The Northern Lights

By Brett Roth

His dog paced anxiously for relief, but snow was up to Dixie’s stubby tail, and Juice understood her reluctance. He was grateful the electricity stayed on. His wife’s cancer was in remission, but Juice’s worry was unrelenting, and firing up a generator to keep the house warm was extra. On snowy days in Massachusetts, Juice missed the serenity of mountains.

The smell of coffee was an antidote against the wind’s insistent bellowing. The radiators gurgled with heat. Although Juice was quietly sipping coffee, the house was noisy and alive. His wife, Priscilla, slept fitfully in their bedroom, her sister, Pamela, snored in the guestroom, her appearance as expected as the storm. Pamela gambled and won a free weekend at a casino in Connecticut. She frequently visited after her luck ran out. Dixie’s nails clicked softly on the hardwood floor.

Morning light revealed the tired wheeze of the storm scattering snowflakes like an old man tossing stale bread crumbs to geese in the park. The thick flurries were thinning, but it was still too soon to tackle the driveway. The dog’s restlessness forced Juice into snow boots and a parka, hat and gloves. The sliding door opened with a crunching jerk sound that broke the icy grip of the storm. A snow shovel leaned against the house, as if the wind blew it there, encased in snow. Juice stepped outside and shook the ice and snow off the shovel. The snow on his back porch was up to his knees, and he bemoaned his choice of jogging pants instead of jeans but began to shovel. The snow was heavy, compacted by the wind and shifting temperatures.

Thank you National Grid, he said to himself, thinking about the obligatory hot bath scheduled after shoveling. His shoulder strained under the weight of the snow, pitching shovelfuls off the deck. The thought of soaking in a steamy bathtub was encouragement for shoveling the stairs, one at a time, to the lower deck. At ground level, Juice burrowed a trench into the dog’s pen, and dug out a four-by-six foot rectangle, where his dog could squat without her butt touching the snow. Juice’s back began to ache, as he cleaned the stairs a second time.

At the top of the steps, his dog pranced in place.

“Here Dixie,” Juice coaxed his pooch. Juice walked back and forth flattening the snow a little more, demonstrating to the dog the safety of his footing. The dog had to pee. Juice knew it. Dixie knew it. But Dixie was Prissy’s dog, a maniac terrier; she was hot-wired for 220 volts, Juice warned their houseguests. Right now, however, Dixie was reluctant to attempt her customary dash and leap down the steps.

“Come here, good girl. Who’s a good dog? Come on. Come on.”

Dixie whimpered and backed up to the sliders, eager to step inside.

Stupid pooch, Juice thought. Go to all this trouble.

Inside the house, Pamela was in the kitchen, and she poured herself a cup of coffee. She would be outside smoking a cigarette after two cups of coffee. Dixie could hold it until Pamela went for a smoke, Juice decided.

“Morning.”

Juice stomped into the kitchen, shedding snow onto the rug. Pamela raised her gaze from the coffee cup and gave her brother-in-law a weak smile. Pamela didn’t drink alcohol, but in the mornings she looked like a hangover sitting at the end of the table, cradling her cup of coffee.

“Morning, Juice, cold?”

“Yeah, it’s cold. Dog doesn’t want to pee.”

“Can you blame her?

“Nope.”

“How much snow is there?” Pamela asked.

“Well over two feet, three in places.”

“Looks like it drifted over the wall.”

“Yeah, but it always does that when the wind blows hard.”

“My car is probably stuck in your driveway.”

“Until I do something about it, which might be a little later this morning.”

“Eat some breakfast.”

“Right.”

Pamela turned on her laptop and quickly clicked on a game. The sound was lowered, but Juice could hear the chimes and bells of numbers added or subtracted. The dog whimpered again, and Juice moved towards the sliders, but Dixie stayed seated on her haunches, in the middle of the kitchen floor.

“Dixie,” he pleaded.

“She’ll go out when I do,” Pamela said.

“Fine. If she can wait. You want anything to eat? I’m taking orders.”

“It’s too early. You help yourself.”

The sound and smell of sizzling bacon finally drove the dog outside and woke Priscilla.

“Think you can slam the doors and rattle the pots a little more?” she asked with a sharpness in her tone.

“Morning,”

Juice flashed his wife a grim smile. He knew her body ached and she had not slept well. From Juice’s perspective, Priscilla’s pain seemed more like an emotion instead of a feeling, and her moods were often dark.

“Morning, Pam. Did the dog go out? I heard her crying.”

“Outside now. I guess all the snow has her upset,” Juice said.

In the background, a quiet cheer rose from the kitchen table, as Pamela scored a jackpot of points. Hurrah.

“She couldn’t wait for me,” Pamela added.

“How old is the coffee?”

