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Monday, December 31, 2007

Expensive

I opened the comic shop for New Year’s Eve day. It’s beautiful outside, with sunny skies, and temperatures in the mid fifties. Stop-ins have been few though, which allowed me to get a lot of writing done. One of the kids who came in was funny. He was probably around twelve or thirteen, and his interest in the comics caused his eyes to involuntarily widen. I wondered watching him whether the prices were making him bug-eyed or the comic cover art. He settled my wonderment in short order. He walked over to the register with a New Avengers comic.

“I’ll give you fifty cents for this one,” he tells me like a seasoned flea market patron.

Only one problem: he wasn’t at a flea market.

“Sorry, that comic is $2.99,” I informed him, and came around the counter to point out my bargain comics. Comic sticker shock is a common occurrence. “Comics are expensive nowadays. I do have some ones for a quarter to seventy-five cents there in the box.”

“There’s no New Avengers ones in here,” he complained after looking through the box.

“The New Avengers series started in 2005, and it’s real popular,” I explained, “which means it will probably never be in the bargain box.”

“Well… I don’t want any of these.”

“I have a bunch of free promotional comics here on the counter. You can take whatever interests you from them,” I gestured at my freebies spread out near the register.

He became a little more animated sifting through the over forty free promotional titles, and pulled out six he liked. I put them in a bag for him.

“I’ll come back when I save up for the New Avengers,” he promised on his way out. “Man, comics are expensive.”

And just about everything else unfortunately.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Voices

I couldn't pass up displaying this picture.

I know rain depresses many people, especially when in some parts it never lets up for more than a day. In California, it seldom rains. At my shop, rain will drop the number of street artist drop-ins down to zero. Although these comical denizens supplied funny moments this year to write about, I don’t miss them when the rain limits their street excursions. Rain usually causes breakdowns; but if I’m successful in preaching preventative maintenance during the year, my regular customers don’t experience them. When rain falls like on Friday, the day proceeds with repair appointments, phone spam, glances out the big door at wet sidewalks, and quiet normalcy. Customers ask me all the time how I can stand working alone. I’m never alone. Characters run around in my head all day long, spouting dialogue, and telling tales. :)

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Braking Point

“Okay, I want you to tell me how this can happen,” a guy in his mid thirties growled at me from the doorway where I had just opened the big rollup door.

He held out a set of disc brake pads worn down past the metal. Having done a few disc brake jobs, I recognized the pads, at least what was left of them. They were off a GM vehicle. I didn’t know this guy, at least I didn’t think I knew him. I’m getting to the age where I’m not real sure about anything. I’ll call him Unhappy Brake.

“The disc brake pads wore down. They weren’t replaced in time to save the rotors, which must have been ground down to scrap,” I state the obvious; because I have no clue where Unhappy is going with this. “Where’d you have the brakes done?”

Mr. Brake named a place in Oakland I wasn’t familiar with.

“This is after only eight thousand miles!” Unhappy raises the level of dialogue, at least in volume.

“Why are you here, and not there?” I asked.

“I need a second opinion. Those assholes tell me the pads wore out because I refused to replace the rotors when they did the job. No way pads wear out this quick for any reason,” Unhappy informs me authoritatively.

Au contraire, Mon Ami.

“May I see your invoice?” I asked, not wanting to shoot my mouth off before discovering a few more facts. Mr. Brake digs the receipt from his jacket pocket and hands it to me. I look it over, and what do you know? The shop wrote right at the bottom of the invoice: ‘Rotors below minimum thickness, customer refuses recommended replacement. This will cause premature pad wear.’ I pointed it out to Unhappy. “They did warn you what would happen if you didn’t replace the rotors, Sir. What they wrote is true. Another thing is you kept driving, even when this sensor on the pad was singing in your ear down the street.”

I showed him the pads with spring metal sensors; which ride against the rotor to warn the driver with a squealing noise the pads are at replacement thickness. They were worn to nothing. It is a noise no one short of the deaf can ignore. Dogs will follow your vehicle, howling for your blood if you ignore the sensor noise.

“You’re in it with them! All of you people…”

“Hold on there, let’s keep from saying things we might regret,” I interrupt. “I’ll tell you exactly what happened. You didn’t want to spend the money for rotors. This shop was nice enough to let you dictate to them how to do the job. They warned you what would happen. You drove till the pads destroyed the rotors once and for all, thinking you could pull off the old ‘look what your pads did to my rotors’. Instead of apologetically replacing everything, they pointed at the note on your invoice and said have a nice day. How am I doing?”

