Tuesday, February 9, 1988
Reenie glanced at the clock on the dashboard. Dark at 5:15. The light had been this same shade of dark gray all day.
As she watched the tail lights of cars inching up the hill out of Adamsford, she muttered out loud to herself, “I should have left early. A half hour ago it wasn’t this bad.” She flicked the lights from low to high beams, and the snow swirled madly in the lights blinding her to everything but the white flakes bombarding the windshield and the road. The tail lights from the car ahead had disappeared and so had its tracks, though she knew it was barely a hundred yards away. She clicked the low beam switch again and visibility improved slightly.
The wind always howled on this plateau above town. Houses lined both sides of the road, though she couldn’t even see lights from windows. The road was straight here; it was the only place to pass for miles. As she shifted into fourth gear, lights appeared from behind, veered over and passed her easily. She glanced at the speedometer; 35 mph was plenty fast for not being able to see anything. It constantly amazed her why people drove fast on icy roads. She’d been driving them all her life, and still she’d spun around on this section of road just last winter. Her little all-wheel drive Subaru had skidded in a circle and landed in a frozen field five feet from a telephone pole. That curve at the top of Tower Hill had been banked wrong and snow melt always ran across the road there and froze into an icy slick. More than one driver had been surprised by ice in that spot. The car that had just passed her was long gone — she hoped she wouldn’t find him in an accident or in a field further up the road.
At least now there were no cars just in front or directly behind her. By the time she reached the bottom of the hill and maneuvered around the last curve, her hands were clenched tightly on the steering wheel. Exhaling slowly to relax, she mentally checked off Tower Hill. Only fourteen miles to go.
Reenie drove to town every day to her job at the local university as the art gallery director/secretary of the department. She had long since tired of everyone telling her what a great job she had and how lucky she was to have such a great job when such great jobs were hard to find in Adamsford. She had only taken this great job as a temporary solution to the permanent problem of farm income, or lack thereof. The temporary job had turned into three years and counting. Whenever she reminded Ethan of this, he volunteered to let her care for the cows while he went to work off the farm. She wasn’t sure why she had ever thought she could be a farm-wife; her romance with cows was definitely over. And sometimes it seemed as if the romance with Ethan was over as well.
It was the winter of her discontent. The enjoyment of her work and the six hundred dollars she got every two weeks had paled next to the thirty-two roundtrip miles she drove every day. The art professors in the rather small department had slowly transformed from sweet, rather oddball eccentrics to demanding, boring cliches; the local artists she handled in the gallery shows seemed uninspiring; and worst of all, she seemed increasingly left out by her family. They denied this when she mentioned it one evening. Rather, they accused her of choosing to be left out — of not making the effort to be involved — and as the words were forming in Ethan’s mouth, she knew them to be true. When she got home, she gladly hugged them all and listened to the stories of their day, but when it was her turn to talk, she could think of nothing that would interest them. “I spent the whole day arguing with Swanson about how his two paintings should be hung.” They listened politely. Or, “You remember Pfizer? That famous Pittsburgh artist that I finally got? Oh, wait until you see the spectacular water colors he brought.” Sometimes they would come see, and sometimes they would not. It didn’t seem to matter. After dinner she could do nothing but sit on the couch, exhausted from struggling in the real world that no longer seemed as real as her neglected family.
Ahead in the yellowish glow of the headlights several pale pink lights flickered in the road. Brake lights or something red and out-of-place shone in front of them. Flares. It was no surprise on a night like this. Probably a wrecker pulling someone out of a ditch. She thought about the car that had passed her earlier, but then realized there wouldn’t have been time for all the red lights. They should have just left it until tomorrow morning, she thought as she eased the Subaru to a crawl. Even stepping lightly on the brakes caused the car to slide slightly. A disembodied arm waving a flashlight appeared in the headlights; the road ahead was blocked by a volunteer fireman’s pick up truck. He was waving traffic onto the snow-covered dirt road that turned off to the left.
Reenie admired his valor. She certainly wouldn’t stand in the middle of an icy road in a blizzard swinging a dim flashlight. Sometimes thinking disparaging thoughts about volunteer firemen (which she would never utter out loud) she decided this guy would get his reward tomorrow when he got to brag to all his coworkers and friends about his part in the worst blizzard of this winter. She smiled and blinked her lights to the unknown hero.
The dirt road that wound through the State Game Lands had not been plowed lately, and the heavy snow that had fallen in the last hour made for rough going. “Which is worse?” she wondered. “Wrecking into another car on the main road, or simply driving off into a field on this deserted road and not being found until morning.” Reenie had been on this back road several times, but not enough to know its turns and idiosyncrasies in a whiteout.
