This is conjecture, but
The crane was there, of that I’m sure.
The sand hills. Nebraska.
His feathers ruffled as he was facing south
and the northwest wind was a little stiffer than
yesterday, and it got some head gears moving
some atavistic cuckoo clock so he
quit fishing and did that liftoff you just
wouldn’t bet money on, headed south.
This isn’t conjecture
this is bone ass fact
the blizzard hit Omaha
but I stayed at The Flamingo bar at seventy-second
and Pacific, had another Manhattan and
watched the snow pile up–I knew snow, I had
driven snow removal dump truck, hauling it
the shortest distance, some dead end street
dumping it at the end until they called the cops
and then I dumped it in abandoned places but that was
before. Ever wonder where they dump the snow? Any
damn place they can find, the shorter the distance the
better. Your front yard. Back for another load.
But now I was a suit. I worked in suitville, wore a
snap-brimmed fedora, carried an attache case.
No faulty truck heaters. No two a.m. calls.
Cars wouldn’t go in this flurry white kingdom. Nor dump trucks.
I could stay. The power was on. There was food, never run out of booze.
My tab paid all. But I made that call.
The one that proves cranes are smarter than me.
I called a woman who lived up on eighty-something street. Fifteen
blocks from The Flamingo. Walkable. She said come on, the power is on,
the freezer is full, the husband is stuck in Chicago for days, maybe weeks,
we’ll make a play fort under the grand piano, pillows, comforters, drape
blankets, silks, do things that we can’t even imagine. We’ll be forgiven. You’re
Catholic aren’t you? I have your favorite beer, plenty of vodka. Steak.
Tennis-toned limbs. (That last was my thought, she didn’t say it, though she
would have.) This was before cellphones. Before computers. Before the toxic mortgage loan bubble. Before the word trillion. And it snowed for weeks.
Clancy and I exchange coats. His loden coat has a hood. Ski gloves. I wrap my shoes in plastic bags and pull on big galoshes that had been left there years before. A
pint of brandy in each of four pockets. The hood smells like hair oil. I have one
more Manhattan for the road.
He tells me about a farmer who strung a rope between his house and barn so he
could find his way to feed livestock in a past blizzard. He was found frozen half a
mile away in a pasture. I thank Clancy and push open the door against a drift.
Wind, driving snow into crevices, into my hood, my ears.
A blasting blitz of white cold grits. White as starlet’s teeth. Colder than a banker’s smile at foreclosure. And the wind. Frozen needles.
Endless white. But no distance. The endless ends at my hand held out in front.
Snow waste knee then waist high. The magenta neon flamingo barely visible behind me. Clancy’s words ringing, “Dumbass.” Snow flings, pelts, smacks.
Streetlights might be on. Follow the lights. I turn right where the sidewalk should be.
Pale globe of light. A streetlight in the white of night. Trudge. Fight drifts thigh high.
Snowshoes would be good. Like a trapper. Atop the shell drifts. But I plunge. Lunge.
Plod. Plight of white.
I pass one pale globe, one block. Some blocks have no power. I have less. The whitening is frightening. Keep moving. In a circle? No, Another globe. Even a pole, a street sign. Then nothing. Wind. Am I blind? No sight in the white? I squint, raise my head, see
swirls so I’m not blind, but snow finds its way down my neck, back into my hooded shell, pull the strings tight on toggles.
Out of my element, a crane caught in snow.
At this rate, I’ll be in her play fort sometime in spring. Skeletal. How long since The Flamingo’s warmth and music. Why did I leave? Oh yes. That.
They’ll find me at thaw. Clancy will say, “I told him. Dumbass.”
A light! A streetlight. Straight line. White night light to light. The plastic wrapped shoes inside galoshes now that was genius. My hands are so cold. I put one in each armpit. My pants are soaked from falling through drifts. They freeze in the wind. They practically clank. Siberian thighs beneath frozen wool panels, knives.
Keep moving. Don’t succumb to sleep numb in a drift. Clancy’s kindly word of caution resounds. Dumbass. Ass-dumb. Snowmass. The blizzard wants my gizzard. It sears my lungs to laugh aloud and hard. My sounds are flung back. Snowpack. Ass wrack. Is that a light globe? Snow wavering halo guides me.
A piano forte. I see blankies, pillows, tennis-toned limbs a-cuddle. Is she worried? Does she know the danger? Don’t start without me! I stumble. I am drowning. Floundering.
I right myself with great effort, mouth and nose full of snow. Think. Hot toddies, bodies, you must forge on. My nose drips and freezes. I feel unattractive. Battered. Retroactive. I slide down a skim of a drift on my butt and find myself in a walkable flat. The wind has
scoured the sidewalk, a lawn, crisp grass is visible beneath my huge buckled feet. Then I am going up, up, I turn sideways to make steps in the drift. Atop it, I see a roof, a chimney, and a blast of snow obscures it. I could have touched it.
If I do get to her house will it be covered? I tumble down the other side and hit my head and shoulder on something very hard. I see stars. Sit for a moment. I feel for the object in the swirl–it is slick like a car, but much lower. I wipe the surface. It’s a snowmobile! And a bent knee astride it. I keep wiping, digging, it’s a person in snowsuit aboard a dead snowmobile–and solid as the machine. It’s one piece. Bearded, goggled. Good god. A dead guy. I back away, fall again.
