He came down the back drive just before midnight on Christmas Eve. I was
out in the shop, about to call it a night when I heard the unmistakable
sound of a Volkswagen running on three cylinders. Bad valve.
It was an early model high-roof delivery van. Bright red with white
trim. He pulled up behind the shop. As he shut down the engine it made
that unmistakable tinny rattle of a dropped valve seat. Good thing he
shut it off when he did.
There was a barber pole logo painted on the door: "NicEx" A young
old-guy jumped out, came toward me offering his hand. He was wearing a
snowmobile suit, red & white like the van. I could smell the engine. It
was running 'way too hot.
"Fred Dremmer," he said. We shook. He was about my age, mebbe a little
more, but young, if you know what I mean - alive. Phony beard, though.
It was his own hair but too shiny and perfectly white to be natural. I
eyed the get-up he was wearing, took another gander at the door. "Nice-x?"
"Nick Ex," he corrected me. "I've got the franchise for this ZIP code."
He looked around, noted the tumbledown appearance of the shop, victim of
an earthquake that never happened, thanks to politics. "Are you still
building engines?" he asked.
"Not so's you'd notice." It was pushing on toward midnight and colder
than a well- diggers knee. His shoulders slumped down.
"But you used to build engines," he said hopefully. I didn't deny it.
"They said you offered a lifetime warranty." Actually, I didn't offer
any warranty. Most of the engines I built were high- output big- bore
strokers. A firecracker doesn't carry any warranty either. And for the
same reason. But if I built it, I promised to fix it if they could get
it back to the shop. And if the problem was my fault, there was never
any charge. So I told him, "Something like that."
"My van has one of your engines," he said. "In fact, I think all the
franchisees use them."
"This I gotta see," I laughed. He ran around to get the church-key but
I'd popped the engine hatch with my pocketknife by the time he got back.
I twisted on my mini-maglite and sure enough, there was HVX stamped
right where I'd stamped it. It was one of the lower numbers, a bone
stock 1600 I'd built back in the seventies. Big sigh.
"Can't you fix it?" I gave him a look and he shut up. It had just gone
midnight, clear and cold and silent. The on-shore flow had increased,
bringing with it the charred smell of disaster. About a mile to the west
of me a family's house had caught fire and burned to the ground only
hours before. Merry Christmas indeed. I straightened up, knees creaking,
and went to fetch the floor jack. As I moved away from the vehicle the
guy got all excited, plucked at my arm. "Really, it's very important..."
I snarled something appropriate and he let me go, stood like a dejected
lump in his idiotic outfit. He brightened up when I came back towing the
floor jack, a pair of jackstands in my other hand.
"You're going to fix it?" If he was a puppy he would have been licking
"Nope. You got a bad valve." I got the jack under the tranny support and
started pumping. "Which ain't my fault, by the way. I built this engine
nearly thirty years ago. You've gotten your money's worth and then
some." I got the jackstands under the torsion bar housing, went around
and chocked the front wheels.
"I wasn't complaining... " he began.
"Well I was," I shut him off. Veedub valves don't last thirty years,
especially when they're pushing a van around.
"It always ran perfectly." His tone was placating. And it was Christmas
Eve. Or rather, 0015 Christmas Day. "And it never gets driven very much,
or so I was told."
I gave a snort of disgust. Thirty years is thirty years and every
salesman always sez the thing was only used to take the family to church
on Sundays. I got a tarp and my small tool bag, rolled the tarp out
under the back of the high-roof, dug out my head lamp, checked the
batteries. Dead, of course. Began taking the battery case apart.
"Need some batteries?" He was right there, offering me a 4-pak of new
Ray-O- Vac's. Right size, too. I put the thing back together, tested it.
"What are you doing, exactly."
"Swapping engines," I grunted. I handed him a ratchet with a 13mm socket
and pointed at the rear apron bolts. "Whip'em outta there. And don't
lose the washers."
