Jaclyn Gilbert

Marginal Cost

The children were mostly happy children, as children are, or so Eileen thought, as she buckled Jamie into her car seat.  Jamie, with Luke’s blond hair and brown eyes, and Daniel—eating a powdered jelly donut—had Eileen’s unremarkable lips. Her sheath of freckles.  Daniel was more careful than she had been as a child, the way he required slow, fastidious bites, wiping some jelly from his hands with the napkin she’d passed him.   It was a hot day in July, and Eileen’s own hands felt sticky, even though she’d resisted breakfast. It was $5.95 for a dozen Krispy Kremes from the 7-11, about fifty cents a donut, though if they’d had Entenmann’s like Luke liked, she could have saved another two dollars.  Maybe more. 
        Luke kept a radar clipped between the windshield pillars.  He liked it quiet in the car, just the sound of steady beeping, the occasional flare even the children had grown accustomed to.  The blue light’s flashing lull at any hour, especially when it was still dark in the morning, but it was light now—9:24 a.m.
        She passed Daniel another napkin.  They’d already made a stop on the way out—for the donuts and for Luke to make his bet.  It was baseball season, and Luke seemed to be in a relatively good mood over how the Phillies were faring. Eileen couldn’t bring herself to pay attention to the season schedule, but she assumed there was another game tonight. She never asked how much money he put down, but she knew he saw himself always on top of the bookies.  Luke had it figured out, the sums and percentages—long-term investments—while Eileen was in charge of short-term budgeting: grocery lists, keeping house, monthly bills for them and the kids. She wrote it all out for him as he liked, on ledger paper, thin green lines as crisp as bills themselves, small squares for fitting in numbers and words, and she took pride in the filing too, the careful systems she’d devised for keeping track.  
        Exactly one hundred and forty-six miles between Lancaster and Atlantic City, one hundred and thirty-nine bound by the expressway, Luke pushing seventy miles an hour, five over the limit.  He had his radar to warn for cops, who’d gotten stricter about ticketing lately. Last year they’d paid $109.72 in fines, Eileen responsible for $42.71—all the rushing to pick up the kids from school and other activities, and also the parking violations she couldn’t seem to skirt no matter how certain she’d been to have kept with restrictions.
        “Who’s going swimming?” Luke asked, eyes in the rearview.
        Jamie kicked her legs with excitement. She was only three, but she knew where they were going.  Just ten minutes, Eileen would say, sometimes ten and a half, if Jamie needed her to be as exacting as Luke was about times.  He was home from work at 6:15 instead of 6. They’d left at 6:25 that morning to beat the traffic, for instance, Luke always had one ear on the traffic report in the morning, at five when he woke more often than not to put his calls in. The wait times she told the children were of course a lie—one she and Luke still didn’t agree on. It was simply an amount the children could wrap their minds around.
        Inevitably, they would stop in Philly, right off the turnpike, where Luke would hurry to another payphone. She didn’t used to mind it, the long phone calls in the middle of a trip, but once the patterns had started to build—the difference between good and bad days—Eileen could never predict them. She’d learned to ask careful questions, avoiding numbers or the time it would take to get to Atlantic City so she could manage the kids.
        As Luke drove, Eileen imagined Daniel through the rearview mirror, his book on planets open in his lap as always.  If she were back there with him, he would point to the seven red fiery rings of Saturn, or the Moons of Jupiter, and want to know Why.  Eileen had never been good at astronomy, had never really understood its calculations, but she’d learned to conjure possibilities. The rings were for protection and Jupiter’s moons for seeing. Like the way she could see behind her head when Daniel pinched Jamie’s cheeks too hard, or flicked her corrective lenses. Yes, she’d seen him do it. Daniel, like his father, could be a real bully.
        Luke, for one, disapproved of Eileen’s ten-minute rule, calling it “inane.”
