Welcome to the November 22nd edition of the Scribbler.
This week, you can read the first story from the best-selling collection of shorts.
A Box of Memories.
More information HERE.
Reaching the Pinnacle
Jeb Davis is almost out of breath. The last half a kilometer up the mountain had been at a twenty-five degree angle. And it was starting to get steeper. Mount Carleton in northern New Brunswick is not for cream puffs. He stops where the trail evens out for a meter or so near the exposed root of an enormous birch tree that has to be as old as his great grandparents would be if they were still alive. The bark on top of the root is rubbed away from countless soles. With one hand on the trunk, he stoops over to catch his breath. He adjusts his backpack with his other hand, hefting it a bit higher, and looks up the trail to check on his granddaughter. Thirty meters farther up, she is going full steam. He chuckles. It has always been so. Mindy Kane does everything at full throttle.
She doesn’t know he’s not behind her and she’s still talking. He can’t make out what she’s saying, but her voice comes back to him like vapor through the trees, a rhythm that’s part of the forest. A chorus of black-capped chickadees with their two-note song provides a natural harmony. Breathing deeply, he inhales the scent of damp, dying leaves that only autumn can bring and watches her as she hikes under yet another huge birch tree with a canopy of crooked limbs. Yellow and lime-colored leaves cling to more than half the outstretched arms. The stream of early morning light passes through the half-naked limbs, dappling her lithesome body and bulky pack. She must’ve asked a question and realized something wasn’t right when silence ensued. She stops and looks back. Jeb can see the teasing twinkle in her eyes even from this distance. She yells out, “Whatsa matter, old-timer? Can’t hack it anymore?”
He’s smiling when he scolds her.
“Watch your mouth, young lady. Respect your elders. Listen, Mindy, you said breaks every thirty minutes. We’ve been chugging up this ruddy hill for almost…”
Standing upright, he checks his watch.
“…forty-five minutes. Now get down here and give your Gramps a break.”
He looks around and sees another root growing out from the other side of the tree. It forms a knuckle about a meter and a half across, perfect for two regular sized bums. The ground is littered with fallen leaves – creating yellow and orange flooring. The sun shatters when it hits the tree, creating an inviting tumult of rays and shadows. He has to climb a small embankment about hip high, made of hard-packed dirt and smaller roots. When he finally plops on the exposed wood, he wiggles out of his pack.
Mindy drops hers, pulls a chrome water bottle out of a side pocket and jogs back down the hill. Scooting up the lip in a skip and a jump, she rounds the tree and spies the makeshift seat.
“Shuffle over there a bit, Grampy.”
Before he can reply she offers him the water.
“Ah thanks, Mindy, my mouth is as dry as the bark on one of these trees.”
Sitting, their sides touching, she leans into him as he takes a long swig.
“I’m glad you decided to do this, Gramps.”
Wiping dripping water from his chin with his forearm, he switches the bottle from his right to his left hand and gives his granddaughter a sideways hug.
“I’m so pleased you asked. It’s been a long time since just the two of us have been on an overnighter. What…maybe seven or eight years? You were at university.”
Jeb drops his arm to sit forward. He sets the water bottle on the ground, leaning against the root. Mindy huddles forward, placing her elbows on her knees. Her head is in a narrow ray of sun and she appears golden.
“Wow, I can’t believe it’s been that long. That was when we went to Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland. That was an awesome trip.”
With her chin in her hand, she turns her head toward Jeb, her wide smile radiates happiness. Jeb is sitting similarly, elbows on his knees. They’re about the same height, so they’re eye to eye. Jeb melts under her stare; she’s looked at him that way since she was a baby. He knows her. Fine lines crinkle his temple when he scrunches his brow.
“You’re up to something, aren’t you, Mindy?”
She frowns back.
“Of course! But you have to wait until I’m ready to tell you.”
Jeb is ready to offer a guess when she cuts him off.
“Don’t even try to guess or I won’t tell you at all.”
He stares at the ground, defeated.
Changing the subject as he offers her the water, he says, “So, what do you think? Another hour to the top, right around noon? We’ve been at this for almost three hours now, and it usually takes an old duff like me about four or five, but you… you’re almost running uphill.”
