A Family Trip
Out from the open window, the brightness of Lenty's living room made a path into the blizzard. And down that yellow swath, leisurely and feathery, slight as cigarette ashes, billions of snowflakes floated. Inexhaustibly they fell, drifting gently to the ground, muffling street sounds. Crystalline and sparkling, the flakes somehow reminded of the high he craved - a gnaw of need he couldn't soothe until his family had left.
He flicked his cigarette butt into the endless void, "Got to stop, and I will. I just do it gently. Little bit less each passing day and in no time at all I'll be done."
He sighed contentedly with his reasonable intentions and studied the weather's commonplace work of powdering the night-scape. Yet same way as the panorama submitted to its silent barrage, so did his addiction nag for attention.
Three floors down, whiteness had achieved near-total success. A spot of Defiance was a pulse of red light blinking on, off, on, off, on, off. Lenty watched it blankly before recognizing it as his savior. For that blinking red light was the "On Duty" sign of a taxicab waiting at the curb. With its wiper-blades etching brief black fans on the windshield, surely it had to be the taxi they had called so long ago.
"Is the cab there, lug?"
Five minutes ago, she'd sung the same falsetto query at him. He hadn't answered then, either.
"Lenty? Did you hear?" Her soap-opera tones came in a sharper pitch. An edge that egged his ready anger off its ledge, sent him striding to their bedroom.
Too loud for their closeness, he said sarcastically, "What you playing at, Irene? I know it isn't about missing your flight. And since when, with your 'company pays' privilege, does time on a meter mean shit to you?"
He faltered as she turned from the mirror and hoisted a carefully arched eyebrow at him. As always, the conflict between her haughtiness and her beauty tormented him, and he continued less hotly, "Well, aren't you are the wage earner and big spender around here, aren't you? The high lady who spares out the dole?" Then denying her a rejoinder, he skulked back to his living room view.
Down in the street he noticed a stream of vapor jet out of the driver-side window. The smoker in him took a moment before realizing that most probably, it was cigarette smoke exhaled through a temporarily lowered window. Instantly recognizing using it as a belly blow to undercut her disdain, he raised his voice and speculated, "Wonder if he knows you hate smoking? 'Specially in taxis!"
No response. Which meant that she realized his information was intended to wound and sour her anticipation of the ride away from him. Spouse's privilege, he knew the subtle ways to harry her.
At last she seemed ready to go.
In Lenty's view, the her blue and gray business suit was too studied for a vacation trip. Her The saving grace, though, would be her mink coat, which, considering her light clothes and her destination, he hoped was truly warm. Reminded, he called to Irene, now out of sight in the kitchen, "Make sure the boys wear their double-layered long-johns, right." No response, so he trailed her into the kitchen. She was writing numbers on the phone pad. "Make sure the boys - "
"This is where you can get me," she declared with a blanching look. "Only in the direst emergency, of course."
Lenty raised his hands ready with quarrel, but Irene cut him off again: "Yes, yes, Lenty, I heard you twice the first time, so hold on to your fussing. Besides, you don't look awake enough and I don't have the time. Where are the boys, anyhow?"
Just like that, switching from tone to tone, she'd smothered his feelings, swept away his concern as simple, accused him of being high, and questioned him as if he were her peon. Still, he answered automatically, "In the lobby, with Laddie and the bags."
"Well, that was smart," she said and gave him a professional bright smile. Then as she click-heeled into the bathroom, she chimed, "Brush down my coat, please, lug."
Lenty cringed at the order. She knew he liked grooming the mink, the chance to "bury his hands in its solid, slippery warmth," as he'd foolishly admitted when she first bought it. Now, since things went had gone bad between them, she used that confidence like a whip. MYet, more than that, he hated her turned-on "Luvs" dispensed in her movie-star manner. Only foresight quelled his impulse to yell that she do it herself, that she get the fuck away and leave him alone. His high in mind, he knew that the quicker she went, the better.
Irene waited to the last. Hand on the doorknob, she remarked coolly, "I can't say I'm sorry you're not coming with us."
