The Comfort Rock Chronicles, Vol. 1

In October 2018, I began writing an ongoing series of short stories called The Comfort Rock Chronicles. Based in the fictitious northern Vermont town of Comfort Rock, this series tells the story of Lauren Comstock, a girl who lives on a dairy farm in town.

I was churning out installments of The Comfort Rock Chronicles fairly regularly until this past spring, when I started dealing with a bout of depression. Even though I was in the middle of a multi-part storyline, I couldn’t continue with it. By the time I’d worked my way through my issues, I was backlogged with editing my novel, as well as dealing with other things that fell to the wayside over the spring and summer. 

One of my goals for 2020 is to get back to writing The Comfort Rock Chronicles with some degree of regularity. There will hopefully be installments at least once a month.

In the meantime, I’ve compiled the first ten pieces into one as a way of reintroducing Lauren and her story to the world. This collection sets the stage for larger stories, introducing most of the major players and providing a sense of what Comfort Rock is like. The stories here are also the calm before the storm.

Most of this volume is dedicated to a school Christmas concert, so there’s no better time to give it a read. 

Thanks for checking out my work. I’d love to hear what you think of it in the comments below. 

Happy holidays!

THE COSTUME
Saturday, Oct. 25, 1986
“Oh my god! You’re not actually wearing that thing inside are you?”

The tail lights of Mom and Dad’s car were barely out of sight, and it was already happening. I didn’t need to look to see who owned the shrill voice, but I did anyway.

Half-blind from the eye holes of the mask that covered my face, I had to crane my neck at an odd angle to peer at anyone I wanted to see. After a couple of awkward moments of looking around, I saw Valerie Rochester to my left, walking toward me. More accurately, She-Ra was approaching.

She wore a vibrant, white sheet fashioned as a mini toga, perfectly formed to her athletic figure and held in place by fishing line that barely showed against her otherwise bare shoulders. Long, blond hair – a wig that covered her shorter but equally blond real hair – flowed down her back in waves. Her head and blemish-free face were framed by a styrofoam headpiece spray-painted gold, her slender waist belted by a similar piece. A shiny red jewel – for all I knew then, an actual ruby – rested at the center of the headpiece. Completing the ensemble was a long sword made of cardboard and balsa wood, painted with gold leaf.

Beneath the Comfort Rock Middle School parking lot lights, she glistened like one of the trophies on display in the gym.

Meanwhile, I had a plastic, molded face that covered pimples and curly red hair, and my torso was draped with a garishly colored plastic smock that explained who I was with a picture and a name next to it.

Hoping to escape into the crowd inside, I ran to join the dance on the other side of the gym doors. I was stopped short by She-Ra’s golden sword, though.

“Hey! Where you running to? I just wanna talk about your … uh … costume.”

I looked down, ashamed of the expressionless facade that covered my face.

“What about it?”

I glanced up and saw her sneer.

“Where’d you get it?”

“I got it at … Mom got it at Ames for me.”

Valerie’s sneer grew into an expression of mock surprise.

“Ames! Of course. Well, who are you supposed to be, anyway?”

I wanted to push past Valerie, go inside and find Kim and Dave for a bit of solace. But I wasn’t the pushing type, so I stood there and let things play out to their ugly, natural end.

“I’m, um, I’m Jem. You know. From Jem and the Holograms. It’s my fav–”

“Of course!” Valerie said. “It makes sense to me now that you’re wearing a pink garbage bag with Jem’s picture and name on it. Like, it’s not what she wears on the show, but she doesn’t have gross, pinkish-purple, clumpy hair like your mask does, either. You just went for not really looking like Jem, I guess. You’d make a really good Misfit, though.”

“It’s all we could afford,” I said, suddenly realizing how muffled and ineffective my voice sounded behind the mask.

I adjusted it with my hand, but as I did, the elastic band holding the mask onto my head rolled up, tangling a bunch of hair around it. I winced and reflexively pulled the mask off.

Valerie screamed.

“NOOOOOO!!! Put it back on! Put it back on!”

That’s when I decided I didn’t need to push past her. I turned around and headed back down the street Mom had driven me up just a few minutes before. Dad wasn’t coming back to get me for two hours, and it was a half-hour walk back home, but I didn’t care. It was better than sticking around for more abuse. Walking away, I heard Valerie howling in laughter.

I couldn’t let it stand. I had to get in the last word.

“Hey, She-Ra!” I yelled. “Where’s your boyfriend He-Man tonight? At home snuggling with Skeletor?”

Valerie stood up straight and fell silent. I was certain that I got her. Then she started laughing again.

“She-Ra and He-Man aren’t boyfriend and girlfriend, you idiot. They’re twins. Sisters and brothers only date in your family!”

I wanted to die right then and there. Heaven- or hell-bound, it didn’t matter. I just wanted it to end. Because Valerie was right. I was an idiot. Couldn’t leave bad enough alone. Had to go and make it even worse.

Idiot!

Streetlights lined the first 10 minutes or so of my trek back home. I walked with mask in hand, swinging it violently by the elastic. I couldn’t wait to turn off Main Street and head down Judkins Road, into the dark so I could vent my rage. Not even the stories locals told about the strange woodland beasts that supposedly existed around here gave me pause.

I headed into the blackness.

Once on the dirt road, with no light but the full moon and a handful of scattered stars, I wrapped my hand around Jem’s face and squeezed. The mask folded under the pressure. It wasn’t enough. I thought of Valerie and her fancy homemade costume and shopping at Ames every year for Halloween outfits and Christmas presents and back-to-school supplies while the other kids got to enjoy stuff from the bigger, nicer stores in Burlington.

I tightened my grip, and I felt Jem’s nose split open. I pried my index fingers into the fresh wound and pulled hard as I could.

The mask split in half, held together only by the elastic now. I quickly yanked one end of the band from the staple that held it in place. I tossed half the mask into the field beside me, off to the left, and sent the other piece in the opposite direction.

I thought of only three weeks earlier, helping Dad and the other hired hands he managed as they baled hay here. It was a long but fun day. But this was a different place now. A different time.

I walked further and yanked the smock off the thin flannel shirt it was covering. The costume stretched as I pulled at it with both my hands. I mangled it, tore it into distorted chunks. I let the pieces fall one at a time in the road behind me as I walked, my mind raging.

Stupid, ugly, cheap costume. A piece dropped.

Even stupider Valerie Rochester and her expensive, beautiful, homemade costume. Another chunk of plastic followed.

Being poor when Valerie and her dad had so much money and land. Three pieces fell in a row.

Living on the stinky ol’ Rochester farm. The last pieces floated to the ground.

By the time the last bit of plastic was gone, I was at the foot of the driveway. Mom and Dad’s bedroom light was on at one end of the trailer. At the other, so was the kitchen light. Across the yard, the barn was lit up, too. It didn’t make sense, being well after chore time.

Something was wrong.

I ran down to the milk house and opened the door. Dad was at the big sink, his sleeves rolled up past his elbows, arms and hands covered in soap suds. Hot water steamed up from the basin. He turned toward me.

“Pumpkin? What are you doing here? Don’t you have the dance?”

“I just …” I nodded toward him once. “What are you doing here?”

He smiled his gentle smile. The one that made his scruffy orange beard float up his face.

“You first.”

I shrugged.

“I didn’t wanna be there. At the dance, I mean. So I walked back. Why are you in here washing up? I saw lights on in the barn.”

Dad returned to the basin and rinsed off.

“Well, I was checking on the dry cows earlier, before I went home for supper. Didn’t wanna be too surprised by new calves first thing in the morning. I got to looking close at 42 and thought maybe something wasn’t quite right. I went up and grabbed a bite from home, then came back down. Sure enough, her calf had started coming out backward between when I left and got back. Hind legs first instead of the head. So I had to put the chains on to get the poor thing out of her. It was born dead.”

Dad shook his head in disappointment. It wasn’t the first calf born dead on the farm and wouldn’t be the last, but he always had an appreciation for the value of life and the many interpretations of that on a farm.

“How about 42? She ok?”

“She will be,” Dad said. “Could have been a lot worse as far as that sort of thing goes. Saw a calf fully breech once, born tail first. That was somethin’ awful. Poor ol’ cow didn’t make it either.”

He returned my single nod from earlier.

“Didn’t you leave home with a Halloween costume, or am I thinking of another wonderful girl?”

I looked away, my lower lip quivering. It wasn’t enough he had to deal with an ungrateful kid, but he had to do it after losing a calf. I heard him tear some paper towels from the dispenser to dry off.

“Y’know what?” he said. “Let’s go talk about it up on the porch.”

Dad put an arm around my shoulders and walked me out. His skin radiated warmth from the intensely hot water he’d used to cleanse his arms of afterbirth and various other bodily fluids that go with helping deliver a calf.

We sat on the second of three porch steps.

“Costume?” he asked, taking off his Agway trucker cap and tousling his hair.

I shook my head, covering my face with my hands.

“I see,” he said. “I’ll see if I can figure it out then. Hmmm … maybe seventh grade is terrible?”

