Unexpected Gifts, 2017

by Bess Vanrenen


I made a point of giving the letters to Ed. After the first: “Did you see this, Ed? It’s from the bank.” After the second or third: “It’s another letter from the bank, Ed. It looks important.” He’d just smile and wave me away, saying he’d “get to it later” and “it’s nothing to worry about.” But he never got to it, and I did worry. I put the unopened letters onto the bar in the kitchen. The bar, made out of dark wood, was built into a wall and opened into the dining room. Like the rest of the house, it was getting older. The surface was chipping, revealing wood composite underneath, and dust collected in the corners.

The letters were Ed’s to open because the mortgage was in his name. That, and he had a thing about the “big” bills. He’d pay them and I’d manage the rest. But when it came to money, he was like a clown juggling bowling pins. It might have looked like he had it under control, but the pins couldn’t stay airborne forever. Still, I let the letters stack up on the bar.

One gloomy June day, the doorbell rang. The mailman stood there holding a letter in one hand and a pen in the other. His mouth drooped underneath his moustache, and the sky above him was lead-pipe gray.

As I took the letter and shut the door, I made out the words “certified” and “official” on the label. My skin flushed despite the chilly day, and I felt so dizzy, I had to lean against the door. It was from the bank.

When Ed came home from work, I showed him the letter—“This one came certified mail, Ed.” But like before he shrugged it off.

I could feel slackness in my jaw. Though I’m sure it looked to everyone else like passiveness, it was really suppressed anger. But the fear that had gripped me when the letter arrived pushed me forward, “I need you to open this and tell me it doesn’t say what I think it does.”

Suddenly Lindsey, my oldest, brushed past us to get something from the cupboard. “What doesn’t say what?”

I was struck by her casual tone, as though none of this really mattered. But that was what I had always wanted: for her to feel like nothing truly bad could ever happen to us.

After dinner, I called Ed into the living room. “We need to talk about the letters.” I had to force out the next words. “Are we losing our home?”

“No. Heck no.” He wagged his head like a dog shaking water from its ears. “Call Wells Fargo and ask. Call up our bank and you’ll see. I’ve been making payments.”

“Why the letters then? Open this and explain what’s happening.”

“Sure, sweet cheeks.” My jaw tightened at his sometimes-nickname for me, but at the same time a strange sort of relief rushed through me. I’d finally know the truth.

He took the certified letter from me and dropped onto the La-Z Boy armchair. “But hey, I’m damn tired from work. That Ynez Road house is an electrical fire waiting to happen.” He placed the letter on the end table. “We’ll open it tomorrow, right after I get home, okay?”

And just like that, the energy I’d stored up to confront him was gone.

The brown leather of the chair he sat in was still dark and smooth, but the rug it sat on was stained where the dog had shat. For every luxury item in the house, there were ten everyday ones that were in need of replacing. Half of the luxury items had been gifts from Ed to me. They were things I’d never asked for and didn’t want.

***

The next morning, I got up and made an egg sandwich for Ed. I managed to avoid kissing him goodbye by disappearing into the bathroom when it was time for him to leave. After the door shut behind him, I returned to the kitchen and made breakfast for the girls, snapping at Christy not to let in our beagle, Tucker, who’d been under my feet all morning. While I yelled, the bacon cooked to a chalky brown.

In the doorway, Christy eyed me, “Aren’t you forgetting something, Mom?”

I patted my jean pockets. “What?” I asked.

Christy pointed to her cheek.

“You’re thirteen years old, Christy,” I said. Her neediness made me feel claustrophobic. The only one who didn’t ask anything of me was Lindsey.

She drew back, like I’d hit her. Chastised, I put my hands on her shoulders and kissed her cheek. “But you’re still my little girl.”

Almost as soon as the door was shut, I was back in the kitchen putting a kettle on the stove. I planned to use the steam to open the letter so that Ed wouldn’t know I did it. While I waited for the water to boil, I stared at the stack of letters. They recalled the stacks of unpaid bills I amassed on my hand-me-down kitchen table in my early twenties.

