Ice by Catie Jarvis
Inspired by the Delmore Schwartz story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”
It is cold outside, a hard dry cold. The animals and trees have taken on a frigid silence. Nothing moves. I’m standing outside an unfamiliar country home, blue vinyl and plastic shutters.
Inside, Mary-Anne Sulyard waits in the kitchen. Her house slippers patter the tiles impatiently as the pot on her stove hisses and pops. Her hair is still long, like in the photograph tucked in my jean pocket, but it’s dyed now, a blond too bright to match her eyebrows or eyes. Crayon-box-yellow: a shocking color for a woman her age. Everything about her is shocking. Her eyes and upper lip defaced with circles like the beat-up covers of waiting room magazines. Her face lined and hanging obstinately, as if preparing for its get-away.
Mary-Anne is the same age as my father, but age settles differently onto a man, not on the face but inside. My father’s ideas turned old: repetitive thoughts, used up speech, a daily routine followed though it had lost its meaning to him. His organs slowed. A liver. A kidney. But not his exterior, even in his last debut he wasn’t creased or shriveled. He held his broad shoulders, sharp cheeks, his dark thick hair and beard, as if they were the things that could save him. There in his casket lay his vitality, his inability to change.
I peer through the tiny screen-squares of Mary-Anne’s living room window.
I can see pictures of blue ocean vacations, of awkwardly posed Christmases. I can see the order of Mary-Anne’s house in contrast to the disarray in which my own home is kept—my mother’s laundry piles organized by smell and dampness into sections: very dirty, sort of dirty, pretty clean. Through the kitchen doorway, I watch as Mary-Anne (I wonder if she goes by that now, or if in adulthood has she chosen one name over the other) cooks with tomato and basil. A soup or a sauce, the scent warms me, and I inhale carefully, quietly. My body is pressed against the icicled siding of her house between window and door, and I fear that she might hear me rustle or breathe.
Mary or Anne gives the stew a final stir, lowers the flame on the stove until it’s barley visible, covers the pot, and heads for the couch only a few feet away from where I stand. I squeeze my eyes closed as if this will protect me, make me invisible. Sometimes I’m surprised at how childish I can still be. I remember that version of myself that really believed the world was in my control, that I could do and be anything, that I could close my eyes and make everything disappear. When I open my eyes, I believe for a second that I am that girl. That I am brave. That I can piece it all back together. I pretend that I am not a frightened sixteen-year-old, that this isn’t the longest trip I’ve ever taken alone.
I’m preparing to knock on the door and explain my position. This is what I’ve driven one hundred and eighteen miles to do. I play through the conversation over and over: I’m the daughter of… / Oh I haven’t thought of him in…. / Sorry to intrude like this but… / My, how is he… / I thought we’d talk about before, what he used to be like…/ But what about now… This is where I stop; I don’t know what comes next.
If I tell Mary-Anne of my father’s death then everything is tainted. But death is a hard thing to withhold. It’s heavy here and surrounds this little blue house, this dead frozen yard, this very empty yard with no remnants of childhood toys or used up vehicles or flower pots left over from summer, no memories at all as if the yard itself is death: an erasure. On the couch Mary-Anne scrunches a pillow under her head, sending her sunshine hair into disarray. I can hear the sound of her body sinking into the cushions, and I feel close to her. I feel her loneliness, her lacking.
I take the photo from my pocket and hold it between my hands; my fingertips and knuckles are going a veiny blue. The photograph is creased romantically, carried around for years: lodged carefully in my father’s breast pocket through the Vietnam rains, then at the bottom of that wooden box which my mother keeps under her bed with pictures of her and my father’s old friends and lovers, images of rejected lives, no good for albums or wall collages. I feel that this picture will somehow tell me what to do next.
In the picture Mary-Anne Sulyard sits beside my father on a motorcycle. It is a thin-wheeled bike, dated and flimsy as the photograph itself. On it, they sit facing forward, legs together and pressing against each other at the center where his left thigh meets her right one, not as if they’ve been out for a ride or plan to go for one anytime soon. They are using the bike as a seat, as a background, maybe the bike doesn’t work, maybe it doesn’t even belong to my father. They are posed, both of his arms around her waist, looking at the camera. His hair is a deeper brown than I can ever remember, otherwise he looks the same as he always has, always did. But Mary-Anne hardly resembles the woman I now see. In the photo she is glowing, she is reflecting the afternoon so that it can be seen like a movie through her eyes. Play reel: their kiss before the picture, their laughter after, the energy it is taking them in that moment to look ahead at the photographer instead of at each other.
