The Winter ManSteven Clark
The sky was gray and scuffed, like someone had wiped their feet on it.
It had stayed that way since the dogs came and took Rinty. Mom always said she could do her chores without watching me because Rinty never left my side. He was a terrier, with a wavy, brown-colored coat that felt like a scouring pad when I stroked him. His tail had been docked and looked like the tip of an ice cream cone. He sat near me in the yard, and later Trish and Dale joined us. When a stranger walked by he would bolt up, his floppy ears stiffen, and a low ruff would come from the pit of his throat until we were alone again. He was old. White hairs flecked his brown muzzle, and cataracts the color of skimmed milk dimmed his eyes.
No one knew where the pack of dogs had come from. Most of them showed their ribs. They sniffed and wandered across town. When they bothered Mrs. Morton’s cat, she marched out with a broom and shooed them from her yard. Next morning, I looked out to Gleason’s Meadow. The dogs bounded along the railroad tracks into the woods. Rinty trotted after them, his ice-cream tail wagging. I called after him. The pack rounded the bend and were swallowed up by trees and brush. He didn’t come back, not even when I yelled. Before I could cross the road, Dad said it was time to go to school. He’d look for Rinty later. After school, we searched until dark, but he was gone.
Now it was a week before Christmas, and the siren’s wailing through the cold, damp air reminded me of Rinty, because he would join all the dogs in town and howl, his head raised back, eyes closed. I thought the siren hurt their eardrums, but also that it must have sounded like their dog god — some great pack leader they had to cry to.
I couldn’t think about that anymore, because the plant had closed and Dad was out of work. He talked of leaving town and going to the oil rigs or to Alaska, making me the man of the house. That’s what he and Mom had said when I listened in.
The siren died. The dispatcher sounded it for fires, tornadoes, and at noon. It was two minutes after, and the town smiled itself into good will towards men. Brick storefronts were trimmed with plastic candles and wreaths. Across Main Street spanned the overhead Christmas decorations: silver and holly entwined with a faded star wreathed in the middle, rocking in the wind like a festive clothesline.
We stopped at Moeller’s Variety as Dale stared at the toy machine gun in the window. Dad tossed away his cigarette and bent down.
“What are you looking at, little man?”
“Nothing, Dad. I’m just looking.”
“Want to be a Green Beret, huh?”
Dad winked at me, like we could share being grown up. Trish’s scarf fell to her thigh, its ends swaying like underwater plants. She bugged Mom to get a pair of heels for Christmas. Mom said maybe.
“They don’t use them anymore,” I said to Dad. “Thompsons. They use M-16s in Vietnam.”
Dad’s eyes stayed fixed on the window. “That’s right.”
“Dad, did you ever fire one?”
He looked at me. “Naw,” the face square and casual. “Just M1s. Popped off a few of those. And .45s. That was enough for me. Let’s go before we stick to the sidewalk.”
Trish sniffed. She had a runny nose in winter. “You don’t stick. Not unless you get water on you and stuff. Then you freeze, not stick.”
Dad smiled at me. “Knows everything, don’t she?”
“Thinks she does.”
Trish smirked and dug her fist into my shoulder.
We walked past the City Hotel. It had been boarded up for years, a box whose three stories stared down the rest of Main Street like a crippled bull among cows. On its side, a faded ad for Red Man Chewing Tobacco was almost rubbed away on the dark and sooty brick, the hotel’s windows fogged over like Rinty’s eyes. A small wooden passage on the second floor across the alley led to the feed store. Dad told me that when he was a kid, the third floor was used for storage after the train stopped bringing people in. The company bought the hotel but never did anything with it. They closed the plant and moved out, but held onto the property, waiting for the right buyer, like some moneybags from out of town. That was what Dad and the other men said.
Dad spoke to Bo Pickens as Bo’s shovel scraped ice from the front of his barbershop, the column by the door spiraling up, a candy cane in red, white, and blue. Dad nudged me.
“Maybe you should get a haircut while we’re here.”
I shrugged. Last summer, I gave up my crewcut. Now, hair scraped the tips of my ears.
“Don’t think so.”
“Going to be a hairy hippie?”
I smiled with Dad. Hippies were far away. Like Vietnam. Like the astronauts. Something on TV. “Naw.”
“Dad,” said Trish, “we going to get a tree, now?”
“But it’s Christmas in a week!”
I frowned. “We’ll get one, okay?”
There was money for presents. Money for Christmas dinner or a tree. Not both. I heard Mom and Dad talk about it at night at the kitchen table, over coffee and cigarettes while the rest of us watched TV. When my hair grew out, I could hear better.
* * *
Back home, while Trish and Dale ran inside, I stayed in the garage with Dad. The house seemed to shrink and our garage was filled with boxes, bikes, and cast-off furniture like skin covering the wooden bones of the walls. Past the box of Trish’s Barbies and some of Rinty’s old toys was the axe. Dad took it down and ran his finger along its edge.
“Guess it’s sharp enough,” he said, offering it to me. My finger copied his. I nodded.
In the car trunk was his volunteer fireman’s helmet, coat, and boots. When the siren wailed, Dad called in to the police station, they’d tell him where the fire was, and he’d race to it like the rest of the crew. He placed the axe in the trunk and closed it.
