“It’s like a joke gift,” said Ingrid. She was sitting at the break room table eating a pudding cup with a special spoon she’d brought with her from home.
“Oh,” said Bertie. “I thought it was probably something like that. So it should be, like…” she trailed off, hoping Ingrid would hear her unfinished example as a question.
Arnold had come into the break room while Bertie and Ingrid were talking. “It doesn’t have to be a white elephant gift,” he said. “We usually just get gift cards.”
“The email said white elephant though,” said Bertie.
“I think Penelope wrote the email,” said Arnold. “She always wants to do white elephant.”
“Oh,” said Bertie. “So I should just get a gift card?”
Penelope came into the room as Bertie was asking and said, “No! It’s white elephant! It should be something funny!”
Arnold was leaning on the fridge behind Penelope. He mouthed the words “gift card.”
“Arnold just mouthed ‘gift card’ at Bertie,” said Ingrid.
Penelope whirled to face Arnold. “Don’t mouth ‘gift card’ at her, Arnold!”
Arnold laughed. “Fine, it’s a white elephant exchange, just like the email said.” He winked at Bertie.
“Don’t wink!” said Penelope, half-laughing. “You’re confusing people.”
“So it’s white elephant,” said Bertie.
“Yes,” said Penelope. “If you want. You don’t have to, Bertie, it’s just for fun.”
“So it’s a joke gift,” said Bertie. “So it’s, like…”
“We really should just get gift cards,” said Arnold. “I’m serious. Ingrid, back me up.”
Ingrid shrugged. “White elephant can be fun,” she said. “But it is nice to get something you can use.”
Penelope’s face soured. “Seriously? You guys are going to ruin this again for me?” She stalked out of the break room.
Bertie did not understand the office dynamics. She had just started working there two months before. There were only six other employees, but she hadn’t been able to get a good read on any of them. The most recent hire other than Bertie was Tricia and Tricia had been working at the office for four years. Bertie had been hired to replace a woman named Regina who had worked at the office for 12 years before dying under mysterious circumstances while on her summer vacation. Bertie wanted to fit in, but she got the sense that there was a lot going on beneath the surface. But she didn’t want to screw up the office Christmas party gift exchange. She looked at Ingrid and Arnold. “So, wait,” she said. “Where did we end up? Is it white elephant or…?”
“I know what I want,” said Arnold, and he left the break room.
Ingrid shrugged again as she scraped the last of the pudding out of the cup with her spoon from home. “Penelope usually gets her way,” said Ingrid.
“OK,” said Bertie. “Because the party is tomorrow night. So I need to buy the gift for the exchange tonight.”
“Yeah,” said Ingrid without interest, packing her spoon into its special case and slipping it into her bag. Then she rose from the table, tossed the cleaned-out pudding cup in the garbage, and left the break room.
