ArborLit Originals


Thomas Mullen isn’t just a precocious twelve-year-old child. He’s a kid who – like most kids – cherishes Christmas. Unlike most kids, though, according to his mother, Rose, lately he’s been uncharacteristically withdrawing from life. When Thomas and his family spend Christmas at his grandfather’s house, she reminds her dad of this fact. Add to that, when Rose discovers her dad’s neighbour, Mrs. Meriweather – a woman she knew and loved since childhood – is deathly ill, Christmas Eve suddenly seems ominously clouded. But when Thomas’s grandfather tells the boy a magical story about the Christmas Eve snowflake, could things take a dramatic turn for the better?
Join Thomas and his grandfather on this remarkable tale about life, love, and the one thing that Christmas seems to rekindle in all of us each year: Hope.

Like a newly kindled fire, the flame of light begins with a flicker, then abruptly erupts in a blast of coal-hot white. Thomas partially shields his eyes, it’s so bright, and then steps over the ruins of another time—a doll, a toaster—drawn toward the flame.

In the cellar’s remote, northernmost corner, beyond the oil furnace and water heater, the old man holds the top of an enormous, snow-white chest freezer open. Plumes of smoke swirl from its frigid interior. A chaise lounge rests nearby.

“Well?” says the old man, gesturing with his head toward the battered lounger, its red fabric torn in spots and badly worn in others. In the radiant northern light, it looks oddly reminiscent of a sleigh. “You climbing aboard?”

Thomas’s mouth begins to open, but he’s denied the chance to speak.

“I know it’s hard to believe in him,” continues the old man. He bends and his upper body vanishes, devoured by the freezer’s icy north. His voice comes out muffled now, as if spoken from a distant land. “With hundreds of Santas at hundreds of malls, who do they think they’re fooling?” The old man’s head pops up and he looks at Thomas. “You weren’t fooled, were you, Tiger?” Then he immediately drops down and is devoured again.

“Naw, I figured that out when I was ten.”

Crisp clinking sounds emanate from within the freezer, as if a king’s ransom in gold bars is being stacked, slowly, methodically.

“Ten, eh? I think I became a nonbeliever around that age, too,” the muffled voice replies, “but I don’t rightly remember.” His head pops up once more, wrinkled cheeks rosy, a childlike twinkle in his ancient eyes. “Although . . .”

Moving with the swiftness of a man half his age, the old man dives in yet again. The clinking sounds quicken.

“Although?” the boy prompts, curiosity moving him closer. A long arm flies up and out of the freezer and gently guides Thomas to the side until his legs contact the lounger. “Although what, Papa?”

The clinking sounds end, replaced by fiery groans from the furnace. The old man straightens, empty-handed. “Although,” he says, “you do remember what I just said, don’t you? Of course you do. Nothing lasts forever. Nothing. Even states of disbelief must end. I can still remember the very instant when this old man here, your old, old Papa—” he pauses, smiles, and says in a whisper “—became a believer again.”

Thomas climbs aboard.

It happened on Thomas’s mother’s third birthday, the old man explains. But before he explains how and why and what and where and every detail a precocious twelve-year-old boy would want to know, he does something else: he pulls two miniature candy canes from his pocket, hands one to the boy, and asks him to eat, which he happily does.

The old man eats the other and, just finished, he says, “Time for that Christmas wish, Tiger.”

With Thomas stretched out on the lounger, head elevated, his grandfather works quickly. He dips in and out of the freezer that still burns white, still blows smoke from its great mouth. He seats himself on the edge of the lounger. He opens a sterling silver pillbox. The number 77 is taped to its top. He holds up a pea-sized object, solid as a pearl and pure white, and studies it for a split second in the light.

“Don’t chew this,” he says.

Thomas’s eyes are wide in anticipation and he nods several times.

“Now, close your eyes and open up.”

The old man draws a deep breath, and then carefully places the snowflake on Thomas’s tongue . . .

Stroke Play

Jimmy Smith is a former golf pro who hasn’t been right for more than a year. His mother died. His wife left him. His business is floundering. But when his best friend, lawyer Jay Schwartzman, invites him to come along on a golf trip with ten other successful businessmen down to sunny Miami over Christmas because in part “it might be good for business,” things could be looking up. Or are they?

