Good Sophie wore pastel sweaters, her face prettified with scars from some long ago crash. Her parents were of retirement age, that’s why they came to Isgut, to retire. They died within a week of each other two years ago. Then Verman Winslow proselytized good Sophie and used her money to help build the Church of the Believers in the Fast Approaching Apocalypse.
The believers became a huge problem, so we of the Isgut Land Barons’ Association held a meeting. It was me, Scrogle, Brad, Jerry, and Danny out there in my cookhouse.
Danny is the one who escaped their clutches. He said, “I say we kill them all, bury them, nobody’ll care.”
Danny had been their prophet. He’d predicted the end of the world for them, but when the day came and the world was well the believers locked his arm in a vise and slammed it over with a big bike frame. They threw Danny into the Isgut Lodge Road ditch where he could have been trampled by a moose, and probably would have had not Jerry pulled over to piss. Boy needed medical attention. Jerry hauled him to my place. We splinted his arm, wrapped it, gave him water and rice and put him up in my sauna.
Brad, the wise man of Isgut, said. “That’s quite the brilliant plan, Dan.”
“Don’t make fun of me!” Danny said.
“Pour Danny a shot,” I said. I didn’t want Danny feeling shittier than he already felt. The Christian meth freaks broke his nose too, and it bled often, and everything Danny said was nasal. You could tell it would be that way for the rest of his life.
Jerry poured Danny a shot. Danny tossed it back, set the glass on the table, ran his thumb over his mustache. He said, “It’s a war we got going on here and everything. Don’t you even know that that’s what people do in war? They kill each other.”
I said, “Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, over there in Egypt and shit with Kaddafi. You think this bullshit on Isgut amounts to crap?”
“Wherever hearts are invested,” Danny said.
“Danny, what country bumpkin state did you say you’re from?” Jerry asked the prohpet.
Danny came to Alaska to get rich gutting Ketchikan fish, only ended up here in Isgut working for the company that digs out the clay-silt mixture that is our town’s little claim to fame. The stuff is shipped away on barges to make roads elsewhere in the world. Danny fell in love with Isgut at a Halloween party where two girls stripped off each other’s costumes. One was dressed as an Irish bar wench. The other girl was wrapped in aluminum foil, head to foot, and whenever she spoke, she spoke in a robot’s voice. That would be Sophie—Sophie! Sophie! Sophie!—because what are we? Population three hundred? That’s adding a couple extra dozen to the mix. We’re a landlocked lot. Everybody knows everybody. People come in only by boat or by plane. Danny said the bar wench got the juices of the aluminum foil girl in her mouth, this while she still had her legs and arms and face on. Normally Sophie wouldn’t do like that, not with another girl, but when you’re covered in foil, you aren’t exactly you, especially when your blood is tainted by strange drugs and religion. In any event, before Danny knew it, Sophie and the Irish bar wench were 69 on the floor while he snorted up the finest crystal meth Alaska ever produced. When you pop open a baggy of it, Danny said, the air around the baggy twinkles and pops. This ultimately led to Danny’s redemption at the Church of the Believers in the Fast Approaching Apocalypse.
“So what’s in Kentucky?” Jerry asked the prophet.
Danny thought on it. He was thinking real hard on it.
We heard Kyte Thompson’s Harley making up the road. Kyte owns a full acreage, five squares that let go upon the bay. You can see the Oliver Glacier from his bedroom window, and some towering peaks that are often wrapped in pink and purple wisps of cloud. Kyte’s time with Sophie had been of the five-night-stand variety. Though Kyte by principle was against guns, a fact that most probably stemmed from his time spent as a soldier during the Gulf War, he was not against beating the hell out of a man with a willow branch. The Christians did not set well with Kyte. When Kyte joined us in the cookhouse, the usual spurs on his boots, he said that the Church of the Believers in the Fast Approaching Apocalypse was right this minute on fire.
