THE ICE MAN COMETH
Vermont has gone into deep storage, buried under a foot of sticky snow, with drifts reaching up to a few feet in some places. The silence is as pure as a church on Saturday. Hardly any traffic passes in front of the house, except for the snow plow, a lumbering machine with a large orange blade in front and a sand spreader on the back. The driver, they’re always young, it seems, likes to gallop past our place, and occasionally, if the slush in the yard is plentiful, throw up a nice Hawaiian-size wave that slides down our windows for an hour and leaves a salty veil the next day. Other than that, we are sealed in under an invisible blubber of isolation that leaves even our peskier stink bugs daunted and resigned to their little icy burrows.
In town, the shops are empty except for the Sunday after-church rush to get the week’s groceries. I pick up the Times and a dozen eggs, some smoked cheese and a few tomatoes for dinner. I’m in no hurry and let everyone else pass me by on their anxious rush to the bread aisle. We don’t nod our greetings at this hour. The staff is busy restocking the shelves, sweeping with their wide push brooms, slicing up lunch meat, or deep-frying chicken legs for the ready-to-eat lunch bin. I go along in a sort of trance admiring the variety of vinegar jars, the canned beans, barbecue sauces. I wish I could taste each one, to see if any are hot enough for my taste. My Texas habits have cured my tongue into a kind of leather strap that doesn’t respond to anything but the labels warning with red letters that the enclosed is radioactive hot. That’s my first choice, but alas, most of these lava-red mixtures are what I would call tame.
Back home, my wife is ready for the eggs to be beaten up for an omelet, with a bit of green onion, cheese, some smoked paprika, a dash of pepper, maybe even a splash of hot sauce to brighten the taste. We eat mostly in silence, with the snow outside bleaching the light in our dining room. I have our newspapers close at hand, and after we’re done, I repair to my easy chair and begin reading the front page, the opinion section, the art and leisure stuff, and if I’m not yawning yet, maybe the styles insert to see what crazy new fashions are being exhibited by skeletal models strutting down the runways of Milan and Paris. I’m always delighted to find the men models keeping a straight face as they come down the runway in pants that turn into colorful striped balloons at the knees, or wear face masks made of used lumber pieces and a jacket that might have been rejected by the thrift shops as too worn out. I leave it to New York to make me chuckle and click my tongue. My final stop is the magazine with the puzzle at the end, usually a long slog of puns and easy-to-guess titles of movies and books. Will Shortz, the puzzle editor, likes to be as different from Eugene Maleska, the puzzle editor of long ago, who was a high school English teacher and posed brain teasers about Shakespeare and Chaucer. Shortz’ idea of a puzzle maker is a computer programmer barely out of his teens, but eager to show his wit by asking about obscure rap songs, and ephemeral actors who might have been in the cast of ‘Star Trek’ or the ‘Star Wars’ saga. I leave those answers blank. But it’s still fun to be stumped by what seems mere kids fresh out of Stanford and MIT.
Silence. As if the ground were curled up like a cat and purring into a pillow. The overhanging trees are decorated by what seems like icing, the kind that braids the outer perimeters of wedding cakes. But the ground is full of secrets, strange foot prints zigzagging in curious patterns that lead off to the field below. I sometimes wonder if they are made by ghosts from the nearby graveyard. Or the spirits of departed deer, the ones who had not eluded the hunters last season. There are other prints, almost like some ancient language of dots and dashes, that some wizened old beaver left behind as his testament to the world. A few gophers may still be awake instead of hibernating like their more sensible brethren. The mice are all indoors at this frozen outcrop of the year, and my traps catch one almost every night. I dread finding a trap with its gruesome revenge on one of these innocent almost fairy-like creatures with their white bellies and tiny balletic feet. I can’t host all of the ones boarding with me right now; I had to steel myself to the awful final solution for some of them. The others, if they’re clever enough, will shred some paper in a kitchen drawer, make a home, and nibble crumbs from the counter instead of waddling over to the trap full of peanut butter. Bravo to them.
The season of ice tells. you how old the earth is. The rocks are slumbering in the steel-lined embrace of the gray mud, with wrinkled skin and scars grooved into their faces from endless hard winters. I’ve seen the same hardened faces on men camped out on the banks of the Colorado River in Austin. They have it easier down south, and can handle the rain, the numbing dampness of early spring. But they wouldn’t do so well here, with cold so powerful it leaves the hands feeling like stumps hanging from the end of your arms. You can hardly hold a key to start the car sometimes. The hills are bruised, lying there piled up on one another like the dead of a battlefield. The trees stand there turned into iron figments of Giacometti’s imagination. Gnarled, twisted, bent into agonizing postures as they slowly realize they can’t get run away from the ice storm blowing down on them.
Winter is old in another way. Once the snow is fallen, it makes the surrounding fields and edges of forest look like the dust cloths slung over the furniture of an abandoned mansion. Whoever lived there, in splendor, no longer wishes to return, and has put the place in suspended animation for the foreseeable future. You sometimes wonder where you live, where your life is being lived in all this solemnity. Hard to imagine free will in such idle hours, with hardly any temptation beguiling you to let go a little. You go through the motions of your chores and routines; you look at the stack of old magazines in the corner and wish you had the stamina to put them in a box and haul them off to the transfer station. But the sofa is calling to you, warm and soft and inviting with its floor lamp and dish of pretzels from last night. You want to slip out of your listless body into some dreamy alternative self and sit there half way into a dream. To hell with the magazines, the week-old pages of the Times, the junk mail curling up in its own little pile on the coffee table. All that needs to be gathered up and coldly dispatched to some corner of oblivion. One day, you promise yourself, you’ll take a deep breath, reestablish ownership of the house and show your will power. But not now. The whole of nature is in its first stages of letting go logic and space and time. Nothing matters to the barely breathing squirrel in its tree house, curled up tight as a fists on a bit of straw, beside the acorn pile it has amassed for when spring arrives. You wish you were small enough to cuddle up to it and draw the same long erratic breaths that keep it down in the depths of unconsciousness.
But you push the button on your remote and the screen comes alive with garish colors and sudden intrusive human voices. It’s too much. Everything jars your ears and you turn the TV off. It too must slumber in this torpid dead end of time. You think of the little black creeks of the woods letting their loose silver strings unravel under a puffy coat of ice. They carry a few dazed fish in their nervous grip, bringing them through the mountain passes and letting them go when the creek spills out in the deeper waters of the Connecticut River miles from here. The fish blink slowly and continue to wiggle their tail fins to keep from hitting the rocks, and go along with the will of gravity. They live like the ideas at the back of my mind, moving but not at all ready to be revealed to the world. Bright spirits, with flashes of deep gold and purple on their sides, mouths gulping in the frozen oxygen to their gills, sliding and slipping around in the fluidity of concealment, safe from the tentacles of language. These are the ideas that could change the world, end famine, water the deserts, liberate the children from their dread of being educated. They’re free in their darkness, like birds who have no desire to fly in such untethered realms. I lie there with my legs barely moving under the table, growing fins and gills and feeling the cold take hold of me and carry me downstream into the great unknown. I don’t complain.