The blizzard had barely subsided before the phone rang. It would be Bill, of that I had little doubt. And it was. This time his furnace wasn’t working. Usually his car needed towing out of the snow. Didn’t matter if we had four feet or four inches, self-sufficiency wasn’t an integral part of his make-up.
I pulled on my muck boots and gloves. The flaps of my hat already covered my ears. My neighbor didn’t belong in eastern Montana. No survival skills, no gun, and his body had a lankiness to it that made you think the individual parts were held together with string.
We only lived half a mile apart, but this accumulation was too deep to skip chains on my Blazer. Frustration made me indignant. It was this kind of indignation that made me vilify him at the bar on a regular basis. I liked to complain about how he put me out. I never mentioned his grown daughter, Adele, or that what I disdained in him, I loved in her. Her meager figure, her gentleness of spirit. Every call for help meant I’d get to see her. This I never mentioned when I groused.
By the time I arrived at his farmhouse, the sun was cutting in horizontally through a thin cloud layer—not that it mattered in the unending white. Bill, bundled up like the Michelin Man, waited for me on his front porch. “Thanks for coming,” he said by way of greeting. “The furnace is out.”
“So you said.” I slammed my door shut. “I want to check your oil tank first.” My money was on a frozen line. I glanced over at the mound that was his Subaru—all wheel drive—like that was enough. No head-bolt heater, either. I’d be called out again tomorrow or the next day to start his engine.
The stairs had been shoveled, but Bill came down them one at a time like a two-year-old. I imagined Adele had worked that chore. At the moment she stood framed in the parlor window, looking smaller than usual, a blanket wrapped about her shoulders. She waved tentative fingers amid fluff. I nodded.
On the last step, Bill almost slipped but righted himself before falling. Lord, I said, looking up, directly into the glare of white reflected off white, light unfiltered—this man can't possibly have been created in Your image.
“This way,” said Bill, as if I didn’t know where his oil tank was. I kept my mouth shut and followed—my eyes beginning to burn. We were passing his barn—two horses the extent of his farming—when the burning turned to searing. My eyes watered from both corners. No shadow, no nuance or poking out of color remained—only glaring white. I had allowed myself to go snow-blind. Bill said, “Hang on a second—I need to crack the ice in the horses’ water trough.”
I didn’t answer. I heard the unlatching of the barn door. He must have turned then because he wanted to know if I was okay—what was wrong?—what did I need him to do?—he wanted to help after all I’d done for him. Those were the last words he uttered (that I heard) before I felt the roaring thud of a snow-laden roof collapsing onto the snow-laden ground. Not a decibel of sound lingered. It was as if all of it had all been sucked up into a wind tunnel that had been turned on, then off—gone in an instant.
I rushed forward, my arms stretched before me. My shin slammed into something impenetrable, and I face-planted onto the packed surface. Noise returned to the landscape. It was me in agony of mind and body. I made it the last few feet to the wreckage. It might as well have been a ton of steel. I don’t know, maybe there’s somebody somewhere that could have moved it, but it wasn’t me. I wasn’t strong enough. Without my eyes, I wasn’t smart enough.
I don’t go to the bar anymore. It took more than a year before I could return to church. God had long since forgiven me, but the realization that there were some mistakes nothing could correct plagued me. Even after I was used to a state of humbleness, it took many more months to reach out to Adele as a husband.
Though she too had forgiven me such a long time ago.
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