Gifts

Fiction / Ariel Lewis

1.

The storm-eye noses against the window, wet-grey like a dog. I am washing dishes by hand in the hot foam, in the sink beneath the water-beaten window. Already my hands are stinging; I can feel the red blisters preparing to emerge from my dry flesh like sand crabs after a hard rain. I search the bathroom cabinets for the tall bottles of lotion. The edge of my robe trails along the floor and the cat swings a lazy paw after it, too warm to get up from where he is laying across the top of a heater vent. I worry sometimes that he will get too hot and catch on fire. Then I will have to throw him out into the weather and who knows if he will ever come back.

The weather is so big, so wet and wide and grey that I feel there is nothing left in the world but this house, immense and empty, the whole world. I am waiting on a call from my sister, who is at the hospital with our mother, waiting for the results of our father’s open heart surgery. The whole family, together minus me. How will her call reach me through the eye of this storm’s needle? I wonder why the television, on its small pedestal, even exists. I could turn it on and the image would arrive hazily at center-screen, a news clip of cars driving through flooded streets, a sandbag floating away in one corner. Too much water. Or it would be an eighties sitcom, something with harsh oranges and yellows and reds, all in the center like a cluster of flowers. Too much laughter. But today the television and the phone do not exist—are not working—so there are no voices other than mine and even it feels half-formed, one cracked shell away from birth in this one-house world.

I spread the lotion generously over my hands.

The cat pads over and says, “There’s me.” He pools himself in the center of a hand-knotted rug, which I made by cutting old sheets into strips and then tying them. For a period of years I had done those sorts of things, made things out of other things and then sold them to people for whom the idea of transformation, of working by hand, was an anomaly. They paid too much, and I traveled around, staying in the big empty houses of rich people, watching their belongings sit stupidly while they were gone on vacation. Sometimes there was a dog or furred rug to look after. Sometimes, fish. But mostly I was thing-watching, eating foods that without me would have spoiled on the shelf. I used their lavish shampoos. My time traipsing around cost-free was a kind of elaborate gift.


2.

In German, the word “Gift” means poison. I feel it in my chest like a swallowed stone.

In each of the past three months, before I moved into this big house, I received a package from a married couple I knew from my time housesitting. The wife was a doctor and made all the couple’s money. The husband was a hobbyist: dog showing, motorcycles, photography, cinematography. He decided how their money should be spent. The packages contained outrageously handsome gifts that had no bearing on my actual life, but maybe suggested something about what the couple thought my life was like, or should be like. The first was a survival kit, compiled with great care by the couple’s own hands. It arrived inside a beautiful army-green canvas bag, which itself came wrapped in bubble paper and a box that had been meticulously labeled, accompanied by a card that read, “We believe in spoiling good people.” I had extended my thanks, and kept the kit in the back of the car where I supposed it could one day, theoretically, save me from extinction.

The second gift was even stranger: two authentic props from the set of a television show of speculative nature, which I had never watched. The props arrived with certification and a note to the effect of, “Someday, when you are famous, we expect acknowledgement.” I had briefly told them about my life’s ambitions, and assumed this was what they meant. I did not know what to do with the props—a vase and a plastic beaded necklace—and so I kept them in their box, moving them around whenever they got in the way. The cat enjoyed sleeping on top of the boxes, and all in all it seemed like a funny thing. I made jokes about the gifts to friends over dinner. My friends’ responses were troubled. I did not write the couple back, hoping they would understand how their generosity had made me uncomfortable.

When the third gift arrived I did not open it. The box was marked in thick red pen: “FRAGILE, pronounced FRA-GI-LE.” I did not know what to make of this. Was it a reference to something I should have understood, something I would have understood had my life conformed to the one imagined for me by the couple? The life in which I was a survivalist who enjoyed speculative T.V.? They were the sort of people possessed of the money and comeuppance to arrive at my doorstep unannounced. That was when I began searching for houses, and I found this one: timely, capacious, address unknown to them.

In the meantime, I continued to receive their letters, asking if the last two packages had arrived. “Next time,” they said, “We’ll pay extra for tracking.” Ignoring them made me feel cruel and low. This is how the gifts poisoned me. The shame I will feel if I ever see them again.


3.

Now I live in this house, which is the only house in the world, and because of this I no longer receive gifts. But I don’t receive anything else, either. I am sitting by the phone waiting for my sister to call with news of our father’s surgery. “Nora,” she will say very angrily, like I have done something wrong.

“How is Dad?” I might ask.

“Wouldn’t you like to know?”

She seems so old. She has children, for one thing. She is married, another.

If I am lucky I will get my mother on the phone. Old age has made her forgetful, but she is pleasant still, and very sweet. She still sings to me in German, songs her mother sang to her, the sounds all running together into nonsense: Galumph galumph ga-rider, ich galich Galider. She says, “Nora, my sweet perfect babe,” and hums a nice tune. Sometimes she thinks I am still a baby, and then I have to explain to her why I live so far. We have a few shared memories, mostly from my childhood, and we trade them back and forth.

One: a visit from my grandparents when I was twelve. My mother had poured years of neglected domesticity into steam cleaning the carpet and bleaching the grout on the kitchen counters. The house was all she had to show them who she’d become. Her effort was a hunched one, animal, desperate; it was ignorant of sweat and back pain and dirt-blackened nails. It began at sunrise and ended in exhaustion. My father chose to ignore her insanity for those two or three days, retreating outside to do his small part—mowing the lawn. I was never so fortunate. As years of visits accumulated, I began to associate my grandparents with rubber gloves and lye.

The day of their arrival dusk fell like a slow drip. The sky was brown-blue when the SUV curved against the edge of the sidewalk, a U-Haul trailer swinging behind in a large afterthought. Oma untangled herself from her seatbelt and plopped out onto the concrete like a ball of dough. Her teeth were large and polished, graying in the spaces. My grandfather waited for her to unload his wheelchair.

They had come to see us because they were in the process of selling their house. They had boxes of my mother’s old things to dispense. They laid the boxes out in the garage like drying fish and slowly, over a process of days, gutted every one. Look, Grandfather said, handing something bright and lumpy to my mother. Here is the mobile you crocheted in the eighth grade. And here, your book of bug photos. This old yearbook. Your dead aunt’s necklace. The little green diary. Some hand-carved wooden spoons.

When my mother’s memory started to go, my father went down into the basement looking for the green diary. He hoped it might help her preserve some of her memories. When I was a child it had rested at the bottom of her bureau, wrapped in yellowed silk underwear. My father called me, asking after it.

“You know the one,” he said, as if it—as if everything about my mother’s life—wasn’t a secret. “With the lock, the green leather?”

“No,” I said, “Why would I know?”

Now, alone in the house, with the storm outside at its angriest, I find the book where it is stashed in a drawer of my dresser, rusted shut, crackled. I could split the binding open easily. I could snap the tiny lock with a pair of wire cutters, or maybe with my bare hands. The metal dust would smear yellow-orange like the rusted hitches and chains left along a coastal highway, stretching deep into the redwoods, into my mother’s childhood. I could follow the trail there, if I wanted, and her voice might come back to me: the phone ringing, ringing, and ringing. An echo to populate the house, and good news on the line.

Ariel Lewis a graduate of the M.F.A. program in Fiction at Washington University in St. Louis, where she was also the Third Year Fellow. Her short prose has appeared or is forthcoming in The Literary Review, Flock, Klipspringer Magazine, and Green Briar Review, and was awarded a scholarship from the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. Currently, she lives in Miami, Florida, where she works as an English and creative writing teacher.