The dawn came in with a freezing drizzle from the east. The western sky was still clear to the edge of the front and the full moon was just about to slide behind the mountain. The air was the palest lilac color and seemed to vibrate against the last of the yellow moonlight. I fed the cattle another round bale, fed and watered the chickens and collected eggs. I stopped at the barn to feed the dogs and the cats then started the pickup to melt the ice off the windshield. The forecast called for freezing rain and steadily dropping temperatures that would soon turn the precipitation into a wet, heavy snow. For at least two days. Before a good snow you want to have your ducks in a row. No buckets left out, or tools or scraps of wood. Equipment is under cover, wood piles tarped, doors and windows nice and tight. It’s nice to have more forage than you need for the animals so if you really get snowed in they’ll be able to wait it out. Things like that. Today, however, I owed some payback so before the kids had even left the house I headed to the lake.
A friend of mine is a skilled carpenter and a caretaker of some of the summer houses on the lake. I call him to give me a hand when I’ve got two-man jobs on the farm and he calls me when he has them elsewhere. Our wives and children are close so we also share a number of personal interests beyond work, but that is where we often spend our time, mutually moving, building or otherwise altering the physical environment in a lifelong back and forth of mutual favors. He helps me sugar in early Spring often putting in 30 hours a week beyond his own obligations. I help him install a huge custom glass clerestory on the third floor of stone castle perched on the edge of a cliff in sub-zero weather. Its difficult to put a price tag on those kinds of jobs so we keep doing harder and harder tasks back and forth for one another just to keep even, increasing our effectiveness exponentially. For free.
A client of his had died unexpectedly on Thanksgiving day and his dock had yet to be removed from the lake. Normally by this time of the year you’d only have a crust of ice, but several passing cold fronts of well below freezing temperatures had cemented the dock in place. There was at least six, hard packed, wind polished inches of ice covered snow at the site and a verticle climb of sixty feet to the barn where the disassembled dock was to be stored. The individual deck sections were five foot by ten foot, sixteen in total — and one half again as large. They were also made out of a Brazilian hardwood called Ipe that has the same atomic weight as lead. Each panel weighed roughly 160 pounds depending upon how thick the ice had built up on them. Holding onto them was only slightly less difficult than being completely impossible. Once we’d pry up a section we’d stand it up lengthwise, put our back to it, bend at the waist and then grasping the frozen edges start humping it up the ice covered incline, forcefully stomping through the crusted snow to create a set of stairs on the frozen slope. If they wrote the Sysyphus story today he would have been lugging ice covered Ipe dock sections up snow covered lakefronts for eternity. Or four hours, whichever seems longer. My friend stopped at one point and wiped the sweat from his face — even at 28 degrees you can work up a good sweat if you want to — and remarked that what we were doing was considered state of the art physical training and popular in urban gyms. I laughed at that one, five minutes of backbreaking lifting on unstable footing while carrying slabs of ice encrusted rainforest lumber, followed by five minutes of heavy breathing and spitting mixed with swear words. I kept waiting for my hands to pull out of their sockets like GI Joe, but luckily I was spared that indignity.
At some point the snow intensified. I was standing out on the frozen lake looking off towards the far shore through the downfall. The grey lace of the hardwood forest was punctuated by the even higher thrust of white pines, each over a hundred feet tall. The snow appeared to be swirling in a vortex as you looked at it, but that was impossible because it looked like the same spinning vortex wherever you stood and wherever you leveled your gaze. I put my head back and looked straight up into the sky and every so often an individual flake of snow would land on my open eyes, an instant of visual numbness followed by a dazzling phosphene display of blues and reds, the cold replaced by color.
By the time we stowed the aluminum dock frames up under the big back deck the snow was coming down hard in clumps the size of golf balls. If you stood still you could hear the sound of it as it fell on the branches, the ice covered lake, on itself. Around it there was nothing but silence as we made our way with the tools back to the trucks parked by the barn. We shook hands, said goodbye and both headed off to do whatever was on deck for the day. I was blowing out a new door from the feed room into the chicken coop and my friend had plowing to do at least as long as the snow continued to fall. As I got behind the wheel of the pickup I could feel muscles I didn’t even know I had; the tops of my feet, along the sides of my lower back, the karate side of each hand. I followed his truck up the driveway and where he turned right I turned left and headed back to the farm.
That night my wife made meatballs from a mix of our sausage and ground beef and my daughter shredded potato and onion to make latkes. The smell was deeply satisfying in its own right and the flavor like a reward as I savored each bite. Later, as I lay in bed about to drift off, I thought about that dock — not as we had dealt with it locked in the ice — but as the family who owned that lakehouse must have enjoyed it, covered with various sizes of wet footprints over the years, the echoes of laughter and conversation bouncing off the lake and the trees on the far shore. I wondered how the family was doing, suffering their loss in the midst of an early winter and I was grateful that my friend and I were able to help with that one detail that they couldn’t attend to. Sometimes people do for you and sometimes you do for people. There’s no money involved, no debts or accounting except in the most internalized way, where we store our memories. It’s a give and take that carries a real value, knowing that each time it is utilized the worth of its sum increases. This kind of payback isn’t in the CPI models or part of the GDP, but it seems like wealth to me. One day, when I’m gone, the slate gets wiped clean, but I believe that somewhere out there someone will disassemble my methaphorical dock and put it away for me and that’s enough for me.