Joe and Pearl sat on either side of the kitchen table, a crystal ball between them.
“Can you get that thing to work?” Joe said, pointing his chin at the crystal, which rested on a small pile of black velvet cloth in the middle of the chipped enamel tabletop.
Just like a man, Pearl thought, pushing a lock of wavy hair out of her eyes. To think the power was located in an object that worked or didn’t. She thought of the crystal as a tool for clearing and sharpening the mind. Then she might see something. It might be in the crystal, or in her head, or in her dreams. Once, daydreaming, she saw the truth in the dishwater. It was about her mother’s recovery from pneumonia, and she was able to reassure her. Pearl had seen her humming in her garden, and by the size of the hedge and the gray in her mother’s hair had known she was seeing the future, not the past.
But Joe’s question was not about that kind of truth. Joe was out of work. When he worked, he was a crackerjack mechanic, but recurrent back spasms had forced him to quit another job, and Joe was not even asking the crystal any more about the outcome of his workman’s comp claim, which had always been murky, hidden from Pearl. Pearl knew what he was asking. Back when they had been dating, Pearl had correctly predicted the daily number, and Joe had won $250, which they had spent on a steak and shrimp dinner and a long night out dancing. That was before the baby came and they had to give up long nights out.
The baby, now seven, was a wiry, sun browned reed of a kid, with honey highlights in her straight dark hair and a mischievous glint that could yield instantly to an innocent poker face. She was asleep on the pullout couch near where her parents sat.
That couch, like the kitchen table and chairs, was a hand-me-down from Pearl’s cousin. Pearl was glad to have them. Since Vicky had outgrown her crib, there had not been the money to buy her a little girl’s suite of furniture. Anyway, there was no room in the apartment for that kind of thing. The kitchen ran straight into the bedroom, divided into a living room area only by the presence of the loveseat on which Vicky slept facing the kitchen table, so its back could give her parents some privacy in their bed. Some, not much. Vicky was a light sleeper.
The apartment itself was a sort of hand-me-down. An illegal fourth apartment in a three-family house owned by Pearl’s aunt and uncle, it was one big room in the basement, next to the room that held the coal furnace and the coal. There was a door that closed to the furnace room, thank God because it was dusty, and a door that closed to the tiny bathroom, and that was that. Outside the bathroom was an old-fashioned tin washtub, people-sized. It served as a bathtub with water Pearl heated in a pot. There had been an invitation to use the bath upstairs, but Pearl did not know how long they would have to stay in the basement, and although the invitation had been sincere, she was apprehensive about wearing out their welcome. She and Vicky took baths in the tub. Joe washed up in the bathroom or went to his mother’s for a shower. She lived closer than Pearl’s mother, but she never invited Pearl to take a shower, and Pearl’s mother had, as Pearl said, “her own problems.”
Vicky stirred, kicking a skinny foot, then was still again almost immediately. Pearl glanced over her shoulder at the girl, who seemed to be asleep, and couldn’t help smiling as she looked back at her husband.
Vicky was the image of the thin man sitting across from her. She even tried to dress like him, in a white t‑shirt with a long-sleeve flannel shirt over it, open. But her one flannel shirt was several years old and she had so outgrown it that she could hardly move her arms, even when it was open. Pearl let her keep it anyway. She only hoped she wouldn’t grow up to fix cars and smoke cigarettes like her father.
Joe was trying to quit. He relit a cigarette he had smoked part way earlier. He was cutting down, and good thing, cigarettes were an expensive habit. His cough had gotten better, the cough that sometimes sent his back into spasms. Maybe his back would get better now. Maybe there would be a hidden blessing in all this. Pearl hoped.
She said, “I don’t know.”
Joe nodded. He looked at the counter, not that there was anything there, but his achy back made it more comfortable to sit with one leg crossed over the other, so he sat turned sideways, showing Pearl his profile, and looking toward her now and then.
Pearl followed his eyes to the counter and up to the curtains she had put on the small, ground-level windows. They weren’t necessary, the shrubs outside gave them enough privacy, but the curtains looked cheerful, and the windows didn’t let in that much light, anyway.
Pearl stood up. “Well, time to go to work.” She gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and his hand brushed her forearm as she walked past. Her shift at the store started at ten. She had taken the night shift because it paid a dollar an hour more, but as long as Joe was there to watch Vicky, it was worth it. When she got home, at six-twenty, Joe would wake, followed shortly by Vicky, and Pearl would go to sleep until noon. On school days, Joe would feed Vicky a bowl of cereal and walk her to her school, taking the lunch Pearl had packed the night before. On weekends, after their bowls of cereal, Joe would take Vicky out somewhere for the morning, usually to his mother’s. Sometimes, they would watch TV quietly in the apartment and Joe would make a real breakfast of pancakes and eggs and coffee. Pearl was a sound sleeper. She tried to work as many nights as possible, and the manager was sympathetic so he usually gave her six. Nobody else wanted them because the store had been robbed a couple of times.
