Josh McCarron woke up in total darkness. The sun had just been going down when he stumbled and fumbled under the covers, weary from shivering. The weight of the cold air and approaching darkness was simply too much when he surrendered to it, and it wasn’t any better now. “At least,” he thought, “I have plans.”
The clock glowed a brilliant red 8:17. The passage of time was the only thing that produced any light in the room, but it had been a long time since Josh had cared. But it was time to get up and make his way. The band would start soon enough.
It was the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. The owners of the Buzz, a coffee dispensing hole in the West Seventh streetscape, thought it would be a fun holiday to celebrate with some kind of gothic neo-pagan hippie whatever kind of party. Basically, there would be bands. It was as good of an excuse as anyone needed, except possibly Josh. To him, this was his birthday. “Happy 19th still not old enough to drink or whatever.”
Josh rolled out of bed and decided not to change or even check his hair. He had a long cold walk ahead of him, and that meant it was a night for hat head. He called to his parents, “I’m going out”, but the lack of an answer forced him to look around. There was a not on the fridge, but Josh didn’t read it. He had his plans, whatever. His boots were pulled on as if he had already been wearing them, the coat spun over his back, and the door was opened. He was out of there.
It was snowing lightly as Josh shuffled his boots down the sidewalk. Not a sound escaped from anything. The temperature had dropped and the air had simply fallen down on the world, trapping light and sound in one white and silent landscape. The cold that pinched at Josh’s nose hurt almost as much as his numbing feet, sliding through several inches of new snow.
“This sucks,” Josh said aloud, but when he realized that he made the only sound on the street he stopped for a moment. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t ugly. It was simply devoid. Stopping to watch it all caught up gradually, first as a hard grip on his numbing feet and then as a shiver on his spine. Josh kept moving because that was all he knew to do and because that was all there was to do. The Buzz was several blocks away. It would be warm there. Just keep moving, keep it going.
For a while, concentrating on making progress in a world stripped of landmarks was enough. Soon enough, however, Josh wondered why he was going at all. He thought about how much money had had with him, and realized it was only about seven bucks. That might hit the cover and maybe one Depth Charge, that was about it. Man. “This freezing walk is a lot of work just to try and nurse a cold coffee all night long,” he thought.
That’s when the idea hit him. There was a sound up ahead, a careful scrapingsound that came from what might be a person in a green stocking hat. It was an older man, hunched over and shoveling away with a careful, halting rhythm. This guy needed help, and someone who needs help might even pay. It’s still early. This could work out.
“Hello! Could you use some help, there?” Josh asked the man.
“Yes, I could. Thank you.”
“I’ll shovel it all for ten bucks, if that’s OK with you.”
“Ten? Certainly, that would be great. I have another shovel in that snowbank.”
Only once the score was made did Josh have a chance to see this guy. He was not only old, he was ancient. His long beard had a twisted and frazzled look about it. The only thing that wasn’t near death on him was the twinkle is his deep green eyes, a light that made him appear to smile even when he wasn’t. Josh pulled himself away from the first color he’d seen in a while, determined to get to work and get it over with.
“This shovel here, in the snow?”
“Yes, it got stuck in there during the last ice storm.”
“Couldn’t you pull it out?”
“I’ll bet you could.”
Sure enough, a good tug had the shovel out and in Josh’s icy hands immediately. The old man smiled at the feat as if he had just caught something of his own.
“Got it. Where’d you like me to start?”
“You go up that sidewalk, to the fence, and I’ll finish the front by the porch.”
And so they went to work. Josh wasn’t going to admit it, even to himself, but it felt good to be doing something other than freezing at the moment.
Josh scraped and shoveled, pushed and lifted, and kept at it for what seemed like forever. Finally, as his back was aching and his breath came in deep gasps that scarred the back of his throat, he paused. When he lifted his head to measure his progress, it didn’t make sense. The sidewalk was longer, and even though he had cleared what he promised there was about as much left. What happened?
“This doesn’t make any damned sense!” he called out, but his words were swallowed up by the cold and the snow. He was alone, panting and tired but no closer to the ten that he already saw in his imagination. There was nothing to do but stay at it. “The winter darkness is playing tricks on me,” he said. “I just couldn’t see how long it was before.” He said this over and over under his panting, but he didn’t believe it.
Time passed slowly, but Josh was so warm he was sweating under his coat and didn’t mind it. The thoughts of ten bucks slowly drained out of his mind, and all that he saw was snow. More snow. It wasn’t going to end. “This has to stop somewhere!” Josh called out, and just as he started to imagine being finally done with it all, he came to the end of the property line at the big fence. It was done.
Josh stood, sore and unbelieving. He had finished the job, and as he looked back he saw that he had done a good job. This was the best looking sidewalk around, a thin ribbon of grey that stood out in the white world. But the old man was gone, the green stocking cap vanished from the landscape. As Josh panted, the sidewalk looked wonderful in this one cold moment.
