The Dead of Winter

Where would it have taken us?–what I’ve built or almost built. Abe’s little house sits unfinished in a tree in our backyard: a floor, three walls, half a ceiling. This Sunday afternoon like all other Sunday afternoons, Sarah sleeps upstairs while I suck on a bottle of cheap beer and stare out the sliding glass door. Sometimes I think I should finish it, sometimes I think I should tear the whole thing apart, sometimes I think it’s right the way it should be. Abe left unfinished, after all, and he made it clear to the ocean. Or at least that’s what we can guess. Today is bright and hot, and there are storm clouds stacked high and moving away from us to the east. Sundays are calm days made for thinking warm things, sensible and straight things, but most Sundays–most of the other days, too–my thoughts zigzag. Lightning zigzags, but it isn’t really the same. Lightning moves with heat and speed and it has at least some idea of where it’s going, even if that’s just the ground, which could really be anywhere. Sarah and I sent Abe sailing away through miles of tunnels and rivers, but it wasn’t our choice, exactly. When it happened we were angry in different ways. Sarah didn’t cry even a little. She didn’t moan or say anything at all. She just slept, she still sleeps, she sleeps all the time–all the time in the world, she sleeps it away. I went out to the shed and kicked the rest of the wood I had set aside for the little house into splinters. And when that wasn’t enough I paced and shivered up and down the driveway until my insides got real tense, and my guts went numb, and something or other fell apart, and I threw my fist into the back windshield of the minivan we had just bought. I couldn’t shatter it–I’m not all that strong–so it only cracked, the glass and the layer of frost on top of it. The lines I made went in ten million different directions, all of them frozen. I think like those lines, Sundays and the other days, is what I’m getting at.

Nobody takes winter in Phoenix very seriously, but goddamn can it get cold here.

I left my job at the middle school when Sarah stopped leaving the house. Now I work from the home office below our bedroom, transcribing mass memos and drafting apologetic emails to angry customers for a local plumbing company. The job’s okay–I’ve always had dreams of writing, and you could say this is a small step in that direction, depending on how full you’ve decided to fill your glass. Sarah is, briefly, five-foot-four, stick skinny and luminous through her tired green eyes and black hair falling in loose curls down to her shoulders. She used to be a ballet dancer, before me, before Abe, before our houses big and little. Her strength decreases going from the feet up. When she walks she walks on titanium toes, but the higher you go, the softer things get with her. “My head is all limp pasta,” she told me the other day, lifting her face a few inches from the pillow. “It’s just mulch,” she said, and fell fast back to sleep. People can tell things have been strange here, and they do their best to sympathize. There was that time my parents stopped by after brunch. My mother in her massive Sunday hat, the one that looks like the top half of Saturn–rings and all–woven from dyed straw, fixing and straightening things that needed neither fixing nor straightening, my father nursing a High Life on the recliner, Sarah sleeping upstairs. “Lord bless you for staying with her,” my mother said, “but we’d–” she nodded at my father, who, eyeballs-deep in a spring training game on TV, said nothing “–certainly understand if you needed to distance yourself for a little while.” I don’t think much about leaving, but when I do I always end up in the same place, which is no. Sarah gives my life this rhythm. Sometimes when I’m working I can hear her heel hitting the bedroom floor with every one of the pirouettes she turns alone up there. What dream doesn’t recur? The huge, heavy world’s stuck her feet to the ground. From the ankles up she sends more and more of herself downstream.

Again, it was cold when it happened. It was Christmastime. I had fallen asleep on the couch downstairs, reading in the white light of the Christmas tree. “Miles, look,” Sarah said from upstairs. “Miles.” Her voice was hardly raised–I don’t know how it woke me up. Providence or a Christmas miracle–gift of the Magi, maybe. She wasn’t panicking. “Miles, come here.” I got up the stairs just in time to see her come out of the bedroom and into the light of the hallway, Abe painted red and gray across her hands and forearms. Abe: fifteen weeks existent, a boy!, named, half a tree house ready, blue room and crib and cradle ready. I thought I was going to vomit. She couldn’t see what had happened. I reached to hold her arm, trying to cough out something comforting, but she spoke first.

