I hate Canada. I know it ain’t fair to judge an entire country base upon the asskicking I routinely receive in the little barn just across the St. Lawrence River, but every time someone even mentions the country, I instinctively clinch up in preparation for a boot on my bottom. These Canucks don’t do no permanent damage – except, that is, to my pride. The worst part about this abuse is that – I’m their customer! Only the a bastardization of free-markets so great as provided by the 18th Amendment could so flip the customer service paradigm on its end – or rather, on my end.
I blame “Nana’s Nog.” Nana sure loves her eggnog. Well, when I say she loves her eggnog, I mean she loves the brandy in it. Because of Prohibition, you can’t buy booze in New York anymore, so she sends me, her only grandson, little more than two whisker-hairs past seventeen, across the border to become a bootlegger. Refusal is not an option. Nana’s got money. She’s got lots of money – practically owns our town. Now, tomorrow is Christmas, and with debts all over town, I simply can’t go without the big fat Christmas card she gives me each holiday. Especially, this year, as I’ve heard it said that Millie Blumengarten finally has eyes for me. I’m aiming to have enough money left over to take Millie on a daytrip to the soda fountain over in Watertown. It’s my understanding Millie can be real friendly to guys who buy her things.
If I refuse to get Nana booze, perhaps you think to yourself: “Well, it’s your grandmother – she has to give you your gift anyway,” No, she doesn’t. I assure you, she don’t feel the same instinctual affection that familial ties usually bring to bear. Nana’s a scold and is filled to the tightened bun atop her head with pride in it. She ain’t coy about it neither. If she had the choice to humiliate me privately or in public, she would not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. I just wish she’d chosen another errand for me. Last year she gave me the same errand and I slipped and dropped the brandy on the front steps. Why she would give a legendary klutz like me a job I already botched once before is beyond me, unless, of course, her goal is to find joy in berating me in front of the attendees of tonight’s Christmas Eve party like she did last year.
Thwap! “Aw, Jinglin’ Jesus-bells, guys, it’s Christmas Eve! Can’t I just buy the brandy and skedaddle without the usual torment? My keister is damn near numb from the ride up here – so your pretty much wasting yer time anyhow.”
The two slack-jawed brothers take turns. The more I complain the more pleasure they seem to take, so I mostly just dance around trying not to give them too plum a target. This foolishness will go on until their Pa finishes counting the money, and tells them to quit it. I wish he could count faster, but he’s dumber than are his boys. I now regretted that I had paid in a pile of small coins. Thwap!
“It’s all here,” their Pa looked up with a toothless smile that vanished with a belch. “Now, what are you three fools doing – quit it you numbskulls.”
“I don’t see why you fault me. I’m just trying to do business here.”
“Yer face is your fault. It’s like a joke – a man can’t help but wanna kick yer rump! Now take yer hooch and git.”
I picked up my case of brandy and mumbled, “Your face is a joke.”
“Aw, Jingling Jesus-bells.”
It was later than I’d hoped. The last of sunset reflected off the snow on the ground outside. I carefully watched my steps as I tucked the crate under the seat of my horse drawn buckboard. I own a Stutz Bearcat automobile, but I bent the damned rim of the left front tire on a curb last week on a second pass in front of Millie Blumengarten’s house trying to catch a look at the silhouette of her changing. Good thing her Pa is the town mechanic. We pushed it right into his garage. Told him a squirrel ran in front of me. ‘Course, he’s one of the people I owe a debt to.
Must be after 4:30. Got to get to the river ferry before it shuts down at 5 o’clock. Stuck in Canada for Christmas? I’d rather stay a virgin another seventeen years. “Come on, Jazzball!” I snapped the reigns, but the horse didn’t move. Was he gonna be stubborn about his name? His real name was Buttercup, but I don’t like calling him that, ‘lessen people might think more about me than what they no doubt already think they do, so I gave him the swell new, butch name: Jazzball. Nonetheless, light was fading, so I snapped the reigns again and whispered: “Come on, Buttercup.”
