Claudia and Brody never questioned their baby’s hideous deformity, presumably because they had concluded it was the direct result of Brody’s punch. I, however, knew that it bore all of the characteristics of a needle injury suffered during a botched amniocentesis. Proving myself, once again in my life, to be a profound moral cripple, I kept quiet and let Brody bear the crushing anguish over something he almost certainly was not responsible for.
I deflected my guilt by allowing myself to indulge too often in ‘The Harlot’s Bed’ and aggravated it by allowing Marylyn to indulge too often in mine. Adding to my misery, it was not long before the holiday season arrived, a time of year I had despised most of my life for its wretched excess and absurd pretense of “peace on Earth and goodwill toward men”. Domestic violence in Herring’s Jaw, like everywhere else in the country, spiked over the holidays and I treated more patients for depression and anxiety over this period than at any other time of the year. It was no small wonder given the psychological toll of attempting to cope with a crushing tidal wave of artificial gaiety, forced family and social obligations and dizzying levels of financial debt as savings evaporated only to pay for unnecessary orgies of food and alcohol and avalanches of expensive gifts, the vast majority of which would be discarded or go unused within a few weeks. For myself, the same tired carols bleated out over the PA systems year after year in the department store, grocery store, drug store and shopping mall were provocation enough to make me want to set fire to the tacky, plastic nativity scenes and other obnoxious decorations – most made by the desperately poor toiling away in Chinese manufacturing plants using heavy metals and toxic compounds – erected in the front yards of the oblivious and careless.
One Saturday morning, the day before Christmas Eve, I stood out on the end of my dock in snow shoes after a long hike in the woods with Ben, his happy face a shaggy mess of ice crystals glinting in the sun. The lake was still freezing over and a fog of condensing water snaked up from the middle of its surface like a giant witch’s cauldron slowly coming to a boil. As I realized that I desperately needed coffee, a deep rumbling sound reverberated across the lake as if some kind of colossus was angrily stamping its way across the opposite shore, almost 2 kilometers away. Ben cocked his head, listening intently, as I reached for my binoculars. Before I could lift them to my face, there was a series of thudding explosions and fireballs leapt skyward from the tree-line with such violence it was reminiscent of napalm strikes depicted in Hollywood Vietnam movies. Two long tongues of chunky, orange fluid rapidly flowed out onto the surface of the lake as if oozing from the depths of a sleeping dragon’s nostrils. Moments later, a shock wave of hot air knocked Ben and I back, almost off our feet. Panic-stricken, we turned and fled for cover in the house.
Several hours later, I was sitting in ‘The Harlot’s Bed’ with a gang of grim-faced men glued to the TV screen. It had not been a meteor as I had suspected. Rather, an unattended 74-car freight train had broken free from its moorings, run away and derailed at high speed on a curve close to the lakeshore. Of the 74 cars, 72 had been fully loaded with 113,000 liters of petroleum crude oil, most of which had exploded upon impact with the equivalent destructive force of 1,000 tons of TNT. A blanket of oil had generated a wall of fire, 30 meters high, over a 1 square kilometer blast radius. Two large rivers of oil continued burning into the lake and the fires were not expected to be extinguished for days to come. “A tragic environmental catastrophe for the region,” intoned the TV commentator as helicopters circled the devastated area and camera crews zoomed in on oil-coated birds and other wildlife slithering around wide-eyed and helpless. My friend, John Gallagher, who had spent his entire life in Herring’s Jaw, drained his glass of Jameson, wiped his gray beard with nicotine-stained fingers and muttered “paradise lost, gentlemen.” I thought of Leah and how traumatized she would be by this and it was all I could do not to burst into tears.
The next night, Christmas Eve, Marylyn came by unannounced, as was her custom. When I flung open the front door irritably, I was dismayed to see her clad in a naughty elf costume.
“Oh, God,” I sighed.
“Now don’t be like that, Mister Scrooge,” she said, pushing me aside and strutting through the vestibule. “It’s Christmas Eve and you’re going to have fun with me, like it or not. We’re going to string popcorn! Here, now put this on,” she said, getting up on her tip-toes and jamming an ill-fitting Santa’s hat on my head.
“I brought some antlers for Ben too.”
“Yes!” she pipped as she began attaching the ridiculous head gear to Ben who was innocently minding his own business in his easy chair. He looked askance at me as if to say please get her out of here.
An hour later, we were stringing popcorn in front of the fire. Ben wandered around, aimlessly, crashing into things with his antlers and shaking his head. “You know,” I said, “torturing me is one thing but have you ever heard of cruelty to animals? Can I please liberate my dog from your whims?”
“No,” she said firmly. “He looks cute. You do too!”
“What’s up with the popcorn, anyway?” I asked resignedly.
“When I was a little girl, after my mother died, Daddy and I strung popcorn together when we needed to feel better.”
“I’m not your Daddy,” I said darkly.
“No, but you’re old enough you almost could be!” she said, laughing with a mischievous wink.
“Leah’s haunting me,” I blurted out, surprising myself.
“Every time you leave, I hear her door close upstairs. Ben hears it too. She’s still here and she’s mad at me. I’m mad at me. So many things… I wonder how Claudia and Brody are doing tonight…”
“Baby,” she said, as she put down her string of popcorn and plunked herself into my lap. “You’re grieving. You’re hurting. It’s just your imagination.”
“Ben hears it too!” I protested.
“You’re imagining that too,” she said, softly. A moment later the power went out and a clicking sound rapped at the windows. We both jumped to our feet.
We crept over to the bay window, hand-in-hand, and peered out. Ben followed, knocking over a coffee table with his antlers.
“Ice storm,” I said. The bombardment of half-frozen pellets slashed down through the gusting winds that billowed off the lake. Fork lightning crisscrossed the sky in fluorescent white veins, cracking it like the shell of a hardboiled egg. Thunder rumbled in, sonorously, from a distance in advance warning. The oil fires continued to rage through the murky, wet chaos across the waste of icy water.
“It’s so beautiful,” said Marylyn, happily, putting her arm around my waist, the bells on her elf’s hat tinkling.
“It’s retribution,” I said hoarsely as I felt my knees beginning to buckle.
To be continued…
Part I is available at: https://requiemforthedamned.com/2013/06/30/deep-freeze-part-i/
Part II is available at: https://requiemforthedamned.com/2013/07/11/deep-freeze-part-ii/
Part III is available at: https://requiemforthedamned.com/2013/07/21/deep-freeze-part-iii/
Part IV is available at: https://requiemforthedamned.com/2013/07/23/deep-freeze-part-iv/
Part V is available at: https://requiemforthedamned.com/2013/08/06/deep-freeze-part-v/
Part VI is available at: https://requiemforthedamned.com/2013/08/14/deep-freeze-part-vi/
Part VII is available at: https://requiemforthedamned.com/2013/08/26/deep-freeze-part-vii/
Part VIII is available at https://requiemforthedamned.com/2013/08/30/deep-freeze-part-viii/