That night after dinner, Bertie got into her car and slipped, slid, and skidded through the icy streets of Multioak to Crown’s Varied Items Store. She figured she’d be able to find something funny there. The items at Crown’s were varied in terms of what they actually were, but they were not varied in their level of desirability, which was low. Some of the items were new, some of the items were old but still in their original packaging, and some of the items were “gently used,” to quote Crown’s promotional materials. Bertie browsed among the tall shelves and hummed along with the holiday music playing over the store’s PA system. Crown’s had their radio tuned to WOAK which, during the month of December, played holiday music exclusively and added an audio track of jangling sleigh bells to every commercial, news and weather report, and station identification clip. Bertie saw many items for sale that no one would want, but was that enough to qualify something as a good white elephant gift? Bertie didn’t know. She still didn’t quite understand the spirit of the concept. What was the difference between a bad gift and a comically bad gift? She wished she’d asked her daughter Kierstin to come with her; Kierstin liked irony a lot more than Bertie did. Kierstin had once bought a friend of hers a shirt with some guy on it, a singer whose name Bertie couldn’t recall, and it had seemed like a pretty normal shirt to Bertie, but when Kierstin’s friend opened it, she and Kierstin had laughed until they were shrieking and crying and writhing around on the floor, kicking their feet in the air. Bertie had been baffled. Later, when the girls went to the convenience store on a cigarette run, Bertie had examined the shirt. Was there an innuendo she didn’t get? That had happened before. But no, the shirt had no text at all on it, just a picture of a smiling man. His smile was nice, he was handsome, his haircut wasn’t strange or old-fashioned. Bertie had even looked him up on the internet. The few songs she had heard seemed very normal to her. The incident had disturbed her. What other things that she thought were normal might be sending people into hysterical fits of laughter? Was she hilarious on accident, just by doing and saying things that she thought were normal? It was an unnerving thought. It was one thing to question the abnormal things that one does, Bertie was in favor of doing that. She knew that everyone has strange quirks and she fully endorsed an honest self-examination that could, if done in a spirit of good faith, lead to an adjustment or elimination of those quirks, especially if they were deemed unhealthy or hurtful, inconvenient, or irritating to other people. But having to question the normal things that one did too just because someone might find certain specifics of one’s normalcy ridiculous? That was outrageous. Who had the time or energy for that?
Bertie selected a tacky vase with capering apes painted on it. The apes were probably supposed to look cute, but they looked scary. Bertie paid for the vase at the register and slipped, skidded, and slid her way home on the icy roads to wrap it. When she finished wrapping the vase in the nicest wrapping paper she had on hand — which was very nice wrapping paper — she put a fancy bow on it. She thought someone might find the contrast of the nice wrapping paper and the fancy bow with the bad gift amusing. Even she found it a little amusing.
The office Christmas party was right after work because no one wanted to give up their entire evening for it. Bertie and her coworkers ate some catered food, drank sparkling wine but not enough to prevent them from driving home, and did the gift exchange. Bertie ended up with Franklin’s gift, which was a gift card for Wakeful’s, a local coffee chain. In fact, everyone got gift cards except for Penelope, who ended up with Bertie’s beautifully-wrapped ape-vase. No one laughed when Penelope unwrapped the vase. “Great,” said Penelope. “So everyone else gets a gift card they’ll actually use and I get this.”
“I’m sorry,” said Bertie. “I thought it was a white elephant exchange. That’s what the email said. And you told me that in the break room, so I didn’t…I mean…”
“Everyone said they wanted gift cards,” said Penelope. “I tried to make it fun, but no, everyone just wanted gift cards again! So I gave in, I thought, fine, if everyone just wants gift cards, I’ll buy a gift card and at least I’ll get a gift card in return. It’s not fun, but at least it’s useful. But no, of course that didn’t happen, everyone got gift cards except me. I got this.” She held up the vase so everyone could gaze upon it and feel sorry for her.
“You can have my gift card,” said Bertie. “I’ll take the vase, I still have the receipt. I was just confused, I didn’t realize everyone had decided to do gift cards. I thought it was white elephant, like the email said.”
“But even if it was a white elephant gift exchange,” said Penelope. “This vase doesn’t work. It isn’t funny. It’s just a bad gift. That’s not what white elephant exchanges are supposed to be about.”
“OK,” said Bertie. “I didn’t know. I’ve never done one before. I’ll just take it back. Here’s the gift card.” She handed the Wakeful’s gift card to Penelope and Penelope handed her the vase. A few minutes later, when no one was looking, Bertie plucked the bow she’d put on her gift out of the garbage can. It wasn’t damaged or rumpled at all. Its adhesive probably wouldn’t stick anymore, but Bertie could just use a little, rolled-up strip of tape. Or she could splurge on some double-sided tape to treat herself after the embarrassment of the gift exchange. Bertie was the first person to leave the party.
