Snow at Christmas

(Another experiment with short fiction – a first draft, not sure if I have something or not)

December is cold and gray and black.  Days are shorter and nights are longer, and we become nocturnal creatures, living in the dark.  Days and nights blur and blend and run into each other.  But December is also Christmas, and Christmas is a promise.   Snow is a hope.   There’s something about snow at Christmas.

That year it hadn’t snowed at all until two nights before.  It was cold, in the mid teens.   We were downtown, walking on the sidewalks, finishing our shopping.  Christmas music was playing through loudspeakers, “Silver Bells” when it started to come down.   At first the flakes fell big and soft and slow, sticking to the sidewalk, shining and glistening like stardust in the glow of the streetlights.  Then it came faster and harder and steadier, coating the sidewalks, the ground a blanket of white.  It was getting late, but neither one of us was tired.  We went into the all night diner and sat in a booth next to a window.  We took our coats off and laid them alongside our bags on the benches next to us.   She ordered a coffee, me a hot chocolate, and we each ordered a sandwich.  We settled in, warming up and laughing and watching the snow pile up outside, watching the dwindling crowds with their collars turned up and stocking caps on.     

As we waited for our food, I became immersed in reading the back cover jackets of the paperbacks I had bought at the used book store.   I was reading the blurbs on the inside copy of Catch-22 I had purchased for my younger brother when I happened to look up at her face.  She looked distracted and sad.  I pretended not to notice and looked back down at the book, and then back up at her again.   She was looking at the diner’s counter, where a few random stragglers sat.  When she looked down at her coffee, I snuck a glance, and I saw him.  I recognized him right away.  I looked at the book , pretending I was still reading, and snuck another look back up at her, and caught her looking at him again.  From the corner of my eye I could make out movement from where he was sitting.  He was getting up, putting his coat on.   I put my head down, and as he walked by us, I looked up, and she was looking at him.  It was only for a moment, I saw their eyes meet, I saw the look in her eyes, and I saw the look in his eyes, and I knew.

I watched him walk out the door, not caring any more about whether she saw me or not. Through the window I watched him move silently down the white blanket on the sidewalk.   When he was out of sight, I stopped watching, and looked at her, and she was looking at me, her eyes wide and wet, and it took no more than a split second for us to process the information we now both knew.  At the same time the waitress arrived with our food.  As she put it on the table, we sat there in stoned silence, and I looked out the window, up at the street lights, at the snow swirling and tumbling like a white kaleidoscope, my insides spinning and turning and churning the blend of cold hurt and white rage that consumed me. 

She tried to talk, tried to explain, but there was no explanation.  I just sat there, dipping French fries into the puddle of ketchup I had poured on my plate, processing the betrayal, barely hearing her inadequate reasons.   She was crying when the waitress finally brought the check.   I pulled some paper out of my wallet, still silent, refusing to speak, as we put our coats on.

“Talk to me”, she kept saying, begging, pleading, “please, just talk to me.  Tell me what you’re thinking.”

Then we were outside.  The air was cold and crisp.  The streets were nearly empty now. Everything was a smooth and pure blanket of white.   “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was playing through the speakers.   The wind had picked up and would gust and stop.

We turned down 57th street, into the wind.  She was still pleading with me to talk to her, and she kept saying she was sorry.   A strong gust blew into our faces as she said, “please, don’t treat me like this.”  The wind was cold and icy.  I felt it fill my lungs and I felt my arm rise up, and then I saw, in the street light’s glow, on the silent and white blanket at my feet, three small red circles.   I don’t know how long I stood there, cold and frozen and motionless, staring at the three red circles, but when I looked up she was gone.   I looked down again, and even though the snow and wind had covered up the three red dots, I could still see them, and I see them now, all these years later, whenever I see a fresh blanket of snow under the glow of downtown streetlights.

Earnest Ernest

This morning, I reread “Big Two Hearted River”, a short story by Ernest Hemmingway.  It’s probably been thirty years since I last read the story, and it’s always been one of my favorites (note that it is number three on my “list-o-mania” list of favorite short stories).  But reading it now, with the passing of time and circumstances, the story resonates even stronger. 

