I was picking at the stubborn ice in the garage entrance. Again.
My shovel made such a racket that I was certain the whole neighborhood had heard. At least, those neighbors who didn’t go out for work, which was, a lot of ’em this peculiar, cursed year. The current temperature danced around a balmy zero Celsius, but the wind had frozen everything hard.
If, at least, the Sun had spared some if its heat for the fissured blacktop of the entrance, the ice would have melted by itself. Alas, a bunch of gray clouds had been squatting the whole sky all day.
I hated it when winter couldn’t decide, once and for all, between staying over or under the freezing temperatures. One day, snow to our knees, the following day, it all melted into slush puddles; then the following night created uneven ice patches everywhere. Add the sidewalks to that equation, their broken slabs a danger for any walkers, hidden under the layer of pristine snow, and that’s southern Lake Ontario for you.
As my nice neighbors’ car entrance was a slippery incline, the risk of a bad concussion was multiplied tenfold. Hence me, hacking the ice like a mad woman, the metal reverberations grating my ears, the vibration stunning my wrists even if I wore padded mittens.
For now, the wind factor was chilling the sweat channel pouring over my spinal column. Swerving around the buildings, the wind surged from every direction, surprising me. I should have covered myself better than a sweater and padded vest, but too many layers only made me sweat more.
If only the darn winter could make up its mind! That dance around the zero was driving me nuts, besides wearing down the asphalt. And my patience…
At this hour, I should be cooking the no meat turkey, mashing the potatoes, finishing the chocolate cake that would only be a pale reflection of the one my grandmother made. And I had to set the table to greet the husband and son coming back from their own errands. And choose the best plates, those perched on the high-altitude cupboard shelf.
But the thought of my neighbor, not much older than I was but with her hip broken in a bad fall, prodded me on. Her husband’s sore back and weak heart prohibited him from any undue exertion, like shoveling dense snow. I was in good shape, relatively speaking, of course, so I toiled for them.
Of course, it was stupid of me to risk a heart attack to de-ice a car entrance.
Evening fell too fast, giving birth to a colored rivalry of Christmas lights, enhanced by technical prowess. I felt a pinch of envy regarding this prodigality, but those lights offered a gift of beauty to any passerby.
The world was so dark, so hard. Those constellations of blue, green and white lamps warmed up my soul. I paused, the echo of my last shovel hack sounding for long seconds. A fragile bubble of silence expended over the deserted street.
My breath created soft clouds of condensation that dissipated too fast.
The silence, in a city, was something to cherish. I listened for the chatter of chickadees, the angry twip of a house sparrow, the tiny crack of the hardened snow under the paws of a cat, or the light bounces of a scurrying rabbit.
But the only sound I heard was the dry crinkle of an envelope under my boot. Untouched, unopened, escaped from the recycling van with the complicity of the wind. On its face, printed Christmas ornaments and holly leaves, framing a too familiar message: give generously!
In my humble opinion, printing Give generously! or urgent!!! We need you! with an excess of exclamation points, constituted a strategical error. Most of those envelopes landed directly in the recycling basket.
I didn’t want to cast the first rock at my neighbors. But since charity organizations had taken to systematically share our address lists, it was twenty, thirty Give generously envelopes that fell in my mailbox, just because I, once, forgot to tick the microscopic square hidden in a small fonts paragraph.
This accrued pressure had caused a mild case of giving fatigue.
My thoughts turned darker. Yes, give generously, while tycoons and bankers fired men and women or conspired to shrink their worker’s rents, inflating their own wealth!
And those same ultra-rich would put one hand over their heart at charity galas, while the other slipped gifts in politicians’ pockets, garnered further tax breaks with legal tricks, accruing the burden for all others. (And then the politicians opened their hands and told the populace, “See, we do not have money…”)
Strangled by all those speculators, what would be left of this famous middle class that shrank and shrank? Donations dropped year after year, even with the added promise of an anonymous donator doubling or tripling the given amount. So many of us toiled at two or three jobs to make ends meet, conscious to be at one illness, one accident, one job loss from homelessness…
Clanggg! I hit the blue-brown ice with a vindictive zeal.
