“Noooo. You can’t just pay for a tree,” Peter said. He was teasing me a little, but I still took the bait, “You have to, how else do you get one?” I said. I could not help myself. Since Peter moved in with my mom and me a few months before, it was one struggle after another between the two of us: how to properly hand someone a pair of scissors, whether I was allowed to have my elbows on the table at dinner, and now, how to get a Christmas Tree.
I threw all of my six-year-old energy into holding back the tide of change that was sweeping through the home I had shared with my mother since she and my father divorced a couple of years before, but my determination only intensified as her wedding to Peter approached. It was going to be in 5 weeks, just two weeks after Christmas.
“We used to cut down our Christmas tree,” Peter said. I rolled my eyes at yet another remembrance of his rustic Wisconsin upbringing. It was irrelevant to my life in suburban Southern California. Why couldn’t he just do things the normal way? I wondered. And why did he have to be so conspicuous? No one else I knew had a stepfather, and no one else’s father inspired giggles from other moms or questions about whether he was my older brother or my babysitter. At 29, he was only two years younger than my mother, but something about his lanky body, full head of sandy brown curls, and blue eyes set in wire-rimmed glasses made him seem much younger.
“Or we would wait until Christmas and just take one from the lot,” Peter added. “No you wouldn’t,” I said. “Oh yah, we would. Once my Dad made me climb over the fence on Christmas Eve and toss one back over.” I was horrified. I was in first grade. To me, stealing was wrong and frugality was sad. Frugality at Christmastime bordered on tragic.
“You’re making that up,” I said. “No, they can’t sell a tree after Christmas Eve, so we could just take one,” he said. “Well, we don’t wait until Christmas Eve in our family.” “In our family” was the biggest weapon in my arsenal, designed to exclude him from the life my mother and I had forged on our own in our little brown bungalow, but Peter didn’t return fire. “You’ll see,” he said, his voice trailing off. This “you’ll see…” was becoming a habit of his. It was meant to spark my curiosity, and I have to admit there had been pay-offs before: “What’s a Zebra Cake? You’ll see…”—it was delicious. “What am I making out of string and drinking straws? You’ll see…” –A giant Christmas star that he strung with lights. Happily, in this instance it meant we would ask my mother to settle our dispute and she sent the two of us off to buy a tree a week before Christmas.
At the lot, Peter and I quickly agreed on a short fat tree. We rented a small house and, to little me, short and fat just felt right. Things were going well, until Peter told the salesman, “we like this tree okay, but it’s flat on one side. We’ll give you half the price.” I shrank in mortification and drifted down the row of trees that any normal family would have just paid for. Peter found me a little later. Not seeming to notice my shame, or overlooking it, he told me we got the tree and led me to the car. I did not ask about the transaction.
The fall after the wedding, my Mom and Peter bought a house–without my input, but I was excited anyway. We seemed closer to being what I thought a family was supposed to be, married people living with a child in a house that they owned with a real backyard. Peter continued to confound me.
Come December, he stood in the middle of the living room. “The tree should go here,” he said. Above him the ceiling was pitched, probably to 13 feet at its highest point. “It should touch the ceiling!” I said. “I don’t know, Becky. We’ll see,” he said, driving me nuts again. Why put a tree there if it wasn’t going to reach that high? I asked myself as I followed him out the door.
Ernie’s Christmas Trees had just secured a prime location where the Orange Julius had been torn down a few blocks away. Ernie drove his load of trees down from Washington state and would sleep in a trailer on site until he closed down at Christmas. I held my breath as Peter and I set foot on Ernie’s lot for the first time and headed straight for the tallest trees he had.
Recognizing that we had come to make a major acquisition, Ernie rushed over to help us. He wore jeans, a dirt-smeared t-shirt that aspired to stretch over an ample belly, salt and pepper stubble, and an exhausted mesh trucker hat. Peter looked a little more grown up than the previous year, having pared his mop of hair down on the sides and gotten contact lenses. He apparently commanded a little more respect.
“These are the biggest ones we have,” Ernie said. His tone indicated that if we had been looking at something like fur coats or watches, he would have said, “I can see you are a man of fine taste,” I thought, but Peter promptly ruined my thrill at being the big spenders on the lot.
