<%@ Language=VBScript %> <%response.buffer = TRUE%> The Ice Box
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The Ice Box

I could have picked up the phone. I had just started gathering the necessary tools for this monthly project, so it wasn't like I was up to my elbows in ice at that point, but she shouldn't have called. She knew it was the first Thursday. Rachel was like that. She didn't think the rules applied to her, and there was a time when she was right, but things change.

Fiction by Kate Sheofsky
Illustrations by Brett Bellas

January.30th.2003

It wasn't the first time I didn't answer the phone. In fact, I have a long history of screening calls. I pick up the phone just often enough so that my parents believe me when I tell them I have a place to live, and not just an answering machine hooked up to a forgotten line in the expansive City Hall building that I sneak into and check every once in a while. I have a job, a pretty decent one actually; still I think my mother goes to sleep at night with visions of me sleeping huddled inside a cardboard box at the back of some stranger's carport.

I don't need a reason not to answer the phone. Sometimes I just don't feel like it. This particular night, however, I was busy. My studio apartment is dull, rundown and probably in violation of several health codes. I learned long ago that when looking for a place to live in the Bay Area I had to automatically rule out all ads that featured the words cute, cozy, charming. Cute and charming were not in my price range. I knew to go for listings that said things like extra low ceiling, cement floor, do not apply if allergic to mold. So, my apartment is small, so small that the window fogs up when I turn on the coffee maker. I don't mind that the shower leaks water into the kitchen area every morning and I've given up trying to stop the roaches from entering through the holes in the walls -- they keep my cat busy, and I guess that's worth something. The only household maintenance that I consistently perform is the freezer duty, and that's what I was doing when the phone rang.

The freezer isn't a separate unit on the top half of my refrigerator. It's enclosed in the refrigerator, a small compartment about the size of a breadbox. It has never worked properly. I don't know exactly what the problem is, but I know that whatever it is causes the inside of the freezer to form ice on all sides, eventually getting to the point where a pint of Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia will no longer fit in it if standing upright. To combat this problem, the first Thursday of every month, starting at 6pm when I get home from work, I chip away the ice that has accumulated on the inside of the freezer. It's a mindless task, but mindless tasks grant a pleasant solitude, and therefore should not be interrupted by telephone calls.

The phone rang four times and then the answering machine came on. A familiar voice started speaking. It was Rachel.

"Hey, are you there ... I need to talk to you, pick up if you're there ... Okay, call me when you get a chance."

I could have picked up the phone. I had just started gathering the necessary tools for this monthly project, so it wasn't like I was up to my elbows in ice at that point, but she shouldn't have called. She knew it was the first Thursday. Rachel was like that. She didn't think the rules applied to her, and there was a time when she was right, but things change.

I laid the drop cloth on the mustard-colored linoleum in front of the refrigerator and propped open the door with a metal folding chair. I opened the freezer compartment and tied it to the refrigerator door with a piece of old speaker wire so it wouldn't close. From my toolbox I took a hammer, screwdriver, a pair of safety goggles and a set of gardening gloves. I put on the gloves and grabbed a metal slotted spoon from the utensil rack on the counter.



The process of chipping the ice away has gotten easier over time. Each month I refine the process and figure out new ways to make the job go faster. The first time I did it all I used was a butter knife. It took six hours, and I never did get it all scraped off. The second time I tried a different method. I took the water bottle from my bike and filled it with hot water, which I then squirted into the freezer to melt the ice. The result was the formation of a thin, slick layer of ice over the existing ice, which made it impossible to scrape with my knife.

The phone rang, and again the answering machine picked up.

"It's Rachel. It's ice night; I know you're there ... Pick up the phone, it's important ... Fine, but I'm just going to keep calling."

She slammed the phone down particularly hard. In person, Rachel has a very nice voice. It's fairly deep and scratchy, sexy, but something happens to it when it travels across the phone lines. A horrible distortion takes place and by the time it reaches my answering machine it is grating and abrasive, caustic actually. I noticed it the first time she left a message, two years ago. I thought surely it would improve, or I would get used to it. Neither was true.

