How We Eat

An O. Henry Prizewinning Short Story by Mark Jude Poirier

May 16, 2018  By Mark Jude Poirier
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The thrift store Brenda drags us to today is on Kolb, far on the east side towards the Rincon Mountains, just past the Lucky Wishbone Chicken with the pulsating sunburst sign. Like every thrift store, it stinks of dust and mothballs and dirty diapers and bad breath and dead flowers. It smells like the floor of Brenda’s car.

My sister, Lizzie, and I search pockets, while Brenda scans other aisles for stuff to sell at the swap meet. It’s Thursday, late morning, and I’m nervous about missing another day of school. I’m in the sixth grade at Lulu Walker. I’m twelve, so it’s 1992. Lizzie is ten but she’s only in third grade because they held her back. For social reasons. She bit a kid and broke the skin. Lizzie is taller than me.

Brenda’s our mother but she forbids us from calling her “Mom.” We’re allowed to call her “Brenda” or “Bren,” though we never call her “Bren.” She says she looks too young to have kids as old as us. She has big eyes, and hair like hay because she uses Miss Clairol too often. The Natural Medium Golden Blonde has stripped our kitchen sink of its shine.

We started searching pockets a few years ago, and we’ve found a lot of different things, mainly in men’s clothes: money, condoms and condom wrappers, keys, sticks of gum, notes, credit cards, checks and check stubs, driver’s licenses, receipts. I once found the top of a set of dentures in a jacket. The most money I found was sixty-eight dollars in a pair of dirty jeans with a chew can ring worn into the back pocket under the plastic Wrangler patch. I gave eight dollars to Brenda and I kept the three twenties for myself. I rolled the bills tight and hid them deep in my underpants. Brenda always checks our pockets when we get to the car and sometimes she slides her finger around our waists to see if we’re holding out.

*

From the chest pocket of a pair of paint-splattered white overalls, I pull out a Polaroid, overexposed, but clear enough that I see its subject is a turd floating in a toilet. I feel like I shouldn’t have seen it. I shouldn’t have even touched it. Someone put it there so I would be freaked out, and I look around for the perpetrator, who I imagine to be a stringy-haired man planning on abducting me, torturing me, and sawing off my limbs, which he will put in four different dumpsters. Last week, the police found a woman’s arm in the dumpster behind Skate Country. I saw it on the news. They showed the gaudy, jeweled ring that was on the middle finger. Now I’m terrified, and I blame Brenda. If we don’t search the pockets, she tells us she’s doing her best, and why should she if we’re not, then she ignores us, sometimes for hours. The image from the photo is branded into my mind, and after I slide it back into the pocket and wipe my hands on my shorts, I can still see the bowed, feathery turd. I wish I were in school, even in math—though the teacher, Miss Burk, is a cruel woman who yelled at me when I first arrived in her class because I didn’t know how to divide fractions. Her left hairy ape wrist is cinched by an incongruently dainty women’s Timex that never fails to unsettle me.

My sister, Lizzie, and I search pockets, while Brenda scans other aisles for stuff to sell at the swap meet.”

Lizzie hasn’t found anything, and I can see the fear in her eyes. Brenda will be disappointed. Other than the Polaroid, I found only a flimsy, wrinkled one-dollar bill in a pair of shorts. We begin to look through sport coats when Brenda marches over, the high-heeled sneakers she stole from Value Village squeaking like dog toys on the glossy floor. In her cuffed denim shorts, her legs are too thin and her butt looks deflated. I wish she’d gain weight. Sometimes I worry she might collapse and crumple into nothing. “This place is picked over,” she says. “What did you find?”

“We can stay longer,” I offer.

“So you didn’t find anything,” Brenda says. Her shoulders drop as her face does.

I hand her the limp dollar bill.

*

In the parking lot, before we get in the car, Brenda crams her hands in Lizzie’s pockets, then mine. Her hands are like wild animals, quick and unpredictable, and when she feels around my waist, she nearly touches my dick. She smirks and says, “Still nothing,” referring to my lack of pubic hair, which is none of her business even if she is my mother.

