By Joseph Biancalana
Charlie wakes to sunlight, bright on the parchment beige walls. The white light floating on the ceiling means snow. In his dream he and Stevie were sledding down a steep hill and the hill became a mountain and they were going faster and faster and Stevie couldn’t stop and Paula grabbed his coat and tried to stop him and Charlie pushed her away saying, “Let him fly. He can fly.” Stevie went over the cliff and Charlie jerked awake into a bedroom of snowy sunlight.
In flannel pajamas, he walks on the cold wood floor to the front window. He winces until his eyes adjust to the glare of sunny snow. Two dark ruts run down the middle of the street but he can’t see how deep. He guesses over a foot sits on parked cars. A red car carrying a crown of snow glides slowly down the street, its motor muffled by the snow on its hood. Wind has flocked the north side of the green clapboard house across the street. He goes to the side window. Paula’s Beetle resembles a burial mound. On the neighbor’s flat porch roof, maybe two feet. Somewhere a car whines, spinning its wheels, trapped, struggling to be free.
The clock on the nightstand says eight. He’s overslept, but the bank probably won’t open. He checks his phone. Yes, the bank’s closed.
Last night he and Paula were drinking in the living room.
“You were sending the message we didn’t love him,” she said.
“Me? As if you weren’t with me one hundred percent. You could have called and gone up.”
“I had classes.”
“And I had the bank. And we had agreed.”
“I think I’ve drunk too much,” she said. “I’m going to bed.”
He turned off the lamp and sat in the dark living room with his Scotch and water. He brought their glasses to the kitchen, set the thermostat at 68, and made sure the front door was locked. That’s when he saw the snow. White flakes drifted downward through street light and porch light settling on the sidewalk and on the grass and among the needles of the evergreen near the front porch.
Paula is moving around in the kitchen downstairs. The radio’s on. He smells coffee. She’s having breakfast. He shaves and showers then puts on his brown corduroy pants and his green plaid flannel shirt. Going downstairs, he says, “Paula?” The furnace clicks and starts. At the foot of the stairs, he makes a U-turn, hears the furnace fan come on, and goes through the snow-bright dining room into the kitchen. Here, too, snow light brightens the sink and counters near the windows. Warm air shushes through the vent. The radio’s off. A half grapefruit sits on a plate. His half. Her gift. He puts a piece of multigrain into the toaster, sits down at the wooden table, and eats his grapefruit. The toast pops. He throws out the grapefruit rind and rinses his plate and spoon. Then it’s butter and marmalade on his toast.
Paula comes into the kitchen wearing her pink down jacket, jeans, and fur-lined boots.
“You’re here,” he says. “I thought you might have gone outside.”
“I was about to but I forgot my hat. I had a Stevie dream last night.”
“What was this one?”
“It was weird. I was at the viewing looking at him in the casket when he comes up to me, he was beautiful in his dark blue suit, and says, ‘Don’t worry, mom, everything is all right.’”
“Really? He said that?”
“He was always so kind and generous and sensitive.”
“That was his problem. Too sensitive. We were too soft and the school was firm yet nurturing. That’s why we sent him there. It was very good academically.”
“When he asked to come home, why didn’t I hear how desperate he was? A mother should hear that.”
“Don’t keep torturing yourself. We were reasonable. We agreed he should try to stay another few weeks and if he felt the same way he could come home.”
“I know, I know, I know. But still.”
Charlie remembers “Please let me come home.” and waits a few moments. “College closed?”
When she got her Ph.D. Paula took a job in the English department of a junior college until she could find one at a four-year college. After a few years, she stopped looking.
“Yes. What are you going to do?”
“I thought I’d fill the bird feeders and then prepare classes. You?”
“I’ve got research on some companies I can do. Any word from Heradio?”
He likes it when Heradio shows up with his panel truck and guys pile out with snow blowers and shovels and go at it. In no time the drive and the walks are clear.
“He texted. The driving ban means he won’t be able to get to us today. Maybe he’ll come later if they lift the ban.”
She goes out to the closed-in side porch off the kitchen. He goes back to his breakfast. He pours his cold coffee down the drain and pours himself another cup. He throws out the cold toast and puts another piece of multigrain into the toaster. Not many people came to the viewing, a few friends from high school, a few relatives in the area. They had the funeral at the Episcopal church. The organ sounded great.
The toast pops and he puts on butter and marmalade. He eats his toast and drinks his coffee standing at the counter looking out the window. He turns on the radio. There’s a driving ban within 128. Logan’s closed. Amtrak isn’t running.