“Dad, what’re you going to do?”
“Use it.” He motioned, and I pushed a box back. “Get rid of some of this junk,” he muttered. He said that all the time.
He paused for a moment. I listened with him, and a distant horn blared down the corner. It was the Union Pacific, its diesel light shinin as it moaned past old houses and Copeland’s body
shop, pulling dozens of boxcars, a Chinese wall cutting the town in half. A man in an engineer’s cap leaned out the window of the diesel. We waved. He waved back.
“You going back to the railroad?” I asked Dad. “Like when you got out of the army?”
He stared at the boxcars, the rails clack-clacking like a heartbeat.
“Trains don’t go anywhere, son. You think they do, but they don’t. Let’s eat.”
* * *
Dinner was stuffed peppers and macaroni. Mom and Trish did the dishes. As the sink emptied and they untied their aprons, the TV went on.
“You’re missing Batman!” shouted Dale.
I lingered in the hall, looking at Dad’s cap. It was a fireman’s hat, blue with the usual bell crown and silver Maltese cross on its front. Everyone in the department had bought hats, which they wore on parades and barbecues. A photo of the men at the firehouse hung next to the hat, the engine an old LaFrance Dad said needed to be replaced. But no one in town wanted to raise taxes, and the bond issues failed. Trish scooted past me.
“What’s your hurry?” I asked.
“Rannn-dy!!! It’s got Catwoman!!!”
I liked Julie Newmar a lot, but I lingered. Mom and Dad lit their cigarettes.
“You know,” Mom said in that low, don’t-let-them-hear-you voice of hers, “I didn’t get a bonus at the store this year. None of us did.”
Dad sipped his coffee. “We’ll get by.”
The hall was L-shaped, like a periscope, so I could stay out of sight and hear them, smelling the mingling of coffee and cigarette smoke. The kitchen still had odors of the cabbage we had had two days ago. When they slouched or shifted, the floor creaked.
Mom spoke. “We could have Christmas at Mom’s.”
“That’s 60 miles away. I feel like staying put.”
She sighed, like when one of us spilled something. “At least take her money. She knows you’ll pay her back.”
Dad made the floor creak. “No. We’ll make it. Got all the gifts.”
“There’s dinner. And the tree.”
“I’ll get us one for free. The old-fashioned way.”
Mom talked of her day at work. Dad listened and made a joke.
The TV blasted commercials. I heard Dale get up from the floor to use the bathroom as I strolled into the darkened living room, the television screen lit like a blue candle, Catwoman all
dangerous and sexy, like I wanted a girlfriend to be.
* * *
The sun sank as we left town and passed the boarded-up plant, its buildings like rows of dirty shoe boxes. No cars passed or followed us. Trish peeked from the back seat.
“We going to Sizemore for a tree?”
Dad only laughed. “Randy, where we going?”
I smiled. “Going to chop one down.”
He hadn’t told me, but I figured it out.
Dad pulled the car over to a break in the road. We got out as he took the axe from the trunk and led us to a hillock. It was silent, except for Dale tooting on a plastic horn he had brought with him. Snow and grass crunched as we picked our way past scattered clumps of firs, evergreens, and hickories. The firs caught my eye. They were mostly no taller than Dad or stood just over him. Many were as tall as me, Trish, or Dale. They were like families, shaggy teardrops watching us as we tramped around them. Dale tooted again.
I wished Dad and I were alone, because I wanted to ask him about the kitchen talk; about them hiring in Springfield. We came to a rusty fence and rotting posts. Dad easily stepped over, as did I. We had to lift Trish and Dale. She kept checking her jeans for burrs.
“Almost there,” Dad said in a quiet voice. “Get one Trish’s size.”
“But not as fat,” I teased.
“Oh, you’re a gunkey,” she shot back. “Anyway, get one my size, I can put the angel on top without using the ladder.”
Dad patted her shoulder. “Or use me to hold you up. You too big for that, now?”
She sniffed and shrugged. “Maybe.”
We crunched on. It got colder as the wind nipped and cut. Dad led us to a fir eight inches taller than me, full and thick, sticking out from its slender and stubby cousins.
“Good enough for you, kitten?”
Trish blew her nose. “Sure, Dad. I’m cold.”
Dale tooted his horn again. Dad motioned for us to step back, and his axe bit into the tree’s base. A tuk-tuk-tuk echoed through the empty woods. Every blow shook snow off the fir.
He cut down, not directly, so the axe sliced deeper. He offered it to me, and I threw all I had into it.
The tree cracked and tilted. One last swing, and it dropped into the snow. The wind murmured above our muffled cheers. Dale tooted the horn again. Trish folded her arms and stamped her feet.
“Dad! I’m cold!”
I smelled the sap. The fir wasn’t that heavy. I could pull it myself. Dad patted my back.
“Let’s go home.”
Our heads turned to the top of the hillock. A man’s outline stood tall, then crept forward, slow and silent, almost as if he were a tree come to life. A large hunting dog trotted by his side, puffing up snow as it did. Across his chest the man gripped a shotgun. Dad’s eyes narrowed.
“I’ll take care of this, son.”
