Winter was not supposed to be a time for love, but what was it that they said in “Winter Wonderland?” “Love knows no season, Love knows no clime.”
Same old story, the man thought casually as he stepped briskly through the crisp December snow.
Richard Tasker was not in the mood for maudlin memories, especially long ones (he liked things fast and furious, the way his mind always, or at least usually, catapulted from one thought to another), but winter, and the memories associated with the peaceful winters of his childhood, always gave him pause. He missed that carefree time, with no worries about the upcoming tax season, or whether or not the garage could fix the dent in the Benz, or how in hell he’d be able to afford to send Eric to a good college in another few years. Oh, how he longed for those bygone days, those long ago, simple, tax-free, pre-sexual days.
Well, maybe not completely pre-sexual.
Rich laughed softly to himself. Even though he was touted as intelligent and talented, he had never quite un-learned that exclusively male practice of thinking with his dick.
His eye caught a group of kids having a snowball war on the other side of the street, delightfully oblivious to the traffic and the bitter cold. One of them, Rich noticed, was wearing glasses, and this kid weaved and heaved extra-carefully to avoid damage to the spectacles. Rich could identify with that.
As a boy, before his big-shot image, before contacts, Richie Tasker had worn glasses. Big, ugly ones that had made his blue eyes swim behind them in a look of perpetual wonder.
He stopped to watch the kids play war, deciding to forego the Christmas party to which he was on his way for a few minutes longer, to relive a tiny piece of his childhood. He’d built snow forts like that, stocked snowball ammo, and it was Stan (yes, it was Stan) who had called him up on the phone, after the last day of school before winter vacation, and said…
“…We’ll have the best fort in the neighborhood, we’ll be able to take on anybody! But we need a third man for the third wall. You want to come?”
Did he ever! Richie had barely put down the receiver, and he was already grabbing his jacket and scarf from the hall closet. He probably would have run out the door without his mittens, if his mother had not stopped him with a forceful, “Richie!”
“I’m just going to Stan’s, Mom, I’ll be back before dark, everything’s cool, okay, bye!”
His mother grabbed him by the jacket collar and hauled him back a step. Like some clever prestidigitator, she seemed to magically produced the blue knit mittens in front of his face. “Here,” she said. “I didn’t fix them for you so you could leave them at home. Now, what time will you be back?” She said this last as a question to which he would give the right answer, or else. (Richie never found out exactly what “or else” would entail, but his child’s mind could concoct plenty of nasty scenarios without the help of his parents, thank you very much. Things like finishing an entire plate of peas, or shoveling the whole front walk, including the porch, without the satisfying cup of cocoa afterwards, and other miserable winter chores.)
“Five o’clock,” Richie replied mechanically. “Or the moment the street lights come on, whichever comes first.”
His mom nodded. “Good,” she said, and Richie was out the door, leaving her without time to say anything else, and all she saw was his long scarf hanging in the air for the moment after he left, and then that was gone, too.
Richie half-ran, half-walked to Stan’s house. The only reason he didn’t full-out run was because some of the sidewalks were still icy, and once he had fallen, nearly knocking his glasses off. But no one had seen him (or at least no one had said anything), so he had jumped back up, shoved his glasses back up his nose, and resumed the trek to Stan’s house, being a little more careful this time. Which, as eleven-year-old boys go, wasn’t very much.
He had barely turned the corner of Pine Street when a snowball hit him squarely in the chest.
For a moment, Richie’s mind thought it might be some school bullies, who had had it in for him ever since he was born, it seemed; but then he saw two glinting pairs of eyes behind what could easily have been the biggest snowfort this side of the Canadian border, and he heard the reedy laughter of Andy Kapowski.
Richie bent to the ground and scooped up a handful of snow, pounding it quickly into a well-formed snowball. Then he bellowed in his best Western drawl: “I’ll give you hombrés to the count of three to come out with your hands up, before I start blasting.”
Andy joined in the fantasy with him, which delighted Richie. “Blast away, sheriff! You’ll never take us alive!” Then he and Stan Underwood disappeared behind the fort for a second, only to return with a full barage of snowy projectiles.
Richie barely had time to throw his one snowball before diving for cover in the alley between the drug store and the barber shop, and even that didn’t save him from getting plastered with snow. He peeked out once, but Andy and Stan renewed their assault at the sight of his face.
Richie waved a hand at them and shrieked in a Pickaninny voice: “Don’ hits me, massas! I’se be good, massas, I sweah! Don’ hits me!”
