Andes Mint #6: Phantom ice cream

When you think of Charlie, which you do every day, he appears to you smiling, sitting on a chair wearing dark pants, a white shirt with a faint stripe, dark shoes. The chair is simple, one step up from a folding chair, and it’s set on the linoleum floor of the dark pantry-like space in his old house, the same space that once held the commercial soft-serve ice cream machine he bought at an auction and installed for the use of himself and his family.

The house burned down many years ago. The ice cream machine was uninstalled shortly after Charlie got his triple bypass. The night your parents called to tell you he was in the hospital, you sat down and wrote him a letter that began, “Do you have any idea how much I love you?”

Charlie was your father’s best friend. He is inseparable from every moment of your growing up, and from your entire life until he died last year. When you think of him now he’s always in that chair, always smiling, always chuckling.

Hi Charlie.

Hi Al.

You hear his voice perfectly. It’s as if he’s in the room with you whenever you think of him. His voice, followed always by that easy chuckle. The man could get along with anyone in the world, and others counted on him to be the conduit through which they got along with others. This was a role he was born for and he fulfilled it unerringly.

He was a farmer for much of his life, an extension agent for the state for many years, a Walmart greeter for a few. Sitting here typing this, on this buckling white couch in your basement, where you’re trying to escape the heat, you try to think of even one person who didn’t love him. You can’t.

There he sits on that chair, smiling, that easy laugh, that mellow voice that has always sounded to you like a cello turned human.

Hi Charlie.

Hi Al.

In your mind you pull up a chair opposite him, there in that dark pantry where the soft ice cream machine is churning away. This is where you meet, now that he’s gone, in a disappeared pantry in a burned-down house: a place where he used to sit you down with a spoon and a big bowl of melting vanilla ice cream.

He’s talking to someone else at first, someone you can’t see, but after a while he glances over and meets your eye. He nods and smiles and you nod and smile back. There is the same deep, wordless understanding between the two of you that there always was.

What you know –and he knew you knew it– was that Charlie’s easy chuckle was his defense. It was how he got through, how he bought time so that his brain would have a few extra seconds to whisk through a thousand possibilities, figure out how to defuse, how to smooth over, how to make everyone in the conversation –especially those who were angry, quick to judge, quick to injury– feel listened to, seen, known.

If Charlie could have been cloned and installed in embassies around the world, there would be no war.

Now he is gone, but you still need his presence. So every day you draw up a chair opposite him. You smile. You listen to that easy laugh. Charlie steadied the lives of those who knew him. He smoothed things over among people he loved and people he barely knew. An invisible filament strung through his hands held so many things together.

In life, the two of you never spoke openly of what you knew about each other, which is how much effort that takes, not only to do it but to make it look effortless.

6 Mile

Some of the things it’s possible to do while walking the six-mile block you walk every day when you’re back in the land where you grew up:

Look north to the foothills of the Adirondacks and think, as you always do, how cool it is that a fifteen-minute drive behind the wheel of a car will bring you into the six million-acre Adirondack Park itself.

Lift your hand in greeting to each and every car that comes toward you, and watch as each and every driver lifts his hand back to you.

Observe all the Amish laundry hanging on Amish clotheslines. Decide, based on your observations over all six miles, that Amish men do not wear underwear and Amish women do not wear bras.

Notice that a few pairs of underwear are colors other than blue, black or white. Wonder if these colored undies are breaking a covert Amish rule. Decide that the answer is no, because otherwise they wouldn’t be hanging on the line for all to see.

Take a left on Crill Road and wait for the flock of wild turkeys to cross. Take your time, wild turkeys. Note a line of them in a distant field, walking single file with their heads bobbing up and down. Recall that your father told you they follow the manure spreader, picking out the corn that the cows didn’t absorb.

Think about all the wild turkeys you’ve seen lately: walking down the sidewalks in northeast Minneapolis, flocking on either side of the road the entire length of the Natchez Trace, and now here in upstate New York. Decide that wild turkeys are taking over the highways and byways of your fair nation, and wonder where it will all end.

