Gifts

[This story originally appeared on December 25, 2009. Consider it a Hidden City Holiday Classic, if you will.]

I was up late again, sitting at the computer trying to get some writing done until long after midnight. I was having a little trouble with my focus. The ideas just weren’t coming to me, probably because of the day. Even though I’m well into middle age and not at all religious, I was working on Christmas Eve — how Dickensian! I leaned back in my chair and took a sip of my rum, snickering at the image of my bulk crouching on a high wooden stool, scribbling in an enormous ledger while my breath fogged the air. But then I remembered I was playing the roles of both Scrooge and Bob Cratchit. I’d no one to blame but myself.

I had stretched and started to get up when I heard the wood floor creak behind me. How weird, I knew none of the cats were in the room with me, or thought I knew. I started to turn to look.

“Please don’t turn around. It would really be a very bad idea.”

The deep voice was stern and commanding, the voice of someone used to being obeyed. My mind racing, I considered the possibilities. The office door was in front of me. The two windows into the room both had their storm shutters down. How the hell did a burglar get in here?!

Stay calm, I told myself, just do what he says. “Okay, I’m not turning around. You are in charge. What do you want? I don’t own much other than this computer.” I hoped the tremors in my own voice weren’t too obvious.

The floor creaked again, a step closer. Oh no, I thought, he’s going to knock me out. Well, if I’m out at least I won’t have a heart attack, I guess. I closed my eyes and tensed for the blow.

“Relax, I won’t hurt you. I can’t let you see me. There is a protocol, a tradition that must be observed. Just don’t turn around. Please.”

He had an odd but subtle accent, like someone who had moved to the Midwest a long time ago, but with traces of their original language remaining. It was pleasant, really, a rather soothing sound. Against my will I found myself relaxing.

I took a deep breath. “Okay, I promise not to turn around. Just tell me what to do.”

“Do? I don’t need you to do anything, Marc. I just want to talk with you a bit. You don’t mind, do you? It’s been a while since we’ve spoken, and I could use a rest.” There was a rustling of heavy cloth, the sound of one of the many boxes sliding across the floor, and a deep sigh as he sat down.

He knew my name. Great. “Sure, um, we can talk. I like to talk. What do you want to talk about?”

Cellophane crinkled behind me, then a muffled crunch. A familiar, spicy smell filled the air. Peppermint. Now I’m not the brightest guy in the world, but by now I was starting to get a sneaking suspicion about this. “Wait, no, c’mon, seriously? You’ve got to be kidding, you’ve got to be fu—”

“Come now, Marc. Do you think I like that kind of language? I look the other way as much as I can, but it’s more difficult when people use those words right in front of me. It makes me sad, too.”

Yeah, that cinched it. I didn’t need to see the suit.

“I was checking the records the other day, and I noticed that you haven’t sent me a list for years and years and years. Why is that, Marc? You don’t want any presents? Do you really have everything you want?”

“Well, no, but I’m a grown-up now. Well, adult, anyway. If there are things I need I buy them, and if I can’t afford them then I don’t really need them. That’s how it’s supposed to work, right?”

“Oh yes, yes, that’s how many people choose to do things, yes. But that isn’t part of the rules, you know. You are always allowed to ask for gifts.”

“Maybe I can ask, but who will buy them? My dad? I’m fifty years old, for— for crying out loud. Do you expect me to make out a list and address it to the North Pole?”

“You could, you know. Plenty of people do. But the letter isn’t the important part. Believing is. Isn’t there anything you want, something you know you can’t get on your own?”

“I think you have the wrong Peanuts special. The Great Pumpkin is the one about belief.”

“Still a smart-aleck, aren’t you?” he chuckled. (I don’t need to tell you what his laughter sounded like.) “No, this is about dreams and wishes and hope.” He paused, then chuckled again. “What do you want for Christmas, Marc? If you want we can skip the part where you sit on my lap.”

“Thank heavens for that!” I laughed, in spite of myself.

I could feel him looking at me, into me. “Seriously. It’s important. Tell me what you want.”

I thought of some of the material things I would like to have, the trips I would like to take, but ruled them out. I thought about the things I knew my friends needed but couldn’t afford, and the gifts that might make them smile. Then I got to the big stuff: all of the jobless people, the troops fighting overseas, my friends fighting disease.

“I guess world peace, an end to hunger, and a cure for cancer would be asking for too much, huh? Not to mention it would be an unbearable cliché.”

“So? A fat guy in a red suit isn’t a cliché? Marc, when you were a little boy, did you ever ask for a gift and not get it?”

“Don’t you know?” Silence. “Yeah, okay, of course. It happened all the time.”

“And what did you do when all the gifts were opened but there was no chemistry set under the tree?”

“It depended on the gift. If I really wanted it I’d whine to get it for my birthday, or save up my money for it. Most of the time, though, I would forget about it.”

“You were disappointed, though. Of course you were. But since it didn’t cost you anything to ask, what made you stop asking?”

Because the holiday became all about the presents, and the presents were a matter of money. But I didn’t want to say that to him, so I kept quiet.

For a few minutes we listened to the wind picking up outside the window, moving through the palm fronds.

“Why did you stop at my house? I don’t have any cookies, or milk, either. What made you decide to stop here and scare the heck out of me? I don’t get it.”

There came a deep sigh; peppermint filled the air.

“Well, you have conversations with cats, so you are obviously—”

“Crazy?”

“Let’s say receptive. And you squeaked onto the nice list this year, too. Barely.” He paused. “Besides, I thought you could use the company.”

I thought the empty house around me, sighed, and took another drink. “Yeah, okay, you have a point.”

From behind me I heard the sounds of weight shifting, and a faint jingling of bells as he stood up.

“Most people only ask for toys of one kind or another. When someone does put together a less materialistic wishlist others treat it as a joke. But tell me, what’s so terrible about asking for a happier world at Christmas?”

“Because world peace doesn’t fit in your magic pack, obviously, or someone would have gotten it by now.”

There was a jingling again. I suspect he was shaking his head. “Sometimes you don’t get a chemistry set the first time you ask for it. But if you really want it, you’ll find a way to get one. If not this year, then next year, or the year after that. You just have to want it enough to ask for it, to tell people that’s what you want.”

Weight shifted, and the floor creaked again. “If enough people ask for the same thing, it’s a lot more likely that they’ll get it.” He laughed aloud. “Except for those new dolls. There are never enough of them. I can’t figure it out.”

A heavy, gloved hand settled gently on my shoulder. He spoke quietly. “Keep wishing for things that make you happy: big or small, simple or complicated, personal or for everyone. Everyone deserves presents, Marc. And I’ve given you something I know you need right now.”

As the scent of peppermint faded from the room I turned to look, but there was no package, no stocking, nothing at all to indicate that he had even been here. It didn’t hit me until I stood up to refill my glass. “Well, of course. What else?” I said to the empty room. I may not have asked for it, but he gave me something I really need right now.

He gave me hope, enough to share.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays, friends. May you get everything you ask for, and more.

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