My boots clomp against the concrete of the garage, and a gravelly paste falls from the arches to mingle with the oil patch in the center of the floor. I light a cigarette, blow the first puff out into the frigid air, and let the burnt match fall to the floor.
"Hey," my dad howls. "Don't drop those in here, throw them outside."
The slab around my boots bears nearly two dozen burnt matches and cigarette butts. "What are you talking about? There's a hundred already down there," I answer.
"I know," he counters. "I don't need any more is all." And with that he jumps up to grab a broom from the corner and starts sweeping the bits of debris out into the driveway. "What are you doing out here, anyway?" I ask. "Here, give me that. I'll sweep up." "No, I got it. I was just cleaning the motorcycle." "Your dog's going nuts," I say and jerk a thumb toward the rear of the garage. "I know," Dad says. "He's your dog too." Letting the cigarette hang from my mouth, I grab the black steel handle from my dad and swish swish swish the wide-head broom against the cement. Dad holds his hand up to his mouth to channel the sound and yells, "Scooter! Shaddap!" With that the Rottweiler-Lab mix stops its wailing bark.
"Christmas is in a couple weeks," I say, moving the cigarette from one side of my mouth to the other and blowing the smoke out of my face.
"I know," Dad says. "I got my tree up."
"I don't have any money to get you anything."
"Me neither," he answers and counters his statement with a look and continues with "unless you need something. You need something? Money? Underwear?"
My dad has asked me that question every week since I was 19, after I moved out for the first time. Every week that I'm in the country I call him, and we talk about weather, trade jokes, and give each other our little stories. Every phone call ends with "All right, well, I'll let you go. You need anything? Money? Underwear?"
"No, I don't need anything," I answer. This time I think for a second and say, "Unless you've got a pocket knife. I broke the tip off mine last week."
"I might. I might," Dad says. "I'll look around."
"You need anything?" I ask.
"No, no. I got everything," he says, stopping to think. "Can't ride the bike until it warms up, and it's running fine anyway. I've got everything else. I don't need anything. Did you see my tree? It's so pretty, you should go look."
I've seen the tree. I've seen the tree hundreds of times. It's the same tree we've put up every year, and it's the only Christmas decoration that's adorned our front room since my mom moved out 15 years ago. The tree is a 12-inch-tall white porcelain statue.
If you pick the tree up and turn it by its base, it will rotate and play "O Christmas Tree" on jewelry-box chimes. It misses only a couple of notes, "Tink tink tink (pause). Tink tink tink (pause)." Along the bottom of the lowest boughs is a signature, "Joy, '64." My dad's aunt put it together from a kit 40 years ago, painted the tips of the bright glossy branches gold, attached it to its singsongy base, and signed it.
The tree had been relegated to a box of Christmas ornaments deemed by my mom as too ugly to put up. In favor of my dad's little tree she used to make us stand on chairs and string garlands of tinsel across the ceiling, and our coffee table would become a display for her miniature manger scene -- complete with camels, donkeys, Wise Men, and Babe.
Mom loved to thumbtack all the cards we received from other families to a wall leading to our kitchen, and we always had a live tree clumped and covered in sentimental tchotchkes, homemade clay blobs with metal hooks protruding from the top and "Tony 1980 Mery Cristmas" or "Mike 1984" scrawled across the side in red.
My dad's eye would twitch at the sight of a live tree covered in lights. He has an irrational fear of fire, and stringing even lukewarm lights across any kind of wood is a special kind of torture for him. You might as well wrap the tree in gasoline-soaked socks and adorn it with firecrackers and candles. Against my mother's wishes, my father only allowed the tree to be plugged in if we were all home and either my brother or I were stationed in front of it with a CO2 fire extinguisher.
When she divorced the old man and moved out, she took all the ornaments except the porcelain tree that she never liked. That year, at 15 years old, I wondered about our tradition of covering every square inch of the interior of our house with bright green, red, and silver crap. I asked my dad, "Are we going to buy new stuff and put it up?"
"Hell no!" he said, finally finding a way out of the fire hazard that is Christmas decoration. "I hate that stuff."
With that proclamation he went out to the garage and came back in with the nonflammable statuette that would adorn our television set every winter from December to January.
Standing in front of the TV, I heft the tree, our tree, up off its perch in front of the rabbit-ear antenna and slowly twist the bottom. While it's upside-down I notice the signature in gold cursive and feel the click, click, click as it winds in my hand. Upon letting go, it starts its tune before I can set it down, "Tink tink tink (pause) / Tink tink tink (pause)." When the base lands back on its home, the gold-tipped branches catch the light and twinkle in their slow, jerky spin.
From his room my dad yells out, "You got next week off?"
