The snow began slowly, a Wednesday of large flakes falling clumsily from a metal sky. Lester watched them through the window of his store, exploding against the glass, against the pavement, each one silent and leaving no debris.
On Thursday the main front arrived. For a few hours, wisps and snakes of snow wound across the road in the dry eddies left by passing cars, and then Fairbanks seemed to steady itself for burial. By afternoon the snow was coming hard, rudely hard, as if to discharge a long-standing grudge. On his trips outside, ferrying empty cardboard boxes to the dumpster, Lester looked up. The air was a column of white. He thought, Let it come. Doesn’t
make any difference to me. He breathed slowly as Fairbanks thickened with snow
Then, on Sunday afternoon, the snow tapered and stopped.
Four and a half feet.
The path to the dumpster was a narrow trodden canyon, the empty parking lot a steppe of snow. The handful of weekend customers used the street for walking, so Lester only shoveled from there to the front door. His parking lot wouldn’t
be plowed for a long while. With this much snow, the streets would take priority.
And all through it, Lester had thought, Well, the sign in the window says I’m open, so I’m
Colder and darker. That was all there was to tell about the weather past October. Months beyond then, the light would rush back to its dazzling June intensity, but for the most part there would be no need of a forecast until April. Lester began his days as he always did: awake in the cabin at five with a pause at the edge of the bed to work his knee a few times. Fifty years and an old basketball injury had turned the joint to sand. He bent the hinge back and forth, pulverizing whatever large grains had agglomerated overnight, allowing it to swing freely again. He filled the coffee pot from the keg of water and went outside.
There was no wind. In winter there was hardly ever any wind. Snow stacked six inches high on the thinnest twigs and stayed there undisturbed for weeks. Instead of limbs, trees grew planks of white, blades of accretion that dropped with a soft huff at the first tremor.
He relieved himself off the edge of the porch, adding to the frozen block of urine below. A screen of trees gave him privacy; otherwise, he would have had to walk all the way to the outhouse. When he sold the home he and Carolyn had owned, he’d been lucky to find a spruce-shrouded cabin still within walking distance to the store.
After finishing, he ducked inside again. Then, coffee. A chapter or two of a novel perhaps, or maybe one of Carolyn’s letters to read. In this way, the two years since she left had presented themselves for use and been declined.
Through the storm days he made off to the store in gathering silence. The accumulating snow gobbled every echo. The entire world seemed engaged in a great decrescendo. He covered the two-mile walk through what passed in Fairbanks for suburbs—modern homes abutting plywood cabins without running water. “Good thing it’s dark twenty hours a day here,” Carolyn had joked, “because who wants to look at it?” He reached the road which to the west ran along the frozen river, and then he walked east, the university to the north, until he saw the white cube of his liquor store at the bottom of the hill.
As he opened the store, the keys jingled in the lock. There was movement in a tree at the edge of the lot. Lester froze. The great gray owl puffed and resettled its feathers, watching him.
“Didn’t mean to scare you,” Lester whispered. Slowly, he donned his mitten again. It was still snowing and the flakes turned his sightline to pepper and static. The owl tilted its head to the right, yellow eyes in its dish of a face, the feather contours at the crest of the beak angled fiercely like angry eyebrows.
“Nothing to say for yourself, huh?”
The bird stepped into the air. Two noiseless beats of its wings cloaked it with forest, each tree leaning drunkenly from the uneven permafrost. Lester shuddered. Every living thing should make a sound, exert some presence, but owls were the shadows of shadows.
Inside, Lester set about checking the inventory before opening for business at eleven. His supply was low for the three cheapest brands of light beer. The wine aisles were holding their own, but the whiskey shelf was waning dangerously again. He sighed and made a mental note to increase the order—again. Winter. People were in no mood for delays. They bought whatever numbed them quickest. He opened the supply room and began to restock the shelves.
It was warm where Carolyn was. Vegas. She’d ricocheted around the lower forty-eight and had spun to a stop there. Jobs were apparently easy to come by, and she’d found one in a casino. Hoover Dam was amazing, the city hilarious, she’d written. “The casinos have big signs saying they give back 97 percent of the take. Imagine that. You give them a buck, they give you back 97 cents. Ha! I love it here.”
He remembered talking with her in bed the night before she left.
“Sell the house, Les. Send me some money. I trust you for the even split. Buy something smaller and make yourself comfortable.”
