Snow Angel




EVERYBODY WHO WATCHED any local TV news — like local newspaper reading, it’s possible that too may be in major decline — knew a week before that a continental mass of Arctic freeze was drooling southward onto central Texas. It was going to be real winter cold in Austin, where it’s mostly real hot seven to nine months a year.

I was normal, maybe even better than average aware. You warm-wrap your outdoor water spigots and let them drip. You set aside some drinking water. You cover your sensitive outdoor plants. I had a down bag, I think 15 degree (or -15, not sure), but it was warm. I’d had a good load of groceries delivered a couple of days before. They said up to a few inches of snow, weren’t sure it wouldn’t be the number-one, -two, or -three coldest weather records ever in Austin since once in the late ’40s or once before the turn of the 20th century.

But I started getting worried all day that Sunday before. It was like the hours before a cold or worse is coming on, a general unease, misgiving, dread. My ex in El Paso — still my closest friend — didn’t understand what I could be worried about. I had food, water, warmth. So what if I couldn’t drive out for a day or two. I agreed but still worried inexplicably. I wanted to go to sleep but, tired, even having done plenty of Fitbit minutes, I wasn’t relaxed enough for bedtime. When I finally forced myself under the covers — my down bag actually — I shifted from one side of my body to the other.

It was the tree, I decided. I have a large white oak in my backyard that leans toward my bedroom and, incidentally, toward me. Its lean is a degree or two on an angled line to smack the roof above and then the pillows at the head of my bed. Of course, it wouldn’t fall all the way down if it went, but it bothered me so much — the expense of fixing the roof alone — that years ago I had called a tree man to maybe cut it down, beautifully full grown though it was. He assured me it was safe, but he did cut off a few heavy limbs on the leaning side. That Sunday night in my bed, I visualized … what if this record cold storm, with the record snow, the heavy ice, what if the fates, the who knows what … I moved myself and bedding needs to the comfortable living room couch. That was a lot better. It was snowing, I could tell by the quiet. I fell asleep probably around 3:00 a.m.

I woke up before 7:00 a.m. It was cold outside my bag. I think my weather app said eight degrees outside the house. I also noticed that the phone was only 79 percent charged. I checked a light switch. No light. No power. It wasn’t the first time this had ever happened here. I’d lost power more than a few times, once because the box on a pole a street east of mine exploded, but only for a few hours. I’d gotten an email from Austin Energy telling everyone to reduce power use from Sunday to Tuesday to help the system out. There was a phone number to call if the power went out. I called that and it rang only a couple of times before a nice lady answered.

She very kindly said it probably was the rolling blackouts. They were happening across the state.

The state? I asked if she was sure, and couldn’t she know for sure? I was thinking about that electrical box on the pole over there.

No, she wasn’t sure. But probably it’d be back on in a few hours. Though it might take a day given the snow.

A few hours, or it might be a day?

It could be a day or even a few days, she said. No longer than Friday.

Right then I believed it would be at least until Friday. I always prefer expecting the worst case and planning on it.

She was very sweet-sounding. She didn’t say a cheery good morning, but she could have. She wasn’t trying to hide anything she knew or thought. She was always this way, unworried and kind. Perfect for this phone job because she didn’t think about what she was saying in any consequential sense. Or at least she hadn’t yet. Mine was an early call. It was answered so fast, like there were many service folks like her — I doubt it — or there had been few calls like mine yet. More likely. Maybe she’d just signed in. Probably working remotely from the comfort of her home even, due to the pandemic, with her power and heating on.

My battery was down 10 percent more after that call. I did have a battery charger. It could do two full charges. But I use my phone too much maybe, and it is an old one and its battery is weak, and normally I have to charge it three times during the day if it’s not connected. Two full charges isn’t that many hours of use.

I calculate what it is. Unless I get lucky, very probably I will be here alone. I say up to Friday, and maybe worse. I have food. I have some water and I can and will get more before it totally freezes, if that’s what happens — I don’t know. I have food. I am making myself warm. But I am alone. If I were with someone, I could do this, we could, I’m sure of that. Alone, I feel very uncertain of myself and my abilities.

