What Do Ducks Do in Winter?
by Lewis B. Horne

His Brother

I

[91] Today the road to town is widened. Sidewalks, service stations, 7-Elevens, fill the space where alfalfa fields and orange groves once spread. Yet when I think of the road, even as it is today, I think of Alma Snowhill walking.

Sunflowers and johnson grass along the side. His shadow sharp on the macadam. Alma Snowhill. Trudging.

Not all people in the community knew Alma Snowhill, but those who did—and they were church members—usually offered him a ride, even though, or sometimes because, they knew he’d sit with nothing more than a murmur and then muster such a sound only if questioned about something as certain and undisturbing as the weather. Even my mother, alone in the Chevy she drove to town on grocery day, would stop. My father had no hesitation on his way to the lumberyard. But if he tried to stir up a conversation, Alma’s long fingers would grip the black lunchbox he held in his lap and he’d lean forward so the breeze from the open window stopped twisting his lank brown hair and he’d reply something like “Perhaps” or “If things work out …” or “Prob’ly, but a person don’t know.” So in silence my father would head south toward town.

Alma Snowhill, with his brother Chad, had married before my time. They married the Clawson twins, Georgine and Geneva. Though twins, they were not identical. Both were heavy. But while Geneva was short, round-shouldered, with sad eyes and a melan[92]choly smile, squashed-looking Georgine, who always seemed to be older by years rather than minutes, stood six inches taller, fifty pounds heavier, her dresses so snug-fitting they bulged like a gunnysack full of grapefruit. She had brisk gestures and a broad, doughy face. She played piano at church and sometimes the pump organ—played, as they say, by ear. When Alma came to church, he sat, thin and sloping, in the back corner. He didn’t have a job in church—a “calling.” That is, he didn’t teach a Sunday school class or a Mutual Improvement class. He held no secretarial job for any of the auxiliary organizations. I never heard him give a talk in sacrament meeting. With Jemmy, his boy, he milked the six cows and sent the milk to the creamery. After Jemmy left for his mission, Alma asked for no help but milked the cows alone, rising an hour earlier every morning, walking to town still, sometimes clear to the city limits before anyone happened along.

Usually, Alma was long gone to the feedstore by the time Georgine was out and moving in their Model-A. Georgine needed the car for her “errands,” she said. She drove to town. She drove to her sister Geneva’s house. She drove to Ruiz’s Store, where she sat behind the wheel and drank a bottle of strawberry soda pop. She drove to the church house on Wednesday morning for Relief Society and on Tuesday afternoon for Primary. Once we passed as she drove on the shoulder of the road, two of the tires off, the car grinding forward, lop-sided. My father shook his head without a word. In the back seat sat Jemmy, Juliet, Lily, and Joseph, giggling at the adventure, Juliet’s shrill titter leaping the space between our cars. Hunched beside Georgine in the front seat was Geneva, scarcely able to see over the hood. Sad Geneva. For by this time she was a widow.

All this took place long ago. Though I was young I was old enough to understand, perhaps more than my father thought or he’d never have let me remain on the ditchbank by the bridge that April evening when Alma Snowhill stopped to ask for money. I was helping irrigate the orchard. I expected Alma to pass us by, trudging [93] on in the dark, but he stopped when my father asked, “How’s it going, Alma?”

He must have planned to stop, for his footsteps turned almost the same time my father spoke. In a darkness too deep to make out his features, I heard his soft question over the sound of the running water and the whine of the mosquitoes.

“Could you loan me fifty dollars, Will?”

Even for someone living in town that would have been a large sum of money. Out in the valley, at that time, it was hard to think of anyone with so much to lend. My father apologized. He suggested Don Turley. “You could tell him I sent you, Alma. I hope it’s nothing serious.”