As intended, this hook caught him by the soft balls of his pride. He shouted, "I never wanted any part of your sham invitation, Irene. I don't need or like your choice of money-sucking associates." He spoke "associates" as if it meant child molesters.
Stung to indignation, her sense of triumph slipping away, Irene turned back. "Well, Mister Lenty 'Failed-man' Rance," she said. "Frankly, I thought you might've profited from seeing how some successful men manage their lives. Clearly and of course, that was a fool's hope." And as he flinched she felt a spite of gloating at having hooked him again.
"Lost your chance to better me again, eh?" he retorted bitterly. "For whose benefit, eh? I don't suppose it was to arrive with sudden-upper tier you, huh? You who so recently abandoned her your low-rent family [you need to make it clear he's referring to her parents and not to him and the kids].. You who's doing so well you could leave them to the vermin in the barrio. So tell me, Miz Irene Fridey, who you doing all this bettering for?"
Eyeing him from sullen face to crooked toes, she snarled, "Don't you dare, you, you cockroach! Just look at yourself! When last you pulled your weight in this house? When last you planned an outing? A trip to the grocery store, let alone the frigging movies? You are a parasite, plain and simple. A down-dragger. My greatest wish is that this trip could purge you from out of my system."
It couldn't stop there. For many minute more they shifted together into familiar, cruel ruts about who was which, or why, or what.
After an ugly while of clashing his money-greed accusations against her middle-class values, acutely aware of his ever-unemployed state, Lenty slyly wrestled the carping to more common dirt. "How come you're suddenly a ski-tripper?" he asked. "You, who always hated anything winter but the Christmas presents, how come you're suddenly so loyal to the company? I'll tell you, Miz Irene. Your best assets got hair where they meet in a slippery V. I bet that your main partnership function is performing as the guys' favorite power piece."
"You're uglier than disgusting, Lenty," Irene came back. "But let me tell you, darlingg, I gotta find some use for it. 'Cause there ain't much you could do with whatever I spread."
In truth, part of the rage overwhelming Lenty was aimed against himself: that he'd been outmaneuvered. That he'd let himself be tricked into an argument he could never win. Still, despite that burn-hole in his pride, he salvaged some small scores; like keeping her there longer than she would rather. Like sullying her family. And with the taxi and the boys waiting, she couldn't properly pause to lawyer-parry, counterstrike. So finally she exploded through the door with a demon's curse in her glare.
Shutting the door on her malediction, Lenty barricaded away their hate for the while. Although even as the relief of her absence soothed, he knew they'd scarcely satisfied the vicious monster their ten-year marriage had chained between them.
Two seconds after punching the elevator button, Irene knew she couldn't wait for that smooth-running box, the polite people it might carry. One turn down the stairs, she felt calmer. Midway down the second flight, her coattail threatening an imminent tripping disaster, she halted to manage her temper.
In truth, but for dirtying the mink, she would have sat in the cool of the stairwell. So gathering the coat about her, Irene leaned into the curve of the handrail, supported by the polished, beautifully carved wood. Years ago, when they were happily home hunting, it was just this sense of gracious security that had settled her choice on this house. Lenty had a vote, of course, but the decision, even then, was hers. And she always adored these classic brownstones, so stately, so suggestive of solid family and home.
They'd house-hunted thoroughly, visited every promising offer. Lenty's preference had been a luxury high-rise. She recalled how once, the realtor departed, they'd lewdly sampled an empty apartment for risqué ambiance, doing it on the bare floor. Afterwards, she'd told him how her dreams needed lots of room and children's cries and sunny windows and hisses from steam radiators and high ceilings until Lenty gaveled the case closed - the judicial decision for the old-fashioned brownstone she preferred along with its space and quiet.
Back then, his windsock will was funny and they laughed a lot. They'd long since grinned away all that was amusing, though. She now had all the space she craved - hollow and mocking with the echo of her life these days: namely, the Troubles with her spouse, a used-to-be rising star stockbroker, the father of her sons, the petty wrecker of her dreams.
