When I was a much younger man, I had taken a day off from work down at the lumber mill to spend with a girl. I remember waking that morning to a light chill in my cabin. The fire I had lit the night before was a long time dead. I had dressed myself in clothes tighter fit to my skin than usual and in several layers, my outerwear a grey with dull but undeniable life to it. I had opened the door. The world in front of my house was a bright white wonderland of innocent opportunity for the pursuit of childlike whimsy and joyfulness. She jumped onto my back from beside the doorframe. Jessica was her name. We laughed together, but in my memory, I hear nothing; instead, I see only the faces of giddiness in one another’s company. We loved each other that day. We ran and spun and acted like fools in the snow. And when we were too tired to make love, and not in the crude and perverse way but the kind of love you can make with a stare, I sat against a stump, and into my arms she fell. “As the snow is white, I will always love you.”
And for me, the snow turned black.
My eyes opened on a fresh winter day not yet stained with the pain and reflection of years. I breathed the air, and its vibrance all but suffocated me. I slipped into my worn, drab grey sweatshirt and pants. Someone knocked on my door. I opened it and was blinded by the white snow stabbing my eyes with light.
“I’m ready, John,” I said.
“Then get your shit, and let’s go,” he said.
I walked back inside, put on my last outerwear, and slung my bag onto my back. I left with John and locked the door behind me. The harsh cold barely nipped at my ears and the back of my neck. The grey mush at our feet along the road tried to suck our boots down under its surface. I would have kicked it at John had it been years before. But we were both too tired for that then. And it didn’t matter that I had been sleeping just minutes before. Sleeping never helps the truly tired.
When we reached the mill, we went to our separate stations. I brought the saw down whenever the logs would move six feet. Lift it up. Bring it down. Lift it up. Bring it down. All day long. Just lift it up. Then bring it down. Then lift it up, lock it in place. Can’t forget the safety lock. That keeps you from getting cut. Keeps it in one place. We started walking back home. We stopped at my house first.
“Do you have anything I could eat before I head home?” John asked. “I forgot to bring a lunch today.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I’ve got you covered.”
We went inside and kicked the snow off our boots at the door. He sat on the couch while I grabbed two sandwiches out of the kitchen fridge, one for him and one for myself. I tossed it to him when I went back into the den and sat on the other end of the couch.
“Did you just make these?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I make a lot every Sunday so I don’t have to worry about it later in the week.”
“Oh,” he said.
We both started eating. I looked at the coffee table the whole time.
“Are you happy?” I asked.
He looked at me with a blank expression. He furrowed his brow to feign thought. “I don’t know. Are you?”
I was quiet for a moment. “I don’t know.”
I think we both took a few more bites. Then, he said, “I don’t think so. I don’t really worry about it. I mean, what does it really matter?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean, what does it really matter? I have a roof over my head. I didn’t bring any today, but I have food at home. I have a job. I can’t say I’m unhappy. I guess I mean, why be happy if it’s just gonna go away? Why does it really matter?”
I ate a little more of my sandwich. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
“I mean, why ask the question if you’re just gonna depress yourself?”
I stared back at the coffee table. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
He was finished. He started to stand up. “Well, I need to head on home.”
I walked him to the door.
“See you tomorrow,” he said, walking outside.
“See you tomorrow,” I said, shutting the door behind him.
I lit a small fire and went to bed.
My eyes opened as I woke on a smothering winter day. The prior day’s hazy smoke of fire and the air I had trapped inside was stale. I put on my grey sweatshirt and pants. I “got my shit” before John got there that morning. We walked to work in the cold again. I went to my station. I reached up to pull the saw out of the safety lock. I tried to lift it out of the lock. It didn’t budge. I called over my supervisor.
“Not sure what it is,” he said after vainly pushing and tugging it. “I’ll have somebody look at it.”
“Where do you want me to go?” I asked.
“All the other stations are filled. You haven’t taken a single day off in the last six years. How about you go home for today, Bill?”
I didn’t feel snubbed, exactly. I knew he was trying to be nice, but I didn’t like it. Still, I did as he said and began to walk home alone. Maybe that’s why the road seemed so many miles longer. But as I came up to my house, I looked just off the side of the road. I saw something red. I stopped in my tracks. I looked behind me and saw only my own footprints. I looked ahead and saw my house alone. I looked back at the red. I shrugged and walked to it. It was a body. No, it was breathing, if faintly. It was a person. I flipped it over. Her face was pale and blue. I picked her up in my arms and continued to my house.
