JULY 4TH IN ALASKA
.... I was the only English speaker in the group, the only fixer they could go to.
“Tran Ngoc,” the blue shirt looked at Aunty Jade’s papers. “Tran Bich,” he read, from Aunty Jade’s seventy three year old sister’s file. He showed me the two sets of documents, underlining their last names with a fat forefinger, “Same family, see? So together,” he said slow and patient, how one talks to idiots. “California,” he pronounced, as if offering me a price.
“Vietnamese women don’t change their family names when they marry,” I tried to explain. “She’s their mother,” I said, pointing to Aunty Jade’s three grown sons who were being sent to the Gulf to work on a shrimp boat.
“Nothing we can do about it now,” the blue-shirt told me. He shrugged.
“It’s better in California,” I said to the crying old ladies. “I’m going there too. I’ll give you a hand.”
It was warmer in California. In California, Aunty Jade, her sister and I built a second family. When I met and married my wife, we built a third – the two old ladies, my wife, me, our son.
California is KUM SAN in Cantonese, my wife’s ancestral language – the gold mountains her people came from China to mine.
The gold had run out by the time the old ladies and I arrived. But there was welfare for the old ladies and plenty of jobs for a skilled engineer willing to downgrade to a draftsman as I was. The ladies moved into a government apartment and rented me their second bedroom. It was a win-win, room and board at below market rate for me, unreported and untaxed income for them. I worked, the old ladies cooked. We ate cheap on head cheeses of pig ears, stews from ox tails, porridge cooked with fish heads and offal; delicacies no one else seemed to want. Weighing myself at the free machine in the bank where I went to deposit my paycheck every Friday, I saw I was putting flesh on again.
Last I measured two weeks ago my waist was a 34 compared to a 28 then; up six inches in thirty years. At last count we had at least seven zeroes on our net worth, up from nothing. At last count, we were down from five to four in the family.
America is still a country where refugees dream the Horatio Alger myth into reality. I saw the dream in the clenched faces of the shivering under-dressed Mexican cleaners at Anchorage Airport where I landed last Sunday. I embodied that dream – flying business class back from a trip to Japan, striding through the brown-faced and black-haired blue shirts with a blue US passport in my hand; a wife who’d flown up from California waiting in a rented Lexus SUV.
Still, even after all the years in America, I felt the was cold as we drove inland alongside a vast mud inlet, through a storm of fluffy cotton-wood flowers, between twisted black spruce and ice-cream capped mountains. This country was an immensity I couldn’t grasp. Maybe that’s what numbed me. Maybe…
There was a little Kazakh receptionist at our lodge. She spoke a lisping hesitant English, but that didn’t stopper her enthusiasm. She was a summer student on exchange, she told us. There had been a competition to come. So many had so much wanted to see America, she was very lucky to be selected, she said.
“And will you stay?” my wife asked.
It was an impossible question to answer. To say no would have insulted us Americans. To say yes would be to admit to a forbidden desire. The girl’s eyes slid away, but I saw her jaw square with determination. She curved her lips into a Mona Lisa smile, enigmatic like my son’s. An icicle insinuated itself through the layers of fleece and gore-tex I’d bundled myself in.
“I can see why he loved this place,” I told my wife later, as we rode the bus through arctic tundra into the Kantishna Wilderness.
We hadn’t talked about him for months. Even if we carried it daily in our hearts, we couldn’t keep bringing up our grief could we?
The mountains going up to infinity, the white braided streams running like the plaits he liked to play with on Aunty Jade’s head, the silence… it was his type of space. He’d fallen in love with the trout fishing movie ‘A River Runs Through It’, our high-functioning autistic genius of a son. He’d watched it repeatedly. Then, obsessed by the images, he’d travelled the West and the North in search of its essence. It was here he found it, at the feet of Mount McKinley – Denali, the High One, in the local Athabascan tongue.
We left the bus to walk a tundra trail. The High One was on my left. But I couldn’t see it on this clouded-over midsummer’s day. ‘It’s best viewed in the fall when the sky is clear and blue like ice,’ my son had written. ‘Then it’s so beautiful I stay out all night to look at it.’
Braving the trail with my wife, I tried to imagine those never ending Alaskan nights; my son sitting out in one of them until his body was numbed into unfeeling by the cold. How someone with an autistic spectrum disorder might like it, we might have worried when we read his letter. But we didn’t because he was high functioning wasn’t he? A genius, the people who knew about such things told us. Someone who didn’t have any common sense, we ought to have remembered.
“I wonder If these would be something he saw?” my wife asked, handing me a little stalk of blue forget-me-nots she’d just stolen from the side of the path.
The tiny flowers were the colour of midnight with yellow hearts no bigger than grains of sand. How the sky and stars might have seemed to him, the backdrop to the mountain where the Athabascan gods lived.
My wife and I stop at a view point to look down at the river running through the valley.
I think about the river that was my son. He was an immensity of hidden feeling, an outward stillness like a glacier; underneath a creaking and groaning we could not hear.
We tried to make love that night. But we couldn’t. We’d lost that to. I held my wife to comfort her, comfort myself, until she slept. Then I turned away.
We’d left the curtains undrawn. Why come all this way and not see the midnight light, we’d said. It was one in the morning, still it was bright. From the bed, I saw the clouds had cleared. The mountain stood before me. I walked up to the window and put my hand up against the pane, cold like ice. I paid my homage to the High One.
There’s a silence in Alaska so immense you can hear it. Somewhere in that silence, in that infinity, was my son, my flesh, my bones.