SNOW, FALLINGby Dan Moreau
On the last day of April, Bill Sanders drove to Reno to pick up his son, Clark, from his freshman year at UNR. He fidgeted with the radio tuner till he found a station he liked. The roads were clear and freshly salted. The last of that winter’s snow had melted, except for higher up in the mountains where skiers sneaked in a few more runs before the season ended. He kept the windows cracked so he could smell the crisp, cool spring air coming off the Sierras. The DJ read the weekend forecast: low 70s, clear skies with a slight chance of showers on Monday. He kept it under the speed limit. He was in no hurry.
He considered himself, by most accounts, a successful man. He owned a boat and a weekend home in South Lake Tahoe. At his law practice he set his own hours and had the luxury of cherry-picking his cases. His second-floor office sat in a handsome brick building across from the state legislature. Down the hall from him a dentist, a wire service reporter, and a CPA who did his taxes in exchange for free legal advice all had offices. Downstairs a mom and pop diner that was popular with legislative aides made a decent Reuben. Wednesdays, during the lunch hour, he played pickup basketball with a group of judges, lawyers, and state reps in the gym of a former Indian School that had been converted to a state government annex. Several bus stops around town had benches which bore his grinning, airbrushed likeness, as well as the telephone number of his practice. He served on many boards, most proudly as treasurer of the Rotary Club of Carson City.
Near the university, he drove through a neighborhood of decrepit, student-rented houses. As the weather improved, the center of the activity had moved from inside to outside the homes. Kids who looked too old to be in college lounged in broken couches in the front yards, their feet propped up on milk crates. They sipped beer, played Ping-Pong or threw Frisbees across patchy yellow grass. The houses scared Sanders. He pictured Clark living in one of them and, at the end of four years of college, having nothing to show for it except a beer gut and a part-time job at Eckerd.
“Sir, this is a fire lane. You’re going to have to move your vehicle.”
“Sir, you’re going to have to move.”
Sanders shook his head and started the car. “You know, the tuition I pay goes to your salary.” The attendant straightened up and started punching numbers into a handheld device. Sanders screeched out of the spot before the attendant could print out the ticket.
He drove around the block a few times. On his third pass, he saw Clark pulling his luggage toward the curb. Sanders stopped the car, popped the trunk and jumped out.
“Get in,” he said.
“What’s the hurry?” Clark said.
Sanders loaded the bags into the trunk. “Just do what I say.” As they were pulling away from the dorm, Sanders said, “What took you so long?”
“I was finishing packing.”
“Shouldn’t you have done that last night?”
Clark shrugged. Sanders looked over at him, tussled the boy’s longish hair and grinned. “It’s good to see you.” And despite his best effort not to, Clark betrayed the hint of a smile.
They got on I-80, heading south out of Reno. Traffic had cleared up. Clark had pellucid eyes, a ski slope nose, and thin womanly lips. They were his mother’s lips, and every time Sanders looked at him he was reminded of that fact. Clark unzipped his backpack, got out his iPod and started wedging the tiny white buds into his ears. Sanders looked over. “Hey, what are you doing?”
“What does it look like I’m doing?” Clark said.
“Would it kill you to talk to your old man? Put those things away.”
Clark wrapped the earphones around the iPod and put it in his pocket. He crossed his arms over his chest and sighed. “How’s mom?”
Sanders stared straight ahead. “Good.” He took the exit ramp toward Carson City and merged onto I-395 South. “She’s almost got her acupuncture license.”
She was living in Oakland and studying under a Chinese holistic healer named Dr. Kuo. She only ate locally-farmed, organic produce, and believed that the chemicals, preservatives and pesticides in food gave us cancer. Clark had spent a tofurkey thanksgiving with her last year, in the walkup apartment she shared with another acupuncture student. As they sat around the table, his mom gave thanks for having Clark by her side while her roommate gave thanks to the brave men and women who had picked their food, and to the soil from which it sprang.
“When is she coming home?” Clark said.
“I don’t know. There isn’t much of a market for acupuncture in Carson City.”
She had talked to Sanders about staying in Oakland after graduation and opening her own acupuncture practice. Oakland was only two hundred miles from Carson City. They could still vacation together as a family, in the Tahoe house or in Carson. She and Sanders weren’t separated per se, but now that Clark was in college there seemed to be no reason to live together.
“I was thinking of bringing my car up to campus next fall,” Clark said.
“How are you going to pay for gas?”
“I’ll get a job.”
“A job? I don’t think so. Right now you need to focus on your classes.”
Clark sat back—didn’t say anything.
“By the way, I got your grades. You’re going to have to do a lot better than that next year, especially if you want to bring your car to campus.”
Clark mumbled something.
“What did you say?”
“He didn’t speak English,” Clark said.
“The TA for one of my classes. He didn’t speak English. He was like from China or something.”
“Still. That’s not an excuse. Did you go to the professor’s office hours like I told you?”
