By the Numbers

Illustrations by Mike McKinney

by Stephen Alan Smith 

He had been shoveling the driveway for 47 minutes when the cab pulled up. He slowed his pace for three more loads, then walked into the garage, hung the shovel between the snow scoop and the push broom, walked over to a clipboard hanging on the wall and next to Friday wrote “380” under Shoveled and “48” under Minutes.  Ava climbed out of the backseat, while the cabbie opened the trunk and set her baggage on the cleared driveway.

“You’re early. You were supposed to call me for a ride.”

She ignored him. “Thank you, Gene, and that’s for you.”

“Thanks, Ava. Hello, Ray.”

Ava picked up her suitcase and backpack and carried them through the garage and into the house.

“Gene.” He nodded and watched until the cab had driven off. Then he turned and followed his daughter into the house.

“Your flight wasn’t supposed to get in until 6:41.”

“Hello to you too, Dad.” She gave him a hug and peck on the cheek.

“I thought you were going to call when you landed? I shoveled the driveway so I could get the truck out.”

“I see. It looks wonderful.”

“Why didn’t you call?”

“I thought I’d surprise you. Surprise!  Anyway, I guess the pilot knew a few moves. Put us in twenty minutes ahead of schedule. Sure is nice to be home, Pops.”

“Can you stay a while this time, Ava?”

“Dad, I have a nine-to-five job now. And I work every other weekend—600 miles from here.”

“What about holidays or summer—you’re off for summer vacations. And Hancock to Detroit city limits is 556 miles.”

“Dad”—she caught herself. He thinks I’m still an undergrad. It was there all right. Not total disconnect; more like a couple wires down, the beginning of dementia. Was it, or was she hypersensitive? For months now, she’d seen signs, and ever since she’d done that clinical with Dr. Morrison, she’d found herself looking at every comment and move he made.

“How many shovels this winter, Dad?”

“24,567 since the first snow. 19,376 since the beginning of winter. That was the twenty-first of December.”

“Yes, the first day of winter.”

“At 6:03PM.”

Wow, she thought, locked in with those numbers. This could be a long weekend. Already she doubted the idea of telling him about Dylan.

“Still haven’t bought a snow blower, huh?”

“What do you mean?  I have a snow blower.”

They looked at each other and both smiled. It was one of their long-running jokes. Sure, he had a snow blower; everyone in the Copper Country knew that. After the Quincy Mine Shaft House and the Portage Lake Lift Bridge, most folks—locals and visitors—knew the third most recognized landmark, a 1987 Ariens ST824 sitting on the roof of Raymond Jerome Johnson’s house. Even if the house had been a looker you’d have noticed the snow blower, but the Johnson home was “less than modest”—the phrase Ava used to describe it to co-workers. It was a flat-roofed, ramshackle mating of two mobile homes with a deck on the front, perched on the corner of U.S. 41 and Third St. “Unique” was another word Ava used to explain her history. To locals the snow blower was key to dispensing directions: Just head north on 41 until you see the snow blower on the roof, take a right, and the arena is two blocks up on your left. Or like her best friend from high school, Clare Arlington, used to say: My place is a mile past the snow blower—you can’t miss it. It was a point of embarrassment and pride, like her dad, something rubbed raw that had hardened to a callous.

“Still got eight horses?”

“Sure does, and three forward gears.”

“24 inch cut, right?”

“Yes ma’am, and that’s a two-stage blower—simple and efficient.”

“—When it’s running.”

“Yes, when it’s running.” He looked out the window, then got up and started the coffee. She sensed him burrowing a hole.

“I’m sorry, Pops.”

“No worries, as they say.”

“But really, why don’t you take some of the IRA money and get that thing running? It shouldn’t be more than a couple hundred, do you think?”

“It’s not the money, Ava. I like shoveling.”

“I’m thinking of your back and your heart,” she said. “You’re better off going to the gym a couple times a week.”

“Let’s talk about something else. How’s the art? When do you have your first show?”

“It’s art therapy, Pops. I work with people who—”

“Have mental problems?”