“We can’t give you a refund for this,” said the Crown’s cashier. Her nametag just had the letter “H” on it. Bertie sincerely doubted that “H” was the cashier’s real, full, given name. H, if that was her name, was short and had a heart-shaped face. She wore one of the plastic crowns that all Crown’s employees were required to wear. Hers was silver. Bertie had heard that the different colors of the crowns meant something, but she didn’t know what.
“Why can’t I get a refund?” asked Bertie. “I bought it here last night, look at the receipt.” She pointed at the receipt in H’s hand.
“I am looking at the receipt,” said H. “This,” she said, pointing at the vase with the apes painted on it, “is not the item you bought last night. The receipt says you bought something called ‘obscene bath mat?’”
“What?” Bertie was taken aback. “Obscene bath mat? I didn’t buy that. I would never buy that!”
“Look,” said H, and she showed Bertie the receipt where the only item listed was indeed “obscene bath mat.”
“That can’t be right,” said Bertie.
“Maybe you got the receipts mixed up?” said H.
“But look,” said Bertie. “The date and the time on the receipt are exactly when I was here. I don’t even remember the last time I was here before last night. Maybe the cashier gave me the previous customer’s receipt? Or maybe the item just scanned wrong? Or the cashier punched it in wrong?”
“No,” said H. “Look, the cashier’s name is on your receipt. ‘Millie T.’ I know her. She doesn’t make mistakes.”
“So you’re saying I can’t return it at all?” asked Bertie. “Not even for store credit?”
“No,” said H. “Not without the proper receipt. Your other option is to bring the obscene bath mat back with this receipt and we can give you a refund for that.”
“I don’t have an obscene bath mat and I never will,” said Bertie, and she picked up the vase and left Crown’s Varied Items Store.
Kierstin was playing video games on the couch in her pajamas. It was only 7:30 at night. She had her glasses on.
“You found your glasses,” said Bertie as she hung her coat in the closet.
“Um, yes?” said Kierstin.
“Weren’t they lost?” asked Bertie. “I thought you couldn’t find them.”
“I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Kierstin.
Bertie hated it when this happened. She hated it when she tried to say something innocuous to begin a conversation, but still managed to misstep immediately. “Kierstin, when you get a chance, could you tell me if you think this vase is funny-bad or just bad-bad?”
Kierstin paused her game and looked at Bertie, feigning patience. “Which vase?”
“This one,” said Bertie. “The one I’m holding in my hands.” She wasn’t trying to be cutting, but Kierstin’s question was dumb enough that any plainspoken answer would have inevitably sounded cutting. She softened her response by adding, “I bought it at Crown’s.”
Kierstin looked at the vase. “You like that?” she asked.
“Well, I mean, maybe,” said Bertie. “As a joke?”
Kierstin chuckled. “All right, Mom, whatever. If you think it’s funny, then it’s funny.”
Bertie took the vase into the kitchen and set it on the windowsill over the sink. Would it be funny of her to actually use the vase? Maybe put some carnations in it? Would that be more of a victory than just throwing the vase in the garbage? Would that be a cute, self-deprecating way to turn her gift-exchange shame into a moment of personal triumph? She didn’t know. She couldn’t figure it out.
The capering apes painted on the vase still looked scary to Bertie. They had pitiless faces; their faces had been imbued with none of the humanity that one usually sees in artists’ renderings of animals, especially in apes and monkeys. Maybe that’s what was funny about the vase? That the person who had painted the apes on it had decided against making them look appropriate for home or office decoration?
“I’m going to buy some carnations,” said Bertie as she took her coat back out of the closet.
“Good luck,” said Kierstin.
When Bertie returned with the carnations, Kierstin had fallen asleep on the couch. Kierstin’s video game was still on and un-paused. Bertie picked up the controller and, after a lot of trial and error, managed to pause it. Then she gently returned the controller to Kierstin’s lap.
