Friday, December 11, 2015

The Gifts







The Gifts


A HUNDRED AND EIGHTY-SEVEN DOLLARS. THAT WAS ALL. AND SIXTY DOLLARS of it was in coins. Coins saved a few at a time over the course of the year. Della had saved pocket change, dollar bills left over after grocery shopping, and the single-digit drabs on several gift cards they’d received. She had even resorted to plucking the occasional filthy penny from the ground. All the coupon cutting, scrimping, and weekly trips to the food bank took a toll on Della’s sense of pride, but she never complained aloud. She counted the change again and blinked back hot tears. She would not cry over money, even though it was the day before Christmas and she still hadn’t bought a gift for her husband.
Della glanced around the efficiency apartment she and her husband shared. The carpeting was pumpkin orange and the kitchen appliances a faded avocado. The bathroom faucet dripped and the queen-sized bed in the corner was merely an inflatable camping mattress dolled up with the prettiest collection of blankets and pillows available from the second-hand stores in town. Next to the bed stood a fresh cut Christmas tree all of two feet tall. Della heaved a sigh. Her husband, recently matriculated from graduate school, was Della’s hero. Orphaned at two and raised in a long succession of foster homes, he had no family support and yet got his bachelor’s degree in three years, and then continued on to get his master’s in another two. Now, however, he was paying his dues at the bottom of the office totem pole while also paying almost half his monthly income to student loan debt.
When they’d married, Della had been waiting tables, and between the two of them, they had enough money to pay all their bills, contribute to a retirement account, and still order a pizza once a month. Last year, though, her parents had died in a car crash. The grief and depression that followed had left Della unable to get out of bed for months. She was still struggling, truth be told, and she’d been fired when she’d tried, briefly last summer, to work for the little cafĂ© down the street from their apartment.
Della toyed with the gold nugget that hung from a leather thong around her neck and thought about how kind her husband was, and how much she adored him. Not once, had he been cross with her about getting sick, though he had insisted she start seeing a counselor. Instead of sleeping in on Saturdays, he went with her to the food bank, smiling and greeting the volunteers by name. He hadn’t even complained, last winter, about not having enough money to go skiing during the best snow year of the decade. She knew, though, how much he missed flying down the slopes of Eagle Crest because he had been an avid skier throughout college and just two years ago had splurged and purchased a brand new pair of skis. Those skis were his pride and joy and he still had a photo of them as the screen saver on his home computer, though the skis themselves were tucked away in the closet. He prized those skis as much as she prized the nugget she wore, panned out of a creek by her grandma when she was pregnant with Della’s mom.
Della tugged on her necklace and chewed her bottom lip. Her husband deserved a gift that would make him happy. Something worthy of the love she felt for him. She pulled the leather thong over her head and held her gold nugget in the palm of her hand, weighing it and considering. Gold prices were up and the new owner of the jewelry shop down the road was an old pal of hers from high school. He would give her a fair deal, she was certain. Della took a deep breath and made a decision. With a gleeful yelp, she leapt up. On went her old brown parka. On went her old brown stocking cap. Della’s eyes sparkled, as they hadn’t in months, and she hustled out the door and down the snowy street.
She arrived at the jewelry store flushed with cold and out of breath. “Will you buy this from me?” she’d asked her old friend. He weighed it carefully, looked at it from all angles, checked gold prices on his computer, and entered a few numbers on his adding machine.
“I can give you two hundred dollars, but you shouldn’t sell this. Prices are still going up and someday it’ll be worth far, far more,” he said with quiet certainty.
“Two hundred dollars? Give it to me quick,” Della said, only half joking. She glanced up at the clock, then outside at the waning, grey, daylight.
An hour later, Della felt like a great weight had lifted from her shoulders. She was so light-footed, she nearly floated to her next stop, and then back home. She chopped and stirred a collection of only slightly wilted greens and other vegetables into a bright salad, then layered the ingredients for rice and tuna casserole into their single baking dish. While dinner cooked, she curled her hair, dabbed on a bit of powder blush, added a swipe of lipstick, then pulled on her least faded pair of jeans and a bright red chenille sweater.
At 6 o’clock, the casserole was cooling on the counter and Della sat nearby, waiting for her husband to come in the door. He was never late. Safely tucked in her back pocket was the discounted season pass to Eagle Crest Ski Resort.
At seventeen minutes past the hour, her husband stepped in the door. A tall man with scuffed dress shoes and a puffy winter jacket with a broken zipper, he carried himself with a kind of confidence often seen in men three times his age. Upon seeing Della, he immediately broke into a wide smile and held his arms out for her. The couple hugged as though they hadn’t seen each other in weeks, rather than a matter of hours, and then the man set his wife gently away from him while he stripped out of his wet coat and shoes.
Halfway through dinner, Della’s husband shot her a startled look and set his fork down. “You’re not wearing your gold nugget,” he said.
Della shrugged, playing it cool, but secretly bubbling with joy. “My nugget? I sold it.”
“You what?” Her husband replied with an air of disbelief.
“I sold it. I took it down to the jewelry store and sold it.”
Della watched as her husband glanced around their tiny apartment.
“Don’t look for it, silly,” Della said with tense laugh. “It’s sold, I tell you—sold and gone. It’s Christmas Eve and we’re having a lovely dinner. Don’t fuss over it, please, for it went for you.”
He pushed his plate away and stood, coming around the table, to embrace Della. They stayed that way for several long seconds before he set a small cardboard box next to her plate. Della tugged the envelope from her back pocket and set it in her husband’s hands before eagerly tearing open her gift. Inside the box lay the most beautiful gold chain she had ever seen. It shone, almost, with a light of its own, and the tiny links were each elegantly crafted with a bit of a twist in each one, which made the chain glimmer even more. It was so beautiful that, for a moment, Della considered hanging it, like tinsel, from the tiny Christmas tree. The beauty of the chain would have matched the majesty of her gold nugget.
Della looked up at her husband, who in turn, stared at his season pass with a stunned expression.
“Isn’t it wonderful, darling? You can even go skiing tomorrow! Go pull your skis out of the closet!”
Instead of obeying, Della’s husband settled back down at the table and laid his ski pass carefully to the side of his plate, then turned his eyes to his beloved wife and beamed. “I’ll spend all day with you tomorrow. It’s Christmas. And besides, I’ve sold my skis.”
“Oh, Henry,” Della whispered in sudden understanding.


An homage, of course, to the great O. Henry, who wrote The Gift of the Magi, which this story is based on. May your holidays be joyful and filled with love.

Thank you so much for visiting and I hope you have a marvelous week!