A friend approached me a couple weeks ago with a unique proposition. He was working on a song and he had the bones of some lyrics and wanted me to flesh them out. I told him I couldn't write poetry or lyrics and he said, no worries - he didn't want me to write the lyrics, he wanted me to write a story. Loving the idea, I set to work. Over the following weeks I will present the stories that resulted from that request.
This was the first piece:
Mrs. Folino's Man
This was the second:
The Old Man in Winter
I was less than pleased with the second, so I went back to the drawing board and came up with this, the final piece:
I looked out the window at the dirty, gray landscape. The last snow had fallen three days ago and anything that might have ever been appealing about it was long since gone. It had taken on the same shades of gray as the rest of the town – a palette that vacillated only between grimy and sooty. If I were going to be honest with myself, winter hadn’t had much appeal for me from the day I turned in my sled and snowpants and exchanged them for a lunch bucket and dungarees. I tried to remember the joy I felt as a young boy when I’d see those first flakes of winter coming down. It didn’t mean ‘no school’ – like it means to the kids now – but it did mean that when school was out I’d be joining my buddies in snow ball battles, building forts, and racing our makeshift sleds down the hill – a hill which was, by the way, also a street. We played until our cheeks were red and our fingers were blue. I remember my mother would scold me for not having the sense I was born with, but it was a good natured scolding, usually delivered as I warmed my hands around a steaming cup of hot chocolate.
As I got older, the chore of clearing the snow from the sidewalk and street in front of our house became my responsibility. I did it quickly and without complaint, knowing that as soon as I was done my buddies would be waiting for me at the hill behind the golf course with their wooden skis. Every now and then some of the girls from school would hang out at our makeshift slope and we pretended we didn’t notice them while we showed off shamelessly.
Yeah, winters were fun back then. But that was long ago and far away.
School days gave way to a stint in Korea, and when I returned home after that there wasn’t much of that boy left. I got an entry level job in the steel mill and married one of those cute little girls that used to watch us ski. I was good at my job, but it seemed like with every promotion we welcomed a new mouth to feed. I was always able to support us, but we never got too far ahead. That didn’t matter, as ‘getting ahead’ had never been a big ambition of mine. I took pride in my work, took responsibility for my family, and found comfort in my faith.
Winters were hard. The short days and the dearth of sunlight even when it was daytime took their toll on me. By the time I was done working at the plant and had finished clearing the driveway and sidewalk at home, all I wanted to do was crawl under one of those afghans my wife was always crocheting and hide from it all. Of course the kids usually had other plans, imploring me to help them build a snowman or to pull them on their sleds or to take them ice skating on the little pond down the way. I usually gave in, not wanting my lack of enthusiasm to rob them of the childhood memories I held so dear. My heart was rarely in it, though. It was just another obligation in my daily stream of obligations.
“How’re ya holdin’ up?” my wife would ask at the end of the day, tucking one of those afghans around me and bringing me a beer as I finally found a moment to relax in my favorite chair.
“If I can make it through the winter, I might make it through another year,” was my routine answer. It always made her smile. Good Lord, that woman was pretty when she smiled.
My kids grew and took on some of the chores themselves, but less responsibility didn’t make me any happier in the long cold winter months. My wife would try to be extra cheery when I came home in an attempt to lighten up my mood. I loved her dearly and I loved that she tried, but it had very little effect. Sometimes it even made me grumpier, and I was none too proud of that. It was so hard to feel any other way, surrounded as I was by dark ugly skies, dark ugly snow, and people at work whose dark ugly moods rivaled and sometimes exceeded my own.
One evening one of the fellows on my crew walked down to the beer garden after work. I often did the same, but I hadn’t that night. He had gotten pretty drunk and walked himself home, leaving his car in the mill parking lot. Now not a lot of us locked the doors to our houses in those days, but his wife insisted on it. She had inherited some sort of – something – he was never very clear on that – but she was sure it made them a prime target for hoodlums, thieves and general no-goodniks. He tried several times to fit his key in the lock in his inebriated state before giving up and falling asleep right there on his porch. By the time she got to wondering where he was, he had frozen to death.
