It spread, dark in the hollows and brilliant on the crests of the windswept snow around him. Pre’s eyes blurred and all he could see was the dark in the hollows and the brilliance of the crests.
It was It’s the most wonderful time of the year followed by Mela-kaliki-maka is the word to use…
Shrimp on a platter and a warm artichoke dip sat comfortably in the stomach. Glasses clinked like perfectly-placed percussion instruments in a warm symphony of laughter and stories and a conversation between Chet and Uncle Dale in the corner away from the fireplace. The shadows danced over their lips as Pauly watched them commiserate about Old Franky’s state of affairs. The fire crackled as it wrapped itself up over fresh logs and Chet and Uncle Dale’s faces danced with the life of the flame – alternating between amber and shadow.
‘He’s gone, man, he’s g-o-o-one,’ Chet was saying, drawing that last gone out to match the bigness he always seemed to feel about himself.
There was a college game on the big-screen in the corner. Ski and the Nowlachek twins were half asleep on the couch as two SEC giants clubbed each other apart in some warmer part of the country.
‘We-e-ell, Chet, that may be,’ Uncle Dale crooned softly, ‘but you know, we ain’t got no right to judge the man.’ And, while Uncle Dale drew out his own well, it was more in a manner of soft melody – the way all his conversations were: soft, melodic, and easy on the ears.
‘The way he goes on with his kids, ridin’ ‘em like their rented mules, kickin’ their cans all around the property,’ Chet shook his head. ‘That shit ain’t right.’ He shook his head again. ‘Let the kids be kids. Someone should clean that dude’s brain-bucket.’
Uncle Dale smiled, his face flickering with the youth of flame tempered with the wisdom of aged oak. ‘And why would you do that, Chet? I mean, clean his brain-bucket and all? What would that all be about?’ Uncle Dale’s eyes twinkled with the fire. ‘Would you beat old Franky like a rented mule rather than just let Old Franky be Old Franky?’ There was a wink in Uncle Dale’s eye and the conversation faded.
Chet smiled and guffawed and went on about what’s right is right and all that and rubbed his belly and chattered about brain-buckets and cleaning them and the boys back at Camp Lejeune and Obama’s broken legacy and everything else. Chet was a good shit. A bit over the top, but a good shit. A chip right off the old block.
Right off the old block.
Pre went back to the kitchen. Aunt Mary was drying a freshly-washed platter so that the meat ball tray could metamorphose into a cookie tray.
Pre’s arms felt heavy. His left one was under him. His right one, awkwardly angled behind him like an accent grave over a foreign word that carries unknown meaning to an American tongue. Père versus a cat’s purrr. He wanted to pull the right arm up, but there was an age’s worth of snow drifted over it and it was too heavy. Sleeping.
Aunt Mary’s house was warm with fire and candles and jokes and the kind of talk that a child can follow from under a dining room table where he’s squirreled himself away with a fistful of candy canes and a couple of cousins. Pre would watch his younger cousins do that. Of course, Pre had never been one of those younger cousins. Pre only started making it to Aunt Mary’s after he’d turned 16 and was old enough to take out the Bronco.
Pre remembered his 14th Christmas – the Old Man had gotten Pre a BB gun that year – maybe a Red Rider, like in the movie, but it could’ve been something else. Pre didn’t really care. His Old Man was a hunter, but Pre was old enough by then to know that he was a runner. He’d carved the country roads all winter long with his tracks, an easy four feet between footprints, his stride like a deer’s over the frozen earth. He filled his lungs with the cold air, feeling alive with the air crystalizing on its way out of his straining, burning chest. The pain poured out of his nose in icicles of thick mucus that he wore over his upper lip like a Berserker’s frozen mustaches. He’d run from 4:30 until 5:30 or 6 each evening – long past sundown in the deepest part of winter. He’d run the roads, sure-footed on the ice, then dive into the ditches whenever a car passed. He was embarrassed of his obsession. He’d hunker in the hollow of the ditch, thinking about how the snow curved there like the space between a woman’s breasts. He’d hunker down, and wait for the headlights to pass above his head. What would they think? A thin shadow running, cloaked in bundled layers, moving with steaming expirations through negative windchills? The air was too cold to sustain life. The herds of deer were deep in the woods and freezing themselves. And so, Pre was a runner, but he wouldn’t tell anyone. The farmers, their wives, the high school jocks would all pass along their way along those empty roads. And Pre would run between them, hidden in the dark like a memory of life as the younger deer curled up and died in the woods.
