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The Honk and Holler Opening Soon

December 1985


CANEY SWITCHED on the light over his bed and reached for the last of last night's coffee . . . one cold oily swallow at the bottom of a chipped stoneware mug.

He'd been trying to convince himself he was still asleep ever since he'd heard the rattle of trash cans behind the cafe sometime around three. At least he supposed it was three. Molly O had unplugged the clock on his dresser so she could plug in two sets of lights she'd strung around a scrawny Christmas tree standing in the corner.

Caney had told her he didn't want a tree in his room. He said the one she put up out front beside the jukebox was one too many, but telling Molly O not to do something was like telling a four-year-old not to stick a bean up her nose. So when she started dragging in sacks of pinecones and tangled strands of red tinsel, Caney kept his mouth shut and stayed out of her way. He'd lost enough battles to know when to give up.

Encouraged by his silence, Molly O had thrown herself into a decorating frenzy. After she finished with the trees, she hung aluminum stars from the ceiling fan, but they got tangled around the blades causing the motor to short out.

She draped silver icicles over a length of clothesline stretched across the center of the room, but every time the door opened, ici cles slipped off the line and drifted down onto plates of spaghetti or bowls of vegetable stew.

She brought in a box of old frizzy-haired Barbies that had belonged to her daughter, adorned each one with mistletoe and perched them on top of all the napkin holders. She had to position them straddle legged, as if they were doing splits, the only way she could manage to tape them down, but the ungainly pose brought lewd comments from a drilling crew that came in for breakfast each morning.

Undaunted by minor flaws and small minds, Molly O pressed on. She carted in candy canes, holiday plants and plastic elves. She hung wreaths, strung popcorn and tacked up cardboard bells. Finally, she made a trip to Wal-Mart where she found a nativity scene made in Taiwan. She arranged it in the center of the lunch counter and placed the tiny baby Jesus, who looked oddly Oriental, into the bamboo manger.

Finished, Molly O surveyed the Honk and said it looked like a Christmas wonderland. Caney said it looked like a Chinese carnival.

But Christmas was not on his mind as he squirmed, then threw back the covers, sending a paperback sailing off the bed. After a mumbled apology to Louis L'Amour, Caney rubbed at his temples where a headache was just beginning to build.

He thought once again about sleep, but figured it was useless. He knew if he turned off the light and sank back into his pillow, the same old pictures would play in his head, reruns in which he was the only performer . . . a one-man show.

Three hundred miles away, at a rest stop near Kansas City, Vena Takes Horse cracked the window of the passenger door, lit a Winston and blew the smoke into the cold predawn air. The driver of the eighteen-wheeler, a shriveled little man who called himself Cobweb, was asleep in the bed behind the seat. He had tried to get Vena to crawl into the back with him, but when she told him to go to hell, he hadn't insisted. He said he reckoned sleep would do him more good than sex, then left her sitting alone up in the front.

He'd picked her up on Interstate 59 just south of Sioux Falls, but they hadn't said much to each other. Cobweb spent most of his talk on his CB, which was fine with Vena. She didn't care much for conversation anyway.

She tossed the last of her cigarette out the window, then put her head back and closed her eyes. She hadn't slept since South Dakota and hoped, now, that sleep would take her, but each time a truck rolled by on the highway, something tightened in her chest that caused her heart to quicken. She wasn't good at staying still.

She thought of trying to get another lift, but a hard rain had begun to fall just before they stopped and she had seen specks of ice in the drops that smacked against the windshield. The cold didn't bother her much, but she didn't like the rain. She didn't like the rain at all.

When she finally decided to give up on sleep, she lifted her duffel bag onto the seat beside her and fished out a half-eaten Hershey, but before she could peel back the wrapper, she heard a noise, a strange sound she couldn't identify.

At first she thought it might have come from Cobweb, a whimpering sound men sometimes make when they dream, when they're not afraid to be afraid. But when she heard it again, she knew it came from outside, from somewhere in the dark.

If she could have convinced herself that what she heard was the whine of tires hugging the wet road or the ping of ice pellets ricocheting off the truck . . . if she could have made herself believe that, then she wouldn't have crawled out of the cab and climbed to the ground, wouldn't have felt the sting of rain and sleet pelting her face, plastering her hair to her head.

