Fear, Freezing (Lake Celeste II)
I was almost elated to discover the pipes had frozen, just as I was almost elated the moment I realized I was in a car crash or the time I thought the cop who had pulled me over would bust me. The thing I had been warned about and imagined and feared was finally happening. Experience was freeing me from worry with disaster.
My grandmother waited forty winters for these very pipes to freeze. She always warned about how easily it could happen, how the plumbing could betray. The pipes had to be drained and the water shut off before the first frost. The ancient, toothless German plumber had to be called to come and do it. But a prospective buyer wanted to check the faucets, and so the water was left on and so here they are, as promised, the frozen pipes, burst and spurting into the subzero night.
I started coming up to the country house again when my grandparents stopped, to get out of the city and be alone. The house was on the market but the market had tanked. As long as the house didn’t sell I could come up whenever I wanted and skulk around its purgatory, neither its owner nor its rightful heir. For the better part of three years I was a struggling young writer with a country house.
It was an innocuous enough midcentury bungalow barely an hour from New York City, but surprisingly remote. It sat at the end of a long dirt road, down a rotting set of stairs, overlooking a small lake and surrounded by trees.
The house had a basement, and the basement had cavernous depths. To unlock the door to the upstairs, you had to first take the key from under the mat outside the basement door, then unlock the basement and reach into the low beams overhead for the key on the rusted nail.
“Why is that basement so particularly scary?” I wondered to my brother once.
“Basement monster,” he answered definitively. “Basement monster lives in there.”
After finding the key and dashing up the stairs, I’d go through the house turning on all the lights, opening the doors to the two musty bedrooms, reaching into cabinets hoping for another overlooked bottle of Dom Perignon but finding only paper plates and Progresso cans. Outside, in the winter wind, dry leaves swirled, screens rattled, doors banged, branches tapped, hinges rasped and the dark night fell as it had for centuries on dense woods that harbored weird stone sheds, rusting machinery, mossy tombstones, spooky stuff.
My grandmother marveled that I came up here by myself. She said she could never have done it, even if she’d wanted to, because she would have been be too scared to sleep in the house alone. Then a married friend came up for the day and remarked that she, too, thought that the house was much too scary a place to sleep alone.
I wondered if I’d learned to sleep alone in scary places because I did not always have a man to keep me company, or if I did not always have a man to keep me company because I was not compelled by necessity to have one to avoid sleeping in scary places alone. I wondered if this had been the right path, the one that led me down this dark dirt road to this lonely old house, to face its silent nights, scary noises, frosts and floods–alone.
My punk rock hero and confidant has his own advice column in which he addresses the worries of teenaged punks. A brokenhearted once kid wrote in to ask him what was the point of love and relationships, since they could cause so much trouble and pain. “Why bother?” he asked.
To which my punk rock hero and confidant replied, “To form a united front against the cold bulwark of each lonely night.”
The very last time I go to the house, on the very last weekend of the decade, I arrive via L train under the East River, 4 train up the East Side, Metro-North train up the Hudson and twenty-five dollar taxi ride down the dirt road.
There is a hidden turn barely visible between the trees, and then I have to coax the driver up the steep hill to the house. The dirt road noses up over the hill and drops into a little parking lot overlooking the lake and it is here at the end of the road where I get left alone.
Taxi drivers usually complain about the dirt road. But this time, I have a Rastafarian taxi driver. He doesn’t say a word until we get to the end.
Then he says, “This is the boonies.” The Rastafarian taxi driver drives off, chuckling. “Enjoy the boonies.”
Now the wind whistles on the frozen lake. The house creaks and I could be scared of the noises but being alone in a creaky house surrounded by darkness has taught me something about fear.
Fear, I have learned, is a choice. I hear the noises and the dark shadow rises up, implying all the psycho-killers and mythic demons, those movies I’ve only seen in preview, with the people in the masks. The taxi slips off into the night and I am all alone in this empty house, and maybe the people in the house across the field are there and maybe they are not, and maybe someone would hear me if I screamed but in all likelihood they would not, and the telephone is disconnected and my cell phone only has one flickering bar of reception only about half the time, and I could be scared of the noises, or I could be scared to sleep alone, but then I could not go wherever I want to whenever I want to and do whatever I want.
So I hear a creak or a thud or a whistle of wind and I jump and I think “What was that?” and I allow myself to imagine all the worst things, the man with the knife and the people in the masks. I wait for them to appear and when they don’t I remind myself that the sound, while it inspires the thought of the man with the knife, does not conjure the man with the knife. Over time, I make a conscious decision not to fear the sound that causes me to imagine the man with the knife, only, should he ever even bother to appear, the man with knife.
