An animal trainer
“Don’t eat that!”
Living on Dreams
By Victoria Steik
“Don’t eat that!” she screamed.
He jerked with surprise and dropped the plump, beautiful glazed donut midway between plate and mouth. Luckily it landed on the kitchen counter undamaged.
“Geez, Ruthie,” he said. “It’s just a freakin’ donut. There’s a whole platter full of them.”
“Yeah, I know, I spent all morning making them for us to take to the potluck at Sockeye Sam’s. Tonight’s the Harvest Moon Dance, and you’re taking the prettiest girl in town.” She said, grinning at him with a sexy sidelong glance.
“Oh? What time am I supposed to pick up Angelina Stritchkoff?” he said.
“Jake Cooper, you are a silly old Alaskan fisherman and the meanest man in town,” she said as she ran at him in mock anger. “Just for that, no more donuts for you.”
“Aw, baby,” he said, throwing his strong, hardworking arms around her and squeezing both cheeks of her ample behind, “You know I just love your donuts.”
She squealed with laughter, “Get away from me you animal.”
“Yeah, your mama told you thirty years ago on our wedding day that she’d taught you all the things you needed to know about being a wife, but if she’d known who you were going to marry, she’d have taught you more about how to be an animal trainer,” Jake said.
“She did not! It was Brother Harry who asked me why I decided to marry a big ape like Jake Cooper.”
With that, he growled like a grizzly bear and pulled her close. He danced her around the kitchen, nibbling on her soft white neck, just below her little gold hoop earrings. She giggled like a teenager as he twirled her around the kitchen floor until they both were breathless.
As they neared the kitchen table, he pulled out his captain’s chair at the head of the table, flopped down into it and snuggled Ruthie up on his lap.
When the laughter stopped and they had caught their breath, Ruthie said, “Did you get everything on the boat finished up so we can cover it up for the winter?”
He sighed, “Well I got the nets all stretched out to dry good. The boat is in its spot and all braced up. There was still some slime and scales on the deck and a little on the hull that I need to get scrubbed off. That’s about it.”
“Did you give Derek and Jimmy Moses their crew share checks?” she asked.
“Yep. They did alright, considering the season we had. The fish were there, plenty of fish, but resource management held us back until most of the run had already passed through. Jimmy Moses has been a deck hand since he was twelve. He knows that fishing is a gamble and every year is different. Derek’s just a college kid from Seattle who watches too much reality TV. He came up here thinking he’d work a couple of months this summer and go home with fifty grand in his pocket, even though he’s a total greenhorn. He was not very happy with his share, acting like I cheated him or something. Fact is he wasn’t worth the money he did get.”
“Are we going to have anything left after the bills are paid?” she asked, her voice taking a serious tone.
“I hope so. Don’t worry baby, Daddy’s never let you down yet. If I have to, I can spend another winter on the ice roads to get us through.”
“I hate to have you gone so much in the winter. Now that the boys are married and have their own families to take care of, I won’t have any help to bring in wood or plow the road,” she said.
“We’ll figure something out. No need to worry yet. Now I have got to go get a shower and put on my fancy clothes. I’m taking the prettiest girl in town to the dance,” he said with a flirty twinkle in his eye.
“Sounds like a great idea. You smell like you just walked off the slime line. And those extra tuffs, boy put those boots out on the porch until you can give them a good going over with the hose,” she said.
“Darlin’, I know I’ve told you a million times, that is the smell of money in this household,” he said with a grin.
“Plenty of smell, but not much money,” was her reply. “Be sure to put on your Tony Lamas. You can cut a pretty fine rug in those boots. And I’m in the mood for dancing.”
“In the mood for dancing? I was hoping you’d be in the mood for something a little more serious,” he teased.
“Oh, I’m pretty sure that mood will come along . . . after the dancing.”
As they walked down the steps and across the yard, Ruthie said, “I am not riding in that dirty old pickup in my nice clothes. We’ll go in the Subaru.”
