My mother handed me a folded piece of notebook paper. I knew what the note said and I didnʼt want to deliver it. Sheʼd forced me to make this awkward convenience store run many times before and I hated it. It embarrassed me to hand the store clerk the note and then stand there feeling stupid while she read it.
To whom it may concern,
My son is hereby granted permission by me (his mother) to purchase cigarettes on my behalf. Please allow him to purchase two packs of Marlboro Lights. If you have any questions, comments or concerns, please feel free to call me at 747–9927.
Sincerely, Deborah Haskins
I was never quite certain which part of the trips embarrassed me more, the fact that I had a mother who would subject her kid to a situation like this, or the fact that her notes read with the pretentious importance of a stamped and notarized legal document.
As I entered the convenience store, I didnʼt recognize the cashier behind the counter. I figured that she must be new, or maybe she usually worked the overnight shift where I wouldnʼt have seen her. There were three people standing in line at the counter, so I stepped in line to wait. When my turn came, I handed the woman the note. I felt glad that there was nobody in line behind me to witness this. The lady read my motherʼs note, squinting her eyes the entire time as if it was written in a foreign language. When she was through, she folded the note in half and abruptly handed it back to me.
“I canʼt do this.” She said. My face and neck felt hot suddenly and my palms were sweating. If a person didnʼt know any better, looking at me now theyʼd think I was nervous because Iʼd just handed the clerk a note that demanded all the money in her till. I grabbed the note from her and said, “Okay. Thank you. Have a nice day.” and bolted shamefaced out the door.
As soon as I got home, my mother saw by my empty hands that Iʼd failed in my quest for her cancer sticks. “She wouldnʼt let me buy them.” I explained feebly. BUt, it was no use. She was pissed. She pulled herself off of the sofa where sheʼd been lazily watching Phil Donohue and shoved her feet into a cheap pair of rubber flip-flops. She grabbed her car keys from the coffee table and burst out the front door. When the screen door slammed loudly behind her, she stopped and turned around in a huff, a hand upon her hip.
“Letʼs go, boy. Get your ass in the car.” She spat. Once I was in the front seat, she muttered beneath her breath, but still loud enough for me to hear it, “I canʼt count on you for shit.”
On the brief drive back to the store, my mother angrily told me that in order to get what you wanted in this fucked up world, you had to force people to give it to you. “You gotta take the goddamned bull by the horns and never take no for an answer,” she said. “I donʼt send you to the store for my health, boy. I send you because you need to learn to stand up for yourself.”
“I feel stupid buying you cigarettes.” I said.
“And walking out of the store without what you came in for donʼt make you feel stupid?”
“Well, it damn well should.” She brought the car to an abrupt stop in the only empty parking space available in front of the store. “Get out and follow me. I want this bitch to know who the hell sheʼs dealing with, not letting you get my goddamned cigarettes. This is bullshit.” She pulled open the door and ushered me through it ahead of her. The bell on the top of the door rang so violently that all heads turned to see who had just barged into the place.
I was mortified to notice that the store was much fuller now. There were people everywhere. I knew this would please my mother, however. She was a master at “spotlighting” in public. Give her an audience and the situation was surely bound to escalate. She went directly to the counter, completely disregarding the people who were standing patiently in line, and she dropped the note on the counter in front of the clerk.
“Can I ask what the problem was here?” My mother barked at the woman. The clerk appeared unaffected by my motherʼs rude approach. She continued to ring up the customer she was dealing with, ignoring my mom altogether. I knew this would only fuel the fire. My mother scoffed at the perceived slight and spun around to face the line of customers behind her. “I have a note!” She explained to nobody in particular, waving the paper above her head like a crazy person. “Can you believe this bitch? I send my son with a goddamned note and she still wonʼt sell him my cigarettes!” No one said a word in response. They just stood there staring at her, astounded. An old woman glared at my mother disapprovingly. The clerk finished with her customer and then, with lowered lids asked dryly, ”How can I help you, maʼam?”
