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The Ice Palace

I penned this piece shortly after Robin & I were married. We lived in an apartment on South Massey Street in Watertown, New York. I was still an Army Captain serving in Fort Drum’s 10th Mountain Division. We had just weathered our first “Ice Storm.”


    December in the north.  The pulsing towns and hamlets along Lake Ontario’s windswept eastern shore had slowed to bundled hibernation.  Watertown was no different.  Wealthy folk skied the hills of Vermont.  Everyone else snuggled warmly indoors, safely beyond the lake’s wintry breath.

     It was 6:30 a.m.  George Lamont could see his breath when he kissed his wife and stepped out onto Holcomb Street to walk to work.  He left at the same hour each morning (except Sundays and Holidays), carefully wrapped in a long, warm overcoat and plaid wool scarf.  His grey hair always neatly slicked back and tucked neatly beneath a checkered wool cap.

     He walked two blocks down Holcomb, then across one block to his Court Street Shop, near the square.  Sleepy homes awoke one by one, startled from sleep by scraping plow blades clearing winter’s frozen roads.  Streetlights hummed quietly overhead, holding their post until winter’s crescent moon and cold sun changed guard for the day.

     George was a jeweler.  He managed a shop for a big corporation from New York, “Morgan and Morgan, Fine Diamonds and Jewels.”  He traveled to the city every year, in the fall, to attend the annual convention of gem manufacturers.  There he encountered all of the gaudy, newfangled styles, designed for lavish metropolitan tastes.

     He’d replenish his stock of simpler gems, ignoring advice from fancy men in silk suits, who purchased diamonds with pocket cash.  George knew his clients, true North Country folk.  He knew what would sell, and what would not.  He’d return home to his wife after a week buying gems, full of hopes for a good Christmas season that would carry them through to another spring.

     The street level shop was one long, narrow room.  The brick façade framed plate glass windows, sandwiched between Farrow’s liquors and Farley’s shoes.

     George unlocked and entered, then re-locked the front door.  He brushed snow from his shoes with a whisk hanging from a hook on the wall.  He flipped on the light and walked to the rear, past glass cases displaying earrings, watches and rings.

     Behind the counter a curtain partitioned his office from the front.  He removed his coat, his scarf, and his checkered wool cap.  The windowless office housed a bill laden desk, loose diamonds in a safe, and a wall mounted workbench cluttered with tools.  A heavy bolt secured the rear door.

     George punched a code into a small device affixed to the wall.  An expensive alarm, installed at the insistence of “Morgan and Morgan, Fine Diamonds and Jewels.”  It was a fancy, time delayed, opto-electrical, dual monitor, computerized alarm, on a modem.  George had to remember to enter his code within three minutes of entry.  Otherwise, sirens would wail down Washington Street, and a pair of fine, excited young officers would burst through the door. That was a headache George just plain didn’t need.

     He passed the morning balancing ledgers, checking inventory, cleaning, mounting, and displaying his wares.  He worked by himself, except during evenings the week before Christmas, when his wife helped choose holiday trinkets for befuddled young men.

     He’d managed the shop for nearly ten years, financing the venture from the “lump sum retirement” check issued when the last of the big paper mills finally closed.

     He came out of his office promptly at 9:00, turned on the front light, unlocked the entrance, flipped a small black and white sign on the door to the side reading “open”, and walked outside to sweep the walk free of snow.

     It had warmed considerably since 6:30 a.m.  Melting snow slowly dripped from the roof.  The fluff on the sidewalk sort of rolled into nuggets and stuck to his broom.  Overhead, a thick blanket of clouds drifted slowly east on a breeze from the lake.

     By 10:00 the street had turned to a slushy brown mess.  Business was slow, so George stepped outside in a tan colored cardigan and his checkered wool cap.  Across the square, in front of the bank, a large blinking sign announced time and temperature to all passersby.  Menacing clouds loomed low overhead.  George went back inside.

     He’d been studying a handful of diamonds, twinkling like stars against the night of a blue-black cloth.  The honorable Tyler Martin, County Court Judge, had phoned that morning long distance from Vermont.  George had several patrons amongst the local elite; educated men with fancy titles, whose wives drove plush automobiles from hairdresser to grocer, and whose offspring had a great deal more money than sense.

     The Judge wanted a diamond of not less than two carats, mounted on a pendant, as a gift to his wife.  He would fly in on a charter that same afternoon.  The judge planned to surprise his wife that night, for her birthday.

     From the glittering ice spread before him, George selected a pebble sized gem shaped like a raindrop.  He examined it carefully under a scope.  A whispered occlusion feathered faintly along one side near the top.  This he would hide in the mount, dangling the diamond from a woven gold chain.

     George hummed to himself, continuing his work.  Shortly, a young man entered the shop with a brown paper sack.  Each day at 12:30 his wife ordered lunch from Napoli’s deli, across the square.  George opened the register, carefully counting out four dollars even.  He opened the sack.  Salami on rye with sliced provolone cheese, extra mustard- hold the onion (“Consider the customers, Dear.”), a dill pickle, coffee, and a hard-boiled egg.

       The jeweler sat in his office, behind the curtain at the rear of the shop.  He washed down the sandwich with fresh coffee, hot and black.  He turned the dial on a small, portable radio that sat on a shelf by the desk.  He rarely listened to music at work, but the weather concerned him, so he absorbed the news while finishing lunch.

     Severe weather warnings were regular fare along Lake Ontario’s eastern shore. “Lake effect” weather. Standard fare for north country locals, the great lake’s frequent winter blasts were a harsh lesson for most everyone else.  Warnings on the radio were mirrored on the street.  Frozen rain began pelting the windows, driving pedestrian traffic to cover.

