MICHAEL A. BUKACH
Seward 60° 7’ 28” N, 149° 26’ 0” W
PERHAPS IT’S the location, tucked awkwardly in the crotch of the Kenai Peninsula; or the juxtaposition from serene natural landscape to a vulgar, dingy gray industrial fishery town, spreading up and out from Resurrection Bay; or maybe it’s the negatively connotative suffix ‘Folly’ associated with the place name. But most likely, it’s the uniquely normal locals who make Seward, Alaska such a strange fucking place.
It’s curb season. That ambiguous time between winter and spring, where the sun stutters through ominous overcast, and the surrounding snow-covered mountains vary from ash gray to bleach-white marshmallow with dark fudge highlights of pines at their bases. The wind picks up, chilling your bones; then it’s sunny: just as you take off your heavy down jacket, the wind picks up again, this time throwing stinging sleet at your face. The ground is dirty, the snow is dirty, your boots are filthy, and the locals tell you they haven’t got much snow lately; that what you see is from a December storm frozen for months, now melting from consecutive days above forty degrees. Everything is mud and dust Touristy stuff, the gift shops, information centers, cruise offices, are all closed. What’s left is for local use—for the few brave souls who live in town during brutal winters—the sort of winters you only see in horror movies.
One of these brave inhabitants is Joan, the caretaker at the Van Gilder hotel. Joan is a bigger lady, pale skin, flailing gray-blonde curls, and a voice that can only be imitated by pressing your lips firmly together, trying not to move them while emulating the whine of Edith Bunker. She is restless, nimble in movement, and hates wearing bras.
“Whatcha doin’ in Alaska?” She whines, quickly jerking behind a large, mahogany-trimmed front desk.
I smile towards my girlfriend Marti, who’s a foot shorter than me, blonde, with piercing green eyes; a cross between a young Barbara Streisand, and Kira from The Dark Crystal. She has a natural charm combined with a spunkiness that makes her easy to get along with; she has always been the talker in the relationship.
“We’re here for a week…on spring break We wanted to see Exit glacier…” Marti answers.
“Spring break? In Alaska!? Why not Cancun? Or…Florida?” Joan interrupts, pronouncing “Alaska” with emphasized “A’s”, holding the last vowel of “Florida” with a growling noise in the back of her throat.
“Well, this is Mike’s 50th state It was his goal to get them all in before turning 30, and he did it!” Marti replies, playfully jabbing my ribs, whispering “old man.” She is five years my junior, and not a day goes by where I’m not reminded of how old I am… I usually riff back with something about how I will wait until she sleeps to steal her youth, keeping it in a jar for later consumption, but not this time.
“Ooooh, I see. You know, I’ve only been to two places my entire life Here, and Tampa, Florida.” Joan, again, with guttural “A’s”
Marti and Joan strike up a conversation about the South, my 50-states-in-30-years accomplishment ignored for now, while I inspect some of the old relics around the small, historical Van Gilder lobby. There’s an ancient looking piano with a drooping lacey doily adorning the top, and a black Lab sleeping under the stool. The Lab wakes up, groggily hobbles over. Joan breaks the conversation to introduce us to Patient, who ironically, just had surgery on her hind knees.
“She’s on drugs. Poor thing,” Joan says in a baby-voice directed at the dog. Patient limps gingerly up to me and lays her head lovingly on my thigh. Joan is babysitting the dog, and tells us we can take her for a walk, albeit slow, later tonight, after we meet at The Showcase Lounge for drinks. Joan has orchestrated our plans for the night. She starts up on her hometown again; us smiling and nodding through a thirty-minute dissertation on the wonders of Tampa, Florida, while I pet Patient’s greasy fur.
“We should have stayed in Homer,” I sing facetiously, stepping over a pile of muck outside the hotel.
“I like her. She’s…kooky,” Marti defends.
“She’s on happy pills. No one talks that much voluntarily,” I reply.
“Don’t be so cynical, Mike. She’s probably just lonely.”
The Van Gilder looms over us. It’s three stories high, a sagging image of its affluent past; and it’s haunted, you can just tell. There’s a strange feeling looking up at the windows full of reflections of the clouds overhead, an inexplicable tingle down the back of your neck. Someone is watching us.
