THE GIFT

★ ★ ★ ★

FICTION

By Robert Boucheron

In an empty industrial loft, the top floor of an old mill building, Nora stood at a table spread with a red paper tablecloth and waited for a drink. The end-of-year company party on Friday afternoon coincided with her last day of work. On the other side of the table, a young man in a bow tie, green vest, and handlebar mustache struggled to open a bottle of white wine.

Malone was already here, of course. Nobody liked the loud, sloppy, overweight man with a penchant for dirty jokes. At four o’clock, he was already drunk.

“They’re going to strip the foundry of assets, reduce production to one or two product lines, and write it all off as a corporate tax loss. That’s what’s going down.”

An engineer, Malone had seniority, twenty years or more. Nora tried to ignore him.

“The hatchet man got you, didn’t he?” Malone lowered his voice to project sympathy, but he succeeded only in sounding lewd.

“Human resources called me in for an exit interview, if that’s what you mean.” Nora did her best to sound neutral. “It’s hardly a secret.”

Unwilling to look at Malone or the hapless bartender, Nora stared at a tinsel garland. She had sat in a gray cubicle, where the man brought in for the task of ritual slaughter presented her with a choice: take early retirement, take a lesser-paying job with no benefits, or take an honorable discharge.

“It does sound military,” the dour man in the navy blazer said, “but termination without prejudice sounds worse.” The triangular bar on his desk read simply “Lambert.”

It might well be a pseudonym, Nora thought. She picked the first option, despite the meager payout in lieu of a pension. The math was easy to do. Was the company flouting fair labor law? Resistance was futile for one woman against a mammoth multinational. She signed the exit document, and here she was.

“Sorry for the wait, ma’am.”

A white shirtsleeve with a garter at the elbow extended a little cup of clear plastic. It was one-third filled with a pale liquid. Nora tried the wine. It had almost no flavor. The plastic cup had a stronger bouquet.

Others from the accounting department filtered in. Nora had spent the afternoon transferring files, clearing out her desk, and filling a carton with personal effects—a ceramic mug, a potted plant, a pint-size electric fan—while pausing to chat with coworkers who came to say goodbye. There was little left for the women to say, but all were adept at small talk.

Before she knew it, an hour had passed. With its hardwood floor, bare brick walls, and banks of windows, the chilly space amplified voices. It was hard to hear, as though a bee were buzzing around her head. Nora felt detached, present in body but already gone in spirit.

Irwin Gooch called for attention, and the chatter died down. Mr. Gooch was the head of accounting, Nora’s department until today, and acting CEO of the company. The president had vanished at the time of the takeover. Lambert, in his navy blazer, with a dark cast on his cheeks and chin, stood beside the boss like a shadow.

Despite secularization, the highlight of the party remained what it always had been, the exchange of gifts from Secret Santa. Everyone had brought one wrapped item and placed it under the fir tree in the lobby. Someone had collected the loot in a sack, which now sprawled on the floor beside Mr. Gooch. He read aloud from a list of names, while Lambert handed out gifts at random, one at a time. It was all as cheerless and impersonal as possible.

Nora received something the size of an egg but heavy, wrapped in a puff of tissue and tied with a gold ribbon. She returned to her clutch of coworkers. They each weighed the gift in the palm of a hand and tried to guess what it might be.

“A stone,” Lily said

“A lump of coal,” Kate said.

“The heart of an executive,” Janice said.

While the lugubrious ceremony continued, Nora untied the ribbon and tore the tissue.

“Whoever said it was a stone wins,” she said. In her hand lay a round object carved from yellowish marble in the shape of an animal. It was worn and dirty, as though it had passed through many hands over many years.

“It’s a little cat, all curled up,” Lily said.

“I think it’s a rabbit,” Kate said.

“With those ears? Maybe a rat,” Janice said.

“Who would donate a rat to Secret Santa?” Nora asked.

“A baby seal?” Lily ventured. “If it weren’t so cold to the touch it would be cute.”

