December 24th, 1968; one hundred and thirty-two days since the incident. Local temperature 76 degrees.
Normally, when driving into the town of Bancroft, North Dakota most people note the large sign welcoming them to town. It has the smiling face of a reindeer waving at them, a brilliant strand of twinkle lights looped around the border, and the town’s motto, “Most Christmas town on Earth, save one.” There’s also a small sign calling out station WXMS 1225 AM radio and if they should turn the dial to that station they will be met with nothing but year round Christmas music. Beyond the sign was a quiet road through the forest lined with eight foot candy canes shining fire red and pearly white, each one standing at tall and straight. Signs with bright cartoon characters wishing motorists a jolly visit sat just far enough inside the forest that they could only be seen as cars passed by.
This year, as a festively decorated big rig hauled up the road past the sign the driver noted the reindeer was faded, the twinkle lights hadn’t been turned on, and the small sign for the radio station was covered with a burlap sack like the police use on out of order parking meters. The candy canes leaned at odd angles and the bright colors had chipped away leaving bare wood showing in many places. Vines, weed, and small foliage had grown rampant in the woods covering many of the signs left to welcome motorists. The cartoon characters now peeking out through cracks in the vegetation left the driver with the feeling of being watched.
The rig trundled up the road towards town. When the rig cleared the forest locals turned to stare. The candy apple red Mack truck roared into view. Several strands of shining twinkle lights hung from its sides and blinked at the people watching in awe as the truck rolled by. Stenciled up the side of the mammoth vehicle was the name Mountain Thunder. It reached the middle of town and turned to enter a public lot momentarily bouncing up on the curb. When the truck jostled a set of wrought iron and bass bells that hung from the exhaust stacks rang out loud enough to be heard over the cacophonous engine of the mighty rig.
Annette watched all of this with a bemused grin through the large window of her empty diner, the Tinsel Town Snack Shop. She sat on one of the black and silver stools and leaned against her vacant lunch counter. She had a cup of coffee held loosely in one hand and listened to the occasional clang and bump that came from the kitchen where Cookee worked at the grill. She wasn’t sure what he was doing back there as they hadn’t had a customer in two days. Even that had just been the local park ranger for a thermos full of coffee.
She sipped her cooling coffee and watched as the door to the rig swung open and what must have been the biggest man she had ever seen dropped out of the truck and onto the pavement. She gauged him to be well past six foot of muscle and blue flannel. He bore a large neatly groomed beard that must have been a full hands length.
With nothing else of interest to do that day she decided to watch the stranger. She’d cleaned the diner six times this week and just couldn’t bring herself to re-shine the chrome railings one more time. There were some children nearby the lot playing football in a muddy field; the trucker waved at them as he walked by. He carried a bundle with him and stopped in at several of the local businesses. A stop at the post office was first, he went in pulling a large parcel out of the bag and came out a few minutes later.
His next stop was the Bernstein barber shop with its candy cane barbers pole. She nodded, it was sad when a man had a beard that long. She understood it of the few lumber men and park rangers that came this way. Those men spent weeks and months in the freezing wilderness without access to proper shaving kits. Plus the facial hair kept them warmer so it made it as much about comfort as anything else. A trucker should have better access to grooming supplies. When he emerged later with shorter hair and his beard untouched, she was slightly disappointed.
His next stop was at Ho Ho Haung’s Jewish Deli. When the trucker left there he was shoving two large paper wrapped meats into his sack. He was only a few doors away at this point and Annette would swear she heard him call out something to the folks inside the store in Chinese. Pulling a jacket out of the bag he walked into the local laundromat, Miss Klaus’s Workshop. A few moments later he exited waving to the folks in the shop.
He turned towards the diner and started walking. It took Annette far longer than she was willing to admit to realize he was coming in for lunch. She quickly moved around the back of the counter and dumped her coffee out before sliding the cup through the small panel for dirty dishes. She turned around in time to see the massive man open the door. She had a brief moment where she wondered if his broad shoulders would fit through the doorway before he entered.
“Howdy ma’am,” said the trucker. He had a friendly manner and a soft voice. He smiled easy and seemed to bring a bit of light to the room. Annette wasn’t sure how to explain it, like the room had gotten more comfortable, but not exactly.
“Welcome to the Tinsel Town Snack Shop, what can I get you stranger?”
The big man sat at the counter, resting his bundle on the stool next to him. “What’s the special today?”
“Let me check.” Annette turned to the window into the kitchen and called back, “Cookee, what’s the special?”
“Lasagna with garlic bread and a salad, like every Tuesday.”
