One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies snitched one and two at a time from "Need a Penny" trays, seat cushions or by scaring little children as they walked out of the Seven-Eleven. Three times I counted it. Three times I laid my money on the sticky bartop at the Arvada Tavern and sorted it. It was after midnight, my eyes were bleary and my head was cloudy from drink. And in less than twenty-four hours it would be Christmas.

There was clearly nothing left to do but slump even lower on my bar stool and whimper. So I did. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles and smiles, with sniffles predominating. It also draws Worm's attention away from the billiards table. Someone crying, be he man or woman, draws the hunched over little man's attention like a fly to horseshit. He wants to share the misery, wants to take a part of your sadness if you'll take a part of his. A lousy, lopsided deal if ever there were one.

While I sniffled silently and unstuck one dollar and fifty cents in a mix of American and Canadian currency to trade for another Budweiser draft, Worm sat down and sized me up. He looked at my tattered sneakers and my torn pants, one of the few pairs I own that can bear up to the winter winds. He looked me up and down, not as "Doctor" which I had taken to demanding they call me back in my better days, when I had a job and impressed them with a degree I had bought online for twenty-five dollars. They played along because I bought the beer and fed the jukebox slick new dollar bills. Now, the doctor moniker was only used in mockery, usually slurred as part of an offer to kick my ass that would force me to put up, shut up, or make up an excuse about needing to be home before I ran to the door calling everyone pussies.

I shuddered as Worm put his bony arm around my shoulder, leaned his crank-ravaged face in and grunted, "What's wrong? Tell Worm. Come on, man, we're family here."

"Tomorrow is Christmas," I said between sobs, "and all I have to buy my wife a present is one dollar and eighty-seven cents, minus a dollar fifty. So that makes, seven plus eight minus five a dollar. No, less," I started counting.

"Thirty-seven cents," Worm answered. He was very good with numbers, sharp because he always kept the shuffleboard scores.

Hearing the paltry sum aloud broke my spirit. After spending so many weeks of thinking about saving money, this is all I had gathered. It hardly made thinking about doing something worthwhile. For the previous weeks, I had spent many happy hours laying in bed long after my wife had gone off to work, planning the wonderful gift I would buy her for Christmas. Back when I had more money than I knew what to do with, I bought Mrs. Filthy the classiest thing I could afford every year: "spirit art" collector plates from the Franklin Mint. One new masterpiece every year. These beautiful heirlooms are limited-edition, gilded dinner plates for displaying, not eating. They feature windswept American Indians doing Indian shit before a backdrop of majestic mountains and thick forests. If you look deeply, though, you can see the faces of wolves and mountains lions and badgers etched in the crags of the rocks and the boughs of the trees. The plate is real art, the kind that makes you think about how we fucked the land and the Indians and now all we can do to say we're sorry is buy plates. This year I planned to buy the final plate in the set and it was surely the best, a plate so majestic I could think of nothing that better expressed my profound and unconditional love for my wife. It was the plate where you could totally see the squaw's tits.

Of course, the plate cost more than thirty-seven cents, more even than one dollar and eighty-seven cents.

With the alcohol in my system drawing out my true emotions, I explained my predicament to Worm, and he listened sympathetically. As I fought back tears, I told him how I had wanted to save money, how I had made plans to buy the plate, but now, due to circumstances beyond my control, I could not give Mrs. Filthy the gift she deserved. Worm nodded and patted my back.

"That's rough," he gravely acknowledged. "Tough times. I've got problems too."

I wheeled to face him and snapped, "Who asked about you?" Then softly, sobbing again, "We were talking about me."

"Okay, okay, man," he said as he took his claw off my shoulder. ""I've seen that dish."

"You have?"

"Yeah, I know exactly what it looks like. That antique place on Grandview's got it in the window for fifty bucks. That squaw's got a rack."

Grandview Street! So close to where I sat, and yet the cost made it so distant. Fifty dollars! Where would I find that sort of money? But I had to have it. I needed that plate not only to complete the collection, but as the symbol of the depth of my love. I was filled with hope at one level, because I knew where to find it. Deeper within me, though, I was filled with dread because I knew it was out of my reach.