On the surface, the story is the straight forward retelling of a man’s fishing and camping trip, a story that, as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, in which “nothing happened.”  But dig beneath that surface and you quickly realize there is much more going on.  The story is really about a damaged and traumatized man (Hemingway’s fictional alter ego Nick Adams) searching for something that has been lost.   

The story begins with Nick being dropped off of a train in a deserted and burned out town.  He has a pack containing his tent and provisions, and a leather rod case.   In the town, as described in that distinctive Hemmingway style, he stops by a bridge and looks down to the water below.  Note the cadence of the writing.

“Nick looked down into the pool from the bridge.  It was a hot day.  A kingfisher flew up the stream.  It was a long time since Nick had looked into a stream and seen trout.  They were very satisfactory.  As the shadow of the kingfisher moved up the stream, a big trout shot upstream in a long angle, only his shadow marking the angle, then lost his shadow as he came through the surface of the water, caught the sun, and then, as he went back into the stream under the surface, his shadow seemed to float down the stream with the current, unresisting, to his post under the bridge where he tightened facing up into the current.

Nick’s heart tightened as the trout moved.  He felt all the old feelings.”

Nick is one with the trout, as they both “tightened”, and he “felt all the old feelings”.  Like the trout, Nick has lost his shadow, his soul, the thing that marked his place in the world.   “Big Two Hearted River” is about Nick’s attempts to find his shadow, to reclaim his soul.  It’s interesting that Hemingway’s description of Nick’s sensory reactions to what he sees are described in very short and simple phrases (“It was a hot day”, “They were very satisfactory”, “He felt all the old feelings” )  I think this fulfills two purposes.  One, it gives the writing a lyrical rhythm, and two; it describes the mental and emotional state Nick is in.  Damaged as he is, he is able to process the complex and overwhelming rush of images and memories in only the simplest terms.  He longs to return to the simpler time of his youth, before the landscape was scarred and burned, before the incomprehensible complexity of the things he has seen and experienced in war.    As he goes on to his campsite, there are more simple descriptions of Nick’s moods and thoughts – “He was happy”, “but Nick felt happy”,  “He felt he had left everything behind”,  “It was all back of him” – but they somehow seem forced and untrue, and you are left with the sense that Nick is trying a bit too hard to convince himself he is happy and leaving everything behind.  

He goes on to pitch his tent and cook his meals, ritualistically and methodically and with great discipline.  He is determined to savor every moment and he does so, taking great satisfaction in the work of setting up camp, in the comfort of his tent, the taste of his food, and finally, the following morning, in the trout fishing he has come for.   All the while, though, the presence of the dark swamp that is just down river from him looms.

 “Ahead the river narrowed and went into a swamp.  The river became smooth and deep and the swamp looks solid with cedar trees, their trunks close together, their branches solid.  It would not be possible to walk through a swamp like that.  The branches grew so low.  You would have to keep almost level with the ground to move at all.  You could not crash through the branches.  That must be why the  animals that lived in swamps were built the way they were, Nick thought.

He wished he had brought something to read.  He felt like reading.  He did not feel like going into the swamp.  He looked down the river.  A big cedar slanted all the way across the stream.  Beyond that the river went into the swamp.

Nick did not want to go in there now …   

In the swamp the banks were bare, the big cedars came together overhead, the sun did not come through, except in patches; in the fast deep water, in the half light, the fishing would be tragic.  In the swamp the fishing was a tragic adventure.  Nick did not want it.   He did not want to go down the stream any further today.”

The river, where he camps and fishes, is filled with life and sustenance and purpose.  But then it flows into something dark and mysterious and foreboding.   As his trout fishing takes him gradually downstream, closer to the swamp, the apprehension grows.   It is the fear of death, and also the fear of both the known and the unknown.  He has seen terrible things that remain vivid and unresolved in the darkness of his heart and mind.  He sees the same darkness in the swamp and fears that not only are the terrible things in there, but so too is their ultimate resolution, and whatever unthinkable conclusions about the nature of the universe those resolutions would reveal. 

