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  • The Cold
  • Joyce Carol Oates (bio)

fiction, miscarriage, wife, mother, immigration, sanity

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When it began, I do not know. If I kept a journal or a diary, as some of you do, perhaps then I would know. But I don't, and so I don't. When the cold began to pursue me.


Pursue, I think. Persecute.


First, should establish: The cold has nothing to do with weather.

In fact, it may have begun as early as last summer. Late summer.

Outside, on our redwood deck at the rear of the house, setting down plates of food, taking away dirtied plates, one of our family suppers that's like a runaway vehicle—just keeps accelerating, hang on tight and get through it with my trademark gritted-teeth grin.

Relatives visiting for the day. And their kids. And our kids. Such pleasure (you wouldn't guess) in that casual remark—And our kids. Two boys, seven and ten. Husky and healthy, taking after their six-foot-two dad.

Seeing the boys as others see them—not possible. The mother sees—I did that?

Offered help in the kitchen (of course) but having others in my kitchen, even my favorite sister-in-law, even my favorite niece, is distracting to me so no thanks. I am happiest when my thoughts are focused like a swarm of bees aimed in a single direction. No distractions! Best to be alone.

Humid, hot, late-August day. Crazy cicadas shrieking. Rivulets of perspiration running from my (shaved, deodorized) armpits down my sides. Two-dozen ears of sweet corn, boiling on the stove in the giant pan, placing them, [End Page 102] steaming, on a platter. Preparing hamburgers, hot dogs, salmon steaks for my husband to grill. Bag of ice melting fast. Yet when I return outside there comes a draft of cold air like an unwanted caress, making me shiver in my low-backed summer dress, hair tied back from my flushed face. Just about, my ravaged body has been restored and (judging from men's glances at least) I am looking pretty good again—if you don't look too closely.

No time to wonder amid the busyness of the occasion why I'd be shivering, where a bone-chilling draft might be coming from on such a (windless) day, warm in the midafternoon (when we'd all been at the softball game watching some of the older kids play), and hardly cooling as dusk came on. Harried, happy.

See?—I can do it. What'd you think!

Yet I was feeling (weirdly) cold, suddenly weak. Ran upstairs to get a sweater, draped it over my shoulders. Loosened my hair so that it covered more of my face, and the nape of my neck, for warmth. Not the hair I used to have—that was like a mane. That was warm, couldn't stand it against my neck on a hot day.

Thinking if the redwood deck was some kind of a boat, and everyone having a good time on the boat, drifting along a river, leaving me behind on shore watching the sparkling lights and hearing the (receding, fading) laughter borne off into the darkness—why would any one of them miss me?

And then the cold returned. Clammy sensation, upper back, shoulders, nape of my neck. If I'd been drinking cold beers maybe that would be why but no, not one beer yet today.

Then I think: back of our suburban acre-and-a-half there's a wooded area, a no-man's-zone between property lines forbidden to children (poison sumac, sharp briars, ticks, mosquitoes), marshy land there, presumably cooler air. Maybe the cold is coming from that place?


Forty-one years old on my last birthday. At such times you think: Well, I made it this far.

Rarely is it uttered: Do I need to go farther? Why?


Yes: I married late. Had babies late. (Three pregnancies. Two "live births.") Eleven years working for a local realtor before I quit to get married, figuring I would never be so lucky again—a husband...


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pp. 102-111
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