The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 17, No. 4

The Ice Committee

by David Means

It was late afternoon. It would soon be dusk.
     “I don’t think I ever told you the one with Captain Hopewell in it,” the man named Kurt was saying.
     “Don’t start. For God’s sake, you’ll jinx us for sure,” the man named Merle said. “Just get me thinking about that one and it’ll jinx us.”
     “This one isn’t going to jinx us. If you knew the story, you’d know that,” Kurt said, and then for a few minutes both men sat silently and mulled over everything they’d discussed on the nature of luck over the course of the last few months as they’d wandered up and down Superior Street, shaking a cup for spare change, scraping for odd jobs, whatever it took to gather enough for some booze and a scratch lottery ticket. They’d agreed that to talk too much about good fortune just before you scratched would decrease the odds of it coming, because luck had to bend around the place and time of the scratch, establishing itself in relation to your state of mind at that particular moment. You either scratched in a deliberately calm, quiet moment, or in one of great emotional intensity. Scratch a ticket on the sidewalk in front of the Hope Mission—or worse yet, inside the lounge, with all that dusty grief—no chance in hell. At your mother’s grave on a pristine winter day, after paying your prayerful respects and laying some flowers against the tombstone, about fifty/fifty. Out in Lake Superior on the deck of a good ship under a gloriously crystalline sky, sixty/forty. On the deck of the same ship in a hundred-year storm with slush ice forming on the lake, just after hearing the news that your old man’s died, ninety/ten. Back at your mother’s grave in the fall, at dusk, having survived the hundred-year storm, sure thing. Best to clear the head of all expectation and settle into a state of not-caring as you look out with silent and blissful longing at the lake.
     “You haven’t heard this one, so it’s not going to hurt our chances if I tell it,” Kurt was saying, leaning back on the bench. “It won’t change the odds any more than if I were to start talking about that dream I have of buying a decommissioned ship, either here or down in Cleveland. Dry-dock the fucker, put in a Jacuzzi and a pool table and a wet bar—all that stuff,” he said, and then the older man, who sat formally with his hands on his knees, reached up and adjusted the lapels of his coat.
     “You just planted a seed in my mind about you buying that retired ship, which is just as much of a jinx, me thinking it.”
     “So you’re saying I shouldn’t talk?” Kurt said.
     The lake in front of them was unusually calm for this time of year, a burnished glean that stretched out to a single vessel, far out, heading to the horizon. Behind them, to the right, the bridge sat with its hundred-ton counterweights up—the span down—waiting stubbornly to be relieved of its burden. The port of Duluth was dead, the chutes and conveyers empty. With the exception of the ship out on the water, nothing seemed to move.
     “As we’ve discussed ad infinitum, you should hold off talking too much about fortune—good or bad—until we scratch the ticket,” Merle said, shaking his hands in his sleeves and twisting his cuff links into position. He had a long, gaunt face and sad, still periwinkle eyes.
     “Well, Captain Hopewell was a hopeless asshole,” Kurt said. “Can I at least say that?”
     Ships and ’Nam, ’Nam and ships—that’s all the kid’s got, Merle thought.
     “Whatever you say, Professor.”
     “I didn’t say a word,” Merle said.
     “But you were thinking something and I know what it was,” Kurt said. He stood and walked down to the shore to examine, for the second time that afternoon, the dead flies and grime that marked where the water—no tide, nothing resembling a tide—had receded during the hot, dry summer.
