Hinchinbrook by Scotty Weeks
The bar was nearly empty. There were a couple of locals shooting a game of eight-ball and a bartender counting the minutes until her shift was over. And there was Joe, sitting at the bar, regularly glancing between his phone and the door.
It was a terrible choice of bars, but he always panicked when it was time to pick. His entire mental directory of city date spots would vanish in a puff of smoke and he'd find himself suggesting places like this. Like, literally, the last remaining dive bar in the West Village. There was even a dark sexy wine joint across the street that he could have easily suggested instead. He made a mental note for the next date.
The front door opened bringing a gust of cool air inside. Joe double checked the phone and did the mental adjustments for lighting and forced angle. It was her.
She fidgeted in her stool, nervously sipping at a gin and tonic, working her way through the twenty questions. Real Name (Patricia), Job (Bartender), Neighborhood (Greenpoint).
"So," Patricia asked, "where are you from?"
"Uh, Seattle." A lie but not a big one. "Well, I moved out here from Seattle."
"Oh, the rain?" She answered automatically because that's the thing people know about Seattle. Rain. Starbucks.
"Yeah, pretty rainy. Nicer winters, though."
They small talked each other until some combination of morbid boredom and the third beer allowed Joe to excuse himself. Early morning. Meetings. Walking the dog. So on.
* * *
The office was nice. Floor through loft. Big windows. Some dog running around like an idiot. The product team was in back scrawling diagrams on a whiteboard and pumping each other about world changing shit. Synergies and the like. Lines were being drawn frantically between little boxes that said "social" and "branding". The room sounded very impressed.
Joe was writing a proposal for something or another. It didn't matter, it was mostly from a library of templates he kept for that sort of thing. He was filling in the blanks and idly flipping through social media accounts.
Maybe he'd get into a good flame war. Several people from his hometown had started to figure out the whole internet thing and they were usually good for a few rounds of back and forth: chemtrails, fluoride, vaccines. That sort of stuff.
Joe scrolled a bit further down and saw a yearbook photo of Billy Grayson. His heart did that flutter thing that happens when you see a cop's light flashing in the rear view.
Below the yearbook pic was a photo of Billy's boat. It was a bow picker, an nice aluminum gillnet rig. It was being towed by a large stern picker, probably a tender boat.
The caption read: "Bringing Billy's body back home."
Joe's fingers went numb. The Graysons were like family. Billy's younger brother, Mark, was Joe's childhood best friend. Billy used buy them beer and slip them smokes. Whip their asses. Drive them out the road for bonfire parties. Small town stuff.
Joe walked out of the office in a daze. He'd talked to the Graysons maybe twice in the last fifteen years. The phone number was easy. Three five three nine. Everybody in Hinchinbrook, Alaska had the same exchange. You could pick up any phone in town and dial four digits and it would connect. Joe punched in the numbers and hit call.
"Rhonda? It's Joe Baranoff. Joey."
"Joey." She took a deep breath. "You heard about Bill?"
"I saw, I mean yeah. I heard about it. When's?" Joe's throat closed. "When's the service?"
* * *
A month later, Joe was finishing his beer, sitting in a bar at the Anchorage airport. He kept glancing out at the concourse, trying to remember exactly how it looked before it had been remodeled into pastel-and-wood visitor center Alaskana. Back when people decorated in dingy earth tones and airports looked like Soviet shopping malls.
The last of the beer went down easy. Joe slid his money across the bar and walked to gate A1. He hadn't arranged a ride from the airport but Hinchinbrook was a very small town.
He scanned the seats. Several familiar faces but none that were close enough to . . . "Ed!"
A man with a shock of bushy salt and pepper hair looked up from his newspaper. "Joey Baranoff? Sonofabitch. What's it been?"
"About fifteen years I think."
"What's this I hear about you moving to New York City?"
"New York. Yeah. Been there for six or seven years now."
"Don't know how you do it."
An indecipherable announcement came over the intercom and people began crowding the podium.
"Looks like we're boarding. You got a ride to town?"
"I've got to drop off my cousin, but I can give you a ride."
"Awesome, thanks. Good to see you again, Ed."
