Horton Plaza’s four magnet stores promised to open at eight. There were to be sales, 30 and 40 and 50, 70 percent off original prices.
The morning after Christmas, the mother who had been sleeping so soundly in a doorway on the Fourth Avenue side of Horton Plaza sat up, startled, and looked around. People were walking past her bed. At her eye level, skirts’ hems billowed. High heels clicked. The mother flinched as heel after heel struck cement. She sat up further and pushed back her dark hair from her pale face She pulled away a quilt. Out of a nest of dirty garments, Burger King sacks, Christmas wrapping, and crumpled newspaper, the mother lifted up to her breast her baby. Tears coursed down the baby’s cheeks. The tears were not clean.
A caramel leather purse made by Gurka. "It’s a $250 bag. My husband got it and didn’t know better — I know another store where I can get it for 20 percent less. Twenty percent of $250, that’s serious money."
Horton Plaza’s four magnet stores promised to open at eight. There were to be sales, 30 and 40 and 50, 70 percent off original prices. By 7:45, while a chilly wind blustered, doors to the Broadway, to Nordstrom, Mervyns, Robinson’s teemed with buyers. Many carried bags and boxes that held gifts they wished to return.
"When she bought them, she knew they wouldn’t fit me, but she didn’t want to leave me without a present."
Heading out of the parking area on their way to Nordstrom, Gary and his wife, scarves wrapped round their throats, strolled arm in arm. Gary had to take back a red sweater. “It’s a size extra-large and it should be large”
"One look at Gary,” said his wife pressing Gary’s arm, “and anyone could tell, should know. That he’s large not extra-large”
“Do you want to see the men’s boxer shorts Freddy here gave me?"
“It’s a $50 sweater. From Eddie Bauer. I’m gonna return it,” Gary smiled, “and hope I can get another just like it in the same color” “But before we do that,” said Gary’s wife “I’m going to spend my Christmas bonus at Nordstrom!”
After Michael and Carol’s presents had been opened and ribbons and wrappings were tossed away, while turkey roasted and Michael helped his wife set the dining room table the couple Michael confessed, had “one hell of a fight.”
A Lladro Christmas ornament, fashioned in a blue-and-white Wedgewood design, that he’d given his girlfriend. “It’s real nice It has the baby Jesus on it and everything. But my girlfriend’s Jewish. I mean, I didn’t know she wouldn’t want an ornament with Jesus on it or anything."
He regretted, now, that he’d answered Carol truthfully, told her the brown-and-black checked sports jacket she’d given him "just wasn’t his image.' ” He brushed the lapel with work-hardened fingers. “I should have lied. Said, ‘Great, honey!’ But I didn’t. I’d say, yes, I ruined the whole day. This jacket,” he fit the top back over the box, "was the big-ticket item from her to me."
Michael planned to return the jacket, have their charge account credited. “Too late,” he shrugged, as he stepped on an escalator headed down, “to do anything else.”
A blonde, her eyes lined in blue pencil, breathily explained, “I’m returning a pair of pants and a shirt because it’s over and above what I could ever need. I got so many gifts from my husband — just too much. I got so many wonderful things from him. These things are beautiful.” She stooped, sat on her heels, took the lid from the box. She drew back tissue, revealing pale pink wool trousers, matching pink silk shirt. “Aren’t they gorgeous? Who wouldn’t want them? We’ve been married only a year” She closed the box, got to her feet. “He’s too good to me.”
Perry and his sister Miriam, UCLA students, he in social sciences and she in pre-med, spent Christmas with their mother and step-father. “Our new stepfather," said Miriam, whose arms were dragged down by Nordstrom shopping bags. “Our mother spends literally thousands on presents, maybe out of guilt over our childhood. I don’t know. I do know I’m willing to accept her gifts, whatever reason they’re offered. But Perry here," she laid her head on Perry’s shoulder, “this is his stuff we’re returning. But one thing Mom could always do she did again, and that is cook. So we did have a good Christmas dinner?’ She sighs, rubbing her ample belly across which khaki trousers pull. “Chestnut stuffing, goose and turkey, Brussels sprouts, honeyed yams, three kinds of pie, and one cake!”
