“I’d never ski on river ice. Never.”
It was that second “never” that got under Fling’s skin. What the hell was it to that
old man if Fling skied out on the Penobscot? What the hell! But there he stood, all
seventy years of him, and every one of those years spent in the north Maine woods,
except for his hiatus in World War Two, where Earl liked to say he took the last German bullet of the war—right in the ass. But it was all that time in the woods that gave Earl his permanent tan, like parchment, or rawhide, his face so dewlapped that it looked like it was about to fall off his skull. And then there was that toothpick which had permanent residence in the corner of his mouth. What the hell!
Fling darkened, but didn’t say a word. He just pulled his skis and poles together in
the dooryard and then squatted to lace up his boots while Earl hovered, looking out over the river and twirling that toothpick with a free hand. “I’d never,” he said, but under his breath now.
Didn’t Earl sense that there were times when Fling just liked to be left alone?
Actually, Fling usually liked to be left alone. Except for Deb, of course. They had been married only a few years, and she was still the white hot star he circled. But aside from her he had never felt a real need for people. He wasn’t antisocial or anything like that.
He’d just never felt a real need.
Earl stood firmly on the snowy bank as Fling slipped down onto the river. It was
perfect: just an inch or so of crystal snow over the thick ice. The skis slid along without hitch or resistance, the cold air filling Fling’s lungs as he cut long, languid loops around the channel that ran between the bank and the strip island about a hundred yards offshore, carefully avoiding the notorious thin areas where the river boiled up. Every so often Fling glanced back toward the house. Earl was still there, looking on with palpaple disapproval, the breath steaming from his nostrils. When, after a half hour, Fling returned to shore, Earl looked nothing short of relieved.
The thing was, Earl had always been good to Fling and Deb. In his quietly
intrusive way. Once, just after they had moved into the fixer upper they had bought for a song—but right on the river!—Fling was out in the overgrown backyard, wondering where on earth to start to clear the forest of knotweed that seemed to be growing right before his eyes. Earl called it bamboo. Or more precisely, “damned bamboo.” Fling’s property sloped gently down to the river, so that there was no clear border between what Fling wanted to control and what the river was entitled to. “That damned bamboo’d creep right up to the house and knock on the door,” said Earl. “Come in for a cup of coffee if you let it.”
“I’m going to build a retaining wall,” said Fling with a determined nod. “Get
some clean fill and square off the yard. Raise the bank.” He took off his ballcap and his straight, dark hair fell over his eyes like a curtain. He brushed it back and redonned his cap. “But I’m gonna need some railroad ties.”
Earl said nothing. He just continued to observe the situation with Fling. But the
next morning, when Fling bounded out of the house with the alacrity of a young man bent on taking on the world, there it was, in his driveway—a big heap of railroad ties, sticking out every which way like a breastwork. When he asked Earl if he knew where they had come from, Earl’s eyes sparkled mischievously but he wouldn’t look at the younger man. “Oh,” he said, “some truck probably hit a bump and it was too much trouble to gather the things up again.”
And then there was the time Fling had put his canoe into the river during spring
runoff. A stupid thing to do, he realized now. There were still slabs of ice fluming down from the north woods, so Fling had to maneuver deftly around them in the swift current. But a floe slammed into him, and the canoe went over about ten feet from shore. Fling felt the life being sucked right out of him in the frigid water as he flailed and watched his canoe float steadily away. Then a pole precipitated before his eyes. He grabbed it and held on in desperate gratitude. Earl pulled the shivering man ashore and helped him off with his boots. “Well, I saw you froggin’ around out there and thought I’d better come over,” was all he said. He was out of earshot before Fling could muster so much as a “thank you” through chattering teeth.
That was the thing with Earl. He could be so exasperating in the way he would
give unsolicited advice; but his acts of kindness were unremitting, and so, yes, Fling
called him friend. And then there was Earl’s wife, Ines—whom Earl referred to as “her” —bent and crippled up with her walker and Earl uncomplaining about it all. Well, shoot, Fling knew he should count his blessings.
