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Fall 1999, Volume 17.1



Winner of the Dr. O. Marvin Lewis Award

Ron McFarland photo of Ron McFarland.

Different Words for Snow

Ron McFarland is Professor of English at the University of Idaho, where he is director of the creative writing program. His most recent book is a critical study,
The World of David Wagoner (University of Idaho Press, 1997). The University of South Carolina Press will publish his critical study, Understanding James Welch, later this year. A chapbook of his poems, Dreaming of Baseball, will be published soon by Spitball magazine. 

Read other work by Ron McFarland published in Weber StudiesVol. 8.1 (fiction)Vol. 12.1 (poetry)Vol. 15.2 (poetry)Vol. 17.0 (essay), Vol. 19.3 (fiction),  Vol. 22.2 (essay), Vol. 23.1 (Fiction).


At first it looked like we weren't going to get many Christmas cards at all this year for some reason, and the wife, she likes it when I call her "the wife" (really), was getting a little stressed out, and I was frankly getting a little depressed. Which meant, of course, that I had the 9mm Sig-Sauer, which the wife got me for Xmas last year (I like to pronounce it "eks-mas" that way, but I don't know why, haven't a clue), laying out there on the dining room table with both clips filled. I don't use re-loads either. It says on the Instructions and Care manual not to use re-loads, and I don't, even though the ammo is a bit pricey.

But then, right around the seventeenth, the cards just started to pouring in; you know, her sister and two brothers, my parents (both of which are alive and well and over eighty, and the old man drinks, well, not like a fish, but does drink and was a two-pack-a-day man for about forty years, Camels unfiltered), a couple of her friends, my two cousins in Ohio, an old-old pal in Utah, the wife's stepfather, but not her father (who's a boozer, which is why her mother left him, not that number two is much better, but she's dead now anyway), and Bobby, of course, who never forgets and always sends a family photo even though his wife has cheated on him two times that we know of for sure and their son (our only grandkid so far) was busted last month for MIP (he says he was just holding this cup of Bud for a friend and at least he wasn't driving or anything, but then he's only thirteen, so what can you say), but not Christi, who never remembers, maybe because she only lives just forty or so miles north of here, where she goes to j.c. and almost has a three-point this term, she says. Anyways, I forgot all about that Sig-Sauer, which wasn't loaded anyhow, though the clips was right there, until the wife got onto my case.

"When're you going to get that gun off of the dining room table?" she says that evening.

I'll tell you, there's some women that no matter what they say or how they say it, they sound like they're scolding you, and the wife is one of those women. Of course, I had a mind to smart-mouth it with something like, "When I get darn good & ready," but I didn't. I just played it cool. "About the time you get all your junk off-a that table," I said.

Here's what she had on that poor little table, and I made a real quick inventory before I said a thing: Smack in the center was this half-dead potted poinsettia she got at some party about a week ago (the leaves are deadly poisonous, I've heard); then there was this golden candle with this glass hurricane chimney around it like you'd find on one of those kerosene lamps; two Christmas editions of these magazines, Family Circle, which had all these cookie recipes, and Country Home, which featured an old-time Santa Claus on the cover; some wrapping paper and tape; a two-thirds eaten plastic container of divinity, which she got from the Wal-Mart up in Lewiston and which she loves; two pencils, a pen, several envelopes from the Christmas cards we've finally started to get, all of which are lined up (the cards, that is) on the piano that no one except Christi ever learned how to play, and her not very good, though the wife did try to teach herself once or twice; and finally, her so-many-channels-so-little-time coffee mug with these lipstick stains and about an inch of stale coffee. Okay? And she tells me to take my Sig off of the table!

"Most of that junk's yours," she fires back at me.

I took a deep breath, it being the season and all, and me not wanting to get anything started. "It's not a gun anyways," I said, "it's a pistol. It's a handgun. A gun is like a cannon. Artillery is guns."

"Artillery is guns," the wife says, real sarcastic, echoing me like that, sort of mocking me.

