It’s out of her control, the weather. No one can blame her for what she does next.
In the dream she’s pushing a cart down a wide hallway, trying to locate bananas and bread. But it’s too dark. Where is the produce? Where is the bakery? Where are the onions? She needs a bag of onions most of all. That’s when she hears it, a noise that stops her cold: coyotes at her front door, nails scraping the paint off in long, curly strips.
“What on earth do they want?” she asks Hank, who’s there and then not there, disappearing like smoke. She wants to tell him what suddenly seems clear: coyotes are after her; they want her bottles of milk.
It’s not until she wakes and reaches for her green flannel robe and opens the front door that she sees what prompted her mind to conjure such a dream: Hank outside in the snowstorm, his shovel—not coyotes—scraping against the driveway’s cement.
It snowed all day Wednesday and all night too and now it’s 5:30 on Thursday morning, and how on earth is Hank going to get to work when Margaret has to take Kent, their youngest, to the doctor by two?
“Just enough to blast out!” Hank shouts. He sounds more optimistic than Margaret feels.
She nods, looks up their street. All of Emerson Avenue looks socked in. Probably all of Salt Lake. A doozy of a storm. She closes the door, then shivers before showering and starting breakfast, stirring oatmeal.
When Hank sits at the kitchen table, he says Albert Anderson’s coming for him in a half hour, if Albert’s truck can make it up the incline of 1300 South.
“Oh, and I tried to get the paper for you. But no luck. I don’t think the delivery boy made it.”
“Who can blame him?” Margaret asks, scraping the last of the oatmeal from the bottom of the pot. Anyway, what does she care about the nonsense on the front page, those international headlines about the king of Buganda being deposed or something or other, or some amateur archaeologist in England being declared a fraud? She’s 30 years old. A mother of three. She’s got one child to get off to school this morning, another who’s sick, and a snowstorm to make everything more difficult. What does she care about a human skull found years ago in some gravel bed?
Although, Princess Alice, she’s a different story. The front page today would likely also include news of Princess Alice, the Asian elephant who got so sick that workers at the Hogle Zoo killed her. Not that they admitted as much. They “put her to sleep,” the newspaper said. What a riot, Margaret thought then and thinks now. The elephant had a stomach ache! So yes, she likes following Alice, whose death was unjust. On an ordinary winter morning, she’d read about Alice over toast and juice. But not today. Not with a doctor’s appointment in a few hours. And the baby, Kent, so sick.
By 7:30, Hank’s gone and the driveway’s covered in snow again, no trace of what he earlier managed to clear. Even the tracks of Albert’s truck have disappeared. Margaret stands at the front door again, wondering if she should call Tess Hunter, the Relief Society president, to see what others in the neighborhood are doing about the storm. Tess has teenage boys who are probably shoveling Tess’s driveway right now. Should Margaret ask if the boys could come over to help her? She wonders what Albert and Hank talked about on the drive to work. The weather? The ward house? The decision high priests would make soon about the cost of a new addition, a gym where teenage boys could play basketball? Neither would be worried about their wives or kids. No, she’s on her own. Maybe Tess is too. Should she call the pediatrician’s office and cancel Kent’s appointment? Or risk it, hoping the sun will be out by afternoon?
Yesterday, she called for a doctor’s appointment.
How could all those days—all that time she spent with him—go unrecorded, unremembered?
“Kent’s got pink eye,” she told the receptionist, the one who she’d noticed on her last visit had just painted her fingernails pale pink. The girl had blown on her nails and held them out to dry, careful not to mar her wet polish.
“It’s the third day,” Margaret went on, “and he seems to be getting worse.”
Truthfully, Margaret didn’t feel so great right then either, four months along now, nauseated most days, not like she had with her other three pregnancies where, after the first wobbly month, she’d felt pretty good.
But her problems were her problems, pink eye in the baby another. She’d read an article in the Salt Lake Tribune last spring that said untreated pink eye could be fatal.
The receptionist—was she yawning? It sounded like that to Margaret, though she couldn’t be sure—said she’d call Margaret back.
Kent gurgles when she turns on the light. Allison stands up in her crib and shouts “No!” when Margaret lifts her up, because that’s all this child says these days. “No!”
