He smoked with the vivacity of someone hell-bent on dying of cancer. He sucked the life out of each cigarette with a hurriedness, like a train hurtling toward death. Deep inhalation; exhale. Deep inhalation; exhale. Deep inhalation; exhale. The paper would crackle with one final flourish of embers before being ground against concrete and the soft rubber eraser sole of his shoe. Every time he smoked, which was often, he thought about people and how a lot of them die just so—smothered and erased against a hard place into non-existence. Then he would squint up at the sun or the moon in some sort of weary affirmation.
He was only 24, but he looked 30. It was the beard. The beard and the furry caterpillar that hung above his lip, twisted and twirled on one side from worrying. His beard was thick and black and looked as if was grown on the wild side of a mountain with nothing but moonshine and old-fashioned living to sustain it. On occasion, with a good eye, you could find bits of loose-leaf tobacco building nests amongst the wiry curls. He always had a faded sailors’ cap jauntily placed on his head, worn with the ambition of a 40-some-odd-year-old rapidly balding—which gave one the pretense of age. He had a raised scar that ran the length of his thumb to the soft pad beneath that he acquired in Boy Scouts as a youth, which all of his girlfriends inadvertently worried over with tentative fingers. He would only let them touch him for so long before retrieving his hand and hiding them both in the front pockets of his Levis.
He dreamed of Alaska; the last great American frontier. He had never been. But he had a certainty that lay somewhere between his head and his heart, maybe in his throat?, that Alaska was a stationary home he innately carried around in him. Thoughts of Alaska warmed him like nostalgia. Nostalgia for something he had never experienced, which ironically warms the hottest, and it burned inside of him. Alaska. Aaah-laska.
Nothing made him happy. Not the girlfriends, fickle and fleeting. Not the cigarettes, which burned too quickly into nothing. Not the drinking—“okay, okay, just one more and then I am calling it a night,” 15 beers later. Not the music that he played, which was full of sorrow and tomorrows promising Alaska. He pressed the keys of his piano like they were leading him closer and closer to home. And mostly he played to keep his fingers warm, to fight off the chill, the loneliness ever present and creeping slowly up his limbs around his heart and turning him into a glacier of a man.
Alaska. She was calling him. And he was working nights at a factory to answer.
This was his manifest destiny, or his “Manly-fest Destiny”—as his favorite of many girlfriends, Jenny, used to tease.
A community college drop out, two years of parental support and nothing to show, and another two years of indentured servitude to a walnut factory. He packed his small bag; a few articles of clothing, a picture of Jenny, an Elliot Smith cd, some Bali Shag, and Jack London. He didn’t say good-bye to his friends, to his parents—just hitched a ride to the airport with no thoughts of looking back.
The last great frontier was calling him home.
He got off the plane in Kodiak and lit up his cigarette. Deep inhalation; exhale. Deep inhalation; exhale. Deep inhalation; exhale. Grinding the crutch into the ground he squinted up at the sun—“Fuck, it is still cold in Alaska.”