Faced with the situation at hand, I react the best way I know how: I punch the accelerator. Mom Mau grabs the oh shit handle.
“We can make it!” I shriek, panicking, foot-to-floor.
The driver of the oncoming truck hits his brakes, causing his passenger to lurch forward. Sweat trickles down my temple, and I imagine what’s going through their minds. Surely this kid’s just a bit confused. He’ll realize his mistake.
But I’ve set the station wagon’s course, and we’re not going back. We race forward. Emphatic obscenities sync out of the driver’s O-shaped mouth and, feet from his truck’s grill, I jerk the wheel sharply to the left, toward the parking lot.
The Sable hits the angled curb, and we catch air. Mom Mau screams.
We hit the parking lot nose first.
The hatchback slams down.
And we skid sideways, across two spaces, just missing the mailbox before we stop.
I stare hard at the embossed horn emblem until I can focus. A Catholic medal swings back and forth from the rearview mirror, its glass beads judgmentally tinking tsck tsck tsck. Words slowly bubble to my lips.
“Now, Mom-Mau, there’s no real reason to tell Mom and Dad about this, right?”
Mom-Mau bends forward, her belt still on, and scoops her purse contents from the floor board.
After a few minutes, I feel their eyes. I glance to the restaurant’s glass façade. It’s noon: a full house. People sit mid-bite, mouths agape, staring. I try to fuzz them out.
Embarrassment aside, we’re hungry. We walk in and I order, all the while waiting for an anxiety-fueled fart to emanate from a far corner of the quieted room.
Months later, Mom-Mau’s craving chicken fingers and asks me to take her to the same restaurant. Maybe she’s forgotten about the whole thing. Success! I love old people. She disappears for a minute to grab her purse. I feel like I have a clean slate–unsullied by my vehicular faux pas. Mom Mau shuffles back to the kitchen.
“Oh, and Matt?”
“This time, let’s stay on the right side of the road.”
Two years after Mom-Mau died, I mention the story to Dad, assured that she’d told him. But as he gasps for breath between laughs, I realize she hadn’t said a thing, just like I’d asked.
“She took that one to the grave, bless her soul.”
And my atheistic self can only respond, lump in throat, with a decided “Yup.”
Rarely do I blame Mom-Mau for anything, especially after everything I put her through. But my slight obsession with dollar store merchandise is high among the few. After Pop-Pop died, Mom-Mau came to live with us in Alabama. And while the first few years were punctuated with health problems and depression from losing her lifelong counterpart, Mom-Mau and I maintained a very simple routine.
Most high-schoolers didn’t typically spend their Saturdays hanging with grandma. But Mom-Mau was different. She might’ve been sixty years my senior, but her eyes sparkled with mischief and spontaneity.
Then again, maybe “spontaneous” isn’t the best descriptor for routine dollar store runs. But every visit would seem like a new adventure. Maybe I took too much enjoyment out of seeing our cart fill with the same standbys: Kleenex, paper towels, Palmolive, softener sheets. But I think I just liked her company.
What I enjoyed most, though, was that we’d end each trip at the candy aisle–disproportionately larger than more critical foodstuffs, exactly as it should be.
“Go ahead and pick out a few bags for yourself,” Mom-Mau would say, shuffling over to examine the York peppermint patties and Reese’s, jabbing them with an arthritic finger like they were alive.
I’d inevitably grab a bag of Riesen’s and orange slices, both of which I’d become accustomed to snacking on during junk food binges with Mom-Mau. Although I never really understood the appeal of Werther’s Originals like she did, we both agreed wholeheartedly that marshmallow circus peanuts were never to be trusted nor, for that matter, consumed.
We’d unload our spoils at home and settle in for The Price is Right–me on Mom-Mau’s bed with bags of candy spread across the faded floral comforter, and Mom-Mau sitting in her pillow-cushioned rocker, three feet from the TV.
“You want some orange slices?”
I’d know full well she’d refuse the first time.
“Nah, not right now. Thanks, though.”
She’d keep her eyes on the spinning wheel, rise slightly in her chair, and groan as the participant barely missed the dollar slot.
A few minutes would pass before the rustling of my hands in the candy bags would get to be too much. With her eyes still firmly affixed to the TV, she’d cave.
“Well, yeah, I’ll have a few.”
I’d get up, walk the bag over to where she gently rocked, and wait until she peeled her eyes off the TV long enough to take out a few handfuls. And then we’d be set.
It’d been the same way with Pop-Pop in the Poconos. He’d be stretched across the threadbare, squeaky living room sofa, drifting in and out of sleep as Laura and I sat rapt in The Young and the Restless or a Lifetime movie. But the minute Mom-Mau would make us something and bring it over from the kitchen–setting it down without much to-do or expecting any thanks–and we’d begin munching, Pop-Pop’s head would pop up.
“Hey, whadda ya got there?” he’d ask, his hair askew, glasses crooked, and stomach poking slightly out from under his stretched-out V-neck tee.
“Carrots with Ranch.”
“Oh, okay,” he’d respond, lowering his head. But never more than three minutes later, he’d call, “Mary, how ’bout some of that carrots and Ranch?”
Before he’d finish asking, Mom-Mau would hand him his own plate.
As I got older, Mom-Mau’s and my shared love of food translated into ad hoc cooking lessons over bubbling pasta fagioli, stuffed cabbage, Italian salad, spaghetti and meatballs; the baked goods: chocolate-chip pecan pie, nut-rolls, Michigan rocks, fudge, butter cookies. Our culinary memories were forged through homemade dough and high fructose corn syrup–no waffling, no snobbery; we’d liked both worlds. But as delicious as those creations were, we’d always bond over our dollar store excursions.
Despite their usually absurd, crappy contents, I fervently defend dollar stores from friends who think they’re vile. Which is probably why I make most dollar store runs alone. But I actually prefer it that way.
For me, each one is a memory center of sorts. Crossing the threshold, I feel like a younger version of myself, always looking around for that stooped elderly woman puttering around, poking candy bags.
On a recent trip, I pick up a role of aluminum foil– “aluminium foil,” as Mom-Mau would say–toss a kitchen spoon into the basket, and proceed to the checkout counter. But as the cashier rings me up, I hesitate. Maybe it’s because dollar store cashiers have repeatedly mistaken me for Josh Groban and have asked for autographs.
But this time, that’s not it.
“I forgot something. I’ll be right back.”
Returning a minute later, I toss it onto the counter.
“Is that it?”
She totals the order, then slides the Riesen’s into my bag.