TUESDAY: Angels in the Snow

BY K. L. SHAILER

Copyright is held by the author.

MIKE STARED in disbelief at the gaping split in the copper pipe. His shoulders slumped as he thought about all the ways this would derail his plans for the day. It was the dripping sound that had drawn his attention from the task of sorting laundry into piles of darks and lights. The piles were bigger than usual because he’d left it for an extra week and Anna was not going to let him forget that it was his turn.

Within seconds the drip turned into a gush and without thinking he pulled the bubblegum from his mouth and shoved it into the hole. He felt a certain pride, like the little Dutch boy. Extending his arm he followed the pipe down behind the washing machine, through cobwebs and accumulated dust, until he found the turn-off valve. Now as he stood surveying the damage, he saw that the burst pipe led to the outdoor water spigot. Shit. Why didn’t I close that off months ago? But then it hit him there was only one turn-off valve for both the washer and the outdoor spigot.

“Damned if you do and damned it you don’t. Great plumbing job,” he muttered and headed up the stairs to their first-floor apartment.

He picked up the phone and dialled his landlord. As the phone rang, he tried to remember if they’d paid the rent this month. New Year’s Eve. Must have. And there’s still time for the January cheque.

An answering machine exhorted him to leave a message and have a great day. He outlined the problem and hung up. Just our rotten luck.

What he didn’t know was that water pipes were bursting at an alarming rate all around the city. After a couple of years of snowless Christmases and mild weather, winter had come early and hard to Toronto this year. Subzero temperatures were the norm even before Halloween and they’d had four major snowfalls between late November and Christmas. Then this morning the thermometer had dipped to minus 30 and the wind was howling. Although the mayor hadn’t called out the army yet, comparisons to 1998 were on everyone’s mind and most agreed that this year was much worse, with the traditionally worst months yet to come.

Mike grabbed a couple of garbage bags with the idea of packing up the dirty clothes and heading to a laundromat, but he stopped first in the bathroom. His adrenaline was flowing and his digestive system was in high gear. As soon as he flushed, the toilet emitted a low-pitched sucking noise that sounded anything but right. The toilet bowl emptied and refilled slowly from the reserve tank, but no new water flowed into the tank.

“Oh, great.  Now what?” He wondered if the toilet intake pipe was also connected to the same turn-off valve as the washer.

He returned to the basement to gather up the laundry and found water gushing from a second pipe, this time immediately beneath the bathroom. Again he followed the pipe with his fingers, searching for a turn-off valve; but with no bubblegum to buy him time, water gushed onto the floor, soaking the piles of laundry as well as himself. Not finding a valve in close to the burst pipe, he located the main turn-off valve at the front of the house. He brushed the hair from his forehead with his sleeve. Now we’re in real trouble.

Mike ran to the phone and left a second, more detailed and urgent message on the landlord’s answering machine. He sighed deeply and was mopping up when the front door slammed. Mike could hear Anna drop multiple bags of groceries on the floor and kick off her boots.

“Hi, Mikey,” she called. “I’m freezing. How’s the laundry coming? You wouldn’t believe the crowds at No Frills. It was crazy. It was as if the whole city discovered just this morning that it’s December 31st and they’re out of crackers and cheese.”

She wriggled out of her coat and was running for the bathroom when Mike came up the stairs.

“Oh, and guess what? Shrimp rings were on special—a really good price—so I bought two and thought we could make linguini and shrimp sauce. I got fresh dill and cream, and even managed a small piece of parmesan. It’s going to be soooo good!”

Listening to her, visions of steaming pots of pasta water from their nonexistent water supply danced in his head. “There’s something I need to tell you about the toilet,” he said.

“Just a minute. I really have to pee.”

“Don’t flush!” he called through the closed door.

“Why not?” she asked, coming out into the hall, still buckling her belt.

“Come down the basement. I have something to show you.”

She followed him down the stairs and saw only the mass of soaked and filthy clothing on the floor. “Ohmygawd, Mike. What happened to the laundry?”

“Well, it was the only thing handy to mop up the water,” he began. “I guess the floor was a little dirtier than I realized. It all needs to be laundered anyway.”

She saw the burst pipes and gradually the enormity of their situation sank in. They sat together on the basement steps staring at the mess and wishing that the phone would ring.

“We really can’t run any water until the pipes are fixed, can we?” she said.

Mike shook his head, “Uh uh. Can’t even flush.”

“I can’t believe this.” Anna’s voice broke with emotion. “Maybe we could melt buckets of snow and use that for the toilet. But then we don’t have any buckets.” She looked at her watch and then leaned her forehead against Mike’s knee.