Stan laughed then, a warm and friendly sound, and Richie thought he would be hard-pressed to find better friends, even if they had ambushed him.
Richie stepped out of the alley and looked across the street, where Stanley Underwood and Andy Kapowski had built an impressive snow fort on the big patch of lawn in front of the First Methodist Church. It stood nearly three and a half feet high, which meant that Andy could only be seen from the shoulders up when he stood behind it, and could climb over it only with difficulty.
Richie bopped across the street to the other boys, brushing some errant snow from the seat of his jeans before it melted and somebody accused him of having an accident.
“This is fucking incredible, guys,” Richie said, admiring the top of the fort with his mittened hands.
Andy and Stan were pretty well used to the “f-word”, especially coming from Richie Tasker’s mouth, so they took the compliment at face value. Andy even gave the firm wall a sturdy pat and said, “Yeah. She’s a real beauty.”
Stan nodded. “We started with a layer of snow, then used some water, then went back to the snow again.”
Richie rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, Stanny. Your next lecture isn’t scheduled ’til tomorrow.” He hopped over to the other side of the fort with one gay leap. He peered over the top, looking down one way of the street and then the other, like a nervous bank robber checking his escape route. “Fucking incredible,” he repeated.
Andy picked up a snowball from the stock he and Stan had worked on since early that afternoon. “We could take on the whole neighborhood with this. Anybody who stands in our way, POW!” And he whipped his snowball against the church’s sign (that proclaimed, “Welcome Jesus Into Your Heart!” on its white face) with a hearty thwack!
Stan grinned. “Yeah.” He elbowed Richie playfully. “We sure got you good.”
Richie agreed, his face split by a smile that almost reached from ear to ear. “I’ll say. Who do we get next? Denny?”
Andy shook his head. He didn’t mind blasting somebody like Richie or Stan, or if they had blasted him, but Denny was a different matter. Besides, Denny was away today, off to see his aunt and uncle in Bangor. He passed this information on to the other two boys, and they sat in despondent silence for a few moments, trying to come up with a good target when one unwittingly presented itself.
Richie’s eyes narrowed and he grabbed Andy and Stan by the arms, yanking them behind the cover of the fort. “Look,” he hissed, nodding down the street where a pretty young girl with long red hair swaying behind her was strolling up toward their position. She was carrying a full bookbag, full of library books since she’d just come from the direction of the town library, so she hadn’t noticed them yet. “Let’s get Betsy,” he said excitedly.
Stan didn’t much like that idea. “No way, Richie; she’s a girl. You wanna get in trouble for pitching at a girl?”
Richie made a scoffing noise in the back of his throat. Betsy Perry might have been a girl in the strict sense of the word, but she was tough enough to wrestle any boy in the fifth grade to a drop, and she usually laughed at Richie’s jokes, and she almost always had cigarettes on her. That made her the closest thing to a boy in Richie’s book, and that made her a viable target.
Before Stan or Andy could stop him, Richie hurled a snowball loosely at Betsy, and it splattered on her bookbag. It took her a moment to register what had happened, but when she did, she looked up with a vengeful glint in her eye. She spotted the three boys behind their snow fort, Andy and Stan still aghast and Richie grinning like a fool.
Betsy looked at them, looked at her white-splattered book bag, then threw it down and started to hurl her own impromptu snowballs at them with a devilish smile on her pretty face.
The boys weren’t quite expecting that, but after Betsy hit Stan with a well-placed throw, they joined the fight in earnest. It was fun, and she was good; nine out of ten throws, she connected with one of them.
Richie especially enjoyed it. This was what the holiday was all about: spending time with friends and beating the crap out of each other. Nevertheless, what happened next was something long in coming. One minute Richie was laughing and watching as Betsy tried to hold her own against the three boys, and the next, there was only a white blur and the quick flash of brief pain as something hit the side of his head.
“Oh, God, Richie, I’m sorry!” Betsy cried.
It suddenly dawned on Richie: his glasses! She had hit his glasses! Oh, horror of horrors – all of his mother’s warnings had come true! He dropped to his knees and scrabbled for the spectacles, doing little more than waving his arms out myopically in his burgeoning panic. He heard rather than saw the other three kids rush to his side.
“It’s okay, Richie,” Stan said after a moment. “They’re all right, just a little wet.” He pushed the glasses into Richie’s hands and stepped back. “You okay now?”
Richie put the glasses back on, and everything in the world suddenly swam into focus again. “Yeah, I think so.”
“I’m really sorry, Richie,” Betsy reiterated. “I didn’t mean to hit you so hard.”
