BLOW THE HORN FOR CHRISTMAS

PAUL ERNST December 15 1949

BLOW THE HORN FOR CHRISTMAS

PAUL ERNST December 15 1949

BLOW THE HORN FOR CHRISTMAS

PAUL ERNST

THE COUNTRY lay under a thick white coverlet of snow, and it was lovely stuff, fresh as eggs right from the hen. On one corner of the cleared intersection was a general store, old as the hills, built here when both the roads were dirt. On the other, cater-cornered across, was the gas station of Joe Foster. It was new and shiny, and

BLOW THE HORN FOR CHRISTMAS

By PAUL ERNST

THE COUNTRY lay under a thick white coverlet of snow, and it was lovely stuff, fresh as eggs right from the hen. On one corner of the cleared intersection was a general store, old as the hills, built here when both the roads were dirt. On the other, cater-cornered across, was the gas station of Joe Foster. It was new and shiny, and the pumps were new and shiny; so were the hopes and ideals of Joe and Katie Foster, though Katie’s now were getting little spots of rust on them

On the first floor were the repair shop and office inhabited by Joe and a small counter room where Katie dispensed sandwiches and coffee from 10 a.m. till seven. On the second was the apartment, and the Fosters were up there now, since it was 11 o’clock on Christmas Eve, though according to Kate it was not Joe’s fault they were together.

“Let someone ring the night bell,” she said, “and you’d be down there putting on his chains or filling his radiator. And a lot of profit you make out of water.”

“Now look,” protested Joe, “we’ve gone through this before. Maybe I do get interrupted a lot after hours—we never should have planned to live where we work, I guess. But this is Christmas Eve, and I wouldn’t go downstairs for the Prime Minister himself.”

“Yahh!” said Kate. She was a small girl, quick and agile, beautifully made, with light grey impatient eyes and hair as black as India ink.

“I put the sign up—Closed 7 p.m.,” said Joe. “I hung the mailbox over the night bell. I’ve closed the blinds and plugged the telephone.”

“And you’ve been down twice since you closed, once during dinner.” But there was no real sharpness in Kate’s grey eyes, there was just love and worry and a lot of rebellion.

JOE GOT up from the new sofa—everything in the four-room apartment was new and shining and well cared for—and went to his wife. He was not so tall, but be was certainly broad. He had shoulders like the side of a bus, arms in proportion; and when he swooped and lifted Katie from her chair the arms seemed scarcely to know they had a burden in them. He was dark so that if he wanted to look clean he had to shave twice daily, which he did because he was a young independent businessman with ambition.

“Put me down !”

“You going to stop beefing? You going to stop picking on me?” said Joe.

“You’re a dope,” she said, “nice, but a dope. I’ll pick on you with a tire iron if you don’t put me down.”

Joe didn’t exactly put her down. He sank back onto the sofa with her on his lap and with her arms around his neck. He looked around the place.

“Nice,” he said. “A home of our own, our own business, two acres so we can expand as much as we want. By the way, when are you going to start expanding?”

“Don’t be common,” said Katie. “Months yet.”

“I can just see it,” Joe dreamed. “Foster & Son, Gas, Oil, Supplies. Maybe deep-freezes and refrigerators ...”

“Suppose it’s not a son?”

“Then we’ll stake her out in the sandwich shop and keep on till . . .” He writhed and said, “Now Katie! Quit tickling—”

A horn blew downstairs, and Katie stopped, and Joe cleared his throat.

“Joe,” she said warningly.

“I know,” he said. “I’m not going down.”

The horn blew again, sharp, imperative.

“It’s Christmas Eve,” said Joe.

The horn blew for thirty seconds straight.

“I’ve got a right to a little time with my wife,” said Joe doggedly. “I’m no doctor.”

THERE WERE quick, questioning voices down below, and an uncertain step or two and then the slam of a car door. A starter whined, gears clashed angrily, and motor noise died off down the road.

Kate sat in Joe’s lap and looked at him.

“Well,” Joe said very briskly, “another fortyeight minutes and it’ll be Merry Christmas. I wish I could show you your mink and diamonds now, but I can’t till after midnight.”

