The Perfect Gift
Marylou Medford felt as if the top of her head was coming off.
She had moved graciously through the long day of phone calls and congratulations. She had been warmly thankful for the lovely presents—and they were lovely—from Thomas and his wife, Alice, who was every bit as good as another daughter to her, and from her own Irene and Irene’s Michael.
Michael had insisted on hooking up the electric carving knife that was one of their gifts and placing her hands just so on its handle.
“See, Mom,” he explained carefully. “Nothing happens ’til you pull this trigger here. That’s the only thing to remember. Not scared of it, are you?”
“Of course not,” she had lied. All new electric gadgets were capable of scaring Marylou. She remembered with more than a trace of regret the days of kerosene lamps and wood stoves.
When the grandchildren had sung “Happy Birthday” as Irene had set the glowing cake before her, Marylou’s eyes had shone with warm, affectionate tears. It had all been wonderful. She was grateful. And now she was tired to death. At seventy-nine, perhaps she had a right to be.
At last, they were all going home, crowding out of the hallways of her little house. Nobody had far to drive. Both families lived in the same large suburb as Marylou did.
Birdie next door, lingering on her lawn to wave at the departees, stepped across the driveway now and said it once more. “Don’t know how lucky you are, Marylou, having the kids so close to you—and having kids that take such good care of you.”
Marylou smiled into Birdie’s warm, round face. “Ninety percent of the time I think so, too,” she said. “It’s just that, once in awhile, I begin to feel a little crowded.”
Birdie was really a little shocked at that. “Oh, how can you say that! Why, Thomas has that big, successful dental practice to look after, but he never fails to call you every day, just to check!”
“I know . . . I know . . . and Irene, even with her mornings working at the library, nearly always comes by during the afternoon to see if I need any shopping or have any errands. Such really good children.”
“So, how come you’re complaining?”
“I’m not, really. Only, you know, Birdie, I think the children had more . . . more respect for me before Lyle died. All the time we were still a couple, they looked on me as a competent member of society. Why, they used to ask my advice.”
“I know what you mean.” Sometimes Birdie surprised her with a sudden, endearing plunge into insight. “But look at it from their point of view. They were depending on your husband to do the looking after until he went, five years ago. Since then, you’ve given up driving. . . .”
“Because they wanted me to,” Marylou interposed.
“And they were right! This city’s gotten too big for you; everybody goes faster than you want to drive. And there’s four of them to run errands for you. Besides, you can walk to the bus lines if you want to go downtown.”
“Which I don’t! But you’re right, Birdie, I’m a lucky woman. And I’m taking my lucky self into the house for a nice hot bath and bed, right now!”
It was a blessing to have Birdie, a retired practical nurse, next door, Marylou thought as she soaked in the tub. There were plenty of other friends, too. Retired teachers like herself, to call on the phone or meet for coffee at one or another’s home. Marylou enjoyed them as she did her church friends, a little at a time. Seen every day, she had to admit, most of them would be dull, dull, dull.
“Our conversations are so limited,” she had once complained to Alice. “Grandchildren, recipes, these scandalous modern times, the iniquities of the government. Or worst of all, our different aches and pains.”
Surely there should still be something more.
The present! She had forgotten the present! Just like an old woman, Marylou scolded herself, hastily draining the tub, drying off, hurrying down the hallway with her quilted robe flapping. It had come in the afternoon, special delivery, luckily before the children—and their children—had arrived for the party.
Seeing that it was from her favorite nephew, whom the family dubiously referred to as the Wild One, Marylou had not held out against temptation, but had opened the mysterious, heavy box right away. Fortunately!
Adam was the only one in the family who shared her obstinate love of privacy. Perhaps for that reason, in him alone she had confided her crazy dream. He had been quite a young man then, visiting her between college semesters just because he wanted to.
She had made his favorite sandwich, grilled cheese with homegrown tomato slices and bacon on top. They had feasted and had a momentous conversation.
“I don’t know exactly what I want,” he had said. “But it has to be motors—machines—engineering, you know. Maybe airplanes. Not flying them, but designing them. That’s what I want to spend the rest of my life doing. It’s all I dream about.”
“I have a dream, too.” Now, what had made her say that, when she had never even told Lyle about the crazy thing?
Adam looked interested and waited.
“I’d like, just once, before I die, to . . . to . . . fly.”
