By JC Reilly
After the white polish of yesterday’s snow, the small front yards on Peach Street look like postcards—flat, empty planes you could scrawl the littlest hint of a story upon. Though, what would I say? Not, Mom, wish you were here—because she hates cold winters. But maybe, Give me your snow, neighbors, give me all your snow. I eye their drifts greedily—living on a corner as I do, with the street so close to the edge of my house, I have little yard space.
What I do own of yard is dominated by an oak tree, under which a smattering of snow has accumulated, as well as by a quince bush, its spidery branches glistening, which look almost delicate in the burly yellow morning light. While the quince’s beauty begs me to take a photograph, I have designs on the bit of powder surrounding it, hoping I can gather enough to make a proper six-foot snowman, the kind an old silk hat might breathe life into. A few moments of shoveling, and I know I will need at least my next door neighbor’s walk and driveway’s worth of snow to get anywhere with this project.
I don’t like my neighbors, as a rule, and Mrs. Katz in particular. She’s not nosy so much as old and chatty and lonely, always asking about my cat, Chubu, or whether I’m going to watch the Huskers decimate Podunk State, or how my students are doing, or if I can help her with her groceries. I get a migraine just thinking about her. But I want her snow, need it. The idea of scrounging snow from her property to collect enough snow for my snowman seems more neighborly than I’d like—too much an invitation for chitchat. A few years ago, I began experimenting with objects as a base to pack my limited patch of snow around—my secret weapon—acorn squash, soccer balls, old ottomans from the Goodwill. I tried a beanbag chair I found discarded on the side of the road once, but it didn’t work worth a damn. Anything to decrease the amount of snow I needed. Anything so I wouldn’t have to talk with her (or shovel her walk).
Pumpkins work the best, I’ve found. I get a thirty-pound pumpkin for the base, a twenty-pounder for the middle, a pie pumpkin for the head, save them through the fall in the basement, where it’s cool and damp. Then, after the first real snow of the winter (though you always have to wait a day for the powder to turn a little icy), I haul them to my yard and begin to build.
As I’m leaving the house, laden down with pumpkins, Chubu zips through my legs to bound down the steps, only to flick his paws in annoyance, walking like a tin soldier, when the snow sticks to his fur. I laugh and then notice Mrs. Katz, at the curb, wearing her housedress and a pink rabbit-fur ushanka with the flaps down. Faugh. She bends to retrieve the Lincoln Journal-Star and watches me a moment.
“Hello, dear, what are you going to do with those pumpkins? I could make you a pie. Maybe several. Ooh, or pumpkin soup! I have a recipe floating around. I love pumpkin soup, and I have fresh cinnamon I just bought at Russ’ Market. Are you hungry? It will just take me a couple of hours. If you help peel the skin. Come on over.” All this she says in one breath. I begin to feel pinpricks of pain behind my eyes.
“No thanks, Mrs. Katz, I’m going to use them for a snowman skeleton.”
She slides the plastic sleeve off the paper and scans the headlines. “Isn’t it cheating to use pumpkins?”
“Probably, Mrs. Katz.”
“Ok, you have fun there.” She goes back inside. Phew, I’m safe.
I shovel my walk, dumping the snow into my yard, the mound growing but not at the pace I want. It always surprises me how aerobic this activity is, and soon I’m breathing heavily and sweating, my fingers beginning to ache with the constant clenching of my cheap Shop-Ko shovel. I shed my hat and scarf and coat on the stairs. Chubu darts from the yard to under my truck, where the ground is snow-free, and begins to yowl at me. I go to the front door and hold it open for him a few moments, but he seems content to yowl. Fine, stay there. I need more snow and lust after the opalescent whiteness of Mrs. Katz’s sidewalk calling me, calling me. “Fine,” I utter out loud. I’ll be neighborly, if it kills me.
