It's Always Sunny and Warm in Windsor

Two men and a pregnant woman are caught in a blizzard during the journey from Toronto to Windsor. An outtake from the acclaimed novel Emancipation Day.

December 4, 2014

Wayne Grady is the author of 14 books, mostly of science, nature and travel, as well as a translator of fiction from the French. He has been...

A note from the author follows.

The snow had fallen all day yesterday, and must have kept it up all night, too. Vivian knelt on the divan under the window in their bed-sit and parted the curtains to look down onto the street.

“Look at all that snow!” she almost sang.

Toronto didn't normally get a lot of snow, but it had that night. It made the sidewalks and the streets disappear, put toques on the fire hydrants and mantled the leafless trees. Not a soul about. The view was of a trackless whiteness, even the smoke rising from the chimneys across the street was white. The sparkling sunlight made the contours so blue they looked hot. It was like shore ice back in Newfoundland; suddenly you looked out to sea and it wasn’t black and breathing anymore, it was solid and white and unmoving, and you stayed off it.

“There must be three feet of it out there,” she said. "We can't possibly drive to Windsor in this."

“Ah, it’s just powder,” Jack said. “We can get through that easy.”

They’d only been married since May, the same month the war ended, and already she was accustomed to the way Jack ignored facts in favour of sustaining some necessary illusion of his own. He had offered to drive her sister’s husband Freddie, who was in Toronto on business, to Windsor so he could catch a train to Chicago: trains out of Toronto had been cancelled because of the snow. But if the train couldn’t go, how could they? It made no sense, it was just Jack being Jack. But what she didn’t know was the extent to which Jack believed in his own fabrications. In a way, she hoped he did. If he truly believed they could make it to Windsor in this, she could go along with him, even support and encourage him. Usually, though, the facts were so obviously otherwise that she lost hope, mentally threw up her hands, doubting his sanity or, more often, her own.

She put the kettle on the hotplate, then went downstairs to the bathroom and was sick. She'd been having morning sickness since New Year's, hiding it from Jack as best she could. Not that he'd have noticed. When she came up the water was boiling, and she placed a slice of bread on a bent coat hanger over the burner to make Jack’s toast. The milk and butter she kept on the sill between the sash and the storm window. There was snow on the butter. Never mind, everything will be all right, she told herself. The car won’t start. The streets won’t be cleared. The trains will be running. Freddie, dear Freddie, who was staying at the Royal York, will ring any moment to say he had changed his mind about Chicago and they could go back to bed.

But there was no call from Freddie. For the first time in living memory, the Hupmobile started on the first turn. And the roads, though they hadn’t been cleared, were passable, at least in town. On their way to the Royal York she imagined herself disappearing into a jumble of blue ice, like a sealer or an Arctic explorer, consumed by the chaos that was everywhere around them. It wouldn’t be such a bad death. Once, as a child in Ferryland, she had had frostbite on her cheeks, and when her father rubbed them with snow they stung as if they were burning. Sealers told her that out on the pans the last thing a person felt when freezing to death was hot; that was how you knew the end was near, they said, when they tried to take off their coats. She really had to get a new winter coat. This one was beginning to feel so tight it was ridiculous. “You look like a DP,” Jack had said as they were leaving the bed-sit. I am, she’d almost answered, I am a Displaced Person. She saw them all the time in Toronto, huddled in the storefronts, lining up for free soup at the churches. The war’s refugees, “Europe’s effluvia,” one of the papers called them. She’d looked it up in the library: effluvium, a noxious or disagreeable exhalation. Jack said they were all Communists, taking up jobs, starting unions, but they hardly seemed to be occupying space. What about all that emptiness they’d passed through on the train on their way here from St. John’s? Wasn’t there room for everybody? If not, what was she doing here? She felt more displaced than those people. She belonged to Newfoundland, and Newfoundland wasn’t even a country.

The Royal York was quiet, more like a castle under siege than a hotel. No taxis waiting outside, no redcaps pushing cartloads of suitcases across Front Street to Union Station. Freddie was standing at the west entrance, just inside the revolving doors, and when he saw them swerve off Front Street onto York he came out carrying a briefcase and putting on his hat. A bellhop followed him with a large leather suitcase, which he swung into the Hup’s rumble seat. Freddie tipped him and climbed into the back, behind Jack.

