…in which we meet Santa’s elves, dressed in blue.
The squad car braked hard in the Rogers’s driveway, blue lights blazing, tires cracking crusted snow.
Two policemen in heavy jackets emerged from the vehicle. They trudged like mountain climbers through the snowy yard and onto the slick little concrete front porch slab in front of Elmore Rogers’s front door.
“Come out Elmore! Bring everybody you got in there and come out on the porch! Do it now!”
Shapes flitted from one room to another in the dark house. Lost shadows searching for their persons.
“Out! Out NOW!”
The door rattled. A silver bell hanging from the knob jingled and flew off. It had tipped the pointed red nose of a holiday elf, a school project little Mary brought home on the last day of fall classes.
Two small faces and a big unshaven one, bruised and stitched, blinked through the diamond door pane. They looked violently surprised.
Sheriff Dan Neeley trained his long flashlight – he could wield it like a club when he needed – directly into the trio of faces. All three Rogers winced and drew back, dumbfounded.
“Come out, Rogers. Y’all heard me. Come on. You kids too. Do it right now.”
Sheriff Dan Neeley leaned slightly toward his partner, Deputy Jessie Turnipseed. The hulking sidekick had a chew bulging in his cheek and the gut of an offensive lineman swaying over his pistol belt.
“Jess, go keep an eye on the back door,” Sheriff Neeley ordered, as the Rogers family emerged, shivering.
The second policeman eased into the yard. He slipped a little on an ice spot, but caught his balance before crashing sideways into the ragged shrubbery.
The tiny rectangle of porch felt bigger after he’d gone.
Elmore and the children watched Deputy Turnipseed’s silhouette block the glare of one blinding police car headlight, then the second. They heard him mysteriously raise the squad car’s trunk, fumble around inside it, slam it down hard again after a few seconds.
A rustling noise came from their right, out in the yard. Sheriff Neeley flicked the beam from the Elmores into the scraggle of nandina bushes that marked the lot line with the Wragg property.
A bedazzled opossum gaped stupidly at the flashlight. The creature wore white-face, a marsupial minstrel. It seemed deeply primitive, and even more deeply confused by the pale lingering wet layer of snow.
As Sheriff Neeley’s light showcased the opossum’s comically slow escape, Elmore squinted to make out his front yard and police car.
One instant, the black-and-white vehicle matched the black-and-white night trees, the black-and-white yard, the black-and-white everything. An instant later, the blue light atop the squad car swept over the world, a beam from a frozen lighthouse.
Blue. Black-and-white. Blue. Black-and-white. Blue.
Sheriff Neeley’s flashlight seared Rogers’s family retinas again. Though thoroughly blinded, the family could hear Deputy Turnipseed chuffing down the snowbanked side of their house, bound for the back yard. Something metallic banged, banged again, rattled, then jingled once.
Handcuffs? Bullets falling from his belt?
Elmore Rogers felt himself getting a little angry.
“What the heck you mean, comin’ out here in the country, Dan? It’s midnight on Christmas Eve…”
“Elmore,” Sheriff Neeley said, “don’t cuss around these little children. It ain’t Christian.” The policeman fixed his beam just so. “That’s exactly why children grow up to be juvenile delinquents...”
A soft question interrupted his lecture.
“You ain’t gonna hurt Daddy are you?”
Mary’s obvious distress as she glanced up at her father’s damaged face, her little white throat exposed, touched the officer.
“You better not!” blustered Will. “Or we’ll hurt you!”
Sheriff Neeley fought a smile. That boy had Elmore Rogers in him, for sure.
“Look,” Sheriff Neeley explained. “Y’all younguns quick go back in there and get your shoes and big coats. Hurry up. Me and your daddy are gonna wait right here on you.”
The children stuck to Elmore Rogers like burrs.
“GO! Scat!” the policeman groused. “Unless all three of you want to wake up Christmas Day in jail.”
Neither child moved a muscle.
Sheriff Neeley detected a potential problem with authority here. Well, that would demonstrate some Elmore Rogers DNA too.