I needed to pull a bottle from the crate before I got to the bridge. I learned the first time I made this trip that the Canadian Mountie that patrols this side of the river levies a tax of his own – one bottle of whatever you bought. I came home empty handed that first trip. Learned to buy two bottles on my second trip – one fer him and one fer me – I mean one for Nana, o’course. And, there he is now, sure enough, waiting on me atop his steed in his bright red jacket accentuated by his bright red nose. Don’t he got a home and family he should be celebrating Christmas Eve with? Sure gotta be something better to do than harass me out here in the cold and night. “Merry Christmas,” I said, holding out the bottle. As was usual, he said nothing, but simply took my brandy and slid it into his saddle bag. I could hear the bottle, or was it him, slosh as he trotted away.
“Just made it, Templeton,” said Mr. Simpson the ferryman. “What would your Nana do if you didn’t make it home for the party?”
“She’d pay you handsomely to bring me back to New York, just so she could handsomely pay some Senator to have me officially deported back to Canada.”
“So, I lost a handsome payday by waiting here an extra five minutes past my time?”
“Nana owns this ferry! You work fer her. Perhaps, I were to tell her you left ahead of schedule? She wouldn’t be none too happy knowing you didn’t help me out in the making of her nog. You know as much as anyone what her nog means to her.”
“Haha, that’s a good one. Whom do you think she’d believe was late, and whom was early?”
“Come on, Mr. Simpson. It was just five minutes.”
“You’re right. I was expecting a fool like you to be fifteen minutes late – and I would have waited that long too. Unlike you, I’m too smart to get on the bad side of your Nana. But, Templeton – there will be a late charge. One bottle of that brandy.”
“Aw, Jingling Jesus-bells.” I reached into the case, gave him one of the pretty bottles and we started across the river.
‘Fool?’ Who was he calling a fool? I was wise to the Mountie. I knew there might be other trouble like him. That’s why I bought an entire case of brandy. Six bottles to a case! Heck, I could slip and break two and still have two more left after that. Fool? Not this year. This was the year I would prove my worth. Hell, I’m damn near a genius tonight. What would Nana say when I showed up with four bottles of brandy for her nog? That Christmas card was as good as mine.
Mr. Simpson must have been eager to pitch into that bottle of brandy because we crossed that river in record time. We left Canada five minutes late, but arrived on the holy side of the river five minutes early. It got me to thinking, did I have time to make a quick pass by Miss Millie Blumengarten’s window on the way home? She would no doubt be primpin’ for the party, to which she and her parents were, of course, invited. It was only the next street parallel to Main Street – a two minute diversion at best. A bright star in the sky, the Christmas Star I reckoned, high above the turn onto her street, seemed to pull Jazzball, like a Wise Man of old, in her direction.
I was keen to avoid, beneath the snow, the curb that bent my Stutz Bearcat. Surely, I’ve become something of a Wise Man myself. While I was watching for the curb, however, I failed to see Mr. Blumengarten flagging me down from his front garage. He cried out, “Master Templeton!” In surprise, I flinched the reins and Jazzball tore to the right and pulled us to a stop halfway into a snowbank. My heart flopped as the brandy bottles rattled beneath my seat.
“Are you alright, my boy?” asked Mr. Blumengarten running up to my buckboard. “You and this street don’t get along too well, Master Templeton. It’s a wonder why you take this street, when it’s not on your way home?”
“It’s a pretty street, sir. Much prettier than Main Street – and less traffic too.”
“Not likely to be a whole lot of traffic on Main Street tonight, Master Templeton, except for those of us headed to your Nana’s Christmas Eve party.”
“Well, I like to look at your —— flowers,” was all I could get out.
Mr. Blumengarten looked at the scrawny dead flower stems poking out of his snow-covered window boxes. Thankfully, he was confused by my confusion and turned the topic: “I just wanted to let you know that I finished fixing your car. You can pick it up anytime now if you want, but of course, you have Buttercup and that would make it hard to get them both home. Say, you must be on some pretty urgent business to be riding out on the ol’ buckboard tonight. If I were to guess, I would say you made a run up north of the border to get some spirit for your Nana’s nog.”