I nodded.

“Yup. And dances are never as fun as you think they’re gonna be?”

More nodding.

“Knowing folks around here, you probably didn’t have a costume certain people thought much of?”

I sat up and put my arms around Dad, resting my head against him. His shirt smelled like hay and manure and cows and about a million other things that make a barn smell like a barn. It smelled good. Comforting.

“I tore it up, Daddy. On the way home. I was so mad and embarrassed. I’m so sorry.”

I felt a deep, silent sigh escape from Dad’s chest.

“Oh, my pumpkin. I am so sorry.”

“You’re sorry? Why? You were here taking care of 42, and I was acting all … spoiled.”

Dad unwrapped my arms from his upper body and stood up. He stretched, clomped around a bit in his big, rubber barn boots, then crouched down in front of me.

“Well, my love, I’m sorry because we are where we are. You and your mother are where you are … because of me. You know, I ain’t exactly giving you and Mom the greatest experience in the world here. Farm life is hard in lots of ways, and we sure aren’t swimmin’ in cash like other folks. I should be doing better by you. Should have worked harder when I was young to prepare for now.”

I leaned forward on the step, and Dad knew to lean forward, too, until we were touching foreheads. As a baby, I’d pull his head to mine, and we’d connect. It remained a tradition throughout our time together.

“Don’t say that stuff, Daddy,” I said quietly, hoping to keep his words away from the world. “Please. It’s just a stupid Halloween costume.”

I felt Dad rock his head slowly against mine, shaking it in disagreement.

“No it’s not. It’s a Halloween costume tonight, but it’s been other stuff before, and it’ll be other things … bigger things like cars and college … down the road.”

He paused for a few seconds. Fallen leaves scattered across the driveway, blown by an easy autumn wind. In the barn, pigs grunted as they jockeyed for comfy sleeping spots.

Dad leaned back and looked at me.

“But you know what?” he said.

I told him that I didn’t.

“I think maybe this life we have here, it’s also this, too. Sitting out here with you, knockin’ our brains together, talking at the end of a hard day for both of us. And going in to see that beautiful mother of yours. Maybe watching a rerun of “Little House” on the couch with you both. No Halloween costumes or dead calves or anything else. Just us. That’s not so bad, right?”

I smiled and looked at him, his face obscured by the mask of nighttime.

“I think it’s nice,” I said.

Just then, Mom turned the outside light on, and I noticed how tired Dad looked.

“Your ears are beet red, Daddy. Like they get when it’s time for sleep.”

Dad chuckled and gently flicked one of my ear lobes.

“Yours too,” he said. “Time to call it a day.”

A stern look crossed his face.

“You know, pumpkin, that you’ll need to go out first thing tomorrow and clean up that mess you made with the costume, right?”

I nodded.

“Good kid. We don’t need Mr. Rochester finding that stuff scattered all over his fields tomorrow.”

“I know, Daddy,” I said, practically whispering as the smallness of my world brought a lump to my throat.

OPENING DAYSaturday, Nov. 8, 1986
I kneeled on the green living room couch, facing backward and watching Dad walk up through the back pasture and into the woods.

He was easy to spot against the frosty white field behind the barn; even after he crossed into the woods. Green wool pants, red-and-black checkered wool jacket, red wool cap rimmed with big, black ear flaps, his old .308 Winchester slung over his right shoulder.

He was easy to spot, even through tears.

“La La, sweetie. You need to lay down and rest. Your oatmeal’s about ready.”

“I will Mama,” I said, wiping away snot and tears with my pajama sleeve. “I’m just watching Daddy go.”

Mom pulled the oatmeal off the hot burner and walked into the living room, sat on the coffee table behind me. A gentle tap tap tap nudged my left shoulder.

“Excuse me? Ms. Comstock? This is your mother speaking. Please lay down.”

I shook my head at the gentle voice, not budging in the slightest from my spot at the window. Dad was only a splotch of color bobbing deeper into the woods now. I scowled and scraped at the light frost along the edge of the window. Mom moved onto the couch, sitting right next to me and leaning back against the cushions until she could see me.

“Oh, kiddo,” she said, unsuccessfully trying to run her fingers through my snarled hair. “This really stinks. I know. And if I could be sick instead of you, I would. I hate seeing you like this.”

One of my mother’s many gifts was knowing exactly what I was feeling and being able to speak to that in a way that wrapped my heart in a cozy blanket.

“I know, Mama,” I said, feeling my chin puckering beneath my frown. “I’m just so sad. I wanted to be out there hunting with Daddy.”

Mom rested her head against the top of the couch cushion and looked at me with soft, compassionate eyes.

“Of course you do. You worked so so hard for this, and then you wind up with this nasty bug. Bad enough just being sick, La La. But now you can’t go out for your very first opening day of deer season? That just plain sucks.”

My eyebrows shot up, and my tears stopped. I looked at my mother in a state of complete and utter shock.

“Mama! We don’t say that. It’s a rule!”

She shrugged.

“Sometimes you just need to say how something is. And what you’re feeling this morning … it’s not just feeling bad or sad or upset. It sucks. It really sucks. Right?”

I grinned, feeling like part of a mischievous conspiracy.

“Yeah,” I said. “It does.”

“Does what?”

She was grinning back at me.

“It ssss …”

“Go ahead.”

“It sucks.”

Mom laughed and clapped her hands in triumph.

“Yup. There you go, kiddo. Tell it like it is,” she said, sitting up and readjusting her flannel nightshirt. “Now lay down, let me tuck you in, and I’ll get you some oatmeal. And while I do, you go ahead and tell me why this sucks.”

I did as she said, grabbing a Kleenex on the way to laying down. Mom pulled the blankets up to my chin and tight under my raised arms.

“Talk,” she said as she returned to the kitchen.

Looking back, I think that woman would have made an incredible counselor. She could probably get a locked door to open up just by talking to it for a bit.

I coughed, clearing phlegm from my soar throat.

“It’s just … I’ve been planning this since fourth grade. When Daddy told me I could take the safety course and hunt with him when I got old enough. And I was the only girl in this year’s class and got a hundred on the safety test. The only one in the whole class who got a hundred. Not even Barry Folsom did that good, and he’s a junior in high school. And the game warden said I was one of the best target shooters he’s seen in a while, too.

“And I was gonna get to use Grampa’s old 22. Plus Daddy was going to show me the old Gin Cave and let me look for Bigfoot tracks. And Mitch Folsom – that’s Barry’s stupid little brother – he called me a dyke the other day for being a girl who hunts, and I wanted to show him by getting a big buck today. But now, I’m just stuck here being sick.”

“Hold on,” Mom said, scooping oatmeal into bowls. “He said you were a dyke?”

“Yeah.”

“What a little … I’d like to see him say that to your Aunt Patty’s face.”

I laughed.

“Oh boy,” I said. “She’d deck him good.”

“Well, I don’t know about that, but she’d set him straight on a few things, for sure. Like what a dyke is and isn’t and what women can and can’t be doing. Maybe I should talk with Mr. Folsom.”

“No, Mama,” I said, shaking my head even though she couldn’t see me from the kitchen. “Please don’t. Mitch is just a jerk. I don’t think he can help it.”

Mom brought my bowl of oatmeal out, along with a big glass of orange juice. Her oatmeal was one of my favorite parts of cold Saturday mornings.

Instead of the frozen waffles and cold cereal that accompanied rushed weekday mornings, Saturdays in the late fall and winter were the time for Mom’s oatmeal. Not the artificially flavored stuff that cooks in two minutes and tastes like a bag of sugar. The real stuff. On the stove for 25 minutes, sticky in the bowl, warm in your belly well after you’ve finished eating it. And on really cold mornings, the kitchen windows would steam up as it cooked on the stove, making the trailer feel cozy and secluded.

“Thank you, Mama,” I said as she sat the breakfast down on the old pine coffee table.

“You’re welcome, La La,” she said, zipping back into the kitchen to grab the maple syrup and raspberry jelly, my favorite additions to her oatmeal.

She hurried back in again to get her own oatmeal and a cup of coffee.

“Legs up,” she said, returning to the couch.

I lifted my achy legs, blankets rising with them, and Mom sat down. I rested my legs on hers, and she rearranged the blankets to drape over her legs, as well as mine.

“Something to think about,” she said, pouring maple syrup over her oatmeal, “is that even though this is the first day of deer season, it isn’t the only day. The next few weeks, you’ll have plenty of chances to go out with your father.”

“Yeah, but what if he gets one today?”

She laughed.

“La La, you’re father and I have been together for nearly 16 years. In that time, he’s gotten three deer, and the last was nine years ago. It’s not that he’s a bad hunter, but for him, it’s not just about getting the biggest buck. He doesn’t even load his gun most of the time. Just carries bullets in his pouch. Dad likes going into the woods and exploring. So I don’t think you’ll need to worry.”

I swallowed a spoonful of mostly raspberry jelly.

“And you think he’ll still take me to the Gin Cave and let me look around for Bigfoot?”

