To the Save-Mart off I-275.
So early, that only one other car, a vintage Cadillac, had taken up residence in the handicap spot. I drove into the slot next to it, my tires slicing through the fat blue line. I could’ve picked something farther away, a space that gave my legs an early workout. But I figure I get enough exercise giving Jimmy horsey rides and keeping Lilly away from all the no-no’s in our house.
The van sputtered when I shut it down. With over 187,000 miles under its engine, what did I expect? That Cadillac seemed half a length bigger than my ride and looked in better shape despite its age. I bet the owner didn’t spend 18,000 miles a year driving kids to and from school or running errands for everyone else who worked during the day.
A service bus pulled in, halting with an earsplitting whoosh and harsh grinding noise. One by one, several seniors stepped off, slowly with bent knees and backs, grasping the metal bar with their entire weight. The women were clad in pretty pastels, some with pants shifted up to their chest. The men wore polyester and plaid.
I cursed myself for judging. Heck, they had more freedom than I did. It didn't seem fair though, that I’d have to wait another thirty years to get a lousy 10 percent of my grocery bill on Tuesdays.
The money! The plump cream envelope stuffed with Scott's cash stuck to the crook of my thighs. I counted the hundreds, all 20 of them, plus one $50 bill. I snagged the $50 and returned the rest, tucking the entire stash beneath my seat.
The door shimmied open and protested again when I tried to close it. It slammed shut on my pinky. “That stupid--”
I glared into the backseat, my eyes adjusting past the gray window, one booster on each side, Lilly’s infant carrier squeezed into the center. I sighed with relief. No need to fret over my poor choice of words. Scott had the kids.
I had left my husband butting heads with Jimmy over breakfast cereal and chasing a naked Lilly around the coffee table, her favorite overalls tangled up in her stubby legs, trailing like a loose tail. We’d argued over what to do with the money, so Scott was already sulking for lots of reasons when I grabbed my purse and keys. Jimmy had licked the jar of peanut butter clean. Lilly was out of diapers. Truthfully, I just wanted out. Scott had a day off today. When did I get one?
A seagull swooped down and hollered at me. Underneath my right foot was a pink, swirly mess, like liquid cotton candy. That’s what he was after, the gook beneath my shoes. He could have it. All I wanted was the cart on the other side of my car.
Someone got in my way, slid his glossy red convertible into the spot right next to my cart. He was handsomely tan with clean cut hair and big brown eyes rimmed by long lashes; so I forgave him. His silk suit shimmered in the sun as he grinned at me. I knew he wasn't flirting. Married with children is easy to recognize. It's written all over my car, my clothes and lack of makeup. Plus it's spun around my finger in gold.
His smile made me feel good anyway, even when he took my cart away.
It was a bad one. The front right wheel was stuck. The cart wobbled as he pushed it, the errant wheel catching sideways on the cement. When he disappeared through the automatic glass door, I was grateful not to have to listen to the horrid sound anymore.
I glanced at his car, envying the light-beige leather that soaked up the morning sun. He kept the car clean. No sticky wrappers or half-eaten apples stuck between the seats. Must be a lease, I figured. Good for two years.
I pictured my version of his girlfriend: all six feet of her, blond hair and fresh face, the faint blue-eyes I’d always wanted and no responsibilities. She was free. Still, I couldn't help but wonder if she'd get traded-in in two years too.
Inside the store, the cool air prickled the hairs on my skin. I bypassed the carts and reached for a basket. Beside me a wispy white-haired grandpa scrutinized the packages in the diaper aisle. I’m only five-foot-five but towered over him like a tree limb. I grabbed Lilly’s size 3’s, tossed them in my basket and scurried away. Finding the peanut butter, Scott’s favorite snack bars and a handful of other necessities took me close to forty- five minutes, even though I knew the layout of the store by heart. Why should I rush?
“Paper,” I said to the bagger. I liked the cardboard smell and rough hewn fibers of the bag. He gave me plastic anyway. My order took two bags and came up to less than $20. I handed the cashier my crisp $50. She gave me back the wrong change. I was tempted to keep it, but this was a small town with small paychecks. The woman had string-bean hair the color of a bleached shirt, a missing front tooth and smelled of stale cigarettes. She frowned at me when I handed her money back, but by the end of the day I figured she'd be relieved to have her drawer come up clean.
Back at the van, I checked on my own stash. My heart pumped blood through my eardrums until I knew it was safe.
Next stop? The bank. That's where the money belonged until Scott and I agreed on which bills to pay first.
I fingered the cash again, rubbed my tips along the soft fiber. Over $2000, the biggest bonus Scott had ever seen from the plant. I slipped the envelope beneath my seat, took a swig of the Coke I'd splurged on at the store and gagged on the sugar overload. My $1.25 impulse buy, just because I could. After all, the kids weren't here to beg for a sip, and another and another. I took a second gulp, gagged again and capped the bottle. Jimmy would get the soda after all.
On the highway, my van took flight--to its maximum capacity of 72, anything over that and the metal shook. I whipped passed trees with multi-colored leaves, gold and green, crimson and jade, orange and yellow, signs of seasons passing here in Michigan.
The warmth of the growing day increased the van's temperature. I rolled down the window and sucked in fresh air. Another luxury. The gust would have frightened Lilly. The wind whipped my hair into my eyes, scratched my split ends against my forehead.
A Jeep Wrangler flanked my left side. College boys, I guessed, since every available space in the Jeep had been taken up by clothesbaskets, stuffed garbage bags and plastic cubes. Their music pounded through the passing wind. One kid held his tanned arm out the window and tapped on the roll bar to the stereo's beat.
I'm glad I couldn't find their station. I'm not that young. My music's part of the oldie’s repertoire now, easy-listening. That's fine by me. I turned up the volume, bobbed my head to the rhythm and mouthed once-forgotten words. Lilly would've screeched in competition. And Jimmy? Complained enough to make my choice of music undesirable.
But this morning was different.
I was free!
With a stack of cash.
Hadn't I passed the bank exit over a mile ago?
I lifted my foot from the accelerator, slipped into the slow lane, but changed my mind just as quickly. I white-knuckled the wheel and sped up. Overhead an emerald sign hailed Toledo, the first major city outside of Michigan, the first city I'd encounter if I were on my way to Florida.
How quickly would my albino skin tan these days? Would my hair turn the golden blonde of my youth?
I turned up the music, gulped more Coke.
On the seat beside me, rest Lilly's checkered blanket. I reached for the soft cotton, rubbed the material against my cheek. The fibers smelled like cookies and lavender baby lotion. My maternal breasts swelled and tingled at the nipples. I wondered if Jimmy had eaten his breakfast or Lilly had been caught yet. In the mirror, empty seats followed behind me.
Another sign for Toledo loomed ahead. To the right-- an exit sign--a way home. Both beckoned me.
Free. My foot tapped on the accelerator. With money.
I jerked the wheel to the right, slowed down the van, my tires catching gravel as I snagged the exit just in time. The envelope slid out from beneath the seat and landed at my heel. I eased it back with my shoe.
Off went the radio. Up went the windows. My hair returned to straight and ragged.
At the bank, I'd count the money again.
On my way home.