T'was the week before Christmas and all through the club, us boys we was watchin'...well, a lousy football game is what we was watchin'. That's as much of that poetry deal as I can do, anyways. We had one of them minor bowl games on the tube, the Draino Toilet Bowl or the Copenhagen Snuff Bowl or some such, two teams from the South with 6-5 records makin' we're-number-one signs into the camera.
The phone rang, and Earl that run the joint he answered it, then called, "It's for you, Bob Don. It's Skeeter," he winked.
Bob Don he crawled off his stool and took the handset. "Okay, honey," he said. "All right, honey. And a quart of milk? Okay, darlin'. Soon. I won't be long. All right, baby."
On the windows facing the street, a single, sorry string of Christmas lights blinked now and then, and a wilted-lookin' cardboard Santa was taped there too. I said to that tightwad Earl, "You never spared no expense on decorations this year, did you, chief?"
"You ever buy any a them lights?" he demanded. "They're real high."
"Them things work about as good as ol' Wylie's gear, see," added Dunc. Wylie, he'd made the mistake of tellin' us he'd been to the doc' to see about some plumbin' problems.
"The hell!" snapped that ol' Arkie. "I'll outscrew you, numb-nuts."
We all laughed.
Bob Don he finally hung up, and ol' Dunc that was on the prod for some reason he nodded at him then sneered to me, "Pussy whipped, see. Bundy sure lets his ol' lady boss him around."
"By God," asserted Hillis, glad for the chance to change the subject. "The Missus she don't never call me whenever I'm here at the Tejon Club. She knows better."
Bob Don he set back on his stool and asked, "What's the score now?"
Southern Mississippi had just scored a touchdown and tied Vanderbilt.
"Who's the hell's a-playin'?"Dunc demanded. He'd been watchin' the whole damn game.
Earl told him.
"Well, them guys ain't worth a rat's ass, see," said Duncan. "Back when I'uz playin' army football, that'uz a rough deal. Me, I'uz the best in my damn outfit."
I looked at Earl, Earl he looked at Bob Don, Bob Don looked at Wylie. Hell, ol' Dunc's the best at ever'thing back in the armyaccording to him, anyways, because wasn't none of us there to check on him. But I'd played football with him at high school, so I said, "You're still pickin' splinters outta your ass from Bakersfield High. You never got off nothin' but pine time because you couldn't play worth a shit."
He couldn't either. Slower'n a damn slug and none too brave, as I recall.
"Oh yeah!" the big guy puffed up. "Well the coach never liked me, see. He liked them coloreds. But in the Army, by God, I'uz..."
"We know, you'uz a piss-cutter." I shook my head and grinned.
Just then the telephone it rang again, and Earl he answered it. "Dunc," he said, "your little bride."
"The War Department?" The football star cringed for a second, then said, "I just left."
"He just left."
Earl he stood there for a long time, noddin' and grinnin'. Then he hung up. "She says you was supposed to bring laundry detergent home a hour ago and you'd better snap to it d'rectly or she's gonna come over and get you."
"Oh yeah?" snarled Dunc, defiant as hell now that the War Department had hung up. Then he slipped off his stool and hurried to his pickup.
"That's ol' Dunc," I said. "Back in the Army, he'uz the best in his outfit at dealing' with women."
That give ever'one a laugh.
A minute later, the door opened slow, and there stood this ragged, skinny Oriental guy with a couple of little kids with him. I don't remember ever seein' a Oriental in the club before. He held a hat in both hands. "You boss?" he asked, his English soundin' real strange to me.
"Who me? Hell no," Wylie replied. "That guy there is," noddin' at Earl.
"Yeah." Earl's eyes narrowed. I think he could smell something that might cost him a buck or two.
"You got wo'k?" The voice was soft, but the man looked directly at Earl.
Earl made a face.
"He means work," Bob Don said.
"Hell no, I cain't pay nobody to do no work."
Bob Don made a face himself...at Earl...then he turned toward that man. "What kind of work do you do?"
"Any. No pay. Food."
"He doesn't want your money, Earl. He just wants somethin' to eat."
I reached into my pocket and withdrew a bill; those folks needed food more than I needed another beer. "Give him and his kids each one a them cellophane sandwiches and some chips and a soda pop. On me."
"Well...okay," Earl nodded.
I added, "And give that man a broom to sweep this place so he can feel like he earned it."
He did that and the skinny man carefully swept the Tejon Club. I never seen that floor so clean. His kids stayed with him, not touchin' the food until their daddy he was finished. "You got mo' wo'k?"
"Hell, no, I ain't got no more work."
"Wait a minute," I said. "Me and Heddy can scare up a job or two around the place for this guy. How 'bout you, Bob Don?"
"I ain't got nothin' for no Chinaman to do."
