On Thin Ice

I walked home knowing I was in for it. It was 4:47 AM.

“Hey buddy!” my dad called as I came into the kitchen. “How was the night?”

“Oh, you know…” I stalled.

A look of concern flashed across my father’s face. He licked his lips and leaned in closely.

“You okay? Is your grandmother-”

But it was too late.

“Jeff-REY!” The cry came from upstairs.

I’m convinced that my grandmother picked my name by screaming all of the candidates at the top of her lungs, and seeing which seemed most natural. Try it- scream “Jeffrey.” You can really slam that second syllable.

My grandmother coughed her way down the stairs, clutching the railing with white, gnarled knuckles. Her joints challenged the old wooden steps to a contest in pops, squeaks and creaks.

Arriving at the bottom of the stairs, she stopped just short of barreling into me.  She squinted around the dim room.

“Jeffrey? Where are you? Jeffrey?”

My father looked pained.

“Mother, where are your glasses?”

She whirled around, almost knocking over half a dozen dirty dishes off of the counter.

“I don’t need my glasses! Now where the hell is your son!”

I sighed.

“I’m right here, Mamaw.” I gave a little wave, and stepped towards her.

“Well, Jeffrey! What do you have for me!”

“I don’t have much, Mamaw. I still haven’t gotten the hang of this damn lockpick, I don’t understand why I can’t just use-“

“Jeff-REY! Have you forgotten your grandfather already!”

“No Mamaw, I haven’t.”

“Then you will honor his memory and you will use his lockpick! Now what do you have for me!”

I pulled off my backpack and began going through the night’s spoils. Mostly it consisted of crap I’d gotten out of the projects whose locks had already been broken. Left-overs.

“I got a really nice broken computer monitor that could fetch something, and a hand mixer, and a lot of silverware.”

My grandmother pursed her lips.

“How old was your grandfather when he began picking pockets!” she cried. She always screamed the last syllable of her sentences, so it came out as “poc-KETS!”

“Eleven.” I muttered.

“And how old before he orchestrated his first home invasion!” “SHUN” echoed around the tiny kitchen.

“Fourteen.”

“And how old,” she began, her voice lowering to an angry whisper, “are YOU!” she exploded.

“Seventeen,” I said, face down, resisting the urge to add “ma’am.”

“Duncan! Go get the crampons!” As my father scuttled off, my grandmother stared at me. “Now you’ll be able to see what your poor grandfather had to go through!”

When people say that the Shepherdsly’s live in a fortress, they are speaking literally. Winfield Scott’s armies used it as a base in the War of 1812, and while it no longer has a moat, it used to. Fortunately for me, and my grandfather, they also no longer have cannon aimed at the lake on the edge of the property.

My grandmother loves to regale both my dad and me of the night that my grandfather, Winston, skated across the frozen lake in the middle of January, climbed through the dense thicket of trees at the edge of the Shepherdsly estate, dropped in through the skylights in the east wing and made off with all the jewelry and china he could stuff in his pockets. She’s curiously silent on how he got up to the skylights, which are six stories off the ground.

And so I set off to recreate my grandfather’s daring quest, in early March, with the rising sun beginning to kiss the edge of the horizon. Near the shore I feel sturdy, but as I walk out towards the center of the lake I begin to hear tiny groans coming from the ice beneath my feet, and when I look down, I swear I can see fish through the translucent sheet.

My next step causes an audible crack, and I decide to get down on hands and knees to more evenly distribute my weight. I crawl along, trying to keep three limbs on the ice at all times. The sun is rising quickly now, and I’m beginning to see beads of water appear on the surface of the lake.

My grandfather was a better man than I. I slowly turn, careful to keep my weight balanced, and head back towards the shore from which I departed, but no matter how slowly I move the sickly sounds of aching ice keep coming. I freeze, listening hard, terrified of budging an inch.

I stay still for a long time.

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