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M. Lee Williams

Frozen to Death

Mother didn’t notice it was Christmas Eve until she spotted the man wearing a powder blue tuxedo, sitting at the next table in the truck stop—the only other customer in the place.

She poked my arm.  “What the hell’s up with him?"

“Been to a wedding,” I whispered because I’d heard the conversations he’d had with the waitress about the drive from St. Louis (“Colder’n a witch’s tit that far north”) and the color of his tuxedo (“Bride’s favorite color, I reckon, since everybody and his daddy, too, was wearing blue.”)

“A wedding?”  My mother looked at me as if she’d suddenly been unblindfolded.  She looked around at the garland looped across the top of the big windows and studied the blinking lights strung around the door.

Johnny Mathis was singing from the jukebox, wanting us to have ourselves a merry, little Christmas.  The waitress had refilled salt shakers, topped off ketchup bottles, counted the money in the register, and dropped enough hints about her two kids waiting at home that you would’ve had to have been a lonely, hungry man in a blue tuxedo or a sad woman like my mother to not get the hints.

I’d eaten all of my grilled cheese sandwich and fries and most of Mother’s fries.  Her sandwich was still in her plate, one bite taken out of it.

“What are we doing here?” she said finally.  “It’s Christmas Eve.  We’ve got things to do.  Daniel get your coat.”  With that she dropped a dollar on the table and walked over to the cash register to pay the bill.   I thought about putting the dollar in my pocket to make sure we’d have enough later on.  But I left it, a Christmas present for the waitress.  

In the car Mother looked at me again, as if she had something exciting to tell me.  “Daniel?”


“You know what we’re going to do tonight?”

“No, Ma’am.”

“We’re going to get as far as Memphis and we’re going to check into a motel.  Doesn’t that sound like a great Christmas present?”

I like motel rooms.  Back when Daddy and Nicholas were with us, we’d stopped at motels with indoor pools.  But that was when I was younger and we lived in our own house with our own things. Motels were what Nicholas and I liked better than our own rooms because we could jump on the beds without Daddy getting too upset.    

We splashed each other in the tub without worrying about the water getting on the floor.  We left Coke cans and candy wrappers all over the place without Mother telling us to pick up after ourselves.  Mother and Daddy didn’t pick up after themselves either.

A motel in Memphis was a different matter, though.  We’d just been through Memphis that morning after packing up our belongings and leaving Uncle Kenny and Aunt Claudean waving at us from their driveway.  We’d stopped at a donut shop and bought two donuts apiece and a carton of chocolate milk that we’d shared.  After that Mother said we were going to St. Louis to visit friends.  Neither of us mentioned that we were glad to be on the move again.  We drove for hours and got as far north on Interstate 55 as the truck stop.

“Why are we going back to Memphis?”

She started the engine and cranked up the heater. “Didn’t I tell you?  I decided that St. Louis isn’t the place for us.”   She rubbed her hands together to warm them.

The heater blew cold air, but I knew the air would warm soon.  It always did.  But, as mother maneuvered the car around the potholes of the parking lot, I wondered what we’d do if the air never turned warm.  What if it blew so cold it froze us to death on Interstate 55? 

Sometimes Mother let me drive, mostly around town.  I wanted to ask her if I could drive on the interstate, but I could see she was staring ahead, looking at something down the road for us, and I didn’t want to disturb her.  She could be silent longer than anybody I knew.  People describe it as, “lost in thought.” It was as if she were talking to people and they were talking back only to her.  She looked sad sometimes and angry sometimes, depending on who she was talking with in her mind.  I turned on the radio to fill the silence that was always a part of our trips. 

Not a car in sight and way off in the distance, across the flatness of the fields a yard light shined like a Christmas bulb.   

A string of farmhouses close enough together, all of them lit up, and with my eyes squinted, it looked like a string of Christmas lights hanging in the darkness.  

“Daniel, how’d you like to live in Wichita?”  The sound of my mother’s voice made me jump.   

“That’d be okay,” I said, turning down the radio.   I didn’t care where we lived.  I didn’t care whether or not we settled down in time for me to start a new semester in a new school. We were lost, and I didn’t care. 

“You’ve heard me talk about, Rita?  In Wichita?  She told me there were plenty of jobs up there.  And she said we could stay with her for awhile, until we get settled.”

