Published on December 20, 1958
Kathy began saving in July. She saved secretly — a quarter, a dime, a nickel at a time. She would slip out to the garage when Hank wasn’t home, dropping the coins into the pink china pig that sat half-hidden behind a pile of old magazines. The pig was named Alfred. Kathy and Hank had won him in a penny arcade the first week they were married and named him Alfred after an uncle of Hank’s. They put him on the bureau, from which he gazed down at them placidly with his cheerful, porcine smile. They had agreed to drop their extra change in Alfred and save, as Hank put it, for a trip to Bermuda, or any other little old thing they might happen to want. But it was their first year of marriage and Hank’s last year in medical school, and there hadn’t been any extra change.
After a while they had carted Alfred out to the garage with other useless things and forgotten him. Forgotten him, that is, until that day in July when Kathy had thought suddenly of Christmas and had begun her secret, furtive trips. As summer passed and the days grew colder, Alfred grew heavier until at last, on the day before Christmas, Kathy was quietly, prayerfully sure that he must hold at least forty dollars — maybe even more. And that was the day when she reached behind the stack of magazines and discovered that Alfred was gone.
At first she didn’t believe it. At first she just stood there, gazing in blank astonishment at the bare empty spot on the cold concrete where only yesterday, Alfred had been. Then, in a burst of something like frenzy, she searched every inch of the cluttered garage — behind cartons, beneath papers among tools.
Finally, when there was no place left to look and her heart was pounding with effort and despair, she sank down on an empty orange crate and simply sat. It wasn’t possible, but it was true. Alfred was gone, and the money was gone with him. All the pennies and dimes so painfully saved from grocery money and carfare and every fantastic small economy she could find.
I shouldn’t have left him out here in the garage, Kathy thought numbly. Anybody could get in here, any time, and take him. And somebody did. Merry Christmas! she thought, feeling her eyes fill suddenly with tears. Happy New Year! She thought of the watch in the window of Hime’s Jewelry Store, the beautiful man’s wrist watch before which she had lingered every day for weeks. Hank’s watch. There hadn’t been a time, in all these last weeks, when she had dropped a coin into Alfred without thinking of that watch, of the card she would write — To Hank, From Kathy, With Love — of the look on Hank’s face when he opened it.
They had agreed there was no money for Christmas. Hank would be expecting, at most, a token gift — a tie, a pair of socks. More than anything in her life, Kathy had wanted to surprise Hank, surprise him with something rare and rich and wonderful, a gift of love, so amazing and fine that it would erase the tired, tense lines that had appeared around his mouth these last few months. Something that would bring the lightness and the laughter back again, the way it had been in the beginning, before he had begun to worry about money. This Christmas was their first together — she had wanted it to be perfect, and now there wasn’t going to be any Christmas at all.
Slowly, Kathy stood up and went back into the house. She went into the living room and sat down on the edge of the couch, staring at the wide crack that ran down the plaster wall across the room. The one other piece of furniture to sit on in the room, an easy chair, was worn and shapeless. The cheap coffee table in front of the couch was scratched and stained. The Christmas tree that had looked so magical with its colored lights shining in the darkness the night before seemed suddenly only pathetic in the daylight. It was a small tree, and cheap.
For the first time since they had been married, for the first time since she had looked across a college classroom into Hank’s blue eyes and fallen in love, Kathy wondered, with a sudden coldness, if everyone else had been right. Everyone who had said they were crazy, she and Hank, to get married so young.
She had never wondered before. She had only felt faintly sorry for people so poor in the coins of love that they could care about such things. There had been only one thing. There had been only the small, growing pain of knowing that, somehow, Hank was not quite so happy as she. Somehow, to Hank, the money — or the lack of it — made a difference. He cared that the only house they could afford to rent was in this shabby, worn-out part of the city. And there had been the time, last summer, when he had finished going over the budget (Planned Poverty, they had named it) and had emerged looking grim and set.
“We can just make it,” he said, “if we don’t squander a lot of money on unnecessary items like food, clothing and shelter.” His voice tried for lightness, but didn’t quite succeed, and Kathy found herself recalling dark warnings about poverty coming in the door and love flying out the window. She got up and hurried across the room and kissed him.
“Listen,” she said, “don’t you know that I would gladly live in a cave, munching on roots and berries, just to be near you?”
