HUNTERS ALWAYS LEFT THE KEYS ON the dash or in the ashtray or, if they were the suspicious sort, under the floor mat. Safer that way than bringing them along and getting them lost if you tripped in the brush or, heaven forbid, tipped the duckboat. Farrell found the keys in Uncle Ed’s Packard, a smart-looking but temperamental sedan that Ed had gone all the way to St. Paul to buy. Before turning the ignition, he pressed the gas pedal three times just as Ed always did and politely asked the motor to cooperate.
Daylight had broken warm and bright, but by mid-morning things had turned November typical, chilly mist coming down and gray skies all around. Farrell had come four miles on foot, figuring he’d drive over to Nicollet to scoop up Lenora for half a day and get the car back before Ed and his friend stumbled out of the woods with bags full of bleeding redheads and bellies full of schnapps. Rain had dampened Farrell’s yellow hair and his neck, and seeped into his coat, leaving him an aching back and a dripping nose. The skin on Farrell’s knuckles was wet and red. The Packard’s motor rattled and wheezed. Farrell let off, cursed, and blew into cupped hands. After one more gentle touch of gas, he cranked the key again. The car awakened with a roar.
“Thank you,” Farrell whispered. He couldn’t be ashamed of this. He and his mother had no car of their own, and he needed to do some living, after all. He smiled, revved the engine, and fingered a switch on the dash. He mumbled, “Let’s have some heat.”
ED AND HIS CRONY hunted the same place each year. They left their car parked halfway in the ditch, hiked a short bit through brush along Swift Lake, and rowed eastward to a small island at the mouth of a marshy bay. Sometimes birds swept through that way by the score, and the hunters could fire over the cattails from boats or from shore. An old lean-to with a wood floor gave the men a place to escape the wind, swap stories, and sip from their bottles.
“Figure this rain’ll quit?” Ed asked his friend.
“Not on your life,” said the man, known to most only as Kowalska. He liked to tell people he was Polack-Sioux, and with one look at him, no one doubted it.
Kowalska worked in the limestone quarry outside Mankato; all the men did. Ed and his brother gave up the Nebraska dust years ago and moved their families where there was work. The quarry was the first place willing to have them.
“Better warm up with a toot,” Kowalska said.
NOT SO FAR WEST, clouds had coiled themselves into something fierce, and winds drove rainfall against farmhouses and barns and livestock in the pasture. Cold air whooshed earthward, and the season seemed to change in a lone mighty gust. Rain froze against white clapboards, red planks, and matted brown fur. Ahead of the wind, skies darkened with throngs of birds. Ducks by the thousand beat their wings and chased warmth as this new fierce thing swept out of the Dakotas and across the fields of Minnesota.
LENORA WAITED IN THE DOORWAY of Stoney’s Saloon, her father’s place. Leaning her forehead against the glass and watching for the car Farrell had described, a big and beautiful black Packard. Farrell had a funny side, adventurous. He was the sort of guy who’d steal his uncle’s car just to drive you around so you could be alone together and maybe stop awhile down on the river-bottom road.
The rain and wind looked to be picking up, but Lenora didn’t feel like changing out of her skirt. The morning began with such sunshine and warmth, and there’d been no work to do. The whole town shut down for the Armistice Day remembrance. Her father had left before sunrise to hunt, so she enjoyed time to herself, even opening windows to let in the gentle air. She’d dressed for that weather, and now her only concession to the rain was a hip-length coat,
“What you got in that purse?” Farrell asked first thing after Lenora locked up, ran to the curb, and let herself into the car.
“Hello to you, too,” Lenora said.
Even with a cross expression on her face, Lenora looked great to Farrell. She was a fine girl, he thought. She had blond hair, which she always pushed behind her ears, and her lashes were so light they were nearly invisible. Farrell patted her leg. “I meant Hello, darling, what you got in there?”
She smiled, held open her bag, and showed him the two bottles of beer and a silver flask. She closed the purse and slid over next to Farrell. He hit the accelerator and, after they’d passed the western limit of town, crooked his arm over her shoulders.
