To Be Normal From Now On

The windows at the front of Parker Groceries are plastered with flyers for after-school tutoring, potluck dinners, bible classes and ballet lessons held in the basement of the library, recall notices for a plastic water gun in aisle three, and advertisements for the only funeral director in town. The papers are damp, their edges curling from the humidity. Outside the heat is rising off the metal roofs of cars, melting the parking lot, filling the air with the smell of burnt tar. A doll has been pressed head first into a softened spot of asphalt; it looks like it’s diving into a deep, dark pool.

‘They might throw us in jail.’

Joan rests her chin on the steering wheel. She watches a woman struggle to push her cart with a toddler crying into her chest, little bits of paper falling out of her pocket. At least we don’t have kids, she thinks. She keeps her eyes on the woman, using her purse to wipe crumbs off the baby seat, and imagines a daughter with green eyes and a round face, fighting on a gravel playground to defend her mother’s name. Maybe she isn’t imagining a daughter; maybe she’s remembering herself. She spends a good while fiddling with the windshield wipers so she won’t have to look at Adam, then repeats the only answer she’s been able to give.

‘Not over a few dollars.’

Through Parker Groceries’ doors, they can see the greeter wearing the required blue smock and smile. Behind her, a man walks toward the deli section where the clerk stands with his blue apron and plastic gloves and crisp paper hat, turning the pages of a newspaper. Adam squints as the clerk jabs his finger against the glass counter, right above the pasta salads. Joan clears her throat.

‘Don’t think he was there last night,’ she says.

He leans to the side to get a better look, so close his damp hair brushes against her ear. She wants to study his face: the skin on his lips bitten away and the smear of purple-blue beneath his eyes. She wants to stare at him as if they had never met, the way she stared at him in bed last night when he finally, fitfully, slipped into sleep. Strange, distant, unfamiliar.

‘You don’t think?’

‘He wasn’t there,’ she repeats.

Unconvinced, he makes a humming sound in his throat. When the man turns around, nodding to the clerk and accepting a wax paper packet of meat, Adam sits back and drums the dashboard with his knuckles.

‘I don’t know if we should go back in.’

Joan imagines she’s using a knife to cut herself out of that ‘we’, then presses her hand on top of his to stop the drumming.

‘They don’t know anything. Craig wouldn’t tell them. Anyway, it’s only sixty bucks.’ Her stomachache deepens; she reaches into the back seat for her purse. ‘Let me go in. Let me explain things to Craig.’

When Adam doesn’t move, she lets her purse slide between her legs and presses herself against the door, first looking into every empty car and then at the fabric shop across the way. She used to wander through there when she was a teen, fingering the cottons and cheap fleece, dragging Craig along and tickling his doughy hands with bits of velvet; it used to make him laugh. She turns back to Adam, noticing the thinning hair around his temples, realizing for the first time that they’re both getting old.

‘Or I can come back later.’ She tries again, sitting up and jingling her keys. ‘We can stay another night. Why not? I can get here right before it closes, and sort things out with Craig, and then we drive back home tomorrow.’

He frowns, and sighs, and sucks his lips into his mouth.

‘I can’t think. I can’t think what came over me,’ he says, rubbing his eyes. ‘I get arrested, the school finds out, what then?’

‘So I go in alone.’

He considers this for a moment, then shakes his head. ‘Maybe we could—no. We can’t do that.’

She settles back into her seat, trying to remember how many times she visited her mother in jail. She can see it clearly: her mother sitting cross-legged on a metal bed in a bare room. But she never actually visited the jail. Her mother was never inside for more than a few days, and each time Joan’s grandfather worked hard to distract her, collecting her from school with a box of cheap powdered doughnuts, turning around in his seat to squeeze her knee and say, ‘Won’t we have so much fun?’ But half of Joan was always in the jail, shouting as she stood in her grandfather’s kitchen dipping strips of chicken into buttermilk; throwing bottles of liquor against the cell wall as she carried china plates to his dining room table; cuddling against her mother’s soft stomach as her grandpa played slapjack in front of the TV. Most of the time she was breaking her mother out of jail with nothing more than a paper clip and a spoon. Always, at the end of her make-believe, she would have her mother thank her. Always she would have her mother promise to be normal from now on.