I continue the line of the walkway and shovel in front of Mrs. Katz’s house, scraping off her steps, bringing the snow back to my own yard. Across the street, the man whose Dobermans always bark at me uses a snowblower to clear out his driveway and sidewalk, and he finishes in minutes. I’ve asked him before if I can borrow it, but he believes women can’t handle snowblowers and said no. I would buy a snowblower of my own just to show him, but I don’t intend to live in Nebraska forever, and on a graduate student’s miniscule stipend, I can’t afford to waste $400.
An hour passes, and the sweat has long since cooled, and now I’m so clammy and cold I almost decide to forget about building the snowman, except that the mound of snow on my lawn offends me with its stupidity—not enough to be truly impressive as a mountain (something the squirrels or Chubu might climb just for fun), but too much to just leave it be. I shrug back into my winter gear, grab a pumpkin, and get started.
I pack several inches of snow around the thirty-pounder. The beauty of starting with something round, like a pumpkin, for a snowman skeleton is that you can be sure your snowballs will be round, not a misshapen pile of snow loosely resembling roundishness. An actual three-ball snowman, proportionate and perfectly round, something the neighborhood children will envy—something my own snowman aesthetics demands. As I pack, the base grows in girth till finally it’s about two and a half feet in diameter and almost two feet tall. I inspect my work, making sure the snow is evenly distributed around the pumpkin. A bit of dirt and pine straw mixed with the snow sticks out like a bruise and a scrape on the snowman’s hip. A little of Mrs. Katz’s top-layer snow, and the injury fades.
“Good, you can’t see any orange,” I say to the air and laugh when Chubu, himself orange as any pumpkin, growls from his hide-out beneath the truck. “I didn’t mean you, kitty-cat.”
Once you’ve built the base snowball, the rest is easy. I balance the other pumpkins on top and begin packing the snow around them too till tell-tale orange fades. The morning is gone, and the noon sun offers no heat, though its brightness demands sunglasses I don’t have. My hands through polar fleece gloves are stiff, and after all that shoveling, weariness creeps into my joints like a squatter and won’t leave. Almost done, I tell myself. A few more scoops. Adding a last layer of snow to smooth out the snowman’s silhouette, I survey my work. Finally!
“It’s a fine-looking snowman body, if somewhat on the short side,” I announce.
“Thank you for your approval.”
I don’t mind it short, though. Suddenly I’m imagining a Fred Astaire look for him—top hat and tails. Somewhere back in the house, there’s a fortieth-hand tuxedo jacket and hat I bought at Goodwill earlier in the semester for a costume party. And a pipe. Yes, the traditional snowman look. I am about to retrieve his clothes when Mrs. Katz barrels into my yard.
“You didn’t salt my walk when you shoveled it, did you, dear?”
I shake my head. Stabbing pain, stabbing pain.
“Even so, you did an excellent job. So straight! And you did my steps! Even better, I wager, than Mr. Johanson’s blower could do it. That thing blows snow all over the place.”
“Don’t mention it.” Really.
“I won’t have any problem getting the paper tomorrow.” She smiles, then holds out a ratty pink scarf and a purple beret that looks like it was made by someone just learning how to knit. “For your snowman.”
“Oh, I really couldn’t.”
Mrs. Katz drops the hat on the snowman’s head and wraps the scarf around its neck, like she doesn’t hear me. Out of nowhere, she produces a carrot. “For his nose.” (In case I don’t know what it’s for.)
“Thanks, Mrs. Katz. But I really can man—”
“He needs some eyes. I’ve got some charcoal left over from my Labor Day cook out down in the basement. Well, the cookout wasn’t in my basement, the charcoal is—haha! You know what I mean! It was too bad you couldn’t come because of that migraine. Mr. Rivers from Plum Street—do you know him?—made some great potato salad. Everyone said so. But not kosher. There was bacon in it, what was he thinking? You get a lot of migraines, don’t you? Anyway, do you want it?”
She disappears into her house, and I use the time to get down on the ground and try to coax Chubu out from under the truck. He’s a large cat, nearly 18 pounds, but even orange fur might be tingeing to blue at this point, his toes turning to toesicles. He growls at me, but I grab him and shove him back into the house before he can run off again.
