Oh, Christmas Tree
They slowed as neared the corner, each coming upon the converted parking lot at Astor Place from different directions.
Ed `Slippery' Kennedy came from the east side, a narrow-shouldered, middle-aged black man with once curling hair now near-bald, stuck firmly under a blue navy knit cap. The slouch had come with the years. So had the perpetually diverted eyes, downcast like a Southern Slave from too many `nigger' jobs and too many threats of unemployment.
It took hours for the eyes to rise and look people in the face, and approaching the odd intersection of streets bordered by St. Marks, the Bowery, and other injected streets, his gaze had risen to waist level, blinking over the sea of shopping bags and briefcases which marked the changed nature of the neighborhood, business suits and uptown fashions mingling now with worn field jackets and freezing junkies. His gaze was frosted, however, with visions of home, having just shuffled up from Avenue B and East 9th, where nothing had changed greatly for twenty years.
He looked vaguely like a barroom hustler searching for a gig. Even the light was right, shimmering from the string of naked bulbs that clung to the top of the cyclone parking lot fence like cheap pearls on the neck of a whore. Signs hung beneath these, advertising holiday pines-- though behind them, the ground was bare, save for the bed of fallen needles which covered the oil stained asphalt.
These same lights illuminated Travor `Talker' Jackson's pale face as it floated from the opposite direction, up the slanted street of closed fashion stores and hair cutting establishments from lower Broadway. He had one of those square-jawed all American faces which drew Slippery's hooked stare and registered with disgust. It might have been a yuppie's face had it been attacked to more suitable clothing, instead of the worn trench coat and Habband shoes. As it was `Streetwise' registered in the blue eyes, those two feet one whole rung up the hard-knocks ladder from Slippery, and his own expression resented it.
Still, Trevor didn't look like he belonged to the city at all-- a boondocks baby that might have posed for a pitch-fork photo with a farm-life backdrop and a strand of hay in his hair. The suit beneath his over-coat hinted of ambition, as did the `I-haven't-got-a-care-in-the-world' stroll. But there was something wrong with it, too, something else out of place that marked him different from the Wall Street crowd which had invaded lately.
Slippery eyed the man as they passed, nodding nonchalantly.
Nothing registered in the other man's eyes, not even distaste. His gaze went passed the black man. It had seen Slippery's kind before, a whole city of shuffling poor right across Newark Bay, downtown Newark aching with under-employed, all wearing the same constantly hungry look of increasing poverty.
It was that look which had driver Trevor's parents west, deeper into suburbia, where their only child wouldn't have to contend with the battling halls of public education. Yet even from the Orange Mountains upon which the rich North Caldwell looked, Trevor remembered-- Newark shimmering constantly in the eyes of the only black his new home knew: the bent black janitor sweeping the halls.
There was nothing symbolic in Trevor's eastward drift tonight. The narrow space of his West Side storefront apartment had driven him to the street. The place was not really small, but typical of many railroad apartments converted by the neo-rich into livable spaces rather than stores, with round-topped windows at the front and long eloquent rooms stretching across the ground floor to the rear where backyard patios hinted of gracious living.
The space was cramped due to Trevor himself and his collected empire of junk, the rooms stacked floor to ceiling with the scores of countless one-time deals-- five years worth of life-time opportunities which the man just could not pass up. The sum total of it made his a bigger Christmas bargain than Macy's basement.
In other seasons, he seemed more like a pawn collecting rather than con-man extraordinary-- successful con-men did not get stuck with useless junk. That was the point of having marks upon whom to dump such inglorious items. A rough inventory showed his collection to include bicycles for children with one leg longer than the other, mechanical airplanes which once wound up did actually fly (to which the broken pane of glass in the rear room could attest); clothing and shoes fifty years out of date, stuffed in boxes, closets, and dressers. Some items were actually stolen-- though the owners were not diligently pursuing their recovery, nor offering reward for their return, as if all too willing to be rid of them.
His last deal had dumped fourteen cartons of brand new socks with not one single pair in the entire batch.
The two men passed, each bearing a manner typical of New York, with barely a glance towards the other-- though Slippery eyed Trevor in that special, instinctual way, reading the white man's history without an ounce of intimate knowledge. There was a sickly pale to the flesh, more pronounced than most Manhattan males, hinting of weeks indoors under dim bulbs and low heat, yet sharply typical of the West Side elite, who needed never leave the safety of their apartment islands, calling for necessities by telephone or cab, having doormen with pressed pants deliver it to their anxious fingers.
Slippery had seen hundreds of Trevor's kind, swirling their silk scarves at the Astor Place cube, making snobbish comments about Art, Life, and certain glorious eateries in Soho. The hate was obvious in his snarling expression, though Trevor didn't notice. It was the look of outrage which touched most of the Lower East Side at the invasion of young, upwardly mobile warriors who came from God-knew-where to seize upon ghetto buildings like Huns, turning what had once been poor, but affordable tenements into a private playground for the rich. Four buildings on Slippery's block had turned condo or coop since Thanksgiving. Six more had their heat and electricity shut by greedy landlords trying to get in on the boon. It was only a matter of time before Slippery's got targeted, leaving him in an even more desperate position than he was already in.
For an instant, his fingers twitched, and had he been a mugger rather than burglar, some of that rage might have been vented there in the street, leaving one less potential enemy who might put Slippery out on the street. But there was little temperament for violence in the small black man, an attitude which had left him in poor standing over the years with his Black Power peers. The neighborhood militants had pressed him hard towards rebellion since his stint in Vietnam.
His gaze fell, examining more closely the coat. Was there a fat wallet waiting inside the inner lining for the right set of fingers to lift? Again, his finger twitched. But they lacked the delicacy of such habits, too, more suited to squeezing under a sticky window than into the private parts of a man's anatomy.
Slippery spat off into the gutter, tugging his thin jacket tighter, glaring back over his shoulder as the other man paused-- sweat thick on his forehead from a nervousness he didn't understand, but one which had plagued him on his last three jobs: cold sweats which had struck him moments before the final act, making the crow bar handle less certain in his grip.
There had once been a time when it was King Slippery, dare-devil of the second story-- apprenticed from a father who had held the same title through most of the early century, no lock capable of stopping him. But over the last few years, his attention had been drawn to a sticky silver tape spread across the bottom panes of glass. Alarms had been a fact of life with businesses for decades, but on Apartments, too? It was a new wrinkle in an old tale. The rich were reluctant at being parted from their money, resorting to all sorts of tactics which would keep their newly acquired castles in the slum from being purged.
The king of the second story had fallen to a silly piece of tape. On one job, he'd hung down from the fire escape for two whole hours, wondering what he would tell his kids when he got home. Sorry, child, the Grinch stole Christmas this year-- a fib not too far from the truth when it came to bastards like these. It was all well and good for them to come and steal people's homes, but not at all right for his kind to want to take something back. Lucky for him, the alarm had been a simple contact and break system, rather than one of those microwave things that read body heat.
That had been the night before. It was too late to go looking for another job now. People would be home. And even if he came dressed like Santa, people would wonder why he was removing the appliances rather than bringing them in.
