Slowly, like a mist, my daughter drifts down the stairs. The first floor sighs as she pauses in the front foyer. With the furnace blasting heat since my early morning adjustment, I imagine the floorboards feel warm beneath Gee’s gripping toes. From my perch in the office I cannot see my daughter but I hear our home’s welcoming response to her arrival. Fingers pause above the keyboard as I listen to floorboards murmur. Like her father, and my father before me, she enjoys the birth of a new day; the time of sunrise, when the rest of the house sleeps under cozy covers.
Not wishing to wake the rest of the family, Gee tiptoes like a cat burglar toward the kitchen. Before turning toward the office she stops, perhaps to listen as our home moans under the weight of winter’s wind. And making her way past the entrance to the office she finds me sitting at the desk, frozen like a statue awaiting discovery.
“Boo,” I whisper.
She’s startled and, collecting herself, leans against the door jamb. “You surprised me. I thought I was the only one up.” I smile as she rubs her eye with the back of a slender hand. As she does I notice her finger tips are stained with paint. She juts a sharp chin toward the computer. “Whatcha doing?”
“Writing.” I shrug before continuing, “I’m wrestling with the beginning of a story. It’s about my first apartment in Lowell, when I was a little younger than you are.” I smile at the thought of the young me crossing paths with Gee. “I woke up thinking about it so I came down here to get it on paper. You know, before it slips away.”
She nods slowly, as if deciding whether to ask a follow-up question. If she asks, she risks suffering through a 10 minute answer. Momentarily, the room grows silent, peaceful. From behind thick plaster walls radiator pipes groan.
“I love that sound.”
“The sound – and the smell – of rising heat.”
And seeing me float on the currents of the past, Gee’s gaze drifts toward the front window. She points her stained finger, “It’s pretty out.” Tracing her stare I turn to witness a gathering of trees as they stretch arms wide to catch falling snow.
Dramatically, I feign a shiver. “I bet it’s cold as a well-digger’s backside out there.”
She rolls her eyes at an expression passed down from my father.
I take a sip of coffee before tilting the cup toward my daughter. “I made coffee. It’s strong. And there’s plenty to go around so go help yourself.”
Before stepping away she tilts her head around the doorway to inspect the thermostat (conveniently located at the entrance to our little office). And reading the temperature she frowns in my general direction. “Jesus, Dad, it’s 74 degrees! It was 66 or something when I went to bed last night.” She stares me down. “Why’d you crank the heat? You know no one else likes it this hot.”
I shrug. “Yeah, I goosed it this morning a little after six.”
Assuming the posture of the annoyed, my daughter crosses her arms. “Come on, Dad, that’s crazy. What’s with you and the heat anyway?”
I close my eyes as the scent, the sounds and the warmth of the rising heat join my daughter’s words to wash over me. And slipping into the past I shiver violently.
Geoffrey and I nudge kitchen chairs closer to our apartment’s ancient oven, its door sagging limply toward the floor. My roommate and I lean forward as heat belches from the gaping mouth to lick our faces. It’s not a mouth, really. In fact, it’s not really an oven. It’s a combination oven/heating unit, fueled by natural gas and armed with two sets of controls; one for cooking and one for a radiator built into the side of the device.
The controls on the heating unit are long gone. Joining the controls in disrepair, the unit’s once bright enamel is chipped and scratched to expose a black undercoat.
Well before our time, the word “Broke” was scratched across the unit’s control panel. During my two years here I’ve tried to scrub away the taunting word. Despite endless applications of steel wool the message won’t go away.
Pliers are used to turn the heater’s temperature control toward a maximum setting. Though the radiator doesn’t seem interested in throwing off “maximum” heat we keep it set on max just in case the device experiences a change of heart.
And with the heating part of our oven/heating unit less than operative, the oven part is left to carry the burden of warming our apartment. Blackened by years of carbon buildup the sagging door looks like a sickened tongue, desperate for a good scraping. Presently, the oven is set to “Broil,” the setting obscured by a film of fine soot. From the back of the oven blue and orange flames burn bright. They hiss at us. Heat rushes from the oven, shimmering in the brittle air. The smell of burnt plastic, a remnant of last week’s cooking misstep, overtakes the scent of wafting heat. It’s an unpleasant smell causing the involuntary wrinkling of one’s nose.
Leaning forward, Geoffrey and I touch shoulders. He’s shivering. Sitting about a foot from the oven, I turn left to see my roommate’s face burning red. Extending arms, he warms hands within the oven. Slowly, we cook away the cold.
