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Second Saturday stories: Below Freezing: the harrowing story of a winter griller.

For the next fifteen minutes, Mike waged guerrilla warfare on the meat. Opening the lid quickly to assess, then flashing his spatula to move the burgers to the familiar hot spots.
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He stood at the sliding glass door looking into the blackness. For the second time, he checked his watch to confirm that it was, in fact, close to dinner time, and not midnight as the lighting would suggest. He looked at the thermometer and tried to see where the red dye sat, but it must have been below the frost. A bead of sweat traced a lazy path down his back. The heat from the house felt like it was boiling him in his goose down parka. He held the tray in his mitts like an offering to Jack Frost. Mentally he struck a bargain with the icy scoundrel; one last cook, let me taste summer just once more. Then, like a diver after the pistol shot, he sucked in his breath and wrenched the sliding glass door aside, stepping into the frigid darkness. 

His nostrils froze closed instantly. Air that had once caressed his neck with warm fingers was now trying to suffocate him. His pant legs stiffened in the cold. Dino, ever the faithful scrap hound, stopped short at the door giving Michael Turner a look that said you’re on your own, pal. “Quitter” Mike’s voice was muffled behind his thick scarf. 

He slid the door shut against the dog’s pitiful stare, Dino in turn sauntered to the fireplace and made himself comfortable in front of the blaze. Mike scoffed, “man’s best friend my ass.” He muttered to the hulking black mass on his deck. The barbecue sat in a pool of orange light cast by the single bulb that still worked. The temperature gauge on it read an unreasonable 500 degrees, but as the cold blew around him searching for an exposed seam, Mike briefly relished the thought of how wonderful it would feel to be inside the barbecue himself. He shook his head against the bizarre thought, he was stalling. He held out the tray of burger patties like a Viking shield and pressed forward. His boots crunched and squeaked against the frozen snow on the deck boards. At one point threatening to shoot out from under him, the first act of treachery from Jack Frost.  

“It’s like that eh?” Mike asked the frigid night as he got his feet underneath him. He relished the melting snow dripping from the lid where volcanic heat spewed from his grill. With one mitt-clad hand, Mike clumsily clutched the lid which shouted a great wailing creak into the cold night as he lifted it up. The glowing flames put the colour back in his cheeks while the smell from dozens of summer parties tempted his nostrils and steeled his resolve. Mike set his jaw and in a flash slapped all four beef patties on the grill, each letting out a small sizzle when the meat hit the metal. He slammed the lid closed letting out a breath he didn’t know he was holding. He sneered at the winter darkness outside his cone of light. How’s that for out of season, Jackie Boy?  

For the next fifteen minutes, Mike waged guerilla warfare on the meat. Opening the lid quickly to assess, then flashing his spatula to move the burgers to the familiar hot spots. He started slow, the mitts making his flips lazy, but as his confidence grew so did his showmanship. Mike felt a sense of Zen. This must be how Jenna felt when she did her yoga videos. He was one with the barbecue, winter be damned he was going to grill! 

He laughed in the face of other meals. Oven-roasted chicken? Oh please! Pan-fried pickerel? HA! He was a grill master, and he alone would dictate and navigate the terrain of that glorious landscape known as barbecue season! 

Mike let out a swashbuckler’s cackle, his breath escaping in great puffs. Against the snow splattered siding his shadow’s spatula became a cutlass as he parried and slashed at the elements. Old Jackie Boy had him in the beginning, and he may have made the dog turn tail, but Mike Turner had him on the ropes now. Victory seemed inevitable as he flipped the burgers over, pressing the spatula on top of them with bravado, savouring the sizzle. These burgers would be the greatest thing since sliced buns. He hardly felt the cold now. He was magnificent, he was unstoppable. . .

He was dropping the spatula. 

Mike saw it, the stupid plastic job from Giant Tiger slipping through the thumb of his best snow blowing mitts. He watched for a few sickening seconds as it spun through the air. Sweat froze to his back, his breath caught in his lungs, a single tear threatened to freeze to his cheek. He could almost hear Jack Frost in his ear echoing Jenna’s earlier concern: It’s too cold to barbecue.

Mike felt his heart breaking, what would the guys in the neighbourhood think? he’d never live it down. All seemed lost until his boot-clad foot exploded up from the darkness, black as charcoal, to land one skilled kick against the handle. The spatula soared upwards and Mike snatched it out of the air like so many summer Frisbees. 

Sweat glued his button up to his back and a shiver rippled through him, the spectre of loss still threatening to ruin his meal. The weight of the spatula hardened his resolve and Mike clutched it for all he was worth. Pressing his attack he threw open the lid of the steaming Arklamatic once more, drew the barbecue sauce from his pocket like a gunslinger, and slathered his initials into the patties, just to salt Old Jackie Boy’s wounds. 

In his mind’s eye, he saw his father towering over the old Napoleon of his childhood. He remembered Glen Turner standing tall with a can of Old Milwaukee clutched in his hairy hand, imparting that one crucial piece of grilling knowledge to his boy every time they fired up the grill: 

“When you think chicken is done, give it five more minutes, when you think burgers are done—

“They’re done!” Mike finished on his deck as he slid them from the blazing grill to the ice-cold tray. With his mission complete he let the lid bang closed behind him. He let the heat burn off the small bits of burger as a sacrifice to the gods of summer. 

Mike returned to the warm embrace of their house a changed man. He was a master of a new frontier: a winter griller. Temperature be damned. As his glasses fogged up Jenna’s voice swirled from where she stood cutting tomatoes into medallions that shone like gold medals under the kitchen pot lights. 

“How is it out there?” her voice tipped with curious wonder.  

How could he describe it? What words could sum up the Herculean bout he’d just been through? The trial by fire that had almost claimed their Saturday night meal? Maybe one day he would have a son of his own, and maybe then he would be able to find the words. 

For the moment he just stood in the small puddles his boots made, face flushed from the heat. With his glasses clearing he sniffled through his runny nose and settled simply on. 

“It’s not bad.”