Once inside, I pulled off only her drenched, outermost clothes, and I laid her on the couch. I piled blankets on top of her and lit a fire. I pulled myself another sandwich out of the fridge and looked out the window. A blizzard was brewing in the skies. She was lucky I had found her when I did. I sat next to her head while I ate. When I was finished, I put my hand to her cheek. She was warmer now, considerably. I decided to go lay down. I never really did much else.
I woke with a start at the noise. My head whipped from side to side before stilling to listen. It was faint and high-pitched, but sounded muffled by something. It was someone humming. I stood and grabbed my still drying clothes off a rack. Once dressed, I stepped into my livingroom. She was not on the couch anymore. The hum came from the kitchen along with a pleasant aroma of something on which I could not quite place my finger. My nose and ears guided me into the same room as her.
When she wasn’t inches from death, she was rather beautiful actually. She was short with a satisfying plumpness to her. No, plump is not the right word, but weighted more than the twig-women haunting bars and street corners downtown. When she turned around and her ignorance of my presence was lost, a warm smile with the life of a young girl but the elegance of a woman her age settled on her lips. Her eyes caught mine in a stare that could have brought tears from me.
She did not speak or even stop humming, but shook her hips and swayed her arms as she waltzed up to me and put her arms on my shoulders. I was uncomfortable to say the least, but I knew she knew that, and for whatever the reason that made it okay. I put one hand on her waist and the other arm around her back. Eventually, she did stop humming, but I think we could both still hear the music, the heartbeats in my head as drum beats in iambic pentameter.
“I suppose you’re the one who saved my life?” she said in playful inquisition.
Her very tone made me want to laugh. I felt something stir within me which had lain dormant for ages. I responded in its spirit, “Wait, you’re alive? Damn, I thought I’d be eating for weeks.”
She laughed. It felt good. “You could be,” she said, nodding back. I wasn’t sure what she was talking about, but I didn’t care.
“Oh, so you won’t mind if I just…” I trailed off and leaned down to her neck, pretending to bite it. I did not kiss it, though. The evening was awkward and in a rolling haste, but I still felt uncertain, too uncertain to go too far.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“What do you care if a girl is already in your arms?” she retorted in coy sarcasm.
“Oh, I suppose you’re right,” I said. “Well, guess I just need to swoop you off your feet and into the bedroom now, Ms. Smith.”
I mimicked a swooping motion and spun around, making for the door. I heard her chuckling behind me. I turned back around. She was leaning against a chair, her long, black hair fallen behind her head which had tilted back in a delightful chortle. Then, she sighed a final laugh as she stood upright. “Vanessa,” she said, still swaying slightly.
“I’m Bill,” I said. “It’s nice to meet you, Vanessa.”
“Likewise, William,” she replied.
We smiled at each other for a few moments. Just before I almost asked her why she had been out in the snow by herself, I saw bruises and scrapes on her arms I had not yet noticed. I kept smiling, though.
“I think I’m going to go put away those blankets on the couch,” I said.
“Okay,” she said back. “I’ll be in here for a little while.”
I walked to the den and picked up the blankets from the couch. I started putting them into a linen closet, but I stopped when there were two left in my hands. I looked down at them. I looked back at the doorway to the kitchen. I leaned into my room and tossed them onto the other sheets on my bed.
I went back into the den and sat on the couch. I felt oddly lighter, but it was barely at all. Then she came in too, but she carried a dish with her. On it was a wonderful looking meal. But all I could think of was where it had come from. And I know how mean and asinine I sounded now, but at the time, I was blinded by stupidity.
“Where did you get this?” I asked.
“It was in your fridge,” she said. “Some of it was in some horrid-looking sandwiches, but I figured it would be better as an actual square meal.”
“Why would you do that?” I asked. “Now I won’t have those sandwiches for lunch this week.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, obviously hurt, “I just thought I’d make you something for–”
“Well next time you want to do me a favor then, just don’t,” I said.
She sat there quietly for a time. Then, her puppy-dog apologetic expression shifted to anger. “You know what?” she said. “No. I’m not doing this. You know, I almost died to get away from this kind of thing. I made you a meal, and now you can’t do anything but tell me what’s wrong with it. No, I’m not doing this.”
She stood and started walking to the door.
“Where are you going?” I asked almost yelling.
