This book is dedicated to MIKE SPRADLIN who said: "You know, you oughtta write a Christmas book."
To which I replied: "What kind of Christmas book?"
To which he replied: "I don't know. Maybe Christmas in Pine Cove or something."
To which I replied: " 'Kay."
The author wishes to acknowledge those who helped: as always, Nicholas Ellison, my intrepid agent; Jennifer Brehl, my brilliant editor; Lisa Gallagher and Michael Morrison for continued confidence in my ability to tell stories; Jack Womack and Leslie Cohen for getting me in front of my readers and the press; the Huffmans, for preparing a landing pad and a warm welcome; Charlee Rodgers, for the careful reads, thoughtful comments, and just putting up with the process; and finally, Taco Bob, from whom I joyfully (and with permission, which almost ruins it) swiped the idea for chapter 16.
If you're buying this book as a gift for your grandma or a kid, you should be aware that it contains cusswords as well as tasteful depictions of cannibalism and people in their forties having sex. Don't blame me. I told you.
Christmas crept into Pine Cove like a creeping Christmas thing: dragging garland, ribbon, and sleigh bells, oozing eggnog, reeking of pine, and threatening festive doom like a cold sore under the mistletoe.
Pine Cove, her pseudo-Tudor architecture all tarted up in holiday quaintage - twinkle lights in all the trees along Cypress Street, fake snow blown into the corner of every shop's windows, miniature Santas and giant candles hovering illuminated beneath every streetlight - opened to the droves of tourists from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and the Central Valley searching for a truly meaningful moment of Christmas commerce. Pine Cove, sleepy California coastal village - a toy town, really, with more art galleries than gas stations, more wine-tasting rooms than hardware stores - lay there, as inviting as a drunken prom queen, as Christmas loomed, only five days away. Christmas was coming, and with Christmas this year, would come the Child. Both were vast and irresistible, and miraculous. Pine Cove was expecting only one of the two.
Which is not to say that the locals didn't get into the Christmas spirit. The two weeks before and after Christmas provided a welcome wave of cash into the town's coffers, tourist-starved since summer. Every waitress dusted off her Santa hat and clip-on reindeer antlers and checked to make sure that there were four good pens in her apron. Hotel clerks steeled themselves for the rage of last-minute overbookings, while housekeepers switched from their normal putrid baby-powder air fresheners to a more festive putrid pine and cinnamon. Down at the Pine Cove Boutique they put a "Holiday Special" sign on the hideous reindeer sweater and marked it up for the tenth consecutive year. The Elks, Moose, Masons, and VFWs, who were basically the same bunch of drunk old guys, planned furiously for their annual Christmas parade down Cypress Street, the theme of which this year would be Patriotism in the Bed of a Pickup (mainly because that had been the theme of their Fourth of July parade and everyone still had the decorations). Many Pine Covers even volunteered to man the Salvation Army kettles down in front of the post office and the Thrifty-Mart in two-hour shifts, sixteen hours a day. Dressed in their red suits and fake beards, they rang their bells like they were going for dog-spit gold at the Pavlov Olympics.
"Give up the cash, you cheap son of a bitch," said Lena Marquez, who was working the kettle that Monday, five days before Christmas. Lena was following Dale Pearson, Pine Cove's evil developer, through the parking lot, ringing the bejeezus out of him as he headed for his truck. On his way into the Thrifty-Mart, he'd nodded to her and said, "Catch you on the way out," but when he emerged eight minutes later, carrying a sack of groceries and a bag of ice, he blew by her kettle like she was using it to render tallow from building inspectors' butts and he needed to escape the stench.
"It's not like you can't afford a couple of bucks for the less fortunate."
She rang her bell especially hard right by his ear and he spun around, swinging the bag of ice at her about hip level.
Lena jumped back. She was thirty-eight, lean, dark-skinned, with the delicate neck and finely set jawline of a flamenco dancer; her long black hair was coiled into two Princess Leia cinnabuns on either side of her Santa hat. "You can't take a swing at Santa! That's wrong in so many ways that I don't have time to enumerate them."
"You mean to count them," Dale said, the soft winter sunlight glinting off a new set of veneers he'd just had installed on his front teeth. He was fifty-two, almost completely bald, and had strong carpenter's shoulders that were still wide and square, despite the beer gut hanging below.
"I mean it's wrong - you're wrong - and you're cheap," and with that Lena put the bell next to his ear again and shook it like a red-suited terrier shaking the life out of a screaming brass rat.
Dale cringed at the sound and swung the ten-pound bag of ice in a great underhanded arc that caught Lena in the solar plexus and sent her backpedaling across the parking lot, gasping for breath. That's when the ladies at BULGES called the cops - well, cop.
