Posted on April 11th, 2012 No comments
Pulling into the gas station, Willow despaired. The huge lit red numbers of the Arco gas station read $5.24, almost thirty-five cents higher than the last time she had come to put gas in the Bronco. She pulled up to the pump, turned off the car, and then proceeded to count the cash she had left in her wallet.
“It’s ten dollars, Mommy, remember?” Jay mentioned helpfully from the back seat. She had let him count the one-dollar bills before they left the house. She smiled at him, nodding, and got out of the car. She walked around to his door, unstrapped him from the booster seat, and then locked the door behind them.
She worked out numbers in her head. She had counted on getting two gallons of gas, enough to make it to the county library and back. Jay enjoyed their trips to the library—she would work on one of the computer terminals there, researching jobs and sending out her resume, sparse as it may be, and Jay would be free to roam the library, grabbing any books that interested him. He’d often find one, and sit right on the floor next to the shelf he found it on, and read it through. Then he’d reshelve it, get up, and go find another one. Twice she had found him outside the children’s area: once reading a book about using worms to create a compost heap, and once again reading a history book on chess. He said he saw the game on TV once, and wanted to know how it was played.
But with the price over five dollars, and the Bronco already dangerously near empty, there was a chance it would not be enough. She had ran out of gas once before, but the fee her insurance company charged her for running gas out to her was far more than she was willing to risk. The library would have to wait.
Willow continued walking up to the Arco convenience store, however, because she did not want to waste the gas coming to the station in the first place. She did have ten dollars, after all. Most food items were less expensive at the WinCo, but they were not so much less expensive than the Arco that it warranted the drive out there—not to mention the gas needed. So, Willow decided she would spend some of her money on food for herself and Jay, put a couple dollars in the tank to get them back home, and try again next week.
She knew only to get a few basics—this month had three paycheck Fridays in it, so that amounted to an extra paycheck that, after catching up with some of the overdue bills, usually left her with a little extra money. Next Friday, she’d be able to do a full grocery shop down at the WinCo. For now, she picked up three bags of frozen mixed vegetables (despite Jay’s protests of lima beans), a half-gallon of milk, and a box of Cheerios. Jay marched alongside her, dutifully punching numbers into his trusty Casio.
She looked back at her son. “So, where are we at?”
“Well, the veggies were a dollar and twenty-nine cents each,” he said, pointing at the objects in the basket she carried. “The milk was two dollars and twenty-nine cents, and the Cheerios are two dollars and forty-nine cents.” He nodded to himself. “That is eight dollars and sixty-five cents.”
Willow patted his head and began to praise him—and then she bumped into something, toppled over and landed square on her bottom. The basket landed with a clatter, and one of the bags of frozen vegetables tore open onto the floor. Jay was at her shoulder in an instant, stroking her shoulder like she did for him when he was hurt. “Are you okay, Mommy?”
Willow glanced around herself, disoriented by the fall, and then looked up at what had knocked her over. An older man, tall with greying hair, looked at her from behind thick bifocals, a rough hand offered to her. She took it, and was helped to her feet. “I am so sorry, young miss. I came around that corner, and boom!—” he clapped his hands for effect, “—I ran right into you!”
“You should look where you’re going, Mister,” Jay admonished, his hands on his hips and bent so that his little face pushed up as high as he could go.
Willow started to shush him, but the old man laughed. “Yes, yes, I suppose so. Here, let me help you.” He waved over the cashier and had her go and retrieve a new bag of vegetables out of the freezer. When it was delivered, he apologized again. “Glad to see you’re okay, young lady. I suppose it’s time I had these old Coke bottles checked out!” He tapped on his glasses, and Jay chortled with delight. The old man smiled, and then turned to get back in line.
“So, where were we?” Willow said to Jay.
Jay, who had gotten distracted by his mother’s fall, jumped when he realized his Casio had automatically turned off. He quickly typed in the numbers again to get the total, and told her. Then, he looked thoughtful, punched a few more keys, and said, “That leaves only one dollar and thirty-five cents.”
Willow pursed her lips and said nothing. She let him work it out.
“We can’t buy two gallons of gas with one dollar and thirty-five cents.” A single tear came from his eye. “I guess that means we won’t go to the library again this weekend.”
His tear nearly brought one from Willow’s eyes. She patted him on the head. “I’m sorry sweetie, but the gas prices are just too high. I was looking forward to going too, you know.”
As the first tear dangled from his chin, a second one started to glide from his other eye. “It’s okay, Mommy,” he said, his voice breaking. “I won’t be sad.”
Willow had to clear her eyes. She pulled Jay towards her leg, and he wiped his tears on her jeans. She again wished that these things would stop happening, that her son did not have to be constantly punished for something as simple as the current price per gallon of gas. She remained there just letting Jay pretend to not cry into her thigh.
“Ma’am?” a young voice said behind her. Willow turned and realized that the rest of the line had already paid and left; she was holding up the rest of the line. Embarrassed, she shuffled over, Jay still attached to her leg, and put her basket up on the counter. The cashier gave Jay a sympathetic look, and while Willow smiled thankfully, she could not quell a flash of irritation—the girl was hardly old enough to have children.
You were fifteen, a voice said to her. Willow thoroughly quashed it out of her mind. She handed the dollar bills to the cashier, received the change, and with Jay’s hand in one hand and the bag of food in the other, thanked her and left.
Willow strapped Jay in—or rather, Jay did it, and Willow checked to make sure it was done properly—and then tossed the bag into the passenger seat. She got into the car herself, put her seat belt on, turned the ignition, and as the car sputtered to life, she recalled the change in her hand—she had forgotten to have the cashier apply it to the gas pump. Sighing in frustration, Willow unbuckled and went to turn the car back off again—and froze.
The gas needle was on F.
