Storm of the Century

 

By:  Roberta Burton

DAY 1: March 13, 1993

Damn. No power. No fire in the wood stove. Must have gone out. Cliff’s breathes ice crystals as he hops out of bed and rushes to put on his heaviest clothes. No firewood downstairs. He puts Snooky, his aunt Ev’s obnoxious schnauzer, outside on the covered stoop, without looking beyond. The thermometer reads minus six degrees. He hurries back upstairs to get what warmth is left.

He looks through the picture window at a world covered in white. Trees, like dark toothpicks, stick out of the snow. What looks like a midget to him, dressed as spring, galumphs up the hill.

As he retrieves Snooky, he realizes the dog hasn’t left the stoop with its inch or two of snow. Should’ve looked beyond the covered stoop he thinks as he notices the figure he saw earlier turned toward the cabin. Hmm? Only a woman would be wearing art for a jacket, one that looks like a spring bouquet with its bright colors. Oh, she’s not a midget; the snow is up to her knees. No wonder she’s struggling.

She arrives out of breath, her face wind-beaten. Wind-chill factor must be in the negative double digits.

“Hi, I’m Evelyn’s neighbor. Green house down the hill. Who’re you?”

“Cliff Stephens. Her nephew.”

“I wondered whose car was parked at the bottom of the hill when I came in last night. I’m parked right behind you.”

“Aunt Ev had knee surgery yesterday. I came to take care of her while she recuperates. When I left the hospital last night, snow had begun to fall. Aunt Ev warned me not to drive up the hill. That’s a steep half a mile.” Jackie nods. “It seems I won’t be doing much caregiving today. Can I help you?’

She furrows her brow. “I’m Jackie Johnson. I have no heat in my house. I’ve not had my chimney checked out since I moved in, so I ‘m afraid to light a fire. I do have plenty of firewood though. I thought maybe Evelyn would let me stay with her in exchange for wood.”

“Your timing is excellent. I couldn’t find any wood around here.”

“I suspected as much. That’s Evelyn. Doesn’t usually plan ahead.”

“So I’ve noticed. She called me at the last minute to come stay with her. Fortunately, I’ve six months leave. Aunt Ev needed me and I needed to get away.” Had he left himself open to a lot of questions?

Jackie shakes out her shoulder-length chestnut curls and asks, “Why didn’t she call her daughter?” Cliff suspects that she’s uncomfortable about staying with a strange man. Not that he could blame her reticence.

“Have you met Nicki?”

Jackie nods. Cliff watches her swallow her smile and then, as if unable to contain herself any longer, Jackie bursts out laughing. Her laughter tinkles through the silent air.

Cliff”s heart lightened. “You know why she didn’t call her.” He chuckles as he says,  “Back to your offer. I’d be grateful for the wood if you’re willing to share my warmth.”

“Thank you,” she says. The tension leaves her face. Her shoulders drop. “You may have saved my life.”

“And you, mine. Don’t think either of us would make the night alone, without heat.” Cliff grabs his jacket and gloves. “Two of us should be able to get enough wood to last through the night in one trip.”

Cliff can’t tell if they’re on the road or land until he sees the woodpile. They’re staying off the road. It’s colder, even more miserable than he’d expected. Icy needles prick his face. The wind gusts so tenaciously, it’s hard to remain vertical. To Cliff, Jackie looks tiny as she battles the knee-deep snow. They head to the woodpile, the air pungent with burning wood. All homes on the nearby mountains are using wood stoves.

A crack, like a gunshot, then a thud. Jackie stops, startled. “I think a tree just fell,” she says.”

They strain to get to the woodpile, even though it’s downhill. They arrive out of breath, and begin picking up wood, some pine for starter, but mostly oak. Want a slow burning fire with plenty of heating power.

Jackie’s forehead crinkles. She asks, “Are you the nephew who lives in California?”

