It felt like stepping through crunchy paste, like pressing his feet into drying liver – just solid enough to squelch, just loose enough to give. He had never seen snow like it: heavy and wet yet resistant and unyielding. Its surface was hard enough to seem like a crust, and just sloppy enough to seem like mud. It sucked at his soles as he lifted his feet and crunched as they fell.
The snow’s substance adhered to no specific set of characteristics – merely walking on it confused and dazzled him. Patrick made his way down the nearly pitch black alley connecting his driveway with street, carrying a snow-shovel in each hand and a moving with determined hustle. To his left, a row of buried hedge branches protruded like skeletal fingers from a six-foot wall of snow. The wiry branches sticking out like grasping hands from the stained mass of filthy snow were all that could be seen of the bushes: the rest lay beneath the oily boulders of ice and snow thrown up by the various trips of the plow.
It was that plow that had put the spring in Patrick’s step. They had been barreling around the suburban streets with as much inertia as they could safely maintain all night now: a speed mandated by the thick snow rather than the drivers. Any plow that came down the alley now would present Patrick Richards with two options.
He could furiously climb the pile of snow on his left – hoping it wouldn’t crumble and send him spilling immediately into the onrushing blade of the plow. His other option would be to leap fourteen feet straight up into the air, onto the roof of his neighbor’s garage, hoping that a wealth of jewels and beautiful women would be waiting up there to start doing his house work. Because as long as he was going to imagine being able to jump fourteen feet into the air, why the hell stop there?
Up until the last two snowfalls, using the alley to get to his front yard would never have crossed Patrick’s mind. The same, ever-deepening footprints through the snow in his yard, down into which he had continued to carefully place his feet, had vanished, swallowed up by the preceding snowfall and then sealed away beneath a layer of this strange, squelching stuff. Yesterday morning, the last time he had tried to use them, he made it two steps before giving up: he had been buried almost past his belt.
With no choice but to use the alley, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was putting himself in harm’s way. His feeling of helplessness grew as he made his way from the glow of his backyard motion lights into the darkest spot of the alley.
Here, no garage lights shone, and the streetlights still lay up ahead. The interlocking, Venn diagrams of light thrown from this lamp or that house or this sign that so characterized every other part of this block failed in this one patch. No light post stood near it. The neighbor’s paint-peeling garage sat dark: it held nothing of use and its owners had lit it accordingly. Patrick had long since passed out of the circle of his own yard’s light, with the clear border of the streetlight’s glow still in the distance.
His legs churned faster. The handles of the two snow-shovels bounced in the air above his head as he sped himself to a jog. One snow shovel had a curved blade while the other sported a long, flat end. One for excavating, one for hacking. Patrick didn’t much like manual labor but when he must come, he came prepared. His legs vanished in the snow somewhere between the shin and the knee, and when they pulled free of that strangely slush like snow, they did so with a tearing sound and a sucking sound, with a shearing-sound and a slurping sound. It made him run even faster.
It didn’t take long. The time it took him to walk along that dark space – past two empty garages, a couple fences, and a buried hedge – seemed to stretch out while he was in it, yet still occupied no more than the space of ten seconds.
Now that he was here, he could get to work. Thoughts of plows were forgotten as he laid into the surprisingly difficult labor of shoveling about twenty-five feet of sidewalk clear of thick, wet snow.
Patrick’s front walk – a walk which, like all St. Paul residents, he was required to clear within twenty-four hours of a snowfall – was full of frozen detritus thrown there by the plow. Nearly finished, he had worked himself into a good sweat with the aerobic intensity of his effort. The same strange combination of freezing temperatures and extreme humidity that had led to such unusual snow made the going uncomfortable.
Slowing down, he surveyed his work. Only a small patch remained.
In two quick thrusts of the long, flat blade, he severed whatever icy connections the snow had made with the cement, sending the remainder of the slush flying onto the growing wall of snow between the street and the sidewalk. He was just about ready to get back inside his house, his civic duty done for the night, to sit about drinking some hot chocolate. Not very macho, he knew, but Patrick wasn’t in the mood to impress other people that night.
His right arm shot out from his body as he walked back to the drive, his agile fingers wrapping around the other shovel’s handle, which he had kept jammed into the snow while not in use. Pulling from the snow, the metal of the blade made a satisfying shink sound, sounding like an exotic blade being drawn from a jewel-encrusted scabbard in some fantastical movie.
Soon he was back up to his ankles in snow, then up to his calves. He looked across the darkness of his lawn at the glowing squares of pale light oozing from his porch windows. His porch was dark, the light coming from the living room beyond, filtering out through drawn blinds and drapes to create a hazy, patchwork-like crisscrossing. Dark horizontal bars of window frames contrasted against the gauzy, pastel backdrops of curtains flooded from behind with fluorescent light.
Shaking his head to clear his vision after the patterns of light, he trudged along back to the garage. His hands were numb and the sweat covering his body began to freeze to his hair and his clothes and the inside of his gloves. He felt numb and sore, and his chest heaved with exhaustion.
Yet as he trudged, he stole a glance back at his windows, gazing inside his porch. There, by the left window, he saw a dark shape which his memory could not immediately account for. His eyes blinked shut in a gust of freezing wind, and he had a moment to ask himself: ‘Lamp? Hat Rack?’
Yet he knew instinctively it was none of those things. He didn’t have anything like that on his porch. He opened his eyes again, continuing to walk down the alley. This time, the shape was even less clear. It looked vaguely like the outline of one of those really ergonomic office chairs.
