I dig myself out of my house to start my patrol. When I emerge, the path I’ve made is already filling back in with fat, wet snow, blowing in all directions. It is ever trying to buffet me about, to billow me to the edge of town, to strike me snow-blind and wind-deaf so I lose my way, but I got my snow legs a long time long ago. The flakes come quick and steady in clumps that smell of sugar glass about to break. Once, I might have made a snowball, a snowman, a snow fort. Once, it might have seemed beautiful. Today, I trudge through it until I find my first extraction.
It’s an Accord with its nose in a ditch, ass end raised high in the wind with the back tires spinning slowly. The snow piles higher, shoves the car deeper into a groove that may once have been earth but is now only ice, only dirty soiled run-off snow. I get to work shoveling one side before the car is buried entirely.
Inside is a woman who has left middle age behind. She is wedged against her steering wheel, and the only thing keeping gravity from grinding her against it and stealing her breath away is the integrity of her seatbelt. With shaking hands, she clutches the rosary hanging from her rearview.
“Mother Mary?” she gasps when I kick open the passenger’s side window.
“I’m Gerda,” I say. Everyone knows it’s only me out here, but still she chants the name of a saint instead. “Can you crawl over to me?”
“Thank you, Lord,” she says. “Thank you, Jesus.”
Spat from the car like gristle, the erstwhile driver gets a fleece and a heat pack and some soup. She is bundled into another neighbor’s house to wait for a doctor on a snowmobile. I give her half a nod when I brace myself against the gale and take my leave. Low but not low enough, the others say, don’t mind her—remote people, those Orientals, but they’re hard workers.
Blizzards used to be monumental events. The kind of thing you could build befores and afters around. A good reliable “where were you when.” What did you do when The Big One stormed through in ’77, old-timers might ask? How about that Beast with Teeth in ’92? Yeah, I haven’t heard anyone say that shit in ten years at least.
The first bad one I remember was The October Storm in ’06. I was eight. It was so early in the season, the leaves hadn’t fallen from their branches, and so the weight of the ice and snow brought trees down across Western New York, across roads and electrical lines and roofs and cars. The whole neighborhood was without electricity for a week. “Come stay with us,” said Kai’s mother, the only other Thai on the street—the only other Thai in the village— but Grandpa just threw some wood into the fireplace and alone we hunkered down to wait. Kai and I built a snow tunnel between our two houses and called it a palace. There was much courtly intrigue. We mourned when proper autumn weather melted it away.
The next extraction has been buried in several days’ snow. Snow steals sight, steals sound. Others might call this dampening a peace, but I know gray washed into gray. I know the price of stillness. The world glitters under its blanket of snow, beguiling, but if there’s magic there I’ve lost the eyes to see it. I set to work shoveling the car free. In time it reveals itself a Subaru.
With the blow torch I used for dinner party crème brûlée in a different life, I melt the ice that’s frozen the doors shut. There’s a family inside. A dad lies slumped over the steering wheel, and two toddlers, so safe in their backwards-facing seats, occupy the back. Dad struck his head on the windshield and bled out. The children, lilac blue without a mark on them, froze to death.
I take off my gloves and lay my palms on the head of first one baby and then the next. Some icicle people, you can bring them back. Some icicle people, they’re not dead until they’re warm and dead. But one baby’s ear falls off in my hand, and the other loses her nose. Buddhism teaches us not of souls but of flames, and these flames have been snuffed by a relentless winter.
I am not the praying type. I radio for the snowmobile coroner.
More than twenty-five years after our palace melted, the blizzards come one on top of the other in an unremitting cascade. No more clever names. No more springtime thaw. They all bleed together into a single ongoing trial. The government, having shirked its civil duties long ago, issues toothless travel advisories, and then toothless travel bans, but still cars crash and pile up on the 90, still people must be sprung from ditches by the kindness of their neighbors, still we wake to the news that someone else has frozen to death while carrying out any given fool’s errand.
