It’s like waking up in a goddamn freezer. I reach out from under my mound of blankets to shut off the alarm clock and the air spills in like a bucket of ice water, soaking my chest, belly, crotch, all the way down to my knees. I shut up the clock and pull my arm back in, huddled shivering under the covers—two old wool blankets and my childhood sleeping bag with the busted zipper, pulled all the way up over my head. It’s still not enough. Even worse I got classes today, first one’s at 8 a.m., and that bike’s gonna be a bitch to get started in this cold. Last night the housemates were shouting about “Single digits!” over the TV downstairs while I was getting my ass kicked by quadratic equations. Probably better get moving.
I ain’t getting out of this bed in just a T-shirt and socks, so I reach down and grab my clothes half-ass folded on the floor. Feels like taking shit out the freezer. I try to warm ’em up under the covers for a few minutes, but all that does is make me cold, so I wrestle into ’em—underwear, jeans, a henley and sweatshirt over the T-shirt I slept in—cold air pouring in every time I move around under the covers. I need a shower, I can smell that, but it was too cold down in the bathroom yesterday and it damn sure ain’t happening this morning. I get dressed, but I’m still huddled up shivering under the covers when the old clock radio cuts on at my desk, between-stations static fading in to full blast as the glowing vacuum tubes warm up in the dark room—a little slower than most mornings. I tense up, flop the covers back, and polar bear out of bed to shut it off. My coming-apart old slippers are so cold they feel wet, and I pull on my old oversized hoodie over everything else. All them layers want to tangle up and twist as I’m freeing my armpit-length hair.
My fucking water glass is frozen. Not quite solid like used to happen when my room was up in the attic, but as I’m tying back the wool blanket that serves as a curtain, pouring an icy draft down from my frosted window, I can see by the predawn light that it’s got like half an inch of ice on the top and a meniscus growing down the sides. I light a smoke, same as any other morning, then pick up my icy water glass and head to the kitchen. When I unlock the deadbolt that serves as my door latch I can hear Mark’s clock radio blasting K-92 loud enough to distort the little plasticky speaker. He hates Top 40. Sets it on that station to annoy him out of bed. In the tiny room at the front end of the hall, meth-skinny Kevin’s snoring like a fat man. He was fucking my ex for a while—she broke off our hookup after I’d had time to get good and attached to her and her two kids, after I’d decided to go back to school full time from a single creative writing class and she razzed me that she couldn’t wait to see my 4.0 drop—but the HIV test she told Kevin to get come back positive, and this is the ’80s so that pretty much scared the shit out of everybody and put an end to their hookup even though turned out he just had syphilis. Shame, cause from the sound of it they was fucking like wild animals there for a bit.
It’s a little warmer downstairs where the heat is, but not by a hell of a lot. When we got the house it was just a oil burner under the hallway and the illegal gas grate in the living room, with the flue caps from the old coal stoves in the kitchen and upstairs. After the fire, we got central heat put in downstairs but still ain’t shit upstairs. I double back through the hall and the useless room into the kitchen. The cabinet under the sink stands wide open in the dark so’s the pipes don’t freeze, a pile of dishes in the sink because the dishwasher froze up a few years ago and spewed like a hundred gallons of water all over the kitchen. I click on the lightswitch and the fluorescent light in the false ceiling struggles to come on, wan and gray like a solid winter depression. I fill the old orange hot pot, the draft from the window spilling over my hands after we stuffed a bunch of towels and rags and insulation and shit in the gap between the window and the counter that was added later. I set the orange hot pot on the orange countertop my mom picked out, twist the knob to high, then go back through the useless room, through the tiny afterthought of a door into the bathroom. The light switch is so close to the door there’s a cutout in the plain-board doorframe for the switch plate. Don’t ask why the bathroom has a full-size door going to the back porch and a miniature door into the rest of the house. This place was a Sears kit, built when like Grover Cleveland was President and indoor plumbing was new. Rumor has it some folks refused to shit inside the house. Might have something to do with it. The fluorescent light in there also comes on gray and dim above the missing lens in the false ceiling. The light over the sink don’t even come on at all, it just glows kinda pink at the ends. At least the pipes ain’t frozen.