“No, not necessarily. Children, adolescents, adults struggling with personal—”


“No—yes, in some cases. But also people in search of—”


“Personal growth—stop interrupting me!”

This isn’t dementia, she thought. It’s passive-aggressive. Even on the phone last week, making simple plans for this weekend he had been insistent on knowing departure and arrival times, the flight number, the cost of the ticket.  Always the numbers…with an attitude.  He had changed in the few months since she’d seen him. She considered his latest OCD regimen—the switch from Prozac to Zoloft a year ago. His ongoing depression was certainly part of the problem, but the side effects were hard to gauge: aggressive reactions, impatience, confusion—those could be due to a lot of medications…or something else. Decreased sexual desire or ability? She wasn’t going there. And he’d refused talk therapy, especially exposure and response prevention, the most effective treatment for OCD. She couldn’t imagine a psychiatrist exposing him to one of his obsessions—his alphabetized and rewound cassettes, for example, scattering them all over the floor, and then denying him time to reorganize them.

“What are you working on now?”

Illustrations by Mike McKinney

Ava took a breath and explained how she’d recently made an assessment, the first step in determining if art therapy might be an appropriate treatment. Her patient, a veteran of Afghanistan, had been through two tours, seen a lot, been blown up once. She’d been nervous at first to take the case, had conjured up all kinds of stereotypes about tripwire vets, but after they’d built a rapport and she’d discovered Dylan O’Meara had some latent talents as a watercolorist, she had become enamored with the treatment—his skill and patience were impressive. And then she became enamored with him. They had been dating for two months. That part she left out.

“I make a difference. That’s what I do,” she said.

“It’s therapy for me,” he said.



Ava unpacked and made them sandwiches and more coffee. After, Ray took his usual nap, and she read case histories, imagining what kind of therapy she might use on a 59-year-old patient obsessed with counting. Paint-by-numbers?

Up from his nap, Ray decided it was time to clean out four of the 12 drawers in the dining room. Since he’d done this two months earlier, he told Ava it wouldn’t take long, and to go ahead and relax. That wasn’t going to happen with all his unpacking, and Windexing, and questions about whether she wanted this or that knick-knack.

The rest of the evening didn’t go well, either. They baked frozen pizza and split a six-pack. Ava consciously numbed herself to the prospects of a senile father. The third beer had even softened the dining room wallpaper, a dated ship and lighthouse motif she had hated at 13 and even more at 27.

She wandered the room, opening drawers and cabinets, answering Ray’s disconnected questions about her high school friends (No idea), the Tigers (Since she lived in Detroit, he assumed she “must be an avid fan.”), and the close of the Great Lakes shipping season (Let me get right on that, Dad), until he repeated the question. She had been fingering her clarinet, thinking of the rendition of “Paint it, Black” her high school band had performed her senior year. Mom was so proud that she was a band geek, had played all four years when so many classmates had dropped out. When she was a freshman, Mom had told her to forget about being popular. “Being popular in high school is like running for mayor of a town that won’t exist in four years,” she’d said. “You’re in this for the long haul, kid, so be yourself, not some floozy.”  How they had laughed about that.

“What do you think your mother would have done—?”

A wave passed over her. She hated that: your mother. She was your wife. How about Pat? Patricia, if you had to be formal, but never Patty, not even for a laugh. She was Pat to him, Mom to Ava, and she’d been dead 14 years. He’d certainly kept his distance, even with names.

“Ava, what do you think your mother would have done with those nice china dishes?”

What would Mom have done? Maybe quit you a long time ago. No, that’s harsh. Maybe they’d had a good marriage, some laughs, a share of tears—Mom’s cancer being the last grief. After that, she and her dad had gotten by financially on his small wage as a sheet metal fabricator until the economy went bust in 2008. And, of course they had the insurance money. They’d been wise about that—savings and a couple IRAs.

“I think she would have torn off that wall paper a long time ago.” She walked out on that, clarinet in hand, and buried herself in her old bed.


