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Dry Ice


The sky above the mountains was stained with the last pastels of a mediocre sunset.

Headlights approached from the east.

Cruz climbed from the raw dirt to the bucket, jumped from the bucket up to the ground, killed the diesel, and prepared to meet the maintenance supervisor halfway between the fresh grave and the truck.

The work was running late.

The Ford rolled to a stop on the crushed granite with its brights aimed directly at the grave. Ramirez stepped down from the pickup's cab and marched toward the hole. Crazy shadows bent every which way as the beams from the truck and the wash from the floods above the excavator competed to obliterate the creeping darkness.

One at a time, Ramirez rubbed the tops of his cowboy boots on the calves of his jeans. Not content with the results, he polished the leather on one boot a second time before he tucked his right hand into the pocket of his down vest, turned his head, and spit. Ramirez kept his boots shinier than a new quarter. If he was outside he almost always spit before he spoke a word.

"Should've been done an hour ago. Two things," he said to Cruz, holding up his left hand like a peace sign. "Don't like one-man crews." He folded down his index finger, leaving his middle finger pointing skyward in unintended profanity. "Don't like digging in the dark. Alonso knows that. People get hurt. I'm two-hundred-twelve straight days nobody hurt. Tomorrow's two-thirteen. Understand?"

Cruz's eyes were focused on the ground in front of Ramirez. "All done diggin', Mr. R. --- had to pull a couple big rocks. That slowed us, but I'm just about to get the placer set and the drapes hung. Alonso said it's an early internment, wants everything ready before I go. I know that's the way you like it too."

Ramirez was oblivious to being played. Alonso joked that the man wouldn't spot an ass-kiss unless the suck-up used Crazy Glue for lipstick.

The boss looked around --- the trailer with the folding chairs wasn't near the grave. "What about chairs?"

"Alonso'll bring 'em out in the morning --- said nobody wants to sit on a chair covered with dew."

"Doo?" Ramirez asked. "Why the heck would there be any doo on the chairs?"

Cruz coughed to disguise a laugh. "Sitting out at night? That kind of dew?"

Ramirez spit again. He pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket and angled it so that it was illuminated by the Ford's headlights. "I want forty-eight. I want a center aisle, and I want 'em in place by eight-fifteen. Not eight-twenty." He stuffed the paper back into his jeans and gestured toward the fresh rectangular scar in the sweep of bluegrass. The lawn was just beginning to green up for spring. "Right there. Between there and the path. Sun at their backs."

"No problem, Mr. R."

The shiny chrome components of the equipment that would manage the weight of the casket as it was lowered into the grave were already lined up square beside the hole. Ramirez knew his grave digger's job was almost done. He spit again, shooting saliva four feet to his left through the fat gap in his front teeth.

"Eight-fifteen. I mean it. Gonna be cold. Some wind maybe. Where the heck is Alonso anyway?" he asked.

Alonso had worked maintenance at the cemetery for eighteen years. He operated the compact excavator at gravesites. His most important job, though, was keeping the short-timers in the corral, which saved Ramirez a lot of work and even more aggravation. Alonso used up most of the accumulated goodwill trying to keep an eye on his adopted teenage daughter. He used what was left to create some cover to for the younger members of the crew, kids like Cruz who tended to be less diligent than their mentor.

Cruz said, "Toothache. Dentist."

Getting Alonso to take off early had promised to be the trickiest part of what Cruz was doing. The plan had been to fake an emergency call from Alonso's daughter's school. It seemed that happened at least once a week, anyway. The abscess was a gift.

"No moving that equipment," Ramirez said. "We both know you're not ready for that." He laughed at the thought of Cruz driving the little excavator.

"Soon as I'm done squaring it off I'll lift the bucket and set the frame. We have that other plot to dig --- the double by the lake? I promised Alonso I'd get the installer on this one and get the drapes done tonight. He'll move the digger over there early and we'll start on that double as soon as the mourners are gone."

Ramirez didn't reply.

The boss's silence caused Cruz's anxiety to rustle. "Alonso wasn't sure you wanted a canopy up for the family. Sun'll be low when the service starts. No weather coming, but we've had that wind the past couple of mornings." Cruz thought Ramirez was leaning forward, examining the grave. "If you want a canopy, Mr. R., just say the word. I'll throw it on the trailer and bring it out with the chairs."

Ramirez took his hands from his pockets. He spit. "Almost done?"

"Five minutes. Clean up the hole a little. Line up the placer, check the rollers, tighten the straps. Drape it just the way you like."

Ramirez spit again. "Want a hand?"

Ramirez didn't much like labor. He viewed himself as a supervisor, even if the only one he supervised was Alonso, who didn't need any watching. Alonso did all the real herding of the crew of kids who cut the grass, plowed the snow, placed the headstones, and did the shovel work on the deep caverns in the bluegrass. Had Cruz asked for actual help Ramirez would have pretended that his pager went off and he had someplace important to be.

Like his "office" in the equipment shed.

"No, Mr. R. I'm cool. Square corners, level base, perfect depth."