They were expecting three other couples to join them around 8:00 p.m. for dinner and to celebrate the New Year, including one of Anna’s closest friends from high school in Vancouver who was in town with her fiancé visiting her sister. They’d been planning this for more than a month, scrimping on presents and counting on family contributions to fill in the gap, stockpiling beer and wine from their weekly rations, and pooling several weeks of grocery money thanks to the various holiday meals at his and her divorced parents’ homes.  Now it all came down to the next seven hours.

Mike stroked her hair and kneaded her shoulders for a minute or two. Then he lifted her face and gave her a kiss.

“Maybe we can still do this,” he said. “I’m going to talk to Joe,” referring to the manager of the independent hardware store in their St. Clair neighbourhood. “I’m pretty sure he’ll give me credit—and I can dip into the cash gift from Grandpa, if he doesn’t. There’s got to be a temporary fix for these pipes until a plumber can replace them.

“That’s going to take most of your time, isn’t it?” Anna looked with chagrin at the pile of wet and increasingly smelly laundry.

“Fraid so.” Mike stood up and climbed the stairs. “I’m going to change out of these wet clothes.”

Anna transferred the piles of laundry into the garbage bags Mike had left on the floor. Then she dragged them up the stairs to the front hall. Her groceries still lay where she had dropped them. Mike joined her and together they carried the grocery bags to the kitchen.

“There’s a laundromat just across Oakwood,” Anna said. “We could go there first and then you could go to the hardware store.”

“Can’t the laundry wait until tomorrow?” he asked.

She turned to face him. “Let’s just see how much we can get done.”

Mike pulled on his jacket and toque, and started out the door. Suddenly he called to Anna, “Hey, come and look at this.”

“That must have just started,” she said.

Mike clumped down the wooden steps in his heavy boots. He pointed to the accumulating snow: “That’s one more thing we’ll need to do before our guests arrive.” He waved and bent into the blowing snow as he made his way toward St. Clair.

Anna set about straightening up and cleaning the three large rooms that served as their living and working areas. She had spent the previous five days recording new songs for a long overdue second album, while Mike had been working feverishly to design websites and accompanying print materials for two new and potentially valuable clients. As Anna stood in the doorway to the living room surveying the scene, her stomach clenched at the thought of how long it was taking them to make a decent living—and she also knew how deeply she wanted to keep working on that recording. Right now.

The house looked like a bomb had hit it. The Christmas tree — a tall, spare balsam pine — was nearly hidden behind two large speakers, each piled high with CDs and a recorder. Wires and cords snaked across the living room and through the French doors to the dining room-turned-office, connecting instruments, amps, pedals, and a synthesizer. Five other stringed instruments were lined up in their cases like soldiers awaiting orders. The screens of two computers at opposite ends of the dining room/office danced with the soundless motion of light, colour, and words, while the colour printer and fax machine sat silent, their baskets overflowing with rejected proofs and discarded messages. In the front room, a bright solarium where Anna normally kept her keyboard and welcomed her young piano and voice students, the cats lay huddled by the space heater, trying to stay out of the fray.

It took her most of two hours, but Anna finally dismantled all her equipment, rolled up the cords, and returned each piece to its proper place in one of the two front rooms. She draped a white sheet around the base of the tree and realized it was in need of water. She was just wondering what was keeping Mike when she heard the door open and saw him push his parcels inside the door. Still standing in the vestibule, he pulled one of two buckets from a large bag and went back outside to fill it with snow. Although he tried to shake off as much snow as possible before entering the apartment, he was still covered with white and breathing heavily as he handed the bucket of snow to Anna.

“You look like a snowman. What kept you so long?” She placed the bucket in the bathroom next to the toilet.

“I’ll tell you in a minute.” He grimaced and bent down to unlace his boots.

“Joe was really terrific and gave me lots of pointers,” said Mike, still catching his breath. “But I have to tell you that everyone is talking about how much snow is expected: up to 40 centimetres before tomorrow morning, mostly before midnight. It’s already getting hard to walk down the street and the wind is making it even more difficult. Why don’t you turn on the TV so we can get an update.”

Anna picked up the remote, pointed it at the TV, and curled up on the sofa while Mike finished removing his coat and boots. A moment later he sat next to her, placing his parcels on the coffee table in front of them. On the TV screen, the City TV weatherman stood bundled up in front of a picture window rather than in his usual position outdoors, while a large red banner at the bottom of the screen warned of a winter storm alert.

We’ve just received word that the OPP have closed the 401 from Chatham to Woodstock, with further closures imminent as the storm moves across southern Ontario. The mayor has asked all businesses and retailers to close up by 3:00 p.m. today and is advising everyone to go home or stay home until the storm moves through and city snow removal crews can clear the roads. As it is, they’re having a hard time keeping up and we’re expecting another 30 to 50 centimetres before midnight, with  heavy drifting. The TTC is experiencing major delays —

Anna turned down the volume. “We’d better phone everyone. Maybe we should plan on a sleepover.”

