The Gift

by Reneé Flemings

Dim morning light slithered through the blinds barely caressing the golden walls of Edgar’s room. He took a breath. It was staccato and shallow. At least it was a breath. He looked at the things on the table next to him. A photo. He was certain it was him and . . . Kate? No, Karen. No, that wasn’t it. He realized it was going to be that kind of a day. Things floated around in his mind like phantoms. Ghostlike and shadowy, teasing him, frustrating him, eventually pissing him off. Edgar closed his eyes. Carleen. That was it. Carleen. Who was his . . . daughter? Yes. No. His wife?

Edgar kicked the covers off his lower body with difficulty, but he got them off. The first victory of the day. This was good. Last week he had tried kicking them and ended up on the floor and they had to come in and get him up. Those damned people who talked to him like he was a child. Yes, he forgot things and had trouble getting around, that’s still no reason to treat him like a child. He’d been places dammit. He had lived and now he was old. That’s what happened when you got to be his age, whatever the hell that was. He laid there and looked at the clock on the wall. They made sure it was a big clock, with big numbers, and it was whattayoucallit? Digital! It was insult to injury. He hadn’t forgotten how to tell time. He just had trouble remembering some things. Yesterday it was that thing that was wooden and had the black hairs—no, bristles—on it. He didn’t know how to use it and one of the them got upset cause he thought he was supposed to brush his teeth with it. It had brushes on it, you held it in your hand—it made sense to him dammit. He watched as the numbers shifted six times, while he breathed in and out. Edgar was preparing to face the day.

He pressed his shoulders into the almost too soft mattress below him, and with a strong exhale he raised his upper body to a sitting position. Next, he slowly shifted his legs over to the edge. He would’ve given himself the luxury of time if he was sure he had enough to spare. Time, the one thing that he had too much of on a daily basis and too little of in the grand scheme of things. “Grand scheme of things,” a phrase he hadn’t used since he was running his business and selling ad space, a lifetime ago. He looked down at his swollen feet, the blue veins showing against the almost translucent skin. Then he remembered: He had to pee. That’s why he couldn’t take his time. He didn’t want them to put him in those damned diapers. He knew a lot of people on his floor wore the cursed things. One of the final humiliations. He thought about those commercials on the toaster, wait no, television and they’d try to make it seem like it’s an everyday thing. Like it was a natural progression in life to start wearing diapers when you were a goddamned grown man. Women could do as they pleased, but a man shouldn’t be wearing diapers especially if you’d worn the uniform of a baseball player, a naval officer, and then the Madison Avenue uniform of suit and tie for decades. They could say whatever the hell they wanted, but he couldn’t abide with them trying to put a diaper on him. So, get up he must right now before he pissed himself, and get up he would.

The urgency of his bladder said, “Move now.” He pushed himself to standing and although he was slow, he was steady to the doorway. Steady to the bowl. He held onto the railing against the wall as he lifted the seat and took out his business to conduct his business. He waited.

“Goddammit,” he muttered as he stood there, his Johnson in his hand, and nothing happened. Well, he would wait it out, cause he knew as soon as he crossed back to the bed he would have to start the whole damned process over again. “Goddammit,” he said again.

As he shook his head in frustration he caught a glimpse of a reflection in the mirror. There was a woman standing by his bed. She looked familiar, sort of . . . maybe? Like they’d met long ago, but he couldn’t remember where. Edgar looked over his shoulder, as best he could. He didn’t want to turn too far and make a mess on the floor if the floodgates should open so they could come in here tsk, tsking and insist on him putting on the damn diaper or worse.

“Yeah?” he said gruffly.

She smiled at him.

“A little privacy here. Tryin’ to handle my business, you don’t mind,” he said when she didn’t respond.

The doors were hooked to a gadget on the wall so you couldn’t lock yourself in—one of the other people on the floor had done that so she could try to cut her wrists open. Stupid broad, she tried to use a spoon she’d pilfered from the dining room. She was way gone man. Too far gone.

Edgar shifted his weight to block the view from the woman. He looked in the mirror again and she had turned her back.

