“Sweetheart, is there anything you want for Christmas besides locally brewed beer and Folks Café coffee?”
“Three new county commissioners,” Jock responded.
“Maybe next year as a birthday present.”
I kissed him.
“Or, hopefully, at least two. In the meantime, don’t forget I am also giving you jumper cables for your truck from Stevens Hardware.”
“To match the car battery I gave you for Christmas?” He grinned. “Aren’t we a romantic and frivolous pair?”
“The gift of transportation is very appreciated,” I nodded solemnly.
“What about the dogs?” Jock asked.
“Hilda asked me to start a letter to Santa.” I held it out to him:
“Dear Santa Claus,
I hope you are doing well. I very much enjoyed reading your letters to the Tolkien children that were collected and published. It was very generous of you to share that with the world—they were marvelous and fascinating! Of course, our household is planning our annual viewing of ‘Ernest Saves Christmas,’ the film you worked on with Jock and the incredibly talented Jim Varney.
“But Hilda pointed out I hadn’t written you a letter this year, and that was really not very thoughtful or polite. Now, I love Hilda more than almost anyone else in the world, but it doesn’t mean I am blind to her motivations. She really wants to make sure I mention that she and Horace would both like a pound of bacon each and a rare steak for Christmas. Gift wrap is optional and not necessary, they assure. Hilda always likes squeaky toys, and since Horace is not interested in them, she will make the ultimate sacrifice and play with any toys delivered for Horace.
“Jock wants me to assure you, in addition to milk and cookies, you can count on a beer and a sandwich, if you stop by on Christmas Eve. He would probably like to hear how life is up north if you have a few moments. He tends to like to reminisce without having to actually spend time in the snow. If you don’t have time, he would be very happy to settle for beer. That is, of course, his favorite gift. Thank you for remembering us; we hope you are well. And safe travels!
“First off, you didn’t ask for anything for yourself,” Jock pointed out. “Secondly, this reads much less like a list of demands, and much more like the kind of letters you write to your Aunt Betty when you feel guilty you haven’t talked to her in a while.”
He took a drink of beer and shifted gears.
“So you didn’t ask Santa for anything.”
“Well, the things I want are a little hard for him to wrap up and tuck under the tree, as it were.”
“Well, I am worried about the property taxes.”
“And, of course, I worry about the bookstore and the future of our historic district. The New Hanover County Commission has added to my fears for our little peninsula: bus service, museum, hospital, library, the list goes on. It feels at every turn they are more determined to take us over a cliff. Actually, if I were a paranoid person, I would think they are trying to give me a heart attack and then deny me adequate health care with the hospital sale, thereby causing my death in a way that is completely unprosecutable.”
“Didn’t you write that book a few years ago?” Jock asked.
(Several years ago encore serialized a novella about a contract killer who never actually pulls a trigger or stabs her victims, yet is responsible for all their deaths.)
“Yes, I did,” I said. “But the correct answer to that outrageous statement is something along the lines of, ‘That is absurd, they aren’t that smart!’ Or something like that. In reality they don’t know I exist, which is probably far better.”
I took a deep breath and tried to get back on track.
“Again, none of those concerns can easily be packaged and placed under a tree by Santa.” I paused. “The big things—you, Horace and Hilda, and your safety and health—I am very grateful for.”
“I notice you don’t include yourself in that statement.”
“You are more important to me.”
We sat in thoughtful silence and watched the fire in the stove for a few minutes.
“So if Santa could bring you a snow globe of a perfect package of Wilmington, what would it look like?” Jock asked. “I know there would be no Wal-mart, so you don’t have to tell me that part.”
“Well, obviously, I’d like to see fewer chains and more flourishing daylight retail businesses. I had a lady call the bookstore the other day, and after we figured out the book she was looking for from her kids’ Christmas list—which we didn’t have in stock—I offered to order it for her. I also recommended a quick phone call to Memory Lane Comics because it was a YA graphic novel, to which she legitimately asked, ‘What’s the difference if I order it from you instead of Amazon?’”