Richie waved away the concern. “No big deal, they’re still in one piece. My face burns like hell, though.” He rubbed his reddening cheek with one now un-mittened hand.
Betsy took his hand away from his face and quickly kissed his cheek. She giggled. “That should make it better.”
Richie had only a second before Andy and Stan started laughing and making comments, but in that time his entire face flushed. To cover his sudden embarrassment, he said, “Knock it off, guys. It’s not like we’re under the mistletoe or anything.”
Betsy punched Richie in the arm, giving him a forgiving smile, then picked up her dropped bookbag. “Well, I’ve caused enough damage for one day, I think. I’ll see you guys tomorrow?”
Andy nodded. “Sure. We’ll be here. Just be ready to fight.”
“Okay.” Betsy waved to them and turned down the street, swinging her bookbag back and forth.
The boys watched her go, and there was the strong if as-yet-unrecognizable feeling of attraction that passed from boy to boy, a primal urge that originated in the heart but then unerringly found its way into the groin. Then it was dismissed from their prepubescent minds, and the subject returned to the activities of vacation days.
After spending the day outside in the cold, Richie was glad to go home to a warm house and a hot supper. Since it was vacation, he was able to stay up later and watch television with his parents, but all they watched late at night was the news (which bored Richie to no end when there weren’t any stories about movies or rock stars), so he went to bed normal time anyway.
Dutifully, Richie brushed his teeth and washed his face just like his parents asked, before thundering up the stairs to his room. He rummaged through the drawers of his dresser and yanked out a favorite set of pajamas – the blue ones that he had received as a Christmas gift nearly two years ago. The legs and arms were too short, but their comfortable familiarity more than made up for the impropriety of the style. And anyway, it was far too cold to go to bed in the tee shirt and underwear that was customary sleeping attire during the summer.
He slipped into the pajamas, throwing his day clothes into the little wicker hamper outside his door (for the most part, they all went in, but invariably a sock would end up on the floor, or a leg of his corduroys would dangle down the side, as if trying to escape). Then he scrabbled into his bed with the warm flannel sheets and the single down pillow that was always so soft it made him feel like his head was floating in a cloud that smelled vaguely of freshener. From beneath this pillow he produced a “Vault of Horror” comic book, with a portrait of a suitably gross monster on the cover. He turned onto his stomach and eagerly opened the comic book, anxious to see what monsters lay in wait for the populace on the pages. (Even though he had read all of his comics at least half a dozen times, this was a ritual he always enjoyed. Being an only child, the only companions he had after the other kids went home were those in his own imagination.)
Just then his mom came in, to tuck him in for the night and, more importantly, to make sure he wasn’t sneaking snacks. She sat down on the bed beside him as he turned over to look at her. “And how’s my special guy?”
“Good.” Richie smiled at her, this woman who came first before all others. He supposed that some day there would be a girl who would take his mother’s place as the most important woman in his life. Maybe. But for now it was comforting to have her here with him, a woman whose sole concern was him, yet who seemed never to have been his age, a child who worried about nothing more than what game to play that day.
His mother smoothed out the covers across his chest. “A little tired, maybe?”
“Did you have a good day today?” she asked with some interest.
Richie nodded. “Yeah. Stan and Andy and me have this snow fort, and it’s really cool. We got Betsy really good.” He chuckled at the memory.
His mother made a disapproving face at him. “Richie, you know better than to throw snowballs at people. You can hurt somebody that way. Besides, what if somebody hit these?” And here she tapped the glasses resting on his nose.
Maybe then I wouldn’t have to wear ‘em anymore, Richie thought to himself, but to his mother he nodded obediently. “Okay, Mom.” He didn’t dare tell her that Betsy had managed to knock his glasses off…or about that playful, almost joking kiss she had given him afterward.
Richie didn’t know which one would alarm his mother more, so he kept his mouth shut about both.
Mrs. Tasker smiled down at her son lovingly. She stroked a clump of brown bangs from his forehead and kissed him, the second one he’d received that day, the same but different. Both of them made him feel special, but for some reason only Betsy’s had excited him.
Richie smiled up at his mother again, and he snuggled deeper into his covers. “Good night, Mom.”
His mother patted him gently on the chest as she stood up. “Good night, honey. Don’t stay up too late.”
