Icehouse

ice

It was noon and cloudless when I pulled over next to the icehouse, wedged in the X formed by two dirt roads. I could hear the crunch of aluminum under my wheels, and, when I opened the door, picked up one of the thousands of bottle caps already crushed by the pick up trucks I had passed on my way through the desert.

“There’s more where that came from.”

The first thing I noticed was his socks, a checkerboard of neon squares set against the concrete porch shaded by a rusty corrugated tin overhang. He was sitting, trousers pulled up, next to a rotary phone, its wire snaking up the pale gray wall right through the three letters drawn in chalk: ICE. The drop shadows seemed an unnecessary, if ironic, touch.

“You sell beer?” I asked.

“No,” he laughed, twirling an ice pick between his fingers. “I just sit here watching these big blocks of ice melt and dry up in the sun.”

He had everything he needed to sell ice right from the porch: a chute built into the wall, a ball of twine, a cash register, and a fresh block that was starting to get soft around the edges. He even had a small note tacked above the chute that said “employees only,” as if I would chip off a piece and make away with it while he was inside. I followed him into a room that smelled of sweat and sawdust. It was dark, but I could make out faded Coca-Cola signs and the cloud-shaped stains left by storms that had seeped through the concrete.

“What if I told you that there’s a way to store your beer ice cold, in a box half the size of your freezer?”

He reached to hand me a bottle but stopped halfway and leaned against the counter, his figure framed by a jar of beef jerky on the left and another of hard boiled eggs on the right.

“Are you trying to sell me something?”

Flip a finger, and zing — there are your ice cubes, I was supposed to say, pointing to the brochure I had forgotten in the car. No need for a crowbar to get Frigidaire’s Quickube Tray out the refrigerator. You can get ice easily, instantly, I should have emphasized with all the enthusiasm my supervisor had demonstrated back in a cool, carpet-lined office.

“Just wondering if you’d be interested in a Frigidaire,” was all I could manage to say.

He took a long draft of beer and crushed the cap with his boot. Before I could make up my mind whether to retrieve the brochure, with its color-blocked couples marveling at crisp lettuce, or to stay and elaborate on the wonders of modern refrigeration, he said:

“Let me show you something.”

He lead me out back, past the closet-sized building made of plywood packing crates I assumed formed an outhouse. We were in the sun for a brief moment before stepping into a tangle of shadows cast by branches wider than the icehouse itself.

“It’s a mesquite,” he said. “Ancient. It’s tapped into a deep spring that has fed it for hundreds of years. That’s why it’s reached twice the normal height.”

We looked up through the leaves, silent and still in the deadwind, until the distant sound of bottle caps being crushed under car tires came to a stop.

“That’ll be a new delivery,” he said.

Gateway to the Continent

voyage

I got to Victoria station at quarter to eleven on a Friday with nothing but a small leather bag and the vague idea of getting out of London. The timetables and train routes spread out above me like the plot lines of so many of the paperback thrillers piled up on my bedside table. I could be in Paris by late afternoon, crossing the Alps the next day, and end up in Egypt before the weekend was over.

Bing bong! The Golden Arrow to Dover will depart from Platform 8 in 15 minutes. A soft, disembodied voice echoed against the steel rafters and glass roof. There was still time, I thought, to decide where to go, buy the ticket, and change my mind along the way.

“There’s really no one quite like Michelangelo.”

Before I could connect the voice to gray hair, sensible shoes, and a long carpet of a coat, the sickly sweet floral musk incapacitated my senses. It was almost as bad as my earliest memory of Victoria, when the air was fetid with soot, stale poison gas and gangrenous wounds.

“It’s so hard to find a man who can paint ceilings properly, you know,” her companion said and parked her suitcase in front of the map of Europe.

I started to pace around the platform, glancing at my watch every so often to give me a false sense of purpose. There was still time, I thought, to reach one platform and cross over to another.

“I thought about staying in the house to keep an eye on things. You know how oblivious Gerald can be. They could carry out his whole library and he wouldn’t notice. But the fumes are too much. I just hope the windows are open to let the place air out.”

While my eyes lingered over “ALL PARTS OF ITALY” under the London-Paris Express, I realized I would be following an Italian housepainter, not his Renaissance namesake. That morning, I had thought I would be decisive, deliberate in my decision to escape. Now, the bag I was holding seemed too light for the trip. My hands began to sweat against the leather handles. I had forgotten to pack a toothbrush. There was still time, I thought, to go home and pack it before returning to catch the Night Ferry train to Paris. Victoria at night was far more suited to the Grand Exit, anyway: cinematic goodbyes staged in sepia shadows, the distant glow of the city as you pulled out of the station.

The two women started moving and I followed their perfumed trail to Platform 8, watching their silhouettes disappear into white haze.

Bing bong! Ladies and gentleman, in consequence of fog, the Golden Arrow will be delayed.

There was still time, I thought, to return to my desk before the secretary began asking questions.

Tidbit

vilks

By dawn, she is ready to hunt. He watches from horseback, wrinkled brown hills stretching ahead, into a valley streaked with snow; she circles above, jesses trailing behind, higher, until her wings are a sliver against the cloudless blue sky. She sees every patch of snow, every tuft of grass, even the fur on his hat moving with the wind. Then, she folds her wings and drops, like a stone, aiming for the fox skin he ties to the back of his horse and drags across the flat plain.

Before he comes to a full stop, she opens her wings a few meters off the ground, steadying herself before she rips open the fox skin and sends bits of fur and straw stuffing flying. Soon, her feathers will be streaked with the gore of live prey. But even in this riot of dismemberment she is efficient, neat almost, in the way she finds her reward and leaves the rest untouched.

As he watches her gulp back the tidbit of meat hidden inside the straw, he sees a shadow pass over the rising sun and a hint of gold in an otherwise dull landscape. No, he thinks, eagles answer to no one. They remember no one. They look down in search of their dinner, not those who, for a time, helped them find it. And yet all week has been a test in proving the opposite: sleepless nights spent whispering to his new charge, trying to tame her with the sound of his voice, so that now, when he offers his arm again, she hops on willingly, silent and content.

Later, he will say, “She flew well today.” She shifts her weight with each sway of the horse, her talons making slight impressions through the cowhide glove. They are tired; the sun moves towards midday and they ride back to the winter camp filled with the bittersweet tang of coal smoke and curd cooking.

Tomorrow they will hunt again, but for now he must not tempt her with flight. He slips on a leather hood encrusted with gold braiding. Only he would notice the few gold threads missing. He looks up, hoping to see them woven into the wings of another eagle, released one night last spring after a few day’s famine and a butchered sheep left on top of a lonely mountain.