The Feast of Steven
I hear them first. The many timbres of voices rising and falling in conversation, the bright sizzle of a hot pan, a quick pop as a bottle of wine opens, the click and clack of dog claws pacing across the wooden floor, the yawning open and shut of the oven door. Soft and comfortable. A warmth of sound.
Memories— the abstracted elements of sight, sound, taste, feel, and touch, fused together and rounded, like polished stones on a river bank, grains of soft sand underfoot. Memory is impromptu and fortuitous, catalogued and retrievable, buoyant and intangible.
Outside the snow is falling steadily. Illuminated by the over-bright street light it flickers white against the dark mountains. A plow passes, the scrape of the blade sharp against the pavement. It reaches the top of our street and then fades as it rounds the corner down the hill. The dogs are alert, noses pressed against the window, a few staccato-like barks precede the sound of a car door snapping shut and two male voices. It is Bill and a friend, his name now lost to time but we’ll call him Stanley, heading “home” on Christmas Eve.
Home — a limestone cave about a quarter mile up the dirt road behind our house.
We knew of Bill because my dad hired him as a laborer a few weeks before when he was sober. But he’d been on a bender for a while — we noticed the empty liquor bottles cast aside in the snow along the hill where we sledded. Bits and pieces of his story were known — he’d been some sort of a miner or maybe engineer, had a family somewhere in the southwest.
The rest was colored with local lore in that time before social media when small town gossip mostly happened in physical spaces: grocery store aisles, locker rooms, bars, parking lots.
He and others like him passed through the area often. Drawn to the hot springs that steamed year-round along the river, the train station, Glenwood Canyon, Interstate 70; in the time before opiates, before meth, before heroin found its way into the valley. Perhaps it’s the naïveté of my childhood memories, but their vices: liquor, weed, cigarettes, maybe a little cocaine now and then, made them seem less frightening. They were mostly Vietnam veterans, aging hippies, lost souls.
There was a sense of scruffy pride in their resilience and self-sufficiency. It felt more cowboy and sovereign, less white trash and desperate.
The tinny sound of silverware on dinner plates slows as we finish our meal of tacos, homemade salsa, guacamole, rice, cilantro and lime laced beans, cinnamon and chile-seasoned chocolate mousse. Together, we clear the table, load the dishwasher, turn up the music, and dim the lights, admiring our well-dressed Christmas tree. Remarking on the quantity of our leftovers and feeling immensely satisfied in himself and the evening, my dad hatches a hare-brained idea: a snowy walk to the cave to offer a warm meal and some yule-tide cheer. Our family of five confers. Some reservations at first: it’s cold, Bill and Stanley are likely already deep in the booze, it’s late. But with a flash of my dad’s impish hazel eyes, some well-intentioned ribbing, and harsher guilt-tripping we ultimately come to unanimous agreement. We assemble the take-out boxes, bundle up in snow pants, boots, hats, jackets, and gloves, and traipse out the front door into the snowy evening.
Outside is the quiet that only comes with heavy snow — padded and amplified.
The street light casts an orb around us, and one by one, we turn to head up the cemetery road alongside our property. As we leave the civilization of home and neighbors, the dark envelops us like black velvet. Dad clicks his flash light on and its beam shines into the night, spotlighting the falling snow, the bare scrub oak, the rounded remains of footprints in front of us. The air is crispy and our breath comes out in white clouds punctuated by jokes and laughter. Someone, likely me or my brother, begins to sing. The snowy backdrop mutes our voices, pulling the sound in around us — our own powder-padded studio.
“Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the feast of Stephen!”
Laughter and recognition. The “Feast of Stephen” — my dad’s name. How fitting!
“Where the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even!”
We don’t know the rest of the words and continue the melody by humming. The dogs run ahead, finding sticks along the path, which they bring to drop at our feet, bumping against our legs. We pass the road heading up to the pioneer cemetery and follow a narrow trail into a gulley instead.
Passing sagebrush, juniper, piñon pine, and large red sandstone rocks, the two sets of footprints continue in front of us, sometimes side by side, sometimes one by one.
The dogs start barking and a few turns of the trail later, we spot a dark arch up ahead on the left carved into the tumbling and steep hillside. The sound of men talking, faint light.
“Hello?!” my dad’s friendly voice growls. “You guys hungry?”
Some unintelligible mumbling, and then a figure hunches out of the cave opening.
“Bill! We brought you some dinner!” exclaims dad.
“Aw, hey! Come on in!” drawls Bill. My dad ducks his head and steps forward inside, while the rest of my family — mom, sister, brother, and I share uneasy glances — and then follow him in.
The cave is larger than expected though the ceiling is low and even my mom must stoop. The candles set against the sloping walls flicker and cast shadows.
Bill and Stanley are sitting on plastic milk crates, a bottle between them. Both are unshaven and their eyes shine brighter against their whiskered cheeks. The woolen hats on their heads are pulled over their ears. They’re dressed in multiple layers — thrift store nylon jackets over chunky sweaters with holes and pulled yarn, grease-stained old ski pants, thick-soled work boots.
“We have tacos!” says dad.
“And rice and beans!” echoes my brother.
We crowd in around the men and begin unwrapping the food, pull out plates and forks and hand them to the men, who gladly accept.