Walk past this barn, which is the barn you grew up playing in, and think of all the hours you spent in it. Hayforts. Hay tunnels. Hay rooms underneath haystacks, in which you read by flashlight. Years of trying and not always succeeding to avoid the gaping holes in the floorboards. Think how great it is to be in your unsafe homeland, how great it is that those gaping holes are still there in the barn, along with the wide-open rectangles in the far wall. Decide that your nephew, the one who “fell” twenty feet to the ground out one of them and came up laughing, didn’t fall but leapt.

Count the number of Amish baked goods signs along the six miles and wish that it were Friday. Consider the spelling of “donut” as opposed to “doughnut.” Come down firmly on the side of “doughnut” but recognize wearily that you are out of step with the rest of the world when it comes to doughnuts.

Ask yourself: if this were Friday, which kind of Amish do(ugh)nut would you buy? There is no question: Cream Filled. The minute you decide on Cream Filled, immediately change your mind to Glazed. Decide that if this were Friday, you would buy four of each and take the whole box –wait, do the Amish use boxes?– home to your parents.

Wonder why, in recent years, you crave the wide-open west so much instead of these foothills and mountains you grew up in. Wonder if you’ll someday trade your one-room plumbingless shack on the slope in Vermont for a one-room plumbingless shack in Montana. Realize, as you walk the six miles of this block, that the wide-open west and the land where you grew up have much more in common than you ever thought.

Stop by and say hi to a friend. Wonder why the photo of his grave is so much bigger than your other photos.

Keep walking. Walk to the house where your friend and his wife lived. Walk across the grass and sit on the front steps of their house. Look out over the fields stretching south, the fields and the woods, and talk to him. Charlie, I’m sitting on your front steps. I’m looking out over the valley. Remember how you always told me it was God’s country?

Keep walking. Walk down the road to where your friend’s brother lives. See him coming out of the barn. Start to run so that you can catch up to him before he goes into the house. See him stop walking when he sees you coming. Listen as the first thing he says is, “I like your sneakers, Alison,” with his head down. Listen to yourself say, “I’m so sorry,” as you both start to cry. Sit on the porch with him and his wife for a long time, talking.

Stay up late with your father, sitting across the kitchen table, talking. Get up early and go to the diner with him next morning. Ride shotgun in his car as he drives you down the dirt road to the ten acres they’re having surveyed, because you can’t stand the thought of not having a piece of this land once the Amish have bought their place and they leave it. Stand with your father by the edge of the ten acres and point to a knoll that would be a pretty place to put up a plumbingless one-room shack.

When you leave next morning, have a hard time leaving.

You Who Pull the Oars

You and your friend Absalom are keeping your ears open for stories. You’re open to anything, on this particular weekend, when you’re thousands of miles away from the north country where you grew up, the north country where the funeral of a friend is taking place without you.

You’ve got a notecard stuck in your back pocket, a card that contains a letter describing the kind of person your friend was, a check from you and some folding money from Absalom, gifts in honor of that friend and his wife that you decide should be given to someone neither of you have yet met but will, at some point today.

The two of you get in the car and drive the 22 miles into the nearest town, which is tiny, contained in the curves of the bay. On the way in –straight shot on a road surrounded with sand and pine barrens– you tell Absalom that your friend was a busy man, with places to go and things to do and people to see.

“But the thing is, you wouldn’t know it,” you say. “When you were with him, you felt as if he had all the time in the world for you.”

You decide to live, for at least this weekend, as if you have all the time in the world for whoever you find yourself with.

Absalom puts down his window and you do the same. You roll slowly up and down the back streets of the town until you find an old cemetery, where the gravestones are hundreds of years old, half-toppled marble, almost illegible. You and Absalom wander among the gravestones, which go back to the Civil War.

Across from the graveyard is a community garden: raised beds full of feathery-topped carrots and onions and sugar snap peas and spinach and chard. So green, so lush. You and Absalom wander among them. You resist the urge to steal some sugar snap peas.

“Look,” you say to Absalom. “If someone doesn’t pick these they’re going to get fibrous and nasty.”

You’d be doing the gardener a favor by stealing these snap peas. The only thing that keeps you from thievery is the lone gardener weeding his raised bed a few yards away.

Faint music reaches your ears. It’s the annual Black History Festival, held in a little park on this day of overhanging clouds and threatening rain. You and Absalom get back in the car and meander your way over.

“Welcome,” says someone standing at an entrance gate made out of orange plastic honeycomb fencing. “Welcome.”

“How you doin,” says someone else.

