It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.
—Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”
Tuesday is one of those snowy days when the streetlamps switch on at four and cast their gray glow over the wheel-painted road. He’s always amazed by the quietness of cold things, the silent hum that runs shivering down the hills and between the houses. The only sound is the faraway drone of a snowblower. A mechanical whale song.
Mom tells him winter is a time for thinking, because there’s nothing else to do. He thinks that’s stupid. When there’s nothing to do, he thinks, you sit at the window and stare at the icy white until something blurs into nothing. Winter is a time for not thinking, for forgetting. Summer, when the wallpaper melts into little wet strips of color, calls for thought, frantic thought, manic buzzing sweat-beaded thought: about the past, about the future, about the shapes in the clouds, about the color of thunder. About whether mosquitos fall in love. But not winter. Winter is a time for forgetting.
He stands at the end of the street next to the backhoe. Nobody’s quite sure why it’s here. The construction happens, but nobody sees it. Like magic. Is there an hour every day when people stay inside, not looking, not listening, compelled by some strange invisible force? And the workers rush in, dig up their asphalt and pour their concrete, then sneak out just as the neighborhood wakes up and returns to the wobbling rhythm of suburban life, bread-buttering and lawn-mowing and divorce-delaying? The snow is streaked with the mud-brown memories of a day’s work unseen.
No snow without mud. He finds himself repeating the four words silently, chanting them to himself. No snow without mud. It feels like night but there’s the sun, barely visible under the clouds, a diffuse orb of yellow-white. The snowblower has been joined now by another, and the duet smells of gas and candle wax. The scent of a Hanukkah lighting gone wrong.
Winter is a time for forgetting, but he’s shit at forgetting. He remembers everything simultaneously. Radio interference, channels melting together. Like when the ghost of a polka sneaks in over an NPR report about Benghazi. A frenzied static of memories: eating cookie dough with a half-friend, waking up late on Saturday in a writhing mass of blankets, feeling the back-slap of an ocean wave, reading a 400-page Romanian novel and understanding nothing, sitting in a chair with Mom and watching the sky go by.
Sometimes he resents the overwhelming, headache-inducing simultaneity of it all. Sometimes he wishes the memories would wait their turn. There was a time when a cat scratched him, when he kissed a pillow, when a toaster caught fire, when he cried on an amusement park ride. But when? Which came first? Which came last? His brain promises him that these are meaningless questions. And so here he stands balancing on the curb, remembering and remembering until his entire past starts to feel like yesterday morning, distant but strangely close.
Maybe tonight a faceless man will come and drive the backhoe away. And tomorrow morning, when the moon falls behind the snow, all that remains will be the fat tracks of the backhoe, pointing down toward Park Road and curling right right right until they disappear under the blurry fingerprints of a million cars.
And the mud, too: wet, squishy mud. No snow without mud.
He’s not angry. He’s not. “How was I supposed to know?” That’s what the other man said. The man he gave a white gold ring. The idiot. “How was I supposed to know?” What a load of crap. But he’s not angry. “I’m going for a walk,” he said. And so he is. Down the hill, past all these sloped lives, happy couples by the fire and kids in the snow. Just when he thought they’d gotten through it all. And now: a glance, a hookup. The idiot downloaded the app with torsos in boxes. Little clickable infographics. Desperate desire for spontaneity. “Affair.” Such an ugly word. “You weren’t picking up my calls,” the idiot said. Not angry. Down the hill, down the stairs, falling, down, down. He asked: “Do you need a dictionary to look up the words ‘business’ and ‘trip’?” Clever. What a jab. Remember the first date? The burrito that burst all over his lap. Levi’s. Trainwreck. He’s not angry. Not angry, not angry. The idiot: “This is hard for me, too.” Yeah. Now the wind blows the snow into frantic spirals. He wants to lie in the snow, under the snow. Feel his fingers harden and freeze. Become something solid. An object. He always wanted to live in a museum, behind the thick glass, with the mummies. And the remains of the dead. The things they held. It’s not like he was in Indonesia. Cleveland, a flight away. At a conference. “No, I’m not joking. Look,” the idiot said. Not angry. Jesus, it’s cold. He didn’t grab his gloves on the way out. Where do they go from here? To counseling. Ha, ha. No, but really. Where. Ice on the road, ice on the road. Careful. Slick and sneaky. Not to be trusted. He loves the husband. Loved? Loves. And what is this? Always forgets the name. Bulldozer, dump truck. Backhoe. That’s it. It sits there, leering. Taunting him. Daring him. Like on the playground. “Positive.” He’s not angry. Not angry. “Positive.” Eight letters, fat and flat and heavy. “Positive.” Positive for? Three letters, hopefully never four. In the ’80s men went gaunt. Wasted away. Positive positive positive. The idiot is positive. Right hand back, fist balled. He punches it. The backhoe. Punches it hard. He hasn’t punched something before. Realizes the problem with punching things is they punch back. Knuckles bloody, snow and mud melting into the wound. An ugly palette of red and fleshy brown. Almost lets himself cry. That’s almost, to be clear. Idiot. There are pills now, they say. He’s not angry. He loves the husband, loves the husband so much it hurts. The backhoe stares, dumb and dirty. Not angry. He’s not angry. “How was I supposed to know?”