Looking for a positive in the situation, she decided that actually, in some ways she hadn't done badly. First and foremost, she had managed to keep him in his place - meaning out of her striving for livelihood, and away from spoiling the promise of her heart's blood: her sons, her greatest assets, her blessings. For her boys were sound, happy children.
Secondly, and despite his crude suggestions, even in her unscrupulous business, she worked honorably for every dollar she spent. So yes! thought of this way, she'd done uncommonly well.
But right now, the stairwell had grown chilly. She glanced at her watch, saw that she'd mulled away seven minutes. With the taximeter running! And the boys!
Through the snowfall filter, Lenty watched their procession emerge from beneath the canopy. Doorman Laddie bulking a path with the suitcases, followed by Irene and the bundled boys, their progress suggesting a waddling goose and goslings. For the wind was swirling its mischief, kite tailing the boys' parka strings, harrying their rush into the taxi.
Laddie opened the taxi door and Renwald bundled in. For a moment, Zasi, his younger son, warded away Irene's bustling and looked up toward Lenty's window. He rubbed a narrow wave into the swift-blowing snowflakes, and much farther into the deepest niche of Lenty's affections. Then he climbed in the taxi. Not even a glance up, clutching up her coattails, Irene followed. The taxi pulled out.
Just seven years old, Lenty mused, and already he manages to get his own way. And so charming about it, he was, persuasive with smiles, and the chat of his wild imagination. That was Zasi, his beloved son, one of the sunshiny people.
Around himLenty, the space was un-cramping. As easiness spread, Lenty he recalled the image of the boys' wind-played clothes like unfurled banners. Happiness surged through him. Belatedly he sent them a wish for great fun. The smirk to his benediction was that with his own present of uncontested private time, he had similar plans of embracing pleasure. He started for the closet that held his get-high stash and fixings. Passing the phone, Lenty clicked the answering machine to 'silent auto-answer'.
"Airport," Irene told the driver, then hugged herself into the corner and sighed a long breath of freedom. She felt cartoonish happy. Compared to the hell-home behind, the warm box of taxi seemed pure coddling comfort. Perfecting the pleasure was watching her boys peering out the ir windows with travelers' excitement, blessedly innocent of their parents' terrible trip.
A slight minus was nicotine odor. The driver though, once bidden, opened his window a crack to breeze out the lingering smell.
"'Scuse me, ma'am, what time's the flight?"
Renwald, eyeing permission from Irene, was Mr. Quick-Answer: "Six thirty, at Westerly. Gate twenty-four."
"We're getting to Colorado at seven," Zasi added. When the cabby didn't seem to find puzzle in this, he explained, "It's not really thirty minutes flying, you know. Their time's just not up to ours yet. They're two hours behind."
With appropriate enthusiasm, Cabby exclaimed, "Son-of-a-gun! You don't say."
Which delighted Zasi into satisfied silence.
With a wink in his voice, Cabby added, "Got a smart one there, lady." With no response from her, the driver let his urge for talking lie, and she was free to consider her itinerary.
Four days, three nights, at Winter Haven Lodge - a brief break for the partners and their families, marking the ninth anniversary of their successful venture. Which in itself contained a problem. For, contrary to Lenty's indictment, Irene could scarcely summon up anticipation at squandering her rare free time with the same people who shared her workdays. She'd rather be with her sons, walking the park, visiting the library, kicking around a soccer ball. Yet, here she was, on her way, and defending the trip as the necessary dues to the old-boys' network.
Irene summoned a more cheerful picture: Boval, Johns, Rance & Smithie was indeed a good firm that boasted a growing reputation for winning important environmental decisions in court. If luck was involved, it was that her partners could also be counted as friends. Unfortunately, the same couldn't be said for their wives, except for Siska Boval, her close friend since college when they'd roommated together. It was Irene who'd introduced Siska to Putty Boval.
" - Uh, Mom? You think Dad'll walk him? Barkes, I mean," Renwald said, tugging Irene from her thoughts.
"Don't worry, Rennie, your father will take care of him."
Zasi chimed in, "Of course he will, Renwald Worrywart."
"How do you know, huh? He didn't when we went to Uncle Vinnie's."
