I wished that if I had to be skinny, I could’ve at least been tall. And if I couldn’t be tall, why couldn’t I be smart, or strong, or good looking?
Instead, I was about as hopeless as they come. I was a nothing. I was nobody.
I was especially horrible at sports, probably one of the worst things that could happen to a teenage boy in a small, backwards town like Prairieville.
It was a Tuesday, which meant I had gym second period. I dreaded it always.
The bell sounded off and I begrudgingly headed towards the gymnasium, my head hanging down as usual, my heart heavy.
As I drew nearer, I felt a sick panging in my gut because I knew every other Grade 9 student on the way there was good at volleyball, and I was going to stick out as the inept player who had about as much strength behind his serve as a thumb-sucking toddler.
Our teacher, Mr. Ringwall, knew I hated gym. That considered, I guess I can’t blame him for dismissing me when I pleaded illness.
“I just don’t feel that great today,” I told him after everyone had gotten dressed in their Adidas shirts and Nike sneakers.
Well, everyone except me that is. I had on an old, ratted up Led Zeppelin shirt I’d borrowed from my brother Jon and I didn’t have any shoes at all. Instead, I always played in socked feet. I guess that probably didn’t help my game much.
“Look, Christmas,” Mr. Ringwall said, “we’ll keep you on the bench as much as possible today, but you’re not getting out of playing altogether.”
“Mr. Ringwall, I-…”
“Forget it, Christmas. You’re not sick. You’re just sick of playing volleyball.”
He was half right, but I truly was suffering from something serious that day, and shouldn’t have been forced to play.
The moment I had to stand from the bench and get in the six-man position, I felt a wave of dizziness wash over me, and tiny black dots started swimming in front of my eyes.
I tried to guess which one was the volleyball, but it didn’t matter, because within a few seconds I’d fallen flat on my arse on the waxy gym floor.
The next thing I knew there was a crowd of students huddled around me and Mr. Ringwall was glaring down, his brow furrowed so tightly that his forehead looked like a rolled up Roman shade.
“Christmas? Christmas?” he called, trying to pull me out of unconsciousness.
My eyelids fluttered as I struggled to regain focus. It took me a few minutes to even realize where I was.
Seconds later the haggard old school nurse rushed in, probably mad as hell that I’d cut her smoke break short. She checked me all over with her medical gadgets but couldn’t seem to figure out what was wrong with me.
Mr. Ringwall told me I ought to head up to the clinic to see a doctor. With a little help from him and old nurse Hairy Chin, I stood to my feet and let them lead me to the front lobby. The nurse offered to drive me over to Dr. Baker’s office, which was only about three blocks away.
“Call if you need a ride back,” she said after she dropped me off. I could tell she really wanted to get back to that smoke the way she drove away so quickly.
The clinic clerk was expecting me and quickly showed me to Dr. Baker’s room when I walked in the door.
“Just have a seat in here,” she said politely. She had a look of pity on her face. I often had that effect on people.
I sat on Dr. Baker’s examining table, nervously swinging my feet up and down, letting them slip then thud against the tin under the cot, amused by the echoing rattle I’d caused.
I looked at the eye chart across the tiny room, reading the E at the top clearly, but the rest of the letters were a fuzzy blur. The more I stared at the chart, the dizzier I became, so I stopped and looked at the floor instead.
A spider crawled across one of the square tiles – maybe the last one I’d see before winter set in, I thought.
“Good morning, son.”
Startled, I sat up ramrod straight and saw Dr. Baker standing there.
He sat down at his desk, pulling out a pen and clicking it open and closed several times before he was satisfied it would work.
“What can I do for you today, Georgie?”
I’d been seeing Dr. Harry Baker since I was a baby. In fact, he was probably the one who’d given me the ol’ snip-snip in the first week of my life.
“Uh, uh, my, my teacher sent me here,” I stammered.
I became nervous easily. Though I’d known Dr. Baker forever - he was almost like an uncle to me, really - the second anyone started asking me questions about myself I would either freeze or lie or mumble, and I was always embarrassed.
“Well, yes sir, it was actually my gym teacher,” I said. “I fell on my butt in gym class. I sort of...conked out. My teacher told me I should come here instead of taking my other classes this morning.”
