It was January and my husband and I sat in the picture window of our tiny apartment above the town harbor, drinking our wine in silence. We were just married, and Adam, a deckhand in the Coast Guard, was home for once after being underway for weeks at a time. We hadn’t known each other well before that day at the courthouse when we signed our names to the marriage certificate, and neither one of us had particularly wanted to do it. The Coast Guard gave strong financial encouragement for service members to start families, and our union was tainted with the pragmatism of a financial transaction. We were both young and stupid and in the evenings we drank to dispel the uneasiness of strangers.
That was the night I first noticed the man I nicknamed Crazy Frank. I saw him in the small harbor below me, standing on his old wooden trawler in the last stall nearest the breakwater, while the light of the street above reflected off the waves in the water around him. He stood astern facing open ocean, and he was so still I at first thought he might be an illusion, some contraption tall and rigid hooked to the transom. His body glowed in the moonlight, and after a few minutes of asking myself why he would be wearing a white jumpsuit like he was performing a hazard cleanup, I realized that I was staring at a bare-assed naked man in the middle of an Alaskan winter. I grinned so big you couldn’t wipe it off with a hockey stick.
I pointed to him for my husband, “Look! There’s a naked man out there!”
Adam wasn’t as dumbfounded as me but laughed a bit, and fetched me a pair of binoculars from the closet when I asked.
The town of Ketchikan is the only inhabited spot on the island of Revillagigedo, one of thousands belonging to the maze of Southeast Alaska. On most winter nights, winds some 30 knots or more blew through the fjords. Our building was propped up on pilings driven into the Northern Pacific, and that time of year, swayed and groaned as the boats in the harbor pitched fiercely. Most of them belonged to fishermen who slept on little pull-outs in their galleys or tucked away inside the bow. I’d noticed this man’s boat once before only because of its extreme shabbiness and chipped paint, far worse than all the others, except perhaps for the little skiff whose hard top above the wheel had been replaced with a piece of plywood. With the binoculars, I saw his body was soft and pale except on the sides where his ribs protruded. His hair and beard were jagged and uncombed. He was holding a white, plastic trashcan with one hand while the other waved in the air like he was giving an impassioned sermon to the fish. I was haunted by his image when I finally turned away that night, and went to bed.
Over the next few months I grew obsessed with Crazy Frank. There wasn’t much else for me to do during the winter. It was my first there, and I hadn’t yet made friends with the locals who saw me as both fresh meat and an intruder. After the cruise ships disappeared in September, the downtown closed up shop, even going so far as to nail plywood to their windows. I was only 19 so I couldn’t hang out in the bars like everyone else did. I got a part-time job at a lumberyard, but still, I had so much alone time. I had no TV, no CD collection, no friends, and two weeks out of every month, no husband. Everyday, I sat in my windowsill and let my eyes scan the harbor below for entertainment. Boats like the “Windy Sea” from Kodiak came into port now and then to sell their crab, 25 bucks for five dungees and the fishermen would clean them for you if you were pretty and acted stupid. Once I even saw a boat from the reservation come in with a corpse. A dozen Natives crowded the deck, crying and holding on to one another as the men from the ambulance struggled to get the gurney up the ramp during a severe low tide. The most random thing I saw was an old seiner named “The 8 Mile” (ironically enough) get busted for drugs. State troopers in black sweatsuits swarmed the boat like ants while three men dressed in rubber Grundens stood handcuffed on the dock.
But of all the comings and goings, Crazy Frank was always there. His boat never sailed nor moved from that last stall. It was named the Lorelei, which I found out at the library was a name of the Siren who sang songs that drove sailors crazy. I took this information as a sign from God. Something about Crazy Frank’s craziness was so eloquent it seemed Biblical. Everyday, Crazy Frank got mad at the pilings and kicked them, then later returned to hug and make up. He paraded his beloved trashcan up and down the dock on a little wheelbarrow like a revered guest. Sometimes I saw him on other people’s boats, going through their crab pots, or pulling out rope from its spool and examining it like he couldn’t quite place what it was but knew it was important. The other fishermen paid him no attention. They didn’t turn to look at him or tell him to stop. I couldn’t understand how they ignored him. For awhile I grew afraid that he was either a ghost or some nightmarish doppelganger of my own creation.
I was scared of him in a childish way. My heart beat faster if I saw him at the grocery store or walking down the street in front of my building, his hand cocked like a gun to shoot at traffic. If I was driving and passed him on the road, I would turn around and follow him. Sometimes, the urge to talk to him grew so enormous I could feel the dreaded prospect well up in me like vomit in the back of my throat. I wanted desperately to know the truth of him, that he wasn’t some grotesque creation, conceived by barnacles and coughed up by the ocean, but that he had a mother who loved him, that he had been a child once. I didn’t know why it was important for me to know those things, though I suspect, like everything, it had something to do with myself. The mystery of how I’d ended up where I was, living at the far end of the states and married so young, baffled me. My life was discordant and I had trouble making sense of it. That’s why I think Crazy Frank, whose life was stripped of all formality and inhibition, was secretly so thrilling to me.
When I was 23, I decided I’d had enough of Alaska. I’d divorced my husband the year before, and had been working as a bartender at a violent little dive where fights broke out every night. As much as I loved being surrounded by mountains and ocean, and living in a landscape that is so brutal in its beauty, I never could get over the homesickness I felt for the farmland I grew up in. I sentimentalized county roads and church socials. The fact that Ketchikan had not one barbeque restaurant made me feel like more of a foreigner than when my friends asked to listen to the recordings of my father on my answering machine, their minds blown by the sound of a real Southern accent. The morning after my going away party, where I’d spent the night on a table at the Moose Lodge, I was walking home to my empty apartment. I was scheduled to hand over my keys that afternoon and board a plane that night. I saw Crazy Frank walking toward me in his maroon raincoat and brown rubber boots. Even through the fog of my hangover, my heart started racing as if on cue. We passed each other on the sidewalk. It was the last time I was ever going to see him, I thought to myself, and before I could even think about what I was doing I turned around.
“Hey!” I shouted.
He turned around. It was the moment of my nightmares. I had his attention. He stared at me with blue eyes, surprisingly calm, their color vibrant against the grit of his face.
“What’s your name?”
“Joel,” he said.
“Where are you from?”
“It’s nice to meet you,” I told him. Joel from California. Like that, the mystery had been solved. After all those years of obsessing over this moment, I couldn’t think of anything else to say so I took off running down the sidewalk toward the canneries and the harbor; the smell of fish guts and diesel sharp in my lungs.