James Huff stands amidst a throng of people in just another chain department store trying to make a decision. He’s surrounded not only by people, but also by Christmas wreaths and gaudily decorated trees. Holiday music plays over the store’s speakers, but coupled with the procession of marching footsteps as well as the din of hundreds of chattering voices creates a sonic abomination.
As evident, Christmas shopping is not James’ favorite activity. However, he is on an important mission, one he cannot mishandle.
A salesperson waits before him—a conservatively garbed matron probably around his mother’s age. He is thankful for such a minor miracle. He needs an experienced woman for this endeavor, a woman who’s attained both worldliness and wisdom.
“They are both lovely,” Carol, the sales representative, says matter-of-factly. Though he has never met Carol, her nametag makes all the necessary introductions.
“Yes, they are,” James agrees. He studies the two bracelets and appreciates that Carol is not attempting to sell him on the more expensive one. She must sense he’s an easy mark, a surefire sale just waiting to happen. He appreciates that she’s not the gluttonous sort.
“Any woman would be glad to receive either of them,” Carol says.
“I agree. I personally like the more expensive of the two, and I think she will, too. Unfortunately, it’s beyond my budget. I hate to cheap out when I know she’d like the other one better.”
“If I may say so, sir,” Carol begins, “I wouldn’t describe the less expensive one as ‘cheap.’ It costs a significant amount of money.”
“You’re right, of course. And she’s not the materialistic type, so it’s really not about the money.” James holds the finer bracelet up to his face and studies it. “It’s just, I know her tastes, and this is it. She’ll kill me if she ever finds out how much it costs, but long ago I learned a valuable lesson in choosing the right gifts. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
During a past Christmas, everyone had a good idea what lay under the Huff Christmas tree. James’ life consisted of He-Man, Ghostbusters, and comic books. His older brother, Ted, lived for the Chicago Bears and the Super Bowl game he knew they were fated to win. Their dad, Anthony, had a passionate interest in building model muscle cars in his downstairs shop when he wasn’t busy with work, which wasn’t very often.
So for the men of the family, the various packages of all shapes and sizes could only hide a limited number of delightful possibilities.
As for their mom, Debbie, well, the boys didn’t really know what interested her—besides them, of course—but the boys trusted their father to take care of her gifts.
James had an unflinching confidence in the infallibility of Santa Claus, but he also understood that Santa only brought gifts for children. Adults simply had to rely upon each other to make sure their Christmas wishes came true.
And judging from the multitude of geometrically diverse objects labeled “Mom” or “Debbie” beneath the tree, his dad did well that year.
Oh, if only Debbie, Ted, and James knew what the immediate future held for them.
Ted decreed himself all-time gift sorter, and once he yet again accomplished the task with an efficiency that increased every year, Debbie settled in on the couch while eyeing an assortment of effects whose innards were unfathomable. Anthony kicked out the footrest of his favorite recliner. Ted, beaming at yet another job well done, sat upon the ledge before the fireplace, warming his backside with a preternatural tolerance to the flames. James sat smack-dab next to the Christmas tree so that he could use it as an adventurous gateway to the heavens for the new toys with which he would soon be playing.
Per tradition, James, being the youngest and most impatient, got to open a gift first. Imagine his elation when he unwrapped the He-Man toy known as Buzz-Off, a strange hybrid of man and bee. Hopefully Buzz-Off had not grown too comfortable in his plastic and cardboard home, for it took all of two seconds to emancipate him.
Ted went next, and he pumped his fist in the air when he opened a pair of official Jim McMahon sunglasses. He would wear those sunglasses every Bears game until McMahon went to San Diego.
Though Debbie was technically the next in line in terms of youth, she insisted Anthony go ahead. He opened a year’s supply of top-of-the-line model glue. Ted and James failed to see the allure of such a gift, but the smile on their father’s face told them he felt ecstatic.
While the men were captivated with their newly acquired baubles, Debbie, her curiosity piqued most intensely by the largest of the packages, suppressed her urgings in order to enjoy the suspense and instead opened the smallest of the gifts.
It wasn’t unusual in the Huff household to open the biggest gifts last. History proved those were usually the most excellent. None wanted to start with the best only to end on a low note.
