Black Ice – Kenneth Robbins

Delna for Kenneth Robbins

Illustration by Delna Abraham

 

To Montgomery’s eye, it was a thing of beauty.  Mid-September and four inches of snow covered the grass, the sidewalks, the roads, causing the branches of the cottonwood trees to hang low.  The petunias in the planter outside his yellow Easter-egg house just south of campus were weighed-down by the snow’s girth. The mixture of the whitest white he had seen with the purple and yellow of the flowers urged him to call home and proclaim to his mother: “I’m looking at the most amazing thing in the world.”  He didn’t, though; he didn’t want to bother her. This is nothing, the locals said, not to themselves, but to the newcomer, the one not yet initiated into the brisk lifestyle of the high plains.

It was something, however, to Montgomery Boyd, the first snow that-didn’t-melt-once-on-the-ground he had ever seen.  Four inches.  That was extraordinary. And in September when summer wasn’t officially done.  Sure, in his growing up days, west of Atlanta, he had experienced snow flurries in January, but never an accumulation.  He had witnessed several ice storms in March that caused the oaks in the woods to creak and pop and snap, but such was expected in North Georgia where trees needed ice-pruning once or twice a decade.

But this, the soft and kindly snow, mostly water, filled him with validation; yes, this, the high plains was precisely where he was supposed to be.  He was thrilled with the adventure he was enjoying and that he was certain would be repeated daily in the months to come.

He visited the local TruValu and bought the cheapest snow shovel he could find, the only one he could afford.  Snow shovels, after all, were a luxury, not an essential, at least not to him at this point in time.  “You’re going to need a better grade shovel than this,” the employee-of-the-month at the hardware store told him.

“I wouldn’t know the difference,” he said.

“That right.”  The grin on the man’s face was one of spanking pleasure.  “This one won’t fit in the boot of your car. Won’t last till Thanksgiving, anyway, you betcha.”

“Boot of my car? What do you mean?”

“You’ll see.  Always have a good shovel and strong piece of rope in the boot. At least fifty feet of it.”

“Rope?”

“You’re a real tenderfoot, ain’t you.” And he laughed.

Montgomery didn’t need the shovel again until the second of October.  The blizzard which hit the small city on the banks of the Mouse River was the worst weather-related event Montgomery had ever seen—or cared to see again.  For the city on the banks of the Mouse, it was usual. The expected.  And not a problem in the least.

“Don’t worry, it’ll get cold soon,” he was told by several other professors at Minot State.

“Enjoy this kinda snow,” they said, referring to the wet accumulation of mid-September. “You won’t see it like this again till May.”

“Get you your tire chains,” they said. “You’re gonna need ‘em.”

Montgomery had been hired to teach Southern Literature, the topic of his doctoral dissertation from the University of Georgia, in a tenure-track position at the local university.  He was delighted to have an opportunity to do what he was best trained to do.  His one section of Southern Lit balanced by three other sections of basic composition was sufficient to keep him happy and content regardless of what the weather did outside his classroom.

The readings he assigned to his students were new to them.  They had heard of Faulkner, but then, who hasn’t?  It was McCullers, Percy, and especially O’Connor who opened their eyes to a world outside the high plains.  One young lady in particular, a natural blond of Norwegian stock named Christa Norquist, seemed to relish the works by southern authors.  She was intrigued enough to stay after class on a regular basis, asking questions about one thing or another.  After reading “Good Country People,” she was especially moved.  How could Hulga give her wooden leg away?  And what did the Bible Salesman need prosthesis for? Of what value could the article be to him?  It was the quirkiness of the literature, the characters and the world they inhabited that seemed to arouse her curiosity most.  And Montgomery was pleased for that was the very quality of the literature that intrigued him and kept him coming back for more. Yes, the world of his literature and the world outside his yellow Easter-egg house were as different as the earth and the moon.  One was inviting. The other?  Well, the jury was out at the moment, but from all indications, Montgomery was in for quite a ride his first semester of teaching.

There was this fellow, a graduation student in education, hoping to teach fifth grade math, that Montgomery played tennis with whenever the wind stopped blowing, which wasn’t often.  He, the future teacher, not Montgomery, went to classes wearing walking shorts and a cotton t-shirt.  He walked faster as the days grew colder. And he didn’t use the tunnels—they were for women and babies, he said.  One day in early October when the temperature hovered around 19 degrees Fahrenheit, Montgomery asked him, “Don’t you own a coat?”

