Fire and Snow
It’s not my first memory, but it is my first story. What I mean is, this is the first memory I have with a clear beginning, middle, and end. A punch and a line. It walks right up to my most permanent and visceral memories. I can still see two siblings who waited on some meatloaf in the oven, white snow, and black smoke that filled the house like something solid, covered us in an extra wool blanket, hot and smothering.
My dad worked a day shift at Philadelphia Gas Works warming homes for the entire city while my mom worked a night shift at JC Pennies, a retailer where they sold billowy blouses and pillows. I wondered why mom and dad always seemed so baggy-eyed and upset. They walked like there were bricks tied to their feet, and there was always something to yell about between the two of them. Now that I’m baggy-eyed and upset, dragging my own feet around, I understand. But then I didn’t. I wanted parents like the ones I’d seen on TV or picking their kids up from school with a smile and a homemade snack. Mine were busy, they moved fast, and that meant I was alone.
I used this time to drink up the pages of every book in the house and to forage through every drawer I could reach. I was curious and bored. This boredom ended one rainy night at five years old in the form of a screaming, newborn sister.
They were not prepared for her. I said five words a day to my parents. I hid away in my room, as though it were a game of hide-and-seek, sneaking a flashlight from dad’s shed to read after lights out. I delighted in homework and worked for hours on it, listening to the clock tsk-tsk-tsking back and forth at the kitchen table. My sister did not share this disposition, and we could tell from the minute she was brought home.
Soon, she said five words a minute, screamed when tucked in to her room, and stomped her way through daycare like a monster with no motor skills, blind Godzilla lurching around but failing to hit any buildings. We walked across the couch cushions, talked endlessly about Aladdin—my favorite movie, and, therefore, Jen’s—snuck snacks from the pantry, and played the invented games of childhood together.
Still, I hoarded my secret life away into my room the way dragons hoard gold. I coveted that time before bed I had alone to double check the cross on every t and the dot on every I on my homework. I’d stroke my books of Greek Myths and Illustrated Classics by the spine, slide them off the shelves and replace them by title, then by subject, then by interest level until they looked just right.
But I also adored Jen and was fascinated by how she worshipped my room like a holy shrine, and how she adored the leftover lamb doll I gave her a few weeks earlier. I had just planned to throw it away, but my mom said, “Why don’t you give it to your sister?” It was a ragged, childish thing, barely white anymore, I’d let it get so dirty. When I handed it to her, she squealed “Happy Easter” (the lamb had a little flag that declared it Easter season) although it was early December, snow packed so tightly on the ground by our shoes it was like pure ice. She never parted with the little Easter lamb until we were much older.
My parents, busy in the day shifts and night shifts, put her in my care for an hour or so by the time she was two and I was seven. Mom would be heading out to her evening shift at the mall, and Dad would be getting home from work but working outside on the house, mowing or painting or fixing something. My mother would start dinner, with my sister and I watching diligently, and I would finish dinner after she left while my dad worked outside. He’d check in periodically. It’s difficult to imagine that a child in such circumstances wouldn’t have made a mess of things sooner, and even more difficult to look back on it—the fish sticks and French fries nearly taking a tumble on the floor, the near-burns when I’d forget the pan was hot, the spilled salt falling on the floor like finely shattered glass—without feeling resentful. We were never in any danger. It was just thoughtlessness that, looking back, seems characteristic of the times.
Whatever my feelings, I loved to watch dinner being prepared. Cooking was a special kind of alchemy. Mysterious ingredients go in. They sizzle and smoke, bake and boil, and out comes something new. How did it happen? I loved to watch my mother transform a bunch of whole tomatoes into a spicy marinara sauce or a bunch of pasta and cheddar cheese into baked macaroni. Occasionally, there’d be cookies or a brownie to make as well. My main job, at 9, was to take the food out of the oven or turn off the stove when the timer went off. I followed this job diligently ever since I’d ruined dinner by taking chicken thighs off the heat too early and serving them raw. We’d eaten cereal that night, and my dad had to throw away the whole meal. Even though he didn’t say it, I could tell from the weight in his eyes as he smiled that we couldn’t afford to be throwing away food.
