In Valdez, Alaska I have a one-bedroom apartment by the sea. From its windows I can see the harbor, where I spend winters breaking ice in the dark of morning. Summers I winterize ocean liners. I chip ice off the docks and into the water so the fishermen can slush to their boats and the pilots to their seaplanes. I take my lunches with Ernst, who pumps gas at the Esso station on one of the docks.
Me and Ernst come to work in layers, the bottommost of those layers being a fentanyl patch. Everyone does it. They say it raises your temperature. Really that’s only if you’re going off it, having withdrawals, you get fever. Me and Ernst have got snot freezing in our noses and blisters bleeding through our gloves. The only guys without blisters are the only guys without the patches, and those are the pilots.
I don’t know where everyone else is getting it, but Ernst was Air Force Pararescue in the war. When they dropped in on someone in need of rescue they’d give them one of the fentanyl lollipops to suck on before they bailed out. If someone were in dire hurt they’d smack a patch as close to his heart as they could. The pararescuers all got into their own supply, and when Ernst was discharged he got his fingers on a few. Now every time his buddies come back they bring us some care packages.
Ernst was Air Force, but they didn’t teach him to fly. They taught him to be dropped out of helicopters and get shot at. They just drop pararescuer on top of pararescuer until they run out or they get stacked high enough so one can see where the bullets are coming from. Ernst got himself into just such a scenario, except the bullets were mortar rounds, and now he can’t see at all. But these fucking pilots with their wives, they see everything.
Ernst came up from Alabama years back when he turned eighteen. His father worked the rigs on the gulf and kept a collection of Playboys in a Samsonite. One teenage Sunday Ernst dug out an issue from 1975. The first thing you notice about the girl on the cover is a scandalous iota of nipple peeking out from under her blouse. The second thing you notice is a miniscule bunny-shaped freckle over her left breast. Everything else—the headlines, the bylines, the bleached blonde hair—is noise.
Ernst was reading an article in this particular issue by a Georgian named Harry Crews. The article, wedged between photos from the latest Linda Lovelace movie and a wild nine-page pictorial on “The French Maid,” logged the journey of a Southerner in Valdez, an Alaskan town teeming with oil and its spoils. That article had drugs and booze and fish and fists and tattooed whores—the big orgiastic dream. Ernst knew oil, but his father was all wrath, so he decided to take oil elsewhere and hauled out at eighteen. Ernst’s father wanted him to be an M.D. He said he wanted a doctor to fetch his paper in the morning.
What Ernst did not know is that the well had about run dry since 1975, the trans-Alaska pipeline now more of an IV drip. The drugs, the booze, the whores, all dried up. He joined the Air Force, etc.
I’ve lived here my whole life maybe, still can’t figure out what these seaplanes do.
I come up to the Esso station this one day around noon like any other day, except Ernst has got a sling on his arm and little corners of fentanyl patch popping out from under his sleeves and his collar and such. He’s got his lips around the crust of a sandwich but he’s just kind of sucking on it. All those patches will make your mouth go bone-dry. He’s got a plug-in thermos tucked up in his crotch. The light’s glowing.
“Christ, what happened?” I say.
“Serves me fucking right,” he says like he was waiting for me to come around so he could say it. Up close I can see Ernst’s sling is mostly tote bag and part leopard-print guitar strap.
“Goddamn shot me.”
“I’m in bed, back against the wall. Bastard in the apartment behind me trying to off his girlfriend. Misses and puts one right through the wall. His girlfriend flips, looks through the tiny hole in the wall, sees me flipping, blood all on the sheets probably. And then he starts flipping too, shouting she’s a cunt, I’m an asshole. You believe that?”
“No,” I say.
“It’s the truth. They fornicate like maniacs, so awhile back I pushed my bed against their wall.”
He shivers and pinches his thighs against the thermos. We’re huddled together so tight in the little heat and light we have. You can’t even point a gun at your girlfriend without aiming at your neighbor.
“You call the cops?”
“Scared the shit out of him when he realized he shot a blind guy. Says he doesn’t want to shoot her anymore. She seemed happy with that.”
“Hospital?” I say.
“I’m the hospital.” He’s pushing a finger at his arm, and I swear to God the cloth of his jumpsuit sticks for a second in a little bullet-sized hole and comes back out with dark dots of blood soaked through. He’s rolling his tongue all around his mouth trying to salivate. His blind eyes just zipping.