“What did you say?” I could see the corners of Jock’s mouth curling into a smile. This is a touchy subject for me that he has seen far too often to not be amused by it.
“I said, ‘Well, to start with, if you order from this business, we pay taxes that support the school system your children attend. That’s a starting place. I’m not trying to be rude, but I can go on at great length.’”
“How did she respond?”
“She was genuinely surprised,” I said. “But the thing is, so many people, in spite of all the information out there, still don’t want to know and still don’t care. If speculative fiction has taught us anything, it is that. Sci-fi writers have been warning us about the world to come—the world we are currently living in—for almost 100 years and we don’t care. Not a bit.”
“So I guess I would love to see a Wilmington that doesn’t have a Walmart and has more small retail business, plus takes care of and appreciates its amazing historic district that attracts visitors and people who wish to relocate. Somehow, it is a burden—or the lessons of the past are just a nice theory. I mean, how often do I come home from a Literary History Walking Tour just bereft because, yet again, I’ve had a group living in a white gated community who are upset about the events of 1898—of which they are learning about for the first time on the tour?”
“At least once a month.” Jock grinned at me.
“So my point is, learning about 1898 and the Wilmington 10 isn’t theoretical ancient history. I’d like to see some of those lessons applied, to help Wilmington move forward. Don’t tell me you are upset and still manage to find a way to avoid ever having to talk to a person who doesn’t look like you. If 1898 upsets you, a good first step would involve getting out of your completely insulated white world and participating in reality. Getting our schools desegregated would be a good step.”
“Have you seen the new school district maps yet?”
“They’re pretty theoretical to me,” I answered. “It’s gonna take the school year starting to see what they really look like, a chance to talk with teachers and parents. That’s when it is real to me. How about you?”
“I haven’t really looked at them yet.”
“You know what I would like?”
“You remember the Icelandic custom of giving books on Christmas Eve and the whole country curls up with a good book? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could start that here? Just think what a beautiful impact that could have on our community: more thought, more conversation, more physical, real books given and appreciated. That would be lovely.”
“Do you have any idea how stressful it is trying to pick out a book to give you?”
“What are you talking about? I love books!”
“Gwenyfar, look around you. Just try for a second to imagine what it is like for someone who loves you to try to give you a book … you don’t have … you haven’t read … that you will like. Just try to imagine it.”
“You make me sound difficult and judgmental.”
“No, but intimidating, yes.”
“I am not!” I replied. “I am the least intimidating person I know! I love books and I love books as gifts!”
“Of course you do.” Jock swept his eyes around the room lined with bookshelves. “No one ever said you didn’t. I’m just saying you are not the easiest person to buy a book for.”
I poked him in the ribs and we both giggled. “OK, I guess that’s my answer: My perfect snow globe of Wilmington would involve more support of small locally owned businesses, fewer chains, a greater appreciation of our history, and an application of those lessons in daily life, to create a more integrated community and a higher degree of literacy and appreciation of the physical written word.”
“I still can’t see Santa putting that under the tree for you. I’m glad to know your desires are so simple and attainable.”
“I thought my complex and challenging mind was part of the attraction.”
“Of course it is.” Jock took a drink. “That and your love of Volkswagens. That’s the right answer, isn’t it?”
“So what do you think Santa is going to bring me?”
“I thought he already brought you a battery for your car.”
“That’s right he did. I need to remember to tell him thank you.”
I smiled at him.
“Do you think there is any hope for convincing people to do more holiday shopping with brick-and-mortar and less online?” I asked quietly.
“Darlin’ you have been writing about that for over a decade. If anyone knows the answer to that, it is you, not me.”
“Could you ask Santa when you have a beer with him?”
“As long as it is a locally brewed craft beer with a small carbon footprint, yes.”