Well, I know now.
I know a little more how much
a simple thing like a snowfall
can mean to a person.
The last time it snowed in Phoenix I was nine and we all still lived together in the big house. In my mind snow was grouped with landscapes like forests and the ocean and with phenomena like the Northern Lights. In Phoenix snow was used as a decoration for Christmas—I remembered cutting tissue paper into snowflakes in second grade, and watching Dad hanging light-up icicles from the eaves of our house like earrings. I think we were both surprised when it snowed—me and my city.
The last time it snowed in Phoenix was the second time I’d ever seen snow. The first was on a family trip to Banff, Canada the Christmas before. My family loved that—taking family trips. The time it snowed in Phoenix we were supposed to be in New York but Dad had cancelled that trip a week before and so Mom told us kids she’d drive us to Sedona. But then the weather cancelled those plans, too.
The snow fell in the hazy light of the early morning. When I woke I looked through my shutters and saw it and I didn’t know what to do so I rapped my knuckles on one of the thin strips of wood that supports the top bunk in order to wake Brian. He groaned and whispered down what was the matter. I told him to look outside and when he did he gasped. He whispered down the plan. We threw on our old tweed coats and crept past Julie’s room and ran downstairs and I took a big cardboard box from the recycling pile and tore it into rectangles with my hands. Brian grabbed a sticky note and a Sharpie from a drawer in the kitchen and left the note hanging on the fridge: CHARLIE AND I ARE GOING SLEDDING. BE BACK. LOVE YOU ALL.
I would’ve felt bad leaving the front door unlocked but I remembered there was a house key on the keyring above Dad’s desk in the office. Dad had shown me the keyring so I could get the mail on weekdays when he was traveling like he asked me. It was tedious going through the mail and finding the bills like he taught me and placing them underneath his keyboard but on the day of the snow I was grateful that Dad had given me this little job. I took the house key from the keyring and locked the door behind us. Brian gave me gardening gloves from the backyard and an old t-shirt to use as a scarf for staving off the cold. We stood in our front yard next to a tall white sign and after a little deliberation we headed north on 32nd street towards the pond off Ray Road.
It seemed like all of Ahwatukee was playing in the streets. We saw the Hovik boys outside shooting basketball. Grace and Clare were building a snowman. Adults were making snow angels in their front yards. Brian was waving at everyone but I found myself fixated on the snow. It settled in the streets and on the cars and on the tops of the stucco houses and it settled in all the desert places it never should’ve: the uplifted arms of saguaros, the spiky vines of ocotillos, the sharp petals of agave. It all held the air of whim, of unreality. Surely the snow could not be seeping into these places. I felt like I was in Ms Mahoney’s class staring at a surrealist painting.
When we reached the pond we saw that it was covered in a sheath of snow and the hills behind it were almost entirely white. On the edge of the pond a big gray heron was preening. Brian wanted to throw a snowball at it but I shushed him and told him to follow me. We got within a few yards of the bird before it cocked its head at us and glided away.
Brian said it was no good sledding on an empty stomach and I was surprised when he pulled a package of peanut butter crackers out of his pocket. He looked puffy in his large tweed jacket with two t-shirts underneath. We sat on a bench along the path towards the pond and when we had each eaten two crackers we spotted old Mrs Simon walking her dog at the top of the path by the street. Brian thought we had better say hello but I said not to because Mom was always saying how she didn’t like Mrs Simon and her fancy clothes and the way Mrs Simon talked to her volunteers when she was class mom. But Brian insisted and when she got close to us he said something about how beautiful the snow was and what kind of dog is that. She said the dog’s name was Pepper and that he was a Yorkie. She said she hoped our mom was well and that she had seen Dad at Starbucks on Wednesday working on his laptop but I spoke up and said that it must have been a lookalike because last week Dad was in Los Angeles for work. Mrs Simon smiled and said that was sweet and she pulled Pepper the Yorkie and made her way towards the water. Brian was scowling.
