THE GIFT OF ART a new short story by Stephen Cole
THE GIFT OF ART
by Stephen Cole
Arthur remembered. Today was some special day, but which? Was it Marge's birthday? Or their anniversary? Mother's day! No, that was always on a Sunday. It didn't really matter. What mattered to Marge was the gift. As Marge snoozed in her room, Arthur, who had been up early eating his porridge and drinking his tea, padded back into his bedroom, heading straight to the drawer. The largest drawer in his mahogany bureau, the one that his father gave them when they were married, thirty-two or twenty-seven years ago. Arthur was never good at math. As he approached the bureau, Arthur gently opened the drawer, not wanting to disturb Marge from her sleep in the room just beyond the wall. It had only been a few years...ten?...since they decided separate bedrooms was best. Marge said that Arthur's snoring kept her up all night.
* * *
Marge went to her room, still wearing the gold pin on her breast. She carefully locked her door from the inside, as was her custom at night, and unhooked the pin and put in on her dressing table, as she methodically undressed. Once Marge was in her nightgown and had removed her makeup, she opened her drawer, the one that contained all the gifts that Art had given her for the last several years. The drawer was deep and was scrupulously organized, befitting the daughter of a file clerk. On one side were the clips, on the other the pins, and in still another corner were stacked boxes containing scarves and gloves and other sundry things she had never worn. Marge concentrated on the identical boxes containing pins. She opened each and put the identical pins on her dressing table, like so many Rockettes ready to kick. Their gold gleamed and reflected in her three vanity mirrors making a tiny Busby Berkeley number in her mind. Marge opened her laptop and Googled "Gold Bought" coming up with dozens of hits for vendors who bought and melted gold items for money. Marge closed the top of the laptop and carefully put each pin back in their boxes and the boxes back in their appointed graves in her drawer. She quietly shut the drawer not wanting to waken Art in the next room. He would be snoring by now, she was sure. Marge opened the makeup draw of her vanity and extracted her small pearl handled pistol. A gift not bought for her by Art. A gift she gave herself. It was dusty from not being touched in a while, so Marge took a silk kerchief from one of the gift boxes marked "silk" and dusted it off. She wondered if hearts became dusty and if eventually the crusting of grime might be a kind of shield against hurt.
* * *
Arthur coddled an egg every Wednesday morning and this Wednesday morning, special though it might turn out to be, was no different. Arthur, himself, had never been coddled by anyone. His mother, German by birth and still possessing a thick accent, was a cold fish of a woman who believed that Arthur was not quite everything he ought to be and blamed that on his father, who had left almost the day after Arthur was born. Consequently, Arthur's mother, whom the neighbors dubbed "the Teutonic Plague," ignored Arthur's entire childhood, as if it were a TV series other people watched, but in which she had no interest.
Arthur's teachers tended to agree with his mother about Arthur, but somehow he managed to get by, graduate High School and eventually get a job at a pocketbook (did anyone use that antiquated term anymore?) manufacturing company. It was there, in 1972, where Arthur met Marge, who, having followed her father's footsteps, was a file clerk for the firm. Marge hated the name Arthur. It reminded her of the Fish and Chips man. So Marge decreed that she would only would call him Art, which Arthur learned to tolerate. Arthur sometimes wondered if he ever really loved Marge, but since he was too lazy to seek out any other romantic opportunities, he had hastily decided to accept her proposal when she made it, six months after their first date.
Their wedding was a strange affair, as most of Marge's family declined the invitation. Only her feeble-minded cousin showed up. Feeble-minded was how Marge referred to her cousin and no amount of correction from Arthur would change her terminology. Still Phoebe (Yes, I swear that's her real name, Marge declared) had been, due to the close proximity of their apartments, Marge's only friend during their teen years. Marge enjoyed teasing her and, although Phoebe would sometimes cry, she would always come back for more abuse. This Marge found intolerable and after starting work, dropped her cousin like a feeble potato.
Phoebe, who had gotten quite fat, Marge thought, took Marge aside at the wedding and asked her sincerely if she loved Arthur. Marge shrugged and walked away.
Now, all these years later, she wished she had just walked away.
Arthur, on the other hand, had his whole huge family at the wedding. They all brought wonderful gifts and Arthur catalogued most of them and put them into drawers for future use. Candle sticks and decorative plates and dishes and bone china tea sets...all stored for those special Marge-occasions that came up as the years rolled by. Of course some of the gifts were too large to squirrel away and Marge did have use for blenders and cookware; that is until she stopped blending and cooking for Art.
As the time went by, Arthur wondered what, if anything, Marge had seen in him and after all these years, he still could not fathom it. Arthur saw himself as less than average, with very few skills beyond the arcane ability to install a click-lock on a lady's pocketbook. Arthur's insecurity, stemming from birth, had always led him to give his mother gifts. His mother would look at the gifts and say thank you, but the next day Arthur invariably found his present in the trashcan. As his future loomed before him and his past seemed a vague memory, it was sad to note that his present was indeed in the trashcan.
