Another very short story… I try to hold myself to 20 minutes on these but sometimes cheat. It’s so hard not to move phrases around, to replace one word with another. It’s never right.
Walking home, he felt certain he’d find a present, propped against his door, a box wrapped in brightly colored paper and beribboned inside another box. The postman would leave it for him to find—perhaps half-concealed by the welcome mat—and he’d pick it up with disguised but real delight. If neighbors were watching, they’d see the unmistakable silent signs of “For me?”
What was inside the two boxes, he didn’t know, but he was sure it was there. He pictured it.
This season he passed many boxes on his way home from work. He imagined their origins—a single aunt who still sent gifts to her adult nieces and nephews, the stepmother, the boss looking to ingratiate himself in some inexpensive way with employees, the student, the client, the childhood friend. His gift, he figured, would come from someone he didn’t know—it seemed the broadest category in his life—and, to be a complete surprise, the box must bear an unfamiliar return address. Hefting it had to yield no clue to its contents. It needed to be heavy. It needed not to rattle.
When he was young, his parents had no money for gifts but always found something to give him in place of what he wanted. “Something for you,” they’d say, their faces frozen just at anticipation, fearing expecting. He was always grateful or pretended he was. They pretended pleasure they’d found just the right thing. The fiction they created together still glowed warm after all these years. The gifts were gone, and so he clung to nostalgia, nursing its consolation still.
At the end of his block a sudden weariness possessed him. This day, and all his days, seemed hard, the routine of hours a prelude to rest. His parents were dead. He had no wife and only work friends. No one would be waiting for him, but he’d try to believe in domestic peace, the comfort he’d created, made of himself for himself. He sensed the vague pull of place, the contentment supposed to possess you when put aside your public self for a personal, relaxed, familiar, and relieving space. The gift would help.
He didn’t dare look yet at his stoop from so far away. Everyone taught him not to be disappointed, to lower his expectations so gratitude came inevitably. Most of the time that stance seemed natural, but something about this time of year tested him. He mustn’t compare himself to others, but they had more. He sometimes had trouble ignoring.
Involuntarily his eyes swept before him, and, though he saw a package or two waiting, none sat at his door. Elation rose and fell in the same instant. He tried to say, “Okay” without hoping the next day would be different. He liked to believe sometimes that the gift had been taken, that someone who needed it more than he did now possessed it. In the end, his disappointment ought to be immaterial, a perception he knew worth transcending.
As he bounded up the steps he thought of the mail waiting, a card perhaps or a magazine to read that would help him pass the evening quickly. The dark hours were hardest.