Back Door to Summer / Part Four
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“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of ... a deep December morning ... stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds – or a Minnesotan from the completion of a neighborly act.”
By the time Kearney had pulled jeans over the thermal longjohns that served as her pajamas, added a turtleneck and a sweatshirt and a second pair of socks, stuffed her long red mane into a stocking cap (Gotta love that natural insulation!), grabbed her parka, and made her way to the front porch, the snowblower had cut a wide swath down the sidewalk from the Jarretts’ driveway to the north end of the block and was most of the way back. The headlights of a car creeping down the unplowed street hit the plume of flakes streaming from its chute and turned it into a sparkling ribbon.
The machine’s operator, however, looked more like the abominable snowman than something out of a Hallmark snowglobe. That had as much to do with the hat, she decided, as with the light coating of snow accumulating on the coveralls. My god, it looks like a baby yak died up there. She took a second look. Or maybe a full grown one!
Ah well, they can’t look gorgeous all the time, I suppose. Though it’s the rare piece of apparel, even survival wear, that a Jarrett can’t make chic.
She plopped herself on the bench by the front door, grabbed her Sorels, and stuffed her feet into them. She pulled the boots’ laces tight, grabbed her shovel, and headed out. Winter was beginning to wear on her – thank god, the Solstice was just around the corner; with it would come the gradual growing of the daylight – but it really was kind of magical to be the first to be marking the snow on her walkway.
Oops. Better make that the first human, she thought, spotting the trail left behind by the rabbit that lived in her compost pile. She pressed a boot into the snow beside the bunny track and stood back to compare the two impressions.
She jerked her head back as a loosely packed wad of snow flashed past her face and exploded on the side of the house. The yeti, she saw, had left the snowblower chugging quietly on the sidewalk and was walking toward her, manufacturing another snowball.
“Nyah, nyah, Jarrett! You throw like a girl!”
“Like Lisa Leslie, maybe? Or Chamique Holdsclaw?” This time the snow skimmed slightly to the left of her. The would-be assailant pulled down a snow-encrusted muffler to reveal a pair of red, very un-Frank-like lips stretched into a broad grin.
Kearney felt her face go blank. “Uh...”
God, how embarrassing! I don’t know why I thought it was him instead of her, but ... Holdsclaw? What the heck is a holdsclaw? Some kind of new movie monster, like Jason or Freddie?
“Let me guess. Not a big fan of professional women’s basketball?”
Ah, so that’s it. Kearney, grateful for the clue, shook her head. “I could go back inside, though, and fish the sports pages out of the recycling bin ...”
“No way, pal. I’m counting on you to help me move a ton of snow.”
“Free Herbie and it’s a deal.”
“My Bug. He’s in solitary, stuck in the garage since the ice storm last week. And now there’s a drift about three feet high up against the shed doors. Not to mention 20-some feet of snow between him and the street. As long as he’s stranded, so am I. Which is going to make it a blue, blue Christmas.”
“You planning on driving an antique VW across the prairie in the middle of winter? Brave woman!”
“Nah, can’t afford the time or the gas to go home to Nebraska. Or the frostbitten feet. I’m only going as far as my aunt’s in St. Paul. The bravery part still applies, though. Or maybe insanity. She’s got three kids under the age of 10, and they’ll all be under the influence of masses of sugar.” Jesse shook her head in sympathy. “What are you guys doing for the holidays?”
“Flying out to Colorado tomorrow to spend time at a friend’s place. Tuesday’s the third anniversary of the accident. We’re not ready yet to have Christmas here without Mom and Dad. But we’re back before New Year’s.”
“Yeah, I know. Frank and I are going to some political thing the Saturday after Christmas.”
“My god, he’s taking you to the Republican ‘rush party’? Not planning on talking about holes in the ozone layer, I hope, or gay marriage vs. civil unions? That might go over okay at an event hosted by the DFL – in fact, I think it’s required – but trust me ...”
“Speaking of knee-jerk liberals, aren’t they going to drum you out of the corps for stinking up the environment with a snowblower and wearing dead animals on your head?”