The flight was forty-five minutes. Up and down. Joe stared out the window, watching the mountains pass underneath the plane. When the Hinchinbrook runway came into sight Joe wondered if they still allowed people onto the tarmac to pick nagoonberries. It used to be pretty common to see several women out there with tin buckets, bent over at the waist, collecting them. He didn't see any, but he also couldn't remember when nagoonberry season started.
Ed's cousin was a big man. Round. He had big cheeks and that expression on his face that only Natives can execute with perfection, eyes that rested somewhere between smiling and suspicion.
"That's Rich Baranoff's son."
Ed's cousin nodded approval.
"Hey Joe, you mind hopping in the back?"
"Not at all."
Joe slung his bag into the bed of Ed's Ford. It was a late 80s rustbucket with an engine knock and a steel pipe for a bumper. They pulled out onto the road and drove toward town. Shale cliffs with dynamite drill holes shot up on one side, Eyak lake spread out on the other.
Hinchinbrook was the greenest place he'd ever been. Evergreens, alder trees with broad leaves, beneath them all was thick underbrush, beneath that a carpet of moss. Nothing ever really dried out. Plant life took advantage where it could.
They passed the cemetery. Joe blinked his eyes a few times and took a good deep breath.
* * *
The Sockeye was exactly like he remembered it. The ceilings were low, maybe seven feet. The tiles sagged and were splotched with water stains. Behind the bar there was a ten inch black and white television mounted on a milk crate that had been cut in half. Two skinny twitchy kids in flannel shirts and Xtra-Tuf boots were arguing over the pool table. The room was thick with smoke.
Have a beer. Get some rest. Go see Billy in the morning. Nobody knew he was in town yet, anyway.
The bartender wordlessly slid a can across the bar to Joe. It was cold and it tasted like nostalgia.
An old teetering drunk with a wide mustache, a mean face, and dull eyes looked in Joe's direction and said, "Who the fuck are you?"
"Joe. I'm actually from here originally. Haven't been back in a long time."
"What's your last name?" The tone was suspicious.
"Like Rich Baranoff?"
"I hated that son of a bitch. Fuck Rich Baranoff."
Joe gritted his teeth. He blinked his eyes a couple times and took a deep breath. "Yeah well." He lifted his can slightly. "Nice to meet you."
The guy walked over. He was standing right next to Joe now, swaying. "I worked for your dad once when I was fourteen. He fired me." The words trailed off in a slur. "Kicked me off the boat after one opener. Ain't never been fired before or since." He drained the last of his beer and set the empty can down with a hollow thunk. "Son of a bitch."
Joe set his money on the bar, trying to ignore the adrenaline that was lighting up his nerves.
The bartender grunted, "Tommy, knock it off."
Joe walked upstairs to his room in the hotel. The bed was a twin. Rows of springs dug into his back. He didn't get to sleep until around one. The shades did very little to keep out the light.
* * *
After asking around on the docks, Joe found that Mark Grayson was still fishing the Sally Jane. It was a boat that he bought from his high school girlfriend's dad when he started fishing, and it was named after her. He'd been floating around on the Sally for almost twenty years.
The door to the cabin was open and Joe could hear the jangle of a toolbox being kicked around. He leaned in and knocked on the cabin window. Mark's head shot up.
"Joey Fucking Baranoff!"
Mark ran out of the cabin, jumped onto the dock, and gave Joe a rib crushing hug.
"Sonofabitch. It's good to see you."
Mark was driving his dad's truck. It smelled like oil and solvent and old work clothes.
“Billy was having a great fucking season, too."
Joe nodded. What do you say to that?
"He was out on the bow. Hot roddin'. Hit a rock, flipped, and flew back into the cabin. They say it was quick." Kevin's voice was steady. He could have been talking about the price of pink salmon.
"That's bein' a fisherman for ya."
They pulled into the cemetery. It was nestled in the shadow of Mt. Eccles, by the trailer park on Whitshed. It almost never got any direct sunlight and the air was chilly when they got out of the car.
Joe wanted to say something but he was afraid that if he started talking it would come out in a blubber.
A mound of freshly disturbed gravel sat a foot high in front of a flat granite slab.
Son • Brother • Father
1974 — 2015
Joe blinked several times, but only succeeded in pushing out the tears. Mark put his arm around Joe's shoulders. They stood in silence for a few minutes.
