That night, Otto wore his pajama pants and shirt backward and inside out. He also planned to turn his Iowa Huskies cap inside out and put it under his pillow. He told his sister Alicia about his ritual, and she sneered the immature way six-year-old girls do, showing off her lack of education. But earlier, he knew, she had taken a handful of ice cubes from the freezer and had gone out in the bitter twilight to throw them, one by one, at the oak tree in their front yard. Alicia also ran around the house three times, and then flushed more ice cubes down the toilet for good measure. The ice would float to the ocean and freeze it up causing it to snow.
She could scoff, but he knew his special ritual would win the wishing pool.
Each of his eight friends in Miss Firm’s third-grade class — plus Alicia who was only a first-grader — had bet on the pool. Each had solemnly put a dollar into a fruit jar and tucked it under a fallen tree behind the playground. The winner would be the person who guessed most closely the first day school was cancelled because of snow.
Otto had carefully marked the calendar when the first school closing had taken place the winter before. That January, the snow over Iowa had piled up so high Otto sank almost to his knees when he stepped off the front porch. He and Alicia had made snow angels and gotten their Dad’s dusty Flexible Flyer out of the garage waiting for Mom to come home from work and take them to Suicide Hill. And they had made a fort and attacked the Schumacher kids three doors down with their barrage of snow balls.
As Otto twisted himself into a comfortable nest under the blankets and quilt, he suddenly realized there probably were one or two snowballs still left in the freezer in the basement. He had made them in March during what seemed like the last snowfall of the winter. The freezer was almost empty now; Mom had said they had to cut back expenses with Dad away. Perhaps he should make a few more snowballs because they would really be needed next May or June. What a shock the Schumacher kids would have when snowballs hit them in the head as they ran around barefoot in the springtime!
He might even write a letter to Dad and Mom could put it in an envelope with her letter she wrote every Saturday when she didn’t have to go to work at Tom’s Big Value store. He’d tell Dad about the snow-closing pool, and how he knew he was going to win it. The contest had been his inspiration. He had come up with the idea of a pool after checking — secretly, of course — with the lady at the library on Greenwood Avenue about when the first snowfalls had taken place in earlier years. He told her it was for a science project, but she didn’t seem to care as long as kids stayed in the children’s section and were quiet.
Dad had said he’d be home before the first snowfall, so he’d win two ways: he’d collect all the money and Dad would come clumping home from Iraq wearing his camouflage fatigues and big boots and give them all hugs and kisses. Maybe Mom wouldn’t be so tired at night and always ask Otto to rub her feet as she sat in the recliner in front of the TV.
He had written down all the “first days” and then asked Mister Cooper at the grocery store to average them out for him.
“What d’you wanta know that for, Otto?” Mr. Cooper had asked.
“It’s for my wishing pool. To pick the first snow day that school closes.”
Mr. Cooper had said, “You’re a smart kid, Otto. What’re you wasting your time with that foolishness?” But while averaging the dates, Mr. Cooper rambled on about a winter that froze the river. Time stands still when it snows, he said. He called it an occasion for happenings.
When Mr. Cooper paused, Otto told him about Miss Firm, who wore no makeup and kept a snow globe on her desk. She’d shake the globe sometimes and say she remembered when it snowed so hard in Iowa the wolves came out of the hills and visited the town.
Mr. Cooper was patient with Otto, his mom said, because he once had a boy who was sent to a place called Vietnam and didn’t come back. Whatever his reasons — an old man’s memories or simple generosity —, Mr. Cooper gave Otto a dollar and paid for a chance on December 23rd.
Otto picked the date of December 18th — four days away—and that meant he had to begin his pajama ritual early. He had chosen science over guesswork, but he never ever ignored omens and symbols — what his grandma called portents. Every event, every glance, every crack in the sidewalk was filled with meaning. Dogma was established: “If you step on a crack, you’ll break Vladimir Putin’s back.” And, there was unpatriotic heresy from Tommy Schumacher: “No way! If you step on a crack you’ll break your mother’s back!”
Alicia had picked Valentine’s Day and then had to ask Otto what date that was.
Maybe, Otto thought, his dad knew when it would snow if he could be so certain about his return. This was something to think about, Otto considered, as sleep closed in on him. He decided there were more questions than answers in life, just a lot of mysteries only grown-ups could figure out.
“Ha ha,” Alicia laughed dramatically the next morning. “Didn’t snow and you look like a dork!”
“Yeah, but wait’ll I tell Mom you were throwing ice cubes at a tree and running around like a chicken.”
They ate the rest of their oatmeal in silence and then left to wait for the school bus.
Otto had nothing more to say as he stared balefully at the sun, didn’t wave back at Mrs. Schumacher who dropped off her kids, didn’t even lean down to pet their Labrador retriever when it rubbed against his leg.
There was now more than twelve dollars in the jar. They all stood around at recess while Eddie Kraus counted it. Otto tucked in Mr. Cooper’s dollar and they covered the jar with brush again under everyone’s mutually distrustful eyes. Walking back to the playground, Eddie poked him. “You aren’t cheating, are you? You said your dad would be home before the first snowfall, so maybe he knows when it’ll snow.”
“Nah,” Otto shrugged, “that’s just what he said.” But Otto knew privately that the promised return was a solemn oath.
The next day and the next were no stormier as December 18th approached, and Otto’s mood darkened with each passing day. His mother sat watching the news on TV after dinner each night, making Otto wonder if children in Iraq ever watched TV shows about American people.
“I swear, you are the unhappiest child I’ve ever seen.” His Mom stopped him in the kitchen and looked him up and down, standing over him with her hands on her hips.
“I do my chores,” he said.
“I’ve seen happier looking children in the poor house. Cheer up, for Heaven’s sake! It’s going to be Christmas pretty soon and your Dad will be home.”
Sure, he thought, but would it be a white Christmas? The holidays signaled anticipation and a certain magic, but as a third grader he worked to maintain a defiant belief in Santa Claus against ridicule from bigger kids.
December 18th dawned without a cloud in the blue hemisphere. A big red sun rose over the houses as he clambered aboard the bus. The morning of the 19th started out cloudy and brisk, with a wet north wind whistling down out of Minnesota. But by two o’clock, as the bell rang and the children ran from the school to their buses, Otto felt the first snow flake on his ear. And then another tickled his nose. And another.
“Snow!” he shouted to Alicia. “It’s coming! I told you my trick with the pajamas would work.”
“Ha ha! You missed it by one day.”
“But I can still win. I’m still the closest.”
The bus driver heard them and smiled. “Big ’un coming. Watch the TV weather lady tonight.”
Otto had never felt better. Tomorrow was Friday and if it snowed hard enough there would be no school and if Mom didn’t have to work she could take them to Suicide Hill and he could collect the money on Monday. If it was real blizzard, it might even be Tuesday, but he could wait. The wolves might even visit town.
He ran shouting up the walk to their front porch and bumped into two men wearing green Army uniforms who were coming out the door. One gave a flickering half-smile of embarrassment; the other stared intently at the opaque sky.
His mother stood silently. Her hands twisted the front of her green Tom’s Big Value smock. Her eyes stared sightlessly at the backs of the visitors.
“Didn’t you hear me, Mom? It’s snowing!”
“Shut up, Otto,” Alicia said, sensing something neither of them understood. “Just shut up!”
Walt Giersbach’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in a score of online and print publications, including Soft Cartel. He served for three decades as director of communications for Fortune 500 companies, helped publicize the Connecticut Film Festival, managed publicity and programs for Western Connecticut State University’s Haas Library, and now moderates a writing group in New Jersey.