Mr. Arrow had never been one to seek out conversation with his neighbors. It was not that he was unsociable; he liked people well enough. Nor was it that he didn’t like his neighbors; he did. The Apples especially were a nice family who raised responsible, respectful kids and took care of their community.
No, the reason Mr. Arrow didn’t seek out conversation was that he didn’t like to talk much. He preferred the quiet of his own thoughts. In his youth he’d had many adventures, worked many jobs, shared bonds of brotherhood with many men, raised a family and, like most men in his generation, fought in a couple wars. He had plenty of stories to tell, it was true. Just…
He didn’t much feel like telling them.
As far as Mr. Arrow was concerned, he’d only ever done what a man ought do, for his community, his country, and his family.
When he was a boy, his father had told him that God judged a man by his deeds, not his words. There was nothing wrong with words, but they meant nothing without deeds. That had sat with him just fine. He’d never been much for words anyway.
It hadn’t taken many words to be a migrant farmer in the Depression, or to rally scattered paratroopers on the ground on D-Day, or to command them in the bush of Korea, or to build and run his sporting goods business when the wars finally ended. It hadn’t even taken many words to tell his family how much he loved them. Bess and the kids had always known what he meant to say without much of him saying it. And thank God for that, because his words had only grown fewer as the years wore on.
Now, days would go by without him speaking. Bess had passed three winters before, and all his boys and girls had long since moved out to raise their own boys and girls. If he didn’t go down to the store to see how business was (his old partner’s son had taken the shop and seemed to be doing a fine job of it), then he had no one to talk to during the week. On Sundays he sang and prayed at church, and when the pastor said, “Hi, John. How are things?” he’d politely answer, “Fine, thanks.” His kids would call him every week or two, because they were good kids, so he never needed to seek them out. The conversations were short now as they ever were. Mostly he listened, never needing to say much.
Sometimes Mr. Arrow wondered if he ought to say more. He’d get to thinking that there were things that needed saying; things he needed to let out. He missed Bess, missed her so much it hurt; he missed his old war buddies, fewer and fewer of whom showed up to the reunions each year; he missed having his children in town. For the first time in his life, he felt the urge to shout what he felt.
But he didn’t know how to express such things in words. What words could possibly suffice?
And, anyway, he had lived a good life. He’d always done well by those around him whether they did well by him or not. He’d been faithful to country, family, and God. His children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren had learned to do the same. He was proud. He was happy.
Sometimes he wanted to shout that too.
If he were to ever shout it to anyone, or at least say it, he decided he might try saying it to the Apples. The venerable grandmother who was the matriarch of the family had raised her boy well, and he, in turn, had married a good woman and raised good children. The world outside was changing, often in ways that Mr. Arrow didn’t like, but he felt that, if he were to tell anyone, the Apples would still understand.
But Mr. Arrow didn’t know how to say such things, not to anyone but Bess and the kids and God, so he didn’t.
Then the day came that he wished he had talked to them when he’d had the chance.
The snow had been falling heavily, it being early December, and the husband and his wife had taken their truck into town. Mr. Arrow had been out shoveling his driveway when they left. They’d waved and called greeting to him as they drove past, and he’d waved and smiled back. Looking across the street, he’d seen the young Apple children out shoveling. They, too, had waved – the quiet older boy, the tiny girl with the bow in her hair, and the middle child who was the spitting image of her mother. They, too, had waved, and he’d politely waved back. Then, when he’d finished clearing his drive, he’d gone inside.
Hours passed, and the snow grew only heavier, forcing Mr. Arrow to go back outside to clear his drive again if he wanted to keep the level manageable. Looking across the way, he saw the Apple siblings doing the same. They waved. He waved back.
Still more hours passed. When Mr. Arrow went out a third time, he realized that the Apple parents still had not returned. Once more he cleared his drive while the Apple siblings cleared their own. He waved, but they did not wave back. They were too distracted watching down the road. He went back in when he was done, but they stayed out watching until their grandmother came out to call them in.
It was dark when an SUV from the Sherriff’s Department pulled up outside the Apple house. An ice colder than any blizzard settled in Mr. Arrow’s stomach, and he threw on his jacket to find out what was going on and see if he could help. Both deputies had already disappeared into the Apples’ house, so he waited in the snow by the vehicle until they came back. He thought he heard the sound of raised voices and crying inside, but he couldn’t be sure. When one deputy came back out, he approached the young woman briskly. Mr. Arrow hated to pry into other people’s business, but this was different.
“What happened?” he asked.
There were tears in her eyes when she told him.
Mr. Arrow lay awake for a long time that night.
The snow finally stopped, but both his drive and the Apples’ needed to be cleared one more time. He shoveled his drive in silence that morning. Nobody emerged to shovel the Apples’.
He wanted to say something to them, to offer them some comfort in their grief, but he didn’t have the words. What could he possibly say?
What could anybody say?
