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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer

White Heart Attack

               The fact came from Spence’s favorite teacher, Mr. Thavin. Spence wasn’t even totally sure the fact was a fact, but he was inclined to believe Mr. Thavin. As an English teacher, medical stuff wasn’t Mr. Thavin’s area of expertise, but that was one of the things that made him Spence’s favorite: he spoke on all kinds of subjects with enthusiasm and confidence. He retained information of many different types – not just grammar rules – and passed that information on to his students in long, entertaining digressions. Those digressions were what made Spence like Mr. Thavin and his class so much despite being ambivalent about reading and decidedly disliking writing. And this particular fact came from one of those digressions.

                Spence couldn’t remember what the main point of the digression had been. Many times, Mr. Thavin’s digressions couldn’t actually be said to have “main” points. They were often series of minor points, one minor point leading to the next, all of them leading further and further from the days’ lesson plans. But the fact that Mr. Thavin had delivered right before the bell at the end of class on the last day of school before winter break began was this: after big snowstorms, many middle-aged and elderly men die of heart attacks while shoveling their driveways. It had seemed like he’d had more to say on the subject, but the bell rang and everyone stampeded out of the room, not wanting to short themselves even one second of their break. Spence had hung back, but Mr. Thavin had crossed to the window and stood looking out at the faculty parking lot, unaware of Spence’s presence. Spence didn’t know what to say, so he gathered his books and left. But he took the fact with him.


                “I’ve heard that,” said Spence’s mom. She stood looking into the open hall closet, taking no action. Her red hair was ponytailed into submission. She wore a black sweater and white jeans. Her feet were clad in a kind of slipper/sock hybrid that Spence had gotten her for Christmas last year. This was the second time he had ever seen her wear them, the first being the few hours immediately after she opened them.

                “Has it ever happened to anyone you knew?” asked Spence. He could not see into the closet from where he leaned against the wall, holding an orange he had no intention of eating.

                “No,” said his mom. “Your grandpas didn’t die of heart attacks.”

                “But did they survive heart attacks that they had while shoveling snow?” asked Spence.

                “They never had heart attacks,” said his mom. “My dad died of colon cancer and your grandpa Mel died of sadness.” She closed the closet door. She had neither put anything into the closet nor taken anything out of it. Opening the closet door, on the surface, appeared to have been a waste of her time.

                “But you’ve known other old guys,” said Spence. “Not just my grandpas.”

                “Not many,” said his mom. “And none that had heart attacks while shoveling snow.”

                “But you’ve heard of it happening,” said Spence. “You knew about that fact. You said so.”

                “I probably heard it on the news,” said Spence’s mom, walking past him down the hall toward the office.

                “And you believe it?” asked Spence.

                “I suppose so,” said his mom. She disappeared through the office door, but Spence still heard her say, “I mean, it makes sense, doesn’t it?”


                Just after 3 p.m. on Christmas Eve, it began to snow heavily in Multioak. Snow had not been predicted. No one had predicted snow. The snow fell thickly, heavily, thoroughly. It covered the grass. There was almost no wind. The snow fell straight down and piled straight up. As the day grew darker, the snow got deeper. Spence, who liked snow, watched this snow with dread, with a clump of worry squirming and hissing in his stomach. The men. The old men. The middle-aged men with clogged arteries and weak hearts. Spence sat at his desk and looked straight out of his second-story bedroom window, monitoring the steady accumulation of the snow with an expression of sympathetic doom resting weightily upon his oily, teenaged features.

                His mom knocked on his bedroom door.

                “Come in,” said Spence, maybe too quietly for his mom to hear.

                But whether she heard or not, she opened the door and came into Spence’s bedroom bearing two cups of hot chocolate, steaming from the microwave, liquefying the mini-marshmallows that floated on their dark surfaces. “I brought you cocoa,” said Spence’s mom. She set his cup down on the edge of his desk. The cocoa, again, was in cups. Not mugs.