“My God,” Danny said. “They must’ve had an explosion. I bet they were brewing up a new batch and then blam!”
“You jonesing bastard!” Brad, the wise man of Isgut, said. We call Brad wise more for his sage beard than any genuine wisdom. Brad got in trouble last September for squeezing the left ass cheek of the grocer’s daughter Karen Banfield during our annual grog fest. They kicked Brad out, but Brad hustled back with his shotgun and released a load at the Banfield manor. Brad also blasted the Banfield outhouse, not checking first to see was anybody in there. Cops from Juneau arrived by plane in the morning, carried Brad off to jail. Brad returned a month later, but remains banned from the Isgut Food Box. It’s up to us to get him his vittles. You’ll not find a bigger fool than Brad.
“Is Sophie all right?” I asked Kyte.
“She was out there jumping up and down screaming shit at the sky.”
“Oh, God betrayed her long ago,” Brad said. “God don’t listen to that girl nomore. She is beyond redemption.”
I said, “Damn, Brad, can’t you give it up for a minute?”
Brad said, “She probably thought the apocalypse had come. What a letdown to find out it was only the mistakes of Man. Bet she was mad at God.”
“I hope none of them were burned,” I said.
“Wouldn’t bother me atall,” Brad said, giving me more eyeball than I was comfortable with.
“I wouldn’t wish it on anybody,” I said, and thought of Dad, whose last year had been quite painful. Not only was he screwy from the stroke, but his kidney had swollen up and was leaking poisons inside his body. I kept asking him what was wrong, how did he feel? Did I need to take him to the airport so that we could fly him to the hospital before it was too late? He just smiled and told me not to worry, lying to my face. Shit pissed me off, so I finally yelled at him. I was about to shake him or kick him or do some other stupid thing, but Sophie grabbed me and pulled me outside and cooled me down. I’ll always love Sophie for that. She was so cozy and kind-hearted in her pink and powder blue sweaters that were out of sync with our cruel environment.
Brad stroked his beard in sagely pontification. After a considered pause, he said, “What was Sophie wearing?”
“It’s true,” Jerry said. “A woman in distress can be alluring. I remember the time—”
“God, not with them scars,” Danny said. “I never saw what all y’all saw in that bitch who’s about ugly as a goddamn pig’s ass caught fire then somebody tried to put it out with a ice pick. I’m serious, yo.”
I could have drawn my pistol—Sophie deserved that—but when I looked at Danny all I saw was a dumbass. Danny was me when I was his age. First time I saw Sophie, I, too, was grossed out. One scar was deep and sickle-shaped. Some said she was a walking ad for the communist party. In the end it was the scars to melt me, make me a worm at Sophie’s feet. “I’m just thankful Sophie’s okay,” I said.
“Amen on that,” Jerry said.
We’d all loved her at one time or another. Seeing Jerry thinking of Sophie, remembering his own special moments with her, I felt a pang. We’d all given her up over the same shit, her habit of falling in love with damn near every dude she came into contact with. It had caused us all some serious aggravation, but we’d learned to let it go. We land barons respected freedom. We supported freedom and held it as sacred. I would even say, not without a smidgeon of embarrassment, that we Isgutians of the Land Barons’ Association were downright American.
Danny said, “I say we go down there put a cork on that bottle of wormwood.”
“He’s got a point,” Scrogle admitted. If Brad is our resident wise man, Scrogle is our resident fuckup. Scrogle owns himself a acre, true, but don’t let him come over. He’ll drink your booze and smoke your reefer. Then he’ll act put off if you don’t have a thing more to give. Many are the times I’ve had to be rude and ask Scrogle to leave.
“We might go down there let them know we are not to be fucked with,” Kyte Thompson put in.
“Amen on that,” Jerry said.
“I guess we’d better check it out,” I said.
And Brad, the wise man of Isgut, said, “I am in full agreement. We should let them understand in no uncertain terms just what the apocalypse is about.”
