Silent Negotiations

“I’m not going to Italy,” Harold said. He dipped his bread—toasted and buttered by Alice—into his sunny-side-up eggs and broke the membranes, which Alice had taken the utmost care to preserve. Yolk oozed across the plate. He moved his bacon to the side.

“You don’t have to,” Alice said, “but I’m going.” She sprinkled sugar on strawberries she’d picked yesterday while kneeling in the sandy garden soil. She wanted to see their daughter without Harold. Their son-in-law was stationed in Italy with the Air Force. He was halfway through an eighteen-month training before shipping out to Vietnam.

Alice was thirteen years younger than Harold. She’d once thought it romantic to marry an older man. Other women had gushed about his dancing skills, good looks, and charm. Alice pictured his wavy hair, sparkling eyes, and dazzling smile as if she were looking at the photograph taken of him on the night they met in 1932.

He asked her to dance four times, including the last dance. Alice was flattered. Just twenty-two, she taught at a one-room schoolhouse. With a plump figure and looks some called pleasant, but most called ordinary, Alice had resigned herself to the fate of a spinster teacher. But Harold asked to see her again.

The courtship of the thirty-five-year-old bachelor, who owned a business, and the young, plain, buxom school teacher caused tongues to wag among the women who’d expressed interest in Harold. Over the years, Alice had wished one of those women would’ve prevailed with him.

“I’m not going to Italy,” Harold repeated, donning his fedora. “I’ll be back for lunch.”

“You don’t have to,” Alice said, “but I’m going.”

She wanted to stroll along the beaches of the Adriatic Sea without Harold. A dozen years ago an accident made walking difficult for him.

*****

Alice spent the morning ticking through a list of chores before starting lunch. At noon Harold returned and took his seat at the head of the table.

“You’re not going to Italy,” Harold said. His pale, foggy-blue eyes crept above his black-rimmed glasses, which hung low on his nose.

Alice dished up the noon-day meal. Fried potatoes spooned into a bowl decorated with red poppies. Pan-fried chicken placed on an oval platter, its porcelain finish cracked with fine, lop-sided lines. Garden-fresh asparagus laid on a cream-colored, rectangular dish. Alice set the food in front of Harold. He’d told her many years ago he liked to fill his own plate first.

In 1933, after becoming engaged, they took a train to the World’s Fair in Chicago. Alice’s Aunt Fanny and Uncle Stanley chaperoned. Harold raved about the exhibits from all over the world, and Alice anticipated a life of adventure with a vacation every year or two. She felt lucky. In their small town, a handsome man with social connections and a thriving business guaranteed her status.

Six months after their trip to Chicago, they married. Harold, now thirty-six, told her he wanted children as soon as possible. Their trip to the World’s Fair in Chicago would be the only part of the world he ever took her to see.

Alice watched her previously fun-loving husband work long hours and put his money in the bank. She suffered two miscarriages before giving birth to a boy who grew up wild and headstrong. More miscarriages and another son who ran wild. Another miscarriage, then a daughter, obedient and calm, who grew up to be both a gifted scholar and musician. A daughter who wrote and tempted Alice with rapturous descriptions of the Adriatic Sea along the Italian coast.

“I’m going to Italy,” Alice said, “to see our daughter.” I’m going to see the Adriatic. They ate in silence.

After finishing his meal, Harold gripped his fedora. “I’ll be home for supper. You’re not going to Italy.”

“I’m meeting the travel agent this afternoon.”

At two o’clock, Harold glanced out of his office window and saw Alice in her blue station wagon heading toward the city.

*****

At five-fifteen Harold arrived home. Alice was cooking supper.

“I’m going to Italy with you,” Harold said.

Alice almost screamed, No.

But Harold didn’t like hysterics. She tightened her grip on a pair silver tongs, willing her disappointment down the utensil and into the browning pork chop she’d lifted from the cast iron frying pan in order to flip it.

Alice knew Harold wanted a response. She flipped the sizzling pork chops and replaced the lid with a clang. He’s dull. Her hands whirred as she lifted lids and attended to each pot of gurgling food with clattering spoons. He’s tight-fisted. A symphony of percussion above the stove, she played at her domestic chores. He’s exacting about how his house is kept.

Harold’s scuffling feet shifted her thoughts. She glimpsed his crooked backside and sloping shoulders as he wobbled out of the kitchen to wash up for supper. He won’t be able to walk along the Adriatic coast.

Alice dished pork chops onto a platter trimmed in roses, which had belonged to a mother-in-law she’d never met. When Harold was eleven, his mother died, a scant month after his father’s death. Other than a picture, the platter was all he had left of her. He liked it to be used.

Harold sold his family home to build Alice a big house after they’d married. She ladled hot, homemade applesauce into a pink depression glass bowl. She never went without a new dress or a reliable car. She scooped green beans slathered with butter and sprinkled with salt and pepper into the cut glass bowl Aunt Fanny and Uncle Stanley gave her as a wedding present. He never strayed. A strawberry-rhubarb pie nested in a daisy-festooned pie caddy the Ladies’ Society gifted her on her fortieth wedding anniversary. Marriage to Harold had made her small-town royalty.

