A Short Story: The Gift

 

Tuesday, early afternoons was the time that Jess Abernathy-Vaughn held the brief meeting with Richard at the Café to review the previous weeks’ financials. These meetings had moved from mid-morning, and gradually became more and more perfunctory and business at the Café expanded, and to the mild astonishment of Jess herself, actually began to turn a profit which fell into a fluctuating zone somewhere between ‘barely marginal’ and ‘satisfactory.’

“No way would I ever advise someone wanting to make a fortune to start up a restaurant,” she remarked on that particular day, and Richard nodded, glumly.

“No, it’s more of a fame, fortune, and feeding people,” He replied. “On the other hand – people always want good food… it’s just that it’s a constant struggle to provide it at a cost that the public will judge to be fair. You know that the margins are always thin, and most people who go into full-frontal food service are as mad as hatters…”

“So I gathered,” Jess observed dryly, just as Luc emerged from the kitchen, blinking absently, like something strange, and tatted, fresh from a long stretch of hibernation or suspended animation.

“Is there something the matter in the kitchen?” Richard asked, with a slight edge in his voice, as Luc merely stood there, staring blankly at the tables, as if he had forgotten the purpose.

“No … nothing,” Luc replied. “I was just thinking.”

“It must have been painful,” Richard answered, and Jess snickered into her glass of unsweetened iced-tea. “You’d probably best not do it again.”

“On it, Chef,” Luc replied. “Oh, I just remembered. The cakes are done. That raisin-wedding-cake thing.”

“Why didn’t you say so!” Richard exclaimed and bolted from his seat.

“I took them out of the oven,” Luc said, to Richard’s back, and Jess rolled her eyes, thinking that yes, nothing could more have proved Richard’s point about the madness of food service in general than that brief exchange. But Luc’s expression briefly cleared as his distracted gaze wandered towards Jess.

“Oh – Hi, Mizz Vaughn. Mizz Letty doin’ OK?”

“Yeah, she is,” Jess replied, cautiously. Good heavens, Luc had made some progress towards a social manner. “How are you doing?”

“Fine,” Luc replied. “Hey – business doing good?”

“Very well, I think,” Jess answered. Luc nodded, as if mildly pleased at this revelation. Then he wandered back towards the kitchen, just as the old-fashioned bell over the front door jingled – that sweet, silvery, old-fashioned jingle. The door at Abernathy Hardware had the same old-style bell over it as well. Likely, they had come from the same place, decades before Jess was even born.

“Hi, Jess!” It was Pamela Pryor – Princess Pammy, as Jess had always called her, in her own mind. “I’m glad I caught you! I saw your jeep outside! Look, I have something for you, but I don’t have it with me at the moment! Are you going to be at home later? I can bring it by.”

“Sure, after about 4:30.” Jess sneaked a peek at her schedule, cruelly mapped out on her cellphone. “Is it bigger than a breadbox…”

“Nothing like that,” Pamela’s smile was brilliant, unforced. “Just something I found, when we were sorting out the guest rooms at the ranch, for Pop’s latest wedding. A little thing, really – but I thought of you and Joe, immediately, and I want you to have it for the baby … see you around five, then!”

Just then, Richard came out of the kitchen, scowling – a dark expression which lightened by several degrees when he caught sight of Pamela. Jess repressed a small sigh. Pamela – gorgeous, accomplished, blond and rich, by way of being Doc Wyler’s beloved granddaughter, had that effect on practically the entire world. Jess had always thought that unfair – but then, she had married Joe Vaughn, who was Pamela’s high school flame, so perhaps she herself possessed a charm or two. Still, Pamela had always made her feel inadequate, merely by existing.

“Hi, Richard!” Pam exclaimed. “We got your order for beef tenderloins for Pop’s wedding supper at the Cattleman. Andy and the boys will deliver them next week, if that’s OK.”

“Prime beef, nothing less than choice,” Richard said, with relief.

“For one of our best customers, nothing less,” Pamela agreed with a twinkle. “We’ll give you a call when it’s ready for delivery.” Her cellphone, deep in the depths of her Birkin handbag, burbled merrily, and she added. “Must fly – see you at about five, Jess.”

“See you,” Jess answered, without enthusiasm, and began closing up the folder for the Café. Little Joe peacefully slept in his stroller seat. “Nothing more for this week, Rich, unless you have any questions.”

“None at all,” Richard answered, sounding abstracted. “See you next week.”