Unless I sacrificed. It occurred to me that the spirit of giving is not just in the gift, but in what it requires to give it. I could barter something I value in order to buy it. What did I have that was worth fifty dollars? What did I own that others admired and wished for themselves? Quickly, I turned to Worm.

"Will you buy my hair?" I asked.

""Whaaaat the fuck?" he stretched the "what" out over thirty seconds.

I ran a hand over my sumptuous light-brown hair and tossed my head to let the light from the Coors sign bounce off it as it cascaded down over my ears and temples. I asked again, "I've always seen you admiring my full, lustrous head of hair. Will you buy it for fifty dollars?"

Worm snickered through clenched teeth. "Whatever you're smoking, I want some too." He pinched his fingers, touched them to his lips.

"I am offering you my hair," I pleaded. "It is all I can offer. I tend it carefully. It delights children. To be without my hair would be a hardship for me."

"You can grow more."

"You can have that, too!"

"I don't want your hair," he growled. Then Worm lowered his eyelids and pulled me in conspiratorially. He whispered, "You want to make a quick fifty bucks?"

"I need to."

"Okay then," Worm stood and hitched up his Wranglers by tugging on his brass belt buckle. "Follow me and I'll show you a little trick my brother pulled at the It'll Do Lounge the other night."

Worm led me out onto the sidewalk. It was a black, cloudless night. The only light came from the drooping Christmas lights in the Tavern's window. As such winter nights are, it was cold as shit. I had no jacket and was immediately chilled to the bone. I rubbed my hands to warm them.

Worm pointed to a spot on the walk. "Stand right there. I'll be right back."

I got a bad feeling as Worm disappeared into the Tavern. I had been through this twice before. Once they sent me out here, called the cops and told them there was a flasher outside. Ha ha, very funny. The other time, on a similar night last winter, the Harelip returned with a bucket of ice water and dumped it on me. Then they locked the doors. This is why I was filled with so much trepidation when Worm returned carrying a bucket.

"Don't move," he said, and despite my misgivings, I didn't. I was that desperate for the money. He poured the bucket of water onto the concrete before me.

"Oh, great plan," I chattered through my teeth. "Look at me! I'm a fucking millionaire!"

Worm just smiled. "Patience. We wait for the water to freeze, and then you slip on it. You fake like you hurt yourself, and then threaten a lawsuit if Sue doesn't give you fifty bucks."

Suddenly, I forgot that my nuts had crawled back up into my body cavity and that my ears felt as brittle as the glass ornaments we had been knocking off the Tavern's tree with peanuts all night. My gloom lifted and I saw a Merry Christmas in my future. Worm was a shrewd man, all right. There's a reason they call him Worm.

Worm jabbed his thumb at the Tavern. "I got to go back inside to take a leak. Fuck, it's freezing out here. This shouldn't take long." He opened the door and a billow of warm, smoky air hit me before it closed behind him.

I was alone, dreaming of the joy in Mrs. Filthy's eyes as she unwrapped the squaw-boobies plate. I was freezing to death, but could imagine the warmth that would envelope me on Christmas morning. I looked at my reflection in the Tavern window. I suppose I should have been ashamed at the depths I was stooping to. What would my wife think? Would she still love me if she knew I had faked injury to profit from the only pub in town that still had not altered its written rules to address my behavior?

But what could I have done with one dollar and eighty-seven cents? To save up more requires forethought, planning and dedication, all vices I refuse to rely on. No, it was better to earn her Christmas present this way.

The water had turned to ice, and I stepped onto it.

The next thing I remember it was morning and I was in a strange bed, under a doctor's supervision, my leg in a cast and a bandage drooping over my eyebrow. My wife stood by my side, dabbing at my forehead.

Under one arm, she held a small jar stuffed with coins and dollar bills. On the side, I recognized Sue's writing from all the signs in the Tavern about whose checks they don't accept. The jar read "Get well, Filthy." Under her other arm, my wife held a package done up prettily with ribbon and a bow.

