December 2007

Gift of the magpie

By David Feela

In 1906 O’Henry published a short story, “The Gift of the Magi,” about a couple that scrimped and saved to buy each other the perfect Christmas gift. The story’s end has a twist, because the woman cuts and sells her hair to buy a fob chain for her love’s pocket watch. Unknown to the wife, the husband sells his prized watch to buy her a set of combs for her long beautiful hair. It’s really a story about love and the awkwardness that flourishes when our desire to surprise each other overwhelms the need to communicate. It’s also important to understand that at the turn of the 20th century when this story supposedly took place, standard retail exchange and return policies did not exist, with or without a receipt.

I have a similar story to tell, and while it’s still about love, it lacks the innocence of O’Henry’s classic tale. Pam bought me a special gift: A small writing desk that would fit in our living room near the propane stove. I own two other desks, situated in my study, but in the winter it gets cold at that end of the house. She wanted to buy me this gift because I love words and writing is close to my heart.

Unlike the woman in the story, she told me what she intended to buy, even going so far as to show me on the Internet some desks priced within our budget. Which desk did I prefer? she wanted to know. I looked over her shoulder and nodded, but in the end I said, No, thank you very much, I could get along just fine with the desks in the writing room that never got above 62 degrees. Good writing is born of suffering, I said. She sighed.

I wanted to replace a cashmere sweater, the one she bought from a local thrift store a few months before Christmas. She loved it, because it was warm and exquisitely soft. She’d never owned cashmere. Sadly, the sweater had very tiny moth holes across the back, which were not obvious until she wore it. I asked her if she’d like a new sweater, but she explained how new cashmere is overpriced – ridiculous at best. She’d rather throw the sweater away and find something more conventional in cotton or wool. I believed her. She’s a woman of passion and conviction. I knew better than to spend our money on foolish fashion.

How the story managed to take its O’Henry twist is difficult to say. You see, I decided the desk would be nice, so I ordered one of those discounted products made of pressed sawdust from the jungles of industrial China off the Internet site we’d scouted. I even told Pam that I went ahead and ordered it, and she smiled, said she was glad. That evening I talked with my brother on the phone and he asked if I had any ideas about what Pam might like for Christmas. I mentioned the demise of her cashmere sweater, copied its size surreptitiously off the tag in the rag bag where it ended up, and speculated on the color, a kind of burnt orange. He thanked me for the idea. I smiled.

When the desk arrived, I unpacked the box, got my screwdriver and hex wrench and went to work, erecting my ivory tower. I had to drill a pilot hole where the Chinese had missed one, but overall it assembled nicely and I had a new desk to sit beside in the warmer climate of our living room. It was almost perfect, except for one detail: I couldn’t get my knees under it. I had carefully measured the space in the living room before ordering it, but only the distance between the propane stove and the wall. It would fit, I remember telling myself, with a few inches to spare. What I hadn’t checked was if I would fit.

When the cashmere sweater arrived, wrapped beautifully in a box with a ribbon, I put it under the desk with all the other presents. You see, I had decided to decorate the desk with lights, since it was rather pointless as a desk. On Christmas Eve she unwrapped her present and her eyes grew wide as she held up what could have doubled for an extra-large, bright orange cashmere hunting vest. I covered my face to keep from laughing. She glanced at me with suspicion in her eyes.

Since then the sweater has been exchanged for a gift certificate, and the desk has been turned into a small bookcase near the door. In our household we have resolved to give up trying to surprise each other. Personally, I am working on reducing the number of times I end up surprising myself.

David Feela is a teacher at Montezuma-Cortez High School.