12/06/2010 12:21 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Greatest Christmas Tree Story You'll Ever Read

We always waited until Christmas Eve to get our tree. My father liked being in a strong bargaining position, knowing that whatever the tree salesman couldn't unload would be worthless to him the next day.

But Christmas of 1967 took the bargaining game to a whole new level.

My father made me go with him to buy the damn tree. He wanted to teach me to be a smart consumer. That's a big deal with Italian-Americans. My grandmother always used to say: "Never pay what they ask!" (Come to think of it, I believe those were her last words.)

I didn't even understand Christmas trees. I could never make the connection between the birth of Jesus Christ and the chopping down of innocent evergreens, but I never questioned it. I was a quiet kid, just twelve years old, but already I knew that the things you wondered about were the things that could get you into trouble.

There was a different salesman at the Little Neck Christmas tree lot every year, but they all looked the same. They wore red hunting hats and too many layers of clothing. Drops of mucus quivered from their nostrils from those endless hours in the cold, and their breaths reeked of takeout coffee and whiskey. Cigarettes dangled from their lips, and when they heard my father's low-ball offers their jaws would go slack and the cigarettes would dip straight down.

"You kiddin' me, or what?!"

Then they'd argue back and forth before settling on a price, usually closer to my father's original offer than theirs.

That year, as always, we went out at around four in the afternoon on Christmas Eve to get the tree.

But there wasn't a soul in sight at the lot -- just a dozen or so trees, half of them lying flat on the ground, blown down by the wind. My father called out for the salesman. No answer.

I figured we'd be going home without a tree for the first time ever, until my father walked over to a tree that stood tall and straight against the fence, a prom queen of a tree.

"You like this one?"

Before I could open my mouth he hoisted it onto his shoulder and began the short walk to the car. I couldn't believe it.


"Don't worry about it."

"But --"

"I said, don't worry about it."

But I was worried, all right, and a little sick to my stomach.

Did I know my father? I thought I did. Until this moment he'd been the most honest guy I'd ever known -- but he also loved a bargain, and this was one hell of a bargain.

We didn't talk on the way home. My mother and my sisters made a huge fuss over the tree, which looked even better indoors than it had on the lot.

We set it up in the metal stand, and even the trunk was perfect - it slid right in place, straight and true, with no need to chop it into shape with a hatchet.

My sisters started decorating the tree. Dinner, my mother announced, was about an hour away. The girls were all chirpy. They didn't know about the stolen tree.

And that's what it was. A stolen Christmas tree.

I felt tears coming to my eyes when suddenly my father's hand was on my shoulder and he was hustling me toward the door.

"We'll be right back," he told my mother, ignoring her questions as we headed for the car.

In minutes we were back at the Christmas tree lot, where a salesman sat on an upended garbage can. He looked like a terminally ill man waiting to see a doctor.

His beard stubble was white and his nose was rippled with broken capillaries. He didn't look happy to see us.

"Look around," he said lamely. "Not much left."

"I already got my tree," my father said.

"So what'd you come here for?"

My father cleared his throat. "I took the tree from your lot. I'm here to pay for it."

The salesman's yellow eyes widened. "You took one of my trees?!"

My father spread his hands. "You weren't here. I looked all over for you."

"I left to take a piss." He gestured at the nearby Scobee Grill Diner. "They let me use their toilet, long's I keep buyin' coffee. Makes me piss even more."

"What do I owe you?"

But the salesman's mind was blown. He was shaking his head in wonder. "I can't believe this. You took a tree and you came back to pay for it!"

"What do I owe you?" my father repeated.

The old man got to his feet. I heard his knees creak. "Well, now, that's a tough question. I didn't see it, did I? So how do I know what to charge you?"

My father put his hand on my shoulder. "Ask my son, here. You can trust him, because he's an honest man."

It was the first time my father had ever called me a man. I could feel my shoulders widen, and for a moment it felt as if I might sprout wings. The salesman turned to me, solemn as a priest.

"Was it a good tree, son?"

I nodded. "Best one you had." I held my hand up over my head. "About that high."

He rubbed his chin. "Twenty ought to do it, then."

It was a friendly price, a real break for my father in light of his honesty.

My father took a step back. "Twenty?" He gestured at the empty spot where the tree had stood. "For that?!"

The salesman made a snorting sound, half-laugh, half-disbelief. "Mister, it ain't even there!"

"Come to my house. See it for yourself."

"I ain't leavin' the lot again!"

"I'm telling you, 12 bucks would be more like it."



I stood there in the cold, listening to them argue about a Christmas tree that wasn't there, wondering if I was going to behave like this when I was a grownup. I wished my father was the kind of man you could hug, so I could give him a hug. That wasn't such a big deal, though. The big deal was the return trip to the lot. That was my father's way of hugging me, by always doing the right thing.

At last they settled on a price. My father paid the man and we started back home.

I was hungry. I was happy. My father looked at me, ventured a crooked smile.

"And you were worried," he said.

Okay, so maybe this isn't really a story about a Christmas tree, after all. But you stuck with it to the end, didn't you?

Charlie Carillo's latest novel, "One Hit Wonder," is set in Little Neck, New York -- the neighborhood where he and his father bought their Christmas trees. He's a producer for the TV show "Inside Edition."