Short Story // The Truth about Snow
I own three high-rise buildings, from here to there. I also own a piece of Central Park, at least the white slice I can see through my twenty second story bedroom window. I cherish the view.
It’s early Saturday morning as I look out at the mask of descending snow that allows me the guilty pleasure of anonymity, especially here in metropolis of Gotham, the city of tall, hard edges. As I sit at my window desk, I’m disguised in a shadow, in the dark comfort of just past midnight.
I must tell you, if you live in Manhattan, you too will need a little peace and solitude on occasion, if only to inhale and replenish. I know this from experience, after moving here several years ago from my much quieter hometown of Chicago, the windy city that made me. Chicago is where you make your money. New York is where you spend it.
As my world alters around me, I’ve grown to appreciate the difference between needs and wants. A lesson learned too late, perhaps? I’m hoping not. Needs sustain you, support life itself, concerned with such things as food and water. Wants have more to do with choices and extend beyond the meeting of basic needs, and survival. William Blake’s writing will tell you that excess, is basically want on steroids, a requirement if one intends to travel the distance, perhaps as far as the threshold of his literary Palace of Wisdom.
In my case, my wants have only served to separate me from love. However considering my sticky past, it would be too convenient, and lazy of me, to assign most of the blame there. I’m thinking blame is much more of a Rubik’s Cube.
Bundles of snowflakes drift downward, as they seem to celebrate each distinct, diamond ribbon of their own DNA. As I struggle to stay awake, imagine their fall as nearly audible, the sound electric, voltaic piano keys, looping notes E. F. G., turning over and over again. I can sense the kinetic energy as each snowflake glows from the soft light of my solitary bedroom window, flecked ice stars in the dark sky before me. Yet, there are times, I accede, my senses have been overvalued, influenced by my past.
It’s barely Saturday, and I’m all alone except for a half bottle of fine scotch, oh, and a few remarkable memories. At my desk, I contemplate signing the legal documents before me. For the past two hours, I have been nostalgically waiting for a signature, which has yet to appear in the hypnotic snowfall, even though I remain vigilant. I need one crisp signature to finalize everything, or so it seems.
Dad abandoned us just after I turned four, and he never looked back. Due to our reshuffled finances, we were forced to move after he departed. We ended up leasing a small two bedroom, shotgun bungalow in the village of Lombard, Chicago. Our family was grandfather, my mother and I. My beloved grandmother died when I was barely six. At first, grandpa coped, moved forward.
Not long after grandmother’s passing, grandfather, a self-made, conservative and dignified gentleman, would join us for our traditional late afternoon super, nearly every Sunday. Mother said he was lonely.
It was around 1:00 P.M., when mother and I would fox our ears and listen, in anticipation of his arrival, his two heavy cracks at the door. The knocks at the arched-top chestnut portal resonated in a woody bellow and melody, not unlike that of a stately high-court gavel, complete with a hardwood sound block. Thwack/thwack. The brass clack on clack was Grecian, steeped in the antiquities of ancient origins and tonality, with all the mythical pomp and circumstance one would expect. To be honest, there was rarely an occasion that demanded the use of the massive brass lions head, door knocker, unfortunately.
For it was a thing of classic Art Deco elegance and refinement, a sound worthy of lifelong memories. As it turned out, typically, most of the presenters at our tall door announced their request of entrance in a more contemporary fashion, like twentieth-century brash knuckles. But not grandfather, he’d never stoop to such banality. After all, he was a strong, intelligent man, who became wealthy, in part due to his confidence, always announcing his presence, whether in private or in public, with his own style of calculated hubris. His world was one of grand entrance, accomplishment, departure. For a gentleman who never fully develop the skill to live in the present, it seems so ironic now.
Grandfather earned his bones in day trading. Having retired, grandfather missed articulating his business acumen and thus relished any occasion that allowed him to express his distinct arrival. The way in which he used our door-knocker, made for his grand entrance, thus ensuring him the respect he was accustomed and cherished. He was all about his hallmark kak-kak, kak-kak, against the brass Door knocker? Mother and I declared his arrival legendary.
