About the Zero

SH-ColdMost of the time, we’re so intent on watching the big things, we miss the small details that set events in motion.

That’s why no one thought that Amos Handy’s comments about math and the intense cold plaguing Carding could have an impact on town meeting.

Except G.G. Dieppe, a woman with no visible sense of humor.

Vermont’s town meeting is on March 6 this year. Let’s see how it unfolds in Carding, shall we?

You can visit Carding any time in my novels, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, and The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life. The fourth in the series, Lights in Water, Dancing, will be out early in 2018.

You can subscribe to the Carding Chronicles by clicking the subscribe button on my home page. When you do, my stories speed from my keyboard to your inbox every Thursday without any further effort on your part.

Enjoy!

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“It was minus seventeen degrees at my house when we got up this morning,” G.G. Dieppe announced to no one in particular as she walked through the front door of Cooper’s General Store. “Seventeen degrees below zero. Why that’s…that’s…way below freezing. I can’t believe how cold I am.”

Andy Cooper shook his head in disbelief as he watched G.G. totter into his store without a hat or gloves and on high-heeled boots. No Vermonter in her right mind wore high-heeled boots in winter.

But then G.G. Dieppe was not a Vermonter. She’d been born somewhere else and had lived somewhere else until her husband retired to play golf at the Mount Merino Country Club, bringing his stiff-backed wife with him.

“With any luck, this cold will drive you out,” Andy muttered as he bagged groceries.

It had been a rough start to the week for the owner of the store everyone called the Coop. Two of Andy’s best people were down with the flu, leaving him short on cashiers. And then Corker Smith’s truck slid into a snow bank as he was driving into work, one of the many accidents caused by the black ice plaguing Carding’s roads.

Corker and his beloved Chevy were fine except for a flat tire. But he wouldn’t get to Cooper’s until that was fixed, and considering the number of dead batteries and traffic accidents happening all over town, it was going to take a while.

Corker did just about everything at Cooper’s from stocking shelves to ordering the wide variety of wines that made the store a favorite among connoisseurs to feeding the wood furnace in the basement. So his absence left Andy with a huge gap in his employment situation.

He had been up since 4 a.m. trying to coax more heat out of the wood furnace in the store’s basement. But the cold was relentless. Ruth Goodwin opined that it was if winter was exacting revenge for humankind’s fiddling with its climate while the old-timers in Carding told everyone who would listen that “this is the way things used to be.”

Andy was never sure why that was an important point to make but everyone over the age of seventy got excited about it.

But to Andy’s mind, the biggest concession to the cold came via Amos Handy, the semi-retired hermit who lived up on Sunrise Hill.

In spite of his resistance to all things social, the bearded curmudgeon was something of an institution in Carding. Amos ran the Swap Shed at the town’s recycling center, the place where you could pick up still-good stuff that someone else didn’t want. The kinetic sculptures he made from found objects graced many a lawn in town, and he was a philosophical institution everywhere local folks gathered to indulge their caffeine habits.

But Amos’s main claim to fame was the consistency of his wardrobe—work boots, droopy socks, Hawaiian shirts, a red bandana around his neck, and shorts—always shorts. Normally, his only concessions to the cold of a Vermont winter were a chullo that his niece Cassie knit for him one Christmas, and a military-style parka with so many pockets, Amos claimed to get lost in them.

So when he walked into Cooper’s wearing long pants, Andy did a double-take. “Amos, did you leave your knees at home?”

“Hmph, and to think I came all the way over here to help you because Corker’s truck is at the end of the line at Stan’s garage,” Amos said as he struck a model’s pose. “Do you like them? They’re lined—with fleece. Been saving them for just such a day.”

Andy shook his head in wonder. “How old are they, Amos?”

The bearded man thought about that. “Well, you know how I don’t like to rush into anything, Andy.”

“Yeah, I do, Amos. I really do.”

