Ed Kowski stood out back shooting misty arcs from a garden hose onto the alley’s crumbled asphalt. A low wind skirted over his neighbors’ snow-blue backyards, rattling chain-link fences, dusting old ash piles, faintly howling. The evening searchlight down at the hospital had already begun to circle, its wide shaft broken once per revolution by a statue of Mother Mary with head bowed. Ed glanced up at her as the water flaked and iced. Her hands looked cold—marble white, folded in prayer.
It had been a long time since he’d skated. Dorothy Zmuda from down the street had brought him the skates two weeks before, after her Henry died of lung cancer. A pitiful sight, Dorothy Zmuda, trudging door to door in her black boots and moth-eaten scarf, a box of Henry’s belongings behind her on a sled.
She wouldn’t leave until Ed took something—stubborn woman. He poked around the box and finally pulled out the skates.
Once she’d gone, he sat in the living room and laced them up. Thin brown leather, tongues chewed by mice, blades rusted but functional: they felt tight but he could stand in them. His wife, Ruth, wandered in just as he had risen.
“Fool,” she said.
“You’ll break your ankles.”
That was two weeks before. In the meantime, Ed had been hearing her voice say “Fool” every time he noticed a pretty cloud or felt happy for no apparent reason or saw his face in a mirror. Fool. This wasn’t scorn from Ruth, only a kind of shorthand for what they both knew. They were old—it was no time for stunts. Their granddaughter Stephie now lived with them. Her mother had run off long ago, and Ed and Ruth’s oldest son, Frank, was a bad father. Work. Drink. Women. Facts that stabbed at Ed each morning as he woke and looked out the ice-crusted window and his failures with the boy seemed as plain as the black curbside snow. Stephie was a second chance.
Inside, Ruth cooked dinner and Stephie sat at the kitchen table with her head bent over a math book. Though Halloween was three months past, the girl had changed into her witch’s costume—black-haired wig, black hat, black face-paint smeared around her eyes and mouth in a frown. Ruth looked at Ed as she stirred the chicken soup. Greasy yellow fat-bubbles rolled and split open on the surface.
“Should I have an ambulance on standby?”
Ed pulled off his sock-cap. His white hair rose stiffly from a cowlick. “How’s the homework, Stephie? Do you need help?”
She didn’t lift her face from the book.
“The ice’ll be frozen soon. Tonight’s the night.”
She turned a page and her pencil kept moving on the white sheet of paper. Ed loved this studious girl. He worried, too. No friends ever came home with her, she rarely used the telephone, and nearly every school day for three weeks now she had come home and made herself up like a witch. Ed blamed the poster on the door-back in her bedroom, though of course it wasn’t the poster’s fault. It had been her father’s poster, years before. Ed had always meant to take it down but for some reason had not—a hideous, faded KISS poster. The smoke, the blood, the tongues. He’d almost forgotten it was there until the day Stephie moved in and he’d stood by the bed with her little plaid suitcases in both hands. She closed the door and there it was.
“Stephie,” he said.
She looked up, her eyes narrowing to slits. Ed felt her scrutiny heavy as the coat he’d just taken off and hung on a hook. He stood by the door, chest thrust out. “Do you think I’ll break my ankles?” he said.
“But you could break your spine.”
“Go wash up,” Ruth barked, pointing the wooden spoon with which she stirred the soup. “Go. Now. You can finish your math later.”
Stephie snapped shut the book and retreated down the hall in her pointed black hat. Ed stepped out of his boots and went to the table to push in her chair. He looked at Ruth with an expression of bemusement.
“Don’t start,” Ruth said.
“You love me.”
“Like an old tomcat.” She wiped a wet rag over the counter in circles. “You’re nothing but trouble. But I feel pity. I put out food.”
“Why put out food?”
“Don’t get childish on me.”
He snuck up behind her and squeezed her waist and hugged her. “Only one whose faith is like a little child’s shall enter the kingdom.”
“Childish isn’t child-like,” she said.
“How long has it been?”
“Since we skated?”
Her rag paused mid-circle. “You could break your spine.”
Since the dining room was cold and drafty, they ate dinner at the kitchen table. Ed wiped off that morning’s toast crumbs and set down bowls and glasses and silverware. Stephie ripped paper towels from a roll for napkins and folded them into triangles. Ruth brought the soup to the table. They sat and ate. Ed lifted a spoonful of soup to his lips, blew on it, received its warmth into his mouth. The warmth spread to his throat, his stomach. He buttered a cracker and took a bite and the cool butter soothed his tongue.
Outside, a few snowflakes spit from the gutter-drifts. The searchlight at the hospital went round. No moon had risen. Break my ankles, he mused. Break my spine. He thought of Dorothy Zmuda trudging from door to door with her dead man’s box on a sled. I haven’t skated, he realized, since I was sixteen. Break my spine. He looked at Ruth and Stephie, both bent over their bowls, holding their spoons with the same tight fist. He looked at his own hands, frail, wrinkled, splotched, nothing but jutting tendons and hangnails and forty-year-old tobacco stains. He rubbed his chin whiskers, remembering a time when he’d had a full beard—the year after he’d come home from Korea, his shaving-arm in a sling. Ruth had offered to shave him on a daily basis.
He spooned his soup and chuckled.
“You wanted to shave me.”
“You heard me.”
“Stephie, your grandfather’s cracked.”
“After Korea,” Ed said, still chuckling. He stroked his chin whiskers more severely. “A long black beard. You wanted to cut it.”
“I have no memory of a beard.”
