by Bill Ratner
My six-month marriage to my green-card wife, Claudine the Swiss facialist, is over. At breakfast on Christmas Eve day in my doublewide at Top-o-Topanga Mobile Home Park, Claudine asks me for a divorce. I’m not devastated. I married her so she could get a green card, and we made the mistake of moving in together. I’m not that in love with her facials either. The Swiss have a habit of slapping you around after they put the cream on. On Christmas Eve Claudine flies to London to spend the holidays with her ex-boyfriend, Francois the commodities broker, who, as it turned out, has been sending her crisp one hundred-dollar bills stuck between the pages of Harlequin romance novels—a rather corny and expensive ploy to win her back, which works.
I am the announcer on the six-to-midnight shift at an easy-listening radio station in Beverly Hills—KJOI. We play “beautiful music,” the kind of thing you hear in a podiatrist’s office. That night I drive into the Santa Monica Mountains via Grizzly Peak Drive and go to work. Christmas Eve in LA. I am above the smog line. Alone. I think about Claudine. I’m not going to miss her hourly phone calls on the K-Joy music request line.
“Hello. I don’t like Los Angeles. I’m afraid of the earthquake. And I hate your doublewide.”
I start a reel of Christmas music and walk outside. I will either smoke a Winston red-band or do a salutation to the sun; I haven’t decided which. Searchlights and traffic glitter below. I breathe in the dry night air and gaze at the distant purplish-gray glow of the Pacific. I raise my hands over my head, stretch upward, and let my arms fall slowly and my spine bend forward until my head hangs comfortably between my knees. The listener request line rings. You can hear that damned thing down on Coldwater Canyon. I walk back into the studio and answer the phone.
“K-Joy, can I help you?”
“Hi, who’s this?” I know who it is. It’s Edith, a K-Joy regular who is probably alone on Christmas Eve. So am I.
“It’s Edith. Du-uh.” In five syllables—“du-uh” accounting for two of them—I can tell that Edith is home alone and drunk.
“What can I do for you, Edith?”
“Oh, well, I think you know.”
The reel of Christmas music comes to an end, and I turn on the microphone and read from an index card, “Joy is a Christmas Eve with good friends and family, and joy is listening to beautiful music on K-Joy—FM 99.” I start another reel of Christmas music.
“Was that you on the radio just now?”
“That was me.”
“Wow. Merry Christmas.”
“How are you feeling tonight, Edith?”
“Oh, I’m a little sloshed. And feeling kind of horny.”
“You sound pretty loaded, Edith. You okay?”
“Oh, yeah, but I’d be a little better if you’d come over and pay me a visit.”
I occasionally did see my role at K-Joy as that of a service provider. I check my watch. Twenty minutes before midnight.
“Edith, I’ll make you a deal. If you stop drinking right now, I’ll come by and pay you a visit after my shift.”
“Are you kidding?” Through the phone I hear the sound of Edith hoisting herself to her feet. “This is like, call up and order a man.”
“Listen, not one more drink until I get there. Okay?” Silence. I expect that she’ll hang up. Then comes the sound of a toilet flushing.
“I’m pouring the rest of my vodka down the crapper, so I’ll be nice and sober when you arrive.”
I leave the radio station and drive north through the mountains on Coldwater Canyon. I picture suburban families nestled in bed. I begin to wonder, what does Edith look like? Have I given her enough time to sober up? What am I doing? Oh, it will be fine. Edith doesn’t sound dangerous. She and I are K-Joy friends. No. I should just get on the freeway and go home to my doublewide. But it will be empty. I don’t want to wake up on Christmas morning alone.
At 12:30 a.m. I arrive at Edith’s apartment in Panorama City. Christmas is a half-hour old. Edith answers the door wearing a sleeveless cotton negligee. She is a large, barefoot, middle-aged woman with dyed red hair and a pinkish, round face. Her bare arms are freckled and thick. I find her eminently attractive. She curtsies and ushers me in. And to my surprise, she has sobered up as I requested.
She takes my hand and places it upon her ample bosom, her nipples growing like expanding terrycloth bathtub animals. Then she walks into her bedroom, takes off her nightgown, and waves me to her. I am not lonely anymore. She has a jar of Vaseline in her medicine cabinet—the lubrication equivalent of molasses—but I rub it between my hands and slather it upon us. And we while away the early morning hours of Christmas conjoined like barnyard animals. Making love to Edith is like having a sumptuous Christmas dinner—maybe a little too soon after lunch, but satisfying nonetheless.
