People are especially considerate in traffic when you have a tree tied to your car, Rose observed.
She’d never had a tree, so she’d never had the experience. It was a challenge. The windows were open to accommodate the rope. She was freezing. She was afraid it was going to start raining. She was afraid to drive too fast for fear the bloody thing would fly off the roof. She imagined the updraft in the branches lifting the car off the road. She saw herself flying.
She smiled as she sat at the stoplight. She turned idly and found herself looking into the smiling face of the passenger in the car beside her. It startled her. The woman gave Rose a wink and a thumbs up. Rose looked a bit confused, until the woman pointed at the tree on top of her car.
“Oh,” Rose said aloud. She grinned and gave the woman the thumbs up as the light changed and the two went their separate ways. After the chance encounter at the light, Rose began to notice that people went out of their way to let her over when she needed and that no one blew the horn despite the fact that she was driving below the speed limit. Instead, she got nothing but smiles and waves.
“I should drive around with a tree tied to my car all the time,” Rose said out loud alone in her car, though she didn’t realized she’d spoken.
Getting the tree home was a bit more of a challenge. She tore off a couple of branches pulling into her parking garage. Then there was the matter of the ropes. Ray had tied them with slip knots, but Rose didn’t know it and, having never encountered a slip knot before, would not have benefited from the information. She tugged on the rope and the knots released. The rope slipped free. The tree slid across her roof and fell at her feet.
“Well, that happened,” Rose said. Her voice echoed off the hard surfaces of the garage, all wrought iron, concrete and cinderblock. It made Rose aware that she’d spoken her thoughts again.
She made an effort to keep her curses confined to the running dialog in her head as she struggled to get the tree into the elevator and up to her apartment.
One of her neighbors, a twenty-something young man who’d never spoken to Rose or looked directly at her, actually took time to hold the elevator door for her and help shove the tree inside.
“Thanks,” Rose said, beaming at the young man.
“No worries,” the young man said with a salute. “It’s Christmas, right?”
“Right?” Rose agreed. “Gotta keep on Santa’s good side.”
The young man turned toward the garage where he had been headed when he’d arrived in the elevator.
“Here,” Rose said, remembering the invitations in her purse. “I’m having a drop-in tomorrow, if you don’t have plans, come by.”
The young man turned and looked uncomfortable. He took the envelope tentatively.
“No, worries,” Rose said to put him at his ease. “It’s Christmas, right?”
“Right,” the young man said with a smile.
He turned to walk away. As she watched him go, Rose realized that there was a substantial path of tree needles leading from the elevator to her car.
The elevator doors closed.
The young man pitched the invite into the recycling bin as he passed.
Rose hadn’t been as lucky when she got to her floor. There was no sign of anyone. She managed to get the tree down the hall and into her apartment. Several of her neighbors watched through their peepholes, attracted by the disturbance.
Once she got the tree in her door a thought struck her. How silly that she didn’t know any of her neighbors well enough to ask them for help.
She went down the hall and tucked an invitation under each door.
“Why not?” she said aloud as she returned to her own door.
Tree placement was a bit of a challenge. She’d never had a tree, so she’d never considered it. Eventually she chose a spot in a corner of the living room because she could move the small table that was there by herself. Getting the tree there was the ordeal. She broke a lamp and completely covered the room in pine needles by the time she got the balding little tree into place.
“You just needle little love, don’t you,” Rose said. She laughed as she filled the carafe from the coffee maker with water for the tree.
It surprised Rose how much was actually open in the middle of the night.
Decorating time was at a premium and she’d decided to get started right away.
The gas station had Christmas CD’s and she bought several – a collection of Elvis, the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack and a special Exxon/Mobil holiday edition.
“That should do it,” she thought, tossing them onto the counter.
“Okay, then,” the clerk answered, startling her.
