A Story for Another Time
(Braving the Halloween Blizzard of 1991)
I fear many things in this world, altitude being primary among them. My fear of heights is such that I cannot calmly contemplate a photograph of a steelworker perched on an I-beam high above the streets of Manhattan. Of course, rationally, I know that I am in no personal danger, but such fears will not respond to reason. I feel – deep down in places that reason will not reach – that I am about to lose my balance and topple into an abyss. I have long since learned to avoid high places, as well as pictures of high places.
There are also things that cause me unnecessary anguish, if not actual terror. And high on that list I place proximity to bitchy women. My acrophobia knows no reason, but, having once been married, I have good cause to avoid bitchy women – from whom I do my best to remain well out of earshot.
My fear of being snowbound – which is the whole point of this preamble – lies about midway on the scale between my rational fear of bitchy women and my irrational fear of heights. I know very well the reason I feel uneasy when high winds and drifting snow restrict the range of my mobility. I could tell you stories of the great North Woods of my childhood – of being trapped for days on end in a tar paper shack with my parents, neither of whom could bear the presence of the other for more than an hour or two at a time. I will not go into the vocabulary they employed or the volume of their discourse; I will simply say that I can imagine any number of experiences far more pleasant than I ever enjoyed in such close sequestration.
My parents are now both long dead, but still, when the north wind begins to blow, and the snow swirls high in drifts around my door, I invariably feel an urgent need to be elsewhere.
So it happened that, on the evening of October 31, 1991, after those few trick-or-treaters who had braved the freezing rain finally gave up and went home with their greatly diminished booty, I began to feel that old wanderlust I recalled from my childhood.
Realizing even before the rain turned to snow, that the streets would grow treacherous, I resolved to leave my car in the garage and take the bus. And – in the perhaps overly optimistic belief that I would find the bars still open along Snoose Boulevard – I walked over to University Avenue to catch the number 16. It had been several years since my art student days, but – as I rode down University to Washington Avenue and across the bridge to Cedar – I began to fantasize about the possibility of running into some of the old Snoose Boulevard Renaissance crowd.
My optimism faded considerably, however, as I alit from the bus, and the driver continued his lonely voyage downtown. Looking down Cedar Avenue toward Seven Corners, I saw that Sergeant Preston’s and Bullwinkle’s, which by then catered almost exclusively to law students and business administration majors, had closed. In the other direction, I saw that the neon signs at The 400 Club and Five Corners, both blues venues, were also dark; the bands had probably canceled. Even the Viking, on Riverside, and Pierson’s seemed lifeless.
My salvation appeared as a flashing blue haze, several blocks up Cedar, which I took to be the Pilots’ Club. I had always known it was up there, of course, though I had never had occasion to enjoy their hospitality. But, any port, as they say, in a storm.
The journey was not long, but it was arduous. The snow had by now covered the erstwhile raindrops, which had frozen even as they fell, and there is nothing known to modern science that is more slippery than a half-inch of new snow over glare ice. I did not count the times I fell, and don’t care to think about the many bruises I acquired during that brief argosy, but I am sure I spent less time erect than I spent either airborne or flat on my back. By the time I finally stumbled into the welcome warmth of the Pilots’ Club, I really needed a drink.
Though I am, by nature, a beer drinker – and not those specialty beers, thank you, but the good old fashioned American beer I grew up with – I ordered a hot buttered rum. And, though God has always intended that a hot buttered rum should be sipped, I inhaled the first one in a couple of rather large sips and called for a second. Past the fourth, I did not count.
I confess, after surveying the patrons for old friends and finding none, I paid them no further attention and did not seek comradery. I spoke only to the bartender, and then I communicated my wants mostly by gesture.
I should mention here, for the benefit of readers who do not happen to be drinkers, that drinking too quickly – and especially while keeping one’s own company – will lay a man waste much sooner and more devastatingly than if he is engaged in conversation or vigorous activity. So, my memory of leaving the bar, and practically everything that follows, is rather hazy.
I believed that negotiating the sidewalks back to the bus stop would be, if anything, even more eventful than my journey to the bar. But, as I left, I was pleasantly surprised to find that someone had shoveled the sidewalk, beginning directly in front of the door and leading off in the direction I intended to go. But the snow continued to fall heavily, and the wind swirled it vigorously around me. Even as I walked, the newly shoveled path began to fill in again behind me, so that by the time I reached the corner, it had already drifted shut in front of the bar I had just left.