Ramirez took two steps toward the grave. Two more and he'd be able to see the bottom of the hole without any trouble, and he'd be able to make his own judgment about how level that base was and how square those corners were. "You like the Hepburn?"

Ramirez was asking about the new casket placer they'd been using since the beginning of the month. The contraption cost a fortune. He liked to show it off whenever he could like he was displaying a new car on his driveway to make his neighbor envious.

Cruz nodded, "Sets up much faster than the old one, Mr. R. Much smoother, too. The bearings on the rollers on that old one were --- "

The boss didn't like the word "shit" so he completed the sentence himself. "I know. Shouldn't be no squealing around funerals. Finish up then."

The lights danced again as Ramirez walked back toward the truck. He stopped for a moment in a position that left his shadow covering the black rectangle of the grave. "I get wind you moved that digger, I'll fire your ass. Understand?"

"Mark it right where it's at. That's where it'll be in the morning. All I'm going to do is lift the bucket."

Ramirez pulled himself into his truck. Behind him the profile of the Front Range marked a jagged break between the darkening sky and the frantic lights of Boulder at rush hour.

Cruz knelt down and tested the rollers, just for show. The new equipment was working fine.

The taillights of Ramirez's Ford disappeared down the access road.

Only one more thing to finish before installing the Hepburn and hanging the drapes. Cruz hopped onto the bucket, dropped back down into the grave, and said, "Bingo."


I thought I spotted a rosy glimmer in the water sluicing through the fountain.

My next patient was sitting calmly ten feet away, covered in blood.

I thought, I don't need this.

Diane Estevez, my long time partner and friend, had recently decided to renovate the waiting room of the old house that held our clinical psychology offices. She thought the time had come for the parlor's evolution into a transitional space, like the quiet stone and bamboo anterooms she loved to visit prior to being welcomed into a favorite spa.

The focus of Diane's designing enthusiasm had a simple purpose --- it was the spot where our patients hung out before their psychotherapy appointments. To me, a simple purpose called for a simple room.

Diane once shared that naive vision. But no longer --- the changes she envisioned were far from mundane. When she began to conceptualize her project the room was furnished with the pedestrian crap we'd bought from office-supply catalogs when we'd first hung our practice shingles. Her case for transformation was simple: "We're not dentists and we shouldn't have a dentist's waiting room."

I'd replied that I thought the room was fine, but my argument was pro-forma. In the best of times I lacked the will to stand up to a determined Diane.

Diane was determined. It wasn't the best of times. Not even close.


Is that . . . blood? I thought. I just don't need this.

Diane and I had co-owned the little Victorian house for a long time. The building was on the edge of the once-sleepy, once-light industrial side of downtown Boulder, the few blocks closest to the foothills, a neighborhood that after a couple of decades of determined gentrification had earned the moniker the "West End."

The natural light in the waiting room came from a pair of north-facing double-hung windows. The dusty mini-blinds came down and bronze curtain rods as thick as my wrist replaced them. Soon the indirect sunlight was being filtered through silk panels that were the color of the worms that had spun the threads. Diane had a name for the hue that I forgot within seconds of hearing it. New lamps --- two table, one floor --- provided just enough illumination to allow reading. The shades on the lamps were made from nubby linen in a color that was a second cousin to the one she'd chosen for the drapes.

"Organicity," Diane had explained for my benefit. "It's crucial."

No, I hadn't asked.

As resolute as Diane was to transform, that's how committed I was to stay out of her way.

Paint? Of course. Not one color, but four --- two for the walls, one each for the trim and ceiling. The new furniture --- four chairs, two tables --- reflected Diane's interpretation of "serene." Two chairs were upholstered and contemporary. Two were black leather/black wood sling-y things, and contemporary. The rug was woven from wool from special sheep somewhere --- I thought she'd said South America but I hadn't really been paying attention and the sheep may have been shorn of their coats in Wales or Russia or one of the nearby 'stans, maybe Kazakhstan. The rug --- indifferent stripes of muted purples in piles of various heights --- was placed so that it cut diagonally across the ebony stain Diane had chosen for the old fir floor. She'd put the rug in place one morning while I was in a session with a patient; I came out to greet my next appointment to all its angularity and hushed purple-ness.

"Need to break the symmetry, Alan. We can't have too much balance," Diane explained to me over our lunch break.

Neither symmetry nor its absence had ever caused me angst. But I said, "Of course." The alternative would have been to ask "Why not?" Diane's answer to my unstated question likely would have troubled me. I feared that I would have had to set my feet and steel myself for the words "feng shui."

I didn't want to have to do that. I really didn't.

As a lure to join her for the waiting room picnic she'd picked up take-out from Global Chili-Chilly on Broadway. The bait had worked. My role, I suspected, was to applaud as she admired the purple and the stripes. My mouth was on fire but the curry was good so I didn't mind the heat. Truth was, I didn't really mind the rug either.

She'd also reached a fresh perspective about the magazines we provided. The titles should be, in her words, "Neutrals. We need to see our clients where they are --- we don't want their reading to take them anywhere they aren't."

