Three strangers meet before Christmas — a short story that appeared in the collection “Other Voices, Other Doors.”
I pass this on from a friend of mine who told me about it last night.
You’ll have to guess which is my friend. I shall remain nameless.
They called me long distance, and, not having heard from them in a great many years, I accepted the charges. I love hearing from old friends, especially this time of year.
A woman had just finished her shopping and her station wagon was full of presents when she realized she was running on empty and she had to stop for gas in a strange neighborhood. It was the night before Christmas Eve.
There was a Harley-Davidson parked by an old phone booth outside the Amoco station (or maybe it was Sunoco). Anyway it was one of those filthy rundown places that hadn’t yet been made respectable and turned into mini-marts with automatic cappucino and so on. There was a sad spray of white Christmas lights strung halfheartedly over the awning above the pumps. Many bulbs were missing. And she kept hearing this Ding, Ding, Ding sound as she pumped.
(Perhaps you don’t recall that gas stations used to have air hoses laid out like snakes by the pumps which, when cars drove over them, signaled the attendees that they had a customer with a loud ring — the same sound cash registers used to make: Ding, Ding, Ding. Quaint, right? I know: It’s hard to keep up with all the changes. Perhaps I should have started by explaining what a gas station was, but I assume your parents still remember them and would it hurt to call them? Besides, if I started down that path we would be here all night).
Suddenly she saw a hand underneath her car. It reminded her of something. She had heard this was a gang initiation or something. They slash at your ankles and get points.
But she had always wondered: what if there were no witnesses? What good would slashing someones ankles be if they had to take your word for it? Besides the hand had nothing in it to slash her with.
She leaned down and saw it was a blonde man in a black leather jacket, black pants and black boots. He lay on his back under her car.
She asked him if he was all right.
He said, Not really. And then there was that Ding, Ding, Ding sound.
Whats wrong? she asked, but before he could answer a little brown man in a white short-sleeved shirt said, He is crazy people. The man bent down and directed his voice to the smeared concrete. You are crawling under my customers cars! Must I call the authorities?
Ding, Ding, Ding.That sound again.
The woman saw the biker had a tattoo on his hand. (This was decades before tattoos were a common body decoration. The very act of marking your skin declared yourself an outsider.) The tattoo read “999”.
It made her smile, actually. It reminded her of the mall and how everything was marked a penny shy of even. Such a deal.
People are so frightened, said the biker with a sigh, They believe the news.
The news? she asked.
The little brown man rolled his eyes, rolled his whole head in fact.
If you believe the news there’s a fire and a rapist and a murderer on every corner. Im just saying —
— You are disturbing customers. This cannot be legal.
Ding, Ding, Ding.
Let him talk, said the woman.
He really did look pathetic under the car. She hoped he wasn’t going to get scorched on the catalytic converter. She’d heard such stories. Cats sleeping under the cars and roasting to death. But that didn’t make sense, did it? Surely, the cats would feel the heat and run off.
Ding, Ding, Ding.
You were saying? she asked.
We have to learn to trust each other again, said the biker on his back.
We’ve got to realize not everyone is a psychopath or evil.
Look who is talking psychopath under the car, the station manager said.
Ding, Ding, Ding.
My ex-husband was evil. He beat our dog.
The biker under the car made a fist. That’s horrible, he said. I love dogs.
I am a cat lover myself, said the station manager smiling at the woman. His teeth were some of the brightest things in the night.
I shot him when he was sleeping, said the woman squeezing the nozzle.
The station manager took a step back and smiled a toothless smile.
You are not armed now I am hoping?
No, she said. I can’t carry a firearm. I’m on probation.
The biker on his back cleared his throat and asked, You did time?
Four years, she said. Good behavior, if you were wondering. Second degree manslaughter.
Ding, Ding, Ding.
Who is doing the dinging? said the manager, frowning.
Still, the biker said, I think we can agree: violence is exceptional.
My brother Moonear was killed in the war.
Which one? asked the woman, pulling out a cigarette from her purse.
With Iraq, said the manager. Smoking is prohibited.
I’m sorry, the Biker said.
Me too, she said, putting away the cigarette.
The station manager folded his arms on the filthy pump and rested his chin, gazing off into the distant dark. My mother spoiled him. Seven children and chooses him to favor, he said sadly, looking as if he would have gladly traded places with his dead brother. Why can you not be like Moonear? Huh! Who is living now, I ask? Who?
After a time the woman who had manslaughtered said, The dinging stopped.
It was me, said the biker under the car. I apologize. I was trying to get some attention. There was a muffled belch. After a moment he added, I come from a large family.
I also, said the Iranian.
Me, too, said the woman.
I have killed a man as well, said the station manager.
The woman and the biker were silent.
It was before the Plexiglas.
The woman and the biker were silent.
The mess was terrible, he told them. He was crazy people.
I killed a man, too, the biker said. In prison.
The woman and the manager were silent.
I don’t want to talk about it, said the biker on his back.
Actually, he had never been to prison or killed a man. But everyone was talking about killing and he didn’t want to feel left out.
For a time no one said anything.
The biker wondered: What if she has a gun in her purse right now? What if she were the kind who shot first and asked questions later?
The woman wondered: Would the station manager have used his gun on the biker? He killed before. Probably right over there by the air fresheners. I’m glad I’ve got my gun in my purse.
The station manager wondered: Why are American women so blind? Can she not see I am interested? Maybe if I showed her my gun behind the counter? On the other hand there was the incident with the man in her bed.
We’ve got to trust each other, said the biker. That’s all I’m saying.
It is very difficult, said the Manager. So much crazy people.
And cruelty, said the woman.
And fear, the biker said.
Two people stood and one man lay in the dim glow of fluorescence in the middle of the night before Christmas Eve.
