Wind Chill Warning by John Tavares

Mary rose from her waterbed. She pushed aside a pharmacology textbook and knocked a critical edition of Anna Karenina from her mattress, and the thick public library hardcover landed on her moccasin slippers. She slammed a pile of pharmacy journals against a bedside table and windows fogged with ice and frost and stood before the tall bathroom mirror. She unknotted the belt of her terry cloth bathrobe and opened the front. The bathrobe, thick, comfortable, luxurious, imported from Italy, a pharmacy student gave her during her fourth year, but she spurned him after they graduated. She felt sleepless on a frigid winter night and pined for the radiant warmth of a woodstove. The humming electric space heater kept her warm, but her skin and nasal passages felt dry and her voice hoarse. She debated taking a sleeping pill, but, as a pharmacist, she always resisted the easy solution and allure of pills. As a student of pharmacy and pharmacology and its principles and formulas, she thought she had analyzed the situation precisely. She was crystal clear and clairvoyant on the issue. She pinched the flesh around her waist. She had grown fat. She didn’t want to be fat.

She pulled on a sweatshirt and loose baggy sweatpants and stepped outside her house on First Avenue into the cold air. Originally from Southern Ontario, she observed with a sense of awe misty white smoke rising straight from chimney pipes for woodstoves and oil-burning furnaces and the cloud of smoke her own breath made in front of her pale face, unadorned by makeup. She started jogging down the road, packed with grungy dirt, ice, and snow. She sprinted down First Avenue, past the trailer park and the water spring, where the fresh clear water gushed from a natural aquifer and the surrounding pond was a mess of spiked ice in distorted, grotesque shapes. She jogged along a darkened Highway 642, which the provincial transport ministry snowplows, working hundreds of hours overtime, had plowed clear after a massive blizzard.

The distant sound of locomotives and freight trains made Mary melancholy and reminded her of her solitary nature and her loneliness in this small town in northwestern Ontario. The noise from the massive diesel engines, which the crystalline hard cold magnified, travelled for endless miles from the main rail yard and sidings at the heart of the town through the north night cold. Briefly, as she travelled lightly across the ice and snow, she felt exhilarated.

She ran through the blackness of the night on the secondary highway, which was narrow, unlighted, and bordered on both sides by nothing but vast darkness and hundreds of square miles of forests. Puffing, breathing hard, emitting huge clouds of smoke from her mouth and nostrils, her breath frozen around the fringes of her mouth, she felt her perspiration pressing cold against her cotton sweats, as she jogged. The undried portion of her freshly washed thick dark hair was starting to freeze.

As her breath shortened and her leg muscles ached and her calves cramped, she grew discouraged. She was fighting a losing cause. She jogged on the roadside past a junkyard of automobiles, a fenced field of pasture and bales of hay with a broken, rusted tractor, and the roadside grave of an unknown Chinese railroad worker killed during a rock blast decades ago. The perspiration dripped down her arms and breasts, which felt heavy and which had caused her to consult a surgeon to have them reduced. She jogged several kilometers down the highway, when a black-and-white Ontario Provincial Police car, its official markings glowing in the dark, suddenly cruised past her. When the constable driving spotted her, he looked back over his shoulder, through the frosted windshield. Carter looked at the woman jogging through the frozen night and almost laughed. He slowed the cruiser down and then stopped, skidding along the ice. He opened his window through the armrest controls and stared at Mary a moment.

“Are you all right?” Carter turned on his radio but couldn’t hear the dispatcher.

“Yes.” She forced a smile. “I’m just jogging.”

Why are you running?”

I didn’t say I was running. I’m jogging.”

Well, why are you jogging?”

To get some exercise.”

You’re not trying to flee something, are you?”

Like what?”

Like, I don’t know.”

Like, maybe, domestic assault?”

Who’s asking the questions?”

I don’t know why you’re detaining me and asking questions in the first place.”

Actually, that is a good question. Are you fleeing domestic assault?”

Let’s just say I’m trying to get some exercise.”

Why are you trying to get exercise now?”

Let’s just say I’m trying to lose some weight.”

You sure don’t look fat to me.”

You’re clearly not a woman, so you wouldn’t understand.”

I guess I don’t understand because I’m tired, working overtime, and it’s forty below zero.” Carter made a gesture, pointing in the glowing face of his wristwatch. “And it’s three o’clock in the morning.”

