Fiction

LOVE IS A SKIN GAME

The way Grandma saw it, love was like gambling and Gwen had to be willing to take a loss while perfecting her system. But Grandpa and Tom had a surefire formula of their own

KERMIT SHELBY August 1 1951
Fiction

LOVE IS A SKIN GAME

The way Grandma saw it, love was like gambling and Gwen had to be willing to take a loss while perfecting her system. But Grandpa and Tom had a surefire formula of their own

KERMIT SHELBY August 1 1951

LOVE IS A SKIN GAME

Fiction

The way Grandma saw it, love was like gambling and Gwen had to be willing to take a loss while perfecting her system. But Grandpa and Tom had a surefire formula of their own

KERMIT SHELBY

CAME IN from the back yard, carrying the roses. “She’s mad at him again, Grandma,” I said, looking for the blue vase.

Grandma looked up from the cookstove where she was stirring the spiced pickle peaches with a long-handled spoon. The kitchen light, reflected, made little windows in Grandma’s spectacles. “They’ll make up again,” Grandma said.

“Not this time.” I couldn’t find the blue vase so I used the white one. “She gave his ring back.”

“No!” The long-handled spoon said “plunk” as it fell in the bubbling juice and Grandma let it lay. She peered at me sharply. “Carrie Marrs, are you making that up?”

“I’m nut making it up.” Being fourteen I had long ago learned you couldn’t lie to Grandma. “I saw her hand. Naked, it looked. She was hanging out dishtowels while I was cutting the roses. I kept trying to see her ring— after all, didn’t it cost my brother Tom seven hundred and eighty dollars? I felt I had a right, so I plain came out and asked her to let me see it. A fluttery look came in her eyes and for a moment I thought her face

would crumple. She laid her hand on the clothesline, sort of hanging on. ‘Take a good look, Carrie,’ she said. 1 looked and said, ‘But I don’t see anything.’ She said, ‘Now you know. There isn’t any ring, Carrie. We quarreled and I gave it back to him. Now run and tell the neighbors. Tell the world, Carrie.’ She ran up the back steps, leaving the clothespin bag on the grass. She’s over there now by herself, crying her eyes out.”

“Poor child. And her folks vacationing way up in Canada.”

Grandma untied her apron.

I looked at the untouched waffle on Tom’s plate. “I knew something wasn’t kosher when Tom wouldn’t eat breakfast a while ago. He tore off two pickets, backing his car out.”

“Watch the peaches, Carrie. If they start to thicken, turn the fire off.” Grandma ran down the back steps and through the hole in the hedge.

I poured a cup of hot spiced peach juice over Tom’s waffle and ate it. Umn! Of course I felt sorry for Gwen, but it wasn’t my heart that was breaking. I wondered if Gwen would go on teaching school always and if Tom would go on working in his filling station like nothing had happened?

What did folks do when their hearts broke?

After the peaches finished cooking I hunted up my algebra. Life must go on, I told myself.

Grandma came back, sniffed, and said, “Did you turn the fire off?” “They’re done,” I said, watching Grandma.

She dropped in her sewing rocker by the kitchen window. “Men!” Grandma said, and her shoulders sagged.

I couldn’t wait any longer. “Wasn’t the ring fine enough for her?” “Too fine, I guess.” Grandma got up, put on the teakettle, and got out her mason jars. “Gwen wanted Tom to get a smaller diamond and put the difference on a new cookstove. Tom wouldn’t hear to it. She told Tom he was extravagant and he called her stingy, and—” Grandma sighed. “That boy gets more like his Grandpa Willie every day. Stubborn from the word go.” Suddenly I was remembering something. “You know what I think, Grandma? I think Grandpa put Tom up to it.”

“Up to it?” Grandma gave me a penetrating look.

“Last night they were talking on the porch, just before Tom went over to Gwen’s house. Something about an argument. Grandpa said, ‘Did you come out winner?’ Tom said, ‘So far I have.’ ‘Good,’ Grandpa said. ‘Always win the first argument, son, and you’ll never have any trouble. That’s the way I did with Betsy.’ Grandpa laughed. Grandma, is it true Grandpa always tells you what to do, like he thinks he does?”

Grandma smiled wisely. “If Willie thinks so, everybody’s happy. And that’s all that matters.” . Then Grandma sounded impatient, like maybe she’d said too much. “Go study your algebra, Carrie.”