Hank didn’t smile. “I know,” he said, “but I wish you didn’t have to. It isn’t fair to you, living like this.”
“But, Hank,” Kathy said, “next year you’ll have your degree. This is only temporary — ”
“So is life,” Hank said. He got up and began to stride up and down the room. “I ought to quit school and get a good job selling used cars,” he said. “It isn’t good never to have anything fine, anything extra. It shrivels the soul.” He looked at Kathy. “A girl like you should have a nice home, and — ”
“Sure, and emeralds,” Kathy said. She got up and padded behind him until he made a turn and nearly ran her down. She put her arms around his neck, and kissed him again. She took a long time doing it, and when she was finished some of the grimness had left his face. “Now I ask you,” she said softly, “is that the kiss of a shriveled soul?”
And Hank had laughed finally, and kissed her again, and everything had been all right, or almost all right. Except that they hadn’t joked so much about Planned Poverty any more. In fact, Hank hadn’t joked so much about anything any more. That’s why the gift, and Christmas, had been important. It was to have been a refutation of their poverty.
Sitting alone in the little living room, staring at the unlit tree, Kathy supposed she should call the police, but she thought of it with dread. She had been foolish to leave the money in the garage — only last week someone had stolen the hubcaps off their car. The police wouldn’t be able to get her money back. Nothing would do that. And if she called them, Hank would have to know, now, the moment he got home from his Christmas job at a downtown store. Now, on Christmas Eve. Oh, that would be great, she thought. That would be simply fine. As if things weren’t bleak enough already. She wouldn’t tell him until later, she decided, till after Christmas.
She got up, then, and looked in her purse. There were three dollar bills there and a handful of coins. Grimly, she put on a coat and went out. When she returned, she had a neat, Christmas-wrapped package under her arm. Inside were a tie and a pair of socks, matching. They were blue, and they were cheap, and they were practical (Hank needed socks — he needed everything). Carefully, she filled out the little card. To Hank, From Kathy, With Love, she wrote. She put the package under the tree. She crossed the room then, sat down again on the couch and waited, alone in the gray afternoon.
At three minutes of five Hank’s key turned in the lock. He was whistling noisily, and his arms were full of bundles.
“Hi,” Kathy said. She swallowed. “Merry Christmas,” she said. Hank seemed unaccountably cheerful, and somehow, that made everything seem worse than ever.
“You haven’t lighted the tree,” Hank said in an astonished voice. He went over and plugged in the cord, and the little tree sprang into light. “The trouble with you, kid,” he said, “is that you lack the true Christmas spirit. Must be some Scrooge blood in you, back somewhere.”
As he talked he was unloading bundles — potato chips, cold meat, little cartons from the delicatessen down the street, a bottle of wine. He opened the wine and poured it into two glasses, handing her one. Then he pulled something else from the shopping bag. “Come here,” he said, “something to show you.”
She went over to him, and to her surprise he grabbed her and kissed her thoroughly. When it was over she tilted back her head and looked at him suspiciously. “Hank,” she said, “have you been drinking?”
He laughed. “Mistletoe,” he said, waving the bit of greenery over her head. “Old Albanian custom. Old Albanians do it all the time.” He pinned the mistletoe over the doorway, still whistling. “No,” he added, “I have not been drinking. I am merely filled with the spirit of Christmas.”
He paused, and snapped his fingers. “Music!” he said. “We must have a little Christmas music!” He turned on the radio, and a popular holiday tune filled the room. “Kathy, I am disappointed in you. Without me, it pains me to think of your dank, mossy little life. You have as much Christmas spirit as a salmon. Here,” he commanded, “sit down.”
Baffled, Kathy complied. She hadn’t seen Hank like this in weeks — in months. He came toward her then, handing her the wine and a slice of rye bread with a slab of cold meat on top. “Knackwurst,” he commented, in an explanatory voice. “Traditional Christmas fare. Eat!”
Kathy ate. They drank the wine and ate the meat and cheese and bread and salad. The room grew dark, and the little tree glowed brightly. The radio had switched to carols now, the loveliest of all music, and Kathy thought wistfully of what a beautiful Christmas this could have been.
“Some people open their presents Christmas Eve,” Hank said suddenly. He pulled a small, brightly wrapped package from his coat pocket. “I mean, that’s legal, isn’t it?” he said.
