The school bus strobe works across the the wall of our room, lighting up the closet doors. Haley shifts on the mattress in the corner, moans something about her socks on the wrong feet. A few days before winter solstice, a holiday Alaskans seem to care about more than Christmas, because it means this darkness will begin to scoot away. The baby snores. We’re all packed in here together, the window cracked against our cumulative heat – and also the boiler, which seems intent on heating us out of our new home.
Just a few nights here, and I’m learning to judge the height of the waves, the direction of the wind by the doleful basso profundo of the foghorn buoy off the red can by Maknati Island, skills real fishermen surely mastered as children. Clatter of tire chains as the school bus growls down the street, until there’s nothing but the cold salt breeze coming through the window, and the day ahead – wrapping up the Stanford class, University of Alaska and those kiddos needing grades. Cladding the girls in their wool long-underwear, keeping a good eye on Kiera-Lee because she climbs anything in front of her, and will swing herself down the stairs while Haley still clings, white-knuckled, to the banister.
Since the last post a few months back my wife has become a judge. How ’bout them apples? Robed in black silks once worn by a beloved who fell between floor joists to his death. A man beloved on the island. The shoulders are big on her, this man’s robe, a fact that only underlines the magnificence of her post. (Believe it or not there’s a store that sells judge-gear. She’s ordering one sized appropriately.)
At the party for her in the law library a red velvet cake decorated with the Lady of Justice. Lady of Justice indeed.
Our chickens did not make the move with us. Haley misses them – we’re contemplating building a coop, but hell we can barely keep our own selves clothed and warm, and we come before the chickens, dang it. Although I will say shortly before making the two-block move we had to transfer the Americanas to our front yard because chickens, lo and behold, are racist motherfuckers, the Barred Rocks and Rhode Island Reds pecking the Americanas to death. Viscious little bastards. But they make good eggs. The Americana’s happiness – for the time we were able to observe – increased ten-fold in the front yard, the two birds roosting in the Japanese maple, feathers all puffed up.
But I get distracted.
The house: a peach, built 1930, yellow cedar foundation posts. Footings made by pouring concrete into wooden barrels. Hardly any insulation – if you shined an infra-red at the thing it would glow like a hammered thumb. A shed dormer that carpenters literally pulled off the ridge, tearing out the nails, prying up like they were opening a pop can until they got the pitch they liked. Stunning.
But over the years it’s held. Tacked on a scab collar tie, and called it good. The house perched on a hill, so it gets good drainage, and heated with aforementioned over-eager boiler, so everything’s dry, rare for a house in this temperate rainforest. That first photo a view from the roof, where I have dreams of building a widow’s walk, despite what it might augur.
Here’s what else is funny about the house: when I first met Rachel she was renting the basement apartment, working as the law clerk down at the court. (October 2012.) After work she’d walk to the Hames Center, where I taught Cuban salsa. We began to make study dates – she was working on passing the Alaska bar, I was finishing my book. I’d motor down Finn Alley in the 4Runner, enveloped in a cloud of exhaust, and she’d climb into the front seet, and we’d make our way over to the Highliner Cafe, to our table with the backgammon board painted over the top.
By the time we were studying it was February 2013. Two Christmases later, we were pregnant with Haley, living in the side apartment, before getting kicked out by the landlord over Colorado’s howling. And now finally we move into the vaunted main apartment, crammed into that upstairs room, happy and warm, except when the baby won’t sleep, which is, like, always.
The creatures so skittish, the weather alternating between warm and cold and little snow, though a fair bit of ice. The rut lasted a week at most. Got one high up after a series of trips, waking early to take Haley’s Comet out and about, calling in the muskegs. The one I got with a couple buddies, turning to take a leak, this silhouette fifty yards off between the trees. Sub-alpine, dwarf pines, muskeg, wisps of Old Man’s Beard. Raised the rifle, shapes among the branches resolving into a deer. Shot offhand, burst of moisture and nothing where that shape had been. Head torqued over by the shot. The violence of sulfur and charcoal and saltpeter, the smell of it still on her neck. Then took one more on the beach, a forky . Meat in the boat, meat in the freezer.
We brined the ribs, then smoked them, then salted them, then slow-cooked them into a rib stew that was so rich a few spoonfuls would do you for the day. I don’t think I could re-recreate it unless I got another lactating doe, fatty and dense-muscled. No fawn with her. Haley packages up the meat, works the vacuum-sealer like a champ. It’s fascinating to me how she kisses the bags before sealing them, hugs the bags. Rachel thinks it’s because she doesn’t differentiate between eating something and love – and this because she once drank milk from Rachel’s breasts, and – of course – also loves her mother. Rachel’s mom think’s it’s the reason for her nightmares, that I have her butchering them with me.