BIRDS TO THE REAR beat their wings desperately, somehow knowing they were just ahead of trouble. In front of them flew waves and waves of ducks and geese, everything that had been headed south, and a loose haze of local birds, stirred up from daily routines and scared into flight. Many swooped low in the river valley and followed its southeasterly path, ditching out of prairie gusts and taking advantage of the steadier tailwind coursing through the wide valley.
FARRELL GUIDED THE PACKARD slowly along the gravel road leading toward the river, where they could cruise in the bottoms and find a quiet spot to stop for a beer and a talk or whatever else they dared, never much. Lenora sipped from the flask and held it to Farrell’s lips, tipping it up when he gave a little nod. He steered with his left arm and kept his right around her.
“Tastes good,” Farrell said. “I like that warmth in my throat.”
“Me, too,” she said. “I love how you can feel it spreading down from your tongue to the bottom of your stomach. It takes you over.”
Rain, falling ever harder, slapped against the windshield and swooshed away on the wipers. Farrell told Lenora to hold the wheel, which she did while he fumbled with switches until the wipers sped to a frantic pace.
“There,” he said, taking the wheel again. “Now I can see something.”
“I like this car,” Lenora said. “It’s a nice one.”
Farrell steered onto the riverside hill. Down below glowed the headlights of a car creeping upward. Lenora slid to the side, and Farrell put both hands on the wheel, rode the brakes, and kept over as far as possible. Lenora turned her face away when the car passed, but Farrell gave a wave. The man driving the rattletrap of a Ford waved back; the three men with him nodded.
“Just a sorry flock of old hunters,” Farrell said. “Don’t worry.”
“I hope no one recognized me,” Lenora said, scooting back to the seat’s middle. “My father’ll blow steam if he hears I was out here with you.”
TWO COUNTIES OVER Lenora’s father stood alone in the river sloughs where long ago his father and grandfather had taught him to hunt. Birds passed overhead like blasts of wind-driven smoke off a prairie fire. Thick blots of crows swirled by, going like the ducks, going like every flying thing. He wondered about this, wondered what those other birds were doing and why migrating flocks were following a path more east than south. He wondered what his father and grandfather would’ve made of it.
FARRELL TASTED BOURBON ON LENORA’S LIPS, smelled it in her breath, felt it in his eyes. With the Packard idling in a pull-off on the bottom road, they kissed and Farrell moved a hand under her coat and over the soft cotton of her blouse, cupping the hand and feeling the form of her. He was nearly eighteen and had never seen a real woman out of her clothes. He didn’t know how that was ever going to change.
When they’d kissed for as long as seemed reasonable, they stopped and looked at the brown river, its current carrying long naked branches and curled golden leaves. She suggested they drink the beers before they got warm. One at a time he wedged the bottle tops under the window crank and popped them off.
Two weeks short of a year had passed since Farrell’s father went deer hunting up north and never came back. He’d been sharing a rented cabin with Lenora’s father, Uncle Ed, and some others. The night before they were due to come home, Farrell’s father drove to town for cigarettes. No one had seen him since. First there was a fuss, as if perhaps he’d driven off the road somewhere or gotten lost and run dry of fuel. But soon everyone whispered the likelier truth—he’d just run. Not long after, Lenora’s mother left for a shopping trip and never came back.
Sitting along the river in the Packard, the heater working away and windows half-fogged, Farrell looked at Lenora. They’d passed a lot of time together since their folks ran off, and they’d pretty well talked the matter into the ground. But Farrell hadn’t mentioned one thing: There’d been silence at the family table one night shortly before his father’s hunting trip. Farrell’s father had looked at his mother and said, Do you ever stop and think: What if I’ve been wrong? Farrell’s mother didn’t look up from her plate, so Farrell said, Wrong about what? His father, who seemed a little drunk, said, Wrong about everything.
