Friday, September 25, 2009

A Dog for All Seasons


Picasso had his Blue Period. When he was 4, my son Zachary had his White Period. He wanted everything white. White toys, drawing in white crayon on white paper: we already had an almost-white cat – an aged, Blue-Point Siamese who wanted nothing to do with him. He insisted on white clothes, when given the choice. If he had his way, he'd have decorated the house all in white. In a restaurant, he'd ask for “white pasta.” When the waiter brought Pasta Alfredo, Zach would fuss if the chef had sprinkled it with green parsley flakes.


My late mother, Alba, a one-time operatic soprano who worked for the in San Francisco Opera Association, and – as Zachary's doting “Nonnie” – out-doted even his doting parents, offered to buy him a puppy, of suitable breed, for his fifth birthday. She told my wife Cyndy and I to pick out a pup and she'd pay for it.



I want a white dog,” he said, when we asked him what kind he would like. We added that to our list that the dog be child-friendly, playful, easy to care for, small enough to handle but big enough to take on hikes and above all sturdy. We visited some kennels and a couple of dog shows in the area, and settled on a Smooth Fox Terrier. (After that experience I could identify with the Obamas' quest early this year for dog that would be just right for little Sasha and Malia.)


The breeder had just the puppy for us. At 21 pounds, he was a little bigger than the average “Smoothie” (as she referred to him), and he had a white blaze instead of his head being all black like most of the breed. These anomalies lessened the pup's blue-ribbon prospects on the dog show circuit. The breeder had been keeping him as a pet. He was already four months old and housebroken. “Perfect,” I said. There would be a slight discounts. Sold, we said.


A week later my mother wrote us a check and Zach's mother drove 90 miles down to Fresno from where we lived in Modesto, in California's San Joaquin Valley, to pick up the pooch from the breeder just in time for Zach's birthday.



Smooth Fox Terriers have a reputation for being friendly, bright, playful, energetic, a bit bossy. But nothing we read could have prepared us adequately for the eccentric character took his place in our lives with his arrival that day. We opened our doors to the Marx Brothers all rolled into one frisky dog.


First thing, we asked Zach what he would like to name his puppy. Without hesitation, he said. “Cherry Red.” Except, at the time, he pronounced it “Cheawie Wed.”


Er...Okay, great,” I said. “Can I ask a question? You wanted a white dog, and here he is, pretty much all white. Why did you name him 'Cherry Red'?”


Because I wuove him,” little Zachary shot back with unassailable, 4-year-old logic.


Recently, a longtime friend, Nicole Taggart, who devotes herself to charity work among the poor in Appalachia, cleared up the mystery for me when I related the story to her on the phone. “Red stands for the heart – love. Cherry is bright and happy. Perfect!”



Cherry lived up to his name in cheerfulness. He wagged his upright tail, its black tip a blur spelling out, “play, play, play, fun, fun, fun.” A rottweiler three times his size could charge him, fangs bared, growling and slathering. Cherry Red would always stand his ground in perfect dog-show pose, his ears up playfully, not his hackles. He would wag his medium-short upright tail rapidly – its black tip a blur – until his giant attacker would stop, confused, apparently chagrinned – calm down and exchange sniffs.


I never saw this terrier act afraid of anything or anyone except for his strange handful of phobias – one of whoppee cushions, which terrified him when emitting farting noises – of the saxophone when Zach practiced. Okay, that could sometimes sound like a whoopee cushion. But the dog never cowered at the sound of a real fart (in case you wanted to ask. I know because every time I evoke droit de pere, and cut a loud one outdoors with Zach and his dog, I would always say, “Bad dog!” It never failed to bring Zach to the defense of his wrongly accused canine companion.


You did it,” Zach would counter, smirking, pointing his finger at me. “



It was your dog. Teach him some manners,” I'd retort in mock seriousness. Nothing like a bit of scatological humor to entertain a five-year-old and his addled, along with a papa old enough to be his grandfather.


Cherry had his own scatological humor. Unlike most dogs who simply squat and poop whenever the urge overtakes them outdoors – for example in the middle of one's neighbor's lawn – he would back up close to a tree trunk and make his deposits so that they stuck to the bark, leaving them as a camouflaged calling card for the next dog to come by and sniff. No doubt this behavior amounted to a p-mail challenge to other dogs: “I'll see your wee-wee and raise you three poops!”


From a distance, it would look like the dog was simply raising his leg for a little squirt against the tree. Nobody would raise an eyebrow if I didn't use a pooper-scooper glove. If there was a lawn, he might follow by dragging his bottom along the grass for a nice wipe – to peals of laughter by Zach and any other kids along for the walk – often his “niece” (my granddaughter Fiona.)



