When I woke up and looked out the window into Grandpop’s backyard, I knew the weatherman sure wasn’t lying when he said we were in for a blizzard. I used the bird fountain as a gauge — I’m very good with depth perception — and I calculated we’d already gotten over two feet of snow, and more was coming down every minute, so I thought I’d better get dressed right away to give myself time to have breakfast before I headed outside with the shovel and began clearing the steps and sidewalks. That was the whole reason for my father leaving me with Grandpop. Father’s a doctor, just like Grandpop was, and since he was on duty at Riddick Memorial early the next morning, he was going to spend the night there because the blizzard was coming, and since my mom’s no longer around, Grandpop could look after me, and then I could shovel the snow for him since he had nobody else to do it, and he was too old to do it himself.
So I got myself some breakfast. I toasted a bagel and made a pot of coffee. I was just starting to like coffee then. I used to use three packets of sugar and vanilla-flavored creamer, but now I think that’s way too sweet, and so I just use one packet if I have the flavored creamer, or two packets if it’s just regular creamer. Anyway, I already had my clothes on, and all I needed to do was put on my boots and coat, and then call up to Grandpop that I was going outside because he was still upstairs in his room like he always was until later in the morning, so I took a little more time to finish my coffee and enjoy the Christmas tree.
It was January, and Grandpop still had the tree up, which isn’t out of the ordinary because a lot of people leave the tree up past Christmas, but Grandpop kept it up all the time, and I mean all the time. Most of the year he had to switch to an artificial tree and leave pine-scented candles out to fool himself, but when it got near Thanksgiving, he had the nursery deliver a real one. He must have really loved Christmas. I asked him once why he always had a tree up, and all he said was he liked the way it looked. Then I asked my father about it, and he told me not to pester him, that it was his house and he could do what he wanted, but he did worry about all those lit candles.
So whenever I visited Grandpop, it was always Christmas, even in the summer. And he’d change the design every other month. Sometimes it was all one color, the balls and lights all blue or all white or all gold. Sometimes he’d mix it up with different colored lights, ones that stayed on all the time and ones that blinked off and on at random. He had these really old ornaments that went back to when my father was little and even before that, ones that he and Nana Alice used to buy each other as gifts when they were dating, and some really fancy ones that were given to him by his Uncle Byron, who was really rich, that is, before the stock market crashed.
The only thing that never changed was the silver tinsel he wound around the branches. And I’m not talking about that cheap stuff that you buy in little packets and you grab a few strands of it and throw it in the air so it lands on a branch and droops down like icicles. This was one long strand, very fine, very delicate, not bushy like a lei from Hawaii, but like a spider web, or angel’s wings. It must’ve been one continuous string because when I was little, I used to trace it round and round trying to discover where it began and where it ended, but I could never find that out before my father told me to sit still before I knocked the whole darned thing over.
Anyhow, the tinsel was there as it always was as I sipped my coffee and got myself ready to face the snow I had to shovel, and I thought about finally solving that riddle, where it began and where it ended, but I told myself not to be silly, that that was something a child would do, and sit back and appreciate it for being beautiful without trying to figure it all out, because I’m always trying to figure things out, when there’s this frantic knocking on the door.
I squinted and looked out the peephole. The person on the other side — my gosh, he was a walking snowman! He was covered in snow, and he was pacing back and forth on the porch and stamping his feet and brushing his arms, trying to return to something resembling a human. He was so funny looking, I felt he couldn’t possibly be a threat, and besides, it looked like he was in some sort of trouble. I opened the door a crack and spoke to him through the storm door.
“Sorry to bother you this early. Is Dr. Minneford awake?”
“He is, but he’s still upstairs.”
“I’m Jim Houghton. I live up the street. On Maple.”
He pointed. As if I could see his house through all the white.
“It’s a bit of an emergency. Can you get him?”
“All right. Do you want to come in?”
“If you don’t mind, just to warm up.”
I let him enter. He stayed on the mat just inside the door.
