The Gift of the Magi . . .Kinda
© Copyright 2021 by John Bourges
They all stood outside O’Henry’s Steak House on 6th Avenue and 4th street, while one of the bartenders and one of the staff waitresses watched the owner lock up for the night.
“Have a good night you two.” He said and sensing that their relationship had grown over the weeks, left it at that, without further comment or remark and headed home. Shelby had been his main bartender for years and Jodie was his best waitress. Why they had never expressed interest in each other he didn’t know. But now he was sure of their mutual attraction for each other. Just in time for Christmas he thought, a nice gift, “Yes, a nice gift.” He said to himself.
They stood in the December chill of the village with an awkwardness usually reserved for school children and their first crush. Then both tried to speak at the same time, then a stop, an apology and they tried again, once more speaking at the same time.
As he held up his hand to stop her from speaking, the bartender Shelby Foote said, “Jodie, I was wondering if I could buy you a drink or get something to eat?”
“A little late for that don’t you think?” Jodie said looking at his brown eyes, instead of her watch, and thinking she had never seen eyes that color before.
“Coffee then? Something? I just figured you seem like a person I’d like to know more about and the hustle of work never seems to give me a break. Maybe it’s the holiday spirit. You don’t have to of course; I was only wondering.” Shelby said, wondering when did he become such a complete fool that he no longer knew how to ask a girl out on a date. It was 2am after all and not the usual time for going out to dinner or for a drink, but still he asked. “Idiot.” He thought to himself.
“Is there a place nearby? I really have an early day tomorrow, well later today really. Then work tonight.” She said, sowing the seeds for an early departure if needed.
“Why yes I do. My friend runs Sandolino’s around the corner on Barrow. He’s open twenty-three and a half hours a day, so we can get whatever you want. From a drink, to breakfast to a steak dinner, he’ll make it.”
She paused for a moment and considered the offer. He was attractive in a scruffy way; he had always been pleasant to her and never hit on her like all the other Valentino’s working in the restaurant. Maybe older than she was, but still not unattractive. “OK. Do you think they could make waffles? I haven’t had a waffle in years!”
“Believe it or not, yes he does, because I have craved waffles in the middle of the night and knew of only one place that would make them at that hour. So, it’s a date of sorts?”
“Not a date Shelby, let’s start with just getting something to eat together. When it’s a date, you’ll dress the part, pick me up, wine and dine me and then at the end of the night seek a kiss. Which of course I will refuse at first.” She said with a slight laugh in her voice and a devastating wink as they walked along West 4th street.
“How long have you been at O’Henry’s?” she asked as they walked slowly along West 4th with its bars, rowdy’s and unique stores like the Pink Pussy Cat.
“Since I got out of the service. Floated around, slightly lost like most guys my age then. I was hungry one evening and I went in there for dinner. The old man was working the door and they had a young kid behind the bar that was using a Trader Vics bartending guide to make his drinks. I asked for a job and went to work that night instead of having diner.”
“No regrets?” she asked as they slowed to let a loud and boisterous party of NYU college students pass by.
“None. Believe it or not, I’m a writer. I use to say I was trying to be a writer, but I had a piece published and so I can officially say I am a writer…with a great deal of arrogant authority.” He said with a self-depreciating laugh.
“Oh, maybe I read it! Where?” Jodie said as she stopped to look at him. “Yep, he has potential” she thought to herself.
“Penthouse magazine, so I doubt it. But I’ll take what I can get. The restaurant closes early enough I can go home and write, get up early enough to go to work at my real job, which is as a proof reader at Conde` Nast up on Madison.”
“Penthouse? You mean like the girlie magazine?” she was starting to change her mind.
“Girlie magazine? Who talks like that?” he said with a laugh as they turned the corner past Jimmy Days to Sandolino’s and he held the door for her. “You know they do have articles and words in them, not just pictures.” They walked to the back and a rear table occupied by one man who got up to give Shelby a hug.
Jodie looked at what she thought was the biggest black man she had ever seen.
“Bear, this is Jodie. Jodie this is Bear.” He said with a smile and obvious enjoyment.
“Enchanted my dear. Please.” He said as he offered her a chair for her to sit, facing the back of the restaurant. Bear knew that Shelby would be occupying the seat next to him facing the door.