A few days later, I have a case of crabs. I haven’t been with anyone else, so I assume I’ve gotten them from Edith. I’m not angry. It was a lovely Christmas Eve. I go to Rite-Aid and buy a bottle of Kwell. Between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, I don’t hear from Edith. I suppose I should call her and thank her. Then an hour into my New Year’s Eve air-shift at K-Joy, the listener request line rings. It’s Edith. Sober. I am delighted to hear from her. I invite her up to the station. Once again I find myself reaching out through the K-Joy request line to touch my listener. Edith seems shocked at my invitation. I expected to spend New Year’s Eve alone. But an hour later the security bell rings. It is Edith, driving a red Honda Civic and wearing a low-cut Hawaiian muumuu. It is 8 p.m. We have four hours until the next announcer arrives for the midnight shift. Edith and I strip and make love on the chief engineer’s desk, right next to the fifty-thousand-watt FM radio transmitter.
It is nearing the top of the hour, time for me to announce the station ID on the air. I walk Edith into the control room and place her hands palms-down on either side of the console with its flashing LEDs and switches and knobs. I stand behind her, gently bend her over, pull the microphone toward me, and as Percy Faith’s rendition of “We Three Kings” fades out, I slide inside Edith’s ample, welcoming, middle-aged body, and turn on the microphone. We are on the air.
“Good evening. It’s fifty-eight balmy degrees at KJOI Los Angeles. K-Joy. From our family to yours, we wish you a very happy New Year.”
I start another tape of Christmas songs and continue to glide in and out of Edith to the rhythm of Lawrence Welk’s “Sleigh Ride”: “Giddy-yap, Giddy-yap, Giddy-yap, It’s grand, just holding your hand…” And before I can turn off the microphone, Edith lets out a loud, braying sigh over the air. And the beautiful music plays on.
“The Grand Romance of Earl”
by Brenton Dickieson
Earl always told himself that he would never marry a girl who burned poplar. Cherry, maybe, or even mountain ash if you were in a pinch. But definitely not poplar.
Now, Earl told himself this most often when he was far enough from sober to know that even he should avoid chopping wood, let alone lighting a fire. At twenty-eight, he had yet to have his first date, and since moving to the city he hadn’t met any women who burned wood at all. But this was a standard he refused to compromise. Real men, great men, his mama always told him, don’t compromise on their principles.
Truth be told, Earl’s particular aristocratic taste came naturally. Earl was born some generations after a line of great men. As far as he could trace back, when Earl’s great-grandfather’s great-grandfather lost the deed to his land somewhere mid-Atlantic in 1820 and was forced to pick rocks on land leased to him by men in England who had never seen the land and its many rocks, Earl’s had a dim sense of what his fate would be. The title to the land wasn’t the only thing Earl’s great-grandfather’s great-grandfather had lost. Earl’s unfortunate ancestor was also the grandson of Theobald von Kraftman Dollherg, Earl of Augsberg, a German aristocrat who had always claimed to have invented carbonated water. Theobald von Kraftman Dollherg—Earl’s great-grandfather’s great-grandfather’s grandfather, if you recall—always claimed that the idea was stolen by a friend of his, Rev. Joseph Priestly of Leeds, England. Theobald felt that Priestly had received his divine punishment when his entire village was burned to the ground and the plagiaristic priest was forced into exile in the Americas. But his grandson, Earl’s great-grandfather’s great-grandfather, never forgot it, and once mentioned it to a grandson of Rev. Priestly himself when they met in exile in the Americas, on an occasion where neither of them was sober enough to light a fire. This insult led to a duel, which Earl’s great-grandfather’s great-grandfather lost by nature of his running away from his opponent. He ran all the way to Earl’s ignoble home town, where his family had picked rocks for a living, more or less, ever since.
The entire story is convoluted, and might explain some hard feelings between national Germany and the four kingdoms of Britain ever since. But when Earl’s mother named her son, she was consciously reaching back into his great heritage. Neither Theobald, nor Kraftman, nor even Dollherg were auspicious names in their little village, so she named him “Earl” and imagined for him great things. She believed he could do anything.
“Earl, you can do anything,” she told him.
“I know, mama,” he would answer, trying to pull his left foot out of his right shoe.
“Don’t ever forget it, son. You could do anything you set your mind upon.”
“Even big things mama?”
“Even big things, Earl. You could work at Mackleduff’s hog farm if you wanted to, or even be shift supervisor at the fish plant. There are no limits, Earl.”
Earl hugged his mama and hopped out of the room, thinking of all the things that he could do. He thought of being a lobsterman, or a carpenter. He thought of how Ricky’s father made good money picking beer bottles from the ditches. “There’s a fortune out there, eh,” Ricky’s father said once as he was exchanging the empty bottles for full ones at the liquor store. “You just gotta find ‘em.” Bottle picking was a real possibility, Earl knew.