“You take off, Mindy. Do the home stretch like you enjoy. I’ll meet you at the campsite. After we’re set up and eat, we can do the last half a kilo to the top. I think the old forest ranger’s station is still there.”
She jumps up, brushes a couple of vagrant leaves from her behind.
“Okay. You’re sure you don’t mind?”
“I haven’t minded before. I’m good. I might stop once in a while to admire the splendor and beauty of our natural surroundings.”
She nods at his formal delivery, knowing she’s just been told that he’ll be taking his good old time. Ever since he’d seen The Lord of the Rings, he was always quoting Gandalf about how he “means to arrive when he should.” She, on the other hand, thrives on pushing herself. The solitude of the forested hillside absorbs her stress and she forgets about upholding the law. Truthfully, she doesn’t like putting the tent up with Jeb; he’s too slow. She can have it up in ten minutes on her own, whereas with him “helping” it usually takes a half hour.
“Yeah, you do that, Gramps. Watch out for killer squirrels!”
“Oh! And I have something to tell you, too! But…!”
He wags his finger at her, reminding her she knows the rest.
“You crafty old dog!”
“Don’t call me an old dog. Now get outta here.”
He turns back to the leaf-covered vista before him, where he sees the downward slope of the terrain through the thinly scattered trees. The brush is kept trimmed on each side of a narrow brook that flows on the other side of the trail. The path follows the rill for another fifty meters before it twists northeast on its way to the pinnacle. He pushes his pack out of the way, rises and turns on his seat so he can watch her go uphill. She’s already halfway to the large tree where she left her pack, at a serious strut. The way she carries herself reminds Jeb of her father; she has the same physique. Of course, that vision is from when he was younger; they haven’t seen him for twenty-five years. The lovely oval face and cinnamon-colored eyes that can be so intense are from her mother, Heather – Jeb’s daughter. The determination and grit are her own. Watching her shoulder her pack and latch the loose nylon straps, he can only think how proud he is of her.
Jeb’s mind drifts as he stands to shoulder his own pack. Thoughts of Mindy’s father trouble him even with the passing of time. He wonders where he is. The family hasn’t heard from him for such a long time. Couldn’t stay off the bottle; probably drank himself to death. As Jeb climbs down the short bank to head up the trail, he can still remember the last time he saw him.
Norton Kane was a self-employed carpenter, living in a rooming house down in the east end of Moncton. He’d work for seven or eight days and go on a bender for two or three. A highly skilled craftsman when he was sober, he was always in demand. All he owned was an old Ford truck, his tools and enough clothes to fill a medium-sized suitcase. A year earlier, Jeb’s daughter had had enough. Caring for two boys, aged six and five, and Mindy, only two, she had thrown him out for good.
Norton had stopped at Jeb’s place early one morning, a Saturday that was gray with an overcast sky. The first day of spring didn’t bode well. Norton’s knock on the door woke Jeb up. Opening the back door to admit his son-in-law, he had to step back from the reek of cheap booze. His hair and clothing were disheveled, his manner pleading and his swollen eyes filled with despair. He needed two hundred dollars. He was starting a new project on Monday, a set of stairs in a new house by the golf course, he’d pay Jeb back next week. Jeb knew he’d never see the money again, but he didn’t dislike Norton, who had started out an honorable young man. He gave him one hundred dollars and wished him an abrupt goodbye. Norton didn’t even say thanks.
Two days later, Heather got a call from an angry homeowner demanding to know where his carpenter was. The gentleman had arrived at his house late afternoon to find the work site empty. Norton’s truck was parked in the driveway, rear hatch and driver’s door open. Tools were set up in the garage, with the wide doors rolled up. Sawdust and building materials were lying about. The door to the house was open but Norton was nowhere to be found.
No one ever saw him again.
