His orange and blue Hawaiian lamp gave off the only light in the room. It highlighted the James Dean poster, the picture of his high school buddies pretending they were a rock band, the collection of unopened root beer bottles from all over the world that people on trips brought back for him when he lived in California, and the picture of him and Marlene where he is trying to pick her nose and she is scrunching her face in a tight smile and pushing him away.
It fortunately didn’t highlight the piles of thrift store clothes that littered the shaggy brown carpet, the closet, which had even more clothes, clean and dirty mixed, falling out onto the other piles, or the plates stacked beside his bed which had crumbs of cheese sandwiches and Oreo cookies that grew staler by the minute.
Doug lay on his back with his hands under his head, intermittently closing his eyes and reopening them to stare at the popcorn ceiling with glitter flecks sparkling in the dim light. Woody Guthrie strummed his guitar and provided the usual soundtrack to Doug’s existence.
Dosing between one dream world to another, Doug lay in his army green boxers and soaked in the warmth of the electric floor heater, precariously perched on the cluttered desk.
Behind the thick curtain of old upholstery, there was snow falling. It blanketed the hard earth, and softly ornamented the tall conifer trees. Even Ned’s fishing ropes that hung between the trees were laced with the white dust that fell so evenly over the land.
Ned had made these “Layers of Sky” about five years ago. The four corners of these huge fishing nets were tied securely to the strong trees, and they made huge hammocks, resembling circus trapeze nets. In the summer, Doug had climbed the trees and ropes, and sprawled out on a hammock, sometimes swaying 200 feet above the ground.
Ned, Doug’s Indian neighbor and sole companion for the last six and a half months, had been suffering from arthritis and hadn’t been able to climb. But he had smiled contentedly when he saw his young friend make use of his prized creation.
In the winter, it was too dangerous and cold to “climb the sky,” but Ned’s elaborate hammocks made a beautiful work of art when covered in the glittering white snow. He looked forward to the ice cycles that would further adorn his handiwork.
The record ended; the needle softly lifted and the low hum of the turntable was the only sound in the room. Doug turned over and tried to sleep, “for real this time.” He hugged his pillow, his sleepy breath added to the sour fragrance of the room. He dreamed of Kyla, the most beautiful girl he ever dated. She was often the woman who featured in these restless morning visions. He cupped her head with his right hand, thick auburn hair cascaded through his fingers; his left hand pulled her abdomen closer to his. His body pressed as hard as it could against the bed. He woke up, unsatisfied.
Doug pushed himself up with his long muscular arms. He stretched his back and neck by arching a look toward the ceiling, and finally forced himself out of bed. He stumbled out of his bedroom, but the cold wood of the den inspired him to go back and find a pair of socks.
With one fuzzy black and one green and white checked foot, Doug shuffled to the kitchen to make some tea. After setting the blue kettle on the gas stove, he opened his mini fridge and grabbed the last blueberry bagel. He couldn’t tell if there was any mold since the blueberries looked like mold, so he just decided to tempt fate and eat it anyway.
He scratched his face, still not used to the beard that had been growing there for the last two months. He sat down at his small cream-colored Formica table, ate his bagel, stared at the empty chair on the other side of the table, and waited for the water to boil. It seemed like this was all that he had been doing for the last month: sleeping, eating, waiting, dreaming. There was no work to be done this time of year. All the fishing was done, and Ned didn’t need any more wood. He had three ten-foot piles of firewood leaning against his cabin.
So Doug was left to this quiet. This is what he wanted. This is what he had wanted. This was what he wouldn’t admit that he didn’t want. He sacrificed too much for this life in Alaska. He had no other choice.
The teakettle squealed with fury, and Doug answered its call. He mechanically placed a new Lipton tea bag into his stained mug, poured the boiling water into the mug, lifted the tea bag’s string up and down until the color of the liquid turned a dark brown, lifted the tea bag out with an old spoon and threw them both into the metal sink, poured a touch of 2% milk into the tea, stirred, and sipped in silence.
He looked around his small home. He almost smiled at what represented his life: clutter. Then he shrugged himself down in his chair and broodingly wondered why this was what represented his life.
There were bits of camera pieces in a pile on the coffee table, a reminder of how he spent yesterday – taking apart an old camera, not necessarily to understand how it worked, just to see if he could take a camera apart. There were four different radios stacked against the far wall; they had two things in common: they were all old and broken. There was a bookshelf full of existential and philosophical writings, none of which Doug had read completely. And there was his guitar.
The one thing he felt he was good at was playing his guitar. He even recorded his songs. He’d pop a cassette disk into the one stereo that did work, and he’d mess around with some chords until he found a tune he liked. If he didn’t like anything, then he’d just save the recording for inspiration later.
