Matthew and John met under the Fourth Street bridge as they often did. But this was no ordinary meeting. Tonight was a special occasion. Each man carried a cardboard box under his arm which had been wrapped up in great swaths of old newspaper. John had even folded some newspaper into a sort of a bowlike shape and stuck it on top of the box.
“Merry Christmas, John!”
“Merry Christmas, Matthew!”
“I trust you are having a merry holiday?”
“Indeed, my good man. Why, this very evening I feasted on pheasant under glass with foie gras and truffles.” As he said this, he scratched the heavy, unkempt beard under his chin and felt a small pigeon bone which he flicked away carelessly. “How fare you this day of days?”
“Tolerably well, John. My valet was somewhat careless in serving me my soup this evening, as you see by the lapel of my Brooks Brothers suit.” So saying, he pointed to the large blot of soup he had spilled on the outermost of the three coats he wore at this time of year at the soup kitchen he had just come from. “I would have discharged him of course, but this being the holiday season, I was inclined to be merciful.”
“An attitude that does you credit, my good man. And now, if you will permit me, I must admit my curiosity somewhat piqued by that large package you carry beneath your arm. Whatever might that be?”
“Well may you ask! It is, as a matter of absolute fact, a small token of my appreciation for your friendship and counsel this past year. Merry Christmas, John.” With a grand gesture he extended the parcel to John, who accepted it with his free hand.
“You are too kind, sir. As it happens, the parcel I carry — which I fancy you were mere moments from asking about yourself — is a similar remembrance for you, friend Matthew.” So saying, he handed his own package to his friend, who took it in both hands, not unlike an eager child who can’t wait to see what Santa brought him.
The exchange complete, there was a brief debate as to who should go first. Ultimately, the honor fell to Matthew, and he tore open the paper and peered inside the ratty, slightly moldy, shoebox which, as it did every Christmas without fail, contained absolutely nothing. But Matthew’s face broke in a wide grin and he reached into the box, closing his fingers around empty air as though he was holding an imaginary object in his hand. He held the invisible something to his ear, and smiled as he imagined the tick of the precision Swiss-made gears echoing in his ears.
“It’s beautiful! I shall wear it always.”
“I took the liberty of having it engraved.”
Matthew looked at the back of the nonexistent watch and what he pretended to read seemed to get him all choked up. He wiped an equally invisible tear from his eye with the left index finger that poked through the torn tip of the wool glove he had found outside the convenience store three months ago.
“I will treasure this gift, and the kind words it bears, for the rest of my days. Now, I must insist that you open my gift to you. Though I am certain it will pale in comparison to this wonderful token.”
Just as Matthew had done, John opened the gift and smiled with delight as he beheld the box’s invisible contents. He reached in and seemed to remove the two small objects with his fingers. Then he began fiddling with the sleeves of the torn, ill-fitting, long-sleeved tee shirt he wore under his many outer layers of clothing. Afterward, though there was no visible change to them, he held his wrists up for Matthew to see. “How do they look?”
“They suit you perfectly, old man! And as you can see, they too are engraved, though only with your initials. I didn’t have the room for a personal message, as you did. Rest assured, if I had done, I would have expressed my gratitude at being able to count you among my closest friends.”
“Thank you, my friend. I shall wear them to the great New Year’s Eve Gala. Will I see you there?”
“Have you ever known me to miss a gala?”
“Of course not. Whatever was I thinking?”
“Well, this is a most satisfactory Christmas, is it not? And now,” he added, glancing at his bare wrist, “I see by my beautiful new watch that it is very nearly midnight. Just time enough, I think, for a spot of Christmas cheer.” He reached into the copious pockets of one of his coats and removed a bottle of very cheap gin and two paper cups he had found in the street and cleaned as best he could. “Join me for a brandy?”
“Matthew, it would be my absolute pleasure.”
As John and Matthew shared a midnight drink of brandy to celebrate another wonderful Christmas together, a nearby radio crackled and part of a late-night broadcast was borne on the night air…
“…another clear night, and tomorrow’s forecast calls for light rain in the morning, but otherwise it’s shaping up to be a beautiful Fourth of July Weekend. The time is now nine-fifteen and you’re listening to…”
“Merry Christmas, Matthew.”
“Merry Christmas, John.”
Templeton Moss is an award-winning author of short fiction, poetry, theater, young adult novels and angry Facebook posts. He currently writes and sleeps in Louisville, KY.