snow angels

by dm gillis

you don’t know these people

Christmas 1968

Glen walks across the centre of his backyard, using his footprints to mark a boundary in the fresh snow. On one side of the line, we can build snowmen and throw snow balls. But the other side is a no-man’s land. Glen has an inimitable aesthetic sense, even at seven years old.

“Just look at it,” he says, observing the elegant rolling shades of white he’s persevered. He stares for long minutes at a time. And I stare at him staring, wondering what the hell he sees. Then he says, “It’s beautiful.”

It’s a lesson in beauty, simplicity and fragility that I wrongly presume my friend is too young to teach and I am too young to learn. We’re kids living in a dodgy neighbourhood, where it snows only occasionally. Where beauty is uncommon.

Christmas, 1981 

I was sharing a house in east Vancouver with a couple of dealers and whoever else happened along. I’d tried dealing drugs for a living, myself, but the police were far too annoying. They never went so far as to arrest me. Maybe I was smarter than them or maybe I was too much of a lightweight. Whatever the case, the cops instead contented themselves with butting-in on me in the strangest places and at the strangest times to ask how I was doing, how business was and what the hot sellers were. It scared away the clientele. I got sick of it eventually, and got a real job.

I landed a job as a cook at the Amorous Oyster Restaurant on Burrard Street. The Oyster may have deserved its reputation, but I couldn’t see why. Seafood is easy to cook. Many of the side dishes, condiments and add-ons were more difficult. But the only real tricks to seafood are freshness and timing. And my timing was pretty good.

In other à la Carte restaurants I’d worked in, I’d been surrounded by other cooks, a chef and floor managers, all of whom lived to make my life a misery. But I was a solo act at The Oyster. It was not only a source of income, but also a source of praise from the grateful owners. My ego swelled. And when I walked out at the end of my shift that Christmas Eve, I left with the gift of two bottles of wine and an envelope filled with crispy tens and twenties as a bonus for all of my “marvellous work”.

Out on the street, I looked in the envelope and sniffed. I was too full of myself to appreciate what that amount of money meant to the owners of a restaurant verging on both greatness and oblivion. So, I stood cool and indifferent out front of the darkened premises and waited for my ride.

My ride was Gabriel. We’d been dating for about six months. She was a sadder smarter sort of girl, smarter than me. She wrote poetry and painted, had a growing collection of tattoos and read hefty books. She was also prone to long difficult silences. It was all in her eyes, I knew, and sometimes what I saw in her eyes frightened me.

She arrived that night, navigating the snowy street like a pro, in her ’78 Mustang Cobra. It was an outrageously overpowered vehicle with its huge V8 engine, four on the floor and various racing accoutrements. When we first met, I asked whatever inspired her to buy such a car. “It’s cute,” she’d said. “Ah,” I replied, as though her response to my question answered all the other questions I might have to ask her in the future.

Now she was driving me home for a Christmas Eve together, hopefully without the chemically addicted rabble we normally found there. They bored the hell out of me and they resented me for it, but I had the house’s huge master bedroom to myself where I could escape the inane and the insane.

Soon we were driving down the back alley where the house stood. It was built behind a row of storefronts on East Hastings, which made it barely visible from the main street. I’d hoped, when first renting the place, that this would keep me off of the cop radar. It didn’t. But for me the police were becoming less and less of a problem as I cultivated a new image as fully employed citizen at large. In spite of that, though, to a significant degree, the police still considered me connected to the drug scene.

“What the hell’s all that,” Gabriel said pointing at the house, now a half block away. There were half a dozen police cars in the lane.

“Shit,” I said. “Keep driving past them.”

But she didn’t. Instead she backed up into an empty driveway and turned out in the opposite direction. “They know my car,” she said. “They would have stopped us. Where do we go now?”

“Toby’s,” I said. “But park a block away.”

Toby was a burned-out vegetarian 12 stepper. This made him a serious bummer, but he knew what was going on in the neighbourhood. And he did one important thing that I never did, he listened to a police scanner. It was a habit from his criminal youth that had developed into a hobby. Now he actually belonged to a police scanner club. Life is strange.

We left the car in an abandoned garage and walked through the deepening snow to Toby’s basement suite. We knocked and Toby greeted us at the door. Agnes, his off and on common law, sat at a table in the kitchen cutting thick slabs of Christmas cake then dividing each slab into smaller pieces.

“Come in, man,” Toby said. “It’s freezing out there. Sorry to hear about Sammy, man. I know he was your best friend, and all. There’s some bad shit happening tonight. Happy Christmas, by the way. You want some Christmas cake?”

“What bad shit?” I said, accepting a piece of cake. “What happened to Sammy?”