Jay said we’d be going to “hell in a hand basket” and that I’d have the time of my life. He also said, with everything I’d been through and considering Christmas was just around the corner, it would be nice to get away and take my mind off things, and besides, it might be good for business. Turned out hell was a resort near Miami, one of those ritzy places with whirlpool tubs in the rooms, cashmere bathrobes and imported chocolates shaped like golf clubs that magically appeared on your pillow every night. The place also had two golf courses that even Bobby Jones would have died for if he’d lived to see them.

I told my friend, sure, what the hell, count me in.

The hand basket turned out to be a private jet, the same kind you’d see all those Hollywood types flying around in on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Only this one was owned by a guy named Larry who never acted a day in his life. Apparently he made his millions developing land and at last count owned more buildings than Donald Trump. Naturally this was according to Larry himself, who read us the riot act during the flight. Four days of golf, six rounds in total. Paradise, if golf was your thing. And if gambling was your thing, match play only, betting capped at fifty bucks a round. This trip was one of those friendly sort of deals and Larry didn’t want anyone leaving Florida with sour grapes and no pot to put them in. Since golf used to be my thing and I actually owned a crock-pot, I was in paradise.

We landed December twenty-third and hit the Florida tarmac running. Grabbed our bags, into waiting limos, and the next thing I knew, all twelve of us were crowded together on the first tee of Rustling Wind Resort’s woodland course. Good old Larry set the first round foursomes. I got paired with my pal Jay and a guy named Rick. The fourth in our group was Colin. You could see the Irish in him a mile away, monstrously thick forearms but basically chubby from top to bottom with a round face and ruddy complexion. When we shook hands and he told me all his friends call him Dermie—“It’s short for McDermott”—I thought, Bull’s-eye. Lucky stiff, that guy Colin. His dad died a few years back and plopped this little security company in his lap that employed no less than a thousand “unlucky stiffs” (his exact words). So that he wouldn’t starve while management groomed him to take over the business they paid him a modest stipend of ten grand a month. I learned all of this before we putted out on the 1st hole. Colin was loud. And he talked a lot. I had no choice but to listen.

Round one was a bust. I drove it off the tee everywhere except down the centre of the fairway. At one point on the 13th hole while searching through brush and seemingly endless beds of pine needles for the product of yet another badly sliced drive, a flash of hopelessness overwhelmed me. The fact I had already lost a dozen Titleist ProV1s—golf’s Cadillac of balls, each one costing a small fortune—seemed to trigger the futility of it all. Jeannie had left me a year earlier and took pretty much everything. My small business had recently begun floundering. I was about to fall two months behind in rent on my dingy bachelor apartment. And around the time Jeannie left me, I lost my mom. The cancer started in a kidney and moved through her like a locomotive.

As I aimlessly dragged my nine iron back and forth along the ground through pine needles, Jay must have noticed my distress.

He put a hand on my shoulder. “You okay, Jimmy?”

“Yeah,” I said, finally pulling a ProV1 from my pocket and taking yet another drop. “We’ll get ’em on the next hole.”

We got a whole lot of nothing on the next hole. They closed us out 5 and 4—match play speak for down five holes with four to play. You don’t need to be a mathematician to figure that one out. Rick wasn’t a mathematician. He was another one of those land-developer-wiz types like Larry who oozed money. When it came to golf he didn’t have a clue. I, on the other hand, used to be an assistant golf professional at a decent municipal course in my early twenties. This is my fancy way of saying at one time I could actually play the game—not Jack Nicklaus-good, just capable-good. But I had played so infrequently over the past decade and it showed. Rick couldn’t play the game, which burned a hole in me the size of the San Bernardino Valley. Despite his slashing swing he somehow managed to keep his ball in play, making more than his share of respectable pars and bogeys. When Jay handed him twenty-five bucks he appeared genuinely dumfounded as they walked off the 14th green. My pal explained to him that in match play, if you lose a hole by five shots you only go down one to your opponent. In stroke play, that same result would have you bleeding, down five.

