Excerpt

Homestead

Melinda Moustakis

March 1, 2023 
The following is from Melinda Moustakis's debut novel Homestead. Moustakis was born in Fairbanks, Alaska, and grew up in California. Her story collection, Bear Down, Bear North: Alaska Stories, won the Flannery O’Connor Award, the Maurice Prize, and was a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 selection. She is the recipient of the Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University, the NEA Literature Fellowship, the Kenyon Review Fellowship, and the Rona Jaffe Cullman Fellowship at the NYPL.

There are scores of men in Alaska, their faces a worn stare, and the first man Marie likes the look of who has prospects and could be tied down long enough to marry, she will have him. Visiting her sister and brother-in-law, Sheila and Sly, all the way from Conroe, Texas, with the money they sent and no return date, she walks with them into the Moose Lodge and mouths open and forks hang in the air. Talking to Sly is a way to be closer to her, be a big man and offer what before was a hassle, a favor to have hers. Marie laughs too much and too easily, the charm of being the shiniest thing in the room, and sips her beer to be polite and to avoid the swarm of do-gooders if her glass becomes empty. Two women at a table are collecting signatures for the support of statehood—now that there is an Alaska Constitution this should follow—and one talks about how Alaskans should be able to vote for the President and for their governor, who currently is chosen by the President, which is just not how things should be done, we’re taxpayers, after all. Sly and Sheila add their names and Marie takes a pamphlet, and then the raffle is announced. They bustle over to the buffet and fill their plates and sit down.

To her left, a table over, is a man with a shadow on the sharp line of his jaw. The other men at his table steal glimpses of her but not this man, his hair black as polish, and he puts his knife down after each bite, and chews with care, and clears his plate. He fills his plate again, and the raffle ends, and the other men around him get up and return with dessert, bread pudding, but he eats his helping of pot roast and potatoes and gravy. She has a feeling about him, about the hunger he is slow to fill, and the edges of his face that cut the air, and she says, “Mister, they ever feed you ’round here?” with a hint of a drawl. He knows she is speaking to him, his back tenses, and he glances over. And nothing more. He does not answer her and stands up to leave. He is not wide or tall in strap, but wiry, a spine set straight. She dares not turn her head around and sinks into her seat. Then a tap on her shoulder. On a scrap of paper he has written: 150 ACRES. “Tomorrow,” he says, a rasp in his deep voice.

That night she waits for Sheila and Sly to retire to their bedroom and she studies his handwriting, the lean to the right, steep and falling, the letters squared and pained. In this she sees a man with a will that defies his size. A man making his way. A man, and not the boys she knew in Conroe. And not the old getter who thought he was waiting for her. She rolls the note and places the paper underneath her tongue, holds the promise there. Land. Acre by acre. This one she would endure.

*

Any woman not A wife—a sister, or cousin—is a welcomed change to the company of drillers and carpenters and diggers and mechanics at the Moose Lodge, the tired and hungry scraping of forks, the talk of too many hours, bosses with big mouths, the grind of frontier life. The first woman Lawrence reckons can winter in a cabin, he will ask her. There is an empty seat beside him in the ’53 Mercury he drove up to Alaska, and in the truck he bought once he’d saved enough, and room beside him where he sleeps, on a couch in a bus he has lived in for a year. He could have dragged the bus out to his claim, but is working and saving over the summer. His father, Joseph, drove up from Blackduck, Minnesota, to visit and had brought him a bed, made from carved oak and passed down, for when he settled. Joseph schemed a business for him—an old school bus, a 1945 International Harvester, outfitted with a woodstove for heat and a propane one for cooking and a counter inside, a diner on wheels, and he fashioned a wooden sign that said joe’s and fixed it to the top, Don’t matter where you are, people need to eat. Which was why Joseph had opened his own diner some years ago in Blackduck, the Atomic Café. Lawrence had preferred working the farm to busing tables and washing dishes and having to listen to his father tell the same stories to the same customers. He found the bus suited him as living quarters and left the sign and stored the bed and what it was for.

A young, dark-haired woman arrives with Sheila and Sly, who he met once before at the lodge, and with that a promise has walked through the door, of someone to give him a reason to suffer the long shifts and cockeyed work of a drunk man with a hammer. And, for him, a wife for the sake of children. Mechanics and drillers who know Sly are the first to introduce themselves with hearty slaps on the back, offers not asked for or needed. “Borrow my tools, my lift, my haul trailer, anytime. You take care, now. You take care of this one, too.” Weasels, all of them. She can have her pick, but what pickings they are, hard-worn, wind-slapped, smelling of sweat and grease and damp. She smiles but makes no promises, laughs loud. Says, “How about we see?” The rush dies down only when the Luck of the Moose drawing starts and everyone is asked to take their seats and listen to the numbers for the winning raffle tickets, but it is not the raffle that interests the men. Her name is Marie, he overhears. She will be in Anchorage a week or two visiting Sheila, her sister.