“I can’t eat it,” Toby said of the cake. “The wife puts rum in it.”

It did smell of rum, the alcohol long baked off. It was damn fine Christmas cake.

Toby thought a moment and then he said, “The news is that the cops shot Sammy in your house tonight, dude. Radio says he came at them with a knife. Sammy’s a big boy. If he came at me with a knife, maybe I’d shoot him too.”

“Better not to have a gun, at all,” Agnes said as she cut the Christmas cake. Gabriel was helping her now. I found out later that it was going to homeless shelters the next day.

“I ain’t got no gun, my love,” Toby hummed. It was how he spoke to Agnes, almost like a song.  “Just saying ‘if’.”

“Is he alive?” I said. Sammy was a best friend and roommate. But he’d been doing some weird shit lately, all chemicals cooked up in a basement somewhere by amateurs. He’d become someone I didn’t recognise.

“At first the radio said he was alive,” Toby said. ”But then it said he wasn’t. Said he was DOA. Either way, it’s fucked up for you, man. They’re going through your stuff right now, you bet.”

I wasn’t betting on anything. Gabriel looked at me from the table where they were preparing the Christmas cake. They were wrapping it now and tying ribbons around each piece.

I caught her gaze. Maybe there was a poem in this for her. It was clear that she understood how profoundly my life had just changed. Whether I ever returned to the house or not, they’d get me. There were caches of drugs and money stashed all through the place. None of it was mine, but the cops didn’t care. They’d harass my family, friends and anybody I’d ever said hello to until they got their mitts on me.

Gabriel said, “Let’s go for a ride. There’s something I want to show you.”

“That’s a good idea,” Toby said. “Cops will be here looking for you pretty soon.”

“I’m sorry for this,” I said, knowing the police would grill him.

“Ain’t your fault, man. It’s a wicked fucking world. Besides, let the cops come. Sometimes it’s better not to be just a spectator.”

I took a couple more pieces of cake and headed for the door. Agnes and Gabriel hugged, and Gabriel followed me out. When the door closed behind us, I felt the disconnection. Among other things in that moment, I had a feeling that this would be it for me and Gabriel. She wouldn’t stay with me after tonight. Guns and knife play weren’t the domain of 18 year old poets, or were they?

By the time we got to the car, I’d begun wondering about what she had up her sleeve, how it could help me deal with the situation at hand.

“Get in the car,” she said.

We drove north on incognito streets, past dark blank working class homes. Some were hung with Christmas lights. I wasn’t paying attention. Eventually Gabriel pulled over, next to a vast field of perfect snow.

“It’s stopped,” she said, looking through the windshield. Then she said, “Recognise this place?”

I didn’t. But I continued to look out of the car at the perfectly flat, white and unblemished landscape. It reminded me of something from a long time ago.

“I know,” she said. “It looks different in the snow. C’mon, let’s get out.”

We got out of the car, and stood surrounded by acres of the undisturbed snow. It was illuminated by blue mercury vapour light. It was the east Vancouver reservoir. The snow was lying on a flat expanse concrete beneath. I looked around me. For a minute I stopped thinking of Sammy, dead and cold on Christmas Eve. And I realised that a childhood friend of mine would have truly appreciated this vision.

“Look,” I heard Gabriel shout. She was lying in the snow now, moving her arms and legs, creating a snow angel. Then she stood and jumped up and down twice, knocking the dry snow off of her clothes. She lay back down again and created a second angel. Then she stood up a second time and jumped once more.

“See,” she said. “Angels. Snow Angels, two of them. One for you and one for me. I left other Christmas gifts for you back at your place, but I guess they’re gone for good now.” She looked at her watch, “And it’s a quarter past midnight. Merry Christmas!”

I looked at the snow angels and smiled. Did tears well up in my eyes? Did I feel small and ashamed, glorious and happy beyond belief? Did I see in my mind’s eye a band of honest-to-goodness angels descending to collect Sammy and take him home, now that he was free of all his confusion and prowling rage?

Yes to all of the above.

And did I see Gabriel, in a future that awaited her, strong and determined, hopeful, brilliant and gentle?

Yes.

And was I there with her? Ha! I knew better than that.

We sat on the edge of the Mustang’s hood, and I opened one of the bottles of wine from the Oyster. We had no glasses, so I took a drink from the bottle and offered it to Gabriel. She took a drink but not a second. Instead, she poured a swallow onto the ground for Sammy. It was dark and red like a bullet wound in the snow.

The snow began to fall again, and Gabriel’s snow angels vanished. They were frail things, destined to disappear. But I knew that beneath the perfect layer of white before us, there could have been millions of them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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