He was surprised. “But you’ve flown, Aunt. Don’t you remember when you came up to spend Thanksgiving with Pop and Mom? And two or three other times, haven’t you?”
“Oh, yes, dear, but I don’t mean in a plane. I mean, you know, by myself.” How peculiar it sounded! Anybody but Adam would have been phoning for the men in the white coats, she supposed. “Don’t you know, they have a kind of apparatus you can strap on. I saw it demonstrated on the television two or three years ago, on the news. A man had it on his back and he just floated over a bunch of parked cars.”
“Oh, I know what you mean. But, Aunt!” His chuckle grew into a laugh, and in a minute Marylou was laughing with him.
“It is funny, I suppose, for a proper English teacher like me, just when I’m getting on toward my old tabby days . . . but still. . . . Oh, I could never pay for such a thing, of course. And the noise it made! Horrible! But when I saw it, and the man really, really flying, I thought, ‘Maybe they’ll make a model even I could use, before I get too old to try it!’ Come on, now, don’t you think it would be wonderful?”
Adam had been serious then, and had agreed with her. Of course it would be beautiful, just flying around by oneself. Someday, he thought, it would happen.
That conversation had been a long time ago. She hadn’t consciously thought of it again until today, when she had opened the present.
It was a flying machine.
Not that she would have known by looking at the compact, elegant bronze mechanism. The letter inside the box had explained.
“I’ve been working on this surprise for a long time, Aunt. Knowing you, I knew you hadn’t given up that old dream. We’ve learned a lot since you and I talked about flying so long ago. This is a pilot model, strictly experimental, but I’ve personally tested it thoroughly. You wouldn’t be getting it now if I wasn’t sure it was safe!
“The three cylinders in the small boxes are the energy cells. That’s our one remaining hang-up—finding a way to produce them in quantity. You put one of them into the compartment marked ‘A’ on the drawing, and snap the bottom closed. Controls are on the wide strap that goes around your waist. Study it carefully before you try anything! The instruction booklet tells you everything.
“Auntie, maybe this is a crazy present to send you. I’m not sure myself, but I’m sure Irene and Tom will think so! I feel this way about it: you’ve done what other people wanted you to all your life. Why shouldn’t you please yourself just for once? I want to see my favorite relative have herself a ball!”
Dear Adam, she thought, stowing away the box—surprisingly light, it seemed, for such an apparatus—in her closet. Maybe I’ll never use it, but I love you for thinking I might.
Next morning she was up early and waiting for the downtown bus as soon as the department stores opened. She went to a large, medium-priced store where nobody would know her.
“A jump suit?” the young clerk asked, swinging her long, untidy hair. “What size, ma’am?”
“I’ll have to try something on,” said Marylou. “Perhaps a ten, to start with.”
“This is for yourself, ma’am?” Amazement made her pop her gum frantically. Little old ladies buying jump suits! Something new to tell on her coffee break.
Marylou summoned all her years of teaching high school English. She stood up very straight and gave the sleazy-looking girl one long, summarizing look from head to heel and back again.
“Naturally,” she said icily.
She hadn’t lost her touch. The girl pulled up out of her slouch. She seemed to have swallowed her gum. “Yes, ma’am!” She began digging into the clothes on the rack.
Trying it on again at home, Marylou was pleased with the fit and comfort of the suit. Of course, Adam hadn’t thought of the absurd figure one would make, flying about in a summer dress!
It was four-thirty, a lovely summer afternoon. She had on the suit; she had studied the manual ’til she had it by heart; what was there to wait for? Trembling a little, she hoisted the apparatus onto her back, where it rested on its own leather shield. Leather straps came over her shoulders to meet a wide front bib. Like the belt, the bib was bronze clamped onto a leather backing. The bronze portions held a variety of clearly labeled buttons as well as the energy cell compartment.
She fastened all buckles, flexed her arms. It was secure and comfortable, and not very heavy at all. The only bulky part was the back, where twin exhaust pipes ran down the shoulder blades to curve slightly outward at her waist.
Cautiously, she stepped out into the backyard, tiptoeing in the tennis shoes she had bought to go with the jump suit. Wouldn’t do to have Birdie next door spot her and run out for a chat over the fence.
Nobody. Marylou stood in the exact center of the yard. Her thumb on the “On” switch, she hesitated. Did she really want to do this? Who knew what might happen up there? Why should she take the risk? What was she proving?
