A Voice Like Hot Apple Cider
To borrow from the holiday song, it was over the cliffs and through the cypress, and across a field, over a creek and through some ferns and groves – to Frosted Glass Man’s campsite we went. The walk, while long, offered certain pleasantries – like Frosty’s butt. He led, I followed, and had ample opportunity to conduct a survey of his contours and elevations. I eventually concluded that, while a bit on the lean side, Frosty’s rear end possessed certain aesthetic universals first reflected in the ancient Greek sculptures – what present-day motor magazines might call “sporty lines.” (Hessie, on the other hand, would simply cry out, “Nice shelf!” and laugh that witchy laugh.)
I found further sporty lines in an unexpected place – Frosty’s campsite, which was lorded over by a burgundy Nissan 300ZX two-seater with a hatchback and a T-top. Hardly the scratched-up, Deadhead-stickered VW bus I’d visualized. I noticed that the inside of the hatch was covered by a crocheted quilt of chocolate, blood and black hexagons. The outdoor pantry hutch was draped with a lovely earth-colored Russian silk wrap. Frosty nudged the wrap aside and asked if I’d like some Turkish coffee.
“Sure,” I said. “I’d also like world peace, but...”
He pulled out an elegant little pot, about six inches high, four across. It was sky blue with silver flecks and a long handle the shape of a dowel rod. He filled the pot from the campsite water tap, dropped in two tablespoons of sugar, then fired up a propane stove and set the pot atop the burner.
“I’m afraid all I have are leftovers,” he said. “Some dolmas that evaded consumption last night – you’d be surprised, by the way, how hard it is to find good grape leaves this close to wine country. I also have some couscous, and stuffed peppers – but you must be careful… I got a really spicy batch.”
He cultivated a smile that exploded into an evil-scientist laugh. I, meanwhile, was dumbfounded at the menu. Was he serious?
He raced to catch the pot, which was boiling over.
“The trick,” he said, “is in the timing. You catch it right as it boils, and then you pour out a cupful... into... whoops!” He turned back to the hutch and found two tiny cups, demitasse-size, the same burgundy as his car, with rims of gold. “Okay. So,” he continued. “Now you pour off a cupful, return the rest to the fire, put in zee hoy-tee, toy-tee caffe and a tiny... touch... of cardamom. Then wait for it all to boil back up.”
I felt like I was watching a cooking show on public television, thinking, my oh my, if this buckaroo can be this delicate and attentive to two little cups o’ coffee, what might he be like with other, more intimate matters? (Shiver, shiver.)
The pot wasted little time before it Fed-exed a brown froth to the top. Frosty lifted it back up, poured in the previously boiled water from the burgundy cup, then carefully doled out two modest servings of potent-looking brown sludge.
“Be careful,” he admonished. “It’ll knock your eyelashes off. And you’ll look pretty stupid, walking around with no eyelashes.”
I took a sip, savoring the bitterness as it squealed along my tongue, then crunched a few stray grounds between my teeth. Were I a dead battery, I’d have been fully recharged. Frosty grinned at my satisfaction. “The Turks… they like a little soil in their coffee. Which reminds me… when you’re done, save your grounds. Then I’ll perform some badass mojo voodoo for you.”
With that, he ducked into a small tent on the other side of the hutch to retrieve his “leftovers.” (I, meanwhile, was conducting some logical calculations, wondering how often he had to replenish the ice in his cooler.) He reemerged with three plastic storage containers, forked the contents into a shallow pan over the stove, threw in a sprinkling of water and covered it with a lid.
A few minutes later I was creeping up on the business end of a spicy red pepper as I examined Frosty’s crow’s feet in the dying light. Frosty noticed the growing darkness as well, interrupting his dolmas to light up a stout vanilla-scented candle. Once he’d cleared his plate, he took my empty coffee cup, swirled it around like bar dice and turned it upside-down on my saucer.
“We have to let it sit for a few minutes while the juices run down. But there’s something else we can do while we wait.”