The snow roars and she listens to “The Girl from Ipanema” on repeat. It’s dark, but the headlights trace out circles of blinding white. She’s alone on the road. “Tall and tan and young and lovely … ”
Thirty years ago, still young and lovely, she started plowing snow. She had just returned from the trip. She plowed for hours, plowed until the loveless cold woke her up, made things real. She forgot about him. For a time.
Soon the dreams started. Dreams about the dark-eyed man who worked in the gloomy cafe. In these recurring dreams, the waiter’s eyes remained hidden in a sea of shadows. He smiled, and she woke with the bitter taste of unrequitedness dancing across her tongue.
Her favorite time to plow is at night, when the world sleeps and the spray of white looks like sea foam if she squints. Right turn. Here are two little elms, growing side by side. Do they, too, enjoy bossa nova?
Night is the cradle of insanity. This she has learned. Three decades of driving through black soup have taken their toll. She dreams of strange shapes, triangles bathed in sharp purple light, circles rolling frantically in place, and many others so strange she doesn’t know their names. Shapes with many sides and no sides all at once, shapes that laugh and cry, shapes dancing, shapes on boats, dead shapes, blue shapes. Left turn. And yet still she plows at night, because there’s something intoxicating about that pulsating liminal space between here and there, sundown and sunup. The moon seduced her long ago. No going back to the world of the day-people.
A man walks his ugly dog. “And when she passes he smiles … but she doesn’t see … ” She likes to imagine that she still lives in Brazil, in a town by the Atlantic. That she sits in a cafe where she can hear the whisper of the water and orders an espresso from a dark-eyed waiter who loves her back. That her shoes fill with sand and her hair with salt. Right turn. That after dark she runs naked into the ocean and swims until she can’t breathe.
She slams the brakes and swerves left, passing inches away from a backhoe parked by the corner. Here is reality. The moon and stars jerk right and the plow hits the snowbank with a dull thunk. Deep breath. It wasn’t there and then it was. These things happen. Shapes fade, appear, samba across the windshield. Some shapes are more dangerous than others.
Now the moon hangs still. Its gentle crescent curves an invitation. Come, it whispers, come to the cafe by the beach. A winter moon is the saddest moon there is. I’ll be waiting in Brazil. Brighter, happier. She backs up, puts the truck in drive. Continues into the night.
Maybe I will go back, she thinks. Maybe I will buy a ticket to Salvador, stay in a condo by the singing sea, wander the snowless streets. Will I? Maybe I will, maybe I won’t, maybe I will. And as the tiniest sliver of light peeks up from behind the rows of houses, she smiles a half-moon smile. Right turn. “Tall and tan and young and lovely … ”
The truth is they wanted one kid.
Two has figured out how to push open the door. She runs out, careens down the steps, zips across the yard and stops in front of the backhoe that’s been there for a week now. Shoots her mother a mischievous look. Starts climbing into the big metal hand at the end of the orange arm.
Mom sighs and goes and tries to pick up Two by the waist, but Two holds on tight to the metal hand. Finally Mom feels the stubborn girl fold in half like a napkin, sobbing, screaming. She’s so tired.
Two stands on the couch, face stained with tears, and stares out the window with a pout. Mom almost goes to console her.
Here comes Three. He’s been watching his sister, plotting, perfecting his escape. Toddles straight by, opening the door like a seasoned expert, almost like an adult, except he’s shorter than the doorknob. Dad, sensing trouble, comes in from the kitchen.
Three crosses the yard, little velcro shoes striking the snowy slush with remarkable power, and heads straight for the backhoe. Reaches up for the door handle, grasping at the air. He can’t quite get there. Realizes not all doors can be opened. Turns in horror as Dad approaches. He’s trapped.
Three joins his sister on the couch as One makes a break for it. But they’re waiting, Mom and Dad, legs like a wall. “I just want to taste it,” One cries. “I just want to taste it.”
“Taste what?” Mom says.
“The big orange car. I just want to taste it with my mouth. Please, Mommy, I just want to taste it.”
One and Two and Three had a backhoe toy once. It was small and made of plastic. They played with it on the rug upstairs, making nonsense noises, trying to fit it into their mouths. Saliva everywhere. Mom stepped on it one morning and sliced open her foot. Cursed. Threw it out. Three and Two and One have been yearning for a backhoe ever since.
When they stuff their fingers into their spit-filled mouths, they pretend that their fingers are long, fleshy backhoes. When they crawl under tables to hide from seekers, they imagine their meaty hands and calloused knees melting and reforming as fat rubber backhoe tires. They live their little lives like leeches. Instead of skin, metal. Instead of blood, soil. At night, backhoe-shaped shadows slink across the walls. Their mouths water in the dark. Mom and Dad wonder why they don’t sleep.
