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.”
“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)….
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? “
“I don’t care if you did. He had it coming.”