That sounded like a line to me, but then Frosty scooted to the other end of the table, unzipped the bag of glass he’d collected that afternoon and spread the pieces on the table. He sorted through them like a dominoes player picking through tiles, then landed on a thin, heavily frosted piece of white that curled in and out like an early-budding leaf. He held it up to the candlelight and ran a finger over its smooth edges.
“This is from the neck of some exotic, oddly shaped juice bottle, maybe an Orangina. Its final possessor was a professional man, thirty-five, thirty-six years old. He was on vacation with his wife. She’s a few years younger… I’m thinking thirty-one, thirty-two.
“Now, due to certain deficiencies in one of their reproductive systems – his, I’m guessing, slow sperm, uninspired sperm, sperm without the right building permits – this couple has been through a torturous three-year pursuit of impregnation by any means. Our hero is a patient, genteel young man, carrier of a well-paid but powerless administrative job that has taught him the value of sacrificing one’s pride in the interest of peace. These qualities have certainly come in handy. But the clinically timed intercourse, the demanding textbook positions, the drugs that make his wife fat and cranky, all of these have been sliced and diced into a lovely Irish stew simmering away in his stomach. He doesn’t think these petty frustrations and vague irritations merit the attention of a priest, psychologist or even a close friend. So he keeps his crockpot tightly covered. And with each progressive rap on his psyche the stew continues to boil until it resembles a thick Tex-Mex chili.
“This vacation of theirs has come in the late spring – May, perhaps – right after their latest disappointment at the doctor’s office. His sperm have mistaken her latest egg for a large, gelatinous television set and have gathered around with their remote controls in hopes of finding a soft-core porn channel. Given the lack of little kiddies upon which to foist her disciplinary tendencies, his beautiful-but-cranky young wife has focused her attentions on him, unlatching his psychic suitcase and picking apart each sock, sweater and necktie. How can you eat those runny eggs? Do we really have to listen to the Eagles again? I hate this road; all these curves are making me nauseous. God, these pills make me look like a fat pig!
“But he knows that her suffering is far worse than his, and what’s more, he knows it’s all his fault, his sperm now dawdling at her fallopian tubes, passing around a joint as they listen to Pink Floyd records. And so he keeps his complaints to himself, and the chili boils higher and higher in his stomach until it becomes a torrid Cajun gumbo.
“The morning after their arrival he wakes up early, leaves her snoozing in their hotel room and takes his cayenne belly out for a walk along the cliffs. He pauses at the very center of the clifftop to open a bottle of Orangina and take a swallow, and when he looks out he finds a brilliant morning, the sea stretching for miles to a sharp, cloud-stitched horizon. This infuriates him. How can this bright, limitless world exist while his own universe is so narrow and dark? The irritation bites at his temple, clutches his eyes. When it gets too much he feels the weight of the bottle in his hand, takes a last swallow and hurls it over the cliffs. The bottle spells out a 50-foot arc and lands on the temple of a large boulder, sending out a starburst of splinters, sparking yellow in the morning light.
“This is a man who has always played by the rules, who has never done a destructive thing in his life, and yet the sound of those shards tinkling through the rocks is like a set of wind chimes constructed by the young Mozart. For just a few seconds he feels really, really good. And he goes back to his hotel room, and he kisses his wife awake. She smiles at him, and in the way that young wives say such things when they are pleasantly puzzled by their husbands’ affections, she says, ‘What?’
“And that is... from whence came... this piece of glass.”
Frosty took his curled leaf, touched it to his lips and placed it on the table between us. His story had left me pleasantly mute, an empty vessel. I contented myself by picking up his little icicle and angling its waterslide curves toward the candlelight. I imagined a bowlful of these, with milk, for breakfast. The story had the opposite effect on Frosty; between that and the Turkish coffee, his wheels were spinning mightily. He proceeded quickly to his next trick.
“Your grounds should be about ready,” he reported, lifting my cup and turning it upright. “They call this ‘reading one’s earth.’” He scratched his chin, then aimed his pinky at the white ceramic skin inside the cup. “This side you drank from – note the lipstick stains – this side represents you, and your family, and this delta running down from where you drank, very rich and strong, a veritable New Orleans of tributaries. So that’s good, but the rest, you see, a very solid line across the top, unnaturally straight, with only two small breaks.
