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The snow continues to fall. My breath comes out in little puffs, like a dragon, and my body has begun to ache with the cold. But it could be worse. Because it was cold — though not snowing — when I started out, I dressed for winter. I’m wearing two shirts, a sweater, gloves, and a hat. Right now the car is at an angle, nose pointed down. I’m still strapped into the seat belt, which supports my weight, but my head rests on the steering wheel. The air bag deployed, spreading white dust and the acrid scent of gunpowder throughout the car. It’s not comfortable, yet I’m managing.
But my body throbs. I don’t think the air bag worked properly, because my head slammed into the steering wheel and I was knocked unconscious. For how long, I do not know. The gash on my head continues to bleed, and the bones in my right arm seem to be trying to pop through my skin. Both my collarbone and my shoulder throb, and I’m afraid to move. I tell myself it could be worse. Though it is snowing, it is not bitterly cold outside. Temperatures are supposed to dip into the mid-twenties tonight but will climb into the high thirties tomorrow. It’s also going to be windy, with gusts reaching twenty miles an hour. Tomorrow, Sunday, the winds will be even worse, but by Monday night, the weather will gradually begin to improve. By then, the cold front will have largely passed and the winds will be almost nonexistent. On Tuesday, temperatures are expected to reach the forties.
I know this because I watch the Weather Channel. It’s less depressing than the news, and I find it interesting. It’s not only about the expected weather; there are shows about the catastrophic effects of weather in the past. I’ve seen shows about people who were in the bathroom as a tornado ripped the house from its foundation, and I’ve seen people talk about being rescued after being swept away by flash flooding. On the Weather Channel, people always survive catastrophe, because these are the people who are interviewed for the program. I like knowing in advance that the people survived. Last year, I watched a story about rushhour commuters who were surprised by a blizzard in Chicago. Snow came down so fast, the roads were forced to close while people were still on them. For eight hours, thousands of people sat on highways, unable to move while temperatures plummeted. The story I saw focused on two of the people who’d been in the blizzard, but what struck me while watching was the fact that neither of them seemed prepared for the weather. Both of them became almost hypothermic as the storm rolled through. This, I must admit, made no sense to me. People who live in Chicago are fully aware that it snows regularly; they experience the blizzards that sometimes roll in from Canada, they must realize it gets cold. How could they not know these things? If I lived in such a place, I would have had thermal blankets, hats, an additional winter jacket, earmuffs, gloves, a shovel, a flashlight, hand warmers, and bottled water in the trunk of my car by Halloween. If I lived in Chicago, I could be stranded by a blizzard for two weeks before I began to worry.
My problem, however, is that I live in North Carolina. And normally when I drive — except for an annual trip to the mountains, usually in the summer—I stay within a few miles of my home. Thus, my trunk is empty, but I’m somewhat comforted by the fact that even if I had a portable hotel in my trunk, it would do me no good. The embankment is icy and steep, and there’s no way I could reach it, even if it held the riches of Tutankhamun. Still, I’m not altogether unprepared for what’s happened to me. Before I left, I packed a thermos full of coffee, two sandwiches, prunes, and a bottle of water. I put the food in the passenger seat, next to the letter I’d written, and though all of it was tossed about in the accident, I’m comforted by the knowledge that it’s still in the car. If I get hungry enough, I’ll try to find it, but even now I understand that there’s a cost to eating or drinking. What goes in must go out, and I haven’t yet figured out how it will go out. My walker is in the backseat, and the slope would propel me to my grave; taken with my injuries, a call of nature is out of the question.
About the accident. I could probably concoct an exciting story about icy conditions or describe an angry, frustrated driver who forced me off the road, but that’s not the way it happened. What happened was this: It was dark and it began to snow, then snow even harder, and all at once, the road simply vanished. I assume I entered a curve—I say assume, because I obviously didn’t see a curve—and the next thing I knew, I crashed through the guardrail and began to careen down the steep embankment. I sit here, alone in the dark, wondering if the Weather Channel will eventually do a show about me.
I can no longer see through the windshield. Though it sends up flares of agony, I try the windshield wipers, expecting nothing, but a moment later they push at the snow, leaving a thin layer of ice in their wake. It strikes me as amazing, this momentary burst of normalcy, but I reluctantly turn the wipers off, along with the headlights, though I’d forgotten they were even on. I tell myself that I should conserve whatever is left of the battery, in case I have to use the horn.
I shift, feeling a lightning bolt shoot from my arm up to my collarbone. The world goes black. Agony. I breathe in and out, waiting for the white-hot agony to pass. Dear God, please. It is all I can do not to scream, but then, miraculously, it begins to fade. I breathe evenly, trying to keep the tears at bay, and when it finally recedes, I feel exhausted. I could sleep forever and never wake up. I close my eyes. I’m tired, so tired.
Strangely, I find myself thinking of Daniel McCallum and the afternoon of the visit. I picture the gift he left behind, and as I slip away, I wonder idly how long it will be until someone finds me.
I hear it first in my dream, slurry and unformed, an underwater sound. It takes a moment before I realize someone is saying my name. But that is not possible.