     The ship had disappeared over the horizon, heading on what seemed to be an upbound tack that would pass to the south of Split Rock Lighthouse and Isle Royale, then charting a course to the Soo Locks (likely the Poe Lock, Kurt thought, yeah, the Poe—it’s the only one that could handle a boat that long), down through Lake Huron, down the St. Clair, past Detroit, across Erie, up the Welland Canal, across Lake Ontario, through the St. Lawrence Seaway—four hundred slogging miles—and out to sea. It was easy to imagine the urgency that would fill a ship this time of year as it shoved through the locks, searching out the sudden serenity of the seaway with the land close on both sides, and then, leaving it behind, entering the Gulf of St. Lawrence and, finally, the open Atlantic. That’s how it worked. You boarded in the spring, hung from the sides and painted the hull, scrubbed the deck and worked your ass off bolting and unbolting hatches, hardly paying the water much notice, until one day, as you stood on the deck having a smoke, the vastness of the open sea flashed you like a girl with her skirt blown up, exposing a beautiful secret, and then you fell back to the boredom—the hatches, the decks, the dust in the holds. It opened and shut on you, the sea did.
     “Hopewell, you busted my ass!” Kurt shouted. “You were a vintage Nova Scotia stoic.”
     “Again, I have to say, I’ve heard everything I want to hear about Hopewell,” Merle said, studying his friend. Kurt was rail thin, dressed in an old flannel shirt and a canvas jacket that hung loosely from his wide shoulders. All the drugs he’d taken had given him a saintly gauntness, as if he’d starved himself for some grand purpose, and his eyes—when he wasn’t squinting—had a shifty dart that somehow made him look younger than his fifty-three years.
     “Come on, just tell me a little bit, just a word or two to confirm you know the story,” Kurt said, slapping his sides and hopping, lifting off his toes. “I think we agreed that it’s OK if it’s a new version that has good luck in it.”
     “Well, if you insist,” Merle said. “You told me you were working an old scrap heap. ‘Due for the heap,’ you said. It was flying a Portuguese flag and had a captain named Hopewell. Then you asked me for another word for hard-ass, and I suggested you use the word stoic. You said, ‘Yeah, stoic, that’s the right word.’ You called Hopewell ‘a vintage Nova Scotia stoic,’ like you just did a minute ago, and then you told me the story.”
     “I could’ve told you a hundred fucking Hopewell stories. I have a bunch of them,” Kurt said. “And stoic’s a word I knew before you taught it to me.”
     “ ’Nam was in it,” Merle said.
     “I’d say half my stories have ’Nam in them. That doesn’t prove to me you’ve heard this one.”
     “Well, it had a Captain Hopewell in it, and it had ’Nam in it, and it had a ship that was due for scrap.”
     “Did it have a guy named Billy-T—my buddy who enlisted with me in Benton Harbor?”
     “Did we not agree that we’d restrain from telling stories that might in some way involve luck? Did we not agree, at some point?” Merle said, pounding his walking stick into the dirt.
     “Look, just humor me and confirm that you’ve heard it, and I’ll shut up—but if you haven’t heard it, then I think I should talk because I feel like talking, and you know if I don’t talk when I want to talk there’s a possibility that the tension from not talking might jinx us just as much as me telling some kind of story that has the wrong type of luck in it. Was there a guy named Billy-T? If Billy-T was in there, you heard the story before, in which case I’ll let it go.”
     Merle reached up, pinched the dimple in his tie, curled his palm over the end of his stick, and—shaking violently—tried to stand. “Jesus, kid. Don’t blame me if this scratch is worthless. I have my own desires to talk, but I also have the wisdom to hold my tongue.”
     He gave up the effort, sitting again, and watched as Kurt took a chug of beer, wiped his mouth, lit a cigarette, and scuffed his feet as he prepared to tell the story, working it over in his mind (presumably), trying to remember if he had indeed told Merle the entire thing from beginning to end, or if he’d given just an abbreviated version with the end left out.
