Note: An earlier version of this story appeared in Midwestern Gothic, issue 2 (the “Summer” issue, despite the story’s title), available here. It’s inspired by “Метель” (Metel’), a short story by Aleksandr Pushkin.
Gabriel and Eva Krotka’s only child was a wispy, green-eyed girl known amongst her community for skipping Mass, for having run away to Windsor and had a tattoo done there, for slashing and safety-pinning her clothes, for her nose piercing, for bleaching her sheen jet-black hair, and for playing raucous guitar heard from the sidewalk in front of her house.
More than one boy discovered his own body while imagining his tongue entwined with Ariadna’s. These boys yearned and tugged at themselves, almost able to feel her panties after they had slipped off her clothes in the backseat of a car parked on the penultimate level of the parking deck along Ford Road. Derek Kempf already had experience. She pressed herself against his chest, lingered, said he smelled like cigarettes and cologne, one of her favorite scents. He was wiry, had dyed his hair black from the original chestnut. The Dearborn High cheerleaders tittered and flipped their skirts at the bad boy. They were unlike Derek’s drawings, scribbled out in class, of girls with short spiky hair, piercings, skin inked by tattoos, hoodies, drinking out of the bottle.
After high school, Ariadna started at Henry Ford Community College, claiming she would study Psychology. Derek signed up for an EMT training course, satisfying those who asked about his future by declaring he’d become a fireman. He was a punk kid, but he would be a public servant.
He and Ariadna—both on guitar—wrote sappy songs about a boy and girl who never dated in high school, ironic enough for acceptance in a small indie rock scene. Derek always thought the only good love songs were about break-ups, lyrics which he nonetheless couldn’t bring himself to write.
After one discordant jam session, he and Ariadna hung out in the drummer’s garage exchanging riffs until the drummer asked them to leave. They drove to the empty parking deck on Ford Road, parked in the shadow bordering the street lamp’s light, and closed in without looking. Derek’s fumbling hand stopped, the urge suffocated by her, “It’s gotten colder lately, huh?” He flopped back into his seat, considering for a split second other girls who’d shown interest.
The next time Ariadna lay in the backseat hunching her shoulders and sliding off her skirt, she thought of Derek’s bubble butt, but most of all her fear that she may never take part in what was so important in life. She finally showed Derek her tattoo. It was petite, unpretentious, a crooked green star on her inner thigh. Once it was over, she expected a revelation of some kind.
Her father, who acted as if he knew what had happened, she ignored. But Papa Krotka reacted with a three-point combination. The left hook was a refusal to let Derek through the door. The old man stood his ground before their front door and cursed in half-forgotten Polish. He banished the boy. Soon after that he had pains in his chest and was laid up in the hospital, which prolonged his edict against Derek.
Derek lasted a month before tossing into a bender. He woke up hungover and drove squinting, his chin here and there resting on the steering wheel, to the Army Recruitment Center on Warren Road. Just then opening up shop, the recruiters saw Derek make a wide turn into the parking lot. They propped the door open. After Derek vomited on the pavement, the recruiter asked him, with a formal “sir,” if he was all right. When Derek nodded, they sat him down at an empty, wobbly desk.
Where he told Ariadna was too quiet for a scene, even though she wanted to lob her pint glass at the wall. She took a swig to stifle anything that might have come. All the denouncements of the war she’d heard coursed through her head so fast she couldn’t sort them out. What about the vague ideas of their wedding day, their children? Those were too blurry now to use against his firm words. If she could do anything, it was to hold him back, keep him young and soft, so he would never fire off.
“It’s not like I didn’t think this through.”
All she could think to do was drop to her knees. Seeing her do this, Derek chugged his beer and stood, as if somebody had just challenged him to a fight. He said to the bartender, “A glass of Jaeger.”
The bartender planted one elbow on the bar and leaned toward Derek. He knew the boy was underaged and aware that liquor was off limits. The bar was mostly empty, so he took out the bottle and poured the boy a half shot.
Derek downed the liquor and crumpled when it hit his stomach. He slumped down by Ariadna.
The early winter dusk was a shelf of horizontal light. Their lips quivered with breath. Their cars were side by side behind the windowless bar, which was situated across train tracks from her family’s parish. Often they would lie there poring over the Gothic arches and the empty playground. Within the childless moonlight, the place would always score her memories of those nights.
Derek halted, pivoted to her, took her hand and said, “Will you marry me? I want you to be my wife. I want you to have my children.” He rubbed her chin and wiped her eye, crouching so he could level with her.
