A Short Story by Liz Varley
Written using the suggestion "Break"
Originally featured on 03-29-2007
As part of our series "Springset"

Margo Ringer had an associate’s degree in accounting; above all else she was frugal. She was surrounded by verbs, as everyone is, but her mother referred to her as a “numbers person”. It was true. She had a lovely eight for a body, a perfect zero for a head and gracefully parallel upside-down sevens for legs. She walked on those upside-down sevens to work at Longerman’s Fish Fry where she kept the books, for anyone who might be interested in where the profit was going. It was mostly going to Mr. Longerman himself, his two legitimate children and the three not so legitimate ones he was supporting under the watchful eye of the state of Oregon. With the profits Margo bought art for the restaurant—large gold-framed epic paintings of the oceans, captains working hard at the stern, the sea swelling and fuming and whatever else it did when the waters were rough. She also bought fancy soaps for the bathroom with slightly pilfered funds, soaps that helped to rub away the scents of haddock and lemon that permeated the air. She cultivated large aloe plants in that bathroom as well, cutting them open every so often to squeeze some goo onto her overworked fingertips, skin rubbed dry by flipping through stacks of paper, and handling copies straight from the machine, their odd warmth a suckler for moisture.

People told her she looked like Greta Garbo when she looked up suddenly or was stubbornly holding her own. She looked at herself in the mirror sometimes while alone in her apartment, Led Zeppelin serenading her from the front room. Up close she saw loud and abrupt terrain, the seemingly endless depth of her pores and various scars that held up her memory for hours within her childhood. When she pulled back suddenly, there was a speckle of beauty. This, however, she thought was reserved for things other than human beings. Humans, as far as she could understand, were here to deal with money and things related to its creation and distribution. Money was not beautiful.

She saved it nonetheless, in a rubber-banded wad inside a yellowed manila envelope wrapped in a plastic bag under her mattress. Each time she lifted the mattress and retrieved it she smiled slightly at how it had grown. When she slept she imagined she could feel it under her hipbone, nestled into her body.

“Tell me,” Ramone, the third shift dishwasher asked her on a sunny Friday afternoon, “I know you make decent money here…”

“Right,” Margo responded, smiling up at him as innocently as she could.

“I mean I saw your apartment when I drove you home that one time, and you shop at thrift stores? Why don’t you buy some jewelry, or upgrade your living situation? My cousin’s a realtor, you know.”

“I’m saving.”

“For what, if you don’t mind me asking.” Ramone raised an eyebrow and let go of the spray nozzle, letting it swing back and forth like a pendulum. She shrugged.

“For something I don’t know about yet.”

“And how will you know when the time is right?” He was trying to tease her, but she considered the question seriously, scrunching her lips together, and repeated the advice her mother gave her while they stood at a car dealership in drizzling rain,

“When you know, you know.”


Margo sometimes spent her evenings on the beach with her pants rolled up to her shins, letting the cold tide water dig the soles of her feet into soft sand holes. This comforts her, like she is being held very close. She thinks of the envelope under her mattress as she makes her way back up to the road, to her Schwinn, the one she had bartered for the previous summer. One day, she thinks as the warm dark air splits her hair down the middle, one day.

She bikes through the dimly lit village center, eyeing the interiors of the passing stores. She remembers clearing out her grandmother’s house after she passed away, finding boxes full of rolled nickels and dimes, wads of bills inside socks and the padding of bras. I won’t wait that long, Margo tells herself as she locks up her bike in front of her apartment.

Silence meets her at the door and she hurries to put on a record. She chooses an old Merle Haggard album that she picked up at a garage sale for ninety-nice cents. Pushing up the mattress she takes out the bag, the envelope, peering inside at the compacted pile of bills. She can recall her mother doing the same when she was a child, with a lockbox instead. Margo was fascinated watching her mother lick a finger and flip through the stack, the sound of money hitting money a residual centerpiece lingering above the kitchen table.

“What’s that for anyway?” Margo would ask, unintended dreams of bright red ten speeds flashing through her mind.