I’m sorry.” Mary stomped her running shoes on the cold hard snow laid over the asphalt and gravel. “Seeing how you’re so intent on cross-examining me, it would probably be more accurate to say I’m suffering a bout of insomnia and vigorous physical exercise seems the best cure.”

The constable, tall, lean, muscular, who usually sat ramrod straight, laughed. “You certainly don’t sound intoxicated to me, and nobody said anything about sobriety check.” He wore insulated gloves even in the warmth of the car and clapped his hands against the steering wheel. “Don’t you find it a bit cold?”

“No. I’m moving, burning energy. But the longer you make me stand here the more cold I feel.”

“It’s three o’clock in the morning.”

She glanced at the digits of the LCD display on her Ironman wristwatch. “It’s three-thirteen—and thirteen seconds, and, I’m a night person.”

I don’t mean to be rude or bossy, but there’s an extreme cold warning in effect. It’s forty-one below. And there is a wind chill warning in effect, so it could easily hit forty-five, and the cold is going to bite flesh hard and fast.”

“Yes, but I’m dressed for the weather.”

Dressed for the weather? Look at what you’re wearing.”

“I’m prepared, I’m jogging, I’m about to turn back to town. An officer stopping me is only making me colder.”

“Are you sure you don’t want a ride back to town?”

“I don’t want a ride. What? Are you going to arrest me for exercising my right to freedom of movement?”

“It’s not a problem.”

“No? If I don’t get the chance to run back to town it will be a problem, and your supervisor will hear about it, and, if he’s not interested, then I’ll talk to the superintendent in Thunder Bay or my local MPP.”

“OK, have a good jog.”

The police officer said good-bye and waved, but she ignored him, saying nothing, making no gesture in return. The cop continued his late night and early morning highway patrol, driving to Silver Dollar, a tiny community with several houses, mobile homes, cottages, garages, and shacks as well as a gas station, a convenience store, a bait and tackle store, a tourist lodge, and a motel.

Mary continued jogging. Now she didn’t feel happy or depressed, merely irate, a mood which diminished as she covered another kilometer along the highway through the cold and snow, when she originally intended to turn back to town. The police officer’s stop had angered her, and she decided to run a longer distance. Then she started to notice the numbing cold and turned back to town at the road that branched off Highway 642 to the rock quarry and gravel pit. As she jogged along the center of the westbound lane of the secondary highway, quiet, abandoned, she felt like a stone—not exhilarated, as she normally would have after a run. Her light feet pounded the highway through the amazing cold and a snowy countryside field bordered by railroad tracks, a mere two kilometers outside Beaverbrooke.

After Mary made her weary entrance into town, the OPP cruiser, miles away, having journeyed along the highway in a northeastern direction, pulled into the parking lot of the coffee shop in Silver Dollar. Weighted down by his massive down-filled parkas and treaded, insulated boots, Carter stepped into café of the motel, attached to a convenience store and gas station. The constable, who stood erect and tall, a head above most of his peers, stepped into the washroom. He frequently felt the urge to urinate, and the need made him restless and impatient, and his back ached.

He had described the symptoms to a local family physician, who referred him to a urologist in Winnipeg. The urologist at the Health Sciences Centre took one look at him and informed him he required a circumcision. Grudgingly, he consented. Then he postponed the operation out of fear of general anesthesia. Finally, he booked the operation again. The surgery caused him excruciating pain and incapacitated him for several weeks. He couldn’t resume police duties. Everytime he went to urinate he felt an agonizing, excruciating, burning pain. He was forced to wear baggy boxer shorts and loose track pants. He had to make a special trip to the Walmart in Dryden to buy loose fitting sweats and undergarments. Wearing them made him feel like a homeless person, or a teenager, depending upon his mood and whether he drank a beer to anesthetize himself, and he walked with a limp, methodically and delicately. The operation that excised his foreskin also eventually gave him a prostrate infection. Blood started appearing in his semen. He was forced to take time off work to drive back to Winnipeg for a consultation with the urologist in the medical arts building downtown. The urologist chuckled at his fear of cancer and prescribed antibiotics.

He unzipped his pants and, standing before the urinal, attempted to piss, but he couldn’t. He badly needed to urinate. The sight of the woman, whom he thought vulnerable and delicate, was still in his mind. The image of her thick black hair and pale fine sculpted face, her round breasts and shapely hips gave him an erection. Although he knew little about the woman, he didn’t like her. He did know she was a pharmacist; she had dispensed his antibiotics, over a period of three months, three containers of capsules with a label that said 500 mg of ciprofloxacin, twice a day.