Mary-Anne turns on the TV. I’m relieved by the sound. Now I can swallow and exhale naturally, unafraid of being heard. The television program pans across the scene of an empty lake, the picture is grainy and oddly hued, like an old-time movie. I wonder if there is something wrong with Mary-Anne’s flat screen. It looks new enough, newer than the one at my house. The picture shifts, blurs, then readjusts, but Mary-Anne doesn’t seem to mind. It could be the nature of this program, it could be she watches it daily and is accustomed to its quirks. I like to think I’ve caught her here amidst her routine so that yesterday and tomorrow I can imagine the same—a woman on the couch, the smell of lunch, the starting of a soap or hour long drama DVR’d from the night before.
A suave male voiceover, which reminds me of my Uncle Don, says, “The year is 1964.”
The scene begins to darken.
“It is nearing six o’clock,” says the voice, “that winter hour when day and night align.”
On screen, the moon comes to share the sky with the soon-departing sun, and a young girl on skates pushes off from a dock. I am glad that we have caught this program at its start, and the thought of watching it here with Mary-Anne distracts me from the wind that’s picked up, burning my cheeks.
The scene on the television is beautiful to the point of recognition. The ice on the lake is spread with a thin layer of snow so that every shift of the blade can be recorded, a thin pencil line on the canvas as the girl’s tracks meander and loop.
Back in my high school art class, I noticed a strange phenomenon—the works of artists that I found the most interesting often seemed to trigger a childhood memory or a recent dream, a sort of déjà vu similar to what I’m experiencing now. I feel I have been to this lake. I imagine that I was once this girl skating playfully, uninhibited. She must be only eight or nine. She carves a heart and pauses to admire it. The camera zooms in on her face. I lean my own face closer to the window and breathe out of the side of my mouth to avoid fogging it. The realization comes to me suddenly and naturally, like breath bursting after trying to hold it under water. The girl on the screen is not me, but my mother. Her features are small, but they contain all the faces she will have throughout my life.
My mother pauses, suspended there on the lake I know as Crystal Lake, the lake my mother grew up on. My mother is looking directly at me from the television screen. I wonder if she can see me. I wonder how many hours it’s been since I’ve eaten or drunk. How long have I been out here in the cold? Should I scream? Should I believe in this? I duck beneath the window but am too curious to remain there. When I look back to the screen I see my mother staring again, this time not at me but across the screen at a figure out on the lake, another girl.
Young Mary-Anne Sulyard is all wrapped up in a scarf. The only features visible on her face are her brown eyes and her dry, red forehead. Her blond hair is thick and overwhelming; it spreads out across her scarf and down her back. She looks just as she did in my photograph. I gasp.
My impulse is to rush inside and point to the screen. “Mary-Anne,” I’ll say, “don’t you see yourself there?” But the woman on the couch, Mary-Anne herself, a woman I have never met face to face, does not look alarmed by the scene on the TV. She yawns and pulls a blanket over her legs. She recognizes nothing.
On the ice my mother approaches Mary-Anne, who is caught up in her own careful designs.
“Sue recognizes Mary-Anne from around town, but she has never been acquainted with her,” says the voice-over. I am sure now that this is the voice of my uncle, the youngest of my father’s brothers, the one who introduced my parents.
“They have nothing in common,” he says. “Not age or religion, and under other circumstances Sue wouldn’t dare associate with such a girl—mysterious and sixteen. But all alone on the ice it feels a different world.” My uncle clears his throat and then coughs deeply. I wonder about this cough and in what time, in what world, it is existing. My uncle has been dead now for years.
“What are you making?” My mother asks.
“A town,” Mary-Anne replies.
With her words it becomes visible, the series of houses, roofs, windows, and doors sketched into the snow.
“I’m going to do the school next,” says Mary-Anne Sulyard. “You have to be careful with your movement so you don’t ruin what you’ve made.”
My mother nods.
Mary-Anne fixes the outline of the school, and then they work together on the square windows that spread across the front. Mary-Anne draws a sign with her right foot’s blade and with a stick carves the name ‘Oak Elementary’.
“I go there!” my mother says.
“I did too.”
They skate on to finish this building. They begin on a church, the shape of which my mother is unsure of. She asks, “What is the tower for?”
“The bells,” Mary-Anne replies. “Have you heard them?”
My mother nods. “Someday I’ll have a house with a tower and bells.”
“That sounds nice,” says Mary-Anne.
They work on the church for a while in silence until my mother asks, “Why were you all alone out here?”
I can’t see my mother’s face when she says this, the camera is panning to Mary-Anne Sulyard, who puts her gloved hand over her exposed forehead to protect it from the chill. I follow her action and cover my own forehead with my hand, but my hand is cold, ungloved, and doesn’t make my chapping forehead feel any better.
