After the company downsized him out the door, after his divorce, after the heart stent went in and a section of his colon came out, Alan resolved to spend more time on the water. He knew that this was just a way of dealing with the fact that Gwen got the big house in Anchorage and he got the cabin on the river two hundred miles south of town, but he was determined to chalk up some small entry in the win column. When the papers were finalized, he filled the pickup with fishing gear and boxes of Costco comestibles, and rolled down the aluminum mini-storage door in front of everything else he owned in the world then.
He drove south onto the Kenai Peninsula, craving a cigarette so badly he found himself checking the ashtray for butts, cigarettes being at the top of the long list of things now verboten. Snotty raindrops smeared the windshield and peppered the grassy muskrat ponds along the road. It was August, the wet season starting, although May, June, and July had been rainy too. The way things had been going for him, he had little hope that September and October would be any different.
The way things had been going. What were the chances your wife would leave you for someone with the same name? Hers, not his. Well, since it had been Gwen’s decision to separate—and since Gwen II had the cash to help buy him out of what pitiful equity they had in the house—he got very little money, but an admittedly fair deal in the split, everyone reasonable and speaking in indoor voices as they’d taught their kids. And in truth, he hoped the two Gwens were happy together. Still, on some level, he regretted not having any lunatic-ex-wife stories to bolster his injured-party status.
At Cook Point, he turned onto the gravel road to the subdivision by the river. The plywood-skirted trailers, the sagging shacks, roofs draped with blue vinyl tarps, the dead cars and trucks in every other yard, all gave the place an air of despair he’d almost forgotten over the winter. But the rain had quit thirty miles north and the sky was now a sunny blue expanse, the spruce trees along the narrow road dry and fragrant in the late evening air.
This might be all right. The river had looked clear and fishable when he’d crossed the old steel bridge at the highway turn-off, and the silver salmon should be coming in from the sea in numbers now. It might be good. He could use a little good luck.
He hit the brakes a hundred feet before his cabin. A low, deep red muscle car sat nosed into the apron of his driveway, two shadowy figures sitting in the front seat. He tapped his horn. They looked his way. The car started up with a shuddering blast of a song Alan’s daughter used to torment him with, a hip-hop version of an old sixties anthem whose name he couldn’t remember at the moment. The car backed out and came his way, hard against the alder bushes on that side of the road, the thundering bass line vibrating its windows. He pulled over to give it room.
It was a Firebird, the candy apple paint pocked with gravel dings, black plastic trim duct-taped in places. Alan couldn’t say what year. He’d never been a motorhead, had always driven Ford pickups. They would run forever. Which was more than he could say about himself now that his doctor had finally used the “C” word.
The Firebird came even with him, the naggingly familiar music muted a bit, and the driver side window rolled down. A thin-faced blonde in her late teens—a bit younger than his daughter—stared up at him from behind the steering wheel. She had keen eyes and a taut, strong jaw. She spoke confidently. “Sorry, mister.” It sounded more like a prepared statement than an apology.
“Sure,” he said, a little bemused by the girl’s poise. “No problem.”
The passenger, a boy about the same age, leaned across the girl’s lap to look up at Alan with eyes so slitty they may have been closed. His hair fell across his shoulder, black and straight. When he spoke, a dark smudge of first-growth mustache moved with his upper lip. “Yeah, man. Sorry,” he said, with none of the girl’s maturity.
The girl gave Alan one final frank appraisal, hit the gas, and they were gone.
If he weren’t at least twenty-five years older than her—not to mention an overweight, balding wreck—he would have sworn she’d been flirting.
The name of the song flashed into his head. In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, the melody buried now under the huffing puffing gangsta groove. Why would anyone remake that? Because the original hadn’t been bad enough? It was like striving to synthetize athlete’s foot. The cover artist was one of his daughter’s favorites. Maybe that Fiddy guy? Diddly? One of those names you had to let people call you because you’d lost a bet.
Alan hadn’t been to the cabin since the end of the steelhead season the autumn before, the intervening ten months now a fog of job applications, divorce papers, and unpleasant talks with his daughter. Then there came the really unpleasant talks—with his oncologist. Well, at least those obviated the need to look for a new career. He was trying hard to view that as a silver lining of sorts.
He carried an armful of gear up the wooden stairs onto the deck, swung the door inward, and watched a single spider web strand sag between it and the woodstove pipe on the other side of the living room. Looked like it would be just him and one hell of a broad-jumping arachnid. He’d take what company he could get.
