Monday, August 08, 2011
Things We Do Not Talk About
A short story by Daniel A. Olivas
Alma López stole six marbles from Joshua Braun, the boy who lived across the street and who secretly loved Alma. This is how it happened: Joshua had to pee so he stood and ran to the bathroom. Alma was now all alone sitting at the rug’s edge in Joshua’s den staring at the large Tupperware container in front of her. She guessed that it held hundreds or even thousands of marbles. The late afternoon sun shone through the French doors making the marbles’ reds, greens, yellows, purples and oranges glisten like hard candy. Alma listened to Joshua pee. She looked around, once, twice, a third time. Alma closed her eyes, reached into the container and grabbed six marbles. She didn’t want to choose: Alma craved the randomness of the process. She shoved the marbles into her jeans pocket just as Joshua flushed. Alma opened her eyes and offered Joshua a broad smile as he trotted back into the den. Before Joshua could settle back onto the rug, Alma stood and said she needed to get home because it was almost dinnertime and her father would be angry if she didn’t help set the table. In truth, her house was empty and she would have to heat up leftover chicken posole that her father had picked up from Grand Central Market the day before. Alma’s father never got home before eight o’clock because of a lousy commute from downtown to Canoga Park. She liked her lie. It was perfect.
The six marbles would follow Alma all her life even as she traveled to Cornell where she majored in English literature, back to California for graduate school at UCLA, and finally settling in a small but conveniently located Santa Monica apartment once she landed a job at the city college on Pico Boulevard where she taught “Literature of the Bible” and “Images of Women in Literature.”
Alma wondered what happened to Joshua and whether he ever knew about the stolen marbles. He must have. Joshua kept track of everything because, as Alma remembered, he was more intelligent than anyone she knew, at that time. But they’d lost contact after Joshua’s family moved to Phoenix at the end of sixth grade. He wrote three letters to Alma but she never wrote back. Joshua finally gave up, heartbroken. Her father found the first discarded letter in the kitchen trashcan, retrieved it, and put it on Alma’s little desk. She threw it away, this time in the large trash bin at the side of the house. The other two letters met the same fate, safely tucked under other rubbish so that her father would not discover and salvage either one.
Alma kept the six marbles on a bed of blue velvet in a small wooden box she bought in Mexico City that summer’s vacation with her father. She chose the box—a large grinning skull carved onto its top—despite her father’s attempt to steer Alma to something a little less morbid. But no, Alma wanted that box. Period. She loved skulls, if love is the right word. Alma remembered the trip as uneventful, even a bit boring. She had wished that her mother could be with her and her father. By this time, Alma could barely remember what her mother’s voice sounded like. Alma’s father kept pictures of his late wife throughout the house so that Alma would remember her face. But it was her mother’s voice she missed most.
After teaching for four years, and after her father passed away leaving her some money, Alma decided to buy a small house not too far from her college. It was time. Alma’s father would have been proud of her, making this very grown-up decision, no need for a man to make her life complete.
When the movers came, Alma had already packed everything. It wouldn’t take long especially because the company had sent two very large and efficient young men. They looked like her students—tattoos, ear gages, all-knowing smirks—except with more muscle. The move went smoothly. Alma tipped them generously, something her father taught her when exposed to good service.
Alma unpacked slowly, no need to rush because she had the entire weekend ahead of her. She opened the first box, the one holding her old den’s knickknacks. Alma found the box that held the six marbles. She opened it, half expecting them to be gone, perhaps stolen by one of the movers when she stepped away to the bathroom for a minute. That would be ironic, wouldn’t it? But the marbles sat in the blue velvet, safe as ever. Alma closed the box and put it on the mantle of her rustic brick fireplace. There the box would sit, unopened, and moved only when Alma dusted.
Alma eventually became a full professor in the English Department, popular with her colleagues and students, alike. One evening, after hosting a visiting novelist on campus, she came home to find the front door ajar. Alma immediately regretted not getting a home alarm system. Her father would have been disappointed. She walked over to her neighbor, Scott, who would be having dinner with his partner, Jorge. Alma did not like Jorge. She thought him stupid. But she appreciated Scott for his love of literature and art.
Scott escorted Alma to her house, saying that it was probably fine, perhaps she’d forgotten to lock her door, that’s all. Scott always stayed calm. Jorge stayed behind to continue eating dinner, never offering to come along. This reinforced Alma’s negative view of him and she wondered why Scott tolerated such brutishness.
At this point of the story, you are likely thinking: Oh, Alma and Scott will go into the house and see that it has been burgled. And of course, the box holding the six marbles would be missing. And this event could be read as some sort of metaphor for this or that or the other thing. Because that is the way you have been taught to read short stories. But I will not give you that satisfaction. I have better things to do with my time. I really do. For example, my son wants me to go with him to buy some Chinese food for dinner. My wife is upstairs on the phone with a friend and wants us to get her usual: broccoli beef and steamed rice. If you feel cheated, get over it. Worse things happen in life.
[“Things We Do Not Talk About” first appeared in Pinstripe Fedora and is the title story of an unpublished collection of stories, essays and interviews.]