The Snow by Therese Marie Duncan
At work, as the lunch assistant cook, I reflect while cleaning up after the rush hour. If I’m willing to work hard, I’ll have a good relationship with Randy. That’s what people say. Relationships take work. I’m so glad we’re going to a party at the snow at the dentist’s cabin. We’ll connect there. Throw some snowballs. I can’t wait for breathtaking views of rolling white hills. I’m going to soak it all in and memorize it so I can paint snow pictures. There’ll be girls at the snow. Don’t get jealous and pick a fight.
A few days later, we’re ready to head up to the snow. Though it’s still early in the afternoon, the pale winter sun is already beginning to fall in the sky. I stand near our curb with a case of beer, to make sure I don’t get left behind.
Randy’s in the shower. Tom’s old misty blue Impala pulls into a space down the street. Tom and another guy, probably Alex, their other army buddy, get out.
This is the first time I’ve seen Tom since he cheated on Ana. How do I act? Forgive seventy times seven—infinite times—like Jesus said. Ana already took Tom back.
They get closer.
“Hi, Tom,” I say.
“Hey, Marie. Long time no-see. How’re you doing?”
“Good.” If I caught Randy cheating, that would be it, I wouldn’t take him back. But then, I don’t have a baby, like Ana does.
“You met Alex?” Tom asks.
“No. Nice to meet you, Alex. You’re Randy’s other army buddy.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He grins. “Pleased to meet you.”
We shake hands. He’s taller than Randy and Tom, has blond hair, a layer of baby fat. He’s more pink than tan. But when he grins, he’s intense like Randy and Tom, so he’s fun, though Alex has shifty eyes, like he’s up to something. My boss said to watch out for drugs, going up to the snow at the dentist’s cabin. Maybe Alex deals cocaine. I laugh to myself for writing fiction in my mind. Alex isn’t a dealer. He looks too healthy.
Randy bounds down the stairs. “Hey, man.” He shakes Alex’s hand, punches Tom’s shoulder, takes my hand. “Let’s go,” he says. He sounds excited.
I’m so glad I told him I’m coming too.
Alex scoops up the case of beer. We all walk toward Tom’s Impala. I want to feel this electricity from Randy’s hand forever. Even if he’s only holding my hand to claim me in front of his buddies, I love him holding on tight. It takes time to make a relationship.
Near the car Randy lets go of my hand. “Shotgun.”
He wants the front seat. Don’t panic. Let him breathe. He’s with his army buddies. It feels great to understand that.
Alex and I get in the back seat. We all crack a beer and start out for the snow. Tom shouldn’t drink and drive, but it’s early. He won’t be drunk. I can’t wait to throw some snowballs.
As we drive, we climb into the mountains. Alex nudges me, points out places where he and his high school friends used to drink and fish along the river. I’m so used to Randy’s quiet ways, it feels strange being talked to. I like it. Though, I love Randy just the way he is, the way his grin takes up his whole face when he laughs, the way he’s quiet, and wraps his long arms around me.
Patches of snow appear. I roll down my window to feel more alive with my face in the icy air.
“You trying to make us freeze, Marie?” Tom’s wide eyes catch mine in the rear-view mirror.
Don’t they want to feel alive? The heater’s blowing on them. How could Tom not want to feel the cold on his face?
Randy pulls up his collar. “Yeah, Marie,” he laughs, “you’ll have all the cold you want where we’re going.”
You too, Randy? We’re supposed to be a team.
Alex smiles at me, spins a finger by his head and points at Tom and Randy.
I laugh. Alex and I could be friends, except, every time I’m friends with a guy, he hits on me. So, I’m not going down that road. For sure he’s not a cocaine dealer, he’s too nice.
I slowly roll up the window.
By the time we finish the second round of beers, slushy ice covers the road. The car slides on a curve.
Randy looks at Tom. “You got chains?”
“Yes, I do.” Tom pulls over.
We all get out of the car. Chains clink as Randy and Tom pull them out of the trunk.
“Marie, you don’t need to be out here in this mess,” Alex says. “We got it. Get in there, stay warm.” He opens the car door.
He’s looking after me. I wish it were Randy. “Thanks.” I get back in the car, feeling more left out than warm. The men have their own little pack. Of course. They’re army buddies. I’m too sensitive.
