I took the Top of the World Highway till it turned into the Taylor Highway till it turned into Chicken, an Alaskan town of about fifteen people; dad was one of them. Two campgrounds pulsed with floaters in the summers. Round cedar planters filled with butterfly weeds, catchfly, and marigold sat outside the liquor store. Me and the town dog, Captain, a three-legged mutt they’d found at the airport, sat at a picnic table. RVs started pulling in, all white, all filthy. The Chickenites milled about, starting their mornings with cut-rate spirits.
There was Chuck Baker who shot guns at people’s cars if they parked on or too close to his property. He was always certain someone was going to come along and steal his generator. He had welded the body of a frost-blue 1967 GMC K1500 onto the treads of a salvaged army tank and parked it out to rust by the mouth of his land. The previous summer, a traveler who had tried to sit in it was mysteriously shot in the knee.
There was Astrid Lindberg, a Swedish woman in her early 40s, known for her Aryan beauty and shooting a grizzly dead two winters prior. In the saloon was a framed photo of her perched behind it, grinning, while it bled onto the surrounding snow. There was Trish Powell and her brother Jimmy Powell, who were suspected to be incestuous. And Doug Freeman, a retired marine engineer who had money but had gone off the deep end. There was Linda Washington who ran the post office and was never charged for coffee. And, of course, Vicki Cormier, who Dad called “the town bicycle.”
That wasn’t everybody but it was damn near close. Dad staggered among them, approaching me on his way to the liquor store, nursing a hangover.
“Brit,” he said. “No breakfast?”
“I had some,” I said.
“I must’ve been out like a light.” He passed me to enter the store. “Need anything?”
“I’ll take some Gordon’s, I guess.”
“You got it.” He walked up behind Doug, slapped him on the shoulder, and said, “You’re shaking more than an epileptic at the disco.”
“Don’t I know it, bud,” said Doug as they went inside.
An RV pulled up with two young guys in the front seat and my heart stopped being one solid thing and popped into beads and wild clots. The one driving was so-so, maybe looked a little older. But the other one resembled a cheapened movie star, rugged and alive, with an elbow out the window and a crooked grin like Marcus Mumford’s.
“Hey!” I called out.
They didn’t hear me and carried on to Goldpanner, an RV Park down the road. Dad came out and handed me my gin. He was a young 38, had me when he was eighteen, and seemed to have never grown up.
“See you at the bar, Wally!” Doug called out, passing us.
“Catch you on the flip,” said Dad.
Entering Chicken, a conspicuous metal sculpture of a chicken, “Eggee,” stood next to a tattered wayfinding sign, which listed names of other towns around the world, (i.e., Hen, Israel; Rooster Rock, Oregon; Chicken Scratch, North Carolina; Cockadoodle, Australia). An explorable dredge sat with its gigantic arm; weeds came up like plumes from its base. Sparrows’ nests huddled in its high-up crannies.
The whole town consisted of Chicken Mercantile Emporium, Chicken Liquor Store, Chicken Creek Saloon, and Chicken Creek Café, all composed of the same dark wood, sitting in a quaint row. The mail came by plane on Tuesdays and Fridays, so long as the weather was right. I was born in Chicken, but mom moved us to Buckeye when I was one. She’d wanted to be closer to grandma, who was supposedly dying, but turned out to be fine. Dad stayed in Chicken. He couldn’t trade in Garganeys, Northern fulmars, American coots, and Pied-billed grebes for Penduline tits, Curve-billed thrashers, and Yellow-eyed juncos. For cash, he whittled wooden chickens and they sold them at the mercantile. I went to Alaska every summer to stay with him.
He watched me bend to see the RV drive toward the park.
“You see something you like?” he asked.
“Don’t know,” I said.
“Are we going watching tomorrow?” he asked.
Dad was a birdwatcher. He’d gotten me into it, had bought me a bird book and everything. Mom had become a sixth-grade teacher and was getting married to a new man. Dad didn’t like to talk about that.
“I’ll be free,” I said.
“Sounds good, kiddo.”
That night at the saloon, Jimmy Powell was hand-rolling cigarettes. Vicki was tending bar and dancing around in a tee shirt from the mercantile, which she had cut into a tank top. It didn’t reach the waistband of her acid wash jeans, and under the blue neon bar sign, I could make out every stretchmark.
Two self-proclaimed “documentarians” leaned over the bar to “interview” her. They were filming bits and pieces on a 2008 Motorola Razr flip phone, and called themselves Phil and Steve, two Floridian bachelors cracking jokes about the outhouses. Upon seeing Vicki, one of them said, “Oy vey! Muy bien!” and the other said, “You come here often?” before falling into unearned throes of laughter.
