The air crackled in the cold December evening, little glitters of snow swirling around Emmett Beale and his herd of firry green giants. He rubbed leather-gloved hands together in anticipation. The parking lot was starting to get full and people were wandering into the corral areas. He took a sip of his coffee from the thermo mug – fully loaded with enough precious Irish Tyrconnell but not too much that would scare the kids – and pulled his hat down a little more firmly.
Buddy, the kid Emmett had hired to help this year, was busy turning on the holiday music and counting out the change in his apron.
It was going to be a good night.
A couple with two children, a boy and girl, were standing by the balsam firs, which shuffled docilely at one corner of the pen, every now and again rustling their branches. “Now, kids, this is the perfect tree for you. We don’t want anything too big,” the mother said, leaning down to the children’s level. “I think my first tree was a balsam.”
“It’s a good fifteen branches high,” the father said. “That’s just about right for you two.” The kids squealed, clapping their mittened hands.
Emmett smiled as remembered his first tree. A balsam, too.
When they paid, the father pulled Emmett to the side. “Now, I don’t really want to have to clean up after this thing for long,” he said. “Do you people come take care of the…remains?”
Emmett’s warm feelings turned frosty. It irked him that people don’t normally do their homework before they go bringing another living thing into their lives. Puppies, horses, plants – just grab and go nowadays, you can always “get rid of it” later.
“If you just keep it watered good, she’ll last you on past Christmas and if you don’t want to keep it and replant in your yard, give me a call. Just be sure you keep it watered,” he emphasized. The man smiled, relieved.
“Thanks, man. I’d like them to be a little older before we have the where-trees-go-when-they-die talk.”
At the other end of the lot, an older couple and a young man smoking a cigarette stood contemplating the Alberta spruces, a lively stamping bunch nearly too large for the pen. Emmett chuckled to himself at the woman’s luxurious fur coat, glad she couldn’t see him roll his eyes in the dark.
He sauntered up to them. “Nice night to find a tree, eh?” he said, smiling, his breath foggy in the chill air.
The woman turned to him with shrew eyes. Emmett’s first wife had shrew eyes and he knew no good ever comes from a woman like that. He looked to the man.
“We need a few, um, larger trees,” the man said, gesturing somewhat apologetically. These city folks, Emmett thought, don’t know what they’re getting into.
Emmett took a sip of his coffee.
“Well sir, you look like the kind of guy who has a lot of experience with trees,” Emmett said. “What do you think of the Alberta here?”
Within minutes, Emmett had discovered this couple was a well-known neurologist from town and his wife, and their handyman. They wanted three large trees – two to plant on either side of the front door to their home and one for the foyer. “We’re having a Christmas soiree,” the woman said. Emmett but he just smiled and nodded. They’d never had Albertas before and Emmett could see there was a delicate situation brewing here – the wife wanted big interesting trees to impress her friends but Emmett didn’t think these were the sort of folk who could really handle a wild Alberta spruce, much less three of them.
“I understand your situation and I think I can help you out,” Emmett said. “Care to step this way please?” City manners, Emmett reminded himself as they moved through the corrals of Douglas fir and Scots pine. The ones he wanted to show them were in the back in the largest pen of all. Thank goodness they were generally good-natured or he’d have had to build the corral out of iron posts instead of wood.
The woman gasped. The man grinned in spite of himself.
“But they said nobody in town had these,” she said, eyeing Emmett. “Are they the real thing? I’ve read about them on the internet, you know.”
He ignored her. “The Leyland Cypress might be just what you’re looking for. These here are about nineteen branches each. They’re generally low-key trees, good for folks who don’t have much time to mess with ‘em. All wild-caught, of course. Looks great with lights—“
“We’ll take them. Two big ones and a slightly smaller one for the foyer.” She pronounced it ‘fwah-yay.’ “I’m going back to the car,” the woman said, pulling her fur closer around herself. The man shrugged and looked at Emmett as his wife crunched across the snow in high-heeled boots. They’d driven in their own BMW and the handyman had a flatbed truck. Emmett had Buddy help the guy while he counted warm crisp bills from the man’s pocket.
A good night indeed.
“Sir? Are you Emmett Beale?” The girl was dressed in an expensive outdoor jacket and lots of makeup.
“Yes, ma’am, I am.”