“Honey, nothing against the Subaru, I know it’s your baby, but I feel like a sardine riding in that little thing,” Jake said.
She gave him a glare that clearly said he was not going to win this debate.
“Okay, okay, Madame, your chariot awaits,” he replied complete with a courtly bow.
She handed him the platter of doughnuts, settled herself in the passenger seat, and took the platter to carry gently on her lap for the bumpy ride down the gravel road to Sockeye Sam’s Bar and Restaurant.
Sockeye Sam’s was the only building in the tiny fishing village large enough for a community party. The Harvest Moon Dance was a seasonal tradition in St. Peter’s Mission, almost on par with Thanksgiving or Christmas. Around the first weekend in September, after the last of the silver salmon had been delivered to the cannery and the checks were delivered to the fishermen for their season’s catch, the community gathered to celebrate the finish of another season of hard work.
“It seems kind of stupid to me that they call this the Harvest Moon Dance,” Jake said. “What harvest? There isn’t a cornfield in a thousand miles of this place.”
“You harvest the fish from the sea, don’t you?” Ruthie explained.
“Yeah, but that’s different.”
“Well, anyway, it’s the Harvest Moon Dance. The Harvest Moon is always in September,” she said.
“It is fun to catch up with everyone you haven’t seen all summer because you’ve been on the water. Some of those old guys, they can really come up with some whopper fish stories. Those stories and a couple of Alaska Ambers and there’s nothing but smiles all around,” he said.
“And don’t forget the dancing, and all the great free food that the ladies bring for the potluck,” Ruthie said.
“Oh, yeah, salmon forty nine different ways.”
“Yep, but every way tastes great. It’s amazing how the same group of ladies is always trying to find some new recipe to impress everyone else,” Ruthie said. “But I think that’s great because it gives me new ideas for what’s for dinner.”
St Peter’s Mission started out as a protected inlet from the wicked storms of Bristol Bay during the fur trader days. Sockeye Sam’s was a historic building in this little village of 450 people spread out over a wide area. The low-slung log structure was built as a trading post where local trappers could bring their furs to trade for goods or, when the trading ships came in they could sell the hides to the big trading companies. After the fur trading played out, the trading post remained to supply local Natives, Russian settlers and other adventurers who fell in love with the beauty of the Alaskan coast.
Bright neon beer signs glowed in every window as Jake and Ruthie pulled into the gravel parking lot, cars crowded in this way and that. The sun was headed to the west, but it was only seven in the evening and there was still a good two hours before dusk. As they stepped into the long dimly lit room, the juke box was playing everyone’s favorite, Johnny Horton’s “North to Alaska”. Rows of chairs and tables with checked table cloths stretch all the way to the dance floor at the far end of the room. Placed end to end against the wall the potluck tables were quickly filling up as the ladies arranged the food, finger food and appetizers first, then salads and main dishes and finally desserts. Ruthie ceremoniously carried the platter of golden donuts through the mayhem of running squealing children, chattering gossipy women and the jukebox booming out “way up north, way up north.” She placed her tray of jewels, like a tower of riches, right in the center of the dessert table. She stepped back and was nearly run over by a gaggle of grade schoolers shouting to their mothers, “Mama, Ruthie brought donuts! Can we have one? Please, please, please?”
Ruthie turned away from the tables and looked around the room, trying to spot Jake. The chairs were filling up as people took seats near their friends and neighbors, all readying for a feast and happy celebration. Ruthie seated herself next to Jake just as the juke box went dark and Father Simeon from St. Peter’s Russian Orthodox Church stood to bless the food. He prayed for God to bless the food, he thanked God for the safe return from the fishing grounds of all the fishermen there with them. He asked God to receive and remember the souls of the father and two sons whose lives were lost when their boat capsized in heavy seas in a late spring storm in April. His last request was to ask God to bless and protect all of the residents of this village named for the Holy Fisherman, St. Peter. He had barely said the “Amen”, when the children were bolting to the food tables to load their plates.