I turned toward the man and said, "You come on back tomorrow and we'll have some work for you, okay?"
"Oh," he grinned, "nice. Nice. I come." Then he scooped up them sandwiches and sodas and chips and took off.
"Where'd that Chinaman come from?" asked Wylie.
"I don't know," I said, "but I'm gonna find out." I walked to the door.
"Hey, you're gonna miss the rest a the game," Earl pointed out.
"Big loss. This time Dunc's right. Even he could probably play with them two sorry teams. See you guys later."
That man and his kids had just rounded the corner on Chester Avenue, so I strolled along behind as they hurried along south all the way to the Kern Riveror its dry bed, anyways. We'd been havin' a damn freeze and it was colder'n a witch's tit. My breath was busting white steam. They climbed the levee and disappeared into what was left of the forest that usta line the stream. I followed 'em but kinda lost track, then I come around a bend and I seen that man with three women and maybe eight or nine little kids, and they was splittin' them three sandwiches and all, lookin' happy but real ragged and cold.
They also looked real familiar. Whenever my folks come out here from Oklahoma, and I wasn't but a little bitty kid, we'd camped right in these same woods. We'd built us a shelter outta whatever we could find, just like these folks done, and me and my brothers and sisters we was hungry a lot, just like these kids. I have to tell you, it grabbed me real deep to see folks livin' like that in California in 1990. And me with a well-fed family, two cars, two T.V.s, a nice house, a good job. It just got me to thinkin'.
Just then two more men, both of 'em lookin' tired and hungry and sad, they showed up and some of them kids run up to 'em and laughed. The other guy, he'd saved 'em some chow and give it to 'em and that pepped 'em up some. So it was a whole gang stranded here just like we was whenever we come out lookin' for work way back when.
Whenever I got back to the Tejon Club, Wylie and Earl was into it: "That's X-in' out Christ is what!" insisted Wylie. The ol' Arkie he was stickin' a finger in Earl's face.
"Hell, Wylie, I got that deal free at the Church of the Nazarene! Or Mildred did. She brung it home from church." The proprietor had went and taped a fancy "Merry Xmas" sign on the mirror over the bar. I kinda liked it.
"Well, by God, the Missus she goes to the Assembly a God and the preacher there he told her that that 'Xmas' deal it was a-X-in' out Christ! He give her a deal to read up on it." Hillis thrust his chin forward. "And besides, that Santa deal you got in the window, that's really Satan! Just look how it's spelled. That's how come him to wear a red suit. That was in the deal the preacher give her too."
"Well, that preacher's fulla shit, see," suggested Duncan that was back on his favorite stool. "If you spell that different, it's still s-h-i-t!"
"You're fulla shit!" snapped Wylie.
Yeah, the Christmas spiritor maybe the Xmas spiritwas in full bloom at the club. "Listen, you peckerheads," I said, "I wanta tell you what I just seen." I did that and, to my surprise, nobody laughed, nobody said nothin' mean.
"You mean that little Chinaman and some others're a-livin' out by the river. Hell I thought that there kinda stuff 'uz ancient history," Wylie said.
"They're probably Hmongs," suggested Bob Don. "I read where a bunch of them came here from Fresno hoping to find field work, but the freeze this year killed crops, and there's no work around right now. They're probably stranded."
"What's Hmongs?" asked Earl.
"They're from Vietnam...or Cambodia...or Laos..."
"No shit?" Dunc he seemed interested. "I never seen no Viet Nams that they kicked our butts in the war. I figgered them Viet Nams for great, big bastards, see."
"Little guys," I said, "with wives and buncha little kids, three families it looked like, tryin' to make do right where that ol' Hooverville camp usta be."
"Little guys and they kicked our butts?" Dunc he seemed amazed. "It's a good thing for them I wasn't still in the army then, see."
"Right," grinned Earl.
"We gotta help them folks out," I asserted and I wasn't jokin'.
Wylie he was lookin' real dubious and he said, "I don't know 'bout no Viet Nams…"
"You know about folks, don't you. You know about bein' cold and hungry, don't you? You know about little kids without no decent clothes, don't you? That's all you need to know," I snapped, probably stronger that I should've, but that silly 'Viet Nams' shit got me down.
"Jerry Bill's right, boys," agreed Bob Don. "Let's figure out what we can do for those families."
"But if they was the ones that went and kicked our butts, why should we help 'em?" asked Dunc.
"The ones that're here fought on our side, Duncan," explained Bob Don Bundy that had graduated Bakersfield Junior College and knew his history real good. "The commies kicked them out for helping us."
"Some of 'em was on our side?" marveled Dunc, the foreign affairs expert. "Well, that's diff'rent, see. What do you wanta do, J.B.," he asked me.
