There were four directions she cared about: north, north-northeast, south, and Northwest. As far as she was concerned, the rest of them led to long-duration unhappiness. Terra incognita. Dragons and the end of the world. Love forever lost in exploding first stars seen and unconsummated wishes.
She said that maybe she only loved me. It wasn't my fault. It was her birthright. It was a need she had been handed when she walked down from nowhere to be born. And then she had gone as far as she could go in each of her important four directions and it would require someone to bridge the remaining distance.
I had personally decided on Northwest before she'd ever seen the shattered rose. That got me from where I was born on Warren Street on Key Biscayne to 1215 Warren Place, which is where I'm sitting now. I thought the street name was kismet. Karma. Fortune. Serendipity, and that was also her name.
Her actual name was Christine Zielinsky. When I found out I told her that name weighed two-hundred pounds and could understand why she jettisoned it like a balloonist abandons ballast when the tree tops are too close. Serendipity was much lighter, we both agreed. A particle of brilliant glowing dust rising in a blue flame. I would never, ever, call her Chris or Christine, I had to promise. Or she would leave. Just like that.
You wouldn't be reading this story if it wasn't for Serendipity. When I first got here to Nome we didn't have internet. They told me I was lucky if NJUS could keep my power on for more than twelve hours at a clip. I had backup generators running all the time.
Now I have sat phones. Six-megabit-per-second streaming video. At the touch of a button I can watch people having sex in hotel rooms in Hollywood.
Now I have a 5.9 Liter Jeep Grand Cherokee with a brush grille and a tow hitch. Xenon lighting. I have a husky named Ron. He eats fish. He reminds me that once the only source of potable water in Nome was Moonlight Springs. Now it's the underground artesian well nobody knew was there. Ron pawed at a patch of dirt and there was water, just like Serendipity said. Saved us the trouble of having to drill a well through the rock. George Carson said it would require nuclear explosives to get to water that way.
Serendipity says I will find my true love someday.
Serendipity needs to come to everyone and I told her that -- everyone needs a dose of the good luck. She should spread it around. So after I got my Jeep she went over to George Travelslightly and brought him a king salmon and twelve feet of copper conduit he'd been needing for the heat pump he was building. And then Lauren Socks got a new chimney for her stove and a plane ticket to Los Angeles to be on "The Price is Right". George Monday got a new crab boat. Little Fanny Handeland got herself one of those electric Barbie riding cars and Herman Grant's gall bladder stone shrank to dust and passed out a bile duct.
And then Serendipity said that life wasn't about the getting of stuff, and that no matter where she went they wanted her to stay for all the wrong reasons. She hoped we wouldn't make the same mistake. We all met up in Landy's Bar and shook our heads at the same time. Every damn last one of us. It wasn't about the getting of stuff but the finding of lost loves, which everyone had to do at least once in his or her pawltry life.
Serendipity says no life is pawltry.
We suggested she move into the old Schield place and travel around but come back to Nome when she wanted to be somewhere that would be a home for her. But it's a big world and a lot of ground for one little blonde girl to cover when she's only going northwest, and Serendipity was way too afraid that she hadn't gone as northwest as she could go. Maybe there was some left. We could tell she was itching to leave and even given the plain fact Dr. Rogers articulated that the topology of a sphere demands one travelling in a constant direction must return to his original starting point, I was still quite concerned Nome wasn't Serendipity's starting point and she'd end up somewhere else.
We were having dinner by candle light one evening, when as luck would have it Charlie Berkhalter over at Nome Joint Utility Service fell asleep and missed the generator refueling schedule. There's something about putting a candle flame between you and a woman that makes them impossible not to love, and I was very in love with her at the moment she told me about her quest.
"So I have to find him. Will you help me?"
"Who is he?"
"Justice. It has to be a surprise, you see, so I got myself committed to the quest. I went to the library and picked up the first book I could find and told myself I would go where it said. It was that atlas in the library with the torn pages. I knew it was a sign so I followed what it said. I went north to find him, but I got stuck in a blizzard in Alberta. Then I went a bit east, but the roads were impassible in Ottawa. They stopped me at the border in El Paso. Thought I was smuggling drugs. Will you help me?"
