Naughty or Nice?

naughtyornice1anaughtyornice2Bruce Willey’s gripping Santa Cruz holiday tale

Verily, verily, I say unto you that when you were young you girt yourself and walked wherever you wished; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands and another shall gird you and lead you where you would not go.  —John 21:18

Their relationship began out of mutual romantic disinterest and had remained that way, but as friends they were steadfastly attracted to each other. Which is why, when they both became weary of living with housemates who borrowed recklessly or a found bed-headed stranger camping on the couch each morning above the sticky beer-stained floors, they had signed a lease on a sunny little two-bedroom in the Seabright neighborhood for $1,200 a month. In a few years they would be pushing into their thirties. It was time they stopped living like college students even though it was a hard habit to break.

John had reached a California beach town level of hipness that was recognizable even in the dimness of the Asti or the Poet & Patriot, bars that he frequented with all the regularity of his daily coffee to wear down the edges of his daily hangover. His black hair was mussed just-so, his jeans faded to bluebird perfection, his untucked flannel shirt offering the impression that, yes, he did indeed once have a poster of Che Chavera and counted Mike Watt of Minutemen fame as his large circle of influences.

Collectively, John and Diane brought to their small house similar decorating dispositions—funky without being hippy, a “Kill Your Television” sticker on the side of an old TV hooked up to a VCR, a collection of salty wetsuits that often dried on the back porch.

Diane was small in size, wore blowsy dresses and had short-cropped hair that let surfer boys know, ones that called each other “bro” at least, that they were anteaters each time they hit on her. They would shrug, left to wonder if she was a lesbian. They had reason to wonder. Though she had been a woman’s studies major at UC Santa Cruz and had dabbled a time or two between the legs of a co-ed in her sophomore year, she was decidedly a “breeder,” as she called it. And she had also decided that she was going to go on a self-imposed romantic exile from men, especially while she still resided in Santa Cruz where, she believed, most men had difficulty transitioning from being boys.

Until recently, John had been the lead singer/guitarist for a band called Locomotive Buffalo, a mildly successful band that had cut two records in a recording studio in Felton and toured up and down the West Coast when grunge was still loud and meaningful. But by 1999 their fans had long returned their flannel shirts back to the thrift store in much the same shape as they had found them.

John’s band dissolved without much fanfare—no farewell concert at The Catalyst where they had headlined a time or two on Dollar Night. First the drummer failed to show up a few times at practice; then the bassist joined a side project with a punk rock outfit. And John had come to find that writing new songs was as easy and as fun as writing a term paper. So by the time John called the band to a meeting at the Asti (where they always had conducted their business) to discuss where they should go next, it was already a done deal.

“Maybe we’ll get together for a reunion tour in the near future,” John said, as he brought three shots of tequila to the table. He licked his palm and poured salt on the wet spot. Swallowing the shots, the bassist and drummer looked at John as they tried to suppress a biting grimace, knowing full well it was only a joke.

By the time they left the meeting four shots later, they were all rather hammered. It was still early, and John walked up to the Rush Inn for a nightcap. There, Keith, the bartender was holding court with Santa Cruz’s finest citizenry: a mixture of college students and working stiffs knee-deep in the middle of a long December night ahead. On the jukebox Johnny Cash covered Depeche Mode’s “Jesus,” his wavering baritone voice a perfect metaphor of the bar’s social makeup. John downed a shot of Yeager for his health with a beer back and stumbled home with the song stuck firmly in his head.

Diane was in the kitchen when he got home, talking on the telephone. It’s your mother, she mouthed. John held up a finger and went down the hall to the bathroom, listening to the one-sided conversation as he emptied a portion of the night’s drinking into the toilet. John had been avoiding his mother’s call, but knew he couldn’t evade the telephone much longer. He’d already passed on her Thanksgiving plans, and he knew that this Christmas he would have to give in a little.

“Well, very nice talking to you Helen,” Diane said, impatiently waving John over to the telephone. “Here’s John.”

He attempted to veil his slurred speech, enunciating his words carefully. With the phone in hand, he went out on the back porch and lit a cigarette, hoping to bring clarity to the whirling dervish of alcohol running through his blood—to no avail.

“Everything is fine, mom,” he said, when she asked if he was suffering a cold. “Just fine, but I’m a little tired.”