“I don’t know why you’d want to go around that old cave, honey. It’s creepy and dangerous, and it’s been closed off for years and years. But I’d imagine if Dad said he’d take you, then he will. And he’ll probably still let you look for silly Bigfoot tracks.”

I sat up.

“They’re not silly, Mama. Folks say there’s one around. Ol’ Zadok Thompson down at the store says so.”

Mom rolled her eyes.

“Zadok says a lot, sweetie. Last month he said a UFO kidnapped three of his cows.”

“Yeah, well, I think he’s right about Bigfoot.”

“I know, La La,” Mom said. “How are you doing now?”

“I don’t know. Better, I guess. About hunting, anyway. Still feel pretty sick, though. Thanks for making me feel better about things. Can we watch cartoons?”

She got up and turned on the TV, then adjusted the rabbit ear antennae for a better signal.

“Two cartoons,” she said. “Then you need to rest and do some of that school work I picked up for you yesterday.”

“Will you watch with me?”

She thought for a few seconds.

“If you can help me figure out later what we’re making to bring to Thanksgiving at Grampa’s, I’ll watch for a bit.”

I nodded enthusiastically.

“Ok. Definitely watch Wildfire with me. It’s my new favorite show.”

Mom snuggled up again under the blankets, and I tucked my toes under her legs. We watched the last few minutes of those insufferable Berenstain Bears and their latest boring adventure, and I finished my oatmeal, wondering about Dad and where he was in the forest behind us.

THE CONCERT, PT. 1

Tuesday, Dec. 2, 1986
“Ladies and gentlemen. Ladies and gentlemen!”

Ms. Van Fleet provided her standard five-second pause before issuing her third and final demand for silence. In turn, my class offered its usual act of obligatory defiance, ignoring the music teacher’s request. She was a creature of routine, and we knew it. When you have the same teacher for eight years straight, you get a decent idea of how far you can push things.

In all fairness, we should have been better behaved. It was Ms. Van Fleet’s first day at work since the school year began, laid up for several weeks because of back surgery that didn’t go as planned. But we remained true to middle school form, a bunch of self-centered brats who couldn’t care less about anything else.

“LADIES! AND! GENTLEMEN! WE CAN DO THIS NOW OR WE CAN DO IT AT RECESS! THE CHOICE IS ENTIRELY YOURS!”

And there it was. The pasture full of rambunctious calves finally hit the electric fence and got their noses zapped.

We stopped our jabbering and giggling, faced forward, came to attention. At least as much attention as a room full of seventh graders could muster three weeks before Christmas vacation.Ms. Van Fleet was a bit eccentric. In seventh grade terms, a total weirdo.

“Thank you,” Ms. Fleet said demurely. “Now we have a situation to deal with here. We have a little holiday concert to put on for our families in two weeks, and because of my situation, not a thing done for it. As my first class of the day, I’m asking you to help me plan the music for our big night. Doing so would earn you some free time on Friday, not to mention my eternal gratitude.”

She held her hands together in a praying position in front of her chest and bowed slightly with her eyes closed.

Ms. Van Fleet was a bit eccentric. In seventh grade terms, a total weirdo. 

She was a portly, rosy-cheeked woman in her early 50s, a train-wreck of interests and tastes. The deferential bow she gave was part of her obsession with Asian culture, as was the pink, flowery kimono she wore each Tuesday. This passion culminated every spring in the middle school production of The King and I, a weekend-long affair that included an Asian dinner for the community and three off-key performances by a bunch of pubescent kids who didn’t want to be there. In cold weather, Ms. Van Fleet liked to wear a flannel jacket over her kimono, as well as a tall, black, stovepipe hat that had a turkey feather sticking out of the back. Also a tattered pair of brown cowboy boots. 

On weekends, Ms. Van Fleet and two of her pals played in an autoharp trio in a backroom at the Comfort Rock Public Library as Mistresses of the Chorded Zither. They mostly played traditional sea shanties and murder ballads.

Like I said, eccentric.

“What I’d like you to do,” she said, walking gingerly up and down the rows of desks, handing out sheets of paper, “is take this list of songs and put the grade number next to the song you think they should sing. There are 10 songs here. One for each class, K through 8, plus an all-sing to close out the show. Please choose songs appropriate for the grade level.”

Seventeen sighs – my own included – rose as one, filling the room with exasperation.

“Ms. Van Fleet? This is the same stuff as every year we’ve been here,” Dave Richards said. “It’s lame.”

Shock and exasperation spread across the teacher’s face.

“Lame? Young man, there is something to be said for tradition, and even if the choice was to break tradition, this wouldn’t be the year to do it. Not on this schedule.”

“Yeah, but …”

“David, please. Now just take 10 minutes and do this for me.”

“Can we work together?” I asked.

“Together? This isn’t a project, Lauren. All I want you to do is write numbers next to song titles.”

“Yeah, but if we can agree on stuff in groups, that’s less votes to sort out. Right?”

Ms. Van Fleet tapped her finger on the desk in front of her and wrinkled her forehead, deep in thought.

“That’s not a bad idea,” she said after a few moments. “But if this turns into social hour or fighting over choices, it’s back to working alone. Three groups of four and one group of five. Go.”

To be continued …

THE CONCERT, PT. 2

Tuesday, Dec. 2, 1986
I motioned wildly to Dave and Kim Stanley with both hands while kicking the chair in front of me to get Heather Nash’s attention. Heather and I weren’t great pals or anything, but I needed her for the plan I was putting together. Besides, she’d skipped sixth grade and was still out of place in our class. Didn’t have a crowd, even three months into the year. She seemed overwhelmed by my interest and agreed right away to join us.

“This is crap,” Dave said quietly as we gathered at my and Heather’s desks. “She’s out sick forever and then wants us to do the work.”

“Oh, suck it up,” Kim said. “You’re such a baby.”

“Am not,” Dave said. “At least I don’t freak out about ketchup touching mustard.”

Dave and Kim were my best friends and for a brief period just before Thanksgiving vacation, a couple. But after 20 hours of dating that involved holding hands on the bus one afternoon and sharing a hot dog at lunch the next day, the commitment was too much for both of them. Especially after discovering a previously unknown condiment chasm. Now they were dealing with the aftermath of their differences. And they were getting on my nerves.

“Both of you shut up,” I said. “I think we can make life easier for Ms. Van Fleet, get a different song added for people like Dave, maybe even make the concert cool for a change. So listen.”

Ten minutes later, Ms. Van Fleet called us back together.

“How did we do?” she asked.

Todd Barry, Jim Mason, Mark Hall, and Pete Tibbetts giggled together like a bunch of idiots, their faces beet red. The teacher walked over to them.

“Give me your sheets, please.”

The laughing stopped, and the boys sheepishly lowered their eyes and slowly handed in their papers, the error of their ways dawning on them. Ms. Van Fleet looked them over, and her face turned a darker shade of red than the boys’.

“You four can visit me after school today,” she said quietly before turning her attention to the three remaining groups.

We later found out that the goons decided it would be hilarious to just write “fart” next to every song. They weren’t wrong. We all laughed on the bus to school the next morning, but it also wasn’t the smartest thing to do. They spent the next five recesses inside, helping clean the cafeteria.“You four can visit me after school today,” she said quietly before turning her attention to the three remaining groups.

“Valerie? What about your group?”

Valerie Rochester rolled her eyes, forever put upon to participate in activities that were beneath her. The rest of her group – Kim Hale, Shelley Pray, and Tammy Alden – struck their best indifferent poses.

“We ended up talking about what we want for Christmas,” Valerie said. “It’s, like, hard to focus this time of year, y’know?”

“We can work on that skill during recess then,” Ms. Van Fleet said, turning to my group and the group of five. “Do I even want to ask if any of you did what you were supposed to?”

My hand shot up.

“We did it!”

“Suck up,” Valerie muttered somewhere behind me.

“Fine,” Ms. Van Fleet said. “What do you have?”

My earlier confidence faded, facing the prospect of actually winning a now very cranky teacher over.

“Well, we thought about how to make this easy, with not much time and all that. So here’s what we came up with.”

I looked at my group-mates, and they nodded for me to keep going.

“Kindergarten does ‘Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.’ Then first grade does ‘Jingle Bells,’ and then second has ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas.’ Third always does ‘I Have a Little Dreidel,’ but maybe this year they do it with fourth grade, and some kids can play with dreidels on the stage while the song is going. That’s one less song to take care of. And fifth can do ‘Winter Wonderland.’”

I paused, looking up from my paper to see how I was doing. She was nodding and jotting down notes. Good sign.

“The next part is different, though. Because we don’t have a lot of time for practice and it would make things easier for you. Instead of six, seven, and eight each doing a song, we all do ‘The 12 Days of Christmas.’”

“I like that,” she said. “What about the all-sing?”

I took a deep breath.

“Ok. This is really really different, but just listen. What if we do a new song for the all-sing? Kindergarten sings ‘Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer,’ so it would be cool if we all sang ‘Run Rudolph Run’ at the end of the show.”

