By Hadley Franklin
The snow was piling up now in great glistening drifts that avalanched from rooftops and blindfolded the windshields of cars. I stood in the living room and watched the television on mute. In the silent scroll of school closings, Becky and Liza’s school finally emerged. On the one hand, this meant I didn’t need to dig out the car, but on the other, it meant a whole day cooped up with a five-year-old and a nine-year-old and three articles to write and the tendrils of a headache already creeping over my temples. I went to make coffee.
Becky shuffled into the kitchen, her little fists wriggling against her eyes.
“Are we late?” she asked, lingering on the vowels. Her limbs had finally caught up to her body, and now dangled uncertainly in their sockets. She had transformed quickly from a compact toddler to a willowy miniature person.
“Guess what?” I knelt in front of her and held her hands. Her breath came in damp bursts over my face, sweet and rotten from sleep, like turned milk.
“It’s a snow day. School is canceled.”
Becky’s face remained placid. “Oh. Can I have pancakes?”
I was let down that she was so unfazed. But Becky liked kindergarten, the bright murals of construction paper and marker drawings, the block towers and the alphabet rendered in a careful pencil hand. She raced from the car, purple backpack bouncing, to Ms. Marron’s side in the mornings, and Ms. Marron waved at me with jangling silver and jade bracelets and an expression of condescending concern. Or maybe that was how kindergarten teachers looked all the time.
“For you, Toots,” I said to Becky, “Anything.” Becky climbed into a chair at the kitchen table and ran her fingers along the grooves in the wood, whispering the occasional word to herself.
Liza ran into the kitchen and stopped short dramatically in the center of the room. Her eyes were wide and she panted in exaggerated breaths.
“Is it a snow day?” Her dark hair alternately bunched and flew wild around her head, and a thin line of her belly was exposed where her pajama top didn’t quite reach down far enough.
“Yep. We’re having pancakes.”
“Yes!” Liza pumped her fist and jumped in the air. Caught in the excitement, Becky scrambled off her chair and rushed to her sister’s side. They grabbed hands and swung each other around, giggling and chanting, “Snow-day, snow-day” until I shouted for them to settle down or nobody was getting any pancakes. Still giggling, they tumbled onto the kitchen chairs.
“Dad liked snow days, too.” Liza told Becky. She had become the expert in all things Nelson: his preferred activities, foods, television shows. She wasn’t always right, but Becky took her word as gospel, and nodded solemnly at each revelation. Abby told me to allow her this role, that it helped her feel in control.
While the girls drowned their pancakes in syrup, I drank coffee and watched Jared shovel his driveway next door. Every few scoops, he stretched and laid his thickly gloved hands on his lower back, massaging and rubbing. Of his whole face, only his eyes were visible from under his giant winter parka, the dark hood pulled over his head and cinched around his mouth. People look like big criminals in their winter gear, lumbering around in disguise.
I poured coffee into a second mug, slid my boots on over my pajama pants and tugged my long puffy parka over my sweater. I opened the back door that led from the kitchen to the yard. Cold air shot inside and the girls squealed.
“Close the door!” Liza shrieked. I stepped outside with the coffee and shut the door behind me. The air was shockingly cold, the kind of cold that climbs inside your chest and rattles your ribs. Snow gleamed on every surface of the yard, coating the play structure so it resembled an ancient ruin, the swings low and laden with white. The pines on the edge of our property, separating our house from the Kendalls’ behind us, carried a heavy burden of snow that dragged their branches to the white earth. All around, snow whirled in fat flakes.
I crunched across the yard to Jared’s driveway. He looked up and waved. His gloves were like hockey mitts. His eyes were crinkled and the skin around them was shiny and red. He unzipped his coat just to his chin so his nose and mouth were visible now, glowing pink amid shadowy stubble. He smiled.
“You’re a lunatic. Zip up your coat,” he said.
“You looked cold. I brought you coffee.” I held out the mug. Snow fell into the steaming liquid and dissolved.
