by Bruce Hunter
From Country Music Country, 1996, reissued 2019.
Copyright Bruce Hunter.
"You'll be alright. Bundle up good." My mother yanked my scarf even tighter bank robber style at the back of my raised hood.
My education, at nine and a half, was not complete in her eyes. Each day contained a verse of inspiration from her worn copy of One Day at a Time and some other crucial instruction usually in the form of a story about the weather, people, my dog or whatever else sprang to her mind.
Today it was twenty below zero, not quite Thirty Below, that mystical number where several threes collided in a deadly freeze as she told me once: "At thirty below with a thirty mile per hour wind, exposed flesh freezes in three minutes. That's fifty below by the chill factor."
Later, among the piles of magazines under her bed I found the copy of Readers' Digest, and there it was, between "Life's Like That" and "Laughter's the Best Medicine" — "Chill Factor — the Real Temperature".
"Last year," she said, "a little girl in Altadore had to have a fireman pour boiling water on her tongue because she didn't listen to her mother." She turned and got the grocery money from the counter.
I wondered what this had to do with going out to the store at twenty below. As I stood in the landing in my duffle coat, sucking in all the warm air I could through my scarf, the mittens she'd knitted dangled at my sleeves, with the cord that kept them a pair tugging at the back of my neck and my scarf choking the front. I was embarrassed by that string, but she insisted.
Nine and a half is a cruel age when you start to notice you have idiot strings and others don't. And other kids were only too happy to point it out for you, as they had my old pants with the new elastic waist: "Smarty pants, smarty pants," they'd hollered, the cry ringing in my ears for weeks. I didn't even try to explain what her effort to extend the life of outgrown pants had cost me as she fished them out of the bottom of the closet.
"Never, ever, put your tongue on metal when it's this cold. Not on the fence, anything. The fire department couldn't do a thing and there she stood with her tongue on the aluminum door until they put boiling water on it." It had never occurred to me, until now, to put my tongue, lips or anything else for that matter on the big aluminum door with the curly cues and our family initial proudly hanging in the centre. She gave me the grocery note for Mr. Waterfield which I tucked into one mitt, and the change wrapped tightly in a five dollar bill I dropped into the toe of the other.
"Hurry back, and I'll make us some lunch," she said, giving my scarf one final tug and my back a warm pat as she held open the screen door. I was glad to be getting out. My mother was lonely all the long winter, and happy to have me there about the house, but the holidays were wearing on and I was tiring of her loneliness. I wanted to be outside again, going to school and talking to my friends. But only my father and I had heavy winter clothing which was a luxury then. She had one thin coat, so she had to wait until my father could drive her, or those rare days when the Chinook winds, full of the punky heat of spring, blew down from the Rocky Mountains and turned the streets to slush for a day or two in January or February. Then she got out.
Outside, the road and sidewalk were one thick grey arch of frozen packed snow that crunched and creaked dully under me, as I picked up each overboot with the shoe inside slipping up and down generating a little warmth with each step. My hood was drawn tight over my toque pulled down to my eyebrows, and the scarf covered my cheeks. Only my eyes and my nose poked through the narrow band that remained.
It was eight long blocks to Waterfield's General Store in the cluster of buildings on the main road that ran parallel to the C.P.R. tracks. Through the small slit of my hood, I could see all the way there down an eight block long tunnel of ice and packed snow. For good reason no one else was out today even though only a few more days remained of Christmas holidays. The chimneys above the houses on each side of the long street had tall feathers of smoke rising from them. There was no wind but the cold was heavy and solid. No sounds carried out from the nearby houses and even the creaking of my boots on the snow was absorbed quickly into the frozen air as if I'd never been there.
I trudged slowly like a bandaged-up alien, with the huge boots on my feet and one arm swinging off tempo with the money in the toe of my mitt throwing itself ahead, and the cold began to cut my breath into smaller and shorter gasps. The tears in my eyes had begun to ice and I rubbed my eyelashes with my mitts to keep them apart. My scarf was now thick with frozen breath, rendering it stiff as my mother's laundry clattering on the clothesline in the wind, until she stacked it like thin sheets of plywood in her basket. I pulled down my scarf to take in air which seared my throat. Ice crystals were growing slowly up the drawstring of my hood as they had already on the power lines over my head. The store was still four blocks away: it was now as far back home as it was ahead. I trudged. I felt my brain freezing and I thought of the girl from Altadore and boiling water; I couldn't imagine it hurting at all.
