Fishing for Trouble




When an ambulance pulls up to the doors of a diner, it's never a good sign.

Such an occasion is bad for the person headed for the gurney and bad for the diner's owner. The owner would be me, Charlotte Cooke, aka Charlie, on the wrong side of thirty and owner of the Bear Claw, the finest and only diner in Elkview, Alaska.

I was proud of our new entrees and the constant refrain of “Best mooseloaf I’ve ever had,” from natives and tourists alike. And our new “snack pack” for diners on their way to Fairbanks to immerse themselves in the Northern Lights was a big hit, especially since we’d added our new spicy elk jerky to the mix.

But it was our supine customer, not our tasty menu, that was in the spotlight this cloudy summer afternoon with its rare threat of rain. Some of my lunch patrons had poured into the parking lot, joined by passersby, all caught in the dizzying strobe effects of spinning lights on the Matanuska-Susitna Borough ambulance.

The paramedics had moved the patient to the back of the diner where there was a small hallway with more elbow room than there was between the booths and stools.

I stood in the doorway leading from the hallway to the back parking lot and surveyed the scene. Had it really been necessary for the enormous fire truck to pull up across the street? Was there even a building in Elkview tall enough to require the polished white ladder stretched along the engine’s body? Maybe the truck had simply been in the neighborhood? Similarly for the patrol car of the Alaska State Troopers, the cartoonish bear on its door giving the lie to the seriousness of the situation.

It occurred to me that my close connection to Trooper Cody Graham, simply “Trooper” to his friends, had expedited the response to the nine-one-one calls my diners made when a young man had toppled over onto the table in his booth. I was close enough to hear the chatter among the diners crowded in the aisle.

“Such a shame,” repeated more than once.

“He’s just a boy,” came from anyone with a touch of gray.

“I saw him come in with that group of fishermen.”

“They were too young to be fishermen.”

"Maybe he had an allergic reaction."

“I think they worked in that fish processing plant across the river.”

“J and M?”

"Did he choke on something?"

“J and M. That’s the one. A small local company.”

“They didn’t even have food yet in that booth, so he couldn’t have choked.”

“What did he order?” A popular question, asked by a number of diners who clutched their stomachs waiting for a response.

“What does it matter? It hadn’t come yet.”

“Even so.”

I winced at that and other snippets— mercifully few—that included the dreaded suggestions of food poisoning as the cause of the man’s misfortune.

The comment “I think he said, ‘I’ll take the special’,” had me drawing in my breath every time I heard it.

Sighs of relief followed from those who did not order the special of the day—grilled King salmon with a mustard sauce and choice of rice or mixed greens salad—and groans from those who did. I wrapped my arms around my body to hold a shudder at bay as I waited for another victim to fall over, grateful for every minute that passed, free of new drama.

No amount of questioning or supposition was acknowledged by the EMTs. Their carefully choreographed, coded movements inspired confidence as they stripped away layers of clothing and worked on the man’s torso. The patient was perfectly still, his countenance almost serene, his dark hair neatly in place, as if he’d brushed it when he’d heard cries of “Nine-one-one?” and “Hurry,” all around him.

All I knew for sure was that the poor young man was not responding to their efforts, and I was left wondering what part if any the Bear Claw kitchen played in the man’s distress. I listened for signs that a simple antacid would be the solution to this disruption. Instead I was pushed aside by a hefty woman in a uniform and purple rubber gloves as the medical group loaded the young man onto a gurney and carried him out to the ambulance. It didn’t help that it was now pouring rain.

“What happened to him?” and “Will he be okay?” from me and others drew no response from the professionals.

The Bear Claw had been at capacity, fifty-plus patrons in our retro red vinyl booths and on stools. Many of the diners wore nametags, marking them as members of a bus tour that had originated in Anchorage, about a hundred miles to the south. The crowd was on its way to Denali National Park where, June or no June, the mountains would be covered in snow. It had been a coup for the Bear Claw to earn a spot as one of the tours’ regular stops.

At least until today.

What to do now? Mentally crossing my fingers was my only recourse to hope for the patient’s quick recovery.

I was amazed at how many onlookers held their cellphones high, taking pictures of the action. I cringed as the patient’s right to privacy was being violated. The EMTs were situated around him. Whether it was deliberate on their part or not, their positioning ensured that no one could catch an image of the young man’s face.

I noticed an additional group of onlookers across the street, in the doorways of stores and hanging out second floor windows. Usually the sound of loud sirens indicated that a grizzly bear had been sighted wandering the neighborhood. The sirens would be accompanied by a police or volunteer car with lights flashing and someone on a mic bellowing “Bear sighted. Everyone stay indoors.”

