TRUE GRIT (a true story)
My first job as a paperboy during a snowstorm.
This short story is also available as a free download http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/91669
February made me shiver,
With every paper I’d deliver….
- Don Maclean-‘American Pie’
Fat lazy snowflakes floated down as I left my house in the fading light. By the time I reached the corner drug store, it looked as if a giant fan was blowing in all the snow in the world into my neighborhood. This was my first winter delivering papers. Welland, Ontario, was occasionally brutalized by Lake Erie snowstorms. So far, December had been mostly cold and rainy.
On the sidewalk in front of Vasko’s Drugs, my bundle of 80 papers lay on its side, a drift already threatening to consume it. My fingers, stiff from the cold wind seeping into my thin gloves, could barely grasp the store’s door handle. Gratefully inside, I took off my gloves, stomped snow from my boots, and shook out my delivery bag. While rubbing my hands together I watched a slow parade of cars cautiously plowing past.
A big blue car stopped beside the curb. Larry Fortin jumped out and retrieved his bundle of papers. His dad leaned across and opened the door as Larry tossed in the bundle. In a moment, they vanished, melting into the white blur.
I stared out through the window at my bundle, willing it to disappear, not wanting to step outside especially after forgetting my scarf.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
The voice startled me. I turned to see Mr. Vasko looming over me in his white lab coat, his arms tightly folded.
“Uh, just warming up,” I said, avoiding his pitiless gaze. The man didn’t like kids in his store absorbing the heat.
“You’ve made a mess on the floor,” he said, pointing to the puddle of melted snow around my feet. He stepped past me and opened the door, an invitation to leave.
It was like stepping into the meat locker at the A & P store with the cooler fans running full blast. I dragged my bundle out of the wind, and snipped the bale wire with my pliers. Vehicle headlights began to wink on as I slid the papers into my bag and set off on my trek with the wind howling past my ears.
I trudged a block and a half through nearly knee-deep snow. I already had grave doubts about completing my route. The heavy bag, slung over my shoulder, dragged on the snow, tripping me up several times. I cursed loudly, wishing I had brought my sled.
Streetlights flickered, their cones of light filled with snowflakes like particle beams from a spaceship in a horrible science fiction movie. By the time I reached the Zaharachuk’s, my first house on Harriet Street, my fingers were curled tightly into my palms and a great chill had entered my bones. I stepped onto their front porch and stomped snow from my boots. It was collection day. I prayed everyone would have the exact change. My cold fingers were popsicles and would have trouble sorting through nickels and dimes.
“Collect!” I called, slapping on the door with my palm. I pulled off a glove and swept snow from the back of my neck.
Mr. Zaharachuk answered, opening the door a crack as if expecting some terrible creature. He winced as a gust curled into his face, frosting his hair. “You want money, today?”
“It’s Friday,” I replied. I had to collect on Friday. Saturday was a chance to collect from stragglers. People didn’t want to be disturbed on Sunday. The collection money was due on Monday.
“Well, you must come in and warm,” he said, and held open the door.
I dropped the bag on the porch and stepped into a cozy warm hallway.
“I get money,” he said, disappearing around a corner.
I unbuttoned my coat, letting in waves of heat. I didn’t know the Polish family well, but Ellen Zaharachuk went to my school.
Mr. Z returned, holding out a dollar bill. “You don’t have a helper today?”
I shook my head and fumbled in my pocket for change.
“Keep. You deserve today.”
His wife appeared around the corner, wiping her hands on a checkered apron.
“Child, you must be frozen!” She glanced out the window, muttering at the sight.
Ellen, her daughter, peered down the hallway at me.
Mr. Z said, “If you smart, you’d would do no…uh,” he searched for the word, “pay…collectioning–finish and get home.”
I buttoned up. Mrs. Z told me to come back if I got too cold.
Outside terrible gusts threw up drifts over a landscape of whipped cream. The seventy-nine papers in my bag were like seventy-nine bricks. Dragging on the heavy bag pushed snow into my boots, where it melted around my socks. The bitter wind was remorseless, squeezing every degree of Zaharachuk’s heat from me. I could easily stumble and, unable to get up, freeze to death like some Arctic explorer. Buried under a massive drift until spring.