Unhappy’s mouth worked for a moment with no sound. He then grabbed his receipt from my hand, and off he went without another word. Off I went to the backroom to share Unhappy’s experience at my shop. I hope the other shop takes Unhappy’s feedback to be a warning: don’t let customers dictate how brake jobs are done. If not, I'll have to get in touch with all my 'people', and get this straightened out before some other Unhappy outs us to the public. :)

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Act of Writing

I wrote a couple thousand words yesterday, completing a complicated section of plot finalizing my main characters’ first meeting. Something most people would think of as drudgery instead brightened an already satisfying day for me. Writing changes everything. It acts as an outlet for frustration with real life incomprehensible to other people. Disliking something in a news article, I often times incorporate it into whatever I’m working on, and change the outcome. No one can stop me from reversing an event on my computer in a story. I’ve rewritten politics, battles, religion, and solved world shaking problems with but a couple thousand words. Heh, heh, heh… and no one can stop me. :)

Monday, December 24, 2007

Just Comics Today


It’s a kick being in the comic shop on Christmas Eve Day, playing Christmas Carols and writing. I still had a bunch of sample comics left over from Free Comic Book Day, so I passed out a lot of those already. A guy came in and made the day. He bought my two latest self-published novels, and the newest Ghost Rider mini-series. The main sales so far have been from my twenty-five to seventy-five cent boxes, but that’s okay. The kids remind me of my trips to the local drugstore comic book rack when I was young. To top it all off, no young thugs today yet. :)

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Wake Up Call

“Hi, Bernie,” a woman’s voice called out from right beside me on Friday morning.

In my defense, the air compressor was knocking away. I was in complete concentration mode under the hood of a 2001 Pontiac, and probably nothing short of an earthquake would have jarred me out from the Pontiac’s maw. I managed to not pop my head up like Bambi scrambling for cover, and eased out slowly as if I knew she was there all the time. This doesn’t happen often; because in my shop’s neighborhood, it’s not healthy to get surprised. I usually have a sixth sense about walk-ins. Lucky for me, I was surprised by a five foot four inch old customer’s daughter, and not a six foot four gangbanger. Who says God doesn’t watch out for the oblivious.

She wanted to make an appointment for an oil change. In doing so, she issued a gentle reminder to get my head out of my ass; and look up occasionally, as if I did indeed know where the hell I was. :)

Monday the twenty-fourth I’ll be in my attached comic shop, writing all day, instead of fixing cars. I’ve already promised a bunch of my regular kid customers I’d be open early.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Rainy Days

Because it’s poring down rain out here, I can relax under whatever four wheel beast I have in for repairs. The rain cuts down on my sidewalk stop-ins, good or bad. Today it was a 1989 Ford Pickup with a core plug leaking coolant in a stream down the back of the block. I did a complete clutch job just seven months ago on this ungrateful piece of… sorry… anyway, I had to pull the transmission, clutch disc, pressure plate and flywheel back out again. The block plug had sprung a major leak behind the flywheel, and I didn’t need to have the customer ask me why I didn’t replace it while it was apart last time. That very question was winging its way through my brain as I wrestled the flywheel down, and saw the rotted out block plug. As I was contemplating the four hours labor time I would be eating, my motion detector chimed. A beat up old 1990 Buick limped into the shop with plumes of white smoke billowing out the tailpipe.

I hustled out from under the truck… well… it was as fast as I hustle anymore, and went out to meet and greet. A lady around my age (old) was sitting behind the wheel, and she gestured at the plumes of white smoke.

“What do you think that is?” She asked.

“Trouble,” I answered. “Do you smell that odd, kind of sweet smell?”

“Yea, is it oil? It’s been leaking a lot of oil.”

“No, it’s coolant. There’s coolant leaking into your car engine’s combustion chamber. The heat from combustion makes the steam,” I explain. “You can shut off the car. Have you overheated the car recently?”

She hesitated for a moment while switching off the engine, considering what information should be imparted to me.

“I blew the lower radiator hose on it a couple weeks back,” she admitted, “but everything’s been fine since it was replaced.”

“How hot did it get… on your gauge?” I asked, peering in to see if she had a gauge. She did. I also took a quick look at her odometer.

“It went all the way hot. It took me fifteen minutes to get somewhere I could stop. This is bad?”

