by Michael Scott Moore
A silent storm of snowflakes fell through the shine of an arc lamp like a column of soldiers, marching from the clouds to their positions on the cars and drifted trees. There was no wind. The snow moved in a delicate formation that allowed Ron to stand and stare until the flakes looked motionless, until the ground itself seemed to slue under his feet. His long hair was tucked under his collar for warmth; one hand clutched a vinyl pouch. From his coat he pulled a bottle of whiskey. He drank, then squinted at the familiar first house on the street, a wood-shingled triplex with two balconies stacked over the porch. On the drapes of the ground-floor window, a TV flicker shifted.
"Amanda," he said, not loud. "Hey Amanda."
He mounted the porch. Faint light came through a curtain in the thick-paned door. Ron peered at a buzzer panel. Only the bottom one had a tag. Her name was still on it, but his was crossed out:
A. Marshall /
Ron hesitated, but finally pressed the top buzzer. Unit Three. He would work his way down.
"Yes?" quacked a voice from the panel speaker.
Ron recited: "Hi, I'm from Harborwatch and we've got a petition to keep the reservoirs clean? If you could just let me in out of the cold so I can explain the problem I'd really appreciate it, it won't take more than fifteen minutes."
Pensive static from the speaker.
"Sorry," said the voice. "Not interested." The speaker crackled and went dead.
Ron stamped the wooden porch. He leaned on the next button to vent his frustration. The speaker crackled and a voice said,
"Be right there, hang on, hang on."
This was more like it. Ron unzipped his pouch and straightened his shoulders. He noticed a bench press on the porch next to a split Hefty bag of beer cans. Tenants in this house changed with the school year, every September. Ron hadn't been here since July.
A boy with freckles and flaming hair opened up clutching a ten-dollar bill.
"Hi, my name's Ron DiMartini, I'm from Harborwatch and we're coming around to let everyone in the neighborhood know about a problem in your water supply? It looks like carcinogens from dry-cleaning fluid are leaching into the reservoirs across the state, and we could really use your help to stop it. If you let me out of this weather I could explain it in detail, it wouldn't take more than fifteen minutes."
The kid's face lit up, as if Ron had made a joke. He rolled the money in his fingers. "I thought you were the guy from Charlie Chan's," he said.
Ron felt a bolt of rage in his throat, but maintained composure. "You could help if you signed our petition. If you let me in for just a minute I can explain —" but the kid's dull eyes were gazing past him at the street, where a car had pulled up. Snow drifted in the headlights; surf music played on the stereo. A lanky man got out and leapt two steps at a time to the deck, carrying a white paper bag that steamed in the cold.
"Pork fried rice and chop suey?"
"Right here, man."
"You can just keep the change."
"Thanks a lot."
"Stay warm and everything."
"Thanks, you too."
The driver trotted down the steps and hopped in the car. Ron and the redhaired kid watched him leave.
"Listen, can I ask you a question?" Ron said, and the kid, who was about to close the door, paused. "Have you seen anything strange in this apartment?" Ron pointed at the bay window beside the deck, Unit One. "Any weird people going in and out?"
"All the time."
"Sure, man. That chick's got an ad in the paper."
Ron moved his jaw but said nothing. The kid tightened his grip on the bag. Snow fell silently, steadily, all around them.
"Well, good luck and all," the boy said at last, and shut the door.
In the dim light Ron studied the buzzer panel. He leaned on the bottom knob and pounded on the door. "Amanda!" he called. "You home?" and beside him, in an angled pane of the window, a drape drew back to let out buttery light and there was Amanda, short and slight in paintmarked sweats, her face framed by Cleopatra-cut black hair.
"Oh thank God, it's Ronny," she said with open sarcasm, her voice muffled by the warmth of the room. "What are you doing here?"
Ron waved a glove. "Hi. Can you let me in?"
"What are you doing here?"
"It's about a petition," he said. "From Harborwatch."
She creased her forehead. "Is this really important?"
Amanda let the curtain drop. A minute later Ron heard the inner door unlatch and then the front door swung open. Amanda said, "Hurry up, it's cold."
He followed her in. This apartment had been his home for two years, while he attended college. The quality of electric light on the walls, the unswept hardwood floor, even the smell of teabags and mold from the kitchen stirred his emotions. At first he thought not much had changed, but in the living room a tall man sat in blue jeans and hornrimmed glasses, staring at the gray TV from a round, mustard-colored chair. The bolt of rage returned to Ron's throat.
"Gil, this is Ronny. Ronny, Gil Franklin."
Ron sat with ill grace on an off-white sofa which he had personally stolen from somebody else's trash.
