Jim Castiglia pulls his 1981 light blue rotting Toyota Camry into a freshly plowed parking spot at the Chestnut Ridge Adult Community Complex. He turns off the ignition and looks out at the snow covering the condos and their roofs, slanted this way and that like blank pieces of paper. Only a few times a year does the snow fall like this, blanketing Jim's world, covering every imperfection in glowing white plains.
As he walks up the office steps, he limps a little to the left from a pain in his hip that feels particularly sharp this morning. The news promised even more snow tonight, and as he slides the glass door open to the office he thinks it strange how his bones have a silent language with snow and rain. But how can he trust these signals inside him? He has learned through the years the cunning ways of his intuition, how it has made solid promises that were never able to bear fruit.
"Hey boss." Hardy is behind his cluttered desk that's covered with old dust, tools and scattered papers. Hardy is overweight and in his mid-forties, young enough to be Jim's son. Jim watches as he dials the phone, his pudgy fingers awkward against the small number keys. Hardy doesn't say anything as he dials, he just looks at Jim with the receiver pressed up against his ear. They stare plainly at each other while Hardy waits for someone to pick up. After a minute he hangs up.
"Phone's been ringing off the hook. They all want their walkways cleared and salted and who knows what else."
There was a time that Jim had a fire in him when it came to his job, back when he worked construction with his younger brother Steve. The two of them would arrive early at the site when the sky was tinted pale blue. The smell of morning mixed with wood and cement stirred a lifting in Jim that drove him to build. He loved to watch a house grow. Watch a wooden skeleton turn into a neatly painted home. But those days with his brother are so long ago that he can barely make them out anymore. Those days before his body started to age and grow creaky like an old barn.
When the construction got to be too much for him, he took a job as a janitor at a local high school. He waxed the floors mornings before the kids arrived when everything was still and even. He liked the long clean halls, lockers neatly lined up against the wall. He buffed the floors until they shone like hard candy.
But eventually his pace slowed and he couldn't keep up with the work. They offered him the cashier position in the cafeteria for less than half the pay, but at least he could take food home for free. He'd often bring home trays of macaroni and cheese and small plastic cups of chocolate pudding and whatever else was leftover.
The teenagers got to be too much for him. They stood in long bored lines and watched him as he clumsily punched numbers into the register. It only took one impatient kid to start getting loud about the line, and Jim would begin to rush and mess up the numbers. His drawer was always off, and after a few months they let him go.
Finally he landed this job as a maintenance worker at Chestnut Ridge where he doesn't need a fire in him. He works part time, in at noon and out at five. He unclogs bathtubs and changes light bulbs at a slow, easy pace while the elderly linger around him like ticking clocks.
Jim limps over to the window by Hardy's desk. He holds his side so Hardy can see. "This damn hip," Jim says. Hardy scratches his head and bites lightly on his lower lip. "The cold. Makes it feel like nails driving through me." He winces and looks over for Hardy's reaction, but Hardy just clears his throat and begins looking down at invoices.
Jim pokes his finger through the thick blinds to look outside. The sound of the metal blinds fills the room and settles. "Everyone out?" Maybe Hardy will give him something inside to do again. He could mop the floor. He'll do it slow and make it last a while. Hardy used to do those kinds of favors for Jim. That was before the fifty dollars went missing from the office.
"Yup," Hardy says. "All the guys been working all morning getting the snow shoveled." Hardy clears his throat again and points over to the closet. "Shovel's in there Jim. You know the drill."
Jim was alone in the office when he saw the bill lying on the floor next to the desk, folded neatly in half like a playing card. He figured he'd just hold onto it until someone mentioned anything. No harm in that. But when Hardy did come around to asking if Jim had seen a bill lying around, Jim calmly shook his head no.
Jim nods and leaves with a shovel and bucket of salt. Outside, he sees the other workers scattered through out the complex. They wear the same fluorescent orange wool hat and gloves he wears, today shining particularly bright against the snow. The men nod at Jim from a distance, and he begins shoveling.
By three o' clock, the white reflection of snow shining off the ground begins to shift into shades of purple and grey. The cold has sharpened, and Jim smells the metallic scent of ice in the air. The muscles in his arms and back ache from shoveling, and his chest feels tight from the cold.
He's outside of Mr. Shultz's apartment. Mr. Shultz is in his early nineties and has no family left. He's always eager for visitors and often calls the maintenance workers to come inside and take a load off. Jim has spent many afternoons sitting on his couch with the small floral print, listening to Mr. Shultz tell stories about his life that draws a long line back into time like an old dirt road.
