Wintering | Michael P. McManus
Come sunrise he had been writing for one hour, during which time he had struggled with description, dialogue, and character development. He found it much harder to write about things before him – the Minnesota cabin, the cold, snowy forest, and the way she acted in the morning at first light – than to write from his imagination about things he knew would never happen.
When he heard movement coming from the loft, he stopped writing. He placed his pencil beneath the last line that he had written – the one where she first speaks in the morning – and this symbolized the pencil as metaphor, one which would support the written words above it.
As he turned to look at her, he sipped his coffee, palming the mug in his hand. She appeared at the top of the loft, her coal-black hair still messy from sleep, her face pallid from drinking too much the night before. She looked down, eyeing him with a blank stare. This was her most recent accommodation, one more blatant form of self-promotion in which she took no quarter in expressing her feelings.
When she turned her back to him, he smiled. With each step she took descending the ladder, her flannel nightshirt came up enough to show the bottom of her ass. Her gold ankle bracelet, the one he had bought for her in Pittsburgh, gleamed in the cabin light. Moments later she walked up to him, hugging herself to stay warm.
“Home, sweet home,” she said rubbing her shoulders.
“What?” he said, surprised by her choice of words. He looked into her blue eyes to try and determine if her reply was copied from the last thing that he had written on his white pad.
“You heard me,” she said, her voice somber and indifferent. As she turned away to walk to the stove and its half-filled coffee pot, he glanced down at his short story in progress. She had not seen what he had written. He had been with her long enough to learn her tendencies. She would sometimes hover over him like a teacher, reading aloud certain lines, adding her inflections. Sometimes he would laugh. And sometimes he would not.
But he knew now with certainty that she had not seen his longhand. His big body had hidden it from view. In order to have read it, she would have needed to push him aside, get him to move. That had not happened. But yet, in a coincidental way, the kind that makes the heart quicken, she had spoken the very last words that he had written.
“Has the writer written this morning?” she asked while pouring her coffee, her voice steadied by her condemnation.
“You know the answer to that. Would you like to read it?”
“No. I thought I might go shopping while you wrote. Perhaps I'll visit a friend or two. What time will the helicopter be here to pick me up?”
He looked beyond her though the kitchen window and into the pine forest that separated their cabin from the nearest town, which was forty miles away. They had been snowed in for three weeks. Their new four-wheel drive Suburban sat useless in the drive, which lead out to a road that might get plowed once a year. But not this year, not yet at least. For a moment he thought about making a smart-ass reply to her about using the snowmobile, but decided it would serve no purpose unless he wished to spend the rest of the day debating why they had come to this place. He had no desire to resurrect past melodramas.
“Sharon, I'm amazed at your tenacity for staying cold. Why don't you put on some warm clothes?”
“Why don't you go back to your writing and leave me to my coffee.” The edge in her voice told him that she had neared the point where she would become confrontational. If this happened, he would spend the next hours trying to write through a hailstorm of malicious barbs and self-pity.
With his back to her, he returned to his writing. For several moments he sat motionless as he considered what to write next, and in what direction his story would move.
He began to write again, expressing her prevailing sarcasm as a simile equal to the snow covered ground outside the cabin. He described with candor how she would get dressed after finishing her coffee, the caffeine flooding her with more disdain, which she would hold inside her until she decided what time the levees would break . Seconds later he heard the clink of the tin mug as she placed it in the sink. Then up the ladder she went into the loft where, without saying a word, she put on her blue jeans and a sweater.
During the early evening of the third day, she approached him as he wrote at the oak desk that had belonged to his grandfather. Outside it had been snowing for six hours. In the fading light, the pines were blurred by the wind-driven snow.
“Imperfection has many forms,” she said to him, her voice softened by whiskey.
“How subtle of you to say so,” he replied, making a half-turn in his chair so he could see her, “are you being accusatory?”
“Of what?” She sipped from her glass, tapping its side.
“Well, my first reaction concerns my writing. After all, the support group that was once my wife has long since disbanded.”
He turned so he could look back at his work in progress. A moment later, after reading a segment of what he had written, he turned once again, making certain she could see that he had focused his attention on her face, which now adopted a serious glare as she studied his reaction.
