Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Modest Holdings Short Story: "An Evening With Company"

Some nights you crack open the spigot and nothing comes, like the pipes are frozen. Other nights, you turn the valve and find an unwieldy fire hose in your hands, threatening to break free. Last night was one of those sorts of nights. Photos of the Day will return sometime, soon I hope, but until then, here is a short story. (Continue reading...)

An Evening With Company”
JE Green

His feet were a bit moist and itched inside the too small boots. He wiggled his toes inside their steel shells, trying to scratch. It helped but a little.

He thought, too, that wet feet were bad. Maybe he had read that about Vietnam. They were uncomfortable and bothered him, the tops of the boots just behind his toes too tight, the sides of his toes constricted by the steel caps.

Another drag of the cigarette, he moved around behind the two trucks in the garage to the ashtray, and ashed, and then he returned to his spot before the furnace, a Modine, similar to the Reznor units he remembered from the church hall of his youth. Industrial units, the one in his garage could keep the two bays a balmy 70 degrees if he cared it to, which he did. If he could afford to, he reminded himself.

The garage was the only heated place he could smoke during the brutal cold of the Wyoming winter. He had the radio on, an old solid state unit with medium sized speakers, but he could hear and feel the wind blowing outside. Half the garage lights were on, and they cast enough of a pall through the one window he could see snow fluttering about in the gale.

It was about 45 degrees in the garage, more than enough to be a happier place than hunkering in some corner around the out of doors in this murderous storm. He again moved around the trucks and ashed and again resumed his position before the Modine.

* * *

The wind continued to buffet the place and he thought about going back inside the house for awhile. He had been reading some lost Steinbeck compendium and longed for it. He finished his cigarette and snuffed it out before circling back to his position. His toes itched.

The lights flickered and went out, carrying the radio with them. It might be a while before whatever issue had taken them was resolved. The Modine was still working, but the fan went out. He stumbled around to the thermostat and set it back to low, which would keep the place just above freezing, although without the fan it might take quite a bit of juice for a furnace to heat the garage. The thermostat was near to the furnace, though, so perhaps it wouldn't run too hard all night.

The lights came back on. That was queer, he thought: the power usually browned out for a moment or cut altogether for hours. This had lasted all of 30 seconds.

* * *

The wind was still blowing. He wondered how long the storm would last. He wondered how long the power would last. He lighted another cigarette, replacing the Zippo in his pants pocket. Snow swirled outside of the window. He turned on a single 40 watt incandescent bulb and extinguished the overhead tubes. The 40 watt gave off a weak, but warm glow, which seemed better suited to the conditions. He walked back around the trucks to the ashtray and then back to his position, never giving too much thought as to whether he should just move the ashtray. No, instead, he wondered if he should move the Modine unit to the other rear corner of the garage. But, no, that would be no good, either, it occurred to him. Then it would be too far from the radio.

And so he continued to think futile thoughts and dream worthless dreams, while the snow continued to pile up around him.

* * *

His toes itched. The worn brown steel-toed boots were a hideous mismatch for his black slacks, black belt, pink shirt and pink and black tie. But he had stepped in it just before he had gone off to work, and hadn't had enough time to track down another black pair of dress shoes.

And now his toes itched. They were moist. If they got cold he would be in trouble.

Of course, he reasoned with himself, if they took to cold he could go inside his house, and kick off his boots, and then peel off the wet socks, and do any manner of things with his feet. He could walk round in stocking feet, and let the carpets dry his wet feet. He could scratch those damned toes, or soak them in the tub. With a small effort, he could pull the slider chair round to front of the fireplace and prop up his stocking feet before the hearth.

Again he circled the trucks to the ashtray, hearing the radio but giving it no care. It could get quite loud, loud enough to be heard and understood near the outside walls of the garage, when the wind wasn't being so murderous. Tonight, though, the wind was being so murderous, the snow sounded like rock salt pelted against the outsides of the garage.

He turned the furnace back on and contemplated those damned itchy toes. While the furnace was preparing, preheating, he stabbed out the cigarette and went inside.