     George wiped his mouth on the cuff of one sleeve, brushing crumbs from his desk to the floor.  He turned off the radio and returned to his work.  Thunder rumbled outside.  George paused momentarily.  Thunder from winter storm clouds could only mean trouble.

     The winds had sharpened, rattling windows along the street.  George considered closing up shop.  He’d had only one other customer that morning.  Old Mrs. Bradshaw, whose rings he’d cleaned.  But the Judge had said he’d be by at 4:30. It was a breathtaking pendant.  The judge would pay cash.

     Hail-rain-sleet pelted the town in icy spurts.  By 1:45, George’s windows were covered in opaque ice.  Maybe the Judge should stay in Vermont.  George picked up the phone and dialed the airport.  Judge Martin’s plane was due at 2:30. The airline attendant hadn’t logged any change in his flight plans yet.

     George couldn’t reach the Judge in Vermont.  He couldn’t call Mrs. Martin without ruining the surprise.  The jeweler decided to leave a message at the airport.  He’d be closing early due to the storm.  If the Judge arrived, he could pick up the pendant at George Lamont’s home on South Massey Street.

     Now, this was strictly against his insurance agreements with “Morgan and Morgan, Fine Diamonds and Jewels”, but George was quite certain those policies were written by men in fine suits who resided a bit further south, without taking judges or lake effect storms into account.  George wrapped the pendant in filmy white paper, placing it carefully in a slim, blue, silk box.

     He put on his scarf, his coat, and his checkered wool cap.  He punched another code into his fancy, time delayed, opto-electrical, dual monitor, computerized alarm, on a modem.  He slipped the silk box into his pocket, turned the “OPEN” to “CLOSED”, the on to off, and locked the entrance he had just exited behind him.

     Everything was covered in a thin sheet of ice.  Hail-rain-sleet was now flung from the sky.  The wind was intense.  Traffic was sliding all over the street.  George held his cap on his head with one leather gloved hand.  He held his overcoat closed with the other, leaning his weight to the storm.

     He stepped into the street.  A skidding car narrowly missed hitting George.  He slipped, falling backwards on the ice.  His cap blew off and was lost in the wind.  Sleet stung his face.  He scrambled to his feet and got out of the road.

     By the time he reached St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, three tangled cars blockaded the street.  A woman stood shivering. An ambulance arrived.  Policemen were busy emplacing flares, detouring traffic away from the scene.

  Lightning flashed against the black sky.  George’s hip hurt from where he had fallen.  He shielded his forehead with one leather glove, forcing his way home through the building storm.

     By the time he reached home, his glove was fastened to his hair by the ice.  An old maple cracked and crashed behind him, dragging power lines into the street.

     His wife spotted him through the window.  She ran to the door.  She helped him off with his coat and scarf.  He mentioned the cap. In light of the accident, it was a small price to have paid to escape the storm’s wrath.

  The house was notably quiet, and quite dark.  The power had gone out a few moments earlier.  George’s wife brought him a warm, dry robe, while he struck a match to light an antique oil lamp that they kept on a corner end table.

     Thunder and hail raged into the evening.  Their cobblestone fireplace reflected the warmth of crackling wood.  George relaxed in his favorite chair, near the window, across from his wife, who curled on the sofa.  They shared the storm by the light of the lamp.

     George gazed at his wife.  Her hair fell softly on delicate shoulders.  The fire brought a warm, rosy glow to her cheeks.  It was then that he remembered the blue silk box in his overcoat pocket.  George rose from his chair, walking into the hall.  His overcoat hung on a hook by the door.  He slid his hand into the pocket to retrieve the box.

     The jeweler intended to show off his work.  His wife’s face always brightened when she test drove new trinkets that he’d made in his shop.

     George let out a gasp.  The pocket was empty.  A split-second vision flashed past his eyes.  George saw the box sliding out of his pocket, spilling the diamond into the street.  He stared, crestfallen, down at the floor.  It appeared he’d lost more than his cap in his fall on the street.

     Then, in the floor’s lamplit shadows, he spotted the box.  It had fallen from his pocket when he’d shaken the snow from his coat.  He exhaled a chuckled sigh of relief.

     At the same instant, the phone jangled loudly, startling George.  He held the receiver against his ear. Apparently, the storm hadn’t quite yet claimed phone lines too.  It was the Judge.

     Judge Martin’s plane had stayed in Vermont.  He’d be skiing the resort for another week.  His wife would join him when the weather allowed.  He wouldn’t need the pendant after all.  He’d find something else.  He apologized for the bother, blaming the storm.

     George hung up the phone and returned to his wife.  She was standing in the window, with a hand-knitted shawl drawn across her shoulders, staring outside.  George walked in and stood behind her.

     The thunder had ceased.  A crisp breeze shoveled clouds from the sky, slowly revealing moonlit stars.  George Lamont had opened the box and unclasp the chain. He paused momentarily, enchanted by the scene in the yard.

     Everything glittered and glistened in a clear coat of ice.  Tree limbs boughed low, sparkling elegantly like glass chandeliers, suspended in the shadow of a blue-black sky, reflecting starlight on the ice-covered snow.

     George clasped the pendant around his wife’s neck.  “Merry Christmas, My Love.”

   His wife gasped, then kissed him. George held his wife quietly in his arms while they quietly shared the view from the window of their ice covered home.

     George leaned over and blew out the oil lamp with a puff.  They stood in the darkness, embraced in a sparkle far brighter than any diamond ever dreamt of at “Morgan and Morgan, Fine Diamonds and Jewels”, or by His Honor, the County Court Judge.  


Until Our Trails Cross Again:

Merry Christmas

Happy Holidays & a Happy New Year to All