“I’m a mess. I promise not to ruin your good carpets.”
I turned, but Grandpop was already at the bottom of the stairs, in his bathrobe and slippers, and I told him the man’s name.
“Yes, I know him,” was all he said.
“Ben, I’m sorry to bother you, but I don’t know what to do. Ange has gone into labor. We called an ambulance, but they haven’t arrived. Probably stuck somewhere coming up that hill on the pike.”
He paused. I looked at Grandpop, who hadn’t said a word. Hadn’t even raised an eyebrow.
“I figure we’d need an expert. We know from the ultrasound that the delivery’s going to be tricky. My mother’s there with her, but she never worked on the delivery wing. But at least you’d have a nurse there to help you. We’d be grateful if you could come.”
He looked down at his pants and boots caked with snow that was beginning to melt.
“I know it’s asking a lot in these conditions. I’ll get you there somehow.”
It wasn’t going to be easy. Grandpop was 75, which I know isn’t real real old, but there are some old folks that you could describe as sprightly, and Grandpop hadn’t been that for some time.
But he nodded and said matter-of-factly, “I’ll get dressed.”
Jim thanked him and then returned to the porch. I pulled on my boots and coat to join him. He looked me up and down, and smiled.
“You must be his granddaughter. It’s Ari, isn’t it?”
“Ariadne. Ariadne Grace Minneford.”
I was only fourteen, and I thought giving him my full name would make me sound more adult. He looked like he was in his thirties, though with all the snow still on him, it was hard for me to guess. His face was long and thin, but with a broad forehead, like the shape of an upside-down egg, and his cheeks were red from fighting his way through the snowdrifts. He had forgotten his hat, or else it had blown off on the way. The tips of his large ears glowed like Rudolf’s nose, and his hair flew about in the wind like a wildman’s.
He paced back and forth again, keeping his eyes on the floorboards of the porch. To break the silence, which I was beginning to find a bit awkward, I casually asked how his Christmas was, trying again to sound like an adult.
“What? Oh, nice. It was nice.”
He stopped, glanced at the door, and smiled.
“I’d ask you the same, but then Christmas is always going on over here, isn’t it? Whenever I pass your grandfather’s house at night, I can see the tree lit up through the windows. Does he always play Christmas songs as well?”
“Yes, all the time. All the old-time songs.”
I don’t have that bad a voice, so I decided to sing some of the ones I’d come to know by heart, and he would laugh and try to guess the singer. He was being real friendly, which made me feel good, especially since I knew I was helping him to keep his mind off his pregnant wife, which he could do nothing about until my Grandpop was ready to go. But I had just begun to croon “White Christmas” when he suddenly turned away and seized the railing.
“This is insane! How am I going to get him there? It’s way too deep for him to walk. He’ll have a heart attack. What I need is a snowmobile!”
I thought and thought, and then came up with a solution that was pretty brilliant, if I do say so myself.
“Well, Jim, if it’s too deep, we’ve got to take that out of the equation.”
“What do you mean?”
“Make it so he doesn’t have to go through the snow. Have him go on top of it instead.”
“What, like snowshoes?”
I joined him at the railing and pointed to the toboggan lying on our neighbors’ porch.
“Really, Jim, you must learn to pay more attention.”
“Of course! We can haul him there like a couple of sled dogs.”
“The Stovers’ car is gone and it wasn’t there yesterday afternoon either. Logically, we can deduce that they’re away on a trip. But I’m sure they won’t mind.”
As Jim went next door to retrieve the toboggan, I quickly shoveled the snow the best I could from the porch steps and walkway. I didn’t want Grandpop too unsteady on his feet before he could get in and sit down. Jim had brought the toboggan into the front yard, but I had to tell him it would be too wide to fit through the gate, and he went, “Oh, yeah. Of course. You’re right.”