This night was meatloaf while it snowed outside. Mom magicked some blood-red ground beef, American cheese, and spices until they changed into the shape of bread and went into the oven. Although she was still young, as I watched her hand mix, I saw age creeping into her hands—they looked gnarled and witchy as she curled them into a claw to smooth out the beef. When my mom was home, recipes seemed so simple and tangible. But after she left, I knew that in an hour, the ground meat would be different, bubbling and new, like a potion.
“Take it out when the timer goes off. Use the hot hands,” she said, lobbing them onto the table where I sat. “I can’t believe this weather.”
“Why can’t you believe it?” I asked. Jen echoed me: “why?”
“Well, I do believe it. That means—I’m surprised by the weather. It means Mommy has to drive to work in the snow.”
“You said it was pretty this morning.”
“Pretty to look at. But you know how it gets all wet and melty, under your shoes and inside your socks?”
We nodded solemnly. The both of us were so starved for parental attention, we were happy to hear her thoughts about anything. Having been out in the snow earlier, we both understood that it could in fact be wet and slushy.
“Well, Mommy also doesn’t like to drive in the snow. The car slips and slides on the road.”
Jen clapped her hands. “Slip and slide!” Commercials for this ran on TV almost every night. We didn’t own one, but Jen seemed enchanted by the cartoon duck who sold the Slip n’ Slide for just five easy payments of $9.99. He’d slide down it and quack happily at the end.
“Not like that, baby. How much TV does daddy let you kids watch?”
We stayed silent, the way an accused man might without his lawyer present, either because we knew our answer would spark an argument between them or extinguish our TV time with dad.
She sighed. “Listen for the timer or the meatloaf will burn.”
“Okay. Daddy’s home. Love you both.” And then she turned to the refrigerator and captured her hair in a ponytail with a large brown tie. Her beige shirt was tucked into a formal looking pair of dress pants, with drawstring ties and brown pinstripes. It’s like there was a repellent spell around her clothes, which never got dirty from cooking. I was fascinated by the way she looked when she left for work, in makeup and dress clothes, and how she looked on Saturday afternoons. It was like a I had two mothers, one who always rushed out the door, and another who couldn’t get out of bed before 2pm. My father was always the same, limping in the door on his bad leg, clear blue eyes the color of my own, half of my face.
Snow fell in big, honest fluff as the sun grew orange near the bottom of the sky. Out the backyard window, it had created a line of white on the railing. Hushing everything, it hypnotized Jen and I by placing a quiet lid on the world and clearing out all the color back to white.
We turned to our favorite game of I Spy, so we could keep watching the snow. Alone, it was the magical hour with no parent supervision, and we always started with this game. I started: “I spy, with my eye, something green and white.”
She pointed to the grass. I nodded, and she clapped her hands in delight. “I spy with my eye, something brown and white.” Except all of her th’s sounded like f’s.
“The shed!” I said. The shed was brick-red. She laughed—Jen loved it when I made mistakes, never realizing I did it just to make her giggle. “The snow on the ground?”
“Yes!” she said.
“Maybe we’ll see a snow rabbit.”
“There’s no such thing!”
“Yes, there is. They only come out in the snow—it calls them out from underground.”
“Dad told me they’re not real.”
“Let’s look,” I said.
The icicles on the trees looked like they were carved out of glass, and the rosebush peaked out from under a pile of furry looking snow. We couldn’t see the stone path to my father’s shed, a dark, smoky place that always seemed loud and stunk of oil and gas. He would crouch in there, like Hephaestus, and make some miracle of stained glass, a patch up a dent in the car. Snow had covered everything by then in an anarchy of white, a rebellion against the colors of fall.
“I see one,” she whispered.
And, though of course I knew this was impossible, I saw something white shifting in the snow, darting from our yard to the neighbor’s yard, like a ball of snow-lined fur, sprinting through the back. For a moment, I doubted what I knew, and I fell back into the wonder of being a child. “I see it too.”
