We need an apartment. In six weeks—if the Farmer's Almanac can be trusted—the lake ice will melt. That's where we live, on the face of the lake, in a little one-bedroom behind a windbreak my husband made of wheelless shopping carts, forklift palettes, and burlap bags. The legs of the carts will sink right into the ice if you heat them in a wood fire; they make little wells of water going in, and a minute later they're frozen fast. It isn't half the work driving fence posts used to be.
I can't say for sure we'd be leaving if it weren't for the thaw. Living on the lake isn't easy, but it's rent free. And we have a sailboat—a spider-legged thing that runs on three salvaged lathe blades. Since the city got rid of the conductors on the elevated train and cut back on service, we can get downtown quicker ourselves.
It's quiet out here too—well, there's the wind, but if you think about it that's not really a noise; what makes the noise is when something gets in its way. But quiet maybe isn't the right word. I see these owls, snowy white all over and six feet across their outspread wings, hovering, perfectly silent, with fat silver fish in their claws—I take that back, the birds aren't completely white; their feet are black, and their eyes are flat and gold, like old coins. They hang in the air, aimed into the wind, and the wounded fish slowly open and close their dripping gills. I have no idea how they get at those fish, but I know I've seen them. You can follow the little bright hollows the falling blood makes in the ice.
It all reminds me of one of those Japanese pen-and-ink drawings, where it supposedly takes them like three brushstrokes but you could spend your whole life trying to get just one of them right. There's so much less of everything here that nothing can be meaningless. When a crack runs under your feet, a traveling sound like the chiming of a struck cable, it feels like standing on a giant eyelid, like the twitch of a giant eye, somewhere in a dream.
I can't forget the cold. There's no way to keep out the snow. Our house whistles in the wind like a teakettle, and every morning our quilt is covered with the stuff, ridges and crescents of it, like the sand on a beach blanket.
Firewood's hard to come by, except for produce crates and the palettes, which I think I mentioned. And that wood's so dry and resinous, it goes up in no time. We spend almost as much on wood as we used to on gas, mostly to thaw our drinking water. I've learned to wash my hands with snow; I just have to remember to take off my wedding band first or it'll slip off—and with my fingers numb from the cold, I won't feel it go. That's what happened to Isaac, my husband.
Before Isaac lost his job at the elephant factory—circuses stop touring in the winter, and demand drops off—we could shower maybe once a week at the plant; some people bicycle to work, and there are two stalls by the lunchroom. Now we hardly bathe at all. With the stove going we can get out of our hats and coats, but we'd have to burn a whole bookcase to warm up a washtub full of water—and once it's off the fire and you're into it, you've got maybe ten minutes before it's so cold again it was hardly worth the trouble. It's been so long since I've been out of all my clothes that the hair on my legs has grown out through my socks. We joke that Isaac's going to have to cut his long underwear off when we find our new place.
We joke, but I miss my body. I miss hot baths, feeling the tingle of the salts all around, the way my legs get weightless. I can't remember when I last looked at myself in a mirror. I feel like the cold is separating me from a part of myself.
I miss Isaac's body too. I'm not fixated on it, but I did marry the man. You have certain expectations. But at night it's so cold that if you get even partway undressed the feeling retreats from your skin in seconds—and if somehow you do get your blood flowing, and your breath's coming a little fast, you thaw out something inside and your nose just starts running. It gets all over—on your upper lip, in your mouth, in his mouth.
Sometimes Isaac can get me off with his hand under my thermals, but even the little tail of outside air that curls in around his wrist makes my belly prickle. He doesn't like me to touch him that way anymore. Soon, he says. We sit at the foot of the bed, and I touch his face with my face. His beard whispers against my cheek. It's like we've mapped our bodies onto our faces—we're trying to feel everything with just our lips, our eyelids, our earlobes, the wings of our noses. We look at each other in the near dark, his hands on my waist. We touch foreheads and my vision goes watery and at first I think Isaac's breath has fogged up my glasses—but no, they're on the nightstand where I left them. I can make them out, now that I look. The glass of water I brought from the kitchen is glazed with ice. I think, I want a real home. Soon, he says.
