North Coast Journal



Merry Christmas from old Al

by Miv Schaaf

WHEN I WAS working in Santa Monica, I used to throw my sleeping bag in the old red MG TD after work on a Friday night and head for Death Valley. When it got dark I'd stop for a hamburger, then find a desert road, turn out the car lights and drive a while, pull off the road, walk a mile with my bedroll and go to sleep on the desert. Quite often I didn't know where I was, but that didn't matter.

One weekend (it must have been near Thanksgiving because it was later than anyone usually goes and it was terribly cold) I met old Al.

I had walked up to see an old deserted mine and there he was -- a caretaker protecting an abandoned miners' hotel. He was about 80, I guess, and the first person I knew who had a dog named Dog.

Such straight-forward bluntness of name did not denote a lack of inventiveness on Al's part; his other dog was named Carmichael. Carmichael would, when requested, jump up and sit on Al's shoulders, looking as though he were giving instructions to a chauffeur, but Dog did nothing beyond the purlieu of any dog.

It got dark and cold as we stood there in the front hotel rooms where Al lived, and he built a fire in the stone fireplace. Carmichael announced it was dinner time, and Al asked if I would like some soup. "Got another bowl around here somewhere," he said.

Leaving our soup bowls on the floor for Dog to polish off, we sat silent, rocking in front of the fire. Carmichael slept with his tail a mere hair from being under my rocker; I would surreptitiously push it away with my foot, only to have it drift back from dreamland. Al cracked walnuts, sometimes under his rocker, sometimes in his toothless mouth, I haven't any idea how.

It got snappingly black outside and a wind came up. Old Al, after a hesitant cough, allowed as how I might want to sleep in one of the deserted hotel rooms. I lost no time, diving through the whistling black night to bring in my sleeping bag.

The doorknob to my room was old black ceramic; it glittered like solid ink where my hand had removed the dust, and the little room, long since stripped, held one bare iron bed with a metal link spring, no mattress, and blankets only of floor dust. Before I closed the door I rubbed clear the fancy little black iron hinges and looked hopefully at Carmichael, thinking he might like to sleep on a nice sleeping bag and warm my feet but, half opening one eye, he let me know he had no intention of leaving a warm hearth to sleep with any stranger.

In the morning I heard tin banging tin. In the kitchen, old Al had coffee boiling in a pot and was rummaging through pots and pans searching for something. Mislaid his teeth, he said, so I looked too -- in enamel pans, under boxes, behind old jars -- and there they were, resting in the bottom of a chipped blue milk pitcher.

That Christmas I was astonished to receive a box of desert holly from Al. I hurriedly sent a fruit cake someone had given me.

I saw him only once again; that was after I was married (to an Alfredo, never an Al) and that year there was no desert holly. It was several years before I got to Death Valley again and old Al was gone.

Today I was thinking what a pleasant relationship, short as it was, it had been. Why? I was a young lady and Al was an old man and yet we were not that day; we were just two people. In a way, we had nothing in common to talk about. As a matter of fact, we didn't talk, and yet our silence said a lot about the important things -- the rocks, the mountains, the black star-stung sky, the desert and the dogs.

That year, the year I met old Al, I had no one who was interested in me and no one in whom I was interested. I went to no parties; the box from my brother came late. But somehow, resting in a bowl next to the Christmas tree (I always bought a Christmas tree to hit the ceiling even if I had bean soup for Christmas dinner), the desert holly made it a rather special Christmas.

Miv Schaaf is a former columnist for the L.A. Times.

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