A Present for Marge
I WANTED to get Marge jewelry of some kind for Christmas — something that sparkled real bright, something that cost a lot. That was what went well with Marge, a big bracelet or a big bright necklace, or something like that. Not that Marge ever looked showy. Nothing she ever wore looked out of place on her. She went with fine things. There’s something nice about that. See, she’d never had anything when she was a kid and growing up, and now, whenever she could scrape a little money together and get something ritzy, it made her look like a million dollars.
Irish, my boss, helped me out. He runs the Central Cafe taproom in the town. I worked behind the bar for him. He gave me trainfare — I didn’t make much because I wasn’t really a bartender; I just helped around. He gave me the job just to help me out. ‘You take the day off,’he said. ‘Every guy deserves a day off for Christmas shopping. You take a run into Pittsburgh. You can find better things down there.’
The stores were packed with customers, mostly women. They almost walked over me with their packages — and the more packages they had, the fiercer they seemed to be. If I stepped in front of them, they looked sore. I got plenty of bumps. And all the women that bumped me were big ones. I suppose some little ones shop, too, for Santa Claus, but they missed me.
I saw many things in the stores that I wanted to get for Marge. Gloves and pocketbooks and scarfs and swell perfumes and cute blouses and dresses, all done up so nice for Christmas. I wished I had money enough to outfit Marge from head to foot. I couldn’t look at things too long. The salesgirls were on me like hawks.
‘Are you looking for something?’ they would say. Or, ‘May I help you?’
‘Yes,’ I’d say, ‘but I haven’t decided yet.’
Then they’d go into a spiel about various articles and ask me what style I wanted, what price, and all that.
I was at the jewelry counter in the third store when I saw the bracelet. There was all the stuff lying under the counters, knocking your eyes out — gold bracelets, silver bracelets, silver necklaces, gold necklaces, rings of all kinds, in nice felt boxes, lying in little cushions so they wouldn’t get hurt.
I was gazing at the bracelets when the lady came up to me. She was middle-aged with a stout chest, a red neck, and a flushed, spotty face. She wore nose glasses and had gray eyes that seemed very sharp. I wished the younger girl behind the counter would wait on me, but she was powdering her nose.
‘You were looking for something, sir?’ the lady asked me.
‘I was thinking of a bracelet,’ I told her.
‘Any particular style? Now these gold ones are very popular this season. Everyone seems to be wearing them . . . they’re quite charming.’
She took out five from the showcase and put them on the counter. I picked them up and looked at them, one by one. I don’t know, maybe I was wrong, but they seemed a little loud. They seemed too big. I put them down again. I was half ashamed I didn’t like them when they were so popular. I moved over to the little silver ones.
‘Could I see those?’ I asked.
‘Why, surely. The silver is always charming. Silver is very nice.’
She took out four silver ones and laid them across the palm of her hand, which was fat. She said this was so I could see how they looked against the skin.
‘I think I like them better,’ I said.
I did. They were little, and delicate and light and frail, like a spring flower. You were almost afraid you were going to hurt them when you touched them. I knew Marge would love them, even if she liked big things mostly. These were really beautiful.
She handed one to me. I held it in my hand, trying not to squeeze it or anything. I looked at it for a long time, thinking how it would look on Marge, how lovely it would look on her. It bent gracefully, like a snake. It was so tiny I almost thought I’d lose it. Tiny, but it stood out. I wanted that one. I wanted that one for Marge. I knew nothing else could come up to that one. And even if I can’t describe it very well at all, you’ll have to take my word for it that it was — well, exquisite, like the woman said.
’I think I like this one,’ I said.
‘It is a beautiful piece,’ she said. She wrapped it around her wrist to show me how it would look against the skin. But I was seeing it around Marge’s wrist. I was seeing Marge’s face when she opened the nice box and pulled it out of the soft cushion and put it around her wrist. It was wonderful thinking of it.
‘How much is it?’ I asked.
She held it in the palm of her hand and gazed at it. She touched it with her fingers. She looked very calm.
‘This one is seventy-five dollars,’ she said. She said it as if seventy-five dollars was nothing at all, or a nickel, maybe, that you buy a candy bar with.
I couldn’t say anything. I gulped. I tried to be calm, too. But I couldn’t be as calm as she was, no matter how hard I tried. I didn’t have the seventy-five dollars, and she had the bracelet. It makes a difference.
‘Seventy-five dollars,’ I said, trying to make it sound casual-like.
‘Seventy-five,’ she said. ‘It’s a beautiful bracelet . . . and of excellent quality. Of very good quality. I’m sure you would find it worth every bit of the price.’
