Emma’s Dilemma

Fred Marmorstein

Photo Credit: Masaaki Miyara

Of love and intrigue, Barbara Cantors settled on neither. Instead, she collected peel-off sticker labels from fruit (Bartlett pears being her favorite) and bathed twice weekly with her pet budgie, Chou Chou. (Although from what I heard, the bird benefited more than Barbara.)

B.C., as she was known amongst her fellow collectors, also collected nicknames. These derived from sources other than herself—frequently neighbors and fellow collectors—and consisted of the mostly unflattering kind: Beneath Contempt and Bitch Chick comprising the top two identifiers. The latter accompanied her into the operating room as she underwent her first open heart surgery. “All bitch and no chick,” she joked as she wafted away in gauzy anesthesia-like bliss the afternoon of her first procedure.

Porcine valves being what they were (and never a substitute for 21st century machinery), B.C.’s recovery lasted about as long as it takes to read The Three Little Pigs. Another valve—metal, of course—her doctor scheduled for early March, and B.C. felt determined to survive man-made objects placed directly inside the one organ known to fail both physically and emotionally.

This being her second valve and her second operation and her second time away from home, she again conveniently depended on her friend, Emma Presleigh, a far distant relation to The King who spelled her name in the Tennessean tradition. Emma (a devoted Granny Smither and apple sticker extraordinaire) did not want B.C.’s friendship. She looked upon it as an arctic explorer seeking the Northwest Passage: if you made it through without crashing into an iceberg or eating your companions, that was at least something to be thankful for.

“I assure you,” B.C. explained on Saturday night, in her most rational of voices, “this will be the last time I ask a favor. And, of course, you know it’s not just for me. Think, no, dwell on the fact that Chou Chou luxuriates in your attention and precise care. You follow my directions to the best of your ability, and he survives to his utmost. I can’t say ‘thrives’ but you are known for your matchless bird-sitting skill.”

On the other end of the phone, Emma strained to find a compliment or, for that matter, a discernible string of three or more appreciative words. B.C.’s speech, unfortunately, included several wheezes, muffled inhalations, and the clankety clunk of the portable oxygen tank her doctor prescribed.

B.C.’s aptitude for offending people still amazed Emma, and Emma’s wilting tolerance left her free to inform her fellow collector of fruit label stickers, albeit as delicately as possible, that babysitting Chou Chou was as unlikely as her finding a husband at sixty-seven years old.

“My dear, you’re not old,” B.C. said, as she adjusted her red velvet recliner. “Not old in the way of, say, the Parthenon or a petrified bug. Though a sprucing might help. Botox, nasal reconstruction, facelift, some liposuction. Nothing fancy.”

With a gush of sarcasm, Emma replied, “Thank you so much for your… honesty.”

“Truthfulness is—”

“And this truthfulness,” Emma interrupted, “certainly helped your cause at the last meeting you attended, didn’t it? Or have you forgotten all about poor Jonathan?”

“Well, I was truthful. I never heard of anybody dying from a broken hip.”

“You know that Linda’s husband died from the infection at the hospital, not from a broken hip.”

“She might soon have a problem herself,” B.C. advised, “if she doesn’t collect more bananas than blintzes. Potassium is so important at her age. Look at you. Abundantly trim from the apple-green granny’s gift of health.”

Emma’s trimness seemed to be the exception rather than the rule because for years she had noticed a slight correlation between collector and collection. B.C.’s choice of pears to fuel her fruit-label enthusiast’s frenzy proved that resemblance to one’s fruit of pursuit was indeed truthful.

“I have to run, now. I’ll speak with you later.” Exhausted, Emma surrendered and hung up.

On Monday, the opportunity for truth-telling continued with the arrival of an invitation in Emma’s mailbox—the inside sprinkled with birdseed and the outside titled “Tea for Three.” That’s how B.C. always introduced an eventful Wednesday afternoon of hot water, cream, and tea leaf–dunking excitement complete with budgie perched upon shoulder or teapot.

When the invitation appeared, tied with an embroidered chiffon ribbon bearing the initials C.C. (B.C. actually had us believing Chou Chou sewed it himself), Emma already knew what to expect: a bombastic afternoon with continual reminders that “Chou Chou is a combination of Shakespeare and Betsy Ross. And the beak! Don’t dismiss the powerful beak and its numerous attributes.”

