Marbles


Listen to this story aloud: here


She’s been in labor for hours. The screaming, the fatigue, the fear. It’s all strangling me with brutish fingers. 

I can’t be in there.

This is her second, our second. I’m just waiting for it to end the same as our first. I’m waiting for those fingers to tear my heart from my chest. Just crush it. It hasn’t been mangled enough.

That’s why I’m here in the hall, instead of at her side. Because when she needs me most, I’m not there. Like my father before me. He never saw my birth, didn’t witness me growing up, wasn’t there when I became him. But even if he had been, would I be a better man?

“Hi.” A young boy stands before me. He’s a miniature lumberjack, stocking cap and all. Our eyes meet. I don’t know what to say to him. I’m not good with kids. 

“She’s been in there an awful long time,” he says, plopping down beside me. Has he been observing me? My eyes lower to my lap, watching my hands wring themselves ragged. 

“People say no news is good news. Not for me,” he announces, sighing. He’s a cheery thing. “No news means bad news. Not about your wife though. I reckon she’s fine.” Southern accents are cuter on kids. On people like me, they sound ridiculous. I’ve always thought so. I worked hard to get rid of mine. 

“Supposed to be here?” I wonder, glancing down the otherwise empty hall. The maternity ward isn’t the place for a kid to be wandering. He doesn’t answer, but he seems surprised by my sudden words. His eyes hold on my face before lowering to the floor. He’s short enough his feet dangle. For a moment, we just stare at them swinging. Then he speaks again. 

“Nah.” He shakes his head, folding one leg beneath him on the seat. “Nobody knows I’m here.” And then the silence sets in. I glance down at him, at his petite build and oversized clothing. He looks starved half to death. Depressed. Highly depressed, same as me. 

“Had lunch?” If part of me is going to be a bad husband, at least the other part can play father.

“No!” his eyes light up. “What do you have?”

“Went out a bit ago and bought some sandwiches,” I explain, fishing them from my bag. “I just couldn’t bring myself to eat them.”

“Alone.” The kid finishes my thought for me. “I don’t like to eat alone either.” 

“What do you like?” I ask, handing him half of my sandwich. He eyes light with passion, before he inhales a ravenous bite. He wipes mayo from his cheek and talks with his mouth full. 

“The sunrise?” he mutters. “Mom used to say the sunrise brought hope of dad’s return.”

“Wishful thinking.” I take a bite for myself, licking the dripping mayo from my hand. 

“Then she’d say sunsets brought the sorrow of dad never returning. But the cycle repeated until she saw him,” the boy continues. 

“When she did?” I peel a pepperoni from the folds of lettuce, then tear it in my teeth. He does the same, mimicking my every movement. 

“Found his grave. At least she had closure.” He leans back in the seat, staring up at the ceiling. “I never saw it.”

“Maybe that’s for the best,” I offer. “Hard to find answers in a grave.”

“One day, I hoped he’d tell me he was sorry, ya know? He walked out on me, on us. I didn’t have anything left of him.” The boy consumes an overwhelming bite and struggles to swallow it down. He’s a cute kid, but he’s practically an adult. And I know what he went through. I fish in my jacket pocket, searching for the only thing my father left me. I’d brought it with me for good luck. But it seems even with it, I’ll have none. 

Luck.

“Here.” I reach out to the boy. He stares at my hand, brows furrowed, but opens his palm to me. So I deliver my good luck charm and return to my sandwich. 

“Wow,” he breathes, ecstatic. “Wow!”

“It’s not much,” I retort, almost embarrassed.

“Are you kidding?” He rests his sandwich down on the seat beside him and lifts the charm in between his fingers. It’s a marble. Orange and brown swirl together, a handheld galaxy. But it’s still translucent enough for the light to shine through. It reflects onto his face. “My dad would never give me something so incredible.”

“Well, I am.” I laugh. “Here.” Shoving the last bite of my sandwich in my mouth, I lift a carton from my bag. The marbles clatter together, a collection of unique spheres. Not one is the same color. That’s how my dad preferred them. According to my mother, he said they were like life. A melting pot. But to me, that’s just words. They’re just marbles.

“I’ve never played with marbles before,” the boy tells me. He scrambles to accept it with both hands. 

