Nineteen miles from Brattleboro

A young man finds himself in need of the kindness of strangers as he travels to Townshend to visit his brother%u2019s family for Christmas

BRATTLEBORO — I was full of Christmas cheer as I took a trolley from Cambridge to Boston to wait for the train to Brattleboro. It was snowing heavily. I was excited about spending a Vermont Christmas with my brother Paddy, his wife Betty, and their little daughter Leish, but I was also excited at the thought of meeting my girlfriend Tina in New York after Christmas. To my surprise, I began to realize how very close we'd become in a short time. I'd deeply miss this mysterious girl, with her straight black hair falling down below her waist and her long perfect legs, if I were never to see her again.

I decided to splurge with the last of my cash, so I put the train fare to Vermont in my left pocket plus $4 emergency money and went to the Salisbury Steak House, where I blew the rest on a big minced steak covered in their famous thick brown sauce. There was no reason to think there might be an emergency. I'd sent a card to Paddy and Betty in New York telling them I was taking them up on their offer to come to Vermont for Christmas at Betty's house in the woods near Townshend. It would be a great place to spend Christmas.

As I boarded the train for Brattleboro, the nearest train station to Townshend, I could visualize Paddy and the old VW Beetle waiting, snow-covered, at Brattleboro station. From there it was only 19 miles to the old covered bridge at Townshend and then up the mile or so of dirt road into the wooded upland, and there at the crest of the hill was the house in the clearing.

God, we'd had such good times there! Summer and winter. Now there would be a big blazing fire and the yellow glow of oil lamps and lots of glorious food.

Leaving the lights of Boston behind, the great warhorse of an engine plowed its way into the snowy dark woods of Massachusetts and Vermont using its great iron nose to push the deepening snow from the track.

I wanted to forget for a while all that had happened in the last couple of weeks, so I lapsed into a reverie of the adventures of the summer when Paddy and I had gone deer stalking in the hills above the house. The house itself was a fairly typical turn-of-the-century New England house, but with a touch of money and class. It had no electricity or running water or flush toilet, but it had fireplaces and one big woodstove for heating and cooking. The oven in the woodstove could easily hold a large turkey, and the cast-iron top was designed to keep things warm or boil the devil out of them, depending on where you put your pots. There was no shortage of wood to burn, and a clear, sweet stream flowed just a little way back in the woods.

The old house had its drawbacks. Being unoccupied for such long stretches, it had been home to the wild creatures of the woods for quite a while. The ornate furniture, fancy in its day, had been further carved up by some animal with chisel-sharp teeth. Under the back door, a nest of copperhead snakes had taken up residence, and you had to be sure to wipe the sleep from your eyes in the morning before you stepped out for a wash in the stream and a bucket of water for the breakfast.

* * *

The train pushed on through the dark, the glow from the windows lighting up the snow-laden branches as we sped past.

I started talking with a girl in the seat across from me who was heading home for Christmas. Our excitement, as we got closer to Brattleboro and felt the glow of the season, got us chatting like old friends. She told me all about college and her boyfriend, and I told her all about the plays we were doing and my girlfriend leaving college because of the pressures.

“Yeah, it's really tough at times. That's why it's so nice to get a break like this,” she said. “Gee, I can't wait to get home and see my folks an' all. My dad's picking me up, but we still got a two-hour drive to our house. I sure hope the roads are not too bad.”

“My brother is picking me up,” I said. “We've only got 19 miles to go, but I'm more worried about his old VW than I am about the roads. Still, the snow has been getting heavier the further west we go.”

At Brattleboro station I went through the crowd of family reunions, looking for Paddy. There was no sign of him. I went outside. The roads were bad (the snow was really piling up at this stage), and I hoped he wasn't stuck in a snowdrift.

The station cleared quickly, except for my friend, who was sitting on her suitcase looking as forlorn as I was beginning to feel.

An hour later it looked gloomy for both of us. She made a phone call, then came back smiling.

“I called home. My dad left ages ago. He should be here soon. The roads must be really bad.”

Then she had a thought.

“Look, if your brother doesn't show by the time he comes, I'm sure my dad will drive you to Townshend. It's not on the way, but it's not that far off. And it is Christmas. It would be awful to be stuck here for the night. Do you think your brother will show at this late stage?”

“No,” I had to admit. “I've been thinking. I only sent the card a couple of days ago. I forgot about the Christmas logjam in the mail. I feel so stupid. I only now remember that he said he was coming up early to Vermont to get all the shopping done for Christmas. My card is sitting in his mailbox right now in New York, and he has no idea I'm here.”

“Don't worry. I'll sweet-talk my father. We'll get you home.”

I felt better. Peace on earth, goodwill to men.

Her father arrived at about 1 a.m. She winked at me and spoke earnestly to him as he got her luggage.

He looked none too happy. His trip had obviously been grueling. There was smoke coming out his ears. He listened to her for a few minutes in disbelief as I saw her gesticulate.

He shot me a poisonous glance, and I heard him say, “For Christ's sake, what do you think I am, a f--in' taxi driver? Get in the car.”

She gave me a hopeless backward glance, held out her gloved hands in a gesture of despair, and left.

I was devastated. That a man could do that! On Christmas Eve. Goodwill to men? Bah, humbug.

