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Uncle Cedric

1-old lady

I saw an old lady today, shuffling along on a cane and an umbrella, accompanied by a dog that was keeping a few yards ahead, poking his nose at things with his tongue hanging out. After they passed I stopped and turned to watch them, and was reminded of a day long ago and my Uncle Cedric.

You’re OK kid, Cedric used to say, winking secretly.

He said it whenever I did stuff for him, like washing his car, or going to the corner store for cigarettes. Sometimes he gave me his spare change, and when I was old enough to do bigger errands, one day he sent me to pick up a box in the back alley behind the ABC Liquor Store.  That was soon after he gave me a brand new 10 speed bike for no apparent reason. Then I discovered there was one.

I met him at the far end of the lane where he was waiting in a Ford Mustang he called McQueen. Then, to impress me he peeled away burning rubber with a crazy grin on his face. Dust and dirt flew up and hit me in the face, but I didn’t mind because I had a new bike and ten dollars for my trouble. A week later I used the money and bought myself a dog. My parents weren’t happy about it, but they let me keep him anyways. I called him Champ.

Not a month after I got Champ, Uncle Cedric, going much too fast in his Mustang, ran him over right in front of our driveway. Champ lay there on the road, panting and Uncle Cedric jumped out of the car, picked him up and sped off to the vet with Champ and me in the back. I noticed an empty bottle of rum on the floor. Cedric ran into the vet’s office with Champ, and came out a half hour later. He looked shaken, gave me ten dollars, and made me promise not to tell my Mom, his sister. When I got home, Mom asked where Champ was.

He ran away, I said. I really wanted to tell her, but I had some foolish loyalty to Cedric. I went to my room and lay down on my bed, burying my face in the pillow so I could cry in private. I felt trapped by the bike and the money.

The next day Cedric saw me on the street coming home from school and stopped to tell me, with a sad look on his face, that poor Champ had to be sent to another hospital, and might not be back for a while. I had a bad feeling he was lying.

How long of a while, I asked, but Cedric said he didn’t know. Then he gave me ten bucks and made me promise not to say a word, and also would I go get another box from the alley for him that night?

I didn’t want to, but I promised to do it, hoping this might get Champ back. I thought maybe Cedric was using Champ to get me to do his bidding, but I was afraid to say anything. He burned out of there again and a little stone shot up from one of the back wheels and chipped my front tooth. All of a sudden Cedric didn’t seem so cool.

When I got home my Mom saw my chipped tooth and freaked out. I said I got in a fight at school, and the guy I fought lost his front tooth, so after that she calmed down. Late after dark, I snuck out the back door and rode my bike into town.

There was the box as usual, behind the big steel bin next to the back door. As I leaned my bike on the fence a car came down the lane with no lights on, so I walked away trying to be casual. Then the headlights came on and so did the flashing red light.

Hold on kid, a voice yelled at me.

I jumped a fence and ran home as fast as I could. The next day after school there was a police car at our house. They found my bike behind the liquor store and wanted to ask me some questions. I told them I liked hanging around in the alley pretending to be a detective and they seemed to believe that, so they left.

Afterwards, my Mom asked me what was really going on, but I didn’t tell her out of misplaced youthful loyalty to Cedric, and a nagging fear that I was already mixed up in something wrong. To make matters worse, I was afraid that if I told the truth I might not ever see Champ again.

You’re not to go out at that hour any more, she said, is that clear?

I nodded and tried to look like I meant it. What did she know about how it felt to be twelve and get paid ten bucks for picking up a box in an alley? When I told Uncle Cedric about the cops in the lane he rubbed my head and gave me five bucks.

You’re OK, kid, he said.

Then he said he wanted me to go back soon. When the day came I could hardly think between worrying that the police might show up and hoping that if all went well I might see my dog. To compound my anxiety I was still feeling guilty for deceiving my Mom, and afraid that whatever it was I was doing, it wasn’t strictly honest. Half an hour before the pickup, I got on my bike and cruised to town.

Riding down the street in front of the ABC Liquor Store, I noticed an old lady on an electric scooter drive up to the café next door. She creaked off the seat like the rusty tin man in the Wizard of Oz and shuffled into the café, leaving the dog outside.

