Deep Winter Pageant
by Glynda Shaw
It was December 1999 and Moses Lake Washington was a hell of a place to get out of, still is. The local airport has runways so long as to be alternate landing site for the space shuttle. Jumbo jets take off and land many times per week but for training purposes only. Three small flights went out per day for paying customers when fog would lift enough to let you touch in Seattle and they’ve since dried up. The train, 20 miles away in Ephrata, left at 4:30 in the morning and got in (if on time) at 10:00 PM. The buses, yes, well, the buses.
All this was running through my mind as I stood in front of a gas station grocery store near the edge of town, slowly freezing solid.
I’d been in town the last five days at the local welfare office which covered two counties and a fraction of a third, conducting psychological assessments for Uncle Fritz. That isn’t his name and he’s not really my uncle, but a grand fellow, something of a mentor in my “normal” line of work, which you might call mental health, teaching and practice.
There was to be a bus To Seattle, some three and a half hours distant on dry roads, via Ellensburg and Snoqualmie at 10:50 this evening. I’d looked up the location of the depot and confirmed by phone. Following work, this being Friday, had supper at my hotel, loitered about in the lobby for a couple of hours and taken one of the rare taxis (appropriately named Scabland) to this locale. With my attaché case on my shoulder, my Braillenote under my arm, my cane and a stocking cap I was traveling about as light as one could on a work assignment in Winter. The Cabby had let me out in front of the store, read me the closed sign and with a terse, “Stand here and somebody’ll be here when it’s time,” had driven off in a spray of ice sand and c20rystals.
It being Christmas Eve, it didn’t seem too mysterious. Buses could pull up and depart without intercession from within. When I exited the cab it seemed almost balmy for this wind-swept prairie town where when I was a kid, folks stopped for drinks, gas, maybe a dip in the now polluted lake before heading at speed for someplace else! Now my numbing fingers told me it would be a long cold wait before the bus would keep its appointment with what was left of my holiday.
I’d pulled my hat down over my ears and down under my collar then returned my hands in their leather-faced gloves to coat pockets. Still body heat was leaked out apace.
From the lobby TV I’d heard that the pass was clear this evening, but Greyhound schedules from Moses lake to Seattle could be affected by slowdowns and stoppages all the way back to Chicago or by connecting lines from North and South. Suddenly I realized that I could be here all night!
About two hours into my wintery sojourn, I began to shiver. I mean really shaking. I stamped my feet, setting down my two minute pieces of luggage, slapped my hands against my sides and contemplated jumping up and down which would have been wholly sensible but you know, when you’ve been trained all your life to pass as Normal, it’s much harder than you might think to carry on like a five-year-old. How long could I survive out here with just my leather jacket, wool sweater under that, a pair of dress pants with tights underneath, waffle sole sneakers and extra pair of socks? I knew Ethan Allen was said to have trod down a wide circle in the snow and survived through a Vermont night by marching quickstep around it till sun-up but I couldn’t get up any speed without either getting lost or blundering into something and if the bus did come, could I get back to it in time? None of these things had been covered in my mobility class when I was in High school or any of the self-help articles for blind people I’d occasionally had thrust upon me was well-meaning friends and family. Erica would be waiting for me at the Seattle Depot in another hour or so but her cell phone had given up the ghost and even if I could make my fingers work at this point, who could I call?
In retrospect there were probably several valid answers to that question but my mind was beginning to numb along with my hands, my face, my toes in their double-layering but insufficient. I had to face it. I was in trouble.
“Are you waiting for somebody?” A young woman’s voice asked startlingly near because I’d heard no one approach. I believe I’d just about gone to sleep standing there on my cane and petrifying feet.
“Hmmm?” I said. “I’m will-waiting for the g-greyhound.” Struggling to master my jaw muscles, “It was s-suposed to be here a couple hours ago.”
“Not here it isn’t,” she told me. “It’s over at Thirsty’s, a few blocks from here.” Even in my present state, my pun-ridden mind outputted Thirsty’s? Why, it’s already Friday!
“Where’s that?” I asked out loud.
“Only about four blocks this direction,” she said, her voice directing away to the left. “Can you walk that far do you think?”
“Yeah,” I said. “if we walk fast enough. I think my feet are freezing.”
“Oh goodness,” she returned, “We’d better hurry then. How’s the best way for me to walk with you?”
“Can I take your arm?” I asked, shifting my cargo to my right hand and extending my left.
“Okay then, let’s go.” We went.