When we go to answer the classified ad for the baby, we're met on the stoop by a middle-aged woman in a sweatshirt and slacks. She's wearing jogging shoes, but her face is made up, mostly in oranges.
She asks us to take off our shoes—the carpet inside is cream-colored, striped by a vacuum cleaner—and Isaac hesitates. We're wearing our best coats to hide our clothes, but if we take off our shoes this woman will see how many socks we each have on.
Her small smile of welcome is still set, but heat is hemorrhaging from the open door fast enough to stir my hair. I can hear the baby making happy, birdlike sounds inside. I kick off my boots and step into the foyer.
The woman introduces herself as Cynthia, then says we can call her Cindy. I introduce myself, then Isaac. When we walk into the living room, there are already three tiny egg-shaped cups of pink tea on the coffee table.
Cindy sits down first. Isaac sniffs the tea—it's floral, in a sort of nonspecific way—but he doesn't drink. We're too nervous, I think. This isn't the way we wanted to start a family, but we both know that couples with children are more sought after as tenants. Having our own baby would take longer and cost even more.
"You're the third couple we've seen today," Cindy says. "Honestly, now. Do you think we're asking too much?"
"I'm sorry?" Isaac says.
"It's a very well-maintained baby," she insists. "The last thing I want is for somebody to use Roy, use him, you understand? To get a housing status?"
"Roy?" I say. We haven't even had time to tell her we're looking for a new place. Suddenly I'm afraid we've done something illegal.
Cindy clicks her teacup down on the glass tabletop. She looks at Isaac, then at me. "I'm prepared to be firm. This is a thing of value we're talking about. I mean, just so you know, we're not desperate. We don't need money. We want to do the best we can for the baby."
The furnace shuts off. Through the vent behind my chair I can hear the fans slow to a stop.
"My mother read to me," I say. "Before I was even born."
"Roy has a lot of potential. We want to make sure that whoever, you know, the new parents, are committed to maximizing that potential. Not just committed, but capable. Financially."
I feel Isaac's eyes on my face. "I'm seasonally employed," he says.
"I'm prepared to stay home with the baby," I say. I already stay home. I wish I could explain—I split firewood. Three times a day I walk a mile out into the lake to saw pieces of freshwater ice from a hole Isaac started and I keep open.
"I work at the elephant factory. It's the off-season."
"But you'd consider your job secure?"
"He works with the hide," I say. "That's skilled labor. I can't even get a needle through the stuff. It's, like, this thick." I hold up a finger and thumb to show her.
Isaac is tapping on the rim of his teacup.
"Well," Cindy announces, and her tone brightens so suddenly that I know she's changing the subject. "It looks like the baby has decided to introduce himself." She stands, tugging the wrinkles out of her slacks.
When I look over my shoulder to follow her gaze, Roy's little round head is three feet from my nose. His pajamas are blue, the kind with slippers sewn in, and they have red sailboats all over. He's standing up, hovering maybe ten inches above the carpet, and he makes a faint, steady humming noise, like a small fan. He looks at Isaac, then at me, but his eyes are so empty of appraisal, so flat and uninvolved, that his glance feels like a kind of blessing—informal, effortless, the way a powerful creature, some sort of spirit maybe, might look at people it knew it didn't have to destroy. His eyes are blue, a little too big for his head. They don't even look wet. But he's beautiful. I feel like I should stand up too.
"Hello, Roy," says Cindy.
Roy looks at her, and she smiles.
"He isn't talking yet," she says. "But he's guaranteed to start at 12 months—full sentences at 18. All his warranties are transferable."
"A high-end custom," says Isaac, hopelessly.
"We had his enhancements made two days after he was born," Cindy says, "so he hasn't had any side effects. He'll reach his adult height at 12 years, which will help his self-esteem. And he's been fitted with a built-in toaster oven and an oil-filled closed-coil radiator." She touches the back of the baby's neck. Almost at once I feel a swell of heat, an impossible radiance, and I'm breathing waves of that new-baby smell—sweet and almost yeasty. Cindy sits back down.
The room's so warm I want to take off all my clothes and stretch out on the floor. But I'm ashamed to open my coat, and I'm prickling all over with sweat. What would happen if we got what we wanted, if Isaac and I had our own baby? What chance would that child have in a classroom full of kids like this?
