Creative non-fiction / August 2008 (Issue 4)

Box of Rain

by David Braden

It's just a box of rain
I don’t know who put it there
Believe it if you need it
Or leave it if you dare
But it's just a box of rain
Or a ribbon for your hair
Such a long long time to be gone
And a short time to be there

Grateful Dead

Kodiak Alaska, 1976

I did not think I was real. My perception was sprayed onto the world with drugs and alcohol to give it substance, a sameness that felt reliable and allowed me a personable solidity, which I otherwise lacked. There was a danger that I might fall through. For me, the world was thin as paper. I envied and derided the stolid, thumping ease that others seem to feel while marching through it.

Since I'd graduated from high school a year late and left home, I had suffered from something I learned to call the "Big Empties". "Insecure" is for babies. This was a howling full throated storm that could blow me through walls, leave me staring back in horror at shreds of myself left like tire scrap on an empty highway, or hung up like a broken twig in the hair of some girl who thought she knew me. I learned to call it what it was, and I learned how to keep it away.

In Kodiak that summer, I was 26. I'd been in Alaska four years, had lived in Juno, Anchorage and Fairbanks. I'd spent the last year working on the pipeline under an assumed name in a trade for tax refunds. I took a guy's union number and name. He took the tax refund. I had 20,000 dollars in my pockets and felt embarrassingly rich.

I can see myself standing at the bar by the harbor on a warm sunny day, unusual because this is Kodiak Island, and it always rains. There are a few small scruffy boats belonging to independent salmon fishermen outside the small window near the bar. I knew some of them from Juneau and counted them as heroes for being as crazy as I was. Behind me, pine and baked-rock smell drifts in through a blaze of white light outside the open door. It's dark inside. I have long red/gold hair tied back in a ponytail, broad shoulders in an old faded-blue workshirt, jeans, workboots. There is nothing of me that isn't bone and muscle. I looked the part, could play it with a whiskey or two, but I did not think I was real.

And because there were friends of friends in the harbor and that last whiskey had geo-positioned me. I asked the barmaid if she knew a girl named Ion. With a name like that, blond hair, cornflower blue eyes and the figure she'd had 2 years earlier, I knew she'd have been noticed. I didn't have or need a last name. Yes, she worked at a restaurant up the hill behind me and would be on at 6.

That left me a few hours, so I switched to beer and went over to the pool table. I won a few, lost a few, playing for beer. I was thinking about the girl. I'd met her two summers earlier. I lived, then, in a tent full of used refrigerators and army surplus stuff, outside a second hand store called The Golden Fleece. I drove a cab for the owner, 12 hours on, 12 off. Her mother showed up with a lover 10 years younger than she was, Ion and her younger brother. They were part of the Rainbow Family, a nation of old time hippies divided into animal clans. I'd been to a couple of their gatherings and admired their inventiveness and optimism. They belonged to a shadow reality where I could almost feel real. They moved into the log cabin house on the property while the owner went to Florida. Ion was sixteen and I lived in a tent full of used refrigerators. I immediately fell in love.

Falling in love—light emblazoned, holy thing. I was younger than she was emotionally. This was also the summer that I gave up on time. I'd pawned the Rolex watch my father gave me two years earlier while hitch hiking out of another lost love to Alaska. The watch was symbolic.

I'd identified myself in open rebellion to my wealthy, politically connected, successful family since I was 15. I got the watch when I was 16, and it ticked on and on through all the years of failing in high school, all the LSD, cocaine, surfing, pot, and the year I spent traveling to India. The trip to India was because of the last great love, the one I'd used to leave home at 19 after graduating a year late from high school. She stayed with me for two years, then announced she was going to India and left. I saved money for a year and went off to find her.

I never made it to India. I spent a year traveling around Afghanistan, Turkey, the Greek islands and another year in France. I made money however I could, sometimes working, sometimes selling trinkets to tourists, sometimes smuggling drugs. I came home to a disastrous reunion with my family and left again for Alaska. The watch kept ticking, so I got rid of it.