Now, that I did care about.  I hate living with people.  No matter how good it starts out, after awhile it ends with us driving off, looking for someone else to live with.

“What if we don’t like it there?”  I hated to ask her since she sounded excited about it.  Usually when we thought of someone new to live with, she reluctantly pointed the car in their direction, all of our blankets, dishes, pots and pans in the trunk, our clothes and whatever was left of our lives in the backseat.

 “I think it’ll be different this time.  Rita’s had some hard times in her life, too.  She understands.”  She turned up the radio and flipped around looking for her favorite Memphis station, but all the stations were playing Christmas carols so she turned it off.  The silence and the darkness made me sleepy, but for some reason it felt too dangerous to leave my mother alone, with nobody to watch after her.

As we passed on the edge of West Memphis, I wondered which bridge we’d take to cross the Mississippi River—the old bridge that would take us into the dirty, scary streets around Crump Boulevard, or the new bridge that would take us past the Pyramid Arena to the quiet, winding Riverside Drive, and the high rise apartment building where Mother thought Cybill Shepard lived.  It was Christmas Eve; she took us across the new bridge.   

With the lights of the bridge behind us, the river boats and tug boats skimming across the Mississippi River to the right, and Cybill Shepard in her expensive apartment to the left, I asked, “Do you know anybody rich?”
Mother turned the car away from the river, toward downtown.  We passed the Peabody Hotel where once she and Daddy had taken Nicholas and me to see the ducks that splashed around in a fountain in the big lobby.   Daddy had insisted we go to the Peabody because he’d been there in the fifties with his father, just to see the ducks.  He told us that the ducks lived on the roof and were cared for by a man called the Duck Master.  After that day whenever Nicholas wanted to pick on me he called me Duck Master.

The four of us had stood in the crowd waiting for the elevator to open.  When it did, Daddy whispered excitedly like a child, “There he is.  There’s the Duck Master.”   The man stepped out of the elevator, followed by a row of ducks. Flashes from cameras lit up the room, and the crowd, smelling of sun tan lotion, sweat and cigarettes closed in behind the ducks, blocking my view.    

Nicholas, being fourteen then, acted irritated for having to be in the crowd, and probably for having to be a member of our family.   “Duck gawkers,” he said a little too loud for Mother’s taste.  “Hush,” she said, and put her arm around him. Mother hugging him like that in public usually made him angrier, but he just moved away from her.  She patted his shoulder just as he pulled away, and then she turned her attention to me, telling Daddy to lift me up so I could see the ducks. 

  * * *

I thought about asking Mother again if she knew any rich people, thinking that she hadn’t heard me, listening instead to the conversation she was having in her mind.  But before I could, Mother maneuvered the car into an angle parking space and turned off the engine.  She looked at me.  “Danny, now we’re not poor.  I don’t want you to think we are.  Poor is what you are when you have no hope.  We have hope.  We have each other and we have hope.”  Her voice was firm. She sounded desperate for me to believe.   I couldn’t look at her.

“I know you remember when times were better.  Life will get okay again, but right now. . . .”  I glanced at her.  A tear was streaming down her cheek as she stared across the steering wheel at the sign painted on the old brick fence in front of us, about Fabled Mable serving the best barbecue in Memphis.

When she looked at me again she was smiling.  “You know.  This is Christmas Eve.  Let’s find us a little motel.  Get settled in.   We’ll decide then what to do keep ourselves busy.”

I wasn’t thinking about us being poor.  I was thinking about rich people, the ones who lived in big mansions and drove expensive cars.  I was thinking that maybe they didn’t really exist because nobody knew them.  Nobody went to school with them.  Nobody took rides in their limousines.  Nobody had sleepovers at their houses.  Nobody I knew, anyway.  Even the big crowd in the lobby of the expensive Peabody seemed like tourists, just like us. Maybe rich people were a big lie made up by the government so we’d all keep working harder and learning more in school and never stop thinking that someday we’d be rich. And that’s what I was thinking when Mother thought I was thinking about us.

“Hey,  ‘member this motel?” Mother turned the car into the entrance of a Holiday Inn.  “Hide,” she whispered as she eased the car closer to the carport where she planned to leave me doubled over in the seat while she ran in to get a room for one.  

