DEAD OF WINTER
The night the twins’ house burned down, there was snow up to the eaves. It was February and everybody in town here was holed up waiting for something, anything, to happen.
Out in the country, the snowplows had finally gotten through after a weekend blizzard that put eighteen inches of snow on top of what was there already. Telephone service had gone bust. The electricity had snapped off at 3:10 in the morning, and school had been closed down for two days.
The winter was beginning to get on people’s nerves. Two perfectly good friends had got to fighting over the last box of corn flakes on the shelf at the general store, and my wife, Annie, had begun embroidering, for the third time in one winter, the North Dakota state emblem on a footstool covering. By eight o’clock that Friday night, I needed to get out of our house, even though the mercury had already sunk fifteen frets below the zero mark.
“Annie, I’m going out to the garage to make sure the car warmer is plugged in,” I said.
“Just don’t let in a draft, Brady,” she replied from her recliner .
We’ve been married for forty years, some good, some bad. Too late now to do anything about it. I checked the car and then slipped out the small garage door onto the driveway for some respite. I was glad to see the North Star shining down Main Street in case I had to make a quick getaway—one way to get through a North Dakota winter is to dream up exciting and dangerous possibilities.
When I looked out to the northeast, I saw a big red glow. For a moment I thought it was the Northern Lights putting on a show, but then I knew it was a fire. And I knew it had to be the twins’, Lester and Larry, since that’s the only house out there for ten miles around. I skittered back inside quick. “There’s a fire,” I said to Annie. “Looks like it’s the twins’. I’m going over there to help.”
”I’m going along,” she said with that flat solid voice that means arguing will get a man nowhere.
“Well then,” I said to her, “dress warm.”
“I can read a thermometer as well as the next person,” she snapped back at me.
After that we just kept quiet while we pulled on wool socks and our heavy outer garments. We waddled to the car looking like those moon walkers. The old Chevy started right up, and we headed out into the cold night. It hadn’t snowed since the big blizzard, so the road beds were clear, but there were six-foot walls of snow pushed out onto the shoulders by the snow plows. When we turned off the state road, we could see the flames and sparks shooting up into the air, even though we were still two miles away. Off in the distance, to the west, I saw the flashing lights of a fire engine making the run from over Wilton way.
“What good’s a fire engine going to do?” I said to Annie. “There’s not even running water in that house.” The old man did have it piped in for the cattle, but not in the house. And they just put electricity in the house a couple of years ago.
“Never could tell the twins apart,” Annie said, out of nowhere.
“I don’t believe that,” I said to her. “When we were all in high school together, you had a big crush on one of them.”
“I certainly did not,” she said back to me.
“Well, I remember it different,” I said.
“It was Betty Jo Engborg used to hang around Larry,” she said. “Or maybe it was Lester.”
“Lester was captain of the basketball team,” I said. “The coach made him wear a red ribbon around his ankle, Larry got a blue one. Larry and I were guards. Lester was forward. Some team that was. Regional champs.”
“Some people like to live on their past glories,” Annie said to me.
“Well, Lester got a scholarship to college out of it.”
“That didn’t last long,” she said. “The old man had him back in the hay field pretty quick. Which one was engaged to be married?”
“I don’t remember,” I said. “The mother got sick and that was the end of that.”
“It’s just a shame,” Annie said, “the two of them, good looking boys, living their whole lives out there on that old farm.”
“Their mother was one of those whiners,” I said
“She had plenty to whine about,” Annie snapped back. “The old man never spent a nickel on anything except the cows.”
“At least their driveway is plowed out today,” I said as we passed their mail box sticking up out of the snow bank. We could see the flames shooting out the roof as we headed up their driveway.
“We’re going to park out there by the cow sheds to leave room for the fire engines,” I said.
“Look,” Annie said, “there’s one of them sitting there by that tree. Just sitting there holding a box.
“Which one is it?’
“That’s a dumb question,” Annie said.
She was right, of course. When we were all younger. I could generally tell them apart. But over the years, they just got to looking more and more alike. Some twins seem to develop different habits, but not Lester or Larry. It’s always been a bother to me. I never know what to say when I meet one of them at the general store in the morning.
Annie was high-tailing it over to the tree, and by the time I got there she was talking to him. “Where’s your brother?” she was asking him, but he was staring out toward the horse corral mute as a mole. “Are you Lester or Larry?” she asked. He didn’t answer. “Are you Lester?” she asked him. He still didn’t say a word. I left them and ran toward the house. By now the fire engine was coming up the driveway, but I was aiming to find the other twin.