But, of course, I felt guilty. It was all I had left of my counter identity. The Big Empties closed in. I didn't use so many drugs. Alcohol worked better. I finally atoned that summer by forsaking time altogether. I threw away the cheap watch I'd been using along with my alarm clock. I guessed, and because I was pathetically eager to prove to myself that I was good, I was usually an hour early to anyplace I had to be.

Yes, a working man aesthete in a tent full of refrigerators falling in love with a 16 year old girl at a second-hand store called the Golden Fleece. September came. It was cold. The owner was still gone. Mom was running the business and invited me in. We slept in three beds, shelves built out from the walls. Mom and son in one, Mom’s young lover in one, which left Ion and I in another.

Ion liked me. I was a source of information about other places and ideas. I'd read a lot. I could speak French. I gave her French lessons. There's nothing like pronunciation practice to give a girl a chance to watch the effect her lips, eyes, and tongue have on a man. Ion definitely enjoyed the effect on me. Her Mom just watched. She knew me better than I did. She was simply educating her daughter, taking a shrewdly calculated risk that we'd never get past some clandestine groping in a bed, surrounded by the rest of the family. She was right. A lot more matter of fact and cold blooded than I was.

But I couldn't take it. I was convinced of Ion's absolute innocent purity. I was meant to worship her light, to accomplish great deeds, fight battles on her behalf until, when she was a bit older, I won her. I wasn't proud of all the joy and muffled panting that my fingers caused, but my wanting shrieked like a hawk and called the Big Empties out of the peaks and the Northern Lights. So, I got drunk and climbed to the top of a huge construction crane, climbed out to the very end and hung by my knees. It made me shaky, but it worked; I came down all wriggled back into myself.

Mom saw. Mom had a talk with me, asked me what I wanted. Mom's answer in short answer—get out on the pipeline, and make some serious money. But I had a high number, could be another year before I made it. She told me money was an energy she understood, said she'd take care of it. So maybe she was a hippie from New Jersey, but sure enough, the very next week a guy showed up to make a deal. I became Leroy. I was gone, up to the North Slope a week later.

At the bar in Kodiak, time passed: click-clacking pool balls, beer smell, orange light as the evening came with a chill that blew in the sea. I was comfortably drunk, comfortable in my guy off the line persona. I traded the names of work camps, "Happy Valley", "Atigun", "Livengood", "Coldfoot", and made jokes about the electric toilets, the overtime, and the huge expense. The rain came, and not a beer too soon, I made my way up the hill to the restaurant and Ion.

I was early, not by an hour this time, even though two years later, I still didn't have a watch. The place was open and empty. I saw a table by the window overlooking the harbor and sat down. She walked in wearing a uniform, one of those faux farm girl, white aproned outfits. She saw me from across the room and walked towards me. She looked beautiful. But it wasn't the looks I was looking at. That was all there, more so at 18 than it had been at 16. It was the light in her. It seemed barely contained by her body. It broke out in her eyes most vividly but also in the way she walked and held her head. It shredded me when she sat down and smiled. Light in slivers of beautiful shining glass blew the skin off me as easily as it must have been for her to say, "Hi".

It is difficult to speak to a beautiful woman when one has no skin. There was nothing in me. My eyes slid down from hers to my shirt. I closed them for an instant. I saw the dead gray Salvador Dali plain where my nightmares begin and past that, underneath and squirming, a terrified scabbed over pinkness I recognized as—possibly, myself. The show made me angry, and anger held me together. So I sat still and played out my hand. Cold sweat clammy guy talking cool while he bets a hand he knows will cost him his life. Heard she was here, just stopped by, stay for a couple of days, on my way to everywhere, "When do you get off?". And she says a guy is taking care of her. He's older than me. He lives in a monastery. I can stay there, up the main road on the left. She'll call. She has to work. Drop bye again sometime. Smile. Bye.