“I want to know if I can book you a flight for Christmas,” she said after she had finished telling him about her life in the last month, how she had just finished grading her student’s term papers. John told her his band had broken up. In the midst of telling her why he immediately regretted telling her at all. His mother had always been somewhat bewildered, maybe a bit miffed—though she never articulated it—about his choice to suddenly drop out of UCSC his sophomore year and start the band. She was, after all, a professor at the University of Texas where she taught literature and critical theory, classes such as “Signs and Signifiers: Madonna Now and Then” and “Appetite for Deconstruction.” Her classes were packed, and she had just been tenured after a small university press had published, to somewhat wide acclaim in the tight circles of academia that she traveled, her book “Derrida and its Discontents.”

Now she was asking if John might find it in himself to spend Christmas with her and his grandmother. For the last five years, John had managed to get out of going to his grandmother’s house in Vermont, citing his responsibilities to the band or an upcoming gig. And as Christmas came around each year he furtively tried to book the band, even if it was a non-paying (albeit free booze) New Year’s Eve house party, with the hope he would have an excuse.

“So can I book you a flight?” Helen asked once again.

“Sure, that would be good,” he said, coming inside off the porch, and seeing that Diane had already gone to her room. “I’ll call you tomorrow with some dates that would work for me.”

John brushed his teeth, and on the way to his bedroom he paused outside Diane’s door. He wondered what it would be like if he climbed in bed with her, if she would fervently reject him or allow him to nuzzle into the sheets and under the blankets that held her small body in sleep. And then he thought better of it and went to bed.

naughtyornice3John’s grandmother, Charlene, sent him packages at least twice a year, each one containing evangelical pamphlets that became increasingly more apocalyptic and doomed than the next—serpents and dragons, cities laid to waste, sinners burning in the fire of hell while the saints were lifted into a stormy sky. “Y2K: Prepare for the Sign of the Beast!” or “The New World Order: Satan’s Plan for the Anti-Christ” were among some of the titles that ended in the trashcan. Charlene attached a small handwritten note pleading with John to “find his way back to the Lord and Repent,” for “He was coming soon and she so much wanted him to join her in the Choirs of Heaven.” She always underlined and capitalized the words she deemed essential, as if they would fall off the page or Satan himself might snatch them away.

Charlene had always been religious since John could remember, but since sliding into her eighties she had been taken by a newfound fervor. It might have been the fiercely evangelical church she belonged to as well, a church that grew stronger in conviction and political clout, which was Helen’s opinion on the matter. But, whatever the case, Charlene was utterly convinced that this old world would soon be experiencing the “great trouble” and her Lord was closing the Book of Judgment to make good on his promise of salvation.

Helen and Charlene were waiting at the Burlington Airport terminal when he landed. Of course, John thought, they might not know what to look for. Last time he had seen his grandmother his hair was dyed the color of corn and he had sported a nose ring that had driven Charlene insane with displeasure. “You look like some of the tribes we used to save when your grandfather and I were missionaries,” she had said.

“That’s sorta the point,” John remembered replying with some sheepishness that had seemed make his nose itch.

Now, as he walked through the airport terminal, he spotted them together amongst the crowd of greeters, and knew they wouldn’t have need of a sign with his name on it because they had already locked eyes on his head with big yoo hoo smiles of recognition on their faces.

Charlene looked John over from his Doc Marten low-top boots to his crow-black hair. He detected a certain amount of opinion already forming on her forehead above her meddling eyes. He’d tried his best to add a bit of conformity to his appearance by wearing his least favorite long-sleeved shirt and pants. But what was he to do? Show up in a neatly pressed Polo shirt and Docker’s pants?

They somehow found Charlene’s old blue Dodge minivan in the parking lot after they failed to remember what level they had parked it. It helped that a large print bumper sticker—“If Mary was Pro-Choice, There wouldn’t be a Christmas”—guided the way.

“Tasteful,” Helen said to John as they put his luggage in the back compartment. John had had a falling out with his mother when she had married a lawyer while he was still in high school. As John was about to begin his mostly good-natured rebellious period that included an expressive, colorful tour de force on the side of his high school using the medium of spray paint and sniffing the cans for artistic inspiration, Robert entered the family. John’s real father had succumbed to cancer when John was 10 years old, a dearly missed dad that he still prized with pain. His mother had re-married a lawyer named Robert long before what John had considered the standard amount of grieving time.

