picture by derek bell

In the days before Wal-Mart they would gather outside of this grocery store in the middle of nowhere. A grocery store that wasn’t really a grocery store but actually a barn attached to a distribution warehouse in a town that wasn’t even a town: a township.  Folks in flannel shirts, jeans and tennis shoes would drive up in station wagons, mini-vans and pickup trucks to stand in line at 7am.  At 8am the doors would be thrown open by local teenagers.  Teenagers that skipped school and smoked cigarettes.  Teenagers that made out with each other under gym bleachers.  Teenagers that knew enough to duck behind the doors and start throwing carts out in front of the crowd.  This was the most intense moment of the week for these teenagers.  If you didn’t count the make outs.  Or the cigarettes.  Mothers would charge through the doors and head for the bargain bins.  They would swing their elbows in aggression.  They would sneer at each other and sling phrases like “Watch it lady!”  and “I’m gonna say a prayer for you this Sunday!”  As they headed toward those bargain bins.

In these bargain bins were dented cans.  Cans of food where the expiration was approaching a date that no right minded person would pay full price for.  But half price?  Three quarters of the price?  That will get soccer moms swinging at each other.  That will get them to tow their kids along as cart holders.  Enlisting their offspring to stand behind them and play catch.  Green beans.  Chili.  Cream corn.  Catch em.  Catch em all.  The children would stand behind the onslaught and gather the value, throwing it in carts and hiding condescending chuckles from their mothers.  These were the wives of union workers.  These were the mothers of the tech school students.  This was our PTA.  This was stretching that paycheck for a family of five.  This was balancing the check book.

As the food flew through the air enlisted offspring would keep glancing down.  Keep checking for the discarded treasures that only bored youth would find the point of.  A box would hit the floor and all the children would look away from their carts for a second, not long enough to miss a can of baked beans that expires next week, a dented can of mushroom soup, a jar of marshmallow fluff missing it’s label but long enough to pick up the box and hold it up in the air.  And the children would smile.  They would glance at this discarded treasure: chocolate covered locusts.  On the other side of the isle a child holds up his arm: pickled pigs feet.  And at the end of an isle a child jumps off the floor to reveal yet another treasure: jellied beef.  And the children would gasp.  They would hide their laughs as they quietly slid these treasures into the blue plastic shopping carts.  Knowing full well that their mothers would pull these items out at the checkout and toss them back into the impulse section.  Monkey toes next to the Bubblicious.  Squirrel brains by the snickers.  Le Whiff chocolate air hung up with the gummy bears. 

And some would think: we’ve got to get out of here.

They started linking chains to Mouse before she even able to walk out of her little house.   That little house that someone slammed between two trees in front of a cow pasture.  That house that was on a winding road that ended at the highway.  Close enough that you could hear the cars.  Close enough that at night you could even see the light.  Of people going right by you.  Like you didn’t exist. 

And most of our mothers will need us more than we need them.  Just as we will one day need our children more than they need us.  That was supposed to happen later than age 9.  But that link got added when most of us were still learning how to use our house keys.  That link wrapped straight around her spine. 

When we were children as soon as the teacher blew the whistle everyone would run.  Everyone would scream.  Mouse would stand.  And as everyone claimed their favorite social spot, monkey bars, swings, slides, soccer fields, Mouse would stand and wait.  Then she would determine by elimination which group she would stand near. 

After high school we screamed and ran.  College, jobs, countries and Mouse stood and waited.  And as she did chains got added.  Money, ex-boyfriends, friends on drugs, her Mother’s newest husband.  Mouse stood and tried to figure things out.  She could hear the highway from her house.  She could see the lights passing right by. 

Eventually she ran.  She planted her feet somewhere else.  Those chains looked for a second like they might break.  That was just slack.  And slack snaps. A thousand miles of slack snapping into place will rip your joints out of socket.  It will dislocate your hips.  It will bring you to your knees.  It makes your vision go double.  It will make crashing down into the pile of chains an act of relief.  So Mouse fell back down to that little house.  The lights from the highway bounced off of those trees.  And Mouse was in less pain there.

And one thousand miles away from her I wonder how free any of us get to be.  

She sets her coffee cup down on the table.  I know she is going to ask me to leave.  I can see it in the body language.  In the way she is sitting at an angle.  I have forced conversation.  I have dragged it off the muddy banks of rumor and gossip and spilled it forth.  I’m a jester and I’m doing cartwheels.  I go silent.  I wait for her to speak.  I am anxious for stories of why her freezer is stocked with paper wrapped steaks.  How did she find that Thundercats shower curtain?  Did she paint those milk crates?   It’s all gone now.  If I could have kept my mouth shut long enough to let her open up on her own time I could have learned.  Why there is a stick figure drawn in sharpie by the drain in her bathtub.  Why that mug in cabinet says “bleach please drink.”  Why she can’t handle my aversion to this silence.

So then I’m on the street.  The leather jacket I wore last night feels a bit absurd in the morning silence.  The leather was built for noise.  For crowds.  I check my pockets for my phone.  My keys.  My sunglasses.  I check again.  I feel like I’m off balance.  So I walk from one side of the bricks to the other.  One side makes me sweat.  The other makes me chilled.  I inhale through my nose and get something rancid in my brain.  It reminds me of the garbage cans on the curb.  When I was young I would stare at the flies.  The maggots.  And I would fight the urge to touch the filth. When my mouth opens a phrase is released.  “I’m so tired.”  I didn’t aim it at anyone.  I didn’t even know I was going to say it.  But there it is.  Truth in the alley way.