The story you are about to read is true. The names have been changed to protect…


Well, let’s just be upfront and honest about it, shall we? The names have been changed to protect ME. 

I mean, yeah, sure, okay, it all happened a little over four decades ago and roughly 900 miles (give or take) from here - but these people are still around, and they know where to find me. So why take chances?


When I was a teenager in Illinois attending Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School (Home of the Boilermakers - if it’s good enough for Purdue University, by golly, it’s good enough for us - Class of 1981, thank you very much), one of my best friends was a classmate who, for the reasons already cited, we shall refer to here as Clayton Trotwood. Clayton and I had been buddies since the second grade, the year he moved to Bradley from somewhere out east - Boston, I think; he was the one kid in our class who sounded like he could possibly have been an illegitimate Kennedy - and the years that followed saw the two of us sharing all manner of of exploits and misadventures. Some of them went on to become the stuff of local legend, and are still talked about (usually, I’m told, in hushed and reverent tones) even today. 

Fortunately nobody was hurt along the way - well, not too seriously, anyway - and I figure that should probably count for something. 

But I digress…

Clayton was what those of us in the old neighborhood used to call “a pretty regular dude.” He was nice, he was polite, he was respectful toward his elders and someone parents could trust to watch their younger kids. I never really understood how he did it, but Clayton was the sort of person who was able to get along with pretty much everybody; he didn’t really fit in with any of the traditional high school cliques, yet somehow he managed to strike up friendships among all of them. (That was an ability that actually helped get me out of a scrape or two along the way during high school, by the way; perhaps one day, when the statute of limitations has finally run out, those stories may yet be told…) 

In short, Clayton Trotwood was one of those kids who appeared to have been blessed with the ability to become popular without having to work at it. A lot of the guys at school readily admitted that they wanted to be Clayton - I’ve always suspected that this was because a lot of the girls at school wanted to date Clayton, but that’s a whole other discussion…

All that having been said, however, it should also be noted that he wasn’t without his faults. Topping that list was the fact that Clayton seemed to be allergic to saving money. You know that line in the Kingston Trio song “Greenback Dollar,” the one about spending it as fast as you can? That was Clayton all over - “all the way to Sunday and back again,” as my Uncle Bean used to say. The poor guy couldn’t hold on to a dime if you super glued it to the palm of his hand. While it’s true that you can’t take it with you, Clayton could hardly be bothered to carry it part of the way - even with handles. 

As a consequence, he was constantly up to his neck in debt to all those people who kept lending money to him even long after they should have learned to know better. Unfortunately, over the years that had developed into a pretty lengthy list of names: me, other friends at school, teachers, his parents, my parents, some guy we bumped into in front of the public library one Saturday not long before I got my driver’s license… the list went on and on. A few brave souls actually tried charging interest, to no avail. The rest of us eventually quit trying altogether to keep track of how much he was into us for, and gave up any illusion that we might one day get our money back.

You might well wonder how Clayton managed to remain so popular among those to whom he was so often - and so deeply - in debt. Well, I don’t blame you.. we wondered about it, too. 

What can I say? The universe is a strange and mysterious place. 

There was one time, though, that Clayton’s near-total inability to budget his money did get the better of him to such an extent that it ruined what was initially thought to be a pretty good idea - and in the process scuttled whatever chances he might have had with a certain female classmate he’d had his eye on at the time. 

It was the Christmas of our junior year. Melissa and I had been dating for about a year and a half; Clayton, for a change, was single but looking. Unfortunately, the direction he was looking in at that particular moment was the one girl at Bradley High (other than my own girlfriend, of course - and there were times when I wasn’t entirely sure of that) who seemed positively immune to Clayton’s charms.

