Or something like that. I've never been great with lyrics. No matter how many times I hear "Frosty the Snowman," I never know where to put the chorus when it's time to sing it myself. I always end up on an infinite, Sisyphean loop from the old silk hat to the traffic cop and back without ever reaching the thumpety thump thump.
Come to think of it, why is a snowman thumping, anyway? What "thumps" through snow? Shouldn't it be "crunchety crunch crunch"? Or maybe "squishity squish squish," since we know the poor slob's melting?
Back to the point: Christmastime is here, and it's not just time for Christmas beer. It's time for a Christmas giveaway. I've posted my holiday story "Fruitcake" on the main page of my website, but the story below — which can also be found in my collection Naughty: Nine Tales of Christmas Crime — I'm tucking away here for newsletter subscribers only. It originally appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine back in 2002. Holy moley — that's 15 years ago! Man, that makes me feel ancient.
Maybe it really is time for a Christmas beer....
Me and Santa Claus, we got a thing or two in common. Not in the looks department, obviously. I look more like a shriveled old elf than your classic jolly fat man. But the way I see it, Santa’s a trucker, just like I was for thirty-something years.
Now, obviously, he ain’t a trucker in your literal, Biblical sense. The man don’t drive a rig and he ain’t a Teamster — at least, far as I know. But he’s the fella who gets the goods from point A to point B. The elves, they’re the manufacturers. And the kids, they’re the customers. And Santa’s the man who brings ’em together. Just like a trucker.
You know, I even pulled a Santa one year. Worked a real Christmas miracle for the children of River City. Well, for a toy store in River City, really. And for myself. But it’s a whopper of a Christmas tale all the same. They oughta make one of them cartoon shows about it, like the ones they show on TV every year. Fetch me over a plate of them nachos and another beer, and maybe I’ll tell it to you.
So now let’s say you and me climb in my magical time machine and go waaaaaaaaay back to that ancient year nineteen and eighty three. I had it pretty sweet in them days. My wife Bootsie, God bless her, she pulled in good money at the Lawn Devil plant. That was before they packed it all up and shipped it to Mexico, you understand. Back then, Lawn Devil brought good money into River City—and into our house. I owned my own rig, didn’t work for nobody but myself, could do a job or not do a job as I pleased, more or less. Not many truckers have things that cushy. This was years before Bootsie got sick.
We were all set for our usual Christmas Eve. Bootsie’s momma was gonna come over with a ham, we would give each other presents, the boys would get in a fight about who got what record album and who got what poster and who got what T-shirt and what all. Then Bootsie and her momma and me would sip on some Fuzzy Navels and sing along with Johnny Mathis and Elvis while the boys sneaked out back to go kill a six pack with their friends behind the garage.
It don’t sound like much, does it? But, boy, I miss it.
I missed it this year I’m talking about, too. Because the day before Christmas I get a call from Ivor Boraborinski. He and his brother Basil, they used to run a small transport company down around Evansville. Still do, now that I think of it. They’re a bit on the seedy side, but not what you’d call outright shady.
Now whenever I got a call from a Boraborinski, I knew it was gonna be something interesting, because them two boys never stuck their noses into anything that wasn’t. Every job with them was a double-rush long-haul ask-us-no-questions-we’ll-tell-you-no-lies kind of deal, and it always ended up being a story. You listen real good to this one, maybe I’ll tell you about the time they had me drop off a whole herd of reindeer at a danged mall!
So anyway, there it was Christmas Eve, and Ivor calls up and says, “I got a job for you, Bass.”
“Uh-huh,” I say.
“You’ll probably want to leave right away,” he says.
“Uh-uh,” I say. But that doesn’t faze Ivor.
“You’ll have to be back by ten a.m. tomorrow,” he says.
I don’t even bother with an “Uh-uh” this time. Remember now—“tomorrow” is Christmas Day.
“Round trip’s about a thousand miles,” Ivor says.
I could’ve whistled or groaned or asked him just how much Jack he’d put in his eggnog, but I stayed quiet.
And then he mentioned how much he’d pay.
Bootsie heard me gasp from the kitchen and hustled over, looking worried. She probably thought somebody’d died or the church had burned down or one of the boys had got himself arrested again. I gave her a don’t-worry shake of my head, but my words didn’t comfort her much.
