Monday, March 21, 2011

Grouse in Snow

Snow fell in big flakes as Whit Reed waited next to his pickup outside Beulah’s Café. Hanging on the window rack of the truck was a single-shot twelve gauge shotgun, open at the breech. A box of Remington number seven shells lay on its side on the dashboard. Whit opened the truck door and rolled down the window for Esau, his mixed breed lab. The dog put his big paws up on the door and lapped at the flakes. The temperature was dropping fast. Whit had a wool cap on the seat but he stood bare-headed next to the truck, the cold stinging his ears.

Whit liked hunting grouse because he was always moving. In clear weather the birds scattered out singly or in pairs, and it was best to hunt the rocky slopes of the high ridges. He would cover miles, his flannels soaked with sweat, blackberry stickers trailing from his overalls. In honeysuckle and grapevine he paused often, hoping to make the birds uneasy so they would flush early as the dog worked. But more often than not, they still surprised him, exploding from cover just as he was astraddle a log, or bent to scoot under hanging vines, and he would catch a glimpse as the bird stopped its wing beat yards out of range, veering into a glide. But with snow falling it would be different.

When the powder blue Dodge Valiant turned into the gravel lot, Esau lifted his ears and started to whine. Whit could see Maggie waving behind the fogged-up windshield. The tires crunched on the gravel and thin ice in a puddle crackled as she stopped and cut the engine.

“Defroster’s not working,” she said as she stepped out. “Chrysler product. Hope I’m not late.” She was wearing a leather aviator’s jacket with a fringed scarf tied around her neck that draped to her thighs. On her head was a thick toboggan that covered her brow. Her face was fuller and her honey blond hair cropped shorter than he remembered, but when she slammed the car door shut she tilted her jaw and pulled her hair back behind her ear, just the way he remembered. She smiled. Her lips were full and arched.

“Esau!” she cried. The dog began to whimper, his thick tail beating the cab window and windshield, knocking the rearview mirror askew. “I saw Esau/ Sitting on a seesaw!” she said. The dog yipped and whined.

She walked to the truck and leaned her chin forward and the dog licked her chin and face and neck. She took his shoulders and scrubbed his fur with her hands. “My sweet boy,” she said.

Whit stood with his hands in the pockets.

“Maggie,” he said. “You look good.”

“You, too,” she said. She looked at the window rack. “I see you brought the single-shot.”

“Browning’s under the seat,” he said. “If you want.”

She scrubbed the toe of her boot in the gravel, then looked him square in the face.

“I’d better not,” she said. “I didn’t dress for it. Another time.”

“Some breakfast?” he said.

“Now you’re talking,” she said.

He held the screen door for her. The panes of the inside door were covered with frost. He turned the knob and she stepped in before him.

A farmer in brown overalls sat at the counter, his big hands wrapped around a coffee mug. The wood stove in the center of the room glowed red.

“Whitman Reed,” Beulah said. She was a big woman in a black dress that buttoned at the neck. Over it she wore a full apron, white, with pink roses trimming the fringe. The frames of her eyeglasses were chrome and studded with rhinestones. “They treating you right at college? You better give me a hug, boy. You too, Maggie Agee.”

She stepped out from behind the counter and let her eyeglasses drop on a cord to her bosom. She hugged Whit tight and gave him a wet kiss on the cheek. Then she did the same for Maggie. She stepped back and looked at them, holding each of their hands.

“My lands, what I’d give to be young again,” she said.

“It’s overrated,” Whit said.

“The philosopher,” Beulah said. “Like you know a thing. Youth’s wasted on the young, what my Momma always said. Scrambled eggs, link sausage, sliced tomato, an order of pancakes to share, two coffees. Am I right?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Maggie said.

“Coming up,” Beulah said.

