3LBE #9
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Snowcatters

by Steven Sidor

 

Frank, I need that drink.”

“Sure, but you’ve got to sit down. Get a hold of yourself.”

Paul Townes was wearing Frank Lindy’s red flannel bathrobe. It stank from Old Spice and mentholated arthritis cream. But Frank’s familiar smell was a comfort. They'd been together for forty years. Friends, then more than friends, then friends again. They were professional jazz musicians. Paul the flamboyant trumpeter — was there any other kind? — and Frank the keyboardist. Well, they weren’t musicians anymore. Now they were old men living a mile apart on a logging road in the cold north woods. Their properties backed up to a deep iced-over lake. Winter padlocked them in their cabins except when Paul put on his snowshoes and walked over to Frank’s for a home-cooked meal, some twelve year-old Scotch, and the LPs playing on Frank’s turntable.

Paul had seen a dead man up at the Snowcatters’ Club.

He was a half-frozen wreck when Frank heard him pounding on the door. Frank got Paul out of his wet clothes and put him in the shower. The water warmed him but it hadn’t calmed him down. He stared out through a crack in the drapes. Snowdrifts rose like whale humps out of the gravel in Frank’s driveway. The storm they'd predicted on the radio was hitting hard. White spun into more white.

“Here.” Frank placed a tumbler of neat Scotch in Paul’s trembling hands. “I’ve got a chicken pot pie in the oven. Will you please just sit down? I can’t take your pacing. Besides, there’s no room for it.” Frank finger-combed Paul’s long peppery hair away from his eyes. “Relax, Dearie. There’s nobody out there.”

Paul checked the window again.

“You didn’t see anybody at the Snowcatters'. The road’s gated. The wind chill is ten below. What you saw was probably—”

“An Indian. I saw an Indian in the window where the bar sign used to hang.”

“Paul, please.”

“I know what I saw. And I may be a drunk, but I'm not a nutcase. So don’t patronize me.”

“Well, let’s finish our Scotches, fill our bellies, and sit by the fire until this nasty weather passes.”

Paul didn’t answer.

Frank opened the fireplace grate and dropped a chunk of dry wood into the flames. When he glanced away from the fire, he saw Paul wedging a kitchen chair under the doorknob.

• • •

“Must you smoke?”

“Yes.”

Frank cleared the dishes and gave Paul a clamshell for his ashes. Paul had the bottle of single malt on the table. He refilled his own glass. The wind sounded like a grindstone against the roof. Frank’s four-pronged cane thumped on the pine floor. He changed the record. Up came Chet Baker’s brittle horn work on Playboys, a favorite of Paul's.

Paul watched the knotholes in the pine paneling as if they were capable of looking back. His dripping snowshoes hung from a nail beside the blocked door. The room filled with cigarette smoke and the smell of wet wool as his pants and jacket dried near the fire. The booze settled his nerves a bit.

“You haven’t said why you were even up at the Snowcatters'. It’s odd for you to wander so far with a storm brewing.”

“I was in a walking mood. I didn’t really set out for the club, but I wound up there.” Paul crushed a cigarette, lit another with a stove match. “You know the club’s roof caved in. I'd guess from the big snow on Tuesday.”

“That’s a shame.”

Paul nodded. His hand rubbed circles on the tabletop. “I pried a loose board away so I could see inside, get a look at the damage. I had my Coleman.” Paul carried the lantern ever since he got lost in the woods last November. A cloud-bound sun had snuffed itself out while he tried to retrace his path. The watery gray light of the woods drained to purple, and from purple to perfect black. Paul panicked. He was lucky to stumble onto a main road. Truck lights. A snowplow picked him up.

Paul wanted Frank to know he'd been careful this time. He felt compelled to explain the logic of his actions and the simple innocent curiosity. “His face just popped up behind the window. Blood running down his chin. He was chewing. And he looked goddamned pissed off to see me.”

Frank maneuvered himself into his recliner. He switched on his reading lamp though the cabin was bright from the fire and kitchen fluorescent bulb. He put on his glasses and pretended to read a water-damaged back issue of Down Beat.

“He knows us,” Paul said.

Frank turned a rippled page.

“Johnson Free. That’s who it was, you know, the Indian? Johnson Free.”

