The Birthday Gift

She heard about the auction house by chance. An old café nearby had gone out of business and Elaine told her they’d be opening something new.

“Some yuppie foolishness,” she said, but her eyes were eager, “an auction house.”

“Uh huh,” murmured Ruth, without much interest.

“It’s not the usual thing,” said Elaine. “It’s something special. They’ll be auctioning time.”

Ruth blinked. Perhaps she hadn’t heard right.

Elaine bent her head closer. “Yes, dear. Chunks of time. Here’s a flyer.”

She handed Ruth an oblong of cream paper sprinkled with confetti flecks of colour. Ruth’s eyes dropped to the bold print at the bottom:

Special: Vintage Time Chunks

For the literary connoisseur: Jane Austen’s unlived years. For political buffs: Abraham Lincoln. Thirty years in excellent condition. For musicians: Mozart’s mature years at a must-have price.

“This is a joke,” said Ruth.

“No, no,” Elaine said. “They’re renovating the building as we speak. There’s a huge sign up already. TIME AUCTIONS.

Ruth just shook her head.

The subject didn’t come up again for a couple of months. Then, one morning in May, a week before Ruth’s birthday, Elaine called and invited her to celebrate.

“I’ve got a real surprise,” she said coyly. “Don’t try to pry it out of me. I’m not telling.”

They arranged to meet.

The first thing Ruth noticed was Elaine’s hair: no longer sleek and dark. White-blond curls clustered around her face. And her clothes! A successful lawyer, she’d always favoured severely elegant suits. Now she was draped in something long and silky trimmed with lace. Glancing down at Elaine’s feet, Ruth saw strappy little sandals with slender heels.

“You look different,” said Ruth, quickly adding “different nice, I mean.”

Elaine bobbed her head. “I’m feeling super.” Her mouth twitched. “Do you know where we’re going?”

Ruth shook her head.

“A time auction,” said Elaine triumphantly. “I’ve already been. Guess what I got myself.”

Bewildered, Ruth just stared.

“Marie Antoinette’s prime. End-of-season. An unbelievable buy.”

“Don’t be silly,” said Ruth, then quickly pressed her fingers to her mouth. She usually preferred to be tactful rather than candid.

But Elaine was unflappable. “You’ll see,” she said.

A throng of people streamed into the building, murmuring expectantly. Ruth frowned. A scam. She felt surprised the police hadn’t shut them down. Just then, the town’s chief-of-police swept by, smiling broadly. As he passed, he winked at Elaine.

“Ten year lots going at a discount,” he said gaily. “Kids who fell out of trees. Good, fresh, mischievous years.”

Elaine flashed a warning look and the chief looked embarrassed. “See you inside,” he said.

I’m going mad, thought Ruth.

They were entering a large hall with tiers of seats. On a small stage that jutted forward stood a table with an auctioneer’s gavel. The crowd buzzed happily. Onto the stage walked a slender, gray-haired man. There was a wave of clapping, broken here and there by loud bravos.

Ruth turned to Elaine. “How strange…..”

“Shhh,” said Elaine, “they’re starting.”

The proceedings closely resembled a regular auction, with bids and counter bids. Ruth watched an elderly man totter proudly to the front, having acquired Butch Cassidy’s golden years. A mousy-looking woman beamed and giggled as she claimed Jean Harlow’s middle age. Finally, the kids’ ten-year lots were placed on the block. Elaine flew into action. Bidding was fierce, but at the end of it, she had a certificate, properly stamped, to present to Ruth.

“Happy birthday,” she grinned.

Ruth could only gape. Blushing, she took the thick square of parchment and crammed it into her purse.

At a small café nearby, the two women prepared to enjoy the rest of Ruth’s day in the conventional manner. Except that Ruth had warned Elaine she wouldn’t have cake. She never ate desserts. She was watching her figure.

But, after coffee and salad, Ruth suddenly felt like ice cream, a chocolate sundae, no less, with all the trimmings. When the towering concoction arrived, Elaine looked smug as Ruth greedily popped the cherry into her mouth, then began to scoop up ice-cream, nuts, and syrup, licking the spoon like a child after every bite.