I went into the old resale shop to escape a dreadful December. Cold, bleak, it was made all the worse by the fact that I found myself at thirty-two with no wife, parents dead, and my younger brother, Joe, gone this past March from the polio outbreak. At first, I had sought a warm place to take the chill off my bones and perhaps warm my hands by a coal stove, but I was immediately seized with the promise and mystery of so many cast-off treasures. At home, my apartment’s sole window had a small tree in it, decorated with what could be found, but it was a lonely thing. I resolved to find myself a gift, along with a box, a bit of paper, and a bow, so there would be something under the tree for me on Christmas Day. No sooner had I decided this than I saw, hanging from a dusty, old coatrack in the corner, a beautiful gray- and red-striped scarf.
I snatched it up without hesitation and took it to the gentleman manning the counter.
“Perfect. Absolutely perfect,” I said. Just the touch of the thing warmed me. Better, the loneliness at being swallowed by Manhattan with no family to huddle with was starting to erode, as well. Could it be, then, that the simple act of giving myself a gift was stealing away my woes?
The old man behind the counter was bald on top of his head, with a fringe of shaggy, graying hair. He was stooped, blocky in shape, with his shoulders perpetually drawn up around his ears. When I handed him the scarf, his face darkened in consternation.
“Hmm. Don’t remember buying this at all,” he said, inspecting the scarf with a thick bottom lip jutting in concentration.
“But it was there,” I replied, pointing beyond a shelf thick with worn-out typewriters to the corner with the coatrack. “Maybe someone left it here by mistake?”
The shopkeeper shook his head. “No, no. This is very nice. Feel that? That’s hand-knitted, not done on some machine. No, I’d have remembered someone coming in here, wearing such a nice scarf. And as for buying it, no, to that, too. I don’t normally deal in wearable goods. Trinkets, and such, yes. Decorations. Hmm.”
“Typewriters,” I suggested, indicating the shelves just over my shoulder. I smiled. “I’m a journalist, you see. Tools of the trade tend to draw my eye.”
He grunted and gave a nod.
The shopkeeper still held out the scarf for me to inspect, but I didn’t need to. I knew I wanted it without further consideration.
“It’s not mine to sell,” he insisted.
“It’s here, and I don’t want to be called a thief,” I said, “but I want this scarf. You should be recompensed for having held it, and if you like, I’ll leave my name and address. Should its original owner return for it, have him contact me. Otherwise, I’ll assume the scarf is mine for keeping.”
He quoted me a price, adding, “I can think of nothing fairer.”
I agreed and paid him.
It was the perfect gift. No one in my family, had they been alive, could have found something better if they had spent years searching. I knew my editor was sending me to Washington in March to cover Wilson’s second inaugural celebration. Though the event was coming close to spring, I expected the weather to be cold. To wear such a scarf to the occasion would be splendid, indeed.
“Very fair,” I said, taking the package.
New York at such a time of year is paradoxically depressing, as the festive air and excitement of its pedestrians scurrying through the frost and snow to do their Christmas shopping was, to me, miserable. But now, with my new scarf wrapped in parcel beneath my arm, it was as if I was sensing for the first time the passions felt by my fellow New Yorkers as the season grew brighter and stronger in their chests. Could it be that I had been the fool all these years, loathing the holidays when the truth was that they were every bit the gay and bright days that everyone around purported? Such thoughts seemed so strange, coming from a cynic such as myself, yet I could not deny my feelings.
Dinner was at the supper club two blocks from my home, and I ate with gusto. I had a bachelor’s apartment near Central Park. It was my only real extravagance, purchased when my brother died and the bulk of the inheritance bequeathed by our industrialist father passed to me, his sole heir. The money, and the business which went with it, had never interested me, and I preferred instead to live on the modest amount I made working for the newspaper. But the promise of a home in such easy walking distance of the park was too much, and I’d snatched it up when the opportunity arose.
Back home I burst through the door, as excited and happy as I’d ever been. It was like a beam of warm sunlight from God’s own garden was falling down upon me, following me wherever I went. I was giddy with it, and, after wrapping my present, I tossed it under the tree before grabbing a book off my shelf and dropping sideways into my favorite reading chair for the evening.
The moment I sat down, however, some of that giddiness began to wear off. The book became difficult, but not impossible, and my feelings were lessened, not fallen off to the point of melancholy, but definitely decreased. I could explain none of it, and this feeling remained constant until Christmas Day, when I finally opened the scarf and could wear it again. The figurative shaft of light returned, and everything was glorious.