1990 small town Walmart, the Christmas decorations had been out for a few weeks. (So, probably September.) I picked up one of the little artificial trees and looked it over.
It was about 18 inches tall with an X-shaped foot. The center trunk was a twist of two heavy gauge wires and its branches were smaller wire twists containing dark green and light brown plastic “needles”. The entire shelf’s worth of wee trees were compacted, the branches crushed up against their trunks. They had been shelved straight from the shipping container.
I looked over the tree in my hand and began loosening the branches. Starting at the bottom, I arranged them with some care until the tree looked sprightly and almost genuine. I set the little guy back on the shelf and admired my work. I wondered why no store clerk had done this for a display.
But I didn’t need a little tree, so I turned to leave. At the end of the aisle, an older woman stared at me, agape.
Her open mouth lived among soft, white, crepey skin, below a pointed nose and oversized tortoiseshell glasses. Her hair was white, unkempt curls with a flat spot in the back. She wore an acrylic sweater and jean slacks, similar to the pants I am wearing today. She leaned forward slightly. Her eyes darted back and forth from me to the little tree.
“Weird”, I thought, and moved on with my shopping.
I moved towards the row of cashier stands about half an hour later. The woman who had stared at me was sitting on a bench to the side of the exit doors. She had an extremely smug smile on her upturned face, upper teeth exposed and eyes half-lidded.
In one hand, she held the little tree I had arranged, and she flopped it from side to side over her knees. When she saw me, she froze solid, mouth open again in alarm.
I stared at her for a second or two, mystified. The tree was partly crushed again from her repeated flopping. She had nothing else with her.
She watched me, still frozen in place except her eyes and a slight movement of her head, as I moved thru the line and made my purchases. I glanced back once more as I walked out the door to see her still staring at me and her body beginning to thaw.
Small town life offers little entertainment. I guess she hoped to create her own little drama. I hope I failed her.