It is Christmas Eve. I could be in for a long night.
There is one present remaining on the list. It is an important one. I simply can’t let her down, not after the birthday fiasco some time back. I’m better than that. So, I press on.
At one point tonight, downtown had been fairly busy with frenetic shopping. But now the crowds are thin. The men passing by are in much the same situation as me. Their eyes show a small amount of holiday cheer, another part acknowledgment of pending failure, but mostly panic. They, too, have no gift.
The women seem to be shopping in groups. They are busy, no doubt as it is a crazy night indeed. But, in them I sense calm, giddy gossip, and a couple glasses of wine. They are enjoying themselves.
And now, most of the last minute shoppers have either settled on something or found it. The streets are no longer bustling. Businesses are closing their doors, cleaning up, and preparing for a few days off to enjoy time away from work.
The cell phone store lights go off, a sure sign of my doom. The furniture store is already dark. The skate shop doesn’t make sense at this late hour and the last of the skate rats have been shooed out the door. The lingerie shop is tempting me in the open door, but that is a trap as it is a gift more for me than her. So, avoiding temptation, I duck into the card shop with a small amount of hope.
A number of weary-looking people are in line to pay thus completing their lists with trinkets and stocking stuffers. The teenage clerk behind the counter is quickly trying to dwindle the line down to a manageable group for closing. She glances my direction and sighs. I avert any eye contact only to notice a box of Valentine displays behind her on the floor, ready and waiting. The horror. The thought of a Valentines gift in just a month is disquieting and makes my heart quicken. I flee back outside. What I am looking for is not in a card shop.
The wind is cold, hinting I should be home for that long winter’s nap. I face a random, darkened display window. My reflection is a mere silhouette. I tighten my coat at my neck and breathe in and out deeply noticing the fog I make on the window. I am out of ideas and out of time. The old standby of a nice bottle of wine from Señor Juan’s Wine and Tequila Emporium is the only thing I have left. But now, surely Juan’s is closed, too.
Giving into my impending doom, I turn to notice a familiar body wandering my way. He is almost dancing in his gate. It is my Old Friend.
“Well, hello! Season’s greetings,” Old Friend says with cheer. His grasp is warm and inviting as we shake hands.
“Merry Christmas, Old Friend. What are you doing in this neck of the woods?” I inquire. Old Friend lives quite far out of town. I haven’t seen him in months and feel a pang of quilt at not having called.
“Just out and about. I thought I’d run into some friends tonight and happily got cornered at The Pub with all the joyous celebration,” he said while his hand painted a wide panoramic painting of fun in the air. I could smell the Christmas cheer oozing from his pores. A deep smile made his beard crease up into his cheeks and his eyes twinkled bright in the dark night. The big bag in his other hand proved he had finished his shopping.
“And you?” he inquires a bit too curiously.
“Last minute,” I utter a bit too softly.
“Ah, I see,” Old Friend sympathizes. “Have you been to Durango?”
I cough. “Durango? The City?” I think it is odd Old Friend might know about Durango.
“No,” he knowingly chuckles. “That new store on 13th.” He points a finger in front of my nose and over my left shoulder. I turn both to avoid getting poked and to follow his direction.
“I think they should have it,” he answers, his hands now switching duties from the weight of the bag. I notice the black, Durango brand on the bright red bag as it twists around his new grasp.
“Hmm. Really?” I continue. “A new store? Haven’t heard of it and I can’t believe I’d miss a store on 13th. What kind of store is it?”
“Tons of unique gifts. Perfect gifts. You should check it out.” Old Friend takes a step to the side and starts walking. “Come with me, I’m parked that way anyway.”
“ ‘kay,” I sort of mumble. “Where is it again?”
“Next to the wine shop, Señor Juan’s. Between the wine shop and the alley, actually. You know the wine shop, right?”
I do know of Señor Juan’s. I stop there occasionally to buy wine from my friend who runs the place. But I’m sure it is a used book store on the alley. I’m sure of it.
