by Windy Prasert
Rick was startled awake. Not by Herbert’s screaming. Not by the rain whipping against the windows nor the throbbing in his hip.
Someone had been snoring. Loudly. And judging by the residents’ stares, he realized the log-sawing had come from him.
He bolted upright, cleared his throat, and shuffled the comment cards that had tumbled into his lap.
“Right. Uh, wh-where were w-we?”
Herbert launched his papers into the air, and they settled into a scattered mess around his chair. “See what I mean? This asshole never listens to us.”
Rick glanced at his watch with a grumble. As always, they’d be here all night.
Madge put on a sympathetic smile. “Rick, dear, you must be exhausted. You should end the meeti—”
“The hell he should! I’m barely halfway through!” Herbert scooped his notes into a messy pile. “Aha! Here’s a good one. Rick needs to do something about the damn traffic. It’s too noisy.”
“You can, and you will. That’s what town hall meetings are for.” Herbert glanced at Frank. “Back me up.”
Frank only shook his head with a tired grin.
Rick settled into his chair, ready for another long night of complaints when something jabbed his ribs. He reached into his flannel and pulled out a small booklet.
“I almost f-forgot. I f-found this when I was c-c-cleaning out the cellar. Anyone kn-know what it is?” He dropped the old, worn pamphlet onto the coffee table. The faded cover illustrated a happy family gathered around a table. He twisted in his chair to read the lettering. “What’s a Q-Quick S-S-Saver book?”
Madge’s eyes widened as her hands went into apron-wringing mode. “Where did you get that?”
It took three seconds for Rick to second-guess his decision to bring the booklet to the meeting. He wondered if it was some secret he’d stumbled on. Or worse, a reminder of the past that would send Madge into months of mourning. Rick wished he’d brought it to one of the others in private instead.
He knew how sensitive Madge could be.
Stephanie stuffed her gum back into her mouth and peered close. “Oh my God, I know what that is. Everyone knows about green stamps.”
“I haven’t seen one of these in years.” Frank’s smile was lost in the nostalgia that could send a person straight onto the rocky road of the past. There was no danger of that with Frank.
But with Madge . . .
“Oh, my God, how many books do you have, Rick? My sisters and I were saving up for a crockpot for Mom for Christmas.” Stephanie’s eyes glazed over, eerily similar to Frank’s. “I wonder if they ever got it for her?”
Frank turned to Madge, who was still wringing her apron. “From the look on your face, this brought back some rough memories.”
Madge walked to the fire and paced like a caged animal. “It’s not what you think.”
Herbert rolled his eyes. “It’s green stamps, for crying out loud! What’s the problem? My . . . mailman collected them.” The sourness he’d carried at the onset of the meeting morphed into the same cloudy mood that had taken over Madge.
Rick hoped he hadn’t unwittingly opened the Serenity Grove version of Pandora’s Box. He rested his chin in one hand and pointed at the coffee table with the other. “So? Wh-What is it?” He groaned, hoping he hadn’t made another colossal blunder.
Madge smoothed her apron before clasping her hands like a student giving a presentation. “It’s the 1975 S&H Green Stamp catalog.” She turned away from their scrutinizing faces, her chin quivering and shoulders heaving in the firelight.
Rick had no idea what a green stamp was. “Like p-postage s-s-stamps?” He hadn’t known the post office put out catalogs.
Madge shuffled to the window, gazing into the darkness. “If only they were postage stamps. None of it would have happened.”
Benson stretched and rose from his spot near the fire before curling into a furry ball next to Stephanie.
“Like, what happened? What’s the big deal about green stamps?"
Madge hesitated before lifting her chin and meeting their eyes. “Because these stamps nearly destroyed me.”
Rick and the residents waited while Madge gathered her reserves and blew out a long, uneven breath. Finally, she spoke.
“It all started with a punchbowl.”
The cashier handed over twelve stamps and a receipt, then nodded toward a stack of booklets at the end of the counter. “Have you seen it? The new catalog is out.”
Madge stuffed her checkbook into her purse and grabbed a booklet from the stack. She considered leaving without grabbing one. For months, she’d saved green stamps to replace the cracked punchbowl Marty’s mother had given her as a birthday gift. She suspected it wouldn’t last to Christmas, not with the Wednesday Afternoon Women’s Auxiliary League meetings she hosted twice a month on Thursday nights.
She also suspected Marty’s mother had probably looked for a cracked punchbowl, but Madge couldn’t prove it.
The punchbowl she’d been saving up for was gorgeous. The ladle was plastic, but the bowl and glasses were crystal. Well, maybe not genuine crystal, but who would know? Madge couldn’t wait for the co-leader of the league to see it.
Barb would be green with envy.
Madge already had one book filled and had started on a second. The punchbowl required a hefty six-and-a-half books. She wished she hadn’t redeemed so many stamps last Christmas, but Cassidy had claimed she would die without a set of Shrinky Dinks, and Martin and Ron had wanted a board game. The toys had taken all her stamps, and Madge had needed to start over.
No matter. Madge tucked her purse under her arm and pushed her cart toward the automatic doors. She’d have her new punchbowl by Thanksgiving, and she couldn’t wait to watch Barb seething with envy. Madge patted her bags with crossed fingers.
She hoped the punchbowl would still be there.
* * *
Madge resisted the urge to check the catalog. If the punchbowl had been discontinued, she’d have to buy one, and that simply wasn’t in her budget. She loaded the groceries into the station wagon and tried to put it out of her mind while she walked to the cart return.
A group of women had gathered near the glass doors. Madge recognized several, as well as a fellow league member. She pushed her cart into the metal aisle and sidled up to Kathryn.
“Goodness, what’s everyone looking at?”
Kathryn barely acknowledged Madge. “Catalog,” she whispered, her eyes never leaving the page. “New things.”
A woman Madge had chaperoned several field trips with peered closer. “Just look at it. Can you imagine having that in your living room? Hank would lose his mind.”
“Hank lost his mind years ago,” another said. The rest giggled while the woman blushed.
Madge edged between Hank’s wife and a woman she recognized from the PTA—vile woman—and peeked at the page. Nothing exciting there. A couple of footstools, an 8-track storage unit, a record rack, a color TV . . .
She leaned closer. It can’t be. She read the description again.
Item number 22. 17-inch Color TV. 150 books.
Seventeen inches? That was five inches larger than her whopping twelve-inch TV. And in color?
Madge fanned herself. Why was it so hot all of a sudden?
“Hank would just go nuts over this.”
So would Marty, Madge thought. And then . . .
So would Barb.
Madge smiled at the thought of watching Barb turn greener than a stamp.
She would just die.
“It looks bigger than Barb’s, doesn’t it?”
Madge blanched. “Barb’s? Barb has a color TV?” It couldn’t be. She’d just been at Barb’s house last Monday—she would have noticed something like that.
“Her husband surprised her with it over the weekend.“ The PTA woman smirked. “It was all anyone could talk about yesterday over coffee.”
Madge tried to snuff out her jealousy. “Have you seen it?”
PTA woman laughed—something that sounded more like a titter—which was one of the reasons no one in Madge’s circle liked her. Her cheeks flushed with smugness, brash, like her irritating laugh. “Oh, yes. She showed it off last night when I dropped off the flyers for the church dinner. Such a braggart. Bill promised to buy me an even bigger one with his Christmas bonus.”
Madge had no clue if PTA woman had seen it or if she was fibbing. However, Madge had no doubt that Bill would buy her a better TV than Barb’s. Shallow people, both her and her husband.
But wouldn’t it just eat Barb up if Madge could get her hands on one?
Madge said her goodbyes, but the others barely registered her exit as they pored over the other new items in the catalog.
Madge slid behind the wheel with a sudden, bleak revelation.
A hundred and fifty books. I’ll never be able to save that many.
With a sinking gut, she backed out of her spot, turned onto Main Street, and headed home.
* * *
Madge forced herself to put the groceries away before carrying the catalog and a cup of Folgers into the living room. She turned the TV on, glad she hadn’t missed the beginning of Hope’s Hospital. As Calgon promised to take her away, she opened the catalog.
Forget about the TV.
She found the punchbowl on page twenty. It cost the same as last year. Six-and-a-half books. She should have been relieved. Instead, her stomach flopped, and her palms felt slick.
For once, she couldn’t envision the compliments from the league women when she brought out the crystal-ish punchbowl filled with her secret mixture of Hawaiian Punch and Sprite.
