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David Pratt

My brother Russell held the phone out but wouldn't look at me of course: "'sfor you." Mom adjusted the burner under our toasted cheese sandwiches. Outside snow whirled.

"Hello?" I said.


Instead of singing "Yo-ho-o-o!" back, like if I was alone, I just said, "Hey, Jo."

"'Tis foul weather! Care to earn a few shekels?"

I covered the phone and asked. Dad snapped his newspaper. "Who is it?"

Mom paused, then mumbled, "Jo Osborne." She told Dad to watch the sandwiches, and he acted like he didn't know what she meant. "Oh, honestly!" she said, and sighed. "Just tell her to hang on!" At last she took the phone. "Hello?" she said with a pleasant smile.

Mom fretted about the weather, like always, but in the end she said I could go help Jo, if Jo absolutely promised to get me home again by six. It seemed like Jo must have agreed, but Mom kept explaining all the reasons why and twisting the phone cord around her index finger till it was all yellow and red. Dad snapped the paper and folded it and smoothed it and snapped it again for every page. Russell made louder and louder explosions with his GI Joe. Then he threw it against the back door and Mom stopped everything and took it away from him and said that every last one of us was "demoralizing" her. I knew she was near the end of her rope. The sandwiches were going to burn, no matter what. I wanted to take the phone and apologize to Jo. I wanted to be her son and not theirs.

Half an hour later, Jo stood in the dark of our vestibule in boots and dungarees, flannel shirt and jacket. She had snow in her hair. She stood with her hand on her hip and her shoulders square. Jo was a carpenter. Some guys in Sunday school called her "Mister Osborne," and I tried not to hear. When I did yard work up at the Osborne place on Coe Hill, though, I never thought Jo was strange. Everything up there was the way life should be. I wished everyone was like Jo. Seeing her in our house was funny, though. It shouldn't have happened.

Mom told Jo I'd eaten and that I had two pairs of extra socks with me, and she told me about ten times not to be any trouble.

Coming up Coe Hill I leaned forward to see the row of spruce trees out front of Jo's house. Going up the driveway, with the big, white lawn all around us, the house in the snow looked imaginary, like The Emerald City, if The Wizard of Oz was set in winter in Connecticut. The front porch had columns and a big glass lamp hanging from a chain. We parked around back. The snow fell so thick we couldn't see the Valley. Was there such a thing as the exact number of snowflakes in a storm? There had to be, but you could never count them. You'd go crazy just thinking about it.

In the mud room we stomped off snow. Jo's boots were not a kind I'd ever seen, old and black and cracked, like her belt and her watch band. She hung our coats up. Still puffing breath in the cold mud room she raised an eyebrow and said, "Let me reveal to you The Plan..." We were going to cook dinner for Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins next door. Mrs. Jenkins had had a stroke; she'd just come home from the hospital.

"But first," Jo said, "fortification!" That meant hot chocolate for me, Earl Grey tea for Jo, and homemade shortbreads -- one of my favorites. Jo's kitchen always smelled of cooking. There were secrets there that might come out, like shy animals, if I stayed there long enough, perfectly still. But we were always on the move and my work was over too soon. Maybe someday Jo and I wouldn't have to do anything. We could just watch the snow and tell stories, or make paper chains if it was Christmas. That magic time like around four o'clock would come but it would never be dark, and I'd never have to go home.

At first, a couple of years ago when I came to rake one time, I didn't like Jo's cookies -- they weren't big and all the same, like cookies from the A&P -- but I had to be polite. Then that winter after shoveling once we made shortbreads together, and then I kind of knew something no else did, not even anyone in my family. We even made candy once, too, which I didn't know you could do at home. I felt funny and good all over and had to hop around the kitchen to keep from feeling -- I don't know -- just funny. I brought some candy home, but Mom didn't eat any because of the calories. Dad ate about two and Russell ate the rest, even though he said it was boring and the pieces were too small. Two days later Mom made candy, which she'd never done before. I'd never even known she could. She brought some up to my room. I told her it was good, but she didn't say anything back. So I said, "Really, it is." Russell ate most of that, too. I sort of stopped telling what we made up at Jo's or bringing it home. I knew stuff other people didn't, but that stuff didn't count, especially for a boy, except up on Coe Hill.

The snow whirled thicker and faster. Jo dusted crumbs off her hands and put our plates in the sink.