The weather is deceptively calm, like the violent pause before a sneeze. We head down the right side of the empty, sloping “main drag” consisting of a realty office (closed); a tourist shop (closed); an old department store split into two galleries (closed and closed); a bookstore (closed) with ceramic dragons and a phrenology head in the window displays a make-shift sign made of white construction paper and black Sharpie reading: UNIQUE!; a tavern (open!); and Cristoff’s Palace, the place Joan insisted we go for lunch.
We order a couple of Dos Equis, some tacos, salsa with chips, and Mexican chili while our waitress, Kristy, asks us what we’re doing in Seward.
“We’re on an Alaskan adventure and wanted to swing through Seward—see the Exit Glacier,” I reply.
“It’s closed for the winter, but they’ll probably open it back up soon.”
I am thoroughly disappointed, the whole reason for coming to Seward was the Exit Glacier and it’s closed, like Wally World in Lampoon’s vacation.
“How do you close a glacier?” I ask.
Kristy laughs, and says it’s the access road, not the actual glacier—you can ride a snowmobile up to it. She is a strange human; twitchy, pale like Joan, her reddish curls are pulled back into a messy blob on top of her head. She also has some of the worst tattoos possible up and down her arms. A Disney motif: Jiminy Cricket, a smudged Captain Hook, crooked Tinkerbell, upside-down Simba, Pumba. I can’t decide what’s worse, the placement of the body art, or the fact I recognize all the characters. Kristy dances her way to the kitchen to place our orders.
“Did you see her tattoos?” Marti whispers in the empty diner.
“How could I miss them, babe?”
Marti mouths “awful” and I know they must be bad coming from a Disney fanatic. The food is so-so I’m certain the Mexican chili is just canned Hormel chili with a handful of neon cheddar cheese and some jalapenos thrown on top. I leave Kristy a healthy tip secretly hoping she doesn’t spend it on Disney advertisements. On our way out, she yells “See you later!” like she means it.
The weather has turned brutal, with whipping winds and patches of rain/sleet. We run for cover across the street to the brooding, Soviet-looking cement structure called the Seward Sea Life Center. An extremely nice girl with a septum piercing gives us our tickets, as we shake off precipitation. We head upstairs to the aquariums, to meet Richard Champion, the human anomaly.
As Marti and I are perusing the arctic bird tank, looking at live Puffins for the first time ever, the automatic doors swoosh open and a pale gentleman in leg braces limps over to us. He has a debilitating palsy of sorts—perhaps severe Parkinson’s. His body leans way back when he walks; his gait a swinging shuffle Richard has a mature demeanor about him offset by honking hemp necklaces with a tacky peace sign, and a silver dragon hooked between ceramic beads. His Sea Life baseball hat is stylistically slanted to the side, exposing a buzz spot in his dark brown hair. His speech has an effeminate southern accent—the polite South— like Savannah, not the mumbling, hill-jack drawl of Arkansas or deep-woods Louisiana, spoken through a mouthful of frothing saliva. His nametag crookedly, yet proudly states Richard Champion. He instantly hits on Marti, putting a hairy hand on her shoulder, correlating his love for her with the depths the arctic birds have to dive for food I find myself genuinely laughing along with Marti because I truly like him. Richard is captivating, and highly intelligent. He knows his birds, and there’s snarky sarcasm in the answers to Marti’s innocent questions.
“Why do their feathers look so smooth? Like Seals?” Marti asks.
“Well.” He states questions as statements, like he would to a child. “It’s so they can move quickly underwater. If their feathers were like other birds, like a Robin, they couldn’t dive so deep, now could they?”
For the first time in my life, I can’t place a person; I can’t even ballpark him. He has no category, yet has every category. He is charming, smarmy, crippled, smart, gay, bi, hippie-ish, sweet, acceptingly lonely, with the swagger of popularity—a human anomaly. After an hour-long lecture on barnacle penises and starfish, chock-full of sexual innuendo directed towards Marti, we leave Richard Champion behind. He yells, “See you later!” as we descend the stairs towards the exits.