As Farrell considered how to begin, Lenora leaned forward and wiped the windshield with the cuff of her coat. She narrowed her eyes, leaned close to the glass. Farrell looked that way too and saw a black swirl like smoke pouring downstream. Lenora said, “What’s that?”
A WAYS UPSTREAM, a dozen steers had gone down a slope in their riverside pasture. The animals wanted only to move with the wind. They trudged away from their barn, toward barbed wire above a creek, which flowed into the river and formed the southeast corner of the farmer’s property. The rain fell and fell; the temperature fell and fell. Water soaking their brown hides glazed in the cold. Rained turned to sleet. Ice held one steer’s eyelids together until the bellowing animal shook his head and forced them open. Sleet turned to snow, which came in coarse waves, like wind-whipped sand. The steers crowded, hemmed in by wire, their backs still to the wind and snow.
FARRELL PULLED LENORA HIS WAY, and she kneeled across his lap, her backside wedged against the steering wheel, as they kissed with renewed energy. The sight of all those birds and the thrumming as they passed overhead stirred something inside the pair. Farrell figured they’d been graced by luck, getting that chance to be alone together while witnessing something so unusual, something amazing and awesome. He could tell Lenora knew it too, and he thought this might bind them.
Both hands inside her coat, Farrell explored her soft places and the bulging contours where undergarments pressed into flesh. He ran one hand down her back, around her curve, along the underside of her thigh. His fingers brushed the skin of her calf. He rested his hand in the crook of her knee.
Washes of rain on the roof mixed with the hum of the engine. Wind clattered branches above and whistled against the windshield. The birds had mostly passed. Farrell wanted to look—to see her face and her body and everything happening, but he forced his eyes closed, knowing the polite way. He kept his eyelids pressed together until he heard what sounded like someone throwing handfuls of dirt against the steel and glass of the Packard.
SEVERAL DULL, COLD HOURS after the men had fanned their decoys on the water, dozens of ducks came dropping in. They came so quick and low that Ed yelled out, “Better watch your cap!” He laughed and blasted away, wasting hardly any birdshot, always knocking down something. After midday, Ed and Kowalska neared their limit of ten apiece, and they’d been celebrating with the schnapps. Growing gusts drove across Swift Lake from the west and into the hunters’ faces.
Ed looked back over the water, his eyes watering, and considered the return trip to the car. The duckboat, which he’d built himself, was a miserably unsteady thing. The lake chopped. Waves rolled up over the spines of smaller ones ahead. The row back would be short, a few hundred yards. But still, he thought.
“We’d better beat it out of here if we get a break in the wind,” Ed said.
Kowalska, a wide-bellied man with an arrowhead nose, peered westward. He must have seen what Ed saw. With one arm cradling the stock of his lowered gun, Kowalska said, “I say we go before it gets worse.”
SNOW CAME IN WIND-DRIVEN WAVES; it came with violence in it. To Farrell’s eyes, the birds had moved like smoke, dark and swirling smoke, but he couldn’t make sense of snow like this. There was power in its impact on the windshield, and some of it adhered there, glazing the glass in seconds. He ran the wipers, but they skittered on icy patches. Farrell and Lenora fell back against the seat and watched the sudden storm outside, where whiteness coated the west sides of the brown tree trunks and coated the brown earth, and where the brown vein of the river could hardly be seen through waves of white.
“It’s like a dust storm,” Farrell said.
Farrell remembered Nebraska’s dust—how it blasted against the house, how people stuffed sheets and rags around doors and windows to keep the black out, but after a few years as a town boy in southern Minnesota, that seemed another life.
“See what Ed’s got in the glovebox, would you?” Farrell messed with switches and waved fingers over the dashboard vent while Lenora rifled through the compartment and withdrew a chipped razor blade.
“Is this all he’s got?” she asked, but Farrell didn’t answer. He clasped the blade between two fingers, pulled the door handle, and held his coat closed with his free hand. As he stepped out, wind buffeted the door and banged it on his shin. He let out a curse and lowered a shoulder to push the door wide. The noise and chill of the wind shocked him, took the breath from his lungs. He had no cap or gloves. Standing on the running board and leaning across the hood, he worked blade against the ice, clearing first a small square and scratching until he’d bared a decent patch of glass.
