MARCY RAE HENRY

★ ★ ★ ★

FICTION

Jingle Bell Rock

I.

My hometown, Pueblo Feliz, has a Christmas tradition that compels people to wander through the city, along the riverbanks and into the desert looking for a rock.  It all began as a promotional contest sponsored by the local radio station and, for about the last fifty years, they’ve hidden a flat round rock decorated with red, white and green paint and text identifying it as the Jingle Bell Rock.  Every fall KDZA chooses a different artist to paint the rock and no one is supposed to know exactly what it looks like until it’s found.  

Afterwards, the stone is put on display at the cultural center for a few days, alongside various Southwestern artifacts.  Then there is a short ceremony returning the rock to whoever found it and awarding them money and prizes for doing so.  The rewards used to be turkeys, hams and a token amount of cash, but now that schools, politicians and nearly every family in town incorporates a Jingle Bell Rock search into their holiday, sponsors donate other merchandise—like clothes, caps and cups—and ensure the prize money doesn’t go below $10,000. 

My family has always gone out looking for the Jingle Bell Rock together.  In the 70s, when it seemed to snow more than it does now, my mom would get us all bundled up to go searching.  My twin siblings, Roberta and Silverio—who went by ‘Bertie’ and ‘Sal’ at school—and I all had different versions of the same puffy ski jacket.  It was blue and had thick stripes across the chest in red and orange, red and green or orange and green.  We’d wear boots, hats and mittens connected with a string that hung around the neck like a useless scarf.  I hated that string and would always cut it.  We’d walk around with the clues given by KDZA written in notebooks or on scraps of paper and when we got cold, our parents would take us for hot chocolate.  I loved whipped cream that came in an aerosol can more than hot chocolate and always ordered extra.   We didn’t realize aerosol was bad for the environment until the 80s.  

Our uncles would often join us in the hunt for the rock, but they mostly just horsed around, trying to scare each other and singing Santana and Led Zeppelin songs while playing air guitar.  I remember them sneaking off into the sagebrush to smoke something smelling pleasantly like desert plants.  I also remember feeling crestfallen when KDZA faded out José Feliciano’s ‘Feliz Navidad’ to announce someone had found the Jingle Bell Rock.  I didn’t know how I’d be able to wait another year to go looking for it. 

The radio station starts dropping hints about the rock’s whereabouts three weeks before Christmas.  While we were growing up, these hints were solely broadcasted via the airwaves and people would often go out searching with transistor radios.  Now, clues are also posted daily on KDZA’s website and the internet cafes are packed until the rock is found.  The tipoffs are mostly riddles and rhymes.  Search with Jill; search with Jack; go down the hill to the desert tracks—.  The rock was subsequently found in the prairie below a Jack in the Box, by the old, abandoned train tracks.

Over the years there have been surprisingly few instances of people cheating in the contest.  The most recent scandal involved a woman who stole the rock from her stepdaughter, contributing to the ignominious reputation of stepmothers everywhere.  In the 80s, when many things were easier, including cheating, a newlywed couple painted a rock themselves.  They made a big show of finding the Jingle Bell Rock, calling the newspaper and the local news stations and stressing how they could sure use the money.  No one thought to contact the radio station. 

The next morning, the couples’ picture appeared in the paper and they were featured on the early morning news.  The radio station called in and, thinking the station wanted to congratulate the couple, the newscasters said, ‘And now, live from KDZA, here’s Rockin’ Rudy!’

The DJ, popular for playing cumbias and rancheras along with the Top 40, said, ‘Hello, morning show.  That does not look like the rock we hid!’

The newscasters immediately switched to commercial. 

When Rockin’ Rudy returned he repeated, ‘That isn’t our rock.  It’s a fake!  The authentic rock has the date painted on it in candy cane stripes.’

The town was shocked.  Everyone was talking about it, hoping it didn’t mean the end of the Jingle Bell Rock.  And then, the following day, another couple claimed to have found the real rock.  They were on the evening news and their rock matched the pictures of the rock released in the newspaper that morning.  In addition to 1986 painted on it, it had Pac-Man and Q-bert, both in Santa hats.

Every once in a while folks accuse the radio station of deception.  They’ll claim they thoroughly checked the exact area where the rock was found and that KDZA didn’t hide the rock until a few days before Christmas, sending people on a pointless goose chase.  When I was in college, the radio station admitted to and apologized for one fraudulent charge.  Someone had paid an intern at the station to give them a few clues before they were released to the public.  The intern was fired and not to be heard from on the radio again.

I used to come home from college to go looking for the rock with Silverio and Roberta, who were still in high school.  Though they were close as kids, the older they got, the more they fought and at times I couldn’t stand to be around both of them.  But I couldn’t go searching for the rock with one without the other getting salty with me.  So, at the end of my penultimate semester, I said phooey on the rock and let them do as they pleased.  While Silverio’s friends thought it was cool to go out looking—and did so halfheartedly—Bertie’s friends thought it was the lamest.

