Photo by Sister Newspaper
All the White
by Emily Woodworth
The Barista, Part I:
The snow falling framed by the pitch black sky looks like static in an old television set. The tiny flakes turn iridescent in the halogen porch light, and on the porch itself I’m pleased to see the snow is sticking. There are still little gaps in the white blanket, but they’re filling up quickly. Winter storm warnings have been spreading like a juicy rumor since two days before, and it appears something is finally going to come of it all. An uncontrollable smile captures my lips and I tip my head back, as if in preparation to stick out my tongue and catch the snowflakes on the other side of the sliding glass door. The same fey magic that enchanted me the first time I glimpsed snow when I was five, just after we moved to Central Oregon, still holds sway now, fourteen years later. I take in the bleached swirling dots for another long moment, then switch off the light and steal away to bed.
The next morning, February 7th, reveals a world muffled in a frosty carpet two feet thick. And it’s still coming down, not furiously as I had expected from the warnings, but gently, softly, and relentlessly. Before I leave for work at the local coffee shop around 1:00, my mom clutches my arm in a near-panic and insists I stay home, safe from the snow that is now piling up at about four inches per hour. I laugh and pull her into a hug so she can’t see me roll my eyes.
“I’ll be fine, Mom,” I say, looking out the sliding glass door at my dad who is shoveling a little portion of the backyard out for our toy poodle. “It’s just snow. I’ll drive slow. I’ll be fine.”
The blue Toyota Highlander is awkwardly half-in, half-out of the street, which is already narrowed by four-foot snow banks. The whole neighborhood of Crossroads scurries through the white tunnels, excavating driveways and checking on people they’ve lived sixty feet from and, in some cases, never talked to before today. People silently mark February 8th in their minds as the day the Great Snow Storm of 2014, which had begun on the evening of the 6th, let up. Neighbors with plows aid those without in exchange for coffee or cookies, as if this torrent of precipitation has created a spontaneous holiday spirit. In the hubbub, the single abandoned blue car attracts a steady stream of residents like a parade. Some stand around, contemplating.
“Wasn’t here when we made it home around seven last night,” says one.
“Got high-centered,” remarks another, pointing out how the peak of the snow bank is nestled near the center of the car and has lifted the tires enough to prevent any traction.
Everyone assents, although they’re still not sure why it’s on the right side of the road, but pointed as if traveling the opposite direction. Perhaps it was trying to make a U-turn, suggests one person. Perhaps it spun out, offers another. Whatever happened, all the evidence has been buried under a mantle of snow.
The Homeowners Association President, who holds about the same power in the daily lives of Crossroads residents as the President of the United States—that is, practically none—calls the sheriff to see what can be done. Of course, the President says, it is understandable that someone got stuck and has not unburied their car during the two-day-long deluge. But the vehicle is on a corner. A traffic hazard. No one knows who the car belongs to, and no one is claiming it.
A deputy is dispatched. Shortly after he arrives, everyone except the President disbands, content to leave the mystery in the hands of the authorities. The neighbors have already uncovered the front license plate for the deputy and he takes the number down.
When he runs the plates, he’s not sure what to make of the information. The car belongs to an elderly couple named Henry and Brooke Constable. But their home address is not in Crossroads. In fact, it’s not even close to Crossroads. It is out on Camp Polk Road, the opposite side of the nearby town of Sisters, and then some. He calls their phone a few times, but no one answers. The deputy informs the President of the situation and says he’s going to go out to Camp Polk to see if he can piece together what landed this car here. Until then, the vehicle will have to remain in place.
The President agrees and they part ways.
At about 2:25 a.m. on February 8th, hours before the President and the deputy consider the mysterious high-centered Toyota, Josh turns his tow truck onto Crossroads Road. He’s been helping people out of fixes all day and half the night, but he stays alert as he winds his way into the neighborhood. Crossroads is a rural community on the brink of Deschutes National Forest, and the houses are on acre lots with no sidewalks or streetlights, just hordes of pine trees that force the road into contortions that are easy to miss in the dark. The snow that started in the evening on February 6th is still coming down, and it takes all of Josh’s waning concentration to make out the road through the whirling white wall clouding his vision. Just get home, he thinks, his hands tightening on the wheel.
Josh’s heart drops as he sees a car jutting into the path of his tow truck with two elderly people trying to dig out the sides. The vehicle is high-centered on an enormous snow bank, formed by the repeated passes of snowplows clearing the road earlier in the day. Neither of the two people wears a hat, and they both have whitening grey hair, made whiter by the snowflakes that stick in the cold. Josh heaves a sigh and stops his truck, rolling down the window.
