Murphy's Slaw




My BFF Annie Jensen and I seized the moment, relaxing on the patio of her inn with fruity summer drinks. One of those long, hot August days in Elkview, Alaska was before us. We reveled in the six a.m. sunlight that would persist for nearly twenty hours. Even better, sharing stories about our cats.

Benny, an orange tabby, was the hero of my stories. I imagined him curled up on the top level of his plush cat condo in my home, a short drive away. Yulie was Annie’s main character, a flame-point Siamese, now perched in front of a window, eyeing us from inside the air-conditioned comfort of the inn’s lobby. More likely, he was eyeing the red squirrel just out of reach on a tree branch close to the grand main building Annie’s family had left her.

Annie and I had just waved goodbye to the tail end of two blue and gold “See Alaska” tour buses. Theirs was an ambitious tour, starting in Anchorage and making its way through Elkview, and north to Fairbanks to see the northern lights. If the rest of the trip went well, the timing would be just right for the tourists to enjoy a view of the amazing green sweep of the aurora borealis. Our waves and smiles had been accompanied by big sighs of relief as the two twenty-four-passenger buses pulled out of the inn’s driveway. The lively and generous passengers had added significantly to the coffers of Annie’s Inn and my Bear Claw Diner, but the work had taken its toll on us and our respective staffs.

I was lucky that many of my staff had been hired by the diner’s previous owner, my mom, Evelyn Cooke, who’d passed both the diner and her precious cat on to me.

“It’s great that our little town of Elkview is a stop on so many tours,” Annie said. “My cabins have been pretty much at capacity all summer. Thanks for making the Bear Claw the perfect dining spot.”

I nodded, indicating how pleased I was that my diner was the go-to place for meals for Annie’s tourists.

“I agree. It’s been a boon to be on the tour schedule. But also great that we have a break before the next buses,” I added. “My suppliers could barely keep up. I had to request double orders for everything from almonds for the bear claws to cabbage for the coleslaw.”

“They loved your slaw,” Annie said. “I wouldn’t have thought it could be so good without mayo.”

“And your new afghans on the beds were a huge hit. It’s great that you’ve taken up knitting again.”

She smiled. “So what if I used size fifteen needles,” said the returning knitter.

A passerby could always count on overhearing these post-tour reviews, where Annie and I complimented each other on our work. Somebody had to do it. We’d practiced this supportive banter all through school, and even though we went to different colleges in the lower forty-eight, we maintained the tradition across the miles and picked it up again when we’d both made our way back to our hometown.

This week our guests had arrived in Alaska in time to enjoy two days at the State Fair, about an hour and half south of where Annie and I sat chatting. By the time they’d arrived in Elkview, they’d accumulated enough souvenirs to take up an extra seat each on their bus. We were treated to displays of hoodies, T-shirts, baby bibs, tumblers, even flash drives with multicolored moose or bear visages.

“I have a good one, Charlotte,” Annie said, getting back to our cat stories and using my full name to emphasize the seriousness of the joke, if that could be a thing. “It’s not exactly a joke, but a kind of a saying that I saw on Twitter.”

“I’m ready.”

“I mean, it doesn’t have a punch line or anything, but it’s hilarious.”

As usual, it would be a while before Annie got to the point. Especially when she thought something was hilarious.

“Okay, here I go,” she said, and cleared her throat. “If the world was flat, cats would have knocked everything off it by now.”

She followed the meme with an over-the-top laugh. I granted Annie the pleasure of a reasonably loud guffaw myself, and admitted it was a line worthy to be shared with my mom the next time we FaceTimed.

We sat quietly for a while, the only sounds being that of a finch in a nearby tree and the corresponding scratching from Yulie who apparently had dreams of making contact.

While telling our feline stories and sipping our drinks, we’d both been flipping through local newspapers and flyers that had piled up during our double-booked tour groups. I was checking out a promotional postcard from the Alaska Veterans Museum in Anchorage, featuring a new navy exhibit I knew my dad would like. I thought of the two of them, mom and dad, currently spending a week in Oregon, attending a wedding anniversary party for friends who used to live in Elkview. Mom had been her friend’s maid of honor. One thing was certain: my mom was keeping her resolution to travel during retirement. Dad still did some management consulting work but would drop it with little notice to join in the fun.

Annie gave out a sudden little squeal. “It’s tomorrow,” she said, waving a colorful postcard at me. “I forgot all about it. Good thing we’re still free tomorrow.”

I gave her a quizzical look. “What are we talking about?”

“The knitting workshop at the Fair. It’s new this year. I know we haven’t gone to the Fair in ages, but this year there’s a special group teaching knitting techniques, and then all the items go to shelters, or the military, or some other charity.” She screwed up her face into a familiar annoyed expression. “This postcard is so late. What if I’d missed this?”

I felt a tightness in my jaw. And what if we did miss it?

I let out an almost-audible growl. I’d worked the fair one summer at a small cotton candy booth. My whole job had been about the monstrous pink stuff. When I wasn’t making cones from flimsy paper, I was twirling one of them around the giant tub of flying sugar. As I remembered the gig, it was well into the school year before I got all the sugar out of my hair. If it had been up to me, I’d have tossed out every shirt I’d worn, as hopelessly sticky no matter how many wash cycles I put them through. I’d begged my parents never again to force me to work outside the diner during school breaks. Only later, it occurred to me that might have been their plan all along.

As an adult, my experience of the fair was mostly negative for other reasons. Increased traffic on the George Parks Highway, crowds around the otherwise peaceful Lake Eklutna, roadblocks for the accompanying parade. Add to those, twelve days of questionable music and entertainment, loud noise from every booth, and unpleasant odors from the countless animal pens.

And one other reason, if I was being honest. There was that year that I took my now ex-fiancé to the fair. Ryan Jamison, attorney-at-law. I’d been more or less successful in pushing him out of my mind, but now and then, as with discussion of the Alaska State Fair, he popped in.

Annie took her turn, with her view of the events, as if she’d been privy to my thoughts. “I love all the noise and the music, the animals. And the parade, especially. Let’s go. We missed it the last couple of years.”

“We didn’t miss it. We skipped it.”

“Same thing.”

Not really. “I thought you told me you didn’t even have time for a movie this week. You’d said you’d be busy cleaning up after this last tour.” I pointed to the now invisible trail left by the buses. “Remaking the beds in all the cottages, catching up on the bookkeeping, arranging the scheduling for your staff.” I trailed off, figuring she got my point, and not wanting to spoil our break.

“You’re right. I’m barely going to have everything cleaned before the next tour shows up. Or is it ‘barely going to be cleaned up after the tour groups’? I know how much you love the right grammar. Not ending a sentence with a preposition and all.” This was one observation she did not mean as a compliment.

Since it was only a small grammatical error, I was willing to let it pass. Besides the preposition rule was pretty much passé. “More or less correct, Annie.”

“But I want to go anyway.”

“Anyway what?” Asked to possibly throw her off track.

No such luck. “It’s only an hour or so down there, and we can leave early, be there when it opens and be back before the Bear Claw’s dinner crowd.”

I couldn’t continue to push the “We’re busy” thread, since we both had staffs who were perfectly competent and always willing to give us the occasional day off. “It’s more like an hour and a half.”

“Please, Charlie.”

Now she wasn’t being fair, making me feel like a wicked mommy.

“I don’t know, Annie. I have so much to do.”

But I wasn’t fooling her.

“I’ll get my things together,” she said.

“We’re going early and leaving there right after lunch,” I said. “I am not driving back here at the height of Parks Highway traffic.”

On that I was firm.

Not that she heard me.