The Ice Storm
Why she came back to her home town, she couldn’t say. The decision had been made in a moment of weakness, when autumn’s leaves rustled and blew across the ground and another lonely Thanksgiving loomed before her. True, her family lived there, but they weren’t close. She understood there would be no welcome for her in her parent’s home. She felt like the proverbial dog returning to its vomit with no reason to be in town other than force of habit. It was where she had grown up…the closest thing to home.
She got work at the diner waiting on tables. The money wasn’t good, but it paid for a room in the boarding house--a solitary room with no visitors.
It was unseasonably cold that December as Sally wrapped up for the long walk to work. The sun was not up and the darkness made the chilly air feel close and cruel. Hoyt’s Diner was a mile from where she slept. In good weather, the walk would be nothing. Today, it was nothing short of painful. She blew into the diner and was grateful for the warmth and humidity inside.
“I’m here, Hoyt,” she called, removing her coat and scarf and hanging them on the rack near the door. She went to the counter and glanced in the mirror. The pink uniform was starched and clean with a white apron. It was not particularly pretty but Sally liked it because it gave her a sense of belonging.
She was only twenty-three, but felt older. She was pretty with light curly hair that hung in wisps around her face and her mother’s high cheekbones. Her large brown eyes had a peculiar haunted expression that was hard to miss, though seldom noticed. As she fixed her hair the door opened and she saw him. Of course she would. In a small town it couldn’t be avoided.
She was thankful she spied him first. She took a deep breath and removed the writing pad from her apron pocket with shaking hands.
He was seated with a friend and they were dressed to haul or cut timber, each with plaid shirts and bright orange vests.
He hadn’t changed much. He looked older and heavier than she remembered, with the form of a man, not a boy. He had the same dark hair, the same gray eyes. Her heart betrayed her and tried to soften, but that she could not have.
She approached the table. “What can I get you?” she asked, trying to sound casual. Her heart was pounding painfully in her chest making it hard to breathe. She hoped they couldn’t hear it.
The two men looked up at her and recognition lighted their eyes. “Well, look at that Jack!” said one of the men. “Sally’s come home!”
“Hey Danny and Jack,” she said in a seemingly calm voice.
Jack looked confused, dumbfounded, and didn’t know what to say. Again, she was thankful she saw him first.
Danny asked, “When you get back in town, Sally?”
“A couple of weeks ago. How’ve you been?”
“Can’t complain. Jack and I been working at the saw mill since we got back from Korea. It’s steady too, right Jack?”
Jack, finally recollecting himself, said, “Yea. It’s good, steady work.” He was trying to catch her eye but she avoided his gaze.
“That’s good,” Sally told them adding, “I best take your order or my work won’t be steady for long.” She felt lighter as she walked away, like a butterfly that had just emerged from its cocoon, finished struggling, but still sticky, wet, and unable to fly. At least the hardest part was over.
She hung their order from the spindle by the kitchen and returned to the counter. Danny had gone to the restroom and Jack was alone. She glanced at him and he was watching her. She turned quickly away.
He rose from the table carrying his coffee cup and asked, “Can I get a refill, Sal?”
She bristled at the familiar “Sal” coming from him now. Wordlessly, she filled the cup.
“Why didn’t you…” his voice faltered, “I didn’t know you were back.”
“Don’t know why you should,” she returned.
“You been okay?”
He looked at her another minute, and then said, “Well, thanks for the coffee.”
She was thankful when they were gone. Her stupid, stupid heart. How dare it flutter like that because Jack Price was in the room? How dare it pretend that it hadn’t forgotten all about him?
It was a long day. Sally stayed over an extra shift and put in fourteen hours. She would do anything to avoid that cold walk home. She wiped down the tables, put up the chairs, and pulled out the mop and bucket to clean the floor. She felt satisfied when she was through. The diner looked like it had never been used. She liked to make things look new and unused.
She went to the rack and pulled down her coat, wrapping the scarf tightly around her head to hold in some warmth. It was late and a cold, steady mist was falling. It would be an even more painful walk home.
She stepped into the frigid air. It shriveled her nose and blew through her threadbare coat. It was uncommonly cold for Arkansas this year. She ducked her head and began to walk quickly down the sidewalk, not watching where she was going; thinking only the warmth of her room.
Suddenly, she bumped into someone. “Watch it, Sal,” a voice said. “You’re going to hurt yourself barreling down the road like that.”
To her dismay, Jack stood before her. “Excuse me,” she said and tried to walk around him.
“I’m just surprised,” he told her, “I’m surprised you’re back.”
“I don’t know why you should be surprised. I always lived here, before, didn’t I?”
