Whiteout

The single dead bulb in the garage rattled as the blizzard tore its nails against the siding. Colton sat on his old metal toolbox near the propane heater and hugged the throw blanket tightly around his shoulders. Every forecast that week had made it seem like the storm would be a laugher for the entire upper Midwest, six inches at best, the kind that wouldn’t have been cause to interrupt his chores even when he was a boy a half-century ago. Only hours before the first wave hit did the storm reveal its fangs. He bent forward, attempting to will the cold into something more tolerable through the coughing warmth from the propane heater. The power outage had rendered most elements of comfort into tombstones, like his sawdust-encrusted radio. He was missing Bluegrass Century. 

“Love a tater pie and I love an apple pudding,” he wheezed, trying to assign a Doc Watson tune to the beating of the garage door. “And I love a little gal they call Sally Goodin.” 

He looked up at the window. The red coils of the propane heater cast a faint glare on the glass, doing little to blot out the surge of flakes that seemed more akin to ash than snow. There was light despite the late hour and the storm, but it was a sickly color, similar to the scattered lamplight of a hangnail moon. Infected illumination. 

Colton buried his face in the throw blanket. He had warmer and softer blankets he could have thrown over his sierra red long johns, themselves also begotten to an earlier era, but this one still had that proper mixture. 

Sniff. Lilac.

Sniff. Herbal hair conditioner. 

Sniff. Hack. Cough. Garden soil. Or that was the nearby welcome mat laying mournfully on top of the trash can. The plastic bags he wrapped it in were failing; he needed to vacuum seal them. 

“And I dropped my tater pie and I left the apple pudding. Went across the mountain. Went across the mountain. Hm. Went across the mountain,” his voice bounced like a needle. There were other lyrics. He’d remember them.  

But songs often couldn’t be remembered until experienced again. Like smells. This truth worried him. Her lilac smell he’d cornered in the hallway and closet both for months after she passed, trapping it between linens and the ball of nightgowns. Then, without warning, it began to disappear as hastily as the heat had disappeared from room to room that evening until all that remained of it was a slight aroma on the throw, as fragile as the warmth it provided. As for her conditioner smell, its status was tenuous at best. He’d bought bottles and bottles of it and started washing his whole body with it. Scrubbing between the tiles with it. Soaking the dishes in it. An all-time backfire that had turned out to be, as now, just a year after her death, it had become a common household smell, one that might be as easily associated with himself as the overpowering fragrance of cedar he’d bring home from job sites. Out of that new fear, he’d called a removal service to tear out the lilac bush, even though it wasn’t in bloom. 

Colton sniffed deeply, but all he could smell was the sawdust and gasoline odors of the garage. He shook his head away from the blanket, annoyed. This had happened last week when he was beating his knee to a George Smith song and he had covered his head with the throw, breathing in deeply but finding only the sterile odor of plastic. It had taken several minutes of panicked sniffing, to the point where the material was embedded in his nostrils and he was falling backwards off of the toolbox, nearly passing out, before the lilac and hair conditioner and soil suddenly rushed in and caused him to gasp as though he had been administered smelling salts. That episode left him fearful that he would lose her irrevocably, and he had crammed the throw into its plastic bag until this evening, when the lack of power preventing light or music made the sense of isolation nearly primeval in its sensibility.

“Raise corn in the hillside and the devil in the valley,” he called. That was it for melody’s sake. Lyrically, too late in the song to be the match he’d sought. Close, but ultimately insubstantial. Similar to the memory of pushing the tip of his nose into the puddle of skin until he felt her kneecap slide forward slightly; the odor made him think of bedsheets and oatmeal at the time, but that unique odor itself eluded his remembrance.

Pulling the blanket over his head like a mask, Colton inhaled sharply. Nothing. He tried again. His left nostril whistled as he filled his lungs with air, held his breath, and breathed out slowly. It could have been all of the competing odors in the garage that made it more difficult, as opposed to the more neutral smells of the living room or the bedroom. The strangely intoxicating whiff of exhaust and motor oil; the cherry wood sawdust that blanketed the far end of the garage, where he was fashioning a front door for a family who lived down the road; the stale fragrance of spilled beer amidst the general chemical mustiness that was the aromatic background of all well-worn garages. He stood up momentarily, attempting to snort the other odors away. Of course he couldn’t discern anything from the blanket, what with the nostril cacophony that the others were causing.

He sat back down on the toolbox loudly, which was followed so closely by another blast of wind that it seemed like an echo of his movements. Even just two months ago, he had sat out here with all of the same smells and had much less trouble picking up that particular blend of scents. As a matter of fact, there was even more to compete with back then: he had a Christmas tree in the garage that he had meant to set up in his living room, just to stay in the spirit of things, but the tree had never made it past the garage and had died a slow shedding death on the cold concrete floor, where there were still needles spread about. The pine tree smell had been nearly overwhelming, but despite that, he had still located what he needed within the throw blanket. The house was a more neutral location, but the propane heater was a fire hazard indoors.