I go ahead and text a few friends. It’s not too early for urgency, but they sleep with Do Not Disturb on their phone like most of us. I get one text back fast from a friend who lives behind me. He has no power.

I send out a few more texts and leave a couple of voice messages. I do searches for info.

The smart answer is: Don’t stay in your house for three or four frozen nights alone. My phone is 20 percent less battery now. I call El Paso and ask my ex to please book me in a hotel for today. I give her the name of the closest one, tell her to reserve and pay it, but if there are no rooms, whatever hotel downtown. Don’t think money.

Another friend texts that they have power. We talk on the phone. She insists I come stay with them. Get a Lyft, she says. It makes me feel good, relieved. I’m still half thinking I should wait. Maybe the power will come back on. We decide to talk again in an hour or so, to save battery. It’s in the 50 percent range now.

I check UberLyft apps. No available cars. Easy to predict since there’s probably no driving whatever in this city so unprepared for snow.

I pull out my winter clothes. I even take out long underwear but not to wear yet. A Patagonia pullover, an East Coast neck scarf, a long overcoat, thick gloves. I have a good wool watchman cap or two somewhere. I open my front door and my neighborhood looks like Wyoming or Denver. They will say it was a record six inches, nothing really in a heavy winter culture, but that’s a lot to me. There are snowy houses across the street with no driveways and no lawns or any street or curbs. There are no moving cars. Just snow and silence.

Without much clarity, I begin to organize the brain for the cold. I cannot walk to a neighbor’s house because I don’t walk that steadily when there isn’t snow. More confessionally: I’m afraid of this snow because I know I am likely to fall hard. I had a brain injury over a decade ago. I lost a lot of the use of my right side. My arm and hand and fingers, my leg too stiff. Once athletic, I can’t run ever again. I walk poorly but stubbornly without an aid, often enough pretty good considering. Sometimes not. I am not stable on my feet. I lived in Laramie for four snowy months in way-back times, 1994. The most snow I’d ever seen. Once I fell like in a cartoon, like I was trying to do a backflip and only made it up to horizontal when plop, straight down on my back. I popped right up, worried about my laptop, not my body. That flop would not be well received by this body now, and it won’t pop up in my best moments.

A text from El Paso. I have a room at the hotel a few miles away. The temperature outdoors is fixed at 12. I think the coldest weather I’ve ever walked in is 15 with a harsh wind in New York City.

I do not like the feeling of being fragile. Of being old and scared. Of being disabled. I am a functionally well-off disabled, I always tell myself. I try not to complain. So many are much worse.

A good friend around the corner texts that they are powerless and heatless. She has on many, many layers. She thinks it’s smart to get out, but she can’t because her husband is in quarantine. His elderly mother was in a senior home whose power went out days ago, who knows why, and he had to help her move to a hotel, and she has Covid. Now my friend and her husband are together in separate rooms. He can’t go anywhere, so she can’t either.

Another hour has passed, no power rolling in anywhere, and I call my friend in north Austin who said they’d come. Tells me to get a bag together, that they’re on their way. Some time passes, then she texts that their truck barely made it beyond their driveway. She and her husband and some neighbor are trying to get it out of the rut. A half hour later, maybe more, she asks if I can get there by Uber or Lyft. Or a taxi. Maybe hire a tow truck except I’d be the tow.

I call the 311 info line. It’s a wait and a lot of battery use but I finally get through. I ask if there is any specific information about the power outage. What neighborhoods, and how long?

No sir, the woman says. She’s a little more businesslike than her counterpart earlier, just sharp, direct. She’s had, I’m sure, more than a few calls this morning.

Do you know what the city is expecting and suggesting to those of us who don’t have power or heat?

She tells me they’re hoping it will all come back on soon in the affected areas, but they don’t know exactly. Best is if you just keep as warm as you can. If you feel like you can’t, we have a “warm center” downtown.

But there’s no way to get downtown.

It’s like she hadn’t considered that.

She suggests a taxi.

