Frostbite (a story): Part I

The polar vortex last week reminded me of a short story I wrote a few years ago. So I decided to publish it here in two installments, first half today, second half tomorrow. I hope you enjoy it.

Frostbite, Part I

Call me compulsive. Ever since my husband, Jay, lost his job, I’ve been keeping a closer eye on our expenses. I do the usual money-saving things like washing out Ziploc bags so we can reuse them and walking around the house flipping off light switches. Plus, I don’t take things on faith anymore. I count the pills in our prescription bottles before walking away from the pharmacy counter, no matter how many people are fidgeting behind me in line. And a couple of weeks ago, I caught the checkout clerk at the grocery store ringing up four cans of generic frozen orange juice instead of three. It was an honest mistake, I’m sure—an unintended extra flick of the wrist as she ran the bar code over the scanner—but things like that can add up.

I wish I could convince Jay to participate in this cost-cutting patrol and take the pressure off me to be eternally vigilant, but he believes the return on investment for such activities is minimal. That’s his phrase—the return on investment is minimal—as though he were an accountant instead of a production coordinator laid off from the publishing house where we met 15 years ago and where I still work as an editor. My reply is that the longer he goes without bringing in an income, the more valuable every penny becomes, but neither one of us has yet persuaded the other to adopt our point of view. So I continue trimming our budget by a dollar here, a dollar there, and Jay shakes his head over the energy I expend complaining about the milk we let spoil and had to pour down the sink.

Even at my most obsessive, I realize that the milk and the light bill are not really what’s bothering me. What I want is for Jay to find another job, but that outcome is outside my control, so I try to make myself feel better by doing everything I can to push back the day when we run out of money and have to dip into our retirement account. I just wish we shared the effort more evenly. Jay is the one who has been out of work the last seven months, yet I feel like I’m carrying most of the burden.

To bring in extra money, I’ve been taking on freelance copy editing assignments to do in the evenings and on weekends, working so many hours that I wake up in the mornings with a brain that feels as uninspired as leftover oatmeal. I know Jay spends his days pursuing every job lead that he can, but when a person has been job hunting for as many months as he has, there are only a few avenues left to explore. Especially when so many publishers are outsourcing the type of work he does to compositors in India.

Even though I know he’s trying hard, when I walk through the door at 5:30 with at least three hours of copy editing ahead of me, the last thing I want to see is Jay enthroned on the couch trying to win a computer game. I bite my tongue to keep from raging at him, but even so, he can tell I resent his ability to blow off the stress for a while.

I think back to the Christmas we first bought the PlayStation and how we spent a two-week vacation seeing who could earn the better statistics at Tigers Woods golf. I’m angry that, because I have a skill set that is still in demand, I don’t feel like I can spend two hours playing a damn game. Part of the difference between Jay and me is that he’s always been more of an optimist. Even though the unemployment rate hovers at 10 percent, and economists warn that job creation isn’t going to pick up anytime soon, he remains convinced that some God-given opportunity is about to turn up. I, on the other hand, see hard times stretching out indefinitely until both the supplemental unemployment benefits and our retirement funds run out. Jay laughs at my tendency to “catastrophize,” but he didn’t grow up as I did in a family that lost both a home and a business to bankruptcy.

Working a string of 55-hour weeks has only exacerbated my stress levels. My asthma, usually under control, has worsened recently, and I’m convinced that tension is the reason for the increased attacks. And I’ve been sleeping badly. Right now, I’m lying awake staring at the dark ceiling at 5:00 on a Sunday morning. I can hear the wind buffeting the shrubs outside our bedroom window, scraping branches against the glass. Early December in northern Illinois is usually fairly mild, but the forecast called for the temperature to plummet below zero last night. Taking the dog outside this morning is going to be brutal. Rolling over on my side, I try to drop off again, hoping that I can sleep later than Jay so he’ll have to take Tuffy out into the deep freeze.

But it’s no good. As soon as I close my eyes, I start wondering whether we’ll be able to buy any Christmas presents for our relatives and worrying about the job I have to finish by the end of the day, no doubt missing the Bears game in the process.

By now our dog, a black schnoodle who was my surprise 40th birthday present three years ago, has sensed that I’m awake, so he inches up from the end of the bed, creeping on his belly until his face is next to mine. Opening his mouth in what looks like a yawn, he makes a noise that sounds like “Owwww”—the result of Jay trying to teach him to say Out when he has to go. Sighing, I rise from the warm bed, grab my heavy terrycloth robe, and shove my feet into fleece-lined slippers.

Tuffy is already prancing before the bedroom door, and when I open it, he races into the hall leading to the great room of the house. I detour to the room I use as a home office, turn on my computer, and check the weather report. The temperature is five below zero, the winds are gusting to 30 mph, and the wind chill is negative 38. Briefly, I consider returning to the bedroom to put on heavy pants over my thin flannel pajamas, but I don’t really want to wake up Jay. I snapped at him repeatedly during dinner last night and now I feel guilty, which is probably another reason for my early wake up.

“We won’t be outside long,” I say to the dog, as I kneel in the front hallway and pull on his dog sweater. He squirms because he hates wearing clothes, but small dogs like Tuffy are more susceptible to the cold. Once he’s dressed, I put on my full-length down coat, my winter boots, a hat, a scarf, and mittens. As we exit, I jiggle the doorknob to make sure it’s unlocked.

More snow has fallen during the night and the wind has piled it into huge drifts in the front yard, so I decide to take Tuffy out to the street. Fortunately the snowplow came by sometime in the last few hours so the roadway is clear of drifts. Tuffy immediately urinates against a snow bank, but even though I walk him about half the length of the block, he refuses to squat. Sometimes, when he can’t smell the ground, he gets fussy about where to poop. The cold and the salt on the road begin to burn his pads, and he starts picking up one paw and then another to get relief from the stinging. My own toes start to tingle as I turn to lead him home.

By the time we reach our driveway, he still hasn’t completed his business, but I decide to go inside anyway. Once he’s eaten breakfast, he’ll need to go more badly and maybe do it in a quick trip.

We walk up the drive with Tuffy tugging at the leash in his eagerness to get inside. I climb onto our front step, turn the doorknob, and discover that we’re locked out of the house. For a minute, I stand there twisting the doorknob again and again, unable to believe this is happening. I wonder if it’s frozen. Then the truth hits me. Fatigue and stress can make a person stupid, and stupid can be dangerous. When I tested the doorknob on my way out of the house, I jiggled the inside knob, which would have turned freely whether it was locked or not. And because I switched from my short down coat to my long one, I don’t have my keys in my pocket.

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