“Look, there’s something scratched on the bottom,” Kate said. “I can’t read it.”

“Me neither,” Lily said. She passed it to Janice, who studied the inscription.

“It’s Latin,” she said, and read aloud:

Hoc donum feret fortunam in annum,

Tum transfer ne lucrum evanescat.

“What does it mean?” Nora asked.

“Don’t look at me,” Lily said.

“Janice is the resident intellectual,” Kate said.

Janice glared. After a moment of concentration, a verse popped into her head, and she offered it as a translation:

This gift will bring good fortune for a year,

Then pass it on lest all gain disappear.

“So it’s a good luck rabbit,” Kate said.

“Or a stray cat,” Lily said.

“Whatever it is, you need to give it to someone else next Christmas,” Janice said.

“I wonder where it came from,” Nora said.

No one had the least idea.

* * *

The weekend passed normally, but on Monday morning Nora had to face the reality of being retired. After so many years of rising early, readying herself and the house, hurrying out the door, and being busy all day amid familiar faces and tasks, now she had nowhere to go and nothing to do. At the kitchen table, hands wrapped around her office mug, she lingered over coffee. She was still in pajamas and bathrobe. Why bother getting dressed?

The mood persisted through the week after Christmas. Divorced, her children grown and flown, Nora lived alone in the house where she raised them. The house was comfortable and paid for, but big and empty. She had friends and neighbors, but none who were close. At this stage of life, closeness was elusive. Hard to achieve, or no longer an issue? Some of both, she decided.

By January, Nora was ready to embark on her new life, or at least to craft a new routine. She rediscovered interests from her youth, interests that had lain dormant for decades, like playing the piano and reading serious books. She became a regular at the public library, where Hazel the librarian nodded at her in recognition. Nora tried keeping a journal, but gave it up after a week. Introspection had little appeal. She liked a broad view.

With more time to look and listen, all day and every day, Nora watched the sky, alive with gliding clouds and soaring birds. She savored the infinite variety of weather. She formed the habit of a daily walk, and noticed how no two things were alike, however much they followed a pattern—trees, houses, the details of porches and chimneys.

Lily, Kate, Janice, and Nora met for lunch twice, then coffee once. Nora appreciated the goodwill, but she had no interest in developments at the company. When financial operations were shipped to Minnesota, Kate and Janice lost their jobs, and Lily was demoted. Malone’s sour prediction was coming true. The four women found it impossible to coordinate their schedules, despite Lily’s valiant effort. She telephoned on the verge of tears.

“Let it go,” Nora said. After the call, she wondered how she could be so heartless.

Spring arrived, and Nora felt reborn. In April, as she filled out a form for income tax by an open window, the fresh air and arithmetic prompted a reassessment. Real estate taxes, yard service, roof repairs, and a cranky heating and cooling system were expenses she could do without. She ought to sell the house and move to a garden apartment. Maybe near the center of town, to cut down on driving. She wasn’t really old, and her health was good, but she foresaw the time when she would give up the car, another expense.

The house sold within days of putting on the market. Nora found a charming one-bedroom apartment with a lovely view. Faced with the task of shedding furniture, housewares, clothing, and closets full of things she had forgotten, Nora was ruthless. It was not a question of paring down but of slashing with a machete. She would sell whatever had value and donate the rest to a thrift shop.

While sorting, Nora came across the Secret Santa gift and wondered if she ought to toss it. The little carved animal took up no room, and it certainly was unique. She could see it in the apartment, on a shelf in the sun. She threw it still swaddled in tissue paper in a carton labeled “sundries” and moved at the end of May.

* * *

Nora invested the company payout and the proceeds from the house, but they generated less income than anticipated. She felt pinched by the loss of wages. There was monthly rent to pay, the cost of moving, and legal fees. A budget was in order.

