Kidd Fenner steers the snowplow around the bend by the Daly Mansion, toward the pale humps of the Sapphire Mountains. He sees Ricky Towner’s boy’s booger-green Chevy Celebrity out in a field about twenty feet off from the road. The boy is doing his best to dig his back tires out of the fresh snow that fell in fat, packing-popcorn gobs last night. At the edge of the field, mailboxes wobble in the wind, and spilled flyers and envelopes dance in the ditch by the sharp, splintered edges of broken fence. Boy must’ve been hauling ass around the curve and hit some black ice, Fenner thinks. The boy is bent at the knees, throwing snow between his legs hound-dog style. He’s not wearing a jacket, just a hooded sweatshirt. He pauses, looks around, blows on his hands, rubs them together. He played baseball with Fenner’s kid. Outfield, maybe third base. Wasn’t as good as Henry, but no one in Hamilton was. This, of course, was before the trouble. Fenner shakes this thought off—work is the one period during which he’s trained himself not to think of his son.
The sound of the plow reaches him; Towner’s boy sees Fenner and begins galloping unevenly through the lumpy snow. He wants Fenner to stop, give him a lift to school, Whitman’s Towing, home, but that’s not what Ravalli County pays Fenner to do. It’s Fenner’s task—for nineteen years now—to push the muck toward ditches and drifts and drop a little salt and gravel behind him for good measure. It’s not perfect, but it’s as close as you can get to it in February in Montana. Towner’s boy is close now, jumping and waving like an idiot. The sky pushes down over the valley like a gray lid. More snow will fall tonight. Fenner can tell just by the look of the clouds, the way they loiter so close to home, how puddle-black veins run through their center. Fenner shrugs, shakes his head at the boy. Sorry, he thinks. Don’t come out in this shit if you can’t take it.
A week earlier, Chinook winds blew in and melted the snow and gave the valley a false sense of spring. Teenagers shed their parkas and drove around with the windows half down. The owner of Chapter One Bookstore rolled the discount rack outside to tempt foot traffic. The sun even broke through the clouds. This was also the day the police showed up with a warrant for Henry—the second one this year—because he didn’t pay his fines, though Fenner gave him the money to do so. He’d been coming in late and sneaking out sometime during the day, while Fenner was out plowing the roads and Nora was teaching at the high school, but he hasn’t been home since the cops showed up.
Since the warm winds kept Fenner inside the shop servicing the plows and watching daytime television and thinking, he’s theorized that somehow the weather and Henry’s momentary disappearance are connected. This is Nora’s fault—she always finds messages in nothing. Still, she’s been right a time or two: when they were living in Missoula while she finished up her degree and she found a blue ribbon stranded in a tree branch outside the spare bedroom and was convinced they’d have a boy; six months ago when the two of them saw that wreck on Ricketts Road and she turned to Fenner and said, “Henry’s in trouble again.”
As he twiddled his thumbs and watched Maury confront teen gangsters on TV, Fenner wondered if Nora’s powers were somehow transferable—did she give them to him? Even stranger was that last night he found a curled note under the windshield wiper: I’m sorry. Can you meet me tomorrow at american legion field at six? He read it twice, crumpled it, smoothed it out, stuck it in his pocket. Later, after he said nothing about the note to Nora and brushed his teeth, through the window he saw snow falling. That seemed about right.
The note sits sandwiched between the visor and the plow’s roof. He will not—repeat, will not—pull over and read it again.
A silver Taurus with a blue tarp in place of the back passenger window pulls out of the Town Pump on First. Fenner’s seen Henry in that piece of shit before, months earlier, though Henry denied it. Fenner squints, trying to see if he can spot Henry’s slumping frame, but there’s too much snow on the trunk. The car takes a left on Desta; Fenner shakes off the urge to follow it—if he follows it, then he’ll wonder whether or not Henry will show up tonight; whether or not Nora called in sick again so she could search the trailer park by the river or the apartment complex behind the hospital for any signs of her son; whether or not she’ll continue to wake up in the middle of the night and wander around the house like a ghost looking for someone who won’t be coming. Hell, Fenner thinks, I might even call her, spill the plan about giving him the fine money again. So he keeps the truck straight, focuses on the scraping of the shovel against the road and the shape of the flakes as they swirl across the blue-tinted air.
