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The Swap of the Magi – a short story for Christmas

For your reading enjoyment and a laugh or two, here’s my short story that took second place in a contest sponsored by Infuze Magazine and editor Dave Long of Bethany House, way back in 2004. My characters, Delle and Jimmy, are my tongue-in-cheek tribute to O. Henry’s characters, Della and Jim, in his classic Christmas story, The Gift of the Magi.  I hope this story will evoke only the happiest of memories for you.  

~~~

 

Murder’s out of tune, and sweet revenge grows harsh. —William Shakespeare, Othello

 

Delle Porter didn’t miss the cheap candles and cologne that a fresh batch of fourth-graders had bestowed upon her every Christmas for forty years. No, the neighborhood’s white elephant party in Sally Gardner’s living room held more pleasant scents and the promise of unexpected delights.

Unfortunately, the evening also involved Jimmy Olds.

“Who’s number seven?” he bellowed, shifting his bulk on a creaky folding chair across from her. “Delle, you old crank, are you seven?”

She gave him her steeliest glare and resisted the urge to poke him with her cane. “No,” she said, keeping her tone barely on the civil side of icy.

“Scrooge,” he muttered.

Boor. She couldn’t say it aloud. Not to a neighbor who lived under the same roof. Separately, thank God.

Not wishing to dwell on the unpleasantness of life in a duplex, she studied the tiny square of paper that was her ticket to select a package from the pile under the tree. Number fifteen. Perhaps she would leave with a treasure.

“Seven!” Jimmy yelled again.

“That’s me!” Gray-haired Rosie in her Rudolph sweatshirt tottered to the tree, chose a gift bag, and drew forth a pink beret. “Not my color.” After peering around at the gifts that had been opened and were available for purloining, she pointed at white-bearded Henry, who lived alone at the end of the street. “The John Wayne video, please.”

He groaned and clutched it close to his heart.

“Oh, Henry, I apologize, but—” She pried the movie from his fingers and parked the beret on his head. Laughter rippled across the room.

Delle held an advantageous position in the game, being the fifteenth of sixteen people who would open a gift and exercise their swapping rights. Only Sally held a better position. She would be the last to take a gift, but then she could choose from the whole evening’s bounty.

But none of the loot would be adequate compensation for enduring Jimmy’s company. The man was insufferable. His music often kept Delle awake past midnight. His empty pizza boxes and overflowing trash can fouled the porch they shared. He left his blinds open and walked around in his skivvies, giving her a most unfortunate view.

Shuddering, she returned her focus to the game, farther along now by a silk-flower corsage, an eight-track tape, and a crocheted toilet-paper cover. She had begun to doubt that anything of beauty or delight might appear.

As people opened packages and demanded swaps, the more desirable items changed hands often. A vase, a hammer, a clock radio. Delle’s contribution still lay beneath the tree, a dartboard set that she’d found in the garage when she moved into the duplex. Her offering might become a hot commodity among the men once they discovered it.

So far, no one had mustered courage to open the large package that white-bearded Henry had brought, but everybody kept trying to guess its contents.

“A tombstone,” someone suggested.

Henry cackled. “Nope. Better than that.”

“Number twelve,” Jimmy yelled. “Who’s twelve? Wait.” He consulted his own slip of paper. “Hot dog! That’s me.”

He heaved himself out of his chair, hitched up his jeans, and lumbered to the tree. As he squatted beside it, his trousers drooped again, giving Delle another one of those unfortunate views. She lifted her gaze to his long, greasy ponytail.

He ripped the paper from Henry’s package. “Looky here! One of them inflatable Santas, brand new. Eight foot tall.” He held the box high so everyone could see the picture on the label. “Hey, Santa’s got a beer!”

Sure enough, St. Nick held a gigantic can of Budweiser in one black mitten. His face bore an idiotic leer.

