The Christmas Box
Erich is dreaming about snow. Great long shrouds falling and falling in snow’s deceptively gentle way, Lucile clapping her gloved hands while flakes twirl around her bundled head until they appear to fall up. She’s asked him to come sledding.
Although in reality Erich is an old man, in the dream he’s a boy again, ten years old, who hates snow for the extra ranch work it creates. Hates it until the moment Lucile removes her gloves and stretches out her hands, and he sees the flakes dancing on her bare palms, looks at snow anew, and finds it magic. Just like that, he’s fallen in love with Lucile.
His grandson Kenny is spending the week before Christmas, and Erich has taken him into the attic looking for Christmas decorations, lugging the dusty footlocker back down to the front room together. Something for the boy to do. Kenny is four and still pleased by things such as Grandpa’s old treasures. Like some miniature explorer from a far-off land, he attacks them with heart. So while Kenny hunts through the locker Erich has fallen briefly asleep on the couch and had the dream. A good dream, but with an undercurrent of worry. He wakes to Kenny shaking his shoulder, his tender face up close.
“Poppy, Poppy, what’s this?”
His grandson is holding the Christmas box.
Erich understands the dream’s undercurrent of worry. From that first snowy day, he’d tried everything to get Lucile to love him back. He drew her elaborate pictures and wrote her hokey poems about her honey-colored eyes, when before he’d scoffed at the boys who did such things. Soon he was carrying her books and giving her his hot chocolate at lunch, letting her win his best marbles in the schoolyard. And every winter afternoon, he took her sledding.
By the time the snow melted in spring, he was showing her where to find the best arrowheads and snakeskins in the canyon, once he learned she liked such things. And he even let her ride Crooked, his horse that no one else was allowed to ride and everyone envied for its high arched neck and four white ankles.
That first warm day Lucile sat atop Crooked, she’d hiked her school dress up and knotted it between her knees with the back hem, looking everywhere except down at Erich, the place he wanted her most to look. They’d taken the long way home, through the high orchard, and she begged him to lead the horse close under an apple tree so she might try to grab a tall limb and hang on, then hoist herself up like a circus performer. She was not an ordinary girl.
“Closer, Erich, closer!” she urged, flinging back one golden braid. “I can almost reach it.”
“I don’t know, Lucile, you might fall.”
“Then let go the reins and I’ll do it by myself!” she insisted. But Erich would not let go. He was annoyed with Lucile because he wanted to protect her from harm and she was too bossy and headstrong to let him. Still, it was his horse, and she would do as he said.
“Then I won’t eat with you tomorrow!” she warned. “I’ll eat with Clarence.”
Erich went weak in the knees. Clarence was his biggest competition for Lucile’s affections, and the mere mention of the name made him sweat. Cautiously he maneuvered Crooked under the shade of the apple tree and Lucile shrieked with delight and grabbed for a limb, popping off his horse’s back and dangling above the earth like ripe fruit. Crooked bolted and it was all Erich could do to halt him several yards from the tree. He tied his horse and looked back.
“Don’t let go!” he yelled. Lucile was trying to pull her legs up into the tree, but each time she swung upwards her slick-soled school shoes slid off the bark and she swung back.
She spat out a nasty word she’d picked up from her uncle who’d lived in Panama for ten years, and the sound shivered up into the tree where the leaves quivered.
“You’re going to kill yourself,” Erich warned.
“It’s these worthless shoes,” she fussed, trying madly to scrape them off using first one foot and then the other. But the shoes wouldn’t budge. “I hate them!”
He stared at the shoes and the dainty stockings her mother made her wear, both of which Lucille could not seem to keep clean, but which Erich admired her all the more for.
“I’m going to catch you!” he decided, running back toward the tree.
“Don’t you dare!” Lucile shouted. “I can do this myself!”
“No you can’t. If you drop you’ll break your ankle. It’s too far.”
“No I won’t.”
“Yes, you will.” He inched closer, despite her scowl.