I followed Mr. Z’s advice and didn’t collect. If I took off my gloves my fingers would shatter and fall to the ground like icicles.
Seventy papers left.
Today I would die.
No one could see me in the white gale. No one cared.
Noise from passing cars was muffled by the heavy wet snow. Slogging through growing drifts became an ordeal for my exhausted legs and wet feet. I began floating, as if in a nightmare, trying to move through a white molasses. The storm would engulf everything and everybody. People in faraway countries would read about it in their safely-delivered papers, in their warm homes, and shake their heads.
A car horn honked, startling me as it pulled into a driveway. I staggered across the street, my mind on the Zaharachuk’s warm, comfortable house; their coats and hats neatly hung on pegs in the hallway. If I went back there, Ellen would likely tell everyone I couldn’t hack it; that I was a dumb kid trying to be somebody much bigger. She was usually surrounded by a gaggle of friends, whispering and laughing at whomever passed them in the hallway.
I had to get the route finished or I would be fired. A long list of hopefuls waited to take my spot: older, bigger, stronger boys who could probably get through this mess in a flash. I was already late with the deliveries. At this speed, I would finish at midnight–or tomorrow.
At this speed, I would die.
Turning back up the block became a killer, head-on into the brutal wind. I pulled my toque halfway down my eyes, pondering about a frozen skull and a flash-frozen brain. I had to get out of the wind. It was like looking out through a brittle, plastic mask at a barren hostile planet.
I don’t remember how I got there, but I collapsed in a heap on Zaharachuk’s porch stairs. I only wanted to rest for a bit.
Mr. Z came out and hauled me inside. He said he and his wife were keeping an eye on me through the upstairs windows. Life-saving warmth washed over me, melting my face as if I’d held my head over a toaster, watering my eyes.
Mrs. Z looked at me as if I had walked away from a bloody car crash. “Take off coat and boots. I have cocoa.”
“Can you get some help?” asked Mr. Z, fidgeting with his glasses.
“No. I gotta get the papers done.”
He guided me into the big warm kitchen. Mrs. Z magically produced a hot steaming mug of thick, bubbly cocoa before me at the table. I gripped the hot ceramic mug, my fingers thanking me. The Zaharachuks spoke in what I assumed was Polish or Hungarian, now and then glancing at me, their faces etched with worry.
“It would be good to call your father,” she said, setting a phone in front of me.
I hesitated and looked at the clock. Dad would be just home from work and still in a snarly mood. But I was desperate. I rubbed my fingers and called home.
My mom answered. “Where are you?”
“On Harriet Street at Zaharachuk’s house. I need a ride. The snow’s really deep. I can’t finish.” At her end, the phone banged against something.
Dad picked up the phone. “Where are you?” he asked gruffly, already upset at whatever little thing had stuck in his craw at work.
I told him.
“The Polack’s house?” He spat out the word. “Get out of there and get the damn papers done!” His voice roared through the telephone line, reverberating through the kitchen. “I said you were too young for that job!”
He’d lived in Welland all his life and had plenty of baggage from the past that manifested itself into labeling and categorizing everyone into narrow slots–each one offensive.
Mr. and Mrs. Zaharachuk leaned against the counter, hanging on my every word.
“I just need a ride, Dad. Please,” I said, lowering my voice to a whisper, embarrassed by my need. “It’s a blizzard. I’m real cold, Dad. Freezin’.”
I must have said the wrong thing because I got an earful: responsibility, commitment, on and on. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. As he ranted, I felt myself slowly sinking in quicksand with no rope in sight. He made me feel like one of those no-good bums on King Street. It was useless trying. He was like that, rarely helping anyone.
Larry was older than me and his dad helped him,. They’d be finished the route by now. I shrank in the wooden kitchen chair under the gaze of the Zaharachuk’s, embarrassed for having such a father.
“I’m not driving in this storm! I don’t have snow tires on!” added my father.
Mom took back the phone and said, “I can’t help. You know I don’t drive. I’m busy cooking supper.”
Cooking supper for him.