“Jodie was wondering if you could make her some waffles?”
“I don’t make just waffles; I make the best waffles you’ve ever had. Trust me, you will love them.” Bear said. The conversation flowed freely between the three of them, as the meals came, drinks, coffee and an after-dinner drink ‘on the house’ he said with a smile.
Jodie had not expected the conversation to be as much fun, the laughter and the smiles so often. She had anticipated a serious conversation with a man who always seemed so serious at work. But here he was joking with Bear, laughing loudly and she felt part of the group instead of apart and as an outsider. Bear was probably the most gentle and gracious host she had ever met, articulate and intelligent beyond that of a simple restaurant manager. As they prepared to leave, Bear made sure that she knew she was always welcome there regardless if Shelby was with her or not.
“How do you know him?” Jodie asked as Shelby walked her home.
“The service. He is probably my most trusted friend and I love him dearly.”
“He seems like such a tender soul. A Renaissance man. I like him a lot. You have good taste in friends.”
“Renaissance Man maybe, but Tender soul are not words that are usually used to describe Bear. But if you insist.” Shelby said as they stopped in front of her apartment building on 6th Avenue just south of Carmine.
“Thank you for a lovely evening. Do you think we will do this again if all you get is a kiss on the cheek?” she said smiling.
“Of course my lady.” Shelby said with a flourished bow, then taking her hand kissed it and when he saw that she had entered safely into the building turned to go home.
Shelby would wait for his normal bus on the corner of 6th Avenue just off Minetta Lane where he lived. Technically he lived on Minetta street, just down the block towards McDougal but the address was Minetta Lane. He wasn’t even sure why it was called Minetta Lane since on the other side of 6th Avenue it was called Carmine. He figured it was just one of those New York City Greenwich Village anomalies where one street becomes another for no apparent reason. The location by whatever name, was convenient for him. He could catch the bus on the corner or walk the one block to West 4th and catch the subway. Only problem with that was that he hated the subway. Hated the closed in feeling, hated the smell, hated the noise, hated the people. But above all he hated the smell of the noisy people.
He had, for the past 6 months began to take his time for the bus, arriving early and waiting for the one that came about quarter past the hour. Shelby had made a friend and he had grown accustom to meeting him and just sitting on the bench at the stop. He couldn’t really tell how old he was, but figured he was older than he looked. His thick glasses accenting his slightly wider and slanted eyes were always sliding down his short nose and he had to keep pushing them back up, only to repeat the process with any movement of his head. He was short, slightly round with small hands and feet. But it was his perpetual smile that had attracted Shelby to him. No matter how he looked, where he looked or said, he always seemed to be smiling. That, and he held a book in both arms as if he loosened his grip it would fly away.
“Hi.” Shelby said the first time they met as he sat next to him on the bench. The young man just turned to look up at Shelby and didn’t say a word, then faced back to the street. Shelby noticed he had a card pinned to the outside of his shirt that day. It was a warm summer day and the bright red card stood out against the pale color of his shirt. Shelby noticed he boarded the same bus but got off at 14th Street, saying goodbye to the bus driver with a slightly distorted speech. It took several more mornings of a simple ‘hi’ before the young man finally answered him.
“Hello” he said with his L’s sounding like a W.
“Hi, my name is Shelby. What’s yours?”
“David.” After a brief pause he said “Shelly?” missing the B completely and with the L’s sounding quieter, almost like an absent W, but not quite.
“Yes, Shelby. What book are you reading?” he said, noting that every day he had seen the boy, now known as David, he had a different book with him. He had never seen him read any of them and really wasn’t sure if he could read at all.
“Cruzo” he said with some pride, and with just enough movement showed the cover of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe to Shelby, then quickly clutched it tight to his chest again.
“You like books David?”
“Yes.” He said shaking his head enthusiastically. “Wuv books.”
As the weather began to change and the holidays approached, first with Thanksgiving, David and Shelby looked forward to their meetings. Shelby would explain some of the books to David as he thumbed through the pages, now comfortable enough with Shelby at his side.