My first husband, Bobby, went to war and came back in pieces, and then left me while I was pregnant with Christy. I had to move back into my childhood home, where I was forced to listen to my mother quote Bible passages: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.”

Not long after, Ed appeared and chased me in the usual way. When he came over to my parents’ house with a Minnie Mouse doll for Lindsey and an antique rattle for Christy, I knew I’d marry him. He didn’t make my heart race, but he was a good man, one capable of providing for his family. Or so it seemed at the time.

When the teapot screeched, I jumped, and then rolled my eyes at myself for it. I picked up the certified letter, on top of the stack, and walked back to the stovetop. I pressed the lever, releasing the steam, and placed the envelope flap-side-forward over the pot. After about 45 seconds, I took a butter knife and inserted it into the flap.

At first it moved freely, and then a car approached, its engine whirring, and I looked up. The car passed just as the knife reached the stickiest part of the adhesive and the flap tore. But the tear was small. I waved the envelope in front of the steam and tried again. This time the stickiness gave.

I sat down at the kitchen table with the letter in hand. But the room stunk of burnt bacon. And it felt too open, so I secluded myself in the upstairs bathroom, where, perched on the edge of the tub, I took the letter out of the envelope. But I still couldn’t read it.

I closed my eyes, my mind going back to when we first moved into the house, a Spanish-style two-story in a development on what used to be the outskirts of town. Even after eleven years and how things stood between Ed and me, the house was still mine and part of me loved it. It was nearly all I had.

I opened my eyes and unfolded the letter:

You are being served with the attached Complaint to Foreclose Mortgage due to a default in your monthly mortgage payments. I am an attorney for the mortgage company and cannot give you legal advice. However, the Plaintiff mortgage company wants you to be aware that there are options available to you to help save your home….

A wave of nausea passed over me and I slid to the floor and leaned over the toilet. I gagged but nothing came. I heaved over the toilet for several minutes. My breathing slowly returned to normal and the feeling of sickness passed. But there was a rock in the pit of my stomach. It was as though all my imprecise worries about our finances had condensed into a hard ball.

***

Over the next few weeks, I had phantom arguments with Ed about our finances. He never brought up the certified letter again, but then again neither did I. I shot him angry glances from across the room, but I couldn’t talk about it with him. The same emotions that distilled inside me would dissipate before they became part of the world. And all the while, new letters kept coming, joining the old ones in the stack on the bar.

I called our bank almost every day to see if the mortgage had been paid. I had to sit through an automated voice announce our last ten payments and the last ten payments before that and so on for twelve days before I heard what I’d been listening for. The mortgage check had gone through, but it hadn’t been made out in the full amount. It was good news and bad news all wrapped together.

Sometimes, out of nowhere, the reality of the situation would hit me full force, or a memory of us doing something as a family would resurface, and I’d have to catch my breath. On some level I knew if we lost the home, we’d lose our family, too.

In those weeks, I became a meticulous meal planner. I took up sewing again and made the girls summer dresses. I even considered getting a job, circling openings in the classifieds in pencil, thin gray ovals over black and white newsprint. But I’d been out of the job market for years, and the only thing I was qualified to do was answer phones. There was no way I could earn enough to make a difference.

***

Not long after I read the letter, Ed sauntered into the kitchen for dinner. I had made slow cooker pot roast. “Smells good,” he said, patting his belly. I watched him as he walked right past the bar without even a glance at the letters. Something simmered inside me.

Soon Lindsey and Christy came in, and the sound of knifes scratching plates and mouths chomping filled the room.

Right in the middle of a bite, Ed said, “You’ll never believe what happened to me today.” His clownish voice took over the room.

He launched into a long story about a batty old woman who mistook him for her son while he was redoing her electrical wiring. He didn’t have the heart to tell her the truth, so when she asked him things like where he’d been these past years and if he was married now, he started making things up to please her. It was an Ed story, the kind I used to like, the kind that reminded me of why I married him. That night, I regarded him with expressionless eyes.