She brought the phone from the office as Mike poured the contents of his bags on the coffee table. “You know, I wasn’t so far off with my bubble gum,” he said. He held up a package of plumber’s epoxy putty for her to see. “I think this will work for the leak under the bathroom.  But Joe recommended these things for the split pipe over the washer.” He held up a metal sleeve clamp and bicycle tube repair kit. “Where have we got a pair of scissors? I want to get going on this.”

Anna pointed to the kitchen and turned her attention to the phone. Fifteen minutes later she joined him in the basement and sat down on the stairs to watch.

“Do we have a screw driver?” he asked.

“There are a couple in the same drawer where you found the scissors.” She sighed. “What kind do you need?”

He showed her the sleeve clamp and she went up to the kitchen. At that moment the phone rang.

“Hello, Mr. Donatelli. I’m so glad you got our messages . . . Yes, everything’s turned off, but that’s the problem . . . Yes, I know it’s . . . Yes, I’m sure it is . . . Yes . . . Well, Mike is trying to patch them now . . . No, of course not . . . Yes . . . We’ll await your call. And to you, too.”

Anna carried the phone with her to the basement, handed Mike the screwdriver, and took up her perch on the stairs.

“Don’t tell me,” he said. “He can’t come because of the weather. He can’t find a plumber because of the holiday. And we’d better not make it worse. Does that about sum it up?”

“You left out ‘don’t call me; I’ll call you — and Happy New Year.’ I sure hope these patches hold for a few days,” she said. “In the meantime, I’m going to try out our alternative water supply.”

As she walked out of the bathroom, the Christmas tree caught her eye and she remembered it needed water. She refilled the bucket with snow from the front porch just as the phone in her pocket began to ring.

“Hey, Jen, did you get my message? . . . Yeah . . . Well, let’s talk around 7:00 and you can make a final decision then . . . No, they haven’t decided yet, either . . . Hard to say . . . Bye.”

She walked down to the basement and sat on the stairs. Mike had just finished installing the sleeve clamp and was reaching for the main turn-off valve.

“Ready?” he asked. The sound of water running through the pipes was mesmerizing. Mike ran his fingers over the repairs. “So far, so good.” Next he reached behind the washer and turned the second valve.

“Are we back in business?” she said.

“Well, I’m even prepared to hazard a load of wash,” he said.

They carried the rank-smelling bags of laundry from the vestibule back to the basement, where Mike returned to his task of four hours earlier.

“I guess I should vacuum,” said Anna and started up the stairs. She stopped and turned. “Hey, Mikey. You never told me. What was it that took you so long?”

He stopped loading the washer and faced her. “That will take more than a couple of minutes to tell you about. Let’s just say I took a long walk in the snow.”

She looked at him, one eyebrow raised.

“I think we should finish getting ready and then have a talk,” he said and turned back to the washing machine.

Anna had just finished vacuuming the living room and kitchen, and was starting on the hallway when suddenly the power went out. The washing machine was on its second load and the dryer had been running now, too.

“I think we blew a fuse,” she called to Mike. He came out of the kitchen, where he’d been washing up dishes, with a flashlight in his hand. It was now nearly 6:00 and they were standing in total darkness.

“We didn’t just blow one fuse,” he said. “Everything is out.” He walked to the circuit panel and checked the breakers. Everything seemed to be in order. They both looked out at the street. The entire block was shrouded in darkness.

He put his arm around her shoulders and felt her shudder. “You know, I think we should just take a nap for about an hour and see if the world looks any better after we’ve had some sleep.”

Mike lay stretched out on his back on top of the bed with Anna curled up against him, her head nestled under his arm. Although they both felt exhausted and the darkness dulled their senses, neither could sleep.

“I guess this is a good time to tell you about my walk in the snow,” he said.

“I wasn’t going to badger you,” she said, “but — you know.”

“It’s nothing new. I’m feeling it more acutely, though.” He took a deep breath and sighed heavily. “A need for change, a need to stop sucking up to ridiculous clients who don’t have a clue the value of a good design.”

“You sound like me,” she said, remembering their last conversation on this topic. “Except parents view me more as a baby sitter than an accomplished musician.”

“I guess I’m saying I agree with you. I wasn’t intending to take a long walk. It’s just that I got distracted thinking about the crappy place we live and how hard we work for it, waiting for that mythical big break. But it’s not going to happen. Not anytime soon.”

He stopped and looked down at her. She nodded, her eyelids fluttered, and a moment later she was asleep. He closed his eyes and almost immediately fell into a deep sleep.

