue. You aimed for the sleek slope of the cheek plate, right in front of the first gill slit—the high jaw—which is also your favorite part of a man. When you met Hyde, you liked him and tried to think why and then you thought, “He has the face of a fish,” and you liked him even more.
Jack turned the net inside out to release him. “Who knows,” he said. “Maybe now, after your nasty lips, he’ll turn around and go back to the ocean.”
“Fuck you,” you said. But you hoped so. You still do. He’d live a little longer. Otherwise, what’s the point of a fish with a flock of eagles on his back? Your mother has a similar hope. She lives in Chugiak and calls Jack every Sunday and he still won’t talk to her, even after all these years. She talks to Jean and the kids. He always says, “There’s no fucking way she can apologize for staying with our punchy old man, for what he did.”
“But she tries,” you say.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says. “And that’s because of me. I made goddamn sure he didn’t lay a hand on you. Not her.”
“You’ve told me some things,” you say.
“And what? Now you’re the expert?” he shouts.
And Jean will walk into the kitchen and say, “Shhh. The kids,” and that’s the end.
Chako doesn’t live far from Good Time Charlie’s. It’s a walkable distance, more so if you’re sober, but the problem is that Chako lives on an unmarked and unpaved offshoot that’s a bitch to find, a bitch to drive. You’ve gone down the wrong thick-wooded road and had to wait a few miles for a wide enough clearing to turn around. You’ve been sure the truck would ram into the tall snow banks on either side and you’d be stranded. You’re sure this is going to happen this time. The road hasn’t been plowed recently. And then you wonder how Chako and Jack haven’t killed themselves driving these same roads after a blast at Charlie’s, which makes you think that miracles do happen, they just happen to the wrong people. Chako lives in an old trailer that doesn’t have hook-ups, or a phone, of course it doesn’t. He lives in boonie land. The trailer should have burned down long ago—he has a leaky old wood-burning stove and there is smoke worming its way out of a side window. No one knows why he hasn’t built himself a little cabin. He’s a handyman, and he built himself a shrine of an outhouse. The outhouse is painted gold and has a golden onion-shaped dome on top so it looks like a Russian Orthodox church.
When it’s warmer, you have the distinct pleasure of usually arriving when Chako is standing on his front steps taking a piss. He thinks this is hilarious. If you don’t shield your eyes, he’ll start shaking it around and making a show. You know this because once you decided to stare him down, shame him into zippering up. Big mistake. You told Jack, “He’s so proud of his tiny dick it’s no wonder he doesn’t make a little golden onion to put on the end of it.” At least you’d have something more interesting to look at.
“That,” Jack said, “is the best idea you’ve ever had, Gracie.”
No sign of Chako on the front steps in the middle of February. He probably pisses into a coffee can and tosses it outside. That’s what you would do. You leave your truck running and climb the stoop and try the metal latch. It’s locked, which is strange. It’s never locked. Who would come out all the way here to ransack Chako’s trailer? And for what? You bang on the door. No answer.
“I know you’re in there,” you yell. Chako’s and Jack’s rigs are parked on the side. “Get your drunk asses up.”
The trailer doesn’t shake with the weight of someone trying to stand.
“I’m going to break the door down,” you say. “I don’t have time for this shit.” They’re probably both passed out
You shoulder the door and the old siding caves. Chako might as well have used a flap of cardboard for a door. You kick the rest of the way in. The smell of fire smoke rushes your face and you wave off the haze. You stop. That’s not your brother lying dead on the floor with a red splotch of blood covering the chest of his gray shirt. That’s not your brother’s buck knife, the one he carries everywhere in a leather sheath on his belt, bloody and sharp and sitting atop an old newspaper next to three empty bottles of cheap vodka. You will not tell Jean that her husband died in his own vomit and that she has to raise three kids by herself. You will not tell your mother her son is gone. You will not bury him. That’s not him. You back out of the kicked-in trailer and cover your eyes. You will go in again, and he will not be there, please God. The blood will not be there. The knife will not be there.
You count to ten. You step back into the trailer. There he is, on the floor, with empty orange juice cartons, bags full of garbage, fishing waders, old rusty thermoses.
He moves his head. “Help me up,” he says.
“Don’t move. I’ll go find someone. I’ll call an ambulance.”
“I’m fine.” He props up on his elbow.
“You’re not fine. Chako stabs you and you think you’re fine?” You kneel next to him.
