– Kirstin Allio –
Caryn and five children are snowed in. The kitchen windows are iglooed with translucent bricks of opal, aquamarine, and rose quartz. The house feels different. Bigger – because it is all there is – and smaller – for the same reason.
It’s Friday, the kids’ third day home from school, and Tori, the oldest, has strep throat. Caryn suspects it’s from kissing another seventeen year-old, a boy with a silver stud in his chin like a hard, shiny blemish. The oldest’s story always gets told first, as if it were universal. Tori’s friend is named Leo and Caryn suspects it may be his name her daughter likes, mostly.
The kitchen is at the back of the house, with an abrupt face-off onto a vertical expanse of stonework. The retaining walls were built slowly, at great cost, by shy and seemingly peaceful crews of Latin Americans. Caryn’s husband, Dom, pointed out that they don’t tell her their real names, and Caryn, as if it were related, regularly complains that she can’t see anything out the kitchen windows.
But now she can see snow, like light’s body. Striated, blue-bright, a cross-section of a cliff. Light’s body? The way all of her children have been entranced, at some point, with stamping on each other’s shadows. “You’re dead!” she can hear them, as they leap away from each other on the sidewalk.
Dom is away on business. If they were a Venn diagram, the two circles representing her and the children would be almost perfectly stacked, while Dom’s would appear adjacent.
“Snowed in?” Dom caroled when he checked in last night. Caryn pictured him pinching his square buttocks together, a tic of merriment, standing at the plate glass window of a hotel room on a high floor, looking out over twinkling lights. The particulars first. The shovel lost in a drift: couldn’t she borrow from a neighbor? His ardent practicality came barrel-rolling through the darkness and he’d laughed, “Like Little House on the Prairie?”
When he’s home he reads out loud, his trim gray head propped on his furry arm on a child’s pillow. Caryn can tell that he likes the sound of his own voice. Once, after wine, she’d said she found vanity in men endearing. He’d claimed to be baffled, and wouldn’t let her apologize. He doesn’t necessarily get sucked into the story like she does, but he loves it that she cries at the Prairie deaths, the disasters in the Big Woods, and he is, in his approval of her, relentless.
Her younger three children, Louisa, Anne, and Thomas, are, for the moment, occupied, and quiet. There were births for each of them, thinks Caryn, but the individual strands of memory have been worried and felted. Like a blanket put through the wash cycle. Like the snow, its little lint hairs and fibers getting denser by the minute.
The boy at the kitchen table clears his throat: Paul, her sister’s child. His hair is skull-gray, and at five, he already has an Adam’s apple. A year ago Ellen called in tears with the news of a scoliosis, and before Caryn could say anything, Ellen had accused her of having four – four – as if it were excessive. As if Paul, thought Caryn, an only child, a specimen, had to be a Frankenstein’s monster of many disparate perfections.
Caryn’s kids treat him with preternatural coolness, like an invalid. When Ellen drops him off, once a week, for an overnight, he perches on his hardbacked suitcase until Caryn escorts him up to Thomas’s room, where she pulls a cot out. Why does she persist in putting him in with Thomas? Her son is eight, with rain-colored eyes and straight blond hair in a bowl cut. She knows his teachers think he is a devil; he’s always being typecast by grownups who’ve loved or hated some other little hellion. He shines a flashlight in Paul’s eyes whenever Paul betrays sleepiness, he has been known to guide Paul’s sleeping hand into a bowl of warm water. In the mornings Paul waits for Caryn at the top of the staircase, his scoliotic, geriatric little form in the plaid bathrobe and corduroy slippers from Paris.
Caryn and Ellen are petite and blond, prettily of Irish descent. Ellen has a delicate, even precarious neck that will always present as girlish: as if she’s at once carefree, and in need of protection. They have analyzed their differences with no small amount of wonder. Growing up, they believe, they were meant to feel like the same person.
Caryn’s hips are slightly flared, but they could still trade slacks, if Caryn wore anything but jeans and Dom’s running sweatshirts. Motherhood is economical, the way it forces out all adult drama – love, sex, a serious conversation with her sister. And it prevents her, when Ellen drops Paul off, from picking a fight with her sister.
