Only November, but Nicky woke to a window of white, a fishbowl world of frosted glass. He understood now that this was a Pa Ingalls proposition, that he was here until May, until the railroad came through with the provisions. Nicky felt improperly warned about the logistics of pug elimination in deep snow, the logistics of even opening the door against a four-foot drift. Nicky was adrift. He’d heard the locals telling stories of climbing out of second-story windows, tying a rope to the shutters so they wouldn’t get lost. He hadn’t listened. No, he’d half listened, the way he did everything else, half-assed. He was Temporary Man, the guy who lives in your house when you’re not in it, lights the wood stove to keep the pipes from freezing, shovels the walk, walks the dog. It had never taken this much effort before. Maybe he could teach the dog to use the toilet, like the cat in that YouTube video. The cat even flushed.
Nicky lifted up the snow-choked screen, leaned far out the window. Maybe the snow would never melt, and would that be so bad? Hadn’t he always wanted to end up someplace just this wild and empty? His friend’s parents own this house but only come for the summer. No cable, no Internet. The electricity was on, for now, but he’d been warned it went out in storms. There was a wall of books. There was a record player that still played, a shelf of records, none of the music from later than 1983. Nicky was surprised how little that mattered. He was a barefoot surfer in a jingle-bell world. Wasn’t there an old song like that, the lonely surfer boy stranded in a New York winter, his woody covered in snow?
That made Nicky want to take a piss out the window, see how far it would go, but he stopped and watched a family of deer cross the yard and crop the trees. The father deer—he guessed—pulled a long branch down low, held it so the kid deer (was there a name for those? Deerlings?) could have a bite. He’d known this deer for two minutes and already Nicky could tell it was a better father than Nicky’s dad. Nicky kept still, breathing in the cold. Something in him wanted the purity of that cold, the starkness of white woods, black branches. He’d save the deer to tell Anna next time she called. The deer would make her happy.
As if he’d summoned her, Anna did call, late that night. Nicky had already fallen asleep after giving half his Thanksgiving dinner (frozen burrito) to the dog. Anna must have had more wine than she was used to because she talked the way they used to talk when they’d stay up all night, playing X-Box and never caring about the laundry and pizza boxes and comics in piles on the floor, giggling like idiots at jokes that weren’t even jokes except to them.
You thought I was funny, didn’t you? She asked him. Ryan doesn’t think I’m funny. He just thinks I’m a flake.
Ryan doesn’t deserve you, he wanted to say, but he didn’t. There would be silence on the phone, weeks until the next late-night call. He told her about the deer instead, and he could hear in her voice that the deer made her happy. He remembered her smile, exactly. He didn’t want to remember it but he did. He didn’t want to remember the cowlick curl at the nape of her neck or the time they shared an ice-cream cone that hot day at work and how their tongues met, accidentally but not, and after that he still tasted vanilla when he kissed her, every time. She was nineteen when they met. She was twenty-six now.
I found my first white hair, she told him. He’d found his own first, that morning. They were soul twins, she’d said when they first met. He wouldn’t remind her. Should I pluck it out? she asked. Don’t, he said. It’s yours. Keep it.
They talked until Anna’s phone died, until their voices were rough and slow when they said goodnight. It was almost like sleeping next to her. She would call again sometime, maybe at Christmas. Nicky’s phone was lost so he only had the house phone, and he didn’t want to call out long distance. Anyway, she never answered when he called. She only called him when she was feeling sentimental, the way you might about a dog you had when you were a kid.
Nicky didn’t want to wait for the next call. He didn’t want to wait at all. He didn’t want to remember being with her or remember her leaving but he didn’t know how to forget. He didn’t want to want.
The next day Nicky woke up early, despite his late night. It was amazing how much energy he had when he wasn’t smoking weed.
It was amazing how easy it was to not smoke weed when there wasn’t any, not for miles around. Today, Nicky thought, he would take on the snow. Man vs. nature. When he put a t-shirt on under his flannel he noticed it was starting to pull across the shoulders. He checked himself in the mirror. All that chopping wood. For the first time in his life he had muscles and there was no one to see them.
Nicky strapped on the snowshoes he found in the mudroom, chopped a path out to the woodshed. The pug followed long enough to poop in the snow, then whined to go back inside. She was not a snow pug. But Nicky, for the first time, could see himself as a snow guy. He would walk to town, he decided. Buy real food, milk and eggs. Maybe an apple or something. What normal people ate.
The day was cold but pristine. His allergies were gone here, Nicky noticed. He thought he would miss the ocean, but now he could see himself, someday, living in a place like this, a place where lake met mountain. He wanted to take the cure, rest his mind, push his body, spend his days like Thoreau, planting beans and contemplating fox tracks. He would live in a house like this, a cabin, but it would be his own house and not somebody else’s. He wouldn’t need a car or electricity. He would keep a cow, and chickens. He would grind coffee by hand. He would have a new girlfriend, an earth mother with long wild hair and spinning skirts.
Or he wouldn’t. With each breath Nicky felt himself getting stronger. With each breath he found himself wanting less.
He followed the edge of the tree line, keeping to what he was pretty sure was the main road, although there was not a car to be seen, not even tire tracks. No sound but the swishing of his snowshoes and the occasional chip! chip! of a brave winter bird. Nicky stopped to rest for a minute, leaning against a tree, breathing in the silence. And then the silence was cut by a sound he knew: somebody pissing in the snow.
A long piss, this one was, and Nicky wondered about the etiquette of encountering an outdoor pisser. Did you not-look, men’s room style, or did you say hello, comment on the weather? He decided a simple head nod was best. When the pisser, bundled up in fur, appeared from behind a stand of pine, Nicky nodded his head, and it seemed like the guy nodded back.
Except it wasn’t a guy. It was a fucking bear.
A black bear, almost Nicky’s height, just hanging out, looking a little bed-headed and sleepy-eyed, like he just woke up and hadn’t had his coffee yet. Nicky knew how he felt.
Nicky looked at the bear.
The bear looked at Nicky.
And Nicky flashed ahead to a day when he’d be telling his grandchildren this story, and they would want to know all about the bear and how it looked and did it roar and how big it was. They would ask, “Were you scared?” And Nicky would answer no, he wasn’t scared at all, and it would be true.