And Rocky; his name was Rocky, named after the prize fighter, Montgomery supposed, said: “Sure.  Got a parka and everything, heavier than the one you’re wearing.”

“Don’t you get cold?”

“Naw.  This is nothing.  I’m just getting ready for what’s coming.  Tuffening up, so to speak.”

“Tuffening up.”

“Take my word for it, Cracker.  This is summer time temps.  You’ll see.”

“I can’t get warm.”

“Hah,” Rocky said and continued his brisk walk to the Administration Building while Montgomery turned to the tunnel connecting the student union with Old Main, the oldest building on the rather newish university campus.

The tunnels.  They were constructed to hold the heating and ventilation ductwork and to allow workmen to service water and other problems without having to dig up the lawns of the campus.  They were lit by incandescent lamps, hanging from the rough-hewn ceilings.  The lights didn’t necessarily work all the time, either, causing the tunnels to be a bit off-putting for someone like Montgomery who was unaccustomed to moiling his way underneath the earth’s crust. The newer tunnels were like strolling along windowless hallways.   But the old ones, the ones that connected his ancient building to the rest of the world—they were daunting.  He preferred the biting cold to the dreariness of the dank, dark, coffin-like, rat-infested, creature hideouts the tunnels represented.  It was during the October blizzard that Montgomery committed to using the tunnels.  In spite of the supposed rats and other critters, the tunnels were safer than being blinded by falling and blowing snow and tossed here and yon by ninety mile-an-hour winds.

It was during the trips down the dark passages that he felt conflicted over his choice to leave his comfortable home outside Atlanta and relocate to the bleakness of northern North Dakota.  It was the job that lured him.  The kids from the high plains deserved to learn about Faulkner and O’Connor, McCullers and Smith, and other writers of note who lived and wrote in warmer climes.  It, relocation, was his chance.  He had taken it without much hesitation, eager for the adventure of it all.

“You’re out of your pea-picking ever-loving mind,” his father had said.  If his father only knew the sound the wind made as it whipped around the brick corners of Old Main.  If he only knew the ache that breathing deeply refrigerated air could cause.  If he only knew the impact that the air made on the follicles of one’s nose, he might have used another phrase other than “pea-picking”.  And it was only October.  The first week in October.  Drifts of snow up to six feet.  Winds that turned caps and coats and britches and hoods into kites. Winter hadn’t even begun yet.  Exactly what would his father say now?

He heard voices, coming toward him from the direction of the student union.  He had been using the tunnels for almost two weeks, and he had not encountered anyone else up to this point. It was the blizzard, forcing the students underground.  He turned around, retracing his steps, walking as quickly as possible: he did not want his students to know that he was incapable of facing the weather head-on.  No, it would not be wise to lose face this early in the game. He was nearly breathless by the time he returned to the safety of Old Main and his academic office.  He didn’t need the cup of coffee the union promised.  He could wait until he went home to his yellow Easter-egg house to relax with the warm liquid restoring life in his frozen body.

Christa Norquist and several other students were waiting for him in the hall outside his office.  He greeted them pleasantly, hoping there was no tunnel aroma lingering in his clothing.

“Come on in, guys,” he said, and led the way into his cubicle of a room.  There were four of them and not enough chairs.  He chuckled as one of them whispered, “Cozy.”

“I adhere to Thoreau’s definition of culture,” he said, indicating first one, then the second, and finally the third chair.  “I have one chair for solitude, two for company, and three for society.  Unfortunately, my social order cannot count over the number three.  So, what can I do for you?”

It was Christa who spoke for the group.  “Professor Boyd, we have an organization of student writers called Exactor, and we publish a journal once a year, and we’re currently without a faculty advisor.”

“Will you do it,” one of the other students ejected.

“Howard, please, let me handle this? Thank you.” She turned back to Montgomery with a deep sigh, “Will you do it for us?”

“I’ve never been a faculty advisor before-”

“Nothing to it, sir.  Just let us put your name down on the SGA form and we’ll do the rest,” Howard said as Christa sighed again.

“When are your meetings?” he asked.

Another of the students burst in, “We don’t know yet.”

Christa corrected him with “We haven’t made that decision.  We’ll work around your schedule, if that’s okay with you.  I have a copy of last year’s Exactor if you like.” She placed the slender volume on the edge of his desk.

“Sure, why not.  Sounds like fun.”

