A moment comes at night in snow-swept Ketchikan when you see the sickness of your lineage. The mountains slowly crowd you into the bay, and the evergreens stop keeping your secrets. I walked among the greened, weather-treated planks of Creek Street, once a red-light district, in hopes of finding some welcome, but the wharf was deserted and dark. The sickness was as clear to me as the sound of Ketchikan Creek below my feet: a part of me had always been draining, unraveling seaward; my skin had been falling away like ash, but I could think of no cure.
I knew from forbidden stories that my uncle Lanei came to the old red-light on Creek Street several nights before he left Alaska to get married. Maybe he stood where I now stood, lilting half drunk with the roar and call of the wood-plank street spanning before him, longing to be drawn into the past—only to find the lure of booze and perfume. I stood on Creek Street straining to hear the past in the darkened shops and lightless windows, wondering if the reflection I saw there was my own or my uncle’s. I heard only the creek and the rusty scrape of shop signs moving with the wind above every entrance.
But Lanei was different, quite possibly the handsomest man in Alaska. They kicked him out of the village of Klawock for being so handsome. Yes, and he was sent to Chemawa Indian boarding school at age twelve and when he returned to Klawock six years later he was so damn handsome he didn’t fit in. And he had taken to wearing suits. Strolling down the wooden planks of the only street in Klawock, he stood out among his cousins who were all wearing denim overalls and rubber boots. I have a picture of him in a suit among longhouses, drying salmon, old women in blankets, and canoes pulled onto the beach.
My great-uncle Bob had built a movie house at Klawock so the Tlingits knew that only characters like Douglas Fairbanks wore suits. Lanei was the Douglas Fairbanks of Klawock for a time, but a more handsome version. Even blind old Jumbo McFee, the eldest elder of the village, thought he was getting too damned handsome for his own good. And when Lanei announced his intention to marry a white woman he’d met in Portland, the Klawock girls refused to have such a good looking traitor among them. With studied and calculated indifference, they made sure Lanei knew he was being ignored. So he went to live with grandma Jo in Ketchikan, just off Tongass Avenue on 2 nd street where the Baptist church now stands. For several weeks at least he became the most handsome man in Ketchikan, then he left Alaska and never came back. What lured him to Creek Street that night, just days before he was to be married? Like me, did the past draw him there?
Creek Street . Shit, how’d he get here? Lanei tried to remember the events of the evening and could only recall beginnings: the celebration of his leaving for Portland; meeting a few odd Tlingits and Haidas, and Carl—the only white of the bunch—at a beer parlor downtown; Lanei remembered the first round of beers, the first round of wine, and the first round of whiskey. He also remembered a group of white men yelling at his friend Carl wondering what he was doing with a bunch of stinking siwashes. Then that damn Carl started laying people out. Carl, a professional boxer, had irritable bowels, a temper, and a belly full of beer. He was the best brawler Lanei had ever seen, and Lanei always felt safe in white beer parlors if Carl was around.
Lanei remembered Carl telling him, “Drop your right foot back, Lanei, lower you center of gravity and watch to see which hand he’ll throw—chances are in a bar fight they’ll use their strong hand. Shit, block with your left forearm and step in with your right foot and plant your right hand into his jaw!” Lanei didn’t like fighting, though, and was wakened to the immediacy of the present by a voice.
“You okay?” Lanei noticed he was standing before the entryway of #5 Creek Street, snow gathering on the collar and shoulders of his wool, three-button suit. Alcohol-confused, he stared blankly at the lit entryway. “You’re bleeding there.” Lanei stepped into the entryway and shut the door behind him. A middle aged woman stood back from him and scowled, “You look like shit, chief. You been fighting?”
“I just need to get warm for a minute,” Lanei said. Where the hell was Carl? And the other Tlingits? Shit, the Haidas could be anywhere. Lanei brought out a tobacco pouch and papers from his suit pocket.