By the time she passed the snow had let up a bit and Brian and I decided we had better start sledding. The weather had us feeling romantic. We searched for a good hill with three blonde girls wearing Packers jerseys and their tall father and when we found one and climbed it we let them sled down first. The youngest girl reminded me a bit of Julie and I wondered if she was up with Mom back at the house watching the snow fall.
From the top of the hill Brian and I could see the red twinkling lights on South Mountain to the north and almost to Chandler Boulevard towards the south. We sat on the cardboard side by side and took three deep breaths and flung ourselves down, clutching at the tweed at each other’s wrists. My eyes stung in the wind. I felt as though my body left my soul behind and in its place was a big glowing hole. When we reached the bottom we tumbled off of the cardboard and into the slush. Brian looked at me with brown eyes full of wonder and we both started laughing at the same time, a laugh full of relief and astonishment. When we finally stopped I noticed a snowflake lodged in his lashes and must have been staring with a funny expression because he just started laughing again.
We went down the hill a few more times and once the girls even let us borrow one of their real plastic sleds in exchange for our cardboard. Their father talked about how he had grown up in Wisconsin and he said that up there it snowed like this every week during the winter and sometimes when the lakes froze you could go out on ice skates. Brian was listening eagerly but I was pretty sure the father had made that last part up. He said that up there the snow was much thicker and fluffier and better than this powdery stuff.
After the girls left Brian and I sat at the top of the hill talking. Brian was looking towards the pond. He pulled a package of fruit snacks out of one of his inner pockets and handed me all of the purple ones. He said that it was hard, growing up, and that he wished he could be like me and Julie again. He said that soon he would have to take care of us and that that would be hard too. I watched Mrs Simon come from the neighborhood side of the path and drag her dog towards the lake and Brian asked did I think we could throw a snowball at her and hide behind the hill. I said probably not and that it was weird that she said she saw Dad at Starbucks when he was in Los Angeles. Brian just stared at the pond. After a few minutes he said he wished we could have brought Julie here and that he was worried that the trip to Sedona with Mom hadn’t worked out.
When Brian rose we began to walk home slowly. The snow had become a steady rain. No one was out. The basketball hoop in the Hovik’s front yard stood in solitude. Sad snowmen were sinking into the ground. Brian threw melting snowballs at open house signs on the sidewalk. The red arrows seemed to be leading us home.
By the time we got back the rain was a slight drizzle. When we turned the corner onto our street we saw two men in overcoats standing in front of our house. One of them was talking and pointing at Julie’s room and the other was holding a flier and nodding. We stopped a few houses short and I asked Brian did he think they were bad men. He said no and motioned to their car. It was parked along the street in the place Dad used to park his company car. The men’s car was beautiful: a sporty blue roadster with a hood ornament I had never seen before.
Brian told me to wait and walked up to the men. I crept forward a bit and listened intently and heard the men say something about a sail. When Brian walked back to me he was shaking his head sadly. The men got into the car and revved the roadster motor twice and drove away.
Inside the house Mom was standing at the stove cooking pancakes and little Julie was reading aloud from her book about snow. Brian and I scampered upstairs and picked snowflakes off our jackets before tossing them into the hamper and pulling on our Christmas pajamas. It felt wondrous to be dry. Downstairs the TV was on and the weatherman was saying he had never seen anything like this before: the Valley had gotten several inches. A massive cold front from the Midwest. There could be no telling when something similar would ever happen again.
Dad came downstairs just as Brian and I finished telling Mom about our adventure. He was wearing a shirt and tie and we all looked at him in surprise. He said weren’t the four of us going to Sedona and Mom pointed towards the grass out the big kitchen window and for the first time he saw the snow.
Before anyone could say a word Dad scooped Julie up from her chair and threw open the back door. We all watched as he stomped around in his dress shoes and shirt and tie in the quickening rain. We ate our pancakes and watched and watched and outside Dad and Julie laughed and laughed. And for some reason, as we sat there looking out the window at the snow in the backyard, the doorbell rang incessantly, once at least every five minutes, but none of us in the kitchen even thought about checking it.