...according to Esquire magazine:
His eighteen-year-old daughter is about to go into labor; his future son-in-law's mother was just busted for dealing OxyContin; his snowmachine still isn't ready for the two-thousand-mile Iron Dog race; little Trig needs to be changed; Willow needs to be picked up from school; his wife won't be home for hours; and now, for some reason, Wasilla PD is banging on the door. But fear not. He can handle this.
Two cops. They don't ring, they knock. Todd is sitting on his couch, facing the big double-paned windows that look out on his backyard and Lake Lucille. His plane, a 1958 Piper Cub, is out there on the shore, in the snow. It's mid-December, and the lake is cold enough, the ice thick enough, to put skis on the plane now, something he's been meaning to do. There are lots of things he's been meaning to do. He's been meaning to install a security gate at the turn-in to his driveway. During the campaign, the Secret Service had a little checkpoint there. They had a boat out on the lake, too, with a couple agents in it. Good guys, all of them. He kind of misses having them around. He figures that would be a great job, if you were young and single and didn't have a family. Todd liked one of the agents so much — the guy they called Surf because he was from California — that he took him out snowmachining. But those guys have all been gone for months now, and Todd still hasn't gotten around to putting up a security gate. Anyone can just walk up to the front door and knock, not ring.
The cops are a man and a woman. He's big, she's small. They're standing out on the welcome mat, near a weathered American flag and the huge bleached vertebra of an arctic whale. They're in uniform, and Todd's sort of in uniform, too. He's wearing what he pretty much always wears: Carhartt jeans and a Tesoro Iron Dog T-shirt. This particular T-shirt is from the 2005 race. He's competed in the two-thousand-mile race so often that he could wear a different Iron Dog T-shirt every day for two weeks without doing laundry. Not that he doesn't do laundry. Four girls live in this house. He does a lot of laundry. There's a big pile of it on the kitchen table right now, needs folding. There are dishes in the sink, too, that need to be washed, and a whole bunch of toys and clothes lying around that need to be picked up. He lets the cops in and they stand in the foyer next to more than a dozen pairs of shoes, only one of them Todd's.
"Good morning," Todd says.
"Good morning," the guy cop, Sergeant Kelly Swihart, says. "Got a minute? The deputy chief asked me to stop by. Have you heard that Piper was involved at the church when all this stuff happened between Molly and Mike?"
Todd doesn't have any idea what Sergeant Swihart is talking about. He knows whom he's talking about, of course. Molly and Mike. Molly McCann and Mike Wooten. Todd's sister-in-law and her ex-husband. And Piper. Piper Palin. Todd's daughter. Seven years old. He named her after that fifty-year-old plane of his. And of course Todd also knows that plenty of stuff has happened between Molly and Mike, not to mention all the stuff that's happened between Mike and the rest of the family. Todd still talks about all that stuff so often that his wife sometimes tells him to just "drop it," as though bad memories and bad blood were things you could just bury in a garage somewhere. But Todd has no idea what particular stuff Sergeant Swihart is talking about today. Or how Piper was involved. So he shakes his head.
"What's the latest on that? I didn't hear."
"Well, we're in the middle of the investigation," Sergeant Swihart says. "We got information that Molly was in the van, and she was with her in the vehicle. So we're just trying to confirm she was or wasn't in the van."
"Piper?" Todd asks, meaning was it Piper that the cops are trying to confirm was in the van?
"Piper," Sergeant Swihart says. "Make sure all our bases are covered. It was the night they had the play at the church."
"Okay," Todd says. "What investigation is going on? Something with Wooten?"
"Yeah, Wooten reported that he was talking to his kids in Molly's van, and Molly shut the door on him and caused him injuries."
"Oh really," Todd says.
"So we're just trying to follow up and make sure we get a complete understanding of what's going on."
"What day was that again?" Todd asks.
"I don't remember what day it was. Craig Robinson's the case officer, but he's in some meetings and the deputy chief asked me to stop by." Todd's been living in Wasilla, a forty-mile drive north of Anchorage, since before there was such a thing as the Wasilla Police Department, and he knows some of the cops who work there pretty well, but he doesn't think he's met these two before.
"Piper is with Molly a lot," Todd says. Todd's got five kids, and those five kids have got sixteen first cousins, and since the whole extended family lives in the same area, the parents all take advantage of one another, swapping duties, filling in, shuttling children to and from school or basketball practice or plays at church or whatever. He tries to think where he might have been on the night of the play at the church, whichever night that was. He's not sure. And he's still not sure exactly what these cops want, either.