Jim sticks his shovel in a pile of snow, walks down the few steps to Shultz's basement apartment, and knocks twice on his door. All that answers back is the tremendous silence of fallen snow. He knocks again and waits. A few surrounding tree branches crack dryly with the weight of snow. "Mr. Shultz? You in there?" He tries the doorknob. It clicks open and a warm gust of stale air hits Jim's face. Since Mr. Shultz lives in one of the basement units in the complex, the only natural light shines in dull white hues from a few small rectangular windows towards the ceiling. Dusk is folding in now, so the apartment is mostly dark inside. Jim flicks on the light by the door.
Mr. Shultz is sitting in the living room on his recliner chair. Jim sees right away from his graying complexion and the way he's hunched into himself that he's dead. He stands frozen for a minute watching him, his heart quickening in his throat. The wind brushes up against the small windows and makes a low moan. He looks behind him, past the door that's still open to the outside; the sky is a bright steel blue, hardening quickly into night.
Jim lets out a breath and closes himself inside the apartment. He walks quietly past Mr. Shultz and into the small kitchen. He flicks on the fluorescent light, and the buzz of it encases the small space. On the fridge is a picture of Mr. Shultz and his wife hung with a small circular magnet. Jim takes the picture off the fridge and squints at it. Mr. Shultz often talked about his departed wife. He retold stories and details of her with a keen precision, like he was trying to stitch her neatly back into life. "It was when we were in Santa Fe," he would tell Jim. "Caroline wore the bathing suit with the yellow flowers. Her skin," he would continue, his hand making a motion in the air like he was drawing a picture with a fine pen, "her skin was like cream, you see, exactly like cream."
In the picture, the couple looks to be about Jim's age. They are somewhere with palm trees and a bright blue sky. Mr. Shultz had his arm around his wife, and she is leaning into him, like she's shy for the camera. Mr. Shultz stood proud and kind and unafraid. No trace of the fear that crept into his face in the past couple of years.
Jim fastens the picture back with the magnet and opens the fridge. It's mostly empty inside except for a quart of milk, one green apple sliced in half and some assorted jars in the door. He closes the fridge, and the sound of the glass jars clink and echo off the mostly empty space inside. He lets the familiar sound settle. The sound of an empty fridge. The sound of a man living alone. He steps back into the living room.
Just as he's about to lift his radio out of his pocket to call over to Hardy, his eyes catch the small brown mound of a wallet on the coffee table. He puts his radio back in his pocket. He walks over to the wallet and picks it up. The brown leather has gone dry with age. He opens it and it makes a cracking sound like an old book. The wallet is swollen with bills, stacked neatly in their compartment. Jim runs his finger through the bills, making a little fanning noise like cards shuffling, and to his surprise he sees that the wallet is full of one hundred dollar bills. Jim figures there's at least two thousand dollars here. "Mr. Shultz?" he asks the wallet.
A shadow crosses over the small window. He flips the wallet closed, making a small wind that hits his face.
Back in the days when Jim worked with his brother, they lived three houses away from each other in their hometown. Steve was married to Betsy. Jillian, their daughter, was just a toddler. Betsy was a plain and honest woman who knew how to love people in exactly the right amounts. Jim has never been as lucky with women. His heart has its own, stubborn memory and he could never move on from Julia, his high school sweetheart.
She had long red hair and round cheeks that blushed when she laughed. The night before she went off to college, the two of them sat in Jim's car. It was pouring and the sound of rain was bouncing off the tin roof of Jim's enormous white Oldsmobile. Julia was crying. There was something beautiful in the way she cried, and Jim watched her, his head bent to the side, his hand placed lightly on the back of her neck.
She didn't want to leave. She wanted to stay in town, like Jim, and get married. But Jim told her no. He told her she was too smart for that. He promised that when she was finished with school, he would have money saved and then they would get married. They would get a house and have kids.
But on her first visit back from school, just a couple of raw months gone, Jim saw right away when Julia answered the door her once bright expression had gone teary. Her mouth had fallen into a plain line.
They took a slow walk down her small street. It was late fall, the sky a graying white, the leaves fallen and skittering along the road. When they got to the stop sign at the end of the street, Julia turned to Jim and looked him square in the face.
"I'm just gonna say it."
