By Jill Christman
We are due to arrive at the baseball-themed birthday party for our six-year-old friend Spencer at 4:00 p.m., but it’s already 2:05 by the time my kids get their shoes on for an emergency trip to the grocery store to buy cupcake supplies. I know the precise time because nine-year-old Ella has chosen today to take notes on my every move and utterance in a pocket-sized spiral notebook like a reporter on her beat—or a really obvious Harriet the Spy. When I grab up cloth bags, my purse, and the keys, and lacking a free hand, use my knee to give 5-year-old Henry a nudge toward the door, Ella peers in from the front porch, cocks what looks to me like a judgmental eyebrow, and scratches a note.
“Is this for that economics unit at school or something?” I ask.
“No,” she explains, “I’m just making observations about you. About what happens when you go to the grocery store—because you don’t think you’re a good shopper. That’s my first observation.” Scratch, scratch.
Finally out of the house and in the driveway, I see a Paul’s Flowers van blocking us from a swift departure. This is a good thing and a bad thing. “Get in the car, kids,” I say. Of course, they don’t. They want to get a look at Paul. Where the hell is Paul?
“But Mom,” Ella says, pointing out the obvious, “are we still supposed to get into the car when there’s a Paul’s Flower truck behind us?” Then she flashes a sly smile, revealing she’s in on this secret. I should mention here that the children’s father is out of town, playing disc golf in Peoria, Illinois, despite the fact that in the thirty-six hours prior to his departure he’d been vomiting and feverish, muttering “I’m in hell, I’m in hell,” while I—having been required to come off my own cruise on the norovirus ship early in order to keep our children alive—well, kept our children alive. So the first time he was able to get up, he choked down a piece of dry toast and a spoonful of chicken soup, packed a bag of plastic discs and Gatorade, each in a rainbow of colors, and headed off down the road with his buddies.
At some point in his preparations—or maybe from the road—he’d rallied the good sense and wherewithal to dial up the flower shop. Tomorrow is Mother’s Day.
At long last—what was he doing in there? picking the flowers?—the man whom I assume to be Paul himself emerges from the van carrying an admittedly lovely Asian-inspired display with creamy yellow cala lilies emerging from a bed of orange roses. “It’s a little tippy,” the man says by way of introduction, and more than a little sheepishly, propping up a stick of bamboo with his finger. I’d need to confirm this with Ella, but by now, it must be 2:13. “Yeah, yeah,” Paul continues. “Sorry about that. You know, just as I was turning onto the road, I get a call from my buddy and I’m just turning on the road, just about to your driveway, and I pick it up and he says he’s looking for a new deep freeze, but I tell him I’m out on delivery and I can’t talk about deep freezes, but he found one he thought might be a good deal. . .”
I smile a baby’s breath sweet smile and attempt to pry the display from his thick fingers. “They’re beautiful. Thank you.” Taking a backwards step toward the door, still in a game of tug-o-flowers with Paul, I look at my roaming children and annunciate in clear eye-flash, head-flick, mother speak: Get In The Car.
“Yeah, yeah,” Paul says, taking another shot at the tipping bamboo with his finger. Refusing to relinquish his grip on his side of the arrangement and parting the roses, he directs my gaze to a layer of thick green foam sprouting flower stems like a bad hair transplant. “See there? See? If you just keep that foam damp they’ll stay fresh for you. Nice and fresh.” Close up like this, I notice the orange roses are a little brown around the edges of the petals.
“Great. I’ll do that,” I say. I give a sudden pull on my side and Paul’s big hands fall away. The flowers are mine. “Thank you so much. Have a great day. Kids, jump in the car now, please.” Even though I’ve already used the remote key to unlock the car, multiple times, I press the button again, for the punctuating effect of the muted beeping. The Car is Now Unlocked. Get Into the Car. Please. Now.
Paul takes a call on his cell, and then—praise heaven—his much-anticipated leave. I deposit the tipping, browning flowers inside the front door, snatch the mail from the box, and throw myself down into the station wagon. As I’m putting the key in the ignition with one hand, I flip through the mail with the other—Teavana tea catalog, two invitations to join the Poetry Society, one for me and one for my husband, something from the hospital, and another something from the IRS. I open the one from the IRS first. My attention is required, I read. If I fail to respond within 20 days, I read, bad things might happen. I needn’t resend a paper copy of my full return. In fact, doing so may result in a delay of the processing of my return. There is a form and some bolded telephone numbers.
From the back seat, Ella taps her pen on her notebook. “Mom. What are you doing?”
Henry pipes up. “Yeah. Daddy’s not here. What are you waiting for?”
