The old man was combing dumpsters for aluminum when he found the red bow. It probably came from a fancy tin of cookies, or maybe it was last year’s bow and no longer good enough. He pulled it out, keeping it above the dripping soda cans in his basket. Why you want this, he wondered. It’s no use to recycle. On his way through the park he left it tied to a spindly evergreen, just as the sun fell back toward the mountains after a half-hearted day’s climb.
The old man walked back to his trailer, from which a small part of the chill was removed with a few dollars of propane each month. While he drank tea and gin, the tree with the bow stood in his mind. He had not noticed it before, but the bow suited it. Not a bad tree.
The next afternoon a small flag on a pipe cleaner was twisted onto the tree. The day after that, four strips of silver tinsel shivered there as well. Still not bad. He wished he could reach higher than halfway up.
A square of suet was next, hung in mesh cut from an onion bag. He had tried to buy the suet with food stamps, which didn’t work, but the clerk gave him a lump anyway. Dirty old man. Who eats suet anymore?
The old man rested the day after that, sleeping through the few hours of daylight and waking only in time for tea and gin.
The next time he saw the tree, he stopped and put down his bag of cans and stared. There were two bright strings circling the tree, a string of popcorn and a string of cranberries. They made the tree fuller and rounder than he had remembered it, even with tea and gin. Moreover, there were three birds in the tree. The suet was nearly gone, and bits of red berry flecked the ground underneath, where two more birds pecked and quarreled.
Next there was a fishing lure. Then another lump of suet. A letter in a green envelope. Three cranes folded from newspaper. A glass angel. A chime that sang when the wind grew piercing. A candle on the ground, which he found burning one day. Orange quarters, hung for the birds with fishing line. A god’s-eye of blue and pink yarn. The best was snow, frosting every needle and ornament. The tree grew daily. Now even at night it glistened.
The old man’s trailer was still cold. He took his aluminum to the recycler and bought his holiday dinner, cooked and ate it, by himself; but also there was in his mind all that night the sight, and the smell, the feel, even the sound, of the tree with the red bow, the tree blooming, giving off ever more color, more size, more heat.