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The Gift

Updated: Jan 18, 2022

(Listen Here)

Nate has big plans to ring in the New Year, but he won't be seeing 1980. Like every December thirty-first, he'll thumb through the pictures around ten in the morning, eat his two eggs, and maybe go for a walk. Nate appreciates the scenery of an abandoned downtown, perhaps because there's a bond with the boarded-up buildings. Often he will ponder how a little love is all the empty spaces need, but no one has time to invest in the forgotten side of town. Sometimes it's easier to drive on by and look the other way. "Why folks are drawn to crowds never made sense to me," goes through his mind on most of the strolls. He'll end his celebration soaking in a hot tub that's too small for his body, but at least tiles are easy to clean. The only thing different about this thirty-first is that Nathaniel will send a bullet into his brain.

A beige rotary phone sits on top of the outdated phonebook that hasn't rung in over a year, and if you were to move it, you'd find a perfect outline etched in the dust. The thick yellow book rests on an Italian nightstand that's missing one brass toe cap that leaves it a bit wobbly. Nate's table is way too short for its purpose, but it's the best he could manage for something he never uses. His sink is full of dishes from last week, or maybe they're leftover from a month ago, who knows. Open cans of Van Camp's pork and beans decorate the tiny kitchen. Nate rents the basement from an older woman his mother's age. The only private area is the john, but it doesn't matter because no one ever visits anyway.

Each December, Nathaniel pulls out a stack of photos from his childhood. It's all that his mother, Maria, left him after drinking herself to death in 1942. That woman sure enjoyed her whiskey, and it all started on her fourteenth birthday, New Years Day, about a week or so after little Nate was born. His mother kept a bottle by her bed to start the day right. She was either passed out on the couch or drinking at the local blind tiger by noon. No one cared how old she was at the bar because she was a pretty girl and it's best Maria couldn't remember what happened while she was out on the town.

Nate's fondest memories of his mom occurred within sixty minutes each day at around ten in the morning. He knew all of the words to Old MacDonald Had a Farm by the time he turned three years old. It's the only song Maria knew, so that's what she sang while preparing a late breakfast. She attempted sunny side up, but the eggs were always scrambled by the time they hit his plate. Even though it was long ago, Nate remembers all of the details like yesterday. It isn't difficult to recall daily routines, especially when they're the best part and wrapped snuggly within an hour. His best friend was the shadow a lit candle provided before bedtime. Infinite conversations between Nathaniel and his silhouette furnished comfort before drifting away.

Nate presses the round rubber plug into the drain and allows the water to trickle while he reflects one more time before the evenings' climax. The Colt is loaded and strategically placed within arms reach on the toilet seat as he heads to the couch and plops down. A streetlight shines through the tiny mud-covered ground-level window to provide enough light for the aged photographs. Life began in a dark place for the poor guy, and it'll end the same way. Fifty years of solitude, fifty years of despair, and fifty years of anger will conclude shortly. An inevitable end is an unfailing outcome with no purpose, spark, or reason. A wave to his shadow and a wave back is all the reassurance needed before his bath.

An unfamiliar sound interrupts the somber ceremony and catches Nate off guard.

"RING!" Shocked, he sprints to the telephone knocking the receiver onto the floor.

"Um, hello, this is Nate."

"Hello Nate, my name is Jude, and I'm with a group called Restore. We're a nonprofit organization looking for volunteers here in Clarkstown."

"Wait, what? Why did you call me? How did you get my number?"

"Well, to be honest, I've been calling folks all day, and I was about to give up. Who'd of thought asking people to do hard labor for free would be so challenging? Anyway, I lost my temper and threw the phonebook onto the floor. It just so happens the darn thing opened up to your name."

"Look, Jude, I'm busy right now."

"Hang on; I'm not finished with my story. My pop was a preacher, and he once told me that the name Nathaniel means 'gift from God,' which is precisely what I need right now. I know Christmas is over, but I could use a present from the big guy. Did you know that? You are a gift from God, Nate, so if you don't help me, no one will. Without support, the project is over before we even start."

"Project? What project."

"We've spent years raising cash to fix up all those ancient buildings downtown. Our goal is to bring a little life back to the area, like a second chance, you know? Can you use a hammer, Nate?"

"Well, yeah. I do part-time maintenance over at the plant a couple of days a week."

"Before you jump at this offer of a lifetime, you'll need to know that it is strictly volunteer, and I'll pretty much be your shadow whenever you show up. It could be years before we're finished, and we'll be talking on the telephone most days. Sound good? Nate? You still with me?"

"I can start tomorrow."

"I think the phone messed up for a sec. It sounded like you said you'd start tomorrow. I was expecting you to hang up like everyone else."

"I'll be there. Downtown?"

"Yep, can you meet up with us at about eight?"

"I'll be there at seven-thirty."

"Perfect! We'll see you then. Oh, Nate, I knew I had a good feeling about you. Everyone can use a gift from God from time to time. See you later."

Nathanial's mother probably had no idea what the name meant when she gave it to her son. Someone with a plan likely chose it. She saw the boy as a curse instead of a gift. It makes sense if you think about it because it's problematic to see in the dark. Nate reaches under the sink for a garbage bag and begins to collect the cans that litter the kitchen. "I've got to get this place cleaned up before I go to bed. Tomorrow will be a busy day," Nate says to himself.

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