Pearl wasn’t afraid of the store getting robbed, and she didn’t mind working alone and not being able to take breaks. She sat reading the magazines, radio on low. If she had to use the bathroom, she put up the sign that said, Back in Ten Minutes, with the clock hands indicating when that would be. This was one of those uneventful nights, and tomorrow, they would visit her mother. She was looking forward to that.
After her shift, it was a twenty-minute walk home, then back down the basement steps, through the coal cellar and into the apartment. Vicky sat at the table with Joe, peering into the crystal ball. It caught the light from the stove, where Joe had a flame going under the coffee pot.
“She’s trying to guess the numbers,” he said. In one hand was a short pencil. With the other he held a brown paper bag flat for writing on. Vicky was intent, elbows on the table, but she dislodged one hand from her temple to wave to her mother. Pearl nodded back, although Vicky didn’t look. She had probably been pretending to be asleep the previous night, Pearl thought, and now she had the crystal ball bug. Pearl didn’t mind.
“Has she been to bed?”
“Sure has. Garbage trucks woke her up early.”
“Had any luck?”
“She guessed my mother’s birthday on the nose.”
“Might have known that,” Pearl said, putting her purse down and kicking off her shoes. She gave Vicky a kiss on the top of the head and went into the bathroom.
Pearl came out ten minutes later in a nightgown, said, “I don’t want you doing that all morning.”
“Ohhhkayyyy,” Vicky said, sitting back from the crystal ball. She got up, gave her mother a hug around the waist, and went to the pullout couch, now folded up and covered with crayons and a coloring book.
“What have you got?” Pearl asked Joe.
“Bunch of numbers to play later on.” He showed her what he had scrawled on the paper bag.
Pearl nodded. He stood up to give her a hug. Pearl returned it sleepily and headed for the bed. Vicky was a quiet child when bidden, something to feel lucky about. Pearl fell asleep wondering if they would really get lucky.
Joe was thinking about what they could get if they won some money. He wasn’t dreaming big, no house or car or big vacation. Just a few dollars to get them some things they needed. Pearl’s paycheck didn’t cover much, just the necessities and the few dollars they gave the aunt and uncle to cover the electricity they used. She and Vicky both needed new shoes. Vicky’s bicycle came from the Goodwill, but it was in good shape. She’d love to have a new doll, though. Anything new made her eyes light up. Joe could use a new bowling ball, but he’d take secondhand. His was shot. That was all. Just a few things. A little dinner out, maybe, nothing too expensive. They’d go to the diner, and Vicky would squirm through the meal just waiting for the sundae that came in the fancy tall dish with whipped cream and a cherry. For a skinny kid, she put food away. Pearl could get her hair done with the highlights she liked. She wasn’t a frivolous woman, but if Joe insisted, she would go. Normal things, that’s all, Joe thought.
Pearl’s mother’s own problems included a second husband who was nice enough but who’d married her because he was unable to support himself. She’d married him for the company, and that was all she’d got. Now the company was ailing with emphysema and phlebitis and diabetes and everything else that could make you a difficult case but not kill you right away. Not soon enough, was Pearl’s private opinion, although she had nothing against Burt except his uselessness and the expense of keeping him. He did some puttering in the garden before he got sick, but now Pearl’s mother waited on him hand and foot while he made stupid jokes in the hope that Pearl wouldn’t detest him. “Here comes Pearl, her price is above rubies.” Burt hadn’t been her stepfather. He’d only been married to her mother two years after living with her a few more and he was well aware of Pearl’s feelings. He had brought nothing to the marriage but the clothes on his back, a small social security check and a big appetite. He wrung her mother out taking care of him, and his prescriptions were eating into her limited savings.
Pearl thought Rose should put him in a senior home, but she didn’t want to do that.
“As long as I can take care of him, I will. I promised for better or for worse.”
“But you never got the better, so you don’t owe the worse.”
“Baby, I’d be so lonely without him. He really is a good friend since your father died.” Pearl’s father had been dead twelve years.