Suddenly her swinging halted and her face peered down at him from between her two racked arms, pale and caught.
“Don’t let go!” he yelled.
“Oops!” she breathed. Erich ran. Lucile sailed down. An image he later replayed over and over in his mind; her falling, his running, her falling, until they both collided.
“Erich!” Lucile cried from where she’d landed on top of him. “Did I hurt you?”
Erich lay perfectly still. He was on his stomach, face in the grass. She’d kicked him hard in the cheek coming down, and his jaw stung. A rock poked painfully into his thigh. But the feel of Lucile squirming on top of him was delightful and he didn’t want it to end. He smelled her mother’s soap and starch, because her petticoat was in his face.
Her sudden laughter filled his ear.
“Oh, I’ve killed you, you poor thing!” She was shaking his shoulders now, trying to roll him over. He could feel her hand on his neck and her knees in the backs of his knees, her chest moving into his back as if they breathed not two breaths, but a single one, together. Nothing had ever felt so soothing in his whole life.
Then she started to tickle him.
Erich sprang to life, rolling sideways and taking her with him, over and over, hearing her shriek and giggle until he came to a stop, pinning her to the new grass, where he wrestled with her as if she were a boy and not a girl who, as his mother was always warning him, was too “delicate.”
His mother did not understand about Lucile.
She was laughing hard now, her cheeks red as if someone had slapped them, grass stuck every which way in her hair, and he saw the failure in his poetry, that it wasn’t the color of her eyes, but the reckless look in them, that was so marvelous.
Finally she stopped laughing. “Let me up,” she ordered, and pushed him.
Instead Erich bent down and kissed her on the lips.
They both gasped.
“Now you’d better let me go!” Lucile ordered.
Erich was ready for her. “Not until you say you’ll marry me when we grow up.”
Kenny has got to know what’s in the Christmas box, which rattles and shushes mysteriously when he lifts it and totters toward Erich. Seeing his grandson holding the big box gives Erich an odd feeling, because the material hasn’t aged the way it ought to, is still deep red and pretty, as if no time had passed at all between the day he bought it, home on leave from the Army and on his way to see Lucile, until today. And how could one old box last a lifetime?
The box is oval and big as the biggest hatbox you ever saw. In fact, once Erich bought the box and brought it home and laid it on his bed expectantly, he realized that’s all it was, an empty lady’s hatbox that smelled vaguely of potpourri. He’d been duped. How was that going to make Lucile say yes at last, when nothing he’d tried for the past eight years could budge her?
“Real velvet,” the store clerk had said, rubbing his hand lightly over the cloth-fitted lid and ending at the bright satin bow. “Velvet is all the rage.” He set the box on the countertop and eyed Erich slyly. Erich wished he hadn’t been so foolish as to confide in this man about his boyhood love for Lucile. He’d meant to find her a special piece of jewelry, a locket or a ring, but the store’s atmosphere had coerced him. An antique shop, its long, ornate windows colored the insides to a misty hue. And now a single streak of winter sun lingered on the velvet box perched on the glass countertop, as if it were the only thing worthy in the room.
“But it’s just a box.” Erich squared his uniformed shoulders. He was raised a country boy, and now he was a soldier. He was not going to be taken in by mere romantic notions.
“Ah, but it’s not just any box.” The clerk wagged a pudgy finger at Erich. “And it’s been waiting for the right person.” Bald and squat, the clerk had wisps of white hair poking out over his ears and shrewd, piercing eyes. Just the sort of man you’d expect to own a fusty store like this one and talk in riddles. “It’s a gift box,” he said.
“Without a gift.” Erich felt exasperated. “What I need is something to put in it.”
“I thought you said you loved this girl.” The clerk’s eyes looked feral for a moment, challenging. Erich squirmed.
“And you don’t know what to put in the box?” He scoffed, dismissive, and picked the box up from the counter as if to snatch it away.
“Hold on!” A regretful quiver had run through Erich’s gut. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t take it.”