                “Thank you,” said Spence with an honest, low amount of sincerity.

                “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas,” Spence’s mom didn’t sing, but said. “You know, like the song?”

                “You don’t have to dream it,” said Spence. “We’re getting it.”

                “That’s what made me think of it,” said his mom. She sipped her hot chocolate from her cup.

                “How many?” asked Spence.

                “How many what, Spencer?” asked his mom, putting the “r” back onto the end of his name where she preferred it to be.

                “How many old and middle-aged men will die?” asked Spence. “On Christmas morning. Maybe even in front of their loved ones.”

                “Oh, Spencer,” said his mom. “You have a big heart. But if the old men have loved ones with them, then hopefully those loved ones will shovel the driveways instead of the old men, right?”

                “But what if the men get up early to shovel the driveways before their loved ones arrive?” asked Spence. “And then the first thing the loved ones see when they pull into the driveway is the old man who loved them lying face-down in the snow.”

                “Most people have snow blowers these days,” said Spence’s mom. She stood behind him and rubbed his shoulder. Spence could see her reflection in the window, hovering behind his seated reflection. Her reflection did not appear to share his reflection’s concern.

                “We don’t have a snow blower,” said Spence. He paused. “How is Dad’s heart?”

                “It’s fine,” said his mom. “Physically speaking. But if you’re worried about it, I’m sure he won’t object to you volunteering to shovel the driveway by yourself in the morning.” Spence watched her reflection take another sip of hot chocolate, turn, and leave his bedroom, considerately closing the reflection of the door behind it.


                Spence woke up at 1:58 in the morning. His chest hurt. Was he having a heart attack? No, it wasn’t that severe. Was he experiencing a dim foreshadowing of all the chest pains that were about to occur across Multioak when Christmas morning dawned on dozens of fragile-hearted old and middle-aged men trooping out to their driveways with snow shovels balanced over their shoulders? Yes, that was much more likely. Spence sat up in bed. He knew that with doing nothing no longer feeling like an acceptable option, he had to, instead, do something.

                Spence got out of bed and looked out the window. Snow was no longer falling. Spence began the meticulous process of dressing himself for cold, wind, and snow. He put on a pair of long underwear, a long-sleeved shirt of the same material, a pair of thick sweatpants, a sweatshirt, a pair of thin socks, then a pair of thick hiking socks. He took his wallet and the keys to his truck off of his desk and crept downstairs to the mud room. There he fought his way into a pair of snow pants and crammed his sock-bulked feet into his winter boots. He put on his winter coat, a ski mask, and his gloves, the insides of which were still a bit sweat-damp from the last time he’d worn them. Spence put his wallet and phone in his coat pocket and zipped it shut. He tucked the wrist-ends of his gloves into his coat sleeves and Velcro-ed them snugly in place. Then he boot-clomped as quietly as possible through the kitchen to the garage where he selected his favorite of the family’s three snow shovels: the one with the green metal head, the handle of which, for some reason, produced fewer blisters on Spence’s hands over periods of extended use.

Spence exited the garage through the side door and crunched through the snowy yard to where his truck was parked in the driveway looking like a truck-shaped cake, a concept which Spence was sure enterprising bakers all over the world had probably already implemented many times. He threw the shovel into the bed of the truck and brushed snow away from the driver’s side door so he could clumsily unlock it with the key. He took the ice-scraper from the passenger’s side seat and used it to brush the snow off of the truck’s windshield, side windows, hood, headlights, tail lights, and license plate, all while shooting looks at the house to see if any lights had come on, to see if either of his parents had awoken and wondered where he was, where he was going. The house stayed dark, neither the curtains nor the blinds moved. Not that Spence saw, anyway. He tossed the ice-scraper onto the seat, got into the truck, and it started right up. He liked that about his truck. The cold never prevented it from starting right up. As Spence backed out of the driveway and drove down the street, he created the first tire tracks in the fresh-fallen snow. Also, it began to snow again, but only flurries.

