064: Christmas Stories 3: For This Purpose

MERRY CHRISTMAS! This is the 3rd of 7 Christmas stories. Click here to read: Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5Part 6. Part 7.

AND — if in the year-end rush you missed our earlier Hanukkah Week series, you can jump back to enjoy that here: Part 1 of 5 for Hanukkah.

    If you haven’t caught onto our style this week, it will become apparent today. Each of the Christmas stories in this series is distinctively different. On Monday, the narrative was a prayerful reflection on the Advent season. On Tuesday, we explored childhood memories.
    Today, writer Tim Moran takes us in an entirely new direction. Stay tuned, because each story in this series represents a different facet in the overall Christmas star.
    Tim is a nationally known freelance writer, focusing mainly on news about business and the auto industry for a wide range of publications. He’s a Renaissance man with a lifelong interest in scholarship concerning the Middle Ages and the American Civil War. He’s an active Presbyterian layman, involved in social justice issues including the need to reconnect urban and suburban communities.
    Like all of our stories in this series, this memoir is a slice of real life — from Tim’s life years ago, in this case.

    AND NOW, a holiday gift from writer Tim Moran …

For This Purpose

    It was the blue fumes rolling in through the heater vents that stopped them just west of Ocotillo, not the smell of burning oil. The burning smell had been with them since the McDonald’s that crouched across the Will Rogers Turnpike, where leaving the parking lot something had gone “thump” in the tiny Japanese engine of their wedding-present used car.
    A flag of smoke had followed the car down the long slant of Oklahoma, past glittering ice, narrow streams and thin lines of sparse, leafless trees that marked the valleys where cattle sheltered from the wind.
    They drove, tucked up tight in the draft of convenient trucks, 55 miles per hour and watching the odometer like young hawks — only five months married and scant on cash for this journey.
    It was their first real trip. They took pictures of one another driving.
    Two pieces of luggage, one set of Sears tools, a small collection of token gifts and a case of oil followed them under the back hatch. The tools were insurance. The oil would last for exactly 1,200 miles. Then, another case would be needed, they knew.
    Thank God for $10 motel rooms and a grandmother’s American Automobile Association Trip Tik. The pages of the spiral map flipped in sequence, blue notes about “rolling terrain” in counterpoint to riffs on local history as Sapulpa, Amarillo and Tucumcari rolled past.
    Albuquerque, a 2 a.m. limping point, was ugly in colorless streetlights and vacant of traffic. They had no visions of a “mother road” beneath them, only the endless rhythms of the Route 40 surge.

    “Where will you be for Christmas?” the bride’s sister had asked in smoldering July at the wedding reception, just before thunderstorms broke. “Spend it with us,” she had urged, her eager toddler scrambling over her shoulder. “Mom and Dad will be heading off in January, and the company won’t let them out of Brazil for two years, so it might be nice — if you can make it. If you can come. I mean, we understand if you can’t.”
    So the trip was born, leaving directly from final exams, feeding what little cash they had into the car at 80 cents per gallon, fleeing from gray skies, ice and snowplows.
    Now, the mountain of Flagstaff sat on the distant horizon for hours, never drawing nearer — then suddenly it arrived as the road climbed through scrub that became a Christmas tree lot of evenly scattered pines. Then, a long plunge followed, down the map’s red-yarn thread of Route 17 into Phoenix rush-hour traffic shuddering past imported palm trees in the dim evening light.
    The city squatting under a shroud of pollution, where unexpected rain destroyed the Old Testament certainty of the AAA-Trip Tik directions, washing out bridges and pushing out a harvest of police detours onto unnamed state roads.
    And that wasn’t the end of it.

    “We shouldn’t have come,” she said, later, tears sliding from under her eyelids. “Stupid, stupid, stupid!”
    And she kicked the car’s tire, before walking a few defiant steps past the glow of the flashlight beam — back toward Yuma with her shoulders shaking. At that point, the car was dripping fat blobs of hot oil from under its hood. Dark smears marked their hands. Somewhere miles behind them, an irreplaceable plastic oil cap lay on the desert floor, forgotten after the last infusion of fresh oil.
    Sometimes, a truck passed with a crash of wind and a long whine of tires, leaving them still standing there beside the dark road, listening to their car’s ominous ping, ping, ping.
    They were strangers, now together for the first time. Eventually, they sat against one another and cried a little. They were traveling through the world, yet felt completely cut off.
    It would be nice if a truck stopped and a jovial driver jumped down, full of bounce and an optimistic: “Shoot! What have you got? We can fix it! Here, ma’am, have a cup of coffee while I help your young man.”
    Then, maybe a: “All set! And, you’re not lost. Naw. I know just where you are, and here’s where you’re going. Just follow me.”
    But it didn’t happen that way.
    Instead, they stuffed a leftover paper bag with tissues and rammed it into the oil hole, and they wiped each others’ faces mostly clean of oil smears, and drove on into the dark.

    She fell asleep, eventually.
    He drove, consumed with one question: What might a paper bag sodden with oil do at the worst possible moment?
    Shadows rose in front, first cutting off the road’s curves, then beginning to blot out the stars that had filled such a clear sky. Powerful, pirate Mexican radio stations overrode the green-glowing dial, pumping accordion music and ranting announcers into the little car.
    She slept, and he felt perilously proud and trusted.
    The road climbed and climbed, the car strained and shifted, gasping around unexpected curves and trembling across sudden bridges.
    Mountains pounced, closing out the sky. The radio signals weakened, became intermittent, decayed into static. In a drifting world of darkness, the car crept close to unseen hillsides, drops, unmeasured precipices.

     Then, there were lights, just a few to begin with and far off in the distance. Then closer.
    A small community here. A recognizable sign there. The freeway bent down, passed between two peaks and at last there was a long downward glide. The car purred as the roadway widened, divided, divided again into four, five, who knew how many lanes? 
    Big signs appeared, friendly green-and-white lettering arching across the route with easy directions for weary drivers. Down and down they went, the rocky ground giving way, tropical greenery and flowers reaching out hungrily.
    A city bloomed across a wide valley in front of them and, in the distance, lay a blackness of sea.
    “Wow,” she said, awake now.
    “Yeah,” he said. They rolled down the windows and warm air rolled in. Off the main road there was a wide, easy exit lane, then a series of switchbacks and cascades of bougainvillea masking tumbled granite slopes.
    They caught a glimpse of the whole city from a hillside curve. Amazed, she said, “I’ve only driven here during the day.”
    And, now, they laughed for no reason when he missed a downshift.
    Up an improbably steep driveway where the scent of eucalyptus drifted, they threw open the car doors in the tipsy silence at the end of a long road.
    They drew deep breaths; they held hands. It was warm. It was a gift. It was embarrassing to walk toward the door.
    A snowman was melting on the porch next to some leggy, blooming geraniums. The door popped open and light streamed out: “You’re here!”
    And a yell from inside: “They made it!”
    Her sister looked deep into her face and proclaimed, quietly: “Quite the trip, my dear.”
    They nodded, speechless with hugs. The porch filled with eager people. Family jostled around them like a pack of hounds, bumping, touching, reassuring.
    “We went up to the mountains today to get that snow for you. We knew you’d miss snow on Christmas.”

    For this purpose, everyone made his way to his own town …


COME BACK TOMORROW for another Christmas story.

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