“You must wake up, Ira.”
My eyes flutter open. In the seat beside me, I see Ruth, my wife.
“I’m awake,” I say, my head still against the steering wheel. Without my glasses, which were lost in the crash, her image lacks definition, like a ghost.
“You drove off the highway.”
I blink. “A maniac forced me off the road. I hit a patch of ice. Without my catlike reflexes, it would have been worse.”
“You drove off the road because you are blind as a bat and too old to be driving. How many times have I told you that you are a menace behind the wheel?”
“You’ve never said that to me.”
“I should have. You didn’t even notice the curve.” She pauses. “You are bleeding.”
Lifting my head, I wipe my forehead with my good hand and it comes back red. There is blood on the steering wheel and the dash, smears of red everywhere. I wonder how much blood I’ve lost. “I know.”
“Your arm is broken. And your collarbone, too. And there is something wrong with your shoulder.”
“I know,” I say again. As I blink, Ruth fades in and out.
“You need to get to the hospital.” “No argument there,” I say.
“I am worried about you.”
I breathe in and out before I respond. Long breaths. “I’m worried about me, too,” I finally say.
My wife, Ruth, is not really in the car. I realize this. She died nine years ago, the day I felt my life come to a full stop. I had called to her from the living room, and when she didn’t answer, I rose from my chair. I could move without a walker back then, though it was still slow going, and after reaching the bedroom, I saw her on the floor, near the bed, lying on her right side. I called for an ambulance and knelt beside her. I rolled her onto her back and felt her neck, detecting nothing at all. I put my mouth to hers, breathing in and out, the way I had seen on television. Her chest went up and down and I breathed until the world went black at the edges, but there was no response. I kissed her lips and her cheeks, and I held her close against me until the ambulance arrived. Ruth, my wife of more than fifty-five years, had died, and in the blink of an eye, all that I’d loved was gone as well.
“Why are you here?” I ask her.
“What kind of question is that? I am here because of you.”
Of course. “How long was I asleep?”
“I do not know,” she answers. “It is dark, though. I think you are cold.”
“I’m always cold.”
“Not like this.”
“No,” I agree, “not like this.”
“Why were you driving on this road? Where were you going?”
I think about trying to move, but the memory of the lightning bolt stops me. “You know.”
“Yes,” she says. “You were driving to Black Mountain. Where we spent our honeymoon.”
“I wanted to go one last time. It’s our anniversary tomorrow.”
She takes a moment to respond. “I think you are going soft in your head. We were married in August, not February.”
“Not that anniversary,” I say. I don’t tell her that according to the doctor, I will not last until August. “Our other anniversary,” I say instead.
“What are you talking about? There is no other anniversary. There is only one.”
“The day my life changed forever,” I say. “The day I first saw you.”
For a moment, Ruth says nothing. She knows I mean it, but unlike me, she has a hard time saying such things. She loved me with a passion, but I felt it in her expressions, in her touch, in the tender brush of her lips. And, when I needed it most, she loved me with the written word as well.
“It was February sixth, 1939,” I say. “You were shopping downtown with your mother, Elisabeth, when the two of you came into the shop. Your mother wanted to buy a hat for your father.”
She leans back in the seat, her eyes still on me. “You came out of the back room,” she says. “And a moment later, your mother followed you.”
Yes, I suddenly recall, my mother did follow. Ruth has always had an extraordinary memory.
Like my mother’s family, Ruth’s family was from Vienna, but they’d immigrated to North Carolina only two months earlier. They’d fled Vienna after the Anschluss of Austria, when Hitler and the Nazis absorbed Austria into the Reich. Ruth’s father, Jakob Pfeffer, a professor of art history, knew what the rise of Hitler meant for the Jews, and he sold everything they owned to come up with the necessary bribes to secure his family’s freedom. After crossing the border into Switzerland, they traveled to London and then on to New York, before finally reaching Greensboro. One of Jakob’s uncles manufactured furniture a few blocks from my father’s shop, and for months Ruth and her family lived in two cramped rooms above the plant floor. Later, I would learn that the endless fumes from the lacquer made Ruth so sick at night, she could barely sleep.
“We came to the store because we knew your mother spoke German. We had been told that she could help us.” She shakes her head. “We were so homesick, so hungry to meet someone from home.”
I nod. At least I think I do. “My mother explained everything after you left. She had to. I couldn’t understand a word that any of you were saying.”
“You should have learned German from your mother.”
“What did it matter? Before you’d even left the store, I knew that we would one day be married. We had all the time in the world to talk.”
“You always say this, but it is not true. You barely looked at me.”
“I couldn’t. You were the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. It was like trying to stare into the sun.”
“Ach, Quatsch…,” she snorts. “I was not beautiful. I was a child. I was only sixteen.”
“And I had just turned nineteen. And I ended up being right.”
She sighs. “Yes,” she says, “you were right.”
I’d seen Ruth and her parents before, of course. They attended our synagogue and sat near the front, foreigners in a strange land. My mother had pointed them out to me after services, eyeing them discreetly as they hurried home.