Her paid work wrapped up for the day, Jess took herself and Little Joe home – a matter of a mere few blocks. She would have walked, pushing Little Joe’s stroller, with her briefcase and the diaper bag slung into the carrier, but she had begun feeling that pregnancy-fueled weariness again, in a major way. Six more months to go, she told herself, as she carried Little Joe into the house, the bag and her briefcase slung over her other arm.

A prerequisite for motherhood is the ability to juggle.

She popped him into his swing, and looked around the living room, thinking, ‘Yeah, you might not be able to eat off the floor in our house, but guaranteed nothing will take a chomp out of your ankle when you walk through the place.’ Thank god for Joe and his neat-nick inclinations, plus long years of bachelor housekeeping! Jess felt a rush of sudden affection for her husband. He was a much more persnickety housekeeper than she was. Of late, he had rather been going overboard with the dusting, scrubbing, and vacuuming, wishing as he said, to spare her in her ‘delicate condition.’ ‘Delicate my ass,’ Jess replied, but she was grateful anyways, and quietly thanked her lucky stars for Joe’s consideration. And that he was pretty fanatical about laundry, as well.

“Ready for company!” she said to Little Joe, who grinned, drooling only slightly. He had already cut two tiny bottom teeth. From the way in which he continued to gnaw on teething biscuits and on Jess’s breasts, he was likely to start cutting the top teeth any time now.

Jess brought in the jar of sun-tea, which had been sitting on the back-porch step since she had set it to brew at midday. Yep – plenty of ice in the refrigerator freezer. A bowl of lemons and limes on the counter. Ready for company, on a summer day in Texas. Jess did hope that Pamela wouldn’t stay for very long. She had to get supper on, for Joe would be home soon, off-duty at the dot of 5PM.

At ten minutes to that hour, she heard a car pulling up in Oak Street in front of the house. Two minutes later, a polite knocking at the door. Jess peeked through one of the tiny diamond-shaped windows set in the door; yes, indeed, Princess Pammy, with a silvery gray pasteboard department store gift box tied with matching silver ribbons under her arm.

Jess opened the door, hoping in her heart of hearts that Pamela wouldn’t stay for very long. She was tired, and still had to make a gesture of starting supper, or at least, warming one of the casseroles in the freezer. And Joe would be home soon.

“Hi,” Pamela said, “Don’t mind me, I won’t stay long. I have to get supper on for Andy and the boys. But when I found this, I thought of you and Joe at once…”

“Would you like some sun-tea?” Jess asked. “Do come in and sit down for a moment, at least.”

“I’d love it!” Pamela beamed at her. “Bless you – I am totally parched. This summer is going to be brutal, I can tell already. Well; more brutal than usual. How we ever endured here without the invention of air conditioning?”

“Iced tea, coming up” Jess said, as Pamela set her Birkin bag, and the gift box on the coffee table, and went down on her knees before the swing.

“He is such a darling!” Pamela cooed. “And growing so fast! I was afraid that Anson was going to be an absolute dwarf, you know. He didn’t get his growth until he was eleven or twelve, and then … my god, what happened to my little baby boy! He shot up six inches, practically overnight, and now he has to shave! I can hardly believe that, let me tell you.”

Jess went into the kitchen; hearing Pamela talk to her son; mercifully not that fatuous infant-babble which some people thought was appropriate to address children. Pamela was telling Little Joe about his football prospects, and that he would be breaking the hearts of little girls all across Karnes County before he was very much older. When she emerged from the kitchen, carrying two tall glasses, clinking with ice and a lemon wedge perched uncertainly on the edge of each, Pamela rose effortlessly from her position on the floor.

She must really work at the yoga, or something, Jess thought.

“He’s teething now, isn’t he?” Pamela accepted the glass of tea and sank onto the overstuffed sofa. “I can tell by the drool … you know, teething is so handy! A little bit of cranky, a slight temperature, a more than usually-messy diaper! Nothing to worry about, the baby is just teething!

“Not handy when he bites on my breast,” Jess observed, and Pamela grinned. “There is that,” she agreed. “Well, you are stacking your kids close together – and that is tiring, I know. But spacing them out – I don’t know if that is any less …”

“Exhausting,” Jess agreed. Somehow, against all the odds, and that long history – she was warming to Pamela. Naturally; anyone who admired Little Joe automatically had a good mark against their name in her books. “So what is it that you found, that you thought I should have?”

“Open it,” Pamela pushed the box across the coffee table towards her. Now Jess noted that it was a Nieman-Marcus box, and that it was unaccountably slightly worn, the ribbons slightly crushed. As if it had been sitting, wrapped on a shelf for a long time. “It was something that Miss Alice must have bought, and then held onto. You know – for me, just in case any of my babies were girls. But all three of them turned out to be boys. You remember Miss Alice’s gift closet, of course. Her stash of appropriate presents, no matter what the occasion? How that woman loved to shop!”