Unlike other years when you’ve come to this festival, you and Absalom are not the only white people here, which strikes you as a good thing. You talk about the times in your lives when you have been the only white people, not that there have been many of them. They’re memorable though, because you were so aware of it.

Absalom is hungry and so are you. Shrimp? Ribs? Homemade corn dogs? Fresh fudge? Shrimp and beans and coleslaw for you and a barbecue sandwich for Absalom. You sit on the bleachers eating, surrounded by members of the Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church, who are all wearing red t-shirts and nodding in response to a girl onstage with a microphone, urging the crowd to be unique, to know how beautiful and individual each one of you are.

You jeer at Absalom’s “sandwich,” which is a giant slab of ribs with a piece of Wonder Bread tossed on top. He jeers at the way you eat, which is one thing at a time, in order, the way God intended food to be eaten.

The girl with the microphone steps off stage and the Tallahassee High Steppers take her place, three of them, moving in a choreographed dance. Their white belts flash as they step and sway back and forth.

You and Absalom clamber off the bleachers and wander some more. It’s a tiny festival, relaxed and slow and full of smiling people chatting in little clumps. The notecard is still in your back pocket. You walk up to one of the red-shirted Mt. Zion congregants. He’s a tall, gentle-looking man. He smiles at you and you smile back.

“Are you the pastor of Mt. Zion?” you ask him.

“No ma’am,” he says. “But the pastor will be here soon. He’s setting up for our gospel choir. Y’all should stay around until we perform. One o’clock.”

You and Absalom are both fans of gospel music. You look at each other and communicate silently. Yes, one o’clock will work just fine.

“We’re small, but the pastor brings out the big in us,” the man says.

He shakes your hand, and then he shakes Absalom’s hand. You wish you were as gentle and generous as this man is.

At one o’clock you and Absalom climb back up onto the rickety bleacher and listen to the Mt. Zion gospel singers. There’s the pastor off to the side, playing the keyboard and calling out for a response and directing, all at the same time. The gentle tall man in the red shirt was right: they’re small, but they’re loud.

When they’re finished, you pull the sealed notecard out of your pocket and you and Absalom go in search of the pastor, who’s already folded up his keyboard and is lugging it back to the trunk of his car.


He turns and looks you up and down and says nothing, but nods. He’s a little wary.

“This is for you and your church,” you say, and hand him the notecard.

He still doesn’t quite know what to make of you, but you thank him for the gospel performance and then shake his hand.

Later, you and Absalom get in the car and drive out of town onto the unmarked sand roads that branch onto and off the river from which the town and the bay take their name. The headwaters of this river are in the Appalachian Mountains, far north of Atlanta, and it gathers itself as it flows south, becoming a wide, brown, slow-moving river that eventually empties into the bay. This bay and its estuarial waters produce 90% of the oysters eaten in Florida and 13% of the oysters eaten nationwide.

Absalom and you are in search of what are known in these parts as fish camps, places where people who want to disappear from the world can disappear into. You’re in the mood to disappear from the world for a little while, and Absalom, adventuresome soul that he is, is perfectly willing to go along with this.

“See, this is the kind of thing that he would do,” you tell him, speaking of your friend whose up north funeral it is today. “He was always calling up my dad and telling him things like, ‘I heard a rumor that the largest cat in the world lives three hours away, are you in?'”

Yes. Your dad was always in. Back they would come, laughing, full of stories to tell.

Absalom and you wander the back roads until you find your way to a fish camp where a man can take a shower for $1.50. (Women? Good question.)

Beyond the fish camp is a boat landing: dark clear water, old motorboats tied to the dock, chain-link boxes half-submerged in the water. You don’t know what those boxes are for, and you ask an older man with carefully-combed silver hair what they are.

“Those? You can put your fish in there if you catch too many to hold in your bucket but you want to keep on fishing,” he says.

You wonder what kind of fish can be caught here.

“Anything,” he says. “Catfish, mostly. Bass, too. All kinds of fish. Sometimes a bull shark if the tide is high and the river turns salty.”

He eyes you and Absalom.He knows by your accent alone that you’re not from around here.

“Where you folks from?”

You tell him. He nods. He tells you more about the river. He was born and raised here. Joined the army and spent a lot of years living all over the place, then retired and came back here. He has a camp up the river.

