A Surprise

Flash fiction alert: An attempt at fiction follows.

“I don’t know why she makes such a production out of everything,” Aunt Helen said to no one and everyone, shaking her head.

“She likes making the effort,” I offered. She looked directly at me with that. When I continued, “Maybe the reward is in the doing,” it ended as a drifting-off statement-question.

“Not only am I going to look at you like I think you have three heads, I think you have three heads,” the aunt said. She looked out the window. Victoria was digging for something in her car, so far in that her feet were off the ground. “If it’s that far in, shouldn’t she just go around to the other side?”

“I think she is grabbing it by the base,” I offered. I didn’t need to walk to the window to see for myself. It was a Christmas tree, fake, but already decorated with ornaments, and thus unstable no matter which method Victoria employed to retrieve it from the car. She had had her son hold it steady from his position in his car seat.

“Well, if you know what she’s doing, why didn’t you know I just wanted to cook dinner for myself, watch my stories, and go to bed?” Helen’s jowls were in constant motion as she clenched and unclenched her jaw, pursed her lips, forced her mouth to relax, and then repeated the process. We were bringing her some Christmas on her 89th birthday, and the visit was unannounced. The two holidays were near one another on the calendar. It was unannounced because it was unplanned.

Not an hour before, Victoria had remembered that she had a tree “somewhere” and that her aunt did not have a tree anywhere. Thirty minutes after that, my legs were the ones off the ground as I was grabbing it by its base and attempting to gently remove the tree from a storage box on a forgotten high shelf in the basement. We discovered that it was still decorated from a Christmas in the ’70s. Fifteen minutes before that, I was failing to find the half-remembered tree in a shed behind her house. I awoke that morning to her telling me her plan as if it had already happened, as if it was an anecdote.

I chose to decide that I indeed hoped that this was an anecdote about something that had already happened—me searching for her childhood Christmas tree and us driving to Aunt Helen’s—I asked “This (story) is from … last year?” If the answer was yes, this meant we were then going to make our plans for the rest of the day, plans that I would have been quite happy to learn included shopping for next summer’s flip-flops or cleaning the entire house. Anything but one of Victoria’s adventures. Of course, deep down I actually wanted to be a part of one of her adventures, but I knew how to play very well my role of “grudging friend who gets won over.”

Whatever planning that might have been required for the day with her aunt had happened in Victoria’s head during the night before, without her consulting anyone who might be capable of implementing her Plan to Show Love: neither me, the “muscle,” nor Aunt Helen, the recipient. It was up to us to live up to her scheme, a desire to do something so spontaneous and loving and generous that everyone involved would enjoy the spontaneity, embrace the love, and participate in the generosity. But if we failed to live up to the plan in her head, well, this is only one challenge life presents to an artist of the surprise gesture.

But something was different about this adventure: Helen was having none of it. “I didn’t ask for a tree! You should have just brought me some cake.” Victoria moved the tree to her kitchen, and while she was out of earshot, Helen whispered to me: “I don’t know why she tries so hard. It would be easier if she just said ‘I love you.'”

* * * *
This first appeared in 2014.

The WordPress Daily Prompt for September 5 asks us to reflect on the word, “Cake.”

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