The Gift 02

The Gift

by Howard Rosenberg

The TV showrunner’s betrayed wife is intent on vengeance. But can she get it? 2,207 words. Illustrations by John Donald Carlucci.


VALERIE

Outrageous! The price had jumped to eighty-five dollars for a dozen pieces, each no larger than a thimble.

Yet Condazini Triple Chocolate Italian Crèmes were worth it: roasted almond butter with a hint of espresso, and in a dark chocolate shell that melted slowly on her tongue. The complex aroma alone stimulated her taste buds. It was heavenly, and Valerie Lasky adored every sinful calorie.

She paid cash, then watched the sales clerk slip the slender gold box into an elegant Chocolatier bag and slide the guilty pleasure across the gleaming glass counter.

The saleswoman smiled and said, “Enjoy!” Valerie nodded but didn’t speak, careful to do nothing the clerk might recall. A word or a glance could form a memory. Though low odds of that; she was one customer of many. Besides, Valerie felt anonymous behind her dark sunglasses and her hair folded under a generic baseball cap. Plus, Chocolatier was too many zip codes from her Pasadena neighborhood for anyone to make a geographical connection.

By late afternoon, Valerie had disarmed the alarm in the large Craftsman house on leafy Laguna Road. It was empty except for the family’s calico cat. Their eldest son was at Stanford, and the twins, were at summer camp.

The solitude was lovely, the only sound her stiletto heels clicking on the heart pine floors. Valerie now needed privacy. Her husband Raymond had texted in the morning that he would be working late. Again. Something about an emergency reshoot. Again. Such was the predictable unpredictability of a highly paid TV showrunner with a moderate hit and a homelife relegated to a footnote.

This showrunner, at least.

Valerie had no complaints about the money. There was plenty of it. Raymond was generous that way, freeing her to nourish her great passion for collecting art. Nothing obscenely expensive; they didn’t have that kind of wealth. Yet ten thousand here, ten thousand there, and the investment had grown along with Valerie’s zeal to promote local artists. To his credit, Raymond rarely questioned her taste and never what she spent. Yes, generous that way.

She entered the kitchen and placed the box of chocolates on the counter. Then she poured herself a glass of red wine to steady her nerves and sat at a small desk and eyed herself in a large oval mirror. She tilted her head slightly and evaluated: forty-seven, and she still had her looks. Save for a line here and there, her face was air-brush smooth, skin taut. Her tumble of blonde hair had gray strands. But her blue eyes still had that electric sparkle. Raymond again and again had called her Sparkle Eyes. But that was past.

Raymond had reworked the plot — he would prefer refreshed — and transferred his attention to another Sparkle Eyes. Drew Valliant (could that be anyone’s real name?) was the youngest writer on City Of Crime, Raymond’s cop procedural heading toward an uncertain third season in a difficult time slot on NBC. The two were probably together now, supposedly writing, or so Valerie’s inner voice said with heavy sarcasm.

Valerie was through with quiet tears. No longer sidelined by sorrow or self-pity, she refused to play the helpless victim tied to the tracks in front of a speeding train. Outwardly serene, she increasingly felt a bonfire of rage. The flame-up came when she found herself reading a love text from Drew on Raymond’s iPhone that he had carelessly left for Valerie to find on the dresser as he showered: Raymsie, I love every day, every hour, every minute, every second we’re together. You’re not just a great fuck but fucking great in all ways as my teacher and inspiration.

Raymsie? A great fuck? Valerie had repeatedly felt the jolt of that text as if it were a Groundhog Day moment. She would never forget the sharp immobilizing pain of betrayal. Or her legs refusing her brain’s command to move when she wanted to flee to a dark closet as the cat did when he didn’t want to be found.

But somehow Valerie gathered herself and made a swift decision not to confront the asshole in the shower merrily rinsing away twenty-five years of marriage as if they were dead skin and dirt. Better to hold off and weigh some options, she counseled herself. When Raymond emerged with a towel and a smile, she forced herself to smile back.

Valerie realized that for months Raymond had been leaving a trail of clues like breadcrumbs, starting with the odd aloofness. Then came the weightlifting at early morning gym sessions and with barbells at home by a husband previously at ease with mid-life flab. Plus the emergency shoots,
the night shoots, the every-excuse-he-could-think-of shoots, all somehow requiring his presence until after midnight. When he finally did come home, he fell into bed too wasted for sex and only able to just kiss Valerie’s forehead and turn away.

