It was a fine tree, Everett’s daughter agreed. His wife said it was lopsided and looked like a bush. But that was part of its fineness—it was a tall, lopsided Douglas fir, bare on one side where it had crowded out its neighbour. The branchless side could go against the living-room wall, the bushy side was for decorations, and now the crowded tree in the woods had room to grow. Everett dragged their quarry through the snow by the trunk, and Anne Marie, who was four, clung to the upper branches and rode on her stomach, shouting, ‘Faster, Daddy!’
Pam, his wife, followed with an armload of pine boughs and juniper branches. She seemed to have decided not to say anything more about the tree, which was fine with Everett.
The Jimmy was parked where the trail split off from the logging road, and Everett opened the back to throw the tools and boughs in, then roped the tree to the roof with nylon cords. Pam brushed off Anne Marie’s snowsuit and buckled her in the front so she wouldn’t get carsick. The smell of pine and juniper filled the car as they drove down the mountain.
‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,’ Everett sang, in his best lounge-singer croon. ‘Jack Frost nipping at your nose.’ Here he reached over and nipped at Anne Marie’s, and she squealed. He stopped, forgetting the words.
Pam prompted, ‘Yuletide carols,’ half-singing, shy about her voice.
‘Being sung by a choir…’ He reached for the high note.
That was when they saw the couple at the side of the road. Folks dressed up like Eskimos: Everett thought for a second that he had conjured them up with his song. The two of them stood in the snow, under the branches of a big lodgepole pine. The man wore a blue parka and held up a broken cross-country ski. The woman wore red gaiters over wool trousers, a man’s pea coat and a fur hat. They waved, and Everett slowed to a stop and rolled down the window.
‘Nice day for a ski,’ he said.
‘It was,’ the man said bitterly. He was about Everett’s height and age, not yet pushing forty, with a day or two of bristle on his chin.
‘I broke a ski and we’re lost—’ the woman began.
‘We’re not lost,’ the man said.
‘We are completely lost,’ the woman said.
She was younger than the man, with high, pink cheekbones in the cold. Everett felt friendly and warm from the tree and the singing.
‘Your car must be close,’ he said. ‘You’re on the road.’
‘The car is on a different road,’ the woman said.
‘Well, we’ll find it,’ Everett said.
In the rear-view mirror, he saw Pam’s eyes widen at him from the back seat. She was slight and dark-haired, and accused him of favouring the kind of blonde who held sorority car washes. It was a joke, but it was partly true. With a bucket and sponge, this girl would fit right in. But arguing over giving them a ride would make everyone uncomfortable, and Pam would agree in the end. Everett got out of the car and untied a nylon cord to open the back hatch. His wife had sleds and jackets in the back seat with her, and he thought she would want some separation of family and hitchhikers. She wouldn’t look at him now.
‘You’ll have to sit with the juniper boughs,’ he told the couple.
‘Better than freezing in a snowbank,’ the blonde said, climbing into the way back. Even in the wool pants, she had a sweet figure, of the car-soaping type.
‘We really appreciate this,’ the man said.
Everett shut them all in, lashed on the skis and tied the tree down. It made no sense for Pam to be angry. This wasn’t country where you left people in the snow. The man looked strong but not too strong; Everett could take him, if he needed to. Back in the driver’s seat, Everett pulled on to the road, as snow fell in clumps off the big pine the couple had stood under.
His daughter turned around in her seat, as well as she could with her seat belt on, and announced to the new passengers, ‘We have a CB radio.’
The warning tone in her voice came straight from Pam. It was identical in some technical, musical way to Pam’s We’re going to be late and her I’m not going to tell you again.
‘What’s your handle?’ the man in the parka asked.
Anne Marie looked confused.
‘Your name,’ Everett explained. ‘On the radio.’
‘Batgirl,’ Anne Marie told the strangers, her cheeks flushing. Oh, he loved Anne Marie! Loved it when she blushed. There had been a rocky time when Pam was pregnant, when he had felt panicked and young and trapped, and slept with the wife of a friend. It had only been once, in 1974, after many beers at a co-ed softball game, but the girl had gone and told Pam. She said she needed to clear her conscience, which didn’t make any sense to Everett. He’d ended up driving Pam to the emergency room after a screaming fight, when she threw a shoe at him and started to have shooting pains in her abdomen. The doctors were worried: Pam was anaemic, and if she lost the baby she might bleed to death. Everett spent the night in her hospital room, frozen with grief. The baby decided to stay put, and came along fine two months later, but the night in the hospital had scared him. He would never put his wife and child in danger again. He hadn’t put them in danger now, and he resented Pam’s eye-widened implication that he had.
