The Wind Chill Factor
The Wind Chill Factor
AS I LEFT MADISON AND headed north on January 20, my head ached slightly, a patch over my left ear was swollen and tender, but I'd had no recurrence of vomiting. All things considered, with bacon and eggs under my belt, I felt reasonably well. The man at the Texaco station had checked under the hood for loose hoses and leaks, pronounced everything all right. Aside from her cosmetic damage the Lincoln was purring, giving ample evidence of her fine disregard for the economics of fuel consumption. The sun was bright in the east. The sky was glacial. The temperature had fallen to ten degrees.
January 20. Somewhere Cyril was approaching Cooper's Falls, was perhaps even now landing at Minneapolis/St. Paul. By evening I would know what he wanted, what all the urgency was about.
I knew no more now than I had when I set out from Boston. There was the telegram: URGENT YOU MEET ME COOPER'S FALLS 20 JANUARY, DROP EVERYTHING, FAMILY TREE NEEDS ATTENTION. CHEERS, OLD BOY. CYRIL. I had it memorized.
And it meant nothing to me, nothing I could put my finger on. Decorating the family tree, obviously, was the matter of my grandfather's political eccentricity, but how might that need "attention"? Austin Cooper had died peacefully in his eighties, the family's oldest friend at his side. It was Arthur Brenner himself, in fact, who had written me of my grandfather's death a few years before, had told me how my grandfather had peacefully slipped away with Arthur at his bedside. Arthur Brenner had been my grandfather's attorney, a dear friend of my father's, although a good many years his senior, and had broken the news to me not only of my grandfather's death, but of my father's, my mother's and my little sister Lee's, as well. Arthur had helped my father get into Harvard through his own Harvard connections, had aided him in being attached to the Royal Air Force, and had subsequently helped me go to Harvard. And Arthur Brenner himself had commented upon the death of Austin Cooper that at last the family slate was wiped clean. Time would pass, he'd said, and eventually the memory of my grandfather's Nazism would be gone, and then the memory of my father's heroism would pass, the family would scatter, and Cooper's Falls would be only a name on a map without a living soul attached to it.
I pushed on into the afternoon, farther and farther north, closer to home. By early afternoon the sun was gone, the sky the color of my gray suede driving gloves. The radio reported a blizzard developing in the Dakotas and in the western edges of Minnesota. Swinging north, following the river at the Wisconsin-Minnesota border, darkness began and it was no longer as warm inside the car. It seemed as if the fan blowing warm air had slowed, so I reset the temperature controls upward and stopped to refuel. The service station attendant seemed never to have seen the workings of a Lincoln before and had no theories about the failure of the heating system.
Back on the road, which was now a simple two-lane strip cut between banks of fir trees which grew thickly almost to the roadside, I began thinking of the man in the sheepskin coat, wondering if there could be some connection between two such curious events-the telegram from Cyril in Buenos Aires and the attempt to kill me in a blizzard on a highway in Wisconsin. But that was absurd. Surely, I had been victimized by coincidence, and nothing more. Such violence is terribly complex once you begin to analyze it and realize that there is no apparent motive.
For the last stage of the journey, I turned off on a trunk highway, blacktopped, narrow, totally dark. There was no moon; no starlight; no other travelers. I turned the radio off. There were forty miles yet to go and the fans suddenly stopped blowing altogether. There was no heat in the car and what little there had been was quickly dissipated. I stopped in the middle of the road and wrestled my own sheepskin