The Tree

First published in Anti-Heroin Chic, April 11, 2020. Copyright 2020 by Tetman Callis.

The day was cold, the sky low and gray, an icy wind pouring down off the mountain. Stanley had to get the tree, so he had to go out. And Avery called, told him to come by.

“I’ve got a Christmas gift for you.”

Stanley didn’t have anything for Avery. For Sabrina he had a coffee-maker, a new one to replace the old beat-up one she had when they met and fell in love and everything. It had burned out.

Stanley’s car was ten years old. He’d had it painted in the summer. Lipstick on a pig. A tree would fit in the trunk, so long as it was the smallest tree he could find that still looked good and so long as he didn’t try to close the lid. He could tie it down with a jumper cable.

He stopped at a smoke shop, bought a pack of imported cigarettes. “Could you gift wrap that?”

“Uh, no. We don’t do that kind of stuff.”

Stanley stopped by a convenience store, bought a card to go with the cigarettes. He hoped Avery would open the pack right away and give one to him. Maybe Avery would even give him two or three to take along. That would be great. Stanley could give one to Sabrina.

Avery lived on the other side of town. It was the same side of town Stanley used to live on, but he had moved. It would take an entire gallon of gas to get to Avery’s and another to get back, plus to stop off and get the smokes and the card and the tree. It was great to be able to afford a tree.

Stanley’s car had a big engine and the heater worked. He warmed up on the drive. And Avery lived farther from the mountain, where the wind wasn’t so bad.

The gift was in a box about the size of a book. A cardboard box, recycled. A red Christmas bow was taped to it.

“I didn’t have any gift wrap.”

“That’s all right.” Stanley meant it. “Here.” He handed Avery the cigarettes and the card.

“Stan, you didn’t have to get me anything.”

“Yeah, I did.”

Avery didn’t open the pack until later.

Stanley didn’t spend any more time than necessary in the Christmas tree patch. Church parking lot, Methodist, cold wind. He picked the best tree he could find that looked nice and would fit in the trunk. He was sure Sabrina would like it. It took nearly all the money he had left. He hoped she had some cigarettes.

“Oh, it’s beautiful!” Sabrina said. “But how are we going to stand it up?”

“Your bucket. That plastic mop bucket you have. I’ll put some rocks in it and we can brace it with the rocks.”

Stanley took the bucket and went outside. Their apartment complex had landscaping with rounded riverbed rocks. Stanley loaded some into the bucket and hoped he didn’t get caught.

The wind was like ice water. Stanley’s naked hands grew numb. The bucket of rocks was heavy. The time was late afternoon. He and Sabrina needed to get ready to go to work.

There were always leftover appetizers that could be scrounged from the bar.

Four types—

1.         Quesadillas, but there were almost never any leftover quesadillas. They were like hundred-dollar tips—nothing you could count on.

2.         Breaded and deep-fried mushrooms, almost as rare as quesadillas. People liked them and usually finished their baskets.

3.         Breaded and deep-fried okra slices, which were rare because most people didn’t like them so they didn’t order them.

4.         And breaded and deep-fried zucchini slices. The paper-lined baskets they were served in almost always had leftovers, sometimes lots. Stanley gathered them up and took them home, wrapped in big paper napkins. Sabrina heated them in the microwave. They were never as good this way as they had been fresh, but they were always better than hunger.

Stanley and Sabrina sat at their dinner table and ate reheated breaded and deep-fried zucchini slices. It had been a decent night for tips. They both had new packs of cigarettes, though not an imported kind. Their Christmas tree stood naked in a corner. Sabrina had draped a white sheet around the bucket and under the tree. Three presents were on the sheet. There was a good-sized gift-wrapped box from Stanley to Sabrina, With love and kisses; a smaller gift-wrapped box from Sabrina to Stanley, For my hot stud-muffin; and there was the slightly smaller box from Avery, bowed but unwrapped and unlabeled.

Sabrina did her best to eat the leftover zucchini without having to dwell on it. “What do you think Avery got you?”

“I wish I knew.” Stanley had eaten as much as he could stand. He’d put the rest back in the fridge. He sat back and lit a cigarette. “The box is small enough for a book, and it’s the right shape for it, but it’s too light. It’s way too light. And it doesn’t rattle. I shook it every which way and it doesn’t make a sound.”

“I can’t eat any more of this.” Sabrina dropped her napkin on her plate.

“I know what you mean.” Stanley leaned forward. “You know what I hope it is? I hope it’s a lid. Wouldn’t that be great? A lid, a whole lid.”

