It snows the night before, five to seven inches according to the weatherman, so in the morning you get up an hour earlier than usual, the alarm buzzing at six a.m. Peeking through the curtain gives you a view of the backyard, of the sycamores and hemlocks and oak trees all blanketed by white. The snow is flawless except for some tracks toward the bushes, what may be a set of deer prints — and from the corner of your eye you spot a squirrel, skittering across the snow, its gray tail snapping in its wake. You put on your boots, your parka and your gloves, and you take the shovel outside where it’s a quiet January morning, the sun already filling this part of the world with light. The weatherman got it wrong, you see, as there are only about three inches, but still you start with the driveway from the road up to the house, then the walkway. The temperature is one you’ve come to expect in the winter months, the chill not uncomfortable but just enough that you can see your breath. It takes you forty minutes until you’re done, and then, when you set the shovel on the porch, when you start to kick the snow off your boots, you hear the oncoming of a plow truck.
Only it’s not a plow truck, but Samuel Baker with a plow attached to his Dodge Ram. He’s the town’s plowman, a retired farmer who clears the roads of New Avalon every time it snows, doing it simply out of the kindness of his heart. You wait on the porch as you listen to the plow scraping the road. The truck crests the hill and you spot it through the trees, you wait until Samuel is passing your house and then you raise a hand in greeting. He gives a quick salute and then he’s behind a wall of trees again, the sound of his plow and the roar of his engine the only proof of his existence.
You wait outside for just another minute, glancing up at the skeletal branches of the trees, hoping to spot some kind of life. You wish to spy a bird that hasn’t retreated with the rest of its kind for the winter, or even that squirrel you saw earlier, but there’s nothing there, just drooping limbs. The temperature must be going up, because at that moment a sheet of snow falls from one of the tall branches, destroying the smooth surface with a dull and resonant thud.
Back inside, you strip and go straight to the bathroom, deciding to forgo your usual morning workout of one hundred pushups and two hundred sit-ups. You shave, then shower, then dry off, keeping the towel around your waist as you walk into the kitchen to make coffee. Minutes later the machine purrs, the smell of freshly brewed coffee strong, and you turn on the TV resting on the counter. The sound of CNN news breaks the heavy silence as you head back to your bedroom.
You put on boxers, socks, then stand in front of your closet for a while, deciding which suit you want to wear. In the end you decide on a gray pinstriped, one of your older ones, thinking it’s best in case salt somehow gets on the slacks while you’re in the city. You put on your shirt, a red tie, and take the jacket with you to the kitchen, where you drape it over the chair.
The coffee has another five minutes before it’s ready, so you head back into the bedroom and open your bottom drawer. You move the sweatpants and sweatshirts, revealing the silver case beneath. This you pull out and take back to the kitchen, where you set it on the table, then insert a key to open the box. Inside are a Glock 9, three full clips, and a holster. You set the holster aside and take out the Glock and rest it on the table, just as the coffeemaker beeps.
Stepping away, you fill a mug to the top and take a couple sips, watching the TV in the corner, the newscaster discussing today’s top stories. Nothing noteworthy catches your attention — just more about the ongoing war on terror, about some celebrity wedding — and you turn away, go back to the kitchen table where you sit down and place your mug to the side. And then you begin taking the Glock apart, setting each piece in a line in front of you, until the entire thing is dismantled. Then you start cleaning the pieces, slowly putting them back together, taking an occasional sip of coffee, glancing once in a while at what’s happening on CNN. Eventually the gun is reassembled and you take one of the clips, insert it. Your mug is empty so you get up; you start to head toward the coffeemaker for another cup, when your cell phone rings. It’s on the counter and you pick it up immediately, knowing it’s your friend, that it’s always your friend.
“She’s ready,” he says, and then hangs up.