Annette faltered for a moment. Had Cookee been making the daily special every day? If so, what had he been doing with the leftover food? Annette turned to the counter to face the stranger.
“That sounds just fine ma’am. I’ll take a plate of that if it’s ready.”
“Cookee, one special,” Annette yelled into the back. She then turned to face her customer and in a more civil voice asked, “What would you like to drink?”
The trucker smiled, “It’s been a while, but as I recall you folks have the best coffee in three states. I’ll take a cup of that.”
The statement caught Annette’s attention. It wasn’t unusual for truckers to pass through town enough to be recognized by the locals but she couldn’t put memory to this man’s face. As she turned to pour him some coffee, she asked, “You been through here before?”
“You’re not on my regular route,” said the trucker, “but I like to pass through here around this time every year.”
Annette slid the cup of coffee in front of him and moved the small pot of creamer and the bowl of sugar cubes to where he could reach them.
The trucker added a bit of cream and sipped the coffee. “Yep, still the best.” He took a deeper drink. “I like coming here around Christmas, usually it gets me feeling festive.”
“Special up,” cried Cookee from the back of the kitchen as two plates appeared on the small ledge.
Annette turned and grabbed the plates, returned to the counter, and placed them in front of the trucker. “Well, I’m sorry you came during such a bad year for it. We haven’t been in much of the spirit this year.”
“I was sorry to see that,” said the trucker. “But you’re not too far gone. You got some mistletoe hung over by the jukebox.”
Annette glanced over at the spindly piece of flora, wrapped in ribbon made to look like a piece of movie film. “I sorry, we leave that up all year. It sort of goes with the town. At least it normally does.”
The trucker leaned forward and whispered in a conspiratorial tone. “Do you mind if I move it? I happen to be an expert on where to hang any individual piece of mistletoe.”
Annette laughed. “Feel free. Where is the best place to hang a piece of mistletoe?”
The trucker swallowed another bite of lasagna, “That’s the thing. It’s different for each piece. Figuring out where each particular piece of mistletoe goes is the trick.”
“And how do you figure that out?”
“Years and years of practice.”
Annette laughed again. “I tell you stranger, I haven’t laughed this much in a long time. I hope you find someplace that makes you feel festive by Christmas. When is it anyway?”
“Tomorrow,” cried Cookee from the kitchen.
Annette turned to the window, “what?”
“That’s right,” said the trucker. “Today’s the twenty-fourth.”
Annette was staggered. Had it really been that long? How had she missed Christmas was happening? How had anyone missed it? Had anyone wished her a Merry Christmas? Had she wished anyone? “I had no idea,” she said.
“If it makes you feel any better, I don’t think anyone did,” said the trucker. He raised his voice. “Except Cookee back there. How you doing Cookee?”
“I’m doing fine,” called Cookee. “Eat your lasagna before it cools.”
“All right.” The trucker took another bite of lasagna.
Annette looked at the window and back at the trucker. “You two know each other?”
The trucker waved away the question, “We go back a ways.” He emptied his coffee cup and Annette refilled it with the last of the pot.
Annette turned and began brewing a new pot while trying to make sense of the last few minutes. While she stood staring at the coffee maker watching the dark liquid fill the glass pot she tried to reconcile what she knew of Cookee, this man, and even that she had completely missed Christmas. Well, almost missed it. She turned and refilled the trucker’s cup once more.
“Thanks,” said the trucker. “Why don’t you tell me what happened?”
“Not much,” said Annette. “It was about four months ago. You know that big pine tree north of town, the one we used to decorate every year?”
“I do,” said the trucker.
“Some fella hit it with his car. No one’s sure how. A little while after that the tree fell over and we hit a stretch of rocky luck. The temperature went up, there was a drought and a fire that took out most of the forest north of here. Which is where the radio station was; so it’s gone now. Tourists stopped coming. Then the townsfolk, we all just sort of stopped caring. I don’t know, it was like we just didn’t think anything mattered anymore. Then a couple of weeks ago we got just enough rain to turn the ground to mud. I think that may have been the final nail.
“You know, normally, it’s beautiful around here.” Annette found herself smiling. “We have Christmas lights up year round. Wreaths hanging from every street light. Everyone smiled, all the time. The Mayor would walk around in that ridiculous Charles Dickens outfit with the top hat and welcome everyone to Christmas. He had pockets full of candy canes for all the kids.
“Then there was the tree at the end of town. We left it bare from January to December. We had twenty-four stages of decoration. Everyday some new set of things went up on that tree. Until, well, today when we’d follow the mayor in that ridiculous sleigh we had built. It’s covered in bells and wreaths and pulled by a couple of horses from a local farm. We’d all follow it up to the tree like some sort of parade and stand there while speeches were made, carols were sung, and finally, they would light the tree and it would sparkle unlike anything in the world. Then we’d all join hands and sing We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”
The trucker stood, his plate now empty. “That sounds nice.”
