It doesn't get very cold often in Los Angeles. Sometimes, in the winter, there’s transparent frost on the lawns when you go out to get the paper from the driveway, but in doesn’t get cold in the city like it does in the mountains and the deserts.
So, if you live in Los Angeles, you very rarely turn on the heater in your car. And even when you do, you don’t have to turn it up high; you only want two or three additional degrees of comfort.
But it was very cold in Los Angeles that day. Not cold enough to spare citizens the contempt of the rest of the nation, but cold enough for him to turn on the heater in his car. Turn it on above a breeze and with the thermostat pushed up.
He did this and warm air soon billowed out of the vents in the dashboard and down on the floor. The car was filled with that particular sound of moving air. It was comfortable, for a moment. Then he realized he was letting more into the car than warmth. Whatever pulled the heat from the engine and pushed it into the cabin of the car was delivering something else. Something he wasn’t expecting. Something he thought he’d forgotten. The forced air carried the smell of warm metal and plastic, but the exhalation of the vents also carried things that belonged to another time and place.
It was the oven-heated air of long drives on the New York Expressway and the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It was the suffocating heat of Binghamton and Albany. It was the thick atmosphere of roads the color of ash from the salt used to melt the snow.
As he drove on, heading for the freeway, hard blue California sky was replaced with threatening lead rolling over him. Outside the driver’s window, slender girls in sweaters, who kept their long legs exposed, were replaced by parka-enveloped men, hunched over the backs of cars at gas pumps. Motionless men waiting for the tanks to fill. Not so much standing by the pump as looking like they were placed there. Like men in model railroad layouts, frozen in some common activity. Posed to reproduce an instant of life, sliced into stillness when viewed from the window of a moving train.
Do people still build train sets? Do people still ride trains?
The tops of palm trees became white plumes climbing from the smoke stacks of factories and power-plants and the argument that began in the Lincoln Tunnel ebbed and flowed, threaded through the songs from the AM radio on the trip north. The unavoidable north.
North past the Singer Sewing Machine plant and the Howard Johnson’s and places he knew probably survived only in his memory.
North where the wind came off the lake with snow by the foot, and the crap they poured on the roads kicked up into your wheel-wells to form caramel-colored tumors of frozen slush. Where the weather ate through the skin of a car like a parasite. All the metaphors were of disease and deterioration.
He turned onto the freeway ramp which became a narrow path at the bottom of a snow-plowed canyon. He drove faster, but he knew it wouldn’t help.
The car reached the freeway. He cut off a truck to get into the left lane as quickly as possible then leaned on the gas, as if there was still a chance to out run it.
He turned off the heater. Maybe that would help. The throaty song stopped and the air stood still, but the damage had been done.
He looked to the north, toward the mountains lightly frosted with snow, and heard in his mind a terrible, groaning noise mixed with the shriek of glass scrapping against glass.
He knew it would be only a matter of minutes before he saw the blue and white bulk heave itself over the mountains and start its march down the slopes, into the valleys, down to the freeway, to find him.
All around him was the mad metal song of snow-chains biting into the pavement.
He thought he had escaped, but he knew now that was a foolish dream.
You can never escape the glacier with your name on it.
Joseph Dougherty is a writer living in California.