The Heart Is a Slow Learner, by Mary Larkin

2009 SFWP Awards Program finalist Mary Larkin presents The Heart Is a Slow Learner. This story has since been published in The Red Mountain Review.

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I remember what we fought about, why she left. She wanted me to tell her I love her, and I wouldn’t. What I told her was, “I care about you.”

“Care? Is that all? You care about Ethiopia, you care about the homeless or taxes, but you should love me. We’ve been fucking for months, Fred.”

“Love is an overused word.”

“Not between us, it isn’t.”

Now that she’s gone, I can say it. I can even feel it.

This winter, like the winter she was here, we walk on the roofs. Every few years the snow is that deep and that high in Nanamuk. From my rooftop, I look out to the surrounding cabins, surveying the tracks lovers have left between rooftops, leading everywhere but here. It looks as if the whole town is fooling around this week, but we’re edging up to a full moon, so it’s no surprise. The moon grows big out here, powerful.

There haven’t been any tracks coming or going to my hut since winter before last. I miss her big old snow-shoed footsteps. We were careful to cover our trails by shoveling or raking here and there, creating diverting paths to throw off gossips. Or we would rendezvous when incoming snow would cover all traces of our wanderings. Still, people pretty much know each other’s business, especially in winter. Like everybody else, we’d go to the hotel for a couple of hours now and then just to avoid making paths between our roofs. Everybody knows what goes on anyway because Miss Wong, the proprietress, is a talker.

The town’s only hotel is not much more than a few rooms upstairs over the town’s only restaurant. The restaurant is also a general store and a video store. A Mexican named Rodriguez owns the lower half of the building and has a penchant for the Hang ‘Em High movies–he has them all: A Fist Full of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, you name it. If you’re around for any time at all, you’ll hear him whistling the theme music to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I’ve never had the heart to tell him that most of those flicks were shot in Italy. Why kill a man’s dreams of his homeland, or strip the romance from his fantasies?

For some reason, Rodriguez never serves anything even remotely Mexican in the restaurant. That used to surprise me–it seems all those chilies and spices would warm the town folks up and go well with the movies. Instead, the offerings on his menu are variations on two themes, the themes being caribou and fish. There are steaks (fried in butter is best), chops, stew, barbecue and burgers–all of them the musty caribou. For fish there’s grayling and rainbow trout, and the sheefish we get through the ice. Some say sheefish doesn’t bite in fresh water unless it’s angry, but that isn’t the case. You couldn’t blame them though, if they were angry, being stuck under the ice like that for months at a time. Rodriguez’s fish dishes come disguised in the form of fish cakes, fish chowder, fish spread sandwiches. Of course he serves fish that still looks like fish–fried, broiled or baked. You can get spaghetti either with caribou meatballs, or fish balls that are the same as the fish cakes, just formed into a ball and not flattened out. Vegetables are the canned sort–green beans with the strings still on them and the color of martini olives, soft to the tongue and tooth, and canned corn which Rodriguez obviously enjoys making into creamed corn. He doesn’t make it any other way. The food is good enough.

People speculate about Miss Wong and the Mexican and it is widely held that they started carrying on not long after his arrival. Their affiliation–along with anyone else’s–is accepted despite the talk, so that once someone brings it up, the listener only makes a comment or two, but more often than that, just grunts an acknowledgment. Everybody has a few notches on their bedposts around here. The Wong-Rodriguez affair, if it can be called that, is consummated primarily in the winter months, and that only intrigues the occasional outsider. Townies understand that there are too many other things to do in the summer months. But those nights of winter can be black and lonely, and well . . . boring.

To keep the boredom from claiming any more lives or any more marriages, the town has set up its own movie house where we run videos from Rodriguez’s store as well as home movies if folks care to share them. They do. Last month we all watched Stedkoff’s cousin’s daughter get married to someone in Florida. It was pretty remarkable, for the scenery and the fashion. You don’t see that kind of thing around here–shoulders, ankles, palm trees. Now and then we have to suffer through less interesting home movies. We’ve all seen enough toddlers teething on dried salmon strips and would like something a little more exotic, I suppose. The only other drawback to the movie room, besides what’s playing, is its stench of fish. The place reeks. There is a suggestion box at the town hall and it gets emptied once a month by yours truly, whether or not it needs emptying. The following suggestions appear regularly:
Secede from the Mainland
Elect a man who can control the weather
Bring in more women
Bring in more men
Stop showing movies of ice fishing
Organize a town orgy instead of a town meeting
Get Rodriguez to burn incense in the movie house

Not only am I in charge of the suggestion box, but I’m also Editor-in-chief, star reporter, and circulation director for our newsletter, Tundra Talk. I print anything and everything, including the personals. I ran my own six months ago: “Sorry Bear Wants Honey” but I haven’t gotten any responses let alone the one I want. I’ll wait.

