IT ARRIVED via UPS in a festive-looking tin decorated with faux holly boughs and scenes of reindeer romping merrily -- and of course my heart sank.
"The first one of the season," I said to my wife.
She nodded grimly. I thought I heard the UPS guy say he was sorry as he hurried away.
"Maybe it won't be so bad this year," my wife said.
Talk about whistling past the graveyard, I thought. Of course it'll be bad. This was just the first fruitcake of the holiday season. There would be others -- miniature fruitcakes, dark Christmas fruitcakes, mixed-nut fruitcakes, each tasting like cement mix and settling in your stomach like a piano dropped 10 stories to the sidewalk -- until you wanted to scream: "WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME?"
It's funny, even the UPS people want nothing to do with fruitcake. You can see it in their eyes, in the sad way they climb from their truck and trudge up the walk with a package they know full well will cause despair and misery.
Finally, you can see it in the way they hold the fruitcake at arm's length in front of them, as if it were a soiled diaper or some sort of toxic substance.
Which it might very well be. Who knows for sure? Maybe if you ran a geiger counter over one of these fruitcakes, the needle would jump to the ceiling and the thing would start spitting like it's Chernobyl two days after the accident.
And 20 years from now we might all be glowing in the dark from the Strontium 90 that they discovered packed along with the red cherries and orange peel and raisins and currants and God knows what else that's in fruitcake.
See, that's half the problem right there. Nobody's even sure what's in a fruitcake, not really. You could threaten a dozen people on the street with a handgun -- "You there! Tell me what's in a fruitcake or the kid gets it!" -- and I'll bet not one of them would know the answer.
Oh, they'd try to answer. They'd stand there sweating bullets and wracking their brains, praying that this wild-eyed stranger doesn't plug their kid. And maybe one or two would stammer out "nutmeg" or "candied pineapples," but you can bet there would be no consensus on the subject.
And why should there be? Nobody eats fruitcake. Studies (don't ask me to name which ones, just take my word for it) show that there are perhaps 20 people in the whole country who actually like fruitcake.
Personally, I know exactly three people who like fruitcake. My mother likes fruitcake. My aunt likes fruitcake. And my sister, if you locked her in a closet for two weeks, would probably try a piece of fruitcake upon her release and say it's "not bad." (Although I'd bet she pushes it away after two or three bites to announce politely that she's "stuffed." Right, sis.)
That's why I could never figure out what compels seemingly normal people to give fruitcake to loved ones during the holidays. I mean, I could understand sending a fruitcake to someone you didn't like. That would make perfect sense. In fact, if I were in charge of loansharking for the Gambino family and someone owed me money, instead of sending a few of the boys over to crack some skulls, I'd send the guy a fruitcake.
Believe me, he'll get the message. The cash would be on your desk in 10 minutes, maybe sooner, depending on traffic.
By sending someone a fruitcake, you're basically saying: "I don't like you. This cake will taste like sheetrock. It will settle in your stomach like an anvil dropped from a cliff. Enjoy the holidays, you weasel."
As I say, that would be understandable. But why give a loved one a fruitcake? Why give a "gift" (talk about a poor choice of words) that will sit uneaten on the kitchen counter for weeks until it is mercifully tossed in the garbage?
(That's another problem with fruitcake: The stuff lasts forever. It has the half-life of plutonium. Then again, how could you tell if a fruitcake has gone bad?)
One final word of caution: Do not attempt to pawn your unwanted fruitcake off on guests. If you have a houseful of company and you sing out: "Who wants fruitcake?" I would not exactly expect a deafening response.
Believe me, the only sound you'll hear will be the scraping of chairs and muffled footsteps, as your guests flee in terror. One or two might even hurl themselves through the picture window in a panic-stricken effort to escape.
Don't laugh, I've seen it happen.
Fruitcake can make a person do strange things.