An ending and a beginning
| THE COUNTRY OF NEW SNOW
John Salem didn't want to think about the night. He filled the day with traveling to the mountain, making sure everything in the cabin worked, collecting firewood, and putting away his supplies. He made sure his truck was protected against the cold and that no "varmints" were residing under the cabin. Now the sun skimmed the horizon and it was twilight. Swirls of tangerine and purple light crisscrossed the sky and dark clouds lurked like an approaching armada. The forecast said it would snow overnight.
The freezing air was fragranced with the Christmas scent of pine and cedar. When he was down in the Valley he longed for the scent of evergreens. The Valley was flat and dusty and the tallest trees were in almond or peach orchards. There were terraced fields of Thompson grape vineyards and snowy white cotton. It was an agricultural paradise, but it was all about business.
The only things John Salem grew were in planters on his patio. None of those ventures were very successful. It was good that there were people skilled at cultivating, harvesting, and marketing food. In the cabin he had a refrigerator stocked with cheese and vegetables. The pantry had coffee and chocolate and cans of soup. He didn't know how he would survive on this mountain if he had to hunt or grow food.
This was one of the few times he had come to the cabin when it wasn't a holiday. It was also the first time he remembered coming alone. His pals usually accompanied him to hike, to fish, to drink beer, and to unwind. His former wife joined him on holiday trips when she flew down the slopes and left him in a spray of powder. Sometimes he wondered what such a beautiful athletic woman saw in him. She saw something once. Coming here brought back memories of her and maybe it wasn't such a good idea. The memories were just as strong in the Valley, though.
There was no place to run away from memories. The best he could hope for was distraction. Maybe work would have been better, but he wanted escape from work just as much as he wanted escape from memories. And maybe it wouldn't be bad to indulge in memories for a time. Most of them were good and they were good company.
The air was still and quiet and it was cold enough for him to see the steam of his breath. The tops of the trees stood in stark silhouette against the darkening sky and in between the approaching clouds he could see the first stars. He wasn't good with the constellations. He knew Orion, though, and he could pick out Orion now. He hugged his arms against his chest and walked quickly into the cabin.
The divorce with Sarah wasn't final yet, but he hoped he would get "custody" of the cabin. He couldn't imagine Sarah wanting it unless she wanted revenge. She had some vindictive qualities about her, but generally she was concerned with other things. He didn't know how he felt about Sarah now. There were photos of her in the cabin and he debated about whether he should destroy them. He suddenly wished she was here.
They spent many nights here with the lights turned low and some soft classical music on the stereo and sitting on the couch in front of the fireplace. They would get a bowl of oranges, peel the oranges, and fill the cabin with the scent of citrus. They would toss the peels into the fire, seeing the fire flare up around the blackening peels, and the aroma of oranges was stronger than ever.
She would slide close to him and put her head on his shoulder and her silky hair caressed his face. He would just put his arm around her, feeling the warmth from her body and inhaling her scent. It didn't always lead to sex, but the closeness itself was special to him. Then he got into bed next to her in the quiet dark and in the dim light from outside he watched the snow sifting down like powdered sugar and snuggled next to her and felt happier than ever before in his life.
He never had a real plan for a future with Sarah. It was just a day to day life and that seemed enough. They talked occasionally of traveling to Europe, or maybe buying a villa in Tuscany. It was mostly idle talk. He never acted on any of the dreams, even though he knew Sarah took them more seriously. Maybe it was the way he drifted that finally drove Sarah away. She was very pragmatic.
He went to the fireplace, put in a dry log, and spent several minutes getting the fire started. It started reluctantly, like a cold engine, but finally flared to life. He prodded the log with a poker and sent out a celebratory stream of sparks. Soon the cabin began to warm.
He liked this little cabin. It had the loft bedroom and this living room and a small kitchenette. He went to the kitchen and poured a glass of red wine. He tipped the glass back and forth, watching the liquid moving, and then settled down into the couch. He kept the lights down low and listened to the crackling of the now vibrant fire. Shadows danced over the hardwood floors as he sipped the wine and watched the snow finally drifting down in front of the living room window.
John once cared about assessing his life. He listed his achievements and documented his failures. Lately it seemed the failures dwarfed any successes. He gave up introspection. He thought back to a line he liked from the old Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mary was talking to Mr. Grant, who was having a drink with olives in it. Mr. Grant was frustrated with pimentos in the olives. His question was why ruin a perfectly good olive with a pimento? Finally, in a burst of frustration he said, "Pimentos can all go to hell." Self-criticisms, John thought then, can all go to hell.
He wanted to live in the moment. He wanted to enjoy the sensuousness of the wine, the heat of the fire, the beautiful colors fluttering all around the room, the sweet woodsy scent from the fireplace, the Christmas card look of the fresh snow. He wanted the luxury of sinking into the soft feather bed and drifting into a quiet, happy sleep. But he missed Sarah too much for the sleep to be happy. He wanted to feel her on top of him, her soft hair like a curtain over his face, her breasts pushed up against his chest, the entire experience of her overwhelming his senses. He wondered if he would ever feel that way about another woman.
He had his cell phone and he thought about calling Sarah. She would be astonished at his temerity and then hang up. Now was the time for him to be pragmatic too. The pragmatic thing to do was to make dinner, drink wine, and get a good night's sleep. This cabin was like being on top of the world and there was nothing to disturb him here.