He turned to shut the door and saw the red Firebird roll past the end of the driveway again, going the other way. No music this time, just the low rumble of the musclebound engine and the rhythmic ticking of a sticky valve or two. He watched the girl’s profile as the car passed. Chin up, eyes straight ahead, driving like an adult. Looked like kids in Cook Point grew up quickly.
But what were they doing cruising up and down the subdivision road? He tried to empathize. That was what his oncology counselor advised. “Think about other people’s problems too, Alan, not just your own. Find the humanity in their lives. In them. It’ll keep you human.”
Oh, he was all too human. The always-fluttering heart. The cancerous cells somewhere inside him right now flipping a tiny malignant coin deciding whether to go full-bore deadly or toy with him a while longer. Going to bed alone and waking up alone a little stiffer and slower every day. He was pretty sure those weren’t the kinds of things animals fussed over.
Okay, empathy. It must be rough living on a dirt road in one of the poorest areas in Alaska. Moose in the front yard, bears in the back. The nearest town fifteen miles away, and that nothing but a cluster of tourist shops, bait shops, and coffee shops. The nearest mall 200 miles north. And then there were the endless life-sucking winters. There should be a reality show called Tragically Bored Teenagers of the North. It wasn’t exactly divorce, financial ruin, and cancer. But still, it probably felt that way to them. Poor bastards.
There. He felt better. Empathy. That was Alan, Mr. Empathy.
He made what he hoped was a suitably healthy dinner—lamb chops and a salad—and opened a can of Mountain Dew. Amid the various dietary restrictions heaped on him in the past year, he was supposed to be cutting back on the alcohol now too. Still craving a smoke, he ate ravenously instead.
In the morning, he’d fish the early tide and then drive into the town and set up a post office box, start notifying everyone of the change in address. Everyone. That meant his insurance company, the doctors he owed money. His daughter wouldn’t need his address. She communicated digitally. She did everything digitally as far as he could tell. The physical world was of very little interest to her.
The evening dragged on in the lingering summer daylight. He rigged his fly rod and checked the tide book—the ebb would turn around at 7:34 AM—set his alarm and climbed into bed, picturing the salmon milling in the salt chuck waiting to ride the tide upriver. He was almost asleep when he heard gravel crunching under tires, the tick-tocking of bad valves.
Empathy, Allan. Empathy.
In the morning, he slept through the alarm and awoke two hours after the tide, too late to fish. He cooked ham and scrambled eggs and loitered his way through a pot of coffee. On the way to town he stopped at the local gas station, Atkins’ Garage. Their regular was five cents a gallon cheaper than the stations in town, which imposed layers of summer taxes on anything that might tempt a tourist to crack open a wallet.
Atkins’ Garage had no automated credit card pumps, and as Alan stood fourth in line at the cash register, VISA card in hand, it occurred to him that all the other customers were Cook Point locals, and that he was the only person paying with plastic. The skinny young woman in front of him gripped a twenty in one fist and kept shoving her unnaturally black hair back behind her ears with the other one. In front of her, a heavy guy about Alan’s age, likewise holding a bill between two thick fingers, rocked from foot to foot, slow-dancing to music only he could hear.
At the register, an old lady—a septuagenarian at the very least and five feet tall at most—took a pile of small bills and a roll of quarters from a twitchy woman wearing what appeared to be a flannel nightgown and flip-flops, rings on every finger and both thumbs. On the wall overhead, a sign apologized for not accepting checks “Of Any Kind!”
How far could you get on twenty-dollars-worth of gas? Maybe these people just never left this place.
When Alan paid with the VISA card, the old lady smiled and said, “Thank you and welcome to Cook Point,” with sardonic formality. “Where’re you visiting from?”
“I just moved here, actually.”
“Here? Really?” she asked, incredulous. “Retiring? You look a little young for that.”
“What makes you think I’m retiring?”
“God knows there aren’t any jobs here.”
They both laughed.
She said, “Well, I guess I’ll be seeing a lot of you then.”
Alan left feeling oddly elated by the unexpected friendliness. Out front, the nervous gal in the nightgown was getting into a bashed-up Gremlin, a cigarette dangling from her lips. Alan veered out of his path far enough to inhale a lungful of her secondary smoke.
He was halfway back to his truck when the red Firebird rolled into the parking lot, the blonde from last night at the wheel again, the passenger seat empty this time. She honked and waved, smiling like a cheerleader on mood elevators. He looked back over his shoulder to see who she was aiming all the sunshine at. There was nothing behind him but the gas station. Alan waved back, hesitantly. But she’d already swerved back out onto the highway again. It almost seemed that she’d detoured through the lot to greet him.
