February and Frozen Fingers

Right now, I’m reading February by Lisa Moore. In the novel, one of the characters delivered papers, and it got me thinking about my own paper route. I was about 12 years old when a nice car coasted over the dirt road towards me and a group of my friends. Window down, and a heavy-set well-scrubbed man asked if either of us were interested in earning some money. Taking on some responsibility. I wasn’t sure of the gig, but the mention of a few dollars perked up my ears, and I stepped forward. Told him I’d have to check with my mother first. Somehow I ended up in the car with that man, and I remember thinking how stupid I was. To do that. Get into a shiny car with a strange man. I plotted ways to escape and ways to attack. But no moves were necessary. He was simply someone from The Evening Telegram, and didn’t want to wait for me to walk all the way home.

So, I got my paper route. I was no thicker than a whisker, and those papers weighed nearly as much as I did. I was a decent paper girl, marched all the way up each driveway, opened unlocked doors, tossed papers into the hallways, or placed them neatly inside the screen door. Sometimes there would be a smell of cabbage and salt beef in the air. Cats would run out between my legs. People were nice, too. Often they’d chat, ask about my family, or invite me in to dry off or warm up for a spell. I might leave with a cookie, or if I needed to, the washroom was available.

I remember delivering papers after a big winter storm. Some people had not yet shovelled their driveways, so I was traipsing through snow up to my hips. Dragging the paper bag behind me. I came upon a group of kids drilling tunnels through the heaps of snow made by the plough, and I stopped, joined in a snowball fight. Ran about, sweating up a storm until the sun began to set and the sky turned purplish grey. When everyone else went in for supper, I picked up my paper bag and slogged on with damp clothes, wet feet, wet hands. Mittens lost in one of the tunnels. No proper hat - I considered myself too hip to wear one.

Quickly, I began to shiver. By the time I reached the end of my route, my body was stiff, and I could not open my hands. I tapped on the doors with my boot so that people could take their papers directly from the bag. Some people wanted me to come in, but I was too stubborn to admit I was freezing. It was a long walk out and back, ice particles in the wind felt like a straw broom against my skin. I fell more than once, and my hands stuck in the snow. I can clearly recall the sense of them tightening into bird’s claws.

When I arrived home, I couldn’t open the door or press the door bell. I bumped against it, and bumped against it, but no one answered. I slumped on the back step and waited. And finally my oldest brother hauled open the door, and yanked me into the warmth. He was mad at my stupidity, told me not to cry as the sting set into my cheeks and bare hands. He hoisted me onto the counter near the sink. Pulled off my boots. Then he filled a large bowl with cold water and took my hands gently in his and held them in the water. It burned. I cried some more, and he swiped a cup towel over my face. Gradually he added warm water to the bowl, and he moved my fingers around underneath the water. Slowly the throbbing eased, and my white and red hands were sore, but feeling better. After that he made me something to eat – two cored apples cooked in a bread pan, centres stuffed with brown sugar and cinnamon and butter.

Such a tiny memory of my late brother, but I’m happy to have it. Like a little gift.

Reading February reminds me of what good fiction really does. A novel can take you far, far away. But sometimes, with a little sweep, it carries you home.