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“The End of the Earth” by Jessica Hendry Nelson

24 February 2014 on Nonfiction   Tags:

Mid-February, 2012, and Malletts Bay is frozen over, the small enclave of Lake Champlain that stretches out in front of our cabin in Vermont like a slow yawn. I spend the better part of an hour listening to the mice tittering in the walls. When Nick gets home from work he opens up an electrical socket, places a hunk of cheese into a trash bag, and tapes the bag around the hole. He doesn’t care—he hates cheese—but my heart breaks a little. For three hours, we entertain ourselves by listening to the mice scurry in and out of the bag, absconding with my good Piave. I squeal every time I hear the rustling, until finally Nick closes off the bag and scoops its contents into a drinking glass. The mouse blinks rapidly and then settles back to gaze at us with bored resignation.

“He’s terrified,” Nick says.

“I’m terrified,” I say.

“This was a bad idea,” he says, and heads outside with the mouse.

I follow him down the street and watch as he gently pours the mouse into the snow. It twitches once and takes off toward the lake, stops, thinks better of it, and skitters back up to our cabin.

“That’s your problem,” I say. “You show too much mercy.”

It is so quiet that tonight, from our living room, we can hear the ice groan as it splits and shifts and freezes again. It sounds like thunder, or a whale song, some distant cry of the belugas that lived in the lake 10,000 years ago. There are fossils to prove it. We open all the windows and sit by the wood stove with our eyes closed, listening. Later, he leads me down to the lake and we shuffle onto the ice and watch the stars. I keep hearing the ice crack, jagged pings from here to the mouth of the bay. I am sure it will give out at any moment and we’ll be sucked under, left to hold eternal court with the slow bass bellying along in their winter stupor. I keep picturing our faces bobbing lightly against the underside of an ice floe while, in some nearby shanty, a grizzled angler slurps his morning coffee and tunes the channels on his portable television. Nick laughs and says, “It’s fine, it’s fine,” and “Why so dramatic?”

Pardon me, but I am my mother’s daughter after all.

This is his country, my mountain man, and he is all ease. I keep forgetting not to ask about the tide schedule. I’m not yet convinced that there aren’t any sharks.

I shiver in my dreams and wake to the sound of the phone ringing at 4 am. It is my friend in Queens. We used to be roommates. She stayed in New York and made a life there, while I took off after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, MFA in tow. I was too lonely in the city, too overwhelmed. Like an overstimulated child, I couldn’t block things out, narrow the focus. Edit. Instead, I took it all in, all the time. A friend once told me that New Yorkers have mastered the art of being publicly private. New York made me crazy and tired. In rare moments of quiet I became paranoid, a strange specter in empty subway terminals searching for rats scurrying across the tracks. I made a game of it. If I couldn’t spot one before the train arrived, I’d be doomed to mediocrity forever, or something equally torturous. I still visit my friend often, though, and she keeps the guest room ready for me, my earplugs on the nightstand, my name scribbled on the box in black Sharpie. We eat large meals in small restaurants and pay for them with our credit cards. Before bed, she hands me a glass of water and kisses me on the mouth. She would be a wonderful mother, but at thirty-seven, she relishes her independence, the ability to pick up and go when the mood strikes, lavishing all those maternal instincts on wayward friends like me.

Now she is upset, she says, and needs to talk. The police showed up at her apartment a couple hours ago, around two. She had been awake and reading and noticed lights flashing on her bedroom walls. Her small dog yipped and snarled, running frantically from window to bed and back again, his whole body shaking. It is not so cold in New York this winter, and she had her windows cracked open because the landlords, who live below her in the brownstone, like to keep the heat up high. I’ve met them a few times—an attractive couple in their early forties with a two-year-old daughter, a small girl with tight curls of red hair and three pill-sized teeth. They fight often and loudly. The husband has beautiful tattoos covering both arms and his wife is a psychiatrist who once kindly offered me Lexapro samples when I’d forgotten to pack my own.

My friend watched flashlights move from the front of the house to the back. She heard the low muffling of voices and the beeping of walkie-talkies. Her roommate, a waiter who works late nights at a posh Manhattan restaurant with a temperamental celebrity chef, was still at work.

