Gray trails uncurl like leftover party decorations pulled away from the ceiling to droop listlessly unto a littered floor. These unfurling trails of dirty smoke slowly surround the idling trucks. The trucks shudder in the cold dampness of morning, their feeble red taillights glow like pale auras, beckoning people to go where they really shouldn’t. These are the wavering markers that demarcate the boundaries of a frozen hell.
My brother talks with the other drivers. For them, this is the winter version of everyday. Their talking is low and muffled, instantly sucked up by the cold. The voices freeze in the black air, turn to icicles and shatter onto the frozen ground. The men stand on their words.
I watch this winter ritual hunched up inside my leather jacket. I shiver and regret coming at all. I want to forget the whole thing and go back home where it is nice and warm. Let me pull myself back under the heavy blankets. I’m sure they’re still warm. It hasn’t been that long since I was nicely dreaming away.
Then that awful RRRIIINNNGGGGG!!! What? 4 am.? Why did I set my stupid clock so early? I slowly remember the promise made to help my older brother. Why oh why did I ever say that. Promises are easy to make in the middle of the day but difficult to honor before dawn. Today is supposed to be a vacation day from school and what am I doing? Getting up even earlier than normal—mdash;mdash;three hours earlier.
I reach my hand on top of the covers, a white spider inching over the bed, spindly, brittle legs checking this way and that. I feel around for my bathrobe, snatch it under the blankets and struggle into it. When it finally warms up I move toward the side of the bed, fighting to keep from tumbling back down into the warm, fluffy blankets. My first toe hits the linoleum floor, WHAM! My whole foot retracts, recoils like some marvelous heron snaring a fish from icy waters. The next time I try, my foot touches a waiting slipper. Good old slipper. In cahoots with the devil to get me out of bed. Later, when I’m more awake, I must remember to throw those slippers away. Too old and beat up and now I have proof that they are in league with Satan to torture me. Burn them, burn them, I say! No, wait, fire is too good for them. Throw them off the Mackinaw Bridge—mdash;mdash;in February. Yes, they will get their just desserts. Yes, frozen dessert.
I finally find the second slipper and wiggle it onto my freezing toes. HMMM. That does feel pretty good. Better than bare feet on this linoleum floor of swirling green and gray flowers. Maybe I better keep the slippers after all. I shuffle over to the window and pull on the green window shade enough to raise it a few inches. I bend down to peer out but it is all iced up. I try to scrape away a view but there is too much frost. I raise the shade a few more inches. Nothing. I can see absolutely nothing. It is pitch black outside. I’ve never seen so much nothing before. I look back toward my covers. They look like cumulus clouds tinged with the cuddly warm pink glow of a July afternoon. I inch closer, one hand sliding under the waiting folds. A shiver startles me awake enough to stay up. My brother needs to finish his route early and he never asks for help.
I gather up some clothes and cross the hall to the bathroom, tossing the pile on the heat register to warm them up. I remember my Long Johns and scurry back to the bedroom, retrieving them from the bottom drawer. They don’t get used much, but this is definitely a Long Johns day. Stumbling and tripping into them, I let out another shiver. Dummy. You didn’t warm them up with the rest of the clothes. I hurry into some more layers, now warm. Ah, this is better. Maybe the world is all right after all.
Tiptoeing toward the kitchen, I realize that everyone else is still sleeping. I open the shredded wheat box and dump one biscuit into a waiting bowl. I find myself reading the cardboard dividers that protect the fragile biscuits. They always have Indian lore and this one says,
I look around for some raisins to liven up the flavor and then pour on some milk. The secret of good cereal is to put the milk in at the last possible second so the cereal stays crunchy longer. I pride myself on my cereal-eating style. This is Michigan and that means Battle Creek—mdash;mdash;the home of cereal. Even though I have only been there once, I still know cereal better than somebody from Ohio or Oklahoma or Oregon or someplace else. My one trip to Battle Creek was to take my brother to Fort Custer when he went into the army. Funny how those army images stick with you. I also remember going to Plymouth, Michigan, when he signed up. That was at the Daisy Air Rifle factory. Crazy how stuff mixes; Daisy Air Rifles, kid’s BB guns, corn flakes, The best to you each morning, the army, and my brother. "That’s America buddy and don’t you forget it."