As soon as Arthur married, he switched his gift giving allegiance to his new mother...wife, Marge. These were gifts which she expected, gifts which she demanded. Gifts that eventually meant nothing to her. She called then the Gifts of Art, which would have made him laugh if he had a sense of humor.
* * *
Arthur still had not decided whether he wanted his coddled egg to be partially cooked, mostly cooked or hardly cooked at all, when Marge entered the kitchen. Arthur was so unaccustomed to seeing his wife at this early hour in the morning that he leapt from his chair and automatically bowed to her as if he were a maître 'd' caught with his pants down. That Arthur did, indeed have his pants down, was not purely coincidental, as he frequently sat contemplating his empty life in his boxer shorts, looking like a pale, over-the-hill pugilist.
Marge was uncharacteristically dressed in a traveling suit; a classic Chanel knockoff that Arthur had never seen before. On her rather tiny feet were sleek black patent leather pumps with a glossy polish that would, if she had been the floozy type, reflected her rather frilly underwear. Hanging off her bony arm was one of the oldest of her pocketbooks, one of the first gifts that Arthur gave her. Marge felt ultra-chic in her minimalism and smiled her Mona Lisa smile, which she usual saved for the butcher when she wanted a better cut of meat.
Inside the semi-ancient purse rested the small pearl handled pistol.
Attention. Marge craved it like a drug addict who is never satisfied. The fact that Arthur gave her none made her seek it in ways that might embarrass him. The Chanel suit was one way, she hoped. What she didn't understand was that Arthur was impossible to embarrass; Arthur just didn't care.
If one was the type to take a selfie, and neither Marge nor Arthur were that type, one might have preserved that moment in the kitchen, with its dirty linoleum, which Arthur still called oil cloth, and its outdated cabinets and rusty appliances. Looking back on this selfie that would never exist, one might understand how these two arrived at this moment.
* * *
As she stood there, dressed to kill, Marge remembered vividly the first time she saw Art. She was sitting at her desk filing down her unruly nails with a very large emery board. Art, whom she had spied in the pocketbook lock department absentmindedly asked her what she was doing. Marge continue sawing away at her uneven nails and replied, my filing. The burst of laughter from Art was what won her. She never heard him laugh again. Marge was not pretty, but neither was she ugly. She was fleshy in those early days with legs that recalled her Russian ancestors. Plow legs, her mother, who had the pins of racehorse, called them. It took years of walking on a treadmill to get Marge's legs to be even remotely like her mother's. But still she retained the stubborn ghost of thick thighs, which Art rather loved.
Arthur pulled up his pants and asked Marge if she would like an egg before leaving. Marge asked him how he knew she was leaving. Arthur had no answer and merely shrugged. He had known this day would come; the day that Marge would dress up in her best and walk out of the door, leaving him with drawers filled with gifts and no one to recipient in sight.
Arthur remembered that today was actually their anniversary. He got up and left the room as Marge smoothed her skirt for the umpteenth time. When he returned he was carrying a flat package wrapped in brown paper. He handed it to Marge and told her to open it. Marge rolled her eyes at yet another gift. When she tore off the brown paper she saw it was a painting of a woman wearing...nothing. The woman in the painting was naked and her thighs were decidedly thick. Marge looked quizzically at the painting and then looked at Art. She burst out laughing. Marge had a very developed sense of irony and loved the play on words. Art had given her the gift of art.
Marge wondered if Arthur was using this gift to keep her at home. It was most suggestive to be sure, almost erotic; something Arthur never was. Was this the new leaf? Was he handing her a nude olive branch? Marge had many questions, but one that she never pondered was who was the woman in the painting.
Arthur uttered not a word and Marge asked nary a question. The story of their marriage it seemed could be told in the lack of sounds. And today was an anniversary...what Marge like the call "the anniversary of absence." For Marge, Art was forever absent. Filling the void with gifts.
Marge put down her large pocketbook and held the painting with both her hands at arms length, revealing no emotions. Arthur noticed a single tear creeping down her face at a glacial pace. He said nothing, of course. Marge took the painting upstairs to her bedroom and opened her closet which was meticulously organized. She place the painting with the other paintings; the other gifts of Art. She went to her desk, sat down and pulled her ledger from the drawer. She then wrote down the date and the description of the painting, as she always did. As she was finishing her note in the ledger, she heard a sharp sound that, to Marge, resembled the sonic echoing click of a pocketbook lock.
* * *
The coddled egg that should have been either partially cooked, mostly cooked or hardly cooked at all, was as hard as the heart that Marge now proudly displayed. She never thought he would do it and she certainly didn't leave her vintage handbag with the pearl handled pistol in it for him to open and use. She was glad, at least that her Chanel suit was bloodless; as bloodless as the last gift of Art.
Marge cracked the egg with a spoon, shelled it and decided to make egg salad. After all, it was time for lunch.