“9 West boots,” said Laurie. “That’s what I’ve got to take back. They’re beautiful, but they didn’t fit me. They’re size seven and a half, and I need size eight. A friend of mine gave them to me. When she bought them, she knew they wouldn’t fit me, but she didn’t want to leave me without a present. She wanted me to have something to open up, so she saved the receipt and everything. I also have some lingerie from Victoria’s Secret that I’m returning. A teddy, jewel blue. My sister gave it to me, in medium. I have to get it in a small.”
A tall, slender blonde, outfitted in a pale green sweatsuit, high-top Reeboks, her narrow face made more angular by a severe wedge haircut, bolted off the escalator near Laura Ashley. Behind her, her two blonde teen-age daughters, eschewing the escalator’s last step, jumped to the walkway. All three faces wore terror. Were they pursued by gunmen? Demons?
Shopping bags, two apiece, burdened the trio’s shoulders. Out of one of the mother’s bags spilled a floral-print down comforter. Alarm and panic heightening her voice, she screamed, as if for aid from her daughters, from passersby, “I just want to get rid of this goddam stuff!”
“An entire set of Christmas china, a joint present from my two goofy, married sisters, and don’t ask me why they gave dishes to me,” offered Matt agreeably enough. “And don’t,” he pleaded, “ask me to get it out and show you what it looks like. It’s white china, painted with your basic Christmas tree and Santa motif. What else can I do but take it back? A single guy needs Christmas china like a hole in the head. What I’d rather have is a laundry hamper."
The soft-spoken, flushed brunette, garbed in a houndstooth cashmere blazer, stood beneath Jessop’s clock and unwrapped a box, revealing a caramel leather purse made by Gurka. "It’s a $250 bag. My husband got it and didn’t know better — I know another store where I can get it for 20 percent less. Twenty percent of $250, that’s serious money. I explained it to him, Christmas morning. It’s okay with him.”
Carla, middle aged, had stood by, listening to the tale of the Gurka. As the purse’s temporary owner scurried off, Carla shook her head and said, "Five years ago, I became a Jehovah's Witness. I’m so glad, I don’t have to worry anymore about Christmas! I’m so glad I have nothing to return. It’s just one more way in which my conversion has made my life better.”
“I got this sweater,” Julie held up a V-neck cardigan, “and it is too small. I ended up getting three sweaters, and they are all too small. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Get other sweaters? A credit’ Money? I’m in a bad mood about it all. About Christmas, about having to take stuff back, about traffic, about bills, about the Christmas tree mess ground into the living room carpet. My husband told me this morning, ‘You need to take Midol.’ You can imagine, I guess, what I told him?”
Norma scowled. She clutched, beneath her arm, a green Brentano’s bag. “Self-help books from my sister-in-law. Her name’s Glenda, and she’s, frankly, a bitch. Right after I opened them, Christmas morning, even though my husband was squeezing my arm hard enough that today I have bruises, I told her, ‘I hope you’ve got the damned sales slip, because I’m taking these books back.’ She and her husband lived with us for a few months two years ago, when they were both out of work. She’d sit in her grungy nightgown at the kitchen table all day, she’d watch me fix lunch for the kids, wash dishes, fix dinner. She’d say, ‘Norma, how can you give my nephews all that saturated fat?’ She never lifted a hand to offer to do one thing, and they never bought a cent’s worth of groceries, and now he’s selling cars — Hondas — and they’re raking in bucks and it’s never, ‘Gee, could we maybe write you a $500 check for all those home-cooked meals? For the roof over our useless heads’’ My husband tells me, ‘Blood’s blood.’ You know what Glenda calls me’ ‘A very negative person.’ ”
Outside Abercrombie and Fitch, in whose window a life-size toy brown bear brooded, a blond surfer — tanned Alex — waggled fur-lined boots a plaid Pendleton scarf, fur-lined leather gloves He snarled. “I don't feel the need to wear boots, scarf, gloves in Southern California. They’re going back to the store.”
