Monday, December 16, 2013

Our Christmas Short Story: "December, 1977"

By Lars Trodson

But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.
- Robert Louis Stevenson
"Christmas At Sea"
“Boys.” The father’s voice was stern, but not unkind. The three boys bolted upright in their beds just as he spoke. Their father was poking his head around the bedroom door. “Get ready,” he said softly.
            The boys rolled out of bed. They were fully clothed except for their boots. They were even wearing their caps. Without a word they grabbed their blankets and flashlights and boots and ran out of their room. It was dark and in the middle of the night.
            When they went downstairs their father had turned on a Coleman lantern that was sitting on the kitchen table. The boys silently sat cross-legged on the floor to put on their shoes.
            "Longjohns?" their father said without looking up from the table, and all the boys nodded to say that they had them on.
            They tied the laces of their boots and their father said, a cigarette dangling from his lips, “There’s coffee on the stove.”
            The oldest two sons, Danny and Brian, were both eleven. They were twins and they looked at each other and then turned simultaneously to their younger brother Langley, who was nine. He was putting on his mittens. Danny reached over and yanked the mittens off Langley's hands and put them back on the radiator where they put them each night to keep them warm. They all went over to the kitchen counter where their father had put out three coffee cups.
            Brian, who was always the most serious brother, picked the coffeepot up off the burner and poured out three cups of hot coffee. Without saying anything, he dipped a teaspoon into the sugar bowl and measured out an even teaspoonful of sugar and put one each into the steaming cups.
            This is what he had seen his father do a thousand times. Brian stirred the sugar in and the three boys took one cup each, the first gesture in a solemn ritual, and they drank the warm, oaky drink and they smiled at one another. 
             Their father picked up his gloves and put on his hat. He had two old bow saws on the kitchen table, the orange paint on the handles was chipped and scratched from years of use. He handed them both to Danny. The saws were old but the wide teeth of the course blades were clean and sharp. Their father checked his pockets and then grabbed the keys that were hanging off a small brass eyehook that was screwed into the bottom of the kitchen cabinet.
            “Okay, boys,” he said. “Let’s go.”
            They tiptoed out of the house. Their father held the door for them as the boys filed out and then he silently closed it. They plunged into the cold night and walked to the end of their long driveway. Their father had parked his truck near the road so that when he started it the noise of the engine wouldn’t wake their mother. Never in a million years would any of the boys think that she was standing in the upstairs window watching them leave, but she was.
            Their father unhitched the back of the truck and the boys climbed in. They huddled against the back of the cab, and they drew their blankets up around them. The metal was cold and hard underneath them.
            He gently closed the hatch and checked to make sure that it was locked. "You guys good?" he asked. The boys nodded in unison. "Don't get up," said their father, but that was the furthest thing from their minds. Their father was wearing that goofy hat with the flaps over his ears.
            The truck started up. The sound was muffled by the cold night air. The old man drove a little way down the road before he turned on his headlights and they were off.
            Their mother then went downstairs and sat at the kitchen table and finished the rest of the coffee and thought about how much she loved her husband and her sons.
            It was three weeks before Christmas and the three boys - Danny, Brian and Langley Calhoun - had never been up this late in the night before. At this time of year the homes on their street and throughout their little town of Fenton were lighted up with Christmas trees and Christmas lights on the bushes in the front yards. House after house had candles in the windows.
            But now the sun was way around on the far side of the earth and everything was dark. This was a different kind of night than the boys had known. The Christmas lights were all off, and the houses were quiet and cold and unfriendly. There was something lonely and slightly sinister about this blackness. It was a cloudy night, so the three young men didn’t even have the familiarity of the stars to keep them company.
            They could see the dull patch of grayblue light where the moon was sitting behind the curtain of clouds. The boys wished it would snow, but there was already a lot of snow on the ground.
            The churchbells in the distance rang just twice.
            Their father was humming as he drove along, but he didn’t have the radio on. He was drinking from a small bottle, and the boys could smell the cigarette smoke coming from the driver’s side window that their father kept open just a crack.
            They drove a couple of miles into town, and pulled into Dr. Hichens' driveway. The old man cut the lights, and Dr. Hichens came out of his dark house. He was carrying something, and then the boys heard some glass break and Dr. Hichens whispered, “Oh, goddamnit!” He had dropped his coffeecup.
            “Come on, doc, let’s go," said their father from inside the truck.
            “I don’t have my coffee,” the doctor said.
            “You’ll just have to drink what I have straight,” said their father.
            As Dr. Hichens was getting into the truck, he suddenly looked around and said, "My glasses."
