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by Carl Watson
Here's a Christmas story for you. It was 1974, New Orleans. I don't remember the name of the hotel exactly, but I woke up about 3 am to find my girlfriend screwing the guy in the bed next to mine. It was that rocking Joy-to-the-World noise the bedsprings made that tipped me off. She said she was really drunk and that she thought it was me. I guess I couldn't blame her for being confused. It was a double room but there were three to six people there at any one time. Anyway that's when I decided to head home for the holidays. I looked at the calendar. It was December 22 already, so there wasn't much time.

After they had their cigarettes and fell asleep I packed up my gear and split. Since it was early and still dark, I figured I'd kill time and pick up some spare change to boot at the plasma center. Eight bucks a pint was the rate for a plasma whore to get his vein popped by that thin steel cock; that's how Tebo put it. Cheap, but you could eat on it and pay for a bunk at the Dixie if you were desperate. Most of the people there were. The nurses were only one or two insults away from being desperate themselves.

I arrived predictably early. Kyle was already there too. Kyle was a pool hustler I knew from Shakey Jakes and he dressed alright in pressed double-knits and new wing-tip shoes. If he'd had a bad night he'd still be the nattiest boy standing on the plasma line the next morning.

Us plasma whores got our kicks counting the bandages on our arms, over and over again in the hot sun while we passed around pint bottles of sweet wine. "Jes puttin' a little sugar back in the old dick," Erwin said, scratching his balls and taking a long pull off the Richards bottle.

Funny things would happen at the plasma center all the time, especially close to the holidays. That morning some guy had been walking up and down between the cots trying to sell some cans of sterno he had in a pillow case. And he walked like Tiny Tim, on crutches, with this high squeaky voice. "Get high," he said, "you get higher than shit when you're down on juice. Now's the time. Merry Christmas everyone!" I imagined old Walter Cronkite himself wishing Merry Christmas to the world, from the picture tube in my stomach that would suddenly appear if I lit a match near my mouth after drinking that shit.

So I collected my dough, drank my free orange drink and had my thumb hung out by midday. The skyline of New Orleans slid away as I waved goodbye to all my friends. The first driver dropped me at the railroad yards off the side of 55 north--told me the freights were easy and I could be home the next night, no problem.

I ran into a couple of kids down in those yards. One wore a sheepskin coat and was kind of retarded. The other kid pretended he knew what he was doing. They were going somewhere, too, someplace to soak up the season's greetings. They both sucked red candy constantly so that their mouths always looked bloody. And they were always arguing. Finally the three of us jumped a boxcar, but it only went two miles out of the yard then backed up. I said, "I'm tryin' the highway again. This sucks." So I did. Later that night some gals picked me up in a blue Chevy with one headlight out. Lisa and Alameda. "Headin' home for the holidays?" they inquired. I nodded affirmative, then climbed in the back seat. They drove slow, made a couple stops along the way, a liquor store, a bar, a chicken joint. We were working on a bottle of Ole Riverbottom when they started hinting around that since we were almost there anyway we oughta all go on over to their place and drink some more and maybe do crazy naked things, especially since it was Christmas and all. Yeah, all three of us. And it sounded like it might be fun, too. But I lost interest when Alameda said, "Hope my husband doesn't come home though, you know, he'd kill us for sure," and they both started laughing as they tore off down the road after dumping me at some god-lost intersection at about 4 am, and there I was stranded 'til the next afternoon, and I hadn't even crossed the Mississippi line yet.

Then a guy named Izzy picked me up in an antique Skylark. Izzy seemed like Christmas Spirit incarnate as he yammered on about robbing people with a shotgun down in New Orleans. Of course he always gave some of the bread to his down-and-out buddies. It was just the right thing to do, he said. Anyway we were nearly 100 miles away from N.O. by that time but Izzy was ready to swing that Lark around and head the hell right back. He still had a box of shells and he thought I could be a good partner. I thought about it a second but decided against it when Izzy said, "Only ever got plugged once, in the leg with a .45, weren't no cop though, shit the cops are fools too."

Then Izzy said, "Come on man, let's say you and me just head on back and rustle us up some fat. Them suckers in Jack Square got it. It's cake. By the time Jesus is 10 hours old, we'll be lickin' the gams of the hottest tricks on St. Ann." Then he slammed on the brakes and the car skidded to the left shoulder just in front of a turn-around and the lights were facing off west and Izzy looked at me with a wildass gleam in his eye and a soft glow on his green teeth and said, "Well what you say, babe? What you say? You with the program?"

And I just said, "Man I got things waitin' up north, if you know what I mean." "Woman?"

"If you know what I mean. Ain't had any in days." And maybe Izzy did know what I meant. They always bought that line, you only had to say there was a woman waiting somewhere for ya, it was part of the code, a man never wanted to turn that one back on you.

"Know what you mean," Izzy said. "You got money, babe?"

I said no, but I had about 30 bucks in my watch pocket. Izzy let it slide. But 10 minutes later he said it again, "Sure you ain't got no money, man?"