“Joe.”

“The new town car won’t be delivered till noon tomorrow, I’m afraid. And I couldn’t locate a chauffeur-—”

“Joe.” Kate turned his head so that his dark eyes met her grey ones. “Are you going to keep wondering what that man needed?”

“Not me,” said Joe. “If he runs out of gas and sits all night in a snowdrift it’s his own fault. You shouldn’t start out with no gas. Or if he gets a cracked cylinder block because he’s boiled his water out—or if he sideswipes somebody because he doesn’t have his chains on . . .”

“I’ll sideswipe you if you—”

Joe sighed, then grinned. He leaned back and put his feet up on the coffee table and said, “Why, yes, I will have another bottle of beer, and very nice it was of you to offer to bring it to me.”

“I don’t seem to remember offering to bring you anything.”

“Simply because you didn’t think of it. If you had thought of it, a fine generous girl like you. Here, I’ll show you one of your Christmas presents and then you get the beer.”

The Christmas present was a note from Mrs. Cozinka, up the road. Mrs. Cozinka, a plump, vigorous woman with a hand for cooking, had written: “I’ll be glad to help out Mrs. Foster with the sandwitch shop and take it over later when she needs me to.”

“Oh, Joe, you darned fool,” said Katie. “We can’t afford help.”

“We can’t afford to have anything happen to the & Son, of Foster & Son, either. And now some rapid service with the beer, please.”

They had the beer, glancing now and then at the clock. Up to two years ago this hour of a Christmas Eve would have found them dancing some place with paper streamers trailing and confetti showering. Each thought of this a bit, and then listened to the deep country stillness broken only now and then by the clinking of a car’s chains almost like bells as it rolled in snow-muffled smoothness down a road. The night bell rang.

Kate glared in exasperation.

“Kate, I hid that bell!” Joe said defensively. “I’m telling you, I hung the mailbox over it.” “Then how could anybody find it?”

“How would I know?” Joe listened, frowning. “I didn’t hear a car drive up. You suppose it’s those people that blew their horn a while ago? St randed somewhere?”

“I don’t care who it is,” Kate snapped. But she did, of course. She could talk all she pleased but on a night like this she could be as concerned as Jot).

Joe sighed and got up. “Must l>e a neighbor, to know about the night bell.” He clenched a large fist. “It’d better be something important!”

He hadn’t heard a car drive up, but there was a car in the lane he’d shoveled between pumps and building. It was an old sedan, and standing outside the office looking up Continued on page 37

Blow the Horn for Christmas

Continued from page 11

impatiently at the apartment windows was the driver.

“Cripes, it’s Monty Woolley,” muttered Joe, gazing at hair on chin and cheeks and upper lip. He opened the door. “Yes?”

“I’ve had trouble,” said the man in a crisp, no-nonsense voice. You could hardly see his lips for the beard, but you could see his eyes. They were nononsense too, to the point of irascibility. “I’m in a hurry.”

Joe could see what the trouble was. A flat. Right rear. “Okay,” he sighed. “I’ll run ’er in the shop and put on your spare.”

He opened the ponderous shop doors with a one-handed flip and snapped the lights on. A cheerful small cave was made in the vast whiteness of the night. A rather cold cave, though. Joe kept the oil stove on low in the office, and a little heat found its way in here, but not much. He shivered and rolled the car in on the jack.

“Keys,” he said, jerking a thumb at the rear luggage compartment. “I’ll put on the spare and . . .”

“I need the spare for a spare,” said the man. “Think I can drive around on a night like this without a spare? You fix the tire and put it back on.” “Now, wait,” said Joe. “It’s twentyfive of twelve on a Christmas Eve.” “Your sign says you fix flats.” “Another sign says I’m closed now.” “And if I get a second flat, in the snow, miles from help?”

Joe thought of Kate, and thought of the nice warm living room upstairs and of the two of them in it on this night. “Oh, all right,” he sighed.

“And quickly, please. At twelve sharp I must leave here.”