“Why, yes,” Kathy said, “I — ” She stopped. She glanced at her package for Hank, beneath the tree, and she thought again of the watch, the wonderful gift that might have been, and suddenly she thought, I will tell him. I’ve got to. It would be better for him to know, at least, that l wanted to give him something nice, that I tried. “Hank,” she said, “I want to tell you something, I have to explain — ”
But Hank wasn’t listening. He handed her a package. “Open it,” he said.
Kathy looked at the box. It was carefully wrapped, and there was a card. To Kathy, From Santa Claus. Slowly, she pulled off the paper and opened the box. Inside, rich and unbelievable on its red velvet cushion, lay a watch — a beautiful, fragile lady’s watch, edged in tiny diamonds. Amazed, Kathy looked up at her husband. “Hank,” she said, “I — don’t understand. It’s beautiful — it’s lovely, but — ”
“Here,” he interrupted impatiently. “Here, put it on.” He lifted it out of the box and carefully clasped it around her wrist. Lifting her hand, Kathy held it up to the light from the tree, and they both looked at it, the row of tiny diamonds catching the thousand-colored little lights.
“Hank,” Kathy said slowly, “where did you get the money?” But she knew, she thought, she knew — cigarette money, carfare money, lunch money — how painfully, how slowly saved. Oh, she knew. This watch was much finer, even, than the one she had hoped to get for him. But thinking of that — of what she had wanted to have for Hank, in this moment, and did not have — was unbearable now. Her eyes filled suddenly with tears.
“Hank,” she said, “Hank, it’s so lovely. I love it — I’ll wear it always, as long as I live. But, Hank, I’ve got to tell you — ”
Hank was grinning. “The last of the heavy spenders, kid, that’s me,” he said. He poured the rest of the wine from the bottle and gestured widely with the glass. “Play your cards right, baby,” he said, leering, “and I’ll take you out of this dump — ” Abruptly, he dropped the pose and sat down at her feet. “I wanted to get you something nice. Just once, something nice. But I never thought,” he said, looking at the watch on her wrist in a kind of unbelieving pleasure — ”I never thought I’d be able to get you something like this.” He shook his head. “I was amazed,” he said, “when I cracked old Alfred on the head this morning, and — ”
“When you what!” Kathy said.
“You remember Alfred,” Hank said, “the pig we won at the — ”
“I remember,” Kathy said, in a voice that was suddenly weak with shock. Alfred, she thought, of course! Hank had been saving in Alfred too. And this morning, all unknowing, he had taken her savings, along with his own, and bought her a watch! Kathy suppressed a sudden wild, overwhelming desire to laugh. She could see Alfred’s bland, silent smile as first Hank, and then she, Kathy, made secret contributions. Alfred knew all along, she thought. Oh, this was funny; this was really very funny. And she was glad, because, now, she could tell Hank everything. The money hadn’t been lost at all.
That was when she looked at Hank again, and all her thinking stopped. Because, there it was — on his face, in his voice, in his eyes. Since the moment he had walked in tonight, the gift in his pocket, it had all been back again — the laughter, and the lightness, and the pride. She had wanted Hank to be happy this Christmas, she had wanted to give him something rare and rich and wonderful, and, she realized slowly, she had. Quite by accident, she had. She had helped him to give to her, to feel, now, in the very beginnings of their life together, the pride of the man who gives something fine to the woman he loves. For Hank, this moment was the most precious gift of all — and he would never know that she had helped to give it to him. Because to tell him that would be to spoil it — not much, perhaps, but a little. He would laugh with her at the joke, and he would understand, but it would not be quite the same; and this first Christmas, to remember, would be changed a little from this high moment, for both of them, changed only a little, but changed forever.
So, she would never tell him, she thought. It would be a lie, but a Christmas lie — like the wonderful lie of Saint Nicholas and reindeer on the roof.
Suddenly, Kathy felt light and happy. She reached beneath the tree and picked up the box containing the tie and socks. They were really a lovely shade of blue, she thought, exactly the color of Hank’s eyes. She held the package out to him. “Merry Christmas,” she said.
Hank took the box, but before he turned to open it, he looked once more at Kathy’s watch. He shook his head again. “It’s amazing,” he said. “You save a little every day, and it’s amazing how it mounts up!”
Kathy smiled. “Absolutely amazing,” she said.
Featured image: Illustration by Mike Ludlow for the December 20, 1958, issue of The Saturday Evening Post (©SEPS)