That did not sound good to me, but Danny said, “Hell yeah!” and grabbed the bottle with his good arm and poured me a shot. I downed it. We took our courage and loaded into my van. Jerry ran the sliding door to, and I backed out onto the road, put her in drive. I drove toward the church with much dread. When we passed the Isgut Volunteer Fire Department, the engine was cozy in its garage, a detail we chose to ignore. If somebody from the Church of the Believers in the Fast Approaching Apocalypse had called for help, chances were the request for assistance was thrown by the wayside. We land barons were not the only Isgutians wearied by their presence. In the words of Jordan Banfield, our highly esteemed grocer, “They are not wanted here.”
“What are we going to do when we get there?” I wondered out loud.
“Save Sophie,” Jerry said.
Danny laughed, nothing sardonic or underhanded in his laughter. He truly found the remark hilarious.
“Sophie Sophie Sophie Sophie,” Scrogle said, and sniffed long and loud, as if he could smell her. “Sophie Sophie Sophie,” he said.
“I hate that bitch,” Danny said.
“She loved me so baad,” Scrogle said, “but I broke the poor girl’s heart. She’s never been the same since, you know? If not for me she likely would not be involved with these lowlife Christians. What I think is she’s been punishing herself. Once you’ve had the best, everything after leaves a bad taste in your mouth.”
“That’s a load,” Brad, the one to get with Sophie directly after Scrogle, said.
“Her heart split clean in two on account of me, broke open like a whore spreads her legs,” Scrogle said.
“She couldn’t stand your bad breath is what drove her away,” Brad said. “That and the fact that the solarium you’ve been building for ten years should have been finished about ten years ago. Talk about lazy get nowhere bullshit. Sophie was on the move, boy. She had dreams of going places. You’re about the laziest motherfucker I ever . . .”
Danny laughed uproarious, slapping his knee, and flaring his Kentucky teeth and gums.
“Say what you will of my solarium that stands to be the best built since the day Jonah stared through the eye of the whale.”
“It’ll never be finished.”
“Rome wasn’t built in a day, asshole.”
“Sophie saw you for what you are,” Brad, the wise man, said. “A bum with a acre and a bottomless thirst for booze.”
“And the biggest dick she ever knew,” Scrogle said, putting the gruff into his voice. Whenever Scrogle spoke, he always sounded a little bit drunk, even if he hadn’t had a drop in days. “I need not say another word,” he said. “I rest my case,” he said.
“A piece-a-shit’s what you are,” Brad, the wise man of Isgut, put in.
“The biggest fattest dick she ever felt up inside her womb,” Scrogle said.
Danny just laughed and laughed.
“I never told anybody this before,” Jerry, the great fisherman, said, “but Sophie swore to me that I would always be first in her heart. She and I spent many a week out on the water together. I’d be sounding, smoking a ciggy with my hat on while she cranked the salmon up onto the boat. I could tell you stories about us that would—”
“No, hey, cut that out,” I said, and felt a downright ugly feeling rising up from deep within. Jerry is the one, the man, Sophie left me for. Jerry ought to have known better than to talk about Sophie in mixed company like this.
“What?” Jerry said, acting all surprised and everything. He was in the passenger seat beside me in the van. When I looked his way, the edges of his mouth curled downward so that all you saw was this huge frown with weirdly-shaped orange freckles all around it.
I said, “Sophie told me that she didn’t know why, but for some reason she just never did like people with orange hair. I agreed with her, and I remember that when we were talking about it I said that one of the greatest philosophers in the world, a guy named Arthur Schopenhauer, said that redheaded assholes with blue eyes were anomalies.”
Jerry said, “Yeah, and Sophie told me that all you ever talked about was your dad.”
“He was sick,” I said.
“You loved your dad more than you loved her. That’s why she dumped you for me.”
“Don’t ever say that,” I said.
