I was snowbound in my cabin in Tikigaq one Saturday in March 1976 when six teenaged Inupiaq (north Alaskan Inuit) girls rolled in and asked me for a story that they’d heard I’d told to some other people in the village. I was in my mid-thirties and recording traditional Inupiaq narratives from an 85-year-old man called Asatchaq. The following tale, more or less as I spoke it, is in affectionate mimesis of the English versions of Asatchaq’s stories. Most of the story takes place in Fairbanks where I had lived before travelling north to Tikigaq. Booster, which appears towards the end, is the name of a game of divination I had written, and which I played with various young men in the village.
Uqaluktuagniaqtuna! I’m going to tell a story.
I told this one to Piquk, Cool Daddy and Konrad.
The story is a true one. It happened in Fairbanks.
The story’s about me. I lived down town. Near the log cabins.
Third Avenue-mi1. A small house.
It was built in the forties. I don’t know who made it.
Five of us lived there.
We shared the rent and sometimes ate together.
I was getting ready for my trip to Tikigaq.
I went to college in the mornings. I went to learn Inupiaq at college.
A white man taught us. Larry. A good teacher.
He really knows Inupiaq.
After I ate lunch I studied in the library. I worked on Inupiaq.
That’s how I lived. I’d saved some money.
It wasn’t enough.
My cheque would come in New Year, only.
I needed the money to pay Asatchaq for stories.
I needed more money for rent and travel.
So I looked for a job. There were several in Fairbanks.
Most of my friends had jobs on the pipeline.
The jobs I could get were in hotels and restaurants.
So I went to Jake’s Cabin.
It’s down by the river.
I went and talked to Jakey. Jakey was a white man.
‘OK,’ said Jake, ‘you can start this evening.
Get here at six. You can work in the kitchen.’
So I got there at six. And they taught me to make pizza.Lots of people came to eat. That kitchen was busy.
We rolled out the dough and cut it in circles.
There was lots of cheese. It was in bits and it came in boxes.
We threw on cheese and mushrooms, meat and pepper.
The orders came on paper through a window in the kitchen.
It was hot in the kitchen. There were four other cooks.
All five of us were white boys:
but all of them were Jehovah’s Witnesses.
All they talked about was Jesus witnessing.
I didn’t join in. When they asked me my religion I said nothing.
‘You must be some pagan.’ That’s what they told me.
So in my breaks I walked down to the river.
The banks were muddy, the weeds were dying.
The weeds and the reeds had frozen already: bending, broken.
I’d been here with my girl friend earlier that autumn.
We sat by the water and watched the birds migrating.
Ducks and geese coming down from the Arctic.
That place on the river was no good for fishing.
To do any fishing you had to go up river.
There are moose there too. In a couple of weeks,
hunters who had licences would go up river.
There are plenty of moose there feeding by the water.
You asked me about Ernie. Ernie didn’t have a license.
Ernie shot one.
Went to prison three weeks for it.
That moose had come into his garden.
Ernie and Kora had a garden.
They lived high on a ridge, twelve miles out of Fairbanks.
They’d bought some land and built a house.
Kora did the garden in the summer.
Lots of white folks like to eat vegetables. They can’t help it.
They fenced in the garden to protect it from rabbits.
But that moose just stepped through it.
It ate most of their vegetables in just five minutes.
Ernie went in and fetched his rifle.
He walked right up to that moose in his garden
and point blank shot it.
The moose died right there. Just one shot killed it.
It fell down in the carrots and they skinned it:
cut up the body and put it in their freezer.
They kept their freezer in the garage.
Then a man called Owl Claws called the State Troopers.
Owl Claws was a white man. Big one.
He wore owl’s feet on a string.
He hung them round his neck,
like old timers here in Tikigaq.
‘There’s a dead moose up the Ridge,’ he told those troopers.
‘Somebody has shot it. He didn’t have a licence.’
The troopers drove up in a four-wheel-drive pickup.
They came and opened Kora’s freezer.
She and Ernie had butchered the whole animal.
They’d wrapped the pieces in freezer paper.
When the Troopers saw the meat, they said:
‘Is this moose meat?’ Kora was crying.
‘Is this meat moose meat?’ the troopers asked Kora.