"You want to talk with Piper? Or you just want to confirm that she was in the van?"
"If she was in the van, we'd like to talk with her if possible," Sergeant Swihart says, then pulls out his cell phone. "Lemme call the chief real quick and see if I can get what date that was."
"Is she in school?" the lady cop asks.
"What?" Todd says.
"She in school?"
Todd nods, and then his own phone starts ringing. It's a new BlackBerry, but one with an old-fashioned ringtone that sounds as though it's coming from a wired phone. He pulls the phone from its holster, looks at it. It's his wife.
"Hello," he says. "I'm a little busy right now. I'll call you back. Yeah. Yeah. Bye."
He and Sergeant Swihart hang up at almost the same time.
"It was the tenth, Wednesday night," Sergeant Swihart says. "And so if she was there, we want to just make sure we cover all the bases."
"Well," Todd says. "I'll find out if she was there. And then how do I get ahold of you?"
"Lemme give you my card with my cell phone and all that."
Todd takes it.
"All right. Well, thanks, you guys, for checking in. I'll find out and call you back. Be safe. Keeping busy?"
"It's getting there," Sergeant Swihart says. "That time of year."
The door snaps shut behind them. Todd walks over to the kitchen table and puts Sergeant Swihart's card down beside the pile of unfolded laundry. He walks back to the couch, stepping around a baby quilt and a play set and a molded polyurethane infant chair called a Bumbo.
The house is an open-concept design, with no walls between the kitchen and the living room and the foyer. There's a fake Christmas tree in the corner, and a caribou head hangs above a huge entertainment console that contains a big-screen TV and a bunch of framed family photos. Like most of the photos in this house, they're formal portraits, posed. Todd sits back down on the couch. When he'd taken the clothes out of the dryer earlier, he'd found that he'd left a screwdriver in the pocket of one of his other pairs of Carhartts, and he'd removed it and put it in the pocket of the Carhartts he's currently wearing. He feels that screwdriver against his leg now, fishes it out, and spends a little while slowly rolling it between his hands, looking toward his windows with their view of the lake and his plane without its skis.
"Trigby! Crazy boy!"
A girl's voice. His oldest daughter, Bristol. Age eighteen. Todd puts the screwdriver down on a coffee table in front of the couch, looks over his shoulder, and smiles at Bristol as she comes down the stairs from the second floor. She's wearing jeans and a baggy sweatshirt. Baggy or not, you can still see her belly underneath. Official due date is a week away, but everyone knows due dates are just educated guesses. She's got her baby brother with her, eight-month-old Trig, and he's a case in point: showed up almost a month premature. He's dressed just like his big sister: jeans and a sweatshirt. Most days, she and Todd are his main caregivers.
Bristol hands Trig over to Todd, who balances his son on his knees and juts his chin forward and makes snorting noises at him. Trig grunts happily back, reaches out and grabs ahold of his dad's lower lip. Todd pulls his head slowly away till his lip snaps back into place, then looks over at Bristol again, who's searching for shoes in the heap by the front door. She's getting ready to drive into town.
"Where's that car seat?" Todd asks. "In the Jetta?"
"No, the car seat's in Mom's."
"Just the base," Todd corrects her. "Are you taking the Jetta or the truck?"
"The truck. Do you want us to get Willow?"
"I'm gonna get Willow," Todd says. "But just call me."
Bristol leaves and Todd turns back to his son. "Doo. Doo. Doo doo! Hi!"
Back when Surf and the rest of the guys from the Secret Service were around, they had a code name they used for Todd. They called him Driller. They called him that because he works on the oil and natural-gas fields of Alaska's North Slope. He's worked there since he was in his twenties, and though he's been on leave for the last few months, he'll be starting back there again soon. Todd didn't mind his code name, but he knew it was a little misleading. He's not a driller. What he is is something called a production operator. He monitors the machinery at the plant and makes sure the complicated network of pumps and turbines and separator vessels does what it's supposed to, keeping the oil flowing. One of the things he likes about his job on the slope is the schedule: He usually works one week on, one week off. So when he's home, he's really home, and that's a good thing, because it's complicated here, too.