I eat a second shredded wheat biscuit, bundle into more clothes and head for the door. Just as I close the door, I see my mother walk into the kitchen, “Please be careful on your motorcycle. It may be slippery.”
“Sure, Mom," I say as I walk down the utility room steps en route to the garage. “I will. Thanks for getting up. See ya later.” I zip up my new leather jacket as I open the garage door and push the bike outside. My Dad’s Chevy is still in the garage. Probably the first time I ever left before him on a weekday. I kick the starter a few times and it catches. I stand back to look as it warms up. Even in the dark, it is beautiful. Brand new. 1957 Harley Davidson 165, gold color. Not as big as some Harleys, but for a fourteen year old kid, it is pretty darn good. I climb onto the black seat, lift the bike off the kickstand and gently nudge it into first gear. Glancing toward the house I see my mother framed in the light of the kitchen window and give her a reassuring wave as I roar off into the darkness.
Even at four thirty in the morning it feels good to be riding but, I must admit, pretty cold. I drive west toward Farmington Road and turn left. I need to go past Six Mile, Five Mile, Schoolcraft, to Plymouth Road where I will turn left again. This is all familiar territory. I’ve been on this road a million times before, but today, it is very early and very cold. I duck down behind the windshield, a windshield I didn’t really want, but right now it is wonderful. I pass Five Mile, reaching down to warm my left hand on the engine. I can’t warm the right one because I must keep that hand on the throttle. Only a few more miles, then I can park this bike and warm up in the truck. I pull my fingers back out of the gloves, curling up my hands to gain a little warmth before sliding them back into the finger holes once more. I tell myself that it is only a little farther. Nearing the green light of Schoolcraft, I half wish it will turn red so I can rub my hands together. It stays green, a frigid, lonely orb that colors the road and sends me onward. I can hear the leather of my jacket creak as I move around on the seat, trying to find a warmer spot. I brush away some tears running from my freezing eyes and, suddenly, the handlebars jerk violently, wrenching out of my hands. I grab for something, but all is shaking, a dozen handlebars overlap in my vision. I can’t grab the right one. The bike veers sideways, skidding and wobbling in slow motion over the railroad tracks, carrying me toward a frozen field.
BANG! I’m down. It is quiet. The motor has stopped. The wind has stopped, the tears in my eyes, the cold in my fingers, everything has stopped. Only the darkness remains. It envelops, ensnares, engulfs. All is dark and all is cold.
I roll over on the ice-crusted weeds and slowly climb onto my shaky legs. Nothing seems to be hurt. My pants are intact, my jacket is scuffed, but okay. I pick up the bike. A few things are bent that used to be straight, but it seems okay. I climb on, remembering the old adage about getting back on your horse after it has thrown you. I carefully try the kick starter. The engine sputters back to life. The windshield has a big crack and the headlight is askew, but functional. I gingerly kick it into gear like a cowboy touching spurs to a newly broken horse, and inch out onto the still black road. Only two more miles to go.
Plymouth Road seems a little brighter, but still no traffic. The only cars are in the dealers' lots, forgotten in this predawn. They wait in rows, patient under the dangling bare light bulbs. Flags on antennas droop forlornly. If all car shopping had to be done at this hour, Detroit would be a ghost town. After Chevy Town and Dodge City and Ford Land, I finally turn in at Wilson’s Dairy, park the bike in a quiet, out-of-the-way spot and walk, a little stiff-legged, back to the waiting trucks.