“Why is that cool?” Ms. Van Fleet asked dismissively.

“It’s … because it’s not just a Christmas song. It’s a rock ’n’ roll song. And my dad said it’s written by the same guy who wrote ‘Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.’”

She shook her head.

“No. I don’t have time to learn some ‘rock and roll’ song. It’s too much. And it would sound terrible on my autoharp.”

“But what if you didn’t have to learn it?”

“What do you mean?” she asked, eyebrows raised.

“We could get Nashville to play for us. Him and his band.”

“Nashville? Who on Earth is Nashville?”

“He’s … he’s my dad,” Heather said, looking up through her bangs at Ms. Van Fleet. “The janitor here? Mr. Nash? He has a honky tonk band, and they play Chuck Berry songs. Chuck Berry sings ‘Run Rudolph Run.’”

Valerie and her cohort snickered.

“Quiet, ladies!” Ms. Van Fleet said. “Your father? Why in the world do you call him Nashville?”

“His … um … his name is Phil. Phil Nash. Kids here call him Nash Phil. Nashville. They’ve done it for years. Because he’s in a band?”

At best, our teacher was skeptical. But she was also intrigued. I could tell because she was walking around the front of the room, hat in hand, fiddling with the turkey feather coming out of it.

“I know Mr. Nash, and I’ve never heard him called that. But either way … you think he’d join us? Him and his band?”

Heather shrugged. I didn’t like that.

“We can ask him now,” I said. “Me and Heather.”

“Am I going to regret this?” Ms. Van Fleet asked.

“No,” I said, brimming with confidence. “No you won’t.”

“You have one chance,” she said. “Be back in 10 minutes. Go.”

To be continued …

THE CONCERT, PT. 3

Tuesday, Dec. 2, 1986
“Afternoon, Lauren!”

Walden Brosseau was wrestling with a long strand of shiny, blue garland on the porch of Comfort Rock General Store. The fuzzy pompom on his yellow, red, and orange Ski-Doo toque bobbed back and forth as he untangled himself enough to wave at me as I jogged down from the school.

“Hi Walden. Want some help?”

“Won’t say no. You just take the other end of this junk and unwrap me. That’ll be help enough.”

I did as he asked and set him free from his festive shackles.

“Having fun decorating?” I asked.

“Don’t know about that,” he said. “Be easier if grumpy pants would get out here and help.”

Walden nodded toward his brother inside of the store.

“I can help,” I said, taking one end of the garland and wrapping the strand around my arm. “What’s wrong with Wilson?”

“Just being Wilson,” he said, climbing up his stepladder. “Cranky ol’ bastard.”

“Does he hate Christmas or something?”

Walden shook his head as he unspooled the decoration from my arm and draped it around the store’s front door.

“Nah. He just has his way. He’s all business, is all. Doesn’t stop to think that making the store pretty makes folks wanna come in. Ask him, he’ll say I’m wasting time and money.”

“That stinks.”

“That’s my brother.”

He tacked the garland to both corners and the center of the door frame and climbed down.

“Thanks for helpin’!”

“Oh sure,” I said. “Um, have you seen Heather and Mr. Nash around lately?

The attempt Heather and I made earlier in the day to corner Nashville and ask about the Christmas concert came up short. He was over in the high school wing, fighting with a clogged toilet in the boys’ locker room. Our enthusiasm for getting him and his band to play stopped short of venturing in there.

A few minutes of groveling on my part convinced Ms. Van Fleet to let Heather and I talk with Nashville after school, though. Heather and her dad went to the store every day right after school to get hot chocolate and coffee, respectively. Then he’d drive her home before returning to school to finish his work.

“They ain’t been by yet, Lauren,” Walden said, “but you’re welcome to wait inside.”

One of the nice things about Walden and Wilson was that, even though I was a kid and they were in their late 40s, they always made me feel welcome. Still do, even all these years later.

I went inside, making a beeline for the dairy cooler. I grabbed a pint of eggnog – Idlenot, which was alway the best – opened it, and took a small sip. It was so delicious. I saved a bit of chore money each week during the holiday season to buy myself that creamy, golden treat. Aside from what I got for myself, the only eggnog we had at home each year was the one the milkman would leave as a gift for Mr. Winchester in the barn refrigerator on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, depending on when the milk got picked up. Mr. Winchester always passed it on to my father.

Rounding the aisle to pay, I saw Zadok Thompson standing at the counter, having a heated discussion with Wilson. I got closer to eavesdrop.

“Don’t tell me what I saw,” Zadok said. “They’s my eyes. Not yours.”

“I’m just sayin’ that maybe …” Wilson paused when he saw me and then looked back at Zadok. “Get out the way, you old fool. Got a payin’ customer here!”

He turned his full attention to me.

“Just the nog, sweetie?”

I’ve known Wilson and Walden since I was a baby, and I never did and probably never will get used to how eerily alike they are physically. The very definition of identical twins. You can only tell them apart by their attitudes and taste in hats. Wilson’s never worn one, and I’ve never seen Walden without something on that head of his.

I smiled at Wilson.

“Just the nog, thank you.”

I paid and looked up  at Zadok. He smiled back impatiently, clearly eager to get back at it with his opponent.

Zadok had been a hermit his whole life, living all alone up on the hill a couple miles past the barn. Our road dead-ended in his driveway. Zadok was the best storyteller in Comfort Rock. Maybe in all of Franklin County. Opinions varied on what was fact and what was fiction.

“What’re you two talking about?” I asked, not giving a second thought to what was and wasn’t my business.

“Well,” Zadok said, “this damned cuss can’t be bothered to hear what I’m dealing with. Same blamed thing every night. Waking up to …”

“It’s nothing for you to worry about,” Wilson said. “Head on along and let us stew a bit more, ok, Lauren?”

“Actually,” I said, “I’m waiting for Nash … for Mr. Nash and Heather to get here. I’m talking about important stuff with them. In fact, I’ll tell you what if you tell me what’s going on up on the hill.”

Zadok’s eyes went wild at the idea of having a sounding board, and he squatted in front of me, his worn-out knees popping like maple trees filled with frozen sap. He grabbed me by my shoulders and looked intensely into my eyes. 

This would be good. I could tell.

“It’s them space aliens! Up there foolin’ around with my cows! Out in the field most every night. The ships …”

“Zadok! Stop it,” Wilson said. “I don’t need you stirring up my customers with nonsense. Especially not the younger ones.”

Wilson leaned across the counter and pushed Zadok’s hands off my shoulders.

“There ain’t any aliens, sweetie. Just some damned deer jackers tear-assin’ around up on his land. That’s all. Only spooky stuff going on up there is in his head.”

Zadok sprung straight up, knees a-poppin’ as he rose.

“Well I never!”

He grabbed his bag of flour and gallon of orange juice, turned, and headed for the door.

“Hey!” Wilson yelled at Zadok as he stormed out the door. “Ya ain’t paid for that!”

“I’ll do it when I’m damn well good and ready!” Zadok shouted back from the porch.

Before the door could close, Nashville grabbed it and held it open for Heather and followed her in.

“What’s got old Thompson fired up?” he asked.

“That?” Wilson said. “That ain’t nothin’. If he doesn’t pitch a fit about something every few days, must be somethin’ wrong with him. Just business as usual.”

“Speaking of business as usual …” Nashville said, and he headed over to the coffee pot.

Heather stepped up next to me.

“Hi.”

“Hi.”

“Are we going to ask him?”

I was distracted by aliens.

“What? Ask who what?”

Heather sighed.

“Dad? About the concert?”

“Right. Yeah. Ok. Of course.”

“You ok?”

“Mmm hmm. Sure,” I said. “Just thinking about stuff. Go get your hot chocolate and then we’ll talk to him.”

A couple minutes later I followed Heather and Nashville into the hardware section of the store.

“What’s got you girls so interested in me this afternoon?” Nashville asked as he began to scoop nails from a five-gallon bucket into a paper bag.

“You say,” Heather whispered to me.

“But he’s your … oh, ok. Well, we were wondering if …”

“Can one of you hold this for me?” he asked, holding out the bag. “I gotta get a bunch of screws, too.”

“What’s it all for?” Heather asked as she took the nails.

“The stage in the gym needs some serious fixing before the Christmas concert,” he said. “It’s been put off too long.”

“Oh,” I said. “The Christmas concert? “It’s funny you brought that up.”

To be continued …

THE CONCERT, PT. 4

Tuesday, Dec. 2, 1986
Nashville blushed when I asked him if him and his band would be part of the school Christmas concert. I thought I’d said something wrong, maybe made him feel bad to have to play with a bunch of kids instead of in a bar or something. Looking back on it, I realize he was simply surprised by the offer.

Nashville was one of those guys who probably exists in every small town.

He had a big heart, good intentions, and was real easy going. Very likable. But the universe likes to be unnecessarily cruel to good people sometimes, so there was always more struggle to everything than there should’ve been for him.

Heather looked at her dad, breath held and eyes wide.

“Will you do it, Daddy?”