Drew was pretty, Valerie granted her that. And petite, making Valerie who was tall feel like a giraffe. Drew was smart, too. But Valerie didn’t believe her capable of genuine emotion or deep feelings. She was pain-proof, a bad trait for a writer. Good in the sack, though; that was a given. She was probably a screamer. Raymond had always liked action in bed, probably more so now while having his way with a nymph who could pass for a high school cheerleader.

That was it, wasn’t it? Raymond’s playmate was just twenty-nine and only a few years removed from USC film school where they’d met when she’d taken his graduate screenwriting class. No doubt he gave her an A-plus. How ideal for Drew, a diploma in one hand, Raymond’s dick in the other, leading to a postgraduate seat in the City Of Crime writers room. Valerie had asked him: “Does she have any experience?” That didn’t matter to Raymond, who’d said, “I hired her because she’s amazingly talented and brilliant.”

Valerie didn’t confront him over the affair, fearing it would end their marriage. For, in spite of everything, she still loved Raymond. Or thought she did. Was she confusing love with the comfort of continuing a life with a successful man? Besides, Raymond needed her. He was a diabetic who required insulin injections, and she monitored his blood sugar and made sure he controlled his disease. No, she wouldn’t end the marriage, though she wasn’t naive enough to believe the affair would end on its own.

Valerie now enjoyed a pleasant buzz. Was it the wine or the anticipation of doing this wonderful horrible thing to Drew?

Valerie had planned this for weeks, waiting for just the right opportunity. It arrived on cue when Raymond announced Drew.was having a party to celebrate her one-year anniversary on the show. Valerie had quickly seen this as her chance, everything piecing together like a Matisse. But she had to act swiftly; the dinner was tomorrow.

Drew’s second-floor loft was near South Highland Avenue where affluent young professionals bought. Raymond asked Valerie what was in the gift-wrapped box he saw peeking out from a gift bag. “It’s a beautiful silk scarf I bought for Drew,” she said. That was true. She had found it in a high-end Pasadena shop and on this occasion had wanted to make an impression so the sales clerk remembered her. Valerie also enclosed a gift card, “From The Laskys.”

What she didn’t tell Raymond was that in the same bag were the Condazini chocolates in a beribboned box without a gift card. Or that inside each delicious crème filling was a lethal shot of ordinary rat poison that Valerie had injected using surgical gloves and Raymond’s needle syringes right through the side of each candy wrapper. She’d learned from Google the poison was odorless and practically tasteless but enough to kill Drew who had swooned over the previous chocolates Valerie had bought her at Christmas. Drew wouldn’t share any of the candy with the diabetic Raymond, naturally, but she would surely indulge herself.

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DREW

The party was already underway, and Drew and Valerie cheek-kissed European-style at the doorway. Drew suppressed the impulse to plant a big wet one on Raymond’s lips and settled for something platonic.

“For you,” said Valerie, handing Drew the first box. “It’s a scarf.”

“You are so sweet,” said Drew.

Then Valerie’s voice lowered to a whisper as she guided Drew toward a corner where the others couldn’t see or hear them. “And speaking of sweet, here’s something extra.”

Drew’s mouth fell open. “Condazini chocolates! Valerie, you remembered. Shall we share them with everyone?”

“No, they’re for you," Valerie insisted P. "Treat yourself, Drew. You deserve it.”

After the guests had left, Drew pulled her long brown hair back into a ponytail, lit a joint and thought about catching the end of Saturday Night Live. She liked entertaining and showing off her loft with its stunning décor and artwork. She’d hired a caterer to create the scrumptious spread, earning raves and second helpings. The City Of Crime outtakes were a hit. And clean-up was in the capable hands of her Guatemalan housekeeper who welcomed the extra pay by helping out. All in all, she’d liked the evening — mostly.

What Drew hadn’t like were four hours in close proximity to the wife of the lover she was fucking while pretending p Raymond was just a work colleague. She’d felt Valerie’s evil p eye on her all evening after that weird business with the candy. Valerie had handed the box of chocolates to Drew like it was a box of jewels. There was something creepy about that woman, Drew decided, almost as if spun from last season’s City Of Crime episode about a telepathic killer steeped in the dark arts.

