…in which we learn the truth about holidays and bicycles.
Two summers earlier, Elmore Rogers and the children spent a Saturday afternoon with heads bowed and necks burning.
Elmore owned a pickup then, a clunker paid off with the I.V. trickle of green the Army gives a wounded warrior. He drove the truck out to a hard red field off the Montgomery Highway where Choctaw arrowheads washed up after big rains, gleaming like bone among sandspurs and scabs of grass. Sometimes, an actual human bone, brown as honeycomb after centuries in the cakey clay, rose to the surface of Alabama.
What was it they said about young ladies reaching maturity faster than boys?
Mary and Will had seemed hardly more than toddlers to Elmore every day of their lives before. But that summer Saturday, he discerned for the first time a young lady somewhere in the headlong red blur that leaped out the truck door and scampered into the world. A skinny young lady, but still. Back then, Mary didn’t have asthma, or weak lungs, or whatever kept her nose runny all the time now.
It made Elmore happy when Mary found a quartz bird point, her very first arrowhead. She found two other broken points too, outnumbering Will and Elmore combined. In another hour, the boys had scared up a few pottery shards the color of graham crackers, one with little bird-peck designs. Still, no arrowheads. Then, Will trumped them all by kicking up a nasty-looking spear head the size of his hand. He declared that a deep brown stain in the flint must be dry bear blood.
“I bet this sharp point went right in that old bear’s heart,” Will proclaimed, and his eyes burned with conviction.
Elmore never had to look hard to see the man Will would one day be. He’d been like a little adult – willful, bluff, cocksure, decisive – since the day he and Mary came into the world.
They sunburned in the field that afternoon until it started to rain. Fat cold drops and a scary clap of thunder chased them back to the cab in a thrilling, hilarious sprint.
Christmas Eve now, two and one-half years later, a parking lot covered the clay field… and snow covered the parking lot. The only Indian artifacts a family could pick up on this site now would be either the rubber tomahawks or the fake tom-toms on Aisle 23.
The brand new Sav-More Superstore made a Christmas killing on toys like that. Elmore found it amusing to imagine that someone in China painted red and green designs on cuts of smelly rubber, then someone else in China glued the smelly rubber to sticks, and then other people in China added rawhide strips and feathers the color of no bird on earth. Here at the Lafayette Sav-More, one could also pick up a colorfully dyed, turkey-feather headdress like the one worn by Crazy Horse, chief of a Sioux tribe a couple of thousand miles to the west. Or you could buy a pair of cheap leather moccasins with deerskin fringe and tiny colored-plastic beads sewn onto them in bright animal designs – turtles and horses and eagles.
The Sav-More drew more people during Christmas week than the Lafayette churches drew in a year. Shopping had a hold on people something like religion, Elmore reckoned. People came and went, all day, all night, entering with empty hands then trudging back out to battered vehicles with bulging plastic bags… or else pushing along their booty in rattletrap buggies. The 90,000-square-foot Sav-More building, the biggest structure ever erected in the county prior to Wood Castle (Wood Enterprises, of course, contracted both structures), boasted on the giant marquee by the highway that it sold products from every nation on Earth.
Something occurred to Elmore, stitched and bandaged and shopping for Santa on this faded-white Christmas Eve.
It would have been nice if a shopper could find at least a thing or two in the store actually made in Alabama.
He imagined a special section way in the back of Sav-More. Aisle ALA, for Alabama. The aisle where you bought moonshine and marijuana.
Mr. Sav-More could ring up a fortune every 24 hours with a department like that.
Elmore herded the kids through the electric door and past an old greeter with skin cancers over the back of his neck, dark little spots clustered like ticks.
They pushed through a busy crowd into an aisle that looked like it might possibly lead to the toy department. A farmer in a new pair of bib overalls, probably an early Christmas present, shuffled just ahead. They caught up with him between the fishing gear and the Slow Boy Rockers.
The farmer’s little guinea-hen of a wife suddenly ruffled and darted off to a different aisle.
As Elmore passed, the old man closely examined a musical instrument, a gaily painted Central American rattle with a handle. Some indigenous craftsman had fashioned the noisemaker from a hard gourd, then painted it with lurid pink snakes in concentric circles. It reminded Elmore of the kind of thing a hypnotist used to put people under in late-night scary movies.
Farmer Brown squinted at a little white paper tag on a string.
“Myrtle, where in the world is Guatem?”
The man held the shaker toward his wife, who had magically reappeared. He showed her the tiny tag. Elmore watched it tremble in the man’s leathery old hands.
“Guatem, Alabama. Where’s that at?”
Myrtle peered in to see. She wore her blue hair piled high, and her strange voice fluted through a neck wrinkled as a turkey’s.
“I never heard tell of Guatem, Alabama.”
The farmer peered over the top of his glasses at the tag, then back through them at his wife. “Reckon it’s down there close to Selma?”
“If it is, it ain’t big as a mite,” she declared. “How is it spelled?”
The farmer looked at Elmore.
“Young feller? You work here?”
The farmer handed the instrument to Elmore before he and the children could squeeze past.
