It was Nancy’s idea to use her dead grandfather’s wooden toboggan. Her parents kept it at the back of their shed with the abandoned roller skates, corroded rakes, and skis someone had received one Christmas. I never owned a real toboggan. I’d asked for one the previous birthday but received a used guitar instead. One time my mom brought home a flying saucer from the Nearly New Store. I used it most of a winter until it got a crack.
After listening all day at school to Nancy brag about her dead grandfather’s precious sled, I said, “If it’s so great, meet me at the back of the hotel after 6 tonight. With that toboggan.” It was one of those spur-of-the moment comments. I was pretty sure she wouldn’t be allowed.
With the rope of the toboggan firmly gripped in her mittened hand, Nancy knocked on the door to the service entrance of our hotel kitchen. Clouds of breath swirled around her head. Her frozen cheeks were streaked with crimson and white splotches showed the beginnings of frostbite. “I haven’t been tobogganing in years,” Nancy said. “I can hardly wait.”
She looked like a sausage crammed into the coat she wore. The Borg fabric was the colour of eggplant. The fuzzy hood circled her face like wild animal fur. The frigid three-block walk had fogged up the lenses of her glasses. Nancy was the only kid in grade seven who was fat. But I didn’t care. I liked her a whole lot and it wasn’t like I had so many friends I could be choosy.
“My parents went to bingo. They won’t miss me,” she said, yanking off her mittens before unhooking the wooden toggles of her coat.
“Mine either,” I said, glancing back at the swinging doors that led into the dining room. “My folks are catering at the Legion tonight.”
Outside the unlatched door, granular snow skipped over ruts in the driveway, the crystals smacking up against the building’s brick exterior. Like kernels of popcorn spilling into a hot, oily pan. For a moment I wondered if we should put off our plans.
“Come in. I’ll fry us up some grilled cheese sandwiches,” I said, pulling her in from the frightful night.
After we rinsed melted cheese and ketchup from our plates, we set them on the sterilizer dish rack. I stuck my nose out the back door. “Seems like the blizzard has settled down a bit,” I said.
We bundled up for the hike to Lion’s Park. Nancy insisted on pulling the toboggan.
“It’s very old, you know.” Her low, gravelly voice convinced me not to spar over a stained, cotton rope.
I lagged behind, admiring the toboggan’s wooden boards with its glossy, two-tone finish. Thick wooden cross-pieces were secured with metal screws over the slats. I ran to catch up with her. On the curved hood was what remained of a blue and white circular label with the name of the city where the sled was built: Saint Paul. The one in Minnesota.
The wind zipped along the soffits of a structure to our left. The long, cinderblock building served as the curling club in the winter and a clubhouse for the lawn bowlers in the summer. Snow skimmed the bowling green, thrusting us forward. I clutched Nancy’s arm to steady my balance.
“The toboggan was Grandpa Joe’s. It was a gift from a Norwegian who stayed with his family after the war.” I’d heard all about this earlier at recess.
“I always wanted one. You don’t know how lucky you are.”
“It can carry five kids. At least that’s what Grandpa used to say.”
Snow corkscrewed along the surface of the sidewalk. We were all alone on the frosty night except for the occasional taxi skidding along the slippery roads. We hustled past the funeral home. It looked gloomy except for the spotlight shining on the sign indicating the hours for an upcoming visitation. I didn’t want to think about dying so I thought about Nancy’s brothers, Blake and Tommy, and wondered if they had ever ridden the toboggan down a slope.
“Let’s head up Blanchard past the car dealership,” I said, clinging to Nancy’s arm. “The foot bridge will be packed with snow.”
“But it’s twice as far,” Nancy said with that annoying voice she used when she demanded everyone sit up and notice she was right.
A mound of snow had accumulated on top of the garbage receptacle beside the auto shop. In the soft glow of the streetlamp, the form reminded me of an Orc. When we turned onto Blenheim and could finally see the park, Nancy whined. “This toboggan is too much.” So I took a turn dragging it.
We swung past the outdoor pool. Behind it loomed the old age home. The window draperies bore a resemblance to phantoms. Orange caution tape surrounding the pool entrance fluttered in the wind. “I doubt the renovations to the pool will be done by summer,” I said, pointing. I looked forward to joining the swim team.
