Authors: Cynthia D. Grant
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Cynthia D. Grant
For Erik, my haven and home, and for Forest
With special thanks to the author's friend
and attorney, Jim DeMartini, who generously
donates his time and expertise with no
thought of compensation.
He's in the phone book.
Now is the time for your loving, dear,
And the time for your company,
Now, when the light of reason fails
And fires burn on the sea.
Now, in this age of confusion
I have need for your company.
from the song “Children of Darkness”
by Richard FariÃ±a
It's easy for my mother to shoplift now that she's pregnant. She sails into a store like a pirate ship, her full skirt billowing around her ankles.
I'm at a counter with the little girls tumbling around me, saying to the teenage clerk at the cash register: “Excuse me, do you have any flannel pajamas?”
Flannel? The teenager wrinkles up her forehead as if I'm speaking a foreign language. The kids are a great distraction. They're not in on the act; they're giggling and shrieking. Then somebody's screaming: “She hit me, Mary!”
“She hit me first!”
Meanwhile, Mama's cruising the aisles like a shark, popping stuff inside her exhausted waistband as the teenager twirls a stiff blond curl, saying something like, “Flannel? What do you mean by flannel?”
Then my mother's by the door, calling, “Girls, I'm ready.”
“Thanks anyway,” I say, and we go outside. My father's in the RV, in the parking lot, reading the business section of that city's newspaper. He follows the tides of the stock market as if he were still a player.
“All set?” he asks as we pile in the door. I herd the kids to the back and buckle their seat belts. My father starts the engine of the Wolfs' Den, and we head into the morning traffic.
My mother is shedding merchandise concealed in the voluminous folds of her clothing: underpants for the girls, men's socks, a lamp, a lamp for God's sake, perfume, earrings. We drive across town to another store. Expertly, invisibly, she harvests the shelves.
We sell the stuff at flea markets, to earn our living.
I say: “How do you expect the kids to know right from wrong when they know you're stealing?”
My father frowns into the rearview mirror. Mama turns around, looking sad.
“I wouldn't call it that, Mary.”
“What would you call it?”
She says, “This is a special situation.”
“I'll be damned if I'll let my family go hungry.” Daddy bites into a stolen doughnut, his breakfast.
“But they see what you're doingâ”
“They don't see what I'm doing. They're children, Mary. They're not paying attention.”
Although Mama will give birth to her fifth baby soon, she doesn't grasp the nature of children. She thinks they're oblivious blank-eyed dolls. The girls see everything; they're always listening, even the littlest one, Paula, who's three. They're listening right now, even though they look busy eating doughnuts and licking their fingers.
“They're smart,” I say. “They know what's going on. But don't listen to me. I'm just a kid.”
“Someone sure got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning,” Daddy tells Mama. She pats his leg.
We're moving through another big city. After a while they all look the same: gas stations, shopping malls, cars, people. We should've left the campground for the flea market early but Daddy's stomach was bothering him again last night, so he turned off the alarm and we overslept.
The flea market is located on the parking lot of a fairgrounds. Mama goes to the door of a tiny office by the gate and pays a fat woman ten dollars for our space.
Daddy navigates the RV down a row of cars with tables in front of them, covered with junk, old and new. He parks the Wolfs' Den and we set up our tables. I unroll the striped awning over our heads. We'll need it; the sun is blazing.
Quickly, practiced, Mama lays out her wares. People are already crowding around. “We've got lots of bargains today,” she tells them.
Clothing and books and housewares here, toys and cassettes and videotapes there. The watches and jewelry are in a locked glass case. Mama wears the key on a chain around her throat.
“How much for that watch?” A man taps the glass.
“Ten,” Mama tells him.
“I'll give you six.”
“Ten,” she insists. He shrugs and walks away. Mama winks at me and says, “He'll be back.”
She knows her customers; she reads their faces, divining the depths of their pockets and souls. Soon she is pulling in dollars, making change. I watch the kids while Daddy shops for a new electric razor.
