Mario the Meteorologist on Channel 12 says, “The entire East Coast, from Virginia up to Maine, is blanketed in a carpet of white.” It’s his way of saying that everything is shut down, that he and every other weatherperson on TV missed the call. We were expecting a couple of inches of snow, not a blizzard that dumped 18-plus, but that’s what we got.
I’m stuck inside with my dad. Redfield, Connecticut. A “picture-postcard town” up until mid-December. After that, it all depends on the weather. Only the major roads are plowed, the rest are the responsibility of the residents. This usually means everything from cleared paths to untouched trails of frozen slush. “A frosty wonderland,” as Mario might refer to it on day one, quickly becomes a dismal wasteland. Black bags of frozen garbage waiting for pickup, downed trees and branches, cars abandoned where they slid from the road.
My mom, who had hoped to make it home before New Year’s Eve, is stranded in Philadelphia International Airport where all flights have been cancelled. She’s a bookseller who thought her days of travel were over, but since the economy turned and my dad lost his job as manager of Express Oil and Lube last June, free will has become limited.
“Just my luck,” I tell her on the phone. “One of the few days school would be cancelled and it comes during Christmas vacation.” (This is B.S., of course. I love school, especially eighth grade where we finally stand atop the pile before that plummet into high school hell.)
“Don’t complain,” she says. “We’re all sitting around an airport terminal wishing we could be where you are.”
“It stopped snowing,” I remind her. “What’s the holdup?”
“The runways still have to be cleared, the planes still have to be deiced. Plus I’m not the only person waiting for a flight.”
“Dad’s getting weird,” I say.
“Where is he?”
“Digging out the truck as if there’s someplace to go. You want to talk to him?”
She thinks for a minute, then says, “Just tell him I called.”
A few minutes after I hang up, he comes in and stomps the snow off his boots.
“Like the Arctic out there,” he says.
“Mom called,” I tell him as I hang his coat in the closet. “Still stuck in Philly.”
As if on cue, the lights flicker and the electricity goes out. I check the phone and it’s dead as well. In “Nature’s Backyard” we get crap for cell reception. Last touch with the outside world, gone.
“At least we’re ready for it,” he says for about the 10th time since the snow started.
Despite any complaints, my father loves this. It’s why he insisted on moving here. Civilization reduced to his level. He has the battery-powered lanterns lined up on the kitchen counter, seasoned wood in the fireplace ready to be lit, canned food in the basement if things get really bad.
“You’ve got millionaires around here that are running around in a panic right now. All the money in the world, and what good is it going to do them?”
This is his dream world. A planet where technology suddenly becomes worthless, and the wealthy, too weak to light a match or open a jar, stand helplessly in awe of a man with a crank radio and a Sterno stove.
He gets the fire going, makes a show of warming his hands over the flames, then walks over to the bookcase, slides open one of the lower doors, takes out a bottle of Jim Beam and his shot glass that reads: Free Mustache Rides. I follow him into the kitchen where he pours himself a full one.
My father isn’t a drinker. A cold beer in the summer, a glass of red wine on pasta night. But once in a great while, usually when my mom’s away, he pulls out the serious stuff.
“It’s still afternoon,” I remind him. “Not even four o’clock.”
He smiles. “My reward for keeping us alive.” He throws back half the shot, makes a face like he’s swallowed a Ping-Pong ball whole, then tops off his glass.
Uh oh, I think.
Bottle and glass in hand, he walks into the sunroom, turns his leather-covered rocker toward the big window that faces the woods, sits and watches the winter sky slowly darken. From the kitchen, I can keep an eye on him. I put dishes in the cupboard, hang pots and pans, straighten the place up. At 4:40, by my count, he’s had five shots. When he goes outside, coatless, in order to bring in more firewood, I return the Jim Beam and put his shot glass into the sink.
Back inside, he carefully arranges an armload of wood next to the fireplace. “Stick with me,” he says as he squats and adds another log to the fire, “and you’ll always survive.”
“I’m worried about Mom,” I say, although the truth is I’m worried about him. He could lose his balance, fall into the fire, and then what?
“She’s fine,” he assures me. “Woman’s got a good head on her shoulders.”
I like that he tells me this. It’s nothing that I don’t already know, but it reconfirms the fact that despite his shortcomings, he’s smart enough to still love the woman who, for whatever reason, still loves him.
“I don’t think you should drink anymore tonight,” I tell him.
“You mean in case I have to drive us somewhere?”
That hadn’t occurred to me, but I say, “Yeah.”
“Probably a good call,” he says, as he straightens up and wipes his hands on his jeans. “Now what do you say we barbecue something?”
