"You got any memories of Christmas from the times when I wasn't there?", Darwin asked me, taking a sip of beer. It was a few days before Christmas, and we were sitting in a bar in town together enjoying a couple drinks before the long drive home.
I swirled my beer around in the bottle and glanced up at the tiny Christmas tree over the bar, my gaze far away.
"Yeah I do. After the second time ya ran away, actually. You remember how we never did get no Christmas tree er nothin'? No presents, neither. Well, Jeevesie was still a little fella, maybe six. I was nine. It was the first year I decided ta take matters inta my own hands. I did everythin' I could fer money, mostly doin' yard work an' cleanin' stables. Shit like that. There was this fire truck I wanted ta buy fer Jeeves. You know how he loved fire trucks. Jeeves only knew about Christmas at all 'cause they showed them pageants on the old black an' white television in the livin' room. You remember it? Anyhow, he asked Fritz round about September o' that year how come Santa never came ta our trailer. Fritz told him Santa didn't cater ta no white trash folk like us. Then he left, out ta the bar or someplace. I had a cryin' little brother on my hands fer the rest o' the night. Broke his heart, see, cause he wanted more 'n anythin' fer some little bit o' magic in life. Things was so bleak. We was hungry most o' the time, even though I made goddamn sure Jeevesie got fed even if it meant goin' ta bed with nothin' in my stomach. Fuck it. Badger's er tough, even baby badgers."
I took another drink and held up the empty bottle, waving it slightly at Mike the bartender. He came over and replaced it immediately. I pried off the cap and continued.
"So I worked. Nine years old, out there muckin' horse shit on a pitchfork, helpin' ta haul in the harvest, rakin' leaves, runnin' a mower. Gettin' five bucks here, three bucks there, seven over there. One time this real sweet lady gave me a twenty dollar bill fer cleanin' out her basement. She gave me that twenty dollars an' also her late husband's Swiss Army knife. I ain't never seen nothin' so goddamn cool as that Swiss Army knife in my whole entire life. It had literally everythin' on it. Nail file, scissors, tweezers, two kindsa screwdrivers, tooth pick, seven types o' blade. Shit, it was somethin' else! I tucked it in my pocket an' ran home like the wind. I knew what ta do with it. Right then, moment it was in my hands, I knew.
"Anyhow, by the time Christmas rolled around I had a hundred an' fifty three dollars saved. Went right out two weeks before Christmas an' bought a shitload o' canned food, mostly Spam an' baked beans, ta hide under my bed so I could feed Jeeves when he got the tummy rumbles in the night. Then I went to the Dollar Mart an' bought a big ol' string a lights, some shiny ornaments, some tinsel. An' I bought a toy fire truck an' a helmet an' some thick socks an' a pair o' boys' extra large pajamas. Lotta candy, all the candy we wanted but Fritz never gave us. I also picked up a ham from Old Man Teigler's pig farm an' got some taters an' carrots from the grocer. Took it all home, hid the gifts an' lights in the garage. Buried the ham under some slabs o' deer haunch in the big outdoor freezer. I could barely sleep fer two weeks."
I turned to look at Darwin, still remembering that moment. I can almost feel it again just as clearly, what I felt then. A young boy forced too soon into a man's world, about to perform my first great act of kindness and charity for the person I loved most in the world.
"Christmas Eve came, Jeeves fell asleep on the floor under our window, waitin' on Santa with desperate hope in his swollen red eyes. Moment he passed out, I got up an' covered him with my blanket, then crept on outta our bedroom an' down the hall. Fritz had this old saw, he kept it in the shed up on a hook. I got the key from his jacket an' went on out there ta fetch it, tryin' like hell ta be as quiet as a church mouse. Fritz was sleepin', ya see, an' you remember how he hated gettin' woke up fer any reason. I'd felt the bite o' that belt just a day earlier an' I still had a limp...wasn't too keen on gettin' a second helpin'. I had work ta do." I chuckled and took another long drink, looking up at the Christmas tree. "Well I got the shed open an' I got the saw down alright. No trouble there. An' I took it an' headed out ta the woods.
"Took me an hour ta find the right tree, a 6-footer with real nice boughs. Another half hour ta saw the motherfucker down, but I'd taken trees down before as part o' my odd jobs an' I knew what ta do. I finally got that sumbitch down an' I drug it on home in the moonlight through the snow. That was some walk, Darwin, lemme tell you. I was all sore an' tuckered out when I got ta the bottom o' those steps. But I was glad I done it. So I set the saw back in the shed an' lock it, then I came on back ta the front steps an' started ta haul the tree up. I took one step when I heard a voice, the last voice I wanted ta hear. "What in tarnation do you think you're doin', boy?"