“Thanks.” He wasn’t sure what the hell to do. The possibility of having an accident was still there, so here he was stuck with some strange broad in his room, nice looking broad, too, while he was holding onto his business. Well, he was sure it wasn’t something she’d never seen before. She had that look about her. Worldly, been around, seen things. He was sure she’d seen a man’s business before.

“Sorry, sometimes this takes a minute. I’ll be right with ya,” he growled at her.

Why doesn’t she say something, he wondered?

After what seemed an eternity, a gentle flow began and then picked up speed. Sweet, sweet relief. After he flushed and turned on the water to wash his hands, he caught her reflection again and she smiled shyly at him.

“I know you?’

“Yeah. How you doin’ Edgar?”

“Not so good with names these days.” He walked slowly into the room.

She definitely looked like a broad who knew what she was doing. Her hair was a blend of blonde and red, shoulder length and wavy. Her eyes were dark, almost a violet blue and hypnotic, but it was her lips that caught Edgar’s attention. Those lips were full, pouty, and lacquered a deep, deep red. He couldn’t take his eyes off those lips.

“So, whattaya want? I don’t have no services planned for today. I don’t think anyway. Yesterday was the doctor’s but that’s it.”

“Straight to it. I like that. You don’t remember me?”

It was more than a question, it was a dare: say the wrong thing and you lose, Edgar. But, lose what, was what he wanted to know. He reached for the large print calendar on the nightstand and his wire-rimmed glasses. He scanned the dates.

“Say, what’s the date?”

She just smiled at him.

“It’s the twentieth ain’t it? I think it is. Yesterday was . . . yeah, that’s today. Monday. I got nothin’ here.

She said nothing.

“You do look familiar. We met before, right? Where’d we meet? Sorry, things get foggy sometimes. They should call this place Foggy Arms or something like that.” He huffed his dry laugh.

It was clear she wasn’t going to give him any clues. Maybe she was some kind of doctor, or maybe she didn’t mean him any good. Edgar started to wonder what kind of broad comes into a man’s room, watches him pee, and then just sits and stares at him.

“It’s almost time for breakfast, so you need to tell me what it is ya want. Is that it? You here to bring me down to breakfast? I told them I can get there by myself, dammit.” When she said nothing, he kept going.” Look, I apologize, I don’t remember you—help me out here—”

“How ya doing?”

“What?” He was caught off guard by that. Maybe she was some kind of nutjob came off of one of the other floors, but she looked way too young for that.

“How are you Edgar? Are they treating you okay here?”

“Same’s they treat anybody, you know. So, where I know you from? Wait, are you a friend of Channy’s?”

He was thinking about one of his buddies from the old neighborhood. Channy, the definition of a good guy, short, a mutt—he came from all kinds of stuff: Irish, Italian, and a little Puerto Rican he said sometimes. The two of them had gone on double dates a few times before he’d married . . . Carleen. He hadn’t seen Channy in years, so he had no idea why his name came up out of the fog of his memory. That was grabbing at ash on water.


“Never mind.”

“Who’s Channy?”

“An old friend from long ago. Naw, you can’t be a friend of his; you’re too young. Way too young.”

She smiled at this. “You’re probably right. I’ll tell you a secret, I’m older than I look.” She stretched out her right leg languidly and crossed it over the left.

“Yeah? You’re definitely too young though, to be one of Channy’s friends. Tell ya I don’t even know why I thought of him. I haven’t thought of Channy in years, decades. He’s a good one. Nice, stand-up guy. He . . .” His voice trailed off as a memory came to him.

“He what?” She leaned forward in the chair.

“Nothin’, just . . . he died a long time ago. The Big C got him. I told him he needed to stop smokin’, but he wouldn’t. He just kept it up.” He shook his head to clear his thoughts. “Look, I really gotta go, Miss. You gotta tell me what ya want, cause I don’t want to miss breakfast. The oatmeal tastes like ass, but it’s better than those dried up eggs, and if I don’t get down there they stop serving breakfast, and then I don’t get to eat until one o’clock.” He laughed softly.

“What’s so funny, Edgar?”

“I was just thinking how people say something tastes or smells like ass, but how do you know that—I mean what ass tastes like, ya know?” She leaned back, as if she’d been insulted. “Sorry, I probably shouldn’t say something like that to a female and I just . . . it’s not right. Sorry.”

