Authors: David Adams Richards
And he smiled at me, and smoothed Autumn’s white hair. Her eyes were pink and she wore pink glasses, rendered blind without them. She needed new glasses too, but we could not afford them. Once she was stumbling along a ditch without her glasses and being teased by some children as I walked home from fishing trout. I had to take her by the hand so she could find her way. Her dress was white, as were her stockings; but her stockings and her panties were often worn with age.
Thinking of this, I challenged my father for the first time.
“What about the time — people said that to Autumn —and you know what I mean — and they laughed at Mommie that day. I don’t want people laughing at Mommie when she went to the store.”
I was breathing heavily and I was staring at the wall. My arms were folded in a childish tantrum.
“It doesn’t matter,” Father said.
“But maybe it matters to Mommie,” I shouted.
“Oh no,” Elly said, smiling slightly and looking at my father.
The next day we got Devlin a box of smelts. I remember Father froze his right hand doing so. We brought them to him in the afternoon. Devlin went about his house working and
not acknowledging that we were there. His house was much nicer than my father’s, with an attached garage and a flower garden — covered in winter of course. He had gotten most of this because of money his father had left him.
“Mr. Devlin, sir,” my father said, though he had known him since he was seven.
“Mr. Devlin — here are your smelts.”
Devlin looked over without comment.
“Do you want us to leave them here or to take them inside the garage?”
Connie pointed to a spot and said nothing more — as if he had been deeply affected by my father’s dishonesty, a person whom he had once considered his friend.
On the way back down our lane in the setting sun, I told my father I would pay him back.
“No,” my father said. “It is never a matter of paying people back. It always causes you more sorrow in the end.”
I went home — went back to school. Smelt season soon ended, and not another smelt did I eat.
At Christmas I became aware, long before Autumn did, of our essential poverty. I knew of it by the time I was eight. Perhaps even before that. I caught it as one catches a warning wind on the south side of a fish shanty on the open ice. You know, in your most secret heart, the full force of that wind is just
around the corner, but you stick to the side where there is sun, hoping the wind doesn’t find you out.
We were one of the fifteen families in our parish given a charity box by the church. But Father insisted on earning ours. So he and I would go each December 22 in the frozen afternoon and help in the church basement to fill those cardboard boxes and wrap children’s presents.
We worked alongside members of the parish who were much better off than we, as we wrapped presents and boxed turkeys and cranberry sauce for those in the community much like ourselves.
The Poriers — a family of lower-middle-class duty and some acquired vanity — were always there. Penny Porier was a little older than I was. Dressed in a white rabbit coat, with a white fur hat and muff and white leotards, she entered my life smelling of peppermint and tied up with a Christmas bow one December afternoon when I was eight or nine; to me the embodiment of perfection. Just as was her house, and her father’s car, and the small bicycle with the horn that her brother, Griffin, had. I coveted that bicycle — I dreamed of it day and night, I took walks past their house to see it, even though Griffin would never let me on it. But once — once I touched it as he rode by.
I know Penny’s father — Leo’s foreman and the priest’s brother, Abby Porier — liked others to see how busy he was; and he liked my father (whom he had competed with at horse-haulings as a boy) to know that no one had more responsibility than he himself. He was a stocky man with a bull neck and the proud look given to certain kinds of limited men who believe they earned whatever they received. It makes them prosaic, fearful of exhilaration or exuberance and stingy with their children even if they do not mean to be. To him, his paycheque and his Christmas bonus were a bestowal from no
one and nothing but his own hard work and worth. He believed that it could never with one swipe of dismissal be taken away.
He liked the idea that I would watch everything he did, from cleaning his truck windows to tying his boots. I could not help doing so. Griffin told me his father got calls from McVicer, sometimes at three in the morning.
Griffin had driven in a backhoe. His father cherished Leo’s trust — it was like currency, really. And Penny and Griffin knew this, and both were self-assured because of it. Penny wore a Christmas ribbon in her hair. But what I did not know was that I wore Griffin’s old pants. He had sworn not to tell, but Penny knew.
