Teens stumble upon Christmas spirit

[Excerpted from “Let Nothing You Dismay” in Life Among the Letters: Selected Short Stories by John Becton. ]

By morning three to four more inches of snow had accumulated. There was some melting during the day and refreezing after sunset.

“No wheels tonight,” Bill told George over the phone. “But I’ve got to get out of here. My parents are driving me crazy.”

Each 16-year-old had his allotted share of teen angst.

“Mine too. Let’s go over to Barry’s. He won’t have to get permission to take his own car out.”

Barry had a different idea, however.

“I ain’t taking my baby out in this,” he said. “It was starting to get bad when I came in from work. Let’s just walk over to the bowling alley.” He pulled a heavy gray coat out of the hall closet and called out, “Mom, I’m going over to the bowling alley with George and Bill. We won’t be late.” There was a muffled reaction from upstairs. “No, we’re walking.”

Outside, Barry took in a deep breath, let it out with a satisfied “Ah!” and said, “Well, just a couple more days.” There was no response from his companions.

The bowling alley was over on the main highway, about a 10-minute walk from the Barry’s house. The highway came down a steep hill from the west, leveled at the bowling alley and then became a long, upward grade as it headed east toward downtown. Two cafes, a convenience store and a small office complex had replaced homes along that stretch. The city had recently lined the road with bright street lights.

“This will be like glass before long,” Bill said as he and his companions hurried across the highway and into the building.

“Man, it’s getting colder,” Barry said, stuffing his gloves and toboggan into the pockets of his coat. “Let’s get some coffee.”

Their three cups drained the pot. George took a sip and exclaimed, “Tastes as bad as it smells!”

“I wonder how many hours it’s been sitting there,” Bill wondered aloud. “Well, it least it’s warm.”

The local Top-40 station blared over the PA system. There was a lot of loud talking and laughing, as well as the continual sound of bowling balls crashing into pins.

“There are more people here than I expected,” George noted. He stuck a cigarette in the corner of his mouth and let it flap up and down as he talked. “Lot of locals. See those guys over there? They’re from Westfield High. That’s the problem with living on the edge of town — too close to the farm boys. Probably looking for trouble. They might find it.” He lit the cigarette. “I guess we might as well bowl a game or two.”

“I’m ready.”

“Me, too.”

After Barry picked up a spare, Bill sent his ball down the right side of the lane. He leaned back to his left while watching the ball slip off into the gutter. “Damn thing wouldn’t hook,” he said as he turned around.

George gazed up from the scorer’s table and off to the side. Barry looked at George and then off in the opposite direction. Bill knew what this meant: “We didn’t see it. So it didn’t happen.” He pressed the pick-up button and rolled an official score of 9 for the first frame.

During the seventh frame, they saw the four Westfield students leaving. One looked back, smiled and waved.

By the time Bill, George and Barry had finished bowling, cars heading into town were beginning to slip and slide coming down the hill toward the bowling alley. Even though there was less traffic, crossing the highway would be more of an adventure than before.

“We may never get across,” Barry observed.

Bill motioned toward the now-icy grade that led to downtown. “Look at that.”

Three large trucks were stuck at various spots. One had slid over into the outbound lanes.

“This is getting to be one big mess,” George said. Then he grinned. “Well, we can stand here and watch cars pile up.”

As the boys continued to wait for a chance to cross the highway, a white Chevrolet Bel Aire came across the hill from the west, followed by a red Plymouth Fury. When the cars hit the ice, they slid sideways, bounced off each other obliquely, spun around and collided again.

A third car managed to get around them, but a maroon MG came across the top of the hill too fast and crashed into the Fury. A fifth car clipped the back of the MG and slid off the road. The next one stopped at the top of the hill. Drivers and passengers all got out, apparently uninjured. They began pushing the cars to the side of the road. Even though there were more than enough people, Bill said, “We’d better help.”

“Yeah,” Barry replied. “It’s a good thing we’re here.”

“You two take care of things here,” George said. “I’m gonna stop traffic from coming over the hill.” He trudged up and beyond the top of the hill. He diverted two cars onto a secondary road and stopped a Trailways bus.

“You’ll never get into town this way,” he told the driver. “It’s solid ice on the other side and there are three tractor-trailers blocking the highway on the other hill.”

“You think we can get through these side streets?” the driver asked.