Doug pulled on the nearest flannel shirt and jeans and defaulted to his musical hobby. He put an unlabeled cassette in his stereo, picked up his guitar, and waited for inspiration.
Doug cringed as he heard the familiar notes of a song he had written over a year ago. He immediately pushed the “stop” button. He stared at the stereo. He let out a resigned sigh, and pushed “play.” Memories flooded his mind as the discordant melody flushed itself into a song.
“Hi, uh, Mr. Richardson. Is Marlene there… Sir?”
“Doug. Doug Adams, Sir.”
“No, she’s not here.” Mr. Richardson hung up the phone and probably went back to his televised football game.
Doug hung up the phone. “What is with that guy? What did I ever do to him?” Doug fumed over his frustration, “I hate talking to her dad. Why doesn’t she ever answer the phone? Why is she never there?”
He picked up his guitar and strummed angrily. “She’s probably with Kurt. That two-faced asshole of a musician! She’s always with him… It’ll never last. She thinks he has some kind of ‘deep side’ just because he wails about love and emptiness. But he’s a typical bandleader – a heartbreaker. He’ll dump her, or just go off on tour and never come back, and then she’ll come crawling back to me, demanding comfort.
Doug thought about Marlene, his jaded music serenaded his memories. He remembered their “Decade Dates.”
The forties: Marlene wore a black dress with white polka dots. A skinny black belt accentuated her slim waist, and the white pearls drew attention to her delicate collarbones. She had dyed her short hair a reddish brown, and little curls were perfectly placed at her temples. She wore a small black hat, deep red lipstick, white gloves, and a black patent leather purse.
She looped her arm through his sailor whites, and they strolled through downtown Orange. They ate lunch at Watson’s café; he’d tip his hat to onlookers and they’d giggle about the stares they received.
The eighties: With his hair slicked back and his bomber jacket on, Doug knew he looked good. He would have worn the Top Gun sunglasses, but they didn’t quite fit in to the roller rink scene.
Marlene squeezed into jeans two sizes smaller than she usually wore. Her hair was dyed blonde, and she wore a hot pink headband to match her two-sizes too big sweater. Pink and turquoise leg warmers oozed out of her roller skates, and she held Doug’s hand tightly as he swung her around the roller rink, screaming, “I feel the need for speed!”
The harsh lyrics from the tape sung by his own voice interrupted Doug’s thoughts. He turned his stereo off. He picked at the strings of his guitar and pictured Marlene’s genuine smile. He tried to write a song about loves lost, but the intended emotion felt fake somehow. “Did I love Marlene?” he wondered. “I wasted a year of my life on her, and I don’t even know if I loved her.” He shook his head.
“Whenever you break up with a girl, your memory somehow exaggerates the time you spent together,” he told himself. “Besides the fact that she drove you to school for a year, you probably spent a maximum of two hours a week with her. Get over it!”
“Yeah, but you didn’t break up with her,” he answered himself. “You were never officially dating, you idiot!”
“Well, I would have broken up with her if we ever did date,” the argument continued.
“Maybe, but at least you would have had the option available.”
“I wasn’t ready to be stuck to one woman. She would have never allowed me the freedom to come up here if I had told her how I felt about her. Besides, she may not have even liked me that way.”
“If you need to believe that, fine. Go ahead. Keep living in your illusions. Keep justifying your indecision.”
Doug grew tired of his own company. His loneliness crowded him out of his cabin. He needed some manual labor to rid his mind of this inner turmoil. He grabbed his thick ski jacket and walked outside.
It couldn’t have been later than noon, but the waning daylight made it appear to be at least four o’clock. He picked up the axe that was lying in the rocky dirt of his covered porch, and he went into the forest to chop some wood.
There was something about sore muscles and sweat that usually emptied his mind of unwanted thoughts. His boots crunched in the snow. He quickly spotted the suitable victim, and in an hour, he had it down and was dragging it to his chopping block. He attempted to lose himself in the rhythm of the hard work. But the image of Marlene’s smile kept invading his solitude.
“What’s so great about a smile?” he shouted as he split the wood. “She was no better than any other girl! Kyla was ten times more beautiful.” He forced himself to picture Kyla. Her long, shapely legs – she was a runner. She could run for miles. She had the most delicate hands, and her eyelashes! She just had to close her eyes, and the long dark lashes would grace her high cheekbones. She was beautiful. She was ruthless, but she was beautiful. “So what that she broke up with me to date my former best friend, Rob!” Doug thrashed the wood. The axe got stuck in the stump, and it took him two minutes to pull it out again.
“I didn’t have to do much to get another girl. Lindsey asked me out the next week! So there!” he shouted this last sentence as he struck another blow to the defenseless tree. “And I broke up with her! So there!” he said again.
“And Erin! I broke up with her, too!”