I said, "I'm broke, man." So we drove on in silence for a spell, taking note of the Christmas decorations on the shopping malls and franchise restaurants we passed. Darkness was soon upon us.

Suddenly Iz pulled off on a sideroad sayin', "Just a minute man," like they always say, and he got out of the car and opened his trunk and I was pretty sure by then he really did have that shotgun back there and I pulled my knife out figuring this might be it, better get ready, like a knife was somethin' against a gun, but I thought I could maybe stab out the guy's eye or somethin' before I got shot; it was one of those crazy ideas that go through your head when you're graspin' at straws.

I looked around me at the landscape, and there was nobody around where we were at all. I did see what might have been a tree or a reef twinkling in the window. Then I heard the click of the door handle. I turned slow to the left knowing that this was finally the climax of the bad movie I'd somehow paid to be in. But Iz just got back in the car and said sorry he just had to piss so bad he could taste it, and that damn taillight was out again too, and then he flashed his green grungy teeth.

Well we kept on riding and talked about crimes we had done. Izzy did anyway. I wasn't a criminal, least I didn't think I was. Izzy had about 50 women in about 50 towns apparently. And he talked about them as much as he could, too. Just to make sure, as if he could maintain their ephemeral existence that way. "Seems like I can always get it up," he said, "For muff, when it's starin' me in the face like a big ole black bear, you know. No problem. Yes, I do love that deep sea divin' little brother."

"I know what you mean," I kicked in man-to-man.

Then Iz said, "Baby, you got to have some money, you can't be on the road like this without no money, come on now, tell me what you got."

"Ain't got but three bucks," I said, and we drove on.

Well after a while we got up by Jackson and Izzy swung into this place called the Blue Dove Diner. "Well then I guess I'm just gonna have to buy you some grub. Hate to see a guy on the road without no grub money, especially on a day like today." So we went in and Iz seemed to know all the waitresses in the joint, and he sat me down and told Sal "Give 'em whatever he wants, I'm paying. Merry Christmas Emma."

"Merry Christmas Iz," Emma said.

Then Izzy turned to go. "I gotta run babe, I'm in a hurry. You get yourself a feed on." Then he slipped me a card. "If you need a place to land," he said, "she's alright. And this being Christmas Eve and all I know she won't be busy."

And the waitresses were real nice too, even though they wanted to close early, and they said, "Eat all you want, son, might as well get your belly full. Izzy's payin'." And they brought me lots of coffee and I had catfish and grits and sausages and some little Christmas cookies shaped like bows and frogs. And I walked out of there with a buzz on. I carried my duffel out to the shoulder and stood there for a few minutes with a toothpick in my mouth, lookin' up and down that highway whistling "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem," figuring to be maybe 10 miles from the Jackson, Mississippi outskirts.

I checked on the card Izzy had slipped me. There was a woman's name on it, a woman in Jackson. "Maria Delores Alvarez. Say Izzy sent you," the card said. And I thought I would. Then I changed my mind 'cause I remembered that story about the Gary, Indiana whore taking a dump on my friend Buddy's chest after taking his wallet, and how the next morning Buddy said to me "You think you're gettin' a treat but you're only gettin' beat. Nobody ever loves you but your mother."

About half an hour later a car stopped, a purple Firebird. There were three Chinese guys in the front seat, triplets I figured. They all had the same cigarette hanging from their lips when they turned around, and they spoke with perfect American accents too. "Merry Christmas Jack, Memphis Express is now boarding," the driver said. They were all drunk as hell too. They had a bottle and a case of empties rattling around in the back. I got in anyway, figurin' I still had a chance to catch some holiday bird with the clan. It was about 8 pm.

Somewhere around 11, I was seeing little skulls in the trees and watching the wild white line of the highway snaking in front of me. The little skulls were teasing me too, with little voices saying things I didn't want to hear, words about death and wasted time and neglected families. It was one of those feel-guilty Christmas messages and I didn't want to hear it. I hadn't slept in two days, so I closed my eyes. I didn't want to bear witness. Who would want to watch the future unroll into the darkness the way it does sometimes? I thought about watching it for a second, then I changed my mind.

I didn't know how much time had passed before the two blue lights on the road shoulder started spinning but they were the coolest blue lights I ever seen. The bulls found the gun under the seat. There must have been something in the trunk too 'cause they were talking serious. Something stunk too. I couldn't place the smell. Then another squad arrived. Colored lights were flashing everywhere and the radios were going. The sky was kind of cloudy too but I actually thought I saw a star in the distance, just one, up north, pretty far off. But things were kind of blurry by then. It could have been an airplane. Then one of the cops interrupted my reverie. "Got any identification, mister?"

Of course, things are different for me now, as they are for everybody, but that was Christmas Eve back in the Year of Our Lord, 1974. I don't have any snapshots to show my kids, but that doesn't mean America's not a goddam great country either. So Season's Greetings to you.

(I recently discovered writer Carl Watson. I actually knew him many years ago, on the streets in New Orleans. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. S.J.

This piece is copyright by the author. It may be forwarded electronically, provided this notice is kept with it, but may not be otherwise reproduced without permission. Thanks.

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