For weeks,the Colonel and I had relied on charity to support our cigarette habit — we’d gotten free or cheap packs from everyone from Molly Tan to the once-crew-cutted Longwell Chase. It was as if people wanted to help and couldn’t think of a better way. But by the end of February, we ran out of charity. Just as well, really. I never felt right taking people’s gifts, because they did not know that we’d loaded the bullets and put the gun in her hand.
So after our classes, Takumi drove us to Coosa “We Cater to Your Spiritual Needs” Liquors. That afternoon, Takumi and I had learned the disheartening results of our first major precalc test of the semester. Possibly because Alaska was no longer available to teach us precalc over a pile of Mclnedible french fries and possibly because neither of us had really studied, we were both in danger of getting progress reports sent home.
“The thing is that I just don’t find precalc very interesting,” Takumi said matter-of-factly.
“It might be hard to explain that to the director of admissions at Harvard,” the Colonel responded.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I find it pretty compelling.”
And we laughed, but the laughs drifted into a thick, pervasive silence, and I knew we were all thinking of her, dead and laughless, cold, no longer Alaska. The idea that Alaska didn’t exist still stunned me every time I thought about it. She’s rotting underground in Vine Station, Alabama, I thought, but even that wasn’t quite it. Her body was there, but she was nowhere, nothing, POOF.
The times that were the most fun seemed always to be followed by sadness now, because it was when life started to feel like it did when she was with us that we realized how utterly, totally gone she was.
I bought the cigarettes. I’d never entered Coosa Liquors, but it was every bit as desolate as Alaska described. The dusty wooden floor creaked as I made my way to the counter, and I saw a large barrel filled with brackish water that purported to containlive bait, but in fact contained a veritable school of dead, floating minnows. The woman behind the counter smiled at me with all four of her teeth when I asked her for a carton of Marlboro Lights.
“You go t’ Culver Creek?” she asked me, and I did not know whether to answer truthfully, since no high-school student was likely to be nineteen, but she grabbed the carton of cigarettes from beneath her and put it on the counter without asking for an ID, so I said, “Yes, ma’am.”
“How’s school?” she asked.
“Pretty good,” I answered.
“Heard y’all had a death up there.”
“Yes’m,” I say.
“I’s awful sorry t’ hear it.”
The woman, whose name I did not know because this was not the sort of commercial establishment to waste money on name tags, had one long, white hair growing from a mole on her left cheek. It wasn’t disgusting, exactly, but I couldn’t stop glancing at it and then looking away.
Back in the car, I handed a pack of cigarettes to the Colonel.
We rolled down the windows, although the February cold bit at my face and the loud wind made conversation impossible. I sat in my quarter of the car and smoked, wondering why the old woman at Coosa Liquors didn’t just pull that one hair out of her mole. The wind blew through Takumi’s rolled-down window in front of me and against my face. I scooted to the middle of the backseat and looked up at the Colonel sitting shotgun, smiling, his face turned to the wind blowing in through his window.