“Part-time is great,” Dad says.
Newsflash: My dad is applying to work at Finish Line. Not the fancy tri-level mall location in the next town over, but the “dead mall” as local kids call it. The store doesn’t even have a prime location, just a back-end corridor, smushed between a boarded-up Forever 21 (Ironic, right?) and a guy selling phones and pay-as-you-go plans from a cart with spinning rims. Prairie Madness is written on the bling banner that practically shouts “cash grab.”
I’m not gonna lie, my eyes keep darting in that direction, so the marketing tactic must be working. Not to mention the popcorn the guy’s now giving out for free. FL smells like a movie theater right now.
Prairie must be the latest wireless sensation. I wouldn’t know because tech-dunce is an actual word in my family, thanks to Dad who doesn’t allow me and my sisters to have smartphones. My sister Kaitlin was practically drooling when we walked by thirty minutes ago. She knew better than to ask. Again. Being a senior this year doesn’t earn her any extra points. Renee doesn’t mind having the label. She’s smart enough without a phone. Heck, maybe even smarter.
"How is that relevant to the latest court ruling?" Renee says from the sock wall, offering a fake microphone to the nearest mannequin dressed in athletic wear. Journalist-in-training is her current title, and for good reason.
The last three months with Mom were hazardous to our health, which is why Dad moved us to Cambridge, away from her "coming around the backside." I can't be sure, but I think he's referring to how storms blow up the coast, churning away without concern for the consequences.
“No way!” the pimply faced teenage boy behind the sales counter says. “You worked at Fletcher & Rowe? I had no idea there was- an office building on the corner of Washington and Elm in downtown Boston. That must’ve been decades ago. The Mickey Dee’s really took over that spot, huh.”
His nasally voice is insane loud. I can hear him clearly even though Uptown Funk is playing full volume from invisible speakers. The store is so cheery bright it borders on violent. Even the shadows have nowhere to hide.
“Evenings okay?” Dad says, handing over his completed application.
“The kid shakes his head. “Day shift only.”
“You’re sure you can’t make an exception?” I get the jeans and button-down shirt, but he could’ve at least pocketed his baseball cap. It rarely leaves his head.
“No. I’ll have to talk to Angie about that. She’s our manager.” The kid walks away carrying Dad’s application in one hand. The other arm is in a cast up to his elbow.
Dad glances around, finds me standing next to the fifty percent off rack. He removes his baseball cap, rubs his head, and raises a wait-a-minute finger. He looks nervous. Who can blame him? He’s a Yale grad applying for a job that probably pays eight bucks an hour. Not exactly a new low because our family’s seen lots of those, but this is seriously hard to witness. Minutes better not turn into hours, or I’ll take the “W” home.
Smart subway-riding people in Boston abbreviate The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to the “T.” Who in their right mind wants to say The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to clarify a ride on a train? My preferred version of the MBTA is the “W.” Especially to Cambridge High, thank you.
“This job’s only temporary,” Dad said during our drive to the dead mall, which is not the way I intended to spend Sunday morning. I'd rather be riding my bike, running at the beach, climbing trees. Heck, sleeping late wasn't even an option today.
Dad drummed his hands on the steering wheel, a nervous habit. “Something to supplement my painting jobs until I can build a customer base.”
“You should try a website, Dad,” Kaitlin said. “Join the twenty-first century.”
Her sarcasm was just for show. Like I said, she knows better. And whether or not a man was actually found dead in his car in the mall parking lot is up for grabs. We just moved here (more like fled), and I don’t have a sense of real versus fiction. Not yet. Based on my experience so far, it’s probably another cruel rumor. Cambridge High’s overflowing with those. I’ve been here three weeks and the kids are already assuming I’m a half-breed Indian chick just because I have dark hair and an olive complexion. Seriously? Okay, so 2016 might not win any awards for post-racist attitudes, but I thought at least skin politics was a non-starter.
I walk to the shoe wall, find the running sneakers I want. Saucony Kinvara, white and gold upper, red soles. I can practically feel myself drooling while the flat screen plays a “Strangest Moments” Olympic track and field event video. Glancing at my father, now talking to a pretty blond woman at least half his age who must be the manager, I can only agree.
The video narrator says, “For a sprinter, a good start can make the difference between achieving everlasting glory and being forgotten forever.” The narrator’s tone suggests FL is going for a laugh and a sale at the same time.
I consider trying on my Kinvaras but then wonder if I’ll have the guts to take them off instead of running out the door, setting off alarms, maybe grabbing a phone and a bag of freshly popped corn, and six-minute-mile-it all the way home. That’s three hundred and fifty-two point eight miles. Not that I’m counting or anything.
I’ve wanted a pair of Kinvaras from the moment I saw a classmate wearing them at Kenton’s spring fling dance. Kenton Regional is my old school in upstate New York. That was months ago, but I just have to own a pair.
I pick up the running shoe, turn it over, trace my fingers along the red sole. “Try me!” the neon green tag says. “Eight ounces, our lightest most comfortable shoe yet.” Of course I’ll never know because the next tag I look at is the price. One twenty. Nope. That’s not even likely to show up under the Christmas tree this year.
Collective sighs from the Olympic stadium as the video narrator says, “Christie blows it. He’s out. Three false starts, and his dream of being an Olympic gold medalist are over.” Just like that. Poor guy. He looks like my mother when the cops show up at our door. Which is a lot.
“Moping, are we?” Kaitlin asks. She walks up to me carrying a Gap bag, last weeks’ birthday money blown already, no doubt. She’s a clothing dork.
I try and put the sneaker back on its pedestal but it ricochets to the floor, sending three more pair cascading down with it.