“So the nine I made on the 8th hole”—Rick hesitated. The guy was thinking hard—“only cost me and Dermie . . . one?


A light bulb seemed to switch on in his head. “Match play is civilized, a gentleman’s game.”

“Yes,” Jay laughed, “and stroke play is for savages.”

Colin could play. When it came to golf he was thick and pudgy in all the right places. He wasn’t Nicklaus-good, but his physique reminded me of a young Jack. He had power and hit the ball long off the tee. And he could putt.

As the four of us stood on the 15th tee staring out at the lush green fairway of the long par 5, the hot, mid afternoon sun beating down on us, I grabbed my driver and pulled twenty-five bucks from my wallet and approached Colin.

He shot me a playful little grin. “You and me, double or nothing this hole?”

I folded the bills and slid them into his shirt pocket.

I had no business coming on this trip. I only had about $5,000 worth of life left in me compliments of the remaining credit on my Bank of Montreal Mastercard. Though Jay was fourteen years my senior, often counselling me like a father, he was my good friend who needed a twelfth to round out the trip’s golf festivities at three tidy foursomes. He was also about the only person left on the planet who still believed in me. Even Dolores, the sole employee of my little company and about the least ambitious woman I’d ever known, seemed less than inspired lately. She pulled the nine-to-five routine for what I assumed were kicks. Her husband Albert was a respected doctor—a man she always referred to as “Doctor Al.” Apparently he earned seven figures a year tending to ailing bowels and kidneys, so she didn’t need the money. But she toiled away each day, managing the miniscule inventory my office supplies company maintained, fielding the occasional customer call, making innumerable trips to the washroom, and keeping the coffee pot full. These latter two items were directly related. According to her, Doctor Al said “regularity” was the key to a healthy life, and with coffee being a powerful laxative, you could rarely find her without a piping hot mug of the stuff on her desk.

Back in my room at the resort, preparing to shower and change into dinner clothes, my cell phone rang.

I barely got in a “Hello” before Dolores’s voice, in its customary slow, high-pitched whine, said, “You were kidding about this Schwartzman’s order, right—”

My pal Jay was a real estate attorney and a damn fine one, oftentimes doing upwards of one hundred deals a month, no doubt for some of the land-developer-wiz types on this trip. Schwartzman’s LLP was his boutique law firm that employed about a dozen, made up of lawyers, assistants and an office manager.

“—and having it delivered before Christmas? Today’s the twenty-third, you know. It’s a huge order.”

Even though two bags of rubber bands would be stressful for Dolores, I couldn’t argue with her; this was a huge order. As my biggest client, for more than a year now Jay’s firm ordered supplies once a week like clockwork, and even by their standards this one took the cake; fifteen cases of paper, twenty toner cartridges, five staplers, one hundred packs of Post-it Notes, and countless boxes of paper clips, staples, pencils, and pens.

“I’m aware it’s the twenty-third,” I said.

“And why before Christmas? Schwartzman’s is a Jewish firm.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Easy for you to say, laddie.”

Dolores was in her mid-fifties, about twenty years older than me. She knew I despised it whenever she called me “laddie” yet she insisted on using the word to emphasize her displeasure, which was often. The word always struck me like an anvil dropped on my head.

“What are you talking about?”

I heard a pronounced “slurp” sound, and then: “Basking in the sun down there in Florida. Must be nice.”

I took a deep, calming breath, before telling Dolores that Schwartman’s is obviously running low on supplies and more than likely Jay is having some staff work over the Christmas break.

“Hanukkah,” she interrupted.


“Working over Hanukkah . . . perhaps. It started two days ago, you know. It runs until the twenty-ninth.”

I didn’t know. “Well, regardless, they need this order. Call the delivery company.”

What felt like a deafening silence hung in the air for several beats, followed by another “slurp” sound, this one irritatingly long and loud.

Finally Dolores said, “Do you have their number?”

