About the Feature

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The heat in the living room worked only sometimes, and there was a tangled hairball of exposed wiring in the upstairs bedroom, and the tumbledown stairs that descended from the front porch were crumbling—all this was how Kim could afford to live in the house on Front Street. The landlord, Billy, lived in Florida and only occasionally responded to texts. He also hadn’t asked for a credit check or an employment reference, which was handy because she’d lost her job due to reasons of the heart. She’d fallen in love with the wrong person; she’d made herself large and foolish. Beyond asking for a security deposit, Billy didn’t care.
     Though it was a shambles—because it was a shambles—the place had charm: original molding, wood floors that slanted into corners so that no picture would ever hang straight, and a wraparound porch she shared with her neighbor, Marlowe, who lived in the other half of the subdivided house. Marlowe’s real name was Olivia, but she’d changed it last year in some gesture of repudiation involving her parents. She was twenty-five and studying art at the university. She had two boyfriends and took medication for anxiety. She was very beautiful, with long, dark hair and piercings in her ears, eyebrows, nose, and bellybutton. When she examined herself in a floor-length mirror in her bedroom, which she did often, the piercings glinted in the lamplight in a way that seemed, judging from her expression, to please her.
     Kim hadn’t made a study of Marlowe. She just had a lot of time on her hands.
     To Marlowe, Kim was invisible. Which is to say that Marlowe greeted her cheerfully, called out, “Do you want a drink?” when she was gathered with her friends on her side of the porch. When Marlowe went home for Christmas, she asked Kim to feed her cat. She even gave her a thank-you card for the cat care. But every time she saw Kim, there was a beat of blankness; she had to work to get to that cheery greeting, that drink offer. She would never have looked in Kim’s bedroom, even if Kim hadn’t kept the blinds drawn; to her, there was nothing to see.


All of Marlowe’s friends were artists too, enrolled in the same art program as she was, and though they considered themselves iconoclastic, their social clique riven with specific internecine dramas, they always went to class and spent most of their time on the porch discussing fellowship applications. They cared about politics and wore vegan leather. When the pandemic began Marlowe hosted charming parties—socially distanced croquet in the weedy front yard, movies projected onto the side of the house. Though invited, Kim never joined. She watched from the window instead, which was probably creepy but she didn’t care. Since leaving Bosman, Inc., she didn’t like going out. She ordered grocery delivery and did yoga videos on the slanted living room floor. At one point Marlowe asked her if she was immunocompromised. Kim hesitated only slightly before answering, “Yes.” She didn’t think of it as a lie. She felt deeply compromised. She had not been herself in quite some time.


In November the time changed and the world tipped into darkness. She went out for the first time in months, venturing into town to visit the health food store, which would deliver but only with guilt-inducing online reminders about prioritizing those who needed help the most (WE ONLY HAVE ONE VAN!!!! blared the website, in an anxious red typeface). Kim bought tea, dried beans, spices—she was planning to make a big pot of chili that she could thriftily live on for days, though it was more likely she’d give up by the second day and order pizza instead. She loaded her items into her canvas tote bag, feeling virtuous, so virtuous that she was entitled to stop by the bar at the Belvedere and buy herself a drink.
     The Belvedere was a once-grand hotel that visiting families of the university students now scorned in favor of the Doubletree on the highway, with its climate-controlled rooms and breakfast buffet. Only the bar was keeping the Belvedere in business. Kim loved its musty mildew stink and the cigarette burns on the rugs and the aloof bartender, Jamie, who steadfastly refused to acknowledge that they’d once spent the night together, way back—years ago now. She sat on an uncomfortably high stool, her legs dangling without dignity, and ordered a martini. Jamie set it down without comment, even more impassive than usual behind his mask. Outside, snow began to swirl lightly, indecisively. They were supposed to get an inch or so, maybe more—earlier in the season than was typical.
     In the back of the lobby, the piano player started on some classics. The piano had not been tuned recently and the singing was also off—she was tackling “My Funny Valentine” with more zest than talent. Kim, wincing, caught a glimpse of Jamie in the mirror, also wincing, but he turned away when their eyes met.
     Around her the talk was of the weather. “They’re upgrading it to a storm,” a man said while thumbing his phone.
     “I told you to get the snow tires on.”
     “Now they’re saying a blizzard?” he added in a tone of outrage. “I don’t know why they can’t predict better, with technology these days.”
     “I can predict you ignoring me about the snow tires.”
     Kim looked outside—it was true the snow was already lusher, falling with conviction. The singing ceased, to no applause. When the piano player came up to the bar, Kim saw it was Marlowe. Jamie set a drink down in front of her without asking her order.
