Inspirations

In the Willow Municipal Laundromat, waiting for the tent to dry, Kate spots two signs taped to the wall. One advertises the Talkeetna Music Fair, in three days, sixty miles north. The second lists a cabin to rent, on a mountain lake, just up the highway. The two signs quickly merge into one intractable idea. As Kate tells it to Eddie, her voice races. Eventually he looks up from the job listings in the Anchorage paper.

“In two days,” Kate says, “I know I can string twenty pairs of earrings. I’ll sell them for twenty bucks apiece, right at the gate. The cabins $20 a night. That means we make $360.”

“I don’t know,” Eddie says. “You think people will buy them?”

“It’s a folk festival?” Kate says assuredly. “I know my market?”

Three days later, Eddie, who passed the cabin time silently drinking a case of beer, sleeps until noon. Kate painstakingly hand-paints the word ‘inspirations’ in silver across the front of a purple shoebox. She carefully places the six pairs of delicate blue, and pink, and purple beaded earrings she’s finished in the box. Then she wakes Eddie.

Eddie loads the backpacks into the trunk. Kate turns the key. The engine coughs, then stops breathing.

“I’ll check the fan belt,” Eddie says.

“It’s not the fan belt.”

Eddie lifts the lid and stares down at the engine. “Well, it’s not the belt,” he says. Kate hears him jiggle wires. “Maybe it’s the water pump. Try it again.”

Kate leans on the wheel, immersing it in tangles of black hair. Eddie goes to the trunk and pulls out the backpacks. She picks up the box of earrings and follows.

At four o’clock Kate and Eddie get their first ride, in the back of a low brown pick up. The passenger hands two dripping cans of Coors through the sliding cab window.

“Thanks!” Eddie yells. He hands one of the cans toward Kate. She sits pinned between their backpacks and a panting wet dog who smells like fish. In her lap she holds the box, the little sets of earrings nestled inside like eggs. She stares at the beer can until Eddie pulls it away. He drinks the first can in two slurps and opens the second.

“How far you all going?” The passenger yells.

“Talkeetna,” Eddie yells back.

“Yeah? You all going to that music fair?”

“Planning on it,” Eddie yells.

“It’s over at 5 sharp. Sheriff’s orders. He’s a hard ass. You all know that?”

“Yeah,” Eddie says. “I know.”

The passenger scratches his mustache.

“You all hitch up from Anchorage?”

“Willow. Car died.”

“Man. Alternator?”

“Yeah, maybe,” Eddie yells. “Maybe the water pump.”

Kate focuses on untwisting her hair. The dog licks her bare arm. It turns to Eddie, its tongue hanging out.

“You all want a couple more beers?”

It’s five o’clock. Eddie and Kate walk up a dirt road. The sky darkens. It smells like rain. The earring beads shuffle in the box.

“Yo bear,” Eddie calls into the woods. “Nice bear.”

They enter a clearing. Four men lean on a truck.

“How you doing?” Eddie says, waving.

A red-faced man in a bear-claw necklace, a gold badge pinned to a sheepskin coat, glares at Eddie. Eddie steps toward him. Kate freezes, gripping the shoebox.

“The fair up this way?” Eddie asks.

“You’re a little late partner,” the man says. “Fair’s over.”

Another group approaches.

“Problem here sheriff?” someone yells.

“No problem here,” the sheriff answers. “Folks here were just headed home.”

“Yes sir,” Eddie says, turning. “We were just headed home.”

They sit on their packs on the empty southbound ramp. It rains, then blows over. Hunched under her rain poncho, Kate looks to the north. The luminous evening sky turns the highway puddles silver. Just past the roadway, beyond the trees, the clouds lift, revealing rows of jagged blue mountains. She turns to Eddie to see if he’s watching. He’s staring across the road at the lone building, a bar called Smokey’s. Each bar window flashes a different neon beer sign.

It’s nine o’clock in Smokey’s. Two men with thick mustaches sit across from Kate and Eddie. On the table are two huge, sweating, fresh pitchers of beer.

One of the men points to the backbacks. “So what are you all, up here hiking or something?”

“Yeah,” Eddie says. “We’re gonna do some back country.”

“Backcountry?” He snorts. “Up here they call it bear country. You all got a gun?”

“Nah, nothing like that.”

Kate stares across the room at two women at a table.

“How about pepper spray. You all got pepper spray?”

Eddie tilts his pitcher. The beer pours from its side, in a wide arc, into his glass.

“We know what we’re doing,” he says.

“Man,” one of the men says. “Couldn’t catch me out there dead.”

The two women are sisters, Kate thinks. One’s wearing a ranger parka; the other’s in a down vest. They’re eating salads. They’re laughing. Their hair is long, and clean, and straight. They have blue eyes. Kate has two sets of blue-bead earrings, right here in her box. This is perfect. Here’s her chance.

One of the men squints at the smudged paint on the crumpled box.

“What’s a ‘spirater?’

“Inspirations,” Eddie says.

“They’re earrings,” Kate says. “I make earrings.”

“Oh. You all want another pitcher? On us?”

Kate looks again. The two women are getting up to leave. She stares down at her earrings and sighs.

“Sounds great,” Eddie says. “Thanks!”

It’s past midnight. Kate follows Eddie up a muddy, dark trail. Someone in the bar swore he once camped in the woods, at a great free campsite, up one of these trails.

“Yo, bear,” Eddie calls into the thicket. “People here. People coming through.”

“Can we stop this?” Kate suddenly asks.

“Stop what?”

“This. Can we go back? There’s a real campground, a park service campground, just up the road. I saw a sign.”

“Park service? They want, like, what. 15 bucks?”

“This is a little creepy.”

“Come on,” Eddie says. “It’s not that bad.”

“That sheriff guy. Those guys in the bar. They know where we are.”

“Those guys? They’ve never set a foot off pavement.”

“You don’t know that.”

Mosquitoes hurl at them, invisible, screaming.

“I know everything,” Eddie says.

“No you don’t. You don’t know everything.”

Eddie turns, pushing harder into the woods. Branches crack. “Yo bear!” he yells. Nothing answers. Kate follows the little black imprint he’s made in the woods.

Ten minutes later he gets an answer.

“Yo bear?’ Eddie calls out.

“Hey, will you shut the fuck up?”

“Sorry, man,” Eddie says, walking headlong into the wall of a tent, which absorbs the blow, then springs him back gently onto his feet.

“Asshole!” someone yells from the ground.

The moon breaks out of a cloud. Kate stumbles into a clearing, the shoebox now crushed and wet in her hands. Eddie’s standing in the center of a litter of tents and tarps, smoldering campfires, and wet camping gear. His head is silhouetted by a wildfire of stars.

“What is this?” Kate asks.

“This?” Eddie drops his pack. “Now this, I think, is your market.”

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