"Yeah, anything," I said, because I would have said anything at that moment to get her to love me back. This was before I knew she already loved me from the time she was born and I didn't have to worry, so I was worried like I usually was that this was going to be another one of those relationships where I fall in love and she leaves me for a guy with a Ski-Doo and an elephant gun.
Back in Miami, it was the guys with the Corvettes and the long hair who could keep them busy in bed for most of a night. So I was justfully worried some mountain man who was used to sneaking up on caribou would walk out of the woods and take her away.
"Won't happen. Can't. Tell me about you," she said and the flame vibrated with her words and made me think of forest fires. I would light the whole state of Alaska on fire if I had to. Circle the entire town in flames the size of apartment buildings so she couldn't run away.
She said, "But I have my quest. Northwest. I will have to leave for a while, but I'll come back. And you have your quest."
Now some guys have stories as long as their arms. They can go on for weeks, starting from the time the DNA mixed in their mother's womb to their first fist fight to learning to ride a bike to burning ants on the sidewalk with a magnifying glass to getting married a couple of really bad times.
My story was short. A business man's elevator speech cut down to a sound bite commercial for rotten luck.
"When Ted Dettmar stole Janie from me he told me to get out of town. He'd just steal all my girlfriends and it was never going to end. There was no place for me in Miami. So the only direction out of Miami, where you could go a long way, is northwest. And I lived on Warren Street and decided to go that way till I found another Warren Street. Turns out there aren't any between Miami and Nome that I could find. Kismet. Karma."
Serendipity said, "No Ted Dettmars here in Nome."
"Wouldn't matter," she said, and then went on about how God had introduced her to me before she was born, and told her to find me. Maybe I was her one and only man. She didn't know. We would have to wait and see. "He did you a favor, Ted Dettmar," she said, "He cleared all the girls out of the way so you could concentrate when the time came to it. Now I'm here and you're all free of women. You should thank him."
"Ok. Thanks, Ted," I said.
"He should probably get a gift, too."
"You could send him a Porsche," I suggested.
"I'm thinking something more along the lines of a top-of-the-line food processor."
"Who wouldn't want one of those?" I said. When Serendipity got generous, it was always time to agree.
It was part of Serendipity's philosophy of life. Before you found love, all sorts of material substitutes came your way. Cars and power tools and home versions of TV game shows. To her, all of life was questing for love. It was the job of every soul. Cover the earth with tracks until you find the one and only love for whom you were born. But the way it worked, Serendipity said, was that you'd never find him or her on your own. Love must always come as a surprise. It will never be where you're looking.
"But why bother looking?" I asked her, the day I got Ron. We were walking down nine-mile road out of town into the woods, for no other reason than it was paved.
"Because if you're not looking, there's no surprise. Surprise is the most important element of true love. Say you're thinking you might want something. If you're thinking about it, and it shows up, you're ready to accept the surprise. Otherwise, it just rolls off like eggs from a teflon skillet."
"I don't get you," I said.
"Ok, think of something you want."
I told her I always wanted a husky dog. Maybe a malamute.
"How many huskies and malamutes you see?"
"Lots. This is Alaska. We have them here."
"Then how come you don't have one?"
"They belong to someone else."
"How about this one?" she said. And then Ron came out of the woods and sat in front of me waving his tail like I was going to go snag him a caribou to munch.
Serendipity said, "See, you thought of one. One passed by, and now you're ready to accept the surprise. He's here for you."
"But this is someone else's dog," I said. "He's got a collar."
"He doesn't think so," she said. "He thinks he belongs to you."
Sheriff Wagner said he thought some tourists from Anchorage dumped Ron in the woods to get rid of him. And anyway, once he got to my house Ron sort of took over the way Serendipity did the first time I met her.
"You were thinking about Janie," she said, vibrating a candle flame between us.
"Well, she was my wife. We were never properly divorced."
"Doesn't matter," she said, "you are surprised and that's the way it should be."
You know, there's always a heartbreak. No matter how many times Charlie would fall asleep at the switch and cut off the juice to my house, no matter how many candles I burned loving her, there had to be heartbreak.
"You keep saying you're still looking for your lost love. Why can't it be me? Let's just say it is. Ta dah. Boo. Surprise."