I’ve lost all sense of direction.
I’m crying. The tears are freezing on my face. That dumbass didn’t make it and he has a snowmobile. I’m doomed. Entombed. Subsumed. I’ll be exhumed.
I see a light through the swirl, barely. It comes and goes, wanes and glows. Streetlight. Get up. You’re just drunk is all. Maybe six blocks from The Flamingo. Turn around? Maybe ten to go the other way. Remember, toddys, bodies. Onward. That guy’ll keep. And I have blocks to go before I sleep. All in a heap. Beneath the grand piano. In a fort. And fortified. I think of the brandy. It’s time for a slug. I need a fire to warm my hands. To open the brandy. For want of a match. I feel for a bottle, pull it, drop it into the snow. It disappears.
I feel for another, find a broken mass held together by the label on the side that struck the snowmobile. I drop it. I locate a whole one, hold it in both frozen paws, stick the cap in my mouth, twist it open, ingesting a snowcone of frozen air. Drink some, cough, choke, drink some more. The cap is gone.
I toss the pint. Move on. Lawn to white heaped lawn.
I come to a corner where I can actually make out some poles holding signs, then an explosion of snow erases all. Should be seventy-eighth street. She lives on Eighty-seventh. I think. If I can get to eighty I’ll be more than halfway. The wind is fierce, almost turns me around. I slide down another bank, this time controlling it. I think of the moguls at Aspen Highlands. On a good day, in decent light, in rhythm, I could do the whole damn mountainside. Here I can hardly walk. Big snow renders us ungainly. Bears and yeti are Olympic skiiers compared to me rolling, bumbling, crashing, plunging, stopping
to regain my shrinking shrieking breath. I’ve gone another block. My hands are numb. I beat them on my body. Some small pulse of pinpricks in my fingers. I will have to warm them. As if I’d prayed, I see a small fire. Snapping. A downed power line out of the grid of pale globes.
It lays on some broken tree branches crackling. I trudge-run to it. Don’t touch. Duh I say aloud. Teethpulling my gloves off. Hold my hands close. Wind blows the trickle of flames away. I hunch over it, loden coat shielding. I am Jeremiah Johnson. Hands in fire. yes. some feeling. Not good feeling. Ow. Not ideal for frostbite.
I hold gloves to fire until they smoke, put them on. Kick snow over fire. Sightline on next streetlight. Onward. White wall drift. Climb. Roll down. Up again. The wind dies for a second and next light is visible, then gone as the wind shrieks, pulls at my hood like hands. I am too tired to hate this anymore. Numbed.
I am ten blocks out. Five to go. I may die. Next light is out. I see black pole for an instant. I am Ulysses. Siren songs of sleep and piano forte everywhere. Even the wind sounds nice now, melodious. I hum with it. I guess you’ll say. What can make me. Feel this way. My wind. My Girl was playing at The Flamingo when I left. I guess you’ll say, dumbass. I hear crazy laughing. Me.
The ground underfoot is relatively flat for awhile. I am walking. Not gracefully, but walking nevertheless, the wind cutting at me sideways. I can see the street between gusts. I can make time this way. I cross a street, then it all goes to hell again, drifts, berms and swales, plateaus of snow, some solid, some shells I dive through up to my chest. The snow is coming down like a grainy sideways rain of BBs. Crazy weather. Not of this planet. Three blocks maybe, then a right and another block, if the street is right. White. I slide down the long drift on my butt hoping nothing is sticking up to impale as I sail. The wind catches me and I roll. Sick of this shit. Involuntary Snow angel entangle the angle, up again, plodding, head bobbing like an old last-legged dobbin, blowing, snorting breaths erratic pneumatic just don’t go static.
Finally, that corner I think. I am on all fours, head hung, sick, all the booze, brandy, up and coming unplugged plumbing. I stay that way wind-buffeted, my head clears, I feel a little better. I stand unsteadily, then move toward where the house might be. I see, for an instant, a nineteenth hole flag planted on a hill, snapping in the wind. It’s his. She has put it in the yard or on the roof, I can’t tell. It’s from their rec-room, his cheesy bar. I move toward it. Then I see lights through the snowblow, the house is partially covered with a huge drift, but the front door is lit and accessible. I lean against it and pummel it, I even head-butt it. Not much left. It opens, I fall in. I say, “thought I’d fall by.” Jazz people said that back then. She is in a fleecy white terrycloth robe, like they give you at resorts. I roll inside helped by her tugging at me. The wind is gone. I can’t feel my hands.
“I can’t stay,” I say. I am sobbing or laughing and it makes my head bounce on the tile floor. The crane is way south of here, maybe Mexico. Basking. Dozing. Legs in languid blue fresh water lake in Cabo. Other cranes about. Flamingos, too.
Guinotte Wise lives on a farm in Resume Speed, Kansas. His short story collection (Night Train, Cold Beer) won publication by a university press and not much acclaim. Two more books since. His wife has an honest job in the city and drives 100 miles a day to keep it.