I too stretch my arms, waiting until the effect of the oven’s heat changes from warmth to pain. And feeling fingers singe I pull back my arms to slip hands under a thick woolen sweater.
Geoffrey inches forward in his chair, his knees nearly touching the drooping oven door.
Following his lead I too move toward. Again, our shoulders touch. And again he shivers. Our faces are, perhaps, a half foot from the open oven. My eyes water.
Turning to my left I can’t help but notice my roommate’s missing eyebrow. I whisper, “Dude, we shouldn’t get too close.”
He reaches up to touch the reddened patch above his right eye. “You don’t have to remind me.” He looks away, toward his left. “The stupid thing’s already lit. Lighting this piece of crap’s the scary part.”
Considering ‘the scary part’ I place my hand on Geoffrey’s bouncing knee and squeeze. Last week, before I melted my favorite plastic plate in the oven, Geoffrey had attempted to relight the unit’s pilot light with my Bic lighter. Relighting the oven is a near-daily occurrence as years of carbon buildup conspire to suffocate the little flame. And because I’d worked at PSE&G, northern New Jersey’s gas company, the task of lighting the pilot fell within my domain.
Traditionally, I light the tip of a broken broomstick or the corner of a rolled up newspaper and stretch my arm forward, putting as much distance as possible between my body and the hissing gas. I start a good 10 feet away and, arm extended, inch toward the hungry oven. Most of the time I hold a thick book in front of my face as a protection against the 3 to 4 foot flash of flame released upon ignition.
Last week, however, Geoffrey had grown agitated with my cautious efforts.
“Don’t be such a pussy. It’s 12 degrees and I’m freez’n my balls off and now you’re looking for a goddamned book?” Before I could light the broomstick he made a grab for the Bic.
I held tight as we stumbled across the kitchen, fighting for control of the lighter. Eventually, he bent my pinky backward and I dropped the Bic to the floor.
I shoved him away, “Dude, don’t be such a fucking moron. You don’t know what the hell you’re doing.” I shook my head, “I mean, I worked at the fucking gas company and there’s a mixture of gas and air and…”
Ignoring my warnings Geoffrey retrieved the lighter from the floor, turned toward the hissing oven and leaned into the blackened mouth. When he flicked the Bic he was engulfed in a ball of flame. For a moment he stood frozen, bent forward and swallowed by a flash of light. The familiar scent of burnt carbon was quickly overtaken by the smell of burnt hair. Howling, Geoffrey fell backward, clutching at his face. I grabbed him before he could fall to the floor.
“Mother fucker!” Pulling away he rocked back and forth, holding his head in his hands.
I turned to the sink to fill my hands with water and spinning quickly poured it over his head, now hanging limply toward the floor.
He stood silently, hunched over. And not knowing what to do I dumped more water over his head.
“What the fuck are you doing, asshole? Now I’m all wet!”
“Dude, I thought you were on fire or something.” I placed a hand on his shoulder. “Here, stand up. Let me take a look.”
And seeing my roommate was now short one eyebrow I turned back to the sink to soak a wash cloth under cold water. “Here, put this over your eye.”
Covering his face Geoffrey cursed into the wash cloth.
This evening Geoffrey rubs the pink skin of his former eyebrow before pushing his chair away from the oven. Wooden chair legs squeak across greyed linoleum before catching on a pealing piece of tile. And seeking not to tumble backward my roommate throws arms wide, grabbing me by the shoulder. His eyes bulge as I place my hand over his.
“I got you.”
He looks up toward a stained drop ceiling. “I hate this place.” He looks toward a plastic covered window, the plastic snapping under the weight of winter’s wind. Behind the sheet of plastic black metal bars protect us from would be intruders.
He rubs his face. “You know a girl died in this building.”
“Yup, I know, Geoffrey.”
We all know. Many years ago – before our tour here – a fire broke out in one of the rear apartments and a little girl did what you’re not supposed to do. She hid in a closet. They found her the next morning wearing her nightgown, curled in a ball and covered in ice. Her death is why we’re not allowed to use space heaters in the building.
But it’s cold so we use them anyway.
We have three space heaters running nonstop in our apartment, two of which are powered by an extension cord snaked through a hole in the living room floor to the basement. They feed from an uncovered plug at the base of a light bulb. The third electric heater sits in my bedroom, idling three feet from the foot of my bed. Throughout the night it glows bright orange and pings each time it completes a heating cycle. Thereafter, the orange glow retreats and the unit grows quiet as it gathers strength needed to generate another wave of heat.