I rode around the block several times, checking the big clock that hung in the window of the drug store. Just before the agreed time I headed down the block and around the corner like a rider in the Tour de France. I hit the alley and cranked it hard until mid-block, whereupon I jammed on the back brake and came skidding towards the box in a foolish attempt to kick up dust like Cedric’s car. I got dust alright, lost control and hit the dirt, skinning my elbow and the side of my leg.

I got up bruised and sore and looked to see if anyone had seen, but there was nobody around. Embarrassed and aching, I picked up my bike and leaned it on the fence, then hobbled over to the box. I limped back to the bike with the box, put it on my carrier, slung my leg over the top bar and put my foot to the pedal. I rode down the lane slowly as the pain began to set in. Across the street Cedric’s car was waiting in the opposite lane.

He flashed his lights and pointed left, then drove to the first corner, crossed the street and turned down into the next lane. Just then the old lady came down the sidewalk on her electric cart, with her dog ambling along beside. I waited until she passed and began pedaling.

I quickly caught up and passed the old lady, but she stayed close behind me on the sidewalk. I turned down the alley and saw Uncle Cedric’s car halfway down the block. Cedric got out and looked up and down the lane.

I was halfway there when from behind me a dog flashed by and within a few strides jumped onto Uncle Cedric, who immediately hit the dirt. I just about skidded off my bike again as I hit the brakes and came to a stop. Looking back I saw the old lady coming down the lane in a cloud of dust like a geriatric maniac. Then her cart stopped and miraculously she sprung up from her seat, throwing off the shabby old coat and hat. Under the coat she wore a police jacket and a big black gun that she kept her hand on as she broke into a run.

Don’t you go anywhere son, she said as she passed.

A minute later, two police cars arrived and took Uncle Cedric away. After she took my name, my statement, the box and my bike, the police woman sent me home in a police car, where I had to explain to my mother what had happened.

After the police left, my Mom asked me how much money I’d made doing Cedric’s pickups. I told her I had fifty bucks. She took the money, and told me she was keeping it so the dentist could fix my broken tooth.

What about Champ, I blurted out?

Suddenly she stopped looking angry. Champ’s gone, she said, he’s not coming back.

©Donald J. Nathan

January 24  2018

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The Hat Trick

I published this one back in 2012 but then removed it when I submitted it to a short story contest. Needless to say I should have won but didn’t, so here it is again, in the spirit of a real Quebec winter.

Proulx at the bus stop

Proulx at the bus stop


Saturday afternoon Mr. Proulx took up his usual spot at the outdoor rink to watch his local church team, St. Joseph’s play their archrivals, St. Patrick’s Irish. By the time he arrived the Pats were up a goal. The wind was blowing so hard towards the net of the Joes that they were having a difficult time trying to bring the puck to the Pats zone. The Pats on the other hand, with the wind at their backs, flew down the ice at the hapless Joes. No sooner had Proulx arrived when the Pats scored again.

“Come on boys, let’s get one,” shouted Proulx.

He gesticulated towards the Irish net as if they didn’t know where it was. He pulled out a flask and took a long swig. A few of the players looked over and laughed. It was a familiar routine; Proulx shouting encouragement, and getting tipsy. Sometimes when Proulx leaned over to thump on the boards his fedora would fall on the ice. The first player to go by would flip it up and over the boards with his stick, barely missing a stride. The deftness with which one could flip a hat or a lump of hard snow off the rink was a matter of common pride.

At the end of the first half the score was 2-0 for the Irish. The referee blew his whistle and the players scrambled half frozen from their boxes, heading for the warmth of the shack. Proulx thumped their backs as they went in and again as they came out for the next period, reminding them that the game was not over yet.

With the wind now at their backs the Joes came on with fury, soon tying the score. Then the wind moved, and both teams rushed from end to end with equal speed, passion and precision. But there were no more goals, and with only two minutes left Proulx cheered and pounded vigorously on the boards, calling for his boys to score the winner. It was then that his hat fell off.

A gust of wind blew Proulx’s black fedora into centre ice right in the path of one of the Irish players. He slashed the hat on his backhand sending it sailing out of the rink. Like a kite it soared into the air, where the blustering wind carried it far away across a snowy field.

Swiveling his head to watch the hat, while his body was halfway through a quick turn in the opposite direction, a St. Pat defenseman tripped and fell. His pathway cleared, a St. Joe winger cruised in with the puck and scored.

Out in the field some youngsters were playing with Proulx’s hat when he walked up to them. One dutifully returned it as Proulx said to him, “That’s my lucky hat, you know”.

