The Snow Globe
by Jeff Haas
"Where are we going?" Matt Davenport asked his mom as she barreled onto the highway and pushed the black SUV up to 90.
"Helen," she snapped. "Stop picking your fingers."
"Helen . . . who?"
"Not Helen who, Helen where. It's a town in North Georgia. Quit with all the questions."
Matt had never seen his mom so pissed off before. She kept muttering "That bastard!" under her breath as they weaved in and out of the holiday traffic. Matt had a pretty good idea who that bastard was because his parents had kept him up half the night with their screaming and banging of doors, and he and his mom had left that bastard sleeping in the basement with the dog when they made their getaway from Sugarville.
"He promised to take me there three weeks ago," she said more to herself than to Matt. "I'll be damned if I'm going to let him run my life for one more minute!" Her eyes were bloodshot, she wasn't wearing any makeup, and she had thrown on the dark gray sweats she normally only wore around the house.
Matt knew that this fight wasn't about Helen, it was about Claire, a lady from his dad's office that Matt had met over the summer. He and his dad had attended several Braves games together with her at Turner Field, his dad admonishing him after each game to keep her presence "just between us guys." She was young and pretty and not at all a stick-in-the-mud like his mom.
He pulled his iPod out of his backpack, sank deep into the passenger seat, and jammed the earbuds into his ears. But he'd forgotten to recharge the battery, so he just pretended to listen to music while his mom turned north on US 129. And he started to pick his fingers again.
It was a good ten degrees cooler in the mountains than it was in Atlanta. Through the foggy windshield Matt could see red, orange, and yellow leaves clinging to life on the almost barren oaks and maples. The rolling hills were covered in a uniform blanket of brown, a dirty wet mulch eager to be reabsorbed into the earth.
They reached Helen shortly before noon by descending a curvy two-lane road into a valley. The traffic was sparse and the streets were empty. A sign read: "Welcome to Helen, Oktoberfest September 16 to November 6." It was a cheesy tourist trap made to look like a small alpine village, with storefronts resembling Austrian chalets and a half dozen Bavarian-themed amusement rides. It reminded Matt of the fake Germany he'd seen at Disney World the previous summer, only this was much worse. Why his mom still wanted to come here was beyond him, especially since they'd missed the festivities by three weeks. He was starting to get hungry, but he kept his thoughts to himself.
His mom wedged the SUV into a tiny parking space in front of the Christmas Shoppe and got out. He had the sinking feeling that she was going to drag him around all day while she did her Christmas shopping. He was starting to wish she had just left him at home so he could play Xbox and eat his lunch.
"Come on!" she said, yanking the passenger door open.
He reluctantly followed her to the Christmas Shoppe, his Falcons jersey providing little protection against the cold mountain air. Out front stood a nine-foot plastic Santa and a life-size sleigh where you could get your picture taken. Thank God she was in no mood for that. The door jangled happily as they entered the toasty-warm establishment , which smelled of cinnamon.
"Good morning!" a little white-haired lady called from behind the register. But Matt's mom ignored her and leaned over to talk to him.
"I want you to stay here for a little while . . . while I shop."
She stood up abruptly and turned to go.
"You heard me—stay here!"
He felt a cold gust of air slap him in the face as the door jangled shut. He ran to the window, half expecting to see her get back into the car and leave without him. He breathed a sigh of relief when she crossed the street and entered a building under a sign that read "Biergarten." He wondered if they served food there.
She sure was acting weird. She had never left him alone in a strange place like this before. If she had wanted to get rid of him, why didn't she just leave him at home with his dad? He waited a few minutes to see if she was coming back out, but he got bored just standing there and decided to look around the store.
Matt had never seen so much artificial stuff in his whole life. There were literally hundreds of tacky Santas in every conceivable position— jolly Santa, nostalgic Santa, Santa with a pipe, Santa turning cartwheels, Santa drinking a Coke, and on and on. It made him want to puke.
At least the music was good. He hummed along with the Christmas carols to keep his mind off his stomach, and he even chuckled aloud when they played "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer."
