* For my grandparents: Jimmie and Arlie Robitzer *
Buzzy had a Volkswagen Bug that Shecky Freeman sold him for $380.00.
There was a hole the size of a saucer in the floor of the backseat. When Louise turned in her seat, looked down at the hole and watched the grey and brown road rush beneath her, she felt wildly dizzy.
“So don’t look!” Buzzy would say, each time Louise peered down there. But she did it anyway. Something would show up someday, Louise thought, something odd and original, a hand, or a baby, or a love letter, rushing away from her as if on a fast-moving stream.
It was January 11th, 1960, and they were on winter break, driving to Vermont to see Louise’s mother, Jimmie, and her father, Arlie, at Seyon Ranch, a five-thousand acre estate that Arlie had bought the year Louise had started middle school. Louise was bundled and scarved; the heat was on in the car, but the hole let in a fist of cold air that swooped up and hit Louise wherever her flesh was uncovered.
There were only two things Buzzy knew about Arlie. The first was that Arlie had been hit by lightning three times. Strike one: Arlie was on the phone when he leaned onto a metal sink. The lightning came through the phone line and knocked him down cold. Strike Two: Arlie stepped out onto the front porch and looked up at the clean sky when a bolt of lightning came down, went through him and killed the dog, Gomer, who was sleeping under the porch. Each time Louise told that story, she was sure to add how angry Arlie was about the dead dog. Strike Three: The lightning came down the chimney during an electrical storm and chased Arlie through the house. The rest of the family was there in the living room, screaming as they watched Arlie try to outrun the balls of crackling electricity. Louise often said that it was the strangest thing she’d ever seen. This story had been told in Buzzy’s room one night during a thunderstorm, of course, and as Buzzy jumped off the iron bed for fear they’d be struck, Louise explained to him that once you’ve been hit by lightning you have a greater than normal chance of getting hit again: you’ve become a conduit, in a way, partner to the stormy skies. Buzzy didn’t believe her, and he slept on the stained and loamy-smelling frat-house couch that night, while Louise slept alone in his bed.
The second thing Buzzy knew about Arlie was that he hated the idea of God.
“Did you tell them I’m Jewish?” Buzzy asked.
Louise had made a person-to-person collect call just before they had left, informing her parents that she was engaged to be married, the wedding would be February 2nd, and she’d be at Seyon in mere hours to introduce them to her fiancé.
“I told them,” Louise said, and she pulled her satin scarf tight around her neck.
“What’d they say?”
“Nothing,” Louise said. “My mother sort of grunted and my father said he was surprised. That’s all.” It wasn’t all he had said, but it was all she was going to tell Buzzy.
“What’d you say? Did you tell them the rabbi’s giving you private lessons to convert?” Buzzy asked too many questions about her parents, her older brother, her childhood and Louise rarely felt like answering them. Wasn’t it enough that Buzzy loved her and thought she was the most magnificent woman in the world?
“I’ll tell them about the lessons with the Rabbi later,” Louise said. “I don’t want to give them too many surprises at once.”
“You didn’t tell them about the baby, did you?”
“No,” Louise said, although Arlie had guessed and said so on the phone.
“A Jew?!” Arlie had said. “Are you pregnant? Why marry a Jew when you have a choice? Christ almighty, Louise!”
Five hours after they took off, Buzzy stopped the car in front of the sign posted at the entrance to the property. He read it out loud:
“Seyon Ranch. Private Property. Trespassers will be shot.” Buzzy had never seen a sign like this. He grew up in a row house in New Jersey where women talked over the railings, the Fuller Brush man came in for a meal, and his grandmother took over his bed when she didn’t feel like walking home.
* * *
Buzzy looked like a different man swathed in hunting gear. His head was puffed up by a red, plaid, wool-lined hat that had earflaps and tied under his chin. His legs were bulked up, pants tucked into borrowed knee high boots. His orange leather gloves made his hands look massive, stiff. Louise thought she detected a small shake as he held the shotgun Arlie had given him.
“You sure you want to go?” Louise asked Buzzy. Her father had already stepped out onto the porch. He was talking to the dogs, deciding which ones to take.