A full afternoon promoting and disseminating beaks appealed to her like a lecture on the history of lint. (I told her later that at least lint managed a few more positive characteristics than a parakeet.)

On Wednesday around 2:30 p.m., with her lily-pad green purse swinging silently from north to south, Emma climbed the stairs toward the tea leaves and avian information extravaganza. Chou Chou’s chirps and whistles (usually described by many club members as “shrillingly pleasant”) removed the last bits of serenity from the air.

“The truth never ceases to amaze me,” Emma said to herself, moving up the last two steps toward the apartment.

Emma knocked four times before B.C. opened the door.

Nestled under her arm, a pale yellow oxygen tank spluttered air while yards of plastic tubes crisscrossed her body from nostrils to tank.

“Hello, hello, Chou Chou says hello. Come in to the dining room. Leave your coat and hat there. I have some pyramid-shaped tea bags to indulge in this afternoon,” B.C. gushed. “They’re so Egyptian. Chou Chou loves the exotic.”

Mustering the politeness of a frazzled ambassador on her way to nuclear weapons talks, Emma replied, “It should be enjoyable.”

They walked into the dining room. B.C. continued into the kitchen while Emma placed her purse on the table and directed an irritated stare at Chou Chou resting on his black chestnut perch by the window. Glib and glossy, his grayish blue feathers were as polished as the antique table and chairs used each week for tea. Millet and bits of zucchini peelings formed a Stonehenge-like circle underneath his stand.

“B.C., what is that smell?” Emma asked with the foreknowledge of someone who knew exactly what she smelled.

“That’s just some cuttlefish I picked up at the market,” she replied from the kitchen. “I make my own cuttlebones. A sharp beak is a happy beak. I’m making one now. Gives Chou Chou reassurance. Everything to his liking.”

“Couldn’t he just chew on a block of wood?”

“Now. Emma. Budgies must—”

“Fine, dear. Fine. My first bird-sitting lecture educated me thoroughly. And I so loved watching Chou Chou for you while you handled your first ordeal. But what I wanted to discuss… some of us in the club… we get the distinct impression that you don’t… wouldn’t you rather collect bird paraphernalia?”

B.C. smoothed her apron of blue budgies in flight over South Sea palms. “Emma,” she admonished, appearing in the doorway between the kitchen and dining room. “Fruit stickers are practically my life. This is my 37th year, and my collection outshines all others at every convention and competition. Remember my excursion to Togo two years ago? No one has a Forelle sticker label. Except me. Parakeets and pears encompass everything I am. I need them and they need me.”

B.C. returned to the kitchen for the teapot and cups.

“Maybe know more and say less, dear,” Emma suggested.

“What’s that darling?”

“I think I sat on a cuttlebone.”

“Chou Chou’s speaking, Emma. It’s quite difficult to hear.”

“With the sound of triumphant gladiators returning from battle,” Emma hissed.

“I have it right here, Chou Chou,” B.C. insisted as she emerged from the kitchen.

Emma expected to see the same old Wedgwood teapot and cups in lilac they had been using for years. Instead, B.C. held a wooden spoon high in the air. Glazed with a dark raspberry–colored stiffness, it flared in her hand.

Horrified, Emma asked, “Is that for the tea?”

“No! Kidney beans, yams, and steak. No gristle. Blended on the ‘frappe’ setting for no less than three minutes. Chou Chou craves vigor.”

Emma pushed a spiff of air from her lips in disgust.

B.C. again tried defending herself. “I complimented Carl on his plum label stickers before my first surgery. He had ‘aplomb’ I said with satisfaction at the last exhibition. You have to admit that was a clever one.”

“May we have that tea? I have to get back. As for your joke, Carl and his wife’s temperament lacked any form of amusing response.”

“Have you ever heard of hyperbole?” B.C. countered as she returned from the kitchen with the tea.

“Is that what you call it? Your hyperbole made Carl and his wife look like tiny white birds trying to escape the Pompeii blast. Is it hyperbole when you compare apples to pears? My stickers and, in fact, everyone’s stickers, are labeled, dated, and sorted by country, color and state just like yours. And, Millie? Calling her labels ‘cantalousy’ after she had just returned from Costa Rica’s premiere cantaloupe grocer. Her tear stains ruined that beautiful red sticker shaped like a clay pot.”