“You know I don’t haul drugs or guns, Ivor,” I say.
“I’m not asking you to,” he says.
“Well, I don’t get it then,” I say. “Cuz that figure you just mentioned is obb-scene. If it was a movie, Jerry Fallwell’d tell me to boycott it.”
And then he said something that really made me think he’d gotten carried away with the Christmas spirits that day: “You ever heard of a Cabbage Patch Kid?”
Well, I hadn’t. I look at Bootsie and roll my eyes and do that little finger-circle-around-the-ear crazy sign. I figure I’m talking to a loony tune.
“No, I have not,” I say, getting ready to hang up before he asks me whether I believe in the Abominable Snowman.
“They’re dolls,” he says. “Ask your wife about ’em. She’ll know. Everybody’s crazy for ’em this year. Stores can’t keep ’em on the shelves. You got people practically killing each other for the chance to buy one. There’ve been fights, riots, you name it.”
“Over a doll?” I say. I still don’t exactly believe him at this point, but he’s starting to make some kinda sense.
“Over a doll,” Ivor says. “And right now in River City, you can’t buy a single one of ’em. Sold out. On Christmas Eve.”
“Uh-huh,” I say.
“The company that makes ’em is working around the clock to crank out more,” Ivor says. “The folks at Monkeyberry Toys have a consignment on order that’ll be ready tonight at midnight. Six hundred dolls. And they know they can sell every dang one of ’em—if we can get ’em back to River City on Christmas Day.”
“Uh-huh,” I say. “Can you hold on a minute?”
Ivor grunts at me, and I slap a hand over the mouthpiece of the phone.
“Bootsie,” I say, “Ivor Boraborinski wants me to do a special haul for him. Like right now. About a thousand miles.”
“Uh-huh,” says Bootsie, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I drop it: I tell her how much they’ll pay.
“You want Pepsi or Mountain Dew this trip?” she says.
“Mountain Dew,” I tell her.
Ivor overhears that and knows what it means. He starts telling me where to go to get the dolls.
Now usually, Ivor’d have me pick up a load of this or that on my way out of town. In the trucking business, it don’t pay to go nowhere with an empty trailer. But Ivor just tells me forget it, this is rush-rush stuff and the Monkeyberry folks couldn’t get anyone else to do it and the profit margin is covered but good. I’ve just gotta grab them toys and get ’em back to River City by Christmas morning.
See? Just like Santa Claus.
So less than thirty minutes later, I’m headed east on I-70. Pennsylvania, here I come. Turns out them “kids” didn’t grow in any cabbage patch. They were made in a factory in a dumpy little industrial park outside Pittsburgh. This was back when you could actually find a doll that didn’t have MADE IN CHINA tattooed on its keister, you understand.
They may as well have come from the North Pole, though. Whammy! The second I hit the road, here comes the snow. It starts off all slow and pretty and I’ve got my Johnny Mathis on the tape deck singing “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow” and it’s real cute. But darn it all if Mother Nature don’t take Johnny serious. The snow just don’t stop. It didn’t take long to go from cute to a pain in the butt to downright dangerous. And I’ve got hours and hours to go.
That’s where the Mountain Dew comes in. Load me up with a couple cases of that stuff and I could drive to the moon and back without making a pit stop. When one can wears off, I pop open another. And when I get tired of that, I start tossing Lemonheads in my mouth to give it an extra kick. A man can’t live on caffeine alone, you know. He needs sugar, too.
So by the time I get to the factory, here’s what I’ve got on my bodily odometer: fifteen cans of Dew, two jumbo boxes of Lemonheads, God only knows how many cigarettes, enough beef jerky to start my own cattle drive and about five hundred close calls with ice, snow, deer, state troopers and cars driven by drunks and pinheads. And I’ve got to face that all over again on the way back, all without a single wink of sleep. Which is not exactly legal, but you know how it is. A trucker’s logbook’s got more fairy tales per page than Mother Goose.
When I finally get to the factory, it’s something like eleven forty five in the p.m. Right on schedule—on my part, anyway. But it turns out I’m the twentieth truck in line. They’ve got people in the factory working quadruple overtime, those dolls are breaking the sound barrier as they come flying off the assembly line and still they’re behind schedule. The demand was just too huge. So I’m told to sit down, shut up and wait my turn.
