Andi knew right away the excursion was a mistake. She sold the field trip as a foray into the country, an afternoon of fresh air, and hiking amongst the carefully manicured estate grounds. The online pictures showed an epic main house, a Margaret Mitchell dream. But everything had been carefully cropped. The photographer failed to show the apartment complex on one side and the used car dealership on the other. A sparkling blue Pontiac Bonneville for “$5995” and “60K Miles” sat within spitting distance of the front porch. Across the road, a strip mall with all but two stores hosting “for lease” signs. Only a barbershop, complete with striped pole, and another store with Spanish-language money order advertisements plastered over the windows were occupied. Away from the strip mall, an older structure with an elaborate Swiss-chalet shingled roof and boarded windows covered with posters for cigarettes, sodas and energy drinks. Its front door was propped open with a cinder block.
“Not quite what I expected, but sure is a pretty house!” Andi decided redemptive cheeriness was her best option. She could keep her kids in line with a balance of bribes and threats. Evaline was at the point where she hated everything anyway, so there was no real difference between success and failure along those lines. Hank and Arthur would be trickier as they’d started to take their cues from Evaline of late, something Andi only noticed since they’d taken an impromptu run for Dairy Queen a few weeks earlier. Evaline decided the various customers were crude and ridiculous, and her brothers started making oinking noises before she and Ben ordered everyone back in the car for sullen ride home. Hank was young enough at nine to at least find novelty in new things, even if they no longer interested him. Arthur was on the verge of puberty, and Andi harbored thoughts of dread about his explosion into adolescence in the morning twilight between her alarm going off and Ben pushing her out of bed with “get up.”
“Looks like what I expected,” Evaline offered. Today’s sullenness came from displacement from the front seat by the neighbor. Maddy, six months older and a guest, took that place instead. Plus, Maddy had at least eight inches on Evaline. Maddy’s sister, Celeste, as tall as Evaline, even though they were about two years apart, graciously offered to take the center seat. The six-month difference put Maddy leaps and bounds ahead of Evaline in development aside from height, too. Andi would see Maddy and her mother Ilsa down the block and not be able to tell them apart. Although Andi tried not to think of it in terms of aheadand behind. With the manor house in front of the minivan, its faded grey paint (blue in the pictures) and a rebellious shutter crooked and broken and pulling away from an upstairs window, Andi had a great urge to confide in Maddy like any other adult. She knew she was the only chaperone though.
“You never like anything, Evaline,” Andi said to everyone in a chirpy tone. She didn’t like to put down her daughter, but the preemptive strike to cut off the “poor me’s” was necessary to make it through the afternoon.
“Yeah, Evie, you’d rather be at Trent’s house,” Arthur said.
“Shut up, dog biscuit!” Evie retaliated. Evaline’s comeback options grew limited after Ben and Andi held a “serious talk” with her about her recent language.
“I think it looks cool,” Hank said. “I bet they have a lot of ghosts stories.” Way to go, Hank, Andi thought. His consistent positive and easygoing attitude about everything reminded her of Ben much more than herself. Although the youngest, Hank didn’t have any of those stereotypical coddled and privileged baby of the family attitudes.
“It’s not bad,” Celeste said. “It’s the ugly buildings around here. It’s not the house’s fault she survived and they surrounded her with hovels.”
Hovels? How come her kids never used words like “hovels”? Homeschooling seemed so right three years ago when they started. The kids were going to learn by leaps and bounds and be unencumbered by the constraints of restrictive bureaucracy and social chaos of high school! They’d become their own people, leaders, inquisitive! It seemed to be working for the Johnsons at least.
“What do you think, Madeline?” Andi figured if she could get Maddy on her side, it would intimidate Evaline into silence for an hour or two. Home schooling had not brought out any leadership skills in Evaline. She was as constrained and self-conscious as ever. Somehow she seemed even more obsessed with enshrining a diffident and cool attitude, even though her interactions with peers were mostly other home-schooled kids and those she’d known from the neighborhood since she was seven.
Maddy paid no attention to Andi and looked instead at the store across the street. Several cars had pulled up in front of the barbershop, Toyotas with faded maroon paintjobs and Chevy’s held together with screws and duct tape. However, one was a new, bright-orange Camaro with a triple black stripe down the middle. Maddy snapped her attention back to the car conversation when she realized Andi had spoken. “I guess we have to wait and see,” she said.