“I don’t know,” the clerk said. “The true nature of a gift must be understood.” He opened the velvet lid to reveal a shiny satin lining so bright Erich knew the shaft of window sun must be playing tricks on him.
Now he simply had to have that box.
“I do understand,” he promised. “I do.” The clerk sighed and closed the lid, and Erich gave him every bit of spending money he had.
Of course he hadn’t really understood. Erich, stiff with age, sits up slowly on the couch to watch his grandson lift the lid on the velvet box and peer inside. The smell of ancient potpourri wafts out. Sensing treasure, Kenny looks over at Erich. Erich nods. Then the boy kneels down, disappearing up to his shoulders as he reaches inside to find what’s hidden there.
Once he got it to his mother’s, Erich did not know what had possessed him to buy that box, as it sat reproaching him from his old bed. It struck him too late that Lucile was not even the sort to wear hats, despite the current fashion, and worse, he remembered back to a particular day the summer before, when a group of them had taken one last picnic to the lake.
Lucile, Clarence, Erich and some other friends were there, but Erich hardly saw the others, his heart burned so at the sight of Lucile, haughty in the yellow hat and slim dress her mother insisted on, when Lucile herself had wanted to wear pants so she could climb the rocks with the boys.
She climbed the rocks anyway, heedless of the rest of the girls, who stayed on blankets gossiping together while Lucile dared Clarence to the top of the point. They had a head start and Erich didn’t catch up with them until Lucile and Clarence had stopped to sit on the highest clump of boulders. Erich came upon them from behind in time to see Lucile throw off her hat, revealing the fact she’d recently cut her long gold hair. He didn’t know which was worse, missing her hair or seeing her sitting so close to broad-shouldered Clarence like that.
Erich coughed loudly. A breeze scuttled Lucile’s hat to him and it stuck against his legs and he took it up and held it out to her when she turned.
“I was hoping to let the wind take it,” she said airily about the hat. Erich had to admit that even wearing a bob, Lucile still looked beautiful.
Having hit pay dirt, Kenny wants to know what each thing is, and why it’s in the box. Erich clears his throat. He remembers having this very conversation with Lucile. Because when he’d given her the red velvet box that Christmas he was home on leave, she’d looked absolutely confused.
“Erich, what’s this?” she’d said, shaking the box until it shushed. They were sitting side by side on his mother’s davenport, the tree smelling freshly cut in the corner. Erich had gone into the woods himself to get that tree, hiking through the snow to select carefully, as his father had taught him. Not considering the most well-formed pines, for those would grow up strong and mighty with enough space around them, good limbs and roots both. No, he always chose one that grew too close to another and therefore had to come out, to give the second tree a better chance.
Lucile had teased about the tree, how lopsided it leaned and wouldn’t his mother’s ornaments sag the limbs to the floor? And he stiffened at her teasing, feeling it was a bad omen. Sure, she’d hugged him properly enough when she saw him, making his heart speed up. But most women did that with a man in uniform and the war on, and Erich cautioned himself not to read anything into it. Besides, Clarence was now in uniform, too, his shoulders practically busting the seams.
“Don’t look so glum,” Lucile said, seeing his face. “It’s a precious tree, really, because you chose it with thought. And I love the way your mother does the candles. Are you going to let me open this now?” Sometimes finding this softness in Lucile could surprise him.
He nodded uncertainly and watched the box on her lap. He felt a little better when she paused, and ran a hand across the velvet and touched the satin bow. Just then a burst of sun struck the snow outside and sent white light through his mother’s windows. A streak fell gratifyingly across the box. She lifted it and shook it harder yet.
“Erich, what is in here?”
He swallowed against the collar at this throat. The sun burst had given him courage. “Everything.”
“Everything?” She looked at him for such a long time he wanted to dash the box aside and kiss her like he had under the apple tree, when he was ten. But then he remembered that day had ended badly.
Lucile dropped her eyes to the box and lifted the lid. The scent of potpourri rose up and she peered inside at the gleaming satin. Finally she chose something. A shell.