‘It was eating our garden. We’ll have nothing to live on.’
So they took away the meat.
Kora and Ernie were left with nothing.
Then Ernie and Owl Claws started to quarrel.
First they quarrelled on the moose meat.
Then they quarrelled about fences.
Ernie chartered a plane and flew to Valdez.
He went to Valdez: at the end of the pipeline.
The pipeline people were selling equipment they had finished with.2
People flew down to buy it at auctions.
Ernie flew down with his cheque-book.
He bought three hundred fence posts,
a tank for getting the salt out of water,
and a dome that came in five thousand pieces.
The dome came in pieces. Polystyrene.
I saw those pieces. Ernie never built it.
As part of the deal Ernie had to take some other things:
sugar dispensers, restaurant trays and salt and pepper shakers.
Thirty dozen. More than three thousand.
I saw them myself a year or so later.
The packing had burst:
the ground by their garage was covered with salt and pepper shakers.
But they couldn’t use them.
Ernie rented a plane and brought the whole lot back to Fairbanks.
He unloaded on his land,
and the very next day his house burned down.
They lost the house, their books and records, clothes and pictures.
They moved into their garage where they kept their freezer.
So they started to keep rabbits.
They grew vegetables all summer.
All summer and fall they bottled and canned them.
They ate nothing but rabbits: with peas, beans, beets, and lettuce, carrots and tomatoes.
They got money on insurance,
and Ernie grew qaaq3 which he sold in Fairbanks.
Ernie had been to school in Boston.
He’d studied the aurora.
He went to the Antarctic.
It was cold like here there, maybe even colder.
He spent two years studying aurora.
He lived down there with lots of other scientists.
All they knew, those men, was scientific knowledge.
They lived in isolation.
They all went crazy.
They became little boys.
They pretended to be trains.
They ran through their housing and made engine noises.
They made railroad schedules.
They talked engine language.
They pretended they were aeroplanes and whales and penguins.
Maybe Ernie, too, went crazy with them.
He wrote to a friend to send him qaaq seeds.
The seeds took six months to come from Berkeley.
Ernie planted them in pots. He grew bushes in a window.
It’s light there all summer.
Their summer is our winter: their winter is our summer.
When Ernie tried his qaaq out, it was strong and tasty.
He got really qanga.4
He packed some up and sent it to America.
His friends in Berkeley got qaaq from the Antarctic.
Then another plane flew down. Ernie went to New Zealand.
He gave up studying.
He could have been a big professor.
He came to Alaska. He built a house with Kora.
Three years it took them.
When it burned down, they slept in the garage and lived on rabbits.
Then they got tired of it.
‘Let’s go to New Zealand!’
That’s how they planned it.
When he came out of prison,
Ernie found that Owl Claws had taken some land away.
Owl Claws had moved the fence posts Ernie had planted.
When Ernie saw what Owl Claws had started,
he loaded his shot gun and got on his dozer.
Kora ran after him.
‘Don’t shoot him, Ernie! Don’t shoot, Ernie!’
Kora ran ahead. She threw herself down.
She lay in the mud between Ernie and Owl Claws.
Ernie stopped the machine.
And Kora made Owl Claws move the fence back.
It was Kora who made him. Just by talking.
That’s how they lived. They quarrelled with their neighbour.
They planned to leave Fairbanks: go to New Zealand.
Still they lived on in their garage, eating rabbits.
I was working on a late shift, making Jakey’s pizzas.
But I couldn’t get on with those Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Those Witnesses boys had a kind of leader.
His name was Orville.
One night Orville got me by the pizza oven.
He tried to make me come to their meetings.
I told him I wouldn’t.
This made him angry. He said:
‘You’ll roast! You’ll roast in hell just like that pizza!’
He beat his knuckles on the oven.
So I went to the boss. I told Jake I was leaving.
‘Okay,’ said Jakey. ‘Can’t say I blame you.’
Now I looked for work again.
I walked through Fairbanks.
The snow had started.
It was almost evening.
I came to a hotel they called The Trapper.
It’s a big log building near the edge of Fairbanks.
I went in. To the desk.
‘I’m looking for a job.
A job for the evenings.’
