The heated seat is the first to go. Then the radio.
Christmas Eve, 2018. Almost midnight. The middle of nowhere.
He places a warm palm to the cool surface of the driver’s window, tenderly, like a mother feeling her child’s forehead for a fever. 28 degrees Fahrenheit according to the digital thermometer on the dimming dashboard—bearable, if not for a blustery winter wind bullying and shoving the weakening pickup with cruel, invisible hands. The glass reminds him of clear ice on a dark pond, a thin spot threatening to crack. He’s too far out and on the verge of panic. A frigid, life-threatening immersion is unavoidable.
The headlights flicker. The engine lurches. He pulls over and the ignition kills itself. Time of death: 0001. Merry Christmas.
The comforting warmth of the interior diminishes quickly. A shiver, barely discernable, travels up his spine and escapes out the top of his uncovered head. He’s reminded of a soul as it leaves the body, an iridescent orb, perhaps the child-most part of a human being mercifully unfettered from the bondage of diseased flesh, a playful bubble escaping the sorrows of the world, ascending and circling for just a moment before popping into non-existence. He remembers the hospice house and his mother struggling to breathe. His throat constricts, tightening with fresh grief. He focuses instead upon fairy tales, like Glinda, the good witch of the north, another bubble, coming down, so happy and huggable, breathing easy and living in a land where evil melts with a simple splash of water. Somewhere over the damn rainbow.
He turns the key. Nothing but a click, click, click. Dorothy clicked her ruby red slippers three times, just like that. He can’t resist and closes his eyes: there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home. He waits. Nothing happens. No wizard. No balloon. No yellow brick road—only asphalt that leads to somewhere, anywhere, everywhere, nowhere. He’s homeless. Home is where the heart is. His heart is restless as the dove of the great deluge, refusing to land like the raven that was nourished by death tangled in sin-cursed flotsam.
Mother said heaven was her home. He might believe in Oz before heaven. How could God let one of His supposed children, one of His righteous ones, suffer like that? She had no guile. She was as innocent as the scarecrow and just as skinny in the end. Maybe God was a fake wizard hiding behind the curtain, telling people to go away, please come back tomorrow. Tonight, he can’t shake the memory of her bulging, pleading eyes, “Help, me! Oh, please help me!” Her whispery wheezes sounded more like a dog’s chew toy. She died with no dignity. Her gray face gulped for air like a fish flopping on the deck of a boat. Her tiny hands clutched at the sky and grasped the sheets as she struggled to breathe. Prayer didn’t help. Morphine did. Administered by a nonchalant, bubblegum-popping nurse. An unknown minister came in and prayed over her—a string of rapid clichés—starting with “Lord, we thank you for this day.” The prayer lasted less than 30 non-thinking seconds and ended with a pat on her hand, “hang in there.” A church bulletin was left on the nightstand.
A new alternator won’t be possible until day after tomorrow. The highway’s empty. Not a car in sight.
No cellphone; he doesn’t carry one; tonight, he wishes he did. Maybe he’d rather freeze to death than to develop a pathetic cervical hump from constantly staring down at a little box, addicted for years, legions of hours devoted to nothingness. He’d much rather look at the world around him, or at another human being directly in the eye, or even search the confusing depths of his own soul. The compass of a healthy heart and mind should point in every direction: closer, farther, deeper, higher; a microscopic, telescopic, theotropic exploration refusing to be unknown and unfelt under the anesthesia of modern technology. Whatsoever things are true, honest, just, lovely, and of good report: think on these things—that’s what his mother always said, especially after losing a few grandchildren to Fortnite—another game for a slack-jawed generation with busy thumbs, the living dead.
GPS would be helpful right now, but where’s the adventure in that? A free spirit by nature (though some have accused him of being immature and irresponsible), he prefers going and not knowing—wandering with the blind faith of the biblical Abraham, looking for a city whose builder and maker is God—not on some aimless, pointless journey. Even James Taylor’s “hypothetical destination” is something to consider. Walking man.
He’d be walking tonight. That’s for certain.
He dons the hood of a thick American Eagle sweatshirt, tightens the strings under his chin. The crown of his head appears pointy in the rearview mirror and his eyes slanted; he’s reminded of the Japanese superhero Ultraman and laughs despite his miserable situation. He holsters a 9mm Glock under a heavy leather jacket. What else? A yellow BIC lighter. A pack of Marlboros. A full bottle of gin. Fur-lined gloves. A small, square blanket folded tight, compact as a bouillon cube. Carriable things necessary for lifesaving warmth and placed inside of a bookbag. His journal, yes, of course. If the writing doesn’t happen, he can use the paper and pencils for fuel. Finally, a Ziploc freezer bag filled with homemade beef jerky.