I glimpsed over my shoulder. Nancy lagged a few feet behind so I hung on so she could catch up.
“Who even thinks about swimming now?” Nancy said, gasping for breath. “It’s winter.”
I couldn’t remember ever seeing Nancy in a bathing suit. Icicles dangled from the chain link fence surrounding the pool. Gloomy light standards resembled sentries charged with keeping vandals from shooting out the bulbs. The roar of a milk truck zooming over the bridge interrupted the otherwise silent night. Occasionally, light flickered from vehicle headlamps from the main road. Fingerlings of snow inched along the base of the hill.
“It’s not getting any warmer,” I said. My mittens were damp and my scarf felt too tight around my throat. Our boots slipped as we began to navigate the incline.
Halfway up, Nancy said, “I’m tired.” This was the Nancy I didn’t like, the obstinate, whiny Nancy who demanded her own way. “Let’s go home.”
I jumped up and shrieked a little before setting a hand on her shoulder. “Jesus. We just got here. We’ve come all this way. Let’s try and do at least one run.”
“Oh, alright but I’m in front.”
When we finally reached the hill’s crest, we stood a moment to catch our breath, our minds chasing our own thoughts around and around. I could feel frosty air creep along the skin where my snow pants didn’t quite reach my boots. I couldn’t make out anything beyond where we stood. I wished for the moon or even some stars but the freshly falling snow formed a curtain between us and the sky. The snowflakes were diamond crystals punching our cheeks. I tugged my scarf from inside my coat and wound it over my face.
Nancy took her position at the front of the toboggan. Her thighs, crammed into her black track pants, bulged along the edges. She jammed her boots into the wooden hood and said, “If we’re going, let’s do it.”
“Wait,” I said. I held a hand to my brow and squinted into the wind.
“I’m ready,” she said. “Let’s get this over with and go home.”
“Not here. Let’s move down a bit.” I pointed to my left. “Where the teenagers have built the jump.”
After I dragged the toboggan over, Nancy climbed back on. I clambered on, too, wrapped my legs around her, and rested my boots upon her thighs. “You know what you’re doing, right?” Before she answered, our combined weight caused us to shift ahead. The wooden slats crackled before going whoosh! The toboggan soared.
Nancy said something but I couldn’t make it out. A gust of wind made her voice swirl overhead. The slick hill offered no resistance to the toboggan’s polished bottom. The descent was rapid and I soon realized Nancy had lied. She had no clue how to steer. Kids like Nancy don’t do things. They spend their entire free time plopped on a sofa, their eyes shoved into a ‘Nancy Drew,’ reading about mysteries rather than creating their own. They never went outside like the skinny kids.
The toboggan slithered into a rut, causing us to rock from side to side. Despite tucking my head behind her back, I could feel dry snow crystals exploding against my face. The toboggan lifted and turned into a rocket. And that was when I remembered. The pavilion, the picnic tables, and the playground. They edged the west perimeter of the Thames River which was at the bottom of the very hill we were zooming down.
My voice exploded from my mouth like glass. “Steer, god-damn it. Lift the rope with your right hand.” My voice zipped behind my head.
By the time I finished saying ‘rope,’ the toboggan hit a bump and flipped. It tossed me through the snow-filled air like cotton candy. I plunked like a pile of rocks against the icy shell of the hill. I lay there dazed and achy trying to calm my queasy stomach and slow my nervous breath. I felt such a fool for not wrestling the rope from Nancy’s incompetent hands.
Soon my lips turned numb with the dropping temperatures. I wasn’t sure how long I rested there before I rolled onto my right side. I clenched my teeth, trying to ignore the throbbing pain in my hip and ribs. I expected to see the toboggan split in two and the hood turned into a heap of splinters. Despite the crash, the old toboggan remained whole.
Whimpers rose from the bottom of the slope. Then a deep moan. And then another sound akin to the noise my dog made when a loose dog mauled him. “Nancy!” I yelled. She was near the slide.
I glided over to where her crumpled body remained, crushed against the steel ladder. It was the very slide government officials decided to have torn down. I shuddered. Nancy’s right leg was draped at an awkward angle around the ladder.