The man’s eyes matched his pale, ruddy face. He looked lean and hungry, like my English class said about Cassius. His wool coat was short and exposed bony wrists. Trish and Dale drew close to Dad, who nodded.
A low grunt came from the man’s throat. “This here’s company property. Can’t you read?”
“There’s no sign anywhere.”
And there wasn’t any. But there was that fence.
“Got signs all over. You’re trespassing. And stealing a tree.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m security. Got me watching for thieves. And I got me two good ones.”
Dad frowned at that. “I never heard of any security. What’s your name?”
“Work for Bill Flowers, and that’s all you need to know.”
That was a kitchen name. Bill Flowers ran the company.
“So,” Dad said, “you got a badge?”
“Don’t need one, and don’t you go asking me no more questions. I caught you red-handed. Stealing timber.”
Being only a little taller than Trish, the fir didn’t seem like timber to me. I saw logs, oaks, maples, sawmill trees, but not a little punk fir. Dad was more annoyed than anything else, especially when the man’s dog growled and bared its fangs.
“Keep that dog away from my kids.”
The man sneered. “Don’t you give me orders, buddy. I’ll call the Sheriff. Bill Flowers said to call him.”
Dad’s voice raised over the barking. “Take it easy. Everyone’s been coming here for years.”
“Company’ll press charges. Sheriff knows I’m here. And I saw your car. Wrote down the license. Heard that kid toot his horn, and I was onto you.”
“Look — ”
The man raised his shotgun and crooked a mean smile. “Maybe Wally Stroud’ll come. He’s on tonight. Wally and me are tight.” His foot motioned to the growling dog. “One of his pups, this’n is.”
Wally Stroud was a deputy. I saw him have coffee in the Oriole Cafe, a man big like a furnace. He did have some hunting dogs, but this dog was wilder and had fiery eyes. It seemed like someone’s bad mix.
Our breaths streamed out longer. I was scared and couldn’t move, like in nightmares. I wanted Dad to make the man go away. I wanted him to knock him down. In the moonlight, the man seemed to lose his features, like he was a pencil sketch on a wanted poster. When I looked behind him, I didn’t see any footprints, only the dog’s scatterings.
“Okay,” Dad said with a stare, “we’re leaving.”
“Like hell you are.”
“Don’t talk like that in front of my kids. And keep that dog away.”
Dad raised the axe to his chest, and this made the man flinch and grip his shotgun. The dog crouched, ready to spring.
“I’ll shoot. You’re a thief. All thieves. I caught you on company property, an’ my dog’s going right for that kid.”
He meant me. I was scared like hell, but didn’t move as I made fists. The day was bleeding along the horizon. Dad made a long sigh.
“I’ll buy the tree. How much?”
“Ain’t sellin’ you squat.”
The man spit in the snow and kept aiming.
“Twenty,” Dad said. “It’s all I got.”
“Ain’t buyin’ your way out of lawbreakin’.”
“Come on. Ten. And we forget it.”
Dad slowly reached into his pocket. The man stepped back and raised the butt of the shotgun to his cheek. My heart went to his mouth. He’s gonna shoot. I stepped to one side despite my fear, to cover Trish and Dale, making that dog crouch lower.
Dad held up his wallet. The dog snarled, but the man snapped at him, almost a kind of growl, then watched as Dad took out a ten and replaced his wallet. The man licked his lips.
“Come on,” Dad said. “It’s getting cold. Take it and we can all get warm.”
“Me, I live for the cold.” The man coughed a laugh. “Drop it in front of you. Slow like.”
Dad creased the bill so it quickly floated to the snow, a dark square whose end curled up in the wind. The man’s foot stamped on it so it wouldn’t fly away. The dog stopped growling and straightened. Wind hissed and shivered the trees.
Dad nodded to me as he held the axe. I grabbed the trunk, Trish joining me. Dale followed as we dragged the tree like it was a kid’s sled. I looked back to see Dad covering us, still gripping the axe. When we were fifteen feet away, the man followed us like a sour shadow.
“I know who you are,” the man’s voice piped out. “I’m tellin’ Wally. Bill Flowers ain’t lettin’ this go. You and them kids are thieves.”
“Paid you a fair price,” Dad shouted back.
I thought I heard the man cackle, but it was swallowed by a rush of branches. Dad caught up with us. I gripped the trunk.
“I got it, Dad. I’m okay.”
“Sure. Let’s go.”
I turned. The man and his dog were gone as if they had ducked behind one of the firs. As if they became trees.
* * *
Back home, I hung back as the tree went up in the living room. Dusty boxes from the garage were opened. Out came the red metal stand Dad used to screw the trunk into place. Ornaments, tinsel, and lights twisted up like spaghetti were uncurled and draped on the tree. Then Trish took her angel out. Its skirt was an open bell that cupped the top of the tree, and on her tiptoes she crowned it. Everyone was happy, and Mom chuckled. You’re getting bigger, she said to Trish.
I was angry, remembering all the things the man said to us, that we were thieves. How he robbed Dad. I glowered at Dale and that stupid horn of his, and couldn’t stand the sight of him. Later, kneeling in the hallway, I listened to Mom and Dad.
A sigh from Dad.
“It’s not worth four. You let that guy do this?”
“I had the kids.”