Drew and Raymond had covered their tracks fastidiously, so much so that no one in the writers room or on the crew had a clue. But did Valerie suspect something? Her evil eye said yes.

“Anything else, Miss?”

“No, Carla. Sorry you had to stay so late. I have your check in the bedroom. And there’s something else.” Drew returned with the payment and the Condazini chocolates. Because when Drew had gushed over them, it was only to be polite. “One Hershey mini is all the sweets I can handle,” Drew said, presenting the box to Carla. “You take this.”

Carla handed it back. “No thanks, Miss. I’m allergic.”

Drew sighed and opened a drawer and placed the Condazini chocolates beside an unopened tin of gourmet cookies.

PHYLLIS & CORRIE

The next day, a square white envelope arrived in Drew’s mailbox containing a Sunday brunch invitation from Phyllis Templeton and Corrie Pozner. They were a lesbian couple who lived nearby and Phyllis, the tall skinny one, was the high-powered realtor who’d found the loft for Drew. Corrie, the short pudgy one, was an artist. “Of course I’m biased but she’s quite wonderful,” Phyllis had gushed. “Her paintings are getting a lot of interest.” Drew turned down the invitation to visit Corrie’s downtown studio. But the brunch invitation was another matter.

“Hello neighbor,” said Phyllis, accepting the bright pink gift sack with blue tissue paper hiding its contents.

“It’s something to show my appreciation,” said Drew.

“Very nice. But I’m doing the thanking today, remember?” Phyllis replied. “Still in love with that darling loft?”

“Yes, still in love,” replied Drew, touching her heart.

Phyllis laughed and walked Drew down three steps into a spacious Country French room with glass doors framing the gray morning. Phyllis made introductions, then excused herself and brought the gift sack to the kitchen where Corrie was setting out wine glasses on a rolling serving cart. Phyllis
pulled the box from the bag. “Condazini chocolates. Very fancy.”

Corrie looked aghast, “Condazini? Sounds like the Mafia. And candy is just what I don’t need!” She put her hands on her wide hips and did a shimmy as her partner laughed.

The following afternoon, Corrie read a text on her cell. “Oh, this is nice,” she said to Phyllis. “It’s an invitation from the collector who bought ‘Lifetime Buds,’ that big piece with the old men playing cards — you know, the one that reminded you of your Dad. It’s for a cocktail party in honor of moi. Isn’t that smashing? How often do I get a chance to see my work hanging in someone’s home? And ka-ching, ka-ching, Phyl.” Corrie rubbed her fingers with her thumb. “Maybe this will help sell some of my other pieces.”

On the day of the party, Corrie lamented that Phyllis was obsessively punctual. “Thanks to you, we’re always the first people to arrive, and I just hate it,” she said sharply.

A tall woman in stiletto heels and a black sheath that hit mid-thigh beckoned them inside the Craftsman house toward the music and laughter. She was the collector who’d purchased Corrie’s painting. The artist handed the hostess a gift wrapped in gold cellophane with a red ribbon and bow. The recipient’s blue eyes widened with instant recognition. “Condazini Italian Cremes! And triple chocolate! You really know how to thrill a chocoholic like me.”

Corrie smiled. “Glad you like it.”

“Like it?” said Valerie Lasky. “Condazini is to die for.”

 

About The Author:
Howard Rosenberg
Howard Rosenberg was a Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic at the Los Angeles Times for 25 years. He now teaches critical writing and a TV symposium at USC's School of Cinema and Media Studies and formerly taught news ethics in the Annenberg School for Communication. He authored a satirical mystery novel Up Yours! and two non-fiction books: Not So Prime Time and No Time to Think (with Charles S. Feldman). He writes the blog Rosenbeast.

About Howard Rosenberg

Howard Rosenberg was a Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic at the Los Angeles Times for 25 years. He now teaches critical writing and a TV symposium at USC's School of Cinema and Media Studies and formerly taught news ethics in the Annenberg School for Communication. He authored a satirical mystery novel Up Yours! and two non-fiction books: Not So Prime Time and No Time to Think (with Charles S. Feldman). He writes the blog Rosenbeast.

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