I seen them come into the store. The mother, all buttoned-up and beige. The older girl, dark-haired and fussy. Braces. Squeaky-voiced. And then, the littler one, in light-up shoes and a cartoon t-shirt, her looking lost already, tagging along behind the other two. Following the florescent light tubes’ glare on the vinyl tile floor. I seen the three of them, and I thought, that girl’s in la-la land.
She looked like my own daughter at that age. Stringy hair, shoelaces pulled too tight, the loops on the bows long enough to trip over. I watched her stop to look at a powder blue zippered pencil case on one of the front display tables. It’s Back to School time, and everything’s on special. Loose leaf paper, 50 cents a pack. The Elmer’s glue is just pennies today, and the coloring pencils are practically free.
But this girl, seeing the pencil case, picking it up, and she wasn’t in Your Morganton Kmart this crummy, muggy August afternoon. She was took off in her mind. Gone to no place, that’s where. Place itself doesn’t exist for her, not as the rest of us know it. Beyond the pencil case, its zipping action, its shiny baby blue, retro vinyl, there’s nothing. My daughter, My Thalia, named for the newscaster who brought me reports of the Berlin wall coming down, was always like that when she was little. Always dropping off into space.
My Thalia’s 20 years old now, and she has her own little girl now, a girl she named Brody Ann. They live with me, have since before Brody Ann was born. Thalia don’t want to see the brochures I bring her for the Western Piedmont’s phlebotomy program. Don’t want to hear about the online medical transcription school I found for her. Yeah, yeah, yeah, mama, she says. She works at an adult daycare center. She takes old people out to sit beneath giant umbrellas at patio tables late in the afternoon.
I tell her she don’t know how good she has it, living with me. Me to tuck everyone in at night, me to keep the grizzly bear away, I remind her, and she laughs. It’s the man who lives in the next trailer, a fat, hairy man. We watch him through the window, him walking with his head down, as if he don’t want to be seen, from his car to his door in the evening. He works for a plumber, keeps a company truck parked out front. I can hardly understand it. That massive man, his head as blunt and square as a Neanderthal’s. What kind of bathroom sink is he going to fit under? But I don’t know. People come to their jobs for reasons that are foreign to me.
It’s our joke, the grizzly bear next door. Yeah, yeah, yeah, mama, she says. She laughs like it’s a way to end our conversation.
In any case, the little girl in the store, the one who got herself lost, the one who reminded me of my Thalia at that age, I seen her come in with her mother and her sister. Seen the little girl stop, distracted, at the pencil cases and the pencils with over-sized, sparkly erasers, seen the other one trudge along behind her mother who was pushing the cart and steering hard left in front of the cosmetics — she was a pro at this. She knew her aisles. Come on, she said. She said the little girl’s name, called to her, but I didn’t catch it. Already, my check-out was full again.
That’s the way it works most days, you have a minute or two to look around, to notice that your feet hurt or that the backs of your knees ache, and you see that there is a customer at the other checkout — even on our busiest days, my manager only opens two check-outs, plus customer service — and you think about what’s waiting for you at home, whether you have the makings for a western omelet in your refrigerator or not, if you should stop at the supermarket on the way home. And then, there’s an old lady at your checkout, moving like one of those gargantuan dinosaurs taking a half-a-billion years to lift its reptile-head to the leaves at the top of the tree. That’s how she moves, lifting her head up and down, in and out of her shopping cart, putting her spearmint gum and Martha Stewart bath towels — peridot green — Special K breakfast bars, pudding cups, every item, one at a time, slow, slow, on my checkout. Next thing you know, there are three customers behind her, shifting their weight from foot to foot and going into that blank-waiting space, their faces gone distant, and they are impatient, too, huffy, as if this act, this pronounced exhaling and eye-rolling, will encourage the arthritic, thin-tennis-shoed, clip-on-earringed old gal to move faster, or as if, with that hint of displeasure, my slack-jawed, scruffy-necked manager will fly in like a super-hero, order up another check-out line. To the rescue, that skinny, tired-eyed man, ha ha. He’s no grizzly bear. No Super Man either, I can tell you.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, my Thalia would say. I told her long ago, when she first returned to me, pregnant and jobless and alone, that I hated the name she’d picked out for the baby. Brody Ann? I’d said. You got to do better by her than that, than giving her such a trashy name from the start. I should have known better than that, than to tell Thalia what I thought. Thalia, equal parts la-la land and defiant. She screwed her mouth up, exactly like she did when she was little, and said it didn’t matter what I thought. This was her baby, she said. She’ll name her whatever the hell she wanted to. For a punishment, now, she instructs Brody Ann to call me Granny Ann, she’s so clever. Granny Ann, my little granddaughter sings, cheeks smudged with dried peanut butter, pigtailed head grimy with sweat. I should love her, and I do. But still, I just wanted to be plain old grandma. Damn, mama, Thalia says. It’s just like you to be so negative.