Eventually, the knotweed was cleared, a new roof put on the house—with Earl’s
help—and a small garage was built for Fling’s “projects,” as Deb called them. They
scraped and repainted the clapboards and it finally looked like people lived there. People who cared. People who wanted to stay put for the long haul. Maybe have a couple or three kids. And then there was the river. Fling still couldn’t get over it. They had lived in the house for two years and Fling was still struck by the wonder of it all. Every morning, before he got in the pick-up and headed out on his carpentry jobs, he stood for a few long moments at the edge of his retaining wall and looked out over the Penobscot. In early spring the runoff was a sight to behold—ice rushing down from the north, sounding like a clatter of wine glasses. In the summer the river was a silver ribbon meandering along, but sometimes as still as a lake. In the fall the birches and maples studding the banks caught fire—reds and golds and who knows how many colors in between. God it was beautiful…
But in Fling’s mind the winter was the most arresting season as far as the river
was concerned. As he lay in bed close to Deb on those chill nights, there were sounds, and each of them fired his imagination. One was the chinking of the woodstove as its joints expanded. Another was Deb’s breathing and sometimes her low moaning when he had his hands on her trying to get her going. But the other sounds were the ones that Fling was most captured by because they were the newest to his experience. They came from the river. A thundering crack, like rifle fire. Dull, echoing thuds as the plates of ice grew heavy and then collapsed. And the subtlest sound of all: the crinkling of broad, flat, glass fingers feeling their way up the bank. “It’s making ice,” he’d whisper. And Deb in her half-sleep would echo, “Ice?”
“The river,” said Fling. “It’s making ice. That’s what they call it. Deb, why does it
bring tears to my eyes?”
And Deb would prop herself up on her elbow and gaze dreamily into Fling’s face.
“I don’t know,” she’d say. “You’ve never told me.”
“I don’t know either,” said Fling as he lay there with his hands knotted behind his
head. “But I read somewhere that rivers are alive. Do you believe that, Deb? Do you
think that when it freezes and swells up like that, it’s reaching out for us? And that some day that really thin ice along the bank is going to make it? And it will come in and that’s what death is?”
That’s when Deb grabbed his face and turned it toward her. “It’s too late for that
kind of talk,” she said. “And we’re too young.” And then she pulled herself up tight
against his bare chest and legs. “But why do I get so damn hot when you get in these moods? Can you answer that one?”
Fling couldn’t, and he was soon overcome with his own heat for this woman who
he once said was his only reason for living, moving into her with practiced ease, the
sound of their love-making providing counterpoint to the sounds of the river making ice. Crack. Thud. Sigh. Moan. Through the night.
Finally, in January, the river quieted. Fling went out onto the ice with his hand
auger and drilled down to running water. “Eighteen inches,” he said to himself as he
wiped his nose on his glove and drew his measuring rod out of the hole. When he got back to shore, Earl was standing there, his hands in the pockets of his black-and-red checked lumberjack coat, steam pouring from the nostrils of his great rubbery nose in the frigid air, an icicle of snot hanging from the tip. “Gives a man pause to see you out on that ice,” he said as Fling came by him.
“Earl,” said Fling, “that ice is eighteen inches thick. It could hold a Sherman tank.”
Earl wasn’t much for argument. But he did know ice, having cut and hauled it in
the old days. Had stacked it in the ice houses and covered it with sawdust, where it lasted the year through. Yes, Earl knew ice. “The thing is,” he said, “you got that double ice here and there. A layer on top, then an air pocket, then the layer on top of the water. Back in ’39 I was out there cutting. I was all of seventeen and on top of the world. But the ice don’t care. Didn’t make a sound. No warning at all. The world just fell out from under me. I dropped two feet but it might have been a mile for the panic I felt. I thought it was the end. Fell so fast I didn’t have time to scream for my mother. And then my boots hit ice again. The fellas ran over and hauled me out. I don’t mind tellin’ you now that I shit my pants. I don’t go out on river ice no more.”
“I’ll be careful,” said Fling dismissively as he headed for the house.
“Careful has nothing to do with it,” said Earl without turning his gaze from the
slate gray river ice. Fling heard him, but continued up to the house. And Earl, for his part, returned to Ines.
