Rumors in Sunny Valley

The day dawns and the landscape is nothin’ but snow. If you squint real hard, you can just make out little triangles that are the tippy tops of the houses. This is a normal day for Sunny Valley, North Dakota (pun not intended). Gets down to about thirty below and it’s so dang cold the hairs in your nose freeze right up and make you sneeze. Winters are usually what you remember about Sunny Valley. It’s the longest season up here, starting at the end of September and finally thawing out mid-April. Almost seems like snow is attracted to Sunny Valley, like the ski bums that spend half the year camping in the lodges. The sky’s a blanket of gray and the ground a blanket of white, but that doesn’t stop the locals from getting out to start the day. No, sir, in Sunny Valley, if the weather’s cold, you just go and drink something piping hot while you’re still groggy, bundle up in at least four layers, and don’t let Jack Frost push you around.

It’s dark at eight in the morning but there is ol’ Rob the postman making last-minute deliveries on his snowmobile. He uses the labyrinth of snow-plowed driveways and sidewalks to navigate the houses, and he is covered from head to foot in thick wool; the only part of him open to the elements is his nose, which peeks through his goggles and scarf. And even that has little snot icicles.

And there’s Ms. Bins the kindergarten teacher leading her class on an early morning field trip to the fire station (also buried in ten-feet of pow-pow).  The little tots are excited to see the firetruck and the firemen are excited to see the children since their heater’s been broken since last Tuesday and they needed something to take their minds off the cold.

The local (and only) homeless man Digby sits on a rooftop muttering to himself about the global takeover of Persia and the lizard men, but people don’t pay him any mind because he wears expensive snow boots and a stylish jacket and hat.

The only local professional cross-country skier, Todd Hardy, is skiing where the snow plow hasn’t been to, standing six feet above the rest of the world. Tourists watch him with awe. Locals glance at him sadly with the recognition that while he is professional, that’s all his life has going. He looks down off the snowdrift to the earth below, covered in salt to keep from slipping on black ice.

Todd skis past Grizzly Bear Drugs and Pharmacy, open twelve hours from six to six, dawn to dark.

Skis past the Sunny Valley Candy Shop, where, when school gets out, the line of children will be out the door even in subzero temperatures.

Skis past Sam and Sons’ Hardware Store, family-owned and run since 1908—though now the family’s falling apart.

Almost skis past one of three bars in town, The Last Stop Saloon, when he stops and looks down off the snowbank.

“There’s a sight for sore eyes! Did ya spend the night out here, Wilson?”

Wilson Cleary, standing five foot five in snow boots, is having one helluva hangover. “Be quiet. I can’t feel my feet.”

Nobody’s surprised when Wilson Cleary goes out drinking. Everyone knows he’s having problems with the missus. She’s upset he can’t get her pregnant and he’s upset that she won’t shut her mouth about the darn thing. They argue about who’s infertile and who’s shootin’ blanks but seven years they’ve been together and they show no signs of splitting up.

“Come on and walk with me, you wino.” Todd shuffles his skis slowly while Wilson stumbles to his feet, holding his head with a gloved hand.

They walk past the local pool, closed for the winter, but kids still use it as an ice rink.

Past Georgia Banks, standing outside the grocery store, ringing a bell for the Salvation Army and wearing a Santa hat even though it’s January.

Past Clyde and Mindy, holding hands like the adolescent lovers they are and catching snowflakes on their young tongues.

Wilson’s body crumbles under the weight of a long night.

“Hold your horses, I gotta stop.” Wilson slumps onto a half-buried bench and his knees come up to his elbows. “You go on without me, Hardy. The light’s blinding me and I think my fingers are gonna fall off. You go on.”

Todd plants his ski poles in the snow. “And leave you behind like you are? I don’t think so.” He bends his knees and unbuckles his boots from his skis, sticking them in the snow and jumping to solid ground to sit next to Wilson.

“Shoulda stopped at Carly’s Coffee. Shoulda got something to warm you up. News says it’ll be the coldest night in January tonight.”

Wilson waves his hand.

“I’ll be fine.”


In Sunny Valley, everyone knows your business. Can’t pinch a loaf around here without at least seven people knowing how big it was and what it smelled like. If you’re new and just moved to Sunny Valley, word already got out about you before you even arrived. Small Town Gossip, it’s called. News spreads faster than wildfire.