I could feel my cheeks heating up. I wished I would’ve had the sack to just go home and skip both school and the doctor, but I was too afraid of getting in trouble.
Dr. Baker raised one white eyebrow behind his square-shaped glasses.
“Has anyone phoned your mother about this?”
I shook my head no.
“Uh, she’s, she’s usually resting in the morning,” I told him.
Dr. Baker knew everything about my mother. In fact, I was sure everyone in Prairieville knew everything about my mother and the rest of us Christmases. They knew everything about every family, for that matter. But I guess Dr. Baker felt like asking anyway.
He nodded his big head up and down, then started flipping through the chart he held in his hairy hands.
“Well, m’boy,” he said. “It looks like it’s been about a year since I last saw you.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“And have you been feeling all right this whole time?”
“For the most part, I guess,” I said.
Dr. Baker nodded again, this time scribbling something into my chart.
“You said you passed out in gym class?” He grabbed a blood pressure pump dangling from the wall and clasped it around my arm. As soon as he started pumping on it, I immediately felt dizzy again.
“You all right, son?” he asked, and then his face seemed to cover in darkness.
“Yes, sir,” I lied.
Dr. Baker looked at the pump’s meter and marked some more things down in my chart. He released the pressure and the darkness slowly slipped away until I could see his face clearly again.
“Stand here on the scale, if you would,” he said, jabbing his pen towards a weigh scale to the left of us. “And take your shoes off.”
“Yes, sir,” I said again.
I removed my worn, scuffed up loafers with a hole in the toe – the only pair of shoes I had that fit - and stepped onto the scale.
Squinting through his glasses, Dr. Baker slid the weights back and forth until the balance sat perfectly still.
“One hundred and four pounds,” he announced.
I stared up at him blankly. I didn’t know what that meant to him or what it should mean to me.
“Son, that’s not very good,” he said, looking down at me through his glasses again. “How old are you?”
“I’m, I’m 15,” I said.
He eyed me up and down, making me feel even more uncomfortable.
“And about five-foot, six inches, I’d say,” he observed.
Then he grabbed a measuring tape and wrapped it around my waist, peering closely at the numbers.
“No, no, that’s not very good at all,” he said, shaking his head, seemingly angry now.
“Now listen here, Georgie,” he said, whipping the tape off of me. “I need you to start taking in a few more calories. A boy your age and height really ought to be at least 120 pounds, and probably even more. This just isn’t good at all.”
My cheeks burned with embarrassment.
Dr. Baker seemed to notice how horrible his comments were making me feel.
“Now, son, it’s not your fault. Not really. But you do have to start managing your own diet. Take charge of it yourself. I want you to start eating two eggs for breakfast, every morning, and at least two snacks in between your other meals.”
I decided not to tell him that I rarely ever ate three meals a day. I just nodded some more so he’d leave me be.
“Okay,” he said. “You should be okay. Just make sure you eat a good hearty breakfast with lots of eggs if you have gym class in the morning again. And for Godsakes, you’d better get something to eat right away.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
It was about 11:30 when I finally left Dr. Baker’s office. I didn’t think it made sense to go back to school for the last 30 minutes of class before lunch, but I didn’t want to go home either, so I decided to take a walk and maybe find something to eat like Dr. Baker suggested.
Prairieville was about as far up Saskatchewan’s arse as any town could be, with no city around for miles and miles. It was a hick town, most would admit, full of cowboys with big belt buckles and hardly anyone who didn’t come from German or Ukrainian ancestry.
Things were always slow and quiet in town. A few old grannies crossed the road in front of me with grocery bags full of apples and oranges, and whatever they could find at a bargain price. None of them had forgotten what it felt like to go hungry, having lived through the poverty of the Dirty 30s. They were true survivors, but people around Prairieville mostly just ignored them, disregarding them as old hags.
I often felt as invisible as the claw-handed old ladies. I was painfully shy, and I didn’t come from one of the top families in Prairieville who were business people or important people. I was just Georgie Christmas Jr., a shard of glass in a pond.
There were only three places in Prairieville a person could get anything edible - the grocery store, the drugstore or the convenience store.
