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Fourth of July 2016 by Kristine Brown

Celebrate USA. Free gallon of tea with every family meal. Every marquee in front of each local restaurant peddled the same deal.

It was Sunday, not Monday. Shopping on the Sabbath isn’t quite proper, but I’ve never claimed to be pious. Regardless of my off-and-on religiosity, browsing through Psalms not feeling moved, most days I was resolved enough to tell a man to “fuck off” when he asked if I’d throw a rosary in the trash. Why not? He’d raise his eyebrows, thick lips upturned like an airy croissant. My lips pursed as I pulled at paper bead bracelets. Some questions are too dumb to answer.

I bought myself a basket. Red wires, black spokes, rubber lining the handle like damp dishrags on steering wheels. A thudding box on concrete, it pointed out my weaknesses whenever I took the stairs. And I always took the stairs, though this was apt to change given that I moved into my first real apartment, packaged with an elevator and a door code to give as the pizza deliveryman arrived with my dinner.

You’re not in my way. A man wearing a yellow vest firmly held a rake, cold sweat dripping from the towel around his neck that late, clear-skied morning. I stopped as I entered his immediate periphery, looked to the left and right as I lost track of where I was supposed to go, and the errands I needed to complete.

The city worker shaved the blondish brown thickets of brush that lined the shopping center. Before I left, back at the apartment, I snapped the cart flat, biting my tongue as thin rows of metal banged against my shins. Need help? Daily, everyone asked me this question, my weakness betrayed by arms thin as a palm frond. My cart was empty, touristy backpack slung over my shoulders that vaguely ached. I needed to fill the cart with food. Rice, honey, and fish for myself, and cans of turkey giblets, for I loved my new cats. I loved them too much, the first pair of creatures I called my own since the summer of 2002.

Just moving in, I found comfort in an airbed, bought for thirteen dollars at the same convenience store that sold my red shopping cart. Since their arrival, the cats claimed the bed their rectangular province, in spite of its being deflated by their midday frolicking. Their stares often commanded me to sleep on the couch. I feared one day, my roommates would evict me.

That Sunday, it occurred to me that at the grocery store, I would never have to go through carts upon carts as they rolled to resemble dominoes at war. But maneuvering my shopping cart wouldn’t be easy. On one of my first dates, nearly a decade back, the boyfriend waved a coupon, reminding me which way was left. My God, this isn’t Nascar. I rolled my eyes as he continued to wave that lame parody of a flag. Thank God. We would have died. He often said this each time I succeeded in using my brakes before the red light’s glow. There’s a reason I don’t drive today. Because I can’t. And those who can’t drive can certainly kill, no matter the presence or arguable absence of malice, intoxication, or directional dullness.

That Sunday, I reminded myself that buses will do, Uber fares shall inevitably rise, and my little red cart would thicken my thighs in wholesome ways as I pushed my groceries uphill. Better than a Jillian Michaels video, though I enjoyed her workouts with kettle bells.

I didn’t make a list, but I finished my trip quickly. Soup, rice, seaweed, fish. A random platter of hard cheeses I grabbed after scanning strawberries for mold. Twenty-five minutes of dodging loud children, and I waited in a line of three, myself included.

Before me were two men, likely fathers with five to eight years of upward experience. Both sported haircuts close to the scalp, while one wore his stubble like my cats boasted their new, neon collars, bells and silk flowers included. They talked about a barbecue and what their in-laws liked. I assumed they referred to their in-laws, one man lamenting on a Martha and how she detested relish and mayonnaise on a good, grilled hotdog.

I made eye contact with the men after glancing at the rows of celebrity magazines. Most of the headlines focused on the manufacturing of Ivanka Trump, and how her father readily consented to her going under the knife as a preteen to facilitate her path towards modeling. Cursed with Daddy’s face. The world, containing smaller worlds that I’d never call my own, was cruel. I imagined young Ivanka sitting several feet away from women chattering at New York socials. I envisioned her staring at her buckled feet as those who married well whispered that her chin implant and nose job were indeed remarkably well-done.

I’m sorry to intrude, but may I see what your cart’s all aboot? I steadied my gaze at the man with the stubble. He stuttered mildly, pointing at the bags of brown rice settled next to my purse. Why, you eat just like me, eh? Rice, fish, cheese. Oh my God, is that tuna? He looked like my small-town high school English teacher, the attractive one with a scar on his neck that beckoned rumors like Ivanka’s new face. But unlike Mr. Deckler, he didn’t seem stoked about free gallons of tea packaged with fast food barbecue, and his speech suggested that he celebrated places other than the USA, and he would be on a flight home, soon. Or perhaps he would drive his car, undistracted by loud children and a wife annoyed by a weekend with Martha. He would drive with attention to traffic signs, yield to oncoming cars, and smile upon receiving the stark middle finger. Things I could never accomplish while I pushed my little shopping cart.

You can fit all that in ya, eh? He muttered to his friend about tomorrow’s picnic, and how he was supposed to bring a cooler of popsicles for his fretting wife’s nieces and nephews.

“I kind of eat a lot, yes.” Mimicking the city worker, my mouth became a croissant, smeared with the palest jam.

Wow. Incredible. But don’t get fat, okay? We should meet up sometime. I wanted to remind him of the woman he mentioned, the one with the nieces and nephews. I assumed she was his wife. Martha’s easily ruffled daughter. I also wanted to remind him of his trip home, a thousand or so miles up north where the temperatures I knew would mean nothing because I floundered at basic math and declined requests to convert sunshine and snow into Celsius.

In twenty-five years, I’ve been asked some dumb questions. Sometimes, I’ve said some pretty dumb things, mostly attempting to be witty.

“I can face Donald Trump alone, thank you.”

You think so? The man with the stubble grinned while his clean-shaven friend gave the cashier a one hundred-dollar bill.

“I’m sure of it.” I looked up at the ceiling, waiting to pay for what filled my cart, wondering how many gallons of tea one hundred dollars could buy if we weren’t celebrating Independence Day, albeit apathetically.

Kristine Brown is a freelance writer who otherwise busies herself making coasters and mixed media art. In early 2017, her first collection of poems and short stories, Scraped Knees, was released by Ugly Sapling. Her work appears in numerous publications, including Burningword Literary Journal, Forage Poetry, In-Flight Literary Magazine, among others. She loves wandering through historic neighborhoods and blogs at https://crumpledpapercranes.com.

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