“You can only get there by boat,” he says. “There’s electricity, but that’s it.”

“No roads?” Absalom says.

He shakes his head. “I go up there for three-four weeks at a time,” he says.

You tell him that you would do the exact same thing, which is true. The older you get the more you want to disappear, for three-four weeks at a time. Longer even. Unplug. Retreat. Live in silence for a while.

Suddenly he gestures to his boat, an old green boat with a motor hanging off the end.

“Climb in,” he says to you and Absalom. “I’m going to take you upriver.”

You and Absalom climb in. You’re going upriver. One hand on the tiller, the other pointing here and there, the silver-haired man shows you the river. He tells you about cypress trees, ancient and permanent, how the stumps you see here and there were probably cut 100 years ago, but that cypress doesn’t rot. He points out cypress knees to you, roots pushing up above the loamy ground so that the tree gets enough air. Those other things, the ones that look like stalagmites? Those are new cypress growing up out of the roots of the old ones. And those other trees, they’re sweet gum. You should see this river about a month from now, he tells you; you won’t believe how beautiful it is right about then.

You and Absalom sit quietly and listen. Here and there along the wide brown river, on either side, are old houseboats tied to trees with long ropes. Camps hauled in by boat, one load at a time, and built right there on the banks of this ancient river. This is a place you could go to disappear.

When he brings you back to the dock he shakes your hands and tells you to give him a call next year; he’ll take you out and show you some more. You promise to do that.

As you and Absalom are leaving, another boat comes putting up to the dock. In it are three older men that, you swear, could be transplanted to the diner you grew up eating in. You can see yourself sitting in a booth with those three fishermen and your father, trading stories.

When Absalom stops to take a picture of the $1.50 shower you close your eyes for a second and send the image of those men to your dead friend. He would have loved this adventure. He would have climbed right into that boat and stayed out on the river all day.

On the way out of the fish camp you and Absalom spot another cemetery, up on a bluff, nearly invisible. You would have missed it entirely if you hadn’t raised your eyes at just the right moment. Out you go, to wander around.

Of all the headstones, maybe twenty, in this tiny cemetery, only one has a name on it. All the others are nameless, unengraved. Blank headstones to mark a life once lived, by someone who wanted anonymity.

You remember your dead friend standing with you on the country road where you grew up, spreading his arms out wide to encompass the valley that held both your houses.

“This is God’s country, isn’t it, Al?” he would say. “There’s no place more beautiful.”

Unlike the souls buried in this sandy patch of land, next to this dark river, it was never his wish to disappear. He wanted to be surrounded by those he loved.

But he would have walked this cemetery with you. He would have said a prayer for those buried within it.

* * *


You who pull the oars, who meet the dead,
who leave them at the other bank, and glide
across the reedy marsh, please take
my boy’s hand as he climbs into the dark hull.
Look. The sandals trip him, and you see,
he is afraid to step there barefoot.

ZONAS, 1st century B.C.E. (translated by Brooks Haxton)

Poem of the Week, by W.H. Auden

Funeral Blues
– W.H. Auden

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

For more information on W.H. Auden, please click here:


Things of this world

Last week you had a vivid dream in which the lyrics to a beautifully sad Willie Nelson song you’d never heard before went scrolling through your head. When you woke up you went to the computer and googled the first line: I have a thing for the things of this world, but no such Willie Nelson song exists. You took this as a sign that you needed to write a poem that began with that line. But you put it off.

Yesterday, while you were driving in the pre-dawn dark to a tiny airport on the Panhandle, you went through a drive-through to get a cup of coffee. You took the coffee from the nice girl, so sweet and patient there at the drive-thru window at 6 a.m., and said thank you. Before you got back on the road a message ticked into your phone. You checked it. Then you pulled off the road and sat there and read it again. You sat there and thought, no. Not possible. This was a man you have known all your life. He and his wife knew you before you were even born.

You sat there in the car and called your parents.

? you asked your mother, and . . . was her answer, and ? and . . .

I’ll put your father on, she said, he’s right here.

— and then your father was on the line, your father who managed to say He was my oldest and best friend before he burst out into those awful, heartbreaking sobs when he heard your I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, and had to hang up the phone, and you sat there in the car for a while before you started it up again and pulled back onto the road.

