Merry Yule! On this darkest day of the year, have a heartwarming story to banish the doldrums. The Gift of the Magi, by O. Henry.
But wait. There’s something you should know. I couldn’t just give you this tale of plucky determination in the Xmas season without a little…flavor. Sure, you can read the Project Gutenberg text on numerous sites around the web. But you can’t read this version anywhere but here. Deal is this: the story is in its entirety, but the words in parentheses, in a seasonal hue of evergreen, are ECro’s.
What does ECro think of the poverty-stricken couple taxed with finding the perfect gift for one another on a very literal dime? How about the sexism of 1905 fiction? The on-the-nose spots? The O. Henry wink of “wait for it…wait for it?”
Well, I don’t want to spoil your holiday present. Read on!
The Gift of the Magi
By O. Henry (and ECro)
One dollar and eighty-seven cents. (Now I want a taco. That could pay for a taco.) That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man (He’s made of broccoli rabe and the white parts of romaine lettuce.) and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. (Um, so this is sex act, right? I think I’d have to make more than a few pennies in order to “bulldoze” my vegetable man.) Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty- seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas. (The day she would discover the burning in her cheeks was syphilis.)
There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating. (We’re all going to die.)
While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. (I didn’t know women had stages. Shit, which stage am I in?) A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad. (This narrator is a bit of a judgmental poop. I envision him saying this with pipe in mouth, brandy in hand, and a maid’s head bobbing between his legs. Dick.)
In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto (A fine example of O. Henry diction masturbation.) was a card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.”
The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. (They made more than me in 2015 back in 1905.) Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. (They still made more than me.) But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good. (Jim ain’t gonna like this syphilis development.)
Della finished her cry (Because it gets the sad out. But not venereal disease.) and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. (Effectively turning her into a chalky-skinned clown. Which was the look back in the day.) She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. (Also, the window was gray because of the soot of industrialization, along with her lungs. And her soul.) Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. (Get him the carnitas. No, picadillo. He’s def a picadillo man.) She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn’t go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling–something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim. (Does it have to be good enough to be inside Jim? Because, seriously, that taco.)
There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room. (It’s a mirror. Appertaining thereunto pier-glass.) Perhaps you have seen a pier-glass in an $8 flat. (I have not, sir. But I have seen a mirror that costs $8. The coke on it was significantly more expensive.) A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.
Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.
Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim’s gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s. The other was Della’s hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy. (Whoa, trigger. We get it. Special hair, special watch.)
So now Della’s beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. (I don’t ever look at brown water and think, that’s some nice looking water. Now I just think of her with shit hair. Della “Shit Hair” Dillingham Young.) It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. (It’s her Sunday best.) And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet. (Della doesn’t cry everyday, but when she does, it’s approximately seven thousand times in twenty-four hours.)
On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. (Both had been subjected to the brown waters.) With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street.
Where she stopped the sign read: “Mne. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds.” One flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white (racist), chilly, hardly looked the “Sofronie.”
Brunette Combing Her Hair by James Carroll Beckwith. Public Domain image.
“Will you buy my hair?” asked Della.
“I buy hair,” said Madame. “Take yer hat off and let’s have a sight at the looks of it.”
Down rippled the brown cascade. (Egads, the brown waters end in a brown waterfall.)
“Twenty dollars,” said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.
“Give it to me quick,” said Della. (That’s what she said. No really. As evidenced by the quotations. See, in modern writing, the quotations signify a direct, spoken set of words from a character. Thus, that’s what she said.)
Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. (That was the acid she took.) Forget the hashed metaphor. (Where’s your highfalutin vocab now, O. Henry?) She was ransacking the stores for Jim’s present.
She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. (Tacos are for everyone.) There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation–as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim’s. It was like him. Quietness and value–the description applied to both. (Jim was also metallic and destined to be chained to something which needed constant attention and winding.) Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 87 cents. (Girl, we could have had so many tacos. If you go discount taco, we might be able to get one in his belly. Is it a Tuesday in this story? Taco Tuesday somewhere in the hood?) With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.
When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends–a mammoth task. (A woolly elephantine task.)
Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. (So Jim is into little boys. Does all his money go toward Cracker Jacks divvied out by the backstop?) She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.