“Real bad, I’m afraid.” Especially since the Buick needed a new interior, and about five grand in body work. “I noticed you have nearly a hundred and eighty thousand miles on it. I can’t fix it cheap, and anything other than cheap would be too much spent on this car.”

“Damn. I wish there was a cliff around here I could drive this thing off of,” She sighed, starting the Buick, complete with rear smoke screen.

“If there was, I’d follow you in the truck,” I said under my breath as she backed out.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Offended

We had a flame war on another forum with my automotive peers, because some points were discussed rather bluntly (To me, it was more like luke-warm discussion). Of course this gave the easily offended a chance to warble about civility, personal attacks, etc. I wrote a poem for the offended. :)

They come, journeying from far and wide,
Desperately battling to stem the tide,
Of vast ether net of unending text,
Calling out loudly for them to be vexed.
Never mind they can use their keyboard mouse,
To bypass this heinous idea house,
Where eternal thought bytes flow with sharp fangs,
Waiting to rip and rend with unfelt pangs,
Of guilt at the passion they inject in,
Poor, unfortunate victims of the din,
Who shakily left click their way inside,
Where weighty words of evil mind abide.
Enlightenment blinds, as they howl in pain,
Shielding their eyes against lettered bane.
'I am offended', they cry in hushed voice,
'How can I resist this bright tempting choice?
It makes me seethe inside my very soul,
Therefore banning it will be my life's goal.
Out with sarcastic pointed font of wit!
Away with logic, making me a twit!
I will hound the purveyors of sharp prose,
Until all I see only makes me doze.
No longer will this site open my eyes,
Soon it will be filled up with fluff or lies.
When joyous, I log on, in future days,
No one will be left here to clear my haze.'
Off went the offended, bored with the site,
Searching, cause there's no end to doing right.

:)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Escort Troubles

I’m sitting in the office, and I see movement through the glass, followed by a low pitched growl or clearing the throat noise. Upon opening the door, I see a man with one foot in the entrance, looking intently for something inside the shop. He sees me step through my office door and straightens up.

“Uh… hi… can I help you,” I asked, thinking it might be Tuesday's Santa, out of uniform.

“Sorry… I thought there might be a dog… you know… lot’s of places around here have dogs,” the man explained.

“Usually only the drug dealers,” I reply with a smile; “but no, I don’t have any dogs.”

“Oh… good, I have a Ford Escort. It needs a clutch. How much to get it done… just a ballpark figure will do.”

I give him a ballpark figure and he laughs. Maybe I should have added a couple hundred.

“No… you don’t… understand,” the man waves his hand, still chuckling. “I’ll supply the clutch.”

“Not here you won’t,” I reply amiably.

“Really?” He looks at me incredulously, as if he knows all the other repair places are putting in customer’s cheapo parts, and I’m the last holdout.

“No,” I reiterate firmly. “Bargain auto parts stores sell parts cheaply for the Do-It-Your-Self folks. If you wish to buy your own parts, you’ll probably have to install them yourself. A clutch job on a front wheel drive vehicle is not the typical Do-It-Yourself type project.”

“There are several shops I’ve already talked to that’ll do it. I…”

“Great news for you,” I say enthusiastically; because if there are several places putting in customer supplied clutch parts, they’re doing them out of their garage at home, and the chances of him driving his Escort away in good shape are practically nil. “I wish you well.”

I go back in the office, and he follows me in. Oh boy.

“I just live around the corner. It would be easier if you’d do the job.”

“That may be; but if you have it done here, it will be with my parts, at or around the price I quoted you.”

“You mean it could be more?”

“Since I’ve never laid eyes on your car, the answer is yes. It could even be slightly less. I won’t start the job until I give you a complete estimate. You can give me the go ahead then, or drive it out.”

“Shit!” The man exclaims and leaves in a huff.

We don’t give much Christmas cheer in the auto repair business. We’re like the Bad News Bears unfortunately. :)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Visit From Santa

“Merry Christmas,” the man in a Santa suit told me as he walked into the shop, beard and all.

“Merry Christmas,” I replied with less enthusiasm than warranted I’m sure. It’s just that men dressed in Santa suits in East Oakland are usually after something more than a Christmas greeting. When they don’t drive in with a car or truck I can fix, I get uneasy.

“Can you help a brother out?”

It’s really great to be clairvoyant.