He finally found something that interested him when he gravitated over to the snow globe section. These weren't the cheap plastic snow globes he had seen in Florida; they were intricately designed snow scenes, each with a different Christmas theme, protected by thick glass globes supported on wooden bases. Some had the same-old-same-old Santa and reindeer landing on a house, but others had magnificent Christmas trees with bases carved to match the rest of the scene, and several of them were music boxes.
The one that captured his attention was a nativity scene with Baby Jesus in a manger and his mother hovering lovingly over him. The camel standing behind the wise men seemed so realistic that Matt wanted to jump on his hump and take off across the desert like an Arab sheik. He wondered if the globe was filled with snow or sand, but a sign under the display read "Do not touch! Ask for assistance." He was just about to reach up and shake the globe anyway when he was startled by a hand on his shoulder.
"Do you like my snow globes?"
Matt turned around to see a little white-haired man with spectacles who could have been a bookend to the lady at the register.
"Um . . . yes. I wasn't going to touch it."
The old man laughed. "Oh, that's all right." His back was curved, his shoulders hunched, and his dark green suspenders seemed to be the only thing holding him up. "Would you like to see how they're made?"
"You mean you make these?"
"Yes, indeed. I've been making them for almost fifty years. I started when I got back from the war."
Matt was tempted to ask "Which war?" but he didn't want to sound stupid.
The old man showed him to the back of the store where his workbench was set up. A sign read "Custom Snow Globes Made Here." He picked up a half-completed globe-less Santa scene and handed it to Matt.
"I've been working on this one for the past couple of days. It's a custom job for some high muckety-muck in New York. See the number?"
"Uh-huh." 3448 was affixed to the mailbox.
"That's the number of the house where they live. I'm making the front of the house look exactly like their house, too. They emailed me a digital photograph."
"Cool," Matt said, but he really wasn't all that impressed by yet another Santa on yet another roof.
"What's the matter? You don't like it?"
"Oh, no, no . . . it's fine . . . it's just that . . . "
"Speak up, young man. I won't be offended."
"Well, it's just that this whole Santa thing is so fake. I mean, don't get me wrong, these snow globes are really amazing. But why would you spend so much time on something so . . . so hokey?"
"Hokey?!" The old man uttered a sudden belly laugh as if he were Santa himself.
"I didn't mean to—"
"That's perfectly all right. I can see that I'm in the presence of a genuine artiste. Of course, you're right, these snow globes are hokey. But they're how I make my living, and they've made a lot of people happy over the years, especially children."
Matt felt terrible that he'd insulted the old man, but the old man didn't seem to mind. In fact, there was a twinkle in his eye as he took the snow globe back from Matt. "I'll tell you what. If you have a few minutes, I'll show you some of the snow globes I made for myself."
Matt looked toward the front of the store for any sign of his mom, but she was nowhere to be seen. Apparently, he had all the time in the world.
The old man showed Matt through an Employees Only door into a cramped storeroom that doubled as a business office. A small desk and another workbench were set against a backdrop of cardboard boxes reaching to the sky. The old man walked over to the workbench, picked up a snow globe, and held it under the light for Matt to see.
"I call this one 'Resurrection.'"
Inside the globe was a replica of a modern city with gleaming skyscrapers and a mountain rising in the distance. It was spectacular.
"Do you recognize the city?"
Matt shook his head no.
"It's Tokyo, after reconstruction." The old man turned the globe upside down to start the snow flying. "I piloted a B-29 in World War II, served under Curtis Lemay. I can't tell you how many tons of bombs we dropped on that poor city. Every night you could see the firestorm from miles away. We completely obliterated sixteen square miles, killed over 100,000 people. Of course, that was before Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Anyway, I figured the least I could do was help them rebuild their city—and now I have."
Matt hadn't studied World War II in school yet, but he could see that the old man was still troubled by what he had done so many years before.
The old man set the globe back down on the workbench and removed a painting from the wall, revealing a small safe behind it.
"But that's not what I wanted to show you."
He opened the safe and carefully removed another snow globe, cradling it in his hands like a baby. "Have a seat," he said, gesturing to the desk. Matt sat down as the old man pulled up a guest chair and placed the snow globe in front of him.
"I've never shown this to anyone, not even my wife. I call it 'Nuclear Winter.'"