Jess set aside her iced tea, and untied the silver ribbons, taking off the top of the box – yes, it had the Nieman-Marcus logo in elegant script, a single repetition. The contents were swathed lovingly in Nieman-Marcus tissue paper. Jess lifted them out, one by one; a baby dress of finest white cotton lawn and delicate lace, smocked elaborately across the neckline in pink thread, a ruffled bonnet in the same fabric and design. A tiny knitted pink cardigan sweater in an ornate pattern, and matching booties completed the infant ensemble.

“They’re beautiful!” Jess breathed, awed by the craft, the sheer quality of the little dress and sweater. Pamela waved dismissively.

“And also sized six months – you can practically watch them grow out of that in a day and a half. But I thought that you should have them, Jess. I’d rather that the first of my friends to have a girl have this now, than wait until Anson and the boys marry and propagate. I’d rather see someone get the enjoyment out dressing a little girl in a darling little outfit like this.”

“But you aren’t entirely past having more children,” Jess ventured. Pamela was only four years older than Jess, and the youngest of her boys was still in elementary school. Pamela waved a dismissive hand.

“There were some … complications with delivering Andy, and the OB said … best not risk it again. Oh, don’t look like that, Jess – it’s no big tragedy to us. I’m quite happy with our family as it is, and anyway, if we really wanted another child we could always go to China or someplace and adopt. It was Miss Alice who had her heart so set on me having a daughter – and she would be as pleased as punch for you, if you were the one to get the good out of this.”

“Thank you, then,” Jess was honestly touched. Miss Alice, Doc Wyler’s late wife, had been famous for the elegance of her attire. When Jess must assume proper professional attire, the memory of Miss Alice was the vision which guided her on those now mercifully rare occasions; impeccably turned out, every hair in place, every accessory coordinating perfectly, adorned with tastefully-understated jewelry … Jess could still hear Miss Alice dispensing advice; ‘Put together your outfit completely – and then look in the mirror and take off a single piece of jewelry.’ Now Jess said, “Miss Alice’s gift closet must have been amazing. She always had the most perfect thing to give as presents…”

“Whenever she visited Houston,” Pamela agreed, “She spent simply days in Neiman-Marcus. She knew all the salesladies by their first names, and they all adored her. Sometimes she would start advising other customers, and was so bossy, they thought she was one of the salesladies!” Pamela sighed, a deep and nostalgic sigh. “I so miss that woman – she would have had such a ball with Pop’s latest wedding! This is the first time he has ever brought his intended home to the ranch for the festivities. I err, Jess – I think Daddy’s first wife came to the Lazy-W a couple of times. My mom did, but she hated the place…”

“I thought your mom was his first wife,” Jess mused, honestly puzzled – and for nearly the first time in her life, feeling something of genuine interest in Pamela’s life. Somehow, Princess Pammy had been deposited with her grandparents, early on, to be raised by them in Luna City. Jess had never wondered particularly about how that came about, merely assuming that Pamela’s mother must have been infamously incapable of raising a child, and her father infamously uninterested in the task. She herself had the advantage of a pair of conscientious parents – right up until the year when her mother died, wasted by fast-moving cancer – and then she had Pops, all by himself.

Pamela shook her head. “No, Mom was his second – no one ever talked to me about Daddy’s first wife. A secretary, or something. She was killed in an auto wreck; if you ask me, it all happened before he could get bored and move on. Rather like Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, I always thought. After that? I have the most gruesome collection of bridesmaid and attendant dresses you can imagine!”

“Truly?” Jess sipped deeply of her own iced tea. This interchange was turning out to be more agreeable than she expected. Really; had she been so proud and prejudiced when it came to Pamela, all these years? “I had some really awful ones. The worst was a four-tiered ashes-of-roses ruffled number that made me look like a Sears bedspread. I burned it in Pop’s BBQ pit the next time I was home.”

“Screw the damage to the ozone layer!” Pamela raised her glass in a mock toast. “Some dresses are too horrible to continue existence on this mortal plane. I shipped the most awful ones to a thrift store, but I never considered the heinous aesthetic damage they might do in the secondary market. I was young. Forgive me, for I have inadvertently sinned!”

“Never mind,” Jess consoled her. “You weren’t thinking straight. Overwhelmed by the awfulness of it all. Dragooned over and over, into dancing attendance on the next Mrs. Wyler…Sorry for all that,” Jess added in what she considered to be a handsome apology, and Pamela laughed.