Dad carries One over to the couch, and Mom locks the door twice and pulls the chain taut.
They’re all crying now, egging each other on, a feedback loop. Dad is back in the kitchen, cooking. She groans, grabs her hair. Just leaves, goes upstairs and shoves earbuds deep inside her ears. She locked them in. Free spirits, full of life and love and curiosity. They just wanted to go for a ride, to lick the cold hard flesh of the sleeping machine. Just wanted to feel its touch, to hold its calloused hand. And she brought them back inside, collecting them like objects, lining them up on the couch. Like when she was little and her marbles rolled under the table and she crawled and found them all and choked them in her hands.
And she locked the door. Trapped them with her. No, bound them to her, clutched them to her breast until they stopped fighting, until their skin was hers and hers was theirs.
She’s so tired. Digs out the earbuds, goes downstairs, finds One and Two and Three still on the couch, quiet now. Says, “I love you guys.”
The truth is they never wanted triplets.
She sits straight in the seat and stares ahead with blank terror, her ears popping, her stomach lurching with the bumps. They must be through the clouds by now, but she refuses to look out the window at the tiny world below. She’ll know when the plane lands because it’ll hit the ground, and it’s as simple as that.
Now comes the braking, that horrible grinding sound, and she sags forward, her lungs stuck behind her, pulled like a string through honey. All around her people murmur, giggle, babble. How can they chit-chat when they’re sitting on padded chairs in empty space?
Her therapist told her to glance out the window, to take the smallest peek, just once. All it would take is a lean to the left. In her peripheral vision, there unfold streets and neighborhoods and towns, but somehow the blurriness makes it more tolerable, more distant.
Two of those oddly comforting dings. Like church bells. A pleasant sound in this symphony of rattling plastic and wailing babies and rumbling engines.
The plane hits an air pocket and a few passengers gasp with mock dread. Almost involuntarily, she crosses herself, peeling her right hand from the armrest and flicking the stale air up, down, left, right. She’s Jewish.
How close are they to the ground? A couple thousand feet at most. She can practically hear the cars passing down below. It would only take a turn of the neck, “a little look-see,” to use her therapist’s patronizing words.
No way in hell.
No. Way. In. Hell.
She does it.
Against her will. Her neck turns. String cheese roads and cranberry cars and there, on that corner, a fat golden raisin atop a dollop of yogurt. A backhoe in the snow. Yellow. Impossibly yellow. What is it about the color, the screaming color of that machine? It’s an unafraid color. Her jaw unclenches, her shoulders soften, her arms hang loose.
Now the plane is whizzing low over the treetops of an asparagus forest, and she finds herself unable to look away, plastered to the ice-laced window, eyes darting from tree to snowy tree.
The plane lurches right, and she laughs.
A backhoe. Still. Fat.
Feels the caress of a child’s hand, the strike of a man’s.
Hears the high-up growl of an airplane, the low-down growl of a plow.
Most of the time, silence. A backhoe is lonely.
Big, on a corner.
Who is this boy standing nearby? Why is he
Big fat wheels in the snow.
The snowblower shuts off and he’s left trying to forget. The mud is almost gray under the thin, cold light of the streetlamps. He’s reminded of an old movie.
No snow without mud. Is that true, though? Sometimes it snows and there’s no mud to be seen. But no, there’s always mud. Sometimes mud hides, on the windshields of tarp-covered cars and under the toenails of treetop squirrels. But there’s always mud.
Now he’s remembering the time when he slipped and fell in a deep brown puddle by the middle school. He walked home sopping wet, hair dotted with earthy dandruff, shoes squelching and stained.
And the other time, six months later, when his bike sloshed through a patch of seemingly dry grass, spraying a slimy clay-like mush up his shins and under his favorite blue shorts. Mom spent hours scrubbing the cotton with soap and tired fingers. The result was a frothy coffee-colored syrup that soaked even further into the fabric.
These are the things people are supposed to forget in the winter. But at least, he thinks, at least now he’s remembering things in order. He feels the backhoe plucking his memories apart, one by one. Spreading them out like cards on a table. The first mud stain, then the second mud stain. Mud stain memories waiting their turn.
From the overwhelming simultaneity there emerges a neat sequence of discrete recollections: 4 years old, toaster catching fire; 6 years old, neighbor’s cat scratching leg; 8 years old, crying on Tilt-A-Whirl; 10 years old, kissing pillow. Memories as dots on a line. He sighs, almost audibly, as the headache he didn’t even realize he had fades to nothing.
Other things fade. The backhoe’s yellow fades into a dull almost white. The sky is gray and the road is black under the white snow. For a moment, he finds himself unable to imagine a color other than none at all. Finds himself living in a Christmas TV rerun with gray-faced children opening gray-wrapped presents around a gray-needled tree.
For a moment, the whole world is a pencil sketch.
Then a fox crosses the street some 20 feet up the hill, its fur the brightest red he’s ever seen.