It was Fritz. He was standin' in his red union suit in the open door, watchin' me struggle up the steps with a goddamn fir tree."
I rubbed the back of my neck, shaking my head.
"What the fuck was I gonna say? I looked him dead in the eye an' told him the truth. "I'm bringin' Christmas ta Jeeves, sir." Well that old fucker eyed me fer what seemed an eternity, an' I looked right back at him. Then he nodded one time. "Well, Lester," he says ta me, he says, "You better let me help ya haul that thing inside before we both catch our death out here.""
Over thirty years later, I was still mystified by the moment. My voice lowered as I looked at Darwin again, gesturing toward the tiny tree over the bar.
"A miracle, ya know? So he came down them steps an' helped me get that big ol' tree inside, both of us tryin' ta be quiet so as not ta wake Jeeves. He put the tree in an old bucket an' I filled it up with rocks from the yard an' a couple bricks. Then I snuck on out to the garage an' brought in everythin' I'd bought. Fritz didn't say nothin' an' he didn't ask how I come by the money fer it all. He knew. Together we put the lights an' the ornaments an' the tinsel on. We wrapped up the truck an' the helmet an' the socks an' pajamas in newspaper an' tied the packages with boot laces, then put 'em under the tree. Then we plugged it in an' just stood back.
"I tell ya Darwin,that was the most beautiful tree I ever did see in my whole life. Me an' Fritz just stood there, starin' an' bein' quiet, lookin' at what we done. Then he patted me on the shoulder once an' went on back ta bed. I won't bore ya with how I crept back out to the freezer an' got the ham. How I thawed it in the sink under warm water while I preheated the oven an' cut up the vegetables. I won't get inta the details o' the spices I improvised from the kitchen, or how I pounded stale biscuits out on the back steps in a plastic bag ta make bread crumbs fer the stuffin' I wanted ta create. Suffice it ta say that I spent the better part o' the wee hours cookin' up a storm. I slow-cooked that ham, bastin' it in its own juices. I cut up the carrots an' taters an' put 'em in there too with some bay leaves an' salt an' pepper. I made stuffin' an' gravy with the juices too. I made pie crust, an' pared down apples an' added a ton o' cinnamon ta make a pie. It was the smell o' the food as woke up the house. Next thing I knew, the light was creepin' across the frosted windows an' I could hear runnin' feet in the hall.
"I looked over, an' Jeeves was standin' in the door o' the kitchen in his too-small sweatpants an' threadbare t-shirt just grinnin' at me. He was so happy, his whole face was glowin'. I hugged him an' said "Merry Christmas, Jeeves." He chuckled an' hugged on me, happy as a puppy that he was gonna get fed, an' he ran off towards the livin' room ta watch television while I finished up cookin'. Shit, you know I had ta follow him. He stopped dead in the entrance to the room, starin' at the Christmas tree with eyes like saucers. Just starin' an' starin'. The look on his face was somethin' I will never ferget as long as I live. He took a few timid, shy steps forward an' just kept lookin' as though he couldn't believe his eyes. I heard Fritz come up behind us, just standin' in the hallway watchin' Jeeves. He put his hand on my shoulder again, an' I looked up at him. We were both grinnin'. Jeeves suddenly burst out shoutin', "SANTA FOUND US! SANTA CAME! LESTER, LOOK! DADDY, COME SEE! SANTA WAS HERE!"
"Instead o' gettin' pissed at Jeeves fer yellin' in the house, Fritz busted out laughin' an' came inta the room an' hugged him. Then he winked at me. "He sure did, Jeeves. Looks like Santa found ya after all.""
I fell silent for a few minutes then, staring at the lights, remembering.
"So we had a Christmas for the first time ever. I cooked up the best ham in the world an' there was so much we couldn't eat it all in one day even with Jeeves's appetite. An' after we ate, Jeeves got ta open his presents. We sat in the livin' room an' laughed as he ran around makin' siren noises in his new hat, we clapped an' cheered an' whistled when he pulled on his new pajamas an' socks an' strutted across the floor like a fashion model. We made pretend fires out o' crumpled paper so Jeeves could race to the rescue with his new truck. When Jeeves finally fell asleep from too much excitement and a full belly with his arms around his fire truck, still wearin' that helmet, Fritz an' me just kinda sat back an' relaxed. It started ta snow outside. I went over ta his chair an' pulled out a small package wrapped in tin foil, an' I put it in his hand. "What's this now, boy?" he wanted ta know. I didn't say nothin', an' he unfolded the foil. It was the Swiss Army knife. He just looked up at me, an' I looked back down at him. Then I said, real soft, "Merry Christmas, Daddy." An' he nodded his head. An' then he said, all soft an' gruff-like, "Merry Christmas, Lester."