“That’s one thing that hasn’t changed, is it?”


“Your sense of humor.” She stood up and walked around the dismal room. She gently ran her hands over the cheap cotton window curtains, then trailed them along his dresser with the pictures and the two knick-knacks on top. He couldn’t figure out what they were or who they were from. They were just things sitting there for no damn good reason.

“So, where’d you say we met?”

“I didn’t. I’m kind of sad that you don’t remember me, Eddie.”

“I never said I didn’t remember you. I just, you know I’ve always been bad with names, and like I said, I’m worse now.”

“Oh. Is that all? You sure Eddie?”

“Eddie? Nobody’s called me that in a long time.”

She laughed. Sometimes people call a laugh throaty and deep; hers was like from-the-bottom-of-a-well deep. It was like going-down-a-coal-mine-after-a-blast kinda deep. His dad did that kind of thing before they moved to Brooklyn, working in coal mines. He was what? Nine, ten years old, and he remembered the blue Buick Daddy drove. Feeling like a marble bouncing around in that giant back seat. Where that came from, he didn’t know, but it made him smile and lose himself in that moment.

“Eddie, put your seat belt on, honey,” his mother would call back over the seat.

He’d roll all around that big back seat. He was the only kid. Some days he loved it; others he was lonely. He knew lonely. He’d been lonely most of his life, but he’d never own it to a soul. He liked the free and single life, that’s what he’d say. Then he’d met . . . Isabel . . . no, Carleen and he was the happiest man alive. Carleen, so beautiful and kind. She wasn’t the kind of broad that you thought about how good the lay was gonna be beforehand. That’s like imagining that Mother Teresa broad naked and you didn’t do that. It was always good. He remembered that about her. She was a great lover, a great friend. A great wife. What happened to her? He tried to remember . . .

“Eddie?” The voice snatched him back into the present. Into this room that held nothing for him aside from being a place to sleep and piss when he could. “You’re being rude. Don’tcha want to talk to me?”

“I’m sorry, but I, I don’t even know who you are. Am I supposed to know you?”

She smiled again and he again was mesmerized by the beauty of her lips, of her mouth. He could tell she could kiss. He could tell that she could kiss real good. The thought of that gave him a surprise he hadn’t had in a while and he put his hand over his crotch so as not to embarrass himself. He even felt himself blush. She laughed from the depths of the earth again, but softly this time.

“Don’t worry Eddie. It ain’t something I never seen before.”

She stood up and walked directly in front of him. Her nearness was a tender caress on his heart. She tilted her head to one side and regarded him with a crooked smile that made her lips all the more tantalizing.

“Oatmeal!” he shouted.

She laughed loudly. “What?”

“I gotta get down to breakfast, lady. Look, just tell me what you want—”

She knelt in front of him.

“I brought you a gift, Eddie.”

“What kind of gift”

“I bet you’ll like it more than oatmeal.”

She began to lean towards him. Was it his imagination or did he smell tangerines? Tangerines and strawberries. The scent was familiar and sent sparks through his brain, like an electrical jolt. He was wondering why he didn’t try to get away from her. Then on second thought, she was a gorgeous woman, she smelled good, and it’s the first time in a long time blood was flowing to parts of his body that he hadn’t thought about in a while. He liked it. He missed it, this feeling of being alive. More alive than he’d been in years, or at least since his daughters . . . what the hell were their names? Didn’t matter, they’d put him in this place and left him alone. He’d slowly been disappearing. Every time he looked in the mirror he saw less and less of himself. He remembered less and less, and once the memories were gone what was left, a half shadow of a man in a mirror that couldn’t see past the dark. So no, Eddie wasn’t going to move. He didn’t care if she was a nutjob. He felt alive.

“How ya feelin’, Eddie?”

“Nice. Real nice.” His voice was low and breathy.

She was only a few inches away from him now. Her face close to his. He could smell the tangerines and strawberries and something else . . . what was it? The ocean. Dear God, he hadn’t thought about the ocean in so long. How he’d loved the ocean and the feeling of having to navigate the waves, the taste of the salt. He was so alive right now.