“But you’ve been gone for so long,” he explained. “Six years. I didn’t think you would ever come back.”
“Well, I’m sorry to disappoint.”
“I’m not disappointed,” he protested. “That’s not what I mean.”
“Then what do you mean?”
He looked down into her face. He looked concerned and she didn’t like it. “I’m glad you came back,” he blurted. “I always hoped you would.”
“Why is that?”
“Because, I wanted to see you again. I wanted to see how you were.”
“Well, you see,” she said. “I’m fine. Everything is fine. Please, Jack, I’m cold. I want to go.”
“You living with your folks?”
“No, I’m living in a boarding house.”
“You know why.”
He appeared startled, but said nothing. Their breath hung in the air as frost between them. After a moment, he told her, “I tried to find you when I got out of the service. Your parents told me you were at college.”
“They told everyone I was at college.”
“You look cold,” he said after a moment’s silence. “Would you like a ride home in my truck?”
She shivered involuntarily. “No, Jack. Why would I want a ride from you?”
“I don’t know,” he answered. “I just want to help you; I want to…make it up to you.”
“There’s nothing you can do to make it up to me,” she returned. “Besides,” she added, “I like to be cold. Good night.”
She moved down the darkened street and hurried to the boarding house going straight to her room. She pulled out her high school yearbook. She was at the head of her class, but she was not part of the Class of 1950. She never graduated at all. The book opened to Jack’s picture. The binding was broken there.
For two weeks Sally worked hard at accomplishing what she had set out to do the day she arrived in town. She wanted a life, a normal life. She bought a Christmas tree that was scarcely more than a twig and could afford only tinsel.
Sally tried, but the truth was she hated Christmas. She hadn’t always hated it, but had learned to over the years. She was happy when Hoyt asked her to work the late shift on Christmas Eve. He looked relieved when she agreed but couldn’t help adding, “I’m glad you understand, Sally. I know you can do the work but I feel bad about this. I don’t want it to seem I’m taking advantage of you. It’s just, well, everyone else has a family function tonight and you said you didn’t…”
Sally cut him off. “Hoyt, I really don’t mind closing the place. I mean it.”
She did mean it. At least, at work, she would have something to keep her mind off her loneliness. She had spent the last four Christmas Eves alone in boarding houses. It would be nice to be somewhere else, somewhere with people.
The diner was surprisingly busy. It was a relief to find she was not the only one spending Christmas Eve alone. She was busy all night and the tips were good, too. It seemed some Christmas cheer was in the air after all. At midnight she turned the sign on the door to “Closed”.
“Merry Christmas,” she told herself looking in the long mirror behind the counter. She flipped off the light switch. The Christmas lights Hoyt had hung in the windows and the tree he had put in the corner cast a golden glow on the gleaming white floor that gave enough light to clean. Bing Crosby was singing White Christmas on the radio.
“It could happen this year,” she thought, glancing out the window. The air had that sharp icy smell to it. The clouds were thick and it was certainly cold enough.
She caught herself humming as she mopped and felt thankful because these contented moments didn’t come often. Sally was never happy, but every once in a while she was peaceful. As she put away the mop and bucket and surveyed the scene before her, she felt strangely satisfied.
The sound of a crash, much like gravel being tossed at the windows, startled her from her reverie. She rushed to the door and looked out. Ice was coming down in sheets, little pebbles of it bounced across the sidewalk. It tapped mercilessly at the diner. She could never walk the mile to the boarding house in this.
She went into the kitchen to put on a kettle of water for tea and was surprised to hear the bell on the front door ring. She flipped off the burner and went to see who it was.
Jack was standing there, shaking ice off his hat and coat, leaving splinters of it on her newly mopped floor.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“I knew you were here,” he explained, “so I thought I’d give you a ride home. It’s coming down hard out there. I knew you couldn’t walk.”
“I'm much obliged,” she said, “but I’m thinking of staying the night here.”
He looked around in surprise. “Here? Where will you sleep?”
“On the floor,” she replied evenly. “I’m not above sleeping on floors. I’ve had to do it many times before.”
“Look,” he said indicating the window, “it’s letting up a little. I can have you home in five minutes. Would it kill you to be alone with me for five minutes?”
“Don’t you get it? I don’t need your help; I don’t want your help. I needed you six years ago, I don’t need you now.”
“Jesus Chirst, Sally!” he said in exasperation. “I was seventeen years old!”
She spun around. “Well, guess what, Jack--so was I.”
He looked down. “I know that,” he answered. “I was…I was scared.”
“You were a coward. You walked away and left me.”
