I’m nine years old and our apartment is filled with smoke. Yellow, heavy, cloying smoke, the cumulative exhaust of thousands and thousands of cigarettes. It’s been a long winter- cold, dark, blustery, trees popping in the night-time, bitter stars, snow piled up against the window panes. The electric wall registers are cranked to full-blast and they tick-tick-tick, steaming up the dull white walls. There hasn’t been an ounce of fresh air in the apartment since fall.
My eyes burn from the smoke, and I can’t stop coughing. The kids at school (even the teachers, sometimes) tell me that my clothes smell like an ashtray. The apartment IS an ashtray. There are ashes everywhere, on every surface, in plastic gas station cups and overturned jar lids. The overfull trash can in the kitchen brims with cigarette butts. Cigarettes in Alaska are expensive, and it’s where all our money goes, that little bit of cash we get from the state after DHS pays our rent. We lost our foodstamps years ago, it was too many paperwork hoops to jump through for a schizophrenic mother who could hardly string together coherent sentences, much less fill out paperwork. So all we get is that little bit of cash, and it all goes to cigarettes for Barbara. My brother and I get one free meal at school a day and on the weekends, we’re fucked. I’d like to say that we make due somehow but we don’t. We suffer.
There isn’t any food in the house, and the house is filled with smoke. And I can hear Barbara in her room, muttering at the radio, and what’s worse, laughing- which is what she does, often, when she’s interacting with her delusions, and not in a pleasant, funny way, but in a terrible, horror-movie, stephen-king-evil-clown-novel sort of way. The edges of her bedroom door glow gently, and a thin stream of smoke flows out from them. It must be even smokier in there than it is in the rest of the apartment.
I check the cupboards again, but there isn’t any food in there. There’s an old potato in a plastic sack. I open a pizza box from the stack that leans against the wall, and pick the cheese from its corrugated interior. The fridge is empty, but smells like a dumpster, and is coated in rough, sticky food residue. There’s mold growing in the crisper drawers.
In my bedroom it’s silent at least, and sometimes tidy, and if I lay on the floor there’s a pocket of cool, clear air. My pink snow pants are in a pile in the closet and I pull them on, along with my coat and hat, and finally my snowboots and thick winter gloves.
Outside the world is cold and clean, and the snow squinches companionably underfoot. Our apartment complex is edged in forest, and there’s a slope where the long branches of the spruce trees meet the deep snow, making secret, hidden snow caves. Clambering up the slope in my warm snow-suit, I dig at the snow until one of these caves is exposed and then crawl inside, pushing snow out to block the entrance behind me. I lay down on my back, my head resting comfortably on a pillow of snow. The sky is clouded and dark and I take deep breaths of the fresh, biting air. The deep snow insulates my body and the smell of snow intoxicates me. As I look up fresh flakes begin to fall and I watch them, spinning widely in the light from the streetlamps. They land on my face and melt, like little gifts from Jesus.
I am nine years old, and I believe in God. I like all the artifacts that go along with god, the stained glass windows and wooden rosaries and plastic prayer cards with the virgin Mary on them. But most of all, I like the sense of largeness- the sense of mystery, the fearful, vaguely pagan incomprehensibility of my mother’s Catholicism. I believe in Santa, too, even though my only Christmas presents are from the big Christmas tree in the mall. I’m one of those kids whose name and age gets written on a paper tag for someone to pick off and buy presents for.
I am lying in the snow, watching the sky, and the trees are sleeping all around me. The world is peaceful, the world is patient, and my small self hums with life and presence.
You’re safe, say the trees, as they breathe in my cigarette-smoke residue and breathe out oxygen. We’re here, say the trees, as I run my gloved hands along the underside of their green, fragrant boughs. The snowflakes land silently, gently, cleanly. The dark sky turns around, splits open, blows away, and the stars glitter, so far away, the universe so big and empty. I start to cry, thinking about the big empty universe, and the tears mingle with the snot from my cold, red nose. It’s ok, says the forest, as it holds me in its branches. It’s ok.