With apologies to William Sydney Porter
NINE THOUSAND, three hundred and ninety-nine dollars. That was all. And five thousand of it was in hundreds. Hundreds saved three and four at a time by skimping on holiday tips to the doorman, postman et al and by strategicallly deferring a select few visits to the spa at Madison and 55th, until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. Nine thousand, three hundred and ninety-nine dollars. And the next day would be Christmas Eve.
There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the Alessi leather loveseat and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.
While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A fully-furnished apartment on Central Park West, at $4800 per month. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.
In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”
The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was realizing in the area of $5000 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $3500, though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his apartment above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.
DELLA FINISHED her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray Weimeraner being walked on a gray leash by a gray-haried matron wearing a gray Mark Kaufman fur. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $9,399 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every dollar she could for months, with this result. $2000 a week doesn’t go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are.
Only $9,399 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling–something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.
There was a tall and narrow door mirror of questionable accuracy, with a dusky brown frame, mounted on the inside surface of the walk-in closet door. Perhaps you have seen such a mirror in a $4800 apartment. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing her reflection in a rapid sequence of gesticulations, obtain a fairly accurate conception of her looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art. Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the mirror. Her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.
Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim’s graphic design business–a business he had built from the ground up over the years, and which numbered just south of ten steady clients, two of whom supplied the lion’s share of the Young’s income, with the remaining seven providing a still-considerable contribution to the Young’s bottom line.
The other was Della’s hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have walked by wirelessly accessing his .Mac email account while simultaneously crunching budget figures in Microsoft Excel 2004 each time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.
So now Della’s beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the New Zealand-wool Karastan.
On went her old Versace couture signature overcoat and hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street
WHERE SHE STOPPED the sign read: “Mme. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds.” One flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the “Sofronie.”
“Will you buy my hair?” asked Della.
“I buy hair,” said Madame. “Take yer hat off and let’s have a sight at the looks of it.”
Down rippled the brown cascade.
“Two hundred bucks,” said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.
“Give it to me quick,” said Della.
Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the Web for Jim’s present. As RoadRunner cable modem service was not yet available in their building, Della was forced to struggle along with a 640K/128K DSL connection from Verizon which, contrary to the circuit’s advertised bandwidth, was capable of no more than 300-400K downstream even on a good day.
IN SPITE OF her DSL modem’s oft-sluggish response, Della found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else, and had just become available at the online Apple Store a few days prior. There was no other like it from any other computer manufacturer, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was, of course, the new Mac Pro: simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation–as all good things should do.
It was a workstation worthy even of his most valued of clients. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim’s. It was like him. Quietness and value–the description applied to both.
Nine thousand, five hundred and ninety-nine dollars they took from her for it, and she opted for the overnight express shipping. With the 15″ 2.3GHz Quad-core Intel i7 MacBook Pro he currently owned, Jim might be properly anxious about hauling an eighteen-month old laptop such as his to a client’s place of business. Grand as this MacBook Pro was when first purchased, he was often reluctant to concede in mixed company that it was a non-Retina display model, for fear that his tech quotient would be suspect.
When Della finally logged off her own 27″ 3.2GHz quad-core Intel i5 iMac, her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling iron and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends–a mammoth task.
Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.
“If Jim doesn’t kill me,” she said to herself, “before he takes a second look at me, he’ll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do–oh! what could I get with only nine thousand, three hundred and ninety-nine dollars?”
AT SIX O’CLOCK the following evening, the Bonneau du Martray chardonnay was chilling nicely in the beverage cooler, and the frying pan was on the back of the range hot and ready to cook the pecan-encrusted salmon filets from Wegmans.
Jim was never late. Della held the Mac Pro behind her back and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit of saying a little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: “Please God, make him think I am still pretty.”
The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two–and to be burdened with a family! He still wore the Gianfranco Ferre studio charcoal grey cashmere overcoat she had purchased for him nearly two years ago, and his LaCrasia Italian leather driving gloves were unlined.
Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.
DELLA WRIGGLED off the table and went for him.
“Jim, darling,” she cried, “don’t look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn’t have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It’ll grow out again–you won’t mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say ‘Merry Christmas!’ Jim, and let’s be happy. You don’t know what a nice–what a beautiful, nice gift I’ve got for you.”
“You’ve cut off your hair?” asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.
“Cut it off and sold it,” said Della. “Don’t you like me just as well, anyhow? I’m me without my hair, aren’t I?”
Jim looked about the room curiously.
“You say your hair is gone?” he said, with an air almost of idiocy.
“You needn’t look for it,” said Della. “It’s sold, I tell you–sold and gone, too. It’s Christmas Eve, sweetheart. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered,” she went on with sudden serious sweetness, “but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the salmon on, Jim?”
OUT OF HIS trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Five thousand dollars a month or twenty million a year–what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The Magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.
Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.
“Don’t make any mistake, Dell,” he said, “about me. I don’t think there’s anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you’ll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first.”
White fingers and nimble tore at the ribbon and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the apartment.
For there lay The Combs–the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long since she had first seen them at Sotheby’s. Antique French hallmarked tortoise shell hair combs, mounted with 12 silver-set rose-cut diamonds from the mid-19th century–just the type to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were extraordinarily expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.
But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: “My hair grows so fast, Jim!”
AND THEN Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, “Oh, oh!”
Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held the incredibly compact and yet immensely powerful workstation out to him eagerly upon her open palms. A 3.5GHz 6-core Mac Pro, with the obligatory 2.7GHz 12-core processor upgrade, plus the 64GB DDR3 ECC memory and dual AMD FirePro D700 (sporting 6GB of GDDR5 VRAM) additions. Sensing that Jim’s data storage requirements demanded as much capacity as could be made available, Della had also elected to add an additional 1TB of PCIe-based flash-storage.
As Jim powered up the device, the four USB 3.0, six Thunderbolt 2, two Gigabit Ethernet, one HDMI and two audio output ports seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit. Or perhaps the Mac Pro’s design team had chosen to auto-illuminate each of the rear-facing ports whenever the unit was rotated.
“Isn’t it a dandy, Jim? They told me orders were already backlogged ihto February, but I managed to get one shipped here overnight. You’ll have to write a blog post for all your clients about how much faster you’ll be able to ge their projects completed now.”
Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.
“Dell,” said he, “let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ’em a while. They’re too nice to use just at present. Our mutual funds are in the toilet, and we’re leveraged to the hilt since I leased that other Saab. So I sold the rights to my two biggest clients to a design firm in Soho in order to get the money to buy your combs. And now, suppose you put dinner on.”
The Magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in an apartment who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days, let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the Magi.
Note: I first perverted this classic short story in an ancient blog posting from late 2003, but since only a handful of you were on my list at that point, I figured I’d recycle it for 2013 and update it to reflect the absurd pricing of the new Mac Pro. Before I run out of keystrokes here (this is a zero day, after all), let me wish you and yours the happiest and healthiest of holidays, and I hope to see all of you at some point in 2014.