The girls: an undeniable, constant pleasure, though my god are they work, especially in the winter. Just getting their goddamn shoes on, gloves, hat. If ye lose the Eagles hat good soul I cannot help you. Haley’s already driving the boat, if you can believe it. We go out to see the “wakey-whales” in the Comet. Halloween came and went, Haley as Shirley Temple, the baby as Frankenstein, a costume she took to as it it was made for her. So blissfully content with the stitches painted on her forehead, trolling for candy. As I mentioned our young one’s a little monkey. Hanging on the bars at gymnastics months before Haley could. Climbing up the bunk-beds like no one’s business. (Though I had what could have been an epic Daddy-fail, filming her climb and then she fell on video. Whoops. Thankfully I was near enough to one-hand it.)
Finally, the Adak. Kicking butt and taking names. The Airbnb, which we thought would shut down in the winter, has been going strong, folks drinking too much wine in Seattle, fooling around on the computer, and suddenly they’ve rented a tugboat! We moved the boat inside for the winter, the view isn’t as good but geez it’s nice to have her near the ramp. Folks don’t have to take that long walk out either. Brazilian jiu-jitsu continues its success, a bunch of guys and gals continuing to come out and support the program, learning to choke each other, break arms, so forth and so on, all useful skills (it would seem) we all appear to be tacitly preparing for.
On that note we’ve continued to raise the girls to operate on their own. Without needing us. Burning themselves on the wood stove so they know, falling a few steps on the stairs so they know. Faceplanting in the snow so they know. A thorn of experience worth a wilderness of warning, that idea. It sucks – the other day Baby cut her thumb on a steak knife, but hell now she’s got a healthy baby respect for steak knives that I do believe will stick with her for life. And Haley so ready for school, she is not a mama’s girl, not a papa’s girl. She is her own kid. Out on the trail she’ll sit and spend a good ten minutes contemplating the mountains before announcing it’s time to go. And god help you if you try and help her put on her backpack, or open a snack or give the chickens feed. “Not do it daddy! By self.”
How hard it is not embalm them in bubble wrap as they go through this world, a child hurt – there’s nothing worse. But to see their blooming independence, strutting around in Carhartts, helping to package deer, working the vacuum sealer – it all begins to make sense.
Speaking of independence Rachel was sweet enough to set me loose on Seattle to see an Eagles game, where I got to see Carson Wentz warm up before the game. (Pre-injury, a sad pic to see now.) There I got to meet Mr. Will, a babe perhaps with the most epic head of hair in the history of babes. Alex and I looking both a bit more grizzled, but still heads up despite the pathetic Eagles loss.
Came back north to a Mimi-visit. Haley took her to gymnastics, where she was game enough to leap into the foam pit. I avoid that thing like it’s quicksand, which it more or less is. Had a living nightmare moment after jumping in with all these moms looking down as I floundered, sinking farther into the blueberry chunks of foam. Like I was a father in the tour of Wonka’s Chocolate Factory that had gotten too curious and now was paying dearly for it. Word to the wise: if you see a pit of blue foam chunks, run the other way. Don’t go near it. You heard it here first.
The yellow cedar I cut down last year dried, got them planed down and made into shelves for the house, which was satisfying. First step to getting the place in order, yellow cedar all tung oiled up. Shortly after Haley and I poached a Christmas tree from the side of the road, which turned out to fit grand in the corner of the room. Baby passed out Christmas eve by the tree, visions of sugarplums dancing in her head, this might be my favorite 2017 Christmas photo thanks to Sarah Newhouse.
We finished up the fine year (seems like not so long ago we were fighting town for our boat, on our heels, bleeding money and scrambling) down in California, visiting Rachel’s mom, and friends – Haley’s godpapa. Walks across silty plains, s’mores above the lake. Any child’s dream, any parent’s dream, especially factoring a hot tub.
Looking at this photo of Justin and Haley, seeing her chewing on grass just like her daddy does, it’s hard not to think of that day coming down the pipeline more quickly than I like to think when Haley will be stepping onto that school bus, followed shortly after by Kiera-Lee. We’ll still be here, Rachel and I, waiting on the icy sidewalk as the chains on the wheels of that yellow box clatter down the street with our kids inside. Sun lighting up the harbor, our home, which perhaps won’t be yellow anymore. Another project among so many projects, painting.
On the one hand, it’s true: you can’t keep up with a paintbrush. On the other hand, it’s not so bad trying. If I’ve learned one thing it’s that all the good things seem to happen amidst hard work. Here’s what else I’ve learned, perhaps by burning my own hand on the metaphorical stove: hineni. Hebrew for “here I am,” the response Abraham gives when god tells him to take out the knife. That’s the secret to it all. Here I am.