The woman at the desk said:
‘We’ve got an opening for junior bellman.
‘What’s a bellman?’ I asked.
‘Bellman’s a bellboy. He sits in the lobby.
When guests come in, the bellman carries their bags to their bedroom.
It’s three bucks an hour. Tips are extra.
I’ll introduce you to the senior bellman.’
The senior bellman was high school student.
A boy called Rick. Some people called him Ricky.
Rick took me to a cupboard.
It was full of bow-ties, vests and towels.
The corridor was empty.
The corridor smelled of vaccuum cleaning.
Rick gave me a bow tie and a waistcoat.
We each took a towel.
‘You can wear your own pants. Black pants. White shirt.
And this vest and bow-tie.’
Next day I went to the Salvation Army.
I bought a shirt and blue cord trousers.
They fitted me well.
I’ve got them here. I still wear those trousers.
And this is the shirt I bought that morning.
It was made in Montana.
The work wasn’t hard.
I started at six and worked until midnight.
I sat in the lobby and waited for guests.
To pick up their cases.
There weren’t very many.
The next evening I brought my Inupiaq homework.
I sat and did my homework in the lobby:
I sat opposite the desk.
The lady did crosswords.
I did my homework:
Tautukpigu: ‘Am I seeing it?’ Tautukkiga: ‘I am seeing it.’
Qilakpisigu: ‘Are we knitting it?’ Qilakkikput: ‘We are knitting it.’
Akkuaqpiun: ‘Did you just catch it?’ Akkuagiga: ‘I just caught it.’
That’s the sort of homework Larry gave us.
I learned lots of words and some of the bits that go inside words:
How piqsiq + niaq + tuq makes piqsigniaqtuq
(There will be blowing snow.)
How aqpat + nit + lutik makes aqpannillutik
(Because the two of them did not run.)
How itqutchiq + niaq + tugut makes itqutchigniaqtugut
(We will breakfast.)
I wrote out my homework for class next morning.
‘You getting some smarts?’ the woman asked me.
She was someone to talk to.
‘I’m not too sure. I’m trying to learn this language.’
‘What language is it?’ the woman asked me.
I told her I was learning some Inupiaq.
‘Never heard of it,’ she said.
‘It’s the Eskimo’s language.’
‘I’ve lived in Alaska these fifteen years,’ the woman said,
‘and young man, I assure you, they don’t have a language.’
‘Look, this is their language.’ I showed her some typed pages.
‘These words are Eskimo.’ And I spoke them to her.
‘That’s just nonesense,’ said the woman.
‘No-one talks like that. I don’t get a word of it.’
‘What are these words then?’
‘Some smart-assed professor’s made those words up.
You’ve been taken for a ride, son. Go and earn a proper living.’
‘But this is my work,’ I tried explaining.
‘There’s this old man. He knows a lot of stories.
I’m going to his village. When I’ve learned his language,
it’ll help me translate them.’
‘A drinker, I reckon, spinning you a snow job.
That’s all they’re good for. Go down Second Avenue.
All those Eskies know’s the inside of a bottle.
And where’s their dollar coming from?
A fat monthly cheque from Social security. Out of my taxes.’
Most nights I worked alone.
But sometimes on a week-end shift the head bellman came too.
His job was to train me.
He showed me how to raise Old Glory and then bring it down again.
He told me the Stars and Stripes must never touch the ground.
If the flag touched the ground it would lose its power.
Its power would drain out. The earth would harm it.
So one afternoon we went outside.
The flagpole stood opposite the hotel coffee shop.
People sat behind the windows, eating and smoking.
Outside it was cold. It had started snowing.
A store sign opposite read: ‘Parking for Gulls’.
Gulls was a store for vaccum cleaners.
I thought that sign was funny. Nauyaq. Nauyaaluk.5
I tried translating the sign into Inupiaq.
But Rick wouldn’t listen. He stood to attention.
He saluted Old Glory and undid the lanyard.
The flag started running. It rattled down the flag post.
‘Catch it bellman!’ But the it fell on the gravel.
‘Shithead! Asshole!’ the head bellman shouted.
‘You did that on purpose!’ ‘I’m sorry,’ I told him.
