In late 2019 and early 2020, a large part of Australia suffered catastrophic fires in grassland, woodland, and small towns.
These so-called bushfires are a common event in arid Australia, yet the fires of this year were particularly dreadful. They destroyed houses and livelihoods, and cost human lives and the lives of many, many wild animals.
Brainstorming a way to help, a West Australian writer named Stephen King approached his publisher, Rhonda Penders, CEO of The Wild Rose Press: “Would the publisher be willing to create a book of short stories by Wild Rose Press authors, with proceeds going to the Australian Red Cross?”
Rhonda agreed, and the authors who publish with this press (I am one) responded enthusiastically. Editors worked for free, authors received no compensation, and all the proceeds of the three volumes of a book eventually called Australia Burns were donated. Rights to the stories reverted to the authors after one year.
My short story, The Ring, was published in Volume 1. It is printed here. Enjoy!
By Margaret Ann Spence
The day after the storm, the sun glared as if angry it had been denied even an hour of blasting the summer-weary neighborhood with its heat. Making the point, steam rose from the pavements. Everything was super-light, as when the ophthalmologist dilates your eyes. That’s when Suzanne saw, looking out the French doors to the battered lawn, the glitter.
She put down her coffee cup and stepped outside into the streaming light. She picked her way through the debris and kicked the fallen twigs and leaves on the sodden grass. The glint drew her. A sparkle in the grass.
A diamond engagement ring lay capsized on the ground.
Lucky one of the birds hasn’t got it, she marveled as she picked it up. Who did it belong to? She herself had never had an engagement ring; it was a luxury she and her husband had foregone at the time, and she had never regretted it.
She slipped it into her pocket.
They’d been good savers, Chad and she, and the money they could have spent on a ring went into their savings for the house down payment.
Now they owned a house. A modest house to be sure, in a subdivision on a tree-lined street. She’d made it pretty, too. She learned to upholster chairs and sofas she found at garage sales. She was a terrific paint stripper, and old dressers were burnished now, the beauty of their natural wood revealed, or sometimes, if the wood was not so beautiful, a coat or two or three of bright-colored paint made them like new.
Not that Chad noticed her improvements. He didn’t seem to have the beauty gene. She put it down to his impoverished childhood. As far as Chad was concerned, home ownership was a sign of status. He wanted to save and move up the property ladder.
“One day, Suze,” he told her, “One day we’ll have a big house with a pool. A three-car garage.”
For now, of course, they only needed the one car. Chad didn’t really like her to go out without him. She understood. It was a matter of pride for him to be able to support a wife, something his own father had never been able to do. So, she shopped locally and grew much of their own produce in her prolific veggie patch She’d have to inspect that later. No doubt the beans and the lettuce had taken a battering. But nature was resilient, and in a few days, the vegetables would recover. What was a little knocking about, after all?
Suzanne righted an upside-down patio chair and positioned a trash bag on its metal frame.
“First thing,” she said out loud, “is to clean up the rest of the yard.”
A familiar pressure pushed her to pick up a rake as she surveyed the wreckage. Pieces of wood, strips of canvas from someone’s ramada, a few twisted scraps of metal, and a broken outdoor lamp littered the yard. It would take a good two hours of piling the wheelbarrow with broken branches, sticks, and leaves even after she got rid of the junk. She’d have to get rid of the mess before Chad saw it. She began piling the broken objects in a corner of the yard. She would find a way to use these found objects, she was sure.
Her hand fingered the ring. A shiver ran through her. That ring had belonged to someone. She doubted that it had actually flown off someone’s hand, but had it been in a drawer, or on a windowsill, removed from a housewife’s hands as she did the dishes? It was about dinner time when the storm had struck last night.
What should she do? Hand it to the police? They had enough to do and were not a lost and found office. Put a notice on Craigslist? No. Too dangerous. Pawn it? Too tacky. Place a classified ad? Hardly. If someone answered an ad for a “lost ring;” how on earth could she verify the ring was theirs?
No. She would keep the ring. She would not tell Chad. He wouldn’t approve, either of the ring itself or her self-indulgence. Even what he might call her dishonesty. But who was she really hurting if she kept the ring? The ring’s rightful owner could claim the loss on her own insurance. Wasn’t that the point of insurance?
If she sold the ring, she could use it to add to the fix up the house fund. Yes, that was what she would do. She didn’t work and this would be her contribution to their future. It wouldn’t be long now, Chad had promised, before they’d Move Up.
She fingered the ring again. She smiled. What would it look like on her?
After washing it in the kitchen sink. she wiped it very carefully on a tissue. It shone and sparkled. She laid the ring gently on the counter and surveyed her own hands. Not pretty. The nails were ragged - if she wore nail polish, she’d chip it. She reached for a jar of hand cream. She rubbed it on her hands, sloping the greasy mix down into the webs of her fingers, rubbing it into the palm. Her hands, those chapped and grubby hands which did all that work she believed in. All that work of sustainability, of recycling, of
hammering and sawing and digging in the garden. Of pummeling dough to make bread. A homesteading kind of life, even in a subdivision. She’d chosen it, pleased to be able to stretch every dollar Chad gave her for the housekeeping.
But here now, was a ring. A ring that belonged to someone else. Someone who thought a woman deserved a bit of luxury. More than a bit. This ring would be worth thousands.
How much? She’d have to get it appraised or go to a jeweler to get an opinion. What if she wore it and someone in the supermarket barreled into her with the cart, splaying her hands before her, showing a pale band of skin where a ring once nestled, saying, I had a ring like that! I lost it in the storm! What could she say? That she found it? That her fiancé had given it to her? That it was her mother’s?
