Alaska Shorts: “Ballistics,” by Jeremy Pataky

I STAND BESIDE the uniformed law enforcement ranger
during the Fourth of July parade and watch the big fire engine with its
volunteer crew growl along, followed by the fundamentalist preacher float with
its generator-powered electronic organ, and then a vintage Jeep decorated as a
bush plane taxiing down the dirt street. The motley marching band comes by with
its flute, snare drum, tiny finger symbols, and clarinet. Because town is very
small, the parade goes down the dusty main drag once, loops around, and then
does it again. Later, the same street hosts the egg toss, tug of war, nail
hammering contest, and the three-legged race. And because it’s a small town, I
know well the law enforcement ranger who stands, armed and armored, beside me.
And because it’s a small town, and a remote one at the end of a rough
sixty-mile dirt road that itself begins in the middle of what some would
consider nowhere, it’s a rare day when a large crowd of people like this
congregates. Independence Day, here, is thronged with people, making it by far
the easiest day of the year — maybe the only day — when it’s possible to blend
into the crowd. And because it’s an unincorporated town and technically private
property, we are beyond the jurisdiction of my co-spectator, the National Park
Service law enforcement ranger who lives here. A short walk in most any direction
would get one out of town and onto NPS property, where one would be subject to
the federal rules and regulations that entails. But it’s the Fourth, and
everyone in the valley is in from the woods to mix with the visitors who’ve
come in all the way from the big city to focus on each other and the occasion.

A dozen barn swallows swoop and dive
above the crowd like cartoon fighter jets, their iridescence glinting like
silent daylight fireworks blasted from the trees or the old fading buildings,
reminding me where we are. Not far to the north in the valley, the terminus of
the massive glacier yields its meltwater as a silty, gray river, all bracketed
by weathered ridges that funnel the cool glacier winds down our way in the
A supersized white pickup,
four-doored and generously endowed under the hood, slowly rolls by on the
parade’s first pass through town. The noise of kids, engines, four hundred
people talking, laughing, a barking dog, a small plane whining overhead
someplace, the noise of insects and birds, my thoughts turning things over, and
the crowd of people and activity all make such a din and spectacle that I doubt
myself when I think I see a large man I don’t recognize, bald and swathed with
a blue bandana, lift his arm from the white truck in the road and fire a round
into the air with a revolver. The law enforcement ranger doesn’t react, though,
and the crowd is nonplussed. Everything remains normal. I must have mistaken
what I heard and thought I saw — it was a backfiring motorcycle, maybe, behind
me somewhere, I don’t know. We are outside the jurisdiction of the only law
enforcement officer within a five-hour drive and he stands close enough to me
that if he fired his own pistol I would smell the spent gunpowder while my ears
When the white truck, bedecked with
American flags, rolls round again, one little pearl in a parade-shaped string
of pearls, the whole procession pauses, and the white truck and the bandana man
are stationed precisely before us, the ranger and me. And then one of the
largest revolvers I have ever seen comes out of the truck in the large hand of
the man who pokes it skyward and shoots, loudly, unmistakably, into the air,
surrounded by the swollen crowd that helps me feel anonymous in this tiny town.
It’s an island in a sea of wildlands, an end-of-the-road town where the law
enforcement officer beside me sees what I see, and hears it, and does nothing
because it’s not only out of his jurisdiction, it is not, in fact, illegal
here. The parade sparks back to life and keeps moving, and the kids run and vie
for the scattershot fistfuls of candy flung to them by volunteer firefighters,
by backcountry guides sporting garish gear from the 80s, by Park Service
interpretive rangers fresh out of someplace else wallowing in their summer in
Alaska. I notice one little girl in the crowd watching a pair of violet green
swallows mingled in with the barn swallows swooping and diving above us all,
though I doubt she sees their difference.

No one reacts to the second gunshot,
either. I ask the ranger about it, and he tells me that that man’s brother
committed suicide here on the Fourth of July a few years back.

Jeremy Pataky grew up in the Inland Northwest and visited
Alaska twice by boat before relocating over land. He earned a BA at Western
Washington University and an MFA in poetry from the University of Montana. His
work has appeared in Colorado Review, Black
Warrior Review, Cirque, Ice Floe, The Southeast Review, and many others.
Overwinter (University of Alaska Press,
2015) is his debut book of poetry.

Pataky migrates seasonally
between Anchorage and his cabin near McCarthy, Alaska. This
nonfiction piece was inspired by a Fourth of July celebration
in Eastern Alaska and a letter sent by a friend to the author about the death
and burial of a local man named James Sill.
To read more of the excerpt, download a free copy of the Alaska Sampler 2015.

Would you like to see your work featured here? Check out our Alaska Shorts guidelines and submit today.

2 thoughts on “Alaska Shorts: “Ballistics,” by Jeremy Pataky”

  1. Lynn Lovegreen

    Beautiful snapshot of a small Alaskan town, Jeremy. I always enjoy your writing.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top