Cora Comes to an Understanding

[This short story appeared in Talking Stick 29: Insights in 2020. The fiction judge selected it for an honorable mention.]

“It’s 72,” I say, after peeking at the thermometer outside the backdoor. I write the temp on the chalkboard hanging by the window overlooking Grandpa Harold’s gigantic garden.

“Needs to be 74 by one o’clock,” Grandma Cora says, “otherwise it’s too cold for swimming.” She wipes her nose and shoves a hanky back into her apron pocket, putting an exclamation point on her words.

And if it reaches 74 after that, she won’t take us because she’s got to can and freeze stuff that comes out of Grandpa’s garden. He gives her updates every morning. Yesterday, he said, “Cora, there’s peas need shelling.” This morning he said, “Cora, the beans need picking.”

Between all that canning and freezing, she’s baking bread, cookies, cakes, and pies. Grandpa doesn’t like store-bought bread, and I think he declared a law that his meals must end with dessert. Then, she’s got to cook supper before Grandpa gets home from the gas station he owns.

A week ago, instead of filling his plane with skydivers, Dad loaded up Christina and me and flew us to our grandparents. Mom had surgery the week before and almost died. To save her the doctors cut her open from her navel to her private parts. Being my sister’s nine and I’m ten, no one told us any of that, but they didn’t have to because we did some eavesdropping. Grandma met us at the small airport near her home. Dad stashed our luggage into her station wagon and said, “You girls behave yourselves.” As Grandma drove away, I watched Dad start his pre-flight check before he flew back home.

We’ve been here a week now and Grandma has us trapped in her routine. We eat breakfast and do the dishes. We eat lunch and do the dishes. We eat supper and do the dishes. Between meals we play outside or walk to the IGA and buy penny candy when Grandpa gives us each a dime. If the temp’s warm enough by one o’clock, Grandma takes us swimming. After, she has to hustle to get her chores done and supper cooking.

Today, our thermometer watching started while we set the table for lunch.

“You’re going to let all the flies in,” Grandma says. “You don’t need to check the temperature every five minutes. It’s either going to be 74, or not.”

She’s got a point, but it doesn’t stop us.

Grandma goes to church every Sunday and plays the organ and leads the choir. Dad says that she’s a God-fearing, praying woman. I believe she prays every day the temp won’t reach 74. Christina and I aren’t church going, but we pray for rising temps.

The firehouse siren wails, telling us it’s noon.

The backdoor opens. “Cora, I just came from the garden. The raspberries need picking too.” Grandpa’s home for lunch.

“It’s 73,” Christina says and writes the temp on the chalkboard.

Grandma’s shoulders sag, and she sighs.

After lunch, before we can check the temp again, Grandma sends us to the basement with old newspapers, which Grandpa burns in a small stove. When I come up the stairs, I see Grandma’s butt holding the backdoor open, and it looks like she’s messing with the thermometer. Behind me Christina belches and startles her.

“That was quick,” Grandma says smoothing her silver-gray hair. She’s acting like she always hangs out the backdoor to fix her hair. Her fingers are wet. I say nothing, but I know the temp has dropped. We aren’t going swimming.

Then the phone rings, and Grandma leaves the kitchen to answer it.

I wait until she’s all wrapped in her call and open the backdoor. It’s 70 degrees. I place my thumb on the thermometer and watch the red line rise. It hits 75. I go back inside and help Christina finish the dishes. Grandma returns to the kitchen.

Five minutes before one, I hang up my dishtowel and check the temp.

“It’s 75.” I grin.

“What?” Grandma says.

We look at each other—eyeball to eyeball—a cheater’s standoff.

After we get home from swimming, Grandma picks beans and cooks supper. We stay out of her way.

Shortly after five, Grandpa comes home. “Cora, I told you the raspberries needed picking.”

“Christina and I are doing that after supper,” I say. “We begged Grandma to let you teach us how to pick them.”

Grandma and I look at each other—eyeball to eyeball—a liar’s agreement.

She smiles first.

