Shoveling Out

Our 2014 “Memphis” magazine Fiction Award winner.



I call up my grandfather because I see on TV that the city’s going to get hit with a snowstorm. I say, “I wish I could get up there.”

He says, “Stay where you are.”

I say, “You want to die shoveling? Just hire someone.”

“I’m gonna hire who?”

“That guy next door has a son.”

“Little bastard’s a purse snatcher. Skeevo Joe told me.”

“They say a foot or more.”

“Now it’s just a dusting. Don’t worry.”

He rushes me off and I hang up, worrying. He’s definitely going to die out in the snow. And then what kind of grandson am I? I’m three hours south, sure, but I’m a bum. I’m at the funeral, people see me, say, “This dope. Couldn’t drive to Brooklyn to shovel. Couldn’t even hire someone.”

So I call up Maclin. He’s my grandfather’s around-the-corner neighbor. Sometimes they play cards together. Once, when I was still living in walking distance, I caught them watching a porn movie with the sound all the way up in my grandfather’s living room.

Maclin says, “Guy’s got a thick skull.”

“Maybe you could find someone?” I say. “Pay them and I’ll send you a check.”

“He’ll stop talking to me I do something like that.”

“Please. How much snow so far?”

“Shit, it’s a blizzard. I won’t get out until it lets up some, but I’ll think who I could ask.”

I walk out of my office and go sit with Sue Ann on the couch. Doreen’s in her rocker in front of the TV, asleep, with her little bunchy head twisted to the side. She’s making sleep faces. Sue Ann looks zoned out. She’s thumbing through a gardening magazine and fighting the nods. “How’s your granddad?” she says.

“You know him.”

“He’s got to hire someone.”

“I should drive up there?”

“They’re having a blizzard. You can’t drive.”

We’re on Christmas vacation at Most Holy Redeemer, the high school where Sue Ann and I teach, so there’s nothing holding me back. “I guess,” I say.

“You’re upset?”

“Just worried.” I go to the bathroom and brush my teeth. I think about my grandfather. He lives alone since my grandmother and my mother died. He makes daily trips to the bank and still has one of those account books that you don’t see anymore. The tellers laugh at him, tell him to do his banking online, say to save himself the trip. He’s got a rotary phone in the kitchen, refuses to get cable. When I was a kid I wanted to be like him and I still do, except now he makes me sad too with his old zip-up sweatshirts and his hearing problems and the way he stares out the window to make sure no one parks in his driveway. I decide I’m going to do something. I can’t let him die shoveling.

I call Maclin back. “You got the guy next door’s number?” I say. The guy next door is a beefy Russian with eyebrows that look like fat black stitches. Last time I was home he was sitting on his front stoop eating olives out of a can and spitting the pits out into the street. His kid’s the one my grandfather thinks is a purse snatcher. They’ve lived there for a long time, but I don’t know them.

Maclin puts the phone down. I can hear him looking in drawers. I haven’t been in Maclin’s apartment in ten years, but I imagine it’s the same: racing forms on the kitchen table, Marlboro boxes in the pantry and freezer, a dented percolator on the stove. He comes back on the line and gives me the number. “Ilya, that’s the father’s name,” he says. “Watch out for the kid. He snatches purses.”

I feel like I have to get prepared before I call Ilya. I’ve never spoken to a Russian. When I came back from college and lived in Brooklyn again, there was a Russian insurance agent named Tatiana that I had a crush on, but I never had the guts to talk to her. I’d just go over to Allstate on Bath Avenue and watch her through the glass. She did paperwork most of the day and talked on the phone a lot. I was working up the courage to change policies so I could have her as my agent, but then I met Sue Ann and next thing I knew we were in love and Doreen was on the way and we were talking about moving to South Jersey to live near Sue Ann’s mother. That’s my experience with Russians.

Sue Ann finds me. She’s got Doreen in her arms. Doreen’s face is squeezed red. “You mind watching her a sec?” Sue Ann says. “I need a quick shower.”

I take Doreen. She’s got that just-woke-up warmness.

Sue Ann takes her shirt off and throws it on the floor and disappears into the bathroom.

I sing “Summer in Siam” to Doreen. She slants her head and shows me her twinkly gray eyes.

Sue Ann comes back out, naked, with her hair up in a towel. She takes Doreen, sits down, and starts to feed her. I tell her I’ve got to make a call.

