My father says I know how to make a short story long. My mother says I was born with the gift of the gab.
Today, I’ve got five minutes to speak — if I can. My tongue’s all puckered up, like I just bit into a chokecherry, and my fists are clamped tighter than oyster shells. Minnows are swimming in my belly. As for my heart? It’s doing a tap-dance routine, beating faster than before the start of any race I’ve ever run. Ordinarily, I calm myself down by reciting the names of clouds or constellations or all the capitals in every province and territory of Canada.
Today, that’s not working.
There must be at least three hundred of us huddled around this gravesite.
What I want to say in my speech is: everything. I’ve got this hankering, as Harv would say, a notion to tell the whole story. I want to tell John Hindley’s story. He can’t tell it himself because he’s dead. Kaput. History. Long gone — in a manner of speaking.
But the truth whole truth and nothing but the truth cross my heart hope to die stick a needle in my eye is a slippery thing. That’s why, after I’m introduced, I’ll be telling all these good folks a big fat whopping lie. For their own protection.
If I can make it up those steps to the podium without tripping over my own two feet, I’ll do my five-minute spiel. Croak it out if I have to. But I’ll always know one thing for certain. It’s only one part of a story inside of many stories all twisted around each other like a tangled-up mizzenmast. If, like me, your nautical knowledge is almost zero, a mizzenmast is part of a ship. Picture a humongous rope ladder. It can save your life. John Hindley taught me that. How he managed that is the kind of secret that can only be whispered to the clouds: Cirrus. Cumulus. Nimbus. Stratus. Cirrocumulus. Altostratus.
Next month, I’ll be fourteen and I don’t believe in ghosts. Nuh-uh. At least, I don’t believe in the kind of ghost that can jump out of a mirror and chase you out of a house or anything. But spirits? That’s a whole other story.
“The spirit of a person never dies as long as there’s someone around to remember them. And you never know who that someone might be,” says my grandmother.
It could even be someone as ordinary as me, Cinnamon Elizabeth Hotchkiss. Mostly I go by Minn, but yes, that’s Cinnamon like the spice except with a capital C and that’s Hotchkiss, not hopscotch or hog-kiss in case you’re even halfway thinking of making a joke. The name Cinnamon comes from the buns my mother ate waiting for me to arrive. Also, the song. The one my father sang to her belly in his best country-and-western twang:
O sweet little cinnamon baby
O baby we love you so
Sugar and spice and everything nice
Our sweet little baby-yoooo!
He yodels on the o. I know this song well because he still sings it to me. In front of my friends. Get the picture? Raymond — but hey, you can call me Ray — Hotchkiss is a real joker, all right. I think he really wishes he could yodel for a living. He’s a wannabe Wilf Carter — a famous singer “born right here in Nova Scotia,” he loves to boast. He seems to forget we live in New Brunswick and Wilf Carter is long dead. My father gets up every day, yodels in the shower like Wilf and dresses like a Canadian postcard. He’s a corporal in the RCMP. That stands for Royal Canadian Mounted Police, by the way, not Rotten Carrots Mashed Potatoes or Really Crazy Mental People. You might not know that if you aren’t Canadian.
Being a Mountie’s daughter means I get to spit every year on November the tenth. That’s when my father polishes his boots for the Remembrance Day parade.
I spit. Corporal Ray polishes. By the time we’re through, there I am, staring at my own reflection in the toe of each boot.
“Shinier than any mirror in the whole of Buckingham Palace,” boasts Corporal Ray.
But the best part? If I watch real close, I’ll catch his wink when he passes by next day in the parade. He’s supposed to be at attention and keep his eyes straight ahead like some kind of workhorse wearing blinders. Still, he always manages that wink.
Being a cop’s kid isn’t all about having fun spitting. It’s not all parades.
When I was in Grade Two, Davey Stevenson told me my father was a p-i-g PIG!
“Pig child eat dirt!” he said. I ran home crying and told my mother who told my father.
“Going to tell ya something, Minn,” he said that night after supper. “Next time Davey Stevenson tells you I’m a pig you look him right in the eye and say, that’s right, Davey, all cops are pigs. P-I-G-S. Stands for Pride, Integrity, Guts and Stamina.”
That’s exactly what I did next time Davey started in. Shut him up pretty fast, all right.
One night just last year Corporal Ray didn’t come home his usual time. When he got home my mother cried and hung on to him for dear life. They tried to spare me the details of what happened. Next day I found out anyhow, in the news. My father was the one who went in to get the bad guy. Buddy had a gun, too, and was holding his family hostage.
I still have nightmares about that one.
When I was little, Corporal Ray used to pretend he was a horse and cantered all us kids in the neighbourhood around the backyard. One at a time, he’d hoist us up on his shoulders, then gallop and whinny at the top of his lungs like some kind of idiot. Being a Mountie’s daughter means you know that the bad guys aren’t just on TV. You know that good guys are real, too.
My mother, Dory, is a consultant for a paint store in downtown Fairvale. “It’s a dream job,” she says, “the world is my crayon book.” Office buildings and kitchen cabinets are, too. She mixes the paint, and best of all, she gets to invent new names all the time. Sombrero Sun. Cattail Brown. Foxy Cyan. Gumball Blue. That last one was one of my suggestions, by the way. Her favourite television show is Paint It Great and her most prized possession is an autographed copy of the book written by the show’s host. My mother also loves gardening and music by the old British singing group the Ladybugs.
“Contrary to popular belief,” she says, “not all Maritimers grew up listening to fiddles and bagpipes.”
She’s nuts about Hardly Whynot, the lead singer. “Hardly, sing to me,” she says when she puts on a CD. Then she gets a goopy look in her eyes like he’s singing just for her. Leastways, she used to.
And I used to be the only child of Dory and Raymond Hotchkiss of 22 Redwood Drive, Fairvale, New Brunswick. E3B 1Z4. Eat three bananas, one Zamboni four.
Everything’s changed. I’m still the only child. But my folks — as I knew them — vanished for a while. In their place? Two people — Dory and Ray look-alikes. Not Dory and Ray the parents I used to know.
It wasn’t their fault. The winter before last, during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, a baby died before it was born. Corporal Ray and Dory’s baby. Because of what happened that week, and what happened after that and what happened after that, I got to meet John Hindley the way I did.