“In what way?” I ask, praying this has to do with an automotive question, since I don’t see any reindeer or sleigh.

“Can you spare a few bucks for Santa?” This cretin actually gives me a big smile; and believe me when I tell you, Santa has been into the eggnog.

“No, but don’t take it personally, Santa,” I reply wearily, wondering if the elves will survive.

“Oh,” Santa says knowingly with only a slight sway, “a non-believer.”

Okay, I’m hooked. We’re going to play this one out to its final destination.

“You’re going to get a lump of coal,” he threatens.

Been there, done that. He notices I’m unimpressed.

“Okay, M@#5%^F&*(#*!!” Santa calls out belligerently, and acting out just a bit more drunkenly than before. He’s now dancing around.

I’m still unimpressed. This is my thirtieth year in East Oakland. I walk over and corral my colorful, but decidedly musty man-elf. He jerks a few times against my handholds on his arm and shoulder. When he is unable to prevent his inexorable march to the sidewalk, Santa becomes more accepting of his journey.

“The school lets out soon,” I told him, giving Santa a final pat on the shoulder at the curb. “If you aren’t out of sight in the next ten seconds, I’m going to see if Oakland PD wants to help an old elf out.”

Man, Santa moves pretty well for his age, I thought, watching Santa move along, sans reindeer. :)

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Jake Cementhead

I had a little fun with my more self-important colleagues on our Shop Management Forum in Auto Tech with this short story. As always, my input received mixed reviews. :)

Once upon a time, Jake Cementhead bought a little auto
repair shop. Now Jake had his own tools, scanners, and was
a college graduate. He kept up on the latest advances in
technology; but never lost sight of the more basic mundane
menu operations, and more importantly, his customer base.
Over the years, Jake watched Tune Up Wizards, Department
Store Auto Chains, and Oil Change Omniscient move in and
about the area. Some of his customers would see the varying
prices, and suggest to Jake he might have to lower his
prices, or try incorporating specials, to compete.

Jake thanked them all with a smile; but politely explained
one of the reasons he became a shop owner was so he could
run his business as he saw fit, with honesty, common sense,
and quality. This satisfied many of his customers, but as
in every human service endeavor, some went job shopping,
even returning to let Jake know what great service they
received at the other shops. Jake nodded, smiled, and let
them know they were always welcome.

Unlike many of the anecdotal stories going around about
mechanics not upgrading their knowledge, or not being the
sharpest knife in the drawer, Jake knew his niche, and the
customer base he serviced. He added computer skills for
accounting, database tracking, follow-up services, and
joined an unusually helpful Internet Tech Group. More
importantly, Cementhead watched his expense sheet like it
represented success or failure, which he came to realize,
it did.

The McDonald's type auto service businesses began to lose
ground. Oil plugs were left out, appointments turned into
heavy sales pitches, and customers' vehicles were brought
back in for the same problem over and over. Soon, Jake's
customer base began to swell again with referrals from the
Tune Up Wizards, and people became less enthused with Oil
Change Omniscient.

Then one foggy Christmas Eve, Arnie Altruist set up shop
across the street from Cementhead. One day, Arnie came over
to case Jake's joint, smiling, and nodding, just the
happiest-go-lucky guy you ever want to meet. Jake liked him
right away, and let Arnie lead him over to show off his new
renovated Auto Renaissance. Young fireballs were buzzing
away inside, already churning out jobs, and Jake even
spotted a couple of his old customers in Arnie's palatial
customer center. You could eat off the floors. Techs had
their own computers, lifts, railway car tool boxes, and a
symphony orchestra playing Mozart in the corner. Jake
complimented Arnie on the look and feel of his new
Renaissance Garage.

Arnie pulled Jake into his office, and gave him a cup
filled from his personal espresso machine.

"Jake," Arnie announced with a big smile, "I want to help
you."

"Gee, that's really sweet of you, Arnie, but I can't think
of anything I need help with," Jake replied, a little
confused at the new direction of the conversation.

"Ahhhhh... Jake," Arnie repeated, shaking his head with a
touch of sadness. "We both know you're in trouble."

"I am?" Jake asked, surprised. "Really Arnie, I'm fine. My
place doesn't look like yours, but I've paid everything
off, and I have a substantial savings back-up for a rainy
day. I don't..."

"Let me get you started in a program to upgrade your little
shop into the new century," Arnie said magnanimously. "I'll
get you back on your feet again in no time."