Frank peeked over the top of the magazine. “Johnson Free is dead.”

Ding, ding, ding— give the man a prize.” Paul swallowed too much Scotch at once and went into a full-tilt coughing fit. By the time Frank got himself out the recliner, Paul was scarlet and waving him off. The fire snapped, and Frank jerked around to see if the door was opening. He rolled the Down Beat as if a spider needed killing.

Never letting go of his cigarette, Paul dipped his head under the kitchen faucet and drank until he was quiet. His skin returned to its usual grayish yellow. He wiped his mouth with the robe sleeve.

“It was Johnson, but his hair was grown out. Long, black— oh, you know what a goddamned Indian’s hair looks like.”

“Did he have a tomahawk?” Frank said like he wanted it all to be a joke.

“Go to hell.”

• • •

Paul lay in bed, smoking. He felt cold even with the down comforter tucked arounamd him. Dn poor circulation, he thought knowing it was more than clogged arteries bothering him. He sat up and reached for the empty bottle on the floor. He sucked the remaining drops and peered downstairs.

The lamp and kitchen light were still on. Sparks shot from the fireplace and landed, burning, on the stone hearth. Paul wondered if he'd thrown in too much wood before going to bed.

Goddamn cold.

He kicked off the comforter, tucked the empty under his arm, and climbed down the ladder of stripped logs. He passed through the living room and crossed the invisible threshold dividing it from the kitchen. Except for the tiny loft bedroom and the bathroom, the A-frame cabin was an open plan.

Frank slept on the sofa bed in the living room. Since his stroke he couldn’t manage the ladder. Paul remembered chasing a younger Frank up the log contraption, the two of them bare-assed and eager. Hot August mornings thirty years ago. That sheen of sweat glowing on their pale skins.

For all those summers, Frank had kept a cooler stocked with Leinenkugel’s next to the king-size bed. Paul guessed he had drunk a thousand cases from Frank’s cooler over the years. Twenty-four thousand bottles of beer on the wall, if one of the bottles happens to fall— it would have fallen into his hands, no doubt.

The quintet traveled throughout the year, but they spent their summers playing exclusively for the members of the Snowcatters’ Club. Rich men and their wives from the upper Midwest who vacationed in the Northwoods. The audience was always small, the room intimate, and the money good. Frank had gotten them the regular seasonal gig. He handled all the group’s bookings.

So many moths would gather on the windshield during a Snowcatters’ gig, they had to turn on their wipers before they could pull out of the club’s lot. Frank’s Ford had tunneled through the moonlit woods along strangled, twisty dirt roads. How they never wrapped around a tree was a mystery. Paul couldn’t recall a single sober drive home from the club.

Reminiscing isn’t your strong suit, Dearie, Frank often said.

The truth was many of Paul’s memories weren’t available to be treasured — sunken, as they happened to be, beneath an ocean of booze. But those late summer nights when the quintet played and the mornings after, when he and Frank crawled into bed together drunk and weary and alive— he could still taste the beer foam on his sore lips.

Paul listened for the regular rasp of his friend’s breathing. His knee bumped the edge of the foldout bed. Paul leaned over. Frank had his old army blanket pulled up to his ears.

Paul didn’t want to worry him. Frank needed his rest.

But Johnson Free was up at the club.

Paul opened the cabinet over the sink for a new bottle. He cracked the seal, took a slug, and put the cap back on.

With the replacement fifth under his arm, Paul glided back toward the ladder thinking the wood floor felt smooth and chilly as a concrete slab even through Frank’s thick hunting socks. He didn’t need to lift his feet. Just push and slide, push and slide.

A woman screaming for her life.

His first thought was it might be a trick of the wind.

But it continued. A muscle quivered in Paul’s gut. Words shouted in the storm. The woman’s scream broke apart like a hearty burst of laughter. Storm noises. Then she started again. Closer to Frank’s cabin. She probably saw the light in the windows.

Paul lunged for the kitchen switch and landed on his ass. The unbroken scotch bottle twirled like a bowling pin next to him.

Frank struggled in his pillows to sit upright. “Who’s there?”

“Me, it’s me. Take it easy, Frank. Stay in bed. It’s Paul, okay?”

“What are you doing on the floor?”

“I fell.”

“Oh, Christ —”

“I think I'm fine.”