“Ah, ah, ah ... the snowblower’s a new release from Honda, a hybrid like my car, quieter and one of the most efficient on the planet. That’s why I’m out here so early. I’m going to try to clear this side of the block before the neighbors rev up their gas guzzlers.”
“And that charming chapeau?”
“Is fake fur, though the Communist Party pin on the front is real enough. Last year’s Christmas presents from Frank. Speaking of whom, he’s brewing up a batch of hot chocolate to reward us for our good deeds. I guess we better go do some. Can you take care of the walkways to all the houses while I finish the sidewalk and start in on the driveways?”
It took a little while to get into the rhythm, but by the time Kearney cleared her walk and steps and the Jarretts’, she was in the groove. She made her way to the end of the block and began to work back toward the middle. A few kids – the ones who could never make it to the school bus in time but were out today a half hour before it usually arrived – were pulling each other around on plastic saucers. There were no snowmen yet – the snow wouldn’t be really packable until later in the day when it warmed up a little – but she was hoping for something truly diabolical from the Kuwatch kid. She looked liked she had definite “Calvin and Hobbes”-type potential.
Emma Rademacher, whose house was on the south side of hers, beckoned her with an arthritic hand. Glad for the opportunity to take a breather, Kearney hastened over, a big smile on her face. She hadn’t seen much of the retired elementary school teacher since the flakes began to fall, but they had had some terrific talks last autumn about the kinds of bulbs she could plant and how to protect her rose bushes over the winter.
“Hey ya, Mrs. R.!” Kearney parked her shovel in a nearby drift, removed her gloves, and fished an escaped tress of damp, red hair out of her collar and off her neck. She tucked it back into her cap. “Wassup?”
“I just wanted to tell you to stop by when you finish up. I’ve got a batch of cinnamon rolls in the oven and they have your name on them.”
“Mine, too, I hope.” The unexpected remark, made close to her ear, startled Kearney; she nearly slid off the icy walk in surprise before a hand, placed firmly in the small of her back, steadied her. Jesse had answered the old woman’s summons as well. “Or are you still miffed about me releasing the class snake to the wild?”
“Jess was in your class? My god, Mrs. R. I hope they gave you a medal.”
“Teaching Jessamyn was its own reward,” Emma Rademacher said with a smile.
“It’s getting deep,” said Jesse. “And I am not talking about that white stuff I’ve been working on. I’ll just get back to it, shall I?” She gave Kearney a pat and returned to her machine, throwing a laughing comment back over her shoulder. “Don’t believe a word she says about me, Kearney. Especially if it has to do with spinach and empty milk cartons. It’s lies, I tell you. Lies!”
“You make a great team.”
“Yeah, we do, don’t we?” She missed the speculative look on Mrs. Rademacher’s face.
“You could do worse. She’s been something special from Day One. Smart as the dickens, a great sense of humor, and a natural leader.”
“I wish I could have known their parents. They raised a couple of remarkable children.”
“Oh sure, Frank’s no slouch, either. But if I had to choose between ’em, Jesse would get my vote every time. What is it my grandkids say? She’s WYSIWYG. What you see is what you get. Not that she lets it all hang out there. She doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what she is, though she’s discreet about it, in deference, I think, to Frank’s political ambitions. Besides it takes a lot of energy to educate ignorant or prejudiced folks – we’ve got a few, though having two colleges in town means we’re a little more hip about such things than the average town of 12,000. Anyway, I don’t think she had time for a love life while she was helping Frank with his physical therapy. Then, too, her work takes her out of town a lot.”
Mrs. Rademacher continued to natter away, oblivious to Kearney’s silence. She hoped she didn’t look as thunderstruck as she felt. She couldn’t possibly or Mrs. R. would be dialing 911.
“Anyway, it’s been great having her around Northfield these last few years. I’ve been expecting to hear any day that she’s going back to Colorado. Though I heard that relationship is as dead as a dodo. Personally, I’m really hoping she finds somebody special here and decides to make her return a permanent one. She deserves it, and Northfield needs all the good eggs it can get. People like Jesse – and people like you, Missy.”
