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John Kelly's Washington

The Rift of the Magi

By John Kelly
Tuesday, December 28, 2004; Page C11

The tortoiseshell combs were on the scratched and battered table of the walk-up apartment, the platinum watch chain encircling them like a protective wall.

Mr. and Mrs. James Dillingham Young sat in silence on the shabby little couch, staring at the gifts wordlessly.

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_____By John Kelly_____
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"Oh Jim, you mustn't think me an awful fool for cutting off my hair," said Della, Mrs. Young to the butcher and the milkman. "My hair grows awfully fast! And oh Jim, don't you still think I'm pretty?"

Jim just smiled. If he had been ordered to testify on the issue, he would have said that he didn't mind the haircut so much. Just the day before, and for all the years Jim had known her, Della's dark-chocolate ribbon of hair had reached below her knees. And Della's knees were where most women's knees were, which meant that her hair fell down almost to the worn red carpet. It was so long that Jim had often feared for the muscles in her neck, so heavy must the cascade of tresses have been.

Then, too, there was the fugitive hair that was forever detaching itself from Della's pretty scalp and turning up underfoot in their tiny flat: in the sink and in Jim's dinner. So many lay stretched across the threadbare pillowcase of their painted iron bedstead that Jim would sometimes dream he was being strangled by the tail of a horse.

"Oh of course I think you're pretty, Dell," Jim said finally. And he did. What hair that remained Della had crimped and pomaded and arranged in curls atop her head, like a series of tiny waves breaking over the shore of her furrowed brow. She looked like a Coney Island chorus girl, and though he couldn't tell Della this, Jim had always liked Coney Island chorus girls.

"It's a rum thing, Dell," said Jim, "you selling your hair to buy me a watch chain and me selling my gold watch to buy you hair combs."

"It was for Christmas, Jim, for Christmas. And me with only one dollar and eighty-seven cents! Whatever could I have done?"

Mr. Young enfolded Mrs. Young in his strong arms and pulled her toward him until her convexity fit perfectly into his concavity. Her boyish head was so close that Jim could tell that her hair smelled slightly of sulfur.

"Our hearts were in the right place," Jim said. "That's what counts."

They both fell silent again. The water pipes in the apartment next door made a knocking sound, and the gaslight dimmed for a moment as a lamp was lit in the flat upstairs by an unseen hand. Della watched as a gray cat trod upon the windowsill, cast one inscrutable glance at them, then trotted off.

"Of course," said Jim. Then: "No, I shouldn't even think of it."

"Why, whatever is it, Jim?"

Jim pulled away and looked off at the pier-glass in the middle of the room. "It's just that, well, I do still have the receipt for the combs."

"And?" Della's voice, so gossamer before, seemed to catch itself on a craggy mountain peak and acquire a harder aspect.

"Well, I could return them for a full cash refund." He stopped, waiting for his young wife to smother his face with kisses.

"And?"

He forged on. "The establishment where I sold my watch is bound to be open late tonight and I'm sure the gentleman who runs it would allow me to buy it back for what I sold it for, minus a modest percentage for his trouble."

"And my trouble, Jim?" Della said in a steely tone. "My beautiful hair sold to a wigmaker for $20 to buy a platinum watch chain?"

"Twenty dollars you say! As much as all that?"

Della cocked her head. "How much were the tortoiseshell combs, Jim?"

"Er, quite expensive indeed, given that they are not made of a precious metal. But that's water under the bridge, eh, Dell? The best we can do is move forward, content in the knowledge that our love transcends the ordinary and enters the realm of the poetic."

Jim hopped up and scooped the combs into the white paper they had been wrapped in. He patted the pockets of his overcoat until he was certain he had the receipt. He turned to Della, who looked as if she might cry.

"Della, darling," he began, "I love you just as much with a platinum fob and a gold watch as I do with just a platinum fob alone. And I love you just as much without your hairs as with 'em."

Mrs. Young sighed a big sigh, then to Jim's relief laughed. "I know it, Jim," she said. "Hurry home and I'll have your chop waiting."

"A'right then," Jim said, brushing his wife's cheek with a peck and hurrying through the door.

Della watched the door click shut then pulled from a hidden corner of her dirty apron an object that looked like a shiny egg and raised it to her lips.

"Earth to Alpha Centauri," she said into it. "The humans have no suspicions. The invasion plan is proceeding perfectly."

Just then a voice rang out: "Cut! Print it. That was wonderful, people." The movie director turned to his personal assistant and started making plans for dinner.

Then the columnist woke up. It had all been a dream.

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