Thinking Uber or Lyft, I say I tried that. I think, fire can’t come, police can’t either.

She suggests I stay with family.

My family is in El Paso, a son now in Tampa. I’m alone.

She suggests friends.

They’re stuck. We’re all stuck where we are.

She doesn’t have more because there is no more.

Thirty-one percent battery, 12 degrees outside according to the app, still 44 inside if the thermostat is right. There are no cars available for Uber or Lyft.

I text a former neighbor who used to live next door but had to move in January. He’d cared for the elderly couple, friends, who lived there for maybe 40 years until they passed a year ago. The house is empty now, needing repair. He says of course he can come. They are staying in an apartment nearby, no power or heat either, but they have a propane cooker and he will even grill us all some carne for dinner. Muy mexicano, he tells me of course I can stay with them. He has his truck and can come get me. This sounds okay but I tell him we should wait until like 2:00 p.m. (it’s almost 1:00) because there’s that part of me that can’t believe they wouldn’t get the power back on by then. Also, it will be as warm then as it’s going to get. He says okay, to call him back.

As careful as I’ve been, I now have 14 percent battery. I try my battery charger. Instead of four blue dots, there are only two. Suddenly I’m more panicked. But through the kitchen window, I see my neighbors across the street. Their little children — I’ve watched them grow from bumps in their mother’s belly to screaming toddlers from my side of the window — are excited about the snow. I open the front door. Snow almost to my welcome mat. I have finished saltillo tiles on the front porch, and I dare not step there because it will be like stepping on oiled glass.

I yell, Are you guys doing okay? Warm?

He yells back they’ll be fine. They have a fireplace. Asks about me.

No fireplace, I say. Latest worry is this phone dying.

I want to say more but he’s running inside his house. Running. He can run. Then he’s back out shuffling through the powder — making sure each foot is on the ground the whole time — across the street to the edge of my front porch.

He has a few of these solar chargers, he says, handing me a gadget the size of a thick smartphone. It’s easy to hook up. And just call me if you need more.

Let’s exchange numbers, I say. I won’t try to explain why we never had before because there is no explanation.

When he handed me his charger, it was with that pandemic distance we all know well, his arm reaching out like only his fingertips could cross the imaginary limit, a cautious lean in. We all have different interpretations of the six-feet requirement, its courtesy and/or fear. But his was not that. He tells me that he’s being careful because he had a fever the night before and thinks it’s the Covid. (Later, it will be confirmed.)

I can’t think of more to say than how very sorry I am, that I hope it’s a light case. I say to let me know, call me.

I plug the charger into my phone. Four blue dots. I message him a huge thank you. I hear my brain saying go. I call my former next-door neighbor. Can you come? Now? Yes, he’s on his way. I am feeling like the chance to get out, the possibilities, are closing. That I have only a few hours left and then I’m here, like this, for days. He calls after about 15 minutes and says he’s having trouble but he will keep trying. I tell him to try but don’t do anything dangerous. He thanks me. Thirty minutes later he texts mi troca nomas patina, his truck just slides.

I am stuck until Friday. Nobody’s coming, nobody can. I do have food and water. I have a down bag and clothes.

311 is busy. I call 911. I tell the woman who answers I don’t have an emergency now, but I might and I just want advice. To prepare. She doesn’t like my call. Just an easy question, I say. Is there anyone to call in an emergency to come for me if somehow I get into trouble while I’m trapped here? Disabled, I can’t walk out. She can’t help me, she says sternly. Call 311, she demands.

I check UberLyft — nothing — so now I am setting up for my stay. I can only find a half-burned votive candle. Though I could have sworn I had two boxes of three or four, it’s been years and so many other people putting this that here there instead. I only remember the cute little holders and I don’t find them either, or I dumped them all myself somehow. I find a big old red Christmas candle. I remember its small flame. I have a flashlight but only one, the other with a dead bulb. I check UberLyft, nothing. I go to my car in the attached garage. I start it and dial around the stations, but nobody is talking about the power outage in Austin — much less what is being done about it — and I can’t take the happy or sweet or clever commercials. I look for a plug to charge the phone but no. I could stay in here, recline the seats, for a few hours every day. Maybe sleep with the heater on, the engine on, windows cracked. I check UberLyft, nothing. I unlock the garage door and I leave it a quarter open to let air in and out.

