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FIRST SNOWFLAKES

We're waiting for the first snowflakes to appear this year. The sky is low, almost thick as jelly with dark mushy clouds and a wind that tastes of iodine. The temperature is falling, the earth is waiting like a child who has asked his mother for a blanket. It's cold in the room I am writing in, and through the chink in the curtain I can see the sky growing morose, as if it had been dreaming of summer and was awakened rudely to this November afternoon. Everyone's inside, huddled by a wood stove, or looking for his gloves in the mudroom before going out to the woodpile. It's a strangely empty moment, like the impatience one feels before the curtain rises.

Ghosts are out patrolling the boundaries of their ash-pale paradise. They are not to be disturbed. A dog would not even bark at them as they went by on silent feet, their clothes so thin you can see right through them. My brother might be among them, my parents might be hanging back knowing I live in the house with the lamps on. I might be standing at a window gazing out with my mug of coffee, my cardigan unbuttoned. It's not a time to socialize, I suppose. The work of the dead stirs only when there is more forgetfulness to fall from above. I would prefer rain, if I were asked to choose. But the stillness is intriguing, a held breath of the startled trees below me. Look, says the black earth gouged by a dog's wanderings. But no one is here but me, at my writing desk, bent over the keyboard like some nearsighted clerk in a Dickens novel.

Of all the snowfalls I remember in my life, the one that touches my heart is when I sat listening to the radio while my mother cooked oatmeal. We were in the kitchen, and the window had darkened to slate. She turned on the light and the radio had static as the storm approached. I drank my coffee slowly; my stomach was tight with the expectation that I might be excused from going to school. I hadn't done my homework, as usual, and was eager to pull on my blue jeans and drag my sled up from the cellar. All my friends would be out making snowballs and waiting to start a war on the sidewalk. All I needed to hear was the name of my school, James Martin, followed by the magical-sounding syllable, closed. I kneaded my fingers and raised my spoon to my lips. The man read other names, and took pauses to sip on his own mug of coffee before resuming his roll call. James Martin didn't come up. I was given my book bag and my wool cap and the front door was opened to let me out. The air stung with tiny crystals, and the graveyard across the street had turned into a garden of zinc sculptures. As I made my way down the empty sidewalk, I heard my mother call me back. James Martin had come up, and she was taking my hat off. She was emptying my lunch bag, and telling me to go out and play.

The joy I felt in that moment flushed my cheeks. I took a deep, satisfying breath and came out with my sled ready for adventure. My friends had all left early and would not know that we were given a rare and delicious holiday. They would be wandering around in the huge, depressing recess yard and waiting for the bell to ring. When it didn't, they might stop off at the corner candy store and buy a candy bar with their drink money. Or they might head home again with their book bags slamming against their legs. What a luxurious gift to my youth to suddenly receive a whole day to waste, with its horizon easily pushed away as the snow began to fall on us.

Nothing is left of that world. The school, which I visited a few years back, is a training center for teaching immigrants to sew on industrial machines. The stairs still creak and the smell of chalk and fear was detectable as I walked each floor and stared at the walls and high ceilings, the holes where our desks had been bolted down. The candy store is gone, of course; the big window in front is boarded up. But the snow still falls onto the cracked curbs, and the weed-shot vacant lots, the abandoned black walls of a factory. Even the little park loomed over me with its flaking sycamores, but there were no kids to cry out in their thin voices under the fluffy leaf piles. All that experience turned to dust and the dust blew away decades ago. If asked, I wouldn't want this past to return. I had used up all I could of its meager choices, its dead-end opportunities. I was glad when we moved away and I didn't look back as the car rounded a corner and headed south.

But the moment in which I smelled the oatmeal on my spoon reaches out with its ghostly hand to me, and strokes my arm. My mother's robe still moves in the shadows at the stove. I am forever her child, her rebellious little brat who refused to be institutionalized, even as it was happening to him. She knew she could put on my wool cap and send me down the street and nothing new would happen to me. I would come home cranky and eat some cookies and drink a tall glass of chalky milk and wander around the living room with nothing to do until my father came home. I was incarcerated in a brick house that limited my awareness. I knew it. I hated it. I let time fill out my arms and legs and take me elsewhere, as far as I could go.

Now the sky is that same putty color, and the cold deepens against the windows. I feel the chill air reach me through my sweater. I'm sure the snowplows are out, parked along the roads, waiting for the signal to begin salting the roadway. Time doesn't alter these routines. But I know that as I sit here my stomach is tense, that I am waiting for a voice to say my school is closed today, that I can go out and drift in the dust that is whitening the yard and make myself believe that the world is magical. And it is. The power of the snow is greater than my skepticism, my unwillingness to believe in anything too much. The snow will begin as little postage stamps of wafer-thin light, and the air will become this curtain of crushed diamonds shimmering and crumbling as I pull on my imaginary snow pants and drag on my jacket with the little belt in front. I don't have a sled, alas. I only have the faint outline of one in my memory, and it is so light I can hold it up in one hand.

Such is winter these days. Eternity has no chapters or pages to turn. It's there like a sound, a voice muttering indistinct words, as if someone were praying out of habit, not conviction. The moldy habits of mortal life are nothing to its monotonous patience, its unforgiving repetition of experience as each of us grows up and grows old. I hold out my hand and it hangs there in the fractured light beyond the reading lamp. I am pointing outside where the crows might be pulling their dark threads through the gray weather. I wish I were more adventurous and would take a walk, but I know this kind of cold, I've known it all my life. I am familiar with the ways of winter, its desolation, its withheld climaxes. The voided cellar is without sleds; there is only the scattered cardboard boxes of old papers, a few photographs, maybe a power tool I bought and never used. Time devours them slowly, with its indestructible teeth.

But I also know that with the first snow flakes drifting down, I will go out and stand gazing across the road at the field sloping up away from the house. I will put my hands in my pockets and draw a deep breath. I will be grateful for this fragile moment, this unexpected surprise that fills me unaccountably with joy and longing.

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