“Nice, clodster!” Kaitlin says. “Better put those back.” She eyeballs Dad still standing at the counter. The manager is shaking her head. I know what the frown means. This despite the desperate looking window sign announcing: “Now hiring part-time help! Apply within!” Another no. Third one today.
I start gathering shoes, but several more tumble to the floor.
“Wait! Stand right there,” Kaitlin says, awkwardly shifting me to block Dad’s view of her.
“What are you doing?” A moment ago I was contemplating shoplifting, now I’m serving as a farkin’ mannequin.
Kaitlin pulls out a cell phone from her purse.
“Hey! Where’d you get that? Did you buy it from that dude? Dad’ll ground you for a month if he finds out. Maybe longer.”
Kaitlin delivers her, “You’re a total dumbass” pout. She has a face like Meg Ryan and a hundred different smiles, but her hair is red, not ridiculous Elmo red, but perfect mellow red and bone straight all the way to the middle of her back. The pout pisses me off, but secretly I envy it.
“No,” she says. “I’m borrowing it from Sarah.”
Sarah is her new bestie. Two weeks and she already has a girl bud and I haven’t even spoken to anyone yet.
Three hours, three stores, and three “No’s” later, we finally make it home.
Kaitlin skips to her room, saying she’s too tired for dinner, but I know she’s going to play with that phone. I’m not sure who I’m rooting for here. If she gets caught, I’ll have to hear her whine and complain while she's on lockdown. But it would be nice to look something up without fighting over the one computer. Renée dubbed the one computer in our apartment the OC. We we all have to share it, which is nonsense because who the hell wants to share one computer with two teenage sisters.
I have no intention of dealing with the potential fallout, so after dinner I head to the backyard. I call it that, but it’s hardly what you might consider cozy. Our house is not a house, but an apartment (more like compartment) in one of those too-big-for-its-own-good complexes where the tennis courts host tennis balls but not rackets, because it’s just a stand-in for a dog park where people leave turds behind, and they stink and it’s unsanitary. The maintenance crew and staff gave up pretty early, as I imagine, because even though you can tell people what’s in their best interest, they commonly don’t pay attention.
I climb my favorite oak tree, settle on the highest branch I can safely reach, and scan the night sky. Funny, because even though it looks like the same sky, it isn’t. Hardly.
But if I blink just right, stretch out on the solid limb beneath me, I can imagine it differently. Maybe without all the secrets.
On a night like this, three months ago, the stars were out “blazing like nobody’s business,” as my mother called it. Which was her way of saying not just a few, winking in the moonless sky, but a whole tapestry, so close I could’ve reached out and pulled in each one, worn them on my fingers like diamonds. After a week of near-constant clouds and rain, spending time with my mother wasn't high on my to-do list.
“What are you wishing for?” she asked.
Cricket song filled the space between us, and one lonely owl, hooting in the distance. Elm and oak were silhouetted against the sky, spring buds clamped shut, waiting for warmer weather.
“Oh, come on, Em,” she said. “You don't really believe in that nonsense about ruining your wish because you couldn't keep it secret, do you?” She interlaced her fingers with mine. Her hand was rough and calloused.
“No.” I tried to sound offended.
“Like there's some tattletale fairy with an iPad and a long list of blabber mouths.” Mom laughed like a choking frog. She’d been smoking more since her release from the hospital. The scent clung to her skin like an extra set of clothing—not vile, but haughty, like she did it on purpose to keep people away.
She squeezed my hand. “You can tell me.”
I believed in keeping wishes close to my heart, not because of some bogus name-collecting fairy, but because it was the first time in a long while I actually had a wish. But saying it out loud would’ve hurt her too much, and I couldn’t break her heart like that, like she’d been breaking mine my whole life.
Instead, I said, “Two scoops, not one.”
She released my hand, and I followed her in from the patio where we’d been observing the late spring sky.
“Wanna know what I wished for?” She opened the freezer and pulled out a carton of vanilla ice cream. The cold air felt good and not just because of the hot, humid kitchen. I'd gotten pretty good at hiding truths from my mother, except for the flush on my cheeks.
“Okay.” It was one of her more lucid moments, so of course I agreed.
“I wish honey bees lived longer than six weeks.”
“Because they’re amazing. And gentle.” She set the ice cream and two bowls on the kitchen table. “They have to gather nectar from two million flowers to make one pound of honey. Doesn’t give them much time to bother anyone, now does it?” She eyed me, one of those sideways glances when she was thinking hard.
“Two million? That’s not true,” I said.
“Sure it is. In fact, five hundred and fifty-six bees have to fly ninety thousand miles to make one pound of honey. That’s three times around the Earth. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.” She tried to make a heart shape with her hands, but it looked more like a square.
My mother loved gathering facts. Odd, given the way her life turned out, but it was just one of her inconsistencies, one of many. It took me about ten of my fourteen and a half years to realize my mother’s truth was different than other people’s. It’s not that hers held less than the whole truth: sometimes they held much more, only I couldn’t tell exactly which times.
“I’m changing my wish,” I said. “Make mine two scoops with honey.”
Yeah. So. That was three months ago. A lot has changed since then. And a lot has stayed the same. Exactly the same. But that was the first and last time I put honey on my ice cream.
It’s silly, really, thinking about that moment, now that I’m wishing for something completely different—less big picture, more small frame.
Maybe a part of me knew back then. Not like the way I know facts, like intellectually or something I could easily put into words. But like that punch in the stomach I get when thinking about my mother. Not so much like having the floor pulled out from under me. But the way she yanks it sideways, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, because she can. It’s like she keeps moving the finish line just when I think I have a solid feel for it, or at least a tenuous hold. But that’s what life is like in our family. I wonder if Dad feels it too. After all those no’s today, he has to. Right?