I grew up in L.A. smog. I spent many years in desert El Paso heat. I’ve never lived in the cold West or East and would never. Chicanos on skis? Are you kidding? I like the beach, but I don’t want to hang way out in the ocean to get chewed by sharks. I’m not unadventurous, just aware of my strengths and weaknesses and skills realistically. I’ve been in serious broncas with bad dudes. I’ve been a biker bar bouncer. Once I did a few days’ hike in Glacier National Park in Montana with two high school friends who’d become silver miners in northern Idaho. I was strong and brave then, young, howling fearless, or almost. We saw a grizzly bear from a high path on the opposite side of a river, and I decided I was not a mountain man. That bear was so huge I didn’t want him or her to ever see me again.

I didn’t know how I would do in this freeze, all by myself, alone. With my disability, my inabilities, easy things are hard. The seemingly easiest things can be the hardest. Signing my name, gone. Cutting food, cooking. Typing. I am slower with only one working hand. I make a ton of typos, but all I have to do is be patient. Right? I try, sincerely, but I am hyper, hot-blooded, more go go than wait, calmly, wait. I hold my phone with one hand. All is one hand only, a little help with the troubled right. I could go on. Add stress. Add lack of sleep. In this cold, I am scared of me and what could be my errors and misfunctions. With someone else around, it might not be a fun time, but we’d make it, and I’d be a help. If it’s three to four days in 20 degrees high and single-digit lower, I give myself, coldly, all alone, 50-50. [1]

I check UberLyft, nothing.

In utter silence, all by myself, alone. I want to love silence. I do. I want to be a Zen master and purr in the silence. The silence I do love is in a rage of brush or forest birds, a river, wind, frogs, crickets, cicadas, gulls, waves. The silence here is no cars or trucks, no highway, no copters, no jets, no TV over there, no ranchera music blasting farther away, no nada. The reflection of the so-white snow is the only loud. It is and will be me and me and whatever the brain is streaming. Honestly, I’m not Zen enough.

I keep checking UberLyft every 10, 15 minutes. Nothing.

I’m officially organizing. Where I will sleep. And sit most of the next days, the couch. Doors I close. In the kitchen I momentarily panic because I can’t find matches. I open every drawer and cupboard until I remember a basket where I’d scooped a thousand little nothings, and yes, there’s a wrapped set of Caballo Rojo match boxes from Spain or Mexico for smoking Cuban cigars. I don’t know where to start to light the oven in this stove. The burners are easy. Or should be. I can’t figure out how to light a match with one hand. It pains my unsteady soul that this is hard for me, too. When I finally spark one, I almost burn myself. I finally figure out to hold the box with the bad right hand and strike with the left. I light the burners.

No Ubers, no Lyfts, no little digital bug cars anywhere, nothing.

I have to surrender. I don’t feel that leaving the gas burners on is fire smart, or good for breathing, but for emergency warmth, they’re it. And the car. I’m not happy but what choice do I have? There is lots worse. The shellings in Syria. The floods in Honduras. There are those who cross the Sonora desert alone, in 100-plus degrees. There is dying of Covid, no breath.

I have to save my phone’s power. I can’t let myself hope there will be another charged charger. But I do have, by my calculations, an hour. At 4:00 p.m. it will be the “high” temp of the day, and then, like the sun, it will drop lower on the horizon and be dark in the house and then another storm and then colder.

