Gifting Purpose is a story I wrote in grad school. When I pulled it out to review and edit it and consider whether it was something I wanted to publish, it was as if I was reading it for the first time and hadn’t even written it myself. It’s the first time I’ve had so much distance from a piece that I didn’t even recognize it as my own work. It’s amazing how much easier it is to judge something you’ve written when you don’t recognize it as your own. I felt it was much easier to see the problems and hopefully fix them. I hope you enjoy the results. Do please feel free to comment/critique!
By Michelle Beltano Curtis
Jeremiah fell into his padded leather chair, his breath escaping in a long huff. He felt the constraint of his tie, his suit coat, set one aside, loosened the other. His gaze was focused on a photo on his desk. He and Anne posed precariously over a long deep crevice in the sandstone of Rockbridge, each in their own brand of mock teetering, arms and hands spread wide and flailing, eyes glinting. The happy times before her illness began. He picked up the photo. It must have been the fiftieth time in three days. Heaviness clouded his chest and he unbuttoned his stiff collar. It took everything he had to drag himself to work now. There was no motivation. No future family. No Anne.
Swiveling his chair around from his desk, he hurls the photo in its heavy wooden frame, smashing the thick glass of his window, identical to every other in the 23 story building of steel girders and glass, running from floor to ceiling. It shatters, tinkles as it drops like a hundred wind chimes. He follows it, hurling himself from the chair headfirst into open air. A tumbled free fall, crashing to the sidewalk below as strangers in tailored suits and sensible shoes stop, stunned, gawking, mouths agape and faces askew, some with shock, some with eyes focusing narrowly like carnivores come across a convenient meal. Blood flying away like rays of sunshine from his crumpled body; a rotten tomato dashed on kitchen tiles.
The delusion dissipated as Jeremiah shook himself. He knew it wasn’t in him. He’d never really understood suicide. How could anyone stand up to the prime directive of a living organism and succeed? Still, he coveted death the way he pined for her touch and if he couldn’t have one, he certainly desired the other; craved the mixing of his ash with hers. The only way he could exist with her. Jeremiah never believed in the afterlife, had no illusions about clouds dense enough to hold a human form, reunions beyond pearly gates. This life was all there ever was. Best to take what one gets before the nothing comes.
His office had an empty, unlivedin feeling. It had never bothered him before. This was the place he came to do the things he was obliged to do and there was no relish in it for him. Everything held a certain stateliness, cherry wood, chrome, leather and glass; all modern, clean lines as impersonal as a bus station. All spread across the corner office with plenty of room to spare among the functional geometric shapes; a couch and chair separated by a small end table, a coffee table, desk and credenza. On the glass coffee table sat the by now clichéd broad shallow footed dish holding metallic balls the size of a softball, enameled swirls of green and beige, fake plant behind the end table. He had done it on purpose; one more way to distance his real life from his work life, one more way to keep at bay those things not “business appropriate,” one more way to smother the dreams within him and dull the pain of entrapment. Perhaps he should change it, take some time to bring more of himself to this space, maybe even replace the tired art of right angles with some of his own work. He would be here much of the time if the last few days were any judge. Somehow the loss seemed less here.
He opened the bottom drawer on the right hand side of his desk, stared into its empty gaping maw. Carefully, he placed the picture inside, face down. It felt like an affront to Anne, shutting their love away in a drawer. He had resisted this act thus far, guilt guiding him to let the picture remain each time. In his support group for grieving widows they might call this progress; the beginning of moving on. For Jeremiah it felt more like a plea for sanity.
He rose, grabbing his empty coffee cup stained with concentric rings lacking such rhyme or reason it would make any abstractionist proud to claim it. The mug came from Anne, a gift for his first day at the company, nine long years ago. She’d bought it at the CMA, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers reproduced in miniature on one side to “brighten his days” when they were still newlyweds. Once his assistant, Becky, had made the mistake of cleaning it out, scrubbing it with baking soda until it sparkled like new. He had wanted to cry when he saw its art erased. Their art. It was a part of his everyday dreams, his meandering vision searching for the music within the rings which stained the mug, thick, thin, pale, dark, ever overlapping. This was the true art of the mug.
Mug in hand, he snuck by Becky’s cubicle, desperate to escape her sorrowful pout. In the coffee room, he discovered a tray of doughnuts, remnants of an early morning meeting. He downed one greedily as he filled his cup with strong black coffee, its surface an oily rainbow. Dumping in powdered creamer until the liquid rose to the edge, he stirred it carelessly slopping the heated liquid, coagulated creamer sloughing along lazily down the mug’s side. He downed the scalding hot liquid to force a dense chunk of the blueberry cake doughnut from his gullet. Relief rushed over him; the physical pain of the burn distracting him momentarily from the emotional.
Refilling his mug he grabbed another doughnut and snuck back to his office. He heard a rustle on the opposite side of the cubicle wall just outside his office. In his rush to escape he slammed the door with unintended force. His guilt rose up to meet it. Becky meant well but he felt her bottomless compassion as an obligation; her plea for him to unload his heavy burden. He placed the coffee on the little burner Becky bought him for Christmas, flipped on the switch and the indicator glowed. The empty spot where the picture stood looked sad. He moved the pencil holder, but that space also annoyed him. He set to rearranging his desk. When he was satisfied that he could no longer tell what once belonged where, he logged onto his computer and began browsing email.
His attentions were consumed by an email from an obviously furious client when the phone rang. He reached for the phone without looking, only to swat the coffee mug now in its place. The mug hit the desk with a pop and a splash, flowing across his desk and heading straight for a pile of papers he had slowly been working his way through since his return.
He scooped up the dripping pages and headed for the door, leaving the phone to ring. “Beck, I need some paper towels. Quick.”
