The Boiler

Jeff Ewing

SNOWBLIND

“We thought you were dead,” Nate says, his voice circling around inside his hood before trailing back to me.

“I’ve tried to kill him a hundred times,” Danny says, striding past us. “Doesn’t take.”

It’s been almost a year since I fell off their map after moving out of the house I’d rented from Danny to be close to my wife and son. Being close, it turned out, didn’t help things. Becky’s lawyer—Danny, as it happens—told her not to open the door to me. When I knocked, I could see her through the window shooing Stevie back to his room.

“Standard advice,” Danny said. “Saves everybody pain and dollars.”

The house was far too big for me: four bedrooms, a living room and a family room. I slept on the couch, when I slept at all. The one attraction was the big fireplace in the living room. I remembered it from when we were kids—the house was where Danny grew up, though he had little use for it anymore—the heat blasting out, sparks popping and leaving little craters in the rug all around us. Danny left special instructions for its use and care, enumerated on a laminated sheet of letterhead from his law office. It was the first thing I burned.

The day after the divorce was finalized, I moved out. I wandered back East for a little while, up into Canada. For now I’m staying in a trailer at the back of my cousin’s pasture. No one bothers me there, and the sound of horses stomping on the hardpan in the morning or snorting as they drift off to sleep leaning against the trailer at night is comforting. Sometimes the trailer rocks with their breathing, like a ship drifting far out at sea.

One of the horses is missing an eye. He lost it a long time ago, and it’s healed over now. When I touch it, he holds still and doesn’t seem to mind. I can run my finger over the socket, across the indent where the eye used to be. The skin there is newer than the skin around it, like a colt’s, smooth and soft as velvet.

I light a cigarette and let the three of them— Danny, Nate, and Porter—pull ahead until all I can hear is the sound of my own skis and the huff of my scarred lungs. I don’t mind being alone, not like this. With the snow and the trees, this postcard I’m in the middle of. But this isn’t what alone is really like.

They’re waiting for me beside a frozen lake littered with clots of crusted snow. A wide bowl sweeps up above the lake, pecked with small avalanches like animal tracks.

“That’s a nice long fall,” I say.

“If you’re not up to it,” Danny says, clacking his poles together. “We understand.”

“Fair enough,” I say, clearing the snow from a flat-top boulder. I lay back and tuck my pack under my head, close my eyes. Danny leaves wondering where he missed the wording—we’re adults, he can’t come out and call me a pussy anymore—following Nate and Porter off toward the base of the ridge, his poles jabbing through the crust with more force than necessary.

About halfway up he stops, and I can see him fishing through the pockets of his coat. He takes his pack off and digs through that, cups his hands and shouts something down to me. His voice is carried away by the wind, but I know what he’s saying. I put my hand to my ear and shake my head. Hold my arms out to my sides. He pats his pockets again, kicks his pack, then puts his gloves back on and continues up the ridge.

I pick his sunglasses up from where they’ve fallen at the edge of the trail, break them in half and drop the pieces into the small crevasse at the base of the rock where the snow’s melted back.

                                                                         #

 

The attic door in Danny’s house was easy to miss, a half-hidden folding stairway cut into the ceiling. I came across it one night while I was wandering the halls unable to sleep. It had been painted over, and took some work to get open. There wasn’t much up there—an old bureau, some pieces of asbestos pipe, a rusted Christmas tree stand. Far back, where the roof angled down into a dormer, a stack of boxes was jammed between two studs.

On the top of the stack, the Fry’s boot box I’d carried over from my house when we were fourteen slumped under its own weight. The maps were still in there, a dusty collection that Danny and I had assembled through high school, about all we had to show for those four years. We used to lay them out on the floor and trace our future routes with yellow highlighters, taking note of especially odd-sounding towns and calling them out across the room:

“Nacogdoches!”

“Texarkana!”

“Tucumcari!”

“Sault Ste. Marie!”

During the last half of our senior year, Danny worked construction and I took a job bussing tables at a prime rib restaurant, together saving up enough money to buy a half-crippled Dodge van. Becky sewed curtains for it, and a delinquent cousin of Danny’s sold us a stereo he’d boosted from a church warehouse. Sitting in the van with the speakers cranked, we could picture the roads rolling out ahead of us through mountains and deserts and fields of crops that moved in the wind like something alive. When Becky came with us, she’d lie on the little bed over the wheel well singing along with her eyes closed.

The maps were dried out and brittled by the heat in the attic, and caught quickly when I fed them one by one into the fire.

                                                                         #

The sun glares off the parabola of snow, pure light. Part way down I can see Nate and Porter standing in the shade of a rock outcrop. Nate yells something up at Danny, who’s sidestepping hesitantly down the curve of the bowl. Danny waves him off and starts across in an uncertain line, his head tilted like a dog listening for his master’s voice. He initiates his turn sitting too far back, then overcorrects, digs in his edges. I can hear the ice layer underneath the veneer of powder screech, and watch as a wave of snow builds under him, scraping the slope clean, the wave churning and shuddering. He might be in his pool doing his evening laps—stroking his arms, kicking his feet—except for the boil of snow and the noise, a low roar like the earth grinding on its axis.