“Oh, Dad,” Lindsey said, smiling despite herself.

The word “Dad” echoed in my ears. After all these years, it jarred me, and I wanted to say, “He’s not your father.” I wanted to tell them their father was quiet and serious. I wished I could say he was responsible, too. But he wasn’t. He’d left his daughters and me without a word, without anything.

Soon, it looked like everyone had finished eating. I eyed the serving dish and the plates. There was enough pot roast left for lunches over the next few days.

“Another delicious meal,” Ed said, pushing back his chair with a grating squeak.

Before I could tell the girls to clear their plates, Ed whistled for Tucker.

“Come ’ere, boy. You’ll like this,” he said, stabbing a large piece of meat with his fork so juice squirted out.

There was enough food there for an entire meal. The anger simmering inside me boiled over. I slapped my palms against the table and shouted, “No!”

The kitchen was quiet, except for Tucker, who was whining at Ed’s feet. The whole family was staring at me.

“That’s perfectly good food,” I said. “It’s not for the dog.” I took Ed’s plate from him and walked to the counter, my palms stinging from smacking against the table.

I heard Lindsey muttering “Jeez” under her breath. But Ed said, “Mom’s right, of course. A penny saved is a penny earned. Come on, Christy, let’s get Tucker a bone.”

***

A few weeks later, I walked into the foyer with two bags of groceries in hand. Before I could even step inside, Tucker was there, pushing his way out.

“No,” I told him, fending him off with one foot.

Tucker whined, and when I ignored him, he whined more loudly and jumped up, scratching my leg.

“Bad boy,” I said. “Down,” and I fumbled down the hall. Tucker, smelling the hamburger meat, followed me.

“No,” I repeated, but he didn’t listen. He jumped up again, this time ripping one of the grocery bags. It broke, and a carton of eggs and the ground beef fell. The eggs cracked and splattered over the carpet. When I bent over to clean it up, I heard the sound of Tucker eating and turned to see him devouring the beef.

“No,” I yelled. “Stop it. No!” But he didn’t stop, and it didn’t matter, anyway—the food was ruined. I’d spent all we had for groceries for the week, and the dog had eaten enough beef for two or three meals.

Without thinking, I kicked him. At first, I just wanted to get him away from the meat. Tucker yelped and inched back, but the food was still on the ground, luring him back.

“No!” I yelled again. Then I kicked him again, harder. He yelped more loudly this time, and then I grabbed him by the collar and dragged him into the hall closet, which was barely big enough to fit a vacuum cleaner. He didn’t want to go in, but I shoved him. I pushed him so hard, his hind legs got caught under his fore legs and he fell over. Then I slammed the door. I could hear him whimpering on the other side, but I didn’t relent.

Banging on the door, I yelled, “Look what you did! Look what you did! You ruin everything!”

Out of breath, I turned around and leaned against the door. By then Tucker was silent. I looked up to see Christy standing there, eyes unblinking, mouth open. She looked from me to the closet.

I started to say something, but what was there to say.

Opening the door, I saw Tucker curled against the wall, not hurt but scared. When he saw me, his floppy ears receded and his brown eyes grew large. I looked away.

“Put him outside, Christy,” I said, not to punish him, but because I wanted to be alone. Christy cooed at Tucker and cajoled him away.

***

And then the range came. It was a Saturday. I was standing at the kitchen counter with a knife in my hand, slathering Miracle Whip on a slice of bread. Ed sat at the table. He picked up the weekend paper and put it down again, his gaze flitting from me to the street-facing window. I watched him out of the corner of my eye, sensing something was going on.

The window was open but there was no wind that day. At the whir of the engine of a passing car, Ed got up and then sat back down. I let my eyes rest on him a minute before walking to the refrigerator, the knife still in my hand.

Then there was another whir, louder this time, more of a grumble. It became more pronounced as it approached the house, just as a whoosh of cold air escaped the refrigerator, covering my arms with goosebumps.