His BlackBerry rings again. It's his sister-in-law Molly. He props the phone between his ear and shoulder and continues to bop Trig up and down on his knees as he fills her in on the visit from the cops. He doesn't have her on speakerphone, but she has a voice that carries.
"I don't know why they want to talk to the girls or whatever," she says, sounding exasperated. "Why are they digging, digging?"
Todd shrugs into the phone.
"I'll catch up with you later," he says. "You got Piper?"
His BlackBerry goes back into its holster, and he turns his attention back to Trig.
They’ve torn the sled half apart, but it still looks like a beast. More than any other vehicle, snowmachines have faces. The high forehead of the windshield slopes down toward two deep-set, gleaming headlights, and the nose flares forward from there, toward the snout, where sharp vents are cut into the shell a nostril-space apart. One of the brands that sponsors Todd and his Iron Dog racing partner, Scott Davis, is called Arctic Cat, and the company aims for a certain feline look in its sled design, but what it achieves is a little different. The sled's front end looks a lot like the face of one of the creatures from Where the Wild Things Are.
Todd and Scott are lying underneath, reratcheting some bolts onto its frame. Todd has spent a good chunk of his forty-four years lying underneath snowmachines. The first one he ever rode was a Montgomery Ward Sno-Jet that his dad bought. He figures he was seven years old. The first he ever owned was a 1974 Polaris 250 Colt, $750, brand-new. He talks about that sled with more affection than he talks about his first car, which makes sense, because where he grew up, in Dillingham, a fishing community just off the lip of the Bering Strait, sleds are cars. You can only get to Dillingham by boat or plane, and in the wintertime, which lasts a long time, snowmachines are pretty much the only way to get around.
"They'll be tough," Scott says about one of their top competitors this year. "They're a little more measured than we are."
"You don't try to win the race the first day," Todd says. "It's gotta be like a college football season. There are so many variables. Mother nature was kind last year."
"She has a tendency to be a bitch."
"Mother nature has won this race every year," Todd says.
Scott's got a can of Loctite in one hand, and he sprays the stuff over the bolts they just tightened. "Those things ain't coming off," he says. "If we got those things coming off, we got a problem."
The two scramble out from underneath the sled, wipe their hands on rags. They're in a big garage, Scott's, in a little town called Soldotna, a couple hundred miles southwest of Wasilla. Todd woke up at 4:00 this morning, drove three and a half hours to get here. In a few hours, he'll get back into his Jetta, grab some food to go from Taco Bell, and drive back to Wasilla. It's Saturday, and his wife's got Trig. She took him and the rest of the kids to a basketball tournament that Willow, their middle daughter, is competing in. Todd would have liked to go to the game as well, but he knows this is important, too. Everybody's gotta have that one thing that they're really into, that belongs to them, that they really like to do. And one of the deals in his marriage is that they've gotta support each other in whatever it is that the other really likes to do. So Todd steps up, does the extra work around the house, puts out the fires that need putting out so Sarah can pursue her political career. And then she, and the rest of the family, understand that this time of year, Todd's gonna duck out of town when he can and spend a day with Scott, working on their sleds.
The sleds are coming along: They've fitted them with additional gas tanks, sawed off pounds of extraneous metal and plastic, swapped in new Öhlins shocks, and made hundreds of other tiny tweaks and adjustments. The Öhlins cost about $2,500 a set, but they're worth it. You do this long enough and you learn where to scrimp and where to splurge. You learn all sorts of things. A long time ago they learned that plastering their faces with duct tape was one way to help ward off frostbite. Then they learned, on a particularly cold day, that sometimes duct tape isn't enough, that at the end of the day, when you pull it off, you might find a lot of dead, frozen flesh sticking to its backside. So they use foam-backed medical tape now, which works better. Little things like that. Little things like those bolts Scott just Loctited on.
"Something that big can take you out of the race," Todd says, putting his fingers together a bolt's-length apart from each other. "That big!" He shakes his head. "A little hole in your piston. A little hole in your gas tank. And so that equates to a size. A number. And life is about a number, you know? The numbers in your bank account. The number that your doctor gave you. The alphabet and numbers, period."
