Publisher’s Note: “Hardening Snow” is an excerpt from Ms. Flenaugh’s novel The Cycle. This chapter focuses on Tawny, the main character, an African American growing up in Alaska. In the enclosed segment, she realizes she must leave her family to break the cycle of poverty. The book addresses the causes and cure for the recurrence of poverty and teenage motherhood that has plagued generations of her family.
Snowflakes fell from the dusky sky and slid down the windows. The few hours of tepid sunlight had burned away during school hours, and the hour ride home spun away the rest. At ten minutes after four, the bus stopped in front of Midway Auto Body Shop off 6.7 mile New Richardson Highway. Midway Industrial Park was our family property: the jaded yellow shop, the rusted cars, the dozen of stuffed garbage bags, and — looming on the distant edge of the land — our dilapidated mobile home.
Reluctantly, I zipped my goose down coat and pulled on my insulated gloves. Following my older brother Keenan off the bus, the door hissed closed behind us. The rumbling shifted into the drone of the bus engine as it rolled away.
We didn’t see Midway Man working outside, so we passed the front office and trudged up the path toward home. White mounds began to cover the dozen bags filled with discarded newspaper, empty motor oil bottles, splintered plywood, and TV dinner wrappers that we had picked up last summer.
With eyes like cinders, Keenan dragged his feet on the rocky path. Pressing my lips together, I waited for him to complain about missing the national soccer tournament – again.
I wished he’d walk faster, so we could get out of the elements. The cold had a unique ferocity here on the outskirts of Fairbanks. There were no alleys or rows of houses to tame it. Preyed upon by the chill, its assault began with my nose.
Reaching the backside of the shop, Keenan dropped his backpack as he sat down. Snow built up on the sleeves of his Lakers’ jacket. He lifted his knees and slumped his body over the fold of his legs. Warm clouds escaped my mouth. We were only a few hundred yards away from home. If we could get inside, I would listen intently while standing above the hot air of the heater vents.
With hands planted on my hips, padded by gloves, hat, and down coat, I felt like a big, bossy woman. The wind found the tiny crack of exposed wrist between my gloves and coat sleeve.
“You should be happy you’re a senior. I have to survive this place another year after you’re gone.”
He spoke in staccato through gritted teeth. “Trevor and Fred said they getting scouted from some college in Arizona.”
A few of his irksome teammates still hadn’t forgiven him for missing nationals last month. All the times he had been complaining, I hadn’t really listened. It was his fault for getting in trouble. So what. He didn’t get to play some pointless game. I scanned the woods to see if any moose lurked. The longer we stayed out here, the more likely it was for Midway Man to come around the building and want to talk.
“Have you ever seen how stupid Trevor and Fred look when they play? They’re sorry. But they went to the fucking National Youth Soccer Tournament. I could’ve just punched both of them — just rubbing it in.”
College and a scout and soccer: I hadn’t heard him speak about it before, didn’t think he cared. But, I guess, soccer was his one thing. Having played since he was seven, Keenan dominated his competitive team, the Arctic Knights. Mama and Midway Man had probably thought their lack of interest would dissipate my brother’s yearn for soccer. They hadn’t wanted to drive him the seven miles into Fairbanks for practices or take time to attend all of his games. My parents hadn’t seen him compete since he was ten-years-old.
I hadn’t considered the many times he bummed rides to practice after school. Spending the night in town at a family or friend’s meant he could walk to practice the next day. Although it rarely happened, a teammate’s mother sometimes showed up at our place for him to attend games. Not even the weather could keep Keenan away from soccer. When he couldn’t make it to a practice or a game, he still put in time with the black and white rock of his soul: kicking the ball off the shop wall in winter, muddying it as spring broke-up the ice, playing against himself under the summer midnight sun, and careening the ball through multi-colored autumn leaves. But as he sat in the snow, I could see him conceding to failure – finally letting our parents and the weather beat him.
“It’s not fair that we’re poor,” I said hunching my shoulders to block the sharp air nipping the exposed skin between my neck and clavicle.
His gloved fist rammed into the ground. “It wasn’t the money. The team was fundraising all year — car washes, bake sales, skating parties.”
“Why didn’t you –”
“Mama wouldn’t take me. Midway Man wanted me to work at the shop.”
“Work at the shop?”
Midway Auto Body Shop only averaged about four phone calls a day and even less paying customers per month. Nobody really cared about fixing dents when snow and ice covered cars most of the year. Instead of earning real wages at a part-time job in town, Midway Man insisted we work at his failing business.
Anger prickled into a wave of heat along my scalp. I flexed my arms into a boxing stance. “I would have told them…”
My arms dropped limply. I wasn’t sure, because it hadn’t happened to me.
“I don’t know,” I said.
I decided that it wouldn’t happen to me. The day his team left, I had been at
Day-ja’s house for the weekend. Why hadn’t Keenan told me? Maybe I could’ve helped him, but I had assumed that he had done something wrong.
“Midway Man had told me he would have the money for the trip.”