Elmore finally squatted down between his children. Sheriff Neeley noticed he gave a grunt.
“Y’all do like Sheriff Neeley says. Go put on something warm. Y’all get your shoes.” Elmore used his no-nonsense voice. “Do it quick. And bring my brown jacket.”
Two pale faces simply vanished through the crack of the door, like Cheshire cats.
Elmore waited. His sore knuckles, brown with scabs, clasped the door knob. When the kids got out of earshot, he turned and hissed under his breath at his old running buddy and platoon mate, Dan Neeley.
Every word smelled like pain medicine.
“What the fuck, Dan? What the fuck?”
Sheriff Neeley lowered the flashlight. A full moon of beam weirdly illuminated the battered, paint-flaked threshhold, wet with melted snow. The faces of both men glowed weirdly, lit from underneath.
It flashed through Elmore’s mind that they’d looked strange this way before.
That day in Mosul. Both men curled tight into the cab of a transport truck, upside down, snails in a shell. Over there, phosphorous was burning one of their own American tanks, the light eerie in the middle of the day.
No snow. Hot as hell. The bare and level desert sands.
“I’m following orders,” Sheriff Neeley said simply. “Got a call to come out here and check out a… what did the report call it? Oh, yeah. A fracas. Something about a fracas with a neighbor.”
“Wragg’s a crybaby. You got a warrant?”
Sheriff Neeley actually laughed.
“Elmore, you shittin’ me? You think this is a TV show?”
“Well, don’t a cop need a warrant to get a family out of bed on Christmas Eve for no reason, Dan…”
“How ‘bout you call me Sheriff Neeley this visit?”
Now it was Elmore’s turn to laugh.
“Cut it out, Danny. How about Private Neeley?”
The blue police light flashed in the next moment of silence.
“Sheriff Neeley, Elmore. This visit, I’m Sheriff Neeley.”
The tone was flat. The flashlight shone straight into Elmore’s eyes. Sheriff Neeley made official note of the shiner, the multiple cuts and bruises.
“One hell of a civil disturbance, Elmore. That’s about two-and-one-half magnitudes up from a fracas.”
Mary’s pretty little face popped back into view. She’d put on a quilted jacket, pink as a camellia. She looked righteously warm. Will followed, his chunky boy body stuffed into gray sweat pants and a Crimson Tide jacket with a torn cuff.
Must have got those clothes from the churches, Sheriff Neeley thought.
“How ‘bout we all go sit in the squad car, folks.”
The kids looked up at Elmore. Sheriff Neeley could see a gleam of excitement in Will’s eye. Like most boys, he had a jones for police cars and fire trucks.
Elmore also saw, despite his careful advice, Mary’s bare feet, no shoes, blue already… then blue-er still in the swirling squad car light.
“Good idea, Officer. There’s a little girl with a bad cold you’re just about to give pneumonia from standing out here this way.”
Sheriff Neeley maneuvered down the yard, barely staying ahead of Will. Elmore punched his way into his leather bomber jacket – a real one that made it home from World War I on the back of his own great-granddaddy – then he hoisted Mary, light as a swan, up to his waist. Hurt like hell, his hand and his ribs. He hobbled gingerly along to the squad car, barefoot himself. Holy Jesus, even a little bit of snow was wicked cold.
The Rogers trio, those desperados, settled in the back seat behind the cage, shivering. Sheriff Neeley climbed in front and snapped shut the door.
“Are we under arrest?” demanded Will in a fierce voice.
“Shhh. Son. Sheriff Neeley is out here making sure that the neighborhoods are safe for old Santa Claus tonight. Ain’t that right… Sheriff Neeley?”
The light on top of the prowl car painted the house and yard with blue splashes.
“Out tonight partly for the jolly old elf, yes. But I’m also here,” Sheriff Neeley answered, “to ask the three of you some important questions.”
“Like a test?” Mary sounded scared. The roar of the heater in the squad car almost drowned out her tiny voice.