“Daddy’s not here,” I repeat flatly. We’re not exactly being audited, I don’t think, but we’re not exactly not being audited either. Crap. I tear open the other envelope, from the hospital. It’s from the imaging center where I had my screening mammogram four days prior—crawling from my flu bed to watch in nauseating satisfaction as a whirring machine smashed my breasts between the glass plates while I wondered What kind of bra will hold them up after this devastation? There’s a problem with my left breast and I’m being called in for a return “diagnostic mammogram and/or ultrasound.” Again, the news is muddy. There’s a density. I should make my return appointment without delay.
“Mom!” Henry yells from the back seat. “I’m BORED.”
Bored? Oh, to be bored. I toss the mail on the pile of debris in the passenger’s seat, turn the key, and pull the stick into reverse. One word repeats itself in my brain on the one-mile stretch down to the grocery story: shit. In my head, I hear the mildly explicative stutter of a cold engine trying to start in winter. Shitshitshitshitshit. Shitshitshit.
When we get to the store Ella has a question. Are you going to need your iPhone in the store, Mom? Because I need a timer.”
“Yeah, it’s one of my observations.”
My thumb presses the button on the front of my phone and it lights up, an image of my bright-faced children with a time-stamp on their heads. “It’s 2:27″—Fuck! 2:27! In what world am I going to get the shopping done, get home to frost the baseball-mitt-and-ball cupcakes, cut the strawberries and the grapes into the fruit salad, get the kids to finish the card, feed the dog. . . and get to the party by 4? “Not this world,” I say out loud.
“Not this what?” Ella asks.
“Never mind,” I say. “Come on. Unbuckle.”
Before we can even make it into the store, I am happy—truly happy—to see that our grocery store has beautiful, 3-gallon azalea pots in full bloom. Spencer’s mother’s cat has just died and I want to get her a memorial perennial. This is perfect. I hoist one with magenta blossoms, and some mud trickles down my shirt.
Ella is a thoughtful, slow-moving child on a good day, but on this day, recording my every move, she is yet slower. “What’s that?” she asks.
“An azalea bush.”
“Was that on your list?”
“Well, no, but it was on my mind to get something for Jackie to plant for Maya.”
“But it wasn’t on your list?”
“No. Not on my list. C’mon. Keep up.”
We’re in the store now and moving at a decent clip for a mud-smeared forty-something who may or may not have something wrong in the left breast she is now palpating surreptitiously under the inadequate cover of a pyramid of oranges and may or may not be in the initial stages of the audit she has always dreaded, not because she cheats—she doesn’t, let the record show—but because, shit, what a pain, and with two writers and two home offices, she always knew it was a risk. I realize I’m narrating this sad story about myself in third person as I scoop up my last item from produce—asparagus, on sale.
“Was that on the list?”
“No, but something for tomorrow night’s dinner was on the list, and now I think we’ll have asparagus and pizza.”
“Yum,” Ella says approvingly, jotting something down. “What time is it? How many minutes have we been in here so far?”
In the back corner of the store, behind produce, is the alcohol. I should mention here because Henry isn’t getting much air time that this is one of those days he wants to push the cart, veering off towards Bakery and randomly back toward the pita chips, so in the name of desperate efficiency, I’m doing that thing where I kind of hunch over the top of him like some kind of grocery cart beast to keep us on course. In this fashion, we careen into Wine.
“Got your notebook ready?” I say to Ella. “Mommy’s about to go off-list.” A lady in Cheese raises an eyebrow and gives me a strange look. Henry crashes the cart into an end cap of shiraz, but no damage is done—not this time, not yet—and I steer him away. “Stay right here,” I command. “Don’t move a muscle.” (For once in her life, Ella doesn’t add, “If I don’t move a muscle, I won’t be able to breathe, Mom.”) They wait while I pick out a nice pinot grigio. Ella makes a respectfully quiet note.
Powdered sugar (for the vegan frosting I haven’t made) and coffee (for the rest of my life) are both definitely on list, gaining me efficiency points with Ella, but losing me time in Coffee because a sweet elderly man wants to talk to me about coffee beans. He has questions about light, medium, and dark roasts and caffeine content that I simply cannot entertain even as I appreciate his curiosity about a very important food group. Wait. Is he hitting on me? Doesn’t matter. I feign oblivion (ahhh, sweet oblivion) and push on towards milk, the final item on the list, kicking myself for not just running in for the powdered sugar and fruit, and then coming back after the party for anything we didn’t need before the party, but we’re in it now.
“Time?” I say to Ella, now juggling both notebook and phone.
“2:53.” Scratch scratch.
