This weeks column features a runner-up in The Rock River Poetry and Prose Contest held this year. Youve 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?
Kevin squinted up at me from where he rested on his haunches while he worked to loosen a bolt with his grandfathers wrench. Youve got it all wrong, Mom. Nobody wants it. If they did, they wouldnt 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 Ive done?
Bikes are expensive, son. It has to belong to someone.
You think that because its beginning to look like something. You didnt see it when it was all wrecked out. Seat hanging off. Sissy bars loose. Please, Mom, cant I keep it?
The fact remains, its not your property. Dont you see, taking what doesnt belong to you is stealing.
Stealing? Angry tears squeezed from the corners of large smoke-grey eyes. But Mom, I didnt 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 wayno matter how often it was brushed into a smooth line.
Kevin, youll 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.
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 wouldnt 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, Ive 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. Ive been thinking over what you said the other day, Mom, and I dont 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, its 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.
Hes only a kid. How dare he presume to judge me?
His mother. Everyone collected souvenirs, didnt they? In all likelihood, the motel hadnt missed the bathmat. Or if they had, theyd 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?
Ill bet, he continued, in a tone of kindly understanding, you never thought taking that bathmat was stealing, did you, Mom? Just like I didnt 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.
Youre right, I admitted, once Id managed to swallow a painful obstruction at the base of my throat. I should never have taken that bathmat. It wasnt my property. Guess I talked myself into it like you did that bike.
Kevins face reflected profound relief, as though at last he had it all sorted out. Thats 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 Writers Garret for this newspaper.
From the Oct. 25-31, 2006, issue