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by Richard L. Provencher
3/10/2008 / Short Stories
"Grandpa, please tell me a story."
The older man looked at his grandson. A thick head of brown hair, an impish smile full of hope gazed up at him. And yes, the boy had good manners. It was fun telling him stories. Sometimes the older man wondered if he was a bother when he rambled on.
But this little fellow seemed to bring out the best in him.
"Ahem. Of course," grandpa answered. "Come sit beside me on the couch." And the boy did. It was a familiar spot for him. Besides, there was a half hour left before bedtime. And listening to grandpa's stories was always an adventure.
Through the blur of fading eyesight grandpa saw the boy's accepting smile. He wore what looked to be a brown corduroy vest, same as a cowboy in the movies. Somewhere in the faintness of his memory Tom Mix looked something like that. Or was it Hop-along Cassidy? Golly so long ago. "Ahem."
"Okay cowboy," He finally said. It was the ultimate praise he could give at the moment. The boy looked up at the man he loved. Grandpa knew just the right words to make his heart sing. It didn't really matter if grandpa had to frequently clear his throat before speaking.
"It's the medicine," mom said. "It gives him such a dry throat."
Grandpa twisted painfully until he found a valley of comfort in the well-used couch. Arthritis was not going to prevent any storytelling for his favorite grandson tonight. He scratched at his face thoughtfully. "Ahem."
"Wait grandpa," the boy said rushing from the kitchen with a glass of water. "Now you can start."
"You like looking after your old grandpa, don't you?" the man smiled.
"You didn't shave this morning, grandpa," the boy spoke softly. He was proud of the several times he was asked to help keep those whiskers under control. Dad showed the boy how ever since he was old enough to be careful with the safety razor. And to make sure grandpa scrunched up his face, so the skin was properly tight.
"That makes it easier to shave around the chin," dad said.
The boy remembered the first time he nicked grandpa as the man sat on top of the toilet seat. "Oh momdad, come quick!" he had shouted. There was much commotion that morning. Grandpa told the boy later he still wanted him to help with his shaving. "And I promise to be extra careful from now on," the boy said.
"Ahem." Let me tell you about the time I worked up in Cochrane, Ontario," grandpa said, finally beginning.
"It's WAYYYY up in the North Country." His right hand made exaggerated circles in the air, almost causing him to lose his balance. Thankfully his grandson pushed him back to safety.
"North, is the name for all places past the mining town of Timmins. There were so many places I worked in up there. There was Rouyn-Noranda, Val D'or, Kirkland Lake. Did I ever tell you about the Kidd Gold Mine in Timmins, young fellow?"
"Tell me first about Cochrane, granddad." Now that was a name to get your tongue around, the young boy thought. He knew he had to sometimes butt in and keep grandpa on track.
Mom and dad said it was okay, especially since he helped mind him a lot. Sometimes he even made grandpa toast and tea when mom was not around, with honey. "Never mind my diet," grandpa had whispered on different occasions.
"Ahem," grandpa said, clearing his throat once again. It was raspy for a bit, but sort of smoothed out after a while. "Well now, let's see. Cochrane, eh?" Yes, I was a Welfare Officer with the Ontario Government back in '67. Oh I was a young buck then."
In his mind the crispness of the north wind covered him like a blanket. Even the sounds of scampering feet across the wooden walkway to the Polar Bear Express train at Moosonee, was a pleasant memory from the past.
The boy shook the older man afraid he may fall asleep in the joy of his memories. He had a habit of doing that lately, but the boy was very patient.
Dad told him grandpa had so many stories to tell, sometimes they got mixed up in his head. And his remembering made the past so real he had one foot in this moment and one in many years gone by. Like a giant, with one foot in two different time periods, the boy thought at the time.
"You know my dear grandson," the old man said suddenly. "You have so much to be thankful forgood parents, a brother and sister that love you, and granny and me, too." And he gave his grandson a playful poke.
Then he began again. "Let me tell you about another little boy about your age...in Cochrane," he said quickly. "
"I was supposed to fill out a Family Benefit application. That's because this man had a child who was mentally disabled. And he needed some extra money to raise his son. In those days everything was different. Not like today where you can walk down the street on your two legs and swing your two arms, and see people and kids in wheel chairs. And be their friends because they are now able to mingle with people. You know what 'mingle' means, don't you, a smart fella like you?"
"Yes grandpa," the boy said patiently. "You know I'm good at spelling and reading."
"Well then. Yes, it was a sad situation. Maybe this story is too horrible to tell you. Maybe another time, when you are older."
His grandson sat up straighter. This was certainly a new story, one promising some awful but interesting information. He gave a friendly poke on the older man's shoulder.
"And then what happened, grandpa? I'm old enough to know things. Mom says I'm very mature for my age. I'll be ten next month," he said quickly, hoping grandpa would change his mind and continue the story.
