05/07/2013 11:22 am ET Updated Jul 07, 2013

In The Cold


In this part of the country, winter had a way of sneaking up on one, killing the light, freezing the air and blanketing the naked trees in a leaden shroud. John Amberson only glanced at the darkening sky, took a drag on his cigarette and stubbed it out among the other butts in the sand-filled urn at the edge of the porch.

Inside Doctor Bloomer's office John smiled again at the receptionist and negotiated a path through the crowded parlor, past the fretful children and their anxious parents, to the examination room. There was a time when he might have recognized a few of the older faces, but he had been gone from home now for most of his adult life. John twisted the knob and hesitated before he pushed open the door to see his father stand on wobbly legs and shake hands with the doctor, who had entered through a separate entrance at the rear.

"Business must be booming, Doc," said John's father.

The doctor shook hands with John's father and with John and exhaled a dramatic breath. "Everyone's got the flu. I promised Lucille I'd be finished in time for my grandson's birthday party, but I don't know now. How are the ladies treating you in sunny California, Johnny?" he said, pronouncing the two final vowels of California as separate and distinct syllables.

Still standing, John smiled and said, "We've had rain."

"Sit down, fellows." The doctor pointed to the two worn, wooden chairs where John and his father had waited in their heavy coats and pulled up another chair to face them and sat down too, placing John's father's chart on his lap. "We've missed you in church, Walter. How are you feeling?" Not waiting for an answer, the doctor put on his glasses, flipped through the information before him and looked over the lenses at the calendar hung on a single hook just above the examination table. "My land, where has this week gone?" he said. "Where has the month gone?" He took a ballpoint pen from the breast pocket of his white jacket and began to write on the chart.

John shifted his weight to one hip and crossed his legs. The second hand on the clock above the door swept steadily onward, almost audible in the room's silence, as the old physician scribbled - pausing occasionally to check what he had written - and when at last he seemed satisfied he scanned the notes one final time, clicked the pen with his thumb and put it back in his pocket. "Walter," he said, taking off the glasses and holding them, "I want you to go down to Union for one more test, a bronchoscopy, on Monday."

After John's mother complained about her husband's lethargy and relentless cough, during a series of telephone calls, John had flown home. He was the only one, after all, with his brother working nights at the post office in a neighboring state to support his wife and baby son and his sister burdened with four children and a husband who traveled weekly on business.

"What are you thinking?" said John. The doctor hesitated and averted his eyes. And when he spoke, it was to the boy he had delivered, not his acquaintance of more than forty years. He found no joy in being the bearer of grievous news and lacked the skill for mouthing mindless platitudes. "There's some emphysema, we know, but based on the x-rays and blood tests I think we may have cancer here," he said.

Walter Amberson's thin lips were tight, his jaw clenched. He examined something on the back of his hand and cleared his throat as the radiator behind him clanged and pinged. He didn't wish to look at his son and his old friend Doc Bloomer seemed somehow agitated with him. Despite the dryness of the air in the room, perspiration trickled from his underarms. He pressed against his hearing aid and peered at the white-jacketed and white-haired silhouette and the wall behind, a quieter shade of white, which seemed suddenly capable of swallowing them all up and absorbing them like vapor.

John glanced at his father, who would be eighty-one in March, before he addressed Doctor Bloomer. "If it is cancer," said John, "how long does he have?"

"Six months if we do nothing," said the doctor.


On the way out of the physician's house and office, Walter Amberson told his son that he needed to stop at the bank. "We signed on for free checking, and they're still charging us ten dollars a month," he said. "Your mother called, but she didn't understand what they were saying."

A gray drizzle turned white as it neared the ground and traces of powder had already begun to accumulate at the edges of the sidewalk and street. The old man fumbled with his seatbelt before he closed his door. Left to him, he'd leave it unfastened, but his son made a fuss about such things, and in fact only after the buckle made the reassuring click, did his boy close the door and go around to the driver's side.

Walter shivered and waited for his son to settle in behind the wheel and fire up the engine and get the heat going, but after John had started it and clicked on the windshield wipers, he headed in the direction of home. "What about the bank?" said Walter.