She had filling for Shepherd's Pie already made, so we peeled potatoes and put them on to boil. We were also going to make split pea soup, salad, and brownies. I'd made pea soup before, so Jo put me in charge of that. The first part was boring: washing the peas and sorting through for little pebbles. I wished Jo had done that for me. Then I cut up onions, carrots and potatoes that Jo had peeled. The most important thing was that I got to be "Duke of Herbs," as Jo said. I got to choose which herbs to use from the ones we'd picked in her garden last fall. Jo sang in a low voice, "Duke Duke Duke, Duke of Herbs, Herbs Herbs," and we did this dance at the counter, and she helped me get the hang of the garlic press, too.

At five of two Jo turned the radio on to for the opera from New York. I never knew what to say about opera, especially if Jo shut her eyes or put her hand over her heart or frowned and said "Hm!" like there was nothing anyone really could say. I got uncomfortable and a little annoyed then. But I still wanted to listen to the opera because it was a tradition for us, and it was happening right then live in New York, so it seemed like something no one but us had. I never told anyone.

I asked Jo if she ever went to the opera in person. She shook her head. "Expensive," she said, and shrugged and looked out the window while she peeled. I didn't understand. She had meadows and woods out there. She cut her own tree at Christmas. She had a big house and a piano, and her father had been a doctor and Mom said doctors were "richer than Croesus." He delivered me -- Dr. Osborne, I mean, Jo's father. He must've charged my parents a lot. I'd seen pictures of him. He looked a little -- not mean at all but like severe. I used to picture him making my father pay before he'd take me out, and my father paying so I wouldn't suffocate or whatever. Still sometimes I wondered if I'd been worth it. Worth the money they'd paid. It was impolite to talk ask about money, though.

A tapping began on the window glass. I was afraid it was rain, which would ruin everything, but Jo turned to me with a grin and said, "Ice!" She laughed. "Good Lord!" She poured more milk in the potatoes and mashed energetically.

I almost hopped with excitement again. Other adults I knew always hoped storms wouldn't come, but Jo and I loved them. Everyone was concerned and worked together. We had missions. I wished Jo and I were both concerned about the Jenkinses, but secretly I wished we were doing this for ourselves. Or someone else. The Jenkinses didn't act friendly or say the things you're supposed to say. Their house was boring with everything put away and it smelled bad. Plus Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins seemed kind of like they didn't like each other.

I chose rosemary, oregano and sage from the jars against the wall, and crumbled them into the butter and onions and garlic. Jo and I discussed how there was a science to it, an exact blend and an exact amount you had to get of each one. Sometimes I pretended I was an herb farmer, living in Jo's house. I never told Jo, obviously.

It spoiled things a little for me to wish it wasn't the Jenkinses. I should have been understanding, like Jo -- what if she knew what I thought? -- or like Rob O'Dwyer, this kid at my summer church camp. Rob was skinny and a good athlete and nice to everyone, and everyone liked him. Jo was nice and understanding, too, but certain people acted funny around her. In church I saw her talking mostly to other strange people. I don't mean she was strange, but, like, this guy in the choir she talked to, with greasy hair and glasses, who didn't wear a tie in church. I didn't want Jo to be like him. The important people never talked to that guy. Who'd expect them to? Like Rob O'Dwyer: he didn't talk to loser kids, but he didn't pick on them, either. That's how winners are: friends with other winners, and with losers they smile and say "hi" and keep walking. Jesus said be nice to everybody. But there really aren't losers in the Bible. There are bad people, but greasy hair isn't bad. There are people who sin, like rob a bank or kill someone, but Jesus just forgave the sin. Now they have prisons and the electric chair. I hate thinking about it. But being a loser's different. Like a kind of sin that can't be forgiven.

Jo asked me to check the chocolate for the brownies. I took the lid off the double boiler and saw the little block melting. It's funny but, when you melt chocolate, some always sticks to the pan and doesn't get to be in the brownies. Like back in the factory, some chocolate is made just so it can be stuck to the pan so the rest can be in the brownies. I don't know; it's dumb.

The guys I know sure don't go around thinking a lot about forgiveness. When we play softball at church camp, they call other guys morons and the counselors don't say anything. If Jesus showed up he'd get laughed at. Probably get hit with the ball! "Brethren, you must forgive..." Whap! "Hey, moron, ya blind?" I'd help Him, though. Rob O'Dwyer's nice, though. He doesn't say anything when a loser kid makes a mistake. It's like yeah, the mistake happened, Rob's pissed, but he's upstanding and it's like it's not worth wasting time over.