“Mother, kids twelve and under get in free,” I reminded her. She’d forgotten that is why she and Daddy had always chosen Holiday Inns when we took vacations.  She looked at me, one of those strange looks of hers that told me she was really seeing me.  “I’m still twelve.”

“Well, damn, they ought to let kids in free for what they charge for just a place to sleep.”  She kept staring at me.  “And, of course I know you’re twelve.  I’m your mother.”   She’d always complained about the price of motels, even when we stayed in one without first counting our money.   When she ran to check in I wondered if it was true that she remembered how old I was.  She seemed to have forgotten so much. 

I slid down in the seat anyway.  I didn’t enjoy going to places like the ones we used to go to when Nicholas was alive and Daddy wasn’t a drunk.  Mother says he’s not a drunk, just a lost soul.  I’d gotten used to this new life with just Mother and me in it.  It had taken me a long time so I didn’t like going back, even for a night. 
It was eight o’clock by the time we got into our room.  Mother said we were not going to just lie around watching television since it was Christmas Eve.  She had plans for us.  

I took a shower first and when I came out of the bathroom, Mother had laid out clothes for me.  It was the black slacks and white shirt I’d worn to Nicholas’s funeral two years ago.   Next to them on the bed was a new sweater with the price tag still dangling from it.  On the desk was the still plugged-in iron where she had pressed them.  I was ten when Nicholas died, so I put on the slacks so Mother could see that they were high water now. 

When she came out of the shower I’d pulled on the new sweater over a tee shirt, the white shirt no longer a fit either, and was blow-drying my hair.  She didn’t notice the slacks coming high above my ankles until she was across the room.  I watched her in the mirror as she put her hand to her mouth and sat down on the edge of the bed, staring at me.

I turned and smiled.  “What do you think?  Think I’ll get taller’n Daddy?”

She didn’t say anything, but continued staring.  “I like this sweater,” I said, holding my arms out and looking down at it.  “It’s my Christmas present, huh?” 

 I took the Christmas card I’d bought and sat down next to her, waiting for her to open it.  It was like a little book about a snowman getting fatter as the snow fell on him.  On the last page of the card the huge snowman was spitting out snowballs and below the glitter sprinkled on the card was written: TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING.  Below that I’d printed in green ink, MERRY CHRISTMAS. LOVE, DANIEL.

At the drugstore I’d stayed away from cards with religious messages.  It was obvious that Mother wasn’t ready for the mention of Jesus.  She’d been hearing again about religion from Uncle Kenny and Aunt Claudean, as if they’d forgotten what caused us to drift into their house and into their lives for the last six months.

A month ago their church began changing from a regular church to what they called a Spirit-filled church.  About two weeks ago, they’d begun bringing home taped sermons about the power of the Spirit.  After supper they often went to talk Spirit with their friends, coming home as if they’d been to a party—all excited and talking fast to each other.  “Praise the Lord” they said as often as they could because saying it seemed to make them feel better.

Whatever was happening to them, we’d seen it all before and it made Mother want to keep moving.  After Nicholas’s death, his Sunday School class came by to see us.  The minister came with them and tried to comfort us by telling us that Nicholas seemed to have been getting closer to God, and that we shouldn’t try to understand why teenagers thought and did what they did.  The minister said that Nicholas was with God now and that he had the answers he couldn’t find on this earth. 

 “What the hell kind of questions would he be asking to make him kill himself?”  Daddy had growled. 

 Nobody talked about the prayer meetings and the revivals Daddy had taken Nicholas to every chance he could to help Nicholas.  Help him do what I didn’t know.  But, he did change.  He quit going out with his friends.  Told me that they were different than him, they were sinners.  He scared me, especially when he’d tell me I was a sinner.

A week ago Mother began packing the car and making quiet phone calls at night. She quit her job at the newspaper where she answered the phone and wrote ads for the classifieds.  Uncle Kenny and Aunt Claudean didn’t seem to notice we were keeping to ourselves.

In the early morning hours of Christmas Eve Mother shook me awake and said it was time to go.   Uncle Kenny and Aunt Claudean were already in the kitchen and there was anger, like there always was when we left, moved out, as if the family we were staying with thought us ungrateful, thought us too needy to be rejecting their way of life.   After two years of moving around I suspected the families we were leaving also felt relieved and at the same time ashamed of feeling relief.  Mother and I were a sadness that could not be consoled.  

