By SEAN DIETRICH
Sunset. My driveway.
“OK, everybody get in the truck!” I shouted, using my cheerful American dad voice.
Although, technically, I’m not a dad. In fact, I don’t even have a traditional “family.” Not unless you count our dogs who weigh more than average middle-schoolers. Thelma Lou is 101 pounds of bloodhound. Otis Campbell (alleged Labrador), 92 pounds. Marigold (blind coonhound) about the same weight as a bag of Fritos.
I whistled and dogs leapt into my dilapidated truck, butts wagging, ready for action.
My wife, however, did not get in the truck. She glared at me, clearing her throat loudly, tapping her foot, until I handed her my keys to let her drive.
In nearly 20 years of marriage she has never sat in a passenger seat. She gets motion-sick when I drive and tends to puke on my shoes.
I knew all this going into the marriage. Her matrimonial conditions were simple: She always drives; I never play the accordion indoors.
Don’t get me wrong, our marriage is fair. We’ve made many compromises. For instance, on our wedding night I agreed to always let her operate my truck if she promised to fill our closet with 52,339 pairs of shoes she will never wear. So far so good.
But our life together has all been worth it, believe me. The woman who drives my truck could have chosen a much classier guy for herself. She could have found someone with a great job, who came from good breeding, who owned actual formalwear.
Instead, she married a dropout who went to community college for 11 years and graduated with straight Cs in his early 30s. A guy whose personal truck contains hounds that cost more than his truck did.
But we’re a happy clan, that’s what I’m getting at. And tonight we had an outing. Once we were in the truck, we drove across town to a nondescript neighborhood. The sun was getting closer to the horizon. My dogs’ snouts were pressed against the windows. I checked my watch.
“Five minutes until sunset,” I announced to the fam.
The air was alive with anticipation. Also, the air was alive with something else because my dogs suffer from frequent gastrointestinal distress.
We parked near the curb and waited. And waited. We listened to Christmas songs on the radio and sipped our Baptist-style eggnog from insulated cups, which is very different from, say, our Episcopalian eggnog.
It was wonderful, simply being together. This little family of mine. It’s funny, I used to hear old-timers talk about the Great Depression, and how families leaned on each other. Elderly people were always telling you how family was the only way they made it through life. I’m starting to get it now.
“Look!” said my wife.
The first house’s lights clicked on in the neighborhood. Then the next house. And the next. One by one they illuminated the night with electric joy.
We applauded. We drove past houses that were wild with Christmas decor. We oohed and aahed at the inflatable snow globes, animatronics, fiberglass elves, choreographed strobe lights, glowing flamingos and Alvin and the Chipmunks singing over a PA system.
On our way home we stopped by a supermarket Christmas tree lot. My wife and I strolled through the open-air aisles of balsam firs while our dogs waited in the truck.
The irony here is that we already have a Christmas tree, we don’t need another. So I’m not sure what we were doing there.
An employee named Bill kept following us. He was constantly asking if we needed help. Bill was your classic sales professional. He never let a customer go cold. I told him we were just looking.
Bill’s face went flat. “Just looking?” he said, using the same tone he might’ve used if I had just handed him a jar of warm sputum.
That’s when my wife saw something in the corner. It was the smallest, most pathetic tree ever. Barren, scrawny, half-dead, and exactly the kind of thing that you’d either throw away, or reserve for a CBS Charlie Brown TV special. It was lying among a pile of crumpled Whataburger takeout bags and snuff tins.
“How much for this one?” my wife asked Bill.
“That one?” he said.
“Well now, that depends. It’s a quality tree.”
“Is that why it’s by the dumpster?”
“I want it.”
“Make me an offer.”
They haggled like commodities traders. We took it home. My wife placed the pitiful tree onto our back porch. She decorated it with homemade ornaments, lights and dollar-store garland. She put a plastic star on its dismal top.
She transformed a tired and ragged piece of refuse into something proud, happy and full of life. The thing positively glowed. And when I saw it, all lit up with love, it hit me:
About 20 years ago, she did the same thing to me.