Season of Ice
In the beginning there was snow. Torrents of tiny flakes blew in off the lake, pricked my skin before they melted on my hands and face and tongue. I live in Sebaticook, a small town in northern Maine on the shores of Moosehead Lake. I no longer think of that massive body as just water but rather a whale of sorts, a creature that I cannot tame and whose belly I cannot see.
“Gonna have us a doozy,” Perry had said that morning. Perry is my uncle. He works at The Dealership in town. The Dealership hasn’t sold cars for fifty years. It just fixes them.
This is what happened.
“Genesis, hurry up!”
I was upstairs in the bathroom brushing my teeth. My father was standing at the foot of the stairs.
Why do I remember everything so clearly now? The rust stains running like crooked streams down the porcelain basin toward the drain, the faint smell of Clorox, the splatters on the mirror, my thoughts. I was debating trimming my hair, cutting off the broken ends, using the toenail clippers from the shelf above the faucet. My hair is long, straight, and brown. My face is fair. “Are you anemic?” people have asked me. “No,” I say. Even when it snows so hard that my cheeks sting and my nose burns, my skin remains pale, like cream-colored powder, dampened and smeared.
But I didn’t trim my hair. I rinsed my mouth, ran downstairs, and grabbed my coat off the banister. My jacket felt tight that day, like I couldn’t breathe, and I wondered if I had gained weight or my breasts had grown.
My father, Mike, was a large man with a fleshy, hopeful face, dull charcoal hair, and deep brown eyes resembling a buck’s. His skin always had a sheen to it, especially under the eyes, and a musk as strong as bark and soil and wind, an odor that would wrap itself around me when I kissed him on the cheek. He worked for the Great Northern Timber Company at a Canadian border camp that’s a two-hour drive north. He packed all of his hulking six-foot-five, 280-pound body into a twenty-ton Forespro delimber. His job was breaking limbs, snapping off what God put on, and while he could have probably done it for real to people, he was, normally, a meek giant. Four days a week he slept in a camp trailer with other guys who cut and hauled lumber to the paper mills in Millinocket. While he was away, I’d think of him collapsing into his small bunk after a fourteen-hour day, dreaming not of women or daughters or even his childhood, but of trees, their smooth, gray, amputated limbs piled high around him like so much confetti.
When he’d return home after his shift, I’d smell his exhaustion, hear it in his feet as he’d lumber up the stairs to run a bath. Linda would always bring him a brandy. I’d see her pass my room with the small tumbler in her hand, listen to her open and shut the bathroom door. I’d picture her sitting on the toilet seat beside the tub as their voices passed gently between them, slow conversation and occasional laughter. Sometimes I’d hear soft splashing, and I’d imagine Linda washing my father’s back, or undressing and easing into the water with him.
Linda is my stepmom. She has been with us for almost ten years. Long enough to bring Scott and Alex into the world—eight-year-old twins who sleep down the hall and could pass for identical, though they’re not. In the beginning they were seven, but another birthday has come and gone since then.
I say the beginning because everything before that day in November feels like a dream, like I wasn’t really living. My life is different now, each second a deliberate moment, as if the earth’s gravitational pull has intensified, and every particle of life weighs something more.
My father’s shifts ran Monday through Thursday. He always had the weekends off. On that particular Saturday morning, Linda was sitting in the kitchen cutting coupons out of the morning paper and talking on the phone to her mother, who lives in New Hampshire. Scott and Alex were watching cartoons. Dad and I left the house and climbed into his pickup, a 1992 GMC that once was silver but now is green, with a black vinyl split-seat patched with duct tape. I straddled strips of sticky residue where the adhesive had melted from days in the sun, smelled the old coffee from the mug he kept wedged where the seat splits.
“Perry’s got some ideas for your car,” Dad said.
“Says he’s got a nice eight-and-three-quarter differential that will fit right into the rear end. It’ll get you traction on both tires at the same time. Give you a clear-cut edge.”
Dad and Perry were always brainstorming ideas for my car, a 1993 V6 Mustang, five-speed, 3.8-liter engine. I’d been racing it on the lake the past two winters as part of a local ice-racing club.
Dad pulled up to The Dealership on the corner of Gunnison and Main. Perry’s garage was made of cinder blocks painted white, which had dulled over the years and on most days resembled the sky. Piles of gray slush carved with tire treads covered the concrete slab in front of the garage and were beginning to freeze. As we climbed out of the truck, I held my arms out to the sides and took a long glide over a smooth patch of ice.
Inside, Perry had already started working on my car, prepping it for the upcoming season. He had raised the hood and was changing the spark plugs. A radio was playing hits from the seventies and eighties.
“Hey, Little Bit.”
Perry liked to call me Little Bit. I was small. Had never passed much more than five feet.
Then he looked to my dad. “You sticking around?”
“I got to repair a dock at the Pelletier camp.”
The Pelletier camp was on Sugar Island, one of the many nodules of land dotting the surface of the lake, like the specks on a brown trout. Each fall Dad repaired docks or did other odd jobs for some of the property owners who lived out of town.
