Two hundred dollars. That was what she needed for Steve’s present and Madeleine hadn’t been able to save up a dime. And here it was Christmas Eve. She considered selling her long dark hair but blow-drying and straightening had left her mane unmarketable. What could she do? When dark moments hit her, Madeleine turned to music. Her beloved CD’s lined a bookshelf: everything from Ella Fitzgerald to Tracy Chapman, with some Joni Mitchell in between. She lost herself in languorous voices confessing their loves.

As she sat on the sofa, she looked around their spare studio apartment. They’d found it last year, just after their honeymoon to the Wisconsin Dells. The furniture had been salvaged from the basement of Steve’s aunt’s house. That dank smell still came through the slipcovers. But the pork roast Madeleine had popped in was starting to win the battle.

It wasn’t often they cooked such delicacies. It had been hard year. Madeleine had a good job in payroll at an electronics company, until her department was outsourced to India. After that, telemarketer was the only job the Interior Design major could find.

Steve’s major had been even more fanciful ” Astronomy. But at least on summer nights he could point out the few stars that outshone the streetlights. He had apprenticed as a printer until the company shut down. Now, he worked as a day laborer, stacking bricks from buildings torn down for condos he could never afford.

At last, Madeleine couldn’t listen to Billie Holiday’s mournful voice a second longer. She made up her mind what to do and hauled an empty cardboard box from the closet.

She was back by 6:00. The roast and potatoes were done and she took out a pan to heat the green beans. She heard Steve’s work boots on the stairs. Oh, how she missed him during the long workday. Staring at her computer screen selling weather resistant windows to strangers, she wasn’t allowed incoming calls. Sometimes, she could sneak a call to Steve’s cell phone. He was the only man in Forest Park happy to see “unknown number” on his caller ID.

Steve was shrugging off his coat when she ran to hug him. He stared above her shoulder at shelves that now held Christmas figurines instead of music.

“Oh, I can’t wait,” Madeleine said, “I got you a key pad for your phone, so you can Instant Message me at work.” Madeleine’s cheeks brightened with excitement as she handed him the small carefully wrapped box.

“Thanks,” he replied mechanically, “This is what I got you.” Her fingers tore at a taped together mess until she uncovered a small white box. “It’s an iPod, so you can listen to your music on the bus,” he said haltingly. “I had to sell my phone to buy it.”

Madeleine was so stunned she laughed. “Let’s put our gifts away. They’re too nice to use right now. Wait till you taste this roast, I bought it fresh this morning.”

The Three Wise Men invented the giving of presents at Christmas. But of all who give gifts, Steve and Madeleine are the wisest. To quote O’Henry, “They are the magi.”

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.