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Big 32

Ander Monson

8 210——true boiling point of water at this altitude in this climate in this place in the summer underneath the summer heart and heat, given the mineral residue from the mines and other impurities that have made it into the water, and given the general resistance of the people this far north to drinking water straight without fizz, a lime, or an alcoholic spike. Drink up. You find fish floating gut-up in some of the lakes. Come out and grab them with your hands. Take them home and clean them up; cut out the tumors and they’re fine to eat. Though still, in Harriet’s opinion, an unacceptable risk. Some things are worth your life and other things are not.

184——temperature of sparks caused by the plow blade on winter pavement after cutting through the epidermis of snow; they always made Harriet think of the guys who fired off bottle rockets and roman candles on the Fourth while she ate fried fish: greasy and good, both the guys (though just for a while) and definitely the fish. Liz and Harriet would pick up boys like these some summer nights when they were younger, do their cool-girl smoking thing in the Subway parking lot as the leftover gunpowder haze settled around them like a shawl. Liz and Harriet in that shawl together, boys outside. Harriet more coy, all smolder, no flare; Liz all burn, a bright and flying thing, a beacon.

184——sparks don’t stay at this temperature for long. They’re like birds moving swiftly south for winter. Or atoms dying. A flake of dandruff descending to the floor at the end of an aborted date.

114——when she exfoliates her skin by rubbing quickly, this is how hot it gets.

106——as high as her body temperature has ever gotten; scared her father sick what with her mother gone a month before and Harriet bedridden and brow hot as a wake-up airplane towel; temperature that she was at when she made it to the emergency room and they managed to bring it down with ice and maybe some medication; temperature she had tattooed on her lower back as her breaking point. Temperature tattooed on her back that she showed to Liz just after having it done at the only tattoo place in town. Liz surprised, for once a step behind—like in a daze. Even briefly jealous Liz. Temperature of no small excitement.

97——to break the jump between a pleasant summer evening and her breaking point. It rarely gets above this temp. in the northern end of Michigan even in the summer, but when it does she has her work to do, since the tar and asphalt patches she does on her sections of road (yes she has responsibilities even in the summer that can usually be defined as lack of snow of ice of good reasons for accidents) are not made for temperatures up this high, since studies show it rarely gets this hot and studies show it’s cheaper to use cheaper patching materials and have to patch more often than it would be to use the premium patching quick-dry asphalt. There is always economics.

84——fire danger changes from high to medium, assuming the humidity remains the same. Memory of Liz glimpsed at night in the parking lot, sharing a beer with Bone Lumberg, that dark spot, that nothingness. Memory of Liz this time gone solo.

71——is about as good as it gets up in Michigan on summer nights when Harriet is mostly unemployed, watching Twin Peaks or reading, formerly drinking with Liz before the minor snub, the prom, the X the accident, the bleak and blackness after, dreaming of inevitable winter overtime checks and the sparklight of plow blade on concrete or the regular geometry of a graded gravel road.

65——Harriet’s grandparents keep the house this temperature in the winter, which is much too cold and requires the wearing of sweaters, insulation by afghan and blanket, and alcohol infusions. Sometimes she wears her snowmobile mittens and full snowplow regalia at dinner to make her point, which entertains but does no good. Harriet promises herself she’ll host Christmas next year so she can jack it up.

58——four deaths in Harriet’s family occurred at this temperature—summer falls to throat cancer, emphysema, a heart attack, and complications after surgery to remove a lump from the upper arm. Liz said that, given this, this temperature is bad news for H. and anyone H. knows. Liz said God, Harriet, I think you’re dangerous. Harriet flushed at this declaration, its maybe-irony. She stayed away from the phone until the sun has plunged below the lip of the world and the air cools. During these hours Liz knew not to call but to show up unannounced instead.

57——when the temperature gets this cold or below, she knows—or used to know, until a year ago—she’s safe from loss.