I checked for a while, moved past the old lady, and then rang up four 12-packs of Pepsi, on special. I got real busy and forgot about the little girl until something brushed up behind me, something come into the space behind the counter where the customers aren’t supposed to be. Something that didn’t feel like my skinny-ass manager sneaking in wordless behind me, checking something on my register, looking for the coupons we hand out to those who made a one-dollar contribution to the March of Dimes. This was a small person, a flutter. I turned around, and there she was, messy hair and sloppy shoelaces and teeth like a cartoon bunny rabbit, too big for her face. Little girl lost.
What’s the matter, honey? I asked, kneeling down to her. She was near crying already, but when I asked her this, she broke into sobs, her jagging on her breath the way little kids do. Little kids, who give everything they’ve got to their crying. Her face was flushed pink, shiny with her tears. It took me a minute to connect her with the girl I’d seen come in earlier, and, remembering, I said, Where’s your mommy, honey? Where’s your big sissy? I was talking in a way I didn’t usually talk to anybody, even children. I touched her shoulder, said, Baby, are you lost? She couldn’t answer me, only nodded her head yes.
My Thalia had her moments like this, growing up. Moments where it almost shocked me, to see how little she was. To see how, thick-headed as she was, brave; there were times something as little as a yappy dog or a man dressed up in a raccoon costume at a baseball game could bring her to wide-eyed fear, her clutching to me. Her not even trying to hide it, how scared she was.
My customers were piling up, but I just kept whispering to the little girl that it was going to be all right. She was such a cute little girl, such pretty shoes! The customers in line were losing their sympathy quick — no one would say it, but they were all wishing that I would hand the little girl over to someone else, some lost-child-authority they imagined we kept squirreled away somewhere. There was a protocol for me to follow — I should get my manager — but I just kept right on babbling, the girl was so pretty, we’d find her mama in no time.
I lost Thalia once, just like this, except it was worse. We were living with her daddy in an apartment building with a playground and a tennis court, and though the place was old, the net over the tennis court sagging, the paint chipped on the swing set poles, still, it was a good time for us. Before I divorced her daddy, before Thalia grew up and took off when she was only 16, gone with a boy just like her daddy, a boy with a long, blue Pontiac and a thin, scraggly mustache and way of saying her name that made even me go soft. That boy. But, the time I lost her, it was before she was into boys, when she was maybe a little older than this one here, but not so old that she really wanted to leave. Before she even imagined such things happened: girls left their mamas. One afternoon, though, when I was still at work, my Thalia, playing outside, meandered away. The police found her five streets over, hiding inside a boxwood bush next to a huge brick house with white columns. That happens. You get lost and you get scared and you hide.
But this little girl, before me, had done the smart thing, finding a grown-up to help her. I told her that. You are real smart, you know that? We’re going to find your mama first thing. As soon as you stop crying. As soon as you calm down and tell me what your name is.
She stood there sobbing in front of me, not talking. Afraid. Hiding in a different way, keeping herself wrapped up, half-afraid of letting a stranger touch her, half wanting me to, I could tell. Half wanting me to scoop her up, let her lay her little head on my shoulder. I knew her mother was somewhere close by, scared half out of her mind, because it happens to every one of us; every mother knows how it feels to turn and find an empty spot where your child was standing not a minute before. Even later, when I found out the mother had actually left the building, was in the parking lot before either she or her older daughter realized they were missing the girl, even then I thought: look what she’s done to her mother. Look what she’s done to her. I felt that way, sorry for her, and irritated, too, her wandering off like that. It made me angry, a little, thinking of that. Thinking of her just wandering away while her mama was trying to do an important thing. Shop. Mamas have to shop. They have to shop and cook and come to work every day. And then, in a wild flash, I thought: I will quit this job. My face grew warm, just me thinking it. My heart started beating hard. I thought: I will take my own self to cooking school or phlebotomy school else go in for a substitute teacher’s job or a job as a receptionist at a dentist’s office. I would let the big grizzly bear get my baby. Yeah, yeah, yeah, Thalia says. Yeah.
I was still trying to coax the little girl’s name out of her when the mother came. I had a thought I would announce it myself over the PA — fuck the manager — but here come the mama in her tidy haircut, in her beige, her lips pursed, her own heart beating, I knew, with fear and anger both. With impatience and worry: what had happened here? What had gone wrong? The older girl trailing her, looking properly spooked, her knowing better than the little one what her mother had done, leaving the littler one behind.