Her eyes weren’t blue, they were violet with flecks of dark brown around them and fringed with long eyelashes like her hair, red and blonde. She was so beautiful, he almost couldn’t breathe. He watched as she parted her lips. He couldn’t believe this was happening to him! But he wanted it. He leaned forward and closed his eyes, waiting for the touch. Every cell in his body was longing for the connection. He knew it meant something more than just this kiss. It was truly a gift.

Soft . . . soft . . . soft.

He was falling, waves were pushing him to the sky and bringing him down again with a tender embrace. He was back there, in the Caribbean, swimming—just like he remembered when he was on a tour there while in the Navy. The waves would envelope you in a gentle touch, a kiss upon the skin, then back up towards the heat of the sun. Her tongue gently traced his lower lip and then tickled his tongue. She tasted like tangerines and strawberries. He opened his mouth and welcomed her tongue deeper into him. There they were together, back and forth, small kisses and then tongue and—Eddie hadn’t been kissed like this since . . . since . . .

The girl. The woman at the club that night.

He was on his way home from the war. He’d had a rough tour and had gone out by himself as usual. He was still claiming to be a loner. Not your buddy-buddy type like the rest of the guys in his unit. He could count his friends on one hand, and he was good with that. He’d gone out that night to escape the cheap hotel room where he’d been hiding for the past week. He wasn’t sure he was ready to go home to Carleen and the kids. He wasn’t sure he was the same man—or what kind of a man he was anymore after all the things he’d seen and done. He didn’t want to bring half a man home to his family. So, he’d lied and said he was being held up by paperwork and would be home as soon as he could. He knew if he couldn’t get back in touch with the man he was before he’d been shipped overseas going home wasn’t an option. They deserved better than a half-dead guy just trying to get by.

He went into this club . . . The Raven’s Nest. Jazz until ten, then rock and roll until midnight. He sat there through the jazz band playing mediocre renditions of songs from Miles, Trane, and Dizzy, but at least it wasn’t that little dismal hotel room. He’d only had two drinks when they’d changed to the rock and roll band. There was a woman sitting at the bar. She was gorgeous, but Eddie wasn’t looking for a woman. He didn’t know what he was looking for that night, just to feel alive again, to believe he knew who he was before he went home. On his way to the bathroom he’d accidentally knocked her jacket off the back of her chair. He’d apologized and made some stupid joke, which she laughed at, a laugh that rose from the core of the earth, filled with substance—it was all coming back to him as he held onto this strange woman and their kiss moved him from present to past and back again.

At the end of the night he’d walked her to the subway. She’d offered to see him again, but he told her the truth about being married and out of sorts. He was afraid he would fall apart as he said those words to her since he hadn’t said anything to anyone about how he was feeling until that moment. Hell, he hadn’t much to say to anyone since he’d been back. He thought he might cry, and Eddie didn’t cry in front of anyone. It was revealing too much to do a thing like that. But, before he could finish explaining, she’d leaned in and kissed him, and that kiss was the best kiss he’d ever had. It almost made him feel guilty since she wasn’t Carleen. He didn’t know if it was because of the timing or if it meant something about the two of them. All he knew was he felt the pieces of himself shift around inside and then reach out to connect him with another human being, deeply connect. When they finally came up for air, she laughed, that laugh again, and somehow it was the cherry on top of the kiss.

“Don’t look so surprised. I don’t expect anything more and I’m not asking for anything from you. It’s my gift to you. You went over there and fought for us, it seems like you left some of you somewhere. I hope you get find what you left over there so you can take it home to your girl. I hope you find your happy again, Eddie.”

Then she walked down the steps leaving him there feeling himself become alive again, instead of the empty reflection he’d seen that morning in the mirror. He found a pay phone and called Carleen and told her he was coming home.

Tangerines . . . strawberries . . . and the ocean all over again.

When Eddie opened his eyes, she was gone.

He looked around the room. It was the same dismal, utilitarian room with ugly curtains and cheap furniture, but he felt different. Maybe he was still alive. Not the man he was before, but he didn’t have to wait for death to come calling. Maybe there was something left in this world for him to hold onto. As he slowly dressed for the day, he decided he’d ask if he could have some fresh strawberries with his oatmeal this morning.


[From the upcoming short-story collection It Started with a Kiss by Reneé Flemings.]