"Say what?" Jim asked her.
"I missed you so much, I was lonely up there. And then. And then I met someone that left his girlfriend home too, just like us, ya know? And, I don't know." She dropped her gaze then and looked down at her feet. She had her hands stuffed in the front pockets of her jacket. "I'm sorry Jimmy."
Jim dated over the years, but he couldn't help feel that the women who came and went were constantly looking over his shoulder for a better man to come along. By the time he reached forty and was living next to Steve, he was moving into a kind of acceptance that he might not have a family of his own. At least he had Steve and Betsy. At least he had a little niece that was just like his own daughter.
One morning when Jim went over to Steve's to pick him up for work, Steve was on the phone in the bedroom. He had the door closed on the thin white wire. Jim went to the kitchen to pour himself a cup of coffee, and then over to Jillian's small bedroom where Betsy was getting her dressed and ready for daycare. Betsy was trying to get Jillian's foot in a shoe but she kept kicking her feet around.
"Well hello my little lady." Jim bent down and kissed Jillian on the forehead. She stopped kicking her feet then and Betsy slid her small shoe on. "Who's Steve on the phone with?" Jim asked, and Betsy shrugged.
On the way back to the kitchen, Jim looked at his watch and called towards the closed bedroom door. "Come on Stevie, we're gonna be late." He didn't want Anthony, their boss, to get on their case about being late. A minute later, Steve came into the kitchen carrying his boots. He pulled out a chair from the kitchen table and began tying his laces up.
"Who was on the phone?"
"It was Anthony."
"Anthony? What's he want?"
"Nothing, really. He wants me to check something out. Some new project he might want to put me on." Jim sipped the last of his coffee and put the empty mug in the sink as jealousy gave a fast, quick birth inside his chest. They didn't say anything more until they were halfway at the job.
"Why'd he call you? He wants to put you on some project without me?"
"He probably means to put us both on it, Jimmy, no big deal." Jim clenched and unclenched his jaw. "Come on, what are you so upset for?"
"Because I am and shut up Steve." They were quiet for a minute, frowning at the road ahead of them while the sound of tools sitting in card board boxes in the back of the van clinked and rattled. "Why didn't he ask me first? I've been with him for longer than you."
"If he wants to put me on some project you think I'm gonna say no? I got a kid now Jimmy, you know I need all the money I can get." Jim got quiet and didn't say anything more about it because the truth of the matter shone like a bright bulb between them.
They both knew very well why Steve was the chosen one. It was always Steve. Steve who had all the friends. Steve who was a little more handsome, a little quicker to laugh, a little less conscious of himself. This tension had always curled in and out between them like a moving tide since they were boys. And Jim knew there was nothing he could say or do about it.
That was the last season that Jim worked together with his brother. Anthony moved Steve to projects in the city, eventually making him foreman on his buildings. And Jim stayed behind, hammering together houses like he always had.
Things changed between the brothers as Jim watched Steve climb seamlessly up the ranks. They got quieter. Sharper. And then, the year that Jillian turned four, Steve moved off their street into a brand new house into a brand new neighborhood.
One Sunday evening, not long after Steve had moved out, Jim found himself parked in front of the pub in town. He could see through the clouded windows two huge television sets, one on each side of the bar, blaring out a football game. There were just a few men sitting alone at the bar, all of them with their shoulders hunched forward, staring at the TV's. They all had pint glasses in front of them, filled with yellow beer. A bell on the door jingled when he entered, and everyone but the bartender shifted their gaze just slightly to the side, in the direction of the bell. The bartender was a round woman with curly bright red hair. She was chewing gum and staring down at a magazine, giving it a skeptical look. When Jim took a seat at the bar, she looked up at him with pursed lips and gave him the same doubtful look she gave the magazine. She waddled over and slid a circular cardboard coaster at him. In a tired, nasal voice she asked, "Beer?"
He asked for a Bud and took his wallet out of his back pocket. Hanging up right beside the television was a Super Bowl pool. When the bartender placed the pint of beer in front of him she asked, "You wanna buy a box?"
It was 1994. The Super Bowl was a week away, Dallas against the Buffalo Bills. It was the fourth year in a row that the Bills had made it all the way. Jim had rooted for them every time, but every year they lost. As he looked around the bar that night, at the flat yellow light, at the loneliness and boredom that he could almost taste, he decided that losers stay losers, and he bet his entire wad of cash he had in his pocket, two weeks' pay, on Dallas. One week later, he won $5,000.