"It was a nice ceremony. Rainy and windy. Bill wouldn't've had it any other way."
"That's about right."
"Hey, there's an opener Thursday. I got to get the boat ready. We should get goin'."
"I can walk back. Catch up later?"
Mark gave Joe a firm squeeze on the shoulder. "Drop by my place, I'll have my girl cook you some moose steak. Bet it's been a while."
* * *
Mark waved from the truck as he drove back to the docks.
Joe scanned the rows of graves. One, two, three rows back? God, it had been so long. After a while he spotted it.
Pitched granite with a good layer of moss. Twenty-five years worth.
At the base of the headstone was bleached bouquet of plastic flowers and a pile of broken glass stuck to the back of a fading J&B scotch label. Back when Joe was twenty he'd come down to the grave with a bottle every now and then. It was his dad's brand.
He smiled, thinking of someone else holding vigil in the same way. Or at all, really. It had been a long time.
* * *
Mark's girlfriend came out of the kitchen with a pile of moose steaks stacked up on a bakelite platter. The kids, two girls and two boys, were crawling over one another. One of the girls stopped and looked Joe in the eye. "So you really knew my dad since you were my age?"
"Earlier than that." Joe said, entirely unsure how to talk to a child that young. "Since we were babies."
After dinner Joe and Mark were in the bedroom sitting at the end of the bed. The door was locked so that the kids couldn't come in while they were smoking. Mark took a hefty rip on a well-used bong and let out a few half-coughs.
"God man, so much has happened. I'm not gonna lie, it's been a tough time. Really tough, man."
Joe sat there, wishing he had something to say. Some words of encouragement. His life was easy now, air conditioned. No chance of dying at the office. He took a hit off the bong and marveled at how much Mark looked like his dad.
"Shelly and I, well, we split. I got wrapped up in things pretty badly, went off the deep end. I dunno. Shit's different now, man. We all did drugs when we were kids, everybody did—but the stuff now? It's different. It's so powerful. When Kacey and I went to Wasilla it got really bad, I'm lucky I have my family. Really, without them I'd be dead. My dad helped me get my boat back. Co-signed for the loans from the cannery to rebuild it.
"I never worked so hard on anything in my life. Really, I was so beat that I couldn't lift anything for months. My arms were just tired of twisting and turning and wrenching—I couldn't even hold a wrench by March."
Joe felt the weed fuzzing up his head, the only thing he could muster was, "Jesus, man. That's rough."
"You know, Kacey saved my life. Really, I love that girl. My family doesn't like her, they say that two addicts can't get better, but what are you going to do when you have four kids? Ha! Kinda have to stick together."
Mark took the bong back and looked Joe square in the eye. "So level with me, Joey. Are you rich now?"
"No, heh, not at all. I mean, I'm fortunate. I live in New York, but–"
"Ha! See? I told you." Mark shook his head, smiling like a proud sibling. "Nah, you aren't doing too bad."
Joe hugged Mark at the door. "Thanks for the moose. It's been way too long."
"No shit it's been way too long. Don't pull this crap on me again. I want you to know my kids."
"Promise. It's weird. I'd forgotten what it was like to be from somewhere."
"This is your home, like it or not. That's never gonna change."
* * *
The bar was quiet and dark. Good looking people were clinking glasses and making small talk. Joe was sipping at a glass of Shiraz and glancing between his phone and the door. When the girl walked in, he was surprised. She looked better than her profile. Cute brunette. Nice smile.
The twenty questions were easy enough. Real name (Lana). Job (Psychologist). Neighborhood (Financial District).
"So," Lana asked, "where are you from?"
"Hinchinbrook, Alaska. Born and raised."
© Scotty Weeks, 2015
Scotty Weeks is originally from Cordova, Alaska. He also spent a number of years in Sydney, Australia and got a marsupial-adorned passport out of the deal. Now he lives in New York with his lovely girlfriend and his ungrateful bastard of a dog. Along the way, he's been a commercial fisherman, a bartender, a programmer, and a hobo. Several of his short stories are online at scottyweeks.com.
Hinchinbrook was read by Alex C. Ferrill on 3rd June 2015 for Born & Bred