She’d done it again. Maybe she was losing her mind. She smiled at the clerk, an Indian man wearing a cheap Santa hat on his shaved head. He gave her a quick grin in reply as he rang up her purchases cheerfully. She looked around at the Christmas decorations in the little gas station store. She liked the use of lights in the garlands, she thought. Her favorite, though, was the tiny Santa hat on the diminutive Vishnu behind the bullet proof glass with the clerk.
“Vishnu a Merry Christmas,” she thought, laughing in spite of herself.
“That’s what I thought,” the clerk said, beaming. He patted the handsy little god affectionately.
Rose was horrified that she’d said it out loud, but figured she’d have looked crazier if she had just burst out laughing for no reason.
The clerk, far from bothered, was delighted that Rose was in such a talkative mood. She came in often and he’d tried to engage her in conversation many times before. Try though he might, she’d never spoken more than a cursory “Pump 9” or “Credit please” on previous visits. The clerk thought Rose was a fine looking woman. Her smile and laughter over the shared joke filled his heart with joy.
“Sixty-two, fifty,” he said seductively.
“Here you go,” she said slipping her card and an invitation under the glass.
“I’m having a Christmas drop-in, tomorrow evening at my house,” she said, smiling at him in a way that made him screw up the charge and have to redo it, twice. She worried that she might have offended his religious beliefs. “Holiday really, in case you don’t . . . anyway, if you don’t have plans, you’re welcome to come.”
“Thank you very much,” he said fingering the invitation. “That is most kind.”
“Tis the season,” she said signing her charge slip.
“Vishnu a Merry Christmas,” they both said at the same time.
She left laughing.
He loved her laugh. He slipped the invitation into his breast pocket and patted it. He would have to get his brother to work for him the next night. He thought himself the luckiest man in the world. His wife didn’t observe Christmas so she’d think nothing of it if he “worked” through the night on Christmas eve.
The CVS was open when Rose drove by.
She made real headway there. Lights, decorations and sweets. All the Christmas stuff was marked down so she was able to decorate for half-price. She’d accidentally said it out loud but again got a laugh from one of the other people on the aisle with her.
Two things occurred to her. It hit her that maybe most people just said what they were thinking and she was just out of the habit and not crazy after all. And maybe, just maybe, she really was funny.
So far, so good anyway.
She was able to find plastic pine garlands with lights already woven into them. The tree lights were a little picked over so she’d had to settle for mostly novelty strands of stars, angels and chili peppers. Pepper are red, she though as she tossed them into her cart with the random collection of shiny plastic beads and balls she’d collected.
“In a way,” she said, no longer even trying to keep her thoughts to herself. “Decorating is easier like this. I don’t have to think about it. If they match, it’s a bonus but I’m really only looking for ornaments that aren’t broken.”
“I know that’s right,” a nearby store clerk said, looking up from the wrapping paper she was listlessly marking down. She smiled at Rose for speaking to her. Most people only regarded her as a store fixture.
Rose smiled back. “Did you get that Santa hat here?”
She left with a Santa hat on her head and no more invitations in her purse.
It was after one in the morning when Rose got to Pavilions. She stood just inside the doors a moment, looking at the store expectantly. She hesitated, uncertain of what to do. She usually came with a list, but she hadn’t really thought about what to serve a minute before she’d gotten there.
Flattened Christmas music squeezed out of the speakers concealed somewhere in the ceiling. It was just enough to suggest the holidays. It was only a pale suggestion of music, for that matter. There were a few shoppers, but mostly just employees, all in Santa hats, stocking the shelves in anticipation of a rush the following day.
“My favorites,” Rose decided aloud, in accordance with her new policy. She would get all of her favorite things and serve that. It was her party after all. She’d be there longer than anyone else.
