Nothing to Lose
Written By: Kim Suhr
The day after Ricardo, the mailman, carried away her application for disability, Marilou decided it was time to take control. Of course, she couldn’t give up chocolate altogether. But, if she made herself follow every bit of wisdom printed inside the wrapper of each Dove candy, her progress to the bottom of the bag could be slowed significantly. Especially if they were all like the message on the first wrapper of The Dove Vow. Dance like no one is watching. Marilou glued the wrapper into her journal and wrote, “June 7, 1994: Marilou takes The Dove Vow.”
It took her the better part of the morning to build up enough courage to push herself off the couch, turn on Q106 and do her best line dance to Boot Scootin’ Boogie. The scuff turn was tough and she nearly took a tumble when her shin hit the end table. She knew she didn’t look anything like those skinny girls on the Brooks & Dunn video, but it felt good to move her body anyway. She did her heel-to-toe-dosey-doe and crooned, “Come on, baby, let’s go!”
She was tempted to close the curtains—her living room looked right onto Main Street after all—but she knew a private dance for “no one” was not the intent of the words. In order to eat the candy, she needed to live up to the spirit of the advice, not just the letter of it. With sweat beads on her upper lip, she’d almost finished the entire song when she stole a glance out the window and saw a flash of blue on her front stoop. Her stomach dropped.
Ricardo lifted her mail in greeting, a shy smile on his face. She could see the red ascending from his chin to his bald pate. To heck with the chocolate. She snapped off the radio and reached out the screen door. “Thanks, Ricardo,” she managed to cough out before retreating behind the door.
The wrapper’s advice wasn’t much easier to execute the following day. “Share a chocolate moment with a new friend.” She read it twice as she neatly folded the corners of the foil so they looked like arrows pointing to the message and tried to think of who the “new friend” might be.
Another flash of blue and the sound of envelopes landing on the floor. After the awkward dancing incident yesterday, she couldn’t blame Ricardo for using the mail slot instead of waiting for her to greet him at the door as usual. Marilou could taste the smooth, creamy chocolate on her tongue. She felt a tingle between her legs.
“Ricardo!” She toddled to the door. “Wait a second.”
He stopped at the bottom of the steps and turned slowly.
“Do you like chocolate?”
His face turned the color of canned ham. “Chocolate?”
“Yes, I’d like to give you a chocolate.” She stepped onto the stoop and held out the bag.
“That’s very kind.” He ripped open the candy’s red foil.
Marilou resisted the urge to tell him to be careful, that there was a fortune inside, but she reminded herself it was she who had taken the pledge, not Ricardo. He looked around for a place to discard the wrapper.
Marilou held out her hand. “I’ll take care of that for you.” She held up her own chocolate as if it were a glass of wine. “Cheers!”
They clinked candies and ate them.
“Mmm. Delicious. Thank you, Marilou.” He cleared his throat. “Well, I’d better go.” He walked down the three stairs.
He stole a glance at his watch. “Yes?”
She had nothing to tell him, but she didn’t want him to leave either. “Thanks. For stopping.” She could think of nothing else. “You probably have a schedule to keep. Don’t let me hold you up.”
“That’s okay.” He walked backwards toward the sidewalk. “Thanks again. For the chocolate.”
It might have been Marilou’s imagination, but she swore he had a spring in his step as he headed toward the neighbor’s house. She closed the door, flattened out his wrapper so she could read the advice: Look for love in unexpected places. She stuck his wrapper next to hers and wrote, “Ricardo’s Wrapper, June 8, 1994.”
The advice over the next few days – Enjoy the silky smoothness of Dove and Happiness is just one bite away – did nothing to help limit her intake, and she didn’t see how she could Do something for someone less fortunate today. Who was less fortunate than her? She was almost at the end of her unemployment benefits, had no prospects for work, and her only remaining option had been to apply for disability— “going on the dole,” her father would have called it. He was probably rolling over in his grave.
She tried to shake the childhood memories of her father’s rants against lazy moochers on welfare. She thought of all the years she had spent afraid of becoming poor, the shame of welfare hanging over her head. The years of hoarding food, first in her closet, then in her own body. She’d never asked for a handout. Until now.
