Jan/Feb 2008  •   Spotlight

Frozen in Place

by Carolyn Steele Agosta

Photo by Steve Wing

Photo by Steve Wing

Nine years after the big storm, Jivey Booth stopped by my bar and I just closed the place down right then and there and spent the rest of the day with him, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes. We talked about the storm, holed up as we were in a fleabag motel outside Durham, North Carolina, no heat, no light, no food, and about the things we'd done since then. He'd done a spell in jail, six months for stealing a girlfriend's ATM card, cleaning out her account. But when he considered how long a sentence he could have had, for many other things, he couldn't complain. I'd done a spell in the marriage cage but it didn't stick. "Clean separation," I told him. "No runs, no hits, no errors." At one point he mentioned Amy, his face reddening slightly. She was married now to some chiropractor in Charlotte. Coupla kids. He'd always felt bad about how things had gone down but no point in going over all that again. Jivey ran his hand through that bright gold hair, thinning now, and shot me one glance with his spooky blue eyes.

"I just didn't know," he said. "How was I to know?"

I poured the rest of the coffee down the sink and pulled out the Dewar's. Found us some peanuts behind the bar, turned on the CD player—some old Bob Segar. "Shoot," I said, "remember the storm? God, what were we—nineteen? Twenty? We broke into that vending machine and lived on Snickers bars and Fritos until they ran out. Then we wrapped ourselves up in those mangy old bedspreads and walking to the Bojangle's. Snow so high, I was tippy-toeing to keep my balls clear. We jimmied the lock on the back door and it just snapped, just plain shattered, remember?"

"I remember those damned frozen biscuits and sweet potato pies. Can't even look a sweet potato pie in the face any more."

It all came back. Playing poker and gin rummy until we were too cold to hold the cards, until our minds were numb. Swapping every story we ever knew, singing every drinking song we'd ever heard. Not admitting we wanted our moms. Falling asleep in that weird silence, light filtering through the window shades odd and white because of the moon on the snow. Waking up disoriented, not knowing the time of day, or day of the week.

"Remember Grover?" he asked.

Hell yes. The old guy in his car, frozen to death. Mouth hanging open, skin all blue. We named him Grover, just so we could laugh about it and not freak out. Every couple of days we'd wrap up and go out in the cold, trying to see if anyone else was alive. Grover's was the only face we saw.

"Hell," I said, "we lived through that, we can live through anything. Nothing could be worse than those 17 days, wondering if anyone had survived. And then trying to get things back to normal. But we survived, and so did a lot of other people and look at us now." I glanced around at my bar, at the business I'd built, the life I'd regained.

And Jivey nodded. "Yeah, and I'm not in jail," he laughed. "Who'da thunk?"

"So whatever happened with your dad?" I asked, what I'd wanted to ask all along. "He never brought you into the, uh, family business?"

Jivey shrugged. "Nah. Probably just as well. I never could remember to wear my sunglasses and, with these eyes, somebody would have recognized me sooner or later. Dad and I don't talk any more. He's gotten so arthritic, he hadda go straight. Well, pretty straight. Still lifts car parts sometimes. I phone Ma once in a while. She's the one who told me about Amy." He shifted in his seat, stubbed out his cigarette, laughed a little. "Last thing Dad ever said to me was when I tried to explain why I kept screwing up. Told Dad I had A.D.D. He just blew a gasket. ĎA.D.D., my A.S.S. You're just plain stupid!' But I didn't care. After that last job, at Amy's folks' store, I had no heart any more for smash-and-grab. I always felt like it was my fault, you know? If I'd known it was her folks' shop, I never would've gone in there, never would've robbed them. Her dad wouldn't have run off crazy like that, God knows where, her ma wouldn't have committed suicide. All those things, you know, all those things from one damned botched job, where all I got from the cash register was a lousy $400 anyway. A lousy $400. Amy, dropping out of college. And out of my life, never knowing what a scumbag I am. Well, she's better off."

He sat there staring at the ash on his cigarette. "Doesn't matter," he finally said. "She's better off."

I got up then and cooked a couple of burgers on the grill. We talked about other things—football, his job as a truck driver traveling I-40, my plans to expand the bar. We washed the burgers down with more Dewar's, and I told him not to drive. He could sleep on the futon in the office. "It'll be like camping out," I said, "like holing up in that ratty motel in Durham."

Jivey shook his head and lit another one. "Not quite. Even in the middle of that damn storm, when there was nothing but white around and the air so cold you couldn't breathe, I really figured we'd come through it, ya know? Like there was a whole life ahead, something still to look forward to, a long road in front of me. Now I know it's just a case of hit one end of the road and then turn around, head all the way back again. Just keep doing it every damn day until I die, just keep rolling. Well, better than being frozen in place like old Grover, right?"

"Yeah," I said, watching his spooky blue eyes focus on something far away. "No Grovers around here."