The doors to the Wal-Mart open for her. The card is burning a hole in her purse, and the baby needs food tonight.
“Hello, welcome to Wal-Mart.”
She knows it’s wrong, but it’s just for the baby. Formula and diapers. Maybe spaghetti for dinner. Sauce too, and broccoli and steak and potatoes for tomorrow. A bottle of wine and a Twix bar to help with guilt.
The cart is getting full, and each item is easier than the last: shampoo, a new sweatshirt, a romantic movie for tonight, a toy for the baby.
Another toy for the baby. It’s been a long time since she bought it anything new.
She looks again and the cart is full and that pit in her stomach is back. She looks at each item: soda, bottled water, toys, plates, but the card in her purse tells her to keep them all, like if she doesn’t it’ll go away and never come back and she’ll have lost her chance. It’s probably right.
Everyone in the checkout line is looking at her funny, she’s sure of it, but she’s definitely not fat, and she’s pretty sure she doesn’t have anything but guilt on her face. Guilt and justification, and you can’t really see those. They’re not like the eczema outbreaks, they’re just thoughts and feelings, and all of those stay on the inside where nobody can judge you for them.
“Did you find everything you were looking for today?” the cashier asks her. The cashier is a young man, tall, and not very handsome. His hair resembles a mop, and his posture is that of someone who spent high school stuffed in a locker. She nods to him, but he’s already tossing her things across the scanner. Each beep makes the hole in her stomach a little deeper, a little wider, and a little more inviting. She’s watching the price, and it’s telling her “Go ahead, jump. It won’t be so bad. Besides, it’s insured.”
The beeping stops and the cashier dork is staring at her now. She reaches into her purse and pulls out the card. It’s green, and it has the Visa logo and a man’s name on it. She doesn’t know him, but when the cashier gives her a funny look she tells him it belongs to her husband. He swipes it, and that’s it. $163.52 for free.
She leaves the store, and the doors close behind her.
The bags in the cart are lighter now, and she feels like she can breathe again. There are good things in there: a new sponge, some dish soap, dinner. She bought toilet paper and a movie for her mental health. There are toys for the baby, who needs to be picked up from daycare in a few hours, giving her some time for a few more errands.
Her minivan is old. There’s a belt squeaking when she starts it, and the tread on the tires has been gone for months and she’s two thousand miles overdue for an oil change. The gas tank is almost empty, but she thinks it’ll last until tomorrow. She doubts she could get away with buying a whole new car on the card, but maybe she could at least get an oil change.
Across the street is the Macy’s. She’s in the right turn lane, but she gets the idea that they might be hiring. She could really use a job, and working in cosmetics or women’s clothing wouldn’t be so bad.
She changes lanes poorly. Someone honks at her, and she flips him off. He shouts something, but she can’t hear it over the belt screaming like an injured animal. It’s giving her a headache now, and she doesn’t care what the driver she just cut off had to say about her character or her shitty van or her mother anyway. He was probably calling her trailer trash.
She finds a parking spot. It’s tight, but she makes it without hitting anything. She’s glad as she squeezes out of the driver’s seat that she’s not a fat-ass, and that she lost her baby weight so well.
The Macy’s reeks of class. Everyone is beautiful and smiling like if you buy their products you could be just like them. She decides not to believe them, but she wanders toward the women’s clothing section anyway.
She won’t get much here, she decides. A pair of nice pants, maybe some boots and a blouse or two. They’re nice clothes for a job interview, except for the cute red one, which is for Friday night if she can find a babysitter.
Cosmetics are on the way to the checkout counter, and when she’s done there she has another $206.71 that she didn’t have to pay. She’s about to ask for a job application, but she decides against it because asking for a job application after spending $206.71 on a card that is obviously not in your name is probably too suspicious, and the snotty cashier girl already looks like she’s having a bad enough day to start something, so she resolves to come back tomorrow.
The van’s door creaks when she opens it, and the belt is a banshee fighting to escape the hot mass of industry in the front of her vehicle. It screams louder when she steps on the gas.