On the night of his win, he lay in bed and replayed the night in his head. He replayed the phone call he'd made to Steve to tell him the news. He told Steve he was going to take them all out for a nice dinner. And they laughed back and forth, right back to being the brothers they were.
He lay and thought about these things, watching the moonlight shine through the window. The light made clean sharp squares of white on his floor. He sat up in bed and looked out his window to get a closer look at the moon. It was a full perfect circle. The white of it lit up the tips of the bare trees and the roofs of the scattered houses. As Jim watched how perfectly lit the neighborhood was, how harmless all the shapes looked in the white light, he felt a new sense of stillness. For the first time in a long while he didn't feel that stormy tide between himself and his brother. He didn't feel the heavy weight of Steve's empty house down the street.
That night he fell asleep with a song inside him, and it stayed with him for a couple of weeks. But slowly, the song began to fade and thoughts about winning again began to creep up on him.
There was a casino an hour and a half north on Route 25. Jim had only been there a couple of times before, for a few bachelor parties. The men who looked so at home there, sitting on stools like stubborn warts, with their tired, puffy eyes and empty gazes made him nervous. At the time he couldn't understand throwing hard-earned money away and getting nothing in return. He would play a slot machine or two for fun, but mostly he'd stand by his friends who sat hunched around blackjack tables.
It was a Saturday morning, one month after he'd won the Super Bowl money, when Jim found himself driving up to the casino. He had never realized before how flat and straight Route 25 was, how effortlessly his truck pulled north.
When he stepped into the wide open space of the casino and his feet hit the thin vacuumed carpet, he felt light inside, as if there were air in between his joints fueling his movements. He decided on Hold'em. He found, when he sat down at the table, he was able to set his face into a plain look. He could hide the fluttering he felt inside. He felt confident that he was different from these men. They were gamblers and he was not. He kept his eyes on the swift movements of the dealer, ignoring the soundless conversation that the other men were having at the table.
That evening he drove home $2,000 richer. In his truck, he cracked opened his window. It was coming on the end of winter. He smiled at the scent of mud on the wind, the smell of the ground thawing, a sure sign that spring would come soon to spread new green life.
The next Saturday came just like any other Saturday. As Jim made his bed in the morning, he went over his mental list of chores to do. Laundry, groceries, and then dinner over at Steve's house. When he pulled into a parking spot in front of the Laundromat, he turned the truck off and looked out his rear view. The town was quiet, just a few cars drifting slowly through the streets. No one looking for him. No one curious about where he was. He sat there for a few minutes before starting the truck up again. And when he clicked his blinker on to turn right onto Route 25, it was like he clicked off something in his brain. And there began Jim's ten year tug and pull of losing and winning at cards.
One of the last times Jim saw his brother, they were out on Steve's back porch above his pool. It was a summer just before evening, and the sunlight was moving around with a lazy breeze on the surrounding trees. Jillian was splashing in the pool below them.
"This is a problem," Steve said as he tore the check for $5,000 out of his checkbook. He didn't hand the check over to Jim, he held it and stared at it.
"I'll pay you back Steve. In a month I'll have it back for you."
"That's not it Jim." He let out an exhausted sigh and looked over to the woods. Jim watched him, trying to figure out what he was thinking. He thought for a second Steve was counting all the money he had given him over the years, but then he decided that wasn't it, the look on Steve's face was soft, like he was remembering something good. Like he was thinking of those days when they were little and Steve would follow Jim around, mimicking his walk and the way he combed his hair back. But Steve quickly shook off whatever he was thinking and looked over to Jim, squinting out the deepening sun. "What goes through your head?"
"Oh come on, I don't need one of your lectures. If it's such a big deal just forget it, okay? I'll figure something else out." Jim stood and Steve looked up at him, shielding his eyes from the sun. They both knew he couldn't leave. He needed that check. He sat back down at the table.
"I've learned my lesson. I'm done with all of it."
"So no more bets? No cards?"
The crickets were getting louder as the sun was falling. Jim turned to face the woods and said, "None of it. I swear I'm done. I have to eat with that money. I have to pay my goddamn landlord." Jim kept his gaze on the woods. The truth was he had big plans for that five thousand. He was going to triple it and pay Steve back for everything.
