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The Blizzard

Falling snow, originally uploaded by Fellowship of the Rich.

My sister and I stand in the nursing home’s snow-encrusted parking lot huddled in a group shiver. We’ve stayed longer than we intended and watch as thick flakes of snow cascade from the sky, like fat tears on full lashes. The spaces between the flakes are ghoulishly gray and opaque—as though secretive about their dark intentions. But one thing is clear: the skies portend a free-fall of weather. Inclement weather. With no promise of slowing down.

We quickly agree to take a rain check on lunch as we walk briskly in the direction of our separate ways—she south to Massachusetts and I north to Vermont. As I blow on my fingers and pull out my snow scraper from the car’s trunk, a menacing quality in the earth’s atmosphere causes me to shiver. Despite it I am warm in my new full-length wool coat—excepting my fingers.

I know I should head home directly. An urgent text from my husband requests that I do so. But my testy blood sugar, always the lord and master of best laid plans, begins on cue to plummet. I need some protein, and fast. The only thing I hate more than fast food restaurants are their accompanying drive-thru windows, complete with sterile, impersonal service, the requisite impotent shouting into a disembodied loud speaker, topped off by the nauseating and overwhelming stench of french fry grease. If I’m stuck having fast food, I’ll damned well eat inside the “restaurant” rather than hunch over a carbon footprint’s worth of Styrofoam and grease-stained paper in my car. So I go in, order, eat my Big Fish sandwich and fountain soda, instantly wish I hadn’t, and set off on my way.

The skies have darkened during the twenty minutes I’ve spent in the junk food “restaurant.” The highway has a coarse, powder-matte coating about it that reminds me of an endurance-training ride I once took in Penasco, New Mexico years ago. As we were galloping along the snow-carpeted forest trail, our horses began to skate in tandem across (what turned out to be) a thick expanse of ice beneath the innocuous snow. The horses spun out at wide, rakish angles, like curling brooms combing the wide swath of an ice rink before recovering and seamlessly picking up speed. I’ve never forgotten the experience—nor the sensation of feeling secure of my footing, only to be foiled by what lurks treacherously beneath.

Settling into the right lane I hunch my shoulders and pinch my face into a determined old lady’s mien, and kept my speedometer at a steady 30 m/p/h. I hear the irritated throttle of a heavy Saab with sensible snow tires flash by from behind me, with little patience for my geriatric driving.

As I idle toward exit 4 my cell phone rings and I ignore it, judging it best to keep two hands on the steering wheel. Just over the bridge I hydroplane before managing to steer my way out of the skid. Then I soldier on. Feeling safe in the familiar environs of Putney, I pull over and call my sister.

“Damn it all this weather’s bad!” she says. “About fifty ski nuts from Connecticut flew past me going 90 on I-91. And they call us Mass-holes! Now I’m stuck behind every one of these idiots in bumper to bumper traffic going south.”

We congratulate ourselves on our careful driving and say goodbye. I make the turn onto Westminster Heights Road and suddenly get the eerie feeling that I’m on a frozen path to hell. This stretch is as slick as an eel’s back, besides which it’s begun precipitating hard in heavy blotches. It doesn’t bode well for me or my ten-year-old car—which has neither snow tires nor four-wheel drive.

How bad can it be? I ask myself. I only have four miles more to travel.

I become unnerved by an obnoxiously persistent tail gater who sticks to the back of my vehicle like a too-comfortable slug. I want to continue my glacial driving in grim solitude. I make the mistake of pulling over and letting the slug pass. A big mistake, it turns out. I’m on a hill and don’t have the power to shrug myself off it. I try power-shifting into first gear as the engine roars in consternation and the tires spin. I’m stuck. I pull the emergency brake hard and try to power shift again—the engine races as though in imminent danger of cardiac arrest. Several agitated vehicles pass me. But this is Vermont, and Yankees are famous for helping their neighbors out of tight spots. A blue Subaru traveling in the opposite directions stops. A nice looking man with a Nepali hat rolls down his window and states the obvious.

“You’re stuck.”

“Yep, I am,” I agree.

“You’ll need a push to get off this hill,” he tells me, hopping out of his sporty car.

And then he’s behind my old jalopy and telling me to floor it. The speedometer spins crazily like a possessed grandfather clock as ungodly sounds are emitted from the engine. Coal black icy slush flies up over the car’s trunk. But there’s traction. I want to thank my unknown benefactor—who is now behind me with his arms raised in the air in a hopeful victory salute—but know better than to stop again.

