The Perfect Christmas Tree
When Carl asked her to work the yard on Saturdays starting the weekend after Thanksgiving, Kim didn't even hesitate. It wasn't like she had much Christmas shopping to do since her parents had died and her sisters had moved away, not to mention she had no money for Christmas presents anyway. Her job at the bookstore didn't pay much, and what little money was left over after taxes and food and gas went to keeping the bookstore in business by making ample use of her twenty-percent discount. Sometimes she felt like a druggie, feeding her habit, but, as her father used to say, "words on a page keep body and soul together even when the pantry is empty and the fridge is bare."
Carl and Cassandra Gibbons owned the farm next to Kim Kaplan's east of Piñon , Colorado. The Gibbons and Kaplans had been neighbors for over a hundred years, each family trying to eke out a living on the dense clay soil that lay under prairie grass. The families had worked together through fat times and lean. Cassandra Taylor had been Kim's best friend since they had met in diapers thirty-three years ago, and Carl Gibbons had been the only one of Cassandra's boyfriends that Kim could even stand. She sang at their wedding and was godmother to their children. She endured dozens of blind dates they sent her on until finally, three years ago, all parties called a truce and agreed that Kim was just too fussy to be happy with a twentieth century mate.
Seven years ago, Carl had asked Kim to lease him a portion of her land. The government was offering a sweet deal---free evergreen seedlings to anyone who was willing to devote at least forty acres to growing Christmas trees. Kim leased Carl twenty acres and he put up the rest. The twenty acres Kim had leased was now all she had left. The rest of it was tied up in litigation with Michael Zekendorf Homes---Kim had sold most of the farm to the development company two years ago after her father died, only to watch them file chapter eleven within three months. The court sold the Kaplan land to pay off Michael Zekendorf's other debts, and the lawsuit in which she was suing to get either her money or her land was moving through the courts at glacial speed. Meanwhile, Kim was living on soup and wearing lots of sweaters so that she didn't need to turn on the heat. The Gibbons Christmas Tree Farm was finally able to start selling the trees Carl had planted seven years earlier and maybe, just maybe, they would turn a profit this year if Kim helped keep costs down by working the yard with Carl, while Cassandra worked the counter.
November had been lovely---crisp days and cool nights, blue skies and pink sunsets. But Thanksgiving brought snow. Kim had sat in Cassandra's and Carl's dining room eating turkey and playing with their newest baby and wondering how long she would be able to stay in Piñon. She was the last of the Kaplans, and she was hanging on by a shoestring...or a Christmas tree needle if you wanted to look at it that way. Her sisters had all left Piñon as soon as they had gotten their high school diplomas. They had gone away to college, found husbands, and had never returned except for their mother's funeral twelve years ago and then their father's. But Kim wanted to stay where her ancestors had stopped their covered wagons and laid down their roots. Ed Kaplan had deeded her everything he had after he got cancer. And, one way or another, she had just about lost it all.
Friday after Thanksgiving Kim stacked her firewood. She was determined not to pay public service for heat when she had a woodburning stove and friends with pickup trucks. Cassandra's family had a mountain cabin that was surrounded by thick forest. All summer, almost every other weekend, Kim, Carl, and Cassandra cleaned the forest. They chopped misshapen pines and stunted aspens, hauled and stacked fallen timber, and generated enough fuel for Kim to go all winter without turning on the heat if need be.
Saturday, Kim put on long underwear, ski socks, flannel-lined jeans, a flannel shirt, Sorrels, parka, mittens, and hat and walked over to the tree farm next door. Carl was opening the gates at ten that morning, and already cars were lining up outside the chain link fence. Thanks to Cassandra's marketing prowess, everyone within a fifty-mile radius of Piñon knew that Gibbons was the place to buy the best Christmas trees that year, and the high-flyers of society, for whom Christmas had become a competitive sport, vied for bragging rights in getting first pick at the Gibbons lot.
Six hours later, Kim and Carl had each sold over a hundred trees apiece. They were grinning like fools, humming along to "Frosty the Snowman" for what had to be the four-thousandth time they had heard it that day, getting ready to close the gate on what was surely the single-most-profitable day that the Gibbons Farm, Christmas Tree or otherwise, had ever seen. Cassandra waved to them from the store as she sent her last customer on his way---she had a bottle of champagne icing down and it was time to celebrate. If tomorrow and every other weekend before Christmas proved as successful, Carl and Cassandra would be able to share the profits with Kim, and she might be able to turn on the heat this winter after all.
Carl had just started walking the gate closed when a black BMW turned down the drive. Carl stopped and looked at Kim. They both rolled their eyes and groaned, then she laughed, "Let 'em in. I'll handle them. You go pop the cork with Cassie. This won't take but a minute."
"I owe one you, Kim. Sell 'em a ninety-dollar special. They look like Home & Garden types."
Kim took off her ski cap and shook out her short brown curls. The back of her neck and forehead were sweaty and itchy from wearing the cap all day. She took off her mittens and ran her fingers through her hair as she waited for the last couple of the day to park and get their bearings.