II.

We’ve been searching for the Jingle Bell Rock for just over twenty years and we still talk about finding it like people talk about their baseball team winning the World Series.  Because they’re caught up in the Y2K scare, the twins feel a sense of desperation in finding the rock this year.  Maybe urgency is a better word.  I keep telling them that KDZA was hiding the rock way before the internet and, even if some things change in the next few weeks, everything won’t change all at once and nothing will change forever.

None of us live in the same town, but we all live in easy driving distance of Pueblo Feliz, so we agree to meet at our parents’ house Friday night and spend the weekend looking for the rock.  As soon as we arrive we order pizza and start arguing over whether to watch It’s a Wonderful Life or The Blair Witch Project.  Bertie’s threshold for watching the same Christmas films over and again is higher than anyone else’s.

To kick off Jingle Bell Rock Weekend, mom and dad have invited us to have brunch in the farms on Saturday morning.  The food in southern Colorado is much better than the food up north.  And it doesn’t get any better than the farms. 

I wake earlier than usual, already hungry, and take a quick shower before heading to the kitchen to make a cup of tea.  There, I find a note from Silverio.  He says he’s going out searching by himself for a bit and he’ll meet us at the restaurant. 

Once everyone else is up and ready, Bertie drives us out to El Rancho Grande, named not for its size, but after the song.  The restaurant sits at the southern end of the ranch, close to the area where the rock was found last year.  We enjoy a leisurely meal of eggs, tortillas and the farm’s red and green chile.  Silverio doesn’t show up.  My folks think he probably lost track of time or ran into a buddy. 

Around noon the sun comes out from behind the clouds and we climb back into Bertie’s van and take off.  I couldn’t believe it when my sister bought a van.  We’d always made fun of people who drove vans and thought men in particular should be required to wear name tags stating, ‘Hi.  I’m Steve and I own a van.’  

Based on our interpretation of the clues given so far, we think the rock is either hidden in the neighborhood known as Pepper Sauce or on the far north side.  Bertie heads off towards the highway that leads to the plaza.  The forecast calls for snow and when Bertie tells us her van handles very well in the snow, I roll my eyes.

Pepper Sauce is a stone’s throw from the newspaper’s downtown office, but it’s tucked away behind the plaza’s main parking lot, where there aren’t any street signs.  Though it was one of the few places where Mexican-Americans could purchase a home in the 50s, now, only about a hundred and fifty people live in Pepper Sauce.  The area frequently floods, but because of the small population, the city is reluctant to bolster the infrastructure.  The rock has never been found there and that’s one reason why Bertie and I want to try Pepper Sauce first.

We’re listening to the radio, hoping for new clues when, suddenly, the DJ interrupts the thirty-minute commercial-free Christmas music to make a special announcement. 

‘If anyone is headed to the Red Nest neighborhood in search of the Jingle Bell Rock, please stop and turn around.’

‘I told you it was up north,’ Dad shouts at Bertie from the backseat.

Mom shushes him and turns up the radio.

‘A terrible crime has been committed in the area.  Listen to the recording of a call we just received.’ 

‘I found it! I found it!  It’s the body of a white male.  He looks to be in his thirties and his head has been smashed in with the Jingle Bell Rock!’ 

‘If anyone recognizes this voice, please call the police department immediately.  It appears that two men came upon the rock at the same time and a struggle ensued.  The caller most likely struck the other man then fled the scene and called KDZA.’

We are stunned into silence.  Mom starts to cry and dad reaches out and puts his hand on her shoulder. 

‘Calm down, honey,’ he says, ‘we don’t know for sure that was him.’

This time she shouts, ‘I know my own son’s voice!  I gave birth to that boy.’

Police cars with flashing red and blue lights zoom by in the opposite direction on the highway.  Bertie pulls over anyway.  She looks at me in the rearview mirror and asks, ‘What do we do?’

‘Get off the highway,’ I tell her.

She merges into traffic and takes the next exit.  The sky slowly darkens as we head down Dolores Huerta, the tree-lined boulevard leading to the community college.  Electric luminarias line the sidewalks and, when snow starts falling on the red ceramic rooftops, the campus appears slightly magical.  Bronze statues, both figurative and abstract, are interspersed throughout the blonde brick buildings and despite a couple of nearly nude men—one wearing only cowboy boots—the only controversial piece is of a naked native woman.  People have been calling for her removal since she arrived on campus.  She looks as if she’s about to exhale and step out into the snow.

Bertie’s van has a mobile phone that plugs into the cigarette lighter.  When the phone rings, she squeals to a stop. 

 ‘Hello?’ she says.  ‘Oh my gosh… hang on a second.  Ok, you’re on speakerphone.’

Silverio asks, ‘Are you all together?’

‘Yes, yes,’ Bertie assures him.