All sorts of numbers have shaped the contours of Todd's life. You could start with the number 97, which is the number of electoral votes that stood between his being here right now and his being in Washington, D. C., married to the vice-president. There's the number 5, which is the number of kids he's got. Or the number 0.13, which is the percentage chance that a particular American kid, like Trig, will be born with Down syndrome. There's the number of days since his eldest son, Track, last called from where he's stationed in Iraq, and the number 314, which is the number of U. S. soldiers killed in Iraq last year. There's the number 40, which is the number of dollars you can buy a barrel of oil for these days, and the number 74, which is the number of dollars his wife projected the price per barrel would be in her latest state budget. The newspapers and TV stations are all currently hammering her about the discrepancy between those two numbers. There's the number 2.70, which was the highest dollar price per pound of salmon when Todd was growing up in Dillingham, a fishing community, and the number .50, which was the price per pound in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill. The diminution altered Todd's birthplace forever, making seasonal commercial fishing a less viable career path and rechanneling the career aspirations of kids like Todd. "All I ever wanted to do growing up was be a commercial fisherman," he says. "Fish in the summer and play in the winter."
One hundred eighteen is the number of horsepower that the engines in Todd's and Scott's racing sleds can output. There are plenty of other, more powerful, faster sleds out there. There are sleds that people juice up and turbocharge so they output 350 horsepower, and you can buy videos with titles like Sled Porn that show those sleds cruising almost vertically up steep mountain peaks, a spectacle like a Warren Miller film run in reverse. Todd's seen some of those movies, but it's not anything he'd ever like to do himself.
"I like going from point A to point B," he says. "And those guys like going straight up. You've got to choose what you'd like to do."
Todd digs around in his fridge, looking for something to eat. He'd asked the kids to pick up bread yesterday, but it looks like they forgot. You can divide up duties, delegate, set up whatever system you want, but sometimes things still don't get done. And unless you want an ulcer, you come to terms with that. He grabs a brick of cheddar cheese and a disk of sliced bologna from the fridge, a box of Ritz crackers and a can of Campbell's tomato soup from a cabinet, and a can opener and a spoon and a knife from a drawer. He makes cheese-and-bologna cracker sandwiches, which are almost as good as cheese-and-bologna bread sandwiches, and eats them standing up, while he heats the soup on the stove. He likes to cook, knows a great recipe for salmon stew, but it's hard to find the time. His favorite food is something called akutaq. Eskimo ice cream. You take lard and sugar and beat it till it's creamy, then throw in a bunch of salmonberries. His grandmother taught him how to make it. She still sometimes calls him the Akutaq Kid. He never learned how to speak Yupik, her native language. He wishes he would've, but that's the way it is sometimes.
When the soup is ready, he pours it into a bowl and walks around to the other side of the kitchen island, pulls a chair up to the black-tile tabletop, and eats. He just got back from a short forty-mile training ride out at Big Lake, where the Iron Dog course begins. He hears the front door open and then the sound of parkas being sloughed off. Bristol comes around the corner into the living room, holding Trig. His middle daughter, Willow, follows behind, her eyes down, one thumb tapping on her cell phone. She's fourteen. Once, when they were out somewhere together, Willow asked Todd to stop texting on his own phone, not because she wanted his undivided attention but because she was embarrassed by how slow and clumsy he was at it.
Bristol had a doctor's appointment this morning and Todd hasn't seen her since.
"How you doing?" he asks her, nodding at her belly.
"One centimeter dilated!" she says.
Willow, still looking at her phone, walks up behind her dad's chair and tousles his hair.
"Hi, Dad," she says. "My friend Cassidy's coming over."
Todd puts his soupspoon down and stretches his arms out toward Bristol. She gives him Trig, who's still sleeping. Todd takes him to his chest, and Trig rouses enough to nuzzle his cheek into Todd's shoulder.
"What'd they say? At the hospital?" Todd says to Bristol.
"We'll see," she says. "Grandma says tonight!"
Todd shakes his head, smiles.
"Not today," he says. "I'm busy."
Willow closes her cell phone.
"Cassidy's on her way, Dad," she says. "Okay? Okay, Dad?"
Todd cranes his neck up and back, looks over his Trigless shoulder at Willow.
"I'm going to town," he says.
"Some meetings," he says.
"You're taking Trig," Bristol says to Willow.
Bristol smirks. "Willow friggin' never watches him," she says.
"You're watching the baby," Todd says to Willow, his tone a statement of fact. Willow sucks her teeth, takes a dish towel, and tries to snap it at her dad's back. The towel just flops. Then she tousles his hair again, stops, squints down at it.
"He's so gray!" she says. "Oh, my Lord!"
