Performing Polite Society on the Alaskan Frontier
“An Extravaganza in Two Acts” by Leigh Newman, original fiction recommended by Electric Literature
INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
If you’ve read her memoir, Still Points North, you know that Leigh Newman spent much of her childhood in Alaska. She knows how to load a rifle and gut a salmon and fly a plane. But if you’ve never done those things, it doesn’t matter. With a few sentences, she can convince you that you too have hooked a king salmon on a rushing river and reeled it in within a inch of your strength.
The Alaska of “An Extravaganza in Two Acts,” a mud-choked tent city on the new frontier circa 1915, is not somewhere Leigh Newman has technically been. But the world of this story is as vibrant as if she’d lived there for years. From the first paragraph, you are there inside the chaos of the camp — inside the early days of “Alaska City” — with all its sounds and smells and weather and the feelings you couldn’t describe if you tried. But you’re in luck, because Newman is there to guide you further in.
Behind the canvas tent flaps, the people are not who you expect to meet. A man and a woman, Walter and Genevieve, their relationship unclear. Are they lovers, companions, distant relatives, or some kind of friends? Genevieve, a wealthy woman with a mutilated foot, and Walter, a former farm boy with more ambition than mobility, share cramped quarters but not a bed. She is “prideful, deviant, indulgent.” He is “a dirt-dusted boy from Arkansas.” Their relationship, which starts as a performance, unfolds over the backdrop of this burgeoning city. What follows is an extravaganza of tender loneliness, secret love, and hidden shame.
“As gelatinous as society was in camp — slick with questionable pasts, wobbly with schemes for enrichment — there was an exoskeleton of propriety that the population seemed determined to keep in place,” Newman writes. “What else was there, really, to keep a few canvas tents at the north end of civilization from melting back into the tidal slop?”
Only a writer such as Newman, with her molecular sense of place, would have the perspicacity to set the story exactly here, a place equally on the edge of fruition and extinction. Leigh Newman is a skilled and beautiful memoirist, but her fiction reveals new reaches of her talent. She writes with an imagination of unrestricted scope that remains grounded by precise details and complex emotions. Through the stories in her forthcoming collection, set in Alaska, I’m confident she will continue to upend the relationship between the familiar and the uncharted. I for one can’t wait to travel there with her.
Editor, Recommended Reading
Performing Polite Society on the Alaskan Frontier
“An Extravaganza in Two Acts”
by Leigh Newman
Tent building begins at first light. The thwack of mallets into half-split stakes. The clatter of poles off the pileup. The slap and suck of boots in mud, the spit and churn of wheelbarrows in mud, the hard, flat drizzle of piss and rain and honey buckets flung just outside a neighbor’s door flaps. This morning in particular there is a leaden-sounding clunk, a curse on bearcat bitches, newbie pikers, the dripping kunte for brains who dropped a sandbag on the foreman’s foot. Behind it all, the so-called creek thunders by, relentless as the rain-swollen river it is. A seagull calls. A meat cart shudders. Somewhere on the bluff above camp, a rifle shot splits open whatever natural quiet is left, the two halves dropping to the ground, out of which flies the scream of a rooster and the tin whistle of the new cannery.
And yet, it’s Genevieve who wakes up Walter. Genevieve in her high mahogany bed. The noises that she makes are slick, unmistakable. He is careful not to breath too loudly, not to stare anywhere but at the ceiling. That she would pleasure herself a few hours into their pretense of a marriage is hardly a surprise. So much so he has prepared himself: He will not look at her; he will not reach under his blanket. Or if he does, he will do it so slowly, so discretely she will never realize.
Her technique, however, is almost disappointing. Not so much as an overblown sigh to provoke him, not so much as a grande-finale grunt of relief. Her timing seems almost medicinal in its efficiency. A slash of her hand, a rumple of kimono, and she is finished.
Hours pass, or maybe minutes. Smoke drifts through the tent, wet and acrid as the cook fires from which it escaped. Still Walter lies there on his Army-issued cot, under his Army-issued wool blanket. When he turns over — slowly, without a noise — Genevieve is on her side staring at the canvas wall. She seems unaware of him, almost as if she has forgotten he is there. The expression on her face, however, is so alien to everything he knows about her, so fragile and exposed, he almost feels as if he is spying on the daydream behind her eyes.
Outside the tent, a shovel clinks against gravel. A dog yelps and runs past the door flap. Genevieve glances over and meet his eyes. Years later, long after she has been dragged away by the men sent to fetch her, long after her tent is gone, the camp is gone, a town of 15,000 erected in its place, Walter will wonder if that moment was when he should have told her: he was lonely too, he had had his daydreams too, and his, like hers, were wistful and best left undiscussed — populated by people he had trusted in secret but never quite enough.
The day before, Walter and Genevieve were still at an impasse. Once again. She would not be attending the Passion Play, she said, nor would she listen to Walter’s reasoning. Even so, he continued in an undefeated voice: The Director of the Engineering Commission, Mr. Carmichael, had arranged for the senior staff at Ship Creek camp to view the performance on a special platform erected high above the mud and crowds. Afterwards, they were gathering at the Crescent Hotel where Mr. Carmichael’s wife was hosting a social, featuring lemon cake made from three real lemons, fresh from California.
“Jesus and wives,” said Genevieve. “All in one night!” She had her ruined foot propped on the desk chair and her petticoats whisked up. The foot was terrible, a childhood injury that had left everything below her ankle a lump of flesh and fluid, jammed into a half-laced work boot. She felt upward along her thigh, tied off, and inserted a brass syringe. “Medicinal,” she said, the way she always did when he forgot not to watch.
Lately, he forgot too often not to watch. Blood bloomed inside the barrel, then vapored off with the liquid into her veins. Was it the rawness of the drug that so compelled him? Or was it Genevieve and her ability to stand around high and half-naked, as if bronzed by her own sweat? She had a kind of cool, marbleish glow, her auburn hair in disarray over her shoulders.
Walter glanced at lantern behind her — the honey-colored kerosene, the drowned gnats in the ripe glass bulb. In the pecking order of the Engineering Commission, there were only three viable candidates for Deputy Chief of Surveying. Having arrived only this week, three days into the search for a candidate, he was the least likely to be selected.
All of which Genevieve knew. Just as she also knew that his attending the Passion Play with a woman of her wealth and education would demonstrate to Mr. Carmichael that Walter was a reliable citizen of their tent city, the kind likely to build a wood frame house with windows and donate to the school fund. The trick, however, was not to mention any of this to her. Especially not in a voice that sounded as though he were begging.
He leaned against the dresser behind him, ignoring the look she flashed his way — one that seemed to register his sweat-soaked tweed, his overdone bowler, the lingering phantom stink of a childhood spent on a chicken farm in Augustus, Arkansas. The shit. The gizzards. The homemade soap like curls of graying death beneath his nails. He did not pick at a button. He breathed as if he were strolling down a distant sidewalk, in foreign capital, a sprig of linden in his lapel. “Come,” he said. “Or don’t. I give up.”
She smiled. She thunked her foot to the floor. “We leave the minute the Christ rises,” she said. “Under one condition: I’m not your wife.”
“My sister, then.”
Walter shook his head. He was twenty-six years old; she thirty-four or forty-three depending on the strength of the closest lantern.
“If only you realized how willing people are to believe the impossible,” she said. Then slid her hair up into a comb.
“That may be,” he said. “But they’re not idiots.”
“No,” she said. “Just hopeful.”
“Can’t you be my cousin?” he said. “Everybody has a cousin.”
“You know what ‘cousin’ means to strangers,” she said and blew a kiss at the ceiling. “I’ll be what I am. Your charge.”