“It’s dinner time,” Mary-Anne says. “Everyone’s home. All my friends are eating. ” She waits to see if this will satisfy, but my mother has stopped skating, she is staring at the tall slender figure of Mary-Anne, waiting for more.
“My boyfriend’s in the war,” Mary-Anne says.
My hands rush with a warm energy.
“You could get a camera. You could send him a picture of our town drawn on ice to remind him,” my mother suggests.
Mary-Anne smiles. She takes her hand off of her forehead and reaches out to place it on my mother’s hatted head. “He’s stopped answering my letters,” Mary-Anne says with such reverence, such concern. The love from the photograph. A sweet young love. “I’m afraid for him.”
Outside Mary-Anne’s house, where I stand upon a pile of crunchy grass, the thermostat on the porch has dropped to 10 degrees below zero. I pick up one foot and wiggle it around to increase circulation, then place it back between patches of ice, making sure that I have a firm footing before I lift up the other one. This lifting is the most I allow myself, though I feel like leaping, like running through this yard arms wide and waving. Something is happening. Things are changing.
I have the feeling that life is tangible, malleable, possible, an excitement I’ve been missing for months, years? This is the glimpse to another world that will allow me to fix my mother’s sadness and my father’s death, to solve them like a puzzle and move on. I’m waiting to hear Mary-Anne talk about my father, about how much she misses him, about a line from a letter he sent, a poetic line full of the dire emotion of a young man faced with death. I’m waiting to know him. The picture on the screen is growing dimmer; there isn’t much time before night settles on Crystal Lake.
The channel changes abruptly. Mary-Anne has done it. I scream out, high pitched, uncontrollable from the back of my throat. I can’t stand to be to missing it. Mary-Anne turns toward my sound and I duck as low as I can so that she won’t find me. I hug my knees and feel the wetness of the icy ground soaking into my pants. I hear shooting and the sound of men shouting—I’m done for. I look around expecting scolding eyes, the aimed pistol of a policeman, but there is no one there. The sounds must be coming from the TV, not the real world where I stand. I’m being ignored like usual. Mistaken for the wind.
I peek back into the room, and my father is in on the screen. My handsome father. Dressed in army gear, a scar outlining his jaw. I have never seen that scar or that jaw, always, in my life, covered by his thick beard. My father walks casually across the field where others are holding guns. He enters a radio control room and begins frantically sending messages. His face jolts with the sounds of the nearby gunshots, but he continues with his tapping messages: dit, dah, dah.
The channel flicks again: my mother and father hold hands in a beat-up car. My father takes a pen from his pocket and writes my mother’s number on the car’s fabric interior.
Flick: My parents sit upon the broken steps of the bungalow that would some day be renovated into our home.
Flick: My mother smokes a cigarette. My father takes it out of her hand, throws it to the floor, and crushes it under his boot.
Flick: My mother sleeps in a narrow hospital bed. My father holds a swaddled baby, and both of us share the same bewildered smile.
I start to cry.
Flick: My father, hunched forward towards his walker, pulls a vacuum vivaciously around the house. He reaches into a corner near the door when the cord across the room pulls out and shuts the thing off. He raises an animal-like howl that echoes through the empty house.
Flick: My mother munches popcorn in a small theater. She’s greying around the eyes and hairline. She’s holding hands with a man I do not recognize.
Flick: Mary-Anne returns us to the original program.
The town is finished by now. The sun is gone, has been gone, only a softly fading dusk remains. What have I missed? The important part, I’m sure. The thing that could change me. On screen Mary-Anne is talking of being home before dark.
“What! You too?” My mother asks. She finds it hilarious that a girl so grown could share the same rule as her. She giggles from her belly.
“There are always rules,” Mary-Anne says. “Forever.”
This, as I suppose it’s intended to, stops my mother’s laughter. My mother looks on at Mary-Anne and she must recognize the something between them that will tie them both, at points, to the same man. Children can see things like that. I sometimes wonder if children can’t see the whole of the future, the horrible mess of it. Is this what keeps them up at night? What makes them afraid to be left alone, afraid to grow older? I think that maybe everything is already contained in us when we are young, every choice we will make, everything we will love. It is all decided in the events of childhood. It is all inevitable.
“Say something,” I call out. I can’t stop my voice from compromising me. “Say something before it’s too late.”
“Who’s there?” Mary-Anne calls from the couch. Her voice is smooth and deep like a radio personality. She sits up and looks around. “I said, who’s there?” She asks the air.
“You should have told her,” I cry, still crouched and hiding. Mary-Anne is up now, roaming the room checking through windows. “You should have told her what sort of man he was before that war. A beautiful man. A kind man. He must have treated you right. He must have loved you.”
“Show yourself. Right now!”
The sauce on the stove has reached a bustling boil. The metal lid pops off the pot and lands on the floor as the sauce begins to bubble and seep out the sides.
