ME: Thanks for seeing me on such short notice after the holidays, Mr. Ryan. There’s a story I wanted to share with you.
RYAN: No problem. Keeping in touch with the American people is the best part of my job. Shoot.
ME: Okay. [Opens storybook.] There was a couple who loved each other very much, but had little money to speak of.
RYAN: So, a lazy couple.
ME: No, just poor. They had always been poor. They lived in a small, bare apartment and had low-paying jobs.
RYAN: Literally none of that can be helped. What a shame they brought that on themselves.
ME: Anyway. It was Christmas Eve and they wanted to exchange presents, but had no money to buy them.
RYAN: [under breath] Stupid, stupid idiots.
ME: However, the woman had long, golden hair, and the man had a beautiful silver pocket watch.
RYAN: Nice. Saw a guy this morning at Crossfit DC with a good watch. No better accent piece.
ME: Desperate to find gifts, they —
RYAN: — you know what everyone loves? Steak. Omaha Steaks does a tenderloin flight, they ship anywhere in the country, overnight, $475. I could call them right now.
ME: They don’t buy each other steak. The man sells his pocket watch —
ME: Yes, to buy a rare set of tortoise-shell combs his wife had admired in a store window. For her part, the woman sells her hair —
RYAN: Sells her hair?
RYAN: To who?
ME: Whoever buys hair. A wigmaker. It’s doesn’t matter. She sells her hair to buy a watch chain —
RYAN leans forward.
RYAN: — oh, shit, oh, my fucking shit.
ME: Hang on. Christmas morning arrives and they give each other the gifts. Each watches the other carefully unwrap their parcel: she, the combs; he, the chain. They study them, and then they share a quiet laugh and embrace… realizing they already possess the greatest gift of all.
RYAN continues to listen.
ME: The end.
RYAN: When do they take back the gifts?
ME: Why would—
RYAN: They grab the gifts back from each other, right? They’re busy hugging each other in a room full of wasted commercial goods.
ME: I think the point is —
RYAN: Hang on, hang on. [Gets up, paces.] We can figure this out. My son and I do riddles like this on the weekends.
ME: It’s not a riddle, Mr. Ryan, it’s —
RYAN: I know. The guy takes back the, uh, the shark-skin combs from the wife, races down to the pawn-shop and buys back his watch. You gotta have that watch.
ME: It’s NOT A RIDDLE.
RYAN: [Epiphany] Oh, shit! Six months later, the wife’s hair would be back, right? So. They harvest the new batch of hair —
RYAN: — and weave it into rope. They wait outside Comb Guy’s shop until he locks up for the night, jump him in the alley — and strangle him.
RYAN: Stay with me! They bury the body, break into the store, take the combs. We’re almost done. Six more months, the lady pops out a third batch of hair for the hat trick: the watch, the chain, the combs, even the goddamn hair! THEY WIN! I WIN!
RYAN slams his palms on the desk, then initiates a high-five. It is not consummated.
ME: NO! NO! THEY DON’T NEED TO GET EVERYTHING BACK BECAUSE THE WHOLE POINT OF THE STORY IS THAT IT DOESN’T MATTER! [Standing.] WEALTH DOES NOT MATTER. THE THING THAT MATTERS IS LOVE YOU FUCKING SHARK-EYED DEMENTOR.
Grandfather clock chimes.
RYAN: [Places hands on back of chair] Hey, look, I actually have someone coming in a few minutes, so…
ME: No, of course, I understand. Sorry if I —
RYAN: It’s fine. It’s fine.
ME: Thank you for your time. [Gathers book, begins to exit.]
ME: [Pausing] Yes?
RYAN: The story was actually… pretty good. It certainly gave me some things to think about.
ME: That’s all I could hope for, Mr. Ryan. [exits.]
RYAN sits, leans back in chair, arms folded behind head. Smiles. Then he leans forward, a gleam in his eye.
RYAN [into intercom]: Denise?
DENISE [intercom]: Yes, Mr. Ryan?
RYAN: Find out how that guy has so much cash to blow on storybooks.
DENISE: Yes, Mr. Ryan.
RYAN produces two barbells from behind desk, begins curling.