Robby Johnson sits at the bar drumming his fingers on a bottle of Bud. He’s been sitting in that same spot, two stools from the door, for the past two weeks. Since his dad and brother died. The only other person at the bar this early is Jimmy.
Every night Robby drinks himself right to the edge of poisoning. Trying to forget, I guess. Thing is, I’ve worked at this bar long enough to know that drunk men do a lot of remembering before they get to the forgetting. Why else do they cry, tell stories, and sing? It’s not until the next day, after the blackout, that the past, the present, the self is wiped out. They wake to a screaming hangover and their gummy eyes open to a new world. Nothing makes sense. Nothing. However briefly, nothing.
That is the nothing that Robby Johnson seeks at the Baranof Inn.
Have another one on the House.
“Hey Sal, honey, you know how to remember all the names of the Great Lakes?” Jimmy says and lights a cigarette. Jimmy is the only one that talks this early. Back in the ‘70s, he worked on the Alaska pipeline and the long summer days left their mark on his leathery face. If anyone else called me ‘honey,’ I’d spit in their beer. But Jimmy’s sort of like a grandpa—a loquacious, alcoholic grandpa.
“Oh yeah, Jimmy, how’s that?”
“Homes, huh?” I glance at Robby, but he’s still having a stare down with his bottle. He’s wearing a flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up. The skin of his hands is darker than his forearms. To Jimmy I say, “I always forget about Lake Ontario. That’s a good trick.” I look at the clock. “News’s ‘bout to start.” I picked up the remote and aim it at the small TV over the bar.
“About that Lake Ontario…”
“Hush, Jimmy. The news.” Loquacious was a recent crossword puzzle word in the Empire and is perfect to describe an old duffer who don’t ever shut up.
And that’s the routine. The three o’clock news plays on the TV above the bar everyday—well, it does when I work. Today the news anchor, all teased and hairsprayed, reports on the trial of a kid who bombed a busy shopping mall, killing a couple of young children.
“Why do they even waste money on a trial for that guy? Just execute him and get it done with.” I shake my head, and glance at Robby. He is not watching the TV. He just stares at the label on his beer and keeps tapping his fingers—tap tap tap—against the now empty bottle. What’s he thinking about? Robby won’t start talking until at least six drinks are inside him.
Last week, around closing time, I was flipping up the chairs and Robby voiced his thoughts on time. His words did not slur, but his drunken voice would go loud and quiet, like the tide. Time moves in one direction, he told me, and he’s always known this. There’s no such thing as time travel, but time can be a funny, slippery thing. I asked him to explain. I thought he might talk about the accident, but instead he started on about his grandmother. Robby was wrecked drunk and maybe the story would have no punchline, but a bartender knows how to listen. He told me his grandma never wore make up when she was alive. But there she was in the casket, all cold and waxy with her cheeks smeared with rouge, lips painted pink, face covered in powder like a nightclub singer. It made him sick. At least the mortician got the perfume right. Over the years, he forgot the exact sound of her voice and even the word she used to describe hot flapjacks. Toasty? Steamy? And he never did know her favorite song. Why didn’t he ever ask? The closest he ever got to time travel was when a woman on the ferry wore the same perfume and for a moment he felt his grandmother. He knows why people say ghosts leave a scent.
It had to have been long past midnight when Robby finally stumbled out to wherever he slept that night. I don’t worry too much about how he finds his way when he leaves the bar because in the summer it never gets dark here—the sun only hovers below the horizon for a few hours before climbing back into the sky. Summer nights are just a brief, blue twilight.
Jimmy notices me looking at Robby and bobs his head to catch my attention. He never tips much, but he hates it when he thinks I’m ignoring him.
I change the channel to ESPN since the Mets were going to be on in half an hour. See, I grew up in Queens—I follow the Mets and the Rangers. Not like Alaska has any real sports teams anyway. And forget the Mariners.
“Hey Sal. Get the young man here a drink on me.” Since the accident, Robby hasn’t paid a dime for food or drink. Mostly drink.
“Jimmy here offered to get you another beer. What’ll you have?”
“Bud’s fine.” I barely can hear Robby over the sound of the Mets starting lineup being announced.
“You sure? Jimmy’s a tightfisted little bastard—this might be the only time he’s gonna get anyone a drink. We got Frontier Ale on tap.”
“Bud’s fine.” Robby looks at his hands, “Tell Jimmy thanks for me, will you Sally?” A lot of people think Sal is short for Sally. But it’s not like I really want people to know that my name is Salvadora—my Dad really loved Dali and those paintings of melting clocks. Time is a slippery thing.
Robby never talks about what happened that day.