“You might be right, sir,” I informed him. “I was entrusted with this most important task and have come through in spades. Let it be known, Mr. Blumengarten, that I might be trusted with many an important matter, thing – or person.”
“Of course, you are a fine young man. The tally for your automobile is ten dollars, but if you had an extra bottle of brandy to spare, we might call things even. The brandy surely cost you a great deal less than ten dollars.”
Indeed, it did. What a bargain! To give up only one bottle and be able to keep the cash I would have had to have paid him from my Nana’s Christmas card. Heck, I would be able to buy his daughter a train ticket to Watertown, a soda at the fountain and an entire box of Hershey’s chocolate to boot. What would she do for Hershey’s? I’d heard she had a sweet tooth. I reached, gladly, under my seat and withdrew a bottle. I’d still arrive home with three bottles of brandy for Nana. Damn smart of me to buy a case! Wanna know how smart I am, I asked Mr. Blumengarten for a receipt to prove that my debt was paid-in-full.
While he was inside his garage getting my receipt, the most glorious thing happened. Millie stood in the front doorway and called me over. The snow melted around me as I walked to meet her.
“I saw that bottle you gave Pa. You got anymore of them bottles, my little Tempy-wempl-ton?”
“If you give me one of those bottles, Tempy-wempl-ton, I’ll let you sit outside my window while I get changed for you grandmother’s party. Whatdayasay?”
I hardly slid on the ice and snow at all, as I ran to the buckboard for that bottle. So damn smart to buy a case – I’d still arrive home with a bottle to spare!
“Five minutes – ’round the side, Tempy-wempy,” she ran her fingers through my hair before going back inside.
“Have you been drinking that brandy already?” Mr. Blumengarten asked me a minute later. I couldn’t stop giggling when he handed me the receipt.
“Just excited for Nana’s party, sir.”
“Let her know, Mr. and Mrs. Blumengarten, along with their daughter, will be there in half an hour.”
“Will do, sir.”
I hitched Jazzball to a… whatever – I’m not sure what. Maybe it was a bush – maybe it was Nana. I don’t know. I don’t care. When Mr. Blumengarten had gone inside, I made haste around the side of the house. But, I ain’t stupid, I carried the two remaining bottles with me for safe keeping.
I was the only guy in town my age not to have yet experienced a woman. It was a fact, of which, most of them were more than eager to remind me of. That Millie Blumengarten had been how most of them had gotten in the know of things, did not bother me. What bothered me was, why I hadn’t? Who cared if I was last? So long as I was. It meant nothing to me that mine weren’t the only set of footprints beneath her window. I had permission, and here she came in all her roundly goodness! My head spun. Pantaloons, corsets, stockings, garters – it was a whirlwind of flesh and destiny. Oh, the pressure! Oh, the torture! My tightening pants, and the window panes, were my fiercest enemy. I rubbed one of the bottlenecks, as my tool. Oh, the… I was grabbed by the scruff of my collar and pulled back. I came face to face with the preacher from the town’s church; located just next door to the Blumentgarten’s garage. “Aw, Jingling Jesus-bells!”
“Master Templeton, what do you think you’re doing?”
“Come with me!”
Reverend Cranston dragged me to his office in the annex of the church, of which my Nana was, of course, the largest contributor. He sat me before his desk, my second home, and preached: “It’s Christmas Eve son and here we are again. I thought I had told you about controlling the devils within you after the church picnic incident with the girls in the swimming hole last summer!” (That’s a story for another time, dear reader.) He went on, and on, and on, about Jesus, and him being the reason for the season, and how he died for our sins, but that mine probably made up the majority of those. But, I couldn’t hear him. All I could think of were those healthy, oh, so worthy, alabaster pippens I’d seen through the frosted window. I needed that Christmas card so badly, but how could I endure that train ride beside Miss Blumengarten all the way to Watertown? I’d likely tear my pants in torture!
“Master Templeton! Have you heard a word I’ve said?”