That night we made the short drive to Miami. A few in the gang were crazy about king crab and Larry—the self-appointed kingpin in the group—knew just the place to satisfy that craving. On the way to the restaurant I found myself feeling distressed, a bit on account of Dolores, a lot because of how poorly I golfed earlier in the day. Golf had a way of doing that to me. Like anything in life, when you’ve put in long hours over many years and attained a certain level of proficiency at something, it’s hard to accept mediocrity. And from a competitive perspective, it’s even harder when those who don’t even understand the game let alone put in an ounce of work to master it beat you. Like Rick. That bothered me. That bothered me so much I barely said a word on the drive.

After the twelve of us poured out of our two rented Escalades in front of the restaurant, and while Larry chatted with the head valet, we looked like a Miami Vice convention milling about on the sidewalk; most of us in white blazers, pastel-coloured T-shirts, white pants, right down to sockless feet inside white mesh slip-on shoes.

Inside the dimly lit restaurant Jay and I sat next to each other at the large round table that managed to accommodate all of us. Once we’d placed our orders with the server, the banter immediately turned loud and lively. With voices firing from all directions, Jay leaned in to me and gave me the complete lowdown on the down-low.

According to him, this was the sixth straight year the gang made this sojourn south to Florida. Three of the regulars couldn’t make it this year, hence the newbies—me, Colin McDermott and Shmuel Stern. The group’s kingpin, the short, thick and balding Larry Feldstein, plus Rick Cohen, Tab Yudin, Jacob Levy, Dov Danenberg, Harold Grosberg, Mitchell Aronowitz and, he was fairly certain, the newbie Shmuel Stern, were all land developers who had so much money most small countries would be envious.

“Even Thayne Geffner—” Jay’s eyes led my eyes across the table to a thick-jawed man with red hair “—makes about a million a year.”

“How does he stick his hands in others’ pockets?” I whispered, smiling.

Jay smiled back. “By sticking them in their mouths. He’s a dentist, root canals his specialty.” He paused. “You see, when it comes to the wealth totem pole, in this group of boys I’m pretty much at the bottom—”

“Then I’m six feet under,” I interrupted.

Jay let out a muffled chuckle. He was just too kind to agree with such a self-deprecating yet honest comment so he chuckled instead.

I knew squat when it came to fashion but as the two of us talked in close I couldn’t help noticing there was something about Jay’s blazer that screamed stylish. Even its shade of white, radiant and practically glowing, seemed almost ethereal. The thing was gorgeous.

Jay caught me staring at it. He tugged on its lapel. “Armani,” he whispered.

I tugged on my white blazer’s lapel. “Walmart,” I said, and together we laughed. We kept laughing until our meals arrived.

The tide slowly started to shift as we ate and drank. What was once a conversational free-for-all ever so gradually shifted to Colin holding court. Rodney Dangerfield had nothing on this guy. He spat out one-liners with machine gun speed, oftentimes talking while gnawing on king crab, saying things like “I applied for membership at a golf club and when I got accepted, I told them to forget it; I wouldn’t want to be part of a club that would have me as a member,” to “When I was born, I was so ugly the doctor slapped my mom . . . then he punched my dad . . . then he made them sign a legal document requiring them to sleep in separate bedrooms the remainder of their marriage,” to “I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out.” At one point he jumped to his feet. “I’m terrible at charades. I once had a heart attack during a game,” he said, grabbing at his chest and gasping for air, “and nobody guessed right.” That cracked everybody up. I thought Jay was going to have a heart attack himself on that one because he started choking on his food, finally getting it under control with a swallow of water. And the more one-liners Colin reeled off, the louder the laughter became. I couldn’t be sure if the rise in decibels was directly related to an improving caliber of joke, or the fact most in the group kept downing bottles of wine in almost equal frequency to the one-liners. Occasionally Colin would throw out a more involved joke, one of those about a guy who had just turned sixty-five and went to a government office to apply for his old age pension. When the lady there asked for some age-confirming identification, he told her he forgot his wallet. She asked him to unbutton his shirt, which he did, and in seeing his grey chest hairs she said he was approved. On his return home, he proudly told his wife what had happened. She replied, “You idiot. Why didn’t you pull down your pants? You would have gotten disability too!” Colin almost killed me with that one—literally—finally getting my choking under control with a few gulps of ginger ale.

During dessert, and during a break in Colin’s stand-up routine, from across the table Larry said to me, “So, Jimmy, Jay says you’re in the pencil business. Tell me about it.”