This was a dog who did things his own way, and in a way that more often made us laugh than made us crazy, but sometimes both. The day my son was born – like my daughters – I could see in his tiny face, tilt of his head, arrangement of arms, legs and body, a unique personage – soul if you like. I have to say the same for every dog I've owned, but especially this dog. He was like no other, distinctive and memorable, instantly recognizable.


Amiable and affectionate, Cherry was his own dog – independent, always a member of the family who couldn't be defined as owned. Always up for a game or a pet or a treat – and especially for a walk – if no one had time for him, he trotted off on his own to explore the yard, take a nap, or just look out a window.


Not very cuddly, he stiffened when I picked him up. But sometimes he'd come around when I was sitting down and lean against my leg and let me pull him up on my lap. Then he leaned against my chest and let out his trademark, contented groans – same as when he napped. I never told anyone, but I discovered that if I positioned him so that he left side leaned against my chest, I felt this amazing, serene, blissful warmth emanating from my heart – in connection, it seemed, with the big heart of this little dog, not to stretch a point too far, but it worked every time.


In his first few years, the dog attached himself to me as the alpha, my being the biggest and eldest dog in the house. Zach was his playmate and vice versa. Often I'd seem the dog trotting around the house in a tiny red tee shirt and denim overalls --- Zach's baby clothes. I wish I took more pictures.



The dog pulled maniacally on the leash, no matter how much training I tried. He didn't seem to mind the choker chain cutting off his air supply. He would just wheeze happily, intent on getting where we wanted to go, which was always ahead of me. Like Mr. Toad, he became known for his manias – probably obsessive-compulsive disorder that was bred into fox terriers to make them assiduous, tireless hunters of vermin on English farms.


He never barked a lot, or tried to get attention, but he was a magnet anyway. Walk him down a street in San Francisco and one person after another would stop us to pet him. When I would take the dog with me to pick Zach up from his elementary school, kids in his class would whoop and call his name and crowd around to pet him like they never saw a dog before, although most of them had pets too. 

Zach also had a pet white rat. The dog with leap up and down for hours to get a peek at the rat in his cage up on a dresser. We had to keep Zach's bedroom door closed, or the dog locked outside in the yard whenever Zach took the rat --- Ratzo, a docile, friendly little red-eyed fellow – out to play and ride around with his nose peering out the top of little Zach's shirt like a kangaroo joey in his mother's pouch.


Zach also had a white rabbit. The rabbit wasn't as friendly as the rat. But he was an escape artist. One day the bunny got loose to hop happily around the back yard, ignoring his Peter Rabbit's mother's advice not to go into Mr. MacGregor's garden. I looked through the bay window facing the patio and saw Cherry in a prideful stand out on the back lawn, his ears up, wagging his semaphore tail furiously, poor bunny hanging limp in his jaws. The dog seemed to be wondering why the bunny didn't want to play anymore. He didn't know what to do. The dog door was too narrow to admit him with the rabbit in his mouth. He wanted me to come out see his catch.



There was nothing Cherry attacked with more energy, however, than garden hoses, sprinklers and faucets running water. He destroyed dozens of hoses. I had to put roll them up and hang them high above the ground where he couldn't reach them. If one was left on the ground, you'd turn it on later and be doused from scores of hole he'd bitten into to it. He'd tear off the heads of hoses with the same vengeance with which one might decapitate a poisonous snake in your path.


Running water made him crazy. Turn on the taps in the bathtub and no matter how far away he was in the house or outside, he'd fly come jump into the tub and start snapping furiously at the water until you turned it off. Then he'd stare at the faucet waiting for it to come back on, barking and whining.


This proved convenient. Most every night I'd give Zach a bubble bath before bedtime. We'd lock the dog out of the house. Soon as Zach dried off and got into his jammies, he'd open the back door and I'd run the water. The dog would run in to snap the water and, wap, I'd have him in the bubble bath water for a good soaping and rinsing. (At only 22 pounds, he was easy to wash in a few minutes. We thought since the dog slept with us, he should bathe as often as any human in the household.)


He also had a thing for the bottom of shower doors as they opened and clicked shut. And he would chase and return a stick or a ball with equal determination. Whereas a lot of dogs cower at the sound of a vacuum cleaner, Cherry would attack them. One day our regular housekeeper at the time, a tiny, good humored woman named Sylvia, fired up a brand new upright Hoover that Zach's mom had bought the day earlier. Out of nowhere, the brave Cherry sprang to little Sylvia's protection and pounced on this roaring monster. Growling and barking ferociously, he sank his fang deep into the fabric air bag and, in seconds, had the evil machine wheezing like an asthmatic at a cat show. This wasn't covered by the warrantee.


