Willy presses the glowing doorbell and waits, hops from left to right on the thick, jute mat, balls his fingers into fists inside his gloves, trying to stay warm. Just as he turns to leave the massive stone house, a hot gush of air escapes as the big door’s seal is broken.
“Quit ringing the God damned bell!” The man is a good six-foot three, with wiry white waves brushed back from his face and bushy, furrowed eyebrows. He wears a thin, plaid shirt tucked into tan corduroys, and a fat gold watch that must have cost a mint. “Well, what is it? I’m not paying to heat the outside.”
Willy laughs; his father never cracks jokes. But the man isn’t joking, so Willy clears his throat and straightens his face. “Mr. Corregan? I’m Willy Meier, sir.” He holds out a limp-fingered glove, jamming his digits inside just in time to receive Corregan’s firm grip. “I’m from St. Olaf’s.” The man stares at him blankly. “I called last night, sir. About the shoveling.”
“I got the message. I don’t need any help.”
Willy scratches an itch on his freckled cheek, brushes a lazy hank of brown hair back under his blaze orange hat. “But you were on the list, sir ... for confirmation class. Our service projects.”
The man’s ears redden. “They tell you I can’t handle things on my own?” He looks like he might smack someone, which is crazy, since Willy is a kid and here from church.
“No sir,” Willy says, which isn’t true. Mrs. Finch had given each of the catechists an assignment from a list of parishioners in need.
“My daughter-in-law put me on the list. I don’t need help. If I do, my son will take care of it. Now get yourself home.”
The door closes like it’s sealing a tomb. This can’t be what doing the Lord’s work is supposed to feel like, can it? Willy will tell Mrs. Finch he needs a different assignment; maybe this time he’ll get to babysit or pick up groceries from Lund’s or even work the phones a few nights a week at the rectory. On the way home, sure that he has escaped something, Willy crosses himself with his thick, gloved hand, gives thanks, and kicks a rock down the road.
Inside the kitchen of the small bungalow on the other side of town, Willy’s mother is mounding pork roast and spätzle onto plates at the stove. From the next room comes the rattle of a newspaper and a faint sucking sound. “Well, did you introduce yourself?” His father’s voice is thick and resinous.
“Yes, sir.” Willy swallows, a familiar sting clinging to his throat. The smell of his father’s pipe tobacco is like thistle and honey: prickly, herby and sweet. “He doesn’t want any help,” Willy calls in a clear voice, making sure not to mumble. He can hear the drawing and blowing of smoke, almost see his father’s hooded eyes squint.
“You’re to call your teacher and let her know what happened.”
“And do it tonight.”
Why doesn’t he ever believe that Willy can do anything right? A civil engineer for the Wisconsin DOT, Willy’s father had joined the Air Force Reserves to put himself through school. He’d never been in combat and never travelled abroad, though Willy suspects he wishes he’d done both. He treats Willy like a dumbass private in one of those war movies Willy used to watch with his grandpa. Do it this way Willy. Use your head, Willy. Pay attention, Willy. Don’t you have a brain, Willy?
They eat dinner in near silence, as usual. And as usual, his dad only tells his mom what’s wrong with the food. Willy fantasizes about her one day flipping the bastard off, or dumping his plate over his head, or mixing it all in a dog dish and leaving it in the garage for him to eat like his dad had done to Willy when he was ten. He tries hard not to wolf down his meal, sopping the last bits of leftover gravy with a thick piece of bread. He asks to be excused, then makes the call from the mudroom—out of his dad’s earshot—and leaves the message for his catechism teacher.
Upstairs in his room, he lifts the window and leans across the deep sill to look outside. Tiny kisses dot his face as the snow begins to fall. This is his favorite weather, everything brown and dingy covered so easily by a blanket of white. Einstein said that we can learn everything we need to know by looking to nature. Willy wishes a snowfall could blanket his whole family, that they’d wake up with a clean, fresh start.