“Not much to tell,” I said, feeling profoundly inferior but trying my best to maintain a confident front. “I supply ’em, my customers sharpen ’em.”

On that comment the bits of soft chatter that had been percolating instantly fell flat and silence took over and in that moment I felt everyone’s eyes glued on me.

Suddenly, for no rhyme or reason that I could make out, Colin bellowed, “BOOM DADDY!” and the table exploded into a roar of laughter.

The bill arrived and Larry tallied up the numbers.

“One-ninety,” he announced.

I waited. I waited for his mouth to keep moving with specifics, like two-ninety Harold and Dov, two-fifty Tab, Rick and Jacob, sixty Jay, thirty-five Jimmy, but nothing: suddenly he had become tight-lipped Larry. I glanced around the table and everyone had their wallets out so I leaned in toward Jay and pulled out mine.

I whispered, “A hundred and ninety bucks for a fifteen dollar piece of sea bass, two glasses of ginger ale and a slice of pie?”

The bill including tip had totaled 2,280 U.S. dollars! Apparently what I thought I’d heard someone say during the meal were eight dollar bottles of wine being ordered were in fact eighty dollars each.

Jay whispered back: “I thought I told you this was one of those all-for-one, one-for-all deals.”

I distinctly recalled Larry telling the gang that morning during the flight that this trip was one of those friendly sort of deals, betting capped at fifty bucks each round of golf, but this all-for-one, one-for-all deal was news to me.

“That’s not exactly ringing a bell,” I murmured.

“Don’t fret. You’ll sell so many pencils to these boys back in Canada this will seem a drop in the bucket.” Jay threw me an exaggerated smile—big U-shaped mouth, ballooned cheeks, no chin, dead-ringer for Dr. Seuss’ cartoon Grinch—and gave my shoulder a firm pat. “You’re a musketeer now.”

“Oh yeah?” I said as I tossed $190 into the growing pile at the centre of the table. “Right now I think I’d rather be a pencil.”

Who gets up at six Christmas Eve morning? Weary-eyed folks whose official holiday dinners fall on the twenty-fourth and their big turkeys need cooking, that’s who. And desperate six-foot-two-inch-tall big turkeys like me who agree to vacation in Florida only to realize their golf games abandoned them on the way, instead making a hard left in New York State, racing east along the I-90 and straight into the Atlantic, cozying up next to the great ship RMS Titanic.

Or rather, doomed ship. Like my golf game, leaking worse than the Titanic on its fateful last night.

So the next morning—Christmas Eve—I woke at six. The night before as we prepared to disperse to our rooms, General Larry issued his troops the day’s final order: be on the first tee at eight sharp tomorrow morning. (It was actually more like a warning, his exact words being “Remember, you pinheads, at the first tee no later than eight, or else.”) By rising at six I figured the two-hour window allowed ample time to shower, dress and breakfast, leaving no less than a solid hour to practice before the next round. The place was a top-notch facility. Despite my horrific play the previous day I could still appreciate Rustling Wind Resort’s woodland course’s immaculate condition. The resort’s practice facility was just as spectacular, with its pristine balls, its massive, undulating putting green surrounded by three well-groomed sand traps. If I learned anything during my dedicated golfing years, it was that practice and only practice could resuscitate a drowning golf game.

And, miraculously on occasion, resurrect a dead one like mine . . .

Ninety Degrees

Christmas Eve is always the most wonderful night of the year with its white, lustrous snow, carols to make the heart soar, Christmas specials on TV, and the most hideous tree imaginable. At least that’s the way his grandfather’s Christmas tree looks to Carlton Cullimore, a teenager whose take on the holiday is irreverent at best. And when he bangs his head against the wall trying to prevent his older sister, Irene, from tousling his hair, could things get any worse? They could if you’re on an ambulance gurney heading to the hospital and you kick the ambulance guy in the nose.
Is his irreverence the product of someone who doesn’t care? Or is its purpose simply to hide a painful secret from those he cares deeply about?
Join Carlton on this Christmas Eve romp that puts him on a collision course with his distorted view on life and the holiday season, and the memory that haunts him.