She holds up an accidentally-purchased box of lemon cookies. Maybe Louisa is right, and the fussy biscuits and the fussy cousin go together. Louisa’s deft logic: “French people like lemon stuff.”
It’s Paul’s dad who’s French. Da-veed, croons Louisa. “Vive le Paul,” she teased, last night, after she fished the cookies out of the garbage. Once, last summer, Caryn took Paul into the yard to inspect an ant colony. The kind of patient, hands-on parenting she wishes she’d done more of with her own children. The kind of thing, Dom says, that would insure their children ran for office on a save-the-insects platform. She peeled away the lawn, a lacy, desiccated layer of turf, to expose the intricate sand kingdom. Paul said in his trill voice, “If I had one for a pet, it would die of grief, Aunt Caryn.”
She’d tried to tell Ellen, but Ellen wasn’t captivated. Maybe Ellen was simply distracted, rushing to work, but Caryn had been hurt, and sorry for herself, also, for the effort and tedium of confronting the mystery of the ants’ existence compared to her own – and her children’s. She’s gone to great psychic lengths to cultivate a token memory of each of her children. Token diminishes it, it’s more like a cue. An unerring prompt from the unconscious, so that if her house burned, and she lost every archived finger painting, hooked rug potholder, autumn leaf like an unreadable old map between sheets of waxed paper . . .
There was a single mother with a boy in Tori’s class in Kindergarten who lived in an incongruous California-style apartment complex near the old Sunbeam Bread in East Providence. It was rumored that the boy took Ritalin, and dressed up after school like a princess. So that the image of a plastic rhinestone tiara is luridly linked in Caryn’s mind with a sort of pre-criminal, Child Services hyperactivity. The single mother – Caryn remembers her as too tall, mannish – lost every single princess photo in the apartment building fire.
Caryn thinks she heard the boy made a varsity team as a freshman.
She can leave Paul for a moment. The front of the house faces north and the north wind doesn’t allow drifts to accumulate. It looks like neighbors have decided shoveling is useless. Early this morning Mr. D’Amata got out in his pick-up – now it’s three o’clock. His parking spot is a shallow white basin.
The plow hasn’t even made one pass on their street. Caryn catches herself listening for its rumble, the clank of its metal udders, as little jet-sprays of salt and gravel hit the messy roadbed. There is no wind now, and the quiet snow tumbles straight down to earth. Time accumulates with no pretense. Each hour feels like an hour, each minute feels like a minute. The snow is the sand in an hourglass.
There’s a cascading crash from Thomas’s room upstairs and suddenly she sees Thomas at fifteen months, his Dumbo ears, hot, red cheeks, quick fists, bullfighter’s tight little rump. “I’m paying my dues with this one,” Caryn used to repeat, not exactly plangent, but needing, definitely, to say it, on the playground, in the check-out line at the supermarket.
Caryn and Dom joke that their family keeps the pediatrician in business. The practice takes over a rambling, Victorian house in the cramped and shaggy university neighborhood. Caryn found herself there weekly in those early years – Louisa, Anne, and Thomas are all less than two years apart – and she used to chat up the bank of receptionists, women of a certain age, tugboat-bottomed, presiding over Brach’s butterscotch candies, for whom, despite her conspiratorial banter, Caryn reserves a subversive, daughterly hostility. The Arletta pack, she bantered, should endow an extra couch in the waiting room.
She closes her eyes, remembering. She breezes in for Thomas’s fifteen-month inoculations. She tells the panel of receptionists that she used to cry, herself, for Tori’s! She and Thomas are ushered into the empty office of a doctor new to the practice. Caryn sets Thomas, in a diaper, up on the white-papered table, and Thomas immediately – obviously, thinks Caryn – slides off it. He is so much like Curious George Caryn wonders if she could have been inseminated by a children’s book. Dom roars at that. Even the short legs and long torso. He makes a beeline for the biohazard bin and ta-da, thinks Caryn, we’ll get a month of green snot, disease of hoof and mouth, the tongue infested with yogurty white blotches.
