The Snow

by Jim Farrar (unfinished 1987)

Chapter 1

It starts snowing hard at midnight and doesn't let up until midmorning.

By eleven o'clock it's turned cold. There's a good three feet on the ground and the pickup doesn't want to start, even though it's been in the machine shed all night.

Grandpa and I start clearing the drive to the plowed main road, but the snow is too deep and the road too far away for us to do much good with shovels. Thirty minutes later we give up, a third of the way down the drive and both of us sweating like hired hands.

"We put the blade on the tractor," Grandpa suggests,"we can clear this out in ten minutes."

"It'll take us half an hour to find the damn thing and get it on," I say. "We're already late, so we might as well forget it."

When I go in the house to tell Ann we're snowed in, she seems unperturbed

"That's all right, hon," she says placidly. "We'll go later in the week, after the snow melts. I'll call and reschedule."

If she doesn't care, then I don't care, and I tell her so.

"Well. . ." she pauses. "If I am pregnant, then I'll still be pregnant at the end of the week, won't I?" she says, as if trying to rationalize her indifference.

Grandpa comes in through the back door. He and Ann exchange glances as he passes her on his way to the family room. I get a glimpse of something in both their eyes I don't think I'm supposed to see, as if I'm an intruder in some private feud between my wife and my grandfather. I sense a chill about Ann, a coldness more penetrating than the weather outside.

I just stand there in the kitchen, my eyes focused on my feet and on the linoleum beneath them.

She looks at me, her eyes directly on mine. Perhaps she senses my bewilderment. She smiles warmly and says, "don't look so disappointed. There's nothing to worry about. We'll take care of this."

Her choice of words puzzles me, her referring to her own pregnancy as something to be taken care of. But instead of saying something, especially in front of Grandpa, I pour myself a cup of coffee and go to the counter, where I sit on one of the oak stools my father made some twenty years ago as a Christmas present for my mother. I sip my coffee and half-listen to the game show on the little black and white television Ann keeps in the kitchen.

Ann is on the phone, talking, I assume, to the receptionist at the doctor's office. She reschedules the appointment for the end of the week. After a minute or so of small talk she hangs up the phone and announces cheerily that we can go Friday afternoon. "Let's make it a day," she says. "We'll go early and spend the morning in town. We can go shopping and have lunch at the Bucket of Blood."

I just sit there, sipping my coffee and not saying a word.

"Spending money'll do us both good, don't you think? Let's buy something frivolous, something absolutely off-the-wall. Okay?"

"This is no time to be blowing money," I say sullenly.

"Oh goddamn it John, don't be such a stick-in-the-mud," she says as she kisses my forehead. She licks her lips and looks so sexy as she does it I can barely stand it. "You're sweaty. Starting the truck that difficult?"

"We were shoveling the drive. Not much point in that, though. There's too much snow."

"You and Levi express yourselves so laconically sometimes," she says lightly, pouring herself a cup of coffee.

Grandpa, the man with the old fashioned name, the Biblical name. The man my classmates called Mr. Blue Jeans, like the famous pants. The man who taught me to swear, to be profane and take the Lord's name in vain.

Though my grandfather and I have never been particularly close, we're not exactly distant either. It wasn't until Mom and Dad were killed in a car wreck that our relationship really changed. In addition to being bound to one another by blood, we became business partners.

My grandfather's from the old school. His grandparents were original settlers in Plain City and are local legends. He has old fashioned values and would rather do things the old fashioned way.

Ten years ago he finally learned to drive a tractor, having preferred horses up to that point.

"Live flesh is better'n any damn machine," he used to tell me. "Don't always have to be gassin' it up or repairin' it."

Dad had been dead for a couple of years before he changed his mind. We live on adjoining farms and, suddenly, Grandpa found himself with two places to work.

Before that, he and my father and I had managed to run the two places ourselves. I was still in school when my father died and had no intention of quitting and coming home just to help Grandpa overwork himself because he was too stubborn to enter the twentieth century.

Eventually he started using Dad's machinery. Thank God my father was different. Grandpa would've been in a real bind if he weren't, in need of machinery and unable to buy it.

