In a land of hard winters, the hardest of all is the winter that fills you with false hope. It's the kind of winter that starts out easy. You get the white Christmas, but it's a light snow, six inches tops, the stuff that makes everything look like a postcard. The sun comes out during the day. You can take your coat off if you're working hard enough. The nights are quiet. The stars shine between the silver clouds. You celebrate New Year's. You make resolutions. It snows again and you run the plow. You shovel. You chop wood. You sit inside at night by the fire. You say to yourself, this ain't so bad. A little cold weather is good for a man. It makes you feel alive.
That's what I was thinking. I admit it. Although maybe I had other reasons to believe this winter would be easy. Maybe this winter I could be forgiven for letting my guard down. One good look at the calendar would have put my head back on straight. Spring doesn't come until May, Alex. Which meant-what, winter had ten rounds left in a fifteen-round fight? That was plenty of time. That was all the time in the world.
When the storm finally hit, I was down the road at the Glasgow Inn. Jackie had the fire going and had just made a big pot of his famous beef stew. He had the cold Molsons, bought at the Beer Store across the bridge and stored just for me in his cooler, for the simple reason that American beer cannot compare to beer bottled and sold in Canada. That and a Red Wings game on the television over the bar were all I needed. On that night, anyway. I had plans for the next day. I had big plans. But for now I was happy just to be with Jackie, and to do everything I could to slowly drive him insane.
"Alex, you're gonna tell me what's going on," he said for the third time. He was an old Scot, God love him, with the slightest hint of a burr in his speech. Born in Glasgow sixty-odd years ago, the son of a tugboat captain, he came to Michigan when he was a teenager. He had been here ever since, eventually opening up the Glasgow Inn. It looked a lot more like a Scottish pub than an American bar, which meant you could spend the whole evening there without getting depressed or drunk or both.
0"Don't know what you're talking about," I said.
"Like hell you don't. You've been bouncing in here, saying hello and how are you. Smiling and laughing."
"I'm happy to see you," I said. "Is that so bad?"
"Since when are you happy about anything?" he said. He gave me that
Popeye squint of his. "It's January, for God's sake."
"Almost February," I said. "How many inches have we had?"
"Don't even say that, Alex. You'll jinx it. You know a storm's coming."
"I had another cancellation today. There's not enough snow to ride on." This time of year, snowmobiling was the biggest business in Paradise, Michigan. Hell, it was the only business. Every rental cabin in town, and every motel room, was booked months in advance. On most January nights, Jackie's place would be crawling with men from downstate, most of them with their big puffy snowsuits zipped down to the waist.
And that sound. The whine of the engines, coming from every direction. It always drove me crazy. But this night was silent.
"Tonight," he said. "We'll get buried. You watch."
I shrugged and looked up at the hockey game. "Bring it on."
"And what's with the salad, anyway?"
"Lettuce and vegetables, Alex. That salad."
"What are you talking about?"
"For dinner. You had a salad."
"I had the stew, Jackie. Since when can I pass that up?"
"You had a little bowl of stew and a big salad."
"You don't eat salads for dinner. I've never seen you eat a salad in fifteen years."
"So I felt like a salad, Jackie. What are you getting at?"
"You're not drinking as much beer, either. Try to deny it."
I held up my hands. "Guilty. You busted me."
"You're working out, too. I can tell."
"You've been bugging me for years to take better care of myself," I said. So now maybe I am. Is there something wrong with that?"
"You finally decided to listen to me? That's what you're telling me?"
"Is that so hard to believe?"
"Yes, Alex. It is. You've never listened to me. Not once."
The door opened at that moment, saving me from Jackie's third degree. It was my friend and neighbor, Vinnie LeBlanc, bringing in a blast of cold wet air.
"Holy Christ," Jackie said. "You can smell the snow coming. It makes my bones hurt."
"Who's winning?" Vinnie said as he took off his coat. It was a denim coat with a fur collar, the only coat I'd ever seen him wear, no matter how cold it got. He was an Ojibwa Indian, a member of the Bay Mills community. He had moved off the reservation a few years ago, and had bought the land down the road from mine and had built his own cabin. We were friends for a while, and then we weren't. Then I helped him look for his brother. What we found was a hell of a lot of trouble, but somehow we also found our friendship again. Just like that, without a word.
"Wings," I said. "Two to one. They just waved one off for Colorado."