A GALE WHIPPED OVER SWIFT LAKE after the massive flight of birds dissipated. Ed and Kowalska had all the decoys pulled in, all their kills tossed into the duckboat, their guns and gear piled here and there. The wind came hard now, gusts so cold and strong they scorched the skin.
Kowalska cut two holes in a gunnysack and pulled it over his head, over his arrowhead nose. He stepped into the front of the boat and sat low in its bottom. His job was to be ballast and to bark directions while Ed would work the oars. Ed pushed the boat out, kicked a leg up, and hoisted himself onto the middle seat.
“Now or never,” Ed said as he pulled on the oars, inching the boat away from the island. He had to holler to be heard over the wind. His boat headed straight into the teeth of the whitecaps.
THE PACKARD FISHTAILED up the muddy, snowy hill that led from the river bottom to the country road. Farrell exhaled once they’d crested the hill, but once out of the valley’s protection, he found it hard to distinguish the white sky from the dust-like white blowing over the roadway. Lenora leaned against the dash and used her palm to rub fog from the glass in front of the steering wheel.
“That’s good,” Farrell said. “That helps.”
If he kept it to fifteen miles an hour, he could clearly see the flat of the road ahead and dim shadows of ditches. At twenty, he could see less but well enough. At twenty-five, he had to call on instinct. Having the wind at his back helped, although snow streamed past almost parallel to the ground and tricked Farrell’s eyes. He gripped the steering wheel and concentrated, keeping a reasonable speed.
“My father’ll go wild if I’m not there when he gets home,” Lenora said.
“Where was he hunting?”
“Out near his old place in Renville County,” she said.
“He’s got a longer drive than we do.” Farrell looked at Lenora for an instant, recognizing anxiety in the squint of her eyes. Her father had gone two counties west, where the storm must have stirred up earlier. “He’ll stay put there until this passes.”
“He’s probably calling on the telephone right now.” Lenora rubbed her hand over the glass again. “He’ll just go wild.”
ED AND THE GUNNYSACKED KOWALSKA dragged the duckboat onto land and grabbed their guns and packs. The cold would keep the ducks just fine. When Ed looked back across the water, he saw only a gray form behind the snow, a shadow in the shape of the island’s stubble of trees.
“Let’s go, Ed!” Kowalska said.
They lowered their heads and moved off through the scraggly woods near the lakeshore. They emerged into the open field and trotted over matted grass, which had soaked up rain and now, quickly being covered by snow, crackled under their boots. Ed squinted toward the road, but snow and wind seared his eyes. After yanking a collar over his face, he stole a quick look and wondered how he could be missing it. His Packard should be right there.
FARRELL FELT THE CAR VEERING into the ditch, never saw the roadside but felt shudders as the tires rumbled off the grade. He fought to hold steady. Lenora yelped, but his concentration held. He didn’t jerk the wheel. He didn’t hit the brakes. He let off the gas and let the Packard bounce along. A wake of slush kicked up to the right. With a leftward lean, Farrell eased the car back squarely onto gravel.
“That’s good,” Lenora said. “Just go slow.”
“We’ll be lucky to make it to Nicollet,” Farrell replied.
“You have to stay until this passes.” Lenora still bent forward, ready to wipe the glass. The heater fan whirred, but the air in the car held a chill. “Your uncle could walk home sooner than you could drive over to that lake.”
“If I could even keep on the road.” Farrell had slowed the Packard to barely better than a crawl. “What’ll we say if your dad’s back at the bar?”
“We’ll say we were out hunting—” Lenora began.
“For the lovebirds,” said Farrell.
The couple laughed, dark laughter. What else could they do? Farrell wanted to reach for Lenora right then, to pull her close, but he kept his hands on the wheel and his eyes ahead. If there were things worth fearing, this storm was among them. Soon he spotted something in the horizon shadows—the spire of a church, the hulk of a grain elevator, the shape of Lenora’s town.