Every high school class, or so I’m told, has that one girl whose popularity stems from the fact that she has placed herself on the pedestal and expects everyone to treat her as though she deserves to be there. In our class, that girl was Sabine Strangmann. Sabine was a member of one of the local families that passed for “upper crust” in those days. Both her paternal and maternal grandparents had immigrated to America from some European country or another - Freedonia, I think I once heard her say - sometime before the outbreak of World War II. Their respective journeys brought both families to Kankakee County, where her grandfathers each worked hard, got lucky and struck it rich - one opened a successful new car dealership, the other founded one of our local edible oil factories - whereupon the families each promptly forgot that they used to be “regular folks.” 

By the time Sabine came along, the clan’s status as “our betters” was so firmly entrenched that few dared question its veracity. And those who did… well, trust me, Sabine would have wasted little time setting them straight. 

Among those few who did question such things, albeit in secret behind closed doors, were my parents - and me. I had just enough DNA from both Mom and Dad that I had early on developed a pretty healthy dislike for people who think that highly of themselves without justification - a dislike that I still harbor today. So I suppose it was little wonder that Sabine and I barely got along… or that I devoted a great deal of time and energy to trying to convince Clayton that he would be better off seeking romantic entanglements elsewhere. After all, I told him more than once, there was a virtual harem of teenage feminine pulchritude roaming the halls of Bradley High, just itching for the opportunity to split a pepperoni pizza and a pitcher of Coke with him at Monical’s some Friday or Saturday night. 

But for the moment, at least, he only had eyes for Sabine. To some extent it was understandable; she was fairly easy on the eyes, after all, but her physical attractiveness withered in the shadow of her noxious personality and her misguided belief that she and she alone sat at the Center of the Universe. That’s what I thought, anyway. Clayton, though, not so much. The lad was so deliriously lovesick that he would have done absolutely anything for her - and, boy, she knew it, too. Knew it, loved it, and took advantage of it at every available opportunity. If Sabine said “jump,” Clayton jumped… and wouldn’t even think to ask “How high?” until he was already way up there. It’s true that love does strange things to people sometimes… but what it did to poor Clayton was darn near nauseating. 

No, strike that - it was absolutely, positively and definitively nauseating. And the only person who didn’t see it was Clayton.

Which brings us back to that Christmas of 1979… 

It was the next-to-last day of school before the holiday break. Clayton and I were walking together to our first class that morning when Sabine came slinking up from behind, wedging herself between us just long enough to bump me off to one side with her hip. With me out of the way, she then slipped her arm around Clayton’s waist and cooed, “Have you decided yet what present you’re getting for me, sweetie?”

The smile that had spread across Clayton’s face when she moved in so close to him suddenly disappeared, and was slowly replaced by an expression that seemed to have have been born somewhere between Say What? and Oh, No! 

He gulped audibly - Lou Costello would have been proud -  and after a beat managed to stammer in response: “Present?”

“Yes, present,” Sabine said, somehow making the word sound like a royal command. “That’s what Christmas is all about, right? Getting presents. I just love getting presents at Christmas time.”

Reflexively, Clayton thrust his right hand into his pants pocket - the one in which he carried what little change he typically had. On that particular morning he had even less than usual; he pulled from his pocket a couple of quarters, a dime that looked like it had been run over a couple times by one of the Amtrak trains at the North Street crossing, and what appeared to be a lint-covered Brach’s sour ball. Red, naturally.

He held the contents in the palm of his hand and showed it to Sabine. “Unfortunately I’m a little low on funds at the moment,” he admitted sheepishly. “But I suppose I might be able to scrape up enough to get you a really nice card.”

The look of horror on Sabine’s face was such that one might have thought she’s just learned her mother had voted for Jimmy Carter in the last election. “A card?” she repeated with disdain. “I think I am certainly worth more than just a card! You might just better give that some thought, mister.” And then she stormed off in a huff, leaving poor Clayton standing there looking like the kid who had just accidentally run over the family dog with his 10-speed.

And then he did what he always did at times like this. He turned to me and said, “Say, buddy, can you spare a few bucks until I get next week’s allowance?”

I was shaking my head before he finished getting the question out. “Oh no, nothing doing, pal,” I told him. “I’ve got a girl of my own to buy a present for - a girl who would even appreciate just getting a card, by the way.” 