"All of this is from you," he says. He strokes his beard. "Can't wait till it's all white and I have a white goatee. I'm gonna start smoking a pipe! Okay? Since I'll be a grandpa."
"You'll be a grandpa by tonight!" Willow says.
"Tomorrow night," Todd says. " 'Cause tomorrow I gotta go work on sleds in Soldotna."
Trig wakes up. He pushes off of his dad's chest, stares at him, groggy.
"Hi, bunny bear," Todd says. "Hi son, son. Oh, you're so tough!" He sits him on his lap, takes hold of one of his hands and pats it against his opposite palm, then does the same with the other hand. He starts singing Pat-a-Cake, and then his phone rings. He picks up.
"Hi, where you at? Really? No, he just woke up. Hold on a second."
He holds the BlackBerry up against one of Trig's ears, and Trig's eyes open a little wider. He gurgles softly, looks up at his dad. Todd takes the phone back.
"He was listening to you! I didn't figure you were getting home till late tonight. All right. Okay. I was gonna head down to Soldotna tomorrow. But I think everybody's schedule is kind of resting on Bristol's schedule. Okay. Gotta go."
He hangs up.
"She'll be home in an hour," he announces to the girls. And then, to Trig: "Hey, hey, hey, hey, you talked to your mama. You talked to your mama!"
He clears his soup bowl from the table, puts it in the sink, starts rinsing it out, along with the pot he heated the soup in.
"Gotta clean up before the boss comes home," he says.
The boss’s dad’s house is easy to spot because of the ziggurat of tangled moose and caribou antlers that rises up just to the side of the driveway. If you walk in through the garage-side door, you'll spot a yellowing old Far Side cartoon tacked to the wall just inside. It shows a bunch of cavemen outside a cave with a pile of bones near the entrance. The caption reads: "Of course, prehistoric neighborhoods always had that one family whose front yard was strewn with old mammoth remains." Todd comes through this door early most mornings and adds a few more boxes of mail to the pile already stacked up here, next to the skull of an extinct bison that perches atop one of Chuck Heath's old snowmachines. The mail is all addressed to Chuck's daughter, Todd's wife — sometimes the address box is just her name followed by "Alaska." There's a lot to go through, and everybody in the family has to pitch in.
A short stairway leads from the garage into the house, where a long hallway flanked by bedrooms and bathrooms funnels toward the kitchen. Chuck and a friend are sitting at the table. "I went to the hygienist yesterday," Chuck says. "Her husband caught several marten up Buffalo Mine Road. And Fred Deiser was here yesterday, and he's got seventeen over there this year!" The mink-sized, silky brown pelts go for about a hundred dollars a pop.
"Already? See, he's in a good spot!" says Chuck's friend, Adrian Lane. Four decades ago, Adrian was a student of Chuck's, the first year Chuck taught middle school. The years since have collapsed the relative age difference between them, and they've become friends. Adrian tells Chuck that he himself has caught fourteen marten so far this winter.
"You got that many?" Chuck says, leaning back in his chair, an eyebrow cocked. He's wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants. He's seventy years old, lean and strong, though one of his knees has been acting up lately, giving him the hint of a limp. Adrian's bigger than Chuck, with a wide, pleasant face and eyes that are a little crossed.
"Yeah, but I've missed so many, it's unbelievable," Adrian says. "Stupid wolverine." They talk a little about bait. Some people put moose meat in a jar, let it fester for a few months. Others buy jars of prepackaged jelly made from the ground-up scent glands of skunks. You've gotta be careful the jar doesn't break in your pack. Adrian's been using chunks of beaver flesh for his traps, and that works well, though the downside is it sometimes brings in stupid wolverines. "He was raiding every pot I had!" he says.
A few feet above Adrian, hanging from a wall, is another wolverine, one that Chuck killed years ago and stuffed. It's got one of those vicious snarls that taxidermists always put on wolverines. Chuck's house is full of taxidermy. From his kitchen table he can see the opposite wall of his living room, and mounted on that wall, in no particular order, are a mountain lion, a marten, a pheasant, and a manhole-sized Alaskan king crab. Those are just the complete animals. The wall also bears the heads of an elk, a bighorn sheep, and a mountain goat, as well as the stretched-out pelt of a timber wolf.
Chuck asks Adrian how much snow has fallen in the area where he's been setting his traps.