“Yeah, and on company property.” She opened and closed a cabinet.
“Everybody goes there. I called Bill Flowers when I got in. No answer.”
“Oh, he and Mandy are in Florida until the first. That’s what I heard at the store. Daughter lives in Boca Raton.”
Dad’s lighter clicked. “I’m going to talk to Bill. Just ask him right out. I think the guy’s a tramp.”
“You never know about Bill. He always likes cheap help. When that union came in, I told you they’d move south.” Mom sighed as she got plates down from the cabinet. “So much for a free tree. That was our turkey money.”
“We’ll make do.”
I heard Mom’s lighter click. “Let me call mother.”
“Phil, come on . . .”
“We’ll get by. I told you.”
A pause as Mom ran the tap. Coffee began to percolate. “Suit yourself, then.”
I pictured Dad’s face: drawn, feeling cheated, and little. From upstairs came Trish’s recorder, piping out Silent Night, what she would play at the Christmas Eve service. I missed Rinty. He would have snarled at the Winter Man. Winter man. The name came to me just like that. Stealing from us and calling us thieves.
In my room I lay in bed and stared at the ceiling. Dale burst in and tooted his horn.
“Hey,” he said, “you’re missing Combat.”
“Oh, shut up.”
Dale went to his toy box. “Why you telling me to shut up?”
I sat up. “I hate you, you little twerp. It’s your fault Dad got in trouble.”
“Dad’s in trouble? How come?”
“You tooting that old horn. That guy would never have come if you’d been quiet.”
Dale frowned. “Wasn’t.”
“You’re stupid.” He blew his horn. “Stupid ‘n ’ignorant.”
I saw that ten float to the snow when the Winter Man’s shoe stamped on it, and I snatched the horn out of Dale’s hands and flung it against the wall. “Shut up!”
“Hey!” He shouted.
I stomped the horn. Cracks in the plastic made veins along its tube. Dale was horrified, then his face got red and twisted in anger.
“You broke it! You dumb old–”
I pushed him. Dale pushed back. My open palm struck him in the face. He cried and flailed me with his small fists, the way little kids fight. I threw him down and slapped him.
“Why didn’t you just shut up!”
His hands covered his face. “Stop it, Randy! Stop it!”
Dad’s hands grabbed me and lifted me back. He stared, and open-eyed Trish was behind him.
“Hey! Break it up, you two!”
I backed away. Dale sobbed and hunched his shoulders.
“What did I do?” He whined. “What did I do?”
I shot past Dad and charged down the stairs past a frowning Mom and out the front door.
“Randy!” Dad bellowed, “Come back here! Now!”
I ran past yards where plastic Santas and snowmen glowed only to stop at the tree line before Gleason’s Meadow, where maples and elms stuck out like ribs on a skeleton. I hated Dale, being called a thief. I kicked a tree, and snow shook off and glittered down.
I’d kill the Winter Man. I’d join the army, come back, and get him. I’d get his dog, too. I’d kick it and run it through with my bayonet. I stared at the railroad tracks where Rinty trotted away.
I hit the tree again. “Rinty,” my breath steamed out.
Then I looked up at the moon. It was white as a saucer of milk and lit up all the snow in the meadow, snow untouched except for the skip of rabbit tracks. Moonlight made the trees look bigger, the shadow of their branches long, like black, straight bars that trailed into fingers and needles. Across the meadow I looked closer. Something moved behind the trees. I thought it was a deer, but it was too low. I waited. It was a dog. A dog looking back at me, shy.
No, it was too big. It was the Winter Man’s. Silent. Maybe it only barked when he was around, needing his meanness to get angry. My anger pumped up and I raised my fist, marching into ankle deep snow.
“Git!” My arms flew out. “I’m not afraid of you! We’re no thieves! I said . . . git!”
The tip of a rock stuck out from the snow and I snatched the rough stone and hurled it across the meadow, where it plopped three yards in front of the dog, half-buried like you saw rocks on the moon when the astronauts were there. I looked for another stone, but there was nothing.
My hands clawed in the snow and came up with a handful of pebbles. I threw back my arm, but the dog was gone. The gap between the trees now bone-white. I pitched the pebbles anyway, and they pocked the snow.
“Stay away, Winter Man!” I shouted. “Leave my Dad alone!”
* * *
When I opened the front door, Dad motioned for me to follow him into the kitchen. Dale sat by Mom’s feet, watching TV, or pretending to.
Dad marched me to the table. I saw his wide belt on top, and sat as he stood. He raised his chin and shifted his weight, hands on hips. I tightened.
“First,” he said, “when I call you, don’t run away from me. Never.”
I licked my lips. “Yes, sir.”
“Now, what happened with you and Dale?”
Dad clenched the belt. “You think you’re too old to get a whipping? Do you?”
“Why did you beat up your brother?”
It all tumbled out, how the Winter Man found us because of Dale.
“Who?” frowned Dad, more curious than angry.
“You know. That guy. He called you a thief. Took our money.”
Dad placed his belt on the counter. “It’s nothing. Don’t worry about it.”
“But he took our money.”
“I gave him money,” Dad was gentle, “for the tree. It don’t matter.”
“But he’ll tell Bill Flowers. Dad, he’ll make trouble.”