     “I was working as a low-life maintenance monkey on an old heap, a coal burner out of Cleveland flying a Portuguese flag. I guess I told you that, and maybe I told you that we were heading on a northerly course into some nasty weather. You could feel in the roll of the ship that someone was in for a dose of bad luck,” he said, and then he waited for Merle to cut in on him, to warn him again about jinxing the ticket, but the old man had his head back and his eyes closed, nodding softly, so Kurt went on, saying, “I’ve told you about how it felt, the sense that the water wanted to drag someone to the bottom, and maybe I’ve told you how I hit Hopewell on occasion with my ’Nam shit as a way to get out of deck duty, and how most of the time he’d just listen and then tell me to get back to work. But this time was different. For one thing, against protocol, the bastard came in and ate with us at our table. The captain and his guys usually eat in a different galley, but I guess he’d noticed a disgruntled tension in the crew. Not that we’d ever mutiny. I mean, it was a good-paying gig. Mutinies are out of style. Anyway, the way I used to deliver it was to put in as much lingo as I could, but keep it vague, too, if you know what I’m saying, and try to ride a balance, because a ’Nam story has to sound crazy and true at the same time. And that day, with that storm churning under the hull, I knew I had to touch some part of Captain Hopewell that he didn’t think I could get to, so I softened him up with some random details—the weird, pink flechette powder that dusted our fingers; PSYOP choppers pumping the sounds of crying babies down on the gooks to drive them to a crazy surrender. I worked these details until Hopewell’s face went tight and his mouth screwed and the stick up his ass seemed to nudge against his brow. Then I knew he was truly hearing me.
     “I told him that when I turned eighteen I was sure I’d be drafted and wanted an advantage on which service I’d join, so I enlisted on the buddy program with my best friend, Billy-T—we went over to the recruiting office in Benton Harbor and joined together. Anyway, I could see that Hopewell’s eyes were drifting to the porthole, and I felt I had to get to the point, so I jumped right into it and told him how me and Billy-T found ourselves in the hot and heavy in Hue, street-to-street, real-war shit, and how Billy-T—who had a serious lisp—called in air-strike coordinates on the radio net. Mortar rounds coming in all around us, and these shit-can field phones we were using . . . ‘Hell, don’t get me started on that,’ I said to Hopewell. ‘Don’t get me started on the arms we had over there. For a while we were using—and most folks don’t believe me when I tell them this—fucking Remington rifles. I swear, wood stocks, single bore, flint action. You’d break one of those down and you could hardly get it back together because the so-called follower spring in the clip would fuck you up.’ I added as much of that bullshit as I could to keep Hopewell’s eyes from the porthole, and then I swung back to the main story again, making sure he understood that we weren’t used to streets. We were used to a guy taking point with no line of sight. Hue was all line of sight, if you dared to look. You know the deal—put a helmet on your bayonet and stick it up over the wall, watch it get nailed with fire, just a hunk of Swiss cheese when you bring it back down. (Then some Wisconsin newbie would go ahead and do the same.) I told Hopewell, ‘See, man, Billy-T was a short-timer, down to the end of his tour, just a few days from home. Streets have corners, you understand, angles, doorways, churchyards, windows, walls to press all that bullshit luck and chance down into sense. Anyway, point being, he called in the coordinates and we waited for air support to come in and solve the problem. That’s how we worked it. Get into tight shit and let air support come in close, and then duck down and wait for the napalm heat. We hated them the way you’d hate any savior. They saved your life and took it at the same time, if you know what I mean.’ ”
     “Well, I don’t really know what you mean.” Merle pounded his stick down. “But I think you should stop right now. I’d venture to say that in this case the redundancy might somehow nullify the jinx. The fact that I’ve heard this story so many times, and that I find it so boring and even incoherent, and therefore didn’t listen to a word you just said, might somehow nudge the odds in our direction.”
     He shifted through memories in an attempt to locate the original version of Kurt’s story, which he’d heard during one of their first afternoons together—still in that honeymoon stage, trading lives with a feverish desire, like lovers in bed—as they sat in what would become their spot near the port, smoking and drinking themselves into a stupor, listening to the roar of the chutes, feeling warm and cozy while the port—whose activity had dwindled down to a trickle in the last few years—suddenly, with the arrival of a ship, seemed grand and substantial. Kurt had explained that the crews on those boats still headed upbound on the Fort William/Port Arthur tack, with top hampers still screaming in the wind, and plates and frames still groaning and flexing against the slush ice blowing in from the east, and their captains still had to contend with the dictates of the Ice Committee of the Lake Carriers’ Association, a bunch of business suits in a fancy office in the Rockefeller Building in Cleveland, who gathered bullshit weather reports and used maps and charts and half-assed guesswork to make a call on when the upper lakes could be broken out for the new season.
