Kayla Rutledge

Kayla Rutledge

This is a very terrible place to be lost, thought the man. The trees around him were so green they looked almost black in the Alaskan winter breeze, sifting snow onto the hard ground in soft, gentle waves. The man rubbed his eyes.
He had a vague memory of a car stalling, grinding. Snow in the engine, probably. But the docked ferry that would take him to the rig wasn’t far. A half mile off. If he missed it, he’d miss the whole hitch. No ferries came in the weeks between shift changes unless there was an accident. Couldn’t afford to miss a hitch. He’d lumbered down from the car, stuffed his mittened hands in his pockets, and begun walking.
But now the snow fell in long, unbroken waves onto the Alaskan wilderness, the road whisked away in a cloud of sugar, and his face numbed and felt staticky with cold.
The man had gone on a date last month. She had been very pretty, he supposed, but also sort of sad, mascara clumping underneath her eyes, her lilac-painted fingernails shaking whenever she reached for water.
The restaurant had been sad and not at all pretty. Even the waiter seemed garish, looming over them and speaking too loudly, as if the scratchy, stained maroon tablecloth and blazing overhead lights needed to be shouted over. The man had wanted to cover his ears.
“What do you do?” The woman said.
“I’m a mudlogger. I work on the oil rig up in Prudhoe Bay.”
She looked confused. “How did you get to shore?”
The man squeezed his eyes shut. He was so very tired. “I work two weeks on the rig, two weeks off.”
The woman had nodded, turning this information over in her head. “What does a mudlogger do, exactly?” she offered gamely. The man knew that she did not want to know.
“I measure things while they drill. Cutting rate. Porosity. Lithology.” The woman looked confused. He sighed. “That means the color. Make sure it’s safe. Collect samples to analyze. Keep the thing from imploding.” He made the motion with his hands. Boom. Inward collapse. The woman looked shocked.
“Sounds interesting.” Her face was hard. She looked slightly sick.
The man had laughed meanly, then felt bad. No one wanted to be a mudlogger. Not her fault she didn’t want to hear about it. Her lilac fingernails drummed on the table. They had asked for the check quickly.
The man shook his head to clear it off the memory. He willed his foot to move forward, but couldn’t tell if it had. Pain shot up his forearms, and in the man’s mind his veins were crystallizing like syrup. He stuck a gloved hand out in front of him and touched thick bark. The dark tree looked stout and comforting, and he curled up at the base of the trunk to shield his eyes from the stinging snow.
The snow disappeared, and he was in New Mexico, where the dust hung in the air and got in your mouth when you ate, and his mother was standing at the door of the house, calling him in for supper. He was running through a creek in his bare feet and stopping to pick up rocks. He was fifteen, smoothing down his stray cowlick in the mirror, a tie clutching at his throat and his homecoming date downstairs waiting for him. He was on the rig watching thin blue lines arcing up and up on a sheet of paper, the rancid, smoky air stinging his throat, he was shouting directions and men were pulling and pressing, cracking their bones to shift the weighty metal by the smallest degrees, and he felt powerful and small all at the same time.
He was looking at his hands, going in and out of vision, covered in snowflakes. In the distance, he thought he saw the lights of the rig. It would be warm there. He would sit down in his chair with the squeaky wheel and drink a cup of lukewarm coffee and he would be safe, even though it was the most dangerous place in the world. He could rest there.
He made the motion with his hands again. Boom. Somewhere in the distance, someone was singing “Joy to the World” with such heartbreaking beauty that the man thought that the whole world must be crying, even the trees above him, sighing quietly in the dusky December night.



Courtesy of the Creative Writing Program at Chapel Hill.

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