Now, it just looked like an ordinary punchbowl.
She flipped through the pages, barely registering the watches, shower caddies, or bedding. Finally, she stopped at the only page that seemed to matter now. She traced the image with her finger and marveled over the color screen in a clean, white case with a chrome antenna that probably didn’t need the tips wrapped in aluminum foil.
She looked at her TV with the scratch on the faux wood cabinet from when Cassidy had launched a Barbie at Ron. The channel changer was loose and caused Marty to swear every time it came off in his hand.
The theme song for Hope’s Hospital started to play. In black and white, not color. She knew the lettering was gold because she’d seen pictures of it in magazines. But on her old TV, it just looked an ugly gray.
Madge slumped into the cushions. She had nowhere near a hundred and fifty books and couldn’t imagine how she’d get that many.
Forget about the TV. She flipped the pages back to the punchbowl.
Just a plain, glass punchbowl.
On Hope’s Hospital, Derek covered the cave entrance where he kept Jared, his twin brother, prisoner. Derek laughed with a sharp, cruel edge. He’d be marrying Carlotta today, and with Jared safely trapped in the cave, she’d never know the truth.
Madge had been watching this storyline for months, eagerly awaiting the wedding. But her mind drifted.
She imagined her living room filled with the league women. But now, instead of gushing over her new punchbowl set, it was her beautiful new TV.
I wish my husband would buy me a color TV.
You’re the first on the street to have one!
Just wait 'til that PTA woman hears about this . . .
Derek began tunneling out of the cave, hoping to make it in time to stop the wedding, but Madge missed it all.
* * *
By the time Thursday rolled around, Madge had forgotten about the TV. Mostly. She reminded herself that she didn’t needa TV. She needed a punchbowl and could surely save the six-and-a-half books required to have it in time for Christmas.
She repeated the mantra, even as her current TV looked junkier with each passing day compared to the color TV in the catalog. Stampy the TV—she’d decided that’s what she’d name it if it were hers—was new and state of the art while hers was a dinosaur. Outdated and imperfect. She found herself squinting at her tiny twelve inches—five whole inches smaller than Stampy—and pulling out the measuring tape when she was sure it couldn’t be more than nine. Even then, she was convinced the measuring tape was wrong.
At seven that evening, Madge stood on Barb’s porch, balancing a platter of sugar cookies. They were store-bought cookies rather than her usual homemade batch. But Cenna’s Bakery gave out double stamps for day-old cookies, and double stamps was nothing to sneeze at. Not when there was a TV—er, punchbowl to save for.
She knocked on the door. Mahogany. Probably a cheap veneer.
Barb opened the door, and Madge was assaulted by a gaggle of chattering female voices from inside.
“Hello, Barb. You look lovely, as always.” Madge painted on her best smile, hoping she wasn’t baring any teeth.
“Madge, darling, come in.” Barb wore a floor-length, bright orange caftan with wide, flowing sleeves and more costume jewelry than a respectable woman should wear. Her hair was swept into a bun, held in place by a glittery clip. She opened the door and swept her arm aside with a flourish, dressed like she was hosting a cocktail party rather than a league meeting.
Madge wanted to punch her for being more pretentious than her husband’s income warranted. Well, not a punch. Maybe a thump on the forehead.
She stepped inside.
Madge had always hated coming to Barb’s house. It wasn’t that she was jealous. No, that would be unbecoming and petty, and Madge prided herself on her humility.
It was just that Barb’s decor was too extravagant for the wife of an insurance salesman.
Half the back wall was a fireplace, surrounded by faux bricks all the way to the ceiling. Open bookcases flanked either side, with too many gaudy vases and figurines of tropical women. Her olive shag carpet was exquisite. Even Madge had to admit that. Even the glass-top coffee table looked more like it belonged in the lobby of a Hilton than in the living room of a nondescript small town.
She supposed some would call it lovely. Madge just didn’t care for it. At least that was what she told herself while she longed for Barb’s beehive lamp that would look perfect on her oak side table.
No one seemed to realize Madge had arrived. Twelve women had their eyes glued to Barb’s new TV on her new walnut cabinet sitting next to her new brass floor lamp.
It was simply gorgeous, and it wasn’t even turned on. The cabinet was raised on four legs of walnut, maybe oak. A row of speakers on either side of the screen gave the appearance of a much larger TV. But goodness, what a beautiful piece of furniture it was.
And then Barb pressed a button.
White snow filled the screen, and she turned the channel knob.
Pa was mucking out the barn while Laura complained that dumb old Nellie had called them country girls.
The hay was strands of golden yellow, like uncooked spaghetti. Not gray. Madge could almost smell the tall barn doors, a chestnut brown so rich it made her want to smooth her hand over the TV screen just to see if she’d get a splinter. Not gray. Laura’s calico dress was blue with white flowers.
Not gray with less-gray flowers.
Madge was mesmerized. Of course, she’d seen a color TV. She’d seen one at Sears when she’d picked up socks for the kids. But there was something magical about staring into Mary’s crystal-blue eyes, not in a store, but in someone’s home.
“Why don’t you take those into the kitchen,” Barb said, eyeing the platter with an air of snootiness that Madge didn’t care for. “I think everyone is too distracted for cookies right now.”
Madge widened her smile to prove that Barb had no effect on her.
Madge walked stiffly past the women gathered around the TV, refusing to turn her head even a little to gawk. She pushed through the kitchen door—a swinging one that she wished Marty would install in her kitchen—and set the tray down on the counter. A tray that wasn’t going to fool anyone.
They’d know she’d bought the cookies.
Madge felt her steam rise. Barb’s kitchen was beautiful. There was no denying that. But it wasn’t very functional. The laminate countertops would be scratched in the kitchen of a real cook. The white double-door fridge would be caked in pudding and spaghetti sauce in the kitchen of a real homemaker. And the glossy, white ceramic double sink would be chipped in the home of a real woman. So pretentious. So showy.
Madge was not jealous.
Turning back toward the living room, Madge mustered up her best smile when something on top of the trash grabbed her attention.
A familiar shade of green.
She inched across the kitchen, feeling like she was doing something wrong.
Or about to.
On top of the trash were four entire strips of green stamps. Thrown away like garbage.
Though the stamps were green, Madge saw nothing but red. While every other housewife in town collected stamps, pasting them livingly into books, Barb didn’t. She didn’t need to, she often said. Her husband made more than enough money that she needn’t clutter her home with cheap knock-offs from a catalog. When Barb wanted something, she waved her hand, and her husband bought it.
One more reason to dislike her.
Madge’s curiosity was too strong to resist. She listened for approaching footsteps. Nothing but cackling laughter and one “I just love it!” She quickly glanced toward the door and dug her hands into the trash. More stamps. And under that, scores of them.
Enough to fill an entire book.
In the trash. To be thrown out.
As Madge stood in her rival’s kitchen, she found herself unexpectedly faced with the biggest decision of her life.
Take them or leave them?
She couldn’t seriously consider stealing from a respected member of the Wednesday Afternoon Women’s Auxiliary League.
Then again, it wasn’t really stealing, was it? Barb certainly wouldn’t miss something she’d thrown away.
No. She wouldn’t miss them one bit.
ONE WEEK LATER
The house was a wreck.
For a week, every thought swirled around stamps. Madge dreamt of them—green, swirling blobs nipping at her heels. Every raindrop carried a hint of stamp adhesive that brought a combination of joy and unease that she might never have enough. Stoplights were now green, yellow, and red stamps. When Calgon offered to take her away, she envisioned it in a bath filled with stamps the shade of Granny Smiths.
When the Sunday paper came, she pored over the ad section, clipping coupons and making lists of things she didn’t need. Flipping through the yellow pages, she listed every business in town that offered stamps, then a separate list of double stamp days. One store in Portland offered triple stamps, but after careful consideration, she admitted they didn’t need a set of new tires.
Then again, maybe they did. She’d have to send Marty out for a good kick.
The phone rang constantly. Knowing it was Cassidy’s teacher, the PTA president, and her Camp Fire co-leader, she let the phone ring until they gave up. She finally sent Cassidy to school with a note for the principal saying she had “woman problems.”
Principal Iverson wouldn’t dare delve deeper into that.
She’d forgotten it was her day to be room mother until Ron picked up the phone.
“Madge,” Sandra asked, sounding strange, “is that you? We’ve all been worried. Mr. Iverson said you’d had a hysterectomy. Do you need anything? I can get the girls to make some casseroles.”