“Where do you live?” he yells.
“Just right there,” the woman says, pointing to the house next door to the one where their car is stuck. Of course, “next door” is a loose term in Crossroads, since most of the houses are as far away from each other as physically possible. This is a neighborhood people choose for its privacy. Josh has driven this road for twenty-five years and can picture the house she means. It’s about forty feet away from the stranded vehicle, with the driveway starting ten feet from their car and running thirty feet to the house itself. He can’t make out much, since his headlights are pointing the wrong direction, but if the couple missed their own driveway, he assumes it must be unplowed.
“Hop in,” he says after a moment. “I’ll see how far I can get you.”
“What about the car?” the old man hollers. He is older than the woman and stands beside their Toyota with his arms crossed.
“You can worry about the car tomorrow,” says Josh.
“I don’t like leaving it,” says the old man, eyeing Josh’s tow-truck equipment.
“Listen, I’ve been out all day. The car will still be here in the morning. You can get it out then.”
The woman says something to the man, then climbs into the truck. The man climbs after her, but won’t look at Josh.
Rather than attempting a U-turn to back track the ten feet to the driveway, Josh uses a cul-de-sac up the road as a natural turn-around, then goes back the way he came. As he passes the stuck car, he slows and tries to make out where the driveway he’s aiming for begins. When he finds a promising spot, where the trees are less dense, he turns left. He plows into the snow bank head on, rocking over it like an enormous speed bump. Once in the driveway, he’s cautious. The snow already climbs to the bottom of his large truck’s doors. Don’t get stuck, he thinks. He eases off the gas. In the blurred shadows ahead the form of a building looms close, not ten feet away.
“This is close enough,” says the woman. Her speech is slow and her cheeks are bright red.
“You sure?” asks Josh.
“Yeah, door’s right there,” she says, waving her hand at the dark house-shaped mass. The old man opens his door, and he and the woman plop into the deep snow. It comes up to their thighs. “We’ll be fine. Thanks for the lift,” says the woman, glancing at the silent old man before closing the door.
Josh looks at them for a moment through his window, but he can almost feel the snow hemming him in each second he stalls. He nods to them, then carefully backs down his own tracks. Just before his headlights sweep away from the two people and onto the road home, he thinks he sees some movement, perhaps the woman waving. He waves back, though he figures she can’t see him.
At last, Josh gets home. He will sleep well into the next afternoon.
On the evening of February 7th, 2014, almost every business in Sisters closes down early. Employees and owners have finally taken the winter storm warnings seriously. Store clerks who had left their vehicles parked during their shifts have come back to uncover their abandoned Subarus and Toyotas and Chryslers tucked in beneath three feet of snowy fluff. Friends and family members and complete strangers coordinate to make sure everyone finds their way home in a four-wheel drive. Pilgrims follow each other through the darkness, wind whipping the sheets of white in too many directions to track. Every once in a while, headlights flash from a car heading the opposite direction.
“Be careful,” they seemed to say. “Just get home.”
The people of the town will return for the buried cars en masse when the snow lets up, with legions of shovels in tow, like a town-wide archaeological dig. The town of Sisters usually gets, at most, two feet of snow at once. Everyone realizes this is a special storm, even before it dumps four feet and more in some places.
But one business remains obstinately open. It is Jen’s Garden, the French restaurant that only the super rich retirees can afford, and that all the average Joes of Sisters resent, with a single meal running around $75 per head. The whole town’s economy during non-tourist seasons can be divided into those who serve, and those who are served. Generally, the two classes coexist symbiotically, but exclusive restaurants like Jen’s Garden tend to expose the differences, irritating a wound that is otherwise ignored.
Apparently, even the weather doesn’t have a right to inconvenience the clientele of Jen’s Garden. A party of four, one of the few that didn’t cancel tonight, has a reservation for 7:30 p.m. As darkness truly sets in, the last waiter on duty, although he stayed for the tips, half-hopes this group will cancel anyway. No such luck. The two couples arrive on time, amazingly, to celebrate Henry Constable’s 83rd birthday. The restaurant is in a converted home meant to feel like an elegant French cottage, with white linen table cloths, fresh flowers on each table, and private rooms for every party. The lighting is dimmed to a soothing glow, contrasting with the cold dark outside.
“I’ll be damned if snow would keep me home,” the waiter overhears the old man say to the other couple as they sit down after their coats have been stowed.
