Under the Christmas tree,
You will see,
The prettiest gift
To you from me.
All tied up
With a bow
All tied up,
Is what I said.
Just give the bow
A gentle tug,
And watch your gift
Onto the rug.
And no more
All your dreams
Just came true.
"O, Christmas Tree!"
Christmas music played from a loudspeaker from the Christmas tree lot on the corner as Johnny watched the toy train chug along the tracks around the tree in the department store display window. Silver tinsel glittered on the branches and huge, shiny, round ornaments of red, blue, green, and yellow decorated the tree. A multicolored star topped the tree.
Gaily-painted Nutcrackers and wooden soldiers were arranged along the sides and under the tree; a china doll with big, blue eyes and golden hair stared out with a rosy china-painted smile, and a family of Teddy bears were dressed in red-and-green while using a plastic tea set of red-and-white.
Snow was piled on the sidewalks and dusted the trees in the lot. The weather forecast predicted another storm, just in time for Christmas Eve tomorrow.
Johnny sighed wistfully just as Red approached and clapped a big hand on his shoulder.
“Got the holiday blues, my friend?”
Johnny smiled slightly. “I guess. I got some presents for Audrey and Hubert and the kids. Don’t worry, I sent them the gifts by a safe method.” He didn’t mention the gift he had gotten for his father. Despite their estrangement, he just couldn’t leave his old man out.
“I know you won’t endanger the boys.” Red squeezed his shoulder and removed his hand. “Aren’t those bears playing that new game they’re testing out?”
Johnny craned his neck. “They are! That’s a Monopoly board, all right.”
“So what do you want for Christmas?”
Wistfulness once again crossed his friend’s face. “Something I can’t have,” he said softly.
Red stifled a sigh. Johnny wasn’t as child-like as Homer could be, but he was still young, even though he was thirty years old.
It was probably because he had spent nearly all of his twenties in prison for a fifty-dollar stick-up. Johnny had an appetite for life that was very appealing.
It was Johnny who had suggested this Christmas shopping trip to the mid-sized city of Grand Rapids. Risky, but Johnny lived for risk. Red had to admit that it gave him gray hairs but was exciting, too.
“Hey, Red!” Homer hurried up the sidewalk, brightly-colored bags bouncing against his legs and a stack of shiny-wrapped boxes in his arms, nearly obscuring his face. “You should go into the department store and see all the great stuff they’ve got. I bought almost all of my presents.”
Red smiled affectionately. “Great, Homer. Put your stuff in the car and you can come with me while I shop and finish yours.”
Homer hurried to the side street where they had parked the Buick.
“Are you finished shopping, Johnny?”
“Yeah. I put my presents in the car.” He pulled his fedora lower over his eyes. “I’m going to go take in a movie. I’ll meet you guys at the car at five.”
Red watched as his best friend walked down the sidewalk, shoulders slumped. He loved Johnny like a brother. He really wished he could get him what he wanted, impossible as it was.
& & & & & &
Johnny slumped in the theater seat. As much as he loved movies, he hadn’t really cared what was playing. He just wanted to watch the Movietone news, always in hope...
The Warner Brothers cartoon ended and the newsreel began.
Johnny watched as the Germans chanted and saluted, “Heil Hitler!” for their new Chancellor. Johnny was amazed at how in lockstep the Germans could be. He couldn’t imagine Americans agreeing about anything so uniformly, especially not a political leader or movement.
All this saluting and boot-clicking made him vaguely uneasy.
The news switched to Ethiopia, the impressive Emperor Haile Selassie reviewing his troops, and then there was a shot of Buckingham Palace as King George V waved from the balcony to his adoring subjects.
Domestic scenes came next, the screen flickering as Eleanor Roosevelt was shown at a square dance in West Virginia, then her husband speaking about the Civilian Conservation Corps, then a shot of the Bureau of Investigation headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Johnny sat up, expression hopeful as he listened to the narration.
“Director J. Edgar Hoover honored his No. 1 G-Man, Melvin Purvis, with a commendation for the apprehension of several criminals in Kansas City.”
Johnny’s eyes were riveted to the screen as the Special Agent stepped up to the microphone in front of a gaggle of reporters. Johnny leaned forward.
Agent Melvin Purvis wore his raven-black hair slicked back in the fashion of the day, accentuating high cheekbones and a sensuous mouth. Enormous eyes captivated Johnny.
“Thank you, Director. I am honored to receive this commendation, and wish to commend my colleagues in the Kansas City Bureau. It is with teamwork that we brought down the Kansas City gang.”
The warm, honeyed Southern-accented tones washed over Johnny.
He tried to restrain his yearning, but gave up and let it roll over him as he avidly drank in the sight of Mel’s beauty, and the man had plenty of that.
He’d seen Melvin Purvis before, on the theater screen and in newspaper photos. He’d picked up a copy of Time magazine and seen some glossy photographs in a story on the Bureau, and when one of the gang had remarked on a cover story about Purvis in Life magazine, Johnny had read the copy and eagerly looked at the color photographs, many featuring the No. 1 G-Man, the ‘Clark Gable’ of the Bureau.
