When the woman shuffled into the store, one child sulking behind her, jacket gaping in the gusty March cold, the other a toddler too big for sitting in the shopping cart child seat and whining about having to be there, Davis recognized the look in her eyes: red, a just-finished-crying sheen about them. She could have been his younger sister, tired, somehow deserted and on her own. Not a lot of money, and no idea where to get more. Pretty, but small-town defeated pretty. A girl whose life peaked, in many ways, in her junior year of high school.
Davis could hear Shelly in his ear: they’re the ones you gotta watch. Big coats, kids a distraction, nothing to lose. He imagined the loss prevention guys in their stained ties and frowns, their protocols, and their talk about “the data.”
So he watched her. She stood by the magazines, flipping through Us, People, the Examiner, taking her time even as the toddler kept up a stream of half-hearted complaint and the older girl played with the toys in the candy rack.
He looked around for Shelly and didn’t see her. He texted Tori: you done it yet? He looked at his phone a little longer afterward. Nothing happened. He put it away again, jiggled the bits of change in his pockets and rocked on his heels.
He could see part of a tattoo visible on the mom’s ankle, where her leggings ended. It might have been a bird or an angel or a fairy, something with a wing. But the wing was on bottom. He wondered if she got the fairy done so that it was falling out of the sky, or if was just a random crappy job done by somebody not very good at it. Like the bozos around the block who marked up all the teenagers and dirtbags in town.
The girl dropped an M&M toy and pieces clattered all over the floor. The mother didn’t even look up from the magazine, just said, “Clean it up, Brittany.”
He looked for Shelly, for any other customers, and seeing none, headed for the broom.
The parking lot was bright with kind of light that doesn’t commit to being sunny or cloudy. The last of the ashy snowbanks had melted to the height of a wheel well, and water and trash streamed down to the curb, but because of the bad tilt of the parking lot, some of the water also ran near the front door of the Dollar General, depositing flaccid leaves and garbage there that he had to sweep away a few times a day. It made the broom wet, filled with road ash and dust, so that whenever he swept he then had to mop. But since he couldn’t mop M&Ms, here he went, to sweep, and then clean up the mess he made while sweeping. He often joked with Shelly that he had a name for the broom, that he called it “Story-of-My-Life.” Shelly was never impressed. Her stock response was always, “Welcome to my world.”
Shelly was the kind of person who, whenever someone said How are you? or some other benign greeting, said something like, “Crappy. Thanks for asking.” The cashiers called her the Queen, short for Queen of the Smoke Break, even though almost all of them smoked, too. But no one took their time like Shelly. Davis called her Leatherface. At one time, she spent a lot of time in the sun, and everybody said it showed. And from what they knew, she still spent time in tanning beds every week, at the hair place across from All-American Pizza, where she had a sister-in-law who let her tan for free when none of the high school girls were using the beds. No one knew what the tan thing was about. Davis suspected she trolled a bit at the American Legion, where she tended bar, but you’d never know from her. While she was much discussed by the cashiers, Shelly never said anything about herself that wasn’t some variation on how crappy a time she was having.
When he returned with the broom, the girl stood there looking at him as if she had been up to something. Both fists were jammed in her coat pockets, where she wriggled the fingers. She had dark rings under her eyes. He asked her to back up a bit so he could sweep. He looked for the mother, but she had disappeared into the shelves. As he started sweeping the M&Ms, he noticed the girl move a hand and quickly plop an M&M into her mouth. He didn’t say anything. She looked about to break.
He looked around again for the mother and couldn’t see her. No sound from the whining kid, either. He turned to the M&M eater and said, “Go find your mom.”
“She ain’t my mom,” said the girl.
“Well, go find whoever she is.”
“She’s my aunt,” the girl said.
“Whatever,” Davis said. “Go find her.”
She turned and scuffed her way toward the personal care aisle, eating another M&M as she did so.
Behind him he heard a smoker’s cough, deep as though from a fat man, and he turned to see a big man with a nicotine-stained mustache and full gray beard standing by the shelves of windshield wiper fluid. He squinted at the price and turned to Davis. “These say two dollars. I thought everything here was a dollar?”
“That’s Dollar Tree,” Davis said. As he did every day. As he did several times a day, every day. “We’re Dollar General. Things are different prices, but always just in dollars. No cents.” He always loved that last part. How it sounded like no sense. Nothing about his being there made sense. The place barely made sense, other than the genius who put it near the two apartment buildings in town that housed the elderly and the people on assistance. People who needed things simple like this.
“Well, they should call it something different,” the man said.
Davis nodded. He often wanted to say something else. No, it’s because I am THE Dollar General. I am in charge of the dollars! Or, yes. I am in charge. Let me fix that right away, with some paint that only costs one dollar.
