It’s a classic. A holiday tale the sales associates still love to tell.
As soon as the decorations start to go up, the new-hires beg to hear it. They plead — oh, please, oh, please — until on Christmas Eve, the senior store manager calls the staff together in the break room.
“You understand,” the manager starts out, “this really happened, but many, many shopping seasons ago…”
Working retail after Thanksgiving has always been the pits. The seasonal music, especially. An endless loop of carols blares from speakers in the ceiling. “After eight hours of hearing those songs,” the manager says, knowingly, nodding, “Miley Burke used to wish that Jesus and Bing Crosby had never been born.”
Long ago, Miley used to work here, weekdays, in house wares. Weekends, in bed and bath. Sometimes she went to costume jewelry if they needed an extra associate. Otherwise, Miley killed her time in the staff break room because it was the only place she could escape the music.
On the day in question, she got to work a little early. She’d brought a salted nut roll, boxed, and wrapped in shiny paper printed with snowflakes by sweatshop slave laborers in some country where they’d never heard of winter let alone Christmas. In block letters, Miley wrote “To Clara” on a Post-It. “From Your Secret Santa.” She stuck the Post-It on the wrapped box and tucked it into the cubbyhole assigned to Clara.
“Clara used to work in infant wear,” the manager explains, “selling onesies.”
After all these years, that same grid of cubbyholes still lines one wall of the staff break room. One cubby per sales associate, with one cubby leftover as the Lost and Found. A long table and chairs takes up most of the space. The wall opposite the cubbyholes is a counter with a sink and microwave. The time clock and the timecard slots fill another side of the room. The last wall is the door with, standing next to it, the staff refrigerator.
As Miley checked her own cubbyhole, already people were coming in. Punching their timecards. She could see that something was slid all the way to the back of the cubby. A glossy red bow glinted in the dark. She reached toward it and felt something soft. Slippery. Heavy. As she pulled it out, its weight shifted in her hands. A glittery card was scotch taped to it. Written on the card in block letters was “To Miley. From Your Secret Santa.”
Somebody stepped up next to her. A voice asked, “What’d you get?” A male voice. It was Devon, an associate from Stock Shrinkage Prevention.
Miley held the gift in both hands and said, “I don’t know.” It was clearly homemade. Something stacked on a flimsy paper plate and covered with red-tinted plastic wrap. The red bow was pasted on top. She peeled back the plastic.
It was brown. Cubes of brown. Dark yellow flecked the brown. It didn’t smell good.
More associates had arrived. A line had formed at the time clock. Miley didn’t want to sound unkind in case the giver might be among them. She said, “Lucky me!” Peeling off the plastic wrap, she squealed, “It’s homemade fudge!”
Devon didn’t look impressed. He gave her a pitiful smirk and asked, “You’re not going to eat that, are you?”
Devon could be such a dick. The pervious year, he’d stolen items from the Lost and Found. A soiled muffler, for example, or a pair of scratched sunglasses. And he’d given them as his Secret Santa gifts. His job consisted of watching monitors all day and expecting people to be dishonest assholes.
The fudge looked clean. Clean enough. The smell came from the dark-yellow flecks suspended in the brown. Miley’s best guess was that they were butterscotch chips folded in as the mixture had cooled. She lifted the plate toward Devon, saying, “Help yourself.”
His eyelids narrowed to wary slits. Devon twisted his face away and cut his eyes sideways to look at the fudge with suspicion. It wasn’t lost on Miley how Devon and people like him, really everyone she knew, would gobble down meat byproduct snacks processed on some grimy assembly line by Third World lepers who never bothered to wash their hands.
Now, those same friends turned up their noses at fudge that had obviously been cooked by someone they saw everyday. Miley studied their faces for a twitching lip, a wrinkled nose, any sign that might betray disgust. Deborah declined, asking if it was kosher. LaTrey shook his head, claiming to be borderline diabetic. Taylor, the only guy who worked in the cosmetics area, told her, “Thanks anyway, girlfriend, but that doesn’t look worth getting fat over.”
There were other people in the room, almost the entire second shift was there. But Miley had started to feel self-conscious about offering fudge that no one wanted. Oscar from the stock room put on a brave face and accepted a piece. So did Barry, one of the cashiers. And Clara. The plate was still full when Miley left it in the middle of the break room table. By the end of the shift, eight and one-half hours later, no one else had touched it.
That afternoon, Deborah found a bottle of perfume from her Secret Santa. Good perfume, better than anything the store sold. So good that Miley suspected that Deborah had bought it for herself.