The wind was at our backs now. Traffic which had seemed to stop along the highway, picked up and a brisk crossing brought us to a more disordered source of noise, the sound of voices mingling within a building, sound spilling out to the parking lot which we crossed, gingerly, me punctuating each step with the tip of my cane. “My name’s Diana,” my new friend said.
“Chris,” I told her through lips which actually had recovered some with the exertion of the entire body system.
“Nice to meet you Chris. We’re about to enter the store.” I caught the door as she opened it and we fairly dove into the steamy warmth within the establishment, this evident destination of the whatever, whenever bus.
“I’d better go see whoever takes care of tickets and reservations,” I said not too grammatically.
“I don’t think we need to,” Diana said. “I believe everybody in here is waiting for the Greyhound (chorus of assent from those milling about inside). One more lost sheep!” She called over toward where I heard the cash register bleeping.
“Hello, Sheep!” a somewhat raspy but cheerful contralto greeted from the counter.
“Baa,” I replied. “I was nearly a sheepsicle.”
“Storm’s blowing in.” Our hostess, whose name I’d learn later was Mavis, told the room at large. “Don’t know if anybody could’ve found you fifteen or twenty minutes later.” This last was presumably to me.
By now feeling was returning to my extremities and I had some control over the expression on my face. There seemed to be at least twenty of us in here, talking in little knots or pacing along the food cases and display racks. “Would you like to sit down?” Diana asked me. I declined since I doubted there’d be seating for all and sighted people always think that for some reason, a blind person can’t remain standing for any length of time.
“I’m good,” I told her. “Could I buy you a cup of coffee or maybe something to eat?” I asked. “Are you waiting for the bus too?”
“The bus I was supposed to be on,” Diana said, “went off the road a couple of hours ago. I was lucky to make it this far. Looks like I’m likely to be here all night.”
She sounded like she’d have said more but Mavis made a “shshshsh” noise, turning up the radio which had been playing in the background. The staticky announcer voice reciting; “skidded off the road near Billings Montana. Number of casualties unknown at present. Rescue teams and snow removal equipment on the way–.”
“My God, another one?” Mavis breathed into the pause before the next twangy Christmas melody took it’s place on the Best Station by a Damn Sight country KULE program.
“Was that our bus?” somebody asked. “How many hours away would that have been?” Some reckoning was done and someone else allowed that it was normally about four hours between here and Billings though of course conditions weren’t normal.
“You can say that again!” Mavis interrupted. “Will you take a look at that, why don’t you?!” A general movement to the door and windows and collective intake of breath. Snow was apparently falling with a vengeance and
“There’s going to be no more buses tonight,” the schedule reckoner commented. “Looks like we’re stuck here.”
“And who the hell wants to get on a bus under conditions like these?” a new voice, feminine and rather bitter, demanded.
“Not too much chance of that anyhow,” Mavis at the counter told her. “I doubt anybody’ll be making it even across town with visibility down to about four inches. God, I’ve never seen such a mess.”
“I have,” The man who’d predicted no more busses till morning said. “When I came here last summer, from North Dakota, I was told that Moses lake typically got about twelve inches of precipitation per year, most of that fell in snow and there’d been no snow for the last three years.”
“Well, I guess we’re making up for lost time,” the bitter woman said.
There was quiet for some moments and I heard Diana still standing by me, going through what might have been a satchel or perhaps a large purse. “Were you trying to get somewhere tonight?” she asked, then “Well of course you’re trying to get somewhere, but I mean did you have connections in Seattle or is somebody meeting you?”
“My sometimes business partner was supposed to pick me up,” I told her then I touched my watch, “Just about now as a matter of fact. I should probably try to call over to the Seattle depot and have her paged.”
“Phone’s out,” Mavis said right on cue.
“Holy Shit,” the North Dakotan expostulated, “You could yust about count on that, couldn’t you.”
“This is getting creepy,” conmented the rather sour voice who I learned, belonged to someone named Janice. I felt the too-familiar chill go through me but it wasn’t just creepy, it had the metallic jolt of an alarm clock..
Diana hadn’t followed up on my mention of a business partner as in “Oh you have a business? What kind of work do you do?” Often followed was something effusive about it being wonderful that somebody like me is able to work. Erica is a psychic investigator and so am I, at least to an extent. A number of years before, I’d ridden a bus with a young woman who’d led me to the place where she’d been murdered and I’d almost died too. That seemed to have marked me somehow as a kind of liaison to the spirit world. I’m visited from time to time. In my day job I’m a psych instructor at a Bellingham community college. With Winter Break on, I’d come east to do some moonlighting for Fritz and now was into what appeared to be a total white-out.