Which I do. But not ’til after I’ve gotten me my first gander at them dolls. They’re in boxes all pushed together by the hundred and wrapped up tight in industrial plastic. But if you get up close and squint you can see their pudgy faces back there, like row after row of chubby little mummies staring out at you through their shrouds.
“Holy Cheez Whiz,” I say. “That’s what all the fuss is about? Looks like somebody busted these babies in the face with a baseball bat. Any kid with one of those in her bed’s gonna wake up screaming for sure.”
The toy people aren’t exactly amused by this, maybe because they’re just as tired as me. So I shut my trap and climb into my cab and turn up my Elvis Christmas tape real loud. But I’m off my stride with the Mountain Dew, and nature takes its course.
One minute Elvis is singing about having a blue Christmas without you, the next he’s telling me to run for my life cuz them Cabbage Patch Kids are the unholy spawn of Satan. I even see one peeking at me in the rear-view mirror, its beady little eyes glowing in the dark, blood trickling from its nasty puckered mouth. I try to yell for help but nothing comes out. The little monster’s pulling at the handle of the door and there’s something pink and pulpy caught in its sharp teeth and I hear it say “I’m hungry, Daddy” and I can’t move a muscle and knock knock knock. Suddenly some bossy foreman’s telling me to wake the heck up cuz it’s my turn to load.
First thing I do, of course, is pop open another soda. Then I take a peek at my watch—and nearly give myself a Mountain Dew shower, I jump so bad. It’s almost two in the zippity doo-da morning! Those unmentionable so-and-sos let me sleep for two blankety-blank hours!
I rev up my rig and whip around to the loading dock and back up at fifty five miles an hour and hop out and start tapping my foot and staring at that loading crew so hard my eyes are about to pop out of my skull. They get the message, too.
“Take it easy, fella,” the foreman says to me. “We know, we know. We’ve got families to get home to, too.”
“Yeah, but mine’s five hundred miles away,” I say.
“O.K., O.K.,” the foreman says all irritable like, but he and his boys work fast. Twenty minutes later he’s sticking a form under my face saying, “Alright, fella, sign it and haul.”
I look in the trailer and don’t like what I see. The thing’s more than half empty.
“That’s six hundred dolls?” I say.
“Hey, they’re dolls—not TVs or hogs or whatever you’re used to hauling.” He slaps the paper he’s trying to get me to sign. “Six hundred. Just like it says in the order.”
“Alright,” I say. “You know your business.”
“Damn straight,” the foreman says — and pardon my French for saying it now.
I sign and I haul.
The snow’s still coming down as I pull out. There’s maybe eight inches on the ground at this point, and it’s starting to drift. It don’t look good. But I’m in a fine mood cuz I’m finally on my second leg, so it’s just one more big push and I’m home. The factory’s about five miles off I-71. All I’ve gotta do is get on the interstate, crank up the Christmas tunes and let the Dew do the rest.
I’m about half-way to 71 on this dark little two-lane stretch through the woods when I see a big orange sign propped up in the middle of the road. “Detour,” it says. There’s a black arrow pointing off onto something that looks about half a step up from a deer trail. But the weather being so bad and all, I just figure it’s drifting up ahead, and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation must know what they’re doing, right? I turn onto the detour road.
Now this isn’t one of your classic straight-as-an-arrow roads mapped out by a cartographer with a degree from a big state school. It follows a creek bed. It twists and it turns and it doubles back on itself until you don’t know if you’re headed east, west, north, south or straight down. I was out of sight of the main road before I’d gone thirty yards. By the time I’d gone a hundred, I was beginning to think about turning around — if I could ever find a spot to do it. Eighteen wheelers aren’t exactly known for their maneuverability.
Of course, I’m none too happy about what this is gonna do to my ETA. And “none too happy” becomes “downright p.o.ed” when I see a fella in the middle of the road up ahead waving his arms. A few yards behind him there’s a rusty old Buick half-on half-off the road at a cock-eyed angle. Looks like some Bud-happy yahoo couldn’t handle the snow, and now it’s up to old Bass to save the day . . . while ten a.m. Christmas morning gets closer and closer.