Sitting out all day at room temperature, uncovered, didn’t make the fudge look any more appetizing. Nonetheless, Miley took it home. How rude it would look to dump it into the break room trash can.
Other people got jars of macadamia nuts from their Santas. They got goofy knee socks patterned with reindeer. Deborah wasn’t fooling anyone when she found a diamond tennis bracelet in her cubby. Only Deborah liked Deborah that much. It didn’t help Miley’s peace of mind when Devon sent her a text message. He sent her the link to a Mexican website where you could order tapeworm eggs. They came in an envelope, like an invisible powder, and fat people mixed them into food to lose weight.
Mixed them in food, Miley thought, like the butterscotch chips had been folded in. After the fudge was too cool to kill anything.
Devon sent her the link to a hospital where they x-rayed Halloween candy for free. Devon advised her to keep the leftover fudge just in case someone who’d eaten a piece died.
The next day Miley found a shoebox inside her cubbyhole. Inside the box was a hand-knit cap. Wide stripes of pink alternated with stripes of tangerine orange and black. Hideous. It reminded her of something old fashioned. It reminded her of a dunce cap, and when Miley put it on the hat swallowed her head down to her shoulders. Devon was there to say, “Santa must think you have a big ‘ol melon head.”
That night he showed up at her door and asked if she still had the fudge. He’d brought a microscope and glass slides. Also, a forensics textbook. This was stuff he had to buy for a community college course. As he pulled on latex gloves and used a scalpel to cut razor-thin slices of the fudge, he talked about his most-likely suspects. Deborah, obviously. Jews always got so prickly around Christmas. If you believed half of what you could read on the internet, Jews spent most of their time poisoning gentiles.
As for LaTrey? LaTrey didn’t seem thrilled by white people in general. Third under suspicion was Taylor. Cosmetics department, Taylor. He only pretended to not despise girls. Miley being a female, with a female’s natural charms, made her a prime candidate for Taylor’s ire.
Her Santa was a mystery. “Then as now,” the store’s senior manager explains, “all the team members would put their names on slips of paper.” The papers would go into a hat. Everyone would draw a name and keep it secret. No one knew the identity of anyone’s Secret Santa. Worse still, there was no security camera in the break room because sometimes associates were forced to change clothes there.
Devon smelled Miley’s fudge and shook his head. It wasn’t her imagination, he said. The fudge smelled questionable. Beyond questionable, it smelled like ass. The butterscotch chips were just a ploy to cover up the overall ass-y-ness of the candy. The humiliating knitted hat, he said, was a second salvo meant to publically degrade her. Devon had watched enough CSI television to know about exposing crime scene evidence to fluoroscopic light. He took a fudge sample into the lab at the college. He took another sample to the Emergency Room and asked to have it x-rayed. When that turned up nothing, he asked for a CAT scan. Miley’s health plan didn’t cover diagnostic tests on candy so this was costing her a fortune.
It was worth it. The candy was covered in fingerprints. Most of the prints were hers, hers and Devon’s, but there were some partials, characterized by more whorls than arcs. A possible signpost, Devon explained, that someone of African heritage had tampered with the candy. Bits of fudge, he cultured in Petri dishes. He hadn’t ruled out boogers. Or urine. The first thing they taught him in criminology was that people were sick.
No one but Devon had seen her unwrap the knitted dunce cap so Miley resealed the package and re-gifted it. The next day Taylor got a gift certificate to Just For Feet. Somebody else got a stuffed bear that giggled when you squeezed its belly. In Miley’s cubby was another wrapped gift. She called Devon before she went anywhere near it. He wore latex gloves and touched the package with bomb squad carefulness. Using only his fingertips, he carried it to Miley’s car. After work, after the parking lot was otherwise deserted, they set the wrapped gift on the ground and gingerly picked at the taped seams with a razorblade. The paper came loose, opening like a flower to reveal – something.
In the parking lot floodlights, it looked like a tray of insects. Maggots, specifically. A layer of little worms seemed packed together in a silver-rimmed, rectangular tray.
Devon was first to speak. “It’s you.”
Miley squatted for a closer look. The December wind across the asphalt was freezing.
Devon pointed with one gloved finger, tracing a shape but not touching the mystery gift. “There’s your nose. This here’s your mouth.”
Miley continued to shake her head, dumbfounded.
Finally, Devon explained, “It’s macaroni.”