He looked from her to me and back again.

“Is that ok?” he asked. “To play at a school concert? I don’t know if that fruitca… if Ms. Van Fleet will allow that, kids.”

We nodded enthusiastically.

“We’ve already made the inquiry,” Heather said. “She agreed to the terms.”

I never knew how to follow her way of speaking.

“Yeah,” I said, feeling stupid. “She’s very … agreeable to our inquiry.”

“Well shoot,” Nashville said. “That’d be fun, wouldn’t it? I’m supposed to ask the guys before I take on any gigs, but I think this’s sort of different. You tell Ms. Van Fleet we’ll do it.”

Heather jumped and wrapped her arms around Nashville.

“Thank you, Daddy!”

“You’re welcome, darlin’,” he said, giving her a squeeze and kissing her on top of the head.

“You’re the best, Nashville,” I said. “This is gonna be the coolest concert ever. Thanks!”

“Well, we’ll see about that,” he said, “but I’ll see what we can do to add to the coolness of it. And I’m gonna call everyone tonight just to double make sure.”

I thanked Nashville again and high-fived Heather.

“That’s the first one this year,” she said.

“First what?” I asked.

“The first high five.”

“Oh,” I said. “The whole dang year? Well here’s another.”

And I slapped her hand again before turning to run home to share the big news.

Wednesday, Dec. 3, 1986
“What do you mean we can’t do it?! You said if Nashville said him and the Comfort Rockers would play our music, we’d do it,” I said, staring Ms. Van Fleet square in the eyes. “And Heather called me last night and said he talked with the guys and they’d do it. They’ll even play extra Christmas songs! You can’t change your mind now. It’s gonna be the best thing ever!”

Ms. Van Fleet’s empty expression, even in the face of my unbridled enthusiasm, was soul crushing.

“Unfortunately,” she said, “it’s not that simple. If it was, I’d be President and there’d be an autoharp in every home. But ultimately it’s not my decision.”

Confusion ran rampant through my mind.

“What do you mean it’s not your decision? It was your decision yesterday.”

A wave of infallible logic crashed upon my confusion, washing it away.

“Actually,” I said, shaking an accusing finger at my music teacher, “yesterday it was our decision. You were letting us decide what the concert would be like.”

I had her.

“No, dear,” she said. “I was not letting you do that. I was looking for input. But it was still my concert. And like I said before, it’s not that simple. It’s only my concert insofar as it’s allowed to be my concert. And do not shake your finger at me again, young lady.”

Frustration took the stage.

“What do you mean, ‘insofar as it’s allowed to be my concert’?” I asked, my voice raised a bit more than it should have been. “It’s either your concert or it isn’t.”

“No,” Ms. Van Fleet said. “It’s my music class, and it’s my concert, but it all needs approval from Mr. Wodrick. He’s the boss.”

Mr. Wodrick. The principal. Of course.

“Let me talk to him,” I said before I even realized what I was saying. “I can talk him into it. The day’s just begun. He’s in a good mood. Tommy Fanning probably hasn’t tried to set anything on fire yet. I can get him.”

Ms. Van Fleet shook her head.

“Lauren. Please listen. He spent the first 20 minutes of his morning yelling at me for overstepping my bounds. The last thing he needs is to hear from you about it. It won’t change anything.”

“I bet it can,” I said. “He let you have it for 20 minutes. Give me 10, and we’ll have the concert.”

“Ms. Comstock, I don’t know what you think you’re going to do, but I’ve taught long enough to know when a student is convinced of something. The Pledge of Allegiance is in 15 minutes. Be back here by then. Go.”

“I’ll be back in 10.”

To be continued …

THE CONCERT, PT. 5

Wednesday, Dec. 3, 1986
Mr. Wodrick was born in a canoe as his parents escaped high water in central Vermont during the Flood of 1927, and he got shot twice during the Korean War. Everyone at Comfort Rock Elementary & Middle School knew this. Heck. Everyone in Franklin County knew it.

He made sure of it by bringing it up in every conversation he had.

Waiting in the chair outside his office door, I wondered how long it would take for him to bring those details up during our chat about the Christmas concert. I sat and watched Ms. Grace (she always insisted on being called by her first name) prepare morning announcements and answer the phone. I wondered whose parents were calling their kids in sick today. I hoped it was Valerie’s mother on the phone.

The principal’s door opened, and Mr. Wodrick peered out from the gap at me.

“Miss Comstock. You wanted to see me?”

“Yes sir.”

He smiled, a big fan of that sort of formality, whether sincere or otherwise.

“Please step in.”

He directed me to a chair and took a seat at his desk. His squinty eyes looked at me as he ran a hand across his high-and-tight haircut. I tried to imagine him with longer hair but couldn’t. I imagined him popping out in that canoe with the exact same haircut.

“What brings you here so early, young lady?”

I said the only words I could think of, my mind suddenly swept clear of thoughts by his rumbling voice.

“The Christmas concert, sir.”

His eyebrows perked up.

“Ah. And what about it?”

“It’s … uh … pretty great we’re having one.”

I smiled.

He frowned.

“I agree. It’s always a treat. I hardly think we needed to meet about that, though.”

I’d lost him before I even started.

“Well, what I mean, sir, is that it’s great, but it could be even better if …”

“If?”

Screw it.

“If you’d let Nashvi … ah, Mr. Nash and his band play with the students. It would be pretty cool, and I think lots of people would like it.”

“I see,” Mr. Wodrick said. “I see that perhaps Ms. Van Fleet spoke out of turn already today.”

“No sir. Not out of turn. Having Mr. Nash and the Comfort Rockers play was my idea. She was just letting me know that you didn’t want that to happen. So I figured I’d talk to you about it.”

“Isn’t it nearly time for the Pledge?”

“In about 10 minutes, sir.”

“Fine. Speak your piece.”

It was always complicated with him. There was no such thing as doing something just because it was fun or just to try it out. Everyone had to have a “piece” to speak. Good ol’ Mr. Wodrick.

“It’s really not that complicated, sir. Just trying to make things a little different, try something new, make things a bit easier for Ms. Van Fleet after her back problem.”

Mr. Wodrick stood up. Not a good sign.

“I’ve experienced a lot of things in my life, Ms. Comstock.”

Here it was.

“My mother brought me forth into this world in the bottom of a canoe, raging floodwaters all around. God’s wet, righteous fury pouring down from above. I’ve placed this body between my beloved country and the demon Communism, bearing the scars to this day from that twice-given sacrifice. And for the past twenty-odd years, I have held the line between education and chaos in Comfort Rock from this very office.”

He paused for a breath and turned to look out the window.

“But what I will not do, Miss Comstock, is offer up the great tradition of our sacred Christmas music in the name of rock and roll. That, my young lady, is an experience I will not have, share, nor take part in creating.”

I was at a loss. I’d always heard the stories from others, but never from the source. The passion. The determination. The conviction. It was more than I was ready for. I sat in silence.

“You may go now,” he said, not turning back from the window.

I started to stand, but something clicked in my head. I made a connection and sat back down.

“If I may, sir?”

“What?”

I was really putting my neck in the guillotine here.

“Well, all those things you said … being born in a canoe, shot in the war, taking such good care of us kids here at school. Those are things that everybody knows about, right? Things you’re real proud of.”

He nodded.

“So what if you didn’t have those things? What if you were just a guy with a string of bad luck, but something came along that could make you feel really special?”

Mr. Wodrick returned to his seat. I had his attention.

“What are you getting at here, young lady?”

“Mr. Nash, sir. Do you know him?”

“He’s the janitor. Of course I know him.”

“Yes, but I mean ‘know him’ know him? Know what his life was like? Because I do. I was talking with Mama last night about Nashville, about the concert, and she was so excited because she thought it would be really good for him.”

Mr. Wodrick picked up a pencil and fiddled with it for a few moments.

“How so?”

“You know. Mama said you were principal here when she and Nashville were students. That you were the high school principal back then. Remember how he busted up his arm and lost the baseball scholarship and couldn’t go to college? And how he learned to play the guitar after because it didn’t feel right not using that pitching arm for something useful? Started playing little shows all around to make extra money? 

“And maybe you don’t know this part, but his daddy died a while after he graduated, and he took care of his mom after that until she died. And then … well, you must know this, being principal and all that, but Heather’s mom just up and left one day, leaving Nashville to take care of her.”

I stopped and stared at Mr. Wodrick. He looked a little shaken up, which was probably the most he was ever shaken up.

“Yes. This is all true and very sad. But what’s your point?

I sighed.

“Mr Wodrick, people in this town love and respect you. They see you as a really big deal.”

He blushed a little and sat up in his chair.

“Nashville doesn’t have that. People mostly feel bad for him. They like him and all, but he’s mostly the school janitor who had a bunch of bad stuff happen. Let him play at the concert with his band. I think that would make it a pretty merry Christmas for Nashville and Heather. Maybe even for all of Comfort Rock.”

Mr. Wodrick sighed.

