Christmas afternoon. I drove my truck down a familiar gravel road. It’s a road I can see in my sleep. I hadn’t made that drive in many years.
I pulled over on a small bridge, flipped on my hazards. I crawled underneath the bridge. It was muddy. Creek water flooded my boots. I dug with a hand shovel.
This was ridiculous.
My childhood Christmases were simple. Each member of my family received three gifts—which was a rule of Daddy’s. Growing up poor changes a man.
One gift was practical. Blue jeans, slacks, or, God forbid, underpants. The other two were fun.
One year I got an LP record,—“Stardust,” by Willie Nelson—a cap gun, and khakis.
Mama opened her gift. It was a booklet I’d made from colored paper, entitled: “Mama’s Coupons.” Inside were various pencil-written discounts. “One free kitchen sweeping,” or, “Seventy-percent off hugs,” and my personal favorite, “Free ice cream supper.”
She never cashed in on the last one.
Daddy’s gift was was a bathrobe. Mama made it. It was a sweet gesture. Except, of course, my father didn’t wear robes. He crawled out of bed fully dressed with boots on.
He slid it over his clothes, anyway.
Our gift-opening took ten minutes, tops. Then, I ate so much at lunch my feet swelled and my ears rang.
After lunch, Daddy asked if I wanted to go for a walk. I’d expected him to say that. Daddy couldn’t sit still for more than a few blinks, not even on holidays.
So we walked. We followed the creek. The small water cut through through the woods. We marched through the undergrowth until we came to a concrete bridge.
We sat on the railing, legs dangling. I reached into my coat and handed him a wrapped box the size of a butter stick. The gift-tag, covered in my sloppy handwriting.
“To: Daddy,” it read.
He made a face. “What’s this? Why’d you get me something?”
Because I’m a sentimental little cuss, that’s why.
He tore the paper. It was a pocketknife. Bone handle. I bought it for ten bucks at the hardware store.
He inspected it. His eyes glazed. Then, he reached in his pocket and handed me his own knife. A Case knife. Old. Yellow handle. Double blade.
“Trade ya,” he said.
The week he died, the gentleman at the crematorium handed me a paper sack. “Steel won’t melt,” he informed me. Inside the sack was a pocketknife and a wallet.
I buried two knives beneath the bridge that night.
And one fateful Christmas afternoon, I dug through fifteen years of creek mud and muck to get them back.
I only found one.
But it was the right one.