A soft snow had just started to fall, and the cool, freshness of the winter air curled up around her scalp, sending delicious shivers down her spine and electrifying her senses. She smiled as she recognized the feeling. It had been a long time since she had felt it. She had been so worried about staying warm that she had forgotten how good it feels to let cold air caress you. She remembered her father's stories about her childhood premonitions. Apparently until she was about seven, she used to talk about a snow queen who would visit her as she played in the family's frozen garden and tell her things that would happen. Ed Kaplan swore that Kim was always proven right when she told him what the snow queen had foretold, but her mother hadn't liked the idea of her daughter having visions and so Kim stopped talking about them and ultimately stopped experiencing them, until she could barely remember them. All she could remember was the feeling of icy loving fingers caressing her neck and ears and cheeks and a vague sense of anticipation and the sweet sorrow of knowing what tomorrow would bring.
The woman was out of the car first. A tall brunette in a black hooded cape. Probably worrying about ruining her designer boots in the snow, Kim thought as she watched the woman pick her way from the car to the first row of trees. And then the man got out and Kim met his eyes with a gasp of disappointed recognition. He was the man from the bookstore, Benjamin Scarpello, at least that was the name on his credit card receipts. Kim had been fantasizing that he was single---he didn't wear a wedding ring---and just hadn't worked up the nerve to ask her out yet. He had been coming in every Thursday at one-fifteen for at least two months. He browsed for about twenty minutes, often asked to look in the special collections case, and then bought one or more of the hard-bound classics. Sometimes he bought something from History as well. She assumed he lived on the hill in one of the dot-com mansions that was transforming Piñon from a sleepy farm town to a trendy village.
He had manicured fingernails and smelled of coffee and Armani and leather. He was quiet. He eyes were kind. His voice was softly cultured. Kim wondered what loss was behind the sadness that clung to him even when he smiled. She wondered when the bitterness that permeated the creases in his eyes had yielded to irony. She wondered in what century he had been born to seem so out of place in this one. She wondered what he thought of farm girls in flannel shirts who worked in bookstores because they didn't know how to hang onto the land bequeathed to them. She wondered if he loved snow too and whether he ever held out his fingers to catch flakes so that he could examine them before they melted.
"Are these all you have?" the woman asked, waving her hand at the precut trees leaning in rows.
"Well, we do have forty acres of trees, if you want to pick one out for me to cut," Kim answered, assuming that the gathering darkness and thickening snow would dissuade the woman from even contemplating such a request.
"My friends Jean and Rick were here this morning from Denver, and she said that they picked out the single most perfect tree she had ever seen. She said a man cut it down for them. Ben ..?" she said turning to the man, "wouldn't it be fun to pick out a tree and have this girl cut it for us? It will make the house-warming party so much more special..."
"Andrea, please, let's just take one of these trees and be done with it." He turned to Kim, "These are every bit as good as those, aren't they," he asked, nodding his head to the rows of living trees behind him.
"Better, in fact. Since they're already cut, they can't grow anymore, so I'm hoping we find homes for all the ones we thought were ready to be Christmas. It's just that some people like the novelty of having their tree cut before their very eyes, so we let them..."
"All right, all right," Andrea conceded.
Half an hour later, Kim and Ben were wishing she hadn't conceded. Kim's arm was aching from holding up tree after tree, while Andrea hemmed and hawed and agonized over each one. Too tall. Too short. Too fat. Too thin. You get the picture. Kim's still bare head was covered in snow. She thought about shaking it, but decided not to risk impersonating a wet dog. Not the image of her she wanted Ben Scarpello to carry with him. Of course, schlepping in the snow at the mercy of Miss Saks Fifth Avenue wasn't an appreciably better image, but the half hour of tree shopping had at least revealed that Andrea was still a Miss, though it was clear she was going for an upgrade. She kept on talking about "our party," when in fact Kim learned that it was Ben 's new house in Piñon that warranted the house-warming party.
"I want a perfect tree," Andrea insisted when Ben 's good nature had finally been exhausted and he stalked towards the car. She turned on Kim in desperation, "I thought this place was supposed to have perfect trees. Show me a perfect tree. Stop trying to unload these rejects on us."
"You won't find a perfect tree here," Kim answered calmly. She noticed that Ben stopped when she spoke. "These trees are grown in rows and trimmed into that symmetrical shape you like so much. But symmetry isn't indicative of perfection. Come to the bookstore next week and I'll show you a perfect tree if you really want to see one."
"All I want is a tree as good as Jean's and Rick's."
"Then let me get the chain saw and turn on the flood lights. We're wasting our time with these trees."
One-fifteen Thursday afternoon the bell over the door jingled merrily as Ben Scarpello walked into Piñon 's tiny, but well-stocked bookstore. Kim was perched on her stool behind the little wooden counter, her curly head buried in a book. French carols and the scents of warm gingerbread and spicy pine seemed to swirl around her. The store was festooned with glossy angels, dusty roses, and brazen best-sellers.
