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about the author…
Seth Gordon, a mild-mannered programmer for a great metropolitan software company, lives in Boston with his wife and three sons. For the past two and a half years, he has belonged to B-Spec, the Boston Speculative Fiction Writing Group, which has given him valuable advice and support. His personal Web site is at http://imaginaryfamilyvalues.
about the narrator…
Melissa is the proud mom of a nine-year-old boy and seven-year-old girl. She is a special educator in her sixteenth year of teaching. Mel has taught all grade levels from preschool to grade five in both general and special education. This past year, however, she left the world of elementary school to teach Special Education in a High School Conceptual Physics and Chemistry class. She survived her first year of being the shortest person in the classroom and was enthusiastic to get back to teaching velocity, gravity and atoms for the 2014-2015 school year. In her “free time,” she co-produces a children’s story podcast with her techie husband called Night Light Stories and writes a blog about the silly antics of her family called According To Mags.
by Seth Gordon
When Cassie Levine was nine years old, her family lived in the center of Boston, Lyndon B. Johnson was President, and Cassie learned that her mother was a criminal.
The two of them sat in a parked car on Blue Hill Avenue, outside Ethel Glick’s grocery store. While Cassie ate an ice-cream sandwich, her mother smoked a cigarette. The sandwich, the cigarettes, and three bags of groceries had come from Mrs. Glick’s store. When the ice cream sandwich was half gone, Cassie asked, “Why did you change Dad’s money at Mrs. Glick’s? Why not go to the bank?”
Cassie’s mother had passed Mrs. Glick a twenty-dollar bill; the older woman had tucked the bill under the counter and handed back a stack of coupons; then, her mother had used some of those coupons to pay Mrs. Glick. Each twenty-coupon note showed a picture of Margaret Mitchell, holding a copy of _Gone With the Wind_. Cassie’s little brother called coupons “cootie money,” because only women and girls could use them.
“The exchange rate at the banks is twenty-seven coupons for a dollar,” Cassie’s mother said, “and Mrs. Glick is paying thirty-one.”
“Why don’t the banks pay thirty-one?”
“The government won’t let them.”
“Does the government let Mrs. Glick?”
Cassie’s mother drew on her cigarette and exhaled out the half-open window into the drizzle. Cassie licked vanilla ice cream all around the edge of her sandwich, feeling smug and virtuous and full of sugar. “You’re doing something il-le-gal,” she said, stretching out the last word.
“Don’t tell your father about this.”
Cassie raised her eyebrows. Her mother’s expression was solemn. Through the blur of rain over the windshield, Cassie could see the delicatessen on the opposite corner; the G&G sign was suspended over the sidewalk, round and vertical like a ketchup bottle. Some nights, Cassie’s father would take the family out to dinner there.
“He’s an idealist, and I love him for that, but… he doesn’t understand how much things cost.”
“Is it really illegal, changing money at Mrs. Glick’s? Could you get arrested for it?”
Her mother shook her head. “It’s like jaywalking, honey. It doesn’t hurt anyone, and the police have better things to do than go after it.”
By the time Cassie turned fifteen, her family had moved to the nearest suburb, and Richard Nixon was President. At Glick’s Grocery, which had moved to the same suburb, Cassie worked the register on Wednesday and Friday afternoons, while Mrs. Glick went to physical therapy. There was a locked box under the counter, a metal cashbox with a picture of Rosie the Riveter taped to its lid. One day, a woman passed a twenty-dollar bill across the counter.
“I’m sorry,” Cassie said. “You can’t pay with dollars here.”
The dollar bill was both longer and narrower than a coupon, and Cassie didn’t recognize the face on the black-and-white portrait. It looked like currency from a poorer and uglier country.
From conversations with the woman on her previous shopping trips, Cassie remembered that her name was Margaret; she was thirty years old; and she had moved to Boston, with her new husband, from Australia. Margaret glanced at the dollar bill and pulled it back. “I’m such a bimbo,” she said. With her accent, the one word of American slang sounded jarring. “You’d think I could get the hang of the money by now. How much do I owe you?”
