by Gary Fincke

Just after Jake Graber, the creative director, sent an email suggesting we all chip in $10 to buy a birdbath for Susan Reilly’s retirement gift, the controversy began.

Sixteen of us worked at the agency. Even with a few slackers, there’d be enough to cover the $128 birdbath. Graber had sent along the birdbath ad as an attachment so we all could see its beauty and price for ourselves. Though when Ellen Sanderson, the copy editor, mentioned there might be an unforeseen problem with the gift, citing the threat of the Zika virus, I recalculated how many of us might hate Susan enough to risk the embarrassment of stiffing her gift.

Ellen suggested a bird feeder instead. ‘It’s a healthier choice,’ she wrote in her email to everyone, excepting Susan, in the agency. ‘The birds will even eat whatever stray mosquitoes are around because of some neighbor’s puddles.’

‘And it’s half the cost,’ Ed Maples, like me, a designer, said in a private message a few minutes later. He’d done the research on the cost of even the most elaborate of bird feeders, and the data supported the spate of cheapskate-risking opinions through ‘reply to all’ about fear of Zika.

Shortly thereafter, he sent a new private message about how disgusted he was with all our precious colleagues who thought of wearing surgical masks to work as soon as somebody coughed. ‘They wipe off their keyboards with Purel,’ he finished, and I couldn’t help but answer, ‘And the handles of their shopping carts.’

There were only a few weeks until Susan’s last day. She’d been the receptionist since the agency was founded twenty-nine years ago, long enough that her duties had expanded to include expense report checking, especially the one adult-beverage rule.

Maples, who liked his drink, the expression Susan used frequently, would watch helplessly as she subtracted the price of four beers from his tab before sending it to reimbursement.

‘It’s not my doing,’ Susan said each time. ‘It’s policy,’ but Maples was eternally pissed because even when he turned in receipts that showed only the total plus tip, she would call whatever restaurants he’d eaten at and ask for itemized ones.

I admit that when I sat on my deck eating dinner with my wife two nights before the deadline to decide, I gave more than passing notice to the birdbath in my neighbor’s yard. It was right in my line of sight over the left shoulder of my wife, and I thought of how the couple next door had health problems, maybe severe enough to keep them from maintaining that birdbath properly, allowing the water to stagnate so long that we’d be infested with mosquitoes.

The husband had undergone bypass surgery during the winter; the wife, when she sat outside, had an oxygen pack beside her. It seemed a certainty that the birdbath would be neglected. I didn’t give a damn about Zika, but a flurry of mosquito bites, complete with her scratching them raw and infecting herself, seemed like a good thing because Susan Reilly, for the past eighteen years, had called up MapQuest to calculate my exact travel allowance mileage down to the tenth of a mile, sending me memos that specified how many miles she’d subtracted, from 11.4 years ago all the way down to .2 just the week before.

My wife didn’t care about Susan Reilly, but she had a little Purel-worship in her blood. ‘I don’t think there’s water in it,’ she said. ‘It’s just for decoration. You know—like a lawn gnome.’

‘There’s rain,’ I said, ‘plenty of it sometimes,’ though now I was thinking about the lawn ornaments advertised on airplanes in Sky Mall—bigfoot, Buddha, an assortment of trolls, none of which would collect water and bring pandemic to the neighborhood. At Maples’ suggestion, I sent that idea to Arlene Proesch, one of the Purel cultists. I did my own postscript, reminding her a gnome was just as expensive as a birdbath, so she didn’t have to worry about looking cheap.

Maples couldn’t get enough. ‘I’m busting a gut here,’ he sent after the batch message from Arlene. ‘You can’t make this shit up.’ To everyone else he wrote, ‘Gnomes are ugly. Susan needs beauty.’

The next day I walked through the neighbor’s back yard as if I had somewhere to go that needed the particular angle that took me past the birdbath. The water was warm. I stirred it with my hand. When I touched the basin, I discovered it was detachable. After dinner, I watched for an hour, and not one bird came to the birdbath. That night I dumped the water and refilled it from a sprinkling can I carried over.

‘Give Susan the birdbath,’ Maples typed to everyone on commitment day, and when the birdbath motion passed by email acclimation, Graber passed along his thanks. Privately, Maples told me, ‘Everybody’s forgotten about West Nile. Zika just shortened the infection odds. May Reilly be bitten often by a swarm of ferocious virus carriers.’

A week later, at the retirement reception, Graber lugged out the birdbath. It was ornate, the kind of scrollwork that reminded me of the rococo columns I identified thirty years ago in art history. Graber poured water in. He had birdcalls twittering through the Muzak speakers. The room filled with benign nature.

I watched Graber give her a quick hug, and then Maples took the lead, slapping his hands together with gusto. Nearly the whole room, including Ellen and Arlene, took up the hearty applause, and so did I. It looked as if Maples had a private line to everybody who had axes to grind. A few of the heaviest drinkers even did a synchronized ‘Hear, hear’ with Maples before we all drifted toward our desks. The ten-day forecast promised heavy rain tomorrow followed by more than a week of nothing but sun. I’d looked it up before work.

Gary Fincke’s latest collection is The Sorrows (Stephen F. Austin, 2020). A new story, ‘The Corridors of Longing,’ will appear in Best Small Fictions 2020. He is co-editor of the annual anthology series Best Microfictions.