Jared took the mug and swigged down two giant mouthfuls of coffee. Then he handed the mug back to me.
“Go back inside.”
“Come visit today.”
“Your girls are home.” He pointed to my kitchen window, where the girls had pressed their noses to the glass, clouding it with their breath.
“A neighborly visit.” I took a sip of the coffee. “You know, friendly.”
“Sandra,” Jared said and glanced toward his house, but no one’s face was visible inside. Instead, the windows of his big yellow house reflected the snow.
“Bring her. I like her. You know I like her.”
“Maybe.” Jared snatched the mug back for a last gulp, then zipped his parka back up over his mouth and nose. His eyes were cold-ocean blue, Atlantic blue. I told him that for the first time nine months ago, on a warm afternoon as we lay on my kitchen floor, our bare thighs sticking to the ceramic tile. We only just managed to tug on our clothes and send Jared out the kitchen door before Nelson came home.
I heard a door creak open. Sandra stood clutching a pale lavender bathrobe around her in the frame of their side door. She wasn’t heavy, but she was a solid woman with a body built for hardship. Her face, however, was soft, freckled, and her nose had a gentle upwards slope that gave her an overall impression of adorableness. She looked like the kind of woman you want to spend your life with, a safe bet for happiness. She waved to me.
“I was just inviting you and Jared over this afternoon.” I called.
“That would be great,” she called back, her reply drifting from her in white clouds.
Jared gave me a warning look. With all but his eyes covered in black, he looked dangerous. I waved to Sandra and trundled back across my yard to my kitchen door. The crackle and thud of Jared’s shoveling began again. I slipped back into the warmth inside.
After breakfast, the girls hauled their giant collection of horse dolls into the livingroom and played with them on the rug. The horses galloped, neighed, spoke to each other, and grazed on little nubs of lint. The girls were very serious about their play, often occupied for hours by a single plot line. Their characters’ parents were always dead. Abby said this was normal, that children forged their independence by creating imaginary scenarios without parents. But it was eerie, Liza’s breathy horse-voice description of her parents’ untimely demise in a barn fire.
I brought my laptop to the kitchen to start writing. Before Nelson died, I used to work in the study, a little room too small for a spare bedroom with high ceilings and exposed rafter beams. We’d installed a small mid-century desk, a battered leather armchair with gold studs along the face of the arms, and a few photos-- wedding photos of Nelson and me; Liza, age five, splashing in a public pool with inflated yellow buoys encircling her arms; Becky as a baby, so swaddled in pink blankets that just a sliver of her tiny face and a few silk tufts of hair were visible. The tall windows shed a cool gray light over the room in the late afternoons.
When I found Nelson dead, it was in the study. I must have screamed, and when the girls rushed over, I ordered them downstairs to play. I closed the door and sank to my knees in the hall. My thoughts were wild, charging over me, but the one I remember was, Thank God he didn’t do it in the bedroom, or I couldn’t sleep there anymore. Later, I realized he must have considered this, planned the most convenient place to stage the last drama of his life. Hanging seemed like a showy way to go, cruel to your survivors. I had to witness his bloated, blu-ish face, his tongue lolling, his soaked and reeking pants. I had to hear the creak and sigh of the strained rafter beam, follow the rope (when did he buy rope?) as it coiled around his neck, note the purple skin bunched beneath. But at least he’d spared me having to move.
When the paramedics and the police tramped upstairs and opened the door again, I didn’t let myself look at Nelson’s face. Instead, I looked at the hem of his pants. There was a small hole at the seam of the right cuff. The khaki thread had worn away around the hole, and it was bordered by soft fraying fibers. As a police officer ushered me away, I had an urge to plunge my finger in the hole. I thought, pointlessly, I should remember to fix that.
I was almost done with my first article when a wail rose from the living room. I found Becky crying and Liza gripping a handsome black horse with a white blaze down its nose. She brushed the forelock with a miniature plastic comb.
