Wendy J. Fox is the author of the collection ”The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories” and the novels, “The Pull of It” and ”If the Ice Had Held.” Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Buzzfeed, and Self, as well as in literary magazines including Washington Square, Euphony, and Painted Bride Quarterly. More at www.wendyjfox.com.
The following is an excerpt from “If the Ice Had Held.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
2020 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Literary Fiction
Kathleen | Winter, 1974
Kathleen wondered why, if half the human body was really made up of water, how water could be so dangerous. Her brother Sammy had split the ice of the river trying to cross, and he floated to the shore—found by a townie cop before he was even missed.
She didn’t understand, if he wasn’t sunk, why the river couldn’t lift him, glide him to the banks until his toes touched gravel and he put his legs down and walked back into the night. Glistening with cold, yes, lips blue, yes, skin brittle to the touch, clothes sopping and the hem of his jeans just starting to freeze, but still with breath, heat from his lungs condensing the air around him.
Instead, the officer heaved him from the water in the dark of the winter evening, Sammy’s teenaged body sharp with ice.
Melanie | Spring, 2007
The software company in Denver where Melanie worked was in the majority of how start-ups ran—less glamorous than the swanky dot-coms of Silicon Valley, with their organic catering menus, on-site yoga, and complimentary Rolfing massage coupons, and more high-acid paper files sweltering under the heat of a hundred laptops, payroll cobbled out of questionable revenue recognition processes, and strings of code written under the damp pressure of a hangover. Their space was not sky-high and bathed in clean, filtered light, but rather it occupied the ground-floor wing of a crumbling office park where the air-conditioning was troubling and unreliable.
All through her twenties Melanie had bounced back and forth between jobs, and then finally, on the eve of her third decade, she landed this one. Through the issue of a company phone and a five-page document explaining how the 401(k) vested, she transformed into her idea of an adult and had stayed tethered to the company since then. The job gave her enough money to secure and pay a mortgage on a small condo close to downtown, to help her mother, Kathleen, out once in a while, and it gave her enough order to dampen the feeling of spinning she’d always had, even if only for moments.
Since she worked in tech, the model was acquisition, and she was not naïve to this. The model meant that the founders and a few of the earliest employees would cash out, and the rest of them would stay in the office, typing toward a different destiny—same keyboards, same products, just new letterhead that sat in the same place as the old letterhead, in a crumpled box under the printer. Still, when it actually happened, she had no idea the company had been for sale until she was asked to proofread the press release. Like an iffy check, it was postdated by several weeks and gave her a queasy feeling.
“Are there going to be layoffs?” she had asked her boss. She was in a small department where she did marketing and market analysis. She was hired without any training back when the company was not profitable; they’d taken a chance on her, so she felt a kind of loyalty. Still, she had read enough to know how acquisitions went. A team from corporate would make people redundant, and then the rest of the employees would plow through, taking on more and more work and living in terror of their cable bill.
Her boss told her not to talk about it. Her boss told her not to make any stock purchases of the publicly traded parent.
“You could be considered an insider,” her boss had said and raised her eyebrow to a dangerous slope, like they were talking about a real tip, a life-changer.
Melanie did not think their little company being absorbed into a conglomerate would make even a blip in the markets, but she swore to secrecy anyway.
Later, when she was not let go and she told her new co-workers at headquarters in Chicago that she had to look them up, they were shocked. We are on the Fortune 500, they had said. Right, she had said, there are five hundred of those? She wondered if people who had gone to business school memorized this list, like the state capitals or the names of the saints.
Irene | Winter, 1974
Irene wasn’t sure if she should go to the funeral, but she also couldn’t stay away—she thought that was just like Sammy, pulling at her even after he was gone. It was hard to remain contained. The flowers, the handful of people sweating in their formal clothes that were too warm for the church with the heat cranking, the way there was so much silence because the pastor, or the minister, or whoever he was, didn’t know Sammy, so he just did the usual passages, the ashes and such, and no one from the family got up to speak.
