Anyone who’s ever denuded a Christmas tree of its cheer and ribbon knows it takes at least a duo to truly get every ornament. It’s a particular blindness that only manifests once a year, brought on by an eggnog/potato gratin hangover. I’m the type who thinks it’s the will of the objects -- mischievous elves, Hallmark Snoopys, woodland critters, tarnished baubles, all begging to stay displayed. They’d all rather nestle amongst the branches than be relegated to cardboard boxes and upcycled egg cartons.
This year, I didn’t get enough Christmas at Christmas, so I’m trying to find magic where I can get it. That’s how I started finding ornaments. The discarded Christmas trees are clogging the gutters of Park Slope, more every grey January morning, filling the wrought iron planters, stacked like firewood. I wend my way through the blocks, dial my eyes into deliberate hopefulness, and see if Christmas Ornament Blindness afflicted any of these brownstone dwellers. It happened on accident. Walking to work, I found a pull-string nutcracker that clicked its heels. And like most happy accidents, I wanted to see if I could make it happen again. And I could. I carry gloves to put on and dig. I sift through rotting trees for shiny tin Frosties, wooden surfing Santas, popsicle stick Jewish stars covered in blue glitter sprinkles.
I have a system. I try to give the families time. I see the abandoned ornament, and leave it. Sometimes I move it, make it more visible. It’s better if they find it because they were looking for it than me hand them a piece of holiday garbage they meant to throw away. After an un-conceal, I walk by that tree a few more times, to see if they found it. I try to keep up with garbage schedules. Usually it’s still there, and my own tree gets a new decoration. I keep it up into February.
Today, it’s a plasticine skier on 2nd and Carroll I saw last Friday. He’s still there. 6 inches, skis and poles missing. This is not a recent acquisition. The plastic looks battered. Maybe the glamour of tradition had worn away and he was so broken that he was deliberately left behind. I like the expression of grim determination on his face. It matches my own. He’s tired of the slopes, of climbing the heights of mountains only to reach the bottom again. Or maybe not. In my post Christmas malaise, he looks like he’s stuck. On the ski lift, left to freeze.
“What the hell are you doing?” a woman’s voice asks, cutting the cold January morning like a foxhunting horn through a still forest. A baby’s coo follows, like a softer pastel echo of her reproach. My hand is deep inside what is most likely their tossed away tree. I feel like a kid caught cheating in class.
I wrestle my arm from the tree and still don’t turn around. “I have a system,” I start. She grabs me by the shoulder and turns me around. We look into each other’s eyes, and I see she’s bewildered, not angry. She’s not much older than me, brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, but she’s bouncing a swaddled pink-faced baby on one hip, she lives in this brownstone, and she’s wearing pearls. She might as well be a different species.
“Why are you digging through my tree?”
Instead of saying anything, I just burst into tears, a hot wet rush, and I let out one gasped sob. That sudden sound surprises the baby, which makes it cry, and those sobs actually sound like a beagle’s bark. The huge sound is so incongruous to its tiny red faced self that I laugh, and the baby’s cry turns to a laugh too, and then we’re both laughing, and then all three of us are laughing. The whole process takes about half a minute.
“I’m sorry. I just find ornaments,” I say, the baby still cooing, our adult laughter dying out. The twin shocks of tears and laughter still reverberate in my teeth. I hold out the skier. “And I salvage them.”
“Oh that thing? My aunt gave me that. After what she pulled this year, I decided I didn’t want to put it up anymore.”
I don’t respond, still trying to regain my composure.
“You had a rough one this year too, huh?”
I want to say, “It’s just - time at Christmas is compounded. So far, every Christmas is the same traditional scenes, only changed by degrees every year, like cells in a film strip. But this year, I looked in the past, and saw those cells, those hearths - they look brighter than the ones I have to look forward to. The film is degrading. So I had to make a new tradition. A new thing, that wasn’t decaying.”
I don’t. Instead I say: “Yeah. But, you know, Merry Christmas anyway. And happy new year.”
“Yeah, Happy New Year.”
That night, I'm trying to invite someone over to tell the story of the decorations, of the mom, of the baby. I want them to come over and drink a cocktail with me, and then we’ll come up with fanciful histories for the ornaments. I start texting friends, then girls from Tinder. It’d be nice to kiss in the perfect glow of Christmas tree light.
It’s all in vain. Surprisingly, a curling, dead, 3-foot Christmas tree that’s covered in garbage isn't much of a draw to my friends, or a stranger from the internet.
I think better of putting on Christmas music, and instead put my phone on do not disturb. I lay back down on the couch with the tree at my feet, take my glasses off, and let my eyes go unfocused. The lights blur, grow brighter. The skier stands front and center. He’s not on the slopes at all. He’s in Iceland. He’s gone to see the Northern Lights. They fill him up completely, so there isn’t room for anything else.
C.D. Hermelin is a writer and literary agent based in Brooklyn. He writes flash fiction inspired by Max Elman's photography over at astoryandapicture.com. As the Roving Typist, he has typewritten custom stories, poems, and horoscopes for thousands of people all around the world.