The Coldest I've Ever Been

The coldest I've ever been was not December 27, 2009 when I watched my husband officiate the Music City Bowl.  Sitting for three hours inside the Tennessee Titans' stadium in a windchill of 17 degrees makes a body cold, to be sure.  But I've been colder.  In the 70s.
           
In the 70s, I liked to hear the WKEE dj who lived inside my clock radio say, "Cabell County" in the list of school cancellations.  I'd hit the off button and roll over and dream about--  What was the oldest Partridge brother's name?  Not Danny. The other one.

The smell of Maxwell House would waft under my door, and I'd know Dad was up.  I'd slide my feet into slippers, slip my arms into my robe, and join him in the kitchen.  He'd look up from his dippy egg and grin. 

"Gonna sleigh ride?"

 I'd smile back.  "Yep."

 I'd open the cabinet over the stove and survey the collection of cereal--Cheerios, Frosted Flakes, Sugar Pops.  Usually I picked Cheerios.  Added a teaspoon or two of sugar and a big pour of milk.

Dad would push his chair back from the table and carry his dishes to the sink.  He'd run water over his plate so the yolk streaks wouldn't turn to Super Glue.  Then he'd pat me on the back, always too hard.   I'd arch to soften, or avoid altogether, the blows. He'd put his cheek to mine, his Abe Lincoln beard scratchy.  My nose would wrinkle with the combination of his morning and Maxwell House breath.  My mouth was full, so I'd make the brusha-brusha-brusha motion with my hand.  He'd make an almost fist, breathe into it, and sniff.  Then his eyebrows would go up. 

"Right."

Before he left to walk to work, he'd come back in the kitchen and exhale in my face.  Colgate breath.  Minty fresh.  Much better.  My mouth was still full, so I gave him a thumbs up.

After I slurped the sugary milk dregs, I'd put my bowl in the sink.  Then I started collecting.  Socks, long johns, jeans--two pair. Turtleneck, sweatshirt.  Hat, scarf,  gloves.  Baggies and rubber bands--one for each foot.  The plastic bags were key.  They keep the feet dry.  Wet cold is way chillier than dry cold.  If your feet are dry, you can stay out at least an extra hour.

Next stop was the basement, for foot and outerwear--always my brothers.'  No way my coat and boots would fit over all my sleigh riding gear.  I'd root through the shoe pile under the stairs, looking for the Scotchguarded, stubby-toed hiking boots with red laces.  I'd grab my middle older brother’s arctic parka.  The fur trim almost always kept the snow spray off my face.

Into the garage.  More choices.  I'll take the . . . silver disc and the  . . . newer Flexible Flyer.   Its runners had been waxed recently.  All set.  To the cemetary.  No need to tell Mom.  It's where I always went when it snowed.


It was the best of snow days.  It was the worst of snow days.

The snow had a crisp, like potato chips, top.  Like it had snowed, drizzled, then froze.  If I was super careful, I could walk across the surface and not fall through.   The trick was weight distribution.  You had to center yourself over your feet.  If you dug in a heel, you’d crash through.  Ka-runch. On a good day, I could go six or eight steps without a breakthrough.

Us neighborhood kids had anticipated this cold snap.  We prepared for it too.  After school the day before, some of us tromped over and used a chubby stick to jam the water pump at the top of the hill where the road goes down to the giant, open Bible made of granite.

The day before, it'd been almost 40.   The water had gushed willingly.  Today it wasn’t even 20.  The water refused to flow.  Instead, it looked like a white paper towel tube coming out of the forest green, goose-necked faucet.  The road reminded me of the powdered sugar glaze on my mom's Bacardi rum cake.  Shiny.  Slick.  Speedy.  I smiled and rubbed my gloved hands together.  It's gonna be so fast.

After the faucet inspection, I walked back up the hill to where I'd left the sleds.  I picked up the reins of the Flexible Flyer.  Sitting, or on my belly?  On my belly.  I trusted my hands more than my feet when it came to steering.  I pulled the sled three feet back from the edge so I could get settled before I--  On your mark . . . get set . . . went.  I eased my Michelin-man self, tummy down, onto the Flyer's slats.  I put the rope under me, so it wouldn't get caught beneath the runners.  I put my hands at opposite ends of the guide bar.  Before I geronimoed, I pulled my muffler up over my mouth and nose 'cause I hate freezin' cold snow powder in my face.  Hate it!

When you ride a roller coaster, you're scared in the line.  At least I am.  Then, you're anxious as your car climbs the first hill.  That’s how I always feel, like there's no turning back now.  And then you're at the peak, and your stomach jumps up to keep your sternum company.  Then all h-e-double toothpicks breaks loose.  Speed.  Wind.  Adrenalin.  Bugs.  Fear.  Joy.  It's over?  Already?  Let's do it again!

Not this time.  I hunched and scooted and jerked my way to the precipice.  I paused to look at the gleaming ribbon of silver.  I considered the way it dog-legged to the left, halfway down.  Wonder how the Flyer will steer on ice? 

"Cowabunga!" I shouted to the edges of winter as I oomphed myself from flat to steep.  

It happened so quick.  I didn't get to enjoy the stinging, alarming velocity before the pain, the burning pain, set in.  The steering of the Flyer on ice?  It didn't happen.  The ice flung me down the hill so fast, by the time I approached the bend and needed to steer, it was too late. 

The Flyer slammed into the curb and stopped.  I, however, kept going.  Across the crisp, like the top of creme brulee, but cold not hot, snow.  The parka's hood flew back.  The scarf on my face abandoned ship, and the sandpaper-rough ice crust razzed my face. Took off a layer of skin on my right cheek and jaw. 

I don't know how long I laid there, motionless, like one of those baby harp seals whose eyes say, "Please don't let mean, greedy men kill me."

After awhile, the burning on the right side of my face turned to stinging.  Then it prickled.  Then itched.  Isn't this what they say frostbite feels like?  And then people's toes and fingers fall off.  Is my cheek gonna fall off?  

I lifted my face off the ice layer.  My eyes got big when I saw the pink print it left.  I rolled onto my back with a groan.  My neck and shoulders ached from the Flyer's violent kiss with the curb.  Wish the snow was soft like when it first falls and you run outside to make snow angels.

My stomach rumbled, and I opened my eyes.  I was so cold.  A jarring shiver started in my gut and shimmied up to my teeth, making 'em clack.  Sounded like the Mexican Hat Dance.  I squinted at the sky.  What time is it?  I shook my head to ease the crawling of my face skin, but it didn't help.  I reached a glove up to scratch and felt a tearing.  The fringe fibers of my scarf had mated with the beginnings of the scabs on my cheek.  My face would not surrender the muffler without more pain.  More blood.

My breath caught.  I sniffed.  My lower lip trembled.  I'm gonna be ugly.  The salt from my tears insulted my abrasions.  It'll probably leave a scar.  I've not been loved yet, and I probably never will be now.  I'll have to become a nun like Sally Field or Maria, in The Sound of Music.  The wimple will cover the thickened, angry pink skin.  That is, if I don't freeze to death first.  After all, this was the coldest I'd ever been.

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