Kangerlussuaq is the Inuit name for Sondrestrom
Nola tells me I’m it. The only female bartender in this place so I’ll be making loads of money. I nod.
“That’s good,” I say. “That’s why I’m here.” The wood paneling is crumbling in spots of her office, warped and buckling, in that 1960’s style. I look around and let my eyes course over the crooked black and white photos of old Base Commanders in salutary poses. She winks at me, a dystrophic eye blink, almost imperceptible, with an open-mouthed smile and I can smell the alcohol on her breath, despite the fact that it’s ten in the morning.
“This base has been here since about nineteen-forty but the bar wasn’t built until the late fifties.” She blurts out random historical facts about Russia and the Cold War like a person who didn’t pay too much attention in history class. “The DEW Line is about seventeen miles from the base, and all the radar DYE sites are still out on the icecap. Most of the guys work at the airport radar tower now though.” She chuckles. “Thanks to Reagan, the DYE sites are closing. Ain’t much need for the U.S. Airforce up here no more.”
“I thought I was hired because the base was doing so well,” I say.
She corrects me, “The bar is doing well, honey. Not the base. The base will be permanently closed in a matter of two years. You’re here to support the base’s only profitable outfit, the Caribou Club.”
It’s November. I am in the arctic. I am in Greenland. I am at that spot in the northern hemisphere where the Earth’s axis of rotation meets the Earth’s surface. The Terrestrial North Pole. And I am alone. I won’t see the sun for two months, and I already begin to think in terms of the fact that I am punishing myself by denying my skin and eyes and soul the light of day. Noonday shadows glaze over the earth for two or three hours. After that, dawn meets dusk. There is no careless lingering of light in between, only the dimness of twilight and mydriatic pupils. It’s space here. Cold. Almost weightless. Constant moon. Deep pool of stars. Endless, dimensionless, borderless reality. It’s pre-dawn, primordial, ice age, nothingness. It’s smooth hills and shallow parabolas. It’s the edge of the world. It’s emptiness.
Nola pulls out a welcome package for me and sits it on her desk.
“Here’s your military issue parka, boots and long johns. A key to the Caribou Club. A key to your dorm room. Someone over in Building C will show you how to get to your room.” She passes me a thick folder of paperwork; more contracts, more legal stuff to sign. There’s a few brochures on safety in there too; appropriate attire, a map of the base, a list of emergency contacts. I flip through, agitated, and place the folder in my bag. I’m not thinking safety. I’m thinking that at the end of six months, I’ll have forty-thousand dollars in my pocket, not including tips. I’m thinking what the hell does anybody do up here for fun, anyway. And then it hits me. I’m the fun. I’m the Marilyn Monroe of the Arctic, here to boost the morale of the servicemen with my smile. I was hired to chat. Laugh at bad jokes in a myriad of regional accents. I’m thinking I’m here for the same reason any civilian bartender comes up here—to be at the center of a party every single night, surrounded by people who are alive and drunk and looking at me as a sort of hero; a paragon of all that is living, breathing, moving, becoming. A direct link with the outside world. Someone who doesn’t have to do much to earn her money but pour a drink a little stiffer. Listen to a few sad stories of a cheating spouse or a jilted lover? Break up a fight and win in the end? Life is bright.
“Here’s some advice,” she says. She’s got what’s left of a Texas drawl, that hasn’t mingled with its own kind for years. She leans over her cluttered desk, coughs a liquid smoker’s cough and says, “You’re pretty much trapped for the next six months up here, honey, with only two choices: the bar or the church. Ain’t nobody gonna save you but yourself. So, if I was you, and Lord, I was twenty years ago, I’d make the best of it and consider this bar here your sanctuary, because there ain’t nothin’ else.” She winks again, not smiling. “Besides, it’s a hell of a lot more fun. You know what I mean, honey?” Just hand me my stuff, I think. I’m ready.
“I’m not scared,” I say, “if that’s what you were thinking.”
“Well, that’s good to hear,” and she reaches out for my hand. “Welcome to Søndrestrøm.”