The weather has worsened; a thick fog rolls in through the glacial valleys past the rigged fjords, while the choppy ocean flashes from black to blue to turquoise and back like one giant chromatophoric cephalopod. There is nothing left to do in Seward.
The Showcase Lounge is opposite the “Unique!” bookstore on the main drag. Basically, it’s one of two bars open in all of Seward. The locals go to The Showcase for dinner, then over to the other lounge bar for serious drinking. As you walk into The Showcase, you are hit in the face with a fringed, walk-in cooler-like dividing plastic. It tangles you up for a moment. As you transition from a dreary overcast outside, to the single yellow-bulb darkness within the lounge, you can’t see anything; you’re blinded by the contrast. Once your eyes do adjust, the twilight-zone environment sinks in. Everything is upholstered in plastic vinyl. Everything; the drop-ceiling bar top, the dark red matching booths lining the perimeter of the place, the ceiling. Even the stools are done in a McDonald’s yellow, with seat cushions of the same brand. There’s a nicotine stain highlighting anything once white or cream colored. You begin to realize there are lights on in the place, a lot of them, but they are obscured by thousands of various liquor bottles in the shapes of animals, trees, bowling pins, countries, all encased throughout the bar on shelving units with finger-print smudged sliding glass doors.
“Where’s Frank Sinatra?” Marti whispers to me, without moving her lips.
“More like Tom Jones,” I reply.
“There are dead bodies in some of the bottles.” A voice neither of us recognize.
A bartender stands up from the depths of some upholstered abyss.
“Really? I mean, what?” I stammer.
“Ya, I think there are three urns behind the bar alone.” He thumbs over his shoulder.
The bartender looks young, but his voice is destroyed. He growls like Dicky Barrett, circa early 90’s Mighty Mighty Bosstones. He squints through the smoke of a Marlboro light, held in the corner of his mouth, while he stocks beer Marti starts laughing, and he wheezes an infectious reaffirmation. His name is Shawn, and he turns out to be one of the nicest people we’ve ever met. His dress is Jersey Shore, a polo shirt with one button, the bottom-most out of the four, buttoned. Shawn is unseasonably tan, and he makes a killing off salmon fishing…or so he says.
Joan is here. Our eyes finally acclimated to the dense coffin lighting of The Showcase. I notice her to the right, gulping down white Russians, lined-up, one- after-the-other with a friend, who is already slurring her words. A little bit later, Kristy comes in with a guy with awful tribal tattoos, a perfect match. She waves to Shawn, and says her restaurant was dead, so she left.
It’s all very homey.
Marti and I get down to business and start drinking to drink, ordering shots of whiskey with Budweiser chasers. More people than I can recall seeing all day pile into The Showcase. A run-down fisherman type casually sloughs his coat aside, and starts a conversation with Marti, while Joan cozies up to my right ear with Kristy talking over her. She is a borderline one-upper, Joan. The type of person who, no matter what you have done, they have done it before you, and better. But I like her—and I’ve never met a woman who can drink more.
The broke-down fisherman introduces himself as Robbie. He’s missing teeth, a lot of teeth. Through gums, he tells me his grandfather built the Van Gilder, and when he was a little boy, he rode around the hotel on his tricycle, “like in The Shining.” Robbie introduces us to all the townies around the bar—beaming, toothless smiles, and rough, vice-like handshakes all around.
“You know, there are only 3,000 people in Seward. Most of ‘em go to Hawaii for the season.” Robbie looks around. “Well, just about everyone came to visit you folks, it’s not often we get to see people from the lower 48 in the winter.” The “lower 48” comes out a bit creepy—like we’re not a part of some two-state cult— but Marti and I are having a great time immersing ourselves in the culture so we ignore it, pretending it’s normal.
Joan gulps down another white Russian while talking about how good the pot is in Seward. The best pot in the US! Shawn laughs his encompassing laugh, cracks another beer for me, and asks Joan about the meth bust from last week. Apparently, a couple of salmon fishermen were smuggling methamphetamines to Russia, and got caught by the patrols because of excessive speeding. Marti asks if it’s a serious problem in Alaska, and everyone agrees it is. Shawn smiles to himself, and says the “better” problem in Seward is the cocaine, and everyone laughs— Kristy and Robbie a little too much. Shawn winks at Marti and me and says, “Let me know what you need,” with his arms up innocently. Shawn is apparently the town drug dealer.
