Chapter One: May 2, 2015
Back in my younger days, when I was still wet behind the ears, I often found myself on the receiving end of other people’s secrets. Either I just knew, or else confidences were whispered to me at the end of a crowded bar—things that people tend to keep from their nearest but equally need to share. I became privy to the shames and delights, the wild fears and weird joys of others. Even now, as I blunder about in my fifties, both more and less confident than the younger me, sometimes, on a ferry or in the airport or at a coffee shop, a casual encounter turns into a full-blown revelation.
That day, it was the woman’s height that caught my eye. She must have been nearly six feet, head and shoulders above the average grocery crowd, and although it was her height that made me do a double take, when she ran her fingers through a mane of cream-colored hair, professionally dyed and curled into a cascading spume across her shoulders, I knew. I knew we had something in common. She was chatting up the clerk, and I was just a little too far away to hear the timbre of her voice, but then I caught sight of her clothes. Now, in addition to my generally quiet presence, I also try to remain reticent in public, as if I were part of the scenery. But this lady! A leopard-skin bolero jacket, a full-length black cotton dress with a white hand-crocheted inset across her picture-perfect cleavage—I thought, Wow, that was one talented surgeon, such excellent tits! Having surrendered to elective surgeries, I’ve learned to appreciate good work.
Had we been anywhere else besides this particular Stop & Shop, I might have started a conversation with her, friendly, not too intrusive; but we were on Martha’s Vineyard and in Edgartown, and I think all she was trying to do was pass—which didn’t really explain the bolero, not in this casual, oh-so-wealthy town of baseball caps, blue-jeans, and dock-siders. So I left the store with my purchases before she did, no longer wanting a chat. She was younger than me, which meant that she would have one type of story, and I would have mine. I left, loaded my groceries in the hatchback, and drove home, ruminating over several difficult decisions that I had to make, one of them involving more surgery.
Meanwhile, I silently enjoyed the miraculous fact of no snow. When I’d first arrived on Island to live, the whole East Coast was being battered with wicked winds that could slice the tip of your nose right off. Normally I wouldn’t have ventured to make the trip, but my father had died and I’d found myself the owner what was left of my grandparents’ farm. Over the years, acreage had been sold, the homestead whittled down to help defray the upkeep, so by the time the property came to me, what I got was a converted barn, long ago winterized, in a state of decline. Dad being Dad, I thought he’d drunk away the whole kit and caboodle ages ago, but no, he’d managed to hang onto it. Imagine my surprise at becoming the proud new owner of a semi-furnished, ailing East Chop home! After Dad had done some further renovations, mainly adding a loft—God knows how he paid for it—he’d been renting it out, for a sum that kept the roof on and the walls standing, but precious little else.
Of course I could have waited to visit until spring had sprung, but my heart, or what was left if it by that winter, just wouldn’t let me. I’d spent most of my childhood summers on that property, underfoot, in the way, being spoiled by my grandparents, and yes, it had been idyllic. Gramps had converted the little barn I now owned into a living space, after it had become clear that his wife, my step-grandmother, Elizabeth—Liza—could no longer handle the staircase in the main house. So he sold that house—what he took to calling the “rattle-trap”—for a bundle and moved into the one-floor and more or less three-room barn. Dad’s add-on of the loft and half-bathroom rounded the place out to five rooms, tiny except for the living-kitchen area, with its generous fireplace that could warm the whole downstairs. As a consequence of the various renovations, that area, while spacious compared to the rest, was odd-angled, with one corner that created a kind of dim, recessed nook, apropos of nothing in particular.
That day, after my visit to the Stop & Shop, I drove up the sandy dirt road with care and let myself in the back door. I set my grocery sacks on the counter, threw the car keys in the key-basket, went back for the rest. After I’d unloaded and tidied up, I checked the time: an hour before the Skype interview. My company was hiring, hoping for a newly minted PhD in software-perception engineering, someone who had experience in calibrating cameras and building models from point clouds, someone who could manipulate data fusion for localization and object tracking. In other words, we were looking for a very bright, talented kid who wanted to make robots move. I say “kid” even if most PhDs arrive now on the cusp of thirty. But I’m on the nether side of fifty, eyeing sixty with suspicion. Turning the big three-o seems back in the day, and also just yesterday.
