Sophia is getting down, way down, in the seat. She is trying to watch the man across the parking lot without giving herself away. It has been almost thirty minutes since he went into the store and she is half asleep when he emerges, his arms loaded down with shopping bags. They are paper bags and she can't see the contents, but she imagines hammers, nails, wrenches, things that are good for building and for other purposes as well.
She has followed him from the coffee shop, this man who seems to build things. The first time she saw him was a year ago. He was working outside on an August day, doing restoration work on the front of a building on Main Street. A few days later she was having coffee across the street when he came in and sat down at the adjacent table. He was reading a book called The Passing Of Ice and sweating heavily. A friend came and he put the book down. She was a younger girl, early twenties to his mid forties. He spoke softly and articulately about poetry and the ceilings of cathedrals. The next time she saw him he was at the same table, with a different girl. A few weeks later a different girl again. They were always about the same age, with dark hair, wearing loose modest clothes. Clothes that concealed. Sooner or later he would get around to telling them that he made ice sculptures in his spare time. Come home with me, he would say, and I'll make a sculpture of you. Have you ever watched yourself melt? She heard him ask this question again and again.
She began to pay more attention and verified that he arrived for each date at the same time, usually in the same outfit. Coveralls and plaid, the artist-as-lumberjack look. He brought the same book, The Passing Of Ice, and read it while he waited. When there was a lull in the conversation he used the book as a conversation-starter, saying that it was about the beauty of disappearing. He spoke the same words each time, always to a new girl. Sophia never saw any of them a second time.
One day on her lunch break she went to the book store and asked about The Passing of Ice, but they had never heard of it. She went to the library and found no record of it in the computer system. As she drove around town she kept an eye out for old buildings under repair, searched for the man and even spotted him occasionally, painting and doing detail work while standing on tall ladders. Some nights, after a drink, she would reach for the phone to call a friend and ask about the man, ask if he had a reputation, but once she had the phone to her ear and her finger poised to dial she would remember that the phone numbers she knew were all for friends and family far away, on the coasts, in other countries. Then she would replace the phone, put another piece of ice in the glass, drink, and fall asleep
Today she has decided to follow him. The script at the coffee shop was the same, but the new girl is a few inches shorter and wears a skirt instead of jeans. She is waiting for the man in the passenger seat of his truck. When he comes out with huge bags under his arms, bags that reveal nothing but suggest hammers and nails and other tools, she runs out and offers to help him, but he insists on bearing the weight himself.
Sophia hunches down until he reaches the car and when he pulls out of the parking lot she tails him. He drives like a wandering attention span, moving in odd imperfect circles. As far as she can tell he is not bound anywhere in particular. Soon he takes a turn and she misses it and he is lost to her. She loops back around to the block where he turned but the street is deserted. She has never seen this road empty of cars in the afternoon. Lacking a plan, she decides to go straight. A few blocks later she looks in the rearview mirror and sees his truck behind her, coming up fast. He pulls up beside her in the passing lane, rolls down the window and gestures for her to do the same. The girl is gone. The windshield and windows are covered with condensation. She lowers her window, keeping an anxious eye on the road ahead. He is asking her something which at first she can not hear over the wind. She hears the word evaporate. He repeats the question and she hears other words. Would. You. Like. To. The two cars are running side by side, going too fast. She is not sure where she is anymore, there is no time to look for landmarks. She slams on the brakes, thinking she will make a u-turn and flee in the opposite direction before he has time to react.
Somehow she does not hear the sound of the collision until after the collision is over. Somehow she is already on the pavement thirty feet in front of the car before she feels the impact and realizes that she has been hit from behind. Somehow she looks back from where she is lying on the road and sees another car attacking hers, piling on from behind, before she even puts her foot on the brake. Somehow she looks down and sees her arms and ribs and the confusion of her body before she even notices the man in the coffee shop for the first time. Somehow she hears the man's truck turn around and head back in her direction before she even moves to this town. Somehow it isn't until the four thick tires have overcome her that she sees herself covered in small, sharp pieces of red ice and understands that she is melting. Somehow she looks up and sees the shattered windshield before she learns how to read or write or add or subtract. Somehow she figures out where she came from and how she got here before she even arrives. Somehow she escapes down a damp passageway, takes a cold harsh breath and begins to cry. As the air leaves her body she tells herself in the voice of a stranger that the time has come to remember how to stand without tumbling on legs that have never been used, the time has come to remember what was written in the man's book and what it means. In the moment of ending and beginning she understands that she has read the book before and will read it again, over and over, until it is as familiar as her own name.
About the author:
Charles Ullmann lives in Japan. He has some stories on Eyeshot, Facsimilation and the McSweeneys Internet Tendency. He recently caught his first rainbow trout.