Legally speaking he was, in fact, her guardian. An arrangement designed to humiliate them both. “You could be my fiancé,” he said. “Then just break it off in a month or two, after I’m named Deputy.” He toed a piece of gravel along the groove of the plank floor, hoping she would not take him up on the latter part of the suggestions. Married men, in this particular railway camp, rose so much faster. The wives in the Engineering Commission liked other wives to have dinner with.
Genevieve laughed. It was a slow and expensive-sounding, a whorl of tortoise shell. “Climbing is so tiring. Aren’t you out of breath?”
“If you need a rest,” he said, “we can always send you back home.”
It took a minute for his threat to actualize on her face. And when it did, he knew he had gone too far. He wanted to take it back, but what other option had she left him? “So,” she said, syringe in hand. “I’ll be your family spinster. Your hoary, infirm aunt with the gimpy leg.”
The night of the Passion Play, the air smelled of sweat and peanuts, pomade and burning spruce, plus the usual syrupy fog of fish guts and human waste. The Mercantile was low on axes, lime, and canvas. Puddles roiled with mosquitos. Outhouses and bathhouses had overflowed.
In was summer of 1915, when any man of any ability — or inability — could find work Ship Creek camp. The latest rolls reported 1,740 men, 263 women, and 14 children. And it was only June. The post office was located on a docked, leaky barge. The stage for the Passion Play was on a raised planked platform just barely staggering out of the mud behind the tent serving as the Catholic Church.
Thanks to the planning commission back in Washington, Ship Creek not only had laws against alcohol, firearms, narcotics and prostitution, but also a highly organized grid of streets designed by federal engineers — none of whom had factored in the power of Alaskan tides. Twice a day, brackish inlet slop overran the river and washed through camp. Drop your hat and it vanished, sucked below the muck. Step off the walkways and your boot was gone too, along with your far more valuable sock.
There were rare weeks when sun broke through the cloud cover, the sky a sudden berserk of blue. The ground dried. Broken bottles and tree limbs surfaced. Clouds of fine, gray silt blew over the tents, then settled, only to explode whenever a wagon passed or a fight broke out, the sediment baked into the men’s clothing suddenly loosened in a cough of powdered earth.
Mostly, though, it rained. And rained. And rained. As it was doing now. A flat, bleak drizzle so regular in its timing, it seemed designed to rinse away the gathering crowd. Past the pool hall, Walter kept close to Genevieve’s side, slowed only by the dramatic manner with which she swung out her foot. Look, she seemed to say, with each lurching step, look how terrible I am, how beautiful, how above you.
Boys in fish-smeared tatters stopped to openly gawk. A Dena’ina woman in a white-lady apron reached out to touch the brown crushed silk of her sleeve — an impulse Walter had also had, staring at the row of tiny mother-of-pearl buttons along her wrist.
Closer to the platform, people went so far as to widen them an aisle. In a world of dandy dancers, tent bitches, railroad humps, freight haulers, Army no-hows, Russian trappers, cannery pimps, café girls, and beleaguered, aging whores, how could a rich, middle-aged, crippled woman be considered remotely out of the ordinary?
Save for her attitude. And, perhaps, her ill-suited escort. Genevieve was taller than Walter, louder than Walter, richer and less afraid and more experienced about everything, including but not limited to absinthe, opera, fox hunting, lap dogs, Romance languages, and Greek mythology. All of which even a halfwit could see just in passing. And there were quite a few half-wits, by the look of the workmen at the edge of the stage. One tipped his hat at Genevieve, his smile bleary.
On the viewing platform, Mr. Carmichael waved Walter forward. One of the junior engineers rushed down to usher Genevieve up the steps. There was no time for introductions. Jesus and his disciples were already praying on the stage. Mr. Carmichael tipped his hat. Walter tipped his. Mrs. Carmichael nodded. Genevieve popped a peanut in her mouth. And chewed — quite loudly.
Walter glanced over at Mr. Carmichael. If appointed as Deputy, he would supervise the construction of a proper town on the bluff above the camp, complete with wooden houses, licensed businesses, and a functional drainage system, allowing Mr. Carmichael to occupy himself with the construction of the railway, and his Dena’ina mistress.
What an idiot Walter was, buying Genevieve peanuts. Her gloves were now stained with oil. And the crunching, the crackling of the bag. As gelatinous as society was in camp — slick with questionable pasts, wobbly with schemes for enrichment — there was an exoskeleton of propriety that the population seemed determined to keep in place. What else was there, really, to keep a few canvas tents at the north end of civilization from melting back into the tidal slop?
Four months ago, Walter had met Genevieve on the terrace of her family’s beaux art mansion in Milwaukee. She was loose and expansive on Brandy Alexanders, smoking a cigar stolen from her previous guardian. Walter was occupied in a similar fashion, free finally from his roommate at Princeton, his roommate’s father, the crystal snifters by the fireplace, the talk of the war in overseas.
Never in his life had he imagined he would end up the houseguest of the founder of the Greater Wisconsin Steamworks. The nuances of the weekend — the cheeses so easily mistaken for tiny frosted tarts, the towels in the water closet that hung like delicate foreign undergarments — had been, at times, overwhelming. Touch the linen, he discovered, and you left a fingerprint behind in grime.
Still, there he was, on the terrace. The six years of mimicry to strip the country from his speech, invisible. The pre-dawn hours of panicked study, justified. The late-night games of Dining Club poker now far more valuable than his degree. Cards, more than any other subject at Princeton, had proved essential. How else could Walter have funded his clothes, his books, those horrifying everyday expenditures that arose with each casual invitation to a collegiate picnic or a beer-soaked outing to town? Bored young men of means almost enjoyed being beaten by a young man of no means at all. Provided a game was occasionally thrown.
Their parents, perhaps, had a different opinion. Which was why Walter had slipped away, avoiding the inevitable insinuations about his roommate’s squandered allowance. A wall of boxwoods and climbing jasmine surrounded the spot where he was standing — not far from a tall, hunch-shouldered woman. She had a recklessness to her stance, not to mention the ability to stand alone in the dark without pretending to look up at the stars. Where had she been at dinner?
Tending to some elderly aunt, Walter suspected. As a paid companion. Or an accompanist to querulous soprano.
As she limped toward him with her misshapen foot, he had even felt a wisp of pity. On and on he had described his impending trip: the frontier, the ferries, the recently commissioned Federal railroad whose newly built towns he was hired to survey, construction of which would soon enable fast, efficient transport of resources across the Arctic and into barges bound for Seattle, San Francisco and beyond. “One day,” he said. “You may heat your bathtub water with Alaskan coal.”
“Alaska?” she said.
“There’ll be grizzlies,” he said. “And Natives. Every kind of — “ he paused, rejecting the word “danger” in favor of “challenge.”
She clapped her hands. “I want to come!”
“You should come,” he said. Then added, in a kindly, patronizing tone that he would cringe about for years, “I understand they’re in desperate need of school teachers.”
She laughed — a laugh so different from pearlescent titters of the debutantes he had been seated beside at dinner. Brash. Flippant. Too loud.
Only the next morning, when her guardian, an elderly second cousin, called on him on the sun porch did Walter understand what he had set in motion. The speed with which the wealthy moved. The efficiency. Genevieve had taken his invitation to come to Alaska as an actual invitation. Her guardian bore powers of attorney, titles of transfer and hints of previous, undiscussed scandals.
Genevieve, as it turns, was his roommate’s half-sister from his roommate’s father’s first wife — the original heir to the Steamworks. She had done better on her travels to the Continent, he said, fussing with his vest button, “ where people were…well….more Continental.”