Closing eyes tight Geoffrey tilts his face upward. He exhales slowly. His breath uncoils toward the sagging ceiling. In two weeks’ time the drop ceiling will be no more; a victim of frozen pipes and a torrent of water flooding into our kitchen. During the three weeks it will take to repair the pipes we’ll live without running water, gathering buckets of cold water from a spigot in the unfinished basement. We’ll use the basement water for tea, to wash our hands and to force the toilet to flush. We’ll schedule our days so we can shower and crap at ULowell. For now though, the ceiling hangs like a piece of frozen meat, waiting to capture a taste of Geoffrey’s warm breath.
“What if this is it?” he asks the ceiling. “What if this is where I’m supposed to be.”
His question is interrupted by a hard wind pushing against our clapboard tenement. Exhausted, the 100 year old structure moans in response to winter’s wind. From every room sheets of plastic snap to attention as icy winds barge past poorly stapled edges. As one, Geoffrey and I shiver.
A sprinkling of dust falls gracefully from the ceiling to spice our conversation.
In response of Geoffrey’s comment I shrug. And reaching across the kitchen table I retrieve my friend’s hefty calculus book. Because of the book’s thickness it is my favored source of shielding when lighting the oven pilot.
I hand the book to Geoffrey. Idly, he flips through dog-eared pages. “Dude, the fact that you’re studying hard core stuff like this and the fact that you’re working day and night in the studio when everyone else is out drinking or at home sleeping tells me this is not where you’re supposed to be.”
I grimace at the thought of living out my years in this building. “No fucking way.”
My roommate stares ahead, his mouth wide like our failing oven. He scratches his cheek, “We gotta get outa here, man.” He looks around, “I’m thinking it doesn’t get any worse than this.”
Reaching over I rub my friend’s shoulder. He’s wearing multiple shirts, a wool sweater and a scarf so I’m forced to press fingers deep in search of his actual shoulder. And upon reaching Geoffrey’s shoulder I pinch him as hard as I can, twisting the muscles huddled under his many layers. Jumping from his chair he wails, “What the fuck, you asshole! That hurt!”
Standing above me he rubs his wounded shoulder. “What’s your problem?”
I shrug, “Just goes to show ya things can always get worse. And now your shoulder’s about to stop hurting so, ya see, things are already looking up.”
He kicks my chair. “You’re a dick.”
I smile and, though he works to remain angry, he returns the gesture. I tap his chair. He returns to his spot in front of the oven. “We’ll make it. This is not the end of the line for us. I just know it.” And though I do not see Geoffrey nod his head I know he agrees with me.
We sit quietly as the wind and snapping plastic and moaning clapboards and pinging electric heaters sing a song of brokenness, the lone lyric scribbled atop of our oven.
The song is interrupted by the jingling of keys outside the kitchen door.
“Peter?” I ask Geoffrey.
“Peter,” he confirms.
We stare expectantly at the wooden door as curse words fill the outer hallway.
From the other side of the door Geoffrey’s brother hollers. “The stupid lock’s not working! Let me in! I’m fucking freezing out here!”
I look to Geoffrey, “I got it.” Shuffling across chipped linoleum I make my way to the front hallway and remove a metal rod positioned diagonally against the front door.
“Dude, hold on. I gotta move the pipe.” The ½ inch thick rod extends from a piece of wood screwed into the floor three feet from the base of the door up to a small cavity just under the doorknob. The rod’s purpose is to blunt the attempts of home invaders as it’s not uncommon to wake to the sound of scraping and the prying of wood on the other side of the front door. And with my bedroom nearest to the front entry I am responsible for the door. Usually a hard kick to the inside of the door and an angry “Get the fuck out a here!” does the job. It’s always scary but the rod makes it less so.
I remove the metal bar and drop it to the floor. I step back as the door swings open. Along with Peter a cloud of single digit weather bursts into our front hallway.
From the kitchen Geoffrey yells, “Close the goddamned door!”
Peter stamps his feet. “Oh my God. Oh my fucking God! It’s freezing out there!”
He jumps up and down, warming himself in our 40 degree apartment and rattling glassware in the kitchen. “Their van broke down on the way home and I had to hitch. I got one ride – one lousy ride – all the way over in Dracut. They dropped me off at the river.” He shivers violently. “I walked from Dracut! Like I walked two to three miles in this shit!”