So it’s no surprise that folks knew about Wilson Cleary spending the night at Todd Hardy’s house the coldest night of the month before he even begrudgingly accepted the invitation. Rumor spread like warm butter on hot toast that Wilson Cleary’s marriage had gotten so bad that he resorted to having a secret lover, and a man no less! Whispers at the Sunny Valley Grocers express concern about Wilson’s wife, Betty. The poor dear must be heartbroken. The poor dear must be devastated. The poor dear must not even know, we must tell her right away, the poor dear.

    Betty Cleary isn’t deaf or blind. She knows her husband was upset with her that night. She was upset with him too. The nerve of him walking out on her! The nerve of him walking out on her and sleeping with a professional cross-country skier! She calls her mother and her sister and all her girlfriends to complain. And her mother and her sister and her girlfriends console her.

    “For shame,” they coo, petting her hair and giving her hugs. “You deserve so much better, dear.”

    “I always knew there was something wrong with him, dear.”

    “It makes sense now that I think about it. Makes sense he went out after your fights.”

    “But a man? I knew he was upset that we can’t have children, but I didn’t know he swung that way!” She’s more upset than devastated, and it shows on her eyebrows. The women of Sunny Valley have little to no expression on their faces, possibly because the cold temperatures freeze their features in place except for their eyebrows. And Betty’s are furious.

    “I didn’t want to leave him before but now I gotta. I gotta. For my own sanity I gotta leave him.”

    Betty Cleary took confidence in knowing that it wasn’t her fault her husband was cheating on her, and that night, while the roads were being covered with twelve more inches of snow, while her husband was sleeping on Todd Hardy’s couch, she packed her belongings. It amounted to two jumbo-sized duffle bags full of winter clothes and a rolling suitcase filled with everything else.

The next morning, Betty Cleary left Wilson Cleary. Thick footprints showed her Ugg Boots walking away from the house and not turning back once. There was one boot print that was seven inches longer than the others but that’s only because she slipped and caught herself before she hit the ground.


Digby likes throwing snowballs at unsuspecting tourists. He’ll scoop up a big one in his bare hands and he can always tell who the tourists are because they wear brighter snow clothes and look like neon jumbo-puffed marshmallows from his perch on the roofs.


“D’you hear something, girls?”


“No, Daddy.”





Digby’s victory dance looks more like he broke his hip and is hopping in pain rather than in celebration of nailing a Southerner in the back of his knitted blue-and-white penguin hat.

Digby slides down the rooftop to the snowbank before he’s spotted to seek out his next victim. Todd skis by underneath and Digby almost lands smack dab on top of him, but his trajectory and speed send him sailing off and all the way to the roof next door. To Todd it feels like a magpie flew a little too close to his head. Magpies are notorious for messing with humans.


“Give me two of whatever’s in the pot today, Carly.”

Carly of Carly’s Coffee hands two Styrofoam cups with her mittens over the counter to Todd Hardy, a smirk on the side of her mouth.

“Cold night last night, huh, Todd? You stay warm?”

Todd sips from one of the cups. “Mmhmm. What’re heaters for?”

“Sure, sure. Also nice to have somebody to warm you up, huh?”

Todd raises an eyebrow. “Sure.”

“Stay warm and say hi to your friend for me,” Carly says and she waves him out the door, smirk still frozen on her face but her eyebrows dancing.

Todd sets the coffee cups in the snow as he reattaches his skis. While he carries them and shuffles back to his house, he passes unfamiliar faces and accent and the faint sound of piff piff as snowballs sail overhead.

The magpies sure are getting restless these days. Must be the weather.

Snow begins to fall.


When it snows in Sunny Valley, life itself pushes the mute button. Wilson is sitting inside of Todd’s log home waiting for his coffee to cure his hangover. The cabin’s quiet, but the sound of each snowflake hitting the windowpane makes Wilson flinch. His head hurts. His eyeballs ache. His throat’s sore. He doesn’t bother looking around at the various trophies on display, pictures of Todd in races, sporting numbers 15, 32, 28. Todd could get lost in the crowd of cookie cutter skiers if not for the bright red hair that stuck out under his cap. In every photograph he looked happy.

At least that makes one of us, Wilson thinks as he stares at the photograph that doesn’t require him to turn his head.

The door opened and Todd skis in, bringing coffee and a -20 degree draft. Instead of shoveling his driveway like the rest of Sunny Valley residents, Todd managed to create a mini slide, so he could wear his skis until the bitter end.