Spence drove carefully; he was good at driving on roads in non-ideal conditions. As he drove, he devoted the attention that he was not devoting to driving safely to trying to think of old or middle-aged men who he knew who lived in Multioak and the surrounding area, were responsible for the clearness of their own driveways, and who might have weak hearts. Spence also had to know how to get to their houses. Also, the men had to not own snow blowers.

                He couldn’t think of any men who met this criteria. Spence’s mind was blank. He had not expected this to be the difficult part. He had wrongly assumed that he knew of lots of old men whose deaths he could forestall until after Christmas morning by shoveling their driveways during these empty pre-dawn hours. His grandpas were dead, his great uncles lived in other states, he knew of some elderly teachers from school but did not know where they lived. He’d seen a few old men at church too, but his family didn’t go to church very often and he had no idea where those men lived either. Did he have any neighbors who were old or middle-aged men with weak hearts? Not that he could think of. The middle-aged men he knew were all the fathers of his friends and those friends would be available to shovel the driveways for their own fathers if those fathers were known to have weak hearts. Was the fact that Spence didn’t know where any old men lived evidence of some sort of character flaw? He decided that it wasn’t. It was natural for a teenage boy to not know where any old men lived. If not knowing old men was the same as not caring about them, then where had this impulse to save them come from? But was the impulse enough?

Spence drove aimlessly. Carefully but aimlessly. Should he turn around and go home, go back to bed, and just let nature take its course? He had tried, right? He was out here with a shovel. He wanted to help. He wanted to but he couldn’t. Maybe he could have done more to find out where old men lived before this moment, but there was nothing he could do about that now. He would make an effort to find out where more old men lived before the next big snow. This helpless, sad feeling he had right now would be the thing that taught him the lesson that would lead to him being more prepared to save old men from snow-shoveling-induced heart attacks in the future. But then Spence thought of a non-specific old man collapsed on a frozen, half-cleared driveway, hands clamped around the handle of a snow shovel, lifeless eyes staring up at an overcast Christmas sky, skin a cartoonish blue, mustache frosted brittle. What if he, Spence, could save that non-specific old man by not turning around and going back to bed? He would think of a way to find the driveways of men whose lives could be saved by his shoveling of those driveways. He would find at least one. He drove in the general direction of downtown Multioak and saw very few other cars on the road.


                Spence knew that if he went home and woke up his parents to ask them for the locations of some old men who might need their driveways shoveled, they would shut down the whole plan. They would forbid him from going back out into the cold. He needed to find another source of old-man locations. But who else was up at this hour? Well, Spence had one idea.

                When he pulled into the Everyhour Gas Station and Convenience Store parking lot, Spence noted that there were no other vehicles present, but the lights were on inside and out and the “open” sign glowed warmly in the window. Spence parked, pulled his ski-mask up off his face so as not to appear to be a robber, and got out of the truck without locking it. He could see through the convenience store’s glass door that there was no one behind the counter, but when Spence opened the door and the electronic bell sounded, a wooly head and a pair of sloped shoulders popped up from between two of the aisles. “Stay right there,” said the employee. “I didn’t think anyone was gonna come in. I’m changing clothes over here.”

                “Changing clothes?”

                The employee disappeared from view and Spence heard the jangling of keys, a belt buckle, change. Then the employee’s head and shoulders reappeared and he walked to the front counter and behind it, the majority of his dignity still intact. He wore a standard Everyhour Gas Station and Convenience Store shirt, black pants, black shoes. He carried a beige duffel bag, presumably stuffed full of whatever clothing he’d just changed out of. He turned to face Spence, who had taken a few tentative steps toward the counter. “How’s it going?”

                “Pretty good,” said Spence. He wasn’t quite sure how to bring up his reason for stopping by the gas station at this hour. He saw that the Everyhour employee wore a name tag. His name was “Gil,” if the nametag were to be believed. Spence realized that Gil’s wooliness – his frizzy mane of blond hair, his yet frizzier, yet blonder beard – made him appear older than he was. Spence could see in Gil’s unwise eyes that he had not yet lived beyond thirty years.