I didn’t doubt that. But that didn’t help any. I had ten dollars for my present. I saved two months to get that. I thought it over quickly and I looked at the bracelet, which she still had lying across the palm of her hand. I wanted that bracelet. I wanted it for Marge, even if I had to pay seventy-five dollars and be in debt the rest of my life. I didn’t care how big the debt would be, just so I could get that bracelet for Marge.
‘Can it — can you buy a gift like that on the installment plan?’ I asked. ‘I don’t think I’d like to spend that much all at ouee, especially this time of the year.’
‘Oh, certainly. I understand. We have a very helpful credit plan. How much would you like to pay down, sir? Twenty dollars?’
‘Well, I figured about ten dollars. Ten for the first installment, and’ — I didn’t know how I’d get it, but I said it, anyway — ‘five a week.’
‘I suppose that would be satisfactory. Have you a charge account here?’
‘No, I don’t. This is the first time I’ve bought here. I don’t live in the city.’
She put the bracelet down on the counter, a little carelessly, — I guess salesgirls get used to nice things, — and took her slip book from the counter. It had a lot of carbons in it, so everybody could keep track of the transaction, from her on up.
‘Where do you live?’
I told her.
‘And your employer? You are working, I presume.’
‘Yes. I work for Irish Connors.’
‘What was the first name? I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch it.’
‘Can you spell it, please?’
‘Is that the correct name? It’s slightly unusual, you know.’ She smiled stiffly.
‘No, that’s just his nickname. But it’s what everybody calls him.’
I never knew Irish by any other name. And he never told me his right name. I began to sweat and I could feel it falling down under my arms. I shifted my feet and I asked the lamp in the ceiling and the floor and the bracelet, and they didn’t know Irish’s name either. I tried to smile, so she’d see it was funny, really.
She smiled back, sort of a sick smile, as if she didn’t see anything funny in it. The smile went away quickly. She adjusted her glasses more tightly on her nose, and sighed.
‘And what kind of business does Mr. Connors have?’
‘He runs a taproom. I help behind the bar.’
She took her glasses from her nose and held them tightly with her left hand.
‘This is slightly—irregular,’ she said. ‘Will you excuse me for a moment while I take it up with our credit manager.’
She walked out from behind the counter, glanced sideways at me with a queer expression, sighed again, and started up the crowded aisle.
I stood there looking at the bracelets and seeing how much nicer Marge’s was than all the other ones. It seemed a long time before she came back. When she did return, she went behind the counter without even looking at me.
‘Can you give me any references, young man? That is the usual procedure, you understand.’ She was fingering the bracelet again, nervously. She was wearing it out.
I thought of Johnny, but I figured she might ask me what he did and if I said, ‘Nothing — he can’t get a job,’ that wouldn’t be much help. And Dusty wouldn’t be much help, either, if I said he played the piano in our place Saturday nights for whatever gin he could get. I’d only been in the town a couple of weeks. Johnny and Dusty were the only ones I knew well enough to give as references.
' Well, I guess outside of Irish, I guess not,’ I said. I kept my head lowered a bit. I didn’t want to have to look at her. It made me feel very small to look at her. When I finally glanced up, she was putting all the bracelets back in their little boxes in the nice soft cushions and then into the showcase. Marge’s bracelet went in last.
She was very calm about it. It was just another job, putting them back. And I’d taken a lot of her time for nothing.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, without lifting her head, keeping right on working, ‘but I don’t think it can be arranged in this case. We’d like very much to make it convenient for you, but — I think you understand.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ’I realize — ‘ I couldn’t say anything more, because I wanted that bracelet very much for Marge and I couldn’t stand there and explain why I couldn’t buy it. I walked away. I was glad to get back into the crowd. It made me feel a little better.
I walked around for a while, not looking at anything. Then I remembered I could have given the Lutheran minister for a reference. That would have fixed it up. A minister. That would have cinched it. I thought of going back and telling her about the Lutheran minister and then I thought she’d ask if I belonged to his church. And I didn’t. I just met him once on the street and he talked to me very nice, the minister did, and asked me to stop in at his church when he found out I was new in town.
Finally I went over to the compact counter. There were nice compacts for five dollars and a salesgirl told me I could get an excellent one for ten. ‘A really exquisite one,’ she said.
So I spent all my ten dollars for a compact. It was a very good compact for ten dollars, no doubt about that, and the salesgirl said you couldn’t get a nicer or more practical gift for a girl.
And coming home on the train, although I still wished in a way I had the bracelet, I got to liking the compact more and more because it was such a very good compact. I patted it in my pocket every so often to see if it was still there. I got very proud of the compact because it was certainly one of the finest compacts you could get. Paying that price, you knew that. And the salesgirl said so, too. And I didn’t want anything but the best for Marge.
I got very proud of the compact coming home on the train, so proud I almost forgot the bracelet.