Working in a Vacuum

by Paula Johanson

It was another gray day. Under the lead-grey clouds, a cold, light wind picked up particles of snow to brush against the storm windows. Only minus 25 C today on the thermometer. Around twenty below on the other scale. Warmed up some. The old furnace could make some progress at fighting the cold. On cue, the furnace rattled and boomed and the fan came on, blasting hot air out of the vents. The walls were too cold to lean against, and the windows were still sandwiched in a layer of frost between the inner plastic film and the storm windows. Another winter's day. Maybe a little better than the last few, maybe not.
"Output is down for number six."
"Which one is that? What were we expecting?"
"There's a novel in progress, another outlined and several short term projects and articles that should be completed soon."
"Oh, number six. Some of that will be what we want."
"But output is down."
"You sure? For how long?"
"The last few weeks. She sent only one eight by twelve envelope from either of the post offices she customarily uses. That was a month ago."
"And how many number ten envelopes?"
"Damn. She uses them for personal correspondence, too. That's probably letters to her grandmother, not manuscripts."
"Don't knock it, boss. Some of those letters turn out to be first drafts for some pretty effective non-fiction."
"Pieces of fluff."
"With all respect, those pieces of fluff added up to three manuscripts in two years. Two of which have already been sold."
"Your taste, not mine. The novel's the big project going right now. Check the progress on it and get back to me later."
The teakettle was just coming to the boil. Tea with caffeine was the order of the day, to take the chill off and kick-start the mind into alertness. Maybe looking through the files of half- finished and recently completed writing would get something going. This mug had "Don't mess with me, bucko -- I'm a WRITER" on the side. Sugar from the Bavarian china sugar bowl, with silvered handles cold from the cupboard, and bright primroses on the bowl. Those were the only primroses that would be blooming around here for weeks to come.
"What's the word on the novel?"
"The three excerpts sent out as stories came back from two magazines and an anthology. And from the CBC Literary Contest."
"Everybody gets rejected by them. So what?"
"Yeah, boss, but the anthology rejection must have mattered more. I don't know if she did any work after that for some time."
"Not six. Her standard response to a rejection letter is to prepare another manuscript and another copy of the rejected one and send them both out to someone else. Look at the files." "Well, if that's standard, than there's something wrong. Nothing's been mailed out in over three weeks."
"Three weeks?"
"Almost four."
"She hasn't put _anything_ in the mail in that long? And you're just getting around to telling me that now?"
The cup was no longer warming, but the caffeine was kicking in. Scrolling through files for half-finished projects, nothing leaped out and demanded attention. Maybe it was time to read one of the books sent for review, and send out the review on spec to some newspapers. Not much point in writing the review at this moment, though, not till the printer was up again. Better to work on some projects that wouldn't need to be printed out until later. Or hand-written notes about manuscripts sent out months ago that hadn't earned a response yet. Nothing old looked work checking up on yet, and nothing half-done looked worth getting busy on. Damn, it was cold. Being cold even in two sweaters meant it was time for aerobics to get the blood moving.
"I cannot believe it! Why wasn't this brought to my attention before now?"
"We've been awfully busy with thirteen, boss. And you know what things are like for eight and for eleven right now."
"Excuses are useless!"
"I'd offer you excuses if I hadn't been busy doing my work. I've had my hands full, picking up all the pieces we want and checking on crises that needed action."
"May I remind you that collecting pieces we want is only part of our work. Careful, systematic monitoring may keep a crisis from developing that needs our attention."
"So what do you want me to do about it now?"
"I want to get a look at the situation right away. Can we get a drive-by report?"
"Not really. Gas meter reader came by two weeks ago. Unless you want to send in someone Seeking Directions or another Selling Frozen Packed Meat. We could arrange that in a day or two." "No, we did that back in November. Other unfamiliar vehicles on that stretch of back road will be unreasonably out of place. Whose idea was it to put a writer out in the sticks, anyway?"
"You said it was a Canadian tradition."
"I must have had my head up my ass."
"You said something about urban pressures on the creative temperament."
"Don't remind me. Damn, we'll have to get a drive-by report from the utilities company truck. They go by often enough."
"There won't be one for a day or two. We'll have to get a drive- by from the grader."
