Author's note: This article is dedicated to Stacey Parr
It was two days before Christmas, and Sam had sold most of the trees off his lot up in Rabun County, Georgia. "How many we got left?" he asked his grandson, Bobby, as they were getting ready to call it a night and go home. "Seven. Seven, counting that ol' ugly tree back yonder."
Sam knew the tree that the boy was referring to, and he did not need to hear his grandson add, "Might as well burn it. Ain't nobody going to buy a Christmas tree that ugly."
"You never know," Sam responded with the distinctive note of the cracker barrel philosopher in his voice. "There's some people so poor they might think it was purdy enough."
Bobby scowled. "Ain't nobody so poor they'd buy a tree that ugly. It must be the ugliest Christmas tree in the whole world."
"Don't know about that," Sam replied. "There's bound to be a Christmas tree somewheres that's uglier than that one."
"I sure would hate to see it," Bobby said, poking at the gnarled and dying limbs of the pathetically asymmetrical tree, which, in addition to being ugly, was only three feet tall. "It's so ugly we oughta give it a goofy name. Like Sherman, Sherman the Ugliest Christmas Tree in the World." Then Bobby began to walk the tree from side to side, and in his mock retard voice, he said. "Hey, everybody? You want to buy me? My name's Sherman, and I'm the World's Ugliest Christmas Tree." Then, switching back to his normal voice, Bobby asked his grandpa. "Why'd you let that feller sell it to you in the first place?"
"He said it was a lucky tree." Sam told the boy, meanwhile taking a swig of moonshine from a peanut butter jar that had once known better times.
"And you believed him?"
"Didn't pay much for it."
"If you paid anything, you paid too much, grandpa. He musta seen you coming."
"It ain't Christmas yet, Bobby. Some poor ol' turnip farmer might come round yet and buy it."
"I'd just give it to him if he was that poor."
"Poor people got their pride too, remember. You gotta charge 'em something."
"Two dollars. Not a penny less," Sam said as he crossed out the old five dollar price tag and wrote above it in his weaving handwriting: "Two dollars and not a penny less." Sam added the last part for emphasis, as the moonshine was beginning to make him feel a little feisty.
"Two whole dollars for the world's ugliest Christmas tree," Bobby said derisively, kicking at the tree with his right foot. "There ain't nobody in this world that dumb."
Bobby was right on one count, but wrong on another. It was, in point of fact, the ugliest Christmas tree in the whole wide world. It just wasn't true that nobody would pay for it, for no sooner had Bobby twisted one of the tree's forlorn limbs off with his hands than he heard the sound of cars coming down the road. He looked up, and his mouth dropped.
You didn't see a parade of big black limos, half a mile long, drive down Fairy Vale Road very often. In fact, until that moment, nobody had ever seen such a thing on that little country road, and its sudden appearance was sufficient cause for astonishment and gapping mouths.
"Looky there, grandpa."
"I reckon I see 'em." Grandpa said, rubbing his eyes to make sure he did, then glancing down at his jar to gauge the amount of moonshine he had drunk so far.
"Maybe they come to buy 'em a Christmas tree," Bobby said. "You think?"
Grandpa shook his head. "Can't rightly say."
Suddenly, all the limos stopped and doused their headlights simultaneously, as if by the click of a single switch, so that both Bobby and his grandpa were temporarily blinded. Yet they could distinctly hear what sounded like the opening and closing of all the doors of the limousines -- and again, this too seemed to be superbly synchronized.
"Howdy," Sam said tentatively squinting at the figure he saw moving toward him. "You looking to get back to the main road, you turn around and you go back down toward..."
"I wish to see your Christmas trees. All of them."
The commanding and preemptory voice came from a woman who was wearing a full length mink coat, with diamonds glittering from her neck and hanging down from her earlobes. In the naked light bulbs that run around the Christmas lot, Sam, getting back his sight, could see that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever set his eyes on. Must be some movie star, he found himself thinking, as he mumbled, "Yes ma'am. Bobby, you run and get her that real purdy tree -- you know the one."
Bobby did, and went rushing toward it, falling all over himself because he kept looking back at the dazzling vision of the lady with the diamonds. "It's right over yonder."
"Did I ask to see a pretty tree?" the lady with the diamond said in a voice as icy as her jewels.