Above his head, he watches remnants of a suet-filled potato sack flutter in the wind, still clinging to a nail he’d tacked to the soffit a few months back. From his perch, he would watch woodpeckers grip the mesh with their tiny, clawed feet and plunge their beaks deep into the fat. He’d count the feathers in each black and white stripe, study the variations of red on their heads and bellies, marvel at the tiny lids blinking over glossy black eyes. But his dad had thrown open the window last week and yanked down the bag. “Those damn birds’ll wreak havoc with the trim and frame if they start congregating at the house. Take your binoculars and watch ’em in the woods.” If I acted like such a jerk, I’d get smacked, Willy thinks. Adults are so hypocritical. He is so sick of being told what to do.
“Willy!” His father is coming through the door.
“Huh?” He conks his head as he pulls himself inside.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Your mother’s been calling for you. There’s a message from the church.” He snatches a towel from the floor and tosses it at Willy, hard. Willy wipes the melted snow from his face. “You’re to shovel for Mr. Corregan after all.” Turning to leave, he pauses at the door, his voice tired and concerned. “Son, get to your books. You’ve got to get serious if you expect to succeed. You’ve got to quit waiting for someone to tell you what to do. Take some initiative, for God’s sake. Your mother and I aren’t going to be around to help you forever.” Willy listens to the floorboards creek and groan as his father’s footsteps disappear down the stairs, wondering how exactly he is being helped, wishing he could disappear, too.
Sticking his head out again, Willy breathes in what’s now a chaotic bluster of darkness and light. A salt truck growls by, metal discs whirring in anticipation of a big storm. There’s a good chance school will be cancelled, and then he’ll have to go back to that old crank’s house. He can’t win. Willy pulls the window shut, puts on his headphones and clicks his computer to NOVA, where he listens to a dreadlocked physicist talk about parallel universes and supersymmetry—how disparate things might all be related, how everything, everyone might have a partner somewhere—as he watches the flakes tumble larger and faster, randomly, or not, from the sky.
• • • • •
He wakes at five-forty, the room unnaturally bright. Wraps his blanket around himself and moves to the window, whose panes are plastered with arcs of snow, like something out of a storybook. The patio table pokes just above the snowline, and the bird feeder in the garden—a miniature replica of a barn—appears to have only a three-foot post. They must have at least twenty inches. Shit. He pulls on longies, thick wool socks, then jeans and a gray wool shirt that used to be his grandpa’s. If he leaves now, before they get up, he might avoid needing to shovel his own house, too. How’s that for initiative? Downstairs, he layers up in his ski clothes and hat, and stuffs his pockets with crullers from the breadbox.
Willy loves being alone in the almost-bright quiet of the snowy dawn. Not even a plow has passed yet, and everything—the lawns and streets and drives—is an endless sea of white. It is as if he’s the only one in the universe. The neighborhoods pass in slow motion as he carves his way through the streets, every few blocks the homes and yards growing, until, after forty-five minutes, he is in Corregan’s part of town, where houses are more like mansions and woods stretch along one side of the parkway, next to the river. Willy feels like he is trespassing.
He’s brought his own shovel—an eighteen-inch, sky-blue aluminum job—and decides to begin to the right of the mailbox, just beside the road. Though he’s sweating by the time he gets there, the sun isn’t yet up and the cold air hurts his lungs. He plunges deep and heaves, once, twice, three times. Fast. The snow is hard and grainy, not packing snow, and though he doesn’t reach asphalt, he comes close. It should be easier than he thought.
