Brock Clarke


Plowing the Secondaries



My brother and I are out plowing the secondaries the morning after a big spring snowstorm--my brother in one plow, me behind him in another, and I can see my brother is going way too fast, and I think: If he doesn't watch out he is going to hit something. And then he does not watch out and does hit something. It is a woman. My brother keeps going after he hits her, big flumes of snow curling and fanning out to the sides of the plow, as he barrels down Paines Hollow Road on the way to hitting something else. In the eight years he's been plowing, my brother has hit cows, parked cars, telephone poles, mailboxes, even other plows. Usually, I don't even bother getting out of my plow to see the thing he's hit. Usually, I just get him on the CB and say: "You dumb son-of-a-bitch, you just hit another Holstein," etc. Then we finish plowing and I hope he doesn't hit anything else and ruin the plow blade, because it's my snow-removal business and my brother has ruined plenty of blades already, and believe me the blades are worth much more than my brother.

But this is the first time he's hit a human being. So I stop, get out of my plow, and go look for the woman. I find her twenty feet into the field next to the road. She is beautiful, lying there face up on a foot of wind-whipped newly fallen snow, her long black hair spread out fan-like beneath her, her cheeks apple red from the cold. The woman doesn't look dead at all, no blood anywhere that I can see, nothing severed or disfigured. I lean over her, put my ear to her heart. I don't hear any heartbeat, but then again I have my hat pulled down over my ears and she has on a heavy down jacket and the plow is idling and rattling loudly behind me.

So I take off my hat, unzip her jacket, and lean over again to get a more definitive read on her heartbeat, because suddenly I need to know whether she is dead or alive. The woman is just so beautiful--lying there peacefully, watching me with these perfectly round, perfectly blue unblinking eyes--that I think I might actually be falling in love with her, just like that, and if so I need to know whether she is dead or alive, because that will change the way I approach the situation, obviously.

But then, leaning over her the way I am, I get this bad memory of last Friday night. Last Friday night, I was out late at the Renaissance, talking with my sister-in-law, who also has black hair and rosy cheeks and who also is beautiful. My sister-in-law was wearing this scooped-neck sweater that exposed her white, jutting collarbone, which in the light of the bar was a brilliant, precious thing, something less like an actual collarbone and more like a whalebone in its brilliance and its preciousness. While my sister-in-law was telling me a story about her job--she works as a bank teller--I was thinking: You cannot stand there and just look at a whalebone, man, a whalebone is a thing that needs to be cherished. So right in the middle of my sister-in-law's story about next-day-deposit-this and roll-of-quarters-that, I leaned over and kissed her exposed collarbone.

I saw immediately that my sister-in-law had not taken my kissing her collarbone in the spirit in which it was intended. Her face got flaming red and she tightened her hands into tiny fists and started beating them against the sides of her legs.

"What in the hell do you think you're doing?" she asked.

"Relax," I said. "You should feel honored."

"What are you talking about?"

And because I was desperate to communicate my meaning and because I had been drinking beer for six straight hours, I said, "Whalebone," and then leaned over to kiss her collarbone again. Which was when she punched me smack in the face. As I was staggering around, yelling for someone to get me a napkin so I could stop my nose from bleeding all over myself, my beer, the bar floor, my sister-in-law called my wife from the bar pay phone and told her what I had done.

The next morning, I woke up on the living room couch where I had fallen asleep the night before. My wife was standing over me, holding a suitcase in her left hand.

"You're still drunk, aren't you?" she asked me.

"Yes" I said.

"Whalebone," she said, and then swung the suitcase and hit me square in the right ear, because this was not the first time I had woken up on the couch, still drunk in the morning; and it was not the first time I had kissed another woman in a bar; and it was not even the first time I had kissed my sister-in-law in a way that I shouldn't have. By the time my right ear stopped ringing, my wife had started the car and was on her way to stay with her sister.

I called my wife a few days later and tried to explain my actions in the bar. "I imagined I actually was kissing a whalebone," I told her. "I truly did."

"For someone who is so stupid," my wife said, "you sure have an active imagination." Then she told me she was leaving me for good, and hung up.

So here I am--no wife, no sister-in-law, no nothing--leaning over the woman my brother hit with the snowplow, and I ask myself: How does this look, me opening this woman's jacket and leaning over her the way I am? It looks bad, I know. The woman knows, too. Her eyes have narrowed into a squint, as if to say: "We might have a good thing going here. But I know men like you, always fucking up a good thing by moving too fast. So tell me: are you going to fuck this up?"

"No," I tell her. "I am going to do this right." I zip up the woman's jacket and lie down in the snow next to her. I even take hold of her hand and she does not try to take it back and I think I see her eyes widen a little bit.