His body quakes as he removes his coat and sweatshirt. With his outer layers tossed to the floor he rushes to the kitchen sink to run his hands under water. “Any hot water left?” Geoffrey jumps up from his chair. “Not much, dude. Here…” Removing his wool sweater Geoffrey drapes it over his brother’s shoulders. “Wear this. It’s already warmed up.”
Peter nods, warming his hands under warm, but not hot, water.
I approach the brothers and join Geoffrey in rubbing Peter’s shoulders. “How long were you walking?” Peter quivers under our warming hands. “I dunno; like, an hour. Maybe more.”
I step back. “Holy shit. Why so long? Did you stop to swim in the Merrimack or something?”
Peter shakes his head. “No I didn’t swim anywhere you moron. The river’s completely frozen so I coulda walked across it! I stopped to get high. I had to; over by the Aiken Street Bridge. I mean, I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
Geoffrey leans into his brother’s ear. “So you’re stoned right now?”
Peter nods. “Very.”
Raising his remaining eyebrow Geoffrey looks from Peter to me and back to Peter. “And little brother, do you have any more herb?”
Turning to face the front hallway Peter points a dripping finger toward his coat. “There’s a bone in my front pocket. You can have it but leave me a roach, OK?”
Geoffrey kisses his brother on the cheek, “I love you, brother.”
The kiss is messy, slippery, and Peter’s forced to wipe the slobber away with the back of his still cold hand. Geoffrey leans in to kiss him again and Peter recoils, falling into me. In turn I lean in and start kissing his other cheek. “Stop it you homos! I mean it! You’re gross pigs and now I’m all wet!” He steps back and stares. “You two are freaks!”
Geoffrey pounds his chest. “No, we’re homos! You just told us! And we love you.”
Geoffrey grabs my arm, “Come on homo, let’s get toasted!”
I grab the Bic lighter from its position atop of the oven as we scurry to the front door. Rummaging through Peter’s coat pockets Geoffrey removes a thick white bone. He holds it to the ceiling. “Yes!”
Before attending to the front door, I look to Geoffrey. “No jackets, right?”
He repeats my declaration, adding, “And no gloves.”
Bending over I untie my boots, first the right, then the left. I nod toward Geoffrey. “Kick ‘em off! You can’t be wearing those shit kickers.”
He falls against the wall as he removes unlaced boots. They drop to the floor with a dull thud. Behind us glassware rattles.
With no jacket, no gloves and no shoes we work the front locks.
From the kitchen sink Peter hollers over his shoulder, “Save me some!”
Opening the door we step into the front hallway. The floor is laced with snow and ice chips. A yellowed bulb swings lazily overhead, causing the floor to shimmer. “Oh shit, my socks.” Not wanting to deal with wet socks I uncover my feet and hang woolen socks on the door knob. Geoffrey follows suit.
Snow dusted floorboards sting gripping toes.
Think plumes of breath uncoil into the outer hallway.
“Oh my God, dude, your brother’s right. It’s freezing out here.” Slivers of ice cling to my feet as I hop up and down. “The floor’s all icy!”
Geoffrey jerks his chin toward the front door. “Get ready, ‘cause it’s way colder out there.” He pulls open the outer door and we step into a dark alley extending 50 foot from the front of our building to Fletcher Street. The ghosts of poverty present stake their claim as 8 degree weather rushes up sleeves, up pant legs, down my neckline and up the back of an untucked shirt. Moisture crackles and tugs at the edge of watering eyes. Under insufficient clothing skin grows taut.
Patches of ice and frozen asphalt stab at bare feet.
Geoffrey’s cheeks and neck turn crimson. The pink of his missing eyebrow burns bright. Stepping away from the door we settle under an overhead light to stand in front of a large garbage dumpster. It reeks but the cold has captured our attention.
“Oh my God…” Geoffrey’s attempted comment is interrupted by chattering teeth.
The tips of my fingers throb.
Hopping from foot to foot Geoffrey shivers and quakes. He leans forward and cups my hands as I reach up with the Bic.
Expanding his chest he draws a deep breath, working to hold it tight. With his chest thrust forward he pulls off a Pats jersey and a dirty Huey Lewis and News t-shirt. Standing before me in a greyed wife beater he exhales slowly. Warm smoke pours across my face.
His shoulders slump as he is embraced by the cold. “Oh man.”
His hands jerk violently as he works to protect the glowing ember from wailing winds. Fingers bump as he makes the handoff. And repeating Geoffrey’s efforts I hold my breath and remove an outer sweater, my Con Ed turtleneck and a Twisted Sister t-shirt. Goosebumps rush across my bare chest and back. I convulse under the weight of the cold.