"But Mom knows he will, same as I do."
"That don't make sense, stupid, 'cause you're not Mom."
"You're a bigger stupid!"
"No! You are."
"Mom!" His quick cut to tears, Zasi called on Mamma-power, "Mom, he's calling me 'stupid'."
Irene forced a truce. "Don't say your brother's stupid, Renwald. And you, Zasi, quit hijacking every conversation."
Not a minute gone, Renwald was saying, "Mom, when Barkes can't go out, he always makes under my bed. Mom!"
In one spasm, Zasi sniggered and returned to innocence. Irene fixed the eye on him. "It's all right, Renny. Tomorrow Blane's going to get him and keep him until Tuesday. It's all arranged."
All the while a defiant Zasi, his face full of twitching nose and frowns and squintings, tried getting even by miming a tale of smelly disgustories.
From the vast blankness of a silky sleep, Lenty awoke smoothly into a sweet dream-memory of last night's perfection. A time when he'd attained that mysterious mind-spot wherein all curtains were drawn closed and the psychic caves opened wide. Cleft inside this indulgence were perfect joy and cruelest sadness, at once dicey and devastating. But for the chance of being blown away in a good high, Lenty would always hazard the ride.
Vaguely, some annoyance was forcing Lenty him to drag bedclothes over his head and muffle hearing. Yet the bother persisted, forcing Lenty to submit reluctantly until, sighing heavily, he reluctantly submitted to the new day.
"Woof! Woof! Woof!" Barkes' powerfully delivered demands blew into Lenty's head. Away fled his startled dreams, and his disposition soured. Sighing heavily, he rolled over and kicked the wall that separated the urgent dog from him. "Shut up!" he barked back, huddled back into the bed's sweet-spot.
But Barkes' natural urges must've been near the upper limits of restraint. Lenty's rude acknowledgment of his SOS had rekindled hope, and he recommenced at cacophony, mixing plaintive growls and whines into his percussive scratching , plus an occasional crash as he leapt and reconnected with the floor.
Finally, with a sigh, Lenty surrendered his rest and hastened toilet- wards, bidden by the demands of his own day's first.
Hearing activity, Barkes uptempoed his appeals to desperate levels. Estimating from the yelps of woe, Lenty judged the dog's moment of crisis was merely minutes off - insufficient to get Barkes downstairs. So, crisis inspiring, he became inventive.
Shortly thereafter, Barkes found himself in a newly news-papered bathtub. One despairing look showed its sliding glass door sealing him in. Indignity had moved him to but a howl and a bark when Nature pressed him to the lesson Lenty'd rudely forced - that when crisis called, She wasn't particular. Thus without choice, Barkes relaxed to the business of voiding.
Meanwhile, Lenty returned to his quest for high times.
Seduced by the brilliance, Irene stepped eagerly onto the terrace. The morning sun beamed warmly on her face, contrasting with the chill breeze slithering up her naked legs, and setting off a fleet arousal that lofted her mood to a pleasant edge. She pulled the thick robe more tightly around and charged her lungs with the crisp cool.
Gleaming beyond the terrace, a vista of pine-wooded hills horseshoed the white valley. The terrace provided a raptor's viewpoint - tiny in the distance, she could see brightly garbed snow-lovers being hauled uphill by ski lifts. The pine-scented breeze smelled so pure, Irene believed that it could clean her out, make her shiny new inside. She found herself sucking in the mountain air almost to gasping.
After a while she grew aware that the morning was still young - hours yet before eleven when they were to join the others on the slopes. She went back inside, peeked into the second bedroom and found the boys still sprawled asleep, head to toe, on one bed. The neat sheets on Zasi's told the tale of its immediate abandonment once she'd tucked him in. Easing the door closed, she chuckled at his dislike of sleeping in an empty bed, the charm of him sticking to his habits.
She returned to her bedroom. More languorous than tired, she yawned and stretched. The boys' snoring reached a sibilant suggestion into her room. Still captive to workaday habits, she glanced at the clock: eight-eleven.