“Eh – over and long done with, Jess. I always came back here, to Miss Alice and Doc. They were cool about it all. Exasperated, but always cool. Daddy’s a special case, I have to admit.” She squinted into her iced-tea glass. “Special – that’s him, all right. Pity – some of his wives I really think I could have liked, but those were the ones whom he ditched the soonest. Can I have a refill, Jess? It’s so hot outside, now. I need to completely rehydrate before heading home to the madness. Daddy’s latest wedding has turned everything upside down… but there’s no truth in the rumor that one of the bridesmaids will be a Kardashian. Honestly, I don’t know where that one got started. Likely the bride herself. I know it for a fact that Susannah Wyatt is the matron of honor, this time around. Isn’t that precious? She and Roman just announced the birth of their own babies. Twin boys, can you imagine?”

“Good lord,” Jess collected the nearly empty glasses and went with them to the kitchen. “I wonder that she has the energy. Two at a time would absolutely kill me.”

“I understand they did it with a surrogate mother,” Pamela raised her voice. “Which to my mind takes all the fun out of it at the start!”

Jess laughed, returning to the living room with a full glass in either hand, to find Pamela cooing at Little Joe, “Oh, you wouldn’t kill your mommy – such a sweet innocent little face! Honestly, Jess – he is the image of Joe! One of those things that I found this week – a picture of Miss Letty’s kindergarten class back in the day. And there is Joe, looking just like this little man! I should make you a scan of that picture, just to prove it!”

“There probably is a copy of it, somewhere,” Jess handed the refreshed glass to Pamela, who accepted it with an expression of gratitude, and sank half of it in a gulp. It was hot outside – the hottest time of the day. “But probably buried in an album at his parent’s place in San Antonio. Do send it to me, Pam – I’d love to have a copy of my own.”

“I will,” Pamela smiled, comfortably. And then she hesitated for a bare moment, before plunging on. “He’s so happy with you, Jess. Content. I’m glad. You know, we were always friends, Joe and I. But being friends really means one has to be honest with each other. I know that it must seem like I was absolutely brutal with Joe when we broke up. But it was something that wasn’t going to work, not in the long run. And I have Andy and the boys, and now you have Joe and … well, it really worked out for the best. Sometimes that’s hard to see, living day by day…but it did work out.”

“Yes, it has,” Jess replied. She smiled at Pamela, an unforced and natural smile. Outside the house, she heard the crunch of the gravel drive under the wheels of Joe’s car. Yes, right on time. “And thank you for the little outfit. If I don’t have a daughter this time around, I’ll save it for the next. And if I don’t – than it will go to the next of my friends who does.”

“Grand!”  Pamela exclaimed. “I think that you will, actually. Something that Miss Letty said to me… Is that Joe? I’d better go, now. Anson is setting up supper for us; do you know, he was in Richard’s cooking class at school? Roast chicken with vegetables. Anson says he has it all under control, but you know … best linger helpfully in the background, just in case.”

“I know,” Jess replied, her heart lightened. “Moms never quit. I’m certain it will be a fantastic supper. Richard is a good teacher; cruelly demanding, sometimes, but it means that the kids pay attention, like they do with a stern coach. Thanks again, Pam.”

“You’re welcome, sweetie,” Pamela tossed off the last of her iced tea. “See you around … oh, hi, Joe! Must run – it’s that time. How’s crime waving in Luna City?”

“Got it sorted,” Joe sent his white Stetson spinning onto the hat-rack. Although he had a smile for Pamela, Jess saw that his gaze went immediately towards her, and then to Little Joe, who wriggled in ecstatic joy and reached up his arms to his father.

“Don’t get up, I’ll see myself out,” Pamela set down the iced-tea glass and gathered up her handbag and car keys. “Wish me luck with the wedding – so grateful that Lew and Anne are such a help, getting the Cattleman organized. And Daddy’s assistant, Mr. McNamara is a treasure – he’s taken on all the Daddy-and-Sammi-wrangling on his own shoulders. We’re so grateful, but still, it’s all rather…”

“A chore,” Jess supplied, as Joe lifted his son out of the swing and lifted him over his own head. Little Joe crowed in delight. Pamela lingered with her hand on the doorknob.

“A blessing,” she added, and then let herself out. Joe tucked his son under his arm, as if he were a small and lively football, and collapsed with a mild groan onto the sofa next to Jess.

“Your knees?” Jess said only. “Motrin on the rocks?”

“Yeah,” Joe replied. “What was Pam here for?”

“She had a gift for the baby,” Jess said. And went to get the bottle of Motrin.

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