They took seats in the booth next to the big window. Frost was forming on the inside of the pane. Through the glass the snowflakes undulated, like water flowing over falls. Whit could feel the cold on one cheek from the window, the warmth of the woodstove on the other. Maggie took off her jacket and scarf. Whit shucked himself out of the overall tops. He liked the spray of freckles on her cheeks, the way her skin glowed, the fullness of her breasts under her sweater. Her eyes were blue, dancing with light, and flecked with gold.
The farmer stood up from the counter, lifting the hood of his overalls. He took a toothpick from the salt shaker on the counter.

“Got my money on the Hokies Thanksgiving Day,” he said.

“Good money gone to bad,” Whit said.

“Big plume on that Cavalier, right sissified, don’t you reckon?”

Maggie snickered.

“Check Virginia’s record,” Whit said. “The Cavs will prevail.”

“Seen that article in the Roanoke Times,” the farmer said. “Don’t let them Frenchmen learn you any bad habits, now. Saigon, they had a few.”

“I won’t, Mr. Hubbard.”

“Keep him in line, Maggie.”

“It’ll never happen,” she said.

“Ain’t it the truth,” the farmer said. He went out the door.

“When do you leave?” Maggie said.

“January,” he said. “Classes till June. Then travel all summer.”

“The Sorbonne,” she said.

“Wonder how you say ‘redneck’ in French?” he said.

“La paysanne,” she said.

Beulah stormed toward the booth, two big mugs in her fist and plates stacked on an arm. The scrambled eggs and coffee were steaming. She set the mugs on the table, then banged down the plates.

“Eat it while it’s hot,” she said. “Look at the color in that child’s cheeks, Whit. What beauty.”

Maggie blushed and scraped a pancake atop her eggs.
“You two set?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Maggie said. Beulah stormed back to the kitchen, apron ribbons fluttering.
They fell to. When Maggie finished, she pushed her plate back.

“Clinic’s outside Philadelphia,” she said. “We’re coming back through Charlottesville.”
Whit mopped syrup off his plate.

“You and the lucky father?” he said.

“Whit,” she said.

He lowered his eyes.

“No,” she said. “Carol.”

“Big sister,” he said.

“Yeah,” she said. “She’s tops.”

“Is he a good guy?” he said.

Her eyes began to brim.

“Maggie,” he said.

“Just because you don’t want to, you think I’m dating losers?”

“Maggie.”

“He’s handsome, he’s funny, he’s smart.” She blinked, and tears spilled down her cheeks.

“He wanted to drive me. I wouldn’t let him.”

“I’m sorry, Maggie.”

“You should be.”

“You okay, honey?” Beulah called from the kitchen.

“It’s just Whit,” Maggie said. “Being Whit.”

“Whitman Reed?” Beulah lowered her chin, glaring above the rhinestones of her glasses.
“Yes ma’am.”

Maggie took a tissue from her jacket.

“Carol’s going to see some grad student,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll feel like tagging along. Maybe I could crash at your place.”

“Sure,” he said. “Plenty of room. I can sleep on the sofa.”

“Sure,” she said. She looked at her coffee cup.

“It’s simple,” she said. “Quick.”

“Yeah,” he said. He fiddled with his spoon on the table top. “Maggie, I’m sorry.”

“I know,” she said.

“No,” he said. “I let this happen.”

“It’s not always about you, Whit.”

“I’m going in so many directions,” he said.

“Yeah,” she said. “I’d better get going before that snow piles up any deeper. I’ll be outside.”

Whit went to the counter so Beulah could ring him up. The big keys of the cash register clanked as she entered the tally. He gave her a twenty.

“Keep it,” he said.

“I’m not keeping it, college boy.”

“All right,” he said.

“You know what my Momma always said, Whit?”

“No, ma’am.”

“She said the sweetest smelling rose is the one right under your nose. You take her meaning?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

She gave him his change. “Now give me a kiss and get out of here. I’ll see you the next time.”

