The woman in line at the 24-hour Walmart at midnight
has antifreeze & Nesquick in her cart alongside a child
who’s maybe three dangling sequined shoes & dark ringlets.
My three-year-old back home would kill for those ringlets.
Her hair won’t submit to curlers or rubber bands, won’t even humor
a clip-on braid. She reads Rapunzel stories like primers
on poor self-esteem. The cashier for our line – I want to give him
pit stains & missing teeth, an off-center bald spot – scans
the child & says, “I bet she has to beat men back like flies.”
In the silence that follows, I consider that the items
in my cart – a spool of green ribbon and matching plastic
planters – reveal nothing about why I’m here, not home
with my daughter who will, in a few days, let down her hair
from her other mother’s new apartment. The lawyers
have begun the process of quantifying my significance
to arrive at the percentage of time I am owed: number of nights
I nursed her to sleep vs. nights I spent elsewhere. Does it matter
if I ditched her for a lover or a barstool or a line at Toys R Us
if the takeaway is that I wanted something more than her?
Rapunzel landed in the tower because her mother wanted
rapunzel, an herb some versions swap for parsley,
and though neither makes the list of cravings I’d trade
my future to satisfy, I understand that cost is relative
to the degree of hunger one has suffered, and for how long.
After court I’ll make the beds perfectly enough to camouflage
defeat. Still, it’s the hours between now & then that must be filled
with tasks like buying planters at midnight because life is no longer
a transaction I can comprehend, but a dollar is still
a dollar, & will buy what can be sold, & no one in the 24-hour Walmart
has had an easy night. Maybe the cashier’s bet is a lapse in judgment
I should just overlook because I am here and not home, and because
I have lost Rapunzel to tower, to appetite, and to the mother
I’m not, but I want to say that it is no small thing, no simple thing,
what he has thought and thought to share about this child.
The sale continues, and as if the woman’s failure to play along
has made her currency suspect, he holds her twenties up to the light.
Kelly Magee is the author of Body Language, winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, With Animal, (Black Lawrence Press 2015), and Your Sick (Jellyfish Highway Press 2016). Her work has appeared in Literary Mama, Kenyon Review, Crazyhorse, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Gulf Stream, and others. She teaches writing at Western Washington University, and can be found at kellyelizabethmagee.com.