That year I remember someone asked what I was going to get for Christmas. Penny looked at me and my face froze. I looked at Griffin and he smiled when I said: “I’m going to get a bike like Griffin — just like that one there.”
“Syd, your boy is going to get a bike?” Abby asked nonchalantly across the half-dozen tables. The air had the particular scent of cement basements, of dust and old wax, and a certain futility contained within it. Abby waited for Father to speak and peeked at his daughter. Griffin, his head down, kept nudging Penny. This ashamed and infuriated me. But I could say nothing.
My father wore an ancient tie clip glimmering in the basement. He looked up at me, his face wan and tired from a life of work, as if to say (although I did not know it then), “This is your cross to bear, son.”
Abby was called immediately after this moment to take a call from Leo McVicer. So Father kept working with his head down packing turkeys and toys. Griffin glanced at me once more, his neck pinched in his white shirt by his small green tie with a reindeer on the front. After ten minutes Abby came back, rubbed his coarse unshaved face, and said he had to leave.
“Griffin,” he said, “don’t you say nothin’ — ’bout what I spoke about.”
Griffin gave me a look of accepting pity and tired superiority. I did not understand that my clothes were what he was looking at.
December 24 we went out late in the afternoon to deliver these boxes with Father Porier. If it was not Christmas Eve it would have been only another grey and lonely winter day. But Christmas Eve makes everything special for children. We delivered the boxes up and down the shore road, and I remember the sound of snow falling on each cardboard box of groceries.
The boxes were piled in the back seat and in the trunk. Each box had a present for each child of each house, had a twelve-pound turkey donated by McVicer himself, had preserves and nuts and dark fruitcake from McVicer’s own store, and barley toy candy and candy canes for the children.
Most of the houses were off the unpaved shore road, and every house was easy to deliver to except the Voteurs’. That day their father was waiting for us, with a shovel, the crotch of his pants tom out, and wind blowing chimney smoke far up over his head. He did not want a box for himself. He was drunk and was sitting on the porch step awaiting us. At five foot five and 125 pounds, he had the unfortunate name of Samson. The Sheppards were his cousins and the year before had ordered his family to move. Samson and his wife and children had just gotten back in. It was the last house before the reserve.
The bay had made ice, and the waves had frozen in midair. Glassy twilight came with the smell of smoke.
Samson sat here at four o’clock in this waning light of a bitter December afternoon. Seeing the crotch out of his suit pants, his face covered in small pricks of greying beard, I had my first glimpse — my first real glimpse — of a poverty
of spirit, and I associated it in my young mind with Abby Porier, with his suit pants too tight.
I knew something about the Voteurs. I knew Cheryl, who was in my class. I knew they had a son, Darren, who was Autumn’s age. I knew Diedre Whyne had come to them with the police one October night and the social services had filed a motion against the parents and wanted to bring Cheryl and her sister, Monica, to Covenant House, which Diedre ran for abused girls.
I looked at their wet shingled house smelling of pulp and darkness and the sad scent of smoke, like eggs on raw air. In the house the children looked raggedly from the single-pane windows. You could spy one, if you looked, at every window looking out at us. Cheryl, Monica, and Darren.
Worse than the dark unattended house having no decorations for Christmas, the children had placed one light behind the curtain, and a plastic Santa Claus was stuck to the window of the front door. Their door faced the bay, but like so many rural houses of the poor they were surrounded by land and owned no property, had the bay in front of them and never had a boat.
“Maybe you should take this box in, Sydney,” Father Porier said. There was a moment of silence. I wanted to yell to my Dad not to do it. Then Father sighed, looked over his shoulder, and told me to hand him the box from the back seat with the large boxed doll. Taking the box he got out of the car.
“I’ll kill you,” the man said.
Never minding this threat, my father walked across the smoke-scented yard as snow began to fall in dreary flakes over the old peaked roof.
Samson stood, raising his shovel as my father walked up the slippery steps, and started to move the handle back and forth four or five inches, as if taking aim with a baseball bat.
