Orphans Of The Storm
It was just after dusk, in the darkening before the streetlights go on in front of the house across from ours.
Two buildings down on our side is an old house which has been re-habbed a bit, and turned into a shelter for victims of domestic abuse and those recently made homeless. As I understood it, people could stay there only until they make other arrangements
A mid-March evening, snowing lightly, nothing unusual around here, north of the mountains; snow can happen all the way through May, and I’ve seen it in early June. As the local joke goes: We’ve got two seasons: Winter and the 4th of July.
Ann said, “There’s some people walking down the street.” Our street is pretty quiet, so we have to take whatever little entertainment it coughs up.
I looked out through the snow and the grey light, just catching the backs of the cluster: an adult, a child or two, a dog on a leash.
“Was that a baby carriage? How many were there?”
“I think so. It looked like a man and a woman, and a couple of children.”
“And a dog. And a baby carriage.”
“ Yeah, I guess so. I couldn’t see the dog.”
The viral epidemic had already become almost visible in the air, a kind of pale mist, tinting everything you looked at and talked about. But then there was the other thing, that you take pretty much for granted if you’ve lived here as long as we have– about giving a hand where one is needed, without making much of it, partly because, chances are, given the scarcity of what you might call professional assistance, you’ll be needing help yourself some day or other. I mean like, once when we were a lot younger, trying to get back across the mountains through Franconia Notch, which on a December night, like it was, is 15 uninhabited miles of trees, rock cliffs, snowbanks, icy wind and temperatures about 8 above zero.
And no traffic.
And a shitbox of a Ford Pinto with a failing, then suddenly defunct alternator.
And two kids, girl aged eight, boy six, wife ageing fast, German Shepherd me, nearly demented, with what I’d got us into: Car stalled out, no heater, kids getting a little chilled, wife silent, waiting; dog, whining nervous (Garthe hated riding in a car, much less being stuck in one in the middle of nowhere.)
(Did I mention we’d turned around from our annual Christmas trip south to her parents when the alternator started to go?)
So: Freeze to death in the car, or hoof it to the maybe phone at Cannon Mountain, some miles ahead. A no choice choice: so of we went. No cars. Plodding along through the–no other word for it– bitter cold, making up a north country adventure as we went.
Almost there, kids.
There? Where there might not be a phone at all, and maybe no shelter because the ski area had been closed for hours. A night watchman? Maybe. Cleaners? Possibly.
Dark black, enclosed between the cliffs glittering a little here and there, ice patches picking up the star light, from the high distance of those infinite spaces. Cold as ice on ice. Trying not to pass on how small one feels to the small mittened hand in your own.
A mile. Then two maybe. Tough kids finally starting to feel it.
Are we almost there? Just a little ways more, past the lake.
Then suddenly on the trees ahead, a flicker of light. Two cars appear, heading south. We cross, waving frantically. They both pull up: both, the back vehicle plowing, incidentally, into the snowbank.
Ed Davis in his pickup, whom I knew slightly from town:
“Sure, I’ll take you home,” :
No problem, fifteen miles the way he’d just come, no doubt on his way somewhere for his own Christmas. I pile unthinking in the front with the heater and both kids, she in the unheated cap with the dog and Ed’s fairly ripe garbage cans: This was thirty or forty years ago, and I may have yet not lived that part down. Or the whole thing really. ( I tend not to bring it up.) – So long story short, that’s the way we do here, I’ve done it myself, a few times. You sort of have to.
And I thought of all that, thinking about the people now walking away from the shelter, probably turned out, towards wherever they had to go next, wherever you go when you’ve been turned out or away from a homeless shelter. And I thought of the virus too and at the same time, the risk that it poses by contact, or even proximity for people of our age in particular, and in our particular condition.
The small family kept going out of sight, and finally disappeared into the night, to which I breathed a small sigh of relief. Because I’d already asked myself, “What if they see the light in the window, and turn toward our presumably warm house, and arrive on our doorstep?” Just as we’d stumbled across in front of Ed Davis’s pickup truck on the icy night in late December, in Franconia Notch, just before Christmas, with two kids, and a dog—though at least we weren’t pushing a baby carriage— and he’d stopped for us and brought us safely home without even giving it a second thought.
Yes, I’d already asked myself that next painfully obvious question.
I still don’t know the answer.