In the kitchen, putting the carnations into the vase didn’t bring Bertie any clarity. Was this what people meant by “throwing good money after bad money?” What if she took the vase of carnations to work and set it on her desk? The mere idea made Bertie feel pangs of nausea and anxiety. The last thing she wanted to do was invite more conversation about the vase from her coworkers. No, this was a battle she would have to win privately, secretly, internally. Was she being pathetic? Maybe fixating on not being conquered by the outcome of the gift exchange was worse than being conquered by the outcome of the gift exchange. The vase was rapidly becoming a symbol of something that Bertie couldn’t quite grasp. She couldn’t keep up. And now the vase was symbolic of those too: Bertie’s inability to grasp things and keep up with things. She moved the vase to the kitchen table. Maybe it would work better as a centerpiece. It didn’t. Or did it?
Or did it?
And what did she mean by “work better?”
The weekend had come. Kierstin was out of the house, so the TV was available for watching, but Bertie didn’t want to watch TV. She wanted to lie in bed and read a sincere book. While she was in the kitchen to toast a bagel, the vase caught her eye and she felt another flood of uncertainty. She needed to take action. This vase could not be part of her life. Bertie was not the right kind of person for keeping objects from moments of shame and turning them into small monuments to her ability to draw strength from, or make light of, her own failures. She put the two halves of her bagel into the toaster and took the carnations out of the vase. She put the carnations in the sink where they could wait safely until Bertie got another baggage-free vase from the hall closet. Then Bertie put the failed white elephant vase in the garbage can under the sink, being sure to not drop it so that it didn’t shatter into jagged shards. If there were jagged shards, they could tear holes in the bottom of the garbage bag creating the potential for a huge mess.
Bertie tried to think of anything but the vase as she spread cream cheese on her bagel and ate it, but she thought of nothing but the vase. It was maddening. She could feel it there in the garbage bag in the garbage can under the sink. She could feel it winning. How could it be winning while it was in the garbage can? When she finished the bagel, Bertie pulled the vase back out of the garbage can, put the carnations back into it, and put it on the counter next to the toaster. Was that the real reason she hadn’t dropped the vase into the garbage can? Had she subconsciously made sure that it didn’t break so that she’d be able to pull it out and display it in her house again? If so, that was so embarrassing. Bertie regarded the vase with distrust, but in the bright morning light reflecting off of the ice and snow coating everything outside of her window, Bertie could see a dim reflection of herself in the vase’s glossy finish, so it was like she was regarding herself with distrust, it was like she was one of the capering apes.
Bertie took the carnations out of the vase. Then she took the vase out onto the back patio and spiked it onto the ice-encrusted pavement. It shattered, its many pieces skittering over the ice in all directions. Bertie swept the pieces of the shattered vase into a dustpan and dumped them into the kitchen garbage can. Relief and regret warred within her as she treated herself to a second bagel, this one much cream cheesier than the first.
Kierstin didn’t come home until almost midnight. Bertie was dozing in her bed, a sincere book lying open on her chest. Kierstin knocked on Bertie’s open bedroom door to wake her.
“Hey, mom,” said Kierstin. “I’m home. What happened to the vase?”
“Which vase?” asked Bertie, her heart racing at the prospect of Kierstin noticing her acting weird about the vase. She realized pretending not to know which vase Kierstin meant was probably a bad tactic for allaying suspicion. “Oh yeah, the vase, yes, I accidentally dropped it and it broke.”
“Oh, that sucks,” said Kierstin. “Well, good night.”
Bertie made it until early Sunday evening before she found herself back at Crown’s Varied Items Store. She would have preferred to run her errand and get home without talking to anyone, but she walked up and down every aisle in the store without success and was forced to approach an employee for assistance.
“It’s a vase with apes painted on it. The apes are kind of dancing. I don’t actually like the vase, I just think it’s funny. It’s…it’s a white elephant gift.”
