Skating Home Backward

How one man transformed vile, polluted, dank little swamp into the perfect glassy ice pond. A Wetland Restoration Comedy.



   The next time it snowed I was all over the Mabel at once with a shovel. I soon gave up the notion that I could clean off a quarter-mile of ice by hand, but after a couple of hours I had opened enough to skate laps. Then the shovel broke. Kitty came down once to watch me sweat and steam in the sun.

"I'm training for the Elfstedentocht," I gasped.

"Say again?"

"The skating race in Holland. You know, from city to city."

At dinner I looked up from my corn bread to find her staring at me. "What."

"So you're going to waste all morning every time it snows?"

"Waste?" I said, patting my belly. "Yuppie scum pay good money for this kind of workout."

"Then why don't you shovel the driveway?"

Of course, fitness had nothing to do with it. But I couldn't explain the emancipation I felt when I skated on the Mabel, because I didn't understand it myself. I hoped its source was something profound, and not just a cliché: I was taking up juvenile sports in order to ward off the implications of my approaching 50th birthday and its promise of the desiccation to come; or I just wanted to feel again the breathless ardor a child feels as the game begins; or I was bored with the unfinished man I'd become and had fallen in love with the happy boy I now believed I had been. I figured it wouldn't take much of a shrink to identify the disenchantment with adult life underlying my affair with the Mabel and my reawakened love of skating, but where would that get me? I'd still have to clear off the ice. The solution, I realized, was way more cost-effective than therapy: Sears.

I found the snowblowers lined up like an armada of fighter planes. They ranged from a bantamweight with 3.8 horsepower to a ten horsepower gangster.

"What is it, sir, you are having to blow?"

I knew this voice instantly. When I turned around there he was, my favorite Bengali salesman. The birdsong of his accent wasn't any more Americanized than it had been when he'd sold me a clothes dryer a year earlier. ("You cannot go wrong, sir, with the Wrinkle Guard feature," he had promised.)

"Well, there's a patio," I said.

The salesman patted the baby bear model. "Very adequate for such a task."

"And a driveway. A long one."

He pointed to the mama bear version. "Five horsepower and many choices of blowing angles."

"And a quarter-mile of ice."

"Oh, my."

"For skating."

His eyebrows lifted and a smile of good fortune spread over his face as he slid the edge of one hand across the palm of the other.

In the end, of course, I went home with the papa bear model and two attachments. I knew Kitty would hit the roof, so I picked up a bribe. When she lifted the white figure skates from their box I saw that she'd been expecting something made of silk instead.

"What did you really buy?"

"A snow thing."

"You mean another shovel?"

"Not exactly."

I led her out to the pickup and my glowering new machine.

"If it keeps snowing like this we're going to need something to dig us out," I reasoned. I could see that this shot connected. In fact, we'd already been trapped once that winter and had had to hire a neighbor to plow the driveway.

When she asked the price, my answer was only 20 percent false. Her mouth fell open.

"Hey, I'll do the road right now," I offered. The snow was beginning to fall again.

The papa bear sucked up the six inches of dry powder on our driveway like a crackhead in a coke factory and then sprayed it contemptuously into a pasture. An hour later a raisin-colored overcast moved in, and the snow turned wet. I abandoned the driveway and hurried down to the Mabel to set loose the beast before my newest layer of Glaze was compromised. Things went like clockwork at first, but as the afternoon grew warmer the threads that stripped the snow from the ice and hurled it through the blower got clogged with slush. I cleaned them as best I could with a stick. Finally, blubbering and whining, the papa bear—triumph of American technology—just gave up. The ice I couldn't liberate began to sink under the weight of what would be a record snowfall.

By noon I was able to clear a path along the driveway for the pickup. Even in four-wheel-drive I barely made it out. When I pushed the papa bear through the doors at Sears, my salesman saw me and hurried over, stricken. Snowblowers just don't seem to work very well against wet snow, I told him, though they are dynamite with powder. His eyes were liquid and sorrowful but totally uncomprehending. Then I felt a force at my back and turned around. Sears had fallen silent and dreamy and, except for one section of floor space, completely dark. And in that space, glowing with menace, was a column of riding mowers fitted with snow plows.

Look away, I told myself.


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