"The grader... Why from the road grader?"
"The road needs clearing. It was snowed in two days ago. Then the temperature dropped to minus forty."
"You didn't check in since?"
"Well, we've been tied up with thirteen and that conference, and I thought -- "
"To hell with waiting for a drive-by report from the grader. Get me the latest satellite photos."
"Right away."
"And utility consumption, gas, and telephone records from the last few days. I want to be absolutely sure she's still home and doing anything at all."
"You're worried, then."
"Damned straight I'm worried! In that climate, every winter somebody commits suicide by just sitting outside for an hour."
"Oh. I had no idea. Is -- is getting blocked that bad?"
"Find out if she's made any calls this morning."
Aerobics got the blood moving, but it didn't do much else. Not very practical. Why was Sandy never around at times like this? It would be a really good idea to go back to bed, make love and sleep. It looked like there wasn't a thing to do but something practical like shoveling out the driveway. Repetitive work like that was good for thinking out dialogue, anyway. By the time a chore like that was done the story practically wrote itself. That's if the hands didn't get too stiff. Time to bundle up even more. Snow pants. Felt-lined boots. Down vest. Coat. Toque. Two pairs of mitts. And where the hell was the manure shovel? The snow shovel wouldn't clear snowdrifts.
"Utility records show higher than average consumption of gas and electricity the last three days."
"That's natural, it was forty below. She probably stayed indoors, put the thermostat up and made pot after pot of tea."
"She made a phone call this morning and received another. Mechanic in the nearest town. And you wanted the latest satellite photos. This was taken on this morning's pass."
"Let me look. You didn't see anything to comment on here?"
"Everything looks quiet and normal."
"There isn't a new footprint in that yard or field and you think that looks normal? She hasn't stepped out of the house in three days!"
"Aw, come on, the porch has been swept clear."
"Clearing the porch is nothing! Five minutes, tops."
"So what?"
"So what? Don't you know six yet? This writer's best pieces are written after long walks or dull, repetitive work. Particularly when alternated with meetings with other writers."
"Oh, yeah. And has she done any of that lately?"
"Uh, no. Not so far as we can tell."
"No long walks. No trips to the city to visit with other writers, buy books and writing materials?"
"Uh... no. She hasn't used her Interac card in six weeks."
"Six weeks? You said it was four since she put anything in the mail."
"Almost four weeks."
"All right. What did she last use the card for, a deposit?"
"No, withdrawal. Bought bread, milk and fruit."
"No writing supplies bought for several months either. Damn! She must be getting low on materials."
"Now, boss, don't worry about that yet. Remember how last year six didn't buy any paper for months and you were worried she had run out and would get -- uh, stuck, when she had no paper?"
"And it turned out when she helped a friend move house, the friend had given her a few reams of paper? Kept her going for months, remember?"
"So maybe she is low on materials, but maybe not."
The snow that fell just before the cold snap was piled and drifted beside the porch stairs as high as the third step. First thing was to clear a path to the car. Funny how people depended on cars in this climate, away from the cities. There must be a story in that somewhere. Clearing around the car came next, and then the driveway. With the hands already stiffening, that would take hours. Maybe some today, some tomorrow. It's not like there was much getting written around here, anyway. Working until the snow was all cleared was the thing to do. Might feel productive. But damn this cold. Warmed up to minus 25 C and still every breath stole heat out of the heart of you.
"No new materials or library books. No meetings with other writers in
two months. Nothing sent out in the mail in a month."
"I admit it, boss, it looks bad now. I should have checked earlier. But we have been busy with that conference."
"That was only for the last couple of days. Now that we're aware of what's going on for six, we have to get on top of it."
"So what will we do? This doesn't call for windfall money, does it? Or an unexpected sale to a new magazine starting up by a friend of a friend?"
"No, hold off on the windfall money. That's so impractical, it rarely has any reinforcing effect beyond the next meal or two. And we don't have time to set up a new magazine. We'd usually do that to benefit a couple of
these writers at once."
"What's really happening for number six?"
"Right now? We can't be sure, unless we send someone in."
"I wonder what it's like for six. I mean writing. And living the way she does. I read her first book. And the stories."
