Authors: Ian Mackenzie Jeffers
Ian Mackenzie Jeffers
This book is an expanded version of the novella ‘
by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, on which the film ‘
’ is based.
Thanks to Eric Simonoff, Kirby Kim, Britton Schey, George Andreou, and Gordon Lish, who made this book
And, thanks to Joe Carnahan, Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Nonso Anozie, Joe Anderson, Ben Bray, James Badge Dale, Jules Daly, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott and the many, many others who suffered cold and wind and devoted heart and passion to make the film
Finally, thanks to my mother, who made me write, and my father, who taught me
For my wife, and our children, and our life together.
Four weeks on, four weeks off. When you’re off, you sit in a bar in Anchorage, stare at the bottles, sleep in a motel, if you don’t keep a house, or aren’t welcome there, and bit by bit you drain away whatever you made when you were on. When you’re on, it’s
you’re already numb from the cold, which is down in your blood, from the air in, from the ground up, breath by breath and step by step. Everything’s over-heated, the food hall, the bar, the game lounge, everybody steams. You come in from a
the ice melts off you, drops on your dinner tray, or in your drink, if that’s your dinner.
Oil comes out of the frozen shale and two thousand of us watch it flow, pump it through. I sit in a shack with a rifle and a radio, stare at the snow, and shoot the occasional bear, if he thinks a cook is going to fight him for a bag of trash.
If darts won’t do.
Some of the guys make friends of each other. They have families, save money, call home. These are not bad guys, but I do not make myself one of them. I make myself the least of them. I do not call home. I watch the snow, make myself invisible. If I’ve learned anything from animals, it’s that.
The food hall’s the size of a hangar, vats of pre-fab eggs and every other pre-fab thing, pool tables and foosball tables and cigarette machines. We have a hoosegow, women of loose everything
get themselves there, somehow, a chapel with a neon cross over the door. We have bull-necked jocks and walking nerve-cases and scrappers, beer and air-wanks and fistfights, recreational buck-knife parties, greater and lesser morons, idiot-crews, guys who go quiet when they bump you at the bar, burst out laughing five feet away, high-school jokes, for those who got that far. We have guys who snap, like anywhere else in a given month, go mad as a dark stair, up some hallway in their heads, and don’t come back. It’s the job at the end of the world, for some of us, no looking back, and no need to look further. Some guys say I’m a curse.
Shadow of death, a specter of something, what have you.
You’re too friendly to
you’re dead before your shift is out. I don’t blame them. Put in the time, six months’ dark a year, you get superstitious. Everybody likes to go home alive. Most of us like to, anyway.
There are deaths from time to time.
Heart attacks, guys walking under trucks, falling into the rat-holes, or jumping in, drowning in the oily mud.
They always do a service, human resources does, even though the body’s going to get flown away, somewhere else. I always go, know the guy or not, sometimes I’m the only one. Sometimes Tlingit is there, I don’t know his real name, his mother’s half-Tlingit, half-Inuit, or something else. Everyone calls him Tlingit. Some of the Inuit guys go too, sometimes, the way I do, know the guy or not. I’ve watched enough coffins get flown away, it doesn’t seem so bad. A bright day, snowy runway, blue sky,
There’s a pastor who’s a dry drunk. He runs meetings, AA meetings, grief meetings, my-wife-is-fucking-the-neighbor-and-I’m-six-thousand-miles-away meetings. He slip-foots around the camp half-spooked, like he’s afraid he’ll get his hands on a bottle, or he’s suddenly remembering something he wished he hadn’t. But he has a way with an unexpected death and a cargo-plane. He’ll look at you like you stepped on his foot if you pass a little bottle at one of his send-offs, but he’ll never say anything. Some of us are regulars, after all. The Lord is my shepherd, he says, his nose always running, eyes too, from the cold. Or he has more to cry about than the rest of us. The chiefs of the idiot-crew, Lewenden, the others, the ones who make jokes in the bar, will elbow each other, if they’re passing, see you watching the box go up the ramp, as if sending off a dead guy is an idiot thing to do. They know better, by way of smokes and shots and big talk. Banging glasses on tables makes you infinite wise.
“All those guys need is a neck-snapping,” Tlingit says, watching them laugh their way by, sucking cigs, heading to shift or bar, one or the other. I found the only camp on the Slope with a bar. It took doing, but I found it.
My fathers and their fathers moved up here when it was wild Klondike, a tribe of white men too bad and damned to be put up with anywhere else, up from the worst parts of the lower states and before that some dark lump of rock in an ocean of bad doings, and the sons and grandsons have stayed, and with few exceptions done things bad enough to deserve living here, and dying here. In the right frame of mind it’s a blurry line. They were hunters, man to boy. Not the noble kind.
The living-things-my-ass kind, the pay-me-I’ll-kill-what’s-bothering-you kind.
They fed their families, year on year, but they didn’t like it, not all the way, say what they wanted. My father hunted for the state, once we became a state. When he wasn’t doing that he hunted for anybody’s dollar. He was killing animals for their own good, he said. But even that affected his outlook, though. I think it did.
I hunted for the state too, until the day I knew I didn’t like it either, and then I was going to do all kinds of things. At least, there was a moment when other things seemed possible, or that I was winding my way to them. But I got mailed north instead, by this and that.