He watches her without staring. He downs his scalding coffee, holds the liquid in his mouth with the burn, shows neither pain nor weakness. There is a glass of water in front of him and he does not allow himself to reach out and drink—no comfort, no righting of his mistake. He bites down on his tongue. Take it easy. Bernie is talking and he wants to say, Shut the hell up, I’m trying to think. Bernie, a Moose Lodge member and carpenter he met at one of his first construction jobs, and brought him here for a home-cooked meal, and he’s been coming here ever since. Bernie also knew who to ask for more work, and at one remote build told him all he knew about grizzlies. Lawrence eats his plate of food, piled high, and he does not know what else to do, he needs more time, and he buys another. For every bite he cuts a square of pot roast with his knife and fork, the roast not as tender as the last, and covers the square with mashed potatoes and drags the mouthful through the brown gravy.

When he finishes another plate, she turns from the table over and asks him a question. He catches a hook in her voice, and the way she says “Mister” sends a pain straight through his throat. She laughs, her mouth wide on her small face, her hair dark against her skin. Words, he hates them, how they fail to come out of his mouth and make happen what he wants to happen, and he nods in reply. Another man talks and takes her attention away. Bernie glances over at them. “There’s about three women up here in Alaska, it seems. And he just got one of them.” Lawrence will lose his chance, he knows, and grabs the pencil out of Bernie’s shirt pocket. He writes on a scrap of paper and stands up and taps her on the shoulder. She reads the message. She understands. “We’re at the end of Clay Street, a green trailer,” she says. He nods. “Tomorrow evening, six,” he says. It is done.

*

Marie tells Sheils she has a date. A man from last night. He had not given his name, and he left after handing her the note. So she asked around, and someone called Bernie told her: Lawrence. “Do I know him?” says Sheila. “Should Sly and I tag along? “I don’t think he’d want a crowd,” says Marie. “Seemed shy.” He has to see she is worthy of those acres, that she is as serious as he is, no time to waste. In this trailer she is Sheila’s little sister who might still return to Texas. But out there, on that land, there is a chance for more. “Wait a minute, we’re supposed to go dancing at the Panhandle,” says Sheila. “Could join us.” Marie shakes her head. “Where’s he taking you, then?” “He didn’t say, now that I think of it,” says Marie, and knows Sheila will be concerned. “I have a time and I know he’s coming here.” “Not sure I like this,” says Sheila. “We’ll be gone before he arrives. Sly has an early day.” “One evening,” says Marie. “He knows I have family.” “He knows you’re young and you just got here. Men are the same no matter what fence they’re leaning on.” “Isn’t that what Valera used to say?”

“It’s true even if she did,” says Sheila, of their grandmother. “I guess you can go. Besides, won’t be dark til midnight.” “I promise I’ll be back hours before then,” says Marie. “What will you wear?” “What would you let me wear?” says Marie. Sheila laughs. “I see nothing has changed.” But it could, and as soon as tonight, a beginning. Sheila heads to her closet in the back of the trailer. She has two new getups she will allow Marie to try on, if she is careful. He will take her to dinner. Though she loves to dance, he does not seem the type. Marie turns on the radio and the announcer says the next song is “Everything I Have Is Yours” by Billie Holiday, who was right here in Anchorage for a few concerts in 1954. The slow, dreamy music starts with the rain, and she opens the window and leans on the sill and drops fall on her outstretched hands. They were always praying for rain back in Conroe, looking to a blue and cloudless sky, and she was tired of waiting.

*

He arrives in the two-door Mercury and his hand shakes as he holds out the wildflowers he picked, the blossoms of fireweed so bright and purple they embarrass him. “For me?” she says. “Who else?” he says. She wears a peach dress and boots. The boots are a good omen. He drives in the rain. She fills the silence, tells him she is eighteen and finished high school, though her grandmother almost kept her back on account that Crockett, where she went, and Booker T. Washington might not be separate anymore, and Sheila made the dress, her sister can sew most anything and she, herself, not a stitch. He does not mind her talking. The roundness of her face, her eyes golden in the summer light, and in those eyes, he sees the children he is set on having. “You going to say something?” she says. “How old are you? Where you from? Where’s your family?” She, he could sense, is looking at him, the whole side of his face, waiting, and would wait until he opens his mouth. He grips the steering wheel. “Why don’t we get married?” She cracks into laughter, gasping and kicking the dash. “You don’t have a ring.” “I’m twenty-seven,” he says. “You know what I have and what I got to offer.” “Pull over,” she says, breathless, “I need the ladies’ room.” He turns into the soggy lot of the Buckaroo Club, crowded on a Friday night. She runs out and yanks open the Buck’s double doors. He slaps his face. He should leave her there, drive away, and she would return to Texas. But she would tell Sheila, who would tell Sly, and he would never be able to show his face at the Moose Lodge again. The Mercury rolls a few feet and stalls. He is too late. She is running back to him, holding up her dress and splashing with each step. She jumps in and slams the door shut. “You ain’t leaving without me,” she says. He reaches over to touch her hand, and her staying is an answer.

__________________________________

Excerpted from Homestead. Copyright © 2023 by Melinda Moustakis. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.




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