In the winters, Dad and Vicki shacked up together, usually at her house, which was farther away. She had a messy, burning way of talking, and a rasping laugh which seemed to smoke from her mouth, disappearing and turning to nothing. She was all about men. She would have married dad, surely, but he described himself as a “free agent”; every summer, he screwed what blew through town.
“What can I get you boys?” she asked the tourists.
Vicki had a nineteen-year-old daughter who went to college in Montana. Whenever she came up in conversation, Vicki would say, “That girl’s a mystery.” I hadn’t gone to college. What was I gonna do? Try for nursing school? Be a nanny? I didn’t have plans beyond watching birds with Dad in Chicken all summer, then be a bridesmaid in mom’s “spiritual” Labor Day wedding.
The hot guys I’d seen pull up in the RV walked into the bar, both sweaty and dressed in plaid short-sleeve shirts. I didn’t hesitate.
“Find any gold?” I shouted to them over the noise.
“About two ounces!” the hotter one yelled.
“That’s worth, like, five hundred bucks,” I said. “Buy me a drink!”
His name was Dylan. He and his friend, Stevie, had driven over from the suburbs of Seattle. He kissed me softly on the neck, as if it were my cheek. Within five minutes, we were making out in the corner by the pool table. The “documentarians” tried to film us, and in turn, Dylan called out, “Fuck your mother!” His beard stank of cigarettes and his teeth weren’t brushed, but he was striking. For all I knew, he was on a poster in an idiot girl’s room.
Back on the barstools, he asked me, “Where are you from?”
“Here,” I said.
“Bullshit,” he said, and leaned over to Stevie to say, “Brittany’s from here.”
“Yeah, I was born here. My dad lives down the road.”
“Big house?” asked Dylan.
“Big enough for us?”
“Damn,” he said, smiling. “I’m pretty sick of the RV.”
I got back to Dad’s house alone, which was a one-bedroom cabin down the road modeled after the post office. He put an air mattress in the living room in the summers for me to sleep on. When I got inside, I could hear he had brought somebody home.
By the sound of it, he had her up against the wall, and over the wooden thumps was the cannonade of skin clapping skin and mammal girl cries. She sounded young. The fridge had been left hanging open, so I closed it.
I eased onto the air mattress on the living room floor and waited for it to stop. After a short while, she came out of the bedroom in a green crocheted bra and a denim mini skirt, which she was pulling back down over her tail on her way to the bathroom. She was just as delicate and young as she had sounded, no more than a year or two older than me.
She noticed me on her way back to the bedroom, put her hand over her heart and said, “Oh, hi.”
“Hey,” I said.
She went back into the bedroom and closed the door. There was a fly caught in the white lampshade, exhausting itself, throwing its body so hard against the parchment that its noise could be mistaken for a fat moth or small bat. Against the growls of the wind and distant drunks, this was the sound I fell asleep to.
I woke up to her laughter. They were still in the bedroom, getting it on. I rolled over and pulled the pillow over my head. They came out a little while later and Dad made breakfast for us. Her name was Trina, and she had dry, long hair like sand: sea-ish blonde and holding the lasting efforts of the sun.
Dad flopped eggs onto plates in yellow curds. His scramblers always came out the same. Trina carried her plate around, eating as she walked. The bare bottoms of her feet rubbed back and forth on the vinyl. I could hear her callouses, like sheets of sandpaper. She said she was from Yountville, a little town in California, where she still lived with her brother and a couple of roommates.
“What kind of birds you got out there?” asked dad. “Meadowlarks? Scrub jays?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “We’ve got lots of things.”
“Much to learn!” he said.
I watched her turn on the balls of her feet in a sort of mild, distracted ballet. Her fork went sliding down the blue of her plate and she caught it.
“Probably not as many as you’ve got out here,” she said.
“Oh, don’t say that,” said Dad. “They’re everywhere and they’re special everywhere.”
This, too, was how he felt about girls.
Trina went back to her RV and me and Dad went out to watch birds. I carried the bird book, which I didn’t need, since he was there.
“So, your mom,” he said, “she happy?”
We’d walked far enough out that we couldn’t see the tourists panning for gold in the creek. We’d made it to the blonde grass way off the mud of the road.
“Yeah, Brian’s great,” I said.
“I mean, yeah, they’re happy,” I said.
“When’s the wedding?”
“I thought you said you didn’t wanna know.”
“I did? I said that?” he asked. I didn’t say anything. “Shh, take a look at her,” he said, pointing up at a brown bird with a white chest, which had perched in a Black Spruce.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Yellow-billed—” he said, “yellow-billed cuckoo. There must be rain coming.”