I scraped the side of the slotted spoon across the bottom of the freezer. That's the easiest way to start; the bottom has the least amount of ice on it, and most can be removed with the edge of the spoon. It's a good 30-minute warm up before the real work begins.

Ring. Ring.

"Maybe you don't care about what happened, or how I'm feeling, but I'm trying to make this right, so the least you can do is pick up the phone and talk to me ... I know you can hear me, pick up the phone… Fine!"

Slam.

Rachel and I had a fight last night. Actually, she had a fight, which she directed at me, but that was the extent of my involvement. That's how it usually went. Had I picked up the phone, we would have had what she would call a "discussion", and what I would call a "one-sided self-therapy session", which may or may not have resulted in us patching things up and being a happy couple again. These interactions always seemed very tiresome when they were happening, but in reality they were the quickest way to rectify things. Quicker, however, is not always better.

I scooped all the ice I had accumulated from the bottom of the freezer into the sink, then I put on my goggles and grabbed the hammer and screwdriver. Chiseling is the most time consuming part. It's also the most difficult part because there are hard to reach places, but it's where most of the progress takes place. The first time I used the chisel technique, a piece of ice shot out at my face. It didn't hurt when it collided with my cheekbone; it only startled me. It wasn't a thick piece so it melted almost as soon as it hit my skin, but it came dangerously close to my eye. I stopped everything and went to buy safety goggles. You can never be too careful when your eyesight is at risk.

Ring. Ring.

"This is your last chance. Pick up the phone now or I'm never calling again ... I'm serious, this is it ..."

Slam.

Ring. Ring.

Slam.

The double slam, I know it well. The first time she did it was just after our sixth-month anniversary. I had messed up pretty bad and she wasn't about to let me forget it. I cried that night. I assumed that meant I loved her.

The best part about chiseling is when you manage to knock off a really big chunk of ice. It doesn't happen that often because I don't use a lot of strength when hitting at tricky angles; I used to, but my fingernail is still growing back from two months ago, when the screwdriver slipped and I hit my thumb. I learned then that it wasn't about power. Patience and precision are much more efficient. When I do break off a big piece though, it changes the course of the rest of the chiseling. A large hole gives you angles you didn't have before, and if it's big enough, it can knock as much as half an hour off this part of the process.

Ring. Ring.

"You know what? You are the most selfish, arrogant, insensitive person I know. You're incapable of real feelings. I really feel sorry for you. Someday you better figure out that you can't treat people like this, 'cause if you don't you are going to die a very lonely person."

Slam.

Rachel is an emotional person. Comparatively, I am not. I used to try to reason with her, explain my side of the situation, but those attempts were almost always futile and they wore at me from the inside out. Not answering the phone was a kind of self-preservation.
I set the hammer and screwdriver on the counter and removed my goggles. Most of the work was done. I stretched my arms toward the ceiling, then shook out my hands and flexed my fingers. After a few hours, the muscles start to get stiff (the cold doesn't help that) and it's important to keep the circulation going for the final phase.

I took the slotted spoon and scraped along all the edges, removing the last thin layer of ice. Sixty-seven pulls across the inside of the box. Last month I bought a new, larger spoon and it's made a big difference. Before, it would take at least a hundred pulls to finish the job. I scooped the snow into the sink and took off my gloves. Then I untied the freezer door, closed the refrigerator and began folding the drop cloth.

Ring. Ring.

"I hate you."

Click.

The phone went down quietly, like a door gently shutting. Her voice was soft and subdued. All the anger that was infused in the previous calls was gone. I knew the phone wouldn't ring again. There was something calming in that.

My watch beeped, and I looked down to check the time. 10pm; my best time yet. I packed up all the tools in my toolbox and placed the slotted spoon in the sink. I decided that next month I would get one of those little blowtorches; the kind they use to make crème brule. I'll bet that would work wonders. I hear those are dangerous though. I can see the headline now: Woman torches apartment while defrosting freezer. I may have to give that one some thought.




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