Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Amigo

Today I'm burnin' around town like a tornado, getting ready for something fun (which will be appearing here next week!) 

In the meanwhile, I thought I'd share a piece of my writing with you - a memoir short story about shopping with my mother.  (Many of you have seen this before, but many of you haven't... and I kind of think it belongs here.)  Without further ado...

The Amigo
by Heidi Powers

Escapism was the chosen method of passing the hours sandwiched between
Thanksgiving and the nauseating drive back to school for the final
stretch of exam preparation.  Unpaid-bill neck tension melted away at
the sight of Dad's crinkled eyes, warm and blue and welcoming.  The
nightmarish stacks of The Modern Novels--yet unread before the
scheduled blue-book exam-- dissolved into happier dreams of dark meat
fox-trotting with butternut squash.  And the spiteful call from a
newly-engaged ex-boyfriend became eclipsed by pumpkin pecan cheesecake
and drizzly caramel sauce.  One could imagine away any number of
things while clasped in the embrace of a parent's arms, or a parent's
refrigerator, or a parent's wallet.

The wallet in question-- or its owner, my mother-- had decided that,
after we'd gorged ourselves on leftovers for the third meal that
weekend, it was time to shop.  To her, holiday break meant that she'd
have another woman readily available to navigate her wheelchair
through narrow aisles of local stores, stopping to peek at the little
treasures my speed-shopping father would never have noticed.  She'd
summoned all the energy she had after whipping up the holiday feast,
and she'd taken extra steroids to make the trip.  After she'd showered
(and rested for an hour) and pasted on enough foundation to hide the
pinpricks of petichae on her cheeks where the internal bleeding showed
through (and rested for another hour) and drew on her eyebrows, we
were ready.  I took her plump, purple-tinged arm and walked her
carefully to the Lincoln, taking breaks so she could catch her breath,
gulping the crisp air and grinning at me.

We found ourselves at a sprawling example of the warehouse store
trend: everything you need, crafted by small third-world hands at half
the price, all available under one roof.  It wasn't the kind of place
that either of us would really choose to shop for an afternoon.  But
we knew we'd only have two, maybe three good hours before exhaustion
from the low platelets would put and end to our excursion.  With an
auto-immune disease, one-stop shopping was the best you could hope

Parking-spotting, a gift with which I was not blessed, was especially
challenging in the days post-turkey mortem.  Every blue-lined spot at
the front had already been taken-- some by curiously sporty cars with
conspicuously absent disabled licenses.  We were left with a spot at
the back between two SUVs in a pissing contest over which could park
more over the line.  Leaving as much space as I could on her side, I
mashed my various chub sideways out of Dad's Silver Bullet and popped
the trunk.  The wheelchair, a worthy adversary of shopping trips past,
glinted and sneered at me.

"You know, we can always change our minds," Mom called from her seat.
"I don't want you to have to push me around."

"No worries.  I've got it."  I seized the wheel and yanked upwards,
catching the handles on the top lip of the trunk.  I grappled with the
handles and the armrests scraped the bumper.  I yanked up by the
armrests and finally the vile thing let loose-- but not before the
wheels spun out and pinched my pinkie finger.   I bit my lip and swore
silently, and took a breath to clear my head before I wedged her chair
into the space between our car and the neighboring monstrosity, so that
she'd only see a smile that said we were ready to move inside.

The doors and the mass of crowds parted as we rolled into the garish
lighting of the superstore.  A besmocked twenty-something with dead
eyes and a pasted-on grin stood watch over a line of shopping carts.
I grinned back with my own pasted-on grin.  "Happy holidays how are
you today," he monotoned.  I mumbled something back, pushing the chair
towards the awaiting aisles.

Mom jerked her hand up to stop me.  "Back up, go slower," she
murmured.  "Let's take our time."  A little confused, I rolled her
back a few inches.  "Farther," she coaxed.  Another step wasn't
enough, so I turned towards the door and, dodging an influx of
shoppers, yanked her back until she finally felt satisfied.  I looked
up to see that we were again facing the zombie greeter.  "Good
morning," Mom bubbled.  "How are you today?"

The bewildered greeter gaped at her for a moment before registering
that she was actually talking to him. "Um, I'm… OK.  How about you?"

"Happy to be out."

"Happy to be out today?" Greeter asked.

"I don't get out too much anymore."

"On a day like today, though… The crowds are rough."

"Only if you've been standing on your feet greeting for… how long have
you been here, anyway?"