Then I had to learn to fill the noticeboard with letters.
They had conferences at Trappers.
They had to be shown on the hotel notice board.
The board stood on an easel.
It was lined with black velvet.
Rick gave me a box full of white plastic letters.
You picked out letters and stuck them in the velvet.
Rick had all the day’s announcements in his pocket.
That’s when I started to quarrel with Ricky.
We quarrelled over spelling.
There were conferences and meetings that I had to spell.
Meetings of dentists and business people.
Rick told me I’d spelled ‘Annual Conference’ wrong.
I’d used up the n‘s. I should keep them for later.
I told him I was an English teacher. I needed those n-s.
Both words needed two of them.
‘Oh yeah? Catch these spellings!’
And he shook my sentences onto the carpet and made me start over.
The next day it froze.
The snow turned to ice in the motel courtyard.
I’d gone to the bar to fill some orders.
I was crossing the yard with a tray of cocktails.
There was ice in the courtyard. I was trying to be careful.
Then a big Dodge roared through the archway.
It was going at 30.
It was Ricky, the head bellman.
He saw me in his headlights, but he didn’t stop driving.
I was straight in his path.
I was carrying those cocktails.
There was nowhere else to go. I jumped into the doorway.
I got rid of the drinks tray.
There were two Bloody Maries.
They froze on his windshield.
The ice hit my waistcoat.
‘Nice shot teacher!’ Ricky shouted.
I guess he’d been drinking.
I went back to the bar to get more Bloody Maries.
I thought I’d be fired.
I ordered a Jack Daniels.
I ordered another.
But no-one said nothing.
I filled a new tray and added some peanuts.
A man and woman had come down from a pipeline camp
for rest and recreation and had ordered cocktails.
I got in the lift and took their drinks up.
When I got to their door, I could hear that they were high on something,
cocaine maybe. They kuyaked shrilly, sexed up, giggling.
I didn’t want to interrupt them.
I rattled the ice in their highball glasses
and set down the tray in the empty passage.
It was seven at night and I’d just sat down to my Eskimo homework
when a string quartet arrived from the airport.
It was the Guarnieris. I knew they were coming.
They’d flown in from Osaka. On their way to New York City.
They were playing at the U tomorrow.
I’d bought a ticket. I had leave for next evening.
I was upset still from my quarrel with the bellman.
I stood up. I was shaking. I was going to meet them.
They checked in. I’d seen them ten years back in London.
‘Come to give the folks some good ole tunes?’ said the woman at reception.
‘Which’v youse guys does lip-synch?’
They were quiet guys, friendly. They chatted to the lady.
I picked up their bags. They carried their own instruments.
I mooned past their bedrooms late that evening.
Michael Tree, the viola, hummed ‘Seid ihr nicht der Schwanendreher?’
Steinhardt flew through a Szymanowski Legend,
Soyer and Dalley were dabbling the Ravel duo.
After the concert I went to say hello with Larry.
‘Our hotel porter!’ exclaimed Arnold Steinhardt, ‘what a range of interests!’
We talked for a while. Arnie asked us at once about Inupiaq.
I wanted to say: ‘I’ll never learn properly. That’s for virtuosi.
You on the fiddle and Larry here, in language pyrotechnics.
We poets stagger through creation’s bits and pieces: farceurs, flaneurs, butterflies:
we browse figments and fragments – ultimate or rudimentary –
and try to fuse these, in some coalition of a relative and intermediate samjna, 6
with a circumstantial and haphazard colour and our own chaotic rhythms.
You work technically, with consciousness broader than we’ll ever stretch to
in our self-enclosure,
We speak from solo ipse and non-knowledge: one eye half open to relative truth and
the other beating the corpuscular muddle thrown up on our eye-lids by indecipherable
images from half-truth crystalised in sacred fear at having the chutzpah
to approach sublime kingdoms.’
I walked out late, and stood beneath Orion.
The crusted spruce looked dwarfish and sullen.
‘How many kingdoms know us not?’ the words came.7
‘We must match their indifference with burning solicitude.
This must be the motif of my work here.
Have courage and be tranquil,’ I scolded myself, shrinking.
‘Acknowledge you may learn, but most likely achieve nothing.’