"Well, ma'am, if you ain't looking for a purdy tree, then what exactly did you have in mind?"
"I want to see all of your trees, including the ugly ones. In fact, we might as well start with the ugliest one you have. Bring it to me!" The lady with the diamonds commanded.
"You want to see the ugliest tree we got?" Sam asked in a baffled voice.
"Here it is," Bobby was already yelling at the top of his lungs. He was dragging one of the Christmas trees toward the imperious woman, but it was not the ugliest tree on their lot, but instead it was one of the more respectable trees that they had left. Of course, Bobby himself was fully aware that it was not the ugliest tree they had, but he hated to think that all they would get for the ugly tree was the two dollars his grandpa had put its price tag at. The one he brought out was marked, "Twenty-five dollars."
"This here's 'bout the ugliest one we got," the quick-witted boy said to the woman as he stood it up for her to inspect it, holding back some of the limbs to make it seem less shapely.
"That isn't an ugly tree," she said in a scornful voice, and then turning around in a visible huff, she cast a backward glance over her shoulder and said, in a withering tone of voice, "Why must these yokels insist on wasting the precious little time we have left!"
"Ma'am, ma'am!" Bobby cried out. "Hold on. My mistake. Done got the wrong tree. Let me go fetch you the real ugly one." Whereupon Bobby ran back to the lot and, still refusing to select the ugliest tree, brought back one with the price tag of fifteen dollars. He wasn't about to let the woman pay them just two dollars, no matter how ugly the ugliest tree was.
"What about this one?" the boy asked.
The lady in diamonds condescended to turn around and cast a disparaging glance at the tree Bobby was holding upside down, with its crown smashed into the earth. "Turn it right side up, and stop mashing its crown like that. Do you think I was born yesterday?"
"No ma'am. I'm sure you was born before I was, and I wasn't born near close to yesterday."
"Bobby, maybe you oughta fetch her that tree we was talking about earlier. You know, the one you called..."
"What tree were you talking about earlier?" the woman in the diamonds demanded. "Have you been holding back on me?"
"No'm," Sam said apologetically. "The boy was just figuring you wanted something ugly that was still a little bit on the purdy side."
"A little bit on the purdy side?" The woman repeated with caustic sarcasm. "When I say ugly, I mean ugly. Show me your ugliest tree -- at once!"
Bobby's quick thinking came to his aid once more. Surreptitiously grabbing the magic marker out of his grandpa's overalls, he ran back to the spot where the ugliest Christmas tree in the whole world was lying on its ugly asymmetrical side, and, before the thought had finished passing through his mind, he had crossed out his grandpa's early crossing outs, and, his heart racing at the sheer audacity of his plan, he had written over it, "Thirty dollars."
"This one ugly enough for you?" Bobby asked in rhetorical triumph, as he displayed to the mysterious stranger the world's ugliest Christmas tree.
The lady in the diamonds stared at the tree Bobby was holding. The boy could see a glint of respect dawn in her eyes. Very slowly, as if each syllable came with great deliberation, she said, "Possibly. Very possibly, it is." Then, with a snap of her fingers, she called back to the shadowy figures who hovered behind her, "Examine it!" Then, before Bobby had a chance to say another word, no fewer than thirty men in black trench coats surrounded the tree and butted him out of the way. They were mumbling in a language that Bobby didn't understand, and they were leafing through volume after volume containing photographs of other Christmas trees, each of them almost but not quite as ugly as the tree they were presently inspecting. Under the picture of each tree, Bobby could see that the name of a town or a city or a country had been written. One said Uzbekistan. Another said, Nepal. As they went through the various volumes, Bobby could detect a note of jubilation rising in their collective murmurs. Obviously, they had found the tree that they had been looking for. It was not in Uzbekistan, nor in Nepal, nor in any of the other places that they had looked for it. It was here, in his grandpa's lot.
All at once the men in the trench coats abandoned the ugly Christmas tree and returned in a festival mood to the limos, all except the tallest man who went over to the woman with the diamonds, and standing on tiptoe -- for the lady was at least six foot seven -- he whispered something into her ear, which, however hard she might try to disguise it, brought to her lips the unmistakable smile of triumph-at-long-last: the smile, in other words, of an explorer when he has discovered the source of the Nile or of a gangster when he has heard that his last outstanding rival has been eliminated. "Excellent," the woman said to the whispering man in the trench coat. "You have done well. Very well."