“Let’s eat,” he says, “I’ve been waiting on you.”
I had a girl once. All I wanted to do was watch her try on hats naked, and I told her this.
“I want to lie naked in a bed with all my friends,” she said, “and they’re naked too.”
Her crotch might as well have been a plug-in thermos.
Ernst got plopped down on these marines during the war. As it was reported to me, one of them had his chest run through with an Ontario bayonet. Why we’re still using bayonets or how he managed to hold on to the thing with his attacker long gone is beyond me. But Ernst gets there and he can see that this bayonet is not coming out without doing some fatal damage, what with it being serrated and buried deep to boot.
Meanwhile, the marine is spilling his guts, calling out for morphine, confessing to every sin he can call up. He says he shoplifted gospel cassettes, says he filched from the collection plate, says sometimes he prayed to basketball players instead of God. He says when he worked in the morgue he was coming off a morphine addiction. When no one was around, he’d peel back the fentanyl patches off the bodies, prick a hole in the patch with a pin, and lick the gel. He says he’s sorry.
So Ernst pulls the blade out, tells the rest he had to, and rallies out. In the helicopter, Ernst tried to lock the bayonet on his own rifle, but it wouldn’t fit right. He taped it around the muzzle, dirty.
The world is full of wretched and tragic people. Not all of us deserve rescuing.
“I’ve got it in my mind to commandeer one of these seaplanes,” Ernst says, “I think I deserve to fly something.”
“How’re you gonna do that?” I say. I laugh, but I wish I hadn’t.
“I’ve been in enough planes.”
“I mean how’re you gonna get a plane?”
“That’s the easy part,” he says. “I’m drugging one of these pilots.”
I’ve never known anyone to be so nonchalant. Ernst could get shot, drug a pilot, and fly a plane half across the continent to kiss his mother on the cheek all in one day. He’s a lovable tough. I’d hate to blame it on drugs.
“I’m not being your eyes,” I say.
But Ernst was already set. He said he’d been smoking the gel out of the patches for awhile, just about figured it all out. You can smoke it on a cigarette and barely taste it. It’s all over the internet, he said. I can’t imagine how Ernst would read anything on the internet.
“All these pilots always see me smoking, ask me to bum a cigarette while I’m pumping their gas. No regard for my safety. I let them bum one of my cigarettes, get them to hang around long enough for it to kick in, and we borrow the plane.”
“I’m not doing that,” I say.
“I’ve reconnoitered the whole situation,” he says, “up to the point where what I need is eyes.”
That stunt with the bayonet got Ernst sent home for a bit. Like he was being put in timeout. They had him going to this bore of a shrink once a week. The shrink just put him on some pills, and when they got him on enough of them, they sent him right back. So he went back, lost his sight, and they flew him home for good.
I’m sitting with Ernst, eating lunch and smoking cigarettes and hoping to God he knows which ones he drugged. And here comes a seaplane. I see it coming, and I start waving it away.
“What are you doing?” Ernst says.
“I hear you flailing.”
“There’s a spider,” I say.
“There’s a plane,” he says, and then he’s jittering. His legs are bouncing up against his thermos so hard they’re almost squeaking.
“I’m not doing this,” I say.
“Let’s just see how far we get along with it,” he says.
The seaplane floats in, and Ernst is up tying knots and priming pumps all with one hand. Here’s the one-armed sightless wonder. Who could tell this man he can’t fly?
The pilot climbs out of the cockpit to stretch his legs on the dock. Everything about him looks for sale. He’s got a mint jumpsuit that’s starched and pressed. The breast is lined with what look like merit badges. Everyone knows this cocky bastard does not have to wear a jumpsuit. If Ernst could see this, he’d skip the cigarette and go straight to drowning him.
Of course the pilot sees us smoking our cigarettes and asks for one too because this is what you would call Ernst’s moment. This is the day Ernst receives some grace.
“Surely,” Ernst says, holding out a cigarette.
I’m a coward, so I play dumb. The pilot takes a long drag and looks at the cigarette. He’s holding it between his thumb and pointer like it’s a joint. God bless Ernst’s blindness.
“What is it you do in this plane,” Ernst asks.
“In the spring and summer months, the whale-watching boats pay me to fly up ahead of them and figure out where the whales are. I radio down and tell them over here, over there, you know?”
“What about during the winter?” I ask.
