On the day Sheila drives off in their new Chevy Silverado, John walks down to the lake and tests the ice. Thankfully, it holds, so he takes another step, and another, telling himself that if he can get to the other side, over there might be better than over here. Over there, he can look back over here and think, “At least I’m not over there.”
Wearing only a thin parka—he’d forgotten his hat and gloves—he rubs his hands together and stares at the opaque and crusty ice beneath his feet. What the freezing fuck, he takes another step, the ice solid, his gym-shoed feet freezing—why hadn’t he worn his boots?
The lake stretches out before him. Overhead, six Canadian geese wing across in a V-formation, one squawking, trying to keep up. Otherwise, it’s so silent out here he can hear his heart beating. All this ice. As if he’s standing on a mirror. If he were over at the Stumble Inn, he’d tell the bartender to “hold the ice.” Out here, he’s surrounded by ice that holds him.
A few more steps, a pause, then longer strides until he comes to the end of the pier posts—the pier, taken out that fall, now waiting out winter in High-n-Dry Storage.
The ice talks. Moans and groans. Like her, this morning, when she tripped on one of his size 13 boots in the living room.
“You and your goddamn shoes!”
She’d rubbed her knee. Tossed his work boot across the room.
Said, “Another thing.”
Said, “One more thing.”
Said, “I can’t take this anymore.”
Then, her refrain: “You never listen to me.”
The other day, driving to the nursing home, Sheila yapping away in the passenger seat, he’d heard lyrics from a song on the radio: “Birds on the roof of my mother’s house.”
His mother, he’d remembered, had birds on the roof of her house. She’d called him, pleading, “John, get over here now, you have to see this, all these birds, I’ve never seen so many!” He’d rushed over in the blue dusk only to find that she had bats, not birds, swooping and diving, slipping down the ridge cap, roosting in her roof. She’d stood below watching, amazed and amused.
Not long after, he picked her up, told her he was taking her to the train station—she’d often talked about wanting to take another rail trip—and drove her to Golden Acres, telling her that her new room was her own private sleeping car. “All you have to do, Ma, is walk down the hallway to the dining car.”
She still believes she’s traveling on a long train trip, going west. When he visits, she’s always sitting at her small table by the window, sipping coffee, looking out at the empty road going nowhere. “Look at that landscape,” she says, “Isn’t it gorgeous?”
He’ll visit her later. Hugging her, he’ll feel the same old guilt inching up his spine. Her Evening in Paris cologne will take him back years, back to when he was just a boy, the whole world his blank page. He won’t mention Sheila—not that his mother will ever ask.
He spins around, surprised to find he’s in the middle of the lake. In the distance, his warm cottage, white board and batten siding, set against the snow-covered ground and dappled fir trees. His solid, sturdy home on land. Out here, the ice should be thicker, should hold a 185-pound man. Shouldn’t it? In the dozen years they’ve lived “at the lake,” never once has he been drawn to the ice, not like his neighbors who drag shanties out and disappear for hours—to get away from their wives, they joke. He’s seen them haul all kinds of things on sleds: portable fire-pits and miniature stoves; cots and bean bags, a small rocking chair, ice chests and mini-freezers. Al, his crafty neighbor, once packed an easel and palette. Stan Newman told him he knew of a fisherman who’d packed wine, beer, whiskey, schnapps, hunks of cheese, frozen pizzas, burritos, and three gallons of chocolate ice cream, and had “a helluva good time.”
John slips his hands in his pockets, and scans the horizon. Not one shanty. From here, the ice is light grey. Then, in slushy patches, darker. He takes another step. This time, a loud cracking, as if someone’s walking behind him—Sheila? Underfoot, a vibration, another moan, and then a spiderweb of cracks.
The ice gives way, his stomach lurches, and for a moment he’s suspended in mid-air, between slippery surface and the cold, deep water below, Sheila’s crystal-clear voice bubbling up: “One more lousy thing, John.”