Eli had just turned two. At his dad’s birthday party, folks brought gifts: crew socks, a pair of pajamas, a set of wrenches. As the shiny wrenches appeared, Eli got up and toddled to his room. When he came back he had something in his hand.
“What you got, Buddy?” I asked him.
“For my daddy, “ he said.
He held up his little hand.
“Can I see?”
When he opened his fingers he held a quarter, two dimes and a penny. Then he delivered his gift.
“Happy bir-day, Daddy.”
His daddy hugged him, but he couldn’t speak. He knew something we didn’t.
His mother hugged Eli, too, and told us the three coins made up all the money the little boy had. At two years old, he knew the joy of giving.
An employer wanted to reward his bookkeeper. Having seen Number Cruncher sawing at some trees with a buck saw or other froe-like device, he decided his best employee needed a chainsaw. So, on Crunch’s birthday, the boss carried a McCullough up to Crunch’s house. The bookkeeper was overjoyed to be given such a saw. On his way out, the boss wished Crunch “Happy Birthday.” Crunch replied that the generous gift had made it so.
As he looked at his gift, Crunch began to whistle, “You’re in luck when you got a McCullough chain saw.” The bright yellow saw looked new, with no blemish except one small spot on the frame, and sounded smooth and powerful when it ran.
Now, I don’t know exactly when Crunch’s luck ran out, but when he finally needed a small part for his saw, he called the saw shop. The technician needed a serial number, but Crunch wasn’t able to find it, so he just put the saw in the car and took it to the saw shop.
The tech looked the saw over.
“Uh-oh,” he said.
The bookkeeper leaned over the counter. “What is it?”
“Look here,” the tech held a magnifying glass over the blemish.
Under the magnifying glass, Crunch could see the file marks.
“This saw is hot,” the tech replied.
“That just can’t be,” Crunch argued. “It’s a gift… from a friend.”
“There’s no other reason to deface a serial number,” the tech said. “This saw is stolen.”
I don’t know what happened after that, except that Crunch surely wondered whether his boss knew that his gift was cut-rate and stolen.
A twenty-something picked up Mr. Goodwrench, his old high school mechanics teacher, to take him out to lunch in his Corvette. Mr. G. liked fast cars, so Reginald knew he would enjoy a red-line ride through the Uwharries as they headed to a restaurant down near the river.
He ordered first, and asked the waitress to bring him the tab. After the meal, when the waitress did so, Reggie neither acknowledged her nor the bill. As a matter of fact, he waited so long to pick up the check, Mr. G. began to feel sorry for him. He wondered if Reggie was trying to avoid paying the check.
By the time Reggie excused himself to go to the rest room, Mr. G. was convinced that his young friend was avoiding the check, and doing so because he did not have enough money to pay it. Not wanting to see Reggie embarrassed, Mr. G. picked up the ticket, took it to the counter, and paid the bill — including the tip for the waitress. When he got his cash back, he noticed Reggie had returned to the table. He walked back over, and sat down.
Reggie seemed to be in deep thought. When he finally looked up and smiled, Mr. G. thought he was going to say “thank you” for saving him from financial embarrassment. But Reggie had something else on his mind.
“You believe there’s no such thing as a free lunch?” he asked.
“Sure,“ Mr. G. said, unsure where this conversation might be going.
“Well, there is such a thing as a free lunch.”
“Yes, I just got one… and you paid for it.”
“What do you mean?”
Reggie ignored the question. “An older gentleman taught me this game,” he explained. “You pick up your mark for lunch. Drive off somewhere too far to walk back…”
Mr. G. was finding it harder and harder to listen.
“Order big, and enjoy your meal,” Reggie continued. “And when the bill comes, don’t touch it. Just wait around. If you wait long enough, your guest will start feeling sorry for you. Five minutes — at the most — and he won’t be able to stand it. He’ll reach over on your side of the table, grab that bill and pay it himself.”
Reggie paused, in deep thought.
“You know, Mr. G., you really should thank me,” he said. “ I gave you a break. I only got you for a salad and a baked potato. But you had me going for a while. To tell you the truth, I had about given up on conning you. I had to go to the bathroom to wait you out. But that bathroom break broke you. ”
“I see you have conned me, Reggie,” he said. “Did your friend tell you to brag about what you did?”
“No, “Reggie smiled. “I made up that part myself. ”
“I see,” Mr. G. said, then paused. “You know, Reggie, I have really misjudged you.”
“You didn’t know I was that smart, did you?” Reggie replied.
“Not that smart,” Mr. G. said.
“Well, you know now,” Reggie said, completely missing the irony.
In this story there have been three kinds of giving. In choosing his gift, Reggie sought joy only for himself. In choosing his gift, the boss sought joy for his bookkeeper and for himself. In choosing his gift, Eli sought joy for his dad alone. And for that reason, little Eli brought by far the greatest joy of giving.
Leon Smith, a resident of Wingate who grew up in Polkton, believes the truth in stories and that his native Anson County is very near the center of the universe.