There’s a pair of red, glittery shoes on the asphalt in a puddle of something gravy-like, and I imagine the lady who wore them: a hooker with a ratty wig and melted makeup, and she’s crying and hurrying to her car, which is junkier than Brenda’s silver 1979 Ford Fairmont sedan. She kicks off her uncomfortable shoes so she can walk faster. This woman just saw the photo of the ring from the severed arm in the dumpster. The ring belonged to her friend, another hooker. When we lived on Miracle Mile, Lizzie and I used to watch hookers through a cluster of desiccated palms from the safety of our apartment’s balcony. Most of them were sunburned. They fought each other. They yelled a lot. Some didn’t wear wigs or much makeup; they looked normal, like Brenda—but not so skinny—or a teacher, or someone you’d see in the supermarket buying margarine. Lizzie could watch them for hours, her eyes wide and her mouth agape. She watched them like Brenda watched TV, and she knew their names: June, Daniella, Shannon, and two Cindys.

The backseat burns my legs so I shove my hands under my thighs. I don’t complain about the heat. What’s the point? The AC is broken and it costs, like, four hundred to fix it. The lighter still works, and Brenda smokes a Winston. The smell of her lighting it is pleasant, like chopped wood and white paper and birthday candles. But soon the cigarette stinks up the car, even with all four windows rolled down and the hot wind blowing in and swooping clumps of Lizzie’s pale hair.

Lizzie stares outside and picks at the last of the crusty impetigo on the side of her chin. I have it, too. It itches and hurts and cracks. Brenda says we wouldn’t have it if we’d just wash our faces more often, but we only have strawberry shampoo at the apartment right now, and it burns. I wash my face twice each day I’m at school. If there is any, the golden soap from the dispensers there stings, but not as bad as the strawberry shampoo.

Nirvana comes on the radio. I love them. I even looked up “mulatto” and “libido” in the dictionary. But Brenda changes the station and begins to hum-sing to the Eagles: ’Cause I’m al-ready gone, and I’m fee-ling strong . . .

My money stash is Ziplocked, the baggie taped to the inside of the toilet tank lid at the apartment. On a cop show that used to play in the afternoon when Lizzie and I got home from school, I saw drug addicts hide their heroin and needles in the same place. At this point, I have $126. I figure if the toilet’s running or clogged or something, Brenda won’t fix it; she’ll make me do it, so it’s safe.

*

After we cross Craycroft, Brenda pulls into a McDonald’s near a sprawling brick high school I have never noticed. We’re in line at the drive-thru, three cars back from the intercom, which sits in fiberglass Grimace’s mouth. Brenda tells us, “I need you to find eight cents.” She digs in her purse, pulls out a thickly matted hairbrush and places it on the passenger seat so she can dig deeper. Lizzie and I are running our fingers in the space where the back of the seat meets its bottom. I find the buried middle seat belt, which is hardened from years of baking, but no coins. Then Lizzie finds a dime, and I hate her for it, but only for a second.

“Good girl,” Brenda says. “Give it here.”

Brenda never thanked me for the dollar I found back at the thrift store.

I know not to ask for what I really want: six Chicken McNuggets, a vanilla shake, a cheeseburger and fries. I know Lizzie wants all that, too, though the shake she wants is strawberry and she’d only eat the breading off the McNuggets. But we didn’t find enough in the pockets. That’s the rule.

My money stash is Ziplocked, the baggie taped to the inside of the toilet tank lid at the apartment. On a cop show that used to play in the afternoon when Lizzie and I got home from school, I saw drug addicts hide their heroin and needles in the same place.”

Brenda orders three cups of ice water, which are free, and two hamburgers. The hamburgers are two for ninety-nine cents—with tax, a dollar seven. When we arrive at the window where we pay, Brenda also asks for a plastic knife, and a handful of ketchup packets. She likely has about twenty packets in her purse already.

I’m hot with shame as the McDonald’s guy hands Brenda a bag with the hamburgers and the ketchup in it. He then passes her the waters, small, one by one. He smiles and thanks Brenda. She doesn’t thank him. He sees us in the backseat and I can sense he pities us, even though his own life is probably crappy. I want Brenda to speed away, but she takes her time cutting our hamburger in half with the plastic knife, licking a stray morsel of meat from the top of her hand. There are several cars behind us, and I can sense that the McDonald’s guy wants her to move, but she doesn’t care. It’s her moment to control the world.

Brenda eats her hamburger as she drives. My hamburger half has the two pickles, so I give one to Lizzie. She puts it on her half; she doesn’t just pop it in her mouth. I know Lizzie would have given me a pickle if she had gotten both. The ice water tastes like wax and a bit like orange drink, but it’s good and clean. I take a small bite of the half hamburger and chew and chew, savoring the onions and sugary ketchup, until it’s almost liquid, and then I swish it around before I swallow. Lizzie and I do this for every bite. We do it at Burger King and Whataburger and Arby’s, too, even when we get full meals. When we were younger, we’d play mother bird and baby bird, and I’d spit the chewed McDonald’s into Lizzie’s mouth. Then she’d take a bite of her McDonald’s and do the same for me. We played it a few times before Brenda caught us and swatted me in the neck with a rolled-up magazine.