Lukewarm was better than nothing. Way better than a negative, Andi figured. They crossed the sparsely occupied parking lot. A half-dozen young men emerged from the cars across the street, lively and loud with greetings and the taint of rough language. Their own group walked across the creaking porch boards and inside the foyer. “Five kids and one adult,” Andi said to the clerk at the low desk who looked up at her with sparkling expectancy.
“The tour starts in five minutes,” the old woman answered handing them the tickets.
Throughout the tour, between keeping Arthur from touching the artifacts and Hank from asking too many questions, she’d only heard enough to know the house lacked ghosts or much else of interest. Mostly it had been a mediocre plantation that no one ever bothered to tear down. The sounds of gravel trucks and the thumping radio across the road seeped through the original window glass. The tour guide’s calico dress looked thin and polyester. Andi found herself thinking of all the snide comments she could make and how she wanted to pinch another tour member, the middle-aged women with the immovable hair, who kept glaring at the boys before stepping in front of them to block the view in every room. She wanted a cigarette, too. While they were viewing the children’s nursery with its flounced bed covering to keep them babies warm at night, she realized the store across the street was nearly a replica of the neighborhood store she frequented as a teenager.
The tour guide tried to steer them to the gift shop, but Andi diverted everyone quickly outside, not willing to deal with the boys in a store. The lunch seemed scarce as Andi spread it over the picnic table. At least she convinced herself it did. “Who wants some chips?” she blurted. They never had chips. Well, not never. The girls did at friends’ houses or grandma’s of course, but Ben forbid them in the house. She noticed he spoke of some foods in the same way her parents talked about drugs. “No little girl of mine will be addicted to Doritos!” She said it didn’t bother her, but his anger over fried potatoes or ground up corn paste made her think of the cliché of turning into one’s parents. Andi’s sister characterized it as Freudian aversion. To what, she refused to say. Why she’d ever brought it up with her sister, Andi didn’t know and regretted.
“You mean we can have some?” Arthur asked.
“Now?” Evaline would be the suspicious one. “For lunch?”
“Yes, yes, yes. BBQ!” Hank exuded all excitement all the time. It probably was better he didn’t get chips, or sugar, or caffeine. Andi lost track what else he wasn’t supposed to have these days but could count on Ben to know.
“Are you going to get a big bag or little one’s? Cause if little ones, I want Fritos, but if a big bag, BBQ is cool,” Arthur said. The diplomat.
“What about 2 medium bags?” Andi said. “Then everyone can have some of both kinds.” She felt a little subversive now. Not only chips, two bags! Was that a lot between 5 kids?
“What about you Celeste, are BBQ ok?”
“I guess,” she said. “I don’t like the pickle ones though.”
“Ok…” Andi looked to Maddy for assurance. As if to telegraph, we are in this together.
“Some of the girls in Girl Scouts put pickle juice on their hot chips,” Maddy said.
“The things you kids do,” Andi said. She hoped it sounded conspiratorial and not like scolding. Or maybe she wanted to communicate a little fascination and indifference at the same time. Was she becoming one of those mothers who wanted to be cool and hang out with their teenage daughters like they were sisters or girlfriends? She wouldn’t be that, she refused.
Unacknowledged and unacknowledgeable was Andi’s real reason for getting the chips, cigarettes. She’d not smoked one since getting pregnant with Evaline, and even before that they had been occasional. She hardly even smelled them now. She and Ben had no smoking friends and they didn’t go anywhere that allowed it. But she noticed as they were climbing down the manse stairs, a tiny obsession coalescing. After the disappointing museum, and what was promising to be a bland lunch, along with the long, irritating ride home, a justification for nicotine.
Andi considered the faces at the picnic table. “Maddy,” she said, “why don’t you come.” Like the plan to buy the tobacco, she refused to look that choice in the face either.
“Why can’t I go?” Evie asked. Andi knew it had more to do with not being chosen than any desire to accompany her mother.
“Yeah, make Evie go. She stinks,” Arthur added.
Andi tried a glare she hoped showed imminent danger.