"I know it must seem I'm fixated," Cindy says. "But if you don't mind me saying—well, you have to know. You know, right? You don't exactly look like the kind of people who can afford a baby like Roy. Honestly, what do you make in a year?"
Isaac looks wounded. I catch myself hoping he's about to lie—not just lie, but lie extravagantly.
I want him to invent a figure so outlandish it'll make me blush.
I want this woman not to talk to us this way.
He doesn't say anything.
"What are you even asking for him?" I say. I wipe my eyes. "Are you afraid we'll have enough?"
Cindy straightens up in her chair.
"Dear," says Isaac. I can feel Roy's heat on my face. He floats backward, away from us.
"I am taking legitimate steps to ensure the well-being of my baby," Cindy informs me. "I'd like to know who you think you are to take that tone with me."
"That tone?" I say.
I must've raised my voice, because Cindy reddens. Against the orange on her cheeks, it makes her look blotchy and sick.
"I'm sorry," says Isaac. He's standing up, and he reaches for my elbow. "I'm sorry. We should go."
I let him pull me to my feet. I imagine myself sliding out of his grip, toppling facedown through the coffee table. A thick wedge of glass opens my neck and blood blackens the carpet. We deserve a house, I think. We do. Why do some people act like they just have a right to live?
We don't talk on the way home, but Isaac holds my hand. I squeeze tight. The wind off the lake pushes gray sheets of newspaper hissing over the narrow sidewalks.
We pass a construction site, a lot that used to be a churchyard. I suppose nobody too important was buried there, because now it's mostly churned-up red dirt and a naked foundation, a concrete slab dotted with nubs of vinyl pipe. They've got a start on one wall, but it's just a sketch, the idea of a wall, a skeleton of white wood. Up against the hurricane fence there's a pile of trash, stuff the workers have either pulled down, dug up, or thrown away—snapped boards, bright scraps of copper tubing, lumps of cement, torn tree roots, twisted wrought-iron fencing, bent nails, split stones. I can see the green brass fittings of a broken casket. A workman with his back to us brushes a fat pigeon from the sheared end of a long mustard-colored bone. He's got a wheelbarrow full of crematory urns, dull bronze and crusted with earth, like dummy artillery shells prised out of a hillside at a firing range. I've seen urns like these before, the butt ends of them—actually all I saw were polished disks of metal, inlaid in rows into the facades of some of the newer town houses. I never realized what I was looking at.
Isaac notices I've stopped.
He's a half block up the street and he turns around. He says something, but the wind carries his voice away. The rest of the workmen have gathered around a fire that leaps and gutters desperately in a steel drum.
Cindy was right. That horrible woman understood everything. We can't secure a lease. We don't even have an address. And there's no way we'll be considered for a city housing subsidy without a baby—not in time, anyway. We need to be on the short list, the list for families. We have 40 days. I start walking. It's so cold that even the snow is dry, and instead of falling it only blows from place to place.
For the next two weeks Isaac abandons the constant grubbing for odd jobs that's kept us fed since his layoff. He spends the days working outside, and even though I can see him through the bedroom window, the sound of his hammering seems far away, like gunshots on the other side of a hill. When it gets dark he comes in, his beard sheathed with a dripping muzzle of ice and mucus, and he sits at the kitchen table with a thick needle, a spool of nylon cord, and the scraps of elephant hide he hoarded during the season. I don't like the smell of the stuff—like mothballs and smoked meat—so I stay in our room. Usually I'm asleep before he comes to bed.
I know what he's doing. He wants to build floats for the house, giant pontoons, out of the hide. He wants to beat the thaw that way. Watching him through the window, through the frost on the glass and the blowing snow, is a little like watching a silent movie, like a black-and-white TV where the picture won't quite come in. It's easy to get sentimental.
When I imagine what his vision must be—our house as a boat, drifting all summer from one glassy inlet to the next; whitefish leaping practically onto our porch; the sunset, every night, spilling across the water like a road of beaten gold—I almost want to run out there and hug him.