     “I didn’t know you worked here,” Kim said.
     “Oh, I don’t,” Marlowe said. She flung her arm out across the bar, laid her head down on it, and looked up at Kim sideways. “I just play the piano sometimes. Jamie indulges me.”
     “I bet he does,” Kim said.
     “Don’t be unkind,” Marlowe said. “Not today.”
     Kim noticed Marlowe’s eyes were glassy, her cheeks flushed. “Why not today?”
     Marlowe began a long story that Kim had difficulty following, though it was true she didn’t try very hard. Marlowe had met someone on an app and was going to hook up with them, but she canceled, and the person got hit by a car. She blamed herself. At first Kim thought the car accident happened on the way to meet Marlowe, but then it turned out these things were separate, in time and causality, and yet Marlowe was weeping. Kim eyed her empty drink glass sorrowfully, while Marlowe’s sat untouched.
     “I thought you had one or more boyfriends,” she said to Marlowe.
      Several incremental looks passed over Marlowe’s face—a wrinkle of offense, followed by a smoothing out, like a clean sheet across a bed, into pity. “It’s OK you don’t get it,” she said generously. Tears lingered on her cheeks, arrested in their progress. She looked like a child, a beautiful child. Kim stifled an urge to take Marlowe in her arms. These kinds of impulses had gotten her into a great deal of trouble in the past.
     “I’m sorry you’re upset,” she said instead.
     “Oh,” Marlowe said, finally sipping her drink, “I’m always upset. It’s the core of my being.”
     Kim pictured Marlowe’s core, churning with upset energy, like the molten interior of the earth. It made her happy to picture it—some brightness to it, some heat. Just then the lights in the bar flickered, once, twice, like they were sending a message in code. “It’s a freak storm,” she heard a woman say, and someone else said, “You’re a freak,” and they both laughed too long, too hard. The lights steadied, and you could feel the bar crowd releasing its held breath. Then the lights went out and stayed out, and Jamie said, “Everyone go home.”


Marlowe and Kim stepped out into what was now, indeed, a blizzard. Wind torrented the snow sideways, making it hard to see. Marlowe kept one hand curved across her stomach—she was on her phone, one palm sheltering the screen, trying to use a rideshare app.
     “Good luck with that,” Kim said. “I’m going to walk.” The Belvedere had seemed full, but almost immediately the street was empty, everyone having scattered. Some blocks away a fire engine howled. Kim headed in the direction of home, and Marlowe ran to catch up with her, linking her arm with Kim’s in a gesture that Kim found surprisingly old-fashioned and sweet. She was, Kim realized, afraid—upset.
     The windows in every building were dark. At the intersection by the drugstore, they came upon a downed power wire, sparking. Marlowe moved close to it, as if she wanted to warm her hands over the fire—what was wrong with this girl? Kim pulled her back roughly. Marlowe had taken off her mask and her lips had a bluish tint. She was underdressed for this or any weather, in a thin coat and no scarf.
     “Are you out of your mind?” Kim said.
     Marlowe blinked. “I don’t know where we are,” she said. She crouched over as if she wanted to sit down on the sidewalk and let death take her.
     Kim pulled her upright. “For God’s sake,” she said.
     The house on Front Street was a twenty-minute walk in good weather, and it took them twice that long. Marlowe followed her obediently, a half step behind, like a shamed dog. The roads were already getting bad. They passed a sack of groceries, spilled and left behind. Kim stopped to take a look, adding some cans of soup to her own provisions. A gallon of ice cream was tempting but seemed absurd. At the bottom of the bag was a book of Sudoku and a can of Copenhagen tobacco. Kim took that too, although she didn’t know why—it just slid into her pocket as if it wanted to be there. Her boss and infatuation, Ed Stimmer, had occasionally smoked cigars, and she had grown to associate tobacco with the chemical flicker of excitement she’d felt whenever she saw him. There was the faintest tang of smoke on his sweaters and coat, which made him seem (to Kim) more reckless, dangerous, than his careful consideration of office invoicing would otherwise suggest. For Secret Santa last year she had gone to great trouble to procure him a Cuban cigar, which he unwrapped at the holiday party, saying, “Ho ho!” happily showing it around, until someone noticed that Ed had received two gifts. Kim had actually drawn Shelly Horbus, to whom she gave a five-dollar Starbucks gift card. There was teasing and Ed, flushed, put the cigar away in his office. But it was too late. Kim had seen the look that washed over his face when he saw the cigar and imagined smoking it: his dark and greedy pleasure.
     “Can we go?” Marlowe whined, and Kim stood up, leaving the Sudoku behind.


