Thursday, June 2, 2011

TWO FLICKS OF A SQUIRREL'S TAIL

This story I thought would be longer, and I had started and stopped it several times. Today, I saw my way through to the end of it as a flash. So, for two weeks in a row, I participate in #fridayflash. Some weeks are easier than others, that's all I'm sayin'.

TWO FLICKS OF A SQUIRREL'S TAIL

Mike looked out the plate-glass windows to see the bagger leaning against the cart corral, texting. Damn kids. Mike stepped outside to yell at Jake when the moon stopped him. Full and bare in all its pockmarked glory, Mike half expected Elliot and ET to bicycle across the surface. A beat-up LeMans careened into the lot, almost grazing the snaking buggy-line Jake pushed toward the store.

Three doors shot open. The driver grasped his door to pull himself out of the car. He limped to the two reaching arms and helped a hunchbacked woman from the back seat. He got a walker from the trunk, rolled it on its tennis-balled feet towards the gesturing woman. Another old man shuffled around from the passenger side. The trio headed toward Mike.

"Store's about to close folks."

"Are you turning away customers? Back in my day—"

"Shush Frank, let the lolly-gagging boy do his big-boss routine."

He hadn't heard lolly-gagging since nana. The hunchbacked woman's sandpapery voice scratched Mike's eardrums. "Have some respect, boss-man—"

—she pushed her walker closer—

"we'll be gone—"

—the automatic doors swooshed behind him—

"—in two flicks of a squirrel's tail."

He stepped aside to let them pass, breathing through his mouth. They smelled like the last time he was at nana's house, an aromatic blend of mothballs, hamburger grease, and urine with a hint of lavender.

But growing up, her house smelled of strawberry rhubarb pie, and pot roast, and Canada peppermints, and clean sheets and lemon Pledge. Her yard buzzed with bees and dragonflies and the faint whoosh of distant traffic. Mockingbirds and jays called from the edging pines, competing with the chickadees and whippoorwills. Turtles crawled, ants hilled, toads hopped. He had seen rabbits and chipmunks, startled squirrels with bulging cheeks. Both he and the animals would stop, stare, and then the squirrels would flick their tails twice before they'd flit away. Always, two flicks of a squirrel's tail—

Mike lost the old folks.

Marci glared at him from register six. The automatic recording urged shoppers to bring their purchases to the front, the store would be closing in ten minutes. Jake crashed the line of carts against the front wall. Mike couldn't hear the old folks shuffling steps or their querulous voices.

"Goodnight boss. See you tomorrow," Stan from produce said as he headed for the exit. He covered his bald spot with a Boston Red Sox cap, instantly erasing years from his face.

"Did you see some old folks in the aisles?" Mike asked.

"Nope. You all set with me?"

"Yes. Goodnight."

Sam left. The women from the deli said their goodbyes. Mike overheard one comment to the other to wish on the full moon. The other retorted it took more than a full moon. The last two stock boys told Mike all set. None of them had seen any shoppers.

Can I do my drawer now?" Marci asked. She winked at Jake, who lingered at the end of her line. The fluorescent lights flickered and buzzed. The announcement thanked everyone for shopping at Soucy's Market.

"Fine! I'll leave a self check-out open," Mike said.

"How do three gimps disappear?" he mumbled as he walked to the front of each aisle, checking the length for the trio. He immediately felt guilty for the insult; his nana would have boxed his ears for that under-breath comment.

A soap smell wafted, a familiar, fresh scent that he couldn't place. Halfway down aisle eight Mike spotted a spilled box of Calgon. Just as he was about to yell for Jake to get a broom, Marci shouted, "Bye Mike! I left the green thingies on top of my drawer."

The automatic doors swished shut. Mike returned to the front, saw the kids run to Marci's Corolla where Jake trapped her against the door. They kissed. Moonbeams shone on the empty LeMans.

Mike locked the doors, wishing he could have a do-over. No way would he spend his career at the local grocery store. He'd be the one kissing girls in the parking lot, Mike thought as went to Marci's register—an entire sheet of S&H green stamps covered the drawer.

Nostalgia sucker-punched Mike. He remembered licking stamp after stamp, filling up the booklets. He had studied the redemption catalogue, agonized between a camera or binoculars. On his thirteenth birthday, his nana had used all the booklets and surprised him with a shiny red Schwinn.

Mike got the broom and dustpan. Over time, those green stamps had paid for nana's oversized suitcase, alarm clock radio; even her pink floral bedspread.

The walker leaned against an endcap.

"Where are you!" Mike shouted. The Calgon smell wafted stronger, reminding him again of nana. Gosh, he hadn't thought about her since he'd brought her to the nursing home, her suitcase filled with housecoats, and her faded bedspread. The alarm clock radio looked out of place in that utilitarian room. So had nana. He should have visited more often.

Soap powder must have drifted as he swept because his eyes stung. Mike pulled the hanky from his back pocket, blew his nose, then let out a self-deprecating laugh. He hadn't thought so much about nana in years.

Mike bent to pick up the fallen box and slipped. His head slammed against the tiles. Suddenly, the catch phrase came to him.

He shouted, "Calgon, take me away!" and covered his eyes with his forearm, trying his best not to sob.

The fluorescents buzzed louder, then altered into a different tone. Bees, Mike thought. He sniffed. Peppermint and lavender filled his nose.

"My, that was quite a spill, Mikey. You fell faster than two flicks of a squirrel's tail."

Mike opened his eyes. Nana smiled at him. "You're fine. Help me with these groceries. Oh, they had the new catalogue down at Soucy's. Hope you wished for something good on last night's full moon!"

I did Nana Mike thought. Yes I did.