Outside Waterfield's General Store, the Seven-Up thermometer stood with the red line at -23 Fahrenheit and the windows with the Black Cat decals and the huge red Coca Cola saucer were frosted nearly to the top. Inside, the warmth of the ripe banana and chewing gum air was sweet and immediate. Tom Waterfield looked down from his newspaper spread open on the counter and stared over his half-frame glasses on the end of his nose that made him look always sceptical and deserving of an answer like a teacher.
"Cold out there Tom. Come right in and get warm."
I liked Tom Waterfield not just because we had the same first name but because he treated me like we were equals almost, although I knew we weren't. He didn't call me Tommy like almost everybody else including my father.
I tore off my mitts and handed him the note. I didn't really need one for the groceries but you had to be sixteen to buy tobacco or cigarettes or you needed a note. I emptied out the five and change onto the linoleum counter top.
"What else ya got here?" he read, taking down a green can of Export A with the dancing kilted lady on the front. "Two Cream of Tomato. And Chicken Gumbo. One bread. You get that will ya?"
When Tom wasn't busy like today he filled your order and you helped, but if he was busy, you helped yourself except for the tobacco and the candy he kept down behind the counter in a little window. And he didn't tolerate long decisions on whether you wanted one banana bubble gum cigar or ten Mojoes for your nickel.
"No, bottom shelf, bottom, right there," he pointed me down the big section of red and white cans that took up most of the canned goods section.
"There ya are. Small Velveeta from the dairy case and that does her."
A small stack of groceries had risen on the counter. We were running low; the last of the turkey soup had run out and it would be three more days before the weekend and my father would be home early enough to take us in the car to the new Safeway on the other side of town.
"That's . . . " he jabbed the figures into the adding machine buttons, pulled the crank quickly three times for the total and tore off the tape, "six dollars and thirty two cents."
He counted out the change on the counter, sweeping it into the cup of his hand.
"Close. Mom's keeping good track of the money. Six fifty."
I was glad. I hated having to take something back because there wasn't enough money and sometimes there wasn't.
"Thirty-three, four, five, forty, and fifty," he counted, handing me three pennies, a nickel and a dime. I quickly considered the possibilities here.
"One book of matches, please," I said, "And two caramels." This was my tip.
My hands felt all pins and needles and the tips of my fingers burned like they were matches. I'd pulled my hood and my scarf down, but still I'd started to sweat and the rough yarn of the mitten cord cut into my neck.
Tom folded over the bag after placing the bread gently on top. I wanted to stay and get warm, but I felt funny waiting in the store not buying anything else and getting all sweaty and itchy.
As I put the bag down by the door the change rattled in the bottom, and I pulled my hood and scarf back up and shoved my mittens into my sleeves. Then I sucked in one last lungful of warm sweet banana air and scooped up the bag. As I leaned on the outside door, I had to shove it open against the wind and the inner door closed securely behind me.
At first it wasn't too bad. The chewy caramel warmed my cheeks as long I didn't have to open my mouth to breathe. But two blocks later the wind opened my sleeves and filled my hood, freezing my hair and raising goose bumps on my arms. I looked back at the big blue panel truck with the block heater cord running into the store. Waterfields also delivered groceries. But my mother was too proud to ask and I was her son.
A bit of caramel squirted out and stuck to the side of my face, gluing my frozen scarf to my cheek. My hands ached. The bag was getting heavier and I shifted it from one arm to the other. As I put it down to rest, tears started down my cheek and I couldn't see our house even after the wind died. Now I couldn't go back; I couldn't go forward.
I picked up the bag and walked a few more feet and put it down again, this time almost dropping it. No sounds came from the nearby houses. No one looked out. I hated my mother. I hated where we lived, this dumb street, Waterfield's. Then the wind started again.
