Creative Nonfiction by Will McMillan
Under the crackling strobe of grocery store fluorescents, I watched the blood as it slicked, as it gathered. Gruesome ribbons, like teardrops of scarlet, pooling into a flat, ivory platter of cracked Styrofoam. “REDUCED FOR QUICK SALE!” screamed the bright yellow sticker slapped across a fragment of damp cellophane, cocooning both the tray and the bleeding lump of ground beef it was holding.
A chaos of scents swarmed around me – dough being shaped into sweet, golden loaves. Freon chilling cases of milk, eggs and yogurt. Enjoli fragrance drifting in waves from the pale skin of my mother. From all the mothers, who passed us by in the aisles, shopping carts rumbling across glossed, white linoleum, their hair feathered into peroxided, Farrah Fawcett-shaped curls.
But the blood. It was all I could see. A blister rising against a clear, plastic skin. Right there, in our shopping cart, beside the corn flakes, the mayonnaise, the jars of sweet pickles. How long until…
A pearl of blood slipped from the package, through the crisscrossed metal links of our cart, to those polished, gleaming white tiles. One drop, then another.
“Mom,” I said, pointing at the blood as it dribbled. “Mom, look.” I tapped on the denim encasing her hips. I tugged at the delicate frill of her blouse. I gazed up at her. “Mom, look, look...”
Except she wasn’t looking. Here, blood was trickling like rust from a spigot, and my mother couldn’t be bothered to see it. We’d already made our way down one aisle and now we were making our way down another. But the blood went unnoticed because something else seized her attention. Something that wasn’t just pulling her along through the aisles, but pulling her away from me, from this moment. To a place where my voice and my words couldn’t reach her. I’d seen her seized in this trance before – recently, at home, her head pressed against our living room window, curtains strangled within the twist of her fingers. Staring out at our driveway, at the spot where my father’s pickup truck should’ve been parked, sunset carving shadows through the earth.
“When’s dad coming home?” I’d asked her. “Do you know where he’s at? Is he out with his friend?” But she kept her gaze locked through the window, her breath raising fog on the glass. Her body was right there, sharing space right beside me, yet my mother was a million miles off, some faraway place beyond the edge of her gaze.
Another bead of red hit the tiles. Again, I tugged at the soft, flowered trim of my mother’s blouse. Her eyes were unblinking and steady, a doll looking out into nothing. Except she wasn’t just looking – she was leering. A stream of fury rushing out from her eyes, shattering on the back of another woman in our aisle.
The woman was walking in front of us. In blue jeans, like my mom. A white, nothing blouse. Brown hair pulled back into an untidy pony, purse strapped at her shoulder. With her cart in her hands, this woman browsed through the stacked jars of condiments, the pickles, the dressings. We’d followed her down two aisles already, spilling blood the whole time. The woman took a step. My mom took a step. The woman paused to consider. My mother paused to observe, to glare, keeping the distance between them in check. The woman picked a jar from the shelf and set it at the front end of her cart. Some thick, viscous something with a green and black label. Applesauce, maybe.
Two globs of blood from our cart smacked the tiles. We were splashing a trail as we started and stopped, as if our cart were some strange, metal creature marking the store with its scent.
“Mom. Mom? Mom!”
But the blood continued to fall and the woman we followed reached the end of the aisle. She stopped her cart short, suddenly plundering through her groceries, sorting the food into piles as if stacking blocks in a game. Something was missing in her cart, something she thought she’d grabbed, but forgotten. Rather than walking forward, to next aisle before us, she rounded the corner, going back down the aisle we’d already walked through. All of us on the other side of the aisle again, the woman only made it in a few steps before she came to a halt, casting her gaze on the floor. Tiny red flecks on the linoleum. Standing beside my mom, I could see them. The woman we’d been following could see them as well. She looked in front and beside her, staring down at the blood. And I watched as the scowl blazing out from my mother mutated into an expression of grim satisfaction as the woman at last looked behind her, as she came face to face with the woman and child who’d been cautiously, deliberately, following her.
My mother’s voice was a birdsong. “Hi, Ruth.”
My father pulled me out from his pickup, slamming the door shut, setting me down on the drenched, April earth. A Saturday, a day of work for my mother, a day my father had off. “Let’s go for a drive,” he’d said, slipping his arms through his thick, hunting jacket. Rain plastered the windshield as he drove us, as he explained to me where it was we were going.
“To see a friend, just a friend.” His thumbs rubbed the smooth steering wheel as he drove. His eyes were focused and eager. Soon enough, he brought his truck to a stop, rain on the hood boiling off into steam. On a street I’d never been, from a house I’d never seen, a woman I didn’t know came rushing out to greet us. Tall, thin, with dark, shoulder length hair. Her arms found their way to my father, and his arms to her. They embraced. They kissed on the mouth. They embraced. My father pulled his head back to see her. “Hi, Ruth.” He looked down to me. “This is Will.”
