Christmas tales



Thunderbird Blues

A holiday murder kicks off the novelist's work in progress


The moon is swollen and hazy, just dropping down over the western peaks, when I cross the Clark Fork and head for the mouth of Hellgate Canyon. A few stray clouds, their bellies reflecting the orange lights of the city, skid across the valley. Over here, on the edge of town, the wind is stronger, and my old Ford shudders and swerves, I pass the Eastgate Lounge, dark and void of customers, gathering its strength for the holiday drunks.

Across the street, the twenty-four hour grocery store open, its fluorescent lights spilling out into the parking lot, illuminating a pile of bedraggled Christmas trees. A derelict, formless in his layers of clothes, paces in front of the automatic doors.

At the far end of the lot, its cinderblock back to the wind, its name blazing in twenty feet of red neon, sits the Thunderbird Motel. A giant train of toys is strung in lights and plastic garland over the windows of the office. Teddy bears and happy soldiers wave from their boxcars. I pull into a spot at the side of the building closest to the river, near the garbage dumpsters, and cut the engine.

The .22 is on the seat beside me. Leaning forward, I hoist my coat up and shove the cold barrel into the back of my jeans. Out the window of the Ford, I can see the Clark Fork, white ice crossed with black veins of water. In another hour or so the sun will come up over the bare face of Mount Sentinel and it will be Christmas Eve.

Squinting against the motel's lurid purple breezeway lighting, I count down the first floor rooms, stopping at 103. I'm just about to step out into the cold when I see a flicker of movement in the brush that separates the motel from the river. It's a woman. She comes slinking out of the brittle knapweed, her hand fumbling along the back of her jeans as if she's tucking her shirt in. She's close to my age, late twenties, with a pocked face and stringy brown hair.

With the windchill taken into account, its got to be pushing twenty below, but the cold doesn't seem to bother her. She's wearing a worn leather biker's jacket and black jeans. She looks like a working girl, but I can't imagine what kind of business she could have drummed up back there, in the snow and wind. Maybe she just needed to take a piss.

Stopping next to the dumpster, she reaches into her inside pocket, pulls a cigarette out and lights it, cupping her bare hands around the flame. She hasn't seen me, and she lingers for a moment, collecting herself, scanning the parking lot.

I hunker down in the cab of my truck and peer out through the window. She's tall and bulky, not fat, but muscular, with thick shoulders and big hands. Her grim mouth is set in a tight red line and her body is coiled and tight. There's something dangerously familiar about her. Watching her smoke I am reminded of the more unpleasant aspects of my life before: bags of stale Cheetos; day-old coffee; eggrolls under the red light of a gas station heat lamp; greasy fingers stained with salt; the acrid, sweaty smell of clothes worn one too many times.

She finishes her cigarette and sends the butt glittering and sparking out into the wind. Then she strolls slowly across the parking lot and climbs into a late '70s model Malibu with California plates. Swinging out of the lot, she heads west on Broadway, her red tail lights dissolving to pale discs in the darkness.

I climb out of the Ford and head down the breezeway to room 103. I've got a bad feeling about this whole thing with Amos, and I hesitate a moment, ease the .22 from my jeans, and knock once. There's no answer from inside, so I try the door.

"Amos," I call, putting my lips right up next to the wood, "it's Allie." The knob gives in my hand and the door swings open. "Amos," I try again.

I've got the gun down close to my thigh and I swing around the door jamb. There's no sign of Amos, but I recognize the bubbling sound I heard on the phone. It's coming from a large hot tub in the far corner of the room. I've heard the Thunderbird has a honeymoon suite and evidently 103 is it. Most all the furnishings are shades of red or pink, decorated with plump hearts. A heart shaped satin headboard, quilted with black studs, is clamped to the wall above the mammoth king-sized bed covered in mirrors.

I kick the door closed behind me, reach back, and flip the lock. Technically speaking, 103 isn't actually a suite. From what I can see it's just the one room with a bathroom jutting off it in the back. Soggy footprints cross the rod shag from the hot tub to the bathroom and I follow them. Stepping over a pile of clothes, I recognize Amos' torn jeans, his Sex Pistols T-shirt. Though muted, the television is on, tuned to some early morning pornography. It's tasteful holiday programming: Mrs. Claus bent over a stack of presents, getting banged from behind by an elf.

The room is freezing, and when I step into the bathroom I see why. The window over the toilet is open as far as it will go. Putting my hands on the sill, I peer out into the wind. In the rectangle of light from the bathroom I make out a trail of confused footprints, indentations in the snow where it looks like someone fell or was dragged. And there, at the edge of the encroaching knapweed, two sharp points of hair, one red, one green, the festive colors of Amos's mowhawk.

