colson whitehead   The Perfect Gift  
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  Iow that the holiday season is upon us, some of you may be pondering over what kind of present to get for your friends and relatives. Perhaps the story of a gift I recently received may be of some assistance. When my girlfriend told me that she was getting me a stalker for my birthday, I was pleasantly surprised. I grew up in a household full of dogs and now that I lived in the city, I missed having the delightful creatures underfoot. I thought it was inhumane to keep such vibrant and energetic animals cooped up in a tiny New York apartment all day. A stalker seemed like a nice alternative to having a pet. They were low maintenance companions, if a trifle single-minded. You're never alone when you have a stalker-- even if can't see them, you know they're out there, somewhere. I thanked my girlfriend for giving me such a thoughtful gift, even as I suspected that she had an ulterior motive. I think she wanted to see how responsible I was, in case we had kids one day.

Nothing out of the ordinary happened that first week, and it occurred to me that maybe my girlfriend had been ripped off. She is, at times, a bit too trusting. After a few days, however, I discovered that my stalker did in fact exist, and that he was no slouch. Apparently he'd been studying me, learning my habits and acquaintances and such. I was returning from the corner deli, my arms full of arugula, when the first incident happened. It seemed that with each step I took, I could hear an echo of it behind me, matching my pace exactly. But when I turned around, I saw nothing but empty sidewalk. I resumed walking, the strange echo returned, and again, when I turned to check, I saw nothing. I thought it was odd, and as I prepared my salad later, I was preoccupied.

It had started. All sorts of odd events began to happen to me. First, there were a lot of hangups on my answering machine. Initially I didn't think much of it. In a city this large, there are bound to be people who make mistakes when dialing, and in such cases there is rarely any need to leave a message, and hanging up is the most natural thing to do. Perhaps a large government agency or a popular Chinese restaurant had changed their number recently, to one similar to mine, and that was the cause of it. But then the caller began to leave messages. Weird stuff like "Hey Mister Bigshot who thinks he's better than me--you better watch your step!" and "After my days studying martial arts in the Orient, I could kill you with my pinky, Fancy Pants!" There were, of course, few government agencies or Chinese restaurants where leaving such a message would be appropriate, and I realized my stalker was hard at work.

My stalker was diligent, prompt, and thorough, as the agency had promised. Threatening letters and the occasional dead animal arrived in the mail. I saved the animals in plastic baggies, the ones with the convenient zipper locks, and placed them in the Frigidaire in case I had to go to the authorities one day. It must be a tiresome job, I thought, stalking. I decided to try and be as pleasant as I could. I got one of those personal 1-800 numbers so that he wouldn't have to worry about having change when he called me from the phone booth across the street from my house to describe to me what I was wearing. I stuck to a regular schedule of activities, so as not to confuse or otherwise throw him for a loop, and when I read that "Cape Fear" was playing at one of those revival houses downtown, I went to see it, reasoning that my stalker would appreciate seeing a film about his profession. It is often a treat, I think, to see one of your kind on the silver screen and depicted without negative stereotyping. At one point, I turned to see if my stalker was enjoying the movie. He was eating popcorn heartily and silently mouthing the dialogue to himself. I considered the outing a success.

On the last night of my gift, I noticed my stalker standing across the street, staring up at my window. He'd been doing that a lot lately, but this evening it was raining really hard. Since my stalker was a skinny man, a skinny man with frail and delicate features, I worried that he might catch a cold. I motioned him upstairs and told the doorman to let him inside.

"Would you like some tea?" I asked him as I opened the door. His military fatigues were sopping wet and I feared he might drip on my new living room set, possibly staining it. I thought better of mentioning it, however, after a look at some of the items on his utility belt.

"No thank you," my stalker said through clenched teeth. "I thought I'd just glare at you for a while."
"Are you sure?" I insisted. "It's Darjeeling's."

He just glared at me, and for a while we stood there in silence. Then I looked into his face and felt an odd quiver in my brain. "Don't I know you?" I asked my visitor.

Turned out we'd gone to high school together. It was Jimmy Harker, the math wiz. Then I noticed, with no small amount of sadness, that the display on my VCR read 12:05 am: my stalking was officially over. Off the clock, my former stalker opened up to me and we reminisced a bit about the old days. We hadn't been friends back then, and I wasn't sure if we'd keep in touch now that my stalking was over. We were so different, and if I barely had enough space in my life for a stalker, what would I do with an ex-stalker? I felt differently when he got up to leave, a few hours later. When he said, "I'll call you," I knew he wasn't just saying it. He meant it.

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Copyright © 1998 Colson Whitehead.

Photo of Colson Whitehead copyright © Natasha Stovall.