. . . About the only thing remotely different so far this Christmas was that I happened to be lying on my back on an ambulance gurney staring up at my grandfather’s pukey yellowy-white living room ceiling that had all this wild swirly stuff plastered to it. Funny how I never noticed this before in all the times we visited my grandfather. It kind of reminded me of that girl I already mentioned, Mary McIntyre. A few years ago in grade seven I had this terrible crush on her; she was super-pretty. But then one day she said some ridiculous remark about how she hated being called up front in class to write on the chalkboard because the feeling of the chalk in her hands was just too chalky. That’s when, all of a sudden, just like that, I noticed her claws for hands. They’d always been there, of course, but after that I noticed them and I couldn’t look at her anymore. She no longer seemed pretty.

Two ambulance guys peered down at me from both ends of the gurney. Mom was directly to my left, Irene to my right.

The ambulance guy closest to me said, “Who applied the bandage?” I took that to mean I had a bandage wrapped around my head. Then he started running a finger through my hair, a kind of tickly finger, right through my goddamn hair!

“It’s a tourniquet,” answered Irene. “I didn’t know what else to do. His head hit the wall one second, and the next thing I knew he was falling from Grandpa’s chair.”

My mom said, “You did fine, babe, just fine.” She reached over me and gave Irene a comforting rub on the shoulder.

“It’s extremely tight,” the ambulance guy who was still tickling me said. He kept pushing his finger down between the bandage and my skull and moving it around, and it occurred to me he was more just checking the bandage than tickling me. Still, though, it tickled pretty good until finally he stopped. “Was there quite a bit of bleeding?” he asked.

“Blood?” I mumbled, gulping.

I don’t know about you, but I hate blood. There was this time back in . . . I think it was seventh grade too, around the same time as Mary McIntyre and the chalk incident, when I was out in the schoolyard with this guy in my class named Bill Abernathy. We were over by this little kind of shed thing beside the school. It wasn’t one of those wooden sheds, like my dad has in our backyard, but one of those weird ones that are made out of cement with tons of small rocks and pebbles stuck to it. It’s amazing what they think up these days when it comes to making things.

Anyhow, so he was standing next to it with his pocket knife, trying to pry away some of the rocks. It was really stupid, when you think about it. Here’s this guy, clenching his teeth, his face getting redder and redder, huffing and puffing, and I swear to God, there must have been at least a thousand rocks lying scattered all over the school grounds. All he had to do was look around if he wanted a rock so bad! Would have saved him a lot of trouble, the way I saw it. And naturally I did see it, but so he wouldn’t feel so bad and stupid that he was the only one doing what he was doing, I started using my fingernails on the shed to try to pull out a rock.

After about a minute of him working his pocket knife and me working my fingernails, just like that he screamed and I looked over and there was blood pouring from his thumb. It really freaked me out, let me tell you, but I just stood there, trying to look cool and casual. And all the while I was thinking, That’s the very stuff that’s inside me, and the more I thought about it the more sick I felt, until finally I started pretending that I had lemonade running through my veins.

That lemonade trick worked pretty well for a while, until I started feeling really thirsty and I got this wild craving for a glass of ice-cold lemonade. I mean, the craving became so severe, I figured the sick feeling over the blood wasn’t near as bad, so I went back to accepting there was blood inside me, and then I felt fine because it really was the truth. Bill had already run off with his bleeding hand, so that helped.

Funny thing about that Bill; I found out the next day that he went straight to the school office and when they asked him how it happened he told them a horse surprised him and stepped on his thumb. He killed me with that one. I mean, I can understand him missing the thousand or so little rocks, but how do you not see a big horse coming? He just killed me.

Irene took my hand in hers, and opposite her my mom did the same with my other hand. They both looked concerned.

“No, there wasn’t any blood, far as I could tell,” admitted Irene to the ambulance guy. “I was just being cautious.”

“You did fine, babe,” Mom said.

“I could have done more.”

“Now, now! I’ll have none of that silly talk! If I’d been here, I’d have done the same.” My mom was next door wishing old Mrs. Kimble a merry Christmas when I clunked my head. Mrs. Kimble has been like a second mother to her ever since my parents got married.