It was a city full of Scrooges-- and after a skimpy supper with the kids, he'd slipped out to avoid those wide eyes and suggestive smiles, and the one question of the year: "Is Santa coming tonight, Daddy?"
"No," he mumbled, leaning suddenly against the fence, his fingers wringing the life out of the cold squares. "No goddamn Christmas this year for brats like you. Not even a Christmas tree."
He shook himself, closing his eyes against the memory of those faces, shivering for the warmth of the apartment. But it was easier walking the cold streets than looking at them, becoming part of that ever-moving mass of nameless people who roamed the night-time city. Yet it wasn't even his own kids-- they were merely echoes of the hungry eyes Slippery had seen overseas, Vietnamese kids pushing close for scraps of anything `GI Joe' could give, chocolate or cigarettes, anything that would bring a buck on the black market.
Sometimes, when he was very tired from the slave-market straight job he worked eight hours a day, he wondered about his own kids with no `GI Joes' of their own, only Slippery who would have to go home sooner or later to their eyes, without cash or candy bar to ease their rage.
Trevor had eyed the skinny black man, too, as they had passed, the anger like an electric charge snapping between them. It was that extra sense Trevor had developed over the year, feeling the pulse of the immediate environment like a fisherman testing the temperature of the water. But he saw the black man turn as he did, their glances flashing across each other for a brief instant. The black man looked rat-like, pointed nose and sloped forehead, shoulders bent too far forward as if bearing a great weight between his shoulder blades.
There was no pity in Trevor's eyes, nor real interest, though the gaze studied the other figure quickly and carefully before breaking contact. A false alarm, perhaps. His talent sometimes did that, catching a bit of someone's private life, mistaking it for danger. Perhaps it was the reminder of Newark when at twilight, business district turned into concrete jungle, and out of its sewers seeped the most deadly of beings, any one of them capable of devouring this little rich kid with a single bite.
This black man was no someone Trevor would have liked to meet in any darker street. He paused under the bright illumination of the gate, where the fence lights combined with two bright spot lights made for an isle of safety. A badly painted sigh said `Xmas Trees', typical of New York illiteracy.
Trevor's fingers trembled in his overcoat pockets. Perhaps the black man would mistake him as having a gun-- though in truth; Trevor would have likely shot his own toes off if he'd had one.
Beyond the gate was a small shack made of crinkled aluminum and bulging plywood, a temporary structure which had taken on permanence by mere survival, a model miniature of the tenement buildings just then being demolished four blocks east. A single window glowed with the blinking twinkle of tiny, multi-colored Christmas lights strung around its perimeter. They blinked to the throb of Trevor's aching head. He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples, pulling his overcoat closed against the cold.
But the annoying wasn't just the headache. Or the lights. But the spirit that had been rising over Manhattan for weeks, the drumbeat of holiday that pounded harder and harder as the Christmas crew close. Tomorrow it would all be over and the city would return to its usual dismal business-- a condition that made his apartment less stark by comparison. Now, on the street, good cheer poured over him from store front displays to merry neighbors, drowning him in its thick sappiness.
As a teenage, he and his friends had often gone out for Christmas Eve-- avoiding the gap of home life which would have been all too evident had he invited them in-- looking for that very spirit, wanting it to capture them the way it had countless others since before Dickens' Scrooge.
They never found it-- but he, in growing, had never stopped looking, always finding himself out on the street when others were huddled around their Christmas trees waiting on Santa. Yet, at this very moment, he was more moth than human, flipping his inglorious wings against the idiotic lights, destined to burn himself on their unsalable promise.
Down the street, people laughed. Young faces rounded the corner, nodding to him as they passed, dressed like him, but with an air of acute joy, half drunk on it.
"Merry Christmas," they said.
"Yeah," he mumbled and leaned closer to the gate, his eerie shadow weak against the darkness of the factories and storefronts that framed the oddly shaped square, a Helmsley-Speare poster pasted on each, indicating that they too would soon follow the tenements in renovation, making room for the new class of Eastsiders.
Yet even with that doom hanging over the neighbor, there was lack of care, as if all conflict was suspended for one night. A small window two floors up was aglow with colored lights, blinking on and off like the eye of glittering prostitute.
He closed his own eyes and grumbled. "What the hell do you have to be so happy about?"
He looked up sharply. The black man hadn't moved.
"Go away," Trevor whispered as if talking to the ghost of Christmases Past. His knee throbbed-- an old football injury from high school whose addition made the night complete. He took a step then stopped.
Talker, people called him, from years of verbal manipulation, cool talk, fast games, all of which amounted to nothing. They might as well have called him Mister Junkman now. Or Mister Lonely.
There was no clear mark in time at which point his luck had turned. Nor was he particularly down and out, or homeless, or ever hungry. But all that was a perfectly visible future, as if he was standing on the slope of a valley into which he was presently falling, life spinning up before his eyes, his temporary happiness ripped away with the fall.
Nor was he particularly lonely for flesh. There was cool cash crinkling in his pocket, more than enough to score himself company for the evening. Not street life company, but a regular lady. And he might even have pretended happiness for the evening if the face across the dinner table meant anything significant. But after midnight, after the laughter had ended, he would revert to the pretty-faced Cinderella sitting on a pumpkin.
Al his life, people had told him about his face-- how honest it was, how American he looked. In the old days, before his slump, he suckered those people first, laughing from behind that face as he convinced them about how wrong a book-cover could be. He stole their savings and homes, cars and boats, but never once was able to capture their hearts.
He blew on his hands. Only last week he'd gotten a shipment of gloves, all of them left-handed. The warm steam of his breath rose up into the lights, giving him the impression he was more wraith than human, the taste to burnt coffee still thick in his mouth. The dented stove-top peculator as real then as the fence. His apartment glared out of the shadows, kitchen more storage room than functional. Even his refrigerator had ceased its old purpose, stuffed with books no one had ever heard of.
"Hot reading," the man had said, suggesting pornography. It was much worse, a batch of vanity press rejects.
He lit a cigarette and through the smoke saw the tree.
Slippery saw it, too.
It was the last one in the lot, hitched in the far corner like a homeless child. The black man licked his chapped lips, blinking at the tree, looking at it from various angles with an expression of sudden interest, tainted with disbelief.
It wasn't a tree worth bragging about. It had bare spots around the middle and a dwindling top, as unlikely to hold an angel as the head of a pin. But gone was the illusion of liberating the wallet from the white man's pocket.
The tree in no way resembled a Hershey bar, but it was something-- and the more Slippery looked at it, the clearer the vision of his kids was, sitting around it.
He grinned, his smile gapped with missing teeth. Perhaps there wouldn't be presents under the tree this year, but at least there would be a tree.
Payday had come and passed and Slippery's pockets were still empty. Money had gone to rent. The only thing remotely heavy in his pocket was a knife with a worn ivory handle-- a gift from his pa, from the south. He fingered it. His face shifting expression again, bearing with it the memory of hate for the previous owner, who’d, lectured him nightly on the sinfulness of idle behavior.
"Gotta pick yerself up by the bootstraps, boy," the voice said, floating on the occasional flurries of snow.
"Bootstraps, bullshit!" Slippery hissed.