Brenda tells us she wants to hit another thrift store. She says it tentatively, like she’s asking our permission, but she isn’t. I knew when we climbed into her car this morning that it would be a long, stifling day and that Brenda might not feed us and we’d have bad headaches by the afternoon. Lizzie had a social studies test about Mesopotamia today. I helped her study last night and she knew all the terms—Tigris-Euphrates river system, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, the Parthian Empire. But Brenda doesn’t care. We could have gone to school and Brenda could have gone thrifting by herself, but she hates being alone.

*

I check the sunbaked pay phone in front of Goodwill. Nothing. Just inside the store, by the entrance, there are a few gumball machines, and as Brenda hurries towards the back, Lizzie and I check them. “Oh,” Lizzie says. “Trent, look!” She’s turning the knob on the one that dispenses rubber balls and she keeps getting free balls without having to pay. She hands them to me: two blues, a bright green, and a swirly one. I look around. No one’s watching us. The small placard behind the glass calls them “Super Space Balls,” and features an image of a purple ball that has bounced thousands of miles above Earth, which looks puny in the background. How fake, I think, but I continue to load my pockets: green, yellow, red, red, sparkles, blue, swirl . . . Then I hear Brenda yelling: “Trent and Lizzie, now!” Lizzie looks over her shoulder when she hears Brenda, but she continues to turn the knob. “Now!” Brenda yells, and I hear another lady tell her to shut up.

“We better go,” I say, and I pull Lizzie by her shoulder.

“I want to get another sparkly one!” she says, batting my hand away. She’s chewing the side of her mouth like she’s concentrating.

Soon, I’m forcing my hands into pockets of men’s jeans. One pair smells like gasoline; another, like cigarettes. If they’re Levi’s, I check the red tag on the back pocket for the capital letter E, which means that they’re old, and Brenda can sell them to the Japanese man who comes to the swap meet every few months. There are no old Levi’s today. Brenda will soon learn that Lizzie’s still at the gumball machines, draining one of them of its contents, and I’m nervous. So I search faster. A nickel. A nine-volt battery. A to-do list that begins with pick up Jenn at 4.

When I’m rushed like this, the urge to piss is overwhelming, so I weave through the overloaded racks of clothes towards Brenda. She clutches a metal Welcome Back, Kotter lunch box. She’s grinning widely. She tries to remain calm, but I recognize her leaking excitement. “I bet I can get forty for this,” she whispers, like I’m her coconspirator. “At least thirty-five.” This makes the back of my neck tingle in a pleasant way that warms and tickles my inner ears. I like being on her team. I like it when she finds a treasure and holds firm on a price when swap meet people try to haggle her down.

“I need to go to the bathroom,” I say.

“That’s it?” she says. She’s angry. “I don’t know why I even bother.” She scratches at the inside of her thigh. The pinkness means she’s already been scratching a lot. “I drive all over and search and search,” she whines, “and finally I find something good and you can’t even congratulate me or thank me.”

“Sorry,” I say.

“And you’re welcome for lunch.”

“I probably said thanks.”

“I was waiting for it and neither you nor your sister said it.” I was the one who found the dollar that paid for the hamburgers. But I don’t gripe.

“I hate it when you force me to call you an asshole,” she says, “but you’re an asshole, Trent.” Now she’s practically crying, and I really have to pee. “A mother shouldn’t call her son an asshole, but you’re an asshole.”

Maybe part of me wants Brenda to feel pain and lose this fight.”

A woman with a mop of dark curls turns her head from a shelf of mismatched dinner plates and coffee mugs. “Keep your family’s business to yourselves.” She wears a pink bandana around her neck. Her teeth are small and sharp, like grains of rice.

Brenda hands me the lunch box and takes a few steps towards the woman. “We’re trying to have a conversation here,” Brenda says. She sniffs and tilts her head sideways.

“You don’t want to fuck with me,” the woman says. She wears an oversized black Kenny Rogers concert T-shirt. The letters that spell “Kenny” are puffy and red. She also wears baby-blue terry cloth gym shorts that feature her legs, which are thick and tan, not fat but not muscular—like big hot dogs.

