‘Twas a Christmas tree lot in Alabama. It was the kind of operation that does business in the parking area of a major shopping complex.
My wife is a professional horse-trader when it comes to buying trees. She loves to haggle. Dicker. Negotiate. Bargain. Quabble. Lock horns. Butt heads.
Whatever you call it, my wife loves to barter. If for no other reason than because she likes the taste of blood on a cold autumn eve.
It was dark. The lot was about to close. My wife and I pulled up. We were greeted by two Boy Scouts in uniforms. Second class. Army green pants.
The boys were sort of crumpled looking, with shirt tails untucked and tousled hair. They were maybe 15. Pimples. Dental braces. The whole shebang.
“How can we help you?” they said in perfect unison. Their voices hadn’t dropped yet.
“We’re looking for a Christmas tree,” said my wife.
“You’ve come to the right place, ma’am,” squeaked one Scout. “We carry many high quality trees.”
“Very high quality,” added his friend, who was wearing horn-rimmed glasses. In his back pocket was a rolled up anime comic book.
They led us through throngs of balsam firs, all huddled together. Overhead were strings of hanging lights. Mariah Carey was singing about how she doesn’t want a lot for Christmas.
“How about this one?” said one kid.
“This is a high quality tree,” the other Scout pointed out. “You wouldn’t go wrong with a tree like this.”
“Very high quality.”
“Well,” said my wife. “It looks sorta puny, we have nine-foot ceilings. Do you have something taller?”
“How tall?” the boy asked.
“Something that’s at least taller than a traffic cone.”
“Right this way, ma’am. We have just the one.”
The Scouts led us through a selection of select firs. I noticed that their shoelaces were untied, and one of the Scouts had a hole in his trousers so that you could see his Genuine Jockey shorts.
We were shown a tree that was taller than the Rockefeller Center tree. It was tall enough to interfere with air traffic radar.
“How about this one?” said the Scout.
And just in case there was any doubt, his sidekick observed, “This is a supremely high quality tree.”
I was starting to get the feeling that this kid talks a lot about “quality.” As though, perhaps, he wakes up in the mornings and his mother shouts from downstairs, “Did you put on deodorant today, Johnny?” And after Johnny selects his cleanest dirty shirt from a pile and sniffs it to see if he can make it last two more days, he shouts back, “It’s very quality deodorant, Mom!”
“It’s a nice tree,” said my wife. But do you have anything that’s shorter than, say, the Statue of Liberty?”
“But of course, ma’am. Follow me, please.”
We were whisked across the Christmas tree lot to look at more firs. But to be honest, they were reject trees. In fact, to call them “reject” is being generous. The trees had fewer needles than a sewing kit.
“Do you like this one, ma’am?”
“It’s very high quality.” I said it in unison with him this time.
“I don’t mean to be rude,” said my wife. “But I could watch the ‘ABC Sunday Night Movie’ through this tree.”
Then she lowered her voice suggestively, as though mentioning illicit substances and R-rated movies. “Show me the good stuff, guys.”
America’s Hope for the Future exchanged a look.
“You want to see the good stuff?” they said.
We were taken clear to the other side of the lot, behind a chained fence. We were shown trees of all kinds. Big ones. Short ones. Tall, fat, skinny ones. The Scouts called these “special” trees, only reserved for customers who were either of important political status or select members of the Vatican.
My wife looked at a single price tag and almost had a coronary event. These “special” trees were more expensive than a Range Rover Autograph.
Finally, after looking, she settled on The One. The perfect tree. The Holy Grail of balsam firs.
My wife asked if the boy would give it to us for $25 dollars off the asking price.
The kid refused to play ball. He folded his arms and told us it was a strictly take-it-or-leave it scenario. He wore the stern face of a businessman.
Although to be honest, it’s hard to take any businessman seriously when he’s carrying comic books and you can see his Spider-Man jockeys.
We were about to leave when the kid’s mother emerged from the shadows.
“Dangit, Ryan. You’re supposed to dicker with the customers. How many times have I told you?!”
The Scout wasn’t thrilled about having his mom tarnish his hard-butt exterior. So he offered to take $5 bucks off the tree.
“Twenty bucks off,” my wife said.
“Hey,” he said. “You’re going the wrong way.”
This kid was dealing with a professional.
“Okay, jeez,” he relented. “Twenty bucks off.”
They sealed the deal. They shook. My wife claimed her tree. I paid with the AmEx, the boys loaded the fir into the back of my truck.
And before we drove off, the young man heartily reassured me that, “It’s a very high quality tree, sir.”
As we pulled away, I could hear the kid’s mom say, “For heavensake Ryan, I can see your underpants in those things.”
God bless us. Every one.