* * *
Because of the snow you decide to take the SUV. Both that and the Town Car are cleaned and vacuumed, and just last week you’d detailed the Town Car because you were planning to take that. But it has snowed, at least three inches here, and who knows what it’s going to be like in the city, what the streets are going to be like, how crazy traffic will be. So you take the SUV, wearing your suit jacket and your overcoat, the Glock holstered beneath your arm. Your shoes are shined, smelling of polish, and you start the SUV, let it idle for a few minutes, before hitting the automatic opener and waiting for the double garage door to slowly creak open.
Minutes later you’re headed down the road, thinking that Samuel has done a great job as usual, the old man taking pride in what he does. You pass trees and bushes, covered in white, and then you’re turning down a long driveway, and just as you suspected, it hasn’t been shoveled. The SUV handles it fine and then you’re shadowed by the trees all around you before you rise over the crest and there is the house, the one-story ranch style home just like nearly all the rest in New Avalon. Your friend is outside, wearing boots and gloves and a parka. He’s already shoveled the walkway and is now beginning the top of the driveway. He’s wearing a Philadelphia Eagles hat, which you think always looks peculiar on him. He turns as you pull up and waves, then continues to shovel a little more before stopping.
Getting out of the SUV, you tell him, “Here, let me do that,” but he shakes his head, says, “Trust me, I’m fine. I need the exercise anyway.”
It’s quiet then for a while, the SUV idling behind you, the sound of more heavy snow falling from weak limbs and crashing to the ground. The temperature, according to the SUV’s thermometer, is now almost fifty, and something tells you it’s going to keep going up before the end of the day. Just another freak snowstorm in Pennsylvania, something you’ve come to expect and almost rely upon in the past nine years.
Your friend leans on his shovel, looking at you closely. He glances at the house, then turns back to you, steps forward and whispers, “She’s dying.”
For a moment you aren’t sure what to say. Then: “She’s been dying since the beginning.”
He nods, the tip of his green hat rising just enough that the sun catches some of his face. You notice that it’s more worn than the last time you saw him, though you wonder how that’s possible, this small dark-skinned man who has always had intelligent, piercing eyes.
“But it’s really happening now,” he says, his voice still quiet, and after glancing once more at the house he goes on to explain how the cancer has returned, this time in full force, and how the doctor doesn’t think she’ll last until the summer. He shakes his head, his face looking even more ragged, and says, “This is it. This is the end.”
You ask, “What about more chemo?” and your friend shakes his head, tells you that she hasn’t been responding to chemotherapy for the past three months, when the first signs of the cancer again showed up. “And you didn’t say anything then?” you ask, actually feeling hurt, and your friend explains that they hadn’t told anybody, that they had even agreed to keep it quiet until it was definite.
He shakes his head this time, takes a breath, and says, “But I figured you should know. Just, you know, in case ... ”
But he doesn’t continue. He doesn’t have to. And for the next minute you both just stand there in the driveway, the SUV idling, exhaust coughing white from the tailpipe. You glance around at the trees, for some reason hoping to spot a bird, a squirrel, some kind of life that will prove it’s not just the two of you at this moment in time. But there’s nothing there, nothing at all, and it’s at that moment the front door opens and she comes out, bundled in her winter coat, a black scarf wrapped around her head. Dark glasses cover most of her face as always, and for some reason it’s a comforting sight, something that looks normal. Only now you’re thinking of what your friend has just told you, and you’re wondering just how much she’s decayed so far, just how much the scarf and glasses are hiding.
You glance at your friend and he gives you a look, a small look which speaks volumes, which tells you what he has just said should not be repeated. Then he turns, shovel in hand, and goes to meet her as she comes down the walkway. He sets the shovel aside and takes her in his arms, whispers something to her, then hugs her tightly. As this happens you make your way to the other side of the SUV, you stand there and wait for your friend to escort her. Then you open the door, you hold out your hand to help her up inside, and once she’s in, once she’s settled, you quietly shut the door and glance once more at the trees, at the bushes, at the flawless white lawn in search of life.