This was too much. Joe straightened to tell the gentleman with the grey chin mattress exactly where he could go for his quick service. Then he shrugged. He’d come down in answer to the bell, he was going to do this job and he knew it, why do it with bad grace?

“It’s warmer in the office,” he said, bending down and twirling nuts off the wheel. “Better go in there.”

KATE came in as he had the snowtread casing off the rim and was yanking out the inner tube.

“Joe Foster! What in the world . . .” “One word out of you,” growled Joe, “and I’ll vulcanize a patch over that opening in your pretty little face.” And then he grinned sheepishly, and Kate laughed in a helpless sort of way, and he said, “Merry Christmas, baby,” and sliced his thumb on the sharp end of the valve stem.

He got the patch on, and Kate walked around the shop. She looked idly through the rear window of the jacked-up sedan and exclaimed. “What’s up?” said Joe.

“Oh, Joe, I’m glad you came down. He’s got a big sack in back here. Toys. I can see a couple sticking out the top. Joe, don’t you see? He’s one of the church Christmas committee.”

“Oh,” said Joe, “why’s he have to deliver the load tonight, though? Why not tomorrow?”

“1 expect they’re trimming the tree and arranging the presents right now,” Kate said. “You about through?”

Joe nodded, and a few minutes later eased the jack down. He stepped to the doorway between shop and office. “All fixed.”

The man glanced at the clock. It was five minutes of twelve. “Thank you,” he said curtly, and he gave Joe

fifty cents for the repair. Fifty cents, no more, no less. He drove out of the shop, then stopped. He reached in back and got a small oblong package. “Here,” he said. “You can help me a lot by delivering this to little Jimmy Bryant.”

Then for the first time his eyes got less irascible and there might have been a grin hidden behind the beard. “Merry Christmas,” he said, and rolled swiftly off.

HOW DO you like that!” snapped Joe. “ ‘You can help me a lot by delivering this to Bryant’s.’ Does the guy know where the Bryants live?” “And what time it is?” Kate added angrily. “And what night?”

“No! I won’t do it. No!”

“I’ll say you won’t,” said Kate. “Over a mile from the main road, down a back lane that will be lucky if it gets plowed by the end of next week.” They went up the stairs.

But at the head of the stairs Kate glanced at him, eyes troubled. “Joe.” “Now what?”

“The Bryant boy—Jimmy. Isn’t

there something—I seem to remember hearing —”

Joe scowled. He’d heard it too, from some of the road crew in for fast coffees. “Appendix,” Joe said. He had been pushing this bit of information back out of sight all the way upstairs.

“Well, we can take him the present tomorrow.”

“He won’t be here tomorrow. They’re taking him in to the Carverstown Hospital tomorrow to have the thing yanked.”

“On Christmas Day? Why?”

Joe shrugged. “You have a kid. The doc says, bring him in tomorrow or 1 won’t answer for the consequences. You bring him in tomorrow.”

Joe turned on the radio and some Christmas Eve revel blared out from some night club. It sounded very gay. Joe swore and got up. “That guy! If I had him here I’d kick him so hard his beard would cover something besides his chin.”

He strode toward the closet and Kate walked with him.

“So where do you think you’re going?” he growled.

“To the Bryants with you,” she said. “Don’t be a dope. You have to be careful in your condition.”

“I’m as tough as a horse. A small one, anyhow. And Junior’s nothing but a first preliminary announcement, as yet. And you may need somebody to drive while you shovel.”

“Look, with one hand I could throttle you—” Joe grinned. “You’re a nice child, Katie, maybe I’ll marry you some day.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it, it’s much nicer this way,” said Kate, climbing into her mackinaw.

THE chains were on the jeep, of course; all four wheels. Joe had been in and out all afternoon, getting people out of snowdrifts. He and Kate got into it and started down the county road. The plows had piled the snow across the entrance of the back road leading to the Bryant farm. Joe bucked it. hard and went on through.

“Overseas,” said Joe, “I swore I’d never look at a jeep again. “And look at me!”

“I am.” Kate giggled. “You look like a gorilla in a leather jacket.”

