The Yule Logs
… in which Elmore reaches the corner of Smith and Wesson
Elmore slowed the rumbling panel truck as he entered bustling, green-and-gold, downtown Lafayette.
In back of the truck, among piled cabinetry tools and padded blankets, grazed a small, bewildered herd of plywood reindeer. Elmore had milled them himself the past week at Rankin Cabinets. Each little Rudolph sported a blinking battery-powered red nose that flashed happily in the darkness as Elmore pulled open the truck’s rear doors. The deer radiated good cheer, and they cheered Elmore too. He would deliver his herd to Lafayette Courthouse, where Boy Scouts and other volunteer holiday elves would distribute them to stores and city parks for the big night ahead.
Elmore mused for a moment on how much Will and Mary this very night would love the reindeer he’d helped make with his own hands. The twins and Kelly would meet Elmore after his work day, and all of them would ride together down to the parade and carols on the square and the other merriments.
Elmore looked at his speedometer and grimaced as he guided the truck past Lafayette’s flashing electronic population sign, the silly idea of a silly mayor and a silly city council. It reported Elmore’s highway speed, followed by other critical data:
Population 8,369 (and rising!)
Elevation 390 feet (and stable!)
Elmore was bound for the corner of Smith and Wesson, an intersection with no known history of weaponry or gunplay, yet dramatically — and notoriously — written up in “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” years earlier. The corner might have been the single most famous thing in Lafayette, though anyone local would automatically think of Wood Castle first.
An able crew would be waiting at the downtown crossroad to help unload the hundred or so Rudolphs.
Elmore eased the engine to 30 mph but still easily passed a John Deere in the right lane. The tractor dragged a peppermint-motif parade float. A black kid at its wheel wore a Lafayette Lions baseball cap and waved a half-eaten corn dog on a stick at Elmore — hello, howdy — as he passed.
The kid looked happy.
And why not? Lafayette had gone all-in on the Jolly Holiday event. Sidewalks and storefronts buzzed, and scores of merchants and store employees madly garnished the great, gaudy Christmas tableau the town had become. It seemed to Elmore that all 8,369 residents must be out and about.
The downtown’s transformation had reached its grand finale. Every ladder in Lafayette must have been leaning against the brick downtown buildings. Every Christmas light and tinsel garland from Sav-Mor must have been draping windows and door frames and sidewalk ornamental pear trees and overhead power lines. Huge sparkly Christmas balls, red and green and huge as Japanese lanterns, bobbed in the morning breeze of the official first day of winter. Giant peppermint sticks and enormous, gaily wrapped packages, and waving plastic Santas that resembled huge football linemen in padded red uniforms stood in stores.
A feathered-and-sequined group of little-girl angels flocked out of Ted Huddleston’s music store, attempting to stay in a line, shedding fluff from artificial white wings. A teenage boy with a bucket stretched across an old, green Rambler to paint diagonal gold stripes on its hood. A giant golden bow of crepe paper decorated the car’s roof, hiding its dents.
Elmore found good cheer welling inside him. He lifted the old sun visor of his panel truck, dirty with working-man fingerprints after a year of 50-hour weeks, and he savored the view of his Lafayette. Marvelous. This newest silly idea by the mayor, for once, didn’t seem so silly. The town hummed with holiday spirits.
Will and Mary will love this so much, Elmore thought to himself. And Kelly.
It will be our first Christmas together since … well, since when.
Elmore felt thankful, in this season of thanks.
* * *
Kelly. The kids.
It had taken months. It had taken forgiveness. It took all four of the Rogers turning into something new. It took them all transforming into something Elmore had given up all hope of ever knowing again.
All those months ago, that afternoon he took Will and Mary to Kelly’s trailer, when the twins stood nervously at the door and knocked, then beheld their mother, the stone started to roll away.
Elmore couldn’t help what he felt. Then and now.
Kelly fell to her knees and reached her arms to hold the kids. Her kids. Elmore’s kids. Their kids. The June sun shone in Kelly’s black hair and their red hair and the sobbing sounds of their three hearts rose like one single voice.
That moment changed everything.
Or maybe Elmore was changed already.
Why did he dare take the kids to see Kelly?
He could not forget their terrible chance meeting outside the Milky Way, that moment he might have saved all four of them so much pain with one single word from his unforgiving mouth.
Yes, Elmore was a man of few words. But just one word, that one moment, might have saved four souls forever.
He vowed to change. He looked himself in the mirror for all those days after that. Then, he emerged from a jail cell and kept his promise.
His road back began at Kelly Bellisle Rogers’ front door.
It took all the courage Elmore ever had to turn the key in the panel truck’s ignition that day six months ago. More courage than driving those transports in Iraq. More courage than daring to keep living after his wits had been blown out of him on that bright black afternoon.
This morning, by dawn’s early light, just before Elmore’s truck lumbered away from their little rental house in the woods, Kelly rested in a crowded, rumpled bed with their children, a red cowlicked head against either side of her beautiful face, and her dark eyes on Elmore.