Just as she starts after Thomas, the doctor appears in the doorway. Thomas’s cheeks – it’s eczema, actually, and not spirit – go instantly tomato.
“Not so fast, my man,” says the doctor, scooping up Thomas.
Thomas stands straight up on the doctor’s lap, his bow legs locked, alarmed, but possibly interested.
Caryn sighs for the doctor. She rises and holds out her arms to receive her baby. She shakes her head as if to say resignedly, fourth child. It occurs to her that there’s a lot of bluffing that goes into a relationship with a doctor. Come on, she says silently. Hand him over.
But the new pediatrician seems to have his own agenda. “Please sit down, Mrs. Thomas,” he says gravely. “I like to be at eye level with the mommies.”
Caryn cringes. The doctor looks at her over the top of his glasses. “The terrible two’s at fifteen months.”
Taking her seat, Caryn tells herself it’s standard issue, bedside manner, the way he crunchles his short beard with one hand and appears to hold the child effortlessly with the other. But still, she senses the floor of her stomach.
And then the doctor makes his now-famous comment. “The ears don’t have to be a badge of courage.”
At first she has no idea what he’s talking about. She’s already on shaky ground: a new pediatrician, and Thomas performing agitated knee-bends on the fellow’s quadriceps. For a second she wonders if she has misunderstood words of wisdom; then she sees the pediatrician’s long fingers pulling Thomas’s ears out.
It’s true that she has replayed the scene so many times it’s become stilted. The way the light through Thomas’s distended ears shown crimson, like his cheeks, the way the doctor’s white coat was almost blinding, a well-planted movie shot, really, and she had thought, momentarily, that maybe it wouldn’t be fire or flood, after all, that would destroy her family, but something she learned from a doctor. And she knew, for an instant, that fear of death generated all other fear in the world.
The pediatrician – she’d said to Dom: the fucking doc – had wanted to pin Thomas’s ears back. Stitch them, albeit temporarily, to the sides of her son’s head, so that he would look like Go, Dog, Go!, a Dr. Seuss hound in the perpetual headwind of a drag race.
“Why not clip-clip?” she had actually shouted. “Like a Doberman Pinscher?”
“Train them,” the doctor had sort of correctively mumbled.
But even as she was shouting, and stabbing her things back in the big boxy diaper bag, Caryn was considering. What would it be like if her children – not just Thomas, but in the abstract, children – were perfect? Would it make for a storybook that was somehow easier to remember?
Of course, her brain ticked, it would be a simple outpatient procedure. Maybe it could be done right here in this office. Would insurance cover it even though it was cosmetic? Would Thomas claw at the stitches in his sleep or when he was bored in his stroller or his car seat?
Then Caryn had caught the doctor keeping keen watch on her. And she had harnessed her fear of death, a moment before so lucid, and as if to mock it, she’d choked out: “You should have been a veterinarian.”
At four o’clock the snow stops and Caryn finds herself, strangely, unsettled. She can almost hear the low roar of the highway, a science fiction river in a one-dimensional, fictive distance.
Caryn leaves Paul in the kitchen and mounts the stairs to check on Tori. Louisa and Anne are playing cards in embarrassing British accents and Thomas is now in the basement in order to yell, because yelling is particularly not allowed when you’re snowed in, says Caryn. She catches herself getting chippy. The house is a hive, self-contained; or a fishbowl. Caryn has cans and cans of tuna. She has raisins and m & m’s, apple-cranberry juice.
Tori is two, red-rimmed, weeping eyes at the top of a snow-colored comforter. “How did you collect five water glasses?” says Caryn before she can stop herself. Caryn goes to the window. The sky has thickened once more and snowflakes like the soft undercoat of a shedding mammal begin to spin and arc around the big linden. “Believe it or not,” she says, “a couple of ice skaters are coming up the hill at this very moment.” Tori’s comforter rustles.