“Of course,” Walter said, confused.
“I will add one thing,” said her guardian. “Genevieve’s excitements have worn the family down. If our arrangement doesn’t work out, if you feel overwhelmed at any point, there are certain gentlemen we can send up to Alaska to relieve you. Genevieve will come home — and will stay home — under more supervised circumstances.”
Walter tried to nod, even as oily discomfort pooled inside his mind: What men? What circumstances?
“Genevieve is aware of this condition,” said the guardian. His grip was as limp as bacon fat, his handshake quick and binding. Leading Walter to realize that this exchange was a purchase as much as an agreement — and that, like Genevieve, he too had been bought.
But at such a price. The amount of money offered to him to oversee the finances and movements of his middle-aged charge was staggering. Immediately, he wired his parents the funds needed to pay off the farm. His mother refused the money, save for the 75 cents it cost her to telegraph him back the message: YE ARE FROM BENEATH STOP I AM FROM ABOVE STOP YE ARE OF THIS WORLD STOP I AM NOT OF THIS WORLD.
Nothing wriggled by her. Nothing ever had — not a wormy hen, not a late-night snake and most especially not an inexplicable windfall from a son she had sent off on a train eight years ago and long suspected of ungodly arrogance.
On the train, Walter and Genevieve had separate compartments. On the ferry, separate berths. She was his aunt, his sister, the companion to his sister who was ill with motion sickness and couldn’t come out of the cabin. He was her brother, her nephew, her father’s attorney bearing legal documents. Whatever their story, Genevieve passed it along — with the addition of few conflicting half-truths — through porters, maids, and valets, who in turn whispered that story to their employers while brushing their hair or turning down their sheets. Genevieve’s one condition was that she wasn’t his fucking wife. Walter’s one condition was that he wasn’t her fucking guardian. Mostly because he could not stop her from doing anything she wished whenever she felt the urge — unless he threatened to send her back to Milwaukee, the consequences of which would punish not just her but him.
Walter had developed a taste for goose down pillows. And chilled crab cocktail. His threat had to be used judiciously, he soon realized, or it would wear thin. Such willpower had been taught to him early on, almost as toddler. The year the laying hens had died, their meat poisoned by sickness, he had watched his mother watch him, waiting until he could hardly walk before slicing off a wisp of salt pork. Thin as wafer. Rancid. She laid it on his tongue, got down on her knees, and begged: Get up, son. Walk, son. Live.
Who was he any more, he wondered, as they rattled on through America and then Canada in first-class berths, him worrying, worrying, worrying that they would be found out. This feeling had been with him ever since he could remember: nagging at him before sleep, after school as he doggedly followed rules, listening, studying, imitating, hiding. Underneath his accomplishments, always, he was an X on the page in the Bible where his mother recorded his birth next to all the other dead X’s, his father a drop too Choctaw to be white.
Genevieve, with her pale, glittering wealth, seemed to have squelched these kinds of quandaries. She was prideful, deviant, indulgent — a spendthrift dragging around a family bank account and a dirt-dusted boy from Arkansas. There came a point in the trip, the lowest point, when he gave up and simply signed off on all her purchases. At every station or port of embarkation from St. Paul to Olympia, she ordered barrels of oysters, crates of whiskey, tapered candles and laundered tablecloths. Plus otherworldly delights held aloft by Chinese coolies in lacquered wooden boxes or paraded down the aisles on chains. A monkey that farted songs on command. A parrot that plucked a pearl from your décolletage. All of which served as amuse-bouches at her intimate, in-compartment dinners with stevedores and stowaways, flexibly-minded doctors and secretive lesser titans, waifs from steerage, coquettes seduced from the captain’s table, laudanum-dazed heiresses, and, one time, an Argentinian spiritualist who claimed to see the dead children and ancient emperors you had once been in a past life.
Every morning, Genevieve shook these people out of her life in with the same nonchalance she used to free her hair from its combs. Then followed up with a gift that bedazzled each one into going away with gratitude, if not affection. A brooch. A pendant. A silver pocket watch with hand-enameled moons and stars. Even Walter had been sucked into her circle one evening, sampling from her brass syringe at her urging, the cocaine glittering through his veins and transforming him into a chattering, sweaty marionette who obsessed about his desire to become governor one day and escort his mother to an inaugural ball in Washington. In a carriage. With six white horses.
Nine hours later, he had woken up on her floor and tried to flee, stopping only to ask her if they had done anything, if he had done anything. As though, even drugged and ecstatic, she would have the slightest interest. He knew her tastes by then: the smooth-skinned women, the boyish girls, the raucous, foreign rarities of ill-defined sex.
She admired his directness, she said. But also felt the need to clarify. In the past, several of her guardians had assumed an openness about her, an openness which they had believed extended to themselves and their anatomy. She and Walter were allies of convenience. Nothing less. Nothing more. Nothing in between.
Though Walter, she added, did have a kind of ingénue charm.
At that moment, a moth fluttered through her compartment. Genevieve caught it, cupping her hand. Years later, Walter would realize that that was the moment his foolhardy fondness for Genevieve first began — watching as she tipped the moth out the window, holding it just so, allowing the lost bit of insect a moment to feel the wind before it was required to fly.
According to Mr. Carmichael, the production of the Passion Play had been undertaken by the lone Catholic priest in camp who, rumor had it, had felt compelled to compete with the lone Russian Orthodox priest, the lone Methodist pastor, and the non-denominational revivalist who lurked outside the pool hall trying to lay hands on slow-moving shoppers. The script was raw, basic, zero pageantry: the praying in the garden, the betrayal of Judas, the court of Pilate, the cross carried through the crowd, Jesus falling three times. Mary was played by the buxom Lithuanian wife of a railroad foreman, as wives in the Engineering Commission felt the production a little too Catholic to be associated with, the café girls were busy working, and whores were not allowed to volunteer.
The production seemed to move the crowd, especially in the final scene — Jesus lying on the stage, spent and bloody, Mary keening over him, her arms upraised. Perhaps it was the flat, gray clouds, the mountains in glacial blue relief behind her, but more than half the camp was weeping.
Genevieve sighed. Walter readied himself for her withering critical assessment. But Mrs. Carmichael commented first. “I wish,” she said, “there had been music.” She was far younger than Mr. Carmichael, dressed in modest Mercantile muslin. “It seemed a little…brutal.”
“God is a brute,” said Genevieve. “Imagine a world where Mary was in charge.”
Mrs. Carmichael tilted her head, as if confused. Then laughed. “Did you hear that, Bertrand? I’ve found another suffragist.”
“Worse, I’m afraid,” said Genevieve. “A Bohemian.”
“Hazel is an artist,” said Mr. Carmichael. “Aren’t you, petal?” His declaration inspired such pink on his wife’s cheeks that the entire gathering seemed to pause and admire it, her discomfort somehow refreshing.
“I like to draw,” she said. “Though I am self-taught. And not yet sure of my technique.”
“She’s sending in a drawing to Collier’s,” said Mr. Carmichael. “For their magazine cover contest.”
Mr. Carmichael smiled. “She’s far too modest.”
“Perhaps,” said Genevieve. “Or perhaps too married.”
A cough from Mr. Carmichael. From his staff, assorted looks.
“Whatever do you mean?” said Hazel.
“Only that it’s easier for a wife — and for her husband — if she remains a hobbyist.”
Mr. Carmichael’s expression turned to irritation. One of his lesser aides stepped forward.
“Genevieve used to live in Paris,” said Walter.