                “You can park in the handicapped spot,” said Gil. “No handicapped people are gonna come here at this hour. Not in this weather.”

                “That’s OK,” said Spence. “I’m already parked.”

                “I’m saying if you wanted to,” said Gil. “If you wanted to go out and move your truck over a spot.”

                “I don’t,” said Spence. He wondered who would. Gil might be the only person in the whole world who would. “Where’s your car?” he asked.

                “I don’t own one,” said Gil. “I walk to work. Ironic, I know. I work at a place designed by its very nature to provide fuel for cars, yet I don’t own one.” He paused to survey the interior of the convenience store, the aisles of snacks capped with snack displays, ads for snacks hanging from the ceiling above it all. “I do eat snacks, though.”

                “Heh, yeah,” said Spence.

                “So can I help you find something?” asked Gil. “My boss doesn’t really emphasize customer service here, but it’s not like I have anything else to do.”

                “Actually, I just came in to ask you a question,” said Spence.

                “To ask me a question?” asked Gil. “But you don’t know me.”

                “No, I know,” said Spence. “I mean, I came in to ask whoever was working here a question. ‘Cause I know you guys are open all night here so I knew someone would be here.”

                “So you’re not gonna buy anything?” asked Gil. “You’re not a customer?”

                “I guess not,” said Spence. “I’m not here as a customer.”

                “So I changed into my uniform when I saw your truck pull in for nothing,” said Gil.

                “Sorry,” said Spence. He wondered if Gil would change back into whatever clothes he had in the duffel bag now, but Gil made no move to do so. “So what I was gonna ask you,” said Spence. He paused for Gil to encourage him to ask his question, which did not happen. “What I was gonna ask you,” Spence said again, “is if you know of any older guys who might need their driveways shoveled?”

                “Older guys specifically?” asked Gil. “No older women? No, like, younger guys who are disabled?”

                Spence explained to Gil about snowstorms and shoveling and old men and heart attacks.

                “Oh, I get you,” said Gil. He leaned forward on the counter, tapping the bridge of his nose with one finger while he thought. “You know,” he finally said, “heart issues are hereditary.”

                “I guess I’ve heard that,” said Spence. He was getting hot standing inside the warm convenience store in all his layers.

                “So that means a guy whose dad died of a heart attack is probably especially susceptible,” said Gil.

                “True,” said Spence. “Do you know a guy whose dad died of a heart attack?”

                “I don’t know him personally,” said Gil. “He’s my grandpa’s friend. I don’t know his name.”

                “Your grandpa’s friend’s dad died of a heart attack?” asked Spence.

                “Yeah,” said Gil. He didn’t clarify how he knew this.

Spence didn’t know the fates of any of either of his grandpas’ friends’ dads. “So you’re saying this friend of your grandpa might be susceptible to a heart attack too?”

                “It stands to reason,” said Gil.

                “Does your grandpa’s friend live in Multioak?” asked Spence.

                “Yeah, but I’m not sure where,” said Gil. “You’ll have to ask my grandpa.”

                “Can you call him for me?” asked Spence.

                “He doesn’t answer his phone,” said Gil. “He got rid of his landline when my mom made him get a cell phone and he leaves his cell phone on ‘silent’ all the time. You’re gonna have to go ask him at his house.”

                “You’re saying I should go knock on his door, wake him up, and ask him where his friend lives?” asked Spence.

                “I’m not saying you should,” said Gil. “I’m just saying that if you want to find out where his friend lives, that’s what you’ll have to do.”

                “Or I could just shovel your grandpa’s driveway,” said Spence. “He’s old, right?”

                “He rents,” said Gil. “His landlord’s handyman clears the driveway for him with a snow blower whenever it needs it. Even on holidays.”

