Margaret looked down at the ring on her finger, the pearl shimmering in the sunlight filtering through the small kitchen window. For a second, she considered removing it, finding a safe spot on the window ledge. Then she thought better of it. It was meant to last forever, there was no point in being overly careful with it.
She’d been surprised at Julian’s choice of engagement ring. As soon as she put it on her finger, she had begun to worry about the longevity of the fat, round pearl bulging off her finger. So often her hands plunged into dirty dishwater, scraped against bottles deep in the bar cooler and were otherwise mangled by twisted trash bags, or whatever else she found herself having to take care of during her shifts at work.
She kept an eye on it while she finished up their breakfast dishes, pop radio blaring in the background from a bluetooth speaker that had been a gift from Julian. When she had opened it last Christmas, she recognized it as the one he wanted for himself, and so Margaret had kept it in the box for several months, letting it collect dust under the bed. It wasn’t until she noticed herself singing along to her tinny phone speakers day after day when she realized maybe his gift had been more thoughtful than she initially suspected.
“This song is so ridiculous,” Julian said as he walked into the kitchen looping a cufflink. She jumped a little, lost in thought.
“I kind of like it,” Margaret responded lightly, squinting her eyes at him half-aggressively and half-playfully.
“Yeah, yeah, women empowerment and all that. I just don’t understand how this over-the-top ‘sexy’ stuff isn’t playing directly into men’s wet dreams. I think we’ve just got women fooled that way.” He walked across their small kitchen, wooden floorboards creaking with each step. Margaret found the small house charming, but Julian had been eyeing downtown apartments on a real estate app for months now.
Oh, do you? she thought but didn’t say. She lifted one shoulder and sang louder for a few seconds until she changed the subject. “Julian, did you see the news about potential life on Venus?” The song ended and switched to something much less spirited.
“Yeah, there have been articles about how there’s this by-product, some gas called phosphine. Essentially, it’s almost a sure sign of of microbial life.”
“Huh.” Julian nodded as he pulled a to-go mug down from the cupboard. “Yeah, but it’s not like aliens or anything. Just cells and stuff, right?”
“Yeah, sure, like organisms living in the cloud level below the atmosphere. It actually sounds cool, and scientists say it might help explain life on Earth. And,” she added, “it might show that Venus once had thriving oceans with creatures living in them, but these micro-organisms are the only ones that have survived after Venusian—Venution? I don’t know—after that climate changed over the eons. I was thinking, I really want to go to Chicago and see the exhibit at the planetarium. Can we plan a trip? Can we?” She put her fingers together in a prayer formation, smiling coyly.
“Mags, I wish you wouldn’t say stuff like that. Stuff about “life on Earth.” Even if you don’t believe in—” he stopped and poured himself a cup of coffee, “what we grew up believing, I worry about my mom hearing you say something like that. She’d—”
“Burn me at the stake?” Margaret smiled at him innocently. She knew then that any trip planning would have to wait.
The two of them had met as ninth graders riding the same bus and started dating that year. Three different subdivisions were squirreled away off a larger thoroughfare that ran from the suburbs to the city. City a loose definition of the word. Even then, Julian had his sights set on two words: business major. He had done that and taken it one step further, getting his MBA while taking out loan after loan. In the end, though, it seemed like the plan had paid off, and he had gotten a job at the bank. Not like “the bank” where plastic tubes move to and fro with one little old lady working behind the closed blinds of the drive-thru, but the skyscraper offices downtown.
They had both attended the same nearby college where Margaret flitted from Education to English to finally settle on Classical History. A degree she promptly abandoned for shifts at the steakhouse that brought in enough money to split rent with Julian after they graduated.
Both sets of parents were religious people, and while they had become friends over the years, there had been a certain iciness about the fact that their children were unmarried and cohabitating. Several years passed in that state until, somehow unexpectedly to Margaret, Julian got down on one knee and offered her the pearl ring only last night.
