“The Impermanence of $500 When It’s Freezing” by Maggie Quinlan

It was cold out, even for the northeast. It was a certain cold that could reach beyond your
jackets and gloves. It broke the barrier of your skin and made fists around your bones, slowly
constricting its grasp until your skeleton flash froze. Its harrowing presence unrelenting and
The interior of her car was not much warmer. If not for the proximity of our own bodies,
the cramped cabin of the vehicle, the lukewarm air that blasted from the vents, I would have
ventured to call us freezing. Lights blurred past the passenger window, and I pressed my face
closer. I exhaled a hot gust of air onto the glass, and with a gloved finger carefully traced a
“hello” in the condensation. I settled back into my seat and waited for a response.
“Mother fucking piece of shit!” she yelled, and then banged three times on the dashboard
directly above the radio. “He said the heat worked in this damn thing!” and now she firmly
grasped the lip between dash and radio, seemingly trying to shake the heater into existence.
“Mom,” I said, but she wouldn’t hear me.
“I told him I got a kid. Kids need to stay warm. They are small little growing bodies, I
said. They need to stay warm,” she put a cigarette in her mouth, and spoke around it. “What kind
of animal sells a single mother a car with no heat?” She tried once, twice, three times to light it
with gloved fingers.
“Sweetheart, could you?” I relented. Grabbed the small zippo from her, and removed my
own glove. Once, twice, and the glow of the small flame illuminated her face. She looked tired,
and much older than she was.
“I swear you can’t find an honest person anywhere. Everyone is so self serving.” Drag.
“Nobody wants to help. Even for a struggling single mother. I mean, can you believe that horse
shit?” Drag. “He saw you when we bought the car. He heard me say how cold you get! Didn’t
he??” Deep Drag. Window crack. I watch as sparks bounce on the pavement behind us.
It always awed me how she could use me for her own best interest. I was an asset. Social
“Yeah, mom. I heard it.” She continued on, but I was unfocused. My back further
clenched itself against the cold. I retraced my “hello.” I could hear her thoughts spilling out of
her with an ever increasing urgency. She kept taking one hand off the wheel, in harmony with a
repeated sniffling, to run the back of it across her nose. I shrank away from her. I shut my eyes
tight, and breathed deeply for a moment. Then it came to me.
“Why don’t we turn on the radio?” I asked, halting her rant. She looked at me while a
smile played around the edges of her lips.
“Excellent idea,” she said slowly, as if she were sounding out the words. My mother
clicked a button and christmas music crackled through the speakers.
“Don’t you just love Christmas time?” She turned to me, baring her teeth. In my head I
thought about chimpanzees, and their canine filled grins.
“I do,” I whisper, but it was still November. I pray quietly to myself. The cold was
wrapping its arms around me like an untrustworthy friend.“That was Donny Hathaway with “This Christmas” folks,” the overly enthused radio host
clarifies, “Now it’s time for a holiday treat. We know the holiday season can be a stressful time
for all, and we would like to take a little bit of your stress away. How would you like to be $500
richer? Caller 95 will be! 1-800-WPLJ. Caller 95 at 1-800-WPLJ.”
My mother squeals in delight. I sigh in relief, and my back starts to unclench itself.
“Sweetheart, get my cell! Did you hear that number?” I knew that number by heart. “Ok,
you got it? Hand me the phone.”
I watched as she called, hung up, redialed. Called, hung up, redialed. There was a level of
focus that did not often see in her eyes, and I sat transfixed, slowly feeling the cold seep away
from my back and belly, down my arms and legs, to be held in my fingers and toes. I lived
eternally in this ritual. In my mothers uncanny ability and affinity for winning contests, I found
devotion. For me, it was like watching God.
It was only a few more busy signals before she gushed.
“I WON?! I WON!! Baby, did you hear that?! We won!!!” I couldn’t help but beam at
her now, and soon gush right alongside her. “Ahhhhhhh! Okay okay, yes. Got it. Ahhhh thank
She snapped her phone shut, and looked over at me with her own beam, giving her
shoulders a little shrug. She was a movie star. She turned her attention back to the road, and I
watched as the lights of passing cars flashed through her eyes. She flipped her blinker on, the car
slowed, and I was thrown from my reverie.
“Wait. Where are we going?” My mother smiled.
“We just won $500! How about a treat to celebrate… Hot chocolate??”
“Mom, noo. I’m so cold. Can’t we just go home? Please
“You can stay in the car if you’d like. I’ll just be a moment.” She turned into a desolate
gas station, threw the car in park, cut the engine.
“I’ll be right back,” she said, and swiftly kissed me on the head.
I watched her run toward the glowing building, arms straight and fists clenched, fighting
the cold that I could feel settling back around me. There was a man smoking outside the shop.
She must have said something to him, because he turned his head and nodded. I turned my own
head to see my hello had nearly vanished. I traced it again and again, the letters bloating under
my glove.
A bell chimed, and my mother stepped back out into the cold. The smoking man was no
longer there. She turned her head this way and that, as if she were checking for cars before
crossing the street. She went left instead of walking straight towards me. I watched her round the
building until she was no longer in view.
“Hello? HELLO!” I forced my eyes open. A police officer rapped on my window, and
past him I could see the gas station clerk looking on with concern. Outside the sky had changed, showing off a twilight color that always preceded dawn. I looked about the body of our car. I was
alone. I looked back out at the officer, who motioned for me to get out of the car. I did, and the
muscles of my back constricted around my spine, a foreign pain coming to settle in my body.
Snow was falling as he led me towards his car. As I settled into the back seat, streetlight caught
the frost that encased the entirety of my mothers car. From the passenger window, frozen in
perpetuity, a glacial hello.

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