“Old,” Pamela answered without interrupting her electronic arcade.

“I’ll make another pot,” Priscilla volunteered.

Juice had been up and awake for hours, but his wife’s presence made him feel like he was groggy from lack of sleep, as if Priscilla’s pain medication affected him too. Outside on the porch, his hard work was slowly buried by light flakes of snow, and the dog danced at the slider, overly eager since his wife’s appearance. Once inside, Dixie shook snow all over the floor, jumping to greet Priscilla, while Juice followed behind her with a damp towel, mopping the lumps of melting snowballs.

“Wait, wait, Dixie,” Juice pleaded.

“She’s happy to see me.”

“Yes, dear.”

Although Juice walked the dog every day after work, took her to the park on weekends, and cleaned her pen, Dixie’s stubby tail vibrated with more love and affection for Priscilla. But Priscilla needed more affection, and Juice was glad their dog somehow provided a commodity Juice couldn’t always afford.

“I’m predicting Pamela’s car is buried in the driveway. You can’t leave today. Don’t even think about it,” Priscilla said to her sister.

Juice was prepared for a week with his sister-in-law before she arrived because of the constant stream of alerts about the storm on his phone, computer and television. When Snow-mageddon arrives, he mused, we’re all well informed. On the way home from work, the day before the storm, the gas stations were overwhelmed and drained dry. Supermarket parking lots reflected the mayhem inside the stores, but Juice drove home without a second glance. Priscilla had her prescriptions filled and everything else seemed incidental.

“It’s buried alright. Street, driveway. No one is going anywhere,” Juice said, cracking an egg in the frying pan.

Juice and Priscilla lived on a cul-de-sac. Holbrook Lane was one block long, with six houses, which the public works department plowed after the larger neighborhoods were cleared, usually the next day.

Priscilla and Pamela said Juice missed his true calling and should have been a short order cook. When the eggs slid from the frying pan onto his plate, his toast was buttered triangles beside a small bundle of bacon. He poured himself a fresh cup of coffee and sat down to eat, while his sister-in-law pinged, dinged and buzzed opposite him at the long kitchen table.

Priscilla sighed into her chair to the left of Juice, a cup of coffee in one hand and a short, squat, funnel-shaped cocktail glass in the other. In the mornings, Priscilla laid out all the medicines she needed to take, and she dropped the pills into her cocktail glass. She placed the cocktail glass on the table and swallowed pills throughout the day; the crystal clarity of the glass somehow made ingesting her prescriptions easier. The normality of the ritual crept up on Juice and Priscilla very gradually, like a bad habit, and it wasn’t until another person was in the house that Juice even thought about it. His wife was organized. She kept a pain journal, tracking her discomfort with her body, counted her pills, questioned each and every prescription, googled side-effects, and researched second opinions on second opinions. But the number of pills she ingested never diminished, although their size, shape, and color seemed to alternate like the seasons.

“You be careful shoveling snow,” Priscilla admonished her husband. Juice rinsed his plate and loaded the dishwasher. He wiped the frying pan clean and set it on the stove in case someone else wanted eggs.

Sweeping crumbs off the counter, he asked, “Sure no one wants anything before I step outside?”

“No,” the sisters replied, one at a time, each contemplating breakfast.

Downstairs, Juice put on his dripping snow boots and damp hat and gloves, while Dixie paced expectant around and around in front of the door that led to the garage.

“No, you’re not going outside,” he said to his dog, and she retreated and ran upstairs.

Juice anticipated the storm as much as possible, and his snowblower sat inches away from the garage door, full of fuel. The overhead door motor strained under the weight of snow stuck to the lower door panel, and it groaned as the cold wind swept into the warm garage, stealing the heat. A perfect wall of snow, smooth as the door, and as tall as the bumper of Juice’s truck, demarcated the extremes of inside and outside with a mass of whiteness. Juice had a little difficulty pushing the snowblower out into the snow, and a section of the snowy wall collapsed and fell onto the garage floor. In the driveway, Pamela’s car was almost completely buried, one tire exposed by the wind and the antenna poking out like a periscope. The snow was heavy, not light and powdery, and Juice began to sweat inside of his parka. Closing the garage door behind him, Juice started his snowblower, and the two-cycle engine coughed twice, spit a gob of black smoke, and began pop, pop, popping in an idle he trusted.

Juice tried to throw the snow with the wind instead of against it, which wasn’t always possible, especially since Pamela’s car blocked a section of driveway. Juice worked methodically, but the snow was deeper than the mouth of his snowblower, and he had to rock the machine back and forth to chew and pitch the snow off the driveway. The rhythmic tug and push aggravated a shoulder already sore from shoveling the back steps. Since he sat at a desk five days a week, Juiced enjoyed himself when he mowed his lawn, raked his leaves, and shoveled the snow, but Juice’s body gave him the aches. Indoors, Juice helped Priscilla by vacuuming and carrying the laundry up and down the stairs, the heavier household chores. Priscilla struggled buttoning her blouses, and she kept her medicine bottle tops loose because she was too weak to open them. Priscilla was prone to dropping things, and broken glass was a symptom of pain.