"Yeah," I said, "artillery is guns." I knew it didn't sound right, but I was making a point. I looked down at the Sig-Sauer 9mm laying there on the oak table and all, and I thought how much I loved that little piece. I have to admit, I think I left it laying there on the table like that because it just gives me so much pleasure, right out there, no holster or nothing. Just naked steel on the table. It just made me happy to see it out there like that. You know what? We live a couple miles outside of town on the edge of a wheatfield out on Johnston Road, and sometimes when I need to let off some steam, or to celebrate or something, I'll just take the Sig out into the back yard and puncture the sky with it. Hell, it's not a big deal. It's all alone out there, and there's no neighbors around to get all pissy with you, so you just let her rip. I usually do that when the wife's not around, though, because she's scared of guns, especially handguns. I don't know why, but it just makes me feel good to go out and shoot like that, no target but the stars, and I ain't hit one of them yet.

I've had three other handguns over the years, not counting that .22 Sidewinder I had back in Florida when I was just a kid, and this Sig-Sauer, which is a German make, is the best. I had a Smith & Wesson .38, which was an okay weapon, I mean it did shoot pretty good, and then that Glock, which I didn't really like that much, and then the .44 mag, but this Sig is the sweetest. Anyway, I couldn't figure what it was the wife was getting at.

"Tell you what," I said, just like that guy does in that cartoon program on the TV, "you clean all your shit off-a the table, and I'll take care of the Sig."

See, the wife won't touch a gun of any sort, but especially not a pistol. She's deathly afraid of them, supposibly because she had this boyfriend back in high school that killed himself with a pistol right after she broke up with him. She says his family all claimed it was an accident and he was just fooling around with it and didn't know it was loaded, but she never believed that for a minute. I asked her what kind it was, but, of course, she didn't have a clue. How she got this Sig-Sauer for me for Xmas last year was she had Bobby go buy it. She wouldn't even wrap it up, which you could tell right off, because Bobby wraps stuff about as good as I do.

But you know what the wife did next? "Sure," she says, "I'll clean my shit off this table, as you so eloquently advise." She likes to do that with language, sort of get all snobby and all. Then she jerked up that poinsettia, pot and all, and plopped it straight into the garbage, where it belonged about three days ago. But then she went and did the same thing with the two magazines, the envelopes and stuff, and even the divinity, but I stopped her when she started to go for that golden candle, on account of that's what I got her for Christmas a couple years ago, along with those fluffy slippers.

"Hey," I said, "just hold on there!" And I sort of took her by the shoulders, which have gotten all soft and flabby with the years, and then she just sort of sunk down onto one of the dining-room chairs and started to bawl.

"Jesus," I said, "I'll take care of the Sig." But of course that isn't what it was about at all. It never is with women, if you ask me. It would just be way too uncomplicated if she could just toss out some candy and a poinsettia, and I could just put away my pistol, and that would be the end of it. "So what's the matter?" I said.

"It's the twentieth of December and I haven't sent out a single Christmas card," the wife wails (she never says it "Xmas"). But of course if you think that's all there was to it, you're about as big of an idiot as I am. But that's all I thought it was at the time, so all I said was how it wasn't a big deal to me if we never sent out Xmas cards (pronouncing it "eks-mas," of course, as I figured she could use a grin), and besides, I said, there was still plenty of time, and I could help her and all, even though my hen-scratching looks about like that Arab writing you see on the TV news about Iraq getting hammered. That seemed to calm her down a little bit, so I went off to get her a Kleenex and a glass of water, which is what I do when she gets to carrying on like that. But after she honked on her nose a couple times and took a couple sips of water, she started into crying all over again. Let me tell you, there are some women who look all right when they're crying, like Ingrid Bergman in this old movie, Casablanca, when she's crying sort of soft there with Humphrey Bogart, and she looks just as beautiful and sexy as ever, maybe even better. Anyways, the wife is not one of those women. She looks awful when she cries, face gets all screwed up, just looks ugly as sin. Which is why I always give in if she starts to cry: I can't stand to see her look so ugly!

After she calmed down again, she handed me this folded-up sheet of paper, and it turned out to be one of those Xmas brag letters that people put in with their cards. This one was from her best friend the two years she went to State, before she dropped out to marry me, which just happened to coincide with me dropping out to marry her and get my sorry ass drafted and sent off to Nam. But all that's another story.

