For April Fool's Month, a comic tale that first appeared in 559 Quarterly.
Everyone has a worst Christmas present story. Usually, in my experience, it is the ugly red sweater that you thought only your worst enemy would foist upon you; but instead, it came from your mom, with a kiss. But my pal Natalie Tinker (now, Dr. Natalie Tinker-Bruner—and a fine dermatologist, should you desire Botox) had the story that topped them all – the very worst gift ever, “in the history of presents, in the history of Mankind.”
Now, Natalie Tinker loved getting presents, and in fairness to her, her gifts were meticulously planned. She was the type to send a singing pajama-gram on your birthday—yes, I got one. So, for her first Christmas with her boyfriend, Dr. Leon Blum, the bar was high. It was their first “holiday season” as a couple. “Don’t worry,” he said, “you won’t forget this one.”
Two days before Christmas Eve, Natalie’s wait ended. “From Leon,” the messenger said in an official manner- and handed her a large, shoebox-like package, wrapped in silvery paper with tiny words on the outside. Natalie skipped the words—since who has time for that? Inside was another box. Then there was another, and another; each wrapped in shiny paper and each with words on it. Finally, she came to a tiny box, wrapped in paper. She opened it.
It was empty. Natalie turned it upside-down and shook it fiercely, for Natalie had quite a temper. Defeated, she re-assembled the boxes, folded the silvery paper, and dumped them in the recycling bin at the end of her hallway.
She called me and everyone she’d ever known to tell the horror of her Christmas. “I’m so done with Christmas,” she said. “I cannot believe this happened. He said I’d never forget it, and I won’t.”
Even after she wed Bud Bruner (of Bruner, Bruner and Bruner,) Natalie repeated her tale of the empty box every chance she got. In fact, to be honest, we all got tired of it. The odd thing was that Leon never called her again--not even a text. “Men are seriously damaged,” said Natalie, and who could disagree?
But years later, I heard the real ending from a new faculty member, Sarah. Sarah, it must be said, was Natalie’s opposite in looks and temperament. Whereas Natalie was impulsive and skinny, Sarah was contemplative and plump. Natalie raced through life, and Sarah liked to examine things from every angle. At our Christmas faculty party, Sarah made a strange confession. She said, “If it weren’t for Christmas, I wouldn’t be married. It’s a strange story.”
“I’m all ears,” I said.
A few Christmases ago, Sarah was feeling low. Her boyfriend had left town without a good-bye. She had no plans except a stack of detective novels, and the prospect of Law and Order re-reruns. Plus, she had forgotten to buy wrapping paper, of all things. Sarah came upon a happy solution: use magazines and newspapers and make collages from them. That would be unique, cost effective, not to mention environmentally sound. Off she went to the recycling bin – and discovered a fabulous array of boxes and paper, on the very top of the bin. Scooping them up, she felt triumphant (and virtuous) at having solved her problem.
Sarah (being Sarah) carefully inspected her booty. On the boxes, she found quotes from poems—Frost, Donne, Yeats. The boxes fit together perfectly—and best of all, at the bottom of the innermost box were the words: if you want your present, be at ___ (the note named a bar) at midnight, Leon. Sarah threw on a dress and cowboy boots, and showed up at the bar at midnight.
She saw a young bearded man, sitting nervously. He was wearing a black turtleneck, and looked lonely. She waited to see if a woman arrived and then she marched over. “You are Leon?” she said as she sat down.
“I am Leon,” he said. “Did Natalie send you?”
“Sorry, I don’t know Natalie,” said Sarah.
“That’s not good,” he said, morosely.
“My name is Sarah Holliday. I guess you’re disappointed.”
“I won’t lie,” he said. “I expected someone else. But experiments don’t always work out in the way we plan.”
“The ways of mice and men,” agreed Sarah, nodding sadly.
“My design was overly complicated. It’s my fault. I over-think, and everything gets messed up, like this.”
“Well, you have to pick your subjects better. Whoever threw it out – this Natalie-- wasn’t right for this particular experiment. She wanted something easy, I think.”
“Maybe,” he said. “How did you find the boxes, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Recycling bin,” she confessed.
“Do you often sort through garbage? Not that recycled goods are garbage, but…”
“Garbage is a harsh word,” she said. “There’s great stuff there, and it’s free. And why waste money on wrapping paper? That is why they call it recycling, right?”
“And do you read other people’s mail?”
“Hmm, I guess you could call me nosey. But if it’s in the bin, it’s fair game. Bins are public. It’s like digging in a quarry—that’s not snooping. It’s like science.”
“True,” he said.
“Anyway, people don’t throw out love letters. I never would, not in a million years, not for all the money in the world.”
“No, you wouldn’t,” he said. “But how did you know that I’d be here?”
“Oh, easy,” she said. “The package was on top of the bin. So, I figured the recipient had just thrown it out. And only a romantic guy would do this, the type that waits around. It was a logical deduction.”
“Wow, my experiment worked,” said Leon.
He handed her a tiny box, in which there was the ring he’d bought for Natalie—and the ring slid on Sarah’s finger as if made for her. She tried to take it off, but Leon wouldn’t hear of it. And finally, after some back and forth, they agreed: in exchange for the ring, Sarah would cook him a real Christmas dinner. Sarah was an excellent cook.
“I make a killer chicken,” said Sarah Blum. “And you know what they say, the way to a man’s heart…”
“All’s well that ends well,” I said as I opened Sarah’s gift to me—it was some sort of wine gadget that I’d never figure out in a million years. “I’m glad this didn’t come from a garbage bin.”
“Garbage is a harsh word,” she said, laughing.