2am, we’re up on top of the green and white striped tent with zip ties, cans of Lone Star beer and a three-foot Christmas tree. It’s the night before Thanksgiving, a warm and breezy unlit hour in Austin, Texas. Below us, a 60- x 40-foot arena of Christmas trees, some stacked like cordwood, some on pins sticking up from grids laid on the concrete. Above us, constellations you point out, but as my attention and eyes wander, I see the tail end of a shooting star on the other side of the sky. We secure the little tree to the highest pole sticking up from the top of the tent. The breeze makes the coated canvas billow under us, like we’re floating on a quiet sea. Finish our beers. Slide down the heavy coated canvas. Go inside the RV, maybe have another beer, a cigarette, go to bed.
Morning comes early on a Texas tree lot. Church ladies looking for discarded branches to use for advent wreaths, executives wanting a 13-foot tree for their office as long as they never have to touch it, families with kids who play hide-and-seek behind the trees, shrieking and kicking up straw, candy canes in their mouths. We work the kinks out of our shoulders and backs, my hands always swollen, your elbows and wrists always sore. We make it through the morning on a pot of coffee, switch to beer around lunchtime. Subtle, of course, swishing mouthwash and hiding the cans in a box under the RV. It’s a Christmas tree lot, after all. I wear a fuzzy antler headband. Fuzzy antler headband does not go well with beer breath.
We like people who bring their dogs, especially if they come early, or late, when we’re not swamped, and can kneel down and get our faces licked. We also like people who bring pickup trucks and put the tailgate down for us, and we don’t particularly like people who bring Ford Expeditions and want their 200-pound tree tied to the roof. We don’t—or I don’t, anyway—like men who drive vehicles without roof racks. What kind of man doesn’t have a roof rack? Men with pasty, hairless hands and stubby fingers, who don’t know what a 3rd down conversion is, who live in their mother’s basement. We like our employees. They love us. They sell us pot, and coke. They wear their sunglasses to work, even though we spend the day under the tent, and they tell us when they’re going to take a break to smoke a bowl. Andrew sometimes brings us breakfast tacos. Aimee smokes our cigarettes and brings her kids to the lot when things are ballistic at home. We had to fire Travis because he showed up trashed with a friend of his and wanted to use our trailer to do lines of coke on a busy Friday night. We didn’t like firing him—or you didn’t, anyway—he means well, but he’s a few nickels short of a buck. Then there’s Charles, who isn’t really an employee. He’s a labor corner dude, a big black guy who helps us unload our weekly truckloads of trees. The second time he came, he had a small pillow shoved under his shirt, padding his right shoulder. Hauling trees can really fuck up your shoulders. We put him in charge of organizing the unloading, having the other guys stack the trees according to size. His daughter is a mechanic. He wears black sneakers with rainbow stripes on them. Frankie’s our favorite. He hugs us when he gets to work, and when he leaves. He coaches a kid’s baseball team. He’s probably the smartest guy on the lot—tall, dark-skinned, with teeth like sun glinting off a snowfield. I think he’s our only employee who hasn’t been married or in jail or both. He’s selling trees to pay for a snowboarding trip to New Mexico. He smokes weed, but his eyes are always clear at work. We love that kid.
On Thanksgiving Day, a customer brought us a pumpkin pie and a pecan pie, both enormous, like truck wheels. Texas. Remember how those damned pies moved from the kitchen table to the couch to the top of the stove for days, a couple of forks sticking out of them, always in the way, sweet enough to melt your face? The tyranny of the pies. I finally made you throw them in the dumpster.
I should say something here about the kids who see Santa hiding behind every tree, about the folks with their four-week-olds coming in for baby’s first Christmas, about old couples and young couples, holding hands, reliving or making memories, stuff as sappy as the tree trunks. But that’s more your gig. You’re the people person. I can hear you all day long, asking kids’ names, telling people you helped grow the trees (lie), telling them we just got them off the truck yesterday (lie), telling them they still had snow on them from the field (truth), that we found a tiny bird’s nest in one of the trees (actually it was half of a mouse carcass). You’re great at that shit, though hearing you all day long keeps my eyes rolling. You’re like those pies. Remember those pies?
It’s a five-week job. Our hands are spotted with sap, our fingernails gunked with it. We have pine needles in our pockets, in our hair, in our ears and butt cracks. We smell like Christmas trees. We never get tired of the smell. I never get tired of walking through the forest under the tent with open hands, feeling the soft needles against my palms. In the summer, when I’m hiking through the woods in North Carolina or Colorado or Oregon or wherever I’ll wind up, I’ll catch a whiff of a certain kind of pine tree and I’ll be back under the tent in Texas. It’ll make me smile. We’ll sell over 1,000 trees just between you and me and the snowboarders and single mothers and drug dealers who work for us. We’ll do things down here in Texas we never, ever do back home in North Carolina, things we wake up in the morning and find evidence of on the kitchen table. Sweep the cans into the trash, toss the rolled-up twenty in a drawer, lick your finger and lift the crumbs from the CD case, start the coffee, go outside and sell someone Christmas. It’s the best time of the year.