That year, Pre and Chet had been digging a fort in the bank that had blown halfway up the barn. Four feet into the blank whiteness of the drift, there was a hard spot. The tips of their spades sliced through virgin snow with a gasping sigh. The sound reminded Pre of an animal hard at work or a boy running long distance. Steel on snow. A rasping, a sighing, a gasping, and then suddenly Chet’s spade caught up mid-slice. Chet looked at Pre. Pre looked at Chet. And Chet, all of 7, went to work on that mysterious clog in the flow of work, that knot in the invisible grain of white.
Soon, there was a tawny brown that began peeking through the snow. And then the tiny black pads of a foot, pencil-tip-sized claws caked with ice.
Chet’s eyes got big.
The winter had been a hard one. Wind chills easily 40 below zero after sundown. By that point in the fort project, Pre and Chet were five feet into the drift, out of the wind, warming that tiny interstitial space with the activity of their bodies. Their breath clouded the air and, in the close quarters of the tunnel, they could feel the dampness hanging around their face. Chet took his mitten off to dig the snow from around the carcass.
And when it was free, he was off to show Dad, the dead squirrel stiff as a wall mounting in his soft, pink hand. The red thing looked grizzled and matted – beaten first by hunger and exhaustion before finally losing itself to the silent ravages of temperature. Its cells had ruptured and its tendons, muscles, cartilage all maintained an awkward aping of sleep. Not an eternal sleep, just a winter-long nap until it could soften and liquefy into the spring fields.
Pre laid in the relative warmth of their cave and listened to his brother disappear around the barn, yelling, “Pop! Pop! A squirrel!”
And soon, Chet was gone.
Then, only the close silence of the snow as Pre laid himself out, resting on the uneven floor that their own spades had carved out. He wondered at the featureless white above his head. The drift was a massive amount of snow, heavy as dead water. And yet, here they had been inside of it, carving it out, making their own way through it as if the billions of flakes had accumulated and packed themselves together to be carved. Totem carvers in the Pacific Northwest say they look for the creatures in the wood – the wood tells them what it contains and they simply pull away the excess material, looking for what lies hidden within the grains of the wood. Here, in the northcountry, Pre and his little brother had material with no features, no grains to fight or ride a blade along, just pure and white, waiting to take on the heat of their breaths, the imaginings of their gloved hands.
Pre reached up and ran his hand along the top of the cave. It was already smooth with the ice of their condensed breath. Their work, their lives, their expirations had become part of the frozen land.
How had it been that he’d ridden a machine – all steel and vulcanized belts and machined chains and greased clutches and burning fuel – out into the twinkling winter? How had it been that he’d ridden the sled off the trail, looking only for the deepest black of this corner of the northernmost 40? How had he strayed so far? No matter, the wind whipped across his face and he felt a beard of frost crystalizing along his cheeks. His eyes were fixed upward. He was sure that he could see the face of God and the twinkling shards of ice spread out over his own black cheeks.
The wind had been from the North but now, a westerly gust pushed a new drift creeping into the corner of his right eye.
That year, they’d been too young to take themselves to Aunt Mary’s house for the family round-robin. And, of course, no one would be coming out to their Pop’s farm.
Pre had been pushing 14 – old enough to know better, he supposed, but he didn’t want to ruin Chet’s fun.
He’d come inside to pull his overclothes off like a used skin. They were caked with ice, and decorated with frost as delicately as a squirrel’s hide. He leaned the canvas workpants in the corner for them to thaw. In ten or fifteen minutes, they would wilt to the floor in the heat of the entryway.
Pre rubbed his face, felt the cool of his cheeks against the heat of his palms. The furnace ticked away in the basement. The wind pulled at the peaks of the roof. Otherwise, silence.
He walked through the kitchen, empty. Dishes were stacked in cold dishwater. In the living room, the TV had given itself up to a snowstorm of static raging across its screen. A half-finished Bush Lite stood sentinel on the coffee table – a soldier waiting to give the last full measure. But the Commander in Chief was nowhere to be seen.