“He didn’t stab me,” says Jack. “Someone came and picked him up for a job.”
“I thought you were dead.” You look around for something clean to press to his wound.
“Well, I’m not,” says Jack. “Not even close.”
“Here.” You grab the newspaper.
“Newspaper isn’t going to do shit,” he says. “The bleeding’s stopped. Just hand me my jacket.” He sits up and groans. You place his jacket on his shoulders.
“What do you mean the bleeding’s stopped?” You can’t believe the blade didn’t cut a vein or artery or slice through his heart. Maybe it did. Maybe he’s going to slump forward and bleed out any second.
“Vodka,” says Jack. He uses you as a prop to stand. Then he looks around. There’s a fourth bottle, half empty, and he grabs the neck. “For the drive to the hospital.”
“Fine,” you say. “And we should take this.” You pick up the red-streaked knife and drop it into an empty cereal box. When you lose a piece of yourself, say a finger or a leg, you’re supposed to bring it with you to the hospital. And for a while, the knife was a part of Jack.
You crutch him down the icy steps to the truck. Once the heat’s blasting, the fumes of vodka, vomit, and fire smoke are sickening. You breathe out of your mouth. “You going to tell me what happened?”
“Wasn’t planning on it,” he says.
“I believe his name was Jesus Christ.”
“You tell me or you’re walking,” you say.
“You wouldn’t make me walk.” He looks out at the frozen trees. “But I’ll tell you anyways.” He takes a swig. Then swirls the bottle and takes another long drink.
“Gracie, Gracie. Always listening.” He laughs.
“You won’t tell? Not even Jean? Not even that pussy boyfriend of yours? What’s his name, Hicky, or some shit?”
You grit your teeth. “No one.”
“All right. I did it.”
“You did what?”
“I stabbed myself in the chest,” he says. “I don’t remember doing it, but I must have.”
“That’s it? That’s all you have say?”
“I remember pulling the knife out,” he says. “And thinking that would do me in. But then I woke up, figured I wasn’t going anywhere—poured vodka on it all and drank some more.”
“What about Jean and the kids?” you say. “What about me? You go apeshit on us all and you think it’s a goddamn joke. I mean, I’m pretty sure I’m pregnant for god’s sake. You’re my brother. I can’t do this without you.”
“I hate to point out what’s obvious,” he says. “But you already did.”
“You know what I fucking mean.” You pound on the steering wheel.
He isn’t fazed. “Does Hicky know?”
“His name is Hyde.” You collect yourself, if there’s anything to collect. “And maybe.”
“Oh god,” says Jack. “He’s the kind of guy who knows when you’re on the rag, isn’t he? When will Gracie be bitchy? When won’t she put out?”
“Sounds like you know a lot about it,” you say.
“I’m right, aren’t I?” he says.
“You’re drunk.” Which you somehow always forget when you’re talking to him.
“I’m a lot more than that, Miss Slut.”
“Don’t worry,” he says. “You’re going to be a terrible mother. The goddamn worst.”
“I am,” you say. “I really, really am.” Because you can’t even take care of your own brother, much less some helpless blob of a baby and when did you make the promise, “I will go down into the darkness with you,” and when did you decide to keep it and your laughing sounds like you’re crying, and your crying sounds like you’re laughing. This is how you drive the snowy twelve miles to the hospital in Soldotna.
They admit Jack, and you hand over the cereal box with the knife. You tell them how you found him and you have no idea what happened. They shrug and say, “It’s February.” You call Jean and tell her only that you’re going to sober him up before you bring him home, which might be a while. You almost don’t call Hyde, but when you hear his voice, you ask him to come to the hospital in Soldotna, that it’s about Jack. The receptionist hands you a mug of coffee. In the lobby is a mannequin covered in fish hooks, articulating flesh flies, bright plugs and lures. You’ve heard the stories. Fishermen come in snagged and the doctor takes out the hooks and puts them on the same place on the mannequin. There’s a line of papers taped on the wall next to her and the top one is titled, “Name the Manikin.” You go down the list. Fish Hook Franny but then someone crossed out the “r.” The next two have definitions. Tina, my ex-wife. Marla, the fatass bitch sleeping with my husband. Then there’s Fish Hook Hussy. Fish Hook Hawg. Fish Hook Fuck-Up. The Fish Hook Totem. The Lures of Eagle Rock. Dolly Varden Voodoo. Which is immediately followed with Vagina Voodoo. The Hook Keeper. The Fisherman’s Curse. Fish Hook Whiskey. You try not to want the vodka Jack left in your truck. Fish Hook Hallelujah. Your favorite: WHAT I FUCKING FEEL LIKE RIGHT NOW scrawled in caps. Because they always find the most vulnerable parts—a treble hook at the base of the throat, ears and hands covered with tied flies. But the one that makes you cringe is the hook straight through the eye.