It wasn't a matter of lack of work. Slippery had never been unemployed from his day out of the army, working one un-unionized job after another for shit wages. He weekly paycheck wouldn't even meet the rent, let alone the added luxuries like food, electric and heat. The blood suckers were always there, Con Ed, Landlord, and rip-off grocers, who jacked up their prices for people with food stamps.
It was his midnight job that bridged the gap-- and that only barely. He never pushed the issue, investing in his second story routine only after numerous threats of eviction or Con Ed shut offs. He never took more than he needed, or more than he thought the people could afford.
On his last job, he'd actually left a diamond necklace behind. The Canal Street brokers would have given him a pretty penny for that. Enough to buy a Christmas tree even.
His semi-professional eye glanced over the fence. It wasn't too high. Even the rusted barbed wire at the top could be gotten around with a little care-- some of it just rusted enough for him to break without being scratched.
His gaze shifted towards the booth and its blinking light. The window was situated the wrong way for any direct sighting. Inside it, rock & roll pounded the thin walls. Slippery grinned and put one toe into the wire square of the fence and began to climb.
After that first contact, Trevor didn't even look at the black man again, but decided to give himself a Christmas present. There was room enough with a little creative shuffling to fit that tree in his apartment. Again, he fingered the cash in his pocket, bothered by one small detail. He had no intention of paying for the thing. It was a matter of professional pride; or rather the need of some positive omen to tell him the New Year would bring him better fortunes. He wanted the tree, but on his own terms, and if he couldn't talk the attendant out of paltry-looking tree like that, then he'd better damned well give up the trade altogether.
A test. A barometer by which to gauge the future.
He thrust both hands deep into his overcoat pockets and walked straight through the gate towards the booth.
Inside the steamy window, the not-so-delicate face of an unshaven youth hovered snorting over newspaper funnies. There was a minimal amount of decoration inside the booth, coffee-stained cardboard Santa and sleight scotch-taped up to the back wall like an after thought.
Trevor tapped the glass. The youth did not move. He tapped more sternly, but still the figure's attention remained on the colored cartoon frame. Angrily, he banged on the wooden booth itself with the side of his gloveless hand, ice shaking loose from the room, shattering at it landed on the gravel near Trevor's feet.
The boy looked up, his expression startled, then annoyed.
"What the hell do you want?" he snarled, after slapping aside the glass pane-- his deep voice changing and muffled amid knit cap and fuzzy green ear muffs. This last was ajar, giving him the look of a haphazard snowman. But it was the crooked, misshapen mouth that most misrepresented the boy, and combined with the flashing multi-colored light, painted him into a sad Frankenstein monster.
"I want that tree," Trevor snapped, pointing towards the corner of the yard.
"Tree?" the boy mumbled, half asleep. "Which tree is that?"
"How many damned trees do you have left?" Trevor asked, pushing the advantage. "Frankly, you people have a lot of nerve trying to pass that off on the public."
The boy rubbed his eyes. "Look, mister, I just work here."
"Then I want to speak with your boss. That tree is in a shambles. I can only imagine the price you people are asking."
The boy grew more awake, shaking his head slowly. "I can't call the boss," he said.
"Oh? Then how am I going to get my discount? Are you authorized to shave something off the price?"
It was standard routine: put the product down enough to keep the price sinking. The price was always too high for such disgusting an item. At some point, the combination of abuse and weariness would make the sucker give up the product for nothing.
"Yes, discount," Trevor harped. "There are bare spots on that fir which no amount of tinsel will cover."
The boy sighed. "Maybe I should take a look at the tree."
He pulled himself free of the tangle of newsprint. An empty soda bottle fell. He grumbled, opened the creaking door with something of a defiant gesture.
"Shouldn't you put on a coat?" Trevor asked.
The boy looked back at the peak coat hanging on the back of his chair, his teeth chattering. "Oh yeah." Then, he stood with hands deep in their pockets. "Which tree are we talking about?"
It was a silly question considering the near-empty lot before them-- the sweep of pine needles and dead branches the only other evidence that there had been trees at all. But Trevor humored the boy and his ritual. pointing to the far corner of the lot.
"There," he said with a somewhat exaggerated gesture of his own. Yet when he actually looked to where he was pointing, the tree wasn't there. It hung instead a few feet closer to the street, midway up the side of the fence, deep in the arms of a clinging black man.
"Hey!" the boy yelped and charged across the lot. "Hey nigger! Let go of my tree!"
Trevor followed quickly behind, cursing under his breath.
The black man looked up through the branches of the tree, his eyes catching on the string of lights at the fence top, making him look half cat, though it was with the tenacity of a spider by which he hung.
The boy leaped and pulled down on the tip of the truck. Trevor leaned against the fence, plucking at his teeth with a tooth. "Some people have gall," he said.
Slippery cursed. His belt had snagged on a loose strand of fence. He let the tree drop, then used both hands to untangle himself before dropping down beside it.
"Now this isn't as bad as it looks," Slippery said.
"Uh huh," mumbled Trevor. "That's what they all say."
Slippery cast a dark glance at the white man, then looked to the boy again, gauging the distance to the gate-- a quick jump could get him there in a dozen strides. But he was more pissed at himself than frightened. Getting caught was contagious. It set patterns of doubt in a good thief's mind, always popping up at inopportune times. Worse was the idea of getting busted for something as scrawny as this tree. He was allergic to small places, especially when they were shaped like a prison cell, and there was nothing pleasant in the idea of a cop climbing the stairs to his East Side apartment, telling him family he had been busted on Christmas Eve.
"So? What were you doing with my tree then?" the boy asked.
"Tree? What tree?"
"Oh brother!" Trevor moaned, rubbing his face with a cold hand.
"That tree!" the boy pointed.
"That's a tree?" Slippery said. "Looks awful skinny to be a tree, man. I thought it was scrap."
Trevor smiled. "Clever answer, dude."
Slippery glared at Trevor. The boy shook his head.
"It's a tree, all right. And you were trying to steal it. I got a witness, too."
"Whoa, there, son," Trevor said, holding up both hands. "I didn't see anything."
"Stealing it? You mean you were actually trying to hoist that skinny thing on some unsuspecting sucker?" Slippery said. "I'd say you're the one that's stealing."
The boy fetched up the tree, holding it upright like a prize exhibit. "I'll have you know this is a valuable item," he said. "As a matter of fact, I have a customer for it."
"Who him?" Slipper said, glaring at Trevor again. Trevor shook his head.
"I never said anything about buying it," he said, wishing the black man had had better timing. A good con-routine was rapidly going up in smoke. Meanwhile, Slippery's glare never wavered, his bloodshot eyes accusing Trevor of spoiling his gig.
"What do you mean you don't want to buy it?" the boy asked. "You mean to tell me you dragged me out into the cold for nothing?"
"Not for nothing," Trevor said. "But looking at the thing more closely, I've decided this man is right. It's nothing but junk."
"Junk?" the boy's tone grew defiant as eyed both men.
"Yes, indeed," said Trevor. "Look at all those missing branches."
