Aching feet crunch through that howling blast of wind, my endless pace defying the billowing snow clouds that soak what little dry cloth remains of my scarf, parka, and pants. It was my soggy attempt to bundle up through an endless car-strewn landscape. Just getting to the office bus stop was a story all its own. If I could make my lips move to tell it.
But I was one of the fortunate few. Unlike many motorists, I would have a bus to transport me home. We would have bus lanes and priority access to whatever highway snow-clearing was available! All in the interest of encouraging everyone to use public transit. Or so people said.
Some colleagues said they wouldn't bother making such a snowy trek. Downtown hotels were offering exceptional "storm rates." Why fight Mother Nature?
But waking up in an empty hotel bed was not for me. Especially since once we were on the bus, the highway gridlock and abandoned cars would not concern us.
Please let everything be ok! That was my only thought.
It was a long trip, and I passed the time by reading a book and working on my French by listening to the many conversations that filled the bus. Most of my fellow passengers were Quebecois. Understanding them required more than a bit of understanding of joual or the local French-Canadian dialect and manner of speaking. I would try speaking French with them, but they would break into English almost immediately. They would do this even when I spoke Parisian French perfectly. So I contented myself with listening to them only.
Throughout the trip, I had been painfully scraping frost that covered the inside of my bus window. Through a tiny porthole I had managed to keep clear of ice, my every exhaled breath obscured my vision. Finally, I spied something that looked like my bus stop. At least, I thought it was my stop. The jagged snow crystals I had been driving under my fingernails by my desperate scrabbling would now be a thing of the past, thankfully. It would be a short walk from the top of the hill to my home.
Everyone wanted the driver to see them off the bus. So, like everyone else, I tumbled out of the front, the bus's back door long since having been rendered inoperable, doubtless frozen shut through disuse.
Which was for the best. If traction was lost, the bus could skid, and you would have to bang on a window to avoid becoming rear-wheel roadkill.
Speaking of which, when I glanced back at the bus driver from the side of the road, he gave me a knowing, rueful grin that reminded me of those old movie characters whose sole purpose was to advance the story's plot by predicting what could not be discerned in the ordinary scheme of things.
Now, out of the bus, I was no longer a part of some grand enterprise. I would have to face everything on my own. Whatever amusement the bus driver had surveying me from his lofty perch ended. He had to get home, too. So, after a short wave of his hand, the bus roared away, swallowed whole in a moonless gloom.
As I slipped down the hill, it soon became apparent that the entire landscape was like a skating rink, inches thick and nearly impervious to my footsteps. Out of necessity, I became a gigantic puffball of quivering motion, straddling this footprint or that patch of broken snow: a snowman dressed in a fake aboriginal embroidered parka who walked like a man while still nearly falling endlessly.
An impenetrable dark valley sprawled as I threaded through that thick January night. It was the mystery that mattered, after all. How ordinary streets transform themselves and play to an unknown script spun from hoary fairy tales of ancient blizzards. Covering everything yet provoking the telling of secrets: The road I tripped down looked only vaguely familiar. Was that so and so's house? Did I take a wrong turn? How could it possibly be so dark?
The empty black windowed houses made me embrace one particular abandoned car to lean and catch my breath. Laughing and tenderly cupping my hands, I blew on the windshield, the car's concrete opaqueness spreading into glassy darkness, revealing what I always knew I could be.
I could save others if I had to! It wasn't so hard!
“No one in this car!” I announced to imaginary passersby, who deigned never to look, let alone acknowledge me. Mortals, one and all, are not worthy! I was the savior of everything that mattered, my words condensing into eternal clouds: sacrifices to the storm gods, slush cakes for my fingers, their gifts.
Then Steven, my only friend in grade 3, appeared.
Touch your tongue right to the car metal! Go ahead and do it!
I laugh again. I'm not going to do that, Steven! See? It's only warm when you least expect it! You try it this time! I'll pull you off with my bare hands!
Steven had to rip a spruce bough from a frozen tree to hack through the instant ice that bound my face to a metal skating rink sign. So long ago. Was it my tears that I tasted that day? Here and now, there was no spruce tree handy!
“What are we going to eat?” she demanded.
Stupefying. Another person is speaking. Only now do I start shivering uncontrollably.
“What did you say?” I quaver through my chattering teeth. Small screaming children gather around as I close the door, a greeting party, the vocal counterpoint to the dozen solemn candles that stand like statuettes, banishing cowardly darkness from every horizontal surface. It could be a pagan sacrifice. What did I know of time and space?
