The Terrible Time

At 34, Maureen, who had been divorced for one year as of tomorrow, sat in the car, eating a slice of carrot cake she had just bought at the Target Super Store. In the rear view mirror, she caught a glimpse of what appeared to be a barge sailing by in the parking lot. Something was written across the side of it, which Maureen tried to read backwards, which made her feel tired and soft. SNOITACAV, it read. Immediately, Maureen imagined the bus was a giant tin can filled with seniors returning from a bingo tourney in the east acreages, where it was mostly orange groves, tomato plantations, and workers from Mexico. This was a place so far south in Florida that it was almost exclusively old people. You could throw a rock and hit a Memory Care center without even trying. At first, Maureen had been unable to discern what the centers were. It was like a bank? For storing memories? Inside, the shelves would be lined with Mason jars containing the most precious memories of people most afraid of losing them. Through a process called transmigamorphization, the Memory Care Attendants would extract your best memories and then preserve them in the containers. That way, if you forgot them, you could come back and get them. Or, after you died, your relatives could come and spend, say, an hour with one of your memories, sort of like reliving your life, secondhand. But, of course, that wasn't the case. Instead, she'd learned, the places were filled with old people whose minds were rotting straight out of their ears, old folks in wheelchairs parked in front of windows overlooking parking lots at which they silently drooled. Maureen looked down at the slice of half-eaten cake sitting in the clam shell plastic container in her lap. She had stolen a fork from the deli section for eating in the car. She had known she wouldn't make it home. She had spent fifteen, maybe twenty minutes choosing it. There was a thick slab of white cake with white frosting and sprinkles, a thick slab of chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and sprinkles, a generous triangle of red velvet, and the terrible triangle of carrot cake. Something about the word carrot let her believe it was good for her to eat; like eating a vegetable. So she had snatched it off the shelf and paid for it at self-service checkout, so she wouldn't have to risk some pimple-faced, thin-facial-haired idiot querying her, "Cake for one?" Cake for one, indeed, she had decided, when she had opened the clam shell. It was her birthday. So she had allowed herself this one indulgence. In the car, she quietly sang "Happy Birthday" to herself. "Happy birthday to me," she warbled, low and pathetic. Since then, she had been shoveling large mouthfuls of it between her lips. That is, until the barge had pulled in and stopped behind her. In the mirror, she caught a glimpse of herself. There was a thick smear of butter and sugar frosting glommed onto her upper lip. An orange cake crumb was mashed between the gap of her two front teeth. Suddenly, there was an abrupt shrieking that she recognized: the door of the bus swinging open. The last time she had heard that noise, she had been at Jewish day camp, even though she wasn't Jewish, and it was the first overnight, and she had gotten so distraught, weeping and caterwauling and carrying on, after darkness had fallen, that her mother, who was angry, her mouth set in a thin battlefield line of clear hate, had come to get her. They had ridden home in silence. From somewhere back behind the bumper of her car, a din arose. Craning her head, Maureen watched as the group disembarked the bus. It was not, in fact, old people. It was Boy Scouts, it appeared. Older ones, it seemed. They were perhaps twelve- or thirteen-year-old boys. That age when they are all limbs and sullen faces. None of the boys noticed her in the car. Instead, a blonde boy who was so pale as to be albino lingered weirdly close to her car. He was wearing greenish brown shorts from which his hairy stick legs stuck and some sort of stupid red bandana around his neck. Without averting her eyes, Maureen ladled another heaping fork of cake into her mouth. "Happy birthday to me," she whispered absentmindedly. Ten feet away, the boy was pulling angrily at his rucksack. A part of her wanted to get out of the car, grab the fistful that remained of her cake, and shove it down his throat. Another part of her wanted to ask him what was wrong, maybe sit with him on the curb near which he was angrily stamping his foot, and share with him that she, too, knew what it was like to be gone from your family and wailing like a banshee despite the fact that no one could help you, not really, anyway. Maureen swallowed and wondered what would happen next. She wished that she could stay in this car forever, sticking wads of sugar butter into her mouth, singing softly to herself, the blue sky above her tiered with clouds as far as the eye could see.