Cliff inclines his head. “So she talked about me?” What it is about this woman that makes me want to open up to her. That is, besides her magnificent ass, fetchingly rounded inside those ski pants.

“Not much. I just remember she mentioned you live in California. What part?”

“A little town in Marin called Novato.”

Jackie asks, “Do you know Pierce Drive?”

“You know Novato?”

“Lived there from ‘69 to ‘71,” she says. Cliff wonders what other connections they have. When they return to the house with the wood, Cliff relights the fire.

“Cliff, does Evelyn have instant coffee around?”

“She doesn’t. Has an old-fashioned drip coffee maker though. I can boil some water once the stove gets hot.” Thank God this stove has a nice large surface. Perfect for cooking.

“Great idea. While you’re restarting the fire, I’m going to check on my dog and cat. I’ll bring back a couple of bags of coffee. Do you know of anything we might need?”

I’m glad that we’ve made a narrow path between the two houses. Jackie will have an easier time both going and coming back.

“A battery radio would be nice.”

Jackie shrugs. “No can do. Don’t have one.”

“I’m sorry you can’t bring your animals here, but Snooky will cause all sorts of trouble.”

“I know. I’ve dealt with Snooky before. My animals’ll be fine. I made them a tent with a blanket and two dining room chairs. They’ll keep each other warm. I cracked the door so they can come and go as they please. My cat’ll go to her cave.”

Cliff watches Jackie walk down the hill. She has a dancer’s walk. Meanwhile, he gets the fire going again. He looks around the kitchen to see what he can find to make them more comfortable. He lets his mind wander. I just might enjoy sharing this house with Jackie. So much for my plan to hibernate while working through my recent news. There’s something about her that feels familiar. Had they crossed paths before? Is she the one?

While waiting for Jackie to return, he checks out the bedroom where she’ll stay. It’s cold, but the wood stove’ll warm the entire upstairs. If not, we’ll figure something out. Freezer is full of all sorts of good food. We’ll eat well. Boxes of steaks. That’s good.

By the time Jackie returns, the house is warm, or at least warmer than it was. He watches her as she begins to remove her jacket of many flowers and colors. Its basic color is blue-violet. Large stems of a medium green run from top to bottom in places. A bright, lighter green fabric is sewn on for leaves. Embroidery in different shades of green adds veins to the leaves. Shades of red, fuchsia, lavender, pink, a medium blue-green, and red-violet in varying sizes make up the flowers, some of which have yellow centers

“Beautiful jacket.”

“Thanks. Got it in Alaska, from an artist who sewed every flower and stem on by hand. It’s one of a kind. Warm, too,” she says as she shows him the hot pink fuzzy lining. She removes her boots. “Forgot to bring dry shoes. At least I have on two pairs of socks.”

“You might step in a puddle. Snooky doesn’t seem to know what “house broken” means. Come. Sit. Enjoy the heat. As soon as the stove gets hot enough, I’ll fix us something to eat, if you’ll make us some coffee.

Jackie laughs. “We may be grateful that Snooky pees in the house. At least we’ll have clean snow to heat for water.”

Great sense of humor. I like this woman. “I noticed that you get up and down the hill fairly easily now that we’ve carved a path.”

“Yeah. I do a lot of walking on hilly streets when I take patients into town.”

“Patients? What do you do?”

Jackie says, “I’m the staff psychologist at the hospital. Take the patients on walks when I need a break from the psychiatric unit where I work. What do you do?”

“Work at a state psychiatric hospital in the Bay Area. Specialize in addiction. Get all the alcoholics and addicts admitted to the hospital.”

“My specialty, too. How did you end up with that population?” Jackie asks.

Cliff takes a breath. Damn. He’d waltzed right into that one. Can he trust her? “Seemed to have been at the right place at the right time. You?”