(Okay, certain of his detractors said he had “more balls than brains,” But what a patriot! Unless leashed and locked away on on 4th of July, he would attack backyard fireworks as they went off. He ignore the ear-splitting whistling and smoke and snap at the fiery plumes of white hot sparks. Grown up spectators yelled OMG! They tried to call him off without rushing into the flames themselves. Kids screamed in terror and fiendish glee.)



Zach's other grandma, Dorothy, bought Zach a female Jack Russell for his 7th birthday. With Zach in grammar school, two dogs keeping each other company during the days seemed a good idea and “Merry Jane” proved almost as much a character as Cherry, but without the manias and foolhardiness. Sweet to humans and bad-tempered to other dogs, the easy going Smooth Fox Terrier mostly tolerated her and let her be alpha dog by default. (As dog lovers know, females top males in the canine world anyway.)


All the guides we read recommended we exercise and play with our Smooth Fox Terrier as much as possible because of the breed's playful, energetic disposition. They also urged obedience training. Cherry must have read the same books and Web pages because the dog definitely took charge and soon taught us his ways.


He pulled on the leash so tenaciously I could have entered him in the Ididerot. The kids did harness his power to a red American Flyer wagon for rides around the block. My eldest daughter Alicia, a high school teacher accustomed to managing headstrong students, had him cured of pulling and “heeling” obediently along at her side. But she was the only one he would ever do that for, just so the rest of us didn't get any uppity ideas.



Even though he pulled, he habitually stayed close when off the leash. Whenever he escaped out out into the neighborhood, the most he'd do would be to trot around the block then return and sit on our porch after a little while. Once, however, he did wander a couple of blocks onto a busy street, and a kind lady picked him up for a lost dog and drove him to her house in the next town. She found our phone number on his tag, but didn't reach us for a few days, after which we picked him up none the worse for wear. That proved the first of what seemed his nine lives. (I notice that I have a fuller head of hair and it's not all white in the photos from when Cherry was a puppy. Okay, maybe that's just aging.)


One summer day not long after we got Cherry, my daughter, Alicia and her then husband John, took her daughter Fiona and Zachary into the High Sierras on a little camping trip. Alicia, a veteran wilderness camper, led the merry band several hours up a trail from a public campground not far from Bear Valley ski resort in California where she had parked the car. They would pitch by a particularly beautiful alpine lake near 10,000 feet that she knew about with a waterfall. I drove Zach to meet them in Alicia's car at the trail head, located in a state park in which dogs were allowed. To Zach and Fiona's delight, she agreed to take Cherry with them. He had proved amenable to heeling with Alicia. What could go wrong?


Alicia, John and the kids climbed the narrow trail uneventfully, with the dog trotting happily behind them for a few hours until they drew close to the alpine lake, with not another soul in sight. It was easier letting him off leash. He stayed close. The kids chattered and sang songs. Being of an age when he was fascinated with bodily functions, Zach liked to make up graphic, marching songs about the dogs ever-fascinating ability to lick his own private part and relieve himself against every other tree, one squirt at a time, from a seemingly inexhaustible bladder.


But when they reached the lake the put down their back packs, they looked all around and there was no dog. No one could be sure when he'd split off from them. It wasn't like him to wander far from them on walks and hikes. The called and called, their voices echoing off the granite cliffs until they started to become hoarse. Alicia, ever the den mother, made a plan. She knew the trail. The dog had to be behind them in the direction from whence they came. They would have noticed if he passed them on the switchbacks they had just traversed. He probably lingered in a meadow they had crossed about 20 minutes earlier.


There was no going back. It would get dark before they made it down the mountain. John would watch the kids and put up the tents while she would hike down the trail to look for the dog. “I was in a panic about what daddy would say about losing Zach's prize pet that our Nonnie had bought,” she said. She grabbed a flashlight and a water bottle and marched back down the trail, calling the dog. Nothing.


It was getting darker. Clouds had gathered into a summer mountain thunderstorm and it began to sprinkle. She reached the meadow, calling out and casting the flashlight beam into the growing gloom. “Forget the dog,” she says, remembering the incident, “Daddy now was in danger of losing his Number One daughter. I realized I was all alone out there in the wilderness, with bears and snakes and mountain lions. Worse yet, who knew if I'd run into some homicidal maniac.” She turned around the made her way back up to the kids who by now had their tents up and were taking shelter from the rain.


I'll never see my Cherry's butt hole again,” wailed Zach when he saw that she was alone – such a poignant way of putting it.