“Ahem.” Harold cleared his throat to announce his return. She knew he wasn’t going to say it again, about going to Italy with her, but he still expected a response.

“I’ll get another ticket tomorrow,” Alice said.

Harold teetered as he took his seat at the head of the table.

“Silent Negotiations” won second place in the fiction category in the 2020 Hal Prize Writing Contest. In her comments about the story the judge, Jane Hamilton, wrote, “the poetic compression is impressive.” This story and the other winners of the 2020 Hal Prize Writing Contest can be read at Door County Pulse.

Marlon Dabrowski and His Dreamy Coffee Bean Eyes

“What kind of name is this?” Grandma asks. She’s helping me write birthday invitations to my first-grade classmates. I know exactly which name she means. “Who names their kid Marlon when his last name is Dabrowski? You can’t be president with a name like that. You might survive one of those names at the polls, but not both.”

“You named your daughter Geraldine Evelyn Mickiewicz,” I say. My mother hates her name, especially the Geraldine part. And she says she married dad for his last name—Andersen.

“Your mother was never going to be president.” Grandma peers at me over her cat-eye glasses. My cheeks burn. “You like this boy, don’t you?”

I’m silent. Truth is I love Marlon Dabrowski and have since the first day of school. Marlon has some bad points, besides his mother being our teacher. He’s pudgy. My grandma would say he still has baby fat. And he’s not a talker, so I have to do most of the chatting. His name is different, but it has rhythm when I sing it. Then again, Marlon has good points. His eyes are brown like the coffee beans my mother grinds every morning, and they’re surrounded with long, dark, dreamy lashes. He has a dimple in each chubby cheek, and he smiles a lot, so I get to see loads of dimples.

The next morning at school, I place an invitation on each desk. Reception is mixed. Jillian, Sherry, and Holly form a snug circle.

“Not going. She’s weird,” Jillian says.

“Me either,” Sherry says.

“I’m not showing this to my mother. She’ll make me go.” Holly crumples the invitation.

The boys aren’t excited either, but it’s not specifically about me.

“I hate girls’ parties,” Scotty says.

“Me too. Too much pink and Barbie stuff,” Todd sighs. “I’m tired of Ken and Barbie.”

“She has a trampoline in her backyard,” Doug says.

“Really? That’s different. I can put up with girly colors and sappy Barbie stuff if I can jump on a trampoline.” Todd bounces on the balls of his feet.

I don’t care what any of them say as long as Marlon comes. I ask him, “Are you coming to my party?”

“I don’t know. My mom doesn’t like you since she caught you eating paste,” he says.

“She caught you too!”

“Yeah, but I told her you dared me.” It’s true, but ratting on me to the teacher, even if she’s his mom, isn’t cool.

“Why’d you do that?”

He walks away.

“I have a trampoline in my backyard,” I yell after him.

At recess I ask Marlon again, “Are you coming to my party?”

“I guess. My mom says I can go as long as I don’t eat paste.”

I ball my hands into fists and slam them on my hips. My voice is deadly calm, “We’re not serving paste at my party.”

For two weeks, I’m on my best behavior in class. I don’t eat paste. Or smear thin layers of glue on my hands, let it dry, then peel it off, and ball it up. I don’t run into the girl’s bathroom pretending to cry so I can get out of class. I don’t read a storybook during math.

On Friday, the day before my party, I slip up. I’m supposed to write the alphabet over and over so I can memorize it because I still can’t recite the letters in order. I write it once and start reading.

“Put that book away and memorize the alphabet,” Mrs. Dabrowski says. She doesn’t have eyes the color of coffee beans or long, dark, dreamy lashes.

“Why do I have to memorize it?”

“Everyone has to memorize it.” She props her reading glasses on her head.

“But I can look up there.” I point to the banner above the board that has all twenty-six letters in order.

“Go sit in the hall.” She lowers her reading glasses, and her eyes appear to grow behind the lenses.

On Saturday, the hour of my party arrives. But not Marlon. Three girls and four boys come. But not Marlon. At first, I hope he’s just late. But then it becomes too late for him to just be late.

The boys keep looking out the window at the trampoline. “That’s a real nice trampoline you have,” says Todd, bouncing his fingers on the edge of the dining room table my mother has dressed with a lace coverlet and set with plain white paper plates and plastic forks. He’s not going to get to jump on the trampoline—my mother doesn’t want anyone getting hurt—but at least he doesn’t have to look at Barbie stuff.

The girls, mostly silent, take no pains to hide their boredom, and the cat’s got my tongue. I’m scared to talk to the girls, who don’t like me, and none of the boys are Marlon. Playing pin the tail on the donkey, eating cake and ice cream, opening presents, passing out party favors—it’s all a blur. It’s hard to be sad and pretend to be happy.  I’m done with birthday parties.

On Monday I walk into class, sit at my desk, and open a book. I don’t even look for Marlon.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to bring Marlon to your party,” says Mrs. Dabrowski, her voice all soft and sweet like my mother’s when she’s explaining to the milkman why we can’t pay the bill. Mrs. Dabrowski is standing by my desk. “We had something come up unexpectedly.”

