Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1300
"Hot Ice" is divided into sections with a topic title for each. It begins with the story of girl who had been molested then drowned in the park lagoon about thirty years earlier, during World War II. According to the story, her father found her body and traveled with it on a streetcar to an icehouse across the street from the Cook County Jail, at 26th and California, in Chicago. Her body is rumored to still be frozen there and to have special, magical powers: Big Antek, an old neighborhood alcoholic, claims that he once locked himself in the meat locker of a butcher shop where he worked and the girl's frozen body, temporarily stored there, kept him alive throughout the weekend. The nun at the local school believes the girl should be canonized as a saint.
This story is discussed by the three main characters of "Hot Ice": Pancho Santora, his brother Manny, and their friend Eddie Kapusta. Pancho, who has always been deeply religious, believes that she does hold magical powers, though the other two doubt the story, especially the part about her father riding on the streetcar with a dripping corpse from the lagoon. Pancho asserts his belief in modern saints, referring to Roberto Clemente, a baseball player who died in a plane crash while on his way to help earthquake victims in 1971.
The second section begins with Pancho already gone from the neighborhood and in jail. Eddie and Manny walk through the neighborhood, as they do on most nights, to go to the Cook County Jail, where Pancho is being held for a crime that is not clearly identified in the story. At his sentencing, the judge offered Pancho the chance to go into the military instead of going to jail, but Pancho, who has been fixated with religion since he was a little boy, laughed and sang to himself and claimed that his one goal in life was to pose for the pictures on holy cards. Manny visited him every week for three weeks, but Pancho eventually asked him to quit coming because he did not want to be reminded of the world outside.
Passing through the neighborhood, Manny and Eddie reflect on the signs of desolation: empty storefronts, wrecking balls, and railroad tracks that have been paved over. When they reach the jail, they walk around it, shouting Pancho's name. Inside, prisoners call back to them, mocking. They ask if anyone knows Pancho Santora but are told that the name is not familiar.
At the start of this segment, Dybek reveals that Pancho has disappeared while in jail, with no definitive explanation of where he has gone. There are dozens of theories, ranging from his having committed suicide or been murdered to his having escaped and gone to Mexico or just to the North Side of the city. Some people claim to have seen him walking the streets or in church. He has become a legendary figure.
When the chapter opens it is Easter Week. In the months since the last chapter, Eddie Kapusta has only seen Manny Santora once, at Christmas time. They ran into each other at a bar, then walked over to the jail, where they threw snowballs at the wall. Now, on Tuesday before Easter, Eddie goes to Manny's house, where they fall into a casual conversation, as if they had not been separated for months.
They go back to the jail, where they once had hollered up at the building when they believed that Pancho was inside. There, they shout again, but instead of joking with the inmates, Manny taunts them, calling them racial and ethnic names and reminding them that they are trapped without freedom. When Eddie tries to stop him, he shouts louder, with worse insults, until the people inside take up a chant for him to shut up and the guards in the tower turn their searchlights on. Eddie finally persuades him to flee, and as they stand behind the icehouse across the street Manny talks about his anger toward everyone inside the jail, from the prisoners to the guards to the wall itself. He says he is going back the next night, and Eddie goes along, afraid to let him go alone.
The next night Manny again shouts obscenities at the jail until searchlights and sirens drive them away. Hiding by the railroad tracks, Manny recalls a time when he was young, when he and some friends rode the freight train that ran on those tracks east to the lake shore. Eddie says he is not going to the jail with him again, and Manny agrees to do something else the following night.
On Thursday night, they take drugs and carouse the city, passing a bottle of wine between them. Eddie leads the way to a nightclub with a neon window display that he admires and explains that his hobby has always been looking at window decorations.
When they pass by an open fire hydrant, Manny says that he can smell the water of Lake Michigan coming out of it. It reminds him of when his family used to go to the lakefront at night to fish for smelt, a small silvery fish that is captured in nets by the thousands. Since Eddie does not know about smelt, they take a bus to the lake. On the way Manny tells a story about one time when he was young and swam out away from the shore, how he wanted to keep swimming away but returned when he heard his frantic uncle calling for him.
After taking amphetamines all night, they take quaaludes as the sun comes up. They sit talking at Manny's kitchen table for a long time and then remember that it is Good Friday. Manny wants to follow a ritual that Pancho made up—going to services at seven churches on Good Friday. Eddie goes along with him, though he can hardly keep awake. While Manny goes to the front of each church to observe the service, Eddie sits in the back. At the last one, before falling asleep, he realizes that the emptiness he has always felt is a sense of grief for the living.
The final section of the story starts with the perspective of Big Antek, the neighborhood alcoholic who claims to once have been saved from freezing by the girl in ice. He has recently returned to the neighborhood after having been in the Veterans Administration hospital, and he feels that the neighborhood has changed in the weeks while he was gone.
Eddie and Manny approach him, laughing and drinking and in a good mood, and offer to buy him a drink, which Antek refuses. When they start mocking the story of the frozen girl he becomes angry. Eddie tells him that the icehouse where she is supposedly stored is slated for demolition. Antek goes with them to the icehouse and stands outside while Manny and Eddie climb up the wrecker's crane to enter the building through the roof.
From outside the building, Antek imagines them working their way around in the dark, lighting a road flare that they stole, passing huge blocks of thawing ice until, in the building's basement, they find what they are looking for: a beautiful blonde girl encased in a block of crystal clear ice.
Having found her, Eddie and Manny decide that they cannot just leave her there. They ease the block onto an old railroad handcar that is on the track that backs up into the building and start the car in motion. The tracks, as Manny observed earlier, go to the lakefront, and they decide to take her to the lake and set her in the water, where she will finally be released from the ice.
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