On Thanksgiving Shelby decided to go into work, while the office was closed, just to catch up on work. He had no family to speak of. Bear would be at Sandolino’s when he got off and headed home and while he and Jodie were becoming closer, she had never spent the night at his apartment. Granted they seemed to have genuine feelings for each other but they would get to the next logical and expected step of seeing each other’s body’s and making love to each other. But then a freeze would stop them both in their tracks and Jodie would withdraw, only to apologize later and then they would start again, almost as if from scratch. He looked up out the bus window as it passed 14th street, then pulled into the stop on 16th where he saw David walking frantically up and then back down the street, seemingly scared and making strange noises that Shelby could just make out. He pulled the cord to signal a stop but the driver kept going. He pulled it more and more, louder and louder went the bell till he finally ran to the front of the bus, demanding the driver stop. It must have been in his tone and the look in his eyes because the driver came to a complete stop and let Shelby off in the middle of the avenue.
As he ran back down 6th he saw David pacing, turning, running then stopping, frantic and lost. “David! David! It’s me Shelby! David!” he yelled again, finally getting the boys attention. He dropped his book and ran to Shelby clutching him in a death grip. Another pedestrian, walking along picked up the book and handing it to Shelby said, “You really should watch your children better mister.” And continued up the block with an unapproving shaking of their head.
Shelby was finally able to loosen the grip of David and as he did so, looked for the red card usually pinned to his outermost garment. Finding it, he opened it to see an address on 14th street just off 6th. Ringing the bell, there was a brief but alarmed answer, “David! David is that you?”
While Shelby tried to answer he was interrupted by David, “Yes Grammy. I have a friend.” He said. While they waited, they just stood looking at each other, the alarm and panic of David had finally been replaced by his usual smile until the door was opened by an older woman, neatly dressed with a very concerned look on her face. She embraced David in her own vice like grip while David just stood there, arms down at his side.
“You had me worried sick David. Worried sick.” Then finally looking at Shelby, said “Thank you. I don’t know how or why. But thank you.”
“He’s my friend Grammy. We ride the bus together and read books. He likes books like I do.” David said, again with a slight slur and mispronunciation to the words.
“Are you Shelly Henry?” she asked quickly, still hugging David, afraid to let him go.
“Not sure where the Henry came from, but my name is Shelby, he seems to drop the B.”
Nodding her head, “I’m being rude, can I invite you in for coffee? It’s time for David to have something to eat.” Sensing reluctance on the part of Shelby both David and his ‘Grammy’ then asked together. “Please?”
“How can I resist? Of course, that’s very kind of you.” And together they walked up the two flights to her apartment. In her hurry to run downstairs she had left the door wide open and as he approached, Shelby saw that it was neat and clean and filled with books.
While David sat at the kitchen table enjoying his fried bologna sandwich with a chocolate Yoo-Hoo, Shelby had a chance to talk with his Grammy.
“My grand-son is getting older and obviously the Downes has slowed his intellectual growth, but he learns, just slower. His mother lives downtown near the bus stop and he comes here every day. He gets something to eat and then I go to work at the library on 23rd opposite the post office. I should be retired but I love my job. It works out well because David really doesn’t say much and everyone there loves him so he has free range of the place. Somewhere along the line he has developed a love of books. He doesn’t really read well yet, but he’s getting there.”
“When I was growing up,” Shelby said, “I remember asking my mother for a book. She thought it was the greatest day, that I was finally learning to want to read, just for the sake of reading. She asked me what kind, history, or science fiction and I said something about an inch thick, indicating it with my fingers. She thought, well that’s OK, not too long, not too short and so she found me a book of short stories by O’Henry.” Smiling to himself, “Now that I think of it, I told David this story and maybe that’s where the Henry came from.” Seeing Grammy nod, he continued, “Anyway, she was mortified about an hour later when she found the reason I wanted the book was for a sag in the train tracks of my Lionel Train Set as it approached an overpass. I think she threw her hands up in surrender, but eventually I caught the bug and I have a stack of books of my own. So maybe it will happen for David.”
“Still have the book of short stories?”
“No, but maybe one day I’ll go down to the Strand Book Store and find a copy.”