“Be right there!” the last word coming out in two sing-song syllables.
Not a minute later, Becky appeared with an entire roll of paper towels, an odd contrast to her smart azure skirt suit. He never knew how she always managed to produce even the most obscure of objects in record time, but she always did. “Oh goodness, Jeremiah, everything is soaked. What a fiasco! But don’t worry. I’ll have it cleaned up in a jiffy.”
“No, no. I’ve got it.”
Becky paused, paper towels hugged to her chest, eyebrows drawing down, her mouth along for the ride.
“Oh, alright,” Jeremiah conceded. “We’ll do it together. You take care of the desk. I’ll see what I can do with these papers.”
Becky pulled several paper towels from the roll, handng them to him. He dumped the papers on the coffee table. He sat on the edge of the sofa, carefully blotting each page, cursing the propensity of copier toner to run. In the periphery of his vision, Anne sat in the adjacent chair, a long leg peaking from between the bottom panels of her button down sundress, all frills and flowers. When he swiveled his head to confront the image directly, she was gone.
It was the dress she was wearing the day it happened. She had met him here for lunch, something she had only done once before in his nine years with the company. The familiar feeling that he was missing something about that visit crept into his mind again and he paused at his dabbing, thinking back. He wished he’d have paid more attention to her, to what she was saying, searched her face for a sign, felt something and had known to warn her. The last time he would caress that lovely leg. The last time he would plant his lips, in perfect symmetry, about the mole on her right cheek when she rose to leave. The mole that gave her the mysterious air of a 1950’s sex symbol. The mole that persuaded him to ask her out.
He mentally sifted through the contents of that afternoon again, what they ate, what they said, searching for any clue that might have warned him she was about to die, about to plunge her car off the precipice on the AA highway. He didn’t even know what she’d been doing there, what had compelled her to drive that winding road that day. He supposed it was for the love of the scenery, the loops and curves, the swift declines and crawling inclines that she embraced with the spirit of a kid on a roller coaster. Had she really just been on a Sunday drive that Wednesday afternoon? Another of her trips to drink in the raw beauty of life that she had taken to when the doctor declared her finally in remission?
He suffered all the more, knowing she’d been saved from one fate only to be swallowed by another. What had it all been for? A few precious years?
His hands continued their work of their own volition during his reverie until a bulging envelope came into his hands, pristinely white, barren of any addressee, blemished only by the carefully printed word “confidential” in the lower right corner. “What is this?”
Jeremiah hadn’t realized he’d spoken aloud until Becky came from around his desk to peer at the envelope. “Why, I don’t know. It’s not addressed to anyone. Odd, isn’t it? I don’t even remember seeing it before.”
“No matter, I’ll look at it later,” he said with deceptive nonchalance. He feared the envelope, worried at its contents. Was it just his imagination or was the writing hers? He stared at the envelope as he wiped away the coffee from the final documents in the pile. That is definitely her “C” he thought. The same “C” she used to sign her name, their name, Conway.
When Becky finished cleaning and arranging his desk, Jeremiah excused her with a pale smile and returned to the desk with the envelope in hand. “Please hold all my calls and visitors,” he added as he closed the door behind her. He pulled his letter opener from the pencil holder and quietly slid it open. Holding it open with the tip of the opener, he held it away from his body and peered into it as though it might contain anthrax. He slid the opener between the pages. They appeared legal in nature with the exception of one page curled within the others; a note in Anne’s large fluid strokes. He pulled the pages free of the envelope, separating the personal letter from the larger sheath allowing it to fall to the desk. He unfolded the top of the thick bundle, peering briefly at the first page of typewritten legal-ease; an AD&D insurance policy dated three months prior.
Jeremiah scratched his head, running his hand through his hair as he turned his attention to the single page outlined in Victorian roses and ribbon. He held it to his nose and drew in deeply of its scent. Her scent. Fresh spring wildflowers with undertones of amber and sandalwood. He hugged it to him, cursing its insubstantiality, but relishing it no less before withdrawing it quickly for fear he would taint it with his cologne. He stared at the page as a whole, savoring the beauty of her script, the closeness he felt to her holding what she had written just for him. To a degree he was stalling, both afraid of what it would say and reluctant to let the moment pass too soon.
Jeremiah read her words over and over through blurred vision, pausing briefly here and there to hold it to his nose, until her scent seemed trapped there permanently. He rocked slowly in his padded leather chair, letting the tears follow their own course for the first time. He thought about her beauty before the chemo, how it had begun to again blossom in her in good—No, it wasn’t good health after all. He wished he had taken the time to study her one last time, as she was that day she took her life with such seeming serenity, but he knew his mind had already rejected those visages of her which were anything less than perfect.
He read her words over and over again until they formed a collage of thoughts and feelings. He marveled at her insight, her presence of mind to leave him such a gift, on the one hand. On the other, he worried about the legal and ethical ramifications of following through on her plan. If he didn’t, wouldn’t he be dishonoring her last wishes and wasn’t that more important? In the end, whether he used the money or not, he decided, her gift was so much more than money. She had supplied him with a reason to go on.
He dug about in his desk drawers until he found a pack of matches. Old and tattered, it seemed doubtful they would light, but the match flared on the first try. Jeremiah watched the flames gobble Anne’s precise script and Victorian roses, letting the ash fall into the trashcan beside his desk. He wanted to be angry with her for denying him what precious time they could have spent together, but he knew he had to respect the choice she had made. He hadn’t the heart to be angry with her anyway.
He opened his bottom desk drawer, withdrawing the picture. Painting this is where I will start, he thought.
Written and published by Michelle Beltano Curtis. All Rights Reserved. 2019