Behind him, snowflakes were no longer accumulating in the bare spots, and the wind died down to a whisper. The snowblower engine sounded louder without the competing wind, and Juice’s exertion slackened too. Once he had Pamela’s car freed from the surrounding snow, he brushed the snow off the roof of her car with a push broom, and the hood and trunk, until her car was completely cleared of snow. Then Juice shoveled the snow fallen from Pamela’s car, as the snowblower wasn’t nimble enough to maneuver around the tight area. The temperature had not risen significantly, perhaps five degrees, but Juice was sweating inside his parka, and he set down the shovel and removed his cap. The lingering winds instantly cooled his scalp, and a drop of sweat slid down his neck with a chill attached.

Juice replaced the cap on his head and worked his way to the street, but Holbrook Lane wasn’t plowed and there was nowhere to go. Their neighborhood was effectively snowed in until the street was plowed. Juice’s driveway was the extent of any journey outside without skis on your feet. Still, Juice felt a strong sense of accomplishment, and he earned his soak.

When Juice and Priscilla bought their house, hardwood flooring was their first major improvement, but their favorite home project was the bathtub. Persuaded by a home show salesman, and inspired by a plethora of online do-it-yourself video demonstrations, Juice and Priscilla renovated their bathroom with a whirlpool tub. After the electricians and plumbers installed the tub, Juice and Priscilla replaced the vanity, tiled the floor, painted the walls, hung the mirrors and towel racks, bought matching rug and towels. The bathroom wasn’t a bad first attempt, but Juice saw the imperfections of alignment every time he used the bathroom. The bulge of plaster. The loose towel rack. The shower head was too high.

“Last call,” Juice announced to the kitchen. Pamela and Priscilla were scrambling eggs and making toast. “I’m taking a tub. Use the bathroom downstairs.”

“Fine,” Priscilla said with a spatula in her hand. Beside her Pamela buttered toast.

In the bathroom, Juice quickly squirted the walls of the tub with cleanser, wiped and rinsed twice. Satisfied his vessel was suitable for soaking, he plugged the drain and began running hot water. Juice switched on the television in their bedroom and sat down to watch the news. All the local stations and CNN were covering the big New England snowstorm, which annoyed Juice, and he switched around until he found an action movie he could screech through while his tub filled with hot water. After several good chase scenes and a topless dancer, Juice shut off the faucet in his tub and tossed in a cup of Epsom salts and a cube of lavender scented bath foam.

While shots fired in the bedroom and Pamela and Priscilla ate breakfast in the kitchen, Juice located his unread Sports Illustrated, gathered his reading glasses, and filled a tall glass with ice and Coke. Aligning his soda and glasses on the rim of the tub and his magazine within reach on the rug, he popped two ibuprofen before stepping into the hot water. He turned the faucet on to fill the tub with additional water, and as it filled, he switched the jets on turning the water into lavender scented foam and billowing bubbles. Juice settled back, took a sip of his Coke, put on his reading glasses, and reached for his Sports Illustrated. It was playoff season, but the Broncos were out of the race. One and out. He saw the game and didn’t need Peter King explaining it to him. Quarterback interception in the last three minutes of the game plus two stupid calls by the coach equals a loss against the Ravens. Put your money on San Francisco, Juice thought. The water was now comfortably up to his shoulders, and he shut off the faucet and settled back to read. The murmur of the jets swirling water against his shoulders and on the soles of his feet lured him deeper into the water.

He and Priscilla had invested in the extras on their tub, gleaming brass fixtures, internal heater which maintained the water’s warmth, and three neck jets, for a soothing back massage. Priscilla’s cancer curtailed most outdoor activities for her, and summer vacations were cancelled for chemotherapy, surgery and radiation. After surgery, flying in an airplane had restrictions and hazards, but the tub was a refuge for Priscilla and Juice. His joints began to loosen in the aromatic water, hot and creamy with bubbles. Despite the Broncos skipping the title games, and his sister-in-law’s sudden infiltration, his wife’s cancer, the goddamn blizzard, Juice’s tub felt like paradise, a meditative refuge, and the pains and kinks of the past week began to dissolve in the fragrant current of medicinal water swirling all over his submerged body.

Suddenly the jets in the tub subsided, the lights in the bathroom went dark, and an eerie quiet descended upon the house, punctuated by a “Son of a bitch!” from Juice.