We lie for there for quite a while. I admit to thinking some dramatic thoughts. You cannot lie down on top of a foot of virgin snow and look at the blazing blue sky while holding hands with a woman you are quickly and totally falling in love with, and not think of making a fresh start, of wiping the dirty slate of your past clean, of forgiving and forgetting. I start off by telling the woman that I forgive her for all the pain she has caused me in our brief time together. The only way in which she has caused me pain, of course, is that she won't let me know, definitively, whether she is dead or alive. But I tell her I don't care.

"It doesn't matter whether you're dead or alive," I tell her. "I'm fine with it."

She doesn't withdraw her hand or cough nervously, which encourages me to launch into a whole series of true confessions.

"You know the plow?" I ask her. "The one my brother hit you with? It's stolen." I tell her how my brother and I were in Ontario last January, and how we ended up in a bar, drinking with the rightful owner of the plow. He was a good old guy with a handlebar mustache who told us how he had somehow grown attached to the plow as if it were an actual human being, how he drove it everywhere in the winter, even to the bar itself. After a few hours of drinking with us, the old guy passed out. "We took the plow keys right out of his pocket," I tell her. "My brother drove the plow home, and I followed him in the car."

The woman narrows her eyes again. I know immediately that she doesn't believe me. We're like that, she and I, we know each other's thoughts. So I say, "It's true. The border guard waved us right through. It was freezing. They were waving everyone through. The other plow is mine, though, legitimate."

Then, before she can stop me, I say, "And my brother shouldn't even be driving the plow. It's no surprise he hit you, I could see it coming. He's a menace. But I don't pay him hardly anything and it makes me feel good, screwing him that way. He lives with me, in my basement, and I charge him too much rent and he pays it. That feels good, too. He's my older brother and he teased me when we were kids and I still hate him for it."

She doesn't say anything at all! The woman just lies there calmly, circumspectly looking at the wide blue sky, as if to say: I understand completely, tell me more, I want to hear everything. As if to say: If this is going to work, then we mustn't hide anything from each other. And so I tell her everything. I tell her about the time a beer buddy and I jumped this smart, skinny guy out at a party on Sabin Road because he was too damn smart and because he was too skinny to fight back much. We beat on him a little until my beer buddy said: "Why are we doing this?"

I said, "Because he was talking bad about your sister," which I just thought of on the spot.

"No he didn't," my buddy said. "I don't even have a sister." And so the buddy and the skinny guy beat the hell out of me. But I don't tell the woman this last part.

Instead, I go on and mention that time when I didn't go to my father's funeral because my father had heard, months before he died, that I had been running around on my wife. He'd confronted me about it one Saturday morning, while we were out deer hunting.

"You will not keep on hurting that girl the way you are," he said.

I said, "Mind your own business."

"Unfortunately," he said, "you are my business." Then my father poked me in the chest with his twelve gauge. Hard.

"It was humiliating," I tell the woman. "So I didn't go to my father's funeral. Never been to his grave, either." I'm still holding the woman's hand, but I don't look over at her because of what I'm about say next, which is basically that my father was right: that I did run around on my wife and that I did hurt her, bad, for all ten years we were together. I give the woman the whole, sordid story: the cheating, the wrecked cars, the money stolen from my wife's purse, the fantastic, sprawling lies. "I am a vicious, immoral moron," I tell the woman. "That's a direct quote from my wife." I don't spare my new love any little detail about the complete piece of crud I was and mostly still am.

When I am finally done it feels like hours have passed. I look over at the woman, still lying next to me, still holding my hand. I've blown it, I think, because the woman's face is pale, very pale, and she is crying. The tears are positively streaming down her cheeks.

"Please don't," I say. I reach over to wipe away her tears and I find that they're not tears at all. It's merely that there was some snow on her forehead, and it is now melting in the sun. Now that I realize this, the woman appears to be in fact quite happy. She even looks to be smiling, the corners of her mouth rising slightly in playful disbelief, as if to say: "There must be more. Come on. You haven't done anything worse than that?"

"That's it," I say, getting happier and happier and deeper in love and deeper in love. I don't think I've ever been this content, not even when my brother and I were drinking beer this very morning, right before we took the plows out, which makes me remember one more thing I need to confess.

"I'm a drunk!" I tell her. "I'm drunk right now!"

The woman continues to smile. "Is that really it?" seems to be her response.

"It is," I tell her and then relax more completely into the snow, which is soft and melting in the sun and feels like wet foam rubber. Never in my life have I been so whole. I actually feel saved, religiously saved. "Where did you come from?" I ask her. "You're some kind of angel, aren't you?"

And then I wonder: Where did she come from? And then I think that she actually might be an angel, because the field we're lying in is in the absolute middle of nowhere. There are no houses nearby and there is no car anywhere that she might have driven here in. The idea that the woman is an angel suddenly makes utter, perfect sense: how would she have gotten here if she weren't? "Wow," I say, because it's disconcerting falling in love with an actual angel, because that means that you haven't chosen her, but that you've been chosen. And when you've been chosen by an angel, you must sit up straight and act nobly and do good.

