by Bryan Stroud
The snow began just before sundown. The man sat at the window and watched as the first flakes began to fall. They drifted down in random, wind-blown patterns and settled on the brick ledge just outside the window. He had been expecting this. He had looked forward to it all day while he worked alone in the small apartment. He had looked out the window that morning and he had seen the clouds building in the west. He knew what those clouds meant at this time of year and he had anticipated it all day. He looked at the street below to see if the snow was sticking but he knew that it did not matter. With those clouds there would be much snow. It was always the same no matter where you were. But he was in the city now and he didn’t know what to do.
If he had been back home he knew what he would do. He would wait until a couple of inches had fallen and the ground was completely covered. Then he would put on his boots and heavy coat and he would walk through the fields. He would feel the soft snow underneath his feet cushioning and silencing his step. He would blow his breath out in steamy blasts and feel the snowflakes pelting his face when the wind blew as he walked past the old garden and the rotting, collapsing barns. He would walk past the pond which would absorb the snowflakes without a ripple, the pond which never seemed to freeze when it should have but when it did it froze hard, and you could look down through the ice and see frogs and turtles moving slowly underneath. He would walk past the grove of pecan trees which would be bare and empty, their gnarled, twisted limbs reaching toward the gray sky. That was when you knew the fall was over, when you saw those trees there. The pecans that were on the ground and hadn’t been picked up would go rotten underneath the snow. There would be no more pecan picking that year and you knew that a season of your life had passed.
He would then move on into winter. He would be walking on the well-worn trail and the slope of the land would rise gradually for a long way until the very end, when it went up sharply just in front of the barbed wire fence. Then you were at the top and you could look back and down over everything; the pecan trees, and the pond, and past the trees would be the house with smoke in the chimney. And on the left of the rolling fields would be a forest of skeletal trees.
After that he would walk across the stream bed which only ran when it rained. On both sides of the stream bed would be trees which thrived on the water it brought and in between the trees were thornbushes and thick vines which grew together to form an inpenentrable wall and inside of that was where the deer stayed. Sometimes, if you were lucky, you might see one on the outside, bounding spring-legged, to disappear over a fence or behind a clump of trees. But most of the time you were not lucky and here he would always begin to get cold. Then he would walk through the pine trees for the smell, and then turn for home. And when you got home you were glad, because it was when you were in front of the fire that you realized how cold you had been, and the cup of coffee was life in your hands.
On the floor above the woman was pacing, pacing, across her apartment. She went along a path through her living room and into the kitchen where she stopped in front of the sink. Then she turned around and walked hurriedly back with a restlessness that came over her often these days. She was a woman in her late forties who had once been a great beauty, and she was still considered so by some. She had a soft round face surrounded by light brown hair. Her body, clothed in jeans and a black sweater, also had this quality of softness. At last she grew tired of pacing and went downstairs.
She entered the man’s apartment quietly, without knocking, and he did not turn away from the window. He knew who it was and, somehow, he had been expecting her, the same way he had been expecting the snow. She moved over to the window and sat down next to him. They watched the snow falling in the street. Now it was dark and the streetlights cast an eerie glow over everything and the snowflakes moved through shafts of light into darkness.
“You look sad,” she said at last. She looked at his large blue eyes. It was the eyes that had first drawn her to him. The rest of him was young but the eyes were very old in repose.
“No. Not sad,” he responded. “Just watching. Just watching the snow fall.”
“It looks beautiful,” she said absently. “Did you work well?”
“Well enough,” he said. “Did you?”
“No,” she said. “Not at all.” The man said nothing. He was suddenly irritated. He was young and took the fact that he could write whenever he wanted for granted. He had not written long enough to come to the day when he would be unable to write. The day when he would look at the paper and no words would come.
“Let’s go for a walk,” he said quickly, standing up. Somehow, the woman had ruined it for him and now he felt restless.
She went upstairs for her coat and then they went down and out into the street. The man noticed how much quieter everything was now. Everything was muffled and muted and even the cars going by were quiet.
“What is it about snow that is so quiet?” he asked aloud. “It’s not even the fact that it softens everything, there’s something else.”
“I’ve always thought that it’s because the snow itself is so quiet. You look and you see it all falling and piling up and doing all the things a snowstorm does, and yet the snow itself is absolutely silent. It’s all this activity with no noise.”
“I guess that’s it,” the man said thoughtfully. Suddenly, he was very pleased to be around this woman, who knew much more about things than he did.
They walked slowly for several blocks until the man noticed that they were coming up on Guido’s. This was a restaurant the man had discovered when he first came to the city. It was small and friendly and they always gave you a lot to eat for not very much money. He liked that and he liked Guido and his family, who all called him “Signor Heel” and treated him with more respect than he felt he deserved. Guido and his wife treated him almost paternally, giving him extra to eat and always asking how he was. This had meant a lot to him when he had first arrived in the city and it meant a lot to him now.
But now he knew that it was too late. Guido’s was always closed by now, especially with the snow. There would not be any customers with the snow. But when they came to the restaurant Guido and his son were standing in the doorway.
“Ahh, Signor Heel. So nice to see you and the Signora. Tell me, what do you think of this snow?”
“I like it quite a bit,” Hill said. “Very peaceful.” He was very pleased suddenly, to be talking to Guido.
“You must like it quite a bit to be out in it like this. Me, I do not like it. I come from southern Italy and there it does not snow. I never see snow ever before I came here. I’ve been here now for twenty years and I seen much of it and still I do not like it.”
“I tell you truly. I get used to it but I will never like it. I lived in warm weather too long and I was too old when I came here to like it.”
“What about you?” Hill asked the boy. “Do you like it?” The boy was seventeen, dark-haired and thin. He was very shy and he had a habit of looking down when spoken to.