Perry wiped off his hands with a rag. “Water could get choppy.”
“That’s a good thing,” Dad said. “It’ll keep it from freezing.”
Then he grinned and put his arm around my shoulder. For some reason I remember the weight of it. “Give her a ride when you’re finished, will ya?”
That was it. There wasn’t some big exchange, or something unusual like in the movies. For that still moment, my father was strong and smiling, his hair a little disheveled. It was a day like any other day. Only it wasn’t like any other day.
I took off my jacket and gloves and hat. Hung everything up on the pegs by the door.
“Work late last night?” Perry asked.
“Dorrie sent me home around ten,” I said. “Things got kind of slow.”
Dorrie owned and ran the Lazy Moose, a restaurant and bar where I waited tables three nights a week.
Perry tossed me his rag. “How about you start under the car. Grease every fitting you can find.”
I picked up the grease gun off one of the workbenches, then squatted toward the ground, lay back on the creeper, and pushed myself underneath the car. I wiped the old grease off each fitting and pumped new grease into them.
“When you finish, pull the drain plug out of the rear axle. I got some new 90 weight I’m going to replace it with.”
That was how the morning went, Perry giving me directions. The two of us working on my car. He changed the spark plug wires, replaced the distributor with a new MSD electronic ignition. I bled the braking system and adjusted the rear break shoes. Perry helped me replace the front brake pads.
Though it wasn’t yet noon, the daylight through the windows dimmed. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” faded in and out over the radio. Perry knew all the words and sang along. The wind was picking up, a wailing sound like somebody weeping.
“Gonna have us a doozy,” Perry said.
I thought of my father for a second then. I wish it had been longer. Dad, in his six-seater Thompson. I didn’t worry about him. I just pictured him for that second, specifically his hands, as if I could feel his muscles contracting from the cold, and I wondered what gloves he had worn.
Perry handed me a doughnut that I ate lying down. Other than that, we worked until a little after one, not stopping for lunch.
“You gonna touch up the paint?” he asked me.
“Next weekend,” I said.
“If I’m not around, your dad’s got a key. You know where everything is.”
Perry gave me a ride back to the house. Snow shot toward us like porcupine quills. The wipers slapped hard back and forth. I thought about what I would eat for lunch. Perhaps Perry was hungry, too, as he said very little.
We pulled into the driveway, over a fifty-yard straight stretch of frozen snow and gravel, the consistency of peanut brittle.
“See ya, Little Bit.”
“Later,” I said.
The house was quiet, the dull afternoon light barely filtering in through the windows. Linda always cleaned the church on Saturdays. Brought the twins with her and let them play in one of the Sunday school rooms. Linda told us how sometimes they’d stand at the lectern to the right of the altar and pretend they were priests.
On the kitchen table was a note. Mike, chili casserole in the fridge. Put in the oven around four. xxo.
Linda was always leaving notes for my father on the fridge or on the bathroom mirror, sticky notes that either gave him things to do or told him how much she loved him. People said Linda was good to my dad. People like Perry and my grandmother, Mémère, Dad and Perry’s mom. Linda cooked my dad’s dinner, rubbed his back, poured his brandy. She liked to take care of the house. In other words, Linda didn’t leave him. But other than cleaning the church, which she didn’t get paid for, she didn’t have a job outside of the home. I could understand her staying with the twins when they were younger. But Scott and Alex had been in school now for over three years. Maybe if Linda had held a job, Dad wouldn’t have had to work so much. Maybe he wouldn’t have been out on his boat repairing a dock on a snowy afternoon.
I looked at the clock on the stove. Almost one thirty. I made lunch. Maybe I ate tuna fish. Maybe roast beef. I don’t remember. Yet I remember the crumbs on the counter that I wiped up with a damp rag. I remember setting my plate in the sink. I walked into the den and picked up a Stephen King book I’d been reading. The Green Mile.
I lay back against the arm of the sofa and read for about an hour. Then I looked through the window at the snow. Watched the thick hedge of white that fell from the sky and swirled in funnels across the lawn like dancing ghosts. I didn’t think of my dad, which now makes me ache somewhere deep in my throat. I didn’t think of anything. I just watched the snow.
The phone rang. I thought about getting up to answer it, but I didn’t. Maybe I thought it was Dorrie and she’d ask me to work. Maybe I just didn’t want to move. To this day, I wonder who called.
I slept, the blue throw Linda had crocheted pulled over my shoulders. When I awoke, the house was almost dark. Outside, the snow continued to fall, though gentler than before and barely visible against the shaded sky. I walked to the kitchen. The note was still on the table. The stove was cold. I slipped on my boots, left the house from the back door, stood in the driveway, and faced the road, the wind fighting my hair and stinging my hands. I felt a numbness in my stomach, felt it rise through my chest, felt my body stiffen. I dug my heels into the frozen ground and pivoted to my left. There I stood, watching the road that led to and from town, the snow striking silently, like floury ash.