"Listen, mister," the boy said. "All our trees had branches missing. They've been hauled here from long way off. You don't see no pine trees growing here in Manhattan, do you? And you can't expect anything perfect ten minutes before midnight on Christmas Eve either. Dig?"
"Which is precisely why you should give me the tree free," Trevor said.
"Give it to you?" Slippery said, looking back and forth as if there was a conspiracy between these two white people. "You come over and help him take this piece of shit from me only to have him give it to you? I saw it first. I should get it."
"Like hell you should," Trevor growled.
The boy stepped between them, shaking his head. "Neither of you understand English right. I'm not giving this tree to either of you. Not unless one of you has ten bucks in his pocket."
"Ten bucks?" Slippery roared. "That's robbery!"
"That's a bargain. An hour ago, I could have gotten twenty."
Trevor fingered the bundle of bills though the jacket lining. Slippery fingered his knew-- though his calloused black fingers slipped away from it as if burned. Violence wasn't his bag.
"Well?" the boy asked.
Neither man spoke.
"Then both of you get out of here before I call the cops," the boy said. "The tree stays here."
He tucked the poor tree under his arm and walked back towards the booth with it, leaning it against the shaking side, yet near enough the window as to keep an eye on it. He turned, glared, motioning the two men again with a stiff arm, before vanishing back into the warmth of the hut.
"You really blew that gig for me," Trevor said to Slippery, eyeing the tree with a sudden determination in his gaze.
"Me? I would have had the goddamn thing over the fence if you hadn't come along. What do you need if for? You got money."
"Money isn't the point. I need that tree."
"Need it?" the black man said. "You can't melt down the thing down and shoot up the needles."
"I just need it. Why isn't important."
"Well, neither of us is gonna get it now."
"We'll see," Trevor said, clapping his cold arms as he turned towards the gate, looking back at the booth, pondering what approach he could take now. "And don't you get any ideas. It's my tree."
Slippery cocked his head, keeping pace with the white man, his own gaze curious, but still angry. "You're tree? Who's got the pine needles in his paw, eh? Not you. You Yuppie-types don't dirty your hands for nothing, I hear. What are you doing out on Christmas Eve for anyway? Some binge or bet? Oh, I get it. You need this as part of some junk treasure hunt, and you'll just take it back to have a good laugh over while me and my family does without."
Trevor stopped and looked at the man.
"What are you running on about?"
"I'm talking about my kids. They need this damned tree as much as you and your friends need your laugh. Why don't you go off and find yourself another tree and leave this one to me."
"To you? You don't exactly have the thing in your sticky paws now."
"No," said Slippery, eyeing the tree again, his professional eye noting the angle and the slowly nodding boy inside the booth. It wouldn't take much to snatch the tree and run with it.
"And don't hand me your sob stories," Trevor continued coldly. "You don't do them well enough to earn nickels on the street. I've heard them all in my time. They don't phase me."
"I'm not trying to get any nickels," Slippery growled.
"All right then, you're begging for a tree. You're still not going to get it, even if you gravel at my feet."
The blade flashed out into Slippery's hand without him even thinking about it, poking up under the white man's nose.
"I'm not begging for anything, man," he said. "I've done myself proud keeping me and my family off the welfare line."
"Oh?" Travor said, staring down the long silvery surface of the blade. "How? By using that?"
Slippery looked embarrassed and the blade vanished again.
"No," he said. " I work." He grabbed Trevor's wrists and turned the palms upward, poking at their softness with his own calloused fingers. "Something you haven't done a whole lot of. Where'd you get those duds, dude?"
Trevor yanked his hands free of the black man's grasp. "You're the palm reader, you tell me."
Slippery's gap-toothed grin appeared. "You steal like I do-- only a lot more often. I'll bet you're a stock broker or something."
Trevor laughed. "You're as bad at telling fortunes as you are stealing trees."
"Then what do you do, white man?" Slippery's eyes said the insult had struck a little too close to home.
Trevor tapped his forehead. "I use my head."
Slippery snorted. "Then use it to remember your way home, man. I'm getting my family that tree."
Slippery turned back towards the shed, but Trevor grabbed his arm.
"Say, pal, what are we fighting like this for?" he asked, his smooth voice curling around inside Slippery's head like a cat looking for a warm place to sleep. "Surely we can work this out somehow."
Slippery shook the voice off. He wasn't immune to it. He felt it calling the way thousands of marks had in the past, but he'd heard such talents before-- white officers cooing over him in Vietnam, building up each and every black man's macho image saying, "You ain't gonna let no little yellow man push you around, are you?"
"Get away from me, man!" Slipper said. "This ain't no jewelry heist that we can split two ways. You can't split the tree and still have a tree."
"What are you afraid of?" Trevor asked, his voice suddenly cold, his eyes registering the rejection. Few men had turned off his charm so easily.
"Afraid? I ain't afraid of anything."
"You sure act it."
"And you're full of shit," Slipper said, but his hands had hardened into fists at his side. He wasn't sure he wanted to hit Trevor or cover his own eyes, like he had a few times as a child. The peeling pain of his mother's poverty still haunted him, curling from the ceiling and walls above his and his siblings' bed. But it was something else that made his eyes widen.
Trevor noted the change. "What's the matter?"
"Don't turn too quickly, man," Slippery said. "But the heat just pulled up in the yard behind you."
Trevor stiffened, yet didn't turn immediately around. He was too good an actor for that. He was a customer, and had enough money in his pocket to prove it, too. But when he eased around, the slight of the black & white police car tightened something under his belt. The urge to run came over him-- making him want to seek his West side apartment, or the ancient Newark home (which was by this time a jumble of brick and plaster, with broken windows and spray painted slogans.
"The boy couldn't have called them," he said in a whisper. "They wouldn't get here this fast for a goddamn Christmas tree."
"The kid might have said we were holding him up," Slippery mumbled, again fingering the blade his pocket, glancing around at the bare ground-- not even a trash can was within tossing distance. "You know how jittery white folks get."
"No," Trevor said. "Tell me how they are." His face shifting less pleasing.
"Never mind that, man," Slippery said, slightly embarrassed, glad that his black skin couldn't show a blush the way a white man's could. "I'm getting out of here."
"Hold on," Trevor said, grabbing Slippery's arm. "They're not looking at us."
Indeed, the two uniformed men didn't even get out of the car, but drove right up to the booth as if pulling up to the drive-in window of a bank. The driver rolled down the window and shouted for the boy.
"Let go of me, man," Slippery said, unhinging the claws the white man used for fingers.
"What are you afraid of?"
"Nothing," Slipper said, smoothing down the worn fabric of his sleeve.
"Then what are you sneaking off for?"
"It ain't like a married to you or anything. I'm just not comfortable around cops, dig?"
Trevor looked closely at the black man, whose breath came rapidly, leaving a stream of white steam in the air around his face. For the first time, Trevor noticed the penny-sized scars on either of the cheeks, shinny-skinned circles that winked with the colored window lights of the booth.
"How did you get those?" Trevor asked, his flexing fingers rising almost to touch the flesh.
"That's my business," Slippery said, knocking the hand away; He didn't like people touching him, especially around the face.
