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THE GLASS MARBLE

M.E. PROCTOR

It isn’t my first trip to the vice principal’s office. I’m a repeat offender. Today, I sinned against safety. I slinked away during the fire drill and dove behind the gym for a smoke. I doubt Ms. Moore appreciates the irony.

            “I need to see the contents of your backpack, Daniel.”

            “What?”

            She never searched my backpack before.

            She watches me unzip the front pocket and extract the pack of cigarettes and the lighter. They’ll go in her desk drawer with the rest of the confiscated contraband. She doesn’t reach for the evidence of my crime, and stares, one neatly drawn eyebrow raised. She wants a full confession. Just like in the paper I wrote for history class, an essay on the struggle sessions conducted during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Madame Vice Principal as Political Commissar.

            “We were out there, doing nothing. I figured I had time for a quick one.” She keeps staring at me. “I don’t smoke much.” As if that would make a difference.

            “The backpack.” 

            She stands behind the desk. She isn’t tall but what she lacks in height she makes up in glacial righteousness. She points at the backpack and mouths: Now.

            What does she expect to find? Weed? I don’t touch that stuff. Grandma would skin me alive. Dad wouldn’t tolerate it either, even if he lights up a joint when the prospect of going back to the rig gets to him. When the echo of the storms in the Gulf churn in his head.

            The books come out first. Then notebooks and pads, a dog-eared Dashiell Hammett paperback, pens and pencils, a blue bandana, green-stained garden gloves – I stuffed them in there yesterday after the job in Clear Lake – three golf balls, and the big blue glass marble. I reach to pick it up and hold back at the last moment. My most precious possession.

            The pathetic flotsam of my life is exposed on Ms. Moore’s desk. Can she tell who I am from the debris, like a medical examiner doing an autopsy can tell what the victim had for dinner?

            She checks that all the compartments are unzipped, and upends the backpack. Two paperclips fall out with puffs of lint and fine sand. I think my disgrace is complete but I’m wrong.

            “Empty your pockets.”

            One look at her and I know protesting will only make it worse. Phone, wallet – eight dollars, two quarters – and crumpled tissues. We’re both standing, and I tower over her. I watch her fan the pages of my books and notebooks. A white envelope falls out of Cicero’s Orations.

            Lily’s envelope.

            Ms. Moore opens it and runs a lacquered nail through the bills. It makes an insectile sound, the chirr of a cricket. “Where does the money come from?”

            “My job.”


***


            I was up in the bleachers at lunch time, munching on a sandwich, when Lily came up the steps.

            “They don’t like people eating here,” she said.

            “I can’t stand the cafeteria. It’s a zoo. Want my apple?”

            She shook her head. “I came to give you this.” She fished an envelope from her leather messenger bag.

            “It can wait, Lil.” Her small hand with the nail-bitten fingers holding the unsealed envelope made me cringe.

            “No, it can’t. Take it.”

            “I’m sure you can use the money.”

            “Please, Danny. I want us to be friends.”

            “We are friends.”

            “Friends like before.” She pushed the envelope in my hand. “Now we can be us again.”

            I couldn’t put words on it, but I understood. “You want to catch a movie Saturday?”

            She smiled. “I’ll pick you up. Unless you have something against being driven by a girl.”

            “I think it’s sexy.”

            She gave me a quick kiss on the mouth and bounded down the steps, long legs flying. She paused at the bottom, turned to me. “You still have the marble?”

            “Sure.”

            “It was cold when you gave it to me, then it got warm in my hand, you know?”

            Like a low fire. Life inside.

            “Thank you for letting me borrow it that night.”

            “You could have kept it.” I meant it.

            She flashed that half-smile that stabs me in the chest. “Oh no, it can’t be away from you too long.” And she disappeared behind the bleachers.

            Four months ago Lily was bawling on my shoulder convinced her life was over. What was she to do, she desperately wanted to know. What she did was stupid. And she didn’t love the guy. Just a little drunk on a beach under a starry sky… everybody did it. She was angry at herself through the tears. She wouldn’t tell me who the asshole was.

            I told one of my buddies from the garden maintenance crew that I got in a jam with a girl and he pointed me in the right direction. With a scowl. Danny, I thought you were smarter than that. It wasn’t my place to explain the situation. It wasn’t my story.

            Three hundred bucks to make the problem go away. My entire savings account.

            I gave Lily my good luck marble. She needed it more than I did that night. I sat in her car in the parking lot of a squalid strip mall, waiting for her to come out of a shuttered shop, fearing for her, for what was being done to her. I remembered all the prayers I thought I had forgotten.


***


            “It’s no use lying, Daniel,” Ms. Moore says. “Mr. Romero saw you breaking into the lockers during the fire drill.”

            “That’s bullshit!”

            She slams both hands on the desk, and the golf balls start rolling. I let them tumble, but I catch the marble. I nestle it in the bandana.

            “He can’t have seen me, because I didn’t do it.”

            “He described a tall boy dressed in black with a hoodie.”

            “Half the school dresses that way. I didn’t steal that money, Ms. Moore.”

            “You broke into a locker last year. You got off with a one-week suspension. This is much worse, Daniel.”

            She’s getting on my nerves, calling me Daniel all the time. “I got into Maynard’s locker to retrieve what’s mine. He’s the thief, not me.” Maynard took the marble. To mock me, calling me a sniffling baby crying for his shiny toy.

