One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all.
And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies snitched one and
two at a time from "Need a Penny" trays, seat cushions
or by scaring little children as they walked out of the Seven-Eleven.
Three times I counted it. Three times I laid my money on the
sticky bartop at the Arvada Tavern and sorted it. It was after
midnight, my eyes were bleary and my head was cloudy from drink.
And in less than twenty-four hours it would be Christmas.
There was clearly nothing left to do
but slump even lower on my bar stool and whimper. So I did. Which
instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs,
sniffles and smiles, with sniffles predominating. It also draws
Worm's attention away from the billiards table. Someone crying,
be he man or woman, draws the hunched over little man's attention
like a fly to horseshit. He wants to share the misery, wants
to take a part of your sadness if you'll take a part of his.
A lousy, lopsided deal if ever there were one.
While I sniffled silently and unstuck
one dollar and fifty cents in a mix of American and Canadian
currency to trade for another Budweiser draft, Worm sat down
and sized me up. He looked at my tattered sneakers and my torn
pants, one of the few pairs I own that can bear up to the winter
winds. He looked me up and down, not as "Doctor" which
I had taken to demanding they call me back in my better days,
when I had a job and impressed them with a degree I had bought
online for twenty-five dollars. They played along because I bought
the beer and fed the jukebox slick new dollar bills. Now, the
doctor moniker was only used in mockery, usually slurred as part
of an offer to kick my ass that would force me to put up, shut
up, or make up an excuse about needing to be home before I ran
to the door calling everyone pussies.
I shuddered as Worm put his bony arm
around my shoulder, leaned his crank-ravaged face in and grunted,
"What's wrong? Tell Worm. Come on, man, we're family here."
"Tomorrow is Christmas," I
said between sobs, "and all I have to buy my wife a present
is one dollar and eighty-seven cents, minus a dollar fifty. So
that makes, seven plus eight minus five a dollar. No, less,"
I started counting.
"Thirty-seven cents," Worm
answered. He was very good with numbers, sharp because he always
kept the shuffleboard scores.
Hearing the paltry sum aloud broke my
spirit. After spending so many weeks of thinking about saving
money, this is all I had gathered. It hardly made thinking about
doing something worthwhile. For the previous weeks, I had spent
many happy hours laying in bed long after my wife had gone off
to work, planning the wonderful gift I would buy her for Christmas.
Back when I had more money than I knew what to do with, I bought
Mrs. Filthy the classiest thing I could afford every year: "spirit
art" collector plates from the Franklin Mint. One new masterpiece
every year. These beautiful heirlooms are limited-edition, gilded
dinner plates for displaying, not eating. They feature windswept
American Indians doing Indian shit before
a backdrop of majestic mountains and thick forests. If you look
deeply, though, you can see the faces of wolves and mountains
lions and badgers etched in the crags of the rocks and the boughs
of the trees. The plate is real art, the kind that makes you
think about how we fucked the land and the Indians and now all
we can do to say we're sorry is buy plates. This year I planned
to buy the final plate in the set and it was surely the best,
a plate so majestic I could think of nothing that better expressed
my profound and unconditional love for my wife. It was the plate
where you could totally see the squaw's tits.
Of course, the plate cost more than
thirty-seven cents, more even than one dollar and eighty-seven
With the alcohol in my system drawing
out my true emotions, I explained my predicament to Worm, and
he listened sympathetically. As I fought back tears, I told him
how I had wanted to save money, how I had made plans to buy the
plate, but now, due to circumstances beyond my control, I could
not give Mrs. Filthy the gift she deserved. Worm nodded and patted
"That's rough," he gravely
acknowledged. "Tough times. I've got problems too."
I wheeled to face him and snapped, "Who
asked about you?" Then softly, sobbing again, "We were
talking about me."
"Okay, okay, man," he said
as he took his claw off my shoulder. ""I've seen that
"Yeah, I know exactly what it looks
like. That antique place on Grandview's got it in the window
for fifty bucks. That squaw's got a rack."
Grandview Street! So close to where I sat, and
yet the cost made it so distant. Fifty dollars! Where would I
find that sort of money? But I had to have it. I needed that
plate not only to complete the collection, but as the symbol
of the depth of my love. I was filled with hope at one level,
because I knew where to find it. Deeper within me, though, I
was filled with dread because I knew it was out of my reach.
