The No Ho-Ho Party

The Christmas party had been humming along for about an hour when the little balding guy brought out the bottle. It was a small bottle made into a squat, pleasing shape. But the remarkable thing was its leather covering. The leather was stitched into quilt-like sections and worn to a soft patina. In its reddish brown belly, the room’s light reflected a polished glow.

“Reverse polarity,” the small man, who’d introduced himself as Christopher, told a young woman standing nearby.

“What?” The woman, Gillian, was hardly paying attention. She was eyeing a gorgeous female face across the room and reflecting on the term “devastatingly beautiful.” She decided it didn’t refer to the person who had the looks, but to the rest of humanity, forever devastated by the fact that their looks were hopeless by comparison.

Gillian pushed her thick glasses up her nose. If she were devastatingly beautiful, she wouldn’t have come to the party alone and be stuck talking to a guy twice her age. However, she was not rude by nature, so she asked politely, “Reverse what?” while she moved from considering the gorgeous woman to considering how Christopher’s balding brown hair formed a friar’s ring about his skull.

“Polarity.” Christopher had to shout above the wine-laced laughter around them. He smiled gustily as Gillian bent her head to hear him above the din.

“The sun’s—magnetic poles—reverse polarity. Every seven years!” At least that’s what Gillian thought she heard him say.

She shrugged. If he ended up boring her to death, she was out of there. Contacts, she thought. I should look into contacts. But then contacts could only do so much. And what about her test results from the doctor tomorrow? If they came back positive she wouldn’t be a great candidate for a date, anyway.

“I didn’t even know the sun had magnetic poles,” she called back.

“Totally flip inside out!” Christopher shouted. “Disappear and reappear in their opposite’s position! Means the polar cap appears at the equator, and visa versa.”

“Are you one of those New Agers?” She was drinking a good wine she found open on the hostess’s kitchen counter, a godsend, since most people brought the cheap stuff to a party. She took another gulp and set her glass down. The party was awfully crowded.

“You’re not the spiritual type?” Christopher hissed in her ear.

“Definitely not.” Gillian was emphatic. She didn’t want to give him a chance to start spouting religion. She looked around as if for someone she knew, but really she hardly knew a soul.

“Want to sit?” Christopher was holding the leather bottle by the neck. Gillian watched him weave through a knot of people to a vacant couch. At least, she thought, it was quieter on the couch, and she would be seen talking to somebody. Reluctantly, she followed.

From here they had a waist-level view of several skirts and suits. Behind the couch, a drape-less picture window revealed a neighbor’s house smarting with Christmas lights. Lacy white lights strung in a netted frenzy. A huge blow-up snowman and his snowman children were planted in the yard. Their cheer was somehow mournful. Gillian looked away.

“What are you drinking in there?” She’d left her glass behind and was feeling thirsty. She pointed to the leather bottle.

“It’s empty.” Christopher shook the bottle. “But when it was full, it contained a tonic for the spirit.” His voice grew wistful.

Gillian was drawn by the look of the bottle. “Where’d you get it?”

“Ever hear of a No Ho-Ho party?” He placed the bottle on his lap and with thick, workman’s fingers traced the leather stitching.

“I guess not.” She leaned back into the couch. Maybe it was the effect of that good wine, but the leather certainly had a strange glow.

“Well, that’s where the bottle found me,” Christopher said, “at a No Ho-Ho party.”

Gillian frowned. A woman to their left was screeching with laughter loud enough to hurt her ears.

“Ava’s term for it,” Christopher was saying. “No Ho-Ho. She’d bullied me into coming, and I only said yes because she’d sent out invitations saying she detested Christmas. That meant no gifts, no gaudy sentiments, no decorations. Bah Humbug.”

Gillian sighed. “You don’t like Christmas, either?”

“Didn’t.” Christopher’s face grew dark. “Didn’t like anything, really. But Christmas? Hated it most of all.”