The phone rang just before 7:00 and Anna stumbled through the dark to the living room, trying to remember where she’d left it. She missed the call and sat on the sofa to wait a minute before checking voicemail. It was Jen telling her that driving was out of the question, the streetcars weren’t running, and even though they were all really disappointed they couldn’t get together, it was just too far to walk. Serena and George felt the same way.

Anna sat in the dark wondering whether to look for candles or to go back to bed. Can it really be that bad? She walked to the front room to have a look out the solarium windows at the streetscape. Snow was still falling heavily and nothing seemed to be moving. Parked cars were buried almost up to their windows. She sat down on the piano bench and swallowed hard. No one was coming to dinner. The tears came faster than she could wipe them with the hem of her sweater. Why can’t anything go right — just once? She rose and looked around for a tissue.

The cats, roused by her entry into the solarium, rubbed against her ankles and followed her back to the kitchen in search of dinner. She watched the cats devour the small bowls of wet food and realized how hungry she was and that she hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. All she could think of was pasta. She pulled the large stockpot from the cupboard, filled it with water — all the while feeling grateful for running water. Only when she set the pot on the stove did it hit her that it was electric.

“Crap,” she spat at the stove.

She took one of the shrimp rings from the freezer, left it in a bowl full of water to thaw, blew out the candles, and returned to the bedroom for a little more sleep. Mike was snoring lightly as she lay down next to him and covered them both with a throw.

The lights came on at 9:15 p.m., including the overhead light in the bedroom. Mike sat bolt upright and rubbed his eyes. “I’m starving. Don’t we need to get moving on getting dinner ready?” Anna followed him to kitchen and explained there was really no rush. Mike took her hands in both of his. “Maybe this is a good thing. Maybe this is the universe telling us to stop and rethink things.”

“You mean give up being artists?” She looked even more despondent than before.

“No. But let’s fix the pasta and pour a drink and talk over dinner.”

Even though this was not the evening they had been looking forward to, they savoured every bite of the shrimp linguini and romaine hearts salad, every sip of the more expensive shiraz than she was used to, and every pull on his rare bottle of Belgian ale.

“At least we know we can be self-disciplined if we want to,” she mused.

“Yes, I suppose,” said Mike.

“So what will it take, do you think?” she said and topped up her glass of wine.

“One of us—me, for instance—needs a steady income. Even stocking shelves at a big box store brings in more per week than we do together. Let’s see what jobs catch our eye in the next few weeks.” Anna ran her finger around the rim of her glass. “Hey, you,” said Mike, “I’m talking about supporting our art, not giving it up.”

Anna looked up at him. “Let’s go for a walk,” she said and carried the dishes to the kitchen.

Mike opened the front door to get a better look at the street and found a three-foot drift standing unsupported where the door had been. “Whoa!” Anna gave him the broom to clear the doorway and, when they were ready, he used it to clear a partial path as they waded through thigh-high snow into the street. Cars were completely buried and tree branches bent to the ground, barely able to support the weight. Although they could see neighbours celebrating the New Year in the warmth of their living rooms, the street was empty of human life. Under a canopy of stars, their walk through the muffled silence felt almost sacred.

They lived only one long block from St. Clair Avenue, but the sheer effort of wading through the drifts was fatiguing. At St. Clair, they found an even eerier scene: several cars and a pick-up truck sat marooned and partially buried, abandoned by their owners in the middle of the street. The streetcar tracks could not be seen and it was difficult to imagine how all the snow would be cleared anytime soon.

Anna and Mike were standing in the middle of the snow-blanketed meadow that was St. Clair Avenue when suddenly she shouted, “I just have to do this,” and allowed herself to fall backwards into the snow, gracefully fluttering her arms and legs to create a snow angel.

“You’re crazy, you know!” he said and fell down next to her.

They lay on their backs, scanning the sky for constellations, but clouds were moving back in and they finally gave up. The cold and damp began to penetrate and they decided it was probably time to make their way back home. She raised herself on one arm, leaned over, and planted a big, wet kiss on his mouth. He laughed and gave her a bear hug. Then they helped each other up, brushed off the snow as much as possible, and, holding hands, started to cross back toward their side street.

The wind had picked up, blowing snow and making visibility worse. Suddenly dozens of flyers fluttered past, a few sheets sticking to their coats. Anna picked one off of Mike’s back and held it so they could read it.

Toronto’s Largest [smudge] Dep[smudge]
Opening Soon
NOW HIRING

“Too bad about the design,” said Mike.

Anna giggled. “Well?”

They hooked arms and headed for home.

One comment

  1. Michael Joll

    An easy read, but I felt it was overlong for the point it needed to make. Encouraging signs for the future, though. I’d leave a thumbs up emoticon if I knew how!

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