He gets a rhythm going and begins reciting in his head the lists he’s been learning in confirmation class. The Corporal Works of Mercy. Willy imagines a man in uniform—a marine corporal. Or is it army?—sounding off the list: Feed the hungry; Give drink to the thirsty; Clothe the naked. What were the others? Shelter the homeless. Visit the sick and imprisoned. Bury the dead. He’s making a path, working his way up the driveway like he eats cobs of corn, right and then left, left and then right. Each scoop like a bite. What would it be like to be a gravedigger, cutting steep edges in the earth? What would it feel like to be down there, in the hole? His grandpa’s grave seemed enormous as he stared at it through the gap between the coffin and stretcher it sat upon. He can’t remember a word that the priest said, only the creased suit-pants and polished wingtips of the men, and the filmy black legs of the panty-hosed women, their pointy heels stuck in the mud. And those straight walls of dark brown earth, fragments of worms and roots sliced clean through. What is merciful about putting a body in a box and lowering it into the ground? No disrespect, but wouldn’t the worms eventually get to it? Wouldn’t the mud eventually sink in? And then everyone just leaves and goes to a party where the kids eat as many desserts as they want and the adults spend the rest of the day getting blitzed and your grandpa, no matter how hard you pray, will never come back again. “Be a good man,” his grandfather always said to him. But Willy doesn’t really know what that means.
The voice he hears is muffled. He looks up and sees Mr. Corregan standing outside in a burgundy plaid robe and slippers, glasses askew, hair crazy and high, pumping a folded newspaper in the air. Willy stabs his shovel into the bank and jogs, like a man on the moon, to the front stoop. He’s really sweating now. He yanks off his orange hat and shakes his head hard, tugs off a glove and loosens his scarf behind his head. “Hi, Mr. Corregan.” Willy surveys the work he’s done so far, proud and a little exhilarated—doing good work, helping someone in need.
“What in God’s green earth are you doing?”
Willy stares, his face suddenly heavy.
“Who taught you to shovel like that? And what the hell are you shoveling with?”
Willy begins to answer, but Corregan shakes his head and slams the door. Moments later, a motor sounds and the garage door opens. Inside, a polished gold sedan is centered in the garage, its left tail light broken. A tool bench runs the length of the far wall, where rows of hammers and wrenches hang neatly on pegboard hooks. Bins of birdseed are lined up on a shelf, and an old, yellow tandem bicycle is suspended from the ceiling. Corregan shuffles down the ramp that leads to the inside door, yanks his robe sash tighter and snatches a large barrel shovel from the wall. “Use this,” he says, thrusting it into Willy’s hand. “You have to get down to the pavement or it’ll end up a sheet of ice. She’ll break her neck!”
He looks at Willy, who must have that blank stare his father always tells him to wipe off his face. Corregan snatches the shovel back. “Like this.” He steps onto the garage apron, the toes of his cracked leather slippers disappearing into the fluff. Deftly, he thrusts the shovel down and forward, releasing a steel-against-cement scrape into the air and revealing a wet, dark patch of pavement. “Get all the way down. Or don’t bother.” With that, he hands the shovel to Willy and walks back into the garage and up the ramp, massaging his right shoulder. Willy notices the blue and red spidery veins on the almost translucent legs, and an enormous bruise that, when Corregan bends down, seems to run the entire length of his thigh. The old man whacks each slipper twice on the doorjamb before replacing them and stepping back inside.
With the sound of the motor, Willy jumps out of the garage, the overhead door stopping and retracting as he leaps under the sensor. This guy is freakin’ nuts, Willy thinks, with a combination of fear and loathing normally reserved for his dad.
He tries to shake it off and begins again, this time near the house, working his way to the street. With the bushes so high, it’s hard to find places for all the snow. And it’s hard even to lift it now, this shovel so much heavier than his other. Willy thinks about switching back, but doesn’t dare. A large window faces the driveway and he won’t risk the old man catching him.
For an hour he heaves and piles the snow until black pavement shows on half the driveway. He rolls his shoulders and stretches his neck, just wants to get the freakin’ job done. All around him, snow whispers and swirls, conjuring peaks and troughs and rivers that disappear as quickly as they come. Soon twenty more feet are clear; then a whole other row. He wishes he’d brought a water bottle. The sun is higher and he is dying of thirst, plus he needs to use the bathroom. At home he might pee in the bushes, but not in this neighborhood. No way. Everything is far too perfect.
Willy walks into the garage and up the ramp, careful to stomp off his boots at the bottom. He knocks timidly at first, then harder. Cracking the door, he calls inside: “Hello? Mr. Corregan?” He slips off his boots and wet snowpants, opens the door wide and heads directly for the kitchen sink, just inside, where he gulps from the faucet. The house is hot, tropical hot, and he takes off his jacket for just a moment. Suddenly, he feels how tired he is.