"Here." Steve handed him the check. "That's all I have left to give to you." Jim sat still with his hands in his lap and Steve placed the check in front of him on the table. "You blow it this time and you're on your own." Jim opened his mouth to say something but Steve cut him off, "I mean it. Don't even bother coming back here if you lose that money Jim."
Steve got up from the table and went into the house through the sliding screen door, disappearing into the shadows of the kitchen. Jim took the check and slipped it into his wallet. From behind him he heard the small slapping wet footprints of his niece, Jillian, approach him. She was ten years old then. She tugged at his T-shirt. Her hair was wet and matted down, her eyes bloodshot from chlorine.
"Hey there Miss Jilly Willy." She was shivering and her lips were turning blue. "Honey you cold?" He grabbed a towel off the banister of the deck and she began to protest.
"No, Uncle Jimmy I wanna swim more. Watch me dive. You watch me and judge me from 1-10 like last time. Kay?" Jim let Jillian lead him down the stairs to the poolside, her wet, pruned little hand guiding him. He rolled up his jeans and stuck his feet in the water. "And now, from the USA, Miss Jillian Castiglia!" he called out and gave his niece a round of applause. She giggled as she approached the diving board. He watched her dive as dusk turned everything a deep orange.
"You get to units 8 and 9?" It's Hardy outside, talking to another worker. They're standing directly outside Mr. Shultz' window. Jim hears Hardy clear his throat and spit. "You and Jimmy go and shovel out unit 10 and then you can go home. You seen him?"
"Well find him and get those units done. I'm gonna go check on Shultz."
Jim scans the room for a place to hide but he can't move, like the wallet is an anchor that's weighing him down to the carpet. All the objects in the room look as still as a calm lake. The lamp by the door, the framed pictures of grandkids on the wall, the television set, the bowl on the coffee table filled with candy.
He hears Hardy wipe his feet on the welcome mat outside the door. He knocks hard on the door and it echoes through the room.
"Mr. Shultz? It's Hardy." Hardy waits a few seconds and then knocks again twice. "You in there buddy?"
Jim thinks if he could just lock the door, if he could run over and turn the small lock an inch to the left he could save himself. But he's frozen in his spot, and the wallet is throbbing now in his hand like a wound.
He squints his eyes shut and waits for the door to click open, but all he hears is quiet behind the closed door. Jim opens his eyes slowly. The streetlights outside automatically shake to life and sputter a dull orange light into the apartment. He hears Hardy's footsteps begin to walk away from the door, the sound of them squeaking on top of the packed snow.
Jim looks back at Mr. Shultz. He thinks for a second that he sees his chest rise and fall, but remembers that same illusion at his own father's wake. While he lay in the coffin, surrounded by flowers, thin and dead in a suit that hung loosely around him, Jim thought he saw him breathing. He walked up to him in a panic, looking closely at his chest. But it was as still as a rock. Just like Mr. Shultz upon second look.
He opens the wallet and removes the thick stack of bills. They have a damp feel to them. He removes his own thin wallet from his back pocket and shoves the bills inside. He stands still and waits. He waits for the singing that comes with a win to return, that sweet song that he hasn't heard in so many years. But all that surrounds him now is the dry drone of the fluorescent light in the kitchen and the ticking of a clock on the wall.
The old familiar sack of guilt returns and sits heavy on his chest. It hangs on his limbs, his heart. In one quick movement, he switches the bills back into Mr. Shultz's wallet, walks over to the coffee table and returns it to its place. He turns off the kitchen light. He walks across the living room and steps outside. The snow smells like night now, and the sweet smell of fires burning in chimney's is on the wind. The cold is softer than before. He waits a minute and then takes his radio out of his pocket.
"Jim? Where'd you go?"
"It's Shultz. He's gone."
When Jim got home that night, after his dinner of a can of chicken noodle soup, he picked up the phone and dialed Steve's house. It was Jillian who answered. She had the airy expectant voice of a teenage girl. Jim smiled at the sound of her, but he didn't announce himself. He just asked to speak to Steve.
"Hello?" Steve asked.
"Stevie. It's me." There was a heavy silence on the other end. Jim cleared his throat. "I'm different now." These words were not round on the edges with lies. These words had the concrete flatness of truth in them, and Jim spoke them directly from the center of his body from a calm, even place.
"I just want you to know that Steve. For whatever it's worth." Steve didn't say anything, and Jim thought he might hang up. Jim said, "How about this snow?"
"Yeah," Steve kind of laughed the word. A relieved, small laugh. "How about it?"