Kim had spent much of the morning rotating the Christmas books on display in the window and throughout the tiny store, then she had checked the special collections case, adding a new acquisition that Minerva Middleton, the owner of the store, had shipped from Tuscany. It was just the kind of book that Ben Scarpello often selected during his browsing, and Kim sighed as she imagined him turning it over and caressing its soft calf-skin cover before gingerly leafing through its gold-tipped pages. Kim thought she might ask Mrs. Middleton about stocking antique bookmarks---such a book deserved an accessory worthy of it instead of a scrap of paper or flimsy rectangle emblazoned with the store's logo. And it would be lovely to be able to offer Ben a selection of bookmarks to linger over as well.
Kim raised her head and smiled at Ben, "Here to buy the perfect gift?"
He chuckled, "Yes, Andrea does need a present still, but I hadn't thought of a book for her." He casually picked up a book from the St. Nicholas table. "You've met her. Any suggestions?"
Kim suppressed the smirk that threatened to appear, thrilled that she was actually having a conversation with a man who wore Armani and bought hard-bound classics. "Well," she began archly, "how about the new House Beautiful book on decorating with dead flowers...I mean, dried flowers?"
At this Ben laughed, much to Kim's relief---after the words had left her mouth she was afraid she might have sounded snippy.
"Andrea's not so bad. She's my best friend's sister and between marriages apparently and bored, so she me on as a project....you call that a perfect Christmas tree?"
Ben had spied Kim's tree at the end of the store, and now walked up to it, jaw gaping but with a huge smile spreading across his face, wiping away the last traces of bitterness and mopping up the irony.
The tree was shaped like a question mark, six feet tall, but with its trunk bowing out at an almost ninety-degree angle not more than two feet above its base and then curving around and back to center. The angel on the top was flying horizontally and the shape of the tree made it look like the tree, with its colored balls and wooden soldiers, Santas and stars, was flying after her. The tree was mounted in a standard Christmas tree stand and strands of Christmas lights were emanating from it, anchoring it to the walls to keep it from toppling over.
It was the single most beautifully bizarre, grotesquely gorgeous thing Ben had ever seen.
"Okay, I give, why is this perfect?"
"Because I had to cut it down. It was growing in a place where it couldn't reach the sun no matter how much it bent and twisted itself all its young life. There were too many other bigger trees in its way, and it was starved for sunlight and dying anyway. Too many trees all competing makes the forest unhealthy---so I cut it down and brought it in here so it can first be a Christmas tree and then be mulch."
Ben smiled slightly at Kim and tentatively touched the needles on the tree. His life had always been so black and white that it was hard for him to understand what this woman in the red flannel shirt and hiking boots standing by this misshapen caricature of a Christmas tree was trying to tell him. Always first class, always top drawer, Ben Scarpello had always picked the prettiest girl and the hardest major, and he had always come out on top, except once.
"My wife died nine years ago," he said suddenly. "She contracted AIDS during a blood transfusion for an operation I never even wanted her to have. She hung on for so long---she kept her body so healthy that she couldn't believe she really got the pneumonia that killed her."
"I'm sorry," Kim said.
He touched the angel flying from the tree. "We had the perfect marriage..."
"Except that she died."
Ben looked sharply at Kim, and a flash of pain seared his lungs and then was gone. Nine years of perfect pain gone as he realized that she was right.
"Except that she died," he repeated her words as if they were somehow liberating.
The bell over the door jingled, and Kim headed back to her post behind the counter. Ben began browsing, every so often glancing at the tree and wondering where the pain had gone. For so long, every breath he had drawn had hurt, as if his lungs were encased in ice. And now, it felt as though the warm spicy air of the bookstore was melting the ice within him, revealing a heart ready to love again, a soul ready to find another mate.
The bell jingled again. Ben was again the only customer in the shop. He asked to Kim to open the special collections case. She smiled to herself as she watched him pick up the calf-bound Tuscan book she had put there for him. She closed her with pleasure as he turned it over and caressed it, then gingerly leafed through its pages.
"Someday ... not today, though," he said, placing it back in the case.
The bell jingled again as the door blew open, sending a swirl of snow into the shop. Kim ran to shut it but stopped as she felt icy loving fingers on the back of her neck. For an instant, she thought that they were Ben 's and that he would declare how he had adored her from afar for so long. She stood for a moment in the doorway enveloped in the sleepy embrace of cold and ice and felt herself a child again, seven again, playing in a frozen garden, smiling at the beautiful woman dressed in icicles who told her secrets. And then she suddenly she didn't feel the cold anymore and realized that Ben had come up behind her and had closed the door.
"Are you alright?" he asked.
She smiled slightly and went to ring up his purchases.
"Would you like to have dinner with me sometime?" he asked, folding his credit card receipt inside his wallet.
"That would be perfect," she replied.
They exchanged numbers and names---they had never actually introduced themselves---and then Kim walked him to the door and as she let him out into the swirling snow she felt a vague sense of anticipation and the sweet sorrow of knowing what tomorrow would bring.
© 2004 Copyright held by the author.