"You wanna buy it?" Bobby asked, again standing by the ugliest Christmas tree, and holding it up with pride. "This here price tag says it's goin' to cost you thirty dollars."
"I have come from the ends of the earth to find this tree."
"Hold on there," Bobby said, "Maybe I better take this price tag over here, so I can see it better in the light. Ooops, looks like I done read it wrong. It says, Fifty dollars," and as Bobby said this, he again altered the price tag with the Magic Marker.
"Fifty dollars it is."
"Fifty dollars, Bobby? What you doing telling the lady a fib like that. I done marked the price down myself. It ain't but two dollars."
"Grandpa," Bobby shouted. "You done lost your mind? This here lady has been looking all over the world for the ugliest Christmas tree on this here planet, and we got it right here. No, ma'am," Bobby said, looking back at the woman with fierce determination in his eyes. "We ain't letting you have this tree for less than a....a hundred dollars." Even Bobby was shocked by his boldness.
"Whatever. Let us make it two hundred dollars, and be done with it."
"A thousand dollars, and not a penny less."
"Name a figure and let's stick with it."
"Okay -- I'm naming it," Bobby said as he took in the diamonds that dripped from her. His face was gleaming as if he were feverish, and he felt a sudden urge of stark raving craziness come upon him. "A million dollars! A million dollars, and not a penny less!" Bobby's eyes were wild and he was panting.
There is a time that comes in the life of every man as he grows older when he realizes that he no longer understands the world around him, and this time had finally descended upon Sam. Yet no sooner had he heard the woman accept this astonishing figure than he heard his grandson raise the bidding price by another million. "Two million dollars, and not a penny less. And if I don't get the money now, I'm gonna burn the damn ugly thing!"
"You can't just burn it," the woman gasped in horror, then, at once, she tried desperately to cover up the vehement passion behind her outburst by acting as nothing was of less concern to her. "Of course, burn it... burn it. What else would you do with such an ugly tree. Burn it, by all means."
"Watch me!" Bobby said as he began to drag the world's ugliest Christmas tree toward the fire pit.
All at once, the men in the trench coats had surrounded both Bobby and the tree, and each of them was carrying a bright red fire extinguisher. "Three million dollars," Bobby said, "and not a penny less. Boy, feel how hot that fire is!"
"Four million dollars, if you give me the tree at once."
Bobby pulled the tree away from the flames that had been licking at its homely limbs. "Three million, if you tell me what you want this darn tree so darn bad for."
"Five million if you give me the tree without asking any questions."
On hearing the words "five million" grandpa fainted dead away -- though the moonshine he had been drinking all evening might have been a contributing factor. Meanwhile Bobby's eyes narrowed as he hissed, "This tree's magical, ain't it? It's got some kind of magic in it, don't it?"
"Magic?" The lady in the diamonds asked, as if she had never heard that word before and was awaiting its definition. "Who said there was anything magical about it? I didn't."
"You didn't have to. You done proved it by offering five million dollars for it. If it ain't a magic tree, then why do you want it so darn bad? Who's gonna pay five million dollars for the world's ugliest damn Christmas tree, if it ain't kinda magical. Say!"
The woman in the diamonds sighed; then, all at once, she lost her imperious demeanor. She kneeled down in a position that was virtually supplicating, and said: "I suppose I must tell you my story now, if you have the patience to listen to it."
"Well, we got two days till Christmas," Bobby said. "So you go on and fire away."
"My tale is short. It will only take two minutes to tell, not two days," the woman in diamonds snapped back. "I am normally succinct."
Bobby wasn't sure if this was good or bad, but he listened as the woman began.
"When I was child, my father was very rich man, but an even more generous one. Each year, at Christmas, he would buy all the poor families in town the most beautiful trees you can imagine. He would decorate them lavishly, and he would sneak in the middle of the night through the back doors of the worst shanties he could find, and he would set up the tree without making a noise. He become known as the Phantom Christmas Tree Giver, and, even though no one knew who he was, he knew he was loved by every man, woman, and child in three counties, all except for one little girl, who hated him with a deep and bitter passion."
"Who was she?" Bobby asked. "Don't see how nobody could hate a man who was so good to everybody."
