THE OLD MAN’S CHRISTMAS TREE
The old man sat, enjoying the heat radiating out from the half-burned wood in his fireplace. It played hell to find real dry stuff in the summer because people in Wisconsin who sell it don’t ever cover it. Pond-dried it was called, the old man knew, but he’d finally found an out of work welder who’d cut his forest down to pay the bills. The old man looked at the tree the boy had dragged in, and then crookedly set up. The kid was gone for the day but would no doubt return by nine a.m. the next day, probably being followed by the strange overly large kitten that accompanied him.
“Where the hell do I have all that stuff?” the old man said to himself, slowly rising up from the chair, his hands shaking from the Parkinson’s disease. He had light strings and ornaments but he hadn’t trotted them out for Christmas since his wife had gone. What was the point? But the kid would not be denied, and it was easier to decorate the damned tree than put up with the boy’s complaints when he came by. He sized up the tree. It was a foot taller than his own five feet eight. Not too tall and not too fat, either of us, he mused. It was missing some branches down at the bottom so he turned that part against the wall, trying not to spill the sugar water all over the damned place. Putting sugar in the water made no sense, but the kid, and obviously his mom, didn’t know that.
The basement was dark when he got to the bottom of the stairs. He fumbled for the light switch, flipped it and watched his old underground hideaway become suffused with light. Years before, the old man had determined that he would never have a den. He didn’t much watch sports and he didn’t much care for leather furniture. The basement, as he rounded the corner from the bottom of the stairs, led him past his leather shop, then his electronics shop and on into the belly of the main comfort of his old lair. Big wooden tables he’d hand made himself supported every piece of electric tooling the wonderful American company called DeWalt made. The old man knew that at any time he could build just about anything but, with the exception of the bookcases in the lobby upstairs, he never had. He had the money, the shops, the tools and the know-how but he’d never had the time. And then his wife died and he became alone. Too alone to bother building anything anymore.
The Christmas tree lights were in old black garbage bags he’d meant to change out but never gotten around to. He pulled out bunches of tied coils of lights, the wires ungainly and tangling everywhere. The work frustrated him but the rat's nest of lights would have to do. He dragged the strings along behind in parallel, the little glass bulbs making all sorts of noise and the old man wondering if even one string would survive the trip.
Once upstairs, he plugged the strings of lights into a socket and tried each one, tossing only two of the dozen or so he’d dragged up. Putting the lights on the tree was easy, not like in the so many years past when he’d struggled to make sure every branch was properly festooned with wire wrapped fully around. He strung the lights in circles around, then threw on five boxes of ornaments. He worked with studied grace and fluidity, taking his time but moving quickly until he got to the five small oblong boxes. He sat down with the boxes to take special care in opening them and unwrapping what was inside. The first box was a Charlie Brown ornament. Beautifully made and sparkling against the lights of the tree. Charlie had been his wife’s ornament, as the family laughed about her inability to make a final decision about almost anything. He unwrapped the next and it was Snoopy. He was Snoopy or had been. Flying around hunting down the Red Baron or forever tap dancing on his dog house. His daughters were represented by Lucy, Linus and Pig Pen, each illustrative in some way of a single or couple peculiarities inherent in their personalities. The old man carefully and delicately hung each of the special ornaments in a single central part of the tree, knowing his wife would have objected to the grouping if she was still there.
The tree was done and it was Christmas Eve. Tom Kincaid would have been proud to have painted the scene he’d put together, the old man felt. The roaring fire with stacks of split Burch sitting nearby, the simple but splendid little tree, the rocker, and chairs awaiting guests. But there were no guests. The boy did not come. His own daughters would come the next day, the old man knew. They’d be there early and they’d leave early. There was only the one gift under the tree and that was for the kid. His daughters wanted gift cards and cash, which was okay, but not like real wrapped Christmas gifts. The boy’s gift was small but carefully wrapped with saved paper from twenty years before. The old man had found a gift store going out of business and bought huge roles of the only two colors of paper they had. One was solid blue and the other solid red. Every gift he’d given since that time had been wrapped with one of the two. For the boy, he’d chosen the red, tied together with a fine silk ribbon. The ribbon the old man had made himself from a super expensive tie he’d once worn in his work abroad when men still wore ties as a part or their everyday attire. It’d taken ten times as long to cut the tie up and make the ribbon as it had to wrap the small box.