Grandpop had bundled himself up and brought with him a couple of black nylon bags packed to the gills like he was going away for a few days. I remember seeing those full bags in the bottom of one of his closets. This was years ago, back when I was little, when Mom and Nana Alice were still around, and Cousin Tommy took me searching for the presents that had been hidden away just before Christmas, back when Christmas came only in December at Grandpop’s house. Tommy had unzipped them to find that they were his doctor supplies, ready to go when he needed them. I don’t think Grandpop had touched them since then.
Jim and I helped Grandpop down the porch stairs and toward the front gate. Jim could not keep himself from thanking him over and over. His nerves were making him chatty, and I wondered if he was also thinking about — besides having a baby on the way — how sorry he was to put Grandpop to all this trouble, almost as if he saw it all as a big risk, too big a risk for him to take. The toboggan lay on top of the unshoveled snow outside the gate, and we helped him to lift himself into it.
Grandpop placed the bags between his legs and held on tightly to the ropes that ran along the sides of the toboggan.
It would’ve been nice to hear a snow blower or a plow truck on one of the nearby streets, or even other people at their front doors joking about the apocalypse, but it seemed to me as if we were the only ones alive, and the rest of the neighborhood was hibernating safe inside until it all melted. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this, but whenever you’re outside after a heavy snow, any noise you make, whether it’s knocking something hard against another hard object, or calling to your friends down the street, that noise seems to hang in the air for only a split second before the snow sucks it down into itself and puts it to sleep with everything else it covers. I guess that’s why they call it a blanket. The mounds that were the buried parked cars reminded me of cairns, and that creeped me out.
Jim took the rope in front of the toboggan and began to pull. I pushed from behind to get some momentum and steer it into the middle of the street, back to the path in the snow that Jim had made on his way to Grandpop’s house. The morning sun hadn’t yet cleared the rooftops of the houses to our left, and the shadows in the gulley of disrupted snow looked like a long, silver ribbon stretching all the way to our destination.
“Keep the toboggan off to one side!” Jim called back to me. “We want to give your grandfather as smooth a ride as possible!”
“Roger that!” I answered.
“How are you doing, Ben?”
“Fine. Don’t worry about me.”
But I did. I knew he was staying warm, but the flakes were still coming down, and the wind was beginning to pick up. Jim and I were moving the toboggan as fast as we could — Jim was really struggling — and it was only a block, but an uphill block to the intersection with Maple, where the ground leveled out again. I broke the journey down into little goals in my mind because my math teacher had taught me about increments, and that was the way to solve big problems, at least problems that were big enough to discourage you. And so I concentrated on getting us just as far as the Cathcart house, and then once we were parallel to that, then the Forsythe house, and then the Bradley house, and so on, and if any of them happened to look out their front windows, maybe they’d come to help. There was always a chance of that. But if any of them did look out their windows, they were more likely to think the three of us were lunatics.
They probably already thought Grandpop had been losing it for a while now, even though he was a Minneford and they respected the name, but not like in the old days, when it was the Minnefords that helped put Middletown on the map, or so my father always said, and that it was a Minneford — Grandpop’s grandpop, John Thaddeus Minneford — who had owned the first Model T, the pride of the neighborhood, and now the patriarch of the family had been reduced to being hauled through the snow on a toboggan like a reindeer carcass for a Laplander’s supper. Yeah, if Jim could see the Christmas tree through the windows, then Grandpop’s other neighbors could too, and anything else that happened in the living room, like what Uncle Tyler told my father once, that he sometimes saw Grandpop take Nana’s picture off the mantel and hold it out at arm’s length and walk around talking to it, and sometimes he’d show her the tree whenever he put up a new design, and that shouldn’t they try to find him some help, and my father blew up at him, saying that Minnefords don’t need anyone else’s help, and that he had lost Mom in the same accident and he was dealing with it just fine.
We were almost up the hill when I noticed Jim becoming more impatient. He was probably thinking that his wife had already begun to deliver in these last seconds and getting Grandpop there had been a colossal waste of time. He was starting to become frantic, grunting and crying out loud, and so I risked losing any momentum we had — and it wasn’t much, just a series of starts and stops — and I gave up on the pushing and ran up to join him in the pulling.