Although he was a pompous sort, we still loved and enjoyed his company, our extended visits following a hardy meal. After all, grandfather was family. Grandfather, although never vulnerable in our presence, would at least show a softer side of himself at times. His only exception, as mother was told, was his demonstrative love for his late Ellie.
On most of his weekly visits, following a fantastic super, grandfather would fancy himself a benevolent king, and treasure away gifts, usually money, in different geographies and locations in our modest home. Visit after visit, he’d hide envelopes before his departure. Not once did we catch him in the act, or so he thought. We’d make sure to look elsewhere, or pretended not to observe. We made a game out of his placement of exotics in the carefully selected hiding places. Grandfather would leave the gifts behind mothers needlepoint pillows, once under a deep walled corduroy cushion, more than once behind the ornate Vienna Stuchy clock set atop the chunky redwood mantle, or just about anywhere, and everywhere, is where he would place the small allowances. Of course, mother and I, in a wink or nod, conspired in keeping his secret, at least from him. With each discovery, there would be some form of reprieve for mother. Perchance from a lower thermostat setting, a canceled school tutor, or the end of our beloved Saturday outings, at Lincoln Zoo, or a movie. But with each found treasure, there were sticky Machiavellian strings, invisible, as thin as spider strands.
As soon as the front door folded behind grandfather, and the echo of his steps vanished somewhere out there in the darkness, I would excitedly sleuth the usual hiding places as if I were looking for painted Easter surprises. His gifts, which seemed generous at the time, often included a fifty dollar check, or maybe a hundred dollars in twenties, it varied. Before grandfather returned to his mid-town apartment, mother watched the mantle clock, nearly wishing the minutes forward. Then at just the right time, she’d hastily telephone grandfather. Of course, then she’d humbly thank him for his graciousness and generosity, using her best surprised daughter voice, she feigned, “You didn’t have to?”
Eavesdropping phone calls, I discovered grandfather wasn’t one to say goodnight too soon, nor quickly acknowledge a heartfelt, “thank you.” Not until he delivered just the right amount of unsolicited advice was it time for him to say, “good night.” Its then I’d hear mother sheepishly tell him she loved him, slowly hang up the phone. Each new Sunday seemed to relent to another troupe encore.
Three, maybe four years after grandmother passed, the knocker tone changed. We determined this was not a mechanical issue, but more about how it was used. Oddly, we noticed the subtlety only when grandfather arrived. Mother and I imagined the sound more abrupt, impatient, and maybe a little too hard tempered. None the less, we indeed found humor in the transformation and surmised that grandfather was naturally eager to arrive. This meant we would answer the door sooner, the sooner he could enjoy his Arabica coffee, laced with his favorite Remy Martin Cognac.
And then infrequently at first, following our cherished supers, grandfather would pound questions at mother.
“Are you expecting a pay raise soon? Why don’t you move closer to the city, near work”?
The questions seemed abrupt, forced somehow.
“Dad, Jeremy and I are happy here. He’s in an excellent school, and his friends live nearby. The suburbs seem a better fit. I don’t mind taking the L train. It gives me time for my crafts,” she’d say.
“How about a second job, then?” he’d say.
“You and mother often remarked that I shouldn’t commit valuable time elsewhere. And that I should spend that time with Jeremy. I love being around my son.” That’s when mom lowered her head.
Even to a ten year old, the evolving conversations sounded off key. Like when the mailman used the door knocker, to deliver something that wouldn’t fit through the slot.
Grandfather’s thwacks grew too metallic and too sharp. His visits became more like business dinners. I could see the change in disposition concerning mother, watch her face drain rough, watch her eyes droop at the corners when he spoke. This bramble of conversation occurred more frequently with each visit. We began to feel darkness in the building thatch.