“Well folks,” the now authoritative voice of our clerk-turned-hostess, “we’re gonna’ be here for a while. Guess I can’t say drinks on the house, but there’s plenty to drink and plenty to eat. If a couple of you will help me, there’s some old auditorium folding chairs out in back. We should be able to sit everybody down for the wait. Sorry” she added, “Guess I can’t do better than that.”
I felt she’d already been more than generous, since she hadn’t asked for the storm or us to be stranded here in it, but most people aren’t used to hardship, while I’d recently been contemplating a night in the cold. Mavis and some others bustled off for the chairs and a few other would-be passengers began commenting on the selections of frozen sandwiches, beverages and snack items.
“Maybe we should take up some kind of collection,” North Dakota suggested. “Hell, it’s Christmas Eve. Let’s get a party going.”
There’s a Ph.Dd. waiting for someone who does a definitive study of impromptu party finance.
“Here’s twenty bucks,” N.D. offered.
“I can match that,” I said, digging into the belt pouch where I carry my cards and folding cash.. A few others made donations then N. D. went around with a paper bag to guilt a little more from the reluctant folks.
“Now how is this going to get divvied up?”
It’s fascinating to see how groups work these things out so I kept mum.
“How much we got?” somebody inquired.
Riffling, “Ninety-four bucks,” N.D. said.
“How many are there here?” somebody else followed up, “one, two three–” The number turned out to be thirteen counting Mavis, who some thought shouldn’t be included. She happened to be out back for more chairs, just now.
“We’re drumming up business for you,” N.D. told Mavis, walking over to help distribute seating. “Looks like seven bucks apiece and a little over.”
“What we could do,” a possibly school-aged female voice put in rather diffidently, “is to go around, let everybody choose something under seven dollars, then if there’s money left over, there could be another chance to pick.”
“What about those who gave more than seven dollars?” a bikeresque youngish-sounding male.
“They gave because they wanted to, Bozo! How bout those who gave a whole lot less!”
“Least I gave somethin,’ asshole,” Bozo parried, evidently being acquainted with Asshole, and not taking particular umbrage.
“How bout a raffle?” Bitter Lady demanded, “where highest numbers get first pick.”
That putting a sort of Lotto spin on things, seemed to satisfy most of us to one degree or another.
“This all reminds me of a play I wrote a while ago,” Diana, who again was standing next to me, announced. Nobody responded just then. “So, shall we look around and see what we want to get?” she asked me.
I took her arm and being abstemious about price, I chose a salami and provolone sub for four-fifty and a large coffee for a buck and a half. I would have rather gotten a beer but I had a feeling I’d better remain sharp tonight. Next choice would have been tea but there wasn’t any. I wasn’t sure what Diana bought.
“Well now,” Mavis shouted above the conversation, once totals had been rung up and chairs were claimed. “We’ve got our own Christmas party. Why don’t we have some Christmas carols!” She struck up Jingle-bells off-key in that raucous way of people who can’t sing but don’t know it.
“Hey,” Diffident Girl intervened. “That lady over there?” her voice directed over toward Diana and me, “said she’d written a play. Maybe some of us could put that on, or something–” she trailed off. Some growls of dissent, especially from Bozo.
“Well,” Mavis wanted to know, “is it a Christmas play?”
“Kind of,” Diana said. “Yeah, I guess you could say that.”
“What’s it about?” asked Bitter Lady.
“It starts out” said Diana “with three guys on snowmobiles in the middle of Winter, a time pretty much like now.”
“Snowmobiles!” North Dakota crowed. “Damn good so far.”
“A blizzard is coming on,” Diana amplified.
“Not so good,” N.D. added, not quite so loudly.
“They set out early in the afternoon because there’d already been a big snow storm the day before and they need to reach the Lutheran church.” (She said it like ‘da lutrenchurch,’ like not knowing how to say T and H together, and it was one word.) “It seems the furnace is out and when those die-hard souls from upper Bemidji, lower Elkhart or something come dog-sledding into church Sunday morning, things will go badly if there’s no heat or coffee ready in the place.”
“Yabetcha,” said either Asshole or Bozo.
“A blizzard blows up,” Diana pushed on through the interruption. “And they entirely lose their sense of direction, until suddenly a light shines through the storm.”
“Where does it lead them?” somebody demanded, “to the Motel Six?”
“No room in the travel lodge?” Someone else sotto vocced.