“I’m fine, dear. Why do you ask?” Madge crooked the phone with her shoulder while searching—for the fourth time—under the sofa and Marty’s chair for wayward stamps.
“You were room mother today. Mr. Iverson had to escort the kids to the cafeteria. You know how much he hates that.”
Madge paused, frozen in mid-search. What day was it? It couldn’t be Friday already. She raced to the kitchen and glanced at the school lunch menu taped to the fridge, where Cassidy had meticulously crossed out the days.
It was Friday. Goodness.
She thought back to what Sandra had said, finally paying attention. “He said I had a what?”
Over the next three minutes, Sandra ran through a list of neglected responsibilities. There’d been the bake sale to raise money to make the football field greener. She’d forgotten to drop off the cans at the recycling center for her Cub Scout troop and missed parade-walking practice for her Camp Fire girls.
No one needed to remind her that she’d failed—twice—to pick up Martin from his karate class. Of all people, Barb had dropped him off with a sneer from her car window that clearly indicated what she thought of Madge’s sudden bouts of forgetfulness.
Only one thing had made her feel better in those moments. She’d climbed the ladder to the attic and counted her growing collection of completed books.
She’d compiled over thirty in a week. Some included what she’d “borrowed” from Barb’s kitchen, others from her existing books.
Most had come from a week-long shopping spree. She wasn’t looking forward to the Sunday check-balancing session with Marty. She had a lot of explaining to do.
Sandra also awaited an answer. Madge offered the only thing she could conjure.
“Yes, dear. I had a hysterectomy.”
* * *
An hour before Marty was due home, Madge headed to the attic.
Before Stampy, she’d spend that hour picking up toys and straightening couch cushions. She’d race through the house looking for stray mittens and lampshades that were slightly off-center.
Things were different now.
Opening a book, she gazed at the pages. She’d spent hours lining up the stamps just right before pasting them in, making sure there were proper right angles with no bubbles. She smoothed her hand over the completed books, then opened the catalog.
As it always happened, her good mood took a dive. Thirty books was such a small number. It didn’t occur to her that she already had enough for three punchbowls. Mostly because she no longer thought about something as trivial as a punchbowl. Hope’s Hospital in color was the only thing that mattered now.
And thirty was a far cry from a hundred and fifty.
She placed the books back in their crate, headed to the basement, and began taking inventory. Forty cans of canned meat. Sixty-two cans of corn. One hundred and fourteen rolls of toilet paper. All things she needed. Or would eventually need. That was what she told herself as she ticked boxes and updated numbers that grew higher after each shopping trip.
What Madge didn’t need was the sixty jars of strained peas. No matter. She could donate them to the church. Marty was always looking for a tax write-off. She’d eventually have to explain where they’d come from, but that conversation was months away. She also didn’t need ten boxes of red hair dye, nine cases of diapers, or eight boxes of plant food. Madge preferred fake plants, though she had a cactus in a pot that Cassidy had painted in kindergarten. But she’d come away with triple stamps for that purchase, so it had been worth it.
She surveyed the cramped corner where she’d been piling up her purchases. Before long, she’d run out of room unless she moved the Christmas boxes to the other side. And the washer. Maybe it was time to finally get rid of the broken ping-pong table. Marty had been promising to fix the wobbly leg forever. Her children loved playing, wobbly leg and all, but she needed the space.
The kids would understand. They’d forget all about playing ping-pong when they could better spend their time with Stampy.
Before that could happen, though, she’d need a lot more stamps. At the rate she was going, it would take five years.
Every woman on the street would have one by then. The thought made her tremble.
Madge needed a new plan.
THREE DAYS LATER
Shortly after she saw the kids off for school, Madge donned the housecoat Marty’s mother had given her as a wedding gift. The grisly dressing gown was undoubtedly intended to have them sleeping in separate bedrooms. The first thing Madge had done when they’d returned from their honeymoon was to tuck it away in a box while cursing the woman under her breath.
But it would create the perfect disguise. No one would recognize the thick drapery-like fabric with the lace neckline so high that it practically had her gasping for breath. Not to mention the painted-on peacocks in the odd shade of Pepto Bismol. Not even Marty would spot her if he happened to drive by. He wouldn’t, but Madge wasn’t about to push her luck.
Rather than taking a right toward Main Street, she turned down a side road, avoiding the school. She sped past Mrs. Brady’s house, who might not recognize the housecoat but would know Madge’s wood-paneled wagon. They both had the same model with the same avocado hood. They could spot each other’s cars from a mile away.
The wagon jerked over so many potholes on the dirt road behind the high school, it was a wonder there was any road left. She couldn’t tell if her shaking hands were due to the bumpy road or her nerves. Finally, as she turned off the dirt road and onto the pavement behind Danielson’s Grocer, an awful flash of clarity hit.
What am I doing?
She should turn back, go home, and forget this crazy scheme. Her nerves were shot, probably because she’d barely slept. She’d tossed and turned while images of being carted away in the back of a police car refused to allow her a moment’s rest.
She turned the car slightly, prepared to head back the way she’d come.
A tall, pimply-faced boy crept out the grocer’s back door, scanned the parking lot, and stepped behind the dumpster.
Can’t turn back now.
Madge pulled the wagon beside the dumpster and turned off the motor. It wasn’t just her trembling hands now. Her entire body shook as if she were naked in a blizzard. She fumbled on a pair of dark sunglasses and headscarf, then grabbed something covered in foil from the passenger seat, nearly dropping it as she slid from the car.
A light drizzle dotted her sunglasses, doubling her vision. The darkness eerily matched her growing sense of foreboding.
“Mrs. Dillard? That you?”
The boy’s voice cracked in the chaos of teen hormones. And maybe, Madge thought, from the same nerves that rattled her.
Maybe he’s had second thoughts, too. It would be so much easier if he took the decision from her.
“I got the stuff. We need to hurry. I’m not supposed to be back here.”
Madge couldn’t decide if she was relieved or filled with regret. Still, she stepped behind the dumpster.
“Is that it?” He peered over his thick glasses, sniffing.
Madge slid the foil from the glass Pyrex. “It’s right here. Potato chip casserole, just like you asked for.”
“With creamed corn?”
She was feeling jumpier with each passing second. They’d already been here too long. “Yes, dear, with creamed corn. Let’s get this over with.”
The stock boy pulled a stack of glorious green sheets from his jacket, glimpsing left and right before thrusting them at her.
“Put them in my purse, dear. I’m holding this casserole.”
“My mom told me never to—”
“Just do it!” Shocked at her raised voice, Madge felt a flush. “I don’t have a free hand. See?” She lifted the casserole to drive the point home.
“Yeah. Okay, Mrs. Dillard.” He pried open her purse and stuffed the sheets inside. Then he quickly grabbed the casserole and turned to the door.
“Wait.” Her emotions were all over the place. Fear, joy, the thrill of doing something so unlike her that she felt like Monique on Hope’s Hospital, housewife by day, secret call girl by night.
She shook it off. “When will you have more?”
The boy looked around the empty parking lot. “I’ll call you.”
“Not after three, dear. The kids start coming home then.”
“Yeah, okay. I gotta go.” He slipped through the door and left Madge alone on the pavement.
She reached into her purse and did a quick count. Ten. Just like he’d promised. She hadn’t even realized she’d been shaking until her tremors ceased at the sight of them.
All those beautiful stamps.
As a smile crept to her lips, she forgot about the guilt, about the fear that had shaken her to her core.
Pushing the sunglasses up, Madge tightened her headscarf and rushed back to her car with plans to stock up on creamed corn.
She was going to need a lot.
* * *
Back home, she changed out the godforsaken housecoat and into her favorite apron. She pulled the Kirby from the closet and glanced at her dirty carpets while she unwrapped the cord. She hadn’t vacuumed in two weeks, and the rugs hadn’t been beaten. She’d fallen dreadfully behind on her housework, but other things kept coming up.
Things like . . .
She abandoned the vacuum and opened her purse. Pulling out the stamps she’d traded for a casserole, she took in the aroma of adhesive that calmed her. Ten measly sheets would make little difference. She needed more, but working with the stock boy was already risky. He was a high schooler, and although her children were still in elementary school and there was little chance they had the same friends, kids talked.
She flipped through the catalog and spotted the punchbowl. A twinge of remorse prevented her from turning to the next page. She barely remembered wanting such a trivial item, but who said she couldn’t save up for both? Look how much she’d saved already. There was nothing saying she couldn’t save an extra six-and-a-half books.
