To Love and Die in YK

by Jorge Barrera

No one met me at the airport when I landed on a flight from Victoria for my first career reporting gig with Northern News Services. After a phone call, the editor arrived for the pick-up, eventually dropping me off at the company-owned townhouse that would be my temporary lodging.

It was May 2000. Yellowknife was in the doldrums. An ounce of gold on the global market was about the same price as an ounce of marijuana. That evening I was offered my first sample of the city’s gold-standard weed. A newsroom source promised a steady supply. Sometimes I’d go down to Harley’s to pick up a quarter a couple hours before the $20 lap-dance girls.

Just one computer in the NNSL newsroom plugged into the internet and the weekend-shift reporters shared a flip-cover cell phone with retractable antenna. The window by my desk looked out over an area known derisively as the “Gaza Strip” where the winos gathered daily drinking Hermit’s and solvents.

We’d light cigarettes in a back room where management installed a smoke eater. One editor, who said he’d done intelligence work in the U.S., used to puff on a pipe. Sometimes in the evenings someone would find the hidden ashtray and we’d blow gusts at the computer screens, the blinking DOS font.

And then to the Cave, unless it was Le Frolic Friday for pints of beer and wild game fondue before going back to the Cave, getting high in the boiler room, drinking Old Stock until the night became liquid and we’d flow down the hill. Me, to the Silver Bullet.

***

I no longer remember the events that led me to live in this particular shack in the Woodyard. In the summer, you could lie flat on the Bullet’s roof and watch the underside of floatplanes gliding in on their approaches. The shack belonged to a connoisseur of JFK conspiracy theories. He rented the Bullet out for a mere $140 a month and even then I fell behind on payments and still owe him money.

The Bullet resembled a shipping container. An extension cord from a neighbouring shack supplied electricity. With no running water, the shack included a little outhouse attached to the side that came equipped with a bucket for a honey bag. The bed was a slab of wood a couple feet off the floor and fastened to the back wall. At the other end was a two-element stove attached by a rubber hose to a propane tank outside. I rarely cooked.

The sole source of heat came from a woodstove in the middle of the shack. On winter evenings, I would smoke Drum tobacco rolled in a thick wad and wait for the burst in the belly of the woodstove. The heat would come thick enough to wear like a cloak. On some hoar-frost-encrusted January nights I would stoke the woodstove into such a rage it melted candles and turned the stove pipe translucent.

When I first moved into the Bullet, a half-painted orange sunburst flower against haphazard blue decorated the ceiling. It was the work of a woman named after a spring month who moved out after she caught a pneumonia-like illness. I did nothing to improve the shack’s colour schemes.

That winter, I slept a night in the shack without fire.

Wanting full immersion into this quasi-woodsman life, I purchased my firewood in six-foot lengths so I could saw them by hand into sections for splitting.

Some nights, so cold time froze midair, I could smell the heat from the blade’s teeth cutting deep into the grains. All around, the silver of the bay hallucinating pink and purple skies and the arc of the axe ending in shattered kindling. I started falling behind, sawing just enough to get through the night and then once, too drunk to care, passed-out without waking the woodstove. I rented a chainsaw the next afternoon.

Summer returned and I saw her reading a paperback book titled, The Letters of Van Gogh, on Javaroma’s sidewalk patio just over the left shoulder of a city councillor in love with his title. She had a tattoo on her neck, Japanese characters, and I started losing the thread of the councillor’s monologue on City finances and measured adjustments.

On our first date, I made chai latte on the Bullet’s propane stove for the girl with the neck tattoo. We moved into an upgraded shack with oil heating and a small loft. She worked next door cutting cups and vases from wine bottles. Friends drifting to other places left us an orange cat and a husky dog named Juliette.

We would die together here.

That love too would die years and miles later beneath an apple tree as she dug her fingernail into a carrot and told me of another lover. Part of me wanted to flee backwards to Yellowknife, back up into the loft of the shack in the shadow of Pilot’s Monument. Into the loft where we scrawled the words of the poet John Thompson. Words with blue pen into the wood, “if our arcs touch, then it must be.”

But there were all these other things.

I couldn’t go back. Not yet.

Jorge Barrera reports from Ottawa for APTN. He lived and loved in Yellowknife from 2000 to 2002.

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