Traditionally, when someone leaves my hometown, there’s drama. Big family arguments, occasional fistfights, two or three stabbings. I was the exception. We weren’t the closest of families, but my folks were elated that I had gotten through school without the common surrender to boredom and drugs. The reason for my success was largely a mystery. Whether instilled or innate, I possessed an iron sense of self-worth, and a horse-trader’s notion that I could swap the mediocrities of today for the glories of tomorrow. Once graduation arrived, a journey Outside (which is what Alaskans call anywhere not in Alaska) was seen by all as my just reward.
Because of my patience and choosiness – and the slapping away of several pairs of hands belonging to drooling jock lotharios – I earned a reputation as a prude. The few times I did give away the goodies, this served to elevate the pleasure and surprise of my happy recipients. Surprise was a natural reaction, anyway, because my candidates were not on the roster of Boys Who Get Laid. He had to be nice, he had to be someone I could control, and he absolutely had to use a condom, because my autobiography would not be titled Knocked Up in Anchorage. Most importantly, although some attraction was necessary, I didn’t want it to reach the narcotic level – because, the day after graduation, I had a date with the lower 48 (I used this phrase so often that my friends began to sing-song it back to me).
Looking back on my patterns (as more people should do), I realized that most of my boys were musicians. The last was James Kitagawa, who was also the best musician. He was a stocky Japanese boy with a broad Buddha-like face, skin the color of a toasted marshmallow, and a grin that could light up the whole quad.
The highlight of our graduation ceremonies came when the choir sang its commencement song. The song was chosen by a vote of the senior choir members, which always carried an element of suspense. After four years of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Brahms and madrigals, they were usually anxious to do something pop or rock, and I always expected some particularly squirrely class to do something like “Sympathy for the Devil.”
For the class of 2001, the choice seemed obvious: “Beautiful Day” by U2. It had an anthemic quality that seemed naturally choral – like Carmina Burana with guitars – and the hook was celebratory and hopeful. The bonus came in the verses, which contained all these references to being stuck somewhere, aching to get out – muddy roads, small towns. Because really, those were our hopes. Singing them out loud to our parents (knowing that most of it would go right over their heads) was the perfect gratuity to our teenage sense of rebellion.
Problem was, choral arrangements were not exactly on U2’s priority list, so we called on our resident Mozart (in fact, that was his nickname, “Mozart”). James had his own after-school jazz ensemble, so surfing this musical no-man’s land was right up his alley. He already had the basic rock ‘n’ roll lineup – drums, bass, guitar, himself on keyboards, so all he had to do was throw some of The Edge’s ringing guitar explosions to his horn section and then get to work on the vocals.
Bono’s one of those classic double-gear singers who likes to start low and then jump the octave when things get exciting (think Orbison, Isaak, Prince). James gave the low intro to the bass and alti, then handed the chorus sforzando (that’s “sudden forte”) to the tenors and soprani as the lower voices supplied echoing harmonies.
The master stroke arrived with the accelerated lines that Bono sings in the bridge (U2 always has these – they’re masters of construction). James worked these into a counterpoint fugue, like a damn Haydn in leather pants. From there, he built it to a climax by repeating the chorus with verse lines draped over the top, growing in volume and chaos until he cut us off, leaving the horns, drums and guitars to finish it off with three big crunchy chords, so like Don Giovanni that I figured it was James’ private joke, sort of a nickname signature to his high school thesis.
I’m sorry if I go on about this, but being a part of that performance, standing in the alto section in the middle of our football field on a bright spring afternoon, might have been the single event that hooked me on music for good. And I was screwing the arranger.
I almost got all the way through school without meeting him at all. I met him two months before, during Breakup (which refers to the ice in the rivers, not to relationships). I was lollygagging on the senior lawn, where underclassmen are allowed only by express invitation, when two ideas came into glorious collusion in my head: 1) the baseball-like hardness of the oranges that came in our lunch boxes, and 2) the inexplicably deep and dangerous hole that was drilled into the ground at the far end of the lawn. I sprang to my feet, struck a classic bowler’s pose and rolled my orange across the grass. It traveled thirty feet, took a slight left-to-right break, and dropped into the hole with a thud.
James, who was crouched over a chessboard directly behind the “green,” looked up from his bishop just in time to witness the entire thing. When he saw what happened, he jumped to his feet and yelled “Genius! Fucking genius!” Then fell to the lawn and disappeared most of his arm so he could retrieve my orange and roll it back. Thus are Olympic events and friendships born.
James was a classic nerd – all that much cooler because of the way he reveled in it – and extremely surprised, two weeks later, when I added a friendly crotch-rub to our makeout repertoire. I assumed he had heard the stories about Channy the Chaste (also Miss Tightzipper, which, I had to admit, was pretty clever).
