I won’t drive on Christmas. Not ever again. Here’s why, in a Christmas Story from Death and the Dream (not for the children):
In the dead of night and thirty degrees below zero Fahrenheit in a December blizzard, a beat-up 1968 blue Dodge skids over the packed snow around a sharp curve. An old German shepherd dog stands on the roadside a quarter-mile up ahead. The dog stares through cataracts at the approaching car’s headlights. The points of light grow as the car advances through the driving snow like a blue-gray bullet in a blind white purgatory.
Amelia wakes up in the passenger seat of the beat-up car. She looks over at her older husband Johnny where he sits immobile beside her as if he were frozen to the steering wheel. He’s not. She knows he’s just pissed off about coming out here to the country to see her family. Barren trees dance under curtains of snow outside the car windows. A dance of the dead.
Twin spots of red appear in the headlights and jump erratically around the bends of the winding road. They come closer and closer to the car like an out-of-tune radio station comes in as you approach a city on a long drive through the foothills of the mountains.
“Honey, slow down,” Amelia says sleepily.
Johnny answers, “Go back to sleep. No one’s out tonight. Too damn cold,” and he navigates the old car with determination in the blustering snow.
“You’re going too fast.”
“Did I want to drive on Christmas?” he continues, “No. No, I didn’t. But you had to see your family, all the way out here in the middle of a nightmare blizzard. We could have taken the subway and seen my family right there in the city, but no. We had to drive to the country. Probably won’t even get there, will we? No.”
“Slow down,” Amelia commands, fully awake now and focusing on red dots of the animal’s eyes dancing closer in the headlights.
Johnny drones, “On Christmas, thirty below. I didn’t know it could even get this cold. Why do people even live out here? Where the hell are we anyway? Oh, I know. I get it. We must be where you go when you make stupid decisions on Christmas. We’re in the cold version of the afterlife, because this isn’t living.”
The old German shepherd starts to move and it runs straight onto the road toward the path of the approaching car. Johnny leans on the horn and stomps on the brakes but the old car hurls forward. On the new snow layers over the packed snow, the brakes are useless and the car plows ahead. The two tons of rusted steel are propelled not by the engine but by sheer momentum. They are out of control.
The massive dog lunges up toward the car’s hood. The glowing red eyes turn black and look right at the couple through the glass. Amelia screams. The body slams headfirst into the center of the front windshield and bounces off, thrown twenty yards further down the road.
Johnny wrestles with the steering wheel but the car bulldozes uncontrolled into the left roadside snow banks. Exposed rocks scrape the driver’s side of the car and the vehicle grinds to a stop in the mountainous heaps of snow.
Amelia opens her passenger-side door and the freezing air rushes inside like a wave. Her breath catches in the extreme bitter cold.
“No!” Johnny yells, “Goddamn it, Amelia!”
Amelia stumbles and slides along the snowy dark roadside to the place where the dog landed. It lies there, still, limp and warm. She kneels down and sinks into the bloody snow beside it. The German shepherd is probably fourteen years old and big, maybe eighty or ninety pounds. The left hind leg is smaller than the right and seems crippled. Amelia strokes the thick and matted fur. It looks like it hasn’t been brushed all season. She picks up the wounded animal’s head, gray around the muzzle, and lays it in her lap. The dog’s eyes are wide open, black with pale blue cataracts staring at her. She starts to cry.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” she repeats.
“What the hell are you doing?” Johnny yells at her from the car. His breath crystallizes in the night air as a freezing puff of fog.
He slams his shoulder against the door trying to get out the driver’s side but the door only jams further into the roadside snow banks. He leaves the car running and climbs out the passenger side.
“Goddamn snow. Goddamn car. Goddamn dog,” he mutters, but he wishes he could pray. He walks stiffly through the deep snow. It’s already drifting in and covering the path behind him. He’s afraid he’ll freeze to death.
“You have to help me carry him,” Amelia calls.
“No. It’s dead. Forget about it. I’m not carrying a dead dog,” Johnny retorts.
