A few days later, after breakfast, Wayne told Jared to write a sign saying the lot was closed until noon.
“What’s going on?” said Jared.
“We’re going to the farm for trees and I need some help lifting the bigger pots,” said Wayne.
It was a bright and frosty morning and the idea of a drive in undiscovered country suited Jared. He wrote up the sign and wired it to the gate. Wayne cruised the Sierra over and Jared hopped in next to Chief. The Supremes’ Merry Christmas was playing softly.
Wayne drove south for a few miles then turned the truck east onto Highway 241. They crossed sloughs and the Coos River. Jared saw cows grazing in the diked pastureland. A few drift boats plied the river with old men fishing for salmon while nipping Crown Royal from a flask. A few men were outside their houses burning brush piles while drinking beer.
The Coos River gave way to the Millicoma River. Pastureland gave way to conifer and deciduous trees. Light gave way to the canopy of the forest. The road narrowed and began curving here and there.
On and up they drove into the Coos River Watershed. They passed homes and trailers. Some were immaculate, most dilapidated. They passed boats on blocks in overgrown fields. They passed abandoned tractors enveloped by blackberries. They saw deer and horses. They saw listing swing sets and a pool table slumping in a patch of weeds. They passed clearcuts and Christmas decorations hung on wooden fence posts.
The Supremes ended and Wayne told Jared to pick out a new Christmas tape from the glove box. Jared opened it, fished around, and came up with a cassette in a clear case. He took out the tape and read “Merry Christmas 1982 Wayne” on the label in a tiny script.
“What’s this?” said Jared.
“O man,” said Wayne. “is that a weird story. Decades ago, a guy came to the lot the day before Christmas Eve. There was no one around. It was early in the afternoon. He drove up in a sports scar and was with was a beautiful woman. They were dressed in costumes of some kind. Said he was driving to Los Angeles from Seattle and saw the lights on the lot and wanted a tree for his friends. The Temptations’ Christmas album was playing and he said he’d never heard it. He asked me if he and his girlfriend could listen to it around the fire. I said sure. I fed them some stew and we drank a little wine. He didn’t say much, but was really listening to the album.”
Jared handed him the tape.
Wayne examined it as he drove and continued telling the story.
“When the tape ended, he asked his girlfriend to get his guitar and the recorder from the car. She comes back with it. He tunes it up, hits record on this little player, and starts playing some of the songs he just heard by the Temptations. She sang with him sometimes. I couldn’t believe it!”
“What were the songs?” said Jared.
“Hell, I don’t remember! I haven’t played this thing in 25 years. I do remember there were some other songs on there, some weird Christmas ballads, and instrumentals. It wasn’t rock. He gave me the tape and bought a little tree and they were gone. I did get him to sign the register before he left.”
“Let’s check it out.”
“Why not? It’s Christmas!”
Wayne put the tape in the player and a few seconds later, an acoustic guitar started playing slowly, then a male voice sang:
Last night I spent another lonely Christmas
Darling, darling, you should’ve been there
‘Cause all the ones I dream about
You are the one that makes my love shout, you see
You are the only one I care for
“Now I remember said!” said Wayne. “This one is incredibly depressing. It’s about a guy who drinks himself blind every Christmas because the love of his life died on Christmas. Perfect for guys like us.”
Wayne laughed and slapped the steering wheel.
“I want to hear it,” said Jared.
Jared listened. He thought he recognized the voice. It wasn’t coming to him. Maybe it would later.
Ten, 15 miles. Allegany came and went. The store and gas station were boarded up. A tattered American flag flew above the post office.
Another five, ten miles. Jared saw a sign for Silver and Golden Falls and said something to Wayne about them.
Wayne said, “There’s something about seeing a waterfalls that does a man good.”
Then he laughed. “Jesus, what a cornpone line that is!”
“Is that from a Western?” said Jared.
“I don’t know, but it should be.”
A couple miles from the sign, Wayne slowed the truck down, turned toward the river, and onto a potholed driveway. Fifty yards later the driveway ended at a faded white and blue Victorian farmhouse with a lush meadow behind it.
Wayne killed the engine and he and Chief got out. Wayne didn’t say a word. Jared stayed in the truck for a second, and then stepped outside.
“Let me give you a little tour,” said Wayne, as he walked past the house.
“Aren’t we going in the house?” said Jared.
“I haven’t been inside there in 30-35 years.”
“Too many bad memories.”
“But you stayed on.”
“I stayed on. My sister didn’t.”
They began walking into the meadow and toward the Millicoma River. Jared took in the outbuildings, elk scat, two-bay pole barn, dog cemetery, greenhouse, alder and maple logs stacked neatly for future firewood, hundreds of potted Doug firs, hundreds of Doug firs growing here and there, and a tiny cabin with a porch standing under a grove of oak trees.
Jared asked about it.
“It’s where I live. I built it when I got back from Vietnam,” said Wayne. “After Dad croaked.”
“It looks nice,” said Jared.
“Chief and I don’t need much room.”
“You get TV out here?”
“What do you do in the evenings?”
“I read and watch some movies I get at the thrift stores. Listen to the ball games. Do some puzzles when the rain falls. Feed the chipmunks. Get drunk. The usual stuff.”
They stopped at the river and Jared watched it flow six feet below him. To his left, he saw an old tire swinging from a massive branch of a maple that reached out over the river. He looked down and saw a little pool.
“When’s the last time you used the swing?” said Jared.
“Probably when Jimmy Carter was President,” said Wayne.
Jared noticed a bench off to the right. Near it was a fire pit and a lean-to that protected firewood. He walked over and sat down. Wayne came up.
“I could hang out here forever,” said Jared.
“It’s a good spot to read,” said Wayne.
“Any fish in there?”
“Yeah, steelhead and coho.”
“You ever fish?”
“Not anymore. My favorite thing to watch is when they come up after a big first rain.”
“You mean a freshet?”
“Yeah, that’s what it’s called. How did you know that?”
“I don’t know.”
“You hang out here for a long as you want. I’m going to get things going for the lot.”
Wayne started walking away when Jared turned from the bench and said, “Wayne, what’s going to happen to this place when you’re gone?”
“It all goes to the local humane society. They have to take care of any dog I have. But they can’t cut any trees. I’ve got 20 acres on either side of me that used to be pasture and I let it go wild. I put that in a land trust.”
Wayne left Jared at the river and went about his errands. Half an hour later, Jared joined him. An hour after that, they were back in the Sierra and headed to the lot. They didn’t say much on the drive. Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You played.