Growing Up Cold

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BY CAITLIN HAMILTON SUMMIE

In the cold night air, my breath is like mist. I stand at the end of the driveway with my hands in my jeans pockets and my head tilted back, watching each breath cloud, then disappear. Above me, the moon is pale and the stars are faint, as if even they are shrinking from the chill.

This far north of the Twin Cities street lights are few, and in the darkness landmarks meld with the landscape. The shape of the Marshall’s nineteenth century farmhouse is vague, as is the jagged, low expanse of their wood fence, though both are just across the road. A row of young elm trees runs behind the fence in a neat and even line, save one, which leans into its neighbor as if it’s relieved to share the burden of once having stood upright. Occasionally a breeze rises and knocks branches together. The branches sound like they’re cracking and make me feel as if out here, in the calm of night, I am actually hearing the cold.

My older sister Lonnie died here a few days ago, crumpled inside an old VW van. My father and brother heard the crash, a sound they have not described but which I can imagine, like a pop can being neatly compacted, like the sound of my father’s voice on the phone, compressing into silence and the faint whisper of my reply, that yes of course I would come home. And so I came back to this brittle, quiet place and our brittle, quiet house.

There aren’t many travelers tonight. No one on the way to church or 4H or the new movie theater out in Stern. No one coming here, though I suppose they will arrive tomorrow, a steady stream of sedans and Hondas and beaten up trucks because Lonnie had a light inside her, an exuberance, that even our fucked up family couldn’t quite kill.

The road stretches into the darkness. Across the way, the lights are out in the Marshall’s’ house. They have gone to Florida, in search of warmth. And it is desolate here, in the dark with the occasional wind and the snow and the endless cold. It is a different version of hell.

At my feet, I have a large collection of sparklers and candles and a dented Nike shoebox with Lonnie’s picture inside. The plastic noisemakers I brought home from Japan are spilling out of a bag, looking festive on the hard packed snow and ice, promising some kind of party. I have my bottle of choice tucked safely inside my coat. If Lonnie were here, there would be some kind of party, but now they serve a new purpose, one that has driven me out of the house, to the edge of the road. Here.

Tonight I pulled in at dusk, the tires hushed against the snow, my headlights giving the terrain a lunar cast. Dad had the house lit up, and I had watched it loom as I drove that last stretch of road, waiting for the distance to disappear. Dad met me at the front door and took my duffel and patted me on the shoulder. We had not seen each other for two years, and he looked small, standing there with his lined face and watery eyes and white beard. He looked bent. He said, “Welcome home, John” and his welcome sounded tired and faint and strange, stranger still without Lonnie bounding down the stairs, long brown hair flying, hand wrapped around the banister as if to brake herself.

I had hoped that James would be waiting, too, but it was a short time before he appeared, circling into the kitchen later and pulling up a chair. He of the immaculate hair and square jaw, the raw looks of a rugged movie star. After two years, he held out a hand.

“You’re getting brawny,” he said.

I had nothing to say, caught short again.

We collected under the flat, pooled light of the kitchen lamp, elbows on the table, and we settled for the old familiar. How’s the business? How’re the Marshall’s? Trust James, though, to throw a spanner into the calm of my return with an abrupt announcement about the funeral. Father Andresen would be conducting the service, he said, his comment running over a casual discussion about the temperature.

I looked at him then. His eyes seemed hard and without a flicker of light. He tapped his fingers on the table, waiting.

I have a particular dislike for Father Andresen, but that isn’t his point. His point is that I usually avoid what I dislike. School, people, social obligations. And James knows that my having come all this way does not mean I will be at Lonnie’s funeral tomorrow.

And he’s right.

I am not sure I could bear it, and I’m not sure Lonnie would mind at all if I were to choose a very different farewell and leave it at that.

I meet James’ gaze. Blink first, I think. You relentless fucker.

Dad is saying something to me, and I nod, but I keep my gaze fixed on James. It has been two years, and only one thing has changed. Lonnie is not here to buffer us.