Okay, okay. I’ve got this. We’ve got this. I’ve frosted approximately a million kid-party cupcakes in my mom tenure, and seriously, I can’t feel any kind of lump. I really can’t. One hand still fondling (could this have been what had attracted the questions from the old man in Coffee?) and the other guiding the Henry-powered cart monster, I steer toward the farthest corner of the store where the organic dairy products are kept segregated from the hormone- and preservative-pumped dairy products, because God forbid that milk could be with milk. Rounding the final corner with some difficulty, I stop in front of the bank of coolers where the organic milk has always been. For years. No milk. Every conceivable variety of juice and lemonade—strawberry, raspberry, peach—but not a single ounce of milk. My body drops into what feels more like a position for hunting prey on the savannah than one necessary for finding milk in a glass-fronted case: legs apart, knees bent and loose, both arms up, head and eyes scanning. Also, I’m mumbling to myself: “Milk, milk, milk. . . I know the milk is here. Where’s the bleeping milk?” I think my nose might even be twitching, as if I’m going to smell the milk and hunt it down where it hides. Honestly, at this point I’ve forgotten all about both children, but I feel certain Ella has extensive notes on this hysterical interlude. Mommy really isn’t a very good grocery shopper. She can’t even find the milk.
I straighten up, drop my hands to my sides, and try to look a little less crazy as I turn to face a grocery store employee in a red vest. He has a kind face and glasses.
“Ma’am? Can I help you find something?”
“Yes! I mean, yes. Yes, please. I mean, I’m a notoriously bad grocery shopper. Actually. . . “—I point a thumb out at Ella—”she’s taking notes on how bad I am, and it’s true. I know it’s true.” I feel a kind of genuine shame. I am a bad grocery shopper. There are just so many choices, and things are organized so strangely. My new grocer friend is really very patient and nice. He’s just waiting for me to finish. “Anyway, I’m looking for the organic milk. I could have sworn it was here in this case.”
He smiles sympathetically, and dare I say, in a validating way? “You’re right. It was here. We just moved it. Now the organic milk is over in Dairy with the milk.” Crazy. He gestures for us to follow and starts off around the corner, so he’s about ten feet ahead of us when the accident happens.
What happens next really isn’t Henry’s fault, and it’s not really mine either. Henry’s still pushing, providing necessary velocity, although maybe somewhat erratically, and I’m trying to guide the cart with one hand from the front, keeping an eye on the bobbing red vest. In the same moment that I notice our path is blocked by a 12-pack display of Corona, an island of blue, gold, and cream—La Cerveza Mas Fina—rising up between Frozen Foods and Dairy like a new land mass, an oasis beckoning those who want to slice a lime and imagine it’s time to hit the party boat, Henry kicks in with a burst of acceleration. I try to correct with a yank on the front of the cart, but I’m not fast enough. We take out the front corner of Beer Island, and it sinks into the sea with a tremendous clanking crash. Henry, Ella, me, the bespectacled Marsh employee in the red vest, all freeze.
We stand frozen in Frozen and we watch the island fall.
The Corona is contained in cardboard cases, so we don’t know how bad it is until the movement stops and we watch the urine colored beer seeping from the gaps in the corners, so much like sea foam, really, rolling across the smooth tiles.
I am the first to speak. “Oh no. I’m so sorry. Oh.” I am fixated by the spreading foam. How many bottles are broken? There’s no way to know. “Can I pay for these?”
The Marsh employee speaks next. His voice is so. . kind. “No, no, no. It’s okay. I’ll take care of it.” He is already pushing the foaming crates of the main aisle with his feet.
Henry is third. He grabs the seat of his pants and yells, “Poopy! Poop! I have to POOP!”
Ella says nothing and makes no notation. She looks pale and mortified. She’s at just the wrong age for the scene we are making.
In this moment, the nicest Marsh employee who has ever walked the aisles and I share a truly human look. He is not judging me. He wants to help me.
“Umm,” I begin. “Is there a restroom in here?”
He looks troubled and points. “It’s on the other side of the store. The opposite corner.” Of course it is.
“Thank you,” I say again. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he says gently. “It’s really okay.”
We start to run for it, Henry still holding a fistful of fabric right at the center of his butt. I am the only one pushing. The man straightens from the oozing pile of Coronas and shouts after us. “Happy Mother’s Day!”
Henry makes it. All the way from the other side of the store. He makes it! In the car, Ella asks for the time. “Three eighteen,” I say, “but it’s okay. We’re fine. We’ll be fine.” And then I start to laugh. I can’t stop laughing. The IRS, the scary mammogram, the foaming Corona—it’s all hilarious to me. That sweet, sweet man. Happy Mother’s Day to me. That’s right.
Ella and Henry both look worried, as if they always knew this day would come. Daddy’s out of town and Mom has cracked. “Here’s the thing, kids,” I say, starting the car, pulling myself together, and smiling back at their stunned faces in the rearview mirror. “I could be crying right now. This could be a totally different moment. If that man in the store had been mean to me when we crashed into that beer, or mad, or even just annoyed, that might have been it. I could be crying right now. But that’s not what he did. He helped us, and then he said Happy Mother’s Day. This whole moment could be totally different, but that man was so nice, right? You know what I mean?”