The kitchen is dark. Tons of copper and stone. A coo-coo clock ticks on the wall. In the dining room, just through the open door, are a huge, dark table and chairs, giant carved cabinets and a painting of what must be Corregan’s family long ago. Willy looks around quickly, then walks to the portrait and stares. Trim, tanned Corregan and an elegant, blond woman, two dark, wavy-haired boys (maybe ten or twelve years old), and a small girl with her arm around a big chocolate lab. They’re all sitting on a green lawn in front of glossy green bushes, under a bright blue sky, all wearing some combination of khaki and white.
“No, no, no.” The voice is a whisper.
Willy freezes. He wonders if there might be a ghost.
“Pshhhhh, pshhhhhhhh, pshhhhhhhhh ...”
Willy tiptoes through the far dining room door and down two wide, wooden steps. He is standing in a small room the color of wheat and tobacco. Tall, polished bookcases flank a red brick fireplace filled with dusty plants. A second set of stairs leads out of the room on the opposite side. In the corner, a tiny woman is curled in the couch, almost disappearing into the big green, leather cushions. Her eyes are huge and don’t seem to blink. Her mouth is a dark black hole. Her fine, white hair is fastened in a low ponytail that lays over her shoulder, and her papery hands are busy folding and unfolding a disposable napkin.
She whispers something, but Willy needs to move closer to hear.
“Ma’am?” He sits beside her on the couch.
“Are you Mike?” Her breath smells of old fish and licorice. Tiny white globs stick in the corners of her mouth, and fine gooey strings connect her lips as she speaks.
“No ma’am. I’m Willy. I just ...”
“Is he gone? He’s gone.”
Willy isn’t sure what to say. He has the strong feeling that he has stepped somewhere very out of bounds.
“I’m sorry to bother you, ma’am,” he says as he stands to leave—the room, and then the house. Get back to shoveling before Corregan knows he’s been inside, then get the hell home.
“No, don’t go.” Her bony fingers tug on the edge of Willy’s shirt, then crumble to her lap. “I’m all alone.”
It’s true; she is. And it doesn’t seem like she should be. He looks around for a book or magazine to give her, or a television to flip on—things his grandpa used to like—but there is nothing in the room but the crinkled lady and the furniture.
“Did you come to help me?” She looks up at him, her voice an excited whisper. A few long hairs sprout from her chin, and a long, thin bruise—a ribbon of blue and green and yellow—runs along her jaw line. Willy’s brain is jumping.
“That man. He’s trying to keep me here!”
He doesn’t know if he wishes Corregan would just appear, or stay away. If he is doing something wrong, if he’s hurting her or keeping her or, Jesus! Willy doesn’t know what, then Willy can’t just do nothing, can he? Sweat is dripping down his back, soaking the waistband of his boxers. He would give anything to be back outside, shoveling. It occurs to him that somehow he should know what to do. He’s going to be confirmed, isn’t he? Going to be an adult in the eyes of the church? Shit. He picks up the telephone on the dusty table and begins to call his mom, when he realizes the line is dead. The old woman pushes down on the armrest and strains to lift herself from the couch, her entire body trembling beneath a loose, white sweater.
“I need to go.” She reaches toward the table and wobbles, then flops back down.
“Wait. Please. Let me go find Mr. Corregan. He’s your husband, right?”
“No!” Her eyes are bright, like Willy is finally catching on.
“Then who ... ?”
“I need to go home.” She stares at him, conspiratorial. “You can help me get out of here!”
It is supposed to be easy to tell right from wrong, to judge good from bad, but Willy isn’t sure what to think or believe. He is sure, though, that she is not okay. He reaches out and carefully places his hand over hers. It is so cold, like a pile of bones. In two years, he will finish high school and leave, maybe even go far away, and come back when he feels like it and do what he wants and say what he wants with no one, not even his father, deciding whether or not he should. It is a horrible feeling, to be trapped.
