Crack! Crack! The blade of Tyler Johnson’s icebreaker chipped away at the mound of ice in the family’s backyard. The snow had been thick this year, smothering everything, especially the flimsy carport roof. A couple months earlier he had shoveled the snow off the roof, creating a gargantuan snowbank, now shrunk to the size of a baby elephant, in the freeze-thaw cycle of early spring. It was far too hard and icy for the kids to ride their toboggans on, as they used to.
“What on earth are you doing?” Ester shouted, her annoyance carrying from the laundry room window to where Tyler stood.
Tyler rubbed his sleeve against his brow and stared at the open window. “Breaking up the glacier, honey. I just wanted it to melt faster—get a head start on the garden.”
“It’ll get too mucky. Just leave it. Otherwise, the kids’ll go slopping around in it.”
Tyler nudged up his cuff to look at his watch. He mustn’t forget he was doing pick-up today. “Okey-dokey.” Her window slid shut.
He clanked down his icebreaker on the patio stone near the back door. Temperatures hovered around freezing, but the sun shone longer these days. At the side of the house, where it got the most sun, little crocuses were poking up, looking like paintbrushes with fat heads dipped in purple paint. Change was in the air.
He went inside and shed his boots, jacket, and mitts in the mud room. He carried a plastic bucket, a dirty scarred thing, into the small utilitarian room where she stood sorting clothes, surrounded by the not unpleasant scent of Tide laundry detergent and Downy softener. “You’d never believe what I found out there,” he said.
“Let me guess: Ötzi the iceman.” She continued sorting clothes, but her eyes darted to the bucket.
“Ha ha.” Tyler rummaged in the bucket and produced a wet plastic and metal toy. “Billy’s toy! Remember that super-duper Beyblade he shot off the roof?”
“Oh he’ll be happy.”
“And that’s not all… Anneli’s boot!”
“Oh crumb.” She sighed. “I looked high and low for that thing.”
“Crazy, ain’t it? We shelled out for a brand-new pair. And she’ll never be size six again.”
“Not a total waste—we could donate.” She nodded toward the box of outgrown kids’ clothes she kept always on the go. Thriftiness in her bones, another thing that Tyler loved about her.
“Donate a used item stuck in a snowbank for a month?” he said, sniffing the boot.
“Yeah, you’re right.” She wrinkled her perfect nose. “Likely has mildew.”
“Just like these… three gloves,” Tyler said, pulling out a leather workman’s glove, a black leather glove, and a black knit glove. “My gloves. All right hands.”
She stopped folding facecloths. Frowned. “What, were the kids using them? I’ve told them not to use Daddy’s gloves.”
“Microbes,” he said. The thought of others using his gloves—especially slimy fingers that had been stuck up snotty noses, growing sweaty in his gloves—disgusted him. “You weren’t using them, were you? Sliding around the snowbank? Looking for something lost?” He tried for jocular. It came out as accusatory.
“Ugh, you know I hate snow.” She returned to folding facecloths.
“That I know.” He looked at her, Ester Persson, the statuesque blonde Minnesotan Swede he had married. All over again, he marvelled at his unbelievably crazy dumb luck. He gave a small laugh. It was their inside joke, how, despite her heritage, she found winter sports tiresome and promised never to drag him out snowshoeing.
“You knew it from the start… what, I’m supposed to love snow now? Help you with the shoveling? Is that what this argument is about?” She rapidly snatched one sock, then another and another from the clean pile. “Look, just because our new neighbors have his-n-her snow shovels—”
“No. This is about,” he said, pausing dramatically, “something else I found out there.” He pulled out one last item the bucket, its shiny slender chain slithering, almost alive, as he held it up under the fluorescent light. Swinging madly from the bottom of the delicate chain was a gold filigree heart.
“What? Oh my God—” She came to a full stop. “I’ve been looking—the snowbank?”
His face was expressionless and his eyes followed her eyes. “What a good actor you are,” he said slowly.
“How on earth?” Her frown deepened. She put down the handful of socks.
“My mother’s locket,” he said, moving it out of her reach. “A family heirloom. She gave it to me a week before she… passed.” He paused, recalling that day, how fragile his mother had been, how raspy her voice as she tried to make a joke about “this heavy old unfashionable thing.” His mother. His sainted mother, dead for scarcely a year.