At this point, I was unable to proceed further in the direction of the bus stop, as the shoveled path now turned up a side street to the east. However, since the path now ran parallel to the bus route, I reasoned that, wherever it led, I would be no farther from my destination – so long as the path didn’t make a turn to the south. Two blocks further on, it turned once more to the north, and I congratulated myself on my good fortune even as I saw that the path turned at the end of the first block, this time to the west. My memory of the journey from this point forward is somewhat confused. As I trudged along the meandering path, I’m afraid my mind was also wandering far afield. I lost track of the turns I had made, and I soon lost all sense of where I was.
I had been endowed at birth with a not fully functioning sense of direction. Even sitting in my own living room, I would have to stop and think it over, if someone should ask me the direction in which I faced. Moreover, I have no idea how many drinks I had enjoyed back there, in the warm comfort of the Pilots’ Club, and, as I said, this entire journey was more or less hazy. So, it is understandable that – following the tortuous path that lay newly shoveled before me, but drifted shut almost immediately after my passage – I soon became hopelessly lost.
As I now traversed a residential section, I could no longer see any sign of commercial activity; there had been no vehicular traffic for some time, and the street lights were more widely spaced and shone less brightly. I had lost all track of time and had no idea how far I had come when I first caught the faint sound of a distant drum. It seemed to come from somewhere off to my right. And the path – almost as though I had willed it – turned directly toward the sound, which by now had acquired a bass line.
As I drew nearer the source, I began to hear snippets of melody interspersed with the bass and drum, though I could not, at first, identify the song. Gradually, however, the shriek of the wind died to some degree, and I was able to make out Mary Hopkins’ Those Were the Days, one of my personal favorites during the late 1960s. Soon the light of a neon sign appeared in the haze ahead, and – in addition to the song on the jukebox – I could hear sounds of revelry such as I had not heard in several years.
I can’t say which happened first – it seemed almost simultaneously that I recognized the voice of Einar Nordin, elevated in earnest disagreement, and the large neon sign that had always hung over the door of Big Alice’s Fine Wines and Burgers.
And so I came, by circuitous route, to at last rejoin my old comrades of the Snoose Boulevard Renaissance. As I entered the spacious back room, I saw Herman and Peter, both former professors in the Studio Arts Department of the University, seated nearest the stove and surrounded by a mixed flock of graduate, undergraduate, and former students. I immediately recognized my old friends Patrick, Susan, Suzanne, Susie, Reliable Rod, Joan, Joanne, Brian and Beanie, Mike and Kate, and the other Kate, as they, in their turn, all recognized me. Dick Olson – he of the storied reviews – called my name and indicated an empty chair beside him, while Brian filled a glass from one of the many pitchers and handed it to me. Einar and Arvid seemed about to take their disagreement outside to settle it in the parking lot, but as usual, no one paid them any attention.
Nothing had changed. No one had aged a day since I had last seen them. Dick’s beard was no more grizzled; Rod’s receding hairline had receded no further; Susan’s long blonde hair seemed freshly ironed; even the jukebox played the same old songs at 45 revolutions per minute. Each time I drained my glass, one or another of my old friends refilled it for me, and I drank with a thirst I had not known since last we had shared a carefree evening’s carousal. It would seem there are happy endings, after all, even for me.
But, no matter how enthusiastically we might argue the relative merits of Picasso and Matisse or Kline and de Kooning, or how loudly we may protest, “By God, we are not drunk!” we can never master our bodily fluids, nor can we stay the twilight that descends upon reluctant eyes. Though we struggle against the current that draws us relentlessly down toward the abyssal depths of inebriation, in the end, it will prevail.
I don’t remember having assumed the prone position on the floor roughly halfway between the men’s room and my chair at the conference table. I do have dim memories of four curiously other-worldly creatures – two of whom bore strong resemblances to Mike and Kate (not the other Kate, of course) while another looked a great deal like Rod – levitating my corporeal remains and delivering them out the door into the driving snow, while I watched the performance from somewhere high overhead. The fourth of these creatures, who bore no likeness to anyone I knew, argued strenuously when the other three attempted to load my remains into the back seat of a four-by-four in the parking lot. He seemed to feel that I should be secured to the roof of the vehicle in case of an accident, and – as it turned out, he was the driver – his opinion prevailed.
