by Geoff Schutt
The Princess of Pittsburgh said the snowflakes reminded her of sparks from a campfire. We were in the kitchen, sitting on folding chairs in front of a folding table, looking out the window, trying to see the full moon, but there were too many clouds, at least when we started watching. What we expected and what actually happened are two different things, and it’s at times like this that you learn something about yourself, or are completely astounded by something, or perhaps, at the very least, are caught by surprise. It had been her birthday, and now this, an early March winter storm – a surprise in itself. And this as well: I wrote her a fairy tale of sorts. She always made a point of telling me, almost like a dare, that I would never be able to write her something that could make her cry, and I responded, I don’t want false tears anyway. And honestly, this was not a magician’s attempt at tears, and I am not even sure why I speak of it now, except that fairy tales either have that implausible happy ending, or a twist that places you on your own shaky moral ground, admit it or not. I gave her the pages, which were on the table, along with the wine, and I said, “This is you. This is us.” I said, “What I mean is – this is you, as a character, as the Princess of Pittsburgh.”
We looked out the window as the clouds gently released the snowflakes, which fell one by one, like soldiers marching in line, and then, closer to the house, closer to the window, swirled up, caught in the soft breeze and illuminated by a motion-detecting security light installed after crackheads broke into our basement and stole all the copper pipe they could tear from the ceiling and walls. We were out of town when that happened, but coming home to a broken window and knowing that people had been inside our house was at the least, unnerving, but oddly enough, I didn’t feel violated, as many people say after a break-in – perhaps because we were pretty sure the crackheads didn’t go upstairs. All of the houses on the block had been hit. We were nobody special.
Little known among the general public outside of the boundaries that existed on maps, Pittsburgh had once been a sovereign nation, stuck right in the middle of the United States and surrounded by the original colonies. It was a peaceful nation, and very quiet, which is probably why it didn’t get much notice from those people who write the history books, either. In fact, most of the world, and indeed the rest of the United States, looked upon this tiny nation as a city, and one of their own, and therefore, a city such as other cities that existed throughout the land. Indeed, at one point in time, when the population was still living there, Pittsburgh was in the top 10 of U.S. cities (yes, it was actually counted as a U.S. city, even with its sovereign status). It was its own melting pot of immigrants, who were willing to work in the coal mines and for the steel mills and at any dirty job they could get. There was this sense in those days that within the boundaries of the United States of America (no matter what you decided to call Pittsburgh, city or nation), the streets were paved with gold, and anybody could rise up with nothing in his pockets and become rich. It was about the work, first and foremost – that same quality that made Pittsburgh such a quiet nation, because its citizens went about their lives wishing big, but working even harder.
This is what Horatio Alger would have you believe: “Pluck and luck.” Andy Warhol proved it true, with a lot of pluck, and at least a little bit of luck, coming from this place called Pittsburgh, but then leaving it all behind. Andy Warhol wanted to be part of the United States, not the nation of Pittsburgh. And I wanted to write words that would change the course of two lives. Even fairy tale nations have agendas that can clash with reality. I guess that’s what I’m saying.
The security light came on at regular intervals, whether there was motion or not. A few of the snowflakes sought refuge on the window. It was cold enough that the individual flakes froze where they landed, or rather, where the breeze tossed them. Others just fluttered about, with perhaps an inch or so worth of space between them. I don’t know if every snowflake is different, or unique like people say, but the intervals of space that separated them was consistent. There was a kind of symmetry to it. The snowflakes that landed pressed against the window were like refugees, trying to get away from somewhere, and to somewhere. As long as they held to the window, they were absolutely breathtaking. But I knew eventually they would melt and dissolve as though they were never there at all.
I don’t know what the goal of a snowflake is, but if it’s to land on the ground and become part of something larger than itself, well then, these few on the window were out of that league. But perhaps they just wanted to survive, and on their own, and not to become bigger than themselves in combination with others, and instead to survive as testaments of originality. The snowflakes that hung on the window were doing so for dear life, whether or not they knew it.
We sat and watched them. These were brilliant white sparks, as the Princess of Pittsburgh had said – more like wood burned and flaked white, the flames from the fire pushing these specks back into the air, and not the breeze at all.
The wine made us warm, and it was indeed warm, inside, where we were, sitting on our folding chairs in the kitchen. The Princess of Pittsburgh was telling me all about the moon we still couldn’t see in the clouds, and I listened to her words with a kind of wonder.
And she was reading the fairy tale: “It always snowed like this in Pittsburgh, but we liked the snow and wished it snowed even more. We wanted the ground to be covered with snow. We wanted the streets to be piled six or eight feet under with snow, so that every home might be protected by millions and millions of snowflakes.”
She sipped her wine and continued. “One night we lost the moon completely and it never did return, but the snow was all that we were interested in anyway, and we wanted more, as much as the skies could give us. There was no moon, and after some time, there was no sun either. It was dark all the time, except that people had electricity, and bright lights of their own, and we could make our own sunlight. Or you could say we were making our own moonlight. The hour on the clock defined our light.”
Her voice filled me drunk, far beyond the wine.