As the evening drags on, wine pours at the same rate as the snow. Three hours tick by. The waiter is getting antsy. He takes a few opportunities to glance out the window, and sees that the storm is raging—even windier than it was during the day. He imagines his car must be nearly invisible by now. But he lives in town, so if push comes to shove, he figures he can walk home.
Another thirty minutes elapse. Finally, the party of four finishes their dessert and requests the check.
“You’ll dig our car out, won’t you,” says the man. It’s phrased as a question, but his tone is an order. The waiter thinks about his tip, then nods, smiling.
He and the cook work at the two cars for a good twenty-five minutes. The two couples take their time saying good-bye, and the waiter wishes them a good evening as they depart. He looks at the check: no tip. And his car is still nestled under white.
The Deputy, Part I:
The deputy has made his way through the monochrome landscape of town to the Camp Polk property to which the abandoned blue Toyota is registered, wondering again how the car got stuck ten miles away in Crossroads. He considers whether the owners were spending the night with friends or attending a dinner party to which they returned after getting stuck. He pounds on the door and checks the windows, but the place is empty. As he toils back to his truck, thinking through his next steps, his cell phone rings. The sheriff informs him that a welfare check has been issued by a concerned couple for Henry and Brooke Constable. The couple had explained that they had dinner with Henry and Brooke at Jen’s Garden last night and then went their separate ways. They had not heard from Brooke or Henry since the night before, and despite multiple attempts to contact them by phone, no one was answering.
They had given a Crossroads address as Henry and Brooke’s home, and described the Constable’s vehicle—a blue Toyota Highlander—and suddenly things begin to make sense. The Constables must own more than one property near Sisters. The deputy hangs up and heads back to Crossroads.
It doesn’t take him long to find the home the concerned couple described. The driveway begins just ten feet from the mystery Toyota, and the house is set back thirty feet more. He determines where the driveway is located and muscles his truck in. The snow creaks under his tires as he inches along, finally grinding him to a halt ten feet in. He has angled his truck toward the detached garage, so when he gets out he heads to the eaves and follows the shallow snow until he’s within a few feet of the side of the house. The snow is at his waist as he slogs through the deep drift in the gap between the buildings, and he feels as if he is wading through a river to get to the porch. It has been cold enough that this snow is like dry powder. The individual flakes, looking just like those preschool paper cutouts but exquisitely small, are visible as he wades through, glistening in the cloud-covered light.
Finally, the deputy frees himself from the sparkling blanket and goes to the front door. He rings the bell and pounds his fist for a full ten minutes. He looks in windows. No one is home. He takes in the flat white view of the driveway, and discerns a slight depression in the snow. Is it an old path? He steps off the front of the porch and trudges toward the spot. He’s only gone ten feet when he stubs his foot on something hard. Like a rock, but he knows it’s not. He moves some snow and sees a pant leg.
He’s found Henry Constable.
The Approximate Tale of Constables:
Full of wine and laughter, Henry and Brooke Constable make their way home from Jen’s Garden at 11:45 p.m. on the night of February 7th, 2014. Perhaps they realize at this moment their mistake in going out at all as they squint through the blank whiteness in front of their windshield and hold their breath between landmarks in the alien world of black and white. Brooke is driving, the spring chicken of the two at 69 years old, and the one who has gone easy on the wine. The reflective green sign for Crossroads Road gleams like a beacon after the mile-long agony of highway 242. Perhaps the left turn feels like the home stretch to them.
Why they opt to head for their Crossroads home, one of five properties they own in Sisters, is anyone’s guess. Perhaps because it is closer to town, although it is also closer to the mountains and has been receiving the brunt of the storm. In any case, they are less familiar with this property, and that may be why they miss their driveway on the first pass. Realizing their mistake, they attempt a three-point turn. That’s when they must feel it, the invisible snow bank catching their car and gripping it with icy fingers.
Hit the gas.
Again. Stuck more. Again. Snow piling up. Still stuck. At around midnight, the two exit the vehicle and begin trying to dig the car out of the wall of snow. The wine they’ve consumed masks the cold as it creeps into their limbs. It’s about five degrees, but they don’t even notice. They become so fixated on freeing the car that it doesn’t cross their minds to walk to their house, forty feet away, or sit in the vehicle and run the heater intermittently until morning. Perhaps they begin to realize that at the rate the snow is falling, their moving it is like trying to drain the ocean with a bucket. But they don’t stop.
Henry Constable didn’t make his fortune as a stockbroker in New York City by giving up on things.