The year my parents were killed was a bad one for Grandpa. Earlier that year, Grandma had died of a stroke one night after doing the dishes.

Grandpa had helped her dry, as usual. She felt dizzy and went into the living room to lie down. He put the dishes away and, when he walked out to the front room to check on her, he found her on the sofa, flat on her back, her eyes wide open and an ironic smile set on her face.

Townsfolk have said that Grandpa hasn't been himself since Grandma died, that her death opened a wound in him that's never healed. This may be true, but he seems much the same to me.

Grandpa comes into the kitchen and pours himself a cup of coffee. He stands by the counter and looks out the window above the sink.

"Gonna snow some more. Soon as it warms up," he says.

He's right. I can feel it too, and I've never known Grandpa to be wrong about the weather. It's cold outside and the air is still – the type of stillness that always comes before a storm. I could smell it while I was shoveling the road.

"If I were betting, I'd say it'll hit around five," Grandpa says.

I take another sip of coffee and nod in agreement.

The snow comes at a quarter after six. Grandpa and I are both watching the evening news in the front room, eating roast beef off TV trays, when Ann comes in to tell us there's a blizzard starting up outside.

I go to the window and look out. Huge flakes are falling and the wind has almost blown in the section of road we shoveled earlier.

Fifteen minutes later the TV goes out. It's going to be a long night with no television. Grandpa and Ann are both silent as Cigar Store Indians, thinking, I presume, about the snow outside and the prospect of a long winter.

With Thanksgiving less than a week away and with this much snow in the lowlands already, I wonder what Christmas will be like this year, besides white. I wonder about cabin fever. I fantasize about having no television to distract us, no football to watch, for three or four months. I wonder how sick Grandpa and Ann and I would get of each other, being cooped up together for so long in our tiny house.

Grandpa stopped living at his place, a couple miles down the road, shortly after my parents died.

"Three people in two houses don't make no sense," he said.

At first, Ann was against the idea. She didn't understand his loneliness. In the end, however, she gave in and Grandpa took the small bedroom.

Half an hour later the TV comes back on, just in time for Monday Night Football. Grandpa loves football and hates Howard Cosell, so we never miss a game, even during the harvest.

Tonight, the Packers are playing the Broncos in the snow in Green Bay. The blizzard we see on the screen looks like the one outside our window.

It's a close game and Grandpa's glued to the set. He's always loved football, though I doubt he's ever held a ball.

I went to college on a football scholarship. Playing defensive end, I was voted all-conference in both my junior and senior years, though I was regularly stomped on by opposing lineman much bigger than me.

Grandpa came to all the home games, and most of the away games as well. He got a vicarious thrill, I think, from watching me get beat up every Saturday afternoon.

As for myself, I saw the games as being merely painful and as an intrusion into my study time. I was realistic enough about football, as well as my abilities as a player, to see that I had neither the size or quickness to make it in the pros, and that my grades, not football, would be my ticket off the farm.

As it turned out, I was wrong on both counts, though Grandpa still sees me as a football player and, in some strange way, thinks of me as a sports hero.

Meanwhile, as Grandpa followed me around the West, my father stayed home and worked the farm. Of the three of us, he was the most sensible, or at least the most realistic, about my future.

"You need to learn to farm, John," he'd say. "You can fall back on it, in case you don't find no work out there. This place ain't much – I got no illusions about that – but it can feed you if times get tough."

Not that Dad discouraged daydreaming. But he was born a farmer, he enjoyed being a farmer, and I'm sure it was natural for him to assume that I, being his only son, would want to be a farmer as well.

But Grandpa. . .well, Grandpa's harder to fathom. For all our differences, he and I are alike in that neither of us particularly cares for farming.

But it's the only thing we know how to do, so we keep on doing it, by force of habit, automatically, year in and year out.

Grandpa's parents homesteaded in Plain City when they were in their late twenties.

Grandpa's mother was in her forties when he was born, so it's safe to assume that his arrival in this world was unexpected.

The family had originally intended to settle in Oregon, but they tired after crossing the Continental Divide. They made it as far as Idaho before saying to hell with it.