Jackie curled her legs under her. “I entered through the back door of Al-anon. I was married to an alcoholic. I did all those crazy things like hid his booze, poured it out, screamed, yelled, and generally tried to control his drinking until I attended Al-anon. He got sober, went to AA, and because of my Al-anon program, I went back to school. Got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Western Carolina University.”

“That’s in Cullowhee, isn’t it?” Jackie nods. “You said ‘was married.’ Did going back to school break up your marriage?”

“According to my mother, it had everything to do with it. Going back to school may have had something to do with the divorce, but the alcoholism was the primary reason. He stopped drinking. The accompanying behavior didn’t change.”

Okay. We now have two connections. Aunt Ev may be right about her. Here I thought she was just using Jackie as a ruse to get me here.

We spend the day checking out Aunt Ev’s house for emergency items, talking about our habitual routines – whether or not they mesh—to make ourselves comfortable here, and drinking coffee. Toward the end of the afternoon we settle into a routine where Jackie reads. I write. We each now have our own battery-powered lantern, found in Aunt Ev’s garage. Good thing the batteries work.

DAY 2:

“Good morning. You sleep well?” I ask Jackie as she stumbles out of the bedroom.

“I did. Oh, you made coffee. What a dear man you are. How’d you sleep?”

“I managed to keep Snooky off the bed, so I slept well. No urine smell.”

Jackie smiles, “Good. How are we doing for wood? The house is so toasty.”

“We’ll need to make a wood run sometime after we have our coffee and some breakfast. We might need to make two trips as we’re burning the last of what we got yesterday.”

“I’ll also need to feed my animals. Didn’t think to tell you yesterday; I have a regular phone, not a portable one. It works. You’re welcome to use it.”

“I should probably check on Aunt Ev.”

“You can do that while I take care of the animals. Oh, my dog may growl at you. She was abused in a frat house on campus. The experience left her with a mouth that looks like she’s snarling, when she’s actually smiling. Anyway, she’ll be fine as long as you show no fear. Somehow, I don’t think I need to worry about that.”

We finish our coffee, then set out to accomplish the tasks at hand. As soon as I enter Jackie’s home, I see her floral watercolors, flowers that draw me into another dimension. The longer I look at them, the calmer I feel. I know this is the artist I’ve been seeking. I recognize her signature even though her style and medium are very different from her earlier ones. I wonder how to bring up the subject.

DAY 3:

We discover Aunt Ev’s stash of rum and a mix that, according to Jackie, makes the rum taste like hot buttered rum. I opt for coffee. We’re sitting around the stove. I’m cooking steaks and experimenting with baking potatoes in a covered pan, when Jackie asks about my work.

Jackie takes a sip of her drink. “You said you had annual leave, you must have been at your job for awhile.”

This is not what I want to discuss. “Been working at the facility for fifteen years.”

“I’m unfamiliar with state-run programs. Do you use the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous as part of your treatment?”

“Yeah, AA is the foundation. I run daily groups, do treatment plans with the patients, plus I often have to find places for them to stay. Halfway houses, mostly.”

Jackie sips her drink. “My job is similar, except for the social work part. My degree is in clinical psychology. Fortunately, I get to do more treatment than testing.”

“I gathered that from what you said about going back to school, you prefer working with alcoholics and addicts.”

“I have more knowledge about addiction, but mostly I like working with anyone who has a chronic mental illness. Seeing minute changes in the patients juices me up. My interest in alcoholics stems from my marriage.”

“What was your marriage like?”

“We were married thirteen long years. When I married him. I didn’t know anything about addiction. He was a binge drinker, so when he promised to quit, I believed him. He was a violent drunk. Picked fights. Many nights, I’d wake up being beaten about the head, kicking to protect myself. I usually ended up being thrown on the floor.” Jackie flinches. She moves to the stove to refill her cup with coffee. One drink was enough.

When she returns to her chair, “It took me six years into the marriage to figure out that if I didn’t get into the bed with him, I wouldn’t get hurt. As time moved on, the alcoholism progressed.” Snooky growls and his little paws run. A dream.