The next day, the little party struck camp early and hiked back down the steep trail, despondent as they saw no sign of the dog all the way. What chance did a 22-pound, pampered pooch have in the wilds of the High Sierras in the rain, lost in the forest, potential prey to all those bears and mountain lions, wild cats, coyotes.


But they heard a familiar yap when they reached the parking lot of the lower camp ground. Cherry scooted out from under Alicia's car, his tail wagging wildly and ran to greet them. He was none the worse for wear, other than a grease spot from the car on this white coat.


We'll never know how he passed that night under the vast wilderness sky. Swift and alert, he could have eluded predators, as long as he had the sense not to try to play with them. Most plausibly, he followed the olfactory markers he'd left on trees and rocks where he'd lifted his leg while hiking up the trail. But what about the car? I had driven Zach and the dog there the day before and Cherry had never ridden in Alicia's car. Yet he found it amid the others parked there, and had the good sense to wait.



Cherry lived a fairly normal life as a growing boy's companion pet in the years that rolled by faster and faster, it has seemed to his father. Zach – who grew up a Star Trek fan watching Voyager and reruns of TNG, and later, Deep Space Nine, incorporated Cherry into ongoing fantasies intertwined with video game stories and anime.


Zach taught the dog to “sing” extensively on cue – something Cherry did only for him no matter how much coaxing we did. We gave him dozens of nicknames – some that everyone used a lot – “Nibblick,” “Baldino” and “Dibbuh,” for example, and other appellations used only by Zach, many exceedingly arcane – including:


Chibby, Chwed,His Nibs, Nubbles, Mr. Bubbles, Nibevitz, Chibivits, Nubo Nordisk (a play on NPR's Novo Nordisk), Norvo (Ezri Teagan's (aka Ezri Dax [DS9]) suicidal brother), Nublet, NubXor (7eet speak, phonetically: Nubzor), Chubbles, Wubbles, Balthazar, Bourbus, Pourpus, Mein Nubby, Nublekamphen, Ein Klein Nacht Nubble., and Little Zukov (after the heroic, World War II, Soviet general.)


Having provided me this list, Zach observed. “With all those names no wonder he never came when we called him.” He added:
Of course, his native language, and nationality was: 'Nibbinese.'”



As the years went on, the dog seemed to have as many wild adventures and close calls as nicknames. To mention but a few:


He was dognapped by a crazy street person outside a Wallgreen drug store in San Francisco where I had tied him to go in to buy some aspirins. An old Chinese man ran in with his arms waving while I was paying the checker. “Man steal your dog,” he yelled. “


I ran out the doors and saw muscular, disheveled guy in his 30s sprinting away, carrying the dog under one arm like a football. I called out. Cherry turned his head back an began squirming wildly, breaking free and racing across a busy street back to me, nearly causing a pile up of tire-screeching cars..


Another time, he cut loose from the front door of my San Francisco flat while I was signing for a UPS package. He ran across Bay Street – a busy four-land boulevard – into Fr. Mason park, one of his favorite walking places, but was hit by a car before he reached the other side. My heart in my mouth, I followed, only to see him roll under the car like a parachutist touching down and emerge unscathed into the park. Still another day, he took a dive off my second story landing of my back stairs in San Francisco dropped, rolled and trotted around the yard, uninjured.



Somehow Cherry survived in style – through jobs, two recessions, ups and down, a painful divorce, moving. After my divorce, Zach would spend every other weekend with me and a half of his summer and holiday vacation times, and I'd have the dogs as well – including Cherry de facto on our joint custody agreement.


Zach grew up, a fine lad, earning straight A's in advanced honors classes and finally attending university, now in pre-med studies – perhaps with some thanks to having studied doggie anatomy, bodily habits and behavior, certainly with a major in comedy through it all.



Having survived all the close calls, Cherry reached the ripe old age of 16 until his health gave out a few weeks ago and had to be put down after his kidney's failed.


My daughter Kara wrote her condolences from Montana, as did Alicia from Ireland where she now teaches, along with Cristina who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area not far from me. Kara wrote me: You and Zach should be very glad you both gave Cherry such a great life.” She mentioned how she often saves pets from the pound and find them homes. “There are so many dogs and cats that get put down because there is no one to love them.” Her sisters concurred, as did my friend Nicole who added, “He got a heavenly life on earth, and heaven is where he is now.”


Alicia wrote: "Cherry's theme song had to be: I Did It My Way.”


His life reminds me of My Dog Skip.” wrote Cristina. To us, he is famous – like the President's dog, Bo. I know Nonnie and he are together: Nonnie the opera Diva and Cherry the singing dog.”