“He’s not dead.”
“See that? Look at that. It’s bleeding, there on the snow, look!”
“He’s whimpering. Means he’s alive.”
“Leave it. For God’s sake, leave it. What the hell’s wrong with you?”
“Maybe he’s in shock.”
“I don’t care,” Johnny says and he stands over Amelia. He notices her coat is smeared with blood and her jeans are torn. It’s probably from the impact of hitting the large dog with the old car at a high speed. But he’s not sure whose blood it is. “Amelia, your leg.”
“I’m fine. If you don’t help me, I’ll carry him myself,” she warns and a coldness comes over her. She doesn’t care what he thinks anymore. She doesn’t care what he does.
“Hell, no. You’re not bringing a dead dog to your parents’. You can’t. And you’re really being stupid,” Johnny says as he walks away from her back toward the car by himself.
Amelia picks up the old German shepherd, thinking she can’t carry eighty-five pounds, she just can’t. She presses him close against her as if he were a child and stumbles along the twenty yards to their car.
“Open the door, Johnny,” she orders as she reaches the car.
“Are you nuts? You’re putting it in my car?” Johnny cries from inside in the front seat, but he still opens the back door for her.
She lays the big shepherd along the backseat, slides in beside it and closes the door. It’s an old dog, she thinks, teeth are rotting and it’s gray around the paws. The temperature is so deathly cold out there, maybe it wanted to die. She lays the head in her lap and strokes the fur slowly. The car windows steam and frost. “We need a vet,” she says, like it is a demand.
“What the hell. A vet. Where am I supposed to find a vet on Christmas?” Johnny asks.
Amelia remembers the vet her family took their dog to, further up in the mountains. Maybe twenty miles or so, it’s unreachable in bad weather. “We won’t; it’s too far away,” she says.
Johnny locks all the doors and turns the heater up higher. It is so cold that he’s afraid they might both freeze to death figuring out what to do with the dog. He thinks they might actually be in purgatory after all. “It stopped whining, anyway,” he says, listening to the scratching of the wipers on the icy window.
“I think I know this dog. It belongs to the people that live in the trailer we passed about four miles down the road. I think he’s Vandernorf’s dog,” Amelia says, “but it doesn’t look like they’ve been taking care of him.”
“We can do four miles,” Johnny says, energized.
“What if it was a suicide?” she asks.
Johnny spins the wheels backing out of the snow banks and the tires catch on the roadside dirt under the snow. Roadkill, an accident, suicide—whatever it is he cannot manage this alone with her tonight. Vandernorf’s it is, whoever they are. Hell of a lot closer than her parents’ house anyway. He turns the car making a careful U-turn and drives ever so slowly back down the winding country road. He scours the desolate roadside looking for a trailer.
“There,” Amelia points at a mailbox poking out of a snow bank.
Johnny pulls over beside the road next to the isolated mailbox and leaves the headlights on, showing the way to the trailer. “Stay put. And leave the car running or you’ll freeze. I’ll go in,” he offers. She doesn’t stop him.
The snow has stopped falling but heavy winds blow curtains of new snow alongside the car. Johnny trudges in the dark through the deep snowdrifts over to the small trailer. It’s about fifty yards in and it seems to take forever. He knocks lightly on the thin metal door. Nothing. He knocks heavily, shaking the door on its rusty hinges. The lights in the trailer go on but still no one opens the door.
Johnny stands buffeted by the night wind, wondering what he can possibly say to Amelia when he gets back to the car. Something like, “Dogs die, Amelia. Your dog died, this dog died, this isn’t your dog, and it isn’t your fault.” Something like, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I said those things about your family, I’m sorry I didn’t want to come here with you, I’m sorry I don’t know how to drive an old car in a blizzard and I’m sorry I ran over the Goddamn dog.” The bitter wind whips his face, and he bites his lips until they bleed. This must be purgatory, and now comes the punishment, he thinks. This is it, his world freezing around him, ending in ice. He heads back to the car. He backtracks in his steps and counts them out loud.
