by Kathy Conde
This kind of cold brought the focus close to the body. If Mel touched exposed metal with bare fingers, her skin would stick. If she breathed too deeply, her lungs would burn. If she didn’t keep moving, her toes would throb. She was alive, and it hurt.
The sky stretched out over Missoula like a sheet of blue ice. She stepped through the door of the Bitterroot Café and was hit by a current of warm air and the smells of brewed coffee and cinnamon. A group of men and women from the morning AA meeting were seated around a large circular table in the corner. Bart, a young guy in a studded leather jacket, was talking. They slid over to make room for Mel, and Bart continued his story.
“I heard old White Feather forked over his brand new Jeep. Gave it to a guy he didn’t even know.” Bart took a sip of coffee to give them time to digest that. His Adam’s apple bobbed up out of sight for a moment when he swallowed.
“What do you mean? Why would he give his Jeep to a guy he didn’t know?” Sonia said. She flung her hair back over her shoulder and squinted her dark eyes at Bart as if she might punch him in the face if he didn’t clarify things fast. Mel turned a coffee cup upright in its saucer. She understood Sonia, less than two weeks sober and still edgy.
“It’s a custom,” Bart said. “He’s from one of the plains tribes. When they lose someone they love, they give something away. His son was killed in a hunting accident.”
Mel’s mind went to the gore of the hunting accident, but she nudged it back to the conversation at the table.
“White Feather had his last dime in that Jeep,” Sonia said, still eyeing Bart. “It was worth more than the place he lives in.”
“Yeah, but according to the custom, the thing they give away has to be something they really care about, something they love,” Bart said. “And they have to give it to the one they see who needs it most.”
“Well, it’s too bad I wasn’t in his line of sight that day,” T said. T always said he lost his name along with his youth and everything he owned because of booze. He alternated between drinking and sobriety every few weeks. Every time he returned to the meetings, people just told him to keep coming back.
“I heard White Feather saw a guy walking down the street in a hunting jacket all patched up with duct-tape, and he pulled over to the curb, stopped the guy, and asked him if he had any use for a Jeep,” Bart said. “Took the title out and signed it over to him right there on the spot. Then walked back to the rez.”
“That’s over six miles.” Sonia dark eyes were darker.
Mel liked to be with people from the meetings, listening to their talk. They spent hours hanging on to coffee cups. She had lived here almost eight years but had never been in this café before AA. After a while, she got up to leave. Sonia slid out of the booth and said it was time for her to go, too. Sonia was tall, with long dark hair, and she might have been beautiful when she wasn’t racked with DTs. She walked out behind Mel.
“How you doing?” Mel turned and tried to sound casual, confident. “You okay?”
“Fine.” Sonia wasn’t there to make friends.
“It gets better.” Mel was only three months sober and could remember the razor edge of the first two weeks. She wanted to tell Sonia something wise, something useful she could remember in the worst moments, but nothing came. Sonia’s glare knocked her off balance.
Sonia hurried across the street. Mel’s car was an old Volvo hatchback and the door creaked from the cold when she opened it. To start it in freezing temperatures, she had to work the choke. The engine finally turned over. Her breath was a white cloud inside the car. The weather reporter on the radio said, “…a break from the freezing daytime temperatures. A change in the jet stream this afternoon will bring us a January thaw.”
Mel dragged herself from bed. Mornings were the worst part of getting sober—sludge in her veins. She’d had a nightmare about accidentally downing a bottle of Wild Turkey and suffering instant remorse instead of a high. The people at the meetings kept telling her she was going through a grieving time and it was perfectly normal; alcohol had been her best friend.
She stood up and the sludge went pouring down into her feet. She thumped her way into the kitchen and went straight for the coffee machine, her new best friend. She sat at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a daily inspiration book someone had given her at the last meeting. The reading for Sunday was about letting go. It talked about how once she made the decision to let go of alcohol, she had to let go of other things too, or she’d end up going back to the drinking.
The phone rang, and she picked it up on the first ring. “Charlie?”
“Irma?” It was the thin voice of an old woman. “Irma? Is that you?”
It took Mel a second. “No, wrong number.” She hung up the phone. She walked to the window and leaned on the sill. God, she was still hoping Charlie would call.
Charlie was her husband. He was about her height and had light brown hair like hers, but in every other way he was her opposite. He was prudent, planned ahead. He owned a small company that built kitchens. He knew how things fit into a house. He was financially secure, had relatives all over town. He must have seen her as a woman in need of him, her life a flooded kitchen that needed rebuilding, her relatives scattered from California to Wisconsin, no foundation. Or that was how it looked to her now that she was sober. To be fair, he really did want to help. Helping was his way of loving. But after seven years together, he stopped wanting to help—she wasn’t cooperating.
The last time they spoke she was hung over. The night before that, she had blacked out drinking Wild Turkey and beer at his sister’s wedding reception.
“Mel, you need to quit,” Charlie had said. “Last night was out of control.”
“Shh. Could you aim that over that way?” She steadied herself at the kitchen counter. Marble, Charlie’s doing. “My head.”
