"I'm worthless!" Ben Bruckner yelled to his husband, Michael Novotny, as they were having a lunch at the diner with their closest friends.
The year 2009 was not a good year. By the end of November, Kinnetik had lost two major accounts and a number of the remaining ones had reduced in size. Brian had seen no other option but to let a few of his employees go. Ted still had his job, but Brian and Ted both had considerably less income than the year before.
Compared with the others in the gang, Brian and Ted had nothing to worry about, though. Justin's fledgling art gallery bankrupted in August. Being broke was a novel experience to Justin, but he had long ago learned to let other people help him. While Kinnetik, as a guarantor of his bank loan, suffered a setback the business was financially sound enough to shoulder the loss, and with Brian's income, they lived as comfortably as before. Justin concentrated on his art, and let Brian concentrate on keeping food on their table.
Emmett's catering business suffered as the trend of extravagant abundance moved towards stylish minimalism. The shift took the wind from Emmett's sails only until he noticed that the intimate settings, while bringing in less money, were actually more fun to create. He adjusted his lifestyle according to his lower income and was happy.
The worst off were the Novotny-Bruckners. Kids still read comics; actually the demand was growing as the economics were falling. Thank God for manga! However, it was getting harder and harder to keep Rage in flight. The printing house Michael had used for years was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. In support of the only gay comic on the market, the firm had printed Rage at an outrageously low price. In its current situation the firm had brought the price to the level of the actual printing costs. Would Michael have to bury Rage?
So, despite the worry about his creation, Michael still brought money into the household, but Ben no longer had his job. The funding of the university had come down with the businesses in Pittsburgh. Gay studies was among the discontinued projects. With the costs of Ben's health care and insurances(insurance) in the mix, the family had difficulties in making ends meet.
"No, Ben!" Michael let out a whinish cry of support. "It doesn't matter that you're unemployed. I..."
But Ben did not let Michael finish. He pointed out that he was not only out of job but also out of health. "I'm just a burden to you," he complained.
Justin took up the task of telling Ben what an outstanding character he was regardless of his HIV positive status. "It's amazing how well you cope with everything," he congratulated the forlorn man.
Ben did not cheer up, though, and so first Emmett and then Ted tried to make him smile, to no avail. Ben wanted to mope, and there was nothing that would stop him.
Brian did not even try. He read his newspaper and let the discussion flow over him like a wave of used dishwater. After the lunch, back at Kinnetik, people gave him a wide berth, but they did not quite know why.
The next day the gang met again at their lunch break. This time Brian had a surprise waiting up his sleeve. As the gang sat back to wait after placing their orders Brian sprung the trap.
"This Christmas I think it would be easiest if each of us gave gifts just for our kids," he said with a smirk.
On cue, the gang started to complain at his lack of Christmas spirit.
"Quite the contrary," Brian interrupted the cacophony, chuckling, "I have an idea that goes well with the true spirit of Christmas. What do you think of non-gifts this time?"
"Yeah, non-gifts. You know what a gift is: something valued by the gift-taker as well as the gift-giver. Now turn the concept upside down: a non-gift!" And Brian sported his most devilish grin.
"Worthless gifts? What are you on, Bri? Who would want a worthless gift?" Justin was getting bad feelings. This was not boding well on his hopes of getting Brian to buy him the new cell phone he had set his eyes upon.
"You would, brat, from one of us, and you would give such a gift also to one of us." Brian let his gaze meet with every pair of eyes at the table. "Think about it. Look at this piece of paper someone has left behind. To that person it has no value. To me it is a piece of trash: also worthless. If I give it to you Justin, it is still a piece of trash and worthless. But, if you take that pencil from your pocket and draw a picture on it, it no longer is a piece of worthless trash."
"That's a wonderful idea!" Emmett was ready to start looking for non-gifts right away.
It took a bit more time and effort to convince the others, but at the end of the lunch break the gang had decided that non-gifts would be the only gifts they would share between the six of them.
The next day the men decided to use a lottery to decide who would give a non-gift to whom. Brian's hat was soon filled with the six tickets.
"Ted, you take the first draw," Justin said, lifting the hat above Ted's head.