The drinks keep coming, one after another. Fresh drinks ordered before we finish. Stories are swapped. Shots ordered. Robbie walks back to the kitchen and cooks up some fresh halibut, bringing a steaming pile of lightly breaded deliciousness for the bar. Strangers become friends. Arms wrapped around one another. Singing. More shots are ordered. I’m behind the bar with Shawn. Things get blurry; things get loud. And for one night, Marti and I are citizens of Seward.
I wake up to the room spinning—head in a vice. Marti is wide-awake next to me. The TV is blaring a Pokemon cartoon in Japanese, the lights are on, and it’s 5 something A.M. The window is cracked, and an arctic breeze snakes in. My tongue dried to the roof of my mouth. Cigarettes, booze; I remember Robbie showing us which bottles at the bar had ashes in them explaining who the people were, how they died, how he knew them, and their favorite drink. I remember half the bar taking Patient for a walk along the pier; she was so excited when everyone cheered her on as she gingerly limped along. I remember Shawn hugging us— saying he was going to get more tequila from his fiancée’s house. I remember Joan telling Marti about the woman who was murdered in our room.
“What are you doing?” I groan, rubbing my aching head, covering my face in the crook of my elbow.
“She was killed, in this room, and we had sex…”
“Oh my god, go to sleep.”
“What if she was watching?” Marti asks, staring off towards the bathroom.
“Jesus, Mart. Are you serious?”
I knew she was, because I was thinking the same thing. I remember slices of the night. Joan telling us how, in the ‘30s, a jealous lover shot a woman in the head at the hotel, in our room. Marti asking why she didn’t tell us when we checked in; Joan getting upset, choked up even, saying she was afraid we wouldn’t stay if we knew, saying the first and third floors are being renovated—she just had to put us on the second floor; how “she”, the murdered woman, only goes in the room next to ours; how “she” is harmless, loves kids, and once consoled a little girl who fell, tripping over the lip going to the bathroom at night. This part plays back loudly in my head—Joan’s strained whine echoing, “The parents, hearing the girl crying, wake up—ask what happened and the girl says, ‘The nice lady kissed my boo-boo, and flew out the window.’”
By the time we pack up, and hit the road, the first signs of dawn streak across the clear sky. We stop at a grocery store on the way out of town, get some bagels, fruit bowls, a couple of coffees with cream, and check out with the same septum-pierced girl from the Sea Life Museum, or her twin, and get back in the car. Marti silently drives while I deal with an intensifying hangover, devouring a bagel, drinking bottled water, and chugging coffee as fast as I can. We pass a bright Alaska Tesoro gas station, and see Richard Champion, leaning against and filling up a Subaru with a neon green snowmobile hitched to the back. Richard is Seward—tough, resilient. You can see the hardness; the years of living and working and playing in artic isolation, in their eyes, and on their wind-chapped, alcohol- rinsed, cigarette-smoked skin. They are simple people, yet highly intelligent, adaptive, and self-sufficient with quick, self-deprecating wit. They are rough-and- tumble outcasts, and yet, hospitable beyond comprehension.
The next left is the access road to Exit Glacier, and a large white and vibrant orange construction sign vehemently blocks the path about a quarter-mile down. I imagine Richard Champion racing around the roadblock on his bright green snowmobile, plastering the sign with snow and slush as he races by, slowly fading into the fluffy white of the snow cover, becoming a part of the horizon; blending into the untamed landscape naturally.
MICHAEL A. BUKACH graduated from the Ohio State University in 2010 with an honors B.A. in English Literature, and a sub-minor in Urban Population Studies. Michael resides in Columbus having moved from New York City where he made a living as a headshot photographer, and quite possibly the most mediocre actor to ever exist in the history of the craft. Michael travels the world, studies the habits of its people, drinks whiskey with them and writes about it. You can follow his misadventures at www.roamaboutmike.com.