He shook his head, and even I could tell he wouldn’t ask anyone else. “I hear they need fruit pickers in California and there’s potatoes in Idaho. Get me a bus ticket, that’s what I wanted.” He lifted his chin high enough to show his profile against the grey sky, delicately cut nose and lips with a quick scallop between chin and lower lip, maybe a quiver though it didn’t show in his voice. “If I could just get away, only … I make my own breakfast and lunch and I go to town to my job. Then I come home. I don’t see—don’t see … There ain’t nothing different clear to the millennium. Not going to be nothing different. Nothing different with me, the way I—”

The way I live, I suspect he was going to say. With Georgine—the home I got. But he left it unspoken.

“Clear to the millennium,” Alma said finally, “whatever I do.”

“Try Don Turley. He’s my cousin.”

“No. It wasn’t a very good idea, I expect. Not really.”

 II

When she was widowed, her body caving more deeply without Chad to keep her upright, Geneva had eight boys, ranging in age from six to eighteen. The two oldest never went on missions because they were starting to make good money as plasterers. But [94] Alma’s boy Jemmy did. Georgine saw to that. Some people thought Geneva’s boys helped support Jemmy in the Southern States Mission because Alma never had a job that paid enough to do it. Georgine insisted they were taking care of Jemmy on their own with a little help from the elders quorum, who hadn’t supported a missionary from our ward in years. Geneva murmured, was evasive, and, of course, Alma said nothing.

“Families stick together,” Georgine told my mother. “That’s what I always say.”

She said it when my mother and I stopped to ask how she could help with Jemmy’s farewell. She didn’t like to go inside Georgine’s house, but Georgine was hard to get on the telephone with all the talking she did. As my mother stood, too fastidious to take the kitchen chair offered her, Georgine sat on a saggy overstuffed couch. She wore a flowered dress and white heels. She’d just hung up the telephone. Pajamas and dirty towels and newspapers lay about, and over the kitchen table—where the sticky dishes, the open loaf of Holsum bread, the pan of milk, and the jar of jam, lid face down on the oilcloth, lay—crawled so many flies I couldn’t count.

They flew through the open door and window. Beyond, in another room, I saw an unmade bed and a closet with a curtain pulled back to show clothes piled and hung like it was laundry day.

“Families stick together.”

Georgine said the same thing at Jemmy’s farewell, held on the outdoor basketball court behind the churchhouse.

“We feel,” she said, “like a community is nothing more than a great big family.”

We all went to Jemmy’s farewell. We filled the church kitchen with homemade ice cream, cake, and lemonade, lest Georgine bring something from her own uncleaned kitchen. We contributed token amounts of money.

And Alma? We had to hunt to find him, slumped on one of the white benches in a dark corner of the court. He paid no attention to Georgine as she hustled among the crowd in her flowered dress [95] and her tight white heels. He seemed not to listen when Jemmy in white shirt and tie managed to stammer a coherent talk. He didn’t lift his head as Juliet sang “In the Garden” and with her sister Lily “I’ll Go where You Want Me to Go, Dear Lord.” Some people shook their heads. The two girls were talented. If only they weren’t Snowhills. Anybody else would go somewhere with talent like that, people said, anybody but a Snowhill. Alma seemed that night to understand the feeling too well.

During the evening, my father and mother carried over to the man a dish of cake and ice cream. He seemed embarrassed, would have preferred to refuse it if courtesy permitted. His thin smile let out a glimpse of small yellow teeth.

“A shame Chad couldn’t have been here,” my father said.

“Yes, he would have been glad to see it,” said Alma. Then he added, “I liked my younger brother.”

“The Crandall boy seems to be trying to mend his ways.”

“I’m glad.”

“He’s hoping to go on a mission.”

“Somehow,” said my mother, “it don’t seem right.”

“It’s right,” said Alma quietly, “so long as he truly repents. Can’t be good carrying the blood of two people on your hands. There was the young boy by the park in town before Chad. I ‘spect he’d be better than Jemmy—as a missionary—the Crandall boy—”

From the direction of the piano that had been moved out from the Relief Society room came Jemmy’s laugh.

Alma sighed. “The Crandall boy—I seen him and his father—”

Geneva’s boys, fatherless, stood in a group by the gate to the court. They were quiet boys, not very bright students in school, but recognized generally as “good.” All, like their mother, were a bit overweight, unlike their bony uncle or skinny deceased father.

