Hillary Grimes, Norwood, NY
The Writing Contest for Young and Adult Writers
Runner-up in Category: Creative Nonfiction 21+
The night the north country froze, we were playing house in a Cape
Cod-ish contemporary on a heavily and elegantly wooded lot by the
river. I was being paid to be reliable and single and readily available
over family vacations to keep the pipes from freezing. He got his
own gratification from these jobs: sleeping in the artfully antiqued
bedroom, steaming in the cedar-paneled sauna, feeding the two fat
Black Labs, driving his car under the automatic garage doors. Both
of us pretending, while better-paid people flew seeking sunburns
and sandals, that the lives they left behind were ours, and happy.
So the night the north country froze I slept, chilled under a delicate
white chenille bedspread, curling my fingers onto his turned shoulder.
All night rain dribbled, and where it fell grew a diamond hard,
gleaming shell around the leafless branches of trees, over crusted
footprints in snow, over forgotten flowerpots and shovels leaning
against porches. By morning the windows rippled with ice, blurring
the hunched birch trees outside. Limbs crashed somewhere beyond
the porch and sometimes the roof groaned under the ice, but the
hum that is refrigerators and lights and phones and TVs under thousands
of roofs was noticeably silenced.
Sometimes the radio blurted on to say where new shelters were opening
up, what hardware stores had flashlights and candles left. When
a whining buzz began faintly from the next lot over, he found a
chainsaw in the garage and strode out the door. I swept the polished
wood flooring, I held pans under the cedar-shingled eaves to salvage
the drips for washing. I tried to dial the phone, I kept flicking
the light switch as I walked into darkening rooms. I talked to the
dogs as we three paced through the house, examining pictures, watering
plants. I let them out and stood in the doorway, watching them scramble
to keep their feet under them as they charged off the deck. Just
the expectation of ice on a frigid, damp day can make me cringe.
My knees lock, my throat locks, and I fear the hard, hard fall even
before I step out the door.
It was the end of the first day before he came back, puffing and
glowing pink with the effort of carving apart bent branches and
slicing up whole trees that blocked the driveway. I was pinched
and gray, it was hard to look at him in the dying light of the house.
We lit a fire in the fireplace, pulled a mattress in front, lit
candles. The batteries in the radio were dying. The dogs snuffled
on the rug. I listened to the fire crack, heard the coals rustle
as they collapsed. Then the cold seeped in through the French doors,
and I listened to his breathing, tried to squirm closer to his solid
back and press my hips into his warm legs. He inched away in his
On the second day everything gleamed with knife edges. The pale
sun lay behind the trees again before I could finally drive skidding
out the winding driveway with a grocery list. I ducked, my shoulders
hunched around my ears, watching the ice-sculpted branches scrape
across the windshield like they would push the car back. Across
from the driveway entrance, the stubbly brown fields had a smooth
dusky gloss, dusted where they met the road with mangled tree trunks
and fresh gold sawdust. Black wires swooped crazily, any pole, trunk
or antenna that had stood against the sky was snapped off at the
top. Then at the town sign, several telephone poles scattered in
splintered chunks across the white lines. I had to creep into the
web of wires suspended a few inches above the road, dragging at
my wheels as I bumped across them. The cars and trucks along the
road at the outskirts of town looked dark and abandoned under their
ice shells. In the doorway of the store a man offered a flashlight,
shouted over a running generator to find out what I wanted. His
coat had a heavy collar turned up that muffled his voice, the brim
of his hat hid his expression. He was a stranger. They were out
of bagged dog food. There were a few bundles of people inside under
the unlit fluorescent lights, but even their quiet gossip seemed
cold and faraway, muted by the ice that covered the town. The industrial
gray finish on the shelves was scratched and the gaps between boxes
of macaroni and a few tumbled cans of soup looked dusty. I left
one can of Ken-L-Ration next to the cat food, in case some other
dog owner came desperate tonight.
The bleak sunset was gone, with long shadows shading all the marble
of the fields. Finally down the driveway and in the house, I couldn't
keep from crumpling like a little girl. He hugged me. I wanted the
phone to ring. I wanted the ice to melt.
The owners of the house came back early, our natural disaster was
news even down in Vacationland. We went back to my apartment, where
a generator rumbled downstairs. The apartment was dark and the oily
fumes floated on the draft from the open windows. He said he was
going to visit friends, there was no reason he should stay and be
frozen out of work, with nothing to do, when just an hour away there
was light and heat and life to enjoy. He said it like he was presenting
an argument, well justified with supporting statements and testimony.
He said it like it was his only, and obvious, option.
