I place the 14th item on the express checkstand conveyor and wait for the queue to move before pushing my cart any farther. My iPhone chirps, making me flinch and my skin go cold, but it’s just Stacie with a new time for yoga tomorrow, so I text back “7:30, see you then.” The tiny Asian woman ahead of me stands next to some bagged apples and a green cabbage book-ended by batons that form a trapezoid on the belt. The guy ahead of her decides to sign up for a coupon game promotion, so we shift our weight to a back foot and lower our chins. Two, four, six … I count my items again. Not over the limit. A young mother wheels in behind me with an infant in a baby bucket up by the cart handle and a small, curly-haired boy hanging off the side of the basket, swinging a leg. The Express lane is at a quiet, slightly tense, ebb.
My brother, Craig, is very sick now. He will die quite soon, though it’s easier to see that when you’re not trying to find platinum among the spare change. I understand – now, only these last couple weeks – that he tells me and Amy truths that are close to the bone and Swiss-cheese versions to almost everyone else. We are the flinty, hardass women. For all our drama and tears, these eyes will slice your lie right open, see through your puff. He knows I promised him even more exquisite pain is coming because I love him, because knowing will make it easier, because sugar-coating the bad news is not what we have ever done.
::thud:: The boy’s heel whacks my shin, and I say “Ow-w” without thinking, raise my starfish hand like a crosswalk cop. His mother hauls him off the cart: “I’m so sorry. Luke, say you’re sorry to the lady,” and he mumbles “Sorry” as he frowns his eyebrows against her thigh and curls his shoulders around his vulnerable heart. “It’s okay,” I say as I shuffle off the ache, “Don’t worry, it’s okay.”
This seems to have unlocked the line: the coupon card is bestowed and the man heads off, the belt moves, the Woman of Few Items hands over a bill and scoops change from the germy coin dispenser, and I offer three reusable bags – black with red Japanese characters – and my Albertson’s Preferred Membership Discount Card to the dark-haired clerk with the sweet smile and the elaborately decorated acrylic fingernails. The mother hangs back, letting me know her boy isn’t within striking distance. “How are you?” asks the checker, “Did you find everything?” “Good, yes, I did, thanks,” and I smile and slide my MasterCard, touch Credit on the screen and scrawl C-something without looking up for more than a nanosecond, my shin stinging.
When Craig was four, about the age of my grocery-store assailant, and I was seven, we started making forts in the dining room of our little tract house. A worn chenille bedspread the same color as Yogi Bear covered the table, and we’d pull the chairs back up against the vertical blanket walls to serve as towers. From inside the brown cave, the one who was on lookout duty would slip under the spread and up into a chair, peer from under an L-shaped hand to see if there were bad guys out there, then slither back. We always meant to stay a long time but got hungry. There was peanut butter on toast, careful not to drop it goo-side-down; there were Twinkies. I hadn’t started baking yet. We drank milk from the carton with the fridge door open, never brought glasses in there, though Craig ate cereal – Kix or Rice Krispies or Kellogg’s Corn Flakes – and milk from a turquoise bowl sometimes, slurping. It got hot in there pretty fast, so we’d yank the blanket off and chase each other around the house, the one who was It trying to throw the spread like a capture net over the escapee. He was a strong, fast little kid, didn’t whine or cry. I was a ferocious tickler and had schooled him; we rolled and wrestled, grabbing at those best spots – knees and armpits – until, breathless and sweaty, we’d lie on the floor, hooting like owls.
“You saved three dollars and twenty-nine cents.” I take the receipt she hands me and say thank you, turn my grey head and smile at the mom and boy and winding-up-to-cry baby behind me. I wonder if it’s a girl, if the boy will have a sister. Sunglasses go on. Two hands on the cart, and it’s four steps to the door that whooshes the wall open between the chilly, bustling market and the late-afternoon blinding sun, the slanting tree shadows of this day that’s May-almost-June in this year a half-century later. That’s a lot of years, fifty years and more, but it isn’t enough.
Photograph of Twinkies from Hostess Cakes by Larry D. Moore  thru Wikimedia Commons: Larry D. Moore [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
Posted in: human beans, la-la-la-love, letters to craig, my baby brother, when we were young
Tags: albertson's, blanket forts, cancer, candace mann, cereal in a bowl, chenille bedspread, craig, craig mann, curly-haired boy, dying, express checkout, families, grocery store, kellogg's corn flakes, kix, no better brother, queueing up, rice krispies, sister, snap crackle and pop, the best guy, twinkies
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