I skivvied under and got the surprise of my life. The thing was clean.
As in showroom new. No road rash. No oily residue. Original factory axle
boots so clean and new they gave a tiny squeak when I touched them. But
no heater ducts. In fact, no heat exchangers, which explained why the
guy was wearing a snowsuit.
"Does this mean I can finish my route?" He was bent over, peering at me
"Not unless you get those damn bolts out, it don't." I was running my
hand over the paintwork. It had been treated with some sort of
surfactant. It felt oily smooth but left no residue on my fingers and
didn't seem to attract dirt. There were steel rails re-enforcing the
frame on each side. They ran as far aft as the bumper mount. I couldn't
tell how far forward they went. "You do all this?" I shouted as I
crimped-off the fuel line. The breast tin had one of my early bulkhead
fittings, the ones I made out of brass before discovering lamp parts
worked just as well. I popped off the hose. No dribble but I plugged it
"I don't maintain the vehicle," the fellow shouted back. "They do all
that at headquarters. What should I do with the bolts?"
"Put them in your pocket." I skivvied back out, popped loose the battery
ground strap, removed the rear apron, disconnected the electrics and
removed the barrel nut holding the accelerator wire. I gave it to him.
"Keep this with them." I put the little plywood pallet on the floor
jack, got it positioned under the engine, jacked it up and pulled that
puppy outta there.
Fred Dremmer was impressed. He even told me so. "I'm impressed," he
said. Then he said "Happy Christmas." It was 0030 and I was tired.
"Balance that," I told him, tapping the top of the blower housing. I
grabbed the handle of the jack and used it as a trolley to pull the
engine into the shop.
He stood looking around while I dug the spare engine out from under the
bench. It was already on a scooter. "What happened?" he asked softly.
"Look down," I snarled. "You'll figure it out."
He looked down, toed the gaping crack that ran across the floor like a
lightning bolt, saw the way the shop was sloping. "Earthquake?"
"Northridge. Popped the foundation like a pane of glass." I pulled the
engine out into the open, keeping it on the level part of the floor.
"Don't they offer special loans... "
"Only if you're in the 'official' earthquake zone," I laughed. He
started making apologetic sounds. "Balance that," I told him. We
scootered the spare engine out of the shop.
I had to swap mufflers. His came away okay, thanks to the lavish amounts
of anti-seize someone had swabbed on the fittings. It was one of those
lifetime stainless steel bus mufflers from Germany or England or some
damn place. Cost the earth. He looked around, sat down on the workbench
when I nodded toward it. We were out back of the shop, under the shed
roof. Plenty of light.
"So what are you getting for Christmas," he asked, smiling.
I just looked at him, shook my head. I work best without an audience.
"You want some coffee or something? This is going to take me a few minutes."
He said No; he had a thermos of tea in the van. "Seriously, what do you
want for Christmas?" he smiled.
"Not being pestered in the middle of the night would be nice," I muttered.
He just laughed, as if I was joking. "Seriously," he said again.
"You want 'seriously'? Howabout a new house for those folks down the hill?"
He gave me a blank look and I realized he didn't know about the fire. So
I told him. He ended up looking as sad as I felt. "What do you think
they'd like for Christmas?" I goaded him. I shook my head, "It's mostly
bullshit anyway. A birthday party that's gotten outta hand." And the
best evidence of that was right there in front of me, some yuppie
asshole Yuletide delivery service running around on Christmas Eve in an
antique bus. He stood gazing off toward where the fire was. It had been
a huge blaze, you could see it good from the house. Hopes and dreams and
Christmas trees are all highly combustible.
I finished transferring the J-tubes and muffler to the spare engine and
he helped me shift it on to the jack. We pulled it out to his bus and I
started putting it in.
"It's unusual to find someone who doesn't want anything for Christmas,"
he said. I'd given him a pair of vise grips to hold. I didn't need them
but I figured it would make him feel useful, mebbe shut him up. Wrong.