“Mary,” Elmore interrupted, “you and Will both listen to me right now – you let your daddy do the talkin.’ Hear me?”
A monster’s voice crackled unexpectedly from the squad car radio. Elmore and the children jumped like people shocked with electric current.
Sheriff Neeley keyed the receiver.
“Neeley here, Turnip. Whatcha got?”
“Checked it out pretty good in the back yard.”
“Another possum. Prolly that first un’s girlfriend. That’s about it.”
“See any signs of a… fracas?”
“Give it one more look, Turnip.”
Neeley clicked off the receiver. He turned to the huddled family. The caged back seat of the squad car disappointed Will, that much was plain. He had a look.
No wonder. A kid probably never expected the police cage to smell faintly of urine, sweat, and sour vomit, depending on which way you leaned. The old squad car had gone a lot of miles and heard a lot of stories.
“Takes a minute to get this vehicle warm,” Sheriff Neeley apologized. “The heater ain’t what it used to be.”
“Where’s the hot chocolate?” Elmore cracked.
Will looked up hopefully, with two cups of hot chocolate topped with marshmallows in his eyes.
“All I got is hard candy,” Sheriff Neeley offered. “But I warn you, it’s sour. Gives me lockjaw. I don’t know how Officer Turnipseed eats it like he does.”
The children snatched at the brightly colored sweets as the lawman dropped them through a special door in the cage. They noisily tore away the cellophane.
“So, Sheriff Neeley. What is all this? You got us out of bed on Christmas Eve. All tucked in. Visions of sugerplums. Waitin’ for Rudolph. You know the drill. For what?”
“Visions of sugarplums?”
“Come on, Dan.”
Sheriff Neeley frowned. “Okay. I told you, Elmore – questions about a civil disturbance. Somebody called it in a while ago. Anonymous. Claimed he’d heard a gun fired. Two families at blows. Know anything about it?”
Elmore theatrically raised both hands, one fatly bandaged, then he settled back quietly in the seat, a child huddled under each arm. Will and Mary intently sucked candy, listening with all their youthful might.
The radio crackled.
“Well, Elmore, if you weren’t gonna use those lips for answering questions, the doc should have just gone on and sewed ‘em the rest of the way together.”
“How many stitches? We got word about the accident.”
Sheriff Neeley could feel cold coming off the little Rogers family.
“OK, maybe I need to ask a more specific question.” Sheriff Neeley breathed. The squad car was still so icy he could see his last word in vapor.
“Did something unusual happen this afternoon with Dick Wragg, your next-door-neighbor?”
Will opened his mouth. Sheriff Neeley saw how fast the big adult arm levered down to shut it.
“I’m asking you, Elmore.”
“I won’t lie to you, Sheriff Neeley. Something did happen.”
“We made a snowman!” piped up Mary.
“Shut up!” Will snapped, jerking forward to glare at his sister around their father’s leather-jacketed middle. “Daddy said!”
Sheriff Neeley showed his fine teeth. He’d always been proud of those teeth, Elmore recalled. Kelly had been crazy about that Neeley smile in high school. Lots of girls crushed on Dan Neeley.
That red hair. Those goddamned teeth.
“Well, ain’t nothing too odd about a snowman, with a white Christmas and all. But a snowman wouldn’t really – I mean wouldn’t usually – cause a civic disturbance bad enough for some so-and-so to call the police station.”
A star fell in the starry sky, over the snowy field. Mary saw it.
“We shot it!” Will announced, unable to endure investigation any longer. “But daddy didn’t shoot it. He don’t shoot a gun, ever. Not Mary neither. It was Mr. Wragg and me and Timmy…”
“Enough.” Elmore’s big arms clamped down on Will again, and Mary too.
“Say what, little Will?” Sheriff Neeley clicked the flashlight now and shone it back in Will’s excited face. “You shot a snowman?”
Elmore felt Sheriff Neeley enjoying himself a little too much.
“You got some idiot city law in Lafayette,” Elmore snapped, “against shooting a snowman?”
