“I don’t see why I have to buy extra school supplies,” said Mr. Regan. “I send you off to school clothed and fed, and then I have to buy extra supplies for you whenever you have to do some damn project. Whatever happened to books and chalk?”
“I need poster board to make a poster,” said
“Does Mom know about this?” asked Mr. Regan.
“She doesn’t care,” said
“We’ll see about that,” said Mr. Regan. “Where is this damn poster board anyway? And where did your mother and brother go?”
“Danny is looking at video games, and I don’t know where Mom is. Clothes, probably.”
Mr. Regan grunted.
“I can’t ever find anything in this store,” said Mr. Regan. “And look at all of these ugly people,” he whispered to
“This fucking store,” said Mr. Regan. “It feels like we are in here every week.”
Mr. Regan ran his fingers through his thin, lank hair. His reflection did the same thing in a stack of clearance CDRs. He picked them up and pretended to inspect their price.
The lines around his eyes told him he was drinking too much. But it was okay. He was nice when he was drunk, and he remembered his own father. He was drunk every day, lived happy, and died before he got sick with anything expensive. Everybody cried at his father’s funeral and said what a wonderful dickhead he’d been. And he HAD been a wonderful dickhead. Almost a classically good father. So what if he always smelled like whiskey sours?
Emily still looked perfect, of course. She never drank. Still looked nineteen.
Mr. Regan put the stack of CDRs back on the shelf. He suddenly realized that he’d lost
“Piss,” said Mr. Regan. Now who would he talk to?
Mr. Regan turned left past a middle-aged woman in a blue vest. She was shaped like a fire hydrant, and her face was wrinkled and shiny, like a walnut coated in olive oil. Fire lines of severe acne ran in the trails from her eyes, to her jowls, to her ears. The woman was putting red stickers on glossy paperback books. Each of the stickers said “99 cents.”
“Excuse me,” said Mr. Regan. “I am looking for the poster board.”
“You want postum board?” said the woman, squinting. Her nametag said “Britney.”
“Well, actually, Britney, I’m looking for my daughter. But I figure I’ll find her wherever poster board can be found,” said Mr. Regan.
“My name’s not Britney,” said the woman. “I had to borrow this vest ‘cause I left mine at my boyfriend’s house.”
“I see,” said Mr. Regan.
“Postum board is in aisle four,” said the woman, returning to her books and stickers.
“Where is aisle four?” asked Mr. Regan. “I can’t ever find anything in this store.”
“You think that’s my fault?” asked the woman. “Aisle four is all the way down at the other end. Keep going past the elemtronics. You’ll see it.”
“Like: a football field away, huh?”
“This is a Wal-Mart SupemCenter,” said the woman, smacking her lips. “We even got a bakery.”
Mr. Regan picked up one of the novels from a rack that spun on ball bearings next to the woman who wasn’t Britney. It was part of a series of books called “Judgment Tag.” This book was number seven in the series, but Mr. Regan didn’t see books one-through-six anywhere.
“Judgment Tag” was subtitled “Rapture Rupture.” He read the back of the book as the woman hissed at him through her teeth. She probably thought he couldn’t hear her, but he could.
FROM THE MINDS BEHIND THE WILDLY POPULAR “LEFT BEHIND” SERIES COMES A SAGA SO COMPELLING, IT WILL CHANGE THE WAY YOU THINK FOREVER
Dr. Marcus Brick was a hard-driving, hard-living plastic surgeon, dedicated to changing the faces of the rich and famous. He was famous in a way that only superstar athletes and politicians could understand, and his skills were up for the highest bidder: crime bosses, serial killers, drug dealers. And then, one day, he was visited by a demon from Hell who offered him a trade: he would live in Hell as Satan’s personal torturer, and in return, he would go to Heaven when he died. What torments will the damned suffer under his perfect knife? And will Dr. Brick have a soul left, when all is said and done?
Mr. Regan put the book back on the rack.
“That’s a good one,” said the woman.
“So you guys sell a lot of books here? Lots of readers?”
“I don’t know,” said the woman. “I normally work in housewares. I’m just here because I’m wearing Britney’s vest. I’ve got to work her shift, cause.”
“She’s in the garden today.”
“Who’s vest is she wearing?” asked Mr. Regan.
“Look,” said the woman, “I’m not doing customer service. There’s a desk, okay? It’s up at the front. They got a guy who knows everything.”
Mr. Regan bowed and pretended to sweep off on imaginary hat. The woman didn’t seem to notice, and she continued mumbling to herself as she peeled stickers and stuck them on books. Mr. Regan spun on one foot and turned a corner, walking away in the general direction that the woman had indicated.
Mr. Regan stared at his garbled two-tone reflection in the gleaming eggshell-colored floor, feeling guilty for reasons he’d rather not think about.
