I woke when it was still dark, when I heard something clicking against the glass of my bedroom window and rolled over to find snow piles leaning against the edges of the pane. My sled had been in the garage with the rudders waxed and ready to go since November. That winter had been unusually wet, a consistent fog hanging above our heads so that everything looked weary, the trees more skeletal and barren against those grey days. I looked out towards my grandparent’s house, could see the amber glow coming from my Nanna’s kitchen, the smudged shadow of my grandfather sitting in the bay window, drinking coffee, waiting for his bacon and eggs.
I knew it would be a couple of hours before anyone in my house would begin to stir. I put my snowsuit on as fast as I could, imagining the other kids in town going through the same motions, trying to be the first one to make it to the Johnson’s hill to sled. I tiptoed past my parent’s room with the hardwood creaking from my weight. My father was lying on his side, the covers kicked off at the foot of the bed, his snores filling the house. My mom was in there somewhere, beneath the covers, somewhere behind him. He had a way of enveloping people like that, his large frame demanding your attention and making others seem to disappear.
Further down the hall my sister Emily lay in bed with one arm thrown across her forehead, her long, blonde hair spread out against pink sheets, her left leg hanging out of the covers so that her toes dangled just above the floor. I saw Mr. Peterson’s blue and white truck slowly moving down Randolph Street, across her bedroom window into her headboard and then out the other side. His figure was leaning into the steering wheel the way he did, with his face up to the windshield.
I tiptoed further down the hall and looked in my baby brother’s room. His fat little arm, poked out from a mountain of blankets and was lying on the gate of his crib. His fingers moved and I stopped breathing until they settled. I thought about raising the gate, but didn’t want to chance waking him, didn’t want to be responsible for taking care of him while my parents got their sleep. The grandfather clock made its reassuring ticks as I stood there looking in. I made my way into the living room when I was sure he wasn’t playing possum like he liked to do. There was nothing left but hot coals, so I threw a couple of logs on as quietly as I could, tiptoed to the door, put my mitten over the lock to smother the mechanical noise and stepped into my future.
It’s like a movie that I have watched a million times, running the few minutes of that morning through my mind, savoring those small details. I remember walking out onto the driveway pulling the weight of the sled behind me, the swishing of my snowsuit legs rubbing against each other, the crunch of the snow underfoot. Everything except for my own steps and the cracking of the trees overhead was muffled and repressed in the falling snow. Smoke billowed out of the Southerland’s chimney across the street. Grey plumes swirled and dove down the roof, staining the snow black. I knew we wouldn’t be going to school for a long time, even though I could see the outline of the cobblestone schoolhouse from where I stood. I looked back towards my grandparent’s house and envisioned making tunnels in the drifts that sat between the expansive lawn that connected our lives, where my siblings and I spent most of our time running back and forth.
I thought I saw my sister moving in her bedroom window when Matt Burgess called my name further up the street. He told me the snow had started around midnight, long after I had gone to sleep, and the older kids had been out on the Johnson’s hill the entire time. We broke into a run then settled into a walk until we could see the Johnson’s house perched up above, until we could hear the screams and laughter floating down and we both struggled to run in our overstuffed snow pants.
Everyone was there: Sherri Brown was in a coat of rabbit fur patches, with white hat and gloves that made her look like one of the girls from the Chiclet ads. Sheri had blonde Farah Fawcett hair and blue eyes that made me go numb with the anticipation of something enormous…like a kiss, or castration. She was the one who dictated all our adolescent fantasies–the one walking down the distorted hallways of our imaginations; taunting us in the back seats of fantasy cars; dark rooms with blue lights and beaded doorways. She was the gravitational pull that kept us circling, licking our lips in anticipation of what we didn’t understand–or would ever have. Parents treated her like she was royalty. Fathers used her as the standard that their daughters should live up to and their boys should marry. Grown men lit up just like the boys when she turned her attention their way. Mothers competed for their daughters to be closest to Sherri, did everything they could to secure the position of best friend, but Sherri didn’t belong to the girls any more than she did the boys. Well, except for Blake.
Blake was a couple years older. He was poor with an alcoholic father and a crazy mother who occupied most of her time by yelling at the noise of her six children from the darkness of her bedroom. The house was two stories tall and gave the impression of space that couldn’t be felt once you stepped through the front door. It sat on a corner of a street considered undesirable by those of our parents who didn’t fall within its boundaries. Boundaries defined by degenerative signs of poverty–where responsibility gave way to all things dangerous like cracked paint, loose shingles and other unsavory things most of our parents kept hidden between mattress and box spring, beneath decent tones or locked behind cabinets with fake wrought iron enclosures. It was the line where all things became faded and lay too close to darker pigmentation, the place where most in that small Southern town deposited their fears and frustrations.