“I’m a painter,” he says, “I do Alaskan landscapes. I can’t keep a painting in the galleries in Sitka or Ketchikan for more than two days in the summer. Biggest reason I fly is it gives me the inspiration.”
I’m drugging this man.
About halfway through the cigarette, the pilot starts lurching. I offer him a seat.
“I haven’t smoked a cigarette since college,” he says, “but it’s cold and I haven’t had any coffee.”
“Where’d you go to college?” Ernst is buying time. He’s about filled the tank.
“Caltech. That’s where I met my ex-wife. You two ever been married?” he says. We shake our heads, Ernst a little harder than me.
“Don’t do it,” he says. He’s dragging on the cigarette and we judge it’s best to just let him go at this point. I can see him swaying. Ernst can hear his voice detuning. We both know the feeling.
“The honeymoon must have been good at least,” Ernst says, “Where’d you go?”
“Tokyo. How’s that for romantic?” he says. “You ever think about the fats in Tokyo?”
The pilot is shaking his head and watching the ash from his cigarette float into his lap.
“They have capsule hotels there. The fats can’t even fit in their hotels. They just walk around in the hallways all night until the maids shoo them out with their brooms,” he says, his head going back and forth the whole time.
He tells us about how he and his bride were trying to have sex in their capsule but how sex should not be had in perfectly symmetrical containers. He couldn’t get the angle on it. Nothing could please her. She made a joke about how she wished he had a vibrator, but it became less and less a joke, until anything phallic within range was a viable option. They thought of the pilot’s electric toothbrush, thought of it vibrating. He says he put it in a plastic baggie, and she gave it a whirl. He says it sounded like a robot. He says when that didn’t work she tossed it aside on his pillow, and it kind of stared at him like it understood.
“Jesus Christ,” he says, “She had a way of making me and my toothbrush feel so inadequate.”
The pilot is sucking his cigarette down to the filter. He’s even sweating against all odds.
“But what it is I mean to say about the fats of Tokyo is that where do they go if they can’t sleep in their own city’s hotels?” he says. We’re silent.
“They go down to the beach and sleep in the rain and dream about how heavy a single drop must feel to the small,” he says.
I’m floored. Ernst is floored. Ernst docks the gas pump. The pilot puts out his cigarette. We sit in silence for a good five minutes, then:
“What’s your name, pilot?” Ernst asks.
“Haynes Walker,” he says, unsure.
“Wanna pump gas, Haynes?” Ernst asks.
“Yes.” Everything he says sounds beat now.
Ernst grabs the pump back up, walks it to the pilot and feels for his hands. He wraps the pilot’s fingers around the pump and points it at the water.
“Do blind people cry when they cut onions?” he says.
“What happened with your wife?” I ask.
“She shaved her legs and she let me watch.”
Ernst has got his hand on my shoulder and I’m guiding him into the cockpit. I get him seated in there and I follow.
Me and him get in the plane, and we don’t even fucking fly it. We just scoot it out the harbor, puttering up this baby little wake behind us. I’m flicking switches and twiddling knobs. Ernst is giving me some idea of what I should be doing to the best of his ability. Currents in the water send us drifting an inch or two, but they might as well be hundred-mile-per-hour tailwinds or jet streams or whatever. It’s all the same to Ernst. Flight. We’ve got the pilot back there at the dock with his fist clenched to the gas nozzle. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s just pumping gas straight into the water and watching it rainbow. The great pipeline ripping through the state and funneling down to an inch-wide nozzle. He’s certainly not going to send anyone after us, so we just drift along the coastline in our pontoon.
“You ever seen a whale, Ernst?” I say.
“No,” he says, “You?”
“No,” I say.
Ernst says he wants to dip his toes in the water, says he wants to wash his hair in oil spills and play baby seals. I can’t really come up with a reason why he shouldn’t.
“Ladies and gentleman, this is your captain speaking,” I say, “We’re currently cruising at an altitude of 100,000 feet.”
“That makes us dead,” Ernst says.
“If you look out your right-side window, you’ll see a school of humpback whales, and just past that is Hawaii.”
“Fuck you,” he says, peeling his socks off.
Out the left-side window is the Petro Star refinery. The chemicals in the air drift up from its stacks. They mingle with the sun to make twilight something rich, and it’s tragic.
Ernst props his door open and lets his feet hang out. He’s trying to salivate, then he’s trying to cry. He just sits there frozen and dry like astronaut food.
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