His daughters all called early in the evening, to wish him well and to make sure he was okay. He fingered his emergency call button, the one that hung from his neck where once a St. Christopher medal had been suspended. He wondered if old people alone ever pushed the button just to have someone come. The idea had no merit in the real world, however. Emergency personnel would come and haul him away. It would be Christmas in a strange cold hospital room with nobody he knew. At least his cabin down by the lake was familiar, warm and had a lit tree.
The kid did not come. The old man sat and reviewed his conversations with the boy and realized that the kid never said he would or could come for Christmas Eve. Maybe he’d be there on Christmas Day since he lived right next door, but then he hadn’t said he’d come for Christmas at all. He’d mentioned another cat, admitted he’d stolen the tree and demanded that the old man decorate and get into the Christmas spirit. That was it.
The Evening ended with four shots from a bottle of rare Jamison’s Black the old man had brought home from Europe more years back than he cared to remember. Christmas morning came, and his daughters with it. Their families and the fun they brought were a welcome relief to living alone in the winter. For a few hours, the house felt like it was filled with Christmas. The old man got new flannel shirts, the kind you didn’t have to iron, to last him the rest of his life, and his daughters and their families had their gift cards and cash. He would remember where the shirts came from, but he knew they’d quickly forget about the cards and cash. Life had changed and he had to change with it, however, no matter how much it hurt.
And then they were gone and the silence came back to visit. The fire burned low, the tree remained lit, although one string of lights had gone out. That was okay. That string being out made the tree look like it was smiling at him across the room. He had a fire, a smiling Christmas tree and the Jamisons he’d hidden away under the cushion of his chair, in case his daughters thought his whiskey breath, pervading over the top of his coffee cup, was a bit too strong. He thought about the bottle but, just as the thought of having a couple of shots crossed his mind, there was a knock at the door. The old man moved, but slowly. The knock kept recurring at five-second intervals, making the old man smile against his will. It could only be the kid.
He twisted the deadbolt knob but didn’t have to open the door. It pushed open so suddenly that the old man almost went down. It was the kid, and he was in a hurry to get out of the below zero wind blowing up from the lake. He wore only a cotton long sleeve shirt and a worn pair of jeans with flip flops on his feet.
The boy plowed through the wrapping paper and boxes left over from the shirts and went straight to the fire. He cradled a tawny small cat over one forearm, before dumping down three small wrapped boxes with the other. He stood with his back against the fire, breathing in and out deeply, trying to warm up.
“I was sick for a bit,” he gasped out.
“No wonder,” the old man replied, grumpily, but overjoyed to see the boy under any circumstance. “You can’t go out in subzero weather like that. Your mother must be fit to be tied. She’ll probably be here in a minute to yell at me about your stupid conduct.”
“Nah, she had to work. My babysitter is sick too. Mom said I’m too young to be alone on my own so I should come over and see you. And she also said to get Bentley and this kitten ‘the hell’ out of her house.”
“How sick were you?” the old man asked, concern seeping into his voice.
“I’m still sick, but Mom said not to tell you because you might not let me in. She said that if you get sick from me you’ll be dead as a Mackerel in no time.”
The old man wondered again about the boy’s Mom. He wondered if she really thought there was any way that the boy might not be admitted through their door by anyone in his right mind with the weather outside the way it was. He also wondered if the woman was at all kindly.
“What did your Mom give you for Christmas?” the old man asked, more to make conversation than for any real purpose.
“She gave me this,” the boy said, walking forward and plopping the kitten onto the old man’s lap. “She said she had enough money for this or for me to get regular stuff. I thought this would be better, and it was too late since I told the woman who had it that I’d take it.”
The old man stroked the kitten and watched his hands stop shaking. He knew it wasn’t logical, or physically likely, that a cat or kitten could have that effect on his condition, but the undeniable proof was in his own lap. He looked up at the boy and thought about the dialogue that must have gone on between him and his mom over the purchase of the kitten. The woman had paid for a kitten for the old man over buying gifts for her own son. He felt bad for thinking ill of the woman, even if she left her kid alone when she wasn’t supposed to. How had the woman known the old man would let him in? She had somehow known. He had, of course, let him in. Some things were working well in the universe, and that thought made the old man laugh out loud.
The kitten noticed the laugh and looked up at him with what seemed like hopeful eyes.
The boy ran toward the door. There’d been a scratching sound the old man had discounted. The door opened and Bentley ran straight to the fire, flipped around, and sat warming his back against it just beyond the protective screen like his master had. Bentley stared at the old man as if to say that the kitten was now his and he’d prefer that it stayed that way.