When she opened her door, Marlowe slipped inside with her. The house was cold: the heat and power had both gone out, and the rattling windowpanes let in drafts from every angle. She set her canvas bag down in the living room, then felt her way through the familiar slanted contours to the junk drawer in the kitchen, where she kept matches and emergency candles.
     When she came back Marlowe was standing by the front door with her coat and boots still on.
     “Should we text Billy?” Marlowe said. “About the heat?”
     Kim snorted. “What do you think Billy will do?”
     “Well, do you mind if I bring Ella over here? I don’t want her to be alone.”
     “Who’s Ella?”
     “My cat!”
     “Right,” Kim said. “I guess—I don’t care.”
     She pulled some quilts out from the closet—mothballed and perpetually slimy with damp, they’d been here when she arrived—and wrapped herself in one. The candles made a romantic air. She wondered what Ed was doing, more out of habit than anything else. She’d spent so long wondering what he was doing every second that it had worn a groove in her brain circuitry. He and his wife had moved to Wisconsin, and probably they had a lot of snowstorms there, but not the same snowstorms as here. Not at the same time.
     The cat, once imported, was displeased. It paced around the room, its tail snaking dangerously close to numerous candles, unable to find a place it liked—briefly, it aggressively kneaded Kim’s lap, tearing tiny holes in the quilt, before moving on. Marlowe ignored it. She sat in an armchair, texting. She took a picture of herself and sent it somewhere. Her phone buzzed and she frowned at it, then smiled, frowned again. “Nef and Jolie are over at Tina’s house,” she said, names that meant nothing to Kim. “Bon is at his studio on campus.”
     “Maybe you should go over there,” Kim said, and Marlowe looked up, seemed to collect herself.
     “Please don’t make me,” she said pitiably. Kim didn’t know what she was so afraid of—it was only snow, it wouldn’t last forever—but the girl was visibly riled, shaking. She felt a surge of scorn, and also pity. In the kitchen, she pulled out the step stool and accessed the high cupboard where she kept the emergency whiskey. Marlowe accepted the mug without comment, making Kim wish she hadn’t offered it. As they drank, Marlowe continued to provide updates on people Kim didn’t know. In between looking at her phone, she scratched something in a notebook she’d brought over from her apartment; when Kim glanced at it, Marlowe held it protectively to her chest.
     “I draw to manage my anxiety,” she said, answering a question not asked.
     “It doesn’t seem to help you very much.”
     “No,” Marlowe said sorrowfully. “It doesn’t.” But she went back to it all the same. Kim gazed outside; she could see Mr. Vincenzio, their elderly across-the-street neighbor, shoveling his walk.
     “You lunatic,” Kim said to him softly, under her breath.
     “I can’t stand that guy,” Marlowe said. “He comes across the street to watch me in my underwear. One time I flashed him on purpose and he ran home. I was like, Yeah, you know you can’t handle this body, you old perv.
     “Why don’t you just use your blinds?”
     Marlowe scowled. “I shouldn’t have to,” she said.
     When Kim first moved into the house on Front Street, after she was kicked out of her old place (that terrible scene she’d made when Ed told her to leave him alone—she’d tried to throw herself down the stairs—it played like a movie in her head starring another person), Mr. Vincenzio had brought over a pie he’d made to welcome her to the neighborhood. He’d used his late wife’s recipe. He was a kindly fellow and lonely, and if Marlowe wanted to stand naked at her window, what was to prevent people from looking at her? Still Kim didn’t bother to correct her. People’s evaluations of one another were generally meaningless; she knew this better than anyone.
     She wouldn’t have thought it possible for the snow to fall any thicker, but it did. Mr. Vincenzio was barely visible through the wall of whiteness. So it was as a kind of blurred formation that Kim saw him let go of his shovel and drop to the ground. It was a fall without stateliness or grace. She thought maybe the wind had knocked him over. But he didn’t get up. Within moments snow was piling up on top of him.
     “He fell down,” she observed.
     Marlowe joined her at the window. “Oh my god, is he okay?”
How should I know? Kim thought but didn’t say. Mr. Vincenzio was a lump. Soon he’d be a boulder.
     “We have to go help him.”
     “Really?” Kim raised an eyebrow. “The old perv?”
     Marlowe ignored her. She flew out the front door in her inadequate coat, snow blowing inside as she went, leaving Kim no choice but to follow. They crossed the street, the wind angling their bodies with its force, and when they reached Mr. Vincenzo they could see that his eyes were closed and his body lifeless or close to it. Marlowe shouted something Kim couldn’t hear. She put her arms around him and began to drag him back toward the house, but—though he was a frail man and not large—she couldn’t get him very far, not without Kim’s help. Kim tried grabbing him by his snow boots, but this was untenable. Eventually they settled on a push-pull method from the side, each of them hooked into an armpit. Bumping him up the steps of the porch was an ordeal that could not possibly leave his body in good condition, but it was too late, they were committed—and finally they got him into Kim’s living room and laid him down on the couch.