The cop shouted for the boy again. Slippery and Trevor eased slowly out of the lot, lingering near the gate on the far side of the fence. If they had to run, there were alleys between buildings where they could go. But Trevor did not look frightened, his dark gaze narrowing as he studied them through the fence. He knew cops from the good side of their guns, knew the signs of midnight laziness. Most cops preferred donuts to patrolling.
The boy finally emerged, pulling closed his jacket.
"What's that on top of the car?" Slippery asked, curious about the odd aberration attached to the light rack.
"Trees," Trevor said. "Christmas trees."
The word `firewood' drifted over from the conversation between the boy and police. "For the mayor...a big night."
The boy grinned and pointed towards the tree which still leaned against the booth.
"It's the last one we got," he said.
The cops nodded. The boy took up the tree and some white yarn, and tied the sparse pine to the top of the already substantial bundle.
"They're taking my goddamn tree!" Trevor howled.
"What do you mean you're tree?"
"My tree. Your tree. What difference does make what we call it now. The mayor's gotta keep himself warm somehow."
When the boy had finished, he whacked the side of the car, wishing them and the mayor a Merry Christmas. But the cops merely nodding, marking something on their clipboard before putting the car in gear to go.
"Firewood!" Trevor grumbled. "That's really corrupt. Public figures aren't supposed to take gifts like that. We've got to do something."
"Why don't we call the police," Slippery said. "Or would you prefer the FBI?"
"All right. What did you have in mind? Perhaps we can mug two cops in their car for their goddamn Christmas tree."
Trevor shivered. The wind was shifting and the air smelled of change. Snow perhaps? He didn't know; he didn't pay much mind to weather reports, seeing how they were mostly wrong. But he sensed something important in the silly tree, too, something that went beyond himself or the black man. Part of it had to do with the cold apartment waiting for Trevor's return. Trevor could survive its loss, no doubt, just as he had survived without it for 34 years, but...
"All we have to do is take it," Trevor said.
"Look, man. Maybe you need glasses or something. But you're talking crazy here. That tree's now city property, dig. And ain't no bird of paradise gonna come and snatch it off the top of that car for us."
"I wasn't talking about the bird of paradise."
"Then you're talking jail. As bad as Christmas may be for my kids at home, it could get a lot worse finding me locked up."
But Trevor's mind was already at work.
"With a little luck they wouldn't even know it was missing," he said. "You were pretty good getting over the fence a little while ago."
Slippery sighed. The white man was obviously nuts.
"I've had some practice," he said, somewhat bitterly.
"Then it wouldn't be much for you to cut that tree loose, eh?"
"And just how am I supposed to get up there? Fly?"
That was a hitch, Trevor thought. Perhaps if they got the cops out of the car somehow-- but no. Nothing short of a miracle would drag them out of that heated interior. Not even a minor crime. Whatever he and the black man did, it had to be done while the cops were inside the car.
"What if you were to drop down onto the car somehow?" Trevor asked.
Slippery glared. "Just when did they let you out of Belleview, man?"
"You're not answering the question."
"And with good reason. You might be crazy, but I'm not. No way I'm dropping on top a cop car. I ain't no reindeer, dig?"
"But you could do it, couldn't you?"
"Not without them hearing me. Cops got ears you know."
"Suppose you hung down over the car and lifted the thing off. The wouldn't hear you then."
"First I'm a bird and now I'm a spider. Where am I supposed to hang from?"
Trevor grinned. "How about that ledge over there?"
He pointed towards one of the abandoned factories which made up one long block up the angled street. Grey wood sealed its window like zinc pennies over a dead man's eyes. Its loading docks were silent and worn, covered with web and shadow. Trevor had always wondered about such places, and the life that must have gone on in them. This place had quite dignity, with sculptured freezes over doors and windows. The slanted awning, white crusted green now, had once been a shimmering brass. No one built places like it any more.
Once such awning hung over the sidewalk where a loading dock had once been-- the weather concrete had long since crumbled to dust beneath it, leaving a space of dust and gravel. It was just possible for a man to hang from such a place. But it would take nerve-- and luck.
Slippery examined the location and slowly nodded.
"It's possible," he said. "Too bad the cops ain't under it."
"That's where I come into this little scheme," Trevor said, then started walking towards the cop car-- which had not yet moved from the yard.
"Hold on there!" Slippery howled, yanking Trevor to a stop. "Just what the hell do you think you're doing?"
"Getting the cops to move their car under the awning, so you can steal back our tree."
"I said it was possible. I didn't say I would do it."
"So will you?"
Slippery rubbed the scars on his cheeks with the tips of his fingers. "You don't seem to dig this, man. Those are pigs over there. The heat. The fuzz. The man. You don't just don't hit on them when you want. Even for a lousy Christmas tree."
"They won't even notice."
"And if they do?"
"It's our tree, damn it."
Slippery shook his head. "You sure are a strange one. Don't you understand. It doesn't matter if we owned a whole forest. If the man wanted it, he'd take that, too."
"But it doesn't have to be that way."
Slippery was getting angry. Part of it came from the deeper anger that black men carried inside of them, their acknowledgement of the white world's power over them, hating their own helplessness. It was that anger which had sent Slippery off to war, hoping he could somehow prove that he was as good a man as any white. But when he came back, it was all the same-- the way it was the same with American Indians after each of their wars. Only the reservations to which white men sent him and his kind was the street, and he had been just as raw and naked as any post-civil war slave, expecting too much, getting nothing.
What Slippery learned since, he'd learned on his own, a matter of self-education. Only it was the kind of education that said cops were deadly, and that one had to fend for himself. This stuff about `our tree' didn't fit in with that education any more than the fancy talk he'd gotten at the Veteran's Administration about Veteran's benefits. It the State had cared half as much as it had claimed, he would have been something more than a dumb nigger scrounging the streets to find Christmas for his kids.
Strangely, that scrawny, fit-for-the-garbage tree had begun to mean something to him, too.
"It isn't as easy as all that," Slippery said in a more cordial tone. "How am I supposed to cut those ropes?"
"With your knife, stupid. Or is that reserved for people?"
"You keep with that talk, man, and I'll reserve it for you." Though in truth, he'd forgotten about his knife. "I'm also gonna need something to hang with-- like rope."
"And what would you call that?" Trevor asked, pointing to the thousand strands of rope strung across the ground like snakes. They'd been previously used for the trees already sold. "There must be miles of it."
Slippery blinked. "You know. I do believe we could actually pull this off."
"Good! Now that that's settled, I'll get them to move."
But the black man gripped his arm.
"What now?" Barked Trevor.
"Give me time, man. A few minutes to set things up."
Trevor grinned. "Sure, Pal. Just leave it to me. Talking's my specialty."
Yet even as he turned towards the police car, Trevor knew it wasn't so simple as that. Talking to Mr. Normal America was one thing-- most people were so utterly down on themselves that they would listened to anyone who'd make them feel better about themselves, even a con man. But cops already had power. They the bullies and punks from high school and college that had somehow managed to slip passed the psychological tests. Some later felt guilty enough about their past that they helped people as penance. But others went on as they always had, doing what bullies did. In either case, few had reason to listen to anyone but themselves.