I felt something on my shoulder and heard a muffled sound above and beside me.
"Here, let me." A man in an army parka and a huge brown toque with a pom-pom on top lifted the bag with one hand.
"That way?" he nodded ahead. "I'll carry, you lead."
Hope goes a long way towards warmth. Instantly I felt better.
"Didn't catch your name. Mine's Arthur."
"Tom," I said, picking the frozen goo from my cheek.
The wind gusted again and we shouldered into it. All I could see was that he was tall and thin-legged but his long stride made me throw my boots ahead of me more quickly now and I puffed to keep up with him. The wind dropped and rose again, picking up the thin loose layer of snow off the park beside us. The ice crystals grazed my nose like cold sand and an old Christmas tree rolled down the road like a tumbleweed.
"Woo, whiteout!" he shouted over the wind.
I halted for a moment. He turned and waited, then put his free hand on my back as I caught up with him.
"Best we not stop. Too damned cold." My father always said goddamn.
It had not occurred to me just then who Arthur might be. Out here in the middle of the day. In a snowstorm. All the men were away at work. Besides he was doing what I couldn't. But as we passed the red fire callbox mounted on the telephone pole that marked our street, I was starting to worry, but I was too afraid to stare, which would mean having to turn and risk falling. I did anyway. What was my mother going to say. One of her instructions had been about talking to strangers. Not talking to strangers. But only strangers who offered candy.
"I can carry it from here." I looked up. All I could see through the thin band of sight I had left, was the toque and the turned-up collar of the green parka that I now noticed was missing its hood. He also had no gloves and he kept shifting the bag from one hand to the other which he warmed in his pocket. There was something familiar about him now that I hadn't realized earlier. Then a chill that had nothing to do with the weather went through my body.
"Don't you worry buddy, I'll take you right home. C'mon, too cold to stop." I could hear the shiver in his voice, but he kept walking.
Half a mile back down the tracks from Waterfield's was an old railway hotel that the Salvation Army ran as a hostel for single men. The hosties, as people called them, rode the freights or the city buses out to our edge of town. Out behind the hostel, on the far bank of the irrigation canal in a grove of poplar, was a hobo jungle where the men stayed when their time was up. Sometimes the police had to go in and get a body and there were always stories of fights and stabbings. Under no circumstances were we to go near the tracks or the canal.
No one sat beside them on the bus. Some people even got up, shoving, cursing and sat somewhere else or stood up all the way home if one sat beside them. Some were old and surly, talking to themselves or singing guttural songs. Others were young and smart-alecky, talking in loud voices and looking right in the eyes of people who tried to ignore them. All of them wore Sally Ann clothing, dark old coats, usually dress coats that looked funny on a bum. Most of them had bad breath with booze on it. And B.O. The bus drivers had to tell them to shut up or throw them off the bus.
One driver even pulled over between stops once, after they all got off at the hostel, took out a rag and began furiously wiping the hand rails and backs of seats where they'd sat.
"Goddamned swine." He'd glared at me. I nodded in agreement, afraid.
As we neared my house I started to want him gone. What if he wouldn't go. I knew my mother would be mad. Somehow I had failed her. I needed help.
As Arthur and I turned up our walk, my mother's face was visible in a small clear circle of glass surrounded by a square-edged halo of frost that filled the picture window.
I wanted to turn and tell him, this no longer needed stranger, to go away. This is my house, mister. Thanks but you can leave now. I knew it was too late. Arthur must have seen her first because he handed me the bag and turned away. But my mother's face disappeared from the window, the front door opened and she stuck her head out. I knew she'd shoo this stranger away after what she'd said.
"Thank god. I just called Tom Waterfield. I was so worried when the wind picked up."
She turned to Arthur while she took the bag from me and stopped him.
"Thank you very much."
Arthur nodded to her and started back down the walk. I was relieved. But my mother stood watching.
"Wait. You must come in."
