Many people missed the Christmas short story
I wrote for the newspaper. For those who missed it, I have added it to my blog.
SHORT STORY BY VICKI GILHULA
Matthew watched his mother make Campbell’s tomato soup. He liked it when she added milk, but these days she used powdered milk with water.
“Supper will be ready soon, Mattie. Set the table,” she said.
He cleared his homework off the table. Then he placed bowls and spoons out for his dad, his older brother, Mark, for his mom and himself.
“I have basketball practice at six, mom,” he said. It was quarter to five.
His mother put a loaf of homemade bread on the table. Since his father had been on strike at the mine, his mom had to stretch his meager weekly strike pay of $34.
The family ate soup and bread many nights for supper. Sometimes she brought food home that was left over from the potluck dinners at the hall.
Mom was on a committee with other strikers’ wives, and she talked more about the strike than his dad did. She seemed to always be on the telephone. For the past couple of weeks, she had been busy getting donations of toys for the children’s Christmas party.
Just then Mark walked into the kitchen, and turned up the radio. He started dancing around his brother doing a bad imitation of Rod Stewart.
“If you want my body and you think I’m sexy
Come on, sugar, let me know
If you really need me just reach out and touch me
Come on, honey, tell me so.”
“I hate that song and I hate you,” said Matthew, as he stormed up the stairs to his bedroom and slammed the door.
“Hey PeeWee what’s wrong with you?” his brother called out.
Mark played on the university basketball team. He was six foot five. Matt was five foot nine and three quarters.
It was days until Christmas, and Matt was not feeling merry. His dad was on strike. His mother was always talking about women’s rights and social justice. He wouldn’t even think about asking to drive the car until the strike was over. He didn’t have a lot of friends because he was shy. He didn’t have any money, so he couldn’t ask out the girl in math class who sat in front of him. He played the trumpet to make his mom happy. He hated being a band nerd.
Basketball was the only good thing in his life.
Coach O’Rourke was naming the starting lineup for the Boxing Day tournament at tonight’s practice. Matthew knew he wasn’t experienced enough as some of the other players to be a starter. But the coach was also cutting some players. He hoped his name wasn’t on the list.
He had made a serious pact with God when he tried out for the team in November. He promised he would be a better person and help his parents more if he made the team. He also promised to practise his trumpet every night after basketball practice. Matt was playing with a small band that was playing at the union hall’s Christmas Eve party.
He arrived for practice early. The coach smiled and said, “Hi Matt.”
That was a good sign.
Five players were cut from the school senior basketball team: Robertson, Dillon, Boyuk, Burton and crazy Jim.
Matthew made a secret sign of the cross.
“I’ll be making a few more cuts before the tournament. Some of you need to work a little harder,” the coach said to no one in particular.
All of the other guys on the team were over six feet tall. Matt hadn’t inherited his dad’s height, but he had a secret. It came in the mail at the beginning of September. He had sent away for a booklet called How To Be Tall. He had seen it advertised in a copy of Sports Illustrated in the school library. It cost him $5, but it was worth it.
There was a list of stretching exercises. Matthew was convinced if he did the stretches religiously for 30 minutes twice a day, he would grow a few inches more. He was only 16. Mark grew two inches when he was 17.
Mr. Jacques, who was organizing the Christmas Eve party, said it was important to have lots of happy music because many families would be having lousy holidays. No one had any money.
At least no one Matthew knew. All his friends’ dads worked at the mine and they had been on strike since September.
His mom had warned him. No presents. It would be weird without all the little extras the family usually had this time of year.
That’s why the Boxing Day high school basketball tournament at the union hall was so important. It would get people’s minds off their troubles.
His dad didn’t talk much about it, but sometimes his friends came over after picket duty and talked in hushed tones. Some of his friends’ dads were working down south. Everyone seemed very worried.
Just last week the coach had to break up a fight between Mike, the starting centre and Pete, the starting guard. Mike’s dad was in management. Pete’s dad was a union steward.
“Leave it off the court,” the coach said. “Save the energy for the tournament, or you’ll both be on the bench.”
Mathew’s mother told him the strike was about the future: the company’s and the community’s.
“Mom, I am not going to be no miner.”
“Well, you’re not going to make the NBA either Matt, so you had better practise that trumpet,” his mom said. She was trying to be funny, but his face burned.