Geoffrey points at my chest. “Dudely man, you’re huge from lifting!”
I pound my chest before exhaling, the cloud of smoke drifting past a cone of light to disappear into darkness.
We continue back and forth, each time removing a layer. A little pile of clothing begins to take shape between me and Geoffrey.
Finally, with about a third remaining, I pinch it off and give it to Geoffrey. “Peter asked us to save some.”
Save for the howling wind, the moaning building behind us and our chattering teeth, the frozen world is quiet.
Facing each other we stand shivering in underwear. Geoffrey’s zebra print underpants are faded. The white stripes appear grey. He covers himself, “I think my pecker’s freezing. Chicks won’t love me if my pecker falls off.”
“Dude, leave that thing alone, will ya! It’s nasty.” Attempting to reach over to pull my roommate’s hand away from his junk I am interrupted by a convulsion. Violently, I rub my shoulders. “Dude, I’m freezing. I’m literally freezing out here.” I look around, “I’m gonna die frozen in front of a frozen pile of trash!”
Geoffrey admonishes me, “We can’t stop. We gotta get ice cold for it to work.”
From the alley’s entrance on Fletcher Street we hear footsteps and a loud cackle. The steps clomp against frozen pavement as they make their way up the ally toward our position in front of the dumpster. Fleeting pieces of a conversation advance before the cresting patter. As Geoffrey and I turn to face the approaching footsteps two neighbors, a man and a woman living somewhere in the back of the building, come into focus. Upon seeing us shivering in our underwear the couple stops, frozen.
The woman covers her mouth with a thick mitten.
Slowly the man steps before the woman, shielding her from two nearly naked men quaking before a garbage dumpster. He inches forward, giving us the widest berth the five foot wide alley will allow.
The man stammers, “Um, everything OK here, guys?”
Teeth chattering, I give the man a quick nod.
And taking in our bare skin, crimson and rippled with goosebumps, he asks, “Ah, you two live here?”
Geoffrey points to our first floor apartment. Without a word we stare at the wide-eyed couple. Geoffrey and I sway slowly in the breeze, underpants and goosebumps the only thing separating us from the 8 degree evening.
The chattering of our teeth fills the space between us and the inching couple.
The man continues to shield his companion as they ease past our position. We stare at the creeping couple, transfixed. Geoffrey and I pivot to trace the progress of the interlopers as they move past us toward the back of the alley.
Safely past, the couple rushes toward the rear of the building, the woman staring over her shoulder. Before scratching himself Geoffrey gives her a gentle wave.
Geoffrey tries to say something. The wind however gobbles up his words. He tries again and on the second attempt I hear his suggestion. “Dude, close your eyes.”
My brow furrows as I wonder if he’s seeking payback for when I pinched his shoulder. I shake my head no.
“Dude, I’m not gonna do anything. I promise.”
And with his promise in place I comply.
In the darkness, in the cold, we stand in silence, vibrating. After some time it begins to flurry and I cannot help but peek. I look at my roommate as he stands frozen, covered in a glistening film of melting snowflakes.
By now fingers and chest and arms and exposed thighs throb and ache. Relentlessly, the cold pounds us into submission.
Time slips away and I shudder violently. And turning to face our moaning apartment building I look up to see neighbors staring out of second and third story windows at a pair of shivering men in darkened alley in front of a garbage dumpster.
“Dude, I’m done. I’m going in.” Bending down I gather up our pile of clothes.
“Alright, me too.”
Ice chips crackle underfoot as we pass through the front hallway and into our apartment. Rushing into the kitchen we join Peter at the oven. Falling to the kitchen floor we kneel before a blackened tongue. Gently, it licks away the cold. Embraced by the relative warmth of our 40 degree apartment and the belching heat of our ancient oven we begin to thaw.
I close my eyes as heat pours over me. “Oh my God, it feels so warm in here. So warm and beautiful, so very beautiful.”
And over 30 years later I open my eyes to find my daughter resting her hand upon my shoulder. She smiles down at me, as if concerned for a grey haired father.
“Hey, dad, where’d ya go? I asked about cranking the heat and then you went and got all quiet.” With her free hand she dramatically wipes her brow. “I mean, you gotta admit; it’s like an oven in here.”
Reaching up I take hold of my daughter’s hand. Paint stained fingers wriggle as I give her a gentle squeeze. Her hand feels warm and beautiful, so very beautiful.
“I love you, Gee. I guess the answer is I just like to feel warm.”