The flashlight again. This time between Elmore’s eyes. The right one was purple, swollen close to shut.
“It was Will or that evil snowman, Sheriff Neeley. It come down to that, really. It was a battle to the death. Armageddon. For a minute there, I thought my boy was a goner…”
A look passed between the two men.
“Open and shut case. Pure self-defense,” Elmore yammered on, an edge sharpening in his voice. “That bad-boy snowman carried a weapon. A rake. That lumpy white so-and-so toted a loaded rake...”
“Don’t get too smart, Elmore.”
Elmore felt slightly hypnotized by the flashlight. His bottom lip had burst open in the cold. He could taste salty blood when he talked. How many times today so far? Still, his speech was better now.
“Smart ain’t never been one of my problems, Dan.”
Now the car was warm. Warmer than the Rogers house, Sheriff Neeley imagined. The children had fully awakened. They coolly enjoyed that sour candy. They made little boy-gnome and girl-gnome faces. Sheriff Neeley could hear the candy clicking against their teeth.
Good. Enjoy it. Remember it.
The policeman flicked off the flashlight. Absent that cold metal cage, the squad car might actually have been cozy.
“So, you shot a dangerous snowman?” Sheriff Neeley mused. “That wins a medal for bravery in some towns.”
He waited a beat.
“But did anything else unusual happen? Was there, maybe, some sort of… ah… incident between two grown men? A disagreement? See, we had this complaint. Somebody even tried to talk us into making an arrest. But you know what? We don’t like to keep folks downtown on Christmas Eve, unless it’s pretty close to murder. Or jaywalking.”
Sheriff Neeley tapped the steering wheel, waited.
They all would have heard crickets, if any crickets had been alive this time of the year.
“You younguns want more sour candy?”
Elmore tasted the blood in his own mouth, and he sucked his cut lips. The stitches throbbed. So did a few of Sheriff Neeley’s words about Wragg and the afternoon.
But Elmore Rogers held his peace.
The squad car grumbled, snow melting down its windows like tears.
Shocking white noise, like water thrown on a red-hot skillet, leaped out of the radio a second time. Turnipseed’s voice boomed through.
“Ten Sixteen. Sheriff Neeley?”
“I read you, Turnip.”
Elmore noticed how tightly Sheriff Neeley gripped the receiver in his black gloves.
“Looked under ever rock and bush,” Officer Jess Turnipseed reported. “Ain’t a damn thang I can find.”
“Darn thing, Jess. We got two minors in the car out here.”
“Damn! Sorry, sir.”
“Turnip? Are you messing with me?”
“No sir. I meant ‘darn… sorry,’ sir.”
“Come on back. We’ll take it on home for the night. Let these folks have back their Christmas.”
Will turned his face up to his father.
“Where’s some miners, daddy?”
“Mi-NORS,” went Elmore, hugging his boy. “A minor is a youngun.”
“Am I a miner?” Mary looked up, and her daddy looked down, and a drop of blood fell off his lip onto her pink camellia coat.
“Sorry, sweetie.” Elmore slurred, wiping. “I reckon I’ve developed a bad habit here lately…”
He smeared the blood at his first pass with the fat white thumb bandage, managed to clean most of it away with a second swipe.
“You need stitches on them stitches, El.”
Sheriff Neeley sounded different suddenly.
“I do need some things, Dan. But more stitches aren’t part of that long and getting-longer list.”
The blue light twirled around, around.
“Listen, y’all get out now,” Sheriff Neeley ordered, “and go back to the house. I’ll write a report that there ain’t nothing out here tonight but decent, law-abiding, peace-keeping, God-fearing folks who love their mamas and daddies and wouldn’t hurt even a mean flea.”
“That ought to help the good people of Lafayette to sleep at night, Sheriff Neeley. Mr. Wood has set this town up with a fine police chief and a fine fire chief too.”
Elmore muscled open the back door the instant Sheriff Neeley’s master control automatically unlocked it.