Isaac's never been afraid to look crazy. He just does things. That's why we could come out here when the rent at our last place got to be too much, instead of lodging with some family with a house of its own—there's that new welfare law where you can work as a domestic for room and board, but you have to hold down a second job, a real job, if you want spending money. And neither of us has the patience for the level of electronic surveillance most of the host families insist on. If they decide to claim you've stolen from them or something, well, they'll still get their tax write-off, but you'll be in jail instead of taking up space at the dinner table.
Today Isaac's already finished all the sewing he can do inside; now he has to wrestle with the bigger, patched-together pieces out in the wind, trying to staple watertight seams along their edges. As I watch, a lumpy black swatch of the hide sails up over his head, snapping furiously in a sudden gust, and for as long as he can hold on, Isaac looks like he's got a giant bat by the ankles. But he must not have a good grip, not in his mittens—in an instant the hide's gone, so quickly it seems to just wink out of being.
He stands there, his arms still raised, and I decide to put my hat and gloves on and fetch tomorrow's water. I'll wave when I pass him, I think, but I won't walk over and try to console him. I won't tell him to stop, either, or remind him that we can't even keep the snow out of our bed. I won't say that this, finally, really is crazy. He'd take anything I said as a challenge, anyway.
I dream about children. I'm shoveling snow from my sidewalk—I have a sidewalk!—and I feel something resist the blade, then give. When I shake the snow from the shovel, some of it sticks. It's sticking to a thick smear of yellow, like egg yolk, and there's a baby buried in the snow with a wedge sheared from the side of its head. I brush the snow from its arms and legs. They're still moving, in labored swimming motions, like it's a windup toy clogged with sand. I'm rooted to the spot—you know how it is in dreams—because I suddenly realize they're everywhere, under all the drifts and hummocks, underfoot anywhere I could turn.
Or I dream Isaac and I are in a beach house, a house with a seaward wall made of glass, and through the wall we can see a massive wave all the way out on the horizon. We understand, with a kind of anesthetized panic, that it's a tidal wave, that it will scour the beach bare for miles, but as the minutes pass and the wave swells we can't do anything but watch. I feel like we have to watch, that somehow our constant attention requires the wave to approach gradually; if we shut our eyes or turned our backs it would crash over us in an instant. In fact, as we look the wave seems to be slowing. The house itself is throbbing with the rolling of the onrushing water, so that my file drawers shimmy open and a paperweight dances off the edge of my desk—but 40 feet from the beach the wave slows to a stop and draws itself up, higher and higher, a bowed, glassy wall of water three, 400 feet high, crowned with iridescent foam and swimming with pink and white rubber bath toys and bricks of pale green soap like the flecks in a gift-shop snow globe. It hovers there, its terrible noise like a train that never stops passing. And we can't look away.
Someone's knocking on the door. Even after I wake up it takes me almost a minute to realize that's what it is—I don't think I've ever heard it before. There's not even a lock.
Isaac is already up. When I push down the covers he's standing beside the bed, watching me, and his hair is brushed and pulled back into a ponytail. He touches my lips with his fingers and I close my eyes. I hear his footsteps pass through the kitchen, and when he opens the door two rooms away the wind fills the house. A candle flutters on the nightstand.
I pull on my boots and walk as far as the bedroom doorway.
In the kitchen Isaac's talking low with another man.
"Hello?" says Isaac. He's heard me, but he doesn't look toward the hall where I'm standing. "Honey, come in here, would you?"
The other man falls silent.
"Morning," I say. Our visitor is wearing a vinyl hat and an inflated-looking green down jacket. A pale blue plastic suitcase with a duct-taped handle covers most of our kitchen table; Isaac's sewing kit is in a jumble on the floor. The man seems to be waiting to speak. He's looking at Isaac, not at me.
"Mr. Saslow," Isaac tells me, "can help us get our housing status. I want you to hear him out. For me."
I don't even have time to object—I hadn't known I was expected to be suspicious.
"John is fine," Mr. Saslow adds. "Call me John." He throws open the suitcase. "This'll set you up right." He lifts a thick, crumpled tube of newspaper out of the case and turns it over and over in his hands, unrolling it. His back is to us. "Most people don't even know the technology's gone this far," he says.
