by Jim Bates
Five-year-old Andy ran out the back door of the cabin and dove headfirst into the big pile I’d shoveled after yesterday’s snow fall. Three-year-old Allie was right behind him.
Giggling, she climbed out and brushed snow off her pink snow suit. Andy lay of his back laughing.
“That was fun!” He got up with a big grin on his snowy face. “Let’s do it again!”
I watched from my woodpile and smiled. It seemed like it snowed every day up here in the Northwoods, so keeping paths clean was another chore I was adding to my every growing list of work that needed to be done to deal with the elements. But that was okay. We’d been at the cabin for six weeks now and were adjusting to life pretty well. My leg was healing from being wounded with an accident with my axe, and Meg had picked up some editing work from Charlotte’s Press, the publishing house she worked for, so we had some money coming in. Which was always a help.
With my leg feeling better, I was back into the rhythm of cutting firewood and helping out with the kids. Plus, a vaccine was being made available soon to fight the pandemic and that was welcome news. So, life was good. Was it challenging to live in our little cabin on the outskirts of tiny little Esker? You bet. But we wouldn’t change a thing. We’d closed up our house in Minneapolis and had my brother stopping by every week to check on it. My research job at Zylon Labs had shut its door in April last year after the pandemic hit, but I still got a partial paycheck with the idea that they would eventually reopen. (No word on that happening anytime soon, though.) We had savings we could tap into if we needed, but now with Meg picking up some extra work, money wasn’t as much of an issue as it had been. We didn’t spend a lot. Rent was cheap. For entertainment we had Wi-Fi. We were adjusting and enjoying the challenge of it.
We’d moved up here to limit the kids’ exposure to the coronavirus and so far, we’d been doing a good job. The only time we were around people was when we did our grocery shopping. We went to the nearest big town, Park Rapids, located thirty miles south of us. I’ll never forget the first time we went there. Let me tell you, that was an experience.
The county we lived in was not completely sold on the idea of masking up and social distancing, so when all four of us walked into the Northwoods Grocery in downtown Park Rapids with our masks on, people stopped and stared. Other than the two clerks running the cash registers and a couple of employees stocking the shelves there wasn’t a mask to be seen.
We grabbed a cart, loaded three-year-old Allie in the child seat, cleaned out hands with Clorox wipes (provided by the store) and began making our way up and down the aisles. We made as much of our food from scratch as we could. In fact, we both liked to cook, which in the city was sort of a hobby, but us up here it was a necessity. The food we cooked was healthy and fulfilling, pasta and beans and soups and stews, just the thing on these cold winter days. It was also a pastime. I’ll tell you, and I’m dead serious, working together and preparing a thick lentils stew chock full of root vegetables was entertaining in its own way. The kids were even learning how to help in food preparation, although baking cookies was a task much more preferred by them than stir-frying snap peas, but you get my drift. It was a fun family experience.
That day at the grocery store, we were able stock up on the essentials, beans, rice and potatoes. We also added an array of canned goods. We even scored some decent looking broccoli, cauliflower and Brussel sprouts. So, in addition to apples, oranges, bananas, raisins and dates, our shopping experience was a success, and we were pretty happy.
The entire time we were shopping, though, I have to say it was hard to ignore the looks we were getting. Looks of distain, to be frank, and not friendly at all. It made me mad, and not for the first time, to think how sad it was that this pandemic had been turned into such a hotly debated political issue. I’ll always remember my dad telling me how happy he was as a kid to be able to get a vaccine for polio. His best friend at been stricken with it and walked with a limp, so Dad was scared to death he’d get it. He told me he lined up outside the school with his parents and gladly took the vaccine. “It was great, Lee,” he told me. “Oral. Orange flavored.” He grinned. “I actually would have had more. Orange was my favorite drink back then.” He smiled. “We also got a shot for smallpox and the DPT. Diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. Didn’t like the shots, no kid did, but we didn’t want to get sick, so, we took the jab. None of us got sick at all.” He smiled. “Always give yourself and your loved ones a fighting chance, Lee. I’m all for getting a shot.” He and mom died last year before the vaccine became available. He’d have taken it for sure. God, did I ever miss that man.