        Sooner or later they are going to find out, he’d said.  He thought she was too soft on them, setting them up for failure.  Time management wasn’t easy.  You had to stick to a schedule.  Life was about boundaries, he’d said.  Just the other week, he’d brought up taking Daniel to the race track, something he thought a five-year old would enjoy—picking out a horse and watching it run—but how was that setting boundaries? Didn’t it only confuse them? Eileen may have been old-fashioned, but boundaries meant enforcing discipline.  Only after chores, for instance, did she allow french fries from the Big Mac Value Pack she sometimes got for dinner. At $2.59, if Luke had to work late, and she didn’t feel like cooking, they could manage the Drive-Through. 
        The children had fallen asleep: Jamie’s neck flopped over, her mouth slightly open, making the same soft sounds Daniel did when he slept.  His book was still open on his lap, the seven rings of Saturn, four of them thick and full, three thin and minor; she saw in the text below: Hold on! Saturn is 746 million miles away! Eileen always counted the rings with him, one, two, three... and he was lulled to sleep by seven.  His little head tilted now against the window. The car sped on past exit signs.  Three more until theirs—the service plaza they always stopped at off Route 76.
        How much was upbringing responsible—relative to the rest of your life—for fixing who you became? Eileen wondered.  Seventeen years at home, compared to, say, double or triple that, if you were lucky, on your own? But could college really be factored into these years? Was there a number of years, a threshold one passed through that could be counted on, could be named?
        Luke never had to write numbers down like Eileen did.  He could do all the math in his head, like an invisible Rubik’s cube Eileen couldn’t track.  Even when she showed him her numbers, all the bills minus Luke’s income, he said she still got it wrong.  Said she lost track the grocery and the drug store, always getting more than they needed, the bulk supplies for a bargain he’d rather she spread out in smaller purchases.  When she argued there were yearly savings, he reminded that long-term finances were his territory, not hers. She was in charge of the weekly, the day-to-day—toilet paper ($1.09/4 roll), eggs ($1.17/dozen), milk ($1.09/half gallon)—couldn’t she stick to those amounts? Was that so hard?
        What about Luke’s own daily spending, she always wanted to counter.  Why didn’t they debate those amounts too? Whenever she tried to go deeper, Luke refuted her attempts, spewing investment figures, interest accruals she couldn’t follow outside of his point that he always made more than he spent.  She was only ever spending, draining their reserves.  
        When they were first married after college, Luke had wanted to settle on the West Coast, in Reno or Las Vegas, but Atlanta had ended up the better fit for them both finding jobs.  It had been hot in Atlanta, and Eileen had taken up running during the day. At night, she’d studied for her teaching certification exams, after Luke came home from his work at a laser company.  He’d started staying out late, and even later, when she found out she was pregnant with Daniel needed to put her studying on hold, because Luke thought it best for her to stay home with their first child as long as possible.  Cheaper than daycare or a nanny, he might as well have said.  She had looked into it without his knowing: $84 a week for a reasonable option. 
        After Luke’s mother passed in ’89, interest from her family’s trust began to trickle in every month, but Luke had a private account, and he kept the exact amounts from Eileen.  He only told her that the interest was not enough to make them rich. It was his business, not hers. Just as he didn’t have a right to Eileen’s family will. But the chance for any added family income, Eileen wanted to argue, wasn’t that a shared matter? Additional funds—take the cost of childcare, let’s say at $80/week, if she rounded down—they could really begin to save for the children’s college, their own retirement. 
        If only it were that simple.  The truth was Luke liked cash for himself, warm and crisp from ATMs.  She knew liked his own wallet full with higher bills, and he gave Eileen his change, ones and fives, to live on.
        He didn’t like that, lately, Eileen had become a little more insistent.  Asking for more. But school was starting soon, and Daniel needed new gear for soccer.  Jamie’s doctor appointments required co-pays. All she wanted was her own checkbook. Was that so much to ask for?
        “What do you think about going to the Waterfront?” Luke said. Eileen flinched.  A half-dozen of oysters for $10, Luke would indulge, a glass of wine for $4, the tax and tip to be factored in for portion at the end.  
        “Any time,” Luke said.
        “But we don’t have a sitter.” At the beach, it was $5/night compared to $3 at home.