His leg is bruised but not broken when we free it from the cemented snow pack. He stretches it out in front of him, looks up and sighs. It’s only then that I notice his eyes, puffy as overripe grapes, swollen nearly closed. Thin arcs of sclera show dull red through the slits. Fluid gleams in the corners, beginning to freeze.

“I lost my sunglasses,” he says.

I feel a twinge of something, but it passes.

“Can you see anything?” I ask.

“Not much.”

“I should have sent him down,” Nate says.

I could take some of the blame myself, of course, but it’s tough to portion it out fairly at this point. There was a time I would have given him my own eyes in exchange, plucked them out right there and handed them to him. And Danny, you can bet your ass, would have taken them.

I pull a bandanna out of my pack and roll it up. I step around behind him and tie it over his eyes.

“Cigarette señor?”

                                                                         #

On the last construable day of our marriage, Becky led Stevie outside to watch me drive away. It was a meanness I didn’t know she had in her. I watched him in my rearview mirror, a little five-year-old boy getting smaller and smaller until I turned off our street and he disappeared. I kept looking for him in the mirror as the green fringe of lawns unrolled, giving way eventually to the weed lots and industrial parks of the west-side outskirts, and finally to farmland and flood plains. The mirror filled with a wash of clouds, and I felt a kind of terror I hadn’t felt since I was a kid—the sharp, implacable fear of waking in the middle of the night from something you can’t identify, something you haven’t encountered in life yet.

I lead Danny out on a pole slung behind me while Nate and Porter ski on ahead to the car. I follow the path of most resistance, leaving the open trail for the thicker trees along the ridge. Branches slap his face, leaving streaks of sap. Half-submerged brush snags his ski tips, sending him face-first into the powder.

“Jesus, Sid. What the fuck?”

“Sorry.”

He tugs on the knot in the bandana, adjusts the frozen roll over his eyes.

“What if I don’t get it back? What if I’m really blind?”

“You’ll get it back.”

“How do you know?”

“It’s a temporary thing.”

“Maybe I’ll be the exception. You think of that?”

“Yes.”

At one point I lead him out onto a snow bridge with a dark thread of water rippling underneath. He stops in the middle and tilts his head.

“Are we at the creek?”

“No.”

“I hear water.”

“What are you now, fucking Helen Keller?”

I yank him forward roughly a couple of times, but he makes it across. We don’t talk for a while after that. He knows the sound of water when he hears it.

                                                                         #

The divorce papers were delivered from Danny’s firm by courier. I signed them sitting at his parents’ dining room table. Afterward I gathered the belongings I didn’t feel like carting to one more stranger’s house and piled them in the fireplace. I drove to Home Depot and bought two bags of mortar and a pallet of bricks. I was more than a little drunk, and the work came out sloppy and childish looking. I had thought the entombing of all that history might bring some satisfaction, but it didn’t. There was no sense of peace or accomplishment, just a fucked-up wall where there hadn’t been before.

Danny would be pissed when he saw it, and that cheered me up a little. But I knew he’d just hire someone to knock it down and put it back the way it was before. As for the things inside—the pictures and letters, the carton of worn cassettes and scraped CDs, our marriage certificate—they didn’t feel moved past, just lost. I had the distinct feeling too that I’d left something valuable inside. My keys or my wallet or something else I was going to need.

                                                                         #

Danny’s listening for the road, his head cocked at a comical angle, his chin thrust out, foolish and determined under the crusted bandanna. I lurch forward and start up the side of the last slope.

“The settlement was fair,” he says.

“For who?”

“She had grounds, Sid. The drinking, the lack of any foresight on your part. She needed a future.”

“So did I.”

“I don’t know what to tell you. Go make one.”

We’re crossing beneath an old, twisted cedar. The bark twines around itself, the folds thick and knotted with age. I reach up and bat a drooping branch. Danny does a little dance to shake the snow out of his collar.

“What did you two talk about anyway?” I ask, knowing none of it interests him anymore.

“What?”

“You and Becky. What did you talk about?”

“I don’t know what the fuck you’re asking me, Sid. What did we talk about?”

“You must have talked sometimes. It couldn’t have been all huffing and puffing.”

“Jesus. Grow the fuck up.”

“I’m just curious.”

He lets out a long breath and turns his blind eyes toward me. I move a little to the side and his head follows.

“She talked about Stevie.”

“I mean before.”

“I know.”

“There wasn’t any Stevie.”

“Yeah, but she still talked about him. What he was going to look like, how he’d be half you and half her. How he was going to make you stay put, keep you here. It was kind of pitiful.”

