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What She Heard



She stopped at the corner market for a loaf of bread, just like he had asked, and picked up a jug of orange juice at the same time. He didn't drink nearly enough juice, as she knew well -- gallons of soda, certainly, but never juice, unless grape soda counted, which it didn't. She bundled up before leaving the market. Winter that year, with gusting winds at sub-zero temperatures, dictated her Eskimo wardrobe -- thick woolen mittens, clomping boots, and a colorful scarf tied skillfully around her head. She didn't look fashionable but would certainly stay toasty. In the meantime, she couldn't even get him to wear a stocking cap.

Not much snow had fallen that day, but she still left waffle-footprints on the sidewalk. He lived a few blocks away, just across the river. Holding the bundle of groceries close to her chest, she trudged over the footbridge and into the wind.

The footbridge was well-traveled. She saw two guys shivering along, walking the opposite direction. Neither of them said a word, but a few paces later a third fellow made eye contact and smiled.

"There's a new message on the river," the fellow said. He wore a stocking cap. "Check it out."

She looked over the railing at the river. The surface had frozen solid, like an ice-skating rink, while a steady stream invisibly gurgled below. She knew about that -- the river had been frozen for weeks.

"You gotta be crazy to write something out there," stocking cap said. "The ice could crack any time."

A few yards downstream, a daredevil had ventured onto the ice and shuffled through the fallen snow, spelling a strange message with his trail: LEGALIZE GOD.

"Crazy," said stocking cap, shaking his head. He said goodbye to her and went on his way.

She started back across the river, staying on the left side of the bridge so she could get a good look at the message. The space between the two words was fairly wide. Could the message-writer have jumped the gap? There had been articles in the paper about the dangers of thin ice. One writer told about the man who fell through the ice and drowned in a heroic attempt to save an abandoned baby. A trash can in the middle of the cold hard river echoed with crying sounds, so the would-be hero tiptoed out there and got killed. It turned out that some joker had made a tape recording of a crying baby and left a portable tape player in the trash can. Not a very funny joke in retrospect.

 

 

The door was unlocked when she got to his apartment, so she didn't have to use her copy of his key.

"How are you feeling?" she asked.

"Not horrible," he said. "I wish I could sleep for three days and just wake up better." He read a paperback book in his easy chair, smothered in a colorful quilt. A half-dozen empty soda cans stood like captured chess pieces on his end table.

"You act like you're the only human being who ever caught a cold," she said, smiling broadly.

He didn't say anything. He had fallen back into his book. She peeled off a few layers of winter wear and hung everything over a chair in the kitchen. The groceries were put away. The sink was full of dishes, so she loaded the dishwasher and started the cycle. She poured a glass of juice and brought it to him.

"Thanks," he said, still reading.

She brushed tangles out of her hair. That was one of the drawbacks of wearing a scarf. "I saw another message on the river when I came over," she said. "LEGALIZE GOD. Can you believe it?"

He didn't say anything.

"Are you in a bad mood or something? What's wrong?" She put the brush back in her purse.

He closed his eyes and laid the paperback on his chest. "Don't take it personal, okay? I'm sick and tired and trying to read. The phone's been ringing all day and I haven't bothered to answer it. It's not you. Don't take it personal."

"Sorry," she said.

"Don't say that. You didn't do anything."

Now it was her turn to be silent. She got up to pour a glass of orange juice for herself. He hadn't taken a drink of his own yet.

She sat on the couch with her juice, sipping slowly and breathing deeply for a long while.

She blurted it out. "Are you aware that you take me for granted?"

He looked up in a flash. His eyebrows were raised.

"That's right. You take me completely for granted. Does it ever occur to you that I could leave at any time? I'm not a universal constant."

He marked the place in his book and laid it aside. "What's the matter here?"

"You know what's going on. You're still weighing your damn options and making up your mind about me. Meanwhile, I'm ridden with unconditional love for you and can't help but show it. That gives you the upper hand, doesn't it?"

He stared blankly at her.

"You won't even wear a damn stocking cap. Bet that's why you're sick in the first place, you stubborn bastard." He stifled a belly laugh. "Forget it," she said, huffing to her feet, "just forget it."

She grabbed her winter coat and stormed into the hallway. The door slammed at her heels. Shoving her hands through the sleeves and clumsily zipping on the coat, she headed out. The sun had gone down.

 

She walked into the wind on the trip back to the footbridge. The streetlights blinked awake. Pedestrian traffic had all but disappeared. Her scarf and mittens were still back at his apartment, so she alternated between covering cold ears with chilly hands and cramming frozen fists in her coat pockets while her ears got cold again. Her breath still felt hot.

LEGALIZE GOD. Why would someone take the time and trouble to write such a cryptic phrase on the river? She understood the adolescent appeal of the previous messages, like EAT ME and I'M HARD. In-joke? Inspiration from above? She couldn't imagine.

Three steps onto the footbridge she stopped in her tracks. She looked out across the wide ice flats. The water was certainly down there, but completely obscured from view. Could she hear the gurgling flow if she moved closer? She stepped off the bridge and hiked down the bank. The dead grasses rustled at her ankles. She stepped on the ice carefully at first, pressing down with her boot to check for thickness. It seemed safe enough. She took a few cautious steps, all the while listening for the flow of the silent, stiff river. She couldn't hear anything.

Now she was in a position to write her own message, right alongside LEGALIZE GOD. The footprints were in clear sight from where she stood: seeing each footprint was like examining the colored dots in the Sunday funnies with a magnifying glass. The wind howled in her ears, which burned from exposure. She started to shuffle along in a wide arc. Before she knew what she had done, a "C" had been created and she was starting on the letter "A". Then came "N", a fun zig-zag shuffle. The apostrophe was easy; she pointed her toe and dragged a boot across the ice. "T" was next.

The time had come for another word. She hopped a few feet to make the space and heard a crunching sound. Was the ice failing? She couldn't see any cracks in the dark. The surface still felt solid. Still, she couldn't hear the water flowing under the ice. The water had to be there, didn't it?

"H" ended up being a little sloppy, as did "E", because she had to retrace her steps. "L" and "P" were easier. By now she had etched letters halfway across the river. The wind started to die down.

Another hop, another crunch. Her heart beat faster. "I" and "T" were easy enough to trace, and so she was finished. She carefully stepped across the ice. Blood pounded in her ears, warming them. She imagined splitting ice with every step, plunging into the deep dark water and the flow washing over her ears. Her breathing quickened as she heard another crack.

Was anyone watching? Would anyone witness an accident? She squinted at the footbridge for evidence of any walkers: one lone silhouette strode quickly across the river.

"He'll hear me if anything happens," she said aloud. Walking faster now, she moved closer to the bank. She could see the dry grasses sway in the slight gusts of cold wind.

Her foot found a thin spot and splashed into the water. She screamed, stumbled and fell. The ice water seeped into her boot and soaked the sock. She scrambled, frantically, to her feet and ran for the bank. Could she hear the ice failing?

Grunting, she lunged for the bank. She tumbled into the rough grass. Her gasps were high-pitched and sounded like stifled laughter. She lay still for a moment and squished her wet toes together. Wool keeps you warm, they say, even when it's wet.

Fast footsteps approached. "Are you okay? What happened?" She struggled to place the voice. "Oh my God," he said.

It was him, all bundled up. Her scarf and gloves poked from his coat pocket. She had to laugh.

"What's going on?" he asked, sniffling. He was on his knees by now, rubbing her cheeks.

"You're wearing a stocking cap," she said.

* * *




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