Instantly, the crowd seemed to forgive her. She was eccentric, a little foreign. How exotic! Hazel, more than anyone, seemed impressed, positioning herself by Genevieve’s elbow, gazing at her with her face flushed and upturned. And so, it was to Hazel and only Hazel that Genevieve now spoke about the painters and sculptors, poets and dancers she had befriended as a patroness and, on select occasions, as a muse. An experience that inspired her to lean into Hazel in order to describe it, as if warming herself on the woman’s sun-browned charm.
That gleam in Genevieve’s gaze, that bedazzled tone of voice, Walt knew too well. There was no way to keep her from seducing the poor, provincial woman — in public, in front of her husband and his employer — not without drawing too much attention.
It was Mr. Carmichael, thankfully, who steered the conversation back on course. He had an idea. A fantastic idea. Yes, the Passion Play had been a success. But it had also been a bit depressing. Considering the sophistication of Walter’s wife — not to mention her experience — couldn’t she put on a theatrical? Something cheerful? Something fun and avant garde?
Walter cringed — visibly, already fearful of the word “wife” and its repercussions.
Hazel too looked stricken, for reasons that eluded Walter. But not Genevieve. Genevieve understood. Genevieve even sighed. “How difficult it must be,” she said, “to be the wife of the head of the commission and an artist.” How did Hazel manage? She must have so many commitments. So many invitations. So little time to herself. Were they to work on a production together, said Genevieve, she would handle everything. Hazel could design the scenery. Then go home — and voila — attend to her husband and family.
“We have no children,” whispered Hazel.
“All the more reason,” said Mr. Carmichael, “to support the men in camp.”
“Yes,” said Genevieve, her arm now dripping over his wife’s. “The men need entertainment. They work so hard.”
“Yes,” said Hazel. “I suppose they do.”
“I have every confidence,” said Walter, “that the two of you will astonish us all.”
Wasn’t her husband helpful? said Genevieve. She didn’t know what she would do without him. Hazel laughed. Walter did too. As her husband, Walter had only one response. “Thank you, darling,” he said, as if he’d said it all his life.
The morning after the Passion Play, Walter is still lying in his cot, trying not to openly stare at Genevieve. She is spent and rumpled, sitting up in bed with a pot of waxy rouge. He did not imagine her relieving herself earlier — nor will he forget it — but the expression on her face right after was so intimate, so impossible to match up to the wall of hardened features she now presents him with: eyes, nose, slightly bored smile as she looks into her hand mirror and applies a pinkish blush to her cheeks with the tip of her fingers. Did he dream it? Did she want him to see it?
“Five dollars,” bellows the wash-and-fold man through the door flaps. Sacks sail through air and land in a poof of dust and lavender. Genevieve smashes a pillow over her eyes. Half-open books and toppled bottles of moonshine litter the floor. A crumble of graying chocolate.
Down on his cot, Walter longs for tooth powder. And dry socks. He thinks of his tent 500 feet away. His desk. His drafting tools. His pencils. His surveying instruments in their tidy, plush-lined cases: his theodolite, transit, and an elegant, brass tachometer.
“If we’re married,” says Genevieve, swatting a mosquito on her arm. “We’ll have to send a man to fetch your things.”
“Or,” he says. “I could keep my own accommodations. As a study.”
Genevieve gives him a look. “Mr. Carmichael will ask questions.”
“You mean Mrs. Carmichael,” he says.
Genevieve digs through one of her trunks, pulling out a hookah, then a music box — the latter she tosses on a pile of wilted stockings.
“Married people,” he says, “sleep in separate beds all the time.”
“Yes,” she says, “but in the same room, where no one can see their loveless marriage.”
“Ours needn’t be that way,” he says — though he wish he hadn’t.
She only flicks a glare over her shoulder, then digs through her trunk, shakes the contents of a taffeta bag onto the bed — one of which is a ruby band that fits, just so, on her ring finger. “I do,” she says, and wriggles her hand. “Now get out, will you? Hazel is due here in an hour. I don’t have time for a fake-wife fuck if that’s what you’re implying.”
The fires on the bluff above Ship Creek burn all day. Forty square miles of spruce forest crashing and collapsing into white ash and wind. Take a breath and you taste burnt sap. Cough and a black deposit, the size of a lozenge, glistens dully on your handkerchief. Bald eagles scream through the smoke and skeleton trees. When the tide rolls in, bits of cinder fleck the surface of the water as if pieces of the midnight sky fell into the ocean, all their starlight drowned.
Straggling in from their fish camp on Point Wolzeroff, the Dena’ina trudge through the rows of tents, selling salmon belly or embroidery, bewildered by the destruction. The soldiers try to explain in their best White Man English: The bluff must be cleared. For the new town. For the railroad. The trains. Choo-choo.
Alaska City, the crew boys want to call this new town, and a general vote will soon decide the issue. In his office, Walter presses wet rolled rags against the windows to muffle the smoke. The list of town amenities that Mr. Carmichael has enumerated in his most recent memorandum is substantial: a residential grid, five commercial avenues, a park (but not too large), warehouse facilities for freight and ships.
Walter is a surveyor. His job is to measure lots, verify acreage. It’s not as though he didn’t major in engineering and master the basics of architecture — though positions of that pay grade were filled by men with more established Commission connections.
He allots a dockyard for the town. A residential building. A swimming basin. A park. Each meticulously placed on streets and lots drawn on quarter scale. His renderings, however, are less practiced, almost rudimentary: plazas, townspeople bustling down sidewalks. One features Genevieve, though he did not plan on drawing her and his better judgment calls for the use of his eraser. She is too handsome, too well coifed. But she is smiling — shyly, as if she has just been told a secret. He gives her a fur collar against the cold and an escort to hold her arm. The escort is most pointedly not Walter’s height, nor Walter’s build, nor anything like Water at all — save for his bowler, placed at an angle so that the shadow of the brim obscures his face.
Dinner at the Crescent Hotel goes as Genevieve requires. He and Genevieve are seen together, comfortably married, at a window table in the dining room. Despite the dry laws of the camp, the waiter quietly offers them a “menu water.” Genevieve orders two. Walter abstains. The theatrical planning, Genevieve says, is at a nascent stage. Hazel is charming. Hazel is delightful. But the only productions she has ever seen are the Passion Play and a vaudeville troupe last spring.
“You love vaudeville,” says Walter, remembering a certain opening night in Helena, Montana and a certain dazzling, tap-dancing Jewess.
Genevieve continues: Hazel grew up on a homestead and ran the café in the camp before meeting Mr. Carmichael. Hazel can split wood, milk a cow, shoot a long gun, and dress a caribou. Hazel makes something delicious and extraordinary, which she calls raspberry fool. “She’s very genuine,” says Genevieve. “No pretensions whatsoever. And my God, her drawings. She’s actually talented.”
“Enough so for a magazine like Collier’s?”
“Possibly. But Collier’s is so middlebrow. All those tidy illustrations. I believe I may have to influence what Hazel thinks of as success.”
Walter nods and saws through the gristle on his chop. He notices how delicately Genevieve lifts her fish off the bone. He notices the sweat on her temples as she glances down at — but does not touch — her foot. Not once has she ever mentioned the pain it must cause her. “Was it a horse?” he says. “Some kind of riding accident?”
“A fall from a second-story window.”
“Your nanny didn’t leave the window open?”
“I was sixteen,” says Genevieve. “I jumped. Trying to escape an institution meant to reform my…preferences.” Her tone is light, her eyes blazing.
