We begin in the morning. The first step is taking off the strands of tinsel. My mom never likes this part of the process, because it's hard to get all the tinsel off. No matter how hard you try, there's always some stray piece that hangs on, somewhere deep in the tree, and you never see it until you throw the tree out by the curb. My mom is grumbling good-naturedly: "Every year, I think these pieces get smaller and slipperier... don't you two agree?" My brother nods.
As she works, plucking silver strands and handing them to my brother one by one, I watch the floor. Even before we'd started, there were small clumps of brown needles, down there in the vacant empty area where the presents had been. Now a steady rain of dead pine needles falls, sifting through the branches to accumulate at the bottom. The sound is hidden, soft, but during pauses in the conversation you can hear them. Rain, soft rain...
... and I'm taken back to the previous Christmas, the year earlier, a year ago when he was still here. A different tree in the living-room corner, still fresh and green. Unopened gifts around the trunk underneath, rich small promises. That had been a rainy week, as December often is in the South. He'd slept over at our house one night, upstairs in my bedroom under the slanted roof. We'd whispered and giggled, under the covers, and outside the steady rain fell on the roof over our heads, softly, hidden.
My mom's finished with the tinsel. The ornaments are next. "Danny, don't just stand there, okay? I need your help. Can you go get the ornament boxes?"
I go down to the basement, to the corner where the Christmas stuff gets stored. There are four or five empty ornament boxes, with soft cotton pads inside, linings to keep the fragile ornaments from breaking during the long summer and fall months when nobody is thinking about them. You have to protect stuff like that. It's a rough world. Lots of things can go wrong to break ornaments.
Last year, he'd helped us decorate the tree. His family is Jewish; he'd never decorated a Christmas tree before. He thought it was so cool. My mom was worried he'd drop an ornament. She never said anything, but I could tell. He didn't - not even when we'd had to squeeze in behind the tree to hang ornaments next to the window. He'd squeezed in from one side, and I'd squeezed in from the other... and we'd hung the ornaments we were holding, and our hands brushed... and for an instant, I pressed the back of my hand against the back of his hand, and felt him press back. Softly, hidden.
I get the boxes, go upstairs. My mom is waiting, three ornaments already in her hands. "Be careful, Danny. These can't touch each other, or they'll crack and break. Make sure you put a wad of cotton between them." She turns back to the tree.
I'm squatting on the floor over an ornament box, holding the ornaments in one hand, fluffing up the cotton. I see his face. Can't touch each other. Make sure you keep something in between.
Now the box is ready, with wads of cotton puffed up, small barriers, isolation cells. I carefully put each ornament in its own separate spot, well-padded, ready to survive the long dark summer and fall. Until next time. There's always a next time. Unless the ornament gets broken. Lots of things can go wrong to break ornaments. It's a rough world.
Such a stupid thing. One argument, just one... over something meaningless... and two boys, each too stubborn and too proud to admit he might have been wrong. And going through the dark summer and fall, without him, and him without me, both of us suffering behind our small barriers, inside our isolation cells. There's always a next time. Unless something gets broken.
Now the ornaments are all packed away; I've taken them downstairs, put them in their dusty corner. The lights are the only decorations left. My mom has this habit of taking the lights off while they're still plugged in, so she can check the bulbs before they're stored. She starts at the top, unwinding the string from the bare branches, spiraling down the tree, checking each bulb as she goes. My brother moves back and forth, following her, coiling up the string of lights.
It's slow, putting up the Christmas tree, slow. But you don't mind. You spend hours and hours carefully placing the strings of lights, arranging ornaments so they sparkle, hanging up the tinsel, being careful not to overload any one branch, working so hard and loving every moment. And Christmas blooms, flows out from the center, pulsing with light and warmth and color.
But this morning, we're taking down the tree, and it's not slow, it's quick and gray and businesslike, and no one smiles. What took hours and hours to create gets stripped away, just like that. Gone in a shower of dying brown needles.
Now my mom's halfway down the trunk with the lights; now she's two thirds. The tree grows dark and lifeless, stripped of color and electricity. Only the base still glows - down at the bottom, where nobody looks, except on Christmas morning. Last year, on Christmas morning, he rode his bike over to my house through dreary wet streets, and there was a small gift waiting for him under our tree. He didn't know I'd bought him something. He'd never opened a present on Christmas morning before. His face, his eyes sparkling in the color and light.
The tree's almost bare. I turn away. It hurts to watch. It's never hurt before. This year, it hurts.
"Danny. Can you quit daydreaming and hand me the box for the lights, please? I asked you once already."
It was a flashlight. One of those little flashlights, the size and shape of a thick pencil. My brother thought it was a stupid present. He didn't. He knew what was in the present before he'd finished opening it. He grinned at me, so quick nobody noticed, and I grinned back. It was our secret, only we knew. Under the covers with a flashlight. Thick pencils. It was such a little thing. We both tried not to giggle.
Now the lights are gone, packed away in the box, ready to be stuck in the basement and forgotten. Now, I'm holding the tree trunk while my brother unscrews the stand at the base; now he's pulling the stand out, handing it to my mom so she can dump the water; now I'm letting the tree slide to the floor. My brother, his part finished, is already parked in front of the Smurfs on TV.
"Well, thank goodness that's done." My mom is grumbling good-naturedly, surveying the floor. "I swear, it gets messier every year. Danny, if you'll take the tree out, I'll clean up the needles." My mom goes off to get the vacuum.
The tree's lying on its side. I pick it up by the bottom of the trunk, down where the roots used to be until someone cut them off. The base of the trunk is still wet from the water we'd given it all December, trying to make the tree think that everything was all right, that it was still out in the forest, that any moment a bluebird might fly down and sit on its branches and pour his heart out in song.
I grab hold of the rough bark and yank the tree toward the door. No need to be gentle now. Christmas is over and the lights are gone. Behind me, the vacuum's already moving. I drag the tree outdoors, under the morning sky where it began life so full of hope and promise, and down to the dirty gray concrete curb. The city would come in a day or so and haul it off somewhere.
Walking back to the house, I glance over my shoulder. The tree's lying there in the dead brown grass by the dirty gray curb. Deep inside the tree, hidden, there's a glimmer of silver. A stray piece of tinsel, hanging on. It's all that's left of what we once had. I look at it for a moment. Then I turn and go back inside and close the door.