“I don’t know, and I don’t really care.”
“Fine! If you want to be that way, then leave. I was doing just fine without you before.”
“I will leave!” she screamed, slamming the door behind her.
I simmered in rage before picking up the dish and throwing it against the wall on the far end of the room. I kicked the coffee table on its side and started to punch the wall. I leaned against that wall. I almost started to cry. That was how it had happened all those years before. I don’t even remember what we had been arguing about then. It hadn’t mattered. I had been wrong. I was still here, so I had been wrong. And Jessica had run out the door, just like Vanessa did then. I remembered running out after her, only minutes later. It had been a blizzard. I couldn’t see anything. It had been a blizzard. I ran for the door.
I pulled it open and ran as far out as I could before the solid snow snagged my feet and pulled me to my knees. The dark, emptiness of the sky was open but closing in on top of the still ivory snow. Ice pellets in the wind scraped their nails along my neck and face, and my eyes were streaming with tears, and my fingers dug themselves into the snow and were bitten by frost and the pounding in my head like the fists of Satan and my heart beating my whole body apart I screamedwithallthemightinmylungsandscreamed “Vanessa! Vanessa, I’m sorry! Please, just please, where are you?” I spun around, searching from left to right to left to up to down, not knowing left from right “Vanessa!” from wrong from left, tumbled and twisted and “Vanessa, please!” twirled by the winds and my own memories. Because that night, all those years ago when the snow had turned black, was replaying in my head too, “Vanessa!” so everything I saw was some sort of mangled mess of horror, the ones “Vanessa!” I loved perpetually slipping away, falling down the pit of death as fast as death could take them, could rip them from my arms. I screamed in anguish and agony and all emotions of pain, because no single one is enough to put the feeling of that scream into your ears. “Don’t leave me again!” my voice was buried under billowing clouds of snow rolling from above. I fell over a nearly frozen mass. It had the red on it. I bawled as I struggled to lift and drag and pull it back to the house. I don’t know when I got there. But I pulled her into my arms on the floor when I had kicked the door shut and cried on her. I bled my heart out to her. “I swear to God, to all things holy, to nothing if that’s all there is above men, save her life!”
I pulled her off the floor and into the bed with me. I pulled the sheets over us and wrapped them tightly around her, myself only inside them to give her warmth. I pulled her as close to myself as I could and kept crying. I could not stop crying. I felt her chest moving and breaths coming from her mouth. I pulled her up to me and kissed her head. “I’m so sorry, Vanessa, I’m so sorry. I swear, I will never hurt you like that again. I swear.” I just could not stop crying.
When I woke the next morning, I turned to my right. The bed was empty except for me. I opened my eyes to see no one in her place. I rolled onto my back again. Then, I felt her land on my chest, jumping from the foot of the bed. She pressed her lips against mine. She started to cry. I pulled her as close as I possibly could. Then she leaned back and smiled at me. She hopped out of the bed and left the room.
I stood and followed suit. When I reached the den, I saw my clothes laid out on the couch for me, and beside it was my bag. It looked like it may have even been wiped down. I put my clothes on, and shortly thereafter, John knocked on the door. Before I opened the door, I felt Vanessa’s hand on my shoulder. I turned around and she embraced me. She kissed my cheek and whispered something in my ear. Then, she put a familiarly horrid-looking sandwich in my hand. I slipped it into my bag and looked at her.
“I’ll be here when you get back,” she said.
“Please do,” I said with a wry smile.
“Goodbye,” she said.
“Not for long,” I said. I turned around and opened the door after John knocked for the fifth time.
“What the hell took so long?” he asked.
“Oh, nothing much,” I said.
And we started walking to work together, but something about the snow was different. Every breath I took in made me lighter. Every step I took broadened my shoulders. The landscape seemed to breathe again, and what had been black for me was white once more.
And when we got to work, I walked to my station. I looked up at the saw blade in its safety lock. It looked the same as before, but I decided to try it again. And it came out perfectly fine. I figured my supervisor had gotten someone to take a look at it. After the fifth or sixth length, he came up beside me.
“How did you get that down?” he asked.
“I just grabbed it,” I responded.
“Huh,” he replied, leaning against the halted log. “Well, that’s weird. I never got anyone to look at it yesterday or this morning. Well, anyway, back to it. See you later, Bill.”
With that he left me. I looked at the saw in my hand in a sort of admiration. Then the log shifted down, and I kept working.