“Nothing at all—except that I’m still alive!” she said fiercely to herself, and pushed the button.
There was a great jolt, as if a giant hand had tossed her upward. She gasped in a breath. She was zooming straight up into the sky. Air rushed past her face as it had when she, as little girl, used to lean out of the window of the car. There was hardly any noise. She looked down, incredibly far, to see her own back yard shrinking away.
“Don’t go too high,” she reminded herself from the booklet. Now, how. . . ? Ah, the “Forward” button. Next over. She pushed it. At once she was gently thrust forward, lying, it seemed, on the wind. It was the dream of her childhood.
Now she was playing with the controls. It was possible to turn, to glide, to swoop down and up and around. She grew drunk with excitement and a surging sense of power. She was young again. She was happy. She was free!
She was lost!
Where was she? There lay the great, sprawling city beneath her, but where was her own familiar suburb? She had remembered to secure her bifocals with a ribbon tied around her head, but she couldn’t identify the buildings she used to know in the downtown section, even when she glided low. There were too many new ones towering above the old. Besides, she had never seen them from this angle before.
Like a providence, a police traffic control helicopter rattled into sight, above and to her right. Using her newfound skills of maneuvering, Marylou glided under it and eased herself up to the driver’s window, wary of the rotor blades above.
The driver was squinting straight ahead. His partner was talking into a microphone. there wasn’t a chance of being heard above the chopper’s deafening noise. She would have to pantomime asking for directions. She rapped on the window with her wedding ring to get the driver’s attention.
He was a big, dark fellow, she would have said, with an olive complexion; but as he turned full face to her, she saw that he turned a pasty white—almost green, in fact.
Steadying herself at the window with her left hand, Marylou courteously waved “Hi” with her right hand. Carefully she mouthed, “Where am I?”
The driver’s eyes rolled up in his head. He sagged against his seat belt in a dead faint. His partner’s mouth flopped as he stared across the unconscious pilot at Marylou.
“Do something, man!” she shouted impatiently, and then, carefully mouthing, “He’s sick. Push his head down . . . HEAD . . . DOWN.”
The partner seemed little better than a moron. He continued to sit frozen, staring at her. She tried once more: “WHERE . . . AM . . . I?”
Nothing. Then, like a lunatic, he jerked at the controls. She swerved away just in time to miss the huge blades as the man spun the helicopter down and away.
Marylou felt betrayed. A fine way for a policeman to act! And she still didn’t know where she was. Then she thought about the sun. It was in the west, of course, and she lived in the southwest area. She must fly toward the sun until she found the great freeway system that ringed the city. Then she could glide above it to the point where it passed near her own neighborhood.
There it was! She turned left to follow it, astounded at the solid-looking miles of cars inching along the broad paved ribbon. Five o’clock traffic. She settled into “slow forward” speed at a comfortable height to read the freeway signs.
Directly below, there was a noise like two big empty boxes striking together. BONK! As she recognized it for two cars colliding and looked down, more sounds arose: BONK-Bonk-Bonk-BONK-BONK! Horrified, Marylou saw a chain of collisions below her. A whole line of cars was piled up. Most of them were just pushed into each other a little, but a small economy car in the middle was pleated like an accordion at both ends. A man was wriggling out of the window.
There were more BONKS! What in the world was happening to all those drivers? Mass hysteria, perhaps. Marylou circled confusedly, wondering how she could help them. BONK-BONK-Bonk! Every lane was tied up now, with cars behind the collision areas at a standstill as far as she could see. The man had gotten out of the window, now. He looked up and waved at her. Waved?
He was shaking his fist at her!
Oh, horrors! She turned a sharp left and hit the “Fast Forward” button. Let her get away from those cars. It was she they’d been staring at when they’d banged into each other! How awful! She was the cause of all those collisions!
There, blessedly, was the water tower for her suburb. Now she could glide quietly home and take the thing off and never, never again. . . .
Cars. Irene’s and Thomas’s and . . . was that the fire department’s little emergency car? It was. At her house. Oh, Lord, what now?
Hoping to get in unnoticed through the back, Marylou glided down into the backyard. No chance. There stood Alice, frozen, staring up at her with her mouth open. Oh, well. Marylou touched down with her feet and remembered to cut off the motor, but the sudden shift of power unbalanced her. She sat down inelegantly in the strawberry bed.