I race across the frozen field of rock and powdered snow to begin my midnight shift at the Caribou Club. It’s a windowless, aluminum entombment, built on permafrost. One heat wave in the summer and the foundation collapses. There’s an old metal sign on the wall at the entrance that says: The Miami of the North! Coolers, Collins, Rickeys, Fizzes… I can see through the rough darkness, the airless blue ice and black skies. The dry rock and blue-cheese-colored landscape. I inhale and choke on clean, frozen air, lung-burning, tropospheric lightness. Before the door closes behind me and seals me in, I look over to the frozen tundra beyond the hills, how it stretches out to meet the sea at one end and the deathly blanket of ice and meltwater torrents at the other. Mint Juleps, Gin Bucks! We Serve Them Colder Than an Eskimo’s Shiver.
It’s a circular bar with me on the inside, in charge of what’s known by the locals as the North End. Billy, an Airman from upstate New York, mans the South. There are usually about a dozen regulars who sit at my side of the bar, no Americans, mostly Danes. Howling. Whistling. Waiting for me to serve up at least four drinks each. But tonight there are about fifty old men waiting to see Nola’s new female hire. Collectively, there are about 100 drinks in queue. I start placing glasses in a row in front of each man. I add ice. Then I frantically start to pour shots. Billy comes over and re-stocks the pilsners and fluted glassware that I’ve been pulling out and placing on the rubber mat.
“Don’t pour every drink. If they’ve got one or two in front of them, start giving them coasters.” He points to a huge stash of Caribou Club coasters under lock behind the bar. “You’ll get the hang of it.” I quickly modify my plan and start passing out coasters.
“American dollars only,” Billy shouts from his end, “they’ll try to pay in Kroner. Don’t take it. And here’s a tip…” Everyone’s got a tip for me. “…Always make sure they got a drink in front of them. At least two. They’re cranky bastards if they have to wait for a drink.”
“Fuck you, New York.” An old man with a white beard and a red fisherman’s cap yells at Billy. It’s customary that the Danes call the Americans by their State. If there are two Americans from the same state, they’re known for their city.
“Sit your grumpy ass down, Cornelius.” Billy tells me that it’s only a matter of time before I’m known as New Jersey, and that my real name makes no difference up here. “Nobody cares,” he says. I make a mental note and go back to pouring for some, while dishing out coasters to others.
Søren, a Dane, introduces himself to me. He looks to be about thirty or so, still with some hope in eyes of becoming the man he set out to be, not as weathered as the others. He informs me that no one should sit at the bar without at least one drink, one back up and a good view of my smile. I give him a girlish nod and pour shots of Glenfiddich, Jagermeister, Absolut, and Gammel Dansk. The tips pile up, and I’m suddenly aware of the difference between my tips and Billy’s. Søren is a civilian contractor, like most of the others who end up at the bar at the end of their shifts. And like everyone else, he’s never without the same empty grin and furrowed brow, the same glassy, drunken eyes that don’t really stare at me as much as they do through me. A few Inuit from Nuuk and Sisimiut work around the base, but their presence at the bar is almost non-existent. In fact, I wonder more often than not, where the “Eskimos” are.
More advice from Billy: “Nobody gets flagged. There’s a bus that picks these bastards up, so there’s no chance of drunk driving. And even if there was, only thing to hit is a musk ox.” When it’s slow, I’m able to laugh and listen to Billy tell story after story of drunks at the bar. By midnight, two Americans and a Dane have passed out, face down on the bar. A Swede has given me a $50 and a few Kroner to come to his room. Jensen the banker is in the men’s room stall, his face buried in the toilet. Two in the morning and we still have drunks fighting for another round. A U.S. military cargo plane from California on its way to Denmark is refueling, staying the night. It’s two in the morning when twenty or so new, young airmen crowd into the place as I’m ready to shout, bar closed. But Nola rounds the corner from the back office where the waitresses are cashing out and grabs a new bottle of Stolichnaya from the well.
“Welcome to Sondy, boys,” she shouts, and those left hovering around the rim bang their glasses on the wet bar, relieved that newcomers have extended the hours. By three in the morning, the Base Commander has joined in.
