Last Minute Tree
By: Leah Griffith
I was about eleven when Alberta Hazard, took me along to help her buy a Christmas tree. It was the night before Christmas, pretty late to be buying a tree, but I was excited to go. This would be my first time breaking away from the nest and seeing how other people did Christmas—discovering that our family wasn’t the center of the holiday universe.
Although only eleven, I was Alberta and Rob’s babysitter, and a good one at that. I was old for my age, having no choice but to grow up quickly because of a complicated home life.
The Hazard’s had five kids back in the day when that was considered an average sized litter. They weren’t your conventional family. They had a fully stocked bar that took up their entire dining room and they kept a vicious Doberman named, Ranger, chained up in the kitchen. The children were well behaved, but who wouldn’t be with parents as stern as Alberta and Rob. They were whiskey serious—you could smell it each time they spoke.
Behind the bar Rob kept a leather strap hanging in full sight. The kids said it looked like a long black tongue waiting to give them a licking. It did. I felt bad for the Hazard kids. Their parents were mean, their dog was mean, and they spent most of their little lives on full alert—like deer sensing danger, tiptoeing around, trying not to piss off Rob, Alberta, or the dog.
When Alberta and Rob would leave for the evening, I’d spoil the kids, giving them “horsey” rides, sharing my snacks, and letting them choose which TV shows we watched. They loved the fun, and I felt like a mini god exercising my power of good over evil. That’s why I was excited to be able to have some say in what kind of Christmas tree they had. Their last year’s tree had been a boney disappointment.
Alberta wasn’t a big talker so we walked in silence, leaving me to watch the snow fall and wonder how something so delicate could make such hard crunching noises under my boots.
The guy selling trees was bundled up against wind, standing under a streetlight chewing on a cigar. Alberta spoke first, “Where do you keep the cheap trees?” Her words sounded crude, absent of holiday manners. Mr. Cigar was just as bad, not bothering to answer, but simply nodding his head, directing us to a dark corner where skinny pines roped in twine, were stacked on top of one another, looking more like a pile of hostages than Christmas trees.
I could imagine the flat line of disappointment in the kid’s eyes if we brought home one of those trees. Lord knows I was pretty familiar with that “let down” feeling myself, praying every night that my perverted stepfather would disappear from my life, only to find him at the breakfast table each morning fresh-faced and ready to rule the roost. I piped up, forcing out my words in big steamy breaths, “These trees are pathetic, Alberta. You guys need a pretty tree to go with that nice house of yours.”
There house was nice—on the outside, but on the inside it was as stark as a cell. Alberta wandered over to a “pretty” tree and lifted a branch, meeting it with her nose and sniffing as one sniffs a rose. I held my breath, afraid of breaking the spell. Dropping the bough, she hollered over her shoulder, “What’s this one cost?”
Alberta wasn’t a girly girl, she wore her hair pulled into a tight ponytail, carried a wallet like a dude, and had one eye that traveled, so you were never certain what she was looking at. She jingled the change in her jeans pocket, waiting for an answer.
“Oh that there’s a Blue Spruce, came all the way from Colorado. That one will cost you twelve bucks.”
“Twelve bucks for a tree on Christmas Eve? You’ll be burning them by morning. I’ll give you six.”
The man shuffled over to Alberta, and lit his already smoldering cigar, sucking and puffing, creating such a cloud that his head disappeared altogether.
“I’ll give it to you for eight, but that doesn’t include rope or me helping you tie it to your car.”
Alberta flipped open her wallet and lifted a perfect tenner out, handing it over to Mr. Cigar Face. He snagged the bill and quickly added it to an ample roll of green, handing her back two ones. “You might want to get your husband over here to help you…” But before he could finish his sentence, Alberta had already lifted the tree and was heading out, with me running behind.
It sure was a beauty, with thick fragrant branches, smelling like every kind of holiday happiness a kid could imagine. I took the light end while Alberta held onto the thickest part of the trunk. We made pretty good progress trudging through the snow along Main Street, passing store after store, their windows burning with holiday temptations, until Alberta’s good eye fixed itself on a neon sign, advertising that Archie’s Tavern was open for business on Christmas Eve.
The tree train stopped abruptly with an announcement from Alberta; “We’ll hoist the tree up here in this doorway, and go get a quick night cap. It will be our little secret.” And then she winked at me, sealing my fate as her co-conspirator.
The floor creaked as Alberta led the way through a section of small tables. Heads turned and nodded as she found us seats at the end of the bar. I felt as though I had entered a secret society where serious drinkers, perched like a sullen flock, drowned their troubles in booze. I had to fight the urge to spin on my barstool.
Alberta sipped her whiskey, half listening, as a guy sitting on her other side slur-whispered into her ear. I drank my Coke, glad to be on the end where no one could sit next to me.
A black haired lady in a red sequin dress was busy plunking nickels into the jukebox. Her rump shook to the music like a shimmery lure, drawing a skinny guy from the crowd who pulled her into a slow dance. I strained to focus my eyes, trying to see her face, imagining pretty, but instead finding the face of an old hag fit for handing out poison apples. My stomach twisted as my mind tried to adjust to what it was seeing, and I wondered if she knew what she looked like to everyone else, or if she even cared…if anyone cared. This was a different Christmas.
We made it back to Alberta’s by eight, leaving us plenty of time to decorate. Rob was passed out on the sofa, the kids were in bed, and the only creature stirring was Ranger, licking his bowl clean in the kitchen.
Wilson Pickett’s voice scratched over the hi-fi as we strung lights, and tossed tinsel. We worked like frenzied elves on deadline. Finally finished, Alberta plugged in the tree and shut off the lamp. I had to catch my breath because of the beauty of it—the icy shimmer of Christmas reflected off the tinsel—dancing over everything, including Rob’s sleeping face, transforming their harsh living room in sugar plum softness.
We rushed outside in our stocking feet to catch a glimpse of the tree through the window. It was Rockwellian perfect, fit for a holiday postcard. Alberta smiled at the warm vision she had created, and whispered, "Let's go wake up the kids."
I remember Alberta loading her arms with the three youngest, while I tugged at droopy limbs and whispered, “Come see”. We half-circled the tree, the children’s eyes wide, their voices hushed with wonder.
I could sense the spirit of Christmas standing there with us—the joy, the togetherness, and even though it was temporary, and things would surely go back to normal, Christmas was visiting the Hazard family, waking up little hearts to the message of divine love, and the magic of hope, and change.
The Hazard’s left their tree up until January 22nd that year. Alberta begrudgingly agreed to take it down because Rob said it was a fire hazard. The next two years they had beautiful trees decorated well before Christmas Eve, after that they moved away and I lost track of them.
I like to imagine that the Hazard children grew up and created memorable Christmases for their own families, and that my childlike input on that snowy, tree-buying Christmas Eve, was enough to make a difference for generations of Hazards to come.
It’s always the little things isn’t it?
ELR wishes all our friends a very Merry Christmas, a Happy Chanukah, and a most Happy New Year.