     They took off his boots. Snow seeped into the cushions around him.
Kim had every expectation that he would be dead, but he wasn’t. She could feel the pulse at his neck, and his thin chest rose and fell. A heart attack? Fainting spell? Who could say?
     Marlowe said, “I’m calling 911.”
     Kim looked outside the window at the blizzard. She could no longer see across the street or even the street itself.
     “Mr. Vincenzio,” she said, putting a quilt over him. “Can you hear me?” Of course he couldn’t, but it only seemed polite. “I’m Kim. You’re in my home.” She tried to remember what else she knew about him—did he have children? What had he done for work? She could only remember the pie, which was apple and gritty with excess cinnamon, as if he’d slipped in the measuring.
Marlowe was explaining the situation to her cell phone. Her voice rose, shaky and high. “What do you mean it might take a while? I know it’s a storm! Don’t you know this is 911?”
She crouched next to Mr. Vincenzio. When she looked at Kim, her eyes were wild. “My phone died,” she said.
     Kim shrugged. There was nothing to do but wait.
     “Maybe you could reach Billy—”
     “Billy? He’s drunk in Florida. How’s he going to help Mr. Vincenzio?”
     “I don’t know,” Marlowe said. “Somebody has to do something.”
     “Nobody will do anything,” Kim said.
     Marlowe stared at her furiously. “You’re heartless. You would have let him die out there.” Her cheeks were flushed with the cold or the whiskey or both. “What even is your deal, anyway? You watch me and my friends like some surveillance weirdo, but you barely talk to us. What the fuck is wrong with you?”
     She meant these words to stab Kim, but they didn’t; she had already been stabbed. She had made plans for herself that had been skewered and died. They had involved embezzling small amounts from Bosman, Inc., so tiny they would be glossed over in any given quarterly budget review, and these amounts, over time, were to provide a cozy home for her and Ed, when he was ready and free. It was Ed who had discovered this and Ed who told her it could not continue, that there would be no home in which they lived together and read books together by the fireplace “or whatever it is you’re imagining,” he said gently. He was compassionate, Ed. He was a kind man, or a soft one anyway. He listened to her professions, her declarations. He did not report her and she did not have to return the money—indeed, she was living on it now, for as long as she could make it last. But she had lost everything else.
     When she looked back at Marlowe, she was stony, mute.
     But Marlowe had already moved on from her. She couldn’t even focus on Kim when angry. She was gazing down at Mr. Vincenzio now, her hand to his cheek like a romantic heroine. “He looks so cold,” she said. “They said to keep him warm.”
     As Kim watched, Marlowe peeled back the quilt, unbuttoned the old man’s coat and her own. Her right leg hooked over his lower half. She pressed herself against him, her bare skin against him, offering him her body.
     “Should you have a mask on?” Kim said.
     “I’m safe,” Marlowe said. “I’m the safest one here.”
     Kim dropped the blanket back over the two of them. Outside were conditions through which no ambulance could drive. The house shivered in the wind.


Some time later, Mr. Vincenzio coughed. They’d been sitting in cold silence, Kim dozing with her head on her knees, Marlowe and Mr. Vincenzio still on the couch. She felt the cat spring down to the floor in alarm and turned to see Marlowe raise her head to gaze at Mr. Vincenzio, like a lover. “Hi there,” she said to him, her voice husky and intimate.
     “Mr. Vincenzio,” Kim said, adopting a more official voice, a policewoman or a kindergarten teacher, “you are across the street at my house. Marlowe, get off him.”
     Marlowe sat up—her face was bleary, drool at the corner of her mouth. She’d been asleep, and perhaps her greeting had emerged from a dream. Mr. Vincenzio opened his eyes, looked in front of him; it was hard to say what he saw. His eyes were cloudy. Marlowe began to button up his shirt, and he swatted her hand away. He moved his head back and forth.
     “You collapsed in the snow,” Kim told him. “We brought you over here.”
     He wet his lips, formed a soundless word, tried again. “Cold,” he said.
     “The heat is out,” she said. “Because of the storm. Do you want to sit up?” Seeing no refusal, she helped him slightly, so that his head was supported by a cushion. She smelled his old man’s smells—mustiness, distant tang of urine.
     “I want to go home,” he said.