Dad forced a smile. “We didn’t do anything wrong. You don’t worry about Bill Flowers.
I’ll handle him. Is that what this is about?”
I looked down at the floor. “Yeah. Yes. Dale got us caught.”
“I just told you, we didn’t do anything to get caught. I paid for the tree. It was my choice. What I planned all along.”
“But Dad, I want to help. I wanted to help you with the Winter Man.” I bit my lip. “But I was scared. I know we got problems. I got to help.”
“You want to help? Really?” Dad waited for my nod. “Then don’t hit your brother. Don’t ever treat him like that again. You’re the oldest, and that means you got to be bigger than what happens to you. Make up with Dale.”
A long pause. The refrigerator hummed. “Yes, sir.”
Dad’s eyes studied me, like when he combed my hair before church, or straightened my tie. “There anything else?”
I shook my head, and my eyes followed his hand as he reached for the belt.
“Looks like this fella’s still going to keep my pants up. Come on, let’s watch TV.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Then look at the tree.”
“Just look at it?”
He sighed. “Sure. I am. If I paid ten bucks for a tree, I’m going to get my money’s worth.”
I went upstairs, the smell of fir filling the living room, as did the glow from the lights girdled around the tree, the dark reflection of tinsel. Even Trish’s angel looked brighter.
I didn’t tell Dad about the dog.
* * *
The sound of Trish’s recorder soothed me . . . until she hit a high note that curdled like sour milk.
In my room, I stared at the floor, then Dale’s bed. I didn’t want to talk to him, but didn’t like being alone. I creaked open the door to Trish’s room.
She sat on her bed cross-legged, barefoot in her green T-shirt. Her music scores lay open before her, and on the wall, Trish’s Herman’s Hermits poster was dog-eared in one corner, needing new tape. She played Silent Night as I leaned against the door and waited for another high note. I winced.
“Shoot,” she muttered.
I looked at her feet. “How come you paint your toenails?”
She shrugged. “Because.”
“Because Timmy Hawkins likes it?”
A frown as Trish opened her recorder and ran a cloth through it. “I haven’t seen him for ages. I see Dave Pastor, now.”
I sat in the chair, draped with her red velvet pinafore. Her glance warned me not to lean on it. “I thought he was with Millie Dorn?”
Trish rolled her eyes. “No, he sees Donna Jean Coates. Been like forever.”
Trish and her girlfriends changed boyfriends like I changed socks. She closed her recorder.
“I can do this from memory.”
She played Scarbourough Fair. It flowed like a sad river. As she thumbed through her scores, I folded my arms. “I didn’t mean to hit Dale.”
“Yeah. That was ignorant. So how come?”
“The Winter Man.” She frowned. “That guy with the dog. And the gun.”
“He was really groaty. Why’d you hit Dale?”
“Dale kept blowing his horn. The Winter Man found us because of Dale. He cost Dad money. It was all Dale’s fault.”
“We got the tree.”
I leaned closer. “And Dad’s got no money. We can’t have turkey for Christmas.”
Trish frowned as she scratched her knee. “Mom’s fixing pork chops. That’s what she said.”
“But we . . . can’t afford turkey. I mean, aren’t you mad?”
Now she grabbed her compact and studied herself. “Mad at what?”
“That guy making trouble. Mom and Dad talk about money. I hear them.”
“Grown-ups always talk.” Trish put down the compact and played another passage, and I was put out by her. She used to be able to listen. I jerked the score away. She straightened and glared.
“Hey! If you think you’re gonna hit me . . .”
“I . . . I’m not, Trish. Not ever. But that tree cost us. You know, we’re not made out of money. Why don’t you see what’s going on?”
The recorder lay in Trish’s lap. She flipped a wave of her cinnamon-colored hair.
“I know we’re not made out of money. I dropped clarinet because Mom and Dad told me they couldn’t afford it. That’s why I’m playing recorder. It’s cheap.”
I blinked. “I didn’t know that.”
“Lots of things you don’t know.” She stroked the recorder. Laughter came from the Red Skelton Show on TV. “Yeah, I said it was because I was busy enough with chorus, but singing’s also cheap.” She snatched the score from me. “I gotta practice.”
When I went to the door, I felt small, but I couldn’t tell Trish I was sorry. I wasn’t doing anything wrong.
“Hey,” she called to me, “I want a cat. Mom and Dad said it’s okay. It okay with you?”
This was new. “I . . . don’t like cats. I don’t don’t like them, but . . .”
“So you gonna say no? You gonna hurt it? Like you did Dale?”
“No. I won’t hurt it. It’s okay.”
“I mean,” she shrugged, “with Rinty gone. Okay?”
She looked at me, but I had nothing more to say. When Trish began to play, I went back to my room. That night, Dale and I didn’t speak to each other.
* * *
On Christmas Eve, the town bustled in the morning before the stores winked out. Mom, Trish, and Dale went to Wilson’s A&P for the chops and fixings. Dad and I walked over to the fire station to shoot the breeze with Elmo Schindler as he polished the fire engine. His fireman’s cap on the back of his head and puffing on his pipe, he and Dad talked about the engine’s weak ignition until Tick Slade pulled up. His patrol car was like dirty sheets in need of washing. Dad spoke while Tick leaned on the open door, his revolver slanted forward in a new holster. The radio crackled on the county band.