“After my next surgery I plan on making the greatest amends to the entire club population. I’m still a bit weak and out of breath with this present valve. But you will see me good as new soon.”

“That’s what we’re afraid of,” Emma whispered as she poured herself a cup of tea.

“I know you wish me the best. Five days in the hospital. That’s all. Five days to recover.”

With apprehension, Emma asked, “What about Chou Chou?”

“Well, of course, just like last time, you would care for him. Chou Chou felt very comfortable in your lovely home. The operation takes place a week from Thursday.”

“I’m afraid that just won’t be able to happen.”

At the back of B.C.’s head, a tuft of gray hair edged toward whiteness. Even the bird with knowledge of all things Shakespearean stopped his twitter. “But I’m counting on you.” B.C. emphasized “counting” like she was the hostess of a new early morning children’s show.

“It’s not possible. You can simply place Chou Chou in a boarding facility for birds. Look in the paper. Bird-sitting’s popularity grows daily.”

“Emma.” B.C.’s voice rattled with disapproval.

“Well? What did you expect? A week from Thursday gives you plenty of time. It is a bird after all. And the tweeterings, and the baths, and the cuttlebones? That bird chewed through two of my best extension cords simply because his cuttlebone fell behind the radiator. And who knows how long you’ll be recovering? One open-heart surgery was bad enough. Two? You stayed in the hospital for twelve days last time. Your valve recovery time remains a mystery.” Emma gulped her tea.

“The cuttlebone,” B.C. lectured, grabbing the white, oval-shaped disk and placing it on the dining room table, “is an essential piece to a budgie’s beak health. I’ve informed you before of the origin of Chou Chou’s name; the parakeet naturally gnaws. Chews, if that word so suits you. As for the rest, a living being needs care. Care, Emma.”

(The scuttlebutt was that Emma raised her saucer as if to commit pre-op open-heart surgery harm. Oh, we had a chuckle at that vision.)

“I think it’s time for me to leave. I must get the Crock-Pot started,” Emma announced suddenly, grabbing her coat, purse, and hat all at once. She fled out the door and down the steps.

“Chou Chou’s memory won’t fail him,” B.C. shouted as best she could with an oxygen tube clinging to her nostrils.

Thursday night, the fruit label sticker club met at Linda’s house. She had taken over as president from her husband. Everyone congratulated her on the enlargement of her collection by almost a third. Also that evening, Carl and his wife finally returned, keeping their ears open for plum-related puns.

When the phone rang, Linda thought it might be Paul running late as usual. But a few moments after she said hello, Linda turned white as a cauliflower. Everyone stopped browsing through her banana portfolio.

“That was the police,” she announced. “B.C. is dead. Last night. I told them she was a member. But I hardly knew her that well.” Linda looked for Emma. “You were her best friend.”

Emma, sitting on the couch, said, “Yes. Was.” She reached for her purse.

“They said her oxygen tube had been chewed in half.”

“That’s weird,” commented Carl’s wife, admiring the banana label sticker from Vietnam.

Emma’s purse was open.

“What’s that stink?” Carl asked. “Smells like dead fish.”

Emma reached in, grabbed a handkerchief, and dabbed her eyes. “Oh. I think I left an apple in there,” Emma sniffed, quickly closing her purse. “It must’ve spoiled.”

“Maybe a rat found its way into the building,” Linda speculated. “Her neighborhood. It’s not what it was.”

“A rat? Probably a ferret. They can chew through anything,” Carl added.

Several members asked about Chou Chou.

“What’s going to happen to her bird?”

“She loved that bird.”

“What do you think, Emma?” Carl’s wife asked.

Emma sat near the bowl of potato chips quietly chatting with Mr. Jansen who had just started the first-ever plantain collection.

“I think,” she said. “I think I have to buy a new purse.”


Fred Marmorstein taught secondary school Language Arts for seventeen years before devoting himself full-time to writing. He holds degrees from SUNY-Binghamton and New York University and has published fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. He currently lives in northern Virginia. Email: fredmarmorstein[at]gmail.com

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