Pearl had to admit she never heard a complaint or an unkind word from him, and he always took the time to play cards or something with Vicky. She just worried about her mother. Rose wasn’t getting any younger at sixty-two. Pearl went to visit as often as she could, taking two buses with Joe and Vicky, carrying loaves of sticky cinnamon bread she’d baked the day before. She had to bring more than one because Vicky would eat almost a whole one herself, and no use explaining to the child it was for grandma, because grandma would offer it to her until it was gone. That was Rose. So Pearl baked two.
Joe held Vicky’s hand and Pearl held the cinnamon bread. Vicky would have liked to carry it, but she would have swung the plastic shopping bag into every fence for the five-block walk from the bus and knocked the loaves to pieces.
Pearl’s mother opened the screen with a faraway look in her eye. She was an older, frailer version of sturdy, ruddy Pearl.
“Hi Mom, everything all right?”
She and Joe and Vicky filed into the neat little front yard, shut the gate of the picket fence behind them and went up the wooden stairs. Rose gave them each a hello hug.
“I’m all right, honey. It’s Burt I’m worried about.”
They followed her into the kitchen where the coffee was already made in the percolator, and sat down at the table. She had set five places for coffee, or in Vicky’s case, milk.
“Where is he?” Pearl asked knowing that Burt usually waited five or ten minutes before joining them, to let them say their hellos, he said.
“He’s in the garage. Honey, I’m so worried. He’s been so depressed lately, because of his health, you know. He said I should think about putting him in Mother of Mercy, but I just couldn’t. And he’s really not much trouble.”
Pearl held her tongue, although she knew full well how much trouble Burt was. His recliner and TV were moved to the garage for the warm months, so he could breathe better. That meant twice as many steps for Rose every time he wanted something.
Pearl cut a slice of bread for Vicky and spread butter on it. Joe took a slice, as well.
“Sorry to hear that,” Joe said.
“Yeah, I want to see Grandpa Burt. I want to play checkers,” Vicky said, stuffing her mouth with cinnamon bread.
“Grandpa Burt will come out later,” Rose said, pushing a bowl of grapes toward the girl. Vicky wrinkled her nose at them.
“Well, what are you going to do?” Pearl finally said.
“Just hope he comes out of it. He did last time. As soon as he felt a little better.”
Pearl thought, but did not say, that sooner or later, he would stop feeling better.
The atmosphere had grown unaccountably strained. Rose, waiting to hear Burt’s step. Her emotional state affected the whole house, always had. Pearl’s father used to say she could worry up a storm. Grandpa Jerry, Pearl thought, except that he had not had the chance to meet Vicky or she him.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen to him,” Rose said, picking at her cinnamon toast in a forlorn way.
“He’s going to kill himself,” Vicky said, matter-of-factly, a sticky brown ring of cinnamon around her mouth. Her voice, a loud chirp, carried a good distance.
“Vicky! Don’t say things like that. You’ll hurt Grandma’s feelings,” Pearl said, more shocked than angry. “Where does she come up with these things?”
“I saw it in the crystal ball,” Vicki insisted.
“She doesn’t know what she’s saying,” Joe said, buttering a second slice of bread in the hope that it would keep Vicky quiet. “Come on, munchkin, I know where Grandpa Burt keeps the checkers.” Vicky followed him to the living room, clutching the sticky slice of bread and still chewing the last bite of the previous one.
Rose didn’t seem overly upset. She smiled the slow half-smile that meant she was taking her Xanax. In slow motion, her expression relaxed as she heard Burt approach.
They could hear Burt making his way from the garage to the kitchen. His walk was slower than last week, and his breathing was labored.
Rose could hear it, too. “Doctor wants to give him an oxygen tank, but Burt doesn’t want it. Do you think he would use it if I just went ahead and let them bring one? It’s covered,” she added, knowing what Pearl was thinking.
Pearl had indeed been wondering what that was going to cost. “I don’t know, Mom. You know him better than I do.” She wanted to say, ‘They must have oxygen tanks at Mother of Mercy.’ Again, she held her tongue. Pearl had listened when her mother advised her to marry a man who earned a decent living. Little good it had done her, but nobody could have predicted Joe’s back. When Burt moved in, and again when he proposed to Rose, Pearl had reminded her mother of that advice, but Rose had been happy to marry again. “You never know what is going to happen, anyway, honey,” Rose had said, meaning no one had expected hardworking Joe to be laid up, and at the same time implying there might be a miracle with Burt.