“That’s David’s second most favorite place in the world.” Looking at her watch she looked at Shelby, “I need to get us both ready for work. Thank you again for rescuing David. Not sure how that happened, he’s ridden the same bus for years.”
“I was reading.” Came the obvious reply from David as he finished his Yoo-Hoo.
“Well ma’am, thank you for the coffee. Now that I know where he is headed to each day, I’ll keep an eye out.”
“Thank you” she said, handing Shelby her number and address.” Just in case.”
Jodie had finally agreed to come over to Shelby’s place after they had dinner at Seville` on Charles. Although it was only a few days before Christmas, it was unseasonably warm and they decided to walk. As they meandered the maze of streets he finally asked her if she would like a night cap, ‘or something’ as they walked. Their relationship had grown to where they walked arm in arm, paused at corners and took the time to kiss, felt the natural movement of their hands grasping the others. They would stop and just look at each other. During dinner of some of the finest Spanish food in the city, Shelby had found himself simply staring at her over the clams in green sauce.
“Are you going to eat something or just stare at me all night?” she said again with a devastating wink. Caught, Shelby went back to his meal only to pause again a short time later.
They stopped at the side entrance to the building where Shelby lived. “Now don’t be alarmed, I’m not a serial killer, but the entrance is a little long and narrow.”
“Isn’t that what all serial killers say? I’m not a serial killer?” she said with a slight laugh.
“The front of the building on Minetta Lane was a Chinese laundry at one time, with apartments above. This side entrance was always locked and as you’ll see opens into a long and very narrow walkway to a door at the end. This led to the speakeasy that was in the basement. You can still see where there was a cut out for the doorman to see who was at the gate.”
“You live in a speakeasy?”
“Well was a speakeasy. Now it’s just a big room, with an old bar, a working fireplace and steps that go up to a hidden entrance at the back of what once was the laundry. That entrance is sealed so I use the steps as shelves. Listen I’ll go first, this way, you change your mind you can run out without having to get past me.”
“Said the serial killer to his latest victim.” Again said with a smile.
They walked down to the end where a single bulb in an industrial fixture lit the door. Allowing her to enter first, he saw her take off her coat as she began to walk around the large room.
“The boiler room is on the other side of that wall, and that metal frame on the far side is where the coal would be delivered. The stairs over there, like I said, went up to a hidden door. But over the years it’s been painted so many times it’s become part of the wall, never to be opened again.”
She walked past a long Mahogany bar and saw that the kitchen was on the other side, with a small gas stove, refrigerator, sink and cabinets above. “How’d they get this in here?”
“If you look on the other side, you can see where it was cut, then re-assembled once they got it through the door. There is a special trap at the end of the bar that connects directly to the sewer so they could dump any alcohol they had if they ever got raided. It’s rumored that the shape of the martini glass comes from the times of prohibition. You could dump the contents and nothing remained, unlike other types of glasses.”
“Called a water closet, because that’s about how big it was. Just enough room for a toilet. The sink and shower were added later. My favorite part is over here.”
In a small alcove she saw a rather large bed. “The bed? You would.”
“No miss skeptic, the fireplace at the foot of the bed. It’s gas and it works. It’s rather nice to be down here and have the fire going. If I may?” he said walking over to the Christmas tree in the corner. He turned on the lights, lit the fireplace and then walked by the door to turn off the overhead lights. After a moment, the glow of the fireplace and the lights from the tree created an atmosphere of warmth. He walked to the stereo and selected Mozart sonata’s and turned the volume low. “Might I interest you in an after dinner drink?”
“What would you suggestion Monsieur?” pronouncing it as a hillbilly would as Mon Sure.
“I’m a bartender remember? Anything you want. If brandy is to your liking or something sweeter like B & B is a good choice.”
“B & B?”
“Brady and Benedictine. Smooth and sweet. It is not something you consume in large quantities; the hangover will kill you. Trust me on this.”
She agreed to the B & B and as he brought them their drinks she looked around at the stereo, the numerous books throughout the apartment, the writing desk with an IBM Selctric typewriter on top, and the minimal of photographs.
“You sure you’re not a serial killer?” she said, allowing Shelby to approach her and wrap his arms around her and kiss her. She returned the kiss feeling the magic of what she believed to be love starting at her toes and work its way up to her lips. She felt him return the kiss and wondered if he felt the same for her.
