Pink Plastic Bag
Whether or not she ever knew he knew what they were doing he never knew. He didn’t really know exactly what they were doing but knew enough to know it was bad, something wrong, something he definitely shouldn’t be involved in, maybe even the worst he’d ever been involved in or at least anything she had ever involved him in before. That’s what he thought. It was in front of a house across the river. The bridge they crossed looked and sounded and felt unfit for cars to drive over, maybe a horse or a bicycle or a man or woman walking over but not a car. They drove over. “Maybe we should walk over instead,” he said. “Or else not go at all because we’re going to be late.”
“Shush,” she shushed him. “Plenty of time. Nothing to worry about. Bridge is strong enough to hold a pair of lightweights like us, right?”
“I suppose so,” he mumbled, had weighed himself just that morning after his bath when he’d heard was the best time to weigh yourself for an accurate reading. Ninety pounds on the nose, even with socks, pants, shoes, shirt, jacket. She usually said she weighed around a hundred though he had a good idea she was usually taking off at least ten pounds from the truth, but anyway it wasn’t really their weight that he was worried about so much as the large car they were driving in, driving over the bridge, at least a ton if not more, not that he really knew how much a ton was but pretty sure this was about a ton since he’d heard of a two-ton pickup and this was about half the size of that, which was still large enough, especially for driving over a bridge.
“What’s that?” she asked. “I didn’t hear you. I can never understand you when you mumble like that.”
“I said I suppose so,” he said. “I suppose so.”
“Don’t get uppity with me. Just because your father’s not here I’ll still box your ears.”
His father. If his father had any idea what he had an idea they’re doing, he’d have a thing or two to say about it that’s for sure. And if she really did box his ears he’d have a thing or three or four to say. His father had never boxed his ears, never laid a hand on him except sometimes on his shoulder when he was upset or when they were driving sometimes he’d reach down and grab his leg just above the knee and squeeze hard, but not to hurt him, never to hurt him, even though sometimes it hurt a little, but just a squeeze to say hey and be affectionate, which his father had never been especially good with, and when he reached down and squeezed his leg, even if it hurt quite a lot sometimes, never said anything and was always happy, smiling.
They were on their way to the dentist’s office, he was, his stepmother driving, though he never liked to think of her as stepmother but his father’s girlfriend, then wife, or else just her name, which is what he said now, what he called her generally, said, “Sometimes they won’t see me if I’m late. Sometimes they make me reschedule, not because they’re mean or anything but because there are other people waiting for their own appointments,” but she wasn’t listening anymore. She was parking, parked, reaching under the seat behind him where she had her bag, picked it up, set in her lap, pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, a cigarette, stuck it in her mouth, lit it with the lighter, flame set too high, at least three inches up, guided the cigarette with her mouth into the flame, rolled down the window, exhaled.
Also there was a pink plastic bag she pulled out of the same bag she pulled the cigarettes and lighter out of after she finished her cigarette. It was small and pink and plastic, in or about the size of the kind of bag they give you when you go to the pharmacy or the corner store, just big enough to hold a couple packs of gum maybe or maybe a pack of cigarettes and not much else. It had been tied twice at the top so tight the air inside was trapped like a balloon, pink plastic balloon, and it was light, so light it didn’t really feel like there was anything inside at all, or looked that way, though the plastic was just opaque enough he couldn’t really be sure.
“Here,” she said. “We’ll just do this one thing I have to do and then we’ll be back on the road and make it to your dentist appointment with time to spare.” With the pink plastic bag in her lap on top of her other bag that was also in her lap. “And if you want,” she went on, “we can stop by McDonald’s on our way home for some French fries and maybe a milkshake if your teeth aren’t bothering you and if the dentist says it’s okay to eat, though we won’t tell him it’s for milkshakes and French fries.”
“What do you have to do?”
“It’s real simple,” she said. “I don’t think anyone’s home right now so just put this plastic bag in the mailbox and that’s it. They’ll understand what it’s for.”
“Who?” he asked. “Who’ll understand?”
“Oh, just some friends of mine,” she said. “Magda and her husband. Have you met Magda? No, I don’t think you have though your father has but really doesn’t like her much, you know how he can be, so judgmental, classist. Don’t ever be like that, you hear? Just because they’re poor. Okies, he calls them, white trash, but they’ve never even been to Oklahoma let alone be from there.”
“But we’re poor,” he said.
“Different kind of poor,” she shook her head. “But you go on now, just the plastic bag in the mailbox and we’ll be on our way.”
“You want me to do it?”
“I’m driving, aren’t I? I can’t do everything now, can I?”
“But I don’t even know them.”
“I told you already,” she said. “Magda and her husband. Now come on now, now we’re really going to be late,” she said, cajoled, reprimanded, said. He didn’t want to do it but did it anyway, picked up the plastic bag so light if he walked with it in the palm of his hand it’d likely just float away high up in the air from the wind of his walking, but he didn’t, held on to it, not tight enough to feel what was inside because it was probably nothing, literally nothing, just an empty pink plastic bag, a game, like tag, her before and now them, Magda and her husband whom his father didn’t like, and all he was doing was tagging them.
The river under the bridge was rushing hard with spring runoff and it was still wet even though it had finally stopped raining, but wet, damp, wet, green, gray and wet. Did he see the curtain move just then in the window of the house? He thought he did, thought maybe it was just the wind or a cat, maybe his imagination, but maybe also someone watching him, Magda or her husband or someone completely different watching him, watching his every move. On his left he passed an old car with the driver’s side window halfway down, wet inside, dismembered doll parts littering the backseat, also wet, and on the right a deflated soccer ball, kicked and fallen by the way with a hollow whump. “The mailbox,” she called out the window.