But what Earl dreamed about most, what he really wanted deep within his most secret imagination, was to be a woodsman. He loved the woods: the clean, crisp air scented with chainsaw oil, mud caked on his rubber boots, the tearing of steel teeth into the flesh of a great maple bare of its aged canopy or a whimsical birch with its white limbs cast about the sky. Earl loved to see an old pickup weighted down with blocked apple, or a great pile of elm waiting to be chopped. He loved chopping wood, heating his cold frame by making heat for others. Earl loved wood, especially chopping it.
Truth be told, Earl didn’t see it as chopping wood. Truly and fairly, he saw it as giving the gift of heat and light to a cold world, the happy glow of flame in hearth, the holding back of ice and snow from a room full of loved ones. Wood was sacred to him, like a heated room was a sanctuary where the tales and songs within could somehow tame all the wild world around. And while there were talebearers and dancers who played their part in these fire lit rooms, his part was to get the wood. He did this with great pleasure, hoping that he might give heat and light to his own little room one day.
So when he saw the woman chopping wood in front of a tiny house on Prince St., Earl fell instantly in love. It was one of those cold fall sunsets, where light moves quickly but sound slows down. He could see her slice through the wood a second before the blessed sound of the chop reached his ears. His heart leapt with each deft movement of the axe through felled forest, and began making his way down Prince St. He had been heading to the pub up Kent, but the pint could wait. Here was a woman who knew her ax. Here was a woman he wanted to meet.
In general, the city women hadn’t impressed him much. Granted, since the plant closed and he moved to town, his experience was rather limited. But, still, they weren’t for him. Certainly Earl was stirred by them, the women of the city. They came in colours he didn’t have names for. They travelled in packs, leaving behind trails of scent he was sure he could track with his eyes closed even on a windy day. But none of them were worth much when it came to the woods. He would ask them, on the bus or at the pub, what they liked to burn. He hadn’t had many long conversations in the city just yet.
But as he trudged down Prince St. toward the woman with pale skin and glowing cheeks, he could see she was good with wood. She paused, wiped her forehead, then pulled the ax out of block and went to work again. Shelly MacLellan back home used to have her way with the tools, but she never thought much of Earl, he knew. As the sun dipped behind him, resting lazily on the city that was now his home in urban exile, the glorious scene of woman and wood was painted with hues of orange and pink and gold. Despite the cold and his cautious pace, his boot touching the pavement at a pace much slower than his heart, Earl began to sweat beneath his plaid vest.
It occurred to Earl, as he crossed the distance between them, that he had no plan. He couldn’t ask her what she liked to burn—he’d know that as soon as he got close enough. She was struggling, now, with a soft piece. She took off her plaid vest, and Earl caught his breath. His step faltered. As he stumbled, his boot scraping on gum-stained concrete, he remembered his mama’s voice. He could do anything, he knew. He could talk to this woman.
With renewed confidence bordering on a sense of destiny, Earl stepped onto the woodswoman’s block. Immediately his heart sank. He froze in spot, a hundred yards away from the gal with the ax. Despite the dying light, the details of the scene became brutally clear. She was chopping rowan, a hard enough task and sometimes necessary, when times were poor. But her pile was mostly filled with poplar. No doubt about it. Some of the wood was bare, stripped by moisture and insects as it lay too long in bush. Other was wrapped in dull grey bark, pocked like puckered paper lips, or lined with brown ridges tinged in green moss. It was poplar. The woman was burning poplar.
She stopped then, set her ax down, and looked up at Earl. She was pretty enough, Earl thought as he looked at her. Her red lips matched her ruddy cheeks, and it was almost as if she smiled at him then, leaning on her ax. If Earl had stumbled forward again, despite his prejudices, he would have found out that her name was Karen, and that she pronounced it “cairn,” and that like his mama she used a wood stove to rise her bread, and that she only burned poplar because it was free and it would be a long winter and things hadn’t been too good since she moved to town. If he had spoken just then, he would have known that she would never burn anything other than apple if she had her choice, but yellow birch was good too. But you have to let the frost get to it to chop, she would have said, if he had said hello.
But Earl didn’t say hello. He turned on the block and walked down Lapland St. toward Kent with the sunset orange and the buildings dark on his left shoulder. He was going there anyway, to the pub, wasn’t he? It was too bad about the poplar, Earl thought. She seemed a good woman. She was good looking and she knew her ax, Earl thought. Was a shame about the popular, though. But what’s a man without his principles?