Once she’s got the little ones changed, she settles them in their high chairs in the kitchen and gives Allison two slices of a peach. Then she rouses Daniel, who’s still sleepy-eyed, and tells him to choose between this sweater and that sweater, holding up one with purple sailboats, the other with a yellow truck.
“And don’t forget to change your underwear,” she says.
Then she’s back at the stove, scrambling eggs, popping a slice of bread into the toaster for herself, then stirring orange juice and filling three tiny plastic cups on which she has written in sturdy letters the names of all the kids: DANIEL, ALLISON, KENT.
“Can I have chocolate milk?” Daniel asks. He’s in the red sweater but it’s on backward. He’s barefoot.
“We drink orange juice for breakfast, Daniel. Not chocolate milk.”
She hands him a cup, not noticing it’s the one with Allison’s name, then pours a tall glass for herself, buttering her toast and staring out the window while trying to assess the measure of the snow. It’s still falling steadily.
Allison shoves the second peach slice off her tray onto the floor. “Down,” she says.
“Down,” Margaret says quietly to no one in particular, breaking into the cold piece of toast.
When Daniel, her first, was a baby, Margaret couldn’t believe what she knew to be factually true: that he wouldn’t remember these first years; that his memory wouldn’t kick in for at least three. How could all those days—all that time she spent with him—go unrecorded, unremembered?
She had grown up around kids, surrounded by babies—younger cousins, neighbor kids—so she knew plenty about diapers and colic. She was the third of four and had lugged her baby sister around. She knew how to switch hips so you didn’t get sore. But it wasn’t until she had her own that it bothered her, this business of not remembering.
She’d nurse her boy Daniel in a rocking chair, holding him until he fell asleep, her arms aching, and she’d whisper, “Remember this,” believing he would, if not this particular night, then its surroundings: the lilac scent of Margaret’s skin; the texture of her blue nylon nightgown; the pitch of crickets outside, late at night, constant, soothing, steady. Sometimes she’d play with him on the floor, holding up a red block or a green one, a stuffed rabbit or a sock monkey, and she’d say, “Remember this block. Remember this rabbit. Remember this monkey named Shelby.” She’d carry him outside and point to the blue shutters and say, “Remember your house.”
One morning, she gave Daniel a bath and said, “Remember this, the rubber duck Shirley gave you,” and then, because Daniel didn’t look the least bit interested, she lifted the rubber duck toward her mouth as if she was going to give it a kiss on the top of its head. Instead, she spat.
In the kitchen, the phone rings as six-year-old Daniel eats his eggs quietly and the baby begins to scream. By the time she gets to it, whoever called has hung up. She wonders if it was the doctor’s receptionist calling to cancel Kent’s appointment. She should call back and say yes, good idea to cancel. This snowstorm is nothing but a mess. But she doesn’t.
Like a fairy tale, she thinks, where something bad is about to happen. Children disappear in a snowstorm and return in the form of evergreens, their silence deafening.
Instead, she goes to the back door and looks out. It’s snowing harder now than before, the backyard’s blanketed, the ground’s covered in four feet of it. She’ll never get the car out.
In the kitchen, she tells Daniel, “It’s still snowing.” She tries to make her voice sound excited, like an adventure might unfold as a result.
Daniel looks alarmed. Allison screams. Kent cries louder.
“Poor thing,” Margaret says, tapping Kent’s head.
It’s still snowing at eight o’clock, the flakes coming down fast and thick, all of it sticking to the ground now, piling up. Margaret tells Daniel to hold on tight as the two trudge outside in the morning light wearing thick coats. They walk past an outline of the milk box by the side of the house—or what Margaret thinks is the milk box. It’s covered in snow. Daniel’s out of breath by the time they’ve trekked through the snow on the driveway and she’s out of breath by the time they’ve passed a few houses up the sidewalk, keeping their heads down as they go.
Like a fairy tale, she thinks, where something bad is about to happen. Children disappear in a snowstorm and return in the form of evergreens, their silence deafening.
One by one, mothers from the neighborhood arrive at the bus stop, mostly women Margaret knows well from the Garden Park Twelfth Ward. They look furtive in scarves that cover their heads and mouths, and nod to one another as if in a secret clan.
“Can you believe it?” Arlene Anderson asks.
“It’s ridiculous,” Gayle Sanders says.
Gayle’s wearing a hat and scarf that cover most of her face but Margaret can see her eyebrows, which look painted on, clownish.