“Well,” said dark-haired Roger, pulling his parka tight against a gust of wind, “I’m returning shirts and jeans that my two boys got. They are actually my wife’s boys from a previous marriage. They’re 10 and 12 years old. But I’ve loved them like my own since the summer of 1980, when I met their mother. Their real father hasn’t seen them since 1986, and all we can figure, looking at the size of this stuff, is he thinks they haven’t grown for two years. He called yesterday, from L.A. He’s a drinker. He said to the oldest guy that being away from them was eating him up, that holidays are a time to be with family, and he didn’t have anyone. It tears up my wife, this stuff. ‘Sure it’s sad,’ I tell her, ‘but basically, it just pisses me off.’ You get my drift?”
By 10:30 Jennifer had already exchanged gifts. "My dad gave me a poplin coat from Adventure 16. It was blue with gray lining. I exchanged it for green with pink lining. I brought it back because it was the wrong size and because I wanted a different color” Jennifer looked sheepish, added, “I was supposed to go with my dad when he bought the coat, but I couldn’t make it.”
Regina, an exuberant mid-twentyish charmer, ran a hand through her dark curls. “Let’s see. I have a sweater that’s too small and a food chopper I’ll never use My mom gave me the chopper. She gave it to me because I make a lot of salads. I told her that I was going to take it back and get a can opener — you know, the little cute kind that hangs from under the cupboard?” Regina emphasized, however, that she did get a lot of things for Christmas that don’t have to be returned. “A beautiful ring, a garnet — that’s my birthstone; clothes; a heap of money that I’m getting ready to spend!” Regina whooped and disappeared into the Broadway’s doors.
“I’m always late, everywhere,” Suzie pouted, pulling up bright pink legwarmers over her black jeans. “So what I ended up getting was three watches. I’m taking back two. Who needs three watches? I’m going to get cash back, if I can, and put it in my vacation savings. I’ll use their money,’’ she giggled, “to get away from them. I’ll be late in distant countries.”
As Rosemary and her husband, he carrying a hat box, walked out of the Village Hat Shop, the sun was nearing the meridian. Sky was clear. The wind had died down, and shoppers and gift returners bustled shoulder to shoulder along Horton Plaza’s top tier. Offered a jubilant Rosemary, “We returned a hat we gave to a friend. It was too big. What we’ve got here," she took the top from the box, “is a kind of safari hat. It’s even better than the one we first bought him” Rosemary tilted back the hat’s brim, grinned. "This hat has a wire in the brim so you can shape it any way you want. Neat, huh?”
Behind the counter in the Village Hat Shop, the tall clerk ran a pale, slender hand through his crest of black hair. “We’ve already had some returns.” During his break, he planned to take some of his own gifts back. “For Christmas, I got a rectangular vase from my brother. My family often gives me gifts I can’t return. I just can’t bear to do it. So I put them in my house where they can see them when they come over. I feel bad about returning gifts unless it’s clothing that’s really awful that I could never wear. For instance, I got a sweatshirt with sailboats on it that says ‘San Diego.’ I’d never wear it.”
Christopher opened the cash register, put in a check from a wide-shouldered, bearded man who had purchased a brown fedora. Christopher doffed his own wide-brimmed black hat, flung back his blond ponytail, showed white teeth. “If money were tight. I’d return something just to get the money for it. If I didn’t really love it It’s resourceful. Last year my sister gave me a beautiful set of gloves and a scarf, and I returned them. I needed money. I got $150.”
Sitting on a bench across from the Broadway, waiting for his mother and sister, a weary man in his mid-20s said he’d just returned several pairs of jeans. “They were too small. I got fat last year. Gained an inch in my waist. An inch can be a big deal when you wear jeans. My mom gave me both pair’’ He leaned back against a post and smiled. “But I also got a huge train set. Next year, I'll put it around the Christmas tree.”