I didn’t like the women that worked behind the counter at the drugstore. They were too nosey, always asking questions about my family and making me feel uncomfortable. One of the clerks at the grocery store was married to the school principal, and I feared getting reported for playing hooky if she saw me.
So I walked a few blocks further east to the convenience store. There really wasn’t much in the way of food there – more so cigarettes, coffee and magazines - but I was hopeful I’d find something.
I walked over to the tiny produce section and grabbed the only two apples that weren’t bruised. Then I stopped at the magazine rack to see what was new.
When the clerk wasn’t looking, I grabbed a few of the naughty rags on the top shelf and had myself a peek. I couldn’t see much of the girl on the cover page, but was delighted that the magazine had come loose from its plastic packaging and I got to have a look at more of a woman than I’d wind up seeing in real life until many years later.
Before the clerk could catch me, I put the magazine back. Then I noticed the new edition of Gloves was out. It was my favourite magazine of all time.
Before Dad died, he’d sit and tell me stories about my great-grandpa Jordie, a one-time Golden Gloves champion. I loved to listen to the stories of Great-Grandpa’s winning bout where he knocked the contender straight across the canvas, teeth first, leaving a blood stain behind that nobody was ever able to wipe off, even years after the fight was over. Or so the story goes, anyway.
I looked at the magazine cover. It showed a picture of Oscar De La Hoya, his gloves up by his chin, a look of determination on his face. “De La Hoya – Mayweather rematch?” the main headline read. De La Hoya had lost his welterweight title to Floyd Mayweather Jr. back in spring, and there were rumours that the pair would be heading back to the ring. I wasn’t a big De La Hoya fan, but thought a rematch would probably be interesting.
“Are you going to buy that?” asked the clerk with her high-pitched, nasally voice. She looked at me crossly, her scraggly dark hair dangling down over her eyes. The more her hair covered, the better, I thought.
My cheeks grew warm again from being singled out.
“Yes, yes ma’am, I will,” I said, diving into my pockets to see how much money I had. I pulled out a handful of lint along with three dollars and fifty cents. I managed to get a job or two around town mowing the crippled old ladies’ lawns and used the money to buy the odd thing.
I looked at the price tag on the magazine which read $3.39 Canadian. With taxes, I would just be able to afford it.
I looked down at the apples. My stomach growled and I could almost feel the skin around my ribs tightening.
“Well?” the clerk asked.
Making a quick, final decision, I ran back to the produce section and put the apples back, then paid the clerk for my magazine.
I let my backpack slip off my shoulder as I left the store. Putting the magazine inside, saving it for later, I dug around hoping there’d be something there I could eat. Some stale crackers and a mouldy piece of cheese was all I found. I didn’t really want to go home for lunch, but I knew if I didn’t, I’d flop over dead from hunger before too long. And I could feel the dizziness coming back.
But when I looked at my watch, I realized there was another problem. It was already a few minutes after noon which meant the Piranhas would be out of school.
The Prairieville Piranhas were the local midget hockey team, and a small group of its players had formed something of a gang. They wore their leather hockey coats all winter, walking around town scaring the piss out of piddly pipsqueaks like me.
Three of them were the most menacing – Josh Lamburt, Scott Downing, and Don Danier. Rarely was one seen without the others in tow.
They were all high school students – Don and Scott were in junior high with me and Josh was a senior. By all rights, Josh was the gang’s leader. He was one of those smarmy jerks who was such a terrible arse but still had the girls fawning all over him. I wanted to spit on him every time I saw him, but I knew he’d pop my noggin good if I ever did.
Instead, I tried to stay as far away from all of them as I could, but anytime school was out, or if I had to walk by them or even near them at school, I was terrified.
There was about an eight-block distance from the convenience store to my house on Third Street West. I figured I’d be safe if I took the back alleys all the way there. I clutched my backpack tightly to my body, thinking it would somehow protect me if the Piranhas found me.
But as I started walking, my mind wandered away from fears of the hockey gang and focused again on my stomach. I was ravenous. I knew I should’ve listened to Dr. Baker and gone straight home to eat, but on the other hand, the cupboards at my home were likely to be just as empty as my backpack. It hadn’t always been that way.