Days passed, and still no one emerged to clear the drive. The tire tracks of their van from when they’d gone to the morgue and later the funeral had simply gone over the snow. The funeral had been the last time he’d seen the Apples in person. The grandmother, bravely holding herself together for her family. The youngest, who couldn’t stop crying. The boy, whose shocked silence Mr. Arrow knew all too well. The girl who resembled her mother, just… staring through everyone.
He’d seen them then, at the funeral, and not since. It was eating at him. He couldn’t stand to see them hurting like that and not do anything about it. Mr. Arrow had always been the sort to handle things. When something broke, he fixed it. That was what he did. He was too wise to think that he could fix what had happened here, but surely he could do… something.
Mr. Arrow found himself staring at the tire tracks in the snow-covered driveway. Then he made his decision.
He’d been shoveling for twenty minutes when the front door opened. In the pre-dawn light he saw the older girl walk out, the one who looked like her mother. She was wearing her pajamas, her boots, her jacket, and her father’s battered stetson, rubbing sleep from her eyes as she stepped down the walk to stare at him.
Mr. Arrow nodded to her and kept shoveling.
She stood blinking for several moments before she said, “Good morning, Mr. Arrow.”
“Good morning,” he replied.
The girl blinked again. “Mr. Arrow, d’ya mind me asking what yer doing?”
At that, Mr. Arrow stopped to look at her. He wanted to tell her. He wanted to tell her about the Golden Rule, about the lesson his father had taught him about how a man ought to live, about his pastor’s words on loving thy neighbor and about the way he’d always lived. He wanted to tell her about his wife and the children they’d raised, and about the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren, and how they’d all lived the same way, and how he thought the Apples were cut from the same cloth. He wanted to tell her how sorry he was that he’d never gotten the chance to say that to her parents, and that he knew how her family felt, and that death was a part of life, but that life was still beautiful even in grief. He wanted to tell her all.
But he didn’t know how.
So he said, “Helping.” And he went back to shoveling.
“Oh,” she said, staring. “Well… thank you.”
He smiled. “You’re welcome.” The girl shivered in the cold. “You should go back to bed,” he said. “It’s cold.”
“I can get my shovel—” she protested.
Mr. Arrow shook his head. “Please.”
Plainly, she was uncomfortably accepting help without doing anything to help in return, but she was polite enough not to argue with her elder. “Thank you, Mr. Arrow,” she said again.
“You’re welcome,” he replied as he shoveled.
It was little things after that.
When the boy became a teenager, he began tinkering with an old pickup to get it working again. Mr. Arrow went over with some tools and spare parts and showed him how to fix up the engine.
When the littlest sold apple juice in the summer, he always bought a glass.
When the older girl, who now looked like her mother and her father, crashed her bike on his lawn, he’d gone out with antiseptics for her bloodied shins.
When the grandmother needed a knee brace, he gave her Bess’s.
Mr. Arrow never said much in these interactions, but they always smiled when they saw him, and he was happy to see a good family happy.
It was several winters after the accident that he slipped on ice and twisted his ankle walking up his driveway. Fortunately, the Apple siblings had been out shoveling at the time, and they’d driven him to the emergency room. Mr. Arrow had always been a hardy man, and the damage mercifully hadn’t been too severe, but he would need to use a cane while he went through physical therapy. It just so happened to have been his left ankle, which meant that he could still drive himself around, and the winter had taken a turn for the dry after the last storm, so he didn’t need to worry about shoveling the drive.
Until, one day, a fresh snowstorm blew in. Mr. Arrow sat in his front room, watching the snow fall and mulling over whether or not he’d be able to move enough the next day to shovel out at least one path for his car. While he watched, he saw several cars pull into the Apples’ drive. Six girls in their teens and a small dog emerged. The happy young women waited, shivering, on the front porch until the stetson-wearing girl opened the door to admit them.
Mr. Arrow smiled. He’d seen these young women around many times and, while he questioned some of their more colorful hair styles (kids these days), they’d struck him as being well-brought up and kind, if a little high-spirited. It pleased him to see that the Apple children had found friends with integrity. It would help them mature and thrive. The thought made him happy as he went to bed, letting worries about shoveling the drive be a matter for tomorrow.
He woke to the sound of scraping shovels and muted voices early the next morning. Somewhat befuddled, he dressed and limped downstairs. Opening the door, he was shocked to find the Apple siblings and their friends clearing his front walk. They chattered quietly to each other as they worked, obviously trying (and sometimes failing) to keep their voices down in case he was still asleep. There was evidence that an impromptu snowball fight had broken out at least once, but for all their merrymaking his drive was more than half cleared.
When they heard him open the door, they froze, turning to see him standing there, his mouth agape. The stetson-wearing girl smiled, nodding to him politely as she took the role of spokeswoman. “Good morning, Mr. Arrow,” she greeted him.
“Good morning,” he replied when he found his voice. He blinked repeatedly, then gestured to the group of shovellers. “What are you all doing here?” he asked.
The girl smiled, a thousand thoughts and emotions dancing in her eyes. “Helping,” she said simply.
Mr. Arrow blinked as he considered what she said. Then he smiled warmly. “Thank you.”
“No, Mr. Arrow. Thank you.”