I patted her soft shoulder, which had been nice and tight thirty-odd years ago, and took the letter, and I thought of Jan, her friend that I'd dated a couple times myself. Of course I could only picture Jan the way she was back then, a pretty spectacular looking chick of twenty, well out of my league. They were just friendly dates, a movie, a basketball game, and then she was matching me up with her roommate, which was Ginger. I just called her "Gin" right off, which she hated, but that's still what I call her when I don't call her "the wife." So Jan would be the same age as the wife, which is 52, and watching the wife as she honked her nose again and blotted her tears, I thought it was just as well I never saw Jan again. She and Gin have seen each other a couple times since we got married, the last time being maybe five years ago. Gin always comes back all surprised at how great Jan still looks, despite three kids and two divorces. "She has money," the wife says. "She's always had money, and that's the difference."

Which is to say that we don't, which is true enough. I've been with Idaho Fish and Game ever since I got out of the army, which was after I dropped out of State where about the only pigskin action I was ever going to get was the suicide squad, and then I wracked up my knee and flunked freshman comp the second time around, and that about did it. I'll tell you something about Idaho: It's a kick-ass beautiful state, about half of it anyways (we live up in Grangeville, which is in the best part of the state, not too far from the Gospel Humps), but it's tight with a dime. Some say it's the Mormons that run things here; some say it's the fact that the federal government owns about 70 percent of the land. I'm not very political myself, so I guess it's about six of one and half a dozen of the other, as my old man says, but I do know that in the 26 years I've worked at F&G we've got a zero per cent pay raise at least five of those years, which includes this year.

Anyroad, which is what M.K. always says (he's the supervisor, which is what I could of been if I'd wanted it bad enough, the wife says), I started to reading that Christmas letter, which was predictable as those things go and went like this (just to summarize):

This year finds us all well and happy in Ohio… Steve returned to OSU in October to work as Associate Director of Alumni Relations after finishing his M.B.A. at the University of Chicago, where he was near the top of his class… We're so glad to have them back, and Tammy is pregnant again, due in April and getting on fine… Ben and Lesley are still in Cincy, where Ben has just been promoted to first vice president of Buckeye S&L (that's the home office)… And Keri just graduated with honors from Kenyon and is planning a June wedding to a wonderful young man who is finishing his law degree at Harvard…

Anyways, a lot more to that effect. In fact, two single-spaced pages of it, with this manger scene design in the background, and not even a typo, the wife says, like she resented Jan even for that.

"I know I shouldn't be so envious," the wife said, her voice all choked up. "And here it is Christmas coming up."

I couldn't blame her, though. There was plenty to be envious of in those two long pages. Jan and Martin, husband #3, who's this big-time lawyer for a hotel chain out of Columbus, had spent almost a month in Europe, where he'd gone for some sort of international hotel conference, so all expenses were paid, and they'd stayed at these luxury hotels in Milan, Geneva, and Vienna. And for Christmas this year they'd bought each other a brand new Lexus (his black, hers emerald), which they could afford thanks to his "munificent" bonus. The worst thing that seemed to have happened in the year 1998 was the death of Martin's great aunt Marsha, who was "a dear," but she was 89 and had lived a full life and died in her sleep, and "we can't live forever." I thought about this writing I saw on an old tombstone once: "Death, where is thy sting?"

At the end they wished us the best for "a joyous holiday season," followed by one of Jan's famous did-you-know messages that are intended to sound off-the-wall and "spontaneous," as Gin puts it: "Did you know: Eskimos have 30 different words for snow." It just comes in out of left field like that. Very clever. Finally, Jan penned in a quick, personal message which I bet the wife really appreciated: "We feel so blessed!"

I looked up at Gin as I handed back the Xmas letter, and our eyes met. I picked up the Sig-Sauer and felt its solid presence, just a little light to the heft, though, because the loaded clips still laid there on the table. I'm not sure what I was thinking, but something vaguely homicidal, I guess, aimed in the direction of the Buckeye State. When I put the pistol down gently on the round oak table, Gin smiled as if she could read my mind.