In the weeks that follow I meet Ray, an American traffic controller from Alabama, Trog, a Texas engineer who works on the cargo planes that fly in and out of Sondy, and Scot, from Carlisle PA who is the only one stationed up here by choice. He had come home one night after working the late shift at his home base down in Lackland and found his wife in bed with another man. He put in a request for a remote and in a matter of a few weeks, was on the next flight to Greenland. I also meet Una, an Irish girl who’s under contract like me, and one of the only other women employed by the base. There are about 300 men to 30 women, and half the women are Inuit. That leaves only about ten or so “white” women; Americans, Danes, English, Irish, and two Swedish prostitutes. During off hours, when there’s no money to be made, Una, and the Americans and I sit in the lounge in Building C, wondering why the only crap up here to eat is pork belly. We talk about the aurora borealis, the icecap, hunting caribou and missing home. It’s usually then, at the mention of home, that I get up and walk away, unable to offer anything to the conversation, nor wanting to.
“Hey, where you going? You don’t have family back in Jersey?” Trog asks me as I wander back to my room. I hear him say, from the hallway, “that’s the only thing that keeps me alive up here. Knowing that my family is back in Texas waiting for me to come home,” and a sharp pain shoots through me as I try to visualize the concept of someone waiting at the door for me to come home.
I go back to my room and lock my door. I move a chair in front of my window. Gray clouds tumble shadows over gray hills. The gravel is silent, too heavy to be blown by the air. There’s a coffee machine in my room and so, I make a pot from a can of Maxwell House I bought earlier at the Base Exchange. From my window, through parted black curtains, I can’t see much but the church Nola mentioned, in the distance. It’s a tiny wooden church, painted red, with a white steeple. Its lights flicker through tiny flakes of dry snow, and there is a Christian, Inuit pastor somewhere inside offering the hope of God to a small, sober flock. To the right of the church, there’s the hotel, “Kangerlussuaq,” a post office, a base exchange and a chow hall. I can’t see the Caribou Club from my window and decide that’s a good thing. Farther from sight is the airport and runway, and beyond that, is a bridge that crosses the fjord and takes you to the Danish side. To left of the church, are the cold, treeless hills and ancient burial grounds of nomads who prayed to the Great Spirit a million years ago, and I can’t help but wonder how they even survived past the age of thirty.
Time has very few natural markers in the arctic. The dark days all look the same and so, the only way to gauge time is by checking off boxes on an American calendar. Thanksgiving came and went, then Christmas and New Year’s, with little consequence. But the weeks after the New Year are anything but still and peaceful at the Caribou. Everyone is restless and spirits are low, which means more business and crankier customers. I’m dishing out coasters instead of drinks, like casino chips, otherwise drinks get watered down by sitting too long on the bar. If a drink gets watered down it’s like a crime was committed and I’m the one who committed it.
“I can’t drink this shit! Make me another one.” It’s the random but constant call of the alcoholic. So, I try to depend more and more on coasters. There’s this never-ending motion of spherical cardboard shapes sliding down the bar, traded, cashed in, dished out. When one of the North Enders is ready for another, he places a coaster on top of his glass, and I hustle. Pour. Serve. Cash it in.
I’m making small talk with old men. I ask Jensen if Rasmus is an Eskimo, the only one of his kind at the bar. Rasmus is the dark-haired, older one who sits in the corner, Buddha-like, and never speaks. Jensen orders his drinks, takes care of him. And when Jensen’s not around, which is very rare, Rasmus nods at me, meaning, Yes, I’ll have a vodka with ginger ale.
“He’s a Greenlander,” Jensen says. “He don’t like being called Eskimo. Nobody like being called Eskimo here.” Rasmus is one of the only Greenlanders working on the base, and when I ask Jensen why he isn’t in Nuuk, with his family, Jensen replies, “Because he’s smart.”
He says there’s no jobs in the capital. That the Greenlanders have to kiss the past goodbye if they want to survive. “And kiss the ass of the Americans,” he says, and laughs.
“Much like Danish contractors?” I add, reminding him of his own situation. Jensen is a DAC, a Danish American Contractor. These guys are mostly ex-prisoners who were sent here from Denmark to start a new life. Petty thieves. Drug addicts. Minor felons. They unionized, and in their clannish way, became bitter and suspicious of anyone above their rank. That includes the “Yanks,” and the Danish elite who only socialize and drink at their bar on the Danish side. The DACs. Tribal boiler-room repair men. Clanish taxi drivers. Plumbers and electricians; the blood-brother kinsmen of the North. I imagine their forefathers as ancient Viking warriors who carried pagan runes in sacks while hunting, pillaging and raping women. Cloaked in musk ox fur and leather mucklucks. Jensen, though, is soft-spoken. He’s a watered down version of his brutish ancestors and though he doesn’t appreciate my humor, he takes it. I ask him why he’s here and he replies, “to escape.”