"I was that little girl!" The woman screeched. "I hated my father because, every Christmas, after he had gone around delivering the beautiful and well-shaped Christmas trees to every low-life turnip farmer in the territory, he was always left with one tree -- one tree that was naturally the ugliest tree of them all, since he had already given all the beautiful ones away. This ugly tree he brought back home to me, to me, his only child. He did it to teach me a lesson, he said. He would set the miserable excuse for a Christmas tree up in the middle of the ball room of our mansion and he would leave it absolutely bare except for a single star that he would put on top -- a pitiful, pathetic star, that was even missing one of its points. And it was a hideous Day-Glow orange! Ugh!"
"What was the lesson he was trying to teach you?"
"That it was better to give than to receive," the woman hissed.
"Reckon it didn't work very well."
"It didn't work at all well. When I grew up, and after I inherited my immense fortune from my idiot father, I decided that each year, no matter how much it cost me, I would search the world to find the ugliest Christmas -- not the third ugliest, or even the second ugliest. No, I am perfectionist. It had to be the very ugliest Christmas tree of all."
"What do you want it for, if you hated all them ugly Christmas tree that you daddy brung you home?"
The lady stepped closer to Bobby and then she lowered herself so that her face was level with his. Her eyebrows raised slowly, and her beautiful face twisted into the most blood-curdling mask of venom and malignity that Bobby had ever seen in all his days. "I take it home, I give it a name, and I torture it day and night."
"You torture it!" Bobby gasped. "How do you torture a Christmas tree?"
"Oh my child, you cannot imagine the ways! The tree is literally torn limb from limb. Each of its needles receives particular attention. Each is twisted off slowly, ever so slowly, by the patient hands of the dozens of young Chinese orphan girls that I employ for this very purpose. Each twig, when it is removed, is beaten with mallets by my Cuban thugs hired to do this precise task. The tree is mangled, defiled, violated, coated in skunk oil and vomited on by especially trained vampire bats. It is put head first into the most noisome and revolting out-houses. It is run over by dump-trucks full of pus. And finally it is boiled in oil!" At which point, the woman began to cackle hysterically. "That is why the thought you could merely burn it filled me with such horror -- a quick death, what a waste that would have been!"
As Bobby listened, his mouth wide open, to the litany of horrors waiting in store for it, he suddenly found himself tightening his grip on the ugly old tree. "Boiled in oil?" The boy said half aloud, but the woman wasn't listening. The woman snapped her fingers. "And speaking of waste, we are wasting time in all this debate. There are only two more torturing days left till Christmas."
Obedient to her finger snap, several of the men in trench coats had surrounded Bobby and they had opened up three suitcases. One was filled with thousand dollar bills, one was filled with gold, and one was filled with diamonds. "I assume that one of these will satisfy you."
Bobby tightened his grip on the tree again, and took a couple of steps backwards.
"Okay, you bumpkin Donald Trump -- take them all. You know that you have me at a disadvantage. Time is running out."
"It ain't that, lady," Bobby said. "I mean, of course I want the money and them diamonds and things. Who wouldn't? But there's a question I got to ask you first."
"Be quick about it!"
"What name was you thinking of calling this here tree?"
"I always name them after my father. Sherman," she said with viper's hiss.
"Sherman!" Bobby exclaimed and took several more steps back. "But that's what I named it."
"Merely a coincidence. Now hand over the tree at once, and buy all the toys you have ever wanted, but which, being poor as dirt, you obviously couldn't afford, pauve enfant, like those pathetic bits of white trash that my father used to buy his beautiful Christmas trees for."
"I ain't no kind of Po' Infant, you hear," Bobby replied angrily, coming down hard on the emphasized syllable, as if it was a nut he was trying to crack with his teeth. "So don't you be calling me one. And you stop talking bout us like we was white trash or something."
"Oh I am so anxious to be done with this. Release the tree at once and let the torture commence."
Bobby felt something inside of him that he couldn't explain then, and he couldn't explain later. He was holding the ugly Christmas tree embraced in his arms, as if he would never let it go. "I ain't gonna let you have this tree to do that with. I ain't gonna let you torture...Sherman. I done named him already, and you can't let something like that happen to anything you done went and give a name to. That's why farmers don't give names to the animals they know they gotta kill one day -- Don't you know nothing?"