Saslow turns around, and he's holding a naked baby, a little girl. A doll? He pops his thumb in his mouth and rubs a smear of newsprint off its forehead. It has tiny fingernails, even a strawberry birthmark on its neck. For a moment I'm afraid it's a body, a dead baby this man has some way of preserving. "Amazing, isn't it? No organic tissue at all. Wait till you see it running. You got an outlet in here?"
"You said it didn't need an outlet," whispers Isaac.
"Sure, not all the time. Listen, I just don't want to run off the battery if I don't have to. I got another call this morning."
"Turn it on."
Saslow sits the baby down on the floor, its back against a table leg and its arms and legs out straight. He fishes his keys out of his pocket and presses what looks like the disarm button for a car alarm. The baby's eyes film over with water, and it blinks. It rocks forward onto its palms and crawls toward me. A pink flush blooms under its skin, like a heat lamp coming on. There's ice on that floor, I think. I can see my breath.
I step sideways, then back into the hallway, and the baby corrects its course. I feel like I'm being tested—that somehow this is supposed to trigger a maternal response. Instead I have the urge to trap it under a wastebasket, like you do with a cockroach if it's too big to step on.
"Your husband gave me a picture," says Saslow. "So the baby recognizes you."
When I look up at Isaac, he's watching me. I pick the baby up, under its arms like a cat. Its skin is cool and smooth, and thin enough that I can feel tiny cords and armatures sliding underneath. "Take it," I tell Saslow. "Shut it off." I hold it out to him and my hand finds a warm spot, a sharp rectangle of heat coming from inside. The baby's still moving, and I can tell it's looking at me. I know Isaac's still waiting for me to say something too.
"You might've noticed," Saslow says, "that the skin can't really spread out the heat from the works. So you can't let strangers pick the baby up. And you should practice some yourself, so it looks natural. A real kid wouldn't have been too happy like that."
He has his back to me again, and as he talks he works a penknife into a seam on the baby's scalp. Its nose is flattened against the tabletop. "Your temptation," he says, "is going to be to go out nights, just leave the baby shut off. But you can't do that. You have to act like parents. You won't need to use diapers, but you have to buy them. Buy baby food. You can eat it yourself, if you have to—it's actually not so bad."
He presses his fingertips down on the back of the baby's head, and a hatch clicks open—straight out, like the door on an old top-loading VCR. "This is the only maintenance you have to do. Look here," he says, sliding out a battery and laying it on the table. "Look for the contacts. See those silver things up in there? The tabs on the battery go that way. The white port is for distilled water—that's weekly—and the other one's silicone grease."
"I'm sorry you've come all this way," I say. I'm looking at Saslow—at the back of his head, actually—but my tone is for Isaac. "I really am. But I don't have time for this."
He must know I'm not talking to him. "The real cost comes from getting documents on file with the right agencies," he says. "You know, to prove you really adopted it? The other catch is, it won't age. You'll need it to die—otherwise your neighbors are going to wonder why it still doesn't talk, you know, why it isn't any bigger. It's actually pretty easy to come by a real body for the autopsy, since, well, not all the customizations that're so popular now go off without a hitch, if you follow me."
He's still talking when the door bangs shut behind me, and I don't stop until I'm out of earshot. I look back. The sky's clear, but on the surface of the ice the snow's still moving. The house seems to flicker with each gust of wind. I turn my back on it and it's like it never existed. I start walking again. Notched ridges snake along the common edges of plates of ice, tiny mountain ranges carved by the wind. They look like long fossil spines, the frozen bodies of huge fish, of giant eels, of dragons that coiled under the waves, breathing tongues of green fire along the hulls of ships. I picture the mouths of sunken cannon, blurred with snowy pink crusts of minerals; I picture ceramic jars, crumpled into mosaics of themselves like ancient eggshells, jars that carried wine or creosote or the translucent embryos of dinosaurs cradled in purple capillaries. The ice contains shipwrecks, the thousands of champagne glasses on board each luxury liner suspended forever between tabletops and ballroom floors; it contains gulls, dogs, surfboards, orange smears of petroleum froth, condoms, and the imprints of broad leaves from jungle trees that died in a blast of cold wind ten million years ago, when this winter began. The ice goes on, past the other side of the world. It contains everything.
I wonder what they're talking about now. All I can hear is the snow squeaking under my feet. I hear my steps slowing, and I stop.
