The Ice House

At ten yesterday morning, as the mercury reemerged from hell and gone, my Dad's neighbor Sig Svendsen called.

"Matthew, I think you better come up here as soon as you can. Your father's... well, your father's passed away. Me and Merle, lives up Scandia Valley, we found him in his icehouse. Damnest thing I've ever seen. Had to tow that big shed 'a his off the Fish Trap with him still in it."

"What'd he die of? Do they know?"

"Uh... I don't think the docs can tell just yet." There was a long pause. "Maybe you better just come on up and see him for yourself."

I grew up in Apple Valley, south of the Twin Cities, but my parents own a cabin off Azure Road west of Brainerd, on the shore of Fish Trap Lake. Before he retired, my father was a psychologist—a man paid to empathize, a man paid to listen to people's problems and render an opinion. My mother, my sisters and I weren't paying customers. To me, my father was a disinterested bystander with a key to our home.

It takes me an hour and 45 minutes to drive up to the county hospital in Little Falls. The whole trip, I can't stop myself from wondering what happened to my father. It's not like Sig not to want to tell a story. Last time I saw that old cuss he went on for twenty minutes about earthworms. I peel off the highway, pass two bars and a high-steepled church, then turn into the hospital parking lot. There's snow piled six feet high in front of the entrance. I head for the lobby and duck inside quick, glad to be out of the crispy air.

The nurse at the front desk directs me to a stairwell at the end of a long corridor just past the emergency room. I walk down the stairs, around a corner, then down a narrow passage until I reach a heavy white door with the words "Dr. Felix J. Tanner, Pathology" written on the glass. As I enter the office, I notice the temperature dip a few degrees. The white-tiled space is a clutter of old wooden shelving, stuffed inboxes, and smells of ammonia. A dark man seated at an ancient oak desk rises immediately.

"You Dr. Tanner?"

"That's right..."

"I'm here about Mr. Lucas Skinner."

"And you're his son?" Dr. Tanner reaches across his desk to greet me.

"I'm Matt Skinner." I shake his slender hand. "Can you tell me what happened?"

The tall pathologist with thick brown hair and handlebar moustache motions for me to sit as he descends into his own chair. "Well, the simple answer is that your father froze, but I haven't made a definitive determination about cause of death just yet."
"I don't understand." I pull the knit cap from my head and sit down, blank—ready for some answers after the anxiety-filled drive.

"His body... uh, when they found your father, he was frozen. Tissues, fluids, joints, everything... like a rock. We've taken every precaution to preserve him until we can thaw the body in a controlled manner. He's only just arrived this morning. I was going to begin the process in about an hour or so."

"So, he's... " I turn and motion outside of Dr. Tanner's door to the industrial looking freezer I passed on my way in.

"That's right; his body is in the freezer for now."

"I guess I'm wondering how a guy could just sit in a fish house until he freezes. Wouldn't his clothes and the structure in general have kept him insulated?"

The doctor wrings his hands, looking hard-pressed. I want to find something to pry the words loose from his mouth. Finally, he exhales, then answers, "When they found your father he wasn't wearing any clothes. The door to his icehouse had been propped wide open. Folks that found him are wondering... whether your father committed suicide."

My jaw tightens so hard my teeth are like tiny air pockets waiting to burst under the pressure. I close my eyes while the shock abates.

In my entire lifetime, my father had not given one signal, not the tiniest inkling, that he was capable of harboring feelings of remorse or guilt. He was the most stoic man I ever knew—not the suicidal type. He spent his life running from opportunities to show his emotions.

I open my eyes. "If he were going to kill himself, why would he strip naked first?"

"In cases of hypothermia, victims have been known to do some pretty weird things before death." The doctor's tone is deliberately emotionless. "Most common is stripping bare just before dying. The mind is in a severely compromised state by the time extreme hypothermia sets in. There's an illusion of great warmth just before the brain and central nervous system shuts down."

The illusion of great warmth... that makes more sense.

Ten years ago, after my father retired, he and my mother started spending most of the year up at the cabin near Fish Trap Lake. About a week after my mother's 66th birthday, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, and died after a short, difficult battle with the disease. My father spent every waking minute with her, right up until her death. My sisters and I thought there might be some change in his demeanor after that, but he simply pulled back deeper into himself—the mercury in his veins falling even further.

It was about then, two winters ago, that my father bought the icehouse. After my mother died, he sat up at the cabin for two months solid waiting for the ice atop the Fish Trap to thicken. After it did, he towed the icehouse out onto the lake and spent the rest of that winter weighting his line and watching his bobber for signs of activity beneath the ice. Same thing last year.

My recollections become an extended silence. Something is just wrong about this whole incident. The doctor's patient stare is unnerving. "But, you don't really know that he committed suicide, do you?" I ask.

"That's true. No note was found."

"So, why would he simply sit out there and wait to freeze?"

"Now that, I'm afraid, is a question that medical science simply can't answer."

I drift into dreams of my father, alone—staring down into the depths, trapped on the other side of the ice, my sisters and me waiting for the thaw, waiting for my father to auger down to us. I sit across from Dr. Tanner, as if waiting to be plucked from the depths of my dark thoughts like a little pan fish. I realize that there has been an over-long expanse of silence. I think of something else to ask.

"Don't people who kill themselves leave suicide notes?"

"Sometimes yes, sometimes no. There's no rigid conclusion one can make in cases where no note is found."

"How long was he out there?" I am trying to imagine the pain of slowly freezing to death.

"Must have been more than a week." Then he adds, "You and your dad mustn't talk much anymore."