We drafted our Xmas letter right then and there, but it was slow going at first. We tried hard to think of all the good things that'd happened to us in the past year, like Gin getting that raise out at the new BP station on 95, where she scoops ice cream and helps with the Taco John franchise—it's a pretty upscale joint by Grangeville standards. But let's face it, that raise came down to about twenty cents an hour, which is the way those places do that sort of thing—these little "incentives," they call them, to keep up morale. Idaho prides itself on being a right-to-work state with a piss-poor minimum wage, all in the name of attracting industry and investment, none of which manages to trickle its way up here to the panhandle. Like M.K. says at work, that'd be defying the Law of Gravity, or like Gin says, "Nothing trickles uphill."

So what good news did we have to brag about? It was all this sort of positive negative stuff, like the truck, an '86 Ford F-150 4 x 4, developed this leak in the radiator, but it turned out to be just a bad hose fitting, which cost us just a couple bucks instead of a re-core job, which would've been around $150. Or like when the old frames on my glasses broke, I was able to get cheap ones up at the Costco in Lewiston, and they look way better than what I'd been wearing the past eight or nine years. You can't make up much of a brag letter with that kind of stuff.

But the great thing is how, instead of getting all down on each other about it, we just started to laughing. It was ridiculous. Pretty soon Gin says, "How about this? `Sorry we missed you guys on the Riviera last spring—it's so lovely there in May.'" We both howled.

"Here's one," I said, "`Bobby's just been named regional manager for Safeway. We went to the country club again to help celebrate. His boy Allen is in junior high and has a very active social life.'" We both roared.

It went on like that for a good while, and I remember picking up the Sig at one point and twirling it around my trigger finger like I was some sort of Wild West gunslinger, and there was a few of them out here in Idaho. Gin laughed and applauded, and I opened up a couple cans of Rainier. Then we'd feed each other lines, like I said, "How about Christi?"

"`Our daughter Christi is doing very well in college,'" Gin said in that snobby tone of voice she has, so it almost sounds like a British duchess or something. "`She intends to consider a position with a software firm in Boise or perhaps in Seattle upon graduation.'" There's some truth to that, as she's been talking about getting a job down in Boise this summer on the assembly line at Micron, where a friend of hers works. Just like there's some truth to Bobby's promotion at Safeway, where he's been moved up from stock clerk to assistant head of produce.

Gin was writing all this down as fast as we could think it up, which was pretty fast. It was shaping up just fine, and before we knew it, it was past midnight. She read it all back to me, and it sounded great, but something was definitely missing. I was holding the Sig-Sauer and sort of fondling it like I do sometimes. Like I said, I do love that pistol—easily the best piece I've ever had.

"I got it," Gin said, all excited. "We need a did-you-know." But the truth is, we were both about bushed by then, and at first we couldn't whip up one off-the-wall, spontaneous, clever tid-bit between the two of us. We were shooting blanks. Gin smiled at me sleepily and took another sip of her beer, and I was thinking how she still looked pretty darn good for a woman on the bad side of fifty. She was wearing that blue sweater Bobby got her last Christmas, which makes her eyes look even bluer than they actually are, and she fills it out pretty good up front, too, if you know what I mean.

"`Did you know…'" she began.

I looked down at the Sig and right away I was inspired. "`Artillery is guns,'" I said.

"`Artillery is guns,'" she repeated, with a lot different tone of voice than when she'd said it before, almost reverent, in fact, as if it was the answer to some sort of big philosophical question about the human condition. Like, "What is the meaning of life?"

Of course Gin added this little personal note about how we all felt more than blessed this Christmas season—we felt downright hallowed. She looked it up in the thesaurus. Then she said she was going to get ready for bed, and in her language there's all the difference in the world between going to bed and going to sleep. When she says she's "exhausted" and she's "going to sleep," you might as well forget about ro-mance, if you know what I mean.

I said I'd be with her in a minute, but first I wanted to do something, and what I did was to pick up my Sig-Sauer and slip a clip into her. I love that sound, the way a loaded clip snaps snugly into the handle, a tight, perfect fit, just like it has to be if you're going to walk out into your back yard on one of those brittle nights when it's near zero, and the snow crunches underfoot, and you're about to penetrate the sky.


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