From the Archives: A Christmas Story (2000)

On the finale of the Christmas present final yr in Eugene, OR, I got here out as a skid-row Santa, full with rubber nostril, plastic sack filled with beer cans, and a pint of peppermint schnapps to fortify the vacation spirit. I additionally borrowed my spouse Faye’s blue egg bucket and labeled it: “Homeless.” I’d jangle the cans like a bagful of aluminum sleigh bells whereas I labored the mainfloor aisle seats: “Hey, come on, buddy. Put one thing within the bucket, for Chrissakes. Don’t it’s Christmastime? Hey, that’s higher. God bless you. You’re stunning.”

I ended up with solely about seventy-five bucks. Not a lot of a take for a full home at a Christmas present. However even seventy-five bucks was a wad too large to pocket. So after I bought out of my purple go well with and rubber snoot I drove off to hunt a worthy recipient. I noticed a probable assortment of candidates within the 7-Eleven car parking zone, on the nook of Sixth and Blair. I swung in and held the bucket out the window.

“All proper. Who’s the hardest-luck case on this lot?”

The candidates regarded me over and edged away—all however one man, pony-tailed and slope-shouldered, his chin tucked down within the collar of a canvas camouflage jacket. “I bought a streak of onerous luck runs all the best way again to New Jersey,” he mentioned. “What about it?”

“I’m on a mission from St. Nicholas,” I instructed him. “And in case you are, the truth is, the least lucky of the lot”—within the spirit of the season, I shunned saying “largest loser”—”then this could possibly be your fortunate evening.”

“Proper,” he mentioned. “You’re some sort of Holy Curler? The place’s the string? What’s the hustle?”

“No string, no catch, no hustle. I’m giving. You’re getting. Get it?”

He did. He took the cash and ran, taking Faye’s egg bucket into the cut price. The final I noticed of him, he was scurrying away, searching for a gap.

Since then, I’ve puzzled about him. Did that little windfall make a distinction? Did he hire an affordable room? Get a shower? A companion? Each time I discovered myself passing via considered one of Eugene’s hard-luck harbors, I saved half a watch peeled for the sight of a protracted tail of black hair draggling down the again of a camouflage jacket. Final week, a yr later to the day, I made a sighting.

I used to be on the town with Faye and our daughter, getting in some Christmas buying earlier than we rendezvoused with my mother for supper. We’d completed a few hours within the malls, and I used to be shopped out. I introduced that I needed to make some personal purchases, and slipped off into the wet chilly—alone. I used to be headed for the liquor retailer on Eighth, considering the spirit may use a bit fortification. However the trusty peppermint wasn’t highly effective sufficient. These hometown streets are simply too unusual, too vacant, too unhappy. Nook of Sixth at Olive: empty. The good Dangold Creamery that my dad constructed up from a bit Eugene farmer’s cooperative: bulldozed down. I ducked my head and saved strolling within the rain.

The road in my reminiscence was the clearer path anyway: John Warren’s {Hardware} over there, the place you may purchase blasting powder throughout the counter; the Corral Novelty Store, the place you may purchase itching powder; the Heilig Theater, with its all-the-way-across-the-street arch, flashing what all of us took to be the Norwegian phrase for “howdy,” so large it could possibly be learn all the best way from the home windows of the coming trains: “Heilig, Heilig, Heilig.” All gone.

After I reached the town middle, I seen that the factor folks had lastly given up making an attempt to name a fountain was newly disguised with pine boughs and potted crops. However to no avail. It nonetheless regarded just like the remnants of a bombed-out French cathedral. Then, when the rain eased up, I used to be shocked to find that the ruins weren’t fairly abandoned: I noticed a unfastened black braid hanging down the again of a camouflage jacket. That appeared proper. He was within the previous fountain’s basin, bent in a concealing crouch at one of many potted pines.

I got here up from behind and clapped my hand on his shoulder. “Whatcha doin’, Laborious Luck? Counting one other bucket of cash?”

He wheeled round and had my wrist clamped in a bone-breaking grasp earlier than I may end the phrase. I noticed then that this wasn’t a chinless avenue rat standing down within the basin in any case. This was a block-jawed American Indian constructed like two fireplugs, sitting in a wheelchair.

“Ouch! Man! Let go! I assumed you have been any individual else!”

He eased the maintain, however saved the wrist. I instructed him about final yr’s longhair and the matching jacket.

He listened, finding out my eyes. “OK. Sorry concerning the twist. I used to be taking a leak. You shocked me. Let’s get out of the rain and see what sort of medication you’ve bought protruding of your pocket.”

We retired underneath some scaffolding. He was lower than passionate about my alternative of pocket medication. “I’d reasonably drink one thing like Southern Consolation if I’ve to decide on a sugar drink,” he mentioned. However we handed the pint forwards and backwards and watched the rain.

He leaned to spit and a folded Military blanket slipped out of his lap. His legs have been as gone as the primary intestine of my poor hometown.

He was a part-time fillet man from the Pike Place Market, up in Seattle, on his solution to spend Christmas with household on “the rez,” outdoors of Albuquerque. His bus was laid up for a few hours: “I believe they’re getting the Greyhound spayed earlier than she will get to California.”

When the pint was about three-quarters gone, I screwed on the lid and held it out. “I gotta meet the ladies. Go forward and hold it.”

“Ah, I suppose not,” he mentioned.

“You’re fairly picky for a thirsty man, aren’t you? What can be your greatest druthers?”

“To have the cash and make my very own alternative.”

I reached for my pockets. “I believe I bought a few bucks.”

“And 1 / 4? If I had two bucks and 1 / 4, I may get a pint of Ten Excessive. With 4 and alter I’d go on to a fair-to-middlin’ fifth. Cream of Kentucky.”

I hesitated. Was I being hustled? “OK, Let’s see what we’ve bought.” I emptied the pockets and pockets onto his blanket. He added a couple of cash and counted the gathering.

“9 seventy-five. If I give you one other two {dollars}, I can get a bottle of Bushmill’s Irish. Suppose I can panhandle two {dollars} between right here and the liquor retailer?”

“For sure,” I assured him. “With each panhandles tied behind your again.”

We shook arms goodbye and headed off in our separate instructions, strolling and rolling via the rain. On the restaurant, my mom needed to know what I used to be serious about that gave me such a goofy grin.

“I used to be simply considering, if beggars can’t be choosers, then it should observe that choosers, by definition, usually are not beggars.”

This yr for the Christmas present, Santa’s bought himself a classier outfit and wrangled some vacation helpers out of the high-school choir. God bless ’em. And we’re gonna work all of the aisles. Come on out right here you helpers, come on out. Get down there and panhandle! And also you guys within the viewers begin passing your cash to the aisles right here. That is no time to nickel-and-dime, for Chrissakes! It’s Christmastime.

Ken Kesey, one of many Merry Pranksters, is the creator of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Typically A Nice Notion.

Excessive Instances Journal, December 2000

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