Anyway, here we were in the store, just wanting to get our shopping done and get out of there and a way from the mask less locals when I rounded the corner and accidentally bumped into another cart.
Speaking of locals…Meg had taken five-year-old Andy around the corner already so it was just me and a guy who looked like Paul Bunyan. He had a full beard (no mask) and wore a black stocking cap. He was dressed in a black snowmobile suit, zipped partially down to reveal an insulated long underwear top. On his feet were calf-high leather boots with felt liners sticking out of the top. He looked like he was born to be a lumberjack and definitely looked like he belonged here, in this store, and in this town.
He also had a little girl in his cart about the same age as Allie.
“Sorry,” I said. “Tricky corner,” I added, making a little joke, hoping to lighten the mood.
He looked at me with deep set, unblinking eyes, sizing me up. His sizing didn’t take very long. I could see him thinking: ‘Here’s some liberal jerk up from the city taking up space in my store. Some guy who knows nothing about the Northwoods.’ He’d have been right (except for the jerk part. I hoped.) I wore a forest green insulated jacket, blue jeans, a burgundy stocking hat and hunting boots I’d bought at a big box store. To be honest, I looked kind of like a tourist and I’m sure Mr. Beard felt the same way.
Who knows how long we’d have stood there, him glaring at me, me wondering what I should do next, if Allie hadn’t grinned at his daughter and said, “Hi.”
Then she turned and glanced at me with my scraggly six-week beard poking out from under my Covid mask and then back at the little girl’s father (I assumed) and asked the little button of a girl, “Is your daddy Santa Claus?”
I couldn’t help it. In spite of a potentially tense situation, I laughed.
So did he.
He looked at me and grinned. “Kids,” he said. “They say the damnedest things.” He smiled, then, showing me his white teeth. He seemed like a nice guy.
I held up my hand in sort of a half wave of resignation. “Yeah, no kidding.” It actually felt good to chat a little. Other than the doctor at the clinic last month who stitched my leg, I hadn’t talked to anyone local.
The bearded man turned to Allie and said in all seriousness, “No, sweetheart. But sometimes I fill in as one of his elves.”
Allie’s eye went wide. “Really?”
“Sometimes,” he said, grinning. He looked at me, winked and then said to Allie. “But I know what Santa would say if he was here.”
“What?” Allie asked, her voice almost a whisper.
“He’d say, ‘Remember to always mind your parents.’”
Allie glanced quickly at me over her shoulder, then back at him. “Oh, I will,” she said. “I really will.”
That’ll be the day, I thought to myself, but appreciated the sentiment.
“That’s good,” he said. “Santa will be happy.” We were probably a safe six feet apart, me in my mask, he with none. He turned his attention to me. “Jack Camden,” he said. “That’s my daughter, Samantha.” He smiled and roughed up the little girl’s hair. “We call her Sam.”
“Lee Acton,” I said. “This is Allie.”
Allie waved. “Hi.”
So did Samantha. I mean, Sam.
Jack grinned. “Nice to meet you both.” Then he did something I didn’t expect. He leaned over and put out his elbow and we elbow bumped. Like you’re supposed to do. And, just like that, I’d met someone.
Meg and Andy came up just then with a couple of gallons of milk and put them in the cart. Meg glanced at Jack. “Hi.”
I introduced Jack and Sam to them and we talked a bit. He was a little older than Meg and Me. We were both twenty-eight and Jack looked to be in his early thirties. (We found out later he and Linn were both thirty-five.) Jack told us that he lived with Sam and his wife Linnea on Turtle Lake about fifteen miles north of town, not too far from us.
