by: Wes Ishmael

If it wasn't risking life and limb to string Aunt Pinky's ancient, endless strings of Christmas lights, it was canvassing the country for a camel to round out the Christmas pageant.

Let the record show that Hooter in fact had come within a gnat's whisker of cannonballing off Aunt Pinky's roof a few years back, saved only by a hornet's nest of light cords, assorted plastic reindeer and the fact that Aunt Pinky only moved his pickup about 15 ft.

Hooter had been dangling from the other side of her steep-pitched roof testing bulbs, with one end of a rope tied around his waist and the other lashed to the ball hitch on his pickup…for safety sake. Far as he knew, Aunt Pinky didn't know his whereabouts, only that his pickup was parked on her lawn and needed to be moved.

Hooter was jerked face-first into the shingles, then dragged up the roof toward the top eave. As he passed the summit, he saw everything in the slow motion our brains reserve for spectacular wrecks.

He could see the back of Aunt Pinkie's head through the pick-up window, her short arms stretched up to the top of the wheel. The tail pipe belched happy rings of exhaust in the frosty air.

Hooter ended his brief ride suspended about three feet off the ground, upside down, spinning lazily to the left, then back to the right.

As for the camel, also let the record show that Hooter had indeed found one for the Christmas pageant a decade ago. It was a flea-bitten example of the Camelid family, but a member, nonetheless. He was named Thirsty, because of his taste for the Brandy his ‘trainer' used to brighten an otherwise obnoxious disposition (the camel's).

The beast looked like he'd been on the wrong side of a blind barber. Big splotches of hair were missing here and there, while bushes of extra long hair were sprinkled haphazardly across Thirsty's hide. The rest of his coat looked dirty and coarse.

The crowd gathered in Peetie Womack's pasture seemed duly impressed as Thirsty topped the hill. The other livestock gathered for the event, took one whiff and then just took off.

Something about the commotion seemed to intrigue the sleepy-eyed camel who began a sort of loping stagger toward the crowd, which was scattering away from the fence like ball bearings dropped on a cement floor. Turn's out, Thirsty smelled the water in the refreshment tank and he aimed to get him a long swallow.

That's when Hooter saw Alvin Rodriquez, the little tyke dressed up to play the baby Jesus, crawling through the fence. Hooter could see Alvin's mama, Maria, trying to fight through the crowd to get to her son.

No one suffered physical injury, but it was a fiasco all the same.

One More Impossibility

The point being, every year, before the last of the Thanksgiving brisket was consumed, Hooter already had an imposing to-do list—most of it not of his own making—to be done in less than 30 days.

He was even more stretched this year, what with trying to exact some justice for Eunice Nicklecock from the activist organizations that had duped her. All of it seemed to hinge on Cornelius Highbottom III, who unwittingly funded the organizations.

Yet here Hooter was, speeding to Lubbock, covered in every sort of dirt, goo and smell from processing a load of calves, in order to pick up a set of cookie cutters Aunt Pinky had ordered from Switzerland. She was convinced they were the secret to her reclaiming the unofficial crown of Apache Flats Christmas cookie queen, which Nelda Isselfrick had wrested from her grasp the previous year, for the first time in a long while.

“She's worse than a snake in the grass,” Aunt Pinky had howled. “Tee-totaling Nelda, and what does she come up with…”

Nelda called them Sugar Walloppers. The recipe for the dough included a generous helping of scotch and coffee liqueur. The chocolate icing was laced with vodka. Ten dozen disappeared in the wink of an eye; Delmar Jacobs could be seen licking the plate.

“What's so special about the shapes?” Hooter asked his aunt. “You've seen one sugar-sprinkled snowman, you've seen them all.”

“Just you never mind. You'll see.”

The parcel service held the order up in Lubbock, claiming they didn't know there was a place called Apache Flats, let alone, where they might find it.

Best as Hooter could tell, he had 15 minutes to cover about 25 miles, then hope traffic was with him.

“You drive just like Mom,” said Alvin Rodriguez, sitting in the middle and adjusting the heat control and radio volume at the same time.

“Yeah,” said Alvin's older brother, Hector. “Remember that time, you broke your arm. She saw the cop behind us and just floored it.”

Alvin, who had escaped the clutches of Thirsty the camel was 15 now and a good three inches taller than his older brother who was close to 17. They were prized hands who had been helping Hooter.

Hooter needn't have worried about the clock. Though he beat closing time with a couple of minutes to spare, there was line in front of him stretching out the door. It was just as long when he and the boys left an hour later, with the prized cookie cutters in hand, thanks to Alvin.