“Well,” said Mavis, cutting through the hubbub “You wouldn’t just happen to have a copy of this play?”
“As a matter of fact,” Diana ruffled papers from somewhere. “it just happens I do. here it is. It’s called Three Norwegians and a Virgin!”
“Ho-ho-ho-ho!” North Dakota erupted. Yes, he actually did say Ho ho ho ho.
“Wait a minute now,” Mavis chastised. “We’re not about offending people here you know, stepping on religious toes and that.”
“I was kidding,” Diana inserted smoothly. “It’s actually called ‘The Guiding Light Through the Secret Storm.’ My drama teacher hated soap operas,” she confided, “so I needled her whenever I could.”
“Well okay then,” Mavis mollified, allowed. “Those are both good stories.”
“How many people would we need to act out the play?” Diffident Girl inquired.
“Let’s see” Diana seemed to be counting on her fingers. “Vic, Lonnie, Thor, Pastor Holtfreder, Lonnie’s wife Marta, Thor’s wife Lois, The Narrator and the Unknown Woman.” She turned pages then added “There’s a baby too, but no speaking part.”
“What?” Bozo said. “No cows, no sheep, no donkeys?”
“No animals,” Diana confirmed “Though I suppose we could write some in.” Bozo muttered something I didn’t entirely catch and hoped Diana didn’t either.
“That’s eight,” Diffident Girl tallied.
“At least I won’t have to play a stupid part,” Bozo stage-whispered with assent from Asshole.
“there’re lots of things to do though,” Diana told them. “We could use sound effects and we always need audience participation.” Asshole emitted a bronx cheer.
“Problem is,” someone who’d not spoken much before, (we’ll call him Johnny for johnny come lately,) “How can we do a play if we don’t have enough copies to go around?”
“Let me see that?” Mavis demanded, drawing near, sheets rustled as she snatched them. “Guess I could run this off on the Xerox,” she concluded.
“At what, a nickel a page?” Diana objected. “Don’t think I can afford that. Slush fund maybe?”
“Hell,” Mavis said still turning pages. “Nickel a page is just for customers. All it costs the store is the toner.”
“Won’t you get in trouble though,” Diana inquired, “For giving away so much–toner?”
“Not till the storm’s over,” Mavis told her and that settled that.
“I wonder if we should have costumes?” This from a lady whom, if I’m any judge, was much older than most of us. This touched off a flurry of points and counterpoints.
“We’re just passing time.” said one person. “it’s not like there’s really an audience or something.”
“We’re the audience,” said somebody else. “We’re as important as anybody else!”
“What do we need for costumes?” asked Granny Wonder, the lady who’d first brought up the topic.
“Mostly just cold weather gear,” Diana said. “Most of us are already dressed well enough for that. (ironic laughter from the potential cast-audience) I guess the only things that might be a little bit unusual is the pastor and the Unknown Woman. Does anyone have a skirt in her luggage? We’re supposed to feel that this person came in from somewhere else, someplace not from around here, and wearing a skirt sort of puts across that idea.”
There was unanimous silence in the convenience-mart. Until– “I’ve got one,” I said.
“O-oh-kay,” Mavis said. “Did you maybe pick up the wrong bag?”
“No,” I told her. “I just like to travel with whatever I think I could possibly need.”
Mavis let that pass but Diana said “Mind if I have a look at it? I suppose it doesn’t matter what it looks like as long as it’s not a micro-mini or something.”
“It’s not,” I told her, unzipping my attache and sliding out the folded, rather plain, double-knit which if I recalled correctly, was gray. This and a couple of shirts, three changes of socks and underwear and some toilet articles had been what I’d been wearing over the last work week, things washed out by hand and hung overnight to dry.
“Oh that’ll do fine!” Diana said “Oh, I just had a thought,”
“Wow,” said some smart alec over toward the cash register, not Mavis.
“I don’t suppose there’s some magical way to scan in printed sheets into that, (she patted my Braillenote) little machine of yours?”
“No, I’m afraid not,” I said. “There are scanners which can do that sort of thing but mine’s at home over in Bellingham.”
“Too bad,” she lamented. “I’d like you to be able to participate in the play but without a script–well I suppose maybe you could ad lib.”
Diffident Girl spoke up just now and said “The unknown woman has only a couple of lines.” Several guffawed. “Well,” she pointed out, “it’s his skirt.”
“Can’t quarrel with that,” Diana concurred. “You know, I think that would work out just fine.”
“The only interesting female part in the thing,” Granny Wonder objected. “The other two are just voices over a radio.”
