There’s often a point in heavy snowstorms, the kind that are clearly hellbent on burying the earth forever, when the snowfall suddenly slows and the flakes become large and fluffy like chunks of freshly baked bread. Usually two or three feet of fresh manna already accumulated below, the wind is finally still, the air not even that cold. The flakes fall, noiseless, like goose down—a peace offering from the blizzard. Everybody knows that the snow will pick back up sooner rather than later, but they take this moment to step outside in their sweaters, holding mugs of coffee or cans of beer, feeling a kind of powerlessness at once off-putting and calming. Some curse and some laugh, while children calculate, converting the gathering inches into structural potential and days of long-awaited academic reprieve.
When this was happening, during the Blizzard of ‘92, Jason climbed over the squat, hand-me-down dresser in his bedroom and into the deep windowsill. He sat on his feet, forehead pasted against the glass, solemn. The storm had been going on for days and the snow was already surpassing the bottom of the windowpane. He watched with reverence. Weather was something he’d yet to separate himself from, yet to fear or despise, just something that was naturally embraced. But he worried about stories he’d been told by the old men at monthly parish breakfasts—snowdrifts that buried houses, power outages that lasted for more than a week, roads being closed and milk having to be delivered by snowmobile. Already, he’d overheard his mother and grandmother talking about a ‘state of emergency’ where no one was supposed to drive their cars unless absolutely necessary.
School had been closed since Wednesday, and the weekend lay ahead of him, unlimited, except by the storm. Earlier, his mother asked him if he wanted to go outside to play while she shoveled the walkway and spread rock salt. She was already in hat and winter coat, sliding on a pair of rubber boots and searching for her waterproof gloves, while her trademark cigarette dangled from slightly parted lips. “C’mon. Go get your snowpants. You can help me shovel.” But Jason didn’t want to go out into the snow. He’d gone out yesterday, made a small fort and, after failing to make a snowcat, a little snowman. Besides, he’d just gotten a new box of miscellaneous Legos, brought over two days ago from the neighbor in a cardboard Miller Lite box, and he had been looking forward to an uninterrupted afternoon of inspection, sorting, design—all the things involved in plastic masonry.
His mother had finished shoveling long ago, and the sun had almost set as he sat in the sill, taking in the sterility and emptiness of their little street. No cars drove by, the neighbor’s old black lab, Mugsy, wasn’t laying in his usual spot at the top of the driveway, and there were no signs of the other kids in Ridge Manor. It looked quiet and cold out there, uninhabitable, and all that Jason could think about were how the Indians used to survive in their longhouses. Last year, his second grade teacher, Ms. Hanoseck taught an entire month of history class about the Native Americans of the Northeast United States, and how, to his surprise, they didn’t live in teepees like he’d seen on cartoons. Rather, they lived in oblong, wooden structures much like his Uncle Mike’s log cabin on Lake Harmony. Jason wondered what it was like for them during the blizzards, whether they had shovels to dig their way out, or if they just waited in the longhouse for the storm to pass and played games and maybe decided who was going to be the new chief when their current leader was too old to make good decisions.
At least we have electricty, he thought, as he heard the television mumbling from the living room. It was a game show, so he guessed it was after six o’clock. Jason knew that if he followed the sound of the TV, he would be sure to find his grandmother seated at the end of the sectional sofa, full attention toward the set, with a mixture of Windsor and water in her right hand, laughing intermittently at Pat Sajak’s perfectly-timed, inoffensive jokes. His mother would probably be laying lengthwise in faded jeans at the opposite end, smoking and reading a paperback novel, occasionally making short comments about the show or yelling at the damn cat for always plopping down on her lap when she was trying to read. Just about every night their living room looked like that. Jason would sometimes join the two women, himself playing or reading on the floor, but more often than not he enjoyed the creative privacy of his room.
His legs started to lose circulation, so he swung them out and began rubbing them—to get the pricklies out. The blizzard had picked back up and the lone streetlight was now bright. He looked at the snow passing through the yellow triangle of light and judged that this was the biggest storm he’d ever seen.
The dark blue of the evening sky was giving way to black, and it was becoming impossible to see anything except the streetlight and the white snow encroaching upward on the window. He was about to give up on the storm and return to his half-developed Lego landscape, when Jason indentified a dark figure trudging down the street. He wasn’t sure at first, but then, yes, he was certain it was a person—a man probably—laboring past the Moyers’ yard and toward his own. He wouldn’t have seen the figure in the dying light if he weren’t dressed in black from head to toe. Jason’s stomach tightened as the stranger turned off the road and into the driveway, past his grandmother’s snow-covered sedan and onto the walkway his mother had cleared earlier.
Jason jumped from the windowsill. He hadn’t changed out of his pajamas all day and there was a man coming toward his house, a house that was only fortified with a boy and two helpless women, he thought. He went to the doorway of his room, held on to the jamb and looked down the hall into the living room. He could see the back of his mother’s head peeking over the top of the sofa and, beyond that, someone saying, “C’mon, c’mon,” while spinning a big, colorful wheel on the TV.
“There’s a stranger walking toward the house!” he yelled, and leapt back into his room, closing the door. After a moment, he heard the doorbell ring. He ran over to his bed and put his ear to the wall, on the other side of which, he knew his mother would be answering the door.
