The Eye of the Storm
Jackie Davis Martin
If you live in California’s Bay Area, you have to seek out storms. You have to drive deliberately to Tahoe or Squaw where a newscaster with a mike, snow whirling around him, has already told you, the public, to stay away. He can barely peer out of his parka, and the wind makes brutal scraping sounds in his microphone. You say “Oh my” to the TV set and ask your husband if he wants more cheese and crackers. In the Bay Area you get used to not dealing with the weather. Tourists joke—or sneer—at fog, as though it had to be managed, as though you had to stop everything and dig yourself out of it.
If you live on the East Coast, the storm comes to you.
The first storm I drove into was when I was in my late twenties and had just left, maybe six months before, my children’s father. The children were around four and five at the time, 1969 or ‘70, and friends with Ann and Jake’s children, as my husband and I had been with Ann and Jake. The couple had moved away, to North Jersey (we all skipped “New”), but their sympathies lay with me and the kids, and so they invited us to their new place for an overnight visit, Saturday to Sunday. The kids were enormously excited. The drive took an hour and a half, mostly up the turnpike, dry as a bone.
A snowstorm had been predicted, with great exaggeration, I thought or wanted to think, but after an early dinner, Ann and Jake and I could see, from their living room, the snow beginning to fall. It fell in large, wet flakes and instantly adhered to their front yard, as yet unplanted. We watched the dramatic effect of the snow coming down—on a diagonal, I remember, purposeful and constant—by the illumination of their porch light. It was already dark outside. The radio and TV, both of which Jake turned on, now said the snow could reach three feet or more this time.
“You’re safe here,” Jake assured me. Ann started to prepare something; she liked to fuss. The kids ran and giggled between bedrooms down the hall.
“I’ll get snowed in,” I said. “I can’t be snowed in. I have to work.” That was certainly true. The high school had just hired me that fall, and I’d already used up a few sick days with the kids’ chicken pox. I pressed my face against the glass. “It’s not too bad. I think I’d better get going.”
“But I’m making tea and Snickerdoodles right now,” Ann said.
Jake asked if I’d been listening. “The storm’s moving up from the South,” he said. “You want to drive south.”
He pointed out I wouldn’t miss school if a snow day were declared, but I couldn’t be sure of that. Besides, I couldn’t imagine staying for days.
“ I can beat it,” I said in a statement both insistent and illogical “It doesn’t look too bad.”
I got us back into the car against the adults’ protests and the kids’ lamentings and started off in the dark, slowly driving out of the suburban housing tract, the snow soft and navigable, I saw with relief, toward the turnpike. As I reached to take the toll ticket from his hand, the guy in the booth said, “Are you crazy, lady?” He saw the children, alert as little birds in a nest, watching from the back seat. “It’s gonna get bad. Do you have chains?”
“Snow tires,” I said. I thought this might be true. The one thing I felt somewhat secure about was the car, a new Camaro the kids’ father had bestowed on me a few weeks before as a bribe to go back with him. He’d taken my old Ford and replaced it with this beauty. On one level the car made me nervous because I knew he seldom paid for anything, and on another gave me great pleasure with its lush interior, its solid feel on the road. I felt safe and warm and comfortable in it, felt my kids were safe. I didn’t know at the time that I’d have that car only a few more weeks before it was whisked away as quickly as it had been given to me, leaving me without anything.
But it was now (or then) and the three of us were in that temporary Camaro, heading into the eye of the storm. My memory of surviving it is as white and dense as the windshield was beneath the insistent snow, the wipers sighing heavily to remove its weight. The road became thickly layered with snow and drifts until there ceased to be a road at all, ceased to be any definition of where one was going or could go. We—those of us stranded on that Jersey turnpike—crept along at ten miles an hour, trailing each other’s red tail lights, the lights barely discernible in the whirling, whipping snow. The children curled up and fell asleep in the back seat; they were my precious cargo, and what was I doing with them? I could picture the alarmed face of Jake, the disappointed one of Ann, their children grasping my children in that unexpected and abrupt parting, and felt that maybe I had left behind all that life would bestow on me.
Perhaps someone reading this will say, Why didn’t she pull off, find a motel? It’s an interesting question. Motels probably weren’t visible from the turnpike, but I know I certainly wasn’t looking. I never had any money then, and certainly didn’t possess anything like a credit card. In any case, I couldn’t take my eyes off the storm
I had to get home, I had to get us there, into the little apartment where I’d moved us, I could do it. My mother was angry with me again, this time for leaving the man she hadn’t wanted me to marry. Even Jake, kind as he was, regarded my living alone with the kids as a short-term folly. The women’s movement hadn’t yet taken hold, and my situation was regarded as strange, even alarming. On the turnpike my arms circled the steering wheel, gripping it, as I leaned into hour after hour of invisibility except for dim and ghostly taillights. I would have felt annihilated altogether if it hadn’t been for the sleeping children in the car, a car for this stormy night that was warmly ours although tentative, I anticipated, in its ownership. I crept forward along that turnpike, the snow pelting and the wipers heaving, until—in the early hours of the morning-- I approached the exit I needed and could turn off into landscapes distorted by snow, but nevertheless familiar in their orientation. A half hour later, I pulled into the snow-filled area that was the parking lot of the apartment complex, and shuffled heavily through the thick white stuff, by that time above my knees, carrying first one child and then the other to our door. We were home, as makeshift as all that was, too, and safe, all of us, safe at home. I could turn on the lamp in the apartment and look out a rented window that was, as I claimed it, mine, and reflect that possibly I could and would survive.
About the author:
Jackie Davis Martin has had stories and essays published in journals ithat include Flash, Flashquake, Fastforward, JAAM, 34th Parallel.and Sleet. Her most recent work is in Bluestem, Enhance, Counterexample Poetics, and Fractured West and upcoming in Fiction Attic and Dogzplot and several anthologies. Her novellaExtracurricular was a finalist in the Press 53 Awards of 2011. A memoir, Surviving Susan, a memoir, was published in 2013. Jackie teaches at City College of San Francisco.