"I've got everything I want." I'd checked the splines. Things were
lining up good. His seals looked new. I gave them a spray of glycerin so
they wouldn't grab the engine.
"That's even more unusual," he said. He was smiling, acting a little
antsy but working hard to keep me happy so he could get the hell out of
there. About the worst thing that could happen to him would be for me to
slow down. So I did.
"People spend too much time wishing for things they don't need." I
patted the red high-roof. "I'll bet this thing is chock full of yuppie
junk, eh?" He looked uncomfortable, passed the pair of vise grips from
hand to hand. "And what about you? I'll bet you're some sort of retired
executive, working a little Christmas-time tax dodge to supplement your
retirement, eh? Bleached beard with a platinum rinse, funny suit and
this oh-so-cute Santa's Helper delivery van, popping up in the middle of
the night to trade on an implied warranty almost thirty years old?"
"What are you saying?" He looked kinda angry. The sight was as silly as
"You wouldn't understand," I sighed. I fished the throttle wire thru the
blower housing, plugged the engine back in, started the upper nuts and
shanghaied him into holding the wrench while I skivvied back under. Did
the nuts, torqued to spec, did the fuel line, checked things over,
skivvied back out. With everything installed underneath, I began putting
the engine compartment to rights.
"You mean the religious aspect," he said.
"You heard about that, eh?" I kept working.
"Are you a religious man?" he asked softly. I was connecting the
generator leads. I wanted to ignore him but couldn't. I stopped, rocked
back so I could see his face.
"Yeah," I told him. "I'm religious as hell. And so are you. But the
difference is you worship money and I don't."
"And you can tell all that just by working on my van?" He was smiling.
He was no longer angry but really cheerful.
"Yeah, I can. You've had some sort of anti-stick powder-coating process
applied to the whole undercarriage. That must of set you back some major
bucks. But it's not a car- show kinda van otherwise it would be all
original underneath. That tells me you did it so you could impress your
customers with your shiny, never dirty ride and that tells me you
probably charge some big bucks for your Christmas Eve delivery service gig."
That wiped the grin off his face. "Very astute," he muttered. Then
frowned. "But if you knew it was all just another Christmas-biz scheme,
why are we standing out here in the middle of the night while you repair
I laughed at him. "See? I said you wouldn't understand."
I finished the hook-ups, connected the battery, replaced the rear apron,
connected the throttle wire, wiped everything down. "Go run the starter
for a minute. We gotta prime the carb." He clumped around to the front
and got in. I hadn't noticed the boots until then. Or the buckles.
I held the throttle open while he ran the starter. He held it down for
about thirty seconds then came clumping back. "Won't it start?"
"Shall I do it some more?"
"Not right now." I sat there, loaded a pipe, got it going. He turned out
to be a pipe man too. Some foreign smelling crap. I've got Prince Albert
in the can. I mentioned that fact but he didn't get the joke. Or mebbe
he did. It was about a quarter after one.
"What are we waiting for?"
"For the starter to cool. It'll start now." And it did. Nice steady idle.
I took his credit card and driver's license, did the paper work. He
balanced the clipboard on the steering wheel, signed both slips without
question. "This is just a deposit," I explained. "Bring back my engine,
you can tear it up." But right then I had a premonition I wouldn't see
him or my engine again.
"What was it I didn't understand?" he asked softly. It sounded like he
really wanted to know.
"Christmas presents?" I motioned toward the back of the van. There was a
partition behind the driver's seat that blocked my view. He nodded.
"That's what you don't understand." He looked blank. "I get mine all
year 'round," I laughed.
"Like my family." He gave me that frown again and I laughed. "See? You
haven't got a clue. A smile from my wife is a better thing to have than
any of the crap you've got back there."
The dawn of understanding began to break across his brows. "That's...
that's pretty old fashioned."
"Old as the hills," I agreed. "Older than Christmas, too."