 

The last time I went to church willingly, I was ten years old. Lonnie was sixteen and James was eighteen, and we were attending our mother’s funeral. I sat in the pew and avoided looking at her casket. I counted the variety of flowers in the altar bouquets. Eleven. I stared at my shoes while Father Andresen droned on. It was his drone that got to me, the tired way he mustered his eulogy. And the stain on his sleeve as he had greeted me that morning. And the look in his eyes, as if he was trying to remember my mother amidst all his quiet volunteers and committed housewives. The little one with the mop of hair and the loud laugh, I wanted to tell him. A laugh like a waterfall. She was the lady who made banana bread for your church fairs.

At the house later, as family and friends milled about the living room whispering condolences, my father came to find me. I was sitting on the hood of somebody’s station wagon, looking out into the woods behind the house. Dad joined me. He asked if I was okay, and I told him no. He patted me on the back then and tried to form a sentence, maybe only a word, but no sound came out.

From then on, we had arguments every Sunday morning about whether or not I was going to church, arguments which he felt justified our attendance. From then on, each Sunday until I grew too big, he grabbed me by the neck or shoulders or arm and dragged me to the car. In church we sat side by side, with Lonnie on my other side and James on his. We sat in silent row, separated by a breath and yet a whole world.

My mother choked to death on a peanut butter sandwich. The day was a Saturday. We were eating a pick-up lunch together, and then we were watching my father push against her stomach, watching her slump in his arms, watching him pound on her back when even we knew pounding didn’t matter.

 

I pull a bottle of Jack Daniels from underneath my down jacket and take a long drink. Then another. No, I don’t think I will go to the funeral tomorrow. I’m going to honor my sister my way.

I imagine James lurking in the house, watching the clock and wondering what I’m doing out here. I don’t know why he cares. And I imagine that what I’m about to do might annoy him and my Dad, but it would only be the latest in a long string of disappointments and failures. Skipping church. Failing English. Drinking too much. Totaling my car on Highway 80. Pretending to apply to colleges. Leaving for Japan. Leaving suddenly, like it was an escape. And for me it was.

So what further damage could one small, bright, tiny explosion of color do?

I line my candles up in the snow and light them. The candles are different colors, blue and red and a waxy yellow. I intersperse the sparklers, then stand and take another drink. I spin one of my noisemakers around, and the noise carries in the cold, grating and harsh. Tonight I’m going to give Lonnie the best damn farewell I can, just me and my firecrackers, the stars and the snow. Tonight I’m going to stage my own Obon.

Nori-chan told me about August 15th, The Night of the Last Day of Obon. He was a student in my English class for Nagasaki businessmen. He said that families who have lost a member during the preceding year carry a float through the streets of Nagasaki to honor their dead. Until their families put their relatives on the path to heaven, the souls of the dead wander in limbo. After Obon, the souls may return home for the first time. They are free.

On August 15th, in the cool of dusk, we gathered. I stood next to Nori-chan on the curb outside the Prefectural Office, at the crest of the hill, which was near the end of the parade route. From the Prefectural Office the road was a straight shot down the hill into Nagasaki Harbor. The hill was crowded, and I jostled for position, bumping Nori and knocking ash off the tip of his cigarette, holding my Kirin high above my head so the beer wouldn’t spill. Firecrackers exploded in pops at our feet, and in the distance trails of smoke marked pathways in the sky. Nori smoked his cigarettes one after the other as the day gave way. He said, in Japanese, “As soon as it’s dark.”

Lonnie lent me most of the money for my plane ticket to Tokyo. She said, “If you need to do this, then go.” I was 18 and lucky. I landed a job teaching in a dusty, cramped, second-rate language school and was gone for two straight years. I came back to the States a month ago and settled up in Thunder Bay because I love the name. I came back and unpacked and before I could visit, Lonnie drove into a tree. At seventy miles an hour. Straight down the hill by our house on an icy road and suddenly, no brakes. She was rushing home because she was late for James’ birthday dinner.