I’d just as soon open some tuna fish and a box of Saltines, but that wouldn’t be “survival” enough for him. He digs out a package of frozen frankfurters, some frozen buns, paper plates. “We’ll eat these before they thaw and go bad,” he says.
We can just put them outside, I almost say. They’re hot dogs. They could thaw out and my grandkids could still eat them. But you don’t correct this man once he’s on the move. He’s out on the deck in an instant, brushing snow off and away from the gas grill, firing the monster up.
He cooks enough to feed a fleet: the franks, some fish sticks, a freezer-burned pork chop. For dessert we eat Carvel Flying Saucers — two each — before they melt.
It’s dark out now and my dad has strategically placed battery-powered lanterns in the kitchen, the sunroom, the living room. It’s dim and shadowy and eerie. When he heads upstairs, I hope he’s going to bed, but no. He’s back minutes later with the gun.
I hate the gun. It’s a weapon I’m very familiar with, a Mossberg 12-gauge pump shotgun with a laser sight. It’s not intended to shoot targets or hunt ducks. It’s a “home defense firearm,” meant to splatter someone against a wall. It’s kept in my parents’ bedroom closet unloaded, but the shells are close by on the upper shelf under the folded sweaters.
Four years ago, when I was 9 and my father brought this thing home and showed it to me (my mother refused to even look at it), I had an immediate vision. A man breaks into our house, finds the shotgun and the shells, grabs me around the neck as a hostage, and leaves my defenseless parents alone and now childless. It was chilling and my dad picked up immediately on my discomfort.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“I just imagined something,” I told him.
I’ve always felt that relating a vision gives it substance. The ability to come true. Like dreaming lotto numbers. And so, to protect us, I lied.
“I picture us on an adventure to find Bigfoot,” I told him. “We’re in charge of a bunch of other people, and it’s our job to keep them safe.” I’d straddle one arm of the couch and tell him to get on the other. “Saddle up your mule,” I’d say.
He loved it. And for the next 18 months, while my grandmother in Virginia took her time dying and my mom shuttled back and forth to watch her, my father and I would play a game he called, “What do you imagine?” The shotgun would appear, I’d visualize every bloody scenario from an accidental discharge while looking down the barrel, to our dog being tragically mistaken for a coyote, but I’d spin a tale instead.
“I see you and me and we’ve returned to the time of the dinosaurs, but we have the gun.” I’d begin piling furniture cushions in the middle of the floor. “The cave dwellers think we’re gods and decide to make us their king and queen.”
“I like that,” my dad would say. “Let’s play it out.”
And we would.
But tonight is different. It’s been too long since we’ve played this, and I’m way too old now.
We’re in the living room, our stomachs full, the fire keeping us warm. “Come on,” he says. “Show me if you still have it. One time. What do you imagine?”
And eventually it unrolls. Like an old home movie. The gun in front of me, shaky and out of focus at first, but clearer as its coils loosen.
“I see us in a saloon in the Old West.”
I see that my mother, unable to contact us by phone, has met three other people who live in this general area.
I go to the hall closet, find the ironing board, set it up.
“I’m the bartender and you’re the man from back East.”
They agree to rent a car together and drive, despite less than ideal road conditions.
I get the bottle of Jim Beam, wipe the shot glass clean with a paper towel, and place them on the ironing board.
“You learn that the town is being run by some pretty lawless hombres.”
At about three o’clock in the morning, while my father and I sleep, they slide off the road less than a quarter mile from here. My mother, who’s been suffering car sickness the entire way, volunteers to walk to the house and bring my dad back with his truck. But the man who’s been driving insists on going himself.
I pour a shot and push it to the edge of the ironing board.
“I’m glad to see you, stranger,” I say in what I hope is a Western accent. “Glad to see you brought your gun. We need help around these parts.”
The man’s footsteps on the frozen gravel walkway wake my father. An intruder, he thinks as he goes into the closet and under the folded sweaters.
My father swaggers up to the bar and takes the drink. “Well you’re safe now, little lady,” he tells me as he puts back the shot.
The man, crumpled, lies bleeding on our front porch. Soon the night will be bright with the lights of emergency vehicles and my mother and I will be left alone, the “deranged murderer” being removed from society forever.
An hour and a few drinks later, my dad is sleeping on the couch. He was hiding among the cactus when he went out. I pick the shotgun off the rug and hide it away on the side of the refrigerator behind the broom. Next, I put away the ironing board, the shot glass, the bottle of “hooch.” I stir the fire and make sure the screen is in place. I lock all the doors.
Tomorrow the lights will be back, and with luck so will my mom.
I take off his sneakers.
One more emergency, one more situation through which he’s helped me survive.
I cover him with a quilt.
He snores like a bear.