There were the sound of footsteps, the newly-replaced door opening, and then, “Hello, Father Vaccaro.”
Jason turned and fell onto his bed, breathing a sigh of relief and saying out loud, “It’s just the priest.” But then he bolted upright, thinking that he should probably get dressed because the priest was used to seeing him in his Catholic school uniform or church clothes, but he was instead wearing Ninja Turtles pajamas. He rushed over to the dresser and quickly changed into his uniform: olive-green nylon slacks, matching socks, and a white polo shirt that was embroidered over the left breast with St. Francis of Assisi. He was in his closet searching for his dress shoes when there was a knock on his bedroom door.
“Hold on,” he warned, “I’m not ready.”
The door opened slowly as he rushed to squeeze the black, silver-buckled shoes on. His mother poked her head inside, a terrible look on her face, and said, “What are you doing, Jason?”
“I’m getting dressed, obviously.” He knew she hated it when he used that last word, but he also hated when she asked him what he was doing when it was entirely clear what he was doing. She didn’t seem to catch it this time. “Why’s the priest here?” he asked without looking at her, standing up and trying to make his shirt look as if it weren’t just crumpled up on the floor a minute ago.
“Father Vaccaro is going to come in and talk to you, okay?”
“Am I in trouble?”
She closed her eyes and half-smiled. “No, you’re not in trouble.”
She withdrew from the doorway and was quickly replaced by Father Vaccaro’s tall, somber figure. “May I come in, Jason?”
The boy, lacking any other idea of decorum, stood straight, with his arms rigid along his sides. He’d never seen the priest outside of church or school, and his presence in Jason’s home was uncharted territory. “Yes.”
Shutting the door behind him, Father Vaccaro entered the room and took a seat in the little boy’s desk chair. He motioned for Jason to have a seat on the bed.
“You’re building quite a village in here,” he said, “You really have some imagination.”
“Thanks,” Jason replied, looking up meekly at the man clad in black, save the small square on his collar.
“Do you always wear your school uniform when you’re at home?”
The old man chuckled briefly and took his hat off, setting it on his knee. He had brownish spots on his bald head, but Jason was clever enough not to look at them.
“I need to tell you something, Son.” The Father smiled genuinely and wrung his leathery hands together. “I understand you’re in the third grade, correct?”
The priest sighed, “Your classmate, Austin Williams—he passed away earlier today.”
Jason exhaled softly.
“He’s in heaven, Jason.”
The boy knew the concept of death; he and his mother had buried their cat two summers ago. He took a quick self-inventory of his feelings, trying to isolate a similar sentiment from that July day when he found out Tracy was hit by a passing car. He’d cried then, snot all over his face, as his mother lay the cat’s body inside an empty VCR box and interred it into the soft earth. At present, he could find no such reaction within himself.
“I’m sad,” he said at last.
“I know,” Father Vaccaro said, as he nodded his head, gritting his teeth. “But the important thing to understand is that he’s with Jesus in heaven now.” And tears started to form behind the old man’s spectacles. Jason felt awkward, almost anxious even, at the sight of the priest’s wet, wrinkled eyes.
“Jason, I want you to know that this will probably take some time to fully sink in. In the weeks to come, you may feel like talking to somebody and I ask you not to hesitate in coming to me with your questions.”
Jason was silent for a moment, before blurting out, “How do you know he went to heaven?”
Father Vaccaro chuckled again, a deep, honest smile reclaiming his face. “Because he was a good, innocent child and the Lord would never turn him, or any of you, away.” The priest put his hand on Jason’s shoulder. “Do you have any other questions?”
“How did he die?”
The venerable member of their tight-knit community looked through the bedroom window, and out into the unrelenting storm. “He was playing in the snow,” the priest said, pausing. “He was digging a tunnel in the snow while his father was running the snowblower in the driveway, and—and it collapsed. By the time they found him, I’m afraid it was too late.”
“An igloo?” Jason asked, suddenly animated. “He was building an igloo?”
The priest tilted his head to the side. “Yes, Jason.”
The boy’s face showed extreme mental activity and Father Vaccaro withdrew his hand back to his lap.
“Those are different Indians, Father. Austin should have known that.”
“Excuse me, Son?”
“They built longhouses around here, the Native Americans. They didn’t build teepees or igloos. We learned that last year. Austin should have known.”
Just then, the bedroom door opened and his mother’s head reappeared. “Is everything alright, Father?”
“Yes, Marie, I was just leaving. That is,” he said, turning his attention back toward the boy, “if you didn’t have any more questions.”
Jason shook his head no and the Father summoned his old bones to stand. “Peace be with you, Child,” he said as he exited the room and was escorted to the door.
Minutes later, Jason was perched back in the window, watching Father Vaccaro, already outside, waving goodbye and making his way back down the path. The snow had accumulated another six inches since it was shoveled earlier and he struggled more than he had upon arrival, stopping to rest against the car before finally turning into the street.
Jason watched the stark figure slowly fade into the falling snow and darkening horizon. He thought about heaven and Austin and the old priest. He wondered about the Indians that used to live around there, and whether or not they at first built igloos that fell on people, suffocating them, before finally opting for the sturdier longhouses that he saw pictures of last spring. Jason continued to watch the snow fall until his mother came in to see how he was doing. She told him it was time to go to sleep.
Photo by Dave Olsen