                Spence did not like the place to which his plan had brought him. He did not want to wake up Gil’s grandpa in the middle of the night to ask him how to get to his friend’s driveway. Maybe once Gil’s grandpa found out it was a lifesaving mission, he wouldn’t mind being woken up. Maybe he would be grateful. Spence hoped so.

                Headlights flashed against the windows. Spence and Gil looked and saw a van pulling into the handicapped parking spot. Spence watched as the driver scooted over to the passenger’s side, opened the door, and pulled two wooden crutches from behind the seat. He exited the van on the crutches. He wore an orange beanie, a gray sweatsuit, and basketball shoes that Spence knew to be expensive. Spence held the door for him.

                “Thanks,” said the man on crutches as he passed Spence and veered toward the restroom at the back of the store.

                Spence stuck his head out the door and looked at the van’s front license plate. It was from another state and the handicapped symbol was clearly displayed upon it. He turned to Gil and nodded.

                “I stand corrected,” said Gil. “You want directions to my grandpa’s house or not?”


                Gil’s grandpa’s house had a long, snow-covered driveway. Even with a snow blower, it would be a time-consuming job. Spence was glad that Gil’s grandpa didn’t need him to save his life. He preferred to save the lives of old men by shoveling short driveways, if possible. He parked his truck on the street and trudged up the driveway and then across the yard in an area where it seemed logical to conclude that there might be a sidewalk. He had hoped that Gil’s grandpa might have insomnia tonight, but the house was dark, which didn’t mean he didn’t have insomnia, but was not a good indication that he did have insomnia. Spence looked for a doorbell. He thought the sound of a doorbell would be less frightening than the sound of someone pounding on the door at 2:45 in the morning. But there was no doorbell, so Spence pounded on the door at 2:45 in the morning. Then he waited. Standing on the porch of an old man he didn’t know, Spence really started to feel the cold. He hoped that Gil’s grandpa would not answer the door with a gun. In his bulky snow attire, Spence knew he would be a slow, clumsy, easy target.

He knocked on the door again, louder. A creak came from within the house. Hesitant footsteps approached. Spence heard the sound of three different varieties of locks unlocking and the door cracked open. “Who are you?”

                Spence couldn’t see anything in the dark crack of the open door. “Sir, hello,” he said. He realized, as he said it, that he’d never called anyone “sir” before. Was that weird? “I’m a friend of your grandson. Gil?” It wasn’t exactly true, but this wasn’t a moment for perfect precision. “He told me your address. I’m here to help a friend of yours.”

                “What’s wrong with Gil?” came the voice. It sounded aged, certainly, but not frail.

                “Nothing’s wrong with Gil,” said Spence. “He just told me where you live. So I came to ask you where a friend of yours lives so I can shovel his driveway for him.”

                Spence heard confusion in the silence that came back at him.

                “My shovel is in my truck,” said Spence, as if the location of his shovel was the primary source of the old man’s confusion.

                “You came pounding on my door at 2:45 in the morning because you want to shovel my friend’s driveway?” The old man did not sound like he meant it in an admiring way. “You almost gave me a heart attack!”

                “I’m sorry,” said Spence, horrified at the old man’s choice of hyperbole, hoping against hope that it was hyperbole. “That was not my intention.” He explained about the snow and the driveways and the weak hearts and Christmas and Gil. As he spoke, the door opened wider. Eventually, the old man turned on the porch light and revealed himself to be an old man in pajamas covered in a repeated pattern of crossed swords. He even wore a nightcap, something Spence had never seen in real life. When Spence finished his explanation, Gil’s grandpa’s sunken eyes looked upon him with, well, tolerance, at least.

                “I guess I can tell you where he lives,” said the old man.

                “And he usually shovels his driveway himself?” asked Spence.

                “As far as I know. He says he likes the exercise and the fresh air.”

                “Yeah,” said Spence. “That’s what kills them. Do you mind telling me how his dad died?”

                “Heart attack,” said Gil’s grandpa.

                “Right,” said Spence. “But how did it happen?”