One afternoon, when she returned from her tour of the neighborhood—Walk your way to happiness! and Go farther than you think you can! —she collapsed onto the couch and lifted her feet to assess the two angry red blisters where her flip-flops had rubbed. She thought about getting a bucket of soapy water to soak her feet, considered the effort it would take, and thought of her mother’s cure: let the air get at it. While she took her mother’s advice, she followed her own about the telephone ringing in the kitchen: let it ring.
When she couldn’t stand the shrill of it any longer, she pushed herself up from the couch and limped to the kitchen. It was Sharon, full of complaints and worries. Why didn’t Marilou get an answering machine? She’d called twice in the last half-hour. If Marilou hadn’t picked up this time, she would’ve driven right over. Or sent the police.
Marilou wedged the receiver between her shoulder and ear and stretched for the open bag of candy on the counter. She popped a chocolate into her mouth without stopping to read the wrapper.
“Anyway, guess who won four tickets to—” Sharon made a snare drum rattle with her tongue. “Billy Ray Cyrus in Rockford! Can you believe it?”
Marilou started to answer but Sharon cut her off. “They’re $25 face value, so I figure we can sell the other two and treat ourselves to a nice dinner somewhere beforehand. What do you think?”
Marilou fiddled with the wrapper and asked questions of her own. Weren’t they too old to go to a concert? When was it anyway? What about the drive? All that way and at night, too? Besides, what would she even wear?
“Listen to you.” Sharon laughed. “It’s like you’ve never been to a concert before.”
Marilou didn’t want to tell Sharon that going to a concert was one of the many, many things she had never done – that she’d never been on a date, that the only man she’d ever danced with was her uncle. She smoothed the wrapper on the table. Dare to do what you’ve never done before.
There was no turning back. Marilou had already eaten the chocolate; now she had to follow the advice. She took a deep breath and looked around the kitchen. It was preposterous to even consider asking Ricardo on a date. Still at that moment, it was the only thing she wanted to do. When you’ve got nothing to lose, you’ve got nothing to lose. They should put that on a Dove wrapper.
“Can I buy the third ticket? I want to invite—” Marilou made her own drum roll. “A man.” The phone was silent. “You there?”
“What? Yeah, I’m here.” Sharon’s smile seeped into her voice. “You got a boyfriend or something?”
Marilou squared her shoulders, steadied her voice. “Not a boyfriend, but I … Look, there’s no guarantee he’ll even say yes.”
“Well if he does, and he has a friend for me, you’ve got a deal.”
Marilou sat on the edge of her La-Z-Boy, feet firm on the floor – ready to carry her to the door the moment she saw Ricardo. Her shoes pinched. The waistband on her slacks hugged under her ribcage and reminded her how long it had been since she’d had to dress for work. But today demanded more than a loose cotton dress. Today called for a blouse and a touch of blush. Lipstick, of course. And perfume.
The longer she sat, the more certain she became that the notion of inviting Ricardo was ridiculous. It was those gosh-darned chocolates. They were the trouble. When she couldn’t stand the waiting any longer, she lifted herself from the chair and grabbed the Dove bag from the end table. She’d take it to the outside garbage can, get rid of them once and for all. Join Weight Watchers or something.
She opened the door just as Ricardo leaned to slip a letter through the mail slot. “Oh.” She heard her voice but wasn’t sure it was she who had spoken.
“Marilou.” Ricardo straightened and held out the envelope, its return address marked Social Security Administration. She grabbed her purse from the entryway table and shoved the letter inside. Maybe he hadn’t noticed who it was from.
He motioned to the candy bag. “Careful,” he winked. “I’m liable to get addicted.”
She was puzzled at first, then Marilou realized Ricardo thought she was offering chocolate. She held out the bag.
His smile showed a dimple in his left cheek. “Don’t mind if I do!” Ricardo adjusted the strap of his mail pouch and reached into the bag. Again, he handed her the wrapper and ate the heart-shaped chocolate in two bites.