I'm on the subway, with plastic bags of groceries piled over my feet. The train passed my stop 15 minutes ago. I'm looking out the window, lulled into half-consciousness by the slow rhythm of the lights passing on the tunnel wall.
Something buzzes against my hip. The woman next to me starts upright and clutches her wrist to her chest, pushing up her jacket sleeve to expose a heavy white plastic bracelet that's vibrating visibly. It's the kind welfare domestics wear—the police used to use something similar on people under house arrest. Her watch beeps six o'clock.
"It's the damn train is late," she says bitterly. "You hear me?" She seems to be talking to the bracelet. She holds her forearm out from her body, like someone who's just had stitches in her thumb.
"I'm sorry," she tells me. "They're just laying on the button, right, since they can't get all in my face like they want to. You know how folks get, think they own you."
"It's all right," I say. "I don't mind." The bracelet is still buzzing. "You should tell your officer about them."
"You ever been on welfare?" she says, looking at me for the first time. Her eyes are watery and yellow.
I know I should say no, but the catch in her voice makes me ashamed. I look away, back out the window.
"Why don't you tell him, then," she says. "Write me a letter." She stands for her stop and the train climbs out of the tunnel, so the window reflects the inside of the car, the rows of slack faces floating over the satiny purple of the sunset outside.
From where I'm sitting I can see the same white electronic bracelet on four other passengers. I picture the call button, if there really is a button, as a flat red plunger, like they always use in the movies to start a nuclear war. I wonder if the host families pass them back and forth on their couches, laughing and drinking wine.
I wake up early, sweating in all my layers like I'm deep in a fever. The first sound I hear isn't the hiss of snow against the windows but falling water, meltwater falling in globes from the eaves and dropping from the fresh icicles on the sash. The ice scatters sunlight in tangles on the bedspread, and from the westward window I see the city like a great fallen chandelier, miles and miles of rooftops and wet black tree branches toothed with icicles, everything shining, everything exhaling vapor and radiance, the air filling with water, with millions and millions of tiny crystalline drops of water.
The lake ice is darkening so fast that at first I think I'm watching the shadow of a cloud. In moments it's black and glassy, with a film of water on top.
I look at Isaac, who's out of bed now too. I open my mouth and close it again. He only nods. From under the floor there's a creak and a dull pop. Outside on the ice the long, low mound of one of Isaac's hide pontoons glistens with melting snow.
Another pop, and I start to feel dizzy. A strange, sickening exhilaration floods my body. None of this is real. None of this could possibly be real. I strip off my shirt, all my shirts, over my head, and pain flares down my belly, all over my arms, in my armpits—it's the hair, I remember; there's hair caught in the fabric. My skin is blanched, plucked, my nipples puckered and ashen. It doesn't look like my body.
From the porch I prod the ice with the toe of my boot. It leaves a grainy divot that fills from beneath. I imagine all the trash loosened from the ice, drifting down into the cold black lake, a slow shower of bones and cigarette butts, teeth and vertebrae and bottlecaps, corroded bullet casings and filthy newspapers, everything the city can expel. My teeth are chattering now, but I don't feel it; it comes to me as a noise. I think: I deserve a home because I would love it. I would love it and make it beautiful, and there are not enough beautiful places. There would be polished blond wood floors and white window frames. In clay pots on the sills there would be sweet basil and rosemary and a glossy dark green pepper plant. All winter the radiators would clunk and gurgle in the corners, and we'd have to prop a window open to keep it from getting too warm. I would walk from bed naked in the mornings to put on water for tea, feeling the sun on the backs of my legs. I would take baths. I would close my eyes and float until the mirrors were hazy with steam. I'd buy some of those bath balls that look like candy, and for two whole days our rooms would smell like perfume. We would watch fireflies in the hedges in July. I would buy a typewriter. There would always be a bowl of fruit on the table, pink apples and yellow pears. A pomegranate. Velvety red and green mangoes, smooth as custard inside. We would make love on the rug in the living room with the windows open. We would have a cat. We would have a baby.
I can hear loose plates of ice sighing and grating against each other. Somewhere close by, water slaps against an upturned slab. It won't be long now.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Tony Maine.