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The Christmas Card

A short story by Jason Starr

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It was definitely not the type of card you would buy in a package of twenty at Woolworth’s. The way it was printed, with gold lettering over the grooved black background, it looked like it could have been a wedding invitation or an engagement announcement. Outside was an imprint of a Christmas tree, inside a printed message, “Our Best Wishes For A Merry Christmas And A Wonderful New Year.” Then, at the bottom, hand-written with a gold felt tip pen, “Love Always, Jennifer and Paul.”

“It had to be a mistake,” Larry Wong, the accountant who worked in the office across from me said. “There’s probably another Doug Holt in Manhattan and Jennifer and Paul must’ve gotten your name out of the phone book and confused you with this other guy.”

“But I’m not even listed in the Manhattan book,” I said. “Besides, the card was forwarded to me, from my old address in New Jersey.”

“So they must be people you once knew,” Larry said.

“But I have never, in my entire life, known anyone named Jennifer or anyone named Paul. Well, that’s not really true. I have a second cousin Paul who lives in San Francisco, but he’s married to a woman named Simone. This card was sent from Manhattan, a Third Avenue address.”

“You mean there was a return address on the card?” Larry said. “Then what’s the big deal? Why don’t you just go there?”

“I did. I mean I was on the East Side anyway the other day so I passed by. But it was a doorman building. I was going to ask the guy to ring them, but I was too embarrassed.”

“Look, I’m sure there’s some logical explanation,” Larry said. “If I were you, I’d just forget about it.”

During the next few days, I discussed the card with almost everyone at work. It made for interesting conversation in the men’s room or at the water cooler. Usually, when people asked me how things were going I’d say “okay” or “the usual,” but now I had the story of the mysterious Christmas card to tell.

Finally, I had told everyone I knew the story and even to myself it didn’t seem interesting anymore. It was less than a week before Christmas and things at the office were getting crazy. What with the purchase orders coming in and the shipments going out I was swamped almost constantly. That entire week, I didn’t get out of work until eight o’clock, and by the time I got back to my studio apartment on West Eighty-third Street, I didn’t have the strength to do anything except stretch out on the couch, watch movies and eat Chinese food.

Then, one night when there was nothing interesting on t.v., I started staring at the Christmas card, which I had displayed on my kitchen table. It was the only card I had gotten. My mother had died four years ago and my father had had a stroke a year ago last Easter. Now he was living in a nursing home where he was force-fed meals and moved twice a day to avoid bed sores. I had no brothers or sisters. Barbara, my girlfriend of five years, had broken up with me last summer and I hadn’t dated anyone since. Although I still had a few friends from high school and college, I rarely saw them anymore.

That night–it was a Friday–I had trouble falling asleep. I lay in bed, replaying each year of my life, trying to figure out how I knew “Jennifer” or “Paul.” I tried to remember every kid in Wayne, New Jersey, from high school through kindergarten. I even thought about all my extra-curricular activities–boy scouts, little league, day camp. Then I thought about college–the people in my dorm, the classes I had taken–but Jennifer and Paul fit in nowhere.

On Sunday, I went to visit my father at the nursing home. I took a New Jersey Transit train from Penn Station to New Brunswick. From there, it was a five minute cab ride to All Homes Nursing Care.

After the stroke, I had visited my father at the hospital practically every day. But after he was transferred to the nursing home my visits became more infrequent. Lately, I’d been going once a month or every other month. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy seeing him; I just didn’t think the visits were accomplishing anything. He had become more and more despondent. The doctors thought he had suffered a series of “minor strokes”–as if a stroke could be minor–and sometimes I wondered whether he even recognized me. He couldn’t–or wouldn’t–speak, so I usually would sit by his bed for a half-hour or so and talk about the weather or things that were going on at the office, and then I’d go home. He never seemed to mind when I left.

When I arrived in his room that day, the nurse was busy changing his bed pan. It still jolted me to see my father, the man who had always seemed indestructible to me, in such a weak, vulnerable condition. I still remembered him as the dad of when I was growing up, with his long sideburns and dark good looks, water skiing or swimming at the beach. I wondered which dad I would remember after he was dead, when the bed pan was also a memory.

I sat down next to him. As usual, he stared at me vacantly for a few seconds, as if his mind was trying to unravel some complicated problem. Then he looked away at the television set, which wasn’t even on.

I started telling him about the Christmas card. I told him how the card had arrived in my mailbox and how I had no idea who Jennifer and Paul were. At one point, he turned toward me, opening his sagging mouth, as if he was about to offer some suggestion. But then his gaze shifted back toward the blank t.v. screen. I stayed with him for a while longer, then left after he fell asleep.

Monday was the office Christmas party. Every year the party was held at the exact same time, at the same hotel, with the same people, the same band, and the same caterer. It even seemed like the same seafood Newburg and baked ziti were frozen and re-heated year after year.