The grumbling outside stopped, replaced by squeaking breaks. I turned around and saw a blue “NCES” on the side of a white van parked in front of our house, the first several letters blocked from view.

Ed stood up, no longer trying to hide his smile. It had to be one of his gifts.

Another kind of cold spread through me.

Beaming, Ed walked down the hall and waved me over. I put one foot in front of the other and followed him out to the front yard, where two men in blue suits lifted something out of the back of the van. A 48-inch stainless steel Viking range. A $7,000 appliance.

I supported myself against the scratchy stucco of the house. It was like that day in the bathroom, only worse. I knew if I fell down this time, I’d never get back up again.

Ed finally looked at me, really looked at me, and the corners of his mouth twitched. “It’s a Viking,” he said, his normally loud voice weak. “The sales guy said it was the best.”

I turned my head and closed my eyes. Behind shut eyes, I could see the orange of the sun, feel its blazing warmth on my cheeks. The moment seemed to last forever.

After I opened my eyes and took in the scene, I started laughing, at first just a little, and then a lot and hard and loud. Ed tried to smile but his mouth wavered. Even he could tell I wasn’t laughing because I was happy.

The workers asked where they should put the stove. Ed stammered.

No longer laughing, I said, “We don’t need a damn range. We can’t afford a damn range.”

The men in blue exchanged glances.

“What if we don’t want it?” Ed asked the men.

One of them shrugged. “It’s bought and paid for. We have to deliver it.”

I took a few steps toward them. “I’ll show you where the kitchen is,” I said, but I was looking at Ed.

As we walked through the house, I pointed out every chip in the paint, every snag in the carpet, every scuff in the furniture. Everything we should have been spending our money on, if we’d had any money to spend.

I was talking to the workers, but of course I meant it for Ed, who trailed behind me. One of the men said, “Yes, ma’am.” I could see the other was holding back laughter.

The only way they could get the range to fit was by moving the refrigerator, which then jutted into the entryway at the back of the house. Once the Viking was set up, the rest of the kitchen looked shabby in comparison, which made me scoff again.

The whole time we were in there, the letters pulled me toward them. It was as though I was revolving around them, like they were the sun and I was a planet.

Finally, I picked up the top one and waved it in front of Ed. “Don’t worry about it? You’ll take care of it?” I threw the letter at his feet. But that wasn’t enough. I picked up the rest of the stack. “Is that what this is? Taking care of it?” I started throwing all the letters at Ed, only half-noticing the workers backing out of the room.

“Don’t you see it, Ed?” I said when I ran out of letters, my breathing ragged. “We’re going to lose the house. And I’m not following you to some shabby apartment somewhere.”

His long face crumpled. Somehow I hadn’t expected the words to hurt him.

“How could I ever trust you again?” I said, to soften it. But that was only half true. The other part was what it sounded like. I didn’t love him enough to follow him just anywhere.

Almost as soon as I said the words, setting me on a path I couldn’t turn around from, something in the room shifted. It seemed darker, as though the lights had been dimmed. Just like before, the memories we’d shared came back to me—everyday moments, like watching “Twin Peaks” with Ed after Lindsey and Christy were asleep, until it got too strange; Ed teaching Lindsey how to rewire a lamp; making the girls last-minute Halloween costumes on the living room floor—one year, inexplicably, a cockroach costume for Christy.

The images I’d formed of our future together came to me then, too. First dates and dances for the girls, Ed poking them with corsage pins. Family trips to Disneyland and Catalina Island. I’d never seen the bison there. Graduation Day.

All the images became snapshots falling to the ground like the letters I threw.

I held Ed, my chest pressing against him tightly as in other, different moments of intimacy.

Then I let go and walked out of the kitchen.

***

After that, my anger toward Ed turned into a fuzzy sort of indifference, which spread to most of my relationships and responsibilities. I stopped doing the cooking and cleaning. I never even used the damn range. I said little to the girls and stopped talking to Ed altogether. He moved into the living room.