"But Arnie, I..."

"No, no, no, dear boy, don't thank me," Arnie chuckled, not
having heard a single word Cementhead had told him. "Glad
to do it, glad to do it. Now let's start off with a new
customer is always right policy, and a nice shuttle
service, and..."

"Arnie," Jake cut in, standing up a little uneasily. "Much
as I appreciate your offer, you don't know me, or my
business expectations. I'm not like you, nor will I ever
be. I don't want to hurt your feelings, but I think maybe
it best if we kept a more business like relationship."

"Are you saying you don't want my help?" Arnie gulped.
"Surely you want to be successful. These are changing
times. You'll either change or you'll be swept away."

"That may be," Jake replied patiently, edging towards the
door. "Listen, if you ever need a favor, or you want to say
hi, just give me a ring. Good luck with your business, and
Merry Christmas."

"But...but Jake...you haven't heard my story about the
little engine that could. At least let me give you some
pointers on smiling."

Jake waved, and hurried towards the door of Altruist's
office.

"Jake," Arnie cried out after him. "Your shop's like a
dungeon, and...and there's dirt on the floor, and...and you
don't even have an espresso machine."

Cementhead jogged across the street and into his little
shop. He sighed, looking back across the street at the
state of the art Auto Renaissance Garage. The phone rang,
and Jake answered it with his usual professional greeting.
It was Arnie.

"I bet you haven't had two months vacation before," Arnie
said excitedly.

"Ah, no, I don't want two months off," Jake replied,
closing his eyes. "I take..."

"I'll bet you don't give your employees six weeks off and
profit sharing," Arnie cut in.

"That's true, I..."

"Ah ha, and how do you think that makes them feel?" Arnie
asked triumphantly. "Used and abused, I'll wager. Now if
you adopt my..."

"Arnie!" Cementhead exclaimed with exasperation creeping
finally into his voice. "I don't have any employees. This
is a one man shop."

"Oh... My... God..." Arnie whispered in a stunned voice.
"You are a dinosaur, my good man. You need help. You..."

"I have to get to work, Arnie. You take care now, and nice
meeting you," Jake ran the statement off rapidly, and then
hung up.

Just as Jake started walking over to his next job, the
phone rang again. For the first time in many years, he let
it go on answering machine. :)

Friday, December 7, 2007

The Real Defenders of Freedom

Christmas, and our way of life, brought to you by the United States Armed Forces, and their loved ones they left behind. May God bless them and their families. The majority of us here in America, and around the world, honor your sacrifice.

A Soldier's Christmas by Michael Marks

The embers glowed softly, and in their dim light,
I gazed round the room and I cherished the sight;
My wife was asleep, her head on my chest,
My daughter beside me, angelic in rest.

Outside the snow fell, a blanket of white,
Transforming the yard to a winter delight;
The sparkling lights in the tree, I believe,
Completed the magic that was Christmas Eve.

My eyelids were heavy, my breathing was deep,
Secure and surrounded by love I would sleep
In perfect contentment or so it would seem,
So I slumbered, perhaps I started to dream.

The sound wasn't loud, and it wasn't too near,
But I opened my eye when it tickled my ear;
Perhaps just a cough, I didn't quite know,
Then the sure sound of footsteps outside in the snow.

My soul gave a tremble, I struggled to hear,
And I crept to the door just to see who was near;
Standing out in the cold and the dark of the night,
A lone figure stood, his face weary and tight.

A soldier, I puzzled, some twenty years old,
Perhaps a Marine, huddled here in the cold;
Alone in the dark, he looked up and smiled,
Standing watch over me, and my wife and my child.

"What are you doing?" I asked without fear,
"Come in this moment, it's freezing out here!
Put down your pack, brush the snow from your sleeve,
You should be at home on a cold Christmas Eve!"

For barely a moment I saw his eyes shift
Away from the cold and the snow blown in drifts
To the window that danced with a warm fire's light,
Then he sighed and he said "It's really all right,
I'm out here by choice. I'm here every night.

"It's my duty to stand at the front of the line
That separates you from the darkest of times;
No one had to ask or beg or implore me,
I'm proud to stand here like my fathers before me.

"My Gramps died at 'Pearl' on a day in December,"
Then he sighed, "That's a Christmas 'Gram' always remembers;
My dad stood his watch in the jungles of 'Nam,
And now it is my turn and so, here I am.