"No," I answer. "Not this week, but the next."
"Yeah," he says. "That's what I mean. Good. We're almost out of wood, and I talked to Ernie."
A week later, in the morning, we cut wood. Our cousin Ernie owns a ranch with oak trees fallen from the rain. He told us where to find two good trunks and said we could have them.
Ernie's ranch is a couple of miles away down a twisty road. When we pull up to the gates I jump out of the pickup and hand-wrestle lengths of wire wrapped around pipe and small hunks of wood blackened by weather. There are three gates to get back to where the oaks are, and at one gate I have to yell back to Dad, "How the hell does this work?"
"You have to pull that lever up. Move that wire." After studying the device for a few more seconds it comes to me, and the gate made of wood that's been bundled with wire pops away from its stanchion, and I drag it back far enough for the truck to get through.
After each gate my dad yells out the driver's-side window, "Don't let the horses through." A dozen horses zigzag their way down the hills with their heads held high and their white tails swishing. Steam emanates from their long black snouts, and their manes of coarse, wiry hair blow back in the wind. Some of them get very close, and I have to stamp my boot on a rock and clap my hands to keep them from rushing out.
When we're through all the gates, I grab the tailgate and steady my boots on the bumper. Dad shifts to four-wheel drive, drops the clutch, and when the wheels spin in the dirt a little he yells back, "Hold on." The truck carries us, him behind the wheel, me on the bumper, up and over two small hills. The tires spin here and there until they catch a rock to inch us up the steep inclines. Over the crest of the second hill the truck's roof and hood drop down, and I can see over them and into the valley, and I spot two fallen oaks where a torrent of rainwater undercut their roots and washed them down.
The truck is navigated to a level spot on a landing just below the nearest tree. "The tires spun a little, but we'll get out," my dad assures me. "With the wood in the back, the weight of the truck will be different, and it'll grab a little better."
With a clang I drop the tailgate so my dad can have an open bench to work on. He moves his chainsaw and little maintenance box back from where they were tied up next to the cab and makes a work area of the tailgate. He fumbles through the little box filled with rat-tail rasps, two-stroke oil, and wrenches. The box used to be a crisper on an old refrigerator, and beneath the grime of oily handprints it still bears a chrome sunburst logo.
My dad finds his file. I take my seat on a nearby stump, pull my work gloves out of my pocket, and push my chin and cheeks under the top button of my flannel shirt. I look through the steam rising up out of the collar across the bridge of my nose and slip my hands into my holey leather gloves. I pop pop clap my hands together to get some blood to them and jam them in my shirt pockets. I get as comfortable as I can with my butt on a round of frosty wood and I wait. Dad takes his file and runs it down each tooth of the chain until they all have a gleaming steel knife-edge.
Turning the saw on its side, he holds it up near his shoulders and then lets it drop to his waist, and his right hand rips out to the side with the start pull-cord encased in the fist. Bwanganaang! The saw sputters a few times and dies. The old man fiddles with the choke, mutters something to himself, and repeats the step. Bwangangangang! The saw starts up and spews white smoke out the sidepipe. The air fills with the smell of gasoline and oil mixture burnt and shot out of an engine that has sat for months. Every winter bird left in the valley shoots from its perch and takes flight. I see how loud the saw is by how far away the birds take off. Along a far ridge over two hills I can see quail dart out from a bush.
"Not bad!" he yells over the racket. "I took a restrictor out, and now it either runs full throttle or not at all." To illustrate the point he lets off the gas a little and it dies, leaving the surrounding hills silent. "See?"
Seated on my stump I watch him mentally divide the trunk up into usable sections and count how many logs we'll get. "With both trees, looks like we'll get a pickup load. That's good for a month or so."
With that he drop-pull-starts the saw again and starts ripping through the small branches to get to the trunk. I wait until he's got a few branches hacked off before I uncover my nose from my flannel and get up. At the tree I grab the ends of separated branches and drag them a ways off to the side and start a pile. The tree isn't brushy, so there's little of that.
After it's been limbed and I've hauled the brush, Dad starts in on cutting the main wood from the tree. The ripping, screaming saw engine bogs further and further as the chain delves through the trunk and a log lops off the end. A 16-inch length of 16-inch-diameter green oak will fall from its hold, dig past the hard outer shell of soil, and sink into the mud below. My job on these wood-cutting trips is to roll the log up into my arms, carry it to the truck, and throw it in the bed. When the logs hit the dirt with a soft thud, my dad will give them to me. He holds the saw up by both hands at chest level and knocks his boot against the log, dislodging it from its cradle of earth so that it rolls easily up my filthy shirtsleeves. I walk it a few yards until I heave it from my chest like a basketball, and it rocks the pickup bed -- Bawoom! When it's in, I turn back for the next one.