The next morning Ava heard Ray scooping snow. When she looked out the window he’d shoveled the driveway and was now moving a pile across the yard, no doubt in preparation for some winter storm due to hit the Keweenaw in 83 hours—just ask him. She watched as he rammed the scoop into the pile, rocked it backward, pulled it toward himself, then turned and dragged it across their yard. He was piling it alongside the Lombardy poplars next to Leon Erkkila’s home, vacant since the day he’d stroked out. Ray turned and tipped the scoop, dumping the load. She counted 15 loads before he stopped and looked up the highway. It was a quiet Saturday morning, not much traffic. He started up again; his steady rhythm like winter’s muffled heartbeat.

She called Dylan, but he didn’t answer, so she texted a long message about how depressing it was here, how much she missed him after just two days, how she couldn’t wait to get back to Detroit, and how this was not a good time to tell Ray about their relationship.

Later that morning, while Ray was napping, Ava took his truck for a drive around town. When she got back, he was in the dining room reading.

“Hey Pops,” she started, “I’m sorry about last night. I was tired and I don’t usually drink that much.” She walked over to his chair and sat down on the arm.

“No worries, as they say.”

“By the way,” she said, “Don’t bother checking your odometer. I put four point three miles on the truck.”

“Thank you, Ava.” He pulled a notebook from his shirt pocket to record the number.

She hugged him. “How many scoops this morning?”

“I—I lost count. Had to estimate. I haven’t had to do that in a long time. I wrote down 65.”

“Let it go, Dad.” She went into the kitchen and came back with a small bag. “I found something for you at Goodwill.”

“Your mother loved shopping there,” he said. He opened the bag and pulled out a small framed postcard of the Edmund Fitzgerald. It was one of the pieces of local lore they knew by heart. They had watched all the films together, and been to Whitefish Point to visit the Maritime Museum. They listened to Lightfoot’s song on the tenth of every November, the last one when she called him and played it over the phone. Once they had been driving through Marquette and seen the Arthur Anderson, the ship that had been following the Fitz that night in 1975. Ava remembered her father near tears that day along the dock in Marquette.

“I thought it might look good in the dining room.”

He didn’t say anything, just rose from his chair and walked into the hall. “Anyway,” she raised her voice. “I’m heading back downstate tomorrow. I have clinicals first thing Monday…You’re welcome… I love you!”

Ray spent the rest of the morning moving snow and looking at catalogs. After lunch, Ava found a note in the kitchen. 1:47PM.  Ava, I am at the hardware store. Dinner at 5:30PM. My treat.

They had chili dogs, macaroni and cheese, and frozen peas on the good china. She’d helped him find the set, piled away in the linen closet. She snatched every bit of comfort she could from the meal. Ray had set the photograph of the Fitz on the counter. She noticed he was a little agitated, so she made small talk about the weather and the Tigers. She’d picked up a Free Press earlier, and had done her homework. “Spring training starts in 23 days, Pops.”

“For pitchers and catchers. Position players report a week later.

“Ava, I don’t want to talk baseball.”

“Okay. What would you like to talk about?”

After she’d cleared the dishes, he said he thought he’d stand while he drank his coffee.  

“I’ve been living in the Copper Country almost thirty years. Came here with your mother, had you soon after…never left. Never wanted to.  This is a fine place…and you have turned out so…beautiful. It’s hard for me to say this. I like the fishing, the winter, the people— most of them. Hated when she died. It’s hard for me—you never stopped growing, did you?”

Ava reached for her dad.

“Anyway, I did a little shopping myself today. Shall we?”

He showed her toward the door and opened it. A snow blower sat in the middle of the garage.

“Is that new?”

He smiled. “It is.” He grabbed the handles, tipped it back and turned it.  “This is an Ariens Platinum 30.”

“Does that mean 30-inch clearing width?”

“That’s right. With 369 cc’s. This baby will throw snow 50 feet.”

She looked at him. “Did you—”

“Nope. Still on the roof, and it’s staying there. How else would we know where it is?”

Ava walked over and looked at the controls. “Looks like six forward gears, Pops.”

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