ED RAN UP AND DOWN THE ROADSIDE, spitting curses and searching for any sign of his car. Snow and wind rendered him practically blind. He craned his neck to keep his face out of the wind and scanned for tire tracks or footprints. He cursed at the snow-covered mud, gravel, and grass. Kowalska stood, his back to the wind, and tried to rub warmth into his cheeks.
“It’s gone!” Ed slapped his thighs. “The car is gone. How can that be?”
“What’ll we do now?” Kowalska asked. “We’d have been better off in the lean-to.”
FARRELL AND LENORA drank coffee mixed with whiskey and looked through the window at the empty street in front of Stoney’s Saloon. They’d parked the Packard around back and braced for trouble as they climbed the stairs to Lenora’s apartment. But they found the place empty, and after failed attempts to get phone calls through and to pick up anything on the radio, they’d accepted their isolation. Not a soul was about in Nicollet, a slow town even on a good day.
Lenora had changed into warm clothes, and they’d gone down to the bar, made their drinks, and sat at a table near the front window. Snow piled on the street, and they watched the blizzard work. The drink warmed Farrell’s chest and calmed him. He couldn’t help but feel a moment of happiness—to be there with Lenora, safe and alone and hidden from the rest of the world. Trouble would come from this day, but he assured himself that Ed would be just fine. Sure he would.
“I opened windows this morning,” Lenora said. “That’s how warm it felt.”
“We almost ditched the Packard,” Farrell said. “And you with your skirt and flimsy shoes.”
Lenora rolled her eyes and smiled.
“Where do you think they are?” she asked.
Farrell didn’t have to ask.
“I don’t care anymore,” he said.
“You’d think they’d at least send a letter.” Lenora slouched and crossed her arms over her chest, sweater bunching under her chin.
“I hope he’s out in a duck blind somewhere, freezing his tail,” Farrell said.
When Lenora went off to bed, he lay down on the sofa. He thought it best to keep his coat on, in case her father turned up. No telling how that old hothead might react. Weary but fitful, Farrell thought about Lenora asleep in her room, the warmth of her tongue, the things he felt through her clothes. He thought, too, about his mother alone at home, his uncle stuck out there. And out there in the ceaseless wind and numbing cold were things he couldn’t have imagined—cows with mud hardening around their hooves and ice encasing their nostrils, turkeys freezing together in bulging clots, and hunters hunkering anywhere they could hide from the wind. Farrell had no idea. He closed his eyes and listened for stirring in Lenora’s room, hearing only the storm swirl outside as he finally drifted off.
Soon after daybreak, he went to the window and squinted at the white earth under blue sky. He checked the back and saw a white mound where he’d left the Packard. He put an ear to Lenora’s bedroom door, then went downstairs to the bar, poured a glass of water, and sat at the front table. Later he would learn how Uncle Ed and Kowalska had trudged up the road through ever-deepening snow, how they’d made it two full miles, how they’d gone right past a farmhouse drive. But that morning he knew only that nothing outside was moving, that nobody but Lenora had any idea where he was. For a time he was lost to the world, and he liked the feeling, the easy freedom of it.
The 2009 Tamarack Award
Uncle Ed’s Packard
A native of St. Paul, Nick Healy now lives in Mankato, where he works as an editor for Capstone Publishers and as an adjunct instructor in the English department at Minnesota State University. He and his wife, Helen, have two children.
Healy’s short story “And Other Delights” won the Speakeasy Prize from the Loft Literary Center in 2005, and his stories have appeared in such publications as North American Review, Water~Stone Review, Blueroad, and Great River Review. The Minnesota State Arts Board awarded him an Artist Initiative grant in 2008.
Established in 1985, Minnesota Monthly’s Tamarack Award celebrates superior short fiction by Midwestern writers, supports excellence in the arts, and encourages literacy at all ages. Short fiction entries are judged anonymously on the basis of artistry, originality, structure, and plot. The contest is open to residents of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan.