Now that the holidays are over, folks in Carding are settling into their seasonal routines—checking their thermometers to see if they really want to go outside, listening to the weather on Dirt Road Radio, and comparing this winter to winters past in order to determine whether the good old days were really good or just old.
Right now, Vermont is under the control of the type of Arctic blast that can make your nose freeze shut. To make matters worse over at the general store, Andy Cooper’s struggling to get by with a little help from his friends who are pitching in for sick cashiers and an influx of demanding customers.
Welcome to Carding, Vermont where life always includes a dash of the unexpected. Carding is the small town (population 3,700 or so) that no one can seem to find on a map of the Green Mountain State. But you can find it any time, right here in the Carding Chronicles and in the four novels of Carding, Vermont, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life, and Lights in Water, Dancing.
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This is the first of three parts, by the way.
“It was minus seventeen degrees at my house when we got up this morning,” the woman-from-away 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 the woman totter into his store without a hat or gloves and on high-heeled boots. No Vermonter in her right mind wears high-heeled boots in winter.
But this woman was obviously one of the folks who come to Vermont only for the skiing and the bragging rights that accompany owning “a little place up north”.
“Seventeen degrees below zero is supposed to keep out the riff-raff,” Andy muttered to himself as he bagged groceries.
It had been a rough start to the week for the owner of the store everyone in Carding calls 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 that had been plaguing Carding’s roads all week.
Corker and his beloved Chevy were fine except for a flat tire. But he couldn’t get to Cooper’s until that was fixed, and considering the number of winter repairs lined up at Stan’s Garage in front of him, it would be a while before Corker was on the road again.
At Cooper’s, Corker was considered a key man because he did just about everything 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.
On top of that, Mount Merino was hosting a ski event and Cooper’s had been packed for days with city people who complained when they discovered that the store didn’t have an espresso machine or their favorite brand of chocolate or spelt bread.
“You only have bread made with wheat flour,” one woman had gasped, a leather-gloved hand at her throat. “I don’t know how anyone can eat that.”
Fortunately, the ski racing would be over soon so Andy told himself that this too would pass and tried to get on with his day.
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 folks over the age of seventy sure got excited about it.
Outside, it was hard to distinguish one mega-scarfed and booted Carding-ite from another. After all, the reddened tip of one nose looks like every other reddened tip.
Even Amos Handy had made a concession to the bitter frigidity. In spite of his resistance to all things social, the bearded curmudgeon had become something of an institution in Carding because he ran the Swap Shed at the town’s recycling center. The Shed was the place to pick up still-good stuff that someone didn’t want while leaving off still-good stuff that someone else could use.
Among Amos’s many claims to eccentric fame was the consistency of his wardrobe. No matter the weather, he always wore work boots, droopy socks, Hawaiian shirts, a red bandana around his neck, and shorts—always shorts. In winter, he added a military-style parka to his attire that had so many pockets, Amos claimed to get lost in them.
This vision of Amos was so engrained in the Carding DNA that Andy did a double-take when Amos walked through the front door of the store.
“Amos, did you leave your knees at home?” Andy’s words were accompanied by a loud gasp.
“Hmph, and to think I came all the way over here to help you because of Corker’s truck troubles,” Amos said. But then he grinned and 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 for a long moment. “Well, you know how I don’t like to rush into anything, Andy.”
“I do know that, Amos. I really do.”
“Well then, you won’t be surprised when I tell you that these pants have 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, charged through the front door. “We heard that Corker’s truck is stuck in the line 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 a customer’s 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, everyone in town needed to stock back up on prosaic items such as milk, eggs, and dog food. But no matter how fast Andy and his untrained helpers moved, the lines at the checkouts didn’t get any shorter.
Most folks were good about it, using the waiting time to share holiday stories with whoever stood next to them. But the woman-from-away in the high-heeled boots had no patience for such nonsense.
“It was seventeen degrees below zero at my house this morning,” she announced again, stamping 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 deliberate displays of stupidity, and wearing high-heeled boots when there was snow and ice on the ground was, in his considered opinion, deliberately stupid. He cleared his throat with an almost inaudible “ahem.”
Andy picked up his head to see what would happen next, and he spotted a quick smile flitting over his brother’s face.
“So exactly how many degrees below freezing is that particular temperature?” Amos asked as he launched a bunch of celery into the woman’s designer grocery bag.
“Why, why…” The woman hesitated. Math had never been her strong suit. “Why that’s 49 degrees below freezing, that’s what that is.”
“Ah, just as a I thought,” Amos said. “Being from away, you wouldn’t know how we Vermonters 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 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. They’d all heard Amos explain the “Vermont way of using a zero” before, and it never failed to amuse. The woman-from-away 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 do math different here in Vermont. We count the zero,” Amos said. “So it was actually 50 degrees below freezing at your house this morning. It’s important to get these things right you know.”
The woman’s mouth gaped open for just a moment. But then a titter escaped from Ruth and the woman’s face cinched up tighter than a miser’s wallet. She reached over to dump the contents of her bag on the counter but Amos got there first, removing the bananas with delicate precision while scooping up the celery with his other hand.
“You…” she hissed. “I’ll tell everyone I know about how rude you are in this store. You rednecks will get no more business from us.” Then she stalked out the door.
Amos maintained his silence until she was out of ear range then he turned to Andy with puckered smile. “Sorry about that,” he said. “I should have kept my tongue between my teeth. This isn’t my store.”
But Andy shrugged and drew in a deep breath. “It’s okay, Amos. I’ve had my fill of those folks this week. Had my fill.”
Just then, Charlie’s cell phone binged with a text alert. “Ho boy,” he said as he scanned the screen. “Looks like we’re in for it.”
“So that blizzard is coming our way after all,” Edie said. Everyone in Carding had been cemented to the local weather reports on Dirt Road Radio for the past three days, tracking the progress of a North Atlantic tempest that grew larger with every telling.
“How many inches are they expecting now?” Ruth asked.
“Over a foot,” Charlie said. “Closer to two feet in some places.”
“Like here in Carding?” Edie said.
“Yeah, like Carding.”
Join us in Carding next week as “the storm of the century” decides it’s time to visit Vermont. And remember, you can visit Carding any time by scouring the archive of older stories or by reading one of my four Carding novels, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life, or Lights in Water, Dancing.
Thanks for stopping by.