It being Saturday, I took my algebra up on the sundeck. Our sundeck is just over our screened back porch and just across the hedge is Gwen’s back porch. That’s how come I heard Grandma and Gwen talking while

they shelled the peas. It wasn’t exactly eavesdropping. I mean, I was there first. If I raised up off the sun mat Gwen might see me. X is the unknown quantity, I told myself, propping up the algebra.

“It’s not hopeless, honey,” Grandma said consolingly. “Men are men. There’s ways and means.”

Gwen said nothing. I could just see the top of her brown head, sleek and thoughtful. The peas fell rhythmically in the empty pan. For a schoolteacher, Gwen was awfully pretty. About twenty-three. My brother Tom was twenty-five.

“Most men aren’t selfish at heart,” Grandma said tolerantly. “They just want their own way.”

“What’s the difference?” Gwen sounded self-righteous.

“Lots of difference. A selfish person always has his own interest at heart. But a man who wants his own way Men think it manly to assert themselves, because that proves they wear the pants they think. Wearing the pants in a matter of principle.”

“Women have principles, too. Is a spoiled man worth sacrificing one’s ideals for?”

“That depends on how badly spoiled he is,” Grandma said. “Ideals are fine, honey, and I’m for ’em. But they don’t warm your feet on a cold night.”

“Mrs. Marrs!” Gwen gasped, shocked.

“Tom’s extravagant, like you say. But if you don’t let him spend money on you, some other woman will. What’s more, she’ll be sticking out her finger with that diamond on it.”

“Tom said he wanted the ring to be a symbol of our happiness when I said yes. That’s sweet, of course. But so impractical. Tom’s sweet in spite of his faults.” Gwen sighed, miserable. Continued on page 39

Continued on page 39

Love Is a Skin Game

Continued from page 11

“When they’re sweet in spite of ’em, that’s love,” Grandma verified. “You have to learn to love ’em for their good points, honey, and take advantage of their weaknesses. Tom’s like these high-powered cars his filling station services. Lots of driving power, but needs steering. It takes a woman s hand. Steered the right way, Tom will make some girl a fine husband.” “But, taking advantage of another’s

weakness is hardly fair.”

“That depends. If a man refuses to face the truth about himself, but is worthwhile other ways, somebody has to face it. So it might as well be you. So instead of hating his faults you adjust to ’em. You see, in dealing with a weakness it’s best to attack through the weakness itself. Because that’s all you’ve got to work with.” “You sound clinical,” Gwen said, disapproving. “I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying.”

“Well, you take like just before

Willie and I were married,” Grandma said comfortably. “I wanted a church wedding with candlelight ceremony. Willie wanted a quiet home wedding. He won. I cried my eyes out. Then mama had a talk with me. But I had my way about the honeymoon. And from then on, mostly. By that time I’d learned about feedback.”

“Feed -back?” Gwen repeated it like a foreign word.

“I’d discovered Willie’s key weakness. Contrariness. So I played up to it. People’s emotions get grooved, so to speak. Or maybe you call it a rut. Rather than cry over this fact, you just direct your approach through whatever rut it is they happen to fall into. Only mama didn’t call it that. She called it feedback. In feedback, mama said, you tell the man what he wants to hear. You spoonfeed him. Disguised like. You use a spoon with the handle so long it takes his mind off whatever it is you’re asking him to swallow.”

Gwen gasped. “But that’s deceit. It’s hypocrisy!”

“It is, ain’t it?” Grandma said mildly. “But if the person you love is ruled by weakness, what other method does it leave you?”

“Frankness,” Gwen stated firmly. “You can tell him exactly what you think -like I did Tom about the ring.”

“The only difference between us is,” Grandma said gently, “1 didn’t want to lose Willie.”

The silence was thoughtful. Grandma got up and got more pea pods.

“You’re lucky Tom’s generous,” Grandma said. “With me it was the other way round. Willie was stingy. But I loved him anyway. Only I’d learned he was more contrary than stingy. Well, that first winter I needed a new coat, so I asked Willie to look at coats with meyou know, like I needed his advice. I tried on a cloth coat, then a fur coat. Then I began to play up the cloth coat. It was practical, I said. Willie said it was shoddy. We couldn’t afford a fur coat, I told Willie. Willie said a fur coat was an investment, because you could wear it several seasons. I said I’d think it over.” Grandma laughed drily. ‘Tor nearly two weeks I kept building up the cloth coat while Willie tore my sales talk down. Finally I gave in, reluctant-like, and let Willie buy me

the fur coat. Then 1 told him how smart he was every time 1 wore it.” The pea pods fell rhythmically. “But suppose you had got stuck with the cloth coat?” Gwen asked, practical.