There is nothing comforting he can say that won’t make her furious and accuse him of pity. When she quickly switches the conversation back to Hazel, he nods. Hazel needs more canvas for her backdrops. Hazel needs oil paints. Hazel should really see the catalogues from the shows at the Art Institute and the New York galleries. Hazel makes her own clothes, by the way. On a pedal machine. Hazel, Hazel, Hazel. Walter gestures for the check.
“Dear God,” she says. “I’m boring you.”
“You’ve got a crush,” he says.
She blushes, but only slightly.
“Be careful,” he adds, in a tone more bitter than he intended.
“I won’t endanger your promotion.”
He was not referring to his promotion. Seducing Hazel is one thing, worshipping her another. Doesn’t she realize? “It can be quite painful,” he says. “Caring for someone who will never care for you back.”
Genevieve avoids his warning with a last, decisive gulp of menu water. Walter examines the bill, checking and re-checking the addition, pausing mid-calculation — aware only now how his warning may have exposed him, if only to himself.
The days now begin and end with Hazel. The lovely, charming, exquisitely punctual Hazel. In she flits each morning with her willow basket packed with picnic sandwiches and charcoal pencils. By evening, she has finished with the sketches for what Genevieve has entitled “Alaskana: An Extravaganza in Two Acts” including those for “The Cleopatra Number” which has features a less-than-Alaskan pyramid drawn directly on the canvas walls of their tent.
To provide a sense of scale, says Genevieve.
To save on drawing paper, says Hazel, a costly rarity that must be shipped on the officer’s barge. Over the next week, she completes a Japanese temple for “The Mikado Number” and an oasis for “The Arabian Nights Number” behind the dresser and bed. Each is perfect in its details, down to minarets and date palms, rickshaws and straw-hatted drivers — all pieces of exotica that Hazel had never seen but has imagined into being based on the descriptions Genevieve provides. Genevieve, Hazel says, is an evocative storyteller.
Hazel, Genevieve says, can translate even an off-hand comment into an entire picture. And her work ethic! She sketches right up to the moment that Walter arrives. Only to startle at the sound of his footstep and drop her charcoals.
“There is no need to go,” pleads Genevieve. “Walter doesn’t mind.” But Hazel is too late already. Off she rushes to fix Bertrand’s supper — leaving a pirate galleon behind this evening, floating over a Caribbean sea behind Walter’s desk.
“Impressive,” he says, only after she has left. Not that Genevieve seems to hear him. She is studying the tattered sails, the ragged, limp, windless menace of the ship. “Surely some of the credit is due to your direction.”
“Well,” she murmurs. “Hazel does excel at doing what she is told.”
“Such an obliging nature,” he says. “Might work to your advantage.”
“Obliging,” says Genevieve, “is not exactly how I would describe it.”
“What other adjective would you have me use?”
“Frustrated. Ambitious far beyond a silly magazine. Aware she must disguise it.” She points to the galleon, where the figurehead is, like most figureheads, a woman confronting the oncoming waves, her breast exposed, her hair wind-blown — but, in this case, an expression of such fury on her face. Her mouth is twisted into a howl, her eyes seething slashes of black pencil.
At night, in his Army-issue cot, Walter no longer sleeps. Bottles crash, boots are tossed across neighboring tents. Someone believes a kid named Barstow has peed in his canteen and eaten his last fatty piece of salmon jerky.
Genevieve dreams on — immune or simply comforted by the mayhem.
After a few hours, Walter sits up finally and waits for dawn. Hazel’s figurehead looms over him on the wall, rageful and knowing, as if to tell him that yes, his feelings for Genevieve are foolish, farmboyish, one-sided. A figment of his isolation.
Still, the things he knows about her that no one else knows, the things he has kept pinned to the inside of his mind like a catalogue of crumbling butterflies too delicate to ever touch: Her love of ice cream — but only vanilla and only when eaten from a glass bowl. Her hatred of harp music, but only in drawing rooms. Her weakness for calf’s liver and Epsom salts and satin ribbon. He has seen her retch drunkenly into a potted palm and throw a strand of pearls of the deck of a ship, sober. Performing, perhaps, even then. But with a fearlessness that has always eluded him.
If only it were only lust he felt. If only so much of love was not also self-loathing.
Outside, five hundred fresh arrivals argue and mutter by barrel fires, most of them lying on bedrolls laid out directly on the mud. Bootleggers hawk their jittering wares from wheelbarrows. Threats are made. Punches missed and delivered. Walter is almost grateful to the nightly chorus. Even the slurred steps of a drunkard who stumbles past their door flap, calling out to a friend in the distance for help with his own feet.
The Engineering Commission, as tedious as it is, is almost a relief. Walter’s official project is to verify the boundaries of the train yards — a simplistic task that leaves him whole afternoons to return to the office and work in secret on his plan for the new town. He completes a tidy, commercial grid, each avenue identified by a number, each street by a letter. Then creates a linkage road between the docks and depot. Then adds as a city hall, a chamber of commerce and, almost against his own will, a theater.
Not that the building, however imaginary, would ever be completed in time for Genevieve’s production — a production, as he is careful to remind himself, that also belongs to Hazel. Both women now fall silent when he enters, as if he has just tracked mud all over their tender discussions. More disconcerting is their laughter. Everything is funny. And delightful! The way that Genevieve botches their tea, the way that Hazel breaks her charcoals — pressing so intently against her sheet of paper.
The following week, when Mr. Carmichael calls him into his office, he half expects to be confronted as to why his Petal is so constantly never home, bewitched as she is by Genevieve’s attentions. Instead, Walter is simply asked to take a seat. “I had no idea you could draft,” says Mr. Carmichael. “And with such foresight, such precision.”
It seems that a few days ago, while leaving a pound cake on Walter’s desk to take home to Genevieve, Hazel stumbled upon his drawings — and suggested that Mr. Carmichael take a look, if he was going to be working so late. “That park,” says Mr. Carmichael, swooning in his swivel chair. “That linkage road!”
He only has one question, about the double lot on Fourth Avenue.
“A theater,” says Walter. “I was thinking of the upcoming production.”
“I see,” says Mr. Carmichael. “A theater.” Such a thoughtful nod to both their wives. Romantic even. But as a member of the Commission, Walter must think bigger, more expansively. With some vision, some planning, this new town of theirs may grow beyond its role as a railway destination. What the territory needs is a capital. A Chicago of the Arctic. A New York of the North.
Consider, if Walter will, the Marshall Field’s in the Midwest or Penney’s stores spreading through the Rockies. That is the kind of attraction they should reserve for an enterprise, one that shows off their modernity, as well as their potential for commercial investment. As for now, Mr. Carmichael would like to borrow Walter’s layouts and designs. Just for a few days. Just to review them.
Walter nods and thanks him for the opportunity. That Mr. Carmichael will present his plans as Mr. Carmichael’s is too distasteful for either of them to mention — though, as Walter consoles himself, not without its advantages. The following day, he is invited to a meeting with the senior staff. The Commission needs such able-minded, self-starting engineers, Mr. Carmichael says. Walter is a young man of considerable promise.
Right after the designing of the costumes (the lace, the feathers, the silk, the parasols, the dressmaker’s dummy), the final touches to the libretto (the ink, the notebook, the crossing out of lines, the recitations of lines, the midnight readings by lantern light), the insertion of “The Igloo Number” and the painting of a banner that will flutter above the camp reading: ALASKANA: AN EXTRAVAGANZA IN TWO ACTS, Hazel suddenly needs silence, Genevieve claims. Hazel needs to concentrate.
Why must Walter clunk around in his boots? His noise, his sighing is intolerable. Genevieve meets him at the door flap. She speaks to him in whispers. Even though Hazel hardly seems to notice if or when he enters, her slender hand moving so rapidly over a corner of a drawing, before flipping it over a fresh page and beginning a new one. Then flipping it over to another fresh page. Each drawing, flawed, impossible, a failure once again. Or so it seems, from the slump in her shoulders.