But hurt and disappointment couldn't solve my problem of the moment. I was alone in the station. It was 1 a.m. The night porter had to lock up. “Can't stay here, son.” No room at the inn.

“Is there a rooming house or someplace I could stay? I only have $4 to my name.”

“Well,” he looked at me over his spectacles as he bundled up, “there is a place up the hill there that has rooms, if you can wake 'em up at this hour. Vermonters go to bed early, 'specially in wintertime.”

At least my suitcase was light as I trudged up the hill slipping and sliding. It was still the brown cardboard suitcase I'd brought from Ireland.

* * *

The lady was up, all right, and yes, she had a room, $4, up front. It was my emergency money, and now I had the emergency.

I gave a sigh of relief at the news that I'd have a warm room and a bed to sleep in that night. I'd have to wait till tomorrow to see what Santy would bring. I stripped and went to the light switch at the door. I looked at the bed and took a mental compass setting of where it was, switched off the light, and ran for it.

Lying in the dark, shivering between the starched sheets, I thought of home and how my life had changed in such a short time. So many new experiences had come hurtling at me that it seemed like long ago. I drifted off with the pain of Christmas memories in Carrick burning me somewhere in my chest deeper than the acid in my gut.

The sheet was warming up now, but I shouldn't have thought of the Christmas food: one side of my stomach was trying to digest the other, and ulcer pain was gnawing at me. Paddy would have some antacids tomorrow. Meantime, I'd think of home and say some prayers for all of them. Maybe in the morning I'd find a little Catholic church, but it wouldn't be the same.

I couldn't pull the two parts of me together. This was Bing Crosby's “White Christmas” - come to think of it, the only white Christmas I'd ever seen in my 22 years.

What Santy brought was a complimentary cup of coffee and a doughnut, and that was that.

* * *

I set out on foot for Townshend, thinking I'd surely hitch a ride. Outside of town, the road between the snowbanks narrowed to one lane. There wasn't a vehicle of any kind on the road.

I trudged a mile or so, which took the best part of an hour. There was no feeling in my feet or hands. I could have sworn my nose and ears had fallen off. Things weren't looking good.

Then a car slowly and silently came up behind me.

“Need a lift? Ain't goin' far but the car's warm.”

It was a farmer. He had a small calf in the backseat. He took me another mile or so. The heat was glorious, and the smell of the calf, his wide-eyed wonder, and his wet nose brought me back to Mrs. Prendergast's milking shed in Carrick. How I wished I was there now.

“This is as far as I go.”

“Thank you. Merry Christmas.”

“Ah-yeah,” he replied, and turned off.

Now I was really stuck, out in the heart of the country and freezing to death. All I could think of was that bastard last night! I kicked a lump of ice and discovered I did have a toe. He doesn't deserve the lovely daughter he has. He doesn't deserve to be called a Christian. I rambled on like that in my head, using my anger to keep me warm.

Another car glided out of the whiteness and stopped. “Where are you headed for, son?”

“Not goin' that far but I can take you a bit,” said the old-timer with skin like leather and a real Veh-mant accent.

“Thanks. I thought I was going to freeze out there.”

“How'd you get yourself in such a predicament on Christmas Day?”

I told him about the mixup with my brother and how I had no option now but to get to Townshend however I could, even if I had to walk. He fell silent.

Two miles up the road, he said, “Wish I could take you, but here's where I live and the good wife has got the goose ready. Made me go into Brattleboro with some stuff for her sister.”

“She gets awful mad if I don't eat when it's ready. 'Fraid I might stop in to my neighbor's for a little Christmas cheer and forget to come home. Can't blame her. It's happened.

“Wish I could help you.” He shook his head. “Really wish I could.”

“Thanks for the ride,” I said. “It got me a little bit closer, anyway. Happy Christmas.”

Alone on the road, the cold and despair really hit me. I could picture the goose and the cranberry sauce and the candles and the big blazing fire and his wife and children around him, if he had any.

No way now would I get to Paddy and Betty's for dinner. I began to doubt if I'd get there at all. Try as I may, I couldn't hold back the tears. I was awash with self-pity. It felt good.

One foot in front of another, one foot in front of another, that's all I could do. “God is good and the divil is not that bad,” as my mother used to say.

Fifteen minutes later, I heard a car horn behind me. It was the same man who had just dropped me off.

“Get in,” he said. “I just couldn't eat thinking of you on the road. What would they think back in Ireland if you went and told them a Vermonter had left you to freeze to death on a lonely road on Christmas Day? Wife said to me, 'Go on, I'll keep it warm,' Townshend, eh? Only fifteen miles. I'll be home in no time.”

Through the white wonderland we drove. My cheekbones pained me from the cold and also from the smile that wouldn't leave my face. Up along the river everything began to look familiar, even with its white coat.

We went across the old covered bridge at Townshend and up the dirt road, now deep in virgin snow. And there were the lights in the window of Betty's old house and the woodsmoke curling, pungent, from the chimneys, telling of good things cooking.

“Safe and sound,” the old man said. “And judging by the smell from that good woodstove, I'd say just in time for Christmas dinner.”

As Paddy and Betty came out with looks of amazement on their faces, and little Leish peered through the window and waved, I grasped the old Vermonter's hand.

“God bless you,” I said. “May you never die. Last night I lost my faith in humanity for a while. Today you gave it back to me. Happy Christmas.”

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