“Linn takes care of Sam and does bookwork me and my partner and for some of the businesses in the area,” Jack told us. We had walked through the store and were in the check-out line next to each other. “How about you guys?”
He was so friendly! Way more than me. By nature, I’m very quiet and withdrawn, but Jack was friendly and easy to talk to. I told him that I did research for the Zylon Labs, a company looking at ways to improve biological degradation of plastic. “I’ve been laid off for nearly a year with the pandemic.”
“Yeah, I hear you,” Jack said. “It’s a bitch.”
“Meg is an editor,” I said.
“Yeah, I just picked up some more work,” she said. Then glanced at me. “Every little bit helps, right, Lee?
“Exactly.” I didn’t want to get too deep into our finances with a guy we just met no matter how nice he seemed.
He surprised me when he turned to Meg. “An editor, huh. Really?”
“Why?” Meg asked.
“Well, my partner and I work cutting pulp wood for Blanding’s. You know, that big paper mill up north by Bemidji.”
“That’s cool,” I said. Mainly for something to say. I have to admit, occasionally it bothered me I wasn’t working, even though technically I was. I did still get a pay check.
“Yeah, it is,” Jack said. Then he looked at both of us as if sizing us up. Finally, he made his decision. “I also write books.”
“Really?” Meg said, interested.
I was interested as well. I loved to read, but write books? No way. I tried once. Didn’t work out too well.
“What kind of books,” I asked.
looked at us. Then he looked at Allie and Sam. “Kids' books,” he said.
“Really,” I said, and just barely stopped myself in time from adding, ‘that’s cool’. I went with “That’s great,” instead.
He looked at us and smiled. “Thanks. I do the illustrations, too.”
And in the middle of a pandemic, with lock-downs and social distancing the order of the day, that’s how our friendship with Jack and Linn and Sam began.
And it was good thing, too, because when we went outside there were a group of three mask less guys in their mid-thirties waiting by our car. I won’t go into everything they said to us but the gist of it was that me and Meg were a couple of freaks and didn’t belong in ‘their town.’
The thought raced through my mind, What? Is this the wild west?
“Look, guys,” I said, pushing my cart up to them. “If you’ll just excuse us, we’ll be on our way.”
I was just trying to avoid the whole thing and get the groceries in the back of the Honda and Allie and Andy settled in their car seats. Meg was standing her ground nearby. I knew she was getting angry. So was I. But, frankly, I’m not much for confrontation. I really just wanted the whole thing over.
Then Frank walked up to us, his cart loaded with Sam and his groceries. He stopped between us and the three guys and starred at them. There were all dressed pretty much like Frank. “Problem, boys?” he asked.
It was like a motion picture in my mind. A standoff. A confrontation that could have gone two ways, one of them not so good. Fortunately, the three guys backed down. They took one look at big Jack looming over them and hurried away, one of them mumbling, “no” under his breath. Thank, god.
Frank looked at us and shook his head. “Sorry about that. They’re a bunch of idiots.”
Later that night, Meg and I were relaxing in the living room of our cabin. The kids were asleep and the fire in the wood stove was warm and burning brightly. Meg took a sip of her nightly glass of red wine and said, “That was pretty cool about Jack and those jerks back in Park Rapids.”
“No kidding. Who knows what would have happened?”
“I know. I could have been ugly.” She was quiet for a minute, then she said, “You know, I was thinking.”
“You know, Jack gave us their number. I was thinking about maybe calling their place and talking to Linn and seeing if I could set up a play-date with Sam and Allie.” She turned to me. “What do you think?”
I didn’t have to think long. I liked Jack, probably because he was so different from me. The fact that he didn’t wear a mask, I guess I’d have to learn to deal with that. I kissed the top of Meg’s head. “I think it’s a great idea.”
“Great.” She smiled at me. “I’ll call them in the morning.”
The next day Meg called and Linn said, ‘yes,’ Just like that, we’d made some friends and our Northwoods world had gotten a little bit bigger.
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