"The bank? Oh, right," said John. Well the remark was perfectly in character after all. As a man who had grown up during the Great Depression his father delighted in saying: Take care of the pennies, and the dollars will take care of themselves.

"Not downtown," said his father. "Go out to the branch."

In the bank, Walter didn't stop at the receptionist's desk; he walked right to the open door of the president's office and stood at the threshold. "Luther," he said, "don't you ever do any work?"

The banker looked up from his newspaper and leaned back in his chair. "Come in, Walt," he said.

"You remember my oldest boy?" said Walter. A few paces behind, John stepped forward now to shake hands.

After they sat down, the two men bantered, about the weekly poker game in back of the Pastime cafe on the town square, about the local basketball team's chances in the valley league, about the Amish who were buying up the local farms, and finally, when all the subjects of common interest to the two had been exhausted, about the inclement weather.

When Walter at last addressed the issue of the checking account service charge, the apparent reason for their visit, he cocked his head, hesitated, and grinned as he spoke. "My teacher's retirement doesn't allow me any slack. Are you guys that desperate to make a buck?"

"Walt, you've got more money socked away than Rockefeller," said the president, winking at John. Then he brought up the account information on his desktop computer and explained about the minimum balance and the number of monthly withdrawals, and Walter nodded and pulled at some lint on the exposed cuff of his sweater.

"It's not looking too good out there," said John, and the president swiveled around in his chair to face the window. The snowfall, now thick and wet, had intensified.

Walter rose from his chair and shook hands again with the banker. "We better get on home before we have to spend the night," he said. He walked to the door in a zigzag pattern as John turned to the president. "Good to see you, again," he said.


John pushed open the plate glass door and stood to one side. A gust caused his father to start coughing; he lost his balance, teetering at the top of the steps and when John took hold of his arm to steady him, he grimaced. "Your mother can't resist stopping at the bank. She takes out twenty dollars at a time," he said, "and I keep telling her to get enough for the whole week."

An inch or so of snow had already accumulated, sending the sparrows for cover under the eaves and in fir trees, covering the streets and sidewalks and snarling traffic to a crawl on the adjoining state highway. An eerie quietness had descended. This time, after John had helped his father into his seat, after he himself had gotten in to start the car and turn on the heat, he got back out to clean off the windshield. He pulled his scarf up under his chin and fastened the top button on his coat before he started and as he worked, using the sharp edge to scrape the ice loose and the brush to clean off what remained, he peered through the glass at his father, hunched and shivering inside. Not so long ago John had been the one waiting inside the car with his schoolbooks, looking out at his father with the cigarette dangling from his lips as he scratched away the morning frost.

John merged onto the road, inched back toward town; the pavement was slick too, but so far no snowplows had been in evidence.

"I don't know why he's so sure it's cancer," said his father, staring ahead. "It's my sinuses. It's catarrh."

To get out of the traffic congestion, John turned onto Walnut Street, went past the park and band shell and turned right onto Main, putting the car in low, to make it up the slippery hill to the center of town. Snow nearly obscured the top of the courthouse, a cathedral in the center of the brick-paved square, but lights in the surrounding lower stores and shops burned with intensity. John pictured his mother, in her warm kitchen, anxious for news, preparing supper while she waited.

When the traffic signal turned to green, John took his foot off the brake and stepped on the gas. The wheels spun, and the car skidded backwards to the right in the slush. A driver behind them gave two sustained honks on his horn, and John's father said, "Watch out," thrusting his hands out and onto the dashboard. When John eased up on the accelerator, the tires found traction and the car lurched forward again, in the direction of home.


With his father out of earshot in the bedroom, John went over to his mother at the kitchen sink and put his arm around her shoulder. She placed the last plate in the dishwasher, folded the towel and laid it on the counter. John waited for her to cry, as she had when she telephoned and asked him to come home from California, but she didn't. She peered over the sink and onto the backyard deck, as if she expected someone to be trespassing, and once she had apparently convinced herself that nothing outdoors was amiss, she squared her shoulders and said, "Catarrh, my foot. I just knew it wasn't his sinuses. He's been coughing for six weeks."

