A Lone Traveler Appears at Our Door on a Cold Winter Night
—on his way to Denver, but the snow’s too thick to keep going. It’s about a foot and a
half through the whole city, just after six, Saturday night and still falling. We’re building a snow
fort in the backyard when he knocks three times. We answer and his hands are bright pink.
We usher him in. This morning’s coffee is still in the pot, but he doesn’t drink the cup we
microwave for him, just warms his hands on the sides. Coughs. Asks how old we are, and we tell
him nine, twelve, and thirteen. He asks if any of us have a cigarette. We don’t, we say. He nods
quietly. Says that sounds about right. Clasps his hands together like he’s praying and we ask if he
wants a blanket but he’s burrowed deep in his jacket and he shakes his head.
He exhales, leans back in his chair. Looks like he’s itching for something, but doesn’t
ask. We’re not sure what he might want. We ask if he needs the bathroom. He doesn’t.
We ask if he wants to help with the fort. He shudders a little in his jacket, as though a
draft from outside has just passed through him. We stumble to take the offer back, but then he
nods, stutters upright, and asks where we keep the shovels. We usher him outside.
No one talks while we work. It’s dark by now, and the porch light casts shadows over the
unfinished walls. Pushing our shovels into the snow, we imagine we’re Inuits, Russian peasants
building up a shelter; architects, laborers, and miners. Our guest leans against his shovel for a
moment, blows out steam. Then he goes back to piling up snow and packing it in.
We’re cold after thirty minutes, but we keep going. One hour. One and a half.
The reflection of moonlight on the snow is unearthly. The glow reveals nicotine stains on
his hands and beard. He stoops to scrabble his fingers against the snow pile, broadening the door.
It’s about four feet tall by now. Soon we’ll all be able to sit upright inside.
This’ll do, he murmurs to himself. This’ll do.
We’re a little afraid of him. We don’t know why.
He’s leaning against his shovel again when we hear the doorbell. We rush inside to
answer, tramping snow through the living room.
Another traveler, this one a woman who calls us darling.
She picks up a shovel.
And soon another, this one only a few years older than us. He stares in awe around the
house as he passes the flat screen T.V., dad’s record collection, the stainless steel kitchen.
And two more: both children, even a little younger than us.
So we widen the walls of the fort. Now that there are eight of us, we can expand our
So we build towers, a basement, we put in plumbing and wire in electricity. Cable. An
elegant ballroom and a library; it takes up the whole backyard and so we build it into the bare
apple tree and up the fence and then we carpet the floors. The younger children run giggling
through the fort and we bring them hot chocolate from inside, then microwaved spaghetti
leftovers from dinner.
When mom and dad get home they don’t even look out the bay windows into the back
yard. In the morning, they smile, take a quick tour; don’t sit down, don’t touch anything. They let
us have our fun.
They let us have our fun, that is, until the neighbors begin to complain. Mr. and Mrs.
Kevlowsi next-door say that it blocks their view of the mountains. The home owners association
has concerns about “the wrong types” entering the neighborhood. Jonathan and Steven down the
block call our house the pound, say that we’re taking in strays. A local paper publishes an op-ed
piece. A slew of letters to the editor.
It ends with mom and dad shaking their heads, saying, sorry, kids.
And for a while, the house out back stands empty.
Eventually, spring comes and melts the bases of the walls, soaks the carpet, and the books
in the library get wet and the pages stick together and the apple tree blooms and the cable shorts
out and the whole west wing that we built on top of the fence collapses.
We don’t answer the door any more.