                “Hubert’s dad didn’t like our generation,” said Gil’s grandpa. “He thought our generation was lazy. Probably the same as a lot of people feel about your generation. The same as all older generations feel about younger generations. So one day Hubert and I decided we’d split a bunch of wood without being asked. When Hubert’s dad got home from work and saw the big pile of wood we’d split, he was so shocked that we’d done all that work without being forced that he had a heart attack and died.”

                “Are you joking?” asked Spence.

                “You know someone who thinks your generation is really, extra lazy?” asked Gil’s grandpa.

                “Who?” asked Spence.

                “My friend, Hubert,” said the old man, not smiling. “But sure, I’ll tell you how to get over to his place.”


                Hubert’s driveway was not long and was not wide. For those traits, Spence appreciated it. He had parked his truck at the curb across the street and he sat contemplating the driveway and the house to which it led. Hubert – or someone – had strung blue-and-white icicle lights up and down the peak of the roof over the garage only. There was also a Christmas tree in the front window, encircled with out-of-fashion big-bulb Christmas lights: red, green, orange, and blue.

                Spence didn’t believe Gil’s grandpa about the cause of Hubert’s dad’s heart attack. He didn’t think there was actually a risk of Hubert having a heart attack at the sight of a young person working hard without being forced. If Gil’s grandpa really thought that was a possibility, he wouldn’t have given Hubert’s address to Spence, right? Why would he want to risk his friend having a heart attack? He had been messing with Spence and Spence didn’t know him well enough to recognize it. Spence pulled the ski mask down over his face, got out of the truck, and took the shovel out of the bed of his truck. Most of his enthusiasm for this life-saving project had leaked out of him, but Spence had found a snow-covered driveway of a potential heart-attack victim and he intended to shovel it, return to his house, and sleep well. That’s all it would take: one driveway.

                Spence started at the end of the driveway and began to shovel horizontally, scooping the snow and tossing it over his shoulder into the yard. When he was halfway across the driveway, he started tossing the snow forward into the yard on the other side. Each shovelful was accompanied by a loud, metal-on-icy-cement scraping sound that Spence worried would wake Hubert, if not the entire neighborhood. But he forged ahead. He reached the far edge of the driveway and shoveled his way back in the direction from which he’d started. After five good scoops, a light came on in Hubert’s living room window. Spence scooped once more and tossed the load of powdery snow into the yard as the front door opened and an irritated silhouette appeared on the porch, framed by the doorway.

                “What are you doing? Who are you?” The voice was shrill and distinctly elderly.

                Spence stopped and leaned on his shovel like a professional shoveler. He sniffed, swallowed the result of that sniff, and said, “I’m shoveling your driveway, sir.”

                “But who are you?”

                “You don’t know me,” said Spence.

                “Did someone send you here?” Hubert was not sounding less mad.

                “I’m just trying to be nice,” said Spence.

                “Well, be nice to someone else,” said Hubert. “I can shovel my own driveway.”

                “I’ve already started,” said Spence. “I might as well finish. That way you can just enjoy Christmas morning without having to come out into the cold.”

                “I like shoveling my driveway,” said Hubert. “I like the fresh air. I like the exercise. I may be old, but I can still shovel my own driveway. The day I can’t shovel my own driveway is the day I want someone to put a bullet in my head.”

                “It’s not healthy,” said Spence. “It’s dangerous.”

                “Dangerous? What are you talking about?”

                “Men have heart attacks when they shovel their driveways,” said Spence. “And someone told me you have a history of heart attacks in your family. Heart issues are hereditary.”

                Hubert said nothing. Then he turned and went back into the house, slamming the door behind him.