 

Earlier this evening, Dad came and sat on the end of my bed as I unpacked. He watched me hang up my dark wool suit, my white shirt.

“Where’d you get those?”

“Hong Kong.”

“When did you go to Hong Kong?”

“During a school break in Japan,” I said. “I went for a week.”

“I didn’t know you went to Hong Kong.”

I shrugged. “I didn’t think you’d be interested.”

“Of course I’m interested.” His voice sounded gruff. “I’ve always been interested.”

I hung the clothes on the rack and turned, uncertain what to say.

We were silent for what seemed like a long time, and then he said, “Will you stay for a few days?”

I paused, unpacked my comb, and ran my fingers up and down its teeth. “Yes.”

“James is having nightmares.”

“I’m sorry about that.” And I am sorry for him. I know a lot about those.

Dad turned at the door, looked above my head to I don’t know where. “Do you want to say anything for Lonnie at the funeral?”

There was a pause, a moment without sound, and then I shook my head no, wondering if I’d be there or if I’d already be back on the road, heading anywhere.

“You’re coming to the funeral, aren’t you?” he asked. He was still looking away and above me, and for a second, in a quick breath, I wanted to say yes even if it might not be true, but I said nothing.

He looked right at me then, his eyes watery and tinged with yellow. He said, softly, “Please.”

 

I drifted away from the house as soon as I could tonight. Dad stared at my shoebox and bag but asked nothing. All he said was, “It’s cold out there.” I don’t mind cold. I’ve always felt safest when my ass is half frozen. I always feel, despite the cold, like I’m warm.

Inside the house Dad and James huddle together in the living room: James sitting in the rocking chair with his bottle of Glenfiddich on one knee and a glass of water on the other; Dad looking out the living room window across the backyard to the woods. They’re waiting, like I am, but I can’t stand company when I wait for things. I usually can’t stand company at all.

Out here, by the road, the snow drifts are thigh high on me, which means they must rival the elementary school kids in height. I think of this now, of kids dressed in their jackets and mittens and scarves, waiting for the school bus to lumber and shake its way down the hill. I think of them standing in sub-zero temperatures every morning, wrapped in wool and Thinsulate. Growing up cold.

I grew up cold. We all did. We grew up shivering.

In a few hours, the light will sweep away the darkness. Slowly, the kids will congregate. They’ll shiver here, near where I stand now, until the bus gets down the hill. While they wait, they’ll probably look at our house, at the drawn curtains and the abundance of cars in the driveway, and whisper about Miss Lindstrom. One of the older kids will point out the thin, leaning tree, and a few kids will look at the break, then eye the hill, still glossy with ice. And I’ll be in my room, convincing myself to stay.

In Thunder Bay I live alone in an old house, where I am house-sitting. Pretty soon I’ll have to go. I’ve heard through a carpenter friend of mine that there’s opportunity to work with him in Anchorage, that I might be able to save up, eventually buy land, and build myself a house. Get away from civilization, which sounds pretty damn good. Leaving now, for anywhere, sounds pretty damn good. I use my bottle of Jack to balance and kick at a bare spot in the ground. The earth is hard and unyielding, and I wonder if staying matters, if we’ll be able to bury Lonnie after all.

 

Lonnie used to drive a 1972 green VW bus named Fred. The back end was covered with Dead decals and Democratic candidate bumper stickers and rust. Freddie was in constant need of repair, but Lonnie wouldn’t give up on him. She called Dad or James whenever Freddie broke down. Last week, she had called James to fix the brakes, and he went right over.

Lonnie never drove Fred to school. Didn’t suit a teacher, she said. Instead, she drove Mom’s aging Oldsmobile, which Dad had never had the heart to sell. For me, the car brought back memories. My mother, scarf wrapped carefully around her head to protect her new, smelly, perfect curls. Memories of Mom and me rushing home from school, from anywhere, barreling down the road with the windows down, and singing. Singing anything, sometimes yelling, for the sheer joy of making noise.