Marilou glanced at his fortune: Wear that perfect dress tonight! She tried not to grin as she pictured Ricardo in a dress. “Do you like music, Ricardo?”
He tilted his head and looked to her left, as if that was where the question had come from. “To tell you the truth, the only kind I can stand is—” He looked over his shoulder, and she half-hoped he’d say Classical or Rock-n-Roll or Mariachi to give his inevitable rejection less sting. “—Country. Why?”
“I have an extra ticket to see Billy Ray Cyrus in Rockford,” she blurted before she had a chance to lose her nerve.
“Really? A ticket to see him live?”
He put down his mailbag and reached into his back pocket. “How much?”
“No, no.” Marilou realized she had said it all wrong. “I’m asking … inviting …” How could she clarify? “with my friend, Sharon, and me. You could bring a friend.” She needed to make sure there was no confusion. “My treat. A double date.” There.
Ricardo looked at her forehead, then at his shoes. He bit his lower lip. The silence lasted so long, Marilou became conscious of a jackhammer pounding down the street. Or maybe that was her heart.
Ricardo’s eyes glinted as he slipped his wallet back into his pocket. “Well, chocolate and a ticket to see Billy Ray Cyrus with a pretty lady. I’m just about the luckiest mailman alive today!”
Marilou nearly hugged him. She’d been so certain he would turn her down that she hadn’t even considered the possibility he’d accept, much less call her a “pretty lady.” Talk about being lucky to be alive.
Marilou left the letter from Social Security in the bottom of her purse. She couldn’t prepare for her first date knowing she had a “disability,” couldn’t think about the look of pity on Ricardo’s face when he delivered her disability checks. Worry wastes wisdom!
Sharon took her on a shopping spree at the Farm and Fleet to buy an outfit for the concert. Marilou tried it on daily, practiced walking in the tan cowboy boots, swishing the skirt just a little. When the day of the concert arrived, she no longer felt like an imposter in the clothes, but it wasn’t the outfit that worried her.
Who would open doors? Who would foot the bill? And, most stomach-clenching of all, what would happen at “Good night?” Oh, how she wished she’d have taken care of these firsts before now.
“Listen to me,” she said to her reflection. She looked toward her bedroom window as if someone might be spying on her, catching her in the act of daring to wish. “It’s a free ticket to see Billy Ray Cyrus. By Monday, you’ll be back to customer-mailman status.”
“Yoo hoo, honey!” Sharon’s voice filtered through the screen door bringing Marilou back to herself, “Who’s ready for a night on the town?”
Marilou tried to ignore her friend’s good looks but they were hard to deny. Sharon was a fox. She had the guts to wear white rhinestone-studded suede with fringe hanging from the sleeves and pink cowboy boots.
“Don’t you look sharp!” Sharon gestured for Marilou to turn in a circle. “You made the right call on those boots. They’re adorable!”
Before Marilou could return the compliment, a forest-green Ford LTD pulled up to the curb. Ricardo opened the door before it came to a full stop.
Marilou grabbed her purse. It didn’t have anything in common with the rest of her outfit, but that couldn’t be helped.
“Which one is mine?” Sharon asked over her shoulder.
Marilou almost laughed at the question. The resemblance between the men was uncanny: small frames, neat mustaches, faces the shapes of hearts. What difference could it make to Sharon which one was “hers?”
As if they were engaged in some sort of gentleman one-upsmanship, the brothers greeted them—Ricardo with a polite bow of the head, Freddy with a kiss to the back of Sharon’s hand. Ricardo took Marilou’s arm as she descended the steps. Freddy ran ahead to open the back car door.
Sharon slid across the seat. As Marilou settled in, she tried to shake the feeling that she was in a play, the men following a script, and let herself enjoy the attention.
Freddy looked in the rear view mirror. “Do you ladies like steak?”
Sharon raised her eyebrows at Marilou and mouthed the word, fluffed her hair, and slid all the way back into the seat. “We absolutely do like steak,” she said.