So why not? Thus Irene surrendered, and bold as a trollop, snuggled back into the charms of her strange, vacation bed.
Lenty was well on the way now, riding his second. The first hit had only served to quiet his nerves after relieving the dog. For although he'd out-maneuvered the aggravation of a dog-walk, the stinker Barkes made had seeped poisoned fumes everywhere. He, a man alone at home supposedly at ease, had come to scooping dog shit or suffocating.
Lenty chose life, and did the rest of the dog duty as well: food, water, then tethering the pest in the boys' old playroompen - , out of the way, and hopefully out of his mind. By then the initial buzz was faded. But free from chores, he addressed the situation by attacking his stash and selecting the essential accouterments. Then he'd prepared a 'hardest hard' for a mystical ride to his higher kingdom.
They overslept, and it was near midday before they got to the ski rental. Of course, the others were long gone. Then it turned out that the boys were cold to skiing anyhow.
To avoid a squabble, Irene tried tweaking their machismo, "Guys, be reasonable," she said. "Look at those toddlers over there having fun. And you're telling me you can't do that?"
"Huh, Rennie? Or did you leave your spirit of adventure in the city? And you, Mr. Try-anything-once Zasi, what do you say?"
Zasi scowled and Renwald sulked.
Irene said, "Well, say something!"
"Trust me, Mom," said Rennie forthrightly. "This is not a good idea. Don't judge from the kids, Mom. Look at the grown-ups. Look at that guy there."
Zasi backed him with a dramatic enactment, flopping onto a pile of snow. "See, Mom? It's scary when you fall and sometimes you can get hurt. I def'nilly think those people aren't having a good time. And I think they're cold."
"Get up, child. They don't look cold to me."
"I'm cold," pouted Renwald. "Hey, aren't you freezing?"
Zasi offered, "Even mMy toes're shivering."
Irene gave up. More in desperation than hope, she bluffed enthusiasm for another option: "All right then, my big bored boys, let's take a hike in the hills."
Surprise! This was enthusiastically received. And taking off towards a vague, trampled snow-track meandering beneath the firs, the boys pranced and shouted.
At a pause on the way, all at once, Zasi became a Seminole warrior hunting buffalo. Renny, assuming that creature's role, began tossing ferocious horns in the ancient pre-battle rite when the spirits of buffalo and brave contested. They went at it with grave intensity, and soon Irene succumbed to their native fantasy. New to the Pocahontas sisterhood, she harnessed her gait to a deliberate, alert pounce, her wary glances guarding against discovery. She was, she realized, clandestinely privileged to this secret initiation ceremony - the creation of men out of blood and violence, and beliefs and boys. And for an instant her fierce regard softened to glow on her noble braves with a mother's caresses.
Deep in a cocoon of euphoria, beyond body into limitless mind, Lenty rode his trip - although it wasn't the sort he'd wished. This one being mostly unpleasant reflection between self-blame and ill luck: like the insecure money-manager who'd ruined Lenty's budding career. Like Roy Nimblett, the nonchalant best friend who'd introduced him to his heroin habit; like the guilt that rooted the ugliness with his wife, and much of the vomit from the guts of his spoilt life. This ride insisted on spotlighting a belittled version of himself - once such the spark, now a barely visible mote hanging in the night sky. And in this bleak vision, like a comet of promise, she Irene kept passing him every which way, bright and distanced, while he dimmed out.
Forlorn as a broken crutch, awaiting decay, the old spruce leaned across the trail. To the boys, it seemed a convenient ladder to lively adventure, and respite from the immediate steep going. So they sidetracked into the sick tree's fronds to play. Irene, welcoming a rest from the sweat of trekking through knee-deep snow, leaned on a nearby trunk to let her breathing catch up.
Where the spruce's branches lay yellowed and jammed against the hillside, recent snowfalls had been caught and cradled, forming a cave beneath. Irene crouched for a peek. Inside, exactly where the crystal ceiling met dark, naked earth, a trickle gleamed along a vertical length of twig. Reflected light made the liquid tube alive, iridescent - a serpentine artery feeding vigor into the suckling land. Her breath caught by Nature's persistence, Irene thrilled from a sultry pleasure.