Him not wanting to sit in his warm car.
I hated him.
I was sure to lose my job; mocked for not being able to handle it. This blizzard would quickly pass from memory becoming a mere snowfall.
“What did he say?” asked Mrs. Z. ”Will he come?”
I shook my head. Warm tears dripped down my red cheeks.
Dad took back the phone. “There’s already–.”
Mrs. Z snatched the receiver from my limp hand.
“What kind of a father….” Her face swelled and blazed crimson as she lit into my dad with both barrels, punctuated with a few foreign words to spice it up.
She hung up and signaled her husband to the living room with a chin lift. They talked quietly in there, no doubt slotting my dad into a category all his own. My dad would flip having a woman scold him. I was in more trouble now.
I twisted in my chair, turning my back to them–and cried.
Why couldn’t Dad come?
I knew he had had a tough life raising his younger siblings, but did I have to pay hardship dues, too?
Sobs began to snuff me up. Angry customers were probably calling my house, fighting with my father on the phone, demanding a paper. Was that why he was so mad at me? I’d get a good dressing down for that, too–if I came through this alive.
Ellen wandered into the kitchen, stealing a look at me, seeing my tears, hearing me sob like a baby. She snatched a cookie from the counter and quickly left the room.
“Look, son,” Mr. Z said, returning with his wife to the kitchen. “We feel you should go home, deliver papers later or tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” If that happened there wouldn’t even be an argument about losing my job. I wiped my tears away and drew in a breath. Trying not to blubber too much, I explained how my world would end if I didn’t finish the route today. My circulation manager would be steamed and was sure to review my application. The customers would go nuts. My father would crucify me for all of it. I could picture the scowl on his face. I grabbed my gloves from the table, resolving to go on.
The Zaharachuk’s loaned me a sled from the back porch and provided me with a heavy scarf.
“Promise to me you will come back if you get cold?” asked Mrs. Z.
I nodded. She gave me an encouraging smile. Thoroughly warmed up after downing two mugs of cocoa, I buttoned up and stepped out onto the wind-swept porch emboldened by my short respite.
Mr. Z gave me some instructions and said, “Be quick. You can do it.”
Following his advice, I left the sled with the papers on the roadside while I criss-crossed over to each house keeping my back to the wind. No more dragging the bag. It was like losing an anchor.
I fantasized a car would smash the sled, and the driver, overcome with guilt, would be obligated to take me around until I finished. Even the meanest dogs didn’t venture out. I could see their white breath rise from their doghouses; too cold to even bark at me.
Whenever my face and fingers froze, I followed Mr. Z’s advice and stepped inside the houses to collect. The places I did collect from tipped heavily. My cold fingers would slowly fumble around to make change, wearing on their patience. They would sigh, and tell me to keep the change.
Somehow, I found the strength to jam the last paper in Mr. Sylvester’s mailbox six long blocks from home. I didn’t return to the Zaharachuk’s. The far end of my route brought me near a friend’s house, where I stopped in, frostbitten and dog-tired. Tony and I watched TV while his big Hungarian-speaking dad kept refilling a cup of hot, strong, forbidden coffee for me. I nodded off on the couch, completely forgetting the time.
I trudged home through the winter darkness, following deep ruts on the road. At home, tire tracks led down my driveway and out to the street.
Mom was in a panic. Dad wasn’t home. She’d cajoled him into taking the car out, but only after many customers had called. He would be in a foul mood when he returned; me being at “that foreigner’s place” and him getting yelled at by “that just-a-come woman” wouldn’t sit too well with him.
Mom warmed up a plate of ham and potatoes from the supper I’d missed. I devoured it like a starved wolf.
When Dad’s car rumbled up the driveway I dashed to my basement room and shut off the light. I crashed onto my bed without bothering to change and realized how exhausted I was. The blankets and pillows greeted me like the softest, warmest, most comforting thing in the whole world. A heat vent above my bed washed over me like a tropical breeze.
At the edge of my consciousness, indistinct tones of my parents’ voices upstairs rose and fell. I didn’t care what he said; what he did.
I pulled through and finished the route.
I showed him.
I’d keep my job, too.