On this episode of the Dance Cry Dance Break, “A Parting Gift,” written by James M. Maskell, inspired by Everybody Loves Christmas, the song by Seattle artist and producer Nat Bayne.
James M. Maskell has taught high school English for over twenty years and writes poetry, flash, and a bit of humor in the early mornings before heading off to class. His poetry has been featured in Loud Coffee Press; he is a regular contributor to Friday Flash Fiction; and his first non-fiction work is forthcoming in Windmill: The Hofstra Journal of Art and Literature. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, and is thankfully just a short drive from each of his three adult children.
A Parting Gift
By James M. Maskell
It wasn’t until after she decided not to decorate that Mary found the package tucked away in the closet one Friday morning in December. Its blue and green plaid giftwrap blended seamlessly into the folded stack of flannel bed sheets and she thought she may have even seen it before without realizing. Silver and white ribbon crossed impressively tight over the top of the box—something she’d insisted on for years—but the bulky, irregular folds under the taped edges were unmistakably his. It was the one thing he’d left behind after walking out last month without an explanation. “It’s just not working out” he’d told her, his things already packed in the car when she’d arrived home from work. Last week a friend said she saw him out with a woman she had met once or twice, Katie or Kaitlyn, or something like that, and Mary wondered for how long that had been going on.
She thought about the package her whole way to the office as the first snow of the season drifted down, thought about it through her morning coffee and into the staff meeting where management reminded everyone about the upcoming holiday party. Small decorations had begun to show up in cubicles since Thanksgiving, and now the more aggressive office-wide celebration was taking shape: garland hung over doorways; potted poinsettias on desks and countertops; a plastic menorah on the table by the watercooler; and of course, the horribly misshapen four-foot artificial tree in the corner, its cheap ornaments with their tattered satin threads revealing the Styrofoam core beneath. Of course, nothing could be tackier than the mistletoe someone hung over the copy machine. She suspected it was Derek, the office creep, but found out later it was actually Janice, the jovial assistant manager whose inappropriate office banter fell just under the radar of the general public.
And yet, despite the poorly executed holiday displays at work, and the newly discovered gift left behind by the man she thought she’d eventually marry, the season still managed to hold for her a certain charm.
Mary had loved everything about Christmastime as a child. Department stores transformed into shining lands of red, green, and silver. All through the neighborhood, ladders leaned against the gables and gutters of capes and split-level ranches as children fed strings of lights up to their fathers, untangling the lines one kink at a time and working desperately to finish the job before the first snowfall. And the music... Perry Como, Brenda Lee, Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Mary’s absolute favorite, the angelic and haunting “Carol of the Bells.” God, how she loved the music.
What she adored most was the enchanting conversion that took place inside her childhood home. Her mother wrapped and ribboned the picture frames so imaginary presents hung from the walls. A wooden manger replaced the clock over the fireplace, as monogrammed stockings spread outward across the mantle, Mom’s and Dad’s on the left, hers and her brother Joey’s on the right. And then, once Dad had set the tree in its stand and strung it full of lights, the four of them trimmed it with ornaments and silver tinsel, as the fragrant Douglas fir became the centerpiece of their home. Wrapped presents appeared beneath it, quietly, one at a time, over the next few weeks.
But, with each passing year, Christmas shed just a bit of its magic. The strains of suburban life emerged as Dad’s hours were cut and money grew scarce. Their tightening budget grew more noticeable as Christmas drew near. Her family maintained their holiday routines as best they could, but over time those traditions became little more than habits, as though they were merely checking off boxes with each decoration. Joey moved out three years before her and, after she graduated college and left for the city, her parents quietly divorced, sold the house, and moved on to their own lives. Mary brought a few of her favorite childhood ornaments with her when she and her boyfriend moved in together, and the past two Christmases, while quiet, were intimate and lovely, echoing many of the sights and sounds she’d adored as a child. Now she was alone and didn’t see the point of a Christmas that couldn’t be shared.
When five o’clock finally rolled around at the office that day, Mary rushed home even more urgently than usual, ridding herself of the fraudulent workplace cheer. She got off the train a few stops early, the package once more consuming her mind. The snow, beautiful that morning, had melted mostly, leaving scant patches on the grass and gray, slushy clumps by the side of the road. Why buy me a gift if he was planning to leave? she wondered as she walked the damp and dreary path home. When she reached her building, the young couple from the second floor were coming out just as she was going in. The girl held the door for a moment and Mary offered a smile of recognition, but they were too busy smiling at each other to notice or even care. Inside her bare apartment, the package—the lone suggestion of the holiday season—sat on the coffee table where Mary had left it that morning. She suddenly felt a longing for Christmas that she hadn’t felt since she was a child.
Pulling off her hat and coat, and getting right to work, Mary dragged her decorations out of the storage bin, assessing what she had and what else she’d need to make Christmas whole for her again. The next morning, she shopped store after store and eventually the tree lot down the street to buy a sensibly sized but grossly overpriced Douglas fir, so she could catch that whiff of childhood once more. With a pot of wassail simmering on the stovetop, and her favorite Christmas movies on the television, she began to transform her apartment, laughing along first with Ralphie and then Buddy the Elf. When she hung the final ornament and placed the lone gift in the apartment under the tree, she curled up on the sofa with a mug of the steaming hot cider drink and shed a few tears with the ever-charming George Bailey.
“I’ll open you Christmas morning,” she said to the package before turning in for the night, and thought, I’ll enjoy that gift... even if he didn’t want me to.
Mary worked hard to relish the season as Christmas approached, joining in on the silly festivities at work, listening to a holiday playlist during her commute, continuing to smile at that happy young couple when they passed on the stairs, letting her tree be the only light in the room each evening. But she couldn’t ignore the fact that she was still alone.
On Christmas morning she rose, excited to open her gift. Sipping her coffee, she stared at the package for close to thirty minutes before finally picking it up and tugging the ribbon off the corner, letting it drop to the floor. She paused once more and then slid her nail under the corner of the seam, separating the tape without tearing the paper and revealing the matte black jewelry box beneath.
“Hmm... a necklace?” she wondered. And then with a laugh, “I hope it’s real gold, at least.” She opened the box and got her wish, a lovely, fourteen carat gold chain with an ornately scripted pendant in the shape of the letter K.
“K...” she read, searching for the connection. “Katie... Kaitlyn... whoever she is. Of course,” she said, discovering the answer to her question of how long that had been going on. Her throat tightened, but before a single tear could form in the corner of her eye, she imagined a Christmas morning somewhere across town where he was fumbling for words, trying to explain an M-shaped pendant to a woman she didn’t know.
Everybody Loves Christmas was written and performed by Nat Bayne and produced by Chaz Mazzota.
“A Parting Gift” was written by James M. Maskell and voiced by Luna Freya.
The Dance Cry Dance Break is written and produced by Natalie Bayne and recorded and edited by Moe Provencher. Timaree Marston is our Story Editor.
Theme music is Red Lines, by Dance Cry Dance artist Tiny Tiny.
Dance Cry Dance is an arts collective in Seattle, WA. Paid subscriptions support our artists and writers.