‘You guys gotta help me,’ he says.  ‘I’m at the North Park police station.’ 

‘What happened?’ mom asks.  ‘We just heard you on the radio.’

‘What?’ he sounds stunned.

Bertie tells him, ‘KDZA played the call you made to them.’

‘Oh, you’re kidding…  Well, I found the rock.  It was almost entirely covered in blood and so, at first, I wasn’t sure.  But I noticed some green specks poking through and I wiped the blood off with my gloves.  Honestly, I just assumed it was from an animal.  A coyote or something.  Then I saw the body.’

‘Jesus, Sal,’ Bertie says.  ‘Did you call the police?’

‘No,’ he groans.  ‘I drove to the nearest phone booth and, in my excitement, I called the radio station.  But then I drove directly to the police station and they arrested me on suspicion of murder!  You guys know I could never do such a thing.’

I squeeze into the space between Bertie and mom’s seats and say, ‘Silverio, listen to me.  We also know the killer isn’t from here.  No one from town would just leave the Jingle Bell Rock.’

Mom and Bertie nod.

‘Sit tight, son,’ Dad says loudly.  ‘We’ll be right there.’

He pats Bertie on the shoulder and she speeds off.  After Silverio hangs up she mutters, ‘Great.  The first time anyone in the family finds the rock and we have to use the winnings to hire the best lawyer in Rincón County.’

Mom turns and looks at her as if she’s crazy.  ‘The rock is in evidence, Bertie.  Do you really think they’ll just let us take it over to the radio station to collect the money?’

‘Well,’ Bertie responds, ‘there’s no denying he found it.’

‘And, I’ve read the rules,’ I add.  ‘There’s nothing saying the rock being involved in a crime disqualifies someone from winning the prizes.’

Mom just shakes her head.  After a couple of seconds she says, ‘Does anyone know if they make special provisions for vegetarians?  If it’s true that people only get baloney sandwiches when they’re first brought in, Silverio is going to be starving.  Maybe we should stop by the store to get some hummus or something.’

Dad says, ‘Why don’t we go to the jail and see if anyone can tell us how long it’ll take for him to be booked and we’ll ask if we can bring him some food.’

‘Sometimes it takes all day, dad,’ I tell him. ‘And then it can take hours after posting bail before people are actually released.’

‘Shall we talk about bail?’ he asks.

No one says anything.

‘Well,’ he continues, ‘I was thinking we could all pitch in…’

‘Pitch in?’ I say, incredulously.  ‘I don’t know about Bertie, but I don’t even have a savings account.’

‘At your age you don’t have any savings?’ mom asks.

‘I didn’t say I didn’t have any savings…’

‘Well then, you can pitch in,’ dad says.

‘Why do I have to pitch in for something Silverio accidentally got involved in?’

‘He’s your brother!’ mom shouts.

‘I don’t deny that,’ I say defensively.

‘He’d pitch in for you,’ mom says.

‘Oh please,’ Bertie finally jumps in.  ‘He never even offers to pitch in for dinner.’

‘Listen to me, you two,’ mom says, looking back and forth at Bertie and me, ‘when we get to the jail we’re going to be nothing but supportive of Silverio.  And we’re going to reassure him that we will all do whatever we possibly can to help him make bail and defend himself in court.  Got it?’ 

Bertie and I lock eyes in the mirror and we both nod slowly.

As soon as we drive over the 4th Street Bridge, the court house comes into view.  The weekend after Thanksgiving Pueblo Feliz decorates for the season and hosts a parade of lights.  It flows through the downtown area and culminates in a ceremonial lighting of the court house.  The historic building stays lit until the day after New Year’s and now, the rotunda and columns shimmer with light and color, making the adjacent jail the sadder for it. 

We pull into the parking lot and drive past camera crews and the KDZA van.  Mom says, ‘Remember, team Silverio.’

Within seconds of stepping out of the van my family is engulfed in a sea of cameras and microphones.  Someone with a tape recorder approaches me and says, ‘Pardon me, is it true?  Did your brother find the Jingle Bell Rock?’

‘Yes.’  I smile at him.  ‘Yes, he did.’ 

Marcy Rae Henry is a Latina born and raised in Mexican-America/The Borderlands.  She is an interdisciplinary artist with no social media accounts.  Her writing and visual art appears or is forthcoming in Beautiful Losers, The Acentos Review, World Haiku Review, Chicago Literati, The Chaffey Review, Shanghai Literary Review, Damaged Goods Press/TQ Review: A Journal of Trans & Queer Voices, New Mexico Review and Thimble Literary Magazine.  Her publication, The CTA Chronicles, received a Chicago Community Arts Assistance Grant and Cumbia Therapy, her collection of Spanglish stories, received an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship.  Ms. M.R. Henry is currently seeking publication of two novellas.  She is an Associate Professor of Humanities and Fine Arts at Harold Washington College Chicago.

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