“Don’t know of any watchmen or guards on company property,” Tick said. “‘Course it’s out of city limits, and Bill Flowers don’t tell us nothing unless he has to.” Tick sipped his coffee. “Or some lawyer makes him.”
Dad nodded. “That guy. Sound like anyone you seen?”
Tick’s broad face smiled. “Ratty old guy with a dog and shotgun? Hell, that’s half the county.” Tick jerked his thumb to the hotel down the street. “That’s my headache. Get drifters in there. Kids getting drunk. City wants to renovate it, but Flowers keeps giving the city council the runaround.”
“It’s a fire trap,” Dad said and pointed, “structure’s all shot. Thing’s a brick coffin.”
“Yeah,” Tick nodded. “If it goes up, it’ll be a beaut.”
I looked at the hotel as they talked. It had no snow on it. None, as though the brick was like wool, and let the snow sink into it. Wool like the Winter Man’s coat.
* * *
Christmas Eve was still, like water dropping in the faucet before it falls.
I dreamt I was at the tracks when Rinty trotted off. I threw down my schoolbooks and ran after him. Burrs and thistles by the side of the tracks caught at my jeans as I saw the dogs stream off into knee-high, yellow grass. Rinty followed. I came to the bend, and in the middle of the field was the Winter Man. He held a squirming Rinty in his arms, and looked at me with a smile that deepened the wrinkles in his face. I knew he wanted money, and I dug into my pockets for change, for anything. But the pockets had holes in them. The Winter Man’s eyes brightened as he hugged Rinty tighter and glided back into the woods, snaking at fast speed, vanishing into trees and brush.
I sat up in bed. It was two in the morning. Dale was fast asleep, thumb almost in his mouth. I looked out the window. Thick flakes of snow came down like from a salt shaker. There was no dog outside nor the Winter Man, but I could feel him, like he was snow, all a bunch of mean atoms drifting down. Back in bed, I stared at the ceiling, like when I was Dale’s age, waiting to hear
Santa Claus. Pale light from the snow made gray squares on the wall until I closed my eyes.
* * *
A couple of hours after we woke, the living room was a mess of wrapping paper. We all got what we wanted. Dale was out in the yard playing Green Beret, firing his machine gun, a green beret on his head, wearing a plastic camouflage poncho. Trish wobbled around the room in her heels, mom giving her tips on how to walk. I looked out the window with the binoculars Dad gave me.
I’d wanted them so I could see things close-up when we went camping or played games. It meant a lot to me two months ago. Now, I saw Gleason’s Meadow like it was the front yard. A passing car showed everyone’s faces. The binoculars were German, and had that smell of being new and important. The case was black leather on the outside, and had a red velvet lining. It smelled of grease for the lenses, the packing odors and black color official and grown-up.
“So what do you see?” Dad asked me as he sat in the easy chair.
“Just Gleason’s Meadow. Main Street. I see Dale, now. His teeth.”
Dad laughed. “I hope you like it.”
I smiled back. “I sure do. You like your wallet?”
Trish and I got him a wallet at Hockner’s Dry Goods in Sizemore. We added Dale’s name since he chipped in 50 cents. Dad held the wallet, its jaws squeaked as he folded it and smelled the cowhide.
“Sure,” he smiled, “just what I needed. Your mother likes her perfume.”
“Trish mostly got that. I felt kind of funny going to a perfume counter.”
Dad laughed. “Yeah, me too. Welcome to manhood. Good thing you got a sister.”
Outside, Dale pulled back the bolt of his Tommy gun and rattled a burst at our sycamore. Dad and I watched. Snow fell from a low branch. Dale fired at it.
“You made up with Dale?”
He looked at me for a moment, like he was taking notes inside his head. “That’s all?”
I kept watching Dale. “I miss Rinty. Dreamed about him.”
After a pause, Dad looked over the new house shoes Mom got him. “It’s like I told you, son. Old dogs do that. They go off to die.”
I remember him saying that when I watched him work on the carburetor. How he told me these things happen.
“But why would he go off with a bunch of strange dogs? He had a home.”
“When it’s their time, it doesn’t matter. They just know.”
The phone rang. It was grandma. Dad called Mom to the phone as Trish clacked around in her heels. The round lenses of my binoculars danced as I moved from the Shelby’s house, where the Shelby kids were building a small snowman to Gleason’s Meadow and the woods beyond; all still and empty.
* * *
The kitchen windows steamed over as Mom set down the plate of chops. We dug in. Dale grumped about not having drumsticks, but when our forks went into the brown meat, butter spurted out, and Dale liked to sop up from the bowl of thick gravy.
I looked at Dale, Dad glanced at me, then turned to Trish and they bantered. Outside the
dark came fast, as if daylight was leaking out of a bag.
“I still want a drumstick,” Dale said, spooning more gravy on his potatoes.
“Wait ‘till you have some pie,” Mom warned. “Then you’ll burst.”
Trish made a popping noise with her mouth.
Dad sipped his iced tea. “Reminds me when I was in the army. I was doing KP and just finished. The cooks had a whole pot of chops they were going to toss out. I ate seven of them right there at the table. Greasy and no fat.”