The door of the truck was open and Maggie sat on the edge of the seat. Esau rested his head on her shoulder. He scrubbed his broad face against her neck. She stood up and held the dog’s head with both hands, stroking his jowls. The snow was falling in pellets now, ticking on the fenders of the truck. It was boot-deep, and heavy.

“I’ll call you when we know our schedule,” she said.

“Okay,” he said.

She turned and looked into his eyes.

“I think I’ll do fine,” she said.

“You will,” he said. He grabbed her and held her close. He liked the way she felt pressed against him, her hands on his shoulders. He held her tight.

“Jack Off,” she said.

“Maggot,” he said. He held her at arm’s length. They both grinned.

He cleared her windshield while the Dodge warmed up. Then he helped her in and closed the car door. He leaned against the truck as she drove away. Esau whimpered and yelped. He put his paws up on the seat and dipped his head to see out the window, watching as the Dodge made its way up the hill. His ears sagged, and then his tail, as the taillights disappeared.

Whit got in the cab and slammed the door. He noticed the box of shells had been turned upright, the flaps closed. He took the box from the dash and opened it on his lap. Inside was a paper napkin from the café.

“Just breathe,” the note said. Then a smiley face. Then a heart. He looked at the cursive, awkward for a feminine hand. He remembered the sound of her breath when she was sleeping. He folded the napkin and tucked it in the bib of his overalls. He stuffed extra shells in his hunting coat and started the engine.

Grouse in snow seek cover, sometimes in coveys, often near water, in coves thick with rhododendron or hemlock or pine. He knew just where to go. He parked the truck at the mouth of a hollow. Esau started working the fox grape thickets along the split-rail fence at the woods edge. They crossed the fence and started up the hollow. The ground grew steep quickly, with shelves of stone, and he had to watch his footing. The only sounds were the pellets of snow striking tree trunks and branches, the rattle of oak leaves clinging to limbs, the whisper of his boots in the snow. They hunted the alder stands along the creek bed. The woodlands of the hollow opened into a meadow near the crest of the ridge. The high meadow was thick with thorns, wild rose, broom sedge, black pine, and locust saplings. A crumbling stone wall stood at the spring head, the tall marsh grass bent over with snow. Beyond the wall was a grove of black pine dark as a cave. Esau worked furiously, excited by fresh scent. Whit saw tiny heads bob up behind the wall and disappear.

Esau approached the base of a big wild rose, backed up, lifting his head, approached again, then backed up, sniffing. Whit raised the shotgun and walked in. Orange rose hips clung to the branches, bright against the snow. Near the thorny base a single rose had volunteered, its pink petals just visible. Beneath it, nestled in a bowl of broom sedge, he could see mottled feathers. He took another step, careful to keep his balance. Now the snow was falling in big flakes. He stepped closer. Esau lowered his head, snuffling the broom sedge.
Whit walked to the bush. He bent on one knee. Esau was whining.

“Good boy,” he said. “Sit.” He brushed away the snow and picked up the grouse, warm to the touch. It was a hen. Her feathers were full. There was no sign of trauma. He cradled her in both hands, her head dangling between his fingers. Big flakes settled on her breast and wings. He knew what he held was sacred. He tucked the dead hen in the broom sedge with her head nestled against a wing.

Whit stood, and the silence exploded. Grouse rocketed in all directions across the clearing from the stand of pines behind the stone wall, and he cocked the hammer of the single-shot and shouldered the gun in one smooth motion. Esau bounded forward, anticipating the shot. Whit leaned forward against the recoil, cheek snug against the stock, remembering to swing through his target, remembering to breathe when he fired. He watched wings beating against the bottomless sky until they disappeared in snow and silence. He uncocked the hammer and lowered the gun. Esau whimpered and lifted his ears. Whit pulled off his wool cap. He watched the falling snow.

____________________________________

Ross Howell lives in Greensboro, NC, with his wife, Mary Leigh, and diva, English cocker spaniel Pinot. An earlier story, “Serpent of the Nile,” was published by Dew on the Kudzu in November 2010.

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