The radio plays the same songs Fenner’s heard for twenty years or more: Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man,” “Big Shot,” by Billy Joel. He’s parked with his back to Safeway’s brightly-lit parking lot; all he can see are the shadowy outlines of the bleachers, the dugout blocked by clumps of snow, the skeletal cyclone fence that runs parallel with the first base line. On nice days, he and Nora picnicked by the fence and gave Henry encouraging fist pumps before he stepped onto the mound. Christ, Fenner wonders, how long since then? No more than two years ago, which might as well have been forever.
Fenner’s phone vibrates in the cup holder.
“You check the P.O. box yet?” Nora asks. Nora is hoping for a postcard from Omaha or Los Angeles or Honolulu from Henry: Don’t worry! I’m happy and sober and not wanted by the police!
“Nothing,” Fenner says. “Sorry, babe.”
There is a flick from her lighter, the quick inhale as she takes a drag. She’d quit for seven years but took smoking back up a month ago. She hasn’t mentioned it, but she doesn’t hide it, either. Every morning Fenner finds her butts on the corner of the porch. He’s thought about asking her, about mentioning that she smells like smoke, but he doesn’t know how. He used to, but lately all they do is smile politely and nod to one another like strangers washing their hands in a men’s room. Instead, he kicks the goddamn butts into the yard and buries them in the snow with the toe of his boot.
“He’ll call,” Fenner says.
“Did you pay the fine?”
“Yup,” Fenner says, touching the jacket pocket that holds the money.
“Good—I want to get to him before the cops do.”
“What are you going to do with him?” Fenner asks, but he knows her plan. She wants to ship him off to a boys’ ranch in Kalispell, where he’ll bunk with kids worse than him. The same type of backward-capped, spine-bowed bastards Fenner has chased off their front porch. He’s been trying to rid Henry of these creeps for two years, and Nora wants to hand him over freely. Fenner’s own father checked into a half a dozen of those kind of places throughout his miserable life, and all they did was make it harder for Fenner’s mother when it didn’t stick, when Pop showed up drunk and angry, looking to take out everything on her. Nora’s idea is the worst Fenner’s ever heard.
“Coming home for dinner?”
She’s inside now. Fenner can hear the whir of the dishwasher, the cackle of canned laughter from the TV. He sees her now as if perched on the windowsill above the sink. She’s in Henry’s old Montana Grizzlies sweatshirt, the one with thumbholes chewed into the left sleeve. She’s got her left hand up to her head, tugging on her bangs—something she does now and then when she can’t figure something out. She did it for six months after her father passed. He’d been on the wagon for six years. She never lets Fenner forget that fact. Now Fenner sees her how she was the night before last: curled in the tub, slick, snail-like lines from tears down to her neck. She wouldn’t come back to bed. She told him she kept dreaming that Henry was in prison, or dead, or never existed at all. She went into the kitchen and dusted every glass in the cupboard. For a moment, Fenner wants to tell her where he is, what he’s going to do tonight, how it really is the best thing for Henry, for them.
“I’m meeting Mitch at the Gold Nugget,” Fenner says. “I told you earlier.”
“I’ll leave you something in the oven.”
“Where you going?”
“It’s Thursday.” This means she’ll be at the Parents of Teens in Crisis meeting. She’ll hold hands with strangers as they cry their makeup off. The pastor will say “Stay tough!” and “Be a rock!” They’ll sip burnt Folgers and talk ghosts. The pastor will show pictures of his fat daughter, clean for a decade now, the one who spent three years strung out on heroin in L.A. The one time Fenner went, they pointed their chins at him and gave encouraging, coffee-stained smiles. They wanted him to share about his father, Fenner knew, the one who, flushed from whiskey, left a window open when Fenner was two days old. It gave him pneumonia—he still can’t weather a cold without it turning into bronchitis. And that wasn’t the worst of it. They wanted Fenner to confess, to wobble his Adam’s apple, let his eyes leak. He hasn’t been back.
“Might wanna stay in tonight.” Fenner ignores the click his wife makes with her tongue. “The roads are slicker than cow shit. I saw four wrecks before lunch.”
“If I wreck you’ll have to come rescue me.”
And then she hangs up, leaving Fenner with the dead line, nothing but dead space in front of him. It’s thirty-seven minutes after six.