Gradually, Josh made his way back to find the old guy and collect his reward. Where did he go? Josh climbed up the small white porch on the tiny little house to the front door, still panting. He wearily tapped a muffled knock with a gloved hand. The door opened almost immediately, and there he was.
“Done already! Come in, get warm!”
“Thanks. I got the whole sidewalk.”
“Would you like a coffee? I make a great latté!”
“Um, sure, that’d be great. We said … yeah, a latté would be great.”
Josh entered the house, but could not believe what he saw. Every wall, every inch of the place was covered in evergreens. Spruce, balsam, fir, everything was green and alive. The door somehow closed behind him as he stood still panting, but this time finally taking in warm air. Warm and alive air, rich with the smell of sap and life. One gulp of it was all that was needed to relax his scarred throat and his stiff body completely.
“Sit down, this chair is comfortable!”
Josh made his way without saying a word to a wingback near a fire.
“Here is your latté, I hope you like it.”
“Thanks. Um, thanks.”
“You like my decorations?”
“Yes, it’s … this is amazing. Is this for the holidays?”
“It’s Solstice, young man. It’s a big holiday to us Celts.”
“Celts? What, like the basketball team?”
The old man laughed heartily. “No, like Druids and the Brehon and all the people who used to live close to the earth. This isn’t a day for darkness, this is a day to remember the light that is inside of us!”
Josh didn’t know what to say. He hadn’t felt a lot of light inside of himself lately. Frankly, that shoveling was the only actual work he’d done in weeks, and he only did it out of desperation for a few bucks. He sank into the chair and slowly absorbed his coffee, which was so much better than what they slung at the Buzz he just couldn’t believe it. The warmth and the smells could have all made him sleepy as his joints slowly stiffened up, but instead he felt very awake. More awake than any Depth Charge would do for him.
“What’s in this coffee?” Josh finally asked.
“Nothing special. I just make it carefully.”
“I thought it was a … what is it, Solstice? I thought it was a special thing for the Solstice.”
“It is. Great care is often special enough. Part of the holiday is paying homage to the home. That’s why we, so to speak, ‘spruce things up’. “
“Oh. Well, it is really nice here.” Josh drained the delicious brown stuff quickly.
“Would you like another?” asked the old man.
“Actually, I was on my way to the Buzz – this coffee place, they’re not as good as you, but I was going to meet some friends.”
“I understand, you have plans. Well, here is the money I promised you, and thanks for helping.” A crisp new ten dollar bill was held in the old guy’s thumb and forefinger.
Josh couldn’t believe that he had almost forgotten about the money. That was why he stopped, wasn’t it? To have some more money to buy coffee that was thin and bitter and nowhere near as good as what he just had. Josh took the bill carefully, almost sheepishly, as he managed to climb out of the comfy chair.
“Thanks. I, ah, I really appreciate it.”
“I appreciate your work, it’s nice to have you stop by on your evening out.”
“Yeah, maybe I can come by again and … well, shovel for you.”
“You look me up.”
“Thanks.” Josh stuff the bill into his pocket.
With that, Josh realized he had been sucked into the warmth and life of the house so easily that he had never taken off his coat or his boots. There was a puddle where he had been sitting, something that looked far worse than just melted snow. He paused before the door.
“Sorry about the mess.”
“No problem. We all leave a little mess. This is just water.”
“Yeah, well, thanks!”
“Thanks a lot for helping.”
When Josh was out the door, the world was as white and still as he remembered it. Somehow, though, he didn’t mind making his legs move, stiff as they were, as he covered the last two blocks to the Buzz. It was one foot after the other, the sound of winter boots on pavement and absolutely nothing more. Josh made his own way through new snow, only pausing briefly to look back and see that he was leaving a small trail. He laughed at the sight, the first time he’d laughed out loud in weeks.
At the Buzz, Josh paid the $4 cover and got himself a $3 drink. He settled for a latté, even if it was a bit girly. Some of his friends came over and chatted for a while, and a few made fun of his choice of drink. He didn’t care. The bands were allright but just barely, and no one could talk over them. Hell, it was almost more fun tramping through the snow to get there. That’s when Josh realized: he’d rather spend his birthday alone.
When Josh decided to leave after just one hour, he realized that he still had the ten dollar bill in his pocket. He didn’t need it after all. He decided he would simply walk home – and try to enjoy it this time. Two blocks past that old man’s house and there would be at least one cleared sidewalk for him to use.
But when Josh made it to where the house was, he couldn’t find it. The sidewalk he cleared wasn’t there. The old man and his tiny house with the white porch was nowhere to be found. Josh couldn’t see anything that marked where he had been just a hour before. He quickly looked in his pocket, and there was that ten. But that was the only trace left behind from the entire evening.
Everything looked as if none of it had ever happened, except for one small thing. It all looked so much better to Josh, so much warmer, and so very much more alive.