Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Christmas Skirt

The Skirt


James Strauss

There was nothing extraordinary about the outside of the retail store. Maybe the varnished wood of the single residential-sized front door. “Fine Textiles,” in big black letters was scrolled across the single front window. The shop was narrow, but very deep, passing all the way through to a back alley. Christmas decorations blinked behind the glass from an assortment of small fake pine trees in the elevated display, late afternoon’s sinking sun allowing for the lights growing brilliance.
Snow drifted down, settling on Tim’s bomber jacket. The jacket was new. Not a Christmas present. Tim knew no one well enough or close enough to present him with a holiday gift work several thousand dollars. He’d bought it for himself. Money had flowed almost endlessly for years from his computer business in California and silver mine in New Mexico. He had a touch for investment, but absolutely none for management of people, always reading them the wrong way. As long as he stayed out of his businesses they prospered and checks flowed in.
“O Holy Night,” sung by an wonderfully voiced male opera star trickled from two Bose speakers set up above the window under a small eave. Class music played through class equipment by the class man inside.
Will owned the fabric store. He’d been Tim’s best friend, only friend really, until the weekend before when Will’s wife Sarah had received a special Christmas card with a letter inside. What had possessed Tim to send the card escaped him entirely, as he looked at the sweaters and shirts from Paul and Shark that Will carried because material didn’t sell very well during the holiday season. Tim brushed his collar under the thick shearling of his coat. The shirt had come from the store. But it would be his last, at least his last purchased at “Fine Textiles.” Will had been clear about that. Tim was no longer welcome at the family’s home or at the business. Of all of it, Tim knew that not seeing the kids, aged from six to ten, would hurt most. The wrapped Christmas presents he’d found for them this year had been received with great joy by the three boys only days before. They considered Tim the best uncle anyone could ever have. But that was before the event. The event of the letter.
Sarah, Will’s beautiful wife, suffered from depression aggravated by the pressures of holiday obligations and requirements. Will and Tim had talked about it often. And the quieter more hidden pressure of money. A great lack of money Tim knew. He’d overheard them discussing the fact that they needed a huge Christmas season just to make ends meet. Fine Textiles products sold at the very top end of the market. A market all but evaporated in the country’s severe economic downturn.
Tim had thought about Sarah’s problem, and then impulsively sat down and written out a detailed list of the reasons why she should be able to conquer her depression. He’d been lavish in his praise of her beauty, her dynamic personality and her ability to make all about her smile when she felt like it. He’d never stopped to consider anything but the smiling brightness she would have to feel upon reading such a complimentary letter, slipped inside a terrific custom Christmas card. And then it all went terribly wrong.
Only a few days later, when Tim bashed his way through the store’s front door, reminiscent of Kramer in Seinfeld, he’d been met with a cold-faced stare across the single low counter. Will stood, with hand extended, a piece of folded paper in right hand.
“What’s this?” Tim said, his tone so deadpan that Tim literally shivered.
He slowly took his own letter from his friend’s hand. He didn’t need to open it, as the high quality Italian paper gave away its origin. He couldn’t think of anything to say. They stood staring, unblinking at one another for many seconds, until Will broke the silence.
“You, my supposed best friend, proposition my wife, comment on her personal situation and discuss our confidential discussions about her?” Tim stated, his voice rising as he spoke.
“Proposition?” was all Tim could whisper out, staggered. He considered Sarah the most honorable and wonderful woman he’d ever met. He’d meant to uplift here for Christmas. The letter had been completely misinterpreted.
“You’re outta here,” Will said, his voice not a yell but penetrating Tim to his very core. “Don’t come back and stay away from my home.”
Tim replayed the scene, as he had over and over again, while snow accumulated on the top of his head. His mind then went back to a meeting in front of the store only days before the event of the letter.
A figure had appeared at his side that day, coming up from behind.
“Hey Boss, nice town you got here,” the man said, in his heavy downtown Chicago accent. “Sorry I’m late but it is a hundred miles and the snow’s a bother.”