Recently, he had also seen her in the New Books section of the town’s public library, a place he rarely visited. He had been searching for a book entitled The New Prostrate Handbook. The commander, who also suffered a bout of prostatitis, had recommended the book to him. He told him he should be able to find it in the local library branch, to which he had donated his trade paperback copy. Thank goodness for the book, too. The plain text had consoled him in certain respects, since he had been anxious and worried he might be suffering from a malignant cancer. After he read the section on prostatitis and prostate cancer, he received the reassurance he sought and which the urologist, in his hurry, hadn’t been able to offer, and he felt relieved.

In the library, a few weeks ago, while he perused the book, hiding its cover, she brushed past him, carrying a stack of brand new literary hardcover books, including a modern library edition of Anna Karenina. He regarded the book with curiosity since his first arrest involved a young woman, a student at Lakehead University, home in Beaverbrooke for the Christmas vacation, hurtling a copy of heavy hardcover edition of Anna Karenina at her boyfriend, before she proceeded to straddle him and pound him over the head with the book, breaking his designer prescription glasses. He thought the fact that she was a pharmacist meant that her interests would be more technical, more scientific—that she would make a hobby out of astronomy, collecting insects, or photographing the landscape of the Canadian Shield. Distracted, he dropped the book. Wearing a tight, short skirt, she bent down and picked up the book, revealing her shapely bare legs, and handed the trade paperback to him, with her face inches from his groin.

As he stood before the stinking urinal, with its ammonia smell of rancid urine, waiting, the image of her skin, pale and translucent, and her long thin hair, as dark as any he had ever seen, persisted in his mind. He thought she was a startling and eerily attractive woman. And although he hardly ever encountered her, she rubbed him the wrong way somehow. When he went for coffee, in the Tim Hortons and Subway, at various and sometimes overlong intervals during his seemingly interminable twelve-hour shifts he would see her. It seemed she ate out routinely, maybe every evening. And she dawdled over her food. She left him with the impression she was exceptionally intelligent, in a place where that wasn’t a common attribute, and slightly flaky and kooky, but he long ago learned as a rookie police officer to keep his opinion to himself.

He stood before the yellow stained-urinal for five minutes attempting to urinate, but his erection wouldn’t allow urine to pass through his ureters. He resented the woman for triggering sexual arousal in him in the middle of trying to take a piss. Something about her personality irked and frustrated him that very second. His enlarged, inflamed prostate gland didn’t help, either. He muttered a four-letter word, zipped the trousers of his uniform, and stepped through the back hallway, cluttered with old milk cartons and stainless steel Coke containers, returning to the booth for coffee. His cupful of coffee tasted bitter and strong, as if it had been sitting in the carafe for the whole night.

When she arrived at home, her bungalow on First Avenue, she felt relieved at having completed her journey, but her feet felt as if they were frozen. Stretching her legs in front of the space heater, which she turned to maximum, and watching television, she let her feet thaw. They felt as if they were burning. She had briefly considered driving to the emergency department of the hospital in her car, but the fact she had sensation, however painful, in her feet, she interpreted as a good sign. Her own lack of medical knowledge concerning frostbite surprised her; she should have known about the condition—indeed she must have learned about frostbite treatments at some point during her training, but she had long since forgotten. The fact that she could feel them burning she construed to mean that she hadn’t suffered frostbite, or any severe medical injury. She let her feet thaw in a warm tub of water.

When she went to bed, she lay listening to the freight trains in the rail yards down First Avenue along Front Street at dawn and tuned into CBC Radio. Then, using the remote for the stereo receiver, she turned it off. She decided that she wouldn’t report to work at the pharmacy in the morning. She would quit her job as a pharmacist, without two weeks notice, without ever returning to the drugstore and her cubicle and counters of drugs, instruments, texts, prescriptions, pill counters, and bottles. She would stay at home, reading her large collection of unread books and magazines and drinking her flavored and dark roast coffee and eating gourmet meals that she would take as long as she wanted to cook and eat. Occasionally she would slip out for groceries, laundry, and the mail. She curled herself against her legs and rested the side of her head on her knees. She laughed. It would work out. It would. Everything would be all right. She would make sure.




Born and raised in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, John is the son of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores. He has written a large amount of fiction, mostly short stories, but some novellas, since 1986. His previous publications include short stories published in a number of literary journals. He has recently written a novel and is an avid photographer.