Clayton shot me the skunk-eye and walked the rest of the way to class alone. Over the rest of the day, I later learned, he made his usual rounds in hopes that somebody he knew would be willing to help him buy a present for a spoiled rich girl whom everyone knew wouldn’t appreciate it anyway. But - big surprise! - nobody seemed all that interested in saving him from earning a permanent place at the top of Sabine’s “Drop Dead” list. Most of us were already there anyway, so…

By the time school let out that afternoon and we were heading to my car so I could give him a ride home, Clayton was so dejected that he could barely hold his head up. Which is how he failed to notice Melissa coming towards us from the opposite direction with an armload of packages. In spite of my calling out a warning he smacked right into her, sending Melissa into a snowdrift at the edge of the parking lot and scattering her packages hither and yon.

As I reached down to help to her feet, Melissa shot Clayton a look that suggested something other than Christmas cheer. “So tell me, is running over your friends like a snow plow the newest thing?” she asked.

Clayton quickly gathered up Melissa’s fallen packages and winced with embarrassment as he returned them to her. “I”m so sorry,” he stammered. “I guess I have other things on my mind.”

“Yeah, I’ll vouch for that,” I told her. I was about to say something else, but found my train of thought derailed by the sight of all those packages she was carrying. “Giving out presents early, honey?” I asked her. “And more importantly: is one of them mine?”

She smiled and winked at me, but followed that by shaking her head. “No to both questions,” she said. “These are actually a few things I bought for myself at the shopping center a couple of weeks ago that I’ve decided not to keep. So I’m bringing them back.”

Even as accustomed as I was to my parents’ “paycheck-to-paycheck” lifestyle, this seemed like a radical new concept to me. “Really, you can do that?” I asked. “Buy something, then return it later and get your money back?” 

“Of course, as long as it hasn’t been damaged,” Melissa responded. “All department stores give refunds on returned items. In fact, these things haven’t even been paid for yet - Mom let me use her charge account at Belscot to get them, so I”m actually thinking about exchanging them for something else.”

Now, charge accounts was something I understood - Mom had them all over town. As it happened, so did Clayton’s mom. And as he remembered this, the light began to return to Clayton’s eyes. He suddenly snapped his fingers and exclaimed, “That’s it!”

Melissa and I both turned to him and - as if we’d rehearsed it ahead of time - asked in unison, “What’s it?”

Clayton was grinning so hard I thought his teeth might break. “My mom has a charge account at Belscot’s, too,” he told us. “That’s how I get a present for Sabine! I’ll use Mom’s account to buy her something I know she won’t like… charge it, then return it and get her something better once my finances get back on track.”

“We should all live that long,” I muttered - a little louder than I’d intended. Melissa managed to stifle a giggle; Clayton ignored both of us, and we could see from his expression that his Eureka! Moment was picking up steam. He turned to Melissa and said, “Look, you’re a girl, right?”

She started to respond, but I interrupted her. “I’ll say she is!” I leered in my best Groucho Marx imitation, wagging eyebrows and all.

Melissa poked me in the ribs as Clayton continued. “What I mean is, you know what girls like and don”t like,” he said. 

“Well, I know what girls like me like and don’t like,” Melissa answered. “Someone like Sabine, I’m not so sure. Her tastes are quite a bit different from most of us.”

“No kidding,” I added. “The girl probably eats peanut butter-and-caviar sandwiches for breakfast.”

“But that’s just it,” Clayton went on. “The sort of simple present that a girl like Melissa would love to get is probably something that Sabine would turn her nose up at.” He quickly glanced at Melissa and added, “No offense.” 

“None taken,” Melissa responded with a sarcastic eye roll. She then skipped a beat before adding, “There is one thing I know she wouldn’t like getting as a Christmas present.”

“What’s that,” Clayton asked. 