Three strangers, one of whom was armed.
You shouldn’t crawl under peoples cars, she told the biker, returning the nozzle to its notch. They’ll get the wrong idea and you might get hurt.
And stop with the dinging, said the manager.
You’re probably right, said the biker, But I’m stuck, he explained. He had dropped his keys under her car and, retrieving them, had gotten stuck. He had rung the bell with his boot heel to get their attention. Did they think he was nuts or something?
With the help of the manager and the woman, they each grabbed a limb, and the biker was freed from the woman’s station wagon. (Escort. Or possibly Honda. I can never remember those names.)
The woman was prettier than the biker had imagined. Though he couldn’t help glancing at her big purple suede purse. He wondered who all the gifts were for. Then he recalled her large family. He hadn’t spoken to his in years. They hadn’t accepted the charges when he tried to call collect from the booth. He frightened them. Which was why he had thrown the keys. Which was why he was drunk. It’s still me, he wanted to tell them. I’m still me. There were toys he noticed in the woman’s car so there were kids. Hers? He recalled the morning the one Christmas when he had truly gotten what he had asked for. A plastic castle with knights and dragons and a drawbridge that rode on golden chains. He liked the black knight best of all and he wouldn’t share it with anybody. He noticed the buckle on his jacket where he’d gotten caught up had been ripped off.
Maybe he’d buy himself a new one for Christmas. No, it was his favorite jacket. He wondered if it frightened her, too. The nice woman with the beautiful blue eyes. Let him talk, she had said. How could she have known that was what he needed?
The blonde biker was smaller than she had imagined, but how else could he fit under the car? His hands were stuffed in the pockets of his black Levis so she couldn’t see the tattoo anymore. His eyelashes were blonde and his eyes bloodshot. He smelled of beer. He seemed nice enough but you never knew. The heels on his black boots were as big as the legs on her couch. She had heard that drugs were smuggled into the country from Mexico in boot heels like that. She had heard a dog had chewed on its masters boot and bitten into a stash of cocaine and had overdosed. In Sarasota, she recalled. She would drive tomorrow to Miami to Mom’s and wrap the presents on the dining room table and listen to her advice. Where to live. How to dress. Who to date. Calling her by her full first name which nobody else did except the shrink and the parole board. And her annual holiday visit with her stiff uppity sisters and their oh-so-polite husbands. But it was worth it to see the faces on her nieces and nephews when they opened their gifts and hugged her. They called her Aunt Teen. It was best really. She got all the perks of motherhood without the labor. Or the men.
She was lucky really. She and Ray could have had kids. And then where would she be? She remembered how heavy his gun was in her hand. How could she have found the courage to kill the monster if he was paying the bills, if she needed him? Needing them, her cellmate Tia had said. That’s what fucks us. Needing them. Tia in the up bunk talking after lights out.
All she could see was her black hand dangling overhead. She always sent Tia Christmas cards but Tia never answered. Maybe she was angry. Well, she was in for life. A strange thought occurred to her as she glanced at the puzzled brown man’s face and his tired, beautiful eyes. It was nice of him to watch out for her. To care. The thought was: Maybe Tia couldn’t read.
It was obvious to the manager, that both Americans were crazy. These night visitors. The dinging and the killing. He could see it in their eyes. The man he had shot looked exactly like that: normal. Why did they all look at him as if he did not know how to speak? His English was exceptional. He had gotten high marks. And for a moment he missed the music of his native tongue, the songs he used to sing. He was an exceptional singer. He missed his mother with the arthritis and the candies his uncle used to bring him from Agadez. And a certain girl with wounding brown eyes who had married the wrong man who had died in the bombing. He hated this crazy holiday. It meant the wobbly ladder and stringing up all those lights. And the bad bulbs. Always the bad bulbs. And the sickening strange smell of eggnog on the customer’s breath. And missing. Missing everybody. And no one looking him in the eye. Behind the Plexiglass. He was a hand passing them their change. Which they always counted. I am just a hand, he thought. Whose hand am I?
She was reaching into her purse when the biker said, My name is Bobby.
The woman turned to him. The biker saw the station manager eyeing her pink hand.
Ernestine, said the woman.
The biker and the woman turned and, as if they had rehearsed it, simultaneously said the little brown man’s name.
He froze. How was it possible? He was not wearing the uniform tonight. The one that said his name on the pocket.
She handed him a twenty, saying, Keep the change.
Thank you very much, he stammered, looking at the strange face on the bill. Jefferson? Jackson? So many names to remember.
The woman took out her keys and gave them a little jingling flip. She smiled into his startled eyes and said, Merry Christmas.
Merry Christmas, said the biker over her shoulder.
The man little brown folded his hands before his waist and gave a slight bow. Thank you very much. Come again.
They watched him go back. As he reached for the door the biker called out, Yo! One last ding?
The managers shoulders slumped. He turned frowning to the couple by the pumps, his eyebrows had become one jet black bar of hair above his eyes. Hoekay, he said sternly. Then you go home! Are you hearing what I am saying to you?
Merry Christmas, said the biker to the both of them.
Merry Christmas, said the woman.
And to all a good night, said the manager.
Driving off into the cool darkness she had one glimpse in her rearview mirror of the little biker in black jumping up and down, stomping joyfully on the rubber hose under the sagging lights, and the station manager behind the Plexiglas shaking his head. Crazy people. Though she could not hear the dings as she pulled away, the notes rang clear and bright in her mind as the bells of a church on an empty night, under a black sheet of stars across a snow-covered plain, in a world sleeping, dreaming good dreams, waiting for Christmas to come.
So now you will ask: Which one was your friend?
And I will say: That is the wrong question.
There are four possible answers — one more than you are considering.
And I will tell you something else. All of them are correct.