Turning from the window, I sprint through the heart filled room, out the front door, and down the breezeway. I stop at the truck and rummage for a flashlight, then slog through the snow to the back of the Thunderbird.

Let me say this: I'm not unfamiliar with the various aspects of death and human destruction. I myself have had occasion to inflict bodily harm on others. My father died badly, and the violent end of his life is a perpetual part of my consciousness. But what I see in the bright beam of my flashlight is something for which I am completely unprepared.

All six feet of Amos Ortenson lies chest up naked in the snow. Except for the glossy trickle of blood at the corner of his mouth, his face is undisturbed. It is his body that has been pillaged. Someone has taken a knife to his chest and belly and split the skin as a hunter might split the tough hide of a deer. It's just one neat cut, long and deep, running from the bowl of his pelvis to the base of his rib cage. At the bottom of the gash, his genitals are still intact, and he's got a hard-on as big around as my wrist.

He hasn't been dead for long. His blood in the snow is half frozen, the consistency of thick chocolate syrup. Even in the sub-zero cold I can smell him, the rich mineral odor of the interior of his body. Retching, kicking snow over my tracks, I put my hand to my mouth and back away.

In anticipation of Christmas Eve shoppers, they've turned the outdoor speakers on at the all night grocery store. Nat King Cole's voice roves, tinny and hollow, across the empty parking lot. I step up into the Ford, crank the heater, and try to envision roasting chestnuts, Yuletide fires, anything besides Amos's pale carcass, his body's last sexual thrust. Merry Christmas, Cole warbles. I shift into drive and pull away from the Thunderbird.

Twenty-seven-year-old Jenny Siler's debut novel, Easy Money, was reviewed by the Independent in October.

A Grand Occasion

For the author's grandmother, Christmas really was a celebration


It was a song book, as I remember, with the kind of detailed illustrations a moony child will jump inside. Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmoth-er's house we go... I gazed at those pictures, and then I was in a sleigh, shimmering toward a curl of chimney smoke in the far distance, beyond the river and the woods. Grandmother stood in the cottage doorway, plump and rosy, welcoming us with outspread arms. Her hair was in a white bun and her apron billowed to her ankles. Tiny spectacles rested on her nose. She looked generic and benign, like Mrs. Claus. That was Grandmother.

My own grandmother, Gaga Jean, was tiny and dark and wore nail polish the color of blood. When she came to our house for Christmas, she arrived in a well-cut suit, fur stole and gloves. Her hair was short and thinning, and was arranged in a modification of the flapper bob she'd worn in the '20s. Her black suede heels were size 31/2. I see her perched on a straight-backed chair in our living room, laughing. She sips a Scotch and soda and extracts a cigarette from a red leather case with a top that springs open at a touch. She snaps open a tortoise-shell compact and briskly scrutinizes her face in the mirror. Then she removes a tube of intensely red lipstick from her purse, forms her lips in a perfect circle and applies it with tiny jabs.

She says things like "oh kid" an 'ye gods!" She calls my grandfather Johnny. She plays bridge like a demon.

Somewhere, there is a photograph of her with her toddler daughter, my mother, sometime around 1930. She has one hand on her hip and one doll-like foot pointed outward in a stylish swagger. There is another photo of her sometime in the last decade of her life. In that one, she wears the cruel thick glasses she needed after her cataracts operations, and her waist is beginning to swell from the liver disease that would eventually kill her. But the photo is taken at Christmas, and she is dressed to the teeth, as she would put it. She stands in the same arranged, gently defiant pose-hand on hip, toe pointed outward, chin tipped up.

Christmas was, for Gaga Jean, a grand occasion. She invested herself totally in that holiday, for reasons I've never fully understood. They weren't religious reasons. Her parents were Presbyterian Scots with hell-sniffing tendencies, and she reacted by blithely ignoring churches all of her adult life. And it wasn't that she was, by nature, celebratory. During all the ordinary days of the year, there was something in her of her parents' Scottish reserve. She did not share intimacies. She was frugal. She and my grandfather had raised two children during the Depression on the income from his job as a traveling salesman of cash registers. She retained a fatalistic, practical view of the world.

But at Christmas, she was animated, frivolous, expansive. She gave me silk Chinese pajamas one year, an enormous angora muffler another. The year I got the muffler, I got to go to midnight Mass with my parents while all the grandparents stayed home to babysit the youngest kids. The ceremony and incense, the late hour, the rabbit fur around my neck- I almost passed out from happiness and heat. But when we left the church to go home, I was suddenly washed with the desolation of a finished celebration. We would have more food, more company on Christmas Day. But the presents had been opened and it was essentially over. We would come home to a dim house, yawns, everyone done in.

