#FridayFlash: Phil's Christmas Present

#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.

Or anyone.

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.

The 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.

His present.

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.

Comments and constructive criticisms welcome. Other #FridayFlash pieces can be found here


  1. You're so good at condensing an entire background into a story and having us 'get-it' without massive overdump.

    This was touching, yet dark. His final gift to everyone was nice. A real surprise where it went. Well done.

  2. Thanks Carrie, I'm glad you liked it!

    I've been a terrible perpetrator of the info-dump in the past. It's good to know I'm recovering.

  3. Tony, I am sobbing with you in this story. How heartwarming and touching. I love the parody of the Christmas present and the "present". But mostly, I love that Caroline has her Father back.

    Awesome story and Great writing!

  4. Cynthia, I'm very happy to have a chance to leave you with a better Christmas feeling than my Eight Maids A'Milking engendered!

    Merry Christmas!

  5. This was a great weave of info without the 'dump'. Very touching.

  6. Thanks, Laura. Quite a departure from the sci-fi/horror scene... only one death!

  7. Yup! I'm typing through tears and sniffing fit to annoy my hubby. {grabs for a tissue. Blows}

    Very true on giving up (I'm a smoker on/off/on/off etc.) and on loss (also a widow - remarried). And I dread the lonliness of old age.

    The sudden appreciation of the daughter's *hint* and wisdom it touching and revealing of the impact of his self-pity.

    You continue to impress me with your stories. Of all the FridayFlash, I always have to read yours.


  8. Beautifully poignant story Tony. I love the concept you weaved into the 'present'. Great work!

  9. So sweet and heart-wrenching. Yeesh, I'm looking forward to after the holidays when we can get back to death and mayhem. ;)

    Seriously, this was great. You painted the whole thing very efficiently. It was the perfect size for the container, just like the present.


  10. Meg: Thanks so much! I had to reach for some of these emotions, never having been left a widower. I'm glad I hit the right notes. (I hope I didn't make you use too many tissues.)

    Deanna & Cecilia: I think is was Jane Austen who talked about painting a picture on a two-inch canvas. Not a bad mark to try to live up to for any flash fiction author.

    Don't worry... I have lots of bizarre weirdness up my sleeve for after the holidays. 8-)

  11. I very much enjoyed this departure from sci-fi and horror. More like this will keep me coming to read again and again.

  12. Hi, David, thanks for the comment. This is certainly different from the last few weeks; I'm glad you liked it. If you haven't read it, you might also read "Not My Intention"; I think you'd like it.

    These #FridayFlash pieces are a place for me to experiment with different tools of writing. Voices, styles, POVs, genres, etc. Sometimes I'm working on evoking a specific emotion (love, fear, hate, sorrow, etc.), but without being obvious about pushing buttons in the reader.

    All this experimentation makes for a bit of a mixed bag. I'll try to keep you checking back.

  13. Awwww.
    I'll second Carrie about the non-dumpness of it, too :)

  14. Tony, this was a great story! I like his memories of the past linked to how much cigarettes cost at the time.

    The "present" was very touching, and the "wisdom" of both the wife and daughter was such a great understated detail showing such sensitivity for his need to deal with his own addiction and grief.

    Happy Holidays to you!

  15. Well written and a very nice Christmas story, but I missed your usual horror voice.

  16. This was a really lovely piece. He's lucky he has such a wise daughter; otherwise a visit from a few ghosts might have been in order. :-) Very well done!

  17. Elizabethditty: Thank you! I'm glad you liked it. I wanted to convey that the daughter was sensitive and caring, without actually showing her at all. A bit of a trick, and it worked out pretty well.

    Merry Christmas!

  18. Tony, this is probably my favorite of your #fridayflashes to date. It is sentimental, but lives worth living are built with sentiments. Instead of merely being sentimental, though, you partially explained and partially showed why the sentiment had meaning, rendering it very relatable and pleasant, as many hankies as it might take the main character to get through it.

  19. He's going to feel pretty dumb when he finds the secret catch that opens it to reveal the carton of cigarettes inside. ;)

  20. John: Thank you! When a story evokes an emotional response, that's great. When it goes about pushing emotional buttons in a ham-handed way, that's sentimentality.

    Anton: And a Happy Christmas to you, too!

  21. Bravo, Tony!

    I can see why you were so excited about this piece all week -- super, just super. This struck nerves on so many levels... so many... Thank you for writing this. Your best to date. Peace, Linda

  22. Linda: I'm so glad you liked it! I know that I'm headed in the right direction when I hear comments like "best to date".

    Merry Christmas!

  23. I thought it was interesting when you wrote several sentences about cigarettes and then wrote about how little "breathing room" there was in the apartment. I had to go back and re-read to understand that the present was a totally empty box, but then I have to think far too long about the punchline of jokes.

    Seriously, this is a very poignant story and the ending was just right.

  24. this is a very poignant story and the ending was just right.