I make the sharp right onto Patch Road and watch the world grow dark and sinister before my eyes. Visibility is becoming dimmer. I avoid the brake altogether and attempt to levitate the car through the sheer force of my leaden right foot and equally leaden will. Neither is sufficient. I lose traction again and am unable to gain any further purchase on the road. The clutch decries the cruelty of my brutal shifting, the engine races, the tires shriek. I crank my head backwards and begin to reverse slowly down the hill. I try again, but any remaining traction is now well and truly lost. I pull the emergency brake, shift to neutral and crank the heat. Through the grace of God, there are at least three bars on my cell phone. I call my husband and inform him that he’ll have to come tow me out with the pick-up. I fully realize that with a four year to dress in bundles of winter wear and dogs to kennel, I’ll be waiting awhile.

By the time he arrives Good Samaritan Number #2 has materialized from the house whose driveway I was slowly sliding towards. He mercifully directs me as I reverse.

“You’ll be better off in my driveway until your husband gets here,” he says.

My husband, a hardy native of Northern Minnesota, is properly attired in foul weather gear. He’s donned heavy Carhartt overalls and a fleece hat, but has kept his arms unencumbered. He lies down under the car and begins attaching the chain. He and the Good Samaritan confer, swapping guy talk.

“Only place to hook it is the front suspension,” my husband’s muffled voice says from underneath our car.

“Better than nothing,” the man responds.

My husband anchors and secures the chain to the hitch of the truck and stands up, wiping snow from his knees.

“Okay,” he says, “Remember: steer and use the throttle. But no brake going up hill. Going down hill use the emergency brake if things get squirrelly. Honk the horn if you get into trouble.”

It reminds me of the crash course in wind surfing an old boyfriend once gave me in the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

“Okay, so you know which direction the wind is coming from, right?” he’d asked me.

“Would it really make one iota of difference if I didn’t?” I’d wanted to retort.

Then, as now, I really had no idea of what the hell I was supposed to be doing. And either fortunately or fortunately, there was no time for further instruction. The skies are darkening quickly and we must head home.

If I’d had a flask of Bourbon at the ready I more than likely would have reached for it to steady my fractured nerves. Even as I told myself that steering a car under the power of a chain couldn’t be worse than idly grinding gears on a grisly tarmac of black ice, I could see the lie freezing into concentric snow crystals on the windshield in front of me.

It seemed logical and straightforward enough: steer the car and let the chain pull you. Simple. This might even be fun. Before the skidding starts, that is. Before the chain—which bears a horrifying resemblance to the one looped from a pulley to the elevator car in my grandparents’ summer home, and which made the sickening grating sound of a jury-rigged death trap that it was as it strained against the incredible task of incrementally pulling me, my 6’3″ grandfather and several cases of luggage up one flight of stairs to the sanctuary of the landing above—started to pull and slack. Before the tires of the car begin to spin out and the whole vehicle fishtails sideways, like a water skier dropping a ski haphazardly into a vast lake.

I honk the horn hard and the carnivalesque caravan of car and pickup skid to an icy stop. My hot breath turns cold in the still air. I get out of the car, dizzy with apprehension.

“Maybe I can make it up the hill from here,” my husband says dubiously upon taking in my shell-shocked expression.

He unhooks the grinding chain and we switch places. I get behind the wheel of the truck while he slips into the car’s driver’s seat.

“What’s going on Mummy? Where are we going?” my son asks.

“Home honey,” I reply tensely. “Home.”

I switch into four-wheel drive and row the gears of the wonderfully heavy three quarter ton pick-up truck. There’s traction aplenty as I glide easily up the hill.

But a quick look in the rear view mirror makes the obvious evident: my husband isn’t in sight. Even his Minnesota winter driving skills can’t get him off that insidious hill.

I make a difficult U-turn and return down the hill. My son whines in the back seat. My husband and I confer through open windows.

“Okay, how about this,” he suggests. “You tow and I’ll steer.”

I’m willing to accept any scenario that doesn’t involve my getting back behind the wheel of the car. So I mutely nod yes.

My husband hooks up the chain again and gives me a perfunctory nod. I pull myself back up into the truck, push the throttle and slowly release the clutch. I hear the chain snap and grind. I begin steering and don’t look back.

When I finally relax enough to glance in the rear view mirror, I observe the car sliding through parted rows of sideways-splaying slush, reminding me of a restful ocean’s suddenly turbulent wake. The water skier is behind me, expertly steering through the water, while I, the old warhorse motorboat, tow him slowly toward the dock.

We continue up the hill.  The frozen road behind recedes slowly into the winnowing horizon.

I lift my foot from the accelerator and drift along peacefully to the other shore.