SUSAN CLARKSON MOORHEAD
As for dating, there wasn't much to do. By my second month on the island, I was wearing his younger brother's clothes, even his outgrown boots, something Creedence found somewhat unnerving when he slipped a hand beneath one of his brother's Henley pullovers to wander over my breasts. My suburban summer clothes were all wrong up here faced with the surprising cold, the mud slicked paths on the trail from the boats to the house, the surprise of daily passing rain, heavy as if a great grief had momentarily overwhelmed the sky. There was a constant dampness of living practically on the water, the house on stilts with all its unfinished pockets and edges, and those first weeks when I slept on one of the boats until they acquired a pregnant cat to introduce fear to the bold and rampant mice.
We'd claim some reason to go to town, but it was just to get away from his family, too close in the small house. We'd take a dory across the bay to the mainland and walk the harbor down to the end where an old retired fisherman kept house in a boat that never went to sea anymore. In his working days, he'd been kind to Creedence, the oldest of a pack of kids, all boys, whose parents had escaped the lower 49 as they called it. Former hippies who couldn't abide by the whole peace/love thing, they had sulked their way through Alaska until they found their spot, cheap land on an island thirty minutes across a glacier bay. They named their boys after favorite bands, taught themselves how to build a house, grow and forage for food, can their own jams and to pickle everything. People at the salmon cannery told me they were considered to be a little crazy, but, as the old fisherman winked at me, who wasn't in Alaska?
He had a great story about a bear swimming all the way across from the island lured by the smell of grilling bacon and halibut steaks on the old man's hibachi set up on the dock. The bear hoisted himself up on the wooden slats of the walkway, hunkered down and swiped an eager paw at the sizzling bacon. "I crept right up behind that ole bear and booted his rump right back into the bay," he said, roaring with laughter. In another version of the story, he'd whacked the bear over the head with his cane. No matter which way he told it, we'd smile, listening until enough time had passed that he'd say yes when we asked to borrow the truck, a rusted Ford that Creed kept running for the old man.
Sometimes we'd go to the dump where Bobby, a pal of his from high school kept watch from the back of his pick-up, rifle in hand, ready to fire in the air or off to the side as a warning shot for any of the bears snuffling through the garbage when they got too curious about folks driving up to ditch their trash. The first time we drove up, Creed was talking to Bobby and we stood by his truck overlooking the vast field of piled up garbage. I saw a stack of books tilted into a mountain of discards and went to take a look. Rounding a tall heap of refuse, eye on the books, hardbacks no less, I failed to notice a very large brown bear chomping at something one garbage stack over. We both saw each other at the same time and froze, and then the bear stood up as if reaching that great height would allow him to make sense of me in his small round eyes. I noticed the ragged strands of his meal hanging from his mouth, the impossible length of his curved sharp claws, and then I heard Creed's choked voice not far behind me, urgent and low, saying, "Baby, don't turn around, don't run." I let his voice hold me like a praying hand, walked backwards slowly, talking low and sweet to the bear who dropped to all fours and took a few inquiring steps my way. "I mean you no harm, stay back, please, bear, stay back, " I said in a slow repeat. He paused when he heard the truck, Bobby roaring over to pick me and Creed up, and the bear loped off. "You make a fine couple," Bobby yelled at us in the truck, "two damn fools!" but when I tried to talk no words came and anyway, Creed gave a shake of his head to hush me. Bobby's hands were shaking on the steering wheel.
Creedence was due to head out on a boat for a job, staying away for three weeks while I endured his family who only endured me. They'd liked me enough when I was money in their pocket, a girl who'd come up from Arizona to work in the salmon cannery, looking for a room to rent. But once we started going out, they didn't like me anymore. Their oldest boy was their pride and joy. I heard his mother hissing in the kitchen at him, "why her? All those nice girls in town and you pick her?".
The night before he was to leave we borrowed the truck and he took me for a drive. We headed farther out from town than we had ever been and part of me hoped we would just keep going. But he turned onto a highway, driving over a spill of chain link that had once roped the road off, a tilted rusting sign saying we were east bound on 84. We drove a mile or two, whip fast, the wind rushing by our open windows, not a soul beside us on the road. He started slowing down and it felt like the forest was closing in. He slowed to walking speed and then braked, the road ending abruptly in front of us. Nothing but a wall of fir trees and the smell of pitch. "They ran out of money, " he said with a grin. "Does that just beat all?"
I thought he would reach for me then and turned towards him, but he was pulling out a paper bag he'd tucked under the seat. He pulled out two oranges, the palm sized ones that cost five dollars a piece at the market in town that we never bought, the price too high. He handed me one, and we peeled our oranges in the car, the air filling up with bright citrus notes. We separated our oranges into segments, eating them slowly, and then I fed him a piece and he fed me one. Each bite seemed sweeter because of the portion of bitterness left in the strands of pith that still clung to the fruit. I wiped my hands on his brother's jeans that I wore and settled in the crook of his arm, and we looked out at the fence of trees in front of us, listening to the wind stir in the branches.