They plowed along, wheels churning, catching, churning. Twice Joe had to shovel while Kate took the wheel and inched along, and at about 1 o’clock they got to the Bryant farm.

Every light in the place was on, and that was not a good or normal thing out here in this section. Not at this hour of the nigfit. Joe carried Kate

effortlessly up the porch steps in spite of her protests, and the door was opened by Mrs. Bryant, a tall, compact woman with worry wrinkles over her misted glasses.

“Oh,” she said, looking over the glasses. “I thought maybe you were the doctor. Though with the road drifted like it is—You’re Mr.—”

“Foster,” said Joe. “One of the Christmas committee stopped at the station to have a tire fixed. He asked us to bring this to Jimmy tonight, since he won’t be able to enjoy it tomorrow.”

“Oh,” said Mrs. Bryant, obviously only half there. A child’s voice came from upstairs, where the other half of her was. Or maybe nine tenths. “It was very nice of you.”

“Jimmy—everything’s all right, isn’t it?” said Kate.

“His fever’s up,” said Mrs. Bryant. “And he’s scared. All right, dear, coming,” she called up the stairs. “Won’t you and Mr. Foster come up and give him the present yourselves? Mr. Bryant’s in the barn.”

JIMMY BRYANT was a skinny boy of eight, all eyes. Joe had seen the same look in the eyes of men overseas, lying on the stretchers while they waited to be taken to the surgeon.

“Jimmy, this is Mr. and Mrs. Foster,” said Mrs. Bryant, fingers twisting at each other. They brought you a present.”

“Yes,” said Jimmy. He took the package but made no move to open it.

Joe looked at him. He grinned and touched the small chin lightly with his big fist. “Scared—Jim?”

The boy stared back at him, eyes wide and unwavering. Joe’s answer was there, and suddenly he felt helpleas and inadequate. He cleared his throat loudly. Still there were no words he could find to reassure the kid. “You— uh-—it won’t be so bad,” he stumbled. Then, “Want to know what they’re going to do?”

Mrs. Bryant took a quick step; Kate caught her arm. Joe turned back the bed covers and raised the boy’s pyjama top “Can’t feel anything. Pin pricksee. After that you can’t feel anything at all.”

“Chloroform,” the boy said thinly. “Like chloroform.”

“Yeah,” said Joe. “Just like chloroform.”

“Our cat never moved any more,” said Jimmy, his eyes darker than ever with fright. “Fixed her dead.” “This is different,” said Joe quickly. “You’ll be awake all the time. You’ll know everything that happens. Only it’ll be best not to look. When you look at something it makes it seem to hurt even when it don’t really hurt. You can understand how that would be.” ‘‘You mean like when Mom digs for a splinter and I look the other way?” “Same thing.” Joe’s finger traced just under the boy’s rib cage. “Cut a little line right here, like for a splinter. Maybe an inch. Reach in and get the thing that’s been giving you a belly ache, pull it out—sew it. up. And all the time you’ll be talking to the nurse and wondering when they’re going to start, because you won’t feel a thing. Got it?” “You telling me the truth?”

“Sure,” said Joe. “That’s how it is.” “Like that.”

“Like that,” said Joe. “Did it like that to me.” He pulled dowm the pyjama top, deliberately not looking into Jimmy’s face as he did. “I was younger than you. Eight. I can show you the scar I’ve had ever since I was a couple years younger than . .

“I’m eight too—I’m not ten—you don’t have to show me.”

“All right, Jimmy. Why don’t you look at your present?”

JIMMY opened the package now, with some of the color back in his face. Oh, Lord, sighed Joe as the present emerged from its wrapping. A Boy Scout knife. A beauty. But a knife. However, the logic of childhood had its own rules. Jimmy loved it.

“Gee,” he said. “Gee! Thank you, Mr. Foster. Mrs. Foster.”

“Hey, wait, don’t thank us,” said Joe. “We’re just delivery boys. A big man with a beard gave it to us to give to you.”

“Oh. Yes. Santa Claus,” said Jimmy politely. He might be imaginative about operating rooms, but it was obvious that when it came to the Christmas myth, he’d had it.