On the radio, which had been turned up full volume, Steppenwolf performed Magic Carpet Ride. And, though I cannot now categorically state that it wasn’t all a dream, I retain misty memories of soaring across sheets of glare ice and over the drifts of driven snow like a character in The Arabian Nights. Of course, it was very cold for Arabia at that time of year, and I don’t recall reading that Aladdin or Ali Baba ever had suffered the dry heaves. Nevertheless, I can say with certainty that the experience was as close to a flying carpet ride as I am ever likely to enjoy – spread-eagled and securely tied at the wrists and ankles though I was.
Perhaps I dozed during a part of my journey, for it seemed that I was aloft only moments before my companions cut my bonds and helped me down from the roof of the vehicle. And once again, they levitated my frozen carcass over the snowdrifts and through a door into surroundings that appeared vaguely familiar.
I remember nothing more until I woke up on what I believe to be the following afternoon. I had the most unpleasant taste in my mouth, and I gladly would have slashed my wrists if I could have summoned the energy to rise from the bed where my friends had deposited me. Since that was beyond my capacity, I determined instead to will myself to death, as I had often seen accomplished by dewy-eyed maidens in silent movies. But, apparently, the will was stronger back in silent movie days, or perhaps only women have that ability, as I succeeded only in lulling myself back into restorative sleep.
When next I regained consciousness, it was dark again, though I didn’t bother to look at the clock. I had more urgent matters to attend to. I made a hurried, if not truly direct, dash to the bathroom, and after relieving my aching bladder and drinking as much water as I felt I would be able to keep down, I lurched back to my bed and fell immediately to sleep again.
Morning had come again when next I opened my eyes, and I felt that I might actually survive the indignities my body had endured. Though the skin around my wrists and ankles felt raw and had taken on a purplish hue, after a shower and shave and dressed in fresh clothing, I felt capable of keeping down a light breakfast and a bit of strong coffee. But I had little appetite for shoveling snow, so I spent the whole day watching old movies on television.
By the next morning, though, I was able to function at near-normal capacity. Though I still had to shovel the walk and driveway, most of the snow had melted by then, and I finished before noon. As soon as I had finished, I drove over to the Pilot’s Club with the thought of retracing the steps that had brought me at last to Big Alice’s.
I managed the first three turns alright but was unable to remember where I had taken the fourth turn or the direction in which I had turned. So, two blocks further along from the third turn, I began a search pattern. I turned to the right and walked one block, turned to the right again, and walked one block. Again I turned right and walked two blocks, and turning right, I walked another two blocks. I had thus nearly described a two-block square centered on the last point along my path that I definitely remembered − without seeing anything that I recognized.
In this same manner, I then walked a four-block square, with the same center and the same results. A six-block square, then an eight-block square and a ten-block square, proved equally unproductive. I later calculated that I had walked nearly a hundred and twenty blocks or about ten miles, and I had seen nothing familiar; I certainly didn’t find Big Alice’s. By that time, the sun had set, and I reasoned that, since it had been dark during my initial argosy, I might more easily recognize things after dark. But by then, I was tired and hungry and thoroughly discouraged. I gave up for the time being, with the thought of returning after dark the next day.
And now, I have reached the point at which I become almost ashamed to continue my story; I am sure you already know how it will end. You know that I will return again and again – in broad daylight and after midnight – during spring, summer, fall, and winter – in bright sunlight, in gentle rain or cloudburst, in softly falling flakes of snow, and in total white-outs – sober as a judge, or falling down drunk. And you know equally well that my search will have been futile, that I have never again found my way, that I will never again enjoy the stove-side warmth of Big Alice’s Fine Wines and Burgers or the companionship of my old friends of the Snoose Boulevard Renaissance.
I begin to doubt my artistic talent.
About the author
My stories/essays have appeared in the Eunoia Review: the Blue Lake Review: Firewords Quarterly, the Beorh Quarterly, and The Mensa Bulletin, Buried Letter Press: and Novella T, among others.