They couldn't have chosen an uglier place. The Snake River Plain is dry and dusty, colored only by grey-green sagebrush and outcroppings of dark basalt. Worse yet, the only water in the area is in the Snake River itself, which flows, inconveniently, through a deep gorge with sheer walls on either side.

Until a dam was built upstream, the family lived in the canyon, growing fruit and vegetables, which they hauled up the canyon wall on a narrow trail and then over some thirty miles of desert road to the tiny railroad town of Shoshone, where they sold it to railroad people and grocers, or anyone who would offer a fair price – or any price at all, as was often the case.

After the dam was built, and the land cleared of sagebrush and irrigated, they moved to the farm where we now live.

My grandfather married my grandmother, a neighbor woman, and except for a honeymoon to Yellowstone Park and four or five football games each year while I was in college, he's never left the valley.

And my father married my mother and worked the land until he died. And Ann and I have been married over ten years now.

As time passes, all that really changes, it seems, are the faces of the men and women who live here. The daily rhythms of life in Plain City stay the same.

As is often the case these days, the Packers lose badly to the Broncos. The news comes on, and Grandpa goes to his room. He never watches the news. Aside from football, the outside world doesn't interest him.

I watch the local news and part of Johnny Carson then I too go up to bed. Ann is in the bedroom reading, as she usually is this time of night. As I slip under the covers, she turns out the light and we make love.

She is more passionate than usual. She holds me tightly and says over and over as she kisses me, "John, I love you so very much."

I wonder what's making her so emotional tonight, but as I'm falling asleep, my thoughts seem to be drifting as much as the snow outside. I think about football and Grandpa and the game on TV that was played in a blizzard far away from Idaho. And I think about the storm. I wonder how much snow will be on the ground come morning.

Chapter 2

Though it snows throughout the week, by Friday the storm's moved out of the valley, and it starts to warm up. The roads into town are a slushy mess, but driveable.

We get to the doctor's office on time. They do the test and it comes up positive. Ann is going to have a baby.

I'm both excited and scared by the news. Ann just seems scared, and when I ask her about it she starts to cry, which in turn makes me cry. We hug one another as the doctor smiles at us.

When we get outside, I ask Ann if she still wants to go shopping, or maybe go over to the Bucket of Blood and celebrate, like she'd suggested earlier in the week.

"No," she says, "I want to go home. I'm a little overwhelmed by everything right now. I thought I was prepared for this, but I guess I'm not. I'm sorry, John."

"No," I say. "Don't be. I can't wait to tell Grandpa."

Which is true. I'm so elated I can hardly put the key in the ignition of the pickup. And for some odd reason I'm shaking. I'm a little embarrassed by this, though I don't think Ann has noticed, and even if she did she'd just think it was touching or, worse yet, cute.

But Ann seems a million miles away right now, so we drive home in silence.

My head is buzzing. I'm thinking of names, of baby clothes and changing diapers – how do you change a diaper, I wonder – and I feel a twinge of regret for my parents. I wish they were still alive so I could share this with them.

So I realize I'll have to share it with Grandpa. But when we get home I have no immediate desire to tell him. Instead, I watch Ann, who is fighting back tears (out of joy or sorrow I can't tell, nor do I have the nerve to ask), get silently out of the truck and go up the walk.

I sit in the pickup for about five minutes, my mind an overcrowded blank, suddenly feeling old and with a ton of responsibilities to consider, all in the back of my mind, mainly, and vague: am I a good enough farmer to support a family for the next two decades; is a spot of green in a desert filled with sagebrush the right place to raise a kid; what if Ann has trouble and both she and the baby die; or, worse yet, what if the baby is stillborn or born deformed or retarded; what if, what if, what if?

I get out of the truck and walk through the slush over to the family graveyard behind the machine shed. Looking at my mother's and father's graves, I feel both happy and sad. I'm going to be a father; but will our child ever be able to leave the farm, this graveyard, where I too will be buried someday?

But then I think of my father, who never wanted to leave. Grandpa and I are the restless souls in the family and, ironically, it is Grandpa and I who are the best farmers.

