Drive-up Christmas Eve
by Stuart Watson
Only a week had passed since someone from our church, wrapped around one too many holiday martinis, suggested a drive-in Christmas Eve service. In the parking lot of the newspaper, just downhill from the red taco truck.
I was still living with my parents, going to juco. Getting some credits out of the way while I figured it out. They said they were going, maybe I could join them. I asked them what was the plan.
Nobody would have thought of such a thing, if not for the clouds of virus wafting around the planet, dropping in here and there, infecting dozens of people with a lassitude counterproductive to mass holiday consumerism. People, deprived of their drug, were stressed.
As a result of the plague and an understandable public desire not to get the extensive sores and oozing worms and the sudden inclination to fall down and roll around and shout out in language never before uttered from one’s lips, the congregants tilted toward seeing Jesus through their windshields.
The Rev hadn’t had indoor service in months. It seemed like an atheist plot to not have Christmas Eve. She had heard about people doing service at old drive-in movie parks, so she convinced the editor of the paper to let her stage a drive-in service.
“You gonna show Psycho?” he asked. “I’d come. I did the first time.”
She didn’t pursue it. The editor and his girlfriend, who would later become his wife, conceived their first child watching Norman Bates slash Janet Leigh. He just figured it best to let the church people have their way.
Then the Rev turned to the flock, to help her paint the fence.
I was driving a 1979 Ford LTD at the time. Bought it at a local salvage yard, got it running with help of my auto shop class (we live in a small town, where they still have such things, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to take home-ec). It had an eight track player with this cassette of Bad Company’s Straight Shooter stuck inside of it. Talk about heavy rotation. It was the only cassette I could listen to. Oh, man, my best memories were all attached to this car and that cassette. I told my folks I would go, if my girl Florice wanted to go too. She was done baking Christmas cookies, so some heavy rotation sounded good to her, too.
The event came together at warp speed. Mandy told the Rev she would build a spreadsheet. A column for names, a column for cars, a column for how many people needed extra space for barbecues and coolers. She should have included a column for weather.
Mandy used to run a clothing store. She had names of contractors who could turn out some hats and T-shirts. She sent that to Katie, who managed the newsletter, and fired off a quickie blast to all the Christians and hangers-on who liked the Gospel Choir. A couple dozen said they might like a little Tailgating with Jesus.
Elrod said he could round up some volunteers to help park cars. Stand in the lot in reflective vests. Wave flashlights so people knew that they should pull in to parking slots and keep going to the opposite slot so their car and the one behind them would all be facing in the same direction.
There would be a stage. With people wearing reindeer antlers, purchased from the Dollar Store. Sue Zee was in charge. She also enlisted people for the creche, a Joseph (Stan), a Mary (Wanda) and a baby Jesus (a potbellied pig dressed in a lamb’s wool vest).
Sue didn’t want anything to do with the sound system. That fell into the lap of Marv, who ran the speakers in the sanctuary when the faithful weren’t all trying to avoid breathing on each other. He had a trailer full of gear with lights and knobs and places to plug in wires. He would pull it into the lot and let church members get out of their cars and wander by and take a gander.
“Is that where the plug goes?” someone might ask, and he would say, “Yep. Gotta plug the plug.”
Then, when the Rev said “Go,” he would crank it up to thirteen and blast the faithful to the great beyond.
Betty said she would get the kids together to create costumes that made them look like dessicated deer. With lights on their heads, operated by battery packs hidden inside the deer butts.
Several of the ladies from the Good News Grannies were planning their next outreach to shut-ins when one of them mentioned the service . Another said it sounded like going to a drive-in movie or a car-hop burger joint.
“I’ve still got my skates,” Loretta said. “I think. I know the box where I think they are. If my son didn’t steal them and sell them on eBay. Shitbird does that.”
“Me, too!” squealed Cindy Lou Talmage, one-time Miss Southeastern Missouri Hog Farmer. “I could wear my sash. Should we take orders?”
“For what?” asked EllaMae Whisenhutt. She liked meetings, but wasn’t too swift on the ideas, or helping with ideas that others contributed. Kinda like a pile of mashed potatoes, but she smiled a lot, and folks liked her, even though most could count her IQ on two hands.
“We could have the tailgaters make stuff,” Cindy Lou said. “Hot dogs. Chili. Chili dogs. That’s a menu, isn’t it?”
“For Christmas Eve?” EllaMae asked. “Jesus didn’t eat chili dogs.”
“I agree, there are limits,” Cindy Lou said. “We can’t do shish kebab, or onion rings. But how long is this thing — an hour, ninety minutes?”
They contacted the barbecue crew, and the boys were down with it. A couple even had thoughts about brisket, and were planning to drag a smoker into the lot. Elrod was excited. He came up with an idea for a Communion Wafer Burger — two thin crackers wrapped around a slice of brisket, with a daub of “moose turd” from the line of packaged condiments produced by the company of church deacon Beneezer Filbert. They sold a shit-ton at roadside stands, to tourists infatuated with the idea of foodstuffs made from stuff grown within eyesight of the highway.
Phil Bertelsen, one of the ‘cue crew, later said he was merely joking when he suggested they set up a drive-through booth so people could order. The roller girls objected, so they settled on a compromise to sell canned beer at the drive-through window, to folks entering the lot.