“Oh yeah, I heard all about Joe’s dad,” Scrogle said. “Sophie told me all about the dick sizes of everybody she ever fucked. Brad’s dick is shaped like a penny nail, that’s what she told me.”
Danny continued to laugh, and was not stopping all the laughing he was doing.
“Jerry’s dick is shaped like a plastic army man, all lumpy, that’s what she told me, I mean, she just loved my dick to death,” Scrogle said. “The only other dick she talked about that seemed to have some relevance to her was the dick of Joe’s daddy. Sophie described it as being like a—”
“Sophie never did anything with my father,” I said.
“Well, I guess that makes Sophie a liar,” Scrogle said.
“My father is dead,” I said.
“He died in debt,” Scrogle said, and said, “That’s why you only have one measly acre left, Joe. The creditors came and took it all away, and you still owe them, what is it? Eighty thou?”
“That was uncalled for,” Jerry said, acting like he was taking up for me, Jerry, the jerk who ruined me. I tried not thinking on it, how Jerry stole away my Sophie, but the old feeling rose up, and when Jerry said, “Joe has made a great comeback from what he was left with,” I slammed the brakes. I hadn’t even noticed that we had arrived at our destination, not until we were stopped in front of it. I saw it back there, the Church of the Believers in the Fast Approaching Apocalypse lively with flames, but hardly cared. I jumped on Jerry and slammed him a good one, trying to break his face. When Scrogle grabbed me, Brad grabbed Scrogle and began beating the hell out of him. Within this miniature explosion a crack—that is to say, the opening of my sliding VW door—was leveled against the flames of our enemies, a vertical eye in which moving figurines leapt gesticulatingly. Into that slow motion opening we, in our unified desire, tumbled. On the moist ground we pounded each other with all we had, feeling zilch. Our faces were pillowy vacuums of suck. Our souls clawed at the air in hopes that the head of our beloved Sophie might draw near.
In this ball of anger and release, this tangle of us, I caught myself, the ridiculousness of me, and twisted away to see Danny make for the flames. He was off to scavenge whatever meth he could save. I admired his courage, the soldier, his will to get what it was he wanted and what he needed. That’s when Sophie appeared before us, the wizened riverbeds of her face, her scars of old, what she betook in a crash driven by her mother, alive with light. Had I not known Sophie, I would have been thoroughly grotesquified by the sight of her. We tusslers, Jerry Maps and Scrogle and Brad and Kyte Thompson and I, under her gaze, were zilch, zilch paralyzed.
Did I love Sophie still? I’ll not forget how after Dad died the world was calm and beautiful in a new way. Seemed like something great was going to happen to me, but driving home from the cemetery we saw eagles above my place. Eagles were harassing my Australian Shepherd that I hadn’t even known was pregnant. When I parked, an eagle flew off with a puppy. This was before Verman Winslow had ever heard of Isgut, before Verman Winslow had ever seen a girl wrapped from head to foot in aluminum foil.
We waited, we worms, our breath held for what Sophie might say, but Sophie turned her back on us. What happened next was out of my control, and I wished, even as I did what I did, that I would not do what I knew I was going to do. I tried stopping it, but my mouth opened and out flew her name: Sophie! We all cried her name at the same time: Sophie! Our mouths were like one mouth, our voice one voice that was a voice of the purest most desperate supplication. I have heard about how all the ants and the bees and the creatures of the forest are supposed to bow down with eternal praise for the Lord our God, endlessly praising him for the beauty he hath wrought.
Our unified cry stopped her. Sophie turned to face the five worms that, in their pride and hurt had congealed into a five-headed ten-armed beggar. “What do you want from me?” our Lord asked, and the flames from the burning church were in her hair. She looked like an angel come down to slay the unworthy. Through shame, we said nothing, but in our hearts what we wanted from Sophie was an apology, an affirmation that we were not nothing. What we wanted from Sophie was the assurance that life did not end with her. Sophie waited a moment in the crackle of it all, then turned her back on us and walked for the fire.