Rob remembered the silent waiting cold, the empty glare of snow, and the way dog poops stood out as steaming blots. He was too young to get his blue jacket on by himself, too young to go to school that last northern winter in Seattle. His sister had stayed home from school that morning, but it would be gone, Mom said, all the snow gone by afternoon. His mother dragged on his sleeves and coaxed his fingers into the separate woolly tunnels of gloves. He smelled the moist wool and the heated furnace-blown air, as she stuffed his corduroys into yellow rubber boots, snapped the buckles, zippered up his front, and shoved the cap down over his ears -— and then he was outside, his nose numb even before it began to run.
He lined up his boots on the edge of the cement porch and listened to the quiet, the little scrunch that he traced to his sister’s steps in the yard.
“What you doing, Susi?” he called, and his voice sank, sank away.
“Snowman,” Susan said. She always knew what to do.
“Can I help you make it?”
“Make your own,” she said.
He clamored off the porch -— oh! his yellow boot toes vanished into white.
She stopped what she was doing and took up a handful of snow. “Make a round ball and then roll it up.” She pressed it into his mittened hands. “Don’t push too hard or it’ll fall apart,” she said. He bent over and coaxed the little ball to grow.
“Roll it the other way.” She stood over his work. “That’s right.”
He pushed and pushed and puffed fog into the air. Fence rails and the bushes beside the house wore dripping shoulders. Light stung his eyes until they ached to find the colorless dark underneath trees and parked cars. Stones outlined the bed where there had once been flowers, snapdragons the colors of sherbet. The noisy dogs next door, a black lab and a huge white poodle, scorched great muddy circles within their fence. Rob shivered with the impulse to loop about the yard.
“Careful where you step,” his sister said, as though she’d read his mind. “Don’t waste it.” His footsteps and the path of his snowball ribboned the lawn, weak dark grass flattened where he’d been, not green at all underneath the snow.
He rolled the bottom of his snowman toward the driveway, then back to the fence until he panted, but Susan kept telling him: bigger, bigger. Finally, he pushed it close to the road where his sister worked, planted it in front of their house. She already had the middle and head on hers when their mother put one foot out onto the porch and called him back. He had only just begun his second snowball.
“Robby! Come on in now.” Her voice tunneled to him.
He was not done working in the piercing, private silence. He wiped the back of his hand across his nose and left a shiny trail on the blue wool. His mother called and called. When he ducked his chin and turned to the house, his mother clutched her coat collar around her neck to hold it on, her voice steaming. He was cold at the exact moment he stepped into the house. How was it possible he could have been so cold?
She yanked off the rubber boots and peeled each wet sock from his feet, gloves from his fingers, his cap and pants. The floor register blew across his wet skin. “Oh now look at you -— didn’t I tell you -— what have you done to your pants -— you’ll catch your death -— gracious me -— did you fall into a puddle?” She stripped him naked.
His mom took his hand in her huge warm one and led him into the bathroom. Water ran into the tub, steam climbing to the ceiling. He thought he might die because his mother was saying this, “You’ll catch your death,” the thought born naked and wailing into his head: I could die from the cold. I could die!
The past summer his rabbit Beany died, left in a closed wooden box in the sun. He had lifted the lid, reached down for his dead rabbit, and Beany’s stiff claws clung to the wire on the bottom of the cage. His mother ran from the house and made him let go. “Put it down, put it down! It’s dead,” she’d said. There was a Sunday school song about dying, and it began to unreel in his head all the way to the end, then begin again, and he could not stop it. Beautiful and sacred and the bath would boil him, would cook him alive and -— yes, he would die.
Into the tub screaming, he refused to bend his body, could not give in, his mother pushing and pushing until he could stand the heat on one foot, and then the other. Down into the tub. Lie back and float under the surface. Water from the faucet thundered into his ears as his mom soaped his hair and his hands and rinsed him off the way his sister washed her dolls. She went away and his shoulders shivered above the water, each knee a glowing island. Would he hear it coming? He tipped his head toward the ceiling, water lapped into his ears, plock plock, his eyelashes stuck to his cheeks, and he was grateful snow had not killed him after all.
“Come now, Robby,” Mom said from the door. “Time to give Susan her turn.”
Her voice bumped through the room, the walls sweated. His father had painted the room a color called “lilac,” the name for the bush beside the front door that had no leaves anymore. But the walls were not the color of lilac flowers. “It’s not that color,” he said as he sat up in the tub and looked around.
“Take my hand,” she said. “And hurry up.” Already she had pulled the plug and water gurgled its noisy escape. His baby brother Joey toddled near, wordlessly complaining. Rob stepped onto the bathmat and his mom scrubbed with the line-dried towel that hurt. How many ways to die? He had seen dead baby robins under the fir tree -— ugly, pale things with bulged eyes and rumpled yellow beaks. His cat had been run over by a car, and a neighbor’s dog ate poisoned grass and coughed and hung his head and lay at the end of his chain coiled under the junipers until he didn’t come to eat his dinner and had to be buried. The blood and drool of the dog and the draggled pale feathers of the birds, the stiff rabbit, lighter in his hands than when it was alive. His great aunt Sylvia died, too, far away in Oklahoma, and now she watched over him from Heaven through closed eyelids. Mom burnished his body dry. “Not dead,” he said, and clung to her. He remembered. “Not dead,” he’d said to his mother’s strong body.
The last water glug-glugged down the drain, and his fear with it, as if it had never been. She pulled on his pajamas, pressing him to her breast as she tugged the cloth loose from his damp skin. “Let’s get you to bed,” she said, and he closed his eyes and leaned against her. Even now he can feel wet lashes stuck to his cheeks, his mother filling all the world.