Genevieve, meanwhile, is boiling water for Hazel’s tea or heating up a brick to wrap in flannel for Hazel’s cold feet. Six o’clock comes and goes. Still Hazel works on, until Walter is almost tempted to remind her of her husband and his supper — and his husband’s Dena’ina mistress who will no doubt cook him that supper if Hazel doesn’t hurry back home.
Not that he would risk such a comment. Especially not this evening, when he discovers that Hazel has prepared him one of her famous, creek-cooled raspberry fools. She has left it on his cot, in a mason jar with linen napkin. The fool is light, fluffy — a cloud of ripe, pink summer. “Hazel,” he says, but only to thank her.
Genevieve glares at him. And whisks him outside. “I made it,” she says. As a practice for the fool she is preparing for Mr. Carmichael tomorrow evening. Hazel works so hard. Hazel is so committed. The least Genevieve can do is relieve her from the drudgery of a few daily tasks.
“It’s a theatrical,” says Walter. “All she has to do is paint a few backgrounds.”
“Oh, that,” sighs Genevieve. “That was Mr. Carmichael’s idea.”
“Yes. And Mr. Carmichael likes his ideas.”
“We have decided that Hazel should pursue her own ideas. Just for a little while.” Hazel is working on a few, select drawings — which, if he can keep a secret, Genevieve is going to send to the Art Institute in Chicago, via a second-cousin-once-removed who happens to sit on the board.
“So,” says Walter. “There is a we.”
Nothing from Genevieve, save a slight, knowing smile.
“I’d prefer,” he says. “If you wouldn’t fuck her on my desk.”
Genevieve stiffens, but the expression on her face is strangely serene, as if she were drifting far, far above the wooden walkway and the mud and his petty ugliness — an ugliness that she no doubt believes stems from the threat to his position on the commission. “Hazel is different,” she says. “Hazel is special. If she knew how I felt, she would only mistrust my encouragements.”
“All you do is encourage her!”
“Of course I do. She has so little faith in her abilities.”
“You’re acting like her servant,” say Walter — though servant is hardly the right word. She is too dutiful, too devoted, as well as long-suffering and ignored. What she is acting like is Hazel’s wife.
The Crescent now becomes a nightly refuge. Walter stops there after work for a menu water. The first of which tastes like lukewarm kerosene. The fourth of which also tastes like lukewarm kerosene. A game at the pool hall follows. Until he is too tired or drunk to do anything more than stumble back to the tent and sit on the woodpile.
Just for a little while, he tells himself. Just to see if Hazel is still there. Which Hazel always is, her silhouette — like Genevieve’s — backlit by the light of the lantern. To and fro, the women move behind the canvas walls: the shadow Genevieve by the stove or the dresser, the shadow Hazel at his desk; the dark lines of the Japanese pagoda and Egyptian pyramid floating over them as if they existed in the kind of old-fashioned spectacle that traveling tinkers used to present to families after supper, using a candle and little figures cut from sheet metal.
More than once, as Hazel is feverishly drawing, Genevieve crosses the room to stand behind her. Her face is blocked by shadow, and though she doesn’t reach out to smooth Hazel’s braid off her shoulder or caress the back of Hazel’s neck — her longing is so glaring visible in how still she stands, how much distance she keeps.
Perhaps, thinks Walter, that is what love demands.
The moon rises. Half burned trees hiss smoke into the darkness. Down by the east end of the creek, fiddle music drifts over the roaring of the current.
Waits at the whore encampment have grown so lengthy, the pimps now hire musicians and give out tokens to reserve advance visits. The male to female ratio now stands 24:1 — a number that fails to factor in the Dena’ina women and girls removed by force from their fish camp by late night gangs of railway humps and soldiers.
Similar incidents involving white women have never been reported. And yet when Hazel steps out of the tent tonight, at this late hour, Walter knows he should offer to escort her. He even steps behind the woodpile to avoid having to do so. But she sees him. She smiles. He does as decorum requires and holds out his arm. Their walk for the most part is silent, interrupted only by the firelight and laughter they pass by, the hunched backs, the occasional hungry, drunken glance.
The Carmichaels’ tent is dark, the door flap tied down. No one, evidently, is waiting up for her. No one is even home. “I should join Mr. Carmichael at the Commission,” says Walter. “He always works so late.”
“He is with his mistress at the fish camp,” says Hazel. “She’s expecting another child. Or so I have been informed.” Her tone is as lovely and lilting as ever, her skin radiant in the dark.
Walter is so taken aback, he focuses on the ties on her door flap. For someone so lacking in innocence, how is he still so naïve? Of course Hazel would know about her husband. And why shouldn’t she bring it up? It’s not as if the entire camp doesn’t also know.
“It makes me happy,” says Hazel. “To see a husband so enamored with his wife.”
The ties on the tent flaps are triple knotted. And half in shadow. And not coming loose. Perhaps this why he says, with a little desperation, “Is it so easy to tell?”
“Not at all,” she says, with smile. “Besides, it is permitted.”
Years from now, long after his ascendency to territorial governor, long after his marriage to a young, buck-toothed daughter of a Seattle grocery store magnate who comes to Alaska for her grand tour, long after his young, buck-toothed bride befriends the eldest daughter of Hazel after Hazel dies in the birthing room of her downtown cabin, attempting to deliver her third child, he will try to forgive himself for what he says next. He was tired, he was forlorn, he was petty, and he was envious, and he couldn’t undo the fucking knots on the door flap. Which is maybe why he says, “No, Hazel, it really isn’t permitted. At all.”
She looks at him — confused. He keeps it simple. He keeps it factual. Hazel, for her part, seems neither shocked nor judgmental as she listens. About their pretense of a marriage. About the nature of his wife’s affections.
“I suppose,” she says, “I should have known.”
“She does act very tenderly toward you,” says Walter. “I tried to warn her.”
“It’s just,” says Hazel. “I thought she was my friend.”
“She is your friend,” he says. Then pauses. “It’s not as if her admiration for you would influence her admiration for your drawings.”
The effect is immediate. Hazel’s face drains of all expression. “No,” she says. “Not on purpose. But she might overestimate my — ”
Year later, Walter will wonder how he will able to say what he said next so quickly, with such agility. “Oh please don’t bring up that cousin from Chicago!” he say. “The man is an idiot. You mustn’t listen to his criticisms. I told Genevieve not to send him your work.”
This time, Hazel tries to recover with a stricken little smile. And a lie of her own. Of course, she says, Genevieve told her the same thing. That her cousin in Chicago is an idiot. That it doesn’t matter if he disliked her drawings and didn’t want to show them to his colleagues at the Art Institute.
“You need to try to New York,” said Walter. “Or Europe! Genevieve will help you.”
Hazel’s smile quivers — a broken daisy in the middle of her face. She thanks him for his help in getting home. She is a little tired. She is quite used to being alone at night. She can undo the knots. Perhaps it’s better that he goes.
Walter lingers outside, watching the tent fill up with lantern light, watching her figure as she sits down at a table — not hunched over one of her drawings, not moving at all, just sitting there. As if she had been snipped out from the shadows with scissors.
The next morning, Hazel doesn’t show up at their tent. Nor does she send a note. Perhaps she is sick, Walter tells Genevieve. He promises to ask Mr. Carmichael. There is no need to go to Hazel’s tent and disturb her. Especially if she isn’t feeling well.