Later in the afternoon, when more shadows than sun cover the ground, Tom drives down long plowed driveways three times. Finally we find the dentist’s place at the end of the third one. Billows of sunlit pale gray smoke from a red brick chimney clear the trees, rise skyward. It’s not a cabin. It’s a big two-story redwood house, with a small cluster of cabins behind it. Wow—the dentist is wealthy.
There must be thirty cars here, parked every which way. As Tom pulls into a small space of unplowed snow near the front of the house, snow crunches under the Impala’s tires We get out, stretch our legs. I breathe deeply the pine and smoke-scented air, only a little drunk after three beers.
I look all around. Shoot. No giant white rolling hills of deep snow—too flat, too many trees. I wanted fat white hills, the kind on greeting cards that make it seem life itself is somehow pure and true, in a way that doesn’t always show. I wanted a holiday-card snow scene. Damn it.
Do I live in a fantasy world of snowy greeting cards and a perfect handsome soulmate? Yes. I do. Is that all that’s wrong with me? I laugh softly to myself.
“Watch out, Marie,” Tom says, “when you start laughing to yourself, people worry.” He chuckles.
My face heats up with embarrassment. He doesn’t mean any harm. I smile his way, but he’s already walking toward the house.
The sunset gives everything a warm glow. Long blue—more like purple—tree shadows lengthen across a small dazzling patch of pink snow. I’m transfixed by the deep purple shadows and bright pink snow. They’re like my life—unbearably sweet and mysterious, surrounded by scary dark woods. I didn’t need pure white rolling hills. How I long to paint those shadows, that pink snow, those woods.
“You coming, Marie?” Randy calls, following Tom with long strides.
“I’m coming.” I turn, glance back. I’ll name my painting Snowy Sunset. My heart speeds up, it’s so beautiful. I need to save money for paints.
I follow the guys up the wide redwood steps of the big house, past firewood stacked on the front porch. We enter a living room hazy with cigarette smoke. It feels like night just fell, it’s so dark. My eyes get used to it with the help of a big log fire. The place is packed with lively people dressed in fine wool Mom would love, and heavy corduroy I could never afford. The guests are loud, confident. Women wearing cashmere sweaters, thin wool skirts, little heels and tall boots. Men in slacks, loose ties, expensive looking jeans, leather shoes. I like that girl’s pink denim jacket.
My tan corduroy jacket is worn, my jeans baggy, my suede boots dirty. I dressed to play in the snow.
Liar. This is how you dress. It’s embarrassing I made no effort. Randy never seems to mind how I dress, but maybe he does. It wouldn’t help here. These people are from another world.
We move past the first little crowd, get closer to the fire. Shit—on a long low coffee table in front of a couch, lie two round mirrors covered in a film of white dust. Two small jars of snowy powder flank the mirrors. My heart thumps. Don’t gawk. My boss had it right. I told him, Tony, it’s not going to be like that. I was wrong.
Who would leave all this cocaine just laid out on a table? It costs a lot. Whose is it? Several plastic bags of weed cover part of the table. I look around. There’s the bar, next to the dining room. There must be forty bottles of liquor, mostly full. A lot of liquor.
I thought we were going to throw snowballs, find a sled, hike around.
Well, I never got a warm jacket. I’ll have a drink, but I sure never want to do drugs again. I had enough of that with Joe. Too bad he never wanted to quit.
I scan the crowd. Randy’s nowhere in sight.
Is this a normal relationship problem?
Tom and Alex are gone too.
I’m not going to humiliate myself chasing Randy down. I’m going to get a drink.
I pour a glass of whiskey over ice—the way Dad makes his—so I’ll feel strong, safe, the way men seem to be. I take my drink outside, down to the driveway. I’m lonely. It’s too cold to stay outside more than a few minutes. I kick a pile of plowed snow chunks, remember my boss Tony worrying about me, remember the mustard flying up his leg when I dropped the full, gallon glass jar, him not getting mad. I miss him right now. He’s married and too old for me. I don’t even like him that way, but he makes me feel special.
What am I doing here besides breathing frosty air? I probably shouldn’t have come. I felt like I had to invite myself. I really believed we were going to play in the snow. Tony didn’t think so. He knew the snow we were going to play in is on the table with all the weed. Cocaine’s bad—feels good for ten minutes, then I need something better. No. I’ll stick to alcohol. I don’t want to get drunk and pass out, though, like I used to. Too bad I didn’t bring my journal so I could sketch and write.