I’ll admit it: There was a part of me that wanted to just keep on truckin’. But I guess all that “joy to the world” spirit of Christmas stuff was sloshing around in my head along with the Mountain Dew. I stopped.
I roll down the window and lean out and say, “What’s the trouble, buddy?” To which the fella in the road has two interesting responses. One, he rolls down the stocking cap on his head so it covers his face. Turns out it’s a ski mask. And two, he reaches under his coat and pulls out a revolver, which he proceeds to point in the general direction of my head as he walks over to my truck.
“No trouble here, ‘buddy.’ Unless you make some,” he says.
I’m usually pretty good with the snappy comebacks, but this time I’ll admit I wasn’t up to the challenge. All I could get out of my mouth was something none too snappy like “Wha’?” or maybe “Huh?”
“Out,” the fella says, waving the gun with three quick little jerks of his wrist. “Out out out.”
Now I don’t know about you, but my first inclination is to do what people pointing guns at me tell me to do. But just as my hand wraps around the door handle and I’m getting ready to climb down from my rig, I see lights flashing over the snow. Headlights. Someone’s driving up behind us. Could be the state police. Could be some poor sucker about to get his head blowed off just cuz he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. Could be both.
Mr. Gun glances down the road toward the lights, then takes another step toward me.
“You deaf or somethin’?” he says. He cocks the revolver. “I said out.”
The lights are close now—so close Mr. Gun is lit up like he’s up on stage at a girlie bar. Plain as day I can see his faded blue jeans and raggedy parka and muddy good ol’ boy boots. And I notice that he’s not the biggest buck in the herd and his hand’s shaking maybe a little more than the cold would account for. And I start to figure that this here highwayman ain’t exactly Jesse James. Which doesn’t help whoever’s driving toward us. This fella might not be a professional, but he’s got himself a gun, and that can be enough.
The crunch of snow and gravel’s getting pretty loud now, the lights are getting brighter, but Mr. Gun’s still focused on me me me.
“I’m not kiddin’ around here, you so-and-so,” he says, except his language is a little stronger than that. “Get out of the ding-danged truck.”
A beat-up red pick-up pulls to a stop behind him while he’s saying this, and I figure this is when the shooting’s gonna start. I’m getting ready to throw myself down on the floor of the cab and start praying for a miracle when I notice the orange Detour sign lying in the back of the truck. A heavy-set fella steps out of the pick-up and walks up to Mr. Gun. He’s got himself a ski-mask, too. His has got “Campbell’s Soup” written across the forehead and “M’m! M’m! Good!” on the chin. The mask is stretched so tight across his fat face the fabric looks like to rip, like maybe it’s three sizes too small.
“What’s going on here?” Mr. Soup says. Except it sounds more like “Whuz goin’ on hee-er?” He’s got him a Southern accent so thick you could make a mattress out of it.
“He won’t get out of the truck,” Mr. Gun says. His voice is high-pitched, nervous, and for the first time I notice his accent instead of just being hypnotized by his Smith and Wesson. Sounded like these two were Mountaineers — kid hillbillies up from West Virginia.
“Well, heck,” Mr. Soup says, and he snatches the revolver right out of Mr. Gun’s hand. He steps up on the footboard of my rig and brings the barrel up under my nose. “This just ain’t your night, is it?” he says, and a big grin stretches the fabric of his mask even further. “First truck we saw went whoosh — right by our little Detour sign. Didn’t even slow down. The second one came down this way but didn’t bother stopping to help my buddy here. On Christmas Eve yet! So we’ve been out here waiting a looooooong time. We’re cold, we’re tired and we want them babies. So just step out of the truck and I won’t have to mess up your pretty face with a couple of bullets.”
Now the more this fella talks to me, the more time I’ve got to stew on things. I’m not a brave man, but I can be a bad-tempered one, and a temper can make a coward do things a bona fide he-man hero would think was crazy. And I was getting madder and madder that these two holler-dwellers were trying to steal my rig after all the hours I’d put in — and with all the money I had waiting for me at the end of the haul. So I decided I wasn’t going to make it easy for ’em.
“You say you want what now?” I say.
Mr. Soup’s grin goes a little lop-sided.
“Cabbage Patch Kids,” the former Mr. Gun—now Mr. Gunless, I suppose — says from behind him. “We know you got ’em.”