Now he could not see the mother, the toddler, or the child. He saw Shelly out in the parking lot, enjoying a cigarette and kicking at the diminished snow pile. Her voice was in his ear: keep an eye on that bitch in the coat.
The old man handed him a five and Davis made change, looking around as he did so. The old man handed him back a single. “You should pay more attention, son. You gave me back four.”
“Will do, sir!” Davis chirped. He had to find that mother. As the old man left, and he rounded the corner of the cashier station, his phone tinkled with a text. One word. Tori gave him one word on the matter: No.
This was not the day he wanted to be having. It wasn’t all that different from most days, really, except he was not supposed to be there. It had been a day off, a rare Saturday day off. He was going to drive Tori to the doctor himself. He was going to be there so she could get answers. But Bill flaked. Bill who always flakes but who Shelly won’t fire.
Davis thought Shelly is fucking him or getting weed from him or something, because Bill was the kind of guy who talks the entire time at work, busted you up with his jokes, but never actually did anything. And you put up with it because he’s a funny guy, and the kind of person who you wanted to like you, because there was just something about him that’s cool. He didn’t give a shit, nothing bothered him, he played in a band, did some DJ-ing, and everybody knows he’s at Dollar General until something happens. But the fact of the matter is, he didn’t do shit. And he often was not there. And he screwed people over. And now Davis was at work, dealing with kids eating M&Ms off the floor while their fucking mother or aunt or whatever shit was hiding in the store and probably loading her coat with cough medicine and Shelly was out working on her February tan.
And as he was thinking about all this, he knew Tori was trying to figure out if she has fucking cancer, because they were doing it the other night and he was squeezing her tits and she’s moaning and carrying on and then says Ow! He asked her if she likes it and she says, No! It fucking hurts. Stop it! So he did. They sat there for a minute and she started rubbing her tits, looking to see what’s going on. He said, It’s nothing, come on. Maybe I was just too rough. I thought you liked that stuff. She gave him a look and said, Just give me a minute, OK? That was weird, it just felt WEIRD. He lay back. He thought she was being dramatic. She said, I had a cousin with cancer once, you know. He knew better than to point out, at that moment, that a cousin having it does not mean you’re doomed. He knew better because it occurs to him that she was actually afraid, and he doesn’t know what to do about it.
He didn’t know much about what to do about anything.
At the moment, however, he was missing a woman who could be making off with the store, and Shelly could very well decide that whatever happens was his fault.
When he reached the back of the store, amid the dog food and the curvy foam pillows, the diaper cases (frequently torn open and half empty, as they were a good target for the single moms who come in) and the cheap barrels of cereal, the mother/aunt was not there either. The register was unmanned, the front door was not being watched, Shelly had evaporated, and there he was in the back of the store. He stopped and just listened for a minute and heard nothing for a long time, and then he heard the toddler start up again. It was saying “mommy” loud and long, its voice rough at the edge like it might start to cough.
Knowing they were still in the store, and hearing nothing else of concern, he took the time to peek down a few aisles and make sure M&M girl wasn’t lost or breaking things. He worked at Wal Mart once, for a few months, and didn’t have to put up with this shit. They had cameras, an office where people took care of this stuff. All he had to do was work the register and keep people moving. Then he moved up to the warehouse, and he didn’t have to deal with people much. Had a back brace, a walkie talkie, and just moved shit around all day. Until one day, when the forklift guy was out and he needed to move a pallet of grills, and thought why not? and gave it a whirl, and the stack came down. He had to pee in a cup, and then that was that.
The only good thing to come from Wal Mart was Tori, and even she didn’t work there anymore. She ended up going full time at her brother’s bike shop painting detail on the different bikes that came in. She could create sweet flames on a gas tank, pinstripes and elaborate lines that looked like tattoos flaring across chopper tubes. She was always busy, and Guy’s shop did a lot of business. The more dentists who bought Harleys to be weekend bikers, the better they did. She made good money, something she enjoyed pointing out just a little too much.
He insisted on paying for her to see the doctor. She complained a bit about it, but he stuffed a wad of cash in her hand and said it was the right thing to do. She said to him, the right thing to do is get it taken care of it. Don’t matter who pays. I mean, did you crawl in there and put in the cancer?
At the front of the store, near the registers, sat the toddler, wedged into the shopping cart in the seat that was too small for it. It whimpered when it saw him, and Davis still couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl, until he came close enough to see that it was wearing filthy Lightning McQueen sneakers. He could guess boy. In this town. He looked around for the mother/aunt, and even as he did, his face began to tingle and his gut lurched with the certainty that she was gone. The M&M girl, gone too. The toddler was left in the store.
Davis looked at him. The child was quiet, but breathing hard from exertion. His little fist was wrapped around the handlebar of the cart, like he was pushing. It occurred to Davis that the sudden silence and stillness was because the kid was shitting. He thought, yeah, I’d shit myself too, little man.
