The wind sliced across the parking lot of a Gizard’s Southern Fried. The snow froze to a slippery sheen, the kind that resembles reflective glass when the temperature hovers below ten degrees for a matter of days, for weeks. Desiree locked the doors to the fast-food chicken shop and slid to her car as if she were skating. The grease stuck to her heels offered no friction, and the small crossing became a dangerous commute.
The car’s engine demanded sleep. Metal pieces and rubber belts resonated from beneath the hood as if to say, “No, no, no, no, no!” in the deep winter freeze. She cursed, tried again, and remembered something her father had said about flooding an engine. She waited five minutes.
Her fingers grew numb. A titillating pain tapped beneath her nails and jolted through her wrists. She blew warm puffs into thinly-covered fists and scolded herself for having bought driving gear rather than winter gloves.
She tried again but the engine gave less and then the headlights faded to a dull brown. “Son of a bitch,” she said. Huge puffs of warm air leapt from her lungs and frosted the window.
Desiree scanned the parking lot and the street behind her. A vacant veil of ice and snow and darkness covered the suburban shopping plaza. It had been part of her life for decades. She had played in the Gizard’s Southern Fried outdoor climbing area as a kid, and then had taken her first job there with dreams of college. She had never left Gizard’s.
Desiree spoke to the sky through the frosted windshield. “All those things you taught me, Dad, and I wouldn’t listen.” She considered the bravery her father had insisted upon and stepped from the car.
The bitter freeze chipped through her jacket and tickled her skin. She squeezed the lock button on her key chain, the beep itself a frozen squawk.
She checked both sides of the street. The west was a shorter walk to a twenty-four-hour grocery store and a few bars. The right lead to a hotel, a warm bed, a hot bath, but she’d rather find her way home. Besides, Gizard’s didn’t pay well and she had no credit card. She walked west.
The icy wind drained her lungs as if they were batteries and winter bent on evaporating their reserves. Headlights illuminated the roadway. She turned to wave down a passing driver.
The car slowed but rolled by without pausing, the driver solemnly ignoring Desiree. She stared into the man’s eyes – vacant, opal holes. Desiree shivered. She walked on.
She remembered a bus stop a block away and quickened her pace. Someone there might lend her a cigarette – any heat! If not, she’d stand beside a warm body.
The bus stop glowed with a weak amber light, the bulb barely pulsating its incandescent science beneath the worst of winter’s wrath. Two figures filled the tiny shelter. At fifty yards out, Desiree hiked up her pace and covered the distance quickly. Her lungs begged for warm air.
“Hi there!” she hollered from four feet away. “So darn cold out here, huh?” Neither turned to acknowledge her. “Mind if I step inside?” No response.
Desiree took a spot away from the strangers. A brief reprieve greeted her as the wind was buffered but no human warmth lifted toward her. She coughed, asked for a smoke. Neither person reacted. Desiree stepped forward, turned and stared into two grey, vacant faces – their eyes drawn empty, their lips a pale pink edging toward a purple glaze. Something of a crystal lingered on their eyelashes.
From a distant corner, two lights, fading moons above the street, cut through the darkness. A city bus rumbled forward. Desiree stepped off the curb, waved. The driver’s arms held the wheel in a deadly grip, his eyes focused forward, unmoving. The bus slowed momentarily and then rolled past. A dozen or so people on board stared down or up or into nothing with voided eyes and dead, chilly stares.
Desiree checked the people in the bus portal. Neither moved. Their hair had turned to tinsel. She ran from the shelter and followed after the bus. “Stop!” she imagined saying, but words could not escape her throat. Tiny, desperate puffs lifted silently. Her breath froze deep within her chest. Something inside fired enough warmth to generate motion. If she kept moving, blood would flow and life would remain.
She could not hold her pace, slowed to a trot, then to a cantor, and finally to a laborious walk. Her gasps became life-sucking pants, but she pushed onward. She strolled past the Tribune City Newspaper office. The scrolling marquee crawled by, and Desiree remembered the many days she had read the news updates. The lights had always blinked by at a frantic pace, an impatient world unwilling to read slow news. She read the facade in steady, creeping letters as they scrolled by slower, slower, slower with each flickering syllable:
“R-E-C O-R-D C-O-L-D S-N-A-P C-O-N T-I-N U-E-S.”
Desiree reviewed the day’s events. It had begun cold, very cold, and all she had heard from customers was lament atop complaint about “Cold as a witch’s ass” or “Cold enough for ya?” She had grown tired of customers and friends yammering about the extreme weather. As the day had progressed, the mercury reduced and thinned, and before long negative-fifteen became negative-twenty, and it had doubled by the time midnight rolled around and she had closed up the store. Pittsburgh gets cold, she thought, but negative forty is a bit much.
She pulled her coat tighter around her neck, doubled her scarf over her face, and pushed forward. A sound shattered to her right. She searched the darkness for an intruder, a marauder, a villain. She saw nothing. The dim sparkle of moonlight revealed splintered glass from a storefront window littered across the unyielding concrete.
Desiree nudged her steps forward, driven by an internal desire to survive, to find heat, to conjure warmth. Calories ticked away through her system, the last remnant of heat deep inside her body dissolving as unspent fuel.
Ahead, she noticed more lights and recognized the district she would soon walk through. Tavern Row had earned its nickname well – at least two bars on each corner, and a stretch of seven along Carson Street. Lights pulsed, faded, dimmed from windows and open doors. Inside she might find the somber hope of whiskey’s warmth, even rum – any bastion against an eternal freeze.
She entered the first bar, its door wide open, only to see patrons and employees statued in place – one with a tequila on its way toward its mouth and the frozen, half-sucked lime pinched between two fingers. She moved on once more to a bar with a closed door, its heat trapped inside…as if salvation.
Connie’s Post spread light into the crackling air, but its door would not budge – the hinges had bonded shut. Through the scenic window, Desiree saw catatonic citizens playing pool and a rigor-mortis-bartender holding cold, hard cash above an open drawer. In the window, she caught a glimpse of herself, a reflection she thought was, at first glance, a ghost. She stared into deep, oval eyes. Her hair had frosted over – the tint as grey as old men in a retirement home, her eyelashes icicles over crusted lids.
She ran around the corner, took 18th Street with a sprint – searching for a furnace still burning. Around the bend, she found a dog, its hip raised, a pool of urine affixed to the building’s upward bricks and its leg broken clear off, as if snapped. The dog’s tongue had frozen in mid-pant, hanging limp and sideways.
The street had become a museum of half-dead, half-separated people: A man frozen in motion, his detached right arm akimbo on the sidewalk three or four steps behind where he stood. A woman whose arms had severed at the elbows, her stroller crashed against a wall still gripped by broken-off hands disconnected above the wrists. (Desiree dared not peer into the stroller’s freezer coffin.) A couple in mid-kiss, embraced and entombed eternally with her upraised leg severed and dropped to the concrete.
Desiree strolled by them slowly, too slowly. She caught each opaque stare, memorized each cracked lip death smile, and stared into each lost and cauterized soul. They were all dead, frozen by a deep, vast winter. Desiree looked to the heavens for hope, an answer, a prayer. And in that simple pause, she released a breath, an offering to something above. The last ounce of heat escaped. Her hand pointed upward, shuddered at the wrist, broke free and crashed onto the snow-covered sidewalk.