When the telephone rang, she brushed a wisp of hair off her forehead with the back of her hand, and went into the hallway. John poured himself a glass of orange juice and went closer to the doorway, but he couldn't hear what his mother said, though her tone had turned remote and business-like.

His mother spoke only a moment before calling him. He took a sip of juice and stepped through the door to take the receiver from her; she held it out to him, wiped her hands on her apron and went into the front bedroom, where her husband had taken refuge. John cradled the phone between his head and shoulder. "Hey," he said. "How are you?"

"I couldn't reach you on your cell. How long are you going to be there?"

"The doctor thinks it is cancer," said John.

"John, I'm dying too. I need you here," said his friend.

Down the hall his parent's bedroom door was ajar. John cupped his hand over the mouthpiece and said, "I told you I'll be home on Friday," he said. "I miss you too."


Doris Amberson stood in the living room with her arms folded. She had tuned the television to the Weather Channel and she watched without comment for a while, before going to the front door and opening it. "I suppose it'll keep up all night until we can't even get out of the house," she said. She closed the door and looked at John. "I have pork chops," she said. "I could fry them with some potatoes."

"Is Dad still sleeping?" said John.

"Or we could go to the White Horse," she said. "It's fish fry night." John placed his book on the table next to the lamp, pushed the lever on the reclining chair and sat up. Doris Amberson said, "I think it might do him good." She waited for his reaction, but her son got up without responding and went into the kitchen, and when she heard him rooting around in the freezer she walked down the hall to the bedroom.

Her husband lay facing the wall with his back to her; Doris sat on the edge of the bed and smoothed his cowlick. "Your hair is so white and so thick," she said. It unsettled her that aspects of a person could appear healthy while being so gravely ill. John came to the room and stood in the doorway. He gave her a reassuring smile and a wink.

"Dad," he said, "do you feel like going to White Horse?"

"Walt, does that sound good? Johnnie can drive," said Doris.

Walter didn't turn over. "I'm not hungry," he said, without lifting his face off of the pillow. He had hoped that he still had a few good years left.

Doris said, "We could bring you something back for later."

Walter had always preferred eating at home to save money, but his wife enjoyed making regular appearances at a series of local restaurants and would certainly want to show off with John while he was home.

"You two go on," he said.

"Do you want us to bring you something, Dad?" said John.

"How does that sound? said Doris, rising.

Icy snow splattered against the bedroom window. "We better get going now," said John.

Doris followed her son down the hallway into the living room. She opened the front closet, took her red jacket off the hangar and held it for a moment before putting it back. Then she reached over to the end for her new winter coat with the fox fur collar, slipped it on and closed the door.


John backed out of the garage, down the snow-covered driveway. He sped up, to make it through a drift at the end of the drive, turned the wheel and came to a stop on the street. He put the gearshift lever in Low this time, and when he stepped on the gas the car struggled through the buildup, maintaining a steady forward progress. They were several blocks from home when his mother said, "What all did the doctor say?"

John gripped the steering wheel with both hands and looked over at his mother. The features of her face were barely visible in the green light of the instrument panel. "If it is cancer, surgery may be an option. But not until after they check with the heart specialists," said John. "The doctor said he had six months, if we do nothing." And then after a pause, he added, "I don't think surgery is a good idea."

"What about chemotherapy?" said his mother.

"Radiation. They can do radiation. Doctor Bloomer said chemotherapy doesn't work for this type of cancer," said John.

His mother covered her face with her gloved hands, muffling her voice. "This is a nightmare," she said. "A nightmare." She removed one glove, took a tissue from her purse and blotted her eyes. "He quit smoking ten years ago, and no one in his family ever had cancer that I know of," she said, sounding angry.

The lights of the old brick library blinked off as they drove past.

"Because of heart trouble," said John. "They didn't make it to eighty."


Despite the weather, the White Horse parking lot was crowded. Doris Amberson smiled and waved to a couple inside the wood-paneled restaurant as she and her son made their way to the only empty table, at the front, by the window. "That's Leonard and Margaret Phillips," she said, as she took off her new coat and sat down.

The young waitress came over and handed them plastic-laminated menus. "Something to drink?" she said.

"A beer," said John. He closed his menu.

"Black coffee," said Doris.