Robert had brandished his step-fatherly skills with a mixture of indifference and tough-love strategies that apparently worked on his daughter, a plump accountant who now lives in Palm Springs because of her golf habit. When John announced he was dropping out of college to pursue a rock & roll career, Robert accused him of “building a sandcastle without paying attention to the incoming tide.” Beside his stepfather’s penchant for bad metaphors, which he bragged consistently swung juries in his favor, he left Helen after only two years of marriage for a Delta Airlines flight attendant based out of Georgia. “He actually had the gall,” Helen later confided in John, “to say that, though he likes cherries, he also likes peaches; as if I was a cherry to him or something. Stupid man.”

Over Vermont a thick layer of clouds swallowed any hint of the sun and now, as it began to set, the light slowly went from a soft shade of grey to darkness. The weather, Charlene said, had been like this for over a month, with nary a sighting of the sun during the whole month of December. The trees looked like bones sticking out of the ground, and John was a little shocked at how barren and brown the landscape was in comparison to California where even in the dead of winter it was still possible to gaze on something that resembled the color of green.

His grandmother’s house was set down a long dirt road next to a string of rural-sized mailboxes. This, he thought, was the source of all those strange packages and the end-point for his occasional mailings of his own when a particular familial generosity had overcome him and he’d sent a card. A row of junipers lined the road, and at the end the old house came into view, lit from within, the foggy windows covered in their own breath.

When he stepped out of the minivan the cold seemed to punch him in the face, then swirl down his neck onto his chest like cold ocean water. “Let’s get inside before we freeze to death,” Helen said, closing the doors to the van and carefully walking up the steps that were covered in an inch of crusty snow.

“Big storm on the way,” Charlene said. “A Nor-easter from what my neighbor Scott said he saw on the news. Charlene didn’t own nor approve of television, calling it the “devil’s toolbox.” She said it would take too much time to watch it properly and preferred to give the time that she had to studying her Bible and other more accountable things. But she liked to keep up with the weather, and often invited herself into Scott MacGillvery’s home bearing a loaf of fresh-baked bread or oatmeal cookies to watch the weather report or catch up on the news as it pertained to the End of Times. Though she pretended to be horrified and concerned in front of Scott, to Charlene’s way of thinking most of what she saw, including the weather, brought her closer to the day when she would ascend into the heavenly clouds and see the light of Jesus.

Helen was happy that her mother had a neighbor like Scott to look after her, especially after her husband had died. What was it now?—almost decade. Hard to believe that much time had passed. Scott, a graying ponytail of hair reaching down his back, still spoke in the parlance of his younger self on the way to Woodstock. His claim to fame, such as it was, was being caught on camera writhing naked in the mud, and he’d found it unnecessary, even impossible, to entirely liberate himself from the late ’60s.

Inside the house they took off their shoes and boots in the mudroom. Charlene walked slowly to a large chair next to a lamp and heaved herself into it and closed her eyes. When she opened them again she was surprised that she had visitors, perhaps intruders in her house. She was prune-like and brittle. John was stunned how much she had aged in the last five years. Her large-type leather Bible lay on her lap and she picked it up, laying it on the table with the soft brush of a bluish hand.

“Ah, you’re here,” she said. “I prayed that God would bring you safely home and that no harm would come to my dears on the roads. He so often answers our prayers.”

“Yes, mother,” Helen said, looking at John with her head tilted slightly like a dog perplexed by a strange sound. Charlene then willed herself out of her chair, rocking three times to gain momentum and came over to Helen and John who were standing, still shivering, in their socks. The fire was down to embers and Charlene made motions to stoop down to get another log when John intervened. “I’ll get that grandma,” he said.

“John, come over here. Let me get a look at you up close,” Charlene said, after he had fetched a log for the fire. She came in close, violating all modicum of his personal space even for the intimacy of blood relatives: So close that John whiffed her breath that smelled distinctly like a stale cabbage.

“It’s far past my bedtime,” Charlene said, after she was done with her scrutiny. “I made a room for you in grandpa’s study. You know he slept there when he got too old to go up the stairs, so there’s a bed. Make yourself at home.”

“Thanks grandma. It’s nice to see you again.”

John found the room down the hall and listened to his mother and grandmother slowly climb the stairs. He lay on top of a neatly made bed with a wool blanket that he recognized from his childhood. On the wall was a reproduction of a painting picturing a man alone at a table, a still life of bread and a bowl of soup before his praying hands. On the table by the side of the bed under a lamp was a leather-bound Bible, which, upon closer examination, John found his name monogrammed on it in gold letters. He opened it to see if his grandmother had dedicated it to him, as was the case with every book she’d given him in the past.