“It’s okay,” he says, unsure if it really is. “I’ll help you.”
A snowplow rumbles past, its yellow flasher casting an eerie light through the drawn drapes. He recalls the flicker of the candles he lit when he would serve at eleven-thirty mass. He remembers donning the cassock and surplice, positioning the cruets, standing beside Father Berry, always so damn hot that he worried he would faint right there on the altar. Could she have taken communion from his station then?
“How ‘bout I open the curtains?” Willy says, standing and pulling the heavy cord to let in the bright white light. The large window looks out onto a deep yard, ringed with a thick band of arching trees. Bird feeders are everywhere: perched on stakes, balanced on pedestals, dangling from tree limbs and hanging from hooks in the soffits. Each is empty, and covered with an enormous cap of snow. There are no birds in sight.
Willy looks. She is craning her neck to get a better view, then tries to get up again.
“Oh, there’s nothing there. Only snow.” He comes to her, and her angry eyes scold him.
“Wait,” he says. In the corner is a walker like the one his grandpa had hated. This he can do. Bring her to the window. He wheels it over to her. “Can you use this?”
Her hands tremble, tiny, rapid twitches, side to side, as if they have a mind of their own. She stares at the blue walker, the green stem of a pink silk rose twisted around the front brace, and seems to will her quaking left hand forward until it clutches the handgrip and is still. She is breathing hard. With her right arm she pushes against the couch until her knobby elbow is locked; then in one swift motion she flings her right arm to the walker, and is standing.
Her eyes are shining, ready for what’s next, and he wants nothing but to cheer her on. She squeezes the triggers to unlock the brakes and begins to shuffle toward the window. Willy edges behind her. If she falls or topples backward, he will catch her. Then he sees the wet expanding mark on her gray pants, the pee glistening on her bony ankle and sopping her low gym sock. He wants to cry.
“What in the hell is going on here?” Corregan is hovering in the second doorway, at the top step, looking down. Flecks of sawdust cling to tufts of white hair. A dark splotch seeps through a fat bandaid on his wrist. Willy quickly steps between Corregan and the woman.
“Who let you in here?” Corregan hobbles down the stairs toward him. His face is beet red and just as Willy expects Corregan to grab his arm and throw him out, the walker rams into the back of Willy’s knee. He winces.
“Go, go!” The old woman is crouched forward, holding the walker tight, jamming it into him.
“Corrine!” Corregan scolds.
“We’re going now. He’s taking me home.” She is glaring at Corregan, face flushed.
“Don’t be silly.” Corregan reaches past Willy for her shoulder, and she reels.
“Don’t touch me! Don’t let him touch me!”
He steps back, but his giant figure still looms. “Go, young man.” Corregan stares at Willy, a “V”-shaped vein throbbing on his forehead.
“I said go, God dammit. Leave.”
He feels the frail fingers grab hold of his grandfather’s shirt and tug. He straightens. “No sir.”
“Good. Good!” Her voice is gravelly but strong.
“I’m not kidding, son. Leave here right now.”
“No sir,” he says, voice trembling, stepping toward Corregan and pulling tall. “I can’t do that, sir.” Though he wants to. He wants to pick her up, and his mother, too, and take them all somewhere far away.
“Can’t do what, for Christ sake?” The old man’s eyes are darting all around. “Corrine, sit down!”
She sighs and begins to shuffle backward, pulling the walker, the space between it and her body growing.
“Not like that!” Corregan yells.
Willy turns to see her fall back into the couch, then tip sideways, her body a small question mark lopped over the soft, green cushions. From her throat come sad, tiny groans. The oily lids of her eyes are closed and fluttering.
Corregan pushes past Willy and kneels down at the couch. “Corrine!” His voice is stern. He brings her legs up onto the sofa and straightens her out. She pinches her eyes and screws up her lips, starts batting at him like a toddler in a tantrum. Corregan mutters something, then pushes himself to his feet and zips his coat up fast. “Just stay here,” he says, bounding up the steps. “And don’t let her move!” With that he is out of the room, and then with a slam out the garage door. Willy is not sure what just happened.