My mittens had taken on more moisture. My fingers bit with cold. I stuffed my hands in my armpits before spiraling around to see if any help was available. I knew all too well that Nancy was my albatross to bear. I studied her enormous form in the grey shadows. Moving her bulky weight would be tough if not impossible. But I knew I had to do something. All of a sudden, my tongue engorged and my heart pounded. I ran and fetched the toboggan from where it still sat part way up the hill. When I returned, Nancy was on her back. “Lift your hips,” I said. There was no verbal retort but Nancy somehow raised her bottom enough so I could coax her body onto the toboggan.
The snow had stopped falling and I could make out the pedestrian bridge. It was only a few metres away. I weighed half of Nancy yet somehow coped in getting the toboggan to inch ahead. We eventually reached the bridge. Drifts of snow had plugged it but I was certain this route would save me thousands of steps. I gingerly stepped through the deep snow, a stride at a time, until we arrived at the other side. Snow filled my boots and burned the skin of my legs. The toboggan rope had cut through my mittens and into my hands, leaving them a gory mess. Yet, the palms didn’t feel sore. I wrapped my scarf around my hands like a cast.
“Come on. Pull,” I said. Smoke curled from the chimneys of the homes lining the street where we were headed. I felt as strong as that wrestler my dad liked so much. Whipper Billy Watson. Wood fires kept families cozy inside their living rooms. This chilly night was better suited to watching televised campaign speeches by election hopeful, Pierre Trudeau. As we shuffled past the Friendship Centre, a block from our destination, raucous laughter escaped from an open door as someone headed for the parking lot.
I thought about my parents. Were they home from catering? Would they think I was upstairs in our apartment shrieking in hysterics at one of my shows? Or would they be pacing the kitchen, worry- lines etched on their foreheads? Despite the icy temperatures, sweat forked along my back before pooling in my snow pants. All I wanted to see were their relieved faces, not hear a lecture about two stupid girls’ idiotic, split second decision.
Snow rippled along the sidewalk leaving washboard lines. I dragged Nancy the final stretch. I tugged the toboggan further until I recognized the liquor store lights, a neighbouring business. I released a breath of relief. I turned and looked at Nancy, prone on the wooden sled, her right leg with its awkward bend. I bowed and wiped a spot of ketchup stuck near her lips. A strained, sorrowful look had frozen on her face. She was in rough shape.
“Oh, no,” I said. “We’ve lost your glasses.”
I threw up on the snow bank behind the rear entrance to the kitchen.
Nancy made it. Two surgeries. The doctors kept her leg in traction for months. She had to be homeschooled the remainder of the year. I knew what the other kids in our class had said. They put it back on me that Nancy might stay crippled for life. But I was there that night. I knew what happened. So did Nancy. Would they have done what I did? It was easy to blame me, the daughter of the saloon keeper. The daughter of a man called Otto, a foreigner. Some of my classmates said Nancy might need a cane or worse, never walk again. Some said she’d have been better off dead. That would have been on me, they said.
I was there when she forgot to lift the rope. If she’d have died, it would have been on her.
When I heard the surgeons had finally released Nancy from hospital, I made a decision. I broadened my shoulders and resolved to go and see her at home. I was prepared to beg for just a moment to sit with her. I had my apology on a scrunched-up paper in the front pocket of my shorts. I’d committed the words to memory but in case I forgot, I could always sneak a peek.
I hopped on my bicycle and peddled quickly up to Nancy’s front lawn. I gasped a lungful of air before knocking on the pine door. I lingered on the front stoop waiting for the longest time for someone to let me in. My fingers followed and traced the door’s wooden grain. I could detect the sound of a TV. It was ‘Lassie,’ Nancy’s favourite show. I turned my back on the closed door, sat on the front steps, and waited for tears to come.
Cindy Matthews writes, paints, and lives in rural Ontario, Canada. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Canada, South Africa, USA, UK, and Australia. ‘Clutched by the Hair’ placed Top 3 in the 2015 Desi Writers’ Lounge creative non-fiction writing competition. Learn more at @Matthec1957 or https://www.facebook.com/CindyIsabelMatthews.