Said Zach: “When I was really young he was just a toy. Later he became a friend and a source of stability in an otherwise tumultuous world. I know it sounds cliche, but it's the truth.”






Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Pretty Good Paean to Pigeons

A pair of pigeons have taken to hanging out on my balcony, and who can blame them. I'm a bird-safe, 8 floors up with a wide view and no hawks around here, plus I'm one of those compulsive bird feeders, so there can stuff their cute, stubby little beaks with seeds all day and wash them down from my makeshift bird bath.  Pigeons don't scare anyone, so other birds come and go -- jays mostly -- squawking rudely at the pigeons --  and only a few sparrows. The smaller birds don't get up here much above the neighborhood treetops.  It's too exposed.   

I assume my pair to be a male and female, mated for life, pigeons being monogamous. One, the male, is mostly gray and banded in darker blue-black tail stripes.  The female is slightly smaller and speckled black, white and gray. It could be the other way around. I'm only judging by how the banded one jumps on the speckled one's back once in a while. Of course, they might enjoy a little reverse gender play, this not being their regular mating season. Or they could be gay or lesbians for all I know. 

I say pigeons --- just the usual feral, gray rock pigeons who make pests of themselves in every big city that has tall buildings. Though the terms can be used interchangeably, you'd never call my pair, "doves." Their not sleek and white, nor do they have the delicate Easter-egg hues and the seductive coo of mourning doves.  They are average, not special, just plain old pigeons.

Like the other gray rock pigeons who flock to public squares and parks, my pair of pigeons personify the virtues of the very plain, to the enduring success of just-good-enough. They carry the flag for ordinariness.

Pigeons represent the apotheosis of what's so-so. They never achieve greatness but they are quite good at being pretty good at most everything a bird does.  This isn't the venal mediocrity so rampant in popular culture and entertainment. It's the steady-as-you-go kind that gets ordinary jobs done in sustainable fashion.

Their ubiquity testifies to the perpetual perseverance of what's pretty-good in facing off all kinds of high-test competition. Nobody I ever met picks a pigeon as a totem. But I have met quite a few people who have been targeted by pigeons on fecal bombing runs.

Pigeons don't sing, nor can they talk. The cooing is nothing special, more like an engine idling at a stoplight. They don't soar like gulls or eagles. They can't dart like swallows, or hover like humming birds. They don't fish like egrets or swim like ducks. They certainly don't glide like swans. They waddle like fast food addicts. Crows, ravens and jays can out wit pigeons at ever turn. Tropical birds win all the beauty contests. They don't rise early and get any worms.

Pigeons don't fight. Wimps of the bird world, the wander or fly off in the face of any threat, and confuse the enemy by unpredictably taking flight en masse. They only have a couple of baby squabs at a time and build  flimsy nests in rocky cliffs or on building ledges.

People say they are lazy and call them flying rats. But they aren't like their extinct relatives the dodos and passenger pigeons. The don't make trouble, but they know how to stay out of it. And, they do know how to find their way home, unerringly. But then most ordinary people can do that.

 (Wait a minute. Pigeons can find their way home from places they've never seen from hundreds -- sometimes thousands -- of miles away without benefit of maps or compass or GPS system. They don't have to ask for directions, and they get where they are going by being strong -- if not swift -- tireless fliers.  No one knows for sure yet how pigeons manage this extraordinary navigational feat. One theory holds that they have a special neurological ability to sense and follow the earth's magnetic field.  Another says they use "odor contours" in the environment. Okay, so pigeons do have something special about them -- and, that's the exception that proves my point. Arguably, so does everyone else, even those seemingly stuck forever in the fat middle of the bell-shaped curve of life.

Maybe it's just that pigeons just don't like all the fuss that comes with fans.  They just want to be left to themselves.  Watch someone walking towards a pigeon in the park. The pigeon doesn't panic and fly off at a moment's notice. It waddles around, bobbing out of the way in lazy circles, and only takes flight at the last minute if the  person gets just one step too close. They the pigeon just flies a little ways off, and shows up again in a few minutes, pecking away at crumbs on the sidewalk here and there.  Just pigeons. Nothing special.  No kids shouts, Mommy, look, a pigeon -- a robin or a hummingbird, yes, or a duck certainly, but not a pigeon.

But I can take a lesson from my friends as they perch on my balcony railing now, preen their feathers and settle down in they hypnotic trance facing the setting sun -- something I've seen gulls and pigeons do every evening when walking a beach or in a park at sunset.  My pair give out their soft, rumbling, coo-coos... and seem to be telling me not to sweat things so much, not to think I must reach the stars with watching the sun set and the moon rise will be more than enough.