She blinked. She looked back at Jay, who was still rubbing tears from his eyes. She looked back at the change in her hand and wondered if the cashier made a mistake. Of course not, she thought, that wouldn’t have put the gas into the car! She looked around the parking lot, and saw parked at the pump in front of her a silver Mustang. It was facing towards her, and she could clearly see the old man from earlier in the driver’s seat. He waved at her, smiled with a thumbs-up sign, and then pulled away.
Willow put her head on the steering wheel and cried. It was a few minutes before she could see clearly enough to drive home.
Posted on April 9th, 2012 No comments
When the weather was nice, Fridays were always the busiest at the elementary school. Unlike the rest of the week where the children stood in a line outside the front entrance not-so-patiently waiting for parents to come and claim them, on Fridays the first graders finished out their day out on the grassy playground next to the soccer field. Willow always enjoyed finding her son engrossed in some game with his friends, darting across the playground. It was also the only time she got to talk to the other mothers and fathers; they congregated at the picnic benches while their children enjoyed the sunlight.
Talk probably was not the right word. More often than not, Willow would stand at the gate watching the children while she overheard the conversation taking place between the adults behind her. Her Jay was incredibly smart, a genius, and she took pleasure in listening to the other parents touting their children’s accomplishments, accomplishments that Jay had already surpassed a year or more prior. Willow would nod in agreement when everyone else did, offer a supportive comment now and again, enough to not seem aloof, but she rarely spoke of herself and Jay.
Today the conversation was leaning towards the planning of some kind of extracurricular get-together for the children over the weekend. The mom suggesting it opened her hands wide to include everyone at the table in the invitation; she even made a couple warm nods towards the other parents standing nearby, Willow included. “They have this amazing system of slides and tunnels and ball pits,” the mom was saying. “It is all supervised by trained staff, so we can sit at the coffee shop inside and get to know one another better.” Many of the adults nodded assent.
Willow liked the idea, but she had not heard of this commercial play place before now, and that meant it probably was not nearby; she said as much.
“Oh, it’s quite close,” the mom replied. “It’s right in Folsom, just about a half hour ride off the El Dorado Freeway.”
Willow felt disappointed inside, but did not let it show. “Well, in that case, I’ll see about making my way up there.” The mom took that for an affirmative and started selling the merits of the plan to another pair of mommies and daddies who seemed apprehensive of joining.
The teacher, Mrs. Canucci, blew the whistle, summoning the children into a queue on the side of the gate opposite Willow. Willow was surrounded by a much less orderly clustering of parents. Mrs. Canucci opened the gate and called each child’s name as each parent stepped forward. Willow observed as the ceremonial distribution of the students dissolved any social contact between the adults, each group of child and parent swiftly walking towards the parking lot. She chuckled at the thought of a soup kitchen handing out kids instead of soup.
Then she heard her child’s name: “Ranger Morris?” Jay perked up and galloped out the gate and into arms of his mother as she greeted him by his nickname. “Hello, Jay, did you have a great day in school? What was your score today?”
Jay answered by stopping right in the walkway to plop down his backpack and unzip it. “I got a 100 today!” he said excitedly, burrowing through the papers in his pack. “Here, I’ll show you—”
“No, dear, that’s okay, I believe you. Let’s move out of the way so the other kids can go home.” Jay blinked and looked around, seemingly surprised that he had picked that spot to stop. For a bright kid, Willow thought, it’s strange what gets past him. It’s as if he picks and chooses what merits being paid attention to. Willow took her son’s hand in hers and began to walk down the sidewalk in the opposite direction of the parking lot.
“So I heard the other kids talking,” Jay began, “about going to FunWorld this weekend.”
Willow sighed. “How’d you know it’s called FunWorld? We’ve never been there.”
“’Cause Brandon said that he went to a place like that once, and he said it was in Folsom. What else could it be?”
Of course, Willow thought. He was probably listening to us the whole time while he played. Nothing ever was spoken around him that he did not somehow file away.
“We’re not going, are we?” At this, Willow missed a step, and Jay took that to confirm his statement. “It’s okay, mommy,” he reassured her, “I won’t be sad. I know gas is expensive right now.”
Willow was not sure to be proud or surprised. He had hit the nail right on the head; with gas approaching five dollars a gallon—and her stuck with that blasted Bronco—a trip to Folsom and back would take up about a quarter tank, about ten to fifteen dollars easily. That was several gallons of milk, six or seven loaves of bread, or enough pasta to feed them both for a week or two. Jay had asked how money worked, so she shared with him her spending budget each week. She would usually start with thirty or forty dollars once the bills were paid; they would always go shopping together, Jay trotting alongside her with a solar-powered Casio keeping track of what they had bought so far.
It was Jay who mentioned that the gas for the Bronco was taking up a chunk of their budget, and it was Jay who suggested that they walk to school together. She smiled at his brilliance while still feeling guilty for needing to keep him away from a fun activity. There was no use hiding it from him now, though. “I’m sorry, Jay. We will find something else fun to do together, I promise.”
Jay skipped along beside her. “It’s okay, mommy.” Her heart broke just a little, that he had to say that so often. “We don’t have enough money in the budget.”
They walked and skipped in silence for a minute or two.
Then, Jay asked, “Mommy?”
“Do you think there’s enough in the budget for an ice cream cone? They’re only a dollar.”
Willow smiled. “I think we might be able to swing that. How much longer ‘til we get home?”
Jay looked at the plastic watch on his wrist. “We’ve been walking for 6 minutes, so that makes…” He stopped skipping and closed his eyes to do the math in his head. “…39 minutes of walking left.”
“Well, then, if you aren’t too tired when we get home, we’ll walk down to the parlor for a cone.” Jay sprang back into step with a victorious cry, encouraging Mommy to walk just a little faster.