She started toward the light poles ringing the rest stop, but when she heard the sound again, certain it came from the highway, she turned and headed in that direction.

She could hear it more clearly now, a high-pitched mournful wail As she crossed the grassy strip separating the rest stop from the interstate, a car rounded a curve, headlights sweeping across the darkness as it veered suddenly toward the median, and in a brief slice of light, a moment before the car's passing, she saw something lying on the highway.

She started to run then, but when she reached the shoulder of the road, when she saw what was out there, she slowed, the way people do when dread needs an extra breath.

In the middle of the far lane was a small black dog, one leg ripped off at the bend of a knee where a tendril of slick gray vein protruded, leaking blood onto the wet pavement. The dog, flattened on its side, was trying to lick life into five lifeless pups, vapors of steam rising from their still-warm bodies . . . and as Vena started across the road, the dog looked up, found her face with its eyes and managed one weak wag of its limp black tail.

Just down the road from Caney's place, in the Cozy Oaks Trailer Park, Molly O peered out the window of her fifty-foot Skyline, giving some serious thought to sneaking next door and ripping down the wind chimes that were about to drive her nuts. She might have done it, too, but she was afraid the silence would wake up the whole neighborhood.

She had been up since three and had known from the first that the day was going to be a disaster. And she was right.

She'd started out by grabbing a tube of Ben-Gay instead of toothpaste, cracking her hip against a dresser drawer and losing one of her new fake nails down the drain. But that was just the beginning.

She found mouse droppings on the kitchen cabinet, a quart of soured milk in the fridge, exactly four squares of toilet tissue left on the roll and a crimson rash running up her neck.

What she didn't find was the mate to her one fuzzy house shoe, enough water pressure to wash the taste of Ben-Gay from her mouth or an extra roll of toilet paper.

She could have blamed her troubles on insomnia—three hours of half sleep and distressing dreams she couldn't shake until she got up and looked through Brenda's old scrapbook. But a bad night was nothing new for MollyO. She'd been living with insomnia for so long that it was as familiar as her cowlick, as comfortable as her faded chenille robe.

No, her problem was worse than a restless night, more serious than a rash. Her problem was Christmas. Christmas without Brenda. And while the photographs she had looked at earlier had soothed the sting of bad dreams, the images of Brenda would be with her for the rest of the day.


Brenda, hair the color of quince, face set in defiant scowl, posted under a Christmas tree. . . a three-yevr-old sentry waiting up for Sandra Claus

At first, Molly O had tried to turn Christmas off. Just think of December as another gray month, the last thirty-one days of the year, four long weeks in which her propane bill would double. But she couldn't avoid the Christmas parade down Main Street, couldn't ignore the plywood reindeer on the lawn at City Hall, couldn't shut out the sounds of the Methodist carolers singing "Joy to the World."


Brenda at ten, straw-thin legs crossed in a movie star pose, anklestrap shoes too adult for her feet, head haloed in copper curls, mouth painted sunburst coral with a tube of forbidden lipstick

But like a spoiled child demanding attention, Christmas insisted on having its own way. Christmas was coming—with its scent of pine needles and jingle of bells—and there was nothing Molly O could do to stop it. She couldn't hide from it or get around it, but she had to find a way to get through it, so she devised another plan.

She would perform her own Christmas miracle to renew a joyless heart.


Brenda at thirteen, hair by Clairol—raven black, eyelids shadowed midnight blue, short leather skirt hugging her thighs as she climbs into a pickup, flashing a woman's smile at the grinning boy behind the wheel

With renewed spirit and firm resolve, Molly O started her new campaign by dropping five dollars in the Salvation Army bucket, then taking a racing car set and two Dr. Seuss books to the firehouse for the Toys for Tots collection. She bought two trees from the Kiwanis lot, then pulled out cardboard boxes full of lights and ornaments.

She watched Miracle on 34th Street, addressed Christmas cards and made a pan of fudge. Then she sat down and cried.


Brenda at fifteen, cowboy booted, western suited, hair bleached, teased and Romped, bottle of Coors in one hand, guitar in the other, wedged between two slim-hipped musicians, standing beside a beatup VW van with BRENDA B AND THE BAD AXE BOYS painted on the side

Depressed by the sight of so much Christmas, MollyO loaded up everything and took it to the Honk where she spent three days decorating for Caney. She had pretended to enjoy it and forced herself to smile. But it didn't work. The spirit she faked was left at the cafe like an apron she could slip in and out of. Here in her own trailer, there was nothing to suggest that Christmas was just days away. Nothing at all.