But she’d need to speed things up.
With the vacuuming forgotten, she glanced at her watch and turned on the TV just in time for Hope’s Hospital. But when the intro began—lacking color—she found she could no longer enjoy her favorite show in varying shades of gray.
She turned the knob, watching as a pinpoint of light faded to black. She hoped Stampy would arrive in time for her to watch Jared locate evil Derek’s hideout on the mysterious island before he could harness the power of the cursed diamond.
* * *
Madge stood before the judge, her apron cradling her body like a shield.
“I’m innocent, Your Honor!”
The judge peered at her from beneath bushy eyebrows. “Silence! It’s time for your sentencing.”
One by one, the jury walked to their seats, each spitting horrible names as they passed.
“Your pot roast is under-seasoned!”
She fanned herself, sweat flying from her perfectly sprayed hair. “You don’t understand! It wasn’t me! It was her!”
Gasps circulated the courtroom as Madge pointed at . . . Madge.
No. Not Madge, but her evil twin.
“Well, well, well. I thought my goody-goody twin wasn’t smart enough to figure out my plan. I guess I was wrong. But you’re not so smart, after all, Madge.” Evil Marge reached into her apron pocket and pulled out a large, glittering rock.
Madge stepped back. “It can’t be!”
“That’s right, darling sister. I’ve found the cursed diamond of Hood Valley!” She caressed the diamond, running her hands lovingly over its surface. “With this diamond, I’ll be able to replicate millions of green stamps. Billions! I’ll have every item in that catalog!”
Evil Marge took a step toward her cowering sister and smiled. “And once I have everything you’ve ever wanted, I’ll have your darling Marty, too.”
“Not so fast, evil Marge.” The stock boy appeared in the doorway and held up a sheet of stamps. “I’d like to make an offer you can’t refuse.”
The judge banged his gavel, but instead of a hammering noise, it rang with each slam against the bench. “Has the jury made their decision?”
The foreman stood. “We have, Your Honor.”
Madge looked into the gallery, where Marty appeared to lust after evil Marge and the diamond in her hand. Cassidy, Martin, and Ron sat together, whispering gleefully about their new mother.
Madge screamed. “Not my babies!”
The judge’s gavel rang out. “Silence!”
The foreman unrolled a long sheet of green stamps and read. “The jury sentences the defendant to forty years, to be carried out in a cave, where no one will ever find her.”
“Take the thief to the cave!” The judge’s gavel rang, and rang, and rang. The bailiff wrenched Madge’s wrists into a pair of diamond-encrusted handcuffs and dragged her from the courtroom.
Marty held his hand toward evil Marge. “As soon as she’s in that cave, we can finally be married.”
Ring, ring, ring.
Madge awoke in a sweat. Disoriented, she felt her wrists. No handcuffs. No jury.
No evil Marge.
Yet the ringing continued.
She fumbled for the receiver. “Dillard residence.” Her voice was thick and groggy.
The pastor’s wife spoke. “Madge? Is that you? You sound sick.”
Madge cleared her throat. “Allergies.” She glanced at the window. It had to be mid-afternoon. What day was it? Tuesday? She sat up, trying to remember what she’d signed up for now. Sheets of stamps slid from her lap.
“Thank goodness.” The pastor’s wife sounded unsure but pressed on. “I wanted to be sure we’re still on for next Thursday’s dinner. I hadn’t heard from you.”
Next Thursday? What was she supposed to do next Thursday?
Oh, my. Madge fumbled with the receiver, nearly dropping it.
“No, I haven’t forgotten.”
“That’s good to hear. See you then, Madge. I hope your allergies improve.”
“Thank you, Edna.” Madge hung up, trying to remember what she’d promised to cook. She stumbled to the kitchen and flipped open her pocket calendar. She read down the list.
Three turkey casseroles. Five batches of sugar cookies. Two lasagnas, one vegetarian. Fifty potato rolls.
She had just over a week to feed an army and not enough supplies.
Five minutes later, Madge headed out the door.
* * *
For an hour, Madge scoured the store, hoping to catch the boy to arrange another swap. As she moved up one aisle and down the next, she tried not to panic. While mindlessly grabbing ingredients from memory, she kept her eyes forward, hoping to catch a glimpse of the boy and the funny way he snapped his neck to flip his overgrown mop of hair out of his eyes. She’d gotten to know his quirks, having met him behind the dumpsters four times this week, trading stamps for casseroles. They’d honed the transaction down to less than two minutes, though it was still heart-racing every time.
Finally, she grabbed a twenty-pound bag of flour and hurried to the register. Annie tried the usual small talk, but Madge’s mind was elsewhere as she scanned the store—right, left, and right again.
Madge took the stamps and receipt, then hesitated.
Annie cocked her head. “Something wrong? Here, let me look at your receipt.” She reached forward.
Madge snatched the receipt back, then laughed nervously. “Sorry. No, dear. Nothing’s wrong. I was just wondering; I didn’t see Henry. He usually works after school, right?”
Annie straightened with a look Madge couldn’t define. Was it suspicion? Of course not. What was there to be suspicious about?
“Henry doesn’t work here anymore.” Annie leaned in and Madge had to keep from recoiling. “You didn’t hear this from me, but he was fired.”
Madge gasped. “Fired?” Her mind reeled. He could have been fired over any number of offenses. It certainly couldn’t have anything to do with her.
Annie leaned closer, practically crawling over the counter. “He was stealing green stamps. Can you believe it? Such a nice boy, too.”
Yes, Madge could believe it. The question was . . .
“Did he, I mean, did they find out why? I mean, what does a teenage boy want with green stamps?”
Annie leaned back. “Mr. Danielson didn’t say, but it’s obvious. He was selling them.”
Madge’s ear-piercing laughter rang out, quieting nearby shoppers. She felt faint, and her knees threatened to buckle as she furiously fanned herself.
Annie eyed her curiously.
Think! “I’m, uh, going through the change . . . ” As if that explained anything. She wanted to die right there at the checkout.
But judging from Annie’s sympathetic expression, it somehow explained everything.
“My mother is going through that now. Hot baths. Every night. She swears by it.” Annie fumbled through a drawer and pulled out a coupon. “Calgon helps. Twenty cents off. Here.”
Madge took the coupon, thanked Annie, and pushed her cart quickly outside, grateful for the cool breeze.
It had to be a hundred degrees in there.
* * *
At home, things got rapidly worse.
Marty’s yellow Pinto waited in the driveway. Madges’ stomach plummeted. He hadn’t seemed sick when he’d left for work that morning. It wouldn’t have mattered if he had. Marty never took sick days. His motto was, “If I’m well enough to make it to the toilet, I’m well enough to clog the toilet at the office.” So, there were only two reasons Marty would be home early on a Wednesday afternoon.
Either he’d been fired, or she was in trouble.
And he’d just made salesman of the year for the fifth year in a row.
Her nerves seesawed.
Before opening the door, Madge put on her best Happy Homemaker smile, straightened her coat, and swallowed with a hard click.
She’d expected to see the kids gathered at the TV, arguing over their favorite afternoon shows before the homework hour. Instead, the living room was empty. No kids, no Marty. She checked her watch. Quarter past four.
They never argued in front of the kids. They’d made that deal before their wedding day. They’d both come from childhoods filled with loud disagreements and terrifying screaming matches. Neither had wanted that for their children. So they’d become practiced at smiling and putting on a front until the kids were in bed, quietly working through their disputes.
Only once had Marty sent the kids upstairs before an argument, when she’d crashed the Plymouth—his baby—and had let the insurance lapse. That night, while the kids listened at the top of the stairs, Marty and Madge had it out in the kitchen.
She glanced at the kitchen door and debated escaping back through the door and running down the street.
Instead, she shuffled forward.
* * *
Madge knew her smile looked more like a painting of a scream as she scurried through the kitchen, putting groceries away in all the wrong places. But she couldn’t help it.
Marty’s face looked a bit like a scream, too.
“Hello, dear, what brings you home so early?” Her voice was too high and jittery, like she’d had fourteen cups of Folgers. The kind that came in a can, the kind that promised to turn a grumpy husband into a satisfied one.
Now, a grumpy husband stared at her from the kitchen table, and she didn’t think Folgers or its magic crystals would help. But she was on autopilot.
“Folgers, dear?” She dropped the can on her foot and stifled a scream that had been bubbling from the moment she’d turned onto their street.
