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Writing Contest home

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 sleep.

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 book.

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 and discounts.

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, "…former schoolteacher…retired mill worker…where he had been a patient since…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.

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