How did they get the floor so bright?
The fluorescents were brutal to introspection, creating a light-storm for the eyes that made everything look as if it were electrically charged. Even the beige hand towels and salad tongs looked as if they were barely-condensed waves of pure energy, like constrictors waiting in jungle lianas, ready to leap off of shelves and wrap themselves around your neck.
It was really stressful. Mr. Regan felt as if he constantly had to keep an eye on the merchandise that he passed through, just in case he had to fight off a coordinated attack of animated gewgaws and flimflam, gleaming chrome and primary-colored plastic punching him full of corrosive firecracker holes like buzz bombs into a battleship.
Try as he might, even as the woman’s directions trickled back into consciousness (aisle four, past the electronics), Mr. Regan couldn’t find any place where the aisles were numbered. He stood there between body lotions and floaty toys, squinting, scratching his head.
Body lotions or floaty toys? Which one was more functionally comparable to poster board? Which direction to take?
Mr. Regan paralyzed himself with the possibilities. He had taken a step toward the floaty toys (poster board floats!) when he heard shrieking from behind him that jangled his marrow and made him want to throw himself through a window.
But it was only a little girl escaping from the clutches of her growling father, not, in fact, a skinless cat, bleeding from its pores, being rolled in broken glass, like a donut in powdered sugar. Mr. Regan relaxed a little bit, even as the shrieking flayed his mind and made the lenses of his eyeglasses vibrate in their frames.
He sympathized with the burly-but-embarrassed man who was trying to corral his tag-along homunculus. He had been there once. Single people didn’t understand. It wasn’t like you could leave your kids alone at home like a cat or a senile grandmother. They went everywhere with you, like a tune you couldn’t get out of your head.
“You don’t run off like that, Courtney,” said the man, grabbing the little girl by the arm. “You stay next to me or you are gonna get snatched.”
“I want a DOGGIE,” she screamed, falling on her knees.
“You can’t have a doggie,” said the man, leaning down. “Not how you are acting. You are about to get a spanking.”
“UHHHHHHHHH,” screamed the little girl. The man tried to pick her up, but she made her body go completely limp as if slain by her father’s touch. She dangled from his arm like a bowling ball from three fingers. Mr. Regan briefly wondered if the man was going to sail his daughter down the shining, kiwi-cream floor, where she would crash through a face-high stack of DVDs, sending an alert through the Wal-Mart Machine that would cause blue-vested pinsetters to scurry forth from mechanical holes to reset the endcaps for the next squealing child to crash through.
“I-WANT-A-DOGGIE,” she sobbed. Real tears streamed down her face, and the man and Mr. Regan made eye-contact. Mr. Regan wasn’t sure if he should walk away. He wanted to minimize the man’s obvious embarrassment. But he wasn’t sure what would be worse:
1) If he stayed, the man would think he was a gawker or a Moral Malcolm.
2) If he fled, the man would know that his “bad” little girl had made an impact on some other person -- some person just trying to shop. That could be devastating.
Mr. Regan stood where he was and picked up a long, purple “noodle”: a pool toy that you clung to in the water as if humping a flaccid piece of driftwood. He pretended to inspect the noodle, looking for a reason not to buy it.
Grunting and exasperated, the man let the girl go and she fell down on the cold floor in a pile.
“I’m not going to drag you,” he said sharply. “Now get the hell up. I swear I will take you outside.”
The little girl made another break for it, and Mr. Regan now saw what she wanted. It was an immense stuffed dog made out of neoprene or asbestos or some other kind of soft synthetic satin. It appeared to be stuffed with cotton balls, such that its head drooped sideways on patchwork shoulders.
It grinned, though.
It had been lobotomized.
Somebody had replaced this poor dog’s brain with fabric and air.
The little girl grabbed the dog from off the shelf and held it close, squeezing the crap out of it.
“I need it,” said the girl, staring bullets from under a heavy brow.
The man lost his patience. He snatched the girl up and slung her over his shoulder. He threw the dog on the ground and whirled around. The girl was suddenly scared. No more crying. Just quiet tension.
The man looked at Mr. Regan as he stalked away.
“Sorry,” said Mr. Regan. But the man didn’t reply. He stormed away, headed for the social safety of his car. No doubt to administer a beating.
Why had Mr. Regan apologized? For watching?
Where the hell were Danny and Emily and Sidney? This store was too damn big for a family. You got split up inside it like different weights of sheep and herded to where they sold you something you didn’t want. Slaughtered by savings. That should be their motto.
Mr. Regan walked over to the smooth-skinned, pale pink-and-blue puppy dog that the girl had wanted so much. He put his hand on its head and stroked it, shutting his eyes. He checked over his shoulder. No one was looking. He bent down and rubbed the skin of the stuffed dog against his face. The skin was creamy and cool -- butter on his whiskers. Leaning over at the waist, he pushed his whole face into the dog’s infinitely soft belly.