I go into the garage with my cell phone and dial the number. Someone picks up and the voice sounds like it’s coming through a thick wall. “Hello, yes, Ilya here.”

“The old man lives next door to you, I’m his grandson,” I say. “I live in Jersey, and I just don’t want him to get sick or worse. I hear it’s snowing bad there, and I just thought maybe your son — or even you — I just thought maybe I could give you fifty bucks to shovel him out. I don’t want him to die that way. Shoveling.”

“This is a terrible way to die. Many people I know die shoveling.”

“I’d really appreciate it.”

“You know, we try to help him. He always says, ‘No! I take care of myself!’ My father is the same way.”

I laugh. I can’t believe how easy it is to talk to this guy.

“My son and I will do this,” Ilya says. “Soon. Maybe he thinks he will wait until morning and then — boom — it is all done.”

“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this,” I say. “I’ll put a check in the mail.”

“No check. He is a very good neighbor. Watches the block.”

I say goodbye to Ilya, and I’m almost crying. I’m thinking about human decency. I go in and tell Sue Ann. She’s still naked and feeding our daughter and I think how good things are.

 

The next morning I’m in the kitchen with Doreen. She’s in her rocker, and I’m drinking coffee at the table, looking at the newspaper and rocking Doreen with my foot. I have the news on and they’re talking about how hard the storm hit the city. They’re describing unplowed streets, failed sanitation missions, a city that’s truly snowed in.

My cell phone rings. I pick up and it’s Ilya. “We got two feet of snow,” he says.

“Did you get it shoveled?” I say.

“We tried. He told me to worry about my own property. He kept shoveling and then slipped and fell. Hurt his leg. I told him I’ll call an ambulance. He says he doesn’t want ambulance. We took him inside and put him on the bed.”

“Christ. Thank you.”

Ilya says, “We finish shoveling his yard now. I think you must come up.”

“I’ll be there soon as I can. I’m sorry.”

I hang up and look at Doreen. I wonder if one day I will be to her what my grandfather is to me. I think about calling the hospital or a doctor, but instead I call Maclin and tell him I’m coming up and ask him to check in on the old man if he can. He says he’ll go over once the sidewalks are a little clearer.

I find Sue Ann in the basement and tell her the news. “That’s awful,” she says. “Maybe call a doctor?”

“It’s better if I don’t. I know him.”

“I hate to think of you driving on those roads.”

I don’t say anything. I’m thinking about the drive, about the snow flashing white across the windshield, about the trucks, about how long it will take, about my grandfather. I just hug Sue Ann.

 

I get in the car and I bring a box of cassettes, mixes I made back in college, the stuff I used to listen to before I became a teacher. Sonic Youth, The Replacements, Hüsker Dü. Now I mostly listen to NPR or Devils games or nothing at all. Mixes hold songs in a different way, and I’m struck by the first-time feeling of tracks I’ve heard a thousand times.

My car’s a piece of shit Chevy Lumina that used to belong to my mother. It was the car she used to block the driveway with so no one parked there. I always joke that the Lumina wasn’t made for driving so much as parking, but it hasn’t died on me yet and it’s a trooper in the snow.

The three-hour ride takes almost seven hours. The Turnpike is a mess of black slop sloshing around under big truck tires. Snowbanks rise over the guardrails and form a wall against the shoulder. The windows keep getting fogged. My phone rings a few times, but I can’t answer it. The music’s on loud.

I cross the Outer Bridge and then the Verrazano, seeing a landscape whited out on all sides. The city in the distance looks snow-globe small.

When I get to my grandfather’s block, navigating big avenues made narrow by snow piles, it’s impossible to make the turn. The plows haven’t cleaned up the side streets. A bus has been abandoned in front of Augie’s Deli. I park up on the curb, across from it, in the lot for Flash Auto. I tuck my jeans into my boots and leave the car. The snow’s almost buried my grandfather’s block. Parked cars are helmeted. Drifts are up over the lids of garbage cans. The big pine in my grandfather’s front yard is sagging.

As I get closer, I see that Ilya and the Purse Snatcher have shoveled but not much. They’ve made a thin path in front of my grandfather’s house and smudged out a tower of snow on the stoop.