Jeb begins to speculate anew what might’ve happened to Norton when the skitter of a squirrel overhead disrupts his thoughts. He stops to look up. Standing under a large maple tree that has already shed its reddish leaves, with only a few here and there reluctant to let go, he finds it easy to watch the clever brown acrobat dart from limb to limb, chattering. Jeb soon loses sight of the critter when it darts up the trunk of a neighboring spruce tree. Turning his gaze uphill, he contemplates the sharp rise. He tugs on the straps of his pack, tightening them across his chest. Sniffing the cool air, so clear he can smell the trees, he pauses a few moments longer. Pleased with his situation, he heads out to rendezvous with his granddaughter.
|Photo by Ramon Arizmendi|
Eight hours later, Mindy and Jeb are sitting on a fallen log three meters from their tent complaining about their overworked muscles. Jeb is reminded of some he hasn’t used in years. A large fire crackles in front of them in a makeshift pit they made with odd-sized rocks. The surrounding trees provided the wood. A slight breeze from the north moves the sharp smoke away from them. The pleasing aroma of burning pine is therapeutic. The clear sky is black with a million pinpricks of light. It’s down to twelve degrees and both have donned heavy fleeces. The flames flicker in the dark, throwing off a welcome heat. Mindy uses a long slender sapling as a poker to prod the wood into flames. They talk about their day in gleeful rapport.
- How Jeb had bragged about his famous salami and Gouda sandwiches, which he’d made for their lunch, only to discover he’d forgotten to pack them. They’d had dry gorp and granola bars instead.
- Their astonishment when they had climbed above the tree line – nothing but gray, cracked stone the last two hundred meters – and discovered the whole valley and sister mountains to the south were visible. They both loved the sensation of height and had remained silent for many moments.
- The abandoned Ranger’s station at the very top of the mountain – a four-by-four square meter structure with a double-hip roof. Guy wires of thick twisted steel braced all four corners to solid rock. The fierce winds that streamed across the mountaintop at times would otherwise carry it away. Jeb scolding Mindy for trying to climb the structure with her exclaiming that the apex of the roof was actually the highest point in New Brunswick.
- The kettle of bald eagles that coiled about the sky on hidden thermals – updrafts created by the mountainsides – and how majestically they had soared. They had left Mindy wishing she could fly.
- The vivid orange and ovoid globes dotted with yellow patches: amanita flavocona – a poisonous mushroom they had found attached to red spruce the species favored at high elevations. Jeb showing off, telling Mindy the common name was “yellow warts.” Ugh! was Mindy’s response.
They shift into silent spheres on occasion, one pondering what the other has said. Jeb asks about her boyfriend. Is he taking the job out west? Is that what she wanted to tell him? No answer! So he talks about her experience testifying at court as a member of the RCMP’s Firearms and Tool Mark Identification Section. Her knowledge of firearms is extensive.
Jeb tells her how many of his acquaintances passed away in the last year. They argue about which team will win this year’s Stanley Cup. Even though they haven’t won a championship in her lifetime, she refuses to turn her back on the Maple Leafs. They touch briefly on the dead body she found last year. She chatted about the new Glock 19 Gen 4 handgun she purchased. Jeb told her about the marvelous young woman of sixty-eight he had met at dance classes, and asks if Mindy minds?
They both stare at the flames and become quiet. Jeb has a closed mouth smile; Mindy has a smooth brow and glad eyes. Yet they look uncannily alike.
Jeb’s stomach rumbles and he breaks from his trance.
“Time to eat, my dear. Open the wine if you don’t mind.”
He jumps up, hastens to his pack just inside the unzipped tent and removes two heavy tin foil plates – like supermarkets sell their pies in – each wrapped in a thin thermal towel. Mindy already has the wine, plastic glasses – his neon green, her’s bright pink – and the cork screw. She had taken them out when she’d unpacked her sleeping bag before dinner. With a practiced hand, she slits away the top foil, twists in the corkscrew and opens up the grape.
The coals are pushed into a heap, with two pockets shaped on top, into which the heavy tin plates fit. The coals glow with heat, manifested by pink, white and red flares. A lick of blue flame erupts around the edges, where the heat finds something solid. Jeb puts on his hiking gloves to place the plates on the fire and the heat singes the loose threads on the end. The burnt nylon stinks.