Ready as heroes for anything, the boys mounted the spiny trunk, just deemed the mainmast of a wrecked buccaneers' frigate. Captain Renwald led the raiding party. He test-rocked a billowing, orange-needled sail, and observed, "We might re-float this old shell yet." Hand to brow, he searched the close horizon for bo'sun Zasi. Two feet aft, the bo'sun was already testing a greener-needled sail, frowning as he devised his own strategy. Before Rennie could speak again, slow as a rising mountain, the whole ship started moving. In the amazed moment before startle, the buccaneer boys heard Mom screaming, "Get down, boys! Get off! Now, now, now! Get out!"
At the same time, some other sound behind him made Renwald turn to look for Zasi. And, in the midst of calling to his brother, he felt smoothly pitched up through the air, as if levered off by some mighty seesaw, and he saw his mother far below him disappear in a cloud of erupting snow.
She could breathe. Her face was out, though she couldn't move. Up to her neck in inclined snow, something rough and heavy over her thighs was holding her half-buried in a sitting position no matter how she strained. Every time she moved her head, rivulets of snow slid past her neck.
Resistance seized her, compelled a wild, clutching wrench. Slides of snow broke free, slithering by and over her head, burying her. But next moment, her head and right arm were again free. She palmed the snow from her face, and began a twisting-neck search from her fixed position.
All she saw was a slope of churned snow. Heart running wild, Irene screamed, "Zasi! Rennie! Zasi! Answer me!" Barely awaiting response, she bawled the same again.
From far below her eyes' cast came a voice high-pitched with amazement: "Mom. Mom, I was flying . . ."
Rennie! "Are you okay?" she yelled.
"Sure, Mom. But I can't find Zasi."
Partial relief refueling her efforts, she screwed her head to the limits of its range, her cries searching where she couldn't: "Zasi! Zasi! Where are you? Zasiiii!"
Rennie shouted back, "He was in the ship, Mom. I mean the tree. He flew off the tree."
Irene thought fast. "Rennie!" she shouted. "Go back and get help. Go quick. Can you?"
Squeaky but assured came his yell. "Sure, Mom. I'll be quick. Don't worry!"
"Careful where you step, love!" she tried to say, but the caution caught on a quaver in her throat, and she didn't.
Rennie's calmness had steadied her, though. First, she needed to get free. So wary of the threatening mini-slides, she began carefully sculpting her upper body out of the downhill side of the snow bank.
It was neat how it happened right on time, like part of their sea-pirate game. From up in the poop's nest, Renny had spied a laden galleon. Zasi, Battle-leader Supreme, grinned grimly, anticipating the promise of the raiding foray, the hand-to-hand battling, the reckless acrobatics in the rigging. He could imagine the fabulous booty, treasure chests sparkling with gold and rubies and diamonds. Soon he'd be scuttling off to his Caribbean haven -
Right then an unimaginable blast hit him with its fiercest, and Zasi's game flip-flopped into a roaring heave, and he was up and over in a giant somersault that ended with him on hands and knees, dazed, in this dimly pale, silent place. A teepee space of branches with snow falling in clumps and powder all around him.
So fast done, only now could he gasp. If Renny'd been there and sniggered, he would've giggled too. He was unhurt, although certain as 'amens' in church that he was in humongous trouble. So with arms around his knees, he squatted down small as he could and was very, very still as he watched the opaque light sparkle weirdly in the hollow quiet. After a bit, anxiety began churning his stomach, but he resisted the vomit's urge. But feeling less comfortable in this dimness than any real dark, he huddled tighter into himself and shut his eyes. Thus choosing his own inner night as better for hiding from the monstrous fear just waking up hungry for him.
Far within the caverns of Lenty's borderless consciousness, the entreaty came pulsing: "Daddy! Can I please?" A tiny interruption, a childish cry he recognized, himself having trained the proper manners. Like so many nighttimes past, when an intent rapping on their bedroom door would rouse him to find a wet-cheeked Zasi who, solemn of eye, would grip Lenty's hand and make at his toddling brave-show: "I made a bad dream, Daddy. I amn't scared. Just lonely."