He sighs and opens the door. The wind jostles his bones with the incoming power of a chilly ocean wave. James Joyce pops into his mind, “ The sea, the snot-green sea, the scrotum-tightening sea.”
Locking the doors manually, he takes one final look, with a pang in his heart, as if the truck were a living thing. “I’ll be back,” he says to the inanimate object, a silent friend who’s carried him for years, a good listener. The headlights are two vacant eyes; the bumper is the straight line of a silent mouth. He remembers the beautiful woman he left behind; she wore the same expression.
Channeling his military days, he commands his pace to a faster cadence. This would be no easy stroll. 116 beats per minute with a 30-inch step. Twenty miles in five hours on a good day. Tonight, he’s walking uphill, against the wind. Pondering and acknowledging the bright side, it could be worse: at least it’s not raining. Also, he consumed a half-gallon of eggnog in one sitting two days ago and is in need of a good workout.
Mama, mama, can’t you see? I’m off to sail the seven seas. They put a sea bag in my hand, now I am a Navy man. One, two, three, four. Double time. March!
On he goes, a solitary figure illumined by moon glow. Mile after mile after mile. It’s cold and getting colder. His teeth are click-clacking like a Halloween gag. Total misery. Tearing eyes. Burning fingers and toes. Snot stringing from his nose. Wind cooling his body to ambient temperature: algor mortis, “the death chill.” Al Gore. What a coincidence. A cold stiff. Zombie boy. No climate change or global warming tonight.
No signs. No people. No Santa offering a ride in a heated sleigh. If such an event were even possible or true, he’d happily drop down any chimney right now, ass first into a crackling fire.
He stops to light a cigarette with great difficulty, the annoyingly playful wind extinguishing his mini-lighter until his thumb is sore. He leaves the pavement and hunkers low in a drainage ditch. Success. A wintry mix of ice and smoke.
He imagines a scalding bath, hot chocolate spilled on his lap, blistering desert sand, falling asleep on an orange oven range, himself as a rotisserie chicken turning under a warming lamp at Costco, cremation, spontaneous combustion, sizzling sex—two bodies intimately connected and cleaving to one another under a heavy quilt next to fully-stoked Benjamin Franklin stove. But the power of his mind cannot overcome the raw reality or trick-heat his quaking skeleton.
He pulls out the gin. Decides to play a game to prevent brain freeze. The rules are simple: he’ll review his life, take a shot for every bad decision he’s ever made, and the loser is the winner.
An hour and a half later, on an empty stomach, alcohol twists and slows his pace. Another bad decision. He takes another swig. At least the glacial atmosphere has become a bit more bearable. At least his chest and throat are hot.
The only vehicle of the night comes upon him suddenly from behind. High beam headlamps spotlight his body. A horn is pressed so long and loud, he might’ve been a prisoner trying to escape the razor-fenced yard and it scares every semi-coherent thought from of his frozen skull. He trips and falls. The bottle of booze breaks. The occupants of the speeding car laugh and curse at him. Red taillights disappear around an upward bend. Exhaust fumes assault his nostrils like smelling salts, arousing his dulled senses, bringing him back to a more vivid consciousness.
His hands and knees sting from the fall. He rolls over onto his back and sobs like a baby under a Christmas sky. The stars are extra-blue on deep black. Black and blue. He studies the craters of the moon. The old man is smiling like a psychopath. He thinks of his father with the gap in his teeth, cruel as the devil, standing over him, looking down, ready to strike.
Boiling anger might save him.
Get up, he tells himself. Giddy up. He stands, tries to walk. He can no longer feel his legs and wonders when and if and how his feet are touching the road. His clothes are no longer warming his skin. He might as well be naked as an Indian in a loincloth.
Giddy-Up, in the soul-stealing game of Fortnite, is an outfit with zero function. A purple llama with fake legs. Something to provoke laughter or confusion on the battlefield? He doesn’t know or care. He’s never played. Right now, the tips of his fingers feel like they’ve been pounded with a hammer. At least he’s alive enough to feel pain, alive enough to die.
He’s still crying. Hot salt water freezes on his face.