My brother looks up from the other frost-breathing men, leaves the group, and comes over to me. “Are you all right?” he asks, looking at my scuffed jacket and ghost-white face.
“I guess so," I stutter. “Spilled the bike on the railroad tracks. Too cold.” We walk to the bike, somehow not quite as regal as it usually looks. It left some of its grandeur back on Farmington Road. “This must be what is meant by the world of hard knocks," I venture, with a small laugh.
“OUCH," my brother Don says, bending down to make sure no oil is leaking out. “I guess everything looks okay. No dents. Just need to straighten here and there. How about you? You okay?”
“Yeah, I guess I’m Okay. Happened so fast, I just kinda rolled. I was so frozen. Lucky I didn’t shatter into a million bits.”
The two brothers walk around the corner of the block building, silhouettes surrounded in frost breath. The trucks are lined up next to the dairy building, like yellow cows in stanchions waiting to be milked. The drivers wait for the warehouse doors to open so they can load up for their day’s deliveries. They lift their eyes as we approach, peering out from under wool plaid hat brims, ear flaps pulled low against the winter. “Hey, Henry, you helpin' your brother today? calls Bill McMillan. He is the milkman for our neighborhood. “Boy, Don, you sure are lucky having a young brother to help.”
Don starts to call back, “I hope he can hold bottles better than he holds that...” his talking is drowned out in the screech of metal doors opening upwards. Time to load up. Each driver must be careful to get his exact order to cover today’s route. The bottles rest in their metal cases; 300 quarts of white milk, 4 chocolate, some buttermilk. Next comes 10 cottage cheese, 8 half and half, some whipping cream, and 4 butter. Even 15 half gallons of ice cream and a case of popsicles. Don checks his order and shoves the cases to me to stack in the back of the truck, each case scraping across the metal floor and jangling as it is set on top of the other cases. Everything must be stacked just right so we can find a cottage cheese with chives when we need it for Mrs. Jones or Mrs. Smith.
The gray cases with Wilson’s Dairy stenciled in red build in stacks until they press against the driver’s seat, a kind of high, stool affair that allows the driver to almost stand while driving. Don jumps into the truck, smiling, “Ready to go?” He is happy because, with help today ,we are loaded and ready to pull out way before everyone else. “Look at those guys. They’ll be ten more minutes. We sure beat everybody today.” He closes the door, waves to his buddies, and we back away, shifting into first gear to move toward Plymouth Road. I lean back against the cases, trying not to look at my bike as we head toward the town of Plymouth.
Most of Don’s milk route is in Plymouth because he is a Plymouth/Northville guy. When he went to school, there wasn’t any high school in Livonia. He married a Plymouth girl and they live in Plymouth. For me it is different. Livonia is now the fastest growing city in Michigan. They are already building the second high school. Highways snake into the countryside to bring thousands of new families to Livonia. Rolling fields give way to new subdivisions of small brick homes. Two or three models sporting OPEN signs perch together near the road, models complete with Heywood-Wakefield dining room outfits set out with Melmac tableware and stainless steel forks and spoons. Rows of sod struggle to look like grass, trying their best to grow on sand scraped clear of any topsoil. If the new owners want any real dirt, they must buy it from the land developers. Mostly, they don’t care. Compared to living in downtown Detroit, this is paradise. Yes, life is different for Don and me. Donald was raised a Bobbysoxer, courting girls to big band music, prone to wearing sweaters with big diamond shapes on them. I am a rock n roller, wearing tightly pegged Levi’s and pink shirts with the collars turned up. Twelve years difference in this century that rushes toward the moon is equivalent to the changes of a hundred years. Our lives are as different as Romanesque and Gothic or Gothic and Renaissance. We pray in different churches.
