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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A Chocolate Christmas Tale

ransference. That’s what Dr. Llewellyn would label my act. A garbage truck splashes slushy water onto my fur coat incurring what is bound to be a hefty cleaning bill, and a few steps later I give the finger to a Santa ringing a bell for donations. The Santa, a grizzled black man with rheumy eyes, promptly replies with his own garbled, "Back at ya ..." as I keep stepping, determined to get past the mass of bodies hoarding the sidewalks on their Christmas shopping treks. A moment later, a little girl, about six or seven, gleefully walks toward me swinging her American Girl bag and manages to catch me a healthy blow on the shin. I blink, but say nothing. It’s not nice to give the finger to a child. Especially in front of her mother, who has several pounds on me.

It’s a quarter to four on a Friday, one week before Christmas and I haven’t even begun to get that warm, fuzzy feeling that seems plastered on everyone else’s face. Either they’re faking it, or I am in the midst of a Bedford Fall nightmare with dreams of Potterville roaming through my head.

‘Tis the Season’ is emblazoned in holly next to an oversized bottle of Cognac on a large bill board. I nod up at it wistfully, agreeing with the premise. Imbibing is a necessity this holiday. It takes the edge off the stress of pulling together a meal for twelve, gifts for thirty, getting my long neglected living and dining rooms in decent enough shape to serve said meal without incurring the down-the-nose look from Aunt Rose, who is bound to notice the sherry stain in the carpeting (left over from my much-needed Thanksgiving imbibing that barely managed to get me through that particular holiday). Somehow, I always seem to be selected hostess (my sister, Brenda, says it's because my Hyde Park home is larger and nicer). Dr. Llewellyn says I need to understand that assertiveness and the word "No" are not bad things. Maybe, next holiday, his words will overcome my thirty-year conditioning to be over-accommodating.

The shopping bags in my hand are pulling at my over-used shoulder tendons and the inappropriate, but stylish Manolo Blahnik boots are kicking the hell out of my corns. But I diligently march on, determined to get the last two gifts on my list: a new Gameboy for Jathan, who broke his last one in a missile-throwing fight with his sister, Jericha; and for Jericha, a new Black Barbie, a replacement for the one who mysteriously lost her locks one night not too long after Jathan inadvertently destroyed his Gameboy. I feel that I’m rewarding bad behavior, but my sister’s kids are dear to me. I plan to talk to Brenda about getting a few sessions with Dr. Llewellyn for Jathan. One can never learn anger management too soon. Might save money on a defense attorney later.

Water Tower Place in Chicago is always jammed, but the seasonal influx from the surrounding suburbs seems more like an invasion of the Stepford folks, all wholesome and sunny even on a day descending into the single digits. And no manners whatsoever. They walk three, four, even more to a line expecting you to skirt around them because somehow you, a single, childless woman, are obliged to give deference to the sacred family. Whatever.

I travel up in one of the octagonal glass elevators that look out onto every floor of the mall. Christmas lights, holly wreaths and bells overwhelm me. I swear I can smell mistletoe even in the crowded elevator. At least there are no piped-in carols sending subliminal impulses to make me overspend. I’m already in debt as of three purchases ago.

Somewhere on the way to the sixth floor I remember that the only toy store in the place closed its doors months ago. I curse quietly, but not quietly enough. I hear a small intake of breath. A rosy-cheeked, red-haired moppet is gaping up at me with her mouth in an "O", then turns to her mother and says, "Mommy, that lady said the "F" word."

Her mother pulls her little one closer, throws me a look, and says, “Just ignore the bad lady, sweetie."

The other denizens also cut me a look, recognizing Scrooge in their merry midst. An older lady shifts in the opposite direction. I’ve been designated a carrier of the "Humbug" plague, probably contagious. No one is taking any chances and I am given as wide a berth as possible in an elevator populated with several bodies. The doors open up on the sixth floor and I escape my judgment.

Immediately, I smell the pungent decadence of rich, deep chocolate. A Godiva boutique window is framed with the requisite Christmas regalia, its offerings wrapped in gold or silver tinsel paper. Open gift boxes of chocolate-trimmed biscotti’s, fudge and truffles at this moment provide the only real meaning to this world. Logic and reason are within their depths and I enter the tabernacle, an adherent seeking the wisdom passed down through the ages since the first cocoa bean was distilled.

A couple of women are already at the counter, lasciviously looking over the selections, while an eager saleswoman prattles on through a menu of chocolate delights. I go to another counter, where a plate of chocolate-covered strawberries beckons. I set down my bags, unglove and pick up one of the offerings, pop it into my mouth, refusing to think of open plates and traveling germs. The experience is just too good to be distracted with worries about unwashed hands.