“Me?” squeaked Kearney, surprised she could make any sound at all.
“Yes, you. Don’t think I haven’t seen you out there refilling my bird feeders or that I’ve forgotten how you helped out with the raking in October.”
“ ‘Oh, well’ nothing!” She nodded to where Jesse was painstakingly widening the entrance from the driveway to the street. “Like I said, you make a great team. Thanks and ...
“Uh-oh, Jesse’s giving me the ‘look.’” The old woman bestowed an innocent smile and a wave upon her former pupil. “She’s probably afraid that I’m telling you about the Great Snake Escape,” she muttered out of the side of her mouth. “Or maybe about that little incident at the Junior-Senior Prom. And I will tell you someday, I assure you. I have pictures, too. Really embarrassing ones.”
A series of beeps sounded at the back of the cottage.
“Oops! There’s the oven timer. See you later, alligator.”
* * * * *
Mrs. R. had closed the door and shuffled back into her house before Kearney even tried to say goodbye.
Not that she was capable of saying words that had more than one syllable in them. Hell, she wasn’t even sure she was capable of anything more complicated than taking a breath. Which, she realized suddenly, would be a very good idea. She fought off a wave of dizziness, gripping the handrail and swallowing hard, then pulled in a lungful of crisp air. Gah!
She prayed Jesse wasn’t watching her standing there like some kind of mental patient. The last thing she needed, for god’s sake, was for the brunette to come back to see if anything was wrong ... She pulled her shovel from the drift in which she’d parked it and began flinging snow left and right as if possessed.
It’s official, Kearney thought. Clueless. I am so totally, effing clueless. She switched the shovel to the other side and lit into another set of drifts. Ain’t got gaydar. Never had it, never will.
Augh! Go away!
La-la-la-la-la! I’m not listening!
Shut up! Not another frigging word! I mean it!
Scritch-flump, scritch-flump. The mounds grew on either side as Kearney cleared the walkway down to the concrete. Fighting to keep her arm motions fluid and rhythmical, she tried to digest the unsettling information she’d received from Mrs. R.
Which was what exactly? I mean, she never actually said Jesse was gay. Did she?
Scra-thunk, scra-thunk. She attacked the steps that led down the short hill to the sidewalk, her hands tingling as her shovel impacted wood.
On the one hand, it explains some things. Remember, Frank suggested Jesse used to have someone special in Colorado? He never said it was a guy, never used any pronouns at all, now that I think about it. I just assumed ...
Mrs. R. said that was over a long time ago!
No. Remember what Jesse said last summer about that second date thing? Sure sounded to me like she wasn’t seeing... you know, that she hadn’t been ...
Nope. No way.
Not Jess. She isn’t like that. Don’t even suggest it.
The next shovelful of snow set a new distance record.
The pendulum motion of the shovel slowed slightly as Kearney pondered the question.
I dunno. Probably because she thought I already knew – or maybe because she thought I’d be interested ...
She stopped abruptly, in mid-swing, almost losing her footing.
Oh my god, does she think that I’m interested in Jesse? That I’m g...? Or – crap! – that Jesse’s interested in me?
She risked a peek down the street where Jesse and her machine were nibbling away at something resembling a snowy version of the Great Wall of China. It should have looked awkward, ungainly. Instead it looked like some avant-garde ballet. The good samaritan turned as if sensing Kearney’s gaze, grinned and waved, then returned to her task.
Good heavens, Kearney, about the only time the woman has touched you has been to shake your hand. You’re making mountains out of molehills.
I am, aren’t I? I mean, what’s the big deal? Jesse is who she always has been.
Right. She’s not going to jump my bones in broad daylight, for heaven’s sake. She’s a friend. A good friend.
Yeah, what about that? I mean, you’d think she would have warned me. Not, you know, that being gay is like having a disease or something. It’s just ... She doesn’t seem the type to be ashamed of it. So her secrecy is kind of odd. Isn’t it?
That is different. I mean, I can hardly talk to her about me and her brother, for goodness sake. That would be downright ... squicky.
Continued in Part Five
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