“If Jim doesn’t kill me,” she said to herself, “before he takes a second look at me, he’ll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do–oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty- seven cents?” (And if Jim kills you, can I have that 87 cents? It’s Tuesday where I am.)
At 7 o’clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.
Jim was never late. (His periods were every 28 days.) Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. (With his interest in boys, I’d think he’d prefer the backdoor.) Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. (But not too white, thankfully.) She had a habit for saying little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: “Please God, make him think I am still pretty.” (And God spake thus: Hooker, please.)
The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two–and to be burdened with a family! (Oh shit. Della went out and forgot about the baby again. Oh well. Let’s hose down the crib and start on another one.) He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.
Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. (His nose was very keen, unfazed by the odor of brown waters.) His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. (It’s the expression of murder. Taco, here I come.) It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.
Della wriggled off the table and went for him. (With the hot pan. It was self-defense, copper. He woulda kilt me. I didn’t look young and boyish enough.)
“Jim, darling,” she cried, “don’t look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn’t have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It’ll grow out again–you won’t mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say `Merry Christmas!’ Jim, and let’s be happy. You don’t know what a nice– what a beautiful, nice gift I’ve got for you.”
“You’ve cut off your hair?” asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor. (I told you he was made of metal.)
“Cut it off and sold it,” said Della. “Don’t you like me just as well, anyhow? I’m me without my hair, ain’t I?” (No. Now you are Sapphic Della. Jim isn’t into women. I need you to understand this, Della. We talked about it over chops last Thursday.)
Jim looked about the room curiously.
“You say your hair is gone?” he said, with an air almost of idiocy. (Ha. Almost.)
“You needn’t look for it,” said Della. “It’s sold, I tell you–sold and gone, too. It’s Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered,” she went on with sudden serious sweetness, “but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?”
Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. (And then unhinged his metallic jaw and swallowed her whole. Digestion takes two to four weeks so Jim will be slow for awhile. Don’t ask him to participate in any sack races.) For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. (What’s happening, O. Henry? Look where? Behind me? I’m scared.) Eight dollars a week or a million a year–what is the difference? ($999,992.) A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. (I’m in the wit category. Math is hard.) The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on. (Why are you telling me this? Let me be surprised. Do you have to take everything from me, narrator? First it was my childhood pet, Scrappers. Then my maid. And my pipe and brandy. And we haven’t discussed the tacos yet. Dick.)
Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table. (*splat*)
“Don’t make any mistake, Dell,” he said, “about me. I don’t think there’s anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you’ll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first.”
White (once again, not too white…) fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat. (Della cry number 5,689 for the day. But, she is a woman. The lord of the flat, however, is an emotionless, metallic snake. Cry on him, Della, and rust the chinks in his whip-like body. Be free. Pick me up a taco while you’re out.)
For there lay The Combs (Much like The Watch and The Brown Waters and The Air of Idiocy.)–the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims–just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.
But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: “My hair grows so fast, Jim!” (Della means the hair around her nipples. That’s why she presses them to her chest.)
And them Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, “Oh, oh!” (5,690.)
Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit. (She’s seeing his hand glint. Because it’s metal. You should all know this by now.)
“Isn’t it a dandy, Jim? (Or is it Jim Dandy? Bah dum.) I hunted all over town to find it. (There aren’t as many feral cats on the street anymore, Jim darling.) You’ll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it.”
Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled. (Women can’t give commands. Especially to Jim the Metallic One.)
“Dell,” said he, “let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep ’em a while. They’re too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on.”
(Cue Della crying enough times to hit that seven thousand mark.)
The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. (What the fuck is happening? What happened to Jim and Della? Where are we? Are we supposed to be looking behind us again?) They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related (You said it, not me.) to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. (Ha, their love is dumb.) But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi. (They are Jim the Metallic One and Della the Syphilitic Taco Tease.)
Want to read the original without my ideas marring this fine and wholesome tale? Then get thee to Project Gutenberg’s website.
May the holidays treat you well. I hope you don’t cut off all your hair or sell a family heirloom. But at least there will be chops. And Maggi, which is a brand of condiments popular outside the states. Happy Darkest Day. Merry Christmas. May all your gifts involve sacrifice from another person.
Good tidings of ECro. No comfort. No joy. I’m humming right now.
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