by John Whittemore
The first snow of the winter began falling on New Year’s Eve morning. Folks in Canaan Gap hadn’t seen any sunshine in over a week. Gray sky and bare trees towered on the ridges above the cold, muddy town. Evergreens were sparse in the isolated valley, so every ugly building in town and run-down trailer in the hollows was visible from everywhere else. The dreary season gave the Gap the look of a naked corpse.
The first few flakes swirling in the morning gloom were almost invisible, but before long the frozen air filled with a shining white that hid all the ugliness. Horton Gillenwater drove to his doctor’s appointment despite the slippery roads.
The nurse knocked at the door of Dr. Greene’s office, “Mr. Gillenwater is here.”
Horton’s physician had been sipping coffee at his desk as he watched the snowflakes cover his car in the clinic lot. He was glad the other patients had cancelled. Horton deserved more than fifteen minutes for this.
The retired mine foreman stooped when he walked, but he was still well above six feet. Nearly eight decades of scars, sun, and suffering hadn’t robbed his face of its fierce handsomeness. Horton was making his way toward an open exam room when the doctor met him, “Why don’t we sit in my office?”
Dr. Greene shuffled papers at the desk as Horton lowered himself into a chair with his cane. Horton had been the first person to welcome the young doctor to Canaan Gap. The old man had a warm hospitality toward the outsider—rare in this isolated corner of Appalachia, and once Horton Gillenwater welcomed you the whole of Virginia was yours.
“I never got no good news when we’ve talked in here,” Horton smiled, “Go ahead Doc. It’s alright.”
“Your oncologist sent the results of your scan,” There wasn’t an easy way to say it, especially to Horton, “and the masses in the lungs and the liver are larger than before.”
“I guess this means more chemo?”
“Well, no. Horton…” Dr. Greene tugged at his beard with his fingers as he met Horton’s gaze, “this means the cancer is going to win. More chemotherapy wouldn’t make any difference.”
Horton took a slow deliberate breath, “Ain’t nothing to be sorry about, Doc. You done your best. How long I got left?”
“Maybe three or four months.”
“Oh? Wish I had more time to set things straight.” Then Horton smiled, “I reckon everybody wants more time, don’t they?”
“Yes they do.”
“Doc, I know you ain’t hardly been here any time at all…” Dr. Greene had been in Canaan Gap for six years, but a half-dozen years was nothing to a man staring down eternity, “but I feel almost like you’re kin to me.”
“Thank you Horton,” That wouldn’t make the burden of overseeing Horton’s death any easier.
“Promise me you’ll look out for the boys and Colleen when I’m gone. You know I wasn’t always the best for them.” The old man wasn’t even looking at the doctor anymore; he was looking past him through the window into the empty trees and the swirling snow.
Greene recognized the expression. Horton was seeing that the world would go on without him. How can anyone really believe in a world without himself?, the doctor thought, Who has ever seen such a place?
“I know you got other patients to look out for, but could you be there when I go?”
“I’ll do my best, Horton.” He embraced old Horton’s broad chest, “I would be honored to be there.”
“Don’t you get soft on me now, Doc!” Horton laughed as his young doctor released him, “I ain’t the first man to die in this world. We lost men in the mine that weren’t much more ‘an boys. The Lord dun blessed me, and I got Elsie waitin’ for me over yonder. Eighty-six years is more than I deserve. You know that more than anyone, Doc.” Horton had used his young doctor as his confessor. The old miner probably figured his physician for the closest thing to a holy man this dirty town had to offer.
Horton looked past his physician out the window. “Four months, huh? I sure would have enjoyed another summer. Looks like we gonna have a couple inches stick out there.”
“Yeah,” Doctor Greene had forgotten the snow. “Should I call Colleen or one of the boys to pick you up?”
“When my sister and I were little we used to sled up in the holler on days like this. Today is the last day of 2004 and I got myself a beautiful morning. I think I’ll go for a walk in the snow.”
Doctor Greene stood beside the window and watched Horton’s stooped frame shuffle through the thickening snow on the sidewalk. The old man turned and waved at the window of Greene’s office. Horton’s skin did not pale in the winter, but held its resilient, bronze hue. His deep-set eyes shone with just the hint of tears.
Greene nodded back. A man’s life is like a wave that crashes against the shore and suddenly recedes, leaving no trace of its wild energy. Horton Gillenwater was rapidly receding and would soon be gone.
Horton gently placed his cane against the stop sign at the corner of Main Street, one of only a handful of traffic signs in the whole valley. He removed his gloves and tried to catch the wet snowflakes in his bare hands. He stumbled, and were it not for the sign, would have fallen. Holding onto the post the old man threw back his head with a laugh and opened his mouth, extending his tongue like a child to catch flakes.
Not many people laughed at death. Horton’s exuberance made the doctor’s heart ache. Dr. Greene had learned to restrain his own wild currents with an adult reserve. He thought of himself and his own life—the arching wave of his loves and fears would invariably recede as well. In that moment he loved Horton more than even his own wife and child. “I’ll be there Horton,” he sighed under his breath.
He watched long after Horton had crossed Canaan Square and disappeared in the thick flurry on his way toward town. The doctor found himself jealous of Horton’s peace. He sat at his desk and watched the flakes swirl at the windows.
It was odd to imagine the Gap without Horton Gillenwater. Greene was anxious about promising to watch out for Horton’s boys. They wouldn’t take his death well. As far as he could tell the only thing holding this dilapidated mining community together was the force of Horton’s affection. Canaan Gap might become a mean place without him.
Dr. Greene had planned to stay up that night and ring in the New Year. Instead he went to bed early. All night long the snow descended on the valley like the grace of God. The first day of the New Year the sun returned and Canaan Gap shone with a clean and perfect whiteness.