Before Dad died, Ma never used to spend so much time sleeping on the couch, and she never used to drink or pop pills either. Her love affair with Jack Daniel’s only began after Dad pulled the trigger.
My mother, Gladys Christmas, didn’t work, and we didn’t get any insurance money from Dad’s company after he died, so over the eight years or so since his passing, we’d been living on government assistance.
Ma kept saying it was “just for now” until things “settled down,” but I doubted the monsters in her mind would ever be silenced. I was sure we’d be on welfare forever.
I made it home without incident. Wherever the Piranhas were – likely out bullying somebody else – they weren’t going to get me this time.
I pushed open the heavy gate of the old iron fence surrounding our house, built back in the mid-1950s. The gate was rusted right through in spots, and bent out of shape after so many years of use. Now that Dad was gone, not too many things around the place were in proper repair. My brother Jon said he’d get a truck and pull the whole fence over one day.
Inside the yard, our black lab Bruno lay by the screen door of our back stoop looking bored. His tail started wagging as I walked through the overgrown weeds of our back drive. It had been graveled a long time before, but the thick thistles that lay there covered any semblance of landscaping that once was.
Next to Bruno sat an old coffee can overflowing with reeking cigarette butts. I had never tried smoking and was glad for it because I hated the stench and the way my mother’s teeth and fingers were turning yellow from it.
Ma was only 41, but she looked to be about 60, or maybe even older. I remembered that a long time ago, back when I was a small boy, she was beautiful.
Bruno stood on all fours to sniff my backpack, probably wondering if he might get a snack out of it himself.
“Sorry, boy, there’s nothing left in there,” I said, and felt my own stomach rumbling again.
I usually stayed at school over the lunch hour so it was going to be a surprise for Ma to find me home in the middle of the day. I swung open the rickety screen door and stepped into the back porch, kicking off my loafers as I came inside.
“What’s all that racket?” I heard my Ma ask. “Jonny? Did you get suspended from school again?”
I heard the familiar squeak, squeak, squeak as Ma traveled along the worn floor boards before appearing in front of me.
“Hi, Ma,” I said.
“Georgie?” she said, the smell of Jack Daniel’s strong on her breath.
“What are you doing home from school already?” She squinted, straining to see me through her bloodshot eyes. “It’s not four yet,” she said, looking up at the clock in the kitchen with a bewildered look on her face.
“Ma, you been drinking already?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer.
Her face darkened immediately.
“Georgie!” she spat. “You know it isn’t proper for a boy like you to be talking to a grown up mother like me that way.”
She was stumbling over her words, and though she was looking directly at me when she talked, her reddened eyes seemed to be wandering away from me, totally unable to focus.
“I’m sorry, Ma,” was all I said. I’d learned not to argue with a drunk, because the conversation never went anywhere.
Ma disappeared into the living room. She probably wanted to try and hide her glass – or glasses – which would have been filled and emptied of her whisky several times by then.
But there was no point trying to hide it. I knew what she was, and so did Jon and my little sister Emma. We all knew the terrible truth.
A one-time sweet woman who used to smell of perfume, her hair pressed immaculately, her lashes carefully curled, was gone. Small remnants of that woman were all that remained.
I stepped into the kitchen and pried open the fridge.
A dish of lard, a dated carton of milk, and a litre of yogurt were the entirety of its contents. I took out the strawberry flavoured yogurt. Lifting the lid, I found there were just a few scoops left at the bottom. Not enough to bother, so I put it back.
The only other edible thing I found after looking through the pantry and all the cupboards, then looking through them again, was a box of stale Cheerios. It would have to do.
I took the milk carton from the fridge, the cereal and a bowl, and sat down at the table. I expected Ma would be sitting there too, but she wasn’t.
It was then I heard a grotesque, horrible noise, like a garburator, only human, and then a groaning sound filled the house.
“Ma?” I called out.
“Ooh. Ooh,” I heard from the bathroom, followed by a disgusting splashing sound as pure Jack Daniel’s spattered against the porcelain. I could smell the acidic vomit from outside the bathroom door where I was standing.
“Jonny, help me,” Ma said.
“It’s me, Georgie,” I said, still hovering at the door. I stood there helplessly, feeling sick myself from seeing Ma like that, smelling of puke.
