Trees everywhere. Big balsam firs. The old man who runs the Christmas tree lot is almost seventy-three. He keeps a small travel trailer, sixteen feet, with a television, a bed, and a microwave. When things are slow, he’s inside, eating his TV dinner.
He has a dog. The dog’s name is Brownie. He doesn’t even remember how he named this dog because Brownie is pure white.
“He pees all the time,” says the old man, poking a fork at his dinner. “Brownie loves to pee on people’s tires, I don’t know why.”
The old man is a friendly salesman. When customers look at his trees, he accompanies them and entertains. He has a little routine, complete with jokes, and hard candy for the kids. Sometimes horehounds, which is a candy I haven’t had in ages. My grandfather used to eat horehounds.
“I used to give out caramel chews,” the old man says, “But they’re expensive.”
Brownie runs all over, wandering between trees. He checks on people, and gets free rubdowns from anyone who will touch him.
“Yeah, he’s a little Cassanova,” says the man. “Never met a stranger, and never met a car tire he don’t wanna tee-tee on.”
The old man’s son helps manage the lot. But he and his son aren’t “super close,” as the man puts it. The old man admits that he walked out on his son and his family when his son was a little boy. Years later, they reunited, but it’s been slow going.
“When you screw up like I did,” says the man, “there’s no coming back from it. All you can do is try to be in your kid’s life, be a friend.”
There are customers at the tree lot tonight. A young family. The old man leaves his TV dinner to help them. They have two kids; a boy and a girl. The man does his usual routine, a joke or two, some candy. Mom and Dad settle on a tree, and the old man asks the kids for approval. They give the thumbs up.
He ties up the tree. He and his son strap the thing to the top of the family minivan. But the old man has a few more tricks up his sleeve.
Before they leave, he refunds the money back to Dad. Secretly. “Merry Christmas,” he whispers to the young man behind the wheel.
Dad is dumbfounded. He asks why the old man is doing this. Later, I ask the old man the same thing.
“Aw, I just had a feeling,” the old man tells me. “Sometimes I get these feelings.”
He gets a lot of feelings. He gives a lot of trees away. Sometimes to people who are well-off, sometimes to people who aren’t. Sometimes he even delivers them.
“One time,” he tells me, “When I was younger, this couple came around wanting a tree, they had a bunch of kids, I could tell they didn’t have a pot to piss in…” He stops. “I’m sorry, can I say that word in your article?”
One night, he delivered a tree to this family, free of charge. He also brought a truck full of toys and gifts for the kids.
“I pretty much just went to Kmart and bought everything, even stuff for the parents. I didn’t have the money to do it, I was broke, man, but I just couldn’t stand thinking those people couldn’t even afford a tree, and the kids wouldn’t get nothing.”
He says he felt bad afterward, not warm and fuzzy like he’d expected. He felt like he’d intruded, like he’d insulted their pride. The last thing he wanted to do was to embarrass hardworking parents on tough times.
“But I musta done the right thing,” he says.
Because the next day he had more business than he could stand. He had so many customers buy trees that he sold out. He made more money in a few hours than he expected to make all year.
“I couldn’t keep none of the cash,” he said. “It just felt wrong, like, you know, like it wasn’t meant to be spent on me.”
So he and gave all the profits to a local church, which he found in the phonebook. He gave anonymously because he likes it that way. Then he ordered more trees.
A few days later, he sold out again. This time, he made even more money than the last time.
“I was starting to get creeped out,” he said.
He got rid of the profits again. This time, he bought toys and he donated them to several needy families he’d heard about from a local organization.
“My son and I dropped the gifts off in the middle of the night. Left everything on needy people’s porches. We were crying all night long man. Intense, you know?”
We are interrupted again.
Another family is looking at trees. The children are inspecting the branches. He approaches them. He goes through his song and dance again. Dad is laughing. Mom is smiling. The children are happy.
And when he gives the kids candy, everyone’s faces light up like, well… Christmas trees.
They buy a tree. The old man straps the fir to the family Chevy. Before they leave, the old man leans toward the father in the driver’s seat. He gives the man his money back.
Dad looks like he’s shocked. He says, “What’s this for?”
“I do this sometimes,” the old man says. “It’s just my way of saying merry Christmas. Now get outta here.”
And in the true undying spirit of Christmas, before the family drives away into the night, call it a gesture of goodwill toward men, Brownie pees on the Chevy’s back tire.