                Spence was surprised that Hubert had given up that quickly, but he was relieved. He returned to the shoveling. He was ready to be done with this plan. He had been too idealistic, he recognized that now. Too naïve. He shoveled introspectively for two minutes and then stopped at the sound of Hubert’s garage door rumbling open. As it did, Hubert ducked out under the opening door with a snow shovel in his hands. He still wore his pajamas but had thrown a long coat on over them that reached to his knees. His pajama pant legs bunched around the tops of his boots. He had pulled a fur-lined hunting cap onto his head too, but was not wearing gloves. As soon as he was out of the garage, he began to shovel with frantic energy.

                “Sir, please!” said Spence. “Stop! I’ll handle this for you!”

                Hubert ignored him, his breath puffing out of him like indignation and wounded pride made visible. He flung snow in all directions, which was bad shoveling technique.

                “You’re going to have a heart attack!” shouted Spence.

                Hubert would not acknowledge him.

                Not knowing what else to do, Spence returned to shoveling, exceeding Hubert’s pace in a desperate bid to finish as quickly as possible so that Hubert would stop shoveling and go back inside to take it easy. But the faster Spence shoveled, the faster Hubert shoveled. He seemed intent on not being out-shoveled by this kid who was less than a quarter of his age. Every few shovelfuls, Spence paused to plead with Hubert to consider his own well-being, but Hubert could not be moved.

                “Listen,” said Spence. “If I stop shoveling, will you slow down?”

                “Giving up, huh?” said Hubert without ceasing to shovel.

                Spence sighed and set his shovel down on the portion of the driveway that he’d cleared. Hubert glanced at him out of the corner of his eye and said nothing, but he did slow his pace to something more reasonable for a man of his age. Spence pulled his left glove off of his hand with his teeth, unzipped his coat pocket, and removed his cell phone. He dialed 911 and hovered his thumb over the “call” button, certain that Hubert would collapse at any moment, watching Hubert for any sign of unsteadiness, any wince that might indicate chest pain, any fumbling of the shovel that might indicate arm-numbness.

                But Hubert didn’t fall. He was breathing hard when he finished, but that was all. He flashed a malicious grin at Spence. “I guess I showed you what I’m made of,” he said.

                “Please go inside and rest now,” said Spence. “Please.”

                “I’m nothing like my father,” said Hubert. “Nothing like him and never will be. I’ve already outlived him by 26 years and I’m still going strong.” Hubert tossed his shovel toward the garage. It clattered on the cement and slid to a stop against the rear wheel of Hubert’s car. Hubert dropped to his hands and knees on the driveway and then began doing pushups, glaring up at Spence as he counted them out. It was a surreal moment for Spence. Mr. Thavin had taught him that word: “surreal.”


                Spence didn’t know quite how to get home from Hubert’s house. He didn’t know the most direct route. He figured he’d just head back toward downtown, and then navigate his way home once he came across a familiar landmark. He’d grown up in Multioak but had paid no attention to how it was laid out until he got his driver’s license, a fact which bothered his dad.

                Spence drove with his ski mask and his gloves next to him on the seat. For the first time since he’d left his house on this fool’s errand, he had the radio on in hopes that it would divert him from the feeling of failure prodding at him from the inside. He just needed to get to sleep. When he woke up, he would be purified. His fruitless quest would seem like a dream. It would be Christmas morning. He would get a new video game and begin playing it immediately. He would let himself get really absorbed in it, he would embrace it uncritically like he had done with all video games when he was a little kid.

                Spence had not been paying attention to the houses he drove past, but as he skidded to a halt at a stop sign, movement caught his eye. A man was shoveling the driveway of the house on the corner. He was heavily-bundled and working laboriously. Spence stayed at the intersection, his foot on the brake, watching the tired man shovel. What was he doing out here at this hour? Why not wait until the sun came up, at least? Was he really expecting family to show up that early? Spence tried to estimate the man’s age, but he couldn’t see him well enough. The man was too concealed by his winter clothing for Spence to be able to tell how old he was. Well, old or not, he looked like he was struggling. He looked like he’d appreciate a little assistance. He only had a third of his driveway left to go, it would only take Spence a few minutes to help him finish up.