She examined it, glistening on her finger, as her hand pulled the steering wheel right into the back-alley entrance of the strip mall and then left into an open spot behind the steakhouse where she had worked the last four years. She sat in her little blue Corolla, the same one she had driven since high school, and thought about Venus.
Venus rose out of the foam of an open oyster as a walking contradiction. She was born a duality. The goddess of prostitutes and the protector of virtues. Banishing vice while remaining wholly naked. The most traditionally ‘feminine’ of the deities was expected to be the embodiment of sexuality and the epitome of purity. This is, of course, the role every woman is expected to fill.
“So, potentially, there was a thriving ocean, and who knows what else? Humanoids, maybe! And they think now all that’s left are these mysterious little amoebas that live in the clouds. That’s exciting, right?” Margaret tilted her head slightly, her auburn ponytail sweeping across her shoulder, brown eyes blinking rapidly as she discussed the news with Bobby.
He smiled while he sipped soda from a massive white Sytrofoam cup. “Oh my god, Maggie, I love that you love this. I don’t even look at news. But if you want to go to Chicago to visit the planetarium, I think you should go. I won’t cover your shifts for you, though.” He made silent ha ha has, his mouth open wide. “Just kidding, you know I need the money for my new obsession.”
Bobby had recently become deeply consumed with edible mycology, dipping his toes first in oyster, shiitake and chanterelle until those were no longer thrilling enough, and began hunting far and wide for truffle, morel and indigo-colored mushrooms that Margaret had been scared to taste. She had shown early interest in his enthusiasm simply because there was nothing else exciting happening in her life. This meant that she was now a co-conspirator in his fungi passion. She didn’t have the heart to tell him that she didn’t really like the flavor or texture of mushrooms, so she always forced down whatever new dish he had conceived of, in his charming consideration of spooning her a few bites into a plastic Tupperware.
They were both leaning against the back of the bar, their opening duties done, waiting to unlock the front door. Bobby was sucking the remains of his soda loudly when he stopped suddenly and grabbed Margaret’s left hand.
“What the hell is this, Maggie? What the hell? You didn’t think to announce that Mr. Barber finally, finally, proposed?” Margaret’s wrist was limp in Bobby’s grasp as she let her ring finger dangle. “Hmm,” Bobby said, gently, “a pearl?”
On the night of the engagement, after all the festivities had died down and both sets of parents had driven the less-than-ten miles back to their homes, Margaret had curled up on the couch, excited to understand the symbolism behind Julian’s surprising choice of pearl.
Natural pearls are rare. While there is the myth that a tiny grain of sand sneaks its way into an oyster’s open valve, and that sandy irritant is then wrapped in a pearl sac and covered with nacre—the shimmering coat we know as mother-of-pearl—the truth of it is much less glamourous. The truth is that it’s usually a parasite that wiggles its way into an oyster’s shell. Some kind of mussel-eating, flesh-consuming worm attempts to make its home in the mantle of an oyster’s folds. As a form of self-defense, the pearl sac encloses the parasite and buries it under layer over layer of nacreous film until a pearl is finally formed.
“What you been up to, missy?” A man sat belly to the bar taking up the space of two or three. Margaret had come to know him, unwillingly, over the years she had worked at the steakhouse. Filet—rare, double mashed potatoes, no greens, Budweiser. She hoped his friends weren’t joining him tonight. She wasn’t in the mood to put up with their banter today.
“Oh, you know.” Quiet, noncommittal, her back to him as she rang up his order, tempted to upcharge his double potatoes even though her boss had waltzed behind the bar one night specifically to inform her not to double charge him—an old pal from the golf course, or the horse stables, or some other place Margaret had no interest in ever visiting though the men had repeatedly invited her.
She continued to stare at the blue screen of the computer, harsh in the dim light of the bar. She submitted his order, and then watched the blinking dots of the open tables in the dining room—nothing better to do. She heard voices behind her and rolled her eyes—his friends were, in fact, joining him for dinner. She sighed loudly, knowing the sound would be lost to the elevator jazz playing over the speakers. Maybe, though, one of them would hear it over the commercial syncopation. Maybe for the first night in many years, these men would cut her some slack, show some respect, think before they spoke—
“Well, if it isn’t our sweet little Madge. We missed you last night.”