Ester, hands open, implored him. “Oh, honestly, Ty, I don’t know how—”
He ignored her, feeling the anger darken his face as he spoke. “I promised her I’d see this locket got to you. Yes. And I did, didn’t I? I pried out the little pic of my dad. I found one of us—in Paris—you remember Paris, don’t you?” He glanced at her and remembered her ivory thighs in the morning light as she welcomed him into the heat of her body while the traffic hummed below their small hotel room on rue des Ecoles. He frowned. “And this is what you think of us?
“No, Ty, I swear,” she said. Red rimmed her eyes and nostrils, and she spoke rapidly, like a cut-rate defense attorney laying out all the arguments at once. “I’ve been looking for this all week! It just disappeared, and when I noticed it missing, I thought, oh, maybe I forgot I’d moved it—you know, I go on my cleaning binges…spring cleaning…” She gave a self-deprecating laugh, and when he did not warm up to her, she continued to pour out words. “I didn’t want to tell you—you’ve been so, so busy with the job hunt and all—and I thought for sure it would turn up.”
“Why weren’t you wearing it? You wear that damn cross all the time.” Even now he could see the glint of the other small gold chain. She never took it off, not even when he’d told her it made him feel weird to see it in the middle of their lovemaking.
“The Paris photo, Ty. Paper. The shower water would ruin it. … But really—I have no idea how it got outside. In the snow! Do you think, maybe Billy or Anneli…?” She let the question hang in the air.
He cocked his head at her. “Now why would they do that? Just randomly come into our bedroom, find this one thing?”
Tyler and Ester continued to stare at each other, and they began to step one around the other, like two boxers in a ring before the match begins. Not that he’d ever ever lay a finger on her, surely she knew that.
Although anger did not loosen his arm, it did loosen his tongue. “You b**ch, you liar, you sneak! Blaming this on a kid! Can’t even admit to your own sh*t!”
“I don’t need to hear this,” she cried, running down the hall to the mud room.
“Who is it?” he bellowed. “Oof, this damn chain…” He stopped to untangle the chain of the locket from the hook it had snagged on. “Who’s the lucky guy? Is it Royce, the handyman?” He could hear her muffled curses as she tried to find a coat and boots. “Is it the kids’ chess tutor? Who? Someone in your watercolors class?”
“All of them,” she screamed at him. “Every last one of them is a better f*ck than you, you bast**d!” She ran out, slamming the back door so hard it rattled the wall and wooden steps.
Clank, the icebreaker fell over.
Tyler looked out the window. Ester, wearing his unzipped parka, and a pair of orange Crocs on the wrong feet, was loping unsteadily down the walkway. He went to the pantry, poured himself three fingers of single malt, and tossed it back. He refilled his glass and went upstairs, pausing at the small window in the stairwell to watch the outlandish sight of Ester lurching along all the way up the street.
He stepped into his messy study and opened the laptop. He began typing, gingerly at first, then feverishly, throwing down words as he’d heard them, gestures as he’d seen them, and impressions as they had surged through him.
From time to time he stopped and gazed at the clipping of Knausgaard’s latest interview pinned to his corkboard. The handsome bearded face, the patron saint of bad boys, urged him on. Autofiction was a heck of a lot harder than Tyler thought. Sometimes you had to manufacture situations and watch them play out. He had “borrowed” Ester’s locket a week ago and today, as he chipped the ice, he’d been inspired to “find” it.
Hopefully she would forgive him. Hopefully she would just chalk up his moodiness to his long (curiously extended) period of unemployment. Surely she would forgive him, once he laid a diamond necklace in her hands, bought from the mint of money he was bound to make from this book. Mind you, that could take a while, and he wasn’t sure if he could manage a year of freeze-thaw cycle in the bedroom. He screwed up his eye at the clipping. What would Karl Ove do?
He glanced at the clock. Ester wouldn’t get far—she’d end up at her mother’s place. His mother-in-law Gerda Persson was one of those tough, unsinkable old gals. He often shoveled her walkway, helped her with bulk shopping, and sometimes, in turn, she invited him in for a plate of pickled herring and a shot of akvavit. She would calm Ester down.
An hour till pick-up time. His fingers flew over the keys, as he imagined a hot reunion sex scene. His hero Trevor would be kissing Iris all over and rubbing her damply fragrant rosebush as he playfully asked, “How handy was the handyman?” and “What new moves did the grandmaster show you?”
Okay, maybe the scene would not unwind as smoothly as all that. But a guy could still dream, couldn’t he?