Elmore looked like a most unlikely Sav-More employee, his eye dark purple, his lips stitched, and his thumb in the huge bandage, more gray now than white. Still, he politely took a look.
“That,” he declared, pointing with his bandage while the children crowded close to see, “spells GUATEMALA. Not Guatem, Alabama.”
The old couple blinked. They looked like chickens hit by a bright light.
“Guatemala is a country,” Elmore said. “Down below Mexico. They grow coffee and bananas. They play soccer ball.”
Will and Mary gawked at Elmore like he was the smartest man on earth. Smarter than Albert Einstein.
He liked that feeling. He didn’t want the spell broken...
He felt light pressure on his bandaged arm.
“Don’t I know you, young man?”
Myrtle, the little woman with the blue hair, looked at Elmore through bifocals that magically magnified her eyes. He felt a memory unhappily wake from a long sleep.
“I used to fit your pants at the J.C. Penney store,” she said. “Your name is Elmore. You wore a husky size.”
Elmore glanced at the kids in embarrassment. They looked back, dying to hear what he would say.
“Yes’m,” Elmore confessed. “I remember you. You liked to stick pins in the cuffs of my pants when I tried them on.”
You stuck them in my ankles! his irritated memory yelled at him. Every year! It was like going to the clinic to get back-to-school tetanus shots...
“We’re the Rudolph Clowers,” said the man in overalls. He had short hair with a lot of gray, ending at a white high forehead where the sunlight never touched his skin beneath a feed cap. “I’m Rudolph and this is …”
“Miz Myrtle,” finished Elmore, acknowledging his nemesis. He struggled to pronounce her name precisely. The two men shook hands, and Elmore grimaced.
“These are your sweet little children?” asked Myrtle. “My, aren’t they just beautiful?”
“Yes’m, these are mine. They are sweet. Mostly, anyway. Mary and Will, y’all say hello to Mr. and Mrs. Clower.”
The twins mumbled some greeting. Will looked ready to explode, like a rocket lit and aimed at the toy department.
“Where did they get that red hair? They don’t favor their daddy, do they?” observed Myrtle through her magnified lenses. “Well, maybe the boy. Now, he’s a husky size too, isn’t he?”
Elmore put his hand on Will’s stout little shoulder to refrain him from attacking.
“I thank the Lord every day,” Elmore said, “that they both managed to get their mama’s good looks.”
“I look like my daddy,” little Mary protested. “Everybody says.”
“You look like a monkey,” Will snapped. Lucky Mary. His husky-sized annoyance just had to leap out and strike at somebody.
“Oh my!” breathed Myrtle. “He certainly has a temper like his daddy. You used to holler and cry when I tape-measured around your middle, Elmore Rogers. And then you would argue about the measurement. You wore a husky size, you know …”
“Will,” Elmore said emphatically. “Tell your sister you’re sorry. She doesn’t look one bit like a monkey. Go on. Santa Claus is still watching this Christmas.”
Will mumbled something apologetic like it nearly killed him.
“That’s a fine, responsible young man,” said Mrs. Clower. “This country needs fine, responsible young men.”
Elmore put arms around both kids and moved along.
“It was mighty nice to see y’all,” Elmore politely told Farmer Clower, handing back the gourd. “We wish y’all a merry Christmas.”
Merry Christmas! echoed the Clowers like carolers.
Elmore shuffled the kids fifteen feet, then cut the leashes.
“Last one to the toys is a rotten egg!” he yelled, a signal for the kids to race.
Elmore made haste too, not glancing back.
He noticed his children, now far up the long aisle, suddenly seeing them through new eyes.
Those younguns. How big Will looks sometimes, his shoulders coming on. Little Mary not so little now. Why, they both look like their dad, no matter what Mrs. Clower… Mrs. Bifocals… thought.
Elmore felt pride and sadness in the same heartbeat. His children. This Christmas, they’d each pick out a gift or two they somehow wanted Santa to deliver. At age 7, they were still innocent. And that’s just how Elmore wanted it right now at his house – the big fellow down the chimney (We don’t have a chimney, daddy. How’s Santa coming down it?), milk and cookies by the fireplace. (We don’t have a fireplace, daddy. Where do we leave milk and cookies?) Without a job and all busted up, barely two nickels to rub together of Uncle Sam’s wounded warrior money, Elmore dreaded the hard-candy Christmas Will and Mary would face this year.
At least they’d have gifts under the tree. When those kids slept tonight, as visions of sugar plums danced in their heads, Elmore would slip from his bed and gently squeak the front door wide. He would roll the truck out of gear down the driveway before he turned the key to crank it. He’d race back up to Sav-More to purchase the presents he could afford. So long as the real Santa Claus didn’t show up at his house and scare the twins to death, Elmore would provide something, at least.
I might make a pretty good spy, he thought smugly. I’ve got this caper planned out better than a story in a book.
When they first entered Sav-More, while the kids tussled over which one would push the shopping cart (neither, of course, no shopping cart), Elmore asked a cute young cashier how late the retailer stayed open. She was very cute, in fact. She picked at the front of her tight Christmas sweater, unsuccessfully trying not to stare at Elmore’s stitches. She did manage to assure him the new superstore would be burning Mr. Wood’s electricity till one minute before midnight this Christmas Eve night. There would be plenty of time for last-minute shoppers.