        Luke didn’t say anything.  He tapped the dial of the radio on, like she’d said the wrong thing again.  As he fiddled for a station, 102.5, she heard a song she liked—Joni Mitchell something—but it was too late to ask him to pause. 
        “We can bring the kids,” Luke said finally. 
        “But they always act out.” Eileen thought of how Jamie had taken too many sips of her strawberry daiquiri ($8) last time and gotten dizzy.  How ill and neglectful it had looked of them. But Luke had thought it funny. She’ll have to learn one of these days, he’d said.   Just as passing Daniel his beer ($6.95/six pack) in their hotel room had been a joke too, last year when they’d gone to Disney World.  Or giving the children a taste of the spiciest food he always ordered at Chinese restaurants ($3.95 for Sichuan chicken), the lemon slices from his water glass that he’d wait for the children to try and wait for them to pucker their lips. 
        Luke didn’t know Eileen had let them try cotton candy once.  Last summer, outside the ticket stands for the rides, while Luke was a making a call, she’d let them, at $1.50 a cone—watching shamefully as they’d plucked the blue and pink bearded sugar, trying not to imagine it crystalizing, growing hard between their molars.  Luke hadn’t noticed Jamie’s blue lips when she’d smiled after he’d returned to them by the booth. And even if he had, he might have thought it a snow cone, a popsicle.
        “I wonder if we should stop at the grocery store when we’re closer,” Eileen said. “The kids will need cereal, and I thought we’d pack sandwiches for the beach.”
        “You’re worried about sandwiches?” Luke said.
        He turned the music up, but she asked him to turn it down, because the children were sleeping.  They were monsters if they didn’t sleep. 
        “They sleep through anything,” Luke said.
        Eileen had her hands clenched by her side in the car.  Like Daniel, she could read when the car was in motion, but only to a point, until it made her too tired, or sick.  Not so dissimilar about the way she felt about her personal spending. All the things she bought to cure her boredom, the continuing education she still hadn’t gotten around to—business classes at the community college, $150 each.  Nothing eased that lack—not manicures ($7) or a cassette tape ($8 for a new release) at the mall. Not the homemade cookies Eileen made with two sticks of butter ($.89), the chocolate chip ($1.07/bag) she made for the kids, but out of the three dozen, she always ate two, tucking each into a paper towel she cupped in her palm, taking slow, measured bites.  Her reward for getting through each day without yelling too harshly at the children, or overindulging instead of really listening to them, as they explained who had taken what from whom, or what they’d learned from Sesame Street that afternoon, especially Daniel who liked to detail every fact about the “Number of the Day.” 
        Eileen had started taking out more books for them from the library (at least three per week), and while she was there she sat down at the communal tables, sometimes paging through important publications, like the Economist and the Wall Street Journal at $4.95—far more cerebral than People and Good Housekeeping at $3.95—the kinds of magazines the mothers of the children hers played with read and talked about.  The kinds Eileen sometimes couldn’t help adding in the grocery line before checkout, and then having to explain it to Luke when he saw the receipts.
        Eileen thought once the kids were occupied with after-school activities, she’d have more time to study, and then when they were in college, she’d really have time to try her hand at profit analysis.  She doubted it was all true, how Luke had explained P&Ls. Like the home repairs she wanted. He’d said: It’s simple. If we fix all the leaking pipes in the bathroom, we’ll probably have to replace the toilet and shower too.  And then you’ll want to redesign the bathroom. Those were only losses, he’d said.  Not gains.
        Eileen saw the sign for the service plaza off the turnpike, and she felt the car slow a bit in preparation.  She never knew which service plaza it would be until it was. Luke wanted to refill the gas tank at the adjoining station first—before he went into the plaza to make his call.  She was surprised she could hear the ticking turn signal even after he’d chosen not to lower the volume, and then he’d rolled the windows down, some cool air as the car slowed. 