My feet are cold and wet. I head up to my grandfather’s door, about to open it with the extra key I have, but I’m surprised to find it propped. My grandfather usually has his door locked three ways and the alarm on. I guess Ilya didn’t know what to do and left it open so he could go in and out and check on the old man. I think it would’ve been smart if he just kept my grandfather’s key. Chances are nothing’s going to happen, especially in this weather, but leaving a door open is dumb. Last time my grandfather left his door open was back when I was about six. I was out front playing stoopball and he was in the yard, mowing the lawn and weeding, and my grandmother was across the street with Vito’s wife, Sissy. Some guy walked into the house, right past me, and snagged my grandfather’s wallet off the kitchen table. That’s when he realized times had changed and started locking the place down. A few years later he sprang for a Slomin’s alarm system since the windows are porch level and he didn’t like the idea of bars.

I go inside and call out, taking off my boots and closing the door behind me.

My grandfather says, “Who’s there?”

“Me,” I say.

“Goddamnit,” he says.

I walk through the dark kitchen into his room and he’s on the bed, still in his shoveling clothes, boots off, looking up at the ceiling. “You okay?” I say.

“What’re you doing here?”

“Ilya called me.”

“That lousy Russian bastard. Check my top drawer over there. He was in here, him and his purse-snatching son. I had a hundred bucks in that drawer. Make sure it’s still there.”

I go over to the drawer and open it. There’s a Mass card for his friend Harry the Horse, who died of pancreatic cancer when I was thirteen. There's also a picture of him and my grandmother outside of Peggy's Runway, a bar upstate where they spent a lot of time. The hundred dollars is there next to it, five twenties folded and paper-clipped to the back cover of his bank book. “It’s here,” I say.

“Go check the liquor cabinet then,” he says. “Probably cleaned me out. You know they got a taste for it. Got a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue in there.”

“I’ll check later. I need to call a doctor. What happened to your leg?”

“It’s just a bruise, that’s it.”

“Let me look.” I feel around his shin and he winces. I roll up his pant leg, wet at the cuff, and see a dark bruise on his papery skin. No blood. “It doesn’t look that bad,” I say.

“It’s nothing,” he says.

“Anything else hurt? Your back?”

“Not much.”

“You don’t want me to call a doctor?”

“Doc comes, says what, ‘Stay in bed. Don’t shovel.’ Forget it.”

“Let’s get you out of those clothes at least.” I take his pants off slowly, and they’re wet on the rump and all down the side of his bad leg. I’m going to have to change the sheets. He’s wearing blue boxers, and they’re probably about fifty years old, wispy. I prop him up on pillows and get him out of his tweed coat and sweater. He’s got on a white t-shirt underneath, the same color as his skin. He winces again. “I’m gonna wrap your leg,” I say. I get some triple antibiotic ointment, gauze, and medical tape from the bathroom, and I cover up the bruise. Thing like that, on an old, wobbly leg, it could just open right up and start gushing. I sit him up and help him to a chair in the corner. On the way, he stops to check if I was lying about the hundred dollars. I’m carrying him, his arm around my shoulder, and he’s cursing Ilya and the Purse Snatcher, trying to figure out what else could be missing. I get him on the chair, his leg outstretched, and I change the sheets and pile the shoveling clothes in the doorway. I’ll have to go downstairs and do a load of wash.

“You should’ve stayed with your family,” my grandfather says.

“You’re my family.”

“Your wife, your daughter. I’m just an old man.”

“I’m here to help.”

“You get any snow in Jersey?”

“None where we are. I didn’t hit it driving until Metuchen.”

“What about work?”

“I’m on Christmas vacation.”

“Good life.”

I lean over him and get his arm around my shoulder and carry him back to the bed. I get him dressed in flannel pants, a thermal shirt, and work socks. I bring the covers up to his neck and there he is again, on his back, looking up at the ceiling. “You’ve got to eat something,” I say.

He says, “I’ll have a poached egg and some grapefruit juice in a couple of hours. Now I’m tired.” He closes his eyes.

I take the shoveling clothes and the sheets and go downstairs to start a wash. I look at the wall of old cathode ray tubes. My grandfather used to repair televisions. They called him Frankie Fix-It. He’s got a workbench next to the washing machine full of soldering irons and wires and screwdrivers and bolts. When I was a kid, I’d sit on a footstool and watch him work.

I stuff the clothes in and get the machine spinning. Then I head back upstairs and find my grandfather’s shovel in the hallway. I put my boots back on and go outside.

