Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Static and the Trees

The night before in Lansing, the rain froze into wet ice. The drops fell through the cold sky with a nucleus of ice gradually spreading outward. Far above the streetlights, there was a haze of rain and mist, but about 25 ft. up, the sound of freezing was audible, a sound like the squeak of biting into a soft ice cube. The rain lost its wavy momentum, stopped and fell straight down. Ice drops fell like tacks, but the earth was loamy and damp from the rain. The tacks hit the ground with a sound like a collective sigh. I watched it for a very short time. I’d seen an ice storm in Lansing before. I walked around all night in one once, shifting my perspective so the light would run through the ice on a branch or a frozen McDonald’s cup. It was beautiful to see the ice again, but, for once, I was able to see in one ice-covered tree, what I would see in an entire avenue of them; I didn’t need a profusion of ice and light, just an example of it. The whole picture was right in front of me. From the trunk, to the tiniest ramifications, the tree was insulated with ice, like it was protected, but the mass of the ice was pulling the branches to the ground. Just a small gust of wind shook the thing awkwardly; it moved all the way down to the roots and did not sway but jerked. One of the frozen branches scraped the frozen roof of a car. The house behind me shifted and crackled in its ice casements. It sounded like the world was gratefully coming apart.

I woke up dazed the next morning. I haven’t been moving around very much since I’ve come here and I wake up every morning feeling dazed. It’s 11 degrees outside. I sit there for a while with the blanket around my shoulders and my head in my hands. Tired and cold, I want to go back to sleep. I don’t have anything to do. Just as I am about to lie down again, I change my mind and reach for my shoes. They feel like they’ve been sitting on the floor for decades. They’re cold and dusty and look like someone with huge boots has been stomping on them. I’m glad I don’t have to touch the shoelaces. I want to go to the QD and get a big, watery cup of coffee right away to justify getting up, but I decide I need to go back to Theio’s: my old favorite diner down the street. It’s a Sunday, there’s no one in the house and everything’s covered in ice. I really couldn’t pick a better time to go down to the diner to read, drain a few cups of coffee and listen to the snow melt from everyone’s boots.

I have to walk lightly outside with my arms out like a tightrope walker and my feet shuffling along. The streets are empty save for the heavy branches that fell: shattered remnants of ice and bark. Icy twigs from these fallen branches lie as far as 100 feet away from the crash. They all must weigh hundreds of pounds. I look up nervously at the creeping canopy of frozen branches. There’s a power line draped over a car as if the storm meant to use it for something, set it down and forgot about it. Everything is closed. The storefronts are all dark behind the wavy sheets of ice on the windows. The QD is open but the parking lot is empty. The tire tracks are still frozen from the night before. At the bus stop there’s a diagram of a frozen and impatient dance.
The Theio’s parking lot is barely visible through all the exhaust. There must be seven or eight cars idling out there, most of them large vans. I can imagine the inside of those things, smelling like cold exhaust and wet carpet, cold and humid with wads of pale pink gum tucked under every arm rest. The thought makes me shiver. The heat in those kinds of cars never reaches the back where the kids sit. At least it never did in my mom’s suburban. I shuffle to the Theio’s door. The front of the place looks like an atrium; it’s all wet, fogged glass. There’s a rumble outside the place the explodes into the combined sound of laughter, clattering dishes, scraping chairs and cash register clangs when I open the door. Outside the door, the icy world was still and empty. There’s something surreal about walking into a place surrounded by so much silence and crackling ice and to find it so alive. I imagined that temporary shelters set up during a disaster would have this feel—the outside world dark and broken, the inside full of light and humanity.

I was glad that I had come. At first, I didn’t want to go back to Theio’s. They remolded it some years ago. I hadn’t been back since. I wanted to maintain my memories of it and I knew they’d clash with the present state of the place. I hadn’t expected to be drawn back into the place, to be swaddled by it again. Apparently, it’s not possible to wake up alone, with nothing to do on an icy Sunday morning on the east side of Lansing, and not automatically start making your way down to Theio’s. I tried to avoid it, but there was nothing else to be done. I had to get some coffee and be with the people.

I’ve been away long enough now that it doesn’t feel strange to not know anyone here. There’s no smoking section anymore, so I take a seat by the window to get out of the way. A lot of the same crap is still up on the walls. By that first booth on the right, my favorite place to sit, the decorative, wooden mailbox is still there. We used put stuff in there on cold Saturday nights: pencils, notes, transit cards from far-off places and whatever junk we found in our pockets. I doubt there’s anything left in there now. When I looked in the mailbox the last time in 2010, everything was gone, even all the stuff Ramen put in there. It’s better to let myself think it’s still in there. I can’t imagine them dumping the stuff he put in there. But, I knew a waitress here who died suddenly and there’s no reminder of her either. When they told me she had died, I rode off to the florist on Grand River and rooted around in the dumpster until I had the makings of a nice bouquet. I went back and gave it to someone to take to her memorial service the next day. I didn’t go. I had to sit there, drink coffee and stare off into space like I did every night. That was my memorial. I did the same thing for Ramen.

I don’t remember the coffee being so watery. It’s hardly got any flavor, but this is probably a good thing, given how easy it is to drink 30 cups of the stuff. They never even used to ask me. Every time the waitresses would come around they’d splash a little more coffee in my cup. Now, they ask me, “you want a warm up?” I love how they call it a ‘warm-up.’ “Yeah, thanks,” I say and hold my cup up like I’m trying to toast the pot of coffee the waitress has. I keep my book open but I look up at her. She’s young, still just on coffee duty. She’s got a pot of coffee in each hand, regular and decaf. She reminds me of someone who used to work here. Everyone does. All the waitresses, the cooks, even some of the customers look and sound so familiar. I have to give them second looks to make sure they aren’t who they would’ve been, years ago. If I started coming here regularly again, I could connect with all these people, the way I did years ago. It wouldn’t be right. After all the places I’ve lived that were so far away from here, how could I be the one who ended up staying? How could I be the only one who’s still here years later?

When I look up and notice that there are no more seats and people are waiting by the door, I get up and give my seat to someone else. I’ve sat here long enough.
After the hum of 40 different conversations and all the nylon winter coats shrugged off and shrugged back on, the spoons stirring the coffee, the outside is like a vacuum. There is no sound. Even the idling vans in the parking lot are turned off now. I walk back to the house, but I forget to reminisce for a moment. The illusion is shattered; I see everything for how it really is and, much as I expected, it looks exactly the same. Even all the new stuff looks old and I leave as soon as possible.

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