Snow falls in fat flakes and piles up on spruce boughs overhead. The tracks in front of your grandfather fill continually with fluffy powder that his skis cut through with a swhshh swshh you can hear from far behind him. The rest of the forest is still, poised.
It doesn’t take you long to sweat through your snowsuit. You’ve unbuttoned your jacket and stuffed your mittens into your pockets, letting the cold air sting your hands gloriously as you grip your ski poles. A few metres ahead of you, your grandfather glides through the tracks like he’s floating just above the ground. He told you that he used to have to ski to school – it snowed more when he was a boy, and the banks piled up so high that the horses couldn’t break through.
Somewhere in the back of your head you know that if you stick with it, your skiing will look as effortless as his. But right now, your poles flail as you try to push yourself along, unable to sink into a rhythm, gliding forward on one foot and then stutter-stepping and almost losing your balance. In front of you, the long tail of your grandfather’s toque flip-flops against his back. You suck the cold air in desperate heaves. Every few minutes your grandfather stops, looks over his shoulder, waits for you to catch up. When you inevitably ski over his ends, he shuffles forward, says, you’re getting better by the minute, and takes off again at the same pace he had before.
The spark of June’s lighter is followed quickly by the glow of the kerosene lantern. Smells like winter break, they say. I nod. Something about the sting of the oil in my nostrils coupled with the orange glow reflecting off cedar walls makes me think I should be waxing my skis and preparing a lunch for tomorrow’s excursion. But here isn’t there and now isn’t then.
I spread the blanket on the dusty floor so that we have something to sit on. The lantern glow softens everything. If I focus on the blanket, I can ignore the heaps of rubbish surrounding our picnic.
Except now I’ve broken the spell. I know that come morning I’ll have to deal with the mildewed furniture and mouldy windowsills. I’ll have to clean up the piles of books and sheafs of loose-leaf paper in the shadows that have been gradually decomposing as the leak in the roof lets more and more moisture into the shack. And then there’s the empties. Probably hundreds of dollars-worth of empty bottles and cans, some piled against the walls and cabinets, plenty more strewn across the floor and counters and couches. There are dead things here, too.
June empties their backpack onto the blanket and slices me a piece of cheese and some bread.
I feel like a fucking Hobbit, I say. Or a vagabond.
June laughs. Nothing so wrong with that, they say. They pop the caps off two bottles and hand me one.
We enjoy the rest of our makeshift picnic. More or less. The less turns to more the longer the night goes on, and June’s voice and the orange light and the Hobbit-food let me sink into an unstable happiness. Maybe tomorrow we’ll find some skis tucked into the rafters and wax hidden under a couch cushion, and I can pretend it’s snowy outside and that I’m about to go on an adventure. Like I used to. Like he and I used to. If I let myself ignore the facts, I can almost imagine my grandfather is still here, and this picnic is part of something pleasant.
When you spent weekends at your grandfather’s as a boy, often Friday nights he would let you stay up late watching TV with him. You were too young to understand the dirty jokes in the sitcoms, and too unbiased to care which sport was being played. All that really mattered was that the two of you could sink into his orange chesterfield, shoulder to shoulder, and lose yourselves in the flicker of a different world.
Every half hour or so it was your job to fetch another can of pilsner from the dented refrigerator by the back door. You were happy to oblige, and every few restocks you’d grab yourself another CocaCola too.
There was one Friday night when you were a little older, maybe eight or nine, and a Dairy Queen ad came on after a few hours of assorted programming. You were excited. After watching TV for hours on end, you rarely saw an unwatched advertisement.
You jumped up onto the couch, barely holding onto your Coke can, and whooped and hollered as a picture-perfect ice cream cake glowed against a white backdrop.
I love ice cream cake, you shouted. I love it, I love it, I love it!
The outpouring of enthusiasm may not have matched the intensity of your actual feelings towards ice cream cake, but halfway through your fourth Coke, no amount of energy seemed too much to expend.
You darted around the living room, jumping over the corner of the glass-topped coffee table, risking rug burn to your bare feet with the ferocity of your sporadic dance moves.
Dairy Queen, Dairy Queen, you chanted.