"Ahem. You are right about that." And grandpa bent down and scrutinized his grandson more carefully. He did see lines of maturity beginning to etch across his forehead. And no longer were the freckles of childhood splashed across both cheeks.
"Aha, you'll do with this tidbit of news. But remember I'm telling you for your own good. Now don't go crying about nothing when your family wants you to do chores around the house."
"I promise, grandpa," the boy said, putting on his most serious look. He didn't say another word, knowing the older man was weighing his decision.
"Well don't just sit there. How about another glass of water for this dry throat?" grandpa growled through a whole series of "Ahems."
The boy jumped from the couch, scampered to the fridge and quickly poured a glass of water. Opening the freezer section he shook loose three frozen cubes to make the drink more worthwhile.
"Here grandpa," he said breathlessly on his return.
"Thank ye. Ahem. Ahem." The glass was raised to his lips and slowly downed of its contents except for the ice cubes, slapping against his chin. One found its way onto his chest, rolled down to a comical bounce off his shoe.
Both man and boy watched it skitter across the living room rug and broke into laughter. Amid the joviality of the moment the boy gave his grandpa a hug.
"Well then, Cochrane was a railway town. At that time there were about 5,000 people back in 1967. And it was a place where tourists came to take the train to Moosonee. In the winter they always had a Fair at the park that went all around Lake Commanda."
"A Winter Fair, grandpa?" Now the boy had heard of Fairsbut they were summer ones. And they had picnics and games for kids and adults on the summer grass.
"Yes. Lake Commanda is right in the exact center of the town. There were lots of eats, games, and singing. Sometimes it was snowing and everyone was singing as if it was Christmas all over again. And during that occasion some people actually went swimming through the ice. That was nothing unusual for the people up there. Of course they didn't stay in the water for more than five minutes."
The boy sat back. Was this a make-believe story he wondered, people swimming in the winter? So he waited for grandpa to get back to the little boy. Well, maybe not so little but what happened? he wondered.
As if on cue and after several "Ahems" grandpa's story continued.
"My territory for visiting families for the government included everyone out in the country. Down a gravel road one day, I came upon a little house with a huge barn. A Mr. Simms met me at the door and made me really welcome. We had a cup of tea, and when I asked to see his son, he sure looked skittish, like a horseshoe rabbit about to be chased by a pack of dogs."
"Did you have to see him? The grandson asked.
"Well sure," grandpa answered. "Then that there man took a set of keys from the kitchen wall and said, 'Follow me,' which I did. And we headed towards the barn."
"You have to remember," Mr. Simms told me. "I'm alone with my boy. I don't have anyone to mind him when I'm working in the woods. He's kind ofwell you'll see."
"Ahem. I knew from stuff in my file, the boy was not so smart like you. Besides he was full of beans. Today, there are different ways to help children, with medication and day care. Not in those days. Parents just left kids on by themselves."
Grandpa's grandson listened intently. His heart almost skipped a beat, waiting for the full details.
"Well, M. Simms barely turned the key in the padlock on the barn door. And there was a thrashing about inside. Ahem. Like some wild horse trying to get out. And when Mr. Simms opened the door, a young boy scooted between us, then jumped on my back and began to pull at my hair. It was shocking at first, then kind of funny. But the look of horror on the other man's face was something else. Ahem. We got the boy into the house and I finished the paperwork on this poor child."
As the grandson listened he kept closing his eyes pretending to be that little boy. How anxious he must have been to get outside in the fresh air with his dad. And maybe go fishing, or even help pile wood.
"Ahem," Grandpa said, clearing his throat for the umpteenth time. His eyes were closing more often now, tiredness creeping up needing sleep.
"Mr. Simms kept apologizing for not minding the boy any better. He said he couldn't afford a babysitter and the only place the boy could stay a spell, where he wouldn't run into the woods and get lost. I was sorry for that little fellow. After all these years I still wonder what happened to him."
What did happen to that little boy? The grandson wondered. Was his father a meanie? Grandpa said things were different then.
He was glad he was a good friend with Bradley who came to school in a wheel chair. But he did feel sad for the boy who was not able to talk or feed himself. Sometimes he helped push Bradley around the classroom, just like he helped grandpa with his shaving.
Yes he thought, I'm glad things are different now.
Leaning on his grandfather's shoulder he closed his eyes. He knew one day his beloved grandpa would go to heaven. And the boy would remember his stories for a long, long time.
* * *
Richard L. Provencher 2006
Richard enjoys writing poems; many of which have been published in Print and Online. He and his wife, Esther are also co-authors of stories and a print novel. They are "born again" Christians and very busy in their church, Abundant Life Victory International, in Bible Hill, Nova Scotia.
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