The Twenty

For my sister on her 51st birthday

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on UNSPLASH.

The afternoon sun was high and hot overhead. The two of them, the mother and her favorite child, the sweetest by a country mile, her daughter, walked along the road. They intended to spend a few simple minutes engaged in retail therapy, shopping at the dime store that sat less than a mile from their tiny home.

This trip wasn’t something that they had done before.

Wait. Was that right? Kathy thinks.

She decides it must be so. She remembers walking this stretch once with Mark at some point in time.

The first days of August are like an oppressive, humid fist pushing down on your back, your head, gently inserting you a few more millimeters into the gooey-warm, soft asphalt of the highway.

Highway? That’s a joke! It’s a small town, filled with small people, small ways, she thinks

Whoa! What was that? Kathy thinks. That wasn’t who she was. If anything, that sounded more like her oldest brother. He moved out last year when he started college.

She shakes off the negativity and eyes the shoulder of the road again.

Should she let her mother walk further away from the hot road? Being further from the highway would offer her mother a bit more protection from the cars. But then again, if she gave her mother the outer walking path, the ground was more sloped there. Walking on such uneven ground was awkward, and it would be easy to step in a gopher hole, turn an ankle.

So she went back and forth on the question, determined to find the optimal placement for her mother. Would she prefer the bit of gravel-covered ground just adjacent to the road? Or would that maybe remind her too much of Shawn’s accident? She thinks it likely would be, so she walks on her mother’s left, where the path is gravelly but less sloped.

She settles her mind on the question and decides to stop poking at it. This commitment works well for about thirty seconds.

She turns to her mother to suggest they should probably trade places as they make their slow progression towards their mecca of retail therapy, Ben Franklin’s. A general store if there ever was one.

One could find paper products, candy, a few toys, board games, durable clothing, the occasional cheesy painting. Oh, how she adored coming here before her father and mother had separated and divorced. When she looks back at her memories, she can still recall when all five of them, the whole family, would browse and poke at the bewildering maze of shelves stocked with treasures.

It takes her just a second to realize her mother is no longer beside her. She looks over her shoulder and sees her mother rising from a stooped position, holding something furtively, glancing around like a bad actor in a silly movie.

What is she up to now, Kathy wonders?

“Everything okay back there, mom?”

Her mom recoils as if slapped.

She shoves her hand into the pocket of her slacks and rushes towards her daughter, smiling big.

When they left the house, they had had only a spare $6 and some loose change to blow upon whatever bargains they could shake loose from old man Killian’s general store.

Her mother stops beside her, still on the upside portion of the road’s meager shoulder, winded from her little jog. Kathy thinks again about how she wishes her mom would quit smoking. The world her mom had grown up in had gone and changed. It had changed a lot, Kathy thought. But such was its nature. Things were always changing, she reflected stoically. Once you found some agreeable arrangement of things or people in your life, you just knew something would come along and topple the whole thing like some unwanted tidal wave whisking away a meticulously constructed sandcastle.

“What did you find?”

Her mom looks around again. Satisfied that the Keystone cops are nowhere in the vicinity, her mother slowly fishes a hastily wadded-up bill from her pants pocket.

She hands the twenty-dollar bill to her daughter. None of her pleasures were ever real until she shared them with her daughter. Kathy wishes her mom had more such moments. She decides, in advance, she will be happy today. Kathy thinks briefly of her three wildly different siblings. She suppresses those thoughts, sees a semi flying southbound just behind them, gently encourages her mother a bit further off from the shoulder.

There are a few sidewalks, but mostly they are in the downtown area. Like the fancy silverware and the frilly towels, you saved for your favorite guests.

“Whoa, this was lying on the road back there?” Kathy asks.

Her mom shivers just once, which strikes Kathy as almost funny. It was in the nineties, and while she couldn’t say precisely how far they were from the Mississippi, she knew it was less than a handful of miles. As such, it was humid. It was an effort to breathe at times.

“Yes. Do you think we should find whoever lost it?”

Kathy considers the question briefly. Not many people walked this road. She doubts any of them lost it. She thinks it’s more likely to have fallen from a passing vehicle.

She knows her mother so well, way better than her brothers. But she says it anyway.

“No, mom. We should spend it. It’s a gift from the Lord; let us enjoy this unexpected blessing and shop. With your six bucks and this twenty,” she says, pressing the wrinkled, damp bill back into her mom’s sweaty palm, “We are practically as rich as ole Mr. Killian!”

She sees they are approaching the best place to cross Lehman Drive, just across from where the Pizza Hut sits. —

Kathy makes sure her mom spends some of the money on herself. She forces her to return a few of the stocking-stuffers she had picked up for Adam and Mark.

Her mom loved the Christmas season more than all other times, all other holidays combined. Her mom was, she thought, much like how Ebenezer must have been after his trio of celestial spirits left him alone in his bed-chamber. But her mother, the sweet soul that she was, never had a greedy, tight bone in her body.

Kathy ends up buying herself a little stuffed animal.

“I’m going to call her Penny,” Kathy says, holding up the pale yellow toy animal for her mom to see.

The two of them had searched her bedroom several times after the inquisitive guinea pig went missing. But in the end, Penny was too clever by half for her good. Rather than enjoying her reprieve from the cage, Penny grew greedy with her freedom. The poor creature died of starvation, Kathy never fully recovered from the death of her beloved Penny. She also adds three strands of the red cherry licorice.

As the two of them stand in the checkout lane, she notices the balsa-wood airplane gliders and even the deluxe model with the extra hardware to give your little wooden plane a rubberband-powered propeller. Her brothers used to love to fly those flimsy little things in Grandma Hector’s holler.

Despite all her encouragement to spend on herself, in the end, her mom only buys an emery board and a small bottle of dish detergent for herself.

Their total? A measly $11.18. But that is okay, she thinks. She has a plan on how they can spend the rest of their windfall. —

On their way home, the duo stop for one of their favorite meals: a Pizza Hut medium deluxe pizza with two soft drinks. There are only a few silver coins and three copper coins left of the twenty.

It hadn’t been a hugely eventful day for them, but it was a happy one. Kathy chews at the last piece of crust and decides she’s glad they spent the twenty. It had brought her mom so much joy today, and that had been scarce lately. Yet several times in the store, Kathy looked over and saw some small measure of hesitation or guilt in her mother’s eyes.

She has a curious passing thought. Someday I will read about This day. It felt like a premonition. Kathy pushes the thought down. She decides reading about this time with her and her mom would be a lovely reminder of a fine day together.

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