She’s in the left turn lane now. The light turns green and she hits the gas and throws on her blinker for a second. She’ll pick up the baby now, she decides. She’ll get it from daycare and put it in its little seat and give it its new toys so it won’t cry.
She wishes the van would warm up already, because usually that fixes the belt thing, but the thermostat says it’s already warm and it’s taking longer this time. She wonders if the belt might be getting worse, but the big blue Old Navy sign just appeared and now she wonders if they’re hiring.
She shifts lanes and throws on her turn signal halfway through the turn and parks the van in the first empty spot she sees. The car beside her is nicer than hers, so she opens her door too fast and bumps it. There’s a small mark that the owner won’t notice for weeks, if ever.
She’s not quite satisfied about the car thing, but she leaves it for later and walks toward the building. The door opens for her, and there’s a blast from the air conditioning and then she’s inside.
The Old Navy is different than the Macy’s, because it’s not trying to best itself. It’s just trying to best her. The floors are concrete and the racks are steel painted flat colors, and the ceiling has exposed supports in some chic contemporary warehouse sort of fashion that she doesn’t quite understand. All the big ads are surrounded by a thousand flashing bulbs, all fighting for your attention and getting lost beside each other.
The women’s section is different here. Old Navy is for fun and peppy girls, and even though she has a kid she can still be one of those if she wants. She can wear those tops with the frilly bellies and the shorts that barely count, and so what if her legs have some wrinkles?
She gets a hat too, one of those cute tan summer ones with the big brim, and some flip-flops for the beach; the nice ones, much better than the trashy ones from the dollar store. She takes some of those big fashionable sunglasses too from the rack on her way to the baby section.
There are some shirts there, and some cute pants and shorts that she takes too, and a hat because babies look just adorable in hats, and some little sandals because it can’t walk well enough for flip-flops yet, even though the straps irritate the back of its feet.
She’s never been able to get it to wear sunglasses before, but she gets a pair for it anyway, because maybe it’ll like these ones better, and after one more pair of nice sneakers for herself she’s only spent $172.39 this time. She feels better about that because it’s not as much as she spent at Macy’s.
When she leaves, and after she’s put the bags in the back of her van with the other clothes and groceries and trash on the floor, the car she parked next to is still there. There doesn’t seem to be anyone nearby who cares about it, so she opens her door much harder this time. It leaves a big mark that the owner will probably see right away.
She backs her old van with the screaming belt and the worn tires and the old oil out of its spot, and she feels only a little better about the other car.
The daycare is about fifteen minutes down the road if there’s no traffic, across from a strip-mall with a Walgreens pharmacy and a Blockbuster that’s going out of business. She usually picks up the baby early, before the daycare closes, but she still has a few more hours before then.
She hits a red light at every intersection she comes to, except for the one she speeds through a moment too late. It takes only a second for the blue lights to appear behind her. She curses and hits the steering wheel and curses again, because this is an expense she can’t put on the card.
She throws on her blinker and pulls over. Her tire bumps the curb just a little bit, and then the vehicle stops.
“License, registration and proof of insurance,” the cop demands. She has the first two, but she’s been driving uninsured for almost four months now.
“Do you know why I pulled you over?” he asks, and she does, and she recounts her offense and makes up an excuse about being late for a pediatrician’s appointment that she has to pick the baby up for. He says something at her about excuses and the safety of other drivers, and then retreats to his cruiser to do whatever he needs to do. His moustache is overwhelming.
The belt is still screaming and it’s driving her insane so she kills the engine, and now the only sound is of the other drivers on the road – the ones that haven’t been pulled over. She imagines an accident in front of her. Some impatient jackass flies past her shitty van and slams into another vehicle, which is pulling into traffic while its driver talks on one of those fancy Blackberry phones that she’d like to have, but can’t afford on her sporadic child support checks. The accident might distract the cop enough to let her go this time, and for a moment she even considers ways to cause the accident herself.