“Seventy-one coupons, twenty stamps.”
Margaret dug through her purse, laid a fifty-coupon note on the counter, and flattened the paper with a manicured thumb. Her hair was straight and blonde–not straw-colored like Cassie’s own hair, but platinum blonde, falling below her shoulders. In spite of the brisk weather outside, she wore a tight suede miniskirt, the kind that made Cassie’s mother wince with disapproval. As the woman continued digging through her slim black purse, Cassie bagged her groceries: a carton of Parliament cigarettes, a two-liter bottle of Pepsi, and a stack of TV dinners. “My husband goes on about how any woman can change dollars for coupons, but you practically need permission from the President to change them in the other direction. I was afraid to carry more than I needed. Stupid of me.”
Cassie said, “There are banks in Coolidge Corner, just a few blocks from here.” She nodded out the window. Red maple leaves danced in the air above the sidewalk. “I could just hold this here, and you could change your money and come back.” Betsy Ross stared up from the fifty-coupon note, an American flag draped over her lap, her portrait engraved with red, blue, and black ink.
Margaret set her mouth in a determined line. “He’s probably wondering why I’m not home yet.” She set down a twenty-coupon note on top of the fifty. “Why do they have separate money for men and women?”
“Because we buy different things.” It was the answer that her mother had given her years ago, when she barely knew enough arithmetic to make change. Men bought meals in restaurants and women bought groceries to cook; men bought houses and women bought furniture; men bought Time magazine and women bought Life; men bought gas from stations on the highway, and women bought it in the city.
Margaret said, “So if a man came into this store with a wad of coupons and tried to buy groceries with them…”
“That would be illegal. Men can’t buy or sell things with coupons, and except for changing them at a bank, women can’t buy or sell things with dollars. Besides…” Cassie amused herself by imagining all the conversations that would grind to a halt if a man crossed the threshold of Glick’s Grocery. “Besides, men have enough places where they don’t let us in. We deserve something for our selves.”
“Well said, Miss Women’s Lib of 1971.” Margaret chuckled as she dropped a handful of square coins on top of the bills.
Cassie felt her ears get warm. “I didn’t mean–”
“It’s all right,” Margaret interrupted. “I was just having a lend of you, as we say back home. Thank you so much for explaining all this. It’s been hard for me, being new in the country and not knowing anyone.”
A black girl whom Cassie recognized from school–they were two seats apart in honors algebra, and she was one of the inner-city kids that METCO bussed out to suburban schools–got in line behind Margaret.
“I understand,” said Cassie. “I just moved here myself this summer. I mean, I moved in from the city, just five miles away, but sometimes it feels like another country.”
“So,” said Margaret as she took the grocery bag, “we are aliens together.”
As Cassie rang up her classmate’s milk, cereal, and canned beans, she braced herself for the question _where did you move from_? But instead, the girl–Tonya, that was her name–waited for Margaret to stroll out, and then asked, “Tourist?”
“No,” said Cassie, opening up a fresh paper bag. “She moved here from Australia about a month ago. Her husband used to do signals intelligence in Vietnam, and now he has some kind of defense job in Cambridge.”
“You know, she doesn’t have to worry about changing too much money,” Tonya said. “When the President froze wages and prices, he also froze the exchange rate between dollars and coupons. So as long as she uses up the coupons by November, she won’t miss out on anything.”
“I didn’t know that.” Cassie had seen President Nixon announce the wage and price freeze on TV, pre-empting Bonanza on a Sunday night, and she had heard Mrs. Glick complain about it when there were no customers to overhear. But nobody had ever explained the details to her. The Friday after the announcement, her father’s friends, other college professors from Tufts, had come over for dinner. They had discussed the price freeze, inflation, the gold standard, and unemployment with great enthusiasm. Cassie had tried to follow the discussion, but as she helped her mother clear the table and wash the dishes, she had lost track of the men’s argument.
