a short story by Jerry Zinn
The cold brakes of the bus screamed in front of Wellworth’s while Anne Parkhurst adjusted her white gloves and repositioned the pillbox hat on her carefully set hair. As she stood up she did her best to smooth out the creases in her dress, some refusing to disappear after settling on the hour journey. The bus driver tipped his cap as she exited onto the sidewalk, stepping over the mound of snow. Lining the streets, tinsel trees of silver and gold glistened from the streetlights even in the grayness of the day, throwing sparkles onto the path. A gust of lake effect greeted her as she cautiously navigated the sidewalk. Instinctively she pulled the fabric of her threadbare jacket close around her neck, hoping to create a tighter seal.
Anne approached the large doors of the front entrance with Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” emanating from the speakers above, a man dressed as Santa Claus providing backup bells by the bright-red Salvation Army bucket. Anne rummaged through her purse for some spare change for Saint Nick. She found eight quarters and, recognizing she’d need five for the ride home, plucked out three and inserted them in the slot with metallic clangs. She turned toward the store but stopped. She only needed one dollar to get home. Anne’s good nature wouldn’t allow her to proceed until she donated her remaining spare quarter, adding 25 more cents to his collection.
The last five years had been trying for Anne and her husband. In 1955 a quarter was a quarter, but she knew there were still others who needed the money more than she. Anne had worked hard to earn a day of vacation for Christmas shopping, and the two-hour round-trip journey, and the purchase she was in town to make, would put an even bigger strain on her finances. But she also understood that hers was an important mission. She earmarked a small percentage of her wages each month to buy a special gift for her husband Jim, because Anne knew Jim would never spend any of their savings on himself.
The doorman greeted Anne with a big smile, and he brought the heavy door to a close behind her, shutting out the harshness and enveloping her in the Christmas spirit hanging from every ledge of the department store. A manager, dressed in a well-fitting suit and tie, came up to her. “Here for some Christmas shopping?” he asked politely.
“I’m here for something very particular, for my husband,” Anne answered as she opened the clasp on her purse and pulled out a folded page torn from a periodical. “Perhaps you can tell me where I might find this?”
“Ah wonderful, if you’d please follow me, Mrs…?”
“Mrs. Parkhurst, my name is Gregory. Let me take you to the proper department,” he said, inviting her to board the escalator bound for the second story. Anne was captivated by the array of lights and ornaments that made her feel like she was moving through the stars. She always stood up a little straighter and talked a little more formal when she made the rare trip downtown, and so mindfully she improved her posture. Anne looked down at her dress and tried again to wrestle out the creases, unsuccessfully.
“Mrs. Parkhurst, this is Miss Rubinstein. She will be glad to assist you in making your purchase and with anything else you may need. Merry Christmas,” Gregory said, excusing himself.
“Thank you and Merry Christmas to you too.”
“Mrs. Parkhurst,” Miss Rubinstein began, “How may I help you?”
Anne returned to her purse and produced the advertisement she pulled from a magazine at the beginning of the year. Anne realized material possessions were not of paramount importance, but the message behind the gift was, and so she saved up the exact amount she needed and took the day off for the trip to downtown Cleveland to make the purchase. She knew how hard Jim worked at the bank. He’d been forced to work harder and to put in longer hours since the lay-offs, and he had been passed over for a promotion a second, and a third time. Jim Parkhurst was among the last people who needed to be told life wasn’t fair.
As a banker, one of the most important factors to success was being presentable. Jim had a rotation of three suits, constantly in need of mending; a handful of ties, handed down from his father; and a watch that stopped working a year ago, but he still wore it to look the part. Twice a day, as he often joked to Anne, he could provide the right time when asked. At the office, he constantly looked at the wall clock so if he were ever asked, he could pretend to read it off his wrist.
“I have the model right here,” Miss Rubinstein said, sliding the glass backing and drawing out the watch. It’s hands, numerals, and bezel were all gold, and the face pearl white. A black strap of leather bound the timepiece to the cushion in the case.
“It’s perfect,” Anne said. A thousand times she imagined Jim putting it on, wearing it confidently to the office, and the image made her happy. Anne pulled out an envelope from her bag and handed it to Miss Rubinstein with the exact amount printed on the tag.
“Would you like it engraved, Mrs. Parkhurst?”
It would be, Anne thought, a great personal touch. But she realized she had no more money to spend. “How much would it cost?”
“Engraving is $1.”
Without a split-second of hesitation, Anne pulled out the four remaining quarters designated as her fare home and handed them to Miss Rubinstein. “Please write ‘For My Dearest Jim.’”
“Of course, Mrs. Parkhurst. I’ll just give the watch to our engraver,” Miss Rubinstein answered, as she stepped away from the desk, disappearing into the back room.
Anne wondered at the decorations and the teems of people moving about in a beautifully spontaneous dance. They too were buying gifts for loved ones, trying to make the season special. As she stood in awe, she pictured the expression on her husband’s face on Christmas morning, when he unwrapped the watch. She knew that image would keep her warm on the long, cold, walk home.