Tracings in Snow
“When Matthew was sixteen years old, he ran away from home. He did not return until Christmas Eve fourteen years later. He showed up on the lawn late at night, while the family was gathered around the tree…”
Happy Monday! I hope you’re enjoying “Tracings in Snow” so far. As I edit this story, I’ve been considering ending it with last week’s installment. However, it originally had two more installments, which I’ll be posting this Monday and next. I would love to hear your thoughts about which ending you prefer. Your comments are always welcome at the end of any installment, or you can reach me at scalise(dot)jessica(at)gmail(dot)com. Have a wonderful week,
◊ Installment 8 ◊
Walter stepped heavily on a clump of snow by the driveway, and felt his foot crunch through the ice. He and Matthew were supposed to be shoveling the sidewalk, but everything had frozen in the night, leaving a thin, glittering crust that sparkled atop the banks of snow, making it difficult to break through. Walter hated shoveling snow. Matthew had volunteered to do it, in his best mama’s boy voice (as if shoveling a bit of snow could make up for all the years he had not been around to shovel it! Matthew would have to shovel snow for the rest of his life to even begin to atone!) Their mother had consented, and Walter had felt put upon to accompany his brother, to keep an eye on him. Otherwise, he might get away again.
Walter watched Matthew out of the corner of his eye as they worked. He had been watching him all day. He was not speaking to him, out of principle, but he monitored him. When Matthew moved from one room to another, Walter followed a few minutes later, trying to be nonchalant, not caring to let his brother too far out of his sight. It was not all that different, Walter admitted to himself, from when they were kids.
Walter remembered the games they used to play on this very sidewalk. There was the game where they built an iceman, fully clothed, with a real coat and gloves, to guard the front gate. Walter had trembled with excitement as Matthew described the imaginary adventures of this iceman, turning him into a hero from another world. Matthew was always creating imaginary worlds, but for Walter they were as factual as the real one. Walter had to go without coat and gloves, of course, while the iceman was in place, but it was worth it. And then there was the game where Matthew used to bury Walter in the snow, and Kalli had to dig for him with the shovel. This was actually more of a calamity than a game, since Kalli often hit Walter by accident, and he had to go to the hospital on several occasions. But that, too, had been worth it. It had all been worth it, Walter reflected. And he wondered where the point ought to have come in his life when he should have begun to question its worth. It had slipped away from him in a dark moment without warning, just like Matthew.
Walter glanced grudgingly at his brother. Matthew had accepted Walter’s silent treatment without comment or protest, as if quietly acknowledging his due, but this was not what Walter wanted. He would have preferred an explosion or an argument, excuses made, defenses refuted, counterarguments presented until everything had been explained from all sides.
“Matthew,” Walter muttered. For a moment there was no reply, and Walter wondered if Matthew had heard, but then Matthew turned his head slightly, so that Walter could see his profile against the white tree branches.
“Yeah,” said Matthew.
“Where have you been all these years?” said Walter.
It was the exact question Walter’s mother had made him promise not to ask. He even used the same words she had, when she demonstrated what not to say, despite the fact that, left to his own devices, he probably would have phrased it differently.
“Have you been traveling?” Walter went on, unable to stop. “Having adventures? Have you ever been to Africa?”
“No,” Matthew murmured softly.
“Oh,” said Walter, vaguely disappointed. “Well, have you been doing the things you used to talk about as a kid? Have you ever climbed Mt. Everest? Or gone up in a hot air balloon?”
“No,” said Matthew. “I haven’t done any of those things.”
“Oh,” said Walter. “Well, what have you been doing?”
“Well,” said Matthew reflectively, “Most recently I worked as a custodian, at an elementary school in Fresno.”
It took a moment for Walter to adjust his worldview before he could reply.
“You were a janitor?”
“We prefer to call it a custodian,” Matthew said peacefully.
“How come you did that?” said Walter.
“A number of reasons,” said Matthew. “There were bills to pay, of course. I was living with a lady at the time, and I didn’t like to ask her to pay the rent all on her own.”
“Was she pretty, Matthew?” said Walter.
“In a manner of speaking, yes,” said Matthew. “She had the most beautiful eyes. And quite a nice figure. Only one leg, though.”
“Only one leg?”
“She lost the other in a bicycle accident.”
“Oh,” Walter blinked. “Well, are you going to marry her?”
“Oh no,” said Matthew. “I don’t think that would be possible.”
“Well for one thing, I believe she has at least one husband still living.”
“At least one?”
“There were two,” Matthew explained. “But I think one of them died.”
“Oh,” said Walter. An image flashed through his mind: a picture he had always carried of Matthew, ever since the day he ran away. In it, Matthew was still sixteen, but he had a mustache. He was streaming along a highway bordering the Italian Riviera in a Ferrari F40. It was the kind that could do zero to sixty in under four seconds, built in 1987, with racing stripes down the sides. Walter had never consciously acknowledged this picture to anyone, but it was the one he always imagined whenever he pictured what Matthew was doing, even though it no longer made sense. In the picture, Matthew had been a teenager for fourteen years.
“You shouldn’t have left school,” mumbled Walter. “You were special.”
“No, I wasn’t,” said Matthew. “I was just the oldest. I wish our roles had been reversed. You would have done a better job of it than I did.”
“What are you talking about?” said Walter. “I could never do anything as well as you.”
“A four year old usually can’t do things as well as a six year old,” said Matthew. “That doesn’t mean the six year old is cut out for it.”
Walter tried to think about this, but suddenly he felt tired, exhausted in fact, so much so that the question he had not intended to ask rose to his lips, and he lacked the energy to hold it back.
“Why did you have to leave?” Walter muttered. “Would it have killed you to come home and say goodbye?”
There was a long pause before Matthew said anything. Then his lips moved so gently Walter wondered if he was imagining it.
“Maybe,” said Matthew. ♦
(To be continued…)