“To escape what?” I say. I can’t imagine coming to this fresh hell to escape anything. This is the kind of place you’re sent, as punishment. This is prison. But Jensen doesn’t answer my question and I don’t chase after an answer. Instead I wipe up the ring of condensation around his glass and look to Rasmus. He’s holding his drink. His eyes are fixed on the far wall of the bar with the overhead TV on channel five. Bay Watch. Jensen says Rasmus loves blondes. That he’s going to California some day. But I know he’s not. Ever. It’s a lie he tells himself to get by.
Soon, the north end of the bar fills up and the near-dead hum of voices floods out the sound of joyful noise.
“Hey, girly! Hey, New Jersey! I want vodka juice.” It begins like that.
Søren usually starts on me first. The dinner hall closes and the bar opens and there he is, still drunk and groggy from the night before, even after a day of fixing the boilers throughout the base, bloated and pulpless. On Sunday, it’s worse. He’s tapping into the blood of Christ.
He wants to buy a round of drinks so he throws twenty-five American dollars on the bar. He tips me nothing tonight because I water-down drinks.
“You were smashed, last night, Søren. Drunk as shit.” I tell him that he fell asleep with his head on a coaster. “You can’t just wake up at closing time and have another drink.”
“I can do what I want!” he says, pounding his fist on the counter.
But I laugh at him, right in his face. He’s a loser, I think.
“So can I,” I say, pounding back. “That’s why you got water.”
He gives me a hard look that I don’t take seriously and he moves to another side of the bar, as if losing his business sends me some kind of deeply consequential message about the meaning of life. It doesn’t. I plaster on a smile instead, and start pouring twenty, eight-ounce glasses full. Nine vodkas, seven rums, a couple whiskies, a Carlsberg and a chilled Baska Droppar for a Danish pilot who just flew in from Copenhagen. Keld wants to buy a round too, so I start making another twenty.
“You make me vodka ginger, baby” Keld says. I do.
Keld is already long gone—pickled. He’s a fat, bloated, redheaded Viking, about 35 years old. Ugly, too. I can smell the acid of his breath across the bar. He reaches out to grab my wrist, to tell me I made his drink wrong, but I pull back quickly and avoid the clutch of his thick, weathered hand.
“There is no vodka in my drink, bitch.”
He talks like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Dorta, his girlfriend, laughs. She stares at me and waits to see how fast I repair the damage. I feel slightly humiliated by her, until I recall that she’s one of the prostitutes Una told me about. I tell him to chill out and yet, I have to be careful what I say. Anything can set him off.
I point to the drink still sitting on the bar. “There’s a full ounce of vodka in your drink, Keld. It’s the same every night. I’m only allowed to put in an ounce. Just drink it and shut up.” I try to say this playfully, but it comes out stiff. I turn away to busy myself slicing lemons only to turn back out of curiosity to see why Keld hasn’t retorted. That’s when he grabs the drink with his dirty hand and inhales it, swirling it around in his mouth, sucking it through his teeth and, as his friends watch him and I stand there like I’m watching a movie or something, he puffs out his cheeks and the liquor shoots straight into my face and down the front of my shirt. I stand there soaked with saliva, alcohol and sweet ginger ale sticking to my skin. This, of course, causes a crowd. My eyes water, mixing with the cold spit and vodka on my face. The South End of the bar watches the North End as I take a bar rag and clean myself. A crowd gathers while Billy covers for me and scoops up tips, real ones that don’t lead anywhere but his pocket.
“Now, fix me a real drink, sweetheart,” Keld mutters, “And this time I want vodka.” Everyone laughs with him, at me. I fake a smile but my face is burning.
I remake the drink in front of him. New glass. New ice. I pour the clear Stolichnaya over thick chunks of solid ice and watch it stream from the thin, metal spout into the glass. A group of DACs has formed behind Keld and they all start chanting more, more, more. I try to stop at an ounce, but the Viking reaches over and forces my hand to keep the bottle in its upturned position.