Lonnie said that the Oldsmobile never brought back memories for her. She also said she liked the comfortable habit of church. But whenever I was around, she slept in on Sundays, and we planned day trips to Stillwater and Lake Superior. She climbed up on the roof with me if the weather was warm and got stoned. She drove Fred.

I want Lonnie back, and my mother, who had a gift for laughter. But before Lonnie, before even my mother, I first loved James, and I would like him back, too.

 

Tonight Dad made a list of people to ask back to the house. He gave the list to James to call.

“Who are these people?” I had asked, looking over James’ shoulder. I didn’t recognize more than a few.

“Friends of ours from church,” he said.

“Are any of Lonnie’s friends coming?” I asked.

James scowled at me. “Of course,” he said.

I wanted to ask who on the list was a friend, but his look stopped me. James always stops me.

When we were young, James and I used to ride along the road past Marshall’s farm, down to the footpath, and back into the woods to Meyer’s Creek, where we’d swim. We used to camp in the yard, me and James. He taught me how to ride. He taught me my knots for Cub Scouts.

But then we lost Mom, we sold the horses to Marshall, and James went down to the U of M and fell in love. When he came home on breaks, he didn’t want to swim in Meyer’s Creek. He wasn’t interested in camping in the yard. Once I asked him to walk with me to the creek to see a small waterfall I’d found. He said no thanks. He wanted to talk to Dad about courses and grades and security. He talked about taking over the business. Feed supply.

Her name was Cathy, and she came home with James a few times, but then she stopped visiting. James moved home. He started working with Dad. He got quiet. He hassled me about my longish hair, my grades, my tendency to mess around. My drinking, which began early. Everything. Lonnie mediated or kept us apart. She’d run around with me, take spur of the moment drives to Minneapolis, but she always kept us within boundaries, like the state lines. She’d never drive all the way to Mexico, which was what I wanted. Then she went to the U. She hardly ever came to visit, and when she finally moved back home, I couldn’t believe she actually had.

I offered to help with the calls to church friends, but James waved me away.

“I know these people,” he said.

“Is there anything I can do?” I asked.

“Be there,” he said, without looking up. He dialed another number, then glanced up at me as he waited through the ring. I held his gaze, a flood of memories coming back. His neatly pressed shirts. His careful, small scribbles in Dad’s ledger. A cramped and careful life that allowed no surprises or idle moments. Not even me, so long ago. Nothing at all.

 

At dark the floats appeared, as Nori had promised. Huge floats, carried on poles that crossed underneath the bottom, carried by men and women dressed in happi coats and white shorts. Relatives, Nori said, and family friends, one of whom walked in front of the float, guiding the float to heaven. They handed out candy as they passed. They threw firecrackers onto the street.

The floats were the size of boats but wider, shaped like teardrops on each end, with pictures of the deceased hung high in the back. The photographs were black and white, the faces somber and without smiles; and as the floats passed, the faces loomed above us. The floats were trimmed with flowers; lighted paper lanterns hung inside. On the front of each, painted in black kanji on white paper, were the names of the dead.

There was a Big Bird float for a dead child, no picture; then a pair of boats for a young couple; an elderly man who walked along the edge of the crowd on the opposite side of the street. He carried a small float in his arms, walked with his head bent over it, as if to protect the float from the smoke and ash. He carried his farewell in his arms.

Firecrackers exploded constantly in the street, in the air, and we laughed as the ash peppered our hair. The smoke became thick, and still the floats came, still the march for the dead continued, late into the night. When the last float passed us, our ears were ringing. Smoke filled the air like fog. We brushed ash from our hair, our shoulders. We walked home as ash fell. We walked home in a city as silent as dawn. And as we walked, the families carried the floats down the hill to water’s edge and threw them into the harbor.

On August 16th, no one in Nagasaki is allowed to swim.

 

After Dad’s brief visit to my room earlier tonight, James knocked on my door and walked on in. “Can I talk to you?”