After the first tree, we stop, drink some water, and strip off our outer shirts. The hot sweat caught between the heavy flannel and our cotton T-shirts gives off a steam to match the dew evaporating from the surrounding field. By now it's 10:00 a.m., and the sun, labor, and heavy clothing have turned our faces red. We heel our boots up onto rocks, lean on our elbows, and drink water from the jug.
After 15 minutes the old man says, "Ready? We get this next tree in, and we'll be set for the day. We'll have enough wood to last us until the end of January. That's enough work for one Saturday."
My gloves are sweaty and cold, so I leave them on the pickup railing to dry out. Walking up to the second tree, I say, "Christmas is next week."
"I know," he says.
Back at home I unload the wood by standing in the truck and pitching hunks at Dad. He catches them and stacks them by the side of the house. It's after noon, and we each crack a cold beer and light a cigarette and sit in the sunlight that blankets the front yard.
"Well, we might as well do it while we're doing it," the old man says and gets up from his gray steel folding chair. A minute later he emerges from the garage pushing the lawn mower. "I can do that," I say. "Nah, nah," he answers. "It'll only take me a minute."
He's right. On five acres of land there are weed fields, scrub brush, and a little patch of grass. The lawn is maybe ten yards square.
On the sidewalk, he steadies his work boot against the mower shroud, leans down, and his right hand flies up with the pull cord. The lawn mower sputters and puts, and with a quick adjustment to the throttle from Dad's left hand, the machine fires to life.
He shifts the cigarette from one side of his mouth to the other and peers down into the mechanics of the beast and checks to see that everything is working properly. Cocking his head back over his shoulder to look at me, he yells, "I switched out carburetors! It only runs full throttle or not at all!" With that he shoves the wound-out, screaming mower off the ledge of the sidewalk. When it hits the grass it doesn't really hit. It sort of hovers a few inches off the ground, shearing every blade of grass beneath it to just above soil level.
From the side of the shroud, grass clippings belch out along with some dirt. Small rocks fire from the expulsion chute and zing across the driveway at me. I cover my face and head with my hands and yell, "Hang on! Hang on! Dammit, you're going to kill me!"
With every step Dad takes, the mower chews up more ground with a grinding crash and shoots more pebbles out at me. The whistling rocks hustle through the air at knee-to-waist height and crash into the heavy stalks of the oleander bushes behind me. "Yeaaargh!" I scream and duck for cover into the house. The old man stares over his smoke at his lawn, deaf and oblivious to the world outside his mechanical vortex.
Inside, I swallow the last of my pale yellow beer and crush the blue can and set it on the counter along a row of several other cans just like it. Scooter is in the back yard going nuts, and I yell out the back door at him, "Shaddap! Scooter!" Whenever the old man starts a machine, the dog goes bonkers. He can't stand the Harley or the Weed Eater, but the dog reserves a special brand of hatred and his shrillest of barks for the lawn mower. "SCOOTER! SHUDDUP!"
I stub out my cigarette in the ashtray next to my chair and open the fireplace. If I start a fire now, the house will be warmed up as the sun goes down and the wind brings in the cool night air. Stuffing some paper and kindling into the iron stove, I get a neat little fire going before I set a log of seasoned oak in and shut the door. The smoke from the fire overpowers the stale smell of cigarettes that clings to the furniture, carpet, and drapes. For a couple of minutes the house smells like winter and Christmas break from school when I was ten.
Thorns, slivers, and grit poke through my T-shirt and scratch at my body. When I strip down and hop in the shower, I can hear the lawn mower wind down and die. The wheels of the quieted mower squeak as it's pushed past my bathroom window back to the garage.
I'm in clean clothes, and my hair is wet as I walk down the hallway. The front door flies open, and my dad stamps his boots off on the step before entering. "Did you have a nice shower while I was mowing the lawn, Miss Streisand?"
"Oh, up yours," I answer. "At least I built a fire."
That evening I sit in my chair basking in the warm orange glow of the stove. When the fire dies a little I reach in and turn the log or rake the coals with a poker or, if the red embers are burnt down and covered in a blanket of gray ash, I set another stick of wood in.
My dad's in his chair eating ice cream. He eats a bowl of ice cream every night. Coffee is his favorite flavor. Mint chocolate chip used to be his favorite until he drew a strong correlation between eating mint chocolate chip ice cream and having nightmares about spiders. He sets his bowl aside momentarily to light a cigarette.
"I was in the store today," I say. "I got you some mint chocolate chip ice cream."
