Ben lived in a cherry paneled room in his grandmother’s house, filled with toys and souvenirs his mother sent him from Alaska. She liked to write postcards instead of calling (probably because a stamp is cheaper than a long-distance call), and Ben had taped up the glossy cards, liking the pictures on the front of beluga whales, polar bears, dogsled teams, and frosty snow under purple and green night skies.
On the back of the postcards, hidden from view once Ben had taped the cards to the wall, were her brief, cheerful messages. She wrote in a childish, loopy, swirling sort of way, and used brightly colored ink that smeared and made the words hard to read. Ben’s grandmother usually had to help him decipher the notes; he was in first grade, and could read some, but his mother’s words always swam in front of his eyes like hieroglyphics. On the back of one postcard that had a picture of a fuzzy, prehistoric-looking animal called a musk ox, his grandmother read,
“Dear Benny, I’m working now in a big, fancy hotel and will soon have enough money for you to come live with me. You’ll be able to play in the snow all winter and play outside at midnight in July. xo, Mom.”
His grandmother’s voice was high and lilting when she read these notes to Ben. Ben thought she sounded weird, her words all tight in her throat. Ben didn’t usually care about the postcards; only when they were tucked inside a big cardboard box filled with stuffed killer whales, wooden cap guns with “Alaska” stamped on the side, and funny, furry hats did he examine the messages from his mother with some concentration. The words were all the same anyway, six months ago she was working in a fancy restaurant in Anchorage, and promised that her tip money would soon add up enough that she could send for him. A year ago, when he was six, she had been working far North in Fairbanks, but she didn’t mention where she was working or that she wanted him to come, only that it was very cold and very dark.
Ben lived in a sort of fear that his mother actually would have enough money to fly him up to be near her again. His grandmother shared that fear, but didn’t let him know that. Around her heart was a sort of cushioning reassurance that she relied on: she knew her daughter would probably never save up enough money to actually be able to take care of Ben again. Money slipped through her fingers like glitter, and plane tickets from Kentucky to Alaska were very expensive. Even one-way tickets.