Everything was in the oven. The kitchen smelled of chocolate, hamburger in the Shepherd's Pie, and herbs from the soup. I wished it was Christmas. A plow clunked by. Jo was whisking salad dressing, but she stopped and turned, as though the sound or the plow was her friend. I wondered if I could do this alone -- make dinner for a sick person? No, I wouldn't know what to do, and the person would die. What if we were making dinner for Rob O'Dwyer, who was sick? I had to excuse myself to go to the bathroom upstairs to think about it. His parents would be away and Jo would wait downstairs while I... Or no, I'd be alone in my house and Rob in his, and I'd make food and take it over. He'd be real sick and weak but he'd smile and ask me to stay. He'd say... "You're great, man..." I wished it was Christmas. The house would smell of pine and we'd go cut Jo's tree. But it would be a whole year almost from now. He'd say, "You're the best guy I know..." Darkness was falling. Four o'clock almost. We tore up lettuce and chopped peppers and carrots. When the salad was done, Jo took the pie and brownies out to cool, then got her coat and went out for "reconnaissance." She was worried about ice, but worried in a good way. It was us against the blizzard, and we had to come up with ways to survive.

Jo decided she would carry the Shepherd's Pie and a canvas satchel with the soup, with the lid held on by rubber bands. I'd carry a Sage-Allen bag with brownies in tin foil and a plastic bowl with salad and a little bottle of dressing. (Jo actually made salad dressing -- from scratch. When I saw her do that I thought there was so much I had to know that I never would.) We brought it all out onto the porch. Jo felt her way down, and reached back up to help me. "I can do it," I said. She let me come down by myself, but she kept her hand out. In a funny accent she said, "Welcome to my kingdom, Effendi, shall I call you a taxi? Very good, Effendi, you are a taxi!" Then real serious she said, "Don't laugh!" I laughed, but I didn't slip because she held onto me.

Jo went back up, handed my bag down to me, and I felt like though we were in a spy movie, on a mission. But that was dumb. Rob O'Dwyer wouldn't think it. This kind of stuff didn't happen to him anyway. He'd be inside watching a football game like a regular boy. Jo handed me the soup pot and the casserole, then came down and put them in the canvas bag.

The yard was dark and the snow was shiny like candy. Jo clumped on ahead and I followed in the holes she made. I held the flashlight. The light bounced around, and ice dashed crazily in it. Up ahead it faded. It felt like any minute something horrible would come at us out of the dark. Jo's shoulders were bent. "How're we holding up?" she called. "Fine," I said.

She began singing without words. Jo sang Christmas carols all year 'round. In summer if we were clearing brush it was fun singing "Good Christian men, rejoi-oi-oice!" at the top of our lungs, like a joke with a little promise inside that Christmas was out there, over the next hill, slowly journeying toward us. Now, in February, it was funny. With all the snow it should have been Christmas, except Christmas was past and felt like it would never come again. But when Jo began "In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan," I joined, "Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone."

When we came to the hedge between Jo's yard and the Jenkinses, our singing died out. It was so thick we had to walk around the end and back. We set everything on their porch, then Jo took their shovel and cleared the steps. Mr. Jenkins face appeared in the window. I heard him fiddling with the latch and I moved behind Jo.

Inside the house smelled of number two. I hoped we wouldn't have to see Mrs. Jenkins. The kitchen was dim and chilly. Everything was smaller than at Jo's. They had regular stuff, like a toaster -- but it didn't look like they used it. It didn't look like there was any food anywhere. Mr. Jenkins told Jo to put what we brought on the table. He didn't thank us or unwrap it. He stood in his flannel shirt with his white hair mussed, and looked at us like we should have more. What did he want, the way he kept staring at us? Gold, frankincense and myrrh. From down the hall a woman's voice said, "Is that Jo?" Mr. Jenkins excused himself. We heard him talking to his wife. Jo started talking to me -- planning when we'd get back, how she'd drive me home. By the Jenkinses' clock it was long past four and almost over. We never had enough time. Mrs. Jenkins' voice rose, and I heard, real clear, more loud than it should have been, Mr. Jenkins saying, "Just shut up!" Jo looked away. She always forgave, though. She'd say that this was because the Jenkinses were having a hard time, but I didn't know what I'd do if I ever heard Dad say "Shut up!" to Mom.

Mr. Jenkins stood in the hall now. "Come," he said.

