THE WINTER TALE TRADITION CONTINUES

Friends family, and readers. I am delighted once again to provide this year's Winter Tale -- free of charge, not containing hidden cookies, not grabbing your email address or anything of the kind. My reason for writing a tale each year is far simpler: I feel incredibly lucky to make my living writing stories, and your support makes it possible. This year by golly I published my fifth book, The Baker's Secret, and it did better than any of my prior books -- all thanks to you,

Please accept this little seasonal tale as a sign of my deep gratitude. Feel free to read it, share it, recite it to friends. It will be here till Jan. 1.

I hope you have a fulfilling and peaceful 2018. 

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A CERTAIN SATISFACTION

 

Lyle used his boot heel to scrape the last of the clay from the blade, then stored his shovel away in the shed. He put his working gloves in their spot too. Hands on hips, he surveyed the dim interior. Each thing had a place it belonged. Winter was due in earnest any day now, and he felt ready.

Lyle ambled out, pulling the old door till it stuck, then yanking upward so it would shut those last inches. The flurries were nothing so far, but that door, left to its own devices, would work its way open and bang all night long. Funny, how it never banged in the daytime. Through the latch’s metal loop he slid a bent railroad spike, double checking that it was secure. Then he set off across the dooryard, whistling for Satchmo.

But that stopped him cold. Sachmo was the reason he’d been shoveling. A mound in the south pasture, piled with stones to keep the coydogs from digging him up. Come spring, those rocks would tell Lyle where to plant a tree, too. After considering, he spoke out loud: “Poplar, maybe.”

Poplars didn’t live long, but they grew fast, with dappled leaves that would look pretty from the farmhouse. Besides, Lyle figured he didn’t have to worry anymore about how long things lasted. Last April he declined the extended warranty on a new water heater, though the bright kiddo in citified shoes urged him to reconsider. “I don’t much think I’ll be taking baths ten years from now,” Lyle told him. The kiddo turned that one over, trying to conjure a good salesman’s comeback, till he realized what Lyle was implying.

So the quiet descended. Grace was celebrating the holiday in Providence with her husband and boys. Too far a drive for him, and grade-schoolers were old enough to want Santa at their own house. Simon, still in New York which was a head scratcher every minute, worked for a German bank, kept European hours, and could not get up and back in the time he had free. And Melinda, gone these six years? He’d finally stopped being angry at her for deserting him. She would no more have chosen things to work out this way than she would have married Tom Fitzhugh, the lurking romantic opportunist who went on to be a lawyer that nobody liked.

The fool thing about it was everyone gossiping about him courting someone so young, her a hippie girl curious about farming, and him already crusty local color. She’d be stuck with a feeble geriatric, that was the whispered gospel. They’d married anyway, had a late family, and before Simon was twenty her hands took to quaking. Lyle respected the fight Melinda put up, but she left anyway, Satchmo curled against her in the bed. In his darker hours Lyle hoped a few of those chatterboxes had a moldy taste in their mouths now. 

He climbed the porch steps, turning to survey the valley much as he had the shed. As he watched, the star blinked on down by the mailbox. Little white lights on two-by-fours, extension cords running all the way up to the barn, where a timer switched on at four and off at ten. 

Melinda loved that star, but the first year it kept tipping over. The next December Lyle built a sawhorse that held it upright ever since. After she left he continued the tradition, but unkindly. He’d show those downhill sonsaguns that Lyle Nash could keep up appearances without their nosy interfering. That had been a snowy year. Many nights before turning in, he’d go to the unheated front parlor and watch flakes tumble past the light, staying till he shivered.  

“G’nite Lindy,” he’d say, and climb the creaking stairs to bed. Every year after, he put the star out on Thanksgiving, Satchmo trotting alongside. One year the timer gave out. Next morning he whistled for the dog and they drove to town. “You stay put,” Lyle told Satchmo as he climbed out at the hardware store. But it was dark inside, the door locked. He checked the schedule on the glass, and it was hours till the store opened. “Dang fool,” he said, then drove to the churchyard to visit Melinda, Satchmo’s nose messing the window.

From the porch he could also see the south pasture, and if not the dog’s grave, then at least its view. He’d chosen the spot because Satchmo preferred that slope to do his business. The fact that it was out of sight confirmed Lyle’s belief that dogs possess an innate modesty, a thing some humans could stand to learn.

The snow was picking up. But Lyle heeded the 4:45 a.m. forecast, during the farm report, which said no more than an inch. Descending from the porch, he favored his left knee -- no one would notice who didn’t know him well -- and hobbled to the back door. The day Lyle knew would come had arrived at last. Christmas alone.