We turn onto a small street, the lights of the Divco truck peering into the black void, weakly trying to define a tree or a mailbox. We stop. “I’ll take this one," Don says. “You grab that place over there. Two white and a cottage cheese. Goes in a box by the garage door.” I drop the order into a case and hurry toward the black on black silhouette, trying to make out what part is the garage. The grass changes to sidewalk and I slow, none too soon, as I come face to face with the garage door. Its white color gives me a second’s notice before I bang into it. I put the order into the box, pick up some empties, and return.
“Everything okay?” Don calls.
“Yep.” I answer. “Man, it sure is dark.”
“Darker than the hubs of heck," he chuckles. He never swears around his younger brother, maybe doesn’t swear much at all. We move along the street. The truck seems small in the dark. There is nothing between us and the stars. We are our own little spaceship, a tiny dot of warmth in frozen, timeless space. We are on a mission, to deliver supplies to the outlying stars, stars cutoff if not for our assistance. “Two quarts over there. Milk chute by the side door.”
“Aye, aye sir.” I call as I hurry up the driveway, find the chute door in the blackness, and throw it open. The inside door is ajar and I can smell bacon frying. I put the bottles in the box. The space is bathed in kitchen light and I see the bottom of a powder blue bathrobe over a flannel nightgown. It wisks by, slippers making scurrying noises on the polished floor. “Good morning Don," a lady’s voice calls. “Cold out there today?” “Yep, sure is.” I call through the chute, trying to lower my voice a little so it will match his.
“Say hello to Jane ," she says, her voice trailing away as I run back to the truck. The words match the rhythms of my steps and mingle with the clattering of the empties in the case, a strange music filling one small piece of space, a space that ripples away endlessly in every direction.
We follow some unwritten map, a map that crisscrosses over what was once open fields and sloping land bordering creeks and rivers. Now it is curbed and guttered and paved and laid out with bushes and trees. Our trail isn’t marked with piled stones, but rather with milk boxes and milk chutes and two empties on the steps and two by the carport. We dole out the bottles and cartons, unaware that gray is overtaking the blackness. Black is pulling back its troops, willing to hole up in corners and hide low along the cold walls of wooden houses. A garage door opens and a man with thinning-hair walks around the back of his car. He backs slowly out of the drive as I carry some bottles to his side door. At the next house a woman carries a trash can to the curb, her hair wound tight in rollers. A housecoat peeks out from under a heavy winter coat. “BBBRRRHHH!" is all she says as I hurry to her door. “Can I have a cottage cheese today?” she asks. “Want to try a new Jello recipe.”
“Sure thing," I say, hurrying back for the extra order.
The minutes are measured by bottles and cartons, the hours by percentages of black. 100% black yields to 90%, which gives way to 80 and 70. Gray houses slowly reveal themselves as red brick. Gray boards that enclose garages and porches become pastel green or salmon. Black and gray cars are transforming themselves into turquoise and white Fords with crowns of silver or becoming yellow-green Chevys with spears of black emblazoning their sides. 60%, 50%. Tomato red and white Oldsmobiles stand in front of ranch homes and there are even a few Dodges and Desotos sporting three tones; charcoal, pink and white. Maybe this is the most colorful period for automobiles. The slow painting of today’s landscape gives a false sense of warmth. If anything, it is becoming colder as some bitter wind hunts for openings in our coats, ferrets out exposed surfaces between hats and collars, slaps red cheeks turned too long toward the north. “Hey, Don, guess what?” I call across the yard as we hurry back toward the truck. Stepping into the truck, I notice Don’s inquiring look and add, “This day stinks.”
Don smiles and says, “You’re not going to turn into a punk on me, are you?”
“Don’t give me that punk baloney. You did enough of that when you used to come home on leave and tell Bob and me that we were punks unless we could eat ten slices of white bread at every meal. That worked then, but I’m not falling for it anymore. Man, you had us eating a couple hundred slices of bread a week. Lucky our stomachs didn’t turn to solid cement," I grin. Don grins too.
