First November Frost by Melanie Bell

 

She was swimming naked.

Arms flailed, specters beneath the water, reflecting silver-green, windmilling above into whiteness. She had hair like streamers of brown kelp, swirling against the mounds of her breasts as she spun.

Sneakers nesting in the sand, I hugged my jacket close around me. The wind tugged at my scarf, and I was glad my pockets had buttons. The left one held a camera. The right held my list, new and crisply creased. On it were all the tasks I had. And here was a stranger sending spray into the cold gull air, smiling right through me as if my two puzzled eyes were as ghostly as memory.

Sobey's. Romaine lettuce on sale. Don't forget the yogurt.

Bottles to depot.

Check photo schedule for next week.

Consult with Amry's modeling studio.

Meet with Roger.

Set appointment with bank.

Clean bathroom.

Call Dolly.

Rake leaves.

My flax-haired mother had been raking leaves, back at the old house, when a pack of us kids tumbled through the pile. We bounded, rolled, screamed until our hair was full of colored scraps. Then—"Found some roots!" my friend Kerri squealed, on the search even while playing. A heap of sod-clumped strings dangled in her hand.

My brother Todd brandished the list to our scavenger hunt like a treasure map. "Come on, we've got stuff to find." Suddenly we stopped tumbling. Todd was calling to us: "Five things left, then we get the prize!" Tasting imaginary sugar, we stood and, without dusting our clothes of speckles, followed him like soldiers.

One red maple leaf.

Two black hairs.

A stick as long as an arm.

A white sock.

Three plant roots.

A painted clothespin.

A piece of bark.

A piece of tape.

A nail.

A lawn ornament.

A mum.

The old house had been crystal at this time of year. Grass blades were coated in white fur and the ground was too hard for ground. "First November frost," mom would say, tilting her head as she sniffed the outdoors from the wooden door frame. Soon icicles sprung from the gutters like sharp distorted nipples.

I grabbed Todd's hand and squealed: "Let's go look outside!"

"What?" he groaned. "Without your mittens?"

"But it's no fun to see the frost if you can't touch it."

"It's no fun to get frostbite, is more like it."

"Okay then, you put on the mittens. Mine look dumb."

"Let me see them." He held out his hands. "Look. They're pretty pink ones. Nice and warm."

"I'm not wearing those things!"

"Okay, I'm going outside."

"Todd?"

"What now?"

"Could I maybe wear your mittens?"

"Kids, what's all the commotion about?"

"She wants my mittens," said Todd.

"Amy, put on your own."

"But Mom…"

And that was that.

In November, Dad came home smelling like salami, with his eyes glazed from stacking sandwich after sandwich at the plant. He usually let his bag slump to the ground, put on a sturdier pair of boots, and clomped across to Mr. Reed's house. They would go to the Wildlife Council and the Fishery Committee and play bridge with a bunch of men in checked shirts who didn't take off their boots. "Don't track mud on the floor!" Mom would call out, but Dad was the only one in the house impermeable to her words. Even the cat would pause to look up between mucky paw prints.

In the morning, there would be a ring of coffee stain at Dad's place on the table and occasionally a note in his small, loopy writing. "Meet me after school and we'll rent a movie." Or "Coupon for one box of chocolates, redeemable anytime." Once a week, there was a surprise.

An African elephant sculpted in clay, with cross-hatched wrinkles (Todd said it was an African one because of the wide fans of its ears. He said he'd studied them in school).

A bag of black licorice (I always liked the black stuff best).

A tape of Bach's suites.

Tickets to the high school musical.

A bag of colored stones.

An invitation, written in a flourish of curls I almost didn't recognize, to "Spende one afternoone sledding in ye parke."

Mexican jumping beans.

A note saying there were subs in the fridge, brought home from work.

A zucchini carved into a fish (He was a fisherman during the season, so he knew how to make it look like a salmon. Where he got the zucchini, I don't know).

The morning after the mitten fight, I woke up, showered and skipped every second stair. Mom was at the table, head in hands. She huffed a sigh. "Oh God, Peter."

My hand on the last curve of the banister, I hoisted myself to my tiptoes and twisted my head to see around her hair. Todd came pounding behind me, and he barreled into the kitchen.

"Amy, he left us a camera!"

"Oh Peter," Mom was groaning.

"We can document things for the future," Todd decided. My hand was still on the banister. "Come on and see!"

Mom raised her head. "Your father was very nice to get you two a camera. I hope you will respect it and take proper care of it."

I crept into the kitchen.

"I've made French toast," said Mom.

"French toast!" I squealed.

She paused.

"Wait. I'm sorry, that was yesterday." She sighed again. "Your mother's getting tired. Today's cereal. Want me to get you some juice?"

"Yes, please," said Todd. "He left the instruction booklet there. I've already put the film in."

The camera was a black thing the size of my two fists. I looked it over silently and smiled.

"The lines on the table are beautiful," I said. "Let me take a picture!"

"What kind of a boring picture is that?" said Todd.

"It's not. That's the bird's nest." I pointed.

"What?"

"See, look! That black curve is the nest, there are all the little lines on it, and that thing sticking out on top is the bird."

"You don't know a thing about how the camera works."

"Can't you tell me?"

"Let her have a turn, Todd."

"Oh, all right." He handed over the camera and showed me what button to press. I pressed down and the little light went off.

"Not now, stupid! I didn't tell you where to look through!"

"Todd, be nice to your sister."

"You see that window? Put your eye up to that window. Not that close, just so you can see through it. You have to hold the camera still while you take the picture."

I looked through. The table had shrunk to a tiny rectangle. Even Mom fit into the little box on the camera.