The Notice of Default helped me predict, almost down to the day, when the foreclosure would start. I assumed Ed wouldn’t make any more payments—of course he wouldn’t—and I planned on living in my house until then. Wherever I went after, I knew that it wouldn’t be with Ed.

I spent most of my time in my bedroom. The indifference I felt toward my old life didn’t extend to my new, temporary one. One day, after a bath, I was watching “Meet the Kardashians” in bed. During commercials, I rearranged my bangs just so, imagining myself with Kris’s short, choppy style. I caught sight of a milkmaid figurine near the TV stand. My body tensed. It was part of a set that Ed had bought me. One of the many presents that I hadn’t wanted. I thought I’d wiped all traces of him from the room.

I got off the bed and picked up the milkmaid. She had a pale face and arms. She wore a white cap and skirt. Her shirt and eyes were blue. A pole was slung over her shoulders on which two pails of milk hung. The figurine was solid, though it felt temptingly breakable in my hands. I turned it over, and there on its base I noticed the brand name. It was a name I was familiar with but hadn’t thought of in years. Unexpected Gifts.

The joke was too good. The milkmaid would stay.

***

During that twilight time of baths and TV, books and Chinese food, I almost managed to forget about losing the house until a “Notice of Sale” sign was posted on the front door.

I heard the girls talking about it first. Christy’s voice was high and shrill; Lindsey’s was sharp. I went down to take a look. It was posted where a Christmas wreath should have hung. Its placement, right in the middle of the door, made it look special and very public, like we had put it there on purpose. It listed the date the house would be auctioned off and where the auction would be held.

Ed packed up a few things to take the girls and dog to his parents’ house in Nevada for a while. He tried to get me to come. He came as far as the bedroom door and stood there, pulling down the hem of his t-shirt like a child. Christy tried too. “Why are you doing this?” she whined as she draped her arms around my shoulders. I wasn’t sure if she was trying to comfort me or if it was the other way around.

“I’ll come for you,” I whispered. And I knew I would. I just couldn’t leave yet.

Since Ed didn’t even pack up the house, it was easy enough for me to pretend nothing was going to happen. Until I heard a knock on the front door. It was the sheriff. He had brought a young deputy with him who was smiling, absurdly.

I turned and walked up the stairs to the master bedroom. My socked feet made small impressions on the carpet each time I lifted them up and placed them down again, one at a time. My eyes found every stain on the carpet. A large, tan mark, nearly a perfect oval: apple juice. A pair of gray footprints: when Ed had bounded up the stairs with his shoes still on. A brown splotch: coffee from when I tried to carry my mug upstairs along with a basket full of clean laundry.

When I reached my bedroom door, I could hear the sheriff and deputy down below. I shut the door. I heard more sounds from downstairs but with the door shut, they were muffled. My eyes went from the armoire to the nightstand to the TV stand, all part of a set we’d bought from Sears when we’d first moved in. They landed on the milkmaid figurine. I walked to the dresser and picked it up.

There was a tap on the bedroom door.

The sheriff and deputy had followed me up.

“Hello,” I said, a response almost as out-of-place as the deputy’s smile.

“Ma’am, you’ll need to come with us,” the sheriff said.

“Of course.” I smoothed the comforter with the milkmaid still in my hand.

Eying the figurine, the young deputy told me I could take whatever I wanted. There were plenty of things I wanted more than the milkmaid: photos of the girls, cookbooks from my grandmother, seashells that Bobby and I had collected on one of our first dates.

But, no, that was all I took.

 


Bess Vanrenen

Bess Vanrenen, Author 2017

A writer, editor, and (mostly armchair) traveler, Bess Vanrenen lives in Denver with her family. She has an MA degree in English from the University of Colorado at Boulder and an MFA degree in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her personal essays are published in a variety of print and digital publications, including Role Reboot, and she was the editor of and a contributor to Generation What? Dispatches from the Quarter-Life Crisis. Her short story “Missed Connection” won a Stories on Stage contest and was performed live. “Unexpected Gifts” is her first published piece of fiction.

What's your take on this?