My Dear John, it read, May the Lord’s Grace gladden your heart and may these good words inspire you to reach the Heavenly Kingdom, to not be led astray by evil, but to have Everlasting life, for the time is upon us. Love, Grandma.

He closed the Bible after smelling the rich leathery aroma and the ink on the gauzy pages, a smell that was as familiar to him as the smell of the house. When he was a child he had believed the stories found in the book of scriptures. He had believed that he was, without a doubt, going to heaven where, he was told, he could fly and play all day. There would be no night there, only one eternal long day filled with the most glorious fun one could imagine. By the time he was old enough to be baptized, though, John began to prefer his station on this planet, hoping that the Lord would hold off on coming back so soon, in particular when the youth pastor at his church had proclaimed the absence or need for sexual intercourse between a man and a woman in heaven. Just to be on the safe side, John had indeed lost his virginity at rather a young age.

John took off his pants and became overwhelmed by the need for a stiff drink, though the two were entirely unrelated. He thought of calling home to talk with Diane. But she was probably out having exactly what he wanted now, and would only make the isolation less tenable. Restless, he got up off the bed and opened the closet. His grandfather’s clothes hung in tidy rows, and the recognition of each suit, sweater and shirt startled him, as if his grandfather’s shriveled head might be enclosed in a shoebox on the shelf above. And then, there in the back of the closet, by a row of dress shoes, he saw a guitar.

He pulled it out of the closet and sat on the bed with the guitar on his lap. It was not the kind of guitar that John knew well, but it was a guitar nonetheless. He played an electric blue Telecaster. Custom Humbuckers rewired for maximal sonic sound. This was no such guitar. It was ratty and felt clunky in his hands, a classical guitar whose previous owner had no doubt possessed thick rubber gloves for hands and had never dreamed of anything close to virtuosity. The bridge was wide, the action was too high and the nylon strings thudded and squeaked a terrible noise. Most of all it wouldn’t stay in tune even to save itself from becoming a wall ornament at a Mexican restaurant next to a blanket and a sombrero. Still, John fiddled with it, and managed to tease a Willie Nelson riff out of the old guitar before setting it aside and crawling under the blankets to sleep.


{mosimage}The next morning, Christmas Eve morning, John slept in until noon. Given the time change it was still early for him. He wandered outside the bedroom into the house to find nobody home. A tall Christmas tree sat in the corner of the living room with a small smattering of gifts under it. He bent down to read for whom the presents were, picking ones addressed to him and shaking them. He felt a swish of guilt for not bringing any gifts and reconsidered his defense that to merely bring himself would be gift enough. He wandered into the kitchen, the clean counters bearing little evidence that his grandmother and mother had eaten breakfast before leaving. By the telephone he saw a church bulletin, a current one according to the date, that listed the happenings and good deeds of Charlene’s church and what was on the spiritual menu for next Sunday’s service. Glancing at it, something caught his eye: His name, before the call to worship and the sermon, under Special Music.

“Hmm,” he muttered aloud. “What the hell?” He looked in the refrigerator for some coffee, but then remembered the virtuous life his grandmother led. No coffee to wake, no drink to sleep. Only the things that kept the “body as temple” alive and close to the Lord. It amazed John, thinking about, how easily the memories of his childhood hastened forth once he was in this house, unimpeded by time and distance. It made him want to look in the mirror just to see if he was the same grown person he thought he was, that he had not traveled backwards to find himself a child once more.

John went back into the room that he slept in and got the guitar. He sat down on the couch into the living room and began to play the heavy, chunky chords of one his songs (Mayonnaise Tree) out of sheer habit. Dropping into the low chorus, where, if he was playing live, he would tap the foot pedal of his distortion device the Big Muff, he heard (along with the utterly useless guitar) the front door open.

“Oh, there you are dearie,” Charlene said. “That sounds so nice.”

John looked up and set the guitar aside. “I hope it’s all right I’m playing this,” he said. “I found it in grandpa’s closet.”

“Oh no, of course. I bought it for you. Bought it from Scott when I knew you were coming. An early Christmas present that I should have wrapped, and now that you’ve found it, I was hoping that you would play us some of your songs that your mother tells me you write for that Christian praise music band you have in California.”