It was another city, but this one looked like it had been bombed. The skyscrapers were broken and scattered, with jagged pieces of buildings rising from the rubble, blackened by a terrible blast. Matt found it beautiful and horrifying at the same time.
"Tokyo?" he asked.
"Hiro . . . Hirosheem—"
Matt studied the cityscape, finally seeing a building he recognized. "Atlanta!" he said.
"But Atlanta hasn't been bombed."
"Not yet, it hasn't."
Matt stared intently at the buildings.
"Go ahead, shake it."
Matt picked up the snow globe, shook it three times, and set it back down on the desk. All of the snowflakes were gray.
"But . . . but . . . why?"
"That's what snowflakes will look like during nuclear winter."
As Matt sat mesmerized by the snow globe, the old man leaned in close to him.
"How old are you?"
"Why, you're practically a grownup."
They watched the gray snowflakes settle to the ground together. Matt had never seen anything like it before.
"The world can be a terrifying place," the old man said, leaning in so close that Matt could smell his Old Spice aftershave.
Matt suddenly felt uncomfortable and jumped up from the chair.
"Um . . . I . . . I have to go find my mom now."
He rushed out of the storeroom, past the lady at the register, and out the jangling front door, glancing back several times to make sure the strange old man wasn't following him.
The sky was darker now and the temperature had dropped even further. Matt's mom had locked the doors of the SUV, so he paced back and forth on the sidewalk trying to keep warm.
Luckily, his mom exited the Biergarten a few minutes later.
"What are you doing out here?" she asked. She wasn't carrying any packages.
"I got bored."
"Jesus, you'll catch your death." She unlocked the doors and they got in, her breath smelling like wine and her clothes smelling like smoke. She cranked up the car and turned on the heater, but the engine wasn't warm enough and it only blew cold air.
Taking a deep breath, she turned to face Matt. "We're going to your Aunt Jackie's for a few days."
"I called and made the arrangements."
"But that's in—"
"I don't want to go to Knoxville!"
"You don't have any choice. I'm leaving your father."
"Yes, again. This time for good."
"What about school?"
"Look, I haven't worked out all the details yet. We'll just go to Aunt Jackie's for a few days and I'll figure out what to do next. I always do what's best for you, Matt. I always make sure that you're safe. Right?"
She backed out of the parking space and headed north out of Helen, the Chattahoochee River on their left and the dying forests of Unicoi State Park on their right. The road became steeper as they entered the mountains, and she started to have great difficulty controlling the SUV.
Matt hunkered down in his seat and crossed his arms, now hungry and angry and just wanting to go home. After a few minutes of silent stewing, he finally said, "It's not fair."
"What?" she said, trying to concentrate on the road.
"I said it's not fair!"
"You're damn right it's not fair," she said.
"I mean, to me."
"Yeah, well, join the club."
"Claire wouldn't treat me this way," Matt said, no longer caring if he pissed her off or not.
"Claire? How do you know about Claire?"
"I met her at a Braves game."
"She called you a first-class bitch."
His mom looked at him with the intense hatred she normally reserved for his father, then lunged across the seat and backhanded him hard on the cheek. But her sudden movement sent the SUV careening off to the right, and by the time she grabbed the steering wheel with both hands they were bouncing over the shoulder and heading straight for the forest. Realizing that she was losing control, she overcompensated by violently twisting the steering wheel back to the left, which only served to tip the SUV on its side and send it skidding headlong into a large pine tree.
When Matt woke up, his mom was lying next to him against the passenger side window and he had an airbag in his face. There was shattered glass all around and the smell of pine permeated the car.
His mom had a bad gash on her forehead and she wasn't breathing. Figuring he'd better get her out of the car fast, he pushed the airbag out of the way and saw that the driver's side window was shattered, leaving an opening through which they could escape. But when he wrapped his mom's arm around his neck and tried to pull her up, he discovered that he couldn't feel his legs.
As he lay there with his mom's arm draped limply over his shoulder, Matt looked up to see thick fat snowflakes fluttering down from the sky into the car through the open window. In the pale light of the cold afternoon, they looked gray to him.
Story Copyright © 2007 by Jeff Haas. All rights reserved.
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