“Not necessarily,” Diana told her. “Come to think of it, no reason the pastor couldn’t be a woman. Wasn’t written with that in mind particularly, but what the hell. Would you be interested?”
“I suppose,” Granny admitted. “Don’t suppose you’ve got a priest’s robe in that case of yours?” she reached over and smacked my attaché.
“No,” I said.
“But I have a purple bathrobe in my suitcase though,” Bitter Lady put in. “That’d do for a Christmas vestment wouldn’t it?”
“Yah sure, I suppose so?” Granny said, trying to sound Lutheran I guessed.
“It’s coming together then,” Diana clapped her hands. “Okay, I need three Norwegians!” North Dakota was an obvious choice, Bozo seconded under some prodding. then Johnny accepted. The list filled and those volunteering or drafted gathered about Diana and me.
People began opening hand luggage. Scarves, knitted hats, overcoats, other trappings of winter travel were gathered together along with make-do pastor vestments.
“Want to go in back and change?” Diana offered her arm.
I didn’t ask which rest room I was in.
I’d been fully dressed as a woman when I met my first supernatural client. That had been for a field study project to experience being blind and female in the sighted, sexually polarized greater world. I’d never written up the study except informally but there’d been a number of times since, when being in women’s clothes seemed appropriate so I generally carried some traditionally feminine items with me including a scarf. I like skirts and though I don’t wear them to work much anyway I don’t apologize for extracurriculars, can’t see any reason I should. Call it part of communing. Call it nothing at all.
My half slip crackled statically against my tights. Convenient I’d worn these, I thought. I settled the elastic of the skirt around my waist and tied the scarf around my head, drawing it tight above the ears and bow-knotted in the back. My shirt was pale blue and buttoned right over left. I settled the little goddess pendant just below my throat. This time of year I wore the mother with her daughter, arm clasped.
Surprised laughter and some whistles as I emerged from the can. “Take back what I said,” Granny wonder announced. “You look, well, at least as good as I would in that outfit!” (More laughter.)
“Doesn’t look very pregnant though,” someone else objected.
“No,” Diana countered. “She’s finding the baby.”
“Here,” Mavis was standing in front of me whiffing of Camels and strong coffee. “I found this. It’s marked down to a dollar eighty-nine.” She placed a doll in my arms, wrapped swaddling-wise in something which may’ve been an old dishtowel. “You hold it like this.” Mavis placed the doll’s frizzy mop in the crook of my right arm and directed my hand beneath her back side.
“It’s cold out,” Diana added. “Hold her closely.”
Twilight fell so early that day there seemed to have been no daylight at all. Three snowmobiles labor through the drifts of snow in order that light and warmth might bless those who should come after.
(Per prior arrangement all of the lights in the place were put out except for one illuminating a refrigerator case. From both rest rooms, doors were blocked open and hand dryers whooshed into life. A pair of blenders filled with sugar or salt or whatever Mavis had scrounged up, grumbled on grind to imitate snowmobile engines.)
The wind cut through the parkas of the three plainsmen. Their destination was far today. Who could know what darkness might hold?
Wow, I don’t know about this weather. We probably should’ve come over yesterday, then maybe we’d get home before the storm blows up!
There’s work at the garage till way late I couldn’t have made it yesterday. Way it looks now we’ll be on hand to usher Christmas in, ’cause we’d be sleeping in the pews tonight, I betcha.
Yah, but with so many lines being down and phones so spotty we couldn’t cancel Christmas every service, because some dumb so and sos’ll be sure to come out no matter how bad it gets.
Dumb bastards like us?
(All three men laugh.)
Marta (played by Mavis):
Turn up that radio!
Narrator (speaking through a towel to muffle): —storm front moving down from Saskatchewan, pushing snow ahead of it; Visibility down to zero. Transport expected to be paralyzed across the State.
Damn! I didn’t want Vic and da boys out dere nohow donchaknow. They’re gonna’ freeze their silly asses to death!
Lois (played by Diffident Girl):
And with the baby coming just any time now! I know Pastor Holtfreder was relying on Thor and Vic and Lonnie, but why couldn’t somebody else go this year? (Lois pauses) I guess that’s what doing God’s work is all about.
Yeah whatever I guess.
We could call up Snow Rescue but…
(Gives out with a dry chuckle which turns into a smoker’s cough) Yeah I know but they are the snow rescue, Holy Cow!
Hold yer horses dere, boys!
(Snowmobile blenders crank back to mix)
I can’t see a damn t’ing dere!