“Don’t get me wrong,” I said. “I am picky. But the kind of boy I pick is also the kind of boy who keeps a secret. Am I understood?”
“Small price,” he said, and smiled. I undid his buttonfly and removed my chewing gum.
After commencement, I waited for James at the senior lawn. He arrived in his gown, too rushed by loading his keyboard and accepting praise to bother changing. He strode my way exactly like a man with a freshly inflated ego, grabbed me by the waist and swung me in a circle, then planted me with a kiss. I don’t know if it was good hygiene or natural chemistry, but I could kiss that boy’s mouth for hours, he was like human candy. After a minute, though, he deflated a bit and gave me a sad look.
“You’re absolutely sure.”
“What did I tell you?”
“Yeah – ‘day after graduation.’”
“Don’t say I didn’t give you an expiration date.”
“Let me go with you! I’ll go home and pack right now.”
I kissed him on his broad nose.
“No way. It’s the trip of my life, and it’s strictly solo. Besides, you’ve got a muse to chase.”
“Yes.” He smiled. “And her name is Ann Arbor.”
“Does anyone from here ever go further south? Like, I don’t know – Arizona State?”
“You kiddin’ me? They’d melt!”
I ran a finger along James’ upper lip and finished it with a kiss.
“I see that you still have one punch left on your ticket, Herr Mozart. Is there anywhere you’ve always wanted to…?”
I stopped when my customary crotch-rub landed on something unexpected.
“God, Jimmy! Did you have an operation?”
After a spell of epileptic laughter, Jimmy reached under his gown and pulled out a pair of rock-hard oranges.
“That’s not all,” he said. “I also have the keys to the music room, which I neglected to return after our last rehearsal. I have heard that Mr. Paris’s grand piano is capable of supporting quite a bit of weight.”
“You know, Freud would have a field day with you, Maestro. And so would I.”
That’s the last time I saw him. Late that summer, a landscaper was driving the freeway outside Minneapolis. A rolled-up tarp fell out of his truck. Just behind him, a tow-truck driver pulling a transit bus swerved to miss it and jumped the meridian. James was driving the other direction, on his way to the University of Michigan. He never had a chance. “Beautiful Day” shows up on a song slip about once a month, and I still have a hard time listening.
I’m sorry. I’m getting ahead of myself. The day after graduation (my personal Valhalla), the contiguous 48 called me from bed at six o’clock. My dad was already downstairs, drinking his coffee, and he helped me pile all my belongings into the truck. When I was all ready, he rousted my mother from sleep so she could anoint my jacket with tears. Perhaps we didn’t realize how close we were until that moment. I warmed up the engine and drove off, the two of them standing arm-in-arm on the porch, popping up in my rear-view like some misty coming-of-age movie.
Dad was a mechanic, and had given the truck a thorough check-up. He was well-acquainted with the damage that could be inflicted by the Alaskan Highway (what we call the Alcan), and had also prepared a large box of emergency supplies. By the second day, I had already made use of the spare fan belt and one of those epoxy hypodermics that keeps a windshield from crawling toward Juneau like a spiderweb.
By the fourth day, the damage was mostly to my exhausted body (which had started out sore to begin with, thanks to my Jamesean concerto). Lord knows, they had made lots of improvements to the old road (and still were, judging by all the construction delays), but there were still all those rollercoaster dips where the permafrost had given out, and long stretches of gravel that pik-pokked their way into my brain. I made a mental note to get some new shocks once I reached a city.
A couple hours past Teslin, Yukon, I was just enjoying my first glimpse of the Canadian Rockies when my view was rudely drowned out by a bombardment of fog. And not just any fog – freezing fog. As I slipped into the brief summer night, microscopic ice crystals danced across my headlight beams, creating a fairyland aura that was putting me right to sleep. I had sunk into the more desperate stages of Auto Wakefulness Therapy – self-slapping, knee-knocking, the occasional Fay Wray scream – when another set of fairies, orange and blinking, appeared on the shoulder. Hazard lights on sawhorses, leading me into a rest area that said Watson Lake.
This was the home of the Signpost Forest, something I had always thought of as an artful myth. Back in World War II, the U.S. had some real concerns about Japan attacking military outposts in Fairbanks and Anchorage, which were wholly dependent on air and sea for the delivery of supplies. (The Japanese actually did make some attacks on the Aleutian Islands in 1942.)
So they sent 27,000 workers – 11,000 of them soldiers – to work on the Alcan, and they built all 1500 miles in eight months, working non-stop in awful conditions. One day, an Illinois soldier named Carl K. Lindley expressed his homesickness by putting up a sign from his native state. There are now almost 50,000, from all over the world, covering a grove of telephone poles just off the highway.