“He always remembers the grease,” Mom teased.
“Yeah, so the drill sergeant comes up.”
Trish’s fork clacked on her plate. “Did you get in trouble?”
Dad grinned. “He just stood there, hands on hips, a real cajun from Lou’sianna, grinning like a gator. ‘Tuckah,’ he said, ‘ya’ll enjoy them chops ‘cause come the mawnin’, ahm gonna work ‘em off you. Tomarrah, you gonna be teacher’s pay-it.’
We all laughed.
The chair creaked as Mom got up. “Who wants pie?”
I went into the living room. Pork chops weren’t turkey, and I was surprised I could laugh because of everything that had happened. Picking up my binoculars, I went to the window to see the moon up close. I looked out, and at the corner of the window the lenses caught Main Street. Those vapored windows of the hotel were orange boxes.
“Dad!” I shouted. “Fire!”
Everyone rushed in and looked at the hotel.
“Call ‘em!” Dad shouted to Mom as he burst through the front door. Mom was already on the phone as Dad revved up the car, the fireman’s light on his dashboard making a blue sweep across the snow. He took off as the siren wailed, breaking the peace. Dogs howled, like they always do, and I saw another car speed to the fire station, then another, their blue lights bright and nervous.
Flames jittered in the hotel’s windows; smoke billowed in a black and gray frown above the dark brick. I threw on my coat and boots, running to the fire as doors around us opened, light from them slicing on a dozen front yards. Trish ran behind me and, still in his green beret, was Dale. Tick sped by us, red lights on. His jerked in front of the hotel.
Trish and I looked back. Dale wasn’t keeping up. I scooped him up and carried him piggyback, and all three of us crossed the tracks to Main Street. The flames were high and mean. Like Tick said, it was going to be a beaut. A knot of people clustered on Main Street. Trish and I crunched through the snow, raising white puffs as we approached Dad, already in his fire coat, boots, and helmet. Kit Roach clumped up to Dad, strapping on his helmet.
“Damn, look at it.”
Dad nodded. “It’s going fast. Come on, Elmo.”
Everyone’s heads turned left as the siren wailed and the fire truck rounded the corner. Dad was already at the corner fire plug. Red lights joined the ones on Tick’s car as they swept the vacant storefronts like a splash of blood. Silas James, the fire chief, trotted up from his pick-up, glasses catching the red light.
“Go for the alley,” he breathed, “and the front.”
Sixty feet from the fire plug, the engine stopped. Just like that. Silas cupped his hands.
“Elmo! What the heck?”
Elmo raised his hands. The fire engine’s motor conked out.
The fire crackled as glass shattered from a side window. Flames shot out like a shaking fist, daring men to put it out. Dad and the other firemen threw their shoulders to the engine, but it was too heavy. Some bystanders joined in, making a cluster at the engine’s rear, but it was no-go.
Silas thumped Tick’s shoulder.
“Goddamn. Call Sizemore. Tell ‘em to make it quick.”
Tick was on the radio. Dad grabbed one of the axes from the engine — a big, man’s axe with a curved handle and long point at the other side of the blade. In the alley, the fire snickered and started to spread on the wooden passage to the feed store. The store was all wood.
“Hits that store,” Dad shouted to Silas, “and the whole downtown’ll go before Sizemore makes it. Like a relay, one store after another. Gotta cut that passage. Like a bridge to the fire.”
Silas nodded. “Do it!”
Dad led men around the side of the hotel. He scrambled up a couple of old oil drums and swung his axe into the dry, rotting wood.
Through the binoculars, which I’d worn around my neck, I saw his teeth grit as he ignored the heat and chopped blow after blow into the passage. Other men’s axes joined his. Boards tumbled into the alley, flames dancing on them. He aimed at the bottom next to the feed store. The passage shuddered, and a jagged hole opened up smoke and a trickle of flame, but it stood. He shouted and men brought the metal ladder from the truck. Dad swung harder, then squatted as the ladder rammed past him to the bottom. More wood cracked. Glass burst from above and showered all of them.
I looked up. Mom was by me in her car coat, eyes on Dad. In the crowd, people pointed to flames on the feed store’s side, like a beachhead ready to spread and invade. A second ladder went up its front where Kit, fire extinguisher in hand, scrambled to the top. As flames curved up to the roof, he swept a spray of carbon dioxide. It hissed a white cloud and killed the flames, but more crowded below, breeding a second wave.
A Mercury sped up and skidded on an ice patch, then bumped against the curb. Out shot Rick Hunter, editor of the Sizemore Journal. He had a police band radio and was always following fires. His camera flashed and he was popping out bulbs and replacing them like brass from a gun.
Dad whacked away, joined by Silas as his pike wrenched more boards loose. The ladder men heaved and rammed into the breach. I looked through my binoculars and felt a chill in my guts. By the back alley on the other side of the street, I saw the Winter Man’s dog. It looked up at the hotel, uncertain. I followed its eyes, and through the second story I thought I saw a dark shape at the window. It ruffled like curtains, but could have been a man. My heart bit. He was going to get Dad. I cried out to warn him over the crowd and noise of the fire, but no one heard me.