I tilted toward the bird's nest and clicked.

"I'm going to get some paper," said Todd. "I'm going to write down some things I want to document. Don't break the camera or I'll hurt you."

I took the camera into the living room. There were corduroy buttons on the red corduroy couch. I looked through the box. I held still. A light went off in the house.

Over the next few days, Todd documented:

A street sign.

Our car.

Its license plate.

His school.

A ruler ("They'll probably change to a different system of measurement by the time I have kids," he said).

An alarm clock ("I bet it'll look antique").

The desk in his room, which belonged to Great-Grandpa Findlay.

Our encyclopedias.

Dad's ashtray.

The town hall the day his class went on a field trip. 

"Nothing else is important," he said, and handed the camera to me.

I had it with me when the big kids on the bus sold chocolate bars. I had it when I walked into the back field and stomped in the fresh mud puddles. I had it when Dad christened a new fishing boat. "Hopefully this one'll bring better luck," he said to Mr. Reed as he broke the bottle of wine against it. Hearing a click, he turned and ruffled my hair. "You really like that camera, don't you, Amy?"

I had his hazel eyes and grey-black cowlick in my frame.

"You know, on your next birthday, how would you like it if I set you up a darkroom in the basement?"

"A real one?"

"I don't see as though there's any other kind," boomed Mr. Reed.

I didn't turn my camera to look at him.

Todd groaned when Dad announced that there would be no more surprises until my birthday. By this time, we only got one once every three weeks, or once a month. A few days earlier he'd said he was too old for surprises, but I guess he wasn't.

"I think that's a wonderful idea," said Mom.

That night, I heard voices under the floorboards. "Peter, how in God's name are you going to afford this?"

"I'm fishing, aren't I, Mary? Let's see you try to make us a living."

"But Peter, I sew."

"With maybe five customers a month."

"I look after the kids."

"Mary, when I was young, we did what we had to. But there was always joy in the house."

"Don't change the subject on me. When are you going to grow up enough to realize that fish and sandwiches aren't exactly money mines?"

Money mines, I thought, turning the sounds over in my head. I wondered what they were. Was that what you called those places where machines dug for silver and gold?

Now that would make a good picture.

The darkroom wasn't exactly a surprise. Still, I wasn't prepared for the pans of milky chemicals and the thin blue line strung across the room, with tiny clear clothespins to hang the drying prints.

"Be careful," said Mom. "You don't want to knock over any jars. And there might be salamanders down there."

"And ghosts and goblins too," said Todd.

Mom scowled.

"Happy birthday," said Todd.

When I had friends over, I got them to pose, draped in my extra sheets. "Tilt your head to the left—wait, let me fix that fold here—Julie, get Anne my pink hat. It'll match the burgundy." I loved that word, burgundy.

Once when I was printing a picture, the shadow of a roll of negatives fell across the tank. Julie was framed by twin lines of sprocket holes on either side. I told her she looked like a cinema star. Cinema sounded better than movie.

I had my camera in my hand the day we found the last surprise. Mom's head was nested in her hands. Todd just stood there, staring at something on the table I couldn't see.

Before I looked, I took a picture.

Dear Mary, Todd, and Amy,

I hope you find some time to get outside on this beautiful day. I left some flounder in the fridge. I've gone away for a little while—


"Oh God. Oh God." Was it my mother's voice or mine?

Oh God. I can't even remember.

Mom got a job as a substitute teacher. While she worked, she studied at night. New degree in hand, she eventually found work in a classroom. Todd and I learned to make macaroni and cheese or hot dogs for supper. Mom asked me many times to take down that darkroom, but those chemicals weren't going anywhere.

It was never an option for me to be Maid of Honor at Mom and Seth's wedding, nor for them to hire a photographer. In my shiny blue dress I shuffled to all sides of them (the bride and groom, the beaming couple, happy for the album), seeking the best angles. "Stand still," I told them.

Second prize in a landscape photo contest at the county fair, then first.

An album for Julie's birthday.

Photographs of Seth's nieces.

A job in the photo department at Walmart.

A portfolio.

A certificate at Art College.

An apprenticeship.

A studio.

Arranging the lighting to strike the finest angle of the model's shoulders. Tilt your head to the right. Chin up, slightly. Clicks and whistles and flashes. The shutter coming down.

When I first saw the woman in the water, it hadn't occurred to me that her arms would look stunning in Prada. I hadn't thought of photographs at all.

Funny, but she reminded me of last night. I never remembered my dreams, and growing up, we'd never gone to church. I didn't have time for it now, even if I'd wanted to. God was a hand-me-down oath. But in last night's dream we stood in a line, all of us—strangers, coworkers, Mom, Dad, Seth, Todd—waiting for a piece of paper to fall from Heaven into our hands. As scraps fluttered into our outstretched palms, some swore and kicked the ground. Some faces twisted into tears. Some mouths crept upward.

Dad caught a paper, nodded, and bowed away. Todd caught a paper and marched off in the other direction. Mom and Seth had one small, tattered piece that they each caught with one hand. This happened until everyone was gone. I looked down for footsteps but there were none, not even my own. I stood on a vast blank sheet.

I looked again and there were words before me in a small, loopy scrawl. "You will—" I couldn't read the rest.

I glared up at the impenetrable white sky. "Where's my message? What do you mean, I will—what?" But the words faded as I spoke them, like lemon-juice ink absorbed into the page.

 
It was early November, frost at my heels. She was swimming naked. My hand nudged into my pocket, touched the small camera I carried for situations like this, and left it there. There was salt in the world, and the woman gleamed a shameless silver-green.

Someday I would wake to find a piece of paper at my place—a list, a note—telling me I could join her.