The Luxury of Time

Margaret groped crusty tissues, two prescription bottles and a Katherine Porter novel to find her tortoiseshell frames. She knew the time of day only by the color of her bedroom; the angle of the sun hit different parts of the color-blocked curtains at different times of day. Orange meant early morning. Candace would need feeding and William will want breakfast when he comes home from his shift, but Margaret continued floating on the island of her mattress.

 

The diner was dark except for the green neon glow of jukeboxes peering from every tabletop. A woman stared at her across a row of cherry red booths, her hair pinned up so a single russet curl fell perfectly above her eyes. She smoked a cigarette as if she were thumbing through a magazine. The absence of waitstaff behind the long counter unsettled Margaret as she strode to join the woman who so obviously expected her. She wished the blinds in the windows were open, even knew it only looked out onto a parking lot and an expressway. Margaret heard the plugging sound of lips on cigarette.

“Well, someone call the press,”—plumes of smokes rose to the speckled ceiling as the woman spoke—“Miss Maggie Jane is in a place that serves Spam.”

“What do you mean? I eat Spam all the time.”

“Not out in public, you don’t. And you hide it behind the orange juice in the refrigerator as soon as you pull it out of the grocery sack.”

“How could you possibly know that?”

“Mothers know things.” After she said it, the shadows on the woman’s face fluttered like moths’ wings and Margaret recognized the curve of chin and the Jayne Mansfield-inspired eyebrows of the mother she’d only seen in photographs. In the silence after the woman’s quip, Margaret heard someone talking, the voice—a young woman’s—muffled by the closed metal swinging doors. A sign of life just beyond this room.

“You aren’t anyone’s mother,” Margaret said. There was a plate of French fries in front of her, but she couldn’t remember ordering or seeing a waitress deliver it.

“Boo hoo, missy. You know, there’s a reason why you only hear children saying “No fair” when the world doesn’t give them what they want.” The woman’s patent leather purse strap fell off her shoulder as she talked. Margaret watched her shake salt into her chocolate milkshake and stir it with her straw.

Maggie couldn’t taste her food; she was too distracted by the eerie quiet of the restaurant. No meat sizzling on a grill, no whir of a refrigerator engine, not even an Elvis song coming from one of the jukeboxes. The only sounds were the woman’s interjections whenever she took a sip of her milkshake—mmm. They grew louder the more of it she drank. Mmmm. MMM-mmm. By the time the milkshake was gone Margaret was relieved the diner was empty because the woman’s enjoyment verged on sounding sexual. The woman plucked several fries from Margaret’s plate, popping them in her mouth, all the while maintaining eye contact. The moans turned into half-screams as she chewed, subtle vowels entered the sounds. When the woman clearly screamed “Mommy,”  Margaret rolled her eyes, but then felt remorse when she grabbed Margaret’s hand and started bawling.

 

 

Margaret’s bedroom shined red, and on the other side of the door a man’s voice lilted above her daughter’s whimpering. The smell of William’s Brylcreem already permeated their small flat. She found her glasses resting on the duvet next to her hand and returned them to the nightstand. She picked up one of the prescription bottles and sprinkled a few over the duvet, careful not to make a sound. Her legs kicked off the sheets and blankets and her arms flung out to her sides, one hand still holding the bottle. She closed her eyes and waited for William to open the door.

The door finally creaked open a sliver, and then immediately closed. She heard William pick Candace up from her crib and walk into the kitchen. She opened her eyes again to the sizzling of bacon in a frying pan.

Foreshortening

It started with Stella Atkinson’s skirt. On the first day of school, she walked straight to the first desk in my art classroom with a two-inch black panel hanging like an afterthought at the end of her hem. I had her march right back into the corridor.

“Stella, your skirt violates dress code.”

“I’m sorry, Miss Wheatland.” Her cheeks reddened as she spoke. “I had a growth spurt over the summer. Mother did the best she could.”

“Well, why on earth didn’t she take you to Jessop’s for another?”

Stella’s eyes fell to the speckled gray tile of the classroom. When she brought her eyes back up from the ground, they didn’t go any higher than my chin. I noticed a stitched-up tear on the shoulder of her white blouse.

“Daddy says people will always need food. It’s only temporary.”

I understood. Atkinson’s Grocery, southern California’s grocery franchise and Stella’s family’s business, was usually full to brimming with neighbors chatting about produce and cuts of meat. But that all changed. The aisles had grown quiet. I was convinced on my last visit that I had entered one of those “other dimensions” the pulp magazines were always writing about. Instead of people, cans of soup and cantaloupe occupied the aisles. The bins of vegetables were stacked higher than I was tall. The newspaper said that grocery stores were experiencing a surplus of goods on account of the stock market crash a few years ago. People just weren’t shopping there anymore, and the white collar business owners here in Whittier, California, began to feel the repercussions of what the newspapers call “the Great Depression.”

“I see. It’s fine, Stella. Go back to your desk and sketch the still-life I’ve set up.” I smoothed down my own plaid dress, folded a pleat in my favorite cotton cardigan.

Later, I broached the subject in the teacher’s salon. We discussed the little things they’d noticed. Miss Frankenfield said she’d started turning a blind eye to the students grabbing third and fourth servings during luncheon, and Mr. Petty told us of Norman Reilly, the student whose family pulled him from school without notice.

“It’s probably best if we relax the rules until the situation improves, Ruth,” Mrs. Grassell whispered as we walked back to class together.

Relaxing the rules proved easy as 1933 progressed. The dress code violations became too numerous to enforce, so we focused on other things: the talent of this year’s tennis team or Dorothy Gibbons’s prize science project. We let the signs of the Great Depression recede into the background. I thought about that on the day I taught my students about foreshortening– the illusion of objects receding from our perspective.

This is my submission to mocavo.com’s My Story writing contest in which I won first place!