Of course, I got crazier and crazier thinking I could control his drinking. If only I was a better wife, a more beautiful wife, a better lover. You name it. I thought it. Finally, I took the advice of a friend and tried Al-anon. What freedom! I learned that ‘I didn’t cause it. I couldn’t control it. I couldn’t cure it.’”

I notice a look of relief in her eyes as they soften. The dull brown chair sets off the brightness of Jackie’s pale yellow sweater.

“When I finally made the decision that I was willing to stay and watch him die, he got sober. Well, dry. That first year, he went to meetings and worked the twelve steps of AA. It was the best year of our marriage. Both of us dealt with our own issues from the common denominator, the Twelve Steps.”

Jackie gets up and paces. The pot of water, with an added cinnamon-stick used as a humidifier, fragrances the room.

“At the end of the first year, almost to the day, he had a heart attack and open-heart surgery. Then he became impotent from the clogged arteries and veins. He made his impotency my fault.

“Things just went downhill from there. I kept doing my part by working on me, which was the impetus for going back to school to get my degrees. By the time I left, he was accusing me of having affairs with other students and the professors. I recognized the paranoia of a late-stage alcoholic. I moved out. Divorce was nasty, but I did get enough money to finish my degrees.”

“You continued school while you were getting a divorce?”

“Yeah. Funny thing, I picked up a book on divorce right after I moved. It listed the order in which feelings and behaviors generally occur in the divorce process. I had completed every one of them except the first one: breaking the denial. When that happened, I moved within two weeks. I’ve never had one regret about leaving. What about you? Are you, or have you been married?”

Oh, shit. Here it comes. Cliff’s muscles tighten. Damn it, he thinks as is eye begins to twitch. He begins to raise his hand to scratch his nose, but drops it back to the chair arm. “I was married once. I’d graduated from Berkeley. Moved across the bay so I could take a job in public relations. We’d had our daughter. That was in sixty-five. He picks up his glass of water.

“The dreaded letter came. Fortunately, the birth of our daughter kept me out of  Vietnam, but the stress of having a child the first year of our marriage exacerbated my tendency toward addiction. Became involved in the Haight-Ashbury drug culture—mostly weed. Later, I began snorting heroin. Hate needles.”

Jackie shifts in her chair, tucking her feet up under her. A sunbeam hits the top of her head, causing a halo around her dark curls.

“Too deep to get out, I soon lost my job. As you can imagine, my family came next. What use was a down and out drug addict as a husband and father?

“Remained in my drug addiction until the winter of seventy-two. Don’t know what happened to me. One night, I stood on a street corner and looked at the smiling and laughing couples in a restaurant and bar’s plate glass window. I was so depressed that I was trying to figure out how best to kill myself. At that moment, something came over me. It was as if someone saw my pain and felt it with me.” Jackie rivets her eyes on Cliff drilling a wormhole into his heart.

“Took me six months to get clean. Then I went to AA. Thought alcohol was my problem. Little did I understand. Sorry, I’ve told you far more than you wanted to know.” She’s going to run like hell.

“No you didn’t. Thank you for sharing your story with me. I was living in San Francisco at the same time, different area from the Haight, but the hopelessness was the  same.”

DAY 4:

Damn, this woman turns me on. The more I’m around her, the better I like her. She’s comfortable to be with, sexy even with all those layers of clothes. Love to see her naked right now. As we trudge back up the hill with our second daily allotment of wood today, Jackie interrupts my lusty thoughts.

“When were you in San Francisco?”

“Sixty-nine through seventy-four. You?”

“Seventy-one to seventy-three. On Nob Hill from January of seventy-two to August of seventy-three.”

“You lived on Nob Hill?”

“I did. I had this fabulous apartment with a view of the Golden Gate and I looked down on Polk Street from my living room window.

“Polk Street?” So that’s how she got that perspective of me.