Ted did as he was told and, opening the ticket, smiled. "I got Michael."
The next in line was Emmett. "Oh, my. Mine says Brian!" he purred, crushing Justin's hope.
To Justin's chagrin, Michael found Justin's name on his ticket, and Ben would give his non-gift to Emmett.
"So, Bri. Which one will it be, Ted or Ben?" Justin pushed the hat towards his partner.
"Whichever. Just take a ticket, Justin, and the other one will be mine."
Justin drew Ben out of the hat, and Brian was left with Ted.
"Guys," Emmett said quietly as they were leaving. "Keep it a non-gift, you all. No unfinished masterpieces from Justin or rejected ads from Brian, right?"
"OK, Honeycutt," Brian agreed. "And you won't non-gift anyone with one of your uneaten cakes, will you!"
Laughing the boys left the building.
As was their tradition, on Christmas Day the gang and their extended family gathered at the Horvaths. The cozy house was about to burst at its seams, but Debbie would not have it any other way, and who would gainsay Debbie? In the gang there were no big enough fools. For a couple of times, the Toronto contingent had tried to resist, but after two invasions from Debbie's Pittsburgh contingent they silently gave up.
Debbie's tasty meal was safely stuffed away, and excepting the ever energetic little people, the friends were chatting and just having (a – add) good time. Of course, for the energetic little people that was far from lively enough.
"Grandma Debbie, may we open our presents now?" the bright, young voices asked. "Please, Grandma!"
Debbie laughed and told the children to go ahead and play Santa's helpers for them all. Soon all the packages had found their recipients.
Gus and JR got the biggest piles of packages, and they paid little if any attention to the meager piles of the adults. Their new toys, clothes, books and computer games got their undivided attention.
Debbie, Carl, Lindsay and Melanie got pretty much as big piles of presents as before, but the little piles of the boys worried Debbie.
"Boys!" Debbie hollered gaining everyone's attention. "What's with the tiny piles? I knew of Michael and Ben's tight situation, but I thought that you others were doing well enough. You all can't be having problems with money, can you?"
"No, Mom," Michael hurried to assure her. "It's just that we decided to do something different this year. Christmas is not about material things, after all."
Emmett chimed in with the details of exchanging non-gifts, and soon everybody asked them to open their packages. Emmett did not need more persuasion. He took from his pile a red box that was tied with a green ribbon.
"I got this from Ben," he told his audience as he untied the ribbon and opened the box. "Oh! Thank you, Ben. Look! He gave me a box full of these!"
A safety pin glittered at Emmett's fingertips. Everybody laughed as a wide, toothy smile spread on his face.
"Who's next? Justin?"
Soon every non-gift was unwrapped. Michael gave Justin a big bag of strips of fabric he had found in Debbie's attic. She had thought of making rag rugs, but since she never had time to get started with the crocheting, the strips she cut were just waiting for Michael to find them. He did not know what they were, though, and they looked completely worthless to him. Justin did not know their worth either, so they were both quite shocked when Debbie got upset finding her strips being used for a non-gift.
"Look at this blue strip, Michael." Debbie, with a hint of sadness in her expression, handed a ball of strips to Michael. "It was your first pair of pants."
Debbie did not ask for her strips back, though.
Brian gave Ted a number of old keys, and Emmett non-gifted Brian with one hundred buttons. Michael thanked Ted for a collection of glass jars, and Ben received from Justin a big box full of empty tin cans.
"What on earth are you guys going to do with all that trash?" Melanie croaked amid her gales of laughter. "You really did find worthless things to give each other."
Melanie had to admit to being wrong very soon afterwards. Gus had got a deck of cards and wanted to learn to play poker. The good mother was not too pleased, but what could one petite woman do when the boys took to the task with enthusiasm? In particular, Melanie detested Brian's contribution: they played for his buttons.
"My buttons are far from worthless, Miss Melly," Brian sing-songed with a smirk as Gus won Ted's last button.
Only a week later the gang found out what Emmett had done with his non-gift. They were greeting the New Year at Babylon, and for once, Emmett was wearing black. His figure-hugging black polo and jeans were such an unusual sight that Michael began to think that maybe he should take to wearing his specs all the time. It must be someone else, right?
