Winter in Fairbanks

Snow, darkness, and cold — winter in Fairbanks. A bit of light between 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m., then the darkness. Temperatures between twenty and forty degrees below zero. A white haze covers the city; smoke particles can’t escape upward when the temperature falls below minus twenty Fahrenheit. It’s depressing in the winter in Fairbanks. People drink a lot.

Kyle drank a lot. He was a line cook at the 24-hour restaurant in the Sunset Strip on Old Richardson Highway at the south end of town. René was the chef, and he was from France. René would drink the cooking wine.

The Sunset Strip had some bunk rooms you could stay in if you worked there, so it tended to attract drifters and out-of-staters looking for better-paying pipeline jobs but happy in the meantime to have a room with a job in the restaurant. They could make the union calls in the morning and still work the swing or graveyard shift at the Sunset Strip.

Kyle was from Alaska, amazing, one of the few at the Strip. The only married guy in the kitchen, he had a wife and two-year-old daughter that he loved dearly, though you might not know it by how he spent his time when he got off work. He worked hard and played hard is what he liked to say, and it was not uncommon to find him in the Sunset Strip Lounge, located conveniently on the other side of the hallway from the Sunset Strip Restaurant. While the restaurant never closed, the bar couldn’t stay open twenty-four hours by law, or it probably would have. They had to close between 5:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m. every day, so that’s what they did, and Kyle closed the place down more than once. And so did Joey and Al, brothers from rural Tennessee, who’d become drinking buddies with Kyle within months of their arrival in Fairbanks.

The brothers’ mom, Caroline, was a popular waitress at the Strip. Tall and thin, with some kind of red-brown-orange hair that forgot what color it was to begin with, she always had a smile for regulars and casual patrons alike and, best of all, she accepted everybody and judged nobody. With boys like Joey and Al, she had to be tolerant, and once you got to know her, you realized she used up most of her smiles at the Strip and carried a different countenance into her trailer down the road.

Joey was big and blustery, six foot three and a little overweight, but not worried in the least about it. He had a twinkling, self-satisfied smile that seemed to pull you in on the secret that you didn’t know you cared about and he was making up as he went. Learning a lot as chef René’s right hand man in the kitchen, he’d also become a decent line cook along the way. Kyle was an experienced line cook who could put the orders out fast in a rush and laugh while doing it, but he had no interest in learning the sauces and other culinary curiosities that René was teaching Joey as they prepared the dinner specials. Surprising that a 24-hour hour joint had a French chef doing dinner specials, but René was a special all in himself, and not one you’d want to take home. Any woman who picked up that doggy bag was in for a bad experience.

According to René’s confessions one evening at the end of a shift with two bottles of cooking wine onboard, he’d been married eight or nine times, all over Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, as far as he could remember, never staying long after he sobered up from the extended binge leading to matrimonial bliss. He described to Joey a scene in Boise where he was woken up one day by his new wife’s four-year old son, who was hungry enough to venture in and disturb the tranquility of the two sleepy drunks. René got dressed and said he was going for a pack of cigarettes, putting an end to the relationship before it became too complicated. René was not what you’d call a standup guy, and Joey wondered if one of those women wasn’t going to show up in Fairbanks with a shotgun one day. On second thought, it was highly unlikely — René was not a prized young bull, just a worn-out drunk.

You can imagine that having René as the leader in the kitchen at the Sunset Strip didn’t lead to an air of sobriety. Hard work, yes, they had to work hard when the rush came, but when the shift was over, a majority of the kitchen crew often headed to the bar, be it 4:00 p.m., midnight or even 8:00 a.m. And Joey’s brother, Al, was usually there as a willing accomplice. Being as Al didn’t work much, he was always available for a drink or two, and Mama and Joey always seemed to take care of him financially, like they had an obligation. Maybe she’d dropped him on his head when he was a baby or Joey had beat him up too much when he was a kid. Seems like he had something on ‘em.

Overshadowed in all respects by his hardworking older brother who’d managed to stay out of prison so far, Al had done a two-year stretch back home in Tennessee for heroin possession. Though only twenty years old when he went in, he never tired of saying, “You go in a man, you come out a man. You go in a boy, you come out a punk,” meaning he’d been willing to die to save his asshole.