At the commission, however, the entire office is astir. A memorandum has arrived. The memorandum is from the Department of the Interior, congratulating Mr. Carmichael on the approval of his layout for the new railway town, projected to accommodate up to 7,000 additional workers. Walter smiles. Walter applauds. Both are more difficult than he had imagined. His draftsmanship — his town — looks quite elegant drawn on vellum, certified with the commission’s official stamp.
To celebrate, Mr. Carmichael invites the entire senior staff — and Walter — and their spouses to an impromptu gathering at his tent. He has ordered a jigsaw puzzle from Seattle. Jigsaws, he claims, are the latest craze in mainland America, the idea being to fit a boxful of tiny, broken pieces into a much larger and more appealing picture.
“Come at six,” he says. “We’ll raise a glass to the future of the state!”
Inside, the Carmichael’s tent is only slightly larger than the standard issue model. And yet the luxuries they possess: wedding china, a dry kitchen, a backdoor flap that leads to a private outhouse. Hazel greets each guest at the door flap, a pink blossom of a hostess in pale calico. She delighted. She is welcoming. Most especially to Genevieve, much to Walter’s relief.
Genevieve, says Hazel, must come help her with the salmon croquettes.
Walter, says Mr. Carmichael, must come help him with his jigsaw. The jigsaw picture is of a racetrack, with horses, nose to nose, about to cross the finish line. Several different shades of similar blue complicate its assembly. Some belong to the sky, some to the silks of a rider, and some to places in the puzzle not yet identified.
Flouting the official dry laws of the camp, goblets of wild currant cordial are poured and passed around. Mr. Carmichael is so bedeviled by the piece he has chosen, he drains the entire contents of his goblet, pausing only to ask how the theatrical is progressing. “Hazel is such a perfectionist,” he says. “She won’t show me anything.”
Genevieve glances over from the kitchen, a tray of croquettes in her hands. So does Hazel. “The Extravaganza?” says Walter. “It’s going wonderfully. The last time I checked.”
“Are they sticking to schedule?” says Mr. Carmichael. Now that’s it’s already August, is a fall performance possible? Just between the two of them, he says, the men in camp have gotten restless. What they need is distraction — a reminder that life isn’t all work, work, work, and women of questionable character.
“A fall performance — ” says Walter. Then with a pause that feels almost fated, he glances down at the jigsaw, spies the perfect curvature, and fits in Mr. Carmichael’s piece.
“Would you look at that!” says Mr. Carmichael. All conversation stops as the head of the Engineering Commission climbs up on his chair, taps on his glass. “As everyone knows,” he says. “Walter is a man who can get things done.” He can survey a train yard. He can draft as well as an engineer. He can design as well as an architect. He doesn’t mind if his wife and her best friend take over his tent with their artistic creations. Nor is he stymied by a jigsaw.
It’s Walter who will serve as his Deputy. Effective immediately.
A few men look at Walter with loathing, a few with envy and resignation. Genevieve comes over and places a hand on his shoulder. “Bravo,” she says, in a tender voice, a genuine voice that for a moment sounds almost as if it has as much to do with his accomplishment as his protection of her and Hazel’s abandoned theatrical. She leans in, as if to kiss his cheek. She smells of lavender and cordial, sweat and cool pale skin. He doesn’t breathe. Even when she stops, just inches from his face and brushes back the hair on his forehead.
“To Walter!” says Hazel suddenly. The entire party, including Genevieve, swivels its attention to lovely, talented Hazel, who has raised her cut-glass goblet. She drains it. Then pours another and raises that one too. “To my husband,” she says, opening the stove door and tossing in a handful of paper. “To a new town. And a fall performance!”
There is a round of slight, polite applause. Nods of approval. A nearby engineer offers to tend the fire for her, but she waves him off. “I love performances,” says Hazel, tossing in another handful of paper. “Don’t you, Genevieve?”
“Hazel?” says Genevieve. “What is that you’re burning?”
“Some drawings, the ones that didn’t quite work.”
“Wait,” says Genevieve, a note of panic in her voice. A note that at first Walter is slow to understand. There is a crate by the wood stove, stuffed with drawing paper. Not that he can get there, not in time. Nor can Genevieve, not with her ruined foot. By the time they cross the crowded room, Hazel is stuffing whole armloads of drawings into the stove, the drawing paper thin, delicate, unlikely to smother the embers.
Mr. Carmichael is still staring down at his jigsaw, obsessed. “Petal,” he says. “Let’s not build up the fire. Not with so many guests.”
She ignores him — and leaves the door open. The draft whistles as it sucks up the overheated pipe, the drawings inside turning instantly to cinder. Faces, lines, trees. Genevieve tries to find the tongs, the poker, but there are no tools. She grabs for something with her bare hand. “Stop,” says Walter. “Be careful.”
Genevieve pulls out a still-burning scrap. She throws it on the ground and stomps it out. “How could you?” she says to Hazel, in a bewildered voice.
“They were charcoal to begin with,” says Hazel. “Now they’re charcoal again.”
“Hazel,” she says. “You’re breaking my heart.” The anguish in her voice is so unmistakable, Mr. Carmichael abandons his jigsaw puzzle.
“Petal,” he says. “What is going on?”
“Genevieve is leaving,” says Hazel. “She’s not feeling well.”
Genevieve bends down to pick up the blackened scrap at her feet, then stand up — blinking, her face a wreckage of features. There are so many people, though, so many skirts, such a little space inside the tent. There is no room for her swing out her foot. She stumbles. Walter reaches out to help her. “Don’t touch me,” she says. And limps her way to the door flap by herself.
“Hazel,” says Mr. Carmichael. “You didn’t really burn your pictures.”
“If you’ll excuse me,” says Walter. “I think I’m — .”
“Wait,” says Hazel. “You haven’t had dessert.” She runs into the kitchen and brings him back a plate of raspberry fool — made by her this time, creek-cooled and topped with fruit she picked this morning. He should try it. Just a bite. Just to see what a proper fool tastes like.
“Too much cordial” is the verdict in the morning at the Anchorage, the docked barge which serves the camp’s official post office. “Too much cordial” is also the verdict at the Crescent, though the fact that the Carmichaels did not order a case of menu water for their party may have influenced the gossip at the bar. Gossip that centers on a thinly disguised catfight by the wood stove. Involving Mrs. Carmichael and the strange, uppity, possibly foreign wife of Mr. Carmichael’s top employee.
“Too much Genevieve” is the verdict at the commission. Not that anyone will articulate this verdict where Walter can overhear. But he can see it in how the staff avoids his eyes: It was Walter’s wife who got him the promotion, kissing up the way she did to lonely little Mrs. Carmichael. Now that the ladies have fallen out — as ladies so often do — how will he maintain his position as deputy?
Walter shuts himself inside his new office and sneaks back to the tent after lunch. Genevieve has not left her bed or gotten dressed. Her face is puffy, her kimono ripped across the sleeve. “She knows,” she says. “I know she knows.”
“Perhaps,” says Walter. “But it’s not as if she exposed you.”
“If she does know and she had any feelings for me — ”
“Stop,” said Walter. “There is no point.”
“Maybe I did something,” she says. “Did you notice if I did anything?”
“I noticed,” he says, “how much more generously you treated her than she treated herself.”
Genevieve fingers the blackened scrap on her lap with a motion that reminds of him of the boys at Princeton, adjusting and re-adjusting the position of the cards in their hand as if to magically change numbers into faces.
“Put it away,” he says, gently. “And get some rest.”
To his surprise, she listens to him, tucking Hazel’s drawing under a pillow. Sunlight presses through the canvas walls. There is the sound of whistling, the soft, relentless roar of the creek. She stares up the at the ceiling. “You would never send me away,” she says, with astonishment in her voice, as if just realizing this.