“Cabbage Kids?” I say, giving Mr. Gunless a “What the . . .?” look. I turn to Mr. Soup and lower my voice. “Is he alright?”
Mr. Soup’s smile has flopped all the way over into a frown now.
“Don’t think you can b.s. me, mister,” he says. “There’s only one factory up that road that’s still workin’. The toy factory.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” I say. “I just dropped off a load of plastic there. I don’t know nothin’ ’bout any ‘Cabbage Babies’ or whatever it is you’re looking for. Sounds to me like something you’d get in a grocery store.”
I see a little fire kindle in Soup’s eyes and I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve just made the biggest mistake of my too-short-by-half life when I hear Gunless say, “What are we gonna do?”
“He’s lyin’,” Soup says.
“What if he’s not lyin’?”
“What if he’s not lyin’?”
“What if he’s not lyin’?”
“He’s lyin’, you dot-dot-dash fool!”
Gunless goes all silent for a second. Then he says in a quiet kinda voice, “What if he’s not lyin’?”
Soup takes in a deep breath. When he exhales, I get a nasty whiff of Cheetos and beer.
“We’re gonna check,” he says to his partner. Then he turns back to me. “And if you are lyin’, I’m not gonna kill you with this.”
He gives the revolver a little wave, then reaches up under his jacket with his left hand and fiddles with something. The hand comes back with a Rambo-looking hunting knife in it.
“I’m gonna kill you with this.”
“There’ll be no need for any killing,” I say.
“We’ll see about that,” Soup says. “Now gimme them keys so we can open up this trailer and take a look.”
Lickity-split, a plan forms in my head: I give the yokels the keys, then while they’re in back checking on my cargo I hop out and slip into Soup’s truck, which is still sitting there with the engine running.
Just as quick, Soup seems to have the same thought.
“Better yet,” he says, “get on out of there and open it up yourself.”
He steps away from the door, but he’s still keeping that gun on me. I get the sudden feeling I’ve bluffed about as far as I can bluff and any more dilly-dallying is gonna get me a hole in the head bigger than the one I’ve already got.
“Alright, alright,” I say.
I pull the keys from the ignition, open the door and slip out of the cab.
Once I hit the ground, I notice just how puny Gunless really is. I mean, Shirley Temple could take this guy in a fair fight, and it gives me ideas. Then I turn toward his pal . . . .
Now, Soup wasn’t any Andre the Giant, but he coulda been Andre’s not-so-little brother, I tell you that. I’d have to go up in a hot-air balloon just to take a poke at his chin.
So bare-knuckle brawling was definitely out of the question as a solution to my problems. Which was O.K., anyhow, to be honest with you, as I can’t fight worth spit.
“Go on,” Soup says. He doesn’t give me a shove or anything cuz he’s got his hands full with the gun and the knife. But those do all the shoving he needs done. I start towards the back of the truck.
I don’t set any speed records getting back there, though. I’m calculating as I walk. Do I try to roll under the trailer and run off into the woods on the other side? Or do I . . . well . . . roll under the trailer and run off into the woods on the other side. It was all I could think of other than growing wings and learning to fly, which seemed like a bit of a longshot.
Just as I’m about to duck under the truck—and probably get a bullet in the butt in the process—there’s no more truck to duck under, just those big darned semi wheels. I’d been so deep in thought planning my get-away, I’d blown my chance.
So there I am at the back-end of my trailer with Hulk Hogan holding a gun and a knife on me and I definitely don’t feel those wings popping out. It was beginning to look like there was no way I was going to save my truck. And the only way I was going to save my life was through vigorous begging and pleading for mercy.
“Open it up,” Soup says.
I do as I’m told without any back-talk, knowing it’s a little late to start earning brownie points but figuring I may as well try. I unlock the bolt and pull the trailer doors open.
And there plain as day before our eyes was . . . nothing. It was pitch black in there. Soup and Gunless both lean forward, look at each other, then lean forward again.
“See?” I say hopefully. “Nothing.”
“I don’t see any dolls,” Gunless says to the criminal mastermind.
“Shut up,” Soup spits back. He pushes up against the trailer and leans in real far, and I can see one little eye under the “Campbell’s” squinting away. “There’s something way back there.” He squints so hard it’s a wonder he can see at all. “In the very back.”