If he survives, he’ll purchase a cell phone as a late Christmas gift for himself or maybe as a New Year’s resolution to stay connected whenever faced with his own mortality.
The sharp curve ahead is on a 10-degree incline but looms as formidable as Mount Everest. “God . . . help me,” he whispers.
He stumbles forward. Presses on.
Some deer in the highway scatter before him. Come back, come back.
Around the corner, where the evil taillights disappeared eternal minutes earlier, is what he’d describe as a scenic overlook on a normal day but, tonight, more like the Promised Land. Heaven on earth. Heat.
The entrance to the Bethlehem Village reminds him of a runaway truck ramp, but going down instead of up, quickly transforming into a pleasant and winding road that passes through a housing development less than a year old. Most of the lots are empty and up for sale, others are under contract and construction. But the innermost cul-de-sac is occupied and brilliant with dazzling lights and secular Christmas displays, probably the first celebration of the new community. One, two, three, four Santas. No manger. The Christ child has gone missing.
A little after 3 a.m. Normally the darkest hour. But, not today, not in Bethlehem.
Hopefully, some old man with an enlarged prostrate was getting up to pee. No, no, no—this was a place for young families. And, no, again—he dare not ring any doorbell at this hour, especially drunk, though he was desperate enough to welcome an arrest in exchange for three hots and a cot.
If worse came to worse, he could light the fumes on his breath with the yellow BIC lighter. Transform himself into a human tiki torch.
He examines the quiet street to the tune of O Little Town of Bethlehem. Cars are parked in every driveway except for one which might be hiding a vehicle in the garage. The yards are bordered by custom fences, including the house with the empty drive. Dogs are barking—mostly indoors—but at least two or three dogs from a backyard. He cups an icicled ear and listens through the wind. Of course, of course, of course, the house with no car or colorful lights. The occupants are probably visiting relatives for the holiday.
If he can break into a tool shed, he’ll survive the night. He’ll take a chance with the dogs. He opens the bag of jerky.
The fence is too high, so he pulls a large trashcan from the side of the house and peeks over. Three rambunctious pups in a frenzy. Yelping, yapping, growling, flipping, snarling loud enough to wake all of Judea and the rest of Jerusalem. O little dogs of Bethlehem, please shut up or he’d be going to jail after all.
He drops the dehydrated meat over the fence. The animals are instantly silenced as if he’d just hit the mute button on a television remote. The backyard lights up like a football stadium; motion sensors have detected his presence. He’s committed now.
The spotlight enables him to see that the fence is not locked. He enters, no longer fearing a fanged attack. The puppies follow him with wagging tails.
There isn’t a shed. Only a dog house too small for his six-foot body. The yard backs to some tall pines and a rock precipice, no back border fence necessary. He examines the windows and doors of the house. No lights. No cameras. No playground or children’s toys. There’s only a cement slab with two lawn chairs, the long kind, for poolside tanners. And—and—a gas grill fastened securely under an oversized tarpaulin, a grill as shiny and new as the house.
Almost giddy, he stoops to open two stainless-steel doors. He turns the knob at the top of a fat canister of propane. He opens all four burners as high as they’ll go, hits the ignite button. Thump. Whoosh. Blue flames rise to orange, four sensual belly dancers gyrating, luring him closer.
He turns the burners off. Thinks for a moment. Rolls the grill across the lawn to the rock edifice. Drags the lawn chairs to the same spot, removes the cushions, connects and secures the frames with the heavy, giant piece of tarpaulin. The cliff, the chairs, and the grill combine to form a half-circle, a haven from the biting wind. The cushions provide padding for a bed on the frozen straw.
He reignites the grill, propping the door half open with a large stone, to intensify the heat. The small alcove creates a miraculous bubble of warmth on a bitter night, an orb of life rising from death. He’s starting to feel his face, hands, and feet again.
The three puppies are drawn to the glow of the fire, human companionship, and strips of salty beef. Soon, an older, bigger dog appears from a plastic igloo, weary and waddling to her babies.
“Well, hello there, mama.”
At 4 a.m., quilted by four furry friends, a living, breathing blanket on and under his own, he’s drunk enough to sleep but sober enough to realize that maybe God had answered his prayer after all.
Pulling out a pencil, he jots a quick and shaky line in his journal: “December 25, 2018. Away in a manger. In the village of Bethlehem. Somewhere in Tennessee… ”