“What fun,” he said. “Are you sure about this, Jack?" he asked. "No need to take chances, you know.”

“Ah, this is nothing,” Jack said, putting the Hup in gear. “It’ll clear up once we get out of the city. And it’s always sunny and warm in Windsor.”

“Last winter we hardly had any snow at all,” Vivian said, turning to Freddie to show him how relaxed and happy she was.

“What kind of car is this?” Freddie asked.

“It’s a 1936 Hupmobile coupe,” Jack said over his shoulder. “One of the finest cars ever made. The Hupp Motor Company of Detroit went out of business before the war. They don’t make cars like this anymore. Roomy, ain’t it?”

“Cavernous,” said Freddie. There was almost no back seat at all. Freddie had to twist his legs sideways to fit himself in.

They turned left onto King Street, heading out of the city as if for a picnic. In Parkdale, Jack pointed out the rooming house he had lived in while he was in basic training, before he was shipped out to St. John’s. Every day he would get up at dawn, put on his new Navy uniform and walk down to the Armouries on Lakeshore, beside the fairgrounds, where he and his mates in the Navy Band went through their marching drills.

“Hard to believe it was only five years ago,” he said, shaking his head.

To Vivian, the war wasn’t the past, it was more like a barrier between now and her childhood. It existed somehow out of time. The war she read about in books was more real to her than the one she had lived through in St. John’s.

She looked at the places as he pointed them out, taverns he’d drunk in during the war: the Parkdale, the Connought, the Kent, draughts all around, he said cheerily, every fourth round on the house. They looked like empty, indifferent buildings to her, with blank windows, stained concrete steps, double doors with round or hexagonal portholes of frosted glass. Don’t ask these buildings anything. Is my husband in there? Don’t know. Have you seen my son? What's he look like? The side door of the Kent Tavern was propped open with a chair when they drove past, and a man in a black apron was sweeping snow off the top step. One of the windows on the second floor was also open and a woman was leaning out of it, talking to the man who was sweeping. She was wearing a lime-green housecoat and smoking a cigarette, in public.

The scene made her think of the Knights of Columbus Hostel in St. John's, the one on Harvey Road that had burned down in 1942, the Christmas before Jack arrived. Ninety-nine people killed, bodies burned to a crisp, many of them unidentifiable. She hadn't been there, thank God, she'd gone to visit her family in Ferryland for the weekend, but she'd known people who had been, girls she'd gone to school with, a floor clerk from Baird's. They said the fire had been set by German spies. Had Jack been in St. John's then, he might have been playing in the band for the VONL broadcast when the fire started. He might have been one of the servicemen who died, the stage being at the back of the hall, farthest from the double front doors that opened inwards. Some genius had nailed plywood shutters to the window frames to keep the light in. What a beacon the fire must have been to German U-boats in the harbour.

Snow was coming down in large, wet flakes, sticking to the hood and the windshield wiper blades, like the sodden greyness that used to blow in off the Atlantic and cling to the windward sides of the houses and boats, where it would freeze into a shell so heavy the boats in the harbour would list dangerously into the wind. She’d watched men go out and knock the ice off with their gaffs, take great whacks at the rigging to free it. She turned to Freddie again.

“Have you heard from Iris?” she asked him.

“Called her last night,” said Freddie eagerly. “Sends her love. She’s thrilled that you’re doing this, by the way, says it’ll get me home more quickly.”

“She’s quite a gal,” said Jack.

“Yes, sir, that’s my baby.”

Vivian’s eyes widened, let’s not mention babies, but Jack laughed. He was in his element now, she thought, showing off to Freddie. She knew Jack didn’t like Freddie, or Iris either, for that matter, that was why he was being so nice to him. She wanted the two men to get on with each other, but she also thought of Freddie as an ally. A sorry thought for a wife to have, she realized, but when she examined it she knew that was what she meant, she wanted an ally against her own husband. For when things went wrong. Wasn’t that a terrible thing to say? She told herself that she just meant she wanted Freddie to agree with her if she thought they should turn back, that the storm was too bad. She wiped the condensation from her side window and peered out. They were still on Dundas Street, though almost out of the city, passing warehouses and slaughter yards, the trolley-car turnabout. Wet snow meant it was warming up: was that a good sign? There were almost no other cars on the road, unusual for a Saturday, but the snow plough had been through. She spread the roadmap on her lap and saw the morning unroll before them. They’d leave the lakeshore at Clappiston Corners, turn west towards Paris and London. She liked the sound of that. When they got to Waterdown they would stop for petrol, which Jack would call gas, and she would turn to Freddie and say: “Well, next stop Paris, and then London.”