We spent the rest of the next hour in quiet. Children can sink into the same quiet holes adults can fall into at the sight of beauty. In fact, I know now children will drop into this quiet more comfortably and more easily than an adult because they are more prone to wonder. I read and Jen colored in her high chair, where mom had strapped her in, each of us glancing up once in a while to watch the yard get a sprinkling snow. The bulk of it had died down. I could see my dad now, a tired looking figure in a thick brown coat—I’m sure he smelled like motor oil and sweat—shoveling a path through the backyard. He would finish that path, and he would dig out Peg as well, our older neighbor whose last name I never learned. It would be dark soon, outside and inside the house.
My memory here is as dark and confused as the kitchen. I remember smelling the fire for a few minutes, but our oven always had a burnt smell. Maybe I ignored it because I didn’t know what to do, or I chose to let myself be distracted by the snow, but the smoke I couldn’t ignore—it twisted like a hand of dark fingers from the oven, reaching out as if to strangle us. I got up from the kitchen table with the potholders and threw open the oven door.
This was a mistake. Smoke flooded the room and the fire opened up with the help of extra air, as if in competition with its strange twin, the snow, still drifting slowly from the sky in the dark, chill air. The song “I’m Mister, Heat Miser, I’m Mister Sun” seared through my head, an unwanted and strange association only a child can come up with looking at the feet of a dancing fire. It dripped down to the bottom of the oven and burst with a great windy whoosh, catching my mother’s decorative towels that were hanging off the edge of the range (snowmen, orange with fire and, later, black, like twisted Halloween faces). Spots of the kitchen rug caught as well.
Leaving the oven door open, I turned to go outside—there were stairs that led from our kitchen down into the yard below. Snow drifted from outside to the spreading fire of the kitchen—leaving Jen. I imagine her, wide-eyed and helpless in the elemental chaos, trapped in her highchair like a prisoner strapped in, though she was something I hardly noticed in the moment. More than anything, I was horrified that from my distracted and enamored-with-the-snow state, I’d laid open a world of trouble. I’d be grounded for being stupid enough to set a fire, which was, of course, irrational and untrue, but it was my first overwhelming thought. I had to get out of there or I’d be punished. Run my instincts told me. Just run. Jen sat trapped in the high chair.
I should have grabbed her in that moment; it’s what any normal person would have done. But I left my sister in the fire and walked out, barefoot in the snow. I thought of the trouble I would be in, and my feet told me to run away. I can still feel close to the edge of something dark and cold, like my feet first pressing into the snow that night. All wet and melty, snow slipping inside of shoes and socks.
Was the instinct for self-preservation so strong and so old that I could turn my back and walk out into the night, the flaming kitchen behind me?
Once I reached the bottom of the snowy steps, the cold called me out of my trance and I cried out for my father—“Dad! Daddy!”—and saw how vast the unfenced backyards really were, how wild in the utter dark of night. I slipped and fell down the steps from the kitchen, landing with an angry thud at the bottom, an accidental snow angel impression left behind when I stood. I yelled for my father again.
“Go back inside!” His voice cracked back from our neighbor’s yard. “I’ll be in soon.”
I yelled for my father one more time. Why it didn’t occur to me to yell “Fire!” instead of “Daddy,” I can’t say. I was afraid of getting in trouble, mixed with disoriented, cold, and afraid. The smell of smoke reached into my nostrils from the kitchen, and I stiffened in the snow. An eerie glow came from behind me. Whatever dark thing had driven me outside and urged me to leave Jen behind disappeared. I raced back to the house and hauled up the wet steps.
Jen was screaming and crying in her highchair. The smoke had shifted from grey to black, and the whole room had a deadly orange glow slicing through the brown carpet. I ran, in truth, timidly, around the burning patches and over to Jen’s high chair, though I was not yet tall enough to get her down. Now, I was horrified not by the trouble I would be in, nor the fire spreading and trapping us both, but by her eyes, red-eyed and desperate; the sound of her choking in the smoke-filled room.
Desperate, I pulled the chair so that it tilted over and dropped to the ground, which of course made her scream and panic even more, her face a few feet from the smoldering carpet. But from here, I could press down on the center button to her straps—they worked just like a seatbelt—and drag Jen out of her highchair. Taking her by the hand, we walked quickly through the room. I carried her down the snowy steps. Looking back, it’s a miracle I didn’t slip and crack both our heads open.