“I’m going to get myself a twenty-point buck!” Buzzy shouted, loud enough that Jimmie could hear.
Louise looked back at her mother who was rinsing their tea cups in the sink. “You’re going rabbit hunting,” Louise said.
Buzzy leaned in close to his fiancee’s ear. “Do those dogs bite?” he whispered. Buzzy had never had a dog. Or a cat. He was allergic, and asthmatic. And afraid.
“They’ll only bite if Arlie tells them to,” Louise said, half smiling. They were sweet dogs, liver colored German short-haired pointers. Great hunters, faithful, a little overly-enthusiastic sometimes. But Arlie trained them well, loved them well, treated them better than he treated Louise and her older brother, Rex.
Buzzy pushed himself out the door, trying to ignore the dogs who were gathering around his legs as though he were made of hamburger.
They drove in a jeep, shotguns posted on the gun rack, deep into the woods of Seyon Ranch. Buzzy didn’t know how Arlie could tell where he was going—it all looked the same, craggy tall trees, deep, almost-bluish white snow. Arlie parked the jeep, handed Buzzy his gun and started walking. Buzzy followed, turning back every now and then to make sure his footprints were visible in the snow. Two dogs came along: Truman and Eisenhower.
“Tell me something,” Arlie said, without looking back at Buzzy. “Where are you gonna play golf?”
“Yeah. What country club is going to take you? You can’t go to a normal club because you’re a Jew. And you can’t go to the Jew clubs because you’ll be married to my daughter. So where the fuck are you going to play golf?”
Buzzy had never played golf before. In fact, until he went to Brandeis, he had never even met someone who played golf. He briefly considered telling Arlie that Louise was converting, they’d be welcome at any of the Jewish country clubs, but then he imagined Louise’s face, the ways her eyes hardened when she was angry. She wouldn’t want Buzzy to tell Arlie about the conversion. She’d do it when she thought the time was right.
“I guess I’ll just play on the public courses,” Buzzy said. He had heard a fraternity brother describe a game played on a public course in New Jersey. A black man was there and everyone wondered how he had enough money to buy a set of clubs.
“Public?” Arlie laughed and marched ahead.
Neither spoke for a few moments. Buzzy listened intently to the whispering crunch his boots made in the snow.
“How long do we have to hike?” Buzzy finally asked. He was tired and thirsty and wished he’d brought a canteen.
“Hike? This isn’t a hike, this is a walk in the goddamned woods!” Arlie looked back at his future son-in-law and laughed.
“You own all this?” Buzzy asked. “Have you seen it all?” A drip of snot was frozen on the edge of Buzzy’s nostril. His black eyelashes felt iced but when he tried to clear them with his mitted hand he only seemed to smear more ice on his face. Buzzy looked at Arlie’s flushed, clear face. There must be something in his blood, Buzzy thought, anti-freeze or something that he was born with.
“I can see it all from my roof,” Arlie said. “When you stand on the roof and turn in a circle, everything you see is mine. Not Louise’s and not even Jimmie’s. Goddamned mine.”
Buzzy wondered what there was on this earth that he could call his. The Volkswagen with the hole in the floor. His books. Louise. Yes, he hoped, prayed. And now that she was pregnant it seemed inevitable: Louise would soon be his.
Arlie stationed Buzzy at a spot in the woods that looked like all other spots in the woods and left Eisenhower with him.
“The dog will flush out the rabbits,” Arlie said. “You just stand here, wait for Eisenhower to bring it within range, then shoot.”
“Where will you be?” Buzzy asked. He didn’t like the idea of standing alone in the woods—even with a gun in his hands to protect him from a bear who might emerge from hibernation, or a fearless, trespassing hunter who would mistake him for a bear.
“I’ll be far-the-fuck away so that you don’t shoot me in the goddamned balls!” Arlie laughed, then turned to head off with Truman.
“When are you coming back?” Buzzy asked.
“Once we’ve each got a couple of hares,” Arlie called out over his shoulder, still walking away.
Buzzy put down his gun and framed his hands around his mouth so Arlie, who was receding in the distance, could hear him better.