The mud room was chilly, and as he hung his barn coat Lyle prided himself on how little heating oil he was using anymore. On the radio, people were fighting over the future of that costly substance, some saying it was the lifeblood of the economy, others saying it was killing the planet. The fact that every day he had less to do with either side of the argument gave him a certain satisfaction.

But there was the dang bowl underfoot, it being Satchmo’s supper time. Lyle had never been a dog guy -- animals were for eggs, milk or meat -- till Melinda arrived with a border collie named Orbit who was smarter than half the college kids he’d hired as summer hands. There’d been dogs around the place ever after. Satchmo was pure mutt, scooped out of a whelping box twelve years ago. Lyle wondered what people did with the bowls, and kibble, and cedar beds by the woodstove that were worn about flat. Garbage, he supposed, except maybe the food.

He built a fire in the stove, using extra kindling to bring the heat faster, though he knew he would regret it if March was windy and the kindling all gone. He’d broken a sweat while digging, the ground frozen till four inches down, and the damp had stayed in his shirt and given Lyle a chill that made him speak again. “Dang these old bones.”

It sounded odd, words in a house without even a dog to hear them. He wondered how much he’d made a habit of conversing with Satchmo, and was glad he did not know the answer. If battiness was coming, he wanted to be unaware. Lyle returned to the kitchen and switched on the radio.

A pretty song was playing, sweet and familiar --“Oh Tannenbaum”, and then a thunderbolt: Christmas Eve. If he wanted to make the service, he had better move.

Lyle pulled a clean shirt from the dryer, shaking out the wrinkles. Clean pants were too much bother, especially because he’d neglected to remove his boots when he came in – an infraction that would have earned Simon an earful, back in high school.

He packed the firebox but damped the air intake, so the stove would warm, but have coals for him later. Donning his coat, almost as an afterthought he grabbed that bin of kibble. Outside the snow blew wet against his cheek, and the bin’s weight caused him to favor that knee. Lyle set the dog food in the truck bed. The rig started right up, and he sped past the star, down toward town. “We might be on time yet,” he said to Satchmo, then winced at his own foolishness.

The town was lit up, pretty as a postcard. The church doors were wide in welcome, and Lyle shook his head to think of the poor furnace trying to keep up with all the cold air pouring in. He was late, which was not a problem in terms of his religious devotion, church being something Melinda had added to his formerly bachelor Sundays, but because he would be entering after everyone else was seated, and he hated to draw attention to himself. As he parked, he contemplated going home.

“Getting more foolish every day,” he told the ghost of a dog. Slamming the door, he wagged a finger at the truck. “One habit you’d better break, mister, or they’ll put you in the gone-away place.”

Mason Lane stood at the church door. “Evening Lyle,” he said, handing him a program. “Should’ve brought my reading glasses,” Lyle answered.

“Lessons and carols, that’s all,” Mason answered. “The choir is good this year.”

The church was packed, people noisy and the children singers up front. Scanning the pews for a seat, Lyle felt a twinge of something, not panic but maybe its younger cousin. He had not been among more than four people at a time since, well, last Christmas Eve. There was no way his knee would last if he had to stand.

A young man approached. “This way, sir, and you can take my place.”

Lyle waved him off. “I don’t need any charity --”

“Not at all, sir,” the young man replied. “I’ll be ushering the whole time anyhow.” He gestured up the aisle. “This way, please?”

If the black hair and green eyes had not given him away as a Shaw, Lyle thought, the young man’s manners surely did. The Shaw family was an army, handsome, and hardworking from the bank branch to the milking stall, but with so many kids and cousins he’d given off remembering names decades ago. Lyle was seized with apprehension: Was he going to sit with the Shaws themselves? Too late, the usher delivered him to the last seat in the place -- beside an attractive woman about Grace’s age, who greeted him with, of all things, a hug.

“Mr. Nash, what a treat to see you.” The woman’s face was as bright as a bulb. And in that adult gleam hid a child he recognized.

“Monica Shaw,” Lyle said. “I’ll be dipped.”

Pretty as ever, this girl Lyle remembered from her high school days. She’d run cross country with Grace, skinny as a rake handle but determined as a mule, finishing each race red faced and jaw set, while he stood near the finish line the oldest dad by years, too self-conscious to cheer, and here she was all grown up. It was a kick. Melinda had taken her and Grace shopping for prom dresses together.

“Home for the holidays?” he asked.

“Longer, actually,” Monica said, tucking her hair behind one ear. “Grandfather Shaw is not doing so well. I’ve brought my girl up for the winter so I can take care of him.” She pointed at a toddler down the pew, who lay across Monica’s parents’ laps. She had her heels hooked over grandpa’s legs, and gnawed on one of grandma’s gloves. Lyle liked children with spirit, and this one looked like a proper hellion.

