ONCE UPON A CHRISTMAS EVE
It’s because I’m not sure I even want to be home in time for Christmas Eve dinner that a tiny seed of hope sprouts when a customer approaches the house, strolling casually up the brick walk. Even above the strains of Handel, I’ve learned to place footsteps on the wooden porch slats. Timed four seconds until the front door jostles, creaking as it opens, triggering the soft jingle of a long string of large, silver bells—like something that might connect one reindeer to another.
He is no one I have ever seen.
But this doesn’t keep his eyes from lighting when he spots me standing frozen by a table of figurines and dolls and candle-and-bough centerpieces, as if suddenly recognizing an old friend.
“Hi,” he says, shoving hands deep into the pockets of his winter coat.
The shop is supposed to close at five. These were explicit instructions given by Mrs. Kimble the day before, when she paused at the front door of her home, set two suitcases down on the hardwood floor, and entered the Christmas room, where I stood organizing a display of nutcrackers. I was arranging them by height, keeping contrasting colors together, but mostly alternating red with green because there is never much to do in the afternoon and I always feel the need to appear busy so Mrs. Kimble knows I am worth the check she writes. A check that, quite literally, comes from her personal bank account every Friday.
The shop runs out of her house, a foyer between rooms—what were originally the formal living and dining areas. The home itself was built in the 1800s, renovated several times, is situated on Main Street. The historic district. Across the street, home values triple in price for no reason other than they are waterfront.
Mansfield is its own tiny peninsula, tucked into a space between bay and river. Two-hundred-eighty degrees of water views. One intersection divides the town in two—splits historic district from the “new” part of town. The “new” still decades old, houses in need of repair, my own little corner of the world. One flashing light regulates traffic at this intersection should the unthinkable happen: two cars approaching at the same time. There are exactly three places to eat, none of which are fast food, and one is seasonal, closing its doors in October and not joining us again until April, when the first of the day-trippers return with boats and jet skis hitched to the backs of pick-up trucks. A Family Dollar just opened to the protests of half the town, into the welcoming arms of a small majority. Altogether, we are a nation of about four hundred.
“The Christmas Room” is one of six stores on this street, including a realtor’s office. The words grace the wooden sign hanging from the wrought-iron post in the front yard, black letters on a white background, hand-painted in Old English.
It’s a misnomer, though. Only one room holds the official title. The other is packed with non-seasonal trinkets and souvenirs—items found at typical destination-related shops: mugs and shot glasses and postcards with town names scribbled across bottom corners. Magnets and boxes and jewelry made from seashells. Books full of town lore—myths and legends and the ghost stories connected to them. But there are hand-crafted items, too. Displays of beaded jewelry, artwork—mostly pen and ink drawings of the area’s buildings of interest—painted wine glasses and girls’ hair accessories, like colored ribbons gathered and tied to look like princesses.
The room to the right of the foyer is the actual “Christmas Room,” what has always been one of my favorite places in Mansfield. Even in the middle of summer, when mercury rises in Mrs. Kimble’s old porch thermometer, tipping past ninety degrees, the room is dark and cool and inviting, evoking memories of holidays past and always smelling faintly of cinnamon.
This year, Mrs. Kimble made plans to spend the week with her sister up in Virginia. She left town yesterday, asked if I minded too terribly keeping the shop open on Christmas Eve in case there were any last-minute customers in need of something. I could have said no. I could have said yes and not shown up. But I didn’t mind running the store while she was away. I still don’t.
But the instructions were to close at five so I could get home in time to be with my family.
“Can I help you?” I ask, stepping away from a basket of ornaments hand-painted by one of the locals—a school principal who retired here after her husband passed away. The historic district is full of retirees—doctors and attorneys who have long since closed their doors or stopped practicing. A few Northern transplants. The rest of us are working class. We voted for the Family Dollar. They have us to thank for convenience, for no longer requiring a ten-minute drive to the next town over for milk, bread, and toilet paper.
“Yes. I need to find the perfect gift for a Christmas party.” He crosses the threshold, eyes scanning the room. Cute—in a boyish way. Brown leather coat exuding comfort, finally broken in after years of wear, faded around the shoulder area. A favorite. His jeans might be designer. They fit him well—a stark contrast to the pairs worn by guys at school, pulled from shelves at the Wal-Mart twenty minutes away, always a size too large, always too stiff, always faded with oddly-placed patches.
“Do you have anything specific in mind?”