The story ends with Nick picking up his fishing gear:

“He climbed the bank and cut up into the woods, toward the high ground.  He was going back to camp.  He looked back.   The river just showed through the trees.  There were plenty of days coming when he could fish the swamp.”

He isn’t ready yet to confront the darkness.  He needs more time to heal the scars that time and fate have carved into his soul.

When I reread the story this morning, I found it even more moving and profound than I had when I read it as a much younger man.   I found parallels to my own circumstances, and some of the solitary trips I have made to my northern Wisconsin cabin in the past few years.  Like Nick Adams, I have found myself turning to nature and longing to “feel all the old feelings.” (with only varying degrees of success)   I also have my own personal swamp that I am afraid to face, that being the late stages of Parkinson’s disease that loom just down river from me.  Above all else, the themes of isolation and solitude, and the diminutive stature of the individual against his landscape, resonate with me.

Everybody has an opinion about Hemingway, from literary genius to male chauvinist hack to arrogant self important hypocrite.   Aside from the Nick Adams stories, I really haven’t read enough to subscribe to any of these views.  But I do know that, with “Big Two Hearted River”, he was capable of true artistry, painting a vivid and complex portrait of both a physical and psychological landscape. 


List-O-Mania: Short Stories

For some reason lately, I’ve been occupying my spare time making any number of top ten lists.  I have no idea why.   The lists cover a wide range of topics, from top 10 favorite movies to top 10 favorite pre-packaged breakfast foods (Quaker Oats Maple and Brown Sugar Instant Oatmeal is number one, in case you are curious).    Not that anyone gives a rip about me or my opinions, but I thought I’d post some of these lists from time to time on my blog, because,  one, it is my blog,  and two, why not?

So, since it is the middle of summer, we begin with my top ten favorite short stories of all time.  It seems like summer, for whatever reason, is when I read most of these stories.  Maybe it’s because the days are longer and as a kid I had summer vacation, but short stories for me are as much a part of summer as baseball.

You’ll notice that I have actually listed 20, not ten, because it didn’t seem right leaving the ones in places 11-20 off the list.

Like all the lists, not a tremendous amount of thought or time went into creating it, and I have undoubtedly forgotten a couple that moments after I post this I will remember and slap myself on the forehead, hopefully not rendering myself unconscious again.

Note too that all the entries are from American Lit.  I’d like to give some high falutin’ explanation of the short story as a uniquely American art form, but the truth is that I am not as well read in world literature as I’d like to pretend I am.

You’ll also notice an overabundance of William Faulkner titles.  This is because, despite his many and considerable faults, he is my favorite short-story writer of all time.  His ridiculous and over dramatic style for me, for some reason, works so much better in the short forms than in his novels.   One of the first books I ever purchased was his Collected Stories, and it remains among my favorite books (list number 37).

 Here is my list – comments are welcome:

  1.                  A Good Man is Hard to Find                                       Flannery O’Connor
  2.                  That Evening Sun                                                         William Faulkner
  3.                  Big Two Hearted River                                                Ernest Hemmingway
  4.                  An Occurrence at Owl’s Creek Bridge                       Ambrose Bierce
  5.                  Hunters in the Snow                                                    Tobias Wolff
  6.                  My Son the Murderer                                                 Bernard Malamud
  7.                  A Rose For Emily                                                         William Faulkner
  8.                 Death in the Woods                                                       Sherwood Anderson
  9.                 Barn Burning                                                                 William Faulkner
  10.                 Two Soldiers                                                                  William Faulkner
  11.                 The Man Who Was Almost A Man                             Richard Wright
  12.                 Bartleby the Scribner                                                   Herman Melville
  13.                 To Build a Fire                                                               Jack London
  14.                 Good Country People                                                   Flannery O’Connor
  15.                 Dry September                                                             William Faulkner
  16.                 Indian Camp                                                                  Ernest Hemmingway
  17.                 Young Goodman Brown                                               Nathaniel Hawthorne
  18.                 The Secret Life of Walter Mitty                                  James Thurber
  19.                 Eyes of the Panther                                                      Ambrose Bierce
  20.                 The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky                                  Stephen Crane