“Let’s back up here. The side opposite your lipstick, that’s romance. This area near the handle, that’s finance and logic. Opposite the handle, that’s the life of the spirit. You’ll note that you have two tracks here, one next to finance, heading in a jagged diagonal line toward romance – suddenly cut off. The other is a fountain springing up from the bottom, a straight line on the border of romance and the spirit, but, once again, suddenly cut off. Two half-rivers, no completion, no arrival. You don’t appear to be going anywhere.”
He was getting much too close, and the air around me was beginning to feel thin. My body sprung into action to give my heart a worthy defense. I ruffled a hand into the pocket of my windbreaker, clutched a fistful of glass and spilled it onto my plate, like that guy with his voodoo bones in Moby Dick. A green piece the size of a quarter landed atop my last remaining dolma, and that was good enough. I picked it up and began spinning my tale.
“There was this teenage girl, a freshman in high school – smart as a whip, pretty, confident – and she fell in love with a senior boy. She became enraptured by him, thought that he was the answer to every question in algebra class, that his name was inscribed in the capillaries of each autumn leaf that fell in the quad. They spent a year together, became so comfortable with each other that they barely needed to talk. It was like they were there to fill each other’s spaces, to give each other shelter from the harsh climates of adolescence.
“Very suddenly, a month before graduation, the boy came to her and said, I’m going to be leaving for college in the fall, and you’ll be staying here for three more years, so I can’t be with you anymore. And he told her goodbye, kissed her sweetly, almost as if they would be seeing each other the next day. But he never came back, and then he graduated and was gone. It wasn’t until a month later that she began to comprehend the depth of her loss.
“Her parents went away on a week-long vacation. They left the girl alone in the house because they knew she was very responsible and she’d take care of things. Three nights after they left, loneliness emanated through their home like heat from a woodstove, and the girl amused herself with her father’s antique radio, the one with the glowing green lights and funny German words. While she was scanning the stations she happened on an old jazz tune sung by a woman with a voice like hot apple cider. The voice seemed to wander around on its own, wrapping around the melody like an old sweater. When she got to the part where the two lovers said goodbye, the girl heard the automatic sprinklers go on outside her house, and the faraway barking of a dog, and she could feel a hole growing inside her body, a sense of everything, all at once.
“The girl left the house and wandered around the block until she came to a liquor store. There she talked a young man into buying her a six-pack of malt liquor – the kind in the green wide-mouth bottles, the kind you buy when you want to get drunk quickly. She walked down to the beach, where she found an abandoned fire. She threw some fresh driftwood on it, and started drinking.
“After three bottles, she looked up to find the Milky Way streaming over the cliffs like a spray of foam, and it was there that she located her sadness. She pulled her sadness down on a tether, wrapped it around her shoulders and began to cry warm, comfortable tears. But it wasn’t for the love of the senior boy that she cried. It was because she had not really loved him at all. She had merely been excited by his nearness to adulthood, his growing confidence and deepening voice, his oncoming escape into the big, wide world. And she had really, really wanted to go to the senior prom.
“When she was done crying, the girl emptied the rest of her fourth bottle into the sand and tossed it into the fire. And then she cried again, but these were not comfortable tears. These were jagged tears, tears that hurt her eyes and burned her skin – and these were not for feeling, but for lack of feeling; for love that had no purpose.
“Not knowing about these things, she had failed to notice that the bottle had settled against a hot coal. After a while the bottle heated up and burst into a hundred pieces. The girl felt her heart stop, and then, as she caught her breath, she discovered that one of the shards had struck her forearm, leaving a pencil-thick line of blood. She found this strangely pleasing, and prayed that it would leave a small scar.”
I looked up very slowly, as if recovering from hypnosis, found Frosty’s small, attentive eyes across the table and lifted my green chip into the air between us. “This piece,” I said.
Frosty pounded the table and let fly a thunderous “Hah!” as if he had just witnessed the invention of the telephone. I smoothed out his smile with a raised hand and a meaningful stare.
“Frosty,” I said. “Would you... help me... feel something?”
Photo by MJV