The perfect little family pulled up in a burgundy Ford Pinto and toddled out in their snow boots onto the roadside. They were the seventeenth perfect little family to arrive that day. There was a red-nosed poppa, with his funny flap hat and trimmed mustache, and a blushing momma. A little boy and a littler girl – so little was this one, the snow on the ground came darn near up to her dimpled chin.
There was just enough room for them to stand between the road and the nearest of infinite rows of evergreens.
They rang the service bell.
Smiles never fading, they stood in a row from tallest to smallest, like ducks, and waited. Soon enough they heard the faint crunch, crunch, crunch of boots in the slush.
A pair of the trees wiggled, shrugged the white powder from their nettles, and parted.
Ari Burgstaller stumbled out, a clattering doughball upon which a mountain of teethed metal tools were stacked. Everything he wore, sans boots, was of red flannel. He looked like he’d be more at home hanging from the branch of one of these million-billion trees than stomping around in the fields.
“Weh-hell!” he barked. The little girl flinched. “Evenin’, folks. What can I do yeh for?”
“Hello there,” the poppa said. “We’re here for a Christmas tree.”
“Then to the right place I declare you’ve surely come!” old Ari said. His lips smacked on invisible chewing gum. Under the spheres of his cheeks his eyes were reduced to a sparkle apiece.
“Big day’s tomorrah,” he said. “Last minute shoppers, huh?”
“Yes,” said the momma. “We’ve been busy.”
“Whelp,” the big fellow said, “your perfect tree’s in this field somewhere. Guaranteed.” He looped his thumbs under a frayed pair of suspenders.
“Oh yes,” said the poppa. “I’m sure of it.”
Ari led the family through a narrow clearing between the endless rows of pine. The aroma filled the lungs of the five of them, so delicious they all closed their eyes for a moment to savor it.
About five rows in, Ari stopped and brushed the green needles of a beautiful fir with his gloved knuckles. “This one’s nice,” he said. “How ‘bout it?”
The momma scrunched up her nose and cocked her head. “Well,” she said, “it certainly is nice. Maybe we’ll come back to it.”
“We’d like to look around,” said the poppa. “For just a bit, if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” said Ari, and they kept walking.
“Can I pick the tree?” the little boy asked.
“We’ll see,” said the momma.
Soon they came to a fork in the path. Ari held out an open hand to the left, said, “This way, folks.”
But the perfect little family stood still, craning their necks to the right. “Actually,” said the poppa, “let’s go this way. Again, if you don’t mind.”
Ari nodded. “I surely don’t,” he said. A bead of drippage dangled like a bauble at the tip of his nose. He didn’t disturb it and swooped past his guests to the right, and ten feet galumphed through a trail of snow already depressed by untold pairs of shoes.
“We just want the perfect tree,” the momma said. “You know.”
“I know,” said Ari. “Can’t be too picky.”
He stopped to show them yews, and conifers, and grand pines – each fit for a palace. But one by one the family shook their heads and shrugged their shoulders, and so they pressed on, deeper into the wood.
They walked for an hour. The young ones, probably the poppa too, couldn’t have found their way back to the Pinto without old Ari to guide them at this point.
At last they reached it. A stunning spruce, set apart by a berth of four clear yards every which way. It shimmered in the moonlight, radiant in its elegance, the thin layer of snow on its branches positively shining. A lone cardinal came to land on it and chirruped. The girl would later swear the bird was singing O Come All Ye Faithful.
“That’s it,” the momma said.
“That’s the one,” said the poppa.
“Daddy,” said the boy, “can we have it?”
Ari squatted in the snow and patted the boy’s head. “Sorry, sport,” he said, and sighed. “This one ain’t for sale.”
The poppa, elbowed to attention by his wife, leaned in to mutter in the tree seller’s ear. “Are you sure, mister?” he said. “This would look great in our den.”
“It’s perfect,” the momma said.
The bead of nose-dew fell from Ari’s nose onto the toe of his boot. “I’m real sorry,” he said. “Any other tree on the lot. Just, this one here, she ain’t for sale, is all.”
The momma nudged her husband again. He fished out his wallet, took out a Diner’s Club card and waved it under Ari’s nose like a morsel. “We’ll pay anything,” he said. “We just have to have this tree. You understand.”
“I understand,” said Ari. “But the point stands. Rules is rules.”
“Travis,” the momma said.
“Daddy!” the boy cried.
Old Ari lifted a hand, wrapped it around the poppa’s own, and the Diner’s Club, and pushed it down. “Any other tree,” he said. “On the house.”
The poppa shook at the wrist a little. Ari braced himself for a slug to the jaw – not the first one that Christmas Eve – but none came. The man’s shoulders slumped. He nodded. He looked like he might cry.
The little ones did.
“I’m sorry,” said Ari.
In the end, he fitted them with a pretty little yew at no charge. Tied it atop their Ford and smacked the back in a friendly goodbye before the car crept slowly, reluctantly, away.
Then Ari locked the gate and fed the guard dogs. His feet went crunch, crunch, crunch in the snow, and pine needles fell to his shoulders like green dandruff, as he made his way into the endless pop-up forest.
He traveled the well-worn path in the snow, back to the tree the perfect little family had set their sights on. The one all the other perfect little families had similarly put their minds to, pleaded for, salivated over.
He knelt before it. The cardinal reappeared from the foliage, flew away disturbed.
Ari held his fingertips to the spruce, tickled one of its immaculate branches. It trembled a bit, and a red orb ballooned from the tip, causing the branch to droop under its weight.
Ari plucked the fruit from the evergreen, brushed it against his plaid shoulder. He put it to his mouth as if to kiss it, then sunk his teeth into it. Juice of royal purple dripped into his thick beard sweetly.
He munched until only a symmetrical pit was left in his palm. He pocketed it, to later add to the Folgers tin already brimming with others of its ilk.
“Merry Christmas,” he said to nobody.
He didn’t sleep that night. No need to.
Life was already a dream.