Though it was clear that no bear was visiting, the crowd hung around. Was it otherwise that boring in Elkview? I had to admit the answer was yes, compared to my former life in San Francisco where I’d been a chef at a four-star restaurant before returning home to Alaska. I wasn't thrilled at the idea that the Bear Claw was providing the best entertainment in town on a Wednesday afternoon. Or, worse, that someone's video would end up on social media for all the world to see. Not the kind of publicity I wanted.

Of all times for the previous owner of the Bear Claw, Evelyn Cooke, my mom, to be away. She’d have known what to do, to get all the diners safely back to their seats. It took all my courage to resist texting her. But what could she do from San Diego, California, more than three thousand miles away? And didn’t she deserve a vacation, given that her Danube River cruise in the spring had been cut short? She and my dad were now taking a shorter, do-over trip, though he’d been allowed to finish the business part of the trip at European ports, as evidenced by postcards from Amsterdam, Cologne, Wurzburg, Nuremberg. I doubted he’d immersed himself in the thermal baths of Budapest, since that card said simply, “Wish you were here.” Right now I wished both he and Mom were here in Elkview.

Earlier in the evening, I'd taken a leisurely stroll through my kitchen, admiring the smooth workings of my staff, led by my chef, Victor Fiore. Since he took over three months ago, he’d made significant changes to the Bear Claw’s menu. Even some of our regulars took delight in Victor’s culinary experiments, as he called them. Like a special grilled cheese sandwich with an added layer of shepherd’s pie. Or his spaghetti made of arugula and cheese, a kids’ delight as long as no one revealed the healthy ingredients.

A dessert fan myself, I’d been snacking on a strawberry dipped in white chocolate when I heard the loud calls for nine-one-one.

I made my way now to the diners who’d waited outside, huddling under the overhang, the better to see the ambulance screech its way to the nearest medical center. Smells from our menu wafted out of the Bear Claw’s open doors, clashing with that of petroleum jelly and other persistent odors from the ambulance. I'd done my best to assure my diners that all was well, that the emergency was being handled by experts, and that my staff and I were still available to meet their needs. And, by the way, coffee, tea, and all desserts, pies and cakes alike, were on the house.

Today’s tour guide, a middle-aged brunette whose name tag read JO DAVIDSON, had stepped up and made sure her charges were calmed down and even offered to warm up or replace meals that had become less appetizing for the wait.

Jo and I had a somewhat cool relationship since she’d made it clear when we first met that she’d have preferred what she called a “real restaurant” for her tourists. I was pleased when she admitted that not one of her clients had ever complained about the food or service at the Bear Claw. Rather, we had both heard the opposite, that classic American diner food and ambience was a treat on any tour.

My mom had tried to place our diner fare somewhere between the stale coffee and kitschy posters of old and the haute cuisine that marked some modern restaurants. I hoped today’s upset wouldn’t change that, any more than Victor’s experiments in diverse special recipes had.

The glow from the bright bars and strobes that had brightened up the area around the Bear Claw was slowly abating. If I never saw that vehicle or one like it again, it would be fine with me.


Nina Fiore, Victor’s sister and my treasured waitress, pulled me back inside the diner and steered me toward the people our patient had been sitting with. My flitting back-and-forth, inside and outside the diner and the hallway in between, made me dizzy, the perfect word for my mental state also.

“The guy in the ambulance? His name is Ethan Johnson,” Nina told me, adjusting an apron around her tiny waist. It didn’t escape my notice that she always folded it to hide the silly Bear Claw logo. I didn’t blame her. Mom had suffered a lapse in judgment when she ordered the aprons, potholders, and other supplies adorned with the grinning bear. I didn’t have the nerve to get rid of them until she was truly retired or the linens were stained and torn beyond repair, whichever came first.

“Ethan was a college student working in fish processing for the summer,” Nina continued. “I guess you can earn an awful lot. Like, up to fifty thousand dollars just in the three summer months.” She stopped for a deep sigh, no doubt doing a little arithmetic comparison with her Bear Claw wages.

If Nina was angling for a raise, she’d have to wait. Right now I was anxious to learn more about how Ethan’s emergency had come about.

We walked toward a booth where Ethan’s companions were assembled. “Did you serve his booth?” I asked Nina.

She nodded yes. “They were saying how they were looking forward to getting away from dormitory food. Not college dorms, but the dorms out at the processing plant.”