“That is,” Elmore went on, “if the good people of Lafayette ain’t all already passed out drunk on illegal moonshine they bought from some Baptist preacher up on Dexter Road that the law sees fit to let work his transcendent miracles this beautiful Christmas Eve. Hallelujah.”
Deputy Turnipseed loomed in the headlights in front of the car so suddenly he startled them all, including Sheriff Neeley. The big policeman posed quite a sight. He was huge as Frankenstein in the movies, his colossal shadow rocking along beside him down the white clapboard sides of the Rogers’s tiny house.
Black-and-white. Blue. Black-and-white. Blue.
Elmore flashed back to that cheap aluminum Christmas tree with the color wheel in Mrs. Mock’s parlor.
That wicked stepmother.
Will and Mary sat rooted in the back seat, mesmerized by the sight of Deputy Turnipseed approaching in the kaleidoscopic light. Their breaths escaped in little pale bursts of smoke.
“Shoo! Shoo! In the house!”
Elmore was surprised to find Officer Dan Neeley out of the cruiser himself now, standing by the open doors. As the children leaped free and dashed for the house, the policeman rubbed each one on the head. Then, he leaned in close to Elmore. He spoke in a conspiratorial voice.
“Send ‘em straight on to bed when you get inside, Elmore. Don’t let ‘em back in the kitchen. Not till morning.”
Elmore drew back in curiosity. He and Dan Neeley stood in the cold of Christmas Eve for a moment, inches apart, physically as close as they’d once been in the football huddle in high school. Or in that blasted smoking crater in the Iraq desert. Those times seemed like a million years ago. A million pasts ago.
“You’ll see why. Just send ‘em straight on to bed.”
“What the hell you playin’ at here, Dan?”
A crease of a smile changed Sheriff Neeley’s face.
Blue smile. Black-and-white smile. Blue smile.
Those goddamned teeth.
“Well, what the hell, Sheriff Dan…”
But Sheriff Dan was already back in the squad car, door closed, window rolled up all the way.
Elmore, without another word, his bare feet so frozen the toes felt no sensation at all – not even pain – this 29-year-old, beat-to-hell Elmore shuffled over the lawn to the porch slab, then leaned over and lifted both kids by the waist, one on each side, and stilt-walked through the door.
He stopped partway. Grimacing, he dropped Will and Mary, careful about his bandaged arm. He squatted to study their faces.
Blue faces. Black-and-white faces.
Beautiful faces, Sheriff Neeley thought from the car. He watched the scene in pantomime. Like their mama’s. Like Kelly’s.
He stopped himself right there.
Officer Jess Turnipseed all at once heaved his 340 pounds into the shotgun seat. The squad car sank desperately to starboard, and the police radio antenna on the roof wagged side to side.
Up in the doorway, Elmore spoke gravely to his kids.
“I want y’all to go straight through inside and get in your beds,” he told them in his no-fooling voice. “You’ve both got a chill and you’re both up way too late tonight, with Santa Claus on the way...”
“Daddy, we had candy,” Mary protested, a sensible girl. “We got to brush our teeth.”
Elmore’s answer left no room for argument.
“No teeth brushing. Straight to bed. If you’re ever awake when Santa comes and you ever see that sapsucker… well, he won’t come see you again. Ever.” Elmore waited just long enough. “That’s what happened to me.”
The children had said… just once… that they didn’t believe in Santa… maybe… but Elmore spoke with such drama that it startled them both. As he closed the front door, Will and Mary dashed like snowshoe rabbits for the single bed they shared. Will, bigger and faster, shouldered his twenty-minute-younger sister to one side at the bedroom door.
“I get the soft pillow!” Will yelled.
“Noooo! Daddy, he cheated!”
“I’m comin’ in there in just a second,” Elmore called. “And if anybody’s still awake, I’m puttin’ both of you in a sack and leavin’ ‘em out on the porch for Santa Claus to take back to the North Pole. You’ll spend the rest of your lives turned into sour little green elves working on toys!”