Now he got it. "I'm sorry," he stammered. "I assumed you were a
"I am," I laughed. "Of a sort. And a Muslim, if it comes right down to
it. And a Buddhist and a Jew and Inuit too." And maybe a touch of White
Now he was laughing and nodding. "Okay, I get it. I think." But I didn't
think he did. He cocked his head, gave me a thoughtful look. "Yours must
be an interesting wish-list."
I smiled back at him. Maybe he really did get it. "Sunsets are nice. A
good sunset is a thing to be thankful for."
"Good health..." he offered. I nodded. He was clearly getting it. "Good
"That's the idea. All that..." I gestured toward the back of the van,
"...is just... stuff."
"It's the thought that counts..."
"Yeah, but only if the thought is there all year 'round. Christmas
dinner for the homeless followed by 364 hungry days? Gimme a break."
He nodded again, slower this time. "What about the engine?"
"Because I said I would."
That one took him a minute. Then he got it. "Trust..."
"And honor... yeah, stuff like that. Telling someone you'll do something
then actually doing it... That's a present of sorts in today's world."
"But... thirty years later..."
"Doesn't matter. What got me pissed was you showing up in the middle of
the night. And that silly suit! Do you know you look like Santa Claus?"
This time we both laughed.
"But haven't you ever wished for something at Christmas?" he asked softly.
"You mean, like world peace or wishing no one's house would ever burn
down on Christmas Eve..."
He interrupted me with a gesture. "No, I meant something personal. A
"I've got all the tools I need."
He kept looking at me. "Never wished for anything? Not even once?"
"Sure," I laughed. "When I was a kid."
"What was it?"
Time sucked me back more than half a century. "A wagon," I admitted. "A
'Radio Flyer' wagon. It was about the same color as your van. Roller
bearing wheels. It was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen."
I was five years old. I can still smell the oiled wooden floor of the
Montgomery Ward store in the little California town as I knelt to
worship the marvelous machine. They had it propped up so you could spin
the wheels, listen to the oily purr of the roller bearings. I was sure
it could go at least a hundred miles an hour and carry me any place I
wanted to go, a magic carpet disguised in steel.
"Did you get it?" The soft question drew me back. Overhead the stars
snapped back into focus on the velvet cape of night.
"Take care of my engine," I ordered as I shut his door, stepped away
from the vehicle.
He slid back the glass. "Did you?"
"You're going to be late. Wouldn't want to upset all those yuppies." He
considered that, conceded the point with a nod. He fired it up and
backed cautiously up the drive then went rolling down the hill toward
I slept late. When I stepped out of the shower there was a steaming cup
of coffee in my favorite mug. Someone had laid out my shaving tackle.
The kitchen was full of smiles and good smells of things to eat as the
women prepared our Christmas dinner. My wife gave me a big kiss and a
bigger smile. "I almost tripped over it when the kids arrived," she
laughed. I had no idea what she meant, gave her a blank stare. She gave
me a playful punch. "Fool. It's perfect. I can use it for moving flower
pots and carrying potting mix..." Something exploded in the microwave
and she joined the fire brigade. I took my coffee out to the patio.
It was parked on the walk under the hibiscus, just inside the redwood
gate. A coaster wagon agleam in red. It looked brand new. It even
smelled new. Radio Flyer in white script along the side of the bed. The
handle was black. The wheels white with thick black rubber tires.
My wife came out, slipped her arm around my waist, leaned her head on my
shoulder. "It's beautiful. Where did you ever find it?"
In the kitchen, my daughter overhead her. "He probably made it!"
Everyone laughed. Even me.
"Is this what you've been working on? You came to bed awfully late."
I shook my head, sipped my coffee. My great-grandmother was Kiowa.
Coffee was 'burnt-bean-soup'. And still is, to me. "No. I think it's a
My wife gave me an odd look. "Who would give us something like that?"
"I don't know. Maybe a white buffalo."
She laughed, hugged me a little harder. "You're crazy."
"Yep," I agreed.