People of the real variety are coming in. I get a different waitress. I order and push my food around. I'm amazed that every time I try to look at Ion, someone or something is in the way. I thought I was too old for her and some older guy, some monk is “taking care of her”. I eat a fork full of food, tip way too much and leave. By now I hate everything and everyone, so of course I'm going to deal with this monastery guy, save Ion whether she likes it or not. Don't care if she thanks me. Just deal with it and leave.

He's there, standing in the rain when I get there, invites me in for a cup of coffee. Never mind the movies, when you're soaking wet and cold, you can't start a fight with a guy who invites you in for a cup of coffee. He made coffee in a big industrial kitchen, told me the monks were gone and he was the caretaker. He opened the door, pointed to a room across the courtyard with a light on, told me it was mine. Said he had to go to bed and left.

Big, handsome, black hair and green eyes, not a monk. I was drunk and ready to cry, so instead, I went to bed. I woke up mad and went looking for him. He was an old guy, must have been 30! He was taking advantage of Ion! I found him in the kitchen making breakfast for me. Supercilious condescending asshole! I walked right up and breathed down his neck. He turned the stove off calmly, faced me, looked me up and down. "You're hungover and you smoke too much". He put a hand up before I could hit him. "Just wait," he said, "I've got something to show you." He took me through the kitchen to a back door into the gym.

He took his shoes off and pointed to a spot above the main doors to the gym. "See that spot?" Yeah, OK, I saw it, about seven feet up. What was he going to do next, did he expect me to paint the gym for room and board? No, he jumped up and kicked a hole through the wall where the spot had been. "I'm the caretaker; fixing that will give me something to do. One more thing." We went outside. He pointed to a small aspen, about 2 inches in diameter, a good 30 feet away. Then he picked up a rock between his toes and drilled the tree.

Right. Hangover was gone. I was alert. I was listening. "I take care of Ion. How I do that isn't really any of your business, is it? You can see her whenever you like, do whatever you like. I know you won't hurt her." Right. And it was Saturday, so I asked politely how to find her. He gave me her number; I called. She'd borrow a car, pick me up, wanted to show me a store her friend was selling.

And that was it. I get it now. But I didn't then. We went to the store. She was solicitous, beautiful, even took my arm and let me lead her up the stairs. Old hippie guy, very nice, moving on: "How much you got?” "20 grand". "Sell you the place and the stock for 15."

There was silence while I looked around, not empty—maybe filled with angels. Wind chimes tinkled. Light streamed through stained glass onto a bright rag rug at my feet, and these people were smiling, looking at me. I was stuck in my own throat. Bunch of beads and tie-dyed stuff. Me? No. “Oh, I'm sorry. I'd never be able to do this. Can't even count without using my fingers. Think about it? Sure”. She watched. I couldn't read her. I took the ferry back to the mainland on Monday morning, saw her Sunday night.

I remember the walk into town, the rain and the firs, everything quiet, clean and dark. I knew I'd lost some great thing, but I didn't understand how. I saw myself big-hearted, giving her up to another knight who'd won her fair and square. I felt pure, at ease, sober for the first time in weeks. We met at the restaurant. She'd told her boss, and we had dinner. I tried to make small talk. She didn't bother much. I tried to take her hand across the table. No response, a stupid backslide from purity that made me want to drink. I ordered a whiskey for desert and paid the dinner bill. She had to go. We stood, awkward hug. She stepped back, memorized me head to toe and gave me a box. It was ceder, chased in pewter with a silver shamrock on a hinged cover. It fit easily in my pocket. "Find your dream,” she said. "Good luck."

The whiskey was there on the table and I was half angry at loss and cliches. Her eyes were glistening when she smiled and turned to leave. I sat and drank my whiskey. But, I hung onto that box.

It stayed in my pocket and I rubbed it smooth and dark over the years. I never put anything in it, and it left me, got lost, when I understood and no longer needed it. I could have stayed, could have had her and the store. The guy, the "monk", was her guardian, probably a gift from Mom. At the restaurant, when Ion turned to go, she was smiling through tears. I know. But it wasn't my dream. It belonged to someone who thought he was real. Maybe Ion found and married him. I never saw her again. I left with a box of rain.

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