William Anthony Connolly
Altoids and Cigarettes
At first, I wasn't sure of myself, so I followed her for a few blocks. I watch her. She's popping Altoids, smoking Camels when I see her in the reflection of the shop window. For a moment it is all smoke, billowing up from a nearby heating vent, so I am still unsure. Then there's this double reflection when a truck of mirrors goes down the Garment District street bouncing the sun crazily off the building. Nevertheless, it's her, I finally see, crossing the road. It has been years since I'd been this close to her. I'd seen her picture all over the place: Mademoiselle, Elle, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Calvin Klein, Prada. I read about her salary, her jet set lovers. I couldn't quite place Molly my athletic high school science partner with the nouveau riche. I kept trying to see it, but the girl in science class who wanted to be a dancer kept pirouetting through. She came back as a boxy ballerina; the one I once said was too fat. I called out her name, but she didn't turn. I followed her for a few more blocks, through the maddening New York mass. She dodged them like a pro, slipping through like a sylph. When I get closer, I almost do not recognize her she is so thin. In some pictures, I can see Molly; in others, it's the lighting, but I don't see her at all now. Over the years, she changed. I'd read somewhere that models are big smokers. They smoke to avoid eating. Then with all that bad cigarette-breath they pop Altoids. It's all Altoids and cigarettes when I finally get up near her. She is standing on the street corner, a cigarette smoldering and wedged in the side of her face. Her hair is down over her eyes. She is trying to open the tin in her hands, but she can't. Finally, as I arrive, as I am saying, Hello, she pries the tin lid off and mints burst and scatter, a rain of white dots on the ground. I say, Hello, again and smile but I startle her; Molly flinches. She crouches and gathers up her mints in a hurry and I stoop to help her. The truck of mirrors casts the moment in sinewy strands of hazy light. Briefly-it is a trick of the light, I know-I can see right through her and see myself in the windowpane, panting, my nostrils flared, my forehead damp. She says haughtily, I thought it was you.
Every other year an envelope arrives in the mail. Inside there is a single note with no author named and no one addressed. The note reads: Do you hear the ice cracking?
They would gather at the bridge in the morning, before the sun rose. It would always be in deep fall, when the temperature is cold enough to freeze water, but the snow has not yet fallen. They would sit under the bridge and lace up with ice skates.
The ice on the lake at that time of year is thin, but pristine. The sound it makes when the steel blades slice into it is magical. There is little friction and skaters glide effortlessly, smoothly.
For days they would watch the weather, read the thermometer, just to be sure. They would scan the sky, read the papers, and listen intently to the radio. They would finally agree on a day.
The skate was over a mile long from one bank to another. Starting off was crucial. For a moment there in the dark, their breath hanging in the air in front of their faces, they would stand in silence.
As soon as the skates hit the ice, the ice begins to crack. They must be fast and cannot hesitate. They pump their arms, their legs scissor back and forth quickly. Their lungs grow cold. They cannot stop. It is all ahead.
Mostly they skate hard and fast, without looking back and without speaking. They are all listening.
As the dawn begins to thaw into daylight, and the bank comes into view they begin to glide, turning to see what is coming for them. Only then with strides left in the annual race do they breathlessly ask: Do you hear the ice cracking?
People noticed a change in them. They were quietly confident. They kept to themselves. The three boys never told anyone about it. Years have gone by and they no longer live in the same small town with the lake that freezes over in the winter. But every once in a while an envelope comes in the mail one of them thinks to send. They open it slowly and withdraw the single note. Their lungs grow cold, and they listen.
Her son is in the hospital fed medicine intravenously. He is a child, perhaps under five, suffering and could die. She talks about playing with her son, helping him down the cold, hospital hallway with Mr. Drippy-a transparent, umbilical cord connected to a tall uncle of glass and steel. That is what sustains him and that is what she calls it. When she is asked. It is other things. To talk about it, she wants to describe it in the poetry of other things. Her son becomes a sestina, artifice. To find her words, she goes to the library. She calls it Vermont. She says it is sapping. She recalls maple trees. It is sweet. Her son chokes on syrup in his sleep. She tells him to swallow, slowly; the sestina is incomplete.