I know. I sound like a freakin’ tour guide. But I was enjoying a free cup of coffee in the interpretive center, and I’m a compulsive reader. When I finally wandered outside, the freezing fog was snaking in and out of the signposts, which added to its mythic qualities. I touched a few of them, just to make sure. The variety was amazing. I found a single pole with signs from The Netherlands, Manitoba, Michigan, Switzerland and Yorba Linda, California. I was running my hand over a handmade sign from Bob and Mary Stetson of Texas when I heard footsteps, and turned to find a striking young man headed my way.
“Hi,” he said. “Have you decided on a destination?”
He was tall and lean, a classic Jimmy Stewart type, with dark, intense eyes like Gregory Peck (my whole senior year, I was on a classic-movies kick). In any case, he had read my mind so precisely that I had to laugh.
“I’ve been so occupied with getting out of Alaska, I hadn’t figured out where I was getting out to. Where are you headed?”
He smiled mischievously. “Wherever my next ride takes me.”
“You’re hitchhiking the Alcan? Are you insane?”
“My friends seem to think so.”
“And here I was thinking I was so reckless and brave.”
“You’re a girl. You get extra credit.”
We stood and talked for another hour, but it didn’t seem to matter what we said. We were locked in a mutual study. He spoke in clear, careful sentences – almost like an actor – and his voice was smooth and baritone, like a radio newsman. He had thick, jet-black hair, with a single renegade hank that would slip over his forehead when he laughed. He had a wide mouth, and generous lips that would almost seem girly but for a small scar on his right upper that set things fetchingly asymmetrical. When he told a story, he would insert little questions so I could take part (“So then we headed for Prudhoe Bay – have you been there?”).
In short, he had all those gentleman qualities that I had always screened for in high school, but he also seemed like a Boy Who Got Laid. This was a combination I had never encountered. The attraction was so strong and natural that I had to remind myself of the hard, external facts: strange boy, middle of nowhere, traveling alone…
His name was Harvey, which fit rather comically with the Jimmy Stewart vibe. Harvey Lebeque, son of Cajuns who left New Orleans to work on the Alyeska pipeline. His dad worked in maintenance, which meant constant travel, but also a comfy existence for his family. That was the part that drove him out.
“People who come from poor families, and then find themselves with money, they go all security crazy!” he said. “If I had to listen to one more of my dad’s pep talks about ‘doing the smart thing,’ I was going to have a freaking seizure. It’s my theory that the only way you ever learn is by doing the stupid things. So here I am – ha-haah!”
He seemed to save that laugh for things that really broke him up. The second syllable was open and joyous, a touch of a James Brown shriek. Only an hour, and I already knew that. Strange boy, middle of nowhere. I also knew that the one thing he needed the most had remained conspicuously absent from the conversation. I ran my hand along a license plate from Montreal.
“How do you rate as a driver, Harvey?”
“Four years, no tickets, no accidents.”
“No car,” I said, and laughed.
“No, I’ve got a car. I left it in Fairbanks.”
“Wait a minute. You’re hitchhiking by choice?”
“Stupid things? Learning? Besides, I wanted to break out of my shell. I’ve always been a little shy.”
“Shy?” I said. “Talking to strange girls in sign forests?”
“I’m not talking to strange girls. I’m talking to you.”
I was desperately fighting off a blush. Perhaps it was cold enough that he wouldn’t notice.
“Okay,” I said. “Here’s the deal. You drive, I sleep. And none of this macho crap about driving forever – you get tired, you let me know. And I’m reading you as a gentleman, so I’m trusting you to stay that way.”
“Can you chip in for gas?”
“I can pay for gas. I’m stupid, not broke. In fact, um…”
I don’t know if he was trying to prove his previous statement, but this seemed to be his shy side. He buried his hands in his jacket and looked groundward, like a soldier delivering bad news to his commanding officer.
“I hope you’ll take this the right way, but I already got a room at a hotel down the street, and I would be more than happy to sleep on the floor if you would share the room with me, because I’ve already paid for it, and because, frankly, you look exhausted.”
“Oh,” I said. This was getting trickier by the minute. I chewed on a thumbnail.
“Not to discount your attractions, Channy,” he said. “But a hitchhiker can hardly afford to lose a long-distance ride by making untoward advances. We can… buy some jingle bells and string them around your bed. You can handcuff me to the radiator. Provided… you have handcuffs.”
“Geez, Harvey, I just…”
“Did I mention that this room has a clawfoot bathtub? With hot running water?”