Though the house was winterized, we rarely came up here in the winter, only a few times. Once we came up and the lake was frozen and it was lightly snowing. My dad took a wide broom and swept a clean oval for us to skate on and we all skated together, first in the path he cleared and then all over the lake. I’d never skated anywhere before but a crowded indoor rink. The sky and snow were the same gray-white and the ice he cleared was a translucent silver. Our skate blades carved curves and I raced my brother from one end of the lake to the other and we kept skating even when it got dark. My mom’s coat that winter was pale green and her scarf was red with yellow stripes and we were all very fast and good skaters.
Now the lake is frozen again and the pipes are frozen for the first time, because just once, just once, the water was left on. It was only once! It was one of those moments that proved that once was enough.
Until I see the water streaming from the bathroom ceiling where the pipe has exploded I never make the connection between the pipes in the house and the plumbing, as it is sometimes crudely called, inside human beings, and my grandmother’s obsession with the calamities of plumbing in bodies and houses alike. She was always warning me about the pipes freezing and about getting knocked up, how it could just happen, it could just happen.
I shut off the valve that sends the water to the downstairs bathroom and start mopping it up before it can freeze on the floor. It is so cold that the water in the toilet has frozen solid. I find this oddly comforting. I have spent the whole week slogging through a New Yorker article about the effects of disappearing Antarctic glaciers on penguins and here is a bathroom full of ice. There is very little logical connection between a frozen toilet in upstate New York and pieces of glaciers the size of Connecticut slipping into polar seas, but the sight of the ice gives me hope. It hasn’t all melted! It’s not over yet!
The ancient, toothless German plumber who put the plumbing in this house when it was built forty years ago, who comes each winter to shut off the water so the pipes he himself plumbed do not burst, whose phone number is not penciled on a scrap of paper but inked in the long-disintegrated vinyl address book, whose name I have heard but whose face I have never seen–he is the only one to call.
“Call Mr. Piehler,” comes the word from civilization. My grandmother, now recently and finally widowed and deteriorating rapidly, is judged too frail for this information. After forty years of vigilant watch the very disaster she predicted, warned about, feared and tried to prevent is upon us. From my millenial telephone that is also a camera, a stereo and a handheld computer, I call a phone with wires. A voice answers, heavily accented, from the depths of the twentieth century.
The man who comes the next day is extremely short, weathered, stubby and strong. With excruciating slowness he kneels before the toilet, cracks the ice with his fingers. I recoil, then think of the fluids, the sewage a plumber as old as this one must have touched in the course of his working life. He gestures at the pipes and fixtures and tiles and plaster he’ll have to pry away and replace. “Same color,” he creaks, “maybe not perfect match, but behind the toilet, no one sees.” I agree to everything as if I am paying the bill.
And so for the next two days, I am no longer alone in the house. There is not a monster or a demon or a cretin downstairs, but a little gnome, kind and friendly, in blue coveralls, declining my offers of tea.
On New Year’s Eve I awaken at dawn and sit straight up to look out at the trees and moon. I fall back on the pillow and when I wake up again a lot of snow has fallen in just a few hours, maybe a foot. I meant to leave early to go back to the city but the taxi won’t come pick me up and I hear many trains whistle by while I wait for the snow to stop falling. I go over to the neighbors’ house to ask about a ride but when the mother of the family answers the door she says, “Do you want to go skating?” and holds out a brand-new pair of Christmas-gift ice skates and I forget about the ride and take the skates down to the lake.
I put on the skates and stand up, holding on to a tree. I take one step and I am going so fast.
I skate and skate and skate until I’ve made tracks all around the lake. My tracks are the only tracks and this empty white expanse of ice and snow all my own feels like the greatest gift.
I perform a New Year’s Eve ritual. I tell myself the story of the decade, one revolution of the ice per revolution of the sun. I skate around naming the events, personal and global, of each year. I time it so that each time I come around the apogee of my orbit it is June, and as I whiz past the tree where I started a new year begins.
In the midst of my decade revolutions I hear the ice poinging and boinging, creaking and groaning. It booms. It makes synthesizer theramin sounds. Is this normal? Or is it going to crack or break? If I fell in, could I swim, with my clothes and skates on, or would I quickly go numb and under?
I don’t care. If the ice swallows me right now I will die happy. I will glide out of existence while it is still 2009, on the 3652nd and last day of the decade, and be literally frozen here, never knowing the tens, the teens. I will slip free of time and my last moments will be fearless ones.