Last week, I finally had to put Howl Palace up for sale. Years of poor financial planning had led to this decision, and I tried to take some comfort in my agent’s belief in a buyer who might show up with an all-cash offer. My agent is a highly organized, sensible woman who grew up in Alaska—I checked—but when she advertised the listing, she failed to mention her description on the internet. “Attractively priced tear-down with plane dock and amazing lake views,” she wrote under the photo. “Investment potential.”
I am still puzzled as to why the word tear-down upset me. Anybody who buys a house on Diamond Lake brings in a backhoe and razes the place to rubble. The mud along the shoreline wreaks havoc with foundations, and the original homes, like mine, were built in the sixties before the pipeline, back when licensed contractors had no reason to move to Anchorage. If you wanted a house, you either built it yourself, or you hung out in the parking lot of Spenard Builders Supply handing out six-packs to every guy with a table saw in the back of his vehicle until one got broke enough or bored enough to consider your blueprints. Which is why the walls in Howl Palace meet the ceiling at such unconventional angles. Our guy liked to eyeball instead of using a level.
To the families on the lake, my home is a bit of an institution. And not just for the wolf room, which my agent suggested we leave off the list of amenities, as most people wouldn’t understand what we meant. About the snow-machine shed and clamshell grotto, I was less flexible. Nobody likes a yard strewn with snow machines and three-wheelers, one or two of which will always be busted and covered in blue tarp. Ours is just not that kind of neighborhood. The clamshell grotto, on the other hand, might fail to fulfill your basic home-owning needs, but it is a showstopper. My fourth husband, Lon, built it for me in the basement as a surprise for my fifty-third birthday. He had a romantic nature, when he hadn’t had too much to drink. Embedded in the coral and shells are more than a few freshwater pearls that a future owner might consider tempting enough to jackhammer out of the cement.
My agent is named Silver. She brought me a box of Girl Scout cookies to discuss these matters, and so I tried my hardest to trust the rest of her advice. When she said not to bother with pulling out the chickweed or flattening the rusted remnants of the dog runs, I left both as is. But then I started thinking about what people say about baking blueberry muffins and burning vanilla candles. Buyers needed to feel the atmosphere of the place, the homeyness. Fred Meyer had some plug-in tropical air fresheners on sale. I bought a few. I shoved them into the outlets. Within minutes, the entire downstairs smelled like a burning car wreck in Hawaii.
Silver scheduled the open house for Saturday. “Noon,” she said. “Before families have put the kids down for a nap.” The night before, I lay back in my recliner and thought how every good thing that had ever happened to me had happened in Howl Palace. And every bad thing, too. Forty-three years. Five husbands. Two floatplanes. A lifetime. It felt as if I should honor my home, that strangers shouldn’t come around poking through the kitchen or kicking the baseboards, seeing only the mold in the hot tub and the gnaw marks on the cabinets from the dogs I’d had over the years, maybe even laughing at the name. “Howl Palace” was coined by Danny Bob Donovan’s littlest girl during a New Year’s Eve party in 1977. She said it with awe, standing in the middle of the wolf room with a half-eaten candy cane.
“Mrs. Dutch,” she said, “this is so beautiful, I think I need to howl a little.” And howl she did, cupping her hands around her mouth and letting loose a wild, lonely cry that endeared her to me for forever.
Howl Palace was still beautiful, in my mind. And could be to other people, given the right welcome. Silver had said to just relax, to let her finesse the details, but I went to the locker freezer and pulled out fifty pounds of caribou burger, plus four dozen moose dogs. All we needed now were a few side dishes. And buns.
The next morning was bust a hump. The menu for the cookout had expanded to include green bean casserole, macaroni salad, guacamole, and trout almondine. Trout almondine requires cream for the cream sauce, which I forgot on my eight-thirty run to Costco, leading me to substitute powdered milk mixed with a few cans of cream of mushroom soup. My fifth husband, Skip, used to call me the John Wayne of the Home Range, not in the nicest way, until he got dementia and forgot who I was or that he had to follow me around explaining how I’d organized the produce drawer wrong or let too much hair fall off my head in the shower or failed to remove every single bone from his halibut steak because I didn’t fucking ever think. Shipping him off to a facility in Washington near his daughter wasn’t exactly something I struggled with.
The pool table, where I planned to lay out the buffet, was coated with so much dust it looked as though the velvet had sprouted a fine, silver fungus. I dragged an old quarter sheet of plywood from the snow-machine shed and heaved it on top. If you are looking for a reason to split five cords of wood by hand each year for forty-odd years, consider my biceps at age sixty-seven.
The plywood I covered with a flowery top sheet from a long-gone waterbed. Out went the side dishes, the salads, the condiments. On went the grill, the meat at the ready. All that was left was the guacamole. Which was when Carl’s pickup pulled into the driveway.
Carl wasn’t my husband. Carl was the beautiful, bedeviling heartbreak of my life. His hair had thinned, but not so you saw his scalp, and age spots mottled his arms. His smell was the same as ever: WD-40, line-dried shirt, the peppermint soap he uses to cut through fish slime. For one heady second, I believed he had come back to say in some soft, regretful voice: Remember when we ran into each other at Sportsman’s Warehouse? It got me thinking, well, maybe we should give it another try.