The adults formed a long orderly line, knowing that there was an abundance of food and that no one would leave the place hungry. As they waited, friends shared the news of their families, when the new grandchild should arrive, what college their oldest was headed to, which daughter was planning a spring wedding. Wind tanned old fishermen and their plump wives chatted with their neighbors about their experiences in this year’s fishing season and when they think the first snow will come. Skinny, young girls in tight jeans and lipstick made eyes at their favorite fellas. The guys pretended to talk about when they were heading out to moose camp to help their dads bring in meat for the winter, but their real attention was focused on the aforementioned tight jeans.
Eventually, all were settled at tables enjoying good food and great camaraderie. Old men and bachelors, old maids and widows, children and grandparents smiled and laughed together. Within an hour or so dinner was over, the tables were cleared and all the donuts were gone. The parents with little ones began collecting their respective broods, loading them into vehicles and heading off for home and bed.
As the crowd diminished to about half of what it had been, the live band began tuning up for the “dance” segment of the party. The band consisted of two or three fiddles, two guitars, an accordion and a drummer. Their repertoire was an eclectic mix of what can only be called “Alaska Bush music”. It sounds much like Cajun music or even bluegrass with its own tundra twang. The bar was open now and the crowd became more enthusiastic as each song played by.
Jake stepped up to the bar. “Hey Nate,” he called, “I need another Alaskan Amber.”
Nate set the beer in front of Jake. “Are you driving tonight Jake?” He asked, having served Jake several brews.
“Oh, hell no,” he replied, “Ruthie’s my designated driver. She’ll get me home safe, we brought the Subaru. Thanks for asking, Buddy.”
Jake turned to walk back to the table. A jostle in the crowd around the bar pushed Jake off balance in his unfamiliar cowboy boots and sent him crashing into a couple of unlucky bystanders, throwing them off their feet and all three ended up knocking over a table sending glasses, beer and patrons every which way. Humiliated, Jake quickly got to his feet and reached out to help those who were down, all the while apologizing for the accident. As he raised one fellow up, the guy was cussing him out, “Geesus, I just spent four dollars for that beer.”
Jake looked up at the sound of a familiar voice. It was Derek, the disgruntled deckhand.
“I should have known it would be you,” Derek went on when he saw that Jake was the offender. “You work me like a dog all summer, pay me shit wages and now you purposely attack me in the bar. What is it with you?”
“Derek, calm down buddy, I’m really sorry. It was an accident. Here let me get you another beer.” Jake apologized.
“An accident, my ass! You’re just trying to make me look like a fool. I’m gonna punch your lights out!” And with that, Derek was swinging roundhouse punches every direction, fortunately not connecting with any of them. It was clear Derek had a few too many drinks as well. A couple of burly fishermen standing nearby grabbed the deckhand, pinned his flailing arms to his sides and escorted him out the door.
Jake stepped up to the bar and said, “Nate, I am so sorry. It was these fancy damn boots. These number twelves don’t know what to do without their extra tuffs. Set up these folks that lost their drinks and put it on my tab. Now I’m going to sit by Ruthie and keep myself out of trouble for the rest of the night. I promise.”
Jake made his way back to Ruthie. She looked up and said, “What was all that ruckus about?”
Jake lowered his eyes, put his hands behind his back and looked just like a little boy who has been sent to the principal’s office. Painfully he explained what had happened. “I swear it was all the fault of these fancy boots you made me wear. I should have kept my fishing boots on. I know you wanted to dance, but I don’t dare do that in these things.”
Ruthie reached up and patted his arm. “Oh sweetheart, I’m so sorry,” she said gently. “I guess you’re just going to have to dance in your stocking feet, because you are going to dance with me tonight!”
Both of them burst out laughing. Jake slid off the offending boots, reached out for Ruthie’s hand and escorted her onto the dance floor. They did the waltz and the polka and the Cotton Eyed Joe until midnight.