“There’s nothing I can say to stop you, is there?”
She shook her head. “A long time ago you saw your moment. Now I see mine. The kids are in college. I saved a little money.”
“What should we tell them?”
“Leave it open for now.”
“Maybe, ‘Mom’s on a vacation.’”
“‘And Dad didn’t trust leaving the store to anyone else.’ We’ll figure out a better story when we decide how it ends. Between books and frat parties, they’ll hardly notice.”
Lester managed to chuckle.
“It’s nothing personal. I know you probably don’t believe that, but it’s true.”
He thought of the brilliant, almost material light of spring, the violent pullulation of lupine throughout town, slathering the ground with purple and red. “Remember what June is like up here,” he said. “You might want to come back for that.”
“I’ll write,” she said. “I promise.”
In the morning, the birch trees were clutching their late September leaves, yellow torches in a sea of dark green spruce, and the inevitable cab was idling outside for the ride to the airport. He’d offered to drive her himself, but this was the way she’d wanted it. She’d kissed him and was gone.
At least she did write.
As the storm wore on, business slowed. Lester read an old magazine and listened to the radio. Customers bought an extra case and hunkered down. The store was open six days a week, Tuesdays closed. He would have preferred to have Sunday or Monday off, but there were too many games on those days, too much beer traffic to turn away. Overall, he did not mind the schedule. He was happy to have a place to go.
Only five customers, the last of whom was Don Jacobs. Don had played hockey in high school with Lester’s son, Scott. And just as with Scott, Lester found it difficult to think of Don as a grown man. The memory of a child as a child somehow always overwhelmed the reality of its growing up. But no boy was responsible for the three kids Don had since fathered.
Don. A bad seed. Lester saw it in his hockey, always slashing, angry at something, almost eager for the penalty box. Winters, he was mostly out of work. He made his money for the year as chief maintenance man for the steamboat tourist trap on the river. He looked respectable during the season. The bosses made sure he shaved, kept his hair washed, cleaned his coveralls regularly. But come October, with the tourists gone and the operation at rest for the year, Don began to drink. He grew his beard and became somehow even dirtier than when he spent all day around grease and clanking diesel engines. Lester had already sold him a large bottle of whiskey that week, and now he’d come in for another one. He was accelerating, a sotted bear faltering downhill. It didn’t help that he lived within walking distance of the store.
“Evening,” Lester said.
Don clunked the bottle on the counter, dropped the money beside it. “How’s Scott?”
Same exchange as always. Lester slipped the bottle into a paper bag.
Earlier, longer ago than Lester cared to think about now, he’d felt the bite of purpose. He read the news of the pipeline’s authorization, saw how the companies were scouring the country for welders and pipefitters. There would be plenty of money, plenty of adventure, clichés enough for all. He could smell the hype but he didn’t care. He was skilled. He had his union card. Above all he was young. There was simply no choice to be made. The only thing left was to convince Carolyn to come with him.
Then his welds failed their x-ray tests.
Then Carolyn was pregnant.
“Get a job, Les.”
There was a liquor store being built below the university. He started as a cashier.
Work, work, work.
Nina arrived first, Scott second.
Twenty years rolled up like sod, and he inherited the store from the old man.
Two kids in faraway colleges now, a wife in Vegas. Enough money saved to keep the bills paid and everyone out of debt, provided Carolyn didn’t turn out to be a compulsive gambler. Things could certainly be worse. Things could always be worse.
When Carolyn left, he sold the house, sold the furniture. Whatever he could not part with—photos, toys, trinkets from when Scott and Nina were young—he sealed in plastic containers and stored in a rented minigarage. He sent Carolyn a check. He bought his cabin, thirty feet by thirty feet. It took him only a week to get used to the outhouse.
She was wrong. He did understand. He felt no malice toward her. Even in her leaving he’d felt more resignation than anger. If she was set on her decision, he couldn’t very well hit her on the head and chain her to the wall. No, it was better the way they had done it—clean, out in the open. Yet there was that feeling of drift and loll which, were he not hundreds of miles from any ocean, he would have called seasickness.
He remembered packing for Alaska, the feeling of thanks for the pipeline. Real fanaticism would have been required to hack a homestead from the spruce barrens, toss up a cabin, and run traplines for a living, fanaticism Lester knew he lacked. That sort of fire was inborn. It was for painters and artists. Mozart never had to wonder what to do with himself. His genes took care of that for him. Not so for the mortals. For them, circumstances had to align properly. Without the pipeline, Lester would not have come north, made a change, felt a direction.
