I wrote this last Christmas, forgot about it for almost a year, dug it up last month and found I still kind of liked it, well enough to submit it to a magazine (no response yet). It's about 1000 words, and a pretty fast read. I was going for a lean speed to weight ratio when I wrote it. Anyway. Merry Christmas.
The Christmas tree was up by the first weekend in December and fully decorated by Sunday night, just before prime-time TV, but all feelings of accomplishment faded when Renfield the cat jumped headlong from the entertainment center onto the top of the tree and rode it down like Slim Pickens riding the A-bomb in Dr. Strangelove, a movie Bob loved enough to have viewed multiple times (Karen had never seen it). There was surprisingly little calamity in the event; the lower limbs of the tree acted like bumpers and cushioned the fall so that the sound of the collision between tree and floor was more whoosh than crash. A few ornaments broke. Bob and Karen had been living together for just under six months, and out of their parent’s homes for only a few years, so the ornaments they owned were primarily mix-and-match second-tier cast-offs from immediate family. Nothing of great sentimental or monetary value. They had no memories of past Christmases, no established traditions. It was all one big blank slate, begging to be written upon.
They revved up the Tivo after hearing the crash, turned off the TV, and set about cleaning up the mess. The cat was long gone, hiding under the bed. They hoisted the thing back up without too much trouble and leaned it against the fake veneer of the entertainment center.
Upon examining the crime scene they found amid the debris a plaster hand-cast ornament from Karen’s childhood, faded gold paint along the periphery, the dirty white of decades-old plaster coloring the handprint itself, fingerprints and palm lines still visible. It was broken into five or six pieces, fairly cleanly. Bob was mildly surprised that Karen didn’t seem to care it was broken. It seemed the kind of thing one should express remorse for, if it were to break. Something about memory, something about the passage of time. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
They swept up the broken ornaments and cast-off pine needles and decided to put off remounting the tree until the next day. After Karen went to bed Bob dug the plaster pieces out of the garbage, then stayed up and glued it back together while watching generic late-night holiday fare, the bottle of Elmer’s sitting midway between his short glass of Jameson’s and a smoldering joint balanced on the edge of the ashtray. He didn’t do a perfect job of it--lines of glue and clearly discernable gaps showed between the pieces--but he thought he’d get enough credit for the effort to warrant the label of Christmas gift.
The next day after work they attempted to put the tree back upright again, but gave up after less than a half-hour’s effort. The cheap sheet-metal base from Walgreen’s was hopelessly askew, the eye-bolts that screwed into the tree no longer in line with the threads. Bob leaned the tree back against the entertainment center, promising to buy a new base for it the next day.
He never did. It grew to be a joke, first among them and then their friends, as the days passed and the tree stayed leaning in place. All manner of improbable solutions were offered to get the thing to stand upright, but none were taken. They accepted it as it was, in all its off-balance glory. They replaced the missing ornaments that had fallen in the original spill, put water in the bowl of the base where the bottom of the tree still sat, even began putting their presents under it when it became clear its temporary position was trending toward the permanent. When Christmas morning came they talked about how the tree had made the Christmas memorable, how they would reminisce about it for Christmases to come.
She thought the repaired handprint ornament was a sweet gesture, and told him so, kissing him on the cheek.
The novelty of the leaning tree quickly waned after Christmas Day, no longer a future amusing anecdote in the making. It was merely in the way. Annoying. The tree was shedding its needles at an alarming rate. The branches were beginning to droop, dropping ornaments on the floor almost daily for Renfield to bat around. They had to lean around its considerable bulk to insert discs into the DVD player. One loop of lights had fallen to the floor, several bulbs crushed beneath heedless sneakers and winter boots.
On New Year’s Eve one of Karen’s friends stumbled drunkenly into it, resulting in another fall and an ill-conceived group attempt to lean it back into its former position, but all it meant by the next day was a whole new pile of dead needles and more broken ornaments to sweep up.
The cat took to pissing on it in early January, as the last of the bowl games were petering out, and Bob and Karen knew it was time for the tree to go. It was a parody of a tree, an imitation. It reminded Bob of those inspirational movies that popped up at the multiplexes this time of year, stories that weren’t true, exactly, but “inspired by actual events.” It was a Christmas tree inspired by actual Christmas trees. They took off the ornaments, the lights, the tinsel and garlands and packed them haphazardly away, then loaded the denuded tree into the back of a friend’s pickup and took it to the dump.
Bob and Karen broke up just after Valentine’s Day and, like the fall of the tree, there was surprisingly little calamity in the event. Friends and trips home and a steady flow of liquor helped cushion the fall. A few years later Bob was opening boxes of Christmas gear--new tree, new house, new town--and found the hastily repaired plaster hand-cast, buried under a wreath in the corner of a box. The glue has turned clear, and he ran his finger along the ridge of the repair, the gaps now bridged, the texture smooth and hard, like a scar. He could still make out the fingerprints, the palm lines in the plaster. He wrapped the ornament in tissue paper and sent it to the last known address he had for her, with a pleasant if somewhat impersonal note of explanation, and no return address. He wasn’t sure why. Something about memory. Something about the passage of time. It was clearly not an ornament that belonged on his tree, but didn’t seem to be the kind of thing that should be thrown away.