“What are you doing, Marie? The party’s inside.”
I wheel around. Alex. Did he come looking for me? “Hi Alex. I didn’t hear you come outside.”
“Stealth. So, what gives?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you’re, uh, old man’s not around.”
“Yeah.” So? What are you saying, Alex?
“You’re a nice girl. Randy’s crazy.”
You’re crazy hitting on me, Alex. “I invited myself along. He just wanted to hang out with the guys.”
“That what he’s doing?”
Probably not. “Probably.” Change the subject. “Do you know the dentist?”
“I don’t think anyone here knows the dentist.”
We both laugh.
Alex looks at me a long time.
I know that look. Ready when you are, he’s saying.
“Well, don’t stay out in the cold…too long, Marie.” He says it with another meaning.
“Don’t worry, Alex, I won’t.” I’m not crazy. If Randy and I can’t work it out, I’m not going to keep trying forever, if that’s what he means by staying out in the cold.
Alex smiles. “Someone’s got a giant barbeque that’s about ready. It’s outside the kitchen door, between those cabins.” He nods toward the cabins.
Yep. Randy’s in one of those cabins.
Alex pulls his collar up tight. “Come and get something to eat when you’re done being alone. You’re kind of skinny.” He grins, turns, goes inside.
That sounds too good to be true. A barbeque that’s ready. Usually, you wait at least four hours to eat at a barbeque. Why does Alex act like he likes me? He shouldn’t be talking to me like that. Randy’s his friend.
I go back inside the main house, through the dining room, the kitchen, out the kitchen door. On a brick patio under party lights, I see three brick barbeques each with meat sizzling. Cooked chicken and beef piled on platters. Tables with salads, potato chips and cupcakes. People eating. Must be the pot smokers and drinkers because you’re sure not hungry snorting coke.
No Randy. Two cabins flank the patio. I get a knot in my gut. What if he’s with someone inside one of those cabins?
I need to relax, stop worrying. He’s getting stoned with people, that’s all.
No Alex in sight. Good. I don’t want to encourage him because I’m getting a plate of food. I want to eat and go home. If only I could.
I pile food on a paper plate, go back to sit by the fire. No one on the couch? Great. I sit down at one end, across from the fire. This isn’t so bad—hot food, nice fire, whiskey. Except the cocaine’s right in front of me, pulling me with invisible sparkling ribbons. My heart speeds up. Look away. Cocaine’ll take me back to heroin. People sit down, chop lines with driver licenses, snort the lines through rolled dollar bills.
I take a big swallow of whiskey, watch firelight dance on the face of a guy sitting on a straight-back chair beside the fire. Firelight’s beautiful. I want to paint that guy’s dark curls, kind face, deep red plaid shirt that reflects the flames.
I’m a little drunk. I look around at the faces, now, not the clothes. Firelight touches everyone’s face, sparkles in everyone’s eyes—eyes like mine—hunting, hoping, wanting, running. It’s what humans have to do, isn’t it? Freedom’s an illusion. I wish I had my journal to write this down. I take a scrap of paper from my purse, write on it, The illusion of freedom, fold the scrap, put it in my pocket. I’ll carry it with me so I never forget. I’m not alone. I’m not bad for wanting Randy. Alex isn’t bad for wanting me. It’s what we have to do. Tall yellow flames lick the charred back of the fireplace, because they have to.
I sip my whiskey. Alcohol makes me philosophical. Now the guy on the straight-back chair looks sad, lost. He pokes the fire, sends sparks flying upward. I wonder what makes him so sad—being orphaned? Beaten as a child? Left by his lover? Something went wrong for him. Things goes wrong for us all. Sparks of tears spring to my eyes.
I’m so hungry.
I eat some chicken. God, it’s so good.
How can this dinner be so good, yet people starve with no one to help them? Life’s fucking hard, that’s how. And there’s no help coming. That’s why there’s probably no god.
I stare at the fire, the black logs, red embers. I feel the red embers pulse with love for us, somehow—for our suffering. The red embers love us no matter what.
Is that how God is? He can’t help us. He can only love us?