He was there now, undid the latch, opened, put the plastic bag inside on top a pile of mail, bills from the look of it, book of coupons, envelope from the phone company on top, closed, tagged, ran back to the car like a feral dog was chasing him, on the chase, the scent, a rushing torrent, a madman, psycho killer wielding a chainsaw, machete, plastic bag, because when is it ever that easy to tag? Back to the car door out of breath, jumped in, slammed the door, locked, safe. “There now,” she said. “That wasn’t so hard was it?” As if she didn’t know. She knew. Hard like a rock, like diamonds cutting diamonds, was it hard? It was hard and she knew, and he knew she knew, and if she didn’t know he wasn’t going to tell her because she should know by now.
Then back over the bridge, rushing river below, he could feel the struts beginning to give, give way, he looked down. Had the water really risen that high in the ten minutes since they first crossed? Had it really only been ten minutes? They were back on the road now, the freeway, still another forty minutes to the dentist, she turned on the radio, a tape, books on tape, The Shadow. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” it asked. “The Shadow knows!”
He fell asleep listening and when he woke up again they were getting off the freeway. “Morning, sleepyhead,” she said and he wondered, did that really happen? Had it all been just a dream? “You’re it,” he said and she laughed and said, “I think someone still hasn’t really woken up!” He yawned and rubbed his eyes, the sun was out, it was warm, The Shadow had just caught his culprit and it was the third man all along. “What time is it?” he asked.
“We’re fine,” she said. “A little late but fine,” and they were. Fine. Just a few minutes late, said the secretary, but the dentist was running a little late himself and if they just wanted to take a seat he’d be with them soon. They both took a seat, she a magazine, spear fishing in Mexico, droughts in China and breastfeeding chimpanzees and he woke up a little more, still waking up when the nurse or dental assistant came in to say the dentist would see them, him, now. Open wide. Wider. Now you’re closing again, come on now, wide, wider, that’s it, there you go.
The dentist was sticking things in his mouth, something that looked like a miniature sickle, poking, also a little round mirror at the end of a metal rod, showing, saw something, took the tools out of his mouth, wrote something in a chart, tsk-tsked or maybe clucked his tongue, looked at the chart again, shook his head, his mouth still open, wide, wider, widest and beginning to ache, said, “Excuse me, sir? Can I close my mouth now?”
“Sir?” laughed the dentist, guffawed. “Who ever heard of a young man saying sir these days? Don’t be silly! Call me Doctor!”
She laughed, still with the magazine though not reading it anymore, tucked under the arm she was also using to hold her bag but not the pink plastic bag he’d left empty or seemingly empty in the mailbox over the bridge but her bag, purse, with cigarettes, lighter, keys, money, makeup, mints. The pink plastic bag was gone. Oh yes, that happened. “Such a gentleman he is when he wakes up!” she laughed and he laughed too, Doctor, the dentist, but not him because his mouth was still open and also it wasn’t funny.
“Well now,” Doctor the dentist shook his head. “Three cavities and one we’re going to have to take care of this afternoon. The others we’ll have you come back in a few weeks and try to fit them all in at once so how does that sound?” He clucked again and she clucked and then the dental assistant came in clucking herself and stuck a needle in his face.
When he woke up his mouth was numb. No, he didn’t really wake up because he was already awake through the filling, but groggy, still not entirely awake from his nap in the car, and no, he didn’t really know his mouth was numb since it didn’t really feel like anything, just a mouth, below his nose and above his chin, between his cheeks, but then he licked his lips, tried to, a terrible taste in his mouth, the taste of blood, and his tongue felt too big like a slab of meat, a tongue the kind you buy in a Mexican grocery store, lengua, cow’s tongue, and his lips tingled.
After he felt this and thought it and confirmed it he next thought of the phone bill on top of the mail pile underneath the pink plastic bag in Magda and her husband’s mailbox, and he said to her who was sitting in the chair across from him still with her magazine again, “Their phone bill. They have to get it soon. They have to pay it otherwise their phone service is going to be shut off,” though because his mouth was numb it all sounded like nonsense and she shushed him, “Shush now. Your mouth is still numb and I can’t understand a word you’re saying.”
When Doctor the dentist came back in he was holding a lollipop in one hand and a toothbrush in the other and he said, “Kids your age normally we give them a lollipop when they behave themselves as well as you today, but with three cavities already that wouldn’t make me a very responsible dentist now, so what we have here for you instead is a brand-new toothbrush. You like Batman? I know my son about your age is just crazy about Batman so I had them send us these Batman toothbrushes, and I tell you if you use it every night and every morning and floss too, then maybe the next time you come in for your other cavities and behave just as well as you did today you’ll get this lollipop after all. What do you say about that?”
They went to McDonald’s just like she’d promised and got the French fries he couldn’t chew because his mouth was still numb and a chocolate milkshake that leaked out the side of his mouth and down his chin and on his shirt and the upholstery and she reached behind him in her bag for some paper napkins before it stained. It stained. It began to get dark.
His father would be home before him, them, maybe Magda and her husband too, and would they be opening their phone bill and other bills right now? No, they would see the pink plastic bag and know what it meant. Tagged. Them, she and him, passed the exit with the bridge over the rushing river and he clenched his teeth and began to feel it, but knew that them, Magda and her husband, weren’t there anymore nor the pink plastic bag, that they’d come and gone again, left ahead of them, that they would make it home before them, his father inside in the kitchen cooking dinner he wouldn’t be able to eat just like the French fries, but they, Magda and her husband, wouldn’t go inside, just outside to the mailbox, opened, and on top of nothing since his father would have already picked up the mail they’d put the pink plastic bag, tagged, empty or at least seemingly so.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
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