Back in the kitchen I make myself a cup of instant coffee in the blue mug with the cheesy sand dollar motif, the one I like because it’s big and keeps things warm. There’s no milk in the fridge, just some leftover cans of beer, so I drink the coffee black, scalding the fuck out of my tongue on the first sip. At least there’s half a loaf of bread in the breadbox and half a bucket of cheap super-crunchy peanut butter in the cabinet above. That’ll do for breakfast and lunch today. Probably supper too, if we’re being honest. I make some peanut butter toast and get a second pot of water heating up when Mark comes shuffling in, dressed in a hoodie with the hood up, a clashing pair of sweatpants, a bathrobe over all of it, and his comical pink fuzzy slippers. “Good lord,” he says, his words a cloud of breath.
I nod, chewing my gloppy breakfast.
He looks at my steaming full mug and the hot pot just coming to a boil. “That for me?”
He grabs his usual mug and rinses it out over the crowded sink, then spoons in several spoonfuls of instant coffee.
“No milk,” I say.
He nods and reaches for the jar of powdered creamer in his cabinet.
“Classes today?” he says, pouring the steaming water into his mug.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Gonna make it?”
He looks out the icy window into the predawn gloom and shudders. “Good luck.”
“What about you and Mike?” I say. “Y’all gonna get out and sell tools?”
“I hope so,” he says. “We both need to make—”
The phone rings on the wall beside my head, the bell painfully loud. I snatch the handset off the wall.
“Jay?” It’s Mike’s voice, as if he heard us talking about him.
“Yep.” I hold the receiver out toward Mark and untangle the pigtail cord as he takes it.
“Hey Mike,” he says.
I reach under the cord for my plate and stand up and take it to the sink.
“…You sure?” he says.
“…Well yeah, I know, but…”
“…Did you talk this over with…”
“…You sure we can afford…”
“…Well it is your truck.” I can hear the resignation in his voice.
“Okay,” he says. “See you tomorrow then. Yep. Bye.”
He stands up and hangs the receiver back on the wall base, unsnapping the cord and letting it twist out of its tangles.
“Guess not?” I say.
“Guess not,” he says, snapping the cord back in.
After trotting upstairs to add a layer of long johns and load my book bag, I clump back down to the flimsy table at the bottom of the stairs beside the door, where our big library table used to been before the fire destroyed it. I pull on my rain pants even though it ain’t raining cause they’ll help block the wind, pull on my heaviest wool-lined muck boots even though they’re hard to shift the bike in, layer a zip-up jacket and a double-breasted coat over the layers I’m already wearing, with a scarf wrapped to protect my neck and down under the plackets to help with the draft at my chest. Then I pull on my helmet sock, my hoodie hood up over it with my hair tucked down the back, and my silver-threaded thermal fabric gloves. The welder’s gloves go in my helmet for the moment as I grab my book bag and head out the flimsy front door into the shocking cold.
Even just standing still on the porch, the cold creeps in everywhere while I’m strapping my book bag onto the bike. I perch the helmet and gloves over the top of the sissy bar, get out the old weathered and warped 2x10 that Mark and I use for a motorcycle ramp, and do the little ramp dance to get my bike down off the concrete porch and then up the two steps from our front walk to the sidewalk. With the board stowed back on the porch I go back up to the street for the long process of getting Baby started in this weather. Twist the petcock on, turn the choke lever to full, key switch on, step over the bike, and twist the throttle a couple of times before turning on the kill switch. I flip out the kick starter. Ain’t even trying the electric start in this cold with my weak-ass battery. And even though the CB-360’s engine is easier to kick than a bigger bike, getting it started when it’s this cold is gonna be a workout. They’re really not made to run in this weather.