“That’s bullshit.”

“Yeah, okay Sid. It’s bullshit.”

To our right, a gentle descent leads to a wide meadow and the highway beyond. To our left, the creek plunges down a narrow gorge, the water thrashing under ice, a series of brittle, volcanic ledges jutting out like red knuckles in a clenched fist. I turn left.

                                                                         #

When Becky told me about her and Danny the night before our wedding, she acted like she was giving me a gift. Standing in the middle of our pre-nuptial suite with her wet hair piled on top of her head and a Sheraton robe cinched tight around her. Her face flushed, her feet crossed at the ankles like a dancer.

“It wasn’t like us,” she said. “It wasn’t love.”

The next day Danny, my best man, made a moving toast in which he hinted at their mutual betrayal, implying forgiveness on everyone’s part. It was a marvel of oratory.

A sliver of rock breaks away as his ski tip glides out over the lip of the cliff.

“Goddammit, Sid. Quit fucking around!”

His hands are straight out in front of him, the pole hanging from his wrist. The wind is blowing hard into him, snapping his pants against his legs.

“This isn’t fucking funny!”

He’s wrong about that.

A set of rabbit tracks circles around the trunk of a bent fir beside me, crosses over itself once, then angles off toward a clearing on the other side. The tracks end in a faint scribble at the edge of the clearing, with nothing beyond them and no sign that the rabbit had backtracked its trail. I wonder where it went, how it got out. If it got out.

“You gonna kill me, Sid?” He’s laughing.

“Life without you in it, it’s hard to see the downside.”

“Shit, you wouldn’t be you if it wasn’t for me.”

“That’s my point exactly.”

                                                                         #

I found another box in Danny’s attic, a U-Haul file box housing the accumulated souvenirs of his campaign against me—the first baseman’s glove I got kicked off the team for not having, the railroad paperweight my grandfather left me, the afghan Becky spent all one summer knitting with our initials worked into the design. My college applications, all three of them, stamped and sealed and never sent.

We’d filled them out together, seeing the stack of papers as a dividing line we would look back on some day from the height of our incomparable futures. When I didn’t hear anything back from the colleges I’d applied to, I assumed it was standard practice—they didn’t want me, and the less said the better.

Danny got accepted to Berkeley and sold me his half of the van. I drove all the way to Salt Lake City the next day, stopping finally at the feet of the Wabash, exhausted and lost. Becky, of course, stayed behind.

“What did you tell her?”

I’m not sure if he can hear me over the wind and the water.

“I told her you didn’t love her,” he says finally.

“I did.”

“I doubt it. Anyway, what’s the difference—all’s fair, right?”

“It wasn’t a fucking game, Danny.”

“Of course it was.”

The car horn honks off in the distance behind us. He turns his head toward it.

“Well you won anyway, right?” he says. “You came back and there she was.”

“I see my son twice a year.”

“All right, so nobody won. Welcome to the world.”

“You always win, Danny.”

He pushes the bandana up on his forehead. His eyes are crusted and raw looking.

“Fuck you if this is winning.”

The snow curling underneath the ledge is almost blue, a wave about to break. Down below the creek thrashes, carving away at the rock and the ice. I picture him falling, his ribs and skull cracking against the granite, the creek swallowing him and washing him away. I see the clock resetting, the dice unrolling, time back on my side again.

He stares out over the precipice waiting for me to make my decision. It’s the only choice he’s ever given me.

                                                                         #

We hit a pothole, and the car shudders.

“Take it easy!” Danny hollers at Nate.

“Sorry.”

He rubs his eyes and lets out a little moan.

“What’s it like?” Porter asks. “Being blind.”

“Ask Sid. He’s got more experience.”

“Fuck you.”

“It’ll go away,” Nate says.

“Probably. But I wonder, you know, what if?”

Ahead of us the lights of town flicker through the first snow of the forecast storm. I can make out a few colored strings of Christmas lights, red and green triangles tracing the lines of the roofs underneath. I remember I don’t have anything for Stevie yet. I’m not sure what he would want. He’s drifting away from me already, starting a life I’ll only hear about later.

Maybe I’ll get him some good sunglasses.

I laugh, and Danny’s head pivots toward me.

“What’s funny?”

“Everything.”

Nate turns on the radio. Porter reaches over the seat back and cranks the heat.

“It’s fucking freezing back here.”

Radio stations cross and mix. Christmas carols twine through scraps of classic rock. O Come All Ye Faithful. Layla.

“Love and peace fall upon us…” a DJ says through the static.

Danny nods without understanding in the artificial warmth filling the car.


Jeff Ewing is a writer from Northern California. His stories, poems, and essays have appeared in ZYZZYVA, Willow Springs, Crazyhorse, Saint Ann’s Review, Sugar House Review, Utne Reader, and Southwest Review, among others. He lives in Sacramento, California with his wife and daughter.