So does my childhood. I think about my grandparents all the time. Liza passed in ’91, but Gramps shouldered on until ’95, dying in his sleep three days after his hundredth birthday, right here in this house. As a child I’d adored him. He’d been my rock, my role model. In the confused pain of my adolescence, and then during my transformative adulthood, our connection had shivered in the emotional storm I’d conjured. The loss of his support lingers, even now, although I’ve finally come to terms with it.
But during the Vineyard summers of my childhood, I was well-loved and also allowed to be a kid, free to wander, to make-believe, to play hard and sleep hard and not to worry, which was the best part, because at home I’d been forced into a premature adulthood by the age of ten, raising myself and later my twin step-sisters, Clara and Casey, after our parents abdicated to alcohol. Both my mom and my stepmom took to drinking, I think, to keep Dad company, while Dad drank because the adventure he thought should have been the artist’s lot in life had long ago turned into the rat-race of advertising. As a young man, he’d fancied himself Gauguin—lacking Tahiti, absinthe, abandon, and talent.
Thinking about my dad distracted me; suddenly it was time to Skype, and I wasn’t really prepared. Fortunately, the rest of the hiring committee was, and so was the candidate. I just had to nod and look interested, throw in a question or two; at this point in my career I was coasting, impersonating a CEO as I fought off a restless sense that somehow I’d lost my way, a feeling that had been growing since my last visit to London and was only exacerbated by things like the morning’s excursion to the Bevington, just before my trip to the Stop & Shop.
The Bevington Gallery is owned by a friend of a friend of mine, Vera Cullen, so when she phoned first thing that morning, close to breathless, I was mildly curious.
“You’ve got to come and see what Ben has snagged for me,” she said. “Come today, please—you won’t believe your eyes! No, I’m not going to tell you, just come as soon as you can.” With that, she rang off.
Whatever Vera’s wealthy cousin Ben Wheeler—yes, that Ben Wheeler, the actor—had unearthed, it had to be quite a find for her to be so cagey and demanding. I was especially reluctant to visit because the narrow, complaining staircase up to her office is a tough climb. Like many buildings on Island, Vera’s office dates back to the 1850s; the wood creaks and pops much as my knees do.
As I gained the landing, I could hear her voice, muffled behind the door that leads to her inner sanctum. I hesitated and then began to drift about; the gallery, upstairs and down, is spacious, sunny, and cluttered in a way that seems deliberately picturesque.
“Oh, goody, you’re here,” said Vera, poking her head out the door. “I’ll be right with you, just let me finish.”
But she didn’t finish, so I kept on drifting about until my thoughts drifted as well, circling back as they often did to my grandfather’s baffled fury at the twenty-something me. The twins and my stepmom, my mom, her parents, Grandma Florence and Grandpa Tom, and even Dad had adjusted to my decision; Grandma Liza too eventually came around. Gramps did not, and never would.
“Here I am,” said Vera, banishing the family ghosts. She ran her eyes over me. “You’re looking good after such a rough winter.” She folded her arms. “I like the beard. Suits you.”
“Thanks,” I said, smiling. “So what has Ben found that has set you so on fire?”
Vera grinned as if she’d swallowed the world whole. “Appledore.”
“Childe Hassam’s Appledore?”
“Interesting,” I said. “You know, my grandmother used to visit there when she was a child. Or so I was told.”
Vera nodded absentmindedly. “Liza? That doesn’t surprise me.”
“No, no, I meant Irene, Grandfather’s first wife. Not Liza.”
“Oh.” Vera half-frowned. “I didn’t know there was a first wife. Well, now, what a coincidence! Maybe it’s something in the air. Come and see these two oils.”
“So you’ve got your hands on a pair of Hassams?”
“Not Hassam,” said Vera, leading the way back into her private space. “These were found locked in an old steamer trunk. Such a cliché, but it happens.”
She stopped short at a showing table in the middle of the room. Two unframed canvases lay there upon a dark drop cloth. I whistled.
“Right?” said Vera. “The Vineyard, but à la Appledore! Not Hassam, but still.”
She wasn’t joking; these had a fledgling spontaneity, crisp and spirited, a little like Hassam’s Bathing Pool, Appledore, 1907, and yet they were not his. The brushwork seemed far more careless than his, even child-like, and yet no lines could have been more careful, no colors more calculated to capture in so precise a measure the famed Vineyard light, a sea-lit burnish so pearly it continues to drive painters to distraction. Both subjects were simple, the first a stone wall under a late summer sun with a woman holding a toddler who reached for the cloudless chastity of sky, the second a becalmed sea, cliffs at dusk, and a shrimper just coming into harbor.