“You can’t stop.” He had never directly confronted her about drinking before, probably because he liked to drink too. But she had noticed that he never drank too much. In this way he was different from anyone she’d ever been with, and she had taken it as a sign that her life was turning around. That she was growing out of it. She held her own drinking in check. Until recently.
“I hardly ever drink.” She put her hand to her head. “Ouch.”
“But when you do, you tune out. Like you’re gone, and you just keep pouring it down.” He reached for her but she turned away.
“Let me get some coffee,” she said.
“This isn’t working for me, Mel. You could at least listen to me.” He shouted the last few words and she covered her ears. “After all I’ve done for you.” He left, slamming the door, and wouldn’t talk to her after that, even later when it was just the two of them in the house.
That was four months ago. After a week, she moved into a trailer in town and stocked the fridge with salami and cheese, eggs and beer. She did not buy Wild Turkey, proving, she thought, that of course she could stop. She called in sick and drank too much beer. It turned into a bender. She lost her job at the university bookstore and a baby she didn’t know she was carrying.
The cramping and bleeding didn’t surprise her at first. She had always had irregular periods, sometimes months between them. But the cramps got worse and then something plopped into the toilet. Through the haze of hangover, she stood and looked into the bloody water. She thought she detected the shape of a tiny red creature floating there. She didn’t know what to do. She reached to flush, pulled her hand back, then reached again, shut her eyes, and flushed the toilet. She closed the lid and sat down, her knees too weak to hold her up. That afternoon she dragged herself out of the trailer and into her first AA meeting.
Mel read the Sunday reading again. She decided to take a shower and go to the newcomer meeting. In the regular meetings, people who’d been sober for years told their drinking stories as if they were showing off trophies they’d won. But at the newcomer meetings, the hell of blackouts and hangovers and early morning gin was described in raw detail, and when she looked around the room at the puffy faces with red-rimmed eyes, she knew she wasn’t the only one going through this insanity.
Slogans were taped on the walls in the clubhouse. The meetings were filled with them. One Day at a Time. Easy Does It. Live and Let Live. They took on mystical powers in the context of the meetings, slogans that were small, bearable slaps in the face. She taped them on her fridge and bathroom mirror, wherever they would stick.
She turned on the shower, threw her clothes in the corner, and squeezed toothpaste onto a toothbrush. She felt the sharp bite of mint before it touched her tongue. Her senses had taken on an acuteness recently that called for a lighter body, a body that could jerk itself to attention instead of slogging through a two-second delay. She touched the toothbrush to her teeth. What she saw in the mirror was someone she was uncomfortable standing in front of naked.
She stepped out into the morning and onto a sheet of ice that covered the front steps. Yesterday’s sun had melted the snow to slush that froze again during the night. She skated on her rubber-soled boots out to the street where her car was parked. The right front tire was frozen in a solid lake of ice at the curb that almost reached the hubcap. She kept a crowbar behind the seat for times like this. She went around to the driver’s side and pulled hard at the door, expecting it to be frozen shut, but it opened easily. She never locked doors in winter. Locks froze in below-zero nights. She leaned into the car to get the crowbar and saw a hole where the stereo had been.
She looked in the glove box and found it empty. She tried to remember what had been there. A tire gauge, tissue paper, an old watch. Junk. A CD case was missing from the passenger seat. She looked up at the rearview mirror. The ivory pendant still hung there.
The pendant was her mother’s. It was large and round, with a running mustang etched into the ivory, its wild hair flying. It was part of Mel’s story that she was making up as she went—of her life with a mother as free as the mustang. She had taken it years earlier from her mother’s drawer cluttered with jewelry, makeup, pins, underwear, a letter opener that looked like a knife.
After her mother died, Mel kept the pendant on her rearview mirror. Its wild beauty flew before her wherever she went. Now she grabbed the silver chain, unwrapped it from the mirror, and clutched the pendant, squeezing it in her fist as if she were being dragged along behind the kid that had taken the things from her car.
After she couldn’t get her tire unstuck from the ice at the curb, she walked the mile and a half to the clubhouse. She got there just before noon, already a half hour into the meeting. She saw T at the coffee machine. He looked shrunken in his frayed suit coat, but he smiled and squeezed her hand. She found a seat in the back corner. She didn’t want to talk or be noticed. She rubbed the ivory pendant that now hung from her neck. The topic of the meeting was letting go. It usually was. She listened to people talking in turns about how hard it was for them to let go of grudges, of betrayals and abuses, of the drinking.
She looked around the room. There were a few new faces, and these people studied their coffee cups or the slogans on the walls, avoiding looking into anyone’s eyes. Sonia was sitting near the window, looking as if she might jump out of it. The first weeks sober were hard for everybody, but Sonia was in worse shape than most. Like Mel, she had refused to check into a treatment center. She said she’d already been that route several years earlier, and this time she was going to do it on her own.
Bart had the floor and was telling the story about White Feather again. When he finished, he said, “You know, that guy knew how to let go. I’ve got grudges against my ex, my folks, the cops. The old-timers keep telling me I have to let go of it all if I want to stay sober.” He looked around the room as if hoping to find a clue in one of the slogans. “Okay, but how?”
