A Vulnerable Place
medications for her recurrent UTIs. The doctor suggests trying a new one and weighs with the son the advantages and drawbacks of giving her a pill every day to prevent the infections versus treating them as they arise.
As the conversation flows around me, I mentally catalogue the items in the room. I count six thermos bottles, arranged in a neat clump. Two TVs, neither of which appears to work; a VCR; half a dozen remote controls. Four telephones and some empty telephone boxes. Mountains of books, their titles unreadable from where I sit, and at least a hundred old comic books crammed onto a shelf. It occurs to me fleetingly that these would probably be worth quite a lot of money in the Lower 48 but that they'll probably end up in a fire or floating along a beach.
There are a dozen fishing poles and eight or nine rifles. Children's board games, playing cards, and jigsaw puzzles. One large completed puzzle, showing a fishing scene, has been mounted and hangs on the wall. There are several clocks, their hands unmoving; stacks of china dishes; a large box of clothespins.
Toward the front door, the stuff takes on a garage theme: several cans of WD-40; a toolbox; rusty tin cans filled with screwdrivers, wrenches, hammers, other tools. A motor is propped in the corner, and chunks of a disassembled engine lie about. There are fishnets, tools for mending them, piles of weights and buoys. There is the little dog, curled sleeping on the floor now, her bowl and a large bag of dog food nearby. And the old birdcage.
There are hats, dozens of them, scattered everywhere: fur hats with earflaps, baseball caps, knit caps, a cowboy's Stetson. Gloves in similar variety and abundance. Mountains of boots and shoes. There are several cast iron pans, and a number of tin pots. The central passageway is lined mostly with cans of food: tomato sauce, tuna fish, and jars and jars of baby food.
On the old wood stove in front of me is a small jungle of five or six plants, tall, pale, scraggly, and unkempt. They look on first glance to be near to dying, but on further assessment to be strangely healthy—the backhanded health of the untended and uncared for, the unlovely hardiness of those who have learned to survive in less than ideal conditions.
The walls are as tightly packed as the room itself, no inch left uncovered. Company pictures of the National Guard predominate, dozens and dozens of them, though I am unable to pick out the individual family members from the rows of stiff, dark-uniformed men. Baby pictures, pictures of children. A few wedding photos of assorted vintage. A lot of religious paintings along the same vein as those in the mother's bedroom.
"I talked with your father's doctors in Anchorage this morning," continues the doctor. "They aren't sure he'll ever walk again. They feel quite certain that he won't be able to come back here or to help with her care. We thought perhaps they could be placed in the same facility."
One large floor-to-ceiling bookshelf is crammed with bric-a-brac. China cups, vases, figurines. Feathers, boxes, jewelry. Bits of wood and bone smoothed and bleached by the ocean. String figures, children's crafts and art projects. Native crafts are prominently missing, but I know that the fur dolls and intricate woven baskets sold in town are expensive and probably aimed more toward tourists than the villagers themselves.
Who was she, I wonder, the owner of this house, who lies so still in the next room? What was she like? I look for an answer in this vast accumulation of her possessions, but (other than the fact that she never threw anything away) I am unable to find one. There is too much noise, too much clutter.
I wonder what will happen (sooner, or later, as the case may be) when she and her husband die. What happens to a house filled waisthigh with stuff that no one needs, in a village of 300 people, hundreds of miles from anywhere? The question of disposal is a serious one, I have come to realize during my time in the far reaches of Alaska—in places too small to maintain effective dumps, where there is nowhere else for waste to go. Transport is expensive. People are willing to pay the shipping cost to bring things in, but in a cash-poor economy paying to have something taken away is an unlikely use of scarce resources. And stuff of a disposable but enduring kind—aluminum cans, plastic trinkets—is relatively new to this culture. Garbage as we know it was not something that formerly had to be dealt with in an economy based on fish and seals and caribou. The result is a lot of trash strewn around the villages, on the beaches, even across the tundra. What will become of it all?
"It must be incredibly difficult for you," the doctor is saying to the woman's son, pulling me out of my reverie.
"Well . . . " He looks uncomfortable, discussing such a question with strangers.
"What do you do?" she asks. "Do you fish?" This is almost the only occupation for men in the village.
"Subsistence fishing, yes. I got out a few times this summer—we ought to have enough to get through the winter."
"And commercial fishing?" the doctor continues. She knows that food in the drying house is critical, but cash is important, too.
"I used to. But since . . . " He glances toward the bedroom. "No. Not anymore."
"So much for you to give up," murmurs the doctor.
He looks uncomfortable again and clears his throat a few times, as if trying to express something inexpressible,
something we couldn't possibly understand. "It's . . . " He begins speaking, then stops, then tries again. "We were difficult kids," he says fi- nally, fidgeting slightly, looking away. "She . . . she never scolded."
Suddenly he offers the doctor his hand, palm down. She looks confused. "I have this problem with my fingernails," he says.
She examines them. "They look all right," she says.
"Sometimes they swell up," he says, "And get all red."
"Around the nail?"
She asks a few more questions and studies his hands again. "I think it will be okay," she pronounces finally. But she still looks confused. It seems out of keeping, somehow, for him to bring up such a minor complaint, or indeed to offer anything about himself.
A few minutes later we are talking again about his mother.
"She has trouble," he says, "with her anuk"—using the Yupik word for bowel movements.
"What kind of trouble?"
He opens his mouth, then closes it again.
"Does she need enemas?" the doctor asks.
"No . . . " His voice trails off.