A Ken Kesey Christmas (For Tim)

Three days before Christmas, on a Saturday afternoon, two couples drank in a Nehalem Tavern called The Rain Blow Inn. The joint was famous for its Saturday prime rib special and crusty owner Mary, who greeted every person with the same greeting: “You gettin’ off or just gettin’ off?”

It was sleeting outside the Rain Blow, leaking inside, watering the dead plants, and about dozen men and women all appearing anywhere from 40 to 70 years old, or Oregon Tavern Age (OTA), drank cheap beer and carved up the prime rib like the citizens of Whoville carved up the roast beast.

One of the couples hailed from Portland. He was a mad poet and she was his moody moll. They drank fine tequila out of snifters. The other couple lived in Nehalem. She was a Hunter S. Thompson kind of social worker, he was an amateur Ken Kesey scholar. They drank black beers.

A college bowl game played silently on television. On the jukebox, deep cuts by Rush chosen by the poet rocked the room. The poet was reciting his latest poem, about a fishermen who drowned in tennis shoes.

A pounding rattled the front door. Everyone ignored it. The pounding continued and grew louder.

The poet stopped reciting and walked to the door. He pushed it open and got blasted with a shotgun spread of sleet that nearly knocked him over. He managed to hold the door ajar and a large man wearing a tattered red parka and tan slacks wheeled himself into the Rain Blow in a creaking, duct-taped wheelchair. His bare feet rested on the metal footplate. They were purple and swollen. His boots were tied around his neck. He wore no hat. His beard was white and scraggly. He carried possessions in two greasy backpacks secured to the sides of the wheelchair.

He was the spitting disheveled image of Ken Kesey’s Santa Claus from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the dazed and confused hobo who showed up at the asylum on Christmas Eve and Nurse Ratched locked up and wanted to lobotomize.

On his way to the bar, he ran into the fake Christmas tree and left it teetering like a punch drunk fighter. No one at the Rain Blow seemed to know the man. He parked under the overhead Reznor heater blowing out gusts of warmth.

The poet went up to the man. “Where are your socks?” he said.

The man shook his head and looked at the liquor bottles. “Can you help me?” he said.

“Yes,” said the poet.

Everyone watched.

The poet darted out of the bar and across the street to the store that for a century had supplied the clothing and boots for loggers, fishermen, construction workers and hunters. But it was going out of business—the very next day in fact—because the locals now shopped at Wal Mart, Costco and Amazon.

A few minutes later, the poet returned with two pairs of gray wool socks and a yellow Tillamook Cheese stocking cap. He bent down and slipped the socks on the man’s feet. They snagged on his long, yellowed toenails, but the poet somehow got them on. The man smiled, donned the stocking cap, and the poet bought him a J&B Scotch and soda and the prime rib special.

The man ate his prime rib and drank two more scotches in silence. He thanked the poet, put his finger to the side of his nose, twinkled his eyes, and wheeled out of the bar into the cold Nehalem afternoon.

It was then that everyone noticed he had a cedar wreath attached to the back of the wheelchair. In the middle of the wreath was a tiny cross fashioned from milkshake straws.

A debate raged the rest of sodden afternoon whether the man was Jesus resurrected in the nick of time or Ken Kesey’s Santa Claus escaped from the nuthouse and on the lam at Christmas. The Kesey scholar argued for both. The social worker said Jesus would look exactly like that today if he did return. At least for American life. The moll wished they’d learned his name. The poet wanted hobo to return to the vernacular.

The poet started writing a poem about the man on a napkin. The bartender bought the house a round of Fireball in edible candy cane-flavored shot glasses and served up free mashed potatoes and gravy on the side. On the jukebox, Rush’s Christmas album started playing. Rush never released a Christmas album. It did now. Track one: “Little Drummer Boy.” The poet lost his mind, but in a good way.