Ruthie looked out the window, leaned over to Jake and said,”Wow, it’s dark outside. We haven’t been out this late in a long time. I guess I better get this wild animal home. Lord knows we are not the night owl type. We better get home before I can’t find the way there.”
Jake smiled and said,”Darlin’ I’d go anywhere with you.”
Boots in one hand, doughnut platter in the other, Jake followed Ruthie to the Subaru. They settled in and Ruthie began the drive back to their happy little home.
In just minutes, she could hear his deep breathing and she knew he was sleeping. She drove cautiously through the dark being mindful that moose, bears, rabbits and squirrels could dart out in front of her at any moment. Her eyes were fixed on the end of her headlights beam. As she turned onto the road that lead to their driveway, she relaxed and looked up toward the treetops. She was startled to see an orange glow reflected off the low ceiling of clouds.
“Jake,” she said, “Jake, Jake, wake up!”
She grabbed his arm. His eyes snapped open. “What is it? A Moose?”
“No,” she cried, “Look at the clouds.”
He looked up and then back at her. “Fire,” he said, just as she passed the row of tall spruce and turned into the driveway.
Their eyes were assaulted by an inferno. Their boat was engulfed in flames. Jake’s workshop off to the left was burning and the wall of their house nearest to the boat was blazing as well.
“I’m getting out. You stay in the car. Back it out into the yard as far away from the fire as you can and then call 911. I know there are volunteers on call tonight,” he said.
“No, don’t go near the house,” she said.
“I’ll try to get to the hose. Maybe I can spray that wall. Now, move this car,” he said as he jumped out and slammed the door.
She put the car in gear, drove over the lawn to the furthest point from the fire and then dialed 911 on her cell phone.
She explained the situation to the dispatcher and gave her their address. She stayed on the line, heard the call out alarms and the dispatcher say, “Boat and structure fire at Mile 1.3 Caribou Rd. All available personnel and engines please respond.”
Ruthie looked up toward the house. She could see Jake running away from the front of the house, extra tuffs in hand. Suddenly, fire exploded from inside the house, blowing out the front widows and separating the front door from its hinges. The blast knocked Jake to the ground, but in an instant he was back on his feet, still carrying the boots, and heading directly for the car.
“There’s nothing we can do.,” he said as he jumped into the car. “We need to get farther away. Pull out onto the road and put on the emergency flashers to direct the firefighters this way.”
He knew that the firefighters would find the place; he just wanted to get Ruthie away from the fire. He didn’t want her to watch everything they had worked for over the past thirty years go up in smoke.
The fire crews arrived within minutes, but the boat and the shed were completely consumed. Only one back corner of the house remained standing. As soon as the flames were extinguished, the Fire Chief and the State Troopers began investigating the scene.
The Fire Chief walked over to the car to check on Jake and Ruthie as the sky began to get lighter just above the horizon.
“Jake, are you and Ruthie sure you’re not hurt?” he asked. They shook their heads in reply.
“There is really nothing more you can do here. Do you have a place to go?”
“Oh, yeah,” Jake said, “our boy, Mark and his wife want us to stay at their house until we get things figured out with the insurance.”
“Our investigation is still ongoing,” said the Chief. “We’re certain that the cause was arson. There was clear evidence that accelerants were used. We have a pretty good idea who the arsonist was. We found a wallet on the lawn behind the house. The driver’s license inside belongs to Derek Kincaid. We’ll contact you in the next few days and let you know what the preliminary reports say.”
”Thanks, Chief,” Jake said.
“Well, Darlin’,” he said, “Shall we drive over to Mark’s and try to get some sleep?”
“Oh, Jake,” she replied, “I don’t think I can sleep. What are we going to do? Everything is gone. We can’t just live on dreams.”
“Ruthie, thirty years ago when I took you for my wife all we had was dreams and we went a long way on them. We can do it again.’
He gave her his grizzly bear growl, a kiss on the cheek and put the Subaru in gear on their way to forever.
© 2013 Victoria Steik