I’m cleaning off the stoop, properly, when Ilya comes over, trudging through the snow in some crazy feathered coat. He’s smoking a cigar. He puts out his hand. “Glad you’re here,” he says.

“We haven’t met officially, I guess,” I say. “Jimmy.” We shake. “Thanks so much for your help.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t do more,” he says.

“You did what you could,” I say.

“How is he?”

“I think okay. Thanks for getting him inside. He’s a thick old bastard.”

Ilya laughs. “Thick. Yes.”

“I owe you something,” I say. “Let me write you a check.”

“Buy me a drink, that’s all. How long will you stay?”

“A day. Maybe two.”

“You get settled, we go get a drink, okay?”

“Sounds fine.” We shake again.

“Good,” he says, flicking his cigar into the yard.

I get down to the business of shoveling, clearing off the whole stoop and the walkway and then widening Ilya’s path on the sidewalk from street to fence. My ears are cold. My nose is running. I’m thinking, Now I’ve got to go get a drink with this fucking Russian. I’m thinking, I need to call Sue Ann, let her know I got here. I’m thinking, My grandfather shouldn’t be alone like this.

Other people are out shoveling now. The neighborhood is different under snow. It looks almost like people know each other and get along, but the truth is that nobody knows anybody anymore. Growing up, I knew everybody on the block. The drug dealer who lived in the cottage next to Public School 101. Vicki from the Philippines who always gave me a quarter. Cute half-Jewish Alexandria riding up and down the sidewalks on a bike with her old man in a wheelchair watching her from their living room window. Then people started selling their houses and the contractors would come in and knock them down and put up condos. Now it’s almost all these six-family condos, falsely pretty with red brick fronts and planters hanging from the windows, full of people who look bored. My grandfather and Ilya, who bought his place around the time I left for college, are really the only ones who still live in the turn-of-the-century frame houses that used to fill the block.

When I get done, I go back inside and check on my grandfather. He’s still sleeping.

I sit at the kitchen table and open my phone. Ten missed calls and four voicemails. Sue Ann. She’s worried. I call her and give her the scoop. She’s relieved to hear from me, tells me Doreen misses me. I say I’ll probably stay the night, maybe two nights. She tells me to stay as long as I need to. I say, “I love you,” and I mean it. I’m always relieved when I mean it. I fear the day when I don’t mean it. My father never meant it. He couldn’t have. He left me and my mother when I was four. Went to Florida, we found out later, when my mother got served with divorce papers. I’m the same age now as he was when he left.

It’s hard for me to sit in this kitchen without thinking of my mother and my grandmother. My mother, who lived upstairs her whole life, died in a wreck when I was twenty-one, just after I graduated college and came back to the house. She was on the Belt Parkway in her other car, a ’98 Ford Focus, headed home from work in Dyker Heights. My grandmother died a few years after that. Lung cancer. She smoked two packs a day. There was always a little glass ashtray from the Tropicana in Atlantic City on the table when she was alive, full of slim lipstick-edged butts stubbed out neatly. We’d, all of us, play Rummy or Go Fish here or we’d look through crumbling photo albums of trips they took up to Cochecton before I was born. I look across the table now and I can almost see my mother and my grandmother sitting there and my grandfather standing behind them feeling the radiator to see if the heat has come up.

Ilya knocks on the front door. “Time for a drink,” he says, when I open up. It’s only four-thirty, but it’s getting dark out.

“It’ll have to be a quick one,” I say. “I have to get back and feed him.”

We walk up the block, kicking through snow, to a Vietnamese joint called Pho Tay Ho. I’m surprised it’s open, but the sidewalk outside is shoveled and there’s steam on the windows. The neighborhood’s always lacked bars, so I guess this is as good as it gets. We go inside and take a table and order beers. The waiter brings them back with paper menus we don’t need.

“You can move back here?” Ilya says.

“We live by my wife’s family,” I say.

“Take Grandpa with you.”

“He wouldn’t want that. What’s your son’s name?”

“Fedya.”

“That’s a cool name.”

Ilya nods, downs some beer, does my voice with a hang-ten surfer’s edge. “‘Hey, man, that’s cool. Cool name, man. Very cool, man.’” He’s getting loose, ribbing me.

I laugh. “I know I don’t sound like that.”