“What other school district stays open during a storm this bad?” Gayle asks.
There is talk of complaining to the principal. Calling the school board. Letting the president of the PTA know they do not, no they do not, approve.
Then, in the distance, the bus grumbles and turns onto their street, coming into full view.
“It’s a wild one!” Clarence, the driver, shouts as the yellow door swings open, and all of the mothers, Margaret included, push their children forward, watching as each climbs the bus steps.
Little mice, Margaret thinks. That’s what they look like, mounting the stairs to some sinister place.
“Well, that’s one way to look at it,” Arlene says, her scarf pulled down from her mouth so Clarence can hear her.
Margaret knows she should thank Arlene for letting Albert pick Hank up this morning but she’s too cold to make conversation. Instead, she waves to Daniel as he stares, stone-faced, from a window that’s already fogging up, his features becoming less distinct with every second.
When Margaret was pregnant for the first time, Hank used to hold his hand on her belly late at night and they’d run through lists of names, trying to land on one they both liked. Deborah. Rebecca. Suzanne. Cecile. Without meaning to, they favored names for girls. But then, they had a boy. Still, naming him was easy: Hank’s father was Daniel Elias Newton. By then he’d been dead for nearly ten years.
Maybe the idea of families forever bound by time and eternity, which both she and Elaine believed, seemed exhausting to her, a never-ending cycle…
“What better way to honor him?” Hank asked.
That was the reasoning for choosing the name Daniel at the time. By the time Margaret was pregnant with their second, they’d settled in advance on Allison if it was a girl, Jonathan if it was a boy—names that had no connection to either of their families but seemed sturdy enough to carry the kids through grade school without anyone making fun. Margaret hated the idea of causing trouble. She remembered a girl named Patty Dull from third grade, the hum of titters that followed among the kids whenever a teacher called her name. It didn’t help that Patty never reacted, and that in her restraint, or whatever it was, she confirmed everyone’s suspicion: she was dull.
By the time they had their third child, Kent, Hank had begun to talk about his father in more complicated ways, telling stories Margaret didn’t remember hearing before: how his dad had cared more about cattle than his wife or kids, or how he had once whipped Hank so hard that his seven-year-old bottom bled. In these stories, Hank complained but still managed to defend his father in the end, saying eight kids and all the responsibilities that a large family demands, well, it must have been rough. But the stories surprised Margaret. Sometimes she argued with Hank, said, “No parent should behave like that,” which made Hank more agitated, not less, until finally Margaret learned to nod silently and leave it alone.
It’s Elaine, her mother-in-law, who Margaret feels for now. Elaine is only 55 but looks 20 years older, skinny and shriveled and her hair, as if giving into widowhood, already thinning and gray.
Right after Margaret had Daniel, she would visit Elaine alongside Hank, trying to involve her mother-in-law with the new baby, saying to him, “Here’s your grandma, Daniel, give her a kiss.” But Elaine resisted. She always had one excuse or another. She needed to take the pot roast out of the oven or it would burn, and she couldn’t have that. Or, “I’d better not hold him, I’ve got the start of a cold.” Or, “I’m so tired, I’m afraid I’ll drop the little wart. You hold onto him, hon.”
It bothered Margaret at first, thinking Elaine was rejecting Daniel—Daniel who was so dear, Daniel who didn’t cry except if he was hungry, Daniel who wasn’t fussy even when he needed to be changed, Daniel who used to reach up and tenderly touch his mother’s face.
But by the time Elaine resisted Allison, too, Margaret felt as if she understood. Maybe after eight kids, Elaine had had her fill. Maybe the idea of families forever bound by time and eternity, which both she and Elaine believed, seemed exhausting to her, a never-ending cycle of diapers that needed changing and nipples that were sore from breastfeeding. One baby, it turned out, was a lot like another. Allison, too, Margaret learned, would reach tenderly for her mother’s face.
She tells herself she’s going to step out for a minute to look around, nothing more.
At home, Margaret peels off her gloves, shakes out her sopping wet hat, and kicks off her boots to get ready for the tasks ahead: changing the baby’s diaper; gathering dirty laundry; pouring Allison more juice.
While wading home, she hoped she’d find the Trib in the driveway. But no luck. The saga of Princess Alice will have to wait.
