As softly as snowfall the years accumulate, into deep silence


December 30, 1990|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On Friday morning, with the earth bleached in white, there comes a pounding on my front door.

"You want your walk shoveled?" says a kid from the neighborhood.

"How much?" I ask.

"Thirty dollars," he says.

"For thirty dollars," I say, "I think I need the exercise myself."

A friend who happens to have stopped by delicately lifts one of her eyebrows.

"You're going to shovel your walk?" she inquires.

"You question my ability to lift a snow shovel?" I ask. "I've been shoveling snow since I was 20."

"It's not healthy," she says, looking genuinely concerned, "for a man your age to . . ."

"My age?" I say. "I'm 45 years old, not 105."

"Not 25, either," says my friend.

"Well, what am I supposed to do?" I say. "Ask my son? Come on, the boy's only 18. He's on vacation. He won't even be awake before the snow melts."

"Yes, but shoveling snow," my friend says, "is not good for your heart."

"My heart?" I say. "There's nothing wrong with my heart. I've had physicals. A doctor at Fort Holabird said I had the heart of a 23-year-old."

"That was in 1968," my friend points out. "It was your Army physical, and you really were 23 years old."

"OK, OK," I press on. "I've had other physicals. I can get testimonials from doctors. I've got the heart of the MGM lion."

"It's not just your heart," says my friend, who works at a local hospital and knows a few doctors of her own. "It's any 45-year-old man's. Shoveling snow is about the worst thing for your heart."

"Sure, sure," I say, ushering her out the back door so I can gather my things and navigate the Jones Falls Expressway to work.

I am appreciative of her concern but confident of my own strengths. I have been athletic all of my life. I am 45 by the calendar but 18 in my heart. I am, if I may take certain vast liberties with the English language, a hulking brute of a man.

And yet I am wondering: When did this happen? I am not upset for my heart, but for having reached an age where people around me talk protectively of my heart. Is there a point where human beings cease engaging in certain activities, and nobody bothered to tell me? Was I off getting a pizza when they passed out instructions saying, No more shoveling of snow after you hit 40, even if you have 18-year-old sons who do not awaken until April?

"I'm not kidding," my friend says, glancing back at me as she heads toward her car, which is parked in the alley behind my back yard. "It's not good for you. I don't want to hear about you shoveling any snow."

I go into my kitchen to drink a glass of juice. I fear my friend is right. I open the refrigerator door. I pour the juice into a glass and reach for some vitamins I take to battle the forces of various wintry evils. I begin to drink the juice.

I hear the honking of a horn.

"I can't seem to get my car out," my friend is calling from the alley. "Could you help?"

Is this God's little sense of irony, or what?

But I'm 45 years old, she has just told me -- and I have just laughed at her.

But shoveling snow is bad for my heart, she has just told me -- and Ihave laughed again.

Neither of us mentions these things. The timing is too comical.

Somebody -- I forget if it was Voltaire or Casey Stengel -- once said God is a comedian playing to an audience that's too frightened to laugh.

I think I understand the line now.

In a moment, I am standing behind her car, pushing and shoving, as my friend rocks the vehicle back and forth in a mix of snow and frozen slush. Soon there are gullies beneath the wheel that are the size of the Grand Canyon. We will need pack mules to get the car from this spot.

"Hold on a minute," I say. "I'll get a shovel."

My friend does not say anything: not a syllable about 45-year-old hearts, or heavy lifting, or men of a certain age. I return with the shovel. I commence digging at all of the snow beneath her car, around her car, buried around the wheels of her car.

In a moment, I feel myself perspiring: But from what? From this tiny bit of shoveling, or from the suggestion of the danger of shoveling?

I do not say a word. My friend manages to move the car forward a few feet but runs into more trouble. I lift the shovel again and begin to dig. My friend does not say a word.

In another few minutes, with some pushing from me, my friend nudges her car ahead a few more feet. The perspiration is coming off my face now like the fountains at Charles Plaza.

I continue not to speak. My friend looks at me but continues not to speak. A few more shovels, a few more pushes, and she is rumbling down the alley, waving to me from her rear view mirror, and then she is gone.

We do what we have to do. My friend calls me from work to say she has arrived safely. She asks if I'm OK.

Heart of a lion, I say. We share a laugh at life's ironic sense of timing.

The calendar says the new year arrives tomorrow night. But sometimes you don't need a calendar to tell time. And that's all the little incident in the snow was about: not a stuck car, not snow piled up half a foot. Just time marching on, and each of us pushing it aside for a moment and hoping it will leave us alone.

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