Fling came to understand Earl’s fear of a frozen river. If he had fallen through as
a kid, it would have made an impression on him too. But eighteen inches! Science was on his side. It took only four to hold a man with no worry at all. Eighteen could hold an army. If he had the least doubt about this, he’d never take Deb out on the ice. She’d shown some hesitation at first, but Fling’s hand was an irresistible lure, and before long they were taking daily walks out on the river. Once, in the middle of their walk, the softest snow began to fall. The flakes adorned Deb’s chestnut hair like stars in a crown. Fling held her at arm’s length. The beauty of that sight took his breath away. When he was finally able to speak, all he could say was, “I love you, I love you, I love you,” in the barest whisper.
Then the sharp crack that split the air. Deb pulled herself close to him. “The ice!”
she screamed. “Fling!”
But Fling knew better. He knew the river by now. “No,” he said. “It stopped making ice a couple of weeks back. That was a gun.”
Deb pulled back a bit and stared into his face. “So we’re safe?”
“Yeah,” said Fling with all the reassurance he could muster. “Just an idiot in the
woods hunting outside of season. Still looking for that deer.” As if to reinforce his point, at that very moment a doe peeked out from the woods on the strip island. She cast her large, curious eyes upon the couple, then flicked up her tail and bounded off. “There,” said Fling as he kneaded Deb’s arms. “The one that got away.” Then, after a moment’s consideration, he added, “It’s a stupid thing,” and Deb threw him a quizzical look. “The deer’s job is to get away, but when it hears danger—like a hunter, for instance—it flicks up that snow-white tail like a flag that says, ‘Here I am! Shoot!’ It’s dumb.”
Deb forced a smile. She didn’t even like to think about hunting. “I’d rather set
food out on the ice, to help them through the winter,” she said by way of protest.
Fling took a glove off and pressed his warm palm against her cheek. “I know you
would,” he said. “I know.”
The winter wore on, unusually frigid this year, so that Fling let the faucets drip at
night to keep the pipes from freezing. He loaded up the wood stove before bed, but by morning the cast iron was stone cold again. But then there were those in-between generic pharmacy drug days when the temperature bounded upwards and the world lost its hard, cold, flinty edge. This happened toward the end of January. A thaw came that saw Fling working in shirtsleeves. The snow on the roof melted and rained down from the eaves throughout those few days and nights of relative warmth.
One day, Fling went out onto the river with his wood sled and chainsaw to cut some windfalls over by the strip island. A few days of warmth didn’t make much of a
difference in the general ice thickness, although the first inch or two had turned to slush. And around some large rocks, and an old timber crib, the ice had let go and the river was bubbling up, pure and cold. Fling was surprised at how close he could come to these openings without so much as a crinkling of the ice. It was like walking to the edge of a cliff and looking down into a gorge. Perfectly safe. Then he backed off and continued after those windfalls.
Fling reached the shore of the island and immediately spotted several trees that
had come down, either from age, affliction, erosion, or the work of beavers. He put on his hearing and eye protection and hoisted the chainsaw out of the sled. He had just had the Huskie overhauled, so it took only two good yanks on the pull before it roared to life. Then he waved it forward and set its teeth down along a beautiful length of birch. The saw cut cleanly and without protest, spewing out a shower of wood chips. Birch burned rather quickly, but it was a sweet-smelling wood and it kept the house warm.
The minutes passed. Fling’s mind started to wander, but only to pleasant things.
The house, having plenty of work, Deb… He thought of the old saying that wood warms you twice: when you cut it and when you burn it. And it was true. The air had grown chill, but he felt warm and snug as he handled the Huskie, pausing every so often to gather up the lengths and chuck them into the wood sled.
When Fling finally paused, the first thing he did was look up at the sky. It was low, gray, and unbroken. So cold up there, the clouds looked frozen in place. He turned
to look back toward the house and was pleasantly surprised to see Deb tripping over the ice in his direction, holding her arms out to keep her balance. Now, why isn’t she wearing her mittens? he thought. But gloves or not, the sight of her, with her fur-edged hood drawn over her lovely head, and her delicate step, made his heart race. He knew then and there that without her he would die. Literally. For him there were no other fish in the sea. What was that other saying he had heard? That other mothers had more beautiful daughters? Well, not in this case. He had gotten the pick of the litter.
