I don't know what those little red stockings, too small for an elf's foot, displayed on the racks with all the other Christmas clutter are for. Even if my 11-year-old son asks me a fifth time, I still won't be able to explain what people do with them.
The child, bent on touching the raw, exposed tissue of my last nerve, dares to ask anyway. Neither taking a deep breath of mothball scent rising from a nearby Rudolph turtleneck and sweater ensemble nor counting to 10 can stop me from sarcastically saying, "They're the perfect size for a lump of coal."
A wizened woman sharing the limited floor space with me and a bagillion other last-minute shoppers warns, "Be careful with things like coal and stockings."
"Ma'am?" I ask. My blond-haired boy blinks, wide-eyed. The magic of Christmas has him all nervous and agitated. Being watched every minute, even at Walmart, even though he teeters on the cusp of Christmas losing its allure, makes a boy edgy and suspicious. He still believes enough to be extra cautious this time of year.
Our mysterious storyteller explains that she has two daughters. Many years ago, her younger daughter behaved very, very badly. To get back at her sister, the older daughter sneaked a lump of coal into the bottom of the sister's stocking for her to discover on Christmas morning. Despite all the presents and packages, ribbons and bows, the little girl fixated on that lump of coal, crying and fretting the day long.
A mother always in search of powerful behavior modification strategies, I ask, pragmatically, "Well did she straighten up?"
"It ruined Christmas," reiterates the woman." She's 28 years old now and Christmas has never been the same." But, yes, the girl improved her ways. The lady winks at my child and blends back into the masses milling about in embroidered mistletoe.
I emphasize the holiday hazards of bad behavior by telling my son about my friend, Mrs. Doyle, and her siblings who all received switches and coal in their stockings in 1979. "Did it ruin Christmas forever?" he asks.
"It made them sorry about how they had been treating each other and their parents."
"Was Mrs. Doyle really bad when she was little?" he gasps.
"All children are bad," I say, as we weave our buggy past the wrapping paper and bows.
Incredulous, he whispers, barely able to squeak of such truths so close to St. Nick's big show, "They are?"
Fondling a felt ribbon, I provoke, "Are you always good?" The words slowly sift down like snowflakes when we look to the end of the aisle to see the shadow of our storyteller drift by.
Christmas Eve looms like a question mark over unspoken words. The business of Christmas magic and how much of it he still keeps in his heart and what his stocking might hold tightens around his confidence. In a panic he asserts, "I've been good since we got out of the car."
"I hope that's enough to not ruin Christmas," I say, slipping small stockings just the right size for lumps of coal into my shopping cart.
(Lucy Adams is a columnist, freelance writer, and author of If Mama Don't Laugh, It Ain't Funny. She lives in Thomson. E-mail Lucy at firstname.lastname@example.org.)