“They like the rain?”
“They predict it.”
His mouth was slightly open and outlined by his thin Balbo beard. I liked watching him watch the birds more than I liked watching them myself. He could appreciate them in a way I couldn’t, seemingly in a way nobody could. He was in his purest form, his holiest, grandest self.
“So, your mom,” he said again, “she’s good.”
“Yeah, she’s good.”
“Just checking, just checking.” A full minute passed, and he said under his breath, “Brian.” Then he lowered his binoculars and said, “Let’s keep going.”
He stood under Tundra bean-geese, Surf scoters, Eurasian coots, and Eastern whip-poor-wills, stepping in silence, then in wind, then in darkness around the silt and gravel. I could see him under Red-breasted mergansers and Trumpeter swans.
Hungry, me and Dad made our way to the MacLeries’, the only married couple in town. They were our neighbors by about a mile. Upma MacLerie, a woman from Delhi, was always cooking. We arrived as if invited, and she had out metal bowls of curry, Aloo Gobi, and Chole Bhature in a row on their loud plastic tablecloth, which was painted with apples and cherries.
Upma’s husband, Scott, was a quiet vegetarian who spooned potatoes and cauliflower into the pockets of homemade naan and moaned through his mustache like he was getting the full experience. She fried peas and carrots into rice for him and looked at him with enviable love. She could have turned me into a proper wife if she taught me to fry paneer and bake chickpea flatbread. She moved over the table in a tie-dye tee shirt, serving us with joy. The curries steamed so profoundly that I believed their bright colors would fade. The smell of hot tomatoes got in my hair and came through my sweat. They had all the windows open, and the house filled with mosquitos; me and Dad slapped our arms and legs, cursing. He said that cooking with fenugreek was why Indian people smelled. He said this under his breath at every dinner at the MacLeries’.
“You going to the bar later?” he asked me.
“I was planning on it,” I said.
“I might catch you there,” he said. “Trina said something about going.”
Upma drank scotch straight from the bottle as we talked.
“Fenugreek,” dad whispered toward my shoulder.
“See any birdies today?” asked Scott.
“Oh, beauties,” said Dad.
“You should start taking pictures,” said Scott. “You could compile them into a book.”
“You’re shaking like—”
“Like a leaf?” asked Scott.
“Like a chick on a washing machine,” said Dad.
“I’m due for a drink.”
Upma set the scotch down in front of Scott. He pretended not to notice it for a few moments, continuing to eat. When he thought we had moved on or looked away, he picked it up and took a drink. He was one of the only ones left with any shame.
At the bar, me and Dylan were scooting our stools closer together. He was calling me pretty and I didn’t believe him, but his breath was hot on my neck, and it felt like everybody was looking at us. For once I felt like one of those girls getting handed stargazer lilies or her hand held on a blue carousel.
“I’m not gonna miss you when you leave,” I said.
“Bitch,” he said, laughing.
I looked around for Dad, but he never showed up. The two local Bobs—Bob Patterson and Bob Landry—were working the bar but only serving draft beer, no matter what anybody ordered. Everyone had to check their weapons at the door, which scared the peace-and-love tourists who all seemed to think that guns were just a widespread myth.
“People around here are pretty hardcore,” said Dylan.
“You think I’m hardcore?” I asked.
“I don’t know yet,” he said, and went for my neck. Into it, he asked, “Can we go to your place?”
“I think my dad’s there,” I said.
“Well, Stevie’s getting sick in the RV,” he said. “I should probably head back. Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow?”
Just as the Yellow-billed cuckoo had predicted, the rain came down in sheets. It seemed to become a welcome, adventurous part of the tourists’ camping excursions, as they stood under it in wide stances, beaming up at the thunder. The locals stood in the bar, looking out.
“You think they’ve ever seen rain before?” Bob Landry asked Bob Patterson.
“In California? Probably not,” Bob replied.
Back at Dad’s, it seemed he had company again, but not Trina. I could hear the carnal wailing of a familiar voice—a woman’s—and then an unfamiliar man’s voice said, “Is someone here?” The bedroom door opened and there was dad, Vicki Cormier, and a young, bearded floater, all messed up and half-dressed.
“Brit—” Dad said, but I turned and went back out the front door toward town.
Even over the rain, I could make out the sounds of animals, each of them less frightened than me, until I reached the Goldpanner RV Park. I looked for Washington license plates, found them, and saw Dylan’s hat hanging from the rearview mirror. I knocked. He came out, confused.
“Brittany,” he said. “What’s up? What are you doing here?”
“I missed you,” I said.