Mel refused a ride from Bart, saying she wanted to walk home, get some exercise. Bart would want to talk. She went out the front door of the clubhouse, a large wooden house probably a hundred years old. Outside was a huge maple tree, whose bare branches looked like a scaffolding for the sky. Charlie was standing under it stamping his Sorel Pacs on the frozen snow. He was wearing the bomber jacket she always thought looked so good on him. He had parked his pickup at the curb. The door was still open, as if he were ready to jump into the driver’s seat at any moment. He waved her over. She went toward him, looking down at the ground and concentrating on sliding her boots over the ice on the front walkway.
“Hi, Mel.” He crossed his arms in front of his chest.
“What do you want, Charlie?” She’d been aching to see him, to hear his voice, but now his smile was forced.
“Is that all you have to say to me?” His wounded look was familiar.
“Charlie, it’s been four months.” The sun was warming things up and made the ice all around look ridiculous. “You haven’t returned any of my calls.”
“I don’t want a scene.” He glanced at his boots and stamped them, punctuating his sentence. “Look, I’ve heard about what you’re doing, staying sober and all.”
“Three months tomorrow,” she said. The others in AA shared her enthusiasm for the monthly sobriety birthdays, but Charlie didn’t seem to. He dug his hands into his coat pockets. “Hey.” She reached out to touch his arm. “Everything will be okay. You’ll see.”
He took half a step away from her. “Mel…I don’t…” He looked up at the branches. “I want a divorce.” He sounded like he was ordering pizza.
“Oh.” She looked at him across the frozen air.
He stamped his feet again.
She stood still for a minute. The rusty smell of blood came into her nose from somewhere in the center of her head. “Look, I have to go.” She turned without looking at him, picking her way along the slick ice as if she were walking across a spider web where she might fall and get stuck.
As she walked, images of things she’d lost went running through her mind. The more she heard about letting go the more she hung on, and the more she hung on the faster things kept getting jerked from her grip.
And then there were the things that wouldn’t budge. Like the image of her mother, years ago but still vivid, lying on the road beside a mangled car. They had been on their way home from the principal’s office—Mel had been in trouble again—and they were arguing.
“That’s it.” Her mother was yelling, gripping the steering wheel. “You’re never going anywhere again. Ever.”
“I’m eighteen,” Mel had said, anger taking the place of her fear. “You can’t keep me locked in the house.”
“I don’t know what to do with you,” her mother screamed. “I can’t take this anymore.” She had already made the change, the one that came over her when she was in a rage. She was so mad she shook.
“Okay, okay,” Mel said, the fear coming back. “Come on, Mom. Hey. Come on.”
Her mother swerved into the lane of oncoming traffic. She was screaming, “I can’t take it anymore. I’m going to kill us both.”
That was where things went black. No memory until the image of her mother on the street, her limbs at strange angles. Blood pooling around her. That was where Mel was stuck, no chance, ever.
Mel never told anyone what happened inside her during the following months. The anger so intense it scared her. She felt robbed, not of something she had, but of the possibility for something she wanted more than anything else.
With every step, Mel picked up her pace, sliding her feet along the wet ice. The ivory pendant lay flat and solid between her breasts. She kept thinking about White Feather.
As she turned the corner at the Bitterroot Cafe, Sonia came out the door.
“Hey,” Mel said when they neared each other.
“What the…” Sonia jumped, startled, and glared at her.
“Sorry.” Mel held her hands up, palms out. “I thought you saw me.”
“Shit.” Sonia’s hands were trembling and her eyes were red.
Mel’s hands clenched into fists at her sides. She willed them to relax. She took the silver chain from her neck and held it out to Sonia. The mustang was caught in a pendulum swing between them. Vertical lines dug into the space between Sonia’s eyebrows.
“I wanted to give this to you,” Mel said.
Sonia took the pendant and mumbled something. She looked down at the etched mustang for a minute, then, shaking her head, she held the necklace out to Mel.
“Please keep it,” Mel said.
Sonia’s eyes were hard and shiny like the thawing ice. She let the necklace drop, and it slid into the storm drain at the side of the street. She stepped around Mel and walked away.
From the black cave of the storm drain came the roar of run-off cascading down to a whirlpool, water crashing and swirling like vengeance.
Mel was nauseated. She had been hoping to understand something, like someone back from a vision quest. But she didn't understand anything. It all hurt. She walked the mile and a half toward home, then passed her street, kept walking.
* * * * *
"January Thaw" first appeared in CutThroat: A Journal of the Arts.
Kathy Conde won the Crab Orchard Review Jack Dyer Fiction Prize 2014. She has also won prizes and scholarships from Salem International Literary Awards, Munster’s Seán Ó Faoláin Short Story Competition, and the Aspen Writers' Foundation. Her stories have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, CutThroat: A Journal of the Arts, Southword, Underground Voices, Word Riot, and others. She lives in Colorado with her husband and son. You can see more of her work at www.kathyconde.com.