“I’ll get you a towel for your forehead, but then you’ll have to come in or get out—we can’t have you sitting out here.” The woman disappeared behind a heavy curtain that separated the entryway from a large room. Briefly, smoke, perfume, and booze-smell wafted out with a flood of voices as the woman lifted the curtain. Through the small opening in the curtain Lanei could only see legs underneath a thick cloud of smoke.
The woman reentered and handed him a towel that smelled of sour beer. Lanei wiped the blood from his face and the woman said, “You ought to stay out of fights. You’re not a bad looking guy when you clean up. Come in and have a drink.” Lanei followed her through the curtain and was hit by a flush of warm air and laughter. “Take a seat anywhere, but first I need to see if you got money. Nothing personal, you know, it’s just that we get a lot of stiffs around here.”
Money. Hell, Lanei couldn’t remember if he’d spent it all or not. He didn’t even know what he was doing here. He reached inside his suit coat for his wallet and found nearly one hundred dollars. Where the hell did that come from? He showed it to the woman and her eyes glowed warmly. “Well, now, you here to drink or fuck?” Lanei was taken back by her bluntness. “Of course you can do both, but the girls are busy now and there’s quite a line-up yet. We actually got damn near a dozen girls. Hell, we’re the only house with more than three girls.” She grabbed Lanei’s elbow and whispered, “The law says it ain’t legal to have more than two or three, but you see that big fella over there—he’s the goddamn sheriff, you understand? ” Lanei didn’t look.
“Could I get whiskey?” he asked.
“Sure thing. One shot…”
“No, the whole bottle.” He handed her ten dollars.
“Crazy siwashes.” She laughed and shook her head.
“I’m Tlingit.” But she didn’t hear.
Lanei had been in Creek Street brothels before, but only to buy a quart of whiskey or cheap rye, and he never stayed long, never at this hour. After a couple quick shots of bad whiskey his eyes acclimated, the smoke thinned, his head stopped spinning and the room slowly came into focus. It was a wooden room, unpainted, planked and raftered, rough-hewn logs for posts and grimed windows, and a banistered staircase that led to the rooms upstairs. A dozen or so white men sat at various heavy, wooden tables, an Indian hunched at the long oak bar spitting discretely into a cuspidor beneath him, and several long-haired women in soiled dresses flitted about like apparitions, leading men up and down the stairs.
An old stove burned, smoke-dim but warm, in the back of the room. It was made from an old blackened barrel fitted with legs and a charred smoke shaft. Several women sat around it laughing lightly with whiskey and tea. They were smoky attractive, and he imagined going upstairs with one of them; he imagined the smell of a dress yellowed with smoke, and how it would make him feel to remove the dress and soft underwear, and how the skin would taste on his tongue. A tinge of shame broke through the whiskey, so he drank another glass.
He first saw her feet, they were moccasined, then her legs through the smoke, then the dirty hem of her dress around her knees, then the rest of her, languid, coming down the stairs. She looked vaguely familiar, but that was probably because, he realized, she was Indian. He felt a definite attraction to her, a clannish feeling. He made a vague motion to her with his whiskey glass—hell, he didn’t know how to call a prostitute—and she came to him and, smiling faintly, remained standing. What the hell do you say to a hooker? he thought. He would try it in the old tongue, the forbidden tongue so looked down upon. If she were Haida she’d simply smile and say I don’t understand, but if she were Tlingit? As he spoke, he felt the tingle of the Chemawa headmaster’s belt on his back. Quietly, he asked:
“Waa sa iduwasaakw?” Her eyes opened wi th recognition and warmth. She grabbed his hand and sat down close.
“Kaatxa yoo xat duwasaakw.” She leaned closer smelling of smoke, ashy. “Daakw wa naakw sa isitee?” she asked.
“Ch’aak’ aya xat.” Lanei replied. She frowned slightly, a conscious memory of an old tribal marriage law, but soon regained her warmth.
“Ch’aak’ naakw yei xat yatee,” she said and Lanei understood why the shadow had crossed her face.
