Tuesday 28 December 2021

Uncle Max’s Gift


              by Nadja Maril 


What color blue was it?  Oriental Azure. An exotic name.  The paint she’d chosen for the walls matched the carpet perfectly. A professional decorator couldn’t have done any better.

‘Brilliant,’ her husband Marc said. ‘Well done.’

The inspiration had been the Gouda pottery inherited from Uncle Max.

‘I had the time,  now that the children are gone,’ she said. ‘ The house needed an update.’

Uncle Max.  How many years since he died?  ‘Let me tell you about this pottery.’ Bethany remembered his voice and the stories he’d tell her each time she  reached out to touch the bowl on the coffee table. The bright colors had been irresistible. She’d been nine and he let her hold the bowl in her lap.

‘It was made years ago, he said, ‘in Holland, in the same town where they make Gouda cheese. At factories where all the workers wore wooden shoes.’

‘Wooden shoes?’ she’d said. ‘You’re making this up.’

‘No, it’s true,’ he’d said. ‘They used to wear wooden shoes in Holland because they were cheap and easy to make.’

That was Uncle Max, always telling stories.  And when he knew he didn’t have long to live he’d said, ‘I want you to have those pieces of Gouda pottery you always liked so you can remember those stories I used to tell you.  Maybe you’ll tell them to someone else. ‘

She thought of his vivid blue eyes that crinkled at the edges when he laughed and a lump began to form in her throat. Even now, years later she still missed him.   She looked at the vibrant green pottery decorated with yellow, blue and red. An artist comfortable with rough edges had imprecisely executed the bright designs.  The decoration made no attempt to be fine and elegant. It was the way she liked to dress—in bright colors, bohemian, youthful.

   She gathered the stack of junk mail accumulated during the week, before leaving for work. Among the items for recycling was another membership invitation from AARP. She had no intention of retiring.

‘Meow,’ Cassandra, her tabby rubbed up against the bottom of the pottery shelf.

‘Careful. Careful,’ Bethany said. ‘You might break something.’ And then she remembered a piece was already broken.

You couldn’t see it. She’d hidden the defect, the way she’d placed it on the shelf. One of the Gouda pottery vases had a crack in it.

During the delivery of the new carpet, one of the workers had banged into the cupboard. Bad luck. Stupid.

Now one of the large matching vases was damaged. A one inch chip merged into a seven inch crack that ran vertically towards the base.  But when she positioned the vase back on the freshly painted shelf, with the good side facing outwards, it looked perfect.

But she knew. Some days when she thought about the damaged vase. It made her feel sad. It was as if she’d let Uncle Max down even though he’d say, ‘it’s an object. You are the one who is important.’ She considered getting rid of it, even throwing it in the trash, but that would be admitting it was broken.

On her way out the door, she quickly glanced at herself in the mirror. By some trick of the light, her strawberry blonde hair today looked gray. And the dress she’d thought flattering made her look fat.

There was that meeting today with her boss. Maybe she should change her dress. No, she didn’t want to be late.  She looked fine, just feeling a little self-conscious.

*     *     *

‘Roses again?’ She said to Cindy, the young redhead, sitting behind the front desk.  ‘Another admirer?

Bethany wrote her name and arrival time on the login sheet.

Cindy blushed. ‘Can you meet with Mr. Ambersley after lunch?’

‘I thought our meeting was this morning, but sure okay. ‘Did he want me to print out my projections?’

Cindy shrugged. ‘Don’t know,’ she said.

Bethany looked around to see who was at their desks. Donna, a member of her projects team, smiled at her and held out a box of donuts.

‘No thank you,’ Bethany said.

At her own computer while opening emails, her mind shifted from thoughts of new home improvement projects to organizing a baby shower for Ralph, another staff member, who’d recently adopted an infant. Lunch was eaten at her desk, yogurt and an apple. She gathered her files for the meeting.

‘Bethany,’ Mr. Ambersley got up from his desk. He was wearing one of those European fitted shirts, preferred by the younger set  and his thick dark hair was closely cropped. A new style? He shook her hand with a weak, damp grip that caused her to immediately release her hold, wishing she had somewhere to wipe away his sweat.  She glanced at her own hands—when had they gotten so wrinkled?

They both sat down. Instead of meeting her gaze, Mr. Ambersley stared at a stack of papers on his desk and cleared his throat. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said.

‘Sorry about what?’ she asked.

‘There’s going to be some changes. We’ll be eliminating your position. Reorganizing.’

The room started to blur as she struggled to comprehend the words he’d just spoken.

‘We’re combining departments. Not that your work isn’t good, but we’ll be saving money and…’

Her throat started to constrict.  She grasped for an idea.  Something to say. But if she was even able to emit a sound what was there to say?