She heard clomping up the stairs and grabbed the dog just as one of the cops flung open her front door, left unlocked for the roommate who never remembers his key. The high beams of the flashlights bounced around her backyard.

“You seen some cops around here?” he asked.

“They’re in the backyard,” she said. “What’s going on?”

Without answering, the young cop turned and bounded back downstairs. She thought there may have been a break-in and she locked her door behind him, an afterthought. She considered the confrontation the husband had had with a neighbor just a few days before, something about a parking spot. It could have been anything, she said.

“What’s going on?” she yelled again, this time through the door, but the cop continued to ignore her. She walked to the back window and drew open the curtains. She could see Manhattan lit up in the distance like a carnival. She’s grown to love this skyline and the adventures it dangles in front of her, even while she spends most of her free time holed up inside the apartment, reading books and watching movies while the dog dozes on her belly. She is a California girl, a country bumpkin at heart, she insists, but her hippie parents also instilled gypsy tendencies that render her helpless to the lure of the new and better. Like me, she jumps state lines every few years.

She’d pulled her red hair into a knot in order to see more clearly. A small purple bicycle leaned against the fence and an abandoned bottle of bubbles lay sideways on the picnic table. Some leftover streamers from a recent birthday party hung limp from a tree branch. Below her, she saw the flat white blade of a stretcher illuminated on the patio, and then draping over the side of a deck chair was a single arm, tattooed in faded reds and blues.

Here she pauses and breathes deeply into the phone line. I realize I am still in bed next to Nick, who is sleeping with one leg drawn up to his chest like an unspent arrow. I get up, wrap myself in a quilt, and open the front door. I hear the bed creak as Nick rolls over in his sleep. I sit down on the front steps. A neighbor is getting into his mail truck, readying himself for the day. He has a cup of coffee and a cigarette. I am still half-asleep, a dull anxiety thrumming its way up my throat. The postman sits in his truck while the engine idles and warms, the exhaust from his tailpipe fogging up the windows of his cabin. A slice of dawn catches the mast of a sailboat moored for winter beside the docks.

My neighbor nods hello and backs out of his driveway, turning left at the lake.

Later that morning, the cold wakes me up again, as it has almost every day since I arrived here from the tumbling beach town in Connecticut where I’d been pleasantly discontented. I’d had a job, at least, which is more than I have now. This is our seventh home in the eight years we’ve been together, and for the first time, it’s on his terms. He likes New England best, despite my argument that he ought to see more of the country before he makes that decision. I’m inclined to agree, though; I like New England best, too. I’m just not ready for the picket fence. I’m into fucking around, slowly dragging us further south since we left New Hampshire after college. But suddenly, in one fell swoop, we’re all the way up in northern Vermont—an hour from Canada, for christsake—and I’m cold and bitter and cold. I resolve to act like a brat for another couple of weeks and then I’ll have to let it go.

Truth is, I’m living off the fat of the land, as they say, though it is an odd metaphor in a landscape so doggedly hard. Spring will arrive eventually, the land will soften, the garden will murmur and open, but not yet. I prefer to call myself a kept woman, joking with my friends, which at least bears the whiff of silk robes and a leased Lamborghini. In reality, I roll out of bed hours after Nick has left for work. I sit huddled next to the stove and write for as long as I can stand it. I take long walks in the middle of the day, and in the afternoon, cook elaborate dinners that taste like shit. The cooking is a way to avoid the writing, which is all I want to do and the one thing I don’t want to do. The cabin we’ve rented is charming and falling to pieces. The woman who owns it has a famous daughter and a summer place fifty yards away. Few people in this neighborhood are foolish enough to stay on all winter and those that do keep hay bales stacked against the siding as insulation. I like watching the way they live through my window, drowning in coffee, crying when I damn well feel like it—benefits of this solitary lifestyle. We keep the wood stove running all day and use a space heater at night, avoiding the expense of oil heat. I’d throw a fit except I’m not paying any bills, so instead I shiver wildly and refuse to take off my wool cap. I’d surprised myself by following him here and I’m not ready to admit that I’m staying. When he got the job as a researcher at a nearby university, he decided he would take it, with or without me, and I’m still adjusting to his new confidence.

