January 3, 1999 by Dale Russell

I look at my watch: twenty-two forty-seven. Placing the Newsweek magazine back on the shelf, I align it with the others and look toward the front of the mega-store. It is surprisingly busy for a Sunday night, though the atmosphere is imbued with the post-holiday doldrums. Gone are the cheerful bell-ringers and festive lights, leaving only the unwanted returns, over-hyped sales, and mindless Muzak on the P.A. I’ve managed to loiter for almost two hours without security pestering me; however, now I feel a pair of scrutinizing eyes follow me as I walk past the closed McDonald’s near the front. Perhaps I didn’t go unnoticed.

The smell of cold dampness spreads as people enter and stomp the snow from their shoes. “Thank you for shopping at Walmart.” I nod and pull my hoodie over my head. The glass double doors hum open and I walk through the hot-air curtain and into the night, where the cold air smites me and freezes the moisture in my nose. A light snow is falling, leaving a thin layer that causes the parking lot to look like rippled clouds viewed from above. I slip and slide in the frozen tire ruts, but manage to remain upright. A toddler is bawling in a Honda van next to my car and his mother stands outside the sliding side door and brushes snow off his back and behind. What’s a three-year-old doing out at this time of night, anyway? She glances over at me as I wait by the bumper and her eyes widen.

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“No, no worries. Take your time; I know what it’s like.” Or at least I used to.

The melancholy spirit jabs me in the gut. A parking lot light is directly above, and its sodium light makes the mother’s face look sunburned. She returns my smile as she picks up the whimpering child and brushes past, her perfume leaving a floral trail. I jiggle the key to get the door unlocked. A flurry of snow enters the car as I open the door and it settles on the dark blue seats, rendered brown by a soft amber glow from the snow covered windshield. I poke my head into the muffled silence and grab the scraper. Ice and snow blow back into my face and down my shirt as I scrape. Fucking cold. I hate fucking cold.

I get in and turn the key. The Saturn quakes with palsy as it starts against its will, screaming at the cold, and the motorized seat belt growls like a hungry dog guarding its food bowl. Whose bright-ass idea was that thing? The seat soaks the heat from my body and sucks the energy from my bones. Winter seems to go on forever.

As I head to downtown Indy, there is sparse traffic on US 31, making it a twenty-minute drive, the white-dusted road ahead checkered by orange streetlights. Approaching the hospital parking garage, I’m a little early. Free parking starts at 11:30, so I make a short circuit around campus. I miss being in school. The Spirit reminds me. Snow like powdered sugar surfs on gusts of wind across the deserted parking lots and assails a lone girl in a blue parka as she leans into the gale. Tortured howls penetrate the quiet of my car.

Returning to the garage, I see that the gate is up, so I pull in and drive the spiral up and into my spot. Fourth floor, up side, inner row, right behind a post—strategically located to minimize someone bothering me or some moron crashing into me. In the back driver’s-side window, I hang a lab coat embroidered in red with “Indiana University Medical Center” and on the rearview mirror I hang my old hospital ID—both souvenirs of my time working in the Hematology/Oncology Department. The appearance leads roving security guards to assume I’m an overworked intern catching a late-night nap. I recline the seat and pull the blanket snugly over my head to create a warm cocoon and set my watch alarm and think of the day ahead:

05:30 leave before paid parking starts

06:00 $1 sausage muffin and water at McDonald’s

06:30 quick workout and shower at Bally’s

08:00 teach preschool tumbling class at gym

10:30 work lunch shift at McDonald’s (free food)

14:00 teach cardio class for moms at gym

15:30 coach team practice

20:00 $1 dinner at McDonald’s

Then roam the library or Walmart and come back here to do it again.

Leaving Bally’s one day, a fellow personal trainer had snuck a glance at my overly-organized and full trunk and remarked, “Say, Man, you got yo crib in yo car?”

“Hah, just some extra stuff.” I closed the trunk, satisfied my secret’s still safe.

A car rumbles by, causing almost imperceptible vibrations in the garage floor. I need to calm my mind and get some sleep, but when I do, The Spirit reminds me of unforgettable memories: the first day of kindergarten, the foreclosed four-bedroom house, and the stinging words: “Parenting time suspended until father obtains permanent residence.” The Spirit knows my wounds and can go into deeper areas of my psyche than any Prozac or Zoloft could ever reach. Are my kids safe? Do they miss me?

The windows are fogging up, shrouding me in clouds. There is a sort of nomadic comfort here: my indomitable, can-do Saturn, a Spartan wardrobe and a spread of tools in the trunk, just in case, and my Sony laptop safely ensconced in my backpack. But, day 324 is cold, and it’s wearing on me.

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