"I've not seen my own son in more than a while,
But my wife sends me pictures, he's sure got her smile;"
Then he bent and he carefully pulled from his bag,
The red white and blue ... an American flag.

"I can live through the cold and the being alone
Away from my family, my house and my home;
I can stand at my post through the rain and the sleet,
I can sleep in a foxhole with little to eat.

"I can carry the weight of killing another
Or lay down my life with my sisters and brothers
Who stand at the front against any and all,
To insure for all time that this flag will not fall.

"So go back inside," he said, "harbor no fright,
Your family is waiting and I'll be all right."

"But isn't there something I can do, at the least
Give you money," I asked, "or prepare you a feast?
It seems all too little for all that you've done,
For being away from your wife and your son."

Then his eye welled a tear that held no regret,
"Just tell us you love us, and never forget
To fight for our rights back at home while we're gone,
To stand your own watch, no matter how long.

"For when we come home, either standing or dead,
To know you remember we fought and we bled
Is payment enough, and with that we will trust
That we mattered to you as you mattered to us."


Thursday, December 6, 2007

Spontaneous Fault

“This is the guy who brought in the older lady’s 85 Chrysler a couple days ago,” the voice explained on the phone.

“Yes, sir, I remember you,” I replied, thinking about the myriad problems I found on the car. “How can I help you?”

“The car won’t start now.”

“Does it crank without starting, or does it just not turn over?” I made my very credible noises imitating a cranking vehicle, and then one with starting circuit problems. :)

“Yea, now that you mention it, the car just sort of grunts and turns slow.”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to replace the alternator I found had an open diode. As I explained to you when the car was picked up, the battery will eventually wear down if the alternator has a bad diode. Remember the printout I gave you of your alternator circuit on the scope?”

“Ah… sure…” the man hesitated before going on. “Couldn’t you check it out, and give us an idea of what’s wrong? It never did this before we had it in for the check.”

Uh oh, this is one of those common problems in auto service: the customer who has already been told what’s wrong; but it doesn’t fit into their notion of what they want to be wrong, which is somehow tied into the diagnostic check I did. Never mind I predicted the problem, and printed out a scope pattern showing the bad diode. Forget about my copious notes explaining the alternator would lead to what they were experiencing now; and estimate of repair, I put on their invoice.

“That was the reason I explained the bad diode to you, and noted the price to change the alternator on your invoice. It appears you waited a day too long to make your decision. The cost to fix it is on the bottom of your invoice,” I explain very reasonably.

“I think we should discuss this. I…”

“Hold up there,” I broke in, because I heard this conversation going in the wrong direction: the direction where I hang up after telling him to take his car elsewhere. “I just told you the only course of action you have. If you continue trying to make your car’s problems my fault, you’ll be told to find another shop. Are we clear?”

“I didn’t mean… ah… when can I bring it in for the alternator?”

We arranged an appointment. Just a simple misunderstanding. :)

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Spock and Nasty

Since it's December 1st already, here's a little dog and cat living together fantasy story for the Christmas season. Warning, no vampires, werewolves, or romance in this one. :)

“Oh crap!”

The long haired, black, Australian Shepherd, looked up with a bored expression from where he lay next to a six foot tall, fully decorated Christmas tree. His face looked as if he were wearing a light brown and white mask from his eyes to his stomach. As he raised his head, he acquired a silver tinsel hairpiece from the lower branches of the tree. He watched the mottled brown calico cat giving him paw signals from where she sat perched on the window sill, overlooking the street in front of the house.

“Come here, dog,” the cat drawled excitedly.

“If I move now, Nasty,” the dog replied calmly, “I’ll be wearing half this stupid tree. What gets into these people? Once a year I…”

“Spock, roll your mangy cur butt out from under the Christmas tree, and get over here,” Nasty hissed impatiently. “That dorky kid of yours found some nice hoodlums to play with out in the snow.”

The dog rolled out lithely from where he lay on the manger scene’s white cotton fake snow. Spock hurried over, and stretched up to poke his nose under the curtain. Shrugging the red and green holiday curtain out of his eyes, Spock focused on the curving snow covered sidewalk, bordering the street in front. He recognized the boy who lived in the house with them. Five kids chased the boy down the street.

“C’mon, Nick,” Spock urged, a low growl issuing from his throat, as he bared his teeth anxiously.

“Forget it, chum,” Nasty remarked, glancing from the street over to her canine friend. “Put a fork in him, he’s done.”

