It’s hard to find. Tucked behind some failing restaurants and one of Alaska’s many auto repair shops, the log cabin style bar sits on the shores of the Kenai Peninsula, right behind a dirt driveway that, like every other road in Alaska, bears more holes than the surface of the Moon. Pull onto one of those swiss cheese highways and your car will sing a tune unlike anything you’ve ever heard it’s the music of the wild.
My brother shoots me a look and I shoot him a smirk and Willie Nelson’s distant voice wavers out through the smoky entrance of the bar—a sad man singing to sad people. And we step in because, well, hell…I’m one of the saddest people I know. There’s a vending machine but instead of food it offers cigarettes in every out of production brand there are names here I’ve only seen in the advert of a 1970’s magazine. We sit down on the worn, leather bar stools and rest our elbows upon the faded bartop that’s in need of a new coat of varnish but nothing new lasts long out here. Things get old real quick.
My eyes wander across etched mirrors and neon lights, tiffany lamps and the television, which plays reruns of Jeopardy and I know they’re reruns by the way the guy next to me mumbles the answer to every question between the sip of a beer and the inhale of a cigarette. You can smoke in this bar. You can smoke in most bars in Alaska and it fills me with such a longing and nostalgia for old times that I bought a pack just so I could light up while sitting pretty on a barstool and usually I’d say cigarettes taste like shit but here, in this bar, this is the best damned thing I’ve ever had.
The grandmotherly woman beside me offers a hit of her own stash, a native blend intermingled with Peyote. “It’s good to be a half-breed,” she says. And I may not be a half-breed but I am half-drunk so I decline and stick with my beer—it’s the poison I know best, so best to keep it that way.
She tells me about her kids. Spread out across the world they’re wanderers just like her—settling isn’t in their blood. The first time her son took it past a kiss he made her a grandma. “At least he finished the job,” she says, drawing a long, thirsty hit from a Paul Maul. “My daughter, on the other hand, she can’t finish a job for shit. She spent the first eight years of her life trying to kill her brother. Dropped him on his head as often as he could. Explains a lot.” And at this she grows silent for a moment, staring off into space as the smoky haze of the cigarette dances eerily like a spirit around her face. Her eyes are like the pools of glacial water scattered across the surface of this land—full of sediment, they give off a radiant blue hue. She turns back to me, shaking away the ghost that was sitting on her soul and fanning the whispering smoke from her face. She tells me she fucked up on the kids, but she’s better as a grandmother.
I ponder that for a minute and I’m pondering this whole town and this whole state and I keep making mental notes and calculations and I don’t ever want to forget this moment or this place. This room is a circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno for PETA activists. The walls are hung with preserved remains donated by every taxidermist from Soldotna to Nikiski. The doors are never closed. Legend has it that the icy breezes carry sobriety on their backs and so we let them flow freely through the bar. But I’m skeptical because it’s been two hours and the Caribou looking man with the little run-down dog named Sassy is starting to look more human by the second and the heavy Norwegian singing show tunes in the corner is starting to sound like Frank Sinatra. In other words, I’m a lot drunker than I was and that could be due to the fact that the man beside me, the oil industry guru, keeps buying me Vegas Shots. That, in combination with the fact that in a single night I’ve smoked more than my monthly allotment of cigarettes, means I’m that coming dangerously close to making slushies out behind the bar with Charlie, the town drunk, who’s both good luck and bad news.
The biggest upgrade this bar’s seen in the last decade is a jukebox that can be played from a smartphone. Mother Peyote keeps requesting songs and I’m throwing my best ones her way and she leans over and whispers in my ear. Real soft. She tucks back my hair and she smells like fragrant oils and sawdust and hickory smoke and her voice is like velvet I could spend eternity wrapped up in the gentle music of her words. As quickly as she begins, she is finished. She replaces my hair, lights another cigarette and reaches for the bottle. But before she takes a swig she looks back over at me with something wild and untamed igniting a fire in her eyes.
“It’s the secret of the jukebox.” She speaks in her low, melodic voice, a little gravelly from years of tobacco but the babbling brook speaks in tones of discord as well and we all still love the music that it brings.
She winks and adjusts her angle to the bar and I look around here and I see the faces of people who are beautifully broken. And it’s kind of like looking at an old jar or vase that you’ve knocked over and it split in two so you glued the parts and the whole thing came together seamlessly. A perfect fit. But if you look closely you’ll see the fault line—the little, jagged flaw on an otherwise perfect creation. But you won’t buy another vase because another vase isn’t unique and it doesn’t have a funny story about a few too many shots or a clumsy toddler. It’s just another vase.
And so I spent a few perfect hours with some perfectly broken people and we all shared stories and compared scars and this bunch of strangers became my family and this is the secret of this song that we call life. It is the secret of the jukebox.