With similar tones his child was now knocking for minding. What else? Lenty opened, his gushing love a door swung wide and sympathetic. And a powerful otherness invaded his self's most high place. It burst mightily in, crashing like a storm-wave into a rocky cave.
Right away, it didn't fit well. Rejected sharing space. Demanded all. Remorselessly flung about its raging need. It didn't care that all this flailing about forced the opened, father-instinct into wincing torment. No matter how this suffocated the Lenty self, the infant force availed itself whatever it needed to huddle and wait. Yet all the while, it messaged repugnance for its shelter, recoiled from the vile containment, and yearned for the instant it might leave.
Soon as heroic Renny had guided back the special rescue team - a dozen or so men in yellow coveralls - the heroic boy was safed away. Then, using broad slats to brace the snow, and plastic spades, and power saws, they freed Irene. Others had lugged long poles and ropes to a point behind her - the place, from Renny's help, they best estimated Zasi would be.
Released from the branch that had pinned her thighs, Irene could barely stand. South of her butt lacked all feeling. They put her on a stretcher, whisper-debated taking her back to the lodge.
She kept struggling to sit up, falling back with each effort. "What's wrong with you people?" she screamed. "You're wasting time! And don't you dare think I'm going anywhere. Why are you all squandering about while my child's precious seconds are sliding away!"
Dragging in hoarse breaths, Irene tried for control. This wasn't how to handle it, she told herself, and they were trying. Better to help with a shovel so they'd understand her urgency. She tried again to sit up. With an immense effort she flopped her legs to the ground. Like a bag of sand, the rest of her body just followed.
As they replaced her on the stretcher, a mild-eyed man came by distracting with questions about her welfare, about Zasi: "Where was the child last? What was he doing?"
Absently, she answered, "The broken tree . . ." then shut up as hindsight stung with the implicit suggestion she might've been more careful. Meanwhile the man babbled explanations about risking further snow slides. About going in at the wrong spot. Eyes locked on the rescuers, Irene barely listened. What she couldn't not understand was why were they moving so casually, so deliberately pushing poles into the snow, while her deepest feelings were on hold between profound grief and supreme joy?
Eventually, they allowed Siska through. She brought comforting arms, and news that Renny was okay but for bruises.
The rescuers were going in now - but some idiot stood blocking her view: the lodge's young doctor, himself overexcited, insisting she take something for "shock."
"I'm okay," she cried. "Leave me alone," and leaning heavily on Siska, craned her look beyond him.
Flustered at her determination to ignore him, he shoved his pills into his white coat's pocket, remained shuffling beside her. Then he began plying trade data to her left ear: "It's basically textbook, you know, how the body responds to a situation like this. What we have here, physiologically, is hypothermic shock, and of course, the body's defense mechanisms. Psychologically, it's a whole other ballgame. The mind, you know, below eighty-four, eighty-five Fahrenheit, could do anything. Scientifically, it's like the final frontier. Know what I mean? Everything depends on the physiological status quo. Because by now the blood's withdrawn from body extremities, priority one being brain heat, plus, of course, oxygen supply. On the other hand - "
Siska interrupted fiercely, "She wants to know this now? Huh? Can't you just shut up and go away! Hnnh!" And, mercifully, the stupid man did.
Blane had promised about Barkes with best intentions. Nonetheless, he'd all but forgotten until hearing the flash on the hourly news. It was the name "Winter Haven" that caught his attention, and he listened excitedly as the drama was related: about the avalanche, and the child, and the agonizing hours-long vigil. The news left him breathless. This was rare stuff, first reports of tragedy concerning people he actually knew.
Immediately he wondered if Lenty had a radio on. Unlikely, he thought. He rushed to his phone and dialed, then hung up on the recorded message. This suggestion that Lenty wasn't home excited him even more, as it established unawareness of his family's peril. Only then Blane remembered his promise to mind Barkes - heaven-sent mandate that he be bad news bearer in person.
