ice richter
Deep Freeze
by Jim Ross

I’d be working indoors, out of the heat, packing food into boxes with two other guys, nothing backbreaking. “Dress for the coldest day you’ve ever seen,” my hirer advises.  It’s summer, unseasonably hot.

When I arrive, he says, “Your clothes’re all wrong.” He takes my gloves and gives me thinner ones. He takes my bulky coat and gives me two sweatshirts, a slicker, a woolen hat.

The thirteen-year-old can’t stand still for ten seconds. The older guy hacks, sometimes uncontrollably, and wheezes like a distant train rolling closer.

“Let’s get to work,” says the old wheezer, opening the freezer door. “We’ll be pickin’ food so each customer gets what they ordered. Look here, see how they checked boxes? That’s what we give ‘em.”

I start picking, but he interrupts, “You read, we’ll pick.”

His words crystallize into snowflakes. Icy stalactites form at both ends of his mustache.  He seems inured to cold. The kid’s teeth don’t chatter if he keeps moving.

“Break time,” the kid says, at ten before every hour.

We leave the deep freeze for ten minutes hourly to stand outside beneath the baking sun.

“On breaks, we get all the ice cream sandwiches we can eat,” says the kid.

Hourly, the kid eats two, I eat one, and the old man eats a half, smokes, and loogies.

“These pissing hot days, it’s a relief going back inside,” says the old wheezer.

“How cold’s it in there, anyway?” I ask.

“You don’t wanna know,” says the old wheezer.

“Yeah, I do.”

“Less’n zero,” says the kid.

“Minus 20,” hacks the old man.

“Holy mackerel,” I say.

“We’re out of it,” he half hacks, half laughs, as he yanks open the freezer door.

IMAGE: “Ice (4)” by Gerhard Richter (1989).

jim ross1

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: What stays with me is the consummate absurdity of our alternating extreme cold with extreme heat, and binging on ice cream sandwiches during our breaks from the deep freeze.  The company sold or rented customers home freezers.  Customers ordered frozen food from a set list.  We boxed their orders, which were kept in a freezer awaiting customer pickup.  This was 53 years ago.

AUTHOR’S PHOTO CAPTION: Here I am during the time period of the story.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jim Ross, after retiring in early 2015 from a career in public health research, jumped back into creative pursuits to resuscitate his long-neglected right brain. He’s since published 45 pieces of nonfiction, several poems, and over 150 photos in more than 50 journals in North America, Europe, and Asia. His nonfiction has been published in such journals as 1966, Friends Journal, Lunch Ticket, Make Literary Magazine, Meat for Tea, Pif Magazine, The Atlantic, and Thin Air. Jim and his wife — parents of two health professionals and grandparents of three toddlers, with a fourth expected imminently — split their time across three U.S. states.  He hopes to move in the direction of long-form nonfiction and pairing story with photos.