It was. Someone had spent hours, even days, of their free time painting bits of dried elbow macaroni and gluing them together to create a picture. What she’d thought was a tray was the picture frame. Someone had created this mosaic portrait of her.
“Obviously someone who hates you,” Devon added.
Macaroni wasn’t the most flattering medium, still the picture appeared too ugly to be anything but an intentional insult. It had taken extra effort to make Miley’s eyes so small and misaligned. The macaronis meant to be her teeth were crooked and painted yellow. It might as well have been a voodoo doll. Just looking at the portrait made Miley feel cursed.
When Devon spoke again, his voice was resolute. “This is criminal harassment.” Cryptically, he announced, “The next move is ours.”
It was time to try and flush the guilty party out of hiding, he said. The Secret Santa exchange worked both ways. The next day, Miley wrapped the macaroni picture for re-gifting.
They were all present, all of the second-shift staff, waiting to punch in. Deborah seemed puzzled to find a large wrapped package in her cubby. Looking around, she said, “Whoever you are, Secret Santa, you shouldn’t have.” Deborah’s voice sounded flat, like she wasn’t kidding.
Watching her, Devon leaned close to Miley and whispered, “Get ready.” He whispered, “She’s going to be so pissed at you.”
The way Deborah lifted it out, using both hands, and heaved it onto the break room table, the gift looked heavy. It landed with a solid clunk, like a brick of fruitcake. Or a frozen turkey. Written in block letters on the card, it said, “Merry Christmas, Shylock. Eat Me!” Inside the wrappings was a canned ham.
At the same time, LaTrey was tearing open an envelope. Inside was a gift certificate to Kentucky Fried Chicken. He looked up, his eyes coolly assessing everyone present. His jaw, clenched.
By then Taylor had found the package in his own cubby. It was hard to overlook. It could’ve been a baseball bat swaddled in Christmas paper. But it wasn’t. It was a beef stick summer sausage, one of the bargain-priced monsters sold alongside cheese logs and smoked jerky at Ye Olde Hickory Barrel in the mall. The card read, “To Taylor — Open wide! Santa’s Sure You’ve Choked Down Bigger Pieces of Meat Than This!”
Devon was ready. Only the guilty party would know whom to lash out at. Everyone looked either sheepish or bereft. Clara began to sob. Unnoticed, she’d opened the re-gifted macaroni portrait and held it in trembling hands. She raised her tearful face to look at Miley. Her voice broken with sobs, Clara said, “I know what you’re doing. I know what you’re doing with the gifts. You’re wrecking Christmas!”
All eyes swiveled to focus on Miley.
Miley’s response sounded huge. Inflated with indignation, hers was the voice of someone teased and taunted to the brink. “I’m wrecking Christmas? I’m wrecking Christmas!?” Her lips quivered with outrage. She lifted a shaky arm, straight out from her shoulder, to indicate Deborah, LaTrey and Taylor. “I’m trying to save Christmas. It’s one of them who’s sending dirty fudge to people.”
In truth, all Devon’s testing – for fecal bacteria, for HIV, for semen, Chlamydia, and a host of other gonococci infectious agents – had turned up only negative or inconclusive results, but Miley was on a defensive roll. She shouted, “One of them has been harassing me… sending me crude, insulting, disgusting… crap.”
The three suspects looked at each other with new confusion. Everyone in the room looked at the trio with loathing. Miley Burke was redeemed. Hers was the moral high ground. Standing beside her, Devon beamed.
The break room was quiet like it was seldom quiet. It was so quiet they could hear the Christmas carols playing in the store beyond the door. Even Clara had stopped crying. She gazed down on the macaroni mosaic in her hands. “Two weeks,” she whispered. She lifted it to show the room. She said, “I didn’t mean to harass anyone. I did my best. I knitted the hat you gave back to me. I made the fudge.”
People still talk about that moment. Telling the story, the manager always hesitates here. So people can hear the faraway music. The same music now as all those holidays ago. A dead Bing Crosby wails about peace on earth and goodwill to men. Behind him, a choir sings like angels. The manager throws a look at the wall above the microwave, and all eyes follow. There, like a religious icon, the eyes too small and misaligned, the teeth like a mouthful of yellow maggots, it still hangs. All that’s left of Miley Burke: That mosaic portrait.
After all these years, the associates still love this tale. The whole shaggy dog saga. About the fudge and Miley Burke, Devon and the canned ham. It’s important to remember every detail and to get them perfect, right up to the last moment.
Because that’s the moment Deborah undid her diamond bracelet and handed it to Clara.