“Young lady, I cannot believe that you came into my office and talked to me this way. It was very manipulative and weaselly of you.”

I felt a lump growing in my throat. I couldn’t cry when he said no. I couldn’t.

“But you’re also very persuasive. You go tell Ms. Van Fleet and Nash … Mr. Nash that he and his band can play the all-sing with the school and play four songs on their own after. All Christmas songs, though! I don’t need them singing about boozy sex and drugs in my gym.”

I couldn’t believe it. I did it!

“Thank you so much, Mr. Wodrick! You won’t be sorry you did this. Thank you thank you thank you!”

“Well, you’re welcome, Miss Comstock. Now get back to class.”

I ran down the hall and made it back to music two minutes before the Pledge of Allegiance. Ms. Van Fleet didn’t even need to ask how the conversation went. My smile said it all.

To be continued …

THE CONCERT, PT. 6

Thursday, Dec. 18, 1986
The Thursday before Christmas vacation was always the culinary highlight of the school year.

Fresh turkeys donated by Gizzard Acres. Lumpy mashed potatoes covered with silky smooth gravy. Buttered peas and carrots. Homemade cranberry sauce made right in the cafeteria kitchen. Gingerbread cake with Cool Whip topping. 

It was hard to fathom how that delicious meal was created in the same area that produced such bland food the rest of the year.

And on this day each year, parents, siblings, and grandparents could eat with us as long as they signed up ahead of time. Which was even more special to me because Dad would take extra time off from the farm to join me and Mom.

Today we’d managed to get one of the round tables for me, my parents, Nashville, and Heather.

“Isn’t this somethin’? I can’t imagine them feeding us like this when we were kids,” Dad said with a wink. “Can you, Jewel?”

Mom shrugged, chewing on a chunk of turkey.

“I don’t know, Bruce. It wasn’t that bad.”

“You attended school together?” Heather asked. “That’s very romantic.”

I glared at Heather, silently suggesting she not get my parents started. Mom was, in fact, a romantic, and Dad took any chance he could to be goofy and outrageous. Any more poking and prodding from Heather and they’d be smooching it up in front of everyone. 

Heather had taken to sitting with me at lunch since we started working on the Christmas concert a couple weeks ago. And standing next to me at rehearsals. And hanging out with me at recess. And on and on. Not that I minded. She was nice enough, and I enjoyed her company. Kim and Dave didn’t mind having her around, either.

“I was over in Waterville,” Dad said. “Born and grew up there. Tiny little place. Folks moved here my senior year so my Pop could be closer to the mill. But they fed us all the same garbage regardless of what school it was.”

“Well I grew up here in Comfort Rock, Heather,” Mom said. “And I remember liking the food just fine.”

“Hmmm … I don’t know. I think Lauren’s dad is right on,” Nashville said. “I recall some pretty rotten stuff being served here back when we was kids. Julie, you tellin’ me you don’t remember the rocks they used to try and pass off as biscuits? I do gotta say food’s a lot better for kids these days.”

“Fine,” Mom said, smiling. “Guess I’m outvoted by the local food critics.”

Everyone settled in and ate quietly for a couple of minutes. Then Nashville broke free of the trance the gravy put him in.

“Hey! You girls ready for the big rehearsal after recess?”

“Yeah. It’s –” Heather and I said at the same time.

“Sorry, Heather. You go.”

“It’s so exciting!” she said. “I get to observe you and the band performing with the whole school. I might be perceived as the coolest kid in school today.”

Nashville wrapped an arm around Heather and pulled her close.

“Kid, you’re the coolest kid in school every day,” he said, and then looked at me. “No offense, Lauren.”

“I think La La knows what you mean,” Mom said.

“Mom!”

I hated it when she called me by my nickname in public. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the name, but it felt like a special, private thing for me and her.

“Sorry, sweetie,” she whispered in my ear.

I leaned into her a bit, letting her know it was ok.

“You and the band ready?” I asked Nashville.

He finished off his cranberry sauce and nodded.

“Yup. Think we’re all set. The hardest part’s always getting Lenny to behave himself. Long as he stays behind the drums and away from the mothers in the crowd, he’ll be fine.”

Mom and Dad laughed with him while Heather and I looked at each other, not really sure what was so funny about the drummer bothering our friends’ moms.

“Anyway, it’ll be cool, I think,” he continued. “You guys’re all rehearsed on everything else, right?”

“Oh yeah,” I said, scooping the Cool Whip off my cake to save for last. “And then some. Each grade practiced their songs in class for almost two weeks. And we’ve had three rehearsals in the gym. Even practicing ‘Run Rudolph Run’ so we’re ready for you and The Comfort Rockers. There’s just this afternoon with you guys and then the big whole-concert rehearsal tomorrow morning. And tomorrow night, it’s showtime!”

Dad popped his last bite of cake in his mouth and chewed thoughtfully.

“All we need now,” he said, “is snow. Never seen it so bare all of December.”

“Stuart Hall says we’ll have some,” Mom said. “Last night’s news, he said we’ll get three or four inches starting this afternoon.”

I squealed. It was a week away from Christmas, and I still hadn’t gone sledding yet. Fresh snow meant maybe having a few friends over for nighttime sledding after the concert. 

“We’re getting the nice end of it,” Nashville said. “Down around Rutland they’re supposed to get nearly a foot. Maybe more.”

“I’ll take three or four inches,” Dad said. “Less to clean up at the barn.”

“And less to shovel here at school,” Nashville said. “I’m all in favor of that. Gotta get down to set up now. Bruce. Julie. We’ll see you folks tomorrow night at the big show. Girls, I’ll see ya in the gym in about 45 minutes.”

He leaned down and gave Heather a peck on the head and left for the gym.

The next time we saw Nashville, nearly every kid in kindergarten through third grade was flipping out about him. Many of them had never seen an electric guitar in real life, let alone strapped over the shoulder of the school janitor. As students entered the gym for rehearsal, he was working out details with the rest of The Comfort Rockers, making sure all the instruments were ready.

The kids were beside themselves as they watched.

“Mr. Nash is a rock star.”

“I ain’t ever seen a band that wasn’t on TV.”

“Oh my god! Nashville looks like Bryan Adams!”

Nashville did not, in fact, look anything like Bryan Adams. If anything, he resembled a middle-aged Willie Nelson, right down to the long hair, shaggy beard, and bandana wrapped around his head. 

It was a lot to take in, and everyone was giddy and overwhelmed.

“SAME SPOTS AS YESTERDAY, BOYS AND GIRLS!” Ms. Van Fleet yelled, scurrying back and forth, trying to place unwieldy students where they belong. “SAME SPOTS AS YESTERDAY!”

In a few years, I’d learn the technical term for what the music teacher was trying to do. It’s called herding cats, and she was not good at it. As usual, she fell back on threats to do the heavy lifting.

“EVERYONE GET IN PLACE AND LISTEN OR I SEND THESE NICE MEN HOME!”

Silence rippled across the crowd, and roughly 150 kids scrambled into place like a platoon being called to attention. Within 30 seconds, everyone was where they belonged. Kindergarten through fourth grade stood on risers on the stage, and fifth through eight took their own risers on the floor below. The Comfort Rockers were set up off to the left on the portable stage they used for gigs.

“Thank you,” she said. “Now, this is the last piece of our concert puzzle. Before we begin, I want to take a moment and have us all say thank you to the people responsible for making this possible. They did most of the hard work, and we wouldn’t be doing this without them.”

Who in the world was she talking about?

“Let’s all give Heather Nash and Lauren Comstock a thank you and a big round of applause.”

Heather and I looked at each other, wide-eyed and stunned. We never expected something like this. As all the kids and teachers thanked us and clapped, Heather’s eyes welled up. Without thinking, I reached out and gave her a big hug.

“Thank you, Lauren,” I heard her whisper. “I’m glad you’re my friend.”

“Me too,” I whispered back.

The clapping faded, and the music teacher brought everyone to order again, this time without any threats, and she explained the plan for rehearsal.

Enraptured by their presence, the entire student body stood perfectly still and listened as The Comfort Rockers performed the music for “Run Rudolph Run” a couple times, then another time with Nashville singing. It sounded so good, I was worried we’d ruin it with all of us singing along.

“Alright, gang,” Nashville said into his microphone. “You ready to rock with us?”

Everyone nodded, and Nashville and the rest of the band burst out laughing.

“Oh come on now,” he said with a chuckle. “That ain’t how we rock. Heather darlin’, show your friends what it sounds like when we’re ready to rock.”

Before our eyes, Heather transformed from the prize pupil of the school into an absolute maniac. Jumping, yelling, whooping, waving her hands in the air. And as quick as she turned into a lunatic, she switched right back to demure little Heather. 

“There ya go,” Nashville said. “Just like that. Bet you all didn’t know she could do that, huh?”

We all laughed, and I patted her on the back.

“That was crazy,” I said.

“Thanks.”

“Now then,” Nashville said, “are you ready to rock with us?

The entire student body simultaneously lost its collective mind. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they heard us at the general store, and I was glad Mr. Wodrick was at a meeting somewhere else today.