“That happened once on some gold curtains. I really wanted the blue ones. You see, Willie had just closed a business deal I didn’t know about -profitable, I guess so for once he agreed with me. Well, sir, 1 was stuck. 1 tried to be a good loser. It took considerable thinking to get out of that one.”

“What did you do?” Gwen sounded breathless.

“Invited all our friends to come see the gold curtains.” Grandma’s tone held nostalgic merriment. “I’d ask ’em to come when I knew Willie would be home. Then Fd brag about how much we liked them. How Willie liked them too. We both liked ’em, I’d insist. Finally Willie took tb sitting nights in the kitchen. When I asked him how come, he said it was because he couldn’t stand sight of those blankety gold curtains any longer. I told Willie, concerned, if he felt like that I’d just give ’em to the Salvation Army. So that’s exactly what I did. Then I went back and bought the blue ones.” Grandma’s words held laughter bubbles. “Willie was pleased as Punch. Thought 1 did it all for him.”

Gwen’s silence implied disapproval. “You see,” Grandma said, “love is a little bit like gambling. You have to be willing to take a few losses while you’re perfecting your system.”

“Love?” Gwen said, appalled. “It sounds more like a skin game. Ruthless.”

“Willie never hesitated to take advantage of me, did he?” Grandma pointed out mildly. “This struggle of who’s going to be boss, to my way of thinking, is just another name for self-preservation. It’s outwit, or be outwitted.”

“That,” Gwen condemned, “is a cold-blooded philosophy.”

“What’s cold-blooded about being happy?” Grandma asked. “Harmony in marriage is no small potatoes, honey. You have to respect whatever promotes it. If a little advice asking makes a man feel important, and you learn to slant it to get whatever you want besides, well—that’s simply a return on your investment. What’s the harm of a system that leaves everybody happy?” “It wouldn’t leave me happy,” Gwen insisted. “My conscience would hurt me.”

“Even if you were doing it out of self-protection?” Grandma’s tone was dry as last year’s leaves.

Gwen stared at Grandma. “What do you mean?”

“I hadn’t meant to tell you this, honey,” Grandma said reluctantly. “But the men folks framed up on you. Carrie heard ’em. Tom was just following out his grandpa’s instructions when he made that big to-do about the ring. ‘Win the first argument,’ Willie told him, ‘and the rest will be easy.’ You see, they don’t mind making us jump through hoops -if they can.” “I—I don’t believe it.” Gwen’s voice broke on the last word, almost crying.

I forgot all about being a silent witness. I stood up on the sundeck. “You don’t have to,” I shouted. “Ask Tom.”

Grandma looked up, startled. “For goodness sake, Big Ears, have you been up there all this time?”

Big Ears! That was a name I thought I'd outgrown. I said, “I have to study algebra somewhere, don’t I?”

Grandma went on just as if I hadn’t spoken. “If Tom does win this first argument, Gwen, what do you lose? You don’t. You gain—a fair-sized diamond. That’s your experience. Next

time you can spoonfeed him into saying no to whatever it is you’ve already made up your mind you don’t want anyway. But he’s asserted himself, hasn’t he? Sure, and he’s happy. And you’re happy because you’re pleasing Tom and you’ve got whatever you want besides. Now I’ll tell you how the system works on Willie—”

JUST then our telephone rang. Gwen and Grandma looked questioningly at each other. Gwen said, “Perhaps that’s Tom calling?” She sounded both hopeful and fearful.

“Answer it, Carrie,” said Grandma.

1 ran downstairs. But the voice wasn’t Tom’s. “It’s Grandpa, calling from the office,” 1 called through the open window. “He wants to talk to you, Grandma.”

“About the dinner, I’ll bet. Tell him to hang up and I’ll call him back on Gwen’s phone.”