I set my drink aside—it’ll make me dizzy if I drink more. Even joy makes us suffer. We’re scared of joy disappearing! I’m less anxious when I’m not happy.
I glance at the cocaine. Yeah, we’re stupid, not bad, for wanting drugs. Drugs are more predictable than people.
I eat half my cupcake in one bite.
Two guys in tweed jackets sit down, chop some cocaine with a driver license, snort it, smile at me, and leave.
I breathe deep. Life’s here, no less than on a snowy holiday card. If only I had my journal. I want to remember: life does what it has to. Goes where it must. Like mustard shooting onto Tony’s slacks. The question isn’t do we know what we have to do. It’s what do we know we have to do? I knew I had to come here.
Now I know I need to go home.
The sad red shirt guy pokes at the fire. He turns, smiles, nods hello to me.
Someone to say hello to. I nod back. “You’re keeping busy.”
“Well, not much to do. I figure I’ll keep the fire going. I’m not much of a drinker, don’t do drugs.”
“Me neither, anymore. Drugs that is.” It’s easier not to use with this guy not using.
He tips an invisible hat. “Ross.”
“You know the dentist?”
I laugh. Shake my head no.
“Me neither. My girlfriend’s friend’s friend knows him.”
He’s nice. Too bad he has a girlfriend. In case Randy and I don’t work out.
He looks up. “Here she comes.”
A girl stumbles over with sparkling blonde hair, black eyeliner, the pink denim jacket, tight baby blue jeans. She smiles happily, puts her hands out to the world. “Here I am!”
“Georgia, this is Marie. Marie, my girlfriend, Georgia.”
I put my hand out. “Hi Georgia.”
Georgia grins, plops down beside me, grabs my hand. “Marie, Marie, you must have dinner with us sometime soon!” She laughs. “So nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you, Georgia.” I see why Ross likes her. She’s friendly.
“Someone’s having fun,” Ross says good-naturedly. He puts the pots of cocaine on top of the mirrors, carries it all to the dining room.
Smooth. For Georgia. For Ross, really. Worked out for me.
Georgia jabs my rib. “That’s Ross. Ross, Ross, Ross.”
“I’m drunk, Honey,” Georgia says.
“I know,” says Ross as he takes his seat. He smiles, like a patient parent.
Georgia stumbles back through the dining room. Soon the kitchen door slams.
I eat my potato salad.
Ross clears his throat. “I saw you come in with some friends.”
“Yeah. My boyfriend, with his army buddies.”
I don’t want to talk about Randy. I watch the foot traffic.
Ross watches the fire.
I drink my whiskey slowly.
“Guess I’ll get some food. Need anything?” says Ross.
“Another cupcake, please.”
He comes back with food and the promised cupcake.
It could be a long night. Might as well visit. “Do you and Georgia live around here?”
He shakes his head. “North Dakota.”
“Yeah. That white stuff outside? Not snow.”
We laugh. “I’ve heard of North Dakota snow from my Dad telling us about his travels in blizzards.”
“I grew up there.” He looks at the fire. “But, since my dad passed on, little by little my family’s moving away.”
“Sorry. You’re too young to lose your dad.”
He nods at my whiskey. “Alcohol.”
“Oh.” I feel guilty, which doesn’t make sense. I didn’t make his dad die. “Sorry.”
We watch the fire’s busy flames. I go out back, toss my plate of chicken bones, look for Randy around the barbeques. No Randy. I return to the fire, stomach churning. Randy’s in one of those cabins.
Fuck Randy if he doesn’t want to be with me. I’m tired of worrying. I’ll visit with Ross until it’s time to go. “I like horses, used to ride one bareback in an arena. My boyfriend and I lived in a barn above horses.”
“Sounds exciting. Georgia and I’ve been in school forever. Talk about a dull life. She’s going to be a psychotherapist.”
No, way too boring. I watched the pharmacist get my penicillin prescription every two weeks for two years when I had rheumatic fever. “You like to help people.” People like Georgia. She’s kind of a mess. Why does he want to be with her, when alcohol killed his dad?
“I do like to help people,” he says.
“I thought so. I don’t mean to be nosy, but why not be a doctor? You’ll be good at it. You’re this far along in school.”
“Have to start paying off our loans.” He looks into the fire.
