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.]

Mesmerized, 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 disk, Corrine 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 Corrine 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 heart beat wildly and 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 tiny moccasins cocooned in its cotton folds.

Corrine shifted her head and looked at Nancy, the former owner of the tiny moccasins. Nancy worked diligently. As she moved her head from book to worksheet, her strawberry blond hair, cut in a sleek page boy and adorned with a small red bow, swayed. Shamed by Nancy’s swaying hair, Corrine pushed back her pale red mop, trying to hide its uneven ends. I might just keep those tiny moccasins, Corrine thought.

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 tiny moccasins were missing.

Corrine felt a draft as Nancy bolted by her on the way to Mrs. Teasdale’s desk. Corrine looked up and envied Nancy’s clean, stylish dress accessorized with patent leather shoes, pink anklets with lacy trim, 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, white anklet socks and her soiled tennies. She certainly doesn’t need those damn 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, Corrine thought.

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

No seeming about it.

“Let’s all help Nancy look for her trinket,” Mrs. Teasdale continued.

Yes indeed, let’s. I’m going to be such a good looker. Corrine stood and joined the hunt.

Eighteen third graders scurried about the room, looking under, over, around, behind, underneath, 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 tiny moccasins. Corrine looked straight ahead on the way back to her seat.

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

A sob escaped from Nancy. Corrine looked at her. Tears trickled down Nancy’s daintily-freckled face. Maybe she does need those moccasins. 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 red, highlighting the large clumsy freckles splattered across her face. I want those moccasins, she thought.

“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 the students up in the hall. She marched them to the lunchroom, watching them with a keen eye. Corrine saw Mrs. Teasdale whisper furtively with 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. She’s really upset about those tiny moccasins, Corrine thought. She put her empty baggie and apple core inside her brown paper bag and considered asking Nancy for her Twinkies. Well, maybe the moccasins are enough.

 At recess Nancy didn’t play. She sat on the edge of a large 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 back into the school. Corrine tagged along.

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

Such drama, Corrine thought.

“I’d really 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 bore down on Corrine.

Just when did you think someone was supposed to put it back? Looking at me isn’t going to make it reappear. 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 trinket isn’t back by 2:30, I’m going to search pockets and desks,” Mrs. Teasdale said. “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. Those moccasins must mean a lot to Nancy. I love my grandmother too.

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 nice, Corrine thought, a 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 spoke quietly.

“Mrs. Teasdale, instead of going out for recess, 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.

And why is that so surprising? Corrine thought.

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

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 and 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, slowly taking in the room. On her second turn, she spotted the cabinet doors under the counter that once held the tiny 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 Nancy’s trinket into the slender 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 across her chest. Her dress pockets were turned inside out, waving like two white flags.

Silent Negotiations

[“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.]

“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.

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

[“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.]

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.