While Wilson drinks his dark and bitter coffee, Todd unclamps his skis from his ski boots. Both men have lived in Sunny Valley long enough to inherit the small town intuition. They both know that something’s wrong. They both know it had to do with them. They both know the town thought they were seeing each other romantically, but neither man wants to say it out loud. They drink their respective coffees in the muted silence only the snow could give.


“Didja hear what’s been said around town?”

“Oh, I already knew. Mrs. Thomas and I both—“

“About Mr. Cleary and Mr. Hardy?”

“Mrs. Cleary walked out on Wilson!”

“She did?”

“You don’t say!”

“I heard the affair with Mr. Hardy been going on for years!”

“Years? But didn’t the Clearys move in three years ago?”

“Oh my!”

“You don’t think…”

“They fell in love with each other at the welcome party!”

“That heartless man!”

“I feel faint…”

“Poor Mrs. Cleary.”

“Poor Betty!”

“The poor dear!”

“I’ve also heard rumor that—“

“Oh, tell me!”

“Did you know magpies are getting more violent?”

“I did!”

“I didn’t!”

“Oh, do tell!”


Wilson notices his home is a lot bigger without the presence of his wife around. The note attached to the front door was short but clear; she’s living with her mother for an indeterminable amount of time. Her mother’s only two towns over, but it was many miles apart. Takes about an hour and a half just to drive the plains and hills and with the weather the way it’s been it’d probably take even longer. Maybe the whole day!

He starts a fire in their potbellied stove, hoping that the small space would warm up the newly formed hole in his heart. Instead, the fire fills it with ashes the wood left behind, burning it black and easily breakable like charcoal. He holds his head in his hands and lets the heat drift past him, only warming his front and leaving his back as cold as ice.

A knock rattled his door. More like three knocks, one from a fist and two from a pair of skis. Wilson lifts his head.



I can’t believe you sometimes. We’ve been married for seven years, going on eight, and how many of those have you spent seeing other people behind my back? I know I can’t get pregnant, but that doesn’t give you the right to break your holy matrimony and cheat on me. I was suspicious when your bar trips became a regular thing, but I never expected you to be cheating on me with a man! A man for Christ’s sake! And not only that, you went and slept with this town’s only National athlete, and do you know what will happen to him now that you’ve done this? His life will be ruined because of you. And now I’m the laughing stock of Sunny Valley all because you couldn’t control your urges that I apparently can’t satisfy.

Well if that’s how you really feel about me, that I can be easily replaced by a man, than you can have him. I’m living with Mother. I know how much you hate her too, since you never call her like she wants you to. I took Button with me since I know you never liked dogs either. I guess you can lump me in with your dogs, you bastard.

Since apparently I’m not good enough for you, you can keep the house, your beer, your car, and your lovers, however many of those are out there!

You don’t deserve a goodbye!

Betty you know what? You don’t even deserve a last signature from me, you heartless, soulless, slob of a man! I hope you go rot in the pig trough you crawled out of!


“I don’t remember your wife having such a vocabulary,” Todd says.

“I think she collaborated with Ms. Bins with this one.”

Todd laughs. Wilson does not. Todd hoists himself up from Wilson’s leather couch and stretches, rubbing his sides. Wilson slumps in his chair at his dining table, head resting on the palms of his hands and looking like Death warmed over.

“You know what? I know what. I’m going to treat you to a drink at The Corral. They have the best beer in town,” Todd says.

“I don’t want to,” Wilson starts, but then flinches when Todd slaps him hard on the back. “Fine, fine. But only one drink. I’m not in the mood for more.”

“Coming from the town’s drunk, I don’t believe that for a second.”

Wilson follows Todd out the door and locks it afterwards, trying to gently remove the letter from the wooden frame but ends up tearing it in two, one half in his gloved fingers and the other blown away by the wind, landing on top a snowdrift higher than Wilson’s head. A nearby magpie grabs it with its beak and flies away to add it to its nest.


Eight and a half beers later, Wilson is singing karaoke with Digby, the two belting out “Eye of the Tiger” to a bar filled mostly with tourists trying to get an authentic “Backcountry” experience. Some are clapping along, but most leave in a huff, mainly families who were looking for a good time but were sorely disappointed when the two locals got up to sing. Babies cry. Children complain. Wilson thrusts his hands out to his listeners, all five of them.