"Delicious isn’t it?" a smoky voice interrupts my reverie. I open my eyes (yes, I had closed my eyes to focus on nothing but the succulent mélange of chocolate and tart strawberry) and look into the face of a freckled beige woman, her face beaming knowingly. I nod.

"We have several select boxes. Our one pound box is only $11.95, the two pounder $23.90. Oh … wait a minute, here’s something that is equally divine."

The saleswoman pulls a gold and red tinseled box from beneath the counter, opens it up. "Praline almonds," she announces. "Take one."

I delicately pick one, bite into it. There is something about the feel of nuts crunching between your teeth, the light flavor of almond surrounded by the taste of deep chocolate that pushes away the momentary worries. I swallow hard and long, eager to remember this flavor, hoping it can get me through the rest of the afternoon, which promises to be demanding.

"Then there’s the hazelnut chocolate praline," she tempts further.

I’ve only tasted hazelnut a few times in my life, and I’m not sure that I remember the flavor. As soon as I bite down though, I recall that first occasion. My Aunt Rose’s Cocoa Hazelnut Cake that she’s long since stopped making. Served with lemonade on her porch in the Rogers Park home where she still lives. Arthritis of the hand has made it hard for her to sift and stir, so now she only offers store-bought confections. But that summer when I tasted her cake that first time was also the summer of my first car and unfortunately, my first accident. That summer was when my mother’s cancer went into its final remission, and no sooner than we celebrate this miracle, my father is killed crossing a downtown street a month later. The taste of hazelnut is bittersweet in my reflection.

I shake my head. "Don’t really like this one." The woman purses her lips, contemplating my answer, then quickly pulls out another box.

"Here, try the pecan croquant," she offers, holding the box forward. "It’s a mix of pecan and crisp, milk and dark chocolate. It’s one of my personal favorites."

No bad memories with this one. It doesn’t disappoint, and I smile. I receive an answering smile from the saleswoman.

"I often tell my customers that an ounce of chocolate can surmount a pound of sorrow," she says, putting the boxes back beneath the counter. "Well, that may be an exaggeration, but it does a soul good sometime to just stop and taste, to lay down their worries a bit. Don’t you think?"

I crunch through another blissful morsel and make my decision, no matter that the unplanned purchase is going to chip into my tight Christmas shopping budget.

"I’ll take the two pounder of all of them except the hazelnut," I say. Then I think about it. "You know, just…just add the hazelnut, too." I decide then that I do like the flavor, and that since my mother is still here and since I may never taste Aunt Rose’s delicious cake again, I’ll try to remember the good of the flavor, let the pain stay in the past.

"Do you want these wrapped?" she asks as she rings up my purchases. I shake my head; these are gifts for me alone, selflessness be damned.

"Good. You have to treat yourself sometimes. ‘Cause if we don’t appreciate ourselves, who will, huh?"

Dr. Llewellyn would probably say the same thing. We all need to be good to ourselves. Which means not letting people walk over you. At that moment, I determine that next Christmas, the family is definitely spending it somewhere other than my house. Maybe at Brenda’s, who tends to weasel out of these things. I’m tired of being taken for granted. I need to be appreciated.

So, without guilt or buyer’s remorse, I grab the bag of chocolates being handed to me with that ever-present smile. Tonight, instead of liquor, I’ll load up on chocolate to take the edge off. I’ll settle by the fire, a plate in my hand, maybe even a Christmas carol playing on the CD player. Each night I’ll give myself a chocolate fix, and who knows, by Christmas, maybe I’ll be ready to face whatever looms. For now, though, I’m beginning to get that warm, fuzzy feeling. That Bedford Falls feeling.

As I start for the door, the saleswoman calls me back. She’s holding a small gold colored gift bag. I take it; inside is a box.

"It’s a chocolate truffle for the road. On the house." Her eyes tells me that she understands some things that maybe I don’t.

"Thank you so much," and I mean it.

"Merry Christmas," she calls out as I leave. I turn and wish her the same. And, strangely enough, I mean that, too.

Later, walking down the same street I walked earlier, I encounter the graying Santa still ringing his bell, asking for donations. I start to pass him by, my face averted, hoping he won’t remember me. But then I stop in my tracks, remembering the saleswoman’s graciousness, how she made me forget my bah humbug blues for awhile.

I pull my wallet from my purse, retrieve a $20, stuff it into the can. Santa sees the bill, smiles with what turns out to be some very nice teeth. His eyes don’t seem so rheumy anymore.

"Merry Christmas, and God bless you," he says graciously.

I walk on, smiling. The $20 is going to be sorely missed when I finally hit the toy stores. But I’ll just have to make do.

Transference. That’s what Dr. Llewellyn would call what I just did. And he’d be right.

The End
S. Cullars, 2004

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