“Georgie,” she said, as if only remembering now who I was. Her voice was raspy and low, her vocal chords strained from throwing up. “Could you get me a towel?” She looked up at me with eyes half filled with apology, half agony. “And some water, please.”
I did what she said, glad to escape into the kitchen and find momentary relief from the terrible stench. I tried not to look at my mother when I brought her the glass.
“Go,” she said after I’d helped her as much as I could.
I couldn’t finish my Cheerios. Not after smelling that Jack Daniel’s barf. I decided it would be a good idea to head back to school early instead, so I quickly grabbed my backpack and left Ma there, still puking as I shut the door behind me.
I had only one real friend in the world and his name was Willie Meiers. Willie was, in a way, quite a bit like me - gangly, shy, and terribly awkward. The only thing keeping Willie from getting beaten up by the Piranhas was that he played midget hockey with them. He was a goalie, in fact, and was rather well-respected amongst our peers because of it. He wasn’t like the rest of those puck happy nut cups, though. Willie wouldn’t hurt a bee if it was stinging him and I never heard him say a bad word about anybody.
Even though he wasn’t part of the gang that hung around town, Willie was still part of the Piranhas team, which meant he was protected unless he betrayed his team somehow.
Besides being my best friend, Willie was also my next door neighbour. His real parents died in a car crash when he was four years old. He was too young to remember the details, but too old to forget that the people closest to him in the world had left him behind.
Since then he’d lived with the Meierses. They were a good, Christian foster family and they treated Willie well.
I saw Willie walking to school at the same time I left our overgrown, unkempt yard, closing the squeaking gate behind me.
“Willie! Willie!” I called, and his head full of dirty blond curls popped up.
“Hey, Georgie,” he said, and walked over to meet me. “Are you okay now?”
After Ma’s episode moments before, I’d already forgotten about passing out in gym class.
“Yeah,” I said, but the truth was that I felt dizzy again. “I just need something to eat,” I said, and again regretted buying that magazine instead of food.
“Didn’t you have lunch?” Willie asked.
“No,” I said. Ma was probably still throwing up as we spoke, I thought.
Willie knew Ma drank a lot and that things were rocky at home. He also knew I went hungry sometimes.
“I got this left over ham sandwich in my backpack,” he said. “I was saving it for after school, but you can have it.” Willie dug into his bag and handed me the sandwich wrapped in cellophane, probably lovingly packaged by Mrs. Meiers.
“Thanks, man,” I said, extremely grateful to have it.
It was mid-September and the leaves were starting to turn the familiar shades of red, yellow and orange.
“When’s hockey season starting?” I asked.
“In another few weeks,” Willie said, seemingly sad that it was that far away.
There were three classes left in the afternoon – history, which I hated, then English, which was okay, then math. I wasn’t very good at math, but I liked the teacher, Mr. Dryden. He somehow had a way of making boring stuff interesting.
Willie and I got to school well before the bell rang, so we sat around in the cafeteria and I let him look at my new magazine. I felt much better after eating the sandwich he’d given me.
Willie flipped to the page about De La Hoya.
“The guy’s all washed up,” Willie said.
Willie liked boxing too. Maybe not as much as me, but he kept up with the latest fight news and we often watched matches together.
“He’s all right,” I said.
De La Hoya would go down in history as one of the greats, I knew. But my real favourites were the boxers before my time, more from my father’s era, guys like Ali and Foreman and Joe Louis. Now there were some names that wouldn’t be soon forgotten.
The bell rang for school to start and we ambled our way down the hall to each of our classes.
“See ya later, man,” I said to Willie as I headed into history.
“I’ll catch you after school,” Willie said. “Maybe we could play road hockey at my place?”
I nodded, and searched the history room for my desk.
I think I must’ve fallen asleep sometime shortly after the teacher started talking about the Métis Rebellion because the next thing I knew, the clock read 1:44 p.m. and Mrs. Medding was excitedly explaining the hanging of Louis Riel.
I was glad that English was next because at least it was interesting enough that I stood a chance of staying awake. All the commotion from earlier in the day had really wiped me out.