The trailer door creaks open behind him and a compact, wrinkled and much older man with glasses pokes his head out of the doorway.
“Who’s there? What’cha want?” the man calls.
“My wife and I, we just ran over a dog. Can you possibly help us out?” Johnny yells back toward him.
“What kind’a dog?”
“Shepherd, really old; I think it committed suicide.”
“Vandernorf’s dog. Yeah, it might a’. Come on in; you’ll catch your death out there.”
Johnny jumps over the snow, again retracing his boot prints, and lumbers up the three snow-covered steps into the small trailer.
In the backseat of the car in the dark, Amelia can’t hear the men. She looks at the fur around the muzzle as she cradles the old shepherd’s head. The dog closes his eyes, whimpers, whines, scratches at the vinyl seat cover aimlessly with thrusting motions of all four paws. His voice gets weaker and weaker and finally he seems to be asleep. He breathes ever so slowly. The windows frost over, glowing faintly from the headlights. The car smells of wet dog.
Amelia drifts off into a frozen half-sleep. Her second chance, this dog. Like her childhood dog—a beautiful, black, wolf-like shepherd named Jet. She dreams that Jet sits next to her, warm and alive just like he was when she left for college in the fall. Jet, who they found in the forest when Amelia was only seven, a half-wild dog with a menacing growl and black eyes. Jet, who the city people up for the weekends threatened to shoot if Amelia’s family wouldn’t get him on a leash. The city people couldn’t stand it that deer guts showed up on their porch. It showed that Jet was better at killing than they were in hunting season, even with their guns and binoculars. Jet, who growled at everything but her for ten years. She dreamed of being there, being home for him when it happened. Someone finally did shoot Jet.
Amelia wakes up to a sinister snarl. She pulls her hands away from the dog slowly. Eyes closed, the old shepherd stiffens and bares his rotting teeth. He growls ferociously. He sees a threat beside them that is invisible to Amelia. Behind closed eyes he tries to fend off a ghostly intruder. The dog goes completely limp all at once, as if every nerve impulse ceased. Silent, his head rolls back. A rank odor fills the car. The old shepherd is dead.
Johnny ploughs through the snowdrifts back to the car and he pulls open the frozen back door. The pale yellow interior light goes on weakly and drifting snow blows in around him as he leans in toward Amelia. “Hey, honey, you’re right; it’s Vandernorf’s dog. They call him McKinney. But the guy’s been committed. Vandernorf, I mean. Been in a mental ward all winter. So no one was taking care of McKinney and he was crazy-lonely out here. Probably jumped into our car on purpose, Jake says. No one to feed him, no place to stay inside.
“And I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Amelia. I tried not to hit him. Hey, you want a drink? The old guy’s got Jack Daniels.” He reaches into the car to take Amelia’s arm. He sees dark blood congealing around the tear on her leg. “Jesus, you’re going to need a tetanus shot. Look at your leg! We’ve got to get you to a hospital. It must be thirty miles away.”
She lifts the old shepherd’s head off her lap and lays it on the seat. She stares at her husband but doesn’t see him.
“Here, I’ll help you carry him,” he offers.
“You’re too late. He’s gone,” she says, “Someone came for him. Took him away from this nowhere.”
Johnny looks back toward the trailer where the older man is making his way toward them through the snow.
“Think they’ll help us bury him?” Johnny asks without enthusiasm.
“Do you even think?” she responds.
The man from the trailer leans into the car behind Johnny, bringing a faint smell of Jack Daniels. “I’ll take him off your hands, kids. Here you go, big feller, just hand him over, Miss. His time come. You didn’t kill him, he was goin’ somewhere and he just got there. I can smell it. Now both you come in, come on in and have a drink before you freeze to death. Hell, I’m alone out here. It’s Christmas. Come on in, tell me about it.”
From Death and the Dream, J.J.Brown, published 2011.
Photo credit: Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez (Lmbuga Commons), Wikimedia Commons