“What, am I sick?”

I covered my mouth with my hand and gagged on my bile. A little bit shot through the spaces between my fingers. “Miles?” I turned away from them. “Miles?” I stumbled–down the stairs, out the back door, out to the shed. I didn’t make it back inside until a few hours later. Sarah was asleep. Abe was back in the toilet Sarah had fished him out of. I shut the lid, I said, “No frozen sewers, God, please,” and I sent him away.

The hard part doesn’t happen then and there. The noise and the shock keep you from processing any of it in the moment. The choking, the splintering wood, the cracking glass. They’re all so loud. The hard part doesn’t happen until it gets quiet. How do you open presents three days later? Do you tell parents? Friends? When do you tell them? We had pinned a small red stocking for him on the mantle–what do you do with that? I decided to leave it up and she never took it down. Call it an agreement, but it wasn’t ever discussed. Not even when I had to put it back in the box with the other Christmas things and pretend it isn’t going to be there when I open all that up again this December. You pass people on the street, at the grocery store, at Christmas Eve service. People who say things like, “Unto us a child is born,” people who talk about the dead of winter. You try to throw out all the unnecessary reminders, but you still find remnants. Stray pacifiers, a baby gate in the attic, books about breathing during childbirth, books on how to make your baby brilliant. When you find out you have a kid on the way you spend all this time and money on things to prepare yourself. You worry about not being ready, because you aren’t ready–what they tell you is that nobody ever has been. Funny how you’ve had childlessness perfected for, say, thirty-four years, and all of the sudden it’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done.

Winter hung on for a while. It got warm when the sun was up, no doubt, but the nights stayed cold all the way into early June. That isn’t normal here. Normal is swimming by the first day of spring. When the heat finally set in it set in all at once. Flowers didn’t have time to bloom before they withered from exhaustion, our grass went from frozen to shriveled into hot dust. We stumbled around in one-hundred-plus degree weather while the mountains around The Valley still had snow on their peaks. Sarah spent most of her time upstairs, but every few days or so she’d move a little further away from our room than she had been since it all happened. All the way down to the foot of the stairway one week, into the living room the next, into the kitchen for a banana and some toast a few weeks after that. Part of me said it was progress, but I was still worried about how little she spoke, how she never laughed or cried or smiled, how her heel hitting the floor above me was the only sign I had that she moved at all other than, again, to the foot of the stairs, to the living room, to the kitchen. When it gets to be this part of summer everything turns to liquid–anything that sees the sun melts and, after amassing for days, clouds explode into water. This is monsoon season in Arizona: nothing, nothing, nothing, and then everything. With the lowest lows at one-hundred-one, nights are as close to cool as it comes. We take what we can get. Like last night, when I went out to the backyard and waited for the rain, legs hanging out the tree house door, head tilted skyward. There were zero stars and no moon. I waited for about half an hour before I saw lightning–distant flashes of light choked out by miles of clouds. But it got closer, and that’s when the thunder started. Like low groans at first, but it grew and grew. The whole sky fell apart, the thunder turned to steady drumming, and Sarah walked out the back door. It came down on top of us without any warning. I looked down. Sarah was just standing there, wet and getting wetter. She walked out into the yard, about halfway to the tree house. “Can I come up,” she asked.

I moved over and sat sideways so everything but our legs was covered by the half-ceiling. She held her arms tight to her chest and let her head fall onto my shoulder. She sighed and, just like that, she was asleep. The wind and the rain kept coming. I sat and watched the water rise until our whole yard was three inches deep in it. And then six inches, and then a foot. Sarah exhaled steady warmth onto my shoulder. The water rose higher. I don’t think much about leaving, but I think plenty about this: the water coming up to meet us–Phoebe out cold and me starting to drift–and the branches giving way. I think about waking up with everything flooded, with us floating in our unbuilt boat, the whole world an ocean.

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