When I check Uber, are those real options for a ride from my home to the hotel? Really? Comfort, UberX, UberXL. I take seconds to not pick wrong, but I have to be fast and, still guessing, choose Comfort because it’ll be a better car. Screen changes. Yes to this, yes to that, and pop, I have a digital bug car coming! The driver’s a few miles away, a familiar area near the river. He will have to cross a bridge. Austin bridges always ice in below freezing temperature, are accident prone. He was 12 minutes away. He is 12 minutes away for an uncomfortably long time, not moving. I don’t know how long I am staring at the screen. A long, long patient time. Maybe he’s dropping someone off. Maybe he’s stuck. Probably stuck. I text him. Do you think you can come for me? Are you able to come? There is no reply. Are you there? That one takes a long time in the Sending status until a red sentence appears that there is a connection problem. Of course, I don’t believe he can come, nobody can. He has no phone to contact him, I don’t know why. I text, I understand if you can’t make it, but can you call me please and let me know? I just want to know if this is real, if this can happen. I’ve searched the screen and there are no other car bugs anywhere. I don’t want to cancel him, but what if things have improved and there are a few drivers now and I will miss them waiting? Which I know is unlikely, but … My last text doesn’t get through and I resend. It will not go through. I resend again and wait on the pinwheel. And then, like a reboot, it says he is five minutes away.

I watch his bug car’s staccato jumps along nearby streets like it’s an action movie. Five, four, three minutes away. Every stop and turn. Every pause a possible End. He goes, he goes. Instead of turning south onto the access road along I-35, where he would run into my street and turn east, go under the highway and onward, he continues straight, past the line of my house, where he will turn south and then west — in other words circling to my house. GPS must have sent him that way. And then he is on a street on the higher side of mine and is approaching construction barriers right at my street. The city put them up a week before because of a broken water line. Cars are warned of the dead end a block before mine, and if he were to detour into the steep, jagged streets behind my house, he and his car would spend a week stuck in the frozen snow.

He doesn’t. He stops. He texts: I’m sliding on ice. I’m stuck. It’s a steep hill there, too. Time passes. OK, I got out but now I can’t go farther. Then, I can’t go any farther. I say, The construction, I know, you are so close, but really, though I’m trying hard, I can’t think what or how next. He writes, Can you walk here? I can walk there with no snow, but I will fall with it. I’m not sure I won’t fall 10 feet from my front door if I make one step out. No, he can’t walk to me, he won’t. I can’t, I write, I am disabled. I say, I’ll give you an extra $50. I should have offered more but I don’t want to sound like a nut job, do I? Ha! he writes back. He says, I’m sorry, I can’t get there. His bug car is turning around. He hasn’t clicked me off. Listen, I write, if you are going back the way you came, one more try? I tell him about the access road along the highway and a left turn straight up to my house. OK, he texts back.

And the bug car turns onto the digital access road, makes a left onto my digital street and then under the highway. That bug is digitally squirming going up — it is uphill, meaning thick snow — onto my street. I go to my front door to see if, unbelievably, the real car could — when there he is, at the top of my driveway! I am ecstatic, half numb from the blow of reality. I text: I’ll get my bag, be right out, can you pull into the driveway? That’s so I walk the least, reduce the slip and fall chances. Which, bad suggestion, big mistake, he does. My driveway tilts downward.

I am reluctant to step onto my saltillo tile porch. I shout if he could come and help me. He steps out of his car and stands and stares at me. I tell him that I’m sorry but that I think I need help walking. He doesn’t reply but, after a pause, he walks carefully in the snow to me. I give him my bag.

If I can just put my left hand on your shoulder, I tell him, that usually helps me walk steadier.

He stares at me and his hands are at his face, moving.

You’re deaf, I tell him. You can’t hear me.

But he knows the help I’m suggesting without words. He swings the bag over his shoulder — he’s a big young guy, a gimme cap covering his forehead, late 20s to early 30s, six one or two, over 200 pounds — and we step together. Of course, I slide the second step I take, but since I have my hand on his shoulder, I can handle it. The next step or two it’s his foot sliding, but easy adjustment, and we are on a concrete walkway, and we are at the car doors, and he opens mine and lets me get in, and he gets into the driver’s side, and the Uber car starts. I am getting out! I am not 50-50 to survive the igloo freeze by myself, in a stupid power outage cold, probably no phone, scared of myself alone and my damaged abilities, days silently waiting hoping alone.

