Johnny America




In the Wil­low Mu­nic­i­pal Laun­dro­mat, wait­ing for the tent to dry, Kate spots two signs taped to the wall. One ad­ver­tis­es the Tal­keet­na Mu­sic Fair, in three days, six­ty miles north. The sec­ond lists a cab­in to rent, on a moun­tain lake, just up the high­way. The two signs quick­ly merge in­to one in­tractable idea. As Kate tells it to Ed­die, her voice races. Even­tu­al­ly he looks up from the job list­ings in the An­chor­age paper.

“In two days,” Kate says, “I know I can string twen­ty pairs of ear­rings. I’ll sell them for twen­ty bucks apiece, right at the gate. The cab­ins $20 a night. That means we make $360.”

“I don’t know,” Ed­die says. “You think peo­ple will buy them?”

“It’s a folk fes­ti­val?” Kate says as­sured­ly. “I know my market?”

Three days lat­er, Ed­die, who passed the cab­in time silent­ly drink­ing a case of beer, sleeps un­til noon. Kate painstak­ing­ly hand-paints the word ‘in­spi­ra­tions’ in sil­ver across the front of a pur­ple shoe­box. She care­ful­ly places the six pairs of del­i­cate blue, and pink, and pur­ple bead­ed ear­rings she’s fin­ished in the box. Then she wakes Eddie.

Ed­die loads the back­packs in­to the trunk. Kate turns the key. The en­gine coughs, then stops breathing.

“I’ll check the fan belt,” Ed­die says.

“It’s not the fan belt.”

Ed­die lifts the lid and stares down at the en­gine. “Well, it’s not the belt,” he says. Kate hears him jig­gle wires. “Maybe it’s the wa­ter pump. Try it again.”

Kate leans on the wheel, im­mers­ing it in tan­gles of black hair. Ed­die goes to the trunk and pulls out the back­packs. She picks up the box of ear­rings and follows.

At four o’clock Kate and Ed­die get their first ride, in the back of a low brown pick up. The pas­sen­ger hands two drip­ping cans of Coors through the slid­ing cab window.

“Thanks!” Ed­die yells. He hands one of the cans to­ward Kate. She sits pinned be­tween their back­packs and a pant­i­ng wet dog who smells like fish. In her lap she holds the box, the lit­tle sets of ear­rings nes­tled in­side like eggs. She stares at the beer can un­til Ed­die pulls it away. He drinks the first can in two slurps and opens the second.

“How far you all go­ing?” The pas­sen­ger yells.

“Tal­keet­na,” Ed­die yells back.

“Yeah? You all go­ing to that mu­sic fair?”

“Plan­ning on it,” Ed­die yells.

“It’s over at 5 sharp. Sheriff’s or­ders. He’s a hard ass. You all know that?”

“Yeah,” Ed­die says. “I know.”

The pas­sen­ger scratch­es his mustache.

“You all hitch up from Anchorage?”

“Wil­low. Car died.”

“Man. Al­ter­na­tor?”

“Yeah, maybe,” Ed­die yells. “Maybe the wa­ter pump.”

Kate fo­cus­es on un­twist­ing her hair. The dog licks her bare arm. It turns to Ed­die, its tongue hang­ing out.

“You all want a cou­ple more beers?”

It’s five o’clock. Ed­die and Kate walk up a dirt road. The sky dark­ens. It smells like rain. The ear­ring beads shuf­fle in the box.

“Yo bear,” Ed­die calls in­to the woods. “Nice bear.”

They en­ter a clear­ing. Four men lean on a truck.

“How you do­ing?” Ed­die says, waving.

A red-faced man in a bear-claw neck­lace, a gold badge pinned to a sheep­skin coat, glares at Ed­die. Ed­die steps to­ward him. Kate freezes, grip­ping the shoebox.

“The fair up this way?” Ed­die asks.

“You’re a lit­tle late part­ner,” the man says. “Fair’s over.”

An­oth­er group approaches.

“Prob­lem here sher­iff?” some­one yells.

“No prob­lem here,” the sher­iff an­swers. “Folks here were just head­ed home.”

“Yes sir,” Ed­die says, turn­ing. “We were just head­ed home.”