Finally the glass is filled to its rim with the Russian spirit. Keld and the others cheer like they’ve won their first round of King Shit. He grabs the drink off the wet bar with one hand and my shirt with the other and pulls me close. I stumble inward, and as I try to turn and move away, he lunges forward and pulls me over the bar by the back of my shirt. My stomach and chest drag across the wet, dirty countertop and as I’m half way from being pulled complete over the bar into his lap, I feel the stinging hot slap of his hand on my ass. Before I can react, he clamps down my shoulders and back with his arm and pins me. I can’t breathe. As the numbing sensation of a laughing crowd buzzes in my ear and as my eyes catch sight of the closeness of Keld’s red wool jacket to the point where I can see flecks of multicolored thread on his pockets, I feel his fingers digging between my legs, squeezing the delicate flesh of my inner thighs, nearly breaking through the fabric of my jeans. I scream, and it’s over. He drops me back on my side of the bar and leans over the counter with a smile. His teeth are yellowed and cracked.
“Don’t come here with your stupid, American ideas and try to change us,” he says. “This is the way we live. Get used to it or go the hell home, you stupid cunt.” He roars and swallows his drink, shattering the empty glass against the wall and drawing a crowd of twenty or so out into the night to party somewhere else. I’m numb. The deep, steady reverberation of Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams” rises above the din of a hundred drunken voices as I collect my broken self from the floor. I know now that Nola gave me the right advice.
On Monday the bar is closed to fumigate for roaches. Nola’s exterminator is stuck in Thule due to arctic storms. A few other waiters and I are volunteered to clean up the mess. And with rubber gloves and bandanas covering our noses and mouths, we sweep thousands of dead and half-dead insects into trashcans and plastic bags. The bar opens Tuesday for business to an irritated, shaky, half-detoxed crowd of regulars that I irritate even more by playing an old Prince and the Revolution CD.
I can’t help but think the fumigation didn’t entirely do the job.
Yukon Cornelius, sitting in the corner, says, “What is this shit?” I don’t answer. I hitch toward the stereo and turn it up. “What’ll you have, Cornelius?” He asks for a whiskey coke. The North End is quiet. The few drunks still at my end mumble about the hope of my leaving soon.
“Three more months,” Søren says, “and then goodbye, New Jersey.”
It’s then that I am called into the office. Nola tells me to take a seat. Without looking at me directly, she smiles and asks me how things are going and tells me that she heard about the incident with the DACs. She hasn’t been around lately. Her twenty-two-year-old boyfriend flew in from the Keys, about a week ago, along with Sondy’s yearly supply of pork and the bar has pretty much been running itself.
“I hear your tips have gone down,” she says, smile still there. I agree. “The other bartenders are giving me slack for it. It’s not like you don’t realize tips are pooled.”
“Just doing my job.”
“Are you?” she says, lighting a cigarette, “I’d say the opposite is true.” I look off to the wall and focus on a framed picture of the current Base Commander, Lieutenant Colonel so and so, I never knew his name. We always call him Georgia. Trog, Billy and Ray told me over lunch one afternoon in the chow hall that he was sent here as punishment for crashing two vehicles carrying missile parts within the span of one year. They didn’t have the heart to fire him because his son died shortly before all his mishaps. The photo was taken over on the runway. You can see the dark hills of Greenland in the distance, and there’s Georgia, wearing a flight suit in front of a C-74 Globemaster. He looks content; happy almost. Like he hopped off the plane and though, I’m finally free.
“So maybe if I sucked Keld off the other night my tips would go up and then everybody would be happy,” I say. “Isn’t that right? And your advice to me is just turn the other cheek—literally—the next time I’m spanked and groped by a fat Dane so that the bar can still make its money? Bullshit. Obviously I’m a bigger fool than I thought for having an ounce of trust in the United States Air Force.”
“Watch your language, honey.” She remained steady on her swivel chair, despite looking at me uncomfortably. “Don’t think I don’t know what goes on up here. What gets overlooked. What us women have to deal with from some of these animals. I been on duty at Sondy for one year, seven months and twenty-seven days now, and don’t think I don’t count down every day like the prison term it is. Hell, I seen shit. But girl, there’s a bigger force at work up here than the one you brought with you from your world back home. Different rules apply. This is the arctic. There is no consciousness, logic or right a mind. This is the wild. And for the love of Jesus, you need to try to make peace with these people if you want to survive.”