“I’m your guardian,” says Walter. “And as your guardian, I think you need some rest.” There is something strange about her grief, though, something distant and removed. So much so that after she falls asleep, he checks the dresser and the trunks and even under the bed. Her syringes are dry, the vials empty, there is no smuggled bottle of menu water. He sits on his cot, looking up at Hazel’s figurehead until the sun goes down and silences her fury. This deep into August, the darkness starts much earlier, but not nearly enough.
Weeks pass. Construction begins. The lumber mill whines and buzzes until the last scrap of daylight falls off the end of the earth into the ocean. Clouds of wind-blown sawdust mute the colors of sunset, and seagulls drop dead from the sky — their stomachs exploded from eating fish who have eaten too many tiny bits of shaved wood, thinking they were minnows.
Hazel is seen shopping at the Mercantile, picking her up mail, and attending the Ladies’ Guild luncheon where no one with any knack for social acceptance mentions Genevieve or the now-defunct theatrical. All of which is relayed to Genevieve by the wash-and-fold man, for a dollar tip.
At the commission, Mr. Carmichael never discusses the jigsaw party or Walter’s wife. Now that he has a deputy, he spends his days with his mistress or trout-fishing in the foothills. Only when there is an announcement to be made does he show up at the office, asking Walter to gather the staff. The announcement must be kept confidential: Despite the popular vote of the Ship Creek residents, the name of the new town on the bluff will not be Alaska City. It will be Anchorage, after the camp post office whose address is already established, thus insuring that correspondence — especially correspondence with Washington — will not be disrupted.
Polite applause follows. After which Mr. Carmichael announces that there will be a lottery for lots in the new town on the bluff. Senior staff members and their families will have preference. As deputy, Walter will supervise the assignments.
Walter, at this point, is supervising everything.
Much to his concern, Mr. Carmichael wants to see him for a minute in his office. It’s been aa long few weeks since Mr. Carmichael has been in his office, so long that his desk, his chair, his floor are covered in a layer of pristine sawdust. When a breeze blows through the gap between the window sill and sash, the air thickens with golden particles.
Walter coughs. Mr. Carmichael does not. Which may be a sign that Mr. Carmichael is about to mention the obvious: that Walter has claimed the double lot on Fourth Avenue for himself, ahead of the public lottery, ahead of Mr. Carmichael even. The J.C. Penny’s has been moved to Fifth Avenue and, as nod to Mr. Carmichael’s admiration of modernity, Walter has been in talks to develop a talking-picture theatre on C street.
As designed, Walter’s new home will have two identical, fully functional wings inside — one for him and one for Genevieve, allowing him a certain degree of freedom which Walter will never question. Or restrict. Genevieve can do what she likes in whatever rooms she likes and with whom she likes, he will tell her. Soon. When she is able to get out of bed and think a little more positively.
Sitting behind his Army-issued desk, Mr. Carmichael does not mention any of Walter’s breeches in conduct. Sweat glistens on his forehead. Each of his whalebone buttons worries against the snug fit of his vest. Walter is a good man, he says, a dependable man. Though there are so many employees in the commission, he wants Walter to be the first to know that “Hazel is with child.”
“You must be very happy,” says Walter.
“Well,” says Mr. Carmichael. “I never thought I’d see the day, I’ll tell you that.” After the whole blow-up between their wives, Hazel all of sudden changed her mind about having children. For his part, he has always admired Genevieve and would never penalize Walter for his wife’s behavior. But she did put a lot of pressure on Hazel. Not just about the theatrical, but about that Institute in Chicago.
Walter sits there at his Army-issued chair, studying a small golden pile of sawdust on the arm. He would like to leave. Mr. Carmichael asks him to stay. He has a question. It is delicate. “All that talk about Hazel’s drawing,” he says. “All that hand-wringing. You’re a sophisticated man, an educated man, Walter. All I want to know is…was she ever any good?”
Walter leans forward, as if confused.
“I mean, good the way paintings in a museum are good,” adds Mr. Carmichael. “The way people who get paid for their drawings are good.”
Down the hall, there is the tap-tap of the office telegraph, the scratch of a pencil. Walter thinks of figurehead on the pirate ship, the pagoda, the oasis — all drawn to please Genevieve, if not Mr. Carmichael. What did Hazel do when she was working on those ideas of her own? How was it he never looked over her shoulder at his desk? Or asked to see what she was drawing? Or picked up one of her crumpled efforts from off the floor? Was he too distracted? Too intimidated? Too worried that she might be everything that Genevieve implied she was, everything he wasn’t?
“I think,” says Walter, “She has baby on the way — and that’s all that’s important.”
“Of course,” says Mr. Carmichael, disappointment in his voice. He had always had such hopes for Hazel. She worked so hard at drawing, she loved it so much. His mother back in Montana had been similar. She played the piano very artistically, people in town always said, before she got married. The competitions she had won! In Helena and Big Sky and, once, in Salt Lake City. All his life, she played every afternoon before supper, the music so strange, so beautiful, he had the crazy idea that when her finger hit a key, it let loose a tiny, wild bird inside the instrument. Sometimes he would even lift off the top and look inside to check.
Then there was the year without rain, followed by the year where the calves got wasting sickness. His dad had to sell the piano to a neighboring rancher and his mother never played again. If you asked her, she would only say that she was just “a piano-teacher player.” He thinks about that a lot. He wonders if wasn’t what made him so attracted to Hazel — even if she never really seemed to care whether or not he showed up at the café just to order from her.
Years from now, Walter will realize that he needn’t have ever told Genevieve about Hazel and her baby. Or about the house on the double lot he had designed them. Or about the future that she and he could have together, not unhappily, if they tried — a future that would also include a thousand-acre property five miles south of what was soon to become Anchorage’s downtown but, at the time, is so far away from the bluff, it seems worthless, a wasteland of alders. Save for a creek that Walter will one day name Diamond Creek, after his father, Diamond Jake Livingston, the gambler turned chicken farmer, a creek that he will dam up into a lake and sell off in two-acre parcels of muddy undeveloped shoreline.
The day that the men show up to drag Genevieve away, Walter is at the Commission, sitting with Mr. Carmichael in his office. The men have Rocky Mountain Horses, mules and guns. She doesn’t fight them or struggle. She doesn’t try to run. She lets them bind her wrists and pull her onto a saddle. Walter did not send for them, though it was his name on the telegram that Genevieve sent the morning after the jigsaw party.
It is the wash-and-fold man who informs Walter of all this when he finds the tent empty. The wash-and-fold man — despite his name and bellowing voice — is only a boy. Walter asks him why he didn’t stop the men. Why he didn’t call someone. Walter is shouting. He is screaming. People hear him all the way down at the bathhouse. The boy runs away, terrified, without his two dollar tip.
Inside the tent, everything appears the same as always. Nothing has been taken. Save for Hazel’s drawing. Under the pillow where Genevieve hid it, Walter finds a bit of loose ash. He picks it up on the tip of his finger and, for reasons he will only understand later, long after he has retired from office, long after his wealth has ceased to either comfort or amaze him, long after his buck-toothed wife and his two unmarried daughters begin to spend their winters in Arizona for their constitutions, leaving Walter alone in his gargantuan home on 4th Avenue the night that his only son Gene, named not without penance after Genevieve, dies in a drunken car accident on off Seward highway — he eats that bit of ash off his finger. It dissolves on his tongue and tastes of blackened air, as if the fires on the bluff were still burning, as if he had forgotten and taken too deep a breath.