Most of the fire was in the back, and the front of the house was standing there looking normal. Of course, nobody living in the country ever uses the front door, so I had to wade through the snow banks to get to it and then I had to push like hell to get the door open.
I should have known better than to do that, because when the door opened up it let in a cross draft of air that set off a ball of fire inside that house, roaring like a tornado moving across the prairie. In the living room, I saw a sight that I’ll never be able to forget. One of those twins was sitting naked except for a pair of work boots, tied up hands and feet to a chair. He was struggling to get loose. Then the whole thing just went out of control. I got out of there with my eyebrows singed off. The fur on my parka burned down to black nubs.
I staggered back over to the tree where Annie was still talking to the other twin. When she looked up she said, “You alright?”
There was no time for complaining, so I just asked her, “What does he say?”
“Nothing,” she said, “he won’t say a thing.”
“What you got in the box?” I asked him.
“Looks like a money box,” Annie said.
“What happened? I asked him. He just sat there holding the box.
I didn’t say anything to Annie about what I’d seen. Didn’t want to upset her, but when the fire engine finally got there, I had to tell them. They did their best to get into that house, but it was hopeless.
Gordy Borlaug, the deputy sheriff, and a couple of state troopers came driving up along with a few nearby neighbors. “Where’s the other one?” they all were asking, and everybody tried to get the one twin to speak, but he never opened his mouth.
It was Annie that finally got him to at least let go of the box, and when she went to take it off his lap, she could hardly lift it. I went over to help. It was quite a sight when we opened it by the light of that fire. Full of gold bars. I counted them out one by one so that everybody would know what was in there, just in case the authorities decided they should take it away for evidence or something like that. Twenty bars. Pretty as a picture.
There wasn’t much they could do with a fire engine, except use what water they had with them to keep the sparks from spreading fire to the outbuildings. Of course I told Gordy what I’d seen, but he didn’t seem to know what to do about it. He did get some blankets and wrapped the twin up in them and put him in his car.
“What you going to do with him?” I asked.
“Jeez, I don’t know,” Gordy said. “There’ll have to be an investigation. Everybody's getting cabin fever. This is the third thing this month. You must have heard about what happened over there near Canfield, with the mother-in-law.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Are you sure about what you saw in that house?” he asked me.
“Mighty strange sight,” I said, and then I took to shivering over my whole body.
Annie came over and laid her hand on my shoulder. “We better get home, Brady,” she said. “I’m about to freeze to death standing up.”
Gordy said,” I guess I’ll have to take him to the jailhouse. Don’t know what else to do with him."
The next morning at the general store there was plenty to talk about, and a lot of theories about what happened. There were those who were sure it was Larry who had tied his brother up to a chair and set fire to the house, but the opposition had a lot of reasons for naming Lester. And then, there were those who thought it was some stranger who sneaked up in the dark looking for money, or a no-good nephew named Orville who lived down in Fargo, or a husband of one of the cousins who, it was rumored, might have a drug problem.
Later that week, when I heard that the twin was still sleeping in the jailhouse, I took it on myself to go in and see about it. There weren’t any relatives he could count on. He was sitting in this overheated cell. They told me he was still not speaking a word.
They let me in to talk to him, and I said to him, as if we had been carrying a conversation for some time and this was the next sentence, “That year when Lacy High School took the regional basketball championship and you were the captain, how many points did you score that final game?”
“Thirty-eight,” he said.
“Well, Lester,” I said, “I’m going to get you out of here and take you home. Annie will fry up some chicken, and you can sleep down in the rec room until we get this thing sorted out.”
I never did tell anybody, except for Annie, which twin was sleeping down there in our rec room. And I told her that if she told anybody I’d divorce her, forty years or no forty years. And she knew I meant it.
There was an investigation and a lot of comings and goings. I had to tell the authorities what I saw, but in the end, Lester was just let go. The fact is they couldn’t come up with what they needed for an indictment, and, to tell the truth, there didn’t seem to be much enthusiasm for putting him into a jail cell, whichever twin he was.
They did have a sad life, the two of them, living out there on that old farm, nobody able to tell one from the other. Folks around here have an understanding about what can happen over a winter. There were plenty of theories, and it was early April before they stopped arguing about it at the General Store and began talking about the drought.
Around the same time, Lester said he couldn’t accept any more of my hospitality. He cashed in the gold bars, put the money in the bank, and rented a room in a neighbor’s house. And then, in between calving and haying, folks pitched in and helped him build a nice little house up the hill from the old one, with both electricity and running water.
I drive out there to see him now and again. He seems pleased to be called by his first name.
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