‘You got a handle?’ he asked the hitchhikers in back.
‘I’m Clyde,’ the man said.
‘Bonnie,’ the woman said.
Everyone was silent for a moment.
‘That’s really funny,’ Everett finally said—though between his shoulder blades he felt a prick of worry. ‘You must have a CB, too.’
‘No, those are our names,’ the man said.
The CB crackled on. ‘What’s this continental divide?’ a man’s voice asked.
Everett picked up the handset, still thinking about Bonnie and Clyde. ‘You mean what is it?’
‘Yeah,’ the voice said.
So Everett said that the snow and rain on the west side of the mountains ran to the Pacific, and the water on the east side ran to the Gulf of Mexico.
‘I never heard of such a thing,’ the voice said.
‘That’s what it is,’ Everett said. He thought of something, the recruiting of a witness. ‘We just picked up some hitchhikers named Bonnie and Clyde,’ he said. ‘How about that?’
A wheezing laugh came over the radio. ‘No kidding?’ the voice asked. ‘You watch your back, then. So long.’
Everett hung up the handset. ‘So,’ he said to his passengers, as if he hadn’t just acted out of fear of them, ‘where’s your stolen jalopy?’
‘We parked by Fire Creek.’
‘You didn’t get far.’
‘No,’ Bonnie said.
‘How’d you break the ski?’
Bonnie and Clyde both fell silent.
Everett drove. The windows were iced from everyone’s breathing and he turned up the defroster. The fan seemed very loud. He took the road to Fire Creek, which was unpaved under the packed snow.
‘This is it,’ Everett said, stopping the Jimmy.
There was a place at the trailhead to park cars, but there were no cars. Just snow and trees, and the creek running under the ice. Everett didn’t look back at his wife. He scanned the empty turnout and hoped this was not one of those times you look back on and wish you had done one thing different, though it had seemed perfectly natural to do what you did at the time.
‘Where’s the car?’ Bonnie asked.
‘This is where we parked,’ Clyde said.
They were genuinely surprised, and Everett almost laughed with relief. There was no con, no ambush. He untied the rope, and the couple climbed out and walked to where their car had been. The girl’s arm brushed against Everett’s when she passed, but he didn’t think she meant it. She was thinking about the missing car. He got in the Jimmy to let them discuss it. Pam reached into the way back to pull the saw and the axe from under the boughs Clyde and Bonnie had been sitting on, and she tucked the tools under her feet.
‘What are we doing with these people in our car?’ she asked.
‘Can’t leave people in the snow.’
‘We have a child, Everett.’
‘And,’ he said, with the confidence he had just now recovered, ‘we’re showing her that you don’t leave people in the snow. Right, Anne Marie?’
‘Right,’ Anne Marie said, but she watched them both.
Pam gave Everett a dark, unforgiving stare. He turned back in his seat and looked out at the hitchhikers. The girl, Bonnie, stamped her foot on the ground, her bare hands in fists. He liked the pea coat and fur hat combination a lot. He guessed Pam knew that. But he didn’t like to be glowered at.
‘I just worry,’ he said, trying to adopt a musing tone, ‘that someday I could roll all your things into a ditch, or take up with your sister, and you wouldn’t have any looks left to give me. You’d have used them all up.’
Pam said nothing, but looked out the window.
Everett had once argued that his affair—if one drunken night could be called that—had saved their marriage. He had been restless and thought he wanted out, but he had seen that he was wrong, and had come back for good. Pam had not been convinced by that argument. The girl he’d slept with still gave him looks at parties, looks that suggested things might start up again. Even in her confessional fit, she hadn’t felt compelled to tell her husband what had happened, but Everett avoided him anyway, and the friendship had died.
Outside in the snow, Bonnie and Clyde’s voices rose a notch.