I sit up straight with the thought of having to do good, and in doing so I see something sticking out of the snow a few feet away from us. I get up to investigate and I find one cross-country ski, then another one a few feet away.

So she is not an angel after all. She's a cross-country skier. I'm disappointed at first, understandably, but then I have this really fantastic idea. The Olympic Training Center at Lake Placid is not far away from here, and I know it's an Olympic year. It occurs to me that the woman is an Olympic skier and that she was out training for the 50K race or the Nordic Combined when my brother hit her with his plow.

I gather up the skis and trudge back to the woman. "You didn't tell me you were going to be in the Olympics," I say.

She still has that sly, modest smile frozen on her face. Clearly she didn't want to tell me, didn't want to me to think she was showing off. Clearly she wanted to get to know me first before she confessed to being an Olympic athlete.

"I am so proud of you," I say. "It's just wonderful." And it is. I can see our whole life in front of us. I will give up the plow and my sorry brother and our crappy hometown and my sordid, lonely life, and follow her to Squaw Valley, Oslo, Lillehammer. I will wax her skis and get her lucrative endorsement deals and give her backrubs and menace her competitors if I have to. Then, once I have proven my devotion and my love, I will divorce my wife, marry this woman, and finally find some happiness in this world.

I am so excited by this idea that I am about ready to load this woman and her skis into my plow and begin our new life together when the sun hits me in the eyes, right in the eyes where it shouldn't this early in the morning right smack in the middle of winter. Then I remember that it is not right smack in the middle of winter. It is the first week in April. And aren't the winter Olympics in February or something?

"Hold on a second," I say to the woman. I run over to my plow and get my brother on the CB.

"I'm already back at the garage," my brother says. "Where the hell are you?"

"You hit a woman," I say.

"Did not," he says.

"Never mind," I say. "Listen. When are the winter Olympics this year?"

"There are no winter Olympics this year," he tells me. "The summer Olympics are in Atlanta. They start in July."

"Goddamn it," I say. I slam the CB against the dashboard, because the woman has obviously lied to me about being an Olympic skier. She is not an Olympic skier at all; she is only an ordinary, amateur skier who was trying to cross the road when she shouldn't have. Here I have shown her my true black heart, pledged myself to her, made big plans for us, and what do I get? I get lies. And if the woman has lied about being in the Olympics, then who knows what other lies she has told? Who knows what lies she might yet tell?

I am so angry that I come close to running over there and just letting her have it. I am no stranger to ugly break-ups. I know how to make a woman miserable. I know how to ruin her name, her reputation. I know how to pour sugar in a woman's gas tank. I know how to do lots of things.

But I don't do any of this stuff because I am thinking clearly now, much more clearly than normal. It occurs to me that if this woman can so easily let loose with this big whopper of a lie, then who knows what kind of truly twisted stuff she might be capable of. You can never tell about people these days. I suddenly have a vision of us, ten years or so down the road from now. I am lying on the couch and this woman is standing over me with a suitcase. And since she is a lunatic, an absolute sick fuck, then the suitcase is packed with rocks or cinder blocks and she is about to smash me in the ear with it, just like my wife. And you know I don't need that again.

This premonition changes my way of thinking completely and I start backing away from the woman because--and this seems obvious to me now--I am absolutely afraid of her, just as I'm afraid of my father and my wife and her sister, just as I'm afraid of anyone in this world who doesn't take any shit. I am such a coward that I almost start running away.

But I don't run away. Easy now, I tell myself, just calm down, because while it's imperative that I get rid of this woman, I certainly do not want to spook her in the process. I have been through a few court-ordered rage-management and alcohol-awareness seminars, and so I know a little something about trying to defuse potentially dangerous situations. I suck in a deep breath and take the long generous view of this woman. True, she has lied to me. True, she doesn't deserve the affections of a man like me. But after all we did have something special, and I will not ruin the memory of our time together by being ugly now. I will dump her respectfully, like a gentleman. Then, once I have dumped the woman, I will get in my plow and head back to the garage. My brother will be there, drinking beer, and I will drink his beer and dock him a day's pay for ruining another plow blade.

Just the thought of me sticking it to my brother makes me feel very brave indeed. I even forget why I was scared of the woman in the first place. So I walk over to where she is lying in the snow. She is still smiling; she obviously still has high hopes for me and her, and it actually pains me when I tell her that it's over between us. But I know it's the right thing to do.

"Don't," I say before she can try to talk me out of it. "What we had was beautiful, but fleeting. Let us not have any illusions. We are in love now, but in ten years you would hate me."