The house is my mom’s, the fisbo fixer-upper she bought in this shitty neighborhood after my dad dumped us all for another woman, the house three doors down from the apartment he was renting here in the town where his mistress lived, when Mom had nowhere else to go and no way she could afford to live where we was living in DC and support two kids on her temp-nurse’s wages and somehow no child support. Then a few years later, after I was out of high school and working full time (making minimum wage) and Jimmy was either living with Dad or locked up again (I don’t remember which), one day Mom said, “You know, I got married with an instant family when I was barely twenty and I’ve spent thirty years raising seven kids and I never got to have a teenage rebellion because I had other people depending on me and now I don’t have to worry about that anymore—and I think It’s my turn,” and she packed her backpack and flew over to wander around Europe for like six months, and then my brother in Seoul flew her to Korea to live with him and his wife and his kids and their other grandparents for a while, and meanwhile I got into it with my little brother because I didn’t know no better than to try to talk to him about the crank he was tweaking on while he was tweaking and I got so pissed off I tried to deck the fridge but the fridge kicked my ass, and then I had my hand in a cast and I couldn’t work and I was late on an insurance payment on Mom’s bug and so they yanked the insurance but kept the money order and there was no way to get the insurance back without her signature but she was in like France stomping grapes or some shit so the car was uninsured and I had to take off the plates and we couldn’t leave it on the street and we couldn’t legally keep it in the backyard because we ain’t have a garage and there was literally no legal option other than rent a storage unit somewheres and get the car towed which woulda cost a shit ton of money I ain’t have and so it just sit in the back yard hoping we didn’t get a citation for it but leastways that ticket would be less than having the plates on it with no insurance. And I couldn’t drive it and I couldn’t ride my bike because you can’t twist the throttle too good with a cast from your fingers to your elbow, so weren’t much for me to do but sit around the house or walk down by the river and think about shit—and really I owe all the credit to Jimmy because maybe he ended up back in the pen but if it weren’t for all that time to think I might not have ever gone back to school like this, where I might be dead broke, and I might be hungry and skinny, and I might be riding my little-ass motorcycle to class in fucking seven-degree weather, and I might be scrounging change to put gas in the tank, but at least I got a Pell grant covering my tuition and books at the community college and a Sunday job driving newspapers and I’m working toward something other than minimum wage with no insurance or paid vacation making money for Collegiate Pacific’s stockholders.
I’m sweating in the cold by the time I finally get the damn bike to start and stay running. I light a smoke and nurse the throttle with the choke on almost full for a few minutes, the engine threatening to die again at any moment, the little brap can mufflers that was all I could afford probably pissing off the whole neighborhood at 7:30 on a damn Wednesday morning, a cloud of vapor that smells like a gas station all around me, until the engine gets warm enough I can take my hand off the throttle without it dying straightaway. Then I pull on my helmet—the snap-on visor fogging up instantly—pull on the welder’s gloves, and clunk the bike into gear. It’s cold enough that even after warming it up like that I have to nurse the throttle as I pull away from the curb, and even with the long johns and the rain pants, the cold air rides up my crotch and it almost immediately feels like my balls are in ice water.
It’s like four miles to Virginia Western. I can get from home to classroom in 15 minutes on an ideal day, but this ain’t an ideal day. The bike’s almost too stiff to shift as I ride out through the neighborhood, over railroad tracks and the river that has ice on the banks despite its fast current, past the gas station where I fumed out one morning on the way to class, went to switch to reserve and realized I was already on reserve, tried to bum some change for gas and learned just how quickly a guy can become invisible when he needs help, and then literally cried when a dude said “You’re trying to get to class? Fill it up, man, I’ll get it with mine.”
The low spot beside the lily pond on Brambleton is always colder than anywhere else along the way. You don’t notice those things in a car but you do on a bike. Today there’s this weird frost I’ve never seen before, almost like everything grew a white beard.
There’s one motorcycle parking area on campus, down in the big parking lot along Colonial Avenue, which the campus rises above on the hills on both sides. There’s usually other beat-ass bikes like mine parked there, but not this morning. My right eye watering in the cold wind, tears literally frozen on my eyelashes and soaking the front of my helmet sock, I park the bike, pull off my welding gloves and my helmet, and my hands are shaking when I light my before-class cigarette. My cold knees creak like I’m a lot older than twenty- one as I walk up the forty or so steps to the building my class is in.
First class is freshman English. When I told my mom I’d decided to go to the community college she said I could use her old manual typewriter, from the one semester she was in college before my dad charmed the pants off of her and she dropped out to get married. That first formal paper that had to be typewritten, clean cut Mr. Capps looked at it when I set it on the desk, asked if I’d typed it on a manual typewriter, and when I said yeah he penciled an “A” at the top of the page without even reading it. Next formal paper I’ll write for him, the five-paragraph descriptive essay, will be about how old houses are cold.
This morning as I’m in the room unbundling all my layers and loading them into the chair-desk beside me he walks into the room in his greatcoat and toboggan, smiles at me, and says, “You made it! I did not expect to see you this morning.”