"Oh, there's plenty of snow up there," Adrian says. "The only people who've been in there are the mushers and the snowmobilers."
The mention of snowmobilers turns the conversation from trapping to Chuck's son-in-law Todd and some of the situations Todd's been in on his sleds. Skipping like a rock across an unexpected patch of open water in — 40 degrees. Or getting lost in a snowstorm hundreds of miles from anywhere. Or flipping over and landing with his arm literally inside the spinning gears of his sled's tread, where an inch's movement one way or another would have ripped it right off at the shoulder. And of course there's that thing that happened last year. Chuck gets up and plucks a photo album from a bookshelf, flips through it till he finds what he's looking for. It's a close-up of two pale legs, both horribly mottled with blood and bruises. It could be a crime-scene photo, something a forensics investigator might mull over for clues. The legs are Todd's. The injuries are some of the ones he got last year, when an old snow-covered oil drum near an abandoned Air Force base along a remote stretch of the Yukon River bucked him off his snowmachine and sent him flying seventy feet. The landing broke his left arm and banged up the rest of him. At the time of the accident, Todd had been nearing the end of the Iron Dog. He ended up being towed across the finish line by his partner, Scott. The broken arm made the headlines, but Chuck thinks this picture tells more of the story. Riding with a broken arm is one thing. You can ride with a broken arm. But riding with legs like that, where every jolt of the snowmachine is a punch to a bruise, would be something else. He figures nobody really understands how much pain Todd was in. And he figures Todd would never talk about it himself.
"There's no BS there," Chuck says. "He won't exaggerate or tell you tall tales. Gotta kind of pry to get things out of him."
"Oh, yeah," Adrian says. "He's typical. The natives are usually quiet."
"Yeah," Chuck says. "He's half-native, and very quiet."
Chuck's youngest daughter, Molly, comes in without knocking. She's got two of Chuck's grandkids in tow. It's been a couple days since Mike Wooten filed his complaint.
"Hey, Molly," Chuck says. "Give me your key. I want to see what your door does!"
Chuck and Adrian each put on a pair of the bulbous white rubber military surplus shoes that all Alaskans call "bunny boots." Chuck opens the driver's-side door of Molly's Honda Odyssey, climbs in, and turns the key in the ignition. The radio comes on: "Frosty the Snowman." Chuck presses a button and the sliding door on the passenger side opens wide, revealing the gaping maw that allegedly chomped shut on Mike Wooten's arm a few days ago. Adrian sticks his hand inside the van and Chuck presses the button again, and the door slides smoothly shut until it hits Adrian's forearm. Adrian screams, but he's joking. The door's kid-proofed and recoils automatically. Adrian and Chuck spend another couple of minutes taking turns shutting the door on each other as the weak midafternoon subarctic sun fades to twilight.
The closest Todd ever came to dying was right before he got married. It was 1988. The summer fishing season had wrapped up, but he hadn't caught many fish. The price per pound of salmon that year was $2.35, and when prices were that high, you stretched the season as long as you could, even into August, when the weather got bad. He didn't have any other work lined up, so that's what he did, he stretched it. He told Sarah the day to expect him back, and told her that when he returned, they'd go to the courthouse and get married, an act as legal and final as a fancy wedding, but quicker and cheaper. Then he loaded up his skiff and sailed out of town, eight hours away, to a remote spot near Togiak, where he thought he might have better luck. He fished for weeks, in near constant rain, as wet as a fish himself. On the morning of the day he'd promised to be back, he headed home, but the sea roughened and the rain fell harder, and he had to take shelter in a little cove. He anchored the skiff and got to shore and found an empty cabin there, where he dried off and had a bite to eat and a little nap. When he awoke, it was low tide and the skiff was high and dry. He had to wait a few hours before it was floating again, and by that time it was eleven o'clock at night, and though the summer days in Alaska are long, they're not that long. Looking back, he knows he should have stayed in that cabin for another eight hours. But he was twenty-four years old and in a hurry. He steered the skiff out of the cove and back into open water. By the time he began rounding Cape Constantine, the wind and rain had become a boiling howl. He strained to hear the water crashing along the invisible land to port, trying to thread the narrow channel between the shore and the shoals. He didn't actually see the first rogue wave before it broadsided his boat, or the second one that came a minute later, but he knew what they were by the way the deck groaned and twisted under his feet. He'd experienced these sorts of waves before, though never at night, never in darkness. He had a name for them: Hawaii Five-O waves. And as he wrestled with the wheel, trying to steer the bow away from the shore, into the storm, he said to himself that this might be it, that his boat might go down, and he with it.
