GIFTS • by Toni de Bonneval

New Year’s Eve afternoon. Like life — uncertain, threatening. Maybe it will snow, maybe it won’t. Rain? Freeze? Maybe the sun will come out. Ha. I’m walking to the market, not because we need anything but because “exercise is good for the elderly.” Besides, what else is there to do? The kids certainly don’t need us; they’re lucky we don’t need them yet. The grands are too grown for babysitters. The oldest story in the world — getting old. So, I go out for butter. Not that we need butter but it might snow tonight too much to go out tomorrow. Butterless toast on the day after. Oh, spare me.

I turn the corner toward the market. A block ahead, three kids, girls. maybe seven or eight, are jumping at a high wall. That is, two of them are jumping, the third’s fighting tears. I move up, look up. And there it is, on the top of the wall, too high to reach, a brand new pink knitted hat. A Christmas hat?

Even though I’ve shrunk, I’m taller than the girls and am in pretty good shape. “Hey,” I hear myself say, “lemme try.” They back up. Stare. If I could stare at myself, I‘d stare too. I’d watch a nutty old lady in a black down coat put her bag on the pavement, extend one arm. She breathes in. Onto the toes, flexes the knees. Heave. Up. What does she expect? Levitation? What does she get? A half-inch. A pounding heart. And again. And again. An old lady in a puffy coat levitating. Or trying to. Fingers flail the airy. The hat? She doesn’t come near to touching it. Were hats so prone, it would laugh. Hands on knees, I puff air. I look toward the girls. They look back. Hopeless. We are embraced in our hopelessness.

“So let’s try this,” I say boldly. I pick up my purse, straighten, swing it at the miscreant hat. No luck. Two of the girls sigh, the smallest’s full-out crying. The tallest girl snaps, “I didn’t mean to.”

Bleakness swathes us. Then. “Look.” I’m speaking with a sudden authority I didn’t know I still had. “This is what we do.” I lace my hands together, nod at the middle the girl who’s trying to comfort the crier. I show her my linked hands, indicate she should do the same. I gesture her to come closer, to stoop like I am. I nod to the crier, hear myself say, “Now, you put your feet on our hands. We’ll boost you up.” I can’t believe I’m saying this, can’t believe I’m doing this. The kid’s sneaker is on my linked fingers. I nod. Together, slowly, we straighten.

Our passenger rises. The third girl, the one who’d thrown the hat, stands, arms raised against the back of the elevating girl. “It’s all right,” she shouts, “it’s all right. I’ll catch you.” Fingers grasp the pink hat. Carefully, cautiously, our burden lowers. She jumps free, pulls pink knit over her eyes, peeks through the loose weave. The kids are punching each other, laughing. I straighten.

Abruptly, the girl who threw the hat stops giggling. She has red hair and an oddly old face on her wiry young body. She steps forward. “Thank you,” she says. A few flakes — clean, cold — proffer their benediction. “Thank you,” she says again. She steps back to her friends. Turns, a third time. Quietly, “Thank you.”

They are linking arms, laughing. I turn toward the market. “Have a great New Year,” I call. My heart thunders, but no one can see that. My face aches with its smiling. I know I look like a nut case but it doesn’t matter. Some things are just too great to keep inside. But then I’m already feeling sad because it’s over. And I top it. I give myself another gift: a future.

Fast forward. New Year’s Eve 2057. Three middle-aged women lift glasses of cabernet. One says, “So, do you remember the time your Christmas hat got stuck on the wall and that little old lady came along and made so we could boost you up and get it?“

The second says, “Do I remember? Are you kidding? We wouldn’t be here now if she hadn’t. I was so mad.” The third woman, who has sort of an orange rinse, squunches her eyes, looks into the past, shakes her head at the wonder of it all. “That was so great,” she says quietly.

On the way home, after getting the butter, I stop at a package store. I get a bottle of cheap red. “So what are we toasting?” Edgar grumps. Nevertheless, he does lift his glass. I consider: the future, us, gifts?

I have to answer softly so’s not to intrude. “What’s not to toast?” I breathe at him. “What’s not to toast?”

Toni de Bonneval has published in several literary journals, with two stories currently out: one in Nimrod, one Flash Fiction. Toni lives in the Boston area.

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