Willy sits down beside her on the rocking chair, his back to the window. Like a switch was flipped, she is sleeping. All around, he notices for the first time, are wildlife paintings: Geese in flight over a wintery sky. A flock of mergansers swimming in a marsh. A lone, red-winged blackbird perched on a bending stalk of grass. And on the couch, she looks so un-alive ... withered and bent, damp and decaying, on her way to becoming a corpse. He can see her in her coffin, like his grandpa—powdery makeup caked on her face, combed hair and pressed suit and folded hands surrounded by smooth white silk. He mashes his fists into his stinging eyes, and swallows what feels like a scream. Screw the meek inheriting the earth! Who is supposed to be able to live like that? He rushes into the bathroom at the top of the steps.
Sometimes Willy feels like he is drowning. Like he is stuck in a marsh, hidden in the thick, sharp reeds, legs snagged in roots that come from all directions—past and present and future, from on high and down below. And he cannot figure out what to do next, which strand to untangle first, which limb to loose, what leads to what, and it seems that all he can do is strain to keep his head above water, keep his mouth from taking in the black sludge, filled with stink and slime and decay, that somehow feeds an entire world that lives there. But he does not live there. He needs to find a way out.
Suddenly, clearly, Willy knows what he will do: lock the front and garage doors on his way back to the woman. Sit with her and wait until the phone works again. Yes. Call his mother, then call the police. The woman can come live with them, maybe. At their house. They have the room.
He splashes water on his face, opens the bathroom door and stops. Two slush puddles pool on the top stair, leading down to the small room. He is too late.
Corregan is on the rocking chair in front of her. His huge hands rise and, Willy sees, brush wisps of hair away from her eyes. They cradle her face and pull her forehead to his. “Shhhhhhh, my bird,” he says. “Shhh, shhh, shhhhhhhhh...”
Willy watches them together, Corregan’s thick fingers stroking the fine, silver strands. He can feel the pair of them breathing and swaying just barely, their two white heads almost like one. Then Corregan begins to sing in a low, soft voice:
Give me your answer do
I’m half crazy,
All for the love of yoooou
Willy can see that her eyes are closed, her face soft, the corners of her lips just barely curled.
It won’t be a stylish marriage,
I can’t afford a carriage
But you’ll look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two.
Corregan pauses for a long while, still cradling her head. When he finally continues, it is in a broken whisper:
Oh you’ll look sweet.
Upon the seat.
Of our bicycle built ... for two.
Willy lowers himself to the floor. He leans his head against the wall, presses his face to the cool, creamy plaster. The dirty puddle seeps into the seat of his jeans.
“Look.” Corregan kisses her eyelids and turns her face to the window, where at least two dozen birds are clinging to suet pendants and gobbling seed from feeders and off the ground.
Willy rises and steadies himself. Walks to the window. There are bright red cardinals on the dogwood, and at least a dozen black-capped chickadees. Cowlicked blue jays and muted mourning doves nestle in the branches and peck at the ground, and three red-bellied woodpeckers eat suet that hangs from the tree and is smeared on the trunk. Large footprints carve fresh paths in the snow from feeder to feeder to feeder.
“Whoa,” Willy can’t help but whisper. It is perfect, like a dream.
Corregan sighs and settles himself onto the couch beside her. Willy turns to look at them. Mrs. Corregan is pointing out the window. She is looking intently, moving her mouth, talking to no one, or talking to the birds. The old man’s nicked fingers push hard against his droopy eyes and pinch at the bridge of his nose. A fine stubble floats on his cheeks, and stray hairs spring from his neckline over the frayed collar of his shirt. He looks so weary, and so alone. Like the holy card picture on his father’s mirror— a painting of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.
“Mr. Corregan? I ...”
“Oh! Who are you?” The woman’s voice is bright. Her knobby hands now rest quietly in her lap, on top of the smooth, worn napkin. She tilts her head and smiles at Willy. “Have you come to see the children?”