Logistics took over.
Worries about packing, clothes, equipment, plane flights, money:
what to do about polar bears and rabid foxes, trichanosis.
‘What good’s a book?
A single tile, like one of Ernie’s geodesic dome slabs
in the heap that welters round the world tree.
What matters is now: not some test,
nor yet the crucible of ice and darkness:
but whether I can rub along,
live graciously sans greed or competition:
hunting in peace like a Tikigaq hunter:
this project a wrought exercise and tactic:
walking any lay-out given, then tactfully leaving
to contemplate the structure of the stories’ cosmos,
the design of this ancient people’s thinking:
their shape in the context of a world imagination.’
The taaqsipaks8 arrived three nights later.
Two sets of two-tones lowered from a taxi:
and pair of squarer black and white deals.
I recognised the spat man. Name of Arnie:
Arnie the pusher, not Arnie Guarnieri.
I’d seen Arnie at the U.S. Dewline base at Barrow.
I’d gone there with Hanky, an education salesman.
Barrow was dry, so we’d gone for a drink.
The barman was English.
A Yorkshire boffin who did radar systems.
The men at the base all belonged to a club.
The bar was part of it, with a cage in the corner
for a Go-Go dancer. They paid subscriptions,
and took it in turns to serve behind the counter.
Drinks were quite cheap: beer 15 cents, $1 for spirits.
Then Arnie arrived.
He wanted a bottle, but the boffin wouldn’t serve him.
Arnie hadn’t paid his bar bill. He refused to pay it.
The boffin didn’t mince his words.
Arnie, he said, was a son-of-a-bitch twister:
all he knew was skyving and scrounging.
He told him not look for favours
because he (the boffin) gave nary-a-toss for the junk
that Arnie fixed the boys with.
‘So gimme a drink,’ said Arnie smiling.
‘Go fuck yourself backwards’ the barman whispered,
‘or I’ll sling your black guts round the radar mushroom.’
Words continued. But after each of the radar boffin’s fuck-offs,
Arnie leaned forward on the bar and whispered:
‘Eat mah shee-yet. Eat mah shee-yet.’ Smiling but emphatic.
So here was Arnie, five months later, checking into the Fairbanks Trapper,
green jacket, pink flares, cuff links in diced abalone.
Cyril, Arnie’s partner, dressed in black and orange.
‘Hey, bellboh, take these boxes, don’t leave them in the wet,’ said Arnie.
It was snowing in the courtyard.
They had nine cases, thereabout, including some open cardboard boxes.
It looked as though they’d been through Pay n’ Save
snapping up knick-knacks as they passed them.
Arnie was still cool.
But Cyril, the partner, was restless and nervy.
He rocked on his heel, kept one hand in his jacket.
I started to lead them through the corridor.
My trolley was groaning.
‘Don’t drop those, son,’ said Cyril (in orange),
‘we don’t want bad herb on the carpet.’
‘You want bad herb, man?’ said Arnie.
‘I just roll in and visit this cat in his crib and he laid 20 on me.’
I’d packed the trolley high and clumsy
so the luggage tottered and the wheels sank in the carpet.
To make matters worse I got lost, and the doors of the lift stuck.
We stepped out for a moment to see where we’d got to,
and the lift ran off with their trolley-full of cases.
When it came back, the doors got stuck open.
Bored and frightened, I tried making small-talk.
The conversation zigzagged up to Barrow.
‘How’s your friend at the bar who wanted your tripes
for the radar mushroom?’ I dangerously asked him.
We were miles from reception, in a maze of bedrooms.
Arnie froze the jive-ass component.
‘This bellboy is something!’ I was flattered.
He pulled out two wallets in burgundy and crocodile.
Each cheque book had a different name and P.O. number.
‘I’m boss,’ he said darkly. ‘Both of me is.’
‘You crazy?’ Cyril stabbed in, ‘This guy could – ‘
whipping out a small revolver.
The gun was tiny. I thought he’d picked it up from Woolworths,
like the stuff in his boxes from Pay n’ Save and Super Rexall.
Then Cyril spun the chamber and I saw the hammer.
‘That gat: don’t sap me with it,’ I managed to stammer from Raymond Chandler.