“Still, I could—”

“Hush, babe!”

“Don’t worry about me,” I said, my voice barely a squeak.

“Did you say something, Carlton?” Mom asked, leaning down, her ear an inch from my mouth.

“Did Carlton say something?” Irene asked, looking at Mom.

“I think Carlton said something,” the ambulance guy who tickled me said, while inspecting the fingernails of his left hand.

“I said don’t worry about me,” I squeaked again.

“There you have it. Carlton says not to worry,” Mom confirmed, springing back up. She let go of my hand and held out her open arms. “Babe, it’s been four months!” She leaned over me and then she and Irene embraced. Their bodies formed this arch thing and for some reason it reminded me of the Triumphant Arch, I think it’s called, over in France—I remembered seeing pictures of it in history class. It was weird because I had never been to France, and I didn’t even speak French, but it seemed so familiar, like I’d visited the place before, and like all of a sudden I was somehow fluent in the language.

“I missed you, Mom,” Irene said.

“Bonn-jour,” I said. “Come a saw vatt, moan cherry.” I remembered hearing that one in French class.

“Missed you too, babe,” Mom said.

Nobody heard me, except maybe the ambulance guy with the frisky fingers, who was looking down at me when he said, “Ça va bien, merci,” and then he smiled.

My head was feeling heavier than an anchor, so I started turning it to see if my neck was still stiffer than hell, and just like that I started to cry. It was kind of crazy because it really didn’t hurt that much. But Mom and Irene seemed so happy it just kind of got to me. That and I happened to glimpse the Christmas tree when I turned my head, and it looked so old and pathetic and it made me feel sad for my grandfather all of a sudden, because I knew he loved that tree so much. It was one of those artificial jobs and some of the branches were almost bare to the steel and with all those popcorn streamers on it that had very little popcorn left on them and were now mostly string, it just looked really bad. I mean, the thing looked awful.

“Well, we’d better get this lad to the hospital,” the ambulance guy nearest me, the one with those frisky fingers, said.

They started wheeling me forward and the other ambulance guy had to duck way down to get underneath Mom and Irene’s embrace.

“Tell Grandpa I’m sorry about the snow,” I managed to say as I was rolling away from them. It snowed like a bugger earlier and I hated the thought of all the snow the wheels of the gurney probably dragged in with them. Even though my grandfather had really crappy carpet in the living room and peeling linoleum in the kitchen that they’d have to wheel me over to get back outside, I felt really bad. But the apology didn’t much matter, or the tears, because no one seemed to notice, except maybe the two ambulance guys, who both smiled when I said it.

Just before we went through the kitchen door and out into the cold, they tucked another blanket around me and I got the crying under control. I was glad to be away from that tree, let me tell you, but Mom and Irene and their Triumphant Arch were still visible in the distance through the hallway, and I was glad for that too.

“Merry Christmas, Weenie!” I yelled. For as long as I can remember I’ve called Irene “Weenie.” I really hate to encourage her with the baby talk, I really do, but I know she kind of likes it and for some reason I thought it was important, right then and there, that she knew everything was still okay with her and me.

The Triumphant Arch broke and I thought I heard them saying something about seeing me at the hospital, but I couldn’t be sure. The two ambulance guys were busy bouncing the gurney back and forth off the doorframe when they said it . . .

Christmas Reborn

Despite the fact Andrew Stinson – at the age of seventy-five – still gets giddy like a child at Christmas, he can’t help feeling he needs reminders of what it takes to be a good, kind person. That’s why, for years now each Christmas season, he reads Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. This year, though, when he stumbles on a letter he received decades earlier from his Aunt Martha that began, Uncle Albert has died and gone to heaven, it unleashes a sea of memories that challenges the very fabric of his beliefs and the very kindness he strives for.

Almost Christmas
December 2010

Ah, Christ-mas. I breathe deeply and the mere thought of the word fills my lungs with its scents and my memory with its joys—toboggan rides and ice-skating and my parents’ musty old tree decorations. My heart also flutters to the beat of children’s laughter, and myriad other things, but for some reason toboggan rides and ice-skating and my parents’ tree decorations are strongest. I am amazed that even now, at the age of seventy-five, the thought of Christmas sends me into spasms of delight. Despite it all, I remain a child at heart.