            The boys in the back laughed silently because Dr. Hichens was an eye doctor and he didn't have his glasses. He went back into his house and then got back into the truck. He looked in the back and said hello to the boys. He was rubbing his hands together.
            “Gloves?” their father asked.
            Dr. Hichens pulled out his leather gloves and put them on. He looked overstuffed. He was wearing a parka and a sweater and a scarf and a fedora.
            Their father put the truck into gear and then they all they traveled into the dark night.
Their father pulled off onto the old town dump road, and the darkness was truly overwhelming. The boys, sitting underneath their blankets, sat quietly and without moving. The doctor looked back at them again and then he turned and nodded to their father, who smiled.
            Langley turned around and looked at the beams the headlights made on the old dirt road.
            “What do you think,” said Dr. Hichens.
            “We gotta find the right one, but we can’t dawdle,” said the father. "I hadn't thought about the road not being plowed."
            The old dirt road was covered with snow, but there were tracks made by some hunters' trucks and the criss-crossing marks of snowmobiles and Tim Calhoun followed those as best as he could as they went deeper into the woods.
            “You’re sure you know where they are?”
            “I know exactly.”
            What had happened was that when their father was hunting a little while back he came across an old abandoned tree farm, and he said there were still plenty of Christmas trees that were just waiting to be cut down. He had come across them by accident. So he told the little secret to his family one night after dinner and said that one night they would head out and get one of those trees for themselves. This was that night and now they were headed out to cut down a tree for their house in the middle of the night.
            The men were quiet again for a while, and Dr. Hichens drank from the bottle and suddenly burst out laughing. He clapped and rubbed his hands together and their old man laughed too, but it was a quiet, slightly mysterious laugh.
            Danny held tight onto the bow saws. The boys were warm underneath their blankets. The world to them had never seemed either so black or so huge.
            Since none of them could tell where the treeline ended and the sky began the world seemed to go on and on forever.
            “Look for the white post,” said the old man as he suddenly slowed down the truck.
            “On my side?” said Dr. Hichens.
            “It should be coming right up.”
            The old man put on his brakes.
            "What?" said Dr. Hichens.
            "Wait a second," said the old man.
            The boys turned around and looked through the windshield. There was a faint reflection, something red glimmered in the distance, and even in the inky dark they could see some movement. A light seemed to have suddenly gone out. The only noise was the gentle rumbling of the truck engine.
            They all sat there not moving for a few minutes, when suddenly, about a hundred yards down the road, just at the point where the headlights of the truck faded out, they heard a voice.
            “Who is that?” the voice said.
            Their father rolled down his window and stuck out his head. “Who is that?”
            “Who is that, goddamnit,” the voice said. It sounded a little closer. The boys were kneeling and grabbing the lip of the truck’s bay and were holding their breath. They were shivering but it wasn’t because they were cold. Their blankets had dropped off and they wondered what was going to happen.
            It was both fascinating and frightening to be in a place where they had no idea what was going to happen.
            Their father looked at Dr. Hichens, made a face, and then leaned out the window again.
            “Tim Calhoun,” he said.
            There was some dark laughter. “Timmy, Jesus. It’s David Graham.”
            About twenty yards down two men came walking out of the woods out into the road and in front of the truck. They shielded their eyes from the headlights. The other man who hadn’t said anything yet was holding an old handsaw.
            The boys looked at each other and could not even imagine what was happening.
            “Come on, boys,” their father said. He and Dr. Hichens turned on their flashights. The old man then turned off his headlights and got out of the truck.
            The boys hopped over the side and landed on the snow. The men walked over to each other and shook hands. They were laughing about something, and the boys relaxed because everyone seemed friendly. It was the strangest thing, like a small party had started out in the middle of nowhere in the dead of night. There were beams from flashlights moving in every direction.
            “These are my boys,” said Tim Calhoun, placing a gentle hand on Langley’s shoulder. He named them, and then introduced the men as Mr. Graham and Mr. Taylor. The men leaned in and shook the boys' hands. They knew Mr. Graham because he owned the car dealership where their father bought his trucks.
            The men laughed and said over and over, "Can't believe it. Just can't believe it." And they asked each other how they had found out about the trees. And they laughed some more, and Tim Calhoun said, "You don't think anybody else'll be showing up?" and the men laughed again.
            “Let’s see what you got,” said Tim Calhoun.
            "Well," said Mr. Graham. "A little bit of a problem is what we got."
            They followed the road by flashlight and came upon a big green pickup and in the back were two full freshly cut Christmas trees. The truck was in the middle of an open field, and there was hard dirt sprayed up behind the rear tires.