        At the gas pump, she watched as Luke selected his choice of regular fuel and released the nozzle like the machines now had the technology to tell you to do.  He pressed start, and the numbers rose quickly. Gas was $1.21/gallon, Luke already approaching a quarter tank at $4.273. She thought that was a 4, not a 7, at least.  The numbers ticked up like slots spinning. She watched Luke, transfixed—she thought: A half tank will come close to nine dollars, a full at eighteen and change. But then Luke stopped the pump sooner than Eileen had expected.  She heard the click, $12.41, she thought it said, which wasn’t a full tank, unless he’d started with more fuel than she’d assumed.  As he drove to the service plaza from the gas station, Eileen noticed how hard he was pressing buttons, making it clear he didn’t like that she’d turned the radio back on.  After he parked, there was the slight tap of his pockets, the gentle reach for his pager. A better mood.
        “Do you want anything?” Luke asked softly, not looking at her, but at his pager, as if he used it for work and not betting. 
        “No,” she said.  “I’m fine.” She watched her husband walk into the plaza, and even hold the door open for an older couple, after he entered.
        Eileen had exactly twenty dollars a week for her own personal allowance, such as things from the drug store that didn’t involve the kids.  She had bought a tanning oil for $3.48, on impulse, before the trip, for example, and she still needed a good pair of sunglasses, and new clothes for the fall, since hers were wearing thin, but of course these were prices always varied by brand, or the chance of a discount.  And she wanted to save for the longer-term. Invest.
        In the service station lot, people were carrying bags of fast food spotted with grease.  The scent of fried chicken from Roy Rogers and coffee came in through her window, and she wondered why she hadn’t asked for something from the 7-11. Luke hadn’t sensed the resignation in her tone, when she’d said, I don’t need anything—words that only ever made her hungrier. Now she wanted something sugary, like a cinnamon pretzel from the Auntie Anne’s stand inside.
        Then Luke came out with his own paper bag and coffee.  He didn’t look toward the car but kept his eyes fixed on his payphone booth.  Shamelessly, he entered one, and she was always amazed he’d never asked her for quarters.  An infinite supply he kept in rolls in the glove box, all the effort he put into making those rolls himself.
        “Mom,” she heard Jamie’s sleepy voice in the back.  “Are we there?”
        “No sweetheart,” she said.  “Not yet.” Ten minutes, she thought, but didn't say.
        “I have to go to the bathroom,” Daniel said. 
        She was still watching Luke in the booth, no telling how much longer he’d be.  Luke couldn’t register that these “stops” produced more needs and questions from the children that she couldn’t always handle on her own.  Having to take both children in with her, for example, to use the Ladies Room. Daniel was becoming old enough to want independence this way, but service stations were unsafe, and she had to use her trick.
        Just another ten minutes.  Can you hold on? We have to let Daddy know where went, and then: she didn’t know exactly when she’d decided to leave the car, holding Daniel’s hand through the parking lot, warmer in the heat that caused some sweat at her brow, clinging to her hair she should never have bothered curling.  Jamie was at her waist, car keys jingling in her pocket. She had locked the car, and if Luke had to get back in, he’d just have to deal with it, she thought, her stomach tightening.
         They snaked through lines of people waiting for pretzels and hot dogs, clutching sodas and bags of chips.  Jamie wanted a souvenir like always, but Eileen said no, and then Jamie whined and said her father would have gotten her a toy. Eileen stayed silent, something like shunning. Boundaries.
        “Let me go,” Daniel said by the stall.  A woman washing her hands smiled through the mirror.  “Sweet,” she said, as if she knew she was exacerbating things, or was egged on by the cheap pink soap that always came from those dispensers, like all bets were off, like here was a place where people could afford to forget and be forgotten.
        “Mommy, I have to go too,” Jamie said.  Eileen had let Daniel go into the stall by himself, but she was worried about not being there when he got out, so she told him she was right here, but he ignored her. He wanted nothing to do with her at the sink either; even though he couldn’t reach the faucet, she let him try, counting seconds in her head.  She kept her half gaze on the scale behind her in the mirror. Lucky number it said in red cursive.  $.10.  On their last trip, Jamie had wanted to play, and she’d explained that it was a game for adults.  What kind? Eileen had explained the way you could guess and confirm your weight, the number printed out as a small ticket to keep. Not for children, she should have said.  She had gained five pounds in the last year or two, ten since she’d had the children. She no longer kept a scale in the bathroom, but she’d watched the doctor write it down at her annual.  She knew how much she weighed. 143.