Adam tries to catch her eye, but she keeps her gaze fixed on his jaw. He ground his teeth in his sleep last night, something he hasn’t done since that winter when they were both unemployed. She hadn’t wanted to wake him, couldn’t stand to sit there in the dark as he asked her, repeatedly, ‘What should we do?’ So she had lain awake, listening to the crunching, thinking about a dog Craig had owned that refused to eat anything but turkey neck bones.

She opens her mouth, ready to ask him, Did I ever tell you about Craig’s dog? Did I ever tell you how loud that dog whined every morning when Craig left for school? Then a cart crashes into the curb behind them, and Adam jumps.

‘It’s alright,’ she says, squeezing his knee.

‘I know it is,’ he snaps back, and she draws away to open up her door.

Inside it’s cool and slightly clammy. A fan stands beside the entrance, little strips of dirty ribbon tied to the grille. The greeter glances up from her magazine. She’s elderly and has a balding spot on the side of her head, which she’s tried to cover up with a flower clip. Joan doesn’t recognize her, but that doesn’t mean a thing; people age, and change, and look so different after twelve years away. The woman holds out a basket and Adam jumps back as if he’s being accused. Joan takes the basket, and the greeter leans toward the fan until the ribbons are stroking her face.

‘I can do it now,’ Joan whispers.

Adam looks over at the registers. Craig is the only one working in the front; he’s restocking plastic bags, squinting with focus as he slides them onto metal hooks.

‘We can’t just walk up there without anything to buy. We’ll look suspicious.’

‘I don’t need an excuse to talk to Craig,’ she tries to say, but he steers her toward the cereal. He picks up a box and puts on his glasses and lowers his head as if he’s reading the ingredients, and she thinks about how casually, how easily, he had stolen money.

It was near to closing time. Joan had turned off the highway on what appeared to be a whim, telling Adam she felt pulled back to her hometown by the lights blinking in the distance and the smell of Douglas firs and the chance to show him, after all these years, where she had grown up. She did not mention the possibility of seeing Craig; she did not mention that she had been thinking of this place, thinking of Craig, for the past few weeks, ever since they went to the doctor. Adam had nodded, eager to agree to anything she wanted, despite the early class he had to teach the next morning. She pointed out landmarks as she drove: there had lived little Jenny, who was grown up now and living on the coast. There had lived the Martins with their funny yard decorations, and Mrs. Sanchez who’d taught her clarinet. And there was the house where Joan had lived, with its patchy yard and tacky shutters. Then she’d pulled into Parker’s. The florescent lights were blazing through the windows, and she could see Craig staring out the front with his wrinkled shirt and blank expression, and in that moment she’d felt like she was entering a safe, still harbor. There was no one in the store; she’d waved to him, then hesitated, aware of how little she’d done to keep in touch. But his round eyes had brightened when he saw her, and he’d raised his hand to wave back, smacking the register in his excitement and flinging coins across the floor. He’d bit his hand, and Joan had shaken her head to try to reassure, and Adam hadn’t seemed to notice anything; he was at another register, gazing at a charity jar, running his fingers along the lines of print and mouthing the words as he read. Joan had crouched down to catch a quarter rolling beneath the candy stands, trying to decide how to explain her years away to Craig, trying to figure out how to explain Craig to Adam. Then she’d straightened up just as Adam was drawing a wad of cash from the jar. Craig was watching him, a nickel pinched between his fingers, trying hard to understand. But he’d looked at Joan and said nothing, and Joan—retreating to that passive, powerless time in her life she’d tried hard to forget—had done nothing, so he’d tucked the bills into his pocket and run out of the store.

‘It said the money was for the hospital. It said it goes to the community. Weren’t you a part of this community? Don’t you have the right?’ he’d said when they got into the car, throwing the money on the dashboard with shaking hands, and Joan had suddenly remembered her mother’s perfume, a musty scent that used to make her sneeze.

She’d wanted to say they didn’t know anything for certain; she’d wanted to say these next tests might show she only has a gallstone, or diverticulitis, or maybe, if she’s lucky, a simple little ulcer. But he’d slumped down into his seat and put his head into his hands and asked, his voice cracking,

‘What else can I do for you?’

