The two stories in this Christmas season collection show two side of Chris Cross. “Scrambled Holiday,” in which an “every-which-way” extended family descends for a Christmas together and romps in each other’s beds while squaring off against each other in tit-for-tat infighting, reflects the author’s playful, anything goes, satirical side. “Last Present” moves to the more serious and romantic as a gigolo thief river cruise tour director is asked to deliver a special Christmas present for a dying man.
From “Last Present”
There were four of us at the table. The two woman, although both startling beautiful, were a study in contrast. Hazelton’s wife, introduced to me as Claire, was a woman young and lithe of body, but with a sadness in her face that spoke of long suffering and age. This did not detract from her beauty, which was a naturally achieved one, but rather seemed to enhance it. She was quiet throughout the meal—and closely attentive to the needs of her husband—but when she spoke, it was with conviction and knowledge, spoken in a clear-toned voice. I found myself willing for her to contribute to a conversation. I hung on every word she spoke.
The other woman, there because she was in the suite cabin next to the Hazelton’s on the M.S. Discovery, was, in contrast, an exuberant, earthly zaftig presence that couldn’t be denied. Everything she said was said with gusto and with lusty humor. I couldn’t really imagine the Hazeltons with such a woman, but we all seemed to get along fine at the lunch. Denise Bessinger was what I would call Rubenesque rather than the usual inference of “zaftig,” which is fat. She was one of the truly well- and provocative-proportioned women I’d met. She was raven haired and alabaster skinned and looked to be in her forties thanks to highly professional carving and cosmetic work, but more likely was a good ten years older than that. She was wearing a low-cut purple velvet dress despite the winter weather and was dripping with jewels.
With my ulterior motives for being on the cruise well in mind, my eyes followed her wide-gesturing, highly manicured hands, my attention caught by the size and glitter of the diamond and ruby rings on her right hand.
The diamond on her hand made me ask at one point, “Is there a Mr. Bessinger?”
To this, she answered with a raucous snort, “There certainly is. But he’s married to his department stores. This right here, this Rhine cruise, is his Christmas present to me—and mine to myself. This is how I show my loving wife side. I go on cruising trips during holidays, and he and his secretary make whoopee without fear of me while I’m gone. And that’s all we need to hear about Mr. Bessinger.”
She made sure I understood what she meant by that. She had an unshod foot pushing up under the hem of my trousers and a hand on my thigh.
When we were rising from the table and Hazelton was quizzing me about whether and much of a tip was appropriate, she broke in with a “Of course, any good service is worth a good tip.” As she said it, I felt the touch on my coat jacket pocket. In the men’s room immediately thereafter, I found a restaurant napkin with “Cabin 407” written on it and five twenty-dollar bills, U.S. currency, tucked inside. I also found two condom packets I hadn’t put there. They weren’t the magnums I used, though. She would be surprised, I hoped pleasantly.