What the hell could he do? Did those old laws take into account the new ways Tlingits were forced into despair and poverty? Shit, a hundred years ago, in his grandparent’s time, he wouldn’t even be here; nor the bar, nor the whores, nor the whole damn building or Creek Street. Shit, a hundred years ago the damn whites wouldn’t be around with their booze and cruelty, their savage hatred and lust for all things Indian. And he and Kaatxa would be in their own villages where they belonged, not in a whore’s dirty dress or a ridiculous suit, drunk, lonely. What the hell had happened and where did it all go? And fuck if he wasn’t allowed in Ketchikan buildings because he was Indian, and fuck if he had to sit in the Indian section of theaters, and fuck if he had to be worrying all the time about white men who’d kill him just because he was here before and they didn’t understand anything except money. And fuck if the whites had renamed everything and now he too spoke that renaming language, a language built on destruction and forgetting.
“Waa sa iduwasaakw?” Kaatxa asked.
“Bryant,’ he said, not wanting to give his Indian name to a common whore. Kaatxa sensed this and continued slightly colder in English. “You look lost. You sure you in the right place?”
“I was cold.” He poured ano ther whiskey. “Cold and a little confused about how I ended up down here.”
Kaatxa looked at him compassionately. A li the sadness warmed her. She hadn’t spoken Tlingit since she left Kake and came here. Though it had been a long time, the language came through her bones, her skin remembered it. “It’s late and I was finished for the night, but since you’re a cousin I could stay a bit longer.” Kaatxa reached for the whiskey, nearly half gone, and drank straight from the bottle.
“I should go home tonight,” Lanei said. He’d forgotten about Carl and the others. They were probably at home now. His grandmother would be worried to death. “My grandmother’s gonna get a new house. She has to move because the damn church wants to build an new place of worship right where she’s living.”
“Ei ther way,” Kaatxa said. “I got my own room upstairs—no, I see your look—it is not the room I do this in,” she waved her hand across the room and its occupants. “You could come up, stay the night with me, keep warm, less confusion, and speak to me again in the old way—it’s been so long. We could retell those old stories.” Lanei lit the cigarette he’d been rolling, and Kaatxa guided his hand to her mouth and inhaled deeply. Ashes alit on her dress. “Who knows, we could’ve been different.” She saw the puzzled look in his eyes. “Married, I mean, if things were different.”
“If it weren’t for the whites, you mean,” he said aloud, and a few of the men nearby glared at him. He took the bottle to his mouth and leveled its bottom towards the ceiling.
“Come with me,” Kaatxa said.
“Hey,” the proprietress yelled. “You’re done. You don’t have to take him upstairs.”
“I know,” Kaatxa said.
The moon is like remembrance on her skin, Lanei thought. There was a story in that moonlight, but Lanei was too drunk to recall. The prophylactic she gave him was flimsy and hard to keep on. She told him to use the condom because she wasn’t quite sure. But he couldn’t stand it and he let it slide. Afterwards, she sang in those soft tones, harsh and beautiful, of the Tlingit song. He fell asleep to the sound of Ketchikan creek several stories below, but she stayed awake repeating again and again those Tlingit words. Every so often Lanei would wake and answer her in the old tongue. Both lay naked, communal under a black and red wool blanket warmed by the smoky perspiration of her skin. The morning lightened slightly, snow-filled, as the first Spring Chinook began entering the mouth of Ketchikan creek.
But I never met Lanei, and he died of syphilis long before I was born. My grandmo ther told me that a series of strokes had left him half paralyzed. He spent his remaining days constantly gripping and releasing a tennis ball, trying to work life back into that dead side, smiling with only half his face. The thought of Lanei’s dead side brought me back to the present, standing in front of a closed store on Creek Street looking at a darkened window, trying to find my uncle’s reflection behind my own. I turned my back to the river and walked down the avenue toward the sea.
About the author:
Caskey Russell is originally from Seattle, Washington. He is an enrolled member of the Tlingit tribe of Alaska. He currently lives in Laramie, Wyoming with his wife and son, and he is trying to find a good home for his first novel.
© 2011 Word Riot