Freddie took some papers from his briefcase and began reading. Jack drummed his fingers on the steering wheel in time to the windshield wipers. She closed her eyes, feeling ill and trying to relax, and when she opened them again she was cold. The snow was driving at their windshield so rapidly she couldn’t see beyond the hood of the car. Jack’s hands were grasping the steering wheel, turning it this way and that with tense, jerky movements, as though he were wrestling with someone at the other end of it. How long had she slept? The wipers were making a strange sound. What if they stopped working? Would he say, Aw, who needs wipers? and keep on driving? She’d never learned to drive. She hadn’t wanted to in St. John’s, not with all those hills. Freddie had put his papers away and was leaning forward on the back seat, staring intently into the onswirling snow.

“Why is it so cold?” she asked.

“I turned the heater off,” Jack said tersely. “I wanted the windshield to be cold so the snow wouldn’t stick to it.”

“Did that work?”

“No. It just turned it to ice. I’m going to have to stop to clear the wipers.”

“Why bother?” Freddie said cheerily. “We can’t see anything anyway.”

“It’s very cold,” she said again. She could see her breath.

“Well, turn the heat back on, then,” Jack said impatiently, watching her manipulate the buttons. “It’ll warm up once we get past Hamilton, anyway. This is all just wet weather blowing up from the lake. We’ll be out of it in no time flat.”

But the wind was not coming from the lake, even she could see that, it was coming from the north, the flakes as large and soft as feathers, too fast for the wipers to clear before it froze to the glass. And although she had turned the heater on, no warmth was coming from it.

“Maybe we should turn back,” she said.

“All right by me,” Freddie tossed in casually.

“Turn back?” said Jack. “When we’re almost out of it? Turn around and go through it all again?”

“It does seem to be getting worse, old boy,” Freddie ventured. Vivian said nothing. She knew the cost of persisting, Jack’s fury, his grim silences punctuated by clipped, theatrical sarcasm, and it was more than she was willing to pay. Still, there was the baby to think of.

“And the heater isn’t working,” she added.

Jack laughed and relaxed his grip on the wheel, not a good sign. She looked at him nervously. What role was he slipping into?

“Well,” he said, “we’ve had reports from the weather officer and the chief engineer. Duly noted, thank you.” Captain of a ship in distress. Stormy seas, mutinous crew. “But I think it’s safe to carry on.” Fearless adventurer.

Freddie sat back, still keeping his eyes on the road ahead. She, too, stared into the driving snow. The mood in the car had changed abruptly, as though they’d been watching a movie and someone had put on the wrong reel: what had started out as a comic adventure, Three for the Road, had suddenly turned into a psycho-drama. A minute ago she felt like Greer Garson, now she was Bette Davis.

They drove on in silence. The trick was not to look at individual flakes, but to try to see through them, to unfocus the eyes. But after a while the endless collisions with snow made her feel light-headed, punch drunk. She wondered if she'd been hypnotized? No, because she could feel that her feet were frozen, two solid blocks of ice in the dainty little boots she’d bought on sale in Toronto. Numb from end to end, she thought, and numb in between, in her heart, with her baby curled up under it like a hairy caterpillar. According to Dr. Spock, whose book she had finally taken out of the library and kept hidden in her purse, the baby was about five inches long now, arms and legs easily distinguishable, head already large, slightly tipped as though too heavy to be supported by its neck because the bones weren’t hardened yet. There was a faint stirring of sentience forming. Certain attitudes to external stimuli were already becoming evident. It was sensitive to stress, for example, or cramping; it would move and kick when it felt uncomfortable. It was defecating a liquid called meconium, made up of bile and the dead cells from the webbing between its fingers and toes. Her thoughts flew off in all directions. Webbing? What else could they tell? But for now she tried to think of something else. Something warm. What was that movie they’d seen at the Uptown, the one with Susan Hayward? Smash-Up. Ooh, she wished she hadn’t thought of that. She stared out into the whiteness, into its impenetrable dizziness, certain that Jack would drive them into it until it engulfed and destroyed all three, no, all four of them.