“Is that a person? Is somebody screaming out there?”

“Yes.”

“We have to call the police. Get the phone.”

“No one’s going to come here in the storm. Not in time to save her from whatever’s happening.” Paul, on his knees, found the reading lamp and extinguished it.

“What are you doing?” Frank stuffed his numb leg into a pair of corduroys. “We have to try and help for God’s sake.”

Paul killed the fluorescent. He flung open the cabinets and found a plastic lemonade pitcher. He filled it with tap water.

“Are we hiding? Is that what we’re doing?” Frank asked.

Paul doused the fire. Blue steam poured into the room. Hiss and stink. Cinders floated in the puddle on the hearth. Paul had the poker. He stirred the mess he'd made.

Frank shrugged into his ratty green cardigan. “You’ve lost it, old pal. Completely lost your all-too-tenuous hold on reality.” Three hard thumps of rubber hitting pine as Frank dragged himself to the window beside the door. He snapped on the floodlight.

“I see her. Do you hear me, Paul?”

“What’s she doing?”

“Laying in the snow. She’s got a snowsuit on. She’s just some kid who’s had a snowmobile accident. Now get out there and help her.”

“You go.”

“I can’t walk in snow.” Frank opened the door and the room was freezing, all the stored heat exhaled in a single breath.

Paul raised the poker and refused to move from the hearth.

“There’s no fucking Indian out there.” Frank stared at his former lover. Paul’s aged body was bone-thin and stringy. A tuft of sad white hairs grew between his nipples. Frank watched him shiver. “You’ll die of frostbite before Johnson Free ever eats you, because I'm not closing the door until you bring her in.”

Frank held the door and talked while Paul got dressed. “I’ll call for an ambulance. I'm sure you’re right and they haven’t plowed anything but the main roads. We’ll have to do what we can for her until they’re able to make it through. We’ll build another fire.” Frank felt a twinge of guilt, forcing Paul to go out when he was obviously terrified. Through the falling snow, Frank saw the girl rolling. “I’ll make us some toddies. At least we can warm her up.”

Paul put on his snowshoes.

Frank clapped him on the shoulder. “Good. If she needs to, she can borrow my cane, though it’s useless in the snow. Oh, there’s a shovel in the garage if we need to clear a path. But go see her first. Ask her what the devil happened.”

The snow stopped. Ice crystals twinkled in the frigid air. Paul’s snowshoes squeaked with each step. The floodlight illuminated a wedge of whitened field and charcoal trees sketching where the forest was. Frank could see the girl clearly. A brunette in a navy-blue snowsuit with pink piping, she'd lost her hat and there were goggle marks around her eyes. Now that she'd seen Paul, she was crawling toward him.

But Paul marched past her and veered away from the lake. The girl grabbed for his leg. Paul avoided her grasp and headed for the thickest patch of woods. The girl was crying again, and she looked over to Frank standing in his doorway.

“It’s okay,” he called out. The floodlight probably made it difficult for her to see his face, but he smiled anyway.

Frank watched Paul continue past her. Another man appeared from behind a tree in front of Paul. Not more than twenty-five yards from the cabin. The man came at Paul. It was Johnson Free.

Johnson Free. But he moved like a young man and with the tall confident stride of one they knew thirty years ago, their drummer in the Paul Townes Quintet for nine months. A quiet man who, like Paul, had a problem with alcohol. A Chippewa who had disappeared on the morning he refused to play a Snowcatters’ Fourth of July Jamboree. State Police had chain-dragged his pickup from the Wisconsin River. When they opened the driver’s door, Free’s corpse had slithered to the mud. The newspaper had said he was drunk and crashed through a guardrail.

“Paul, oh God, look out he’s coming for you,” Frank whispered.

But Johnson wasn’t attacking Paul. The two men were talking. Paul pointed to the girl and then to Frank. Frank moved behind the door but couldn’t stop watching. Johnson was angry, striking his fist into his palm and yelling. Frank’s ears filled with wind and the girl’s pleas, the conversation lost.

Paul nodded. Johnson swept his arm out broadly, seeming to indicate the woods, then the sky, and he stomped his feet and shoved Paul to the ground. This powerful barrel-chested man could kick Paul to death and encounter no resistance. Instead, he helped Paul to his feet and brushed the snow from his neck. Johnson spoke, his mouth inches from Paul’s ear. They turned and started walking back toward the lake.