She smelled like cedar, like soot, like the fire that must have been roaring in her fireplace. A chimney sprung out of her house’s rooftop, belching smoke to the clouds. Ruth scooped me up in her arms. The smell was steeped into the folds of her pale, denim jacket, her blouse, the strands of her curly, brown hair. I stared at her mouth, at her lips, wanting to touch them. I’d never seen my dad kiss a woman who wasn’t my mother. What was it about this woman’s lips that made him decide to kiss them? Her embrace was warm, but constricting, and she squeezed me as if I were somehow her child, as if she deserved to lift me up off the ground, to hold me as if I’d always been some part of her.
“Hello, Will,” Ruth said.
“The girls inside?” my father asked, and Ruth nodded. She followed as my father walked us up to her house, as he opened the front door with an ease that suggested he’d opened it many time before, that Ruth was a friend he knew well. The girls he’d asked about, Ruth’s daughters, were inside.
“Behave,” said my father, one hand pointing at me, one hand circling Ruth’s lower back. “And be quiet.” That he was leaving me alone, with these strangers, sunk in. The air in my chest turned to lead, my face exploding with sweat. I wanted to beg him, to plead – to not leave me alone with these strangers. To not disappear to somewhere unknown, to a place in the world where I couldn’t reach him. But he’d already abolished my right to protest with a strict, single order – behave. And to be quiet.
“Have fun,” said Ruth, smiling at her daughters. She followed my father as he walked out the door, the two of them heading off into that wet April morning. Ruth’s daughters were as tall and thin as she was, with matching brown hair of various lengths. Like a toy they’d been waiting to play with, they passed my stiff, wooden body back and forth to each other, whooshing me up and down in the air, smiling and giggling and screeching as I swooped from one set of hands to the next. Their hands, I discovered, felt safe on my skin. Their giggles began to sound sweet in my ears, and I couldn’t help the laughter that came, that flew from my mouth, as I was tossed back and forth by a room full of strangers.
“Hi.” The woman flung her hands from her cart, as if it had turned electric. Facing me, the woman with brown hair and a ponytail, blue jeans and a blouse, became someone I realized I knew, became Ruth. She stared at my mother, who hadn’t needed to see Ruth’s face to know her. But there wasn’t a look of fury in Ruth’s eyes, like my mothers. In Ruth’s eyes there was nothing but shock.
“Hi,” Ruth repeated, as if that were all she could say, her voice as flat and cold as the floor where we stood. She looked from my mother, to me, then back to my mother, whose mouth was being pulled up at the corners, as if snagged by invisible fishhooks. A smile that wasn’t anything at all like a smile. Ruth tipped her head back, as if my mother’s expression had reached out and struck her. The hinges that kept Ruth’s mouth shut seemed to fracture, and she took one final look at her cart, grabbed her purse by the straps, turned, then hustled her way out of the aisle. Moments later she was gone, her cart an artifact she’d abandoned.
“Bye.” My mother’s voice still a birdsong, her face still sculpted in that wide, rubber smile. She wandered over to Ruth’s shopping cart, looking, I thought, at what it was Ruth bought. But she was still in that faraway place in her mind, the same place she went to when she looked out our living room window, at my father’s empty space in the driveway.
“When’s dad coming home? Do you know where he’s at? Is he out with his friend?” I’d asked all those nights, my mother parked alone at the window, strangling fistfuls of curtain. She’d never said where he was, I’d assumed, because she’d never known. But maybe she had. In her mind, maybe she saw him in that faraway place – on a street, at a house, with a woman. A woman he kissed on the mouth.
My mother walked back from Ruth’s cart, and in the space between Ruth’s cart and her own, the spell she was under seemed to vanish. Her eyes began to see once again. She saw me, saw her groceries. She spotted the clump of bleeding ground beef. She frowned.
“Oh, that’s not good.” She pulled the package of meat from our cart, blood spilling quick as she did so, tossing it down into Ruth’s. “That’s a mess.” One drop of blood. Two drops of blood. Through the crisscrossed links of Ruth’s cart. Freckles of gore on manicured tiles.
“C’mon,” she said, pulling my hand into hers. She laced her fingers between mine, walking me and our cart to the front of the store, toward the check out. There were four checker’s working- three women, one man. Shopping carts stacked bumper to bumper, I knew which checker my mother would go to. The same checker she went to every time we came to the store, even when she had no groceries to buy. She’d wait in his line, primping her hair, running her tongue along the edge of her lips.
“Hi, Ken,” she said. She smiled, and this time her smile was a real smile. She laughed, and her laugh was a real laugh, and soon enough she let go of my hand, and again I watched as she drifted from me, pulling away as I stood right beside her, to a place where my voice and my words couldn’t reach her.
Will McMillan is a queer writer born and raised just outside of Portland, Oregon, where he still lives today. His essays have been featured in The Sun, Hippocampus, Atticus Review, and Redivider literary journals, among others.