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Better than Fiction! (creative non fiction)

Unleashing the Bull in the China Shop

by John Haymaker


When I broke my last Corelle serving bowl, my partner advised me to use the porcelain service I inherited, dishes my mother bought during a bank promotion nearly sixty years ago. She received one free piece for each new deposit and the opportunity to buy additional pieces to complete a set. She used the porcelain strictly on holidays — for which its blue and white English coaching scenes seemed perfectly suited. Despite the perils of two growing boys, periods of marital discord, and an alcoholic uncle, the porcelain all survived intact, passed down to me without a chip or crack — as if our dysfunctional family needed to prove on those special days that we could behave with civility.


I hesitated at my partner’s suggestion to use the porcelain for everyday. He and I hadn’t even used the dishes on holidays. Considering some jerk might snatch it from an estate sale after we’d passed, though, I consented — still doubting we could manage for long without busting the porcelain up as I’d done with our Corelle. My clumsiness, in fact, provoked ridicule years earlier when I lived and worked in China. When I broke not one, but two porcelain tea sets my Chinese hosts provided, they gave me a plastic set — and an admonishment to learn to handle porcelain.


For everyday dishes when I was growing up, my family used incomplete sets of ceramic-ware, hand-me-downs from rela-tives, the glaze of some showing webs of faint brown cracks and some of the edges noticeably chipped. These were practical for a young family, but when company came, our table seemed more suited to a child’s tea party.


Then in early 1970, mother and I passed by the display window of a store holding a gala opening at the mall: sparkling white dishes, affordably priced and backed by an enticing guarantee. It’s Vitrelle, an associate told us, laminated layers of tempered glass — and guaranteed unbreakable; if anything did break, the associate assured us, the store would replace it no questions asked. Since it was a fraction of porcelain’s cost, mother snapped up a set of this newfangled dinnerware. What could go wrong?


Unpacking at home, I fumbled a cereal bowl right out of the box. Mother and I both jumped back, panicked, and then astonished to watch this new-fangled bowl bounce across the floor and wobble to a spiraling stop — unscathed, good as new. Exactly a week later mother dropped a cup. It did not bounce, but apparently struck the floor at exactly the wrong angle, breaking Vitrelle’s magic and shattering on impact.

We returned it to the outlet, smiling through embarrassment that the impossible had happened, proffering the white shards in a brown paper bag as proof. A gleeful associate replaced the piece, saying only, well, these things happen. Then the impossible happened again the following week when I dropped a cereal bowl; still the associate smiled and wrapped up a replacement.

John Haymaker is a San Francisco Bay Area writer and web programmer. His recent work appears in Bull & Cross, Rosette Maleficarum, Flash Fiction Magazine, Children, Churches and Daddies Magazine, and Across the Margin. Contact John online at

But when a third piece, a plate, smashed to the floor the following month, days passed before mother found a face brave enough to take it back. Seeing us return yet again, the associate frowned and then quibbled whether it was a plate or a saucer we’d broken. Only after attempting to reassemble the fragments, did she concede it was a plate and provide a replacement. On our way home, mother concluded that the problem wasn’t with the dinnerware, but with us; we had been clumsy, she said, pure and simple.


The outlet closed a few years later without our noticing, and the brand was re-marketed under a new name at department stores — with a severely weakened guarantee: it was now merely break and chip resistant and lacking any promise to replace broken items. Mother still bought boxed sets of Corelle as we needed replacements — the dinnerware was, after all, elegant, affordable, and lasted well enough.


Though I have used mother’s porcelain as everyday tableware for a decade, ancient fragments of Corelle still turn up when I’m sweeping the kitchen — along with remnants of the two porcelain teacups I dropped. Oh yes, there was a steep learning curve the first month. Of a size more suited to shots of espresso, the cups demanded frequent trips to refill, and the dainty handles didn’t facilitate a firm grip. Remarkably though, the sugar bowl and creamer survive as a table centerpiece. Plates, saucers, and bowls still make a complete set of eight, even if a few have chipped.


The longevity of the brand makes me wonder now whether Vitrelle’s original marketing provoked our cavalier attitude while fostering anxiety toward porcelain. Certainly, when rushed to set a table, we doled out Vitrelle like playing cards and afterward re-stacked dishes in the cupboard like poker chips.


Should I ever need new dinnerware — I’ll stake my bets on porcelain. This bull can be trusted again.

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