I was still upset about the visit with my father and was hardly in the mood for a party, but I felt I had no choice but to go. If I didn’t show up and someone happened to notice I was missing, it wouldn’t look good. I figured I’d go for an hour or two, show my face, then leave.

When I arrived at about eight-thirty, the annual pigs and blankets and miniature egg rolls were still being served. I made a point of saying hello to all the VPs and their wives and then I parked myself at the bar. I realized I was the only one at the party without a date. I had known that this might happen, but I hadn’t anticipated how awkward I would feel. To keep busy, I had a couple of drinks, tried to think about other things. As I finished my third Bloody Mary, I suddenly started feeling insecure, paranoid– sweat was building on my back. I imagined that everyone was talking about me, wondering why I didn’t have a date. A few people passed by, smiling in my direction, and I was positive that they were making fun of me–my tuxedo was too tight or my hair wasn’t combed. I turned toward the bar and tried to ignore everyone.

Then I started thinking about last Christmas, when things had been so different. Barbara and I were still together then and we were even talking about getting engaged. We stayed at the party the entire night, dancing and mingling and getting drunk. The next morning, we drove a rental car to her parents’ house in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania. The memories had become so hazy, it seemed as if ten years had passed rather than one. Was it a dream? I could barely remember Barbara’s face, her hair, what her smile looked like.

People had started to dance. I tried to imagine that Barbara and I were dancing too, but I couldn’t make it seem real.

After the break up, I’d called her every week or so, mainly because I didn’t feel comfortable cutting off from her completely. We had a few cordial conversations and I even had hopes for us getting back together. Once, she told me that she thought I was getting too clingy and that she wasn’t sure she wanted to stay friends with me. I didn’t take her seriously. Then I called her late one night–the last time I’d heard her voice–and she said that she couldn’t talk right now, that she had to go. Although I had no way of knowing for sure, I was certain that she had started seeing someone else, and that he was at her apartment. At the time this didn’t upset me, but now, suddenly, I was jealous.

I didn’t feel like being at the party anymore. Outside, on Forty-fourth Street, I felt a little better. I decided that I needed to get home, take a nice warm shower, get into bed. But after I had been walking for several minutes, I realized that I wasn’t heading toward my apartment on the West Side. Instead, I was walking east, crossing Park Avenue at Forty-second Street.

I walked fast, determinedly, hardly aware of the hoards of Christmas shoppers I was barely avoiding. I didn’t want to think about anything, because I didn’t want to talk myself out of going. I knew that I could be about to make a big fool out of myself and I didn’t want to turn back.

The building was a large high-rise near East Sixty-fifth Street. I went through the swinging doors and approached the concierge.

“Apartment 17G,” I said.


“Doug Holt. But I don’t want to go up. Just ask whoever picks up to please come down and meet me.”

The concierge had the tired, unimpressed look of a man who has been at his job too long. He rang twice and waited so long that I was certain no one was home. For a moment, I felt relieved, as if I had barely avoided doing something stupid. But just when I was about to tell the concierge to forget it, he started to speak. A few seconds later, he lifted the mouth piece.

“She said she doesn’t know you.”

“Tell her she sent me a Christmas card,” I said.

The concierge relayed this, but by his unchanging expression I knew that my name still didn’t mean anything to her.

“Tell her I just want to talk to her,” I said. “Tell her I don’t know who she is either, but she sent me a Christmas card.”

The concierge had hung up the receiver.

“She said she’ll be right down.”

I stood by the desk, waiting. Every time the elevator doors opened, I expected to see a familiar face, the answer to the puzzle. When she didn’t come after about five minutes I decided to sit down on one of the couches. I realized that it wasn’t too late, that I could still make a run for it. No one ever had to know I was here. But I decided to stay.

Finally, a woman stepped out of the elevator whom I immediately knew was Jennifer. Not that she looked at all familiar to me, because I didn’t think I had seen her before in my life. Her long brown hair was wet and she was wearing jeans and a baggy sweatshirt. She looked about thirty. At first, she walked toward the concierge’s desk, but she stopped when she saw me. She didn’t seem to recognize me either. I realized that if I wasn’t wearing a tuxedo, she probably would have approached me more suspiciously, as she would a stranger on the street.

I didn’t know what else to do so I stood up smiling and introduced myself. She winced slightly and I realized that my breath must have smelled of alcohol.

“Hi,” she said cautiously. “Do we know each other?”

“I don’t know you,” I said, “but I think you know me.”

I explained how I had received a Christmas card from her and Paul, whom she said was her husband. At times when I was speaking she seemed genuinely interested in helping me solve the mystery, but at other times I felt she was sizing me up, wondering if I might be some lunatic or drunk who had found one of their cards in the garbage. Again, I realized how fortunate it was that I was wearing the tuxedo.