Melissa reached into her coat and pulled out the wooden beaded necklace I’d bought her for her last birthday - her “hippie love beads,” I called them. Yeah, that was just thing. You’d never catch Sabine Strangmann wearing anything so utterly down-to-earth. Not even on a dare. 

Clayton grinned again and headed towards my Volkswagen. “Melissa, you’re a life saver,” he called out. “John, give her a kiss for me and let’s head over to Belscot’s.”

“Do you mind if I give her a kiss for myself first?” I called back. Then I kissed my girlfriend on each cheek - one for me and one for him - and raced off…

The next evening after school was our class Christmas party. Clayton showed up early, smiling ear-to-ear like I would have if I’d just been handed the keys to Adam West’s Batmobile, and carrying the carefully wrapped present he’d bought for Sabine - on his mother’s charge account, of course - with the deliberate intention of exchanging it later for something better. As far as he was concerned, it was a plan right up there with D-Day and JFK’s Cuban missile blockade. Me, I wasn’t so sure… 

Eventually Sabine showed up, fashionably late as always and acting as if she owned the place - heck, for all I knew her family probably DID own it. When he saw her walk in, Clayton took a deep breath, stood up so straight I thought I heard his spine pop, and without so much as a “I’ll be right back,” marched right over to where Sabine was talking with some of the kids she thought to be a little - but only a little - closer to being her equals than any of us were. 

“Clayton!” She exclaimed in that cloyingly manipulative voice we knew so well. “I’m so happy that you came.” Then her voice dropped half an octave and she added, “Where’s my present?”

He held up his right hand and showed her the gift box he’d brought. “It’s not much, I know, but it comes from the heart and I sure hope you like it.”

Without so much as a smile of gratitude, Sabine reached over and snatched the gift out of his hand. She opened the box and pulled out the necklace - which was far more gaudy and cumbersome than the one I’d bought for Melissa, by the way - and THEN she smiled. 

“Oh, Clayton, I love it!”

Clayton started to say something more, but managed to let out only a slight choking sound as his voice suddenly caught in his throat. At the same time his eyes crossed, turning towards each other like some crazy character in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, and his face turned the same icky shade of green I’d noticed on him that first time we rode the Tilt-A-Whirl at the Kankakee County Fair back when we were kids. 

It took him a bit, but eventually he found enough of his voice to mutter hoarsely in Sabine’s general direction, “You do?”

“Of course I do,” she assured him. “It’s absolutely darling - certainly not the sort of thing I would have ever thought to buy for myself.” I was reasonably certain I’d detected just the slightest trace of condescension in that last part of her comment… but I suppose might have been affected by that stale air in the school gymnasium.

Sabine immediately put the necklace on and began sauntering all over the room, showing off to a responding chorus of oohs and ahhs from all the other girls. Clayton’s face seemed to be getting greener by the minute as he watched her; eventually he managed to sit down, gasping for air almost to the point of hyperventilation. 

I alone knew why, because I had driven him to the store the night before, but after a spell Melissa had started to figure it out. She turned to me and asked, “How much did that thing cost, anyway?”

I was hesitant to answer out loud, for fear of sending Clayton further into his funk. So I leaned in close and whispered the amount in her ear; Melissa’s eyes grew big and she let out a long, slow whistle of surprise.

Then she turned to Clayton and said, “You didn’t.” 

“I did,” he groaned in response. “And the worst part is, I didn’t tell Mom I was putting it on her account… She’s going to flip when she finds out.”

Yeah, Mrs. Trotwell flipped all right. It took poor Clayton almost until the following Christmas to finally pay her back. And to add insult to injury, he never did get that date with Sabine. She wore his necklace on a lot of her dates with other boys, though.

Is there a moral to the story? No, probably not - not one that readily comes to mind as I share the story, at any rate. 

But after all these years together, my wife Melissa does still seem to appreciate the thought that goes into even the simplest of gifts that I get for her every year at Christmas - or, at least, she says she does. 

So, yeah, I guess there’s that…

(Copyright © 2023 by John Allen Small)