All of a sudden that didn’t matter. She’d find a way. She wanted to wear the ring, now. The ring looked good on her finger. Would look even better with a bit of polish on her nails. She searched the medicine cabinet for nail polish. None.
She had to have lacquered nails in order to set off the ring. Not a problem. She needed to go shopping anyway.
Three hours later, Suzanne emerged from the shopping mall. Nail polish in reds and pale pinks nestled in a plastic bag. New underwear, or rather, lingerie, a more romantic name for what she’d purchased, lay flat in pale mauve tissue paper. A slimming dress in a shiny boutique bag dangled from her left arm together with the lingerie, while in her right hand a bottle of champagne, pate, and water crackers bulged a shopping bag (canvas, reusable) together with the finest fillet steak.
Just this once, she’d have a little party for Chad and herself.
By five-thirty she was ready. The house shone, and every dust mote in every corner had been banished by the vacuum’s wand. Even the windows were polished, the French doors gleaming as they opened to the patio. After her morning’s work, the yard looked as good as new. Once she’d removed the broken stems, even the flowers had perked up, revived by the sun after the storm. A stillness hung in the air, a heavy, humid warmth.
She set the table. A cloth, two candles, two place settings with the pretty flower plates she’d inherited from her mother. She went to a sideboard and removed a felt roll and a silver ice bucket. Unrolling the felted scroll, she admired the silverware she’d bought years ago at a yard sale. How she’d loved removing its tarnish, so the forks and knives shone like a fish’s fins. She gently lowered two wine glasses to the right of the plates, set the napkins on the left, and arranged the supermarket flowers artistically, the tallest ones in the middle, the smaller ones on the side, in a glass vase.
Ice tinkled into the bucket, and she nestled the champagne bottle inside.
With a smile at her handiwork, she went into the master bedroom, where the beautiful new dress lay waiting on the bedspread. She took a shower. She hunted in the drawer of the vanity for the perfume she’d bought herself last Christmas (not telling Chad!) and slathered it on. The new lingerie under her slinky dress uplifted her breasts and slimmed her tummy. Her nails were buffed and polished, courtesy of those lovely Vietnamese girls at the Head to Toes salon and she pulled her brushed and shiny hair into a smart chignon. A thin glaze of makeup sheened her face and her lips glowed a glossy pink. She slipped her now smooth feet into shiny silver sandals.
Chad will be home soon, she thought as she poured herself the first glass of champagne. She spread a little pate on a cracker and took a small bite. Another, and another glass of champagne. Her brain seemed fuzzy all of a sudden, and a glob of pate slithered from the cracker down the silky front of her dress. Shame!
But Chad never noticed things like that, anyway. When he came home, he’d probably want to take that dress right off and ravish her right there on the living room floor. His hair was so blond, Chad’s was, his body so muscled and trim. How hard she’d fallen for him when he’d eyed her, of all the girls in the school, that day by the lockers, so long ago. He was voted most likely to succeed, and when they were dating, had talked often of his ambition to rise above the trailer park he’d been born into.
And he had, of course. They both had, though her parents had hated the idea of this marrying this blond boy from nowhere and nothing. She had to hand it to him. He was so sure of his path, so determined not to follow the gambling and spendthrift habits of his parents. He would bring her with him, he told Suzanne and make them rich. She’d never had to suffer as his mother had.
Where was he? She’d drunk the champagne now and opened a bottle of pinot noir. Maybe she wouldn’t have the steak tonight. Yes, Chad seemed to be working late, and it would be a shame to waste an expensive piece of meat on an exhausted man. She wasn’t hungry anyway. She took a sip of red wine and held her hand up to the light. The red lampshade gave her whole hand a pinky glow as she admired her ring and her shiny fingernails.
Those hands! Never had they looked so pretty if she could just ignore the dark smudges on them. Age spots they called them. Never mind. She had her figure still.
She did a little twirl right there in the living room, her glass in hand. Chad’s favorite music sounded softly from the stereo. Suzanne danced before it and tripped on the rug. The glass smashed. Red wine pooled on the floor, and Suzanne could see from her prone position wine had also flooded her silk dress, darkening it in a plummy stain.
She began to laugh. She couldn’t cry, even though Chad would be angry if he saw her now, disheveled, out of control, drunk, and in a lascivious mood.
She sat up. She couldn’t cry because she didn’t have to.
Chad, with his fierce temper, and his rigid beliefs, would not be coming home. She put her hand on the edge of the coffee table. Its sharp corner bit into her hand as she raised herself up. She stood, lowered her hands to the hem of her dress and raised it over her head. She took off her bra and panties, her frilly, laced, and very expensive underwear. Her eyes moved downwards. Her breasts sagged, her stomach was scored with pouches, and her thighs mapped with blue veins.
She looked down at her mottled feet. Her bunions had forced their way out of the sides of her sandals. She kicked them off. She left the dress, the soiled carpet, and the smashed glass and staggered to the bedroom. She lay on the bed, feeling very, very drunk, and also, sharply aware. How could the two things co-exist? Drunkenness and
clarity. It was as if a membrane had been removed from her mind.
Chad was dead.
He’d been dead for months. A heart attack felled him in the shower. The EMTs asked why she hadn’t called them sooner. She didn’t know he was in trouble, she told them. She’d been outside weeding the garden and didn’t realize he wasn’t in his favorite chair reading the Sunday paper until she came inside to make his coffee. Called and got no answer.
She didn’t tell them she’d cleaned the kitchen, taking her peaceful time, before she went to the bathroom and found him.
The horror of it. The relief. The denial.
Chills went through her like an icy bath. He was dead. Really.
She didn’t have to do what he wanted anymore. She looked at her hands, her manicured nails, and the third finger left hand. Behind her wedding band, something sparkled and gave her joy. She had the ring.
She’d keep it.