Alice took a single step toward her and fainted dead away. Mike, Irene, and Thomas rushed out the back door. They were all talking at once; yelling, really, babbling questions, picking up Alice, lifting Marylou to her feet. Impossible to communicate with them until they calmed down.
Impossible to communicate with anybody, suddenly. A big fist seemed to close in on her chest. Infinitely surprised, Marylou gasped for breath. The pain was incredible. She flopped a weak hand at Thomas, who looked into her fact then stared harder. His voice was suddenly eight years old. “Mom!”
So this was a heart attack, she thought. I never knew it would hurt so much. She barely noticed they were lifting her, carrying her not into, but around the house to the emergency car. Somebody had taken the flying machine away. They laid her on the cot in the back. A man in a white jacket squatted beside her. Lyle, she thought, it’ll be good to see you again. Wait for me.
Two weeks later she was at home again. “A mild attack—just a warning, really,” Fred Cameron had assured her with his best bed-side hand-pat.
“Call that mild? You ought to try it yourself,” Marylou had snapped, but she was really just playing his game. She was too thankful to get home to make any fuss.
They lined up around her bed when she was settled at home: her beloved, shocked children. Marylou noted sadly how hard they were trying to keep calm, not to disturb her. Poor things, if they weren’t so afraid for me, they’d let me have it!
Michael reassured her, “There wasn’t anybody really hurt in those cars on the freeway, Mom. Nobody had been moving fast enough to get hurt. Of course, there was one monumental traffic jam!”
“It was on the television every newscast for the next three days!” Alice said.
As to the damaged cars, Michael told her, most if not all of the drivers were insured. “It’s still each driver’s responsibility to keep his eyes on the road,” he added gravely, “no matter what goes flying around overhead.”
“Who, whom did they—did they know it was me . . . I mean, I?” She seemed to be, at least temporarily, shocked right out of her pronoun case.
Irene said most of the newscasters had decided that some trick of sunlight had created a mass optical illusion above the freeway.
A psychiatrist had explained at some length how male drivers with dark, repressed sex urges would translate this optical freak into the vision of a woman.
A small but shrill element of the population was ready to go on the witness stand to swear they’d seen a flying saucer.
Thomas told her how they’d happened to gather at her house with an emergency vehicle standing by. “Birdie next door ran over. She knew you hadn’t gone out. She was bringing you some figs. When she couldn’t get in the front or back, and couldn’t make you hear, she called Alice. Knew you didn’t nap in the daytime.”
Alice added, “I panicked, I guess. Thought you must be ill—maybe fainted in here by yourself. So I called the emergency car and dashed over.”
They had all congregated, and, getting no response, they had gone inside with Mike’s key and were just searching the place when she had returned.
“I must have slipped the catch on the back door when I stepped out,” Marylou murmured.
Irene, who was going to stay with her for a few days, smoothed her pillow.
“Are you comfortable, Mother? Good. Now, we want you to make us a promise.”
“I know, dear.”
Thomas burst out, “Adam must have been out of his mid, sending you that thing! Damn fool. . . !”
“Now, Thomas, I won’t listen to any more of that! Adam remembered that it was a silly old dream of mine, being able to fly like that. Just once, he wanted to make a dream come true for somebody he loved.”
Michael said, “But, Mother, he should have remembered. . . .”
“He only forgot one thing, Mike; he forgot that I am old and decrepit.”
There was a startled silence. Quickly she added, “Of course, you all are perfectly right. It was a crazy thing for an old woman like me to do. And I want your minds to be completely at rest. I’m going to put that machine away—among my souvenirs. All those collisions! I never was so horrified in my life! I promise you, I won’t endanger people like that again, not for anything!”
Irene picked up the small hand that Marylou was resting on that side of the bed and held it against her cheek. “Thank you, Mother.”
A month later, when she had the house to herself once more, Marylou faithfully carried the machine to the closet in the spare bedroom. She had promised to put the machine away among her souvenirs, and she had promised never again to endanger lives as she had, flying above the freeway in daylight like that.
What about at night? Just, say, the one night . . . she had her old black opera cape somewhere, and a conical hat wouldn’t be hard to make from cardboard . . . tied on with black ribbons, perhaps . . . a thrill for the children!
Smiling, she fastened down the lid and slid the storage box back into place. Neat lettering on the top said, “Halloween.”
This story originally appeared in Dialog magazine and is reprinted in The Best of Dialog.