It’s Saturday morning so the frozen bay looks like a theme park. Kids in oversized coats skate in clusters and fall on top of each other and laugh and whine and shout. A group of teenagers play hockey beside the docks, between the old Christmas trees that stick out of the ice like broken toothpicks. No one knows how they got there, or at least they’re not saying. Wooden shanties lean precariously while fishermen gather in tight circles around a single drilled hole, chatting and smoking and swigging from cans of beer.

When we first slide onto the ice, I shimmy like a toddler before I realize that it isn’t so slippery after all. It feels strange and illicit to stand in the middle of the lake and look up at the mountains towering in the distance. Mount Mansfield winks at us from behind a veil of clouds. In the summer, I will climb her ridges like a tethered donkey, and later this winter, ride her broadside on a pair of rented skis. That’s the thing I’m learning about savage landscapes: intimacy is inevitable.

Vermonters interact with the land in more ways than I’ve witnessed in other places. Winter sports are not just recreation; they keep you sane. And while Vermonters are a notoriously self-reliant people, the weather is a shared and worthy adversary. They work together to beat back the snowdrifts, to till the hard soil, to bring produce to market. Once, when my car was stuck trying to ascend a hill during a snowstorm, an entire block of neighbors shoveled sand under my tires while I gunned the engine and teenagers pushed the car from behind. After half an hour, and more than one lecture on snow tires, we were regular good-time buddies.

An iceboat whips by, carving two thin parallel lines. A gust of wind catches her sails and the whole job topples over, splayed out like a crippled bird. I feel suddenly excited, electric, turned on. The sun is high and I’m feeling safer on the ice. Here are the natives, running wild and fearless. Still, I move gingerly and watch Nick glide in his sneakers like an overgrown kid. I’m still shaken by the late-night phone call; images from my friend’s story are reverberating through my head, projecting on the ice like a silent film.

Where the ice has frozen and refrozen it is white and opaque, pentagon-shaped pancakes, and in other places it is like a clear glass, struck through with the bent bodies of dead pickerel, old fishing lures, and leftover autumn leaves still a brilliant burnt orange. Nick’s hat falls from his head and as he reaches to pick it up, he loses his balance and falls to the ice. His camera goes skidding and he rolls over, legs and arms splayed, defeated and grinning at the sky. Silver in his dark hair and red in his beard and eyes a burnished blue. A thin-lipped, long-lashed beauty. Contemplative and quiet. I want to make love to him right there on the ice. Thankfully, he has more discretion.

There is a stress fracture in the ice about a half mile from where we stand. I know it is a stress fracture because Nick told me. I had thought it was something else: the end of the earth.

“From the tide change?” I offer, but he only shakes his head.

Nick says that the only time I want to have sex is when we’re in public. We spend the next fifteen minutes theorizing on why this is, Nick suggesting it’s just some misplaced voyeurism, while I insist it’s probably more perverse than that. We make our way toward the stress fracture, drawn by the reflection of the sun on the sharp chunks of ice that stick up in the air. Increasingly, it looks like a line of fire splitting the lake in two. Beyond it, men are playing hockey with one net. Someone rolls a keg onto the lake and a camera flashes and one of the men yells out, “Crack her open, Gibbons made a shot!” For a moment, I wish Nick were the type of man to play hockey with friends and drink beers and chuckle deeply, elbowing buddies in the ribs. I like to watch men with other men, all those precious manners trimmed away like excess fat. Instead, he is all sweetness and gentility, a time traveler having lost his way.

As we get closer, I see the men have finished their game and are standing around reciting blow-by-blows. It is late afternoon and the sun is melting the top layer of ice, though there are still a good twelve inches below us. Surely, I think, I have chosen wisely this time—this small life and its reassuring rhythms and routines. It all feels so wholesome, the kids on their skates and the mothers eyeing them from shore, handing out granola bars and kisses when they fall. It was nothing I ever imagined for myself, but here I am.

“I could raise kids here,” I tell Nick, feeling suddenly flush with gratitude.