Through Becky’s sobs, I learned that Liza wouldn’t let her play with the black horse.
“Liza, share your horses with your sister.”
“Dad gave me this one.” Liza frowned and brushed the mane with vigor.
“I’ll be careful,” Becky said through ragged tears, dragging her hands across her face to wipe them away.
I sat cross legged on the floor and hoisted Becky into my lap. She cried into my shoulder for a little while, but these were decrescendo tears, and they dried up quickly. I pulled Liza against me with one arm and held Becky to my chest in the other. Becky reached to put her thumb in her mouth, then stopped herself and instead squirmed into a more comfortable position on my legs, resting one cheek against my collarbone. Liza’s hair made my neck itch. She smelled soapy and floral from last night’s shower (she’d made the switch from baths to showers a few months before Nelson died with a sudden announcement at bedtime). For a moment, I just breathed in my girls.
“Toots, how about this horse is just Liza’s special one, okay?” I said. “Liza gets to be the only one to play with this one. And you can have a toy like that, too.”
Abby told me to respect the objects that the girls will now make holy. Abby told me it’s okay to be angry.
The girls calmed down, and the horses returned to whinnying and scraping the rug with their hooves.
It’s not that I didn’t consider moving. But I didn’t want to upset the girls’ lives any more than they already had been, and besides, the household income took a dive without Nelson. And then there was Jared, just next door, bringing over lasagna from Sandra and Maker’s Mark from himself. The two of us swigging from the bottle and eating the cold brick of lasagna straight from the glass baking dish and remembering. The girls were at school. We tumbled drunk onto the stairs, and unable to make it up to the bedroom, fucked right on the landing. I screamed so I wouldn’t have to hear the creaking sound of the old hardwood steps, wouldn’t have to think of the rafter. Jared covered my mouth with his hand, and I could taste his wife’s tomato sauce and my screaming turned to laughing. I actually laughed.
A widow gets away with a lot. You can’t be angry when a mourning widow with two little girls invites your husband over to help out around the house. She needs her toilet fixed and her windows sealed for winter. Her roof has tile damage, the radiator in her oldest daughter’s bedroom leaks. You can lend your husband to a woman without. You can be generous. Of course he needs to shower after all that hammering and all that plumbing and all the climbing and fixing. Of course he’ll return if she calls again.
Nelson and Jared were friends. We moved up here from Brooklyn, when Becky was still pretty much a baby and Liza was beginning first grade. We thought the space would be good for the girls-- a yard with a swing set, a living room with a plump new couch, a kitchen large enough for a breakfast nook and an island, and a whole separate dining room with a long oak table. A study for Nelson and me to share. We worked out a schedule; during the day, while he was at his office, the study was mine. In the evenings, it was his. On weekends, we tried to spend our time with the girls, but inevitably one of us had to shut ourselves away and work, light pouring over the desk then cooling to a dusky shade as the afternoon wore on, the photographs smiling their accusations each time we looked up from our work. Often, I’d lean back in the armchair to admire the high beams crossing the ceiling like the rafters of a ski lodge in some gleaming Alpine resort. I’d be startled by a sudden click or snap of the house settling, its wood bones digging further into their plot of earth, accommodating our weight.
Jared sometimes took Nelson to the hardware store to shop for home care supplies-- circular sanders and electric drills, fiberglass insulation, pipe cutters and water valves. Nelson had lived his entire adult life in New York apartments. When something broke, he called the super. Faced with a whole two-story house in need of monitoring and mending, he had no idea where to begin, and I was no big help. Jared made it his mission to convert Nelson to the cult of handymen, a religion that required buzzing tools with jagged teeth and torn jeans decorated with stiff splashes of paint. Jared owned a tool shed, and Nelson would wander inside and marvel as if in a foreign cathedral. He took notes on Jared’s instructions for how to leaf-proof the gutters and repair a dripping faucet in a small black notebook. He called it The Book of Manly Men. Manly Men was a joke of ours from the early, chummy days of our relationship.