I sacrificed. It occurred to me that the spirit of giving is
not just in the gift, but in what it requires to give it. I could
barter something I value in order to buy it. What did I have
that was worth fifty dollars? What did I own that others admired
and wished for themselves? Quickly, I turned to Worm.
"Will you buy my hair?" I
""Whaaaat the fuck?"
he stretched the "what" out over thirty seconds.
I ran a hand over my sumptuous light-brown
hair and tossed my head to let the light from the Coors sign
bounce off it as it cascaded down over my ears and temples. I
asked again, "I've always seen you admiring my full, lustrous
head of hair. Will you buy it for fifty dollars?"
Worm snickered through clenched teeth.
"Whatever you're smoking, I want some too." He pinched
his fingers, touched them to his lips.
"I am offering you my hair,"
I pleaded. "It is all I can offer. I tend it carefully.
It delights children. To be without my hair would be a hardship
"You can grow more."
"You can have that, too!"
"I don't want your hair,"
he growled. Then Worm lowered his eyelids and pulled me in conspiratorially.
He whispered, "You want to make a quick fifty bucks?"
"I need to."
"Okay then," Worm stood and
hitched up his Wranglers by tugging on his brass belt buckle.
"Follow me and I'll show you a little trick my brother pulled
at the It'll Do Lounge the other night."
Worm led me out onto the sidewalk. It
was a black, cloudless night. The only light came from the drooping
Christmas lights in the Tavern's window. As such winter nights
are, it was cold as shit. I had no jacket and was immediately
chilled to the bone. I rubbed my hands to warm them.
Worm pointed to a spot on the walk.
"Stand right there. I'll be right back."
I got a bad feeling as Worm disappeared
into the Tavern. I had been through this twice before. Once they
sent me out here, called the cops and told them there was a flasher
outside. Ha ha, very funny. The other time, on a similar night
last winter, the Harelip returned with a bucket of ice water
and dumped it on me. Then they locked the doors. This is why
I was filled with so much trepidation when Worm returned carrying
"Don't move," he said, and
despite my misgivings, I didn't. I was that desperate for the
money. He poured the bucket of water onto the concrete before
"Oh, great plan," I chattered
through my teeth. "Look at me! I'm a fucking millionaire!"
Worm just smiled. "Patience. We
wait for the water to freeze, and then you slip on it. You fake
like you hurt yourself, and then threaten a lawsuit if Sue doesn't
give you fifty bucks."
Suddenly, I forgot that my nuts had
crawled back up into my body cavity and that my ears felt as
brittle as the glass ornaments we had been knocking off the Tavern's
tree with peanuts all night. My gloom lifted and I saw a Merry
Christmas in my future. Worm was a shrewd man, all right. There's
a reason they call him Worm.
Worm jabbed his thumb at the Tavern.
"I got to go back inside to take a leak. Fuck, it's freezing
out here. This shouldn't take long." He opened the door
and a billow of warm, smoky air hit me before it closed behind
I was alone, dreaming of the joy in
Mrs. Filthy's eyes as she unwrapped the squaw-boobies plate.
I was freezing to death, but could imagine the warmth that would
envelope me on Christmas morning. I looked at my reflection in
the Tavern window. I suppose I should have been ashamed at the
depths I was stooping to. What would my wife think? Would she
still love me if she knew I had faked injury to profit from the
only pub in town that still had not altered its written rules
to address my behavior?
But what could I have done with one
dollar and eighty-seven cents? To save up more requires forethought,
planning and dedication, all vices I refuse to rely on. No, it
was better to earn her Christmas present this way.
The water had turned to ice, and I stepped
The next thing I remember it was morning and
I was in a strange bed, under a doctor's supervision, my leg
in a cast and a bandage drooping over my eyebrow. My wife stood
by my side, dabbing at my forehead.
one arm, she held a small jar stuffed with coins and dollar bills.
On the side, I recognized Sue's writing from all the signs in
the Tavern about whose checks they don't accept. The jar read
"Get well, Filthy." Under her other arm, my wife held
a package done up prettily with ribbon and a bow.
"What in the world did you do?"