I thought of the stations of the cross on the church windows as I stared at my father’s dark hair and thin neck. If Samson swung he would split my father’s head wide open.
“Here Comes Santa” was on the car radio and perhaps, who knows, on the radio inside the forlorn little house.
I suppose at that moment I was too amazed to think of my father as courageous.
The man held the shovel. “Take yer head off,” he said as he braced himself.
My father stopped, looked at him, and then continued up the cinder-covered icy steps, duty bound to deliver the damn box of groceries so we could get ours. Father was now at a height where the shovel would cut his head off at the neck, and then a moment later split his skull like a sawdust ball. But still he walked. Samson shouted, backed up, screamed. Still Father moved toward that tiny audience of dejected little faces, a strange Santa Claw bearing gifts.
Then Father stopped before Samson and waited. One moment, then two, then three passed. Suddenly the old spade shovel dropped. Voteur began to cry, and I could see his children watching this horrible Christmas special.
“You don’t know what it’s like to be taken advantage of, I can’t get any money,” Samson said. “I don’t want to beg — I was a good man once. I had job at McVicer — till the fires.”
“I know,” my father answered. “That’s why I brought you your groceries. I want to tell your children that these are groceries that came to them because of who you are and what you have done for them. It’s Christmas — for the children,” my father whispered.
Voteur gave a look, as if his face had crumbled, not by the harsh terrible words he had heard against him all his life and the mocking of his size, but by simple compassion. Dad patted Voteur roughly on the shoulder, handed him a package of
Player’s cigarettes (cigarettes that my father only smoked at Christmas), and went into the house.
Finally, after I’d been chewing the same stick of gum for three hours, we went back to the vestry and Father and I both kneeled for the priest’s blessing. Porier gave as usual a rather tawdry and lackadaisical blessing, then, wiping his nose, set the church bells to ring automatically for Midnight Mass and told us to get our box.
We went to the basement. To the surprise of us both there was no box left. We searched the basement for a box marked Henderson, but there wasn’t one. So we trudged up to the vestry again, but Porier had left us to go to dinner with his brother Abby, without knowing of this omission.
We went out and up the old Church Lane. The snow was falling and the night was raw. In the distance, on land owned by McVicer and fronting the very back end of McVicer’s old sawmill, sat Porier’s house. It was a small wooden house with a peaked front roof, and pointed edges where the snow wisped. The oil barrel was covered in snow, and on the roof a Santa Claus was sitting in his sled waving in majesty at the world. I noticed the fir tree softly glowing in the window, all the lights alighting the eaves and the snow as it continued to drop lazily down. From their house came unusually noble music. But I shook with cold all the way home. My nose ran and my cough was continuous and harsh. I saw Penny Porier glide by the window in a white nightgown as my father and I walked by. It was almost as if, if I could ever touch her, just once, I’d be saved.
That night we walked to Midnight Mass. The stars were so brilliant, and little Autumn said she knew where Orion was. Since I didn’t I told her she was correct.
After mass, after all the singing, after communion where everyone praised baby Jesus, and a little child was baptised, after this we set out for home over the ice-chipped roadway. There was snow hanging from the trees, the road was pitch black, and we could hear a singing in the distance.
Mother was telling us how we someday would go to Saint John on the bus and how she had been planning this for my summer holiday. Of course she told us this every Christmas, and every year it would be a year later.
Everything was calm, and Mom walked with her arm in Dad’s as Autumn, her whiteness having a ruddy health, and I walked first ahead of them and then trailed behind. After a time I realized that some men had come out of the woods to walk behind us. Dad told me not to turn around. One of the men told my mother he had long wanted to haul her dress up and see if he could put something better than “a al-bino” up her pussy. My father simply said:
“Boys, go home.”
The men looked at him and burst out laughing. His suit was fifteen years old, shiny on the knees, and his old coat pockets torn. He wore an imitation red carnation that Autumn had won for him at the fish tank at the children’s Christmas party two days before. Behind us the sky was black. I could see my breath as I stared at my broken boots and I kept hoping someone would come up the lane to stop these men. They knocked my father down.