* * *

He returned with the Steinbeck and two tall cans of beer in his coat pockets. He looked even more hideous now, he thought with a wink to himself, in his dress shirt and slacks and pink and black tie, but with the worn brown boots and now with a blue denim trucker coat thrown over. But the trucker coat had more useful pockets than the suit coat. He couldn't have put two tall cans of Pabst into the suit coat pockets. And a man in a suit coat drinking Pabst was even more hideous than a man in brown boots and black pants, he was sure.

He wished he had a better pair of black boots, because his cool wet toes itched, confined inside steel cups too small. But his only pair of black boots, boots he liked very much, were very much too small. The brown boots were only too narrow - he wore a 6E, or about two sizes wider than were usually available at the shoe store - while the black boots were too narrow and too short. He should be rid of those black boots, he thought to himself, but he loved them too much. It had been four years since he had worn them last, and even then he had only managed to jam his square feet into them, at most, a half dozen times. But he loved them so much.

He lowered a third tall can of Pabst onto an old small rusty rolling table before emptying his two pockets of the other two tall cans of beer. The Steinbeck book also went onto the small table while he lighted another cigarette. The Modine was breathing hot breath now, and it felt good on the back of his neck, where the heavy cotton of the denim trucker coat separated. With the cigarette dangling from his lips, he did finally move the ashtray, also onto the small rusty rolling table. He was nearly set.

As he was moving about it occurred to him is toes itched something terrible.

Finally, he produced a lawn chair, the old aluminum frame type with the three-inch wide lengths of some cheap plastic fabric, and set it beside the table and before the furnace, away from it. The 40 watt bulb was also behind him, over his right shoulder. It would make reading difficult, but he did not bother to move the lamp or restore the overhead tube lights. It would be fine, almost like reading from candlelight, but with the hum of the furnace and the drone of the radio, both overwhelmed by the unending roar of the wind.

Finally, this cigarette almost done smoked, he sat down and opened the first tall can of Pabst, and opened the Steinbeck. His toes, he did not think about. He was nearly happy. Warm enough, with the damned cold just a little ways away, with a good book, a few beers and enough cigarettes for a while, a little light to read by. He snubbed out the Marlboro. The tab worked easily, and a little beer was on his thumb and index finger. He wiped both gently against his slacks, good black slacks but not very warm or solid against the wind, but warm enough for a heated garage. He did not dry his thumb and finger, but wiped them gently, opening the Steinbeck. He had left those digits just moist enough to make fingering and turning the pages an easier affair. He took a long satisfying drink of the beer, and drifted off into another tale of Nick Adams, as he drank beer and smoked cigarettes before the murderous storm. An island of near perfection amid a sea of hell. He wondered if there would be any refugees from the storm seeking to share his solstace.

His toes did not bother him.

* * *

It was well after midnight by the time he had finished the three tall cans of Pabst and enough cigarettes to feel justified retiring back to the house. As much as he enjoyed hunkering in the garage in the midst of such things, the house had its own charms.

He noticed his toes with itching again as he put down the third can. For good measure, he lighted another cigarette and stuffed Steinbeck into the Levis coat pocket, chucking the three empty vessels into a garbage can. Next, he turned the furnace back down, back to low, from 52, where it had been. He knew that he had left the fireplace in the house at low, which was 60 degrees for the fireplace, not 35 as it was in the garage. When he would get inside it would be a paradise. He could not smoke, but he could kick off the too narrow brown work boots and the moist sticky white socks and present himself before the fireplace. And there was enough beer for a little while.

He had noted the time when he brought the three tall cans of Pabst into the garage; it had been 11 o'clock. It was about 12:30 when he quitted the garage, and already there were eight inches of fresh snow drifted against the door, which he pulled smartly closed behind him. He knew that given the wind speed and direction, eight inches of snow newly drifted in ninety minutes meant there had been about two inches truly fallen. Indeed, the snow in the space between the garage and house was much less, only a dusting in some places. He carefully picked his steps so as not to trip over an errant tree root that poked several inches up out of the ground here, and came round the southwest corner of the house toward the patio and patio entrance into the reading room.

