A Christmas Story by Willem Lange
Snow was falling softly past the streetlamps in the village, muffling the sounds of the occasional car and the rattle of the brook down behind the post office and the general store. It was just past suppertime, and folks were settled in for the evening. From almost every chimney, smoke drifted up through the falling snow. A few houses were hung with wreaths and colored lights around the front doors. Through the front windows gleamed lights on Christmas trees.
Just after seven o’clock, a pair of shaky headlights came slowly down the Three Mile Road, and an old blue pickup truck puttered into the light of the streetlamps. The truck stopped at the first house. A man in overalls and rubber boots got out, reached back into the front seat for a small package, and trudged up through the snow to the kitchen door of the house. He knocked, the door opened, and he went inside. A few minutes later he came back out again, with the sound of voices following him. “Merry Christmas!” someone called, and he waved.
He got back into his truck, drove to the next house, and repeated the routine. Then to the next, and the next, all the way down through the village. At some houses he stopped briefly, at others quite a few minutes. Shortly after ten, having visited them all, he turned the old truck around, drove back up through the village, and disappeared into the night, his single red taillight glowing dimly through the snow. Favor Johnson had delivered his Christmas presents again.
In every house where he’d stopped, there was now a small cylindrical package wrapped in aluminum foil and decorated with the Christmas seals that come in the mail. When these packages were unwrapped later, they would reveal tin cans with one end removed and a fruitcake baked inside. For single folks and couples, it was a soup can; for families of up to five, a tomato can; and for larger establishments, a juice can — all of them full to the brim with the most succulent fruitcake you could imagine. Mixed up with homemade butter and studded with hickory nuts, candied cherries and pineapple, citron, raisins, and currants, it was flavored with Favor’s own hard cider. Parents would often use that as an excuse to keep kids from eating more than their share of it.
Where old Favor had paused only momentarily or gone only as far as the doorstep, there remained the scuff marks of his boots in the snow, where he’d shuffled his feet nervously. But where he’d gone inside and chatted, or perhaps shared a bit of cheer, the distinctive odor of cow barn lingered faintly in the air, a further reminder of who had brought the foil-wrapped package for which each family was already making its special plans. And always some child would ask, “Why did Mr. Johnson bring us a fruitcake?”
“Well,” a mother or father would answer, “it’s just his way of saying ‘Merry Christmas.’”
“Does he do it every year?”
“Does he take one to everybody in the village?”
“Has he always done it?”
Well, no he hadn’t. And so the story of Favor Johnson and the flatlander doctor and the origin of the fruitcake would be told again.
Favor and his sister Grace had been twins, the only children of a hardscrabble farmer and his wife a couple of miles above the village. They’d gotten their names from an old Baptist hymnbook. Leafing through it for inspiration, their mother had come across the hymn, Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven, and had been struck by the line, “Praise Him for His Grace and Favor to our fathers in distress.” So Grace and Favor it had been.
When the old folks gave up farming, during the Thirties, they stayed on in the house and split the farm between the kids. Grace and her husband built a small house on their half, and Favor, a bachelor, lived with the old folks.
When the Second World War began, the Army said that Favor was too old to fight, but they made him a cook. He’d never cooked before in his life, but much to everybody’s surprise, he turned out to have a talent for it. He became mildly famous in his outfit, even when they were in combat in France. Staff officers were forever commandeering him for their special dinners.
When Favor came home from the war in 1945, he took up farming again, and surprised everybody by marrying and starting a family. But his wife’s health wasn’t robust, so the one child, a daughter, was all they ever had. About the time the daughter graduated from high school, Favor’s wife died. The daughter married, moved far away, and failed to keep in touch. Grace and her husband sold their half of the farm to a young couple and moved south. The old folks had died during the war. So Favor was left alone.
The yard and the house slowly grew shabby, the barn ramshackle. Favor sold most of the stock, keeping only two or three milkers. He ran a few chickens and a couple of pigs, kept a horse to haul firewood, and did a little sugaring in the spring. He must have had forty cats around the place, and one dog, his constant companion, a spotted hound named Hercules. Favor kept pretty much to himself and rarely had occasion to speak — except, perhaps, to Hercules.
Then one year the town fathers decreed a reappraisal of all town property, and suddenly Favor’s farm was worth a lot more money. His taxes went up far beyond his meager means. So he decided to sell his view.
Above his house was a ten-acre field, and the view from the top to the south and west was magnificent. You could see all the way from Ascutney in the south to Killington and Camels Hump in the west. And on a clear winter day, you could even see the round, snowy hump of Giant Mountain, ‘way over in New York. Real estate agents had pestered him for years to let ‘em sell that view. Now at last he had to.
The field was bought by a surgeon from a big hospital in Massachusetts, a Doctor Jennings. The doctor and his wife hired a fancy architect, and the next summer Favor’s field was capped by a magnificent, glass-fronted weekend home where the Jenningses said they hoped to retire someday.
They were good people, solid and predictable. Favor would hear their Mercedes diesel coming up the road almost every Friday evening, then roar as Doc downshifted for the driveway up to the house in the field. They’d stay till Sunday afternoon and then go back home for the week. Saturday mornings, Doc Jennings would wander down to Favor’s yard to chat, buy eggs or milk, or talk about mowing the field. He often invited Favor up to the house for a drink or a cup of coffee. Favor was always polite, even pleasant, but he never went. When they left him little gifts now and then on holidays, he was always embarrassed by them, and sometimes even threw them away rather than use them.