“Mother, tell John why you really bought the guitar.”

“Why I bought the guitar?”

“Yes, why you bought the guitar.”

“Well also,” Charlene continued, while Helen brought two bags of groceries into the kitchen, “I thought it would be nice, you know, since you’re here, if you could play some of your music tomorrow at church this Sunday.”

Helen looked over at John and raised her hands to say she had nothing to do with it.

“Sure, I could do that. But I have no idea what I would play,” John said, without really thinking about it, somehow wanting to avoid any confrontation with the knowledge that he had already seen the church bulletin.

“One of your songs,” Charlene said.

“Well, my band, such as it is, doesn’t really go in for that praise kind of music.”

“Mother, we’ve talked about this. He doesn’t play sacred music and he doesn’t have to play in church if he doesn’t want to. I made that perfectly clear to you yesterday.”

“Don’t worry about it mom. I’ll play something.”

That night, after a long dinner proceeded by a long blessing, the three of them gathered in the living room on the couch and opened presents. From his grandmother John received two L.L. Bean flannel shirts and two books, one a fictional account about the coming rapture where people simply disappear, leaving only a pile of clothing in a lump of the surface of the sinful earth, and the other, a songbook for guitar of contemporary Christian classics like Lift Up Arms to the Lord and Make a Noise, For He has Risen.

“What a wonderful Christmas,” Charlene said as she gathered the wrapping paper scattered on the floor. “I am so filled with joy that Jesus was born on this day, and I am also filled with gladness that we could all be together to celebrate it.”

“Oh, me too,” John said, though he felt phony for saying it when his mother looked over at him with both eyebrows raised. “Well, big day tomorrow. I should practice a song for church.”

John hugged his mother and kneeled on the floor to wrap his grandmother in his arms. He then took the guitar by the neck and walked to his room, closing the door. He looked through the songbook and found it to contain Jesak music, the equivalent, he thought, to Musak’s corrupting irreverence of secular music. The songs all sounded like ’70s rock ballads, replacing “baby” with “Jesus” or “Lord.” No, none of these songs would do. He’d never be able to sing them with much, if any, conviction. Looking around the room in somewhat terror of the looming deadline his eyes alighted on a hymnbook on a small bookshelf. He leafed through it and found a song that he knew, one that everyone knew—”Amazing Grace.”  Perhaps if he could put his own slant on it, he could penetrate it, make it new and worthy of what little talent and motivation for playing music he felt these days.

The fact that his grandmother had failed to ask him first if he wanted to play for church caused him to wonder if he would simply be a heathen on display. A cautionary tale come to the illuminating light of saints, warning them not to slip-slide into the rock & roll lifestyle John so easily embraced. Was this a joke on him? He needed a drink, this time with more fervor than the night before. He crept out into the kitchen, his grandmother and mother asleep upstairs. He dialed Diane, who’d had the acumen and foresight to make it clear to both of her divorced parents that she had decided to spend Christmas in Santa Cruz. “We were miserable last Christmas, remember?” she had heard her say on the phone back in November.

“Merry Christmas,” John said, when she answered.

“Oh god, it must be bad there.”

“It is and it isn’t, but I do miss home, and I miss you … you know, miss you in that way.”

“Which way?” she asked.

“You know, in the way we miss each other … sometimes.”

“I know,” Diane said. “Merry Christmas to you, too, for what it’s worth.”

John told her about Vermont and the guitar, his feeling of utter isolation and how he felt undefined, losing himself to his childhood. He talked too much, in a whisper so as not to wake anyone upstairs. For her part, she told him about a lame Christmas party she had not in fact attended in its entirety after all. “Bunch of frat boys,” she said. “Santa Cruz is being over-run with them.”

‘Did I tell you I got a gig?” John said. “Yeah, I’m playing the service at my grandmother’s church. Solo career in the making.”

‘The horrors never stop do they?” Diane said.


The next morning Charlene came into the room to wake John. She sat on the bed watching him sleep before she touched his shoulder. He was snoring quietly, dreaming about a convoluted story about Kurt Cobain in an old Dodge Dart filled with yapping dogs trying to run him down. Charlene rubbed his head.

“Fuck! What time is it?” John said, pulling himself up on his elbows. “Oh, sorry.”

John and Charlene’s eyes met. Both winced at each other before John lay back down in bed and pulled the covers over his head.