Davis yelled loud and long for Shelly.
He had to yell several times before he saw her perk up out in the lot. The kid cried the whole time, like the roof was coming down. As Shelly got closer to the door, something in Davis’ voice tore at her awareness, because she started running.
“What the fuck?” was her first response.
“Stay with this kid,” he said, and then ran out the doors. He knew Shelly was pissed and confused behind him, and he didn’t care. Out in the lot, he looked as far down the streets as he could, looking for a glimpse or a car or something. He saw only the gray husks of melting snowbanks, the puddled alleys, a dogwalker or two. The mother and the M&M eater were gone.
He calmed Shelly down, told her what had happened, and as he did so her face slackened and then cratered. “What did the girl look like—the mom?” she said.
Davis looked at the kid, who had stopped wailing and was just breathing heavily and whimpering at this point. “What? I don’t know,” he said.
“You didn’t see her?” Shelly said.
“No. Who cares? She’s gone,” Davis said. “What are we going to do about this kid?”
“That’s the easy part,” Shelly said. “The baby’s easy.” She inhaled deeply and stroked the child’s cheek, a gesture that Davis was surprised to see. The toddler turned toward her and batted at her hand. “I know this baby.”
“I’m calling the cops,” Davis said.
Shelly lifted the kid out of the shopping cart. “Calm down, hero,” she said. “Was there a little girl with the mother?”
“Yes. I told you,” Davis said.
“She lives on my block,” Shelly said. She walked away, bouncing the baby, and drew her phone from her pocket. Davis stood at the front, looking out the window and waiting for anything in his sight line to move, and as he did, he swore he heard her say Bill’s name.
Davis was what even the townies called a lifer. He’d spent his entire thirty years living in a space of 6 blocks in a town that peaked a century before his birth, and was now gray in population, outlook, brick and river. He lived above an insurance agency run by the third generation scion who was also on the borough council, and his father, a Vietnam vet and diabetic amputee, lived three streets over, shuffling the cards in the deck stacked against him. He knew the schedules of the freight trains like his own pulse. He knew the mine-cratered woods with the certainty of a country lawyer’s grasp on regional history. He knew he would never, ever leave Gibbleton and its narrow houses with long backyards, its Anabaptist grumps and its Rotarian provincialisms. He knew, he struggled with always knowing, that Tori would be around forever, whether or not he married her, whether or not she was sick, whether or not they would one day have a child. But he did not, does not know anything about the people he works with, and the mystery unveiled by the arrival of the baby with whom Shelly has some kind of connection.
As he watched Shelly bounce the baby in her arms, talking on the phone, he wondered who she spoke with, even though she said Bill’s name. It didn’t matter, he thought. Nothing here mattered. For all he knew about Gibbleton, all he knew about the county where it sat that was once part of the great story of American railroads and industry, where generations of men cut down the timber in the hills and broke the coal from the ground, he knew that on the rare occasion he went somewhere else, not one person knew where it was, or any of the bigger towns he said it was near. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh they knew, some understood Harrisburg as more than a capital they memorized in fourth grade, but no one knew the ground that sat beneath his home. And so as Shelly spoke, he wondered what does it matter? If no one knows anything about where you are, anything about the circumstances that make up your life, are you alive? Do you exist? He thought of the tree-falling-in-the-forest thing, and knew that everyone who was born, lived, and died here did not and never would matter. Nothing about his life and his town mattered. The way the world was now, his home was less important than nations and warring towns he heard on the news that he could not imagine and never would see.
So when Tori called him, he left the store to talk in the parking lot. She explained treatment options, what was ahead, and what had to be done. As he listened, Bill ran into his view, crossing the parking lot at a good clip, mad as hell, he could see, and hastily dressed. He knew he had to be more present for Tori, but he could not focus on what she was saying, even though she was crying at times. Saying his name. Asking him to give her help, to give some sign of strength. The windows of the Dollar General smeared with something that played with the light, with what he thought he saw, and when Bill took the baby from Shelly, Davis’s eyes began to sting. The snow was dizzying in its mushy gray. The parking lot tilted. He wanted to grab hold of something there, as he felt that everything he held was melting away.
Gabriel Welsch writes fiction and poetry and is the author of four collections of poems, the most recent of which is The Four Horsepersons of a Disappointing Apocalypse (Steel Toe Books, 2013). His fiction has appeared widely, in journals including Georgia Review, New Letters, Mid-American Review, Ascent, Cream City Review, Quarter After Eight, Chautauqua, Tupelo Quarterly, The Collagist, and Pembroke Magazine. His story, “Groundscratchers,” originally published in The Southern Review, was a “Distinguished Story” in The Best American Short Stories 2012. He lives in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, with his family, works as vice president of communications and marketing at Duquesne University, and is an occasional teacher at the Chautauqua Writer’s Center.