Boy howdy I’m blind as a bat!
(I forebore to mention that bats actually see pretty well, are just good at finding their way around in the dark.)
The wind increased and the snow blew in from the north in a solid wall of blinding white.
(A fan blower is retriggered, then the other. A toilet flushed for good measure.)
(Narrator and Asshole flap a white sheet in front of the others present to simulate something totally opaque.)
We may’s well stick here, try to stay warm somehow. We can’t find our way in this stuff!
If we just stay here, we’ll freeze solid.
Thor (pitching his voice to shout over the noise of the storm):
What in hell do you think we’ll do if we go blundering out into that, then?
(Some further discussion on storms and aimlessness and what happens if they don’t make the church by midnight)
Vic: What the blazes is dat doya’ spouse?
Lonnie: It’s a light!
Yah, I can see dat. But what makes a light out here?
Nothing to make a light I can think of, yah know, except maybe one of them nookler bomb things.
Not too funny dere, Bugs Bunny.
But what is it, den?
Don’t know, best we maybe go find out.
You mean go off someplace we don’t know where da’ hell we’re goin’’?
Do we know where we’re goin’ now?
Boys, let’s look at dis t’ing logical.
Lonnie and Thor together:
We’re pretty sure if we stay here we’ll freeze up like posts, and if we try to find our way in dis stuff we’ll maybe freeze even faster den dat, right?
Okay. Anyt’ing we could usually do is likely to leave us froze meat for the winter, so seems to me the only way we might change dis deal here is to follow dat light.
But we don’t know where the light’s coming from. It might be…
Vick (cutting in):
Dat’s just the point dough. Whatever it is, the light’s da’ only ting we don’t know about.
(Radio static in the background, Fan muffled by closed rest room door)
Do you ever have a feeling you can’t explain, but you know something real important is just about to happen?
Marta: Sure, but it usually turns out to be gas.
With no guide or reference point whatever but the single spot of light, the three companions turn into what feels beneath their treads more like a road than a track hewn out of tundra.
(A laser pointer moves across the room from right to left, below eye level.)
I don’t believe it. I yust can’t believe it’s so.
If my butt wasn’t frozen to this seat I do think I’d keel over right here and now.
Do you spose we really could be here?
Never heared of a snow mirage. Spose der could always be a first time. Let’s us go see. If we’re wrong, mebbe we won’t need to walk back.
(Vick says this like he meant it as a joke but even scripted, it falls flat.)
Oh good gee willikers boys, how’d you ever make it through in this storm. Oh praise the Lord!
Yeah ya’betcha! Later I guess I’ll try ta’ explain but yust now I’m not so sure I ain’t snow crazy. Let me wait till I can’n feel my feet again.
Time enough later, come on in. Come in out of this terrible wind! Oh it’s such a blessing to see you boys.
(Wind sounds subside. The three men stomp feet, rub hands, breathing is labored. Someone sneezes.)
It bein’ Christmas Eve and all, and with the little bit of weather we yust come t’rough, I betcha’ I could go for a little annafreeze!
Of course. I’ve got some Glogg back dere in the church kitchen. Warm you up I think. No electric of course but I’ll go light up the Primus.
Glogg, pronounced Gloog, is a spiced Scandinavian wine and whiskey, or wine and brandy punch, generally served hot. A Primus is a kerosene vapor camp stove and also my cue to get my somewhat skinny but extremely cute ass out into the cold and back in again.
It was my part so I knew what was supposed to happen. I had the shortest part but possibly the most important except for one, which was to be played by a dime store doll which just now I had clutched under one arm while I let myself out a side door of the place so I could walk around to the front, following the cinder block wall of the building, and burst suddenly through the front entrance, having banged at the door with my poor supposedly frostbitten fists. Exclamations would be issued all around and Pastor Holtfreder would run to me, asking what I was doing out in this weather. I’d say that I was looking for a place to leave the baby to get it to someone who would care for it. The pastor would warm up to a fatherly (or in this case motherly) lecture about responsibility and the bond between mother and child. I would demurr that I’d found the baby in it’s blanket, in a dumpster not too far from where we stood and I’d been bringing it to church which was the best place I could think to find refuge for the poor thing when the storm had blown up. That’s how it was supposed to go.
