We’re loaded down with tampons and pads, and Mom’s heading straight for the cute checker’s lane. Seriously? I’d die if I had to stand there while he rung us out. It’s obvious, right? I totally get it, she’s distracted, sad about Lance and all that, but right now we’ve got bigger issues. I steer her toward the old lady’s lane.
I woke up at the hotel this morning with blood in my underwear—Mom thinks from the stress of the funeral and the move and all. She started getting all awkward, but I told her I was thirteen, not two, and I knew what was going on. We’re here—Kansas, I mean, not Walgreen’s—because my stepdad hung himself and Mom said we can’t afford our house because insurance doesn’t cover suicide. So we’re going to live with Aunt June in Utah. Yeah, Utah. Talk about Nowheresville. Mom’s been crying a lot, which was fine at first but started getting old about the middle of Kentucky. I’m sad, too, I guess, but not that sad. Lance was just my stepdad, and he was weird. I’m not sure how Mom didn’t see it, but whatever.
We load up the belt and the checker, this stocky older woman with helmet hair, says in this crazy deep voice, “How y’all doing today?”
Her—his—nametag says Geraldine, but there’s no way.
Mom pats my back and says, “We had a pretty rough night.”
“God, Mom!” I don’t mean to say that out loud, but she’s rubbing my back like I’m still five and it just comes out.
Geraldine looks at the pink and purple packages on the belt, then Mom, who makes her annoying frown-nod toward me. Geraldine looks back at me all grandma nostalgic and says, “Such a special time.”
Really? He has no idea how un-special this feels. The black tips of his wig curl like claws into his forehead. I don’t mind guys wearing dresses. Lance used to play dress up with me and my friends sometimes, which sounds weird but it really wasn’t. Honestly, he looked better than Geraldine. It was kind of cute, but also kind of sad. Especially after I saw him in the garage, hanging there, his hands curled up like dead spiders, toes poking out below Mom’s red dress.
“Oops,” Geraldine says. “Your card was denied, hon. Our system does this sometimes. Give it another try.”
Mom swipes. An old man shuffles into line behind us. He’s hugging a giant thing of Depends in his splotchy old man arms.
Geraldine says, “How nice to see you this morning, Mr. Cathcart.”
“It’s Geraldine, Mr. Cathcart.”
“Hell it is.” He’s doing that old person thing with his mouth, sucking on something that’s not there.
Geraldine looks over us, across the lanes. ”Why don’t you go down to Thomas? It looks like he’s open.”
“I’m fine here.”
“Are you?” Geraldine says. “I’m sorry, dear, your card was denied again.” When he smiles, these great long creases fold back into his cheeks. He has a nice smile, but the powder and stubble aren’t working together.
“What’s the problem?” says the old man. He’s pushing me with his Depends.
Geraldine says, “The machine’s on the fritz again.”
“I have cash.” The old man says. Then he makes this noise, a sort of coughing belch. Half a second later I smell smoke. Oh. My. God.
“Patience, Mr. Cathcart.”
Mom’s holding a ten. “Where are we if we take the pantyliners off?”
The old man is leaning into me, pushing his Depends against my back.
“Let’s see, hon,” Geraldine says, pulling the pantyliners out of the bag.
“Cut the schoolteacher crap, Gerald.”
“Her name,” I say, jabbing my finger into his Depends, “is Geraldine.”
The old man’s face bunches up like he’s got something to say.
I stare at him. “What?”
He grumbles something, but keeps his eyes on his Depends.
“That brings it down to twenty-three seventeen.”
“Here,” I say, digging into my pocket.
“No.” Mom grabs my wrist. “That’s your money.”
“It’s fine, Mom.” I’ve been saving for an iPhone, which doesn’t seem that important right now.
When I take the bags from Geraldine, he pats my hand. His nails are painted old lady pink and are all chipped and snaggled looking. His fingers are thick, stippled with plucked pores. He says, “Y’all take care now.”
Mom starts sobbing in the parking lot. I take her keys and help her into the car. She slumps into the driver’s seat, crying, hands cupped in her lap. “W-w-why,” the words hitch as she sobs, “w-would he do that t-to himself?”
I rub her back a little, and she slumps over the armrest into me. I hug her and tell her it’s going to be okay. Her whole body is shaking and her crying is more like moaning. She hardly cried at the funeral. I lay my head on hers and say all the nice things I can think of. Kissing her head seems to help.
I watch the old man for the hour it takes him to get in his giant car and drive off. By then, Geraldine is taking a smoke break, leaning against the side of the building, his legs apart, dress stretched tight. He holds his cigarette between two fingers, his hand hanging from his wrist. When he brings the cigarette to his mouth, it looks like he’s covering a yawn.
Mom’s still crying, but she’s stopped shaking. I find a smashed-up napkin in the glove box and press it into her hand. She squeezes my hand back and sits back up. She wipes her eyes and messes with her face in the rear view mirror. “I’m sorry.”
“No big deal, Mom,” I say. “I miss him, too.”
She looks at me like she’s surprised.
Mom drives past Geraldine and I wave. He tips his head up, hand covering his mouth, fingertips curling into his cheek as he draws on his cigarette.
Chip Houser thinks of himself as a fantasy author, but hasn’t actually published in the genre. He has published fiction in Rosebud Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Gemini Magazine, Kansas City Voices, Spark IV: A Creative Anthology, and Sixfold.