I relayed the message and went back to the sundeck. Grandma was saying, “Today’s mine and Willie’s anniversary. At first we were going to have the Johnsons over, but Mr. Johnson got called out of town. Then 1 thought it would be nice to eat out for a change but I knew Willie would be contrary if 1 suggested it. So I told him, unless he had his heart set on eating downtown or somewhere, that I was going to invite the Simmses instead. Willie can’t abide the Simmses. Do you suppose this could be my invitation to dine out?”

Grandma went to Gwen’s telephone and dialed a number.

“Willie?” Grandma said. “I tried to call Elvie but her phone doesn’t answer. I’ll try again later. You what? You’re not coming home?” Grandma sounded exasperated. “But, Willie, I’ve ordered a chicken and baked a cake and -Well, it’s a fine time to tell me.” Grandma winked broadly at Gwen. “Oh, 1 suppose the stuff will keep." Grandma sounded cross, reconsidering. “Oh, all right, have it your way, Willie. Where do you want me to meet you?”

Grandma hung up, humming a tune. “We’re going to the Biltmore,” she announced grandly. “My, I’ll have to air my black silk. Think I’ll wear the hat with the pink veil the one he says that always makes me look so foxy.” Grandma hurried home and began to wash her hair, singing Take Me Out To The Ball Game.

Gwen stood on the back porch, frowning thoughtfully down at all those shelled peas. “Softie!” she said to herself, and gave the peas an impatient shove. She walked determinedly to the telephone and dialed a number fast. “Tom?” she said rushingly. Then she looked up and saw me on the sundeck. “Excuse me,” Gwen said, and closed the window noisily.

Well, even I can take a hint that broad. As I went downstairs, carrying my algebra, Gwen went back to the telephone.

Grandma had soapsuds in her hair.

“She’s calling him up now, Grandma,” I said.

“Sure enough?” Grandma reached for the platinum rinse, not really sur-

prised. “Carrie, have you seen my lapel pin--the rhinestone greyhound?” Grandma sounded like some girl with a heavy date on her mind.

“It’s on my blue coat,” I said, and went to unpin it.

Just as I laid the pin on Grandma’s dresser I heard curb finders scrape in front of Gwen’s house. Grandma looked through the window as Tom jumped out of the car. “He made good time, didn’t he?” Grandma said. Tom s filling station is just three blocks away.

I took my algebra and sat by the window. But Gwen’s window remained closed.

Tom stayed about twenty minutes. His car sounded like a B-29 as he took off.

Pretty soon Gwen came out to get the dishtowels. Her hair was combed differently. “Hi, Carrie.” She waved to me, all smiles. The diamond flashed sun glints.

“It blinds me,” I said.

Gwen said, “Want to try it on?” She sounded just like my big sister as she came over to the hole in the hedge.

“Jeepers!” I said, thinking how some man might some day spend seven hundred and eighty bucks on me, just because my love for him was a symbol of his happiness when I said yes.

Grandma came out with a towel wrapped about her head. “What did you say to him, honey?”

Gwen smiled shamelessly. “First I told him what a sap I was. For a schoolteacher, I told him, I didn’t have any brains at all. I told him I’d decided being practical wasn’t as important as being happy. Then 1 told him how beautiful it was.”

“The ring?” I said, handing it back to Gwen.

“No, the sentiment that prompted him to buy it. Until I suffered, I told him, I couldn’t appreciate fully how sweet that was, his wanting to build a monument to our courtship. I told him the reason I was such a penny pincher was because I’m really extravagant at heart, and I’ve just been afraid to let myself go because I don’t trust my own judgment. But I told him this experience had taught me my lesson. After this, I told him, I was going to respect his judgment on all things, including the cookstove. And then 1 asked him if he thought he could keep me straight.”

“How did he rise to that one?” Grandma asked, interested.

“he said of course he could keep me straight. Then he told me how practical he was. And I agreed. We’re planning to start looking at houses Sunday. I’m not sure I’ve discovered his key weakness yet. I mean it may not be extravagance after all, it may be something else. But I’ve got to have something to practice on, so I’m taking extravagance to start with. First I’ve decided to start out by admiring the fifty - thousand - dollar homes and then throw myself on his good judgment. That way, I figure, he’ll start talking me down to something we can afford.” Gwen paused, breathlessly. “How’m I doing?”

“For a beginner, honey,” Grandma cautioned, “you’re laying it on a little thick. But experience will teach you the right blend. It’s sort of like salad

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dressing. Not too thick. Not too thin. He’s swallowed it all so far, hasn’t he?”