Bar fighting was a step down from staying alive in prison, so Al had no qualms about pursuing that pastime, particularly when alcohol got the better of him, which was often. More than once Joey or Kyle had to pull him out of a mess and apologize to somebody to keep the police away. Strangely, he often seemed to turn on Joey in those situations, but Joey seemed to take it all in stride. A lot bigger, and equally willing to engage in pugilistic recreation, it occurred to more than one patron of the Sunset Strip Lounge that Joey ought to teach Al a lesson. Maybe Caroline had stopped that years ago after dropping Al on his head or whatever she did to screw him up.

Kyle and Al, when they got drinking together were like a bed of charcoal full of lighter fluid. When you lit ’em up, it wasn’t long before they were glowing, and the flames could get real high, real fast. Sometimes they had a lot of fun. With Kyle it wasn’t that every time he got drunk he got in trouble, but every time he got in trouble, he was sure enough drunk.

The worst was one cold Saturday night in February when Kyle finished the swing shift at midnight and hooked up with Al in the bar next door. He’d been sipping on a flask of vodka for the last hour or so of his shift, priming the pump for play, certainly not a punishable offense in the kitchen of the Sunset Strip.

At the lounge, Al was bored. “Let’s blow this place,” he said when Kyle came in, “there’s a band down at the Double L I heard was pretty decent, and there ain’t a woman one in here worth looking at.” Kyle was still half sober, so they took his Toyota on down to the Limelighter Lounge to remedy the situation.

Joey was already there enjoying the music and had a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye that expressed his confidence that if anybody was to leave accompanied by a member of the opposite sex, it would surely be him. To Kyle and Al, the search for female companionship was looking no more fruitful at the Limelighter than back at the Sunset Strip, so after downing a few more drinks, they decided to continue their quest elsewhere.

Walking out the door of the Double L, Kyle and Al noticed a Jeep Wagoneer with the engine on and nobody in it. It was thirty below that night, so somebody had left the engine idling to keep the vehicle toasty while they went in to have a drink. Al tried the driver’s door and it was locked. Walking around the Jeep on his way to Kyle’s Toyota, he tried the door at the rear end of the vehicle for the hell of it, and to his surprise, it opened. He could see the keys were hanging on a ring in the ignition. Grinning impishly at Kyle, Al hesitated a moment as if thinking about the consequences, then jumped in, climbed over two seatbacks and into the driver’s seat.

“Kyle, follow me,” Al yelled out of the door, as he backed the Jeep up and spun out of the snow-covered parking lot. To Kyle, it wouldn’t seem like such a great idea under normal circumstances, but the alcoholic flames were burning bright inside, so he followed Al out onto the highway and down the road until finally his partner in crime turned in behind some commercial warehouses which had a large snow-plowed area hidden in the back.

Kyle pulled his Toyota up behind Al, got out and approached the Wagoneer. The adrenaline was flowing in both bodies as Kyle opened the passenger door and looked at Al who had a stupid grin on his face.

“Come on, man, what’re we doing here,” Kyle asked, as he opened the glove box looking for the papers to see whose vehicle Al had borrowed. The Jeep was registered to Alyeska Pipeline Services, so it was a company car that some idiot had left unlocked with the engine running. There was a parka and an overnight bag in the back seat, so Kyle opened the back door and rifled through the bag. Nothing but clothes and a shaving kit.

In the meantime, Al was feeling his way around the front seats, looking for a wallet or anything of value, when he felt something cold and hard on the floor.

“Lookee here, Kyle, is this guy Dirty Harry or something?” Al held up the pistol he’d found under the front seat. It was a .38 Special, not a .44 Magnum, but Al liked the movie and didn’t really know that much about handguns.

“Shit, Al, now what? We can’t take this thing back to the double L, and we can’t leave it here with our fingerprints all over it.” Kyle was getting worried, but Al was thinking fast. Stepping out of the vehicle onto the snow-covered pavement, he motioned Kyle around behind him and took aim below the gas cap, firing off two quick rounds. Now he did feel like Dirty Harry, and his aim wasn’t all that bad. Following the explosions of the .38, the sound of metal on metal clunked loudly, as gasoline began leaking out of the punctured tank, melting a pool in the packed snow.

“Light that baby up, and let’s get out of here,” said Al. “There won’t be no prints they can find if it’s all burnt up.” And he was right about that. Kyle threw a lit match on the gasoline and jumped back as it leapt up in flames.