‘You said we could leave the keys in it!’ Bonnie said. ‘You said this was Montana, and that’s what people do!’
‘That is what they do,’ Clyde said.
‘Then who the fuck stole our car?’
Snow off the trees drifted around them, and the two stood staring at each other for a minute, then Bonnie started to laugh. She had a throaty, movie-star laugh that rose into a series of uncontrolled giggles. Her husband shook his head at her in exasperation. Everett felt the opposite; he liked her even more. A woman who could laugh at her own stolen car, and who looked like that when she did it. She was still laughing when they started back to the car.
‘You ask for a ride,’ she told her husband, her voice not lowered enough.
Everett looked to Pam in the back seat; Pam frowned, then nodded. He got out of the Jimmy, and this time the girl did brush his arm on purpose, he was sure of it. When she and Clyde were bundled in the way back again, with the tree tied down, Everett called in the theft of the car on the CB.
‘Do you think we should wait for the cops?’ Clyde asked.
‘I’m not waiting in the cold any more,’ Bonnie said. ‘Jesus, who steals a car at Christmas?’
‘People do all kinds of things at Christmas,’ Clyde said.
No one had any response to that.
The road was empty and the sky was clear. Barbed-wire fences ran evenly beside the road, and the wooden posts ticked past as they drove. In the snowy fields beyond, yellow winter grass showed through in patches. Everett peered up at the tip of the tree, which seemed stable on the roof. He wondered if Pam could ever laugh off a stolen car. He wondered if he could. Years ago, when Pam was still in school and they were broke, they had been evicted from an attic apartment near the train yard, with nowhere to go. They had gone out for burgers to celebrate their escape from the noisy, smelly trains. He couldn’t see them doing that now.
‘Let’s sing a song,’ Anne Marie said.
‘Dashing through the snow,’ Everett began, and Bonnie joined in from the way back. But then Everett caught Pam’s look in the mirror and stopped singing, and Anne Marie trailed out in shyness. Bonnie gamely finished, ‘laughing all the way,’ in a clear voice, and then she stopped, too. Everett looked for antelope in the snow. The fence posts ticked past.
After a while, Bonnie asked, ‘What will you do with the boughs?’
‘Make wreaths,’ Pam said.
‘I hope we’re not crushing them.’
The two women settled back into a silence just hostile enough that Everett could feel it. There didn’t seem to be any antelope. There were hundreds in summer. The white-capped mountains in the east, beyond the low yellow hills, were lit up by the late sun through the clouds, and he was about to point them out to Anne Marie.
‘I broke the ski,’ Bonnie said, out of the blue.
Everett had forgotten he had asked.
‘I was cold,’ she said, ‘so we tried to take a shortcut through some fallen trees with snow on them. Clyde took his skis off, but the snow was deep and I tried to go over the logs. And the ski snapped right in half. Clyde, I’m so fucking sorry.’
‘Bonnie, the kid,’ he said.
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘But Clyde, I am.’
The sunlight had faded on the mountains again and Everett watched the road.
‘He came up here to find himself,’ Bonnie said. ‘From Arizona, where we live, and he met this woman. She reminds me of you, actually.’
Pam glanced at the woman in surprise.
‘You’re totally his type,’ Bonnie said.
‘Bonnie,’ Clyde said.
There was a long pause, and Everett wondered what Pam was thinking, if she was at all stirred by that.
‘Anyway,’ Bonnie went on, ‘she skis, and dives into glacial lakes, and canoes through rapids and what doesn’t she do. And he writes me and says the air is so high and clear up here that he understands everything, and he’s met his soulmate.’
‘Bonnie, shut up,’ Clyde said.
‘But we’re married,’ Bonnie said, like she was telling a funny joke. ‘And have a child. So I have this crazy feeling that I’m supposed to be his soulmate. So I leave our son with my parents and come up here, too. And we go to a party where people get naked in a hot tub and roll around in the snow. And I meet the woman, his perfect woman, and the first thing she does is proposition me.’
Everett glanced at his daughter, to see what she understood. He couldn’t tell. She was looking straight out the windshield. She’d seen people naked in hot tubs, so she’d understand that. He looked back at the road.
