Blinking at the Dashboard

it’s cold outside and that makes all the difference

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Serena Wagner

I sit here blinking at the dashboard because I can’t believe my engine started. It’s something to smile about. On a Friday morning while the sky is dark and the temperature is 16 degrees below zero and my feet hurt from the cold, my car has actually started. Time to celebrate.

It took a few tries. The speedometer lights faded on and off as I pumped the gas, but finally my car wheezed to life, and now my show can go on. Stumbling back up the driveway I can hear the furnace hissing exhaust out the side of the house. I turn the doorknob and push open the door with my shoulder. The kitchen lights are glowing. 

Too soon I’m back out in the car, driving past houses and buildings and bridges. My little engine is pulling us through the heart of Eau Claire. And it’s cold.  

Cold when the ice won’t scrape. And the ice scraper breaks. And your windshield is a useless, glittering mess. Yellow rays from the porch light dig into the frost. It would dazzle you if you weren’t so late for work.

Cold when the smokestacks plume against the sunrise. Curvy and thick, the white vapor plods into the atmosphere like time itself is crawling to a halt. 

Cold when the river fumes. Like it’s angry at you. Like this is all your fault – the ice and the rock-hard shoreline crusted in snow. Like a dragon sleeps, trapped beneath the water, smoking and simmering as it shivers and broods. 

Cold when the street salt paints our sidewalks and our doorsteps in a dry, bitter grime. A frostbitten mold. An ugly warning to watch your step. Don’t slip. This ground will not forgive your awkward tumble. 

Cold when the raw wind sparkles, kicking up frozen mist like it’s crystal dust, tossing it against blinding sheets of sunlight. The are no clouds. There is nothing between us and the dizzy blue atmosphere and the sharp white sun.

Cold when car exhaust is no longer a hazy phantom, but a fog where the vehicles ahead of you vanish and red brake lights jump out like demons.

Cold when you take it personally. When you get mad. Because everything is more difficult. Getting up is harder. Going out is harder. Your carseats are hard. Your windowpanes have ice on the inside, drooling cold water onto the sill. Chunky, stubborn snow sticks to the driveway. A rear tire won’t hold air longer than half a day. Your knuckles spit and bleed. Piles of boots clog the doorway. You take slippery trips to the curb, grumbling back and forth, the garbage can trailing behind. And the water freezes in your pipes. 

Cold when you wake up to a silent furnace, and your breath hangs there above your blankets.

You get mad and you lash out at the cats. Or you slam the cupboard doors. Or you snap at the kids. You take a deep, deep breath and try to explain what’s wrong, that it’s just the cold, that everything’s OK. 

You take a deep, deep breath.

Cold when, five days after the start of a new year, you’re in your car with the heater blasting, gloves on, driving through the heart of Eau Claire as the smokestacks billow and the river steams, and you remember how cold mornings have always been here. And how they will always come. And how they will always leave.

My wife says that some things – special things – can only be seen when it’s very, very cold outside. And that this is incredible. And that we should be thankful.  

She’s so very right about that.

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