It was almost two in the morning. The house wasn't dark. All my grandparents were sitting at a card table playing bridge. They had made themselves cold turkey sandwiches and drinks. Gaga Jean was dealing. Her rings flashed in the soft light; her red fingernails flicked through the air. She was laughing. It was a trilling, rapid laugh, a high flutter, like you imagined a heart would beat in someone so small. I went to sleep, hearing it. Forty years later, I hear it again.

Saint Nick

A detective finds faith in the cop shop


Here it is again. Coming up the fourth week of the twelfth month. I work at the Missoula Police Department. Business usually picks up this time of year. People steal things they can't afford to buy. They drink too much and get confused about love. Surveying the debris, you try not to get so sentimental you're a fool. Or cynical beyond the limits of good form.

Christmas around the detective shop isn't quite the same since they transferred Nick off the cleaning crew. The city contracts with Opportunity Resources for janitorial services, and Nick was present at the beginning. You may have seen Nick around town. He rides a big three-wheeler with a basket on the back and his face is gaunt and somber and in the winter he wears a big hat with floppy ear flaps. Nick is challenged, as the current jargon goes. He has at his command, though, all there is to know about the Starship Enterprise.

Nick can sing, too, and play the autoharp. He used to put on a little Christmas concert for the detectives. I think the first one was in 1989, when our offices were still in the basement of City Hall, where the plumbing above the ceiling gurgled menacingly every time someone flushed the upstairs john. You could still smoke in City Hall in those days, too, and there was no fresh air ventilation in the Detective Division. Take all the politically incorrect cop jokes and the confessions and the lies that went on down there, and factor them in with the unfiltered carcinogens and gurgling toilets and you've got a place that was... well, it wasn't exactly the Starship Enterprise.

I was late for Nick's last concert. The building had been remodeled by then, and the detectives had moved upstairs to our current turf in proximity to the rest of the world. The chatter of typewriters had been replaced by the hiss and beep of computers. You can't hear the toilets now, and lighting a cigarette in City Hall is practically a felony. The rest, though, hasn't changed much.

A couple of nights before Nick's last Christmas gig, I was called in to work a case involving a man who had played Russian roulette and lost. The ambulance crew had to pry his girlfriend's hands off his head because she knew that if she moved her hands the least bit all blood would rush out of him and he would die. Her hands had nothing to do with the medical facts of life, but who says the urge to help has to be rational? Sometimes things are so bad that the urge itself is just as important as doomed relief. The man died. His organs were harvested, and the people at the hospital were kind enough not to ask why I wanted to be there. I'm not sure I could have explained.

When I got back to the office from the hospital that cold afternoon, the other detectives were gone. Knocked off early for the holiday. Nick was packing up his autoharp.

I'd heard Nick sing before. I knew the sound of his voice, which wandered the territory between bass and tenor. The brassy twang of his autoharp is not something you would mistake for big time Christmas folderol.

I hope people tucked away around the country are still celebrating that Christmas. I hope, too, that the lost man's girlfriend has managed to discover a measure of faith in his gift to those strangers.

It's easy to stare so hard at an obvious miracle that a second one happens in the basement of your heart and you almost miss it. I shuffled around and stared at Nick. Nick stood straight and scowled at me. Nick is a serious man. He didn't offer anything and I wasn't quite ready to ask. Foolishness or bad form, you know. What's a long-haul detective to do?

Nick picked up his autoharp and began to sing. He sang Oh, Holy Night! He sang it over and over. Sang it so good you could believe it.

Robert Sims Reid is a Missoula detective and author. His latest novel, Wild Animals, was published in 1995. This piece is a work of nonfiction.

City of Trees

An excerpt from Fred Haefele's forthcoming novel City of Trees

By Fred Haefele

The storm bored in from the Northeast; across the Great Plains, off the Divide, down from the Three Medicine Wilderness as I crept along the Big Flat road in second gear, climbing steadily along the river bluffs. It was New Year's, mid afternoon but it was already hard to see and the crunch of gravel underneath my tires was reassuring.

Lonnie Manxman met me by the mouth of his drive with a flashlight and we walked a couple hundred feet behind a hexagonal log home, decks on every side, lights blazing from the windows so that it shone through the murk like some rustic space ship. We walked back to an older cottonwood, thick-trunked, brushy, and bowed away from the hillside from the years of wind.