“I love you,” she said. She saw a dangerous icy spot on the pavement to his left flank.
“Then we should do it soon. I only got about a month before boot camp.” Ariadna shivered. “Look. I’m sorry, but we can’t wait for your pop anymore.” He spoke in a calm, calculated voice. “I set it up at the Unitarian church on Cass. There’s a minister there who’ll do it tonight. I can call him when I get home. He’ll bring the papers. You remember that guy we met? Hank? He can be the witness. None of our friends know him. Hell, we barely know him.”
Her papa, pale as the sheets on his bed in the hospital, may never forgive. Slowly, she came to the understanding that it was between her papa and Derek. He sat there next to her, so intent. It was as if he refused to believe she would say no. A homey feeling came to her. She remembered when the band came together, when she first saw her tattoo on her skin. Despite the winter cold, a latecomer sparrow flitted from a tree. Ariadna reeled and gripped the door handle. “Yes.” The plan was to elope at midnight.
That evening, her papa talked about his supervisor, who had paid a visit. “You should be supervisor yourself. You just love hanging out with the guys,” her mama teased.
“If we needed the money. But, yeah, I’d lose those guys as friends. That’d be too bad.”
Her mama had cleared her throat when he said money. The skin on Ariadna’s neck and arms bristled. Gabriel touched her temple to tuck a strand of hair back behind her ear. She excused herself with a mumble, almost fell down the stairs, and, once outside the door, lit a cigarette in the cold. Alongside the nurses who smoked, she felt as if she had been holding her breath. When she returned her parents were giggling.
At home she caught whiff of one of her mama’s stronger nightcaps. In the dark living room she knelt before the hearth. In the dark the brick was cold, and she snatched her hand back as if stung. She headed to her room and crawled deep into her closet to wait. Hanging there was what tonight would become her wedding dress. She nestled her cheek against the shiny blue velvet gown, which she had only worn to a macabre night club in Detroit.
At 10:45, she stuffed the dress in a bag and took the back door, the way she had absconded during high school. Abruptly a gauze of snowflake washed over her face and she paused, squinting at its glitter. Then she bowed and hurried to her car, parked out of earshot. In the glimpse she caught of her family’s house, her papa could have stood in the living room window, if he hadn’t been spending the night in a vibrating building on Oakwood. A sunny daytime memory came to her. She sat waiting in the car in front of the house. He watched her from the window. Then he came out and stood next to her while she waited. He said he couldn’t stand to let her just sit there looking pretty, while he was on the other side of that glass.
In snow, if she had to drive at all, Ariadna usually did so with strict caution. Now she careered over the fresh snow on the highway and pressed the pedal with abandon. She only let off the gas when she reached Detroit and coasted up the ramp. She was mostly ignorant of Detroit streets and usually drove in circles searching for her destination. Motoring along Cass, she realized how early she was.
As she pulled up in front of the old stone church at 11:15, worry rose from her stomach and she gulped from her flask, filled with slivovitz—her attempt to honor her Polish heritage. The cold surrounded her naked neck. The lawn of the church covered in snow dampened what she felt. How simple everything was under the white blanket.
Derek and his friends’ sanctuary during high school was the basement of his friend Nicky’s house. He’d come here after Ariadna’s father expelled him. It was here he’d decided to join the military in another fit of quiet intoxication. Now Derek contemplated whether to tell his friends about eloping. While Nicky played a video game, he drank his fifth beer and gave commentary. He kept a watch on the clock and on how much he cursed in praise of Nicky. He would have to cut back for Ariadna’s sake.
At 10:45, the boys stepped out for a smoke break, hissing laughter and making boozy belches. Derek followed, peering up at the tumbling violet clouds. “It’s gonna storm.”
“Looks like it,” said Nicky.
“Shit,” Sid hissed.
Nicky countered, “That means no work.”
“Not for me. All it means is harder driving and the goddamn shoveling,” Sid growled.
It was to be one of those Michigan storms, during which people settle in to give witness, usually pouring themselves a drink. At 11:15, Derek decided it was time to go to his wedding ceremony. He’d downed a couple more beers. As the door shut and locked behind him, he glimpsed his car. It was covered in snow. He cursed at the falling snowflakes and hurried, wiping with the sleeves of his denim coat. After uncovering the top half of the driver’s side door, he opened it, climbed in followed by a trail of snowflakes, and started the engine. He tried to maneuver the car out, but it felt like he only elongated the ruts where the wheels rested. The snow continued to fall and refilled the holes he dug with his toe. In his trunk beside his wedding suit, he found a three-ring binder with brochures from the recruiter. He used these to make a shovel to dig out the tires. The time was 11:45.