            "You couldn't walk?" said Tim Calhoun, a little sarcastically. Mr. Graham was a big man. The old man looked under the truck. "You're in pretty good."
            "Tell me something I don't fuckin' know," said Mr. Graham and the boys laughed and laughed.
            "Start her up and we'll push." Mr. Calhoun looked at the boys and they silently understood. They stepped back away from the truck so they wouldn't get hurt. Mr. Taylor handed Danny his old handsaw.
            Mr. Bailey got behind the wheel of the truck but he didn't shut his door. His left leg was dangling outside the door. He turned over the engine and rocked the truck back and forth and looked back at the men who were going to push.
            "Ready, go!" said Dr. Hichens and the men pushed with the forward momentum of the truck and they groaned but the truck didn't move.
            "You're gonna be out here til spring, Frankie," said Dr. Hichens.
            "Don't say that. Jesus Christ. Don't say that." Mr. Graham put a cigarette in his mouth and lit it. "Try again." He rocked the truck by putting the gears into reverse and then into drive over and over and the men pushed but, if anything, the truck seemed to sink deeper into the softening dirt.
            "Okay, stop for a second," said their father. Tim Calhoun pointed his light under the truck and felt around in the newly made slush.
            "I think you got a big rock right in front of the tire."
            "Great," said Mr. Bailey hopping out of his seat. He looked, too, and felt around in the snow with his bare hand. "Who the fuck would put a fuckin' rock in the middle of a field," he said and the men laughed and the boys laughed, but they could also tell that Mr. Graham was mad.
            "Boys," their father said, but not unkindly, as a gentle rebuke.
            Mr. Bailey flicked his cigarette into the snow and took a bottle out of the pocket of his plaid jacket and drank. He sighed a deep heavy sigh.
            "Can you come back in the morning?"
            "Sure," all the men said, and then Tim Calhoun said "We'll blow our cover." He looked around at the others with a serious face, and spoke in a low voice. "They'll know it was us that took them trees." They laughed.
            They each took out their bottles and passed them around and the men lit up cigarettes. One of the men looked at Tim Calhoun and gestured with his bottle toward the boys.
            The old man nodded and Mr. Taylor handed Brian the small glass bottle, which smelled sweet. Brian took the bottle and looked at his father.
            “Just a little,” the old man said.
            Brian put the bottle to his lips and took a sip and he was surprised at how much the sweet liquid burned his tongue and throat. He swallowed and blinked his eyes and steadied himself and the men laughed.
            “Danny,” the old man said. Danny handed the saw back to Mr. Taylor and took the bottle and took a swig and swayed a little bit and the men laughed again. Danny handed the bottle over to Langley who took the tiniest of sips and beamed at his brother Danny when he managed to swallow without puking. Langley handed the bottle back to his father.
            "Okay," the old man said. "Let's go get our tree."
            The night was dark and blue and they still could not see where the land ended and the air began. It was pitch black. It was almost impossible to see your hand in front of your face.
            “You got the saws, Danny?” the old man said.
            “Right here,” said Danny, who looked at Brian and smiled a wide, happy smile. The whiskey had settled into their stomachs and had burned off its edge to make them feel warm and slightly dizzy.
            The old man didn’t say anything and he and Dr. Hichens started ahead and they went into the field on the other side of the stone wall. The two other men stayed at the truck, arguing over who was at fault for getting the truck stuck in the field.
            They followed the tracks made by Mr. Graham and Mr. Taylor. The snow was dry and powdery, and the light of their flashlights seemed to carry far off into the distance, farther off into the distance than they had ever seen a flashlight carry before. The tracks went all the way to the other side of the meadow and into the trees just on the other side.
            They walked through the field, and the night was remarkably quiet. No wolves, no birds, no cats, crickets or anything else. It seemed as though everything was asleep except the men in the Calhoun family and Dr. Hichens and Mr. Graham and Mr. Taylor.
            They went through the trees and walked about twenty yards and then they came into a clearing. In the middle of the field was a stand of Christmas trees of different sizes and shapes. They had clearly been forgotten. There were saplings shooting up all over the field.
            “May I have one of those saws, Danny?” said Dr. Hichens, and Danny handed him one of the metal bow saws. Dr. Hichens went off to one end of the field with his flashlight and saw and the Calhoun boys went with their father to the other end.
            They walked between the trees. Their father pointed his light at each tree as they passed. “Not so easy to tell in the dark,” he said. The steam from their breath floated up through the beams of light making it even harder to see.
            The boys looked at the trees. They went down one row and then went up another.