“Well, sure,” he said. “Stevie’s kinda knocked out. Maybe we should stick to tomorrow.”
“Couple of minutes? I’m wet.”
Dylan laughed, then his smile faded, and he stepped to the side to let me in.
“She’s a 2007,” he said about the RV.
I couldn’t tell by his tone whether he thought this was new or old. The beige velveteen driver’s seat was piled with roadmaps and magazines. It was humid from the rain, which sounded even louder than it had outside. The pine overhead cabinets looked down on reduced ceramic countertops and a faded palm leaf couch. The hallway led us by a breakfast nook with matching palm leaf benches, a black microwave and upwards of thirty beer cans.
Across from the bathroom door was a single bunk, which had nothing but a rumpled top sheet. Dylan motioned to it for me to sit.
“Want a beer?”
“Okay,” I said. “This is your only bed? Does Stevie sleep on the couch?”
“Oh, there’s a queen back there. Stevie’s not feeling good.”
I glanced around the corner and could see Stevie’s leg sticking out on a big, striped bed on the floor.
“Can he hear us?” I asked.
“Hey, Brittany!” Stevie called out.
Dylan handed me a beer. I sat on the bunk, ducking my head and scooting back against the wall with my knees to my chest.
“So, you missed me? You wanted to see me?” Dylan scooched in beside me, folding himself into the space.
I leaned in and kissed him. He grabbed my breasts, then took my shirt up over my head. I heard Stevie vomit into a plastic bag, which crinkled under the weight of beer. I unhooked my bra, and it came off between us.
“Nice,” said Dylan.
My skin was cold and damp; my clothes had soaked through. It felt as though the rain had paled and bloated me. He got to my shorts and underwear, then I was crouched there naked, feeling part cavewoman and part alien, like I was on an exam table. He fumbled with his jeans and put his dick through the zipper.
“Are you not wearing boxers or anything?” I asked.
He got on top of me, somehow, as if in urgency, he had expanded the space of the bunk, and he fucked me all wrong and very selfishly. I went along with making girlish noises, as this was expected. He finished on my midsection. His dick turned back into a mere penis, and I asked him if I could pee.
“I don’t know, can you?” I should have laughed but I didn’t have anything left.
I heard Stevie adjust in bed; he was essentially in the room with us. The toilet had a fuzzy, brown cover and I couldn’t find the flusher. The RV toilet paper crumbled on my stomach when I used it to wipe off. I could hear Stevie say, “Dude, nice.”
When I came out, Dylan was laying on the bunk, taking up the whole thing. I was still naked. He’d tucked his penis back in and was fully clothed. I grabbed my shirt and underwear and sat on the edge of the bunk.
“Are you sleeping over?” he asked through a yawn.
“I probably should, huh?”
“I probably should,” I said. “The rain.”
I crawled into the bunk and he reluctantly pressed his body up against the wall, facing away from me.
I barely slept and Dylan didn’t seem to either; still, we didn’t talk. As soon as it was light out, I put my shorts on and, not wanting to put my bra on in front of Stevie who was eating Cheez-Its in the breakfast nook, I tucked it under the bunk.
“Heading out?” asked Dylan. “See you later.”
“Yeah, maybe at the bar,” I said.
“We’ll probably get breakfast in a little.”
I made my way through town, which had dried in the light, and sputtered with early risers, walking around with monogramed JanSports and Velcro Tevas. I could hear the Mountain bluebirds and Eurasian collared doves. My head hurt but the air smelled good. It was still cool out and I wondered what my face looked like, how I smelled.
I got back to Dad’s and he wasn’t there. I paced in the kitchen, which was too quiet. He had a TV that wouldn’t turn on. I took a quick shower in the moldy tub, shook a spider from the hardened towel and threw on one of his sweatshirts from the mercantile, which read: I GOT LAID IN CHICKEN.
I lit the stovetop to heat the pan, sprayed some PAM, cracked two eggs right into it, and pushed them around with a rubber spatula. I overcooked them a little, as not to overthink their preparedness, and as I shook the saltshaker, heard dad coming up the road.
This time, again, he was with Trina, who carried a digital camera and a purple insulated lunch bag. She was just as beachy, but taller than I had remembered. She hung off of Dad like a Raggedy Ann, tugging on his arm, giddy as though she had discovered him. They came in the house on my first bite.
“Where’d you go last night, Brit?” asked dad.
“Goldpanner,” I said.
“You know somebody parked there?” he asked.
“Mhmm,” I said.
“That’s where we’re parked,” said Trina.
“Where were you?” I asked.
“Had to show this one a bird or two before she skips town on me,” said Dad, and kissed her temple.