“My mom’s an accountant,” Tonya said. “She was telling me about these loopholes in the order. Like, it doesn’t apply to raw produce. So if you have a cucumber, you can sell it for whatever you want. But if you turn the cucumber into a pickle, the price is frozen.”
“Do you want to be an accountant, too?” Cassie asked.
“I want to be a doctor.” Tonya leaned closer and rested one hand against the counter. “Did you know, in New York they have a whole network of women’s health clinics with women doctors? Not just gynecology and pediatrics, but broken bones, backaches, everything.”
“Is that legal?”
“There’s no law against a woman using coupons to pay a woman doctor. OK, so their rent and utility bills are in dollars, but there are foundations that pay that for them. And Blue Cross got the license to reimburse the clinics with coupons just last year. New decade, new opportunities.”
The fire of Tonya’s ambition made Cassie feel like a small person with small dreams: a college degree, a husband, children, and a part-time job, as an accountant, perhaps…
Tonya’s voice broke into Cassie’s reverie. “Say, how does Mrs. Glick pay the rent for this store?”
“Her husband left her an annuity, and that gives her enough dollars to cover rent and stuff.” For all Cassie knew, it was the truth.
“Aaah,” said Tonya, nodding. “The estate loophole.”
“I love your nose,” said Sharon Teitelbaum. “There are women who would pay thirty thousand coupons for that nose.”
Cassie couldn’t help touching her button nose. Sharon reminded Cassie of the old woman who had come up to her during Yom Kippur services, stroked her blond hair with affection, and declared that Cassie looked just like a _shiksa_.
She looked down at her bowl of American chop suey and inhaled the smell of tomato sauce. “Yeah,” she said. “I inherited my mother’s nose, my father’s hair, and my uncle’s acne.”
“At least the acne will clear up some day.”
“You haven’t seen my uncle.”
After the sympathetic murmurs went around the cafeteria table, Sharon added, “So I hear you work the counter at Glick’s, now.”
Sharon wore a gold chain necklace, pearl earrings, and a brooch engraved with a cameo. Nothing short of a Communist revolution would put her on the wrong end of a grocery-store counter. And yet she had invited Cassie to sit among her friends: Cassie was the eighth girl crowded around a table made for six, the blonde with the heart-shaped face among black-haired girls with deep-set eyes. She felt the edge of the bench against the flesh of her buttock.
“Old Jewish tradition,” said the girl beside her, “working in retail.” Sharon gave her a sharp look.
A large-breasted girl across the table spoke with a husky voice. “It’s smart to get some job experience, even if you don’t need the money. My mother keeps saying, ‘Don’t make the same mistake I did. Don’t just become a housewife.’”
“In other words, Giselle, you can’t cook,” Sharon said.
Everyone around the table laughed, even Giselle.
Sharon leaned closer to Cassie. “I was wondering,” she said, “since you’re working at _Glick’s_, if you could do me a little favor.”
Cassie’s heart sped up. “What favor?”
“There are some T-shirts that my boyfriend wants to get, and he has twenty dollars of birthday money to spend on them. I could change his money at the bank and buy him the shirts, but the official rate….” She wrinkled her nose. “And then I thought, I know someone who works at Glick’s! You could change it at her rate.”
“That’s illegal,” Cassie blurted out.
“Don’t be a priss,” Sharon scoffed.
“It’s not like anyone will arrest you for it,” came another voice from the crowd.
Giselle, the husky-voiced girl, added, “The _police chief’s_ wife changes dollars there.”
Behind Sharon, there was the table where all the METCO students sat together. Cassie had had black friends in Roxbury, and Irish Catholic friends in Girls’ Latin School; but after Martin Luther King died, many of her neighbors and classmates, black and white, had exposed an uglier side. It was as if the sun had set, the clouds had parted to expose a full moon, and half the people Cassie had known since childhood had turned out to be werewolves. Tonya had seemed friendly enough in the store, but Cassie hadn’t worked up the courage to start another conversation.
She licked her lips. “Mrs. Glick doesn’t keep the dollars in the cash register. There’s a separate box, a locked box, and I don’t have the key.”