55——is unseasonably nice for Michigan between the poles of Halloween and Easter; means either no work for H. or more trouble when the temperature spikes up this high for a day, prompting the melt and rush, unfreezing pipes, because it’s always followed by a dive back down and pipes splitting like cooking sausage and the shriek of copper tubing giving way. 55 in summer means a chilly night, no work of course since no snow, which means relief and nights spent reading Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, or James M. Cain, nights embedded in the motions of a plot like a car along a mountain road with snow gusting from behind.

54——after the spring thaw, and the snow has melted from the roads, it’s time to take note of the cracks budding in the pavement—those will take some care when the rain stops to cover over. Harriet attends to her road like a surgeon without the sense of crushing responsibility she knows the most human of them must feel. The asphalt patching—not just the clearing of the snow—is her job. Like a naughty, flat black devil baby.

49——the temperature on the bus she used to take to school with Liz listening to crap ’80s radio like “I Love a Rainy Night” by whoever the hell sang that, when she used to carve the initials of her and Liz and various boys into the backs of seats to commemorate their love forever. Temperature at which she got her bus privileges revoked and had to get her dad to drive her to school, which meant breakfasts at McDonald’s, sausage & egg McMuffins, and the sight of her dad through coffee steam like a winter storm.

46——the roads sometimes steam at this temperature after the rain has passed and the day is starting up; a small pleasure, difficult to share since it vanishes so early.

44——breath will steam in air; Harriet’s brother becomes a dragon, goes Godzilla, stomping towns. Gusts of germ-laden breath.

43——she begins to feel like she’s on a slide toward winter, no getting off. When she was young Harriet would want to stay in the middle of the slide. She’d hold her feet against the sides and make the rubber scream. She’d cause huge pileups on the playground or when her parents took her to theme parks with the rides and kids with their faces full of spun pink candy.

43——on the way back up this means spring glee and temporary joblessness. It means approaching but increasingly unimportant birthdays, as there are so few of her friends left around—mainly gone to college and ever-afterness or gone someplace permanent and cold.

42——Harriet begins to watch the sky for signs of clouds or precipitation; even when she’s out for mediocre Italian food she’s glancing at the coats of customers as they come in for evidence of snow (and the ruination of another nice evening out with one of many boys). Sits by the window if she can help it, or at least sits close enough to the door. It feels like in her life she is always by the door.

41——when it hits this temperature, 41-cent coffees from 41 Lumber, which is on her road section, though not quality coffee (need it even be said?) nor good conversation. But coffee is an inoculation against the coming cold. Also the number of the highway that begins a half-hour north of her and runs down to the television heat dream that is Miami, a sunlamp in her mind.

40——temp. at which Harriet always thought she would be proposed to; whenever that would happen it would be outdoors, their breath intermingling in the air before the kiss would bring on a more pleasing and intimate contact; yes sounds so lovely at this temperature, and even I’m just not sure wouldn’t sound like a rebuff but a temporary hesitation, an invitation for more: even Liz agreed (said yes when pressed) when H. told her this. (Liz not meant, she thought, for married life. Liz unbound like flashlight light coming through your finger skin regardless.) It’s still not so cool that the heart can tell, but cold enough to give the impression of colder days to come.

39——how cold it is in the mine in which her father’s father worked and died from soot and long days without light.

37.5——at this temperature, the yearly tally of accidents officially due to inclement weather begins. This tally will only grow and grow.

36——how cold it has to be for the mine canaries to die and sometimes cause a panic with the miners running, fearing gas; of course they don’t use mine canaries anymore, do they?

35——the road needs salt, so now she’s like a nurse, administering a needle to the flat black tarry patient. Would that she had been a nurse and on the scene when she was necessary. Would that Liz had not gone through the guardrail (and on to what was beyond for her) on Harriet’s stretch of road—this coincidence at the least a difficulty in her mind, maybe something unforgivable and worse.

33–30——range of snowball-packing temperatures for Harriet’s brother Timothy who is still young enough to want to throw the hardest iceball he can find at windows in the neighborhood. Always gives you sticky snow that won’t be snow for too much longer, that might melt down to ground or translate to chilly bruises on a face. Telephone poles losing all the winter ice, that information carried within the lines somehow freer and faster-moving, those voices coded as electrical pulses less encumbered, breathing easier, more honestly.