I fall into an even stride alongside him. Before I ask him if he really knows what he was talking about he seems to pick up his pace even more. Old Friend is lighter on his feet than he looks and I have to work to keep up. We hurry down the blocks of closed shops where I see not a single other person anywhere. I harbor my doubts this Durango place will be open now. But, I have no other choices.
I’m a bit out of breath when we arrive at a magnificent storefront. It is the only building with lights still on and because of this it has the look and feel of a well lit snow globe in a dark room. They twinkle and wink through the bare branches of the tree on the sidewalk. I’m amazed by the abundance of gifts perfectly displayed in the window. A prominent, tall door painted in green welcomes us with an arrow stating to go around back. A ‘Fresh Paint’ sign hangs crookedly underneath in explanation.
Old Friend is already down the corridor. A round light over the door marks the rear entrance in a halo of light amongst the blackness of the alley.
“Come on,” Old Friend encourages me and darts inside. I wonder in amazement how he manages to get down the alley so fast. I follow quickly to the door and open it. A petite woman with short, red hair flits right passed me carrying a small stack of wrapped, blue boxes.
“Welcome,” she beams and continues over her shoulder with a joyous “Merry Christmas.” She hops quickly behind a counter out of sight.
I hear the familiar tinkling of a retail door bell at the front of the store and catch a glimpse of the freshly painted, green door close behind someone. My concern someone might have just ruined the paint job is fleeting.
I look around for Old Friend while I unbutton my coat. The store is warm and inviting. Oddly, Old Friend is nowhere to be seen. I’m not terribly worried and, quite honestly, I’ve lost my concern as I gaze about onto some of the most amazing items I have ever seen displayed in a store.
“My name is Faith. Can I help you find something?” my little red-haired, sales lady inquires. Her head tilts a bit to one side as she smiles and tries to read my inner thoughts. I take in her stimulating aura and steal a peak at her exposed cleavage and the Rudolph necklace dangling there daring me to look at the little red nose. This woman has magic.
I glance at her perfect face with an immediate loss for words. “I’mmaa,” My hands try to talk for me and wave helplessly in the air.
“…at a loss for a gift,” I finally recover.
“After me,” she directs. I follow as Faith floats in front toward a series of shelves over on the brick wall. Her hand extends in model fashion to frame an object.
“I believe this should be the perfect item for her,” Faith smiles cheerfully.
It is perfect. I am dumbstruck and in awe.
I remove my glasses and peer closer.
“Can I hold it?” I ask as if a child wanting to hold a delicate ornament or a sleeping kitten.
Faith smiles her answer and helps me take it off the shelf. There is no doubt now. I feel the rush of excitement. I know what I have to do, yet I check the price anyway. Not that there is any doubt. At this point, money will not inhibit this purchase. This, in my hands, is pure joy. It is love. It represents all that I seek and wish to share. It is everything.
“Yes, this is it,” I state knowingly. “Will you wrap it?”
“You betcha’,” Faith snickers with a hint of mid-western lilt in her voice.
Soon enough I am at the green front door with a beautiful, red bag in my hand. I look down to the black, Durango brand and turn to say thank you, but hear the rear door open. Faith is already on to the next customer.
“Merry Christmas,” I exclaim to Faith somewhere amongst the stacks of amazing gifts by the front door.
I take one more look around and promise myself to come back before Valentine’s Day. I pull open the door and walk out into the cold wind. I button my jacket back around my neck in preparation for the jaunt back to the car. I feel light and satisfied. I am ready now.
As I step off the curb and pass the alley, I am caught in a pair of headlights. I hold a hand up to shield my eyes from the light and am able to make out silhouettes. In a flash, I hear the back door to the store loudly slam shut. The Durango lights are now off, too. The engine, to what looks like an older model pickup truck, races a bit and drowns out the unmistakable sounds of hearty laughter between a man and a woman.
