Susanne — barely five feet tall, blue-jeans and a tight smile, one of those iron-spike older backcountry women with the sort of sun-aged face that could make her fifty-five or ninety but always curiously lovely — is standing behind the bar with her back to me, talking to me over her shoulder.
“Naw, you see, you really wanna to talk to my son… he’s supposed to be tending the bar, God knows where he’s got off to,” she says. She shrugs and her narrow shoulders hump up and down. You can see the motion of her shoulder blades through the thin material of tank top. It makes me think of the way a coyote walks.
“I don’t really want to talk to you, nothing personal. I’m just tired is all. It’s hot and I’m tired and I been busting my bazoongas since four this morning and I’m tired. Don’t take it personal.”
I don’t take it personal. Even if I did take it personal, I wouldn’t have said anything, because Susanne is in the middle of doing a beautiful thing — pouring me a beer. She pulls a chilled glass out from under the bar, tilts it sideways forty-five degrees, kicks the tap on with the heel of her hand. Froth, bubbles, honey-cold, skiff of head and the glass is on the bar in front of me, frosting over, on a coaster even. Perfect pour. Parallel Forty-Nine Filthy Dirty IPA. Bitter, hoppy, the kind of hoppy that makes your tongue a bit numb. It’s the best thing I’ve had all day.
Susanne’s right — it is hot. That’s weird, for Alaska, but it is, it’s damn hot. The door to the bar is open but the bar’s got no windows and the contrast — the brightness outside, the darkness inside— gives the room the feeling of a cave. There’s a damp, boozy smell in there, like all the beer that’s ever been spilled on the floor boards never got entirely cleaned up. Outside, tourists wearing golf shirts and cargo shorts and fanny packs mingle with Insiders from Dawson and Tok and Fairbanks in ratty jeans and tank tops and ball caps that say things like Winterlong and Hoodoo.
The tourists are probably just passing through but the Insiders are there for Chickenstock, the once-a-year music festival the tiny community two hours east of Tok throws each year in the summer. Some band called The Forest That Never Sleeps is supposed to be playing, along with Ryan Bowers and the Braintrust, the Rock Bottom Stompers, Cotton Ginny — nobody you’d have ever heard of, which is the best reason I can think of to go see a band.
I tried to arrange band interviews before I left Whitehorse, but I couldn’t get a hold of anybody. The festival has a facebook page and an email address, but since there’s no internet (or phone service) in Chicken, I can see why they had a hard time getting back to me. I did get one message from them, but the email didn’t even have a name attached to it, so when I rolled into town I started asking around — hey, do you know who’s in charge, you know who I can ask about? I got a variety of answers, from “No,” to “Jake”, to “Tom, I think,” to “Oh you want Josh.”
I went down to the mainstage. It was a seething mass of bodies and tents and people and campfires. I only had a couple hours in town — I was on my way through to Fairbanks, not actually stopping in for the festival — and so I did what many years of hard travel have taught me to do when I find myself alone and unsure about something in a new town. I went to the bar.
My beer was sweating, big beads of water trailing down the side of the glass; half gone now, going down quick. Susanne was still standing behind the bar, chatting to someone who by the looks of things was a regular, a short man with bow legs and a trucker’s cap and immaculately kept mustache.
“Where the hell did Max go?” she was saying, tapping her fingers on the bar top.
“He went on home to take a quick shower, I think,” the man replied.
There’s the snap and growl of a four-wheeler outside. A young man kills the engine, steps off like he’s dismounting a horse, comes into the bar with rushed steps, slides behind the counter to casual, muttered greetings, a hand-rolled smoke dangling from the corner of his mouth.
“Max, hey, this girl’s from a paper in Whitehorse,” Susanne says, gesturing at me with a nod of her head. “She’s looking to talk to someone about living in town with the festival going on.”
Max looks me up and down, flicks his smoke from one side of his mouth to the other. He makes a grunt of acknowledgement and starts filling up the beer fridge.
Susanne disappears. People shuffle in, shuffle out. Max is pointedly ignoring me and I can’t say as I blame him — he’s getting busy, he’s pouring drinks, he’s chatting up his customers. I wouldn’t want to talk to me either. That’s alright though. It’s a scientific fact that if you sit in any bar in any small town in North America for more than ten minutes looking personable, someone will strike up a conversation with you. By the time I flag Max down and my second beer is being poured, I’ve got a couple from Anchorage laughing at a crack about Trump’s combover being made from baby otters. Bartalk floats about us lightly — whose driving from where, so and so got a new truck, where such and such a kid went off to university — and I feel easy, at home.
In the other room, in the cafe — a brightly lit, diner-style eatery so unlike the bar it’s a bit of a shock to step into — there are rows and rows of pies. Big, homemade pies with old-fashioned sugar-dusted lattice tops, all-American pies with all-American-sized wedges cut out of them. When I saw them all lined up in a row it made me think of Jack Kerouac in On the Road, where he talks about how he travelled east to west living on just pie, how as he moved west “the pies got bigger, the ice cream richer.”
The two hours I had to fritter with in Chicken turned into three — just like than, an hour gone and never missed because I had laughed and argued it away. I went over to the diner and ordered myself a caribou smokie. The smokie came with the best home fries —griddle cooked with the skins on of the type you can quite literally only find in America. I took a slice of pie to go.
As I’m walking back to my car a bunch of the bar folk are sitting outside. Susanne has reappeared, sitting in a wooden chair under the awning, smoking a cigarette and drinking drinking red wine from a collins glass.
“You didn’t take it personal, did you, that I didn’t want to talk?” she asks. “I’ve just been up so long and I was tired.”
“Not at all — I was a server a long time,” I say.
“Good, good, you’re a sweetheart you know that?” She leans over and plants a kiss, lightly, on each of my dusty cheeks. “You come back when you’re through next, yeah?”
Contact Lori Garrison at firstname.lastname@example.org