        Daniel still couldn’t reach the faucet, but still he pushed her away, not calling her stupid, but making the same face Luke did when he wanted her out of his way.
        “Hurry up,” she said, her voice shaky.  Blood-sugar, she thought. It got low easily, especially without breakfast.
        The line for pretzels was short, and she told the kids they’d been good and deserved it.  She still had $8.07 left for the kids from last week, and Luke would pay for meals and rides $4 for a roll of ten) on the boardwalk when they were all together.  Daniel wanted a sour cream and onion pretzel ($1.95), and Jamie wanted the cinnamon Eileen was having ($3.90 for both of them). Jamie’s eyes through her little glasses were anticipatory, for the size of the pretzel, its twists and knots like a puzzle Eileen would have to break apart for her.  As she had the cotton candy, the pieces she’d torn off and handed to her, quickly enough, so Luke wouldn’t see.
        Sometimes, suddenly, she’d wonder what Luke would give up.  If someone took one of their children, for instance, right here in a crowded service station, and then had wanted a suitcase of money for ransom, would Luke provide that? Or would Eileen be the only one willing? For a moment, she saw the leather snapped open, piles of cash rubber-banded as tightly as his quarters, what he might never let go of, for them.
        Eileen’s hands shook as she took the change, $4.17, and handed the children theirs in deli paper.  The thin crinkle that sounded louder than it should have with all the noise. She ignored her lips’ quiver as she bit in on the way out.  Wiped away some cinnamon.
        Luke was leaning with his back on the car.  He had his pager in his hand like a pack of cigarettes. At least Eileen knew he’d never smoke—or let the kids, for that matter: the way he pushed away ash trays at restaurants and always paid extra ($50) for a non-smoking room, no matter the difference in cost.  Luke said nothing about waiting so long for them in the car—instead he snagged a bite of Daniel’s pretzel. He smiled at her and asked Eileen for a napkin. It must have been a good game, she thought. 
        If she added the $4.17 left from the pretzels to the pile, that was almost $2,000.  She’d have to check the math again later, but if she’d totaled yesterday’s accounting right, at $1,994.33, that was $1,998.50, wasn’t it?
        Tomorrow there’d be change from breakfast, or more groceries if they stopped.  Luke would have change to give her, at least a few ones. If the used dealership by the casinos still had the car, she might talk them down another $300, maybe more, for any dents, any unforeseen repairs she’d have to front.  She could use the difference as cushion for gas and food for a few days, just enough to get to Dayton, where her parents lived. Assuming gas prices didn’t go up overnight, if the Civic got twenty-two miles by the gallon, that was about 27.32 gallons, at $1.20/gallon, that was around $30 for the trip.  
        She’d already called the dealership about the ad yesterday, and she could call again from the hotel lobby in the morning, when Luke was making calls in the room, confirm the car was still there.  Then later in the afternoon, when Luke was playing blackjack and the kids were tired of the heat, she’d take them on the boardwalk for a lemonade. Enough to keep them cool for the mile walk to the lot.  See the car. Take a test spin.
        Inside, the radar was still bleating.  But there weren’t any cops on the expressway, far as Eileen could tell.  Eighty-five miles, she thought. Just another eighty-five to go.

Jaclyn Gilbert received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and BA from Yale University.  She holds fellowships from the New York Public Library and the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild.  She has contributed to the Bread Loaf, Tin House, Colgate and Kettle Pond Writers' conferences, and her stories and essays have appeared in Post Road Magazine, Tin House, Lit Hub, Long Reads, and elsewhere.  Her first novel, Late Air, released from Little A in November.

malasaña | New England| Cargo Collective | Frogtown, Los Angeles | 2019