The shovel broke a layer of ice that would have felled my fragile neighbors. Smashing the ice was as difficult as weeding the garden. In summer, I struggled to unearth the deep roots of invading plants instead of just pulling the heads off. Battling the roots of corruption was as difficult; many politicians pulling off some scapegoat from their hat and going on as before.
Under the thin ice, another envelope winked at me. All red, with the same holly leaves and Christmas tree ornaments, but bearing a different message. Flash sale, Find your gifts here, 50% on everything…
The other face of the holidays, where stores and banks and insurance agents offered pre-approved credit cards with incredible rates… Those two injunctions fought for my mind space.
Buy, buy, buy!
Give, give, give!
Buy or give, but never disturb the generous speculators who congratulated themselves with champagne at Davos while pouring crocodile tears over the climatic crisis brought by their own profitable actions.
So be it.
This year, I had decided to forego the shopping and give all that I could: clothes, food, kitchen items, books to nourish the dreams…
A low drone rose.
I thought it was the car of a neighbor returning from a job that might evaporate next year, in another reorganization. Then I heard distant bells tingling under the loud clangs of my shovel. Under the tingling bells, a chorus of voices sang, soft like the abating wind. Were there still people singing carols?
For a moment, magic bathed my soul.
Then a familiar rumble of a diesel engine cut through the magical moment.
The beams of two spotlights swept the sidewalk that I was furiously hacking. I turned around, sweating and out of breath, my palms aching from the shocks, intent on spilling out my consumer/donator frustrations.
The chorus I had heard a moment before was flowing from the driver window of a huge eighteen-wheeler, pulling a semi-trailer. The trailer’s side was marked with an unfamiliar logo with holly leaves and one round tree ornament. Such a mastodon should never have been able to engage in our narrow, curved residential street! Neither should have it been able to ground to a halt without a loud hiss of brakes.
A ginger cookies scent titillated my nose, along with a waft of warm air from the open window. The left elbow of the driver jutted out, wrapped in candy-red, shiny coat.
A bearded face leaned out of the window, the lower edge encrusted with ice crystals that fell as his arm brushed over them. The soft singing was still pouring out, probably from a high-quality radio system, because the voices were so clean it sounded like an entire choir had been squeezed inside the truck’s cabin.
“Excuse me,” the driver said, “I’m kind of lost.”
His gravelly voice betrayed an age in the advanced seventies, confirmed by the beard, whitened by worries.
Another elder who had lost his pension and had been forced to work as long as he had some strength remaining.
No, it was his way that he had lost. And, as like most truckers, he was ‘on the clock’. I put my bad mood in my pocket, with the envelopes, and planted the shovel like a flag into a precarious snowbank.
“Where are you going?” I asked, my voice raspy with the cold.
The driver turned to cut his engines, gaining my silent approval. The rumble of diesel died out like an organ endnote. He scratched his head under the rim of his knitted cap. Red like the anorak.
“Well,” he said, “it’s a bit complicated, since my GPS has retired…”
“Retired? He’s luckier than I am!”
Oops! I had talked without thinking. The paper tip of my bad mood’s viper tongue peeked from my pocket.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m a little like you, a freelance artist living day-to-day, so there’s no retirement package for me.”
“Oh,” he said.
He smiled, and that changed his physiognomy.
I mean, the guy didn’t have that perfect Colgate smile, whiter than white, over gums redder than his anorak. His teeth showed some wear and tear, toned to a soft ivory taint like an elephant’s defense. However, there was a light in his smile that rose to his eyes, their irises the pale blue of the ice, when free of impurities.
And this warmth, this light, evaporated the worries in my head, the magnates of this world receding into nothingness. I didn’t feel the cold sweat channel in my back, either.