"We're ready to order," said John. "We shouldn't stay away too long."

Doris looked at her son and nodded. The waitress left and returned minutes later with their drinks. Doris blew on her coffee and set it down without taking any. "I just hate it when they serve coffee in a clear mug," she said.

"It's a mistake," said John. He took a swallow of beer. "Especially when it's as watery as they make it here."

Doris smiled, sipped the coffee and put the cup down again. She pushed the sleeve of her sweater back, looked at her watch and pulled out the stem to make an adjustment. A silence between them followed, with her surveying the restaurant interior, a lively place with laughter and loud conversation, and her son watching the congested traffic on the roadway. When he looked back in, she gazed into her cup and said, "How long can you stay?"

"My return is set for Friday."

"So soon?" said Doris, still not looking at him. "If they do surgery, he'll have to go down to Union."

"Just because I don't work nine to five doesn't mean that I don't have responsibilities," said John.

"Can't you write here, go to the library mornings like you did before?"

"The first step is to get the results of the bronchoscopy and decide whether surgery is the way to go. We should at least know where we're going by the end of the week," said John.

Doris had started to say something more, but hesitated when the waitress came to freshen her coffee, sitting quiet and motionless while the girl poured. In her haste, though, the waitress overfilled the cup, spilling coffee in a wide circle on the table. "I'm so sorry," she said, pulling a dishrag from her pocket and mopping up. John took a drink and looked out at the road, and his mother looked out too. A snowplow, the first one seen since the storm began, clattered past, throwing a spray of salt and mud at the cars in the lot.

"Mom, maybe we should get the fish to go," said John. A blast of wind rattled the windows, startling the diners and ceasing their chatter, but just as quickly the banter and amusement resumed. "I don't think we should leave Dad alone too long with the weather like this."

His mother sighed. "It's supposed to turn real cold tomorrow," she said.

John looked at the waitress; she nodded knowingly at him, puckered her mouth and said, "I'll get it packed up for you. Do you need another beer?"

He shook his head and managed a smile, and when the girl had moved to another table, John lowered his voice. "Scott's not doing well," he said.

Doris Amberson sipped the fresh coffee and glanced over in the direction of the cash register. Her son had brought the friend home a year or so back. He had been younger than she imagined and though he behaved politely enough, she hadn't really cared for the slight, fair boy. That didn't mean she wished him ill, but family should count for something. "Doris didn't look directly at her son when she said, "He must have other friends. Someone who can help."

"I didn't say I wasn't coming back," said John.

The girl arrived with boxed plates of fish and mashed potatoes. "You all have a good evening and be careful on the way home," she said.

Outside, John took his mother's arm and helped her to the car in the slush. "Is that a new coat?' he said.

She smiled. "It was on sale at Kohl's. I just love it," she said.

"It's looks really warm," said John. When they were settled and on the way home, he said, "Have you heard from Lynn or Alec?"

"Not for a couple of weeks," she said. "Have you?"

"Lynn called a while ago, but I haven't heard from Alec since my birthday. "I'm sure they'll come down to help," John said, to his mother.

"The girls already have soccer and now piano too," said Doris. A silence followed before she said, "I guess they'll come when they can."

After that neither of them spoke until they pulled into the driveway. John's mother took out a tissue and blew her nose, and he thought she might be crying but it was too dark in the car to tell for sure.

Inside the house, Doris Amberson took off her coat, hung it in the closet and went into the bedroom, leaving the sacks of food on the credenza next to the television.

John felt in his pocket for the pack of cigarettes he'd bought earlier, at the IGA and went back out onto the front stoop. He took a smoke from the pack, cupped it in his palm to shield it from the wind and after several attempts he got it lit. He wished he could share the anger and pain of his friend's illness. He wished that he had told his parents how talented Scott was and what a good person he really was. He wished that they had been able to make him feel welcome.

He looked out over the frozen ground to the street where he had ridden his bicycle as a boy. Drifts had already formed up against the tires of the car in the driveway, and the flurry, lit by a single overhead light at the front edge of the yard, swirled and blew so violently that it was no longer possible to see the trees. Like smoke from his cigarette they had vanished in the snow.