The chips were a problem. Karen had promised to deliver them herself. Seventy individually-sized bags. They were supposed to be one hundred percent potato. Cooked in a kettle. They were supposed to be craft. But at the Acme late last night, variety packs containing Cheetos, Doritos, and Fritos were on sale. Although mainstays of her own childhood lunch bags, they were not what the snack committee chair had in mind for field day. According to her email, the committee was trying to “tone things down” this year by having chips in the first place. Karen was pretty sure they didn’t mean this down. Doritos down.
“Mom, how am I going to carry these?”
If the bags weren’t fully concealed, they’d never make it to school safely on the bus. Too many chubby, chip-eating bullies. So Karen passed Charlie a backpack. She pretended not to hear all the crunching noises as they shoved bags inside.
“Look! The backpack’s already full,” Charlie said with half the chips to go.
“Lots of empty space in the bags, honey. Just smush a little.” She poked pinpricks in the packaging to release the extra air.
“Won’t that crush them?”
“They’ll still taste good.”
“Are you sure you can’t come?”
For the first time in four years, Charlie would have to survive field day without Karen. She tried not to picture him—tripping in the sack race, toppling the hurdles, striking out at baseball with everyone else’s parents shouting GO GO GO, iPhone cameras at the ready.
Karen wouldn’t be there, because she was room parent at her daughter Lily’s kindergarten at a different school. They still hadn’t picked up on her parenting deficiencies. They didn’t even know she was a single mom. Single moms were never given the honor of room parent. Today was the class moving-up ceremony, and Karen was prepared to nail it. She’d taken the whole day off work to make it happen. There’d be a slide show and presentation of certificates, followed by a picnic.
Goodie bags gaped, mouth open, all over the kitchen, waiting to be filled. It was a tradition for the children to receive bubbles, lollipops, and stickers at the picnic. All in the school colors—gold and green. This year’s goodie bags cost Karen seventy-six dollars; she was embarrassed to ask for reimbursement.
She checked the time: one hour and seventeen minutes to ice the cookies in yellow and green. She’d planned to tie ribbons around the bags, to make frills with a scissor edge. No time for that anymore.
Charlie watched his mother staring at the clock, chewing the inside of her cheek.
“It’s OK, Mom. I don’t need you. I’ll be fine.”
Ten bags couldn’t be crammed into the backpack no matter how hard they tried, so Karen opened one and passed it to Charlie.
“Have some breakfast.”
“But there won’t be enough for everyone.”
Karen popped open a bag for herself and then another. Food dye smeared across her fingers. She relished the crunch. The zesty, fake-cheese flavor.
“Hide the chips behind the big kale salad so no one will notice how crumpled they are,” she said, licking her fingers.
“Why? Am I going to get in trouble?”
“Don’t worry. Never mind.” Karen tried to smile as she slathered a few parts of his body with sunblock. “Have fun!”
She couldn’t bear to watch her skinny son walk down the sidewalk, hunched under the weight of the chips, his skin haphazardly covered in white with orange streaks.
Karen arrived at Lily’s classroom sweaty and stained with frosting—picnic blanket slung over her shoulder, balloons tied round her wrist, goodie bags in one arm, cookies in the other. Lily leaped at her mother with a dive-bomb hug. Goodie bags crashed to the floor, but Karen leaned into the hug anyway, knowing at least the cookies were safe. She’d wrapped them in three layers of tissue.
During the slideshow, Karen couldn’t help but imagine the grimace Charlie always made right before the relay baton was passed to him. “You Can Count on Me” played as images of Lily appeared on the screen. Her daughter looked eager and fresh and unaware of the goodie-bag assembly line that awaited her someday too.
Graduation certificate barely in hand, Karen grabbed Lily by the arm and high-tailed it to the grassy area behind the school to set up. She was tying balloons to the picnic table when Mandy Ferguson arrived with her contribution. Mandy had an enormous smile of yellow, crooked teeth. Through the balloon strings, Karen noticed that her blouse was wrinkled too.
“These are chocolate.” Karen frowned as she set the box of cupcakes on the table.
“Yes. Aren’t they gorgeous? Congratulations—Lily was so adorable getting her diploma.”
“But I asked for yellow and green frosting. Canary yellow and grass green.”
“This was all the bakery had,” Mandy said. “They’re delicious.”
The balloons made a ruckus against each other in the wind. Karen had trouble controlling them.
“I specifically said in my email that they were to match the school colors.”
“It’s such a busy time of year.”
“I’d suggested home-made. Strongly suggested.”
Mandy reached across the table and put a hand on the box. “I’m happy to take them back if you don’t want them.”
Balloons wrapped lightly around her wrist, Karen grabbed for the cupcakes with both hands. Mandy locked onto the other side. One of them pulled and the other reciprocated. A back-and-forth tug-of-war ensued. Cupcakes exploded out of the box, and balloons made a break for it. The women looked into the overcast sky as it filled with green and yellow globes. The balloons became smaller and smaller. Eventually, they disappeared altogether.
Maureen Langloss is a lawyer-turned-writer and mother-of-three living in New York City. She serves as the Flash Fiction Editor at Split Lip Magazine. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Wigleaf, Sonora Review, Necessary Fiction, Jellyfish Review, the Prairie Schooner blog, and elsewhere. Find her online at maureenlangloss.com and on Twitter @maureenlangloss.