The snow against the glass is like a wave breaking. The cars are prehistoric mounds, the wind is now a giant. Caryn opens the window a crack and then the storm window. The woman ice skater is carrying brown leather skates in her brown-gloved hand. The man must have his skates over his shoulder, under his coat. They would’ve needed a bulldozer to get to the ice, thinks Caryn.
“You can’t go skating in this.” Tori’s voice comes out creaky. Even when she’s sick she doesn’t trust her mother.
Caryn sticks her nose out, miming deep breaths. The sound of a snow shovel – no longer a scrape, the snow is too deep to get down to the sidewalk – comes from inside the earth. Finally, right behind it, is the deep rumble of the snowplow. “I’m sick,” her big daughter says, drawing her head off the moist pillow, long-suffering, indignant.
The snowplow is a woolly mammoth. Caryn closes the window. She puts her hand briefly on Tori’s forehead and Tori accepts it faithlessly. Caryn takes all five water glasses between her fingers.
In the kitchen, Paul is steadily pouring his milk onto his placemat.
It’s not like him, usually she wants to shake him for being overly polite, and Caryn is more concerned than irritated. She puts a dishtowel on the white lake gently.
“That airplane sounds like blades in the sky,” remarks her nephew. His calm is false. Caryn knows he’s been using all the powers of his imagination to make it stop snowing. The snow is coming down in chunks and curtains.
She knows it’s the wrong thing to say but she says it anyway: “There’s no way a plane would fly in this.”
Paul speaks French with his dad like an angel. Too sweet, almost. Louisa, who mines her jealousy with lewd pleasure, sings from the radio, “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir,” and Paul blushes. Caryn guesses Louisa feels encompassed by her sisters, even suffocated. She has no cold edge against the world like Tori, the oldest, and Anne, next to a brother. She never gets new clothes, (she complains bitterly, predictably), and she doesn’t even get to keep the hand-me-downs. Louisa could be the unhappiest of her children, and just because of birth order. Caryn chides herself. She’s not a fortune teller. She’s a parent.
Anne is the most like Caryn. Fair-skinned, open-minded, usually quiet. Always dependable, the one who puts the new toilet paper on the roll, reminds them to stop humming Christmas songs in February. Caryn suspects Anne is Dom’s favorite. A father can have a favorite.
For a moment she wonders what it would be like if Dom were here in the snowstorm with them. The point is they’re out of the storm, she corrects herself. But it feels like they’re within it.
She used to call Dom Mr. Big Man on Campus. It amazes her suddenly, seems passive-aggressive, almost, in today’s careful rhetoric. Also because he’s short, although back then she didn’t think so. Dom the sprinter, fireball, speed demon: top-rated college athlete.
A gentleman jock. If someone twisted his ankle in a meet, Dominic would give up his time, his rank, his flow, and stop mid-race to help the injured runner. When Dominic slowed, his body gave the impression of unwinding. Caryn had loved to watch the high light blur of his run break apart, become mechanics. The decelerating, effortless jog, the torso slanting back against the very wind he’d just created.
He watched over his moods as carefully as his muscles. He said it depressed him not to help the guy in lane eight, the fellow human. He was also pre-law; Caryn was lost somewhere in the Art Department. In fact, you could fall in love and call it art. She would have liked to major in watching Dominic Arletta’s races.
One blowy winter day in her senior year Caryn entered the art studio and beheld the track star, stripped down to shorts, emerging from the broom closet. He appeared neither proud, nor flustered. He ran his hand through his hair, which was warm brown, wavy, and long for a jock, and took his place on the pedestal.
“We have a new model,” the professor remarked, and then off-handedly gave the assignment.
“What about the shorts?” said a big, coarse, boarding school girl next to Caryn.
Caryn found herself infuriated. She glared at the girl and the girl snickered. Of course he wasn’t naked. That was for middle-aged women, who, for the very reason they were ashamed of their stippled stretch marks and hormonal flushes, displayed themselves in front of college students. Perverted. Not Dominic. And she didn’t need to see any more to know she loved him.