     As Merle had listened to Kurt’s talk in those early days, some buried professorial part of himself would rise to the surface as he struggled to make intellectual connections between these ragged memories and his own life. Sitting there with the younger man he could remember what it had felt like lecturing to a class about those souls who—armed with their faith and a hardcore fortitude to put up with natural forces—had risked it all to make a buck, bartering their way along the shore and exploiting the natives one way or another, tapping into the great flex and yaw of capital as it moved between the hinterlands and the cities. A deep knowledge of sequential events, a gloriously full understanding that once allowed him to speak with complete authority, had since fractured to shards—Charlemagne and the Algonquins; Huron villages, bleak and shabby by French standards; Father Jamet; Brother Duplessis; Saint Lalemant; Ennemond Masse—that drifted and cleaved with those from his own personal history: his wife, Emma; his mother-in-law, Gracie; his son, Ronnie; and two dozen men from the Holy Order for People on the Edge Mission, who’d lived out their days before the big, ocular presence of the lake as it pushed against the hardscrabble town, which boom-and-busted its way forward, its grand old homes clutching to the high, terraced land with surprising optimism, seeming to turn a blind eye to the lack of forgiveness in a landscape of mainly stone and ice.
     Another time—staggering drunk along Superior Street, holding each other up, arms over shoulders—Kurt had admitted that he didn’t see it as a matter of bad luck on Billy-T’s part, but rather as bad luck turned to good luck because he’d gotten out of deck duty using Billy-T’s death, and it had been rough duty because, approaching Taconite Harbor, the hatches had to be unbolted, ten bolts per hatch, and then he was one of those who’d be lowered down in something called a bosun’s chair, nothing more than a slab of wood under your ass and an iron bar coming up through your crotch. They’d stopped in the middle of the street, face to face, and Kurt had admitted that Billy-T had most likely lisped the coordinates, and some poor radio operator in forward air control had misheard a number over the net and set the bomb down too close, blowing a few of the men away, including beloved Billy-T himself. The fact that Kurt was able to use the story to get out of deck duty had saved his life because a deck monkey (that’s the phrase he’d used, weeping softly) had been killed that night—“And it wasn’t me,” he said, “it wasn’t me. The dock at Taconite is only four feet wide, with a rim of wood along the edge to stop you from sliding, and it was glazed with ice as we came in, and the kid who took my place had done what he was supposed to do, keeping his eye on the line at all times, hauling and hauling, until he went right over the edge.”
     Then a few weeks ago, walking up to Indian Point Park with nothing to do and no money to spend, just whiling away some hours together, Kurt had admitted that Captain Hopewell hadn’t really bought the story he’d told about Billy-T, and had simply been weighing the ramifications of sending a man top deck who was in such a sorry state of mind. “The salty old bastard was thinking about all the paperwork involved if this stupid deckhand, this shaky kid, were to go overboard. Then they’d have to drop the chains and wait until an official search was made and it would take days, and a few fucking days cut from the manifest would cost the company a fortune,” Kurt had said, weeping again. “Captain Hopewell saw that I was just one more goofball ’Nam vet, way over his head when it came to his responsibilities.”