Rick’s camera flashed again as Tick told him to get the hell back. A loud rip came as the passage collapsed from Dad’s axe and the ladder, but it only fell halfway, the tip of its roof to the feed store. Flames crept and leapfrogged up.
We flinched at a loud roar as the roof and third story of the hotel collapsed in a wreath of fire and smoke. Dad and the rest of the firemen ducked as more glass and bricks showered down.
I was sweating from the heat. Flames were like those pamphlets the Holy Rollers passed out showing the fires of hell. Fire blocked our view of the alley and Dad. Mom’s hand gripped my shoulder. Trisha gasped.
“Daddy?” she almost wept.
I was scared; monster under the bed scared. I looked up and saw a ragged curtain being chewed by fire. Maybe that was what I saw. But the dog still waited, reluctantly backing off as the floor collapsed.
Flames died down to show that Dad and the firemen were safe and hammering at the passage. It finally collapsed into a splash of flame that filled the alley. Gouts of fire on the side of the feed store were building up. Kit had a fireproof blanket and beat it on the creeping fire, but it was slowly gaining. In my circle of lenses I saw the men’s faces; angry, frustrated, determined.
From East Main a siren cried. A white fire truck curved by the A&P, gold letters on its body reading S.V.F.D. It jerked to a halt in front of the corner hydrant as men spilled out of its cab. Sizemore’s Chief, in white coat and helmet, hooked up the hoses. As they rolled out, our men snatched them up. The flat canvas of the hoses bulged, then jets of water opened up on the hotel. Dad had dropped his axe and led one hose, its blast dousing the feed store. A sweep of water down the alley made gray smoke blossom in its wake.
The hoses trained on the windows; flames flinched like Tommy Paul when I fought him. More firemen from Sizemore drove up and joined ours. Axemen chopped, splintered, then battered down the front door. Flames tongued out. Water slapped back, the fire retreating as I smelled charred wood and smoke everywhere. All of us were lit by the fire, like we’d become an orange mirror, but now the mirror darkened with the dying fire.
The shell of the hotel hissed like a flattened balloon as teams carefully entered and sprayed water, heads up for any falling timber. Mom had loosened her grip, and I trained my binoculars on the side alley. The dog gave one last look, turned, and slinked off, tail between its legs. It disappeared behind the variety store, and I waited for it to reappear at the other end, by the Laundromat. It didn’t. The dog died like the fire.
* * *
The temperature dropped and people went back home in twos and threes. All of us saw Dad enter and re-enter the hotel with other firemen. Someone brought them hot coffee as Tick began cordoning off the street. Dad came over. He gave Mom the keys, saying he’d stay for a while and walk back, his cheeks black, and he smelled like smoke. Streaks of sweat ran down his face.
As men lit cigarettes they made small, glowing dots in the dark. Mom drove us home.
* * *
I waited on the porch. The Christmas lights on the yards had that lonely glow things have when it’s dark. The sky glittered with stars, like that time in Sunday school when Mrs. Ray took a light bulb and put a black piece of pasteboard in front of it, then pricked it with a pen and light blazed through pinholes. You see, she said, the light is God and the stars are his glory. When Jesus returns, there’ll be no more sky. We’ll just see the light of God. Forever and ever. No more darkness.
In science class, Mr. Baines said the sky was something else. What he said made sense to me, although I only got a B in science. I heard ice crunch down the street, and a dark shape approached. I smiled and ran to Dad, helmet in his hand.
“Aren’t you froze by now?”
“Don’t matter. Dale waited with me, but he went in for pie.”
We came to the front steps. Dad rubbed his neck. “Both of you waited, huh?”
“Yes. Mom and Trish, they’re doing dishes.”
The air streamed out as Dad breathed long. “I’m going to have me some pie, too.”
I told him about the dog, about how I thought I saw the Winter Man. He listened and gazed at the sky, then back at me with a funny look.
“You know, son, when we were in the hotel, there was a lot of junk. All kinds of crap had collected. I stepped on a shotgun. It was blackened and charred, and for a moment, I wondered.”
“Wow. You find anyone . . .?”
“No bodies. Kit thought he found someone’s head, but it was only a bowling ball.” Dad enjoyed my smile, and fingered my binoculars. “Looks like the right man got the right present for Christmas. Thanks, son.”
“Sure.” I liked his eyes, and always would. Strong and sharp, the way they cut into you. “I was mad about Rinty.”
He nodded. “You ready for Trisha’s cat?”
“Yeah.” I began shivering and really needed to blow my nose, but I spoke up. “Dad, are you going away? After the first?”
He sighed and shrugged in that way I imagined when I heard him and Mom talk, when they drank their coffee. “I know one thing. I’m staying put until this town gets a new fire engine. We’re all going to do that.”
“Okay,” I said.
He patted my shoulder. “Time for pie.”
We went inside, and left the stars to themselves.
* * *
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WOW!! Thanks for such a neat story. Reminds me of my own experiences–interconnected events that don’t play out as you might think. It certainly was a reminder of the best things to remember about during Christmas.
Great read, indeed!
Dear Mr. Clark,
This was a wonderful addition to the coming-of-age Christmas story genre. I especially liked the symbolism of Rinty throughout. Please keep the fiction coming!
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