On the ride, Marilou struggled to think of something interesting or witty to slide in, but by the time she thought of an anecdote, Sharon had already turned the conversation in a different direction, and Marilou’s hard-sought story would no longer make sense in context. She knew she should be grateful to Sharon for filling the empty air in the car. Still, Marilou wished for an opportunity to shine just a little bit outside the shadow of her rhinestone-studded girlfriend.
Blandings’ Steak House sat just before the state border, three miles from the exit for Rockford. It was known for having a pricey menu and a reservation list a mile long.
“Oh, we couldn’t,” slipped out of Marilou’s mouth as Freddie pulled into the Blandings’ parking lot. Sharon shushed her.
Freddy pulled into a slot and pushed the lever into Park. “Nonsense. You have no idea what a treat it is for us to see Billy Ray. ‘Cardo here is a bit of a Cyrus expert you might say.”
Ricardo uttered three syllables that Marilou recognized as a version of “Ah, go on,” or “Oh, not me.” She realized this was the first sound he had made since they’d pulled away from the curb.
Marilou was grateful they were seated at a large table rather than a cramped booth. She timed her sitting perfectly as Ricardo slid the chair under her thighs, just the right distance from the table. He wouldn’t have to embarrass them both by struggling to push her in any farther.
The meal followed like a symphony. They helped themselves to olives and raw vegetables from the lazy Susan relish tray, followed by salads made-to-order at their table. Marilou had never eaten in such a fancy restaurant nor one that seemed to have been designed with her body in mind, from the size of the table to its distance from the others.
When Jake Blandings himself visited their table, shaking hands with Ricardo and slapping Freddy on the back, Marilou realized why the dining room was to her scale. Jake was the largest individual she had ever seen. His girth made Marilou feel almost petite.
“You’ve hardly touched your steak, Marilou. I hope nothing’s wrong with it?” Jake looked genuinely concerned.
“Oh, no. It’s delicious.” Marilou wiped the corner of her mouth with her napkin. “To be honest, I’m just a little excited about the concert. Makes it hard to eat.”
Jake relaxed. “Ah, well then. In that case, I’ll have Meredith wrap it up nice for you. Best leftovers you’ll ever eat.” He shook hands with the brothers and moved on to the next table.
As the waitress refilled their coffee cups, Sharon started in with trivia questions about Billy Ray. Marilou recognized the questions from Q106’s Great Ticket Give Away that afternoon. But Sharon delivered them with such authority, anyone who didn’t know better would have thought she was a Billy Ray aficionado. Ricardo found his tongue, beaming as he volleyed answer after answer at Sharon.
“I told you, ‘Cardo knows his stuff.” Freddy leaned toward Sharon. “Are you a big Billy Ray fan, too?”
“Oh, sure. Isn’t everybody?”
Marilou couldn’t help feeling that the men’s chairs were drifting closer to Sharon’s. Believe in yourself and everyone else will do the same.
Sharon held up her hands like she was trying to get their attention even though she already had it. “Okay, okay. What’s Miley’s real name and what’s the name of her favorite doll?”
Ricardo narrowed his eyes, thinking.
Marilou said, “Destiny Hope.”
Sharon’s eyes widened. “Yes! And her doll?”
“Oh, my god.” Sharon’s voice sounded like a valley girl. She looked from Ricardo to Freddy. “She’s right. Miley walks around everywhere with a Willie Nelson doll!” She poked Ricardo in the shoulder. “Your girlfriend is brilliant!”
Marilou looked at her hands and started folding in each corner of her napkin, unable to bear seeing the expression that would be on Ricardo’s face at the mention of the word, “girlfriend.”
Instead of coughing or changing the subject, though, Ricardo said, “Yes. I believe she is.” He turned his chair slightly toward Marilou. “How did you know that?”
Before she could say, Q106, Sharon bunched up her napkin, dropped it on the table, and looked at her watch. “Come on, people. It’s show time!”
The fans waiting to get into the concert looked like they had stepped right out of Country Music Television. They wore cowboy hats of all shapes and sizes and belt buckles that could double as hubcaps.