Jo took my hand. It wasn't so bad going in as it was waiting and thinking about it. The bathroom smell was worse, but Mrs. Jenkins' room was warmer with more stuff in it. I guess it was the two of them's room, except now it was covered with medical stuff: pills, a walker, one of those things that makes steam, and other mechanisms I'd seen in the drugstore. Mrs. Jenkins sat in a rocking chair with a quilt over her. She said it was lovely that we came, but she didn't say anything about the food. I think she thought we were someone else. Jo's face was still and kind. She told Mrs. Jenkins everyone at church missed her. What would Rob say? What would he do? "I hope you feel better, Mrs. Jenkins." But I couldn't. I was afraid.

Mr. Jenkins tucked the quilt in more snugly around his wife. "No..." she said. He kept tucking. "No! Sterling..." Now she tried to pull it away. Mr. Jenkins sighed. "There, there," he said, in a tired voice, and kept tucking. Finally, Mrs. Jenkins pulled the quilt off, and said to Jo in a loud whisper, "I have to feed the baby..!" She started to unzip her nightgown. I felt a buzzing in my head. I stared at a bottle of pills. Mr. Jenkins took his wife's hand and zipped the gown back up. "I have to feed the baby!" she cried. "Marge, we don't have a baby," Mr. Jenkins mumbled. Jo said, "Why don't we wait outside." She took my hand. The door looked far away. "Not our baby, Sterling," Mrs. Jenkins said, "His baby!" I looked. She was pointing a finger wrinkled and brown like turkey skin right at me. She was unzipping the nightgown again, and this time Mr. Jenkins wasn't stopping her. I didn't want to look, Rob wouldn't have, but I couldn't help it. I thought I saw something but I don't know. Jo said, "We'll wait in the kitchen." She motioned for me to go ahead of her. Jo was less scared than me. She knew what to do. I thought how this was happening to us both, winter travellers in the night. Like the man King Wenceslas saw.

When Mr. Jenkins came back to the kitchen, Jo stood next to me and put her hand on my head. He talked about how to get Jo's containers back to her, even though she said don't worry. Mrs. Jenkins called again from the bedroom. Mr. Jenkins' eyes went that way for a second, and Jo's, too, but he kept talking. Maybe Mrs. Jenkins didn't really say anything. I wasn't sure.

Back out in the dark I drew cold air in and blew out clouds that disappeared.  Snow mixed with the ice.  I went ahead with the flashlight.  I'd never seen inside a woman's dress.  My mom told me about breasts.  I used to think it was a thing women had to wear in their dresses, but Jo didn't have them, and I asked why.  Mom said wouldn’t discuss it.  Later she came and sat with me on my bed and said I should never, ever say such a thing to Jo, or to anyone else about Jo.

Our footprints had filled up some. We didn't talk. We had places to go. And maybe I was a little mad -- even, for a couple of seconds, at Jo. She shouldn't have taken me into the bedroom. Then I wondered if I'd done something wrong there. I'd been afraid to say, "I hope you feel better" to Mrs. Jenkins. We'd gone to help them; I should have said something nice, like Rob would have. He would've known what to say and not worried about it.

Maybe I could say something now like he'd say. "They're having a hard time, right?" I said to Jo.

"The Jenkinses?"

"Yeah," I said. "It's too bad."

"All alone," Jo said. Jo lived by herself, she was really alone, but she seemed less alone than the Jenkinses were. As we came around the end of the hedge she began humming, then she sang, "Good King Wenceslas went out, on the Feast of Stephen." Together we sang, "Snow lay all around about, deep and crisp and even."

Halfway across her yard, Jo stopped. I was relieved because my legs ached and I wanted to stop, but I remembered how Rob and his friend Carl could play sports all day, and how he raced other kids to chapel or the lake with his long legs and bare feet. Jo huffed and puffed, looking out at the darkness. Ice criss-crossed in light from her house. She said, "Property taxes, what it is." She paused and winked at me. "Why I have trouble getting to the opera. I sold the Wilk an acre or so a few years back, but..." She meant Wilkinson Academy, the prep school where she did carpentry. If you walked out back of Jo's and over the railroad tracks, that was Wilkinson. She scared me. I didn't know she sold anything. I thought that wherever we went down there, it was all hers.

"They'd take the whole thing if I'd sell. They even asked about the house, divide it up for faculty." Now I was angry at someone. I didn't know who. "But I love being here...looking down there every morning. If there's frost or dew...go walking ...Christmastime, cut the tree... S'pose eventually I'll have to do something with it...but..."