At 11:55, Derek backed into the piled up snow and howled, as if injured. The tires spun forward and grated over ridges of packed, hardened snow. The car jumped out of its trench. Derek gunned down the street in the one lane. He let off the gas when too much snow had gathered on his wipers. Only one block was visible, even though the snow amplified even the faded street lamps’ light. When he let go of the wheel to rub his eyes, the car forked left into the bank of snow on that side. He grabbed the wheel and jolted the car on track again. Several of the avenues were choked with snow. The streets were blanketed and empty. Snow crushed against the chassis as he skimmed along.
Visibility had shrunk to half a block when the tires ceased making contact. He accelerated slightly, hoping to cut through, but the tires only spun and veered into the bank, where the car rammed to a dead halt. The engine had cut out. Wind bellowed and buffeted the car. He glanced at the clock—12:29. Snow blanked out the street signs, the houses were unfamiliar to him. He should have come to one of the clearer arteries by now.
He restarted his car then shut it off. After a moment he opened the door and faced the blizzard. Cold penetrated the cotton of his sweatshirt at once, and he opened again to retrieve his denim jacket. After buttoning up, he bowed his hooded head into the wind. One moment it was at his back pushing him forward, another it was hindering his step and he had to fall forward to move. He aimed for a house with what he thought was light on in the window. Every step he raised his head to check, then bowed again. His only warmth was the beer he lugged along in his stomach. He needed a toilet. One step more and he glanced at the house to see the light switch off. He halted, encased to his knees in the wide stance the snow forced him to take. Fat flakes stung his cheeks and weighed on his eyelashes. He bowed again and hurried further. At the porch he tripped and banged loud against the door.
When he saw his reflection in the window, he pulled back his hood. Cold flowed through his greasy black hair, his ears, circling the white skin of his neck. Inside the house the light switched back on. It illuminated a stairwell, a small chair, and a doorway into a dark room. A thick solid-bodied man emerged. “What do you want?” he asked behind the glass.
Derek made his voice firm but apologetic, “Sir, my car’s stuck out there in the road. Do you know if there’s a tow truck close by?” After a few seconds, he added, “I’m supposed to get married tonight.”
The man peered over Derek’s shoulder and huffed. “Where you from, kid?”
The door opened, and Derek passed through.
“Thank you, sir.”
“You need the phone?”
“Yeah. And a phone book. Is this still Dix?”
“Noooo, it became Livernois back there.”
“I didn’t pass Michigan, though.”
“No. It’s not far. But everything’s plugged up.” He handed the phone over to Derek. The man sat across from him while he dialed the tow company of the man’s friend.
When he hung up, Derek told him, “He won’t come till morning.”
“Listen, I heard plows out on Michigan. If you got someone who can pick you up, it’s only a short walk.”
“Michigan? You think a taxi would take me to Cass?”
“Like I said. Michigan’s right there. If you trust me, you can leave your keys and your phone number, and I’ll move your car as soon as I can.”
Derek stared out the window for a moment. “I was gonna get married tonight.”
“I’m sorry, kid. I feel for you. Somebody did this for me one day.” When the man stood, he hunched more than he had earlier. “Maybe you can take the blizzard as a good sign, though.”
The storm ceased after another hour, and Derek left his car to venture out to Michigan in the blank, mute atmosphere. The temperature had risen, and when he reached the avenue and it was, in fact, plowed, he dropped to his knees and removed his jacket. Of course, there were no cabs or cars in sight at almost three in the morning after a disastrous blizzard. The moon blanched in the open sky. His condensed breath made a vague arrow. The silence denied the fact that Derek was in a city. The desolation and stillness more resembled the fatal outcome of war.
He had it all to himself. He guessed he’d be seeing more ruins in the near future. He trudged a little ways on the sidewalk, but the snow was too dense, so he kicked through a bank onto the vast empty avenue that led to the church where Ariadna waited.
Gabriel Krotka woke early and, since he was most solicitous in the morning, sat up and considered his daughter. Last night she snuck out. Eva had called and told him so. He guessed she was off with Derek Kempf. Slipping down into his bed again, he told himself that Ariadna nevertheless liked the boy, that Gabriel should ignore her disobedience. The sky was clear and vacant, as it had been before the blizzard. “Ariadna,” he said out loud, just so he could hear his daughter’s beautiful name. As if they were psychic, his phone rang.