‘So I told Clyde about it,’ Bonnie said, ‘thinking he’d defend my honour. And he said it was a good idea. He thought we might just move into his soulmate’s cabin and get along.’ She seemed to think about this for a second, about the right way to sum it up. ‘So we tried to go for a mind-clearing ski,’ she said finally, ‘and the karmic gods stole our fucking car.’ She started to laugh again, the throaty start and then the giggle.
No one answered her; the only sound was her trying to stop laughing. Everett pulled quickly to the centre of the road to miss a strip of black rubber truck tyre.
The CB crackled on. ‘Continental Divide?’ a voice asked.
Everett answered that he was there.
‘You been shot full of bullet holes?’ the man asked.
‘Nope,’ Everett said.
‘That you reporting a stolen car?’
‘Have you seen it?’
‘Yeah,’ the voice said. ‘I just seen Baby Face Nelson drivin’ it down the road. Ha. No, I ain’t seen it. I’ll keep a eye out.’
Everett thanked him and replaced the receiver.
‘Why did he say Baby Face?’ Anne Marie asked.
‘There was a Bonnie and Clyde,’ Everett told her, ‘not these ones, who were bank robbers. And Baby Face Nelson was a bank robber. But he didn’t like to be called Baby Face.’
In the back, Bonnie said, ‘My first mistake was marrying someone named Clyde.’
‘I don’t recall you being real reluctant,’ Clyde said.
‘Do you have to talk about this here?’ Pam burst out, and Everett was surprised. It wasn’t like Pam to burst out, especially in front of strangers.
‘We have to talk about it sometime,’ the woman said. ‘We were supposed to be talking up here. Then we got lost and I broke the ski and Clyde goes apeshit—’
‘I did not go apeshit.’
‘You did,’ Bonnie said. ‘Because I’m not good at things like that, I’m not your soulmate. And we’re ruining our son’s life. These are the years that matter, he’s three.’
‘I’m four,’ Anne Marie said.
Everett rumpled his daughter’s hair. His wife was glaring out the window, with her arms crossed over her chest. He turned back to the road. Pam wouldn’t speak again, he could tell. Whatever she was thinking would bubble and ferment and grow, but it wouldn’t come out. Or it would come out where he least expected it, where it least made sense.
They were nearing the outskirts of town, the first houses. A few had decorations out: Santas and snowmen. Windows were already lit with red and green outlines, in the dim afternoon.
‘Should I take you to the police station?’ Everett asked, because he didn’t know what else to say.
‘That would be great,’ Clyde said.
‘I’m sorry,’ Bonnie said. ‘This has been a hard time.’
There was a long silence.
‘What’s the little girl’s name?’ Bonnie asked.
His daughter turned in her seat belt. ‘Anne Marie.’
‘Do you have ornaments for the tree?’ Bonnie asked her.
‘Yes,’ Anne Marie said.
‘Angels, and two mice sleeping in a nutshell,’ she said. ‘And some fish. And a baby Jesus in a crib.’
‘Those sound nice,’ Bonnie said, her voice wistful. ‘We’ve never had a tree. Clyde thinks you shouldn’t cut down trees to put in your house.’
‘Bonnie,’ Clyde said.
Anne Marie said, ‘Our tree was crowding up another tree. So we made the other tree have room.’
‘Would that meet your standards, Clyde?’ Bonnie asked.
Clyde said nothing.
Anne Marie looked out the windshield again, trained in the prevention of carsickness. ‘They could help decorate our tree,’ she said.
‘I think they want to find their car,’ Everett said.
Anne Marie turned back in her seat. ‘Do you want to help with our tree?’
‘Honey, they’re busy,’ Pam said.
‘I would love that more than anything in the world,’ Bonnie said.
‘No,’ her husband said.
‘Baby, please,’ Bonnie said. ‘We’ve never had a tree.’
‘Leave these people alone,’ Clyde said.
Everett turned on Broadway and stopped at the police station. He untied the rope and opened the back of the Jimmy for his passengers. Clyde didn’t get out right away. He said, in a low voice to Pam, ‘Look, I’m really sorry about this. Thank you for the ride.’ Then he climbed out, past Everett, and walked with what seemed like dignity into the station.