She noticed that when he turned to face her Christopher’s eyes were a multicolored palette, gray-blue shot with green. Her own eyes were not that visible behind glasses. A sharp pang passed through her chest as she worried again about her test results.

“Well, it brings up a lot of emotional stuff for people,” she said lamely. “Christmas.”

Christopher seemed not to hear her. “My wife. My son. My daughter. All of them gone. All of them!” His voice rose. Gillian dropped her eyes from his. She looked at the bottle again.

“Whoever made this was very skilled,” she said.

“I didn’t know what I was even doing at that party,” Christopher went on. “I’d barely been out of my house in seven years.”

Gillian felt a strange sense of shame wash over her, as if she should be listening more carefully, or not at all. She thought of getting up from the couch, but she kept staring at the leather bottle. That really was a great wine she’d had. She missed it terribly. “Seven years?” she heard herself say.

Christopher nodded. “Seven years was nothing to me. I didn’t think it would ever go away. How I felt.” The little man was rubbing the bottle with both hands now, as if conjuring the memory. “Ava was my neighbor. Did I tell you that? She’s the one who promised no Christmas sentiments at her party. She knew my story, you see. She knew I couldn’t take it. But he didn’t. Emil.”

Christopher paused, his hands cupped around the leather bottle. A sudden burst of “Jingle Bell Rock” from the CD player rang above the room’s happy hum. Christopher looked at Gillian and blinked. “I should let you go back to the party. I’m monopolizing you.”

Although Gillian knew this was her chance to flee, she found herself saying, “No, really, it’s all right. Tell me about that party. Tell me how you got the bottle.”

Christopher nodded. There was a cork fitted into the bottle top, and he pulled it free, put the bottle to his nose, and sniffed. Gillian caught a faint whiff of something pleasant. “Jingle Bell Rock” was replaced by the singing Chipmunks.

“Emil looked like he had Gypsy blood,” Christopher said. “Dark skin. Tall. Not from around here. But he wore a corduroy jacket and jeans, like most of the guys that night. Ava had invited a lot of artists and professors.

“Not that I’d met anybody. I’d been hanging back, in the kitchen. Near the back door where I could escape fast. In fact, I had my hand on the knob when Emil brought this out.” Christopher peered into the uncorked bottle fondly.

“I don’t know what it was about this bottle. I got this weird sense of attraction. And repulsion. If it hadn’t been covered in leather, I would’ve marched over, dashed it to the ground, and been glad to destroy it. But I just stayed in the shadows and listened.”

Christopher shook his head. “That’s when Emil made his announcement. Stopped most of the party chatter by calling out, ‘This bottle contains a precious tonic. It’s a gift that will change the life of someone in this room!’

“Ava heard and pushed through her guests to Emil. She went after him fast, no doubt for my sake. ‘What are you up to? This is my No Ho-Ho party. No gifts,’ she scolded.

“The rest of the party tuned in at that. Ava squaring off against Emil.

"'I have to do it, Ava.’ Emil looked like sorrow itself. ‘This bottle came to me last year. I was experiencing desperate times. It saved me. Now it’s my turn to pass it on. That’s the rule.’

“That started a ruckus. Before this, nobody had minded the unChristmas theme. But that gathering turned into a room full of kids when a gift came out. Especially this gift.

"'It’s beautiful. What sort of tonic? I’ll take it!’ people called one after another.

"'Not so fast,’ Emil warned. He shook his finger, tipped the bottle upside down, and waved it quickly around. ‘As you can see, there’s no writing here.’ He tapped the leather bottom, fanned it under several noses, then held it out to Ava, who was nearest, for real confirmation. ‘But by the end of the evening, writing will appear. It will say the name of the person in this room the bottle has selected. And that’s who I’ll pass it on to.’

“The crowd was all ears now, believe me. You should’ve heard them. Their scoffing cries. Ava grew apoplectic, trying to hush Emil. She had a go at embarrassing him by asking what exactly it was he was drinking in there. It didn’t work. The party was hooked.