Why is this so hard to write? Because it’s not a poem, you can hear your father’s oldest and best friend saying, although he was far too gracious ever to say such a thing. Poems rhyme, you can hear him saying, although that, too, he would never say. You think of that sad song you dreamed last week, the one you put off writing.

On the way to the tiny airport, there in the pre-dawn dark, animal eyes glinting from the ditches the whole way, you could picture them in your head: her, short and stout and devout, and him, smiling. You could hear his voice, hear the sound of his car door thunking shut in the driveway of your parents’ house, hear the songlike melody of his deep voice. You could hear the Swiss relatives yodeling down the valley when you were a child lying awake at night. You could see their Christmas tree, lit and glowing through the window. You could see him in the barn with the baby calves, in the farmhouse before it burned down that awful year. All the way back to the frozen north, from airplane to airplane, he kept appearing in your head.

There he is, walking through the kitchen door. Walking into the diner because he heard you were home. Behind the wheel of a big old car on a dusty rural road, pulling off to the shoulder and waiting for you, the eternal walker, to run up to him so he can roll down the window and find out what you’re up to. Telling you how special you are, how beautiful you are, things you know damn well he says to everyone he loves but which always, somehow, when you hear them from him, make you feel that way.

This is hard to write. It’s not a poem unless it rhymes, you can imagine him saying –he never would say something like that, but he wrote a lot of poetry, and every line of it rhymed.

There is no time of your life that you can remember without him in it. He is threaded into everything that has to do with the place you still call home. There he is dancing the polka with your mother on the dusty second floor of the dusty rural dance hall. There he is standing in the field, telling you about the beaver pond and how gradually, over the years, the beavers have come to trust him, and how he will take you out to see them one of these days. There he is showing you the soft ice cream maker that they kept in their pantry, the magical soft ice cream maker that used to make a half-gallon of vanilla every night until he had the emergency triple bypass. After the triple bypass you wrote him a letter that must have said other things but all you remember is the one line that made you sit down and write it: Do you have any idea how much I love you? You remember how tight he hugged you next time you saw him.

When was the last time you saw him? Last fall, it must have been, when you were sitting in the booth at the diner with the men, all his friends –was anyone not his friend?– while he sat on the red stool opposite you until you got up and sat next to him on another red stool so you could talk just to him. Oh this is hard to write. You have begun and erased this at least ten times since you sat down at this table.

Poems aren’t big blocks of words, Al, you can hear him saying, even though he would never say such a thing. Poems rhyme. This isn’t a poem, Charlie, you imagine saying to him. Make it a poem, Al, you can hear him saying.

Long ago there was a silent rift between you and someone dear to him, and you didn’t know he knew about it, and you would not ever have brought it up, and you retreated, you backed up and away, you thought you might not have anything other than polite conversation with him for the rest of your life, and that should be all right, that should be enough, you were a grown woman for God’s sake, you lived a thousand miles away for God’s sake, but late one night when you were home visiting your parents you saw his car pull into the driveway and you leapt into bed and told your parents I can’t talk, I’m asleep already, tell him I’m asleep, but –so utterly uncharacteristic– he went past them and came into the room where you were hiding and told you how sorry he was, and you could see it in his eyes, on his face, in the way he leaned toward you, huddled stupidly on the bed with the blanket pulled up around you. You hadn’t ever seen a look like that on his face, his always-smiling, always-interested, always-calm, never-judgmental face.

This taught you something, which is that when you see a rift, repair it. Or at least try. So that you know that at least you tried. This is very hard to write because there is too much to say. There is too much to protest. Is there anything good here? you said to one sister last night, anything at all? You could feel her silence over the phone. Um, they were not young? They never saw it coming? They went together? They went instantly? No. None of these are good enough to make anything about this good.

This is going to be the biggest funeral that Steuben has ever seen, you said to her. There will be no place big enough to hold the mourners.

You want to write about him, to honor him, but you can’t do a good enough job. Try some rhyme, Al, you can hear him saying, although he would never say such a thing.

Okay, Charlie, I’ll try some rhyme. Here you go. This one’s for you.

The news came that Charlie had died
his loved wife – his “bride”– by his side
I tried to write a poem in rhyme
but I knew there was not enough time
to say anything that needed to be said.
Too sad. Too many memories in my head.