Our smiles fade as Don has to turn on the wipers. “That rain looks more like ice, doesn’t it?” he says. The wipers push ice to the sides, but soon they slide over the sheet of ice that grows on the glass, leaving the view obscured. The truck becomes a fish bowl and we become the fish struggling to look out. He slows down, turning up the defroster. At the next house, we stop and Don scrapes the ice. Instantly, his hat glazes over with ice, miniature icicles hang from the brim. When he jumps back inside, he sees the ice reforming on the glass. I tease him, “I thought this was supposed to be the all new, superduper 1955 Divco milk truck. Guaranteed to keep the modern milkman on the road, not in the ditch.”
“Yeah, right," he grumbles, “This keeps up and there won’t be any Lion’s Club dance tonight. Jane will be disappointed. She doesn’t get out much these days. Little Nancy and baby Donna keep her hands full.”
“Aw, don’t worry. It’s early yet. This could clear," I say, but, looking out a small open spot in the side window doesn’t say much for that idea. Each blade of grass is coated in ice, the yards become fields of soldiers with bayonets pointed at the ready. Trees are encased in glass, the weight drawing branches into downward arcs. The roads shine under a sheet of ice. If we had some goals, the Redwings could play exhibition games here in Plymouth. “Terry Sawchuk has had a tough game here tonight ladies and gentlemen. He’s faced a lot of shots, but thanks to Gordie Howe, the Redwings are up by one. But, its not over yet folks. Here comes Henry Hay, the Flying Scotsman, playing a great game for the Plymouth Rocks. He’s a scrappy player. He gets a pass from his brother Don and takes the puck down the right side, skating fast....”
“Here, Henry, take this to that house. Be careful," Don calls. I open the door and, CCARROOMM. My feet are over my head, milk bottles flying. Don leans out the door, “Are you okay?”
“Yeah," I mutter. “Great body check.”
At the end of the street, Don parks by a cul-de-sac so we can go to several houses. He tries to walk up the driveway but the slight slope slows his progress until he is actually slipping sideways. He inches off the cement and proceeds on the grass. I am having the same lack of success on the neighbor’s drive. “This is going to take a hundred years," I yell.
He puts the order in the box and returns, sliding all the way down the drive. “Yeah, but we can make great time on the downhill runs," he answers.
At the next stop, Don is off and sliding again. While I walk to my delivery, I notice that taking lots of short, tiny steps works well. “Hey Don, you know how penguins walk?” I call out to him. “You know, kind of like Charley Chaplin———little wiggly waggly short steps. Well, now I see why.”
“What are you talking about?” he asks, scratching his hat with one hand while he flails his other hand out to the side to keep his balance.
“Well, try little, short steps like a penguin on an iceberg. It works.” I continue my new method, looking back once to see Don adapting a similar gait. “I’ll be darned," he mutters. “Those penguins aren’t as dumb as they look. This does help.” We continue the penguin shuffle for the next several hours. It’s not as famous as the fox trot or as infamous as the goose step, but it helps us make progress. By noon, we have seen several cars left in ditches and helped one young blonde girl who slid into a row of mailboxes with her Chevy. She is flustered and keeps saying, “This is my Dad’s car. He’s going to kill me.”
We keep trying to reassure her, all the time wondering how those mailboxes could do so much damage to a nice new Chevy. She thanks us a million times and Don keeps whispering to me to get her telephone number, get her telephone number. I finally stammer around for awhile and blurt out, “Here’s my number ...in case you need it for the insurance. Um...by the way , what is your number?. She tells me and then slowly drives off, sliding a little as she goes.
“Gees Don, what am I going to do with her number? She’s older than me. She already drives a car.”
“You thought she was cute, didn’t you? Give her a call. She’s a Plymouth girl. She doesn’t have to know what grade you are in in Livonia.”
“Yeah...well, maybe," I say, as I start to see some merit in his thinking. Besides, I know he was famous during his dating days. Took out every pretty girl in Northville and Plymouth. “Guess it can’t hurt," I mutter as we drive into town.