Sharon looked unmoved. The other girls at the table glared at Cassie.
“I’ll talk to her.”
The next Wednesday afternoon, Mrs. Glick worked her own counter while Cassie stocked the shelves. The store was four aisles wide and as long as an Amtrak train. Behind the counter, Mrs. Glick had mounted framed pictures of her late husband, her nieces, and her nephews. Under these, she had a one-coupon note from 1930, also framed and mounted. The picture on the note showed a Pilgrim and Indian shaking hands at the first Thanksgiving; the bold serif print along the bottom read FEDERAL RESERVE NOTE, ONE SILVER COUPON, PAYABLE TO BEARER ON DEMAND. The coupons had been introduced in the 1890s, to help indebted farmers in the Midwest. The law reserving coupons for women and dollars for men had been passed after World War II, so that men could return to the factory jobs that the women had held during the war. Mrs. Glick had never worked in a factory, but she had computed ballistics tables for the army, alongside other women with math degrees.
Cassie could point to a shelf and Mrs. Glick could tell her, to the stamp, how much profit she earned from that shelf in a month. It reminded Cassie of how, when she was six, every time she walked to the zoo, she remembered how many steps she took in each direction, and wrote the numbers in her diary.
On that afternoon, in the first lull when the store was empty of customers, Cassie set her mop and bucket aside and approached the register. The heat was on full blast, making her sweat. Mrs. Glick leaned her elbows on the counter and watched Cassie approach.
“I was wondering,” Cassie said, “if you could change twenty dollars. For a friend of mine.”
Mrs. Glick squinted at her. “Who is this friend?”
“Sharon Teitelbaum. Just… a girl in my class.”
The woman tucked a lock of white hair under her paisley bandana. “Maxine Teitelbaum’s daughter?”
“I… I guess so. You know her?”
“We’ve met once or twice. She doesn’t shop here much. Certainly doesn’t change money here.”
Mrs. Glick shrugged. “Maxine’s a big-shot lady lawyer. Divorce and probate. She gets so many coupons from her clients, she doesn’t need me.”
“But Sharon does.” Cassie tried not to show her frustration. She had expected the conversation with Mrs. Glick to be uncomfortable, but she had also expected it to be short. “Would you please help me do this favor for her?”
“So, here’s the thing.” Mrs. Glick pursed her lips. “On the one hand, this little side business that I run is, technically, illegal. On the other hand, I don’t lose much sleep worrying that the G-men are going to haul me away, or, more likely, that the mob will ask me for a piece of the action. But back on the first hand, the _reason_ I don’t lose much sleep is that I choose my customers. I don’t have to deal with people who are unreliable. Or people whose mothers might make my life difficult if they found out.”
“Sharon wouldn’t snitch on you.”
Mrs. Glick put her hand on Cassie’s shoulder. “Cassie. I used to babysit for your mother. I know her, I know how she raised you, and I know you have a good head on your shoulders. But I don’t know the Teitelbaums. Do _you_ know them well enough to vouch for them?”
Cassie met her boss’s gaze. Mrs. Glick’s eyes were the color of steel. Her face was poised, neither smiling nor frowning, as she waited for an answer. Cassie looked down at the floor.
“She seems all right, but… really, I see her in class and at lunch, but I don’t know her that well. And I don’t know her mother at all.”
That Friday, as Cassie stood alone at the counter, Sharon came in, with Giselle tagging along. Sharon pulled a twenty-dollar bill from her handbag and Cassie cleared her throat. “I talked to Mrs. Glick and, uh, I can’t do it. I can’t change your boyfriend’s money.”
Sharon and Giselle looked at each other.
Giselle put her hands on her hips. “I told you she wouldn’t go through with it.”
“I _want_ to help you out, I just… can’t.”
“Can’t,” echoed Sharon. The dollar bill still dangled in mid-air between two of her fingers. “Against the laws of physics.”
“Well,” Cassie said, “not _that_ kind of can’t, but… I asked Mrs. Glick if she’d change it for me, and she said no.”