"I still don't like that X-in' out Christ deal," added Wylie, lookin' for a argument.
I give him a glance that'd kill grass. "Forget that crap!" I barked. Seein' them poor folks out there had me on the prod. I got us back to the subject: "I vote for us givin' them folks a early Christmas," I suggested, "and today we need to scare up some grub for all of 'em."
"How much you reckon somethin' like that might run?" moaned the ol' pennypincher.
"How many more a them cellophane sandwiches you got there, Earl?" Hardly nobody ever bought one.
"Well, those're real expensive," he said.
"Bullshit," I said. "Tally up a dozen of 'em, a dozen cokes, a dozen bags a chipsat your costand us guys'll split it four ways."
"We will?" croaked Wylie.
"You damn rights," agreed Dunc.
Bob Don said, "Certainly."
"I...I guess we will," Wylie finally nodded. Then he mumbled somethin' about "Viet Nams."
Earl he slunk to the sandwich display and begun baggin' food. You'd think we'd stole his pocket watch.
Just then the telephone rang, so I answered it, "Tejon Club," I said.
"Is that you, J. B.?" asked Heddy, my wife.
"It sure is, babe."
"What time will you be home?"
"Before long. Listen, lemme tell you what I seen today." I explained the whole deal to her.
When I finished, she said, "Oh, Jerry Bill, we can't let them live out there like that."
She's a good gal, so I knew she'd say that. Well, she took over callin' the wives while me and Dunc delivered food out to that camp. It was a sad, sad deal, I'll tell you, and them folks was sure happy for our crummy sandwiches. One sorry tent was all they had for the whole gang. It seems like they did have two old cars but one was broke down and they never had money for gas anyways. The little guy that'd come into the club earlier, he said they'd come here hopin' to find work, and that they had kinfolk in Fresno and wanted to get back there.
Well, ol' Dunc he upped un volunteered to have his oldest boy Doyle, that he was a shade-tree-fix-it man, work on that car. I told the Vietnamese guy to bring ever'one to the club that next day and we'd have work for 'em all, and that little guy he liked to've bawled he was so happy. "Oh thank!" he said. "Oh thank!" and he pumped my hand and Dunc's.
That next day the club it looked like one of them Hollywood Christmases. Heddy and Dunc's tiny wife, DeeDee, the famous War Department, they'd set up a tree; Heddy told me ol' Earl's first words when he seen it was, "How much'd that run?"
The gals set up other decorations, too. And they'd helped Earl's frau, ol' top-heavy Mildred, and Wylie's Missus, Olive, cook up a turkey and all the fixin's. Skeeter, that was Mrs. Bob Don Bundy, her and my boy Craig and his pal Junior, they went out and bought ever' one of them little kids three presents: a toy, some gloves and a jacket. Me and the boys bought each of them adults jackets and gloves. Hey, it's only money.
And you shoulda seen them little Vietnamese kids' faces whenever they come in the front door. Even ol' miser Earl had to grin. It was worth ever' damn penny, boys. Ever' damn penny. Pretty soon Craig and Junior that they was on North High's football team and wearin' their letter jackets, they was tossin' a footballone of the giftswith the bigger kids. Most of them Vietnamese kids was wearin' their jackets and gloves right there in the club.
D'rectly we all ate turkey and pumkin pie. Then a surprise come: Ol' Cletus Rollins, preacher at the Assembly of God, him and three guys showed upthe first time any of 'em'd ever been in the Tejon Cluband they brung three big boxes of clothes, and some groceries too. That was real good of 'em. I have to admit, I've thought different of them churches ever since. D'rectly, Heddy and Skeeter took to teachin' the little kids to sing Christmas carols and them kids they caught right on.
Pretty soon I seen Dunc and his dainty little wife lookin' all starry-eyed together, Skeeter and Bob Don they was all cooned-up, and even Wylie and the Missus looked like they was about to snuggle. But I was wrong about ol' Wylie.
For whatever reason, he decided to buttonhole Earl again and, like a broke record, start in on him: "I still think you oughta take that X-in' out Christ deal down, Earl," asserted the Arkie, pointin' at the offendin' "Merry Xmas" proclamation. "It's a damn sin is what it is."
Before Earl could say anything, my wife smiled, detached herself from my arm, and patted Wylie's shoulder. "Don't worry about Christ, Wylie," she smiled. "He's here." And she nodded toward them happy folks with their presents.
Then Heddy, she walked right back to me and kissed me in front of God and everyone. "I'm proud of you, J.B.," she said.
"Me, too, Dad," said Craig, and that big lunk that he was first string on the football team, you know what he done? He hugged me.
Well I felt funny, like my throat had went soft and my eyes was warm. But to tell you the truth, I was half-proud of myownself.