But his boat stayed afloat, and he did, too, and a few hours later he saw the lights of Dillingham in the distance. Sarah griped about his late arrival, but she wasn't angry enough to put off their plans. They married at the courthouse two days later, moved into an apartment with one of her sisters in Anchorage. That winter he got a job cleaning snow off sidewalks, and she became a customer-service rep for the local utility company. Eventually he scored an apprenticeship with British Petroleum, and eventually she decided she'd like to try running for a seat on the Wasilla City Council.
He survived, she was waiting for him, and now they live here, in a big house that is, this evening, swollen with life.
After finishing up the dishes, Todd starts unboxing a new baby seat for his eight-month-old son, a seat that his pregnant daughter picked up at Target this afternoon. Molly's here now, too, along with a family friend named Barb, and they've brought with them a whole bunch of kids, some of them Molly's, some of them Barb's, one of them Piper. A few of the kids just had gymnastics class, and they start tumbling around the living room. The baby seat has got one of those designs where there are two arms that extend forward on the top of the table and two arms that extend forward on the underside, and the child's own weight helps lever it into place.
"Where's Sarah at?" Barb asks. "She in Anchorage, working?"
"She's coming home," Todd says. "And I'm going in. Twenty years, that's how it works."
"You guys been married that long?" Barb says. She looks at the baby seat. "So little Trig's gonna be sitting in that?" There's a framed photograph of Trig on a windowsill behind Barb, lying in a cradle, dressed up like a Christmas elf.
"It's not a snowmachine, but it'll work," Todd says.
"You see these in restaurants," Barb says. "But you don't see too many anymore. Isn't that slick."
Todd taps the logo. "Eddie Bauer," he says. "Bristol don't mess around!"
Sarah arrives a few minutes later, through the kitchen's side door, from the garage. She's wearing tight blue jeans, a lime-green button-down sweater, and cloggy brown leather shoes. Her hair's in its upswept mode. She says hi and then asks Todd why the Christmas lights aren't up yet. He says something about the cost of electricity and she says that the new LED ones don't use much juice at all. Then she remembers something.
"Oh, guess who came to my office today, Todd. You'll appreciate this. The Orange County Choppers guys! They're making a bike for Alaska's fiftieth anniversary. Paul Sr., he was there in the office. It was cool."
"You mean the guy with the big gray mustache?" Molly asks.
"Yeah," Sarah says.
"I could've taken them snowmachining," Todd says, disappointed. The Orange County Choppers guys had spent some time with them on the campaign trail, in Pennsylvania. Motorheads like Todd, they'd gotten along.
"Next time," Sarah says to Todd. "They're so patriotic!"
Bristol comes into the kitchen with Levi Johnston, her fiancé. He's a good-looking kid, very Abercrombie & Fitch. He says hi all around but doesn't say much more. When he's over here, it's usually just him and Todd and Trig in a house full of women, and the women dominate the conversation. He nods at Todd and Todd nods back.
"Levi got his wedding ring stuck on his thumb," Molly says.
"Levi!" Sarah says. "That's par for the course. That means you're stuck. That's symbolic or something." She pulls a roast out of the refrigerator and calls Levi over and starts showing him how to marinate it. "Now, Levi, look, I'm gonna put this stuff in here..."
Todd ducks out of the kitchen and heads back to the bedroom to change. He's subbing for Sarah at a corporate function tonight in Anchorage. Sarah had been scheduled to attend the function but pulled out because she thought she was going to have to go to a different event in Hooper Bay this evening. Then her flight to Hooper Bay got canceled at the last minute, which is why she's here at home tonight.
The kids start showing off what they learned at gymnastics class.
"Mom, Mom, Mom!" Piper says. "Want to see what I can do?"
"Yes, honey," Sarah says.
Piper does a quick cartwheel, pivots, and smiles back expectantly at her mom.
"That's awesome, Piper!" Sarah says. "Don't sprain your ankle!"
Then McKinley, one of Piper's cousins, does a one-handed back roundoff.
"Oh, my gosh, you're a good little gymnast!" says Sarah. "Piper, do that! Just try that!"
Piper tries, unsuccessfully.
Sarah shakes her head. "You're like your mother," she says. "Not quite the gymnast. But you can run!"