They take us for granted.  Some hate us, my pigeon friends seem to stay, but we carry on, and --- you remember this -- when the bells ring at Piazza San Marco in Venice, a thousand of us take flight at once and give you a glimpse of God on the wing.








Sunday, September 6, 2009

Part 4 - Journey of the Jenny M - an Alaska Ghost Story


In the morning after washing up and a trip to a nearby store, Sally played a disc file that had been transcribed from a scratchy 12-inch shellac recording of an oral history cut in 1933, according to the label, which also noted: “fragmentary, only.”
Tell me about the Jenny M,” said the voice of a young man:
An old woman’s voice answered. It was a sure, rounded voice, with a teasing quality to it:
She was a ‘wet-ass.’ That’s what they called her.” 
A what?”
Sternwheeler. That’s what we called’em. Them stern-wheelers were right for these wild, tricky rivers here full of sandbars, wide shallows and changing channels. The channel changes every day and if ran aground the stern paddles didn’t get stuck. You could raise them too, and reverse them to get unstuck.”
Sally stopped the audio, chilled, the fine hairs on the back of her nick feeling prickly.  She got herself a glass of water.  The oral history voice was that of an old women, but it sounded remarkably like the younger voice and cadence of her hallucinatory speaker.  She sat back at her desk, donned earphones and clicked the audio back on.
The Skip’s first boat drew three feet and he piloted her two years.  The Jenny M, drew just a little more than two feet and she could back off easily when she would run aground.  They all did, these boats.
“Yes, steam, with three decks, cabins above, freight on the main deck below, bales of supplies on the main deck, two smokestacks, a galley, dining and gaming rooms, built in St. Michael, at the mouth of the Yukon, and steamed 2,000 miles upriver to the Klondike then back here.”
The questioner asked (unintelligible)….
Answer: (unintelligible.)
Then: “Tell me about Captain Flynn.”
Le Skeeper, (She pronounced the work ‘Skipper’ in an exaggerated French accent) that’s what I called him as a tease. He loved that boat more than anything or anyone, even himself, or me for that matter, but that didn’t bother me any
It made him feel right with the world, he said.   He would brag to me that the boat’s steam engine was the best ever built and never failed him. He loved the sounds of the steam pistons chugging and of the paddle wheel slapping through the river water hour-after-hour.  
Skip loved detail. He said he lived by them. My, how he pored over the charts, checked everything, depths, sandbars, what scouts and traders and other boat captains said about the rivers ahead when we would steam up and down the rivers.
“It was tricky. After the thaw every year, the Tanana is swampy and braided into streams, sloughs and swamps, and it’s, swift and all spread out.  That water is thick with silt from rocks ground up by glaciers then released as they melt into the river. 
“As you or anyone else around here knows, after the breakup in spring, the water turns brown and thick like melted chocolate. The main channel changes by the hour and the pilot’s gotta read the surface and the ripples ahead constantly to keep a boat moving along.”
The other voice cut in: “You know a lot about it.” 
I took a lot of river trips with the captain and helped him watch. You could run aground in a wilderness with no one for miles, just moose and bear, and maybe days before another steamboat happened along.
“Every trip out there could take its toll, like the Skipper be a nail-biter. (Laughter).  
“Oh, it was a little easier on the big Yukon coming down from Dawson, but it was a whole different story on the muddy Tanana that we steamed all the time from what’s now Fairbanks. She was just a trading post for gold miners then.”
“So tell me about famous trial, would you please. Take your time.  I’d like the know the real story directly from you,” said the other voice.
“Turn that thing off!  Now!”
Sally thought the audio went off, but it just lapsed into a dead period, and then picked up, with the interviewee’s voice, apparently calmed now:
Jake, now he was a gambler. He owned half the boats with the Skipper and played a lot of poker.”
Sally clicked it off and sat back at the Victorian gingerbread desk where she’s placed her notebook computer. She kicked off her running shoes. 
She walked into the bedroom where she kept her clothes to find a sweater. It was raining hard outside now, and getting cold in the house, but she didn’t want to turn on any heating.
“Don’t move this house.”  It was that same disembodied voice that, to Sally, now sounded even more like the recording. ”If you do, I’ll follow you and haunt you the rest of your life, and you really will end up in the looney bin. I guarantee it.”
Sally walked out down a hallway and into the parlor, where she stopped and looked up to the ceiling with its gingerbread molding. She said loudly: “Did you murder Jake Turner? “
Silence.
“I don’t care if you did. He had it coming.”
Silence.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Part 3 - Journey of the Jenny M - an Alaska Ghost Story

Please go to this blog post (first) if you wish to read this story from the beginning.