He nodded goodbye.
She silently blew a kiss. Her eyes stayed open.
Elmore floated to the truck and dreamed it away down the badly paved county road toward Lafayette.
At Rankin, he spent a couple of hours loading his 100 hand-made plywood reindeer with pulsing noses.
Reverie ended. All at once, the kid to Elmore’s right throttled up the tractor. Black smoke shot skyward from the John Deere’s smokestack, and the young driver tossed the bare stick of his corn dog to the street. A driver behind Elmore gently tapped his horn.
In Elmore’s life, red lights had changed to green.
He focused, popped the quivering gear shift in the floor, eased forward, the corner of Smith and Wesson just ahead.
He felt a bright rush and a gigantic jolt. With pain.
Something happened. LOUD.
Shock. A sudden stop. Things turned upside down.
Elmore found himself looking up from the floorboard of the truck at shattered windshield and the truck roof. Glass glittered on the seat. He smelled rubber and steam and torn steel.
A pain ripped through Elmore’s right side, his right thigh.
He felt a dreadful déjà vu.
All over. Again.
* * *
Three blocks away, Fire Chief Wragg slowly cruised a line of floats, 27 slices of Christmas cake, colorfully queued in the staging area for the Jolly Holiday parade.
He noisily spit Red Man juice into a Dixie cup.
“Damn, Neeley! I didn’t know I could be impressed by effin’ parades anymore. All those I marched for Uncle Sam wore my ass out! My ass and my boots and my eardrums. God damn them drums and bugles. But just look at this Jolly Holiday shit!”
Wragg’s eye found a team of red-sequined majorettes practicing a twirling routine atop one float.
“Hot damn! Baby Jesus gonna like that!”
Sheriff Dan Neeley rode shotgun, his jaw set, eyes scanning another festive float. On it, high-school students monkeyed up and down the rigging of a makeshift pirate ship as they fastened festoons of ribbon and boughs of evergreen and rolls of Christmas lights.
It all irked Sheriff Neeley. He didn’t like this feeling, especially this season. But the burr under his saddle still irritated.
His major gripe sat right beside him, in the driver’s seat. Neeley didn’t like Wragg. He didn’t like riding a fire department vehicle. He didn’t like a chauffeur. But Mr. Wood had handwritten meticulous instructions for this morning. Lafayette’s police force and fire department clicked their heels.
The constables inspected the parade route in Wragg’s official vehicle, as instructed. Wragg drove, as instructed. They drove one direction along the parade route from 9 to 9:30 a.m., as instructed. Then they cruised it again driving the opposite direction from 10 to 10:30 a.m., as instructed.
The two men rode in an overwarm cab, though the day outside shone cool and bright. About every five minutes, Wragg set his face in a goofy grin and turned on the fire siren, scaring the daylights out of those around him, including kids on floats.
“I wish you’d stop that crap,” Chief Neeley finally said.
Wragg glanced sideways with a vengeful expression, then whooped the siren once more, the sound of pure spite.
Neeley bit off a negative word, instead turning his face to stare again out the window.
Don’t say it, Neeley. Don’t say it, Neeley. He repeated the words in his mind like a mantra.
The radio crackled in the fire chief’s car, and a recorded voice issued … then repeated … an enigmatic message.
Smith and Wesson. Smith and Wesson. Now.
Wragg perked up, and switched off the siren immediately. He accelerated, pushing Chief Neeley back in his seat.
The red cruiser ran a light in the next block, bringing Chief Neeley back up in his seat.
“Wragg? You want to be busted?”
The fire chief issued the same scorn as before to his passenger.
“You dumb shit,” he growled. “You heard that radio message. We’re headed to Smith and Wesson.”
“Well, who the hell was that?”
“The boss,” Wragg answered.
The fire chief’s car actually took the next corner with its back tires smoking, like a vehicle in a movie chase scene. Neeley grabbed the dash and door handle.
“Hey, Wragg! HEY!”
Ahead, the white dome of Lafayette’s town hall rose over a grove of old sycamores. City workers on hoists and actually scrambling among the pale branches strung holiday lights.
The red car roared by beneath them, and they gaped in dismay.
The fire chief’s car slid into the next turn, too, just as another vehicle made a turn ahead of it. A log truck. One of Mr. Wood’s.
That big bruiser rounded its turn way too fast, as if the driver had no intention of braking at all. It swung wide and, it seemed to Neeley, suddenly accelerated even more.
It had no way to avoid the collision.
The log truck plowed into the left side of a panel truck. Neeley and Wragg saw the impact with their eyes, then an instant later heard a tremendous scary jolt. Neeley felt a shock wave from the impact through the door of his vehicle.
Four or five whole pine logs spilled off the overloaded side of the log truck onto the intersection. One rolled as far as The Personality Shop, a block away, narrowly missing the tractor hauling a holiday float. It came to rest blocking the doors to Mr. Bloomberg’s jewelry store and his son’s CPA office.