“Thank you, Professor Boyd.  Thank you.”

They filed out of his office, one at a time, leaving Christa a moment with him alone.  She smiled and said, “Thank you, really.  This means a lot to us.”

“My pleasure.”

And she was gone.  That look in her eye, the silent communication, the matter of connection.  He contemplated this young woman for a moment now that he was by himself.  Obviously she was getting a crush on him.  And he felt a bit of warmth oozing into his skin.  He smiled.  School girl crushes were natural things, weren’t they?  The same the world over.  He was silently pleased to discover that such things were possible even here in the frigid high plains.

Chinooks are wonderful things.  Indian Summers, they call them on the high plains.  Suddenly and without logic, temperatures influenced by southern breezes rise, moving from subzero readings to mid forties and some of the snow and accumulated ice begins to form puddles on sidewalks, roads, driveways, and outside Montgomery’s picture window.

“Hate Chinooks,” a fellow teacher said to Montgomery as they strolled to class, the first time in four weeks that gloves were left inside coat pockets and parkas remained unzipped.

“I think they’re great!” Montgomery said, finding personal comfort in warm southerly winds rather than hunkering in the face of northerly blasts.

“Yeah, that’s because you don’t know squat about anything important.”

“What’s to know?  It’s beautiful outside.  Forty-five degrees and I’m going swimming!”

Montgomery’s colleague merely sneered and shook his head at the southerner’s total ignorance.

“Okay,” Montgomery said, “what am I missing?”

“Black ice,” he said and moved on, avoiding a large collection of melt in the middle of the sidewalk.

“What’s black ice?” Montgomery called after him.

“Ice that’s black!” and he was gone.

Montgomery’s first Chinook lasted less than eight hours.  It was followed by what the weatherman on the local television station called “an inversion.”  Temperatures dropped drastically, plunging the world outside from forty-five above to twenty-two below in less than half an hour.  Yet, the sun still shown and the sky glistened with frozen water crystals.  Except to go out-of-doors was to enter a world of excruciating pain.  With the inversion came students who entered class with knees cracked open from the cold.  The first few minutes of each class meeting had to be given to students clearing their nostrils of accumulated frozen mucus.  Inversions made explaining Tennessee Williams’ characters a bit more complicated.

And as predicted, the melted snow refroze into solid chunks of ice that turned sidewalks and roads and especially intersections into treacherous skating rinks. The more the segments here trod upon, the darker they became.  Black ice.  Montgomery slipped several times, once falling gracelessly on his rear end.  Part of his initiation, he was told.  Just how many initiations are there, he asked a friend.  “Oh, don’t worry.  You’ll find out,” was the snarky reply.

 

Montgomery learned quickly to appreciate a cloud cover.  Somehow, clouds hovering overhead seemed to hold the earth’s warmth whereas clear skies held nothing except penetrating cold.

He also came to dislike tears.  They caused his eyelids to freeze together.  And glasses worn out-of-doors were a hazard.  They tended to become overwhelmed by frost the second one stepped from a warm building into the frozen world.

The same was true of the windows of his automobile.  Once, during the Chinook, his windshield was splashed with mud from a passing car.  He, without considering his actions, switched on his windshield wipers with an accompanying spray of cleaner.  The wipers froze halfway through their swipe and were still frozen in place until defrosting could be arranged inside the closed garage.  He wouldn’t make that mistake again, he promised himself.  Another check-mark on his growing list of things not to do again.

 

Speaking of his car.  A Ford Colt, bought from a used car dealer in Atlanta.  When the salesman learned that his client was moving to the high plains, he grinned and said “This car’ll do you great, once you get her winterized.  No better car on the road than the Colt.”

Winterized.  The local Ford dealership in the city on the Mouse took care of him and tried to sell him chains for his tires.  He couldn’t afford such an extravagance.  But he did have a head-bolt heater installed.  That was essential, he was told, and he was learning to trust the locals with whatever they claimed to be true.  He found the head bolt heater a source of humor each time he saw the three-pronged electrical plug dangling out of his Colt’s front grill.  He had to remember to plug the contraption into his garage outlet when he came home from work.  Otherwise, he would be walking to campus, and that was something he did not want to do.  He fantasized about telling his mother that among his nightly tasks was plugging in his automobile.  She would say, “Oh, Montgomery, you got yourself an electric car?” And he would say, “No, Mama, it’s a head bolt heater.”  And she would say, “Well, you just make sure you got them bolts fastened good and tight.  We don’t want you having any trouble come Christmas when you drive home. You hear?”