When the kids get bored, I take them inside and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The motor home is like a house on wheels; it has a tiny kitchen with a fridge and stove, beds, chairs, tables, lamps, even a bathroom with a shower. When we can't plug into a hookup, the appliances run off the generator and battery.
I put on the TV. The reception is lousy but the girls don't mind. They watch cartoons.
Outside, Mama argues with a teenage boy who palmed a knife and tried to slip away. Nothing makes Mama angrier than people stealing her stolen goods.
“Put it back or pay for it.”
“I didn't take nothing.” The boy's sullen face swells. People are staring.
“Put it back!” she says.
He calls her a bitch, throws the knife on the table, and stalks away.
“Kids today,” Mama tells one of her customers.
The woman nods. “Ain't it the truth.”
I tidy the merchandise that's been tossed around. It makes me cringe to see the antique amber necklace that Mama took from the old lady's house.
She told the woman we were looking for the Walkers. Did she know the Walkers? Old friends of our family. They lived around here someplace.
“I'm sorry, I don't,” the woman said. “Used to be I knew all my neighbors. But nowadays, people move around so much.”
“I know what you mean,” Mama said. “It's a shame.”
I stood behind her on the steps, holding Polly in my arms, so she could see we were just a normal family, not maniacs come to rob and kill her.
Not kill her, anyway.
“Oh, I'm so thirsty,” Mama said. “Since I got pregnant, it seems like I'm always thirsty. Could I trouble you for a glass of water?”
“No trouble at all. Come in and sit down. You girls can come in too.”
“That's okay, we'll wait outside.” It's bad enough doing what I do; I can't stand to watch Mama steal.
We move through the neighborhoods. Do you know the Walkers? We're looking for the Walkers. Old friends of our family. Kids trust Mama; she looks like their mothers. But she fools adults too because oh my goodness, suddenly she feels so faint.
“Come in and sit down. When's that baby due? I'll bring you some water.” They leave the room. Then Mama scoops up whatever's in range and pops it into her diaper bag purse: a ceramic ashtray, a crystal vase. Little things that won't be missed until later.
Little things, Mama says. That's all it is. Mary, do you want your sisters to starve?
It makes me sick to see that stuff on our tables. The stamp collection. The music box engraved
June 16, 1967
. A gift for high school graduation? An anniversary present? And the necklace of antique amber beads.
Mama catches me looking at it. “You can have that, Mary. It would be real pretty with your hair.”
“I don't want it.”
It's lunchtime; Daddy brings hot dogs and sodas. It's hot in the RV. The fan won't work. Mama eats while she sells. “We're doing good,” she says. The money belt she wears looks heavy.
My father lies down to take a nap, clutching his stomach. “Too much coffee,” he groans. He should see a doctor, but we don't have insurance and they want money up front.
Paula sleeps too, her hair damp with sweat. Erica and Danielle play the Sorry game Daddy picked up at one of the booths.
I tell Mama I'll take over so she can rest, but she says I sell too cheap. She gets top dollar.
A man and a woman look over our stuff. They match, like the chipmunk salt and peppers she's fingering.
“Look here, hon,” she says to him. “These are real cute.”
“Uh-huh,” he says, examining the tape deck. “This thing work?”
“It works fine,” Mama says. “I'll plug it in so you can hear it.”
“I'll give you fifteen for it.”
“Twenty,” Mama says.
I'm watching the woman. She's staring at the music box. Her face looks funny.
“Joe,” she says. “Look.” She points it out. Then she's staring at the digital clock.
“Joseph!” she hisses, and motions him away. They stand at a distance and stare at us and whisper. Their faces change from puzzled to angry.
Mama's selling a package of new socks, telling her customer, “These came in today.” But she misses nothing. She sees the couple march off, headed toward the flea market office.
“Mary!” Mama says. We move quickly. Mama sweeps the tables clean, dumping stuff into boxes that we stow in the RV's outside compartments. I roll up and secure the awning.
“Andrew!” Mama calls into the motor home. “We're leaving. Andrew! What's the matter, honey?” She hurries to their bunk. He's lying on his side, clutching his stomach and moaning.