“He swallowed it,” Gwen stated, without regret.

I turned away. It was too much. I suddenly disliked Gwen and Grandma very much, seeing them for the ruthless scheming females they were. And I was overcome with pity for my brother Tom. Even if he did pinch me when I wasn’t looking and call me Big Ears,

I knew it was up to me to save him.

I went straight to the garage and rolled out my bicycle.

“My rear tire’s low, Grandma,” I said. “I’m going down to the filling station to get some air.”

Grandma eyed me shrewdly. “Remember, now, Carrie. Gwen’s one of the family, so no tale carrying. We women folks have to stick together -if we survive.”

“I’ll remember, Grandma.”

I rode away blindly. I felt like Samson felt, probably, just before he jerked the pillars out that w'recked the temple. Just so would I wreck Tom’s and Gwen’s love. For unless I told Tom how Gwen and Grandma were plotting against him Tom would go through life jumping through hoops. And, what was worse, he wouldn’t ever suspect that it was he who was doing the jumping.

I felt like a Crusader. But it wasn’t a blind crusade. I felt my power. But mixed in with the power were little grains of common-sense reasoning. A little voice kept whispering, but have you the right? Have you the right to | wreck their temple? I was breathless when I reached the filling station. I was trembling.

A BIG car was just driving away and a smaller car stood by the gas pump. I was too nervous to recognize it as Grandpa’s old coupe —until Grandpa spoke, behind the steering wheel. “So it looks like you’ve got j her eating out of your hand again?” Tom’s voice came from the right j front wheel where he was stooped over, putting air in Grandpa’s tire. “It worked just like you said it would, Grandpa.”

The coupe stood between Tom and me. The rubber wheels of my bicycle made no sound at all on the paved driveway as I braked to a slow stop. 'Pom sounded smug, as always, and stuck on himself. “I held out till I won that first argument. Now I’ve got her asking my advice. She’s asking me now what I think about houses and cookstoves.”

“Good.” Grandpa chuckled. “At first it seems a shame to take advantage of ’em, son. But many a man is ruined by being too soft. Women will boss you if they can. It’s human nature.

So the best way is to assert yourself early, like I did with Betsy. You see how we get along now.” Grandpa sounded pretty smug himself. “Like about this dinner tonight. I put my foot down, told Betsy plain out I wouldn’t be bothered with the Simmses. ! Now she’s willing to come downtown tonight and have dinner with me. It pays to be firm, son. Sort of survival of the fittest.”

In that moment I was recalling Grandma’s own words. “We women folks have to stick together —if we survive.” Only they held a different meaning for me now. Outwit, or be outwitted, Grandma had said.

I felt a new respect for Grandma’s wisdom. And I was proud of being a woman, potentially speaking. Women are subtle. Grandma and Gwen weren’t really mean, I was seeing. They were simply fast thinkers who saw things clearly. They were just one jump ahead.

Tom turned, reaching for the dollar Grandpa was holding out for the gas, and saw me climbing off the bicycle. Startled, he looked. How much had I heard, said all those questions in Tom’s eyes. In the special loud tone big brothers reserve for kid sisters Tom rudely demanded, “What do you want, Big Ears?”

A little courtesy might have changed my brother’s entire future. But . . . Big Ears! Those two words sealed his destiny.

As I unwound the air hose, releasing air into my rear tire which wasn’t

very flat, after all—I had a sudden vision of Tom jumping through hoops. A long avenue of hoops. The scene unwound in my mind. A row of pretty girls were holding the hoops. And every one of the girls was Gwen. Tom had a bandage over his eyes. But he went on jumping just the same. Only the picture wasn’t tragic any longer. It was well, it was just like it should be. After all, as Grandma says, what’s wrong with a system that works?

I tossed my curls, very sophisticated. “I hear you’re engaged again?” I said, casual like. “Re-congratulations, bro-

ther.” I ro.Lo.F fast, enjoying his round-eyed stare.

“Girls!” 'Pom grunted, contemptuous. “What do they know?” he said to Grandpa.

I smiled, superior. And I learned something. Silence can be subtle. And subtlety is a woman’s most valuable weapon. Like Grandma says, skill comes with practice. A girl needs practice.

I did a quick take of all the boys I knew. Who, I wondered, could I start using the long-handled spoon on

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