It was at this moment that I noticed he had addressed me in my native French, despite my living in an overly English neighborhood in the Toronto area. How could he have guessed my proud Franco Ontarian culture?
“What brand is your GPS?” I asked. “A Garmin, a Tom-Tom?”
“It’s a Rudolph-2.”
“I’m not familiar with that brand.”
“Well, the first was the best, but since he retired…”
He had spoken on such a good-natured way that I almost didn’t notice the incongruity of a GPS going into retirement. I thought that poor trucker must have been so lonely on the long roads, that he spoke to his equipment. So, I asked him a good-natured question.
“And what are you transporting?”
His arm wove toward the back of the truck.
“Gifts,” he said.
As the single syllable left his fleshy lips, a warm scent of chocolate cake tickled my nose. I felt myself shrinking into a smaller me, transported in a familiar kitchen, as my grandmother was pulling from the oven a magnificent cake. Her mittened hands deposited the dessert on a pad on the countertop. Then she would spread her special cacao icing, a glory as each bite melted in the mouth, and place a little maraschino cherry at the center.
How I missed my grandmother!
I came back to the present with a start. If the bearded trucker carried food…
“Nothing perishable, I hope?”
“Oh, don’t worry, it will keep. I’m delivering everything this night.”
In certain stories or movies, there are moments when snotty critics qualified a character as genre blind.
For instance, you watch a movie with a bunch of teens in a haunted house, and the leader brilliantly decides, “let’s split up to cover more ground.” Of course, that was a staple of countless horror movies, like the young woman stuck in a mansion as Victorian as empty, who hears a noise coming from the cellar and goes down there to investigate the source, alone with her skimpy night robe…
That kind of genre-blind, of cognitive dissonance, was on me now. My brain had not connected all the dots yet, still rattled by the solicitation envelopes in my pocket.
So, I addressed the bearded man, hedging my bets.
“So, you’re a kind of Santa Claus,” I said.
I added my best ivory-toothed smile, the fruit of my privileged access to dental care.
At that moment, a concert of tweets and chirps rose in my back. Turning, I discovered a whole gallery of birds, the dream of any ornithologist doing the Christmas bird count.
Cardinals redder than red, with their more discrete dames, their plumage a beige and soft red. Cheerful black-headed chickadees, Black-eyed Juncos, with their best gray and white tuxedos, blue jays harping, and others that my eye couldn’t identify. Among them, a lone peregrine falcon perched on a branch, surprisingly indifferent to all those little meals chirping under its claws.
I was afraid that the truck would dematerialize like in the tales when I turned back.
But no, the driver was still there, one hand on the wheel, his kind eyes contemplating the bird assembly. Maybe I was mistaken, and it was St-Francis of Assisi hiding under this beard.
Really, I would be fine with that.
“Yes,” he admitted. “And I must deliver at a series of addresses.”
He foraged on the passenger seat and grabbed a pack of old matrix print paper. There must have been a hundred pages, all perforated on the sides. I glanced at the top address.
I felt a weird let down feeling. Then, I shook it off like snow from my boots. What was I griping for? Living in a fair neighborhood, in a country at peace?
A light bulb flickered in my mind: the first line was the address of a distribution center of food and clothes in my city. Because of the elite’s neglect or indifference, more families struggled to make ends meet, and donations were dropping. No wonder Santa Claus had changed his routes tonight.
Under the first address, I recognized others: a refuge for the street kids, a safe house for women and children in danger, a halfway house for ex-prisoners. I did not know the other places, but, flipping the accordion-linked pages, I could see area codes in Cyrillic characters, Chinese ideograms…
A gulf of gratitude filled me, warm as hot fudge poured from the pan. I clapped my hands in delight.
“Oh, I see what you’re doing, it’s, it’s fantastic! Thank you, thank you!”
He seemed happy from my reaction, and the birds tweeted louder.