Brenda, hair the color of quince
a three-yevr-old senty
waiting up for Sandra Claus

* * *

Bui Khanh emptied the closet quickly, but he had little to take a windbreaker, three pairs of pants, a half dozen wrinkled shirts . . . ill-fitting castoffs from the Goodwill where he shopped. He tossed everything into a paper sack, then scooped out the contents of a dresser drawer.

He had just stepped into the kitchen when he heard a car roll to a stop in the alley behind his apartment. He switched off the light, then slipped to the window.

He knew the police would come, but had hoped it would not be so soon, hoped he would already be gone.

He had seen the Houston police many times in the neighborhoods of Little Saigon. Big men with hard voices and hard eyes. Once he had seen two of them with their guns drawn, yelling words he couldn't understand at a Thai boy in front of the U Minh Import Shop.

Bui held his breath as he inched aside a stiff window shade.

The sight of a man standing ten feet away caused his knees to buckle. But when his eyes adjusted to the darkness of the alley, he recognized the familiarity of another Vietnamese face as the man staggered against the car, fumbled open his fly and relieved himself.

Bui backed away from the window and waited for his breathing to slow. He wanted to sit down and close his eyes, but he knew if he did, he would see again the woman with yellow hair.

He could not remember her car pulling out of the darkness and into the path of his own, did not remember the jolt of the wheel in his hand or the tearing of metal as the cars came to rest at the side of the road. But he would never forget the face of the woman with yellow hair as she stumbled from her car and started to shout.

Bui told her he would take her to a doctor and promised to pay the bill, but when he tried to wipe the blood from her hair, she grabbed his arm and screamed words he had never heard.

He tried to explain, told her he had no license and no insurance for the car. Then he gave her all the money in his pocket, but she kept shouting and pointing to her car.

Bui tried again to tell her, to make her understand, but he didn't have enough American words. And when he heard the sound of distant sirens, the Vietnamese words came too fast and too loud. When he reached for her arm and begged her to listen, she scratched at his face and tore the collar of his shirt.

He wished he could have helped her, could have found the right words, but the woman was still shouting when he ran away. And now, standing in the empty kitchen, he knew wishing was too late.

The car in the alley was gone when he peeked through the window again, but he left the room in darkness as he felt his way to a corner cabinet, empty except for a heavy bag of rice. Working quickly, he untied the bag, then ran his hand deep inside and pulled out a thick leather pouch. He didn't take time to open it. He could tell from the heft of it that the money was still inside.

The kitchen held nothing else of value—no microwave or toaster, not even a coffeepot. Bui had made do with one blackened saucepan, three plastic glasses and a stack of plastic containers from the Cafe Lotus where he worked.

He had planned to buy nice dishes later, when Nguyet came— white china bowls and teacups edged in gold. He would buy beautiful chopsticks made of ivory and a tray painted with red flowers, and Nguyet would prepare rau cai xao and còm chiên vòí sauciss, not the canned fish and frozen pizzas he sometimes ate.

Nguyet wouldn't like American food, not at first, but Bui would teach her the taste of fried chicken and baked apples. He would show her how Americans ate eggs with forks and explain why they wanted their tea with ice. She wouldn't understand, not in the beginning, but he would help her and she would be all right. When she was with him again, everything would be all right.

The living room was even darker than the kitchen, but Bui didn't need light to see where he was going. He had been there many times in the dark. And now, before he left, he would go there once more.

The shrine, on a rickety wooden table in a corner of the room, was small and plain. But when he lit the candle, the stone Buddha cast a giant shadow against the wall. Bui lit three sticks of incense over the candle flame, then stepped back and knelt on the floor.

He bowed his head and waved the incense three times toward the altar, then, with his hands pressed against his forehead, he prayed. He prayed for his ancestors, he prayed for Nguyet and he prayed for the woman with yellow hair.

Excerpted from The Honk and Holler Opening Soon © Copyright 2012 by Billie Letts. Reprinted with permission by Time Warner Books. All rights reserved.

The Honk and Holler Opening Soon
by by Billie Letts

  • paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 0446675059
  • ISBN-13: 9780446675055