It was she. “Something happened. Derek won’t talk to me. I couldn’t sleep. I’m all fucked up, papa.” As she spoke, he kept sliding down and it was clear he couldn’t hold himself up anymore.
Ariadna confined herself to her room for weeks.
“What about your guitar, sweetie?” Eva asked.
Ariadna answered like the sniveling teenager she’d never been. “I haven’t played it so long now, it’s lost its intonation.”
Eva decided that the peccadillo Gabriel committed by banishing Derek had become an unbearable situation and driven Ariadna into some kind of breakdown. They had to accept Derek and Ariadna’s relationship, she pled, and Gabriel had to swallow his anti-Protestant sentiment, as well as his general pickiness about Ariadna’s boyfriends—as she and Gabriel referred to any boy who took Ariadna out. Almost giddy with the surprise they had planned, Eva stole Ariadna’s address book. They dialed Derek’s number. Gabriel would be home soon, and they’d have Derek over. The voice that answered sounded vaguely like Derek’s, so Eva began, “Derek, this is Ariadna’s mother. I want to apologize for my husband. Our poor daughter’s very sad. We know she’s been seeing you for a while without telling us. We want you two to be together. To say sorry in person, we want to have you over for dinner. Ariadna needs some cheering up.” While the phone was silent, Eva winked at her frowning husband.
“Mrs. Krotka, thank you for asking me over. I don’t think I’ll ever be in your house again. Your daughter is a slut. I’m going to Afghanistan. It’s not very safe. Goodbye.”
After an awkward groan, Gabriel announced, “I’ll strangle him.” Eva shushed him. When the nurse came in, Gabriel was still grumbling and wouldn’t close his mouth.
Several months passed—the war dragged on. Ariadna still never played her guitar. Her friends asked if she’d like to come out with them, but she stayed at home. This was fine with Gabriel, once he’d come home from the hospital.
He found her in the living room one morning. The snow from the blizzard had long ago melted, the weather had warmed. There had been a late spring snowfall, typical for Michigan, and it sat in depleted patches on the lawn. Ariadna was kneeling over an ottoman. All her weight rested on her stomach. “Derek’s friend Nick told me. He’s been wounded. Shot. They’re sending him home to the veterans’ hospital in Allen Park,” she panted. Her gaze had dissipated into blankness. “I was really in love with that guy,” she moaned. Gabriel rolled his eyes, tried, and failed to lift her up.
He swore to himself he’d never tell her what the boy said. Instead, he offered, “I’m glad he didn’t die.”
They talked less after that. Ariadna told Eva that Derek refused to allow her into the hospital. Her girlfriend came one day to ask her out to coffee, and Eva finally persuaded her to go clothes shopping.
Gabriel Krotka died of a sudden heart attack in the summer. At the funeral a coworker saw Eva’s stricken face and told her, “Gabriel worked hard, Eva. He worked real hard.” When Eva rolled her eyes, he bowed and stepped away.
Ariadna and Eva took Gabriel’s pension, sold the house, and moved north to the town of Caro, where they found a small farmhouse built for a man and his wife, no children. Ariadna took a supplementary job at the public library, where an elderly nun was the only other employee. The nun was a euchre pro. She could bring a friend, a widow named Penny, to their house to play. Listening to the nun’s serene voice, Ariadna and Eva leaned back in their seats as if to study their cards but really to blink outside of the soft kitchen table light.
Derek’s death came from an overdose of morphine. It must have been a misunderstanding of the patient himself, who had self-administered, and not the doctor’s or nurses’ fault. When Ariadna heard, her vision flooded with a purple neon wave. She shuddered, aware of collapsing from her raised chair. The nun held onto her all the same. That night, all the items from Derek placed on her dresser, Ariadna listened to the recordings they made in high school loud enough that Eva scowled, plugged her ears, and put her head down on the kitchen table.
The second war had begun and ended in eight days. The nation was committed to fight, caught up in the hawkish talk of the regime. People, like Derek, were dying. In Caro, those who returned in one piece were heroes, silent and temperamental, unable to slough off the violence they’d handled.
Ariadna habitually cruised off to a spot by a fallow field, where she lay on her car hood, smoked cigarettes, and tossed back slivovitz. At home Eva would tell the same old story.