"What in the world did you do?" Her sweet face--her angelic face--surrounded by a choir of hot curlers leaned over and I could feel her warm breath on my cheek. "Mercy, it's going to be like having a baby around with you in a cast."

"How much is in the jar?"

My sweet wife pulled the jar away like a running back tucking in for the goal-line dive. "You're not getting this. This goes to the doctors. Do you have any idea how much this is going to cost us?"

"Be good to me," I pleaded, "for what I did I did for you. Maybe I was less worthless when I could walk, but nobody can say my love for you is worthless."

I told her of my despair at having no money, how Worm and I schemed to cheat the Tavern out of fifty dollars. All the while, Mrs. Filthy tsked-tsked me, but she wasn't truly angry. I could tell because of the sparkle in her eye, and also because when she is genuinely mad she tends to yell at me.

"And now that we have the jar, I can buy you the gift I intended."

"You can't have the jar," she said flatly.

"But, my love, that is what I earned. I slipped and fell on that ice because I could not live through Christmas without giving you a present. My leg will heal, and you don't mind taking care of me, do you? I just had to do it. Say 'Merry Christmas," honey, and let's be happy. You don't know what a wonderful, grand gift I have planned for you."

"What is it this year?"

"I will show you later. You're going to shit your pants," I said, but she still held the jar tightly.

"You're mad at me," I said softly, as much a question as a statement.

My wife drew the package she had been holding and threw it on my stomach.

"No, no, yes, a little," she said. "Make no mistake, I realize that you're still my husband, and I guess I should expect this sort of thing by now. No amount of broken bones or bruised brain tissue will change you. But, you might as well unwrap this now."

Eagerly, I tore into the packaging despite my wife's pleading that I save the paper. I flung the bow aside and withdrew a pair of trousers with a removable wool-lining for the nights I am too drunk to drive home from the Tavern. These were the most beautiful pants I had ever seen. The cloth was denim the color of the tropical sea and soft as butter cream. They were expensive pants; new and with the whole brand tag on the ass. These were not bought in the outlet, as "irregulars" or snitched from the St. Vincent DePaul box.

Mrs. Filthy said as a way of justifying the extravagance, "I got sick of you walking around in your underwear all day."

I laughed because as beautiful as they were, I couldn't wear them over my cast. Despite her best intentions, I'd still be strutting around the apartment like a peacock, letting it all hang out.

"Promise that when you're better you'll wear these whenever you go outside, even just to get the paper," she said as she proudly watched me finger the material.

"You want to know what I'm getting you? You know the plates I buy every year? The ones we always say are something we can hand down to our children some day as our legacy?"

She cringed a little and said she warily, "Yeah." I imagined she cringed because the magnitude of my generosity was becoming apparent.

"I'm getting you the last one, the most beautiful one in the set."

She said nothing, but I could feel my joy filling the room as I spoke.

"You know the plate, right? The one with the, well, as the Indians call them, ta-tas. Isn't it dandy, honey? I know exactly where I can buy it, right here in Arvada. You'll have to have your book club over because I want everyone to know how classy you are. I want people to see what I have always known; that you've got class out the ass."

Mrs. Filthy took my pants and began neatly folding them. "Let's put your present away until your leg heals because spring is coming, and then you're really going to want to go outside with no pants on."

"What about the plate? Isn't that better than paying the doctors?"

She continued to fold the pants into smaller and smaller sections, and finally said, "I sold the plates to get the money for your pants."

I sat up in the bed, but was overcome with emotion before I could speak. I simply watched my wonderful, giving wife as my eyes filled with tears, so much so that she looked like she was underwater.

"Are you going to eat your Jell-o?" she asked, pointing at my breakfast tray.

Worm, as you know, was a wise man--a wonderfully wise man--who once brought the meat of an elk he shot into the Tavern and shared it with us all. He didn't invent gift-giving, but he understood it better than me. Being wise, he knew that I would slip and fall on the ice, that I would break my leg and be laid up in traction for two days. And here I tell you my story and how it was touched by Worm. Through his scheming and his conniving, Mrs. Filthy and I were gifted by his wisdom and enveloped by his grand design. That day, we too were Worm.

The End

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