Dad makes the sign of the Cross with his fingers and hides his face behind the symbol as though vampires were in the room, and that was his last effort to preserve himself. "Don't you dare! Don't you dare bring that nasty stuff into this house," he says with his lips pursed around his cigarette. "Dammit, that stuff makes me dream about spiders. Not nice dreams either." And he hides his face behind his crossed fingers.
When he stubs his cigarette and picks up his bowl of ice cream, a swirling graphic on the TV reads "Special Broadcast," and the announcer booms through the speakers. "Tonight, we bring you a special presentation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas!"
"Yeah!" we cheer, and Dad waves his spoon in the air.
"They didn't play it for a couple years, you know?" he asks.
"I heard that. You told me that," I answer. "Down in San Diego I had cable, and you could find it every year. Up here in the boontules you only get three stations, and you're kind of screwed if one of them doesn't play it."
We talk about the Grinch as the first commercials air, trading with each other our favorite parts. My dad shovels a glob of ice cream into his mouth and pulls the spoon back like a whip. Through a mouthful of melting, coffee-flavored sweets he garbles out, "I love it when the Grinch is cracking that dog with a whip. Heeyah! You little goddamned dog!" and a bit of ice cream falls out of his mouth and plops on his shirt. He peers down at the lump and with his mouth clear says, "Ah, to hell with it." He rears his spoon-whip back up and lets it out with an imaginary crack across the living room and yells out, "Heeyah! You little bastard dog! With those antlers tied to your head. Heeyah!"
"How did you ever make it through those few years it didn't air?"
"I don't know," he answers. "It was terrible."
"You know what the Grinch means?"
"Yeah, I know."
"Christmas is coming up."
"I know," the old man says, setting his empty bowl aside and leaning back in his recliner. "I'll get you something if you need something. You need anything? Money? Underwear?"
"No, I'm good, Dad. Thanks."
Two days later I'm standing in the driveway in a pair of flip-flops, jeans, and a T-shirt.
"Good Lord!" my dad barks out when he sees my feet. "Aren't your feet freezing?"
"Yeah," I say. "But it'll be warm in San Diego. I'll be there in six hours."
"Yeah, I guess you're right," he says and lights a cigarette. "I don't know why you've got to leave now. It's so close to Christmas. Why not just stay around here until after New Year's?"
"Because I got that job," I say. "They want me down there."
"What are you doing down there? Writing for a newspaper?"
"Well," he says and takes the cigarette from his mouth, takes off his baseball cap, and smoothes down his thinning hair. He replaces his hat and cigarette and looks at me. "Well, sounds like a good job. Better than busting your ass up here in the hills for no money and having to cut wood with me on the weekends. You could stay a little while, can't you?"
"I been here a year, Dad. I gotta move out sometime. I'm sure you want your house back."
"Well, it'll be nice to have my own place, but I'll miss you," he says. "I could use you cutting wood."
The dog starts going bananas, and we yell, "Scooter! Shuddup!" which shuts him up, but we know he'll be silent only a minute before he starts in again.
Dad reaches into his pocket and says, "I got you this. Well, I didn't get it for you. I found it in one of my old drawers. It was your Uncle Dale's. I got it when he died." He opens his hand over mine, and a black folding pocketknife falls into my palm.
"I don't think I should have this," I say, shaking my head. "I'll probably break it like I broke my last one."
"Ah, that's no big deal," he says. "It was just sitting in a drawer. Dale would rather you break this using it than have it just sit in my dresser. It's just an inexpensive knife anyway. Probably 30 bucks, brand new."
"All right. Thanks," I say and start my pickup. With that, Scooter goes wild in the back yard, and Dad and I just let him bark. We stand in the driveway listening to the dog and the truck for a minute, and I say, "Well, I better go."
"Yeah," he says. "You know how to get down to San Diego. Call me when you get there."
"Okay," I say. "Christmas is just a few days away, you know."
"Yeah, I know. You need anything? Money? Underwear?"
"No, Dad. Thanks. I got my knife. I'm good," I say, and I hold the knife up and put it back in my pocket. "I got you something too. Don't worry. It didn't cost much. It's a small thing. I left it on the kitchen counter."
We take the cigarettes from our mouths and hug and say we love each other and yell at Scooter.
I climb into my truck and ease it down the driveway past the fields of green weeds growing tall with the rain. Away from the house and the old man and the dog barking in the back yard. Away from a book left as a gift on the kitchen counter with the picture of a Grinch and a little dog on the front. Down to the road toward a writing gig in San Diego and away from a tiny white porcelain tree spinning slowly on its base and playing a chimey tune that misses only a couple of notes, "Tink tink tink (pause) / Tink tink tink (pause)."