When Talmidge Cotton heard the forecast on the radio that morning he thought that somebody at the Weather Service must have mixed up the prediction for Louisiana with the one for some northern place like Minnesota, where it would make more sense. Christmas was two days away, and the report said that chances were good for it to be a white one in the northwest corner of the state, which included Tal’s town, Oil Camp. Up to six inches of snow were expected to cover the area before the storm ended.
Tal checked the sky (clear) and the temperature (forty-five). The possibility of snow falling on such a day seemed far-fetched. The prediction sounded like some bored weatherman’s idea of a practical joke. Half a foot was more than the combined total of snow Tal had seen in his entire life. As a rule, winters in his part of the country were mild, not so very different from the autumns there. Brief cold spells did come and go, and light snow did occasionally dust the ground, but the only real, wonderland-type winter weather he had experienced happened three years before, when he was seven. An ice storm blew into Claiborne Parish and destroyed trees for miles around. One of them was the granddaddy pine that stood in the Cottons’ front yard. With a sharp, startling, middle-of-the-night crack, the great tree had snapped in two like a stick, providing Tal with one of his most vivid second-grade memories.
Timber was strewn everywhere in the wake of that storm. It lay on roads, in yards, against power lines, and across roofs. Many of the trees that weren’t broken were bowed over by the weight that encased them. They looked like ones he and his friends liked to climb and straddle, riding them down and then dismounting to watch as they sprang back upright. These would rise more slowly, if at all. Tal remembered the destruction, but he also remembered the glassy beauty of the ice and the unexpected holiday from school that it gave him.
What fun he’d had on those three dim, bitterly cold days! Daddy made him a sled out of a plank of plywood and some shelf brackets, and Tal spent hour after hour sliding on it while Wink, the dog he had at the time, chased after him. There wasn’t anything resembling a hill out where the Cottons lived—two miles north of Oil Camp—but there were places where the land rolled. Still, even where it was flat, as on the road in front of his house, all Tal had to do to go plenty fast was run, dive, and hang on. Sometimes he tried unsuccessfully to ride the sled like a skateboard.
At night, sore from the many hard spills he had taken during the day, he had stood under a hot shower until his chilled skin turned pink and he became drowsy. Then he went to bed early. Hoping that school would remain closed forever, he would burrow cozily beneath his covers and imagine that his bedroom was an igloo set in a stark arctic landscape.
Eventually, of course, the sun returned, the temperature rose, and the ice turned to slush. Soon it disappeared entirely, as dreams do, and people went to work cleaning up the mess. They were at it for several weeks, a period defined for Tal by the incessant, gnawing whine of chain saws.
The winters that had passed since then came and went without producing anything quite as out of the ordinary as the ice storm. Louisiana was just too far south to get any significant winter weather on a regular basis. Except for that annual disappointment, Tal had no complaints about where he lived. Oil Camp was his home, and it probably always would be, as it had been for his parents and theirs before them. He came from a line of people who originally settled the area to work in the oil and gas fields there. The men were roughnecks. They handled drilling pipe on the rigs that dotted the landscape. Later, as the town grew, some of them, like Daddy’s father, took other work. He had been a rural mail carrier. Mama’s folks were dead and gone now, but Daddy’s were still very much a part of Tal’s life. They lived in town, over by the football stadium, which was called Roughneck Field.
His grandmother, Mimi, was, in her own words, as healthy as an ox. Unfortunately, the same could not be said about Papa, Tal’s grandfather, who had suffered a heart attack back in the spring. He’d recovered nicely from his bypass operation, but he didn’t take the kind of care of himself that he was supposed to and lately he’d developed a cough that Tal had seen get away from him more than once. Papa always waved a hand when it did, shrugging it off as nothing more than a little case of what he called the grippe.
“A few spoons of cod-liver oil’ll send this foolishness on its way in no time,” he said.
Tal knew that this was a bluff, but he also knew that no matter what anybody—including the doctor—thought or said, Papa was going to be Papa. He’d deal with the situation in his own stubborn way. The worst example of this had to do with the pipe that had been his constant companion since he was a young man. Because of his condition, he was under strict orders to give it up. So far he hadn’t heeded that advice, although he did claim that he was getting good at not allowing any smoke into his lungs. Everybody in the family wanted him to do more than that and told him so every chance they got. Papa took their preaching about as seriously as he took his cough.
“It ain’t really smoking if you don’t inhale,” he said.
“Why don’t you just quit it then?” Daddy said. “Seems to me like you’d have enough sense not to let that get you.”
“Yeah,” said Jessie, Tal’s little sister. “Seems to me like it, too, Papa.”
“Y’all don’t seem to realize that if this don’t get me, something or other’s bound to,” Papa said. “I rest my case.”
“You’ll rest more than that when they load you into a box,” Mimi said.
“That’s the truth,” Mama said.
“I believe we’re talking about my funeral,” Papa said. “And it wouldn’t bother me hardly a bit if y’all up and decided to let me enjoy the ride to it.”
Tal had heard several such exchanges during the past few months. Papa was hardly feeble, but it was obvious that he wasn’t as energetic as he used to be. He’d also lost some weight. Every time Tal saw him light his pipe, he wondered what Papa was trying to prove. But he decided not to pester him. It was clearly a waste of time. Instead, he tried to keep Papa’s health at the end of his list of things to think about. This hadn’t been hard to do for the past couple of weeks, because the main thing on Tal’s mind was Christmas, particularly Christmas night when, if he got his wish, Daddy would finally let him take his dogs into the woods and run them alone, something he’d never done after dark.
Daddy was a foreman on offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. He worked a two-week shift every month, overseeing operations on drilling platforms his company owned. He was scheduled to finish his latest shift at noon the next day, which was Christmas Eve. Then, the company helicopters would fly the workers from the rig to Morgan City, where they’d get into their cars and trucks and go their separate ways. Most of them were from towns in South Louisiana, so they didn’t have far to drive. Daddy had over three hundred miles, from the bottom of the state to the top. He didn’t care for that part of the job, but the offshore pay was better than he had earned working on inland rigs when he first entered the business. It made the inconvenience of spending half of each month away from his family more than worth his while.
Like Mama and Jessie, Tal missed Daddy badly when he was gone. The two-on, two-off shift was an established and accepted fact of their lives, though, and they were used to the rhythm of it. Once Tal was old enough to understand the schedule, he realized that the two-off part of it was actually to his advantage. During it Daddy always spent quite a bit of time with him. Tal figured that they were together even more than they would have been if Daddy worked nearby and came home every night.
According to the forecast Tal heard that morning, the southern half of the state—from Alexandria on down—was in for some nasty weather, too. Freezing rain was probable, and that was likely to turn to snow before it ended. If this happened, Daddy’s return home could be delayed. Tal dismissed this thought as soon as he had it because he didn’t believe the prediction in the first place.
Anyone who looked outside that morning would have agreed with him. The forecast really did seem like a mistake. But weather has a mind of its own, and sometimes the people who get paid to guess what it will do are right. Much to Tal’s amazement, things began to change as the day progressed. Pushed by a stiff wind, a thick mass of dark clouds formed in the west and spread itself toward the east like a huge quilt, tucking in the sun and covering every speck of blue until the sky was solid gray. By mid-afternoon, the temperature had dropped out of the forties and into the thirties. By dusk, it had reached the twenties, and all of the elements were in place for a considerable winter storm.