     “I don’t think you can, old guy,” Marlowe said. Kim shot her a look, but Marlowe wasn’t paying her any mind. “It’s craziness out there. Plus, you shouldn’t be alone.”
     He shook his hands in front of her, trying to wave her away, and struggled to get off the couch. Marlowe pushed him back down. “No,” she said, pointing a finger at him. “No.”
     He recoiled from her, looked at Kim for support, saw it would be denied, and seemed to shrink back in defeat. “I bet there’s heat in my house,” he said.
     “There’s no heat anywhere,” Marlowe said. Kim went into the kitchen, poured water into a cup, and then, after a moment’s thought, added some whiskey. She brought it back to Mr. Vincenzio, who sipped and then nodded.
     “Okay,” he said. He drained the mug, then let his head fall back.
     Marlowe felt the need to bring him up to date. “The storm is much worse than anyone expected,” she said. “Originally it was supposed to be an inch or something, and now they’re saying twelve.” Kim supposed she’d gotten this from her phone. “A freak event. A snownado because of a polar vortex.”
     Mr. Vincenzio was not impressed. “They keep coming up with new names,” he said. “But it’s still just snow.” He held the mug out to Kim for more. When she came back with the same whiskey water, he drained it again and asked for a third, and she took the mug and held onto it, refusing. He narrowed his eyes at her.
     “So you two are what? Mother daughter? A couple? I always wondered.”
     Marlowe laughed, high and wild. “What? No! Neither of those!”
     “We’re neighbors,” Kim said dryly. “That’s all.”
     He looked disappointed. “Boring,” he said and winked. Kim was beginning to wonder if Marlowe had been right, that he was an old perv. Well, so what if he was. The cat returned to the couch, intent on gouging him, and Mr. Vincenzio made a low growling sound, like an animal. Though it sounded hostile, the cat seemed to appreciate it and looked him in the eye.
     “She likes you,” Marlowe said. “Her name is Ella. I named her after Ella Fitzgerald. I’m big into jazz.” It was clear she thought this information would win him over.
     “Never cared much for music,” he said, and Kim laughed.
     They settled into quiet then. The snow continued without ceasing, and Mr. Vincenzio eventually fell back asleep, or lost consciousness again—it was hard to tell. Marlowe too fell asleep, curled in the armchair, her notebook pressed to her chest.
     So it was only Kim, awake, who witnessed the slow shifts in the storm that night. First a lessening, the snow crystalling, calming into a new version of itself. The wind withdrew. Then the streetlights came on. There were stars and glowing yellow lights and the smooth, deep snow reflecting both.
     She stood outside on the uneven porch, still slanted even under snow, and inhaled. She could feel the cold enter her nose, her mouth; she thought she could feel it enter her lungs, her stomach, all the way down her abdomen, into her veins, her fingers and feet. She could feel the cold inside her everywhere.
     At five in the morning, the ambulance came behind a plow. They had to wake up Mr. Vincenzio, and from their graceless handling of him as they got him onto a stretcher, it was evident the paramedics felt that they should not have been called. Neither did Mr. Vincenzio want to go with them, and the interaction was surly on both sides. Marlowe, who had initiated it, stood wrapped in a blanket, saying nothing, claiming no credit.
     Mr. Vincenzio stayed in the hospital for several weeks, complaining steadily all the while, and when Kim visited him there, he turned out to have had a heart attack after all and underwent surgery. Marlowe by this time had gone home to visit her parents for winter break, and Kim was left to tend to Ella, who stayed in Kim’s side of the house and ripped holes in the couch and cried irritably for food at five in the morning. It was on one such early morning that Kim, leaning over to sweep balls of cat hair from underneath the furniture, found the can of Copenhagen tobacco she’d picked up the night of the storm lodged inexplicably behind the leg of the armchair and, next to it, Marlowe’s notebook. The cover was folded back and the exposed page showed a drawing. It was Mr. Vincenzio on the couch, his unbuttoned shirt showing tufts of white hair, his eyebrows wild, scowling in confusion. Although Kim knew that Marlowe was in art school, she had never seen her work and somehow had never fully believed that she was an artist. But this drawing captured the old neighbor, half-revived, cranky, just as he had been. I’ve never cared much for music, Kim remembered him saying. In his lap was the cat, back arched, angry, and in need. It was always so angry and always in need. And Marlowe’s drawing captured Kim too, so clearly that Kim inhaled sharply: there she was next to Mr. Vincenzio, her mouth open with unexpected laughter, her head thrown back as if looking at the stars.

About the Author

Alix Ohlin’s most recent book is We Want What We Want. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, and many other places. She lives in Vancouver.