Your grandfather watched you for a few moments. A smile spilled and spread across his face. A chuckle slipped from his lips, then a full-belly guffaw that thundered up from deep inside him. He slammed his beer can on the coffee table, droplets of pale-yellow splattering against the glass-top, then lurched to his feet and stumbled about the living room, hands above his head in an erratic outpouring of support while he joined your chant.
The commercial ended and the two of you kept going. Fists pumping, feet stomping, your chant of Dairy Queen! Dairy Queen! exploded through the entire house. Your face turned red with exertion and you felt your voice start to catch on the sides of your throat as the chant grew hoarse.
Finally, your grandfather bellowed, Enough!
You froze. The smile melted off your face and your eyes widened.
He scooped his beer off the table, downed it, then crushed the can and tossed it against a wall.
Our expedition is clear, he boomed. An ice cream cake.
He stumbled towards the hall and you followed, your frenetic chant continued as he snatched his keys from a nail by the door and the two of you piled into his half ton pickup. He fishtailed down the gravel driveway and barely slowed down as he bumped over the bright red Texas gate out towards the main road. The whole ten kilometres into town, he pushed the tachometer into the red zone, his shifting jerky and erratic. Headlights appeared out of the pitch-black and then passed you by almost instantly. Every few moments the yellow line drifted under the middle of the truck and your grandfather jerked the steering wheel to adjust. You held onto the edge of your seat, tingling with the sense that something wasn’t quite right. But your grandfather was there, and when you were with him things were okay.
Coming home from the store, you held the cake on your lap. You could feel the cold seep through your pants and chill your legs. Goosebumps spread across your bare arms and your teeth chattered.
The icing on the cake said, CONGRATULATIONS. When the clerk had asked what the occasion was, your grandfather slurred, every day is worth celebrating, and left $50 on the counter.
Just past the Texas gate, on the gravel, you hit a coyote darting across the road. Your grandfather didn’t even try to swerve, maybe he didn’t see it. You saw it though. The impact felt like going too fast over a speedbump. The cake tumbled off of your lap and landed icing-side down on the floor. When you got home, there was blood on the front bumper.
Two hushed voices slip under the crack between the pine floor and the bottom of the door:
Not this weekend.
But you know how much he loves it.
Not this weekend. Maybe never.
Don’t say that.
The two of them are so close. And he’s learning a lot.
Your dad hit a fucking coyote, Mark. Is he learning what you’d like him to be?
That’s not what usually happens. You know that. It was a bad night, that’s it.
A bad night is when the Riders lose. He could’ve been dead. Your dad could’ve rolled the truck and we could’ve been picking up a corpse from the hospital.
I know it wasn’t—
Is that what you want?
Christ, calm down. It was—
It was what? It was fucking drunk driving with an eight-year-old in the passenger seat so don’t you fucking tell me to calm down.
I just… I think it’s important he gets to grow up with his grandfather. Did you see how he built a fire from basically nothing at Pike Lake last summer? And he knows more birds than we do. I swear he knows the prairie better than—
I get it.
You can’t just cut him off.
Once your dad sobers up, he can start visiting again.
He’s going to be devastated.
Both of them.
Once he sobers up.
It starts raining as we finish our second beer. June and I drag our sleeping mats into the corner of the shack farthest from the leak in the roof. I consider putting a stock pot under the leak, but there’s no point. The floor all around the hole is already warped and starting to rot.
There’s a rocking chair with a heavy wool blanket on it that swallows nested in during the spring. June wants to clear it and put the blanket over our sleeping bags.
They reuse nests, I tell them. They’ll be back next year.
June tilts their head. Aren’t we cleaning this whole place out?
Maybe, I say.
We sleep side-by-side with just our noses poking out of our bags to stay warm, like he taught me. It’s not as cold as when the two of us went winter camping in Prince Albert National Park. That year we’d ended up sharing a sleeping bag, skin-to-skin contact the only thing keeping hypothermia at bay. I’d never been that close to my grandfather before, and I remember noticing how shallow his breaths were, like he was afraid that the air was going to run away from him. I fell asleep to the quiet heave of his breathing and the knowledge that nothing could hurt me while I was with him. I haven’t slept as soundly since.