She'd go quiet and start talking about getting satellite TV or a backhoe to dig a proper compost heap. And packages would start arriving by plane, not just for me, but for anyone around me. A chunk of blue ice the size of a refrigerator fell out of an Alaska Airlines 737 and crashed to chunks in Margie Russell's back yard. She found a ring embedded in it with a two-carat diamond. Right around then Herman Grant's gall stone disappeared and the whole town was hoping Serendipity would stay forever.
But I knew she was going to leave.
"Who is Justice Northwest? Why can't it be me?"
She wouldn't answer.
More things arrived, and I loved her more and more every day while my little house piled high with free toasters from banks who thought I had accounts, coupons for rental cars, and cases of malted waffle mix. It was around that time that I was walking Ron down to the shore when Sheriff Wagner slowed down the squad car asked me to come into the office, and there I met a man named Dave who said he was Christine Zielinski's husband. Did I know where she was?
I had Ron who was growling a bit at Dave. I wanted to growl, too. But there was something in the man's face. He started talking and I realized I had never in my entire life seen anyone so sad and still alive. Every piece of him radiated grief. It started to hurt just to be near him.
"I had her committed," he said. "We had her on meds at home, and it just wasn't working. So we put her in an institution. She went willingly at first, but then she kept leaving, so I had to have it done. Legally."
He must have told the story about a thousand times, in a thousand other small town police stations, to other men who might have met Serendipity and taken her in under surprising circumstances. Maybe there were a lot of us. Maybe she had a lot of almost true loves. But there was only one for real.
Dave said, "She was raped in there. I will never forgive myself." Tears came to the man's eyes as I imagine they must have thousands of times. And I wondered how tired he must be looking for her, as northwest as she'd come.
"She was pregnant," he said, and Sheriff Wagner brought him a glass of water and had him sit down. "They took her to a hospital, a real hospital, for...well...she ran away after...God forgive me...she couldn't exactly have the baby..." And I knew that of all the times he'd told the story, this was the time he couldn't say the word.
I left Ron with the Sheriff because I didn't think it was right for him to have to see. And I went to her at my home. She was sitting on the new leather sofa that had just arrived, watching broadband HDTV on the satellite.
"Christine..." was all I had to say. She shot up as if the sofa was electrified and the air in the room went cold. In fact, they'll tell you down at Lindy's the whole town got fifteen degrees colder the second I called her by her other name.
Tears streamed down her face. She went to the window and looked out. Saw Dave and Ron and Sheriff Wagner in the stone driveway next to the jeep.
"Not you," she said, "how could you?"
I wanted to die at that moment. I wanted to cut my wrists and drain my blood down the toilet. I wanted to jump under a train. I would have eaten the Sheriff's gun if he'd have handed it to me because all the good luck and warmth left my life when she went out the front door. It felt like I'd frozen to concrete when she walked up to the Sheriff, then turned around with her hands behind her back, awaiting the cuffs, staring at me as if I'd just burned down Camelot and shot the last unicorn.
"You did the right thing," Sheriff Wagner told me. Dave smiled and shook my hand and then hugged me the way guys do in California that leaves you wishing for someone softer. And Ron sat next to me and whined a little when she fired the shot that should have killed me.
"None of it is true," she said. "I am Christine. I escaped from the Northwestern Institution for Women. There is no Northwest. There is no Justice."
When she got into the car I came unglued. Oh how she was wrong, and maybe this was it. The last thing I'd expect was the biggest surprise love could bring. I couldn't stop my own crying. I pounded on the window and got the Sheriff to stop. I had to tell her the one last thing. The last bit of grace my dying love could muster. I believed her.
She cracked down her window a bit, and hung out the tips of her fingers.
"You can't get there from here," I told her, because for once in my life everything about me was totally free and clear of burden of my past and my belongings. I touched those fingers and lit the fire in my mind--the fire that destroyed that huge pile of stuff, Claude Proudfoot would say, was the largest they'd had in Nome since the Comstock mine explosion of '98 -- and that was 1898.
I screamed it and Ron howled because he knew I was right. I knew exactly where Justice was, and we were never going to get there. The Sheriff started away. Maybe she couldn't hear me.
Or maybe she knew all along that Northwest is heaven.