“I won’t, Mom.” He watched her pause at the door, her form silhouetted there. He thought briefly that she looked pretty and almost magical standing on the threshold between his room and the hallway, and as he watched her turn away down the hall, he realized that she had a grace that was somehow inbred in the female gender. He wondered if Betsy had that grace, too. He also dimly wondered, as he stared sleepily up at his ceiling, if he would ever again be kissed like he had been that day. And it was with thoughts of that pretty ember-haired girl on his mind that he drifted off into peaceful sleep.
Andy pounded a snowball into form as he talked to the other boys. He concentrated more on his work than his words, so he had begun to ramble: “I want a sled for Christmas. I’ve seen them at the store, and they’re really cool.”
Stanley snorted. “Your mamma won’t let you have a sled. You’d break your neck.”
Andy shrank a little into his coat, which seemed to balloon around his small frame like a giant wool aura. “I can still ask for it,” he replied glumly. He turned to Richie. “What about you?”
“Some model cars,” Richie said with a shrug. “And a radio. My dad and I saw one up in Bangor a few weeks ago – a big silver one that takes batteries. If I had it today we could be listening to some good old rock and roll right now.” He grinned at this thought; even in the cold of winter, the idea of rock and roll made his heart practically sing, even more than his thoughts of Betsy had the night before, which were now fading quickly, faced with the delightful prospect of a snow war.
Stan was packing snowballs, too, with a look of such quiet contentment on his face that he seemed to the other boys to be in a trance. But then he said, “My folks already got me some books for Hanukkah, and a new pair of binoculars.” He didn’t even look up to see their reactions.
Not being Jewish, Richie always wondered if the predominating winter conversations and traditions about Christmas and Santa ever got under Stan’s skin. Stan wasn’t Orthodox or anything, though, so Richie guessed that – hokey rules about food aside – his friend’s mood around the holiday season probably wasn’t all that different from his own. Presents were presents, after all.
Andy didn’t seem to sense any differences between them, either. “That’s nice,” he said softly.
The mood was getting a little too solemn for Richie’s tastes, so he piped up, “So, Stanny, you see the new bird yet with those binoculars of yours?”
Stan blinked at him. “Huh?”
“You know,” Richie grinned. “‘Gone away is the blue bird, here to stay is the new bird…’”
Andy made gagging noises at Richie’s singing, and Stan laughed, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “I’ll have to go over my notes on that one, Richie. And you should review your notes, too. That’s terrible.”
Richie took the criticism in stride, waving them away. “Ah, you guys don’t appreciate talent, that’s all. You’ll see: Someday, I’ll be a big star and have all the cars I want and live with Kris Munroe down in Hollywood.”
Stan gave Andy an amused look before turning studiously back to his snowballs. “Right, Richie.”
This time it was Andy’s turn to laugh, until they spotted Betsy coming down the street. She was wearing jeans and boots along with her jacket, and her hair was taken back in a long ponytail. She wore a pair of earmuffs over her ears and mittens on her hands, completing the image that she was ready for war. Her cheeks were already pink from the walk from her parents’ apartment in what the kids called Coal Town, and from the cold.
In a dim kind of pre-adolescent way, Richie thought that she was absolutely beautiful, in her strong and vibrant fashion.
The boys’ chatter died at her arrival, not so much because it was boy talk, or because they were uncomfortable in her presence, but because she had produced three wrapped boxes from her pockets. She gave one to each of them, then favored the trio with a delightful if abashed smile.
“Hi,” Betsy said quietly. “Um, I made these for you guys.” She met their bemused gazes and giggled. “Open them.”
Richie and Andy tore into them, while Stan neatly unwrapped his, being careful not to tear the paper. When the extraction was complete, he folded the paper and put it in his pocket, and he was left with a rather plain box. He opened it carefully, and inside was a little sprig of mistletoe with a jingling shoe buckle attached to it. He glanced up; Richie and Andy held twins to his own gift.
“They’re ornaments.” Betsy said quietly. She looked at Stan, a little apologetically. “I didn’t know if that’d be okay, Stan.”
Stan smiled at her, as though grateful for any attention she lavished on him. “It’s great, Bets. I’ll put it next to the menorah.”
Andy looked at Betsy, too, his eyes so grateful he was nearly in tears. “It’s beautiful, Betsy. Thanks.”
Betsy blushed a little, then stepped toward Andy. She lifted the ornament in his hand above his head and briefly kissed him on the cheek. She giggled when he flushed a bright red all the way to the roots of his blond hair. The little ritual was repeated with Stan, and that same feeling of closeness to the boy blossomed in her heart. When she came to Richie, she stopped.