Corrine’s New Shoes

[In 2019, this short story won an honorable mention in the Indianhead Writers’ Contest in Northern Wisconsin. In June 2020, it was published as “Trinket” in Spring Thaw, a yearly journal published by Itasca Community College.]

Corrine stared at the tiny moccasins made of white, orange, brown, black, and turquoise beads. If they hadn’t been attached to a small beaded circle, she supposed she could’ve slipped them on the feet of her secondhand Barbie doll. Desire skulked in her brain. The tiny moccasins were displayed on the back counter in the classroom with other objects representing Native American culture, but she only wanted the moccasins. She bent over the bubbler for a drink of water, her right hand pushing the button and her left hand resting on the counter, dangerously close to the moccasins.

Mrs. Teasdale’s staccato voice interrupted her thoughts. Corrine returned to her desk, took out some unfinished work, and pretended to listen to her third-grade teacher. Her lungs stuttered as she tried to breathe. Her right hand held a pencil poised above a worksheet. Her left hand rested on the pocket of her dingy hand-me-down dress where she could feel the moccasins cocooned in its cotton folds.

Corrine shifted her head and looked at Nancy, the former owner of the moccasins. As Nancy moved her head from book to worksheet, her strawberry blond hair, cut in a sleek page boy and adorned with a bow, swayed. Shamed by Nancy’s hair, Corrine pushed back her pale red mop, trying to hide its uneven ends. She wanted to keep the moccasins.

Scotty walked up to Nancy, rested his hand on her back, and whispered in her ear. Nancy rose from her seat and strode to the back counter. Corrine bent over her worksheet and fought the urge to watch Nancy discover her moccasins were missing.

Corrine felt a draft as Nancy bolted by her, heading to Mrs. Teasdale’s desk. Corrine looked up and envied Nancy’s stylish dress accessorized with patent leather shoes, lacy anklets, and a sweater that didn’t look like an afterthought. Corrine tucked her feet as far under her chair as she could, hiding her baggy socks and shabby tennies. She didn’t think Nancy needed the darn moccasins.

Mrs. Teasdale moved to the front of the classroom and cleared her throat. Nancy stood next to her, a queen and her lady-in-waiting.

“Children,” Mrs. Teasdale began, “Nancy’s small beaded moccasins seem to be missing.”

Corrine tapped her fingers on the treasure in her pocket. There was no seeming about it.

Mrs. Teasdale rested her hand on Nancy’s shoulder. “Let’s all help her look for them.”

Corrine stood and joined the hunt. Eighteen third graders scurried about the room, looking under, over, around, behind, beneath, and between. Minutes passed.

“Children,” Mrs. Teasdale said, “please return to your seats.”

Eighteen third graders moseyed back to their seats, their eyes darting this way and that, each one still hoping to find Nancy’s moccasins. Corrine looked straight ahead on the way back to her seat.

“It appears Nancy’s trinket is gone,” Mrs. Teasdale said. “I don’t like to think one of you would’ve taken something that wasn’t yours. Nancy’s grandmother gave that to her.”

A sob escaped from Nancy, and tears trickled down her daintily-freckled face. Corrine shivered. She hadn’t anticipated Nancy would care about something so small when she had so much.

“I’m going to wait until 2:30,” Mrs. Teasdale said, “and if Nancy’s trinket isn’t back, I’m going to search desks and pockets.”

Corrine looked at the teacher who scanned the room, meeting each student’s eye. The teacher stared at her longer than anyone else. Corrine looked down. Her cheeks burned, highlighting the clumsy freckles splattered across her face.

“Get back to work, class,” Mrs. Teasdale said. Nancy picked up her pencil; it quivered in her hand. Corrine picked up her book and pretended to read. She worked on an exit plan.

At lunchtime Mrs. Teasdale lined up the students in the hall, watching them. She marched them to the lunchroom. Corrine saw her teacher whisper to the playground monitor, who turned her bird-like face and gawked at Corrine.

