Fiction –3rd Place
Up in Alaska
by Vince Tweddell
Up in Alaska, we called this old guy we did work for Emphee because we could never remember his name and he had emphysema.
Sometimes when we arrived and knocked on the door, Emphee would be too fucked up to answer, and so his niece came to the door and told us what work Emphee wanted done. She was a petite thing with the biggest pair of out-of-proportion tits I’d ever seen. I always hoped Emphee was too fucked up to come to the door.
We called her Two-Tit. It wasn’t much on creativity, but me and Hank always got a chuckle when one of us mentioned the name. Fact is, me and Hank gave all of the people we did work for nicknames and none of them lingered toward creative. The Alaskan Gatsby, so named because he was rich and aloof, always a high ball in hand. And Lloyd Taylor was an overweight woman whose name really was Lone Taylor, but Hank wrote her name down wrong, leaving her forever remembered as Lloyd.
The first time we showed up at Lloyd’s, we brought a truckload of topsoil we had procured from a dirt pile in an open lot across the street from Golden Nuggets. Nuggets was the finest drinking establishment in Fairbanks. Hank had spied the dirt pile the day before as we pulled into Nuggets for a pitcher. “Didn’t Lloyd say she wanted us to bring some topsoil tomorrow,” Hank asked me as we were walking into Nuggets.
We went over there that day and asked about it, but those fuckers were selling dirt for thirty bucks a truckload — and the buyer had to shovel it in. Hank said thirty bucks was too steep. So we went back to Nuggets. After a couple pitchers, we looked out to see if the dirt-selling fuckers had left for the day. They were gone. We went back to the dirt pile and got our topsoil for free.
The next day we charged Lloyd twenty-five bucks for the load. And after cutting her yard, we each left with a cool thirty-five on the hip. That’s worth at least three pitchers each at Nuggets, and during some nightly specials, four. That’s why Nuggets is the finest drinking establishment in Fairbanks. That right there.
After leaving Lloyd’s, we headed for the topsoil pile again because she said she needed another truckload the next day, but the dirt pile fuckers were there, so we went to Nuggets to wait them out.
“Who the fuck has the right to sell dirt?” I asked Hank inside.
“Well, we’re selling it to Lloyd,” he said. “Plus, it’s not dirt, it’s topsoil.”
“Yeah, but Lloyd’s getting a deal — five bucks less than what she’d get it across the street, and we bring it to her,” I said. “Anyway, dirt is dirt. Topsoil is dirt. All they do is grind up wood chips and shit and mix it with other dirt and call it topsoil.”
“That’s why we’re helping ourselves,” Hank said. “The way I see it the only people not getting screwed in all of this is us, and that’s the way I intend to keep it.”
There wasn’t much to Nuggets — a large room filled with dirty ash trays, uneven pool tables, and fold-away tables sitting on top of a brown-stained white tile floor. Televisions dotted the wood-paneled walls, taking up space next to various stuffed moose and bear heads. The only light came from the TVs and the red-shaded lights above the pool tables. The jukebox was turned down real low so you could think. And Gwen sat up behind the corner bar, a cigarette burning before her, ashing into a red Miller Beer ash tray.
Gwen served us a pitcher of Alaskan Pale Ale. Her dark eyes talked dirty and she was prone to wearing low slung blouses, which she wore real well. I’d have a tough time choosing between Gwen and Two-Tit if it ever got down to choosing. Fuck Karen. I was in Alaska now. My ex-girlfriend lived in Kentucky, raising her toddler daughter, who sometimes used to call me daddy.
We looked out the door over to the dirt pile after the pitcher was finished. The fuckers were still there, mixing more dirt with dirt.
“Gwen, pour us another.”
I turned to Hank. “Did you hear her tone? She wants to have some extramarital. I can tell.”
Hank haramphed me as Gwen brought over the ale.
“Here you go,” she smiled, and I imagined a lovely future with Gwen that wouldn’t happen.
“That’s a woman.”
“I reckon,” Hank said. “But I don’t see her wanting anything with you.”
“Damn, Hank. Can’t a guy get some dreaming in?”
We checked outside again after the pitcher was gone and saw the fuckers getting into their trucks. I ordered another for good measure. We downed it and paid. It looked like Gwen smiled at me when I told her goodbye, but she may have just been blowing smoke.
We were sweating while shoveling the dirt in the direct sunlight of 9 p.m. The whole time I was yelling, “Feels like Kentucky, Hank! You remember, feels like home!”
But Hank wasn’t having any of it. “Keep shoveling.” He liked where he was in the world. I always thought about Kentucky.
I shoveled a while longer and then it dawned on me, “What if those fuckers come back?”
“We’ll just tell them we saw a pile of dirt and we needed some?”
“What about all the thirty bucks a load signs?”
“They’re not coming back, now keep shoveling.”
We filled the truck and with Nuggets so close, we decided it was a good opportunity to celebrate. Hank didn’t even care about the fuckers now. He parked right out in front of Nuggets, our topsoil there for everyone to see. “How’re they going to prove it’s theirs?” he asked as we walked in.
“Y’all back?” Gwen asked.
The pitcher tasted even better than the first three and fell down just as fast. Halfway through, and after much consternation, I got an idea. “Let’s go to Emphee’s. Maybe he’ll be fucked up.”
“What will we say — we just wanted to stop by and say hello?”