Like primitives, a seven-year-old dragging his two-year-old sister through the snow, fire raging behind them, barefoot and afraid, we trekked through the backyard; the long shadows we cast played against a white backdrop.
“What the hell are you doing?” My father’s voice came from somewhere behind and to the right of me.
“Daddy! We had to go because she was choking, and I opened the oven, I didn’t know about the meatloaf, it was too hot and—that’s when the fire started—”
“Fire? Jesus Christ,” he snatched Jen in one arm onto his shoulder, took my hand, and hustled us up the steps toward the amber-glow of the kitchen. He didn’t limp when he picked up the two of us and spirited us to the door.
Smoke and patches of rug looked black. When it had just been Jen and I, to our small little eyes, the fire seemed so massive—too big to handle myself, commercials of ruined homes replaying in my head—but with my father there now, it seemed small. I wasn’t comforted. I felt foolish instead, running out with the baby and babbling in the snow in my bare feet, which were now red and throbbed along with my heartbeat.
Handing Jen off to me, my father calmly reached the fire extinguisher from off the wall. He pulled the pin out and aimed the nozzle in the oven, where it blew white clouds, like snow clouds, and dowsed the fire. He gave a few more careful pumps to the patches on the rug, then sprayed the oven again for good measure.
“You guys alright?”
“Fire,” Jen said.
My dad laughed. “Why didn’t you kids say that it the first place?”
“I don’t know,” I looked down.
“I’m not mad. Wait until your mother sees this black wall, though. Crispy critters.” The brown walls looked like bacon that had been left in the pan too long. He laughed, but the weights returned to his eyes, heavy and sloped.
“Well, guess meatloaf is off the menu. I’ll order a pizza. Go get your feet and your sister’s feet in some hot water. Wiggle you toes around a lot. That will help cold. Bare foot in the snow, huh?” He frowned, shook his head. “I’ll be right up.”
I marched upstairs with Jen, still feeling embarrassed and childish—I say that now, although in truth the memory still brews bitter and hot, like a wincingly burnt pot of coffee left on the heat too long. Jen and I sat on the edge of the tub with our feet soaking, and I could hear dad on the phone order an extra-large pepperoni pizza. He came upstairs and helped us change our clothes and get our feet warm.
“Are you cold?” I asked her.
“Yes. I was alone in the fire.”
“Yes. But not for too long?”
She shrugged. We were still soaking our feet in silence as dad led us downstairs to watch TV and wait for pizza.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
I don’t think he’d ever asked me that before, and I was confused about how to answer—I paused, thought about what the right thing to say was. “Yes. It seemed much bigger earlier.”
“I bet that was pretty scary. At least we know you really like your sister.” He patted me on the shoulder, and, although I didn’t deserve it, it felt like a mix of love and forgiveness in that touch.
“Well, you wouldn’t have rescued her if not. That was what you were doing, right?”
Not right away, I thought, but I didn’t say it out loud. He seemed so proud that I had done the right thing—how could I look him in the eye and tell him my first instinct was just to run away and keep myself from getting in trouble? That it had taken the cold press of snow against bare skin to wake me up? If he knew that, he wouldn’t call this a rescue at all. More than anything, I was relieved that in my confused and frantic state I’d stopped myself from running away completely, leaving Jen to choke in the kitchen, even though it was something we both would joke about later, going back for her seemed like the simplest way of saying the most important thing, which is, of course, I love you.
About the Author: Mike Zimmerman is a writer of short stories and poetry, as well as a middle school Writing teacher in East Brooklyn. His previous work has been published in Cutbank, A & U Magazine, The Painted Bride, Wilde Magazine, Caravel, Aji, Arkana, 8 West Press, Steam Ticket, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Zingara Poetry Review, and various anthologies. He is the 2015 recipient of the Oscar Wilde Award from Gival Press and a finalist for the Hewitt Award in 2016. In 2018, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for his story “Doppelganger” in Two Cities Review. Mike lives in Brooklyn with his husband and their cat. Instagram @mazaffect.