‘Who is this guy?’ snapped Cyril in a whisper.
‘Some punk. I don’t know,’ muttered Arnie, half-frowning.
Cyril marched round by the open lift cage flourishing his pistol.
He wasn’t pleased, unlike the fellow in Mae West’s, to see me.
‘This cat. I don’t believe it! Stuck here, and he knows your…
This guy’s getting fired, I’m telling you…’
‘But not that gun I hope,’ I tittered.
Both of them were stoned, drunk, out of it, just then I realised,
and the Barrow encounter jarred their memories,
collapsed and drifting, in the usual marijuana tangle.
I slipped round the edge and came out as bellhop with their luggage trolley.
The rest of that evening I spent running errands.
Arnie and Cyril had jugs of vodka.
I shuttled them ice, I changed their glasses.
The glasses were wrong. They needed more ash-trays.
They wanted cigarettes from Turkey.
I ran out to get them on 5th Avenue.
When I got back, they had two girls with them:
Tiffany and Sunshine, both in underwear.
Arnie gave me a dollar, a joint and a vodka.
This was stingy but fun. I enjoyed my evening.
Next night, quite late, Arnie called reception.
They wanted me up there.
‘This room’s no use. We need a new one.’
I ran upstairs and found them sweating.
They’d packed already.
I called down to confirm the booking.
‘It’s someone on their tail!’ the lady whispered.
She was excited.
To Arnie it was just a game still:
‘You want to earn a real tip this time, bellman?’
He leaned back in his chair and fished up his wallet.
He took out five bills and laid them on the carpet.
‘You move us in five minutes, bellboy: and you get these.’
They were new, crisp centuries.
I took up the challenge. I wanted those dollars.
I might have done it if I’d known my way, and not dropped too many boxes.
I hurried the corners. The two taaqsipaks followed.
The trolley wouldn’t run straight.
Cyril slung a rolled-up copy of the evening paper with his pistol in it.
Arnie sang the minutes. He knew I couldn’t.
We had one more meeting. I’d told them about Booster.
That’s my book of questions.
Cousin Lazarus has played it. It’s a book of divination.
The men wanted to see it.
So I took them the dice, and mottos in typescript.
‘Will the man get us?’ That was Cyril’s question.
Cyril shook the dice and threw Bell-Orange-Cherry.
Dice rattled on his pistol.
‘That’s the empty combination,’ I told him.
‘There’s no motto for it.
Lay down your gun if you want an answer.’
Cyril liked the hierophantic posture.
He did as I told him, and shriven, he threw clearer.
It was Orange-Orange-Cherry. I read out his answer:
Someone with clear eyes is tired of watching out for you. Cultivate self-love.
‘What’s that mean?’ asked Cyril, excited by flashes of his mother in Chicago.
‘That’s for you to figure out,’ said Arnie.
‘If we play properly,’ I said, ‘you get four answers.’
‘No, no. No time,’ said Arnie, impatient. ‘Give me my turn.’
‘What’s your question?’
‘This is my question: ‘How come I’m here now?’
He scattered the dice and threw up Plum-Lemon-Orange:
‘The texture of all flesh from Mae West to the Eskimos is one,’ said Booster.
‘Oh,’ said Arnie.
‘Let me give you the companion motto. Number 84. My favourite:
‘Extreme alternatives. Untidy circus of emotion:
the glamorous equipment is exhausted by display.
The whips and harnesses rot in the night dew with neglect.’
‘I’ll meditate on that,’ said Arnie.
He wrote down his answer in his crocodile cheque book.
‘Huh,’ said Cyril.
That’s where I left them.
At the end of the telling, the six girls rose and left the cabin.
‘Goodbye,’ I said.
But Inuit don’t say goodbye. They just walk off in silence.
1 The locative enclitic, ‘in’.
2 Anachronistic detail. The events here took place the year before pipeline completion.
5 Inupiaq, ‘common gull’ + -aaluk, ‘big, old’ = ‘full grown nauyaq’.
6 Pali: ‘limited human perception’ as opposed to insight
7 I was preoccupied at the time with Pascal’s exclamation which complements ‘These spaces frighten me.’
8 black people; literally, ‘grown very dark’.