It was because of a bear that she told me she loved me. We were twenty, both of us looking for the edge of things. Me, sub-arctic Alaska—black spruce, sphagnum bogs, an aluminum-sided fish processing plant on the coast, near the native village of Naknek, accessible only by small plane.
Hers was Inis Mór, an island off the Western coast of Ireland. As far west as Europe can get. It was a college summer escape, planned before we met. From the edge of the island she could look left to the Cliffs of Moher and right to the cold gray ocean. Nothing smells like distance like the ocean. But it wasn't the ocean that did it. We always said it was the bear.
It was the first time I saw a brown bear. It may have been the North American subspecies, the grizzly. Or maybe because it was on the coast, it was a Coastal Alaskan Brown Bear—the biggest species of bear in the world. But the name didn't matter to me then. The bear, this particular bear, was what I wanted most from Alaska. What I'd always wanted. Yes, I wanted mountains and glaciers and the quick money cannery work can provide. But most of all I wanted the bear. Its claws, its stench. I was also a college student, and a grizzly felt as far away from college as a person can get. [End Page 89]
I think she was at a pub when I called. I imagine it now as night in Naknek and night also on Inis Mór. But night in Alaska only lasted an hour or two, like the sun sat down for a quick break. We both could not have been in the dark. Both ends of the earth cannot be dark at once. But I remember it as dark, or dusky. Low light on sand. Sand and mud—that was the cannery grounds. Dunes littered with skeletal trawlers and old rotting skiffs. Piles of rope, a dead truck full of fishing nets. Blue plastic barrels, white plastic cisterns sitting in mud. Wooden cable spools the size of tables. A cargo van missing its sliding door. The skull of a moose, leg of a bear, a mangy red fox that took food from your hand. The smell of salmon. Overworked septic tanks. And the salt smell of the shack where I lived, where nets were stored off-season. My shack's door was new because a bear had torn through the old one that spring, a few weeks before I arrived. The shack next to mine held the payphones. Three of them, outside, each mounted to the outer wall in its own doorless plywood stall. To stand in one and speak was like standing in a coffin. I had a pre-paid phone card that costs an hour's pay. I punched in the numbers. Ringing. Static. Bottles clinking. Hello?
Hey. It's me.
Oh my god. Hi! What? It's so good to hear your voice. What? When are you coming? August what? Did you get a ticket yet? (I had: Naknek to Anchorage to Denver to Cleveland to Newark to Dublin. Bus to Galway, ferry to Inis Mór. This is what young love does.)
We rambled, just so much to say. In the fuzzy afterglow of each other's voices, I heard a sound not from the phone. Huff. It was rooting around the base of the dumpster, a few yards away, right in front of the stall. Fear took me. Did it see me? Would it charge?
Now, ten years later, photographs from Naknek show my mind's mistakes. The dumpster wasn't directly in front of the stall, but at an angle, and at least ten yards away. The phones weren't bright yellow, but black. And the building that they were attached to was a singlewide trailer, not a tin shack. So there are two canneries—the real one and its remembrance. The more I think about it, the less real it becomes. It turns to butter in my hands. I'm thinking about this...