On the bench, opening his eyes, Merle watched Kurt go down to the shore for a third time, to dip his shoe in the water. It might not matter what either of them said right now, the older man thought. Every big port like this one had a kid just like Kurt, a kid with sea legs on land and land legs on sea, a kid whose life had ended in country, somewhere in the Highlands, or in Khe Sanh, or in Hue, or in Saigon, as a member of Tiger Force, or as a gunner on a Chinook, depending on which version he decided to tell that day. And there was always an old coot whose life had ended in middle age, beginning with a fight over—over what? he couldn’t really remember—that had resulted in the broken vase (a wedding present), and then another fight and a broken Hitchcock chair (another wedding present), and then another and a broken jaw (Emma, oh my dear sweet Emma!). He felt the deep shame of the memory: the clutch of her long, elegant fingers around her chin and her beautiful, deep, sad, brown brown eyes as he’d glanced back one last time before striking out, moving his feet over the ground day after day, until it seemed he’d walked (and he had, for God’s sake, he had) the upper shore of Superior, across the border into Canada, and then back down, finding his way to the Hope Mission.
     He was on his feet when he came out of it, shaking violently again, leaning all his weight onto the handle of his stick.
     “You think the ice is coming soon?” he said.
     “Christ,” Kurt said. “Now you’re gonna jinx the fucking ticket. Don’t start talking. I heard that one, anyway. Ice, a bet, and a winner. For God’s sake.”
     “I didn’t say a word,” Merle said.
     “You said enough just by asking me if I thought the lake was going to freeze up soon. That’s the one you drag up every time we scrounge enough to scratch. That’s the one I’ve heard a million times.”
     “I didn’t say a word,” Merle said. But he wasn’t sure because the memory was so strong. The warmth of the mission lounge back when he still had a little bit of his professorial bona fides. Cigar smoke bluing the air, catching the wedge of sunlight as it came through the room, thickening the afternoon while outside in the street the cars hissed through the slush and Jimmy Klein held court in the big leather chair with the split seams along the armrests. An old-timer—at that time—at the mission, his lips cracked and dry from five years of sobriety. Five dry years that had given him a wizened, sharp aspect that made the other men highly uncomfortable.
     “You see, the tradition of the ice betting pool goes back a couple hundred years, to when this was a small port,” Merle had explained. “Long before supertankers. Back when ships ran on coal and had a beam of something like fifty feet.” His voice was stiff and authorial. (All the other men in the lounge that afternoon were now dead. Red Jason, an old Iron Range train switchman. Dead. Slappy Jack, a tool and die maker with a carbuncle on his neck. Long dead. Jimmy Klein. Long, long, long dead.) The men absently took studious poses, leaning forward with an unusual attentiveness.
     “In any event, a man named Frank Lashway, who was about as deep in the drink as you can get, claimed he had a sure bet on when the ice would break. He put down the third day of March and went so far as to say it would break at three in the afternoon. Folks said, ‘Lashway, you’re sure on that?’ and he said, and I quote, ‘I’m sure on it. It’s not a guess.’ Lashway said, ‘I got myself a vision on it,’ and they said, and I quote, ‘You got a drunken vision,’ and he said, ‘Well, a vision’s a vision.’ And please understand that all this is factual history; you can find it in the Kitchi Gammi Club archives. They ran the betting pool, at least for upper class folks, the ship owners and steel mill operators and the like. So a man named Lashway put his bet down on the third day of March.”
     “Where’d he get the money to bet?” Jimmy Klein had asked. And then Slappy Jack, grunting and moaning, had said, “It don’t fucking matter where the wager came from so long as there was a wager in it, you dumb shit, because the point of the professor’s story isn’t about the amount of the wager; hell, it could’ve been the shirt off his back for all it matters.” And Klein, taking a puff, had said, “Hell, it matters how much because without a big wager there’s not much to the story at all. He could’ve been one lucky bastard who pulled a date out his ass amid a million guys pulling dates out their assess and he just happened to hit the nail and so we’re hearing the story. Otherwise, he’d’ve just been lost like the rest of them. So what I’m saying is that the amount of the wager should mean something, because if it was a big one, his house, his wife’s house in Wisconsin, something along those lines, then the story goes beyond just a guy with a lucky guess and becomes something else.”