The impact of the crash had wrenched open the metal back door of the panel truck. Dozens of painted wooden deer with flashing red noses sprawled in the street. Some had broken legs and antlers.
Wragg made the brakes of his fire chief vehicle scream as he stopped. He now flicked on the official vehicle’s siren, and it howled, guaranteed to draw a crowd.
Neeley launched out the passenger-side door into police chief mode. He scrambled clear of the two big vehicles in the wreck, then held up a palm to halt oncoming traffic from nearby streets. He stepped over a big log reeking of turpentine, and broken windshield glass crunched under his boots.
Chief Neeley now saw the identification on the side of the panel truck:
That stopped him stone cold in the middle of Wesson Street.
Was that Elmore Rogers? In the crushed truck?
Chief Neeley ran toward the battered truck, caved in on one side like a beer can after a wild party.
Neeley yanked the passenger-door handle. Miraculously, it opened, with a groan.
Two groans. The second came from the floorboard.
Elmore stared up at Neeley with the strangest look. The expression said, without a word, again?
Elmore was bloodied, but moving. Neeley heard him speak, a good sign.
“Let’s …” Elmore stopped to pick a crumb of glass off his tongue. “Let’s stop meeting like this, Neeley.”
Why ain’t that funny? Neeley thought, a crazy random insight. That ain’t one bit funny.
“Elmore, can you move?”
His old buddy seemed to already have puzzled that out.
“Yeah. It ain’t as bad as that last time.”
Elmore eased at sloth speed onto his elbow.
“Move now, Neeley. I’m coming out.”
Neeley did move. He wheeled in fury. Where the hell was the log truck driver? Mr. Wood’s precious logs or none, this sad sack would pay for such carelessness.
A 40-something tough guy with a mud flap of hair hung down behind his oil-stained cap stood calmly on the street corner, shaking a fresh Winston out of a pack. He seemed absolutely calm.
A head-on collision in a log truck? All in a day’s work.
Chief Wragg stood in front of the guy, the fire department’s medical kit in hand. Neeley could have assumed his colleague was conducting some EMT drill, maybe a concussion protocol. The fire chief chatted casually, like he might be asking simple questions: What’s your name? What kind of vehicle do you drive? What town is this?
But then Wragg flipped his Zippo and lit the man’s cigarette. The smell of gasoline was thick in the air. That act seemed utterly reckless.
Neeley stalked up.
Wragg never spoke. He shouldered brusquely past the policeman. The medical kit banged Neeley’s leg.
Neeley ignored Wragg. He would deal with that later.
He looked the log truck driver in the eye.
The driver lifted his cap, and lank blond hair fell across his face. He had a stray eye that gave Neeley the impression he might be looking for an escape route.
But he didn’t run. He took a drag from his cigarette, and blew the smoke straight up over his head like a volcano.
“Name’s Einstein,” he finally said. “What’s your’n?”
Neeley decided then and there to slap a pair of handcuffs on his insolent wrists. He even reached for the side of his belt … but Wragg gave a shout.
“Whoa! Chief Neeley! Right now!”
It sounded urgent. Did Elmore need help?
“You stick here to this corner like a post. You don’t move a muscle,” Neeley told Mr. Einstein. Mr. Whatever. “We’ll be having a little talk.”
Neeley found Wragg with a strange smile.
The fire chief peered down into the glove compartment of Elmore’s panel truck. The compartment was knocked cock-eyed by the crash, and its door swung down, attached by one sinew of black duct tape.
Elmore, very dazed, sat on his butt with his knees up, his back against the front tire of the log truck. That vehicle was hopelessly locked into his truck’s grill work.
“Lookee, lookee, Sheriff Neeley!” Wragg’s voice practically sang. “What has Elmore Rogers been up to here?”
Wragg nodded at the glove compartment. Neeley stepped onto the running board.
Two large tinfoil squares rested jauntily among jumbled screwdrivers and grimy operating papers. One foil square had been conveniently torn open.
Inside, a block of greenish-brown showed through. It looked like putty.
“Sheriff Neeley,” Wragg suggested. “That stuff in that tinfoil looks a whole lot like hashish to me. Does it look like hash to you, too?”
Neeley turned his head. Wragg met his gaze without blinking, snake-eyed, with that contemptible smile across his face and that bad lip twitching.
“Looks like red Lebanese hashish,” Wragg repeated. “Red. Lebanese. Hashish.”
Neeley, for one of the only times in his talkative Irish life, could find nothing to say. Not a word.
“Let’s run him in, Chief Neeley. This man appears to have a criminal business operating on the side. Mr. Wood warned us about him.”
Neeley stared down at Elmore Rogers. A goose egg was swelling on the side of Elmore’s head, but he seemed more concerned with a gash in his palm. Neeley remembered how Elmore always freaked at the sight of his own blood.
“You know what you got to do, Neeley.” Wragg spoke almost with a chuckle. “Don’t make me call Mr. Wood about this.”
Yes. Dan Neeley knew exactly what he had to do.