She sweated inside her ruffled sleeves. Her curls had sprung free, thanks to that pile of coal the prize - heaving out breaths of heat behind her. This was Dora Spark's fifth time manning the coal contest booth at the exhibition. It was the hottest one yet. If only she could have raffled off ice.
As usual, her father had left her with the line-up. He had gone off to play bingo - or so he said - with his beer-loving friends. "Heat your home for a year free," Dora shouted hoarsely when the line waned, her thin hands displaying the massive hill of black dust dumped on their delivery wagon. That soot, a gift of warmth for a colder day. Dora wondered if she'd have a voice left when it came to announce, oh so coquettishly, the winner.
The band started up again, distracting the crowd and giving Dora a chance to take a late lunch. She nibbled on her baked bean sandwich, the molasses-covered slop practically boiling between the bread. Staring at the lake, she wished she could dip just one toe into the water. Or head over to the barn and pat the horses' wet necks.
Dora felt for the piece of paper in the left pocket of her skirt. The first year her father had demanded that she help him play fast with the rules, she hadn't slept well for a week before. They had rehearsed the ploy over and over. Wear long sleeves, direct their eyes to the prize, not your hands, I'll tell a bawdy joke, and we'll pay some kid to cry just at the right time. The winner was always from out of town, an obscure friend playing the part for a small fee. Dora had become used to sacrificing her morals for the sake of the family business. Surprisingly, no one ever seemed to suspect, and she had dreamed easily last night.
A man and his son approached the booth. Dried cotton candy covered the boy's mouth and part of his cheeks. He wore no shoes. Quite the sight, Dora laughed to herself. As the man neatly penned in his street address, she noticed his dirty farmer-type fingernails, but saw that he was handsome with the sort of big jaw and friendly eyes that she liked.
Handing over three nickels, the man said, "We were freezing last winter, ma'am. My wife passed away from pneumonia." Dora said how sorry she was, and as if this would make everything better, added, "I'll blow on your ticket for luck." She closed her eyes and made a show of it, imbuing his money with impossible fortune. The man patted the ticket through the slit in the box. The boy seemed to be praying, eyes closed, sticky mouth reciting.
"Any bit of luck helps," the man told her. "We live up near Caledon, and the soil's gettin' ever drier. My potatoes are still the size of radishes. Or peas, more like it." He paused, and laughed nervously. "Sorry. You don't want to know about all that. Great song, eh?" He jerked his head toward the band.
"Million dollar baby, five-and-dime store?" she asked. "It was a nice tune the first hundred times I heard it."
The man practically guffawed, finding her such a card. His boy was dancing to the tiresome tune, licking his lips to get every last taste of candy fluff. "Bernzy loves the fair," his father said. "He deserves some fun. Misses his mom a lot."
Dora remembered her own mother, faintly. If she were still alive, Dora probably wouldn't have turned into a small-time crook. "I miss mine, too," she said quietly, and the man nodded, and sighed. "Then we've both been robbed." he said. "Well, I promised Bernzy we'd watch the lumberjacks. We'll be back to collect on our winnings." He grinned. She neatened her hair, pulled on her sleeves, wondering if her teeth had bean bits between them.
After the man and his son had disappeared, Dora whispered to herself, "Don't get your hopes up, widower." Then, she spied a little corner of the man's raffle ticket popping out the box. As she was about to pat it down, she changed her mind, furtively scanning the crowd, plucking the paper from the box, and shoving it into her right pocket.
Her father was heading toward her with his buddies, a little awkward on his feet. The hour was near to announce the winner. Life made me a loser, but I wasn't born one, she told herself. I'm a desperate five-and-dime baby, and I'm in charge of the cheating now.
Herbie Lees lolled on his porch surrounded by chipped marbles. He rifled through a Superman comic, and picked a scab on his knee. Things you'd imagine a bored 11-year-old boy would do after school one spring day in 1957. Herbie grabbed his new baseball mitt, fitted it into his left-hand fingers, and pounded it against his right fist to soften the leather. He smelled a hint of smoke in the air and considered hopping on his bike to see if some house was on fire. No, he felt too lazy.
Herbie began estimating the days left until summer vacation, doing the math in his head. Twenty-three days, he thought. Twenty-three days until summer vacation. Total days, not school days. But the last day was a half-day, so it was really twenty-two and one-half days. Less than twenty-three days, he concluded, just as the sound of the Custom Royal turned onto Herbie's street.
The car lurched as it passed the Johnson house and swept into Herbie's driveway. Its massive grille plowed into the Lees' emptied metal garbage can. Apple blossoms blew all around. The can clattered down the street. Rolling back slightly before stopping completely, the car landed part-way on the lawn. The vehicle belonged to Herbie's neighbour, Wilbrod Johnson.
Herbie hoped his mother wouldn't be looking out her bedroom window witnessing this. Herbie's mother didn't particularly like Wilbrod Johnson. As she described him, Mr. Johnson was kinda' gruffy and sorta' mean. Herbie wondered if it had more to do with the fact that Mr. Johnson wouldn't give his parents a discount on the coal he delivered. To Herbie, Mr. Johnson was more interesting than most. He was usually covered in black dust, and he walked with a limp. War injury, Herbie guessed. The man was a bad driver (everyone knew it) for his gold Dodge 'what a terrific car, a real shame' - was banged up on every side and one of its high-flying fins had gone missing.
Why would Mr. Johnson drive into Herbie's driveway when he could have just parked at his own place and walked on over? Something was up, Herbie thought. He let his marbles lie. He closed the comic book, and ignored his bleeding scab, so that he could pay closer attention as his neighbour climbed out of the hardtop he was a big man, not fat, just big all over - and opened a back passenger door. A mutt came tearing out. The dog's tongue hung down. It had floppy ears, huge eyes, dirty paws, a ragged tail, and it seemed to be smiling, if dogs could smile. The neighbour seized the mutt by the neck and led it toward the porch where Herbie Lees sat with his scattered marbles and scabbed knee.
"Take your dog," Mr. Johnson said.
"That isn't my dog," Herbie answered, drawing back. Something was wrong with Mr. Johnson in the head. Everyone knew Herbie's dog was brown, not filthy white; small, not medium-sized; and Herbie's dog had such long hair you couldn't even see his eyes. Everyone knew Frankie he'd been Herbie's dog forever.
Wilbrod paused, looked to the sky and took a deep breath, then repeated, "Please, kid, take your dog."
"That ain't my dog! You know my dog," Herbie retorted, peering behind and above him to see if his mother was looking out her bedroom bay window. This time, he hoped she was. Just when he needed her, she was probably curling her eyelashes or something stupid like that. His dad wasn't home from work yet, and Frankie wasn't anywhere. Come to think of it, Herbie hadn't seen Frankie all day. He hadn't even seen Frankie in the morning, and usually he'd sneak him some scrambled eggs underneath the table.
"I know your dog," Mr. Wilbrod Johnson said, this time more quietly, kinder. The man turned, and limped away.
Mr. Johnson disappeared behind the hedge that separated the two properties, leaving the car parked crookedly in the wrong driveway. Panting a little, the mutt stayed with the boy, waiting. Herbie sat on the porch, clobbering his baseball mitt against the concrete of the porch, again and again. He stood up slowly, shaking out the foot that had fallen asleep. He opened the screen door, and smelled cookies baking, maple cookies, his mother's specialty. "Come on," Herbie said, his voice choked, and the dog followed him inside.