“Sit down, Madge. We need to have a talk.”
Robotic, Madge forced herself to the table. She was too fidgety to sit but did as she was told. Marty wasn’t the type to get riled up unless it was something big.
And he looked as riled as ever.
“Slow day at the office? What a treat to have you home.” She tried to think of what he knew that could have had him leave the office. She thought of the stock boy. What he might have said and who he might have said it to. “Folgers, dear?”
She’d asked that already.
Marty pulled something from his briefcase that brought on such anxiety, such horror, that Madge worried she’d pass out right here in the kitchen. She looked at the thing—the terrible thing—with revulsion, resisting the urge to fan herself. Running her fingers through her thick hair, she wished for once that it was thinner so the change wouldn’t be so agonizing. Her fingers came away soaked in sweat.
She’d never been more terrified to see a bank statement in all her married life.
He pushed the printout across the table. The statement usually encompassed no more than two pages, sometimes one.
He fanned out ten, at least.
“Can you explain this?”
The last thing she needed was to blurt something stupid, which was precisely what she did.
“It’s the bank statement, dear.”
Marty’s eyes narrowed into the look reserved for when she said something stupid.
“I know it’s the bank statement, dear. I want you to look at the last line. Here.”
She followed his pointing finger and didn’t care for the dizzying sensation that followed.
Not one little bit.
She was aware she’d been spending more than usual. She’d known she’d gotten a little carried away. She hadn’t known by how much because she’d been avoiding balancing the checkbook, something she usually did nightly and had conveniently forgotten for over a week. She supposed she’d gone a tad overboard.
She hadn’t anticipated that she’d not only gone overboard but had sunk into a bottomless ocean with an iron bank statement shackled to her ankle.
By three hundred and forty dollars.
“There’s month’s worth of groceries in the basement. Tires. A welding mask.” Marty sat back, blowing out a long breath. “I don’t know if you’re aware, but we don’t weld. Unless you’ve taken up another new hobby.”
“No.” It was all she could say.
The next three hours were a blur of yelling, accusations, questions. What had she been thinking? Did she think he was made of money? What was she planning to do with two hundred pounds of brown sugar?
For that, she had an answer. “Well, the church dinner—”
“We’ll be the ones begging for a handout! We might as well start dressing the kids in rags because it’s all we’ll be able to afford after this.” He shook the bank statement—all ten pages—like a rag doll.
Hours after they should have eaten dinner, Ron peeked into the kitchen, stared at his parents—one crying and one on the verge—and hurried back out.
* * *
That night, no one slept. Several times, Madge heard the occasional creak as one of the kids shuffled over the loose plank in the hallway on the way to the bathroom. Marty’s snore was absent. Normally, she would have reveled in a snoreless night.
Not tonight. She knew what was on his mind.
Madge was awake for another reason. She’d heard other wives tell the same story, crying over their Folgers while they admitted that their husbands had done The Unspeakable Thing. The thing that Madge knew Marty would never do. Under any circumstances.
Partly because it wasn’t in him to do it, mostly because she knew she’d never push him that far. While she comforted other women in her circle, she secretly basked in the pride of knowing that her husband would never think of doing The Unspeakable Thing to her.
Not my Marty.
But, after all these years, he’d done it. The Unspeakable Thing that changed a marriage forever. Crying silently into her pillow, Madge ached.
For the first time in their marriage, Marty had put her on a budget and taken away her checkbook. Worse, he’d done The Unspeakable Thing.
Madge was to be given an allowance.
It was too ghastly to think about.
She felt like Lucy, pouting after a row with Ricky, except Marty’s yelling had been in plain English.
Finally, his breathing deepened, and his snore broke the silence. Madge felt the muscles in her back relax and her fists loosen. Maybe she could get an hour or two of sleep.
And then she had a revelation. The solution to everything, the thing that would make Marty see that it had all been worth it. She’d have to be more creative, but it could be done. It would be done.
She crept out of bed as quietly as she could and closed the bedroom door behind her. Five minutes later, as she sat in the dark attic taking in the sweet scent of stamps, she smiled for the first time in days.
It was time to expand her operation outside Hood Valley.
* * *
After twenty-four hours without shopping and no stamps added to her collection, her hands began to shake. The tremors continued through breakfast, and after she vomited up half a slice of buttered toast, the shaking only worsened.
Dishes were piled in the sink, and dust was collecting. Madge paced, bit her nails, and wrung her hands. Though every fan in the house blasted cool air, she was sweating bullets.
When she could no longer stand doing nothing, she drove to the high school and parked in the back lot. Her nerves were so shattered that she nearly screamed when the bell rang across the football field. As teenagers poured into the sunshine, Madge scanned the area for the awkward, pimply-faced boy. With so many, it was nearly impossible to pick him out from the crowd. Panic threatened to take over, and she’d almost decided to drive to his house. She knew where he lived, but it would be risky.
A risk that suddenly seemed minimal in comparison to her bitter need.
Then she spotted him, towering over the rest. His acne glistened in the sunlight as he struggled with a stack of books.
Close to hysterical, Madge honked, grabbing the attention of every hormone-imbalanced teenager in town. Aside from Henry, who was staring at a group of cheerleaders.
She breathed in, held it, and let out a slow breath. Her hands still shook, but she was no longer in danger of hyperventilating. Until a gang of girls blocked her view of Henry, and Madge worried she’d lose him altogether.
The girls scattered, the field cleared, and Henry was left to walk alone, staring straight ahead.
She slid from behind the wheel and did the only thing a respected member of the Wednesday Afternoon Women’s Auxiliary League could do to grab someone’s attention.
“Henry!” She waved her arms like she was doing jumping jacks without the leg workout. When that didn’t work, she swung her arms in a circle and ran in place. “Henry! Over here!”
He saw and tentatively waved.
Madge felt immense relief, as if she’d been stranded on a deserted island and had finally got the attention of a passing plane.
“Get in,” she said when he met her on the pavement.
He glanced nervously around but slid into the passenger seat.
Her hair thoroughly soaked, Madge turned to Henry. “You’ve got to help me out with some stamps.”
“I can’t. I’m not working at—”
“I only need a few!” She lowered her voice at his cringe, then added, “Just enough to get me by. Until I can find another supplier.”
He chuckled, though his laughter had an uneasy edge. “I, uh, quit that job, Mrs. Dillard.”
She grunted, a throaty squawk that sounded like it came from someone else. “You were fired. I heard all about it. Over the stamps. Just how many people were you selling to?”
He looked down at his hands. “Just you and one other lady.”
There was another? Madge had . . . competition?
“You don’t know her. She lives on the other side of the mountain. She comes into town once a week to make a trade.”
He blushed. “Candy. Mostly Pop Rocks. Mr. Danielson banned them after that kid mixed them with Coke and his stomach exploded. It’s hard to get them, and she had . . . a connection.”
Madge blew out a breath. She’d heard the rumor of the Exploding Boy. Some said it had been Mikey, which made sense. He’d eat anything.
He ruffled his hair, much in the same way Madge mussed her boys’ mops, and the image gave her a moment of pause. Henry was just a kid, not much older than Cassidy. Yet here she was, interrogating a child who only wanted candy and potato chip casseroles.
What was she doing? What had she become?
She had a moment of clarity and considered pushing Henry out of the car, driving home, and forgetting all about color TVs, punchbowls, and triple stamp days.
Salvaging what remained of her old life. A life before stamps.
“But . . . there is a guy.”
That snapped her back. “What guy?”
He glanced nervously through the windshield. “He’s a real trader, not like me. He’s in the big leagues.”
He fumbled with his hands. “Not here. At a store in Bonnet’s Post.”
Madge had never shopped in Bonnet’s Post. In fact, she rarely drove through except to get to Pantaloon Lake, where they picnicked every summer. Named after a bonnet that an unknown pioneer woman had dropped on the westward trail—that someone had later nailed to a post—the town had grown from a marker on the road to what it was today, a rundown whistle-stop with a reputation for rowdy bars and loose women.
“He sells them. For cash.”
Cash? Marty’s allowance was a strict thirty dollars a week, pushing her already strained budget. Madge barely had enough funds to get by, let alone anything extra.
But . . . what other choice did she have?
She made Henry write down the information on the back of a school menu, dropped him off a block from his house, and drove until the sun went down.
* * *
She knew from the potholed streets and abandoned farms that she was in Bonnet’s Post as soon as she exited the highway. Like Hood Valley, there was only one main street and a single grocery store.