My mom, a concerned tone to her voice, murmurs “We hope you like it. The tortillas are fresh and we made the salsa this morning.” Pause. “Are you guys staying warm?”
Stanley responds, bottle in hand “Oh yeah. The whiskey helps too!”
The men clean their plates, using their fingers to pick up the last bits of tomato, fish, and rice. My sister and I gather the food containers and stack them back in the bag. Stanley offers the whiskey bottle to my dad, who accepts and takes a swig.
We stand around waiting for someone to say something. The dogs pace outside the cave. My mom breaks the silence.
“So, are you doing anything special tomorrow?”
Both men stare into the distance, blank expressions. Bill picks up one of the many books he has stacked by his sleeping bag and starts paging through it. It’s a dog-eared paperback of The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry.
“Wow Bill, you’ve got quite a collection of books! Have you read all of those?” notes my mom.
“Oh yeah, I love my books. They keep me company. The library down on Blake is awesome — they have a whole box of free books that I exchange about once a week.”
My mom and Bill start to talk authors — she’s become a big fan of a Montana writer named Ivan Doig, does he know of him? Yes, Bill is a big fan of his work.
Massively well-read, he counts Wallace Stegner, Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, Carl Sagan, and a bit oddly, Maeve Binchy, among his favorites.
The conversation trails off and filters back into silence.
Finally, Stanley speaks up. “I go to mass.”
“Wow! Good for you!” I react impulsively. “Our family hasn’t stepped into a church in years!”
“Not much good about it. But I feel worse if I skip it. I was raised Catholic. In Cincinnati.”
He takes another pull from the bottle, passes it to Bill.
Again silence. I bump my head against the cave ceiling. Limestone chalk crumbles around me.
“Careful girl, don’t cave the place in!” Stanley calls out in a slurred voice. Bill grunts up from his milk crate, and slaps my dad on the back.
“Well, we really appreciate the food. Thanks so much for the hospitality” he says, rummaging through his pack to pull out another bottle. My mom and dad exchange knowing glances. Dad offers a hearty “Merry Christmas!” and the rest of us echo him in broken chorus. My sister heads out the archway first, followed by me, my brother, and mom. Dad hangs on, takes one more offered swig from the bottle, and joins us back on the outside.
The snow has stopped and the clouds above are clearing fast, replaced by bright stars.
We begin our descent back to the house, my sister leading the way. Swinging the much lighter bag, she observes “Oh good! We don’t have any more leftovers!”
We pick back up on our caroling, humming, and guessing through the words of Good King Wenceslas until we launch back into the chorus.
“On the feast of Stephen! Where the snow lay roundabout, deep and crisp and even!”
Before sliding myself past the city gate that blocks the cemetery road from vehicle traffic, I take one last look back into the dark Christmas eve.
The snow on the road and hills glows a soft white from the stars, moon, and streetlight while the naked trees layered on top are twisting and jagged dark silhouettes.
A week later, after taking down our Christmas tree and packing up ornaments and lights, my brother, sister, and I are out sledding down the cemetery road. It’s the last day before school starts up again and we’re determined to get every last bit of freedom we can before the regimen of homework, sports practice, and early morning wake-ups begin again. A black Honda civic pulls up to the gate and a woman and girl, maybe thirteen or fourteen (about my age) step out. They’re both dressed like regular people — clean clothes, good coats, sensible shoes, hats, gloves.
“Excuse me, is there a man named Bill hanging around up here?” The woman directs her question to me as I am the oldest.
“Um. Yeah…. He has been living in the cave up the road for a couple of weeks.”
“How do we get there?” she says without a hint of surprise, but an air of resignation.
I offer directions, with help from my little brother, and ask if she’d like us to take them to the cave. She politely declines, and she and her daughter start walking up the road.
My siblings, the dogs, and I shuffle our feet in the snow and watch the two of them as they head up the hill.
Back in the house, our snow clothes now strewn on the floor of our living room, I glance out the window with my mug of hot chocolate and see three figures walking down the road. It is the woman, the girl, and Bill. He is several steps behind them.
His head is down and he is carrying a large sack with his sleeping bag, bottles, and I assume, books.
He gets into the back seat of the car, the woman and girl sit up front. The bumper stickers on the back of the car read “I am proud of my honor student at Los Alamos Middle School”, “Stanford University Alumni” and a sticker that looks like an atom. The New Mexico plates are the last thing I see as the car drives away. Stanley moves out a few days later, his story, past and present trailing behind him.
Though the cave has been occupied off and on in these many years since, the cave’s inhabitants have changed in parallel to the world and our small valley. The drunken, broken, and educated but world-weary men don’t come around much anymore. Instead, it’s a younger crop of people — faces peppered with angry red spots, wild, red-tinged eyes, and skinny, wiry bodies clothed in tattered tee shirts, thin jeans, and sandals.
There’s an unpredictable volatility to them that propels people to lock their doors, avoid dark places at night, and perhaps most telling, keep their Christmas Eve dinners to themselves.
Article originally published January 2, 2020 on The Little House in the ‘Burgh blog: https://littlehouseintheburgh.wordpress.com/2020/01/02/the-feast-of-steven/