So, it was Pearl who had unwittingly provided the rationale for Rose to marry penniless Burt, Pearl who had wanted them to get their own place when they got married, or they would have lived with Rose all along. In some way, it was all Pearl’s fault, but how was it Pearl’s fault that Joe’s back had given out, forcing them to move to the basement of Rose’s sister’s house? By then, Burt had moved in and Rose had just a tiny spare room that had been Pearl’s bedroom, not nearly enough space for a family. Pearl had wanted to stay near her mother. She and Joe had had their eye on a house on the same street. That had to be postponed when Joe was injured, and then postponed again, when it didn’t seem his back was going to get any better. And Rose did not have the heart to throw Burt out, even to make room for her daughter’s family. Instead, Rose had married Burt, and Pearl, Joe and Vicky had moved to the basement. Pearl still questioned the timing of Burt’s proposal.
And now my mother is like a rag doll, so worn out, Pearl thought. She can hardly stand up. There were so many things she wanted to tell her mother, tears to cry that were for Rose’s shoulder only, worries about Joe, about Vicky, about all three of them in that basement, breathing coal dust all winter, and about the second child Pearl wanted that there was no time or money to have, but how could she burden Rose with more problems, when Rose had enough of her own?
Burt finally made it to the kitchen. He held onto the door frame while Rose arranged a chair for him. Then, he collapsed heavily into it, wheezing.
“Hello Pearl,” he wheezed out.
“Hello Burt,” Pearl said. She didn’t mean for him to see the look on her face. It usually took him awhile, leaning forward on his hands and looking down, to catch his breath, after he came into a room. This time, though, he looked up at Pearl as soon as he sat down, and what he saw there made him look away.
“Beautiful weather,” Pearl said, trying to make up for that horrible moment.
Burt rallied, but his voice shook. “Rose’s garden is going to be something this year,” he said, unable to look at Pearl.
“Yes it will, thanks to all the work you did in the last few years,” Rose said, gaily, turned toward the counter, where she was putting some fruit in a bowl for Burt.
“Grandpa Burt!” Vicky called. She ran in and gave him a hug. “We’re playing checkers. Come and play.”
“Grandpa Burt has to rest,” Pearl said.
“Why don’t you bring the checkers in here?” Burt said. Vicky whirled away to get them.
Watching her, Pearl felt wretched. He might be a poor man, but he could still be a good man. Could she blame him for not wanting to die alone and poor? Could she blame him for making her mother a nursemaid and her daughter a ragamuffin? Stop it, Pearl told herself. Just stop.
Vicky came back, followed by Joe, who carried a folded-up cardboard checkerboard with the checkers inside.
“Here you go,” Joe said, putting them on the table in front of Vicky. “How you doing, Burt?”
“Well no point in complaining. I’m still here,” Burt said. “Red or black, Vicky?”
“Red. Can I go first?”
There wasn’t enough room at the table for the five of them and the checkerboard. Rose stood watching from in front of the sink, her face flushed.
“Show me around the garden?” Pearl asked.
“Yeah, go ahead,” Burt said.
“If you need me,” Rose began, but Burt shook his head.
“I’ll be right here,” Joe said, giving Pearl a look. He knew she wanted to be alone with Rose.
Pearl let out a breath it seemed she had been holding for ten minutes.
Ten minutes was the approximate amount of time Rose could stand leaving Burt alone in the kitchen, even with Joe.
“What do you do when he’s in the garage?” Pearl asked, picturing Rose running in and out of there every few minutes.
“I usually just sit with him, unless I’m doing something else. I don’t like to leave him alone.”
Alone. Certain words become so fraught with meaning that it is impossible to use them in everyday speech any more.
Pearl’s father had died alone in the house while Rose was out shopping. He mowed the lawn with the old push mower then had a massive heart attack in the shower. He crawled out into the hallway trying to reach the phone, and was lying there when she returned with the groceries for supper. She still thought about it every time she bought chicken cutlets, and, because she had told the story often enough, so did Pearl.
“I’m sorry, Mom,” Pearl said, meaning for everything, including her resentment of the barely ten minutes alone with Rose.
“Life doesn’t always turn out the way you choose,” Rose said. “I’ll be all right.”
Back in the kitchen, Vicky had won a game of checkers.
“She cheats,” Joe said.
“I do no-ot,” Vicky wailed, obviously pleased.
“She’s one mean checker player, I’ll say,” Burt said.
Pearl managed a small, tired smile.
The bus ride home took three-quarters of an hour. That night was a work night for Pearl, a long night of remembering her mother’s weary face, and regretting that she had wished Vicky would be right about Burt, and worse, that she had let Burt see it, although she told herself over and over that wishing someone would die was not the same as killing him, had no power to harm.