"Ronny's here from Harborwatch." Amanda lit a cigarette from a console table and folded her legs Indian-style on a reclining chair. She wore thick wool socks. "He's got a petition."
Ron produced a sheaf of paper from his pouch and started reciting his script. "Yeah, it's about wastewater leaching into reservoirs. Carcinogenic dry-cleaning fluid. State administrators aren't doing everything they can to make sure it's disposed of right. That's because they've been paid to ignore the problem for almost twenty years..." He explained the problem, explained how environmental activism was linked to the peace movement, which comprised their circle of friends; he figured that would get Amanda, at least, to think well of him. But while he talked he remembered a party in the same living room about a year before, peopled with poets, musicians, and students. He'd overheard Amanda say, "If it got bad enough, sure. I would take money for sex." She was a painter, like Ron (at the time), and her lazy nihilism had turned him on. He loved her coarse black masculine eyebrows, her air of drugged-out weariness, and the voice that sounded too deep for her little frame. But the easy remark about sex had shocked him.
When he finished, Amanda said, "How long have you worked for Harborwatch?"
"Two months. Since November."
She drew from her cigarette and studied him through the smoke. "Are you still painting?"
"Not much, no. You?"
Amanda nodded. "Of course, all the time. I quit my job at the bakery after you moved out."
"That must be cool." Ron tried to keep his voice steady. "But how do you eat?"
"Oh, Gil makes money."
Now he felt hollow as a corn husk.
Amanda smiled. "Is this an interrogation? Is that why you're here?" She drew from her cigarette again and exhaled. "Gil has a job at MassArt."
"On the faculty?"
"In the library."
"You should see his work, too. He's a good painter."
"Is that so?" Ron stared at Gil's stony face. "An artiste." He couldn't contain his sarcasm; it was like acid slopping out of a tank. "A painter of pretty pictures." Gil glanced over. "Or maybe not so pretty? Maybe anything that isn't repulsive is beneath your dignity."
Gil said nothing. His face was blank.
"I mean you have a look about you that I always hated in college, the look of a pretentious fuck who thinks he's too good for beauty. You strike me as exactly that kind of asshole."
He faced Amanda, flaring his nostrils.
"Could you leave now?" she said.
Ron widened his eyes, amazed at her gall to demand, to show anything besides remorse. He was the victim here. She seemed to forget that.
"No," he announced. "I'm not going to leave. Now that you mention it. I didn't move out so this guy could move in and you could treat me like some brush salesman. Bullshit." He spread his arms across the sofa's back rest. "I think I'll just stay right here."
Amanda gave him a level look of disgust. She was mocking:
"On the couch."
Gil sighed, ballooning his cheeks.
"It's a sit-in," Ron clarified. "I'll stay all night, if necessary."
Amanda rolled her eyes. "God, you're such a drag."
For a while nobody spoke. The TV showed news from Vietnam. Soldiers hauled a body through the jungle.
"Anyone thirsty?" Amanda offered, crushing her cigarette. "I can make tea."
The two men watched her leave. Soon Gil got up to follow. Ron felt awkward. He saw the petition on the floor and remembered that he still had work to do. A protest in his ex-girlfriend's living room had not been on the agenda. But he was in pain! Couldn't they see that? His need for Amanda surprised him the way his canvassing job surprised him. Activism, Love, Working for Good -- these things were supposed to save your soul; they sounded magnanimous and self-improving. But in Ron's experience they were dangerous; their heartbreaking intractability had eroded his precious ideals.
The doorbell rang.
"I'll get it," Ron called, hopping off the sofa.
He answered the door to a nebbishy man in round wire glasses with pale skin and a jutting nose, who he failed to recognize – at first – from a local pub.
"Um," the stranger said. "Is Amanda here?
"Sure, come in." Ron knew the voice. "Wait. You're name's Martin, isn't it?"
"Hi Martin, don't pay any attention to him," Amanda called. "He was just leaving."
"No I wasn't."
"Yes you were."
"I thought you made us tea."
"Maybe I should leave," Martin suggested.
"No, you don't." Amanda grabbed his wrist and pulled him in. He watched her lead Martin toward the bedroom. Ron was expected to turn and leave. Needlessly – just to detain her – he said, "Can you at least sign my petition?" and Amanda paused, alone, to stare with a balefulness that nearly broke his heart. She looked rheum-eyed, wilted. Ron understood that under her thick green sweats she was naked. His mind cleared of everything but the memory of her pale body lying under a pool of light, tense and damp with need.
"I'll sign your petition later, okay? Come back tomorrow. I just don't want you here right now."
