Readings — From the May 2013 issue

The Gift

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By Mary Ruefle, from Issue 2 of Unstuck. Ruefle is the author of several books, including, most recently, Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures.

The day the living room flooded I had not left the apartment in five days, everything was spotlessly clean, I had no work to do except writing my thoughts in a journal, the thought of which filled me with terror and boredom. That fateful and final morning I was in bed reading, unable to concentrate because of what I had done the day before. The day before I had ordered by telephone a large box of glacé apricots from Australia. The catalogue, South Sea Gifts, showed the fruit in a handsome wooden crate lined with gold foil. They cost $86.20 and I had them sent to myself with a gift card that said from Mary to Mary. I was uneasy because I now had no money to buy groceries with and it would be some time before the apricots arrived, even though I had them sent express, which cost more. I looked forward to them arriving, but at the same time they would, when they arrived, only remind me of my stupidity and terrible guilt. My guilt was tremendous. To have used the last of my money sending myself a gift of glacé apricots! And the gold foil — that had cost more too. The cheaper “home boxes” had more apricots in them but were without gold foil. The gold foil looked so nice, shining beside the golden apricots. Of course I had been looking at a photograph, and I worried that the picture was somehow “touched up,” because I once met a food stylist whose job it was to make photographs of food look better than the food itself; she used glycerin and starch and hair spray to make things luscious and shining, crisp, fresh, mouthwatering in a tantalizing way. I didn’t want to open the box and be disappointed. I also thought of ordering a circle of white cotton mosquito netting, but came to my senses. At least I could eat the apricots. What would I do with mosquito netting? I just like the way it looks — you can drape it over anything and the draped thing becomes soft and mysterious. I read an article once about a woman who was an intensely intellectual Buddhist and she wanted to make her house as empty and white as possible, but she owned thousands of books, which dragged the energy of the space down, so she simply made vertical pillars of her books and draped them with mosquito netting and got the effect she was after — the effect of owning nothing, wanting nothing, living in a windswept environment of peace. All my extravagant mail ordering — it had me feeling uneasy. I felt vapid and shallow and guilty, I loved my books, and just the sight of them strewn around on low-lying tables and lined up on windowsills and stacked on the floor — along with catalogues and unopened bills — had always made me feel happy in a teeming, chaotic way and given me the feeling my life was full and interesting, that I was a serious and charming person. I also worried about the people who answered the phone for the catalogue companies — did they have enough to eat? Did they ever steal a glacé apricot or two? I knew they had work, they had to answer phone calls, they had to calm the caller down and answer all her questions, they had to explain the difference between a “gift box” and a “home box.” I could see them in a cavernous room, sitting in makeshift booths with earphones on. For some reason I draped them all with mosquito netting — I mean each one individually wore a cocoon of soft white gauze. It muffled their voices while they spoke to the customers, the customers had to ask them to repeat what they had just said, so endless loops of repetition began to bubble up from the cocoons. That’s how I pictured it. It was then that I heard the water in the living room, bubbling up from some mysterious source. I got out of bed to investigate, and as soon as I entered the hall I saw a pool of brown water advancing toward my feet. I had forgotten to put my slippers on, I was standing in my bare feet, and the brown water came up over my ankles. I waded forward toward the living room. The sofa was covered with mud and pieces of debris — sticks and clumps of leaves, the black gunk that closes off a rain gutter. There was a high-water mark on the television screen, a wavy white salt horizon that crossed the black glass. My books, too, were covered with the wavy lines of loose, disintegrating matter — detritus, I believe it is called. Some piglets were scavenging the place, eating the stuffing out of a chair in the corner, a chair I always read in. Why had I decided to read in bed that morning? I don’t know. It was highly unusual. Everything was waterlogged, the legs of the table looked soft, like they were made of oatmeal, and a mass riot of spiders swarmed on top of my table, the way I’ve seen ants swarm under my welcome mat outside. The flood had obviously subsided. It must have happened during the night when I was sleeping. I thought for a moment that there was a bloated corpse on the floor, but it was just a sack of rotten potatoes that had floated out from under the sink and was stranded in the stagnant water, a gelatinous mass, puffed up and green. I’m ashamed to say my first thought was that I could not possibly clean up this mess by myself; I needed help. And what about those piglets in the corner, devouring my chair? Where had they come from? The place stank. It smelled worse than a sewer. It smelled like a petri dish of primordial ooze and whomever I called for help would have to cordon off more than my living room, the entire building and the block it sat upon would have to be cordoned off, too. And in this way another day of potential reverie had been broken in two, utterly destroyed by my desire for an apricot, a single indiscretion for which my habitat had become a village of sticks on the banks of a rising river, where trade winds blew and the rains came and the mosquitoes bred, and where mosquitoes breed, one will be needing some netting.

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