     He’d gone on like that until, finally, Merle had cleared his throat, stroked his chin, gazed through the smoke, and said, ”We shall say he wagered his house, one he hadn’t seen in years but knew still existed, on a hundred-acre farm down in Green Bay, and that he wagered a draft horse and a plow and a new gizmo for shucking corn, just for the sake of my story, if that helps, because the wager—and I’m agreeing with your argument, Jimmy—should matter, in theory; so if it helps you to appreciate my story, put a big wager in there. Whatever the case, the third day of March came and it was cold, cold as hell, and the harbor was still jammed, not a hint of thaw, not a hint of breaking up, and so on and so forth. The record indicates, at least as well as I could find, that Lashway went out on the ice. Just about the entire town of Duluth gathered to watch him pick his way over the drifts along the shoreline, and out to the smoother surface beyond. About a quarter mile out, he stopped and began chopping with an axe, just his elbow flipping up and down until there was a crack. Not a boom, but a single, loud, electric snap—you can imagine this, can’t you?—and the ice started to break, and of course Lashway was sucked into the water and therefore released from the burden of the wager, so to speak, not knowing if he’d won or lost. And he did win, you see, but he didn’t know it, so perhaps theoretically he didn’t.”
     The men had mumbled and grunted, puffed smoke, looked solemnly at the television set. They’d often heard this type of story: preposterously out of tune with reality, but still as true as anything, mirroring their own desperation. (“Any one of us might’ve done the same,” Slappy Jack had said. “You have to admit that, don’t you?”) It wasn’t the image of someone out there on the ice that had struck home. It wasn’t the ice breaking up around his boots. They’d all felt such stupefying forces. What resonated through them—as they waited, paused, spit into the spittoon, smoked, watched television, shifted, adjusted cuffs, squeezed balls, flicked bitten fingernails, listened to the clock vibrate by the check-in desk—was all that cash the guy would never collect. Finally Klein had said, “Fix the goddamn set,” and got up to twist and fiddle the rabbit ears, spreading them wide; and as he reached around behind to turn the control knob, the picture drew into a tighter screw formation, and the same faces—one after another—rotated over and over, up to the edge of the screen and into eternity.

“If I win some cash I’m gonna head back to Benton Harbor and see how things squared away in my absence,” Kurt was saying. “And I’m not talking about this penny-ante scratch, but a big payout on a big ticket. Because if we win this one we should go buy a bunch of big-pot tickets. Because if this scratch is a winner it means we did something right, and if we don’t make use of that fact it’ll just be more of the same.” He was speaking from a squatting position and gesturing at the lake, which was now glossy and deep silver in the fading evening light, the color of mercury.
     “I believe we should wait a few more minutes,” Merle said from the bench. The cold was seeping through his trousers and into his aching knees. “I think we agreed that we wanted to see at least one star appear, or the moon. Some indication that there’s something beyond the sky. I think we said that.”
     “I’m getting too goddamned cold to wait,” Kurt said. Then he began talking about a girl he’d known in Chicago, shortly after he’d returned from the war. He’d taken her for a spin along Lake Shore Drive, up to the old fairgrounds, where he found a place to park. Then some punk kids had surrounded the car and broken a bottle on the fender, and he’d gotten out with a crowbar in hand.
     He was still talking, but Merle had stopped listening; it was another threadbare story that Kurt told himself day after day after day to get a grip on a postwar rage so tremendous it had seemed mesmerizing.
     “You’ll come back, won’t you?” Merle said. He was struggling to stand again. He wanted to be standing when the kid scratched the ticket.
     “How’s that?”
     “If you go to Benton Harbor, will you come back here?”
     Over at the bridge a warning bell began to clang, and the great gears were moving and the weights sliding down, as the span rose for one last ship. They listened to the gurgle of the turning screw and the murmur of the engine and then, a minute later, two woefully long signals from the vessel’s horn, announcing its departure.
     Kurt winced and took Merle’s hand in his own and said, “I’ll come back, believe me, you know I will. And anyway, it wouldn’t be good luck to say I wouldn’t, would it? At least not now, not here.”
     The ship appeared in the channel, looming over the wall, a giant supertanker—painted gray and white—about the length of a football field. They could hear the slap of wake and the glug of exhaust coming up from the screw.
