It wasn't until his legs were covered with slush from a passing truck that Brendan realized he hadn't been shoveling. He drew in a deep breath and bent down once again. Whumpp. It was still snowing, but he was hardly about to wait for it to stop and start shoveling all over again. Whumpp. It was a softer sound than it had been on that fine spring day in the cemetery three years ago. Whumpp. The snow was wet and heavy, and Brendan was sweating hard now. Whumpp. He leaned back and wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his glove. His breath streamed out, white and slow in front of him.
I wonder how many more times I'll have to shovel this godforsaken driveway. It seems like I've spent my whole life right here leaning on this shovel. Don't even think about it, he told himself, but even as he was telling himself that, he knew it was the wrong thing to say. Trying not to think about something always made you think even harder about what it was that you were trying to forget. Brendan knew that.
At last he was finished, but the hardest part was yet to come. He leaned the shovel up against the greying porch and walked slowly towards the door. There was a light coating of snow on the mailbox, and he wiped it off with his glove so that the numbers 497 were visible below the name Fitts. He took the mail out and opened the door. The air was thick and heavy against his face as he glanced over at the frying pan on the stove. It was almost full of rice but the rice had been pushed to the side to leave room for a hamburger, which sat in the middle. One of the burners was on, but there was nothing cooking on it. Brendan reached over and shut it off.
"Hiii." He listened as the voice trailed off. He closed his eyes and waited for it to stop.
"It's me, mom."
"Weeeelll." Brendan followed the darkened trail in the rug from the stove, down the hall, and into the room from which the voice came. A soft and blue grey light came from the t.v.. It was never off. Brendan glanced toward the light as it hummed quietly in the background. It's a miracle that thing is still going, he thought. He walked to the front of the bed and shut the stereo off.
"You left the stereo on again."
"Oh, I was just listening to the radio."
"The dial is on the tape player, ma."
"Have you been home yet?"
"No. You left a burner on in the kitchen too."
"She's fine. What have you been doing all day?" "Weellllll, I had a hamburg for lunch, and some riiiiice, and I talked to Lucy on the phone for awhile........"
"Who was here today?"
"What do you mean, who was here?"
"It's Monday, did the cleaning lady come today?"
"Ohhh, yaaaa, yaaaaaa. She was here about..."
"Did she buy you the bottle?"
"What bottle? What are you talking about?"
"The bottle you're working on. You've been drinking again."
"I don't know what you're talking about." She sat up from the bed and looked out the window at the highway. "Have you heard when it's supposed to stop snowing?"
Brendan drew in a deep breath. He knew it was futile to argue with her, because as old as she seemed physically, she was still the Nadia Comenice of mental gymnastics, and he was no match for her, bottle, or no bottle.
"We've been through all this before. Don't you get tired of it? You knew I was coming today to shovel you out. Did you think I wouldn't notice it if you were drunk?"
"Did you leave the store early because of the storm?"
"That's okay. Your father wouldn't have minded. He left early himself once or twice." Brendan knew she was trying to make him feel guilty, but he sidestepped it and moved on.
"Speaking of dad, how do you think he'd feel if he could see you drunk like this? You've been sitting in this house drinking since he died."
"Don't speak that way about your father."
"I'm not talking about him, I'm talking about you."
"Your father worked soooo haaard to make that store what it is and......."
"I said I don't want to talk about dad. It's your drinking that we're talking about, remember? You're letting that selective memory of yours work to your advantage again."
"Don't talk down to me. Just because your father and I never went to college doesn't mean we don't deserve your respect. Your father started that store from a pile of nothing. Nothing. Oldest hardware store in Pennsylvania."
"After thirty-four and a half years I'm slightly more than aware of that fact. It's been the constant refrain of my every waking moment. I hear it on the way to work: Oldest hardware store in Pennsylvania. I hear it in the shower: Oldest hardware store in Pennsylvania. I hear it when I'm taking a shit: Oldest hardware store in Pennsylvania...."
"Don't you swear in this house. I won't have it. Your father never swore in my presence, or yours, and I don't expect any different from you."