I sit trying to make sense of the senselessness. Trying to dig my mind into something sturdier than my own groundlessness. Wondering why I am so bound by this place, as if I’m punishing myself for a reason. Punishing myself, perhaps, for an inability to feel compassion towards humanity.
Nola inhales and the smoke nestles in her lungs before filtering through her nostrils and out, into the confined, open space. She’s so ugly, I think. Everyone is. Inside and out.
“I think,” she says, “that you just don’t know the meaning of family. I mean, that’s what we are up here. One big family. And we all need to get along.” She rotates around on her chair, dismissively, and scurries through a pile of papers.
I get up. “I want out,” I say, for which Nola looks back at me intently and replies, “you’re lucky you can make that choice, honey.” And in that moment, I feel sorry, not for me, but for her because, unlike her, I can make that choice as a civilian.
As I move to the door to head back to the bar, she rises from her chair. “One last question,” she says. “You sure you’re done with this place? You do realize that if you break your contract you will lose half your pay.”
I nod with a tinge of remorse. I’ll be losing a lot. “Yes,” I say. “I’m done.”
By the time spring reaches the Arctic Circle, the sun remains in the sky past midnight. Although still cold, the purple-flowered willow herb just begins spotting the hills and the small routes connecting the base to far off spots like Lake Fergusen, Sugar Loaf mountain, Black Ridge or “Kelly Ville” open for transport. Flights to and from McGuire reopen too and I’m given the OK to head back on a Monday. I go early in the day, before work to the BX on the Danish-side. Now that spring is here, they’ve restocked the shelves and I spend what’s left of my money on pickled herring, lutefisk, caviars, chocolates, and cookies. The routes from Nuuk and Sisimiut are open too, so, dozens of Inuit women bring their handmade masks, seal skin boots, tupilaks, Inuit fabrics, musk ox fur coats and kamiks. It is here that I feel some sense of peace. A connection to the world. I touch the soft furs and fabrics and forget myself in the blues, red, yellows and greens of a wool sweater, a beaded purse. As I peruse the shelves and wander through the aisles, I see a young Inuit woman I don’t recognize selling jewelry. Wrapped around her arm is Rasmus from the bar. It’s the first time I’ve seen him in daylight, not sitting at his spot at the North End. And in this light, he looks real, human. There are lines so deep and wide on his face that I can’t help but think each one was made by the cutting brightness of an arctic night. I nod hello to him and ask the woman to buy one of her bracelets. Rasmus smiles at me in recognition and thanks.
“My father says thank you for buying a bracelet.”
Her name’s Greta and she speaks broken English. She has black hair, moon eyes and long arms, yet I have trouble recognizing her. She works for Mittarfeqarfiit, the Greenland Home Rule airport authority that’s taking over this place after the Americans leave. Her brother hunts polar bear and her sons make kayaks. Yet I can see the marriage of old and new in her soul. She’s the epitome of the new Greenlander. The Inuit who holds on to her traditions and reaches out toward the acceptance of few, if not many Western ideals.
“I know you from your first day,” she says, “from the plane.” I am slow to recognize her but then I remember. The faceless body, the thick hooded fur of army green parka, the rushing upward of outstretched arms and thick snow and dust. I fell into her arms, out of the warm hum of the belly of the C-141 Starlifter and glimpsed the weathered beauty of her soft face. She was the very first person I saw when I landed. Like I was being born. And the foreign, unknown curves of her face made me forget home.
“How you like the life here?” She asks a disappointing question.
“It’s different,” I say. “Very cold. And it’s too dark in winter. Gets me a little depressed.”
“Well, you go home soon,” she says, “It’s nice to visit here, but for Americans, this not a good place to live. Home you have so much. Big cities. Mountains. Shopping. Big Cars. Friends. Family”
I lower my gaze. “Yes, family,” I say.
She translates what I say for Rasmus, who’s standing still holding on to his daughter’s arm for balance. He says something in Greenlandic and Greta nods.
She wraps my bracelet in paper and hands it to me.