“Monica, you always were a good, fine girl,” Lyle said, which caused her the littlest bit to blush, giving him in turn no end of embarrassment at uttering such a thing to a person he had not seen in years.

Mercifully, the organ swelled loud, the choir began “The First Noel,” and all Lyle had to do for the next forty-five minutes was stew in his discomfort and wish he’d taken the time to change his pants after all, because he knew full well he stank of barn.

Mason was right: The choir was half-tolerable. One girl -- she sang a verse of “Silent Night” all by herself -- was one of those amazing angels that grows up in a town every so often, a voice like the clear December air. The whole choir sang a verse, then the full church, the music rising and deepening. Lyle thought about Satchmo out in the cold ground, and added to his mortification by snuffling a little bit. His only comfort was knowing that if Monica noticed, she would pretend not to have.

At the end of service, people stood and chatted. Lyle allowed himself to linger a minute. “Tell me,” he said to Monica. “You all have dogs over at your place?”

That was how she wound up out at the truck, while he hoisted the kibble bin and hauled it to her minivan. The snow was sticking now. Lyle thought about the dicey ride home, he considered too how pretty everything would become. Satchmo’s grave would have a blanket.

“This is so kind of you,” Monica said.

“Naw,” Lyle said. “You’re doing me a favor.”

She slid the big door closed. “Will you come back to the annex and meet my girl?”

He shuffled one boot in the gravel. “Don’t want to be a bother.”

“Not at all,” she said. “You can tell Grace you met her.”

He had no answer for that.

On the way, Monica cleared her throat. “I see you’re having trouble with that left knee.”

“Actually, it’s the knee that’s having trouble with me.”

“Well, I’m a nurse now. If you come by Grandfather Shaw’s, I could take a look at it.”

Lyle squinted at her without responding. As if he would drive to Shaw’s, all howdy-do, and drop his britches for this woman as young as fresh paint. He’d sooner rot.

The annex was nearly as crowded as the church, with an air of excitement. The kids knew Santa was one sleep away. Lyle felt overwhelmed, but then he spied the girl with the angel’s voice. Her mother hovered and fretted, beaming at everyone who offered praise, adjusting her daughter’s hair as the girl tried to duck away. Just get you off to college, little girl, Lyle thought, and you’ll be fine.

Suddenly Monica was hoisting her daughter into Lyle’s arms. The kid felt solid, muscular, and she smacked a hand on his cheek that was slick and shiny with saliva. “Penelope,” Monica shouted over the crowd noise, “but we call her Penny.” The toddler gabbed his ear and gave it a good tug. “Strong girl,” Lyle replied, trying to smile as Monica peeled her away.

Penny waddled off into the crowd, busy as a bumblebee. Lindy would have loved this, wanting to stay till the end, but Lyle felt like the room was spinning, too much light and noise. After a while he spotted Penny again, staring at him unabashed. She squirmed out of some uncle’s arms, toddling over to the table with sugar cookies. Still staring at him, she proceeded to pull on the tablecloth till a gang of adults jumped forward to save the whole thing from tipping. She marched off with a cookie in each hand, overhead like a crab brandishing his claws. Six grownups to wrangle one girl, you had to admire it.

Outside now, he knew, the snow was piling up. His knee-ache confirmed it, and soon he’d need to go. But the quiet was waiting, so he retreated to a wall for now. Bearing witness to the gaiety was close enough to experiencing it.

In truth, the minister was shaking hands by the doorway, creating a traffic jam Lyle decided he could do without. As he was searching for other exits, who should waddle away from the crowd but Penny, one hand gripping a sugar cookie, the other wide for balance. She veered over, seized his calf with her free arm, and clasped it tight. Two hugs in a single day, he marveled, mother and daughter.

“Now girlie.” Lyle bent to unwrap her, but the girl gripped his pants and held tight. Monica noticed, hurrying over and scooping up her daughter.

“Sorry about that,” she said, while Penelope scowled. But then the girl raised her cookie, a crumbled, slobbery thing in the shape of a star, and aimed it for his mouth.

“No, no thanks,” Lyle said.

Penny jabbed her treat forward, but Lyle dodged it again. “Really, I’m fine.”

“Better just give in,” Monica said with a laugh. “She’s a determined one.”

The toddler wore a look of certainty, and poked the cookie at him a third time.

“Well hey, why not?” Lyle opened his mouth.

She jammed the star home, all of it, studying his expression as he chewed. Little girl, he wanted to say, if you only knew the distance one day could span, from burying a dog to wrestling with memories to receiving a gift from a child. If one day could hold all that, perhaps there was more ahead yet. Perhaps he was not so old after all. That was a thing to chew on too.

“How is it?” Monica asked.

“Sweet,” he said to her at last. “Sweet.”