Bonnie sat on the boughs with her legs straight out and gave Everett a forlorn look. In her fur hat, she looked like a Russian doll. She didn’t say anything, as if she knew that silence was better, that it was what he was used to. Pam had leaned forward and was talking quietly to Anne Marie in the front seat.
‘Why don’t you go make your report,’ Everett told Bonnie. ‘See what they can do. I’ll go home and unload, and then come back and get you both.’
Two things happened at once, as in a movie, one close up and one in deep focus. Bonnie broke into a brilliant, tear-sparkled smile, and Pam’s leaning form stiffened and she half turned her head. Then she looked away again and occupied herself more fiercely with Anne Marie. Bonnie clambered out of the back and kissed the side of Everett’s mouth, her wool-bundled breasts pressing against him for a long second. ‘Thank you,’ she said.
Embarrassed, Everett stepped back and unlashed the skis and poles from the roof. He gave them to Bonnie, and she stood with the spiky bundle in her arms as Everett pulled away.
Pam said nothing as they drove. Their daughter must have felt the tension in the air. Everett whistled ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire’ for lack of anything more sensible to do.
At the house, he parked the Jimmy and started untying the tree. Pam pulled the boughs out of the back, dumped them on the front deck and took Anne Marie inside. Everett carried the tree around to the sliding glass door and tugged on the handle. The door didn’t open. He thought it might be frozen and he tugged again. They never locked the doors. He went around the corner of the deck and pulled on the other sliding glass door, the one to the kitchen. It was locked, too. He rapped on the glass and Pam came to it.
‘The door’s locked,’ he said, pointing to the handle.
‘Say you’re not going back for them,’ she said, her voice muffled by the glass.
The tree was heavy on his shoulder and he stood it up on the deck, holding the slender trunk through the branches. He studied it. It was a fine tree. He turned back to his wife. ‘It’s Christmas,’ he said.
‘I don’t want them here,’ she said through the glass. ‘Say you won’t go.’
‘Did you lock all the doors?’
‘Say it,’ she said.
He sighed. The temperature had dropped when the sun went down and it was cold outside. ‘I won’t go back for them,’ he said. ‘I’ll leave them stranded and unhappy, without a tree, at Christmastime. Are you happy?’
‘They’re crazy,’ she said.
‘Of course they are. Now let me in.’
She unlocked the door. He carried the tree through the kitchen, set it up in the corner of the living room and turned it until the bare side faced the wall. It looked like a lopsided bush. Anne Marie clapped her hands in approval. He showed her how to fill the reservoir in the stand with water. Then he crumpled newspaper in the fireplace, built a hut of kindling, and set it alight.
Pam called the police station to renege on the hospitality, asking them to deliver the message to the people whose car was stolen. Everett strung the lights on the tree, and lifted Anne Marie to put the angel on top. There wasn’t really a single top to the tree, but he helped her pick one. Pam moved around the kitchen, making dinner.
A stranger watching would have thought it a perfectly ordinary December night, and it was true that they talked no more than they often did. Anne Marie gamely kept up an almost professional patter, like a hostess who knows her party has gone wrong and her guests are miserable. She hung the ornaments: the two mice sleeping in the nutshell, the fish, the baby Jesus in the crib. Everett sat in the big chair between the fireplace and the kitchen, feeling the soreness from chopping and hauling set in. He wasn’t twenty-five any more. Anne Marie sang Christmas carols to herself: ‘It Came Upon a Midnight Clear’ and ‘Good King Wenceslas’.
Leaving a pot of soup on the stove, Pam made a juniper swag for the mantelpiece, her slimness in jeans set off by the firelight. She cut and arranged the boughs as she had every year they had been in the house, and as her mother had every year before that. She nestled three white candles among the branches, evenly spaced, and lit them. Everett watched her, thinking about the fact that she was Clyde’s type, wondering why he still wanted to go get the outlaws and put himself in the way of temptation.
Pam turned from the mantel—there was sometimes a funny, ironic smile that came over her face when she caught him looking at her, a grown-up smile, at once confident and self-deprecating. But now she looked defiant and young. It was the look Anne Marie got at bedtime, when made to choose how to spend her dwindling time: this book or that book? Staying up by the fire or having ten minutes more with her dolls? Anne Marie always delayed and evaded, and chose the longest book, the most involved game.