The Crown’s employee, a man about Bertie’s age with a big nick in one of his earlobes, no nametag, and a red crown on his head, said, “It’s crazy that you mention that item. I’d never noticed it before and then someone came in asking about a weird vase today. I forget what they called it, but it basically looked how you’re describing. But they bought it, so you’re out of luck.”
“So does that mean you’ll be ordering more?” asked Bertie.
“Probably not,” said the employee. “I’m pretty sure that item was a gently used item we ended up with somehow.”
“But there were two,” said Bertie. “At least two. Because I bought one on Thursday night for my office party on Friday, but you said another one just got sold today.”
“You already got one here?” asked the employee, a probing look appearing on his face. “If the party was on Friday, didn’t you already give it away?”
“Uh, well, yes,” said Bertie. “But I have another white elephant party gift exchange coming up, and that vase was so well received at the first one, I thought I should get another one.” Her voice was shaking. She knew she sounded like a guilty person trying to conceal something. The fact that she was lying about something so stupid was almost more embarrassing than the stupid thing she was lying about. She fled.
In the parking lot, Bertie sat in her car and examined the crossroads that lay before her. She could go home and seek to put the whole white elephant vase affair behind her or she could take wild shots in the dark and drive to other stores, inquiring about the vase they almost certainly didn’t have, expanding her search to Dalcette and Riveryard and Heavenburg and beyond, continuing her desperate struggle with the vase into the foreseeable future.
The choice was obvious but not easy. Bertie drove home. She was free, and at the moment, freedom felt pretty bad. But she knew it was better than bondage. On an intellectual level, she knew that everyone who she respected agreed that freedom was better than bondage, and that helped.
When she got home, Kierstin, who had been gone when Bertie got up that morning, was back on the couch, playing her video game. All the lights were off in the room except for the colored lights strung on the artificial Christmas tree. It was a peaceful scene except for all the swordplay in the video game.
“Uh oh,” said Bertie with a grin. “I see there’s a new present under the tree. I wonder who that could be for.”
Kierstin laughed without taking her eyes off of her game. “I don’t know,” she said in a sing-song voice. “I guess we’ll have to look at the tag and find out.”
Bertie waited until an opportune moment in Kierstin’s game before crossing in front of the TV and crouching by the Christmas tree. The other gifts under the tree were all from Bertie to Kierstin, but that was fine, Kierstin was much more of a last-minute shopper than Bertie was. Even one present under the tree for Bertie was unexpected this far before Christmas. Her gifts usually appeared all at once on December 23rd or 24th.
Bertie picked up the gift. It wasn’t very heavy. “To Mom,” she read aloud. “From your daughter.” And then a cold bolt went through Bertie’s gut. She knew. She knew what it was. The gift was the vase with the capering apes on it, Kierstin had been the customer the employee had remembered, the one who had come into Crown’s earlier that day asking about the vase. The vase was back and Bertie hadn’t even needed to go after it. It had come to her.
Knowing that the vase was wrapped up and waiting for her to open it on Christmas morning was like a vacation for Bertie. She knew what awaited her once she opened it. She knew she would again be forced to face the vase and reckon with it and wage a nebulous war of indeterminate length with it. But for now, she could put it off, she could think about other things, she could interact with her coworkers as if the gift exchange had never happened at all. She bought the rest of Kierstin’s gifts, wrapped them, and put them under the tree. She gave one of Kierstin’s gifts the bow she’d originally used on the white elephant gift and then rescued from the garbage at work. She affixed the bow to the wrapping paper with a little square of double-sided tape.
Bertie did not feel the vase hanging over her like the blade of a guillotine. Instead, she focused on enjoying the freedom she had left. She even gave herself permission to hope that by living in freedom in the days leading up to the opening of the vase, something might change within her, and when she finally came face to face with those capering apes again, she would feel nothing. Or, better but even less likely, she might feel confident and decisive.