He said he was 5’10” so more likely he was 5’8”. He was slight but strong, skin a luminous olive. There was nothing extra about him, as if his heart, too, were pure in its race. His light eyes were full of amusement at his predicament.
He wasn’t hard to approach. He was used to sporty female friends, they all massaged each other’s Charlie horses. He was a boy, funny and careless, and a man, careful and serious. Caryn learned that he was modeling for credit. A semester in her drawing class so that he could get away with more track meets, fewer liberal arts courses. Caryn learned that he had a girlfriend – a runner, they did ten easy loping miles together on Saturdays – who was beautiful, black, and taller than Dominic by practically four inches.
In the spring Caryn showed her senior project. It only took her one night to assemble a clutch of driftwood like furniture. It was totally unusable. Her advisor said she should try to follow through on a concept. Was she trying to posit, her advisor queried, that conversation was a conceit? Ironic? So Caryn called it Conversational Grouping. Art was all in the title.
Ellen was coming up right behind her, in textiles. She gave Caryn an old-time train conductor’s cap she prescribed as Caryn’s handle. She would fix some couture-ish concoction on Caryn and then have to scissor Caryn out of it. She’d wail, “Why am I designing fabric for airplane seats?” Ellen wore her own clothes like she thought she was starting a movement.
During graduation week, between magnolia and lilac, the university was all send-off receptions. The Greek Revival and Georgian brick university houses, with their high-walled gardens and miniature avenues of boxwood, were opened to students. Caryn and Ellen bought a structurally-sound, if prom-queen-like wedding dress at a second hand shop. Together they sewed on seven layers of skirts in varying shapes and textures. The bodice was tight, opaline, and the petticoats were shell, snow, yellow, bone, smoke, dust, parchment.
The evening of the Art Department party was balmy and bowered with ornamental cherries in huge pale tufts and grass freshly clipped and fragrant. Caryn, in a rainbow of whites, went barefoot. The white wine seemed to be just another petticoat, and she got very drunk with very little effort. An hour into the party she was more or less incapacitated. Ellen had vanished, and who should appear but Dominic Arletta.
By the end of the evening, Caryn had been adopted by Dominic. He took her to his room, which smelled of clean laundry and canned seltzer, and, while she lay where she had fallen diagonally across his bed, he talked about running professionally versus law school, and how he did remember her from what he called his “ersatz modeling.” He turned out to be as kind – straightforward, unassuming, he wouldn’t have read anything into her ridiculous costume – as she’d suspected.
It occurs to Caryn now that she’d like to say it with grace. With gratitude, even. Not to invoke the near-scandal, and the heartbreak she caused her parents. Because that first night with Dom – that was Tori. Ellen Victoria. How ornate the name seems now, how complicated.
She and Dom were married in August. She didn’t wear the dress of many whites; her mother chose a disgraced-fat-lady tunic. Raising her eyes again to the blanked-out, bright kitchen window, thinking about her parents, Caryn realizes she’d choose to be snowed in without them. She doesn’t want them on her ark, her houseboat. Why isn’t it enough to do what you think is right, Mother? How does imposing your right on me make you all the righter? Her mother, contritely, “That’s just college gibberish, Caryn.”
Ellen had shown her support by shielding her eyes from the tunic-of-shame, and their love – Caryn and Dominic’s – was transformed into an ongoing state of relief, thinks Caryn.
The phone rings. “It’s six o’clock,” snaps Caryn, catching herself when she sees Paul’s forlorn aspect. “He’s sitting right here at the kitchen table.”
Ellen drives a tiny, lime green Beetle that would be better suited to France – or a golf course. There is no way she is driving in this. It’s not an apology, notes Caryn.
The only reason Ellen does not live in France is to be close to Caryn. Otherwise she hates this mini Maffiosi municipality, as she calls it, and Da-veed hates it, and they are always cracking on the mayor, who looks like Mr. Toad in The Wind in the Willows, and possibly inflicted cigarette burns on his wife’s lover. Secretly Caryn takes offense when any Italian name is derided.