He paused for a moment, confused, but then came up the steps behind me, a little too quickly, I thought. Right then I hated my mother for sending me. And even more I hated her for letting this man into our house. I hadn't asked for his help.
"Let me take your coat," she put it over her arm the way she did for good company and then undid my scarf. "You get out of those clothes and I'll put some soup on. What's your friend's name?"
He's not my friend, I thought.
"Arthur." I fidgeted with the toggles on my boots.
"Arthur, I'm Edna," she said, leaving off her last name. Maybe he didn't have a last name and she didn't want him to feel bad.
"Welcome to our home. Tom will show you where the washroom is." My mother was using her best company voice and manners. We usually called it the bathroom.
He spent a long time washing. I went in after he finished and ran warm water over my hands which made the skin feel as if it was shrinking and too tight for my fingers, but it warmed me up fast. I checked the medicine cabinet to see if anything was missing. My father's Gilette safety razor was still there, his chipped shaving mug and fragrant bushy shaving brush. The Noxzema, the Aspirin, the styptic pencil my father used for his shaving cuts and his Wildroot hair cream. At Cubs, we'd learned Kim's Game where we had to memorize a table full of objects, leave the room and then come back to identify what item was missing. I'd never been good at it, but everything looked like it was here. I heard my mother's laughter and when I came out, he was standing in the kitchen doorway smiling and talking to her.
My mother hustled us into the dining room and Arthur didn't say much, but he seemed grateful to be out of the cold.
"You don't have to, ma'am."
My mother seemed glad to have the company and she flew between the kitchen stove and counter and rushed in with a plateful of long fingers of white bread sliced into "dunkers" for the soup heating on the stove.
"No bother. It won't take long at all," she called out cheerfully from the kitchen.
With the wire cheese cutter she slapped thick slices of Velveeta onto the bread and flipped it onto the waffle iron to grill. The margarine sizzled and smoked with each slap.
Arthur still had on his toque and sitting across the table, he looked ridiculous. I wondered why my mother hadn't said anything. I was never allowed to wear a hat at the table. His face was very red and creased but his voice was young, maybe even younger than my father's. His eyebrows were like two bushy blond shelves on his forehead and his grey eyes pierced whenever they looked in mine. Slowly I was warming up, but when I blew my nose, a strange and familiar smell wrinkled my nostrils.
B.O. — body odour. And then the smell of urine and campfire smoke. My mother had warned me about B.O. Good hygiene, she'd say. Arthur had B.O. And B.O. was a hostie smell.
Most of them had the same red face and smelled so bad you tried not to breathe if they sat beside you on the bus. And now one of them was sitting in my father's chair in a stupid toque, stinking up our house and about to eat our food while my mother was treating him like good company.
Then I realized what was missing from the medicine cabinet: my father's old straight razor that he kept hidden behind all his other things. I wanted to jump up and check. Instead I looked down at the bowl of soup my mother placed in front of me. Cream of Tomato soup. I thought of the story of Sweeny Todd our cubmaster had told us one wintry night when we were alone in a cabin at Camp Gardiner. My throat felt bare naked and cold. I swallowed hard.
Arthur had three bowls of soup and four grilled sandwiches. My mother just kept on bringing them and he never said no. I could hardly finish one bowl. After lunch, Arthur got up suddenly from the table and I nearly jumped. He reached for the knife at my mother's plate while she was in the kitchen making coffee. We'd all be dead, I thought. Downed with a dull knife, Melmac plates and bowls everywhere and our throats slit ear to ear like Sweeny Todd's victims and warm blood gurgling out of us like Campbell's Cream of Tomato soup.
"Don't bother," my mother called out, "Tom will clean up. Tom." She seemed unaware of any reason to fear him, this man with my father's razor in his pocket. I could see the rectangular outline of its case lying horizontally in his pantpocket as he stood up.
He stacked the knife on my mother's plate and put them on top of mine. But I knew it was a ploy. I took the dishes from the table out to the kitchen and went to go off to the bathroom. I wondered how to get my mother alone and tell her. And the telephone hung on the wall between her in the kitchen and him in the dining room.
"Take these out to the table will you?" she stopped me with two mugs and a plate of cookies.