Other adjustments had to be made. Getting around on foot in the new neighborhood entailed advance planning, a mental street map, and a pair of sensible shoes. Nora had to learn the names and faces of people in the apartment building. She invented a quick biography to rattle off when meeting someone new. A woman in the apartment next door had a parrot that talked, and to which she replied. The conversations that sifted through the wall were maddening, but only by day. The parrot had an early bedtime, thank goodness. Other people had dogs and cats, radios and televisions. Street noise was not bad, but odors wafted in through open windows—spicy cooking and burning incense.

On reflection, Nora decided that this was life. In her present circumstances, she ought to embrace it. Should she adopt a cat? She was more of a dog person. Walking the dog might be fun, but the beast would shed hair and make messes indoors. The apartment was easier to keep than the house. Life was simple. Why complicate it?

Nora settled in. Summer passed in a blur of minor errands, adventures, and experiments. Fall sharpened the sense of a fresh start and trying out things. She rearranged furniture, allowed a new stylist to color her hair, and sampled nearby restaurants. When a trim young man with sleek black hair, expensively dressed in a sport shirt and jacket, offered to share a table one night, Nora accepted with pleasure.

Owen worked in a bank. He was single, not dating, and baggage-free. Invited up for an after-dinner coffee, he heartily approved of what Nora had done with the apartment. He stayed the night. Without quite meaning to, Nora acquired a lover.

It was flattering to know she was still desirable. Yet intimacy was not the same as closeness. The affair was convenient for both, little more than a sexual fling. Neither said a word about his or her past, and the future did not exist.

Fall turned to winter, but mild weather continued. Dawn revealed frost that melted away in the first hour of sunlight. One such morning, a Sunday, they lazed in bed. A venue for brunch was yet to be determined.

“You remind me of an actress in a French film,” Owen said.

“Which one?” Nora was curious but still sleepy.

“Catherine Deneuve? Colette . . .”

“Colette was a writer, but you’re warm. In her youth, she sang and danced onstage.”

“What did she write?”

“Novels, stories, always about love.” Nora raised herself on one elbow. “Now that I think of it, she wrote about an older woman and her young lover Chéri, which means darling. It’s all very aristocratic and maudlin.”

“How so?”

“She renounces him. He’s rather spoiled, a beautiful boy.”

“Am I your boy toy?”

“Yes, darling.”

“Why does she renounce him?”

“He is engaged to marry an heiress younger than he is. That’s what they do in France.”

“What is this?” From the bedside table, Owen picked up the little stone carving.

“A gift.”

“From an admirer?”

Nora laughed. The prospect of jealousy struck her as ridiculous.

“An heirloom, then?”

“More of a raffle prize. To tell the truth, I know nothing about it.”

“There’s an inscription on the bottom.” Owen examined the little animal.

“A friend translated it for me:

This gift will bring good fortune for a year,

Then pass it on lest all gain disappear.”

“The lettering reminds me of what you see on the walls of the Catacombs. The sculpture looks like one I saw in a museum, an exhibit of ancient Roman artifacts.”

“It couldn’t be that old.”

“That would be fantastic. The Romans started the rigmarole of gift-giving, you know, at Saturnalia, December twenty-fifth. And they were madly superstitious.”

“Are you?”

“No, I don’t believe in magic.”

“What do you believe in?”

“This conversation is spinning out of control. Are you hungry?”

“Ravenous.”

“Then let’s get decent and go to the Italian place. My treat.”

* * *

By the end of the year, Nora had lost touch with the company and her ex-coworkers. What should she do with the gift? Repeats from the year before often showed up in Secret Santa, but that option was gone. And the animal wasn’t a white elephant by any stretch of the imagination. A baby rabbit with ears laid back, which the Romans linked to fertility and happiness—unless she was making up a story.

For that matter, what had she gained in the past year? When you put it that way, the answer was as plain as the nose on your face. Nora thought of Lily, a tear trickling down her snub nose. She would give Lily the gift of letting go.

Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, New York. From 1978 to 2016, he worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville, Virginia. His short stories and essays appear in Fiction International, Litro, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Poydras Review, The Short Story, and other magazines.

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