The anger and shame showed itself in politeness.  “Here, Danny, I made you some pancakes,” Claudean said and motioned for me to sit at her usual place at the table. 

Uncle Kenny looked at Mother drinking her coffee, leaning against the counter.  “Why do you have to leave today?”

“Need time to get settled before I start my job on Monday,” she said.  She’d told them she had a job at a newspaper waiting for her in St. Louis.   Nobody believed that except Mother, who imagined what she wanted and set about trying to get it. 

“Well, I’ll help you load up the car when you’re ready,” he said and looked at me as if I had an answer as to why we were leaving.   I looked at Mother, who winked and blew on her coffee.  

“It’s already loaded to the hilt,” Mother said, “and I want to thank you and Claudean for letting us stay here these past few months.”  

Uncle Kenny looked down at his cup, “Well, that’s what family is for…helping one another.  I just wish we could’ve gotten you to go to church with us, Beth.  You and Danny might find what you’re looking for if you went to church.”

“We might,” she said and poured her coffee into the sink.

He stood as if he needed his full height to say what he was going to say next.  “You’d better get right with God, Beth, because the world’s not going to go on forever.”  He stuck his hands in his pockets and quickly went on.  “Jesus is coming again, and he’s coming soon.”

Mother interrupted him.  “The sooner the better,” she said flatly and left the room.

 They walked us to our car, Uncle Kenny pushing a twenty-dollar bill into my hand while Mother hugged Aunt Claudean.  They insisted we hold hands and pray before we left.  Mother held hands, but she didn’t bow her head or close her eyes.  She only stared at Aunt Claudean’s lips as they moved in prayer. 

When the prayer ended, Mother simply said, "That’s that,” and gave them another hug.  They said, “Praise the Lord.  God is with you.”  By the time the sun was fully above us we had gotten as far north as Memphis and the donut shop.  No matter what was going to happen to us, it felt good being by ourselves again.


I held the Christmas card out, and when Mother only stared at it, I took the card from the envelope and handed it to her.    When she didn’t reach for it, I tried to tease her, change her mood.  “Whatsa matter, Mother, you fill eel?”  We’d said that to each other as far back as I could remember, farther back than when I had the measles and Daddy poked his head around the door to my bedroom and asked me did I fill eel.

Mother looked at me, her eyes big and staring.  “Nicky,” she said.  “Nicholas?”  She stood, and slowly wrung her hands, looking at me as if I frightened her.  



“Mother!”  I had never raised my voice at my mother before.

She moved to the sink and I watched her face in the mirror.  She looked confused and panicked as if the vanity was not to her liking, not what she was wanting to see.  

“Nicky, go tell your father and Danny that dinner is ready. “  She turned the water on and off, then on again.   “Nicky, did you hear me?” she yelled.

I went over and took her hands away from the sink where she was washing her hands.  “It’s me.  Danny.”

“Go get your father and your brother.  They’re down at the pool.”  She turned to me, the confusion on her face changing into a soft smile. She put her wet hands on my cheeks and held my face.  I could smell soap on her hands and it made me realize how long it had been since my mother had gotten that close to me, had even hugged me.   

“Nicholas, you’re getting so handsome.” There was something about the look in her eyes that comforted me.  It was as if she were telling the truth.  As if Daddy and Nicholas were somewhere close by and I only had to go get them, bring them back to the room. 

She let go of me and grabbed a towel to wipe away the water from the floor.   “And take off those pants, Danny.  They’re too small for you.” She began crying softly, wiping her tears with the same towel.

I took my jeans and stood in the corner where she couldn’t see me, yet I could look around to see her if I had to, and I put on my jeans, and hid the slacks between the mattresses.  Her crying became louder, deeper.  At the last minute I pulled off the sweater and looked around for my Dallas Cowboys tee shirt. I heard a door slam and when I looked for Mother she was no longer standing at the sink. I tapped on the bathroom door and tried the knob, but the door was locked.

“Mother!  Mother, open the door!”

Water began running in the bathtub.  I slammed my shoulder against the door like the cops do on television.   “Mother, open this door right now!”   