“Well?” said Vera, a tad impatient. “What do you think?”
I sighed. “Heartbreaking.”
Vera blew out an impatient breath. “Just heartbreaking? Is that all you can say?”
I tilted my head. “Whoever had those hands had a gift.”
“I know, right?” Vera sounded excited again. “I don’t have the artist’s name, but I do know that she died not long after finishing them.”
“Died? Was she old, then? A late-bloomer?”
Vera shook her head. “Nope. Died young.”
I took in a breath, then let it out slowly, because this was another odd coincidence. “My biological grandmother, the one I just mentioned, Irene—she died young. And she was a painter.”
“Oh, no! How awful!”
I shrugged. “Long before I was born. Never knew her.”
Vera gazed back at the paintings. “There was a letter in the trunk, ‘To my lost and darling girl, RIP 1922, with all my heart and soul, Lexie,’ so I have a single name, a single date. I don’t know how I can figure out who she was. Still, she’s not entirely gone, right? She gave us these, and the essence of a fresh vision, distilled. Precious. And saved.”
“What will you do with them?”
Vera put a finger to the tip of her nose. “What Ben asked me to do, which is show them for the summer and then give you one.”
“What?” I nearly barked out the word. Of course I did know Ben Wheeler—like Vera, he was a friend of a friend, but also something of an odd bird, even on an Island full of odd birds: a famous actor with some very, very deep Hollywood pockets, who was prone to kind-hearted whims. I also knew I was probably looking at something more or less priceless, or if not priceless at least a fortune in oil. Why, up and out of nowhere, give me, a stranger, that fortune? That was some kind of a whim, all right.
“I don’t understand. Aren’t these to boost the gallery?”
“Oh, they’ll bring in business, street traffic, especially if I put them on window display and then make them unavailable—it will generate bids and buzz. When the season is over, Ben will take one for his colonial and you’ll take one home.”
“I don’t get it. Why me?”
Vera smiled gently. “He’s fond of you.”
“You mean he’s fond of Cabbi, don’t you?”
“Well, but he’s already given Cabbi something. So now it’s your turn. That’s what he said. For helping him enjoy life again.” Vera gazed back at the simple, astonishing little gems. “Poor child. Such talent.”
I left Vera’s gallery feeling not only bewildered—how do you reciprocate such a grand gesture?—but also wondering: what might help me enjoy my life again? My friendships with Cabbi, her cousin Lem, and their friend Quiola, all of whom lived in a house people called the Barn, had grown over the brutal winter, but I hadn’t gotten to the stage of being comfortable enough to be fully out with them about my past. Ben and Vera I’d gotten to know through Cabs, but again, I didn’t know them well; in fact, I’d become a hermit ever since my return from England, just me and my latest prototype. Yet even my current darling bot had gone neglected. I really needed my lab to tinker in, which meant the thing I’d nicknamed the “octocrab” was languishing and my growing lack of get-up-and-go put her in jeopardy of becoming obsolete even before she was built; the technological future waits for no man’s bout of the blues.
The feeling of worthlessness had started in the UK, in Oxford—or maybe it’s fairer to say that’s when it began to interfere in my daily life. I had been invited to make a presentation about our soft robot R&D at the Robotics Research Group. I have a PhD, of course, and an affiliation with MIT, so I can claim to be an intellectual, though I’m really more of a nuts-and-bolts type. And this wasn’t my first trip to Oxford, but still it was the first in many years, and I found myself almost overwhelmed by nostalgia—despite the fact that much had changed, much had not: the mellow, buttery gold of the late autumn; the biking students, hustling to class; the perfect, pristine emerald lawns in the quads; the wide-open promise of tomorrow that youth takes for granted.
What began as a toothache of nostalgia became full-blown anguish by the time I left Oxford for London. On the eve of the St. Jude storm, which turned out to be no more than a brief blow in the city, I found myself in Tavistock Square, watching two Japanese teens mug for the camera with the bust of Virginia Woolf. Watching them take selfies, a simple act you see every day, all at once broke my spirit, as if that spirit had turned to kindling. I’d experienced the same snap of pure despair the day before, watching people take photos in the Egyptian exhibit at the British Museum—the living juxtaposed with monumental dead, lifted from the context of their burials, sacked as cultural loot and hauled off for entertainment.