He groaned.  "Since five this morning.  This isn't exactly the easiest
weekend for shopping."

"Ah, but it's the best.  My girl's home from college today."

"That's nice.  Can I help you with anything?"

"She's studying theatre.  Runs a Shakespeare company."

"Mom!  Nobody wants to hear about that."   I rolled my eyes at nobody
in particular.

Greeter smiled an actual smile at me.  "Wow, a theatre company."

"She directed Hamlet this year.  And now here she is, shuffling me
around town in this awful wheelchair."

"It's not an awful wheelchair, mom," I sighed, though I knew it was.
Greeter straightened his back and craned his neck towards the customer
service window.  I was certain the next words out of his mouth would
be "let me find somebody else who can deal with you," or perhaps "why
are you talking to me, again?"  But Greeter waved at a frizzy-haired
woman behind the counter and called out to her.

"Jodie!  Can you bring me an Amigo?"

Mom let out an audible gasp.  "An Amigo?  You have Amigos here?"

Greeter puffed up his chest a little.  "We just got them in last month."

"Are you selling them, or…"

"They're for people to borrow while they're here."  He leaned in
conspiratorially.  "But we only let the goodies use them."

"Aw, I'm no goodie," she grinned, and blushed a little through her
lacquered makeup.

A humming noise came up from behind us as Frizzy Jodie wheeled towards
us in what I recognized as an electric wheelchair.  A shiny, zippy
electric wheelchair… the kind that Dad's insurance had denied us
several times on the grounds that my mother wasn't bedridden and
therefore didn't require more help than a squeaky plus-sized
wheelchair and a family member to push.

"She's a beaut!"  Mom exclaimed.  Frizzy Jodie hopped down and offered
her a hand.  "Oh, can I really give it a spin?"

"She's all yours," Jodie said, and tugged at her right arm as I tugged
at her left.  Trying not to put any weight on the joints that suffered
her steroids and body mass, she winced and plopped from one seat to
the other.

"So many bells and whistles!  What do they all do?"

Jodie pointed out the forward and reverse, and an inverted triangle
with a picture of a rabbit at the top and one of a turtle at the
bottom.  Mom pushed the curser up to rabbit and tore off towards the
aisle of holiday knickknack gluttony, giggling as she zoomed.

I called after her.  "You might want to try turtle first."

"Who really wins a race by being slow and steady?  Last one to the
Christmas Tree aisle makes dinner!"

Greeter smiled at me.  "You'd better get going."

"Eh, how hard is it to warm up leftover turkey?"

"Well, some of us have trouble boiling water."

"Then some of us are in luck.  No boiled water necessary for reheated bird."

"Unless it's turkey carcass soup, which I'll make today if you don't
hurry up!"  she called from down the aisle.

"I had better get going, then," I said, handing him the wheelchair.
"Floating bits of stuffing isn't all that appealing."

We chuckled and watched the amigo disappear into the fluorescent
horizon.  "Is she always that…"

"Warm and bubbly?  That's mom."

He pushed shopping cart in my direction.  "You're lucky."

I nodded and trudged off in the direction of artificial pine and
icicles and mom's giddy laugh, wondering how long my luck was going to

I found her among racks of knitted dogs and bells and angels, fondling
the texture of a plus-sized Christmas sweater vest.  Clearly I'd
inherited her tactility but not her style.

"Isn't this cute?"  she asked, examining a shiny button in the shape
of a candy cane.

"It certainly makes its point."

"Don't grinch.  It's cheerful."

"Hey, if teddy bears in scarves do it for you, go for it."

She grimaced and held the sweater up to her rounded shoulders.  "I
don't fit clothes here anyway."

I straightened my own rounded shoulders.  "I thought…"

"I did.  How are you supposed to maintain weight if you can't move?"
She sighed, and plunked the sweater into my cart.

"Oh… I don't really think that it'll look good on me."

"It's not for you.  It'd look nice on your aunt.  Maybe we can find
some warm sweatpants to give her on the caroling trip, too.  Are you
still coming?"