With his head in the shelf, he could hear talking streaming from the other side. He popped up, but no one had seen him. He leaned back into the shelf and listened, taking the dog by the hand.
“Come on, Henrietta,” said a cracking (but mellow) male teenage voice. “Let’s not get into this. You know I love you. You know I love everything about you.”
“I can’t help it,” said Henrietta. “I just get to thinking about all that COULD be. I mean, I’m tired of staying at my mom’s house. We got to move out. I can’t get another job. You got to get another job, Maurice. Or get lucky.”
“If I work any harder, my arms’ll fall off,” said Maurice. “You know I love you. Just be happy. BE HAPPY.”
Mr. Regan creeped along the aisle to the hubbub of the end display, where there was a hulking crate of Legos, part of the new “
Mr. Regan peeked into the next aisle and got a look at the arguing couple. They seemed pretty serious.
“What if I’m pregnant? Imagine that!” said Henrietta. “We can’t raise a kid with no playground.”
“Imagine my ass,” said Maurice. “You aren’t pregnant. There ain’t NO chance of that.”
Henrietta glared at Maurice, but he grabbed her shoulders and hugged her.
“Hey, you want some popcorn? Let’s go get some popcorn,” said Maurice. “You need some lotion and stuff, too, huh?”
Henrietta still seemed upset, but she smiled slightly.
“Let’s go get some popcorn and lotion,” said Maurice. “Come on.”
He put his arm around her and they started walking off in the opposite direction. Spontaneously, they kissed each other, and their hands both went lower. Mr. Regan smiled goofily.
There was a hand on his shoulder. Security?
He turned around.
It was his son, Danny.
“Hey, Mom’s all ready to go,” said Danny. “What are you staring at?”
“What?” said Mr. Regan.
“What?” asked Danny. “Hey, the new Smash Brothers is out. Totally dope. You’ll love it. Hey, come see. Maybe you’ll want to buy a copy, huh? Come look at it. It’s got your favorite characters.”
“Better not,” said Mr. Regan, smiling. “Where’d your mother head out to?” he asked instead. Putting his hand across his son’s shoulders. Grimacing as his son slipped out from under his grasp and stood there sullenly, slouching at angles to his father’s confused forearms.
“Sorry about that,” said Mr. Regan.
“Mom’s checking out already,” said Danny. “But the line is a million people long. Seriously. Literally. A million people long.”
Danny’s eyes wandered over behind Mr. Regan to the walls of enormous televisions, the deafening crèche where the video games lay. The video games: slit into shelves and then opened like oysters to beckon and taunt with the art from their display cases, the silver eye inside a substandard pearl. Promising nothing of substance. Delivering nothing of substance. Rejoicing in this.
“Well, let’s go find her, kid,” said Mr. Regan. “I’m sure she’ll want company.”
Mr. Regan took off to the front, and Danny followed, dragging his feet. The checkout lines were scanning stiff and quick, with legions of scowling bargainers clutching factory-defect Oreos and pushing baskets full of clothes and hammers.
One line was moving slightly faster than the others, and Mr. Regan noticed a bright red sign above it that flashed: “Bread Only.”
“Do you see her?” he asked Danny.
“Yeah, come on,” said Danny, pushing his way forward. Both Emily and Sidney were humped together near the end of a line that seemed to have come to a complete standstill. Danny and Mr. Regan sidled up next to them, and Mr. Regan put his arm around his wife, who looked at him coolly.
“Did you find the poster board?” he asked his daughter.
“Did you ask your mom if you could use her magazines?” he asked.
Nobody said anything.
Mr. Regan handed
“Hey, look at that,” said Mr. Regan, letting Emily go and staring out the window. “I wonder what she’s looking for?”
A woman was down on her hands and knees in the thin strip of grass next to the shopping cart snake. She had a happy-looking golden retriever on a short leash, and she was feeling for something, as if she had dropped her car keys or a contact lens. She picked her head up, and Mr. Regan could see that she was wearing dark sunglasses.
“She’s blind, Dad,” said Danny -- bored.
She was wearing a plastic glove on her probing hand. There was a thin, collapsible pole at her side.
“So she is,” said Mr. Regan.
As Mr. Regan watched, she scooped up something brown and meaty and rolled it up inside her glove as she took it off, smart and quick, like flipping a pancake.
“Cleaning up dog poop,” said Mr. Regan. “Can’t even see it. Now that’s love.”
“I’m going to go wait in the car,” said Mr. Regan, sighing. “Danny?”