Each time he envisioned his Ford Colt  parked in his parent’s driveway with the head bolt heater plug swinging in the breeze, he fancied himself telling neighbors that he was getting eighty-five miles to the kilowatt.  You betcha.

 

“Is there a book on how to survive winters up here?” he asked the college librarian, Freida Manfred, a husky woman of indeterminable age.

“You’re kidding, right?” was the answer he received.

“Actually, no, I’m not.”

“People been surviving up here for thousands of years. What makes you think you’re not gonna make it?”

“It’s just so damn. . .”

“Cold? Ain’t it great?  You know, I visited a cousin of mine in New Orleans. August.  I guess it was about as awful a place as I’ve ever been.  Hell couldn’t be much hotter.  You take it from me.  It’s easier to dress warm than it is to dress cool.  Up here, there’s no limit to the amount of clothing you can put on. Down there? There’s definitely a limit to how much clothing you can take off.  Give me the high plains any day. No place better on God’s green earth.”

“White earth.”

“Beg pardon?”

“Nothing’s green.  Everything’s white.  Been white for months already.”

“Not completely white.  Bit of advice: don’t be eating any yeller snow.   You follow that rule and you’ll be just fine.”

 

December 15, last day of classes.  And the final exams graded and the last critical analysis of As I Lay Dying besmeared with red ink.  He took a deep breath: life was good.

Christa Norquist once again stayed for a moment after the final class session.

“Professor Boyd,” she said, not at all timid the way the girls back home would have been.  “Thank you for your assistance with Exactor this semester.  We appreciate your input.”

“I don’t recall having much to say, but thank you.”

“Several of us have been wondering if you’re familiar with the literature of the great plains.  Naturally, you know all there is to know about Southern lit.”

“I could only wish.”

“Are you familiar with Willa Cather?”

“Some.”

“And O. E. Rolvaag?”

“Heard the name, naturally.  Not read his work, though.  I hear he’s supposed to be pretty good.”

“Here,” she said, placing a neatly wrapped book in his hands.  “Christmas gift, happy reading.”

“Wow,” he said.  “I don’t know what to say.”

“I’d like to visit with you next semester if that’s okay.  Talk about Rolvaag.  Do you think that would be okay?”

“Absolutely.  I’ll look forward to it.” He unwrapped the book and felt a tingle of shock flush up his spine.  A first edition of Giants in the Earth.  Inscribed inside the front cover, written in red ink, “Merry Christmas from one lover of literature to another, Christa.”  “I don’t know what to say,” he stuttered.

“I’ve enrolled in your Advanced Grammar class next semester.  I hope that’s all right.”

“Of course it is.  Why wouldn’t it be?”

“I guess because I took Advanced Grammar last year under Dr. Pollard.  I’ll just be auditing your section, if that’s okay with you.”

“Glad to have you.  Are you going home for Christmas?”

“Naturally.  My parents wouldn’t have a Christmas turkey if I wasn’t there to cook it for them.” She giggled.  “That’s my way of saying I’m a good cook, I guess.”

“Well, travel safely, and see you next year.”

“Merry Christmas,” she said and kissed him lightly on the cheek.  “Thank you, for Flannery O’Connor,” and she was gone, like a whisp.

He tucked Giants in the Earth into his arm pit as he stuffed his backpack for the final time that term.

His wall phone in the kitchen of his yellow Easter-egg house rang.  “Mother,” he said, “you’re not supposed to call me—it’s too expensive.”

 

December 17, he was packed and on the road to Jamestown, Valley City, Fargo, Minneapolis, Madison, Chicago, Louisville, Memphis, Chattanooga, then Atlanta, and home.  He was anxious to enjoy one of his mother’s fried apple pies, her Christmas specialty.  And of course Christmas wouldn’t be complete without a squirrel hunt with his dad, a night of caroling with his sister, and midnight mass on Christmas Eve with the whole family.  So much ahead, so many things to brighten his holiday season, and so much whiteness all around him, in every direction, even over the road.  To think: if he spent the holidays in the city on the Mouse, he would experience his first “White Christmas.”  But where was the joy in that—Christmas alone?  No, Christmas was a time for family and personal traditions.  And this Christmas would be the best ever.  For the first time, he was fully employed.  And the special gifts for everyone carefully stowed in the boot of his car were tokens of his new found and appreciated fiscal freedom.