The girl, on her feet now, was watching Frank. One of her legs bent out strangely. She was hopping her way to the cabin.

“It’s okay, honey, I'm going to call an ambulance for you,” Frank said. “Don’t hurt yourself. I'm Frank. Behind you, that’s Paul and Johnson. We’re old friends who played in a jazz band together a long time ago, and Johnson’s been out of touch with us for a while but—”

Frank closed the door.

Working together, the two men hauled the screaming girl into the black corridor of the woods.

• • •

The phone line was, of course, cut.

Frank didn’t see Paul the next day, but Johnson was there, dawn to dusk, nailing pieces of the girl to the outside of the cabin. Frank pulled kitchen knives out of a drawer, searching, until he found something suitable. Now he had a Chinese cleaver resting in his lap. But Johnson didn’t seem interested in hurting him or even getting inside the cabin. He worked and chanted.

The hammering ceased. Johnson began painting the windows. A streaky red film froze quickly into an uneven clotted glaze. He didn’t use a brush. Strands of brown hair snagged in the corners as he wiped the wet scalp over the small panes then paused and dunked it into something Frank couldn’t see. Johnson’s shadow moved out of sight. Blood spilled under Frank’s door, the stain on the wood spreading no bigger than a Christmas card.

In the interminable night, Frank got up only to feed the fire and change records. He cloaked himself in the army blanket. When sleep came, it was a sudden engulfment. His grip on the Chinese cleaver loosened and the heavy blade clunked to the floor.

• • •

Frank woke to pounding and Paul’s voice.

“It’s me. Open up. I'm freezing my ass off.”

Paul’s haggard face appeared in the blood-encrusted glass. Frank hoisted himself from the chair. He leaned hard on the cane. At the door, he threw back the bolt.

“Come in.”

But there was no one there. A breeze stirred and the sound of dripping, not all of it snowmelt, pattered like light rain. The air was warm and clear.

No Paul.

Long icicles drooped off the gutter. It took Frank a minute to realize they weren’t normal.

KILL HIM

Frank broke them into pieces with his cane.

• • •

The girl was a witch.

Yesterday at the club, Johnson had told Paul. He said the girl brought him back, but the magic was wrong. Johnson had others inside him. He said to kill the girl. Bernadette Pappalardi was her name, granddaughter of Vincent Pappalardi, the meatpacker from Detroit. A Snowcatter.

“If we kill her, maybe I go back,” Johnson said as he handed Paul a black-and-white photograph. In the photo, six well-dressed men stood in a circle with their pants unzipped. They were pissing and laughing. Johnson’s corpse lay on the ground at their feet. They aimed for his locked-open mouth. “I found this in the club. I don’t know how. I just knew where to look. Under the floorboards.” A State Police lieutenant and the coroner were both club members, so getting the body was easy. “It’s bad where I'm at. Because what am I, Paul? Not a man, not a ghost.” Johnson thumped the muscles in his chest. “You have to help me. Together we can catch her. Make her fix what she broke.”

Paul had left him at the club, the snow red from the butchered doe Johnson was eating. Heavyweight clouds bore down on the valley. The storm wind kicked the Coleman from his hand twice.

Johnson had called out to him through the pines, “I’ll bring Bernadette to the cabin tonight. Talk to Frank. You fellas gotta help me.”

Paul kept walking.

I should’ve told Frank the whole story. Despite the shape he’s in right now.

After they choked her, nothing had changed. Johnson howled. He beat her skull against a tree. His hunting knife flashed. Paul couldn’t watch. He went to his shitty cabin, which was really nothing more than a trailer, and dropped into his bunk. Paul always knew who he was, what gave him pleasure; but he didn’t know restraint. He knew exhaustion, collapse, running the gas tank dry with the pedal floored under his boot.

Lights out. He knew lights out.

• • •

“Who'd wanna hurt a couple old bachelors?”

Paul shrugged, sipped his coffee. It had taken ten minutes for Frank to let him in the cabin. Another hour to fill in the gaps Paul had left in his original story. Paul lit his last cigarette. He'd need to get to town soon, snowed-in roads or not. But the snow had been melting all morning. They could probably drive out and forget this crazy mess.