BULGES was a women's fitness center located just above the parking lot of the Thrifty-Mart, and from their treadmills and stair-climbing machines, the BULGES members could watch the ins and outs of the local market without feeling as if they were actively spying. So what had started as a moment of sheer glee and a mild adrenaline surge for the six of them who were watching as Lena chased Dale through the parking lot, turned quickly to shock as the evil developer thwacked the Latin Santa-ette in the breadbasket with a satchel of minicubes. Five of the six merely missed a step or gasped, but Georgia Bauman - who had her treadmill cranked up to eight miles per hour at that very moment, because she was trying to lose fifteen pounds by Christmas and fit into a red-sequined sheath cocktail dress her husband had bought for her in a fit of sexual idealism - bowled backward off her treadmill and landed in a colorful spandex tangle of yoga students who had been practicing on the mats behind her.
"Ow, my ass chakra!"
"That's you're root chakra."
"Feels like my ass."
"Did you see that? He nearly knocked her off her feet. Poor thing."
"Should we see if she's all right?"
"Someone should call Theo."
The exercisers opened their cell phones in unison, like the Jets flicking switchblades as they gaily danced into a West Side Story gang-fight to the death.
"Why did she ever marry that guy, anyway?"
"He's such an asshole."
"She used to drink."
"Georgia, are you all right, honey?"
"Can you get Theo by calling 911?"
"That bastard is just going to drive off and leave her there»
"We should go help."
"I've got twelve more minutes on this thing."
"The cell reception in this town is horrible."
"I have Theo's number on speed dial, for the kids. Let me call."
"Look at Georgia and the girls. It looks like they were playing Twister and fell."
"Hello, Theo. This is Jane down at BULGES. Yes, well, I just glanced out the window here and I noticed that there might be a problem over at the Thrifty-Mart. Well, I don't want to meddle, but let's just say that a certain contractor just hit one of the Salvation Army Santas with a bag of ice. Well, I'll look for your car, then." She flipped the phone shut. "He's on his way."
Theophilus Crowe's mobile phone played eight bars of "Tangled Up in Blue" in an irritating electronic voice that sounded like a choir of suffering houseflies, or Jiminy Cricket huffing helium, or, well, you know, Bob Dylan - anyway, by the time he got the device open, five people in the produce section of the Thrifty-Mart were giving him the hairy eyeball hard enough to wilt the arugula right there in his cart. He grinned as if to say, Sorry, I hate these things, too, but what aw you gonna do? then he answered, "Constable Crowe," just to remind everyone that he wasn't dickmg around here, he was THE LAW.
"In the parking lot of the Thrifty-Mart? Okay, I'll be right there»
Wow, this was convenient. One thing about being the resident lawman in a town of only five thousand people - you were never far from the trouble. Theo parked his cart on the end of the aisle and loped by the registers and out the automatic doors to the parking lot (He was a denim- and flannel-clad praying mantis of a man, six-six, one-eighty, and he only had three speeds, amble, lope, and still). Outside he found Lena Marquez doubled over and gasping for breath. Her ex-husband, Dale Pearson, was stepping into his four-wheel-drive pickup.
"Right there, Dale. Wait," Theo said
Theo ascertained that Lena had only had the wind knocked out of her and was going to be okay, then addressed the stocky contractor, who had paused with one boot on the running board, as if he'd be on his way as soon as the hot air cleared out of the truck.
"What happened here?"
"The crazy bitch hit me with that bell of hers."
"Did not," gasped Lena
"I got a report you hit her with a bag of ice, Dale. That's assault."
Dale Pearson looked around quickly and spotted the crowd of women gathered by the window over at the gym. They all looked away, heading for the various machines they had been on when the debacle unfolded. "Ask them. They'll tell you she had that bell right upside my head. I just reacted out of self-defense."
"He said he'd donate when he came out of the store, then he didn't," Lena said, her breath coming back. "There's an implied contract there. He violated it. And I didn't hit him."
"She's a fucking nutcase." Dale said it like he was declaring water wet - like it was just understood.
Theo looked from one of them to the other. He'd dealt with these two before, but thought it had all come to rest when they'd divorced five years ago. (He'd been constable of Pine Cove for fourteen years - he'd seen the wrong side of a lot of couples.) First rule in a domestic situation was separate the parties, but that appeared to have already been accomplished. You weren't supposed to take sides, but since Theo had a soft spot for nutcases - he'd married one himself - he decided to make a judgment call and focus his attention on Dale. Besides, the guy was an asshole.
Theo patted Lena's back and loped over to Dale's truck.
"Don't waste your time, hippie," Dale said. "I'm done." He climbed into his truck and closed the door.
Hippie? Theo thought. Hippie? He'd cut his ponytail years ago. He'd stopped wearing Birkenstocks. He'd even stopped smoking pot. Where did this guy get off calling him a hippie?