“Sure.” I was sitting on my bed, rifling through my duffel for the Nike shoebox. “What’s up?”

“I came to ask you to come to the funeral tomorrow.”

He is tall, James. Tall and lean. His shirt hung off his shoulders, and the baggy style thinned him.

“I’ll try.”

“It would be nice if we could count on you, John.” He sounded bitter.

“James, I’ll try.”

“What’s your problem? She’s your sister, and she’s dead, and we’re burying her tomorrow. I don’t get it. How do you think she’d feel if she knew you blew off her funeral?”

“I think she’d understand.”

“Well, I don’t.”

“The point is, James, that she would.”

We stared at each other, and then he shook his head.

“John, if you’re not there, I swear . . . -”

I cut him off. “Get out.” I heard a voice I had not heard in years, the one I reserved just for him. Civil, crisp. He seemed about to speak again so I did instead. “Go. Now.”

 

My candles are burning brightly now, and I look to the road, up toward where the hill should be. Suddenly I want to be at the crest of that hill, where she was in that breath before the bus started down, gathering speed. I want to imagine what she saw of this house.

The road is still sheathed in ice. The cold reaches to my bones, but I don’t care. I climb slowly, slowly, reach for a rock, anything solid, and pull myself to the top. From the crest of the hill, I stare down at the blinking lights that are my candles. I see only candlelight and house lights, stars and the dull, muted yellow of a winter moon. I think of Lonnie, tuck my bottle inside my coat, and as the breeze rises again and whips cold air and snow around me, I scream. My scream fills the night, carries to my Obon, to wherever Lonnie is, and then I rush forward, moving as fast as I can, and charge down the hill. I slip on the ice and roll to the bottom over gravel and ice and hard-packed snow. At the bottom, I curl and listen to the stillness, and I wonder what she thought as the brake gave way, as everything blurred.

I’m walking back to my candles when I hear the crisp thwack of the front door closing, then my name spoken tentatively into the chill night air.

“James.” My voice is a whisper. I stand by my Obon, brush off the snow. Suddenly he is at my side, no coat on, and I hear my father’s heavy, crunching footsteps fast approaching.

“Are you okay?” James asks.

“Yeah.”

“You just felt like screaming?”

“What happened?” Dad asks, but his question gets lost because James is looking at my Obon, and I’m suddenly too tense to answer.

“What is this?”

I turn away. I wish I hadn’t screamed. That I wasn’t back here. That I had never tried. I take a sip of Jack.

“Will you leave that bottle alone? You’re…-”

I eyeball him. “Stop.”

Dad steps between us, holding up his hands. James takes a step back, but as he does so, he says, “You’re one hell of a drunk, John.”

I turn back around. “And you, James, are one hell of a mechanic.”

He comes at me too fast. I’m slammed down hard on the driveway and out of breath before I can think. He hits me hard. He pins me down and reaches for my bottle. He pulls at the bottle, pulls until finally I don’t give a damn and I let the bottle go and pound him in the ribs.

I hit him for every time he told me my hair was too long, for every time he complained about my skipping church or my messy room or that my late nights were way too late. But I hit him hardest for not going to Meyer’s Creek to see the waterfall. I was little then, and lonely. I had needed him, and he had said no thanks. In the background I hear my father yelling for us to stop, but stopping isn’t on my list of priorities right now. I just want to pound James. I want to hit his complaints out of him one by one. I want all the things that James says I am not to be silenced by who I am, and so I hit him harder. I hit until my arms lose their strength and fall heavily, one at my side, the other across his back. I am still no match for him. My arm is around him, sort of, and he’s still swinging, and I let him swing into my ribs, my face, and then I just hold on.

My father is tugging on James and finally pulls him off me. “Stop it,” Dad says. “ Stop.”

James is sobbing. Dad pulls him to his feet, says, “Go inside. For God’s sake, James.”

I hear James’ boots scrape across the snow. His steps are uneven, heavy, slow.