Unlike Hood Valley’s grocer, the Red Apple store was anything but welcoming.
Madge turned off the road into the dusty parking lot and parked in front of a broken ice cooler, far from a motorcycle with long, impossible-to-reach handlebars. She eyed a man in dirty overalls inside the phone booth, yelling and banging his fist against the only pane of glass that remained.
Was she really going to do this? It made her skin crawl just being here, safe inside her wagon. The thought of getting out brought on a new wave of tremors.
Or maybe it was something else that brought on the shakes. There, plastered to the store window, was a large, green sign that declared, “We give S&H Green Stamps.”
Madge got out of the car, clutching her purse.
I’ve come this far already. No use backing out now.
The bell over the door announced her entrance, only making her feel exposed. Two women argued over the last greasy chicken thigh at the hot case. A clerk with so many tattoos he looked like the Illustrated Man stood behind the counter, flipping through the kind of magazine they wouldn’t dare sell at Danielson’s. Even over the arguing, Madge was unnerved by how quiet it was. The absence of nearby traffic combined with the buzz of fluorescent lights gave the place an air of abandonment. It also made her wonder how easily a person could disappear in a town like this.
No amount of stamps was worth this amount of panic.
She debated whether she should buy something—anything—even a pack of that new BubbleYum that Cassidy kept going on about. She already stuck out like a sore thumb, and it would be all the more suspicious to leave without purchasing something.
Then again, it wasn’t likely she’d ever return.
She reached for the knob—no automatic doors here, just a windowed door barely hanging from a cracked frame—when she saw him.
Just as Henry had described.
His black hair was heavily greased with Brylcreem, like the boys in her childhood had used, and long sideburns framed his pale face. Wearing a dingy white tee beneath a leather vest, he looked like the Bonnet’s Post version of James Dean, only younger and less good-looking. The look was entirely out of place when combined with the push broom in his hand.
Though, upon closer examination, he wasn’t pushing the broom as much as keeping it moving.
Their eyes met briefly. He nodded toward the back, then pushed away.
Madge followed toward a sad wall of wrinkled burritos and margarine in a cooler. As she rounded a corner, her shoulder knocked a bag of marshmallows from a shelf, and when they fell to the floor, they shattered into hundreds of fragments. She picked up the bag and noted the expiration date.
More than a decade old. She hadn’t even known marshmallows could break.
She inched toward the shadow lurking behind a plastic curtain.
A voice—cold and harsh—whispered.
“You here for stamps?”
Madge’s tongue cemented as she thought of Derek, speeding through the Bermuda Triangle on a stolen boat, searching for the mysterious island where his evil twin was suspected to be hiding out. Jared had kidnapped a government scientist to harness the power of the cursed diamond. Derek had struggled through the labyrinth of a secret laboratory for an entire episode. When he’d finally reached the top, the disembodied voice of his evil twin had spoken.
You here for the diamond?
Madge shook her head and cleared her throat. “Yes. Stamps. No diamond.”
“Nothing, sorry.” She wondered if he could see her hands shaking from behind the curtain of the gloomy storeroom.
“Ask for the restroom key. Meet me behind the dumpster next to the restroom door. Wait two minutes.”
“But . . . ”
He was gone.
The buzz of the overhead lights seemed louder. Madge told herself she could still hop back into her car, speed out of this godforsaken town and forget about stamps, cursed diamonds, and evil twins. She could leave and forget this whole business.
The man behind the register didn’t bother looking up as she passed, though she was sure he’d been watching. She was an out-of-towner, after all, and Madge knew all too well what that meant, having spent her life in a slightly larger small town where everyone kept a watchful eye on outsiders.
She would have made it if not for the flicker of a TV behind him.
Madge stopped dead in her tracks as she saw Bob Barker in color. A Barker Beauty ran her hand over a color TV, just one of the prizes that could be someone’s if the price were right.
The good sense she usually carried disappeared once again, going down in a flame of color.
* * *
She didn’t like being out of view of her car, but it couldn’t be helped.
“What’s your price?”
The boy leaned against the dirty back wall while a breeze kicked up the dust in the back lot. “Forty a book.”
Madge held in a gasp. “Forty what? Dollars?”
“Yup.” He pulled a Benson and Hedges from a pack he’d had rolled into his sleeve and stuck it between his teeth. He didn’t light it but left the cigarette hanging from his lips. “Cash. No checks.”
Well, the joke’s on him, isn’t it?
Madges’ shoulders slumped with the realization she’d gone through all of this for nothing. Forty dollars was more than a week’s allowance, which she didn’t have. Judging by Marty’s perpetually pursed lips the last few days, she doubted she could talk him into an advance.
She looked at the boy—he was, after all, still a boy—and ran her eyes over his vest covered in parking lot dust. Just a kid trying to feign manhood. Or, what he thought was a man, anyway.
Then his eyes shifted left. He pulled the cigarette from his mouth and straightened.
A girl—sixteen, seventeen at most—came around the corner. Her blonde hair had been braided, held in place by a bow that bounced against her back. She wore bell-bottoms and a pair of brown wooden clogs. If she’d had an origami hat, she’d look like a Dutch windmill girl.
Suddenly, this boy who dressed like a hooligan, who’d put on the dangerous thug act only moments before, melted.
“Hi, Becky.” His voice cracked as he tripped over her name and his cheeks flushed a shade the universal color of teenage love.
The girl blinked at Madge with a sweet smile. “Hi! Are you Jeffie’s mom?”
Suddenly, the gameplay she’d been searching for became clear. Madge returned the girl’s smile.
“Why, yes, dear. I am. I was just . . . ” Madge hurriedly rummaged through her purse and pulled out the only thing she could find. She held out a packet of Fun Dips. “You forgot your afternoon snack, dear.”
He looked mildly confused, but only for a moment. He snatched the package. “Thanks, uh, Mom.”
Becky peered at something sticking out of Madges’ purse. “No way. Is that what I think it is?”
Madge glanced down. A small cardboard box stuck out from the purse’s opening. Madge pulled it out, holding it up to the sun. “Do you mean this?”
“How did you find one? My mom says they’re sold out everywhere.” Becky’s eyes glazed over with disappointment. “It was all I wanted for my birthday.”
Madge had been lucky enough to find one tucked behind an Evil Knievel stunt bike in the toy section at Sears. She was surprised to have stumbled across the hottest item of the summer and had snatched it up with plans to tuck it away for Cassidy’s Christmas present.
Now, she had a better plan for it.
“I just got lucky,” Madge answered, eyeing the girl.
Becky looked longingly at the cardboard for a moment longer before turning back to Jeffie. “I guess I should get home. I have that algebra test to study for.” She glanced once more at Madge. “Nice to meet you, Mrs. Howard.”
“You too, dear.”
Once Becky crossed the street, Madge turned to Jeffie, who watched Becky walk along the road as the first streetlight flickered to life.
She smiled. For once, she wasn’t shaking.
“I have a proposition for you,” Madge said and pulled the Pet Rock from her purse. “I think you’ll find it hard to refuse.”
* * *
Over the next week, Madge discovered she had a hidden talent for bartering. Pop Rocks, GI Joe’s, and even mood rings gave her more trading power than cash. Two towns over, she’d traded a Magic 8-ball for ten books of stamps. An elated bag boy gave up twelve books for a Rubik’s Cube. And a college-bound teen gladly gave up a whopping twenty-two books for a lava lamp.
Madge was making a killing.
She’d mostly stuck to items her kids had socked away into drawers, bored with the playthings of holidays long gone. But it didn’t take long before she began sneaking other bartering supplies after everyone left for their days—items that would be missed.
One morning as she rummaged through closets and peeked under beds, there was nothing left to trade. She’d practically cleaned the house out. When Marty asked why everything was disappearing, she replied, “Spring cleaning, dear.”
He didn’t question her further, and Madge sent up a silent prayer thanking God that he hadn’t yet checked his toolbox.
She told herself she’d replace everything.
* * *
Madge had never worked harder to stretch thirty dollars.
Even with all the bags of flour, canned veggies, and boxes of cereal stuffed into the basement corner, she couldn’t scrape together a complete meal. Marty was a meat and potatoes man, two things she hadn’t stocked up on.
Time was just one more thing Madge was short on these days. She was running all over town, making clandestine trades for stamps. Not just Hood Valley, either. She met with dealers as far away as St. John’s, and twice a week, she drove to Multnomah Falls to meet a park ranger who wanted squirrel hides. So, she drove to Welches every Friday to meet with her squirrel hide supplier.