“There must be some explanation,” she said. “You must know Paul from somewhere.”

“What’s his last name?”

“Our last name–Ellis.”

I shook my head.

“Doesn’t ring a bell.”

She told me all about him–that he worked at an ad agency, went to school at SUNY-Albany, grew up on Huntington, Long Island. Nothing about his life was similar to mine. Even his description–six-two, dark hair, blue eyes–didn’t ring a bell. She was starting to become as intrigued as I was.

“This is really weird,” she said. “Let’s think. The connection has to be somewhere.”

“Maybe it’s you and me who know each other,” I said.

She thought this over.

“But how could that be?” she said. “I mean I honestly have no idea who you are and you don’t know me, right?”

“How many cards did you send out?”

“God,” she said, “like a hundred or more. Paul really likes to go crazy, sending them to all his friends and relatives, so I usually do the same thing.”

“There it is,” I said. “Maybe you’re my long lost cousin.”

She didn’t seem convinced, but she told me all about herself anyway. She was a Vassar graduate, raised in Westchester, working as a financial analyst. Then she asked me about myself and I gave her a brief autobiography. It turned out that her best friend in high school had gone to Rutgers and had dated a guy who lived in my dorm Freshman year. We traded “Lisa McGuiness stories” for several minutes and at one point I forgot that I was talking to someone who could be a total stranger. I felt as if I had known her my entire life and I imagined what it would be like if she and Paul did turn out to be long lost friends. She was very attractive and I hadn’t found it so easy to talk to a woman since Barbara. Of course I didn’t dream of getting involved with her, but maybe she had single friends, knew someone she could set me up with. She had mentioned that she and Paul usually rent a house in Westhampton for the summer and I imagined what it would be like if I were invited up there for a weekend next summer. Or perhaps by then I’d be dating one of Jennifer’s friends and the four of us would share a house. It had been a long time since I’d been to the beach.

I was still daydreaming about next summer when Paul walked into the lobby. He greeted Jennifer uncomfortably, kissing her quickly and exchanging hellos, but he was obviously wondering who the guy in the tuxedo was. Paul was wearing a business suit and carrying a briefcase and, although he looked vaguely familiar, I still didn’t think I had ever met him.

Jennifer explained who I was and why I was there.

“This is strange, isn’t it?” he said. “Doug Holt. Your name’s familiar, so I know I sent a card to you on purpose.”

We went through the same routine, comparing every phase of our lives. The longer I looked at him the more certain I was that we had indeed met before. I imagined what he’d look like with a mustache or a beard, but this didn’t make things any clearer.

But when I mentioned that I had gone to Rutgers his expression suddenly brightened.

“Barbara Purcell!”

Hearing that name, that combination of sounds, startled me, made me feel nauseous. Now he looked even more familiar to me, but I still wasn’t sure how I knew him.

“You’re Barbara’s boyfriend, right?”

“Was,” I said.

“Oh, didn’t know you guys…Anyway, this is all very simple. Don’t you remember me? Two years ago, that party in Hackensack? I’m Carol Ellis’ brother. You know, Carol Ellis, Barbara’s best friend. We met at that party and we talked about the six of us getting together–you and Barbara, me and Jen, Carol and her husband. You gave me your home address and phone number and when I got home I transferred it into the address file on my PC. I automatically put everyone in the file on my Christmas list so that explains how you got the card. It was just some big screw up.”

I smiled during his explanation, pretending to be relieved that the mystery was solved. I continued to smile politely–although this was getting more difficult–as I answered his obligatory questions- -“So, how are things going? Do you still live in New Jersey?” Then, when he ran out of questions, there was a long, painful silence. I didn’t belong there any more, talking to these two strangers. It was the mystery that had brought me to their apartment building, and now that the mystery was solved I was an intruder, an annoyance.

Walking home across Central Park, I decided that this had probably been the most pathetic day of my life. I imagined Paul calling Barbara and telling her what had happened. He would tell her that I had seemed drunk and depressed and how it was a good thing she had gotten rid of me. In my head, I could hear Barbara laughing.

When I got home, I wanted to tear the card into shreds and throw it in the garbage. Instead, I fell asleep and I forgot about it again the next day. It stayed on my kitchen table through Christmas and New Year’s and most of January. Finally, it became a permanent part of my apartment, as familiar as my bed and my t.v. I put it in my dresser drawer, under my socks and underwear, where it’s been ever since.

Copyright © Jason Starr 1996

This story may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of The Christmas Card is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author.

Jason Starr was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1966. He received a B.A. degree from Binghamton University and an M.F.A. degree from the City University of New York. His sports articles have appeared in Financial World Magazine. He lives in New York City. Jason Starr’s crime novel Cold Caller is published by No Exit Press.


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