“I’m Rosie Parker from WLKY news. Care to chat for an interview? We’re just out visiting tree farm stands tonight, talking with folks, getting in the spirit.” Rosie Parks was probably new at this, Emmett suspected.
“Sure,” he said.
She gestured to the cameraman who flipped a switch on the bright lamp. Emmett answered most of the questions squinting.
“This is Rosie Parker coming to you live from Emmett Beale’s tree farm stand in St. Matthews. Emmett, how many trees do you have here tonight?” She might’ve been looking at Emmett expectantly but he was still blinking in the light.
“Well, this year we have about eighty trees, all varieties,” he said. “And some you don’t find too many places around here.”
“What kind of tree are most people looking for?”
“It depends. Most folks want a smaller tree, for the kids, you know, they aren’t used to handling the big buckin’ ones, the Grands and the Nobles and the like. But we’d like to find good homes for all the trees this year.”
The interview was cut short when a splash of green paint suddenly appeared across Rosie Park’s expensive jacket. Her mouth dropped open as she uttered an expletive that Emmett hoped the censors had caught before it aired on live prime time television.
The protesters had gathered just outside the main corral’s gate. Emmett whistled to Buddy who nodded and moved to check the perimeter – one year those darn kids had let a whole pen of Ponderosa pines slink off into the surrounding parkland. By the time they discovered the break, they couldn’t tell their wild Ponderosas from the ones already growing in the park.
“CHRISTMAS TREES ARE SLAVES TO THE AMERICAN CAPITALIST CONSUMER MACHINE!” a young man hollered from the edge of the group.
There were maybe five or six, college-age and high school, bound up in multicolored scarves and knit caps with ear flaps. They waved homemade signs:
KEEP WILD TREES WILD
TREES BELONG IN THE FOREST NOT YOUR LIVING ROOM
LEAF TREES ALONE
THERE WERE NO TREES AT THE BIRTH OF CHRIST
Rosie Parks was now ignoring the splotches of paint dribbling down her chest and was hastening with her cameraman toward the knot of protesters, her microphone pointed right at them.
Emmett sighed. There wasn’t usually much trouble but these days, people get all up in arms about taking wild things and putting them inside, then letting them die, all for the sake of a holiday. Truth was that the people who bought from Emmett asked him to come back after Christmas and take the trees back, which he did and replanted them at his farm out in the country.
Emmett stood off to the side, watching Rosie question the crowd, an amused look on his face. Buddy was making rounds, checking the live stock.
“Sir, can you tell us why you’re here tonight?” Rosie’s voice was full of reporterly concern.
“That man,” he pointed at Emmett, “kills innocent trees every year, just so people can keep up this stupid tradition of the ‘real’ Christmas tree.”
A skinny young woman with waist-length blonde braids stepped forward. “I made a flyer with all the reasons you should use a fake tree,” she said, hiking up her shirt. “I wrote it here so I didn’t have to waste paper.” Her flat pale stomach was covered in smeary blue ink which Rosie Parks wouldn’t even try to read, but her cameraman was giving it the old college try.
The police car arrived shortly. Officer Flowers was a good friend of Emmett’s, always kept an eye out for him.
“Evening, y’all,” he said. Emmett smiled and shook his head, and went back to the lot as Officer Flowers strongly encouraged the protesters to find a better place to practice their first amendment rights.
Rosie Parker came back to where Emmett stood.
“Care to comment, Mr. Beale?”
“I think you all should know I will take back any tree that is unfit for your home, that is unstable or uncontrollable, that sheds more’n you’d like, or that has fulfilled its purpose for the holiday season, and I will personally replant it among its own kind on my two hundred acre farm.” He pushed his hat back a bit. “How many tree shop owners around here can say that?” He smiled.
“And this has been Rosie Parker coming to you live from Beale’s Tree Corral.” She froze for a moment, and then turned to Emmett. “Thanks, Mr. Beale. This will air again tonight at 11.” She walked off, the cameraman struggling with the piles of equipment.
By the end of the night, Emmett had sold twenty trees. Buddy’d made a date with Rosie Parker to drive around and look at Christmas lights together, and Emmett was feeling the effects of his Irish coffee’s holiday cheer. The trees were resting quietly, having been fertilized and watered. He relaxed under the down comforter on the cot in the trailer he stayed in for the weeks before Christmas to keep an eye on the trees.
“Merry Christmas to all,” he said, drifting into dreams of scantily-clad lady-elves.