When Kent starts crying, Margaret inspects him. His eyes are bloodshot. He looks like he’s been on a bender. She rocks him in her arms, saying, “I promise you, we’ll get you to the doctor,” but she knows he won’t remember her words. He won’t remember the snowstorm. He won’t remember how worried she is. He won’t remember how she lays him down in his crib. He won’t remember anything from this day or the pain of pink eye, either.
At noon, she looks out the front door. It’s stopped snowing, thank goodness, but the sun still isn’t out. That driveway isn’t going to shovel itself. So she puts Allison in her high chair, spreads a handful of Cheerios onto the tray and asks her, “Can you count how many you eat before Mommy gets back?”
“No!” Allison screams.
Then, all at once, she makes a split-second decision: she will call the doctor’s office; she will cancel the appointment.
“I just don’t think I’m going to be able to get my car out. We’ve got a mess here on Emerson,” she says to the receptionist.
“No problem, Mrs. Newton,” the girl says. “I tried calling you earlier to check in.”
Margaret feels guilty for thinking so poorly of the girl before. Now she seems perfectly pleasant. Mature, even. She probably isn’t all nails and vanity.
The girl suggests rescheduling for the following afternoon and Margaret agrees, saying surely it will have stopped snowing by then. “Tomorrow at four o’clock. Yes, that will work fine.” When she hangs up, she feels good. Relieved.
Then, another split-second decision. Not with her mind this time, but with her body. A series of motions begin. Her body, like the weather, insists. She puts her boots on. A coat. A warm, dry scarf. She tells herself she’s going to step out for a minute to look around, nothing more.
But when she opens the front door, the cold feels good. Bracing. Maybe she was overheated, that’s all. She doesn’t feel nauseated anymore. Now that she’s here, her body won’t stop. Why not see how much she can shovel? Hank will be impressed if she’s able to clear the driveway before he gets home. If it’s too much, if she doesn’t feel good, she can always stop.
The summer before last, when Margaret was two months pregnant with Kent, someone knocked on the door. She thought it was boys from the Twelfth Ward stopping to collect fast offerings, or maybe girls from East High selling magazine subscriptions to raise money for an a capella club trip to Reno. But it was someone else: a stranger; a salesman who said he had something she’d definitely want, and just like that he whipped out a little stand-up tray on which he placed a pair of bronzed baby shoes, the laces sparkling with glitter in the end-of-August sun.
“You can memorialize your child’s first shoes,” he said, and asked Margaret if Allison, nine months old and held on Margaret’s hip, was her first.
“No,” she said, patting Allison’s head. “She’s my second.” This new baby growing in her belly, her third, would be the last.
The shoes were pretty enough, but who had money for something sentimental like that?
“No matter,” the salesman said. He didn’t sound like he was from Salt Lake. People around here didn’t talk like that, as if he’d studied how to talk from a book of proper etiquette. After he tucked the bronze shoes back into a black velvet bag and folded up his tray, he asked Margaret if she wouldn’t mind bringing him something cold to drink.
She didn’t mind. But she did something out of character. She invited him in. She knew she shouldn’t, but to not do so seemed absurd. On what grounds would she refuse him, treating him like a criminal, bringing him a glass of water to drink in the hot sun, out on her front stoop? The day was too hot for that. Anyone in their right mind could see he was just a salesman, hot and thirsty as anyone would be on this dry summer day.
“Why thank you,” he said, as she opened her door wide and asked him to hold Allison while she got two tall glasses of lemonade with ice.
Miraculously, Allison stared at the salesman but didn’t fuss.
They sat in Margaret’s living room on opposite ends of the couch. He asked Margaret how long she’d lived here, what Allison’s name was, how old Daniel was, as Daniel now clung to his mother’s leg, and where Margaret got that lovely figurine of a woman holding a parasol.
Allison crawled over to the salesman and tried to pull the laces on one of his shoes. He asked her, “Do you want a sip?” but Allison shook her head.
Daniel picked up his book, Thomas the Tank Engine, and delivered it into Margaret’s lap. “Story, Mama.”
“What a thoughtful little man,” the salesman said, then, turning to Daniel, “Have you been on a train?”
Daniel nodded yes, but Margaret whispered, “No, you haven’t, you silly goose. Not yet.”