“Take out more loans, Ross.” Like I know something about loans. All I know is he’s making a big mistake becoming a pharmacist. All they do is count pills. I’d rather be shot.
He laughs, his red shirt seems ablaze. He looks deeper into the fire. His eyes seem ablaze now.
He is the fire.
“Do what you really want to, Ross. I learned that. My life may not look like much, but at least I do what I want, you know? I’ve done things other people didn’t want me to. We have to be true to ourselves. No one else can do it for us.”
Ross nods at the flames. “My dad used to say that. Do what you want, Ross. I told him, not everyone can do that, Dad.” Ross looks disgusted. “My dad did whatever he wanted,” he says slow and even.
It was bad for Ross and his family, his dad being an alcoholic.
“I need more wood for the fire.” Ross stands up, goes out the front door.
I hope I didn’t make him mad.
I pour more whiskey. It won’t kill me—you have to drink a lot to die the way his dad did. I shouldn’t be telling people how to live their lives. But nothing could be worse than counting pills the rest of your life, paying off the loans of someone you’ll never control.
Ross comes back with wood. We fall back into our own thoughts.
The night wears on. The drone of drunken, stoned-out talk gets louder. The smells of smoke and whiskey mingle. Only six half-full bottles of liquor left. A radio plays, people come and go. Couples stumble on their way upstairs. Furniture bangs around, sounds of moaning, laughing, howling come through the stairwell.
A woman up there screams. Ross and I look at each other, with raised eyebrows. Should we go see if she’s all right? I don’t want to. Someone might grab me.
I’m a coward.
If I thought I could help I would go see. It’s quieter now. What could I do? Yell at some drunk guy? Which one?
I want to go home.
Some people walk into the living room, frantically look around.
“It’s in the dining room,” Ross tells them.
It must be near midnight. Everyone’s a mess, eye make-up smeared, hair in tangles, shirts, belts, shoes missing.
If Randy had wanted to find me, he would have. It’s pretty clear he doesn’t want to be with me. It’s embarrassing.
Or, it could be Randy’s just immature, partying, and I’m the wet blanket girlfriend. “Where’s Georgia, Ross?”
“I need to go find her.” He looks off toward the kitchen, looks back at me. He nods a few times. “Thanks for saying I should do what I want. I needed to hear that.”
“Any time.” Wow. I didn’t mess up. I wish he could be my friend. He wouldn’t hit on me, I can tell. But it’s not right to ask another girl’s boyfriend for his phone number.
He rubs his hands, wipes them on his pants. “Yeah, time to go find her. She works a stressful job as an intern, needs to blow off steam every now and then.”
“Yeah. Well, was nice talking to you.”
“Likewise. Your boyfriend have a stressful job, too?”
We laugh. “Yeah. That’s it.” Ross is funny.
He goes through the kitchen. I hear the back door close.
Randy deserted me.
Though, he couldn’t make love to me the way he does, if he’s not crazy about me. Relationships are work—don’t give up so easily. He could be wondering why I didn’t follow him. Ross isn’t giving up on Georgia. Don’t judge Randy when you don’t know what he’s doing.
I take Ross’s chair, stir the fire. Transfixed I watch chunks of glowing charred wood break off in bursts of white flames and red sparks. People are just as mesmerizing, with the thousand ways we burn.
Hardly anyone’s left now. I thread my way through people sleeping on the dining room floor. In the kitchen, people sit on the floor, lean against appliances, talk politics. The kitchen clock reads one o’clock.
I step over ankles, go out the back door, let it close quietly.
Outside, the barbeques are cold. But the food still looks fresh under the party lights in the icy air. I stand still, look at the smaller cabins. I can’t go look.
What if Randy’s in bed with someone? Don’t think that. No. He’s passed out. I’ll keep my fantasy, for now.
I walk to the driveway. Good, Tom’s car’s still here. They didn’t leave me. I’ll crash on the couch.
“Hey,” comes a soft, deep voice.
Randy! I turn.
Damn. Alex stands in the porch light, looking down on me.
I fold my arms across my chest. “Hey.”
He leans his folded arms on the porch railing. “What do you say?” He sounds drunk.
“You and me!” He laughs, puts his arms out, like, what could be plainer?
“Come on.” He beams, sways, holds his arms up higher. “You know it would be good.” He’s really drunk. “Let’s get it on, you know, come on, Marie.”
