The next day, Mildred removed the stockings from the mantle and tucked away her favorite centerpiece. She scurried around the house, removing decorations and door hangers, washing placemats and other linens. "In case you hadn't noticed, Leonard," she said finally, "Christmas is over. It's time to get rid of that tree. I would appreciate it if you would remove the decorations and haul it out of here."
Leonard knew she would bring the matter up again. In the meantime he was enjoying the sight and smell of the fresh tree and prolonging the holiday atmosphere.
Mildred had carefully packed a large box with candles, placemats and her good poinsettia tablecloth. She stood in the hallway grumbling loud enough that Leonard couldn't help but overhear. "I guess I'm going to have to put this box on the shelf myself," she said. "Clearly, no one else in this house is going to help me."
She stormed off to the garage, returning with the two-step aluminum stepladder. The ladder, purchased a couple of years earlier, was generally used for small chores around the house. It was made of aluminum tubing and was light enough to be maneuvered easily in tight spaces. Leonard avoided using the ladder whenever possible because of its flimsy construction. He preferred to step on his favorite footstool or even a kitchen chair. Stepping on furniture always angered Mildred and whenever she saw that occurring, Leonard would suffer the consequences.
This time, Mildred wrestled with the aluminum ladder banging it against the door and the side of the hallway, making a great deal of noise. She unfolded the ladder loudly, grumbling. "I guess I'm going to have to do this myself, like I usually do most things around here."
From his favorite chair, Leonard heard the squeak of the closet door and the sounds of fumbling. He imagined Mildred struggling with the cardboard box, scowling, cursing him under her breath. It was advisable to leave her alone at times like this. No question about her present state of mind, but it would pass when she turned to the next project. So Leonard remained in his recliner, feet slightly raised and focused on his newspaper.
A few minutes later, Leonard's serenity was interrupted by a loud thud, shortly followed by a single soprano-pitched shriek. Slowly he rose from his chair and walked to the hallway door. He peeked around the corner to see Mildred sprawled on the floor, blood trickling from the right side of her forehead. Next to her was the collapsed aluminum step stool, its thin tubular legs splayed and twisted.
Leonard was paralyzed for a moment. Mildred was not moving and, most noticeable of all, she was quiet. He squatted down and felt for a pulse but found none. Her wrist was limp.
Standing over the scene, Leonard tried to determine what had just taken place. It appeared as though the stepstool had twisted, its thin legs giving way. Mildred may have reached too far forward or shifted her weight slightly, collapsing the ladder. As it gave way, she must have struck her head, perhaps on the partially opened hallway door.
Leonard did not contemplate his next action. All he realized was that it was quiet in the house.
Again he reached for Mildred's wrist, searching in vain for a pulse. Clearly she was dead.
Suddenly feeling relaxed and a little hungry, Leonard strolled to the kitchen and opened a beer. He then returned to the living room, to his Christmas tree. Tipping back in his recliner, Leonard sipped the cold beer, savoring the quiet atmosphere. The scent of evergreen hung in the air, like a pleasant memory. What a lovely season Christmas could be.
His beer finished, Leonard began gently removing the ornaments as he had been instructed, placing each one carefully in its proper box. He carried the ornament boxes to the garage, watching where he stepped in the hallway and glanced down at Mildred still motionless on the carpet.
Leonard carried the Christmas tree into the backyard, leaning it against the fence. He had recently read that cardinals and blue jays often take shelter in discarded Christmas trees. Gardeners making this gesture might be rewarded in the spring when birds returned to nest in the same yard.
Standing in the yard, Leonard savored the brisk December air. He breathed deeply, filling his lungs with the loveliness of the season. Leonard paused to scatter sunflower seeds around the base of the discarded tree and refill the birdfeeders that dotted the back yard. He paused for several minutes, enjoying the bracing air and wood smoke from his neighbors' fireplace.
When Leonard returned to the living room, he noticed that the only visible reminder of the holiday season was the large white plastic tree bag. Scooping it up, he carried the bag into the hallway. After pulling and tugging, he had managed to enshroud Mildred's body in the billowy white plastic. Tomorrow the city's tree removal crew would be in the neighborhood to retrieve discarded Christmas trees. After dark, Leonard would drag the tree bag to the curb for their convenience. For now, the stuffed bag was secured with twister ties and dragged to a spot near the side door.
Leonard went to his storage cabinet above the hot water heater in the garage and removed a half-finished bottle of Dewar's. Everyone is entitled to at least one vice, he often rationalized. Leonard poured himself a glass of Scotch and returned to the house. At the side door, he stepped around the billowy tree bag, then returned to his chair. As he raised his feet, Leonard realized what a fortunate man he was. He had made only one Christmas wish this year and it had been granted.