It was better here in the summer, he thought. Sure, there were bugs outside, but nothing a little insect repellant couldn't handle. He liked driving a pickup to the cabin. He would line the bed of the pickup with foam mattresses, stash a cooler in the corner, and then lie back under the dome of the night sky. It was so much darker here than in the Valley that he could see constellations he couldn't see down below. He thought about all those stars and possibly those civilizations, all those light years away. The stars were billions of years old, he thought, so my entire life is like a nanosecond. He knew there was some insect that had a lifespan of about twenty-four hours and that was the human experience compared to the stars.
Clam chowder sounded good for dinner. He went to the kitchenette and opened a can of chowder, dumped the contents into a sauce pan, and turned on the hissing gas burners. He cut off a slice of French bread and hollowed the bread into a bowl. It wouldn't match the chowder on Pier 39 in San Francisco, but it would do.
The chowder bubbled in the pan and he stuck the bread on top of the stove to get some of the heat. He was suddenly very hungry. He poured another glass of the wine and, just for the fun of it, got another glass and poured it full of wine. He set the glass on the dining table and put a place setting there. He remembered reading that some football coach always left tickets for Elvis. He was doing a place setting for Sarah. The Sarah he knew would love being here in this country of new snow.
He ladled the chowder into his warm bread bowl and set the bowl on the table. He tried to imagine Sarah sitting across from him, but he couldn't manage even a hazy image. He ate the chowder hungrily, gazing occasionally about the room. There was a Van Gogh reproduction on the wall. It was a bowl of fruit. The fruit reminded him of spring and he tried to imagine what this next spring would be like.
He took the pan used to heat the chowder and washed it in the sink. He felt empty and purposeless. It was one of those strange ironies, he thought, that you longed for free time. You wanted an escape from the frenetic life you led all the time. But when you finally had free time it seemed endless and oppressive. He wasn't as sure that he missed Sarah as that he missed someone to fill up the time, to acknowledge his existence. He wondered if he went out into the new snow and let it drift over him until he was hidden from view, until he finally froze, how long it would be until he was discovered next spring.
Stop it, he thought. Self-pity was the last refuge of the terminal loser. Things changed. The snow falling now would eventually melt and the earth would burst forth next spring with new flowers.
He didn't have any plans for this trip. He wanted to feel warm against the cold. He thought about drinking wine, drinking hot coffee, drinking hot chocolate. He thought about wearing his down parka and taking his snow board down the slopes. He thought about hiking and taking his digital camera and trying nature photography. He couldn't draw, but the digital camera would compensate for many things. He sometimes felt he had an instinct for photography. Maybe in this post-Sarah world it was something he would try.
Now he turned down the lights, put another log into the fire, and went upstairs to the loft bedroom. He slipped into his flannel pajamas and slid under the down comforter. There was a small window in the loft and he saw the twirling snow. He thought back to being a kid and seeing the first snow and looking forward to snow ice cream. His grandfather would fill up a tub with the new snow and his grandmother would mix milk, vanilla extract, and sugar with the snow. He always ate the snow ice cream too fast and got a headache. Somehow when he saw the snow he thought he saw the ghosts of his grandparents come to visit, but their visit was as ethereal as the snow.
He went into a deep and comfortable sleep and he didn't remember any dreams, and he woke as the dawn sunlight spilled through the loft window. Pushing back the comforter, he felt the bite of the chilly air. He went to the window, saw brilliant white snow piled on the ledge, and snow as far as he could see. The skies were still clotted with clouds. He felt totally alone, but he suddenly didn't mind.
Slipping into jeans, a flannel shirt, and a down vest, he went downstairs. He decided it would be an old-fashioned pancake breakfast. There was something almost artistic in mixing pancake batter, pouring it into perfect circles into a hot skillet, and then flipping the pancakes at the proper time. He fixed a pile of pancakes, poured maple syrup over them, and downed them with a mug of hot coffee. He decided he would get his boots and digital camera and venture out into the snow.
He stuffed a knapsack with a Thermos of hot coffee and some dried fruit and buffalo jerky. He cinched up the knapsack and slipped it over his shoulder. He put on his down-filled gloves and a stocking cap and went outside. The wind was still and it was terribly silent. New snow began falling as he walked a few paces from the cabin and he could hear the ticking of the snow as it swirled around him like flocks of wild cold birds.
The snow wasn't deep yet and the walking was easier than he thought it would be. He hoped there were birds in the area. He wanted to get some good photos of birds. But as he walked along there was no sign of birds of any kind. He heard a plane or two pass overhead, probably bound for San Francisco, but he could almost imagine the way this country looked and felt before humans settled here. He took his usual path to the river where he and his friends used to fish and he found found snow in neat pristine piles on the banks. The river hadn't frozen and the sound of the rushing water was soothing. He took the camera from his knapsack and snapped some photos and settled back for a quick meal of coffee and buffalo jerky.
As cold and stark as this landscape looked, he thought, life was everywhere. Fish still lived in the river, birds were somewhere in the trees, and the trees themselves were alive. But he had enough of philosophy for now. And he was cold and ready for the warm fire of the cabin. He would trek back to the cabin and decide what he would do for the next two days before he went back home. He tried to comfort himself with a line from Robert Frost. "I have miles to go before I sleep," he said aloud. He bent his head against the snow that was stinging and cold against his face, feeling very alive and unbelievably lonely.