There was a shelter set up at the town hall. The cement floor was
full of cots, blankets, elderly people looking resigned. The able-bodied
swarmed around them, catering and condescending to them. The tiny
old lady who lived across from my grandparents, who could spend
the whole of fall raking leaves off her lawn. The thickly bespectacled
disabled man who walked all over town, who was my grandfather's
brother. The residents of the adult home, trailing oxygen tubes
and housecoats. Here were people who had no options that were their
own, who could barely turn their heads away, if they wanted to.
All day I carried and hurried and lifted as directed, smiling,
speaking loudly and carefully, bumping into one of the volunteer
platoon manning the shelter at every corner. The barrage of consideration
and cheerfulness brewed with the tension of cramped and cluttered
space and worries of frozen pipes and flooded basements; the weight
of being there pressed the cold inside me into a neat block, out
of the way.
I kept going back. I was told to write cards, to organize the lives
and needs of our residents. Later I had to rip up the cards because
what I had written was confidential information. I helped old women
into the bathroom. I reported their erratic body functions to the
nurses. My cousins got to help on the food pantry line set up in
the town clerk's office, chatting loudly and coarsely with deliverymen
and people they knew lining up to receive free bread, peanut butter,
milk. I swept floors, wiped up spills. I delivered lunch trays.
I washed and chopped in the kitchen. I tried to be more cheerful,
more hardworking, than anyone else. I wanted to be needed the most.
Some of them looked up at me, standing offering a tray of easily
digested food, with eyes that had already lived through much worse
than this, back in the day. Some of them didn't look up, just nodded
and smiled, never wanting to be caught looking ungrateful.
We moved operations over to the school, the resident pool grew
as other shelters were shuffled and downsized. I helped Ruth pack
her afghans, her plastic bag with strange old lady condiments. She
was 99 years old, blind, wearing humongous glasses that darkened
her shrunken face. She wanted her hair curled in front, but I was
afraid the weight of the curlers might pull her wisps right out
of her head, so I only pretended. She crooned inaudible stories
to herself or maybe to me. Her nephew who had come in with her from
her little house had a mammoth belly, smelled sour, was narcoleptic.
He had a thick, nasal voice that cut off midsentence when he fell
asleep. He left during the day to take care of "some things"-then
she always got worried, and asked to go home. She asked every day.
Several people were dragged in from their aging, isolated homes
on the island. One woman was brought in on a stretcher. They promised
to go back to talk to her husband, he had threatened to shoot if
they tried to take him off. The next day they had to kneel at her
chair, to tell her he had died of a heart attack over the frigid
night. I watched her, sitting for hours at a 3rd grade reading table
in slippers, trying to find relatives that weren't gone in her address
These leftover people were immensely grateful to be housed 5 to
6 to a classroom. They praised the food served on segmented plastic
trays. They clapped gaily for the army band that came to play one
afternoon, piercingly loud in the grade school cafeteria. They appreciated
the visits by the priest, the ministers. They godblessed the soldiers
who clunked briskly through the halls, rapped out orders briskly.
The soldiers were everywhere in the federal emergency, driving square
green trucks throughout the towns, checking on people. Camouflage
and the twanging military accent echoed in the halls of the school.
They clashed with the purple carpet, with the fuzzy citrus smell
of the janitor's cleaners.
Orange power trucks and tree trimming companies moved in from all
over the northeast. One man died for our ice, falling out of one
truck's cherry picker basket. There were men hit when sawed off
branches fell from the broken trees. Large, sweaty men thronged
in town, tracking sawdust through the lushly carpeted resort hotels
called into service as dormitories. As life slowly restored, signs
went up in restaurants inviting ice storm workers in with specials
After two weeks, most of the shelter residents had found places
to go. The snarled knot of wires that swung against my office door
was strung back up so the phones would ring, the clock would tick.
No more diamond-clear silence, the steady meditative buzz of generators,
trucks and chainsaws even died away. The school reopened, and the
desks stood over the places where old people had lived a lifetime.
Small sneakers skipped over where soldiers had efficiently reinstated
our community back to highways and grocery trips and errands and
busy, separate lives.
When the whole thing was a joke on a t-shirt, their names began
appearing on the inside back page of the newspaper, "
retired mill worker
where he had been a
she was 83." I could picture their faces
on the cots they had laid on day in, day out. I could picture their
wrinkles and wispy gray hair, smell that dry powdery smell of their
skin, watch them shuffle past the charts of stars and smiley stickers,
to their beds. I could see them enjoying spaghetti or ham sandwiches,
see them smiling shadowlessly and nodding vaguely to those who were
suffocating them with rescue. I tried to see them after they had
returned to counting pills and eating tinfoiled meals alone with
only the clock or the news turned up too loud for company.
The ice finally melted. He moved this things out of my apartment
while the smell of the generator still sat in the doorway.