“Oh, that,” I say. “That’s not them Cauliflower Batch Babies or whatever. That’s just some . . . extra plastic. I’ve got me another delivery to make in the morning.”
My little pause between “some” and “extra plastic” was maybe like one second long, but I knew it might have been long enough to earn me a hunting-knife bow-tie. Soup gives me a stone-cold look, and I can tell he’s wondering whether to slit my throat right then or wait to see how mad he should be when he does it.
After a very long moment, Soup decides to save the fun for later.
“Get up in there and check it out,” he says to his buddy.
Gunless just kinda gapes at Soup for a while. I don’t know, maybe he’s afraid of the dark or something. But then he turns and hauls himself up into the trailer with a big grunt. I get a gander at the full moon as he goes up, if you know what I mean. I don’t know why it is hillbillies can’t seem to keep their pants up over their backsides.
So Gunless goes groping slowly off into the blackness, and in a few seconds there’s a “Oomph” that says he’s bumped into my cargo.
“Whadaya see?” Soup calls out.
“Can’t see nothing,” Gunless says. I hear his hands pawing around over the shrink-wrapped dolls. “But there’s something here, alright. It’s big. Feels like it’s all wrapped up in plastic.”
At that moment, a terrifying thought pops into my head. All these two rocket scientists need to do is pull Soup’s pick-up around and use the headlights to get a good look inside my trailer. Then they’ll see they’ve got what they want and I’ve been lying and it’s goodnight, Nellie . . . and goodbye, Bass. And it’s while I’m trembling over this—not volunteering the idea, of course — that I finally get those wings I’d been hoping for.
“Aww, heck . . . lemme have a look,” Soup says (or words to that effect) and he puts his fists on the back ledge of the trailer still clutching the gun and knife, throws up a leg as thick as a tree trunk and pushes himself up inside.
I’m so stunned by this it takes me a second to do the obvious thing — which is slam that trailer shut at supersonic speed. It takes Soup the same amount of time to realize what he’s done, and I see him whirl around just as the doors go clang right in his face. I re-lock the bolt a split second before Soup throws himself against the doors. There’s a crash, and I hear him stumble back and fall, cursing up a storm the whole time. A second later, things get really noisy when two sets of boot-covered feet start kicking at the doors.
“Let me outta here!” Gunless screams. “Let me outta here!”
He sounds real hysterical, like maybe he really is afraid of the dark.
That’s when I take the dunce cap off Soup and put it on my own fool head.
“Now just calm down there, boys,” I say. “I ain’t gonna — ”
The first bullet came flying through the trailer door and kept on going right through my jacket just under my left arm. The second one took a little nip off my left ear. You can still see the scar right there. I didn’t wait around for the third, fourth, fifth and sixth bullets. I dived head-first under the trailer and threw my hands up over my head. Not that my two little hands were gonna keep a bullet out of my brain if that’s where it wanted to go.
Bang bang . . . bang bang bang . . .bang . . . click click.
And then nothing.
I’m lying there in the snow and gravel and frozen mud under the back of the truck and I’m thinking, “Well, I’m cold and scared and my ear hurts like a hmm-hmm, so I guess I’m still alive.” But I’m not too anxious to get up and take advantage of that, figuring that’s just gonna invite Soup to start popping off again. And while I’m down there on my belly just trying to be quiet and think quiet thoughts, I hear Soup and Gunless in the truck above me.
“Didja get ’im?” Gunless says.
“I don’t know.”
“Y’know . . . if you did get ’im . . . who’s gonna let us outta this here truck?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re outta bullets, too, aintcha?”
“Where are the extras?”
“In my pick-up.”
“I’m scared, Buck.”
“Shut up, Kev.”
Now you might think all my troubles are over at this point. But I’ve got me a dilemma on my hands. The responsible, law-abiding thing to do is head to the nearest state police outpost and drop Buck and Kev off and let the great state of Pennsylvania decide their fate.
But. I can’t just pull up and unload my new cargo like it’s a bunch of frozen fish sticks. There are going to be questions. There is going to be paperwork. There is the great likelihood that someone’s going to figure out how much driving I’d planned on doing in the span of twenty four hours — an amount of time behind the wheel which is not exactly legal, you understand. And, most importantly, there is the one hundred percent absolute guaranteed certainty that I am not going to make it back to River City by ten a.m. Christmas morning or eleven a.m. Christmas morning or even five p.m. Christmas night.