     “That’ll be the final one for the season, I’d guess,” Merle said.
     “You and your ice again,” Kurt said. “That boat’s a thousand-footer, too long to fit the locks in the St. Lawrence. It’s trapped in the lakes.” He slapped his hand anxiously against his coat pocket.
     “I believe this is the right moment,” Merle said. “According to Saint de Brébeuf, or maybe Lalemant, the Huron played a dish game—I think it was called—with five or six fruit stones painted black on one side and white on the other, and they repeated this word tet that influenced the play, so maybe you should say ‘tet’ as you scratch it.” He watched the ship leave them behind. “They played for the recovery of the sick, I think. The game was prescribed by a physician, but it was more effective if the sick man requested it.”
     “Oh, Jesus, if it’ll save me from one of your historical lectures, I’ll scratch this fucker right now,” Kurt said, pulling the ticket—shiny and silvery in the dusky light—from his coat pocket and slapping it against his palm. From his other pocket he took a coin, and then, saying, “tet,
he walked to the water and began to scratch, watching as the numbers appeared one after another. He scratched while the darkening sky—purple dissolving to black—seemed to harden the surface of the lake, and the town, behind them, seethed in the deep silence of loss, another day burned out in the fury of decline. He scratched as if he knew in his heart (and he did, he really did) that within hours the cold air, having gathered itself, would drive down from the plains of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, pound past the Knife River, sweep the length and breadth of the lake with an intensity that would seem a personal affront to both of them, as they lay in their beds and reexamined the afternoon from all sides, wondering what they’d done wrong, and how they could avoid the jinx the next time.

Months later, deep in winter, they would go back yet again and deliberate and ponder the moment they’d scratched the ticket. It was all in good fun, reconsidering the past. After all, both men had long since demolished a sense of linear time; it was gone, buried under the losses that had been compiled. But on occasion, in moments of drunk or high hope, they’d take a shot and try to arrange the order of things and make declarations so out of proportion to the realities of their lives that they would trigger fits of mutual hilarity. Merle might say that he was thinking of returning to teaching, that he yearned for the days in front of a class, with all those eager kids leaning into notebooks, scribbling away, taking down every fucking thing he said. Then Kurt might say that he was just going to forget fucking ’Nam and live in the moment, right now, right here, and put all his shit behind him, and Merle would pause for a long, long time—sometimes hours, sometimes days—and, in a highly pontifical voice, with his finger to his chin, he’d say, “The likelihood of you forgetting what happened in ’Nam and seizing the day is about as high as the Huron rising up from the dusty corridors of history and reclaiming their rightful place in the progression of civilization,” and then they’d fall into spasms of laughter, kicking the sidewalk with their heels, and Merle would do a crazy, arthritic dance that made him look light on his feet. These were the glorious moments between them, when the burdens of their respective regrets seemed to merge and disappear, and it was because of these purifications that they were still together, still hanging on.
     Snow was falling around them. Silence draped the town. The lake was a white shawl beneath a bowl of stars, pure and clear. Kurt had his arm around the old man, helping him walk, and then impulsively pulled him close and felt his frailty, the bones coming up against his skin; and all at once they were aware of the sorry picture the two of them must’ve made, shuffling through the drifts and hugging to keep warm.
     “If we win the next one,” Merle said, his voice airy and dry, “I’ll find Emma, for good, and apologize and tell her I’m a new man and buy back the land I owned down near the Au Sable, where I was going to build a fishing cabin.” And Kurt, without skipping a beat, said, “And I’m going to locate Billy-T’s sister, who I always loved, and set her up really good with a house and the works, and see if we can make a life together.” Then they heaved out of the drifts and into the center of the road, where the plow had cleared a smooth patch of ice, and began to laugh, falling into routine. It was a clean, open grace that appeared and disappeared with just enough regularity to keep them together, and it would end when the world ended, or perhaps it wouldn’t.

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