I couldn’t close my mouth. How could my dad have told him that? My chest expanded, deflated, expanded, deflated. I tried to calm myself, tried to think of what to say to my brother.
Helpless, I glared at our shameful landscape. A moist layer of perspiration condensed along my hairline. For a moment, the cold subsided. Three months after Midway Man had promised to dump them, the trash bags had torn and remained beside broken down cars. It didn’t make sense to pick up cans, empty bottles of anti-freeze, and wads of paper every summer. Harsh weather would disintegrate the bags and the mess would be thrown back on the face of the earth by the spring thaw.
When we had first moved here, I was only six. Back then, Daddy had assured us that the two abandoned cars on the land wouldn’t be here long. He was going to clean it up, had shown us the blueprints for the new house to be built on our three acres.
A powder blue 1962 Ford was still here rusted with the blue and gold Alaska license plate that he was certain would sell as a souvenir. The faded brown 1982 Volkswagen Beetle lingered with its moneymaking engine intact. He had added the 1980 red Camaro five years ago. Its unscathed right door had yet to pay off. Over time he had become Midway Man, convincing himself that each car was an investment. Although he hated the property to be called a junkyard, he permitted more cars to be added to the property. Nine cars had been littering our land for over three years, and we still lived in the little mobile home on the tundra.
My brother focused on the mixture of dirt and snow and rock underneath his feet, slush dissolving into his black and white Converse.
Finally I spoke. “They couldn’t buy us groceries. We were getting barely edible boxes from The Food Bank.”
We should have cleared the land to expand my garden, increase the harvest of tomatoes and nurture more bunches of carrots. I could do better – our family deserved better — than the mildewed corncobs and expired cans of chicken noodle soup from The Food Bank. And Keenan could do better, but I was no longer sure that he believed it.
“Let’s get out of the cold,” I said rubbing the numb tip of my nose.
Keenan stretched out, unwilling to get up. My brother could not become the man he wanted to be if he stayed here. Success was not going to be found at Midway Industrial Park, working for a business that barely had customers. I couldn’t understand what my parents wanted for us. They kept telling us we didn’t have enough, while they weren’t even trying to have enough.
The loud clank of metal pounding metal rang through the air; Midway Man was working outside.
Gnawing cold had already stiffened my fingers, when he called for us. “Tawny! Keenan!”
I wriggled my fingers inside the gloves, absorbing the tingling a few seconds before facing him. Shadowed by twilight, Midway Man stood next to the shop, a couple hundred feet away, beckoning us.
I stumbled to him. My brother clumped behind me. In front of my dad, I looked down to adjust my backpack, hiding my frustration. At sixteen-years-old and five-feet-tall, I always felt like a little girl next to his bulky six-feet frame. Keenan stepped into place beside me.
My dad smiled with glittering eyes. Now that I knew Santa Claus to be a well-meaning farce, he especially resembled the black “guarantor of unfulfilled wishes.” Wearing a scruffy black beard in a blue jumpsuit and ski hat, he smelled of the nauseating fumes of car exhaust. His white rubber work boots blended into the terrain.
“Well hello and good evening,” Midway Man said in a crisp and melodic voice.
“Good evening, Daddy,” I said, returning the required greeting in monotone.
Keenan kicked the ground, loosening a pebble as he mumbled, “Good evening, Daddy.”
At 5’3, he had always looked up to our father.
“What’s wrong with you, Keenan?” he said, his smile collapsing.
Instead of looking at Midway Man, his gaze caught the soft wave of cars behind him traveling along the New Richardson Highway.
If he had just looked into my brother’s eyes, he’d have seen that there was nothing right about him. Last summer the determination in his eyes had turned to anger. He no longer desired to prove himself, just wanted to defend the bit of self-respect he had left.
“Looks like you need to get some rest.”
“Have a lot of homework,” Keenan said.
Moving my feet was like pushing a hundred needles into each toe.
“Well, I got to get back to work,” Midway Man said.
“Yeah, I have a lot of homework,” I said.
Midway Man turned away and strode toward the other side of the building. Keenan and I continued home as I tried to forget the beating wind. Like this new falling snow, he had been easy to melt when he had started playing soccer. He flung his leg forward, unleashing it on a fist-sized stone. Banging the rock into the metallic siding, it left a knuckled-sized dent.
“Apply to colleges, and try to see if you can get into a soccer program that way.”
“It doesn’t work like that. My grades are shit,” he said.
The velocity of the wind had increased, pushing upon our backs, forcing us forward. The snow hurled onto the earth diagonally. By its intensity, I knew the flakes would stick. The winter’s first permanent layer of snow was descending. The twilight flickered out as the moon and the Big Dipper were revealed in the penetrating darkness of seventeen hours of night. Around us, white blanketed the trash bags and camouflaged the abandoned vehicles.
Every summer I had brought a new energy for gardening, for cleaning up, for making it a home where I wasn’t embarrassed to live. But looking around this dump – considering the recurring chain of broken promises — I knew I had already had my last summer trying to improve this place, trying to grow crops on land where the weeds ruled. I was already gone.