With time, mother and I would share our take on grandfather’s altered door raps, and how they had evolved. How grandfather himself had, though very gradually, changed. We agreed, maybe that is who he really was, deep inside, a blood related businessman. With each new hypothesis, we’d enjoy a good long laugh, and then carry on with our day. For me, this meant watching a little TV or finding a comfortable spot under a warm, family room standing brass lamp. Reading was my hiding place. Maybe it was the reading or the gentle glow from the incandescent light bulbs, but these occasions always seemed comforting.
The last time we saw grandfather, was a week after my tenth birthday party. Mother was finishing the stewed rabbit she purchased at the butcher shop, especially for him. The swollen cast iron, Dutch oven wafted the scent of carrots, potatoes, fennel seed, and rosemary. All the goodness seemed to float on its own humid culinary cumuli, drifting from room to room, and finding us, one after the other.
Before sitting for dinner, we were both startled by the loud, jagged raps on the door that day. The sound seemed hard like something was going to break, or was already broken, like a heart, the thwacks seemed endless.
“Hi dad,” said mother as she beamed out at him, slowly pulling open the weighted door.
“How are you, dad?”
“I’m fine.” Clack! This was the first time he locked us all in.
After a nearly silent dinner, Dorothy said, “Dad, I saved you a piece of double chocolate cake from Jeremy’s birthday party. I know chocolate is your favorite. It’s not like mothers, but it’s pretty good according to Jeremy.”
“Good Dorothy. My stomach is a little upset though. I’ll pass on the cake for now. But, I’ll take my coffee and Remy.”
I can never forget the mental picture of that day. Grandfather sat on his favorite high back corduroy chair, asking me, “Are you getting grades grandson, doing all your homework?”
I answered grandfather’s question, although even at my age, it sounded more like a statement. “Yes, grandfather, my grades are fine. Thanks for asking. I just had my tenth…” Before I could finish my answer, grandfather sat up and quickly stepped back into the kitchen, grasping the coffee cup with his trembling hand. This is the day I was first introduced to anxiety, thanks to grandfather. His silence spoke volumes before evolving into a testy conversation with mother. There was a certain gruffness in his tone. Gone was the sound of his harmonious and deep timbre.
“Dorothy, have you thought of a second job yet?”
“Dad, we discussed this a while back, and when its time, I will ask for a promotion, or I will consider a second job. Right now, my priority is standing right over there in the doorway, watching us.”
They both glanced over at me. That’s when I noticed the stone in my stomach get heavier. I left the kitchen for the family room, sat forward on the sofa, and quietly listened.
“Jimmy, Jim, ever hear from him?” he said. “Don’t answer. Maybe he had a reason for not staying in touch all these years. Dorothy, have you ever thought about what you might have done, differently. About some of the choices you made?”
Thwack! That’s not a sound against the front door, its grandfather smacking mother with poison words. In the crack of a whip, the entire house turned into a graveyard for smiles, dessert was never eaten, nor taken home, grandfather left early.
That night, after he departed, not one of my magic reading lamps worked. Much later that night, I tossed and turned, twisted in my sheets, as the darkness unfolded my unpleasant dreams.
Mother tried hard not to cry those evenings after grandfather’s death. And there were instances, though rare when mother spoke softly to herself. This occurred when she thought no one was listening. She murmured, “I could have done better, I am not good enough,” those sorts of things. I felt sad for her when she did that, I didn’t feel sorry for grandfather. In fact, that is when I first learned to steel myself against most feelings, an emotional inoculation of sorts.
Weeks passed slowly at first, after grandfather died. One particular early evening, I presented mother with an envelope I found in the back of one of my books, up high, in the tall mahogany bookshelf. She cautiously opened it and stared at the one hundred dollar bill. She remained silent, but tears washed her face shiny, as she tried unsuccessfully to form a smile, words. After a long pause, she softly said, “Jeremy, life can be so complicated and mysterious at times.”
