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Royal Out of Season

by Charles C. Cole

When I was a teen in rural Maine, there weren’t many convenient ways to earn spending money. But everything entertainment-related still came with an unwavering price tag: dating, gasoline, video games. My parents didn’t believe in weekly allowances, so I was lucky to find a job literally next door, thanks to our new priest, Father Gabriel, who had gone to high school — 20 years before — with the sister of my morbidly obese neighbor, Royal Chulak. When Father Gabriel wanted things done, they got done.

In a lot of ways, Royal was as normal as you and me, except he had this amazing — but maybe not healthy — ability to hibernate through winter like a bear. No kidding, it was a gift. I mean there were definitely times when I’d wished I could sleep through life, like the week my grandparents visited or the summer after Cindy McFadden broke my heart for the first time.

For several winters, I was paid to snow-blow Royal’s driveway, feed his cat, turn lights off and on, and keep his front porch accessible for emergencies. The dude had his corner basement bedroom locked from the inside, the small ground-level windows papered over, and he had the heat turned down to 50 degrees. I personally think that last part was overkill, to keep me from getting too comfortable, spending more unsupervised time than needed.

My folks said Royal didn’t hate winter; he just couldn’t cope. Some locals in these parts, retirees with savings, actually move to Florida five months of the year. Guess which part. My mom, a millworker, called them snowbirds, while my dad, a part-time county cop, called them “snow turds.” Dad had the embarrassing habit of wearing his envy on his sleeve, which got worse after he hurt his back a few years later.

I think even if Royal had significantly more “flexible spending,” this sleep-till-spring strategy would have remained his foremost game plan. Based on several years’ worth of experience, Royal would rather snooze right through to Easter than deal with snow or ice or other stressful weather-watching.

Rumor had it that Royal had spent time in Tibet, where he’d learned a meditational method to slow his metabolism, like a tardigrade. Dad said the truth was that Royal was a “trust-fund baby,” someone who had inherited family money and didn’t have to work to pay the bills. Royal had found a unique way to keep the bad world at a distance and good money close to home. Even though gossip had it that Royal kept more money sitting in an offshore bank account than my folks would make in a lifetime, Dad felt sorry for him. For Dad, that was almost like affection.

Even in the spring and summer, Royal hired others to do his manual labor for him: his groceries were delivered weekly, his lawn mowed and, in fall, his yard raked. For each task, he used a different townsperson. Dad opined there was a method to his madness: sharing the load was a way to build a dependence on him within the community; nobody would take the “easy way” and try to rob him in winter, when people knew their friends had long-term stability though his resources.

Royal was not a small or lean man. Dad said he was almost seven feet tall. He could still fit through most doorways, while ducking, in spring, summer and early fall. But late fall was a challenge. He would consume more in a weekend than my whole family, though Mom rarely ate more than cottage cheese and salads. But he needed to eat excessively; that’s how he fueled his tank for the long haul, storing up enduring body fat.

In the early spring, Royal depended on yet another team. In mid-April, I’d drop the house keys and walk away until Thanksgiving. He often had some exotic massage therapist or two reinvigorate his body with a combination of Rolfing, acupuncture and aroma therapy. All the papers came off the windows, and somebody washed down the wood paneling in his den and hallways. Life was renewed.

One year, though, spring had a devastatingly staggered start. A little over a week of near-fifty-degree days was abruptly followed by a three-day, once-in-a century ice storm. From what the police surmised, someone hadn’t closed Royal’s back door securely, and his pampered Siamese cat, Blue Crystal, got out, leastways she was later found curled up under his deck.

Royal, not yet stable on his still-stiff feet, must have lumbered out in a panic after the cat. He slipped on a patch of ice, broke his hip and was unable to move. Dad had the generator going for power, and we didn’t hear a thing. We knew Royal had his own generator, and we weren’t concerned for him.

It was an unseasonably bitter spell, ripe for an attention gap. Dad was called into emergency service, and we didn’t see him for over 36 hours while he helped the stricken and stranded. Too early to mow the lawn, too late to blow snow, and with groceries delivered only the day before, there was nobody scheduled to visit. Ever-vigilant Father Gabriel phoned Royal and, when nobody answered, he phoned us.

When the big guy, prone, shocked by the elements and unprepared in the grip of a homicidal Nor’easter, needed our help most, we were unaware of the impending tragedy.

I wish the story had a traditionally happy ending. No carnivorous critters took advantage of our vulnerable patron, though we’d certainly heard plenty of coydogs over the years. And my folks adopted Blue Crystal, until she died of old age at 18.

As for Royal, even with all the extreme preparations, the medical examiner said he’d died of hypothermia. Extra layers might have helped for a time, but he was caught outdoors, coatless and shoeless, exposed. The one guy we’d never expect to see outside in inclement weather surprised us all, and probably himself, on one of the worst days of the decade.

Copyright © 2019 by Charles C. Cole

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