“Well, he has that to look forward to, then, doesn’t he?” the salesman asked. “Train travel is exquisite, don’t you agree?”
Margaret, who’d only been on a train to Pocatello to see her mother’s relatives, agreed. “I much prefer trains to planes,” she said, hoping he didn’t push her to explain because then what would she say?
“You’re obviously a woman of refinement, Mrs. Newton. I can see that.”
She didn’t remember telling him her name. She hadn’t thought to ask him his. But to ask him now? It would only break the spell.
Turning back to Daniel, the salesman said, “And soon enough, there will be other ways to travel. Not just trains. Not just planes. Would you believe it, little man? They say there will be men on the moon in 20 years. I’ve read as much. By 1970, some experts predict.”
Daniel hugged his mother’s leg, then buried his head in her lap. Margaret stroked his hair, thinking it sounded preposterous, men traveling to the moon. But she nodded and asked, “Wouldn’t that be something?” She didn’t want to be rude.
Her mind luxuriated over every detail. The man at the door. The way he used words no one she knew would use.
When the salesman stood up to leave, thanking her for the refreshments—that he called “such pleasing lemonade”—Margaret followed him to the door. His jacket loosened and there, in that small opening, she could see in his dark pants a tiny tear, a split in the seam. The split allowed for a peek of his white underwear. Part of her wanted to fetch a spool of black thread and stitch him up. Part of her wanted to continue to stare.
“And I hope it’s not rude to ask, but when is your next child due?” he asked as she opened the door and prepared to say goodbye.
She felt herself redden. “I’m not pregnant,” she said.
She didn’t know why she lied; the words flew out of her mouth. But how had he known?
He looked at her, wide-eyed.
She was embarrassed. He knew. She was certain of it. Now she’d ruined their afternoon. “I just haven’t yet lost all of the weight. From before,” she said, nodding in the direction of Allison who sat on the living room floor with a rubber duck in her lap.
He closed his eyes as if her lie would remain their little secret, then nodded and gestured as if to tip his hat, though he had no hat. He said, “Well, you’re lovely, my dear. It was very nice to meet you.”
“You too,” she said.
She thought he’d leave right then, but he didn’t, and in him lingering a few more seconds, she glimpsed a whole other world, one that wasn’t rushed or filled with the demands of church or marriage or motherhood, but one that felt like an open window, a breeze, one that had no brutal sameness, no eternal isolation at its core.
How right, then, and how lovely a surprise when he reached into his pocket and produced a tiny gold box tied with a silky red ribbon.
“For you, then, my friend,” he continued, “a mother of two. Thank you for a delightful reprieve,” and here he bowed deeply, “I offer you this: a free gift.”
She took the box. Closed the door. Put her kids down for naps and opened her gift: two chocolate truffles, which she knew she should wait to share with Hank, but Hank would wonder why on earth she’d let a stranger in and say it wasn’t free, nothing was, was she sure she didn’t sign away their savings? Instead, she sat on the couch and ate the first truffle, right then and there, wondering if the new baby, unnamed as yet, enjoyed the sugar as much as she did. By the time she started on the second, she was adrift in the rush of sugar and the pleasure of something unusual having happened in her otherwise ordinary day. Her mind luxuriated over every detail. The man at the door. The way he used words no one she knew would use.
A delightful reprieve.
His pants. That small tear.
Between her two kids and all that two kids involve—their ear infections and constant colds, their questions and constant diapers, their needs and constant messes, all of which was to be expected, none of it strange, not strange in the least, but surprising somehow in ways she did not understand—that afternoon and that salesman and the taste of chocolate mid-afternoon was something to savor. So she did.
Now that she’s outside, Margaret feels a lightness inside her, a release. It’s out of her control, the weather. No one can blame her for what she does next.
She lifts the shovel, pivoting to throw the snow off to the side of the drive. She pushes. She lifts again. A few minutes in, she’s sweating. And her body isn’t so sure. The snow’s wet and heavy. She can feel her back ache with each attempt to shovel, then lift.
Allison, by now, will have forgotten the task of counting those Cheerios. She should have given her a puzzle too, something to keep her small mind still. She can imagine her daughter perplexed but taking it in, the squirrel’s large tail shaped like a question mark, its plump body dressed in a little red jacket, its tiny black hands holding onto a giant nut—all this coming into focus underneath the puzzle’s bright, smiling sun. But she didn’t think of the puzzle a few minutes ago. And now that she’s started shoveling the driveway, her body wants it over with.