He sat down next to me and asked Jackie for a 7-Up. The man never
touched alcohol, going on nine years straight.
"Jackie's right," Vinnie said. "It's gonna snow. You better not be too far away from home when it does."
"That's a good one," Jackie said. "Since when does Alex go anywhere?"
Vinnie looked down at his glass. He rattled the ice. He had a smile on his face, a smile so subtle you wouldn't even see it if you didn't know the man as well as I did.
He knew. He was the only one who knew my secret.
I just couldn't tell Jackie about it. Not yet. I knew he had strong opinions about some things in life, and this was one thing he'd have a lot to say about. Maybe I wasn't ready to hear it yet. Or maybe I didn't want to ruin it. Maybe talking about it in the light of day would make it all vanish like a fever dream.
For whatever reason, I kept my mouth shut that night. I was happy to sit by the fire and watch the rest of the hockey game. The Wings gave up a late goal and after the five-minute overtime had to settle for a tie. Vinnie put his feet up and closed his eyes. There was still white tape on the side of his face, where the bullet had taken off part of his ear. I knew he was spending a lot more time over at the reservation now, looking after his mother. I didn't see him nearly as much.
We heard the wind picking up. There was a soft ticking at the windows. The snow had started. Outside this building, not a hundred yards away, lay the shoreline of Lake Superior. The ice stretched out a quarter mile, into the darkness of Whitefish Bay. Beyond that there was nothing but open water-water so cold and deep it was like a cruel joke to call it a lake at all. It was a sea, the Sea of Superior, and tonight it would feed the snow gods.
You're gonna be plowing," Vinnie said. He kept his eyes closed.
He opened one eye. He started to say something and stopped.
"What is it?" I said.
He smiled again. Two smiles in one night.
"You're not going anywhere tomorrow," he said. "You're gonna be stuck here."
"We'll see about that," I said. But I knew he was probably right. God damn it.
We finally left around midnight. I said goodbye to Jackie and he dismissed me with a wave of his hand.
"You got him a little worked up," Vinnie said as we stepped out into the night. There were already three inches of new snow covering the parking lot. "He doesn't like not knowing what's going on."
"A little suspense is good for him," I said. "It keeps him young."
"I'm going to my mother's house," Vinnie said. "I'll see you tomorrow."
"I'll plow your driveway. Drive carefully."
We brushed our windshields off and then we were on our way, Vinnie to the reservation in Brimley, and me back up to the cabins. If you ever come to Paradise, Michigan, you just go through the one blinking red light in the middle of town, then north along the shore about a mile until you get to an old logging road. Hang that left and you'll pass Vinnie's place first, and then you'll find my place. My father bought the land back in the 1960s, and built six cabins. I live in the first cabin, the one I helped him build myself, back when I was an eighteen-year-old hotshot on my way to single-A ball in Sarasota. At the time, I never thought I'd be back up here for more than a visit. I certainly wouldn't have imagined living up here. Not this place, the loneliest place I'd ever seen. But all these years later, after all that had happened, here I was.
I put the plow down and pushed the new snow off as I went. It felt as light as talcum powder. I drove by Vinnie's place and then mine, and kept going. The second cabin was a quarter mile down the road. There was a minivan parked in front, with a trailer carrying two snowmobiles hitched behind it. A family, a man and his wife and two sons. I'd given them the chance to cancel, but they'd said they'd come up no matter what. Even with no snow, they looked forward to the trip every year. Now it looked like they might get some riding in after all.
Another quarter mile and I got to the third cabin. It was dark. Another quarter mile and then the fourth and fifth cabins together. They were dark, too.
One more quarter mile. The last cabin my father had built. His masterpiece. Until somebody burned it down. The walls were about half rebuilt now, a great blue tarp covering the whole thing, propped up in the middle to keep the snow off. Rising above it all was the chimney my father had built stone by stone.
I stopped and got out of the truck, made sure that the tarp was sealed tight. The wind died down and the pine trees stopped swaying. I took a long breath of the cold air and then got back in the truck. I plowed my way back to my cabin.
I went in and listened to the weather report on the radio. More snow was coming. A lot more. They didn't even try to guess the number of inches. That's always a bad sign.
God damn it all, I thought. I'm going to Canada tomorrow. I don't care if we get three feet. I'll plow again in the morning, and then I'm going.