“Or Chad’s boys,” said Alma. “Some day I’ll—I’d like to—for what they done—doing—”

When people heard how Chad Snowhill died, they shook their heads. Once: “Oh no!” Twice: “Wouldn’t you know!” The Crandall [96] boy and that car. Was Georgine driving? “Wouldn’t you know!”

The family had been visiting at Geneva’s and Chad’s. Chad liked for the two families to get together, sisters and brothers. The kids were double first cousins, weren’t they? They needed to know each other. Being around Chad’s quiet boys calmed Jemmy and Juliet—and Lily, well, she was a favorite ofUncle Chad, was growing into a pretty girl with a pretty voice. “You want to sing ‘God Bless America’ for me, sweetheart?” Chad would say. At five she’d stand in the small living room and sing for her uncle, true of pitch, clear of tone. Without self-consciousness.

“‘Believe me if all those endearing young charms …'”

When it came time for Alma and Georgine to leave for home, the ice cream eaten, Lily and Joseph half asleep on the sofa, Chad’s boys yawning, Georgine announced that the lights on the car didn’t work. “Not worked,” she said, “for at least two weeks.”

Alma’s soul, which he’d felt expanding during the evening, collapsed. He didn’t even ask Georgine to explain. Nor did Chad ask him to.

“That won’t be any problem, big brother,” Chad said. Yet his soothing didn’t soothe quickly enough for Alma to bring any words out of his own mouth. “We’ll drive alongside your car and behind. Our headlights will show you the way. Won’t nobody else be on this dirt road this time of night.”

Alma couldn’t see a thing at night. Not after the sun went down, he couldn’t. So Alma climbed in front on the passenger side holding Joseph while Lily and Juliet and Jemmy wriggled in back, wide awake now with excitement.

“You kids keep quiet so I can see,” said Georgine, slipping off her white heels.

Alma said nothing.

But before they’d passed Chad’s property line with the tall cottonwoods, the lights of his car beaming from behind, Georgine braked.

“I can’t see a thing,” she said. “All those long shadows. I can’t [97] see.”

“Do you want me to—” Alma began.

Chad’s thin face peered in the window.

“I can’t see a thing,” cried Georgine. “All I get is shadows.”

“No worry,” Chad said. He looked straight at Alma. “Geneva can drive our car. Alma and me will watch from the running boards. You drive slow and listen. We ain’t got but a mile to go.”

With a sigh, Alma left Joseph curled on the front seat. Standing on the running board, hearing the water rustling in the irrigation ditch to his right, he stared at his brother’s thin-shouldered silhouette across the top of the car shaped by the glow of the distant town lights.

Alma braced himself.

Chad, more lithe than Alma, leaned forward, one foot resting on the front fender as the car moved ahead.

“No problem, Georgine,” he called back.

It was the last thing Alma heard him say. Chad was leaning in that position when the Crandall boy’s car reeled around the corner near the Hathcock’s farm. The car lights caught Chad during the grind of dust and brakes as the rear of the Crandall boy’s car spun to hit theirs. Not a hard collision. It knocked Alma sprawling on the ditchbank. It scared the children, Jemmy stuttering, Juliet spinning toward hysterics.

“Anybody hurt?” Georgine cried. “Anybody hurt?”

Alma tried to clear his head. The Crandall boy’s car had gone off the road, and Geneva’s lights were shining on it. He didn’t immediately see Chad in the dirt and make out from the strange position of his head that his neck must be broken.

The Crandall boy had been drinking, just as he had when he struck the child near the park.

What happened would have been difficult to reenact. But as people figured, Chad was thrown backward. His mouth caught on the door handle, jerking his head as he fell. Killed instantly.

While Geneva wept over her husband’s body and Georgine [98] cried, “Anybody else hurt?” Alma walked to the Hathcock’s farmhouse to call for the police and an ambulance.

Of course, the members of the ward rallied around Geneva, who shrank into her bed for a full week, barely able to stumble out for the funeral.