Instead they dig. They dig and dig until their old limbs shake. Brooke’s fingers, hands she’s employed as an accomplished pianist since she was young, are nearly immobile with cold. Each time they think they’ve done it, they try the engine, only to realize they are still stuck. They are not clear-headed enough to recognize that excavating the sides of the car is doing nothing to free it.
At last, they see lights round the corner, a fellow night traveler. Perhaps hope swells in Brooke at the sight, or perhaps she’s too cold for hope to be separated from desperation. She urges Henry into the tow truck. They’ve been married for forty-three years, and luckily she knows how to convince him to do some things. They climb into the warm truck and the man drives them close to the house.
They plunge into the snow, nearly home. But Brooke and Henry aren’t out of the woods. As they trudge toward the door, perhaps they grasp, at last, how tired they are. And cold. So cold they’re nearly hot. They may not realize it, but they’ve been digging for more than two hours. Henry takes a step, and then suddenly he’s not stepping anymore, but collapsing backward into the pillow of downy white. Brooke tries to pull him up, but must realize that she risks being pulled down with him. She decides to head for the house, to try to call someone to help Henry. She starts moving again, but within one step something feels off. Literally. Her right shoe has abandoned her and, just feet from her porch, she stumbles forward into the cold embrace of the snow.
The Deputy, Part II:
The neighbors watch with interest as fire trucks arrive at the house near the stranded mystery car, and men begin digging out its driveway with shovels. The President presides regally in conversation with the chief nearby. The deputy leaves soon after examining the bodies and the lost shoe, his investigative work complete. As he drives away he is haunted by the frozen faces of Henry and Brooke, and by the blanket of snow that covered their bodies with a careless beauty only nature knows.
He responds to a call about a parked car that was damaged by a snowplow the night before. A vague acquaintance, Fred, is on the scene. In fact, his whole family, a wife and two grown children, had been busy checking on friends in town when they stopped to help the girl who owned the damaged car. As they wait for the plow driver to arrive, Fred mentions an abandoned Toyota in his neighborhood, and the deputy finds himself recounting his investigation of Brooke and Henry.
He comes to the point of discovering the bodies, and tries to disguise his emotions in a mask of practicality and facts. “I just, I knew that what I tripped on … was human. Just—you’re knocking and no one answers, and you know,” he pauses. “Her shoe was off. We think she was trying to get to the house to call for help once she realized she couldn’t pull him out, but ….” The deputy shrugs, perhaps thinking he should stop. But he doesn’t. He stands, looking to Fred’s daughter like a hollowed out man, with his thumbs in his belt loops and his shoulders slumped ever so slightly. Perhaps trying too hard to look unaffected and casual. But he will tell the details to these people—the real details—the ones he can’t tell the newspaper. He will tell them about his call to the couple’s only son, Cody, in New York City. He will tell them, and his voice will quaver slightly, about bearing such outlandish news, of parents killed in a freak snow storm just ten feet from their own front door.
And he will tell them about the faces that were cold and white like snow.
The Barista, Part II:
Once the snow started, it didn’t stop for thirty-six hours. If it had been rain, it would have been the kind, in movies, where the main character steps outside and is instantly drenched. The flakes were fat, well-fed by the clouds, but it wasn’t their fatness that was remarkable. It was the sheer volume. When it all started, I felt like a spell had been cast on the world. I wanted the snow to go on and on, descending forever. I wanted a story to tell by the fireside to my grandchildren about the Great Snow Storm of 2014. By Friday morning, the 7th, I knew my wish had been granted.
My dad rescued me from work at the coffee shop that evening at 7 p.m. My PT Cruiser was incapable of getting through the thick ground cover, and when I arrived home that night, I ruefully admitted to my mom that she had been correct about staying home. I wonder, now, whether we drove past Henry and Brooke on their way to Jen’s Garden, undeterred by the blizzard.
Their car sat stuck for a week.
The four of us would add more testimony about their story gradually over the next three days: The tow-truck driver who lived across the street from our Crossroads home, the deputy who responded to a call nearby, the waiter who came into Sisters Coffee Company, and me, disseminating information like any good barista.
Every February 8th I wonder what exactly went wrong. Why did they go out that night? Would they have been more logical if they hadn’t had all that wine? Would they have made it home safely if they’d left the vehicle sooner or not at all?
And I think especially of the torrent of snow covering their bodies while they still drew breath, while they lay awake without the power of even brushing off the flakes. I wonder, did they whisper last words into the swirling white nothing above them, descending like an invading force, overshadowing everything? I imagine the snow fell so quickly that Henry and Brooke struggled to take their final breaths until there was simply no room for air in all the white.