Tim didn’t respond to the small talk. Max was on the payroll of Tim’s computer company in California but worked in Chicago as a direct representative to the city, the company’s largest single client.
“What do ya want me to buy?” Max asked, wisely not bothering to ask Time any questions about why he had been required to travel most of the day to make the purchase.
“ A single piece of Holland and Sherry. All that cloth he has. It’s the most expensive material in the world so it’s going to be expensive. About four grand a yard, so don’t show surprise if the bills fifteen to twenty grand. Doesn’t matter. Use the Platinum Amex card.”
“Whatta ya going to make?” Max laughed.
Tim slightly shook his head. “I’ll be over a the coffee shop around the corner.
Bring it there before you head back.
“What’ll I tell ‘em if they ask why I want it?” Max followed up, his expression one of open curiosity.
“He won’t.” Max told him, before departing.
Tim’s mind snapped back to the present. He didn’t need to be seen standing in front of his former friends store. Without thought he wiped away a layer of snow from his bald spot. The same bald spot that was so popular with Will and Sarah’s boys.
The last of week of Christmas passed slowly. Tim went to the coffee shop every day but Will never showed up. They’d once met there each morning before the shop opened, then communed together inside the store several times before closing. Will’s home, besides his own, had been the only residence he’d ever gotten used to simply walking in when he dropped by. No knocking or doorbell. Like family.
Christmas Eve had become part of a seasonal ritual that had developed after his own wife had passed on many years before. Tim lit the final Advent tree set up alongside the main road running along the back of his property. Four pines each with 3000 little white lights, and then a fifth with 5000 colored, to celebrate the baby Savior’s arrival. He put on Holiday Inn, the Crosby Astaire movie, lit the fireplace loaded with sixty pounds of dry hewn oak, turned on his special CD of Christmas songs and set out to pass the evening. He didn’t drink anymore but poured two ounces of single malt Scotch
into one of his wife’s leftover Waterford glasses. He didn’t smoke but set aside a single Kent cigarette, which had been her cigarette of choice.
The perfectly decorated Noble next to him was lit, the movie playing and the fire radiating warmth as he sat buried deep inside his favorite leather chair. His doorbell rang distinctly through the music and movie sounds, just as Bing Crosby tapped his pipe stem against bells hanging from a Christmas tree branch.
Tim jerked forward in his chair. Who could possible be calling at the front door late into the snowy night of Christmas Eve? It made no sense. Tim’s house sat alone in the country, far from town, or other homes. Bing tapped the bells with his pipe a second time and the doorbell rang again. Tim made for the front door. He opened it apprehensively to discover Will standing and holding out a wrapped box.
“The kids made this gift for you and, no matter what, we thought you should have it, you know, for the holiday.”
Tim took the shoebox-sized gift, the wrapping job obviously having been done by childish hands. The door stood full open, snow swirling around the stoop. Will stared into the warm interior of Tim’s house.
“What’s that?” he asked, raising his right index finger up to point. Tim turned his shoulders to follow the man’s gaze down the corridor.
“What?” he blurted out, his brow furled in question.
“The tree,” Will said, his voice louder, still pointing.
“The tree?” Tim asked, turning back to look at his friend.
“I sold that last week to a crude man from Chicago,” he finished emphatically.
“The tree?” Tim asked again, in true wonder.
“Not the tree. The skirt.”
Tim turned back around to face down the hall, and then set the boys present on a small table nearby. He realized his mistake. He’d had no use for a twenty thousand dollar piece of woven Vicuna cloth, so he’d thrown the piece down to be the Christmas tree skirt surrounding it’s base. When he turned back Will was gone.
Tim closed the door, feeling the cold wind and icy bits of blown snow.
He walked over to the huge dining room window from which he could view his driveway. Will’s SUV sat running, its exhaust visible in the glow of small Christmas wreath lights radiating out from the front of the home. A barely visible figure stood in the dark next to the driver’s side of the door. The man did not move and Tim could not.
The only non-Christmas song Tim had recorded on this special holiday CD began to play. The slow singing and haunting melody of the song beat the words physically into Tim’s body. “Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot and auld lange syne?”

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