“Have you ever seen so many mullets in all your life?” Sharon said, loud enough that the mullet in front of them turned and gave a sneer from under his horseshoe mustache. Sharon didn’t miss a beat. “No offense. I love a good mullet, if you’ve got the right hair for it, which you do—”
Marilou widened her eyes at Sharon hoping she’d get the message: People can hear you!
Sharon pulled the tickets from her purse. “Fifth row. Front and center!” She fanned them out like a poker hand. “One for you. One for you.” As she handed each of them a ticket, the tick of the turnstiles caught Marilou’s ear. Her stomach sank. She scanned for a way to get in without having to squeeze through the tiny space. She felt an immediate need to pee.
A woman glided past her in a wheelchair and the ticket-taker unhitched a velvet-covered rope and handed back her stub. Marilou exhaled. She’d use that entrance and meet her friends on the other side. Not completely without embarrassment, but a thousand times better than getting wedged between the flipping bars of the turnstile. She handed the man her ticket without making eye contact and joined the others.
“Who wants a beer?” Sharon said over her shoulder. “I’m buying.” She stepped up to the counter before Ricardo and Freddy could reach for their wallets.
The beer threatened to roll over the sides of their cups, so they took their opening gulps before saying, “Cheers!” Marilou couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a beer, and she certainly didn’t remember it tasting as earthy and refreshing as it did right at that moment.
When they stepped through the entrance to their section, Marilou’s breath caught in her chest. She had seen videos of arenas and concert halls, but she had never been in a space this big before. Maybe it was the quick sips of beer on her near-empty stomach or the yellow tint of the lighting or the bassline of the music being piped over the PA, but Marilou felt dizzy and reached for the hand rail to catch her balance.
Ricardo touched her elbow. “Are you okay? You look pale.”
She blinked. “No, I’m fine.” It came out as a whisper. She cleared her throat and tried again. “I’ve never seen anything like this. In person, I mean.”
Ricardo touched her cheek. “Neither have I. Shall we sit?” He led the group down the aisle toward Row E. He stepped back so Marilou could go in first. “Looks like this is it.”
She exhaled a silent Thank goodness! that no one else was sitting in the row yet. She plopped herself into the padded folding chair. Ricardo held his hands in his lap, leaving her a little extra clearance on his side.
It wasn’t long before a trio took the vacant seats nearest her. The girls wore different versions of suede halter tops and pastel cowboy hats. From their glassy eyes and loud voices, Marilou concluded they had been drinking. How could they be old enough to drink? The girl next to her bumped Marilou’s elbow, spilling beer on her new boot.
Reflexively, Marilou apologized for the girl’s carelessness, but the girl looked at her as if Marilou were an inconveniently placed armchair and turned back to her friends. “Someone switch seats with me. I got the fat guy last time.”
Marilou leaned forward, hoping her body could absorb the embarrassing comment before it reached Ricardo’s ears.
“It won’t be too bad if you dab it away quickly,” he said. The sight of Ricardo’s white handkerchief made Marilou want to cry. His fingers brushed hers as she accepted the handkerchief.
The lights dimmed and an announcer’s voice introduced the opening act, The Bootery. Marilou didn’t know any of their songs, but the girl next to her sang every word as she swayed in her seat. Following two more sloshing incidents, Marilou decided to cut her losses and finish off the beer. It helped her stomach feel less empty and took some of the sting out of the girl’s comment. She dropped the empty cup on the floor, smashed it, then pushed it under her chair with the heel of her boot.
Ricardo handed her a full one. “Sharon bought us another,” he said.
She looked down the row to Sharon, who held up her cup and mouthed, “Cheers!”
Marilou leaned in close to Ricardo’s ear. “I hope you don’t think we always drink like this.”
He smiled and clinked his cup with hers.
By the time The Bootery announced their final song, Marilou regretted all the water and coffee at dinner. And the beer. She had to go, and she had to go now. The more she tried not to think about it, the more she had to go. Marilou grabbed her purse and made her way down the row. Over Ricardo. Over Freddy. Over Sharon. The two people on the end saw her coming and were kind enough to step into the aisle so she could get through. She walked toward the exit as rapidly as her full bladder would allow, only to find a line snaking from the ladies’ room.
