September 16, 2016: “Cold Snap” by Robin McLean

Happy Friday, Story366! It’s the start of a glorious weekend, I’m hoping, though it’s been raining all day, Karen is still in Ohio, and I’m down to my last Diet Pepsi in the house. I think I can still pull off some kind of fun for me and the boys, but honestly, if we all sit around in our underwear tonight and scratch ourselves, it would be long overdue.

Heading into a night that I hope to eat some sort of blended ice cream product and watch Star Wars with my boys (delaying the underwear/scratching plan for a bit), I’ll get right into it. Today I read from Robin McLean’s collection Reptile House, a winner of a BOA Short Fiction Prize from BOA Editions. I jumped around, taking in three stories from the book, the first, the last, and one in the middle, and even though one of those was the title story, “Reptile House,” I’m particularly fond of “Cold Snap,” the lead story. Here we go.

“Cold Snap” is about a woman named Lilibeth who lives alone in a small town. Lilibeth does some odd jobs, takes care of her dog and several chickens, and hopes for something better. She’s dedicated to making small repairs around the house, she’s given her number to a local fireman, she’s picked up even better odd jobs. She’s also found great respite in taking long—as in all-day—hot baths.

Then this drastic cold snap hits and her upward plans takes a backseat to the storm. The lake freezes, a foot at first, then more, then all the way to the bottom. The radio station, which Lilibeth enjoys, ceases to broadcast. Worst of all, there’s a blockage of some kind in her pipes, meaning she can’t take her hot baths. Things for Lilibeth freeze like everything freezes, putting her in a personal spiral

Adding to her troubles, Lilibeth finds that she can’t get any help. The plumber won’t answer her calls. The fireman won’t call, either, to fuck her or rescue her. Apparent to everyone except her, there doesn’t seem to be any people left in her town, just her and the ice. This doesn’t keep Lilibeth from yelling, “Hello!” into every building she enters, out of courtesy.

Just when it seems like Lilibeth will freeze, both literally and emotionally, a change occurs: Lilibeth bucks up. Things that she wasn’t capable of before the cold snap seem like second nature. She starts to break into stores to steal things she needs to survive, be it food or items she needs to unfreeze her pipes. She doesn’t become Sarah Conner, not exactly, but she’s pretty close, fending for herself in ways that everyone else apparently hadn’t thought of (though, to note, it’s not like there’s a bunch of frozen bodies around that she’s seeing on her way here and there). Still, because she’s a good person and has faith that things will return to normal, she leaves IOUs with her contact info on them, even for the crowbar she steals to break into various other businesses and homes.

I’ll stop there, leaving plenty for you to discover in the story, as Lilibeth has more going on, stretches herself to even further depths, becomes even more interesting. As much as I’m down with what happens in the story and how much Lilibeth evolves, it’s McLean’s dry, descriptive approach that makes the story sing. Even when Lilibeth is on her back in the crawlspace, plumbing her way back to hot baths, McLean’s voice, her tone, none of it ever changes; the third-person narrator never lets on that anything remarkable is going on, treating each new triumph like a part of Lilibeth’s routine. Before we know it, Lilibeth is a survivalist, though McLean makes it seem like she’s still pining for some boy, throwing feed out for her chickens. It’s a neat trick, what makes this story, a combination of “Cold Snap” by Thom Jones and Ron Hansen’s “Wickedness,” with a little Walking Dead thrown in.

I liked all three of the stories I read in Reptile House, including “Reptile House,” about a guy who decides to check out of reality the second his wife gives birth to their third child. The other, “Rabbit’s Foot,” takes place during a blizzard, too (and for a second I wondered if these stories were connected, but no). Overall, I enjoyed how eclectic this collection comes off, how different Robin McLean is able to make each story, yet how in-depth each world feels, how intimately we get to know each of her protagonists. There’s real vision here, unique and strong, work that I enjoyed and admire.