"All right ma, you win this one. I'm not up for it today." Brendan said walking out of the living room which was also her bedroom, chanting as he walked: "Your game. You win. You got me. I give in. Uncle. Uncle, uncle uncle." He walked into the bathroom. "I'm flushing this whole nightmare down the toilet ma, so hold on!!" Wrssssshhh.... The water spun downward, into the grey brown bottom of the bowl. He walked back into the kitchen and took the hamburger out of the pan. Holding it lightly between his thumb and forefinger, he went out, into the snow. He walked down the porch and looked out at the untouched snow in the front yard. Brendan stood for a moment, staring blankly downward, and then tossed the hamburger into the snow.
It was getting dark now, and the snow had been falling steadily. He wondered if Sandra had made it home from the office all right. As he thought of her, he tried to think of exactly where and how they met, but all that would come to him was the image of the first time they had slept together. Actually, the two events were almost inseparable chronologically, so it really didn't matter, he thought. It was almost the first time he had ever slept with a woman, and it took him by surprise when she brought her parrot over the next afternoon and announced she was moving in. The first two years were idyllic. Going to the Dairy Queen, changing the shelf paper, giving the parrot new papers to go on. Sandra liked to give him the pictures of political figures or world leaders from the newspaper, but Brendan preferred the computer printouts that Sandra brought home from work. The parrot seemed to have no preference. The bird's original name was Barney, but they had renamed him Alan because of his ability to quote from memory certain passages he had heard from Brendan's tapes of the collected works of Alan Watts.
"God is a concept by which we measure our pain," he would say. Or, "Love is the very essence and character of mind, and becomes manifest in action when the mind is whole." Brendan cracked the car window slightly and wondered if his mind was whole. I guess it's too late to worry about now, he thought.
As usual, someone was parked in his parking space. He blasted the horn a few times and drove across the street to the Seven-Eleven store and parked. Glancing up at the window of his apartment, he couldn't see any light. Must have gotten stranded somewhere, he thought. He went upstairs to the apartment and called Sandra's office, but there was no answer, so he opened a beer and sat down on the couch in front of the t.v.. He didn't remember falling asleep, nor did he remember moving to the bed, but, when he awoke, Sandra was sleeping heavily beside him. He glanced over at the clock. Five past five. There were five or six empty beer cans on the coffee table. I don't remember having more than one or two of those he thought. Three at most. He knew that he would have to hurry if he wanted to make it to the store by six. He watched Sandra as she lay sleeping. There's no real hurry, he thought. As long as I'm on the road by five-thirty. Her chest moved gently up and down as she breathed through her nose. She wasn't beautiful in a strictly physical sense, he thought, and when it comes right down to it, her personality is no day at the beach either. She's better than nothing, he told himself. He reached over and carefully clasped her nose between his thumb and forefinger. He watched as her body lay still for a moment, and then convulsed, causing her mouth to drop open, gasping for air. Quickly, he drew his fingers away, while she continued to breathe heavily for a moment, but did not wake up. Brendan continued this little game a few more times, until it ceased to amuse him, then got out of bed and dressed for work. Before he left, he taped a note to the t.v. which read: "what is the average size?....and you?"
There was no one on the road at this hour, except for the plows, but most of the snow had already melted. Up ahead, there was a utility truck with its lights flashing. Brendan slowed and rolled the window half way down.
"What's the problem?"
"Power's out. Few blocks off west central." He drove off without responding. I'd better check and see if her power went out, he thought. As he pulled into the driveway, he noticed the house was dark. He walked up the front steps and wiped the snow off of the 497 on the mailbox. Inside, it was cold and dark. He stepped back into the hall closet and took out the flashlight. The pan was still on the stove. He knew, but he tried not to think.
"Ma?" he called out. "Ma, are you up?" He felt his way slowly along the wall to the living room. He put the light on above the bed, but there was no one there. Panning around the room, he waited. The chair, the silent t.v., it was all there, but she was nowhere......he almost stepped on her as he moved forward. She was there on the floor, grey and dark and blue. Her face was puffed out in a grotesque, almost comic sort of way, almost like a cabbage patch doll. What an odd thing to think, he said to himself. He tried to look away, but he found himself staring, burning an image into his brain that he really didn't want there, but one that he knew he would never forget.
He waited outside on the porch for the police to come. It was beginning to lighten as he walked over to the front yard and began looking for the hamburger in the snow. It was not there. When the police came, he was still brushing the snow off his knees, but no one seemed to notice.
When the funeral arrangements were made and the house was sold, Brendan proposed a toast.
"Here's to the future." They touched glasses and he quickly drank the wine.
