Monday, February 13, 2012

#20: "Other Fine Gifts" by Jeffrey N. Johnson

~This piece previously appeared in The Evansville Review (2007)
           
            Last year, despite the problems at home, I was intent on celebrating the season. I took solace in the city and all its festivity, each afternoon stealing an hour after classes to wander the downtown streets in search of the perfect gift. The lampposts trailing down Wisconsin Avenue were garnished with frozen wreaths and red ribbon, and the happy and hurried faces of shoppers blew by like snowflakes in a storm. As I joined a flow of people in front of the bookstore and pushed into the vestibule, a blast of hot air washed over me, but I was suddenly warmed on the inside by a familiar face – an old college flame twenty years removed from my life stood before me with little silver bells dangling from her ears. We stood toe-to-toe like wooden dolls and blinked at each other.
            “Oh my God,” she said. “Roger Loughlin?”
            But for the crow’s feet, Loren possessed the same appeal, both the sexual and the intangible, as she did in college. Her hair bounced lightly on her shoulders and she wore a long cashmere coat that somehow managed to show her figure. She looked like she would drop her bags to hug me, but held on as if she carried some fragile gift. Instead, she grabbed my arm and raised her cheek to mine in a kind of mock kiss that didn’t seem to leave either of us satisfied.
 
            “Loren,” I said, smiling for the first time in a while. “I heard rumors you were still in town. I never knew where to find you.”
            “I’m found everywhere, Roger. There’s no place I’m not.” She still had a spice about her, some tingling energy that always gave me a rise. I stared at her pink cheeks and fumbled for words, but she kept things going. “I heard through the grapevine you got tenure.”
            “A life sentence,” I said.
            She looked down and tugged my sleeve. “My God. Is that the same coat you wore in school?”
            “I have a few irrational attachments. Coats, old baseball gloves . . . my wife.”
            “Silly. How’s Trish? It is Trish, isn’t it?”
            I shifted my stance as though casually satisfying an itch. My first thought was that Trish and I were enduring each other.
            “It’s an endearing relationship. Marital bliss, kids, the usual.”
            “I’m on husband number three and tentatively holding.” She gave a little shrug. “I wish husbands were more like Christmas gifts. I can return Christmas gifts.”
            For a brief second, after catching a familiar glint in her eye, I remembered the night in college I snuck up the dorm stairwell to her room. I was half drunk and out of shape, so I stopped on the way up to catch my breath, dodging into one of the dorm’s kitchens. I raided the refrigerator for beer, but it was dry, so I opened the freezer and found a big chunk of meat. I grabbed it and ran the rest of the stairs to her door where I made up a secret knock. She pulled me in, locked the door behind us and ground into me. It didn’t take her long to find the cold lump under my coat.  “What’s that?” she asked between kisses. “A gift,” I said. “I think it’s a pot roast.”
            Now Loren stood before me like a freshly trimmed tree. Her smell triggered old memories, but what did I really know of her anymore? All our intimate moments were buried under three husbands and countless hairstyles. Though I wondered what it would be like to be with her again, it saddened me to realize that all of my old impressions were open for question. She was the same, but different, wearing the immeasurable of what she had become.
            She kept staring at my coat. “There are a lot of things I would return if I could,” she said quietly. She touched on bits of her life, graced with an occasional reference to our college days, causing us both to smile and blush. We finally exchanged phone numbers and agreed to do lunch one day, but when we parted she cupped my hand and said goodbye as though there would soon be another twenty years between us.
            She left me to peruse the book shelves, but my eyes passed aimlessly over the titles with no more interest than folding laundry. I was stuck on the idea of returning things, of going back and starting over. Loren and I had always been on and off, and I think that in my lair of insecurities, I considered her a backup in case I didn’t find anyone. That illusion was shattered after graduation when she married her first husband and dropped away into life. Grad school proved to be a cold replacement. I spent my dissertation wavering between bad dates and solitude, until loneliness, that great motivator of simple men, compelled me to marry.
            Needing to clear my head, I spent the next hour wandering the tree-lined streets of Georgetown, sneaking glances through windows of majestic brick row houses so I might live vicariously in someone else’s life. I contemplated my failures and trails not taken. I eventually found myself in front of Georgetown University, the place I always considered the origin of my adult wanderings. From where I stood, I could see my office window, as well as Loren’s old dormitory, the path between full of unexpected turns.
            Noticing the hour, I left for home down P Street. Abandoned trolley rails sliced the street into alternating bands of cobblestone and steel, and I followed the old line east and watched the rails eventually break and fade under Wisconsin Avenue. There was never an evening I crossed that intersection when I didn’t wonder where the lines had gone in their prime. The trolleys were scrapped in the ‘60s, part of the city’s blood-line severed.
           
