“I heard you the first time,” Jeb yells at Marliss, his wife, both scanning the sagging plank-board ceiling threatening to collapse the homespun structure. Drops of melted ice hit their eyes and the dirt floor, creating an unhappy mud puddle in the middle of the room where the twins sit across in fleece pajamas playing thumb-war and I spy with my little eye.
“Lucky this whole house ain’t caved in,” Marliss says, pulling up the twins by their ears. “Ain’t enough they got croup, but now they gotta worry about the roof over their heads, too.”
“They ain’t the ones worrying.” Jeb snatches a pair of crimped wool gloves hanging above the wood burning stove.
“You gotta fix it.” She yells. “I mean, now.”
“Or else what,” he says. “You gonna do it?” He turns and faces the oak front door bent and hammered in the spring of 1913, the year he and Marliss arrived with little more than a chipped enamel teakettle, two mulish oxen, forty-nine dollars, and the chance to begin again—if beginning again is even possible after a baby girl dies of tuberculosis. Jeb squishes his feet inside a pair of black boots, two sizes too small. “You worry about not burning supper and I’ll take care of the rest.”
“You want cornbread or dumplings?”
“Don’t matter to me as long as it’s warm.”
“We also need more logs for the fire.” Marliss points to the wood box cowering beside the stove. “It ain’t gonna fill up itself.”
“Fine.” He stomps to the front door. The twins run toward him and grab his legs. “My little wood pilers.” He messes up their hair. “You wanna help daddy work outside today?”
“They ain’t going out in this weather.” Marliss rests her knuckles on her ribs, breath as frail as her bite.
“You ain’t that sick, is you,” Jeb says, spinning the twins round and around, both laughing as if life holds only merriment and ease. “Enough now.” He unwinds the twins and declaws their fingers from his legs.
“More. Daddy. More.”
“Go clean up your mess.” Marliss points the twins to a half empty box of rocks strewn across the floor. “Now.”
“Dumplings if you don’t mind,” Jeb says, grabbing a snow shovel.
Marliss limps forward, offering a kerosene lantern and the briefest of smiles. “Maybe we can use the rest of the butter.”
“Save it.” Jeb pushes the lantern into Marliss’s chest. “Ain’t nothing special about today.”
“It might be with a few candles on top.”
“Nice of you to remember but I don’t see the need.” Jeb inhales the cloying aroma of raw onion and salted jerky drying as thin strips atop the wood stove.
“Do it for the twins.” she says.
“That’s why I do everything.” He slams shut the door, as shut as a door full of small holes, and thin lines, can slam.
“Be careful out there,” Marliss yells. “For God’s sake, don’t die.”
Outside, a grisly wind and falling snow beat hard against his face, chest, and legs. The world, he believes, is trying to blot out every memory of him on this poorly written patch of land. An Apache sky, like an unlit matchstick, looms over the tiny farm. Unforgiving cries echo from inside the barn—twenty-one chickens, four Long Horn cows, ten baby pigs—further reminders of unpaid debts and unfinished chores that demand attention, even in the doldrum-pit of winter. Fog rolls in, tumbler-fulls at a time, adding weight to the path of snow growing like hilltops, ahead and behind. “No one’s dying today,” he whispers, lifting his shoulders as tall as the bulky layers allow. “Not on my watch.”
Right jab, left hook, upper cut to the jaw of heaven. “Take that,” he yells, making his way around the side of the house.
Each step, heavy and deliberate, leaves a trench mark for the trek back. He hopes. His legs, little by little, disappear into mounds of snow. Thank goodness he’d propped a wooden ladder last summer against the side of the house. He takes the rungs one and one to the top. Wobbling on the roof’s peak, he shovels snow and ice to the ground. Chills sweep his body, the parts he can still feel. He faces the sky. “Tempt all you want, but I ain’t giving up.” Licking numb lips, he loses balance and falls onto his back, sliding down the roof and landing in the snow, deep down in an implosion of white, white, white.
“Marliss,” he yells. “Kevin. Keith.” He swallows, until he can’t. “Katherine, my baby girl.”
Buried inside a tomb of coldness, recollections of a negligible life dance like icicle ghosts around widening emptiness. He frowns, and for a last time, leaves it there.
Leumas Eloc, who lives in Kalispell, MT, loves to write about middle class American life. He is an old dude, a cabinet maker, golf ball collector, and flaming democrat. Sometimes, often after patting a distended belly and staring at age spots expanding atop dry hands, he writes poetry and political essays.