Mae now understood that the putrid smell wasn’t the low tide but was in fact her companion, Don, and that maybe she smelled just as bad. She couldn’t, after all, escape it.
“Hey, shouldn’t we rent a room and take a shower?”
Don didn’t break stride. They were almost to the boardwalk. “A room? Around here? We can’t afford it, not this time of year.”
“Well, if we just saved a little…” That was a dead argument and she knew it.
“I’ll nab some of those little shampoo bottles and you can have a nice wash at the foot rinse.”
Even that sounded like heaven but by mid-afternoon he’d be high and wasn’t going anywhere to nab her anything. She’d be high too and wouldn’t care who smelled like what.
Mae felt the sun scorch her already-charred skin. She checked the trashcans for discarded sunscreen but Don yanked her away. “Don’t look in there; that’s not subtle at all.”
She stuck her tongue out and followed him onto the packed boardwalk. Within seconds, he grabbed a purse and disappeared into the crowd, heading for the men’s room. The idea was to grab a bag, rummage quickly for cash or medicine. Their dealers didn’t take credit and there wasn’t time to figure out what else might be valuable. Earlier in the week she found a key chain with a bunny rabbit; it reminded her of something her youngest might like. Mae kept it in her pocket. She would see her again soon and give it to her. After she got clean.
There was a time Mae thought she wouldn’t survive a weekend without her girls. Then Don came along and seven years went by without her spending any consistent time with them. Now her ten year-old lived with her twenty-six-year-old and the one in the middle was expecting a little one of her own. Mae wasn’t sure if she’d get to meet the baby but she figured she’d do okay as a grandmom, given the chance. Again, get clean, when the time was right.
Mae snatched a purse and took it into the bathroom. She found six bucks; she could have cried at the good fortune. Then she heard, “That’s my bag.” She turned to see a pretty young woman in a bikini top and one of those wrappy things around her waist. She looked so tan and clean. Beside her a cop was moving toward Mae, saying, “Come with me, ma’am.” Mae smiled to think maybe they’d let her wash up at the county jail.
Mae was booked and put in a cell. A deep chill set in her bones as she curled up on a metal bench. The cop who brought her in was a young guy. He put the cuffs too tight but when she winced he loosened them. In the car the radio crackled. He looked in the rearview at her and said, “Your known associate got away.”
Known associate. Mae supposed that meant even if she and Don went their separate ways, they would forever be criminally linked. Romantic.
In seven years, this was her third time in a cell. There were a few certainties she remembered: 1) that she would eventually have to use the abhorrent facilities no matter how long she tried to hold it; 2) she would get sick – headache, stomach ache, fever, chills – in fact she already felt that one coming on; and 3) there was no way in hell to reach Don and even if there were, he wouldn’t and couldn’t bail her out. Only in those moments did she realize what a useless companion he made.
Mae’s mother always said something about parents wanting better for their children. But there was only so far up a person could go before everything reset. So Mae didn’t suppose she was living up to her mother’s image but figured it was because her mother was all sorts of light and perfection, making Mae the sacrificial starting-over point. Now Mae’s daughters could soar to great heights, so long as they left room for their own children and their children’s children down the line.
Mae looked at the metal toilet and she felt hot bile fill up her throat. She gulped it back down, went to the bars and screamed, “Hey, I want a phone call.”
Mae never felt so dirty in her life. Beside her a baby cooed. Up front Lana drove one-handed with her other arm crooked on the door, her head resting on her knuckles. Her eyes were determined to stay on the road.
The baby was asleep. He smelt of cream and powder. “I didn’t know you’d had the baby.”
“Of course you didn’t,” Lana coughed out.
Mae’s stomach lurched. She spotted a trashcan. “Pull over, please.”
Lana sighed and pulled to the sidewalk. Mae ran to the trashcan and threw up. Again and again her body tensed, until she thought she could take no more. She closed her eyes and breathed. Then she heard, from across the street, “Hey, where you been?” She looked over and saw Don. He held up a little baggie and motioned for her to come over. She heard the baby crying. She hesitated.
“Mom, get in the car now or you’ll never see us again.”
Mae looked from her daughter to Don. She walked to the car. He shrugged at her and put the baggie back in his pocket. He looked back as she got in and she thought of running to him but she felt too weak. Lana pulled out.
“Sweetheart, can I use your shower when we get to your house?”
Lana chuckled. “Yes, mom, and you need it.” She threw a pack of wipes back to Mae. Mae cleaned her hands and touched the baby’s soft cheek. She stifled more vomit and smiled at the little one.
Desiree Wilkins lives near Philadelphia with her husband and their son. Her fiction has appeared in the print literary magazines Happy and Donut Factory and online at First Stop Fiction, Cleaver Magazine, and Every Day Fiction.