I fumble at my parka. Its iron thickness would not yield, provoking more ice to cascade from my arms and chest than has ever graced this foyer, this house that is more an entrance into another life than a dwelling. I had to blow on my bare fingers. Even then, I couldn't unbutton the monstrous portrait of ice mingled with cloth that nature had made of me.
“You’re making a mess!” she yells. "What happened to your hands?"
Absently, I brushed still more crusty residue to the ceramic floor of our brand-new two-story that we were so proud of. The children chase each other around me, grabbing handfuls and spraying tiny snowballs everywhere. Then, one of them falls and starts bawling.
I finally came to. “Eat?” I said, at last. I become dimly aware of another primal need. One that might exorcize cold from my body and give me some semblance of normality that I could cling to.
“Did you run the water through the pipes like I asked?” I said, making words follow each other, like how people speak. It was a precaution for something or other. An office conversation topic that I couldn't remember.
But this life was starting to make sense. Our youngest was in her arms, settling a little. Then, squirming, he wanted to be put down. Our eldest daughter made a miniature snow fort with the slush at the door. I somehow knew what would happen next. My young son would run over to squash it. A fight ensued, as always.
This was progress. My parka was off and hung up. Holding my head in my hands, I felt for my forehead. It’s still there, right? I then headed for the living room. Must sit. I could hear the snowplows in our neighborhood—those machine monsters that were too late for the cars off the road. Why should I care?
She sat across from me in that chair we got on sale—the one I never liked. I could just barely see through my watery, frozen glasses, her face fading in and out of view by the flickering coffee table candle. I take my glasses off and rub them on my hands. She is about to speak. I interrupt her.
“I asked if you ran the water through the pipes!”
“Of course I did!” she yelled back at me. “Do you think I am some sort of idiot?”
I sighed. It was the power that was out. But that wasn't my wife's fault.
“How are the kids holding up?”
“The fridge thermometer is on the dining room table! It says it is eight degrees Celsius in the house! Go check it yourself!”
Putting my glasses back on and giving them a last wipe from my sleeve, I realized I could see my breath, even in the house. I strode to the dining room table and shook the thermometer. It was so cheap looking. It must be colder than that.
“Well, as long as the water runs, the pipes shouldn’t freeze solid," I announced. "We should eat somewhere.”
The car started. Ninety-six Buick Century with snow tires. And anti-lock brakes. I go too fast on purpose. Just to test them.
“Slow down! Don’t you see all the cars off the road!” exclaimed my wife as she gripped her seatbelt. "You're not well. Let me drive!"
“Do it again, Daddy!” small voices call out.
No one could be as young and foolish as us, I suppose. We climbed the plowed road surprisingly quickly. There was not another vehicle in sight. That last swerve was the best. But I feel so exhausted. The car was too warm.
I bring everything to a halt suddenly. "Ok. You drive!" I shouted as I guided the car to the edge of what might be a curb on the road but was more likely only a jumble of salted ice and slush.
As we exchanged car seats, it seemed the storm was letting up. You could now see all of Gatineau and Hull from the crest of the hill. Gatineau was utterly dark. But there were lights across the Gatineau River in Hull.
“Alright! I'll head toward the lights!” my wife said. She put the high beams on for good measure as we descended the hill, steering into only one more unintended swerve as we crawled towards the deserted highway along the river. The late evening traffic was so light that we were in Hull in no time.
The parking lot of the Coq Roti restaurant in Hull was jammed, but we could park in the overflow area. I noticed a homeless person near the front. People were dropping coins into his toque as they hurried into the restaurant. His ears were red, and he looked cold and unshaven.
Once inside, we were greeted by a hostess dressed in a chicken gravy-colored uniform. She had a big, bright smile for us. There were leftover Christmas decorations everywhere. We waited a short while and then were seated near the front of the restaurant, where I had a good view of the parking lot. Our waitress brought hard candy for the children and opened her food order pad.
“Bonsoir ! Je suis désolé. Notre menu est très limité ce soir. Puis-je vous apporte de l'eau?”
They were only serving rotisserie chicken. No drinks. And they asked to be paid in cash if possible because their machines were down. Everyone was so friendly and accommodating. One couple had no money, and the manager accepted a promise to pay the bill instead.
It was a long night and only the beginning of the great ice storm of '98, when the giant metal hydro towers that could not be easily replaced bent down to the earth, and people’s lives were not the same for months to come.
I was glad we had just one night of enjoyment before life in the nineteenth century became a first-hand experience for everyone I knew.
I couldn’t help noticing the man with the toque from where we were seated. So, I went to see him and invited him to eat with us. It was the best chicken dinner I ever had.