“I want to know why my son came back without what I sent him here for,” my mother said sarcastically. “Iʼve done this a bunch of times before and never had any problems.”
“Itʼs against our policy to sell tobacco to minors,” the clerk replied.
“Thatʼs a load of crap!” Mom yelled. “It ainʼt against the goddamned law to sell my son cigarettes for me!”
The woman blinked slowly and said, “Itʼs against my policy then.”
“Your policy?” Mom laughed bitterly. She turned to the people behind us again and said, “Her policy!” My mother crumpled the note in her hand and flung it across the counter at the woman. It bounced with a click off her shoulder. The lady never flinched.
“I donʼt think itʼs a very good idea to sell cigarettes to a child. Even with a note.” The cashier said. My mother stood there for a moment, dumbfounded that her screaming wasnʼt working as it usually did. I could tell that she was even more confused by the fact that the woman wasnʼt screaming right back at her. If only one person is screaming, then only one person looks like an asshole. Even Mom could figure that out. Thatʼs when a man in line behind us spoke up.
“Why donʼt you just buy your cigarettes, Maʼam and let the rest of us get on with our lives.” He said hotly. My mother turned to stare at the man in disbelief, as though he had two heads and just called her a whore in front of everyone. I knew that stare well, and whenever it was directed at me, I knew it was past time to shut the hell up. Momʼs eyes narrowed into spiteful slits and in a slow, measured tone she rumbled, “How about this, asshole. How about you mind your own fucking business.” There was another man standing right next to the first man and he stepped forward now. But the first man raised his arm quickly to stop him. “Itʼs not worth it.” The first one said.
When my mother was this angry, she became another person altogether. It was frightening to me how she could progress from mildly irritated to volcanic in a split second. And once she was at the peak of her wrathfulness, she chose words that would do the most damage. Once, from the apex of her anger, she screamed at me, “I should have had you aborted!”
She didnʼt buy her cigarettes. Instead, she grabbed me roughly by my arm and pulled me after her. Opening the door and shoving me out, she looked back at the two men in line and sneered, “Iʼm not blind fellas. I know what you two are, and it makes me sick.” She spun me around with a push upon my shoulder and ordered me back to the car. I heard her cast one final insult over her shoulder at them. “Faggots.” She said.
Back in the car, mom slammed her door and, shaking furiously, jammed the keys into the ignition. I believed that she wasnʼt angry at the clerk anymore. For some unknown reason her ire was now directed at the two men in the store. Backing recklessly out of the parking spot and lurching back into traffic, mom was mumbling to herself.
“Fucking queers,” she said as she slammed the stick into third gear. She turned to look at me and I looked away. I figured I wouldnʼt encourage further confrontation by making direct eye contact.
As confused as I was about why my mother was so upset at a couple of total strangers, I was keen enough to recognize that she certainly seemed afraid of them. I thought about them both, recalling their faces, their clothes, everything. But there was nothing threatening about either one of them that I could pin point to be the cause of my motherʼs contempt. I surmised that they must have been different from us in some way, and everyone knew that my mother disliked different.
Lying in bed that night, I pulled my Peanuts pillow that read Happiness is a Warm Puppy beneath my head and rolled onto my side, facing the wall. I began to think about those men again, and how the one had tried to come to the aid of the other. Were they brothers? I wondered. It made me think of Scottie, a friend of mine from school. I decided that if someone tried to be mean to him, Iʼd have done the same thing. Images of Rusty Hamilton and his buddies from the sixth grade came to mind, then, and how they often teased me about Scottie. They laughed and told me that if I liked him so much that I should marry him.
Thatʼs where Iʼd heard that word before! The word my mother had called those two men. Rusty and his pals had repeated that word again and again in the cafeteria one day, laughing and pointing at me when they said it. As I nodded off to sleep, I thought to myself, whatever a “queer” is, and if Rusty Hamilton was right and thatʼs what I was, I sure didnʼt want my mother finding out about it.