Small Gifts

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By Sean Dietrich

Birmingham, Alabama—the 1970’s. The hairstyles are ridiculous. Fashions are even worse. It’s Christmastime in the Magic City.
Early evening. A young couple arrives in town to visit family. They are working-class poor. He is overworked and underpaid. She is too.
Still, things are looking up. Even though it’s hard making make ends meet, they have each other.
It hasn’t been a great day. But it’s going to be. They just coasted into a Magic City on magic gasoline fumes. They have enough magic cash for the return-trip home, but that’s about all the magic they have left.
They wander into Bruno’s supermarket. They are shopping on a shoestring budget.
The music overhead is Bing Crosby. “Silver Bells” is the tune.
She pushes a cart. He follows. They are only buying necessities. No fancy stuff.
He listens to the music on the intercom. He lets his mind wander while Bing sings:
“Strings of street lights,
“Even stop lights,
“Blinkin’ red and bright green,
“As the shoppers rush home with their treasures…”
He sees something that interrupts his daydream. It’s a five-dollar bill, lying in the aisle. Crumpled. Nobody is around. He looks both ways.
He bends to pick it up. This is the ‘70’s, five bucks can do a lot. It can buy six gallons of gas, or canned goods for a few suppers.
“Honey look!” he says.
And just like that, a bad day has become a good day. He unfolds the bill. He looks at Abe Lincoln’s stoic face. Even old Abe seems happy about this particular holiday blessing.
“Wow,” she says. “Aren’t you lucky?”
Luck isn’t the word. It’s a blessing from On High. Magic, even. It’s a sign that things are going to get better. That’s what it is.
But it’s short lived. Something’s wrong. There’s a pang in his stomach. He can’t keep this five dollars. He doesn’t know why. It just doesn’t feel right. So he takes the money to the store manager, even though he’d rather not.
“I found this on aisle twelve,” he says. “Maybe someone lost it.” The manager thanks him.
The couple checks out. Their cashier is wearing a Santa hat, punching buttons on the register. She’s about as cheery as a bucket of room-temperature coleslaw.
Bing sings: City sidewalks, busy sidewalks, Dressed in holiday style, In the air there’s a feeling of Christmas…”
The cashier places the items into paper bags. The young couple nearly empties their wallets to pay the bill. “Merry Christmas,” the man says to the cashier.
“If you say so,” the cashier says.
His wife rolls the cart toward the door. He is noticing how lovely she looks tonight. If it weren’t for the low balance in their bank account, nobody would know the difference between this woman and royalty.
They are about to exit when they hear hurried footsteps behind them.
“Sir!” a voice yells. “Wait!”
It is the manager. He is accompanied by a young black boy. They are jogging after the couple.
“This kid wants to thank you,” the manager explains.
“Thank me?”
Then boy starts to cry. “My mama sent me to the store for bread and milk, and I lost the money she give me.
“I thought we was gonna hafta skip dinner again, and I was gonna be in trouble. I looked everywhere for that five bucks.”
The boy wipes his eyes with his sleeve, then shoots his hand outward. “Thank you, sir,” the boy tells the man. “And merry Christmas.”
They embrace. They part ways. The couple leaves the supermarket. Before they crawl into their car, the man looks into the night sky.
He could’ve kept that money. But he didn’t. He wonders why this is. What made him do it?
Maybe there is something up there in that sky. Something big, just beyond the stars. Maybe it’s in the trees, the ground, the air, and on aisle twelve.
Maybe it’s in everything. Inside young couples, little boys, grumpy clerks in Santa hats, and store managers. Perhaps it’s bigger than the Milky Way, but so small you might miss it.
A handshake, a hug, or five bucks. Something found in department stores, beer joints, sanctuaries, beneath bridges, on city busses, or baseball games. In the YWCA Family Violence Center, the nursing homes, the prisons, or Children’s hospital.
I don’t know what you call it. I don’t care what you call it. It’s magnificent. It’s real. It’s what the twenty-fifth of December is all about.
And there’s plenty of it here in the Magic City.