The boy ran back to join Bentley, but quickly bent down and began to unwrap his collection of boxes. Out came a small stainless-steel bowl, a slew of Fancy Feast Classic cat food cans, and a collar with a bell on it.
“If your Mom spent your money on the kitten then how did you afford all this stuff?” the old man asked, his forehead wrinkled in question.
“Target,” the kid said, settling back next to Bentley with his back to the fire. Mom buys certain things there that are cheaper than Wal-Mart or the grocery store.
The boy looked away while he talked, making believe he was paying close attention to the tree.
The old man knew. He’d been around the world a dozen times and visited over a hundred countries in his time. He knew. The kid had stolen the stuff, like the tree, but more dangerously. But he’d stolen it for him, and the kitten and those two separate things just couldn’t be made to fit together in the old man’s mind, until he remembered working for the bookselling company called Barnes and Noble once. The most shoplifted book in the store at Christmas time was the Holy Bible. It made no sense, but it was true.
“What’s the cat’s name?” the old man asked, deciding that the boy’s penchant for theft would have to be dealt with at another time. There was simply no way he could say anything about the only person in the world who thought enough of him to give up his Christmas so he could have a cat, and then risk whatever he had risked stealing the rest of the stuff. The kid didn’t even act like he liked him but the old man’s age had been harshly instructive in burning in the ability to measure other people’s motivations and performance on actions and not words.
“Oly,” the boy said, pronouncing the word ‘oh lee.’ “There’s some Norwegian jokes I heard on Sunday radio about two dumb guys named Oly and Sven. Oly’s the smarter one, so I decided to call him Oly.”
“Who’s supposed to be Sven?” the old man asked, already guessing the answer.
The kid didn’t respond, just looking away at the Christmas tree, or rather under it. The old man smiled in knowing who Sven was likely to be.
“It’s yours,” the old man said. “The gift under the tree. The only one there. It’s yours.”
The boy leaped forward and down to his knees, grabbing the little box and trying to tear the ribbon off. He labored for minutes, as the old man watched, remembering just how strong one hundred percent silk really was. Finally, the kid got through it. He took only seconds to tear the wrapping and cardboard box to shreds. He held a big folding knife in his lap, before bringing it up closer to his eyes.
“It’s called a Camillus 697, a sailor’s knife,” the old man said. “It was my Dad’s in the Coast Guard. It’s got a Marlin Spike for splicing wire ropes but you can use it as a fid for regular rope in a pinch, and the knife’s razor sharp, mostly for carving.”
“A knife, the kid said. “A real knife all my own. We can’t tell my Mom. Not ever.”
The old man pulled a small block of Koa wood from under the other side of his chair cushion. He’d found the piece at a place called Martin and Macarthur in Hawaii for twenty bucks. That was a lot for a small piece of wood, but the boy’s excited smile proved that the salesman had been right about him never regretting the purchase.
“You can carve whatever you want to kid, but don’t cut yourself or your Mom might find out,” the old man intoned, knowing the kid wouldn’t hear him.
The boy set to work right away, little pieces of woods flying down to make a mess on the floor around him. The boy kept looking back at the fire and Bentley, who’d hunkered down to enjoy the warmth and scene before him.
“What are you going to make?” the old man asked, his curiosity piqued by the boy’s focused attention on the wood, and his use of the knife, like he’d carved before.
“I’ll carve Bentley for my Mom for Christmas.”
“She’ll know you have a knife if you do that,” the old man noted, watching the boy’s intent work with the razor-sharp knife, wondering what might happen if he cut himself.
“Nah, I’ll tell her you made it,” the kid replied, not looking away from his work.
The old man sighed and stroked the kitten. The kid stole and lied with abandon. Did the fact that he acted like that for the old man and his mother, not to mention Bentley and the kitten, allow forgiveness for such acts? The old man didn’t want to think about the work he might have in front of him in somehow better preparing the boy for growing up in a world where such things were not taken lightly, and the motivation for doing good things in a bad way was rewarded with draconian punishments. But he said nothing. It was enough to watch the boy work so happily away, knowing the kid and his mom had given a lot so that Christmas would be what it had turned out to be for the old man; a thing of warmth, togetherness, and love.
He had Oly in his daily life now, with Bentley dropping in on occasion, and then there was the boy. The old man knew he wouldn’t need the Jamison’s hidden under his cushion to help him sleep through the Christmas night.