The News from Breakfast

The news from breakfast wasn’t good. In the cupboard above the stove, there were two more packages of Ramen noodles, one package of spaghetti, but no sauce, no cereal, no bread, no peanut butter. In the refrigerator, no milk—just the crusty dregs of some blackberry jam and Lev’s sad yellow box of baking soda. I could go a few more days, maybe even a week. I could rifle through the dusty canned goods in the bomb shelter. But sooner rather than later I needed to get to town. I needed to get food.

The snow was only about a foot deep, but drifts had formed alongside the open field, deep wind-carved cornices that looked like white-capping waves. This morning, even with the fire built up and throwing heat, the chill off the front door was shocking. Generally, as a point of pride, I avoided looking at the thermometer affixed to the side of the house, preferring to take in the weather for myself. Snow squeaking underfoot meant cold; instant nostril hair freezing meant very cold; and for more nuanced readings, there was the sharpness of the air on the exposed skin by my eyes and how far up into the woods my toes went numb. The thermometer’s precision had come to seem superfluous—a stand-in for my own body, which was less finely calibrated than the thermometer’s little black lines, but told me more: the direction of the wind, the smell of coming snow, the idiocy of not wearing wool socks. My body was probably even sending my brain news updates I didn’t know it was receiving— teams of meteorologists and first responders shuttling around, all of it simply registering as an instinct to turn back towards the house or to snowshoe deeper into the woods. But this morning, with my brain actually piping up and telling me I needed to get to town, I checked the circular thermometer. The long red arrow had keeled over and given up. The numbers to the right of zero stood aimless, overly ambitious, like the speedometer of a car up on blocks. Everything, including the very possibility of temperature, canceled on account of the cold.

After the first snow two weeks earlier, Nat had magically appeared in his truck, a battered yellow plow angled rakishly on the front. We hadn’t spoken since his final wood delivery in October, and I was planning on calling him but didn’t want to call until the road was truly impassable and the cupboard truly bare—not just because of my backwoodsman pride but also because of my backwoodsman lack of money. But with only about six inches on the ground, he’d come on his own. He’d rolled down his window, ashed his cigarette. “Long stretch coming in heayah from Mooreland Road.”

It was a very long stretch.

“I’ll show with the snow. Not for a few inches like this, but when you need it.”

He’d looked straight ahead, the truck idling. I tried to think of what I could afford. I had just under $1,900 in my bank account. The wood was paid for, no expenses other than about a $150 a month for food, but Lev had mentioned the possibility of staying for another year.

Nat suggested $225 for the winter. I couldn’t tell if he was lowballing, so the flatlander would do his negotiating for him, or if he was just being generous. Did I look that hard-up?

“Deal,” I said.

Since then, there’d been a few inches almost every night, and he hadn’t come. But I didn’t want to call. I didn’t want to look helpless or desperate. I didn’t want to look like some young idealist who had gotten himself in over his head. And, on a deeper level, maybe I needed to believe that Nat really was looking out for me—and that if the snow warranted it, he would come.

But now I needed food, something with color. I’d dreamed of orange juice. The orange radiance of it, its impertinence against the dim, gray sky. Then just one swallow. And a circus starting up inside my face—the tartness a trapeze act in my cheeks, the sugar a strapping majorette prancing in my throat.