She envisioned Robert Frost who had been in a sleigh on the worst night of the year. He had simply stopped and watched it snow and then moved on and written a most-famous poem about it. Instead of sturdy metal runners that were meant for snow, she was on four skimpy round wheels that could easily slide off in any direction. Ten feet on either side of the car was about all that was visible.
More flares loomed ahead and another volunteer fireman appeared in the headlights. He was more adequately dressed in a neon orange snowmobile suit and had a brighter lantern. This time she stopped. “What happened?” she asked.
“A bad wreck up by Prices Corners Store — a truck slid into a car and then rolled. Keep movin’, ma’am. Next road to the right after the pine trees,” he yelled and motioned her on.”
“Can’t see a thing!” she muttered to the windshield wipers that weren’t doing their job of keeping the outside world visible.
It was already 6:00 and she wasn’t even halfway home.
At a quarter past seven, Reenie pulled the Subaru up into the shelter of their driveway. She had been tempted to drive on up to Matt’s to check on him while she was out; she knew her father-in-law would probably feed her with some delicious soup he had on the back burner of the stove. But after two hours in the car, her exhaustion won out; she would take her chances on Ethan’s leftovers. Slumping her head over the wheel, she relaxed the muscles in her neck and upper shoulders. The storm had lessened a bit — at least the wind had died down so she could walk back more easily. The flashlight was in the glove box, thank goodness. Many times it had been left on the kitchen counter, and she had made countless walks back the path on black moonless nights with nothing but memory to guide her.
She left her briefcase where it was — she had been doing that more and more lately — not even bringing it back to the house. There was always something more important to carry back — groceries, kerosene for the lamps, library books, laundry done on a lunch hour. After the drive home, it felt right to walk back tonight with nothing but a flashlight.
Rarely was there any wind once the woods began, but it was a relief to have the storm over. The snow was falling lightly now and brisk strides up the winding path rejuvenated Reenie. Sometimes she imagined she lived on an isolated mountain in Wyoming or Alaska, and she was bringing fresh supplies to the snowbound folks in the cabin at the peak.
In reality it was a small Pennsylvania foothill to the Allegheny Mountains, and the pine forest was a stand of Christmas trees that Matt had planted twenty-five years ago and never harvested. It was a ten minute walk back to the house, and she often wished her coworkers knew what she had to go through just to get to work every winter morning. But then she would have to invite them back to the house, and that wasn’t likely. She imagined Anna Duncan wading through the snow to the outhouse and grinned. Anna would see the path through the woods, and she would balk at even getting out of the car.
The soft glow of the oil lamps warmed the windows. “So much more appropriate to this house in the woods,” she thought. In moments like these, it was worth the struggle. Matt had been incredulous that they weren’t going to bring electricity back to the house. Ethan had calmly told his dad that the power company wanted $4000 to run the lines, and they just weren’t going to pay it. “That’s what you get for building a house so far back from the road,” Matt had retorted, but after that one outburst, he kept his peace; Reenie knew it was because he didn’t want to help them fork out $4000 either.
From the porch she could smell onions and garlic. She was so glad they hadn’t eaten yet; a family supper was just what she needed. As she stamped her feet, the kids shouted, “Mom’s home!” and then she felt their arms about her hips and waist. “I am so glad to see you,” she said as she bent down to return their hugs.
Ethan poured her a glass of wine and handed it to her. “Would you like a glass of wine, my lovely working wife?” he asked with a bow. “It’s almost 7:30.”
She sat down to take off her boots. “There was a bad wreck somewhere around the store. Probably that bad curve right before. Anyway, they rerouted everyone through the Game Lands. It was the worst,” she sighed. Violet climbed into her lap, chattering away about the day’s events. Reenie gave her little three-year-old a hug and called to Seth, who was putting silverware randomly on the table, “Come here, my big helper boy. I need lots of hugs from everyone tonight.”
“I made some chile con queso,” Ethan said, piling more wood into the firebox of the cookstove.
“Mmmm…wine, appetizers, a warm house, and my family…” Reenie leaned back in the rocking chair and shut her eyes. “People in Florida just don’t know what they are missing.”
This is probably a good time to say that all the characters in this book have similarities to people I have known in my life. That is only natural. But no character is based on any one person. A writer takes what they know and adds, subtracts, reshapes, refines…. For instance, Reenie lives where I used to live and she has two children, but she is not me. And so it is with all these characters you will meet. They aren’t really anyone you know; but if I have done my writerly job well, you will feel as if you know them. I hope you do.