“Look at this,” Peter said pointing to a 12-foot tree with a $75 price tag, “you have a huge hole here. No regular stand is going to hold this and no one in this neighborhood has a ceiling high enough. I’ll give you $35 for it.” Horrified, but too invested to run, I stared at Peter—and so did Ernie. “No way I can let this go for less than $65,” he said. There was a pause. I hoped Peter was considering the price, but he said, “No one else is going to buy this tree. I’m saving you the trouble of having to get rid of it later. You ought to be paying me to take it off your hands, but I’ll give you $40.” I worried Ernie would be insulted, but he said “50.” “Deal.”
I told everyone who saw our tree that season, “Peter told Ernie he should pay us to take it away!” And Peter would remind me of that as he and I drove to Ernie’s each year to find some majestic but flawed tree that Ernie had to haggle over.
“This year we’re getting the tree for free,” Peter said when I was twelve. I laughed with all of my pre-teen skepticism, “Yeah, right.” It was my household refrain, a response to all of Peter’s jokes and tall tales. “You’ll see,” he said. We found our tree and Ernie named his price. “$125.” “Ernie, are you crazy? I’m doing you a favor offering to take this tree off the lot. You are never going to sell it. You should just give it to us.” “You’re right,” Ernie said, “get it out of here.” “Oh My God!” I squeaked. Peter looked smug, but didn’t say anything.
On the drive to Ernie’s the next year, Peter said, “this year, Ernie is going to pay me to take the tree off his hands.” I rolled my eyes.
Ernie was helping someone else when we stepped onto the lot. He saw us and called someone else over to help the other customer. “I gotta deal with this guy every year,” he yelled over his shoulder as he walked over to us, staring down an alley of tall pines. It was showdown at Christmas Tree Village.
Thicker in the middle and now prematurely silver-haired, Peter looked like a real grown-up and he was cooler than in years past. He pointed to a single tree, a Noble Fir so tall it would have to be trimmed to fit in our house. He lifted the tag and fired his first shot.
“$125?! Ernie, this is the worst tree you have ever tried to unload on us and you want $125? This one, you really should be paying us to haul away.” Ernie shook his head and looked at the ground. “Every year, you do this to me,” he said in a low worn voice. I felt terrible—guilty that Peter and I had made a tradition of taking advantage of Ernie, who spent one month of the year living in a trailer in a vacant lot just to bring us a little holiday cheer. I was about to say I was old enough to go without a huge tree, but Peter wouldn’t let up.
“Ernie, every year we help you out by taking one of the biggest ugliest trees off your hands.” I silently urged Peter not to lay it on so thick. It was clear the man’s livelihood was suffering at our hands. Ernie looked up, “I’ll tell you what, Peter.” He reached for his back pocket and took out a worn billfold. “Here’s ten bucks, get it out of here.” He shuffled off in defeat.
I gaped, silent for probably the first time since I began junior high. Peter turned to bask in my shock. Wondering if it had all really happened, I took turns watching Ernie across the lot and Peter loading the tree on the car. It was a beautiful tree. There was nothing wrong with it, and from the thick look of Ernie’s wallet, no one else was getting paid to take trees away.
In the car, I was still wondering how we had gotten away with it when Peter said, “I told you he was going to pay me this year.” He did seem to know from the time we left the house, I thought, but then it always went the way he said it would. Could he have talked to Ernie before?
“Wait, you paid for the tree before we got there, didn’t you?” I said. Peter smiled. “Have you done that before? How long has this been going on?!” He patted me on the knee and said, “You’re so smart. You figured it out and you’re only 13.”
I had been had. For years! I had been had. He had said, “you’ll see,” but I never thought he meant after years of thinking we had been scoring the biggest Christmas tree deals of all time, I would see that he had been pulling my leg in an elaborate multi-year ruse. “When did this start? Did you ever bargain? Did you pay full price all of these years? Does Mom know?” The questions poured out in the car, but Peter revealed nothing. He just beamed, pleased with his scheme and my shock.
In the 26 years since, I have never gotten any real answers; but this year as we make the short drive to our local Connecticut Christmas tree farm and walk through rows and rows of trees, I am going to tell my five year-old son the story of how we used to get a tree in our family.