"No... we talk about as much as we ever did."

The doctor shifts around in his chair, eyeing me as if testing a hypothesis. "Well, it might be 24 hours before I can do the autopsy, would you like to spend some time alone with your father before I thaw him?"


"It's customary for family members to want some time alone with the deceased. Would you like me to open the freezer so you could see your father? You're certainly dressed for it."

"Sure... I mean, I guess that'd be all right."

Dr. Tanner rises from his seat. "C'mon."

I stand and follow him back through the doorway into the hallway and down to the freezer. A little circular window, like the kind you'd find on a submarine is cut into the locked door at eye level. While Dr. Tanner's fishing through his pockets for the keys, I nudge over next to him and peer through the porthole. There's a draped figure seated on a bench in the back of the freezer. The white sheet's ghostly outline makes the interior look like a museum after closing.

"That him in the back corner there?"

"That's him."

Folks who aren't from Minnesota don't realize that here, it's often warmer in a freezer than it is on most winter days. Outside the hospital, the temperature's just risen above the zero mark. This freezer is probably set somewhere in the twenties—a perfectly hospitable environment. Dr. Tanner releases the deadbolt and hefts back on the door handle, but before we duck inside, he turns to me.

"Don't worry... he looks normal, like a guy who's ice fishing."

There's a thin fluorescent bulb on the ceiling filling the freezer with a weak blue glow. Wispy streamers of fog curl around it as the door opens. The left side of the space is a black wall with about a dozen two-foot-by-two-foot doors. My father's seated on a narrow bench that hugs the far corner on the right. The doctor walks over to him and gently removes the sheet from his head and shoulders, and leaves it draped in his lap. He's right. My dad seems alive, eyes wide open, a funny sort of patient smirk on his tight lips, just as if he's sitting in his icehouse waiting for a bite.

Tanner tells me, "You can stay in here and visit with your dad as long as you like. When you're done, just come back to the office. I've got a pot of coffee going... you can help yourself. It'll warm you back up."


The doctor edges by me, then stands at the door. "Freezer's unlocked... when you're finished I'll begin thawing him." The door latch clacks shut. I'm alone with my father. I can see my breath when I exhale. I fit the cap I'm holding back onto my head, then edge back to the cold bench and take a seat next to the iceman.

"What in the world happened to you, Pop?"

My question echoes thinly off the drawers on the opposite wall then dies.

"There were so many things I always wanted to ask you."

He sits silently. This is hardly much different than our last conversation.

"Were you grieving, or just lonely?"

Finally, I can hear his muffled voice, as if my memory of its tone has emerged from beneath a thick icy wall.

"I never had much as a child."

I knew that about my father. He grew up in the depression. He had a mother that sent him out to work as soon as he was old enough to chop wood or shovel snow in the winter, or carry grocery bags or golf bags in the summer.

"Never knew what it was like to have a father," he says.

His father left his mother to take a bartending job out on the east coast, back on Long Island with his brothers. Work was hard to find. I guess he had to do what he had to do. We never knew anyone on my father's side of the family, him included.

"You had it easy," he tells me.

He's told me that a million times, and he's right. I was never at a want for what he called "the essentials." Food, shelter and clothing all provided for me because my father could listen to people, figure out why they were hurting and provide answers.

He sits bent forward slightly, hands on his thighs, as if he is craning to hear what I'm thinking.

"You never loved me," I say. My voice is faint, as if it's buried beneath snow.

"I gave you everything you needed," he says.

"Not everything." I remember lying perched atop my dad's chest when I was very small, rising and falling slowly with each of his powerful breaths. I remember my ear pressed to his chest, the blood surging though him, the warmth of him below me, his flesh and bones the only things preventing me from falling straight down into his heart.

I feel the freezer air creeping into me. I can't help myself. I feel the urge to touch him. I feel as though my father might spring back to life as I sit there next to him—like he might turn to me and utter my name.

"I know you're in there somewhere, Pop."

"No. Now I am in you."

I reach out and run my palm up his aged white cheek. It feels more like rock than skin. His ears are frozen solid. I sift my fingers back through his wiry white hair. Not the dark black mane I recall from my childhood. His eyes are like the Fish Trap, frozen and still, a blue haze shrouded by a cloudy white surface.

The cold of the freezer is beginning to penetrate my coat and my cap.

"I've got to go now."

"Yes... you go now."

"I never knew you, and now I never will."

"You never had to."

"But that's what I wanted."

"You don't always get everything you want. That's how life is."

"Don't you know what it means to love someone?"

An icy silence fills the freezer. There's no answer to my question, only a realization seeping into me like the cold. I'll never know the answer to that question. Last week, last month, last year I could've asked, but now it's too late, and there's nothing inside me that is enough him to let me know what he would have said. There is a stark difference between not knowing and never knowing, and that difference is infinite. I stand, take the sheet from my father's lap and drape it back over his frozen remains.

I leave the freezer, and head back to Dr. Tanner's office for a cup of coffee. Later on I drive back home with the heater on full blast, haunted by the silence.

It takes another 24 hours before the pathologist calls to tell me there is no clear cause of death. Lucas Skinner was a healthy man, right up until the time ice crystals formed in every cell of his body. My father used to say that there was no single moment when a lake froze. The Fish Trap had so many alcoves and inlets you never knew when the whole thing finally iced over. Him dying in that icehouse, frozen milky white, like fog—it was like the last teardrop of the Fish Trap, turned bone dry and solid, too cold to thaw. Tomorrow it will be warmer; they'll bury my father six feet down, deep below the frost line.

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