The town of Naknek, Alaska is connected to the town of King Salmon by a paved road. There is no road to connect either town with the rest of the world. The only way in or out is by plane or boat.
I landed at the King Salmon airport on a chilly May afternoon in 1998. I was greeted by a slightly frumpy, good natured woman named Dawn. One of her front teeth was missing. She was a waitress at the D&D restaurant, where I would be spending the summer. She drove me the 13 miles to Naknek in her pick-up truck. We pulled into the dirt parking lot beside the restaurant, and she helped me with my bags. I sat at the counter, and she went to tell George, the owner of the D&D, that I’d arrived.
Four of my friends back in California, who had worked at the D&D during previous summers, prepared me with stories about George. He was a great guy, but with a blistering temper, a heavy Greek accent, a bushy white mustache and a bit of a drinking problem. He waved to me from the kitchen, saying he’d be out in a minute. When he came out to greet me, he was friendly but brisk. He asked if I was hungry. I looked at the menu, saw it was mostly meaty fare, and I was trying to be a vegetarian. “I’ll have spaghetti with marinara sauce, I guess.”
I’d nearly finished eating when George poked his head out from the kitchen and said, “That was the one time I cook for you, from now on you feed yourself!” Dawn showed me upstairs to my room, I was to report to work the next morning.
The job was grueling, but simple enough. The waitresses stacked dirty dishes into bus tubs in different corners of the restaurant. I brought the bus tubs to the back, hosed excess food off the plates, stacked them onto trays, and ran them through the dishwashing machine. When the dishes were clean, I stacked them in the kitchen to start the whole cycle again. I’d alternate between the machine and washing pots in pans by hand in the triple compartment sink.
One of the waitresses took me out to the bar next-door one night after work. There was a bar on either side of the D&D, and someone told me that between Naknek and King Salmon, there are seven churches and nine bars. She flirted with me a bit, but it turned out that she was showing me off to make her boyfriend jealous.
Soon afterwards, I met her sister. Krystal was a bit overweight and only seventeen, but she was absolutely brilliant and hilarious. I was working like a dog, and she started showing up on my breaks and after work. She wanted to hang out, get me stoned and screw my brains out. How could I turn down an offer like that?
She had a pretty horrible family life, and within a few days she was basically living in my room with me. I’d work 12 hour days washing dishes and cleaning the kitchen, and when I got off work, she’d be waiting for me. We’d go to my room, smoke some weed and fuck like rabbits until the sun came up. Then I’d snag a few hours sleep before work.
It was great, except I was exhausted! As the three thousand fishermen who descended on the two towns for the fishing season continued to arrive, my workdays got longer and more intense. Krystal didn’t seem to understand my need for sleep, and we began to argue. I guess it was my fault. Our first night together, I gave her her very first Orgasm. She’d had orgasms before, but never an Orgasm. As anyone who’s had an Orgasm knows, the capital O makes all the difference. She was insatiable from that point on. She had no idea such pleasure was possible, and constantly wanted more, more, more, always more. When was I supposed to sleep?
Finally, I told her not to come by anymore.
That night, I had an intense feeling of dread.
It was mid-June. Two brothers had arrived from Mexico the previous week. They were working the dishes, and George was training me in the kitchen, very much against my will. It had been a long, brutal, hectic day. I was pulling pizzas out of the 450 degree oven when Dawn came to the window and said “Please cheer me up Seth!” I barely looked up at her, replying that I was far too tired to cheer anyone up. She walked away. About 45 minutes later, when the last of the customers had left, she walked out the back door. For the first time since I had been there, she didn’t even raise her head to say goodbye. It was the last time I ever saw her.
At 8 o’clock the next morning, dressed in her nightgown, Dawn climbed into the cab of her pick-up truck and blew her head off with a shotgun. Her ten year old son heard the blast. He was the one who found her.
I replay her last night over and over in my head. What if I had taken a minute to make a joke, to cheer her up like she begged me to? What if I had asked her what was wrong, and took the time to listen? It’s something I can never have back, something I can never fix, never undo... I will have to live with this for the rest of my life.
George didn’t close the restaurant for her funeral. They were friends for a long time, and I think he was angry at her for abandoning him. I remember being on the loading dock, outside the kitchen backdoor. There was a pickup truck out there that we threw trash into. Someone had built wood panels to extend the bed liner four feet vertically, so it held a lot of garbage, and when it filled up, someone drove it to the dump. The loading dock was where the grocery truck would unload our food shipments when they arrived in King Salmon via airmail, which is how everything was shipped.
The loading dock was a place to grab a minute, a breath of fresh air, a momentary respite from the kitchen. There was a stool out there, and a crate to sit on, and I was staring at the blue sky, fighting back tears, when George came out. Neither of us said anything for a while, and then he said simply, “What do you tell her kids, ya know? I just don’t know what the hell to say to her kids.”
And there it was. The hollow desperation of life and death and everything in between, laid bare to its very core. How could she leave her children alone to face the world like that?
Dawn and I had some deep conversations in the month I knew her. We had a running joke about our first meeting at the airport, with her front tooth missing. She explained that it was a long plane ride to the dentist, and she had to wait two months for a replacement tooth. She said she could only imagine what my thoughts were upon seeing her as my first impression of Naknek. We laughed so hard about that, it was always good for a chuckle together from that point on.
She often fought with her husband, but tolerated her life. Her mother and sister lived in Florida, and she planned on moving there with her son and daughter once they finished high school, in four years. She said Naknek had a great school system, and she didn’t want her kids exposed to the horrors of a big city high school, with the crime and the gangs and the guns. She talked so lovingly and selflessly about her children, she loved them so much. She wanted them to have a good life.
We were getting very busy during her last two weeks, and while I knew how much work there was in the kitchen, I couldn’t even imagine what the waitresses went through having to deal with all those hungry fisherman. When the boats came in, we got really, really busy, and Dawn was working 15 hour days, seven days a week, and apparently had started doing a lot of cocaine. She was also taking some kind of prescription drug, and someone said she was hitting the cough medicine pretty hard as well. I guess there’s a certain brand of cough medicine, where if you drink the whole bottle at once, it gives you a buzz like being on acid, and she was doing that as well as the coke and the pills. The night before her last night, I made her a sandwich, baked it up in the pizza oven to her liking, and she said it was the first thing she had eaten in three days.
She was pretty much out of her mind. How else could she have walked down her driveway that cold morning in her nightgown, knowing her children were sleeping in the house, knowing the shotgun would blast her brains all over the inside of the family truck? The Dawn I knew wouldn’t do that, she wouldn’t have left this world with such a mess for her children to deal with... but she did.
A week later the cook quit. John was a 45 year old swarthy, bearded Italian guy who referred to his 19 year old girlfriend as "my pussy". When she left him and ran home to Texas, he just packed up and went after her. He didn’t know that she and I had a conversation a few days before. She said she disliked the way John treated her, and I told her she didn’t have to put up with it, she deserved better. She responded by trying to sleep with me, and seemed quite disappointed when I rebuffed her advances. Two days later she was gone.
The prep-cook, Mikey, knocked on my door one morning and told me John was gone, I was the cook now, and George wanted me to come down as soon as I was ready. My summer had just begun.