She turned and we resumed walking. "What're you thinking?" she said.

"Nothing," I was counting my footsteps. I wanted to count to sixteen. One of our counselors at camp was sixteen, with veins in his arms. I pictured him with a baby. I pictured Rob with one. The counselor would be married to Rob and they'd have a baby together. I felt panicky, like I had to escape the snow but I couldn't. I couldn't run. I was too small and Jo was here.

"Well, I won't sell anything anytime soon," Jo said suddenly. "Just thinking out loud..."

Didn't she have a savings account, like my parents? Even I had a little one. I couldn't ask, though. Ever since what Jo said about a playing field at Wilkinson, I'd been thinking of the way Rob O'Dwyer played sports, flying at the ball so determined and handsome. "Still thinking about nothing?" Jo said. I thought about myself with a baby. Someone came and took it away from me.

"Just...summer," I said.

"Can't blame you!"

"No," I said. "I like winter better."

"Why?" In summer, people feel free to...just do anything, like...last year at church camp? This kid, they drenched him with water, as a joke? He was laughing..." I didn't tell her it was him. Rob. He had on one of those T-shirts with no arms. When Rob's shirt was wet you could see the stomach muscles under it. My mother never bought that kind of T-shirt for me. Our doctor said I had "extra meat" on me. I had to wear husky pants.

"I didn't like when my brother did stuff like that to me!" Jo said. "I learned to get back at him, though! Who knows? Maybe this boy liked it."

"Why would he like it?"

"Attention? Feeling included?"

"He pretended to beat another kid up..."

"He which?"

"They were fooling. He grabbed this one kid, the kid who was wet grabbed his friend..? And they sort wrestled..?" I shivered hard. I felt like I had nothing on.

"So," Jo said, "you like winter better because...less hijinks..?"

I made fists inside my mittens to warm up my hands. "I like school," I said. "Most kids don't,'s more orderly."

"When I was a kid you got picked on at recess," Jo said, "as much as you do at church camp!"

I thought about it. Teasing and stuff happened during the year, but in winter people had duties. Snow made them responsible; that's why I liked snowstorms. How did they tease Jo in school, though? "Mister Osborne . . ! Mister..!"

When Rob got wet he looked like someone God would really love. I envied the way he wrestled with Carl. He chased him, legs going, and they had bare feet. They ran into this circle of pine trees. We had chapel outside there. The grass inside was bright green, like light came from inside the blades. The rest of us stood outside and watched. Rob caught Carl around the waist and they fell on the grass...

They were sweaty and laughing when they came back. Their bodies expanded and contracted like animals. If I were like that I could do anything and God would love me. Instead maybe I was one of the church weirdos... maybe that's why Jo was nice to me! Except, God loved her, too, right?

They couldn't stop laughing, as though they'd been told something in those pines, a thing I would never know. And they got in trouble, together. Had been spoken to. I couldn't stop thinking about that.

We tromped into the light from the back porch. I didn't understand all of what Jo said, but I was mad that Wilkinson owned part of her land. You could look out Jo's windows and the meadows and trees protected you. You could walk out, look back, and she was watching. When you came back she'd be waiting. Now if I did that, I might step on land that was someone else's and never find my way back.

Jo stuck out her tongue, caught a snowflake, and made a gulping sound. I caught one too, and gulped.

I thought of Jo -- alone, in summer, picking herbs. I was dead and she was crying. Tears hurt my eyes in a nice way, but then I thought I was crazy to think it. Something raced like mad through my blood and couldn't stand still. While Jo scraped the steps I marched in place.

On the porch, Jo did not take off her boats or coat. She swung the kitchen door open and I smelled Shepherd's Pie and brownies and herbs and thought God might be there a little. "Yikes! Five after six!" Jo said. She shut the door. "Gotta get you home!" We turned right around. When she touched my back I shivered again, hard.

I thought Rob might be at my house. I was mad at myself. Rob never thought things about other boys like that, but I still thought it all the way home, that my room would be bright and warm and Rob would be kneeling on the bed in a white gown. Beside me in the truck, Jo sang, "Duke Duke Duke, Duke of Herbs, Herbs Herbs..." and I didn't join her and I didn't laugh and I wished she'd just stop because everything had been fine till she made me go into Mrs. Jenkins' bedroom and she did that thing and then I found out about Wilkinson buying her land and I figured we'd never have another day like this again and what would I ever do?

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