Four Pennies Short
“Crack! Thud!” Another ancient poplar tumbled to the ground by the pond. The gale-force winds were relentless, coming in surges and waves of eighty kilometer per hour gusts.
Why was I here?
It was an early spring, accented by daily doses of he-man winds but little rain. The winds were wreaking havoc in the forest of poplar and birch down the hill by the pond. My chainsaw and I were on a first-name basis by now. Every second day I was picking up mangled branches or cutting down some widow- makers hung up on each other in an aging family of balsam poplar.
This Wednesday evening was no exception. My chainsaw and I were inspecting the casualties on a familiar trail by the pond. My aging parents loved walking along this trail, leading to a meadow that was graced with rabbits, robins and deer. I lost my parents recently and recalled fond memories of them when I was down here. Unfortunately the wind had different plans for keeping this path clear.
I was cutting up a ten-inch poplar that had fallen across the path. The rotten logs were teeming with ants and sawdust was flying everywhere. It would feel good to get back to the house and into a hot bath. I had the urge to look up and say a little prayer to mom and dad. I could sense their presence as the trees swayed back and forth, dancing to an unseen drummer.
I picked up the saw and made my way back to the main trail. As I started up the hill, a sparkling glimmer of light through the fallen leaves caught my eye. I looked down and giggled. Nestled on top of the leaves was a bright, shiny quarter.
I set down the saw and picked up the sparkly coin. “Where did you come from?” I asked. I had walked down this hill only thirty minutes ago without seeing this but the surprise was just beginning. I took another step and found a loonie. Two steps to the left and there was a nickel and another quarter. I starting chuckling again. Five steps back and two more quarters sat smiling at me. The trees around me laughed with the wind as I gathered the tiny fortune of two dollars and sixty cents.
I was dumbfounded. These coins weren’t on the trail when I came down here. Maybe Mom and Dad dropped these from Heaven?
The hot shower warmed me up, but couldn’t help solve the mystery. I wondered what the $2.60 meant?
I started talking to myself again. “Two dollars and sixty cents. Let me see. Two hundred and sixty. Why is that number important?” I started to wonder.
“Dad passed away July 28th of last year. How many days in a month?” I could feel my heart race as I grabbed a pencil, paper and calculator. I added up the days since Dad passed and sat back in my chair. I took a deep breath and checked the numbers again. Dad passed away 264 days ago.
Maybe Dad was saying “Hi” from Heaven. I guess he was four pennies short…
Left of Center
“Six-six-six – Heritage Close. This is the place.” The post-war bungalow was guarded by an overgrown caragana hedge and a wrought-iron gate. Some twisted mugo pines were taking over the narrow, cobble-stone sidewalk. I approached the cracked front steps with the apprehension of an eight year old kid returning late from recess at school.
“Ding-dong.” The doorbell was recessed in the stucco and inconspicuously mounted to the left of the door frame. A middle-aged man, stout and balding, shuffled to the front door. I attempted to introduce myself.
“Hello. I’m here to…” That’s as far as I got.
“Come around the back.” He shut the door in my face and motioned for me to walk around the house. A little odd I thought, but maybe par for the course. I tried to reassure myself that only an eccentric would have an antique model car collection fifty years old. I walked around the back to find the door ajar. The gentleman was waiting for me.
“Thank you for your patience sir. It’s just that my wife is a bit wary of strangers coming through the front door.”
“Not to worry, my friend. I’m Kevin. I saw your ad on-line for the model collection. I would like to see your ’55 Chevy if you still have it.”
“But of course sir. Step this way, won’t you?” I took my shoes off while he used a key to lock the deadbolt, from the inside.
“Uh, is this a bad neighborhood?”
“Let’s just say that I’m protective of my home. My wife won’t sleep unless that door is locked.”
“So, about that Chevy. Is it in the original box?”
“See for yourself sir. This way please.”
He led me down a narrow staircase to the basement. It smelled of mildew and mothballs, and a network of spider webs adorned the joists above our heads. In the corner was a broken ping-pong table that doubled as a display for his wares. A lonely sixty watt light bulb did little to illuminate his collection, but what a fine collection it was. An assortment of thirty classic car models, many in their original boxes, were stacked neatly around the perimeter of the table.
“As you can see, the ’55 is in excellent shape.” He was well versed on his product.
“Very impressive Mister…I’m sorry – I never got your name.”
His blank stare wasn’t the introduction I was expecting. “Don’t be sorry. I never gave it. Pierre Mortis.” His handshake was firm but colder than his stare. His beady, bloodshot eyes probed every wrinkle on my face. A shiver tickled the base of my spine, but it wasn’t because of the chill in the basement. I picked up the ’55 Chevy to examine the box.