Hooter had been sharing his views of the delivery service with the service representative, who claimed they didn't have the package, though the shipping receipt in Hooter's hand indicated otherwise.

“Hey!” someone had shouted. “You can't be back here, and you put that down!”

Alvin had slipped behind the counter. “This is the package, M'am,” he said, placing a mutilated brown-papered parcel on the counter in front of the representative.

“It had funny stamps,” he answered Hooter's unasked question with a shrug.

Folks standing in line, applauded, hooped and hollered like the star fullback of their favorite team had won the game on a last-play score.

“Can he go back there to find my package too?” shouted one lady.

“Yeah,” groused a grizzled old man. “Put that young feller in charge for 15 minutes and maybe we'd be home in time for Christmas.”

A Worker's Work Is Never Done

“I always knew you had hawk eyes, but lawsie, Alvin, that was outstanding,” Hooter said, maneuvering back on to the highway.

“Yeah, cool, bro,” said Hector. Then elbowing his little brother in the ribs, “Maybe you should use those eyes next time you ask someone to the school dance.”

Alvin elbowed back with a grin. “Whatever.”

“Tell you what boys, I've got to gas up at the quick-stop, then we'll go inside and get some snacks for the ride home,” said Hooter. “And Alvin, you and Hector get at least the first dozen of Aunt Pinky's fancy-shaped cookies.”

By now, some West Texas sleet was blowing horizontal. Judging by the blinking trouble lights in the near distance, the going was already slow.

“Maybe we should see if they have a new CD, too,” Hector suggested as they pulled into the station.

“Yep,” said Hooter.

Hooter had just got the gas pumping, pulled up his collar and snugged his gloves.

“Hey mister, I'm on my way to Fort Worth and I need another $10 worth of gas to get there,” said a stranger who had appeared like magic from the mist.

Hooter stared at him with his dander up. He knew the story by heart. Low on gas. Flat tire. Between jobs. Need money.

He'd told Cousin Charlie just last week that he must have a blinking light over the top of him that said ‘Sucker'. Too often, he stopped to get gas somewhere and here was someone with their hand out. He felt guilty when he gave them something and guilty when he didn't.

“Well sir, I don't have $10 on me,” Hooter finally said. It was true. “All I got is my debit card. Tell you what, though, pull your car up and I'll use it to pump in $10 worth for you.”

“Um, well, um, I can't,” the stranger said. “I ran out of gas up the road.” He pulled a plastic gallon gas can from behind his back.

“Junior, I was never at the top of my class, but I'll guarantee you, $10 worth of gas ain't going to fit in that can, even at these prices.”

“Well, I…umm…”

“What's taking so long, Mr. Hooter?” Hector said from behind the stranger.”

“We found the perfect CD for the ride home,” said Alvin.

“In a minute, boys. We were just trying to figure out how to get $10 worth of gas into that can.”

There was a quick moment of silence.

“How much money you need Mister?” Alvin asked in a cheerful voice.

“I, um, well, I was…” started the stranger.

“Don't you boys concern yourself,” Hooter said.

Hector handed the man a $20 bill.

“Merry Christmas,” Alvin said.

“Merry Christmas,” Hector said.

The man thanked them and left.

Hooter was speechless for a time. He knew the boys worked hard. They weren't destitute, but $20 made a difference to them.

“I appreciate your willingness to help, boys. But, I'm afraid you were snookered. When we get home, I'll repay you the $20.”

Alvin and Hector looked at each other in genuine puzzlement, as if trying to understand a foreign language. Then, the light of recognition lit their eyes.

“Oh, that's what it's for,” said Alvin.

“Yeah,” said Hector. “We just put a couple of dollars back every month, so when somebody needs it, we have something for them.”

It was Hooter's turn to decipher the message. “That's just it, boys. I don't know that he did need it. I'm afraid it might have been a scam.”

Both of the boys giggled at a joke Hooter didn't realize he'd made.

Alvin draped an arm around his brother. “It doesn't matter.”

“Yeah,” Hector continued. “It doesn't matter if he really needed it or not, or what his intentions were. That's between him and God.”

“All we can do is try to help when asked,” Alvin explained. “Like it says in the book of Matthew. You know that part, Mr. Hooter, where it says the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few, so pray to send workers into the harvest?”

There was a sizable lump in Hooter's throat. He slung an arm around each boy. “Yep, I know it. In fact, if memory serves, we had some discussion about it when I was teaching your Sunday School class back when.”

“Yep,” said Alvin.

“You know, Mr. Hooter, you worry about the strangest things,” Hector said with a wide grin.

“Yep.” Hooter said.

Merry Christmas!

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