Without realizing it, he had slowed his pace dramatically, wanting to get a better look at this strange shape on his porch. Once he placed it, he could get over that funny feeling that seeing it had put in the pit of his stomach, and then move on with his night. Pivoting on the ball of his right foot, he turned to look at it more directly.
The porch remained almost empty during the winter. All his houseplants had been moved upstairs, safe from winter’s chill. Only the patio furniture, temporarily moved from the back deck for the season, should be sitting there, alone in the cold. Patrick searched his mind for what else might be there. He knew there was a phonebook against the far wall, where he had wedged it in the corner.
Until the houseplants (and the low-slung stands he had placed them on) had been removed for the season, the phone book had been employed as a sort of arboreal booster seat, leveling out the height of two different planters. In a household with an internet connection, this was perhaps the most efficient use of a phone book. Patrick felt certain that the phone book on his porch couldn’t be producing the silhouette he was seeing now. Or half-seeing. He squinted and looked again.
It didn’t really look like the back of an office chair, he decided, but more like a torso. Like the outline of a torso.
He involuntarily took a step towards the porch, craning his neck. As he did so, the effect shifted. He saw now not a torso or a chair, but perhaps a lamp post with a flaring cone at the top: typical floor lamp design with an art-deco touch to the inverted shade that gave it some character.
“Some character?” Patrick hissed aloud, sending out a billowing cloud of breath along with his shocked words. He couldn’t believe his own line of thinking. Shaking his head, he looked again.
Sure enough, the object looked much more like a chair now – not at all like a lampshade. Moments ago he had been speculating on the precise visual tone of the floor lamp’s design: now the thing looked nothing like a lamp stand.
He needed to stop letting his mind play tricks on him. Pull himself together, get his bearings for a second, and think it out: what could it be, really?
Had he hung a snow-soaked coat up there earlier in the day and forgot? Was he cleaning the basement and perhaps brought up an ironing board or something and then forgot he had set it there? Was it something perfectly ordinary, something he had always had on his porch that he had perhaps overlooked, misconstrued, or failed to properly visualize from all angles? Could the dazzling, bewildering appearance of whatever it was – possibly an extension cord or a drying towel – be down to the fact that it was backlit from multiple sources at differing angles? Could something so simple really explain why he was standing in a dark alley talking to himself?
Now that the topic had come up, could there be anything more ridiculous than he was in that moment: standing off to the side of his own yard, lurking in the dark while wrapped up like a burn-victim while holding two shovels and murmuring agitatedly to himself about lamps, extension cords, and torsos in the cold night air?
Difficult as it might be to admit, he had to accept that the empty mystery did bother him. Why should he feel odd for wanting to know what was in his own house? Still, every time he had tried to make the shape out, it looked even more shifting and uncertain. He began to think the only way he would ever know would be to enter the house through the back and simply walk onto his porch. There, with the houselights shining on the thing instead of lighting it from the back and obscuring its shape, he would be able to descry, at long last, its true nature.
Patrick made up his mind. Deciding that the ‘only way out is through,’ he reluctantly spun back around to continue making his way to the garage. In that instant he realized just how absorbed in the mysterious shape he had allowed himself to become. Flying towards him with what seemed to be infinite speed and mass, a high wall of curved, rippling chrome expanded in his vision. Scalding orange light – a screaming, high-pitched orange light the color of traffic cones being incinerated with road flares – ripped into Patrick’s corneas, temporarily blinding him, as the warning lights of the plow whirled and burned from atop the mechanical beast’s elongated skull.
The grinding sound of the plow blade scraping the ice clots from the gritty surface of the street filled Patrick’s ears as his body flooded with adrenaline. He could feel the first small clumps of snow and ice chunks striking his face, kicked well ahead of the speeding truck by the plow’s momentum. He didn’t think: Patrick simply acted.
The first clear thought that he had was of a large chunk of snow coming off in his hand. In terror, he grasped out at the next available handhold and came away with yet more snow. Propelling himself upward, he landed near the top of the wall of snow, his fingers cut and bleeding from the hedge-branches he had gripped madly in his terror. He had made it to the top! This was his first clear memory.
The plow was on him. If he hadn’t thrust himself up to the top of this crumbly snow-heap with all his force in that instant, he would have been creamed. And wasn’t he just thinking about how impossible such an ascent would have been only minute before? Amazing what the threat of death could do for a person’s legs.
The wind of the plow whipped through his hair, peeling his hood back from his head. One shovel’s haft stuck out of the snow in front of him, the other lay in the alley. In a moment, that unfortunate snow shovel – the one with the flat blade – would be crushed, splintered and shattered by the weight of the plow. Oh well. It had been the cheaper of the two anyway.
Better to get a new shovel than to be buried with one.
Those were the thoughts rushing through Patrick Richard’s head – the sort of exhilarated, adrenaline-pumping thoughts that can only go through someone’s head in the split second after they have leapt out of the way of certain death. He hadn’t, truth be told, felt nearly so alive, so present, in quite some time. The otherworldly light of the plow’s glowing beacons grew to fill the entirety of the universe – casting its pulsing orange warmth over everything. Patrick, in that moment, felt a strange sense of calm.
It was then that his eyes locked on the thing. He could see it now, from up here – see it very clearly. It was no chair. It was no lamp.
His eyes latched onto the thing’s shape, as though his gaze had been stapled to it. All thought ceased. There could be no doubt about what he now saw – and he knew it was nothing that should ever be – on his porch or anywhere else.
He pressed his feet very firmly against the top of the pile of snow, snapping off the grasping twig-fingers of the buried bush beneath him, and propelled himself backwards, head first, into the onrushing blade of the plow.