Paul said, “You know Johnson believed in witches. He thought the Snowcatters were a coven.”

“Hmm.” Frank swallowed his tea and added another squirt of lemon. “Where’s Johnson now?”

“Don’t know. The woods probably.”

“Do you know why he painted my house with that witch girl’s blood?”

“He said it was to protect us. He did the same thing to my trailer while I was asleep.”

“Need more coffee?” Frank asked.

“I'm jittery enough, thanks.”

Frank poured the remains of the pot in the sink. “What’s he protecting us from?”

Paul shook his head. “I have no idea.”

“I think we should go to the club and end this. The old toboggan is in the garage. You could pull me, it’s downhill for the most part, isn’t it?”

“Johnson said to stay away from the club.”

“And you’re going to listen to him?”

“I don’t know,” Paul said as he watched the cigarette burn between his fingers.

“But he was wrong about killing the girl, wasn’t he?”

Paul breathed a deep sigh. “Let me finish my cigarette, and then I’ll go get the goddamned sled.”

“Take your time. I’ve got to put my long johns on. You’ll have to help me with the ice on the stoop.”

• • •

His hands turned purple because the blood didn’t flow right. The rope cut into his shoulders. Paul fingered the flat cigarette pack in his pocket for the third time since they left the A-frame. The wind was turning cold again.

“Radio said another storm’s coming through tonight. Should be a record snowfall for this month. Can you imagine more on top of this?” Frank asked.

Paul mumbled.

“What, Dearie?”

“I said I need a sonofabitching cigarette.”

“And a drink too, I’ll bet.” Frank slipped off a mitten and dug into the folds of his coat. “Here, take a break.” He stretched out his arm and offered a stainless steel flask.

“I think Johnson’s watching us. I heard branches breaking,” Paul said.

“he’s an Indian, Dearie, he doesn’t step on branches.”

Paul gulped Scotch.

Ahead on the trail, woodsmoke began to rise in a column. Johnson’s chanting started. He was waiting at the club. The sunset cut low through the barren treetops. It would be dark in an hour. Paul lit the Coleman. He felt a fist squeezing his chest.

“Let’s go back, Frank.”

“Who’s going to haul me up that hill? You can hardly breathe as it is.” Frank flicked his naked fingers in the air, summoning the flask. He polished off its contents. “No, we’re going to warm ourselves by the Indian’s fire. And we’ll ask him to go away and leave us alone. I'm sitting on two sleeping bags. We can tuck away in a solid corner of the club and burn the rest. Someone will report the fire. Nobody will freeze, that’s for sure.”

Paul jerked the sled ten yards forward to a slope in the trail. The slope leveled out at the club lot. Paul climbed aboard the toboggan. They could see Johnson, and he spotted them.

Johnson was chanting fast and loud. Even from a distance, they saw spit fly silver from his lips. Stripped to his underwear, he danced in the ruins of Snowcatters'. Johnson’s muscles flexed hard as he leaped over rotted beams, folding chairs, a plywood podium fallen sideways in the snow. He used the hunting knife to slash invisible predators above his head. The chant grew frenzied without losing its rhythm.

“Twitches— twitches— twitches!”

Paul made no sense of it. Johnson’s words slowed as he crouched like a baseball catcher. He put down the knife and made snowballs, then picked it up again. Johnson was laughing. Whirling. Stabbing the air. He screwed the knifepoint into the meat of his arm and tasted his own blood. His eyes turned golden.

“Twitches— too wi chezz— too wi chezzzz—”

Two witches. That’s what Johnson was saying.

Frank patted Paul on the thigh. “Even at your advanced age, you’re stronger than poor Bernadette.”

Before Paul had a chance to ask Frank how he knew that, Frank gave a push with his cane, and the two old men rode to the bottom like little boys.

 

 

Steven Sidor’s short story, “Mopping Up,” won first prize in the Horrorfind.com Weird War Fiction Contest. Skin River is his recently completed first novel. Visit www.skinriver.com for more details and a free downloadable excerpt. Steven is a graduate of Grinnell College and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (M.A. in English). Born and raised in Chicago, he now lives with his wife and daughter in St. Charles, IL.


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ISSUE #9

December 2001

FICTION

ART