I was the last to see him. I was only nine, but I remember the snow fell early that year. The storms came eastward across Lake Erie and over the foothills where pines shaved flakes over low-hanging clouds, leaving solemn gray piles higher than my chest. Before and long after Mr. Ehrlich disappeared, I would stand at the edge of where the lowest boughs in the forest reached, thrashing, supplicant to the harsh and windy sky.
A low chickenwire fence ran down our property line and into the forest, squaring off the few acres my father and I lived on. I would stand against that fence and when Mr. Ehrlich came outside to split wood I could safely turn and toe the property line to watch. He worked easily, letting the weight of the axe head carry it down. He worked close to the forest’s edge, where he didn’t have to drag limbs through the yard, and would always throw the chopped logs toward his house. If I waited, blinking with every echoing thunk, when he finished chopping he would call Girl and then turn to lean against a stump and smoke. I would climb over the fence—careful of the wild trees—and stack the firewood in cords near his house. He would smoke and watch me from within the forest, where thick trunks protected the ember in his pipe. When there were only a few split logs remaining he would come out from the forest, silently, with his head bowed such that his body followed not shortly after. I waited by the finished cords while he threw the remainder over the chickenwire fence and trudged after them when the last log landed, falling through the snow and out of sight like a match.
During the last storm of the winter I stood waiting for Mr. Ehrlich so long that snow began to bury my feet before he appeared at the back door. He saw me standing by the fence and turned back into the deep void of his house. Later, I was building a snowman by the drive and I saw him walk out of the house and into the forest. He was hatless, his hair whipping around him in silent fury and cheeks red beneath dirty skin. Snow fell heavily and a trick of my eyes made it seem as if there were many lights suspended among the trees, winking with bright, far-away eyes of their own.
The next day, Mr. Ehrlich’s and his wife’s seats at church were empty. On the drive home we passed the little pawnshop he owned and it was also empty. We didn’t worry because it was Sunday and his shop was sometimes closed on Sundays.