Like all the men and half the women, I do a lot of ice fishing. It’s entertainment, sure, but it also provides fresh meat. Caribou gets old, especially when it is old and has thawed out after being in an ice hut for four years. We’re heavy betters, and Rodriguez is the bookie for the ice fishing. It’s all in good fun, but with cash prizes for each category, the competition can get serious. The big money goes to any man, woman, or child who pulls in biggest fish and the most fish. The booby prize cash goes to the fisherman who brings in the ugliest fish. Last year I pulled in fifty bucks along with that ugly fish. Nobody fought me on it, I was the clear winner. The stakes can be high, but that just adds to the excitement. Depends on who’s betting and who’s fishing.

Our lives are somewhat intertwined, what with the movies, the one restaurant, the ice fishing, and the snows holding us like we’re all in the same bed with one big comforter thrown over the lot of us.

The odds of falling in love are slim or next to nothing in Nanamuk. People are already paired off for the most part. The majority end up pairing off again with someone else’s better half, temporarily, but occasionally it’s permanent. You know how it goes: you think it’s love, but it turns out to be just lust or just boredom, and you go back to your main squeeze, who may or may not have been waiting for your return. Maybe we really should bring in a few more women and a few more men–everybody’s kids are starting to look like one another. When some kid comes into Rodriguez’s at night and says “Daddy!” fifteen men turn their heads.

As a single man, your options are to knowingly seduce a married woman, a woman whose husband you probably hunt and fish with, or to eat at the restaurant every night and wait night after night for a new face, female, to walk through the door. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. And of course you are not the only man with a plate of Rodriguez’s food in front of him waiting for that one woman, hoping she’s a beauty, hoping you’re the one she wants to have a fling with, hoping she’s not married, hoping she’s young, maybe blond but you’ll take anything. It happened to me once, and I blew it. I don’t go to the restaurant as often as I used to. Call it lack of faith, but I don’t believe lightning will strike twice.

Honey, that was her real name, not an endearment, was the lightning that struck me. She came in winter. She had crossed two hundred miles of frozen tundra by sled to bring in supplies for the store along with the town’s meds. She had swapped routes with Tom, our usual supplier, because his wife had just had a baby. I remember turning to see who’d come into Rodriguez’s, watching as the stranger kicked the sides of the doorway to knock snow from their boots before stepping inside, the light from outside seeming to follow, and then how she pulled off her goggles and cap and shook her hair out the way a wet dog does. In the backlight of the windows, I could see her hair was that pale wheat color—the kind touched with copper, like the sun setting on banks of snow. It made me squint. I ended up accompanying her back down to Tom’s to return the sled and the dogs. She came back with me on my snow mobile. We were hot and heavy for months even though she was only supposed to be in town for a week. She was more than a blonde. Not too broad-chested, long legs that were strong—no one has ever looked as good in thermal underwear.

Honey was not bad to look at, it’s undeniable, but one of the prettiest things about her was that she was so darn capable. She didn’t need a man, a fact I pointed out to her more than once. Her reply was always the same: “I don’t need a man, but I don’t mind one, either.” Usually after saying that, she’d pull me to her. We were great together, I see that now. Every time I look at the backside of a caribou, I think of her and how I missed my aim, how I let her get away. She was like that–sleek and self-reliant. Fleet.

Besides the entertainment of movies and betting on ice fishing, the whole town gets involved in ice carving. It’s an on-going winter affair. Every year someone carves an igloo, just to pull the leg of any mainlander that might wander in, and they do. Year before last we drew in one of those National Geographic photographers who did what we feel turned out to be an exposé of the place. We waited a year for our issue of National Geographic to come out, and let me tell you, not all of us were happy with how we looked double-page, stapled in the center. I’ve never gotten so many Letters to the Editor–three, and I published them all, unabridged.

“Photography puts ten pounds on you,” was Honey’s comment. “Ask any model. I read about it in Harper’s Bazaar last summer. Those skinny girls all bitching about ten pounds. It has something to do with taking a three dimensional thing and putting it into two. Diminishing dimensions actually flattens your image out, makes you look bigger.”

“That’s right,” I agreed. Diminishing dimensions. Nobody else in this town has ever heard of such a thing, let alone talked about it. The woman gets to me. She had many more than three dimensions about her, and I mean that in the best way.

“I’ve heard that about photography,” I said to her. “And then there’s the ten extra pounds your parka adds, and the ten pounds of winter fat everybody carries around most of the year.”