Her sweet face--her angelic face--surrounded by a choir of hot
curlers leaned over and I could feel her warm breath on my cheek.
"Mercy, it's going to be like having a baby around with
you in a cast."
"How much is in the jar?"
My sweet wife pulled the jar away like
a running back tucking in for the goal-line dive. "You're
not getting this. This goes to the doctors. Do you have any idea
how much this is going to cost us?"
"Be good to me," I pleaded,
"for what I did I did for you. Maybe I was less worthless
when I could walk, but nobody can say my love for you is worthless."
I told her of my despair at having no
money, how Worm and I schemed to cheat the Tavern out of fifty
dollars. All the while, Mrs. Filthy tsked-tsked me, but she wasn't
truly angry. I could tell because of the sparkle in her eye,
and also because when she is genuinely mad she tends to yell
"And now that we have the jar,
I can buy you the gift I intended."
"You can't have the jar,"
she said flatly.
"But, my love, that is what I earned.
I slipped and fell on that ice because I could not live through
Christmas without giving you a present. My leg will heal, and
you don't mind taking care of me, do you? I just had to do it.
Say 'Merry Christmas," honey, and let's be happy. You don't
know what a wonderful, grand gift I have planned for you."
"What is it this year?"
"I will show you later. You're
going to shit your pants," I said, but she still held the
"You're mad at me," I said
softly, as much a question as a statement.
My wife drew the package she had been
holding and threw it on my stomach.
"No, no, yes, a little," she
said. "Make no mistake, I realize that you're still my husband,
and I guess I should expect this sort of thing by now. No amount
of broken bones or bruised brain tissue will change you. But,
you might as well unwrap this now."
Eagerly, I tore into the packaging despite
my wife's pleading that I save the paper. I flung the bow aside
and withdrew a pair of trousers with a removable wool-lining
for the nights I am too drunk to drive home from the Tavern.
These were the most beautiful pants I had ever seen. The cloth
was denim the color of the tropical sea and soft as butter cream.
They were expensive pants; new and with the whole brand tag on
the ass. These were not bought in the outlet, as "irregulars"
or snitched from the St. Vincent DePaul box.
Mrs. Filthy said as a way of justifying
the extravagance, "I got sick of you walking around in your
underwear all day."
I laughed because as beautiful as they
were, I couldn't wear them over my cast. Despite her best intentions,
I'd still be strutting around the apartment like a peacock, letting
it all hang out.
"Promise that when you're better
you'll wear these whenever you go outside, even just to get the
paper," she said as she proudly watched me finger the material.
"You want to know what I'm getting
you? You know the plates I buy every year? The ones we always
say are something we can hand down to our children some day as
She cringed a little and said she warily,
"Yeah." I imagined she cringed because the magnitude
of my generosity was becoming apparent.
"I'm getting you the last one,
the most beautiful one in the set."
She said nothing, but I could feel my
joy filling the room as I spoke.
"You know the plate, right? The
one with the, well, as the Indians call them, ta-tas. Isn't it
dandy, honey? I know exactly where I can buy it, right here in
Arvada. You'll have to have your book club over because I want
everyone to know how classy you are. I want people to see what
I have always known; that you've got class out the ass."
Mrs. Filthy took my pants and began
neatly folding them. "Let's put your present away until
your leg heals because spring is coming, and then you're really
going to want to go outside with no pants on."
"What about the plate? Isn't that
better than paying the doctors?"
She continued to fold the pants into
smaller and smaller sections, and finally said, "I sold
the plates to get the money for your pants."
I sat up in the bed, but was overcome
with emotion before I could speak. I simply watched my wonderful,
giving wife as my eyes filled with tears, so much so that she
looked like she was underwater.
"Are you going to eat your Jell-o?"
she asked, pointing at my breakfast tray.
Worm, as you know, was a wise man--a wonderfully
wise man--who once brought the meat of an elk he shot into the
Tavern and shared it with us all. He didn't invent gift-giving,
but he understood it better than me. Being wise, he knew that
I would slip and fall on the ice, that I would break my leg and
be laid up in traction for two days. And here I tell you my story
and how it was touched by Worm. Through his scheming and his
conniving, Mrs. Filthy and I were gifted by his wisdom and enveloped
by his grand design. That day, we too were Worm.
to Tell Filthy Something?
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