Idly I wondered if these Japanese kids even knew who Virginia Woolf was? Then I chided myself: What a snob. They were just being kids, on the cusp of responsibilities that they might not handle well, and soon life would snowball into a struggle to enjoy anything—too much to do, never enough time, or rather too much redundant labor, and not much in the way of a jolt.
Anyway, at the end of that week in London All Hallow’s Eve blew in as Jude blew out. The city streets were awash with costumes, impromptu cemeteries, and such, and there I was, a displaced, downbeat American. I saw a werewolf, several vampires, and the zombie in multiples, a figure that has eaten its way, like hydrochloric acid, through the fabric of our cultural heritage. And it occurred to me that I was behaving precisely like a zombie, or one of my own robots: going through the motions of life without actually living.
Now here it was, a couple years after I’d left London, and I was still sleepwalking. Even Dad’s death hadn’t shaken me. I mean, he’d been slowly dwindling away for so long, all I could feel was a guilty relief when the call finally came. It was just one more blow, falling upon so profound a numbness that I scarcely responded, although I knew it would eventually hit me. We hadn’t been very close, but he was still my dad.
Yes, yes, I’d seen a therapist; yes, I’d taken an anti-depressant, but it screwed up my dreams, so I stopped; I’d talked to my old high-school friend Claire about her own battle with depression and how she eventually snapped out of it; I’d even tried hot yoga. But while each of these helped, I couldn’t shake off the sense of being under water three-quarters of the time. Shutting up my home in Newton and coming out to the Vineyard during a blinding winter season was testament to my desperation. After all, it was a challenge. I couldn’t just cakewalk my way through it. Besides, whenever my chips are down I hole up, which is another reason why I snatched the chance to drop everything for the sake of this old, ailing house. Yet now the cocoon of actual, terrestrial snow had melted, and the darkling, weather-driven months of monkish retreat had been put to rest, and even that level of barren solitude and contemplative silence hadn’t proved a cure to my blues. Spring and thaw had come to the land, but not to me. I was still ice.
Frustrated, I pulled on a sweatshirt and let myself out through the sticky front slider for a walk. My grandparents’ farm, as I said, had been drawn and quartered for cash, so the rambles that I’d taken as a kid were no longer available. I headed toward Beach Road. My barn-house had been built on a gentle rise some distance from the main house, which belonged now to one of the idle rich—in other words to a nameless bastard. My grandfather had sold the place to a couple in the 1970s, but I knew it had changed hands since then, and I had no idea who my current neighbor was, nor did I care. Hands stuffed in the kangaroo pouch of my battered sweatshirt, I walked along the dirt road that would take me past the front of the house, still typical of its time although carefully renovated.
When I was a kid, the essence of the early twentieth century had lingered; Grandma Liza had come of age during the Jazz era and never let go of the sparkling promise of those riotous years. Born on Island, transposed to Long Island, she herself had aged, but her clothes, her long strands of stones or beads, her bakelite bangles, bobbed hair, and mad appetite for shoes remained. Not particularly useful attire for a farm, but she and Gramps were artists, after all, not true farmers; he sculpted, she composed. Or so Dad had told me. By the time I came along, the War, the Great Depression, and the tight-ass post-war consumer culture had taken their toll. My grandparents had hardened into ancient, picturesque Island fixtures. I loved them to pieces, but I also thought they were nuts. My father had treated them as if they were hopeless failures, but he was projecting, if you ask me. I mean, Grandpa had once had a clientele, and besides, Dad gotten stuck in the seventies, with his side-burns, turtlenecks, and polo shirts with the collars turned up.
Daffodils and forsythia, shadbush and crab-tree—the first flowering of our late-starting spring brightened the byway, and the crisp ocean-kissed air, just beginning to sweeten, ruffled the tender blooms. To my surprise, I noticed that the old Hoving homestead’s front door was open and that a gorgeous Newfoundland dog lay panting majestically on the brick stoop.
As I walked by the drive, Jason Adkins pulled in behind me, honking. I’d met Jason at a Christmas party, over at the Barn. He and his wife lived in West Tisbury and ran a landscaping business. Sharon also crocheted accessories for a seasonal boutique and taught piano. Since I still loved to crochet myself—a skill I’d acquired young, courtesy of my mother’s mother, Grandma Flo—sometimes Sharon and I shared patterns.
