Pushcart 2015: David Means, “The Ice Committee” from Zoetrope: All-Story Vol.17 #4

It was late afternoon. It would soon be dusk.
“I don’t think I ever told you the one with Captain Hopewell in it,” the man named Kurt was saying.
“Don’t start. For God’s sake, you’ll jinx us for sure,” the man named Merle said. “Just get me thinking about that one and it’ll jinx us.”
“This one isn’t going to jinx us. If you knew the story, you’d know that,” Kurt said, and then for a few minutes both men sat silently and mulled over everything they’d discussed on the nature of luck over the course of the last few months as they’d wandered up and down Superior Street, shaking a cup for spare change, scraping for odd jobs, whatever it took to gather enough for some booze and a scratch lottery ticket. They’d agreed that to talk too much about good fortune just before you scratched would decrease the odds of it coming, because luck had to bend around the place and time of the scratch, establishing itself in relation to your state of mind at that particular moment…. Best to clear the head of all expectation and settle into a state of not-caring as you look out with silent and blissful longing at the lake.

The first two sentences nearly did me in. Who starts a story that way, besides a seventh grader? But I remembered a couple of things.

The first was a quote by Joyce Cary that I learned about through Charles May: “Every professional artist has met the questioner who asks of some detail: ‘Why did you do it so clumsily like that, when you could have done it so neatly like this?’” If a writer of David Means’ experience opens his story with dead, limp, passive sentences, there’s a reason for it.

The second was a discussion I had a long time ago with a workshop writer about starting stories with phrases like “There was…” Turns out, he’d just done exactly that, and he did it for a reason: to emphasize the passivity of the character he was introducing.

Kurt and Merle are nothing if not dead, limp, and passive.

The story (available online, thank you Zoetrope All-Story) focuses on the time these two homeless guys spend working themselves up to scratching a lottery ticket, making sure not to “bend the luck” the wrong way. I love that notion, of luck bending depending on what you’re doing. Combined with the idea of depending on lottery tickets, it’s rich enough in thoughts and imagery to keep me going a while.

But the stories they tell each other, the thoughts they have, while they’re waiting, fill in the backstories of Merle, the Vietnam vet who can’t stop telling stories and can no longer remember if the stories are real, made-up, or a composite of fact and fiction, and Kurt, former professor who lost his way. I found it a rather tedious read, to be honest (and I usually like Means’ stories), since I was disoriented much of the time – when is this set, that a Vietnam vet is a “kid”) but there are these moments of exquisite beauty and clarity that kept me reading on.

Every big port like this one had a kid just like Kurt, a kid with sea legs on land and land legs on sea, a kid whose life had ended in country, somewhere in the Highlands, or in Khe Sanh, or in Hue, or in Saigon, as a member of Tiger Force, or as a gunner on a Chinook, depending on which version he decided to tell that day. And there was always an old coot whose life had ended in middle age, beginning with a fight over—over what? he couldn’t really remember—that had resulted in the broken vase (a wedding present), and then another fight and a broken Hitchcock chair (another wedding present), and then another and a broken jaw (Emma, oh my dear sweet Emma!). He felt the deep shame of the memory: the clutch of her long, elegant fingers around her chin and her beautiful, deep, sad, brown brown eyes as he’d glanced back one last time before striking out, moving his feet over the ground day after day, until it seemed he’d walked (and he had, for God’s sake, he had) the upper shore of Superior, across the border into Canada, and then back down, finding his way to the Hope Mission.

I’m still pretty hazy on the significance of the title, though it’s used in the piece. The Ice Committee sounds like an incompetent bureaucracy that stands in the way of sea merchants trying to make a living. I can sense something of that these two guys, who are pretty impotent in how they deal with their lives. In spite of their troubles, there’s a strong connection between the two of them, and I also felt a great connection with the pair, these two guys on a hope mission of their own – and that counts for a lot.

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