Still with each step, Trevor worked out the details of his plan, making adjustments for the monstrous ego he would soon encounter behind a badge. He circled the car, around to the booth side. Already the windows of the car were frosted. The figures merely shadows against the fence of lights. But Trevor didn't want to speak with them yet. He knocked on the booth window instead. A suspicious boy slid back the glass.
"What do you want now? We don't have any more trees."
"No, no," Trevor said with a wave of his hand. It was one of those standard movements he had learned over the years. It almost always calmed his victim and seemed to calm the boy now. "I'm not here for the tree. It's my wallet. I dropped it over by the factory."
The boy squinted, typical New York curiosity glinting in his eye, as to how much money. Still the boy's expression thawed slightly with some effort at sympathy.
"Well, Mister. There ain't a whole lot I can do about it. Did it fall down a sewer grate or something?"
"I don't think so," Trevor said. "It's just so dark over there and I really hate to get down on all fours and ruin my new suit. You wouldn't happen to have a flashlight, would you?"
Back came the suspicion, as if Trevor intended to steal that, too. "I don't have a flashlight," the boy lied. The red tip of the instrument hung on the wall near the door. "Why don't you ask them?"
"You seem to know them pretty good," Trevor said. "Why don't you ask them for me. I hate to spoil Christmas for my family and all...."
That was the other great innovation. The boy pondered the request, and since it wouldn't cost him anything more than a few words, he shrugged, then yelled.
The cops were preoccupied, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, bullshitting about the Knicks. But the one behind the wheel eventually looked up and rolled down the window an inch.
"What is it, Billy?"
"This guy here says he lost his wallet...."
"Downtown," the cop said and began to roll the window up again.
"Now hold on there!" Trevor yelped. The cop stopped and glared.
"You got a problem with that?" the cop asked. "You report that sort of thing downtown. Not to us."
"I don't want to report anything," Trevor said, pushing the words out quickly with a gush of breath. He didn't need to sound desperate or afraid, it was there. Although he'd never been arrested, his natural aversion to police made him nervous enough. "I'm just looking to borrow a flashlight so I can find where I dropped my wallet."
The square face of the cop turned, giving Trevor its full attention finally. The eyes were hard and the jaw rigid. Typically bureaucratic. But somewhere behind that official mask a real human being existed, one that would go home later to his own kids and their Christmas tree. It was that soul that Trevor needed to reach.
The cop looked him over. That much Trevor felt confident about. The honest face bit-- it especially suited men like these who judged everything on surface features. Trevor had used that bland, yuppie exterior all his life, cooing teachers into better grades and grocers into free candy.
"Can't give you our flashlight," the cop said coldly, with the same edge of mistrust the boy had had. Trevor had figured on it, and would have been shocked if it had been otherwise. "City property, you know. And neither of us is getting out of this warm car to hunt for no wallet. We might get a call or something. Ain't that right, George?"
The other cop nodded, his attention again wavering like a bad television signal. Trevor glanced quickly away into the dark. Had he wasted enough time? Was the black man set?
"Well, I need that wallet, officer," Trevor said. "Would it be much trouble if you sort of rolled the car over in that direction? Your headlights would be better than any flashlight anyway."
"Say, Buddy," the driver growled. "What do we look like? Ushers?"
"Eddie!" the other cop said. "It's Christmas."
"That don't mean we've got to play Santa Claus for every Tom, Dick and Henry. It's bad enough we got this firewood detail. The damn mayor's too cheap to buy wood like everybody else. Hell, next he'll have us cutting it for him, too."
"What about my wallet?" Trevor growled, feeling the conversation slipping out of control.
"Hold your horse, buster," the driver said. "We'll get there when we're good and ready. And don't tell me you pay my salary. If I hear that one more time this week, I'll start shooting people. Just get over there where you said you dropped this alleged wallet and we'll be over in a minute."
Trevor nodded and turned, struggling to suppress the grin which leaped to his face. He exited the lot with a hurried gait, and slowed as he crossed the street.
It worked, he thought. What the hell was wrong with him anyway? Why was he getting so excited over a stupid tree? The black man might have been right. All this was rather juvenile.
Part of it was jealousy-- a life long jealousy that had evolved out of his home life. Or lack of it. His rich parents had never been people to celebrate Christmas, at least not in any spiritual sense. It had always been an occasion for brief words of acknowledgement and an exchange of gifts. His father had stressed the point that Christmas was good for the economy. Forty percent of all businesses in America survived on purchases made this time of year. Mother thought it was a convenient time to give Trevor (then called Young Trevor) those things he needed like socks and ties.
But always there had been others, both in Newark and later North Caldwell, others that held the holiday in a different and higher regard. It wasn't just the rich kids either, who knew that Christmas meant expensive gifts. Even the poorer blacks that Trevor had had occasion to meet in Newark, celebrated with a reverence that seemed beyond his ability to understand. Part of this was religious, but something more essential emanated from the beings themselves. It was a change of character that touched people only at this time of year, echoed by the other cops's statement: "Eddie It's Christmas."
All his life Trevor had tried to make sense of it, tried to find that spirit inside himself, never once coming close. That was, until now. He felt light-headed and giddy when he arrived under the awning, as if Christmas had been inside his head all along. His feet danced over the broken wine bottles and fast food wrappers.
Now if only the black man would do his part....
Slippery was. He was up on the brass awning with sections of rope. None of the segments had been long enough, so his careful fingers knotted the shorter sections together. He prayed over each knot, for them to hold. But he was and expert in such things, and he felt a strange satisfaction even as he cursed himself for getting involved.
Sure he wanted the tree-- yet there came a point at which stealing was idiotic. This was such a point. The cold metal seeped through the seat of his pants, making the project that much more painful. He wasn't used to the cold any more. It had been a long time since those days of regular burglaries had had in him out in all kinds of weather (in those days he'd compared himself to the U.S. Post Office). The straight life had spoiled him, addicting him to a pay check every Friday. Yet, there was a strange satisfaction in that, too, a pride in his ability to pay his bills without having to steal. Sometimes, he felt greatly ashamed when he was forced back into his roof-top habits, as if he was compromising an important accomplishment in his life.
Poverty, however, no matter how noble, stank.
But he felt no shame over this little job; he simply felt stupid. But in that stupidity, there was a warm glow and vision of his kids around the scrawny tree. He knotted the ropes again and again. It was a skill he'd learned long before the Army had made use of it and of him. Finally, when he had enough, he tied one end of two now-elongated segments to the roof supports. These were steal girders holding up the slanted roof from the top, part of a far-from-pretty style of construction which left no obstructions below. Then he tied the other ends to his ankles, curling the tops of his socks around the rope to keep down the burns.
Of course he was crazy! The whole freakin' plan was. But the Yuppie had told him to hang over the car, so he would hang over the car. This was the best way to do it, though hardly perfect. The rope was cheap-- throw away stuff designed to keep the branches of Christmas trees closed, not support the weight of a man. But they would hold if he hurried and provided nothing else went wrong.
Then, the white man strolled over, chuckling to himself-- at Slippery perhaps? Maybe all this was a joke which would have Slippery hog-tied on the roof top and no cops coming over.