I just shook my head yes, and acted like I knew what she was talking about. After all, at my age, life’s philosophies were above my pay grade, but certainly not the science of anger. Part of me hated my grandfather and his damned generosity.
Later the same night, before bedtime, in the middle of one of our infamous Chicago snowstorms, mother asked me to favor her.
“Jeremy, this may sound crazy, but would you please put your heavy coat on, boots too, and go outside?”
“What-the, mother?” I said,
“Please Jeremy, just this once,” she said.
“Outside, then what?” I said.
“Then…then rap on the door. Use the brass lion’s head knocker, two raps, maybe three, and then pause, please. And then repeat this a few times?”
When you live in Chicago, you either love the weather or move away as quick as you can. I’m one that loved the weather, especially a good thick snow storm. Stowed away in my down parka, I felt exhilarated in the near dark. The falling snow and I wore the same mask. Even so, after what seemed like the longest time with the routine, I slowly opened the door and peeked through the tall crack of soft light. There was mother, in her comfy chair fast asleep, with a half smile on her face.
A few months after we buried grandfather, next to his beloved wife, mother received a phone call from an attorney. How can I forget, Simpson, Simpson and Horvath, Attorneys at Law? The next week, Mr. Horvath, the attorney’s receptionist for grandfather’s estate offered us water and right after we declined, he flopped in an important chair and said, “I’m supposed to just, read this letter. And, I don’t have any answers should you have any questions.”
Mother’s face looked like a pale question mark, with its black dot over her mouth.
Mr. Horvath hands trembled as he read, “Dear Dorothy and grandson. It’s with a grateful heart that I write this letter.”
The letter was dated at least ten years prior, almost eleven. I started counting months with my little toe.
Mr. Horvath continued, “The sad truth, Dorothy is that you are not my real daughter. You were adopted. When I married your mother, she was pregnant. Don’t get me wrong, you know I cared for your as one of my own. But, in matters of inheritance, please do not be disappointed, I have instructed my lawyers to make sure my estate is distributed among various charities in Chicago, and to my son’s family in Munich, Germany. Alaricus has been gone for some time, cancer, but I have three grandchildren and his wife. I would appreciate it, if you do not attempt to contact his family: Signed, with love, Aubrey A. Cowlings.”
Thanks to Mr. Horvath, we were allowed to sit quietly in the conference room for nearly an hour. I have to tell you, mother never shed a tear. After thanking the receptionist, we went through the office door and never looked back. Nothing changed in mother’s heart, it remained as open as ever. Not one bitter pill did she swallow. The balance of her life was love and forgiveness.
Mother has been gone for at least twelve years now. I miss her terribly. She had a wonderful life. She never acted out a mean bone in her body. She lived frugally, though over the years I made sure she was more than comfortable. For the longest time, we became all we had, and we showed it.
She left me a wonderful legacy, but unfortunately, not all bequests are cherished, and honored. Like my counterfeit-grandfather, I keep things guarded. When I present at someone’s door, it is much more about the whom I’ve become, about guarding my feelings. I’ve become more observant about whom I let in. As mother’s heart opened over the years, mine closed. I’m certainly not perfect.
I have proof. “You have a stone heart,” said Mila as she slammed the door behind her, “Whack!”
I am not sure why I am thinking so far back in time, especially when I should be concentrating on one task, a simple signature.
I say to no one here, “You can do this!”
As I sign the divorce decree, I imagine myself in front of a large winter door in a snow storm, as the white spice of silence descends from the sky and unfolds around me, I’m left there standing, certain of one thing, that love is much more nuanced and complicated than any knock, than any open and shut.
Dan A. Cardoza’s fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have been published internationally. Most recently in 45th Parallel, Bull, California Quarterly, Cleaver, Coffin Bell, Deep Overstock, Dream Noir, Entropy, Gravel, Literary Heist, Mystery Tribune, New Flash Fiction Review, and Spelk. He has an MS Degree in Counselling from CSU, Sacramento.