“You wanted to cut it!”
He banged the table, startling Ruth.
Half-astounded himself, he uncoiled his fist, pulled it back apologetically. Stephie pushed up her glasses. “You wanted to cut it,” he urged.
Ed lifted noodles with his spoon and dropped them in the soup. He wondered if after he died Ruth would put his belongings in a box to take door to door. If she’d look as stoic and grim as Dorothy Zmuda. He doubted it. If he died, Ruth would go live with her sister in Oak Park and knit scarves on a porch.
Stephie nibbled a cracker.
“Stephie. . . ?”
He glanced at Ruth, who had heard something serious in his voice and was staring at him. She lowered a spoon to her empty bowl.
“Why don’t you have friends?”
Ruth was up from her chair, angrily clearing what could be taken from the table. The butter dish. The crackers on a green plate. She stood in the corner by the sink. “You’re a confused old man. Talking beards. You probably mean when you first came home and the doctors had me hide the razors. Ignore him, Stephie.”
“You wanted to cut it!”
“Just ignore the fool, Stephie.”
Ed turned to his granddaughter, feeling a sudden shock of guilt for his outburst. She stared at him, her eyes made huge by the lenses of her glasses. She blinked and seemed to know what she was going to say before pushing back her chair, standing and positioning herself behind it. “Are you dying, Grampa?”
Ruth had returned to the table for their bowls. She kept her face from Ed’s, which had suddenly become long and sober. “He’s not dying, honey,” Ruth said. “Some days I wish he was, but he’s not. He’ll live forever.”
“Why’d you hide the razors?”
Ruth retreated again to the corner by the sink.
“I’ll live forever, huh?” Ed said. He got up and went to the bedroom and came back with Henry Zmuda’s skates slung over his shoulder. He dropped them by the door and stuffed his arms through the sleeves of his coat. “I haven’t skated since I was a sixteen. You should have seen me then, Stephie. Out on the river all winter. Sometimes we had campfires right on the ice it got so thick. The freeze is so deep, you see.” He pulled his sock cap over his head, flinching because it was still cold and wet from earlier. “Even when the ice melts, what’s underneath makes it freeze all over again.”
Ed pushed his feet into his snowmobile boots and once more slung the skates over his shoulder. Ruth was drawing dishwater, her hands working a dirty sponge against a bowl, her sweater sleeves pushed high up on her forearms. A long twist of gray hair had slipped from its bun, dangling limp against her neck.
“Ruthie,” he said. “Forget the beard.”
“I did forget.”
“Look at me. Please.”
She shrugged, stopped scrubbing. She turned off the water and wheeled around. Her face had once been as freckled as Stephie’s and in it now Ed could see tiny brown dots among the wrinkles and stray hairs. Here was the girl she’d once been, the pretty teenager, the young woman, the mother of their children. He wanted to tell her he loved her—the feeling suddenly spread all through him—but he could never bring himself to say it. He turned to Stephie, ready with a joke. But Stephie had left the table. He stood blinking at their three empty chairs, the table’s glossy chipped surface.
“Those are a dead man’s skates,” Ruth said.
She turned back to the sink, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. In the portrait of her face in the windowpane the only thing visible was the hawkish cut of her cheekbones.
“Don’t be superstitious, woman.”
“Me? I saw you out there this afternoon. The whole time you were staring at the hospital. Were there choppers flying in?”
“Zmuda didn’t die skating.”
“Say you break a hip.”
“She watches over the children!”
“You’re no child, my dear—you’re an old fool!”
Ed felt a tugging at the bottom of his coat and looked down. It was Stephie. Over her witch’s cloak she wore the pink parka they’d bought her in the fall. Matching gloves dangled from the sleeves on shiny metal hooks. The hood was lined with fur. She’d put on moon-boots, a wool hat, and a scarf patterned with reindeer and snowflakes. Her little face was raw from scrubbing off the black grease around her eyes and lips.
“I’m ready, Grampa.”
He looked at Ruth, who set a bowl in the strainer, hard. When he spoke it was to Ruth’s back. “Have you finished your math?”
“Math’s easy,” Stephie said.
Ruth glanced back and saw him watching her. She pulled the drain on the sink and the water gurgled out. Her lightless face in the windowpane said, “I don’t want her out there. It’s too cold tonight, the wind like it is.”
“I want to see Grampa fall down.”
Stephie reached up and took his hand. So rarely did she touch him, he wanted to forget everything and just marvel to Ruth, Look, she’s holding my hand. Stringy brown bangs fell across her forehead. The lenses of her glasses were smudged with tiny fingerprints. “Stephie,” he said. “Put on your gloves.”
Ruth banged something in the sink.
“You could come,” he said suddenly, the high timbre of his voice asking it like a question. “You could come and watch—Ruthie.”
She leaned heavily against the kitchen counter. In one hand was a tangle of steel-wool and in the other, gripped tightly, the knife with which she’d shredded chicken for the soup. Ed held her eyes in the reflection on the window.
His heart pricked.
“Is Gramma crying?” Stephie said.
“Hush.” Ed backed off a step, watching Ruth the whole time, and absently nudged Stephie through the front door.
Outside, the wind had picked up. The moon hung low and liquid-white on the horizon, glinting individual crystals of snow in yards, on rooftops, on car windshields. Ed listened for a moment to the cold crunching-sound of their boots in the snow. He looked at Stephie. Against the surrounding whiteness, her skin glowed blue—and bluer where she’d scrubbed off the grease. Blue like Mary, Ed thought.