Which means all of this will have been for nothing.
So I did what I think any self-respecting trucker would’ve done. I crawled out from under the trailer, hopped back in my cab, fired up the engine and headed for the interstate.
It took me seven hours to get to River City. And I didn’t need any Dew to keep me awake. I had so much adrenaline pumping through my veins I could’ve won the Kentucky Derby without benefit of a horse. Plus, my ear was throbbing away the whole time, and it’s hard to get sleepy when it feels like a badger’s nibbling on the side of your head.
I pulled into the parking lot out front of Monkeyberry Toys at ten fifteen a.m. And I am telling you, the place was packed. Cars cars cars — most of ’em empty. There was this big mob jammed around the doors to the store, and when everybody sees me pull up, they let out this shrieking scream-shout, and all of a sudden I’ve got three hundred doll-crazy women chasing after me. I barely made it around the side of the store ahead of ’em.
Around the corner there’s the loading dock and about a dozen Monkeyberry employees waiting for me. I also see five familiar faces: Basil and Ivor Boraborinski and my truckin’ buddies Dave Reeves, Milford Corn and Ernie Hutchings. I’d C.B.ed ahead for the cavalry, you see, and there they were.
While the Monkeyberry folks go try to head off the stampeding moms, I get my rig pulled around and back up to the dock. Then I climb out and go around back of the trailer, where the boys are waiting for me with the Monkeyberry manager.
“Good gosh, Bass, you look like heck,” Ernie says.
“You should see the other fellas,” I say. “In fact, you can. Do me a favor and try to look tough for a minute, would ya? They ain’t gonna be too jolly.”
And I open up the trailer doors, and there’s my two Robin Hood wannabes squinting at the light — which they hadn’t seen in quite some time except maybe what came in through the bullet holes. They looked like they’d just spent a day tumbling around in a clothes dryer. (I admit I didn’t go out of my way to avoid every pothole I saw on my way back to River City.)
“I suggest you two get a move on before somebody calls the police,” I say.
Soup stands up slowly and stumbles towards us. He’s still got his mask on, but I can read his eyes. He doesn’t look angry, just confused.
“Where are we?”
“The North Pole,” I say. “Now scoot.”
Soup looks us all up and down for a second, then comes to the only logical conclusion: He’s getting off easy.
“Let’s go, Kev,” he says. And the two of them come on out of the truck, hop off the loading dock and walk off into a beautiful, crisp, clear Indiana winter morning. From there I don’t know where they went — and I don’t much care.
“Don’t explain,” the Monkeyberry manager says. He’s already rushed into the truck to check out the dolls. He comes back to me with a delivery voucher and a pen. “Just sign this.”
“With pleasure.” And I haven’t even gotten half-way through my name when the manager-man yanks the paperwork back and starts shouting “Go go go!” at more Monkeyberry employees who almost run right us over, they’re so frantic to get those darned dolls on the shelves.
“Come on, Bass — tell us what happened,” Milford says after we’ve jumped out of the way.
“Well, I tell ya’,” I say. And my knees start to buckle at the idea of running through the whole thing. “Fellas, I’m exhausted. Thank you for your help, but I’m gonna have to give you a rain check on the story.”
The boys are all gearjammers like me. They know what it’s like to come off a long haul. So they all slap me on the back and tell me to go on home.
“I’ll have your check for you tomorrow,” Ivor says as I’m going.
“You better,” I say.
I don’t know how I got home. The job was done, the adrenaline was wearing off and I couldn’t tell if my eyes were open or not. When I came in the door, Bootsie catches sight of my bloody ear and just about screams.
“Shhhhh,” I say. “You’ll wake the boys.”
This was back when noon was early-rising for them.
“What happened to your ear, Billy?” Bootsie says. She’s the only one ever called me “Billy.”
I sit down in my La-Z-Boy and look at the Christmas tree and the presents underneath it and the cards and the porcelain Santas and the lights all over the place.
“I can’t tell you how sweet it is to be home for Christmas,” I say, and then I fall asleep in the time it takes to tell it.
When I woke up, it was December 26th.