“I’m hard to beat,” I warn him. 

“You’re on.” He drops to the floor. The carton of marbles follows suit. They roll, spreading out in every direction. “Oh!” He lunges to catch them, and I just laugh. 

“Only need about five to start with,” I mutter, slipping down beside him. “Not the whole box.”

“I don’t deal in odd numbers,” he insists. 

“Won’t be odd when we add the shooter.” I can hear my southern accent grasping at my words, begging to surface. It’s being drawn out by his. 

“What’s the shooter?” his eyes widen. 

“This one.” I lift one of the larger marbles. “It’s similar to pool.”

“So that’s the cue ball,” he confirms. I nod. “My dad was incredible at pool.”

“Mine hated it,” I retort. This is all I know about my dad. And it’s all what others have told me. “Always a ranchman. Didn’t have time for bars.” The boy drags my hand to him, counting five marbles into my palm.

“Dad said pool was a con,” the boy replies. “Like magic. Now what?” His dad’s a real charmer. He was probably a con himself. And wrong. 

“We put them in a circle,” I explain. I retrieve a bit of tape from my bag. Am I too well prepared to play a game of marbles? I think it’s been ingrained in me. Everywhere I went as a kid I’d need this marble set. I tape down a circle, then place the marbles inside. It was a reminder of the father I never knew. It still is. “Use your shooter to knock a marble out, it’s yours. Catch is, your shooter can’t leave with it.”

“Okay.” He grins at me. I hold the shooter out to him. My mom always let me go first. I’m not about to break the tradition. His small fingers slip around the marble, and then he takes his aim. 

“Elbows out.” I nudge his cheating arms from the circle. “One knuckle down.” He follows my rules, despite their absurdity. When he flicks the marble forward, it hits. The smaller marble flies out of the circle, clattering across the floor.

“I did it!” he cheers, arms over his head. “Do I get to go again?”

“Yup,” I agree, pointing to his shooter, “have to shoot from there though.”

“There are so many rules!” he mutters, shuffling around our makeshift circle. 

“90’s kids loved their rules,” I joke. He rolls his eyes at me. 

“You’re an old man.” He gets in position to shoot again. “But I kind of like you.”

“Just don’t say I remind you of your dad,” I warn him. 

“You don’t,” he assures me, laughing. But then his expression grows solemn. “I like you a lot more.” He flicks the shooter. It clatters with two marbles, but neither leave the circle. His shot was gentle, full of emotion. 

“I like you too, kid.” I smirk at him. “But I’m about to wipe the floor with you.” I already have my shooter in position. 

“Don’t!” he leaps to intercept me, shoving my arm to the side. My shooter whips forward, swats through several of the marbles and knocks them free of their confinement. 

“Even your cheating knew it couldn’t beat me,” I taunt him. 

“There you are!” the shrill voice surprises us both. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you. I told you not to run off.”

“Sorry ma’am.” The boy bows his head to her, sheepish. 

“I am so sorry.” She hurries to my side, frantically dragging him away from me. 

“Wait.” I rush to collect the marbles back into the carton. “These are his.”

“He didn’t ha-” she begins to argue with me, but I interrupt her.

“-They’re a gift.” I snap the lid on and stand. The boy breaks free of her grasp, already at my side. His hands clamp around the carton as his eyes meet mine.

“They won’t leave my sight,” he promises, clutching the carton to his chest. 

“And your lunch.” I wink at him, gesturing to the drooping sandwich on the chair. I’d prefer if he had some meat on him. But he doesn’t seem to share my sentiment. He doesn’t even bother looking before he wraps his arms around my waist. 

“The others are waiting,” the woman hisses. Her boney fingers reach for the back of his flannel. But I hold up a staying hand, patting his head with the other. He deserves more than this. 

“Thank you.” The boy finally releases me, carton still in hand. “I like you a lot mister.”

“Back at you.” I smile. And then she rips him away, returning me to the silence of my predicament. 

When I swivel back to my chair, the doctor is standing right there. His face says it all. The second now deceased with the first. Turns out I’m not meant to be a father. I’m no good with kids anyway. I’m barely able to take care of myself, my wife. 

My eyes are drawn to the hallway, where the boy disappeared. Maybe I’m not meant to father my own son. Maybe I’m meant to father him.