Behind a folding table stacked with overpriced Cub Scout fundraiser popcorn, Sara tells her friend Jaqueline about the call she got late last night from a stranger who introduced himself as her brother Malcolm’s lawyer. Apparently, Malcolm pointed a gun at another driver for cutting him off in traffic. Sara’s asshole brother believes the universe owes him his due of various goods and services—a sizeable house with an affordable mortgage, green lights, a dollop of adoration. That’s why he pointed a gun at that driver. The gun’s message wasn’t so much for the individual driver but for the universe at large: stop dicking me around and give me what’s mine. What Malcolm got was jail and a three-thousand-dollar bail that his lawyer called on Sara to provide.
Three thousand isn’t exactly easy for Sara spare. There’ve been hefty bills as of late—car maintenance, summer camp, a new washing machine.
Also, with Malcolm, there’s no guarantee that such a loan will be recovered. No way does he have it outright, so that leaves relying on him to make every court appearance so that she gets reimbursed by the court, and the odds of that are about as good as her odds of cooking anything with more than a dozen ingredients and not forgetting to add one of them.
“Leave him in there,” Jaqueline says as they watch their sons hustle to attract buyers.
Sara’s son waves a sign in front of the sliding doors of the Walmart. He shouts, “Popcorn! Get your popcorn! Best popcorn you’ll ever taste! Guaranteed!” He winks and tilts his head seductively at the store customers as they exit the sliding glass doors pushing carts piled with bloated, white plastic bags. At home, he entertains her during teeth-brushing with calendar-girl poses and “Ooh-la-la!” He tells her she looks sexy in her enormous pink Race-for-the-Cure T-shirt.
Jaqueline’s son wears an upside-down bucket on his head and jumps around like a tap dancer. Every once in a while he crashes due to the low visibility of the bucket’s thick purple plastic.
“I haven’t gotten to the part where my mother called about half an hour after the lawyer,” Sara says, studying her weakened fingernails, which peel at the tips, cleaving like mica, which she remembers from eight-grade geology. Even kept so short that they’re flush with the tips of her fingers, her nails manage to incur new defects that cause them to snag on her clothes and her skin. Weak nails is the price she pays for distance running. The running leaches her nails of important minerals is her theory.
Sara’s mother lives on some island in the Caribbean, or at least that’s where Sara thinks her mother is—it’s hard to keep up. She left Sara a voicemail saying she’d mail a check to reimburse Sara for the three thousand. A second voicemail said that for gas money (Malcolm lives over two-hundred miles away), she’d throw in an extra three hundred. A third voicemail said that “for your trouble,” she’d throw in an additional four hundred.
Sara’s mother is the opposite of Malcolm. If something she wants eludes her, she believes she has simply not channeled her energy enough, or alternatively, hasn’t thrown enough money at it. If life is the arcade carnival game Down-the-Clown, Malcolm is the type of person who pays for a couple of rounds, misses all but a clown or two on the bottom row, then curses about his rotten luck and kicks a garbage can on his way out, whereas Sara’s mother is the type who throws balls at clowns until her arm is sore and her wallet empty, then hits up the ATM and returns to try again.
Sara is skeptical that she can manifest anything she desires, but, like her mother, she does believe every gain requires sacrifice—typically time, money, or pain.
When she says this aloud, Jaqueline says, “That’s not true. Not every gain entails costs.”
“Name one that doesn’t,” Sara says.
“Winning the lottery,” Jaqueline says.
This is a joke. Jaqueline knows all about Sara’s mother winning the lottery, how she gave Malcolm tens of thousands of dollars—Sara suspects far more than that—and how after he spent it all, he wanted more. Always Malcolm wants more, and always Sara’s mother gives him more. When they were kids, he’d beg for a second cookie and then a third and Sara’s mother would smile as she snuck them to him while Sara’s father wasn’t looking. Then Malcolm would announce smugly to their father that he’d had three cookies or four or whatever the count happened to be. Then Sara’s father would yell. Then their parents would argue. Then Malcolm would sneak more cookies while they were distracted.
“You can’t name one,” Sara says.
“What about growing? You know, children growing into adolescents?” Jaqueline says. She eyes their two boys in their goofy navy and gold scout uniforms.
“Growing costs food,” Sara says.
Jaqueline concedes. “I vote you deposit your mother’s money in your checking account, and you leave your douchebag brother in jail.”
“That would cost me the most,” Sara says. “I’d be no better than either of them.”
Sara and Jaqueline have been sitting in front of the Walmart for nearly an hour now and all they have to show for it is one twenty-dollar popcorn purchase and seven dollars in donations. Sara calculates that at this rate, raising the required $300 minimum in sales required of every scout will cost 20+ hours of her time. Alternatively, she could use her mother’s “for your trouble” money to buy her way out of spending more mornings hawking popcorn in front of Walmart. The tradeoff: approximately eight hours driving to El Paso and back to bail out her brother. And pain, of course. But pain is a sunk cost, a sum she’s already paid and that there’s no recovering no matter what she decides to do.
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