32——the big one, means death to some, the annual accumulation of the bodies in the morgue then to the mortuary then to the mausoleum—going through the gates of all those Ms on their way to come-spring burial.

32——also tattooed on her back, right below, a spot only four people have ever seen (after the second tattoo), and on which none have failed to remark. Liz of course was one of them, though much later, when she was being stalked and would stay some nights at Harriet’s, when she would get those calls and go on those aimless drives with him, listening to New Order, just solo Liz and him (were they friends, what does that mean?), then she would come back to Harriet’s to spend the nights. These nights spent drinking themselves into a haze, some nights spent in other ways. Tattoos sometimes freak men out. Tattooed numbers always freak men out. One more good reason to have them, and have them hidden. Control your circumstances. Control your body.

28——temp. at which salted roads used to ice, before they invented the modern kind of chemical salt.

26.6——temperature of the present tense, the second anniversary of Liz through the ice. When you have a thermometer accurate to the tenths of degrees, you can be more serious about the weather.

26——salt time for the road which means going to the monster set of white salt breasts jutting up underneath the bridge with their metal silo bra. It entertains her.

23——she wonders if the road’s wounds hurt when she salts them. The salt corrodes the undersides of cars even while it keeps them on the road. The salt is a precaution against the weather, against everything getting worse.

23——temperature at which Liz’s breath was memorialized on glass in Harriet’s parents’ house during the last-minute pre-prom freeze just before her passing. Temperature at which LizHarriet was written. Temperature at which Harriet wished she had removed the pane and kept it in her freezer like a trophy bass or hunted winter remnant meat. Like she could have had it taxidermied, mounted on the wall.

21——consider the numbers: at least two hundred in the hospital every winter from catastrophe traffic; an average of thirty die. Add those who lose it to exposure like Harriet’s uncle who got drunk and couldn’t make it back to the warm recliner and his coffee left on the plate to boil down to caffeinated tar. Add those to the nightly news death ticker, and other ways to go.

20——temperature at which salted roads will ice, no matter what you do.

18——an unexpected September plunge brings her out of the summer reading in her car to troll her section of the highway for danger spots and thoughts of ice. No precipitation spotted for the evening, but she can feel it in her scapula which rings the neck with its tiny pain bell.

14——temperature at which it does no good to scrape or chop the ice away.

5——degrees by which the Houghton National Bank time and temp. sign is always off; it’s impossible for Harriet to come to terms with this, considering so much of her life is bound by time and temperature. How much effort would it really take to fix?

3——sex by now is really a chore unless you’ve got things insulated well.

0——this low means the mayor considers canceling school, though without heavy winds and blowing snow, meaning low visibility, it’s an iffy call. Some people feel a sense of pride in never closing schools.

-9——the plow itself can barely keep warm when it’s this cold, so she bought electric socks from Kmart that don’t work worth a quarter of a shit—the single wire snaking through the fabric burns her skin while the rest stays cold and gray like the day. Good concept though an underwhelming execution. Mark those for a return if she could only find the receipt.

-10——in Harriet’s opinion, this is shitkicking illegal cold.

-11——tears freeze complete, nose hairs froze 20 degrees ago, so crying will get you nowhere, like her dad’s dead dad used to say.

-16——if it stays this cold for long the body will cease its moaning and desist, finally relax into the stiffness and the air and silence, cease steaming, cease all the cogitation, the deeper sense of culpability, of—let’s make it tire-bald, slippery as black ice spread across a road—guilt, or maybe of forgiveness, one of the other signs of life.