But then Emmett turned around, and even Michael was sure that it indeed was their dear friend. From close to his cute left ear to one slim ankle, the left side of his outfit was fastened with his silver-looking, shiny safety pins. The tantalizing glimpses of the pale skin made more than one man lick their lips.
"Michael, would you mind if I take your hunky husband to the dance floor? I want to show off the jewelry he gave me!"
But Emmett did not wait for Michael's consent. He just pushed the laughing Ben towards the center of the floor. Michael was laughing, too.
Also Michael found in no time a use for his glass jars, or it might be more truthful to say that their usefulness was pointed out to him. His little daughter JR game to stay with him for a couple of weeks in February, and as soon as she saw the jars, she remembered what she and her friends in daycare had done with just such jars.
In order to find out what, exactly, JR was talking about, the bewildered father called Melanie. The woman looked at a pretty-in-mother's-eyes jar that stood on her desk, holding her pens and pencils. She told Michael what he would need to paint the glass jars with JR.
Soon after the call "JR's pretties" found their way onto the work desks of several people in Pittsburgh. Justin, of course, kept paintbrushes in his pink jar.
In March, in his next art show, Justin presented a new technique. In addition to oil paint there were strips of fabrics giving texture and depth to his pictures. The critics were not too impressed, but the art lovers of Pittsburgh adored Justin's art again. Michael's non-gift was sold for quite an amount of money. The day when some of Justin's debt to Kinnetik got paid off, Ted was a happy camper.
On a Sunday afternoon in April, Ted's keys found their place on his balcony. Some time earlier, he had bought a new set of furniture for his hideaway where he loved to spend evenings during the warmer seasons. A few days back, the furniture had been delivered, and on the Saturday, he had fun decorating the place.
At sunset, everything had found its place, but something was still missing. There was room for something near the door, but it could not be anything that would take space from the floor. The place needed something light, something almost transparent. It needed some kind of element that would screen the balcony door from outside eyes.
Ted knew exactly what that something was, but he had no materials for it or the tools to build the thing. He alerted the gang. As usual, the boys were ready to help.
In Debbie's garden shed Michael found a few thick bamboo sticks. He brought also some tools he thought would be needed. However, it was actually Brian that provided the state of the art tools that they decided to use. Surprising the others, Brian also knew how to use them. Emmett brought a handful of water clear glass beads, for "bling". Ben provided the project with muscle and Justin with brains, the latter in the form of his artistic view.
Soon, a brand new wind chime hung in front of the balcony door. The old keys striking the bamboo sticks produced gentle sounds. In silence, cold beers in their hands, the builders listened to the wind playing. Of them all, Ben's smile was the most content.
At first, Ben had no idea how to make something worthy out of his non-gift: the tin cans. A worthless man with his worthless cans: day after day, Ben warmed the sofa, watching reruns of The Bold and the Beautiful.
At the end of January, Ben received a mysterious package. It did not arrive by post, and no sender had printed his or her name on the package either. Inside, he found a book in which a page had been marked. With growing interest, Ben read the article.
In February, when Michael was at work, Ben worked on his cans but did not tell Michael about his new hobby. His first attempts at the idea he got reading the book were crude, but with time, his skills improved. In March, he was ready to tell Michael about his idea. Michael supported Ben wholeheartedly.
During March, Ben honed a model of his idea into perfection. In April, he went to Brian with it. With Brian's help, Ben found the company that could provide him with the proper tools and materials for small scale production of the product he had designed.
In May, Ben brought his tin cans to Michael's shop, for sale. In the months since Christmas, the cans had transformed into pencil-cases that sported various images of Rage on them. Teenagers loved them. The first lot was sold out in only two weeks. The highly in demand pencil-cases were as far from the worthless cans as the busy businessman Bruckner was from the worthless, unemployed and sick Ben of last November.
Ben's pencil-cases also kept Rage in flight: the extra income was enough to pay the bills owed to the printing house. Ben was ever so glad that he could help in saving Michael's creation from ruin.
Ben had an inkling of the person that, in January, had sent him the all important book, but because a gentleman never does, he never asked, and Brian never told.
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