“Stay at the table,” Andi said. “We’ll be right back.”
Waiting for the traffic to clear so they could cross the county highway, Andi looked back. It probably would have been better to bring Evie or Celeste and leave Maddy. Or maybe take Hank and Arthur and let the three girls bond a little. It sounded like a riddle about getting the fox and grain across the pond and she pushed the thought aside. It was a picnic table at a museum. The kids didn’t run off and sneak cough syrup behind the shed or hop into stranger’s minivans at the enticement of a Snickers bar.
The traffic cleared and she and Maddy skipped across. The Camaro still sat outside. Two large round speakers like two ovaries pulsed in the open trunk space. The music rumbled loud enough to feel the bass but not enough to make out what Andi assumed were not family friendly lyrics. Two of the men, kids really, sat off to the side of the car, cigarettes in hand, gesturing with animation. Another lounged in the driver seat, his legs stuck out straight in front like a counterweight to keep him from tipping back into the car. His shorts were extra-long LA Lakers gold and purple, the edging tipped in a shiny metallic. The metallic sheen reminded Andi of the coats her father wore in the seventies, with alternating bands of elastic along the wrists and waist.
Andi noted Maddy was all business and didn’t even glance at the boys or the car. Andi tried to recall the proper level of interest a sixteen-year-old girl should show in boys who threw off sexual heat like shedding dog hair, but she found her memories collided with her present preoccupation, and she could only think about how much cash she had. She didn’t want to use the debit card for chips. They headed into the little food shop. The plastered windows, with lottery posters and energy drink promising joy, covered every space where light might enter the store. “Does your mom let you eat chips?” Andi asked. She’d not thought to clear it before. Isla inquired about the lunch before she agreed to the outing and offered to send some “hummus and vegetables,” which Andi took as code for “don’t give my kids crap.”
“She will sometimes,” Maddy said. “On holidays or, like, for a football game.”
Andi realized Maddy wasn’t yet to the point when she would be able to use language as a weapon. She spoke directly, answered a question when asked. Her mind hadn’t caught up to her body. Unlike Evie who seemed to be leaping over puberty and heading straight for sullen and sexually frustrated teen angst territory. Then again it could be Maddy was shy and unsure of Andi.
The store seemed to be all junk food and candy bars, what space wasn’t taken up with extra-large cases of beer. The back wall, as she had imagined, was covered in a mosaic of cigarette choices. For a moment Andi felt like she was with Jennifer again, the summer before they’d started high school. Andi looked about how she did now, at least she had the same body, height, breasts, shoe size, although then there was less weight around her midsection and no scars or stretches from childbirth. Jennifer had been like Maddy, able to pass for fifteen or twenty-five. They’d walk into Thornton’s Market, and Jennifer would ask for a pack of Marlboro Reds, the only name she could pronounce with assuredly. The clerk didn’t even glance at her, only took her cash and handed over the change, the cigarettes, and a paper book of matches in one pile.
“Did we decide on BBQ or not?” Andi said, mostly to herself.
“And Fritos,” Maddy said. “I don’t really like BBQ.” Maddy shrugged and pinched her lips together. In disapproval or distaste?
Andi took a half step closer to Maddy and gave her a wink. “I’ve never really understood the appeal either,” she said. “They are so powdery and messy. I’d rather have greasy corn chips any day.” Andi tried to engage her with a conspiratorial laugh but Maddy focused on the array before them. There were the regular Frito Lay brands as well as a dozen or so local types and some flavors like “Prawn Cocktail” and “Super Hot! Tasty!!”
“You choose,” Andi said. The feeling of being with Jennifer passed. Andi possessed the money and she felt Maddy’ deference in the way the girl, she was a girl, stood a little to the side of her and stared, waiting for signals from the adult. “Whatever you want,” Andi said.
“This place reminds me of a store near my house where I grew up,” Andi continued. Maddy gave Andi an affirmative nod while focusing on the plethora of bags. “My friends and I used to stop in after school or on weekends and get chips, or soda.” Andi looked at the wall of tobacco and finally accepted why she wanted to come to the store. To buy a pack. “When we were older, we would get them to sell us cigarettes.” Maddy looked back and forth between Andi and the chip array. “They’d give us a pack, which we could barely afford, and a book of paper matches. One for each cigarette.”
