I was born in Florida and grew up outside Atlanta. My wife, Joni, was raised in the Upstate. We fell in love in Houston, that glorious city whose constant humidity makes you feel as if you live inside a mouth. We left for a job on the hottest day that summer as the mercury topped out at 113. We drove north through jagged Ozarks, through Iowa corn. We crossed the slow Mississippi, dove through a tunnel that warned of explosives, came out into a sky crowded with cathedrals. This was Minneapolis.
To our great surprise, it was hot.
Ninety-seven. Humid. Breezeless. Our brownstone had no air conditioning. No fans. We couldn’t share our single bed, so we took turns sleeping on the floor, playing games in the dark like, “What would you eat if you could eat anything from anywhere?” Biscuits from Jimmy’s in Easley. Vietnamese from Nga in Houston. Our jobs hadn’t started yet, and we didn’t know anyone.
As summer wore on, we began to take our first measures of this place. We went to the Minneapolis State Fair and found a smorgasbord of the Midwest. Cheese Curds. All the milk you can drink for a dollar. Life-sized busts of beauty queens carved from blocks of butter. On the way out to the parking lot, we saw geese flying overhead, heading south, getting out.
Autumn was brief but beautiful. The elms on our street yellowed. Neighborhood gardeners eked out the last of the growing season. Pots of zinnias crowded windowsills, tomatoes and zucchini hung fat on the vine. A woman planted rows of corn in the strip between her building and the sidewalk. There was a doggedness to this, a desperate quality I didn’t yet understand.
But then it got cold.
The first snow fell in September as I walked the bridge across the Mississippi, on my way to class. The flakes teetered in the air, slow and fat. I let them hit my face, tried to catch them with my tongue. All the old tricks.
Back home, snow came like a beloved uncle who drank a little too much. It would blow into town, stay a night or two. We’d have some fun, maybe fall down, but after a couple of days, everything was back to normal.
When I got to my class, still starry-eyed from nostalgia, I tried to gin up some excitement in my students.
“You guys, it’s snowing.”
They were nonplussed. One of the kinder ones saw my delight and took pity on me.
“You know, it’s going to keep doing that,” she said.
By October, the city wore its constant blanket. We’d made friends, which helped. One of them, a kind-hearted Wisconsinite, dubbed us “The Southerners,” a phrase that spoke to a kind of generosity she saw in us. We liked to share. We shared our garage-sale sofa, our tiny galley-kitchen. Wine and bourbon and steaming mugs of tea. Friends taught us gin rummy and euchre, perfect games for round tables, for windows full of light that pushed back against the dark.
It was a hard season, but one so full of astonishment as to never be boring. The first time the radiator came on, the hissing of steam sounded like a swarm of locusts. In the grocery store parking lots, plows pushed the snow into unmelting piles twenty feet high, higher. One morning, driving to work, I passed a time and temperature sign: –20 degrees. Thinking it had to be a mistake, that it had to be registering wind chill, I turned on the radio. Patient voices explained that it was indeed twenty below, with a wind chill of negative forty-three. “So be careful out there.”
Jesus, God, I thought. Where am I?
Sunshine in the depth of winter is clearer than any other light. All humidity freezes away: the blues and yellows blare like trumpets. And at night, the sky glitters with tiny ice crystals, as if some careless titan spilled diamond dust on the city. The natives come out in droves, skating on the frozen lakes, skiing through the parks, fishing in their tricked-out icehouses.
I remember watching a cardinal from the back window as it perched in a snowy evergreen. His red was the only color that morning. He ruffled the dusting of snow off his crest, settled back again. How does he do it? I wondered. No trips south for him. Tough little bastard.
Eventually, we left. Another job, this time bringing us back to the Carolinas. We spent four lovely years in Minneapolis, despite everything. And I still claim an odd bragging right for having lived there. I hear people talk of winter here, winter there, and think, Ha. That’s cold for them. But then I think of my friends who stayed, who are still back in the North Star State. This morning it got down to forty in Greenville. Ha. That’s cold for me.
Weather or Not:
David Bernardy is a writer, artist, and teacher in Greenville, South Carolina. You can find more of his work at davidbernardy.com.