“Wait,” he said, masking himself with the blanket again. Nearly a quarter hour of sniffing followed, with every square inch of the blanket inspected. The latter minutes were spent on his knees and his hands pressing the blanket so hard against his face that he could hardly breathe. He cast the blanket across the garage in frustration before quickly running up to retrieve it. It had landed in the sawdust, which would blot out any last hopes of finding it. Dusting it off roughly, he threw it back over his shoulders, though he had worked up a sweat. He fingered the edge of the blanket, overwhelmed by the finality. 

The wind screeched through one of the holes at the bottom of the side door that had not been properly plugged with its rubber strip. Colton gritted his teeth and dried his brow with the edge of the blanket and thought of earlier, when he’d stuck his head out the back door to gauge the storm and was shaken by how completely the incredible wind and the snow it carried had snuffed his senses. He grasped a corner of the blanket and stared at it. Outside, where the world had been purified of color and odor alike, might have become the last place he could isolate the smell. But he’d have to move quickly. 

He stomped at the floor in order to secure his moccasins to his feet. The doorknob of the side door stuck to his hand as he twisted it. The wind screamed through the three-inch gap that he was able to make. Already there was over a foot of snow in front of the door. He lowered his shoulder and pushed himself into the whiteout.

The wind nearly tore the blanket out of his grasp, and for a few seconds it fluttered from his hands like a flag before he twisted and used the wind to push it onto his back once again.  He staggered backwards several steps in the deep snow before regaining his balance, the house disappearing behind him. The cold sucked the air roughly from his lungs. Already his hands and face were numb. The perspiration he had built up a few minutes before was fast transformed to crumbling bits of ice as the gusts threatened to knock him deep into the drifts. Colton tried looking up for the house and got a face full of snow. All he could see was the grayish-white of the nighttime blizzard; he was no longer completely sure of what direction the door was. But he would worry about that later. What caught his attention even beyond the hellish weather was the lack of smells upon the air. The storm and cold had rendered the outdoors completely neutral.  

The mucus in his nostrils hardened as Colton drew the blanket around his head once again. Facing away from the wind, he breathed deeply. At first, it was the garage smells that met his nostrils. His knees buckled as his body shook violently in response to the cold, and he kneeled in the snow, still not taking the blanket from his face. The blizzard eagerly beat down on his stooped form. The red of the long johns was lost in the snow, and his blood had retreated into a far corner of himself.

“Here,” he rasped to the blanket. “Here.”

It didn’t rush back to him as it had the other day. Instead, as he collapsed face first into the snowdrift before him, there was the slightest whisper of lilac that momentarily brought a measure of sensation back into his face. Colton bit into the throw blanket and waited for more of her as the storm began to blot him out. 

Amidst the comforting maelstrom, a thought wafted through his head. He’d left the propane heater on. Though it was safer in the garage than the house, a fire could start. Would probably start; the garage was a combustion chamber of the oils and compounds and removers needed to keep the house from leaking and rusting and creaking. But it couldn’t be helped. Besides, he built the house; bearing responsibility for its destruction felt like his right.

The blanket stopped flapping, exhausted by the cold, just as he felt the hardening of his own flesh into a monument that might stand for others to reflect on his solitude, or just as another dispassionate edifice erected by humanity, like a mile marker or the enamel-colored concrete floor of his own garage. 

He was pouring the foundation’s cement, a task that he usually assigned to others because of its tedium and its promise of mammoth headaches if there were any miscalculations. But he was alone. Then he was distracted by the arrival. A laugh, then a question, which he answered with a question. An eyebrow’s exaggerated raise in his direction, with another inquiry that all involved knew the answer to. A ripple of the sweatshirt, borrowed from him, then a black bra hoisted in ceremony as he watched across the gap. Then, fluttering like a helicopter seed, the bra fell into the still-wet foundation, guided beneath the surface with a stick and a declaration. Laughter. Then an approach. Lilac and sweat.

Colton hit the garage floor hard as he burst through the side door. The wind howled in a tone that resembled confusion, then surprise, as he kicked it shut. The shivers were violent enough that they seemed to wick the melting snow off of his long underwear. 

He crawled in front of the propane heater, curled up his body before its coils, and pressed his face hard against the concrete, forgetting the blanket he left at the door. The moisture steamed off of him in slow tendrils as he dried in the pocket of warmth. He smelled dirt. 

A native of the Chicago suburbs, Patrick Bernhard received his BA from Oberlin College and his MFA from Northwestern University. His work has appeared in Wilder Voice and Funny In Five Hundred. He currently teaches English at College of Lake County.