Dad stands above me, and I see he’s wearing his thick old, shit kicker boots. He squats down to my level. He stares at my row of candles and sparklers, at my noisemakers, at my bottle of Jack. I sit up. My face is a mess; my ribs ache.

“Your lip is bleeding,” Dad says, and his voice is like a sigh. He tries to wipe the blood off my lip. “We’ve got to stick together.”

He isn’t talking to me, but I answer him anyway. “Well, we’ve never been very good at that.”

“We’ve tried, John,” he says. “In our own ways, we’ve tried.”

My head aches. My sides ache. I see my bottle and pick it up. Broken. Suddenly I don’t care. I wonder what the hell I’m becoming.

“Come inside,” Dad says, and he pulls me up by the arms. He starts to lead me up the driveway.

I don’t want to go inside. I want to build a float for Lonnie. A loud, noisy, smoking float shaped like a teardrop. No, I want the float to be shaped like a green VW bus. I want to say good-bye my way, in one loud fucking sayonara. I want to watch her soul bob along with everybody else’s, just bounce and drift along to heaven, or wherever, to the sea. I want to get drunk and say good-bye with fireworks. I want ash to fall in my hair, as though her body, all the bodies, have suddenly rocketed like firecrackers into the sky above me, above the noise, and then down through the smoke and the alcohol onto all of us who’re still stuck here.

Maybe I’ve been speaking out loud because Dad lets go of my arm. He says, “Hold on.”

I can’t move without pain. I’m staring at my candles, at the flames. The colors are melting into the snow. The breeze comes again, a whisper of ice against my face. I take Lonnie’s picture out of the shoebox and set it on top. Then I bend down to light the candles that are snuffed out. Dad puts his hands on his knees and bends down beside me. I ignore him. I strike a match against the matchbox, but the match breaks. I reach for a second.

“What’re you doing, John?”

“A Japanese thing I saw once.” I try to explain, but I realize I can’t quite move my hand, that I can’t quite move my lips.

I try a third match. I’m running out. Dad picks up a noisemaker, twists it around, and the sound is as cold as the temperature.

“I want you to know something,” he says. “I want you to know that I gave Lonnie most of the money that got you to Japan.”

I stop, hand in mid-air, the match lit. Our eyes meet. He looks away.

“I told her not to tell you. She wanted to, but I said no. I don’t know why.” Dad shrugs.

The match burns down. Takes me a minute to feel the sting. I drop the match in the snow, and then I can’t do anything. My head is spinning, and my hands. My fingers. Numb.

I scan the sky, looking across the whole shitty expanse of black for a light or a star or a constellation which will tell me where to go from here. But I’ve never been good with constellations; I’ve never been good at finding my way, and I know now, sitting here in the dead cold of winter, that I may never change.

We are side by side. Dad takes the matches from my hand. His hands are red, and he quickly pulls the match along the box. Slowly, methodically, he lights candle after candle. Red, blue, yellow, red, blue. Then he lights the sparklers.

We watch the sparklers fire up, then fizzle in turn. The last sparkler dies out, and then we stare at the candles, at the rainbow snow. The breeze sends cold air against my skin like a whip. The cold burns. I look over at my father, who’s staring into the flames.

“Arigato goziamashta.” My voice sounds thick.

He looks at me, lips parted. He doesn’t understand my thank you in Japanese, but he’s nodding when he turns to look at my Obon.

“All right then,” he says. He is aging, curving under the weight of grief and years, and he asks, “What do we do next?”

Then he picks up a noisemaker and hands me the other. He twists his noisemaker once, the sound like tearing cloth, and I join in, and then we twist the noisemakers round and round and round, ‘til the sound is all I can hear, and the sound is my goodbye.


Caitlin Hamilton Summie earned her MFA with Distinction from Colorado State University. Her short stories have been published in Puerto del Sol, Wisconsin ReviewMud Season Review, and Beloit Fiction Journal,and she has had a guest post published on “Motherlode,” the New York Times parenting blog. Her short story collection, To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, is due out from Fomite Press in August 2017.

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