Richie had rearranged his scarf to try and look like a swashbuckler, and he was giving her a childish rendition of a leer. “Dahling,” he drawled. “Come wiz me to ze Cazbah. We will make beautiful music togezair.” He made kissing gestures at her, and his glasses slipped a little down his nose. But the look she gave him was so sincere that it was like a slap in the face, bringing an uncharacteristically serious look to his eyes.
Betsy reached for him, and she pushed his glasses back up his nose. She looked into his oh-so blue eyes, which gazed owlishly at her from behind his horn-rimmed glasses, then leaned toward him and kissed him gently.
Richie knew there would never be a kiss like that again, nor would he ever see Betsy in quite the same way. Her lips hadn’t lingered on him any longer than they had with Andy or Stan, but he felt a certain awareness that something profound had passed between them, some wholesomeness that had, however briefly, filled the loneliness inside each of them. He couldn’t have known that Betsy was lonely, only that she seemed to be fulfilled when she was this close to them, in a physical way as well as an emotional way. And that thought, that nagging thought from the night before, that very adult thought that she was beautiful and he wanted that beauty to be a part of him, assailed Richie’s child’s mind once more. It was not a clear thought, but it was strong.
Betsy grinned at Richie’s speechlessness. “No smart ass comebacks, Richie Tasker? Are you losing your touch?”
Richie cracked a sudden grin. Never let it be said that Mrs. Tasker’s little boy ever had nothing to say. “Thank God for mistletoe, ” he said, content to have the final word. Then he laughed, and Betsy joined him, and Andy and Stan. They would wage war on the neighborhood later, but for now it was fine to be with each other, to laugh and have fun with each other, and to find a little bit of good in the world.
It had been a long time (what? Twenty years?) since Rich Tasker had thought of that winter with such vividness. He had loved them then – Andy, Stan, and Betsy, dear Betsy – and he supposed he still did. How else could he possibly justify coming the three thousand plus miles from California to Maine, the closest he’d been to that far-away childhood in too many years? He realized he missed them all terribly. He also realized he had come to the doorstep, with the strong hardwood door separating himself from his past, and he was terrified. He wanted to put his mind at ease, and a delightfully childish thought stole into his head:
God, please let there be mistletoe.
Summoning up his courage, Rich rang the bell, and waited for the inevitable. For a brief moment, he thought he might turn tail and run down the steps, leaving the past in the past. But he had said he’d come. The seconds ticked by, and he thought maybe Andy, who had called him with the invite a month ago (“Come on, Richie, it’ll be fun – reliving the old days in the old neighborhood. What do you say?”), had changed his mind, and there was no party after all.
But they were supposed to be there.
Another moment, and there was a click from the door, and it opened. Rich found himself looking into the pleasant face of a man his age who had seen the world a little but decided to come home to Maine anyway.
“Andy?” Rich squeaked.
The man at the door grinned. Without thinking, he stepped onto the porch and took Rich in a hug that was so unexpected and so rough and so right that they both began to cry quietly.
“Richie!” Andy said into the other man’s shoulder. He pulled away from him, taking in the sight of this man who, as a boy, had been one of his best friends. “I wasn’t sure if you’d made it. Why didn’t you call from the airport? I would have picked you up.”
Richie shrugged. “I decided to walk from City Centre. You know, get re-acquainted with the old place.”
“Sure,” Andy said. He smiled again, wiping the tears from his eyes with one finger. “God, it’s great to see you. Come on in. Most everybody’s here.”
Andy turned to the door, but Richie grabbed him by the arm, stopping him.
“Hey,” Richie began, a kind of lost look on his thirty-five-year-old face. “Is…” He was going to ask if Stan was here, or Bets, who had dominated his memories on the whole walk over here. But then he changed his mind, and broke into a grin. “Is there mistletoe?”
Andy paused, then nodded. “Yeah,” he said, taking Richie’s arm and leading him into the house, back to his friends, back to his past. And suddenly Richie was there, where little boys of almost eleven wished for big silver radios that played loud music and red sleds that went fast through the winter snow and binoculars by which to watch a favorite bird; where little boys dreamed of little girls with long fire-red hair; where little boys thought about being men who wished to be boys again, with all of the innocence and joy of childhood; and where little boys tossed and turned in their beds at night when they remembered their anxiety over their first kiss.
Richie let them come – the memories, the feelings, even the tears – as he went around the room hugging his old friends and laughing. And when he came to Betsy, a look of sweet solemnity stole across his face. She was smiling, and he knew before he looked that they were standing at that someplace special: beneath the mistletoe.