Big Things Come In Big Packages

   When the Magi went shopping for birthday presents they must have had one hell of a job trying to find something the kid would like. Granted, it was just an infant and couldn't tell gefilte fish from a lollipop, still you would think they could have shopped around a little and come up with something better than myrrh, frankincense, and gold. His mother never had a chance to say thank you or even send a card. Seeing that the kid lived in a manger, a pony wouldn't have been a bad choice. It might even have become friendly with Balaam's ass and Daniel's lion in the den and maybe St. Francis's birds for the start of a bible zoo that might have been a real attraction for kids. But no matter what one thinks about it, it certainly was a lesson in the art of gift giving, a universal problem in Brooklyn as well as Bethlehem. Ask Joshua Decker about it, because the Magi are long gone.

   Joshua, ten going on eleven, if he ever makes it that far with all the trouble he is having, had a poor record in arithmetic and blindly hated whoever it was who invented fractions. Seven and seven eighths plus two and three quarters minus four and one sixth almost got him left back. To provide practice in an interesting way and encourage saving his mother bought him a piggy bank, though he was no big spender. Except once. He threw away fifteen cents at a win-a-prize booth at Coney Island, a nickel a throw. The hoops he threw failed to circle any of the prizes but just for trying he received a fortune cookie which read, 'Untold wealth awaits you in Japan'. The last count of his piggy bank showed four dollars and fifty-five cents, a sum that would get him no closer to Japan than the Staten Island ferry. But that money had been set aside to buy birthday presents, one for his father and one for himself, both soon due. His father's birthday being closest, Joshua had begun his search for an appropriate gift. His sharp-looking sister Edith, the eldest of his three older sisters, discussed the matter with his mother while he was having a glass of milk and cookies in the kitchen.

   "I'm going to get papa a beautiful silk tie," Edith confided.
   "He has so many ties," his mother said. "What he needs are handkerchiefs."

   Joshua, listening for ideas, rejected both ties and handkerchiefs at once. He wanted something that would make a splash. His middle sister, Marian, was away at a nurse's college, but the youngest of the girls, Judith, refused to tell him what she planned to get. It was to be a surprise, she said.
   "What, cigars?" Joshua guessed. This enraged her.
   "Oh, shut up, dummy!" she shouted. "Beat it, pest!" She slammed the parlor door behind her in order to practice her violin, an activity Joshua called the mouse in the box.

   Nevertheless, he was sorry he hadn't thought of cigars himself, though he didn't think he could have bought enough of them to make the splash with the two dollars he had allotted, and his present would have looked inadequate. Bulk was more important to him than intrinsic value. With not much time left he spoke to his mother.

   "How about socks?" she suggested.
   "Socks? Socks is nothing," he said, despairingly.
   "What about some beautiful handkerchiefs then?"
   "To blow his nose in? I don't want him blowing his nose in my present. Besides handkerchiefs isn't anything at all."
   "Well, how much do you have to spend?" she asked.
   "Two dollars. Maybe two dollars and a quarter."
   "I saw a very handsome pen and pencil set in Woolworth's for that."
   He went to have a look at it and decided he wanted it for his own birthday, and besides, it would be such a skinny package it wouldn't make a splash at all, especially for his father, a rather burly man with an important stomach and big head.

   The afternoon of the second day preceding his father's birthday, Joshua passed a store selling automobile equipment and accessories. In the window display was a large gadget that held a shiny chrome tulip-shaped ashtray with a flip-close cover hung to a device for storing maps attached to two coffee mug holders, all to be clipped to the dashboard, on sale for three dollars. This was it.

   In a man-to-man transaction, Joshua was deftly pushed into concluding the sale by the fast-talking clerk admiring his acute recognition of a good thing when he saw one. "You sure got an eye, sonny!" said the plastic-looking young man with the slicked-down hair parted in the middle.    "Can you wrap it up?" Joshua inquired, hesitantly.
   "You sure know what you want, sonny!" the clerk cried in awe. "But it comes in its own original colored box."
   "Could you wrap the box, please?" Joshua asked.
   "You sure know how to make a deal, sonny!" the clerk praised, measuring out the wrapping paper, tearing it to size, folding in the box, tying it with fancy, professional twists.

   Joshua walked scarcely half a block before he realized he had made a major blunder. His father smoked, but only cigars, and never, never in the car. In fact, he considered it a dangerous action, pointed out other drivers smoking cigarettes, called them damn fools, and said, "He drops that cigarette in his lap and he's finished. That's it!" He made the prediction every time he saw another one of the damn fools. On top of that, his father no longer allowed drinks to be brought into the automobile ever since the occasion when he had to make a sudden stop and the large paper cups of sarsaparilla the girls were drinking in the back seat spilled all over the place. It soaked everybody, and the back seat, too. They had to turn around and go home. Joshua's pain at having to face the loud-mouthed clerk almost caused him to keep the purchase, but the image of his father opening the package and the look on his face was more than he could bear. When he timidly asked for his money back the clerk stared at him with such contempt Joshua thought he would pee in his pants. But he received his reimbursement and fled the store in both anguish and relief.

   It was not until the very day of the event that Joshua, beside himself with frustration, entered the corner pharmacy where he had already investigated various products that he held in abeyance as last minute possibilities. He made his choice. "How much is one of these?" he asked Mr. Yurow.

   When told the price, Joshua, two dollars in his pocket, made a quick calculation. He could buy half a dozen of them, or forget the pen and pencil set he wanted for himself, and put up his entire savings and buy a dozen. It would make everybody else's ties, handkerchiefs, and cigars a joke. He ran home to get the balance of the money.

   At dinner everybody sang "Happy Birthday" while the chocolate cake his mother had made was served. The presents were produced, Joshua making sure to hold his back until last. His father's heavy brows, bulbous nose, and strong, dimpled chin, flushed by the two schnapps he'd had, received his gifts, rewarding kisses to the girls. Joshua, waiting until the tumult died down, pulled a huge bag from under the table and plopped it onto his father's lap.
   "That's mine!" he shouted.
   "What a giant bag!" his father exclaimed. "What can be in there?"

   Unceremoniously, he upended it, dumping the contents, cascading twelve of the largest size boxed tubes of shaving cream like projectiles, scattering all over the table and on to the floor, forcing his father to stumble back stunned. To Joshua's delight his father stood there, his mouth agape, staring amazed at the bonanza of shaving cream boxes.
   "This... this is... I can't tell you what this is..." his father stuttered. "This is more than I could ever expect... from anybody!" he cried, stupefied by the shaving cream avalanche.

   Upstairs in their bedroom a short while later, Decker arrived with his children's offerings and stared in grim disbelief at his wife who had preceded him.
   "You know," he said in a whisper after closing the bedroom door, "there must be something wrong with him."

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Copyright August 3, 2000-


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