Thursday, February 19, 2009

Last Ride of the Mic-Mic Men

The Beast was the gangsta-earthmother of the drive-by smile. In fact, she changed everything.

In the depths of the endless Fairbanks winter I wore the shroud of despair, creeping from my car where it idled in the parking lot of the Boatel, ducking into the all-day/all-night bar to meet the others who had momentarily stepped down from the train-wrecks of poor thinking to cloak themselves in the evanescent veneer of drink.

The Boatel itself arrived along the side of the Chena River much as we had, throttling along the current without a rudder, beaching on the rocks never to float again, re-opening instead as a round-the-clock tavern that appeared suddenly through the ice-fog like a ghost ship afloat on the vapor cast by idling trucks and cars that yanked aside into the parking lot as if by the steady autopilot of false remedy to the shoulder along Airport Way and stopped, with only the deep, black imprints of heavy boots leading from their doors to the port-holed hatchway to the Boatel.

From the back deck, you could hop up and down in your coat and fur hat to keep warm while you drank a toast to the aurora that streamed from the heavens, day and night, steaming through a black night that ached to the marrow, then blurred to a dull, steady pain the shape of everyday life.

By November, you couldn't tell the curbs and sidewalks from the center lane of the highway; the landscape was undifferentiated, where every color was a shade of white, and the roads, houses, hills, and dangerous gullies were all mixed in a flowing glaze, with the occasional raven hunched in the snow.

So to the Boatel we fled when we weren't writing, which became habit, leaving our engines running so that even a drunk could spin off into all that white without having to jump-start the car. It was bad enough that your tires flattened against the snow and when you pulled out they would thump altogether toward disaster until the air warmed and spread itself out again.

I was six feet and well over 260 pounds and Brian had played tackle for Bo Schembechler at Michigan. In the Boatel, we cornered a spot at the pool table and Brian kept us playing, or we sat wherever we wanted and military guys would come over, thinking we were specialists.

"You guys are 50 mic-mic men, aren't you?" some guy said while we were shooting eightball. He didn't add up to much of a threat.

"Sure," Brian said.
"We are," I said.
And later we'd ask each other, what the hell.

Later, after the Boatel died down, we'd drive over to Frank's Place, a biker bar over on the side of town that served the military: used car dealerships, gun shops, liquor stores, and strip bars where the new frontier met the edge of corporate brute instinct, spinning into view through the ice-fog as we drove along the misfiring beer signs and check cashing signs and signs that would never light again, driving slow and carefully until we got to Frank's, a biker bar that closed at 5 am and reopened an hour later.

We'd find a spot over by the roaring fireplace -- a visiting professor of English and a graduate student of writing-- looking a lot like 50 mic-mic men in layered underwear and plaid shirts and woolly caps, liquored up, and at just about 2 am, the strippers from across the way would thunder in to do some drinking on their tip money.

On any particular night at Frank's, you could count on collateral violence. I never got in a scrape, but I once witnessed the royal spat between two strippers slugging it out over a John. In the end, there were clumps of hair and ice-blood on the steps of Frank's Place.

One morning at five, after leaving for pancakes and single-malt scotch, we went for a light ski in 10-degree weather, Brian and I, although neither of us was really prepared. I wore trendy woolen gloves with the fingers cut out and after a half hour of skating cross-country through the woods off the Steece Highway, I had no feeling in them at all. I thought of the two- or three-fingered natives that wandered forlorn along the downtown streets in springtime.

But the mic-mic man pushed me up the trail while I warmed my hands under my armpits. And when my fingers were warm again, we went back to Frank's.

And so it went, night into day, never-ending winter of aurora storms from horizon-to-horizon, the noon-day-sun the tease of everlasting dopamine, or hope, then more weeks of students sleeping at their desks in the afternoon science-writing class, being arctic hibernation season, despite my endless rants about Berryman and Rilke and Hugo, claiming that, as poets, we had no allegiance to any syllabus. The examination of spacial narratives and confessional strings of meter outweigh all considerations of clock and date and sobriety.

Then sometime in the mid-winter we went to the outhouse races north of town, and on another weekend, drive north on the Steece toward the Arctic Circle to view the running of the Yukon Quest. Brian and his girlfriend and I drove White Pass, where highway stauntions stuck precariously from the drifts, designating chaos, and the road disappeared into the dim white soup of everything.

We found the turnoff to the race where deep ruts slashed away from the main road into a forest of permafrost pines. Spectators sat in folding chairs along the sled-track. At the first sight of the pack, they put down their mugs of coffee, stood and whooped as the dogs yanked their sleds into the firelight.

The huskies knew it was a stop because they pulled in-place, staked to the ground on beds of hay so the sleds could not be moved. There were bowls of hot gruel and fresh water for the dogs, and the drivers sipped coffee. And once the dogs had eaten, the driver aligned the sled, unpinned the stakes and the sled lurched off, blending into the horizon as a drying dab of paint.

In a photo from the day, I'm framed in the center of the image, shaped by a red patch of jacket, black snow-machine boots, black muffler and fur cap, suspended as if I had been parted out from construction paper and glued into a white backdrop.

My memory of the entire winter is blurred-- by alcohol, by infinite dark, by 68-below temperatures, by the occasional stump of caribou or moose left on the side of road where it had wandered into a snowplow, or spotting things you only thought you saw as you drove along the steady road that folded into the fog.

And yet, and yet, two weeks before Christmas and quite out of the white of everythingness, the Beast parked beside me in the lot at Khalsa's and flashed the drive-by smile. The I'm on-your-side-even-if-you-don't-think-you-have-one smile.

One time we had coffee. Another time we ran errands.

"Alaska," she said that afternoon when we had parked in the woods in search of a Christmas tree and she hopped out with her chain saw. "Alaska. Where men are men...and so are the women."

Before she disappeared into the snow and trees, the Beast threw another grin. It was a grin for traveling, a bolt you could tuck in just about anywhere, especially if you hoped to blend into the wood panels and cigar smoke and the furious, spinning wagonwheels of beer signs down at Frank's and still feel the faint pulse of spring, somewhere, some day.

And in the fading sun of an otherwise stingy afternoon, at the end of a year that faded out as if bent to the machinery of some cosmic dimmer switch, despite it all, etc., the smaller 50 mic-mic man opened like a late-year afterthought of bloom, white-upon-white against the biggest flurry of of the year, a Christmas universe of flakes streaming laterally along Farmer's Loop road so that you accelerated through snowy constellations toward the life that lay waiting, on the other side of the Earth maybe, where it was already dawn.


Char said...

beautiful write....I want to go to Alaska.

Mari said...

Lovely evocative images.

A Cuban In London said...

What a nice memory, albeit a bit cold for me after basking in the Cuban sun for a fortnight. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.