“How will he pull this off? He must be crazy! This ought to be good! The room buzzed. A circle formed. At its center, Emil held the bottle.

“Well, you could feel their expectancy like a fast pulse,” Christopher breathed. “Ava was going nuts. She wanted to catch my eye, but I ignored her, glared straight at Emil. The entire scene was making me furious, and yet I couldn’t leave.

"'I hope it works. I want to believe in miracles,’ I heard one woman say. ‘Doesn’t everybody?’

"'I do! I do!’ a few random voices answered.

“Ha. I could tell them a thing or two about miracles!

"'Come on now.’ Ava tried one last time to hold back the flood, even as somebody was saying, ‘Anybody got a miracle?’

"'None of that Christmas miracle talk!’ Ava begged, but that party just swept past her. And once one of them started in, off they all went.

“One lady’s mother had died on Christmas Eve, and her ghost got up off the bed and danced around the hospital room. One man’s cousin crashed his car on Christmas day, got knocked unconscious, and his father woke him up. His dead father, mind you. Took his hand and urged him out. Soon as he stumbled to the side of the road, the car exploded.

“That one really made me fume.

“There were barren ladies who conceived on Christmas, there were people who got feuding families to talk again. You could have cut their nostalgia with a knife.

“I wanted to puke. I couldn’t stand it another minute. I shoved right out into that circle of cheery faces and yelled ‘Bullshit!’

“That got their attention. I probably should’ve stopped there, but I couldn’t help myself. I could even see how I looked to them, a grim, bitter little man. Seven years were bottled up inside, seven years came screaming out. I watched them recoil. Did I care? I just wanted to shove that phony goodwill right back in their faces.

"'You believe in miracles? You people are fooling yourselves!’ I cried.

“Stone silence. Into the breach someone ventured, ‘What’s eating you man, lighten up, it’s Christmas.’

"'I’ll tell you what’s eating me!’ I went for the jugular. ‘I’ll tell you why I don’t believe in miracles. Because for my family, there weren’t any.’

"'Christopher, no—!’ Ava tried to stop me, she knew what was coming. But no one could have. I was exploding, coming apart at the seams. I couldn’t hold it in any longer, so I told them the horrible truth.”

Suddenly Christopher stopped and bowed his head. Gillian’s heart jerked. She wanted him to go on. She wanted him to shut up. She waited. On the CD player, the Chipmunks tittered to a halt.

“They were murdered,” Christopher said after a freighted pause. “For fifty dollars in cash. My wife … my son … my little girl.”

Gillian couldn’t breathe. She looked out through the naked picture window again, to where the giant snowman family was collecting a thin layer of frost. Glittery frost that etched their white plastic bellies and black plastic hats, making them surreal.

“Oh, my god,” she said.

“A real party damper, huh?” Christopher shook himself.

“What happened then?” Gillian shifted uncomfortably. Now she really needed more of that good wine. What had she done with her glass?

Christopher cleared his throat. “I was heading for the door when Emil turned the leather bottle over and read the letters appearing there. ‘C-h-r-i-s,’ he spelled out. ‘Isn’t your name Christopher? I do believe it’s appeared on the bottom of this bottle!'”

“He didn’t!” Gillian was horrified.

Christopher shrugged. “He did. And I assure you everyone at that party had your reaction. They thought Emil had gone too far. Pushed me too far with his charade.”

“What did you do?”

“I called his bluff. Marched over and grabbed the bottle. Turned it over. And—”

“And?” Gillian was breathless again.

Christopher shook his head. “My name was written there.”

Gillian sat upright on the couch. “No, it wasn’t!” she said. She had an urge to laugh.

“I thought it was a trick, too. I tried giving the thing back. But Emil wouldn’t take it. And you know, the longer I held onto it, the less I wanted to let it go.” Christopher’s eyes lingered lovingly on the bottle.