“I’m with Randy, Alex. Forget it.” Why is he doing this? Fuck him. I want to go home, but Tom and Randy aren’t around. Damn it. I need to fall asleep somewhere. Not be conscious.
“Yeah, well, the thing is.” Alex looks down at his feet. He looks up into the trees. He nods over and over, then looks at me. “I asked Randy about it, and he said, ‘Sure, go ahead.’”
“You asked Randy?”
Alex wants to borrow me? Like a car? And Randy said Sure?
Alex shrugs. “Yeah. He doesn’t care, you know, if you and me get together.”
Porch light blinds me, the way police spotlights do. The icy air I love feels unfriendly. Alex shot me and doesn’t know it. I fold my arms tighter against the cold. Randy gave me away?
Pain pushes into me. I’m a gray statue of pain. Not part of fire-lit life. A chunk of gray pain stone. Given away. I’m ashamed.
If only I could collapse. I’m too strong. I thought Randy might cheat. I never thought he’d give me away.
Alex smiles, waits. He wants what he wants. Never.
I need to sit down. Figure things out. Get on with life. Mom always says, put one foot in front of the other when things get tough. I’ll go sit on Ross’s chair. Alex will climb on me if I’m on the couch. I go up the porch steps, pass Alex, shrug his arm off my shoulder.
I see his shifty eyes.
Is Alex lying? Would Randy tell Alex he could have me? Even drunk? No. Would Alex lie? Yes. Why? Why would Alex say such an awful thing? He’s drunk.
I’m disgusted. I can’t think about it. “You’re drunk, Alex. Go crash.”
“Don’t tell Randy what I said.”
“Why did you say that?” I snap. I’m on fire now.
He looks lost. “I’m a pig. Not the police kind.”
“You mother-fucker! You are a pig!”
I hear Alex sobbing as he follows me inside. He laughs through a sob. “Satan owns my soul.”
“Lay off the drugs, Alex.”
“I don’t do drugs, honey. Alcohol’s my saving grace.”
Fuck him. “Saves you how?”
“Trust me, you don’t want to know, sweetheart. ‘Night.” He falls face down on the couch.
I’m so angry. I throw the cushions from the back of the couch onto the floor.
What a jerk. Though, we all do bad things when we’re drunk with demons inside us. What’re his demons? I could help him, when I cool off. Help him see whatever happened in his life—probably not his fault. Gregory Peck in Spellbound didn’t kill his little brother. Did Alex accidentally kill a sibling? Yeah. Tomorrow I’ll ask him. He’ll talk to me.
What’s Randy’s stressful job? Being Randy.
I crash on the floor. I can’t, don’t want to think anymore. Finally, sleepily, I’m relieved going to the snow is almost over.
I wake up at dawn with a headache, recollect Ross, Georgia, what else? Oh, fucking Alex. I’m the only one in a hurry to leave. Finally, my sullen car mates and I drive down the slushy mountain.
I feel alive getting away from that place. Randy ditched me, Alex hit on me, Tom cheated on Ana—I’m done with the lot of them. I want to talk. “That was the best barbeque I ever saw.”
Total silence. Come on. If anyone should be grumpy, I should. I’m not giving up. “The first time ever I didn’t wait for a barbeque.”
They’re not talking. Well, for certain I won’t ask Alex about demons while Randy and Tom are in earshot, and I won’t ask Randy if he had a good time.
I won’t lie. I’ll tell Tony he was right to warn me about going to the snow.
I’m on my own. I look out the window, press my cheek to the frosty pane, enjoy myself feeling alive. All I have to do is be myself. Mom always says that.
Randy throws his arm over the back seat, holds my knee with his big warm hand. His hand feels heavy. There’s no electricity. He’s sorry, but him being sorry’s an intrusion. I’m not angry with him. Feel nothing for him. Do feelings come back?
Is life supposed to be this hard?
Forgive seventy times seven? How does anyone know what to do? Do I need to leave him, Mom? You never gave up.
The snow was beautiful. Love is hard work.
I remember that the glowing red embers in Ross’s fire love us, no matter what. God might love us, no matter what, but give us no answers. I can stay, I can go. I don’t have to know.
I rest my hand on Randy’s, watch gray slush melt on the side of the road.