Elmore frowned. As fate would have it, the path to the toy aisles led through the gun section. Will’s newly fascinated face now swiveled left and right, the searching flashlight beam of a young explorer in a magic cave. He looked like he wanted to fill a buggy with shotguns and pistols.
Well, there you go.
This afternoon, Will fired his first gun. He felt that lifelike kick of the stock, heard the heart-spurring boom, smelled lovely gunpowder. He experienced the remote control effect that gave a small little boy the power to make something way over yonder fly up in the air, or fall to pieces.
Like in Iraq. Like a million places.
The goddamn genie got out of the bottle today.
Even banged up as he was, Elmore had enough spark to feel anger about it. Mr. Wragg introduced Will to a very adult thing. Elmore had been nowhere in sight, and the shooting frightened Mary so badly that her little teeth chattered out loud when he finally lifted her in his sore arms out of the snow. He held little Mary, and little Mary held that little quaking fyce dog, and the whole world seemed to shake, like someone had them all inside a plastic snow dome with kids and pine trees and a snowman inside.
A dead snowman.
Elmore even felt a little guilt about making Wragg fall down in front of his own boy. A little guilt, but not much. Hours ago, out in that snowy yard, the cold anger that swept over Elmore – that avalanched over him – felt righteous.
What right did a drunk son of a bitch have to wave a double-barreled shotgun around in front of his Mary and his Will? Any red-blooded father would be happy to kick some ass over that.
A red-blooded father named Elmore Rogers, anyway. And just one push toppled the drunk ex-SEAL into the snow, and it took him a very long time to get up.
The kids scooted ahead into the bleached light of the housewares aisle. Following gingerly, Elmore walked up on Mary, who had halted in fascination beside a mountain of foam rubber pillows. How many pillows made up the monstrous pile? Two hundred? Five hundred?
“Why don’t they have any pillowcases, Daddy?”
Mary looked up at Elmore with big, expectant, innocent eyes. She forever made him feel like the wisest man in the world. The man with all the answers.
“Honey, I guess they stuffed all the pillowcases with toys and candy and threw them on the sleigh so Santa could deliver them easier. I sure hope they saved a couple for you and Will. Now, c’mon!”
“Daddy, Will said he could smell the toys. I wish I could.” Mary dragged the sleeve of her green sweater across her face. “I only smell my nose.”
She raced off again, chasing Will and a rattling metal shopping buggy he’d found after all, abandoned on some aisle. Elmore patted his jacket pocket stuffed with Dairy Queen napkins he’d remembered to fetch from the glove compartment of the panel truck. Mary’s cold just wouldn’t get well. Her pale skin couldn’t quite hide the blue veins in her arms.
Lying in the snow, scared to death of a shotgun, already with a cold… Elmore felt his blood begin to boil again.
He now watched the twins fly through the housewares section of Sav-More. Elmore watched dozens of twins, to be exact. Gilt frames lined both sides of the aisle there, and a heaven of mirrors – ovals, rectangles, hexagons, all shapes, all sizes – winked and twinkled and flashed passing versions of Will and Mary.
When Elmore reached that area, the mirror department became a house of horrors.
Shoot. I’m one to fuss about Mary’s health. Look at that fellow.
A wild and lonesome creature stared from scores of mirrors. The thing in every glass sported an even blacker blacked eye – Wragg, drunk as he was, landed only one single punch in their snowy fracas, but give him credit, he got in a good one. Elmore’s swollen shiner probably now drew more ghastly attention from the other shoppers than his stitched lips and sore ribs and fiddler crab arm.
Not that he cared.
Insolent, the rogue in the mirror stuck out a tongue – stitches picketed it. The soft organ looked something like a pink whale bristling with old black harpoons. Elmore listed to one side as he moved, and he waved one bandaged hand four times the size of the other.
The mirrors made him heinous… and they didn’t even show the hurt places on the inside.
Here he was, Elmore Rogers. Twenty-nine years old, the age the great Hank Williams died. Shopping late for two kids at Sav-More on Christmas Eve. He had $27 in wadded bills, plus two quarters and one skinny dime in his pocket.
Less than 48 hours ago, he’d lost his job. He owed the emergency room money he didn’t have. He owed house bills he suddenly couldn’t pay either. And he looked something like a man dragged a dozen miles down a stony road behind a leaking garbage truck.
“Oh no! All the bicycles are gone, Daddy!”
Mary appeared before Elmore again. She looked up, those green eyes, the little pale angel face.
“This is the Sav-More, sweetie. There ain’t no way a Sav-More can be sold out of bicycles even at Christmas…”
Elmore trailed off, a lost man that moment.
The racks where bicycles normally hung, shiny and bright, smelling of tire rubber and axle grease, festive with saddlebags and handlebar tassels, stretched absolutely empty twenty or thirty feet in both directions.
Will stared up. His face looked like a kid’s who’d just seen his dog run over.
“It snowed for Christmas, anyway,” Mary chirped. “Didn’t it, Daddy?”