Dog was waiting there for him, the bitch happy to be in the snow. He had never worked it out, that she hated water so but lived for the snow. She jumped up, slapping her front paws against his lapels, but he did not bother her. Her wet paws might have been of some concern had he been in his suit coat but they were no trouble to the blue denim trucker coat.

She expressed only a little interest in coming inside with him, so he shut the door behind him before she could join. If he had peeled back a shade on the door to observe her as he sometimes did, he would have seen her sitting there, her furry ass in the snow, looking at the door wondering where he had gone, but only for a moment. Then he would have seen her rejoin her elk hipbone, which would have been under snow except for her unending workings on it.

Once the door was secured, Steinbeck was relieved of his pocket and laid upon the hearth. A chair was arranged in front of the fireplace, which was off, so he knew it was at least 60 degrees in the room. Even after the heated garage, a 60 degree room felt like a paradise, a superior one. He wondered if one paradise could be better than another, but then he reminded himself it was an academic concern. The only paradises he was ever likely to enjoy were these: small fleeting moments when the rest of the world was shut out and worry a thing to put aside or throw to the wind.

He was suddenly held by an indecisiveness. His toes itched, but now he knew he would need to smoke another cigarette sometime soon. Did he want to go to the trouble of kicking off the too narrow brown work boots and peeling off the moist white cotton socks, only to have to replace them later? Or was it better to suffer the unending itching of his toes for awhile, and then to smoke, and then to think about doing away with the footwear? He could not move for a moment, unable to choose a course of action. Even inside the well-constructed house, he could feel the wind and snow about. A look at the thermometer told him it was below zero outside by 15 degrees. He shuddered at the thought, as the fireplace kicked back on. It was now only about 58 degrees inside the reading room, he thought.

He put aside the itching toes for a moment and finally made his decision. He was also hungry, and so he decided to eat something. He would then smoke a cigarette, out in the cold, not wanting to trudge back to the garage. It would be a miserable cold cigarette and perhaps convince him there was no need for another that night. Then he could come inside, and find another few tall cans of Pabst beer, and drink those before the fire while he warmed his feet, and hoped the toes would not itch.

He had a plan.

* * *

It was in the kitchen that he found himself nearly thwarted. He had intended on a meat sandwich, but found the three containers of cold cuts all past date. He had decided the turkey was near enough, only a week past date, but then found it a funny color. (Pink struck him as a funny color for turkey to spoil.) He had consumed enough peanut butter sandwiches that day to drive him nearly mad. But he would not be bested, and decided to toast some bread and butter it, which seemed sensible as the butter would be past date in another month and there was still a pound or so of it left.

He made two slices of toast and buttered them, wondering if he could justify warming his last can of green beans. (In truth, it didn't mean much that this was his last can, as it was probably the fifth last can he had mulled over in the last six months.)

He knew a few things. There was enough bread for two more peanut butter sandwiches the next day, if he made no more toast. He wanted more toast, his stomach called for it after receiving the first two slices. But then he wouldn't have sandwich bread for the morrow. There was nearly a whole loaf there that was past date, almost a fortnight past now, but he wondered if he could check it and maybe find four slices safe to toast. He decided against it. A waste, he knew, but that had been beyond his control.

That left the matter of the beans. Besides the beans, he had one can of chicken noodle soup, a little milk and maybe enough cereal for a bowl, and $10 for the next nine days. As suddenly as he had contemplated a brief paradise moments earlier, it had gone. He was left with a bitter cold, snow and some two canned goods. His stomach complained that it hadn't received meat today, or the day prior, and the condition of his belt confirmed the fact.

Then he tried to cheer himself, and did: ice cold beer settled an unhappy stomach better than anything else. He quit the kitchen to smoke a final cigarette, triggering the again dormant fireplace so he would have a warm seat when he returned. He decided to take the pink turkey with him for dog. The beef bologna would be for her tomorrow and the salami the day after. The bitch ate better than he, some days, but he allowed himself something. He put a packet of elk steak from freezer to fridge. It would be a few days before he could eat them, and he needed to carefully ration them, otherwise there would be no meat by December. Even if he were careful, he was afraid the meat would be gone by the year's end.