“How will you know when I have a couple?!” he shouted.
Arlie didn’t appear to hear, but then he suddenly turned and walked back a few paces.
“Buzzy!” he said, as he approached.
“Yeah?” Buzzy was worried Arlie was going to shoot him. Maybe the whole hare hunting thing was a ruse to get him out in the woods, and now it was time for him to die: cold, alone, with a couple of crazy dogs who would lap up the bloody trail.
“Whatever you do,” Arlie said, “don’t shoot the dog. You can shoot yourself, you can shoot a tree, you can shoot whatever the fuck you want out here. But don’t shoot the goddamned dog.”
“Got it,” Buzzy said, and he picked up his gun and pretended to aim far in the distance away from Arlie and away from the dog, although, really, he wasn’t even quite sure how to fire the thing.
* * *
Buzzy felt like he’d been waiting hours, but maybe it had only been twenty minutes. Buzzy wasn’t good at waiting, it was something he rarely did. And time alone, in silence? Well, Buzzy would rather be with his mother, who pecked at him like a hen at corn, or with his father, a braggart who seemed to compete with him, than spend a few minutes alone. When all was silent and there was little to distract him, Buzzy felt like his head was going to pop off his neck and explode.
The dog ran in and out of the snow-covered brush, but nothing, not even a mole, was flushed out.
And then it started to snow. Buzzy was worried about their footprints. How would they ever find their way back to the truck?
Eisenhower, with his nose to the ground, trotted by Buzzy.
“Hey,” he said to the dog in a voice you’d use to call a cab.
Eisenhower looked up at Buzzy.
“Take me to Arlie. Let’s find Arlie and go home.”
Eisenhower tilted his head to one side and sat.
“Arlie!” Buzzy shook the gun toward the dog. “Go to Arlie!”
Eisenhower stood and walked off. Buzzy followed. Whether he was flushing out rabbits or not, the dog would go to his master, Buzzy assumed.
Buzzy thought he’d been following the dog for at least an hour, but then he reconsidered, reminded himself that time went slowly for him and maybe it had only been ten or fifteen minutes. Either way, he was cold and tired, and crystals in his eyelashes were making everything look woozy when he blinked.
And he was hungry. Buzzy hadn’t had anything for breakfast, and the bologna sandwich Louise had packed him for the car wasn’t that big, wasn’t like a sandwich his mother would have made. And then there was Jimmie. Sure it was nice that she wasn’t a kisser, didn’t consume her daughter with smacking busses and cheek pinches, but you’d think she’d have offered them something to eat after a long trip like that. There hadn’t even been dinner on the stove—the house didn’t smell like food. In fact, there seemed to be little evidence that anyone had eaten anything, ever, in that kitchen.
Buzzy thought of the food his own mother would have prepared for his arrival: kugel, blintzes, chicken noodle soup. He was immersed in visions of food when he looked up and noticed he was at the edge of a small field or clearing. The dog ran off ahead of him, toward the trees on the other side of the clearing. Buzzy was following the dog when his right foot popped down through the snow, making a cracking sound that whipped through his body like a bolt of lightning. He was so startled by the noise, that it took a second for Buzzy to realize that his boot was filling with cold water. Buzzy pulled his foot out and tried to step gingerly—he looked like a marionette with a high-kneed, wobbly, wide stride. But each step cracked through and water had now soaked both legs up to his knees. Buzzy eyed a tree stump near by. He tried skating across the snow toward the stump, but broke through once more. When he reached the stump, Buzzy climbed atop it. Streaks of coldness ran from his knees to his feet. It burned more than anything. Buzzy looked around from his perch. No dog. No Arlie. Not even a rabbit.
“ARLIE!” Buzzy yelled.
Even an echo would have made Buzzy feel more comfortable. But there was no echo; his words went out and vanished as if they’d never been said. Buzzy had never heard such loud silence. He had never been in a place where there wasn’t a horn honking, or a fraternity brother snoring, or parents bickering, or a radio quacking.
“I’m going to freeze to death or starve to death or be eaten by something,” Buzzy said aloud. Again his voice vanished, neither heard nor echoed.
“AR-LIE!” Buzzy tried again.