Sitting alone, Corrine ate her peanut butter sandwich and apple. No sense going hungry just because she was holding stolen goods. She didn’t know what kind of supper would be waiting that night. She watched Nancy open her Barbie lunch box. Nancy nibbled on her sandwich and put it back. She ate a section of her peeled orange and put it back. She picked up a package of Twinkies but put it back. Nancy was too upset to eat. Corrine considered asking her for the Twinkies but decided the moccasins were enough. She put her empty baggie and apple core inside her paper bag.

At recess Nancy didn’t play. She sat on the edge of a concrete planter. Girls from their class sat next to her or stood in front of her. Corrine stood behind some of the girls. It was important to appear sympathetic, but she kept turning to watch the boys play kickball. When the bell rang, Nancy rose and flanked by girls on each side, she walked into the school. Corrine tagged along.

When she entered the classroom, Nancy started to cry. Girls rushed to her side, but the teacher cut them short, “Children, take your seats.”

The drama amused Corrine.

“I hoped when we returned from lunch, Nancy’s trinket would be on the back counter,” Mrs. Teasdale said.

Hope in one hand and spit in the other and see which one fills up first,Corrine thought, modifying and censoring one of her father’s favorite sayings.

“How would one of you feel if someone took a present your grandmother gave you?” Mrs. Teasdale said. Her eyes bored down on Corrine.

Corrine wanted to ask when she was supposed to have put it back, but she gave Mrs. Teasdale her best I’m-listening-to-everything-you-say-because-you’re-such-a-wonderful-teacher look.

“Remember, if Nancy’s item isn’t back by 2:30, I’m going to search pockets and desks. Get your reading books out.”

Nancy read Charlotte’s Web. Her eyes were red from crying, but Corrine knew she wasn’t crying because the farmer wanted to butcher Wilbur.

Corrine read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Mike Teavee, the last of the spoiled, greedy children, was expelled from the factory. Only Charlie, kind and honest, was left. Mr. Wonka pronounced Charlie his new heir. How nicea whole candy factory! Her fingers traced the tiny moccasins in her pocket.

At two o’clock, Mrs. Teasdale announced it was time for afternoon recess. Desktops clattered as books were put away. The children, waiting to be dismissed, simmered in their seats. Corrine had decided.

She walked up to the teacher and whispered, “I’d like to stay in and look for Nancy’s trinket.” Corrine’s hands, interlaced, rested on her dress. She could feel the tiny moccasins against the inside of her wrist.

“Why, Corrine, that’s very nice of you,” Mrs. Teasdale said, arching an eyebrow.

Corrine’s face twitched.

“Okay, children, we’re going out for recess. But Corrine has offered to stay inside and look for Nancy’s moccasins.”

All of the children looked at Corrine. Scotty elbowed the boy next to him. They looked at one another and smirked.

Corrine glared at Mrs. Teasdale then looked at Nancy.

Lined up side by side, all of the children followed Mrs. Teasdale out of the room. Nancy was the last one in the girls’ line. She turned back, and her hair swirled like a square dancer’s skirt. She glanced at Corrine who stood in the center of the room. Scotty, who’d lined up next to Nancy, took hold of her hand as they left the classroom.

Corrine was alone. She turned around, surveying the room. On her second turn, she spotted the cabinet doors under the counter that once held the moccasins. The plumbing for the sink was inside those doors. She opened the cabinet and looked at the pipe running from the sink into the back wall. The scant half-inch gap between the pipe and the wall cinched it. She slid her hand into her pocket and pulled out Nancy’s trinket. Corrine had enjoyed owning the tiny moccasins. She looked at them one last time. Her Barbie would have to go barefoot.

She slipped them into the gap next to the pipe and closed the cabinet door.

After recess, when Mrs. Teasdale led her students back into the classroom, Corrine was standing in the center of the room.

“Did you find them?” Mrs. Teasdale asked.

“No,” Corrine answered. She crossed her arms over her chest. Her dress pockets, turned inside out, waved like two white flags.

Marlon Dabrowski and His Dreamy Coffee Bean Eyes

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

“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.


[“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. In 2022, Tossed was a finalist in the Summer 2022 WOW Flash Fiction Contest. Sixty finalists were chosen from 292 entries.]

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.