Clark Gable is a good comparison, though ol’ Mel is prettier.
He sighed. He had a craving for this man that could never be satisfied.
Johnny let himself indulge in aesthetic appreciation of the beautiful man on-screen.
“John Dillinger? We of the Bureau will apprehend him, that I promise, suh.”
We’ll see, Beautiful.
& & & & & &
The house the gang had rented was decorated with fresh evergreen garlands wound around the front pillars. Inside, they smelled fragrant looped around the staircase leading up from the small foyer. Red had picked out a wreath for the front door, decorated with red berries and a red velvet bow.
In the living room was a tree decorated with newly-bought ornaments of red, green, yellow, and blue, gold and silver garland and silver tinsel winking in the sunlight. Johnny had picked out the silver-and-gold star on top of the tree, his infectious enthusiasm caught by his gang, who had gotten into the holiday spirit.
In that spirit, his men had not only bought presents to send back home to their families, but for each other. Flush with cash from their last bank job, they had spent generously. The results were piled under the tree in shiny wrapping paper and glittery bows of red, green, and gold, Johnny checking a few tags and finding his name. He surveyed the rest of the presents while sipping a cup of hot chocolate, tiny marshmallows floating around on top of the drink.
He liked hiding in plain sight. People never really noticed you if you did that. And decorating the house was just part of the neighborhood. Besides, he liked the holiday trappings. After nine years of drab prison, he liked everything about this time of year, from the taste of cold snowflakes on his tongue to the smell of fresh evergreen in the house.
“The boys went all out, eh?” Red asked as he came in from the kitchen.
“They sure did.” Johnny took a sip of chocolate. “Guess the money was burnin’ a hole in their pockets.” He smirked. “I didn’t see a gift from you under the tree.”
“Hey, I’m still thinkin’.” Red bent down to read a tag. “Whatever I get you, it’ll be tied with a nice, big, red bow.”
Johnny grinned. “With any luck, you’ll be able to have plenty of time to shop. At this time of year, even Feds get distracted with shopping and office parties and writing letters to Santa.”
Red laughed. “Oh, never change, Johnny.”
& & & & & &
Johnny smiled, his gaze falling on the newspaper tossed on the coffee table. The headlines screamed, ‘No. 1 G-Man Coming To Detroit For A Conference On Crime.’ A picture of the Golden-Haired Boy graced the front page, except of course he wasn’t golden-haired, but the thought counted.
Red saw the longing and a crazy idea hit him.
Even crazier than robbing banks under the noses of the Feds.
& & & & & &
Well, this was all cozy: a fire crackling in the hearth, fresh-baked Christmas cookies from the local bakery, hot chocolate, and snow falling outside the windows.
Johnny felt very domestic as he sat in a comfortable chair by the tree, the radio volume low as Christmas music played. The rest of the gang was in the kitchen wrapping last-minute gifts and enjoying the assortment of cookies.
The only thing missing was Red. He’d been gone for hours on his last-minute shopping trip. Had the Feds picked him up?
“Now a pretty little song on Christmas Eve…” intoned the radio announcer. “Winter Wonderland…
“Sleigh bells ring/Are you listening/In the lane/Snow is glistening…”
Johnny peered out at the snow rapidly falling outside. The flakes were getting bigger, and as a lifelong Indianan, Johnny knew a developing snowstorm when he saw one. He hoped Red could get back in time before it became impossible.
He returned to his Lone Ranger novel, enjoying the Western derring-do as he concentrated on the coziness of the scene, sipping his chocolate and eating shortbread cookies with vanilla icing and red and green sprinkles, worry for Red in the back of his mind.
& & & & & &
An hour later, Johnny heard the sound of the Buick’s engine chugging through the snow. Setting aside his book, he jumped up, relief washing over him at his friend’s safe return.
He opened the front door, “Where have you been all day…?” just as Red came through the door carrying a traveling bag used for clothing. It was slung over his shoulder, Johnny’s jaw dropping. “What the hell…?”
Red walked into the living room, tiny flakes of snow showering down as he laid the bag under the tree, followed by a sputtering Johnny.
“Red, what are you doing?”
Red unzipped the bag and gently shook it, a man rolling out wrapped in shimmering red silk, sooty lashes curving over high cheekbones. A red bow was tied around his neck and around his wrists in front of his body.
Johnny’s jaw dropped as he gazed upon the gorgeous form of Melvin Purvis.
Red brushed by him as he said, “Merry Christmas, Johnny. Hey, Homer, I smell gingerbread cookies!”
“Santa Claus is comin’ to town…” crooned the voice from the radio.
Johnny stared, then he broke into a big smile as he leaned down, admiring the glitter of tinsel sprinkled in Mel’s dark hair. His gaze traveled the length of the long, lean body, his smirk growing wider as she saw the red bow tied around Mel’s groin. Mel’s eyes fluttered open and met his for a long moment, Johnny’s hand reaching down to untie the bow...well, no surprise which one!
Red sure was a great friend.
Best Christmas gift ever!