Slippery was suddenly angry-- and relieved.
"You son of a bitch!" he hissed, drawing the white man's attention.
"Shut up, will you?" Trevor whispered. "They might hear you."
Almost immediately, the cop car headlights came on. Trevor hadn't failed; the game was still on. The tension returned, making Slippery grip the cheap rope. The car eased out of the lot like a prowling shark-- only this shark was top heavy, the bundles of trees distorting its sleek shape. The upper most of these was Slippery's target, an orphan waiting to be saved from the fires of Hell.
Trevor couldn't see the black man against the backdrop of darkness. But the angry voice had turned him. What if he didn't get the car situated correctly? Then all this would have been for naught. It was the white sneakers that caught his eye as the cop car rolled over the curb, luminous feet dangling without an owner. Trevor grinned, then took out his wallet. It had money it, too. Money had never really been Trevor's problem. He'd inherited a small fortune from his parents, but with it, he'd inherited a tightness, too, a penny-pinching attitude that kept him from spending when there was no need. Of course, the old WASPs had never meant he should steal. That simply came as a matter of course. Why spend his own cash at all, when there were so many others in the world to help him out.
He tossed the wallet into the darkness halfheartedly, and it landed in a tangle of weeds, beer bottles and McDonalds wrappers just below the glowing sneakers.
The cop car's headlights opened up that dismal world. The rusting metal posts of the crumbled dock leaped out like twisted human limbs, their shadows stark and frightening. The car edged right up to where Trevor stood, engine roaring for a second before settling down into an impatient grumble.
"That should do it," Trevor shouted, but his words were meant more as a signal to the black man than to the cops. It was obvious the cops didn't care one way or the other.
Slippery had another opinion. He didn't like the angle. The car had pulled in the wrong way, so that the ropes around Slippery's ankles did not give him the room he'd figured on. He would have to stretch. If only he could get the car turned a little. But there was no way to signal the white man now. He lowered himself into the abyss, keeping most of the rope in his fingers as he inched towards the top of the car. It was like diving into a swimming pool in slow motion. His eyes, of course, were used to the limited light now, and he could see the shark shape below. Half way down, he surveyed the street. There was little traffic and none of it aimed in this direction. But there were pedestrians down at the far corner, and the spindly many could no doubt be seen against the backdrop of Fourth Avenue lights.
Trevor was bent before the headlights like a victim waiting to be struck. What was taking the damned burglar so long? Did he think the cops would sit still forever?
Slipper sighed. The cold was starting to make his fingers hurt. He let more rope out and sank and inch, then another. Slowly he came, knife clutched in his teeth. They hurt, too, making him remember that moment in `Nam when the bullet had passed through them-- God and luck on his side. He had been shouted. The bullet had missed everything, emerging out the other cheek.
Upside down, the blood rushed into his head like a drug. It was just like the old days. The war of nerves. The terrible danger. The feeling that like Vietnam, this all was a matter of life and death. Though he could not understand how a tree could mean so much.
Trevor was thinking something similar as he leaned down into the glare of lights, pretending to look for his wallet. It brought back all those fears of a police line up: "Is this the man that took your money, Ma'am?"-- those thousands of imagined confrontations with authority that had kept Trevor from really making it big. Perhaps that was why he always wound up with junk, knowing no one would ever push to get it back. Perhaps for all his talent, he just couldn't really steal anything of value, anything that anyone else would want.
What was going on with the black man, anyway? How much time did he need? Did he have the tree up already?
This, of course, was the weakness in his plan-- the lack of communication. They should have had a signal, a whistle or something to let him know everything was over.
"You wanna hurry, buster?" the cop growled, through the inch-open window. "either it's there or it isn't."
"It's here," Trevor said. "Just give me a minute. There's a lot of junk here, too."
Time ticked in his head like a bomb. If the cop decided to get out of the car and help everything was doomed. The man hanging above the car had no way of escape, and two of them would no doubt spend the night in jail-- at each other's throats. Was it up or wasn't it? How much longer could Trevor give him before rising with his own find, sending the cop on their way? He tried to peer into the darkness above the car, but the glare made everything black. So he graveled through the weeds, making a show of this part, his fingers blunting into broken objects, lost possessions to which no one had claim. This small patch of earth remarkably similar to his miserable life. Finally, he lifted the wallet and rose-- a thin smile plastered to his face as he came to the window.
"Got it," he said, his eyes making the adjustment finally-- and over the body of the car, the black man hung, a spider, the strands of web holding him inches above the tree, the knife slashing furiously at the trees binding ropes.
Actually, Slippery's fingers had become sticky with sap, which made the whole process that much more difficult. His hands were cold, too, unresponsive. Worse still was the idiotic care with which the lot boy had tied the tree. A half dozen lines of rope bound it to the top of the car, each needing to be cut just below the knots. It was aggravating and time consuming and he needed a few more minutes.
Trevor swallowed his panic, reading the scene perfectly. But he'd run out of word-gambits to stall the cops. So he opened his wallet. There was a thick glow of green inside: hundreds fifties and twenties. None of it earned. But none of it stolen either. Part of the curse of wealth his parents had given him, understanding how little chance their was for their spoiled little boy to ever make things work in the real world. He slipped two twenties out of the wallet sleeve.
"Look, officer," he said, pressing the bills against the glass. "I just want to show my appreciation. If I'd lost the wallet, I would certainly have been in bad shape tonight."
The cop lowered the window another inch, his pupils dilating, as he looked Trevor up and down. Was this some kind of test? Was Trevor really a plains clothes cop from Internal Affairs?
"Well, you know, we really didn't do anything," the cop said. glancing up and down the vacant street.
"Still," Trevor said, pushing the bills through the slot. "I think you should have this for Christmas."
Hungry fingers devoured the bills.
There was gross irony here which Trevor didn't dwell on, having just paid four times the price the boy had wanted at the lot, for something worth nothing at all. It was an irony of ego, he supposed. Trevor was willing to pay for the privilege of fooling such men as these, and denying the major one more sacrificial branch to burn on his alter uptown.
Both cops grinned, one bill going to each of their left breast pockets, just beneath their badges.
"Merry Christmas," they said like twins, the driver engaging the gears. The car bumped back over the curb and onto the street, leaving only darkness behind and the skinny black spider still clutching his green and prickly prize.
"We did it!" Trevor yelped.
"Yeah, yeah," Slippery mumbled, clearly less enthused. The rope had worked its way under his socks, rubbing the flesh raw on each ankle. "We did it all right. Now do you mind taking this here knife and cutting me loose?"
The handle was thick with sap, and after a few leaps (one of which sent a jolt through Trevor's tricky knee) he managed to slash one of the two ropes holding the man.
"Careful will you!" the black man yelled. "Take the goddamn tree before it splits me in half!"
Trevor took the tree into his arms like a lover, gently placing it against the brick wall. He handed the pearl-handled knife back to the black man, who performed more magic, swing himself around as to finish cutting the rope Trevor had started. Somehow, he hung on as he cut the second. He landed feet first, slightly dazed by the sudden rush of blood from his head. He staggered like a drunk to where the dock had once been and leaned against the rusting metal rails. One glance at the tree and he shook his head.
