Walter Kirn

Walter Kirn

A weeklong electronic journal.
Dec. 21 1996 3:30 AM

Walter Kirn

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       The Tesla Coil people didn't show up today. Maybe it's the snowy, icy roads. Or maybe the treatments have worked and they feel better now. Though the people annoy me, it's lonesome here without them. Old school buildings have a peculiar emptiness. The dust bakes and burns on the big old iron radiators. Jackknife-carved initials cover the walls. Above my desk a painted cork bulletin board is pierced with years and years of pin and tack holes. The only sounds today are the foundation settling and the Montessori teacher's guitar. I admire her optimism, teaching the sweet old spirituals to children who will grow up on videos.
       At home we're getting ready for Christmas. When I married Maggie I was Christmas-neutral, but she likes to do it up right. Her spirit's infectious. She built a gingerbread house last week and decorated our tree with painted pine cones and strings of cranberries and tiny white lights. I love to stand in the yard and gaze inside at it.
       I'd like to end this diary with a Christmas story.
       Last year on Christmas Eve, our doorbell rang. A boy in old clothes was standing there with a rake. His finger tips were showing through his thin gloves. He told me he'd come to Montana with his mother and her new boyfriend, but they'd kicked him out. In the morning he planned to hitch a ride with someone back to his aunt's house in North Dakota. He needed some money for gas, he said, and he offered to rake my yard for a dollar. I said I'd give him two.
       He went to work. I'd like to say he did a thorough job, but the truth is, he didn't. He scratched around, then quit. In the meantime I looked around for something to give him and settled on a counterfeit Swiss Army knife that had been lying unused in a drawer. My idea was that he could use it to defend himself in case the guy he was riding with got strange. The boy wouldn't take the knife, though. He refused. "It has to be a trade," he said, "and I don't got nothing." Then he had a thought. He reached in his pocket, took out a small box, and opened the lid on a set of shiny darts. "My aunt's real religious. She doesn't like me playing with these." He traded me for the knife.
       As the boy was leaving, Maggie went running out and stuffed some money in his pocket, for his trip. We never saw the kid in town again.
       I told this story the other night to someone at a Christmas cocktail party. "You're sure you weren't conned?" the man said, and I felt sorry for him. The kid might have been a scammer, I'll never know, but that's exactly what makes it a good story, and so much like the original Christmas story. It's there to make you feel hopeful if you want it to, but you actually have to want it to.

Walter Kirn is the author of My Hard Bargain, a collection of stories, and She Needed Me, a novel. He lives in Montana.