“I guess I’m a real ‘cheecako,” Sally confessed to the tall, angular man in the khaki, guard’s uniform who had arrived shortly after she’d put all the diaries neatly on a ornate, antique desk of the parlor where she had her notebook computer open.

The man laughed softly, and shook his head. “Maybe so, but don’t take it personally. It’s what we call any greenhorn here in Alaska. It’s okay by me, I was just teasing.

He handed her tight bouquet of delicate, multi-hued, handpicked wild roses wrapped in newspaper. She smiled and took them nervously.

“Thank you. Really, you shouldn’t have,” she said, turning away and walking into the kitchen so he would not notice her expression.

She found a mason jar in a cabinet, half-filled it with water in the sink, and arranged the delicate flowers symmetrically in it, then set the jar on the kitchen table.

“These are beautiful, thank you -- so many subtle hues. It’s amazing how nature just flourishes here in the summer, here it is August and it’s like spring, a riot of flowers.”




“Oh, and I brought this disk from the university library that you wanted, the one with the oral history.” He handed her a flat, labeled box from the wide pocket on his open, khaki guard-uniform jacket.

“I know, I hate to give up this place, even though I never saw it until just this past week. It, and been rented for years. It’s a mess, and needs a lot of work. I couldn’t afford to refurbish it even if they hadn’t offered to take it off my hands.”

“Well, they will fix it up. But that doesn’t help you, as you told me last night, you’re only getting market value for it and that’s not much these days.”

“So, why are you doing all this research on the house? You gonna write a book or something?”

Sally looked at him for a long moment. “No book. I’m a nosy person. I’m like that. I love history.”

“Well, for you it’s gotta be more than history, right? Being family and all.”

“Yes, there were stories in our family, things about this house that haunted my grandmother, and in some ways bent my mother. I was sheltered from much of it, but I have a deep desire to know for real.”

“Okay, I’m going to ask you the question outright, because every gossip around here wants to know: Have you encountered the ghost of your great grandmother, Jenny M., yet?” Bradley said with a big grin.

Sally laughed, a little too loudly, and shook her head. “No. Don’t be silly. These old houses are full of creaks and other strange sounds.”

“Well, you know, it’s required in the lease that you give us at least one ghost story before you leave,” he said.

“I’m sure the Frontier World promoters already have plenty of them to tell tourists once they move the house over there,” she said.

“Last night was sweet. I love the flowers and I really enjoyed your company. I’m flattered, really, dear. But…”

She paused and looked up into his large, puppy-dog-brown eyes. She cocked her head and bit her lower lip. “I told you. I’m nursing a broken heart. I’m not to be relied upon. I’m sorry. But let’s be friends. Okay?”

“For now?”

She broke into a short laugh. “Now – the present, -- is all anyone has. Right?”

“I take that as encouragement,” he teased. “So how much more time shall I tell the commission that you need?”

“Oh, maybe a week. I’ve got to get back to Boston. I’ve got to take a lot back with me and not get bogged down in trying to digest everything while I’m here.”

“You must be used to doing a lot of historical research at the university where you work. Boston University?”

“College. It’s Boston College, and I’m a curator of their music collection, old manuscripts and memorabilia and writings of great composers, for example we have a lot of Aaron Copeland material. Not very exciting, given that I once thought I’d be a concert violinist…”

“Sounds fascinating. I love Copeland.”

“Oh!”

“You think we only listen to lite rock up here in Alaska?” He laughed.

“No, I didn’t mean that. Just the coincidence. As a matter of fact, I find you quite a cultivated gentleman – as wall as a handsome trooper.”

“Not exactly. I’m just on the campus police here the university site. Remember? But thanks for the ‘handsome’ part, m’am,” He pantomimed tipping the hat that he wasn’t wearing.

“Sorry. Yes. Touché.”

He didn’t pursue the matter. After he left, Sally read the diaries all through that afternoon, stopping only to make herself a light supper. Afterwards, she went back to the diaries.

She curled up on in a high-backed, Victorian winged sofa and she read long into the night. Finally she fell into a fitful sleep, still not accustomed to the perpetual sunlight of the Alaskan summer that filtered in through the shades and lace curtains of the old house.

The ghost of Jenny M stayed away while she read, and out of her dreams as she slept.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Part. 2 - Journey of the Jenny M - an Alaska Ghost Story

Please go to this blog post (first) if you wish to read this story from the beginning.



The attic was still when she awoke. She looked about and listened. No voices and no movement, only dust motes dancing in beams of sunlight angling in from a small attic window.