“We’re almost there!” I yelled. I wanted to give him some hope.
“We’re almost there!” he repeated, and his laughter sounded hysterical, partly because he was out of breath fighting the snow, but I think partly because he was overcome with being so close, like his house and his family was this huge vortex, and his love was where he had left it when he had set out for Grandpop’s, and now it was sucking him back in.
I’m glad I decided to join him in front because now our efforts were coordinated, him pulling as I stepped forward, then my pulling when he stepped forward, and the toboggan moved more steadily, and the ground began to level out. I glanced back at Grandpop and smiled. He didn’t say anything. He really didn’t have any expression at all, unless you call looking straight ahead any kind of expression. The wind was hitting him full in the face, causing his eyes to water, and I thought he should have brought some goggles, though he did have on a black knit ski cap. I looked again, and for a second I thought his hair — which was entirely white and always well-groomed even though he rarely stepped outside the house — I thought that his hair had suddenly gone black, and he looked fifty years younger, like he did standing beside Nana in the wedding picture on the mantel.
I looked at him a third time, and this time he spoke.
“I told you not to worry about me. I’m fine. Go! Go!”
He glanced behind him, along the silver thread that wound through the snow down the hill toward his house, and then back towards me, though I don’t think he was really looking at me, if you know what I mean.
I could barely hear him. There was something like a grimace on his lips. Or was it a smile? It’s hard to tell with Grandpop sometimes, he’s so undemonstrative, but it looked like he was fighting his way out of a maze, and he was being chased by some huge monster with horns, and he could feel the steam of its breath on the back of his neck.
We pulled the toboggan up to the steps of Jim’s porch and helped Grandpop to the front door, where Jim shook his hand as if to congratulate him on making it this far. Inside, Jim’s father helped Grandpop climb out of his coat, and Grandpop handed him his bags and told him what to sterilize in the water that was already boiling on the stove. Then Grandpop disappeared into the back of the house. We could hear Jim’s wife calling out and Jim’s mother calming her with the news of Grandpop’s arrival.
Jim and I draped all the snowy clothes on the drying racks that Jim’s father had set by the fireplace. Jim picked the chunks of snow off his boots and flung them onto the grate, watching them sizzle and disappear. Jim’s daughter Fiona was content watching a cartoon until the power went out, and then she began to whine, so I tried to teach her how to play checkers. Jim wrung his hands every time he heard his wife call out for him. He looked at me and chuckled.
“I’d be in the way back there. I fainted when Fiona was born. Still, I feel absolutely useless.”
“Are you kidding?” I pointed in the direction of the toboggan lying outside the front door. “Think about what you just did!”
“Yes. I guess so.” He paused. “Did you know your grandfather delivered at least half the babies in Middletown, including me?”
When he heard the wails of his newborn coming from the back room, he swooped down and hugged Fiona.
“Mommy’s going to be okay now!”
“Who’s that crying?” she asked.
“You’ll find out in just a minute. It’s a surprise.”
Grandpop soon appeared, wiping his hands on an old bath towel.
“Congratulations. You have another girl,” he said. “It was touch and go for a while. She was a footling breach.”
“Well, one thing’s for certain,” Jim muttered, handing Fiona to me. “She’ll always land on her feet.”
“What’s the baby’s name?” I asked him.
Jim paused a moment and then suddenly replied, “Alice!”
He looked at Grandpop. “We’re going to name her Alice.”
I told you Grandpop was undemonstrative, but not this time. I’m very observant. His gray eyes glistened like tinsel catching Christmas lights.
Chris Cleary is a native of southeastern Pennsylvania, in which many of his stories are set. He is the author of four novels: The Vagaries of Butterflies, The Ring of Middletown, At the Brown Brink Eastward, and The Vitality of Illusion. His work has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Belle Ombre, and other publications. His story “An Idea of the Journey” appears in the award-winning Everywhere Stories Vol. 2 from Press 53.