17 January, 2011

Winter Wonderland

The 1996 ice storm took out power across Kansas City for days. Not only were lines and transformers down, an inch-thick armor of frozen water toppled whole trees, which barricaded suburban streets with their dendrite forms. Roads were encased for blocks on end. For many, escape from their homes by car was impossible. Not that most risked road travel, given the conditions. Public Works trucks canvassed nonstop with salt and sand, but fighting the storm's effects proved a Sisyphean task. In their desperation, gas and electric companies had to enlist out-of-state assistance to do triage on the extensive damage. For thousands, life came to a standstill.

Warmth drained quicker than expected from the suburban three-bedroom my roommate and I — both seventeen; both precociously independent — shared. As the last sunlit hour slipped away, there was no indication we would have heat restored that night. Houses on the next block still had power, though, and this observation led us to believe a hot deep-dish might await intrepid souls hardy enough to make the half-mile journey east, to Torre's Pizza. Neither my roommate nor I wanted to sit around eating a cold dinner on such a night, candlelit or otherwise.

We slid into layers of sweaters and coats, and extinguished the near-bonfire of illumination by which we'd been reading in the living room. As Aaron, my roommate, crowned himself with his brown old-man hat, he joked, "Just so you know, if it starts to look like we won't make it, I'm hungry enough not to have qualms about resorting to cannibalism."

"That's no good," I said, covering my grimace with a scarf. "I'm hardly a meaty Brazilian soccer player."

"With all that time in front of the computer, I'll bet you're like veal."

"My stomach's growling. Let's go before this gets all Donner Party-freaky."

We were sobered by the state of things beyond our door. The spangled surface of everything was blue with the city's faint lambency, and alive with sound — the collective groans of miles of ice-weighted objects being pulled earthward. Had we held perfectly still awhile, the stinging flurry from the sky might have encased us as it had all else. Moving quickly through it as we did was to witness a rare beauty, like traversing the interior of a diamond.

Some parkour got us over and through the labyrinth of creaking branches obstructing the end of our block. After that, it was a more conventional walk down a wider, flatter route to the welcoming yellowed glow of Torre's. It seemed other neighborhood residents had the same idea for dinner; my famished friend and I pushed through the front door, frozen faces first, into a round of cheery hellos and not a few jokes about being fellow survivors of the winter apocalypse. For everyone's dedication to local business, drinks were on the house: iced-down sodas and tea, but still.

The next morning, Aaron and I built a fire pit in the backyard. The wind had stilled in the night, leaving something easily mistakable for warmth as we squinted against the brilliant daylight, toting scrap two-by-fours from the basement. With some newspaper and an old broom — voilĂ !: flames by which to cook. Aaron retrieved chairs off the patio; I raided the quieted refrigerator for perishables. We never ate such a breakfast as that. Omelets full of onions and fire-roasted tomatoes and peppers, fried potatoes in little pools of butter, a half-gallon of milk to wash it down with, and, later, coffee made from billy-boiled water poured oh-so slowly through our coffeemaker's detached basket of grounds. We ate and drank it all outside, in the crackling whiteness, like we were the last men alive. Nothing echoed, every sound an unfamiliar intimacy, the clinking of our forks nearer than I've ever heard, and our food magically better for that isolation.

For lunch we roasted Hebrew National hot dogs and drank mugs of rich cocoa with a flotilla of miniature marshmallows, sitting in our chairs and watching steam almost crystallize as it rose from our beverages and mouths alike. Neither of us spoke. Off in the distance of a neighboring yard was a cardinal, pecking at seeds in a feeder, and we watched him until something unseen and silent startled him away.

Regarding the light switch with a kind of mistrust, on the third day's return of electricity, Aaron said, "There's something to that, reading by candlelight. We should keep it up for awhile — the fire, all of it. Let's just unplug some of this stuff and go on living without the modern conveniences."

His naive enthusiasm was infectious, I'll admit. So we did it. But of course, amid the neighbors' resumption of their usual activity, it couldn't last. Snowblowers tore at the air. Nearby traffic hummed. After sunset, streetlights dug pits in the darkness. The cardinal made his home in some far-off tranquil field that only those with wings could reach.

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