* * *

The cold was perfect and struck him like a knife wound: in an instant it had penetrated him and even after he had finished his cigarette and retired to the warmth of his house, the cold was slow to retreat. Also like a knife wound, it felt as if it might never fully heal.

But as he propped up his now naked cool feet before the fire, it also occurred to him that the cold reminded him of drinking straight grain alcohol, Everclear they had called it. Whiskey burned and warmed from the inside out, but the Everclear was so powerful it instantly numbed everything all the way down, like a drink of cold water on a hot day. Only after a bit would the spirits warm.

Another tall can of beer worked to settle his stomach as the rest of his body tried to usher out the damned cold. It was a trauma and his body shuddered as he tried to hold Steinbeck at a level in his lap. A moment later the fireplace was warm enough and the automatic fan kicked on, spraying warmth over his body. He knew it would be better, but not good. After awhile he would crawl into his cold bed and sleep coldly in it, with dog occasionally pawing at him or turning to a more comfortable way for herself, provoking him out of his own fragile slumber. No, he knew, it would be the next morning, a hot shower, before he could be rid of this damned cold.

He wiggled his toes before the fire, and they did not itch at the moment. He also drew up his beer, and he found he had settled enough to converse with Steinbeck for a little while longer. With effort, he put aside the cold and the issue of $10 and everything else, and it was just Steinbeck and he, and the wind. No matter what he did, he knew he could not rid himself of the murderous wind. And dog, who put up her front paws on his lap, nearly upsetting his fragile stomach, but he pushed her aside and focused on Steinbeck, who was telling him about Nick Adams, and therefore, himself. Steinbeck had problems enough for three of them, he thought to himself, as he returned to a story of happiness, of sleeping with another man's girl. Dog had curled up on the carpets near him and got up for a moment to push her snout into his face, which he again pushed away, thinking it smelled of pink turkey. She only wanted to thank him, he knew, for the treat, but her company - if at a distance - was thanks enough.

Steinbeck beckoned, and he drew up the beer again. It was already empty. He put the ginger toes of his feet down before him, wiggling them into the carpets, and set off to blow his nose and collect another tall can of Pabst. Dog decided she had had enough for the moment, and retreated to her bed, which was also his. It was well enough for him that she let him sleep in it.

She came out and intercepted him after he had put the napkin and a pint down the toilet. She kept her head low and only occasionally let her eyes up to meet his. She was afraid of him: that he might hit her, that he might leave her and worst of all that he might not love her. He never would but it forever remained a possibility. She knew him better than he knew himself, she knew him to be potentially dangerous, a man of deep passion and even deeper control, usually. If she could have thought, she would have thought it a good thing for him to have been on her side, and if she could have thought more, she would have worried that he was fraying, quietly but more quickly now, all of these things inside him and nothing to do for them. She was right to be frightened of him, but not for herself. If she could have thought, though, she could not have known for who to worry.

But being unable to think, she thought correctly. She only worried for him, being dog, being his dog, she knew he was unwell but not why, and had no ideas of how to solve it. She put her snout in his face when he would allow it, and licked him generously when she could approach, and always wanted to be close comfort. Her charms were not lost on him, but she pushed too hard and too close, and she could not often comfort him. Sometimes he would fail and clutch her closely, appreciating her effort and loving her for it, but she never could help much.

After replacing the beer, he sat at the fire, and she again came close and regarded him but not knowing whether it was safe to come closer. And so she collapsed onto her paws, pulling in close before the fire, although she was not cold, only concerned. She would stay there on the watch until he decided it was time to end the day, and then she would take bed with him. He would clutch at the blankets of the small bed, hoping to find some warmth he knew was not there, and she would not help that either. She was too well furred to share heat with anyone.