            A narrow brick alley runs beside my house and I always felt it was more satisfying to bypass the front foyer and follow the enveloping alley to the back door off the kitchen. That evening, after pausing a moment to peer through the window, I took a deep breath and went inside. I felt the house’s age as I shut the door. Warmth seemed to seep away through every crack and joint, and I stood where all the cool drafts converged.
            I hung up my coat and cap, rustled my remaining hair back to life. The coat was a down-filled trash bag twenty years out of style, but it was a skin in which I always felt comfortable. Trish let me wear it in public only when I was alone.
            “You didn’t pick them up?” Trish whisked into the kitchen in her business suit and stocking feet. She took control of the room, opening and closing cabinet doors as if she were the only one authorized to do so.
            “They’re staying after school,” I said. “They have a ride. We discussed this last night.” She took a can of string beans from the cabinet and examined the label.
            “You didn’t shop did you?”
            “I couldn’t find anything that struck me.”
            “That’s the problem. You’re always looking for things that strike you.”
            “Let’s not start this again.” I felt the muscles in my face begin to tighten.
            “You should look for things that are striking to them. Not bows and coconuts. Fine gifts they were.”
            “They seemed to like them okay,” I replied weakly.
            “I’ve taken care of the shopping.”
            I sighed, shook my head. Things had been this way for the past year and I was beginning to wear down. “So what are we getting them?”
            “TVs for their rooms. And they’re each getting the newest video games.”
            “Video games? Christ.”
            “And I have two each of those new scooters hidden in the trunk of the car, so don’t let them go snooping around.”
            The city was full of pot holes, busted sidewalks, and cobble stones. Where did she expect them to scoot? I watched her put a block of frozen ground beef in the microwave and push ‘defrost’.
            “You should learn to spend more quality time with them,” she said.
            I wanted to storm the hell out of there, go back to the bookstore, anywhere, maybe call Loren, but I just retreated to the den and sank into a soft chair. For Trish it was all about the latest fad, what was in. I had tried to explain to her that the gift is in their perception, in what they do with things, what they make of them.
            The prior Christmas I marveled as my son Ross contemplated his coconut. He started by puzzling over the mysterious slushing inside. Then he spent the winter in the basement hurling it in a make-shift bowling alley at any of his toys that would stand up. By spring it was dried out and cracked, the husk ready for peeling. I watched him tear the outer casing away and squeal. He held the hairy ball in the air like he’d just found a secret treasure. After pulling the hairs off the shell and placing them in a pin box for safekeeping, it was time for the inner fluid to be liberated. He tried the side of a tree, rocks, both round and sharp, and finally a fling out the upper bedroom window. I remember the milk splashing on Trish’s car.
            My daughter Jamie’s gift was just as much fun to watch in all its incarnations. I gave her a spool of red ribbon, the most beautiful glowing hue you could imagine. I found it at an industrial surplus – a bolt of 10,000 linear feet, and I gave her reign over the house. With no more than her hands and a pair of scissors, she bowed and draped everything in sight for six months. I took the closet doors down in her bedroom so she could replace them with dangling red streamers. She wrapped all the old radiators in the house in neo-De Stijl compositions, and with a quick wisp of her scissors, she made curly shavings for punk doll hair and garnishes for her cap. Once, when I was sick, I woke to find bows on my toes.
            The house shook as Jamie and Ross burst through the back door in a cold huff, mittens and boots flying. Through the door I saw Trish give each a hug, which did remind me where her heart was, though I couldn’t recall the last time I received such affection.
            “You two get washed up and ready for dinner,” I heard her say.
            The two of them tumbled into the den. Jamie, still wearing her cap with a curl of red, gave me a peck on the cheek and plopped into a chair with her book-bag. Ross, his nose running and face flush from the cold, made for the television.
            “Homework first.” I said. After a quick and exaggerated sulk, he turned to me.
            “Daddy, why do you have a bald spot?”
            “It’s a sign of good luck. Pat it and your wish comes true.”
            “It does not.”
            “Sure it does.”
            “Jamie said you have a bald spot because you’re smart.”
            “She’s not lying. Just stretching the imagination.” Jamie looked up from her homework with a sly smile and twirled her hair with a pencil.
            Ross came to my side and put his little hand to my crown. “Pat, pat, pat,” he said.
            “Having any luck?” I looked at his red face from the corner of my eye.
            “I don’t know.”
            “You’ve got to make a wish, stupid,” Jamie said.
            “Jamie.” I gave her an eye.
            “Sorry. What’s for dinner?”
            “Your mother is making meatloaf.”
            Ross pulled his hand away. “Nope, it doesn’t work.” He grabbed his book bag and ran upstairs.

            That Christmas, the last in my own home, Trish gave me a book, “101 Things To Do With Your Children,” and a six-pack of tube socks. Three weeks later she threw me out, another blood-line severed.
            I left through the front foyer like an unwanted guest, the door slamming harder than I intended, which shamed me for probably scaring the kids. I walked down the root cracked sidewalk in the January freeze, hailed a cab on M Street, and cried a hemorrhaging fit all the way to a motel in Arlington. I carried two suitcases, both of which Trish had packed, and two books; an old family bible and a book on Socrates. I grabbed them on the way out in a sad attempt to take a piece of that life with me. I don’t know why I choose those two, but I remember wanting to keep things simple. I told myself that one was about a carpenter, the other about a man who spent his life asking questions.