I remember telling the rest of the crew about it the next morning after the police informed me. No one knew what to say. There wasn’t anything to say. It was cold and dirty and now we’d lost one of our own to this great gray beast.
Of course backdoor gossip traveled fast, and by the time I got home it was clear that my wife already knew. Her eyes were rimmed red from recent crying and when I opened the door her tears began anew. She threw her arms around my neck and hugged me and kissed me like I’d just come home from the war. I guess a lot of the guys on my crew were getting similar greetings in their own homes. She led me to my chair and tucked me in under a blanket. She brought me my beer and, quite uncharacteristically opened one for herself and sat in the chair next to mine. She reached for my hand across the short space between the chairs and asked, “How’re ya holdin’ up?”
I sighed. “If I can make it through the winter, I might make it through another year.” She responded with a smile, but it was a weak one. The unspoken addendum hung in the air.
My children grew up and started families of their own. As each one left, it seemed like the winters became a little darker and a little longer. The year I retired it felt like winter lasted a full year.
Now I’m no different than any other man, I had gotten through mid-life fantasizing about retirement. I’d gone straight from school to the Army and straight from the Army to the steel mill. I’d never really traveled – unless you count that time in Korea as travel. I’d never had a time in my life where someone wasn’t relying on me for something and I looked forward to a little respite. Like so many men before and since, though, I found that that respite wasn’t really what I was looking for at all. I puttered around the house trying to find ways to make myself useful and generally driving my wife nuts before I’d move my puttering out of her way to the basement or the garage. I tried to take up hobbies, but they never really stuck.
I missed going to work. I missed the camaraderie, sure, but what I missed most was working with steel. I was good at my job. People counted on me. I’d been told that after my retirement there were still clients who would request steel with my stamp; so, while I retired, my stamp and my name did not.
That first winter was maddening.
When I was younger, I’d entertained the notion of retiring to Florida, or maybe even to exotic Hawaii. As I got older I realized my budget hadn’t exactly accounted for that. Besides, my kids all lived close by and they were starting to have kids of their own. If I were in Florida or Hawaii for Pete’s sake, my grandchildren would never know me. I promised my wife at least a vacation somewhere warm, but as I pored over the books I realized that that was a pipe dream, too.
“How’re ya holdin’ up?” she asked, bringing me a beer as I watched the Winter Olympics on the new TV the kids had pooled together to buy me for Christmas. I appreciated it, but I was having an awful hard time getting used to the remote control.
“If I can make it through the winter, I might make it through another year.”
She smiled and settled in beside me on the davenport, stealing a corner of my blanket for herself. Good Lord, that woman was pretty when she smiled.
She went home to be with the Lord the following winter. The doctors figured she had a stroke of some sort. It was a big mystery, but I wasn’t much interested in solving it. Knowing what had happened wasn’t going to bring her back to me. She hadn’t even been sick, she just died in her sleep and the doctors said it was unlikely she was in much pain. That made one of us.
When I took sick, shortly thereafter, every day started to feel like winter; dull, gray, ugly, tired, lonely, infinite winter. Lately I don’t get out of my bed much, much less out of the house. I’m in so much pain and I’m tired all the time. I have a home health aide who comes to the house every day. The kids visit as often as they can. My kids, they tell me to relax. They remind me how hard I worked all my life and how now it’s my turn to let people do things for me. I smile and thank them. I tell them, “If I can make it through the winter, I might make it through another year.” They pat my hand and tell me what a great attitude I have. They tell me to stay strong. I’m tired of being strong. I’m tired of being sick.
I’m tired of making it through the winter.
I looked over at my nightstand, as I so often do since I’ve been confined, for the most part, to my bed. It held two items – two items that summed up my time on this earth. A commemorative clock - presented to me upon my retirement from the steel mill, and a wedding picture. I remembered the photographer pleading with us to take our eyes off of each other long enough to smile for the camera. I hadn’t managed – so the picture portrayed me looking at her while she smiled at the photographer. Her smile was wide and sweet and full of promise. Good Lord, that woman was beautiful when she smiled.