I’m keenly aware of the need to move out of the way and continue my journey to the car, carrying my precious gift securely in my hand. My grip tightens on the bag handles.
The truck pulls out of the alley and onto the street behind me. Over my shoulder I briefly perceive my Old Friend and Faith in the cab. A Dwight Yoakum Christmas tune is blaring out of the open windows. And I distinguish a big Durango brand on the door of the truck. We exchange waves as they peel out and head the opposite direction. Their laughter and singing fill the air over the engine until I can no longer hear anything but the quiet of a city going to sleep.
I feel the urge to get home now.
I round the last corner and fish for the keys in my pocket. As I approach my car I happen upon John, my friend who owns Señor Juan’s Wine and Tequila Emporium. The one next to Durango. He is with his girlfriend.
“Merry Christmas!” I say with newfound holiday cheer.
“Happy Holidays,” they echo and we shake hands and hug each other as friends do. We talk and catch up. We haven’t seen each other much as these holidays have made for busy times indeed.
“I tell you, John, that Durango store next to your shop is quite astonishing. It is brilliant,” I state proudly. I felt like I just discovered a secret, one that John and his girlfriend already knew.
“What store? Where?” John asks, his dark eyebrows turning down slightly. His girlfriend clutched his arm a bit tighter.
“Next to your place,” I state while unlocking my car door and setting the new gift carefully in the driver’s seat. “The one on the alley side,” I casually continued.
John has a look of concern, “That was the used bookstore. It burned up two days ago. Started in the break room they said. With all those books, it didn’t take long. Between the fire, the water, and the smoke, that store is a total loss. You didn’t hear about that? It was all over the local news.”
I’m confused. Yes, I had heard something but it hadn’t registered as THAT bookstore. I vaguely remember hearing a bunch of sirens the other night. But I simply had other things going on.
“Wow!” I said really not sure how to proceed. “And you? The Shop ok?”
John says with a smile, “It is hard to taste wine when the place smells like smoke. But other than that, nothing serious. I came out ok.”
“That’s good,” I confirm. I was indeed glad John and the shop would be fine. But I’m taken aback. I awkwardly stand there saying nothing more.
Eyeing my bag in the front seat, John’s girlfriend asks, “You finish your shopping?”
Leaning on my open car door, I lay a hand on the red bag in hopes it is real, “I think so.” I force a smile.
“Well, hey! Happy holidays,” John interrupts. It is time to get home. “Let’s get together soon, ok?”
“Happy holidays,” I echo with hopefully enough cheer behind it to mean it. We shake hands, hug goodbye, and they continue their travel down the sidewalk huddled together arm-in-arm in the cold night air.
I acknowledge a strange feeling as I look around the desolate streets. The only cars out are those scattered around The Pub. It is late, but the bars are still open.
I close the passenger side door on the perfect gift, walk around the car, and settle into the driver’s seat. I eye the package as I start the engine.
Pulling out into the street, I reverse my normal path home. I point the car toward Durango.
I slowly drive into the block and roll down my window to get a better look. As I creep by I notice the old bookstore sign. It is blackened from smoke and fire. The windows are all boarded up with plywood. The alley is pitch black and I can’t make out anything at all. The wine shop looks just fine and normal next door. But, Durango has vanished. It is, in reality, just a burned out bookstore.
Yet I have the perfect gift sitting right next to me. It is here in the seat. I blink in question “No. It can’t be,” I say outloud.
I crank the steering wheel toward home and start to roll up the window. As I pull onto the next street, I see in my darkened, rear view mirror an older model, white pick-up turn carelessly up the block in the opposite direction with a Durango brand on the side panel and an outline of two people in the cab. As my window comes to a close I hear them singing along to a Dwight Yoakum Christmas tune.
“Merry Chirstmas,” I yell out the window. The anticipation of the gift still remained on the passenger seat.
Note: This story was originally posted on evenhappierthanthat.blogspot.com in December 2009. It has been minorly edited.