On the right side of the road is a salon that’s still open for a few hours and doesn’t look very busy. She’s never had a manicure before, but she likes having her hands held. She imagines a manicure would be nice. There would be another woman about her age to care for her and to talk about hair and clothes and their babies; none of this serious talk that she’s had far too much of lately of bills and payments and responsibilities and all the other things that are worse than the cries of her car and her baby.
The cop and his moustache are back now. He gives her a ticket that she will have to pay with $220.00 of her own money. He tells her she has five business days to obtain at minimum an automobile accident liability insurance plan with her own money. He asks if she has any questions. She doesn’t, and he tells her to have a nice day and to drive safe and to get that squeaking belt looked at.
She pulls into the first available parking spot at the salon, next to an old Ford Escort from the nineties, back when they were all boxy and looked terrible. She’s careful not to hit it with her door.
It’s cool and feminine inside. The atmosphere is relaxed, and everyone’s smiling for a change. She spends the next half hour talking to a woman who has three kids. One of them is attending community college for music education, and the other two are still in high school. All three of them are boys with testosterone and smelly laundry that she only has to do when it gets out of control.
They talk about the weather a little bit, and how nice it’s been out lately, but how sometimes it gets too humid and uncomfortable. They both agree they should get outside more on nice days because they might not be getting enough vitamin D which they agree comes from sunlight. They talk about nails too, and the other woman is surprised she’s never had a manicure before because she has very nice hands. She says it must be from the baby’s diaper lotion. They agree on that too.
The total bill is $64.15, and she’s glad she didn’t tell the other woman her baby’s father’s name, because it means she can use the husband excuse again. She leaves feeling better than when she walked in, and decides she’ll go back again if she has the opportunity.
She gets two green lights out of the six more intersections she passes through before finally arriving at the daycare. It’s a little brick building, too small for the number of kids they have, and an adjoining playground surrounded by a chain-link fence.
Inside it’s quiet, except for the three or four kids who managed to bribe their way out of nap time. She sees the baby asleep in its car seat in the corner next to one of the women who works there.
Someone asks her if she’s there to pick up her baby and she says she is, and that she’ll pay with credit today. She hands the card over and the person swipes it, and gives the machine an odd look and swipes it again.
“I’m sorry, your card isn’t going through,” the person tells her.
Suddenly she’s swimming. Her debts are an ocean and her life raft was never really hers, but she hoped it would last at least a day or two. Maybe the card’s credit limit was reached, or maybe the card issuer thought her spending was suspicious and shut it off, or maybe the real owner reported the theft to his bank before phoning the police.
She takes the card back. The lump in her throat won’t let her speak. She rummages through her purse, but she knows it has nothing to offer her but used lipstick and receipts of money already spent.
It wasn’t going to last forever, but it could have at least let her pay the daycare for taking care of the baby, and buy gas tomorrow, and maybe get her van fixed.
She apologizes, and the daycare agrees to hold the charge on her account and she can pay them next time she comes in. She thanks them and leaves with another $84.18 that she doesn’t have to pay yet.
The shopping bags are still scattered across the floor of her van as she loads the car seat and buckles it in. She’s notices that she’s shaking. The baby is still asleep, but she puts one of the new toys on it so that hopefully when it wakes up it won’t join the chorus of her screaming problems.
She puts the new hat on the baby too, and it stirs, but doesn’t quite wake up yet. The Twix bar she bought at Wal-Mart is still in one of the bags. She’s not hungry at all, but she opens it and takes a bite anyway. It might taste better if she was hungrier, but she decides she needs it now.
The stuff she bought is nice, but there’s only dinner for tonight and tomorrow. She can’t return the clothes because they’ll just put the money back on the stolen credit card, and then she’ll have nothing but a Twix wrapper and her shitty van and her apartment, which is already three months overdue for rent.
When she starts the van, the belt squeals and the baby wakes up startled and crying. It doesn’t recognize the toy, and it throws it on the floor. She lets it cry.