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
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-
"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
"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 upside down.
"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 anyway.
"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
"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
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
He just laughed, as if I was joking. "Seriously," he said again.
"You want 'seriously'? Howabout a new house for those folks down the
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 his costume.
"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 the engine?"
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"I don't know. Maybe a white buffalo."
She laughed, hugged me a little harder. "You're crazy."
"Yep," I agreed.