He was the only available Uber in Austin. The only and the last — the last for several days to follow — and he came for me. Why, how? UberLyft drivers drive because they don’t have enough money, they need to make money to live. Probably he didn’t realize that there were no other Ubers out, didn’t realize that conditions were as bad as they were. He didn’t know he was really an angel sent by God to save me.

The car starts scooting sideways, wheels spinning, as he backs up on my inclined driveway, then slides back down. This goes on until we are diagonal. I talk, suggest, but he’s deaf, he doesn’t hear me, his backseat driver. We have to communicate. There are no other humans to translate our cultures and words. We become primitive men on primordial earth, neither of us a common language. I make my hand signs, motions, to tell him to back the car onto the lawn, don’t worry, and turn around that way. Yes yes, more more, all that he doesn’t hear from me as he gets the car pointing the other way. Then he wails on the gas and the back tires spin. We both get out of the car, and he digs snow with his hands ahead of the front tires. I am not positive, but I think it’s the back tires that need help, some sticks of wood for them to jump on and over, but we both agree in making shoveling motions with our hand language.

I step very carefully to my garage and go in for the small flat shovel I have. He scrapes all he can in front of the car to the street. I feel worthless, prematurely 99-years-old, I can do so little to help him. I am torn between walking, and maybe falling, to be near him and where the action is, or just sitting, no potential injuries, pathetically in the backseat, not adding more trouble. It takes some time. Fifteen minutes at least, could be more. I will tip him well, I promise. All I can do for him is give him money. I cannot believe, I’m sure he cannot believe this either. When he’s ready, I point to his car’s trunk several times for him to keep the shovel. It’s his now.

He steps on the gas and the car climbs, as jagged as a digital bug, but it retreats. Again and again, he tries, he gets close. He gets out and takes the shovel to move more snow he thinks may be impeding the front tires, never near the back ones, and he stomps on it until we stop, almost facing sideways. I am now imagining we are stuck, he will stay with me, and though it will be a freezing silence for both of us … But he steps on it steadier a few times. I am getting excited, I am yelling, Yes, just a little more, don’t let up on the gas, don’t stop! He is so close. I yell, Just jump the curb if that’s where it’s going, don’t try to fit it in the driveway, but thankfully only God can hear me, not this driver. He doesn’t hear me, and he shouldn’t. He does not need me … when then the right tire hops over the curb and we are on the snowy street and I am in an unmuted howl of Yes yes yeah you did it you did it!

I put my left hand on his big shoulder from the backseat and slap it a couple of times. We drive downhill and it becomes steeper a small way from my house. Two cars have been left there on the uphill side. Our car fishtails some going down, but it can and does stop at the light, where it flattens. The last long leg to the hotel is a downhill too, but, though we encounter no cars in either direction, there are tire ruts to ride in, even if we feel the car sliding a couple of times. And then a right turn, a left, a right, and it’s the hotel. I am safe. I am rescued.

He comes around not because I wait for him but because I am slow to swing my legs out the door. He gets my bag and reaches his hand to pull me up. I am also, I think, in a bit of survivor shock that I am here. Up, I get my usual unsteady balance and he sets himself so I can put my left hand on his right shoulder to step to the hotel doors. I don’t think I need to, except there is snow, and I do it. When we pass the first set of doors, in the dry area, he backs off. He does not make a bye-bye sign we all know but raises his hand for goodbye. I say, out loud, Thank you, thank you so much, and he doesn’t hear me, he can’t, but that doesn’t matter, and I want to, in this Covid world, at least touch my hand to his shoulder, only he is already out the door, looking ahead, hearing far beyond me.

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Dagoberto Gilb is the author of, among others, The Magic of BloodWoodcuts of Women, and Before the End, After the Beginning. He was the founding editor of HUIZACHE: the magazine of Latino literature. He lives in Austin.

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[1] In the end, my house, like all those in my neighborhood, was without power or heating from early Monday morning until the late afternoon on Thursday, February 8–11, somewhere around 84 hours. The vast majority of Austin suffered either the same or worse, many without water as well.

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Featured image: “49/365 Slushy roads” by Judy Gallagher is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

 

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