“Fling,” was all she said when she had reached him. He threw his arms around her
as if he had caught a falling star. “Where are your mittens?” he demanded as he took her hands and cupped them before his mouth and blew warm air over them.
Deb reached into her pockets and felt around. “Funny. I didn’t even notice I
wasn’t wearing any. Well, I’ve got them here.”
“Well, put ‘em on,” said Fling, playfully. “And stand back while I cut these last
couple of lengths.” And having said that, he turned to his work. Deb put on her white wool mittens and tramped through the snow up the low bank of the island, from where she could look down at Fling.
She stood there in the naked woods, the gray birches leaning out over the river, the old oaks and maples gnarled and dark, looking almost sick as they struggled for life in the poor, sandy soil of the island. But then there were the pines, robust and lovely, their green needles offering the eyes blessed relief in the monotony of the winter landscape.
Fling paused from his work and looked around, wanting to set his eyes on Deb
again. And there she was, on high ground overlooking the river, in her tan parka against the green of the pines. Fling lifted a hand and waved to her. Deb smiled and lifted a snow white mitten to return the gesture.
Then Fling heard the harsh and sudden sound right through his hearing protection.
“The river’s making ice again,” he said to himself. But on consideration, he knew it
couldn’t be. The season was too far advanced. He had told Deb this very thing the last time they were on the river together. Deb had panicked upon hearing that crack, and Fling had said, “No, it stopped making ice a couple of weeks back. That was a gun.”
Fling watched as a plume of red spread itself out from the left side of Deb’s chest.
Her expression turned from one of pure joy to non-comprehension and then, finally, hopelessness, as she collapsed.
Fling dropped the Huskie and threw off his headphones. “No, no, no, no, no…”
he repeated, like a mantra, like something one says to ward off evil. He scrambled madly up the bank, through the thicket, through the snow, stumbling wildly until he arrived at the still mass. He turned Deb over and beheld the static face of a porcelain doll.
At that moment Fling was set free in time. He didn’t know how long he had
squatted there with the body in his arms. He didn’t feel the cold, or the wind, or for that matter, anything at all. He was at the very edge, hoping that whatever nightmare he had blundered into was something he was just glimpsing, like looking over a high wall. He was waiting for the moment when he could let go of the wall and fall back down again, turn to Deb, and say, “Don’t look. You don’t want to see what’s over there. Let’s go on being happy and loving and planning our life.”
The shadow that fell over him put Fling back in the moment. Earl stood there,
looking down, puffing out his cheeks. “I saw it from the house,” he said. “The cops and ambulance are on the way.”
Ambulance? thought Fling. What a curious thing. Even when death was
indisputable, an ambulance came. Maybe it was just an opportunity for them to say they tried. Or that maybe there was hope. Fling, still cradling Deb, could sense how uneasy the older man was for having crossed the ice, and what he had sacrificed of himself in doing so. Fling just continued to sit there in the snow, looking like a little boy. Earl reached down and ran his hand slowly through Fling’s hair, pushing his knit cap off. “I didn’t see the shooter,” he said. “But the cops are looking. He probably got off island on the north end, where you can get into town on the low rocks.”
Fling almost smiled as he listened to these details, as he listened to Earl trying to
make sense of the world. “Thanks, Earl,” he managed, and he was both amazed and
ashamed of himself for those two words.
A man who has been accustomed to a life working with his hands, who is self-employed, who had never discriminated between work days and the weekend, cannot not continue to work. Fling knew that he had to keep moving, that if he stopped, the weight of remembrance would crush him. The only way to stay out from under it was to keep moving.
