Inside, the temperature’s always the same, 72 degrees. Outside, it would range anywhere between -50 to 20 degrees, depending on rotation and inclination, depending on the Lights and Chinook. One day you get cold at 35 degrees, a month or two later 20 is t-shirt weather. The weather in Fairbanks doesn’t care about your feelings or consistency, its music is improvisational and the Lights dance for its stochastic notes. Its notes wander like jazz, but always with a foundational grounding in cold. Variations on a theme.

But in the living room, it was always 72 degrees, aided and abetted by residual warmth whirring off TV, stereo, Xbox, or all of the above. In the living room, weather was dictated by mood. Perhaps more volatile.

There are two major, weather-related, emotional break points in Fairbanks. You either malfunction heading into darkness, or coming out of it. Either Superman or Bizarro. It doesn’t matter, really. Fairbanks will have its due. Either the waning of sunlight slowly saps you of vitamin D, motivation and hygiene going the way of dreams to reality. Or, you’re empowered by the dancing cascade of Lights bookending winter, the warmth of anonymity and shadow embracing and cleansing you like a dream from reality.

I remember walking into the 8th floor writing center in Gruening some winter days and finding Austin maddly punching poems at a computer, the glow of UV rays from a sunlamp reflecting from his face. His hair flaring like Beethoven at a piano, the smell of a dry cabin and smoked salmon engulfing a socially distanced radius, and just a few lines away from whiskey.

Perhaps from a childhood split between the Pacific Northwest and Kotzebue, AK, entering darkness never bothered me much. Years spent playing football in petrichor and digging snow tunnels. There is release and respite from the demands of sunlight. When you grow up in overcast weather or eight months of winter, sunlight means must. Sunlight is an obligation. This isn’t suggesting I hate sunlight, but more imparting that I also long for darkness, and the world at play when the world isn’t illuminated. When the world is dark, imagination rules and the heart follows. Books taste better at night, the fantasy of movies project real—popcorn’s truest bloom sprouts only in nightfall.

One night, after Austin had finished his poem and tucked rented sunlight under his cubicle desk, we ended up at the Marlin, we often ended up at the Marlin. (The Marlin permanently closed due to COVID-19). Half underground, the Marlin felt like a house party. The front room had a little stage, directly right of where you entered, just big enough for countless open mic renditions of Wagon Wheel and a five-piece band. Pews lined the far wall partnered with little circular mosaic-like bejeweled tables that looked like your hippy aunt’s art projects. They were sturdy and nearly impossible to keep a drink on without a coaster.

To the left was the narrow bar, which ran almost the length of the lower level front room. There were maybe ten taps. Past the bar was a short hallway where the bathrooms were, and just past that opened a little hall with a spattering of seating, a vending machine, and a stripper pole. During winter, the hotdog guy, Chris, would set up shop in the back right corner, the smell of caramelized onions outstripped even the cigarette smoke, and was more intoxicating than booze or whatever was happening on the pole. On one of the walls was mounted a large Marlin, which had survived the several fires that regularly plagued the bar, but not without scars. The hall had a second level deck that also led to an outdoor patio for summers and anyone who needed a moment from the din.

On the weekends, the bar would be bustling, full of the week’s pent up play and frustration. In the winters, this could lend the tone toward depressed, spent, or angry, depending.

Tonight was different. It was early April, and winter had slowly begun its slow march into spring. There were occasional warm days and the built up snow and ice were beginning their recession, an imminent revelation of the dead. The moment Austin and I stepped inside, we could feel it. There was a brightness on the wooden walls, usually a dull, deep, candlelit brown in winter. Tonight felt ecstatic, maniacal. When I finally reached the bar, I ordered a shot of Jameson and a PBR. Normally, I sip on the shot between rinses of beer, but the night demanded more. I knocked back the shot and ordered another. Thus armed and crowded by thirst, Austin and I made our way back.

But the hall was no better, the typical low grumbling sprinkled with occasional shrieks belted towards bedlam, a bacchanal buzz bent on babel. People bursting out of their jackets and bodies, as if skin were the newest fashion and everyone had to have it. Faces rubbed by in blurs and spilt drinks hung in midair. I took the other shot for fear of losing it. Everyone was overexposed and sweating, stepping on each other’s feet trying to get a word in.

Austin said something, but I lost it in a stranger’s armpit. He said it again, screaming through my head, but it was too loud and close.

Underneath the pandemonium was a menace, an overwhelming surge of a winter’s grievances. The rent of dissatisfaction swallowed naked faces whole, a gyration of human messes throbbing throughout the hall. I couldn’t tell if the evening would become orgy or riot. There were days when I would have waited and found out, but tonight was not one of them. I remembered what Sam told us when we arrived first year, “Don’t make any major life decisions in the spring. Avoid exiting or entering any serious relationships, don’t make any large purchases, people kinda go crazy in the spring.” And though this wasn’t a significant life decision, the advice still applied. Tonight, I could feel my soul stumbling out of darkness with eyes atrophied from self-indulgence. I wouldn’t be figuring anything out in this air. Having finished half my tallboy, I cut my way back towards the bar, intent on home. But I would need another shot before the journey. Just as well, my tab, like the night, needed closing.

As I pulled the last of my limbs through the layers and from the Marlin, night air slapped me with frostbite. It was a mile walk back to Madcap, but a welcome one, even, perhaps especially, in cold. Time and existence feels actual in the cold.

The walk was a simple one. Mostly a straight line on sidewalk. In winter, the snow reflects enough moonlight for dusk to last the night. The ambient glow ghostly but comforting. I listen as each step chomps snow, refrozen into footprints from those before me. A slow, necessary rhythm. I count my steps: 2,239.

By the time I get home, it’s still only half past ten. I can’t sleep before midnight, regardless how long it’s been dark. Kane is reading on the couch, reading the same chapter. Edgar stares at the same stage he’s been dying on for days. He dies in the same spot again and again. I sit on the far couch and pull the recliner lever, diminishing with each degree lent backwards. But comfort feels uncomfortable. I sit back up and stare into the living room. No movement appears capable, except for Chris, who’s running around with errands, so many errands. He’s helping his girlfriend get settled, having just moved up here for him. His sense of duty is palpable. It’s the only thing that is. The rest of us stare haphazardly, not even pretending anymore. Kane’s book is out of sightline, Edgar is staring out the window, and I rearrange tiles on the coffee table in my mind. Our breathing conforms. Chris keeps bouncing between the kitchen and his room, looking for more ways to help. For that moment, we hate him and his purpose, or we would if we were capable of feeling anything apart from the dull throbbing of snow falling on snow, and its monotonous accumulation. The night just goes.  

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