He waited for as long as he could contain himself—three, maybe four, minutes. Then he lifted his shotgun and fired once, in the air. The kick from the gun almost pushed Buzzy off his perch. He dropped the gun in the snow, leaned down without climbing off the stump and picked it up again.
Buzzy looked at the gun, wondered if he had to do anything to fire another shot—cock it, or load it, or . . . Arlie had just handed him the thing and told him to shoot. There was snow in the muzzle. Buzzy thought it might look cool to see the snow blow out with the bullet. He poised the gun on his shoulder, looked around and was about to fire when he saw a figure in the distance.
“ARLIE!” Buzzy hollered. “I’m stuck!”
Eisenhower and Truman ran toward Buzzy and jumped up at his frozen boots. Buzzy lifted his arms, holding up the gun, and waved back and forth toward Arlie.
“Well at least you didn’t shoot the goddamned dog,” Arlie said as he approached the edge of the clearing.
“I fell through,” Buzzy said. “I’m stuck.”
“You’re on a goddamned beaver dam,” Arlie said. “You fell through?”
“Yeah. To my knees. Can we go home?”
“To your knees?!” The rosy anti-freeze-filled look vanished from Arlie’s face.“Get on your stomach,” Arlie said, “and roll across the ice like you’re rolling down a hill.”
“But I’ll get covered in snow!” Buzzy said.
“Roll across the goddamned ice!” Arlie shouted. “Just to here—“ Arlie took a few steps closer to Buzzy where brushy leaves were poking out of the snowline.
Buzzy inched down from his perch and lay in the snow, his hands above his head holding the shotgun.
“Now roll, goddammit! Move your ass and roll!”
Arlie thought he had never seen a more pathetic site than a skinny Jewish kid rolling across a half-frozen beaver dam. These people should stay in the city, he thought, they don’t deserve nature, they aren’t worthy of it.
“Now get up,” Arlie said, and he stuck a hand down to Buzzy and pulled him to his feet. Buzzy was covered with white powder, like a sugar coated crueler. He looked like a ten-year-old kid who’d just wiped out on a sled.
“We gotta get a move on,” Arlie said, and he began walking quickly, with Buzzy stiffly loping behind.
“You know, I’m kinda sleepy,” Buzzy said. “Can we just rest for a minute and then go home?” Buzzy was finding it hard to keep up with Arlie and the dogs.
Arlie stopped and turned toward Buzzy. “You’re sleepy?!”
“Yeah. Can we rest. I’m beat.” Buzzy looked up at the sky that was changing color so quickly it was like a thick dark blanket had suddenly been tossed over Vermont.
“Jesus fuck-me Christ. Come on, Buzzy. Move your ass, we gotta get home.” Arlie took off, pushing through branches, moving with the swiftness of the dogs.
* * *
Arlie threw the guns in the back of the jeep without hanging them on the rack. He paused, picked up the gun Buzzy had used and examined the muzzle.
“Did you drop it in the snow?” He asked.
“Yeah. I was about to shoot it again to see the snow fly out when you showed up.”
“Well that’s one death you escaped. Let’s hope you got six more to go.” They got in the jeep, Arlie started it up, turned on the headlights, and pulled out as if they were in a road race.
“What’d you mean that’s one death I escaped?” Buzzy asked.
“With snow packed in and iced-over like that, the thing would have blown up in your face. Don’t they have guns in New Jersey?”
“Not in my neighborhood they don’t.” Buzzy looked out the side window then looked away. Trees were swooshing by in a black blur, the jeep was bouncing so high it felt airborne at times. Arlie pulled into the back of the house and parked near the glass-walled mudroom.
“Come on, come on, come on,” he said, pushing on Buzzy’s shoulder to get him out of the car.
“In the mudroom, quick!” Arlie said.
Buzzy ambled toward the brightly-lit glass room. He was a little stiff and slow as there was no bend or give in his frozen boots.
“Sit down,” Arlie said, and he patted a wooden bench that sat below a row of flannel coats hanging on pegs.