Doug kept chopping away at the wood and his remorse. He was disappointed when the daylight finally gave in to the early afternoon darkness and forced him to put down his axe.
He tied the wood into bundles, and carried them, three at a time, to Ned’s place. He tried to hold on to his bitterness about past relationships, but he kept returning to the thought that Marlene was different. “She was not as beautiful as Kyla, but she had a deeper beauty. Her dignity and high standards were more attractive than batting lashes. She was not as feminine as Erin, but she wasn’t a tomboy like Lindsey, either. She was athletic; she played soccer with a thirst for blood, but she would laugh at her competitiveness after each game. And her laughter was kind and delightful. She stuck to her convictions, but she was unbelievably spontaneous and fun. And she was so smart! She could explain anything she read. She could make sense of Nietzsche, Kafka, Whitman, … God and then translate them into something even I could understand. She’d almost become the author. She would put herself into his mind and seemingly understand every nuance. Then she would step back and analyze him with the insight of a kindred spirit. She was remarkable.”
Doug smiled as he lumbered in the dark with his burdened arms. He was happy in his admiration of Marlene. And he was satisfied that he had made the day productive through this unnecessary labor, Doug contentedly added to Ned’s overflowing piles of firewood. The Indian came out of his home. He stood on his porch and watched his happy friend work. Doug grinned, “I know we don’t need all this, but we may be glad for all of it someday.”
“You needed it today,” Ned said in response, “but you are done now. Come in and eat with me.”
Doug’s stomach growled at the suggestion. He emptied his arms of the last bundle and followed Ned into his cabin. Ned was in the kitchen, dishing out large portions of venison stew into big white bowls. Doug took a seat at the solid oak table and looked around the room. There were pictures of Harley Davidsons all over the walls. Doug smiled at the image of Ned on a motorcycle. He remembered when Ned first picked him up on his 1976 Harley Davidson FLH Lowrider. Ned wore a red bandana tied around his head, a brown leather jacket, and tan shorts. Doug had been hitchhiking for two months, and he was in Bethel when Ned rumbled up and asked, “Where to?” Doug responded, “Anywhere!” Ned told him to “Hop on,” and they drove north for a good hour.
They drove on a dirt road for a while and finally ended up here: “the middle of nowhere,” as far as Doug was concerned. Ned allowed Doug to stay in his brother’s old house. Ned’s brother, Vincent, had been dead for eight years. He died in a fishing incident. The facts of the story were vague to Doug, but he was happy in his ignorance. All Doug knew was that his new home was located somewhere north of Bethel on the Kuskokwim River. He had his mom ship out his stuff to Ned’s PO Box in Bethel, and he’d load up a few boxes into the trailer whenever he and Ned went to town for supplies.
Doug’s reminiscing showed on his thoughtful face. Ned silently placed the stew in front of his friend and took his own place at the table. He slurped the concoction; his head bowed low over the soup. Every once in a while, his forehead’s wrinkles would be magnified as he raised his eyes to observe Doug’s quietness.
When Ned finished his meal, he pushed his bowl towards the middle of the table and openly stared at Doug. “You are unusually quiet today.”
Doug looked up. He had been oblivious to Ned’s presence. “Yeah.” Silence. “Something’s wrong, Ned. I think I’m kind of… homesick.”
“I don’t remember why I came here,” Doug continued. “I know that I’ve always wanted to see Alaska, but why did I chose now? What am I doing here?” Doug asked, looking for Ned to shed some light on these questions.
Ned sat quietly, listening. He said nothing.
“I mean, I know that I wanted to leave California because…well, California is the only place I’ve known. I know that I wanted to get away from home. I wanted an adventure… I’ve been planning to do this for years!” he pleaded.
Doug looked again to his quiet companion. “I’m not convinced,” Doug stated flatly. His eyes looked to the left; they stared through the doorway of the kitchen, resting on the stove, but not focusing on it. “I’m not convinced that this is what I really wanted,” he concluded to himself.
“This was your choice, my friend,” Ned reasoned. Doug opened his mouth to protest, thinking that Ned might have been offended by something he said, but Ned kept speaking. “You chose Alaska over other options. Time and circumstances might have influenced your choice, but you made the final decision. Even if you had chosen to do nothing, you would have made a choice.”
Doug stared at the starlit sky through the web of fishing nets. His breath came out in white puffs. His hands dug deeper into his pockets. “Nothing is a choice?” he asked the sky. “Alaska is something. This experience – it’s something. I chose something. I didn’t give up Marlene for nothing.”
As a green beam shot through the darkness, Doug remembered Marlene’s desire to see the Northern Lights. “She would have loved this place.”
Regret washed through him as he thought that he had never asked her to come with him. He had never put his love into words. He had never risked rejection. He had chosen nothing.
Copyright © 2000 Cathleen M