This and that and no complaining.
My father told me there was a wolf in the heart that made you do things. “What does it make you do?” I’d ask him. “It depends on the wolf,” he’d say.
I look up.
Wall of bottles, bartender.
Yes please, certainly, last day off, heading north, another four. I don’t like the down-shift, but you can’t stay up there, the company makes you leave. But they’ll let me back up now, so goodbye to the place where nobody knows you, back to the place where nobody wants to. And here you sit, and wait to go back, because there’s no staying here, either. Bag’s packed, at my feet, goodbyes to the digital clock and cinderblocks and the guy who doesn’t know you at the motel, nothing left behind, as always. Snowplows and
outside the bar, taxi waiting. The wind pounds at the windows, like it hates you, in particular, personally.
Time to go north.
At the airfield I look out the windows, and I can see the wind shredding lines of snow across the runway, like curtains rip-flapping, bucking the wings of the planes, scaring the wives and girlfriends come to say goodbye. Bulldozers grind back and forth pushing the blacktop clear, but it’s white again in no time, white slam. The company has a 737, big plane, and it’s wobbling more than the others, trying to buck off the ground and flip over, but they’re telling us we’re going, it’s just bump. I don’t want to spend another night down if I don’t have to, I want to go.
You go outside, it hits you like knives, goes through you like you’re nothing, made of cold air, then you don’t feel the cold as cold anymore, you feel it as something else. I do anyway.
Last day, and all that attends your last day.
You’d think they’d have one of those enclosed ramps everybody else has. Not this company.
We’re half-running across the tarmac, slipping and sliding, some stopping as long as they can stand it, loved ones saying goodbyes, I-love-you’s. You see family guys, worried faces, what-might-happen, four weeks away in the terrible place, and I hope all is well while we’re apart. God knows what happens in an instant, when you’re away, when your back’s turned. And it does. Look up at a flock of birds, the one you love is under a bus, go to make her a cup of tea, she’s died when you’re in the kitchen. I see that in their faces, some of them, as I’m trotting my bones, stiff as cold boards, past the goodbyes and kisses, and I feel sorry for them.
Which is comical.
I haul up the stairs to the plane. I’ve been outside forty seconds and my legs are numb, my face too. On board, families behind us, the heaters hit us, the guys who know each other say their hellos, another fucking four weeks missing their families, bored to death, only each other to look at. I stay out of this too, though I know a lot of them, who they are, anyway. Some of them getting on nod at
most don’t. Half of them think I’m a paroled murderer, somebody made a joke I’d been killed in a hunting accident,
it got turned into that. I hear the idiots, others too in the food hall, the bar, calling me ‘Oddway,’ more laughing. I don’t run around correcting people.
I buckle in, look at the tarmac, watching the snow blow across, waiting to go. This is the shift when night is going to move in up there and sit down like a dog and refuse to leave. Six months of dark, after the first few days when every day gets shorter by an hour until the last one’s down to minutes, then dark, day and night, and permanent fluorescents, shift after shift, through spring, if you haven’t gone crazy by then and jumped in a rat-hole to drown.
There was a night I went out on the snow with my rifle, got a wire tied around my boot and the other end around the trigger, got the muzzle into my mouth, and I sat there, wind blowing, and I stared into the snow in as final a mood as that, getting myself set to yank my boot down on the wire, three deep breaths, and ready, looking at the snow, my last seconds, I think. And out of the snow comes a big bear, white, head swaying, left to right, sniffing for the dumpsters, or me, and when he sees me he rears up high, all of him, black eyes, black nose, three black pennies aimed at me, and a little line of black gums, I thought I saw, a little snarl. I look at him, with my gun in my mouth, and I get it out and get it turned on him, if you can find any sense in that. I don’t think he was afraid of me, so I didn’t see him getting angry, but things can surprise you. Maybe he never made me out in the snow at all beyond a whiff of something, but I sat there pointing my gun until he dropped on his fours again, turned sideways, back into snow. I was afraid of him, certainly. Some of us hate it, but it’s the job at the end of the world. In all the dark you see purple winking in the sky sometimes, red, green-gold, aurora, that night I did, anyway, sitting on the snow, like a fool and a coward, after the bear left. A great green-gold curtain
and it glowed and rippled over me all the way back to camp carrying my rifle, and the wire in my pocket, for later use, maybe.
At a time to be determined.
They’re the only colors you’ll see for months, but you’ve never seen anything like them, on earth. They look impossible, like a lot of things.
I see Henrick getting on the plane. He comes up the aisle, climbs into the seat next to me. He’s one of Lewenden’s friends, of the idiot-crew, I see him with them, up there. But he’s alright, as much as any of us is.
He belts in, nods at me, to say ‘You might be the psycho we’re all afraid of, but I don’t have a beef with you.’ He knows not to bother talking to me, and he doesn’t seem to mind. This is what I like about him, partly. The other heroes of the idiot-crew file on, Lewenden, Bengt, the others. They look at Henrick sideways, for sitting in a row with me, I suppose. But Henrick’s the one who’ll thump them to shut up when they’re laughing their way past a funeral. I should like him less for spending his shift with these fools, but I like that he sticks to his friends, backwards or not. And they stick to him, so they’re not
, I suppose. None of us is, I suppose, whatever we think.
Whatever the signs to the contrary.