The train owner’s mother and sister sat down next him. "My mom,” he hugged the small, plumpish woman, “returned a purse that my dad’s wife gave her. It was ugly."
His mother, joined by her daughter in laughter that rendered them almost helpless to speak, told her tale. “It was like a little lady’s purse. It had a shoulder strap and was shaped like a rectangle, but it had this great big flap over it so it was very awkward to reach into it I hated it She, my ex-husband’s wife, said she was giving it to me because I always carry an ugly purse. I was really insulted. We’ve been divorced for 13 years, their father and I. She, his new wife, and I are good friends, actually; most of the time I like what she gets for me. I bought her a beautiful black sweater with a lot of printing on it”
A slightly built young man rounding the comer of Dudenhoeffer Fine Jewelry Ltd. had come to return a sweatsuit. “What people do is that when they buy a sweatsuit, they want, say, a size medium pair of pants and a size large jacket, so they take the hanger on which the size medium sweatsuit is, take off the medium pants, and stick large pants on the hanger. Then they leave the mismatched set there on the rack for some unsuspecting customer who wants medium. My guess is that overweight people do that so they can take a large jacket that will zip over their guts. It oughta be against the law.”
Petite Carmen and tall, tall, long-necked Fred seemed conjugally familiar, looked sleepy, still warm, as they explained the packages they carried. “What we’ve got here,” said Fred, raspily, “is basically a case of either a duplication of items or nondesirable items. The nondesirable items,” he bristled, turning his green eyes down onto Carmen, “are all the clothes I gave her. We’ve known each other for nine months. We weren’t together last Christmas. But I got her a lot of gifts. A lot.”
Plucky Carmen wasn’t about to be made to feel guilty. “Do you want to see the men’s boxer shorts Freddy here gave me?" With thumb and forefinger, she plucked out a silky garment, held it up. She laughed.
Fred swallowed hard. His Adam’s apple bulged. “I could tell by her face she didn’t like them.”
A short woman, eyes downcast, clung to a tall man’s hand. He bought her a black jacket when what she really wanted was a coat. “I took hours, shopping for it.” His gaze fell on the top of her head, the crown of which, in mid-morning sunshine, shone golden.
“It broke his heart,” she scuffed one Bass Weejun toe against another, "when I told him.”
Hangdog Gerald was bringing back a Lladro Christmas ornament, fashioned in a blue-and-white Wedgewood design, that he’d given his girlfriend. “It’s real nice It has the baby Jesus on it and everything. But my girlfriend’s Jewish. I mean,” Gerald stammered, “I didn’t know she wouldn’t want an ornament with Jesus on it or anything. It was pretty expensive. I’m also returning some Chanel No. 5.”
By noon, winter wind had calmed to breeze The mother and baby who had been sleeping in the doorway along Fourth Avenue are gone Scattered across the doorway’s brick tiles are a child’s T-shirt, a Burger King cup from which a straw protrudes, Christmas wrapping paper.
Paul, brown hair graying, sits on a black metal bench smoking a cigarette He warms one hand on his belly beneath his blue Yale sweatshirt. The Rolex on his hairy wrist glitters. “I’m a dad. I’m relaxing while my kids shop. They were at their mother’s for Christmas, and today’s my gift to them. I let them get what they want. With the sales, they can get twice as much anyway and save me the headache of having to pick stuff out for them.”
But what did he get for Christmas? “It’s always difficult to buy for dads — I know it was hard to find something for mine Let’s see I got a garage-door opener from my brother — a gift he’d promised me last year. A very nice mahogany pencil box and scratch pad holder for my desk from one of my daughters. A Rival crock pot slow cooker for stews that I can cook all day while I’m at work and a Honey-Baked brand ham from my mother, who knows I can’t boil water and wants to make sure I eat. Two dozen Christmas cookies my other daughter Melissa made and put in a metal container — I guess she made about 15 dozen cookies and gave them to everyone. And a book from my ex, The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, which is, I guess, an AA book.”