A Gift

by Patricia Ann Sanders

Feature image: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The Passenger in Cabin 54—The Cruise, 1896. The Art Institute of Chicago.

It’s called the “verbal tip.”

You’re the greatest waitress we’ve ever had. We’re going to ask for you every time we come here. We had such a good time because you were our waitress. Yada yada.

Then they leave, like, three dollars on a thirty-dollar ticket.

Like I was going to call up the electric company and tell them they were the greatest electric company I’d ever had.

When I got divorced, my ex-husband was supposed to give me the Jeep. That’s what we agreed. My plan was to sell it if I couldn’t find a job right away in Phoenix. Instead, he wanted me to have the Acura. He was being generous, because it was a better car, practically new. Except that he never signed the title over to me. So I couldn’t sell it, and I couldn’t drive it, because I couldn’t afford insurance or gas. I was living in a godforsaken studio and buying food for one day at a time, stealing toilet paper from the bathrooms at the mall, with a twenty-three-thousand-dollar car parked under my window.

One day some woman who only had a salad and coffee leaves me a twenty. Who knows why, these things are a mystery. I decide to use part of it to buy myself an ice cream cone. It’s summer. I’m walking down the street licking my pistachio and there’s a street person, an old guy. I put fifty cents in his hand. He’s looking at my ice cream. Are you enjoying that? he says. Enjoying your double-waffle ice cream cone?

After I got divorced and couldn’t find a job except waiting tables, I went back to college to finish my degree. I lived on financial aid and tips. I rode my bicycle to school and work, or I took the bus. I didn’t have any friends, because I was depressed and had no money and couldn’t drive anywhere. There was one woman at school, Ellen. We had a calculus class together. She was married and wanted to be a nurse. Sometimes we studied at the library. All she ever talked about was her bad marriage, and she wasn’t interested in what was going on with me, which is why I didn’t consider her a real friend. I would go to my professors’ offices to talk about classes, and they were so happy to have a student actually come to office hours that we would talk for an hour. These conversations took my mind off things. And they liked me, so I got away with missing classes and they cut me slack on my grades. There were some classes where they could have failed me and they didn’t, so I think it was helpful.

My grandmother used to send me coupons. She must have sat at that green Formica kitchen table for hours with her black-handled scissors—the same pair that I have now in my kitchen drawer. Clipping coupons just for me: Hamburger Helper, Cheerios, things I would never buy, even if they were cheap. She’d send piles of these coupons, thick as a deck of cards. I didn’t have the heart to throw them out.

For a while I was friends, sort of, with a guy named Rudy. I met him in the produce section—I was eyeing the eggplant, and he told me how to cook it. He said he was a hairdresser and offered to cut my hair. Turned out he was one of the top stylists in Scottsdale. Seriously. He gave me the best bobs of my life. For free, and he’d take me out to dinner. He was gay. I kept thinking, this is too good to be true. After a couple of years I figured it out: he was sick, a compulsive liar. He’d told me how his ex-boyfriend was stalking him, how he was in a thirty-car pileup in the fog and nearly died but managed to help save four other people, how his mother killed herself when he was eight and he found her body hanging from the rose trellis—unbelievable stories. I believed them all. I felt terrible for him, this lifelong string of bad luck. I sympathized. Then during a single steak dinner he told me that he was under indictment for murder because of mistaken identity and that his mother currently lived  in Barcelona and to get around she rode a 1977 green Schwinn Varsity, the exact same kind of bicycle that I was then riding to school, which Rudy knew. I asked him to produce evidence of his murder indictment and he got very defensive. So I stopped calling him and answering his calls.

But he had never done anything that actually hurt me, in fact he was super generous and sweet to me, and I’m sure he couldn’t help the lying. He probably didn’t have any friends. After a while I felt bad about dropping him like that, and I still do, a little. But it’s been a long time, and I don’t know what I could do about it now.

I was working at an Italian-style restaurant. Not genuine Italian, but a corporate chain you have probably heard of. I liked the potato soup with the kale and sausage, and the camaraderie. I pretended the people I worked with were my friends. One night I let another waitress, Melanie, crash in my apartment. She had had to move out of her boyfriend’s place. She spent one night. After that she must have found somewhere else to stay. I made her sleep on the bed and I made a bedroll for myself on the floor. At that time I also had a rabbit that had showed up at my door, which as I learned later was blind from eating oleander. I didn’t have the rabbit very long. The day after Melanie stayed over, I took it to the humane society. It was shaking like a leaf as I handed it across the counter to certain death. So the apartment was especially crowded that night, with Melanie and me and the blind rabbit, and then I was alone again.

When I was fourteen I decided I needed to be more assertive. No more Miss Doormat. I had the feeling people were taking advantage of me and I decided I should establish firm boundaries. Not in so many words, but that was the sentiment. This makes sense to me now, looking back, because at that time my father had been getting me into bed with him, to put it mildly. So, I definitely needed to establish some boundaries, which I did eventually. I haven’t spoken to him in twelve years—how’s that for a boundary. But anyway, this particular day. The very day of my new assertiveness kick, I walk in the door after school and I see my little brother, Paul, sitting at the kitchen table. He would have been ten. He was holding his arm with his other hand, looking chagrined. “Help me out,” he said. He said he broke his arm. He wanted me to call Mom.