                As Spence turned left at the intersection and pulled his truck up next to the curb across from the house where the man was shoveling, the man collapsed, falling on top of his shovel, his legs kicking slowly, the toes of his boots sliding on the driveway’s slick surface.

                Spence sprang from the truck and ran across the street, leaving the door open behind him, the truck beeping at him to close it. Spence ignored the truck and ran across the yard to the driveway, dropping to his knees next to the man, rolling the man onto his back. “Can you hear me? Can you hear me?”

                 The man said nothing. His eyes were closed inside of his ski goggles.

Spence pulled the goggles off of the man’s face and pulled the balaclava up, hoping that would help him breathe. “Mr. Thavin? Mr. Thavin!” 911 was still primed and ready to go on Spence’s phone. All he had to do was hit “call,” which he immediately did.

As Spence waited for the ambulance to arrive, he knelt next to Mr. Thavin’s unconscious form and listened to his shallow, irregular breathing, ready to attempt some amateurish CPR as soon as it was called for. Lights came on in the house. An old man in pajamas came out onto the porch, a sight that was becoming very familiar to Spence.

                “Who are you?” called the old man.

                “I’m one of Mr. Thavin’s students,” Spence called back.

                “Who’s Mr. Thavin?” asked the old man. He did not, Spence noted, look hearty enough to shovel his own driveway.


                “You saved his life,” said Mr. Thavin’s mom. She looked to be in her mid-60s and wore a heavy coat that made her head look disproportionately small. She and Spence stood in a corner of the hospital waiting room next to an end table completely covered with magazines that looked as if they’d been attacked by a bad dog.

                “I just happened to be driving by,” said Spence. “I didn’t even know it was him until I took his goggles and stuff off.”

                “I’m so grateful,” said Mrs. Thavin. “Heart issues are hereditary, you know.”

                “So I’ve heard,” said Spence. He was so tired. He had left his snow pants in the truck, but he was still wearing two layers of socks inside of his boots and his feet were sweating profusely.

                “His grandfather died of a heart attack while shoveling snow when he was 68,” said Mrs. Thavin. “Then his dad – my husband – died of a heart attack while shoveling snow when he was 55. My son is only 43. He was going to stop shoveling snow for old men when he turned 45 just to be extra safe. But I guess ‘extra safe’ wasn’t safe enough.” She sighed and rubbed her eyes with her fingers. “You should go be with your family now. It’s Christmas, I’m sure they’re missing you. I’m sure you want to be with them. They say Justin is fine now, but if you want to come visit him tomorrow or something, I’m sure he’d love that.”

                “And who’s Justin?” asked Spence.

                “My son,” said Mrs. Thavin. “Your teacher.”

                “Oh, oh, right,” said Spence. He was really, really tired. He would sleep soon. He would go home and sleep. He could open his gifts after he slept. He knew that as soon as his head touched the pillow, he would be out. And not because his conscience was clear. He wasn’t aware of his conscience at all. Exhaustion had blotted it out. He would figure out if his conscience was clear or not after he woke up. The one thing that might hinder his sleep, even if just for a minute or two – the one thing that worried him – was the dull pain in his chest.

Discussion Questions

  • How clear does your conscience have to be before you can sleep? Express your answer as a percentage. How alert do you have to be to enjoy opening Christmas gifts? Express your answers as a letter grade. How easily do you need to be recognized as an employee of an establishment in order to perform the duties of an employee of that establishment? Express your answer as a single, hyphenated word.

  • Have you ever seen anyone wear a nightcap in real life? If so, where?

  • If you are not physically disabled, what are the conditions under which you would feel most comfortable parking in a parking space reserved for handicapped people?

  • How many old men who are responsible for clearing their own driveways of snow but who do not own snow blowers do you really know? If your answer is “0,” then you can’t judge Spence, the main character of this story.

  • Of what color of Christmas are you currently dreaming?

  • What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you while shoveling snow? During which activity will you be most likely to have a heart attack in your old or middle age?