The snow arrived during the night as promised. By the time the gray morning light filtered through our windows, there was ten inches of light powder on the ground and more falling. The children woke phlegmy, still incubating their colds, so we planned another day indoors. I made French toast for breakfast from the left-over challah and the day slowly unfolded.
As I was clearing the table, Dawn spotted Mr. L across the street through the row of windows of our living room. He is an older man who lives by himself in a house twice as large as our own. Every morning, he drives to the gym to work out, returning before we have finished our breakfast. On warm summer evenings we sometimes hear the beautiful tones of his grand piano playing classical pieces, jazz standards, or even musical theatre with a visiting voice or two accompanying. He has his fair share of friends and family coming to visit, but mostly spends his time alone. On the street I have found him friendly, with just a smidgeon of New England reserve wrapped in his dry, self-deprecating humor.
For all his wit, musical talent, and social grace, I have noticed that he is not terribly sophisticated about landscaping. His attempts to keep up appearances are limited to driving his riding mower faithfully every week in summer time. However, the garden beds were so bare and neglected that his children lured him out of the house for the weekend and then came and replanted them all while he was gone. Next to his mailbox is a decrepit, stunted maple tree, a runt of the litter which has been pecked by woodpeckers and chewed by insects until it resembles a column of Swiss cheese, but if this tree occupies Mr. L’s thoughts at all, there has been no horticultural manifestation of it. And most interesting to me is how he holds his driveway in utter contempt. It is an innocuous enough driveway, about 100 feet long, straight as an arrow, and sloping gently uphill to a two-door garage. But in winter, that gentle slope can become intractable.
He rarely shovels the snow off of it, for reasons which are apparent after you have watched him try once or twice. He is a tall, straight-backed man with steady hands, but to watch him shovel snow is to see how time corrupts all flesh. Instead of shoveling the snow, he simply drives over it, compressing it into twin tracks of ice and ramming his asthmatic Ford station wagon through the berm left by the city snow plows. Some days, the berm wins, and he will resort to a snow shovel in a desultory, spit-and-duct-tape manner, moving the least amount of snow to get the job down. Some days, the ice gives him an unwanted hand backing out, and I am certain some winter morning he will break my mailbox to splinters. But it has not yet happened.
This particular winter morning the snow was fresh and deeper than usual. He had backed his car down his driveway until his rear bumper had plowed a wall of snow too heavy to budge. He was stuck halfway down his driveway, and Dawn, seeing him go in the garage and return with a snow shovel in his hand, predicted futility and disaster.
“Well,” I said, “I need to shovel our driveway anyway while it is still manageable. I’ll offer him a hand first.”
I dressed in layers, with waterproof gloves, a fleece cap for my bald head, and Sorrel boots up to my knees. In the basement I found my favorite snow shovel in our collection, and headed across the driveway, snowflakes melting on my cheeks. My boots squeaked like party balloons as they sunk deeply into the snow. Out of pure habit, I glanced left and right before crossing our one-block, dead-end street. The smooth landscape of snow had been violated earlier by a pair of tire tracks, already half-obliterated under new snow. I crossed and walked up his driveway.
“Do you need a hand,” I asked, holding up my shovel in a submissive gesture by way of explanation.
He was bent over his own shovel near the front tire with his back to the house. Though he must have seen me coming, he head snapped up as though startled by the sound of my voice. Pushing his hand against his knee, he stood up with a thoughtful expression passing over his face before he answered.
“Oh, hi!” he said, ignoring my offer for the moment, or not having heard it, or wishing not to have heard it. “Yeah, I just thought I head down to the grocery store this morning, but I’ll never get back up Towne Street in this snow. Not sure what I was thinking.”
“Did you need help getting your car back in the garage?”
“No,” he answered with a wry smile. “No.” he said again and looked up and down the driveway. “I guess I’m just going to leave it right here for the time being.”
As I watched him make this decision, I wondered if I had somehow provoked it. It occurred to me how unfortunate, how unwelcome perhaps, my presence was. My good deed was embarrassing him. It was rather unlikely that he could clear enough snow and ice to get his car back to his garage on his own, in fact it was obvious, yet that was what he was trying to do. I will admit now that I am projecting my own male-patterned thinking into his head, but I am certain that when he stranded his car, he got out and said to himself, “No problem. I’ll just shovel two tracks of snow up to the garage and drive her right in.”
You see, he was divorced and alone. He had lived without the company of women for many years. He had no wife or sister or daughter there to say, “You think you are going to shovel 100 feet of snow AND ice? In this weather? In your condition? Why don’t you call AAA.” I had not said those very words, but in my earnest campaign to be neighborly, I had taken over the role of his wife. My very presence insinuated that he was too infirm to handle the situation on his own.