A school assignment Piper brought home a few days ago is taped to one of the kitchen cabinets behind Sarah, next to the fridge. It has the header, "My Mom Is Special," and below that there's a series of printed partial sentences, with Piper's handwritten completions of them: "My mom can do many things. I think she's best at... WERKING." "My mom is as pretty as a... PLANT." "My mom is smart! She even knows... EVERYTHING."
Sarah turns and looks back over her shoulder at Levi, who's peering uncertainly into the oven. "Is it cooking, Levi?" she asks. Then she cocks her head in another direction, toward a nearby bathroom. "Your son wants you to wipe him, Molly," she says. "He's yelling at you."
Todd comes back in a few minutes later dressed in a suit and tie.
"See you," he says. "I'm gonna go."
"Have fun, Todd," Sarah says. "Tell them I said hi. And if they ask you to get up to speak, say — " She zips her lips and shakes her head.
He gives her a look.
"I tried to get Sarah here," he says. "Her flight to Hooper Bay got canceled."
Sarah's eyes widen behind her glasses.
"Don't tell them that!" she says.
Todd walks out smiling.
A month later, a Tuesday morning, he wakes up at 4:00 again and drives the two hundred or so miles to Scott's garage in Soldotna. The race starts in ten days, and the sleds are almost ready to go. A few more training rides, a few more tweaks, and they'll be set. Scott ordered two big "Team Davis-Palin" decals a couple of days ago, for $300, and one of the things he and Todd are doing today is sticking the decals onto their race trailer. Scott holds one of the decals up to the side of the trailer, and Todd stands back and starts telling him to move one side or the other up or down a little so it's level. A flat-screen TV hangs over a workbench next to Todd, and Todd gets distracted when his wife suddenly appears on the screen. It's a newscast on the local NBC affiliate, and a reporter's interviewing her in front of her office.
Normally Todd uses Google alerts to monitor the media's coverage of his wife. He gets an e-mail sent to his BlackBerry whenever a news story containing the words "Sarah Palin" appears. During the campaign he'd disabled this function, since there were too many stories to keep up with. Now, though, the flow has ebbed, become manageable, and his in-box only floods with alerts every now and then. Three weeks ago, for example, he received a bunch of links carrying the news that state troopers had arrested Levi's mom for allegedly selling OxyContin. All Todd could say at the time was that he hoped there was a bright side: Living in the public eye can sometimes be better than rehab at forcing you to get your life together. There was another spurt of stories a week later, carrying the news that Bristol had given birth to a healthy baby boy, Tripp. And two months after that, Todd's BlackBerry will declare, in a chorus of news briefs, that Bristol and Levi have broken up.
But some important events never made the news at all. Sarah taking Piper to the police station to be interviewed on Christmas Eve, for example, and Wooten's minivan assault complaint being thrown out. And nobody reported how Track made it home from Iraq on a surprise holiday leave that Todd had managed to keep secret from everybody else in the family, and the family managed to keep secret from everybody else.
After a minute or so, the screen cuts away from Todd's wife to a shot of the reporter, standing alone, saying something about what Todd's wife just said.
"That guy's a real jerk," Todd says. He's sometimes tempted to phone editors or producers if a story about his wife rubs him the wrong way. But he knows that would be counterproductive. It's just like, you're a player, and the referee makes a call you don't like, and you bitch: The headline's already there, and accosting the ref only makes you look worse.
He turns away from the TV and gets back to helping Scott level their names on the side of the trailer. In a little over a week, they'll head out on their two-thousand-mile trek through the Alaskan tundra, and a week after that, alerts will inundate Todd's BlackBerry with the news that he and Scott only managed to finish sixth this year. But right now they're still preparing, tightening bolts, going over the numbers. They've been Iron Dog partners for seven years now, which means they've raced fourteen thousand miles together, and probably logged another sixteen thousand tandem miles during training runs. They've been doing this long enough that their partnership has firmed up, with their respective roles established. Out on the trail, Scott leads, setting the pace. Todd hangs back, keeps an eye on the GPS, tries to make sure they're always moving from point A to point B without straying too far off course. For a lot of the race, Todd will ride half-blinded by the icy cloud that Scott's sled kicks up behind it. A lot of riders hate that, being stuck in somebody's wake like that. But that's one of the things about Todd. He doesn't mind riding in the snow dust.