“There you go. If you want to get ahead in life, you’re going to have to work a little harder.”
They got stuck behind a slow-moving semi. Sanders tapped the horn lightly, but the semi wouldn’t move over. “Turkey ass,” Sanders muttered. He pressed the accelerator to narrow the gap and pass the semi, but at the last second the truck pulled ahead. Sanders hit the steering wheel. Checking his blind spot, he drifted into the lane of oncoming traffic.
Sanders jerked the wheel and swerved back into his lane. He took a deep breath. He had almost collided with another car. Clark shook his head.
“So I talked to Paul Lemky over at the club. He said he could get you a summer job as a parking valet at the Nugget,” Sanders said.
“I don’t feel like working this summer.”
“We talked about this, Clark. You always work during the summer. When I was your age I was going to college full time and I had two jobs.”
“A bunch of my friends are going to Europe. I was thinking of joining them.”
“Really? And how do you expect to pay for that?”
“Mom said she’d help with the ticket. Plus I have some money left over from last summer.”
“You’re not going to Europe. You’re going to stay here and work. That’s the arrangement. If you want to spend the summer with your mother in her tiny apartment in Oakland, be my guest.”
Clark didn’t say anything. Sanders noticed his knuckles were bone white from gripping the wheel so tight. He eased up. The semi in front of him took the next turn-off, and Sanders sped ahead.
“I want to drop out.”
“I want to drop out,” Clark said.
“Do you know how many favors I had to ask to get you into that school?”
“What favors? I got accepted without any of your help.”
No one said anything. Sanders stared straight ahead at the road. In retrospect, perhaps he had been a little hard on the kid, he thought. He’d make it up to him. He wasn’t sure how, but he knew he would. He couldn’t stay mad at him forever. Clark was just a kid. Maybe he’d let him quit his job two weeks before school started and buy him a plane ticket to Europe. He could already see the expression of delight on Clark’s face.
They entered a clearing that stretched from either side of the road to the foot of the Sierras, white peeked and looming on the horizon. During the winter months, the clearing was covered over with snow, a dreamlike expanse of whiteness which reflected the sun’s glare. Now the snow was melted, and without it, the patchy-brown ground looked sullen and desolate. The road hummed under Sanders’ tires. A sprinkle of snowflakes drifted onto the windshield and turned to water as soon as they touched the glass.
“How about that?” Sanders said, looking up through the windshield at the sky. He switched on his wipers which pushed the falling snow back and forth. The sun was setting behind the Sierras. His headlights cut a path through the snow flurry. He tightened his grip of the wheel and watched the snow melt onto his windshield and the oscillating wiper blades. He lived for moments like these, when the weather turned without notice, calm and clear one minute and snowing the next. It was why, after graduating at the top of his law class, he’d turned down several lucrative offers to work in San Francisco, and instead opened up his own practice in Carson City, a half-hour drive from some of the best powder on earth.
The late-season snow flurry reminded him of his favorite writer, Joyce, and a line from “The Dead” he’d memorized as a boy. Gabriel, the protagonist, is staring out his hotel room window, his wife asleep in bed. As it snows in the street below, Gabriel’s gaze travels from Dublin across the country to the West of Ireland:
…the snow falling faintly…and faintly falling
He’d tried to get Clark to read the story, but Clark came back, a half hour later, shrugging.
“I don’t get it,” he’d said.
“Did you read it?”
But Sanders knew the boy was lying, knew he had only skimmed it with the perfunctory tedium of a chore seen to its end.
And—now that he thought about it—could he really blame the boy for not liking it after having it thrust upon him and, in essence, been told ‘Like this’? There were plenty of books Sanders’ father adored—the great adventure novels of Sir Walter Scott for instance—which Sanders despised, and which he made a great show of picking apart, plot point by plot point, like the petals of a dying flower, to his father’s growing disquietude.
Right now the snow continued to fall and melt onto the windshield, pushed back and forth by the wipers, casting an almost hypnotic spell on Sanders.
Sanders slammed on the brakes. A towering stag, bristling and straight-legged, stood motionless in the road, inches from the front bumper. A cloud of steam rose from its nostrils. Sanders counted at least fourteen points on the antlers, a trophy hunter’s dream.
Most of the velvet was worn off, exposing the mature antler bone underneath. A grizzled old buck, it had probably been in its fair share of fights with younger stags, Sanders thought. It bowed its head toward the car, scraped its hooves, and dragged its antlers across the asphalt, as if challenging Sanders to run it over and end its life, here and now, on this stretch of highway. Sanders could hear the tips grinding against the road like knives being sharpened. It was as if the stag had been waiting all along, waiting for a car to come and hit it. And for the longest time Sanders didn’t say anything, just stared at the frightful animal staring back, like two bucks with lowered antlers ready to battle.
Dan Moreau’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Farfelu magazine, Word Riot, Clapboard House and Segue.
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