Jackie stops. She turns to look Cliff in the eye as she says, “Your tone is confusing.” Perplexed, she asks, ‘Surprise? Something clicked?”

“The latter. I have a confession to make.” Jackie looks at Cliff quizzically. “Two years ago, I found a painting that captured my despair the night I was contemplating suicide. Aunt Ev told me your name and that you’d lived in California. Of course, I only recognized the first name. I found out all I could about you. “ Jackie’s eyes open wide.

“I was standing under a street lamp, in front of a bar on Polk Street. The view was from above. When I bought the painting, I longed to find the artist to let her know what a profound influence she’d on me that night. You’re that artist, aren’t you?”

Jackie barely raises and lowers her head.

The song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” keeps running through his head. He wants to take her in his arms and never let her go. A shadow of sadness crosses her face. Her lips tremble as if she’s holding back tears. Had he said too much?

“Do you think I’m completely nuts, and a stalker to boot?” Had he said too much?

Jackie shakes her head. The tears come into her eyes. “I remember that night well. What you saw in that painting was my feeling of hopelessness. My desperation. I guess that’s why I captured yours. Yes, I was watching you. Yes, I did understand your pain. Do you realize what a gift you’ve given me? The gift of knowing I made a difference in your life just by noticing.” Her voice soft as a cotton ball. “Thank you,”

DAY 5:

The woodpile is dwindling. How much longer can we keep burning so much wood before we run out.

Jackie touches me when she talks to me. Her face brightens when she walks into the room. I wonder how obvious I am, don’t want to frighten her or make her uncomfortable. That could make our remaining time, cooped-up in this small space, disastrous. I become much more aware of what I’m doing. We still have no idea when we’ll get out of here. God, I want her.

DAY 6:

Six straight days of freezing temperatures. Still no sign of warming. At least not today. Something’s gotta give. We need to think about conserving wood. We’ve returned from our trek to Jackie’s for wood and contact with the outside world. I’m surprised at how much more wood we’re able to carry than the first day. We set the wood down inside the door. As we’re removing our boots and jackets, Jackie brushes against me. That’s it. I can stand it no more. I grab her and pull her to me. She leans into me. “This feels so nice,” she says.

“Uh huh.” I hold her tighter. She lifts her face to me. She tries to kiss me as I move my face away. Oh, God. I want this woman. If I kiss her, I won’t stop there.

Jackie moves away. “Breakfast?”

When we get upstairs, she puts on a pot of coffee while I scramble some eggs on the wood stove. We’ve just finished eating when Jackie asks, “What just happened downstairs?”

“I don’t know where to start.”

“Try the beginning.”

“I came to help Aunt Ev for two reasons. One was in hope of finding the artist who painted my desperation years ago. The second was to process some news I received three weeks ago. That’s why I’ve spent my days writing.”

“I wondered about that.”

“When I had my annual AIDS test last month, it came back HIV positive. An AIDS patient spit in my eye about nine months ago. The test was negative then.”

“Yeah, it takes six months to show up.”

“Right, but no one thought of that, including me. I know I can live a long time with the virus without it developing into full-blown AIDS.” Jackie gestures her agreement.

“I spent the week before flying here researching everything I could find on the subject. The best information I’ve gotten so far is from an AIDS counselor in New York City. He’s the one who told me that I could be positive without symptoms.”

Jackie’s leans forward.

“I’d planned to be retested while I’m here. I’ve been celibate for over three years. The only exposure that I’m aware of is the addict who spit in my eye. Immediately washed my eye out. Know that sounds farfetched, but it’s the truth.”

“I’m so sorry,” Jackie says. “Anything I can do?”

I wish Aunt Ev had a couch instead of recliners. I want to be close to her. “You’re already doing it. Just talking about it helps. Am I in denial when I want another test? I know I want to go back to a time before I heard the news.”