“This next little ditty I dedicate to my wife, Betty, who left me this mornin’ when she thought ah was sleepin’ with my best friend! Fuck you too, you bitch! Okay, I’m singin’… what am I singin’, Digs?”

“Eye of the Tiger!” Digby yells, the grin on his face showing off all five of his teeth. There’s an audible moan from the collective audience as the song begins, for the seventh time, from the karaoke machine.


“There we go, just lay down there,” Todd says, helping Wilson recline on his leather couch.

Wilson looks up at him, a welt on the front of his head forming into the size of a Canadian goose egg. “What happened?” The pain hasn’t set in yet.

“You and Digby sang ‘Eye of the Tiger’ for the eleventh time and a Russian tourist, I think he was Russian, he climbed onto the stage and tried to grab the microphone from you.” Todd laughs. “Boy, you put up a fight when you’re drunk! He had to be a foot and a half taller than you and you still gave him a run for his money!”

Wilson puts a hand to his head. “What about—“

“Digby jumped through the window when the Russian got on the stage.”


This incident is most likely if not definitely going to be appearing in the next Sunny Valley Herald. It’ll make the front page, if the charity event for handicap dogs doesn’t first. Wilson groans and bemoans his fate. First his wife left him because she thought he was being “unfaithful,” and now he’s going to be the laughing stock of Sunny Valley for weeks, if not months, if not yearsbecause of how he acted. Stories like that tend to circulate Sunny Valley for quite a while.

“What happened… after that?”

Todd leans back, resting his head on the wall. “Jerry got involved. Never saw a bartender move like that.”

“Jerry? He’s sixty-eight.”

“But can move like a twenty-year old when he needs to. Man, wish you coulda remembered it, Cleary. It was some fight.”

Wilson Cleary’s head hurt like a sonuvabitch. But he has to agree with Todd, he wishes he coulda remembered it.


The morning dawns and the world freezes. Dogs’re barking at their own breath. Icicles’re growing from roof to the ground and connecting like a slippery and wet ladder. Kids ages five to seventeen’re staying home on a Monday on account of it being negative thirty-five and the schools’ heaters freezing up. But the kids don’t seemed bothered by it at all. Most folks (save for the ski bums and the people shoveling snow) are staying indoors where it’s warmer, at least above freezing.

Wilson Cleary wakes to a splitting headache, a sore back, and fingers feelin’ like they’re either bruised or broken. He winces and rolls over to get off the couch, which he apparently slept on. The quilt’s draped over his achin’ body was one made by his mother-in-law, back when they still talked to each other. She stopped speaking to him even before the kerfuffle with Todd. Speaking of which, the son-of-a-gun’s sitting at his kitchen table and drinking coffee out of his favorite mug.

“What are you still doing here?” Wilson asks.


Wilson repeats himself.

“Well I can’t just leave you here. ‘Specially when you’re a tosser and turner when you sleep. You almost rolled off that couch twice!” Todd picks up another cup of coffee and offers it to Wilson.

“Where’s the paper,” Wilson asks. “I need to see if I have to move to another state.”

Todd shrugs and blows the steam off the mug before taking a mouthful of coffee. He’s wearing the same clothes as he did the night before. So is Wilson.

“I need to get out of Sunny Valley,” Wilson says.

Todd pauses with the mug up to his lips, raising his red eyebrows over the rim. “That’s funny,” he says, putting the mug back down on the table. “I was thinking the same thing.”

“At least for a month.”

“Why not two?” When Wilson looks at Todd questioningly, Todd adds, “Takes a while for gossip to die in places like Sunny Valley. And I’ve heard the magpies are getting ferocious nowadays.”

“What, you’re coming with me?”

“I’m part of this rumor too.”

“Oh yeah.” Todd is indeedy-doody a part of the rumor too.

“Where do you want to go, Cleary?”

Wilson Cleary rubs the sore spot on his head. His windows’re covered in the lace-like patterns of frozen ice on glass and the corners are filling in with snow. Snow. He’s got to get away from it. He wants somewhere warm, sunny more than at least two months. Somewhere where the slush doesn’t get your car stuck in the road in April. Somewhere where you can go outside on a September evening and still be wearing a t-shirt.

“Guess I always wanted to see California…” he says finally.

Todd leans back, looking at the log ceiling, counting the gaps in between. “California, huh? I have wanted to try surfing at least once.”

Todd Hardy helps Wilson Cleary to his feet, and they share their first of many kisses.

“Let’s get out of dodge.”