Imagine her surprise when she found Anthony bought her, on behalf of the boys, a new scrub brush. She glanced up to see Anthony studying the ingredients of his model glue, Ted wearing sunglasses and throwing imaginary touchdowns, and James flying Buzz-Off as high as his short arms would allow.
Ever the master of etiquette, she thanked them for the gift, listened as they mumbled a reply, and then she laid it aside and contemplated.
If only Anthony’s present to her turned out to be an aberration, a one-time error in judgment that could be dismissed as soon as she opened the next package, but such good fortune would not occur that Christmas.
James next opened a t-shirt with the famous Ghostbusters logo upon it. It went on over his Batman pajama top without hesitation. Ted opened a pair of official Chicago Bears sweatbands and put them on with a grin from ear to ear. Anthony opened a collection of one hundred miniature bottles of model paint, and he began to feel a stone growing ever denser in the pit of his stomach as he watched Debbie pick up a box that anyone would naturally assume housed a piece of clothing.
And Debbie did make such an assumption. She presumed the slightly oversized box might contain a house robe, or perhaps the little black dress she had wanted for so long in order to wear to work parties. Because the boys finally took notice and gave her their full attention as she pulled out a welcome mat, she fought back the tears and refused to acknowledge her husband.
Palpable tension filled the room, and even David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s duet playing on the radio in the background did nothing to bring about peace in the Huff home.
With trepidation, James opened a box of brand-new comic books, but the expression upon his mother’s face soured his mood. Ted seemed equally afflicted, for his Bears sweatshirt did little to lift his spirits. Even Anthony, finally realizing he committed a grievous mistake, barely noticed his new set of paintbrushes … he knew what lay ahead as Debbie reached for her third gift.
Though it appeared taller than the objects surrounding her, it did not take up much space. She hoped against hope that it could perhaps be that new television or stereo she wanted for her sewing room. A glimmer of positive thinking convinced her this would all end well. Anthony must have come close to overshooting the budget on the television or stereo, and so he bought those little, undesirable things to simply give her something to open. That way she wouldn’t feel left out. They would all be laughing about it soon enough.
The tall item she started to unwrap could only be a plastic garbage can.
And so it was.
She didn’t bother unwrapping it all the way.
Ted slid down the ledge of the fireplace, suffering chilliness as he put distance between he and the heat he so loved, and leaned into James’ ear.
“This is not good,” he said. Ah, so important the years were that separated James and Ted. The older brother was not yet completely versed in the complicated diplomacy necessary for men and women to coexist, but he knew enough to understand his father risked all-out war.
Because of James’ age, he couldn’t formulate any complicated thoughts to interpret his instincts, but those instincts also warned him that his father had blundered far into the danger zone.
His mother broke the silence—discounting the cheery background music—and said, “Open your gift, James.” She tried so hard to sound warm and loving, but, as she discovered in high school, Debbie was a terrible actor. She could not hide the melancholy in her voice.
The Huffs went through several more rounds of unwrapping, but as each circuit completed, the ambiance darkened. Such change in atmosphere could not be avoided as Debbie found herself worthy of receiving a laundry basket, a low-grade cutlery set, a dictionary, and a collapsible shovel.
At last, the final chapter arrived. James and Ted didn’t remove their eyes from Debbie’s biggest gift as it awaited her shaking hands. Debbie glanced at it as well, wondering, like Caesar, if it would be the last knife in her back. A sheen of moisture escaped the pores upon Anthony’s forehead, and rightly so.
Anxious for the crescendo, James tore through the paper that exposed the mammoth Castle Grayskull, and then motioned for his brother to hurry up. Ted shred apart a box divulging a Walter Payton jersey, then jutted his jaw out and stared at his father. Anthony took his time, as though he attempted to stay an execution, and finally could stall no longer once an incredible model replicating a 1970 Ford Mustang Mach I engine shined at him.
Heart fluttering as no one said a word, Debbie slowly ripped apart snowmen and reindeer, yearning to see the brand names RCA or Zenith. Instead, she saw a wet/dry vacuum cleaner.