So I trudged up to the car. The steering wheel was bonecold through my gloves. I let the engine run for a good fifteen minutes, but the car still felt like it was a part of the snow and shouldn’t be disturbed. Eventually, I downshifted into the lowest gear and rolled towards the open field. Alongside the apple trees, there were no drifts, just a silent whiteness gliding beneath the car. The motion felt so smooth, an entirely new mode of transport. The first challenge was the sudden rise, at the curve before the road straightened out alongside the field. Spindrift was blowing in sheets off the top of what looked to be a three-foot drift. I hit the gas. My little white Honda acted like a motorboat, the undercarriage bouncing off the snow, white plumes spraying to the side, the car rocking and pulsing, snow flashing up over the windshield. My foot held steady. I couldn’t see, but the car was fighting for momentum, the steering wheel resisting my hands, the car angling towards the trees. I let up on the gas, and the car lost traction, juddering to a stop. The thick snowy branches hung over the hood, as though beckoning. The quiet held the car like a glove. My stomach growled and I thought of the empty refrigerator, how hungry I would be. I shifted into reverse and the wheels spun. The sound was terrible— no better than a toy car with its wheels in the air. I got out with the shovel. Good Lord, it was cold! The air felt like a thin layer of ice cracking and spiderwebbing around my face. I shoveled until my hands were numb. Got back in the car, hit the gas. Stuck again. Reverse ten yards. Hit the gas, stuck again. I felt like an old-style football team: three yards and cloud of dust, only there was more snot running out of my nose.

There was just too much snow. And no getting out.

Two days later, Nat came. As I trudged down past the buried stone wall and into the meadow at the end of my morning walk, I could hear a truck in the distance. It was a bright, cloudless day, and with no leaves in the trees the engine sound seemed to be coming from all directions at once. I’d taken another inventory of the cupboards and had been limiting myself to two meals a day. Breakfast that morning had been some cooked pasta with the old blackberry jam. If two more days passed, I’d told myself, I would give in and call.

I leaned against my poles, listened, and as the picture from my ears filled into the shape of Nat’s truck, with a real yellow plow and the real Nat behind the wheel, I felt a rush of gratitude so deep it shamed me. Nothing came out of my mouth, but my body felt like it was emitting a sound as I stood there—like music was broadcasting from inside me out into the winter air. It was too intense. I didn’t want to need anyone this badly.

I hadn’t felt particularly lonely before hearing his engine, but it disturbed me how happy I was to hear him—not just to know the road would be open but to know he hadn’t forgotten me. I existed for him. This house in the woods, with me inside it, existed. I didn’t like thinking about my parents thinking about me, worrying about my sanity, or even about Ray imagining me like some modern Thoreau, living deliberately beneath the pines, or about Andrew calling me a woodsman Bob Dylan— how does it feel, to be on your own, with no direction home—because those conceptions of me, however generous, didn’t really match up with how I felt. But for Nat to remember me was reassuring. His conception of me, whatever it was, didn’t start with my old life.

As I snowshoed through the meadow towards the road, he raised one finger from his steering wheel in salute, his cigarette dangling from his mouth. I wanted to say hello, to talk about the weather, to talk about anything, to bring him his money. But he ignored me, the truck shunting forward and back, tires spinning and then catching, the plow battering the soft snow into solid banks. There was music playing from his radio—something country, something with strings. To get his attention required yelling, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. My voice had been dormant for too long. Sometimes at dinner, just opening my mouth for the first spoonful of soup, my jaw would ache from disuse. And the quiet around me was too large; too much would fall clattering around me if it shattered. So I started towards him on my snowshoes, sliding down the snowbank by my car. But he didn’t see me. When he did, and I raised my hand, he just raised one finger again, and the truck sped out of the meadow, little chains of snow spitting up from the back tires as he went.

The road was clear now. The track led all the way to the grade that led down to the house. I should have been relieved, should have been rejoicing, but as my snowshoes clomped onto the hard empty road, I had the strangest feeling. A physical disappointment, an awful lightness in my hands and feet. Unformed words clustered in my throat—they had no reason to take shape now. They were stillborn, caught in the long delivery between me and the outside world. I could feel them slowly sinking back down into the depths. The most painful part wasn’t the words themselves but all that they were swimming through— that distance between my silence and how it might feel to talk to another person. I’d had no idea the distance had grown so large.

The Point of Vanishing - Howard Axelrod

Howard Axelrod’s work has appeared in the New York Times MagazineShambhala Sun, and the Boston Globe, among other publications. He currently teaches at Grub Street in Boston, where he lives. The Point of Vanishing is his first book.

Excerpted from The Point of Vanishing: A Memoir of Two Years in Solitude by Howard Axelrod (Beacon Press, 2015). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

Leave a Reply