“What do you find so funny?”
“Everything and anything.”
“Because it's mine.”
“Why can't we spend it?”
“Your grandfather's inheritance. You've got more money than you'll ever need, but look at this.” She extended her hand to express her disapproval with the surroundings.
“Sharon, we are spending it, here. I made a promise to my grandfather to follow my dreams. You knew that before this and you agreed. We're not living in a leper colony.”
Once again he turned back to read what he had recently written. He broke into a wide grin. He rubbed his hands together as if he had just come in from the cold. “Yes. Yes. Yes,” he repeated with joy as if he believed that the entire world could hear him. “This is wonderful. Perfect. I've got it going now.”
“What's wrong with you?”
“Icicle,” he replied.
“Yes. Look out the window. Can you see it?”
She looked outside, steadying herself by placing her hands palm down on the edge of his desk. “Yes, I see it. So what?”
“What?” Just then the icicle broke free. It arrowed into a snow pile. She turned back to him, finishing off the last of her drink. “So you're a psychic. Big deal.” She was acting facetious, a telling sign that soon she would become confrontational.
“No. I'm a writer. I wrote that. I made it happen.”
“Oh, please. Spare me the call signs about your abilities.”
“How did we meet?”
“Have we forgotten so quickly?”
His laughter was intended to reassure her. “No. Of course not. I just like hearing it from you.”
She walked to the kitchen where she made herself a drink. “On Ebensburg Mountain in the rain. I had pulled to the side of the road because of a flat tire.”
He glanced back at his story, fascinated with what was taking place. “That's perfect,” he said making sure that she could hear him. “And what did I call it?”
“How we met.”
“Please. We're almost finished.”
Standing back in front of him, she winced after her first sip because the drink had much more whiskey than water. “You enjoy pushing me don't you? You know I can't leave. You know it and you revel in this.”
“Do you want to leave? Do you truly mean that?”
“I do. And I wonder why I said that.”
“I do.” She swayed back and forth as if the whiskey had decided to dance with her.
“Oh. I see that you're in touch with your karma. That's a good thing. But tell me what I called it when we met. Come on, we have almost reached the end.”
She closed her eyes, and by doing so, she was no longer there. “Cinematic. You called how we met, cinematic. That it should have been made into a movie with two lovers standing in the wind-swept, pouring rain.”
“Yes, I did say that. And it's true and it will always be true. Things that once define our lives never change. And what did I say about your coal-black hair?”
“Nothing at all.”
“That's right. Nothing at all. Sharon, I'm finished writing for the night. I've reached the end. Why don't we get drunk and argue. The neighbors won't hear us, will they?”
She clenched her lovely jaw and leaned forward. “I want to leave. Did you hear me? I want to leave. I want you to write me out of your life. Oh, you have quite the ego for someone who has never published a thing. But I want out. I want out!”
“But I told you, dear. I'm through writing for the night. It will have to wait until the morning. But I promise to work on your premise. It is quite intriguing. Don't you agree?”
“Fuck you. I just want out,” she replied, finishing her drink with a fulsome gulp.
He knew he could help her with the hangover but it was too late to help with what had happened between them. Some things in life could not be made true by even the most talented writer. But he meant to help her as best he could. There were ways. He had a gift and he did not want to waste it.
In the morning with sunlight streaming in on his face, he wrote that the sky had changed into a deepening blue expanse, one that would have been better suited above a tropical beach. He considered this cliché, but a necessary symbolism. Then he described the black silhouettes of flying birds as drops of ink that had fallen from a pen. Three deer, hungry and thin, foraged at the edge of the pines, their black noses went down into the snow, searching for shoots and sprigs.
He worked image to image, trying to see each one as the reader would see them, hoping they would become as tangible as any painting. He wrote that it would not snow again for three more days. He told how wonderful it was to walk in the forest without a hangover. The footsteps gave him trouble as he struggled to describe how strange and surreal they appeared in the snow, having been recently stippled there by her body. He looked outside, walking them in his mind until they disappeared into the trees.