She took her place and shifted her weight slowly from foot to foot, trying to focus on keeping the pee in and the memories of halter top girl out, willing the women ahead of her to hurry it up. She clenched her jaw and started to sweat. Ordinarily, she’d have waited for the handicapped stall but she was desperate.
She tried to glide casually into the stall that opened, but before she could even latch the door her bladder let go, sending a trickle of warmth down her right leg and into her boot. Frantically, she pulled up her skirt and sat on the toilet, peed right through her underwear and stayed there, frozen, while toilets flushed, faucets whooshed, hand dryers blew. She knew she was preventing someone else from relieving herself, and she didn’t care. Maybe halter top girl was next in line, doing her own potty-dance. Marilou smiled at the thought.
She sat until the last footsteps clicked out on the tile. She pictured Ricardo in his seat next to her empty one, Sharon torn between staying to see Billy Ray and coming to check on her. Marilou tried to think of how she could explain what had taken her so long.
The crowd roared, and she could make out the first notes of “Some Gave All.”
No, she would escape. Apologize later. How much would it cost to take a cab back? Probably more than the twenty bucks she had in her wallet. She balanced her purse on her knees and fished inside. Her hand landed on the letter from Social Security. She had told herself she wouldn’t open it until the morning after her date, but she saw no reason to prolong the agony now.
She read the first sentence. We are writing to notify you that your application to receive Disability Benefits has been denied. Denied. She read on to learn that the measure of her “Residual Function Capacity” indicated a number of work situations that would make her employable. As such, she was unqualified to receive benefits. She thought of Jake Blandings working as the head chef in a bustling supper club. She thought of her father, laughed and wished he were alive so she could call him up and tell him she didn’t qualify. Denied.
The crowd roared again.
She thought of Ricardo, who had been nothing but kind since the moment she offered him that first chocolate. Her first concert, her first date, and here she was in wet underwear feeling sorry for herself. She took a deep breath. She’d come farther than she ever thought she could and wasn’t about to let it slip away now. “When you’ve got nothing to lose, you’ve got nothing to lose.” She’d said it out loud, her echo telling her again, “Nothing to lose.”
Marilou stood up, checked her skirt for spots and hooked her thumbs into the elastic of her underwear. Balancing herself against the stall wall, she wrestled first one leg hole, then the other over her boots. She crumpled the panties into a ball and shoved them into the sanitary napkin receptacle next to the toilet paper. Let someone else worry about them when she was long, long gone from this place. She dabbed herself off the best she could with toilet paper and let her skirt fall loose. Not caring whether someone walked in, she let herself out of the stall and leaned on the sink while she removed her boot and dabbed it off with Ricardo’s handkerchief. She punched the button on the hand dryer and held the boot there for three cycles until it was dry enough to put back on her foot.
As she left the restroom, she felt a little breeze under her skirt with each step, pleasantly surprised with the sensation. She’d never gone without underwear and had to admit the freedom of it felt good. Darned good. Each step reminded her of her new mantra, which she shortened to “Nothing to lose.”
Screw the girl in the halter top. Marilou had as much right to take up space as the girl did, with her swishing hair and gyrating hips. Marilou stepped up to the concession stand and ordered four beers, with a cardboard carrier, please, and not so full this time. She’d find her way back to her seat and tell the others a long beer line had held her up. She was going to enjoy her first concert and maybe even get her first kiss.
KIM SUHR is the author of Maybe I’ll Learn: Snapshots of a Novice Mom. She is Director of Red Oak Writing, an organization that supports writers—youth and adults—in Southeastern WI. Kim’s work has appeared at the Midwest Review, Grey Sparrow Journal, Full of Crow and Foundling Review as well as earning awards from the Wisconsin Writers Association Contests. She holds an MFA in Fiction from the Solstice program at Pine Manor College in Boston.
To learn more about Kim’s writing, visit kimsuhr.com.