Mrs. Katz returns and presents two charcoal briquettes, a banana-yellow feather boa, a box of buttons (“For his mouth”), and red glitter. “I thought he needed some pizazz.”
I feel my face freezing in horror. Or perhaps it’s just freezing. “No, real—”
She throws the glitter on my snowman before I can stop her, the red sparkling in the air then blotching as it collects in clumps on the snowman’s torso like he’s been pierced with a stiletto. Then the boa and the eyes follow. Then the mouth—red, blue, beige, brown, and orange buttons, all different sizes, all old-fashioned, as if she’s owned this box of buttons since the 1950s and could never figure a use for them. Mrs. Katz honks a laugh like a Canada goose—she’s really enjoying herself as she decorates the snowman. I cover my mouth with my hands and breathe heavily into them, as much to warm my fingers as to hide my disgust. She walks around her handiwork and claps.
It is, by anyone’s standards, the ugliest snowman ever built. And it’s standing in my front yard, looking for all the world like a bleeding floozy from a red light district.
“That’s really… something, Mrs. Katz.” So much for the top hat and tails. I stick a branch on either side of its midsection. The poor thing needs arms if it’s going to be soliciting snow gentlemen this evening.
She circles the snowman again and slaps her thigh in approval. “Delightful! We should start a club, dear. Why, we could make snow people in everyone’s yards! And we could have a contest for the best looking one, what do you think? I should call a meeting of the Neighborhood Watch. In fact, I’ll do that next Tuesday.” Then, more slyly, she adds, “Hopefully you won’t get another migraine.” She pulls out a phone from a pocket in her housedress. “Take a picture of me and Meira!”
“Oh yes, that’s her name, didn’t you know? She looks just like my old friend Meira back when I was in high school. The scrapes we would get into! Bitsy and Meira, we were a pair! She taught me to smoke, and she showed me how to use a diaphragm. I don’t know where she got one. She was always a little fast. I liked that about her. I was a bridesmaid at her wedding. She married a nice man, but he drove a motorcycle. I wonder whatever happened to her. Maybe she is on The Facebook? Do you know how to use The Facebook, dear?”
I snap a picture of Mrs. Katz and Meira and shove the camera back at her, though I try not to be too obvious about it, and start edging away from her and that abomination she’s created.
“Thanks for your help, with the…uh… Meira, Mrs. Katz. I’m going inside now.”
“Bye, bye, dear. Maybe you could show me The Facebook later on and we can search for her?
“Yes, Mrs. Katz. How about after lunch?” After I’ve downed twenty Advil and an Imitrex.
“Yes, lunch! I’ll cook you lunch, dear, after you were so kind to let me help you build this snowman! I haven’t built one in forty years! I have a nice beef tongue I was saving for dinner, but I’ll make it for lunch. And sauerkraut. Do you like sauerkraut? You come over here around one, it will all be ready.”
“Oh, that’s not…”
“I insist! Then you can help me search on the computer!”
“Ok, Mrs. Katz. I’m really going inside now.”
“Meira, do you remember the time…”
I leave the two of them to renew their acquaintance, glad for Meira that she has no ears. For a moment I watch them from behind the door, while Chubu weaves infinity signs around my feet. He wants his lunch now. Mrs. Katz is laughing, her arm wrapped around Meira’s shoulders, just like she must have back in high school. Bitsy and Meira. I bet they were a pair back then—they’re certainly a pair now. With a final look, I have to smile.
I hope a warm snap doesn’t come any time soon.
JC Reilly has feathers on her soul but so far no ability to fly. She writes across genres and has received Pushcart and Wigleaf nominations for her work. She serves as the Managing Editor of the Atlanta Review and has pieces forthcoming in Imperfect Fiction, New Flash Fiction Review, The Arkansas Review, Riding Light, and Rabbit: a Journal of Nonfiction Poetry. Read her (sometimes updated) blog at jcreilly.com or follow her on Twitter @aishatonu.