"I don't quite believe it," Slippery mumbled. "But we did pull something off."
There was silence as the darkness closed around them. One by one the Christmas lot light began to flick out. Something cold touched Trevor's cheek. Snow fell in thick flakes, making the far-off street lights flicker like stars.
"Well," Trevor said, walking towards the tree. "I guess that just about does it."
"Hey, man!" Slipper howled, leaping after Trevor, putting one firm hand on the white man's shoulder. "And where exactly do you think you're making off with our tree?"
"Our tree?" Trevor said, cocking an eyebrow. "And where do you get our tree out of this?"
"From this!" Slippery said, holding up his hands. The pale palms were marked red with rope burns. Over his head, two threads still dangled, curiously pointless now. "These say it's my tree, too."
Trevor sighed. "And what about my forty bucks? You think I put out that kind of cash to come away empty-handed?"
"So what? No one said you were smart, putting out that kind of money for a tree like this."
"If I hadn't," Trevor said, brushing the snow off his coat. "You'd still be dangling there, empty-handed."
"Without me, you wouldn't have the tree either. I got kids to think about, a family that needs some sort of Christmas."
"Fine!" Trevor barked. Their voices had risen, their shouts echoing off the buildings around them. "You come up with twenty bucks and then you can claim half a tree. Otherwise it's going home with me."
"If I'd had twenty bucks I would have bought the thing in the first place."
"Hard luck," Trevor said, grabbing the tree by the trunk, then starting away.
Slippery stood there with blade in hand, feeling just about the way he had that first day in Nam, when the vision of the jungle hit him with its shock wave. Basic. AIT. The army itself had never quite prepared him for the details of war. But strangely enough, Slippery had been prepared, gripping his rifle then the way he did his knife now, recognizing all the symptoms in that foreign land that he knew from his own childhood. Vietnam? Hell, it wasn't any different from the streets where he'd grown. It was only details, learning to accommodate little yellow men into the over-all picture. The white men were always the same. But instead of business suits and police badges, they wore fatigues and various shaped metals. the result of their mastership was the same: black men dying.
And here was another white man, walking away with something Slippery had worked to get. Not just a tree, but a dream, a vision of happiness that he could not readily replace. Like in nam, Slippery had a weapon in his hand. Like in Nam, he was always willing to bring himself to its use. And for eleven months and twenty two days, Slippery had used his weapon well, taking out his rage on men in black suits. When all the time, he ready saw the bankers and cops at home, stealing away from him and his family all those things he found precious.
His sap-sticky fingers shifted the knife. He could have that tree if he wanted it. There was nothing to stop him from taking it. Certainly not this yuppie, or the law which was happily on its way uptown with a slightly altered present for the mayor. There was nothing between Slippery and that tree, but his own sense of ethics-- an ethics that kept him slaving at a regular job, resorting to theft only when his family hunger. An ethics that might have been taken as Uncle Tom by other more radical black brothers, ingrained in Slippery by a mother who believed in the Bible, who read it nightly, who taught him nothing was gained by crime.
Nothing had been either.
He'd built no future on the back of the few second-story jobs done over the last few years. His family and life were just as miserable as they had been. And tomorrow was just another stupid and starving day on the calendar, one day neared to the New Year, and death.
He folded the knife up and stuffed it deep into his pocket. "Merry Christmas, man," he shouted and started to turn away.
Trevor was five steps away when the words came, striking between his shoulder blades deeper than any knife. He turned and glared angrily at the black man.
"I need this tree," Trevor said.
"For what? Firewood? You're just like the mayor then."
Trevor shook the tree at the black man. "All this talk about your family makes me sick. At least you've got a family to go home to. At least when you walk through your front door, you get met by something more than cardboard boxes. I got nothing, except maybe for some frustrated New York ghosts that have nothing better to do than haunt me."
"And what's the tree gonna do, chase them away?"
"Maybe," Trevor said, looking down at his scrawny prize. It was a poor means of exorcism, indeed, but for the first time in his life, he'd scored something other people wanted. A piece of property which had value. Maybe it would change his luck, his world, him.
The black man stepped forward, startling Trevor. The snow which had started as mild flurries was now a steady stream of particles, each of them beating at the ground, leaving white marks where they struck, and from that violence, the black man grew, a nose, a mouth, a set of crooked teeth. Two round, penny-sized scars shimmered in the dull light like brown Christmas balls.
"I stole this thing for my kids," the black man said. "I stole so they won't ever have to be standing where we are, fighting over something as stupid as a tree, or a DMZ. They need that Christmas as much as you do, man. Maybe more. They still got a future. Now I'm taking that tree with me, dig? If you want to gag along after it, that's your business. No one's gonna stop you. But you're not gonna stop me either."
"You want me to come home with you?" Trevor said, his grip slowly easing from the neck of the tree, as Slippery's fingers replaced his. For one brief moment, their fingers touched.
"I said you could come if you wanted," Slippery said, now totally in control of the tree.
"But I don't have any..."
Trevor shrugged. "Presents, I guess." He looked down at his feet, feeling like a little Newark boy again, a rich white boy in a rapidly deteriorating neighborhood, feeling like the son of the banker who slowly bled Black America to death. how did he dare enter that world now with the stain of their blood between his fingers?
"The tree's enough, man."
But it wasn't, Trevor thought. Not by a long shot, and his mind searched for something in his memory that would do.
"You said you didn't have any presents for you kids either, right?"
"Don't remind me. Those kids of mind got eyes and ears like everybody else's. I'm just hoping their settle for the tree."
"Well, then, why don't we got and get them some. I got money."
Slippery frowned. "What's with you? First you wanna steal Christmas from my kids, now you want to play Santa?"
"Let's just say I've had a change of heart."
"Well, it's a little late for that. Money or no money, we ain't gonna find no store open twenty minutes after midnight."
This was a problem, Trevor thought. But his expression brightened again.
"I know a little oriental deli near my house where we can get some food," he said. "It has all sorts of things, cookies, Candies. Maybe even some roast turkey."
Slippery looked at him, his own expression deeply perplexed. "Man, you're crazy. What do you think you're doing?"
But Trevor hadn't stopped talking, the words flowing insanely out of him. "And there's stuff at my house. Junk mostly, but some good stuff, too. It isn't your television bullshit, mind you. But I'm sure if we look through the boxes we can come up with something suitable."
Slippery stiffened. "And now you're talking charity. I've kept my family off the..."
"Shut up," Trevor growled, grabbing Slippery and the tree. "You finally find Santa Clause and you're telling him to get lost. Just come on and stop talking. You aren't any good at it anyway. That's my routine, remember? We'll grab a cab, bet the good and gifts and be back to your place before you know it. Your kids won't mind Santa being a little late, will they?"
Slippery shook his head. The words had stopped. "I..."
"Good," Trevor said, waving at a cab as they came to the Avenue. The car skidded to a stop at the sight of Trevor's clothing. Trevor stuffed Slippery and the tree in ahead of him, then directed the driver to where they had to go.
"By the way," he said to Slippery across the body of the tree. "Merry Christmas."