“We found that when we drove to the ocean,” Erich said hastily, “remember?”
“Of course I remember. I told you I’d never been to the ocean before, so you took me. We made that driftwood shack and built a fire and stayed up all night. It was such fun!”
“Nearly perfect,” he nodded.
“Nearly?” She studied him.
“Perfect until you told me I was like a brother to you.”
“I said that?” Lucile reddened and rubbed a finger across the shell, a sand dollar. “I didn’t know you’d kept this,” she said. The sand dollar’s graceful flower was intact, a mysterious etching. They’d marveled at that etching, how it was repeated dozens of times in dozens of other shells they found, as if the same artist dwelt under the sea delicately shaping and tossing his prints to shore.
“What’s this?” Lucile replaced the shell and lifted a coin and shook her head. “A penny?”
“From the carnival.”
“The carnival? Wait, let me guess. The night you spent every dime you had trying to win me that silly stuffed bear because Clarence had gotten me one the night before.”
“And when we went to eat I only had this one penny left in my pocket.” Erich smiled ruefully.
“So I had to buy our dinner!” Lucile laughed. Then she sighed. “I didn’t care about that old bear anyway,” she said.
Erich sat beside her, deflated. “Or a red velvet box,” he added. “I know you’re not that kind of girl.” Before she could protest, Erich took her hand. “I don’t know what made me buy this thing,” he started. “It’s just that the man in the store, well—”
“Well, what?” She was looking at him like she had that first day, amused and taunting, knowing that all she had to do was bare her hand and he’d come out to play.
“He said if I really knew you, then I would know the right gift to put in this box. The one that would—convince you.” He stopped, hurried on. “Anyway, I thought and thought. He’d given me a puzzle, you know? And at first I had no clue what to do.
“Not flowers, too easy. Not a letter, how could I say it all? Not something to wear, because it would only wear out.” He took a long breath. “And then it came to me. I could put everything in, all my love, gathered up.” He swallowed hard. “Since I met you.”
Lucile eyed him as if he were snow and she’d never seen snow. “Convince me?” she said.
For closer inspection, Kenny has laid everything out neatly on the floor, just as Lucile had done, so that once again Erich is looking at each moment they spent together. Each moment Erich had treasured and every memento he’d kept.
A perfect snake skin. The ribbon from her yellow hat. Stones from the lake. A lock of Crooked’s mane. One of her gloves. His first color photo framing that reckless look under the golden hair. The only thing he couldn’t put in the box was snow, and he’d promised to take her sledding every Christmas for the rest of her life, if only she’d say yes.
Now, considering these things, Erich sighs. How rare they were at the time, how precious.
But Kenny is no longer entranced. From the mementos he’s moved on to the box itself. Discovering it’s just big enough for him to get inside, he sails first one foot, then the other, over the side. Erich watches as his grandson squats down, satisfied.
“Don’t move,” says Erich, inspired. “Grandma will be home any minute, and we’ll surprise her with her present. You!”
“Okay!” Kenny squirms, eager to be in on this secret. Erich is eager too. He hasn’t told her about Kenny’s coming. He’s purposefully kept it from her so he could arrange just such a moment as this. He’s been worried it wouldn’t work out as he planned, worried because to get her away from the house he had to let Lucile go shopping, driving in Christmas traffic alone, at her age. Not that she wouldn’t have, anyway. Erich shakes his head, amazed at how he still misses her, after all this time, when she’s gone for even a few hours.
Kenny squirrels down in the box. He’s giggling and rubbing the red velvet, causing the potpourri smell to rise up, when they hear the car.
“Shhh!” Erich puts a finger to his lips and Kenny laughs aloud and clamps one chubby hand to his mouth, his eyes above his fingers sneaky with delight. Erich notices how, even in dusk’s bare light, the satin lining around Kenny is still bright after all these years.
And why not, he thinks. Once he understood the true nature of his gift, he was always able to make that red satin glow.