Hippie? he said to himself, then: "Hey!"
Dale started his truck and put it into gear.
Theo stepped up on the running board, leaned over the windshield, and started tapping on it with a quarter he'd fished from his jeans pocket. "Don't leave, Dale." Tap, tap, tap. "You leave now, I'll put a warrant out for your arrest." Tap, tap, tap. Theo was pissed now - he was sure of it. Yes, this was definitely anger now.
Dale threw the truck into park and hit the electric window button. "What? What do you want?"
"Lena wants to press charges for assault - maybe assault with a deadly weapon. I think you'd better rethink leaving right now."
"Deadly weapon? It was a bag of ice."
Theo shook his head, affected a whimsical storyteller's tone: "A ten-pound bag of ice. Listen, Dale, as I drop a ten-pound block of ice on the courtroom floor in front of the jury. Can you hear it? Can't you just see the jury cringe as I smash a honeydew melon on the defense attorney's table with a ten-pound block of ice? Not a deadly weapon? 'Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, this man, this reprobate, this redneck, this - if I may - clump-filled-cat-box-of-a-man, struck a defenseless woman - a woman who out of the kindness of her heart was collecting for the poor, a woman who was only - »
"But it's not a block of ice, it's - »
Theo raised a finger in the air. "Not another word, Dale, not until I read you your rights." Theo could tell he was getting to Dale - veins were starting to pulse in the contractor's temples and his bald head was turning bright pink. Hippie, huh? "Lena is definitely pressing charges, aren't you, Lena?"
Lena had made her way to the side of the truck.
"No," Lena said.
"Bitch!" Theo said - it slipped out before he could stop himself. He'd been on such a roll.
"See how she is," said Dale. "Wish you had a bag of ice now, don't you, hippie?"
"I'm an officer of the law," Theo said, wishing he had a gun or something. He pulled his badge wallet out of his back pocket but decided that was a little late for ID, since he'd known Dale for nearly twenty years.
"Yeah, and I'm a Caribou," Dale said, with more pride than he really should have had about that.
"I'll forget all about it if he puts a hundred bucks in the kettle," Lena said.
"You're nuts, woman."
"It's Christmas, Dale."
"Fuck Christmas and fuck you."
"Hey, there's no need for that kind of talk, Dale," Theo said, going for the peace in peace officer. "You can just step out of the truck."
"Fifty bucks in the kettle and he can go," Lena said. "It's for the needy."
Theo whipped around and looked at her. "You can't plea-bargain in the parking lot of the Thrifty-Mart. I had him on the ropes."
"Shut up, hippie," Dale said. Then to Lena, "You'll take twenty and the needy can get bent. They can get a job like the rest of us."
Theo was sure he had handcuffs in the Volvo - or were they still on the bedpost at home? "That is not the way we - »
"Forty!" Lena shouted.
"Done!" Dale said. He pulled two twenties from his wallet, wadded them up, and threw them out the window so they bounced off of Theo Crowe's chest. He threw the truck in gear and backed out.
"Stop right there!" Theo commanded.
Dale righted the truck and took off. As the big red pickup passed Theo's Volvo station wagon, parked twenty yards up the lot, a bag of ice came flying out the window and exploded against the Volvo's tailgate, showering the parking lot with cubes but otherwise doing no damage whatsoever. "Merry Christmas, you psycho bitch!" Dale shouted out the window as he turned onto the street. "And to all a good night! Hippie!"
Lena had tucked the wadded bills into her Santa suit and was squeezing Theo's shoulder as the red truck roared out of sight. "Thanks for coming to my rescue, Theo."
"Not much of a rescue. You should press charges."
"I'm okay. He'd have gotten out of it anyway, he has great lawyers. Trust me, I know. Besides, forty bucks'"
"That's the Christmas spirit," Theo said, not able to keep from smiling. "You sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine. It's not the first time he's lost it with me." She patted the pocket of her Santa suit. "At least something came of this." She started back to her kettle and Theo followed.
"You have a week to file charges if you change your mind," Theo said.
"You know what, Theo? I really don't want to spend another Christmas obsessing on what a complete waste of humanity Dale Pearson is. I'd rather let it go. Maybe if we're lucky he'll be one of those holiday fatalities we're always hearing about"
"That would be nice," said Theo.
"Now who's in the Christmas spirit?"
In another Christmas story, Dale Pearson, evil developer, self-absorbed woman hater, and seemingly unredeemable curmudgeon, might be visited in the night by a series of ghosts who, by showing him bleak visions of Christmas future, past, and present, would bring about in him a change to generosity, kindness, and a general warmth toward his fellow man But this is not that kind of Christmas story, so here, in not too many pages, someone is going to dispatch the miserable son of a bitch with a shovel. That's the spirit of Christmas yet to come in these parts. Ho, ho, ho.