“Well then, you won’t be surprised when I tell you they’ve aged five years since I bought them at that second-hand shop over in White River Junction,” Amos said.

Suddenly Edie Wolfe, Ruth Goodwin, and Andy’s brother, Charlie, bustled in the front door. “We heard that Corker’s truck is at Stan’s,” Edie said. “We figured you could use a hand.”

Andy grinned. “I sure could. Amos here is too busy giving me a fashion show to be of much use.”

Charlie stopped in mid-step. “Why Amos, where are your…”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve already covered that,” Amos said as he started placing groceries in a bag.

Ruth pulled her phone out of her pocket to snap a picture. “Say knees,” she said.

“Yeah, yeah, very funny. Are you going to help this poor man or not?” Amos grumbled, hooking his thumb over his shoulder at Andy.

It didn’t take long for the friends to organize themselves into teams of cashiers and baggers. With the holidays over, it seemed like everyone in town needed more prosaic items such as milk, eggs, and dog food. But no matter how fast Andy and his helpers moved, the lines at the checkouts didn’t seem to get any shorter.

Most folks were good about it, using the waiting time to share holiday stories with whoever stood next to them. But G.G. Dieppe had no patience for such nonsense.

“It was seventeen degrees below zero at my house this morning,” she announced to no one in particular, stamping a high-heeled boot on the concrete floor. “It’s cold in here. I’ve got to get home before I freeze.”

It was the stamping foot that got Amos’s attention. If there was one thing that riled him more than any other, it was a deliberate display of stupidity, and wearing high-heeled boots when there was snow and ice on the ground was deliberately stupid.

Andy picked up his head to watch, and he saw a quick smile flit over his brother’s face.

“So exactly how many degrees below freezing is that?” Amos asked as he launched a bunch of celery into G.G.’s designer grocery bag.

“Why, why…” G.G. hesitated. Math had never been her strong suit. “Why that’s 49 degrees below freezing, that’s what it is.”

“Ah, just as a I thought,” Amos said. “You’re from away, aren’t you, so you wouldn’t know how we handle the zero.” He juggled a bunch of bananas into place.

Edie’s fingers hovered over a dozen eggs as she stopped to listen.

“The what?”

“The zero,” Amos said. “You see, when you count the number of degrees a temperature is below freezing, you have to count the zero just like any other digit or it doesn’t come out right.”

Ruth Goodwin turned her face away as she struggled not to laugh. G.G. eyed Amos’s rather unkempt appearance with visible disdain.

“You’re wrong,” she announced. “Water freezes at 32 degrees above zero, and if it was 17 below at my house this morning, then 32 plus 17 is 49 degrees below freezing. Everyone knows that.”

“But we count the zero here in Vermont,” Amos said. “So it was actually 50 degrees below freezing at your house this morning.”

That’s when Ruth lost it, and her distinctive laugh rolled all the way to the back of the store.

G.G.’s head whipped around as others joined in the general chuckling. She closed her wallet with cold, deliberate movements, and everyone felt the chill in the store deepen..

“You,” she said to Andy. “Is this how you treat your good customers?”

Andy shook his head. “It’s not how I treat my good customers, no.”

“You’re going to regret this,” G.G. said as she emptied the contents of her designer bag onto the counter.

No one moved while she stalked out of the store, her heels thudding on the concrete floor. Once outside, the cold made G.G.’s eyes water, and she struggled to jam her hands into her coat pockets.

“Ma’am? Would you be willing to sign my petition?” a young woman asked as she approached G.G. with a clipboard and pen. “I want to get my name on the ballot for selectboard.”

G.G. looked at the paperwork in the young woman’s hands. “When’s the election?” she asked.

“At town meeting, the first Tuesday in March.”

“How many signatures do you need to get on the ballot?”

“Thirty.”

“Only thirty?” G.G. hunched the collar of her coat up higher about her chin. “Well, good luck to you.”

And then she walked away.

Thirty signatures was an easy enough number to reach.

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