Any relief felt at this guy’s unexpected appearance only moments before dissipates to nothing. It’s actually the word “perfect,” its connotation, the way he says this that sounds the internal alarm. I don’t want to be the one to tell him there is no such thing as perfect, don’t want him to morph into one of “those” customers—the ones I could spend hours with, showing them every item on display and a few that aren’t, and still it’s never what they seem to be looking for. Never what they need. Never enough. But this behavior is usually reserved for the grandmothers and great-grandmothers of the world, those prone to obsessing and stressing and making sure everything is just right—out-of-towners, mostly—and this guy, who can’t be much older than me, doesn’t fit the demographic.
“I don’t really do things ‘in mind.’ You see, there are list people, and there are people who fly by the seat of their pants. A list person writes down the names of everyone they need to buy for, along with some potential ideas—or, at the very least, their interests. A ‘pantster,’ to use the vernacular, walks into a store at random, searches and searches until the right gift just . . . jumps out at them.”
“And you are . . . ?”
“The latter, obviously. Which is why I am in this store on Christmas Eve, half an hour before this party is supposed to begin, still needing a present.”
My heart founders at this confession. I could kick myself for not shutting down early. “Okay. Well, is anything jumping out?” I ask, with all the politeness I can muster.
He studies me, curiosity radiating in waves, soft brown eyes narrowing until a pang of uncertainty settles in the pit of my stomach. Until I clear my throat. Until I tear my eyes from his.
“You’re a list-maker,” he accuses.
How he’s determined this based on our brief interaction—approximately two minutes, so far—I have no idea.
“Is there something wrong with that?” I ask, wondering why I suddenly get the feeling this is a bad thing. Like “pantsters” are, in fact, the superior being.
Another moment passes while he assesses, until he reaches the conclusion: “No. Because you’re exactly what I need right now.”
At first, I am unable to speak at this, words swelling in my mouth, the very real possibility this guy is flirting with me paralyzing me from the neck up.
Which, in itself, does not seem so horrible a thing He’s tall. Thin. His hair is thick and brown and curls at the neck, like a haircut was missed sometime within the last month. Soft, like his jacket. The kind of hair demanding to be touched.
I clear my throat. “Well, for starters, it’s good to know who the gift is for.”
“I have no idea.”
Confirmation. He might as well be eighty years old, senile, unable to remember who or where he is, what he’s looking or who he’s buying for, refusing to give me anything to work with. “I mean, is it for a mom or brother? Girlfriend?”
“I don’t know,” he repeats, as if I’m the slow one. “It’s an extended family thing, and my girlfriend dumped me at the end of freshman year, so she’s no longer an issue. When it comes to gifts, anyway,” he clarifies.
“She was an issue?” I ask, not thinking. Never mind it has nothing to do with the problem at hand: finding this guy the perfect gift and getting him out of this store.
“I was the issue, according to her,” he admits, moving toward a display of ceramic Santa salt-and-pepper shakers. “She was a list-maker, too.” The way he says this feels accusatory, like all list-makers are created equal, lumped into the same lamentable category.
“Bet her Christmas shopping is already done,” I say.
His face relaxes, cracking an amused smile. “Touché. Because if lists are good enough for the big guy up north, they should be good enough for me, right?”
“You’re bringing Santa Claus into this?”
His eyes catch mine, holding them, as bright as the room with all its trees and strands of lights and shining ornaments. Everything sparkling. Reflecting. Both startling and alluring at the same time. “Can I sing the song?”
Maybe not quite accusatory. “No.”
He continues searching shelves, making a slow pass around the room, stopping on occasion to lift something, examine it, to check out a price tag. “So the thing about this party—it’s at my aunt and uncle’s house. There will be a lot of people, so we’re not doing a typical gift exchange. We’re playing Dirty Santa. I just need one gift that could be for anyone.”
“I know the game,” I reply.
He spins around to face me with an expression that might be alarm. “You do? Because I’ve never heard of it, and, quite frankly, I find the idea of going after a present you like only to open the possibility that it will be stolen from you appalling, especially since this is the season of hope and joy.”
“You’re over-thinking this. This should be the easiest gift to buy. You’re not looking for anyone in particular. Personal interests and preferences don’t even matter. You just get something that’s cool—something anyone could want.”
“Something anyone could want under twenty dollars,” he adds. “The problem is, I have yet to find this magical, mysterious gift that will likely be pilfered from the person who seriously wants it.”
“Or pilfered by the person who seriously wants it, in which case everyone goes home a winner,” I counter.
He stares at me with wild brown eyes. “You’re trying to ruin this for me.”
My mouth quirks, wanting to smile. “Okay, well, we have a lot of gifts here under twenty dollars, so you should have no trouble finding something. Just . . . keep looking, I guess. Wrapping is free.” I leave him standing alone in the Christmas room, cross the foyer to prepare for closing.