Shelby took her by the hand, took their drinks and set them on an end table then led her to the bed and laying down, pulled her next to him. She moved into his embrace willingly as their hands each sought to touch each other, hold each other, feel each other’s warmth and love. Slowly a garment here and then a garment there would find its way to the floor, till more skin than not was exposed to the other.
“I think I’m in love with you.” She said and almost immediately regrated it. Then sat upright as fear invaded her bliss.
“I think I am too.” He said reaching for her. He admired her, gazing into her eyes and how the light from the fire sparkled in the chocolate brown of them. How the chestnut color of her hair glimmered and the lights from the tree reflected.
“I can’t.” she said. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
“Why Jodie? What’s wrong? You don’t think I feel the same? Think I’d say things just to get you into bed? Listen, you can’t fake certain emotions, and what was just going on between us you cannot fake. I understand if you want to take it slow but we have been moving in this direction for some time now. Any slower and we’d be going backwards. I know I’m older and not that handsome. I know I’m not the 9 to 5 guy but neither are you. You want more than being a waitress. What was it you told me? You were a dancer? Maybe not the best but good enough and yet that wasn’t all to you. You saw yourself as a teacher of dance students, a photographer of dancers, that you felt that was what you could do for the rest of your life. Did I laugh or say no? I loved your dreams as you loved mine!” he said as he admired the curves of her body, smooth long legs, the suppleness of her skin. The lace of her undergarments showing just enough to entice but not to skimpy as to be crass. Everything he saw he admired and wanted to touch and taste.
“It’s not that. It’s not you, it’s me.”
“I’m sorry but isn’t that the guys line? I love you but and then the it’s me not you line?”
“Maybe, but here it’s true. I have a truth and a burden that I don’t share with anyone and when I do, so far it has chased every single man I have ever cared about away. I don’t see you as any different and I just can’t do this again.”
“Well thanks for the vote of confidence. And what makes you think I’ll run?”
“Because the burden is forever. Till you die kind of forever.”
“Like some kind of disease or…you’re not part of a cult or anything? A Communist? Some radical bent on the overthrow of the world? What?” he said, trying to make light of it but failing. He saw her slowly get up and dress. As she bent over to collect her clothes he thought he had never seen anything sexier in his life.
“It is not something you explain, it is something you need to see. Then it will become clear and then, I’ll accept what you say. But trust me, I’ll know. I’ll know if you’re just saying that or you mean it.”
“Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. I have a present to deliver first, but then I’ll be home. Bear will be here too. It’s our ritual. We come here and have a few drinks. He tries to call his kids, and when that fails, we go to Sandolino’s, get hammered, cause anarchy and mayhem and usually spend the night at the precinct handcuffed to a radiator.”
“Maybe you will temper us and give us a reason not to. Bring us this burden in person let us judge what we think and don’t. If I pass the test and trust me Bear will have as much to say as I do, then life is good. Then it will no longer be a burden but a gift. If not? What have you lost? A few minutes of your time. Besides, I have a present for you and it’s under the tree, so you can’t get it tonight, you’ll have to wait till tomorrow.”
Jodie had finished dressing and had walked to the door. “I’m damaged and I have a lot of baggage.”
“Don’t we all sweetheart, don’t we all.” He said as she left.
Shelby walked to the bar and poured her drink into his, then sat at the typewriter and tried to think, but no words came. Only the feeling of sorrow.
Bear stood in the middle of the room as he changed the record from Mozart to Otis Redding.
“It’s Christmas Eve Bear, don’t you think we should listen to some Christmas music?” Shelby said.
“All I see is Alvin and the Chipmunks and I’m not listening to that crap.”
“How can you hate Alvin? What about Snoopy’s Christmas and the Red Baron?”
“I have no idea what kind of drugs you have been using my brother but I’d ask for a refund. You actually spent money on this? You go to 8th street records and buy Thelonious Monk live, but then spend good money on this crap?”
“I dare you not to smile at the Red Barron and Snoopy. Brings a tear to my eye every time.”