“Shit,” Mary-Anne yells.
She rushes to the kitchen to pull the pot off the stove, and I take this opportunity to creep across the front stairway and beneath the windows on the other side of the house. I round the corner and pass by the bedroom window, the bathroom window. I know that I can escape this by leaving, but I have no desire to. There is something I want here, something I need, and I believe that I won’t leave until I get it.
“You should have told her, so she’d never have forgotten.” I am whispering now, for the softness seems to hold more power. I am talking to myself; I am talking to Mary-Anne in her house, to my mother hours away, to my father in the ground, to the whole sad world. “You should have told her, so she could have believed that he would change back. So that she wouldn’t have left him. So that he wouldn’t have died all alone!”
Mary-Anne Sulyard is back now. She’s checking the windows with method and care. She comes to the front door and cracks it open, exposing her skin to the brutal chill.
“You should have kept him. You could have loved him right,” I say, though not to her face. I’m cowering behind a frozen bush, twisted ice-wood.
“I can hear you,” she says with a bit of vibrato. “I’ll have to call the cops now if you don’t get out of here.”
I creep from behind my bush, pass by another corner of the house that is lined by a small stone wall sticking out of the snow, I pass another corner and then another, so that I am back where I began, on the side of her house, looking in on the living room. My hands and knees are wet from groveling. My face is wet from tears. On the television, my mother is skating back to her house alone, looping back and forth, swishing her arms around like a ballerina. When my mother arrives in the back yard of her bi-level, she turns back to the lake to see Mary-Anne Sulyard skating backwards towards her own house, watching my mother carefully to be sure she has made it home safe.
“These two girls will never meet again,” my uncle says. His voice growing hollow, slowly covering over with layers of frozen earth.
The screen goes black. Mary-Anne is standing fully on her doorstep in her house slippers, looking out for me. I’d only have to stand tall and peek my head around the corner for us to face one another.
“Who is there?” She asks, almost kindly.
I feel the turmoil of action rising up within, like that moment before you raise your hand in class and you’re rapidly preparing how and what you will say. I’m going to answer her. I will explain myself to be the daughter of a man she once dated, many years ago. “Perhaps,” I’ll tell her, “he was your first love.” I can tell her so innocently that I want to know what they talked about, what they laughed about. I can ask her: Was he was good then? Affectionate? Even-tempered? Full of hope? Sober and ambitious? A boy? I can tell her how much I love him and how, ruined, I love him. I think I will say these things. I prepare to say them. I prepare to be invited in for tea, some dry clothes, to cry in her arms. She’ll invite me to stay the night. She’ll show me old pictures that she saved. I’ll finally feel I know him like I need to.
I’m shaking, in my organs, in my limbs. I look out at this woman on the doorstep, suddenly a beautiful woman. Her shoulders are round and sturdy, her eyes looped with graceful tree rings. She is, maybe, the only thing in this world that remembers my father only one way, young, before the war and not after. By the time he returned from Vietnam she was away at college, long gone. She must think of him fondly, a distant dream. She must love him in that way of past and youth, maybe in the way that I love him, wholly and truly and desperately.
The wind stops and the TV is now silent. I listen to Mary-Anne’s patient breaths while instinctively holding my own. I want to wrench my body forward into view. I practice with the leading of my head. I want to scream out again, now that she is there beside me, so close. I open up my mouth and tense my esophagus, challenging it to present a sound into the quiet cold.
I look at Mary-Anne; how perfect she is. Untainted. What can I say to her when she is all that’s left? Then, I look out to my car, parked across from Mary-Anne’s house. An old green Ford Taurus that my father bought, used, in cash, and repaired for me whenever something went awry. The thought of getting back in that car and driving away, having gained nothing, having changed nothing, is unbearable. So I signal to my numb legs to move me, quickly, forward into the bright snow-light of the afternoon. Quickly, I think. Forward. Onward. Don’t think. You’ll know what to say when it comes right down to it. I push off.
The ice gets me under the right heel, and I go down hard. I recognize the familiar objects around me: a tree, a rock, a tossed bag of garbage, a mailbox in the distance. Everything starts fading, taking its last breath. My head is on the cold ground, and it’s growing dark, darker, darkest. I see Mary-Anne Sulyard skating backwards, and I hope that she will save me.
© Catie Jarvis
Catie Jarvis is an author of fiction and poetry, as well as a yoga instructor, a competitive gymnastics coach, and an online writing instructor at Southern New Hampshire University. She received her BA in Writing from Ithaca College, and her MFA in Creative Writing from California College of the Arts. She grew up on lake in Northern NJ and now lives in San Francisco. She finds the world to be a strange place and loves writing that examines the ambiguity of “reality”.
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