CHRISTMAS STORY: The Magi Hangup by William Cox

The Magi Hangup by William Cox

From The New Yorker

One thousand eight hundred and seventy dollars.  That was all.  And seven hundred of it in nickels.  Nickels saved one and two at a time by spreading his sandwiches with mayonnaise that wasn’t “real,” by the purchase of Levi’s brutally stamped “seconds,” by fueling his hopped-up Yamaha with low-test regular, and by oh so many pride-deflating devices that Clarence wondered if he could ever again hold his head high in any but the shabbiest of coffeehouses.  Nine times he counted the money.  One thousand eight hundred and seventy dollars.  Not a dollar more.  And tomorrow – Christmas!

Clarence glanced over at his wife’s guitar, started to reach for it, then stopped.  Surely this was the time to sing, “The No Bread Blues.”  But just as surely this was not the time.  Playing it would not increase the one thousand eight hundred and seventy dollars by a single sou.  Now its thin notes would only add to his pain.  And this was the Christmas when Clarence had so wanted to get something special – really special – for Clarissa.  His Clarissa.  Oh, the weeks that had gone into thinking of something suitable – something truly worthy of the honor of being owned by his wife of just three months!  It had been a simple wed-in in Central Park.  Under a spreading chestnut tree – the date, September 24th; the weather, perfect.  Everything according to plan except for the untimely falling of first one soot-exhausted chestnut then another.  With unwavering resolution, he pushed the thought aside.

As he paced the floor, Clarence caught his reflection in the mirror.  He stopped and ran a comb through his hair – the magnificently full head of hair that fell just below his shoulders, rippling and shining like a waterfall of pure, luminous gold.  Glorying in the reflection, Clarence grimaced only slightly as he recalled the scene that had taken place last week between himself and the university’s beetle-browed dean.  Clarence had refused to be shorn, and the dean had retaliated by “expunging” him – that was the way he’d put it – from the senior class, “until such time as you choose to return to classes looking like a recognizably normal, well-trimmed American male.”  Now Clarence bravely turned to other matters, but not before a few tears had fallen to his sandaled feet.

Clarence’s hair, however, was but one of the two possessions in which he and his wife took fierce pride.  The other was Clarissa’s twelve-string supersonic double-cutaway guitar – perfect except for its embarrassingly bourgeois, unelectrified state.  But it would remain an embarrassment only until that time when Clarence could earn the amount needed for the crowd-exciting two-channel amp, with 90-watt peak, patented baffle, crossover network, and master control, they had seen in the window of a music supply store on St. Marks Place.  The price was two thousand dollars, federal and city taxes included.  And here it was, the day before Christmas, and Clarence had but one thousand eight hundred and seventy dollars toward Clarissa’s guitar-electrification project.  A hundred and thirty clams short!

Earlier that day, Clarence had gone to the store and promised to pay twice the amount he was short before the fifteenth of January if only the proprietor would let him take the amplifier now.  But the man knew Clarence and refused.  It was payment in full or no dice.

And then it dawned on Clarence.  Why hadn’t he thought of it before?  Hadn’t he seen an advertisement in the East Village Other for the Greater Precision Instruments Corp.?  Yes, he remembered now.  “Wanted – fine hair for use in delicate industrial instruments,” it read.

On went his Hindu bead collar.  On went his sleeveless denim vest.  On went his boots.  A bit of hair jelly on his hair, then a quick spray of Command, and Clarence was on his way.  Whistling his favorite fifteenth-century madrigal, he hurried down the street.  A light, delicate snow was transforming the parking meters into a veritable wonderland.  He quickened his stop.  The solution was so perfect for Clarissa that the sacrifice could be borne.  With short hair, he might have to return to class, but at least Clarissa would be able to play along with her records of the Screaming Ends, and that rich, happily hippy sound would not only liberate his sensibilities but might also help him with his evening studies.

Clarence stopped whistling when he came to the door of the Greater Precision Instruments factory.  He paused for a moment in the wet street, feeling the familiar, luxuriant weight on his neck and ears.  Then he took a deep breath, entered the building, and carefully shook the snow from his hair.  “Hair purchases?” he said to the receptionist in a steady voice.  “I want to sell my hair.”

The receptionist looked up, then caught her breath sharply.  “Oh, no,” she gasped.  “Not your hair.”

“It’s my wife,” said Clarence resolutely.  “Something for my wife.”

Tears came to the girl’s eyes.  “Your need must be very great,” she whispered.  “You are a brave man.”

“It is Christmas,” said Clarence simply.

The snow felt cold on Clarence’s crew-cut head, but he hardly noticed it.  The highly prized amplifier was now his, and would shortly be Clarissa’s.  Outside their pad, he silently hid the bulky parcel in the hall, then opened the door and stepped inside.  “Hi, baby!” he called.  “It’s me.”

Clarissa quickly ran some white lipstick across her lips and, still carrying the leek she was peeling, danced toward him from the sink.  But on seeing Clarence she let out a gasp and stared as if he were something she had discarded in Scarsdale.

The smile on Clarence’s face disappeared.  “Clarissa!” he said.  “Don’t look at me that way.”

Clarissa shook her head from side-to-side, as if telling herself that what she saw wasn’t true.  “They!” she cried bitterly.  “They’ve got this big authority game going, and like you sold out to them.”

“I sold my hair,” he said, “but I didn’t sell out, baby.”  He hesitated momentarily, groping for the rest of his answer.  “Like I sold it because they were buying.  And I needed the bills to get you –“

Clarissa threw the leek to the floor.  “If it was better phrased,” she shouted, “I’d call it liberal rhetoric!”  Apparently startled at the sound of her own voice, she lowered it slightly.  “But pretty soon you’ll start wearing socks.  And like the next thing, I’ll be washing them, and before long… before long you’ll end up going back to school, back where the girls are the ones with long hair.”  She began sputtering, searching for words.  “And then, then… then what’ll happen to our heightened catharsis of experience?”

Clarence envied her way with words, her uncompromising ideals.  He could see that this was not the time to reason with Clarissa.  Maybe tomorrow.  He’d think of it tomorrow – on Christmas Day.  “Let’s wish each other a merry Christmas,” he said softly.  “A very merry Christmas.”  It was a little like Tiny Tim’s speech, and Clarence hoped it would work in an apartment full of posters of the Grateful Dead.  Remembering the beautiful amplifier, he went to the hall and retrieved the parcel.  In a moment he had it open.  The chrome, glistening like Christmas-tree lights, reflected her tear-filled eyes.

Clarissa smiled briefly, but then the smile vanished.  “I sold it,” she said.  “Like just this afternoon I sold it.  Sold it so you could get a tutor and graduate with your hair on.  But now you don’t need a tutor, and you don’t need me.”

Clarence put his arms around his sobbing wife.  “I don’t want no tutor,” he said.  “But I do want you.  And we can take that money and buy back your guitar.”

Take the money and buy back your hair!” shouted Clarissa as she pushed Clarence away and ran to the window.  Sullenly, she stared out at the snow, which was now falling more heavily.

Clarence joined her at the window, but the arm he tried to put around her shoulder was quickly brushed away.  He glanced across the street at the snow-laden Psychedelicatessen sign, then down at the wet pavement below.  “It’s turning to slush,” he said.  “Everything’s turning to slush.”


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