“Eskimo! Get me a glass of water!”
Ujaruk looked up from his lunch with Anders. This was the second time the dirty-blond man at the table across from them had shouted at the waitress with that offensive word. She was overwhelmed; it was the lunch rush and she was trying to wait seven tables and seat people.
“Eskimo! Goddammit, did you hear me? Get me some water!”
Sighing, Ujaruk stood up, went to the fountain, and got a glass of water. He stalked over to the man’s table and set it down—not gently. Water poured over the rim of the glass and soaked the man’s dirty sleeve.
“Hey!” the man yelled. “What the hell?”
“You wanted water, you got water. Now shut up.” Ujaruk turned to go back to his table.
“Hey, Eskimo! Nobody talks to me like that!” The man knocked back his chair as he stumbled to rise, grabbing Ujaruk’s shoulder and keeping him from leaving.
His buddy reached across the table, trying to make peace. “Hey, Hank, come on. Drink your water and sit down. Guy did you a favor. It’s not worth it.”
Hank clearly thought it was still worth it. He dragged at Ujaruk’s shirt, bumping his own table and nearly knocking the water over. His blue eyes glared. “Why you gotta ruin my fun, man? The Eskimos here work for us.”
“No one here works for you, sir, and it’s inappropriate to call us that.” The angry glare did nothing to change the situation. Ujaruk refused to back down, measuring his height against Hank’s. His chest tightened, anger held deep in the pit of his soul.
“Sit down, Hank,” said the buddy, standing and dragging Hank off of Ujaruk’s impassive form. “Leave the workers alone and eat your lunch. We gotta get back to work.”
For a moment, it looked like Hank was going to push it further and send the game into extra innings, even though his buddy was calling time.
Ujaruk held his arm out, in case the man intended to move toward the actual employees. He didn’t care if he had to ght; he’d had to do it often enough with clowns like this while growing up. But he hoped that Hank wouldn’t push it that far.
“This is bullshit. Who do you think you are? You ain’t an Eskimo like them, are you?” The vitriol in Hank’s voice was full of hatred and disgust for the native Alaskans.
Ujaruk continued to look at him impassively. “What if I am?”
There was a moment’s silence as nearly everyone in the diner turned to look at the two men ghting over a glass of water.
“Aw, hell with it. I ain’t got time for this.” Hank moved back to his table and sat down, shrugging his buddy off like he was a bothersome moth. He picked up the glass of water and drained it noisily, slurping.
Now I kind of wish I’d pissed in the water before I put that glass on the table. Sighing, Ujaruk turned back to his coworker, Anders. He pulled his chair out and sat back down, noticed that his food had arrived, and began eating without saying anything.
Anders took a sip of his own water. “You handled that pretty well. Does he ever give up?”
Ujaruk shook his head. “No. This could have been bad, but I guess his stomach overruled his hate.”
“I didn’t think I’d run into people like him in Alaska. Texas, sure, but Alaska?” Anders shook his head as he took a bite of his sandwich. “And what was that about you being Native?”
I hoped he wouldn’t catch that. Ujaruk’s heart was beating wildly in his chest, full of con ict, of tension, of hatred at himself for becoming a spectacle in the restaurant. He looked across the table at Anders and sighed again.
“There’s a certain group who seem to have Texas ancestry here in Fairbanks. Blue-collar, anyway. Fishermen, truckers, you know the story.” He shrugged, eating another bite of steak that should have tasted great but was more like cardboard with his dry mouth. “Whatever that guy does, it sure doesn’t require an advanced degree, huh?”
They both laughed at that. Ujaruk looked down at his plate so he didn’t have to look at Anders. Anders had a reddish beard. Ujaruk liked men with reddish beards—or had, at one point.
Anders shook his head. “I guess it never occurred to me. I thought I’d be coming up here to work with other intellectuals. I didn’t think about the other people who might be here. Anyway, you handled that well, for what it’s worth.” He went back to his own sandwich, seeming to have forgotten the question about Ujaruk’s ancestral background. “Think we’ll have trouble getting the truck we need?”
Ujaruk tried to relax as he ate his steak and the conversation turned to more pragmatic issues. It was dif cult. Anders had been at the University of Alaska for about six months, but they’d never worked together on a project. However, six months had been enough time for Ujaruk to realize how much he still liked men with reddish beards. And doctorates in geology. And gray eyes that saw down into your soul.
They were eating together because they were going to be starting a project in the morning. They’d talked occasionally at the odd function or department meeting, but this was the rst time they’d talked in depth about anything beyond the weather.
So, of course, Hank just had to ap his lips about Ujaruk’s ancestry in front of this man who made his blood ow languidly, who visited his fantasies nightly. Ujaruk was glad they seemed to have moved past the topic of his nonacademic background.
Then Amiyun, the waitress Hank had been terrorizing, stood beside him and tapped his shoulder. “Thank you, Ujaruk. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t been here.”
She’d said his real name, not his passing name, the name none of the scientists knew. His non-proud, non-Alaskan, Inuit name. Was this moment a moment where he needed to be proud? Would this be the moment when he’d become Ujaruk, the son of a basketweaver?
He’d been proud of his heritage, once. Then he’d left the frozen Aleutian island where he’d been born, came to Fairbanks, and done his bachelor’s in anthropology. He’d explored what his people had gone through. He’d wanted to be the one who came back and changed everything.
Then came his master’s program, where he’d discovered tools that changed his mind. He’d discovered ice, and salt, and minerals. He’d discovered geology, and then archaeology, and the doctorate he’d earned by the sweat of his brow and his own good mind. When they named him Doctor of Philosophy in Archaeology and hung the hood with its gold lining over his shoulders, he gave up on the past of his life and looked at the past of the world instead. Only now had he come back home, to work at the place that gave him his start.
He’d been backed into a corner. He could hide in the dark, or press his back against it and look forward. He placed his hand on Amiyun’s and spoke, “You’re welcome. Frankly, I needed to do that.”
She placed a kiss on his cheek and turned to walk away, skirting Hank’s empty table.
He watched her leave, then turned to Anders. “I owe you an explanation for the last little while. Hello. I’m Ujaruk of the Aleutian Islands. My ancestors have lived in this place for thousands of years. I’ve nally accepted it, and must admit to you that I am Aleut. I hope this won’t get in the way of our studies, or our project for this month.” He extended a hand over the small table.