"I have an announcement to make." Sandra looked at him apprehensively.
"I've sold the store."
"And from my neck so free,
the albatross fell off and sank
Like lead into the sea."
"Don't be obscure. What do you mean, you sold the store?"
"That's right. I'm free. Free at last. Thank God almighty I'm free at last. We're both free now. Free to go where we want, like we've always talked about. No more taking care of that house, no more running up there at all hours for her. We're free. We've got the money now to go anywhere. Out west, down south, somewhere where it's warm and bright and open."
"But what about the business and the property?"
"My mother was in debt. They took the money from the property to pay her bills. It all cancels out. There are no more worries for us as far as that's concerned. It's over. It's all over. Now let's celebrate. After all, this is a celebration dinner."
"I just can't believe it."
"Believe it. It's all I've ever wanted, and now, it's here."
"Well then, I guess I'm happy for you. If it's what you want." "Don't be happy for me, this involves you too. Be happy for both of us. Now, when you go to the office tomorrow, I want you to give them your weeks' notice. We'll leave a week from today. Go by train and really see the country."
"Are you serious? I just can't leave..."
"Why not? What's keeping you here? Not that terminal you sit behind all day. Not the damned subway that practically runs through our bathroom. Not that stinking leaky radiator..."
"I know all that but....."
"But what? There is nothing else. Give me one good reason why you want to stay."
"You can't . Don't even try. You can't."
Sandra never really went for it at dinner, but over the next few days, Brendan reasoned it out with her. He knew he would gradually bring her around.
The next few days were hectic ones. The car and the stereo were sold. Things were packed, and re-packed, sorted and marked. Boxes were marked "his" and "hers", and what couldn't be boxed was thrown away. They left these boxes with the landlady who agreed to ship them out west once they sent for them, provided of course, that she got a little "tip" for the effort. She was also kind enough to take Brendan's bed off their hands, since they had nowhere else to put it.
On Tuesday morning, Brendan awoke later than usual. Finally, the day is here, he thought. It was almost eleven and he had to be downtown by noon. He dressed quickly and shook Sandra.
"Wake up. Hey, wake up. Listen. The train leaves at one-fifteen. I've got some business to take care of downtown. I'll meet you at thirtieth street station in front of the information booth at one. Just like we agreed. Okay? I've already got our tickets, so just bring your bag and I'll meet you there. Okay?"
"Okay Bren. I'll see you."
"Bye-bye." He turned towards the door, but paused for a moment when he reached the doorway. He stared in at the empty room and raising his hand to his forehead, he saluted.
"Good-bye to the asshole of the world," he said to no one.
Brendan stood in front of the information booth, watching the clock slide on. Two o'clock. Well, he thought, exhaling, there's always the three-fifteen train. He went out the front door to the taxi stand and got a cab. They drove to the apartment and Brendan gave the driver a twenty.
"Wait here. We'll be down in a minute." He bounded up the steps, but he realized he no longer had a key. He knocked on the door, but there was no answer. Taking the steps two at a time, he went downstairs and got the landlady, who was kind enough to open the door for him. The apartment was naked inside, except for the bed and Alan.
"In the confusion, I'd forgotten all about you," he said to the bird. As he turned, he realized that the landlady was still in the doorway.
"She came for her boxes about an hour ago. Said there was a change in plans. Nothing's wrong, is it?"
"No." Brendan said softly to the floor. "Change in plans....." he mumbled, walking out the door. He took the bird's cage and walked back down the stairs to the cab.
"Take me back to the station."
"I thought we was gettin someone else."
"Change of plans."
At the station, Brendan asked at the information booth if there were any messages for him. He walked downstairs to the subway. There was a Hare Krishna leaning against the wall of the platform. Brendan gave him a dollar, and he gave Brendan a pamphlet and a cookie. Brendan walked up to the other end of the platform and put Alan's cage down. He tore apart the pages of the pamphlet and lined the cage with them, and then gave Alan the cookie.
"Here Alan. Here's a Krishna consciousness cookie for you. You'll love it."
"It's like trying to eat your mouth instead of the bread," the bird answered.
The platform was empty now. Brendan placed the cage in the center of the track and walked off toward the street. As he walked, he looked back slowly, and said to no one in particular: "Maybe she was awake all those nights. Maybe she was awake after all."
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