Lonnie was a Brit, small and crisp and urgent in his fur-trimmed parka and arctic Mickey Mouse boots. There are a lot of newcomers around town these days. Brits. Russians. Hmong and Tibetans. There's a whole wave of people moving in, some from as far away as California. A lot of the locals are bothered by it, though personally, I don't mind very much. Like the maples lining the city streets, I'm a transplant myself-an introduced species, if you like-and I figure so is most everyone when you get right down to it.

We stopped at the base of the tree and Lonnie pointed to a dark patch not quite halfway up it. "There he is!" he said, in a great booming voice that was more than a match for the storm. "That bit of fur? He was only twenty feet up at noon but I tried to fetch him off the ladder and the little bastard ran right out of my hands!"

I nodded, kicked at the snow drifted beneath the cottonwood. "They try and come down headfirst," I said. "They get an eyeful and they go mental."

"Well, what do you think?" said Lonnie.

"If we don't get him down while its light he won't last another night up there," I told him. I tried to make the requisite customer eye-contact but it was hard in that gloom. When I peered into the hood of his parka, all I could see was the flash of his teeth, an animal-like nose. "Now I can get him down," I continued. "But you might not like the way I do it."

Lonnie chuckled again. "Well, I don't seem to have much of a choice now, do I, mate?"

"No," I told him. "You really don't."

I zipped into a beat-up expedition parka I bought at a yard sale, buckled on my climbing irons and safety saddle, slipped a pair of one-fingered shooter's mittens over my thermal gloves. "What's his name," I said.

Lonnie grinned. "His name's 'Cornell.'"

I came up through the thicket of suckers, into the murk of the storm. As I drew closer, I could hear the cat yowl above the wind.

"Here, Cornell," I said in the rescue falsetto I'd adapted some years ago. "Hang in there, boy. I'm coming, Cornell. I'm coming."

"Yowww!" said the cat.

In ten minutes, I'd cut my way up through the brush to the cat's roost. I had just got my lanyard around the trunk and clipped myself in when the cat lunged, ran right up my arm, leaped off my shoulder to the main trunk and scrambled another ten feet towards the top.

We climbed on into the storm. Each time I reached his perch, the animal panicked, climbed higher into the tree.

The bark had grown slick, the shooter's mittens made me mistrust my grip. The wind teared my eyes, my nose ran like a faucet. My hands were losing sensation and I had to keep stopping to shake them out, and by the time I reached the top, the conditions were very near a white-out. I tried to look down but the wind had changed direction, now seemed to gust upwards, into my face. I spat, watched it rise for a second before it was carried away horizontally.

By four o'clock, Cornell hunkered a few feet above me in the top wood. He was one of the most pitiful sights I've ever seen. He bunched himself up, clung to his little branch.

"Yowww!" said the cat. "Yowww!" "Wowww," I said, sadly. "Isn't that the truth?" I squirmed out within arm's reach, fumbled with my safety line, released some slack, drew closer.

The little tiger peed in terror and the wind gusted, pinned me flat against the bark. The snow was blinding.

"Oh God, Cornell," I said, dropped my little rescue voice. "It's just a good thing we can't see down." I steadied myself, caught my breath, unzipped the knapsack that was clipped into my harness, then jammed my hands up under my armpits until the sensation came back.

"Yowww!" said the cat. "Cornell," I barked. "Get a grip on yourself!" "Yowww!"

I was scaring him even worse, if that was possible and I lay on my stomach and called to him gently, "Come on, Cornell. Come on, boy!"

But he wouldn't come to me, and that was that. And talking in that crazy voice made me feel I'd entered a kind of cartoon world.

I pulled out more slack. I was lying full length along the branch, my belly on the safety knot. "Come on, boy!" I called. "Come on boy! Come on! Argh! Jesus! Fuck!"

It was hard to move in all those layers and my parka kept snagging on the suckers, and I had one of those quick telling visions on myself: I was a man approaching his middle years, sixty feet up a Montana cottonwood in a blizzard. It was New Year's Day. I was talking to a cat. I thought: How do these things happen?

But I knew the answer to that. This is the way they happened: First, the pet owner calls the fire department. The fire department tells them that they haven't done cat rescue since the days of Norman Rockwell and that the pet owner should call a tree service. The pet owner calls a big outfit with an aerial bucket. The big outfit tells them they can't get their equipment back to a tree like this one. The pet owner finally calls me. I'm a tree climber. A throwback. I don't have a bucket. And this time of year, generally speaking, I don't have anything much better to do.

Fred Haefele, a Missoula author and tree doctor, most recently published Rebuilding the Indian.


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