A snowstorm with white-out conditions brought Christmas Eve with it. Bertie and Kierstin stayed in and watched movies that Kierstin wanted to watch. They were not Christmas movies and some of them were kind of risqué for Bertie’s taste, but she was happy to be in the same room as Kierstin and doing the same activity as Kierstin, doing it together, a shared experience. They stayed up until almost 3 in the morning. Bertie would have preferred to have something other than the leftovers in the fridge for dinner, but other than that, it was a very good final night before the vase’s full-fledged return to her life.
Christmas morning came. Kierstin opened all of her gifts and liked all of them. She had always loved getting gifts, it didn’t matter what they actually were. She was easy to buy for. Bertie opened all of her gifts except for the vase, which she saved for last. She savored each opening of a non-vase gift, effusive in her praise for a robe, a bread knife, a daily llama calendar, and so on. At last, only the vase remained. Bertie had arrived at the threshold and now it was time to cross it. She had enjoyed her respite from the vase. It had been almost as good as life before the vase, and in some ways, she had probably appreciated it more.
Bertie tore the wrapping paper off of a plain, brown box. She used her fingernail to peel the tape off of the box and open it up. Inside, wrapped in newspaper, was the vase. It seemed smaller than the original, but maybe that was just a failure of her memory. In any case, the capering apes were the same. Their faces, though exactly as devoid of humanity as she remembered, no longer scared Bertie. She knew them too well for that. She knew the exact shade of doom they foretold, and she would enter into it with both eyes open in hope that one day she would be able to discern shades within the shade, shapes within those shades, and details in those shapes. And, having accomplished this feat of perception, which she readily admitted could very well be beyond her ability, she would find an exit in the doom and step out, thereby rendering the doom not a doom at all, but merely a wayward period of doubt and confusion in her life, a period caused and defined by the fact that she didn’t know how to handle an ugly vase in the aftermath of an office gift exchange. Perhaps she would die having never emerged from the doom, in which case, yes, the doom would indeed prove to be doom. But perhaps, even if all seemed lost, even if she lay on her deathbed having never overcome the vase, perhaps, perhaps the looming specter of her own mortality would give her the nudge she needed and she would look at the vase and either burst out laughing or dismiss it with a frail shrug or nod in respectful recognition, having finely learned its lesson and then she would die a free woman.
“It’s the Walterworks vase,” said Kierstin. She looked a little hurt.
Bertie realized she hadn’t thanked Kierstin. She hadn’t said anything since she opened the vase. She’d probably been staring into space. “Oh, yes!” she said. “Wait, what did you call it?”
“It’s the Walterworks vase,” said Kierstin. “Like the one you had before. The one you broke?”
“Right, yes, I know that,” said Bertie. “But what do you keep calling it?”
“Walterworks,” said Kierstin. “That’s the name of the character on the vase. That little guy.”
“Those are guys?” asked Bertie. “I thought they were apes!”
“Well, they aren’t guys,” said Kierstin. “It’s one guy. It’s one character, they just painted him in different positions. I think if you look at them in sequence, he’s doing his signature dance. You seriously don’t know what Walterworks is?”
“No!” said Bertie, examining the vase. She was in awe. She was reeling. “This is a character? That people know?”
“Well, not many people,” said Kierstin. “He’s an internet thing. He’s from a webcomic, I think. I was shocked that you knew who he was. That’s why I thought it was funny that you had the vase. Walterworks does not seem like your kind of thing. Here, I’ll show you.” Kierstin pulled her laptop off of the couch. Bertie sat next to her daughter at the foot of the Christmas tree, its fake branches gently poking their pajamaed backs, torn wrapping paper scattered all around them. “Here,” said Kierstin. “Look, here’s one where he’s doing his dance. See? It’s the same as on your vase.”
And a great calm came over Bertie. “Did you keep the receipt?”
Kierstin collapsed among the Christmas detritus, shrieking with laughter and kicking her feet so hard that her new slippers, the ones she’d just opened a few minutes before, flew into the air. Bertie didn’t think it was funny.