“I like it,” he said simply. “It is very peaceful.” Guido smiled at him broadly.
“You see?” he said. “He was born here, so he like the snow. But we have been standing in it for too long. Even Antonio here does not like it that much. Now you must come in and have something to eat and something to drink.”
“But you are closed,” Hill said.
“Not for you. For you we are open.”
“We don’t want to trouble you,” the woman said.
“It is no trouble,” Guido said. “We are not so closed that we cannot make you something. There is still a fire in the oven, so to speak.”
“Are you sure?”
“Sure I’m sure. Besides, I make money out of it, yes?” There is no arguing with money. Inside the restaurant it was warm and darkly lit. Everything was quiet and clean.
“Sit wherever you like,” the boy said, “and I will bring the menus.”
“And I will go in the back and do my business,” Guido added. Then they were gone and Hill and the woman sat down at a table.
“They are very nice to us here, aren’t they?” the woman said.
“I guess it’s you, isn’t it? Everyone wants to take care of you.”
“Yes,” Hill conceded. “I suppose you are right.”
“I know I’m right.” Antonio returned with a bottle of wine and glasses and the menus. He took the orders in his practiced, professional way. Then they could hear him talking to Guido in the kitchen and there was the noise of Guido preparing the food.
“So what were you thinking about?” she asked. “When I came in.”
“I was thinking about the snow back home.”
“Why don’t you go home?”
“I live here now.”
“No, you don’t,” she said. “You stay here but your mind is there.”
“No,” he said slowly with a resoluteness he did not feel. “Not all the time. Just on certain days. My work is here, and my life is here, and you are here.”
“You can work anywhere, and I don’t think I’m enough to keep you here. You can’t live in both places at the same time, you know.”
“No, you can’t.” Then they said nothing for what seemed a very long time before the food was brought in.
“Here, you see,” Guido said grandly. “Here it is. I told I would fix you up. I take care of you here.” He stood up straight and looked on proudly.
“Won’t you join us?” Hill asked. “Sit with us and have some wine. There is more here than we can drink.”
“Ah, no, we can’t. We are very busy.”
“No you’re not,” Hill said with a smile. “You were standing outside when we got here. Sit with us, please.”
“Ok, ok,” Guido conceded. “If you insist.” He turned to the boy and said, “Go get two more glasses, would you please?” The boy turned without expression and walked into the kitchen, where he broke into a large grin.
“Two glasses,” he said to himself. “He wants two glasses.” Carefully, he carried the glasses back to the table.
“Ah, very good,” Guido said. Without ceremony, he took one of the glasses and filled it with wine. Then he filled the second one and handed it to the boy.
“So Signor Heel, where are you from that you like the snow so much?” Guido asked.
“Ah, yes, Oklahoma. For many years, I have studied and read many books about America so that I may know it, and know where everything is. Someday, when I am no longer running this restaurant, I would like to go and see these places that everyone talks about. But for now, I only read about them. Oklahoma, it is the one above Texas, right?”
“Ah yes, the one that looks like a gun. Never have I been there. Chicago is as close as I have gotten.”
“That’s not very close.”
“No,” Guido said, shaking his head. “It is not very close. But tell me, is it not too far south for snow?”
“Well, we get cold air that comes down from Canada.”
“I see. Down the Great Plains.”
“But doesn’t it also get very hot there?”
“Very hot. It is a place of great extremes.”
“Yes, I see,” Guido said, nodding his head. “A very strange place. Here it gets very hot also.”
“Where I come from it is not like that. Because of the sea.” He sat there looking very solemn behind his heavy black moustache. “It is a very beautiful place with very nice weather.” It occurred to Hill then that we are all from somewhere. Soon the dinner was over.
“Come back sooner next time,” Guido said as they walked to the door. “You stay away too long. I enjoy talking to both of you. Come eat here more often.”
“We will. Good night.”
Then the door was closed and they were on the sidewalk. The snow continued to fall but now it fell in heavy, straight lines. They were large snowflakes making their way down steadily to join the growing mass that now covered all the places where the traffic did not pass. They walked in the snow and the slush and now it was very cold.
“So now you have to go,” she said quietly.
“Yes. At least for a while.” Suddenly, he realized it fully and he was very angry with himself. For years he had dreamed of coming to this city to do exactly what he was doing now. He had wanted to live the life he was now living. He had wanted with frenzied determination to leave, and he had worked for a long time to make it happen. And now that he was here and living his dream, it all seemed somehow hollow and unfulfilling, and he wanted to go home. He felt a sense of failure. He felt that it was somehow his fault, that some weakness within him was keeping him from enjoying what he had earned.
“But I’ll come back,” he said aloud.
“Yes,” she replied. “You will someday. But not to me. I won’t be here.”
“I know. I didn’t expect you to be.” They walked on in silence and soon their building loomed in the near distance.
“I guess I expected it,” she continued. “One way or another, I knew this day would come.”
“Yes,” Hill said. “So did I.” They went up the elevator and stopped at his floor.
“Won’t you come in for a while?” he asked.
“No,” she said quietly. She stepped out of the elevator and stood before him. “And you don’t have to try and explain it. I understand it all perfectly. You know, I’m just a lonely middle-aged writer who can’t write anymore. And when I first met you, you were so energetic, full of ideas, full of life. You reminded me of me twenty years ago. And I wanted it back. I wanted what you had. I wanted it to rub off on me. I never meant to fall in love with you. But I did, and it’s my own fault. I hope you don’t feel too bad about it.” The elevator doors slid open and she stepped inside.
“I always knew this day would come,” she said. “I’ve been denying it for a long time now, but I knew it would come. You have to go. I can see now that you have to go.”