Though he worked hard, my father was never very good at it. But Grandpa made money as a farmer. He used it to send me to college.

And now Ann and I are saving money. If nothing else, we can afford to have this baby.

I open the gate to the iron fence surrounding the cemetery. It's cold back here – no sun behind the shed. The ground is covered with snow that's melted and refrozen into a hard crust almost solid enough to walk on.

I crunch through it over to Mom and Dad's headstones. Scraping away the snow, I see my mother's marker has a crack in it, which runs diagonally from left to right. I read the inscription on the marble:

Loving Wife
In This Life And The Next

Somehow, with the crack, it doesn't seem very permanent.

"What a waste of time," I say to myself, out loud. "I'm only going to end up feeling morbid." Too portentous, I decide, and shut the gate.

As I walk towards the house it starts snowing again.

Chapter 3

Though normally a man of few words, Grandpa's been unusually quiet the last few days. Ann has been silent as well, stewing about something. When I ask her what's bothering her she says she's fine.

Grandpa's reaction to Ann's pregnancy was puzzling. After I told him he looked at me and said, "Where you gonna put the crib?" Then he walked out the door to the shop, looking, for the first time I can remember, old and tired and defeated. He didn't even say congratulations.

Ann and Grandpa have hardly spoken to one another since we got back from the doctor, though they keep looking at each other with what I perceive to be troubled faces. I'm suspicious, though I'm not sure what I have to be suspicious of. There's tension in the house, not the happiness I'd foreseen.

For supper tonight, Ann has baked a ham. Nothing is said as we sit down to eat. I look at Ann, who gives me a weak smile. Grandpa looks down at his empty plate.

I muster as much righteous indignation as I can and say in my best head-of-the-household voice, "all right, I want to know what's going on here."

My words are greeted with the same silence I've been enduring the past three days. Ann doesn't even acknowledge me. She just sits there cutting the ham. Grandpa continues to study his plate.

"Well?" I say, losing what little nerve I have and fearing a confrontation with either of them.

"Well what, John? What do you want to know?" says Ann.

"I'm – not sure . . ."

My voice is hollow and echoes my confusion. I don't understand my anger, but it's there, directed at what I don't know. Directed at Grandpa and Ann, maybe.

"Well, I'm sure I don't know either, then," Ann says calmly. "Do you have any idea what he's talking about, Levi?"

Grandpa rises from the table and leaves the kitchen. I get up and follow him to the living room. He turns on the television and walks over to the window. "The snow," he says. "So much snow."

I don't know if he's referring to the snow outside or to the picture on the TV, which is practically unwatchable.

"Goddamn it Grandpa."

He turns from the window and looks at me and I'm shocked at what I see. He has tears in his eyes. I've never seen my grandfather cry, not even at Grandma's funeral.

"No," he says. "I can't tell you. You'll have to ask Ann."

"Ask her what?" I'm confused and my brain isn't working right. I should be grasping something, but I'm not. There's a sadness I can feel but not consciously perceive.

He shakes his head and stares at the television set. The conversation is over and we both know it. I could beat him senseless and he'd say no more.

I walk back into the kitchen to talk to Ann. She's still at the table, eating her ham, chewing it slowly, over and over without swallowing. She looks up at me.

Looking down at her I feel like a hunter standing over the carcass of his quarry. I feel mean, like I've been deceived and there's going to be hell to pay.

But Ann is no wounded animal. She's my wife and she's not timid.

"You want something?" she says. "You and your grandfather do some serious talking?" She sounds mean, bitter about something.

"He said I should talk to you."

This throws her. She stops fiddling with her food and looks around the room, her eyes focusing on everything but me.


She answers with a statement. "Well what," she says.

"Is there something I should know? Grandpa obviously thinks so. I think so."

The following silence is long. I can't even begin to penetrate it.

"What do you think is going on, John?"

"I'm not sure. No, I don't know."

She gets up and walks over to the window. Looking out, she too comments on the weather.

"It's still snowing. Everything's so white. God, it makes the world look so awful and peaceful."