Thus the burden of care has fallen to us. Frank with his three-driver fleet of pickup trucks, industrial plow blades mounted to each front, salt spreaders under each tailgate. Tammy and Bob keeping the lights on at the corner store 24/7. A handful of rescuers on the ground, all equipped with radios and thermal layers and politically incorrect seal skin parkas with chinchilla fur hoods. But I’m the only one in my neighborhood. I’m the only one canvassing Harvest Glen, hoping to find a live one.
So every day I suit up and set out with the rucksack on my back. Kitty litter, bottled water, steaming soup in a thermos, single-use heat packs, scarves and mittens and fleece blankets. Flashlight, matches, lighters, blow torch, kindling. A five-gallon gas can tightly sealed and lashed to the outside of the pack, ice cleats on my boots, a couple of trekking poles with ice tips. A shovel tied across my shoulders. The early-morning light, a trick of the eye.
The snow slows. The quality of the light tells me it’s late afternoon. One more sweep along the borders of Harvest Glen and I’ll be making my way home in the dark by muscle memory, but that suits me fine. I come upon a car not yet buried, still puffing out its exhaust, wheels spinning in place. It roars like a lion furious to find himself caged.
I approach the driver’s side and knock. A wild-eyed man startles and tries to roll the window down, but it’s frozen. I set my pack down and rummage inside for the kitty litter and hold it up for him. His expression blooms into one of befuddled wonder, and that’s when I know him.
“Kai,” I say. His brows knit and his mouth quirks against the syllables of my name. I swallow past the dryness in my throat. “Stop revving,” I say. “Let me put this down.” He nods and lets off the gas, hands raised as if in surrender.
Kai stopped speaking to me in high school. He got in with cooler kids, which in our school meant the kids with steady access to weed and beer. That they were all white goes almost goes without saying, but I’ve got a different perspective of whiteness these days.
He forgot our garden games, secrets passed from tongue to ear in the dark, summer days whiled away under a willow tree. He forgot my grandma’s kuey teow, his mother’s ribbons in my hair, his family tied with mine. He forgot me.
I pack the kitty litter tight under the tires. I rap my knuckles on the trunk and sidestep into the snowbank. Kai hits the gas, and the car, a Camry near as old as we are, rocks in its effort. Kitty litter flies up into the air and exhaust coughs out in thick black sputters. Finally it lurches forward and skids free with a squeal. I thought Kai would peel off, fishtailing in his haste to leave me, but he stops some twenty feet away and gets out of the car.
He jogs toward me, chanting my name as if there were anyone else he could possibly be addressing out here, where we’ve been abandoned by heaven, our neighbors, and the indifferent weather.
“Do you need a ride?” he asks when he reaches me, panting. “Where are you living these days?”
He’s skinny and not dressed for the cold. I can see the knobs of his wrist bones pressing tight against thin brown skin. He has great dark circles under his eyes, which are rheumy and watery. He doesn’t look like himself, but he smiles like the boy I once knew, the one with a million magical ideas and the hand around my wrist, forever pulling me into his far-off worlds. I turn my face away.
“Same place,” I say, shoving the kitty litter back into my pack.
I sling my rucksack back on and cross the shovel over my shoulders. I point my feet toward home. He’s scurrying along beside me, saying wait, wait.
“Come on,” he says, “I’ll give you a ride. It’ll be dark soon. It’ll take like an hour to get home walking.”
An hour and a half, more like, and that’s if I don’t find anyone else who needs me to lead them out of the oppression of all this snow.
“You should get snow tires and all-wheel drive,” I tell him. “Then maybe I’ll think about catching a ride from you.”
“I knew the damn tires were bald,” Kai says. “I’m so fucking stupid.”
He’s fallen into step beside me like we’re kids again, like it’s 2010 and we don’t know how the world’s gonna smother our flames into embers, like he never told Matt Buchanan sure Gerda’s a dork but she’ll do anything I tell her to.
“How’s your grandma?” he asks. “How’s your grandpa?”