    Thanks, Kim!

    Go back and take a look. Inside the box was a small present made of wood. His daughter was giving him a gift: the present. Come back to us, Dad, she was saying. We love you and we miss you. Your present is waiting for you.

    A bit on the sweet side, but what the heck. If you can't be sweet and kind at Christmastime, when can you do it?

  25. Tony, I always enjoy your stories, but this one was extra special. There are some really great touches here, such as using the price of cigarettes to show the passing of time, and using "present" in its various Christmas incarnations. It's a very touching story, but more than that, it's well told. One minor fix, in the paragraph where he considers stealing from the cookie jar, you use the name Helen, instead of Ellen. Other than that, the story's pitch perfect. And on a final note, Merry Christmas to you! ~Olivia

  26. Thanks, Olivia! There was a lot of bouncing around in time here - his memories of the far past, the recent past, the passage of years & decades. All of it was scattered in a jumble of thoughts and images. The price of a pack helped to frame things.

    I had to rewrite this a number of times to get the tone right. For example, the only line of spoken dialogue here was from his wife, speaking in a memory from long ago. Everything else is his own internal, fragmentary monologue. I was trying to show that she was the only real thing in his life.

    From a mechanics standpoint, I changed the wife's name from Helen to Ellen, and the daughter from Carolyn to Caroline. Do these changes matter? That's question worthy of a blog post all by itself, so look for that soon. I do appreciate having technical mistakes pointed out to me. I don't mind having it done in a comment; that will be all the more incentive for me to copyedit the next story even more carefully.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  27. I liked how you wrapped everything up so nicely and didn't spoon feed the moral to the reader. Nicely done.

  28. I think it's all about trusting the reader, Ganymeder. When I first started writing, I was afraid the reader wouldn't get the point, or would get the wrong point. I spelled out everything.

    I've since learned that people not only appreciate it when you credit them with intelligence, they also dislike being spoon-fed like children.

    Restraint is still hard, though.

  29. I liked this one very much, Tony. You do go through a lot of back story but it keeps moving throughout. I like the overall message and the ending. It would be interesting to see this done in first person. This 3rd person is very close and intimate, but it would be interesting to hear it and feel it in your mc's voice. Well done!

  30. That's an interesting thought, P.J. One of the writing exercises in Ursula Le Guin's "Steering the Craft" is to write a scene, then retell it in a range of tenses & POVs. 1st past, 3rd past, 3rd present, person A's perspective, person B's, outside observer, present tense, etc. omniscient, limited, unreliable narrator, etc.

    I did it once... it's a good exercise, and it helps to work muscles you aren't accustomed to using.

    I'm not sure how this piece would sound done in 1st. The change in emotional state after the realization means that it would have to be done in present tense: "I stare at the package and think, what the frak?". Later it would be: "The tears roll down my face as I understand, as I finally get it."

    If it were done in the past tense, it would be hard to maintain the emotional authenticity of the loneliness and bleak despair in the face of the renewed hope. "I thought I was alone, that it didn't matter what I spent my money on." Sounds bit wooden, as the narrator would have to be a bit unreliable, in order to let the tension build toward the emotional release of the redemption.

    Something to think about.

  31. Tony, you've made me cry. I'm thinking about my father, during the 6 years after my mother died unexpectedly and he was on his own. He never did "gt it", never rejoined the living before he finally dies of cancer in 2006.

    All you men out there, here's a tip. We know you love us. If you lose us, you need to know we loved you too. Just keep on living.

  32. Donna: I'm sorry for your loss, and that the burden of grief was too great for your father to overcome. Sometimes it's our capacity for love and devotion that ends up hurting us the most.

    Your advice is sound. Sorrow festers when it's held in isolation.

    I try to draw on reality as I write, because that is where truth lives. Unfortunately, sometimes reality is a bitter draft.

    I'll try to write something happier this week.

  33. Donna -
    Amazing when a story hits home like that - I'm so sorry for your loss.

    Tony -
    I think it's great to experiment with different POV's, voices, etc. I made a great discovery about one of my characters in my nano novel by rewriting in first person. I love the story as-is. The only reason why I mention it is that the voice of your mc would be very compelling and 1st person might lead you to make cool discoveries. You're right, I think you may need to stay in present tense for the last bit, but that would be fine. Anyway - all of this is just food for thought - I like the story very much :-)

  34. very nice piece of prose, this could of so easily gone 'a bit wet' but thankfully delivered well

    good stuff

  35. Lovely and touching. A very nice present we all can hold.

  36. Chance & Tim: Thanks for reading, and for your comments. I'm not familiar with the expression "a bit wet"... does it mean weepy, sloppy, overly sentimental? Very glad I was able to avoid that!

  37. What a great resource!

  38. I really liked this story. Love the way smoking signifies his apathy, his lack of consideration for everyone else's suffering.

    Where did the idea come from with the present?


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