“I know. Been there.  It took me six weeks to adjust to my crisis. I just wanted everything to return to normal. Somehow I got used to a new normal. Did you read the article that came out last week about testing results in the western world? It seems that what is deemed positive in one country, is deemed negative in another. I suspect that goes for individual labs, too.”

“Now you know why I turned away from kissing you this morning.”

Jackie’s voice softens. “Yeah. Thank you.”

I walk over to Jackie’s chair. I pull her up. I wrap my arms around her. “I want to do more than kiss you, and I want to do nothing to jeopardize your life.”

“You have no idea how much I appreciate that. That’s why you were so careful about our food, isn’t it? I noticed that you always cook. I never thought that your immune system might be compromised. We can still hug or hold hands, can’t we?

I nod, “Do you want to risk getting infected by being this close to me?”

Jackie nestles into my chest. “I’ve learned I can never go wrong following my heart. Right now, my heart says it’s the right thing to do. Besides being close to you won’t infect me.”

DAY 7:

While we’re at Jackie’s, I call Aunt Ev. She’s doing okay. Jackie calls her friend Denise. Denise tells Jackie to be at the bottom of her steep drive at eleven sharp. She and her partner are coming out. Their road just got cleared. Denise’s plan is to drive into town for showers at a friend’s house. They’ll drop Jackie off at the hospital. Then pick her up an hour later, for lunch.

This is the first time I’ve seen Jackie move around her house, getting clean underwear, clothes, toiletries and make-up. She looks ecstatic, like a woman on a mission. She stops. A shadow falls across her face. I ask, “What’s wrong?” She’s having second thoughts about me.

“There’s only room for me in the truck. I feel terrible about leaving you stuck here. You must feel grungy. I’m headed to the psych unit for a shower, and to check out how they’re doing. Hopefully, I’ll be able to go in tomorrow.”

“Don’t worry about me. Go take care of yourself and your business. I’ll be fine.”  I remember why I’m here. “If you get a chance, stop by Aunt Ev’s, will you?”

“Sure. Anything else you’d like while I’m out?”

“A hot hamburger and fries.” I reach for my wallet and hand her a twenty.

Jackie waves away my hand. “Nah. I’ve got some. I’ll see you in a few hours looking much better. Smelling better, too.”

I touch her hair. “You’re beautiful right now, and I love the way you smell.”  Jackie puts on her colorful jacket as she wrinkles her nose.

“Bye.”

Jackie comes back looking like she’s had a life changing experience. “Evelyn is up and about. She can care for herself now.” I take a bite of my hamburger. It’s still hot.

“Nothing but emergency vehicles can get up here. Walking is even treacherous. Looks like Evelyn will stay put awhile.

“Once we have power, I’ll help clean up our mess. You’re welcome to stay at my house until Evelyn comes home. No urine. You can leave Snooky home by himself. Just let him out during the day.”

“You’ve thought this through, haven’t you?”

“Yeah I want you to stay because I want you there. I also think you deserve living free of dog pee for whatever time we have before life goes back to normal”

“Thanks. I appreciate that but . . .”

“Don’t worry, Have two bedrooms. You’ll even have your own bath.”

“You’re not afraid?”

“Nah. We’ve done well so far. As for going beyond that, I’ll make my decision when the time comes.”

Jackie looks at me quizzically. “You’re frowning. Afraid of infecting me?”

“Yeah, guess I am.

“Let me worry about that. I’m a grown woman. Can make my own decisions. AIDS or not, it won’t be made lightly.”

Jackie grimaces as she says, “it could just as easily have been me. One of the addicts on my unit had AIDS-caused dementia. He spit at me. If he’d connected, I could be facing the same thing.

“In that case, I accept your offer. How nice it’ll be to walk around in socks without stepping in a puddle.”  I grab her and pull her into me.

She grins, “I know. Me too.”

Night arrives. Power returns.

Newscasters called it the storm of the century.

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