“Rasmus says, ‘family is a gift. You can put anything in family, even your own suffering.’” Greta comes around to the front of the counter and hugs me. I can smell the perfume of the earth on her skin, and as I walk away, I know that behind me, Rasmus is still there and always will be. The one constant. And long after this American base closes down and sinks into the fjords, he will be there with his people, with his family. I think too of my family, what is left of it. Of who I left behind for this place, and why. It doesn’t matter anymore. The anger. The regret. What matters is that I’m going home.
It’s my last night and Nola asks me to man the south side. I’m wondering why I won’t have my regular North End, but I don’t ask. Nola looks at me and then down at her paperwork. I know she’s not telling me something but I brush it off as her drunken body language. Unreadable. At this point it doesn’t really matter. I’m on a plane back to McGuire tomorrow at noon. Besides, I’m happy, for the first time. I place my counted cash drawer in the register, say hello to the semi-circle of new faces and start pouring drinks. Odd things. Things I don’t normally make, for customers I don’t normally serve. A McCallan with a drop of water. A white-wine spritzer. A Pernod. I notice a strange phenomenon. No one is on the North End. It’s empty. And those who I’m serving on the south are unrecognizable.
Una comes in to get a mint julip.
“Where the hell is everybody?” I ask.
“Jensen is dead,” she blurts out. “Everyone’s over at the Chapel for service.” Her tone is so matter-of-fact.
“Jesus. What happened?” I’m a little shocked. “I’ve been around all day. Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
Una grabs the mint julip and adds a sprig of mint. “It’s no wonder they tell you nothing. They all hate you.”
I could feel my face flush with embarrassment and humiliation. It was true, they all hated me. But Jensen? He was so quiet, he was probably the only one that never gave me any trouble.
“How did he die?” I ask. “Hell, he was just sitting right there last night.” I point to his customary spot at corner of the bar. “Him and Rasmus, as usual. Drooling over Pamela Anderson. Drinking vodka gingers.” And then it hits me. He was drunk.
“He drowned last night on his way home, trying to cross the fjord, in a boat.”
“He tried to cross the fjord? In a boat?” I repeat the question to make sure it’s clear.
No one does that. It’s like the river of death. Especially at night. One chunk of ice can come out of nowhere and chop your head off. There’s warning signs all over the place. Fences. Barbed wire. I don’t care how drunk you are. Everyone knows to stay away from the fjord.
Una pulls her hair back into a bun and in her low, raspy Irish voice she says, “It was suicide. That’s how they do it up here. Jump in the fjord. Done.”
I stand there stunned and ask the stupid but inexorable question that most people ask when confronted with self-inflicted death. “Why? Why’d he do it?”
Una shrugs, unsure of the answer herself. “He had nothing, New Jersey. He had no one. Isn’t that why anyone kills himself?” She walks away, back into the restaurant, away from the bar. And from where I’m standing, I can see her place the mint julep and a a Cabernet down, one in front of the other, for a Danish officer in his suit whose wife is making a conjugal visit. The two at the table smile, raise their glasses, lean in and kiss each other so deeply, that it seems to last much longer than it should.
I just stand there for a good long while and watch. It’s the first kiss I’ve seen in four months, since I arrived. And along with the kiss and the clinking of their glasses I can hear damn near anything in the Caribou Club that moment because for the first time, I’m actually listening. I can hear the easy hum of the generators, the quiet, courteous discourse of gentlemen sitting around the bar discussing politics, law, culture and religion. Even Nina Simone’s My Baby Just Cares for Me, is playing softly without much consequence, until it does the inevitable and forces me to remember what I don’t want to remember; what I came here to forget: the bluesy refrain of a life no longer mine and a note on the fridge that said, Goodbye, I’m leaving you, written by the hand of the only man I ever loved. I’m paralyzed, and realize that I didn’t get it right. That I ran away, just like everybody else. But what else is there to do? What does anyone do to escape and numb the hurt of that kind of big, ugly pain? I simply assumed the cold would do me good.
I come around from behind the bar and run out through the double doors of the Caribou Café, to the cold, white night, and I can hear the bong of the only church bell in Sondy toll for the dead. It’s like a cleansing. And I scream until my throat hurts and my hands freeze and I scream into the empty space of Greenland and think, There. Take that. It’s all I’ve got. And with each resounding strike of the bell, I scream. I scream at the top of my lungs, as loud as I can because I know what’s in a scream; not the peace of God or the refuge of a drink, but the chaos of life, and the only tool we have against the cold.