Steinbeck held council with him before the fire as the wind and snow rocketed about outside. Even with the good windows and weather sealing about the door, the drapes waved a bit from wind forcing its way in through cracks unseen and unsee-able, but he and Steinbeck were at palaver before a warm fire, with loyal dog there beside them, the shadows deep across their brows. There were tails of Nick Adams that Steinbeck needed to share, of heroism and cowardice, of love and hate, of hope and despair. He would sometimes smile at Steinbeck, sometimes grimace, always honestly, because these were things which he knew well. Mostly he knew of cowardice and hate and despair, but he had known enough of the others and even sometimes fleetingly embraced them that he was a very sympathetic audience. Steinbeck roiled him with tales of Nick Adams, and so Steinbeck told stories of three men, and he sat there and listened, sometimes drinking from the beer. Not his beer, but the beer. He knew Steinbeck, who could not drink, would have wanted one. Fortunately, Steinbeck and Adams were there to see that he did not drink alone.

* * *

He wished he could talk to Steinbeck, but he knew this a folly. Steinbeck had been a great listener and because of this now had things worth hearing, and while he regarded himself as a great listener, he knew he had too little experience at it to have much worth saying. He even knew he could ask no wise questions of Steinbeck, but knew better than to worry, because Steinbeck knew well enough to address the things he should inquire about even if he did not know well enough to inquire. And so he was only a bit disappointed, because he knew Steinbeck would take care of him, as Steinbeck took care of Nick Adams. Even Adams, his junior (it seemed), would take care of him, because he gave Steinbeck a concern, and that comforted him greatly.

He presently found himself using the rest to scratch his right toes, and he forced himself to stop. They itched yet, but he forced himself to focus on what Steinbeck was telling him. Steinbeck was so wonderful because he knew how to address him, how to challenge him but make victory attainable. It was not an easy battle, trying to work out what Steinbeck was saying, but it was there; he only needed to grasp at it with his mind. He was good at that, but not good enough to speak. And so he did as he was good at, and listened to the richness of what Steinbeck told him, always excited when he discovered some hidden nugget, a puzzle Steinbeck had wrapped for him, which being wrapped, made it a gift.

* * *

If the fireplace had been real, it would have needed attention, critical attention, at this point. But the natural gas continued to feed into it, and the logs never burned low. While acquiring another tall can of beer it occurred to him that this was too bad, because low embers on the fire, at the end of the night... that is the best part of a fire. The wonder and appreciation and comfort and fellowship around a young fire, freshly sparked, were wonderful moments, he thought, but not as good as the dying embers around a mature fire, giving off its closest warmth to near friends, or even only to one, himself. To embrace the dying glow, with the godlike option of putting another log to fire, to extend this close friend's life a while longer.

That was neither necessary nor possible with this fireplace. So long as the gas supply continued, which would be for ever for sure, this fire was immortal. It lacked the life cycle of a natural fire. While it would never die, it was never alive, either, like natural fire.

Striking a match is different than firing a lighter. To use a match is to create and use a life. It is a good use and a good life, if the cigarette finds sustenance from the match. To fire a lighter is an invented experience and one without meaning, he thought.

He wondered if Steinbeck agreed, but knew better than to ask. Instead, he rolled his feet before the immortal fire.

* * *

Like the fish and loaves, he somehow always had at least one of something left. It might not have been one of what he wanted at the moment, but the times when he was truly destitute were infrequent, at least considering his circumstances. It was not uncommon for him to wonder at that, and be thankful for it, although he was unsure who to feel thankful toward.

Steinbeck was relaying a parable about something similar to that when the lights went out again. The wind was great now, even for Wyoming, and the immortal fire looked almost knowledgeable of the fact, with it seeming to occasionally compress under some unseen but certainly well known weight.

He was not worried, though. Conversations by firelight were some of the best conversations, even if the fire was false, or contrived. He apologized for the weather and turned his chair around, slipping into some leather slippers to keep his now dry feet somewhat warm. With his back to the fire, he could see Steinbeck clearly again, and he allowed the writer to continue.