They sit on their packs on the emp­ty south­bound ramp. It rains, then blows over. Hunched un­der her rain pon­cho, Kate looks to the north. The lu­mi­nous evening sky turns the high­way pud­dles sil­ver. Just past the road­way, be­yond the trees, the clouds lift, re­veal­ing rows of jagged blue moun­tains. She turns to Ed­die to see if he’s watch­ing. He’s star­ing across the road at the lone build­ing, a bar called Smokey’s. Each bar win­dow flash­es a dif­fer­ent neon beer sign.

It’s nine o’clock in Smokey’s. Two men with thick mus­tach­es sit across from Kate and Ed­die. On the ta­ble are two huge, sweat­ing, fresh pitch­ers of beer.

One of the men points to the back­backs. “So what are you all, up here hik­ing or something?”

“Yeah,” Ed­die says. “We’re gonna do some back country.”

“Back­coun­try?” He snorts. “Up here they call it bear coun­try. You all got a gun?”

“Nah, noth­ing like that.”

Kate stares across the room at two women at a table.

“How about pep­per spray. You all got pep­per spray?”

Ed­die tilts his pitch­er. The beer pours from its side, in a wide arc, in­to his glass.

“We know what we’re do­ing,” he says.

“Man,” one of the men says. “Couldn’t catch me out there dead.”

The two women are sis­ters, Kate thinks. One’s wear­ing a ranger par­ka; the other’s in a down vest. They’re eat­ing sal­ads. They’re laugh­ing. Their hair is long, and clean, and straight. They have blue eyes. Kate has two sets of blue-bead ear­rings, right here in her box. This is per­fect. Here’s her chance.

One of the men squints at the smudged paint on the crum­pled box.

“What’s a ‘spi­rater?’

“In­spi­ra­tions,” Ed­die says.

“They’re ear­rings,” Kate says. “I make earrings.”

“Oh. You all want an­oth­er pitch­er? On us?”

Kate looks again. The two women are get­ting up to leave. She stares down at her ear­rings and sighs.

“Sounds great,” Ed­die says. “Thanks!”

It’s past mid­night. Kate fol­lows Ed­die up a mud­dy, dark trail. Some­one in the bar swore he once camped in the woods, at a great free camp­site, up one of these trails.

“Yo, bear,” Ed­die calls in­to the thick­et. “Peo­ple here. Peo­ple com­ing through.”

“Can we stop this?” Kate sud­den­ly asks.

“Stop what?”

“This. Can we go back? There’s a re­al camp­ground, a park ser­vice camp­ground, just up the road. I saw a sign.”

“Park ser­vice? They want, like, what. 15 bucks?”

“This is a lit­tle creepy.”

“Come on,” Ed­die says. “It’s not that bad.”

“That sher­iff guy. Those guys in the bar. They know where we are.”

“Those guys? They’ve nev­er set a foot off pavement.”

“You don’t know that.”

Mos­qui­toes hurl at them, in­vis­i­ble, screaming.

“I know every­thing,” Ed­die says.

“No you don’t. You don’t know everything.”

Ed­die turns, push­ing hard­er in­to the woods. Branch­es crack. “Yo bear!” he yells. Noth­ing an­swers. Kate fol­lows the lit­tle black im­print he’s made in the woods.

Ten min­utes lat­er he gets an answer.

“Yo bear?’ Ed­die calls out.

“Hey, will you shut the fuck up?”

“Sor­ry, man,” Ed­die says, walk­ing head­long in­to the wall of a tent, which ab­sorbs the blow, then springs him back gen­tly on­to his feet.

“Ass­hole!” some­one yells from the ground.

The moon breaks out of a cloud. Kate stum­bles in­to a clear­ing, the shoe­box now crushed and wet in her hands. Eddie’s stand­ing in the cen­ter of a lit­ter of tents and tarps, smol­der­ing camp­fires, and wet camp­ing gear. His head is sil­hou­et­ted by a wild­fire of stars.

“What is this?” Kate asks.

“This?” Ed­die drops his pack. “Now this, I think, is your market.”

Filed under Fiction on October 2nd, 2005

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