Literary Hook: Runner-up is a 'Pearl' of Wisdom

This week’s column features a runner-up in The Rock River Poetry and Prose Contest held this year. You’ve probably heard the expression, “Out of the mouths of babes.” This story illustrates that saying. We liked its clarity, its sparse details, the simple but poignant dialogue, and its message: Grown-ups, be careful. Kids recognize hypocrisy when they see it.

“Pearl in a Foul Oyster World” by Phyllis Warady of Green Valley, Calif., is a short story written in first person from the view of a mother teaching her young son the difference between borrowing and stealing. In the process, she learns a lesson herself.

‘Pearl in a Foul Oyster World’

“You found it, Kevin?” Doubtful eyes combed the gold Stingray bicycle. “Where?”

“At school.”

Kevin squinted up at me from where he rested on his haunches while he worked to loosen a bolt with his grandfather’s wrench. “You’ve got it all wrong, Mom. Nobody wants it. If they did, they wouldn’t have left it laying around the school ground for days.”

“You may be right,” I conceded. “Just the same, I want you to take it back. Immediately.”

“Gee, Mom, do I have to? After all the work I’ve done?”

“Bikes are expensive, son. It has to belong to someone.”

“You think that because it’s beginning to look like something. You didn’t see it when it was all wrecked out. Seat hanging off. Sissy bars loose. Please, Mom, can’t I keep it?”

“The fact remains, it’s not your property. Don’t you see, taking what doesn’t belong to you is stealing.”

“Stealing?” Angry tears squeezed from the corners of large smoke-grey eyes. “But Mom, I didn’t steal it. I found it!”

His lips set in a grim, determined line. Everything about my 7-year-old son struck me as stubborn. Even his hair. It grew in clumps that kept popping up every which way—no matter how often it was brushed into a smooth line.

“Kevin, you’ll have to make an honest effort to find out who that bike belongs to.”

Renewed hope flickered in his eyes. “You mean if I turn this bike in to lost and found, and nobody claims it, I get to keep it?”

“If it works out that way, yes.”

“Oh, boy!”

His grin the epitome of jaunty exuberance, Kevin whistled as he wheeled the bike off toward the school. My heart went out to him. He truly believed the owner of the bike wouldn’t claim it. But the odds were against it.

A few nights later, Kevin sought me out.

“Um,” I said, “you smell like soap.”

“‘Course I do. Just took a shower.” He frowned. “You know, Mom, I’ve been thinking.”

“About the bike?” It had been reclaimed soon after Kevin turned it in.

“Yes, but about other things, too.”

“Oh? What other things?”

“That bathmat beside the tub. The one you took from the motel where we stayed last summer. I’ve been thinking over what you said the other day, Mom, and I don’t think it was such a good idea.” Kevin spoke hesitantly, watching my facial expression with trepidation as though he were walking a tightrope, and one false step would send him tumbling.

“What I mean is, in a way, it’s like me taking the bike.”

Stunned, I stared at him fresh and clean, his stubborn mop of hair still damp from his shower. I choked back a startled laugh.

He’s only a kid. How dare he presume to judge me?

His mother. Everyone collected souvenirs, didn’t they? In all likelihood, the motel hadn’t missed the bathmat. Or if they had, they’d deducted it from their income taxes.

A searing light from on high pierced my flabby defense. Did I consider myself an exception to the values I struggled to instill in Kevin?

“I’ll bet,” he continued, in a tone of kindly understanding, “you never thought taking that bathmat was stealing, did you, Mom? Just like I didn’t think bringing home a wrecked-out bike was either.”

Because he took such infinite care not to hurt me any more than necessary for my own good, I forgave the trace of triumph in his voice.

“You’re right,” I admitted, once I’d managed to swallow a painful obstruction at the base of my throat. “I should never have taken that bathmat. It wasn’t my property. Guess I talked myself into it like you did that bike.”

Kevin’s face reflected profound relief, as though at last he had it all sorted out. “That’s what I thought, Mom.”

I reached down and gave him a quick hug, acutely conscious that the day would soon come when Kevin would feel too grown-up to allow it.

Christine Swanberg is a local author and poet who has written several books of poetry and formerly wrote a column called “The Writer’s Garret” for this newspaper.

From the Oct. 25-31, 2006, issue

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