A regular at the library came up to the desk one evening and asked when her shift was done. He wanted to buy her a drink. She agreed to meet him at the only bar Ariadna knew in Caro, Belkin’s. After he left the nun, who’d overheard, told Ariadna that he was a local who’d gone off to war. She said he wasn’t a boy anymore. She said something Ariadna thought she’d never hear a nun say. “He’s messed up in his head.”
Ariadna showed up at a bar for the first time since she’d come to Caro. The library regular sat nursing his drink alone. He had dark hair and skin, exaggerated by the shadowy corner of the bar in which he sat. When he stood—tall and lank, diminished but still solid—Ariadna, having long maintained a peculiar curiosity toward those who served, could recognize him as a soldier. Of course, he ordered schnapps. “Hank Blaise,” he introduced himself.
“It’s funny how you only drink schnapps.”
Without turning to her he said, “Well. I have a reason. You’ll probably think it’s weird.”
“Okay,” she shrugged.
“See, I don’t like the taste of schnapps. That way I don’t drink too much.”
“That’s practical,” said Ariadna. She smiled stiffly. Hank drank and did the same.
She put questions to him until closing. Even though she experienced pangs of suspicion that he begrudged her interest in his military service, he smiled and answered, given due time. He glanced at her in a sheepish sideways manner, never a direct gawk.
The next day Hank called her and was very straightforward and humble. Later that day, she couldn’t find the shoebox of memories of Derek. When she asked her mother, Eva lied to her daughter for what Ariadna thought was probably the first time in her life.
Her face had altered since high school, though it was still young. How stupid she must have appeared in that dark bar. At the kitchen table she said, “I’m going on a date. No euchre.” Eva blinked under the lamp.
They met on time to the very minute. Before they reached the door to Belkin’s, Hank admitted it had been a long time. Ariadna nodded and stopped in front of the door he opened for her. Had that ever happened before? Ariadna turned on her heel and headed for her car. “It’s been a long time for me too,” she confessed.
She drove them to her spot at the brink of the field and parked. He watched the stalks bow in unison. The smell of grass made her wonder whether he was recalling battle, and she shut her eyes and tilted to hear the salvo. Unable to stand the silence any longer, she stepped out beneath the crimson June sky at dusk. The thought that he may be gone elsewhere in his thoughts caused her to hate him. The spell of stillness had its time, then passed. She climbed onto her hood and lay back against the windshield. She patted the hood. Hank approached but worried about dents. She took his hand and pinched to the bone. It should have hurt him, so he pulled back, but she wouldn’t let go. Then they closed in and kissed, the taste of smoke in her mouth. Now she’d have to test if they could read one another’s thoughts. “It’s almost 10. What do you think seeing a sunset like that at 10PM?” She passed him her flask of slivovitz.
“I gotta tell you something, Ariadna.”
“What,” she chuckled, “you want to get married? I can’t marry you.”
“Just let me tell you this. I hadn’t thought much about it since it happened, until now.”
“Shoot, Hank,” Ariadna sighed.
“Before I went overseas, I was this young punk rebel. I left my family and ran away to Detroit with some friends. Didn’t even finish high school. I lived in this anarchist squat, run by these kids who had lived in the shelter at the Unitarian church on Cass.”
“So?” Ariadna said.
“There was this one night. I had gotten high. This blizzard dropped down out of nowhere. I stopped into that church to meet this buddy I’d made. From the suburbs, but not a rich kid. I was supposed to be the witness to his secret marriage. I was so high, I just went in there and stood at the altar. The minister was real cold to me. He said he was already doing me a favor. ‘You should have left earlier ‘cause of the blizzard,’ he told me. I just nodded. I didn’t even believe it was a real church. He handed me this paper, but I was so high I couldn’t read. There was another signature there. The way I was then, I just signed, thinking it wouldn’t matter. Then this girl came out, all choked up. I started thinking this was a real wedding. She’d been drinking and was in this kind of knocked-out haze. A smoked-up groom and a plastered bride. When the minister came, she started to shiver, so I put my arm around her. The minister stopped talking and asked her if everything was all right. She stepped back from me, shocked. Then she screamed, ‘You’re not him. It’s not him!’ Then some big guy came and shoved me out of there. I always tell people that’s the last time I was in a relationship. And I don’t even know who with.”
Ariadna downed the last of what was in her flask. “I passed out. I’d been drinking so much. God, I didn’t recognize you.”
Hank let himself off the hood and dropped to his knees. He clasped his hands over one of Ariadna’s. She didn’t notice. He pulled her down and clutched her waist.