He sees Paula in the back yard. Wind has played with the snow. High, deep drifts have climbed the wall of the garage and the wooden fence along the back of their small back yard. She wears her white wool-knit hat with the authentic Norwegian design made in China. The hat hides most of her short black hair streaked with gray. She’s scooping birdseed into one of her two feeders also made in China. Soon even the goddamn birds will be made in China. Her nose and ears are red. Two little brown birds cling to the branch of the holly bush waiting for Paula to finish serving their breakfast. She carries the bag of seed onto the closed-in side porch and takes the other bag of seed to the other feeder. The brown birds swoop to the just-filled feeder. Their branch springs up sending snow cascading from other branches. She brings the bag of seed to back to the porch.
He goes into the dining room and gets on his laptop. On his bank’s website, he checks his emails and reschedules a meeting that had been scheduled for today. He starts to look at company reports. He went to Harvard Business School but didn’t do well. He took a job as an investment analyst in the trust department of a small, local bank. He thought that could lead to a better job at a bigger bank or even a hedge fund. It hasn’t so far. “I can’t stand it here,” Stevie said. “I really can’t. I want to come home. Please let me come home.”
He goes into the kitchen. She’s on her laptop. She looks up then goes back to her screen.
“Let’s dig out your car,” he says.
“Better do it today while we have the time. It’ll be fun.”
“Fun? Like colonoscopies and root canals.”
“It won’t hurt. Promise.”
He puts on his coat and boots and goes to the garage. He takes the snow shovels, goes outside, and stands by the car. Branches of the evergreens along the front of the house bend with their burdens of snow. The slanting winter sunlight casts bluish shadows near the house and the spruce in the front yard. Stevie loved trampling the snow and they made snowmen and Stevie’s cheeks got so red Charlie worried. “I won’t mention how much we’re paying so that you can be there.”
Paula comes out the front door with a broom in each gloved hand.
“You could have cleared the steps instead of just standing there.”
“I was mesmerized by the snow.”
“Doesn’t take much.”
She carefully descends the steps of the porch and crosses the yard to the car.
“The Mass. Pike’s open and they’ve lifted the driving ban. Logan’s begun a limited schedule.”
“So we’ll see Heradio?”
“Maybe. He’ll text us. He’s good about that. If we haven’t heard we should text him this evening.”
She hands him a broom. They pretend to get each other’s way, bumping hips and butts, elbowing each other. He keeps bumping her, elbowing her, and pushing her with his hip until she falls. She whacks his leg with her broom and whacks him again. He falls into the snow. They get up and look at each other and smile. They work as an efficient team, pushing snow off the roof of the Beetle. Then the windshield, hood, back, and sides.
“It’s so light!” he says, as his broom sends glittering crystals into the bright, cold air.
“Be glad it’s not the heavy stuff.”
When the car is clear, he says, “See if it starts.”
“OK.” She brushes snow from her coat and pants and gets in the car, leaving the door open. It starts right up.
“See if you can plow through.”
“It’s not going to work,” she says and closes the door.
The tires spin but the car doesn’t move. She gets out. “See?”
“Lets clear a path to the sidewalk.”
“What about the bit between the sidewalk and the street,” she says.
“The hope is you can push through that.”
They shovel snow away from behind the car. He called on a Friday afternoon. They were on their way out the door for a weekend with friends in Marblehead. “I’m miserable,” he said. “Please let me come home.” They reasoned with him. Give it more time. On the drive to Marblehead, they discussed it. She thought they should let him come home. When? Next weekend if he still feels bad. Otherwise one of them would have to take a day from work. He wasn’t sure about letting him come home, but if she felt the same way on Sunday she should call him and see how he was doing. If he still wanted to come home they’d go up next weekend and bring him back. Sunday they went sailing with their friends and got home late and tired and went to bed. Monday they went to work.
After a few minutes, they’ve cleared a path to the sidewalk.
“That should do it,” he says. “Try again.”
She gets into the car and puts it into reverse. Inches, then the wheels spin but the car doesn’t move.
“Snow’s blocking the front tires,” she says.
They find it awkward to push snow with their brooms from under the car.
“You know, if you had put your car in the garage we wouldn’t have to be doing this.”
“Somebody said it would be fun.”
“And you believed him?”
“He had an honest face. But you’re right. I should have known. He’s conned me before.”
“Don’t blame him. Your hopes con you.”
“And your desires.
“And our desires. Now try,” he says.
“Are you going to do our walk next?”
It’s Toby Carlson standing on the front porch of the green clapboard house across the street. His voice rings out in the snow silence and cold air. He wears a black fedora and a brown coat that looks too big for him. He holds an unlit cigar stub in his right hand.
“You can’t afford us,” Charlie says.
“Your man hasn’t come either?” Paula says.
“How’s Zoe?” Paula says.
“She’s around here somewhere. I was going to sweep off the porch, but it looks like too much work. I thought if you did my walk I’d watch you. It’s fun watching other people work. But since you’re not, I think I’ll go back inside. I just came out to say hello.”