An hour before the service, darkness settled beneath the downward pressure of winter’s thumb. A wad of Arctic air collapsed onto the valley floor, driving the last vestiges of warmth from air above and around and upon the newspaper parking lot. Then an extremely moist cloud slid over the frigid air, and disgorged its contents. The rain fell and when it hit the pavement, it froze.
Cars began sliding into the lot about fifteen minutes later. The Rev rode her e-Baru into a bank of arbor vitae, kicked the door open, and crawled with the help of a couple ballpoint pens across the parking lot to the stage.
Marv had started with the sound system the day before, so he was ready, and popped in his thumb drive when he saw the Rev.
Paul Rodgers rocks, but never more so than he did that night.
“Feel like making LOVE to yooouuuu!” pounded out of the speakers.
Marv was aghast. Wrong thumb drive, for one thing, but where was the one with the carols on it? And if he had a clue, he couldn’t get there anyway. Every time he took a step, he fell flat on his wide Texas ass.
Elrod’s parking crew was struggling. Most were lying in the lot, waving their flashlights as cars slid from the street through the curb cut and twirled on ice into the railing in front of the newspaper office. They just stacked up, one on another, until the lot was mostly full of people suffused with the holiday spirit. You could see them, tipping bottles of bourbon to their lips, to settle their racing heartbeats and restore to themselves a vision of future life on earth.
That’s when I slow-rolled the LTD into the lot and glided through a couple donuts before lightly trunk-bumping us into the pile. We could see the stage. Florice smiled at the chaotic scene outside. The windows were already streaming up when she leaned close.
“I got something for you,” she said.
I hadn’t bought her anything, but she found it anyway.
Outside, a few diehards tottered from their cars and removed propane grills. Before long, the smell of grilling brats and tri-tip filled the lot.
EllaMae and her roller girls tried, bless them, to reach the car windows, but finally agreed that skates weren’t cutting it. They had to shed the shoes and try to walk, but even that failed, with ice on everything. They would slide sideways across the lot until they neared a car where they thought they might take an order, and then they would slide beneath the car and out the other side. The occupants finally figured out that the only way they could place an order was if they opened their door and grabbed one of the carhops. Hold them. Talk to them. Help them write down what they wanted.
Elrod and the boys jerry rigged a system of ropes and pulleys to drag the carhops to the tailgaters and relay the orders.
Delivering the orders was another thing. They had to reverse-pull the ladies, none of whom were very agile, bunched as they were on the upside of seventy. People in the cars were so damned happy to have something to eat, though, they were more than glad to wait until the carhops quit slipping around before they opened their car doors. No need to clock the poor things in the noggin, just for a Holy Brisket Burger.
The Rev finally got vertical and used a pair of ski poles to help her approach the microphone. She said something that nobody could hear because they were safe inside their cars eating burgers.
Marv had rigged up a low-wattage broadcasting thing, but something happened. It linked up with Bluetooth and dialed everyone within a half mile for a lecture on the coming of the Christ child.
Problem was, the lecture took a turn. The church kids were supposed to walk up a short flight of stairs to the platform and light some candles. The candles were mounted too high for the kids to see what they were aiming their wicks at. Years later, they would look back and think of it as foreshadowing, but on this holy night, they struggled to stay upright, what with the ice and all. The biggest kid teetered backward, and his wick flew over his head and into a holy banner the organizers had hung from the sign — Duncom Call Eagle — above the newspaper office. The banner went up in a “Foof!” and lit the roll roofing. As flames marched across the roof, they must’ve hit a gas line. We heard a huge sucking sound, and the walls of the building bowed inward just before the detonation that blasted the newspaper sign over the vehicles in the lot. The publisher of the newspaper was not happy about that, even though the Rev later tried to mollify him with the thought that “at least nobody died.”
“Don’t even think about an Easter service,” he said. “Cutting a little close to the bone.”
Nobody could hear the Rev anyway, but Marv heard Paul Rodgers kick into “Shooting Star” and did something only Jesus could approve of. He cranked it up. Cars were bouncing in the lot when the newspaper building soared overhead.
Nothing about the blast reduced the negatives of the ice. Tow trucks had to come and haul everybody out of the lot. It took a while. They had chains, but it wasn’t enough to keep them still while they were loading a car.
Florice and I had to mop the windows off before we could leave.
“That was the best Christmas eve ever,” I told my parents later.
“It was a disaster,” my dad said. “What service were you at?”
“I was there. With Florice. She said it was really special.”
I felt like I had gone down a blind alley. Any second, he might ask me what was special about it. If I said anything more, I would never get out, so I just went upstairs.
I don’t know much about Jesus and the like. When I recall that night, I think of that quote from Matthew: “Whenever two or three come together in my name.”
Behind a veil of steamy windows, me and Florice and Paul Rodgers felt the spirit of Christmas descend. From that day onward, I cherished a huge and abiding faith in a much higher power.
Stuart Watson wrote for newspapers in Anchorage, Seattle and Portland. For fun and low pay, he and his wife later owned two restaurants. His writing is in more than thirty publications, including Yolk, Barzakh, MacQueen’s Quinterly, Bending Genres, Flash Boulevard, Revolution John, Montana Mouthful, Sledgehammer Lit, Five South and Pulp Modern Flash. He lives actually in Oregon, with his wife and their amazing dog. He lives virtually at chiselchips.com and tweets @StuartWatson50