MY BUDDY NANOOK AND I
March is Yukon Month here in Vermont, a somewhat irregular event that is now falling on us every other year. Snow is packed up high along the roads, and in some swales and hollows the drifts are as high as an elephant’s eye. Cabin fever is rife. The clerks at the local shops are moody, even petulant and are slow to answer questions like, “Where do you keep the refried beans these days?” Maybe you get a mumble in return, but because you are white-haired and a bit gimbal-eyed, you dare not ask for the poor haggard woman to repeat herself. She’ll think you are a fugitive from some nearby nursing home. Better to walk yourself dizzy down and up the aisles past the international foods, the pickle jars, the condiments and spices, the bakery section, and then round and back to the clerk who is blowing a loose lock of hair from her eyes as she looks up with a dreadful déjà vu expression. You merely present your dozen eggs, the Times, a pack of bacon, maybe some English muffins, and a four-bar box of unsalted butter. Nothing to chat about in this little breakfast miscellany, you watch as she passes the stuff under the bar reader and bags if for you in your Trader Joe’s sack.
The fields are like some spinster’s floor, full of all the loose wool she chose not to spin. Great fluffy whales of snow heap themselves forlornly on the shallow hillsides, and more fluff hangs precariously from the tree limbs. The road is cracking up; pot holes look up at you with mournful eyes as you pass over them. The houses are dark, but for a single lonely table lamp left burning from the night before. Yukon Month is not a cheerful recognition of the mysteries of nature’s will. It’s a big moue on the mouth of late winter, a deliberate scornful gaze down at you and your powerless anger, your bankrupt emotions at this time of the year when March is supposed to get tired and limp away under the thawing skies. But here, in the heart of the Green Mountain state, we have persistent orneriness from the vaults of the arctic wastelands. We have a miserly uncle denying us our usual tip for running to the corner store for his cigar. Instead, he hands you a sno-cone the size of Mt. Everest and tells you to enjoy an afternoon of skiing. Mind the avalanches, he cries as you slam the door.
You drag on your down-bloated jacket with the occasional duck feather beginning to emerge from your sleeve as you stand there looking for your gloves, your hat, your scarf, your other boot, the keys to the truck, the shopping bags, your sunglasses, your breath beginning to fog up your reading glasses, which you forgot to take off. Not even Red Skelton could quite put on the mug of some pathetic drunk reeling home from his nightly binge. The mirror has you captured in all your misery as if Da Vinci had painted your portrait.
I neither ski nor ice skate. I couldn’t bear to be seated on some wooden bench in an ice shack waiting for a fish to nibble my bait. I have no interest in drinks with shaved ice, and when I stare into the freezer I shudder to think what it feels like to lie there waiting for someone to pull out a glazed box of fish sticks for the night’s dinner. It’s the stuff of nightmares, if I ever get to dream again about something other than the snow falling on the roof and calling forth the snow plow for another swipe at the hoar frost. If I have day dreams, they’re about me standing around on some beach with a pina colada under the thatch of a beach bar, next to some tourists who think all this warmth and sunshine are to be taken for granted. Little do they know that an Eskimo in disguise is standing next to them, his face raw and ashen from long months of wearing an anorak and hunting for sea otters. I don’t invite any schmoozing at this fictional beach; I don’t want the frost to come out first before I even begin to lie to them about my life in California. So I sip my drink, eat the salty peanuts, and then wander off down the beach with my flip flops slabbing my heels.
My best friend is Nanook, who starred in that depressing documentary on life in an igloo, having to share his wife with a visitor, and carving up fresh blocks of ice to repair his den. I can smell the lard from a walrus bubbling on his stove, and see the long jerked shines of arctic seal hanging above his laundry. I know the parka his wife is wearing has not been dry cleaned in the last twenty years. It comes off with a sudden blinding ammonia of arm pit sweat before she retires. I must pretend to be suffering from insomnia as I stay up well past midnight while poor Nanook lies there feeling insulted at my indifference to his wife’s charms.
I can chase away all these phantoms of my paranoia by looking out the window at the lowering heavens and see the first rogue snowflakes begin to butterfly out of the ash heaps of the clouds. I have a faint pity for the little green sprouts that have broken the corn snow in my garden and peeped out to get a feel of the weather. The cold wind doesn’t deter these little ballerinas in their grassy tutus; they keep pushing up as the sky keeps pushing down. I want to console them and tell them they can go back down into the earth and wait a while. But the seedlings are trying to tell me in a mute way that there is no reverse gear to the seasons; there isn’t even a brake to press down on to slow things up. Spring will come, they seem to say, and will likely wipe out our virginal efforts to wave the flags of nature’s rebirth. Ah yes, I say, pulling my scarf tight around my neck and stamping my feet to keep from getting frost bit.
I saw two men walking across a glowing white pond the other day, heading back to their car which was parked on the ice waiting for them. They were not thinking about a sudden, unnoticed thaw in the ice roof, just thinking about the basketball championship coming up. They were at home in this frigid latitude. All those years I swatted mosquitoes and dodged the hornets who liked to hang in my face as I worked in my hot studio in the backyard, sweating and exhausted from the dead heat of a Texas summer. I couldn’t see ahead a few years when I would pack up my belonging and head north on a whim that I would like the far north. I look back now on the dying lawn of my old house, the slow-moving traffic with the sun shining like an acetylene torch on the chrome of each car. I can’t say I’m homesick for the melted tar, the humming night sounds, the clouds of moths foaming around the street lights, the occasional siren hurrying to some house where guns had been blazing. I am grateful for the profound, even sterile silence of a winter evening here among the dairy farms, the weed-shot pastures, the barns leaning on their last planks before collapsing into oblivion. I am grateful as well for the smell of oak logs burning in fire places. The cascading light of the winter sun makes you feel you are standing at the end of time, alone and in a state of mind as empty as a Zen master’s meditations. All those clouds piled up like slag from an iron mine, the deep fissures of night burning along their rims from a newly risen moon. How solemn and oblivious it all is, a realm where time has frozen the hands of the clock and left you on some ice floe drifting into the zinc emptiness of the north Atlantic.
I miss Nanook at such times. He could have been a good friend. His movie came out in 1922 and I recall watching it in my film history class with a mixture of fascination and revulsion. He was handsome and his endurance in that impossible world bordered on heroism. I know I am living in a different reality with my furnace, my hot meals, the superficial reality I live in from day to day. I may grouse now and then that I am bored to death with cold weather, but in truth, I climb into bed, pull up the covers, and take a breath of gratitude before lowering into some limbo of inattention called sleep. I also know that these snow storms boiling up out of the Canadian wastelands will one day lose their will to bury us. One day the little green sprouts will push aside the filthy snow and put out their first leaves. I can feel it now; I can smell the scented breath of the first dandelions, the puff of wind sent rippling out from the wings of a crow climbing into the blue sky looking for the manna that the season will have spilled from its bulging bags of grain. That keeps me going even in the worst of the snow, which I can see falling from my window even now.