By Geneviève Goggin
This Story Won Third Prize in Our Contest
“Mom, do you seriously need another chamber pot?”
Mom took her sweet time removing her royal blue apron and said her long goodbyes to the other aproned ladies at the till. That passive-aggressive move was her M.O. ever since Dad left fourteen years ago. She refused to let a man tell her what to do—and I was a man. She grabbed her purse from under the counter, and we left the thrift shop.
“With my discount, it’s a steal.” She stroked the shiny ceramic. “These delicate pink flowers and curlicues on the handle show true craftsmanship.”
I turned on the radio to stop myself from getting into another debate about collecting versus hoarding. Trump’s nasal drawl filled the car—it would have to do. A few days until the cataract surgery, then she’d drive herself to work again.
The next day, I pulled up and, as usual, she wasn’t ready at the door. Why was she even working? If she needed the money, I’d give it to her, now that I had tenure.
When I entered the store, the musty scent of desperation assaulted my nostrils. Mom rolled a rattling cart of games and puzzles toward an overstuffed toy shelf, where a father tried to reason with his kids.
“We’re here for shoes, boys. I can’t afford treats today.”
The preschooler had hope in his eyes as he tapped the Hungry Hungry Hippos box. The toddler ran barefoot, screaming, “I need to poo.” Mom approached the weary man.
“The pink hippo sticks. I’ll take this to the till, and Flo will throw it in with the shoes.”
“What do you say, boys?” But they took off to investigate fish tanks, dart boards, and other remnants of abandoned hobbies. “Raised in a barn. Thank you, ma’am.”
I pointed at the door to give her the hint that I didn’t have all day. She walked over and placed the game on the counter, then slapped a dollar on the box and jutted her chin toward the man in children’s shoes. Flo nodded.
Nice of her to be so patient with that father instead of nagging him, as she had with Dad until he left for good.
Wednesday was golf night with the other profs, so I wanted to get a move on.
“Over in accessories,” Flo said. “She’d stay until closing if you let her.”
I followed an old woman, who pushed her walker well below the speed limit. She stopped and glanced at her husband, probably to check if her bargain-hunting time was up. If Mom got roped into a conversation, I’d miss the tee-off, so I tried to catch her eye as she sifted through a bin of scarves.
She pulled out an olive green scarf and handed it to the lady. “This is the same price as all the others, but it’s a Versace. You’re an autumn, so it’ll look grand on you.”
The bent woman ran the silk through her fingers. “You’re a dear.” She draped her treasure over the three Harlequins in her basket. When her husband gave her the signal to go, she looked satisfied.
One last day of biting my tongue about useless purchases. The other day, she brought home a painting of a ship on a stormy sea, which she bought for the gold frame. No doubt the hideous thing now adorned her dank basement.
I went to women’s wear to hurry things along, but she pretended not to see me. A girl scraped hangers over the metal rod in the size 10 pants section. Mom eyed her sideways from the size 14s and pulled out a pair of high-waisted acid-wash jeans.
“The ‘90s are back in full swing. Try these, honey.” The oily teenager had won the lottery. She wore a two-tone teal and eggplant windbreaker, and a fanny pack hung across her chest—the granny jeans would complete the outfit.
I moved in. “Let’s hit the road. I have a date tonight.”
At the till, she clutched a bag of her latest acquisitions. Working in a thrift shop was like being an alcoholic bartender. There should be a twelve-step program.
She sat in the car and a rolled-up area rug stuck out from between her legs. She had a thing for mats and had them all over her house, mismatched, stained, or scratched by cats she didn’t own.
“You don’t need all this crap.”
“It’s not about need, it’s about want. All my life I was told what I wanted. How I spend my time and money now is my business.”
It was my business too, seeing as I’d be the one clearing her house out when she went, but I zipped it because I didn’t want to show up angry to my date. She pulled out an old Snoopy phone from the bag. It was just like the one Dad smashed against the fireplace years ago because Mom gave away our tuna casserole dinner to the single mother across the street. He had left for a week after that.
As I started the car and backed out of the stall, a vague image of my crying mother sweeping up shattered Precious Moments figurines seeped from my memories. I don’t know what happened that time, but Dad left again. Or maybe she’d told him to leave. Either way, he never came back.
We were silent all the way to the house. I pulled into the driveway and sat there, staring at the front door—the door my father had gone through one last time all those years ago. He left. I picked up the yellowed Snoopy and put the receiver to my ear.
“Hi. I love the phone.” I turned toward her. “Has that Syrian family come in yet for back-to-school supplies? I bet you’ll kit them up better than any Walmart ever could.”