There is a slick across the cracked concrete of my porch, comprised of one part rock salt, one part melted snow, and one part accumulated dirt, the crud from the bottoms of Doc Martens, old sneakers, and the heavy, high-top workboots worn by our letter carrier, the Fed Ex man, and a few others who tramp across the slush that is our front yard. I haven't sat on my porch rocker in weeks, forced inside by influenza and the raging, persistent winter weather that lashed across Missouri and took hold of Kansas City with its gleeful, punishing grip. The snow shovel leans against the mailbox, beside the worn broom with which we doggedly clean the cars and rearrange what is left of the rotting leaves under the cruel crush of January's reluctant surrender to the leaded skies above us.
I feel the flirting promise of spring in temperatures hovering in the low 30's, ten times as warm as what we endured two weeks ago. On the coldest day of the year, I trudged out to my car despite the nauseating grip of fever, and made my way downtown to get a client divorced. With piles of snow pushed by desperately careless street workers into the handicapped parking spots near the courthouse, I chose instead the parking garage, and due to the lateness of my arrival, found myself parking on the eighth floor. Wrapped in a long wool coat two sizes too big, three scarves entwined around my neck and a bright green wool cap pulled over my barely-combed hair, I gripped my client's file between gloved-fingers and shuffled down the ramp to the elevator.
I stood under the heat lamps for five minutes before the hard slap of leather soles on the adjacent stairway penetrated the thick cloud of flu in my head. Glancing to my right, I saw a passable imitation of Nanook of the North, bearing a leather briefcase, barreling down the stairs. She flicked her eyes in my direction only long enough to break the news to me in breathless tones: "The elevator is not working," she said, and then rounded the corner, her head bobbing in dark felt, her shoulders disappearing in a descending blur of puffy down and knit.
I stood in front of the tall expanse of the double-elevator bank for another five minutes, stubborn, hopeful, weary. An hour before, I had watched my son traverse the security checkpoint at the airport, then driven through a fast-food line for steaming coffee, which I had ingested with an eagerness born of that slightly dingy state in which the newly sick can only hope to dwell, ringing ears, detached air, consciousness waiting to yield to sleep if you merely lean against the back of your car seat. I had driven straight to court tilted carefully towards the steering wheel, one glove off, gloved hand guiding the car, the other orchestrating the careful sips of hot liquid, red-rimmed eyes scanning the quiet highway. Waiting for the hopelessly frozen lift technology to rescue me, I closed my eyes and swayed, slightly, shuddering within my old camel-hair coat that provided an illusion of warmth over the pockets of cold air created by the ironic juxtaposition of my thinning body and its unaltered contours. "Come on, come on," I muttered, but the elevator did not come, and in a few moments, I followed the stream of commuters down sixteen flights.
During my first marriage, I lived for six months in Little Rock. Just outside Arkansas's capital, to its west, rising a couple of miles above the Arkansas River Valley, Pinnacle Mountain provides a novice hiking experience. Half of one trail is paved, but beyond that, the climb takes you over rocks, between brambles, steeper and steeper until you pass the point at which your effort changes from a jaunty saunter to a breathless struggle.
Half-way to the top, casual climbers who had passed us on their way to the peak did so on their way back down to the parking lot. "Don't give up!" they called over their shoulders. "It's worth it!" I tossed a smile, a word of thanks, but did not turn; my success depended on momentum, and the firm grip of my spouse's hand, and the caution that I knew he would exercise, his care evident in the slight note of worry in his voice that morning, when he had expressed gentle reservations about the wisdom of mountain climbing on lily-white, spastic legs.
The last few yards of Pinnacle Mountain's trail to the top require you to stretch your legs over boulders worn round by the winds of time. In my case, I bellied down to their cold curves, slithered and strained, and then lifted my arm to hook myself on my husband's strong hands and allow myself to be pulled to my feet. My eyes met his. He steadied my body with his arms, never letting go, never losing the lock of our gaze. He knew, with the academic knowledge of the unafraid, that the real victory lay not in my painful traverse of the two-mile path but in my decision to make the trek at all, despite my intense, life-long struggle with acrophobia.
I slowly turned away from the center of the space on top of Pinnacle Mountain, and faced outward. A warmth spread from the clenched pit of my stomach upward to my chest, to the constricted airways; downward to my feet and toes tightly curled within my shoes. My eyes did not work, at first. I trembled, my knees cratering, my body slack against Chester's strong, sturdy frame. We did not speak. In a few minutes, my vision cleared, and I beheld an endless swathe of sapphire meeting an expanse of emerald, with the crystalline river snaking through it. There were no clouds, no wind: just the mountain, and the valley, and the shimmering sky.
As my foot struck the last step on the first floor of the parking garage, and my mind wrenched itself back to 2010, I closed my eyes to savor a memory of the sweet kiss of the sun's warmth, in Arkansas, on a spring day, in another life, another century, another world. And then a hurrying body bumped against me as I pushed the heavy, cold glass of the door to Oak Street, and the fumes of the city hit me, and I heard the repeated mechanical click of the accessible walk light, mixed with the diesel roar of a passing bus.
Brookside, Kansas City, Missouri