She is my Girl
Soul Toll on the Bay
Jolly Old Saint Nick
Whiteout! The headlights of the ‘71 GMC school bus were making a stab at the darkness as snow swirled round and round like a twister. It was late afternoon on Christmas Eve and the local rock’ n’ roll band was on its way back to Edmonton from a small town in northern Alberta. The roads were glare ice and visibility was down to a quarter of a mile.
“Not much further, everybody. One more hour and we should be in Redwater. Then we’ll stop for gas and be home by supper time!” Dan was a scruffy-looking roadie with a patched leather jacket and bags under his eyes. He was driving a bus loaded down with two tons of sound and lighting gear, five poor musicians and one goal – to make it home for Christmas. After riding in the bus for five hours, it was going to feel good to slide into a warm bed at home tonight.
The glimmer of city lights was closer now, but the snow continued to fall. The road-weary band members began to stir as they joked amongst themselves and munched on potato chips. Someone was singing a chorus of “We Three Kings” but used a few lyrics that you wouldn’t want to repeat at dinner. The headlights on the bus seemed to dim now and then, but Dan tried not to notice. He squinted a bit harder at the snow-covered road.
“Merry Christmas to you too, Murray! See you next week!” The drummer was the last to be dropped off as the bus fishtailed down 127th street. Dan rubbed his eyes and shivered. He came to a stop at a red light and took a minute to admire decorations on the street lamps and in-store windows. The glow from the frosty red and green lights painted a warm picture of the cold Edmonton streets. Traffic seemed to be easing, but the odd straggler could be seen trudging down the wind-swept sidewalks. The traffic light turned green and the bus headlights dimmed for the last time. The bus stalled.
“C’mon baby. Not now. This is Christmas Eve!” Dan tried starting the engine but the battery was dead. All he could hear was a hopeless “click.”
“Great. Where do I get a boost at eight o’clock Christmas Eve?” The frustrated roadie would never admit that he talked to himself, but at moments like this he needed some form of reassurance. He turned the flashers on but they didn’t work. He stepped out of the bus and slammed the passenger door shut. Horns were honking behind him as traffic came to a stop. The snow felt like tiny razor blades slicing Dan’s face as he put his head down to escape the bone-numbing wind. He turned up his collar and began his trek down the street. A few blocks away was a small gas station with one car parked out front.
“Please have a tow truck. Please…” Dan was three steps from the door when someone hung the “CLOSED” sign from the inside.
“No! Wait. I need help!” Dan banged on the door a couple of times and to his surprise, it opened.
“Sorry, we’re out of eggnog and the gas pumps are off!”
“You’re here for eggnog, aren’t you? Why else would you be here in a blizzard on Christmas Eve?”
“I know this sounds weird but my bus battery just died two blocks back and I need a boost. Do you have a tow truck?”
“Sorry, I’m the only one here, and we don’t have a truck. I’ve got some cables you can borrow if you want.”
Dan looked hard at the equally scruffy young man before him — long, curly blonde hair and three days stubble on his chin. His name tag was smudged but read “Nick.”
“Thanks, Nick. That would be great. I’ll bring them back after I flag down a car for a boost.” Dan turned and started to walk out.
“Wait a minute. Take mine.”
“Take mine – my car. I know it ain’t much, but it runs.”
“But you don’t even know me.”
“That’s okay. I trust ya. Anybody with a story like that has to be for real, right?”
Dan laughed and shrugged his shoulders. Nick had a mischievous twinkle in his eye, and for a moment, Dan wondered if he was joking.
“Okay, Nick. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“No worries, man. I still have to cash out. I’ll be here for a while.”
Dan made his way out into the blustery wind and sized up the rusty, faded-blue ’73 Buick. The interior was torn, fuzzy dice hung from the mirror and the car smelled like cigarettes. He turned the key. A cloud of blue smoke belched from the exhaust as Dan pulled out of the parking lot. The old Buick sedan waltzed down the street towards the already snow-covered bus. He popped the hoods, hooked up the cables and… Vroom! The bus engine came to life once more.
“I’ll be damned.” Dan chuckled to himself, disconnected the cables and drove the car back up the street. Nick was pulling a jean jacket over his hoody and tying up his boots.
“Listen, Nick. I don’t know how to thank you. I’ve got a few bucks here.” Dan pulled out two or three crumpled bills from the torn pocket in his jeans and offered them to Nick. Nick took the cables from Dan’s hand but gently pushed the money away.
“Don’t worry about it. Merry Christmas, man! Let me know when your band’s in town!” Dan stared in disbelief. He grabbed Nick’s hand with both hands and shook it until Nick’s arm almost fell off.
“Merry Christmas, Nick. And all the best in the New Year.”
Dan turned to walk out and hesitated. Jolly old Saint … Nick?
I still remember that frosty November morning when Grandpa tried to clear a small spot on the pond for us to skate on. It had snowed three or four inches the night before and we weren't strong enough to push the wet, heavy snow. Although he was our Grandpa, we used to be scared of him. He was a strong, burly man with thick grey hair and a stern expression. He didn't smile often, but when he did we knew he loved us. He never had much but what he did have, he always shared.
Grandpa had warned us to stay off the pond until December, but that Saturday he broke his own rule. My brother and I were trudging down to the pond near the meadow. We were struggling to carry our skates and hockey sticks when we heard the sickening crack. Grandpa was screaming for help as the tractor fell through a huge hole in the ice. He tried to jump off but his boot got caught in a tire chain that had come loose. We couldn't reach him in time. I still remember the look of determination in his eyes as he disappeared.
It was ten years to the day when it happened. The sky was charcoal grey and the wind howled in anticipation. Huge spruce trees near the pond twisted back and forth. I was gathering some broken branches for kindling when there was a sudden crack! A towering spruce came crashing towards me! Running in the knee-deep snow was almost impossible as the seventy-foot giant came slashing down on my leg. Searing pain numbed my senses as I felt consciousness start to fade. I squirmed and twisted but was hopelessly trapped under the tree. I screamed for help but my cries were lost in the laughter of the wind. I had almost given up.
I'm not sure what happened after that. I was fading in and out of consciousness when I felt a tug on the tree. I couldn't believe it. It felt like a dream. But then I heard a voice, a familiar voice, but I couldn't place it. Suddenly my leg was pulled free. I tried to sit up but the pain made me sick to my stomach. Then everything went black. When I opened my eyes, Dad was hovering over me and the neighbours were helping him lift me onto a stretcher.
"I hope you thanked whoever yanked that tree off of you! They even covered you with some old coat. Who was it?" asked Dad.
"I don't know but there was something about him. Dad, did..."
"Wait, wait a minute," he stuttered. Wound around the thick trunk of the fallen spruce was an old, rusty tire chain. Then Dad looked away as he wiped the tears rolling down his cheek. He managed a faint smile. The look in his eyes reminded me of the look in his father's eyes years ago. He didn't have to say anything. The other end of the rusty chain was wrapped around a worn, mud-caked boot, stuck in the snow.
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.