After the gas crisis a couple of years back, Marty had become a stickler about unnecessary driving. If only he knew. Thank goodness the gas in Welches was cheaper at forty-nine cents per gallon. It was still expensive, but the price in town was a whopping fifty-seven cents. She worried what the state of the country would be if it ever got all the way up to a dollar. The economy would collapse.
This was why she tossed her receipt in the trash can outside the store. She couldn’t risk Marty seeing what she was spending. As she let go of the receipt, her heart jumped into her throat as she realized her stamps had stuck to the receipt and gone into the trash.
Panic-stricken, she dove her hands into the trash, sifted through the remnants of someone’s burger, and pulled the soggy stamps into the sunshine. She’d have to wipe the ketchup off, but at least she hadn’t lost them.
I wonder how many others . . . oh. Oh my.
Madge hurried to her car. She had some planning to do.
* * *
After everyone was in bed, she waited.
When Marty began to snore, she slipped out of bed and quietly donned her housecoat, headscarf, and a high pair of galoshes.
The streets were empty, so she didn’t bother with the dirt road this time. Madge got out of the car and tried to peer over the top of the dumpster, then raced back to the car and opened the hatch. After dumping gloves, jumper cables, and a tire iron from a wooden crate, she returned to the dumpster.
Madge stood on the crate, clicked her flashlight, and peered inside.
There was a pile of lettuce in the corner and the pungent odor of some rather questionable packaged meat. Other than that, Madge thought she could navigate the dumpster without getting too dirty, so long as her flashlight held out.
She took a deep breath, climbed over the edge, and began rummaging for the shade of green that haunted her dreams.
* * *
Her intuition had been correct. Madge hit the jackpot.
Climbing backward from the dumpster, she didn’t have to look in a mirror to know she was a mess. The smell of rotten meat and cartons of spoiled milk soaked her housecoat and left clumps in her hair. She’d have to toss her housecoat into the dumpster; she couldn’t possibly wear it in the car. It would be morning soon, but from the moon’s position, she still had time to get home without being caught in her pajamas.
She’d found stamps stuck to receipts, strips of stamps pasted to the insides of paper bags, and even entire sheets. She’d also found a driver’s license, two expired library cards, and a twenty-dollar bill. Madge’s night of vagrancy had taught her an important lesson in throwing things out at home.
She dropped to the pavement and unzipped the housecoat, prepared to toss it into the dumpster when someone behind her cleared their throat.
Her blood ran cold, and her head began to throb in panic. Why hadn’t she looked around first? She tried to think of any weapons in her purse to fend off a potential attack. She had a pen, some bobby pins, and her keys.
Could she fight off an assailant with a bobby pin?
Madge knew that voice. In fact, she’d heard it recently at a school assembly during a presentation on safety and learning how to become responsible members of the community.
She had to have the worst luck of anyone in Hood Valley.
She turned. Smiled. Or tried to, anyway.
“Hello, Officer Friendly.”
* * *
As Madge, Marty, and two officers sat in the living room, Madge felt like an ugly, smelly piece of art deco that observers were trying to find the hidden meaning behind. The two officers had followed her home. Madge could at least count her lucky stars they hadn’t made her ride in the back of the cruiser. Madge didn’t think she could ever get over that kind of humiliation.
Marty’s concern was far worse than the anger Madge had expected after having been escorted home. Thankfully, she’d convinced the officers that she’d been searching for her missing wallet.
“I think I accidentally tossed it in the trash with the receipt.” She expelled something like a laugh, high and nasal. “I’m such a bumblebrain lately!”
The officers exchanged a glance.
“It couldn’t wait until morning?” Marty’s hands were clasped between his knees in the same way as when he questioned the kids when no one would admit to breaking, losing, or forgetting something. “Why did you have to look for it in the middle of the night?”
Madge squirmed, wishing she didn’t have to explain—lie—while she smelled like the town dump. The ripe odor made explaining—lying—so much more difficult.
“I was worried the garbage man would come by and empty it, and then what would I do?”
The officers had believed her story. But Marty . . .
He narrowed her eyes at her purse, clutched tightly to her chest. “Open it.”
She opened her purse and began digging through the mammoth bag. Slowly, carefully, biding her time. She knew precisely where her wallet was but needed time to think.
After a minute, she gave up and pulled her wallet from a zippered pocket. “Oh my, here it is. I guess I must have missed it.” It was a weak attempt, and she knew it.
Worse, Marty knew it.
But because Madge was known in Hood Valley as the happiest of all homemakers, a woman who’d served on the PTA, a respected member of the league, volunteered at the church, and was captain of the neighborhood watch, the police seemed satisfied.
If not slightly embarrassed for her.
The officers stood. “Looks like it was an honest mistake. Get some sleep, Mrs. Dillard.”
“Thank you. I’m sorry you had to go through all this trouble for me.” She couldn’t look up.
“Part of the job, ma’am. See you at church on Sunday. Have a good night, Mr. Dillard.”
Marty thanked the officers and walked them to the door. After a curt goodbye, he turned to Madge.
He didn’t need to say it. It was written all over his face.
He held out his hand.
“Marty, let me explain—”
“Keys, Madge.” His hand remained steady, though the rest of him seemed troubled.
She didn’t bother arguing. Instead, she dug into her purse, pulled out her car keys, and handed them over.
It would take a thousand years to get over this.
* * *
Humiliation had become a cold blanket that Madge had wrapped herself in. So when Marty dropped her off at the church on Thursday, she didn’t bother scanning the parking lot to see if she spotted anyone she knew. She exited the car without a word, slamming the door.
Marty cranked the window. “I’ll be back at nine-thirty to pick you up.”
Madge walked on as if she hadn’t heard him. Now, she glanced nervously around, hoping no one else had heard. She would take the secret of her allowance to the grave, but without a broken limb, it would be difficult to explain the husband drop-off. Officer Friendly would’ve told his wife, and everyone knew Blanche was the town gossip.
Everyone would have known by daybreak.
The supper wouldn’t begin for another two hours, and Madge hoped she’d arrived early enough to busy herself in the kitchen before anyone else arrived. She wouldn’t have come at all, content to remain hidden in her house of shame. But Madge didn’t break promises to God.
Or God’s assistant.
She set her supplies on the pavement and wrenched open the side door leading to the kitchen. The lights were on, but Madge was relieved to find the kitchen empty. She propped the door open, dragged the box inside, and tied her apron in place.
She found her groove and even began to hum. She let her mind settle, enjoying the quiet while thinking of nothing but casseroles, lasagnas, and cookies. It was nice, for once, to have a clear mind, unmuddied with stamp worries and her growing list of lies. In fact, as she sprinkled an extra handful of cheese over the casseroles, she felt, for the first time in weeks, like her old self.
I wonder if the church has any mozzarella. That would add a nice touch of color.
She crossed the kitchen, singing her favorite Captain & Tennille song. How long had it been since she’d made lasagna for her family? She couldn’t remember but vowed to add it to next week’s menu as she pulled open the refrigerator door.
Something on the floor diverted her attention. She allowed the fridge door to close as she peered closer.
It was a purse. Bright purple.
She knew instantly who it belonged to. Edna was known all over town as a purple fanatic first, pastor’s wife second. She wore purple dresses, purple scarves, and even purple tights.
What Madge found sticking out of a side pocket did surprise her. She glanced around and pulled the item out. When she did, two others came with it.
Madge held up three completed books of green stamps. And before she could process what she was doing, she foraged shamelessly through the rest of the pockets, opened zippers, and dug beneath tissues.
In all, Edna had ten books of stamps. Precisely the number Madge needed to redeem her TV.
There was a dim awareness that she should feel guilty for peeking into any woman’s purse, let alone that of the pastor’s wife. And in the church kitchen, no less. Surely the man upstairs would judge her more harshly for such crimes.
This awareness tried—and failed—to take hold as she shoved the books beneath her apron and scurried to her supply box on the other side of the kitchen.
And when she slipped the final ten books beneath two bags of sugar and a roll of parchment, her conscience tried to trip her up, to scream at her not to do it.
“Hush now, dear,” she told the inner voice and went to work chopping onions.
The tears, she told herself, were only the onions.
* * *
She made Marty wait twenty minutes while she scrubbed the stove, cleaned out the fridge, and swept and mopped the floors. A couple of women from the league—even Edna—had volunteered to help, but Madge had insisted.
