by Lucy Corkhill
Third Prize in the Bare Fiction Prize for Short Story 2016
Alaska, March 1989
Hank’s never told Marlene that the first time he saw her in Bob’s Five and Dime he thought she was some kind of angel. That at ten paces, the sun coming through the store windows prinked her frizzy white-blonde hair into a halo. It was the summer of 1961, Hank was twenty, Marlene just sixteen. He was back in Seward for a month, down at his father’s place. Even now, he can remember the prattle of the bell at the door, the rush of laughter and cheap perfume as Marlene and her friend Lou Ellen walked in. When they started dating, Marlene liked to recall Hank standing at the cash register with a tack hammer, his mouth hanging open. Goofy, she called him. Sassy, he called her. They laughed together.
Now, twenty-five years into their marriage, Hank still can’t look at the luminescent glow of Marlene’s skin without a shiver of awe. He wouldn’t know how to put the feeling into words. Just sometimes, when he’s hauling the day’s catch over the side of the boat with Jerry and the light moves in a particular way across the water, or a whole rainbow appears in a single fish scale — it’s there, the feeling. Then Jerry’ll shout out, call him an old man for staring out to sea, and Hank will know he’s been drifting.
It’s Marlene he’s thinking of as he pulls the truck into the trailer park on the evening of March 23, 1989, their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. Her half smile, before he knows if she’s happy or sad. The ice chip blue of her eyes. Not long after they met, she told him kids had teased her at school about her hair, pretended to be electrocuted when they walked past her. So then he couldn’t tell her about the angel thing, because it’d have sounded like something he’d thought of after to make her feel better about the teasing.
Their trailer squats at the end of a drive Hank hacked out of the snow. On either side, banks of white five foot deep won’t melt until June. New flakes obliterate under his wipers. When he cuts the headlights, it’s dark except for a blue glow from the bedroom window – Marlene in bed watching one of her shows.
Hank had wanted to go to the taco place just opened on Harbor Drive. One night, leaving the bar with Jerry, he’d glanced in the windows of the restaurant and — in a rush – imagined its colour and light reflected in Marlene’s eyes; laughter — theirs and the other diners’; a waitress taking their orders, coming through the swinging doors from the kitchen with steaming plates of food. Marlene’s hand in his, on the table, like in the movies.
A phone call was made to Pete Troyer, Marlene’s new boss at the fish packing factory. Hank felt foolish asking a kid who sounded fresh out of high school if Marlene could have the night off, but Troyer said go ahead, be my guest. Marlene needs a break, he added. And then this morning Marlene said she didn’t want to go, didn’t want to be around the tourists coming off the tour boats. ‘Yakking voices, cameras going off all the time,’ she said.
Leaning across to the passenger seat, he grabs a box of chocolates with a fancy pink bow. He’d wanted to get her something else. A dress, maybe, like the ones she’d worn when they were dating. The pale green one, colour of new moss. And he’s back there – standing behind her in the line for That Touch of Mink with Cary Grant and Doris Day, the curve of her hips beneath the dress’s nipped in waist, her swan-white neck, the candyfloss hair. She’s looking back over her shoulder, smiling at him. Eyes sea-sparkling.
But there was nowhere sold dresses like that anymore.
When he pushes open the door of the trailer he calls out to Marlene, and she calls back to him. ‘In here,’ she says. He goes through to the bedroom. Marlene is sitting up in bed, the blankets pulled up to her chest. The light of the TV dances over her face.
Hank goes to his wife, and he kisses her. She smells warm, sleepy.
He glances at the TV. ‘What you watching?’
‘Oh you know, one of those re-runs.’ She smiles at him.
Though she pretends not to, Hank knows Marlene loves the sit coms in which wholesome happy families seem to spill out of the screen and fill their trailer with canned laughter.
In the kitchen he heats a can of beef stew, eats it alone at the Formica table. Marlene won’t eat now, and he knows when he goes through she’ll have fallen asleep, her chin on her chest. He flicks through the newspaper – usual small-town stories. Back in 1964, there’d been the earthquake, four days after Hank and Marlene’s wedding. A tsunami had wiped out Seward. Twelve dead, Hank’s father amongst them. The newlyweds started life in the Tatitlek trailer park with the clothes they stood up in.
As he’s turning the lights out, he sees the chocolates with their fancy pink bow still sitting on the kitchen counter. He’ll give them to Marlene tomorrow.
Jerry’s phone call wakes Hank in the early hours of the following morning, March 24.
‘I’m coming to pick you up, Hank,’ he says. ‘You gotta see this.’
Jerry and Hank share a two-man gillnetting boat, make their living from the fertile Alaskan waters. The two of them have been working side by side for the best part of twenty years: good times, bad times. Jerry’s left copies of boat magazines lying about and Hank knows he’s been thinking of selling. There’s more money to be made working on one of the factory ships and it’s less work. When Hank thinks of Jerry, it’s Jerry at the bar with an armful of thigh-slapping Tina Mendez he sees, not the family man with wife and child. But he rarely misses Jerry and his wife Miki’s barbeque parties where they drink beers and laugh under a high sun while the child, who has some kind of deformity, plays indoors.
