Friday, February 5, 2010

The Coldest I've Ever Been

The coldest I've ever been was not December 27, 2009 when I sat watching my husband officiate the Music City Bowl.  Sitting for three hours inside the Tennessee Titans' stadium in a windchill of 17 degrees makes a body cold, to be sure.  But I've been colder.  In the 70's.

In the 70's, I liked to hear the WKEE dj who lived inside my clock radio say, "Cabell County" in the list of school cancellations.  I'd hit the "off" button and roll over and dream about . . . What was the oldest Partridge brother's name?  Not Danny. The other one.

The smell of Maxwell House would waft under my door and I'd know Dad was up.  I'd slide my feet into slippers and slip my arms into my robe, and join him in the kitchen.  He'd look up from his dippy egg and smile.  "Gonna sleigh ride?"

I'd smile back.  "Yep."

I'd open the cabinet over the stove and survey the collection of cold cereal--Cheerios, Frosted Flakes, Sugar Pops.  Usually I picked Cheerios.  Added a teaspoon or two of sugar and a big pour of milk. 

Dad would push his chair back from the table and carry his dishes to the sink.  He'd run water over his plate so the yolk streaks wouldn't turn to Super Glue.  Then he'd pat me on the back, always too hard.   I'd arch to soften, or avoid altogether, the blows.

He'd put his cheek to mine, his Abe Lincoln beard scratchy.  My nose would wrinkle with the combination of his morning and Maxwell House breath.  My mouth was full so I'd make the brusha-brusha-brusha motion with my hand.  He'd cup a hand, breathe into it and smell.  Then his eyebrows would go up.  "Right."

Before he left to walk to work, he'd come back in the kitchen and exhale in my face.  Colgate breath.  Minty fresh.  Much better.  My mouth was still full so I gave him a thumbs up.

After I slurped my sugar and milk dregs, I'd put my bowl in the sink.  Then I'd start collecting.  Socks, long john bottoms, jeans--two pair. Long john top, turtleneck, sweatshirt.  Hat, scarf,  gloves.  Baggies and rubber bands--one for each foot.  The baggies were key.  They kept the feet dry.  Wet cold is way chillier than dry cold.  If your feet were dry, you could stay out at least an extra hour.

Next stop was the basement, for boots and coats--always my brothers.'  My coat and boots wouldn't fit over all my sleigh riding gear.  I'd root through the shoe pile under the stairs, looking for the Scotchguarded, stubby-toed hiking boots with red laces.  Geof's arctic parka was my #1 coat choice.  The fur trim almost always kept the snow spray off my face.

Into the garage.  More choices.  I'll take the . . . silver disc and the  . . . newer Flexible Flyer.   All set.  To the cemetary.  No need to tell Mom.  It's where I always went when it snowed.

It was the best of snow days.  It was the worst of snow days. 

The snow was the kind with a crisp, like potato chips  top.  Like it had snowed, then drizzled,  then froze.  If I was super careful, I could walk across the top and not fall through.   The trick was weight distribution.  You had to center yourself over your feet.  If you dug in a heel, ka-runch.  You went crashing through. I could go six or eight steps without a breakthrough.  

Us neighborhood kids had anticipated this cold snap.  We'd prepared for it too.  After school the day before, some of us had tromped over and used a chubby stick to jam the water pump at the top of the hill where the road goes down to the giant open Bible made of granite. 

The day before, it had been almost 40.   The water had flowed willingly.  Today it was not even 20.  The water refused to flow.  Instead, it looked like a solid white paper towel tube coming out of the forest green, cast iron, goose-necked faucet.  The road looked like the powdered sugar glaze on my mom's Bacardi rum cake.  Shiny.  Slick.  Speedy.

I smiled and rubbed my gloved hands together.  It's gonna be so fast.

After inspecting the faucet, I walked back up to the top of the hill where I'd left the sleds.  I picked up the reins of the Flexible Flyer.  Sitting, or on my belly?  On my belly.  I trusted my hands more than my feet when it came to steering.

I pulled the sled three feet back from the edge so I could get settled before I . . . on your mark . . . get set . . . went.  I eased my Michelin-man self, belly down, onto the Flyer's slats.  I put the reins under me so they wouldn't get caught beneath the runners.  I put my hands at opposite ends of the guide bar.  Before I geronimoed, I pulled my muffler over my mouth and nose 'cause I hate freezin' cold snow powder in my face.  Hate it!

When you ride a roller coaster, you're scared in the line.  At least I am.  Then, you're scared as your car climbs the first hill.  Least I am.  No turning back now.  And then you're at the peak and your stomach jumps up to keep your sternum company.  Then all h-e-double toothpicks breaks loose.  Speed.  Wind.  Adrenalin.  Bugs.  Fear.  Joy.  It's over?  Already?  Let's do it again.

Not this time.  I hunched and scooted and jerked my way to the precipice.  I paused to look at the gleaming ribbon of silver.  I considered the way it snaked to the left, halfway down.  Wonder how the Flyer will steer on ice? 

"Cowabunga!" I shouted to the edges of winter as I oomphed myself from flat to steep. 

It happened so fast.  I didn't even get to enjoy the stinging, alarming velocity before the pain, the burning pain, set in.

The steering of the Flyer on ice?  It didn't happen.  The ice flung me down the hill so fast that by the time I approached the bend and needed to steer, it was too late. 

The Flyer slammed into the curb and stopped.  I, however, kept going.  Across the crispy, like the top of creme brulee but cold not hot, snow.  The parka's hood flew back.  The scarf protecting my face abandoned ship and the sandpaper-rough ice crust razzed my face. Took off a layer of skin on my right cheek and jaw. 

I don't know how long I laid there, motionless, like one of those baby harp seals whose eyes say, "Please don't let mean, greedy men kill me."

After awhile, the burning on the right side of my face turned to stinging.  Then it prickled.  Then it itched.  Isn't this what they say frostbite feels like?  And then people's toes and fingers fall off.  Is my cheek gonna fall off?

I lifted my face off the ice layer.  My eyes got big when I saw the pink print it left.  I rolled onto my back with a groan.  My neck and shoulders ached from the Flyer's violent kiss with the curb.  Wish the snow was soft like it usually is.  Like when you lay down to make snow angels. 

When I opened my eyes again, my stomach was rumbling.  And I was so cold.  A jarring shiver started in my gut and shimmied up to my teeth, making 'em clack.  Sounded like the Mexican Hat Dance.

I squinted at the sky.  What time is it?  I shook my head to ease the crawling of my face skin but it didn't help.  I reached a glove up to scratch it and felt a tearing.  The fibers of my scarf had mated with the beginnings of the scabs on my cheek.  My face would not surrender the scarf without more pain.  More blood. 

My breath caught.  I sniffed.  My lower lip trembled.  I'm gonna be ugly.  The salt from my tears insulted my abrasions.  It'll probably leave a scar.  I've not been loved yet and I probably never will be now.  I'll have to become a nun like Sally Field or Maria, in The Sound of Music.  The wimple will cover the thickened, angry pink skin.

That is, if I don't freeze to death first.  After all, this was the coldest I'd ever been.

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