“I was off.” She turned to face them, leaning forward over the broad, low cooler. She looked down at her ring finger on the silver lid then slid it open and grabbed two more Buds—it was all they ever drank. At least their orders were simple enough.
“What you been up to, darlin?” The youngest of the three asked, pink scalp glistening under the gold-shaded lights hanging above the bar, his short, thin blonde hair made see-through in the glow. Margaret wondered exactly how old he was and worried it was closer to her own age that she wanted to admit.
She looked at him for a minute, swallowing. Then she pushed her hands flat against the cooler top and began, “Well, if you really want to know, I’ve been reading about the potential life on the planet Venus.”
Bobby brought bread out for the three men and made a wide-eyed, disgusted face while he walked up behind them from the kitchen, until the last minute possible when it morphed into a polite smile and murmur of, “Hey, fellas.”
“So, you’re saying they found aliens?” The blonde man laughed a little before sipping his beer.
“They think so.” Margaret didn’t feel like explaining the phosphine, the cloud deck, the likelihood that if it was anything, it was microbes. It was still exciting to her, even if it was anaerobic. She thought about the new planetarium exhibit she’d read about. She thought about how badly she wanted to get out of town for a few days, to learn something new, to see something new. “But it’s difficult to send a probe because the atmosphere is corrosive. It’ll be a while before they can afford an expedition.”
The third man, long gray hair swept across his forehead, a wrinkled lime green polo, shoved a piece of bread into his mouth and then shouted, “That sounds just like my ex-wife! Ha! Expensive and corrosive to probing!”
The men laughed loudly at this. Margaret raised her eyebrows and turned around to ring in their orders, letting out a slow breath as her fingers tapped the screen rapidly.
“Hey, Midge!” The man still chewing the dense bread called out, excitedly. “Hey, what’s that on your finger there, sweetheart?”
Another man, “Oh, no, no, no—not our Madge—off the market are ya, doll?”
Still facing the screen, she nodded slowly. “Yep, only took twelve years. He finally proposed.”
“Twelve years? Didn’t we meet him one night? He’s just a kid! How has he kept you satisfied for twelve years?” The man who had sat down and ordered first now had his plate of food in front of him, apparently brought out by Bobby while her back was turned. He had said this to her as he pushed buttered mashed potatoes around on his plate. Margaret got the brief and ridiculous notion that he might be disappointed that she was engaged to be married.
She saw her phone light up to the right of the computer screen where she kept it hidden behind dusty bottles of Chambord. She kept it hidden there just in case her boss felt like caring about whether she used her phone on shift or not. Some nights he would catch her on her phone and immediately walk to the office to send memos through the software program reminding employees not to be on their phones during shift hours. Other times, he’d walk right by Bobby chewing on his left thumb texting furiously with his right hand and say nothing.
The text was from Julian: Might stop by your work to get dinner with my fiancé tonight 🙂
She frowned and set her phone down.
“So, what are the big wedding plans? Going to cost your daddy a small fortune, are you?” the oldest of the three called out while an unwieldy saxophone solo blaring out of the speaker in the corner.
Margaret was confused for a minute. “Hm? Oh, no. I don’t know actually, hadn’t thought about it much.”
“My daughter’s wedding cost me fifty grand—I shit you not.” He looked shell-shocked by his own words and took a heavy swig of his beer, brought the bottle down and shook it towards Margaret. “Another one.” The air filled with the metallic smell of cooking spinach, burned butter and sauteed garlic. She breathed in. One good thing about this place.
The other men, suddenly gloomy, shook their heads in solidarity. They all spoke with the same affected Southern accents that Margaret had trouble making sense of. They were from the same town as her and Bobby, both of whom, as far as she could tell, sounded nothing like them. She didn’t think she had much of an accent at all. They lived in the borderlands of North and South, and the accent felt like a carefully crafted choice. Margaret imagined them sitting in front of their mirrors at home as boys, just like Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, working hard on their pronunciations so as to match their father’s and their father’s father’s.