Sandra and Jared came over sometimes for dinner-- it was easier than going to theirs, since we had to put the girls to bed. Sometimes we all stayed up late together and drank glass after glass of red wine that tasted like soil and vinegar and confessed too many secrets of our sexual lives (Sandra loved anal better than any other sex act; Nelson had started masturbating at age six; Jared’s one and only encounter with a man ended with the guy blowing him in the parking lot of a Wendy’s; I had vivid fantasies about cops, and once got myself pulled over on purpose; and on and on until the wine ran out or shame kicked in).
My cell phone buzzed on the table. Crystal, my editor.
“Just checking in. How’s it going with the Medicare article?”
“About to hit send.” I tapped a few keys on my computer. “Done.”
“Awesome. Is the snow real bad up by you?”
I glanced out the window at the snow racing down in slanted lines.
“Yeah, it’s a mess.”
“God, it’s so shitty here, too. I’m not at the office, obviously. How are the girls?”
“They got pancakes this morning.”
“Lucky girls. Luke didn’t make me pancakes. He went into work, believe it or not. Fucking lawyers.”
“Crystal, I better go.”
“Sure. Hey listen, Sweetie. I totally understand that this has been a rough time for you, I mean, I can’t even imagine. If you want, we can give you a little break, you know? Lighten your assignment load a little bit, give you some time.”
“No, I’m doing okay.”
“What I mean is, some stuff has been coming in late, and we kind of need to stay on schedule, so if you need to take a break to get back on track, we totally understand. There will be work waiting for you when you’re feeling up to it.”
“Jesus, Crystal. You know I can’t afford to take a break right now.” I leaned my forehead into my hands, and my fingers dug into my skull.
“Okay, okay, I’m just saying. Trust me, we want you to keep writing. Just, let’s try to stay on deadline, okay?”
“That’s what I’m trying to do.”
“I’ll let you get to it. Bye, Sweetie.”
When I hung up, I stared at the laptop screen until my eyes lost focus and I saw the room in double. I squeezed my eyes closed and watched the patterns in the darkness, negative images of the world. Liza and Becky came skittering into the kitchen and swarmed me.
“We’re hungry,” Liza said, and Becky chimed in, “We’re hungry!”
I fixed them tuna sandwiches with baby carrots and watched them eat, cupping their sandwiches with two small hands. Across the wide, white yard, Jared’s house was quiet, seemingly unoccupied. But I knew he and Sandra were inside. I pictured him chopping logs in the garage to feed the fireplace. I pictured Sandra boiling the tea kettle. Maybe he was brushing her shoulder on his way to the living room, arms strained with the weight of the tinder. Maybe she was laying a flushed cheek on his shoulder while he stoked the flames.
Nelson had been dutiful, but inattentive when it came to sex. He was easily lost in his own motion, eyes pinched shut, forgetful of the woman rocking below him. I’d ask him to say my name, over and over, just to feel that the thread of his pleasure was still tied to me. His words would be hoarse, strained, not at all like his usual speaking voice, which was soft and honeyed and even. It was already hard to remember how he sounded when he spoke, but I could still hear him groaning my name.
The girls begged me to play outside with them, but I sent them out alone, bundled in bright marshmallow coats, downy hats pulled over their ears and scarves coiled tight around their little throats. I watched them tumble and roll in the snow. Snow clung to their mittens in diamond lumps. They tossed snow in the air and rolled it into balls. They were small masters of the elements. Abby told me it’s okay to be jealous.
I forced myself to stare at the open document on my laptop, but I couldn’t concentrate. I could hear the girls laughing outside. I reached for my phone and dialed Jared’s number.
“Come over,” I said when he picked up with a heavy sigh.
“I changed my mind. Don’t bring her.”
“So what am I supposed to tell her?”
“That you’re fixing something.”
I laughed. “Anything. Everything. Name something.”
“Trish...” The way he said my name was deep, vibrating the knots in my chest. I remembered suddenly that I hadn’t eaten anything today.