“You are such a sweet boy while you sleep,” Charlene said. “Then become such a… I don’t know, that word just isn’t the right word to start the day off with.”

Charlene had laid out a suit and tie for John on the chair next to his bed. It was his grandfather’s suit, and she told him if he didn’t like it there were plenty more. They ate a quick breakfast and John tried on the suit, which turned out to be far too small. It wasn’t even close. The sleeves rode high on his wrists and the pant cuffs exposed a flood of ankles. All of which surprised John with the realization that his grandfather had been much smaller than he remembered him, or rather, since the time of his passing, John had simply grown.

Nevertheless, he managed a crude imitation of a Windsor knot for the tie and wrestled into the jacket with some effort. He walked out into the living room with the guitar. “Ready to go,” he called out.

Helen and Charlene looked up, dressed in dresses and coats, Charlene carrying her Bible and Helen a purse. Helen argued with Charlene on the way to church, telling her that her son looked like a clown in the suit. “His normal clothes would be better,” she said. “At least they fit.” John sat in the backseat, going over the words to Amazing Grace in his mind.

Pastor Bloom met them at the front door of a large church situated next to a field that lay fallow and covered with snow. His face was red and plump as if he had just submitted himself to a heat lamp. “This must be your Grandson I’ve heard so much about,” he said. “And his lovely mother. Welcome. We have a full house today.”

Helen and Charlene found their seats in the front and Pastor Bloom led John backstage to a choir practice room where three men in suits were talking in a circle. They walked up to them and pastor Bloom said, “Shall we pray.” They kneeled there on the ground and the men on either side of John grabbed his hands and held them tight.”

“Lord, let thy love fill us with the spirit and guide us as we give the word and praise on your most holy day. And thank you Lord for bringing to us your talent, who will sing your mighty praises. Amen.”

The men each gave John’s hands a crushing squeeze and they got off the floor and walked out on stage, the men carrying Bibles and John his guitar. He sat down with them on a pew facing the congregation. John looked out over the people, surely the largest crowd he had ever played for, looking for Helen and Charlene.

The offering was passed, announcements were made, the choir sung a song. And then pastor Bloom got up and came to the pulpit. “Today we have a very special guest, all the way from California. A man who has given up rock & roll for Christ. Today, he will sing a hymn we all know, one that has no doubt been part of this young man’s journey to the feet of Jesus.”

What had his grandmother told the pastor? John thought, gathering up the guitar and walking to the front of the stage where two microphones had been set up. He adjusted the mics and strummed the first A-minor chord. The guitar was already hopelessly out of tune. He raised a finger and some wise guy in the audience said “Amen.” Once the guitar was back in tune, he closed his eyes (“was blind but now I see”) and began to play. When he opened them shortly, to his horror the guitar mic had slipped down and he realized that, to the congregation at least, he was singing a cappella. He attempted to scoot closer to the mic but his tight suit prevented any further movement in that direction.

Nevertheless, he managed to get through the song and was surprised by the rumble of “amens” he received. More “amens” than the professionally trained classical pianist from New York or the Romanian vocal trio, Charlene said later.

As they were leaving the church, a woman John’s age stopped him by the door, asking him if he would like to come to a youth group meeting later that afternoon. “I like how you sing,” she said shyly. John politely declined, saying he needed to spend time with his family.

They drove home, Charlene in better spirits than he’d seen her since arriving in Vermont. She went on and on how she had never been more proud of him. A few miles down the road it began to snow.

When they got home John went directly to his room, changing out of the suit and into his clothes that now felt like old friends. He watched the snow fall outside, now coming down thicker and with more vengeance than before. Tomorrow, at least, he would leave to fly back home.

While Charlene and Helen made lunch, there was a knock on the front door. John, who was now sitting in the living room reading “Laughter is the Best Medicine” from a large print edition of Reader’s Digest, went to answer it. Scott was on the porch, stamping the fallen snow off his shoulders. “Man, it’s going to be a nasty one,” he said. “Storm of the century, they’re saying. Far out.”

“Hi, I’m John, Charlene’s grandson.”

“I figured that. Oh, you’re the one that plays the guitar. How’d you like it?”

“Works great.”

Scott peeked his head in the door and yelled inside. “Let me know if you need any wood. I’ve got plenty to spare. It’s going to storm big time. They’re even saying that the airport is going to shut down. Couldn’t get there anyway, not with the roads icing up tonight.