"I've killed five husbands, and I knew all their names, you little fool. What kind of sentimental lunatic, are you? It is only a goddam tree. Give it to me! Don't you see that I will stop at nothing!"
Bobby was beginning to suspect as much when he saw the men in the black trench coats making ominous movements toward him. "I ain't gonna let 'em take you, Sherman," Bobby whispered into the lopsided crown of the tree, then whirled away in a flash, and with Sherman under his right arm, he ran as fast as he could toward the thicket behind the Christmas tree stand, where he sped his way up the side of the mountain until he got to the top, panting for breath. The men could be heard for hours, then, toward dawn, he saw the caravan of limousines winding its way, defeated and frustrated, down the highway a stretch of which he could just glimpse through the trees.
"You're safe now, Sherman," Bobby said with deep satisfaction. "Ain't nobody goin' to boil you in no oil. Torture a Christmas tree -- how can anybody be that mean?"
Pondering this question, Bobby made his way back to the Christmas tree lot. At first he was startled to see his grandpa lying on the ground, but when he heard that old man's familiar snore he was reassured. Bobby shook his grandpa awake and he said, "Nothing like that's ever happened in my life," he blurted out breathlessly. "What you make of it? Who'd you think she was? You think she's coming back? Grandpa. You remember, don't you? Last night, all them limos, and the tallest and most beautiful and meanest woman in the world, and them suitcases full of gold and diamonds?"
Grandpa yawned and scratched his head. "Was I drinking last night?"
"Course you was. It was dark."
"Reckon that must explain it. Them crazy dreams."
"But they wasn't crazy dreams."
"They wasn't?" Grandpa said thoughtfully, then, after having meditated a moment, he resorted to his cracker-barrel philosopher tone of voice and said, "If they wasn't crazy dreams, they ought to have been." This was a statement to let Bobby know that nothing about the night before was ever going to be discussed again. "Come on, let's get back home. Your granny is gonna be fit to be tied."
When they got back to the house, however, they found that grandma was not angry at them. She was calling out, "Come inside. You ain't never seen anything like it. I woke this morning and it was standing in the parlor."
"Where'd that come from," grandpa asked when, after racing into the parlor, he saw the most beautiful Christmas tree he had ever seen, majestic and symmetrical, and laden with the most expensive and rarest ornaments in the world, including elves made out of emeralds and Faberge eggs suspended by threads of skin.
"I done told you, it was here when I woke up."
"Who brung it here?"
"Somebody who means good, but don't know how to do it right," Bobby said as he walked over the tree and stared at it with a grimace. "Only this here ain't the Christmas tree I want. We gotta take it down."
"But Bobby, that must be the most beautiful Christmas tree in the world!"
"Maybe," Bobby allowed. "But this here ugly tree is the Christmas tree I want."
Bobby dragged the magnificent tree out behind the shed, breaking one Faberge egg on the way, then went back inside and set up the forlorn and gnarled Christmas tree that he had chosen, which he proceeded to decorate with pieces of tinsel, and their old chipped and cracked ornaments. Unfortunately, they had never had a star to go on top -- stars cost too much.
As Bobby was placing the last sad and cheap ornament on the last gnarled and ugly limb, his grandma came into the room and said, "Looky here. I done bought this at a yard sale. Didn't cost but ten cents. It's missing one of them points."
Bobby stared at the object that his grandma was holding out for his inspection. It was a star that had once been painted Day-Glow orange, missing one point, just like his granny said it was. He took it from her and he carefully set it on top on the world's ugliest Christmas tree, and then he sat down, crossed his legs, and stared proudly at his creation with his chin supported by his hands. His granny sat on the sofa behind him and said, "I guess it ain't so bad...guess you can get used to anything."
"You know what, grandma," Bobby said with a profound note of self-satisfaction in his voice. "This here tree's worth five million dollars, and we got it, right here. Reckon that makes us about the richest people in Rabun County."
"We -- the richest people in Rabun County? You done lost your mind, Bobby! We's poor as dirt."
"No, we ain't," Bobby said, speaking with an authority in his voice that his grandmother had never heard before. "It ain't what you got that makes you rich," and here Bobby hesitated for a poignant moment, "It's what you got that other people want real bad."