Monday afternoon Mr. Proulx was walking down St. Catherine St. smoking his pipe, his head held high. He had a satisfied look on his face, as if he had just heard some pleasing news. Only he hadn’t heard anything of the sort. This was merely his usual way of walking and pipe smoking.

He was thinking about how, his hat having fallen off at the opportune moment, he had inadvertently assisted his team to defeat the Pats. It seemed like it was nothing more than a lucky coincidence, although the rude treatment of his hat by the Pats player served to make it a case of just desserts for the Irish. Such is the randomness of hockey he concluded. It could have gone either way.

Passing by a liquor store he went in and purchased a hip flask of his favorite whiskey. Back on the street he continued his walk, pausing to look in shop windows full of Christmas goods.  He stopped at the corner newsstand, perusing the daily papers for anything of interest. He was about to move on when he noticed a small headline in the left hand corner of one paper.

One Goal Hat Trick it said. Proulx picked it up and handed over a few coins to the newsy. The paper tucked under his arm he continued his stroll. A few blocks west and round a corner he reached his tavern, where he took his usual table. No sooner had he sat down when the waiter arrived with the customary order of two draft beers.

Leaving his hat on, Proulx slung his coat on the back of the chair, relit his pipe and opened the paper. He peered at the little article in the bottom corner. To his surprise it was a brief account of the game at which he had lost his hat, and the subsequent events leading to the winning goal. The writer concluded with the observation that St. Catherine must have interceded on behalf of the team which the hat owner supported, her being the patron saint of hat makers. An affront to a good hat must have caused her divine intercession.

Mr. Proulx had emptied one glass. He reached behind himself to pull his flask from the inside pocket of his coat. He poured a little shot into the empty glass and drank it down in one gulp, followed by a swig from beer number two. Then he went back to reading. Here was a story about panic in the markets, here another about the divorce rate in Russia. He turned to the editorial page to see what the issue of the day would be. Now here was yet another shock: it was about miracles, the hat he’d dropped on the ice, and St. Catherine, patron saint of hat makers, lace makers and so on.

“Now that’s a strange coincidence,” thought Proulx. “Me sitting in a tavern on St. Catherine Street, reading about the very hat that sits on top of my head.”

Moments later Proulx’s friend Tremblay arrived, followed by two glasses of beer. Mr. Tremblay had no knowledge of the One Goal Hat Trick or of Proulx’s part in it. When he asked Proulx what was new in the paper, Proulx smirked and directed Tremblay’s attention to the first article.

“So you believe that your hat won the game?” asked Tremblay with a smile.

Mr. Proulx shrugged and pointed out the editorial page. Tremblay read on. He nodded his head saying “hmm” to himself several times as he read.

“A miracle perhaps,” he said when he was done, taking a sip from his second beer.

“Well, if it was a miracle,” asked Proulx “Then was it the hat, or was it St. Catherine?”

Tremblay was truly puzzled. Of course, it had to be something, but what, and how? He told Proulx that he would think on the matter. They drank up their beer and had a game of cribbage before they left.

It was windy and bitter cold out as they exited onto St. Catherine Street. Hard snowflakes drove into their faces and swirled up in columns like little tornadoes. Tremblay extracted a toque from his pocket and pulled it tight on his head. He looked at Proulx who was buttoning his coat when a sudden gust sent the lucky fedora flying into the street. They both turned their heads to watch it go as it hit the road and tumbled into the far lane. While Proulx watched in vain for a break in traffic a bus ran over the hat, leaving it crushed and filthy by the far curb.

Tremblay put his hand up to his head and groaned. Proulx remained silent, nodding gently as if talking to someone who wasn’t there. Then he pulled his pipe from his pocket and stuffed it between his teeth. He lit up, giving a hard puff so that it belched a small cloud of smoke.

He turned to Tremblay and gave him a pat on the back. They moved on down the street together.

“Well, it’s her street after all, isn’t it?” remarked Proulx.

Tremblay looked at him.

“You know, I had a notion that it was just the hat.”

“No, it couldn’t have been the hat,” replied Proulx. “It must have been St. Catherine.”

Tremblay looked back at the flattened fedora.

“Yes, you could be right.”

“Well, there’s no other explanation,” Proulx said with a sigh.

The hat lay on the street for a little while. Then a boy came along and picked it up. He punched it into some semblance of a shape and took it home with a mind to put it on a snowman.

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