That night it snowed, then it rained. By morning it was snowing again. John called the Burlington Airport but the lines were busy. He listened to the radio—bad news. Just as Scott had said would happen the airport was shut down indefinitely. There would be no flights in or out for the next few days.

Helen, Charlene and John were housebound and spent the days looking out the windows, putting a new log on the fire, and talking. Charlene spent more and more time in her room with the door closed which allowed John and his mother to talk. John was actually beginning to enjoy his mother’s company. And with all this free time he thought he would write some new songs but each time he picked up the guitar he lost interest. The phone no longer worked; he couldn’t call Diane, and even if he could the life that he was tethered to in Santa Cruz seemed distant and murky.

New Year’s Eve day, and it was still snowing. John could feel his attachment to reality growing fainter. He’d read all the secular materials in the house that he could and had even leafed through some of his grandmother’s religious materials. He had to agree in some respects: the end of the world was indeed a possibility as long as he was trapped in this house, in this state. Charlene, for her part, only came downstairs to eat, and at lunch she had announced in no uncertain terms that she was going to meet her Lord—possibly even in the coming night. “I had a vision this morning,” she said. “I was lifted up by an unseen hand and floated into the clouds past all this snow. I have never felt so warm.”

After lunch she went upstairs again and closed the door. “I’m beginning to worry about your grandmother,” Helen said, once they had cleared the dishes. “I think either she thinks she’s going to die soon or that rubbish she reads is giving her a bad case of dementia.”

“Well, she is 80 after all. I guess we can all be lucky to live that long.”

“Yes, but what a way to go out. I hope I don’t lose my senses when I get that old. I would rather die.”

John and his mother talked for a large part of the afternoon. And then they made a small dinner. Helen knocked on Charlene’s door. “Not hungry dear.”

“Mother. Are you okay?”

“Not hungry, thank you.”

John and Helen ate alone while listening to the short-wave radio. The resident meteorologist proclaimed the storm had moved up the coast of Newfoundland and they could expect sunny skies and cold temperatures by morning. The airports were also slated to open and flights would be leaving by afternoon.

“I know it’s been a real sacrifice for you coming out here and having to stay all this extra time, but I’ve enjoyed your company,” Helen said. “I don’t know if I could have handled it here by myself.”

“It’s been nice for me, too,” John said. “For the most part, at least.”

John packed his bag and called the airport to reconfirm his flight. He lay on the bed thinking of all the things he would do when he got back to California and how good a beer would taste after his long sobriety. He read and paced and looked out the window. Scott’s house threw warm light out onto the snow drifts and he could see people moving inside, their elbows all at 90 degree angles holding drinks in their hands. If he felt more social he would knock on the door, but instead he lay on the bed, crossing his legs and staring at the ceiling.

He’d almost fallen asleep when he heard some rustling in the mudroom. He walked out of the room and found Charlene putting on her rubber boots. She was wearing the dress she had worn to church and was carrying her Bible.

“Where are you going grandma?”

“I love you so much it breaks my heart to leave,” she said, pulling on the other boot with much effort.

“No really. Where are you going? It’s nearly midnight.”

Charlene didn’t answer. She opened the door and went outside, closing the door quietly as if she didn’t want to wake anyone in the house. John ran up the stairs to his mother’s room and knocked. Helen came out, looking worried. “Grandma’s outside. Going for a walk, I guess.”

They went downstairs and opened the front door. Standing on the porch, the cold rising through their socks, they watched Charlene lunge through the deep snow, determinedly making her way to a clearing in the trees between the road and Scott’s house. She stood there for a moment, and then, as if realizing she wasn’t in the right spot, moved twenty feet to the left. They stood there watching as Charlene, her boots post-holed in the drifts and her dress spread over the snow, looked skyward for her reward. Puffs of her breath were illuminated by a half moon that shone down between the trees.

“We should fetch her,” John said.

“We will,” Helen said, “But first, Happy New Year.”

“Happy New Year to you,” John said, raising an invisible glass to his mother.

Just then, a few revelers spilled out of Scott’s house, laughing and stumbling in the snow. One of them bent down with a lighter and lit a bottle rocket. It ran up into the clear cold night defacing the silence. Another one, this one louder, banged above in the heavens above, sending streams of sparks falling slowly back to earth. John’s grandmother didn’t even flinch.

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