The evening tide would be low at 7:45. Planning to stay out fishing late, he made a tuna sandwich around six and took it and a glass of Mountain Dew out to the small metal table and chairs on the front porch. His rod and tackle and waders were already sitting at the top of the stairs. He’d taken one bite of the sandwich when the Firebird pulled into the driveway and parked behind his truck. The girl got out. Alone again.
She waved with more glee club enthusiasm. She was clearly selling something. Handbag over one shoulder, she strode up the stairs onto the porch. He asked her to sit, offered her half his sandwich. She was quick to accept. Her name was Angela. He fetched her a plate for the sandwich, some pickles, a can of Mountain Dew, a clean glass. He sat back down.
He let her eat for moment in silence. Then he couldn’t wait any longer. “So, what can I do for you, Angela?”
She reached into her purse, pulled out a pint of Wild Turkey and poured three fingers into her glass, tipped the can of Mountain Dew into it and tasted the concoction. She took another bite of her sandwich, wiped a smear of mayo off the corner of her mouth. “I want you to help me rob the gas station.”
Alan laughed. “That’s funny.”
She was not smiling now, her lips level beneath her pert, girl-next-door nose. She waved the whiskey bottle at him and raised her eyebrows quizzically.
He felt a sudden need for a drink. He took the bottle, poured. “Jesus. You’re serious?” It was the single most interesting idea he’d heard in months. And the most hopeful.
She nodded, clear green eyes locked on his. “You in?”
“Do I look like a criminal?”
“No. That’s why, silly. You look like every other older, kind of fat fly-fisherman.”
“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for pointing that out.” He took a swallow of his much-improved Mountain Dew.
“I just mean that Old Lady Atkins has known me since I was born. But you? Shit. Every morning there’s like a hundred guys who look just like you standing in the river wearing rubber pants and throwing hooks at fish. Even if you didn’t wear a mask, that half-blind old cow couldn’t pick you out of a lineup in a thousand years.”
Alan ran his hand through his beard, trying to figure out why he wasn’t just laughing the kid off the porch. He could go fishing. How many happy hours had he spent doing that in his life? Lots. “How old are you?” he asked.
“Seventeen, two weeks ago.”
“And why are you robbing somebody you’ve known all your life?”
“Because pot’s legal now, and when the first weed stores open around here, it’s going to drive prices down for the stuff I’ve been selling since I was twelve.” She paused to take another bite of her sandwich, another gulp. “I want to make one last buy and sell it off before the prices start crashing. I’ve got money saved, but I need more to buy a bigger-than-usual shipment.”
“And what’s in this for me?” he asked, still half-thinking it was all a gag of some kind.
“I’ll give you a third of the cash from the register.” Her face shifted from all-business to something more seductive. “Unless you want to invest your share in the weed.”
“Why aren’t you just asking me to invest my own money?”
She looked like she was going to laugh. “Your money? You’re driving a ten-year-old F-150, not even an extended cab, the cheapest piece of crap that Ford makes. Eating tuna sandwiches for supper.” Angela chuckled. “How much would you like to invest?” Then her face went back to its dead-serious mode. She looked like she might just get up and leave. For some reason, he really didn’t want that to happen.
“All right, let’s say we’re going all Bonnie and Clyde. Why not just rob a bank and get real money?”
“Because Atkins’ Garage doesn’t have an alarm system, functioning security cameras, or armed guards. And last time I checked, robbing a gas station was not a federal crime.”
“Well, you do have a point there.”
“Okay, good. Here’s the plan—”
“Wait a minute! I didn’t say I was going along with this.”
“Sure you did.” She smiled. “You said it with your eyes.”
Alan glanced at his watch. It was time to head to the river if he wanted to fish the tide change, though there was no harm in hearing her out, he told himself. He took another long swallow of his drink. “I’m still listening.”
As Alan had surmised, many of Atkins’ customers were hard-luck locals, very few of whom were ever going to qualify for a credit card, no matter how lax the banks got. The local economy was either cash or barter, and Atkins’ Garage was not going to barter for gas, Angela explained. “They take in around a thousand a day in cash. More, some days.”
She said that Mrs. Atkins only went to the bank once a week, on Wednesdays, letting all the cash accumulate in a safe in her office until then. Each Tuesday night, she counted it, put it in a bag and made out the deposit slip for the next morning’s trip to the town on the bay.
“How do you know all this?” he asked.
“Oh, I worked there for years when I was a kid.”
“When you were a kid.” He shook his head to clear the fuzziness the whiskey and the low-angled sunshine were conspiring to produce. Maybe his meds too.
“I have copies of the keys to every door in the building.”
“Then why don’t you just sneak in there one night after the old lady is gone and take all that loot yourself?”