Perhaps she will tell Hank a Good Samaritan came by to shovel their drive. That way he won’t lecture her on overdoing it. She grunts out loud as she finishes, more or less, another strip of the driveway. There’s a swath of dark concrete now.
And when she slips, she reacts as any woman might, trying to catch herself. She’s twisted her ankle. She feels a flare of pain, then fear shooting up. It’s too much, this snow. Still, she has started. She has to finish now.
So she continues, pushing hard against the wet snow. Raising her shovel, she sees a flash of black: the Tribune, a soggy mass. She fishes the paper out of her shovel with one gloved hand, throws it toward the front stoop, knowing there will be news within: sympathy cards, it turns out, that local children sent to the zoo, expressing their condolences over the elephant’s death. But what good is sympathy to Alice now that Alice is dead?
Vandalism, they called it, when Princess Alice broke free of her cage. That was in the old Hogle Zoo. That was after Alice’s last baby died.
Alice had lost one baby after another. Baby Hutch. Baby Tambon. Little Miracle. Prince Utah. The first was born early. The next two? “Failure to thrive,” somebody said. The fourth was an accident, the zookeepers said. Princess Alice rolled over her baby, suffocating it to death.
After that, Alice went mad, trumpeting and shedding what the newspaper called “real elephant tears”—as if an elephant would cry something other than real elephant tears, Margaret told Hank one morning. Hank shrugged like he always did, saying, “Margaret, leave it alone.”
And some time after that, Alice got loose, went on the rampage. The newspaper wrote about it fancifully, saying Alice ran up 7th East through some poor unsuspecting farmer’s fence wearing a “barbwire necklace,” and a clothesline too, where she picked up a magpie outfit—somebody’s newly washed cotton dress, somebody’s white Sunday shirt, dishtowels, baby sleepers, all those clothes stuck to Alice’s large, ungainly, troubled body. Princess Alice, one headline uncharitably said, was a “Royal Pain.”
But Margaret knew better. Alice, in her unruly animal body, must have been out of her mind. With grief. With guilt. With something. Maybe it was all mixed up, wanting another child and not wanting another child, you can’t tell what’s what. Like how Margaret would feel years later when her granddaughter would, after a history lesson in school, come to her to ask, “Is it true? How little women understood of their bodies in your day, Gram?” How on earth could Margaret answer that?
She remembered how, once, on a trolley on her way back to the Beehive boarding house, a girl with greasy hair whispered to another in a shabby tweed coat, “Squat and stay. Make sure the pot of boiling onions is as hot as can be. Do that and you’ll be good as done.”
She turns stony now. As all women are. As all mothers must be.
Good as done. Margaret steadies herself now on the icy driveway. She shouldn’t leave her children alone. Anything might happen. She tries to stay in a rhythm of shoveling, ignoring her throbbing ankle.
New snow has started again. It has turned from light to heavy. Like a fairy tale. Whatever she’s cleared begins piling up again in a flash.
She tries shoveling once more, locating a new mantra by which she moves. Boiling onions. Good as done. Boiling onions. Good as done.
She remembers her early-morning dream, the scratching sound at the door, the coyotes who wanted her bottles of milk.
I hate winter, she thinks, because truly she does, and then, quietly, then more forcefully, A woman four months pregnant shouldn’t be doing this. But like so many others, this thought is fleeting, disappearing as soon as it arrives. She turns stony now. As all women are. As all mothers must be.
She pushes with the shovel once again, hard this time, then harder still, so hard her belly cramps and the first cramp is swift, like a knife, like a glimpse of glitter. And soon, when she’s inside and has stripped off her wet clothes and put her dry ones on, and when she’s changed her youngest’s diaper again, and when she’s given her second child that puzzle to play with, the one whose pieces will fall as they always do, and when her oldest is home and she’s cutting up carrots because Mama, I want a snack—when this is done, and she’s thinking of the laundry to do and she’s washing the dishes and she’s told herself You don’t have to remember this as if it’s a choice to remember or forget—that is when she will feel it beginning, that trickle, that wetness, what her animal body hoped for all along, what it must have willed: finally, finally she begins to bleed.
Header image by alexkich, courtesy Shutterstock.