On Christmas Eve, Matt and his dad drove into the bush to get a tree. They did this every year, but with the strike on everyone’s mind, it didn’t seem like Christmas.
“We’ll get past this, Matt. That’s life. Good and bad. Who knows I may end up quitting the mine? I don’t love it like some of the guys. It’s in their blood. Me, I just followed my dad to the mine one day when I was 18.”
Matt asked his dad what he would do if he wasn’t a miner.
“Don’t laugh. I always thought I would like to be a barber, like your Uncle Jack.
Matt laughed. “Dad your hands are the size of catcher mitts. A barber!”
“Matt, there won’t be a job at the mine for you. The jobs are going to Indonesia. Get an education, and then you can be the boss.”
“I’m just happy to play basketball,” Matt said. “Maybe make the Vikings like Mark. I want to be a gym teacher, coach basketball.”
They decided on a pine tree that was bigger than usual.
“Might as well have a fat tree for a lean Christmas, eh, Mattie, chuckled his dad as they stuffed the evergreen into the back of the Pinto.
He looked at his watch. It was 11 am. The team had a final practice at noon.
“Let’s go dad, I gotta be at the school at noon.”
O’Rourke blew his whistle to call the players to attention.
“This won’t be a long practice. I’m cutting Matt Rogers and Ty Jope. The rest of you, let’s start with some sprints across the gym.”
Matt stood paralyzed in the moment.
The coach patted him on the back. “Hey Mattie, have a good holiday. It will be track and field season before ya know it.
Matt stared at his shoes: a second-hand pair of blue Converse All-Stars that once belonged to Mark.
He didn’t remember getting dressed in the locker room or walking home. He was glad no one was there when he got there. He fell onto his bed and he cried.
It wasn’t just that he got cut from the team. Tears came for his dad, who he knew was a silent worrier. He cried for his family who were going to have a lousy Christmas. He cried because that girl in math class would never speak to him. He cried because he knew he would never get a chance to do what he wanted the most. He wanted to play varsity ball in university.
“Oh Matt, this is a beautiful tree,” his mom said later in the day.
He wasn’t going to tell her what happened. Maybe he would never tell his family.
“Yeah, it’s a nice tree Mom. I’m going to need a ride to the hall early so the band can practice before the party.”
“Ask Mark to drive you.”
“No thanks.” Matt decided to walk. He packed his trumpet, another hand-me-down from his brother, in its tattered case, and ran out into the cold evening air.
He got to the hall early. Some of the oldtimers were setting up the chairs and hanging decorations. They called each other brother. They talked about the bitter strike of 1958. And the Mine Mill raids. Matt wasn’t sure exactly what they meant by that.
Almost 30 years later, Matt remembered that Christmas Eve in 1978 better than any other before or since. He had thought his life was over. It wasn’t of course, but his childhood was.
He smiled as he remembered that bittersweet moment when the coach called his name, and he stopped breathing.
He had been lucky. Nothing had ever hurt as bad as being cut from the team. Not even losing his job in Toronto when the company closed its Canadian office.
It had been a good decision to move the family back home. He enjoyed working for Mark at his nursery and landscaping business. He remembered union hall was filled with hundreds of people that night. At the end of the concert, Santa made an appearance and handed out bags of candy and presents to the children.
“Let’s sing some carols,” said Santa.
Have Yourself a merry little Christmas,
Let your heart be light
From now on our troubles will be out of sight.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas.
Make the Yuletide gay
From now on our troubles will be miles away.
Here we are as in olden days,
happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who are dear to us
gather near once more.
Through the years we will be all be together
if the fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.
Matt looked down from the stage. His parents looked happy, despite their troubles. Mom had that silly red knitted hat on she always wore at Christmas. As he got older, he would realize he inherited her quirky sense of humour.
The girl from math class came up to him after the concert and told him she thought he had real talent as a musician. It had started to snow. People left the hall laughing and singing We Wish You a Merry Christmas.
The knot in Matt’s stomach disappeared. For some reason, he didn’t feel so bad about being cut from the team.
After that night, he lost interest in basketball until his son Scott started playing for the Lakers last year.
Scott was a head taller than his dad, but Matt could still take him in one-on-one.