She bought cream cheese and pepper jelly. She got caviar and smoked salmon. She bought eggs to boil and red onions to chop up and sprinkler on water crackers with the caviar and the smoked fish. She got chocolate covered cherries and two Whitman samplers. She splurged on good champagne and got a lot – just in case – as well as good brands of scotch, bourbon, vodka and gin. She got rum and eggnog to put it in. To round out the spread she got a lot of little frozen, bakable treats – whatever taquitos were, pizza rolls, bagel bites, and those weird tiny quiches that are mostly crust. She liked crust better than quiche so it seemed the perfect choice.
When she woke up on her living room sofa the following afternoon, two things were true.
First, she had a champagne hangover and second, her house was totally decorated for Christmas. What the decorations lacked in quality or coherence they made up for in exuberance and quantity.
She made a Bloody Mary with the Grey Goose and some V-8 she’d had in the pantry since her last diet. She sat, and marveled at the decorations flashing all around her.
“To half-price Christmas,” Rose said, toasting the room.
She spent the afternoon watching old Christmas movies on cable and sneaking hors d’oeuvre. She switched back to Champagne when the V-8 ran out during It’s a Wonderful Life. She avoided temptation and did not even so much as check her email, knowing that she’d get sucked back into work. Rose was determined to enjoy her day.
By seven she was showered and dressed in all the red clothes she owned. The Exxon/Mobil Christmas Singers were belting out the carols, the hors d’oeuvre were hot or cold, as was their want, and the Santa hat was perched jauntily on Rose’s head.
By eight the hors d’oeuvre were all pretty much the same temperature and Rose switched to spiked eggnog. By nine, the Santa hat was off and Rose was eating caviar out of the jar and watching a Die Hard marathon that was scheduled to go on through the long winter’s night.
“Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker,” she shouted at the screen leaping to her feet and then falling back on the sofa.
At first she’d been hurt when everyone dropped out of her drop-in. She knew it was last minute and she hadn’t counted on a big crowd. She had enough food and drink but not nearly enough space. But no one?
She started to get a little weepy around eleven so she switched to Diet Coke.
“No one likes a crying drunk,” she said laughing at her own joke. “I really am funny.”
Just after midnight, Bruce Willis’ wife punched out the reporter. Rose cheered. The credits rolled. She started to clean up a bit, putting things in the fridge that should probably already have been there. She would definitely eat well while she worked on the end of the year accounts the next day in the quiet of the empty office.
The text of the invitation was still on the screen of her computer when she got to the office the next day. Her first reaction was to erase it and drag the document into her trash can. For some reason she read the words of the invitation to her ill-fated party out loud.
Rose’s First Annual Christmas Drop-In
Festive Food and Christmas Cocktails
Come by for a little holiday cheer and cheering up
At Rose’s Ho-Ho-Happening
7ish on Christmas Eve
She stared at the screen. She re-read it again. She laughed. Every time she read it she laughed harder. The clip art poinsettias and holiday flourishes were beautiful. The font was tasteful and the burgundy gave the letters a richness and sophistication. Her address and phone number, however, appeared nowhere on the invitation.
A quick check of her email revealed dozens of emails from co-workers trying to find out where the party was. Her office voicemail was the same.
As the years past, and Rose’s Ho-Ho-Happening became an annual tradition, the joke about the first one grew and grew.
Sami was convinced Rose had never intended to have the party, that the invitations were just another of Rose’s weird jokes, and was disabused of the notion only by attending the drop-in the following year with the other guests excluded from the first observance. She was more than a little disappointed for the loss.
“It was soo exclusive, no one was invited at all,” Rose always said when she told the story. It always got a laugh.
But as she sat at her desk that Christmas morning, laughing at herself, she realized something that she never mentioned when she re-told the story.
It was the best Christmas she ever had.
Not because there was a crowd at her party or because the party was a hit or for any of the other reasons that had convinced her she’d been cheated out of the perfect Christmas for so many Christmases before. It was the best because she decorated her house and filled it with her favorite food and drink. It was the best because she’d been willing to share her holiday, her food and her drink with friends and strangers alike. Everything seemed different, even though nothing really was.
The only thing that changed that Christmas was Rose.