The light seemed unchanged from when she had dozed off, but she had a sense of a long time having passed. She had left her watch downstairs. She thought about calling it a day and going back down and taking some aspirins for the headache she’d developed.

Instead, she walked over to the big old steamer trunk the voice had indicated, pulled off its dusty cotton sheet and opened it. Sally’s caught her breath when she discovered the diaries.



There were a score of slim diaries, each bound in reddish leather engraved with gold leaf flowers. The pages were of a high-satin, heavy paper that, to her surprise, still smelled faintly of lavender.

She opened one and read at random. Flowing, neat handwriting in black in filled each page.

”I can say nothing. In silence, I die slowly and keep my peace. When the Skipper arrived, I put on my clothes and made them dinner. The Skipper would have killed him, or Jake might have killed me. I don’t know…I would want the former, but old Skip could hang for it, and where would I be.“

There was a scratch-out, then a blank line. Then: “I’m ashamed. Shame! Shame! I’m ashamed at myself in the mirror, ashamed of the marks on me, somehow. I’m ashamed of cowering naked on the floor trembling at what he would pick up to hit me again. He will kill me. I thought this time he would kill me, but he stopped and went downstairs and I heard him welcome the Skipper as if nothing had happened….”

Sally’s hands trembled and she almost dropped the diary she was reading. The words, “I’m ashamed. Shame. Shame.” Screamed out at her. She’d seen and heard a woman saying these same words into a cracked mirror in the dream she’d had when she’d fallen asleep in the rocking chair.

She gathered all the diaries and took them from the cramped attic, down a spiral back staircase to the kitchen of the Queen Anne, Pacific Victorian house where she’d been staying for the past week.

She proceeded to the parlor and the gingerbread desk where she’d laid other papers and mementos of the woman for whom this house had been built more than a century earlier. She put down the diaries after moving aside a stack of yellowed newspapers, with lurid headlines: “JENNY JURY: DAY 5!” “JENNY’S GOLD MYSTERY” and “JENNY MURDER TRIAL OPENS!”

It seemed now to Sally that the woman who wrote these diaries was everything that she had not been in her 45 years, a woman who had led a wild life, taking chances. Yet, she felt a profound kinship.

Journey of the Jenny M - a Ghost Story of the Far North

Part 1..  Fairbanks.
“You’re not going to make a tourist attraction out of me! Y’hear?” She heard the voice clearly, yet it came from no location in the attic.

Ignoring the taunt, Sally kept right on rummaging through the attic. She picked a tattered Bible from a box on the top shelf of a maple bookcase. But She didn’t open it, just looked out into the dust motes and shook her head.

“Ah ha. I saw that! Y’do hear me! This is my house.”

“Not so fast, sister. This is my house. I have the deed! And besides, you’re dead.”

A burst of derisive laughter made Sally almost jump. “Now you’re talkin’ to me. But I don’t exist. Remember?” The laughing voice said. “You must be going crazy.”

Sally hurled the bible across the room in the direction of the voice.

“Easy, there little girl”

Sally wiped her brow with the sleeve of her pale blue sweatshirt and shuddered from a chill at the same time. “I’m not listening to you. You’re a flashback from a bad trip.”

“How can I go away if I don’t exist? Don’t worry.”

“Go away. I don’t believe in an afterlife. I’m an atheist.”

“That’s okay. I’m an atheist myself…”

Sally smirked and shook her head. “Well, if you’re a ghost, you can’t be an atheist. You must be hear to haunt me or save me..”

“Niehter. I’m not here to save anything. But I do have my reasons. First, though, you need to show me a little respect due your kin.”

“You could be my great grandmother, but then you could be me cracking up. It happened once. I was very depressed, and I was suffering from jet lag. I was hearing voices then too, but I had no idea I had slipped into a an aggravated depressive psychosis. Now I do and I can stop this.”

“No you can’t because I’m real. Do you feel crazy? Are you acting crazy?”

“I’m stressed, exhausted. I’m all hallucinated because the 24-hour summer days up here in Fairbanks have messed with my sleep patterns. You don’t exist! Go away!”

“That’s not crazy. That’s just tired.”

“Okay, then: I’ll bite. If you’re real, give me a sign. What else can happen in my life right now that hasn’t already happened?”

“Look in that steamer trunk over there. You’ll find something I’m gonna tell you about now….”

Instead, Sally pulled a sheet off a high-backed, maple rocking chair and sat down to gather her thoughts. She rocked gently and lay her head back, tears in her eyes. She tilted the chair back and crooked an arm over her brow and face, and without intending it, dropped quicky into a brief restless sleep, swept with incomprehensible dreams.

(to be continued...)