The Wedding Bed
  The Marriage Bed
Fiction by Elaine Ford
  A Sense of Morality
  Wasps in a Bottle
  Rita Lafferty’s Lucky Summer
•  Birthing    
  Ship Street
  Nerve-Wrackin Christmas
  Original Brasses, Fine Patina
About the Author   |   Family-Based Historical Fiction  |  
November 2015 fiction issue 

A Sense of Morality

In November of 1969, the month 250,000 anti-Vietnam War demonstrators marched on Washington, Miles and I departed that city for good and moved into a beach cottage in a blue-collar town south of Boston. Mortgage-poor, unable to sell our Cleveland Park house for what it was worth, we were, to put it bluntly, broke. But for me the cottage was more than a cheap winter rental. I was desperate to get away from tear gas and slogan-shouting and head-bashing. The deserted seaside represented my private escape from the war.

The first Saturday after the move, old friends from graduate school days drove down from Newton to inspect our uncharacteristically eccentric digs. We ate mussels for dinner and drank a great deal of jug wine, which Miles inevitably referred to as “plonk,” an expression he’d picked up in London the year he researched the Anti-Corn Law League. From behind an expanse of plate glass we looked out at the dark Atlantic. “You’ve done a Good Thing,” Ned Warner pronounced euphorically, as we contemplated the languorous progression of an oil tanker heading north, glittering like a parcel of urban property that had somehow become detached from the mainland. With a gratified smile Miles tipped more plonk into Ned’s glass.

Around midnight the Warners left for home and Miles and I went upstairs to bed. An hour or so later I was awakened by a pair of indistinct shapes bumping softly into cartons, groping in piles of as yet unstowed possessions.

“Miles,” I said, nudging him, “there are people in the bedroom.”

“It’s only the Warners,” he muttered, from the depths of his wine-befogged sleep.

“It can’t be the Warners,” I said. “The Warners have gone back to Newton.”

Cutting the argument off right there, one of the shapes grabbed some part of Miles’s body and yanked him out of bed. “Just give us the big bills,” he said, putting to Miles’s throat what we later learned was our own boning knife. “You can keep the change.”

Breathlessly I began to explain that we didn’t have any big bills; the Federal Home Loan Bank had it all. You can’t get blood out of a turnip, I said. At the same time Miles was chattering he didn’t know where his wallet might be but he’d do his best to find it and please for the love of God don’t kill him. I could tell from the wild croak in his voice that Miles was taking this turn of events harder that I. However, I didn’t have a boning knife nicking into my throat.

Thug Number One frog-marched Miles downstairs in search of the wallet and I was left with Thug Number Two, who so far hadn’t said anything. “Miles never knows where his wallet is,” I confided, hoping to abort any suspicions that we were holding out on them. “Or his keys. That’s one of the things about Miles.”

We could hear, downstairs, swear words out of Thug Number One as they stumbled around in the dark, and out of Miles a sort of unhinged keening. I found my husband’s lack of guts embarrassing. I jumped out of bed and switched on the light.

“Hey!” Thug Number Two said, startled. But I began to hunt for the wallet among heaps of underwear, and he didn’t try to stop me. He was a slight man, twenty at most, with dull hair and a complexion that looked like it had been conditioned with a cheese grater. He held my bread knife, the serrated kind, and on his hands were two of my oven mitts. “So we don’t leave fingerprints,” he explained, with a wave of one mitt.

“Good thinking.”

“My cousin thought it up,” he said modestly. “We cut your phone wires, too.”

“The phone hasn’t been hooked up yet.”


An outraged shout came from below. “The wallet’s got six fucking bucks in it!”

I shrugged: I’d told them so.

After a moment’s thought Thug Number Two asked, “You got any gold?”

“Only my wedding ring,” I said untruthfully.

He stared, rather puzzled, at a tangle of necklaces on my dresser: strung apple seeds, African clay beads. It was becoming clear that nothing about us was what he and his cousin had expected. “Oh no,” he said. “I wouldn’t take your wedding ring.”

In the next few days Miles’s salt-stained wallet and three oven mitts washed up on the beach. The fourth must have gone out to sea. Weeks later, early on a Sunday morning, the police invited me down to the station to look at mug shots. “No,” I told the captain finally, “none of them is the man I saw.”

“Right,” he said. “Now we’re going to show you a bozo we picked up last night on another break-in.”

For sure he wasn’t the kindly acned thug who’d scrupled to take my wedding ring. This man had a day’s growth of coarse black beard, and although he was subdued—there in the captain’s office, handcuffed—I saw nothing modest in him. “Say something to the lady,” the captain prodded, and the man spoke a word or two in a mumble.

I thought he might be Thug Number One, the man I’d heard but not seen. But I couldn’t be sure. “Do you have a cousin?” I asked. “A person with problem skin?”

“Nah,” he said, and so far as I know, the police didn’t pursue the matter.

But I saw Thug Number Two once more. It was in the produce department of a Dorchester supermarket; he wore a stained bib apron and was taking acorn squash out of a crate. In the intervening years his complexion had not improved. He flushed, recognizing me, and I began to shake. I could have had him arrested on the spot, I suppose, but instead I wheeled my cart on by. Out of a sense of honor, or morality, he’d spared me my wedding ring. Since then, I myself had cast it aside.

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  © Elaine Ford, 2015
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