“This is a secret,” she said. “When I was a little girl,” she said, “I sometimes went outside in disguise. I wore rags of clothes so nobody would recognize me. But none of the other children would play with me, because children can see through rags. Children know. They always know. I was a princess. If we played together and I got hurt, it would be on their shoulders. They told their parents, so their parents kept the children indoors, even after we lost the moon and the sun and could make day or night any time we liked. People stopped watching clocks entirely. But one time it snowed harder and longer than before. That was when the parents let go of their little ones, and doors opened, and out into the snow came the children to play, and I was so happy to see people my own age. But very quickly, they disappeared – all of the children. The snow was too tall. It consumed them. It was a dozen feet deep by then. It was still snowing. And at that instant, my raggedy clothes began to work. Snow blindness, I guess you could say. I was the same age as the children were. Not only the same age, but also I looked like them, or maybe they looked like me. In the beginning, when the storm started, the children had gone into the streets and made their own paths, as if they were in the middle of a dense forest and had to claw our way through the growth. The problem was, the new snowflakes covered their tracks, and the paths they were making, there was no way to find them, so what began as something beautiful turned into something quite horrible. They were lost. And then I was just as lost as the other children, even though I was a princess. I had no idea where my own castle was.”
When she read aloud like this, it seemed like nothing I had written, but something of hers, something from deep inside of her. I’m not sure how this transference took place, but it had. My fairy tale about the Princess of Pittsburgh had her leaving her kingdom, because she didn’t want to be locked up anymore, or be so unlike everyone else, or have the responsibility of watching over an entire city, which was, of course, the sovereign nation of Pittsburgh.
Of course, there’s always a scary part in any fairy tale.
The scary part in this story was a mixture of truth and fiction. My fiction – her truth. It was from a long time ago, and it wasn’t even from the fairy tale, but something instead remembered from when she was a little girl herself and a day she walked away from her house and got lost, and after a while felt the world closing in on her, so she went up to stranger’s homes and rang the doorbells, hoping that she had forgotten what her own house looked like, and one of her parents would answer. Anything is possible when you’re still a kid. You might think you know the color of your house, and your neighbor’s house, and what your street looks like, but suddenly, that can become confused, as if life is playing a horrible trick on you.
At each house, when someone would answer the door, she would look up and not recognize the face, but she still would ask the question: “Is my mommy home?” Or, “Is my daddy home?”
She was so very good at hiding her growing fear that the people who opened their doors simply shook their heads. It was as if it were a joke, somehow, this little girl ringing the doorbell, her eyes so wonderfully round and wide and not blinking. She went from one house to the next, and from one street to another. She might have been going in a circle, or walking farther away from home, or coming back closer – she had no idea. She just knew she had to keep walking, because she didn’t want to be scared on the outside, like she was on the inside.
Eventually, one of the houses she stopped at belonged to people who knew her parents. They made a phone call, and it was as though she was never lost in the first place, but an explorer.
In the fairy tale, the snow had come down so suddenly – there was panic – but only at first. Some bright soul had come upon a clever solution.
“The parents realized that they could find their children. The answer was easy. They just had to make the lights outside their houses brighter, bright enough to melt the snow, and that’s exactly what they did. First it was one house, and then like dominoes, each of the houses in succession. The snow began to melt, from twenty feet tall to ten feet tall to six feet tall, to five feet, to four feet, and eventually, the melted snow evaporated completely. Every child was located and reunited with his or her parents. And then something else, too. The lights from the houses burned holes in the sky. Small holes at first, but they multiplied, and then the sun and the moon reappeared. It was a day the people would talk about for years to come, adding bits of story here and there, but always with the same ending – that no child was lost. It was more than just a small miracle.”
I listened as she read my words: “But once a princess, always a princess, and the Princess of Pittsburgh indeed disappeared, even after the moon and sun returned. Because there wasn’t a need for her anymore. The children had been lost and then found. In finding the children, the parents also rediscovered what was with them all along, that the sun and moon had never left them. She wasn’t missed, the Princess of Pittsburgh. In times of trouble, she would’ve been missed, but there was no trouble left. Pittsburgh was not separated from other cities any longer. It was indeed just one city among other cities, and the sovereign nation of Pittsburgh disappeared from all of the maps. The people began to leave and become part of other cities. Some of the people who lived in other cities moved to Pittsburgh. Soon enough, people forgot there had been any separation of state and nation. Once that happened, the Princess of Pittsburgh, she ceased to exist. Except, she still did exist, and she was trying to find her way back to her castle and it wasn’t there anymore. I wonder what a princess does without a castle? Perhaps it was the belief of the people in their sovereign nation that also created the castle, and their own monarchy. So she wandered about, looking for what she had lost, for the rest of her days.”
Not all fairy tales end on a happy note. This was one of those. At least, it was unhappy for the princess. But it nagged at me. The Princess of Pittsburgh deserved better.