“Something very important,” she told Margo, never taking her eyes off the bills. Her grandmother was more ceremonious; she never counted the money. She would pull the curtains down before fishing under the heavy maple dresser for the Montgomery Ward’s box that held the black leather purse her husband presented to her on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. After working the tricky zipper, she deposited the money, quickly, only once getting up to find Margo’s lucid blue eyes peering in at her from a crack in the door. Margo ran away when their glances caught.

Later, when standing in the gold tiled kitchen heavy with the scent of lemon oil, Margo felt she had been let in on a secret, but her grandmother spoke the same tasks as usual.

“Please get me the breadcrumbs Margo,” she said, and then, “no, in the orange Tupperware, behind the flour…you’ve got it.” Margo never asked her grandmother about the black leather purse or what was inside it. She came close several times, but could see, somewhere within her grandmothers eyes, dark blue like the edge of the ocean, that she needed the black purse to be private, to belong to her mind only.

It wasn’t until after her funeral that she saw the black purse again, clutched tight in her mother’s hands at the kitchen table, and Margo saw that money, soft and wrinkled, get split up. Some went into the lockbox, some into a card later given to her uncle, and a small bit, the newest and sharpest bills, was put into a manila envelope, the metal clips pushed down by her mother’s trembling fingertips.

Margo was fourteen the day she received her inheritance. She counted it in her bedroom, with the same awed disbelief with which she looked at the Egyptian artifacts at the museum; she wondered how something that had existed for so long could be part of her world, her small world of cold beach and smooth night air.

“Don’t spend it on just anything,” her mother told her from the doorway, and Margo pulled her jaw back up.

“Save it until you’re older, when you really need it.” Margo nodded. The responsibility was all around her, and she took it in, solemnly tucking the money back into the envelope, folding it, slipping the money in between her mattress and box spring.

She feels accountable, listening to Merle Haggard’s silky drawl slide off the walls. She feels accountable for sixty years of saving, interrupted only by her mother’s purchase of a BMW on her fiftieth birthday. Margo had planned on using it for college, thinking it would make her grandmother proud, but a surprise scholarship nixed that plan and now the money, with it’s vague intentions, hangs over her head like an anvil.

“So what,” she says out loud. The record begins to skip.

The air is cold now as she makes her way back to the beach, the pitch of the air higher in her ears. The envelope scuttles around in the wire bike basket.

The top layer of sand is still warm from the long day of sun, but it turns cool as she digs, and then coarse, wet and cold. The sand is the oldest thing she has known personally, older than the Egyptians, older than the Ponderosa Pine that ripped up five sections of sidewalk when it fell. Her hands are tight with cold as she presses the envelope into the ground, the old paper cracking as it bends. Before she can stop herself she is raising her fingers to her forehead, her chest and to her shoulders, her body chilling as she does so.

The parking lot of the restaurant is packed Monday morning as Margo locks up her bike. Tourist season is beginning and with it pancake breakfasts, new hires, more paperwork, and a fresh wrinkle on Mr. Longerman’s wide forehead.

Margo takes the shortcut to the office through the dishwashing station, catching Ramone’s eyes as she walks through—he is training the new kid, the one whose mother waited at the bar sipping iced tea as he filled out paperwork. Margo smiles.

“Hey Margo,” he calls, “those are some nice rubies hanging from your ears today.” He laughs a little, prodding the young boy in the side.

“They’re garnet, not ruby,” she says and he puts up a thumb.

“Even better…hey, what made you decide to splurge, if you don’t mind me asking? The time was right, huh?”

She shrugs, heading into the office and eyeing the pile of papers on her desk. She finds an unused folder and on the tab writes Bank Deposits. Into it she places the ticket from her deposit earlier that morning. Margo thinks of the look the teller gave her as she pushed the pile of bills towards him.

“This is all of it?” he asked her, with only a hint of condescension.

The old bills, her original inheritance, were by now wet with centuries old ocean water. She nodded slowly.

The weight of it gone, she relaxes into the feel of cool garnet brushing against her jawbones.

Read More By Liz Varley

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Portland Fiction Project

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