At times an obstruction would cause the snow to circle in eddies, even to rise away like a flock of startled butterflies, revealing soft, dark shapes through the glass. Farm buildings. Mail boxes. Telephone poles. A bus shelter. She scraped frost from her side window with her fingernails and peered through the enlarged hole: they were driving through a stop sign. She looked at her watch. They should be well past Waterdown by now.

“It’s like driving through a burst pillow,” said Freddie. She had almost forgotten him. Dear Freddie. She turned and smiled at him without seeking his eyes.

“Next stop Paris,” she said. “And then London.”

“That’s what Hitler said,” said Jack.

The snow was still falling when they reached London, but not as heavily, and the wind had died. The heater had not come back on. Vivian could no longer feel her feet, and when she rubbed her hands together for warmth the ribs on the backs of her gloves felt like frozen tendons. She‘d bought the gloves to go to church with, not the North Pole. Poor Freddie must have been colder than she was.

“We’ll get someone to look at the heater when we stop for a bite to eat,” Jack said. “It’s probably just a loose wire or something. It worked fine this morning.”

But they pushed on for hours, almost as far as Chatham, without stopping. Finally, Jack pulled into a gas station in a place called Thamesville and had the mechanic check the heater while they sat in a diner attached to the side of the garage, a dingy place called Crazy Pop’s. It was small and dimly lit but at least warm. She took off her boots and rubbed her stockinged feet under the table while Freddie looked dubiously at the menu. The parking lot was filled with big trucks, most of them with their engines idling. Their drivers filled the diner with noise and cigarette smoke and kept the waitress hopping. Vivian ordered an egg salad sandwich and a cup of tea and wondered if the women’s washroom would be clean.

They ate in silence broken only by an occasional remark not meant to illicit a response. “Why is this called a western omelette?” Freddie asked. Jack had ordered wieners and beans, which the waitress called Abbot and Costello. When Freddie asked her why, she said, “Because wieners are tall and thin and beans are short and fat, I guess. Like Abbot and Costello.” Freddie told her that wieners were called frankfurters in Vienna and wieners in Frankfurt, and when he asked her what she thought hamburgers were called in Hamburg she looked at him as though he were an escaped lunatic. Jack seemed preoccupied with mentally taking the Hup apart, trying to anticipate what was wrong with it. “It might need a belt,” he said, mysteriously.

“I could use a belt myself,” Freddie said.

Vivian tried to empty her mind of its many worries, a process that required the rapid enumeration of them. The baby. She would make an appointment with a doctor as soon as they got back to Toronto. If they got to back to Toronto. Of course they would. The weather. The car. Jack. The baby. It was natural to worry about a baby, all mothers did that. She had Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care in her handbag, but she couldn’t take it out here. One day soon she would show it to Jack. Dr. Spock had written that a father and his son should be pals. They should do things together, form a bond. Jack and his father, who still lived in Windsor, were not pals. Jack had turned his back on his whole family, or so he said. She wanted things to be different with his own child, if it were a boy. She hoped Jack and his son would like each other. Fish, play baseball, do puzzles, build things. “Aw, what does Dr. Spock know about it,” Jack would say. "I turned out okay, didn’t I?" To which Vivian would say nothing.

Jack mopped up the last of his bean sauce with his bread and stood up, saying he was going out to check on the mechanic. “You never know,” he said. “They’ll fix one thing and break something else, or take out a perfectly good part, clean it up, and sell it back to you. You got to keep your eye on them all the time.”

“Whence all this paranoia?” Freddie asked when Jack had gone. “Doesn’t he trust anyone?”

“He talks tough," she said, "but he wouldn’t say boo to the mechanic. The man could take the engine apart to fix a flat tire and Jack would stand there telling jokes and handing him his tools. Then he’d rage to me about it for days.”

She blushed, not having intended to give Freddie that glimpse into her life. “Sorry,” she said. Her insides felt queasy from lack of air, the baby, the smell of deep-frying fat, the weather. Freddie was quiet, shredding his paper napkin and piling the bits on his plate. Then he shrugged.