Jack probably won’t remember this night, the hospital, your conversation on the way. You will. And if he does remember, he’ll make a story out of it. “Some crazyasses broke in, looked like they rolled in moose turds and tried to steal Chako’s stove, can you believe it? That stove was Chako’s great-great-grandfather’s. He hauled it on a snow sled across the tundra in 1875. I said, ‘You’re not taking this stove, you fucks. Have anything else. Have a bottle of vodka.’ But they didn’t want that. So one of the two starts acting real cagey, like he thinks he can take me. And I pull out my buck knife and say, ‘You better think about what you’re doing,’ and I would have made a mess of him, if not for the slimy newspaper I slipped on in Chako’s trash-stash of a trailer, and before I know it the guy is standing over me and I’ve been stabbed and then he spooks and runs off with the other guy and without thinking I pull that shit out.” You’ll be the nag of a sister who bitches him out on the way to the hospital. Chako will hear the story so many times he’ll believe the stove is worth something, start telling his own stories about his wild great-great-grandfather.
The doctor comes out. You think, “He’s dead. You shouldn’t have moved him.”
The doctor says, “Well, looks like he’s out of the woods.”
“Yes,” you say. “Those damn woods.”
They’ve determined the wound is self-inflicted by the angle of entry. The knife barely missed a vein, but all he needed was stitches. They’re going to keep him overnight, do a psych evaluation when he’s sober. You call Jean and tell her he’s going to stay the night on your couch, a record bender this time. Chako was making up his own shots again and she says, “That goddamn Chako. I could kill him.” Jack was supposed to do inventory at the auto-parts store he co-owns with Doormat.
Hyde arrives with smoked salmon that was in your fridge and some crackers.
“There was an accident,” you say. “He’s OK. I can’t tell you about it.”
“But you will?”
“I will.” You squeeze his hand. “Soon.”
“Jean’s not here?”
“Jean’s not supposed to know.”
“I think you should call her,” he says.
“I think he should have to tell her.”
“Is there anything you need to tell me?”
“Not now.” You lean your head on his shoulder. “Not here.”
“You know what I do, while I wait for you?” he says. “I sew like my grandma.”
You could go home, but you wouldn’t sleep anyway. In the morning, they release Jack. Even they fell for his line of bull. Jack probably had promised the guy a deal on a used transmission. The first thing he says when they wheel him out is, “Hicky, what are you doing here?”
Neither of you answers him.
“Chickenshits,” Jack says. “You both thought I was gone, didn’t you? And I bet he thinks you tell him everything, right Gracie?”
Jack raises his eyebrows at you. “What, now you don’t have anything to say?”
Two weeks later and you’re at Fur Rondy. You still haven’t had a phone call, not even from Jean just to talk. They’re probably staying with your cousins in Anchorage. You and Hyde are staying with your mother in Chugiak since it’s not too far away. You watch the blanket toss and go ice bowling and see the snow sculptures on Ship Creek. One of the first-place winners is called “Qasida”—Aleut for “go fish”—and shows an open-mouthed fisherman in a kayak struggling to catch a giant halibut that is right underneath him, fighting for its life, pulled up from the depths of the ocean. The fisherman has speared the halibut in the head and rides the wake. One more flip, one more thrash, and the kayak will capsize. Either one could win. You don’t know if “go fish” is a command to the fisherman or a raised fist in support of the fisherman’s demise.
For the Miners and Trappers Ball, you and Hyde dress up as lumberjack and lumberjill in matching red flannel shirts and workboots. You in the Carharrt mini-skirt that Hyde made. You spot Jack and Jean on the dance floor, swaying to the slow music, their arms wrapped, their legs tangled. Her face is smashed into his shoulder. He has his chin tucked into her hair. If they could swallow each other under the streamers and glowing lights of blue, they would. But there’s something about the way Hyde touches the brace of your back and keeps time with his fingertips—and you make up a stupid little song—timber, timber, timber, you hold me just tight enough.