She’d completely misread the signs.  Living in some kind of fantasy world. How could she be so stupid?  Last week he’d asked her for an update on her budget. He’d asked specific questions about expenses.  She could feel her heart pound. Her head throbbed. Her ears buzzed. She’d been a fool.

‘Now I want you to know,’ he was telling her, ‘that none of this is your fault. It’s just inevitable for a business to survive, we’ve got to streamline expenses. I’ll be happy to give you whatever you need for a reference. You’ve been working here nine years and we’ll be providing a severance package, nine weeks full salary.’

She thought about the staff members she’d trained. ‘Are you laying off Ralph and Donna too?’

‘They’ll be part of the re-organized team,’ he said.

The apple and yogurt she’d eaten earlier started to heat up inside her gut. Her limbs felt numb.

‘You can stop by on Monday to pick up your things at the front desk,’ her boss said. ‘We’ll have everything boxed up for you. It’s easier this way.’

‘I’m sure it is,’ she replied in a low voice, ‘for you.’ She gritted her teeth and turned away, biting down hard on her tongue. She might need the young fart’s recommendation. As much as she wanted to tell him what she was feeling, her mouth needed to stay shut.

Bethany looked at no one as she walked back to get her purse and coat.  Everyone must know by now she’d lost her job. They’d  be staring at her.  Before someone was called to escort her out, she walked down to the elevator one floor below. She called her husband from the car. 

 ‘I’ll leave right now,’ he said, ‘I’ll come help you pack your things.’

‘No you don’t understand. They wanted me out of the building—immediately. They’ll pack me up. It’s the corporate way,’ she said.

‘The jerks,’ he said. ‘I’ll be home soon and I’ll take you to dinner.’

‘I don’t think I’ve much of an appetite, but maybe some alcohol will do.’

The wine made it easy for Bethany to fall asleep, but one hour later she was awake. Stretched out under the soft quilt, she could hear her husband’s heavy breathing.  Companies didn’t like to hire older people. Experience and loyalty had little value.  Face it, she was now a ‘has been.’

Then she remembered their plans for Saturday night. Tomorrow. They had VIP tickets for the hospital fundraiser. She’d arranged the Tech Solutions sponsorship. The hospital’s development people would expect her to be there, and why shouldn’t she attend? Maybe she’d score a lead for a new job.

The next morning she reached for her telephone and made a call to the beauty parlor. ‘Do you have any openings for a shampoo and style?’ she asked.

She stopped at the café up the street, to grab a Café Americano. Waiting for her order, she studied the other patrons. They were smiling and chatting. But what was really going on inside their heads? Had anyone else just lost his or her job?

Her hands trembled as she pulled out her card to pay the bill. She felt the server staring at her. Reluctantly she reached in her pocket for loose change and added a dollar tip. The server was young. Bethany could be her mother.                                                                                     

*    *   *

As soon as she stepped inside her house, she paused to admire her reflection in the mirror. She was glad she’d let the stylist talk her into perking up her hair color with a rinse and trimming off a few inches. She looked at least ten years younger. Sometimes it was good to try something new.

‘Wow,’ Marc said, walking out from the kitchen to greet her.

‘I’m a little over the hill, don’t you think?’

He ran his hand over the top of his salt and pepper hair and grinned. ‘In my eyes you’re always beautiful. A classic.’ He looked around the foyer and gestured to the pottery display. ‘Now, what’s the name of that pottery again?’

She looked at her display of Gouda, the small bowls and pitcher flanked at each end by a matching stately vase. She thought of her uncle and his apartment with its oriental carpets, Russian Easter eggs and Native American weaving. ‘Gouda,’ she said, ‘like the cheese. Made in Holland.’

‘I know you’re upset about the job and everything, but you’ll be all right.’ He wrapped his arms around her. ‘You’ll find something better. I know you will,’ he said. ‘Either that or we can do more traveling.’

Bethany remembered the ruined vase. Should she tell him?

And then he said, ‘Would you like me to fix you something for lunch? I could scramble you a couple of eggs.’

‘Sounds good,’ she said. ‘I’ll be there in a minute.’

As soon as Bethany heard the kitchen door close, she picked up the damaged vase. The colors were still bright and the shape pleasing. She turned the vase around so the crack was visible, and placed it back on the shelf.

About the author

Nadja Maril is a former magazine editor and journalist living in Annapolis, Maryland, USA. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the Stonecoast Program at the University of Southern Maine and her short stories and essays have been published in a number of small literary magazines and anthologies including: Change Seven, Lunch Ticket, Thin Air and Defunkt Magazine.  

Twitter handle SNMaril, Facebook https://www.facebook.com/nadja.maril/








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