The cold, not a storm loaded with snow, but the cold in burrowing waves, came sweeping down the valley just north of the Yalu River. Vatcher Sexton McKee, sergeant of infantry, as cold as he’d ever been in his life, could not hold the pencil in his hand. He’d already broken the lead point three times, but only worried about handling the rifle, managing the trigger when called upon, his latest letter home to be finished at an hour less demanding.
Earl Chatsby, six years ceased being a father for real, felt an odd distinction coming into his place of being. The newspaper for the moment loomed an idle bundle in his lap the way it stayed weighty and rolled and unread. Walls of the kitchen widened, and the room took in more air. He could feel the huge gulp of it. The coffee pot was perking loudly its 6 AM sound and the faucet drip, fixed three nights earlier at Melba’s insistence, had hastened again its freedom, the discord highly audible. Atop the oil cloth over the kitchen table the mid-May sun continued dropping its slanting hellos, allowing them to spread the room into further colors. Yet to this day he cannot agree to what happened first, the front porch shadow at the window coming vaguely visible in a corner of his eye, a familiar shadow, or the slight give-away trod heard from the porch floor, that too familiar, the board loose it seemed forever and abraded by Melba’s occasional demands to fix it.
I could picture what it would be like if we met again all these years later. It might go down like this: After 670 miles of a pretty cross country haul, I’d see the meeting-place pub we’d picked sitting brown and ugly like a hovel at the side of the road, a meeting place for the century, out there in some square, hard country setting. And I’d brace myself for comrades, the long stretch between get-togethers, wondering what the hard stuff would do to me this time. Undoubtedly it would leave tracks again.
I closed my eyes, wondering all over again. I hoped Balbo would be in there and Diaz. I hoped Archie’d be in there, red in the face, after his fifth visit, his third wife, his second hospital stay, counting his visits, keeping the tab at his elbow, paying it with no fanfare at all, sometimes embarrassed by his own quick acceptance of it, owing somebody, always owing somebody in this crazy life.
I sit up in bed when I see the headlights of a car arc at the end of the driveway, pause for a second over the mailbox, and then stop in front of my house. I reach across the bed to wake Susan before I remember she’s not there. Mine is the last house on a rural cul-de-sac in upstate New York. Sometimes in the summer, late at night, I get kids making out or drinking beer at the end of the road and if they make too much racket I walk up with a flashlight and ask them to move along. But it’s early morning, the week before Christmas, the kind of dry cold air that pinches your nose shut in the time it takes to check the mailbox. No one is drinking a 40-ouncer this morning. The newspaper guy used to drive by at this time of morning and slide a paper into the box, but I cut that off six months ago, when Dylan deployed. Some things you don’t want to know about. The headlights extinguish, and I can see the glint of the car chrome in the early morning moonlight. I slip my feet over the side of the bed, find my LL Bean moccasins, wrestle into a flannel robe, and turn on the light to go downstairs.
I’d lost a brother and remember the headlines, newsreels, songs of bond-selling, gas-griping, and movies too true to hate, the settings of World War II. Those days found the whole Earth bent inwards, imploding bombs, bullets, blood, shrieking terrible bird cries in my ears only deepest sleep could lose if it ventured close.
In the heart of the Argonne Forest, Private Henry Johnson stood in his foxhole with Needham Roberts. They were both on sentry duty, watching for any enemy movement. It had been quiet most of the day, and so Needham took this silence as an invitation to run his mouth like usual.
“You’re a big gasbag, Jersey,” the tallest one of the lot said with loud emphasis and staring at the smallest of his pals with that old in-charge look, “nothing but a big gasbag, I swear. You’re always bragging about your brothers and what they did in the service and you weren’t even in the Boy Scouts, for cryin’ out loud. How’s it make you such a storyteller all the time? And you never let go! Like you’re itching to tell us a story we already heard a half dozen times and then some.”
Old Scott’s Mill had given off odd sounds since the day it closed down. Now it gave off a sense of passage.
That morning, a May Saturday, when Fernando “Fred” Norstrand first put on the police uniform, solid blue deep as a line of defense, bright buttons shining gold-like running down the front straight as ideas cemented in his mind, his wife stood in the bathroom doorway in open admiration of the new spectacle. He had only recently taken off a Navy uniform, discharged from service because of injury. They loved each other that morning with a new and silent abandon, their baby son still asleep, the day already lopsided in their favor, and the man of the house about to start a new job. He had been appointed as a special policeman of the town, assigned to the lone local theater to keep the kids in line, Saturday being the toughest start of all; popcorn, noise, kids away from parental control, let loose from their homes, very different from the few homes he’d visited during Pacific duty and the home he had grown up in.
The snowman smiled. He was driving a ’72 Lincoln with the windows down and the A/C on full. He smoked Kools and drank frosty cold cans of beer. The Stones played on the eight track. It was December 24th.
The Voice was speaking to him. It had been all afternoon. It was the same Voice he’d been hearing since he’d opened his bottle cap eyes and walked off of the abandoned lot of his birth. The Voice had told him to steal the car. It was nameless. The one that whispered. Sometimes it even spoke backward, as though in tongues. Now it was saying, “Smoke, drink and drive fast, for snowmen melt sooner rather than later. We have seen the future, and you are not a part of it.”