"You smoke, don't you, Arthur?" my mother asked from the kitchen.
"If you don't mind." He shifted in his chair as he answered.
Even though my mother hadn't exactly asked me to join them, I wasn't letting him out of my sight. When she came back into the dining room she brought her long cigarette roller, an ashtray and the can of Export A.
"Help yourself to the coffee and cookies. I'll roll us a few cigarettes."
"You like Johnny Cash?" Arthur pointed to the stack of records leaning against the flip top player. She only had eight of his albums.
"You too?" she said more than asked, preoccupied with the quick flip of white paper and tobacco into long white pencils that rolled out on the table.
"I like him — he plays mouth-organ good too."
My mother corrected me if I said good when I meant well. But I was more worried about his free hand which rested on the pantpocket where the razor was.
Then my mother evened out the long white cigarettes and reached into the pocket of her house dress. She took out my father's razor, pulled open its case, carefully unfolded the shiny blade out of the ivory handle and expertly nicked each long cigarette into regular sizes.
"That does the trick," she said, "Nothing else in the house quite this sharp." Then she used a match head to tuck the loose strands of tobacco back into the cut ends.
"Don't tell your father," she said, giving me a conspiratorial nod.
That still didn't satisfy me. It just meant he brought his own knife. I didn't take my eyes off him for one second. But they both ignored me as he held a match out to her. Her cigarette sputtered and flared the way rollies do. She inhaled deeply and then exhaled through her nostrils filling the air with a cloud of thick rich smoke.
"Would you like to hear something?" she said.
"You got Orange Blossom Special?" he asked.
My mother slipped the album from its jacket and set the needle onto the record.
It was then Arthur made his move. Catching us off guard, he reached into his pocket. My father's razor lay closed at the other end of the table. We were defenceless. I put my hands over my eyes. This was it.
I heard a spit-wet wheeze and then a low metallic wail. I looked through my fingers. On the table in front of him was a cardboard box with the lettering:
MARINE BAND HARMONICA
Great. Sometimes you'd see the hosties out in front of the Cecil Hotel or the Queens with a hat or a cigar box. The odd one was okay; most just made noise.
While Arthur wasn't great, he wasn't awful either. He wailed in the right places, cupping his hands closed and open for the train whistle parts. His Adam's apple bobbed and his cheeks puffed and sucked as he made the click, click, cluck sound of the wheels. My mother, meanwhile, picked up the coffee spoons and cupped one inside the other with her forefinger acting as a spring and tapped them in the palm of her other hand to keep the beat as she sang the chorus. Actually neither of them sounded bad.
My mother laughed when the song was finished. I'd never heard her sing or laugh this freely with my father. I knew it was wrong, but I couldn't say a thing to my father because if I hadn't needed help none of this would have happened.
"You got any more songs, Arthur?" my mother asked while she poured him more coffee.
Instead of answering, Arthur began to cough, deep racking ones full of spit he wiped from his mouth with the paper napkin from the cookie plate. Each time he coughed, his body rocked forward almost lifting him from the chair.
"Are you all right?" my mother stood over him with the coffee pot still in her hand. We were both worried now. I wondered about my father coming home to a dead bum in his chair.
"I'm fine," he finally said, wiping his mouth and gulping some coffee which seemed to settle him down, "but I better go."
This time my mother didn't stop him. And as he stood in the doorway, putting on his parka, she pressed a handful of rollies into his and gave him a pair of gloves my father never wore. As he turned out the door, he looked at me and then nodded to my mother.
"Bye Tom. Thank you."
After he left, my mother latched the aluminum door as it banged with the wind. I went to the front window and watched him cut across the park towards the hostel. The needles of the Christmas tree jabbed my elbow as I made a squeaky circle in the frost, my finger going round and round until there was a small clear hole. I watched him appear and reappear in the gusts of snow-filled wind until I could no longer see him, this man for whom my mother sang and laughed, and the small opening closed, covered with my frozen breath. In the kitchen, the tap filled the sink with water; the radio was silent, as was my mother who neither sang nor laughed.