“Nah, nah, we’ll just say we procured some fine topsoil that we thought he might like and we’ll install it for a cut-rate low price.”
“That’s ridiculous. That dirt’s for Lloyd.”
Two minutes later, we were flying back across Fairbanks. Two-Tit opened the door in a sports bra and tights. She told us she was doing yoga. She was a vision.
“Can I join?”
Hank nudged me. “We’ve procured a truck load of topsoil, thought you might like it installed at a cut-rate price,” he said.
“It’s almost ten o’clock,” Two-Tit said.
“Yeah, well, we’re working late tonight,” Hank said. “And as you can see, the sun ain’t setting.”
As I stood there looking at Two-Tit, right that instant, I realized there was a reason I wasn’t dead and it was to cherish the picture of her standing in front of me in spandex and sport bra. She turned and ran upstairs to ask Emphee about the dirt and then came back and said Emphee didn’t want any. “But I made some brownies for him and he wants to know if you’d like some.”
Emphee was sitting on the couch watching a yoga videocassette on the television. Before him on the coffee table sat a pan of brownies, cut into squares. Two were gone from the pan. He smiled as we entered and spoke through the tubes stuck into his nose. His voice was high and sharp. “Welcome, welcome Hank … and what do they call you?”
“Oh yes, Benedict. How did I forget that? Welcome. Come in here and take a load off. You two sure are working late.”
We sat and forgot what Emphee said, our attention turning to Two-Tit, who had resumed her yoga.
Hank broke the silence a couple minutes later. “Yeah, well, we’re just knocking off but we had this extra topsoil we procured earlier. Thought we’d run by and see if you needed any.”
Emphee must have not heard Hank. “Jill, there, makes the finest bunch of brownies you ever had. I’ve had two tonight, and I’m feeling very fine.” Emphee’s paunch jiggled as he laughed. “You’re welcome to have one or two,” and he laughed again, “or three.”
“How many did you say you had?” I asked.
“Two tonight. And most of the time, I eat one or two.” Emphee’s laugh picked up again. “But on real good days, three or four.”
Hank and I both ate one. A few minutes later, Hank joined Two-Tit. He pulled out a pad and looked like he knew how to do yoga. I couldn’t believe it. Two-Tit had her legs wrapped up around her head somehow. Emphee reached for another brownie and asked if I wanted another.
“Sure,” I said, and we both watched Two-Tit and Hank in silence for a quarter hour. Then I got to thinking. “Can I use your phone?”
“Ah sure, it’s just in the kitchen there.”
“You must be in advanced yoga,” I heard Hank say to Two-Tit on my way to the kitchen.
I dialed Kentucky and sat on the counter next to the microwave. On the refrigerator, I saw a picture of Emphee with two little girls. I wondered if they were Emphee’s grandkids.
“Hewwo.” It was little Beth Ann who answered.
“Hey Beth Ann. How’s my girl doing?”
“No, it’s Ben. You remember Ben don’t you?”
“Hello.” It was Karen now. So quick to take the phone. I didn’t even get to talk to Beth Ann.
“I miss you so much, Karen,” I spoke into the receiver. “So much.”
It was silent. I went on.
“When can you come up here? You can bring the kid.”
Karen’s silence didn’t seem pleased.
“You’re drunk, aren’t you?”
“No, not really, just a few beers.”
“I don’t know what I am. This dude named Emphee who has emphysema gave us some brownies. I think they’re laced or something.”
“Laced with what?”
“I don’t know. LSD or heroin or maybe pot.”
“Where are you?”
“You’re calling me from Emphee’s?”
“He said I could use the phone.”
“I thought you were going to quit drinking. What the hell is wrong with you?”
“If you come up, I’ll quit. You and me and Betsy. We’ll be a family.”
“It’s Beth Ann! My daughter’s name is Beth Ann.”
“I know. Calm down.”
She seemed to calm.
“Karen, me and you and Bethany, we’ll be a family and I’ll be a good dad and treat her like she was my own kid. I won’t drink around her or nothing.”
I thought her silence was one of deep consideration. “Hell,” I said when I heard the dial tone. I walked back into the dining room, sat next to Emphee, and ate another brownie. Emphee didn’t seem to notice, instead intent on watching Hank and Two-Tit perform yoga, so I stuck two more brownies into my pants pocket.
Hank’s sweat showed through his T-shirt and there he was holding another pose. If he didn’t have a full beard, I’d have swore he was a Chinese. Two-Tit held herself like the breasted angel she was.
“Hank, you ready? That was Alaskan Gatsby I called, said he could use a load of topsoil tonight.”
We said goodbye and got into the truck.
“I couldn’t take it anymore. Two-Tit’s body was about to drive me mad.”
“Sure you’re not already there?”
“You’re right, maybe. Anyway, I didn’t call Alaskan Gatsby.”
“I figured. You know that dirt’s for Lloyd. Who’d you call — Karen?”
“How are you feeling?” I asked Hank.
“Me too. You wanna head back to Nuggets?”
I turned to look at the topsoil in the bed and the only thing I could think was Lloyd doesn’t deserve to have this topsoil unloaded on her. I pulled out a couple brownies from my pocket and gave one to Hank. He took a small bite out of his and mine, I swallowed it whole, a brown topsoil and shit pill, like it was the only thing left in the world I didn’t want getting away from me.