Fortunately he was too polite, too diplomatic, or too kind to take the insult personally, so I quickly changed the subject.
“I hear we’re due for twenty inches total.”
“Yeah. Well, I got my snow blower back from the shop, so maybe I’ll pull it out. Thanks, though.”
He’d rather use the snow blower than accept my help? I must seem like some loathsome boy scout to him.
“Uh, OK. No problem. Call me if you need a hand.”
“You bet. Enjoy the snow.”
I turned around and crossed the street to clear my own driveway. I thought that if I started lifting heavy loads of snow, tossing them over the retaining wall, it would be adding salt to his wounds, so I worked the easy part closer to the street. I needn’t have bothered. The first time I turned around, he was already gone, the dirty red paint of his car slowing vanishing in a mound of soft white snow.
I worked steadily for a half hour, and by the time I had worked my way down to my own garage door, another inch of snow had covered the far end where I had started. I went inside, flush and damp from the exercise, and told Dawn what had happened.
The snow continued to fall, heavier, with large, flat clumps like gauzy parachutes out every window. I picked up a novel and began to read. Dawn folded clothes. The children were drawing with pens and crayons. I have no idea how long we were comfortably engaged in our quiet endeavors when we heard the unmistakable guttering noise of an engine.
It was coming from outside the house, which meant it had to be fairly loud. Our windows block out a great deal of sound. We barely hear the city snowplows when they scrape by, even when their blade tear up chunks of asphalt from our street. We went to the window and found our neighbor clearing our driveway with his snow blower.
My first thought was that I had not merely embarrassed him with my charity. I had truly insulted and angered him and he was exacting a suitable and fitting revenge.
The only justification I can offer for this unappreciative, paranoid response is my deep hatred of all two-stroke engine apparatuses. They are noisy, smelly, and incredibly polluting, far worse than automobiles. For ten seconds, I let several familiar ranting thoughts have their way with me, befor
e I worked my way back to “reasonable.”
Because, to be fair, he is exactly the kind of person who ought to be using a snowblower – an elderly man living alone, maintaining his independence, someone still able to drive but who needs his winter driveway clear and safe. If I were put in charge of handing out snowblowers, he would be at the top of my very short list.
So why had he felt it necessary to clear my driveway? There was only four inches on the ground, nothing I couldn’t have handled on my own. His own driveway was clear of snow, and the car still sat in the middle, waiting to be be parked inside. Could it be that he was just truly being a good neighbor? I mean, of course, that had to be it. So why was I so cynical about it?
I opened my mouth a couple of times before I finally managed to say, “Well, that’s very nice of him.”
Dawn rewarded me with an ironic smile. She knew exactly how I felt, but at least I said the right thing in front of the children.
I went to the bathroom, and by the time I came out, the noise was gone. I looked out the window, and the snow blower was gone too. But something was odd.
Only a third of our driveway had been cleared. Why? What was going on? I mean, it wasn’t as if he had to do all of my driveway. He didn’t have to do any of it. But why go the trouble to do only part of it?
Then I saw his car, still stranded in the middle of his driveway, start to move. My whole curious family was at the window now, watching. He slowly backed all the way down his driveway, and then crossed the street and backed into our driveway too as far as it was plowed. The engine gunned and sputtered a bit. Then he floored it.
Now I understood. His motive had been neither revenge nor charity, but expedient self-interest. What he needed in order to get his car back in his garage was momentum. He needed his car to build up enough speed to make it all the way up his driveway without losing traction. And he couldn’t do that from the street because the city snowplows hadn’t come yet.
An old Ford station wagon is not going to build up much speed over a hundred feet in the snow, but he eeked out as much as he could. Our driveway and the street, both being made of old but serviceable asphalt, had been swept clean by his snow blower. He had lots of traction until he reached his own driveway, a crushed gravel and dirt surface that the snow blower could not clear completely. It had certainly not removed any of the ice. As soon as he hit his own driveway, the car swerved and skidded, but he was a good driver. He kept the wheels pointing in the right direction and saved as much momentum as he could. Apparently, he had practiced this maneuver before.
He was halfway up the driveway when two things became obvious. The first was that, despite a maximum velocity no greater than ten miles an hour, he was definitely going to make it to his garage with momentum to spare.
The second was that he had not opened his garage door.
We watched with growing horror as the automatic door opener began to lift the door with rusty sluggishness. We saw the rear brake lights flash, but the car did not really seem to slow down until a two feet before the entrance when, hitting a clear patch of ground, it bucked like a horse. It did this a couple of times, and when the car finally did stop, the bottom of the front windshield was six inches below the still-rising garage door. There the car sat impatiently spewing exhaust until the garage door cleared the top of the roof. Then car and driver vanished inside, and the garage door, with barely a pause at the top, reversed itself and sealed them inside out of our view.