“Yeah, I guess.” Margaret agreed, unsure. “Just happened last night, so I haven’t even started planning anything.” She shrugged and moved back to the stock room, pretending to be busy.
Eventually, they received their food and began to eat in earnest. Margaret went about restocking Budweiser’s in case they stayed late and drank all her colds. She made exasperated eyes at Bobby with her back to the three men whenever he walked past. She looked busy dusting bottles whenever her boss crept by.
The men, blessedly, left early to catch the football game at a sports bar nearby. Margaret wondered idly if Julian would show up to eat. It was almost eight, and he still wasn’t there. He should have been home from work for hours now.
She heard shuffling behind her and felt the full weight of gravity—a heaviness. She realized then that she hoped Julian wouldn’t show up—didn’t want him to come in. She turned around ready to form a cold smile, but instead of Julian, it was a mother with her young daughter walking to the restroom. Margaret pressed her lips together politely and the woman nodded back.
The three men did this thing sometimes—what she imagined they imagined was a masculine thing—where they would tease Margaret endlessly, then brag amongst themselves about how large of a tip they left her. This would sometimes lead to a $20 tip on a $40 bill and so forth. While it didn’t make their banality more bearable, at least she was making money.
Still, when she looked down and saw that the first man had left her $100 on his bill, she widened her eyes, cleared her throat just a bit. No, still not worth all the trouble, but she could always use the money. She rapidly flipped through the other receipts–$100 from the other one and $150 from the man who had complained about his daughter’s wedding. She knew these men had money—MBA money, oil and gas money, family money, stock money—money enough to spare for ‘ole Madge down at the steakhouse. In a way, this was owed to her. It was, she decided quickly, staring at the pen marks on thin paper, the least they could do.
Her boss walked by, short and wiry in his too-big suit, and kept an eye on her. She held out a slow, “Hello,” in a sing-song voice. He frowned at her and continued walking down the dark hallway to his back office.
It was then that she looked down at her ring and noticed that the pearl was missing. She pulled it close into her eyeline, gasping. Where the pearl had sat was only a short, gold post, some of the glue that had meant to hold the pearl there until death-do-us-part still clinging to the metal. With both hands, she felt every inch of the copper countertops. She bent down and looked in between the circular gaps of the black rubber floor mat. She pushed open the cooler and peered down into the grimy darkness, grabbing her phone to use as a flashlight.
The pearl was gone.
She leaned against the cooler, her forehead resting in her open palm, when Bobby walked by. “Hey, Maggie, you all right?”
Without overthinking, she said, “Bobby, will you close the bar for me tonight?”
He moved slowly side to side, considering. Margaret knew the dining room was winding down for the night. He would be able to make some cash in the bar after the dinner crowd dwindled. “Sure, girl, you know I’m saving up for those Yartsa Gunbu.”
She smiled at him, wide and warm. “Thanks, Bobby.”
Japan is well-known for its pearl production. Their pearls dominate global markets. Broad, shallow oyster farms that cultivate perfectly round, iridescent orbs of calcium carbonate. Japan, as it is, is also the only country with a satellite that circles the planet Venus. It is thanks to those photos that scientists were able to postulate their theories of alien life. These are the same photos, the only photos of Venus, available at the planetarium’s exhibit–Life on Venus: Living in the Cloud Deck.
Margaret opened the car door under the yellow floodlight in the back alley of the steakhouse. She drummed her fingers on the top of the car door, and typed something into her phone’s GPS. The alley smelled like wet garbage and seared meat, and Margaret found herself holding her breath. All she needed was to breathe—just a few deep breaths. If Julian decided not to stop in for dinner, she would have almost four hours before he expected her home. She could be halfway to Chicago by then.
Misha Lazzara is an MFA candidate at NC State University. Her work has appeared on poets.org, Entropy, frak/ture journal and is forthcoming elsewhere. She is winner of the Academy of American Poets University Prize 2020 at NCSU. Her Twitter is here and her website is here.