In truth, I had not heard much of any of it, but I’m sure I knew what he must have said. It must’ve been what he and every adult had now told me for years, and that was what I told him. “Sir, you said that I need to get control of myself; to get myself together, and that it’s time for me focus on serious things.”
“Well, alright,” he said, combing a wisp white hair back with his craggy fingers. “What you got in your hands there, boy?”
I held up the bottle. Thank God it was only the bottle!
“Son, I must confiscate that contraband. You know, I must. Now, hand it over.”
“Aw, Jingling Jesus-bells.” I handed him the bottle.
“And, God damn it, Master Templeton, stop taking the Lord’s name in vain!”
Outside, and free again, I had to hurry. Reverend Cranston had wasted too much of my Christmas Eve with all his irrelevant Jesus-talk. The party was likely started already and without any nog! I tried to block, from my mind, the vision of Nana’s nostrils flaring. I hurried back to Millie’s, now dark, window where I had left the last remaining bottle chilling in the snow. Damn, I was wise to get that case. Through all this trouble, I was still in possession of my destiny. I held tight of that brandy as I unhitched Jazzball.
It was a quick trot home. I would come back out to stable the horse in a minute, first I had to get that brandy into the party. I ran up the walk past the expensive imported life-sized Italian-made plaster Nativity scene in the yard that Nana was so proud of. The baby Jesus reached his arms up into the night sky, as if he wanted my last bottle of brandy. “Sorry, baby Jesus,” I said, “This here bottle is intended for someone much more powerful.” I laughed at my wit. Through my glee, I missed seeing the ice patch. where the porch met the stairs, at the bottom of the clogged gutter Nana asked me to clean out before Halloween. Up I went, down I came, and into the night sky went that last bottle. I’m not sure exactly where it landed, but, by the sound of the crash, not only had the bottle broken, but whatever it hit, had also broken – no doubt the expensive imported life-sized Italian-made plaster Nativity baby Jesus. I went inside to face my fate.
The big old house was packed with townsfolk, the phonograph blared a cheery carol and I found Nana laughing by her giant bowl of eggnog. Standing beside her was Mr. Simpson, the ferryman, and Mr. Blumengarten with his wife and Millie. Two half-empty bottles of brandy stood on the table beside them. “Where’s the brandy?” Nana asked, her face becoming quite serious as I approached.
“Nana, I slipped and broke the bottle out front. I’m so very sorry.”
“Why, of course, you did! You infernal nincompoop! Why do you think I alerted all the townsfolk that you would be passing through town with my brandy? I needed to make sure that they took it from you and brought it safely here to me. And, so they did. Cheers to me and us all! A Merry Christmas!” She took a belt so savage from her cup, she nearly lost her dentures. “Shame about your Christmas card, grandson. I was irresponsible and must have lost it somewhere. Seems we are the same flesh and blood. Oh, here comes the Reverend Cranston with another bottle! Merry Christmas! Hope that Mountie gets here soon!”
What a fool I truly am? I contemplated that question by the fire in the salon. How could I not get one of six bottles home safe. To be sure, would I need to get two cases in Canada for New Year’s Eve? My keister hurt just thinking about it. Just then, Millie came into the room and sat beside me. She placed her hand on my leg. “Have joy,” she said, “You have everything you need.” Was she right? My debt was paid off to her father for my car. I had her beside me. “Not everyone brought their bottles of brandy to your old Nana, Tempy-wemple-ton,” she whispered in my ear. “I hid mine outside for us, let’s go out front awhile and have some fun.”
It was cold out front, but I wouldn’t know it. I was giving off a great shaft of heat. Millie kept close about me, keeping warm from my fever. “Where’d you stash the bottle, my love?”
“In the nativity scene – but you knew I was bad.”
My heart sank, and it was right. When we got to the manger, I saw what had happened. My bottle had smashed upon her bottle and we were left without.
“Templeton, you really are the most worthless klutz in creation.” She let slip his arm and returned to the house.
“Aw, Jingling Jesus-bells!”