The girls were running toward the back step to come in, so I hung up. I opened the door and they rushed inside, shaking water and ice everywhere. I helped ease their boots off their feet.
“We made snow angels,” Becky told me. Her nose was flaming pink and I blew on it to warm it up.
“Do you believe in real angels?” Liza asked me. Some girl at school had fed Liza all the lines she’d heard when her own father died of cancer, and it involved a lot of talk of heaven and angels and benevolent fathers watching over their children’s lives from the clouds with great sunshiny smiles. That kind of imagery made me itchy.
“I don’t,” I told Liza. “But it’s okay if you do.”
Liza slowly removed her hat, which dripped onto the floor. Her hair, electrified by the static, stood on end where it was dry. “I’m going up to my room,” she announced, and ran from the kitchen. She looked ready to cry, and I wanted to follow, but I stayed. Abby told me to give them space to grieve.
I sat Becky in front of Toy Story, to watch it for the hundredth time. She whispered the lines to herself as she stared at the TV and played with the fringe on the blanket I kept slung over the couch. Her thumb floated toward her mouth, but she stopped it just in time and lowered it to the blanket.
There was a rapping at the back door. Jared was waving on the other side, hidden again in the bulk of his black parka. Behind him, Sandra was carrying something in a huge bowl wrapped in foil. Her oversized blue coat lumped oddly around her hips. My disappointment crashed through me. My ribcage felt too tight around my lungs.
I swung open the door, and they stepped into the kitchen, stamping on the mat to shake the snow loose, kissing my cheek with icy lips. Sandra shoved the bowl into my hands.
“It’s spaghetti Bolognese. I made too much.”
“She made a mountain,” Jared said, hanging their coats on the hooks by the door. I wondered if Sandra noticed how at home he was in my house, noticed the way he opened my fridge first thing like a teenager, scanning the contents without purpose.
“Thank you, that’s so thoughtful,” I said to Sandra.
Sandra smiled, and I began to relax. She had the kind of smile that made you feel like smiling back, and we volleyed warm looks for a moment. She could afford to be warm to a woman whose husband had offed himself. I could afford to be warm to a woman whose husband had whispered more than once, while he moaned into the thick of my hair, that he loved me.
Jared opened the cabinet above the fridge where I kept liquor, and drew out the Maker’s Mark, the same bottle he’d brought me that I hadn’t touched again. He pitched three glasses by the lips and carried them to the table. Sandra didn’t seem surprised by his ease at finding everything.
“First, a drink. Then I’ll get to work on those pipes in the bathroom.”
“I’m sorry if I’m intruding,” Sandra said. “I thought we could catch up while Jared did his work.”
“Of course not,” I said. I closed my laptop, a blank page with a blinking cursor still waiting for me. “I mean, of course you’re not intruding.”
“Good.” Sandra lifted her glass. “What should we toast to?”
The snow outside was gusting, waves of white billowing in silence over the yard. That was what made snow so eerie, its quiet persistence. A hurricane broke a roof by raging across the tiles, but a blizzard merely piled and piled until everything collapsed.
“I got nothing,” I said, shrugging.
“To keeping warm,” Jared said, and we clinked glasses. The bourbon, searing as it went down, made me instantly a little dizzy.
Sandra shuddered and rested her glass on the table. Jared walked over to his coat and pulled a wrench and a screwdriver from the deep pockets. He pointed the screwdriver upwards, then waved it at us as he left the room. I checked on Becky, who was sound asleep in front of the television. From upstairs, I could hear Jared exclaim something in greeting to Liza, who was sent immediately into torrents of giggles. The girls adored Jared. He tossed them around like they were boys, called Becky, “Captain” and Liza, “Sergeant.” Nelson had never been their pal that way. He read them stories, stroked their damp hair when they ran fevers, let them stay up hours past their bedtime if any classic movie was on TV, particularly something with Katharine Hepburn, whom Nelson idolized. In addition to being a writer, he was an excellent, meticulous artist, and would sketch their faces with charcoal while they drew his in colored pencil. We framed our favorites and hung them side by side in the hall.