“If they were alive, they would be over a hundred years old.”
“Go back to your car, man,” I say. “Go home.”
“I’m really sorry about them,” Kai says. “They were the best.”
I plant my trekking poles and face him. He looks like the moon: pale and wan, a reflection of something else’s light.
“What do you want, Kai?”
He hitches his shoulders up, shoving his fists into his armpits. I wipe the snow gathering in my lashes as he bounces from foot to foot. The shape of my breath merges with his.
“Come sit in the car with me,” he says in a rush. “Get warm a minute, even if you don’t want a ride.”
I am not the nostalgic type, but history bears me back into his car—all that’s between us, and the elusive memory of sunshine.
I used to like autumn best of all. The kaleidoscope of changing leaves. The way everything smelled like something new was about to be born of clean rain. Kai’s mother always made her special pumpkin pie from scratch—rendered the lard, scooped out the pumpkins and kabocha squash, ground fresh spices from the Asian grocery store in the city. No one made a pie like hers. That last September, we took turns blowing hot steam from his mother’s pie out of our noses like sleepy dragons.
The Camry’s heating system is not prepared for the lake effect life. I crack a heat pack and set it on the console between us. Kai rubs his hands together briskly and puffs hot breath into the cup of his palms.
“I’ve missed you,” Kai says after a while. “I didn’t realize how much ’til I saw you.”
“Still working on object permanence, I guess.”
I shake my head and stare out the windshield into the vast howl of snow.
“Remember that tree down on Lake Bluff?” he says. “That was supposed to take us to the giant’s house if we climbed high enough.”
“You fell out of that tree.”
Kai wriggles out of his coat and rolls up his right sleeve. He shows me the scar on the inside of his elbow. What was a pink smile when we were kids has faded into a white crescent, barely raised.
“How about that shack we found way into the woods behind the old Hoffsheimer place?”
“We both needed tetanus shots.”
“Yeah, but before that.”
Me and Kai, dragons and chain mail and princesses to save. Endless days waving our swords and jumping the creek and digging for treasure/gnomes/China. In real life it was a long-forgotten storage shed full of rusty farm equipment older than my grandparents, an infestation of termites, and black mold crawling up the walls and into our lungs. That shack was spankings when we came home scratched and infected, peering into each other’s windows after dark, passing notes in our own invented alphabet.
“Not really,” I say.
“What about jumping off the falls at Zoar valley?”
Hold my hand and we’ll go at the same time, he said. Are you ready? My hand in his. One. Two. Three! That perfect, weightless ecstasy in the moment before we hit the water.
Kai scoffs. Of course—I’m tiresome and joyless, taking away his fun. As usual.
“What happened to you, man?” he asks.
“What happened to you?”
Kai lays his forehead against the steering wheel. I should open the door and start the long trudge back home. I should leave him to whatever it is he does and get back to my fireplace. My grandma’s bonsais. My grandpa’s crosswords. My solitude.
Kai raises his head again and casts his eyes up to the sky. Beyond the spiral of whipping snow it’s an endless steel gray that saps all the hope from your heart. I have a dim flame these days, and suddenly I can see Kai’s is just the same.
“God,” he says. “Can you even remember the last time it was summer?”
We used to catch pollywogs in the creek. Everything smelling like fresh cut grass. Freckles blazing like a constellation through the sunburn across his nose. Scraped knees. In and out of each other’s houses like we owned them both. The world rendered orange and purple by an infinite dusk. Sparklers leaving trails of firelight when the sun finally set.
“Do you ever think about leaving Buffalo?” Kai asks. “I try and I try, but it’s always something. Someone calls me needing help. I wake up to find my ass tumbled off the wagon in the night and I don’t know how. My car gets stuck in the snow on the outskirts of town.” He looks at me and he is six years old. Eight. Twelve. Thirty-five. He looks at me and says my name.
I want to weep into his cloudy eyes. I want to sob into his splintered heart. But I am not the crying type.