Sharon’s face fell. Giselle started fingering the candy bars in the rack. “I told you,” Giselle repeated, “she wouldn’t go through with it.”
“I _tried_,” Cassie protested.
“Not very hard,” said Giselle.
“You seem like such a smart girl,” Sharon said. “I keep forgetting that lots of people are smart in school, but don’t have a clue about real life.”
It sounded like Sharon was dismissing her, but of course Cassie couldn’t go anywhere, and Sharon waited at the counter, dollar bill in hand, eyes on Cassie’s blushing face. Cassie wondered if she should offer to change the money herself, for the coupons in her own bank account, and then… what? Ask her mother to change the dollars back with Mrs. Glick, and get interrogated about where they came from? Change the dollars herself at a bank, and take a loss? Ask her little brother to buy her a “present” with the dollars, and rely on _him_ to keep a secret?
“I’m sorry,” Cassie said, trying for the same tone she used when telling an adult customer that Wheaties were out of stock.
Sharon turned on her heel and walked out, trailing a plume of black, wavy hair. Giselle plucked a Snickers bar out of the rack and dropped a handful of square coins on the counter: a bronze one-coupon coin with Clara Barton on the face, and some copper ten-stamp coins embossed with sheaves of grain. By the time Cassie realized that she was twenty stamps short, Giselle had left.
The next Monday, at lunchtime, Cassie approached Sharon’s table, but nobody moved aside for her, or even looked up to acknowledge her presence. After another circuit around the cafeteria, she sat at the edge of the hippies’ table, and ate her lunch without speaking to anyone.
A few weeks after Sharon had snubbed her, Cassie had her first delivery job.
Carrying the three bags of groceries from Glick’s, she followed Margaret up a concrete stairwell and then, panting, into the woman’s apartment. Margaret had three other bags that she had filled at Stop & Shop, with meat and fish and other things that the smaller store didn’t carry.
“Thank you so much for helping me out,” Margaret said. “It’s such a bother, these elevators being constantly broken.”
“It’s no problem,” Cassie said.
“Let me put these away,” said Margaret, “and then I’ll drive you home.”
A single room served as living room, dining room, and kitchen. Cassie set her bags on the table, which was barely large enough for four people, and took a slow walk around. There were no bookshelves; the only decoration on the white wall was a color portrait of Margaret in a wedding dress, holding hands with some crew-cut man in a tuxedo.
Margaret, her arms now free of her own bags, lit a Parliament cigarette, and held out the rest of the pack. To fight back her temptation to take one, Cassie imagined herself coughing, spluttering, and throwing up in front of her new friend. _If you really want to smoke,_ her mother had said, _ask me for your first cigarette, and I’ll give it to you. Don’t take it from anyone else._ Cassie could tell her mother was using one of those “reverse psychology” tricks, and yet it was working.
“No, thanks,” Cassie apologized.
“Smart girl,” said Margaret. She laid the pack on the counter by the stove and began stocking the refrigerator.
Cassie picked up the _Boston Globe_ from the back of the sofa, and flipped through its pages. An article in the metro section listed the names of men who were arrested when the police raided a gay bar. Years ago, her math teacher at Girls’ Latin had been caught in a similar raid; after her name showed up in the newspaper, the school had fired her. Cassie and her friends had speculated about whether or not the teacher’s husband had known her secret.
Margaret’s sofa faced a TV set and a stereo cabinet whose antenna stretched to the ceiling. Cassie read the face of the stereo console and did a double-take.
“This picks up _short-wave_?” she asked, looking at Margaret with new respect.
“Yeah.” Margaret spoke over her shoulder as she closed the fridge. “On a really good day, I can pick up Radio Australia, but mostly I have to settle for the BBC.”
“My little brother used to be really into amateur radio,” Cassie said. “He got one of those Heathkit sets for his birthday, and we learned Morse code together. Sometimes we would even practice it at the breakfast table, you know, saying _didididit, didit_ to each other. But he had no patience for the other part of the test, the physics stuff, and eventually he just got bored and threw out the equipment. I was so mad. He knew how much I liked it, he could have given it to me.”