I heard “Primus,” let myself quietly out into the night. The wind immediately laid hold of my clothes, flapping my skirt like linen on a clothesline, lashing my legs in their stretch nylon tights. I trailed quickly along the outside wall and around the corner, the side of my right hand sliding along the building, my cane in my left hand, angled in front of me to catch stumbling items or cracks in the sidewalk. I groped in near panic for the door. The arrangement was, I could crack the door and listen for a break in the conversation to make my entrance. I was about to haul on the vertical steel handle when my shoe struck something, a cardboard box. I’ve wondered many times since how things would have come out had I gone some other direction or stayed within the store or not gotten the part of the Unknown Woman. You tell me.
I tucked my cane under one arm and bent to find the box filled with blankets. I pulled off one glove and borrowed within the bundle, finding the fuzzy nap of fine curls against the warm scalp. I’m sure I cried out but the wind buffeted the words back down my throat. The door was a heavy pull. I yanked the door open, bracing it ajar with my right foot, bending again I scooped the bundle out of the box, leaving the dolly in it’s place. Snuggling the blanketed creature against me under my jacket, we half stumbled inside. Not a bad entrance really, for a woman with a strange child, finding shelter at last near midnight in a storm.
Granny Wonder, as Pastor, came forward and was supposed to say “Daughter, what brings you out in such weather as this, and with a tiny baby too?” What our newly ordained Lutheran clergywoman said however was “Holy Christ.”
Many thoughts raced through my mind as I stood there, but here was something from which I could not run, quite literally, and legally too. I think every woman present reached for the bundle in my arms as if it must be gotten away from the inept and into proper care as soon as possible.
“hold it,” I said, “I work for the Welfare Department. I have to take charge until child and family services can be summoned.” I don’t really know what legal status I had in this situation. I was technically a contractor for the State, seldom working with children in this particular role but I was a mandatory reporter.
“She’ll be hungry,” Diffident Girl remarked.
“She seems to be asleep at the moment,” I said. then “She?”
“The blanket’s pink,” Mavis said. “Could be not necessarily a girl but you’d think–.”
“Let’s lay her down,” Granny Wonder suggested.
“Diana?” I asked, not entirely sure what I’d say next but seeing her as my nearest ally in what might well turn out to be a difficult situation.
“Diana?” Somebody asked “You mean the gal who wrote the play? where is she?”
I relinquished the small bundle to Granny whose real name turned out to be Lucinda Holt and pleading the need to look up phone numbers, retrieved my Braillenote device. Braillenote is an electronic note taker and word-processor, about the size of a purse or a medium large Bible, which communicates with the user by means of little pins which pop up and down to make Braille. I pushed the space bar with T on the Braille keyboard finding it was 12:49 Am. Then space D for date. That it read December 25 1976!!!! “Shit!”
A survey of the rest rooms and the office in back, as well as the immediate surroundings showed Diana really was gone. Precisely where and when did I lose 23 years? The cabby hadn’t balked at the Twenty I’d given him but then I’d no idea of the date on the bill. Then I remembered. My Christmas Eve had started out rather balmy. After I left my motel There’d been a damn sudden change in the weather.
The static cleared suddenly on the radio which had remained playing in the background. “West bound Greyhound” the commentator was saying, “Slid off the road near Billings. Casualties taken to local hospital. One missing. Identity held pending notification of families.”
Mavis blew out her breath. “Coffee for anybody who wants it,” she said “On the house.”
“I’d like to see the baby,” I said. Silence all around. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ve got nieces and baby cousins. I’m not going to break her.”
Lucinda, Cindy to her friends, sat down next to me and slid the baby, now in only one blanket and what appeared to be a snow suit, onto my lap. A hand came out of her mouth and explored in my direction. I checked out the spitty palm, the tiny fingers. There’s a little remarked fact about the human hand which may have much significance or none at all. With some people the forefinger is longer than the ring finger and in others just the opposite. I’d been told by a friend around age twelve that a longer ring finger indicated a tenancy to get what one desired by cunning while a longer forefinger indicated a dominating personality. Strangely enough it’s often seemed to hold true. Whenever I can I check out the relative finger lengths on hands I touch for more than a moment. Of course the chance doesn’t come that often. I’m a psychologist, not a fortune teller.
I held the little girl close, realizing I was still wearing my skirt and nobody seemed to be noticing this. Christmas should be magical and how much more magic can you have than a child–any child? This world we know is bound to whatever else there may be at two points, that of birth and that of death. I suspected we’d seen something of both tonight. In between there are a lot of less definable. Coincidings of those constitute much of what makes my life a trial, though fascinating.
Diffident Girl, whose name turned out to be Melanie, began tentatively, then with conviction, “Silent night, Holy night.”