“That’s it,” he said. “I think we’re good to go. Remember, we’re playin’ louder than you’re probably used to, so you need to sing louder than normal. Don’t scream or holler none, but sing nice and loud. Ms. Van Fleet?”

She smiled and nodded, and he nodded back at her, proud as anything.

“Here we go, gang, on four. And a one, a two, a one, two, three, four …”

I glanced out the gym lobby window and noticed big, fluffy flurries starting to drift through the air. 

This was going to be perfect.

To be continued …

THE CONCERT, PT. 7

Friday, Dec. 19, 1986
I woke up that morning without Mom making repeated trips into my room to poke, prod, and jostle me awake. Of course, I was so incredibly excited about the Christmas concert; it wasn’t hard to imagine I’d wake myself up.

Laying in bed, I thought about yesterday’s rehearsal. Remembering how fun and exciting and different it was. Hoping everyone else felt the same way. Imagining how perfect tonight would be. 

I stared at the ceiling and realized my room was much brighter than it should have been at 6 a.m. Then I heard the front door open, followed by the stomping of barn boots and the sound of Dad’s voice.

“Boy oh boy! That’s a helluva lot of snow out there, Jewel. I earned my breakfast this morning. Pretty sure I’ll earn lunch, too.”

“Lots more than four inches. That’s for sure,” Mom said. “Guess Stuart got the forecast wrong this time. Morning milking go ok?”

Morning milking was done? Oh no! I’d overslept big time. And now I was late for school. I grabbed my She-Ra watch – a Christmas present from last year – and saw that it was 8:49. Not just late for school. Late for making concert decorations with everyone else. Why had Mom let me just lay there sleeping all morning?

I leaped from bed, grabbed the first clothes I found on the floor, and got dressed quick as I could. I was still buttoning my jeans as I ran down the hallway and into the living room. Mom and Dad were at the kitchen table eating eggs and bacon, sharing a cup of coffee like they did every morning. They looked at me like I’d just told them I was dying.

“What’s going on?” I asked. “Why’d you let me sleep so long? I need to be at school, working on the concert stuff.”

“Come sit down, La La,” Mom said, patting my spot at the table between them.

I walked in slowly, confusion growing, and sat down.

“What’s wrong?”

Dad took a sip of coffee and nodded toward the window behind me.

“Look outside.”

I turned and pulled aside the old, flower-patterned curtains that were several years older than me. I blinked involuntarily, stunned by the brightness and the transformation of the landscape. When I went to bed the night before, there was just a bit more than a dusting of snow on otherwise bare ground. Now there was much, much more.

“Snow day?”

“Yeah, Pumpkin,” Dad said. “I’m so sorry.”

“Why? I love snow days. Later on I’ll get a bunch of us to go over to get the decorations made, and everyone will be nice and rested for the concert.”

Dad sighed and looked at Mom.

“Jewel?”

“We got over a foot of snow, sweetie,” she said. “So there –”

“Can I have Kim and Dave and Heather over after the concert to go sledding and have hot chocolate? And Nashville could come too and you guys and even Dave and Kim’s parents. We can have a sledding party. Fill up the Thermoses and –”

“La La, listen. There’s not going –”

“Or we could do it tomorrow afternoon. Everyone’ll be tired from all the singing tonight. Plus, I could make us all cookies in the morning. Maybe –”

“Lauren,” Dad said, quiet but firm. “There’s no school today. And you know that when school’s cancelled, all school events are called off. There’s not … the concert won’t happen, Pumpkin.”

My vision got all muddy for a second, and I smacked the table with my hand.

“That’s … that’s the stupidest damned thing ever,” I said. “The concert’s been my whole life since the start of December, and it’s cancelled because of snow? One of the main parts of Christmas gets the Christmas concert cancelled? I don’t even know … that’s bullsh –”

“Lauren,” Mom said. “Watch your mouth. We know you’re upset, but you don’t need to act that way.”

Act that way? What way? Like my work mattered to me? Like I cared about everyone being able to have fun? Like Christmas stuff is important? 

I got up and hurried back down the hallway, stomping all the way.

“Where are you going?” Dad asked.

“To my stupid room! Where else would I be going?”

“Now see here, young la –”

I slammed the door and plopped onto my bed. 

I didn’t cry. I was too mad to cry. But I seethed, and I huffed and puffed like the biggest, baddest wolf there ever was. What sense was there to anything, doing all that work and having it come to nothing? There wasn’t any sense, I decided. Stupid Ms. Van Fleet should have just planned her own damn concert, and Nashville should’ve kept to cleaning the floor.

After a few minutes of wallowing, I heard a gentle knock on my door. I ignored it. Another knock. More ignoring. And another.

“WHAT?”

“Can I come in?”

“No.”

“Please?”

“Go away, Daddy. I wanna be alone.”

“If I come in, are you gonna throw something at me or bite me?”

“Daddy.”

“Are you?

“No.”

“Good. Then I’m coming in.”

He stepped in, shut the door behind him, and leaned against it.

“Lotta snow out there on top of morning chores. If you’re around, I wouldn’t mind the help. There’d be some extra allowance for you.”

“I don’t wanna.”

“Figured you didn’t. Thought I’d mention though, in case you change your mind. Awful sorry to see you so upset. So mad. Wish I could do something to make it better.”

I nodded.

“Me too.”

“You think of anything, Pumpkin, you let me know.”

“I will.”

Dad turned to go.

“It’s just … it’s so mean,” I said. “You know? All this work, and it gets taken away. I wish there was some way to make it happen still. I mean, the concert’s supposed to be tonight. The snow will be done by then, and the roads’ll be cleared up. If I get over to the school to make the decorations, and you could plow out Ms. Van Fleet’s driveway, and …”

Dad came over and knelt by my bed.

“School policy is school policy,” he said. “You can’t change that. Believe me. If I could do it for you, I would.”

“Yeah, but maybe if I promise to spend the whole day working on getting ready, stay after to help with clean up. Maybe they’d let us.”

“Darlin’, you’re heart’s in the right place, but that’s not the solution. Now I’m not saying there isn’t one, but that ain’t it.”

I sat up and sighed, leaned my forehead against his.

“I hate this.”

“I know,” he said. “Me too. Come help out in the barn. Get your mind off of things for a bit. You can give the calves and heifers their molasses while I plow the parking lot before the milk truck gets here.”

If nothing else, Dad knew how to get me to do chores. Feeding molasses was my favorite job in the winter.

“Might as well,” I said. “No point to doing anything else.”

Dad already had the three buckets filled and sitting next to the tiny wood stove in the barn bathroom. The blackstrap molasses filled the room with a sweet, comforting scent. The calves had started bellowing when I came in, and that set off the older heifers to begging for the molasses, too.

Steam rose off the warm, sticky fluid as I walked along the manger, drizzling it on top of the hay that was shaken out for breakfast. The molasses incentivized eating the dried grass and gave a bit of extra energy to the animals during the winter when they were less active. The calves never stood so still in their stanchions as when they were enjoying that daily treat.

I was halfway through the second bucket when a profound sadness settled in me. The concert wasn’t going to happen. All the planning, the running around, the anticipation … it didn’t amount to nothing. And there was nothing I could do about it. I wondered for a second about maybe inviting Heather and Kim and Dave over to go sledding anyway, but why bother? Something would ruin it.

May as well just spend the day shoveling snow and doing more chores. Good practice for the future, I figured. If all the effort for the concert didn’t amount to a hill of beans, why plan for something like college? Why make plans at all?

I was getting the last bucket of molasses when Mom walked in.

“Hey, La La. Almost done?”

“With this? Yeah. Why?”

“Well, you need to come up to the house when you finish. Nashville just called and wants to talk to you.”

To be concluded …

THE CONCERT, PT. 8

Saturday, Dec. 20, 1986
I woke up on my own that morning, which wasn’t unusual for a Saturday. My internal alarm clock always had me up by 7:30 so I could have breakfast with Mom and settle in for four solid hours of cartoons.

This wasn’t a normal Saturday morning wake-up experience, though. It was still dark out, just a little bit of shadow cast on my wall from the milk house lights. My She-Ra watch said 5:15, the time I normally got up for school. I didn’t consider rolling over to sleep more, though. How could I? I was beyond incredibly excited about the Christmas concert.

Laying in bed, I thought about yesterday’s emotional ups and downs. How angry and sad and depressed I felt, almost all at once, when I found out the concert was cancelled. The elation and relief that came with talking to Nashville and throughout the day as everything came back together again. And the exhaustion at the end of the day. The kind I’d only known from hours working in the hay field on hot summer days.

Yesterday was a snow day unlike any other.

After Mom had come to the barn and let me know Nashville called for me yesterday morning, I took my time finishing up. I let the molasses drizzle from the last bucket onto the hay, watched it get all stringy and globby as it rested on the chilly flakes of dried grass. Then I rinsed the buckets and went to see Miss Boo, the calf born breech a few nights before Halloween.