It did not bother him when the lights failed to return in 30 seconds as they had earlier. The fireplace didn't really need any electricity to do its job, so long as no one minded sitting near it when the electric fan gave out. And no, why would anyone disapprove of sitting near the fire? It was one of the oldest means of communion, coming close like that.

Without the hum of the fireplace fan or any other electric thing in the house, it was only the wind and Steinbeck to listen to, which was fine, he thought. Even without a computer or phone there was more than enough to distract during too many hours of too many days. He did allow himself one distraction, while collecting his final tall can of Pabst: a view of the outside thermometer. It was now 23 degrees below zero, and the mercury had not yet hit its bottom point, he thought. That would likely come nearer sun up.

After the lights had gone, it did not take dog long to decide she needed to check up on him. She found him as she had found him before, deep into it with Steinbeck, but like her to him: only listening, loyally, trying to divine meanings surely beyond him or her. She pressed her wet nose into his ear, and he gently and lovingly pressed her away, but his meaning was clear. She retreated to a corner of the room to keep watch over him, lest his visitor try and molest him.

He was totally unconcerned for the possibility. Even if the bitch hadn't been taking vigil, he knew Steinbeck would never trouble him unless speaking too well, at which point he might have trouble to discern him. But the fault for such a disappointment would be his, not Steinbeck's.

She might even have understood that, but to understand a thing is not to trust it. And so she kept an eye on him, wondering who this strange visitor was, that he could look at one place for a long time and yet seem to be as entertained as she if he had been playing with her, talking to her even if she did not understand.

Presently, he decided it was time for one last cigarette. Being a man of suitable constitution, and suitable inebriation, and perhaps most to the point, suitable stubbornness, he decided he would take this cigarette in his stocking feet. He threw the Levis blue denim trucker coat back over his shoulders, and collected Marlboro and Zippo. The Zippo was a concession to the wind, who many thought only an ally to fire. Tell that to a match, he thought.

Dog went with him outside and supervised his barefooted smoke. She pressed her muzzle against him several times, and even jumped up to press her front paws against his lapels, which he did not mind too much. Steinbeck and Adams both, he thought, would have appreciated the gesture even though he had left them both beside the fire. He knew them both to be smokers, but there was no need for all three of them to brave the cold. Besides, he knew, both already had spent enough time in such weather.

He considered his patio. There were walls on both the north and east sides, with roll down awnings along the whole of the west and most of the south. The wind, of course, was out of the northwest, and a vicious wind it was, although it might indicate the storm would soon end. The snow and wind whipped in from the opening in the south and curled back against the southwest corner, where the two awnings met, and there was already a great pile of snow there. Every once in a while, the wind would break for only a short moment, and he could hear the silence. Snow was like that, enveloping and suffocating any sound. If the wind were ever to lie down, it would quite quiet for a long while, he thought to himself.

He left dog outside for awhile, and returned to the fire and his friends, and his final tall can of Pabst. The evening was ending.

* * *

After he had readmitted the bitch and turned off the fireplace, he struggled to find his way to his bed without tripping over furniture or creature. The dog was a herding dog, and having no sheep to tend she often worked him. This was harmless enough when he could see his way, but in the absolute dark of a cloudy night with drapes drawn near and no electricity, it was treachery. He had bid farewell to Steinbeck and Adams. He figured he would soon run into Steinbeck again, but his time with Adams had come to an end for some long time, he was sure. But he had met well Adams and learned, he was sure, a great many things from the man. Steinbeck certainly had more secrets to share.
After groping his way down the long hall and into the cold bed, he was lonely even though dog was there with him. He had learned that from Steinbeck, too. No matter how many friends a man had - and he had precious few - all of these trials were inevitably faced alone. That was their terror and their reward. He shivered, or more likely, shuddered, against the hard cold of the night, the fresh wound against him, thinking again about $10 and whether there would be bread enough in the morrow. He would seek sage councils again soon, but for now, his problems were his own. Dog rolled over, pressing one of her paws into his tender and nearly full bladder.

* * *

He would have to do laundry in the morning, and vacuum, too, if the power were back. He was expecting company again.

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