Elmore glanced over his shoulder, despite the cold and the little trickle of blood he felt drooling its way down his chin now.
The squad car backed down the drive, bucking the snowy ruts. Elmore heard the strain of an aging transmission in reverse.
Did he actually see Sheriff Dan Neeley… his boyhood friend, his teammate, his rival in love, the soldier who once had his girl, then had his back… did Dan Neeley wave one goodbye finger from the wheel as the police car whirred away on those special snow-chained tires up the white paved road?
Or was he shooting a bird?
Too dark to tell.
“Y’all quit that bickering,” Elmore barked. Again, he used his serious-business voice. The front bedroom quieted instantly. “Close your eyes and go to sleep. I don’t want another peep.”
Most nights, one of the imps would have dared him by chirping a single almost-silent… peep!
Elmore limped straight to his own room and pulled out the drawer with all his underwear. He sat on the side of the bed and clumsily rolled four socks onto each frozen foot. With the big bandage on his thumb, it took a long time. His teeth chattered. The room suddenly felt like a frozen food section at the grocery store.
On the day Elmore bought them, each pair of heavy-duty socks, army issue, weighed as much as a shot quail. Now they’d worn so thin that even with four socks on each foot, Elmore could see his calloused ivory heels shine through.
Bad cheese in a cheesecloth.
He padded to the kids’ room. He would settle them down with a story about Santa Claus, how he brought switches and coal to the wicked, how he rewarded the righteous with treasures beyond their wildest fantasies.
He lit a kitchen match.
Impossibly, the two beautiful faces had already closed their eyes. They welcomed sleep, escape, surrender.
Elmore felt like a hypocrite.
He’d been about to turn Santa Claus into the Old Testament god he grew up hearing about in church. The god that sent you to hell, not the god that forgave your failings. The god that dropped you in a lake of fire instead of putting loving arms around you and asking you to try again to be good, to be better, better than before, the god who made you believe you could be better, you could be good.
Elmore hurt when he shuffled away after kissing the untroubled foreheads of his sleeping twins.
He himself could use a long winter’s nap.
No rest for the weary quite yet. He still had to take a drive back to Sav-More, then spread out the few meager ‘surprises’ Santa would bring Will and Mary. He already had one hidden present for each that he’d found at Last Chance Thrift Store. Those waited in the dark cabinet under their kitchen sink.
Elmore hoped the plumbing hadn’t leaked on them.
Down the short hall he thumped. He thought how bad he wanted a drink. Needed a drink. But the doctor had warned him off alcohol forever with that big chunk of his liver missing.
He wanted whiskey anyway.
His conscience pricked him. Christmas presents wouldn’t wait.
He would have to wake up with the birds too, when Will and Mary did. He would act astonished at Santa’s immeasurable mystery and goodness.
Somewhere in the night, a hound dog would not go to sleep. Bow wow wow wow wow wow. Or maybe it was an owl. Elmore realized he was too tired and banged up to tell the difference.
He made it to the pantry door in the kitchen, only half awake, his ribs throbbing – the ribs hurt more than his mouth or tongue or finger or black eye or bruises. His ribs hurt when he breathed, and he had to breath every few seconds to stay alive. His ribs hurt even when his heart beat.
He opened a cabinet where Ezra Brooks should be waiting for a man. A gift from Santa – it should be right there, right now.
The cabinet held a can of Spam, a tin of Crisco, and two round blue things that used to be lemons.
But elsewhere in the room something glittered.
Elmore caught it from the corner of his eye.
He turned in surprise.
He recoiled, almost in a fright. He clawed hard at the light switch with his unbandaged hand.
The overhead fluorescent tube took its sweet time, and made a noise.
It illuminated a miracle.
Spyder handlebars. Tassels on the handgrips.
Brand new bikes.
One for a boy, blue. A pink one for Mary.
Elmore stared up at the cheap kitchen light. It was not nearly as bright as a flashlight shining in the face.
That goddamned Dan Neeley.
And that red-nosed Jess Turnipseed…