He looks at my beer, which I haven’t touched. “You don’t like to drink?”

“I used to drink more,” I say. “You know Guinness? I could drink about twenty pints. Then I’d start singing.”

“You sing?” He throws his arm around me and starts singing a Russian song. I don’t know what he’s saying, but it sounds severe. He stops. “My son Fedya is a thief,” he says. “Old ladies, he loves to take their purses. He’s not a bad boy, just a thief.”

“That’s something.” I take a big swig off the beer and finish half of it. I put a twenty on the table. “I’ve got to go. Drinks are on me.”

Ilya starts singing in Russian again, probably something about me being a wimp. I leave the place and walk back the way we came.

When I get home, my grandfather’s awake. “You been up long?” I say.

“Twenty minutes.”

“Let me make you that egg.” I go out to the kitchen and poach an egg and toast some white bread. I bring it back on a tray with grapefruit juice and water. I help him sit up and put the tray in his lap.

“Coffee?” he says. “Instant over the sink.”

I go out to the kitchen and boil some water. I pour it in a mug with a broken handle and stir in the instant coffee crystals.

When I bring it in, he says, “I’m all thrown off. Feels like breakfast time, but it isn’t morning, is it?”

“It’s almost six.”

He works on the poached egg and toast with a fork and knife. He blows on the coffee to cool it.

I sit at the foot of the bed. “How long’s it been since you had a drink?” I say.

“Ten years. Giving up booze was my worst mistake.”

“You want me to open that Johnnie Walker Blue?”

“What for? You’ll take it when I die. Leave it where it is.”

“Let’s have a drink, you and me.”

“Get me a couple of aspirin, huh?”

I go into the bathroom and find a bottle of St. Joseph’s. I bring him back two and he washes them down with grapefruit juice.

“My leg’s a piece of shit,” he says.

“It’ll feel better in a couple of days,” I say. “You sure you don’t want me to put the TV on?”

“I’m still tired.” He pushes the tray away, leaving three-quarters a cup of coffee and the crust from the toast. I take the tray and bring it out to the kitchen sink. When I come back in, he’s asleep, snoring again.

I sit at the foot of the bed for a few minutes. It’s so quiet, except for my grandfather’s snoring. I’m thinking about the bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue.

The liquor cabinet’s over the stove in the kitchen. It’s full of forty-year-old bottles of Tanqueray and Kahlua and bitters and sweet vermouth, stuff for parties. In the back of the cabinet, I find the Johnnie Walker Blue, still in its box. I take it over to the table and sit down. I feel bad about opening it, but I do anyway. I drink straight from the bottle. It’s smooth. I have nothing to compare it to. I wipe my mouth with the back of my sleeve. My arms are tired from shoveling. I picture Sue Ann, naked, feeding Doreen.

I drink more, two healthy pulls. It doesn’t take much for me to start feeling it. A little bit more and I'll start calling old girlfriends to see what's become of them. Did Mairead ever make it as a nurse? And whatever happened to Kristy from Eighty-Fourth Street? I go into the living room and put the TV on low. I fall asleep sitting up on the sofa.

 

I’m not one of those people who take any stock in dreams. But I wake up from a whopper of a nightmare — Doreen was choking and Sue Ann wasn’t there and I couldn’t move and I just watched my daughter’s face turn blue and she stopped living — and I feel like my heart has gone a far way away from me. I stand up and wobble.

I open my phone and see that I haven’t missed any calls. It’s just after one in the morning. I sit back down on the edge of the sofa, the cushion squeaking. I keep seeing that picture of Doreen dying.

My grandfather says, “You okay out there?”

I go in and stand next to him. “Just had a nightmare,” I say. “It was really real. Doreen died in it.”

He says nothing.

I go around and sit down on the other side of the bed. I’m still feeling a little drunk. “You mind if I stay in here?”

“It’s okay,” he says.

I put my head back on my grandmother’s pillow, the one he keeps there next to him and never sleeps on, and I close my eyes. “I don’t want Doreen to die,” I say. “Not ever.”

My grandfather, who has never held me, is reaching out to hold me now. He’s got his arm across my chest, and I can tell it’s hurting his leg to twist his body. “She won’t,” he says.

“I’m sorry I’m not here more,” I say.

“I know you’re sorry, kid,” he says, and he tries to hold me tighter.

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