“Oh, Stanley.” Sabrina did not hope it would be a lid. Probably the very last thing in the world she hoped Avery’s gift would be was a lid. She hoped it wasn’t even a single joint. The very first day she and Stanley lived together, a Saturday morning, she got up to find him already in the living room with the stereo on, smoking his first joint of the day and rolling his second. That was the point at which they’d had their first fight.

“Well, why not? I gave him a lid for Christmas two years ago. It’d be great if he returned the favor.” Stanley had been flush that Christmas, bought an entire quarter-pound from a fellow bartender who was also a business student—marketing major—at the university. It was so much, it didn’t seem it would ever run out. But it doesn’t matter how much it is, it always runs out.

Sabrina chose not to fight right now.

“Do you think we have enough money to get some Christmas decorations?”

“Oh, yeah. We do, we do.”

“We can go in the morning then, while the stores are still open.”

“Okay. We can get some lights, and a few ornaments.”

“And a star to go on top. Or an angel.”

“We’ll get you whatever you want, sweetheart. The biggest angel in the world.”

“As long as we can afford it.”

“Absolutely. As long as we can afford it.”

After they had returned from shopping, bringing home two strands of lights, a dozen ornaments, some tinsel, and an unlighted angel because it was all they could find on Christmas Eve at the discount store, the phone rang.

“Yeah?” Stanley said into the receiver. He listened, then, “Okay. We’ll be there,” and he hung up.

“Who was that?”

“It was Matt. He says there’s a meeting today at three. Everybody’s got to be there.”

“Did he say what about?”

“No. He just said we’ve got to be there.”

“Let’s decorate the tree before we go. Do you think we have time?”


They decorated the tree. It didn’t take long.

“You put the angel on, sweetheart.” Stanley got a dining chair for Sabrina to stand on. The tree was short and she didn’t need it, but she used it anyway.

“There,” she placed the angel and stepped down off the chair and kissed Stanley.

“I can’t believe they’re closing down,” Sabrina said after she hung up her coat. Her face had an expression of hurt bewilderment. “They just hired me. If they knew they were going to have to close down, why did they hire me?”

“I don’t know. At least they could have paid us.”

“What are we going to do?”

Stanley hung up his coat. “We’re going to go out the day after tomorrow and start looking for new jobs. I’ll talk to Avery. Maybe there’s an opening at that steakhouse where he works. We’ll be all right.”

“I hope so.” Sabrina looked at the tree. “Do you want to open our presents tonight?”

“Sure! That would be fun.”

That evening, after a dinner of the last of the breaded zucchini, with canned tomato soup on the side and a cigarette apiece for dessert, Stanley and Sabrina sat on the carpet in front of their Christmas tree. The tiny white and blue, red and green lights twinkled, reflecting off the ornaments and tinsel. The angel was white and had gold trim.

“You first.” Stanley reached out and picked up his present to Sabrina, handed it to her. She opened it and pulled out the new coffee-maker, shiny and clean.

“Oh, Stanley! Thank you! Now we can have real coffee again!” Sabrina hugged Stanley’s neck and kissed him on his mouth.

“Now your turn,” she leaned forward to take up the present she got for Stanley and give it to him. She smiled at him as he opened it. It was a pair of fur-lined brown leather gloves, rabbit fur.

“Why, thank you.” Stanley was surprised. He hadn’t any idea what the package might contain. He tried on the gloves, extending his fingers and turning his hands this way and that. “Thank you,” he said again, pulling off the gloves and pulling Sabrina close. “Now, let’s see what Avery gave me.”

The box was taped shut over its narrow ends. Stanley pulled the tape off one end and opened the flaps. Polystyrene packing peanuts, whiter than any angel, fell out. Stanley gently shook out more of the peanuts, then reached into the box to pull out what was inside. He did a very good job of hiding his disappointment.

“What is it?”

“It’s a photograph I took a few years ago of a sunrise over the mountains. I gave it to Avery when he said he liked it. But it was just the photograph when I gave it to him.”

“It’s nice.” Sabrina didn’t say how happy she was that it wasn’t a lid, that the box hadn’t included even one little joint.

“It’s, yeah, it is. What a surprise. I never would have expected him to have it mounted, matted, and framed like this, and then give it back to me.”

It would be sweet to end this story by saying that she kissed him and later that night they made love in the living room by the light of the Christmas tree lights, but that didn’t happen. They went to bed and went to sleep. The next day they watched television and had a cup of coffee and a cigarette apiece, and the day after that they went out looking for jobs.