“It’s in the safe at night. I’d have to blow the thing up, or drag it out of there and pound on it like a monkey with a coconut.” She paused, looked at him like she wasn’t sure he was capable of understanding. “I’m trying to keep it quick and simple. You see?”
“How do you know I’m not going to just call the cops right now?”
She scoffed. “I know an adventurous soul when I see one.” She pushed back her chair and stood. “Thanks for the snack. I’m going to make a few deliveries. You go fishing and think about it. If you could use a couple thousand and a little excitement in your life, let me know. Here’s my digits. Call if you’re in.” She set a scrap of paper on the table and went down the stairs to the driveway.
He called out to her as she reached for the door handle. “You wouldn’t have a cigarette, would you?”
She shook her head and slid into the car. “That shit will kill you.”
Alan watched the Firebird disappear behind the wall of alders lining the driveway. He drained the last of his drink and studied the piece of paper with her phone number on it. He wondered if he did indeed look like a guy with an adventurous soul.
He went into the cabin and poured himself another Mountain Dew, found a bottle of Kirkland bourbon in a cupboard over the fridge and added a heavy slosh of that. He was still half planning to fish the low tide, but every sip of the concoction reminded him of the girl named Angela. He fell asleep sitting up on the couch.
An hour after tide change, he awoke to Angela pounding on the front door.
“Looks like you forgot to go fishing.” She nodded toward his gear, still sitting on the porch in the dusky evening light.
“I thought I was supposed to call you if I was interested.”
She scoffed and pushed past him. “You’re interested.”
Alan pointed to the kitchen table. She took a seat. He poured her a drink. Did it really matter if you were giving alcohol to an underage girl if you were plotting a felony with her anyhow?
Angela was all business again. “Tomorrow night Old Lady Atkins will be in there after closing, counting the money. You go in through the back door, grab the bag from her. Then you take her cell phone, yank out the landline, lock her in her office—there’s a hasp and a padlock on the door—and take off. We’ll meet back here.”
Alan felt a dense cloud forming in his brain, either the alcohol at work, or molecules of simple common sense trying to coalesce. Maybe both. “I’m taking all the risk, girlie,” he said. “I’m not sure I’m liking that.”
“Come on, what’s the old lady going to do, hit you with her purse? She’s like a hundred, for Pete’s sake.”
“I could use the money,” he heard himself say. Though he knew well enough that this had nothing to do with money.
Angela smiled. “There you go.” She reached into her purse and pulled out a rubber Hillary Clinton mask and handed it to him.
“Do you have a pantsuit in my size?” he joked.
“No. But would you like a gun?” She reached into her purse again.
“God, no! No guns! Jesus.”
“I’m kidding.” She showed him the inside of her purse. “You won’t need a gun.” She stood and pounded down the rest of her drink. “I’m going to roll. I’ll see you right here tomorrow night around nine. We’ll celebrate.”
And with that she was gone.
Alan’s heart felt all fluttery, like he wasn’t getting enough oxygen to his brain, a feeling his doctor said to expect more often now. Yes, but, for how much longer? He poured himself another drink. Fuck the doctors. If he’d had cigarettes, he would’ve chain smoked them until he passed out.
Tuesday he woke with a hangover and plenty of time to fish the morning tide, but somehow burned up several hours doing dishes and sweeping ten months’ worth of dust and cobwebs out of the cabin. Lunch also turned into a tedious ordeal. By midafternoon he’d fallen asleep from nervous exhaustion and didn’t wake up until his phone rang. He flew off the couch and lunged for it, but it was only Gwen the Original wanting to know what to do with some old fishing tackle she’d found in a corner of the garage.
Gwen. Her voice harpooned him. Left him speechless.
“Alan, are you still there?” Gwen said, “This fishing stuff. What do you want me to do with it?”
“Throw it out,” he said, and hung up, heart flipping around now like a beached salmon.
Trying to calm himself, he turned on the radio and mostly ignored All Things Considered while he binge-ate a whole box of Wheat Thins. Then he slept again until it was nearly time to go to Atkins’. There had been no word from Angela all day. Somehow, he resisted the urge to call her.
A little before eight o’clock, Alan parked across the highway from Atkin’s and waited until the neon OPEN sign blinked off. He drove across the road, parked behind the building, and tugged on the Hillary mask. All thoughts of the two Gwens, the cancer, the medical bills, the river and the fish gone now, he got out and slid the key into the backdoor lock. As he crept past the candy and motor oil displays, past the coffee counter and empty cash register, past the locked cigarette cabinet, he could hear the rhythmic mumbling of the old lady in her office, counting.