She turns around and, like Grandpa, she's crying gently.

"What is it?" I say. "You and Grandpa are keeping something from me. I want to know what it is."

She hesitates. She starts to say something and then thinks better of it.

"The baby," she finally says, her tears falling freely now. I give her a napkin and she wipes her eyes.

"What about the baby?" I say.

"I don't want to go through it, John. I can't. I just can't."

"Why?" I feel my chest tighten, something akin to stage fright rises in my breast, something like anger, but more painful, more self-destructive. Something rotten.

I know what's coming next and I refuse to hear it. I'll say it and be done with it, with her and the whole damn mess, forever.

"Because," she starts, but I interrupt. I don't know where the words come from, but regardless of the source, it's my voice I hear.

"Because it may not be my baby? Right?"

She looks at me, dumbfounded.

I stare back at her. I want to slap her, but don't. I'm not a violent man and won't become one now.

"Is that what you think?" She sounds horrified, wounded.

And so I think about it. Yes, it makes sense now; the secrecy, the moodiness, the passion in bed the other night, and the guilt. Especially guilt. And anger.

Who was it? It could've been anyone, I say to myself, she spends so much time alone, both in town and here at the house.

Grandpa has known all along. Or worse yet . . . but no, I say to myself, he's my grandfather. Blood has to count for something.

But he knew and, still, he didn't tell me.

I feel a stinging on my cheek and then something wet on my lip and I realize that she's hit me. My nose is bleeding.

"I'm right, aren't I? Admit it," I say as I spit out blood.

"You believe what you want to believe, John."

She circles the table, goes over to the window again, and looks out and shakes her head. She stands there a few seconds, then walks over and stands behind me. I brace myself for another blow, but instead she bends over and kisses the top of my head.

She lingers there. I can feel her face, her breathing, in my hair for several seconds. I have no energy. I can't move. I can't even turn around and face her.

"Poor, poor John," she says. "I love you and don't blame you. For anything. You don't know, and I just don't have the strength to tell you right now. But I want you to know that I forgive you."

Before I can answer, or ask her what she means, she's gone.

I look over at Ann's half-eaten plate and realize I'm hungry. I go to the counter and slice off a piece of ham. I eat as though it's the last meal I'll ever get, like some convict on death row who's scheduled to be gassed at dawn.

As I chew the ham, I think to myself that a glass of whiskey would be good. I need a glass of whiskey right now.

I go to the cupboard and pull down the bottle of Old Crow that's been up there since last year. Our holiday booze. The three of us always have Irish Coffee on Christmas Eve.

The bottle's three quarters full. I fill a tumbler and drink it with my ham.

When I stand up I realize I'm drunk. My anger's faded, lost its edge, and now I'm just depressed.

I decide to go for a walk. It's cold out, but the snow looks inviting, and I think that maybe the brisk air will clear my mind. Taking the bottle with me, I put on my coat and go out through the back door.

Outside, the night feels unreal. It's snowing heavily and, because of the snow on the ground and the low clouds overhead, it's unusually light. I look across the back yard over to the barn. The scene reminds me of an old photograph, of a long forgotten sepia-toned world, distant from the one inside the house, and ancient.

Since there's no particular place I want to go, I wander over to the barn. As I enter, the milk cow calf comes over to the doorway and starts bawling. Christ, I think, just like a little baby.

I walk through the barn, gulping whiskey and poking at things, looking at souvenirs left over from my childhood, things like my first bike and my first saddle, and a pair of spurs hanging on one of the walls that belonged to my great grandfather.

But the calf won't shut up. I feel my anger start to rise, a fury I've never felt before. A meanness I've never felt before.

Why I do it I don't know. I go outside and pick up the shovel by the door and broadside the calf with it.

The shovel doesn't really hurt it, nor does it shut it up. I stand by the door, stunned by my behavior. For one crazy instant I want the calf dead. I want to kill something, anything.

But instead of committing any crimes, I go back in the barn and throw the whiskey bottle against the wall with all my might. It shatters into fewer pieces than I'd hoped it would, leaving a wet stain on the wall. I fall asleep on the floor.