All of it seemed like a television show. Nothing was real--not the locked door, not the water running, not the missing mother, not me looking in the mirror at myself leaning against the door.   I saw that I’d forgotten to zip up.  Soon I might have to bring others into the room, into our lives, and it was important for me right then to look as intact as possible for my mother’s sake as well as mine.  

“If you let me in I’ll get Nicholas for you,” I said quietly through the door,  “Please, Mother.”  

I thought I heard her crying, but running water has sounds in it sometimes, like a phone ringing and people talking.

“Mother, I don’t want to do this, but if you don’t open this door, I’m going to call the police.” Nothing.

I went to the phone, but once I had it in my hands I sat down on the edge of the bed and just held it. A call to the police was to change my family again--to take away one more of us, and there wasn’t enough of us left.  But if Mother were dead, if she was dying, nothing would be the same again anyway.

What did she have to kill herself with?  I looked around, clawing through her make-up bag on the vanity.  Big brushes, little brushes, compacts, little squares of color, no medicine bottles.  No bottle of sleeping pills that the doctor had prescribed for her.

I ran to the phone and dialed.  I said I didn’t know what the address was, but it was a Holiday Inn near downtown, room two twelve.  I wasn’t sure what the emergency was, but I was afraid that my mother was trying to kill herself.

I hung up, even though the policeman asked me not to, and leaned against the headboard.  And I heard all the whispers of the family when they spoke of Nicholas.  If God can’t love me, who can?  Nicholas had written that before shooting himself in the head with Daddy’s pistol.

If Mother was dead, what was I going to do?    Somewhere something good was happening.  Somewhere there was Nicholas.  What was he doing now?  Was he sorry for what he’d done?  Could he see us, mother in the bathroom maybe dead, me on the bed hiding in the shadows of the room?  Wherever Daddy was, could he feel that something very bad was happening? 

Where was God?  Somewhere something good was happening.  It couldn’t be this bad everywhere or the world would die.  It would just lay down and die.

If God can’t love me, who can? I wanted to know why Nicholas would even ask that question.  He had Mother, Daddy and me.  Mother had me.  How could they leave asking such a hateful question?

I heard something, a voice.  It said, Get out.

I waited.  Get out, now!

It was the clearest thought I’d ever had; so clear it didn’t feel as if it was mine.  I stood up, not sure if I should listen to the voice in my head.  They’ll take your mother and then they’ll take you to Uncle Kenny’s.  

I opened my suitcase and threw everything in it, then grabbed Mother’s suitcase and tossed them over the balcony near our car below.  I ran back into the room to bang on the door one more time.  “Mother!  Mother, come out here right now or I’m leaving without you!”

Sirens.  I grabbed Mother’s purse and car keys and jumped down the stairs three, four at a time, threw the suitcases in the backseat and slid into the front seat just as the ambulance and police car pulled in.  Paramedics jumped out of the ambulance and ran up the stairs, followed by the cop.  I started the engine and with my heart pounding, eased the car out.  God, please don’t let me squeal the tires.  Don’t let me wreck this thing.    I drove out of the parking lot onto Poplar Avenue.

Driving slowly, probably too slowly, I turned from one street onto another until I recognized where I was, then I headed for Highway 78—Elvis Presley Highway.  It would take me through Olive Branch, Mississippi and farther south to Holly Springs.

At stoplights, whenever I felt someone looking over at me from a nearby car, I lowered my head and watched for the red shade on my shirt and arms to turn green.   My heart didn’t slow down until I’d left the city limits, reaching the darkness of the hills and kudzu that is Mississippi.  I almost wanted to pray.  No, that’s not true, I did want to pray, but I didn’t know who or what would listen.  Or if there was anybody to hear me.

My headlights were the only ones on the road, and I thought about turning around and heading for Baptist Hospital—I figured that’s where they’d taken my mother.  I would have if I hadn’t been so tired, so ready to stop running.

At Holly Springs I stopped at the Quick Mart, parking to the side of the store so nobody could see I was behind the wheel.   There wasn’t anyone in the store when I entered, not even a clerk.   I went to the candy aisle and picked out a handful—enough for breakfast, too.  At the Coke machine I made as much noise as I could getting ice, even pouring out a couple of cups of ice until a woman from the back yelled that she’d be right out.  