But nothing would rend the silence of the man. He had become encapsulated by
his grief, barely able to ask for what he wanted in the store, barely able to say “coffee.” Earl did his best to keep Fling company, although Earl was a poor conversationalist and, having never been comforted in his life, had never learned to comfort others. For Earl it was like bowling—every so often he’d hurl a comment at Fling, who didn’t know whether to be grateful for the old man’s attention or throw him out of the house and tell him never to come back. But Earl was not a stupid or insensitive man. He knew enough to not say anything about the healing power of time or that Fling should be grateful for the years he had had with Deb or that God wanted another flower for his garden. And he certainly knew enough to clam up about the danger of going out on the ice. Earl’s relative silence, but physical presence, Fling realized, was something. That, and the kindness of his housebound wife, Ines, who sent over, once a week, some small dish she was able to prepare with her gnarled, arthritic hands.
“I’d like to go back to carpentry myself,” said Earl as he sat by the wood stove
one day with Fling. “And I would, too, if it wasn’t for her.”
Fling tried to grunt, to make some sound to let Earl know he wasn’t ignoring him.
But he was so frustrated with himself for what he saw himself becoming, for the inertia that had seized his life, or what was left of it. It had been two months already since Deb. Two whole months. God almighty, was this the way he was going to die? Weak, beaten down, depressed? Weakening, beating down, and depressing everyone around him?
As the two men sat by the fire, rolling mugs of coffee between their hands, the ice
continued to disappear from the roof. The melt-off dripped, dripped, dripped outside the windows, the sun illuminating every fat drop, making them sparkle. Spring had arrived. Officially at least. The shift of seasons meant that Deb now had a place in time. She was no longer now, but then. Fling had to acknowledge that Deb had died “back in the winter.” Back. Long ago. As that point continued to recede in time, would she eventually disappear from heart and mind? And would Fling, like a little child who had experienced loss, come to forget what she had looked like if he couldn’t muster the courage to look at her pictures? A chill shook his body. Coffee sloshed from his cup and onto the floor.
“You okay, Fling?” inquired Earl.
Fling raised his head. “Yeah,” he said. “I-I’m okay.” And Fling realized that this was true. He was feeling okay, and he felt not a stick of guilt about it.
“You seem more cheerful today,” ventured Earl. But the word Earl might have used, had he been familiar with it, was “resigned.”
“I think I’m just learning to appreciate you more,” said Fling, and for the first time since Deb, he smiled.
Earl, for his part, not accustomed to dealing with sentiment, gazed into his mug of
coffee. Finally, when the hour was late, he rose to go. “I’d better get back to her,” he said. “She gets these flare-ups. The stove helps. She likes to sit by the fire. I have a blanket for her.”
Fling nodded. “Goodbye Earl,” he said as the old man continued to the door. Earl
didn’t say goodbye, because he knew, at some level, that he was not the one leaving.
That night the world hardened. A frigid Arctic blast from Canada swept into Maine. Ice reformed on the roof. The snow piles lining the road regained some of their
integrity, and the slush in the road froze into irregular, rutted masses. But in the morning the sun was brilliant. Fling woke into winter’s second wind and didn’t shave, shower or eat breakfast. He put on his rag wool sweater, his flannel-lined wool pants, his ski boots, and a ballcap to keep the sun out of his eyes. He took his skis down to the river bank, where he bent down beneath the pendulous, still-bare branches of a swamp maple. He clicked the toes of his boots into the clamps of the skis, stood up, wound the straps of the ski poles’ grips about his wrists, and pushed off onto the river.
In the meantime, Earl was standing at the window of his workshop. Ines called to
him from the bedroom. “So cold!” she moaned. “So cold…” But he didn’t budge.
Instead, he watched as the graceful, angular figure of a young man glided over the
thinning ice in a beautiful rhythm of ski and pole, ski and pole. As Earl watched, Fling skied in ever widening circles, like a pilot lost over the ocean in heavy fog, trying to find his ship. Finally, and without a sound, Fling dropped and Earl immediately knew that there was no double ice this time. Under the ice, the river must have been running strong, because there wasn’t a pole, or a hand, or a head, or the least disturbance. A man could last five minutes in that cold only if his head were above water. But under the ice?
Ines called again. “So cold!” she managed in her thin, reedy voice. “So cold…”
She needed him. Earl called 911. But he wouldn’t go out on the ice again. He had learned that lesson long ago. Instead, he did what he knew he was still good for. He went into the bedroom to tend to her.