One early winter afternoon — on a Christmas Eve — Hercules failed for the first time in his life to show up at the barn door during the evening milking. Concerned, Favor went to the door and called and whistled. No Hercules. Then Favor remembered that he’d heard rabbit hunters in his swamp that afternoon. So after milking he took a flashlight and started for the swamp. It was dark and beginning to snow. As he headed down the hill, he heard Doc Jennings downshift for the driveway, and remembered that it was Friday.
Hours later, after wandering all through the swamp calling for his dog, he heard a whine coming from a tangle of alders and found Hercules. He’d been shot. One side of his head and a shoulder were badly torn up, and he’d bled a lot onto the snow. Favor scooped him up and headed back toward the house, stumbling in the thick brush. His flashlight finally faded and died.
Just as he scrambled up onto the shoulder of the road with the dying dog in his arms, he heard the sound of the big turbodiesel coming, and the lights of Doc’s car swept across him. The car skidded to a stop in the gravel and Doc jumped out. “My god!” he cried. “What’s happened?”
Favor told him.
“Come on!” said Doc. “I’ve got a blanket in the back. Let’s wrap him up and get him to a vet!”
“Nope,” said Favor. “I don’t want to do that. He don’t look like he’s gonna live, and this is the only home he’s ever known. He’s gonna die, it ought to be right here.” Tears mingled with the sweat on Favor’s red face.
“All right,” answered Doc. He shouted back into the car. “Honey, would you please run back up to the house and get that first aid kit in the kitchen. Come on, Favor, let’s get that dog into the house!”
Doc was all dressed up in a three-piece suit. He and his wife had been headed for the midnight church service. But as he and Favor entered the kitchen, he threw his suitcoat over a chair. He rolled up his sleeves, told Favor to put Hercules onto the porcelain-topped table, and began to examine the weakly-panting dog. “Heat some water, will you?” he asked. “And I’ll need a candle and a sharp knife, some tweezers if you’ve got ‘em, and a pair of sharp-nosed pliers.”
In a few minutes Mrs. Jennings came back with the first aid kit. Doc told her to go on to church, but on the way back to stop at the hospital emergency room and pick up some things he’d order by phone. She left, and he and Favor went back to work on old Hercules.
His jaw was broken. Some teeth were missing. One shoulder had been torn open by the blast. The flesh was full of shot. He was too weak to struggle. He only moaned as Doc, whose sensitive fingers had probed the tissues of the rich and famous, worked on him under the flickering fluorescent kitchen fixture.
“I don’t know if it’s proper to pray for a dog, Favor,” he said, “but it can’t hurt. This old guy’s not in very good shape.”
About one in the morning Mrs. Jennings brought the supplies Doc had ordered over the phone. She brewed coffee and heated some sweet rolls she’d bought at an all-night convenience store in town. About three o’clock Doc finally took his last stitch, swabbed the wounds with antiseptic one last time, and gave the exhausted dog a shot for the pain. He and Favor lifted him gently and laid him on his mat beside the kitchen stove.
“That’s all I can do,” he said, washing his hands at the kitchen sink. “Now we’ll have to wait and see.”
“Thanks, Doc,” said Favor. “He sure looks a lot better’n he did. What do I owe you?”
Doc Jennings put both hands on Favor’s shoulders. His own shoulders sagged with weariness, and his eyes were moist.
“Owe me? Why, nothing, Favor. There’s little enough you and I can do for each other, and this was the most, I guess, that I can do for you. I know you’d do whatever you could for me if I ever needed it.
“I’ll be down around ten to take a look at Hercules. You’d better get some sleep. Oh! I almost forgot. Merry Christmas!”
When Doc came down later, Hercules was too weak to raise his head in greeting. His long tail thumped softly on the mat beside the stove. He was going to be all right.
Doc had brought a gift with him, a fancy, boxed fruitcake from an expensive mail-order place somewhere. Favor thanked him again for saving Hercules, and for the fruitcake. But later, tasting it for the first time, he gagged. “Pfah!” he said. “I can do better’n that!”
And that’s how it started. He made just one that first year, for Doc and Mrs. Jennings, and then a few the next year for some old friends. The response was so tremendous that within just a few years his list had expanded to include the whole village.
And the whole village responds in kind. During the two weeks of the holiday season his bedraggled dooryard is hardly ever without a visiting car or two, and his kitchen is piled high with gifts that he savors and enjoys all through the long winter. Some of the village kids even think he’s Santa Claus, and that seems to give him the greatest pleasure of all.
[Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in East Montpelier. In addition to “Favor Johnson: A Christmas Story” and several other books, he is the author “A Yankee Notebook,” a weekly column that appears in the Harwick Gazette and other papers. You can hear Willem read “Favor Johnson” in a December 24, 2013, recording on VPR at vpr.org/post/favor-johnson#stream/0. My thanks to Willem for sharing this story with the Hardwick Gazette and to Dave Kelley for suggesting the idea.]