He doubted such a chance would come again. The way Lester saw it, to know what to do with a life was too much to ask. He occupied himself with a day here, a moment there. He could manage that. Maybe someday some good would come of it.
“Les,” a voice said from behind him.
He paused, about to lock up for the night. The storm had spent itself and wandered away. The temperature was plummeting. He could feel it in how his nose hairs stiffened with the intake of air. In a way, he was happy. He had seen another day and night through to their ends. He had kept the promise of the sign in his window. When people could no longer depend on that, all would be lost. There was comfort in the thought of locking up and heading home for sleep.
“Lester,” the voice said. It had stones in it and was thickened with liquor, a deeper voice than in daytime.
Lester sighed, turning and shaking his head. “You know when I close, Don.”
“So, I’m closing.”
“Sell me something before you go.”
Lester clucked his tongue, thinking. He didn’t like drunks who didn’t slur. There was something menacing about the way they could control their speech but not their drinking. “I’m not sure I should do that.”
“Appears to me you’re already drunk.”
“So what? Nothing else to do in this storm.”
“Storm’s over now.”
Don paused, squinting. He seemed to understand he’d been insulted, but he was so clouded with alcohol that he just stood there, wavering stupidly as if buffeted by a swirl of wind. “Sell me something, Les. I ain’t here for a lecture.”
“I just sold you a bottle yesterday. You went through that already?”
Lester said, “What are you doing out tonight? You know everything is shut down.”
“Janey tossed me. Told me to walk it off.”
“You didn’t hit her again, did you?”
“What? Nah. I tripped over one of the kids’ toys and spilled dinner. She got hot, sent me out, but where the hell am I supposed to go?”
“What were you drinking?”
“Whiskey. A little beer.”
“How much whiskey?”
Again, no answer.
“Don, how much?”
“I’m telling you, I didn’t hit her. I learned my lesson last time. Couple nights in jail was enough for me. I’m on the straight and narrow now. Besides, I was drunk that time.”
“Yeah, and now you’re drunk again.”
“Come on, Les.”
Lester did not believe him. “What’s your number?”
Don told him. “Go ahead and call her. I don’t care.”
Lester ducked into the store and picked up the phone. “Janey, your husband is outside. He wants to buy.”
“. . .”
“Whatever you want, but tell me the truth. I promise I won’t call the cops if you say not to.”
“. . .”
In the area near the front door which he’d already shoveled clear, Lester opened a lawn chair. He sat down, a case of beer beside him. He opened a can for himself, drank, and felt the alcohol ooze into him. He spat and the ball of spittle punched an irregular hole in the uniform snow by his knees.
From the south, a plow crescendoed and passed, its wake a blend of clinking tire chains and the low rumble of blacktop scraped by steel. If he had turned Don down, Don would have kept walking and perhaps passed out in the snow. Given the exposure, and with so little chance someone would walk by and roust him, he might not have gotten up. Ever. But Janey didn’t want him back that night either.
So they made a deal. For every two parking spaces Don shoveled, Lester would give him a beer. Don had trudged to the far corner of the lot, breaking trail like a giant crippled mole.
“I did talk to her,” Lester called out.
“And you didn’t hit her.”
“Told you,” Don grunted, falling into a shoveling rhythm. “I learned my lesson last time. I ain’t going back to jail.”
“She’s got a head on her shoulders, all right.”
Tomorrow, Lester might write to Carolyn. He might say only that he was fine, that he missed her, and that the weather was cold. But before that, he would drag a passed-out man into the supply room. He would lay out a blanket and turn up the heat so that the man would be warm as he slept. He would sit down beside him and wait for the purple quarter-light of morning while the room filled with foul, live breath, which was far preferable to the alternative. Maybe Lester would put all that in the letter, too.
Cold. Minus-twenty, probably. In an hour maybe minus-thirty. It didn’t matter. He was used to it and could always zip on another layer. He was warm for the moment.
Don finished another two spaces and stared back across the lot. A beer arced through the air and soughed to a landing in the snow. Don reached down, rescued the can, and tore it open. His body steamed with exertion into the night. A green lash of aurora snapped above him as he drank.