She gave me a look that could melt the glacier we’re living on, and me with it.

“Just kidding, Hon. You know, I think I saw that cameraman using one of those wide angle lenses. That picture of you had a lot more spread than you do in real life. You know you turn me on, babe.” It was what she wanted to hear, and it was the truth, not about the lens, but about what she did for me.

That was when it was still good between us, or at least I thought so. There were times she seemed unsatisfied or a little clingy, which didn’t fit my picture of her or of what I thought a good woman should be. I tried not to let it bother me. I thought all the moodiness was a female thing, a phase she might be going through. She was a helluva lot more complex than I liked admitting then, but what kills me now is seeing that even her simplicity went past me. She had that rare ability to say exactly what she meant when she wanted to. I wish I’d had the equally rare ability to listen. When she said she wanted intimacy, the woman meant it.

“Some newspaper man you are–I give you the scoop, all the details, and you can’t even get the story straight. It’s boy meets girl, boy loves girl, boy tells girl he loves her.”

“I don’t know, Honey. I don’t feel ready for anything permanent yet.”

“I’m not talking commitment–that’s quantity. I’m talking intimacy–that’s quality, i.e. love. It’s so simple, Fred. Why do you want to take what could be a happy ending and make it sad? Boy Loses Girl is too sad to read–you’re going to lose customers with a headline like that.”

She was so funny. I loved that about her.

After the National Geographic fiasco, Nanamukkans no longer allow any photography unless one of us is on the viewfinder side. But, with the ice carving, as I was saying, we always have a trickster carving out an igloo. That’s the ticket around here. Most outsiders want their pictures taken standing beside the igloo, or crawling out of it, their heads turned up towards the camera like dogs sniffing something on the wind. Tickles us as much as it tickles them. Good way to make a few extra dollars.

My favorite ice sculptures, though, are not the rube-fetching igloos. There was a finely carved malamute one year, its fur and features so realistic that you would have sworn a dog had frozen standing up. That was a beaut. And we all get a chuckle out of the girls Old Petrovsky fashions from the ice. One year it was a hula girl with huge coconuts, another year it was a nurse in a starched and tightly fitted uniform, and last year it was a roller derby queen in spandex shorts and one of those little tank tops they wear. Her skates were unbelievable. Petrovsky gets obvious pleasure forming these women, when he’s finishing them, there’s a rabid look about him. He bends in to them and breathes his breath against their hard surfaces to heat the ice up just a bit, then he polishes them by hand. The ice girls all have big open smiles on their faces. Watching the ice being sculpted is better than seeing the final results.

It would have been easy to say the word love, but I was trying to hold my own. Now that she’s gone, I can say it. I can even feel it, and it hurts. She packed her gear, harnessed the dogs she’d traded for, and sledded off into the snow.

“Honey, don’t go like this. You know I care about you–a lot.”

“You’re so stupid you don’t even know you love me.” The sun was glinting off some of her hair, but she tucked it back into her cap. “You’re a slow learner, Fred. Ciao.”

With a smooth movement that cut through the air Honey lowered her dark goggles. She pulled the handbreak, the dogs bolted, and, without even saying mush, she was gone.

The only woman–the only person–in Nanamuk, Alaska who knew an Italian word and could use it with flair, and I let her get away. This week I’m running another personal in Tundra Talk. Maybe it will bring her back. Lonely Bear Misses, i.e. Loves Honey.

This winter, for the first time I’m carving my own ice girl. I’ve taken a few lessons from Petrovsky, on the sly, and have gotten past the first stages where you’re just chopping down to height and width, basic shape. I never knew how hard it was to do this. It’s like I don’t want to cut too deeply, I could ruin the whole thing. I keep standing back, taking another look, trying to find the form that is supposed to be within, the form that I am trying to release from this block of ice. Honey I keep mumbling low, as if by calling her, the ice will take shape, she’ll turn and step towards me, leaving the frozen block behind. The truth is, I’ve created a miserable melting replica of her. My artistry is so bad that no one else in the village recognizes my ice queen. Even so, her beauty, a beauty that I see and know, makes me weep.

It was coming on to summer when she left, and the ice in the river was breaking up. Great chunks of frozen stuff had begun moving, pushing through, gouging the banks. It made a lonely sound. Night and day I listened to the moans as big blocks of ice pressed together, then slipped past one another.

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Mary Larkin’s award-winning short stories have appeared in Shenandoah, The Chattahoochee Review, The Nebraska Review, Red Mountain Review, and other journals. She is a fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a Pushcart Nominee.

2 Comments

  1. Ginger

    Fantastic!

  2. Jane

    Beautiful. Great voice.