The back of Jason’s pick-up was full of hydrangea. He rolled down the window, leaning out. “Hey, Code, long time.”
I stepped closer, shrugging. “Winter.”
He chuckled. “Not anymore, thank God.”
I nodded toward the back of his truck. “As I see. Who’s the client?”
“Charles Leaf. Relative newbie and alone, except when he throws a party. Which he did last season, a lot. Loud, crowded, obnoxious.”
I rolled my eyes. “Good thing I can’t hear much, up my way.”
“Hope so. Cops have been known to shut him down.”
I whistled. “Wow, those parties must be humdingers.”
“Listen to you, old man. Humdingers.”
I laughed. “Picked up slang from the grandparents.”
“Right, this was their house, back in the day, wasn’t it?”
I grimaced. “Yep.” Only then did it occur to me, though I should have thought of it before. “You knew them?”
“Do I look that old? No. I mean, I knew of them. Were you close?”
“When I was little. Not so much later on.”
He nodded. “Family. Well, got to get to my planting.”
As he drove off, he made a little plume of dust. I watched him start to unload. Then a man stepped out the front door and over the Newfoundland, who got up. After what Jason had said about him, my first glimpse of Charles Leaf was disarming. He had the carriage of a soldier or a policeman, and his face was almost comically chiseled—in other words, nothing like a party animal. After talking to Jason for a few minutes, he turned and made directly for me, the dog at his heels. I had no time to think. And as he held out his hand to shake mine, I knew. For the second time that day, and this time with something like a bolt of juice running through my veins. We had something in common. It would take us both a very long time to discover precisely what it was, but from the get-go, I just knew.
Still Ice is about issues of identity and technology, and I wrote it for all my students who grapple with identity issues of gender, race, and class, as a picture of how life can “get better” over time. Narrated by Codie Hoving, the grandson of artists, Still Ice is structured as a quest for wholeness.
Codie is the FTM transgender CEO of a successful Boston AI (artificial intelligence) company who has just inherited from his troubled, alcoholic father an old and ailing home on Martha’s Vineyard. As the novel opens, it is the end of a bitter winter, and Codie, burdened by a long-term depression he hasn’t been able to shake, has been living, hermit-like, in the old family home, still grappling with the tangled emotional landscape he negotiates as transgender, and working on and off on a new AI prototype he has dubbed the “octocrab.” Taking on the responsibility of the old home during a bitter winter was, for Codie, a means to heal—because even though he made his decision to transition in his twenties, now, closing in on sixty, he remains an internally fractured person, suffering still from how his decision to transition affected his family, particularly his beloved grandfather.
Codie’s identity is further complicated by the fact that, in utero, he had a twin; however, before the two eggs could develop separately, one embryo absorbed the other—a medical anomaly that makes Codie a natural chimera. Growing up, Codie never identified easily as a girl and, upon discovering this “cannibalism,” began to consider transition—but it was and remains a slow journey for him, and during the course of the novel, he only gradually decides, at long last, to undergo bottom surgery.
As the winter gives way to spring, Codie tackles his fear of mortality, his sense of fragility, and his own resiliency; but the book is also about futurity, with respect to his work in soft robotics and artificial intelligence, and about the past, as Codie attempts to recover lost facets of his biological grandmother, a painter who mysteriously drowned off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard when Codie’s father was an infant.
As Codie works to find emotional and physical equilibrium, he is helped along by a new friendship with his next-door neighbor, an African-American clothing entrepreneur and ex-Army officer named Charles Leaf, who is working though a number of identity issues himself—and whose interest in genealogy uncovers a surprising connection between the Leaf and Hoving families.
Ultimately, Still Ice is a hopeful tale of long-sought recovery and regeneration, a rendering of one person’s journey toward wholeness, as well as an exploration of what makes us sentient and human, combining themes of racial and intergenerational tension, the passage of time, wealth and power, and the human/non-human divide.
Stephanie Smith is a writer living in Gainesville, Florida. She completed the Haystack Writing Workshop with the late Ursula K. Le Guin and then earned her PhD from UC Berkeley. She is currently on faculty at the University of Florida and is the author of eight books—two volumes of literary criticism and six novels—several short stories, and a number of essays. She has held four writer’s residencies, won an NEH grant, and received a UF summer Rothman Humanities Grant for Still Ice.
Embark, Issue 6, October 2018