I went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. I ran a hand through my hair, then picked up the package and read the directions one more time.
"I can't believe I'm doing this," I said out loud.
I looked in the mirror again. Then I put on the plastic gloves and went to work.
The phone rang. I took the gloves off and wiped my hands on the towel. I picked it up on the third ring, looking at the clock. It was almost one o'clock in the morning.
"Alex," she said. With that voice. It still hit me in the gut, every time. She was Canadian, so she had that little rise at the end of each sentence. That singsong quality, almost melodic, but at the same time it was a voice that meant business. It had some darkness in it, a smoker's voice without the smoke.
"Hey, it's late," I said. "Are you all right?"
"Yes, but I was just listening to the weather."
"A little snow. No problem."
"A little snow, eh? They're talking like twenty-four inches. What are they saying down there?"
"They're not saying. You never know with the lake. It could be less than that. Or more."
"I don't think you're coming out here tomorrow."
I thought about what to say. There was a distant humming on the line. "I think I can still make it."
"Don't be a dope," she said. "You'll kill yourself."
Out of a hundred different feelings I can have in one minute when I'm talking to her, one feeling in particular came into focus now. It was not the first time I'd felt it, this little nagging doubt, that maybe I wanted something out of all of this. Something real. And that maybe she had woken up that morning not wanting anything at all.
And then the thing that always came right after that. The certain realization that I was being a complete ass.
"Besides," she said. "Don't you have people staying in your cabins? If it's snowing all day, don't you have to stick around to plow them out?"
"I've got one family," I said. "The rest of the cabins are empty."
"Okay, but even so. That one family will need you around, won't they?"
I closed my eyes and rubbed the bridge of my nose. "If there's a lot of snow falling, yeah. I can't be away for too long."
"So maybe it's time to try out your idea."
I opened my eyes. "What's that?"
"You know, about me coming to your place."
"Here?" I looked around the cabin. This was my idea? To have her come here?
"Yeah, why not? I've got four-wheel drive. And I've never even been there yet. You always come out here. I'm starting to feel guilty."
One single bed. The old couch, sagging in the middle. Two rough wooden tables. This sad wreck of a place, after fifteen years of living all by myself. This is what she'd see. My God.
"I don't know," I said. "This cabin-"
"You don't want me to see your bachelor pad?"
"I'm not sure I'd call it that."
"Yeah, I don't think anyone says that anymore. Bachelor pad, that was from the seventies, right?"
The seventies, I thought. Back when I was playing ball, and being a
cop. And you were . . . God, were you in grade school then?
"Alex, are you still there?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm just thinking. I don't want you driving all this way tomorrow if the weather's gonna be bad."
"It was just an idea. Okay?"
Think, Alex. Think.
"Hey, I know," I said. "Why don't we do something special?"
"Special like what?"
"Like I'll meet you somewhere."
"I thought you had to stay there."
"We could meet in the Soo," I said. "That'll keep me close enough to home."
"There's a great hotel right on the river."
"It's called the Ojibway," I said. "You ever been there?"
"No," she said. "Never."
"They've got great food. And it's just . . . I mean, it's been there forever. It's the only fancy place in town."
"You want us to stay there?"
"I'm just saying . . ." You're blowing it, Alex. It's all gonna fall apart, right here.
"This is a nice place? In Soo Michigan?"
A little jab there, I thought. Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, is so much smaller than its sister city across the river. Soo Canada has more of everything.
"It's a classy hotel," I said. "I'd really like to see you, okay? It's been a few days, and I wouldn't mind spending some time with you."
She didn't say anything for a long moment. There was the faint hum on
the line and nothing else.
"Yeah, why not?" she said. "It sounds nice."
That's how it happened. That hesitation, that long silence while she thought about it, I figured that was just natural. Just part of the dance, the getting to know someone new.
Of course it wasn't that at all. It was something else entirely. But I didn't know her well enough yet. I didn't know the way she was, the way she has been for most of her life. The way she had to be. Above all, I didn't know the one most important thing about her-that she never, ever hesitated that long about anything. Not unless it was something big.
Damn it all to hell. If I had only known.
Copyright 2004 by Steve Hamilton
STEVE HAMILTON lives in Cottekill, New York, with his wife, Julia, and their two children. He grew up in Michigan and attended the University of Michigan, where he was awarded the prestigious Avery Hopwood Prize.