First light is just beginning to seep through streaks of cloud when he hears Jerry’s truck outside. Marlene’s still sleeping so he doesn’t put a light on. He stumbles in semi-darkness, leaves the smell of burnt coffee lurking in the corners of the trailer. Dressing by touch, he pulls on his waders and red shirt.
Jerry is keyed up when he gets in the truck. ‘Christ, Hank, you’re not gonna believe this shit,’ he says, barely getting his mouth around the words before they tumble out. Hank hopes the sound of Jerry accelerating out of the trailer park hasn’t woken Marlene.
‘It’s unbelievable. When you see, fuck, you’ll know what I mean.’ Jerry pounds his fist on the dash, momentarily veering into the left lane before yanking the steering wheel straight. The truck smells of the hundred eighty pound buck they shot up at Yakutat, one of the last of the season. It’s a rich smell, reminding Hank of a heavy day’s work, forearms crisp with black blood.
Over Eyak Lake, Canada geese stream across the sky like grey ribbon held in the pinch of a finger. On their left, Sheridan Glacier roars soundlessly out of the mountains. Just last week, Hank saw a pair of goshawks returning to their summer nest out behind the trailer. He is always surprised by how pleased he is to see them return, as if he half-expected them not to.
Jerry pulls a cigarette from his breast pocket, lights it, and cranks the window down. The spring air is sharp as flint. As they follow the road down to Prince William Sound, the sky opens up before them: white, vast. Hank thinks of those late night detective shows he watches with the sound down so as not to disturb Marlene; of torches unfurling the crime scene under their bright beams. Jerry’s got the radio blaring…looks to be one of the biggest oil spills in America’s history…the Exxon Valdez ran aground at four past midnight…yes, Karen, we’re just beginning to get the scale of it now…
‘It’s them damn fool oil companies,’ Jerry is saying, but more to himself than to Hank. As they turn into the road leading down to the Sound there are about twenty trucks, most of which Hank recognises, pulled up like their drivers had no time to park. Outsiders are bunched together around TV vans spilling equipment and newsgirls in thick make-up. Jerry swerves the truck to the side of the road, slams the brake. ‘You coming?’ He’s hauling his maroon parka from the back seat, doesn’t look at Hank. ‘In a minute,’ Hank says, but Jerry’s already out, banging the door behind him. Hank watches him make his way towards the crowds of people gathered on the shore. Familiar faces turn to acknowledge Jerry’s arrival; Hank closes his eyes so he doesn’t see their expressions.
It wasn’t long after they married that they found out Marlene couldn’t have children. They’d travelled up to Anchorage to see a specialist. Hank listened to the white-coated man talk about Marlene’s tubes and imagined some place within her pale body, all technicolour reds and pinks, blocked like a drain. ‘Couldn’t bring kids up in this kind of life anyways,’ she said, then. It’s a hard life, they’ve both said that.
She’ll be sitting up in bed again now, melting into the blue haze from the TV, picking at dry cereal with ghostly fingers. She talks about the girls at the factory with a kind of wonder: ‘It’s just a summer job for Penny, she’s on college vacation’; ‘June’s saving up to get a car — reckons she’ll hit the road next year latest.’ She’s been so tired lately, sleeping between her shifts at the factory. ‘It’s a job for young people,’ she says, though there are plenty of her peers in blue plastic overalls.
Maybe they should have searched more, put a probe into those tubes, got her a baby by hook or by crook. Maybe they should’ve thought of adopting, got themselves a baby from an orphanage.
As he steps down from the truck, the cold hits him in the chest. Down on the beach, groups of people in boiler suits stagger and slip over the blackened stones. Jerry is standing with the others a hundred yards away, and Hank hears snatches of his wild hollering.
Beyond an orange caution barrier flapping in the wind, the shore glitters black as far as the eye can see. The Exxon Valdez has vomited oil clear across the Alaskan sea. The tide pulls the water in and out but it is a bubbling brown muck that drags up onto the shingle, carrying the fish he and Jerry catch: bloated in death, almost unrecognisable. The stones are lavishly coated with oil, glossy and winking, and at first it’s difficult to make out the form of creatures washed up. But then Hank sees it. He crouches down to look closer, careless of the oil as he falls to his knees. A tightness builds in his throat and he puts an oil-smeared hand to his neck as if he can contain it, or rip it out, or something.
It’s just a sea otter. He and Jerry see sea otters every day, floating in pairs, paws around one another.
Just a sea otter.
Lying on its back, paws flung out from its body. Pelt clotted with oil and white teeth fixed in a tight grimace.