“Do you still have those amazing Christmas cookies?”
“I don’t think so,” said Annette.
“How many you want,” shouted Cookee from the back.
The trucker thought for a moment. “A dozen in a bag to go. Right now I’d like six on a plate.” He thought for a moment then added, “I also want nine raw whole carrots.”
There was a bark of laughter from the kitchen. Then after a moment a plate of sugar cookies, decorated like wreaths, and a bundle of carrots with the green leaves still attached slid onto the shelf for ready orders. Annette moved the plate over to the counter for the trucker. The trucker took the plate and smiled at Annette, “I’ll be right back.” He then turned and walked out of the diner carrying the plate.
Annette quickly moved around the counter and followed him out onto the street. She tried her best to keep up with him, but his strides were so much longer than hers that he easily outpaced her. Still, it only took Annette a few moments to figure out where he was going. As he walked up the street with a plate of cookies and carrots several children caught sight of the big man and began to follow him out of curiosity. As he marched the crowd behind him grew in size as some of the adults joined until what must have looked like a parade to an outsider was tromping up the street headed north out of town.
When he reached the edge of town the trucker kept going until he arrived at a large clearing with a burned stump in the middle of it. He walked out to the stump, his boots leaving deep squelching prints in the muddy ground. When he reached the stump he gave a sharp whistle and set the plate down on the charred remains of the old pine tree. The gathered crowd grew quite. The trucker was saying something but no one could hear. Annette walked as close to the clearing as she could get without walking in the mud.
Later, Annette would swear she couldn’t hear anything, but if you’d asked her that night she would have said she heard the trucker say this, “They’re good people. They just hit a bad patch. I don’t like to tell you how to do your job but they need you something awful. Besides, you still owe me for ’57.” The trucker then placed the plate on the burned out tree stump and took a deep breath.
After a moment the skeletal remains of the charred forest rattled with a cold breeze. The wind blew out from the forest and made everyone in the crowd shiver. Annette curled her arms around herself for warmth. She sighed, her breath fogging the air before her.
Leaving the plate on the stump the trucker made one final statement, “Then we’re even. Thank you.” He turned and walked back into town. The suddenly frigid air was causing everyone to run for their homes, regretting the choice of short sleeves.
The trucker headed back to the diner and gathered up his bag of cookies that had been left on the counter near his bundle. Annette followed behind him. She had so many questions and yet couldn’t get them to come out. The trucker pulled a thermos from his bag and asked. “Can I get you to fill it up for me?”
Annette nodded and poured the last of her newest pot of coffee into the thermos.
The trucker dropped some bills on the counter and turned to leave, stopping at the door long enough to say, “Merry Christmas. I think you folks are going to be just fine.”
He left, walking out into the street. Annette watched him go, only vaguely aware of the few flakes of snow falling past her window. Her eyes followed the trucker on his way to his rig, stopping at Miss Klaus’s Workshop to retrieve his jacket. By the time he’d gotten inside and started it up the snow was dropping in huge clumps. As his tail lights faded from view she could barely see across the street.
Later that night when the diner closed, Annette prepared for the walk home. Cookee had told her not to go. He offered to drive her. Normally the walk didn’t bother her, but the blizzard that had swept in that afternoon had her worried, so she took the offered ride.
As they pulled into her driveway she turned to Cookee, “Thanks Cookee. I appreciate it.”
“Let me walk you to your door,” said Cookee. “I want to make sure you don’t trip and hurt yourself.”
Cookee jumped out of the car and ran around to her side pulling the door open to let her out. Annette wanted to protest but the heels she was wearing would make the sidewalk a bit more hazardous than she was willing to risk. “Thanks Cookee.” Annette felt self-conscious for a moment. “You know I’ve never asked you your real name.”
“Mike,” said Cookee. “My names Mike.”
They navigated her sidewalk, her arm wrapped around Cookee’s, holding on to keep her footing. They climbed the two steps to her front porch and she reached out to grab the door handle and let herself in. As she did her shoes caught on a piece of ice and Annette suddenly found herself tumbling backwards. Before she had a chance to react, Cookee had caught her and pulled her close against his chest.
“Are you okay,” he asked?
Annette stared up past Cookee to the roof of her porch. Hanging above their heads was a faded sprig of Mistletoe wrapped in a piece of ribbon made to look like movie film.
Merry Christmas folks. Thanks for stopping by.
Merry Christmas folks. Thanks for stopping by.