Sunset. My driveway.
“Okay, everybody get in the truck!” I shouted, using my cheerful American dad voice.
Although, technically, I’m not a dad. In fact, I don’t even have a traditional “family” per se. Not unless you count our two dogs who weigh more than average middle-schoolers. Thelma Lou is 101 pounds of bloodhound. Otis Campbell (alleged Labrador) is 92 pounds.
I whistled and both dogs leapt into my dilapidated truck, butts wagging, ready for action.
My wife, however, did not get in the truck. She glared at me, clearing her throat loudly, tapping her foot, until I handed her my keys to let her drive.
In nearly 20 years of marriage she has never sat in a passenger seat. She gets motion-sick when I drive and tends to puke on my shoes.
I knew all this going into the marriage. Her matrimonial conditions were simple: she always drives; I never play the accordion indoors.
Don’t get me wrong, our marriage is fair. We’ve made many compromises to keep things that way. For instance, on our wedding night I agreed to always let her operate my truck if she promised to fill our closet with 52,339 pairs of shoes she will never wear. So far so good.
But our life together has all been worth it, believe me. The woman who drives my truck could have chosen a much classier guy for herself. She could have found someone with a great job, who came from good breeding, who owned actual formalwear.
Instead, she married a dropout who went to community college for 11 years and graduated with straight Cs in his early 30s. A guy whose personal truck contains hounds that cost more than his truck did.
But we’re a happy clan, that’s what I’m getting at. And tonight we had an outing. Which is rare for us during the pandemic era. I haven’t done many social things this last year. Not unless you count my interaction with the supermarket cashier who takes my temperature with her little Captain Kirk laser gun.
Once we were in the truck, we drove across town to a nondescript neighborhood. The sun was getting closer to the horizon. My dogs’ snouts were pressed against the windows. I checked my watch.
“Five minutes until sunset,” I announced to the fam.
The air was alive with anticipation. Also, the air was alive with something else because my dogs suffer from frequent gastrointestinal distress.
We parked near the curb and waited. And waited. We listened to Christmas songs on the radio and sipped our Baptist-style eggnog from insulated cups, which is very different from, say, our Episcopalian eggnog.
It was wonderful, simply being together. This little family of mine. These creatures have been the only things getting me through this worldwide pandemic.
It’s funny, I used to hear old timers talk about the Great Depression, and how families leaned on each other. Elderly people were always telling of bleak days when all they had was each other. I’m starting to get it now.
“Look!” said my wife.
The first house’s lights clicked on in the neighborhood. Then the next house. And the next. One by one they illuminated the night with electric joy.
We applauded. This small, wonderful, half canine family. And I caught myself looking at these cheerful faces in my dark truck. Nobody saw the fat tears in my eyes, and nobody saw me trying to swallow the putty in my throat.
We drove past houses that were wild with Christmas decor. We oohed and aahed at the inflatable snow globes, animatronics, fiberglass elves, choreographed strobe lights, glowing flamingos, and Alvin and the Chipmunks singing over a PA system. It was a great evening.
On our way home we stopped by a supermarket Christmas tree lot. My wife and I strolled through the open-air aisles of balsam firs while our dogs waited in the truck.
The irony here is that we already have a Christmas tree, we don’t need another. So I’m not sure what we were doing there.
An employee named Bill kept following us. He wore a surgical mask and Santa hat and was constantly asking if we needed help. Bill was your classic sales professional. He never let a customer go cold. He kept demonstrating various trees by banging them against the pavement and saying, “Check out this baby, wouldya? No shedding.”
I thanked him and told him we were just looking.
Bill’s face went flat. “Just looking?” he said, using the same tone he might’ve used to spit on a grave.
That’s when my wife saw something in the corner. It was the smallest, most pathetic tree ever. It was barren, scrawny, half dead, and exactly the kind of thing that you’d either throw away, or reserve for a CBS Charlie Brown TV special.
In fact, I think Bill actually was throwing this particular tree away because it was lying among a pile of crumpled Whataburger takeout bags and snuff tins.
“How much for this one?” my wife asked Bill.
“That one?” he said.
“Well now, that depends. It’s a quality tree.”
“Is that why it’s by the dumpster?”
“I want it.”
“Make me an offer.”
They haggled like commodities traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. We took it home.
That night my wife placed the pitiful tree onto our porch. She decorated it with homemade ornaments, lights, and dollar-store garland. She placed decorative presents beneath its slender, sad boughs. She put a plastic star on its dismal top.
Soon, she had transformed a tired and ragged fir into something proud, happy, and full of life. The thing positively glowed in the darkness like a beacon. And when I saw it, all lit up with love, it hit me:
About 20 years ago, she did the same thing to me.