It is undeserved, I am sure, but maybe I can do this—absolve myself of my brother’s debilitating addictions, the calamitous city, my own desperate ambitions and depression. We’ll grow our own vegetables and volunteer in the community. What a thought. I can hear my mother laughing, her brow cocked in suspicion. But the brutality of the weather and the inhospitableness of the land seem to bring people together here, a hardscrabble let-me-help-you-with-that type of thing, which I think might make me a better person, too. The kind who bakes casseroles for ailing neighbors and untangles your fishing line. I cannot fix my family, but I can learn to fix an edible dinner. I want to know the names of the people at the gym and at the bank. Their kids names, too. Isn’t Vermont the kind of place where people do that? Where the local handyman will pat your ailing wood stove and coo, “It’s all right, girl, just having a bad hair day is all.”

Having grown up in a small New England town, Nick sees a different side to all this camaraderie, how nobody can keep their fingers out of anyone else’s pie. He draws our curtains tight at night and shushes me quiet when I laugh too loud or call out from our bed. He doesn’t understand the safety I feel here, and how little of it I’ve known. Does spring not return here, too, eventually? I insist. Does the lake ice not come apart, the leaves not unfurl from weather-beaten branches, predictably, annually? It had not been like this in the city—Philly or Manhattan—where the only signs of renewal seemed relegated to the margins, the dandelions poking up through cracks in the sidewalk, grasses muted in their designated six-by-four plots. Yes, I can make a go of it here. I can learn to mollify myself with routine—now the seven o’clock news, now the beef stew. Here, your Sunday paper.

“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Nick warns me. “You’ve been here less than a month.”

But I know this is what he wants, has always wanted, and my new openness is both heartening and scary for him. I, too, have the gypsy in me—a restlessness we have both grown to fear.

By the time my friend made it to the bottom of her steps, the landlady was in the hallway with the child clutched in her arms, a gaggle of police officers beside her. The child was in her pajamas and her winter coat and looked wide-awake, even though it was after two in the morning.

“I have to go to the hospital,” the woman cried out to my friend. “He tried to kill himself.”

My friend was relieved that her landlord was still alive, and frightened for the small girl, her arms wrapped tightly around her mother’s neck, though she seemed calm. She looked up at my friend and reached for her, even though they had no more than a passing acquaintance. The woman was crying and my friend hugged her tightly, the girl pressed between them.

“Do you want me to take the baby?” my friend asked.

She didn’t see the sense in dragging the child to the hospital in the middle of the night just to watch her daddy suffer, or possibly even die. She was surprised when the landlady said yes, thrusting the child into her arms before reeling through the front door, the cops following behind her obediently. She heard radios screeching and a succession of car doors slamming, and then the cry of the ambulance as it tore off into the night. Soon, it was all over. The child in her arms sat placidly sucking on a pacifier now, her fingers coiled into my friend’s hair.

“Well,” she said to her, “shall we go to bed, honey?”

The child laid her head on my friend’s chest. For a moment, she didn’t know where to take her. Her apartment? Theirs? What was in there? What had the child seen? While her landlord had been in the backyard, she didn’t know what could have happened inside, if any of the night’s detritus would be left out for the child, or her, to see. She slowly opened the door to their apartment. Better that she sleep in her own bed, she thought.

“My sweet girl,” my friend whispered. “You poor sweet girl.”

I try for calm while the ice moans beneath us. I hold Nick’s hand and try to feel comfort in the simple gesture, the security in our time together, past and future. My legs tense as we slide on top of the lake. We are miniature dolls in the shadow of the mountains, time before time. The bottoms of my feet are so cold they feel disconnected from the rest of my body. The wind races through the valley, shooting sprays of snow from the piles on shore. Pure energy dissolving into dust.

Though I don’t know it yet, back home in Philadelphia my family is coming apart again. My brother lies in a hospital bed with our mother beside him. He’s had his first overdose. He’d left rehab with a girl, their twinned hearts racing as they drove straight into the underbelly of the city. This morning, as I sat outside on the cabin steps and listened to my friend cry quietly into the phone, afraid to wake the child who had finally fallen asleep; while I watched the sun patiently rise behind the lake, and the mailman set about his rounds, and a mottled robin peck at the seeds fallen from the bird feeder onto the frozen ground, my brother’s breathing shallowed like a receding wave. His heart seized and his skin drew blue and the tiny scalloped muscles behind his eyes began to quiver. When the girl found him in her living room, a boy she barely knew, a wretched shucked thing, turned out and writhing in his own puke, I’d crept back into our warm bed and returned to sleep, unaware.