As if on cue, Nick’s pursuers caught up with him, and pushed the boy to the ground. Spock jumped down, and ran to the front door. He eyed the doorknob in frustration. “It’s locked Nas, give me a paw. You know I can’t turn this goofy lock face.”

The calico jumped down. With three long strides, she crossed the dark brown patterned shag carpet, and right up onto Spock’s rigid back. She balanced her hind paws expertly on his head, while she turned the small bayonet lock insert. After Nasty jumped down, Spock sat up, wrapping his paws around the brass knob. Pulling back as he twisted the doorknob counterclockwise, Spock popped the door open.

The screen door gave outward onto the walkway with another shove from Spock. Nasty stretched between the lower doorjamb and the screen, propping it open until Spock had hurtled past her. He bounded off the stoop, only to be pulled up short by a tortured mewling. Spock ran back. He stuck his head and shoulders between the screen door and the lock plate, just before the door crunched his partner. As Nasty dropped to the stoop, and ducked under the door, she gave Spock a swipe across his back right leg.

“Eeeeeeeeooooooooowwww,” Spock howled before pulling out of the doorway, giving Nasty an evil look before heading down the street.

“That’ll learn ya,” Nasty said as she followed after Spock’s running figure.

Nick’s tormentors stood in a semicircle around his curled up form, laughing while the leader of their little gang pushed Nick’s face into the snow. The leader heard a low reverberating growl, and looked up just in time to be knocked off his feet by Spock’s airborne figure. One of the other teenagers pulled back a leg to kick Spock from behind, and immediately grew a calico cat with claws on his poised leg. Nasty let go as the boy fell backwards into the snow, grabbing his leg in pain.

“Watch these punks scatter, Nas,” Spock said.

The teenagers, regrouping around their leader as he regained his feet, suddenly faced an eighty pound snapping, snarling monster. It only took a few seconds of Spock’s hound from hell act to put the gang into full retreat down the street. Spock looked back at Nasty with a grin. The calico ignored him while licking her right paw.

“Um, um good,” Nasty said, finishing her cleaning, “fifteen year old, stringy, but tasty.”

“Why you little ghoul,” Spock replied in disgust.

Nick, in the meantime had sat up, and watched his two pets in amazement. “You two always sound like you’re talking to each other.”

Spock came over and stuck his nose into Nick’s upturned face. Nasty rubbed up against Nick’s parka, purring like a Singer sewing machine. Nick put an arm around Spock’s neck, hugging the dog as he stroked his temperamental cat.

“Thanks guys, you were awesome. How the heck did you both get out of the house?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Nasty said. She turned and headed back to the house. After a few steps, she looked back at Spock. “Get dork-boy moving, Spock, I’m freezin’ my butt off out here.”

Spock yanked on Nick’s gloved hand, helping the boy to his feet. “C’mon, Nick, before the calico wonder really starts complaining.”

Nick dusted the snow off his coat and pants. Spock turned and followed Nasty towards the house. The early dusk of winter nights enveloped the area in grainy, graying light. As the three friends trekked home, multicolored Christmas lights began popping on at Nick’s neighbors’ houses. Flakes of snow began drifting lazily down in the now hushed silence of early evening darkness. Nick and Spock paused in front of a fully lighted manger scene, adorned with the figures of a long ago night in Bethlehem. The magic of a Christmas decoration moment changed abruptly, as a hissing calico hopped around in anger, drawing a laugh from the boy.

“Okay, okay,” Nick relented, moving again toward the house. “How about I cook you two up a nice hamburger steak, just to say thanks?”

“If you don’t get moving, dork-boy,” Nasty shivered, “you will be a hamburger steak.”

“Shut up, Nas,” Spock growled, drooling at the thought of such a treat.

“He can’t understand us, you moron,” Nasty said, hopping up on the front stoop of their house.

“A little respect in this people holiday season wouldn’t hurt you, you ungrateful hairball,” Spock admonished the cat.

“Hey,” Nasty retorted, clawing at the screen door, “if not for me, dork-boy here would be sticking face first in that snow bank, with his little black boots waving like party favors in the breeze.”

Nick opened the door, allowing his two pets to slip in between him and the door. He looked back at the glittering lights, blinking in the snowy December darkness.

“God bless us everyone,” Nick sighed.

“Get in here, fool,” Nasty hissed in the doorway. “Close the door, and get cookin’.”