I usually did end up accompanying my parents on their annual Christmas
trip to Gladwin, the tiny farming town where they grew
up.  We'd bundle ourselves in our warmest coats and brave the black
ice on the poorly-paved roads between the homes of my mother's
siblings.  I could always expect that while we warmed
our hands on the wood-burning stove in his bungalow, my beer-bellied
uncle would point out the couple new pounds I'd gained that year and
make his pet bird do tricks.  But we'd sing our harmony to "The First
Noel" and play Santa, and somehow, I always ended up with less Scrooge
and more Tim Cratchett.  I nodded and suggested we buy some toys for

After locating the right bird-treats, and treats for the rest of the
people on our caroling stops, she was determined to find some presents
to send back with me.  She always made sure her kids in college had
something to look forward to each day… a carved snowman to remind us
to get outside and play… a CD to keep us in the Christmas spirit
despite our piles of undone work… powdered cider so we could inhale
the musky sweetness and imagine we had just stepped inside their warm
house, seconds from their embrace and the real cider mulling on the

We were in the middle of a kerfuffle about Toblerone (she was
convinced she could find one for me, I was certain the store hadn't
found a way to sweatshop Swiss chocolate, and even if they had I
wasn't willing to waste her last bit of fading energy in search of
honey nougat) when I felt the sensation of being gawked at.

A pillar of a woman stood in the aisle across from ours, staring at us
with an indignant pout on her lips.  I stared right back and sneered
at her.  Mom smiled at her, with a look of
slight confusion on her face that we'd usually identify with her
search for a missing word or name since the steroids started bleeding
her memories together.  "Do we know you?" she asked.

The woman pointed a finger as she walked towards us.  "You
should have left that machine for someone who really needs it."

"Pardon me?"

"There are people who deserve to use those wheelchairs.  You shouldn't
have taken it."

Mom shrugged.  "These are available for anyone who needs them, that's
what the greeter said."

The woman put her hands on her hips--or lack thereof-- and took a step
closer to us.  "Anyone who needs them.  Not you.  If you just stood up
and walked, you could lose some of that weight."

A tingling of bile grew to a burning fireball constricting my throat,
and fifteen different insults evaporated before I could open my mouth.
I looked helplessly to my mother, who was taking a deep breath.
She smiled weakly and shook her head.  "You don't always know the
whole story."  The woman narrowed her eyes and wheeled around, and
clicked away in her pointy heels.  I stared in disbelief until she
turned a corner, and then looked down at my mother.  Her eyes were
welling up and she was staring at the scuffed linoleum floor.

I kicked the nearest shelf.  "What a fucking bitch."

"She didn't know.  She didn't know I was sick."

"Doesn't excuse her behavior."

Her tears had begun to reveal her blood-bruised cheeks.  I dug in my
pockets for a Kleenex.

"No," mom said, shrugging her shoulders.  "But someday she'll know how I feel."

"She'll never understand."

"Not until she gets sick someday.  We all do."

"Well, I hope the bitch suffers."

Mom looked me straight in the eyes for a moment.  The she put the
wheelchair in gear and rolled away.  "I wouldn't wish this suffering
on anyone."

She was waiting for me at the front, where Jodie with the frizzy hair
was helping her park alongside an electrical outlet.  Another worker
had pulled out mom's own wheelchair and we helped her back into it.
The workers smiled warmly at her, and she smiled warmly back while I
stared numbly and pushed her back through the tides of shoppers into
the parking lot and a pouring rain.  Barely the energy to stand, she
slumped from the wheelchair to the car and laid her head back to rest.

I glared at the wheelchair.  Fuck you, fucking wheelchair.

I popped the trunk and tried to pick it up.  Dripping wet, it slipped.
 Pinched again.

I slammed it up and over the bumper.  The wheels stuck.

I shoved it harder.  And harder.  Fucking wheelchair.  Fuck you.  Be
that way.  We don't want you.

I screamed.

And then I felt a hand on my back.  I spun around.

It was the greeter, rain-drenched, looking at me with concerned eyes.
"Are you OK?"


He re-angled the wheelchair and slid it in gently.  "I told you it
wasn't a good day for shopping."

Mom's voice, worn but warm, drifted from the passenger seat.  "It's
always a good day for shopping."

He closed the trunk and patted me on the shoulder, and walked away
with a train of shopping carts in tow.  I stood still, suddenly aware
of how wet I was, not really caring.  I squashed back into the
driver's seat and reached out for mom's hand.  "Do you want anything?"

"I'm OK."

"Do you want me to key that awful woman's car?"

"Maybe a little."

"How about some chili fries?"

"Chili fries… would be nice."

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Thank you so much for sharing what had to be a really difficult memory. Your writing is so fluid, yet so intelligent. I loved this piece, and I hope you share others with us in the future.