A bad case of the pre-Christmas grumps had settled in on the folks in Blue Ruin.

Axe's True Blue American Cafe & Barber Shoppe was filled with disgruntled people, sucking coffee and griping about the price of everything, politics and life in general.

Possum was in the midst of a rant about stores that say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."

And he was particularly disturbed about a card that wished him a "Gay Holiday."

But the room got deathly quiet when the door opened and the smell of dirty clothes and stale sweat wafted through the restaurant.

There in the doorway, beneath the plastic mistletoe, stood Ol' Boog, the hermit-philosopher of Deserter Creek.

Boog lives in an abandoned school bus down on the banks of Deserter Creek with 16 hounds, 12 rabbits, eight cats and a nanny goat.

He hasn't shaved since before Vietnam.

And it's been darn near that long since he cut his hair.

But once a year at Christmas time, Ol' Boog drifts into Blue Ruin with a gunny sack filled with treats for the town folks.

And there he stood with the cold wind billowing his beard and hair around his face.

But you could tell he was almighty sad.

"Children, children, children," he said. "It's Christmas. Why ain't you got the joy, joy, joy down in your heart?"

He closed the door and moved to stand by the pot-bellied stove.

"You folks says you is Christians," he said. "But you look like you've gone through life suckin' on lemons. Ain't you heard the good news?"

He turned to Possum.

"What difference does it make," he asked, "what them stores is callin' it? Christmas ain't about stores. It's about love. That's the Great Command. To love each other. But it don't look to me like the love in this room will fill a thimble."

Several folks squirmed in their seats.

"How many folks you told you love 'em today?" he asked. "How many folks you done somethin' good for?"

There must have been something in the coffee cups.

That's where everybody was staring.

"Is your religion about politics or love?" he asked them. "Do you want earthly power or do you want to share Jesus?"

Nobody said anything.

"I swear," Boog said, "if I was God, I'd give up on us. We don't never seem to learn the simplest things. Love one another, children. Can't we even do that at Christmas?"

Then, slowly, the old man walked through the room, stopping before each person.

He laid a walnut in front of each of them.

And he said the same three words to each of them.

"I love you."

And then he walked away.

Albino Alice the barber was the first to speak.

"Possum," she said, with difficulty, "I reckon I love you. As a person, that is."

Possum looked pained, but he finally managed to stammer, "Yeah. Me too. You that is."

It was, they say, a modern Christmas miracle.

Keith Lawrence, 270-691-7301, klawrence@messenger-inquirer.com

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