“Sure,” said Danny, following as Mr. Regan skirted through the wall of lines and headed out the big glass doors. Mr. Regan didn’t even pause when the people at the front asked to check his receipt. Didn’t even turn around. The greeters looked as if they might shake him down, but the next crop of exit applicants hit them, and they decided Mr. Regan wasn’t worth it.
Danny submitted himself to search, and so he lagged behind, meeting his father in front of the convenience store at the far end of the parking lot. Lo Chance Gas N’ Save, said the sign. The place was slotted for destruction soon. Soon it would be a fancy RaceTrack gas station, with seventeen different kinds of Slurpee and African-American men who pumped your gas for you, just like in the old days.
But for now it was the Lo Chance Gas N’ Save.
“Wait here,” said Mr. Regan. Danny waited, and thirty seconds later, Mr. Regan returned with a lottery ticket in his hands, smiling slyly.
“Maybe we’ll win,” said Mr. Regan.
“Is it a scratch off?” said Danny. “Let me do it.”
“Nah, it’s one of the ‘number’ ones. Pick six and win ten hundred million dollars at the drawing.”
“What’s the jackpot at?” asked Danny.
“Who knows?” said Mr. Regan. “It’s high enough so that we’d never have to work again. If you are us -- that is -- and don’t live crazy lives.”
“My algebra teacher has a bumper sticker that says ‘the lottery is a math illiteracy tax,’” said Danny.
“Pretty funny,” said Mr. Regan. “But you don’t buy a lottery ticket to win. You buy a lottery ticket to dream about what you’d do if you did win. All the problems you’d solve and the things you’d set right if instant wealth was at your fingertips. We’d split it four ways. I’m no tyrant. What would you do with your share?”
Danny thought about it.
“I don’t know,” he said finally.
“Come on, think!” said Mr. Regan. “Would you go on vacation somewhere? Donate it all to cancer research?”
“I’d probably fuck around a lot and play video games,” said Danny. “Oh, and I’d go to an awesome-ass college.”
“Button up,” said Mr. Regan. “Here comes your mother.”
“Let’s get out of here,” said Mrs. Regan, joining them. “I’m exhausted.”
“No joke,” said Mrs. Regan.
“Dad bought a lottery ticket,” said Danny, snitching.
“Thanks pal,” said Mr. Regan.
“Why?” asked Mrs. Regan. “That’s such a waste of money. Such a bad example.”
“Nah, it’s just fun,” said Mr. Regan. “You buy the ticket and then you imagine what you’d do with the winnings. Danny, for instance, wants to go to an Ivy League School.”
“If you study hard,” said Mrs. Regan, “the government will pay you to go to school. You don’t need to win the lottery.”
“What would you do with the money, Mom?” asked Danny.
“I don’t know,” said Mrs. Regan.
The family got into the car and Mr. Regan started it, lining up at the edge of the parking lot with the other cars waiting to leave. The car idled and everybody rolled their windows down.
“I guess the first thing I would do is get a car with air conditioning,” said Mrs. Regan smiling.
“Soon enough, soon enough,” said Mr. Regan.
“And then it would be nice to have a new house. I don’t know. It would be nice to get out of this state altogether, actually. It would be nice to live in
Mr. Regan narrowed his eyes, but didn’t say anything. He steered the car out of the intersection and down Westheimer.
“Of course, none of THAT is very sensible. It’s not as if you can just wish for the things you want,” Mrs. Regan continued. “You choose your lot in life, and then you live with it. It’s not as if I thought I would have any kids when I was your age. It just happened that way. How about you, Sidney? What would you do if you won the lottery?”
“What was that?” asked Mr. Regan, barely containing himself.
“”I’d get out of this stupid family,” said
Mr. Regan stuck his elbow out of the car. He shifted his seat. He unbuckled his seatbelt.
Mrs. Regan put her hand on his arm, but he shrugged it off.
“Lottery tickets are stupid,” said
“And a waste of money,” agreed Mrs. Regan.
The car came to a stop at an intersection between a pawn shop and a shop that sold action figures, comic books, and specialty games.
Mr. Regan pulled the lottery ticket from his back pocket and stared at it. The lottery ticket (already slightly damp from his sweat) now had a denim imprint and was curved like the end of a sleigh, conforming to the slope of Mr. Regan’s seated rear end.
“Imagine my ass,” said Mr. Regan. He tore the lottery ticket in half. “Why don’t you all just go ahead and imagine my ass?”
He folded the halves and then tore the lottery ticket into four more pieces, which he then tossed out of the car window.
“Hey,” said Danny, opening his car door, and bending down to collect the ticket fragments that drifted near him. “Why’d you do that?”
“Get back in the car,” said Mr. Regan. The light turned green, and Mr. Regan hit the gas. The car lurched forward with the back door still open, but Danny closed it immediately, and the Regan family drove home the rest of the way in silence.