#FridayFlash: Phil's Christmas Present
by Tony Noland
The wrapping paper was on the floor with the empty box. Phil finished his smoke and tried to figure out what the hell this present was supposed to be. He checked the clock on the microwave. It was too early to take a drink, even now, even after everything. He reached for another cig.
The pack had only three left, and one was broken. It was the last pack, too. Phil thought about how expensive cigarettes were. Fifty bucks a carton at Costco. When he was in the army, a pack was only eighty cents.
Whatever. It didn't matter. It wasn't like he had anything else to spend his money on.
He felt his eyes start to tear up, closed them. Stupid old man, he thought, crying at nothing.
Ellen got him to quit back in '86, when a pack was two and a half bucks. They needed the money for, well, for everything. They were still in that apartment on Wilson Avenue, saving for the house. Things weren't bad, money-wise, but there wasn't that much breathing room, either. It was the piano lessons that finally did it, though.
"We could afford them if you gave up smoking," she'd said. Not nagging or bitchy or anything. That wasn't Ellen. She wasn't just smart and clever; she was a wise woman. She just laid it out and let him get there himself.
Christ, how hard that quitting had been. He'd expected the nausea and headaches, but he hadn't counted on the irritability and restlessness. After four weeks without a smoke, he was going up the wall, ready to raid the cookie jar for a few bucks and start sneaking them on the sly. Start lying to Ellen about something important.
And then Caroline played "Silent Night" for him, her skinny little butt practically falling off the bench in front of that out of tune old spinet.
Plunk de plunk plunk... plunk de plunk plunk... PLUNK de plunk... PLUNK de plunk...
He remembered how she'd hopped off and danced around the living room, pigtails flapping, lighting the place up with how proud she was.
And that kiss Helen had given him, how she'd whispered in his ear and then how they all danced together to celebrate the budding musical genius.
Fuck it, he thought. Fuck it all.
He lit one of the three.
They didn't burn his throat anymore. Right after the funeral, when he bought his first pack in twenty-odd years, it was like swallowing lit charcoal. The habit came back quickly, though. Too quickly. All those nights he sat up, smoking and drinking, not wanting to go to bed.
Afraid to go to bed, to their bed, now so big and empty and cold.
Thirty one years. A blink of an eye.
And then he was alone.
He picked up Caroline's present again. That's what it was. A little wooden present, painted with red and green stripes and a carved wooden ribbon in sparkly blue. After he'd unwrapped the box it came in, he thought it was supposed to open, too, like one of those dolls with more dolls inside. It didn't, though. It was solid wood, a present inside a present. He didn't know what the fuck it was supposed to be for, or why Caroline had given it to him.
Caroline stayed with him for a while after Ellen died. It was bad for him. He knew it was bad for her, too, losing her mother, but he couldn't do anything for her. He was just so ... shattered by it all. When she left to go back to Jim and her kids, he hadn't even been able to drive her to the airport. He should have been stronger for her.
But he hadn't been. Wasn't.
That first Christmas without Ellen he was either drunk or hung over for two weeks. Couldn't stop crying, fresh tears at every song on the radio. The second year wasn't as bad, but it was still bad enough. Now, it was the third. Three years since she died. Not passed away, or gone home, or any of that bullshit. Three Christmases since Ellen died.
He still didn't get down any of the decorations, but at least he wasn't drunk.
So what was this present from Caroline? He didn't want any Christmas crap. That's what he'd always called the ribbons and bibbons Ellen loved decorating the place with. She's always done all of that kind of thing for them. Wrapped all the presents, too, except the ones he gave her. He thought back over all of them, all those years of gifts. The funny ones, the stupid ones. That purple silk chemise. The diamond ring. That mystery novel by her favorite author, the one he'd gotten autographed. So many years, so many Christmases...
Why would Caroline give him this? He had nothing to give in return. Nothing to give anyone. She had her own family now. She didn't need him. No one did, not anymore.
He sat, thinking about the past and looking at the present.
His Christmas present.
Caroline's present. His present.
When he finally understood, when he finally got it, his hands started to shake, just like an old man's hands. The tears flowed and rolled down his cheeks and he didn't try to stop them.
He thought of Ellen, his one true love, his life... his past.
I loved you, he thought. I loved you and I will always love you.
My daughter. My son-in-law. My grandkids, he thought. They are my present.
My Christmas present.
Caroline, he thought, blowing his nose. You damned kid, you're just like your mother. A wise woman.
He picked up the pack, fished out the last two cigarettes and sent them down the garbage disposal. He let the cold water run and washed his face and hands before he reached for the phone. Thinking of his past, his present, and his future, he called his daughter to wish her a merry Christmas.
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