That’s when you notice your friend looking at you again, the tiredness even more pronounced in his face and eyes. “Be careful,” he says, the same thing he always tells you before you drive her into the city, only now there’s more beneath the surface to this simple phrase. Then he turns and trudges back toward the house, grabs the shovel and starts scraping the driveway, the rough sound filling the silence.
* * *
The drive from New Avalon to New York City is close to seventy miles one way. You spend a good deal of time on SR-23, driving through New Jersey’s High Point State Park, then through Sussex and Hamburg. Next onto SR-3, then I-495. You have the entire route memorized, you know every alternate you can take in case there’s construction or an accident or some kind of emergency.
You take a CD from the glove compartment. Today you’ve put in Mozart. The music — Symphony No. 40 in G minor — is playing but you hardly notice. You continue down the same highways, passing the same speed limit markers, the same signs announcing exits for Rutherford and Lyndhurst. You watch the cars in front of you, noting when one changes lanes, when one taps its brakes, but somehow it’s all become background. You’re reviewing everything you’ve just learned from your friend, the little he’s told you. For years now you’ve been expecting it, but still the days passed, the months, and life went on, the new life you’ve finally come to accept. And now, it seems, that will soon end.
Eventually the city appears in the distance, becoming larger and larger, and the closer you get the more you tell yourself you need to pay better attention. But it’s difficult. It’s almost impossible. You glance occasionally at the woman in the back, the woman sitting there hidden by her coat and her scarf and her dark glasses, the woman staring out her window. You want to say something to her, to ask her how she’s feeling, but you remain quiet and allow only the noise of flutes and horns and clarinets, of violins and cellos and violas, to fill the cabin.
Eventually you hit the Lincoln Tunnel and then you’re underwater, you’re staying in your lane and telling yourself to keep your mind on the task at hand. It happens every time you come this close to the city. The irony isn’t lost on you if somehow you have an accident, if somehow the woman in the back who the world believes has been dead for the past nine years suddenly breaks her leg or arm or worse. So you grip the steering wheel a little tighter, you turn the air up a little more, and then you hit the surface.
After making your usual turn, you take a right onto West 42nd Street, then head north up 8th Avenue. Stopping at lights, waiting for the hordes of people to cross at each corner, nervously watching as yellow taxis swerve from one lane to the next. Once you hit Columbus Circle you glance at the secluded piece of wilderness spread before you on the right. Turning onto Central Park West, you pass the Trump Towers, the Mayflower, the Dakota, and continue until you hit the Cathedral Parkway. The sun and buildings play patterns of shadows over everything. It’s back around the perimeter of the park then, driving down 5th Avenue, until you finally break your reticence and ask her what she would like to eat for lunch. Right now, she says, she’d only like a bottle of water, nothing else.
The streets here are just as you expected, they’re wet but not too slick, gray snow piled in gutters. People walk the sidewalks in boots, some wearing heavy parkas, others wearing light jackets. You find an open spot and then park, get out and find a sidewalk stand where an old man with a mottled face and double chin sells you a bottle of Poland Spring. Seconds later you’re back in the SUV. The woman takes the water with a simple thanks, and then you continue driving, switching lanes so you can make the turn onto 79th Street.
This is what you do for the next couple of hours, just drive through Manhattan and then the Bronx, going over bridges and going through tunnels, stopping at traffic lights and at stop signs. And while you’re driving, while you’re making your occasional stops to pick up whatever it is she wants (chocolate, a sandwich, more water), the memories of your past life start coming back to you, memories you’ve managed to block these past nine years. You don’t want to remember them but it’s impossible, what your friend told you earlier has opened the doors, and like a flood they come, reminding you how everything in life sometimes happens for a reason, just as how everything in life sometimes doesn’t. And how accidents — like the one Jack Bishop made nearly a decade ago — always occur, almost as if everything eventually ends in Paris, stopping in its tracks at the thirteenth pillar of the Alma Tunnel.