Pam said, ‘Look, if you want to go get them, just go.’
‘They’ll have gone by now,’ he said, with a catch in his voice.
Pam threw the burnt matches into the fire. In the kitchen she put the matchbook in the kitchen drawer. Then she picked up and dialled the phone, watching Everett, as if waiting for him to stop her.
‘I called earlier about the couple with the stolen car,’ she said, in her businesslike phone voice. ‘Are they still there?’ She waited, looking out the dark glass door she had locked against him.
‘Hi, Bonnie,’ she said into the phone. ‘It’s Pam—from the car. We picked you up. Hi.’ Her laugh sounded social, but Everett could hear the nervousness in it. ‘No, I don’t think I introduced myself. Do you still want to help with the tree? Everett could run down and get you.’
She paused, listening.
‘Put Clyde on,’ she said, and she turned away from Everett. He watched the curve of his wife’s ass as she leaned on the kitchen counter, lifting her right foot and nervously tapping the toe on the floor. ‘Clyde,’ she said. ‘Please come up for dinner. Anne Marie would love to show off the tree.’ The pause again. ‘Really, we’d love it,’ she said. Then, ‘Good. He’ll be right down.’
She hung up the phone and turned to Everett. ‘Merry Christmas,’ she said.
He was not sure how to behave. Anne Marie was still decorating the lower branches of the tree, singing ‘We three kings, of orientare.’ There were plenty of branches left for Bonnie.
‘So,’ Pam said. She stirred the pot on the stove with a wooden spoon, tapped the spoon against the rim and set it on the counter. ‘Do you want to go get them?’
Everett pushed himself out of the chair. ‘Want to come along, Anne Marie?’ he asked.
His daughter looked up at him. ‘Are you going to get those people?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘To help with the tree.’
Anne Marie nodded, untangling the loop of string on a tiny ukulele. ‘I’ll stay here,’ she said.
He kissed Pam goodbye on the top of her head. Was she attracted to Clyde? He wanted to take off her clothes right now and see. He was conscious of his own breathing, and he could tell she was unsteady.
‘It’s Christmastime,’ he said. ‘I’ll be right back.’
He went out into the cold air. The Jimmy started up easily and he headed in low gear down the hill towards town.
He wanted to decide, as he drove, what they were doing. He wanted to separate his impulse to be a good Samaritan from the kiss on the corner of his mouth. Bonnie did not, he was fairly sure, just want to hang angels on a tree. Clyde’s asking her to move in with his mistress had put her in a giddy, reckless mood, and Everett was the beneficiary. He wasn’t going to think about Clyde’s low, sincere apology to Pam. Or about Pam turning away on the phone to ask Clyde to come to the house. Although he found he wanted very much to think about that.
He thought instead about Anne Marie, and how the evening might work out for her. The lesson about not abandoning people was a good one. The silent, submerged unhappiness of the evening couldn’t be good for a kid, and now it was gone, dissolved by Pam’s call into the buzz of unsettled excitement.
The streets were dark and empty, the houses warm with light. He wanted to keep thinking, but he was at the station before he had sorted things out, and Bonnie was waiting on the kerb. She climbed into the front seat and kicked the snow off her boots.
‘Hi,’ she said, and she clutched her hands in her lap. She shuddered once, from nervousness or cold. ‘Clyde’ll be here in a second,’ she said. ‘He’s signing something about the car.’
‘Okay,’ he said.
She looked at Everett and seemed about to say something, and then she was in his arms. He gathered her up as well as he could, given her thick coat and the awkward position, and kissed her sweet face. Her cheeks were cold but her lips were warm, and she was trembling. The pea coat was unbuttoned and he reached inside to feel the curve of her breast through her sweater.
A second later they pulled apart—the time required to sign papers measured somewhere in both their minds—and Bonnie smoothed her hair. The lighted glass door of the police station opened, and Clyde walked with his long stride towards them and got in the back seat.
Everett thought there must be a smell in the car from the kiss, an electricity. But the husband said nothing, and Everett drove the outlaws back to his house. They talked about the stolen car, and the cold, and the tree. All the while, Everett felt both the threat of disorder and the steady, thrumming promise of having everything he wanted, all at once.
Photograph © Rob Shenk