            She makes a show of picking up the phone. If it’s an attempt to scare me, it’s pretty lame. She dials a number.

            “Ms. Boudreaux? Julie Moore, Daniel’s high school vice principal. He’s in my office. It’s serious.” She listens, says yes, then thank you and hangs up. “Your grandmother is coming.”

            The sounds of the school reach us muffled. Distant bells, laughter, a thousand feet walking, shuffling, running. A phone rings in the admin assistant’s office. Ms. Moore takes files out of drawers, makes notes with a red pencil. I haven’t done anything wrong. Nan will see this show for the humiliation it is. Time drips. Minutes creep.

            A knock at the door and the admin peeks in. “Ms. Boudreaux is here.”

            Nan shoots me a glance. She shakes Ms. Moore’s extended hand and I see the vice principal wince.

            “What happened?” Straight to the point. My grandmother isn’t the patient kind.

            “Let’s all sit down. I apologize for asking you to come, Ms. Boudreaux, but we have a situation. And in the absence of the boy’s father…”

            Nan waves the snide comment aside.

            “Daniel was seen breaking into lockers. Money was taken.” Ms. Moore holds the white envelope. “Three hundred dollars. I have to call the police, but I wanted to talk to you first.”

            Nan has an impressive talent for stillness and an infinite capacity for silence. I know better than interrupting the process. Ms. Moore doesn’t.

            “Daniel…” she starts.

            Nan holds up a hand. She turns to me. “What do you have to say?”

            “I didn’t do it.” Living with Nan, I’ve learned to make my point and shut up. Long-winded arguments irritate her.

            “Who saw Danny take the money?”

            The vice principal explains that Romero, the assistant football coach, surprised a thief vandalizing lockers. It happened during the fire drill. He described the boy who ran away. The two kids who used the lockers said money was missing.

            “I don’t accuse Daniel lightly, Ms. Boudreaux. The description fits and nobody saw your grandson during the drill. And we have this envelope.”

            Nan gives me a chance to tell my story and I confess to leaving the assembly point to go smoke a cigarette. Nobody saw me. I’m just a little too good at slipping away.

            “How much money do these kids say is missing?”

            Ms. Moore shrugs. “They’re not sure.”

            Nan opens the envelope and lays the bills on the desk. Three fifties, three twenties, five tens, six fives and ten ones. “Are you telling me, Ms. Moore, that these kids don’t remember having fifty-dollar bills? This is some posh school you’re running.”

            The vice principal blushes and color spreads from her cheeks to her neck.

            “How often have you met President Grant, Danny?” Nan’s eyes twinkle.

            “I’m more familiar with good ole George.”

            Nan gathers the bills and brings them up to her nose. “L’argent n’a pas d’odeur. Not true. Smell this, Ms. Moore.”

            The vice principal is reluctant, but she leans over. “I don’t smell anything. A bit waxy maybe.”

            “It’s the scent of bills recently printed. Bills that have not lived yet. Not what you expect to find in the pockets of teenagers. You should find out how much was taken from these kids. Don’t tell them how much you got.”

            That hits a nerve. “I know how to handle this, Ms. Boudreaux.”

            Nan backtracks semi-diplomatically. “Of course you do, dear.”

            Ms. Moore goes to check on things. At the door, she pivots on her sensible heels. “It doesn’t explain how Daniel got that money.”

            “That’s between Danny and me,” Nan says.

            My grandmother is a retired New Orleans cop. She always manages to make me talk. This time, however, I won’t squeal.

            “Pick up your things.” I start filling the backpack and pick up the golf balls. “What are those for?”

            “Recovery from the country club. People buy them.”

            She whistles. “Enterprising. That’s how you got the three hundred dollars, one golf ball at a time?” She’s kidding. She knows how much the lawn jobs pay. “Are you going to come clean, Danny?”

            “It’s my money.”

            “Shouldn’t it be in the bank? You have a purchase in mind?”

            I pocket the glass marble. “I can’t tell you, Nan. It isn’t my secret.” I look her straight in the eye. “I’m honor-bound.” It sounds ridiculous. It’s the truth, though.

            She points at my pocket. “Je vois que tu as gardé le calot.”

            The old word for the big marble. Nan never uses words lightly. She believes in their power, their magic. Just like I believe in an iridescent glass orb with a cobalt-blue star captured in it. We’re a little strange, us Boudreaux, clinging to ancient words and glass baubles.

            “C’est tout ce qui reste.” The marble kept me safe on that freaky escape from the sinking city. The night of my nightmares, five years ago. When Mom’s hand slipped off mine in the dark. The calot was there, sparkling in the uncertain glow of Dad’s flashlight, shaken out of some crack, rolling on the tilting floor of the attic, as if running after Mom. My hand shot out, and I caught it.

            It’s all that’s left of the house in Gentilly. As hard as the memories. Blue as the hope of a bright day.

            Nan scolds gently. “Don’t say that. We have each other. Let’s go home. Your dad called, he’s on his way.”

            I’m aware of Dad’s schedule. “He’s not due for another week.”

            “They evacuated the rigs today,” Nan says. “A precaution.”

            She doesn’t have to explain. My fingers close on the glass marble deep in my pocket.

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