"In the daytime?"
She disappeared around the corner and snapped the door shut.
Ron gathered his petition. He picked up his pouch and gloves. Gil had faded like a Cheshire cat: Everything but his smirking essence was gone. If Gil was not exactly a pimp, he no doubt mooched off Amanda's take, and practiced the art of disappearing when customers came to the door.
Ron didn't feel like leaving quite yet. He sat on the couch, found a remote control, and searched for something good on TV. No, nothing. He switched it off. Snowflakes tapped the window. After a minute he put out the lamp and stared at the yellow-lit hall.
Music trickled from the bedroom: The Velvet Underground. Unbelievable. That was Ronny's album.
The fluid electric guitar set his mind adrift. His anger subsided for a minute and he remembered his time in this house with something like fondness. For two years he and Amanda had maintained an easy, balanced, happy affair. But on a hot afternoon last July, while Amanda took a shower, Ron had burst into the bathroom to ask about something in her journal, shut off the water and hollered while she stood there naked and dripping and blinded by soap. Before she was dry their relationship was through: thirty-five months of easiness and joy scattered like a silly dream. Ron had played the role, in this dream, of an eager dog, with Amanda the blasé master, dispensing punishments and treats. The breakup was catastrophic, but in the weeks that followed Ron came to understand that he had almost willed it by reading her diary. He'd gone looking for evidence of treachery, like a journalist kindling revolution. The uproar of emotion had felt ecstatic and bright.
The bedroom door clicked open. Ron watched Martin shuffle past the living room with his owlish face concealed by the woolen scarf.
"That was fast," Ron blurted.
Martin jumped, but kept moving. "See yuh."
The front door let in a blast of frozen air and clattered shut. Soon he was aware of a patient, waiting silence from the hall.
"I'm not moving."
Another silence. He felt his anger return.
"I'll call the cops," Amanda said.
"And tell them what? That I'm hurting business?"
She appeared cautiously, in a robe, from down the hall.
"Will you please leave?"
"What would it take to make you go away?"
"There's nothing you can do."
She sighed. "So, for the rest of the evening, you're not gonna move from that couch."
Ron pulled up his damp boots and crossed them, Indian-style.
"Consider me rooted."
His outrage came back at full strength. Exiled, from his own apartment? The only man in Boston she refused to fuck? He closed his eyes in order not to scream.
Amanda went away. After a minute she returned with Gil. They switched on the light, squatted at each end of the couch, and counted to three. "Hey," said Ron. He started to hop off, but Amanda's face purpled with the strain and he saw he could make himself twice as inconvenient by staying on. They carried him into the hall. Amanda's robe fell open, so he could see one pale breast. He said wickedly, "You know what you are, don't you? The whole neighborhood knows, Amanda." He felt like a hermit crab, backed into a shell and waving his claws. "Everyone knows! Even the neighbors. How does that make you feel?"
At the end of the hall they put him down long enough for Gil to open the door. Then they carried him onto the porch. "I'll still be here in the morning!" Ron said, raising his voice for the neighbors' benefit. "I'll die out here! You'll have to haul me away."
"Oh, shut up," Amanda answered. They set him down and went inside. Amanda slammed the door. Ron stared through the window. "You don't want me out here all night!" He crawled over the couch and leaned on the buzzer knob; he the window with his bare hand. "You've still got my petition!" he hollered. "And my gloves! I'm not leaving without my stuff!" Even to his ears he sounded desperate and harsh. He kicked the shingled wall with his boot — once, twice — until the door opened again.
"Come off the cross for once, Ronny," Amanda said in a tone that suggested she was beyond both anguish and disgust. "We can use the fucking wood."
Then she dumped his petition on the welcome mat and slammed the door.
His breath plumed. He stared at the window. A breeze in the street was stirring the snowflakes in chaotic little swirls. He trotted down the steps and formed a snowball, launched it at the window, hit nothing but shingle. He ran around the house to look for another way in, but deep snow hid brambles of naked bushes in the yard, and he stumbled, twice, only to find a door to the rear stairs bolted for the winter. By the time he struggled back to the sidewalk Ron had fallen three more times. His heart began to vibrate like a frail sheet of tin.
The breeze had tapered off; the snow was settling into its feathery fall. It came down patiently, politely — a lacy manifestation of a ponderous law — and Ron stood there until the end of his outrage had given way to honest sorrow. An underground spring of grief churned in him while the snow landed flake by flake on the balconies, the rooftops, the high-drifted branches, the neighborhood shrubs; he didn't even notice this time when the flakes seemed to hang in the air, like a tapestry of light, and the street itself seemed to rise.