“Please sir. Do not squeeze the box. I take pride in knowing that this model doesn’t have a blemish on it.” His condescending speech and plastic smile were wearing thin.
“You’ve got a great collection here but the prices you are asking are more than I was hoping to spend. I want to thank you for your time though. I’ll be on my way.”
“I am open to offers on all of them sir. Can I interest you in a cup of tea perhaps?” His stare was focused dead behind me. As much as I was interested in his collection, I was more interested in leaving.
“Sorry – maybe another time. I should be going.” I backed up slowly towards the stairs, taking notice of a strange array of shadows creeping down the wall.
“Very well sir. My wife and I will see you to the door.” I almost ran up the creaky, narrow staircase, only to remember that I was locked in. He followed me up the stairs – slow, heavy, plodding steps. He was short of breath. He unlocked the deadbolt but there wasn’t a doorknob to open the door.
“Excuse me but how do you open the door? Where is the doorknob?”
“Push the door sir – left of centre. My wife and I wish you good health.”
“She is right here.” He tapped his lapel pocket and removed a folded, black and white, glossy photo of a casket next to a headstone. His thin smile complemented the glazed look in his eyes. I punched the door open and stumbled down the front steps. The wrought iron gate squeaked its greeting as another fellow came up the walk and to the front door. Our eyes met for a moment. I looked away.
“Excuse me. Are you a member of the family?”
“Uh, no. Who are you?”
“I’m from the funeral home. They sent me to pick up the casket.”
“For a Mr. Mortis, Pierre Mortis? Funny – we just picked up his wife last month. I guess he couldn’t wait to join her.”
Time for Coffee
Damn it. This wasn’t the kind of night to venture too far from home. My better judgment told me I should be beside the wood stove in the den, nursing a frothy hot chocolate laced with rye whiskey. But I didn’t listen.
Instead I took the high road into mid-January, complete with minus thirty-five degrees celsius, gusty wind and snowing like a kid had gone wild with a salt shaker. I didn’t want to be late. It wasn’t often that I could sit down with three friends of mine and have a few laughs over a cup of coffee.
The old Dodge and I pulled up to Miskey’s All-Nite Diner. It was nine o’clock on the nose, but there was no sign of anybody else. Was I stood up? Would my friends do that to me? Maybe it was a dumb idea, but I hadn’t seen the guys since the funeral and I thought it would be great to get together.
I trudged up the snow-drifted steps and gave the storm door a yank. It didn’t want to open without a fight. I used two hands and three four-letter words, and this time it opened. The warmth from the forced-air furnace was welcome, but I could have done without the smell of bacon grease.
I took a quick look around but there wasn’t a soul in sight, except for a cute ponytailed waitress and somebody whistling to the radio in the kitchen. I sat down at a table next to a window, hoping to see the fellas drive up. The red and white checkered table cloth was clean but a little worse for wear. I glanced over my shoulder hoping to see the waitress, but she must have had better things to do than wait on some frozen escapee from a snowstorm. The minute hand on the clock seemed to be dragging its butt. Nine-fifteen. Nine-twenty.
Where was Raymond, telling me to set a spell and showing me his prize tomatoes? Raymond’s eyebrows were thicker than most guys’ moustaches. He had a permanent red glow to his skin, as though he had either been out in the sun too long or been dipping into the sauce before supper. Old age wasn’t getting him down. And where was my neighbor Paul, the handyman, who always found time for everyone? Paul was a walking encyclopedia of jokes. He used to make me laugh so hard I came close to wetting myself. He was giving leukemia a hell of a fight. And Ian, my old boss, who had more wisdom to share than most scholars yet wanted to hear what I had to say. He told me to look after things while he was in the hospital.
Finally the ponytailed waitress with the cute freckles decided to come by. “Coffee?”
“Yes, please. Say, my friends should have been here by now. Have you seen them?” She brushed the grey hair from her face and shook her head from side to side. Her sunken eyes looked right through me. There was something haunting in her melancholy stare. It was colder than the coffee.
Where were the guys anyway? The wind was howling now, banging the diner sign against the window. The neon light was lost in the swirling halo of snow.
The ponytailed waitress picked up cups and utensils from the other tables as she walked towards the kitchen. She had a tote full. Then she turned to face me and watched in horror as all of the cups, saucers and utensils went …
“Crash!” The whiskey glass tumbled off of my night table as I fell out of bed and into the sad reality I’d been trying to run away from. Next to me on the floor were my friends’ obituaries.
I swear I could still taste that coffee.