I wondered the same thing. I thought, the Princess of Pittsburgh wanders around long enough until – until what? The monarchy itself was finished: over and done with. In my wondering, as I was writing the fairy tale, I came up with something slightly magical, much as the people had discovered when they melted all of the snow. And I wrote down my new ending, a happier ending. I wrote this even as we sat in our chairs, with the snow falling outside. I wrote it slowly – printed it, actually. I wanted to be legible.
“For parents who could not have children of their own, the girl, the former Princess of Pittsburgh, she was a blessing to them. She went from family to family until she was able to settle on just one. And she grew up to be a beautiful woman, with men often referring to her as a princess, but this was because of her beauty and not her birthright. Even her new father, on her wedding day, whispered into her ear, ‘You are the measure of all that your mother and I could have ever imagined. You will always be our princess.’”
Some quiet, a little more wine, the snowflakes, and then moonlight, as the clouds separated and gave us quite the show. It was an extraordinary menu. But within this was a moment of starkness, just one question said with blunt force — and enough that I had to close my ears after hearing it, just to fully comprehend what she was saying. Imagine that — closing your ears, just so you can listen.
It was a statement, and one that came from nowhere. But it was stated just the same. “I promise I won’t ever leave you,” she said, leaning against me, and it was at that moment the moon came into its most powerful view. It pretty much drowned out the security light and its glow came right through the window and covered our faces, and I swear that I could see a face on that moon, and a face with a single teardrop. There might have been Swiss cheese up there too, I don’t know. I saw the tear, though. I wondered why something so full and bright and powerful would be crying, even if only one tear. For what? I wondered, for what? She was still winning, because it was the moon. It wasn’t her own moist eyes, I expected her to say. Did she even have moist eyes, I could not see, except she blinked and turned her face, toward the window, away from the pages.
And maybe it was all me. I’m sure part of it was. What I mean is – I wasn’t sure where her words came from exactly, nor could I control where my next words came from, which I did know exactly.
I said to her, she who was my Princess of Pittsburgh: “I think you already have left me.”
I could not begin to explain the intricacies of this. It just wasn’t the time. We were still in the middle of my fairy tale. Or the late winter storm. Or her birthday. The simple celebration, and a gift I could afford, but also, a gift I worked hard at.
But it was a sad truth, and no fault intended by my words. But she had been leaving me in small ways, in small manners of ways, for a number of years by then. This was long past drifting apart. I tried to calm myself, thinking, such is the way with princess, and one must know this going in. The pedestal you place her on is always too high. The expectations are too many, even if you think the pedestal is at ground level, that you can see her eye to eye, face to face.
Okay, I had to say it, and I did say it: “You never once have fought for me.” And she said, “What?” And I said, “You talk about marriage being hard work and all of those good words, but how come I am the only one fighting here? I fight for you. I have fought for you. I am always fighting for you, and you can’t see it.”
I said: “But you are a princess. And now, I understand everything. I wrote it all down, and now I understand. You don’t fight because you don’t know how. Princesses don’t fight. It’s a fact. In fairy tales, or in real life. They leave that to others.”
This – this was true. That we really were content then, when we lived in Pittsburgh. And yet, you can’t live on contentment forever, and you can’t live like robots going through your days and nights. You can’t settle for being content, because it’s no different than running in place. It’s no different, let’s say, then someone seeing right through you, as though you did not exist, or never existed in the first place the way you thought you had. As though you are invisible. And perhaps in writing about a princess who wanted to be invisible just to be able to fit into a family of her own, I was in fact writing about myself, except in the wanting to be visible – the wanting to be seen and heard and felt.
Understand something. The way I did this night. My understanding. That those crackheads who stole the copper pipe from our basement had done us a favor, though I wasn’t really able to appreciate this until much later. You have to look at it like this. The crackheads might have broken into our home and stole from us, but they could not introduce true fear into our hearts. They did not violate the sanctity of us. The favor they did us was all about being able to put things into perspective – even the perspective of broken hearts.
Breaking into a home, well, that’s a happening of the moment. It passes. And that if you believe in the Princess of Pittsburgh, for example, you also need to believe in how much in love we were that night, a respite from the stagnant contentment, but still, and in retrospect, a happening of the moment, and that’s all. A memory of what used to be us, in the early days, long before this night – when a fairy tale and some wine and some snow outside could make it seem like what we felt in our hearts was going to last forever. People make marriages on stuff like this, and people live out their entire lives on even less. The tears on her face when she finally turned again to look me square in the eyes, they were real tears, yes, but they fit the fairy tale and that’s different from the life we had built together. If I ever loved her more than right then, however, I cannot say.
Geoff Schutt’s short fiction has appeared in The Quarterly (edited by Gordon Lish for Vintage Books/Random House), The Best of Writers at Work, The Wastelands Review and The Laurel Review, among others. He has received three artist grants for his fiction-as-performance art from The Arts Commission of Greater Toledo. After living in Ohio for many years, he now resides in the Washington, D.C. area, where he has completed his first novel, which is represented by James McGinniss of McGinniss Associates Literary Agency, New York City. More about Geoff Schutt, as well as about his debut novel featuring the character of Eleanor, is available at his blog, “This Side of Paradise,” at http://geoffschutt.blogspot.com
photo by Dan Griffin