The carved fish in Nome is like Bart, the guitar player I met on the train who got off in Laramie, leaving me to continue on to Sacramento with my little daughter and my fiction that had she not been there, I’d have gone with him. When he got off the train, he might have said “Bye” but he didn’t look back.
The carved fish hung on the wall in the gift shop on Front St. in Nome. There were two of them – a lighter one and a darker one – both carved out of whalebone by a local Yupik artist. They were both lovely and large, heavy in my hands like a real fish would be, and I decided I needed to own at least one of them. I decided it would be the lighter one, cream colored with shadows of pink.
Then I saw the price and I put the piece down on the counter.
Oh, it was a fair price. There was the artistry and the work of it and then the uniqueness of buying this beautiful carved fish in Nome created by a person who lived there. It was an Alaskan piece of art in a million ways. But I knew when we got home we would need to buy a new dryer and so I watched the owner put the fish back on the wall.
Over the next few days, I visited the fish. I’d decide to buy it and then remember the dryer. I’d tell myself I’d never be in Nome again and I should buy this one thing to remember Nome and the people I’d met there, have a fish hanging on my wall at home that would remind me of the rawness of the Bering Sea. The fish had come from that very sea.
I bought a maroon fleece jacket that cost $29. It zipped up the front and had “Nome” stitched on the front and I wore it from the moment I bought it until I left town days later. It made me feel great. Warm, grounded. I wore it with the Levi’s I bought in Fairbanks and my brown boots and felt perfect and unique and yet, the morning we were leaving, I decided to go back to the store and buy the fish. We could afford both the fish and the dryer.
But the store was closed. The sign on the door said that the store would open again when the owner so moved and I didn’t know if that would be that afternoon or the next day or in the spring. There was no way of knowing. And meanwhile, the van was waiting to take us to the airport. So we went, as we should, without the fish, but remembering it as it might have been.