Once the homemade roasters are sizzling, with aromatic juices of garlic and butter scenting the air, Mindy says, “Oh, Gramps, those smell good. How long?”
“Probably twenty minutes. Why?”
Jeb can see her smile in the light of the flames. It couldn’t be any bigger
“I want to tell you my surprise now.”
Jeb is jubilant. He’s been thinking of every possible scenario since she informed him she wanted to tell him something earlier.
He grabs his neon green wine glass and tips it toward the wine, noticing she brought a bottle of Jacob’s Creek Select, one of his favorites.
“Good choice, young lady.”
“Yeah, I know how much you like it.”
“Must be something special.”
After filling their wineglasses, she touches the edge of her glass to his. Mimicking fine lead crystal, she chants, “Pa-tinnnnnng. Here’s to the best Grampy ever.”
Jeb blushes and clears his throat, soaking up the comfortable vibes.
“To my favorite granddaughter.”
“Hah! I’m your only granddaughter.”
“Okay then, my favorite grandchild… and don’t tell the boys I said that. I love your brothers just as much.”
Mindy winks at him and takes a sip of wine. The firelight makes the blonde highlights stand out in her short curly hair. He has a hard time seeing her as a cop.
Mindy balances her glass on the log beside her and reaches into her jeans pocket to withdraw a small bag the size of a book of matches. She holds it up so he can see it. It’s too dark to see it’s made of gray velvet and silk tassels as she tugs the puckered opening apart. Reaching in with two fingers, she withdraws an original Vera Wang engagement ring. The one-carat marquis diamond encased in an ornate band sparkles in the glow of the fire. She slips it on her left ring finger.
“Darrick asked me to marry him.”
Jeb can see how happy she is. He can read it in her eyes, the way they widen in delight. Jeb’s good with this turn of events. After all, Darrick’s a solid man who dotes on his granddaughter.
“And you said yes, of course.”
She happily nods her head while concentrating on her ring for a moment, the facets teasing her eyes when she turns her hand toward the firelight.
“That’s wonderful news, Mindy. I’m so happy for you. Congratulations!”
‘Thank you, Grampy”
They both stand to hug. Mindy gives him a loving squeeze. By Jeb’s reaction, she knows she’s made the right decision. He backs off and holds her at arm’s-length.
“What did your mother say?”
“I haven’t told her yet. I wanted you to be the first to know.”
Mindy is shy now and breaks away from her grandfather. Pointing at the roasters, she says, “I think those might be done now.”
Jeb turns to eye the sizzling platters, steam escaping from the holes he made in the tin foil with a fork.
“A little more will be okay; I cut those potatoes kind of thick. So, you didn’t plan this trip just to tell me that did you?”
“No, there’s more. C’mon, sit down again.”
She rests upon the dead tree and when Jeb sits beside her, she holds his arm close to her and leans her head on his shoulder.
“I want you to walk me down the aisle.”
Jeb stares at the embers as she tells him. His elation is complete, a pulsing sensation of love and happiness. The coals turn all bleary as he tries not to blink. His reaction confuses Mindy and she asks gently, “Well?”
Jeb can’t talk, scared he will blubber. He offers her a gentle wave, asking her for a moment. She leans forward and sees the gleam in his eyes. She knows he will say yes.
The glowing embers and tin plates fade away. In their place a little girl walks from the living room and approaches him in the kitchen. Jeb is standing with his back against the cupboard, arms crossed as he munches on an apple. Mindy stops three or four steps away. He stops chewing and looks down. She’s almost eighteen months old and only thirty-one inches tall. The face that looks up at him is a perfect oval, the eyes uncertain. Jeb can’t think of anything dearer. After a few seconds she blurts, “Panky!”
That was the first time she tried to say his name. The boys called him Gampy then because they couldn’t pronounce Grampy and that was the closest she could get. Jeb glowed with adoration, thinking nothing could make him happier.
Until the same little girl grew up.
Jeb untangles his arm and hugs her close.
“Thank you for this, Mindy. I guess I’m just about the happiest Grampy in the world right now. So… when’s the wedding?”
She replies nonchalantly, “In four weeks.”
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