I tried to catch the mama’s eye when she come. After she’d stumbled forward in all that good-quality department-store beige and swept up her little girl, who wasn’t really little at all, I saw. I saw that the girl, maybe six or seven years old, was too big to get lost, to wander away. That she was too big for her mama to do the next thing she done, which was to pick her up, carry her on her hip like you would a one-year-old, a toddler needing an after-lunch nap. The other one was walking behind them, head down, quieted now. Shamed, a little. But, I wanted to catch this mama’s eye to pass on something of a comfort. I wanted her to know a thing she already knew: this mothering thing is no picnic. She who had no thought, I guessed, about how things might be when the oldest turned 20. If she’d be any less likely to leave one behind in the Kmart, or if there comes a time when one wants to. When one simply wants to slough it off, all the mothering. Erase it all. Begin again, solitary.
But the mother wouldn’t look at me, seemed to have decided not to look at me, at me, this checker at the Kmart who had talked so nice to her little red-cheeked, tangled-hair girl.
All right, honey, I called after them. All right, honey, and don’t you do that to your mama ever again. The older girl turned to look at me, them almost at the automatic glass door now, the mama still carrying the littler one, but still she wouldn’t look. The mama, I mean.
I think that little girl come to me and not the other checker, a teenager, even younger than my Thalia, because I looked to her as near her mama as anyone. I could guess we’re near the same age, that we both have that settled-in motherly look about us, and the little girl saw this because she needed to. She didn’t see the differences between us, how her mother used Clairol Loving Care to hide her early gray and probably did things like sew her own curtains to be thrifty, and how I spent every one of my days doing this, standing at this register, ringing up the thrifty and the poor alike, and then going home to cook spaghetti and look through the window and holler to my granddaughter, my beautiful Brody Ann, that she’d best quit tight-roping on the edge of the porch before she falls off and knocks her teeth out on the gravel rocks below.
All right then, I called, louder, because they were walking on, through the automatic door. All right. All right! I yell. I don’t know, but I couldn’t let them go, and so I left my register, holding up a hand to the next customer in line. Like, excuse me for just a second.
I scuddled out, around my checkout, still calling, All right! All right! And finally, Stop! But they didn’t. I was out then, through the automatic door and into the summer heat, all of it bearing down hard on me from above, from below, the hot asphalt, the cars and the smell of greasy things, of gasoline and truck diesel and the Wendy’s restaurant across the way. My heart pounding, head thrumming in the god-awful heat. I stood there, in front of the store, and watched them. The mother carried that girl all the way to their Cherokee Jeep midway back in the parking lot and the older girl kept looking back at me, gaping.
My manager, the Supreme Commander of this establishment, come out to get me. Me, standing out there in the sunshine that was so hot it pulsed blue, it coming off in the asphalt in waves. He didn’t yell or start a fuss, but just come out and stood next to me and touched my arm. Him squinting into that parking lot, same as me. A piece of work, he said, watching them go. The Grand Cherokee exiting the parking lot, signaling left. A real piece of work, he said again, and I reached over and took his hand. Squeezed it tight, then dropped it. I don’t know why I done that, and neither did he. He nodded, like okay, it’s over. Still watching the parking lot, the Jeep gone. By then, I was crying nearly as hard as that little girl when she tried to open her mouth and tell me what was wrong.
A real piece of work, he said again. My manager, who didn’t yell at me to return to my checkout, at least not yet, but who stood beside me now, looking out, waiting for me to pull myself together, which I was trying to do. Wiping at my cheeks with my hands, swallowing hard, breathing. The both of us feeling the injustice of it, of that mama and her babies driving off and away. The mama who hadn’t thanked anyone because I guess she didn’t want to know it. What had happened here today in this Kmart store, this crummy, muggy afternoon. Maybe never would really see how close she’d coming to losing the littlest one, the one in la-la land from the start.
Which meant she would lose her. I knew this clear, standing there, watching. My skinny-ass manager beside me. She would lose her for real someday to something like a boy with a car or a party with whiskey and cigarettes or Boone’s Farm Sangria. Or, the girl would be lost to herself. When the daughter, off in la-la land, does not see anything beyond herself. Beyond the present tense. Each day just happening to her, to the both of you, and then, poof, there’s another one. A littler one, the littlest of you three.
Because what happens then? Where do we get to, then? When the daughter becomes the same thing as the mother? What kind of progress, of getting along, getting better, is that?
All right then, my manager finally said. All right. It was time to get back to it.
It’s a cowardly thing. Rushing away like that. No thank-yous. No magnificent or hearty feats of gratitude. No prayers, no happy, oh, I’m so happy she’s okay.
I felt it then, a terrible, deep exhaustion. Like someone had poured steel into my limbs, had filled my backbone with iron. Standing out there, knowing I’d have to turn around in a second, go back inside, back to my checkout. And from there, back to my home, back to Brody Ann, back to protecting the three of us all from the grizzly bear next door. I knew then how hard my life had been so far, and what it would be now.