“Had they been in the diner long?”

“No, they didn’t even get served yet. They went outside until the ambulance left and now they’re back. His guy friends are Garrett and Kevin. Garrett’s the one with his hand all bandaged up. They’re all juniors or seniors at some small college in Oregon, but they didn’t know each other until they got the jobs here. They work at the processing plant as I mentioned. It’s just a small one up near Talkeetna, but it’s a branch of a big plant with headquarters in San Francisco.”

“You know a lot about this company?”

Nina sucked in her breath, as if to say, “Busted.” Instead she mumbled, “I might have looked into them at one point.”

“How about the young woman in the booth with the guys?”

“I don’t know her name, but she’s in the worst shape, so I’m guessing she knew Ethan before.” Nina took a breath. Then, “Can you imagine fifty thousand dollars on summer vacation?”

I smiled. “Certainly not,” I said, figuring the message got through.

“Of course, that’s probably for the rougher jobs, like working on the boats hauling the catch, and not some of the less skilled jobs in the plants, like all the sorting, cutting and cleaning up. But still.”

“The booth, Nina?” With a customer in an ambulance, I needed to move on from salary talk. Nina deserved a raise and would soon receive one, though not at the scale she coveted.

Despite a slight frown, Nina remained the ever gracious hostess and introduced me to Ethan’s friends as I joined them in their booth.

“Ethan was here for the summer, working, like us,” said the teary young woman in a long denim skirt. A girlfriend? Or just a sensitive companion? She looked frail to me, but that might have been due to her hunched-over posture and the helpless expression on her face, as well as an oversize parka.

I learned that even before their meals arrived, Ethan had let out a loud croak (said Garrett), then grabbed hold of his throat (said Kevin who demonstrated the movement). The two young men, each sporting contemporary stubble, seemed more surprised than upset at the incident.

"Then he just crumpled," the woman said, turning to me. “Do you think it’s a bad sign that they took him away?”

I wished I knew. I settled for a lame, “He’s in good hands.”

"I wouldn’t say ‘crumpled’. More like, ‘jerked’," Garrett said. A quick jerk of his own head sent long blond hair whipping around his neck. “In fact he had a kind of spasm and fell on Zoe, right Zoe?”

Zoe squinted as if blocking her eyes from a bad memory. “I was so scared. He hugged me. It was like he didn’t want to let go of me.” Each word got softer than the one before and I hesitated to ask her anything more.

I noticed the bandage Nina had mentioned during our walk-and-talk briefing, a significant one on Garrett’s left hand, as if he’d also used the neighborhood’s medical services, though short of needing an ambulance.

"After that, he fell with his head on the table," Kevin said, slumping, then throwing his well-built shoulders back, for all to see.

Since Ethan hadn’t received any Bear Claw food, I was satisfied that his distress had been brought on by something other than today’s special. "Did he say anything?” I asked.

“I think I heard, ‘harbor’,” Garrett said. “Like it had to do with fishing, which makes sense, considering where we are this summer.

“I thought I heard ‘archer’,” Kevin said. “Like bow and arrow stuff. Or it could have been arcing. Like an electric arc. I sort of remember something like that in physics but I couldn’t tell you what it means right now.”

“How about you, Zoe? What do you think he said?” Garrett asked. “You were the closest to him.”

Zoe shook her head and shrugged, signaling she hadn’t heard what Ethan said, or hadn’t wanted to remember. She busied her hands trying to find a dry spot on a well-used tissue. When I pulled out a small packet of tissues and handed it to her, she gave me a look as grateful as if they were concert tickets to the hottest band of her generation. I had no idea who that might be. Did ten or twelve years make a generation these days?

Zoe stood up suddenly zipping up her parka. “Why are we sitting here? I want to go to wherever they took Ethan.”

“There’s nothing we can do,” Kevin said.

“Kevin’s right,” Garrett added. “We’ll find out when they know something. And don’t forget that’s my parka you’re wearing.”

Both men laughed. I chose to interpret it as nervous laughter rather than thoughtlessness over the misfortune of their coworker. “Who dry cleans a parka?” Kevin asked.

Both men answered: “A girl,” from Garrett, and “Zoe Michaels,” from Kevin.

Zoe fell back on the seat, not the least bit amused, though I suspect the guys were trying to lift her spirits as well as ease their own nervous tension. Her tears started again, though she held back any sounds.

I put my hand on her shoulder. “I’ll drive you,” I said. “Let’s go see Ethan.”