He shrugged. He couldn’t deny it. “When we went to that place, to that shack…you have to believe me that I never meant for any of this to happen. I never wanted to hurt you.”
“Well, it’s funny how things turn out, isn’t it? Please just go, Jack. I don’t want you around me. I’ve got to try and learn to live.”
“Well, you’re not doing a good job of it.”
“What do you know? How can you possibly know anything? You’ve been here in town. Jack Price the football hero. Jack Price the soldier. How many others have there been?”
He looked hurt. “None,” he mumbled.
She had been angry, but the penance in his face, the truthfulness to the “none” took her by surprise. She stared for a moment and then repeated, “None?”
“I told you when you left for Memphis, I’d wait for you. Don’t you remember?”
She hardened. “I waited for you to come to me. That’s what you should have done. When they put me in that home for unwed mothers, I thought to myself, Jack will come. He’ll get me out of this hell. I spent the first six weeks waiting for you, the next six months crying for you, and the last six years hating you.”
“And do you?” he asked, “Do you hate me?”
The word yes was waiting in her mouth to be spoken, when suddenly the power went dead. The Christmas tree went dark, the radio stopped. It was quiet and black in the diner. The only sound to be heard was the ceaseless tapping of the ice storm.
“We’ve got to go,” he told her. “It’ll get cold in here.”
The ice had coated the windows of the diner heavily. The mile to the boarding house seemed like a hundred.
“Trust me, Sal. I’ll get you home.”
She brushed past him and went to the door. She had to work to even get it open. Everything was coated with ice; it was thick on the sidewalk and hung down in frozen droplets from the gutters. “I don’t even think we can get to your truck.”
“I’ll bring it around,” he said and before she knew what he was doing he had left the diner, treading to his truck.
Through the falling ice Sally could see Jack’s shadowy form struggling with the door. He pounded it with his fists and then she watched him slowly make his way back. His hat was covered with little pellets of ice. It even lay thickly on his eyelashes. He blinked it away and told her, “I think we’re stuck. It’s so thick my door won’t open.”
He kept his coat on. It wasn’t much warmer indoors than out. They looked around them. What was to be done? It was growing colder and she reached for her coat and put it on. Finding a kerosene lamp, she lit it and put it on the counter. It gleamed in the mirror. Jack sat down at a booth by the window and stared into the darkness.
She was across the room when she heard him say, “He turns six years old today.”
“I said he’s six years old today.”
Her eyes filled and she blinked hard. She put her knuckles to her lips to stop the trembling. She sat down at the booth across from Jack her hands folded in front of her. “How do you know that?”
“Because I called the hospital. I asked about you. They told me you were fine and the baby was fine. That was all. They wouldn’t tell me where you were.”
“They never told me you called.”
“I didn’t give my name,” he answered.
She looked down at her hands. “He looked like you, Jack.”
“What was he like?”
Her face clouded. “They wouldn’t let me hold him. I sneaked from my room so I could see him. He was by the window and he was sleeping. He was perfect. He had your nose and chin.” Sorrow caused her face to soften and she said, “I just wanted to hold him, just one time, and they wouldn’t let me.”
He got up from the booth and scooted beside her. “Why?”
“Because I had to give him up. The psychologist said it would be easier for me if I didn’t touch him. I felt such emptiness in my arms. I needed to hold him, to whisper to him, to tell him it wasn’t his fault. That I wanted him desperately. I wanted to have him as a son, but the home wouldn’t let me. They told me they already had a family lined up for him. They took him away and never even told me. The next time I sneaked down to see him, he was gone.”
Jack closed his eyes and sighed heavily.
“I had to run away from that place,” she explained. “It was jail.”
“It wasn’t jail, Sal. They wouldn’t send you to jail for that.”
“It was jail,” she argued. “They told me I was immoral. They told me I had to learn work suitable for someone with my disposition. My parents wouldn’t take me back. I left one night when no one was paying attention and I didn’t go back.”
“Where’d you go?”
“I lived in Memphis for a while but I was afraid they’d find me and put me back. I ran off to St. Louis and worked in a shoe factory.”
He looked curious. “Why’d you come back here?”
She shrugged and shook her head. “I don’t know.”
She shivered. It was getting colder in the diner. “Come here,” he told her. He unbuttoned his coat and put a flap of it over her, putting his arms around her to keep them warm.
She stiffened. “It’s just to stay warm,” he explained.
She relaxed a little and they huddled together for warmth. He smelled the way she remembered. She was beginning to doze off when the power suddenly kicked back on.
“Round yon virgin, mother and child…” sang the radio.
Their eyes met in shared sorrow. “Six years old,” he said again sadly, holding her tightly and turning back to the blackness outside.