My boots clomp against the concrete of the garage, and a gravelly paste falls from the arches to mingle with the oil patch in the center of the floor. I light a cigarette, blow the first puff out into the frigid air, and let the burnt match fall to the floor.
"Hey," my dad howls. "Don't drop those in here, throw them outside."
The slab around my boots bears nearly two dozen burnt matches and cigarette butts. "What are you talking about? There's a hundred already down there," I answer.
"I know," he counters. "I don't need any more is all." And with that he jumps up to grab a broom from the corner and starts sweeping the bits of debris out into the driveway. "What are you doing out here, anyway?" I ask. "Here, give me that. I'll sweep up." "No, I got it. I was just cleaning the motorcycle." "Your dog's going nuts," I say and jerk a thumb toward the rear of the garage. "I know," Dad says. "He's your dog too." Letting the cigarette hang from my mouth, I grab the black steel handle from my dad and swish swish swish the wide-head broom against the cement. Dad holds his hand up to his mouth to channel the sound and yells, "Scooter! Shaddap!" With that the Rottweiler-Lab mix stops its wailing bark.
"Christmas is in a couple weeks," I say, moving the cigarette from one side of my mouth to the other and blowing the smoke out of my face.
"I know," Dad says. "I got my tree up."
"I don't have any money to get you anything."
"Me neither," he answers and counters his statement with a look and continues with "unless you need something. You need something? Money? Underwear?"
My dad has asked me that question every week since I was 19, after I moved out for the first time. Every week that I'm in the country I call him, and we talk about weather, trade jokes, and give each other our little stories. Every phone call ends with "All right, well, I'll let you go. You need anything? Money? Underwear?"
"No, I don't need anything," I answer. This time I think for a second and say, "Unless you've got a pocket knife. I broke the tip off mine last week."
"I might. I might," Dad says. "I'll look around."
"You need anything?" I ask.
"No, no. I got everything," he says, stopping to think. "Can't ride the bike until it warms up, and it's running fine anyway. I've got everything else. I don't need anything. Did you see my tree? It's so pretty, you should go look."
I've seen the tree. I've seen the tree hundreds of times. It's the same tree we've put up every year, and it's the only Christmas decoration that's adorned our front room since my mom moved out 15 years ago. The tree is a 12-inch-tall white porcelain statue.
If you pick the tree up and turn it by its base, it will rotate and play "O Christmas Tree" on jewelry-box chimes. It misses only a couple of notes, "Tink tink tink (pause). Tink tink tink (pause)." Along the bottom of the lowest boughs is a signature, "Joy, '64." My dad's aunt put it together from a kit 40 years ago, painted the tips of the bright glossy branches gold, attached it to its singsongy base, and signed it.
The tree had been relegated to a box of Christmas ornaments deemed by my mom as too ugly to put up. In favor of my dad's little tree she used to make us stand on chairs and string garlands of tinsel across the ceiling, and our coffee table would become a display for her miniature manger scene -- complete with camels, donkeys, Wise Men, and Babe.
Mom loved to thumbtack all the cards we received from other families to a wall leading to our kitchen, and we always had a live tree clumped and covered in sentimental tchotchkes, homemade clay blobs with metal hooks protruding from the top and "Tony 1980 Mery Cristmas" or "Mike 1984" scrawled across the side in red.
My dad's eye would twitch at the sight of a live tree covered in lights. He has an irrational fear of fire, and stringing even lukewarm lights across any kind of wood is a special kind of torture for him. You might as well wrap the tree in gasoline-soaked socks and adorn it with firecrackers and candles. Against my mother's wishes, my father only allowed the tree to be plugged in if we were all home and either my brother or I were stationed in front of it with a CO2 fire extinguisher.
When she divorced the old man and moved out, she took all the ornaments except the porcelain tree that she never liked. That year, at 15 years old, I wondered about our tradition of covering every square inch of the interior of our house with bright green, red, and silver crap. I asked my dad, "Are we going to buy new stuff and put it up?"
"Hell no!" he said, finally finding a way out of the fire hazard that is Christmas decoration. "I hate that stuff."
With that proclamation he went out to the garage and came back in with the nonflammable statuette that would adorn our television set every winter from December to January.
Standing in front of the TV, I heft the tree, our tree, up off its perch in front of the rabbit-ear antenna and slowly twist the bottom. While it's upside-down I notice the signature in gold cursive and feel the click, click, click as it winds in my hand. Upon letting go, it starts its tune before I can set it down, "Tink tink tink (pause) / Tink tink tink (pause)." When the base lands back on its home, the gold-tipped branches catch the light and twinkle in their slow, jerky spin.
From his room my dad yells out, "You got next week off?"