-19——coldest recent day that she can remember, aside from the wind-chill factor which the meteorologists say makes it seem so much worse, and which she uses to pad the temperatures to impress her relatives who live downstate. Still doesn’t mean it’s safe to snowmobile across the canal—look at the temp. pattern of recent weeks to get a better feeling for it, or, better, don’t even try it at all. Timothy has a snowmobile and loves to ride across the ice on days like this against Harriet’s sisterly suggestion—and he should listen, considering all that’s happened. But he’s dumb and young. So cold it’s like you’re invincible, too stiff and wrapped-up to break. Memory of Liz crouched down with that armless boy in the cold, she so kind and he so strange and quiet.

-38——how cold it gets routinely in places like Fargo and smaller towns in North Dakota; unbelievable how they live, though maybe that’s where she should go for purgatory, as a step toward becoming invisible in the constant chill, the car-glass crack, and forget Liz and auto accidents and the numbers permanently marked on the body. You have to put cardboard up in the grates of your car to keep the engine block from freezing. Special windshield washer fluid. Extreme antifreeze and oil. Plug your truck into the outlet at night to even have a chance at starting up again come morning.

-40——all-time record low in Northern Florida, state featured on the last postcard received from Liz—a running joke between the two of them, the love of stupid postcards: Wish you were here in Sunny Florida/Georgia/Las Vegas/Death Valley where the World’s Biggest Pecan/Pelican/Crucifix/Twine Ball is, Yours Forever, Liz. Was this meant as final words? Or was this her intention—to keep up the correspondence even after she had gone?

-44——all-time record low natural temperature in Northern Michigan. All-time record number of people dying that year, but not H. and Liz and not her stalker, all invincible, still young. Memory of the names listed in the paper. Memory of Liz and her near-admiring At least that’s one way out and the silence reverberating after. Memory of not understanding and going home alone, being swallowed in the snow.

-268——big jump now, approaching the big atomic, scientific death, this is as close as she knows we have ever come to the big absolute, and this was only in very rigidly controlled conditions—what those are, she doesn’t know.

-271——does even light begin to slow, approximating lines, then dashes like in the movies? Will her responsibility then begin to fade? She must admit she’s attracted to this clarity, this permanent anesthesia.

-273——which means absolute zero in Kelvin, she remembers, maybe wrong, from school, where she would sit in chemistry or whatever class it was behind her Liz. Always facing the neck’s back, the fine hairs and salt traces. Harriet usually in pursuit, in clouds of hairspray or exhaust. Maybe it’s Celsius, the scale she wishes they’d use—so simple—but it would take some getting used to. Plus there’s a certain panache to using the English measures—a way of thinking that is nearly obsolete but that we cling onto with our sad hands and frozen hairs on end.

-273——everything stops when it gets this cold, even the atoms stop their baby steps and spinning. Even Liz gone ghost and in the paper. Even Liz in action with her crowd of boys who were not all boys anymore. Even Liz with that one boy, her stalker friend who thought he knew that he and Liz were more than friends, that sad and stupid kid, who gave Harriet (after Liz was gone and gone and gone) half a lock of Liz’s hair as a memento because (he said) she had loved her too. Even when he had refused to clarify his pronoun ambiguity and left her standing there. Even Liz submerged in the icy water, or buried in the icy ground, even the dead tributaries of Harriet’s family, her lonely body, and her brother on his way back from school on his snowmobile, and the atoms within him. Even the sound waves carrying their essential information: messages from Liz suspended somewhere in the air or memory, her last Don’t go, it’s early yet, her last Turn it up, her last I love this song. This is cold enough to stop the speed of thought, of any kind of life or useful motion. Maybe this is just impossible, so theory-cold. Even her overtime waking daydreams stop when she’s worked so many hours she can’t see the road in front of her but keeps it all going out of force of habit and knowledge of her section of road, out of thoughts of spring, returning, which she knows it will, with its reassuring thaw and the birth of the million bugs. She will spend more time with her road this year and minister to it like a body, heavy, soft. She will treat it like a monument. She knows some guys who piss on theirs like dogs. <

Ander Monson lives in Michigan. His novel-in-stories, Other Electricities, and his poetry collection, Elegies for Descent and Dreams of Weather, will both appear in May of 2005.

Originally published in the April/May 2004 issue of Boston Review.



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