And very quickly, the two women are pulling each other’s hair, scratching and hitting each other. “Bitch. Cunt. Fucking whore.” I don’t know who says what; I can only think about my bladder. Brenda looks over to me and says, “Help me!” The lady has Brenda by the hair and she’s kicking her in the knees.

I don’t help my mother. I can’t. I’m frozen and it feels like a nightmare, like I’m about to wake with a start. Maybe part of me wants Brenda to feel pain and lose this fight. I watch her reach behind her back for anything. Her hand lands on a waffle iron from a shelf of housewares. Its frayed black cord swings in an arc as Brenda clobbers the woman with it. The woman’s hair is soon drenched with blood. Brenda steps away and places the waffle maker back on the shelf. The woman wipes her neck, watches in disbelief as blood drips from her hand. She wobbles, and tumps. Her body makes a double wet slap on the floor.

This all happens in about twenty seconds but it seems like an hour. I just stand there, holding that lunch box by its handle, wondering when Brenda will be arrested, barely noticing the warmth trickling down my leg and soaking my droopy tube sock.

I feel intense relief unrelated to my bladder.

Brenda digs her nails into my shoulder and pulls me through the aisles towards the front of the store, grumbling, “Baby! Wetting your pants!” We pass two teenage girls, one of them wearing thick-framed glasses, both of them looking through men’s flannel shirts. The one in the glasses says, “Oh, my God!” when she sees I’ve wet myself. The other says, “Shut up! He might be special!”

Brenda keeps pulling me, gripping my shoulder tighter, guiding me out the emergency exit, which buzzes loudly and makes my stomach drop.

“We didn’t pay for this,” I say, holding up the lunch box.

We wade through the heat pumping up from the asphalt until we reach the car, where Brenda rifles through the trunk and pulls out a Tucson Weekly. “Sit on this,” she says as she pushes my head down and forces me into the backseat. “Where the hell is your sister?” She looks back towards the store. I notice a scarlet scratch flaring from her ear to her throat. “I can’t go back in there,” she says. “That crazy bitch started it.” I can’t remember who actually did start it. “I don’t like to cuss,” Brenda says. “You know that.” She sits in the driver’s seat and starts the car. “You make me cuss.”

“What about Lizzie?” I say.

“Shut up,” she says. “God!”

She speeds out of the parking lot. The tires even squeal. “But Lizzie is stuck in there,” I say.

“Sometimes mothers have to teach their kids a lesson.”

As we pull onto Flowing Wells, I stare at the corny rendition of Mr. Kotter pointing to an F he wrote on Epstein’s quiz, and I imagine that Lizzie’s looking for us. Her shorts’ pockets and hands are full of rubber balls. Maybe she has made a basket out of the front of her shirt to accommodate them all, exposing her belly to everyone, but not caring. Now Lizzie must be panicking. She searches everywhere for me and Brenda, calls for us. Maybe she sees the woman on the floor. Or the woman’s blood. The police will be there any minute, and she hides, squats under a rack of dresses until she’s discovered by the strange man with long, stringy hair, the same man who put the turd photo in the overalls. He’s been tracking us all day, waiting for Lizzie to be alone. “Wow,” he says, “those are great rubber balls.” And she follows him to his car and rides with him to the desert, to a concrete foundation of a house that was never built, a stage, and when Lizzie realizes what’s transpiring, she’ll drop the balls, and they’ll bounce and bloom outwards and look like a big, happy firework before they roll off the edges and disappear.

This story, these images of Lizzie and the strange man, take residence in my gut and sit there like a tumor, so when we stop for a red light at Prince Road, I open the door, jump out of the car, and hurry down the dirt shoulder back towards Goodwill. My wet shorts chafe my thighs. Part of me wants to stop and drop down there in the dust next to a drained Big Gulp and a smashed Sammy Hagar cassette, but I keep moving, and even start to run.

__________________________________

This story originally appeared in Epoch. See the rest of the 2018 O. Henry Prize stories here.




Mark Jude Poirier
Mark Jude Poirier
Mark Jude Poirier is the author of two collections of short stories as well as two novels. His books have been New York Times notable books of the year, as well as Barnes and Noble Discover and Waterstone’s UK picks. He has published nearly thirty short stories which have appeared in Tin House, The Iowa Review, Conjunctions, Crazyhorse, BOMB, The Southern Review, The American Scholar, Epoch, and many other journals and anthologies.








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