“Help you out?” I say. “Call her yourself.”

Woo-hoo. The new me. He goes to the telephone, wincing dramatically, and dials the telephone by holding a magic marker in his mouth. What a ham. Of course he really had broken his arm, pretty badly. I still feel awful about it.

Years later he stole a handgun from a gun show and nearly went to prison. But I don’t think that was my fault. It was just the way things were in our family, people did stupid things. He’s fine now, he became a doctor and got married and they have two kids now and another on the way. That makes me happy.

The hardest class I had to take for my math degree was mathematical analysis. It’s very abstract and involves proving theorems like the Bolzano-Weierstrass theorem, the Heine-Borel theorem, and the Lebesgue differentiation theorem. I’m sure these things are important. I barely passed. I am really not very good at math. The prof had been teaching for thirty-something years and was about to retire, so this was the last class he would ever teach. He had a little grandson who would come with his mother and visit him in his office—I know because I spent so much time in the math teachers’ corridor. So I imagine he just wanted to get out of there to spend his time with this little boy.  But he was a son of a bitch in class. He would make fun of people for asking a question. People would go to his office for help and leave in shock, until word got around and everybody stopped going. We had an exam once where, because of a bad copy job, half of the third page was unreadable, and not one person got up to tell him. We had terrible grades and I’m sure he just thought we were lazy and stupid.

I did go to his office once. Why I’m not sure, except that he had been discussing irrational numbers in class. Also, it was not long after I’d had an affair with another prof and had to have an abortion, so maybe I was punishing myself. I don’t really know. I will try to explain this, but I didn’t really understand it in the first place, so. This math professor had said that a circle can’t actually exist, in the real world, because the circumference, which is a multiple of pi—which is an irrational number, okay?—can never be exactly the length that is necessary to make it an exact circle. The same thing goes for squares, he said. The diagonal of a square is the square root of 2. But the square root of 2 can’t exist in real life, because it’s an irrational number. So squares are mathematically impossible, along with circles.

This deeply disturbed me. I was a person who had always believed that no matter how dirty and chaotic and approximate and mistaken our daily life is, there is an underlying order and purity. A Platonic ideal, I guess. So I went to this professor and asked him to clarify.

I remember his office being very neat, with not too many books but a lot of posters from mathematical conferences in places like Madrid and Stockholm. I recall him settling back in his office chair and looking at me piercingly. Then he reaches and pushes a button on a phone and says, “Grace? . . . Do we still have copies of Flatland?” He asks her to bring a copy to his office, and he gives it to me and tells me to read it. I gathered this was a pastime of his, handing out copies of this book. Then he spoke to the wall behind me. He said: “It gives me a sort of solace to know that this is not a closed set.” This meaning, I think, everything.

I barely passed that class. I suspect he let me have a C because of that time I went to his office. I read the book and still have it, possibly as a reminder that a son of a bitch can still do a kind thing.

One evening in my senior year I waited on two couples who were in town for an evangelical gathering. They asked me could they pray for me. I don’t believe in prayer, but I said yes. I wasn’t being polite or trying not to offend them. I was broke and depressed, I had a major physics exam coming up. Someone had stolen my bike—I mean, it was neverending. So I thought, I won’t turn down anything right now. I said, Yes, please, pray for me.

I got a math degree because I thought it would help my employment prospects, but so much for that. I might as well have majored in English. After I graduated I still couldn’t find a job, so I moved to this town out in the desert and got hired to teach basic math at the community college. I’m renting a kind of run-down little house until I can buy something. Real estate is pretty cheap here. There are some poor girls who live up the street. I read about their uncle in the paper. The article was about the fact that the uncle had just got out of prison for child molesting. There was a picture of the guy. So I told the girls they had better watch out around him. They didn’t believe me. They said he was their favorite grownup and he would never do anything like that. He gave them bicycles for their birthdays, they said. I told them not to trust him. I gave them the newspaper, with the picture and the whole story.

I don’t know. Last week I was talking to somebody who said the uncle had been railroaded into a confession because he had crossed a meth dealer who had connections in the police department. So, I don’t know. God, I’m not a PI, it’s not like I’m going to conduct an investigation. It was in the paper. But I worry I did the wrong thing. I was trying to help.

But last year their mother found out I was spending Thanksgiving alone and sent the girls down with three plates of food.

Eventually my ex-husband came and got the Acura and gave me the Jeep, and I sold it and paid off some of my student loans. When he saw where I live he also gave me a thousand dollars as a “belated graduation present.” It would have been better if he had given it to me before, when I was really broke, but whatever. I didn’t say anything except Thanks.

Anyway, here. This is for you. I wish it was more.

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