But Nelson had a powerful faith in life’s ability to disappoint. When we first met, he’d drink until his eyes were glazed and intense, and he slurred long rants about how Herman Melville died in poverty and society’s approaching collapse. Even after he quit drinking-- after my threats of leaving, after I got pregnant with Liza-- he was often moody, stomping through the house, ignoring the girls. We’d fight anytime we were together, not working, for longer than a day. The fights weren’t the dishes shattering, sobbing, screaming kind. Instead, we had lengthy, circular conversations where we aired our unhappiness over and over, until it sat like a ghost between us, past solving, past banishing.
I didn’t know if he knew about Jared. I wondered and wondered and wondered. I tried to think of some scrap of evidence he may have found, but Jared never left any clothing here, and we never texted or e-mailed, and he was always gone before Nelson got home. Did Nelson smell Jared on me, the sweat and smoke from his body? Did he intuit our closeness from a glance between us at dinner? Did he return to the house while we were tussling and sighing and leave without our noticing?
Sandra unwrapped the bowl of spaghetti. She rifled in my drawers and cabinets until she found a smaller bowl and a fork. When I rose to help her, she waved me away. She dished out the pasta into the small bowl and handed it to me.
“It’s still warm. Eat,” she instructed.
“That’s okay,” I said. “I had lunch a little while ago. It smells great, though.”
“Trish,” she said, “Just eat.”
She was a good cook. The taste of the sauce brought me back to Jared’s hand pressed over my mouth, and gave the meal a strange, erotic charge. It was odd to sit and eat Sandra’s cooking while she watched, a mothering, stern expression on her sweet face, as if she could read my thoughts.
There was a clanging upstairs, the sound of tools falling to the floor.
“I’m glad he’s been able to help out,” Sandra said, gesturing to the ceiling. “Winters here are hard on these old houses.”
“Yes, he’s been an enormous help,” I said. I was devouring the spaghetti now, adding more to my bowl. I couldn’t help it, all my hunger descended on me as I ate. “You both have.”
“We miss him. Nelson. And Jared feels so responsible, like he could have stopped him or something.” Sandra shook her head. She wore a red cable-knit cardigan that she pulled around her. “I’m sorry, that was probably a selfish thing to say.”
“No. Of course not.”
“It’s just, he’s been crying. At night, when I’m asleep, or he thinks I’m asleep.”
I tried to picture Jared crying. In the blue dark of their bedroom, Jared on the edge of the bed, weeping into his hands. I stopped eating. In marriage, there are moments unreachable to the rest of the world. They don’t have to do with love; they’re born from a deep, exhausting familiarity. I didn’t want to think of Jared and Sandra like that. I didn’t want to remember all that I didn’t have.
“Have you talked to him? About Nelson?” Sandra asked.
She nodded. “Good. You two can help each other, I think.”
“He’s been very helpful.”
Sandra gave me a look so gentle, I wanted to curl against her chest the way Becky curled against mine. Forgive me, I wanted to say. Her look brimmed with pity. Maybe she knew, maybe she had already forgiven. Or maybe this soft kindness would evaporate the moment she found out. And we weren’t careful enough, not anymore. One day, she would find out.
“Just don’t tell him I told you anything, okay?” she said.
“I won’t,” I said.
The sky was already darkening, turning from white to dusty grey. The snow had not stopped falling. A text message chimed on my phone from Crystal asking after my articles, which I ignored. I could not support my girls. I could not stop fucking another woman’s husband. I could not remember my own husband’s voice.
Sandra poured us each another bourbon. Jared clattered the pipes upstairs. Becky sang along quietly to the song that closes out Toy Story.
Abby tells me that it’s not my fault. No matter what Nelson knew or suspected. No matter what he saw when he looked at his wife.