“That’s okay,” I say, “With a name like Marlon Dabrowski, your son can’t ever be president anyway.”

For a moment empty air hangs between us, then anger puffs out of her and washes over me. Flashing through my imagination, like pictures in an album, I see her yell at me, my mother yell at me, and Marlon look at me with disgust, but none of that happens. Instead, Mrs. Dabrowski takes her bug eyes, which are the color of mud and rimmed with stubby lashes, and zooms back to her desk. I hear her shuffling papers, and if they were panes of glass, jagged shards would litter her desk.

“Marlon,” she calls, and he walks to her. I don’t hear what she says to him, but I don’t have to.

My heart squeezes, and I keep my eyes on my book. If I watch Marlon walk back to his desk and he looks at me, I’ll burst out crying and run to the girls’ bathroom, and my tears will be real.

All morning I’m a perfect student. If Mrs. Dabrowski thinks it’s to make her like me, she’s wrong. I need the cocoon I’ve spun around myself. Truth is I still love Marlon Dabrowski.

Throughout the morning, I steal out-of-the-corner-of-my-eye glances at Marlon. During one glance, I notice he’s folding paper. If his mother catches him making paper airplanes again, she’ll bite his head off. She’s in a mood.

At recess I sit alone on the wooden bench farthest from the kids playing kickball. My eyes are closed and my head is tilted toward the sun. A shadow crosses my face, and when I open my eyes, I expect to see a cloud but see Marlon instead. He hands me an envelope made out of writing paper. “I don’t even want to be president,” he says. He shoves the letter into my hands and runs back to the kickball game.

I open the folded paper. Inside he’s written happy birthday and placed a dollar. It’s his whole allowance for the week. He knows I don’t get one.

Refolding the paper around the dollar, I look for Marlon across the way. He’s looking back at me. I’m smiling and he smiles back. Aah, those dimples, loads and loads of dimples.

A version of this story was originally published by UW-Eau Claire-Barron County Campus in their annual Red Cedar Review in June 2020.

Tossed

Ruby had started at the new school right after Labor Day. The new army base was a slightly different version of the old one. She had known from the first week of school, she would be on the perimeter again. The last one chosen for a team in gym. The partner no one wanted for a group project in class.

The bag of marbles was her only triumph.

At recess, she played marbles. Most girls didn’t. The boys had been excited to play her. “Easy pickins,” they whispered among themselves. “Do you play for keeps or funzies?” a boy asked. “Keeps,” she said. But Ruby didn’t lose. Every day, her bag swelled with marbles. She stashed her spoils in coffee cans at the back of her closet.

By the end of September, the boys stopped playing her for keeps. Playing for funzies bored Ruby. Holding her bag of marbles, she sat on a concrete bench. She watched the girls jumping rope and thought, I could jump rope. I just need to jettison my marbles and focus on my new mission.

Next to her, jutting toward the sky was a round piece of playground equipment. Inside a red metal ladder led to the top. Outside four shiny poles were anchored to the ground with rusted chains. Ruby clutched her bag and climbed. Instead of sliding down a pole, she hoisted herself above the top. She looked like a soldier protruding from a tank. 

She slipped her hand into the bag, pulled out a marble, and dropped it. A small mushroom of dust rose as it hit the ground. For a moment it lay undisturbed before being snatched up. A legion of boys gathered under her tower. Ruby dropped one marble at a time, waiting until a boy seized it before dropping another. 

“Ruby, here,” a boy yelled. They pushed and shoved like the pigs she slopped one summer when she lived with her grandparents. The snorting boys gave her pleasure. She fed them cat’s eyes, crystals, solids, aggies, bumblebees, rainbows, and steelies. 

Each day with military precision, she timed her marbles to run out as recess ended. “You bringing more marbles tomorrow?” Arnold, a pink-faced, chubby boy asked.

“Maybe.” She turned on her heel, head high, chest out, ramrod straight.

Each evening she reloaded her bag. Friday, as she dropped her last marble, a teacher appeared at the bottom of her tower. “You, get down here,” she ordered and marched Ruby to the principal’s office. 

First came the command, “You cannot toss marbles from playground equipment. Someone could get hurt. Understood?” 

Ruby conceded. She had no marbles left, no plans to replenish her supply. She was done with marbles.

Next came the query, “Why were you dropping marbles?”

Ruby looked at her folded hands resting on her faded calico dress. She thought about the boys rooting for her marbles, squealing her name. She had been intoxicated by her power over them.

Ruby looked at the principal and said, “I just wanted to share.”

On Monday, she would be bringing her jump rope to school.

“Tossed” won the Lake Superior Writers’ 2019 Contest for short-short fiction. It was also selected by WritersRead 2020 and performed at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin. It aired on Wisconsin Public Radio on February 11, 2020. The reading of “Tossed” can be found at 1:14:45 on the program. “Tossed” was published in the anthology Many Waters: St. Croix Writers Stories and Poems in 2020.