“I think the power just went out,” Priscilla called loudly from the kitchen.

No shit, Juice fumed. He tossed his Sports Illustrated on the rug, and leaned back in the tub, stretching his legs. Damn. Goddamn, he thought, as he spun the drain open. Accidentally knocking over his glass, the ice cubes disappeared beneath the rich bubbles, and the glass sank to the bottom of the tub with a thunk.

Jacuzzi is dead. Lights out. The blizzard would sap heat from the house. Juice needed his generator running.

“Call the power company,” Juice shouted down the hallway, as he exited the bathroom in his bathrobe. Priscilla poked her head out of the kitchen with a cell phone up to her ear.

“It’s going into automatic reply. I don’t think I’ll be talking to a person,” his wife said.

“No sense waiting for that. Save the charge on your phone.”

Behind his wife, the steady bells and chimes of Pamela’s computer continued, like a rebuke of their situation. Juice calculated the timelines of batteries, as he toweled dry in the dim bedroom light. Hurricanes and blizzards, who expects that every year? he asked himself. The extreme power outages began around the time Priscilla’s cancer treatments started, like a disease spreading across New England. Juice never imagined owning a generator, but after the hurricane leveled Vermont, Juice hired an electrician to wire the house for auxiliary power.

Although he put on dry socks, pants and an undershirt, his damp boots gave Juice a shiver that traveled to his right shoulder, where the ache from shoveling sat. His stoicism was bolstered by the weeks his wife vomited in bed, unable to control her body after chemo injections. The months of her nausea and malaise reinforced Juice’s motivation. He couldn’t cure his wife’s cancer, but he could keep the lights on.

In his darkened garage, the electric door opener was useless, and Juice had to raise the door manually. He disengaged the door from the draw cable, which sprung open with a bang, but he was surprised by how light the door actually was. Tiny flakes of snow blew into the garage.

The generator was on wheels, and Juice pushed it out of the garage and into the driveway. He positioned the generator close enough to reach the outlet on the front of the house, but far enough away that the exhaust fumes wouldn’t be a problem. Next, he ran a thick cable between the house and the generator, plugging it into the receptacles on both ends. His house took the female end of the cable, he noted, which seemed to make sense to him at the moment. The generator fired on the first pull of the starter. Juice flipped breakers and switches, and a couple of lights blazed on in his house. The generator powered his furnace, refrigerator, upstairs lights and the kitchen counter outlets, nothing more. They didn’t have TV, internet, or a stove, but if they shut the lights off in the bedroom, Juice could use the toaster oven and the microwave. In a couple of hours, Pamela’s computer would be dead.

Satisfied he resolved their energy dilemma as best he could, Juice lowered the garage door, muffling the drone of the generator and dimming the daylight. The hair sticking out from under his cap was frozen, his jacket was dusted with snow, and Juice began to melt in the kitchen.

“You’re worse than the dog,” his wife complained.

“Maybe, but I don’t have to be coaxed to step outside. And I clean up all by myself.”

“Yes, yes, yes. But now what?”

“Now nothing. Power’s out. Street’s blocked. Game’s over.”

“You can be such an asshole sometimes.”

“What? Just because I tell the truth.”

“You don’t have to say it like that.”

“How would you like me to say it? It’s a goddamn blizzard outside. The snow, for your information, is still falling. Power is out. Sorry.”

“If you only knew how to deliver a  message. Talk like a human being, instead of sounding like the police or a Marine sergeant.”

“Oh, Jesus, OK, yeah. Can we not have this argument?” Juice pleaded with his wife.

“Whatever. I’m just saying you could use a little more tact. Don’t you agree, Pamela?” Priscilla asked her sister.

Without interrupting the chimes and bells of her game, Pamela said, “Pris, I am staying out of this. Juice cleaned my car. Thank you.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Is it me? Am I being too cranky?”

Juice could never answer her question truthfully; he would always lie to her.

“No, dear, you’re not too cranky. I dripped water all over the kitchen. Sit. Coffee is still warm. You want half a cup with me?”

“Is there enough for me?” Pamela asked

“I’ll make a fresh pot,” Juice offered. “If everyone wants a cup. Coffee maker works. After the coffee’s done, how about we plug your computer into one of the counter outlets and charge it up,” he offered Pamela.

“Oh, I didn’t think about that. Good idea. Yes,” she said to her brother-in-law.

“We could watch a movie on the computer, like we did when I was in the hospital,” Priscilla reminded her husband and sister.

“Yes,” Pamela and Juice agreed.

 

Brett Roth writes poetry and fiction, and he plays rock and roll. A native of tropical Montana, he is a program coordinator in Fine Arts at Rhode Island School of Design. He and his wife share their home with a dog.

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