Joe laughed. “I wouldn’t know about that, Jimmy, I’m no authority on Santa Clauses. Hadn’t you better get some rest till your Dad takes you in to town?”

“Mr. Bryant wants to take him in to the hospital now,” said Mrs. Bryant in the hall. “He’s out working on the tractor.”

“It’ll be easier in the morning,” said Joe. “First thing, a road gang’s coming special to plow you out.”

“I know. But Mr. Bryant thinks if Jimmy’s there they can give him things to make him sleep, and they’ll have more time to get him ready. We called the hospital and they say it would be all right.”

Joe nodded. A night of work was a fair price for a few hours’ sleep, a better break, for a kid. He put on gloves and leather jacket and went back to the barn.

MR. BRYANT was bending over the motor of his tractor with a trouble lamp throwing his shadow big against the barn wall. He was a wiry man with a partially bald head. His head was bare, probably he’d flung his cap off in a moment of exasperation, and Joe could see sweat on the bald spot in spite of the cold. The tang of recklessly squirted high-test gasoline was in the air.

“Hello,” he said. “You’re Foster. Glad you came. I can’t seem to get this tractor started.”

Joe reduced the trouble to the carburetor and then to the carburetor float, which was sticking. They used the high-test and got the worn motor turning.

“You could use some new carburetor parts,” said Joe.

“I could use a new tractor. But I don’t know if I’ll get another Channing. It’s a good machine, but the nearest dealer’s forty miles away. Funny they can’t have someone around here handle ’em, like other makes.” He gazed curiously at Joe. “Lucky for me you showed up here. But how’d you happen to come, this time of night?” “One of the Christmas committee asked me to bring Jimmy’s church present now because he couldn’t be around for it tomorrow. Big fellow with a grey beard.”

“Don’t seem to place anybody like that on the committee,” Bryant said. He shrugged and hunted up his heavy cap.

Joe batted his hands together and put on his gloves. “You aim to take Jimmy clear to Carverstown on the tractor?”

“No,” said Bryant. “Thought I’d yank my car out to the cleared road with it, and drive on from there.”

The car had chains on; Joe took the wheel and Bryant got it along the driveway with the tractor bellowing at the front end of the tow chain. Joe carried Jimmy out and Mrs. Bryant followed with an extra blanket.

“Mr. Foster,” Jimmy said.

“Yuh, Jimmy?”

“Will it hurt afterward?”

“Sure,” said Joe. “It’ll hurt for a couple of days. Like when you really cut your finger. You can take that, I guess—”

“Oh, sure,” said Jimmy, and his head leaned against Joe’s chest, still wideeyed but at last a bit relaxed.

AT THE highway Bryant left the _TlL tractor in a field and took the wheel of his car from Joe. His eyes, and Mrs. Bryant’s, were more expressive than his lips.

“I—uh—thanks, Foster,” was all Bryant said. He sent the car along the road, and Joe and Kate watched the tail-light diminish and then sat there for a minute.

The night was luminous and beautiful around them. The stars crowded down as if jostling each other for attention, and the jeep was a small bug in a very large, glistening semisphere.

“Golly,” Kate said.

“What?” said Joe absently.

“The night. Isn’t it gorgeous?”

“Yeah—”

“Joe.”

“Uh huh?”

“I’m glad we came.”

“Yeah—”

“They needed help. Joe, you were good with Jimmy.”

“Urn—”

Kate turned. “And what,” she demanded, “do you think you’re thinking about so hard?”

“What!” Joe started. “Oh. Tractors. The Channing. They really should have somebody closer to take care of the local trade. 1 wonder if I—”

“You just do your wondering tomorrow. It’s half-past two and you have to be up early.”

“Not on Christmas,” Joe declared. “I’m going to sleep till nine and have breakfast in pyjamas and bathrobe and listen to the radio.”

“And if at half-past six somebody yells up or honks? And you get to thinking of cracked cylinder blocks or hauling jobs or flat tires or freezing in snow banks?”

“Wel-1-1,” said Joe. ★