“With the money from your job, couldn’t you afford your own now?”
Cassie shook her head. “Heathkit, Radio Shack, all those companies take dollars.”
Margaret exhaled smoke in a sharp burst. “Why does it _matter_?” she said. “I just don’t understand Americans. You lot are up in arms about segregated buses and segregated schools and segregated lunch counters, and all the while, your pockets are full of segregated money.”
“It’s not like that.” Cassie laid her hand on the back of the sofa. “I mean, segregation was meant to keep black and white people apart, but the two currencies keep men and women together.”
“Keep them together, how?”
Cassie gave the answer that her father had given her, back when she was eleven years old, and starting to realize how many things she couldn’t buy. “In a healthy society, men and women depend on one another. That was easy a hundred years ago, because almost everything people used was homemade, and men and women spent their whole childhoods learning different skills. So if, say, a man wanted a new shirt, he would need his wife to sew one for him. If he wanted bread, his wife would have to bake it.
“But then the Industrial Revolution came,” Cassie went on, “and factories make all this stuff, so it’s easier to buy a shirt or a loaf of bread than it is to make one. If men and women used the same money, then a man could live on his own, and buy food and clothing without needing a wife.”
Margaret frowned. “Why is that such a bad thing? How is that kind of society unhealthy?”
“It leads to exploitation,” Cassie said. “A man could just… play the field for years, seducing women without committing to them. Women would have to keep looking for a husband until they were thirty or thirty-five years old. And the husbands would lose their work ethic. They’d sponge off their wives instead of looking for jobs that could support a family.”
Margaret wrinkled her nose. “Do you really think all that would happen? Do you have such a low opinion of men?”
“I–I don’t know,” Cassie stammered, and flashed a nervous smile. “Ask me again after I start dating.”
Two afternoons later, Cassie was hoisting half-gallon cartons of milk into the refrigerator case, Mrs. Glick was working the counter, and Margaret came in to shop. She smiled and nodded at Cassie as she took a tub of butter out. A minute later, Cassie heard Margaret’s voice and looked to the front of the store.
“I’m sorry,” Margaret was saying, as she dug through her purse. “My husband gave me a twenty-dollar bill this morning, and I forgot to change it on the way here. Is there any way…?”
Mrs. Glick looked at Cassie. Cassie nodded, gave her the thumbs-up sign, and went back to stocking the case. When the next carton of milk was halfway to its shelf, she heard another woman’s voice.
“Please step away from the counter, ma’am.”
“Beg pardon?” Mrs. Glick said.
Cassie pushed the milk carton into place and looked back to the front of the store. The cold draft from the dairy case blew against her cheek.
Margaret spoke. Her accent was no longer from Australia, but Alabama. “Secret Service, ma’am.” She held something up to Mrs. Glick, who was still frozen with surprise. “You are under arrest for operating an unlicensed currency exchange. You have the right to remain silent….”
Mrs. Glick walked around to the customer side of the cash register, putting one hand on the counter for support. Her other hand shook. Margaret (or whatever her real name was) turned away from her prisoner and lifted up a badge. She announced, in that Southern accent, “Everybody out of here. Store’s closing.” As she spoke, she swiveled on one heel, scanning the room, but did not make eye contact with Cassie.
Cassie looked out the shop window. Two broad-shouldered men in fedoras and trenchcoats waited outside the store, scuffing their loafers in the slush that coated the sidewalk. She let the door of the milk case close, and crept out the back door. The shivering and crying didn’t start until she was alone in her own bedroom.
The smoke from Cassie’s cigarette rose and curled out of the ashtray, through the screen of her bedroom window, and into the still air outside. It preserved its shape as it passed through, as if the screen were an insubstantial thing, and the smoke a free animal.