Blake’s yard was choked with an assortment of Southern weeds that erupted in remarkable insect noises in the summer, when the sun was stretched across the horizon, making visits seem much more exotic, further from the influence of our manicured yards and polite behavior. From the front entrance of the house you looked down the hallway to window framing a streetlight in piss yellow curtains with brown billowing stains. The industrial lighting set a surreal tone for the shrieks that came from the mother’s bedroom.
“You keep those little rich son-of-a-bitches out of my refrigerator, greedy little bastards will eat me out of house and home,” his mother would yell, her choked raspy voice falling quieter as her rant went on, …”Little bastards don’t know what it means to do without.”
We’d wait until her yelling descended into incoherent mumbles before we snuck by her doorway to the stairwell, giggling or silently mocking her as we passed. Her children seemed to be equally as humored by her as the rest of us. I imagined her half-rotted carcass with its gray, smoke stained skin and National Geographic breasts embedded into a permanent indentation in her bed. A sweet aroma like spoiled milk came from her room. I learned to hold my breath until I was halfway up the orange shag stairs, until I reached the scent of ragweed and the other adolescent smells; all the things went there for.
Our parents told us to stay away from their house. That’s why we spent so much time there, smoking, looking at dirty magazines, watching Blake’s older brother Jamie having sex. Their house was a destination for those girls who were damaged in some way, girls who spread their legs the easiest–or were looking for something to pierce the monotony of small town living. Jamie would occasionally come in and give a look, a look that told us to get up and hide in his closet with its peepholes and old sofa cushions to sit on. Jamie always situated himself so that we got the best show, so that we got the maximum penetration angles. It was long before VHS porn was accessible, porn that never quite lived up to the live action I experienced in that closet: the noises, the sound of our restrained breath as we both leaned against the closet door, squinting, trying to keep it in focus and edging ourselves until we couldn’t take it anymore and finally let go.
One time Blake and I sat in the closet, both spent with sticky hands. I sat back in the darkness with the light of the two holes looking back at me, suddenly conscious of the overwhelming smell of sour feet leaking from the sneakers in the closet. I found a sock, did the best I could to wipe up my mess and sat back against the wall with nothing running through my mind. When my eyes adjusted to the light I looked over at Blake. He was leaning back against the wall, Jamie’s collection of flannels hovering just above his head. He was still pulling on what was just as much a part of our adolescent folklore as Sherri’s divinely ordained superiority. He saw me looking and pushed his pelvis up to give me a better look, which I did.
Blake was the only one Sherri would make out with. I don’t suppose it’s necessary to say that we were all in love with them. I think we all pretended that we were one of them or touching one of them during our make out sessions at the Johnson’s house, where there was room to spread out in the basement without fear of reprimand. Greg Johnson was a year older than me. He was obese and didn’t like to do much but hang out in his basement, which was fine with us. He had a peculiar way of looking at things that I liked. Greg never participated in our make-out sessions. He just sat in a chair that looked like an oversized birds nest watching television with the volume turned down, while the rest of us made sucking noises and rubbed each other’s body parts. I made out with Lisa Brown the most. It was by default for both of us, but we didn’t care as long as we had someone to do it with. All the boys tried to get Sherri’s attention on the hill that day. The boys always tried to get Sherri’s attention, but snowy days were a perfect time to show off. All the girls pretended that they were part of the allure. The only one not trying was Blake, who always acted like Sherri wasn’t there and mocked her in a way that made us look at him in awe and drove her absolutely crazy.
I was many hours into sledding when I heard Mrs. Johnson yelling my name from the basement door. I acted like I didn’t hear and ran as fast as I could, holding my sled next to my body. The hill was packed and fast. John Larsen started running next to me. He was faster once on his sled, but I was more aggressive. He began to run past me, both of us held our sleds to our sides until we made the crest of the hill and dove onto our sleds. I knew that I had out jumped him, that I had put myself in a better position. The hill ran straight until you got to the King’s house where you had to make a sharp corner around a hedge without running into the chain linked fence that ran along the opposite side, down to the creek. The hedge was battered from many failed attempts. I had decided to take him out there, to send him into the shrubs. He was staring straight ahead, his lips tight with determination, body flat against the sled, hoping he could pick it up before I came after him. We were moving fast and coming upon the shrubs when I rammed my sled into his. He kicked me in the side and cut away. We made it around the shrubs. The bottom of the hill was coming fast. I had one more chance pointed my sled to the left, he saw me coming and hunkered down. If he didn’t get clear of me, or if he couldn’t kick my hands away from his rudders he knew he was done. The snow was kicking up in my face. I reached my hand out to grab his rudder. I was envisioning his body flipping on the hard packed snow, his screams of defeat, when I suddenly felt my sled tipping and the hard ground battering my body as I rolled down the hill. I made it more dramatic than it actually was, kind of like playing dead really good, throwing my body into the tumbling.
