From the Archive: J.R. Myers (CAROUSEL 17)
The Last Snowman
It was a battle again; Ray pushing and demanding, never satisfied because he didn’t know what he wanted; Ethel pining to be left alone, wanting nothing more than to gaze at old familiar things and daydream.
“It’s no use your moping around,” Ray scowled when his wife refused to come outside with him.
“And it’s no use your storming around like a bull in a china shop,” Ethel defended.
In the front hall of the little bungalow Ray made a great commotion putting on his winter clothes while Ethel, in her housecoat and slippers, sat at the table in the kitchen with a pot of tea.
“It’s not moping to want to sit and remember things,” Ethel said just loud enough for the sound of her voice to carry to the front hall.
“What’s that?” Ray called back.
“I said I was just thinking about when the kids were young. How they would spend a day like today outside, tumbling in the snow, building forts and making snow angels.”
Ray didn’t say anything but the ruckus in the front hall stopped for a moment and Ethel knew her husband was thinking back, same as she was.
“You remember, Ray? Those days after a big storm with the snow thick as sand in the Sahara and Jamie and Trish pawing at the front door, dying to get outside to play?”
“Sure I remember,” Ray said. He sounded irritable like he figured Ethel was accusing him of forgetting.
“ ‘Take your time’, I used to say when I helped them squirm into their snowsuits. ‘Take your time and smell the roses.’ They used to laugh at that, remember Ray? ‘There’s no roses in January, Mom,’ they used to say. You remember? Lord they were a handful those two.”
Ethel heard a jacket being zipped. “That was forty years ago,” Ray said soberly. “They’re grown up now.”
“Yes, I know, but what I wouldn’t give to have some of that old time back again. If I could just grab a handful of it. Wouldn’t you, Ray? Wouldn’t you give anything to have just five minutes of watching them out there on the front lawn again, playing in the snow?”
“Those times are over.”
“I know. Of course I know.”
“And those kids are grown up now and they’re the ones made us sell this place.”
“Don’t Ray,” Ethel pleaded. He was always like that.The moment she got dreaming he said something bitter and spoiled the mood.
“Well they are. They’re not sweet little kids anymore Ethel. They’re adults who come barging in here and bully us right out of our own home.”
“It’s for the best Ray. We’ve been over this. We can’t look after the place anymore and you said yourself that winters in Florida wouldn’t be half bad.”
“If it’s going to be so hell-and-away great, how come you’ve been spending all your days since the sign went up sitting around wishing we were young again.”
Ethel looked at her hands in her lap. Thin, bony and grey as a ghost’s. An old woman’s hands. “I just like to remember, Ray,” she said, “That’s all.”
“The front door clicked open and a moment later thumped shut. Ethel felt tears forming in the bottoms of her eyes and there were spasms in her chest that caught her breath. She pictured Ray stopping on the front step and staring at the For Sale sign stabbed into the middle of the front lawn. It was plastered now with a yellow Sold sticker.
Ray couldn’t resist looking at it every time he went outside even though the sight of it made him sick.
“No use worrying over it,” Ethel found herself saying out loud. “Tomorrow the kids will come to help us pack and in a few days we’ll be gone. Some young family will be in here, starting fresh. That’s not such a bad thing, is it? Someone young and fresh.”
Ethel pressed her cup against her cheek and felt the warmth soothe her. How many times had she sat in that very spot and calmed herself with a bit of tea? She glanced around the room and felt comforted. Everything was still in its place. She like things orderly now. She like knowing precisely where each canister was and what was in it. It was both a pride and a pleasure to know the order of the spices in the rack and the exact location of every measuring cup, spoon, and spatula. She had even once told Ray that she could walk into the kitchen blindfolded if she wanted and bake a cake without spilling a single grain of sugar or missing an ingredient. But tomorrow that would change. There would be noise and confusion and people in the house tearing things down and moving them around, dismantling the things that had taken her so long to put in order. There would be cardboard boxes to trip over and crumpled newspaper and the screeching sound of packing tape coming off the reel. Already she could hear the crying and the cursing and the arguing over what to leave and what to take. She couldn’t bear it. These were her last moments with the old things. Tomorrow they would be gone.
Ethel was not sure how long she had been lost in her daydream but she felt dopey like she had been sleeping when she finally came to her senses. She called for Ray but there was no answer. She got up from her chair, felt a little light-headed from the sudden move and, steadying herself with a hand sliding along the wall, shuffled into the living room.
“Ray?” She looked out the front window and saw him in the moment that he wrestled the head onto a crooked-looking snowman.
“Ray what are you doing?” He couldn’t hear of course. “You’re going to give yourself …” She was going to say, “… a heart attack,” but she didn’t want to hear the words said out loud even if she was the only one to hear.
Ray slumped against the snowman as he nudged the ball into place. His arms hung limp and he turned his face toward the road. Ethel hurried from the room to the front hall. When she flung open the door her cry of worry was stopped by the sight of a young boy across the street, standing in his driveway staring at Ray. Ethel didn’t know the boy. Living in that house now was one of the new families, and the old families and the new didn’t mix much. Ethel saw Ray lift one arm and wave. The young boy brightened and waved back and for a moment the three of them, Ethel, Ray and the boy, were frozen there. Then the boy, as if he heard a call, turned abruptly and scurried up his driveway and was gone.
“Ray,” Ethel called more calmly than she expected. “You all right?”
Ray pushed himself upright and looked back at his wife. His face was pale and he was unsteady on his feet. Ethel could see he was shaking.
“It needs a corncob pipe,” Ray said, his voice cracking. It was strange to see him smiling.
“Come inside. Have you hurt your back?”
“And a carrot nose and one of those top hats.”
“Please Ray. I’ll fix you some hot chocolate.”
Ray stood back from the snowman and admired it. The head was on crooked and it looked incomplete without the face but he was pleased. He turned away and staggered like a soldier after battle toward the door. Ethel was afraid he wouldn’t manage even the few metres that separated them and she almost stepped out into the snow in her slippers to help him. But he made it and when he was safe inside and the door was closed he let Ethel help him off with his coat and boots. He was wet and to Ethel he felt deathly cold.
“Come and sit down Ray,” Ethel said.
It wasn’t often these days he allowed her to make a fuss. She guided him into the loving room and sat him on the couch. He slumped there like a marionette with its strings cut while Ethel made hot chocolate in the microwave. When she came back she pulled the coffee table near and then she sat beside him and let him sag against her. She offered the steaming mug, fully prepared to hold it for him if he seemed too exhausted to hand it himself. But Ray took the mug and wriggled his way upright to take a sip.
Some minutes passed while they both looked out the window. Ethel noticed the For Sale sign was hidden by the snowman and she wondered if that had been Ray’s plan.
“The last snowman,” Ethel said.
Ray nodded and took a sip from his drink.
Ethel let her mind wander.