But everyone knows. Robby was out fishing with his father and brother. His father and brother dug up a bunch of steamer clams and ate buckets of the things. But Robby hates shellfish, so he ate something else. Fishermen eat a lot of ramen, I’m told. They add water to the noodles and cook it in a ziplock with their body heat while they work.
His father and brother had always been bigger drinkers than Robby, if you can believe that, so maybe he thought they were just drunk at first.
I read about red tide on the Internet. I like to be educated about things. When clams filter a certain type of algae out of the water, a toxin builds up. You can’t destroy the toxin by cooking it. If you eat enough of it, you get some tingling around your mouth, maybe even numbness. If you eat a load of it, the numbness spreads to your arms and legs, your speech gets all jumbled up, the balance goes. You vomit. It can look a lot like extreme inebriation, I read. Ultimately, if you eat enough of it, you stop breathing.
What does that do to a person to be that helpless, hours away from any sort of hospital, while your brother and father lay on the deck of the boat, gasping for breath? Dying.
I think about this as I hand Robby his sixth beer. The Mets are losing.
I also think about my own big events, like my father dying or when I finally left my husband. I could be vacuuming or doing the dishes, and then suddenly I would be hit by the notion that something had happened and nothing would be the same. That my future was sharply cut off from my past. I’d breathe in, like coming up from being underwater for too long, you know? And the air would fill my lungs like they were gonna burst.
What does Robby Johnson’s grief feel like? Does he feel like drowning?
After the game, the bar has a few more people in it. This is not one of those gastropubs with a long menu. We only serve nuts, but you can order pizza from next-door. A large man with dark hairs curling up from under the collar of his T-shirt orders a pizza but only eats half of it before taking off. I hand a slice to Robby. He thanks me and takes a bite.
No one is ordering anything and people are starting to leave, so I set up my stool on the other side of the bar from Robby. I hope he feels like talking to me.
“Sal, you ever been on the water at dawn?”
“What, like on a boat?”
“Or on the shore.”
“Yeah, of course I have. Why?” I sneak a little of the house rye—I need to take the edge off my sobriety to follow Robby’s train of thought.
“I saw a harbor seal at dawn. Just staring at me from the water.” Robby drums his fingers on his bottle then looks up at me. His eyes are brown and round under heavy eyebrows and there’s a deep wrinkle between them. I wonder if that crease is new. I also wonder when the last time Robby was up at dawn, rather than passed out in a puddle of drool or vomit. Maybe on that day he hadn’t passed out yet. I don’t really know what to say, so I knock back the whiskey and pour a splash for Robby. “It was alone,” he says, “they’re loners.”
“I can relate to that.” And I could. My piece-of-shit ex—the one I came to Alaska with—was long gone.
“But then it wasn’t alone anymore. Another swam a few yards off from it.”
“Well, I guess they gotta hook up sometime.”
“It wasn’t their mating season.” He meets my eye again. “They were like spirits.”
I can’t stop myself from sharply inhaling. I realize what he’s saying. “Robby, why don’t you get out of here? Get out of Alaska.” I touch his hand. “Just get out of here.”
If this were a different story, Robby would not have finished three more drinks and stumbled out of the bar at closing time. Instead, I’d have invited him to my place, and we’d have the perfect night of secret sharing and sweaty sex. He’d cry against my chest and I would run my fingers through his hair. He would heal and I would heal. We’d make a baby and have a beautiful life.
But this is not that story.
I wipe up the spilled beer and melted ice from the bar.
Robby doesn’t show up the next day. I open the door at two, and the regulars, Jimmy and Mario, show up to squat at the bar for the best views of the TV. We watch the news. But come late afternoon, the latest Robby would normally have ever arrived to take up his spot, his seat is still empty. Robby never shows.
I like to imagine that when Robby stumbled out that night, he walked out to the mudflats and straight into the arctic cold water. I like to think the water lapped at his knees as he paused for a moment and lifted his face to feel the wind and inhale the smell of the sea. I can imagine how the kelp felt rolling into his thighs. But he was heavy and Robby Johnson would not float in the saltwater. Robby walked and walked until the water came to his neck, and then Robby took a deep breath and kept walking. He walked until the water washed over his mouth, nose, eyes. It filled his ears and he could hear the sound of waves lapping on a ship’s hull, the sound of fish skittling through the water. The tide pushed around stones and sand and broke against the shore. And when Robby reached the drop off where the continent ends and the open vast expanse of ocean begins, this is where I like to think Robby became a seal—weightless and fast and supple. Light. And in the ocean Robby finds silence and peace.
This’s what I think about when I walk to the edge of the sea and notice the big black eyes of a harbor seal staring back at me, like it’s been looking at me forever.