It is December twenty-first. At about this same time thirty years ago I sat where I am now, in this same wooden swivel chair, at this same oak desk. I have rheumatism and in particular a bad hip, a triflingreally, when you consider what ails some. It would be easy to assume I haven’t moved an inch in three decades, but I have, far too many I sometimes think. Enough, at least, to change into this plaid shirt beneath a charcoal-grey cardigan, grey wool pants, and thick wool slippers that my wife knitted for me last winter.

I am in my upstairs study. It was once an extra bedroom that we had no great use for; Abigail and I married late, and after Timothy came along two years later, we agreed there would be no others. I enjoy reading, so turning it into a study seemed a natural choice. It began with one bookcase, but now has six. Each is crammed with books from top to bottom. Abigail told me just yesterday that I should expect no books under the Christmas tree this year. Abigail has told me this each year for longer than I can remember. And each year she has failed to heed her own warning. I have learned there are no limits to her kindness. It’s one of the reasons I fell in love with her over forty years ago. It’s one of the reasons I still love her.

Beyond my study window it is snowing, and has been, off and on, for the past two days. I find winters are getting milder every year, with white Christmases no longer a certainty. But with snow falling, and only four days to go until Christmas, there is a good chance we will have one this year. More than anything, this is a good omen.

I hear a shovel scraping against cement. It’s a little painful, this hip of mine, but nothing an old crony like me can’t handle, so I step gingerly to the window. Sure enough, there’s my next-door neighbour, ankle deep in snow and hard at work shovelling my sidewalk for the second time today. He is in his early forties and childless, having lost his wife to leukemia a few years back. His name is Cal, or as I’ve come to know him, Super Cal.

“I’d like to cut your lawn for you, Mr. Stinson,” he said to me one summer’s day. He speaks to me as if he’s a boy, and I’m a middle-aged man. It’s an endearing trait, to have great respect for the older generation, and I like it. He refuses to call me Andrew.

“That won’t be necessary—”

“No trouble at all!” he said, and his mower was roaring before I could utter another word.

The next time he approached me I didn’t put up a fight.

“I’m going to trim your hedge, Mr. Stinson.”

“Super, Cal.”

One day he appeared at my door carrying his ladder. “I’m going to clean your gutters, Mr. Stinson.”

“Super, Cal.”

He dropped by one night last summer and we spent the evening sitting on the porch drinking lemonade. He told me about his life with his wife and his life now. He said the only thing that kept him going was family—his nieces and nephews and his two sisters. I told him I understood completely. And I realized then that the common bond that linked us was far deeper than I ever imagined.

My study door squeaks and Abigail peeks inside the room, her eyes still as bright and brown as the day we met, the features of her beautiful face soft, delicate, perfectly formed even now. She could have chosen anyone, a successful businessman, an ambitious politician, a star athlete. I’m the consummate nine-to-fiver, Mister Steady Eddy, nothing spectacular here in these old bones, a civil servant from beginning to end who played it safe his entire life. It’s still a wonder why she ever chose me.

“How are you feeling?” she asks. She worries about my hip.

“Fiddle fit and fancy free,” I say. “If you want proof, I’ll dance a jig for you this very second.”

She grimaces. She loves it when I talk nonsense. “Not necessary,” she groans. “Tea?”

I flash a sheepish smile and raise the book in my hand.

She shakes her head before repeating, “Tea?

“Still upset with me?”


“In that case, I’d love some.”

She closes the door and I am alone again with Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. I have read this book no less than once a year for the past nineteen years. It reminds me of what it takes to be a good, kind person. Abigail doesn’t read it because Abigail doesn’t need reminders. I doubt my friend Super Cal needs reminders either.

I open the book and a yellowed, folded piece of paper falls from between its pages—a letter I received thirty years ago. And as I did at about this same time of year way back then, I unfold it and read the letter that I know will unleash a sea of memories and give me a different sort of reminder that I need just as much, if not more, than any book of fiction could ever provide . . .