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.”
“OK,” says Paula. “Say hello to Zoe.”
“Isn’t the snow beautiful?” Toby says.
“Yes, isn’t it?” Charlie says.
Toby goes inside.
“Now try,” he says.
“But Stevie, dearest, you’ve only been there four weeks,” Paula said.
Paula gets in the car. It moves back until it hits the snow between the sidewalk and the street. There it stops after a few inches.
“Drive faster. Get up some speed.”
The car lurches backward and crashes into the snow at the sidewalk.
“Let me try.”
She gets out and says, “I’m not going to say anything.”
He gets in, puts the car into reverse and slams down the accelerator. The wheels spin for a second and then the car lurches but stops about a foot into the sidewalk snow. He lets up and presses again on the accelerator, let’s up, presses again, let’s up, presses again. Wheels spin, the car whines, and there’s a faint burning smell.
“Hey!” shouts Paula. “That’s my car you’re wrecking.”
He gets out of the car.
“You could’ve pushed. That would’ve helped.”
“Do you want me to push?”
“You have to show some grit, some determination,” he said.
They clear the six feet or so from sidewalk to street.
“Now see if you can get it into the street. And use some speed this time.”
She races the car backwards but the car stops about a foot or so into the deep snow of the street.
“You’re almost there. Steer for the ruts.”
“I know that.”
“Try again. You almost made it. Rock the car. You know how?”
She tries again, rocking the car, and it goes a foot farther.
“Keep at it. You’re very close.”
She tries again and the car breaks through the last bit of snow. But she backs the car into the snow on the other side. She tries to move forward and turn into the ruts, but the tires spin. He gets behind and pushes. She’s able to get the car into the grooves. She puts the car back in the driveway, backs it out again into the street, and pulls back into the drive, backs it out and pulls into the drive.
The school called that Wednesday morning and they raced up there. He hadn’t seemed troubled or depressed. No one was bullying or harassing him. Kids, they’re good at hiding things.
Snow has drifted high against the evergreens along the front of the house. She picks up the two brooms and is about to go inside, when he says, “I’ll take those in.”
He takes the brooms from her and leans them against the car. As she turns towards the front door, he pushes her and she falls backward into the deep drifted snow. She tries to get up, but he puts his hand on her forehead and pushes her back down into the snow. She tries to get up again and he pushes her back down again. She tries a third time, and a third time he pushes her back down, thinking it’s easy and fun in this snow, she being off balance when she tries to get to her feet. She tries again, and this time he waits and instead of putting his hand on her forehead, he puts it on her shoulder and pushes her back into the snow. She begins to cry, tears trickling down her cheeks. She looks at him and cries, slowly, quietly. He knows how she feels: bullied, desperate, humiliated. “I can’t stand it here. Please let me come home.” He feels a twinge of guilt, but it’s fun tormenting her.
He turns to go get the shovels. She lunges and grabs him, one hand pulling on his instep the other pushing on the back of his calf, both twisting. He falls face-first into the snow. Paula crawls up his legs, hurting him as she grinds her knees into the back of his legs and thighs. She pushes his face into the snow. He tries to get up, but she’s too heavy, kneeling on his back. She pushes his face into the snow again. Snow gets into his ears and nose and inside the collars of coat and shirt. He wants to laugh, but that would only goad her. Nor should he pretend to be angry. He tries to get up again, but she’s still kneeling on his back and pushes his face into the snow again. He tries to move, but more snow gets packed under the collars of coat and shirt. He lies motionless, waits. It is very quiet and the snow is very beautiful. After a few minutes, Paula gets up, pushing on the back of his head as if it were a rock on the ground. She climbs onto the porch, stomps the snow off her boots, and goes inside.
Charlie lies face down in the snow. He’s as good as killed his son. He’ll never be more than a flunky at a small bank. Paula’s all right. He’s stuck with her. You’ll never be any better than you are now.
He stands up, takes out his handkerchief and dries melted snow on his face, cleans the snow from his ears and blows his nose. He loves the cold no smell of the bright air and the shiny, ceramic, Ming blue sky. His face is cold in the slight breeze. He brushes the snow off his coat and pants. Melting snow trickles ice water to his chest. There’s still snow-packed in his collar. He doesn’t try to finger it out lest he push it farther in. Whatever made that weird pattern of indentations in the snowdrift?
A beautiful, crimson cardinal perches on the garage gutter. After a few moments he takes off in a rising curve.
Charlie brings the shovels back to the garage. He bangs the brooms on the porch to get the snow off and takes them into the house. Inside, he puts his boots next to hers. The warm house feels good. In stocking feet he brings the brooms to the closet in the kitchen. Paula’s there on her laptop.
“You’ve been outside,” she says.
The kitchen warmth melts more snow, trickling ice water down to his belly. His shirt collar and front are soaked and cling to him cold and damp.
“It’s dangerous out there.”
“Tell me about it,” he says. “Somehow I’ve got snow down the inside of my coat and shirt.”
“Better be more careful next time.”
He goes upstairs to take a shower. He takes off his clothes and finds two oblong bruises on his left calf. Where did he? Oh, yes, she whacked him. He goes into the shower. He likes the hot water on his body. He wonders what they are going to have for dinner.
After years of teaching law and doing English legal history Joseph Biancalana has moved up to something much harder: writing short stories. He has taken fiction workshops at the University of Cincinnati, The Harvard Extension School, and Grub Street, Boston. His work has been published in The Rockford Review.