Pre walked through the brown shadows of the hallway to find Chet staring at Pop who was motionless in the even browner shadows of the bedroom.
Chet stroked the squirrel, the frost and ice having already melted from the matted red hide. Its eyes were shut and the lids were disturbingly concave, as if they had sunken already into a soft bed of rot beneath.
Pre watched, not knowing what to say, as Chet nestled the one-time animal into the stained pillow next to Pop’s head. It almost looked like it had found a good home – its mangy red hair mingling with the soft brown mess of Pop’s head.
Chet came back, stood in the doorway again, with a pride that looked too profound for his seven years of age. He’d brought his Pop a gift. And, in his young blue eyes, it was a good one. His Pop would see. He would wake up. Maybe at 2 or 3 in the afternoon, his Pop would wake up and see. And Pre knew there would be hell to pay.
His arms were asleep, and the drift was creeping in, halfway over his right eye by now. At first, the crystals stung his eye, then burned, but then that soft orb went numb and fell asleep beneath the white. His left eye still held fast to the black face of God with its hoar-frost cheeks. And out of the periphery of that one good eye, he could see the dunes as they shift and grew and walked off into the distance – white and black with their lives of snow and shadow. Not an eternal wasteland. Just a winter-long waste that would fade eventually into the soft fields of May.
He’d miss Chet. He knew that. But maybe not if he lived to be 90. Maybe by 90, he’d have grown to hate Chet. He was, after all, a chip off the Old Block. A good shit. But a chip right of the Block.
No matter, he wouldn’t see Chet anymore. One eye gone. The other frozen. His legs, gone. His arms, disappearing into a winter-long sleep. And the snow and shadow shifting this way and that out of the periphery of his left eye. Shifting, shifting, around the spray of black that for some reason wasn’t changing.
That spray of black, he was sure, was something that had been a part of him. A piece of his life that was soaking its way through the blank snow that happened to fall upon it. A spray of black that was only black because of the night, but in the coming sun would probably show red. A spray of black that was brought out of his head by the not-so-invisible grains of the oak that had cracked his helmet that caused him now to lie with nothing on his head. Or what was left of his head.
“Why don’tcha ever come home?” Pop had asked.
“I’m goin’ to Aunt Mary’s.”
“She said it’s strange. Strange that you’re there but I’m not. She said it’s a family thing, you know, and by all rights, our whole family should be there.” His Pop stopped talking for a minute and the line crackled with all the silence. “I think you make her uncomfortable.”
There had been some more small talk. And Pre had agreed that he’d linger only for a while to say hi to the cousins and then he’d be right home.
“And make sure you bring that order from Art’s Liquor.”
“Yeah,” and Pre had hung up.
His throat felt hot. But he took some breaths, laid the phone back in the cradle in Aunt Mary’s spare bedroom.
He walked back downstairs. Of course, Uncle Dale was no longer with them. And the cousins were too big to hide under the dining room table and now sat around playing Sheepshead.
There was still half a platter of meatballs.
And Pre left, climbed onto the third-hand ’86 Polaris he was driving that winter, revved the engine, and took off for the farm, determined to scare the deer up along the north forty as he went.
He was getting warm now. He couldn’t move. He wanted to pull the sweater off from over his head, but there was no motion. He wanted to pull the pants down from his hips. His groin was sweltering. (His legs were still gone.) He wanted to pull his gloves off. But they may have already flown off in the crash that had destroyed his helmet, that had laid him in the dead breast of the newfallen snow. He couldn’t tell – his arms were asleep. He couldn’t feel anything besides the heat. And the drift that had covered his right eye was now creeping across his left. So close to his face, the white snow looked black. It could have been the shadow. Or it could have been what was left of his life that was spread in an arcing spray off to his left – spread like snow on a windy day.
The snow takes on the shape of us. It is blank and featureless, and is easy to form. Children can tunnel through its depths.
It doesn’t resist and so welcomes us in to play and carve and die until we become a part of it, our cells expanding with the rigid geometry of frozen water, our eyes turning from the softness of vision into the blindness of nothing.
A chip off the Old Block. He would miss Chet. He would miss him. And his throat was unbearably hot.