“You need better drugs my friend.” And with that toasted each other with a glass of bourbon. It was their poison for the night. It would bring the right amount of joy, sorrow and when needed uncontrolled violence. Shelby had hoped that before they began their ritual, that Jodie would show up. As if in answer to his wish, the bell rang indicating someone as at the front gate. He hit the buzzer, holding it for longer than usual till Bear hit his hand. “They’re in already.”
“Put on Alvin and stop being an ass.” Shelby said as he walked to the door to open it.
As he did he stopped and took a breath. “Hello David.” He said as he realized that his buddy from the bus stop was now standing in front of him, clutching a package wrapped in Christmas paper, tied with a bow in his arms.
“Hi Shelly.” He said in his usual voice but then stopped. “Grammy said it’s Shell..be.” and then smiled the smile that warmed his heart. The bigger shock came when he looked at the person standing next to him.
“Hello Jodie.” Was all he said because she was standing there with her mouth open.
“You two know each other?” she stammered.
“Long time now, right David?” slightly ignoring Jodie he took David by the hand and introduced him to Bear. “Bear, this is my very close friend David. David this is my very close friend Bear.”
Shelby saw a tear well up in Bear’s eyes as he held his hand out to David. Not accepting a simple shake he bent down and embraced David. “Any friend of Shelby’s is a friend of mine. That’s for life short stack. You understand?”
“Yes.” He said. “Is this where you live?”
“It is.” Shelby was about to close the door when he realized that Jodie was still outside. It had started to snow and when he opened the door she still stood there with her mouth open but now slightly covered in the heavy snow flakes that were the first snowfall of the year.
“I’m sorry and you know him how?” she stammered.
“It’s snowing, can you please come in?” Shelby asked. As they both turned to look inside the apartment, the tree was lit, the fire was going and Bear and David were dancing to the Royal Guardsmen singing about Snoopy and the Red Baron.
“Have you ever?” Shelby said.
“Not in a million. And you said tender soul was not a way to describe him.”
“You have never been in battle with him. But maybe we all have that part of us. You will never find a better protector for David than Bear.”
“So? I’m sorry but again, how do you know each other?”
“Before I answer, can I ask you a question?”
“Is David the issue, the gift, the burden, the whatever?” he said holding her hands.
“I… yes. No one has met him before and not gone running.”
“Well, I haven’t.”
“Yes, but you don’t understand what having a child like David means! You don’t know the issues. The schools. The costs. When I die, who takes care of him?”
“Maybe he’ll surprise you and take care of himself. If Bear is any example, David will be doing very well by then. I’m looking at them and I think you have given him the greatest gift.”
“Yep. He sees in David the underdog. Never ever underestimate the underdog. That’s America. We may be this or that, but give us an underdog worth fighting for and we’re all in.”
“Did you know?”
“About you and David? No. Could have bowled me over with a marble.”
Just then David walked over to Shelby. “This is for you. Grammy said you would like it.”
Shelby took apart the wrapping to expose a first edition of O’Henry’s short stories under the title “Gift of the Magi.”
“My God David, this is the most beautiful gift I have ever received.” Shelby said.
Then it was Jodie’s turn to laugh. “Open mine please.”
Shelby looked at the book, worn but not a first edition, but still a signed copy by O’Henry of the ‘Gift of the Magi”.
Now it was Bear’s turn to laugh. “If I heard you talk about this book every day for like forever it was more. So to shut you up.” As he handed Shelby his gift, the book “Gift of the Magi.”
Shelby started to laugh and then went to the bar and poured everyone a drink and a Yoo-Hoo for David. He went to the Christmas Tree and selected three gifts wrapped in plain brown paper and handed them out.
David opened his to reveal an illustrated version of the “Gift of the Maji.”
Bear opened his to reveal an annotated examination of O’Henry’s works including “Gift of the Maji.”
Jodie opened hers to reveal a copy of the “Gift of the Maji” with a note from Shelby. “While I was overseas, this was a true gift to me. I hope it will be a true gift to you. Shelby.”
She looked at him and knew. Shelby looked at her and knew. Bear was the happiest he had been and decided not to make the call but to enjoy the love he felt in that room at that time.
David smiled as Shelby and Jodie kissed.
“Get a room” Bear said.
room.” David copied with his smile as broad as ever.