She’d leaned over, meaning to comfort him, knowing she should want to put her arms around his shoulders. Instead she’d stared into the store where Craig was slowly counting change, wondering if it was something she had done to make her mother drink. She decided there was nothing she could say except,

‘We’ll be okay.’

But she’d stumbled over the words, and he had shrugged her off, and Joan had spent the drive to the motel asking herself if she could ever be so loyal to Adam, so unconditionally devoted, as Craig had always been to her.

‘Let’s just leave it here.’

Adam taps the metal shelf beside them and reaches for Joan’s purse. She leans around the corner of the aisle to look at Craig.

‘I didn’t even get to say hello.’

‘Does that matter?’ His voice is getting higher, the way it does when he’s close to an anxiety attack. Joan raises her hand and instructs herself to touch his cheek or smooth down his hair, but instead he grabs her hands and holds them tight and dips down so he can look her in the eye. ‘How do you know he won’t call the police? You haven’t talked to him in years.’

She stares at a small scar above her wrist, not wanting to admit he might be right, then she feels herself shrinking, hears herself screaming at the other kids who call her mother names. Craig is watching from behind a chain link fence, tall and stocky and sitting by himself, safe from taunting by the children who are younger and faster than him. Then a rock hits John Baker in the head. The boy cries out and presses both hands against the blood, and another rock is flung over the fence, hitting Leslie Denton in the neck. The kids fan out, weeping, calling for their parents, but Craig keeps throwing rocks, his face strained with concentration. He only stops when Joan flinches at a deep scratch on her wrist. He bites his hand, sways back and forth from one foot to the other, then comes around the fence. They run five blocks, their coats blowing back behind them, until they’re standing in his yard. It’s early spring, late morning, and the sunshine is still a winter shade of blue, the sheltered side of houses still blanketed in frost. He crouches in the grass to turn on the hose and pulls her down beside him, holding her wrist beneath the water until she can’t feel a thing.

‘Let’s get out of here.’

Adam holds the strap of her purse and tries to open up the clasp. She points to her wrist.

‘Do you see this?’ she asks.

He’s digging through the pockets, so she shakes his arm, wanting to show him, wanting him to understand. He finally looks at her, taking short, shallow breaths, the cash rolled up in his hand.

‘I can’t be here, Joan. I have to go.’ He looks down at his watch and back at her. ‘I’m supposed to teach a class in forty minutes.’

She thinks of the way Adam describes his childhood: ‘normal’, ‘nice’, and ‘boring’; she thinks of the way that Craig walked to school, an hour earlier than needed, so he wouldn’t have to ride the bus; she thinks of the way he stayed with her out in the park on summer nights. She opens and shuts her mouth, takes a step away from Adam, realizing some things can be ruined by repeating. He stares at her, same as the kids who used to gape at her and Craig, and an old feeling—feverish, humiliated—sweeps over Joan.

‘Get out if you want. Go to your class. Leave me here.’

She takes the money, spins around, and runs, her face flushed and lowered the way it used to always be, remembering the carpet, the painted dresser drawers, the smell of lemon soap in her grandfather’s house. Craig is watching a man outside pressure wash the concrete, flinching every time the water sprays his way. When he sees Joan running toward him, he grips the counter. She can’t read his vacant face, so she reaches out with the money in her hand, moving toward the jar, trying to show him she can make it right. But he lunges toward the jar and picks it up and hugs it to his chest. She stops, scared that after all these years, there isn’t any ‘we’.

‘I got a bonus this week,’ he tells her, his voice deeper than before, but still soft and trusting. ‘So I made a donation. I made a donation last night.’

He puts the jar back on the counter so she can see the twenties and the tens. Adam is watching from the entrance of the store, but he seems far away, dreamlike, a trick of the light. Craig shifts his weight from one foot to the other, and she’s flung back to playgrounds and paper sacks and mosquito bites; to long weekends with her grandpa and sharp smells escaping from her mother’s room; to sweet and painful days she can’t explain. She draws a quarter from her pocket and drops it in the jar as a group of children run past Parker’s window, shouting at the pavement for burning their bare feet.  

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