I scratched behind her fuzzy ears and let her lick some extra molasses off my hand. Watching her head bob up and down as she smacked her lips, happy at such a simple thing, I cried a little bit. Wished I could be like Miss Boo. Just a goofy little calf, pleased as punch by simple things. I gave her a peck on the forehead and headed back slowly to the trailer. 

There was no rush. Though it’d be nice to have Nashville feel sorry for me and share in the greatest disappointment the world had ever known. I poured a glass of milk and made a peanut butter sandwich.

I picked up the phone receiver to dial, but there was conversation on the other end of the line. Valerie Rochester gabbing with someone. Stupid party lines! Why’d we have to share one with her family? The answer was always the same: “Because her family owns the farm and the trailer. You want a line of your own? You need to pay for it.” And that wasn’t going to happen.

“Valerie? I need the phone. Can you hang up?”

“Uh, hello? I’m, like, talking here,” she said. “ Can YOU hang up?”

“Come on, Valerie. It’s important.”

“I’m sure.”

“It is!”

I heard whoever she was talking to giggle.

“Crying about the concert yet?” Valerie asked.

I saw red.

“What? No! Shut up. I need the phone right now, you jerk!”

“Stina, I’ll call you back,” she said to whoever Stina was. “The hired help’s daughter is having a hissy fit.”

They hung up, and I reset the phone to call Nashville.

“Hi, Nashville. It’s Lauren.”

“Hey, kiddo! How’s it goin’? You sound pretty glum.”

“Well, yeah. I mean, how do you not sound glum? No concert tonight. All that work just … I don’t know … flushed down the toilet.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that. It’s an awful lot of work to flush down the john. Probably clog it up worse than the third stall in the boys’ locker room. I swear, not a day goes by …”

“That’s really gross, Nashville,” I said, not sounding the least bit amused even though I was.

“That’s your wrong opinion,” he said and laughed. “Now I was talkin’ here with Heather, and we wanted to run an idea by you. See if maybe we can salvage this whole thing. I’ve already talked to the powers that be, but if we’re gonna pull this off, you and Heather have a lot of work to do.”

“Don’t bother,” I said. “I already know there’s no way to have the concert tonight. Dad told me all about it. So don’t waste your time.”

Nashville sighed.

“I know the deal,” he said. “I’m the custodian. Remember? But didn’t you listen? I said I already talked to the boss and got stuff sorted.”

“Which boss?”

“The main boss. Mr. Wodrick. I don’t know what’s come over him lately, but he’s awful nice to me lately.”

I smiled.

“So I thought maybe we could push the concert to next week Monday or Tuesday, but he said with basketball Monday and someone renting the gym for a party on Tuesday, we can’t get the gym then, but –”

“Great. So what’s the plan? Have a Christmas concert in January? That’ll be a hit.”

“Good golly, Miss Molly. When you get in a funk, you really get in a funk. Come on now. Just listen. We can’t have those nights, but we can have the gym tomorrow night. I called Ms. Van Fleet, and she said she can be there.”

I felt a spark of hope, but I realized the hard part.

“But how do we get everyone there? There’s no school tomorrow to let the other kids know.”

“Right, and that’s where you and Heather need to do the work. You’ve got one of those school phone books with all the parents’ phone numbers, right?

“Yeah.”

“So start calling. Split the alphabet with Heather. Each person you call, have them call two other people. It’ll be done before you know it. Ms. Van Fleet said she’ll call the teachers.”

“But some people won’t be home. And probably a bunch of folks’ll be out Christmas shopping and going to parties tomorrow night. And –”

“And a million other things, kiddo. But we’ve got the gym. We’ve got Ms. Van Fleet. And I’ve got the band ready to go. Ain’t gonna be perfect, probably, but it’s better than not having a concert. Right?”

Was it? It wasn’t the original plan, but under the circumstances …

“Yeah. You’re right. Ok.”

He gave the phone to Heather, and I gave her the second half of the alphabet so I didn’t have to talk to stupid Valerie Winchester again today. And Mom agreed that Heather could come over in the afternoon to help make a poster to hang in the general store to let folks now the show was still on. On the way to the trailer, Nashville stopped by the school with Heather and grabbed the decorating supplies Ms. Van Fleet got for the show.

We had the poster done before afternoon milking, and Dad drove us over to put it up.

“You tell Walden the concert’s tomorrow night, you probably won’t even need the poster,” Dad said. “He’ll add it to his daily gossip and tell every customer himself.”

Heather thought that was the funniest thing ever.

“He does enjoy distributing the news and rumors of the day,” she said.

Dad squinted and nodded slowly.

“Yeah. That’s … that’s what he does, I guess.”

Walden was excited to hear the show would go on despite the weather, and he insisted on hanging the poster right by the register so he could point it out. He also gave Heather and I each a free pint of egg nog for all the hard work we were doing.

“Now you go get those decorations done,” he said. “And I’ll stay here and spread the words. Maybe even find a date for the big night out!”

Heather and I grinned at each other and giggled, imagining Walden asking a lady out on a date.

“Well, good luck,” I said. “And thank you for putting up the poster and for the eggnog.”

We hopped back in Dad’s truck and spent the rest of the afternoon making decorations at home. Since we had a guest, Mom got out the Chef Boyardee pizza kit and made a special dinner for us. Around 7:30, Heather called Nashville to see if she could stay over since we were being so productive. He said yes, and we made snowflakes, construction paper chains, and snowmen well into the night.

I wondered now about the day ahead. Decorating the gym. Seeing who would be at the show. Hoping we’d sound ok after being a day out of practice. Heather snored on the floor by my bed. This was her first sleepover, and I felt special, knowing she felt so comfortable around me and my parents. Like my home was her home.

I rolled over to face the wall, blankets pulled up tight around me. I worried I’d be too tired tonight, but I couldn’t figure out how I’d get back to sleep. Next thing I knew, Mom was waking us up, and it was almost 11.

She made us take it easy until going to the school around 3. Dad had to do milking with one of the other hired hands, but Mom took Heather and I over. We met Nashville there, along with a few other parents who somehow got word that we’d be decorating. They even had a bunch of decorations they’d made. I asked Mom how they knew to do that, and she just shrugged and said it must be a Christmas miracle. 

The rest of the Comfort Rockers showed up to do something called a sound check around 4:30, and we got a free preview of the extra songs they’d be playing at the end of the show. Ms. Van Fleet got there partway through the soundcheck, along with two other ladies, each of them carrying an autoharp.

Nashville sat on a bench, doing something to his guitar.

“Hey, Nashville.”

“Hmmm?”

“Why’d Ms. Van Fleet bring her weird band?”

“Oh that,” he said, chuckling. “I just thought it’d be nice of the Mistresses of the Chorded Zither could join the fun, too. No sense in Ms. Van Fleet doing all the hard work while we get to play. We added a little intermission so they can do a couple of midwinter folk ballads or somesuch. Cool?”

I wasn’t sure.

“Sure,” I said. “Cool.”

By the time kids were showing up to sing, we had the place decorated, and we were enjoying more pizza, compliments of Walden and the general store. I’d never had pizza two nights in a row, and I imagined this must be how billionaires live.

Ten minutes before showtime, Ms. Van Fleet took Heather and I aside and held one of my hands and one of Heather’s. She looked sort of weepy.

“Girls, I can’t even begin to thank you enough for this. When they called a snow day yesterday, I thought it was over. And I don’t know if you understand this sort of thing, but after the awful time I’ve had with my back problems, trying to get back into my teaching with so much of the year done, and knowing the effort you put into this … thinking that the concert wasn’t happening … it just about did me in.”

I was ashamed at how self-absorbed I was yesterday. I hadn’t considered Ms. Van Fleet or anyone else, and there she was, feeling bad about me and Heather.

“Then when Mr. Nash … Nashville,” she said, smiling, “called me and suggested all this, it was like hearing a Christmas angel singing. He made sure I knew that this was up to you to get started, though, and you did it. Again. Thank you. Can I give you girls a hug?”

We both nodded, a little weepy at this point ourselves, and we wrapped our arms around each other.

The concert was set to begin at 6:30, and by 6:10, I could see almost every student and teacher somewhere in the gym. I was surprised and pleased. 

Just before Ms. Van Fleet sent us off to our classes to get ready, Walden entered the gym with a woman on his arm. It was his mother. Of course it was. There was no more dedicated son in all of Franklin County than Walden Brosseau, and he’d be damned if he let that 86-year old woman miss the show. I caught a glimpse of Mom and Dad, too, Dad having slipped in a little while ago after finishing chores. He even had on a new flannel shirt.

Heather and I took our seats in the classroom and grinned like maniacs.

“We accomplished our goal.”

“Yup.”

“Merry Christmas, Lauren.”

“Merry Christmas, Heather.”

Down the hall, I heard Ms. Van Fleet on the microphone, welcoming the crowd.

“Ladies and gentlemen. Parents and friends. It is my great pleasure to welcome you to the Comfort Rock Elementary & Middle School Christmas Concert.”

The end

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