My tires shriek as I swerve into an open spot in front of the elementary school, cutting off another parent. They blare their horn, but I don’t care. I lean over and roll down the passenger window and then scream my son’s name. Outside is a wall of sound created by the high-pitched laughter and pounding feet of kids released back into the wild. I have to yell twice before he waves goodbye to his friends. A composition notebook teeters on the edge of his open backpack as he bounces to the car. I count the seconds and the dollars.
This month, Nissan wants $273.15. Chase Visa needs a minimum payment of $31. GEICO is asking for $141 while AT&T demands $39.49. I have $500.04 in checking, zero in savings and a crumpled ten-dollar bill in my purse.
Reilly jumps in, slamming the door behind him. Oh no. He’s wearing his Bassett Hound puppy look. Oh no.
“Momma,” he says. “Miss. Cohen wants the consent form tomorrow.” He kicks his legs in the back seat. “I wanna see the lions and the giraffes and the lions.”
I hadn’t forgotten.
“Buckle up, now.” I step on the gas, weaving around traffic like Dale Earnhardt down US Highway 1, praying there aren’t any cops nearby, and hoping the traffic light I just blew past wasn’t one of those photo-enforced ones. Only God knows what that ticket would cost me if it is. My mind calculates the price as I steer on autopilot all the way home.
“And, she needs everything tomorrow, momma,” Reilly says before hopping out of the car and shoving it closed. He gives me that face. “I need to see the lions.”
Lord knows I hadn’t forgotten.
He stares at me through the window, all droopy lips and puffy cheeks. The car vibrates, and the Hot 105.6 radio DJ announces the time and a traffic update, sponsored by GEICO.
I watch Reilly bound up the path to our apartment building. Then, I drive off, hurdling down the street, around the corner, zooming. I steer with my elbow, button my blue vest with my right hand, and poke on the name tag with my left.
As I’m running out the car, I answer my cell phone on the first ring. Reilly is inside and microwaving the ham sandwich I made for dinner. He promises to do his homework right away.
I say, “Love you, baby. Homework first then you can watch TV. I mean it.”
“Lions, momma. Lions.”
I hang up. Judging from the boss’s glare, my second employer of the day, I’m scraping in on time by the tip of my nose.
The dollar amounts of my Visa, GEICO, Nissan and AT&T bills thunder through my mind as I scan my customers’ items. The beeping of the machine annoys me as the hours pass. My smile is made of warm wax that I struggle to push up before it slides off my face.
Thirty dollars has to be attached to the school’s field trip consent form. Thirty dollars I don’t have this month. I hadn’t forgotten, but I thought—prayed, really—that Reilly had.
AT&T and Visa want their money, and I have ten dollars in my purse. I’d found the washed out bill wedged in a dryer yesterday in the laundry area of my building. I’d felt so lucky this morning. A ten-dollar bill plus fifteen left in the bank after I pay everything. That had to be a record. Damn. I thought I had everything figured out this month.
Wait, damn. The ATM charges a $3 fee. Damn it! Eight bucks short.
Beep. Del Monte cream corn.
Beep. Cherry tomatoes.
The register bangs open and inside is more green than I take home in a week. Lincolns, Hamiltons, a thick stack of Jacksons, a few Benjamins and one lonely Jefferson – which came from some geek flashing a two-dollar bill like he defined cool – sit in neat rows. My hand trembles as I count out change. Just one Hamilton. That’s all Reilly needs to see the lions.
“Have a nice night.” I grit the words out. “Thank you for shopping.”
All I need is one ten-dollar bill. Just one.
Shoppers stream to my register rush hour traffic style even though it’s 9:00 pm.
Beep. Keebler fudge stripes cookies.
Beep. Beep. Two bottles of spring water.
A balding man in a sweater vest pays for fat free milk with a fifty. I hand him $48.65. Two whole twenties and I just need a ten. Sweat beads on my upper lip.
A brunette wheeling a Yorkshire Terrier around in her shopping cart hands me $30. I’m itchy all over. Her change is a ten and a nickel, but I clutch the bill in my hand, fingering the paper like a blankie. My breath comes in bursts. A need to run out of the store, money in hand, builds in me.
The brunette holds her palm up. The bag boy hoists the last plastic bag with her groceries into the cart. The Yorkie wags its tail and looks at me with these tiny brown eyes, just like Reilly’s.
I’m guessing Reilly’s friends are all going on the Metro Zoo field trip. The entire class probably. Reilly will be the only child not attending. He’ll have to sit alone in the library and color like the last time.
Would my boss understand? I glance at Mr. Bean, the store’s manager for the past three years, standing behind the Lotto machine at the front service desk. In the five years I’ve worked here, my register has never been more than a few pennies short. All I have to do is slip out a ten, or even a twenty. Twenty would tide me over in case of another emergency. My first reprimand won’t mean much, right? Maybe I accidentally gave a customer extra change. It happens. We’re allowed to mess up once.
No one will know. It’s only twenty bucks.
A knot tightens in my stomach as I think how easy it will be. The store won’t miss a measly twenty-dollars. Reilly deserves to have fun with his class.
The brunette clears her throat. “Miss?” She wiggles her fingers at me.
“Have a nice day…ah, night.” My throat constricts. Reilly deserves better than me. “Thank you for shopping.”
The store closes at 11:00 pm. Bag boys sweep and mop while cashiers fix the aisles by pulling products on the shelf forward, so everything appears pretty for the AM customers. I’m a robot going through the motions. Shame feels like wearing a fur coat in the Mojave Desert. I can’t look Mr. Bean in the eyes. I shrink from the smiles of my co-workers.
It’s after midnight, and I drag my looser ass home. Lying in bed, I watch the clock with dread.
6:00 am is a blur of activity. I’m packing lunch while making breakfast and prepping dinner for tonight and checking homework.
Reilly is bouncing on his toes in front of me. He grasps his hands under his chin. “Momma, the form?”
I turn away because I just can’t gaze into those brown eyes. His stare claws at my back.
I snap at him over my shoulder, “You’ll go to the zoo in the summer.” I soften my tone because it’s not his fault. “It’ll be more fun with just the two of us.”
I turn and smile as sunnily as I can. His face droops. Reilly doesn’t cry this time, or stomp about the kitchen wailing his disappointment so the neighbors can hear.
I had wanted to take that money so badly, but I just couldn’t do it, and my pride wouldn’t let me beg my fellow cashiers, not when I already owed a few of them.
“Okay, mom,” Reilly mumbles, his features turning stern. It isn’t the face of my seven-year-old, but that of the kids who know there is no tooth fairy or Santa Claus and that their parents are disappointments.
Another part of my soul dies.
At 7:00am we lurch into the car to start the routine over again.
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Rat Race Copyrighted by Stacy Benedict 2018