I take a breath. We’re going to a birthday party with our best friends! All the stress has left my body—the kindness, the sprint to the bathroom, the laughing fit. I hear how teachable-moment my mini car lecture sounds, but I don’t care. This is important.
Kindness changes everything. Kindness is a choice.
The next morning is actually Mother’s Day and as a treat to myself, I take to my bed with a cup of coffee and my laptop to write down some notes about kindness. Naturally, both kids are drawn in by the relative quiet. Nature abhors a vacuum. Henry comes armed with a punch balloon and starts thwacking it in the general direction of the sleeping dog. Ella crawls right up beside me to peek at the screen. She kisses my hair and wishes me a happy Mother’s Day. I am writing the scene in Produce and she reminds me about the asparagus.
“Wouldn’t it be funny if you put in there that while you’re writing this your five-year-old is using a punch balloon right by your head and your daughter is reading over your shoulder offering her critique?” I consider taking a moment to explain the term “meta,” but I want to get down the off-list asparagus. I keep typing. Ella’s not done. “Do you want me to type up my notes to include with your story? Wouldn’t that be cool? I could follow you around with a notebook and then you could publish your stories along with my notes!”
I go ahead and explain meta.
Ella presses her cheek against my shoulder and sighs. “I guess you’d better like writing if you’re going to do it for an hour every day.”
“I love it.” Thwack, thwack, thwack. What a good dog.
“Do you love it better when I’m not talking and there’s no punch ball?”
“A little.” We both smile. She gets me.
So were we late to the party? Yup. But not too late, nobody cared. I’d taken extra time to make cool red frosting stitching on the cupcake baseball. And my breast? First, never Google the term “nipple shadow.” It won’t make you feel better. But my breast is fine. The density was nothing to worry about, not even really a density.
The audit? Well. It turns out the government was under the impression they owed me $30,000 because of the large amount of money they believed I’d paid in advance taxes. Alas, I had paid no advance taxes. That must have been a different Jill Christman living a different life in an entirely different financial relationship with the federal government. I thought about all the things we could do with a $30,000 windfall—a trip to Italy, a new patio, a serious cash injection into the kids’ college funds. Then I wrote the IRS a note on their form and told them the truth. I dialed the bolded number and told the live-human-being IRS employee who picked up that line the truth also. I tried to make him see the humor in the situation, maybe make him laugh or smile a smile I couldn’t see, but he seemed not to be in the mood. That was okay. The IRS kept the $30,000 or located the right Jill Christman to whom the money belonged. I’m rooting for the latter.
Then, more than a year later, I was shopping in Marsh—back in Frozen, actually, looking for a vegan pizza for Ella, in no particular hurry—and I saw the man in the red vest, straightening up from a freezer case with his glasses askew, the lenses fogged.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi,” he said back, and then quickly, “can I help you with something?”
“No, I’m fine,” I said. “I just wanted to tell you something.” Ella wasn’t there to record my shopping deficiencies, but this moment was off-list. The barrier I was breaching, so small and necessary, felt off-kilter, out of whack, not a line to cross in the quotidian grocery store equation of human relations. Who brings up old business with strangers? Suddenly, I felt shy and foolish, an overly sentimental character in an essay of my own making, but I’d already stepped over. I pushed on: “You probably don’t remember, but over a year ago, I was in here with my kids—it was Mother’s Day weekend, actually—and we knocked over a stack of beer, some of them broke, it was a huge mess, and you were so nice. You were just really nice. You said Happy Mother’s Day. We still talk about how nice you were and I’ve always wanted to see you and say thank you. So thank you.”
He pushed his glasses up his nose. The lenses were clear now and I could see his eyes. Blue. Clear blue behind his clear lenses. Giving no indication of whether he remembered me or any details of our shared milk-beer-poop debacle, he smiled. “Oh,” he said. “Oh. Yeah. You’re welcome. I like doing nice things for people.”
I don’t know how else to describe his face—so nondescript in resting position, the kid in the corner of Algebra class who wasn’t a jock, but wasn’t a nerd or a burn-out either, the kid everyone found it easy to overlook, but grown up now, late thirties and still skinny—but in this moment, everything about his face was clear, open and shining.
Jill Christman is the author of Darkroom: A Family Exposure (AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction winner), Borrowed Babies: Apprenticing for Motherhood (Shebooks 2014), and essays in magazines and journals such as Brevity, Fourth Genre, Literary Mama, Oprah Magazine, & River Teeth. She teaches creative nonfiction writing in Ashland University’s low-residency MFA program and at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where she lives with her husband, writer Mark Neely.