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CHAPPED LIPS


A bitterly cold day today, with the window panes looking like some Currier & Ives dinnerplate. An arctic blast rolled across the entire country, dropping Mediterranean-size bodies of frozen water on the Midwest before tumbling up to the north to land on Buffalo, where some thirty-plus souls lost their lives stranded on highways and in six-foot snow-drifts. That blew out the power in parts of the northeast and for the past few days, including Christmas Eve and morning with dark houses and shivering families huddled around a fireplace or rubbing hands over a kerosene heater. There were warming centers welcoming in the half-frozen, but they were hardly adequate for the number of people who lost their power. Can’t imagine waking up to this brittle air and trying to make Christmas happen for the kids.

They call this phenomenon a “cyclone bomb,” and there haven’t been all that many in the recent past. But now we have one, and the last icy remnants are headed up to Maine and carrying its deadly silence out to the gray waters where the Titanic lies buried. We’re in the slums of the sun’s orbit, and the fragile heat that gets down to us could hardly keep a cricket alive, much less some teeth-chattering homeless person huddled under his tent and clutching a worn-out piece of carpet to his chest. No one pities this man, a veteran of the Iraq War who came home with a busted gut from shrapnel and a mind gone haywire from all the death he had seen. But he’s alive, and the snow is piled high where the plow came through and barely missed the tent where he lay curled up and half-awake. Merry Christmas, sir.

Silence is winter’s sonata, a moody, tuneless trill of wind and creaking branches, and the muffled voice of a crow trying to call out through the blur of snowfall. This is the moment when magic let’s go its hold on an old sack of miracles that don’t work anymore. They spill out into the meringue of frozen cusps peppered with poppy seeds. A large footprint glistens in the faint sunlight. You can hear your breath, maybe even your heartbeat at the frosted window as you look out at the dismantled world. The carnival is gone, vanished into the black shadows of the mountain range. A man stands with his dog in a backyard speared with last summer’s weeds. He smokes a cigar and meditates on the nothing that is. His dog sits stolidly, in a world without a scent of warm blood.

You can feel the fatigue of an old planet under your feet, if you walk out to get the mail. The crunches under your boots are like an old man eating toast at his cluttered table, with a glass of orange juice and a fork on the floor. You can sense what Mars is like on a week day, when the winds have died down and the red earth lies there like so much rouge on an old woman’s cheeks. The year is worn out; the deaths are all counted up; the refrigerator is as barren as a closet in some abandoned house at the end of a road. It’s time to take down the calendar and close your diary on its last page. A voice in the street calls out to a neighbor’s house and a girl appears in the window. But the story is too old and tired to move to the next page. The boy goes home, the girl goes back to reading on the bed. The kitchen is cold, and the heater keeps trying to cough itself awake. Winter’s power curls around an oak tree and goes to sleep.

The fence I painted years ago seems like something you might find on the edges of Pompeii, worn out and ash-pale from the rages of Vesuvius. I thought cypress was longer lasting, as I told the old man who hired me to build the fence and paint it a ghostly white. But there it leans, propped up by a strip of pine lath. It too will warp and writhe until the first spring rains, and then sag under the weight of the dying fence. Weeds will decorate the pickets and a dog will pee on the cement pad holding a post. He will sniff around and look up with a remote gaze at the clearing sky and move on. I grew up walking down this path and stopping now and then to look over the ragged weed tops at the windows of the house, where I heard a woman laughing one night. That was the last cheerful sound I ever heard from that haunted place. Now the snow fills all the divots and rot holes with frozen plaster, and the roof keeps growing its curve in the middle like some Viking ship slowly sinking into a fjord.

My mother used to lead me out past the creek to where she might find some wild mushrooms growing after the last rain. She had a basket on her arm and her head was tied up in a kerchief, the way Russian women did when they went out in public. The word babushka means grandmother in Russian, and it is a good word. It fits the emotion you evoke when you say it. Babushka. The butcher would smile and toss in another link of Italian sausage before wrapping up the pile in brown paper. But that was long ago, and in the edges of winter, with the little lacework of fodder growing on the yard edges, that’s when my mother led me out into the damp margins of the urban world and we would walk backward like chickens trying to find some little gathering of hats at the foot of a stump, and cut them loose with a dull knife. The basket never got beyond half-full, like an optimist’s glass of wine. She would fry these up in butter and bring them to the table with a platter of burger patties and toasted buns. My father would slater his patty with mustard and eat greedily with a trickle of mustard going down his chin and. hanging there.

The kids who got bikes for Christmas were out pedaling as they wobbled down a driveway. Their voices were like wires cutting into the plump silk grayness of the morning. I would stare through the curtains and envy their lives. They weren’t grateful enough, I thought. If I got a bike, I would sing at the top of my voice until the old women would look out of their second story windows and shake their heads. The mailman was home polishing his boots on his day off, and the kids were eating their Cheerios in front of the TV. I wondered if the rest of my life would be this succession of frozen sunsets and skies lit by nothing more than distant galaxies. Would I ever own a car? Or move to a warm city? Or get married? What would love feel like on a summer night when you stood there in your short-sleeve shirt and put your hands around a girl’s waist and she leaned into your face to be kissed? I can’t imagine it. But I was getting ready for it. Slowly, my body was thawing out even now, standing here in the sandpaper wind and the lip-cracking cold. I was casting a spell over the ruins of an abandoned lot where a gas station once stood. I saw the last few hubcaps become buried in creek mud. I heard the frogs belching in the matted grass before moving on to more fertile country. I saw the sky trying to part its gray blouse and to nurse the ground with its milk, but the heavens were dry and the wind was a sigh from a cemetery.

By late January the earth smells like mothballs, and the store windows remain unwashed. The old man who used to bring out his bucket and squeegee to clean them died in his cot at the rest home and no one came forth to offer their services. The world is wrinkled and its brow is knit with worries about the spring floods. The sky is full of unused inspiration. Voices whisper in the tree limbs and no one hears them. The buds of the crab apple tree were black as thorns and capped with iron. Nothing but a virgin’s sigh was going to wake them from their dull dreams.

A boy offered to let me try out his new bike. I was astonished at his generosity. I got on and went zigzagging down our street and heard a dog rushing up behind me. I looked behind me and fell over, cracking the mirror on the handlebars. I was cut on my arm and leg, and my head throbbed, but I had felt freedom between my legs, a power I had not known before. I was like some scrawny bird who fell out of the nest early, and landed okay in the pine meal. I promised the boy I would pay for the mirror with my newspaper money, and he said a quiet okay. We became friends, and I fell in love with his sister by mid-April, and she went off to some convent to start her religious training in Cleveland. The joys of the world are brief and intense, and fit neatly into the Chinese boxes of our brief lives. The bike ended up in the basement with its broken mirror still dangling from the handlebars. The winter passed and left behind the debris of broken branches, fallen birds’ nests, the stubs of the berry vines. You hold a Valentine card in your scabbed hands, and wonder who “X” was. But you were completely unaware that spring had arrived without a suitcase and would stay awhile.

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