Three weeks after Mrs. Glick’s arrest, Cassie had taken her mother up on that offer of the first cigarette, hoping that the nicotine would let Cassie concentrate on her homework again. In idle moments, she replayed her silent conversation with Mrs. Glick over and over and over, wishing that through some force of will, she could go back in time and change that nod to a head-shake or even a shrug. But she could not escape her history: Margaret had betrayed Cassie, because Cassie had betrayed Mrs. Glick.
Every time Cassie heard a knock on the door, she expected to see a blonde woman with a Southern accent, flanked by men with slicked-back hair. Maybe they would arrest her as a co-conspirator, or maybe they would just interrogate her, looking for more incriminating evidence against her old boss. She wanted to confess everything to her mother, but dared not. Talking had brought her enough trouble already.
Without any further help from Cassie, the wheels of justice carried Mrs. Glick from arrest to indictment to trial to conviction to the Federal prison in Danbury. They wanted to make an example of her, Giselle had said. Sharon gave Cassie the latest news every day at lunch, and even after Cassie’s own supply of gossip about Mrs. Glick ran dry, she was still invited to Sharon’s table. Cassie took this as a sign that they had become friends.
She looked down at the mimeographed packet on her desk: honors math homework, something about complex numbers. The blurred purple handwriting at the top of the page said: _Calculate 10 − (5 − 3i). Show your work graphically._ She wanted to draw a metal cash box containing ten coupons, and then draw hands taking coupons out and putting dollars in.
She picked the paper-light cigarette out of the ashtray, inhaled half a lungful of bitter smoke, and exhaled it through the screen window. She looked at the homework again, shoved it aside, and took a blank sheet of notebook paper from her desk.
_Dear Mrs. Glick,_ she wrote, in her best penmanship.
_I am sorry that you are in prison. I think it’s unfair that the government is treating you like a mobster or a drug dealer or something. You were just trying to help people buy things that they needed, and you didn’t hurt anyone._
Some warden would read every letter addressed to a prisoner, so it wasn’t safe for Cassie to say _I’m sorry I vouched for that woman. I didn’t know she was a cop._ Leaving those sentences out of the letter made her feel both relieved and ashamed.
Cassie’s mother rinsed and wrung out her sponge. She stood alone in the kitchen, which was finally as clean as it had been the day they bought the house, and therefore ready for the next morning’s breakfast. In all likelihood, she knew, her children were in their rooms (Russell asleep, Cassie reading), and her husband was still in the den, lingering over the final papers he had to grade. The air smelled of Lysol.
She took an envelope from her purse, which hung from the back doorknob. It was addressed to Cassie, and the return address was a cell number in the Danbury Federal Penitentiary. Cassie’s mother unsealed the envelope and unfolded the letter. The brittle typing paper made a crinkling sound.
_Dear Cassie,_ the letter began. _Thank you for your words of sympathy. The warden and matrons have been kind to me here, and I am learning to get along with the other inmates, but I still would rather be anywhere else, even a nursing home. I kept my illicit business secret from you because even when I did not fear the consequences for myself, I did not want to corrupt a child. Now that you know what I have done, you should know the whole truth, so that you are not tempted to imitate me._
_When I was a girl, people flattered me for my intelligence and reminded me of all the things I could have been if I had been born a boy. I let their praise go to my head. After the war, I threw myself into my husband’s store, and I took pride in knowing his business better than he did. When the cancer took him, I could have retired on his insurance money, but just like a man, I let my ego depend on having a place to go to work each day. Then my bills started rising, and his annuity didn’t bring enough dollars to cover them all; I should have taken that as a sign that it really was time to retire, but I thought I was clever enough to make it all work out, and you can see what my cleverness has earned me in the end._
_I know I am not the first person to tell you that you are a very smart girl. I pray that you learn how to temper that intelligence with an appreciation of your own womanhood, instead of letting hubris and envy lead you astray._
_All my love,_
The signature between the last two lines was an arthritic scrawl of blue ink.
Cassie’s mother returned the letter to its envelope and turned it over and over in her hands. She wrinkled her nose.
“Ethel,” she said, “you idiot.”
Standing alone in front of the kitchen sink, she flicked her lighter, and touched the flame to one corner of the paper.