“Let’s boogie, Al, holy shit!” The Jeep’s gas tank exploded as they peeled out from behind the warehouse in Kyle’s red Toyota.

Back on Old Richardson Highway heading north toward the center of Fairbanks, the dynamic duo cruised on past the Limelighter and the Sunset Strip Lounge with the newfound .38 Special in the glove compartment.

Cruising on into town, Kyle slowed down as they were coming into the center of town where the more active night life was. They realized they were short on drinking money and, judgment compromised, decided to do something about it with the device they’d found under the seat of the Wagoneer. While discussing the pros and cons of various avenues of revenue enhancing activities, they saw a lonely guy walking down the street leading away from the downtown bars. He didn’t look too dangerous.

Kyle made a quick U-turn, passed the unsuspecting stranger on the passenger side this time, and pulled up about a block down the street. Al looked at him quizzically. Fueled by alcohol and adrenaline, Kyle was in charge now, and soon the lonely guy could be seen approaching on the snow covered sidewalk next to where the red Toyota was parked. Kyle grabbed the pistol out of the glove box and jumped out of the car.

“Hands up, motherfucker! Don’t even think of running. The only thing you’ve got to think of is not getting your head blown off.” Gripping the .38 with both hands, Kyle circled around the front of the Toyota, waiving the weapon at their hapless victim.

“Now just pull that wallet out and hand it over to my friend right now, you idiot, that is if you don’t want to die.” Al was out on the sidewalk in front of the guy now, with his hand held out in an almost friendly gesture.

Walter Riggins had had more than a few drinks when Kyle and Al confronted him on Lacey Street. It took him a while to believe that what was happening was actually happening, but he saw the gun pointed at him and felt the danger, so he reached for his wallet in the back pocket under his parka when Kyle issued his command.

Things happened fast from there, and Kyle would say that he was sure he saw a gun, but the police didn’t find one when they found Walter bleeding on the ground with a bullet in his gut.

“Shit, Kyle, what the hell did you do?” Al yelled. “Let’s get the hell out of here, you shot the guy. Let’s go, let’s go.” Kyle and Al jumped in the Toyota and sped away, freaking out now, looking at each other accusingly.

Fortunately for Walter Riggins, and unfortunately for Kyle and Al, they weren’t the only people on that stretch of Lacey Street at 2:00 that morning. The two occupants of a Ford Explorer approaching from the other direction on Lacey watched in horror as Walter staggered and crumbled to the ground while two men jumped into a red Toyota. The passenger caught the first three digits of his license plate as Kyle spun wildly out into the street, almost side-swiping the Explorer. Another man, hearing the shot fired, came out from the apartment in front of which Walter lay bleeding on the sidewalk, a red stain leeching into the snow and ice. The call he made saved Walter’s life.

— — — —

It was less than three hours before Kyle and Al were behind bars in the Fairbanks Jail, and Caroline and Joey were figuring out what to do after receiving the call. “Don’t say nothin’,” is what Joey said when he answered the phone at his mom’s trailer at 4:00 a.m. He’d come home early.

Kyle wasn’t going to call his wife at that time of the night. Too freaked out and too wasted to know what to do, he’d been caught with the gun in his car. The police had pulled the two out of the Sunset Strip Lounge where they’d taken refuge after parking the red Toyota right out in front of the Strip, another well thought-out move by the drunken duo.

Kyle’s wife never knew what promises or threats Joey and Al made, but in the end the armed robbery was pinned entirely on him, with Al depicted by his lawyer as an unwilling accomplice shocked at Kyle’s actions. There was never a doubt about who pulled the trigger, so Kyle was going down on that charge no matter what. Al plead out to something, but he did less than a year while Kyle got thirty-five for armed robbery and aggravated assault.

For several years, Kyle’s wife would bring their daughter in on visitation days, until she remarried a man who didn’t drink and became a loving step-father. Kyle didn’t see much of his daughter after that.

The summers in Fairbanks are spectacular. An explosion of energy comes with the thaw, and the days are almost twenty-four hours long by the time it’s June and the solar clock gradually turns itself back in the direction of the cold and darkness and snow of the Fairbanks winter.

To Kyle, it’s all the same.