There was a continual stream of people until two, then a few stragglers. Pearl was tired of counting out change from the register. Her feet hurt, and worry was no doubt killing her, soon she would have an ulcer and high blood pressure, not to mention heel spurs. Nights like this, she could understand why people might be tempted to steal, even to kill, because sometimes it seemed like the only thing between yourself and happiness was those few extra dollars you never seemed to have.
There would be only one. He would be Latino or Asian or white, or a combination, because that was this area. Young, because most of the customers were young at night, and Pearl didn’t want to suggest any personal characteristics that might have been, or not been, easily witnessed. Wearing? That was easy, what they all wore, baggy jeans, expensive sneakers you hardly saw. A sweatshirt with a hood. Gray, no, black. Facial hair? A goatee.
It would be a weeknight, or a quiet weekend. Too many people otherwise. Not the biggest money night, that would be too suspicious. Not the smallest, what would be the point?
Unlike some convenience stores, at this one Pearl was not required to put the money in a safe. The manager did that in the morning. So there might be a thousand dollars by morning. That would go a long way, but Pearl was too superstitious to count the money hers in advance. That led to getting prematurely attached to it, and that led to mistakes. Her father had taught her the rules of money as a young girl. He studied the racing sheet with Pearl looking over his shoulder. He had a job, but was always on the lookout for ways to bring in a little extra cash.
Daddy’s Pearl. What a thrill the day a horse with that name ran at Belmont. It ran third, and her father made a little money from the bet he had placed to please her.
Planning another “robbery,” Pearl sat on the counter doodling on a napkin, careful not to write words or draw anything like a knife or a gun. Tonight, or another night this week. She could almost feel her father’s hand on her shoulder, approving, but admonishing her to be careful.
There were no customers now. When the phone rang, she knew it was Joe.
“It’s about Burt.”
“On the way to the hospital.”
Pearl gritted her teeth. “How is she?”
“Cille went over there.” The upstairs aunt. “I said we’d be by as soon as you could.”
Pearl looked at the clock. Two hours. “Make sure Vicky…never mind.” She had been going to say, doesn’t think he killed himself. Vicky was asleep.
Heart pounding. Crumpling up the doodled-on napkin, plans for the robbery abandoned. Not now but soon they’d move to Rose’s house. Meantime, what to do for her in the next few weeks, not to seem in a hurry. Not to seem happy.
Head in hands, to provide a blank screen for the mind to think, when the door opens. Two young guys, twentyish, furtive but not dangerous. Pearl doesn’t need a crystal ball to foresee a couple of stolen six-packs, and a paid-for pack of cigarettes, ploy to get her to turn her back.
She rings up the cigarettes, gives change, doesn’t even look at the one slipping out the door. Don’t get yourself killed for a couple of bucks, the police detective had said to her when she described the suspect in the first robbery she reported. It ain’t even your money.
The two young men meet up outside. Laughing, rushing off to whatever the late hour promises, once you figure in the free beer.
Pearl smiles. It’s not happiness she feels, or at least not the mean-spirited kind that would come from gloating over Burt’s death. She feels the joy of two young animal bodies rushing off into the cool, dark dawn. She goes to the plate glass window to watch them jostling down the avenue like colts, like lambs, two animals she has only ever seen on TV. The stars are already invisible behind the blue fuzz of morning. She puts her forehead against the glass. The year in the coal cellar falls away, a hundred years and a hundred coal cellars fall away with their beaked weight of worry and sorrow. She is in the back yard, drinking a beer, smelling barbecue and rose bushes. She is thirty-four. Joe smiles and spears a steak on the grill.
There is a formica booth over by the ice cream counter. She sits with both hands in her lap, fingers intertwined, like at school.
Her relief comes in ten minutes early. It’s Elly. They went to the same high school, although they didn't know each other then.
“Go ahead,” Elly says. “I’ll punch you out at six.”
Pearl smiles and does not get up.
“What?” Elly asks.
“Can I have a sundae?”
Elly makes a vanilla sundae with syrupy strawberries, crushed pineapple and whipped cream. She gives Pearl two cherries.
Pearl eats, licks the spoon. Sunlight hits the plate glass window and her heart shimmers like a crystal. She sees herself walking home five minutes from now, giving Vicki a kiss, and Joe. Dressing to go to her mother’s. Giving Rose a hug. Making her breakfast. Sitting together over coffee.
Each sweet cold mouthful is another vision rich with promise, another problem dissolved like sugar on the tongue.
Ann Marie Amodeo lives in rural upstate NY and voted against fracking. Her short fiction has appeared in various journals and she is currently looking for a home for her post-apocalyptic novel.