Andi turned to see Maddy stared wide-eyed, either in horror or fascination. She didn’t know the girl well enough to read the face. Maddy grabbed the name brand corn chips but the off-brand BBQ chips with a bright green metallic stripes with a large personified Weber grill wearing a chef hat and munching on oversized chips, a sort of cartoon cannibalism.
Of course, I was young and stupid, was what Andi should have said, but she wanted to follow through on what had been an inarticulate urge and now seemed a plan. The decision had less to do with the need to smoke than do something inappropriate. That store, so much like Thornton’s, was a place that made money from everything her current world saw as bad, destructive and unhealthy. She knew they kept porn magazines behind the counter sealed in black plastic. Except maybe those didn’t exist anymore because of the Internet. Choices made, they walked to the counter to pay.
The store employee looked deflated, his skin folding in on itself as if he’d once been hundreds of pounds heavier. The extra folds and crevices of skin were mottled shades of dusky brown, the hair on his head stiff and dry, colored an inky, unnatural black. He put down the newspaper, flooded into thirds, and, without looking at either of them, started to ring up the purchase. He looked first over and then through his glasses at the price tags and then the register keys. Andi was running out of time and felt a surge of adrenaline pulse through heart, making it beat that much more. Her armpits let out a little burst of sweat.
Maddy hung back, ready to leave. “I’ll take a pack of Marlboro Reds, too,” Andi blurted as the man punched in the price for the BBQ chips. Andi felt Maddy’s body, which had been swinging between the door and the register, slow and stop. Andi forced herself to look at the old man. He hadn’t heard. He remained focused on the small pink price tag. If Andi didn’t repeat it, Maddy would doubt. But then the clerk shrugged his shoulders and automatically reached back for a pack. “Regulars?” He didn’t wait for an answer and rang in the price.
Andi paid. She handed the plastic bag to Maddy and palmed the cigarettes.
Walking outside, Maddy by her side, Andi felt the recurrence of the event. It was not quite deja vu but a repetition, a re-inscription of something familiar. The familiarity of her teenage life, going to the store with her girlfriends, with Janice and Jennifer, the two J’s, with Beth. “Bethany Anne” her mother would yell as Beth ran out of the house. After high school that tribe of girls fell away, and then the boys who came after. Patrick who now lived in the desert somewhere with four boys and a wife who looked stretched out and thin in a way that scared Andi. Walking out the door, Andi felt those countless store visits as present but also knew she was no longer the girl but the mother. This moment wasn’t the same feeling of freedom, the feeling of control and self-destiny that she felt before.When was that? Ten or twenty years ago? Maddy probably didn’t feel any of what Andi remembered. She probably felt confused. Why was this woman, this faux mother, buying potato chips and cigarettes in a dirty strip mall? To Maddy, she was sure, Andi was just another mother who lived down the street. It didn’t matter Ilsa was at least ten years older, maybe more. Had Andi considered the relative ages of her friend’s parents? No, they stood in as placeholders, rule givers, providers perhaps on a generous day.
Walking into the sunshine, Andi saw the car in the parking lot. The guy in the front seat stood near the others. She removed the cellophane from the cigarettes and started to extract one. The boys looked younger, as if they have receded back in time while they’d been inside picking out the chips, but Andi knew it was only that she saw the distance more clearly, more distinctly. The edges of the image were no longer cropped and their relative distances had been adjusted. To her they were yesterday, but to them she is distant.
They stepped off the curb at the front sidewalk into the parking lot and the sounds of the street crashed over them. Andi saw Hank, Arthur and Evie, her children, along with Celeste, sitting at the picnic table across the way. They were laughing, carefree, anticipating her return with the promised chips. Anticipating her return. The car door was still open and the trunk spewed music, a dissonant bass and tinkling guitar spread with some mash of voices. A kind of music she didn’t, couldn’t recognize. Andi tossed the packet of cigarettes into the low seat, a seat as clean and gleaming as a showroom model. Maddy saw and creased her brow but the girl said nothing. “I forgot to get matches,” Andi said. She held a single cigarette pressed against her palm.
They continued walking. “Let’s go,” she said to Maddy, and they headed back across the street, back to her children.