Extra women were brought into the gift-wrap department for the holiday rush. Although they’d be gone after New Year’s, Mrs. Kay showed them the ins and outs just as meticulously as she had with us—the year-round staff, bustling in a stuffy rectangular booth in the back of Bloomingdale’s first floor, inside a mall in Boca Raton, Florida. She scratched her French manicure over the white underbelly of the colorful paper hanging from reels on the wall, demonstrating necessary lengths for various boxes. The crucial role of double-sided tape was divulged in a tense whisper, and the seamlessness of the wrap-job could not be emphasized enough. “You want it to look,” she’d say, “like it was dipped. Dipped like a caramel apple.” Mrs. Kay was generally loathed, but she seemed not to care. She’d twice been a finalist in The Orange Blossom, Florida’s most prestigious origami competition.
It was a few days before Christmas, and someone had brought in pastries. They were too sweet, glistening with a wet sugary glaze. The craters at their centers held fruit-filling the color and consistency of congealing blood. By 11:00 a.m., there’d been countless arguments, a customer had fainted, and we were running dangerously low on tape. At noon, I quickly ate my bagged lunch in the breakroom. With a few minutes to spare, I went back to my station to finish my gifts.
I wrapped a leather wallet I could see in my father’s back pocket, a plush white robe for my mother, a jersey with my 15-year-old brother’s favorite basketball player—at least, last I’d known—stamped on the back. I hadn’t seen my family in almost two years. The gifts were the kind you give to people whose tastes you don’t know anymore, people who have become more like ideas. The truth is that all my life in New York, up until age 19, I just hadn’t been paying much attention—to a lot of things, including my family. Two years ago, I’d bombed out of college my second semester and gotten arrested for driving under the influence of Xanax and cocaine. I voluntarily attended a rehab in Delray Beach, Florida, a city I hated, yet in which I remained as my parents had cut me off financially, waiting, it seemed, for me to become something better than a young woman who no longer does drugs. I was creasing the edges of stiff, holographic red paper with my thumbnail when Mrs. Kay emerged from the back.
“This is a personal wrap-job?” Her voice smacked the air, and customers turned to look. “You don’t see this line? We’ve got lines all the way to kitchenware. No personal wrapping today.”
Mrs. Kay didn’t seem bothered that none of us shared her reverence for what she had clearly elevated to an art, probably because she didn’t want any of us to be artists. She wanted us to be soldier ants, anonymous and durable.
During the week before Christmas, our store stayed open until midnight. Only once I’d been waiting outside for fifteen minutes did I realize that I’d missed the last bus. The other employees had already left with their clear, plastic theft-protection purses slung over their shoulders. The metal gates were being lowered when I got back to the entrance. A security guard let me duck under.
I was surprised to find Mrs. Kay still at gift-wrap, standing at the counter eating string bean salad out of Tupperware. She speared one bean at a time with a plastic fork, slowly, under the dim red glow of the exit sign. She bristled and glared at me, still chewing. She chewed for a long time before she swallowed. “You should go home.”
“The buses stopped running.”
“I’ll finish my dinner,” she said. “Then I’ll take you.”
Mrs. Kay drove a small tan hatchback. The inside smelled like astringent and potpourri. Although she didn’t smoke, there were cigarette burn marks in the fabric above the driver’s side window. Hanging from the rearview mirror was an origami crane, weightless on its thread.
I told her my address and we drove across the empty parking lot, out onto Federal Highway. We passed gas stations and apartment complexes, grocery stores and drive-thrus. Sex workers lingered by strip-malls like flightless tropical birds. Fast cars pulled long shadows across the road. At a red light, Mrs. Kay and I watched an SUV pull to the curb by a carwash. A tall, broad-shouldered woman lifted her leg like a flamingo. She lowered it into the SUV, pulling the other leg in by the thigh with her hands. “I share this car with my husband,” said Mrs. Kay. “One percent his, ninety-nine percent mine.”
We turned off Federal Highway and began traveling numbered streets. I was used to bus routes, but I could tell by the clotted, sour air that we were driving towards the ocean. I was about to say that we were going the wrong way when she spoke again.
“In our old house,” she said, “I had an origami room. Perfect for folding.”
The streets narrowed as the houses got larger, all of them decorated with Christmas lights. The primary colors of festivity gnashed against the Floridian pastels. Her face was slack, chalky under the streetlights.
“It was a simple house,” she continued. “Not like these. But in my room, there was a skylight, true natural light. Deep drawers for paper that slid right into the wall.”
The car slowed to a crawl. We were now passing mansions. House after house, there was clearly a competition being played out. Oversized nativity scenes towered over spot-lit lawns. Shrubbery was carved into snowmen. Palm trees glowed white, wrapped in crystalline illumination. “If a man loves you enough to buy a whole house, just because of one perfect room, wouldn’t you trust him?” she asked.
She turned a corner, pulled to the curb, and shifted into park. In front of us was a four-story mansion, awash in the light of halogen bulbs, surrounded by trimmed, black grass. The lights speared diagonally upward, through the mist. They projected harshly upon the massive home, which was exactly square. From top to bottom, it was encased seamlessly in pale blue fabric. Hugging the entire width of the building, between the second and third floor, was a broad yellow ribbon. At the center of the house, probably stiffened with hidden wires, the ribbon arched into a bow.
Mrs. Kay fingered one of the burn holes in the car roof. She took my hand out of my lap and laid it on the center console. Then she placed her hand over mine, intertwining our fingers with a firmness that hurt. The smell of astringent grew stronger and I breathed through my mouth. Our sweat mingled, the bones in my hand shifting under the pressure.
I could have been anyone. Anyone’s hand would have been good enough.
Finally, Mrs. Kay released her grip. She removed a tissue packet from her purse, wiped her eyes and blew her nose. Clearing her throat, she shifted the car into drive. The ocean got farther away, the distance thinning the air. When we arrived at my apartment complex, she reminded me to be early on December 26th. “Sales day,” she said. “Fifteen percent, whole store.” The origami crane quivered on its string, swayed by our breathing. “You’re the best of all my gift-wrappers,” she said.
I opened the car-door and stepped onto the pavement. In the darkness, a lizard flitted across my shoe. My fingers dragged along the bottom of my purse, searching for keys. As the wheels of Mrs. Kay’s car rolled over the gritty asphalt, I realized that I’d forgotten my gifts at work, the ones she’d scolded me for wrapping. After she’d reprimanded me, I’d stowed them beneath the counter. Between the seasonal employees and the security guards, they might already be gone. They were unlabeled and just anyone could lay claim to them.
Emma Smith-Stevens is the author of The Australian (Dzanc Books). She lives with her husband and two dogs in Brooklyn, NY. For more of her writing visit her author website and subscribe to her tiny letter, Notes From the Wonderground.