            Trish announced her engagement right after the following Thanksgiving. After the gut illness of the first few days passed, it was no big deal. A relief, really. But on that first lamenting day I tortured over the past, going on long walks with my old coat enveloping me like a security blanket. All these years I was just passing time, losing my hair, under the illusion of marital tenure.
            I went back to the bookstore on Wisconsin Avenue and stared blankly into the stacks, just like I did after my encounter with Loren. And it occurred to me that Loren and I had broken up for the last time the week after I snuck up the stairs to her dorm room. One stupid question flashed into my head: How could I not have asked her about the pot roast? Did she eat it? Was it tender? Did she make a nice brown gravy with it? Did she share it with another guy? What in God’s name did she do with the pot roast? At that moment, I think I would have exchanged all my gifts for another shot.
            That evening I sat on a plastic kitchen chair in my one-bedroom apartment, eating some sort of processed microwave meat food. I had carried her number in my wallet since the day I saw her, and now it was laying on the table by the phone. I could pick it up and call her any time. No reason I shouldn’t.
            I was wearing the leather bracelet Jamie had given me for Christmas the year before, and I turned it around my wrist. She made it in art class, and it had my name embossed on one side and the words Know Yourself on the other. Across the kitchen table sat Ross’s present, a birdhouse he made from scrap wood. The roof was slightly skewed and the perch was the stub of a #2 pencil with a drip of paint sagging from the tip. He put the last of the coconut hairs inside “to give the birds a head start,” he had said, but the house sat unoccupied, sheltering nothing. I stirred my food and looked at my bracelet and birdhouse, and it occurred to me these were the most beautiful things in my world.

            On Constitution Avenue, at the foot of the National Archives, lies a ring of ice with skaters circling, some hand-in-hand, others meandering as though searching for nothing at all. The Hirshhorn Museum, like a conscience, watches from across the Mall with a stern eye. Ross sat on the bench with his skate between my legs as I wrestled with his laces. Jamie was tying her own behind me.
            “Tie them tight, Jamie. Real tight,” I said over my shoulder.
            “But they hurt when they’re too tight.”
            “Well, not that tight. Trust me. You want to get it just right.”
            “If I don’t get it right, I can always go back and do it over.”
            I paused.
            “Just do the best you can, sweetie.”
            The Zamboni hummed across the ice and wiped away the old tracks, leaving shining wet ribbons in its wake. Jamie and Ross were poised at the gate. A whistle blew and play resumed, silver blades kicking.
            “Look, Dad! I’ll make a figure eight,” Jamie called.
            “Bet’cha can’t.” Ross hot-dogged by her.
            “Can too!” Jamie whipped her head toward me in revelation. “Daddy, pat your bald spot for me! Pat your head good luck!”
            With one skate on, the other limp on the rubber mat, I dropped my laces and patted my shining crown, mustering all the forces of good luck at my disposal.
            Jamie bent and wobbled on one leg, arms spread soaring, a slow motion sail. Ross, ever chiding, glided around her without even trying. Their gifts were known and I was their origin, and there was nothing behind them nor safety net below. I kept patting my head, watched them spin away from my cold feet, carelessly slicing their trails in the virgin ice. Don’t stop, I whispered to no one. Please don’t ever stop. Let me see where you go.

*****

THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY

            The origin of “Other Fine Gifts” was a Proustian moment I once experienced walking out of a crowded store and catching the scent of a long lost girlfriend. Not the smell of her perfume or hair spray, but of the oils and pheromones she secreted, which to me always seem as unique as a snowflake or a fingerprint. It was so powerful that I stopped cold and whipped around, expecting to see her, but the holiday shoppers nearly ran me over. I pushed back inside and scanned the crowd. I had no idea what happened to this girl, where she went after college or what career she had pursued – I hadn’t given her a thought in years – but standing there stupidly in the flow of shoppers, I was actually a little surprised that she was not there.
            The reminder of a distant intimacy sent my mind wandering over the past, grumbling over old failures and questioning every decision I ever made. I was obviously having a bad day. I soon came to my senses and reminded myself that “what ifs”are best left to fiction.
            One of the places I used to physically wander was Georgetown in Washington, DC, a favorite haunt in my post-college twenties. There you can still see one of America’s great urban tragedies in the loss of the mass transit trolley lines in the 1950s. DC still has a few ghost rails running down its streets and I was fascinated by the old iron rails embedded in the pavement along P Street. There was something sad and sublime about them, and I knew I’d found a good metaphor. The rest of the story grew as I wandered on the page.
            I realize none of this explains the meat references throughout the story. Perhaps I was just hungry.

*****
ABOUT JEFFREY N. JOHNSON
Jeffrey N. Johnson’s short stories have appeared in The Sewanee Review, which awarded him the Andrew Lytle Fiction Prize in 2011, Connecticut Review, Lake Effect, Clackamas Literary Review, Evansville Review, South Dakota Review, Night Train Magazine, North Atlantic Review, The Summerset Review, The Distillery, Licking River Review, Potomac Review, REAL: Regarding Arts and Letters, and Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature. His poems have appeared in South Carolina Review and Gargoyle Magazine. He’s a fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA), and a recipient of a “creative fellow” grant from the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia with his wife and twin babies.

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