She needed to do this. Maybe earn a few points in the other direction.
A nagging tickle fired up in her soul as she wrung out the mop and flicked off the light. There was still time. She could slip the books back into the purse—still on the floor as if God himself were giving Madge another chance. No one would be the wiser.
The tickle turned to an inferno that threatened to melt her brain as she picked up her supplies and lingered at the door.
I have enough now. We can watch Hollywood Squares in stunning color by Christmas Day.
Stabbing, fire, and guilt all swarmed at once when she opened the door, the chilly night air nearly blasting her off her feet.
She walked to the car, where Marty awaited her.
“How did it g—”
“Fine, dear,” Madge said, her hands shaking. “It went just fine. Let’s just go home.”
* * *
Madge waited until Marty fell asleep, then waited longer. If she got out of bed too early, he would wake. But if she waited another twenty minutes, wild horses wouldn’t wake him.
She waited an hour.
As the numbers on her bedside clock flipped to 2 a.m., she slipped out of bed and crept to the kitchen. After removing the stolen books from her supply box, she headed into the attic.
One by one, she stacked a hundred and forty books into piles of ten, then added the last stack.
She counted three times just to be sure. One hundred and fifty books of green stamps. Enough for the TV that, only weeks before, she thought she’d never achieve.
A smile crept to her cheeks, wide enough to hurt. She’d endured so much, suffered through one humiliation after another, that it was almost a shame to let them go. The stamps had become the ultimate prize, the icing on a green cake, and she didn’t want to share them. Not with her family or the league. Not even with the people who would trade them for the glory of watching the Hope’s Hospital annual ball in living color.
Something big always happened at the annual ball.
But for now, she just wanted to look at the stamps. Touch them.
As she took in the scent of the stamps, running book after book under her nose, a sliver of moonlight shone through the dusty attic window. She reflected over the last month. Everything she’d undergone to get here. The shady deals behind grocery stores. The night in the dumpster.
It was hot in the attic. Fanning herself, she wondered why she hadn’t brought a fan up here. The joy she’d felt only moments before refused to resurface as she glanced at the neatly stacked piles. Instead, guilt bubbled up from her stomach as the rest of her actions replayed in her mind.
The stamps she’d pilfered from Barb’s trash.
The children’s toys, traded away in dirty parking lots.
The pastor’s wife.
Madge steadied her hands on the warm floor. Images of Bob Barker floated.
All this disgrace can be yours if the price is right.
Guilt, come on down.
She put her head in her hands and cried.
* * *
An hour later, Madge was all cried out.
She looked at the stacks on the floor. At the finished collection that would allow her to see evil twins, faked pregnancies, and husbands returned from the dead in more than varying shades of gray.
Only now, those images would be tainted. It would feel like she was watching a stolen TV.
She expected to feel sorrow. Instead, she felt relief.
From the nearest stack, she pulled seven books and set them aside. As for the rest, she had an idea.
As morning light filtered through the attic windows, she placed the remaining books into a wooden crate, pushed it to the opening, and left it behind.
She’d need to wait for a cloudy, moonless night.
ONE WEEK LATER
When Madge woke, she looked out the window and knew today was the day. There was still a sliver of a crescent moon in the sky, little more than a fragment. Barely enough to light the way through a forest on a dark night.
Perfect. There was work to do.
She made breakfast, humming as she asked the kids about school, assemblies, and karate practice. She even pecked Marty on the cheek on his way out, something she hadn’t done in weeks. Not since he’d taken away her checkbook.
He looked suspicious. She’d be wary, too, in his position.
She went about the daily chores, peeking out the window and taking note of the gathering clouds. The waning moon would have been enough, but the cloud cover was even better.
At dinner, while the family recapped their days, Madge wondered how long it had been since they’d talked like this. Like a family.
She only hoped that after tonight, like the moon, her guilt would wane.
The kids took their baths, dressed in pajamas, and headed to their rooms. Marty relaxed in his chair and chuckled at Archie Bunker’s antics. The clock slowed to a crawl.
Madge had expected that she’d have second thoughts once things got this close. She didn’t. If anything, she wanted to get it over with.
Like before, she lay beside Marty, waited for the sounds of sleep, then waited a bit longer. This time, she let two hours pass.
She needed to be sure.
While she bided her time, she remembered when, days before, she’d wrangled the crate down the ladder and hidden it behind an old ottoman. Afterward, she’d placed her seven books into a manilla envelope, thrown it into the mailbox, and turned up the flag.
The league women would just die when they saw her new punchbowl.
She could wait no longer. Creeping from beneath the covers, Madge headed for the basement.
Quietly, she carried the crate to the backyard, far from the house or shed. She couldn’t risk the irony of burning the house down.
She wouldn’t need lighter fluid. The crate was so old that she thought one good menopausal hot flash could set it ablaze. The books would be more than enough fuel.
Something stilled her. Was she sure about this? It seemed a shame to let all that hard work go up in smoke. She leaned down, and for the last time, took a whiff. Sorrow tried to work under her skin at the realization that she’d never be able to smell them again after tonight.
Yet she’d worked harder and longer to curate her position as the Happy Homemaker of Hood Valley. If awards were given for the perfectly trimmed hedge, the tastiest casseroles, and the best-dressed children, Madge would win by a landslide. These stamps had upset her ideal life.
Watching that go up in smoke would be far more devastating.
Her resolve renewed, she lit a match and dropped it.
Stephanie stared at Madge, her mouth agape. “After all that, you really burned them? Just like that?”
Madge nodded. “I held just enough back enough for the punchbowl. After it arrived, I never saved another stamp and donated them to the church instead. For obvious reasons.” Her smile was humorless.
Madge glanced at the book on the coffee table, worn and antiquated in contrast to Rick’s magazine. So crisp and new with such bright colors.
Like a color TV.
After a while, Herbert launched into his weekly complaints. Now that it was spring, the ducks were migrating back, making a mess around Barlow Pond. “Can’t you shoot them?”
“Oh my God, Herb. Not even.”
Madge sat quietly as they argued, stealing the occasional glance at the coffee table.
* * *
When the meeting finally ended, Herbert disappeared down below, but not before showing everyone his middle finger and telling them where they could shove it.
Stephanie and Madge bade Rick goodnight, promising not to watch him change into his pajamas.
Then they, too, disappeared down below.
The women walked to Stephanie’s room together, stopping outside her door. Madge hadn’t been allowed inside since she’d rearranged the posters while Stephanie rummaged in the closet in search of a sword to behead Herbert with.
“Sleep well, dear.”
Stephanie smirked. “Like I could.”
Madge smiled. “I know I shouldn't keep saying . But . . . it’s a habit I’m not quite ready to break.”
Stephanie dropped her smirk, hesitated, then threw her arms around Madge. “Love you. ‘Night.” She rushed into her room and gently closed the door.
Madge shuffled down the hall, through the common room, and into her kitchen. She stared at the fridge and leaned against the counter.
An hour passed, though it was hard to tell for sure. Time moved funny down here. But she’d had over thirty years to work it out, and she had a good idea of what an hour felt like.
She tiptoed from the kitchen, and when she reached the closet, she walked inside and closed the door.
As she worked through the closet that went on forever, her mind flooded back to that moonless night when she’d thrown a match onto the crate. She remembered the immense relief that it was finally coming to an end in a cloud of smoke.
She could almost smell the burning wood as she climbed over dressers, skirted around stacks of magazines, and stumbled over boxes. The closet was well-lit, but she’d been back here enough times over the years that she could have found what she sought in pitch blackness.
She remembered the sight of the thick, smoke-colored air as the fire had smoldered. How her relief quickly morphed into panic as the top layer of books caught ablaze.
And she recalled how she’d stood in the backyard under a cloudy sky and realized she couldn’t do it.
She’d grabbed the hose, turned the faucet, and sprayed the crate while tears had run down her cheeks.
Carrying the smoking crate back into the basement, she’d realized it had never been about Stampy.
It had always been the stamps.
Madge hiked up her dress and climbed over a maze of artfully placed chairs, hidden ladders, and carefully balanced boxes. She hopped down the other side.
And there, in the closet without end, holding untold gems from residents long gone, a scorched Cola-Cola crate sat hidden. She grabbed a charred book of stamps and smoothed her hand over the yellowed pages, shriveled from having been hosed down under a moonless sky late one night in 1975.
“My babies,” she said, caressing the books as she gathered them into her arms.
And after a while, as she always did, Madge began to count.