Delle winced. The neighborhood had a few rules governing yard decorations, but nothing would keep Jimmy from displaying this plastic embodiment of tackiness.

Ten days until Christmas. She could endure ten days of the monstrosity, but no, Jimmy would leave it up long past the holidays.

He dragged the box back to his seat. As the game went on, Delle studied the picture in fascinated horror.

Santa’s leer and beer would face the street and any wide-eyed children who passed; his obscenely obese derriere would face her window. It was better than Jimmy’s posterior, but not by much.

Her grandson owned a B.B. gun. She imagined a pellet puncturing Santa’s bum. The air hissing out. The garish plastic sagging as he buckled and bowed, a defeated heap on the winter-browned grass.

The next day, she could blame Santa’s demise on vandals, but then she’d be a liar and a vandal herself. That would never do.

She would have to adopt the lush of a Santa.

“Fifteen,” Jimmy yelled.

Ignoring her cane, she stood up. The pile of unclaimed gifts had dwindled to the one she’d brought and a long, slender package in snowman paper. Not that it mattered. Her solution was as good as done, because Sally had good taste, didn’t she?

Please God, don’t let Sally want Santa, Delle prayed, wondering if the Almighty could dictate a person’s wishes.

Jimmy was still gloating over his prize. Nearly feeling sorry for him, she made her way to the tree and took the slender box back to her seat. She peeled off the wrappings, lifted the lid, and caught her breath.

Beautiful, silvery wind chimes like the ones she’d loved when she was a child spending the summer at her grandparents’ beach house.

She lifted the chimes and set them to swaying. After an evening of raucous laughter, their gentle tones brought a lump to her throat. It was ridiculous to get teary over a hand-me-down, but she hadn’t seen a better gift all night.

Sally had already picked up the last white elephant, Delle’s own contribution, and stood waiting. “Will you keep them or swap with somebody, Delle?”

“If I keep the chimes, you’ll just take them, anyway.”

Sally laughed. “Where do you think they came from? I don’t want ’em back.”

That only made the decision harder. Delle closed her eyes and imagined the silvery cylinders dancing in the breeze on her patio.

And Santa looming out front, leery and beery and fat.

Oh, how she longed for the chimes! But she also yearned to condemn Santa to the trash where he belonged.

Where Jimmy would dump the chimes.

She opened her eyes. “The Santa, please.”

Jimmy stared at her. “You don’t want to swap.”

She tucked the chimes into their box. “Yes, I do.”

I don’t. Wind chimes drive me nuts.”

Ah, sweet revenge. “I’m sorry. I want the Santa.”

“That’s the rule,” Henry said, looking bewildered. “She says swap, you swap, son.”

Jimmy curled his lip and shoved the Santa box across the carpet. “Take it, Scrooge.”

Feeling like the dog in the manger, she suppressed a whoop as Sally unwrapped the dartboard, handed it to Henry, and claimed the pink beret. Almost everyone was happy; only Jimmy was sulking.

Delle smiled. “Say ‘Merry Christmas,’ James, and don’t pout.”

If she hadn’t parted with the darts, she could have had a grand time murdering Santa with them. A sharp knife would work as well, though, stabbing into the box. Hard and repeatedly. Keeping time with the blasted music that always kept her awake into the wee hours.

For once, she would stay up until Jimmy had retired for the night. Surely there was no law against quietly rummaging through a neighbor’s trash.

~~~

Delle slept late and smiled when she woke to the music of wind chimes on her patio. How long would it be before they awakened Jimmy, too?

She donned her robe and slippers. Leaning on her cane, she headed toward the kitchen for tea. At the living room window, she stopped to raise the blinds on the winter sunshine.

Her hand still on the cord, she drew a sharp breath.

Covered with a multitude of duct-tape patches, Santa’s broad backside defiled her view. Jimmy had raided her trash and resurrected Santa.

She lowered the blinds and closed her eyes, the chimes singing sweetly in the chilly air. 

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