When I come to, Grandpa is in the barn with me, picking up the pieces of the bottle and putting them in an old metal bucket.

I watch him for what seems an eternity before he notices I'm awake. Our eyes meet and he smiles humorlessly.

"Some party," he says.

"Old man," I say, "you should've told me."

He doesn't miss a beat. He's angry with me.

"And you should be with your wife right now."


"You heard me."

The whiskey is starting to wear off. My head is throbbing and my mouth is dry.

"After what she did to me, you expect me to go in there and comfort her? Christ, Grandpa, I'm the one who's been betrayed."

Grandpa looks genuinely perplexed. He picks a couple pieces of glass off the floor and throws them in the bucket. Finally, he looks at me. His eyes are swollen and hot.

He glances down at the bucket and then, suddenly, throws the whole mess across the barn. It hits the wall in almost the same spot as the bottle I'd thrown against it earlier. He squats down in front of me and looks directly into my eyes, making me feel even more uncomfortable than I already am.

"Betrayed? You selfish bastard. You feel betrayed because your wife got sick? You got a screw loose or something?" He motions in the general direction of the house. "She's in there. She needs you, but you're out here getting drunk. Some husband you are."

I'm not sure I hear him correctly. Did he say Ann was sick?

"I never thought I'd ever say this to you," he continues, "but I'm damned ashamed of you."

I can't get the word sick out of my mind. Sick?

"Self pity doesn't become you, John." He stands up and storms out of the barn. Everybody's walking out on me tonight.

I get up and stumble after him. "Wait a minute," I gasp, as the cold air hits my face. I notice that it's stopped snowing. The clouds have passed and now it's icy dark.

He stops and turns around to face me. I stagger up to him, my lungs burning, winded by the whiskey.

"What did you say? In there?" I ask, as I point back towards the barn.

"I said I was ashamed of you." He looks down at his feet and shakes his head.

"No, before that. About Ann. You said she was sick, didn't you? What did you mean by sick?"

I can see him piecing things together in his mind. When he finally speaks, he does so haltingly, his voice ready to break.

"I thought she told you. She did tell you, didn't she?"

I grab him by the shoulders and shake him, then push him backwards. He falls down, into the snow.

"Goddamn it, I've had enough of this guessing game. You tell me."

He makes no effort to get up. Rather, he stares at the snow. When he speaks, I have to strain to hear him. "She's got leukemia, John."

I feel like I've been sleeping on the bottom of the ocean and then rudely awakened. Too late now, I'm drowning. I can't breathe. I can barely comprehend, in fact, what Grandpa just told me. Leukemia? No mistake about it, that's what he said.

I sit down in the snow next to him. We look at each other. I hug him, holding on for dear life.

A million things run through my mind, but all that comes out of my mouth is a feeble litany.

"Why didn't she tell me? Why didn't you tell me? Why?" I keep mumbling, and Grandpa has sense enough not to say anything.

"How come you know and I don't?" I finally ask.

This time he answers. "I overheard her on the phone one day awhile back. She made me promise not to tell you. I didn't like the idea. Haven't from the start."

He breaks free from me and stands up. He offers me his hand, but I get up on my own.

"Let's go in, Johnny. It's cold out here." He hasn't called me Johnny since I got bucked off a horse when I was a little kid and went crying to him.

"No, Grandpa," I say. "You go on. I'll just be a minute. I've got to get my thoughts together before I can face Ann. I feel like a real bastard."

"She'll forgive you."

"I know. She already has. She told me so, but I didn't know what she meant."

He walks through the snow, which is knee deep, up to the back door. He stops and turns to look at me. I haven't moved.

"Are you all right?"

"No, not really, Grandpa."

He nods his head and turns the doorknob. "Stupid question, I guess." He opens the door and goes in, leaving me alone in the back yard, cold and sad, half-drunk and scared to death.

What will we do? What can we do? How much damage has been done? I love Ann, that's all I really know. Standing here in the snow, I wonder whether or not it's enough to pull us through.

I look towards the cemetery but can't see a thing. Goddamn snow. It covers everything.

It covers everything but our sins.

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