The last thing Debbie wanted was to make a scene in front of her boys. However, she also thought they needed to see a woman assert herself when necessary. She fought to keep her voice calm and steady when she asked, “Anthony, I appreciate the fact you went Christmas shopping for me. I do. But what—exactly—are you trying to tell me with these gifts?”
Ted leaned over again and whispered to James, “Mom and Dad are getting divorced. You just wait.”
“What’s that mean?” James asked with eyes moistening. His instincts again worked overtime.
“What?” Anthony asked his wife. “I thought you’d be happy I noticed all the things you needed around the house!”
“No, Anthony. You got me things we needed around the house.”
“What’s the difference?” Anthony asked. “I spent a lot of money on that stuff!”
“It’s not the money, Anthony,” Debbie mumbled. “It’s just … Oh, I sound like such a brat. I’m thankful you got me gifts, really. But who in his right mind buys his wife a wet/dry vac?”
“I’ll have you know that wet/dry vac cost a bundle!”
Before anyone knew what happened, Ted gathered up all his presents in his arms and hauled them to his mother. He dropped them into his mother’s lap and said, “Here, Mom. You can have my stuff.”
James lifted the gigantic Castle Grayskull box as best he could, and he stumbled with it to his mother as well. “If you don’t mind, I’ll keep the little stuff, Mom. But you can have the best one. You deserve it.”
Anthony looked stunned.
Touched by her boys’ selflessness, Debbie dropped her head into her hands and fought back tears. Then, realizing her sons still watched, she lifted her chin and smiled at them. She set aside the gifts they bestowed upon her. After that, she stood up and said, “Thank you, boys. I truly appreciate the gesture.” She then took refuge in the only bathroom.
Once she left the room, Anthony asked, “What’s the big idea, boys? You’re making me look bad!”
“Mom’s gifts stink, Dad!” Ted cried out.
“Yeah, Dad,” James agreed. “I sure am glad Santa brings my presents! If you’d been in charge, I probably would have gotten a toilet plunger or something!”
Ted and Anthony exchanged knowing glances.
Then Ted scowled and said to his father, “What if Mom gave you the kind of presents that you gave her? How would that make you feel?”
“I’ll take that one,” James says to the salesclerk while pointing to the bracelet he prefers.
“You’re sure?” Carol questions. “If you don’t mind me saying so, Christmas isn’t supposed to be about the money. I’m sure whomever would love either of them.”
“Absolutely. But I have to make sure it’s perfect. And my gut tells me she’ll like this bracelet the best. So, I’m sure,” he says with a grin. “Very sure.”
Carol senses this gift has far more importance than she can comprehend, so she simply offers James a smile and begins wrapping the exquisite bracelet. Once finished, James thanks her for the assistance and makes his way out. He leaves the threshold of the department store and enters the tumultuous halls of the mall.
While navigating his way through the multitudes of bundled-up people, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out his phone. Using only his thumb, he dials a number.
After waiting a few moments, the other end finally picks up and offers heartfelt salutations.
“Hi,” James returns. He lifts his other hand, shopping bag and all, to his ear in an effort to dull the ruckus encircling him. He asks, “How’s the knee?”
Once the medical update comes to a close, James replies, “Good, glad to hear you’re staying off of it. Listen, I picked up the robe, the scarf, the gloves, the perfume, and the Picoult book, but I had to go a little over budget on the bracelet. I saw a different one I thought she’d like better. I hope you don’t mind.”
James weaves his way through the Christmas shoppers while listening to the recipient of his call, and then finally corroborates, “No, I agree; she is worth any amount. I thought you’d feel that way. I never would have spent so much of your money otherwise.”
While leaving the mall and trying to avoid salty puddles, James chuckles as a familiar Christmas story issues forth from his conversationalist. Finally, he says, “I think Mom forgave you for that a long time ago, Dad. You couldn’t have done any better these last twenty years if you were Santa himself.”
Copyright © 2007 by Scott William Foley
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. This story first appeared in the December 2007 issue of Town and City Magazine.
All rights reserved. No part of this story may be used or reproduced by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or by any information storage retrieval system without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews or articles.