But when I got to class, I found there was a substitute, so instead of learning grammar or expanding our vocabularies, we spent the period spitting paper balls at the back of poor Ms. Victor’s head and stuffing chalk into the blackboard brushes when she went to the washroom.
There was a final recess, and I used the time to nod off a little by my locker. I was just so tired.
The bell rang, and by the time I got my books and made it into the classroom, Mr. Dryden already had a list of algebra problems written out on the blackboard.
“Good afternoon, Georgie,” he said as he saw me come in.
“Hi,” I said.
I was a fairly good student. My grades weren’t all that great, but I didn’t usually cause much trouble. I think Mr. Dryden appreciated it, because he was often a target for pranksters and class clowns. He was a good, hefty size, but he walked with a severe limp - an abnormality the students would use for mockery as soon as his back was turned. Mr. Dryden always carried a cane, and could only hobble around slowly, which made it all the more difficult for him to discipline anyone.
But despite his disability, and the fact that he probably knew how much students joked about it, he was a pleasant man, and a very patient teacher.
“Mr. Dryden, can I sharpen my pencil?” one of the class jerks asked while we were set to work on the math problems.
“Certainly, you may,” Mr. Dryden said, carefully correcting the arsehole’s grammar.
That cocky kid, a real big ’un with a huge Stetson, got up from his chair and immediately started limping over to the sharpener which was posted on a storage cupboard by the door.
“Is there something wrong?” Mr. Dryden asked him.
Ol’ Stetson could barely contain himself, he thought he was so smart.
“Yeah, I hurt myself in volleyball practice, real bad.” The whole class burst out laughing, finding it hilarious how Stetson was blatantly making fun of Mr. Dryden.
I just kept quiet and watched all the yuk-yuks have their fun.
“Well, be careful, then,” Mr. Dryden said, as if the joke on his behalf hadn’t been obvious.
I was one of the first to finish the problems and hand in my sheets for Mr. Dyrden to mark.
“Thank, you, Georgie,” he said. He was the only teacher who called me Georgie. The rest called me Christmas, or just plain George, or forgot my first name totally. I appreciated that he paid attention and got it right.
The final bell rang and after the bus kids were dismissed, the students who lived in town were allowed to leave.
As we’d agreed to do, I looked for Willie to see if he wanted to walk back home with me. I thought he was in French, so I meandered through the hall and down a flight of stairs to Mrs. Boulangière’s room. But I didn’t see him in the shuffle of students walking out and thought maybe he’d already gone to his locker.
I peeked inside the classroom to see if he was straggling behind. Sure enough he was there, his nose against the blackboard. Willie saw me from the corner of his eye but dared not move a muscle.
“George, William is being punished and has to stay for a half an hour of detention for failing to do his homework,” Mrs. Boulangière said in a stern, French accent from where she sat at the teacher’s desk. I knew Willie was practically flunking out in French, so I believed he’d had trouble finishing his assignments. Most of the other kids in the class cheated off Nancy Hiffner, the biggest bookworm in all of Prairieville, who let all the boys copy her because it was the only time they paid attention to her. Poor Nancy. But Willie refused to cheat, choosing to smell chalk for half an hour straight instead of compromising his morals.
“Yes, Madame,” I said.
I left, grabbing my homework books from my locker and slipping them into my backpack. I was hungry again and decided I couldn’t wait for Willie’s punishment to end before heading home. I knew he’d understand.
I started out across the school yard, suddenly remembering how tired I was. In a way, it was all right that Willie was detained, because it was probably better that I went home and rested instead of burning more calories and energy that I didn’t really have to spare playing road hockey, which I was no good at anyway.
As I forced my feet forward, feeling a real heaviness in my heels, I spotted something glimmering in the sunlight. After a closer look, I realized it was a loonie.
Hot damn! I thought, bending over to pick it up.
Suddenly, I felt a sharp slicing sensation at the back of my head.
“What the hell?” I said out loud, rubbing at the sore spot. I caught a glimpse of my hand and was alarmed to see it was smeared with bright, red blood.
I gasped at the sight of it, then saw a small, round rock ricochet off the ground next to me, missing me by only a few centimetres. I whirled around just in time to feel another one bounce off my forehead.
Hearing a roar of laughter coming from behind me, I turned to see the Piranhas standing there.