We don't? We didn't. Despite an almost irresistible temptation I didn't question her vision of neutrality even when she added O to the list of magazines on the table. I could tell that she wasn't thrilled that I wanted to keep the subscription to The New Yorker. She merely shook her head and sighed when I admitted that I'd just signed up for another year of Sports Illustrated.

I treated patients who liked to read it, I explained. My rationale, especially in the context of our discussion, sounded lame. She didn't bother to inform me that the Swimsuit Edition would never, ever find its way into our neutral space.

Diane didn't specify a fountain as the design of the room evolved, but when she announced that the room lacked a focal point I knew that running water was a coming attraction. I could feel it the way I can taste a thunderstorm a quarter hour before the first lightning bolt fractures the clarity of a July afternoon.

The water feature was the final piece to arrive. Diane had it custom-made by a water artist who had a studio on a llama ranch a couple of miles east of Niwot. I could tell that all of the details --- the ranch, Niwot, the llamas --- were important to her. I didn't ask for particulars. Again, I didn't really want to know.

The fountain had been installed the previous weekend.

The red tint in the water? I couldn't make sense of it. I really don't need this, I thought again.

The sculpture was a clever thing of black soapstone and heavily patina-ed copper that sent water coursing through a series of six- and eight-inch bamboo rods in a manner that I found phallic. Diane was blind to any prurient facet of her gem so I kept the critique to myself. Since the fountain's presence was a fait accompli I comforted myself that the scale was right, even if the volume of all the gushing water was a little too class-five-rapid-ish for the size of the room.

I told her the fountain was "nice." I could tell that she'd been hoping for something more effusive.

My share of the renovation was absurd. I wrote a check.

Why had I acquiesced when Diane had suggested that our waiting room was overdue for transformation? Why had I agreed to let her do whatever she wanted? Diane had suffered through a brutal couple of years --- the waiting room project was important to her. I knew its purpose had much more to do with her emotional health than with any design imperatives. For her the room represented a new beginning.

And basically I didn't give a shit.

Less than half a year before I'd watched a patient of mine killed on the six o'clock news. That event had shaken me to my core.

I knew that my reaction to his death --- emotional withdrawal mostly, my downhill slide lubricated with too much ETOH --- was upsetting the equilibrium in my marriage. Controlling my decline felt beyond me. The timing wasn't ideal. My wife's MS, always a worry, was in a precarious phase. She and I each needed caretaking. Neither of us was in great shape to give it.

That's why I was way too weary to quarrel about remodeling with a friend I adored. The design of the waiting room wasn't likely to climb high on my ladder-of-life concerns. Dental? Psychological? Didn't matter.

I drew a solitary line in the sand at Diane's request for piped in yoga music. She didn't call it yoga music; she'd said something about needing the sound of humility in the space. I knew what kinds of tunes she wanted. She was talking Enya.

Uh uh.

She didn't argue when I vetoed the background drones. Her silence didn't indicate abdication. She planned to wait me out. If I was serious about wanting to keep Enya at bay I would need to be vigilant.

I doubted that I had the energy to keep my flanks defended.

Diane knew me well. Well enough to know that about me.

I was slow, but I got there.

Holy shit, he's covered in blood.

The pink hue and the slimy red worms of coagulating plasma that were streaking through the water in the fountain had befuddled me at first --- naively, I didn't immediately consider either sign to be alarming. My initial, fleeting impression was that Diane had introduced yet another new design concept into our waiting room ambiance and I was too far out of the current consciousness loop to recognize it for what it was.

Only seconds before I opened the door and spotted the fouled fountain I'd been walking down the hall from my office to retrieve my next appointment, a young man named Kol Cruz whom I'd seen only twice before. As I turned my attention from the perplexing fountain and its pink water I spotted Kol sitting on one of Diane's new chairs opposite the water feature. Despite the profusion of blood --- the glimmering mess covered his hands, arms, and face as well as the front of his shirt, his fleece vest, and his trousers from the knees up --- he seemed reasonably serene.

The waiting room was having the effect that Diane so cherished --- for Kol her design intervention seemed to be having an anxialytic impact equivalent to high dose beta-blockers or IV Valium.

"I tried to wash up," Kol said without looking at me. Although he sometimes glanced toward my face his gaze never settled higher than my mouth.

On closer examination, the rosy mess on his delicate hands and arms did appear to be diluted. I was still thinking I don't need this, but I was also reflexively preparing to try to do something useful, even --- well --- therapeutic.

I reminded myself of a lesson from my distant internship training in a psychiatric ER: The single most important thing to do during an emergency is to take one's own pulse. After that? In the current circumstances I had no idea. I didn't know whether Kol needed a seventy-two hour hold, an ambulance, stitches, or a big roll of Brawny.

"Are you still bleeding?"

"No," he said.

Okay. "Is that . . . your blood?" The alternative was worrisome.


I was somewhat mollified. I put on a serious, concerned expression and said, "Kol? Are you all right? Don't you think you need to . . . maybe see a doctor? That's a lot of blood."

He said, "You are a doctor, Dr. Gregory."

Kol had me there.

Dry Ice
by by Stephen White

  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Dutton Adult
  • ISBN-10: 0525949976
  • ISBN-13: 9780525949978