“Yes,” he said, “and Mother Claus had even given me the locations of hidden political prisoners camps.”
That last bit saddened me. Long ago, I had sent a box of children’s shoes to an organism in Afghanistan. The box never got there. Lost in transit…
“The jailors will keep the gifts for themselves,” I said, my voice heavy.
That didn’t seem to bother him, no more than the time zones and Earth’s circumference.
“It will be a delicate affair, young girl, but for a guy who had slipped into millions of houses by chimneys or windows in a single night, no problemo!”
His young girl passed on me like a balm, because it was sincere. The good grandfather perceived me as the child I had been, as I was still inside.
However, there was just one little detail at odds with my ecological conscience. The gas-gurgling truck.
“Wouldn’t it be less polluting to drop your gifts from your sleigh, with the flying reindeers?”
There, he burst into a hearty laugh. Not the fabled ho-ho-ho, but a joyous wah-ha-ha-ha!
“A truck is less conspicuous. Especially with all those drones firing on everything, even the birds! As for the gas, the elves have produced a biofuel.”
He restarted the engine. I could smell a sharp scent of ginger coming out. He winked.
So, stepping on the foothold, I gave him the directions to get out of the street, and to reinitialize his GPS. His eyes perked up when the little red sleigh icon blinked on his screen. A powerful Ha! escaped in the night.
“I thank you, young girl. Do you want something in exchange?”
I considered the flock of birds happily hopping by, and breathed in the odor of grandma’s chocolate cake and ginger breads, all coming from the exhaust tubes.
One writer, on the verge of dying, had said that his most marvelous discovery had been to know that he already possessed everything he needed to be happy.
A roof over my head, a family to cherish, a work I loved.
“You just gave me my gift,” I said, tears in my eyes. “I don’t need anything else.”
“Well, it has been a pleasure to talk with you. Embrace your loved ones for me.”
And, just like that, the gift truck rumbled on, leaving its good smell of ginger and chocolate behind. I followed it with my eyes until the taillights were gone.
I stood, unmoving, savoring the moment under the stars that shone without concurrence from the Moon. Then, the to-do list raised its ugly head in my mind.
Ice to break; meal to prepare; table to set.
My hand reached for the shovel’s handle.
And froze there.
Under my feet, the concrete slab was as dry as in July. The ice had evaporated on the sidewalk, so nobody would slip and get a hip fracture. On the street, and on the driveways near me, the black top had been regenerated, all cracks gone from its smooth finish. Nice of Santa, to think of the municipalities crushed under debts, putting back repairs.
Thank you, I thought.
You’re welcome, a voice answered in my head, just as a snowflake tickled my nose.
Snow was falling, big fluffy tufts, magical, as they only covered the lawns and gardens by now empty of birds. I put back the shovel inside our empty garage and headed for the front door.
As soon as I pushed it open, a flurry of good smells greeted me. Mashed potatoes, vegetables, tofu turkey with cranberries…
To my surprise, the table had been set.
With the best plates, those that usually waited on the high-altitude shelf, disposed on the clean fabric with their attending cutlery. It was as if a fairy—or Mother Claus?—had prepared this feast.
I was tempted to cry out You shouldn’t have done this!
But I didn’t.
Because, at that moment, I saw—and it drew tears from my eyes—what occupied the center of the table: a wide, generous china plate, the edge ornate with holly leaves (real, fresh ones) and small golden marbles.
And, on this round throne, a cake, worthy of my grandmother’s best art, covered with a thick layer of chocolate fudge icing, sending up a warm scent of cacao. On its top, a small round cherry sat, like a tiny Christmas ornament.
May you all live and give
in this Holiday Season !
(c) Michèle Laframboise 2021
Enjoyed this tale? At the time I actually wrote it, Serge Bouchard, a dear friend of all poets, who had been a trucker, had just left us. So the generous character in the truck would look a bit like him.