I hadn’t paid attention to what was going on behind me and looked down at the bottom of the hill to see Blake and John getting up from their sleds, pointing at me, getting a good laugh at my expense. Blake liked to humiliate us indiscriminately, like to remind us who had all the size and good looks. There was nothing we could do about it. It wasn’t just because he had a hairy chest by the time he was in the eighth grade or that he was as big as most of our fathers, it was something we all knew about him but never spoke of, that he would take it wherever it needed to go, that he had nothing to lose.
Mrs. Johnson screaming my name seemed to be carried down by the wind. I looked up the hill. I could see her dark figure behind the heavy snow and there was something in her voice, a tone she had never used with me that made my stomach feel funny. She screamed my name again. John and Blake walked up next to me and Blake said, “You’re screwed, man” and John said, in a less confident voice, “Yeah, you’re fucked, man.” I could see Greg’s obese figure walk over to the group and I knew anything that would draw him out of doors was big. The three of us made our way up the hill. As we came closer I noticed that they had all turned towards us, but were all looking at me. None on them moving, or speaking, just the snow falling, landing on my increasingly hot face. Sherri, who was standing away from the group, was the first one I came upon and just before she became fascinated with the snow at her feet, she looked at me with an expression that made me want to turn and run. I said, “what?” The closer I drew the more confused I became. Mrs. Johnson was standing in the snow in her socks. “Honey, you need to go home.” “I didn’t do anything,” I protested. “I know honey, your grandmother called, you need to go home.” I turned to look and all eyes were on me with the same incomprehensible expressions. John moved into the group and asked, “What’s going on?” Someone told him to shut up. I couldn’t figure out what in the world was happening to me. I got further away and turned to look back for some clarification. They all stared back in silence, there was no explanation, just bright colored garments blurring in the falling snow. I had to pee but decided I could wait until I got home so that I wouldn’t have to fight through all of the layers.
The walk home seemed to take forever, the snow growing heavier with every passing minute; that it was never going to stop. I fantasized about it rising above the rooftops, the months it would take for us to carve out tunnels to each other’s homes, tunnels the government would dig along the roadways. People would have to go to the mountains to see the sun. I was contemplating my breath shooting out in front of me, when my attention was drawn to what I was convinced was some type of optical illusion; a beautiful pink pulsing through the white curtain of flakes. I had forgotten, for a moment, about my strange departure, until the red pulses became sharper, began twirling the closer I got, until I could make out the police cruiser sitting in our driveway.
I squatted behind a bush and looked on while considering a bus ticket to Florida where I decided I would become a Carney and live on corndogs. All I knew in that moment was that whatever was going on I didn’t want to know. In the back yard, in that expanse of lawn that lay between our house and my grandparent’s, I saw my father and two other men crawling forward on their knees, doing what looked like the breaststroke in the snow. That’s when I heard an awful noise moving through the house and then onto the carport platform. It was my mother howling like an animal and I was lifted from my body, assaulted by tingling that settled on my skin like the black and white static on the television. I didn’t move from behind the bush. The pink flamingos my father got such a kick out of were up to their necks in snow; their plastic heads crowned in white.
I looked up to see my sister standing at her window. She saw me and waved. I had peed my snowsuit; the heat running down my leg was a momentary reprieve from everything that was going on around me. I stayed behind the bush until my teeth began to chatter and the light began to fade. The snow seemed to be falling heavier, if that was possible. Men had been running to our house from all directions immediately dropping to their knees and moving through the snow like my father. My grandmother came out onto the carport and pulled my mother inside the house, her screams leaked out into the cold air, mingled with the crackling limbs overhead. It wasn’t until Dr. Joe made his way into the house that my mother’s screams finally stopped and my sister stopped coming back to the window to make faces at me.
I couldn’t take the cold anymore and walked slowly towards the house. I noticed the grease stain on the carport from my father’s truck, it looked like Snoopy lounging on his doghouse smoking a cigarette and for some reason reminded me of summer. Someone ran past me, but no one noticed my presence. I opened the door and walked down the hallway, aware that I didn’t take my boots off and that my father was going to kill me for tracking snow in the house. There was mumbling coming from one of the rooms down the hallway. The doors, including my own bedroom were shut in a house with an open door policy. I cracked my parent’s bedroom door open. My Nanna was sitting next to my mother, running a washcloth across her face. Nanna was crying in a way as not to disturb when the grandfather clock startled me with its chime.