On his way over, Blane considered strategies for broaching the delicate matter. His approach had to be sensitive, patient for the proper cue. Maybe the best tack would be to first take care of the dog while assessing the blow of the breeze. Now arrived at the Rances' apartment door, he pulled out the spare key, and hesitated. What if Lenty was in there?
Blane raised his fist and hammered on the door.
The rescuers wasted at least two hours attempting to bring snow-moving machines up the hill. The many conifers and steepness of the incline frustrated this effort. So based on factors such as angles and momentum and Zasi's approximate weight, they figured a perimeter in which he most likely would be. The equipment they now used were two small snow blowers that whined away at the task - which was, in Irene's estimation, like trying to empty an ocean with buckets. A few men continued poking the snow banks with the long poles. Frustration was plain in their faces as their fading hopes.
Hours later, no one still had anything to say to Irene. Her friend volunteered to go question the man giving orders. Siska returned with startling news that in his halting responses, he kept describing the mission as recovery rather than rescue, a. An idea which left Irene, already immobile and sick with worry, knowing another version of insanity.
One of the late volunteers was a Mr. Wong. A local of Chinese descent, he had made a good life for himself and family running a dry-cleaning service. He had two daughters, eighteen and twenty, both at university in New York. Successful entrepreneur, for the last decade , Mr. Wong had spent Chinese New Year here at Winter Haven. Upon hearing of the accident, this compassionate man did not have to be pushed and went as quickly as he could to the scene. There, he took one of the long aluminum poles and proceeded to probe the deep snow banking the broken spruce. Systematic at the task, he thought to try locating the trunk of the fallen tree where the boy was last known to be. Thus he'd shove the pole deep into the snow until he met resistance. Then he'd move a small distance left or right and poke again. Over and over, long after everyone else had abandoned the area, he went about this patient probing, forming a pattern of the broken tree-trunk in his mind's eye.
Meanwhile, in the little teepee formed by surrounding branches, the body of Zasi crouched and shivered while his pristine mind slowly suffocated within his father's drugged consciousness.
Mr. Wong had covered some twenty feet with his probing when his pole glanced off the by now obviously narrower top of the tree-trunk, and struck another obstacle - this one yielding to the pole. To Mr. Wong, the odd give of the object suggested he proceed with a more careful testing thrust. He did so and again felt the peculiar give. Excited, he called to the coordinator of the rescue. "Make a gentle push and see what I'm talking about," said Mr. Wong to the doubtful fellow.
Something kept poking Zasi at his belly, once, twice, and then a third time. At which, reflexively, he weakly warded it away. But the bother did not leave him alone, and returned to poke again. Only this time, escaped mind returned and again in charge, he grabbed the intrusive pole and tugged.
"Oh my God!" exclaimed the coordinator, "he's in there, alive!" At which the 'recovery' crew rushed over, and with shovels and bare hands, began moving away snow, forming somewhat of a tunnel along the line of the aluminum pole. They soon got to the branches and fifteen frantic minutes later, could see the shuddering boy in his protective teepee.
Freed from his trap, coherent but weak and wrapped in blankets, Zasi was taken to his tearful, overjoyed mother. "Oh my son, my son," she cried, "you sure you okay?"
"Yes, Mom. I'm sure, but I don't know 'bout Daddy."
"What you mean, son?"
"Well, Mom, I was sorta dreaming with Daddy, yu'know, and I think he's really sick. I mean really very sick!"
In response, Irene just hugged her son tighter while seeking Siska's eyes and shrugging her confusion.
No answer to his knocking, Blane used the keys and entered the apartment. Instantly assailed by a tremendous stench, he felt a pang of guilt from having forgotten about Barkes. The dog had sensed him though, and began barking madly, which led Blane, hand covering mouth and nose, to the source of the stink. One look in and he quickly closed the door, and turned next to locating the filthy dog's master.
He found Lenty sprawled supine on the bed, eyes turned back in his head, frothing at the mouth in some kind of stupor. Anxiously, hand cupping his nose, Blane hurried to the phone and dialed 911.
(c) Kelvin Christopher James.