She sat bent over her desk, peeling bills off a stack, an old goose-neck lamp throwing hard yellow light across the bank deposit bag and the bundles of cash around it. “Eight hundred and ten, twenty, thirty, forty…”
He stepped close behind her chair. “I’ll take that,” he said, his words sounding loud and rubbery inside the mask. He kept one hand in his jacket pocket.
He’d expected her to start, but she just paused, reached for a pad and a pencil and calmly wrote down the last number she’d intoned, set the stack of bills down, and swiveled her chair around to face him. In the stark lamp light, she really did look a hundred. Her cloudy gray eyes, wildly magnified by her glasses, peered up at him from a contour map of fleshy mountains. “You make me lose count, I’m going to be distressed,” she said, decades of cigarettes resonant in her voice.
“Just put it in the bag and hand it over.” Alan was sweating inside the mask. “Come on!” he barked, surprised and also a little pleased with the harsh voice that came out of him.
The old lady looked at the hand in his pocket, and sighed. “You didn’t think to bring a gun, did you?” She lifted the canvas bag off the desktop and pulled a huge chrome pistol out from under it, pointing the weapon up at his face with two heavily-spotted hands. “I sure hope not.”
“Shit!” he yelped, and threw his empty hands up. His heart relocated itself somewhere near his Adam’s apple and went on fluttering there. “No, ma’am.”
“Good,” she said. “For God’s sake, take that silly mask off. There’s some in these parts would shoot you on sight, on the chance that it really was her.”
He pulled off the Hillary mask, held it up in his still-raised hands, unable to take his eyes off the muzzle of the enormous gun.
She squinted up at his face. “Hey, you’re the fella retiring here, right?”
She set the pistol down on her desk, picked up a pack of Marlboros, lit one with a Bic. She took a deep drag. “So, where’d you meet my granddaughter?”
“What?” He lowered his hands. “Angela?”
“Where did she find you? You’re older than most.”
“Older than most what?” he asked, brain whirling.
The old lady laughed. “That girl.” She shook her head. “She’s a caution.” She inhaled deeply again and set the cigarette in a butt-heaped ashtray and picked up the stack of bills she’d been counting. “Listen, son, I got to get this cash added up. Let yourself out the way you came in, would you? Give the key back to Angela when you see her. And like I said yesterday, welcome to Cook Point.”
“Wait,” Alan said. “You been robbed like this before?”
She smiled at him. “I’m not being robbed.”
“You know what I mean. You’re telling me she sent guys in to try this before?”
“It’s a just a little game her and me been playing for a couple years now,” the old lady said. “She bets me she can talk an ordinary man into committing a serious crime. Not one of the halfwit thugs and tweakers from around here—which are the real reason I keep this artillery on my desk—but a regular upstanding citizen. You know, somebody like you.”
“She’s such a cynical girl. I hate to see that in young kids today.”
Alan slumped onto a tall wooden stool next to her desk. “Suppose I could have one of your cigarettes?”
She smiled and shook one halfway out for him. “It breaks my heart. It really does. The cynicism. But I have hope. Sometimes a month goes by without her finding a candidate.”
“A game?” He lit the cigarette and sucked in the smoke. It was his first since his diagnosis. He felt his whole body thanking him for it. “What’ll she win for talking me into it?”
“A share of this week’s money.” She shrugged. “I’d give it to her anyway, of course. She’s my favorite. Her brother’s a moron and mean. Bad combination. Just like their mother. Angela’s saving her winnings, along with her weed money, for college. She knows I’m going to pay for that too, but she likes the challenge. Good girl, really. Ambitious.” She gave Alan a look of grandmotherly pride. “Now, I really do have to get back to work here, uh…?”
“Alan.” He stood. “I guess I better go.” It came out sounding as pathetic as he felt.
“Don’t look so grim, Alan. Life is good. Tomorrow you’ll go fishing, and catch some nice salmon. And someday when you’re old, you’ll tell your grandchildren about the two crazy women you once met at Cook Point. They’ll laugh and think you’re making it up!”
“When I’m old,” Alan said.
“Hey, come on, son. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to run you off. Stay a bit if you want.”
The pity on her face stabbed him like a call from his radiologist.
She said, “I’ve got a bottle of something around her somewheres.”
He shook his head no and thought about it. He really didn’t have anywhere to go, anyone to meet. He could do anything he wanted now with the time he had left. Somehow, fishing didn’t seem like a major attraction anymore. She was right about one thing: life was good. That was the whole problem.
“Sure you don’t want a drink, Hon?” She waved a bottle at him.
He said, “Thanks, Mrs. Atkins, but I don’t think so,” leaned across her desk, and picked up the pistol.