“My fault, Viv,” he said. “Didn’t mean to pry. It’s this blasted snow. It’s making everyone nervous.”

“A nervous breakdown,” she said, laughing. “The car, I mean.”

He put his hand on hers. “Sorry to have dragged you into this, old bean,” he said. “Old Costello.”

“It wasn’t you, it was Jack.”

“How are you two getting on?” Freddie asked quietly.

“Like a house on fire,” she said, smiling.

Jack reappeared beside the booth and she hoped he hadn’t heard. “What did I tell you?” he said, blowing into his hands and sitting down beside her. “The radiator’s busted. It sure was all right when we left Toronto this morning, but now suddenly it has holes all through it. That’s why the heater wasn’t working, he says. He probably made the holes himself with a screwdriver. I should have stayed out there the whole time.”

“But the heater wasn’t working,” Vivian said.

“Could’ve been anything,” Jack said. “Could’ve been nothing.”

“What’ll we do?” she asked. “Can they fix it?”

“Not tonight. They don’t make Hupmobile parts anymore. They have to find a used one somewhere, but even if they do it won’t get here until Monday. Can you believe it?”

“Monday! So what do we do in the meantime? We can’t stay here.”

“Don’t worry, doll, I’ve got it all taken care of,” Jack said.

“You have? What have you done?”

“I called my brother, Benny, in Windsor. He’s coming to get us. Says he’ll be here in an hour or so. Relax, Freddie boy, we’ll get you to that train on time.”

Vivian sat quietly while Jack and Freddie drank coffee and lapsed into long, uncomfortable silences. So Jack had been right, they were going to make it to Windsor after all. When more than an hour had passed and no Benny, they got up and stood by the door of the diner, rubbing the steam off the glass and peering out at the snow swirling through the weak light above the petrol pumps.


A Note From the Author

This story was originally a chapter in my novel, Emancipation Day. In that early version, Vivian’s brother-in-law Freddie comes to visit her in Toronto. When a snowstorm closes the train station, Jack offers to drive Freddie to Windsor so he can catch a train to Chicago. My idea was to place Vivian in a dramatically tense situation that would show both her and Jack’s true colours, as it were: she is silently terrified that Freddie will meet Jack’s family and discover his secret, and she can’t understand why Jack would make such an offer. Eight hours in a car with Jack would be stressful enough, but with Freddie in the back seat, Jack insisting on driving through a white-out as though it were nothing, Jack’s father meeting them at the other end, and Vivian pregnant, the ante was upped to the point that something has to break. In my mind, it was a Hitchcockian scene, and what dies in the end is Jack’s secret.

But of course, it had to go. It comes too early in the novel for Jack’s secret to die, and Vivian is already worried about having Jack’s baby. Besides, a 20-page car ride slows down the novel’s action, which has to pick up at this crucial point. But the story stayed in my mind: the idea of the three characters trapped within a violent snowstorm, in a small, unreliable car, and the whole thing being narrated from Vivian’s frightened perspective, makes for the kind of intenseness and clarity that I think define a short story.

“It’s Always Sunny and Warm in Windsor” can, of course, be read as an independent short story, a flash of lightning that reveals the true natures of the dual protagonists. But it also contains the seeds of Emancipation Day; readers familiar with the novel will recognize the forces at play in the story that make Jack and Vivian memorable as a young married couple trapped by the inevitability of their own characters, and also caught up in circumstances beyond their control. Here is Jack, struggling in a situation that quickly takes him beyond his depth but which he refuses to recognize for what it clearly is. And here is Vivian, knowing that Jack is wrong, that he is leading her down a dangerous path, but unable to do or say anything that will save him (and her) from his own determination.

Wayne Grady is the author of 14 books, mostly of science, nature and travel, as well as a translator of fiction from the French. He has been shortlisted for four Governor General Awards (one of which he won), has received three Science-in-Society Awards, a National Outdoor Book Award, and is the recipient of more than a dozen National Magazine Awards. His first novel, Emancipation Day, is being published in July by Doubleday Canada. He teaches Creative Nonfiction in the University of British Columbia's MFA Program, and lives with his wife, novelist Merilyn Simonds, near Kingston, Ontario.