“Those boys in their white shirts,” said a neighbor. “See them walking up the road to church? The way their white shirts sparkle?”

As the years passed they remained quiet, sober, industrious boys. Some ten years after their father’s death, they built Geneva a new brick house. They carved a yard from the alfalfa pasture, the cows grazing up to the barbed wire fence surrounding it. On one occasion, Georgine moved in with her. It was when Juliet was jilted by a soldier and slid into such debilitating hysterics that they housed her in the state sanatorium for two months. Georgine’s own nerves were on fire and it was as if she had cockroaches in her brain. Alma stayed in his own—or, as others called it, “Georgine’s”—house while timid Geneva “eased things” for her sister.

Alma was on hand though when Juliet returned from the sanatorium and Georgine brought her to church. With two other men he hoisted her wheelchair up the fifteen steps to the front door, Georgine smiling in the sun and arms bulging with pillows. She said, “Juliet’s a lot better these days, but she’s still fragile.” They arrived as church was about to begin, Georgine in her flowered dress and white heels shoving Juliet up the middle aisle.

During my own visit a few years after Juliet’s misfortune, I came across none of Georgine’s children. All had moved away. Asked about Lily, people shrugged. Asked about Juliet, they said she was in California the last anyone heard. “Alma Snowhill’s still around. He’ll be here today. He always comes to church.”

When I saw the thin elderly man, lines drawn on his pale face like charcoal on canvas, I was touched by one of those moments of realization—how time, moving everyone, sometimes brings a person to a point where you knew he’d always been going. Alma’s being [99] a widower seemed natural. Natural too Georgine’s quiet death four or five years before, overweight, fussy, and weak of heart. Alma seemed no more talkative sitting in the corner of the new churchhouse than in the old one I’d grown up with.

“He’s been good to Mom,” said Saul, one of Geneva’s boys.

No longer plastering, the boys had gone partners in frozen food supply—except for one who was a chiropractor and another who was with the telephone company. The business prospered. Four of them built their own homes in the cow pasture, which like other fields in the area had been marked out for subdivisions. Geneva’s house looked smaller, nested among those of her sons and their families.

She never got out anymore. Not even out of bed. She’d been in a coma, Saul told me, for four years. She did not know anyone since her stroke. For a time the brothers hired a live-in nurse to work with her in hopes she would regain consciousness, even walk and talk again. But they’d had to give up that idea.

“Now Uncle Alma does it,” said Saul. “I guess he still hopes. He goes in twice a day and reads to her. He does her exercises—moves her head right, left, right arm up and down, left arm up and down, over the chest, both arms together, alternating. The whole thing. Twice a day he does it. So solemn. Never misses. Nobody asked him to. The doctor said there’s no hope. But that’s what he does. Opens the curtains, lets in the light. And after the exercises, he sits and reads to her. For a good hour or more every time, after he lets in the light.”

III

A quiet ending for Alma Snowhill, I thought.

Though there was still another day he put his signature in my mind. An earlier day, a day when Alma lifted his head in front of Georgine and held it.

To celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the town’s found[100]ing, the Crandall boy’s mother—Alice—wrote a pageant, a production involving the whole stake. Men and women from town and country were called to sing in the choir. My father, who managed Ridderdale Lumber in town, was asked to help on the set, a prodigious undertaking since the pageant was to be held in the football stadium and Alice Crandall wanted mountains in the background, or something that resembled them. They must be large, she said.

Besides the chorus and scenic effects, Alice Crandall called for a wagon train, full-sized covered wagons pulled by real horses. These wagons were to hold the pioneer families entering the area on Brigham Young’s command to settle it. Men with large families were called for the parts, men who would have to handle horses, though they’d have other men in the group to keep them under control.

We were surprised when Alma came to my father and asked if he might drive a wagon. “I don’t got as many kids as the others, but I thought maybe with Chad’s boys—they’d like to do it, I think. I think Chad would have done it if they’d asked him.”

“Do you know anything about horses, Alma?”