“Yeah. The city buses go that way.”

“What about the conditions?”

“They’ve got snow, but not ice.”

As soon as the wrecked vehicles were out of the way, the car at the top of the hill inched down toward the bowling alley and turned onto the road by the office complex.

George rerouted two more cars, but another refused to stop for his signal. The driver looked straight ahead and kept the wheels spinning steadily toward the top of the hill.

“Son of a bitch!” George yelled, jumping to the side. From the top of the hill, he watched the offending vehicle approach the wrecked cars. The brake lights came on. The car slid into a telephone pole on the left.

“Serves you right,” George muttered. His traffic shift apparently over, he moved on down the hill to examine all the damage. A police car arrived about that time. Before the officer sorted everything out, he got to witness three more fender benders.

“I’ve had about enough of this,” Bill told Barry. “We’ve seen about a dozen cars pile up. It’s getting boring now.”

“Yeah, let’s go. Hey, George, let’s get out of here.”

They cut through the 7-ll parking lot to Mimosa Drive.

“Could you believe the way that Chevy and Fury smacked each other?” George chuckled.

“Man, it was something,” Barry said. He let out a small laugh. “That S-O-B that tried to run over you wrapped around that pole pretty good, didn’t he?”

They didn’t dwell on the subject for long because talking made their teeth hurt. Two blocks down Mimosa, they turned on to Spring Hill Road, which would take them into their neighborhood, just across Parkview Road.

“Man, I’m cold,” Barry said. The other two just nodded. George put his gloved hands into his coat pockets. Bill folded his arms across his chest.

The residential streets had the old, incandescent street lights at three- or four-block intervals. The one at the intersection of Mimosa and Spring Hill was not working. All the houses they passed were dark or dimly lit. There was no traffic. The powdery snow cushioned their footsteps. It was so quiet, it was either serene or deafening, depending on your state of mind.

At the intersection of Spring Hill and Parkview, a white compact car sat silently facing east on Parkview, its right side in the shallow ditch. The boys walked up to the driver’s window.

Behind the wheel was a woman in her late 20s. There were two small children in the back seat. All three occupants looked frightened. The doors were locked.

“Need a push?” George called out.

The woman rolled the window down only a couple of inches. “Oh, yes, thank you. That would be so great, if you could.”

The boys had little trouble getting the car back onto the road. They jogged along behind as it crept around a curve. When the wheels began spinning on the incline by the park, they started pushing again. After a long block, the road leveled.

The car proceeded several yards without their help, then stopped. They walked around to the side. The woman rolled the window more than halfway down. She looked relieved.

“Oh, thank you so much. I think I can make it from here.”

“How far you going?” George asked.

“Malvern Woods.”

“Just a couple of miles and no real hills. Yeah, you should be OK,” Bill said.

She opened her pocket book and reached in. “What do I owe you?”

Each boy stepped back. “Nothing,” Bill said.

“Well, I want to give you something for your trouble.”

“Oh, it was no trouble, really,” George insisted. He started making zig-zagged lines in the snow with the toe of his right boot.

“You were so nice to stop and help. I don’t know what I would’ve done if you fellows hadn’t come along. And you look like you’re really cold. You could be home with your families in your warm houses.”

“No, we’re OK. Just fine,” Barry said. “We’re just glad to help.”

“You just don’t know how much I appreciate it.” She took three one-dollar bills from her pocket book and held them out the window. “Please take this.”

“It really isn’t necessary,” Barry protested. Bill and George shook their heads in agreement.

“I insist.”

The boys didn’t budge.

“Well, here. It’s yours. Merry Christmas.” She threw the bills down in the snow and drove off.

They stood staring at the money.

“I wish she hadn’t done that,” Bill said.

“Me, too,” Barry agreed. “You boys keep it.”

“Nah,” George said. “I don’t want it. You do something with it. Or you, Bill. Put some gas in your Dad’s car.”

Bill just watched snow starting to fall on their reward. Then he looked in the direction the woman had driven away. Then at the tracks the car had made while they were pushing it.

“Boys, this money is just going to get wet,” Barry said. He picked up one of the dollar bills and shook the snow off of it. George and Bill reluctantly did the same.

“I still wish she hadn’t done this,” Bill said.

“Yeah,” George said. “I feel like we owe her.”