I felt as if I’d cry. Then—someone kill me—I did.
“You went birdwatching?” I asked, quietly at first, through a cracking voice. “You took her?”
“Brit?” Dad took a step toward me, as if testing the floor.
“You went watching?” I asked again.
I felt the tears running down my face already, and my throat closed, then a desperate breath opened it, forced its way through, followed by the sobs, the definite sobs.
“Oh, shit,” said Trina, “I’m sorry.”
“What’s wrong, honey?” dad asked.
I threw my plate on the floor, but it didn’t break on account of being plastic. The eggs splattered in tired jams on the base of the counter and the floor.
“Stay the hell away from me!” I screamed, and felt my finger pointing, which was embarrassing—humiliating—and only intensified the tantrum.
“Alright, now,” dad said. “Breathe, Brittany, breathe.”
“Shut…the fuck…up!” I said, hyperventilating.
“I didn’t know it was, like, your special thing,” Trina whispered to Dad, like I wasn’t there.
“Don’t make it sound so lame!” I yelled.
“Let’s make more eggs,” said dad, gently, “or a gin.”
I ripped out of the house, barefoot on the dirt and rocks, which hurt almost like burns: a quick, chasing pain. I was running toward town when I saw a whiskered auklet on a mound. I approached it and it didn’t move. It was sitting upright and blinking lethargically, certainly alive, but must have been hurt or sick as these birds were only ever out at night; even then, they were hard to make out with their little, black bodies and short wings.
She had a beak like a candy corn in color and size, and her delicate white whiskers sprouted sideways from her brow with the drama of a feathered headdress. She had silver, moonish eyes and white stripes down her face.
Dad would’ve lost his shit. He would’ve nursed her back to health. I’d seen him do it before, many times. He would have put a dishcloth in an empty tissue box and dribbled pear juice on a plastic spoon; he always got them to drink even by saying quiet, kind things: “Come on now, baby. I know you like pears.” I picked up a rock about the size of my palm.
In needless violence and bewildering anger, I bludgeoned her. I bonked her good on the head; it appeared she had instantly died, but I hit her a second time, opening her wing, chest and shoulder, and could feel the softness of her meat. There was some blood but not much and I threw the murder rock as hard as I could off to the side, but all of a sudden wasn’t strong, and it landed close by with a soft thud.
I stared down at her trusting, black body and her dead head and the canyon I’d created in her chest and sobbed again, this time in horror. Her webbed feet pointed up toward the sky and looked slightly too large for her body; if she were a woman, she would’ve been a size ten.
I ran from the scene so that I wouldn’t be caught with her, and slowed down when I reached town, eyes still red, breath un-caught, feet still bare. I remembered what Dylan said about breakfast and burst into the café. He and Stevie sat over cheese omelets and coffee at a table by the door.
“Hey, Brittany,” said Dylan. He didn’t sound excited, but I sat down.
“Sounded like you had a good time last night,” said Stevie.
“Are you okay?” Dylan asked.
“Yeah, just forgot my shoes,” I said.
“Yeah, but are you crying?”
“I was thinking,” I said, “maybe I could come with you guys.”
Dylan and Stevie looked at each other. Stevie shrugged as if to say, “this one’s on you,” and got back to his omelet.
“What do you mean?” asked Dylan. “Are you serious?”
“Yeah, I mean, I’ve just been having a lot of fun with you and was thinking—”
“We’re actually leaving today,” he said.
“Oh, that’s fine. I mean, that works for me.”
“Like, right after this,” he said.
“I don’t even need to pack,” I said. “Isn’t that what you guys do mostly? Just live off the world or whatever?”
“I just don’t think it’s gonna work out,” said Dylan. “We’re not passing back through here. It’s super out of the way and there’s not much to do.”
“Oh, you wouldn’t need to drop me back off or anything.”
“I’m really sorry, dude,” he said. “I don’t really feel that way if you get what I mean.”
I nodded, looked around the café to see that all the other tables were listening, and stormed out. Right before the door closed, I heard Stevie call out, “But thanks for the bra!”
I had to pass her body on the way home. I had hoped that she would have been picked up and buried or simply floated away, but she hadn’t moved. I put my hand up to shield my face as I walked by the mound, kicking the murder rock farther away, as if I could smack the pink off it.
Dad was home, saying sorry, spared of the dead auklet for now. Trina was sitting on the couch, not reading the room, flipping through my bird book over Riesling.
Dad belonged under turkey vultures and Marbled godwits. He belonged under Brown-headed cowbirds and Western ospreys. I got to be born under white pelicans and scarlet tanagers. There was nothing—just all the prairie warblers, all the upland sandpipers, flycatchers.