Jimmy King’s mother came from the backroom, carrying a mop and pulling a bucket on wheels.   

I’d gone to school with Jimmy in Oxford until his family moved to Holly Springs after fourth grade. She had long, wavy orange hair and the longest red nails on any woman I’ve ever seen, even movie stars.  She was a least a hundred pounds overweight and wearing one of those ugly tee shirts I remembered her always wearing.  This one was pink with a faded palm tree on it; below it were words I couldn’t read.  The thing of it is, she always acted as if she thought she was beautiful, often flipping her long hair and displaying her hands in such a way to emphasize her red nails.

“Hey, Sweetie,” she hollered.  “Why ain’t you home under the covers waitin’ for Santa?” 

“That’s where I’m headed,” I said because I had to answer her.

Yep, it was Jimmy King’s mother. Couldn’t mistake Jimmy’s mother even if I hadn’t seen her in fifty years.  When she came to take my money I could see the faded words on her shirt, Hang Loose Hawaii.

“Don’t I know you?”  She handed me my change without counting it out. “Are your people from around here?”

“From Oxford,” I said and looked her straight in the eye.  To look away would have made her think harder. 

“We lived in Oxford a few years back.  Miss it sometimes.  But, what the heck, you’ve got to bloom where you’re planted, ain’t that right?”

I scooped up the candy bars and Coke, and mumbled a thank you.

“Merry Christmas, Sweetie.”  I didn’t look back but I imagined that she picked up her mop and bucket and continued where she’d left off.

When I started the car I saw that the gas gauge was on empty.  Damn.  How long had it been on empty?  Could I make it the thirty or so miles to Oxford?

I turned off the engine and tried to figure how to get gas without alerting Mrs. King that I was alone in the car on Christmas Eve.  Or maybe it was Christmas by then.

I opened the trunk, and set the microwave on the ground.  I tugged at the quilts, hearing dishes rattle.  Behind the box of dishtowels I found the gas can.  While I was filling it, I kept thinking of what to tell Mrs. King about why I needed a can of gas.

 Even when I got into the store with the dollar and sixty-seven cents—the exact amount—I didn’t know what to say.  “Here you go, Ma’am,” I said and quickly turned to leave.  She yelled, “Danny?”

I stopped, but couldn’t turn around.

“Is everything okay?  Somebody run out of gas?”

“No, Ma’am, just need it for the lawn mower.”  I couldn’t believe I’d said that.  I heard her walking toward me.  
“Danny, turn around, look at me.”  She didn’t sound angry, but I wasn’t sure what she was going to do.  I turned, but couldn’t look her in the face.

“You ain’t in trouble are you?”

“No, Ma’am, just headed home, I mean, we’re headed home.  Been to Memphis.”

“Come here, Sweetie,” she said, but before I could move she came to me, wrapping her big arms around me.  I could feel her warmth and bigness, and suddenly I realized how cold I was.   Everything about her was soft, big and alive.  

Alive as everything once was, as everything needs to be in order to be.  I leaned my head against her shoulder, closed my eyes and let her rock us while she patted my back and I felt myself thawing.  

That night I broke into our empty house in Oxford, where the For Sale sign leaned backward into the hyacinth bush, where the bedroom in which Nicholas shot himself had the moon shining on the floor, where my parent’s room still smelled of Mother’s perfume, and where my room felt like home.  

I brought in quilts and pillows and the clock radio that I tuned to a Memphis station. I curled up in the quilts and listened to Kenny G blowing Christmas carols on WMEM.  

Somewhere something good was happening.  Somewhere Mother was being kept warm and safe, and she was sleeping a good sleep, without worrying about me.  I could almost see her in the hospital bed dreaming of all the kindness in life she deserved, that was meant to be hers all along.  Somewhere Daddy was asleep and a blessing was covering him like a warm blanket and a force was gathering in his soul that would push aside the pain and the alcohol.  It would guide him home.  Somewhere Nicholas was laughing like he did when we were little together.  Somewhere he was being loved by God, who had fat, warm arms and beautiful hands with long, red nails.   

  M. Lee Williams, born in Memphis,  is a graduate of the Ole Miss School of Law. Williams also worked toward the MFA at Wichita State University. Williams is currently teaching in Iowa.

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