The only other funeral she had been to was her aunt’s and uncle’s, when they were in a car accident with a tractor-trailer carrying crates of chickens. They hadn’t even been the vehicle directly involved, they’d only swerved to avoid the wreckage on the highway. She had been very young, but she remembered that after that, she didn’t see her older cousin, Lucy Estelle, as much anymore. At the service, her father, her rigid and snapping father, was like a boy. She had been only ten, but she knew what it meant to see him cry for the first time. It wasn’t even really a funeral, just a memorial at the VFW, but she saw her father bare then, raw from sobbing and from having drunk whiskey all day, and then from sobbing some more. In front of the people who had come to pay their respects to the man and the woman who had taken their last breaths in a crumple of iron while the down from the spilt chickens clung to them like frost, her father had opened. Her father had told the story of him and his brother as young enlisted men, briefly, and then he moved backward—two boys on a farm at the end of a dirt road and how they were so lucky. Your closest sibling is your first friend, he had said, and her father and his brother had stayed that way, the first person to notify of trouble and of joy.
She was fourteen now and so Irene had planned something to say if there were words at Sammy’s funeral. I know you do not know me, she would say to the small group of people who had gathered, mostly family, but I loved your brother, your son. I know you do not know me, but I know how Sammy spoke of every person here, though I am sorry if I might not get your faces. Mikey and Kathleen, your brother loved you. Jeannette and Rose and Darlene and Thomas. Mom and Dad. All he ever wanted was to be with you. I never had jealousy toward other girls, only you all.
If she was very, very brave, she might tell the rest of it—that she was pregnant, that they had planned to marry—but since no space was offered for anyone to speak, she only hitched a ride to the gravesite with someone she didn’t know, keeping her silence through the drive to the cemetery, where she watched Sammy’s casket get lowered into the ground. After, she turned and walked back toward home, the weight of the baby like a penance, like a gift.
When Kathleen came walking up the hill behind the school towards Irene, it was easy to see how Sammy’s sister was like him. He had been the same—direct about what he wanted.
Kathleen introduced herself and she offered some thanks for coming to the service. Irene was not sure if she was supposed to shake the sister’s hand or cry. Irene took a drag from her cigarette, even though every time she smoked, her stomach turned over. She had tried to stop, but it had been hard with her father puffing in the house, and so she gave up, and she told herself she had bigger things to worry about than cigarettes. There was a knot in her shoulder that ached when she turned her head, and a dull pain in her lower back all of the time. There was her messy room, and the way her body was changing—if she had thought the beginning of adolescence was bad, she felt a fool now, not even on the other side of puberty.
The way she’d prayed for her breasts to bud and her cycle to begin, because she thought these changes would make her a woman—what she didn’t know then was the change that comes when the cycle is interrupted: the blooming of the breasts, the tension at the belly, the smell of everything, and the hunger.
Irene was a freshman and the fact that her body was starting to form a child before she could drive or vote or legally live on her own was not lost on her; she understood she was young, even if she was the oldest that she’d ever been.
The other girl, the sister, Kathleen, was tall, like Sammy, and also resembled him in the face, though Irene was not sure how much she could trust this girl who came to her in the snow, who came to her seeking the part of her brother that Irene carried. She was sure the sister knew, even though they had not yet gotten very far past introductions. Irene put out her hand.
“He mentioned you,” Irene said as the school’s bell rang. She wanted to give something else like, It seemed like he loved you best, or He mentioned what an amazing auntie you would be. Both were true but it was hard to feel like anything was worth telling with him gone.
“We should talk,” Kathleen said, but Irene turned to go back to class.
The sister followed like a dog would, half a length back and a few paces to the side, determined.
The words Irene had inside of her at the funeral had seemed so whole, a little orb, and though she’d been able to imagine saying her piece—I know you do not know me, but I loved your brother, your son—like the child inside her, getting something into the air of the world was harder than thinking about it.
It was stupid of them to get pregnant, and it seemed stupid, now that he was gone, that they’d not just talked to Sammy’s folks, even to the sister, Kathleen, whom he was the closest with. His people wouldn’t have cared, but he was trying to do right first: get a ring on her finger, get a better job than working at the stockyard. She and Sammy were trying to smooth it out, trying to show they could be responsible by making a plan and keeping it before they told their secret.
Now Kathleen was tracking her through the snow, and Irene was sure Sammy’s sister would not give up in trying to know her.
Irene did not want to be known. She’d let Sammy get close to her, and see—just look at what had happened.