“You know my feet really aren’t even cold any more,” Buzzy said. “It’s the strangest things ‘cause these boots seemed to be—“
Arlie had a hunting knife out and was slicing the frozen laces of Buzzy’s boots. When the laces were cut, Arlie tried to wedge open the boots with his hands, but they were as solid as cement encasing Buzzy’s feet.
“Wow,” Buzzy said. “Should we just let them thaw?”
“You’re gonna have two less feet unless we get these fuckers off you fast and get you in a hot shower.” Arlie stuck one foot against the wall to gain purchase, he grabbed Buzzy’s right boot, yanked with all his might and went tumbling back, crashing through the glass wall as the boot cracked off.
Buzzy leaned forward on the bench, he feared he had just caused the death of his future father-in-law. He didn’t want to call out Arlie’s name, as he was too afraid of the silence that might follow.
Louise and Jimmie ran into the mudroom, both coming to a stop in the doorway.
“He was pulling off my boot,” Buzzy sputtered. “And he just flew back—“
Arlie picked himself off the snow and stepped through the opening in the broken glass. He brushed glass confetti off his legs and chest, resumed his position and tugged off the left boot.
“Louise, run up and start a shower for him. Buzzy, get your ass up there in the hot shower, but don’t you dare start stripping your clothes off in front of my daughter or me.”
Louise took Buzzy’s hand and rushed him away. Arlie turned back and looked at the hole his body had made.
“Goddamned city Jew, walked right into a beaver dam.”
“Oh yeah,” Jimmie said, with her usual nonchalance.
“If he doesn’t lose his feet, I’m gonna make him pay for the glass.”
“And if he loses them?” Jimmie picked up a broom and dust pan that she kept in the mudroom and began sweeping the floor.
“If he loses them? Well he sure as hell isn’t marrying Louise if he loses them. No son-in-law of mine is going to be a goddamned cripple.”
“But a Jew is okay?”
“Better than a cripple. Better than a Christian.” Arlie surveyed the damage as Jimmie swept up. “Christ almighty.”
When Buzzy came down from the shower he showed no signs of frostbite. He sat on the brown leather chair next to the fire in the den as Arlie bent down and looked at his boney white feet.
“No numbness at all?” Arlie said.
“I feel fine.” Buzzy wiggled his toes in a way that Arlie found obscene.
“What the hell kind of socks did you have on?” Arlie sat on the chair beside Buzzy, squinting as he looked him up and down.
“I had on four pairs. Three cotton and then a pair of wool socks on top of the cotton ones. And I had on long underwear that went down to my ankles.”
Arlie paused a minute, then started laughing. Louise walked in the room with four drinks on a tray: a scotch each for Arlie and Jimmie, a tea for herself, and a glass of water for Buzzy. Jimmie followed Louise in. She passed out cork coasters that had pictures of waterfalls and deer on them. Buzzy wondered why Arlie was laughing. And he wondered why he still didn’t smell anything from the kitchen. Would he ever get a meal?
“Now what’s so funny,” Jimmie said.
“This goddamned kid,” Arlie pointed at Buzzy with his scotch, “was so well-insulated, he didn’t even get a chill.” Arlie hooted again, then took a gulp of scotch.
“Well why did he tell me his feet were warm?” Louise asked. She remembered when her brother almost lost a finger from drawing pictures in the snow—his finger was warm, Rex had said, that’s why he kept drawing.
“Layers!” Arlie said. “Water was trapped in the layers, probably heated up from his body heat and goddammit, he was warm!”
“Well, how many pairs of socks do you have on?” Buzzy asked.
“One! No one in the whole state of Vermont would walk out the door wearing more than one pair of socks!” Arlie laughed again.
Buzzy was glad to see Arlie laughing. He hoped it meant he wouldn’t have to pay to replace the glass in the mudroom. Between the gold ring he bought Louise and the money he donated to the synagogue for giving Louise Hebrew lessons, there was nothing to spare.
Arlie didn’t ask Buzzy to pay for the glass. And he and Jimmie didn’t show up for the wedding. They paid for it, however, on the agreement that Louise wouldn’t embarrass them by inviting anyone from the family.
For Louise, her wedding day was exceedingly lonely. Buzzy had a blast.