Ellen says defensively, “I’m not going to walk over.”
No. From one side of the city to the other. But here is Paul, grieving at the kitchen table.
They’re snowed in. The universe is snowed out. If there is no more universe, it doesn’t matter that they are the five children and she is the mother. They are all on equal footing. It’s a regular commune. A utopia, as the founding fathers would have had it. As she strides from the kitchen into the body of the house she cries, “Anyone for minestrone?”
“What is a state of emergency?” Paul bleats from behind her. He won’t eat canned soup. Da-veed makes his own stock with bones and parings. She should set Paul up with paints or Play-Doh. Thomas has refused all contact. She pulls a book of busy-work mazes from under a pile of library books.
“Here Paul,” she says, handing him a pencil.
“Thomas!” she calls down into the basement. “I’ll take you outside, Thomas!” She places her palm against the wall to descend the narrow staircase. There are the snow shovels against the stone wall, looking sheepish.
The basement is one big room with wobbly homemade shelves in deep corners. At first she doesn’t see Thomas in the gloaming. He can’t reach the chain on the bare bulb, and she suspects part of the allure of the basement is the semi darkness. There are the hammers and nails, the cordless drill, the sodden bags of MiracleGro like blue salt, the pickaxe and handsaw have a life of their own, thinks Caryn. There’s an instinctual fear, a surprise element about childhood.
He tackles her from behind. She screams before she can help it. His monkey limbs around her middle, “Thomas!” She pries him off roughly but he’s incited, ready to go body-to-body. She can hear her daughters’ running steps through the house. They heard her scream. She hopes she hasn’t scared Paul. She doesn’t think he’d budge from the kitchen table for anything.
“Hello-oh,” says Louisa in a deadpan down the stairs.
“Mom?” Anne, younger by twenty months, calls pragmatically.
Caryn calls up, “Sorry!” She shakes Thomas off her.
Halfway up the stairs she smells fire.
The soup? She wastes time trying to relive the moment she turned the gas off. But it’s not a food smell. There’s Louisa guarding the doorway. “Hurry?”
It takes Caryn a moment to understand it’s not her they’re worried about. Paul seems to have lit several pages of the maze book on fire. He’s solving mazes with trails of fire.
Thomas is on her heels, pushing around her, beneath her, panting with excitement. “Where did you get matches?” There is real awe in his voice. Caryn doesn’t allow matches. Not in any drawer or cabinet. Not locked away, call her paranoid – they don’t have candles. They have a single, disabled hearth known as the Santa Claus fireplace. She knows Dom thinks it’s neurotic, but he’s good at picking his battles.
Louisa and Anne are gathered close. All of a sudden, the whole tabletop is on fire. There must have been grease, a feast fire. Paul stumbles out of his chair, backwards, giving over his rights as a guest, his spectacle. For a critical moment, Caryn is motionless. She thinks, what would it look like if the fire wound down the legs of the table? What would her floor look like? Would it be tempting, somehow, to walk across it?
Caryn’s mind goes blank. This is fear, manifest.
Or relief. Thomas in a fireman’s hat. He’s wielding a dusty red canister with a mallard beak. In countless dreams Thomas has practiced.
When the fire is out, Caryn has a tremendous need to escape. She’s been inside for three days now. She finds Thomas’s coat and snow pants and her own long wool coat that she never wears because it’s supposed to be a dress coat. She bunches an orange scarf around her neck that Anne knit for a favorite teacher. Caryn and Thomas push the front door together. It seems to push back against them. They’re stymied for a moment. Anne says, “The window – ” and Thomas, newly capable, set in motion, is already hoisting it, and jumping out over the sill as if over the rails.
Jumping into the storm is like jumping into water. She goes deep – deeper than she’s ever swam in any lake or ocean. She hears the distant thrum of the highway, and her own pulse in her ears like water pressure. The snow is coming down sideways, a scrim, and she almost can’t tell the shore, the sidewalk. She looks up at the house and finds her bearings.