The copy of Giants in the Earth lay on the passenger seat.  He planned to read it whenever he stopped for meals or for overnights along the way.  He had started the first few chapters and was already hooked by the Norwegian immigrants and their difficulties.  Perhaps, this was the book of survival he had been looking for.

As he left the city limit, he noticed the ominous sign, painted yellow with black lettering: “Next services 90 mi.”  He glanced behind him to see what kind of services he was leaving—a small shanty with a single gas pump sitting on top of the frozen tundra.  Wow, he thought.  This is a different planet for certain. But he checked his gas gauge just to be sure.

 

There must be a name for the whispers of blowing snow that criss-cross the highway.  Montgomery named them “whisps.” He would tell his mother about the way “whisps” swish this way or that, blown by the blustery winds and are dissipated quickly but only momentarily by the rush of the auto’s tires.

It was semi-warm inside the Colt’s cab as the heater struggled as best it could to quell the frozen world.  His feet were without feeling already and he was hardly out of sight of the city.  Perhaps he should have worn double socks.  Was that another mistake?  Maybe he should wrap his feet in a blanket. But then, how would he manage the various petals? Grin and bear it, for after all, he was on his way to far warmer climes.

The two-lane highway was empty.  Snow banks on both sides of the road and beyond them the roiling sweep of the high plains and not much else.  One could be lulled into a stupor by such terrain.  No living thing except for himself inside his Ford cocoon.  Off in the distance he could see a lonely farmhouse, framed by the layers of bushes and trees, planted to give the north wind an excuse to shuttle its full power up and over the roof top.  It takes a special kind of human being, Montgomery thought, to survive in such an unforgiving landscape.  Yet, he knew, the land in and around the farm was some of the most fertile in the world.  In fact, the farmer who occupied that distant domicile was probably one of the richest persons in the entire state.

A special kind of human being.  That’s what he was, a special person, fully capable of surviving with the best of them.  He felt exhilarated, having been tested and proving himself up to the challenge.

He was a third of the way to Jamestown before he passed his first vehicle.

The second came forty five minutes later.  It was an eighteen wheeler, most likely lugging grain and/or grain products to the southern cities.  It trucked along at a constant pace of fifty miles an hour and Montgomery found himself and his Colt stymied and being pelted by the pellets of snow and ice that the truck dislodged.  It was as if he were driving through a blizzard, the cloud of debris being thick, impenetrable, and irritating.  No other vehicles anywhere around them and the trucker refused to pull to the side and let Montgomery pass. Or perhaps he did not know that the Colt was there.

So little traffic and such flat terrain, surely it was safe to go around the truck and speedily be on his way.  He edged across the white line: nothing ahead except more of the same: black ribbon of highway banked by snow and ice.  He pulled with confidence into the left lane and pressed the accelerator to the floor.  The Colt responded sluggishly and Montgomery was inching clear of the truck’s cloud of snow and ice.  It was then that he spied the darkness of the pavement.  It appeared glossy, like well oiled linoleum.  He had begun his pass approaching the edge of an intersection: a farmer’s access road met and crossed the highway at this precise spot.

The blackness, the sheen, the oily linoleum: black ice.

The front wheels hit it first and then the rear.  The Colt lost traction and slipped precariously near the mid section of the eighteen wheeler.  Montgomery, in a sudden panic, saw this tiny automobile of his sliding into and under the truck’s massive wheels.  He had a brief vision of his car being pancaked with himself still inside it. And here, in the middle of the most desolate section of the high plains.

He turned his steering wheel sharply to the left.  Too sharply.  The Colt was suddenly no longer a Ford automobile.  Instead it was a careening missile, spinning like a child’s top off the iced pavement and into the ditch, carefully camouflaged as a soft and cushiony snow bank.  That hid the culvert.  Which the Colt found. With full, metal-bending, crunching force.

The eighteen wheeler continued on its way south toward Jamestown, either not seeing or not caring.  Either way, it continued south, spewing its cloud of snow and ice.

The Colt damaged the snow bank inside the ditch for a mere moment or two before all traces of the vehicle and its special human being were gone, the high plains oblivious, not seeing, not caring.

 

Kenneth Robbins is the author of four published novels and 22 published plays as well as numerous essays, stories, and memoirs. He co-edited 4 collections of literary works dealing with Christmas along with his wife.  He currently teaches writing at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, LA, USA.

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