"So did I. Try thirteen and four. You'll be surprised at the effect of different perspectives and circumstances."
"Why don't we just set up some kind of grant or bursary system instead? Something overt."
"Trust me. Running a store-front operation like that is a whole new ball of wax. Subtle is better. We hide out here, find out what we can, pick up what we want."
"Or we could commission what we like."
"Inspiration is an even more subtle thing. We'll go on getting what we like from among what gets published or broadcast. It's what we've always done. We find enough good stuff for all the travel, and the work,
and the lonely times."
"But ninety percent of what they write is shit! Even these -
"Ninety percent of everything is shit. You read Sturgeon?"
"Yeah, he was the one who for ten years was -- uh, blocked."
"Different department. Not my fault. I was an intern."
Some of the snow was loose, some was crusted and the shovel took away more in each scoop. Hands and feet weren't cold anymore but they were still stiff. That meant they weren't warming up, they were freezing, even inside all this cold weather gear. Cold sweat was running down in three thin, pallid streaks under the gear. Clearing a few inches of loose snow with the snow shovel would have been nothing. Clearing crusted snowdrifts with the manure shovel got old real fast. Work like this was only a challenge and a chore for just so long. But after so much of it, clearing the driveway for the third time in a month was more than hard. It killed the joy in being outdoors, strong enough to do practical work. It killed the thoughts and words that ran on most of the time, and killed the writing voice with cold and stiffness. It felt futile to do this, when there would only be another storm next week to fill in the driveway again. And another. And sometimes holing up indoors at the keyboard felt futile, too, especially when the printer was down. Some days it felt like writing into a vacuum.
"I don't like it. Six needs something today."
"Are you sure, boss? Maybe she's just re-reading Tolkien, or quilting another blanket. It's winter, it's cold and she doesn't have any contract to finish. It doesn't mean she's, uh, blocked."
"Six needs something. No long walks, no meetings ... She's not blocked. Not six. She's out shoveling her driveway clear."
"At minus 25?"
"After being snowed in for three days? You bet your ass."
"Why would she shovel snow in that much cold?"
"To get the driveway clear, for pete's sake. And to get her head clear, after three days indoors. To do the kind of repetitive work that gets her thinking before she writes."
"I simply do not understand the creative mind."
"You don't know anything about living on a planet, either. We're working in a vacuum here. That's why we get these stories from people who know. Now, we've got to do something about this."
"Well, it is a waste of time. She could be..."
"She could be killing her health. And people do die shoveling snow in that kind of cold."
"Oh, come on, she's a young writer. It's just a driveway."
"Young for a writer means only a few books. Get real. Six is not a young nopf like you. That driveway is a hundred feet long."
"Oh. You think she'll have a heart attack?"
"Well, it won't do her heart and lungs any good. My own supervisor never forgave himself for Woodcock's health. A couple of cold winters meant pain for the rest of Woodcock's life."
"So what can we do?"
"That grader has a radio, for the dispatcher. Listen up."
There was a big, slow vehicle approaching, up the slope and along the half-mile behind the willows. Sounds carried far out here. It was the grader, come by at last after the cold snap. To see the big blade scraping a lane clear was encouraging. The grader would have miles to go today, to clear the roads in time for the school bus on Monday. Bet the driver was already stiff in his seat, with hours of work yet to do. Still, using a scraper blade like that beat all hell out of moving snow with a shovel. His hands wouldn't be this stiff. As he went by he waved. Then he backed and turned into the driveway, almost as far as the car, lowered the blade again, and scraped the driveway clear. In thirty seconds the grader cleared what would take hours with a shovel. Didn't the dispatchers tell the drivers to keep to a schedule, or didn't they charge a wad if they had time to clear a driveway? But the driver waved and headed out. And damn, if these cold hands were not too stiff to wave back after all. Who was that driver, anyway? Looked like Ron Perlman, driving the Lone Grader. He sure wasn't working in a vacuum. And neither am I. Now why would he do that? That had to be the nicest thing to happen for weeks. Wonder what he was thinking, what he did at the corner where the big dog lives, what he'll do if... I wonder if the milk's gone off yet, or is still good enough to put in a cup of tea. I wonder.

Originally published by Under the Ozone Hole Number Fifteen – September, 1996

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