Gillian studied it again too, as if for the first time. Its glow had deepened to a sherry red. “So you think it was a miracle?” she said slowly.

“I think something that night turned my life around,” Christopher said. “Because what happened next was incredible. It sounds so simple, but it meant everything to me. You see, I thought my story had ruined the party. That’s what I meant to do, after all. Grief can leave you that way. You stop believing in humanity and start hating it.

“So imagine my surprise when nobody left.” Christopher smiled. “I was even more surprised when the whole group of them crowded around. They wanted to comfort me, to give me their best.” Even telling it, his face revealed a bewildered need. “I hadn’t allowed a human touch in seven years, and here I was letting people pat me on the back!”

He grew thoughtful. “I guess it was time. Getting the bottle showed me that. After that night, I started living again. I traveled around. I got a new job. I felt alive once more.”

“Wow,” Gillian said, overcome. “I feel like crying.” She realized that for a few minutes, anyway, she’d forgotten to worry about tomorrow’s test results and her lack of a date tonight. The party music had grown less cheesy—a beautiful, florid guitar playing “White Christmas.”

“The only thing is,” Christopher said quietly, “that was seven years ago.” With a thunk he re-corked the bottle.

“Seven years ago?” Gillian looked at Christopher. “I thought—”

“That I was supposed to pass it on, the next year, at a party. Yes.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“I couldn’t. I was so happy, things were going so well. I was making new friends. Feeling productive. Smiling again. Believe me, I tried to give it away. I tried to bring it to a party the very next year. And the year after that and the year after that. But I just couldn’t. Even though my own name had faded away, I couldn’t let it go.”

“Oh,” Gillian shuddered. “You must feel terrible.” She said this, but she thought that if she had such a gift presented to her, a gift that she felt might really change her life, she’d be loath to pass it on, too.

“I don’t blame you a bit, though,” she added. On sudden inspiration, Christopher turned the bottle over and examined its bottom. Gillian was actually disappointed for him, when she saw no writing there.

“What if it’s too late?” he said. “What if I tried to pass it on now, and nobody’s name appeared? I would have spoiled the entire thing for someone else.”

“You know,” Gillian said, trying to cheer him. “I bet it was your friend, Ava.”

“What do you mean?” He eyed her.

“Didn’t you say she was the one who got a good look at the bottom? Maybe your name was already written there. It could even have been a plot by her and Emil. And she just kept it quiet.” She smiled, pleased with herself. “So you really don’t have to pass it on at all.”

“But that’s the nature of a gift,” Christopher wailed. He obviously didn’t accept her theory. He turned to her abruptly. “Here, why don’t you to take it?” He thrust the leather bottle at her.

“What?” Gillian moved back.

“Take the bottle. Please.” He looked frightened. A bit mad.

“Me?” Gillian stared at the bottle held out to her. It’s sherry color seemed more ruby now. “I can’t. It’s yours,” she said, perplexed. “It doesn’t have my name written there.”

“But you just said you thought it was a hoax.”

“I wouldn’t have used that word,” she protested.

“No, you’re right.” Christopher calmed down. He lowered the bottle to the floor. “Listen, I should get you some refreshment. I’ve been talking your ear off. What are you drinking?”

“Don’t bother, I can go.” Gillian meant to rouse herself, but the little man sprang from the couch before she could.

“It’s no bother at all,” he said, and disappeared into a thicket of bodies. Gillian put her head back and let the party swim out of focus. She felt exhausted by his story. She shut her eyes, listening to the florid guitar. She wanted to tell Christopher she really didn’t need more wine, what she’d had to drink already had made her sleepy. Perhaps she dozed a little.

When she woke the party had started to thin. People were retrieving their coats and moving out into the soggy night air. Gillian sat up. She looked down at her feet to where the leather bottle still sat. She looked around for Christopher but didn’t see him in the dwindling crowd. Slowly, she reached down for the strange bottle, picked it up, and turned it over in her hands.