Present-traumatic stress

Feb 4, 2009 at 6:00 am

In the sandwich shop, the woman — pretty, rumpled, with two young children in tow — looks dazed. All around her, others have the same look: shellshock, perhaps, or a sluggish metabolism, slowed by a second long night on a 45-degree living room floor in a fitful sleep inside a sleeping bag snuggled up to the family dog.

Or maybe she is groggy from the carbon monoxide the radio announcers keep going on about — it can kill you, they say, but maybe a low dose will just make you breathe through your mouth like a pro-wrestling fan, and maybe even make Larry The Cable Guy funny or make Will Smith movie plots plausible. Or maybe she just needs a good cry.

A good cry and a bubble bath and a Stella Artois and a double-fudge brownie and half a Xanax and another Stella and a good night’s sleep in her own, beloved bed. How could she — the dirty-blonde woman with purple-mittened daughters — not look dazed, with so many thoughts to process at once? Thoughts like, When will the power come back on? Will our pipes freeze? Should we squat at the Galt House, which is reportedly swarming with near-frozen Louisvillians, all of whom are so dazed and drunk on rum and vodka and bourbon that the whole wild scene feels like Destin minus the putt-putt and banana hammocks?

Thoughts like, Should I buy a generator? A kerosene heater? What should I burn for heat: my old love letters, college diploma, Good News Bible? When will the kids go back to school? Does this sandwich shop have WiFi? And if so, how much faith should I put in streaming video of Mayor Abramson, husky-throated, sick as a dog but steadfast at the helm, promising that men from Georgia and Michigan and North Carolina are going to help bring back the lights, bring back the heat, bring back the TV in time for next week’s episode of “The Office” and if not that, then in time for Derby, and if not that, then in time for the next major storm?

How could she — the woman now fighting through her bewilderment to order tomato soup and grilled cheese for the kids, plus a half-hour’s warmth and a friendly face and a glimmer of hope and, if you’ve got any, a dash of courage and, what the hell, some potato chips, too — not smile goofily and let her mind wander to a sunny meadow in June in a world where monarch butterflies and honeybees have a future, and her children — oblivious to the danger and excited by the adventure — have cozy beds to sleep in and an endless, uninterrupted supply of sweet energy, maybe from the sun or the wind or ocean waves or switchgrass or urine or stem cells or bat guano or the fortitude of utility workers from Louisville and Tennessee and Louisiana?

She dips a chip in the tomato soup and goes over the numbers in her head: 200,000 energy customers in Louisville without power, 11,000 wires down, 4,000 people working to restore power, 42 degrees inside her house. Two adorable reasons she must keep her chin up, and they’re both now munching on grilled cheese.

It could be worse, she might be thinking. We could be unemployed, broke, homeless, pushing a shopping cart instead of enjoying this tomato soup and grilled cheese and WiFi, which is now streaming video of the governor, who always makes her cringe, so she Xs out of the video and cheers herself by insisting: Things could be worse, we could be in Gaza.

We could be in Iraq. We could be in Afghanistan. We could be in Detroit. But we are healthy and secure and this will pass, and when the power comes back on, we will have a picnic in front of the TV and we will watch T-Will perform the gravity-defying ally-oop dunks and no-look passes that provide the serotonin rushes and we’ll take long, steamy showers and write suggestive love notes on the mirror afterwards to the men from South Carolina and Alabama and Ohio. We will get through this not because we’re superheroes or southerners or badasses, but because what else is there to do?

And then comes a matter-of-fact observation from a purple-mittened daughter: “I like white snow. I don’t like brown snow.” Agreed, they trudge outside and, groggy-eyed, crunch off into the icy faraway.