I am delighting in the weight of the slabs of ice that formed in the seam of the lake. They are both homage to and mockery of the great mountains that surfaced from glacial shifts so long ago. I pick them up and hurl them back down to shatter into a million shots of light, while Nick captures the destruction, and my ecstatic reaction to this destruction, with his camera, the shutter clicking and clicking while the sounds of the people hush and go flat. There is only the breaking—heave and crack, heave and crack—so loud that neither of us hears the lake open up beneath me, sees my boot slip two inches too close and the water rise up past my ankles, my calves, the thick fabric of my ski pants swelling and drawing me under, heavy as an anchor. We don’t realize what is happening until it has happened, until the panic is in my throat and the camera slips out of Nick’s hands and I feel (not feel exactly, but sense) the icy water filling my clothes, gripping my thighs; and there is no thought but dreams, the way that dreams will take the shape of recent, but not too recent, memories. A child sitting completely still on her parents’ bed, her red hair lit up by the streetlight coming in through the window, staring into the backyard where her father acted out his private despair, my friend frozen in the doorway, the child too young to communicate what she knows or how she knows it, what it feels like inside a dread so private it can only be expressed this way—the body fighting instinctively for what the mind has all but given up. My father, her father, fathers falling. Sometimes, there is a note glowing on a computer screen in a dark room. More often, the message is beyond language, or pre-language.

A girl holds a boy’s hand in an ambulance.

A wife, her husband’s.

A mother, her son’s.

A childless woman wraps her body around a small girl on an unfamiliar bed in a city where such intimacies seem suddenly inevitable. Only here, my friend thinks. Only in this place, this city, with all these hot souls drawn together to thrive or suffer or go under—but we’ll be damned if we’ll go unwitnessed.

I make love loudly, I told Nick once, because you want to hear it and I need to say it. We suffer, but I am happy right now, and I am safe in this moment. I needn’t feel guilty about that. I’ve run away before. Believe me, I will do it again.

Believe me, I will not want to.

I sit in the shower and let the hot water thaw my skin. Nick had dragged me out of the icy water and worn my wet boots to shore. My feet felt small and numb inside his dry boots. A bruise forms on my thigh where I fell. It will remain there for weeks, a caution: Don’t get ahead of yourself. My hero makes soup in the kitchen. The child is returned to her mother, bathed and fed and resolutely silent. My friend climbs the stairs to her apartment and falls into bed while water puddles between my toes and my brother is pumped through with Propofol. Her roommate tries the locked door and realizes he has forgotten his key.

He knocks, but she is already asleep.

My mother holds her son’s hand while he breathes through a tube, sedated. She reaches into her purse for a cigarette and her phone, and then heads toward the door. I hear the soup bubbling in the pan and I watch a spider cling to her web in the corner of the shower. In another moment, my phone will ring. Nick will bring it into the bathroom and hold it out to me.

“Your mother,” he will say. “You want it?”

I watch her picture grinning on the screen, radiant in last summer’s sun. I hear the mice in the wall.

“I’ll call her back,” I say. He nods and kisses my forehead.

“Dinnertime,” he says. “When you’re ready.”

Jessica Hendry Nelson is the author of the memoir in essays, If Only You People Could Follow Directions (Counterpoint Press, January 2014), which was selected as a best debut book by the Indies Introduce New Voices program and the January 2014 Indies Next List by the American Booksellers' Association. Her work has been published in numerous journals and magazines including The Threepenny Review, PANK, and Carolina Quarterly and has been featured as Notable essay in Best American Essays 2012 and nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  She lives in Burlington, Vermont, where she co-owns the Renegade Writers' Collective and is the Managing & Nonfiction Editor of Green Mountains Review.

Copyright © 2014 by Jessica Hendry Nelson from If Only You People Could Follow Directions. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint Press.

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