by Chuck Teixeira
Just before dawn, Mark Morelli threw himself on a rudderless sled and hurtled down the snow-covered hill that fell from the dead end of his street. As he approached the bottom, sometimes he rolled off the sled. But on his final run, he let the sled jump the wall of snow the county plow had created and sailed above the cars buried in it. Dragging the sled up the hill, Mark kept his balance despite slipping on patches of ice. But he lost all poise when he reached the top of the slope and saw his mother shoveling the sidewalk in her soiled waitress uniform.
Rushing to her, Mark said, “I’m sorry I didn’t get back before your shift ended.”
“It’s okay,” she said, “It ended early because of the storm.”
Mark tossed the sled over the front fence into a snow drift, then took the shovel from his mother’s gloveless hand. Along the road, neighbors were clearing the walkways in front of their homes and the shoulders of the road where their cars were parked. They had probably noticed his mother doing outside work from which any responsible son would have spared her, and likely were judging him, none more harshly than Randy Postula, the retired army officer who seemed sweet on Mark’s mother. Then Mark observed with relief that Randy was just emerging from his house half-way up the hill at the other end of the street. He probably had not seen Mark’s mother struggling in the snow.
“You were with the Evanoski boy?” Mark’s mother asked. That’s how she referred to Jerry. She looked younger with her face red from the cold.
“No,” Mark said then kissed her creased brow. “Go inside and rest.” As soon as his mother was in the house, Mark rushed down the yard in long steps through the snow. Under the narrow eave, he shook off as much as he could of the white stuff that clung to his boots, then opened the back door into the cellar. He climbed onto the cover of the old washing machine, pushed the wringer aside, and searched the cupboard. In the cobwebs and clutter he had let develop, he found the stubs of old candles. He grabbed an ice pick from the wood shed then trudged back up to the sidewalk through the tracks he had already made and used the stubs to wax both sides of the shovel so the snow would slip off easily. That was one lesson he remembered from all the wisdom his father had scolded into him.
Almost invariably, Mark faltered when facing his mother’s apprehension about his friendship with Jerry. Widowed for several years, she was reluctant to surrender the son who might help in her old age. She had not welcomed Mark’s earlier talk about entering the seminary. But exchanging the insecurity of a son’s religious vocation for the shame of his disappearing with a petty criminal twice his age was not the bargain she thought she had reached with God. As Mark cleared the snow, he tried to gloss over her disapproval. He focused, instead, on what to say to patch up the argument he had had with Jerry the previous night. Mark had begged Jerry to take him to New York. Jerry refused and finally lost his temper when Mark continued to plead. Mark would have one last chance to make his case if Jerry kept his promise about stopping by to say farewell and help with clearing the ice and snow from the new storms.
Mark had cleared most of the walkway by the time he spotted Jerry at the far end of the field. In his wet canvas shoes and thin cotton shirt, Jerry seemed more powerful than the elements. “I couldn’t get here sooner,” Jerry said when he reached Mark, then grabbed the shovel and began to clear the snow piling around Mark’s mother’s car. Meanwhile, Mark applied the ice pick to the glassy sheets between the sidewalk and the house.
After a few minutes, Jerry looked up from his work and smiled, “We can lick this then figure what’s next.”
“Thanks, but you shouldn’t stay out much longer,” Mark gestured toward two strangers descending the hill above Randy Postula’s place. They were barely visible in the snow sprayed by gusts of wind. And they seemed uncertain about continuing down the hill. Then the strangers spoke with Randy, who pointed them back up the hill away from Mark’s home. Mark was sure that people he did not recognize were cops looking for Jerry.
“God bless you,” Mark whispered then turned toward Jerry. “We have a few minutes before they realize Randy may have mislead them.”
“Let’s not waste it,” Jerry said shielding his green eyes from the sun’s glare and the worried look on Mark’s face. “You’re not moving to New York with me. You’re lucky your mother’s still alive. I won’t be responsible for your abandoning her.”
“I’m not abandoning her,” Mark said, “I’ll send back money I earn.”
“Earn doing what?” Jerry asked. “Finishing high school? Being pimped out until you’re my age? No! I’m going back alone this afternoon. If you want to waste this last visit retracing the argument we had last night, you can do it without me. I don’t want to remember you nagging. Not a great memory after all you’ve done for me.”
Mark guessed Jerry was referring to the money he had borrowed from Mark but not yet repaid, enough for bus fare to Manhattan. “You think abandoning me is a good outcome?” Mark heard himself whine but couldn’t quit the subject, so he forced himself to work in silence until all the walkways were clear and there was almost no snow around the car.
“Enough for now,” Mark took the shovel from Jerry’s hands and planted it and the ice pick on the other side of the fence in the same snow drift with the sled. “Can you come inside,” Mark said. “My mom’s asleep for sure. You can take a hot bath and put on dry clothes.”
“My next visit, I promise,” Jerry winked, embraced Mark then walked away. He paused once, turned around, smiled and waved good-bye.
Mark felt an urge to cry but noticed Randy Postula walking toward him with an open bag of rock salt. Randy was a strong man, despite his retiree paunch. And even Mark´s mother acknowledged that Randy might be handsome if he got rid of his beard and moustache. “I could never tolerate those bristles on my mouth or near my face,” she once said, shuddering as though Randy’s kiss would be like eating spiders.”
Face hair didn´t bother Mark, except at that moment, close up, he couldn´t tell whether the droplets on Randy´s moustache were snow or snot. “I’ve finished my place,” Randy said. “Anything left to do here?”
“Not now,” Mark said, “but they’ll be plenty when the district plow comes through a second time and buries the car again.”
“You crying?” Randy asked.
“No,” Mark shook his head and wiped his face with his gloves. “The cold makes my eyes water. Those guys talking to you before, who were they?”
“They had a hunch our road was a short cut back to the highway,” Randy said then barreled through the tableau in Mark’s heart, “Don´t get attached to that Evanoski kid. I served in Korea with one of his uncles. The guy borrowed fifty bucks from me and never paid it back – a lot of money at that time. He denies he ever borrowed it. The whole family is trash. Your guy hasn´t borrowed any money from you, has he?”
“No,” Mark said.
“Rumor is your having second thoughts about the seminary.”
“Yeah,” Mark said. “I’m not so sure anymore. I think I´m gay.”
“Gay?” Randy said, “As in fag?”
Mark took a breath and looked Randy in the eye. “It means I am likely to fall in love with another man.”
“Well, don´t disgrace your family over it,” Randy said. “And for heavens’ sake, don´t fall in love with an Evanoski.” He pressed his hand down hard on Mark’s shoulder. “Don´t fall in love with me either. Understand? If your mom’s alone, I have reason to see more of her. And if she’s alone because you’ve become a priest, no one will dare say she didn’t raise you right.”
* * *
Chuck Teixeira grew up amid the anthracite collieries of northeastern Pennsylvania. Early on, Chuck earned four university degrees, including an M.A. from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. For many years, Chuck worked as a tax attorney in San Francisco, California. Now he teaches English in Bogota, Colombia. Chuck identifies as gay, and his children and their mother have made peace with that. Chuck’s stories have appeared in Esquire, Permafrost, Portland Review, Two Thirds North and Jonathan. Collections of his published work are available at Amazon.com.