            “This one looks pretty good,” said the old man, and he stepped back as best he could to shine a light on it. The boys stepped back with him and looked at the tree. It had a nice shape, and seemed pretty full.
            Suddenly the old man said, “Are you allright, doc?”
            “Fine, fine,” a voice said from the other end of the dark field.
            “Find anything?”
            “Not yet. You?”
            “I think we have one.”
            The old man shook the tree to get the snow off the branches and then handed Langley the flashlight. He took the bow saw from Danny. He knelt down in the crunching snow and leaned over and tapped the base of the trunk of the tree. “Shine the light right here, buddy,” said the old man, and Langley turned the light where his father’s fingers were. “Don’t move the light. I don’t want to cut myself.”
            Langley nodded.
            “Danny, Brian, get on the other side and grab the branches and pull the tree toward you.”
            Danny and Brian walked in the darkness and grabbed the branches of the tree and pulled. This gave their father a little more room to saw. Just as their father was about to put the saw to the wood he stopped because he heard Dr. Hichens sawing away.
            Then he cut down their own tree and then a smaller tree for the boughs that Mrs. Calhoun would place on the mantle over their fireplace.
They pulled their trees across the white field and dragged them over the stonewall and put them into the back of their truck. Mr. Graham's and Mr. Taylor's trees were already in, and so the four big trees and the little tree were piled high. The two men climbed up and sat on the trees, and the boys followed.
            The old man handed Dr. Hichens the bottle and he started the truck.
            "You boys allright in the back?"
            "Yes, dad," they all said at the same time, including Mr. Graham and Mr. Taylor, and the three Calhoun boys laughed.
            Tim Calhoun did a three-point turn and went back up the old town dump road.
            It seemed darker when they left the woods and headed back into town. The arctic wind was cold and sharp, but they were sitting on the trees and their blankets were pulled up around them.
            "Well, well, well," was all that Mr. Graham said. Langley looked at the men, in their jeans and zippered plaid jackets, and at their thick-fingered old hands, and the steam billowing out of their mouths and, even to a young boy, they seemed happy.
            Little Langley Calhoun, just nine years old, felt the night winter wind on his face. He breathed in deep. The tires of his father’s truck hummed along, and the road was smooth. He had a smile on his face. He could feel the warmth and safety of his two brothers next to him. The three of them were all huddled together.
            The men looked at the boys and one of them, Mr. Taylor, started humming "We Three Kings." He was doing that for the boys. When Mr. Taylor started to sing louder, the boys joined in. "We three kings of Orient are!" they sang and laughed.
            The boys could see the stars now. The sky had opened up.
            Mr. Graham had fallen fast asleep and the boys wondered how anyone could sleep on a night like this.
            They were surrounded by the aromas of pine needles and sap, and the faint smell of the frozen dirt that clung to the bark of the trees, and the cigarette smoke and the liquor. They listened to the gentle tune of the carol Mr. Taylor was humming.
            "Boys?" their father said.   
            But they were quiet.
            "Boys?" Their father handed a Thermos of hot chocolate through the sliding glass window at the back of the cab and Brian took it but did not open it. He held it in both mittened hands.
            The boys smiled warmly at each other and Danny inched closer to Langley to keep his younger brother warm.
            They were headed home. Langley felt the warmth of his brother Danny. He suddenly realized that the person next to him was not just another person, but his brother. He knew, just then, that Danny and Brian were a part of him, they were his family, and it seemed almost a miracle to him that he had two people who loved him and would take care of him. The man in the truck was his father, his father, not just a man, but his dad, and Langley understood just then that there was no more important person in the world except his mother, who would greet them warmly when they got home. Langley looked at Danny and Brian and he saw for the first time how much he looked like them.
            He had felt so small before, but knowing that he had a father and mother and these two older brothers made him feel like the most important person in the world. He could feel his family around him, and it seemed, suddenly, like the strangest and most wonderful thing on earth.
            They were headed home, but even that place seemed to have transformed itself in his mind. Langley couldn't describe it, but it went from being a building with rooms filled with strange and familiar things that had no meaning into a place of infinite happiness and comfort and memory. The Christmas tree under them would soon be up in the living room, with lights glowing and tinsel and ornaments glistening, and Langley felt that he understood what it meant to be a part of things.
            As they drove into the night, he felt as though the breeze passing by him also signaled the passing of time, and so he looked around him again, and Langley said to himself, as they turned onto their street, that he was going to remember everything forever.

Lars Trodson's first novel, "Eagles Fly Alone," features Langley Calhoun. The acclaimed mystery can be found at  The sequel, "Tide Turning," will be published in March by Mainly Murder Press.