I found myself swaying to the music, no, not like Ray Charles but because I had a baby on my lap. As the group joined in with the old carol I heard inside my head a different tune, an old country song from sometime in the 60s I think, Spring. A poor lady has a baby in a broken-down apartment house. She names her Spring. Winter’s been a long time passing. Second verse, Mamma dies leaving her baby alone in the world. In the third verse Spring marries and finds happiness with another orphan but no way can I sing any of that song without crying. Doesn’t mean I never sing it. Now we were still in verse two. ‘The angels carried her away, the welfare lady knelt to pray. Spring She’ll be a long time gone from you.’
Yes, a long time gone. I slipped the necklace off over my head and tucked it inside the blanket. “Little Sister,” I whispered into the tiny shell ear. “May the Mother always be with you. May you find Spring.”
“That’s sweet,” Cindy at my left elbow; the only other person close enough to hear, said, a catch in her voice.
About three o’clock, a representative from Child Protective Services arrived at the store to take charge of the little girl. I’d come to think of her as Spring. She offered me a ride somewhere if I needed one. I told her I was expecting a bus, eventually.
“Good luck,” she said. I stepped out to see her to the car. The weather had calmed though it was still bloody cold. I’d changed back into my cold weather gear and wondered if I should see about getting a ride back to the motel or see if I could crash for a few hours right here.
As I stood pondering, listening to the car draw away into the far distance there came a roar rapidly approaching from the opposite direction and the rather flatulent sound of air brakes. There was the clump-clump sounds of passengers disembarking and the driver’s “We leave in ten minutes.”
A hand slapped my shoulder and “You waiting for a bus, Sir?”
“Yeah,” I told him. “Are you the replacement for the coach that went off the road?”
“Hunh?” he asked with consternation.
“I-I’d heard” I attempted “there’d been some trouble over near Billings, injuries and the like. Somebody missing.”
“No,” he said. “Maybe someplace else, Nothing like that along this run.”
“Great,” I said, “Glad to be wrong. ” I knew that when I flipped on my Braillenote I’d be back to the evening of December 24, 1999.
I got home without significant incident.
If I did drugs you could’ve written the whole excursion into (otherness) off as just a long trip, some of it good, some bad. About six months later though I was over in Seattle in a little restaurant down in the Pioneer Square area. I didn’t really know why I’d stopped at this particular place. Once in a while though I like to just drop in someplace new, different, experience the novelty, the surprise, kind of like pulling a book at random off a shelf.
I was pretty sure from the odors out the front door that this place was Oriental. The waitress, bringing me my water and a menu I couldn’t use, enlightened me that this was a Vietnamese restaurant. With this to work off of I asked her what kinds of dishes they had that included seafood and rice and a lot of vegetables and I ended up with shrimp cakes on rice with sprouts and pickled radishes. As I waited for my order I heard rapid footsteps approaching my table.
“Excuse me?” A woman’s voice, young sounding, younger than me.
“Yes?” I asked. “Can I help you?”
“I just noticed,” she said, “Your necklace.” People say things like that to me fairly often and usually the people who mention the goddess pendant I wear, are folks with stories to tell. I hoped this one wouldn’t be a tragic one because call me selfish but I wanted lunch and not to go back to work right now.
“I have one just like it,” she said.
“Oh, really?” I responded with notable originality. “Did your mom or sister or somebody like that give it to you or maybe you picked it out yourself?”
“It was found with me in a bus depot,” she told me. “I’d been abandoned.”
“My God,” I said, not quite for the reason she thought. “They couldn’t find your mother?” I asked more for something to say than seeking an answer.
“I was adopted,” she told me. “I grew up with a nice family, pretty much. When I was eighteen though, my mother, the only mom I’ve ever known, took me aside, told me how I’d been found, gave me this necklace and a play script about Norwegians in the Midwest, written by somebody named Diana Masterson, And a plastic doll with a dollar eighty-nine price sticker on it. I guess that’s my history.”
These things shouldn’t get to me after the sightings (soundings?), contacts and visitations I’ve experienced but nevertheless my back rippled with shiver waves. Trying to keep my face somewhat neutral and probably failing I said.
“I’m Chris McSweeney Carlson. Do you mind if I ask you your name?”
“Not at all!” she laughed.
“I’m Amanda but I go by my middle name, Spring. I just think it sounds pretty don’t you?”
“Yes,” I said slowly. “I certainly do.”
Country ballad Spring was written by John Tipton, sung by Tanya Tucker and Cher, circa 1975.