I turned and walked to Emily’s room. She was the only one that seemed normal. She was sitting in bed braiding the Barbie head that she was obsessed with, the Barbie head whose lips she had painted black with a permanent marker. I closed the door behind me and sat on her floor in my piss-wet snowsuit. She considered me with a smile and went back to braiding and humming. I was afraid to ask so I didn’t.
“I never heard of snow angels before,” she finally said as she cocked her head to the right, considering which way she would pin Barbie’s hair.
“What do you mean?”
“That’s why mommy was so upset. She doesn’t want Bobby to be a snow angel.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Grandma said that Bobby walked into the snow while everyone was asleep.”
She looked up at me pleased with herself and then went back to her Barbie. “Nanna says that he’s a snow angel, silly.”
They didn’t find Bobby until the thaw many weeks later. They couldn’t believe how far he made it, across the street in the Southerland’s yard with its plumes of smoke and blackened roof. They hadn’t come close to guessing where he was. They found him on his stomach close to the fake mother deer and her fawn in their yard. They had suspected him of trying to walk to my grandparents and spent all their time looking there, flapping their way through that expansive lawn that once connected our lives. We should have known. The fake deer in the Southerland’s lawn were his favorites. He liked to stand in Emily’s room, point out the window and say “Da.” That was when I knew it had been him I saw in my sister’s window, just before Burgess drew my attention up the street.
The snow fell for six consecutive days after Bobby wandered out. The blizzard of 79’ broke records throughout the country. My parents went insane. My mother woke and began screaming when things came back to her, until the sedative took hold. They showed cars stranded on the highway outside Soldier’s Field in Chicago. My father pulled his hair, hit his forehead with his fists, sat in the dark for long periods of time, cried, punched holes in the living room walls. Emily and I cried a little at first, but mostly stayed quiet and watched dumbstruck as our parents assumed their new roles.
School was out for over a month. People said that we would have to make up the snow days during the summer. It sounded good to me. Anything but this, I thought. After they found him people came and stood on the sidewalk in droves, looking at our house with their hands to their mouths pointing from our front door to where the deer once stood. Women I had never seen wept openly. One large woman pulled me into her, telling me everything was going to be okay. I didn’t know what to do so I just stood there, my face enveloped by her enormous, sweaty breasts. Some of them acted like they were somehow getting off on what had happened to us. My mother had periods of screaming for the rest of her life. I became very familiar with that specific noise that came from somewhere remarkably deep and smelled as bad as it sounded.
Sherri made out with me soon after it happened. Apparently she saw something in me that wasn’t there before. It was something to do amid all the confusion, but her previous power was lost to me. I spent more and more time over at Blake’s. It was the only place that seemed sane, the only place that remained somewhat familiar. Blake and I stopped watching Jamie and started having our own sex. I acted on my desires and he was responsive. I felt a freedom to do whatever I wanted. It couldn’t get any worse than it already was.
My mother was sedated for the remainder of the winter. None of us talked much. We moved to Florida before the threat of fall the next year. Snow would never be a part of my mother’s life again. Emily eventually pulled out all of Barbie’s hair and threw her in the corner. My father would leave and not come back until the screaming had stopped. Eventually he was gone for good. I took care of my mother from that point forward. Emily was the next to go at fourteen. It was the best thing she could have done. I saw her many years later. She was in her twenties. She was quite pretty and self-conscious. Her hair, clothing, and fingernail polish was all black. She was pierced all over. She told me she met an older man soon after she left. He made her feel safe she said. She told me she had worked through most of her issues. I didn’t challenge her.
Just this morning I was standing outside the window of an electronics store in Union Square. It’s something I like to do. The entire plate glass window is covered in mute televisions. I think it’s more interesting to watch without the volume, something I imagine Greg Johnson would still appreciate. I was standing there watching these televisions, getting bumped by people with places to be, when a woman in a black burka came onto the screens. She was squatting on the desert floor, holding her dead child, looking up to the sky, screaming, rocking back and forth while his limbs stuck out rigid and lifeless. Soldiers in fatigues were moving around her, other women were holding their hands to the sky. I had never seen her before, but I knew the face.
I tasted the tears in the corners of my mouth. I know what it is like to feel that lightness and heaviness all at the same time. I was lost in it and wanted to reach out to her, put my arms around her and squeeze until she had tired, until the wails became whimpers and quieted into tears streaming down her face. That’s when I heard the laughter and looked to my right where a young couple in pressed shorts and pastel shirts were standing. The female pointed and said she wanted the flat screen. I looked back to where she pointed to see if the woman didn’t exist, had somehow been a figment of my imagination, but there she was, rocking back and forth with a NASDAQ banner running beneath her grief.
Art by SickNasty