He shook his head. “But I expect I know as much as Lorenzo Ferris or Ted Lyman.”

“Would you like me to ask Alice Crandall?”

“I’d appreciate it. I don’t know how she’d feel about—you needn’t mention my relation to Chad.”

Georgine was elated when she heard. At first she thought she’d be lucky just to sing in the chorus. “But me and the kids are going to ride in a wagon. Geneva’s boys, too.”

She called people across the valley asking for spare sewing material. “Since we’re going to ride in the wagons, me and Juliet and Lily need pioneer dresses and bonnets for our costume. Alice Crandall says the men can wear Levis, so I got no worries about them. Geneva will look after her boys. It’s the dresses and bonnets I have to fuss with.”

[101] Alma continued to walk to work. It was during this period, I’m sure, that we saw Georgine driving the car tilting on two of its tire rims, Juliet laughing in the back seat, Geneva huddled in front.

When he went to look at the wagons, my father took Alma along to check the horses. Asked how Alma managed, my father said, “He’s a bit nervous, but he’ll do fine.”

My mother went to chorus rehearsals, something she found thrilling, singing hymns with two hundred hand-picked voices and every one of them knowing their parts right off.

When it was ready, the pageant was performed on three different evenings. I went the first. After the opening prayer, given over the loudspeaking system by the stake president, the chorus, sitting on folding chairs at one end of the football field with the rest of the lights off, began to sing “The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning.” The conductor looked small at that distance, his large and vigorous gestures almost balletic as he conducted. With my father’s binoculars, I found my mother among the sopranos. The sound was full, though distant, and immediately following the final chord, the conductor lunged with his fist in the direction of the darkened half of the football field. Thunder rattled. Banks of lights flashed on to disclose the range of mountains—Twin Peaks, Spring Ridge, Granite Mountain—while from the gate at the far corner of the football stadium the wagons rolled in.

“Come, come, ye saints …”

Lorenzo Ferris was in the lead with Ted Lyman behind him. Third in line, creaking out of the shadows with a jingle of harness, came Alma Snowhill with his team. His face looked grim and tense in my binoculars as the wagon crossed the running track. But when the wheels rolled onto the grass of the playing field, the muscles around his mouth relaxed.

Georgine’s big bonnet covered her features. Periodically, she pulled the brim back to peer in the direction of the wooden bleachers where we sat. Between her and Alma, I could see Juliet’s skittery face, eyes and mouth wide, her bonnet fallen to the back [102] of her head. Perhaps it was just as well that I couldn’t see Georgine’s features. I’d have seen her scowl then, the way she glared at Alma. I might have wondered why. And not known until later that as the wagons waited to enter, lined up behind the oleanders and the mountains, and as Alma climbed up to take the reins and my father stood by with Geneva’s two older boys to help Georgine in, Georgine suddenly said, “I’m driving them horses.”

A wave of panic must have rippled Alma’s face.

“But Georgine—” said my father.

“Alma’s never been on a horse in his life.”

“That might be true—” Alma murmured.

“So I’m driving the horses.”

“I’ve got the reins.”

“All I know,” said Georgine, “is I’m not getting on that wagon with Alma driving.”

To my father’s surprise, and I’m sure to Georgine’s, Alma turned his head toward the gate to the stadium and said, “That’s all right then. Juliet can sit up front. I’m taking Chad’s boys.”

At that, hearing the last verse of the hymn begin, Georgine, in gingham dress and white heels, put one foot on a spoke of the wheel, and before she knew it, with the help of my father and two of the boys, she was settled on the wagon seat next to Alma. Even then, on the last chord of the hymn, she tried to snatch the reins, but they were too firmly wound about Alma’s thin fists. Then the thunder clapped, and they moved forward bearing Georgine’s sour frown.

I didn’t know of this until later. I only saw the smile rise on Alma’s face as his wagon followed the first two into the lights and saw the horses under his direction move into the circle for the day’s camp, the mountains tall and blazing with color in the background. As though in that spot and at that time the country in which he stood were unbroken and new. And the chorus sang, “All is well. All is well.”