THE NIGHTMARE Chronicles, Chapter 22: The Back-to-School Shopping Trip.
10:20 a.m. -- Arrive at mall. Nearest parking space is in Montana. Kids immediately whine about how far they have to walk. Five-year-old wants to be carried. I pick her up. We walk 10 feet, she demands to be put down, adding a distinctive flourish: she kicks me in the groin. Wife assures me it was an accident. I wonder if impending bout with clinical depression allows me to park in handicapped spot. Glad we picked Saturday to do this.
10:40 -- Scene inside is out of a Fellini movie. Stores filled with anxious parents dragging sullen children behind them. Anguished cries of toddlers echo everywhere. Babies wail. Listless men with dead eyes chain-smoke on benches while their wives wander into Hickory Farms. Air is thick with tension. Snatches of conversation drift over roar of fountain.
Parent: "There's a nice jacket."
Kid: "I HATE that jacket."
Parent: "There's a nice shirt."
Kid: "I HATE that shirt."
God help us all. I stop at water fountain, hurriedly throw back two Excedrin. It's gonna be a long day.
11:00 -- First stop: classroom supplies. Nine-year-old wants something called Trapper Keeper; turns out to be fancy loose-leaf binder. Apparently it's lined with sable, though, judging by price. We load up on spiral notebooks, crayons, scissors, glue, pencils, etc. for two kids. Color drains from my face as cashier totals up bill. I'm here 20 minutes, already thinking of second job waiting tables in rib joint.
11:30 -- Five-year-old announces she needs new backpack. What do they carry in those things: coffee cup, frying pan, Sterno, etc.? I tell her: "You kids don't know how lucky you are. Back in my day, we didn't even have backpacks. We had to walk 10 miles through snowdrifts to get to school."
Her eyes glaze over. She picks Little Mermaid backpack. I say nothing more, fearing another kick to the groin.
12:20 p.m. -- Time for lunch. Food court is packed. Place has all the calm of a bazaar in Tangier. We squeeze into table next to large fellow eating two Whoppers with cheese, two large fries, two apple pies. Silently, I measure fat and sodium content, give him two months to live, tops. Then I go back to my small garden salad.
You watch, fat guy will live to be 100. I'll get hit by a bus.
12:50 -- Quickie fashion observations: For girls, the Madonna-wannabe, teen-age hooker look is still in. For guys: baggy pants, oversized shirts, goofy hats worn backward. If this were a bar graph charting course of civilization, we'd be that jagged line shooting due south.
1:00 -- Oh, geez, one of those survey takers with the requisite clipboard and Chamber of Commerce earnestness. And she's eyeing me! I give her my standard line about not being much of a shopper, due to recent 10-year stretch in prison for throwing lye in face of nosy neighbor. Her smile freezes. She thanks me for my time.
1:20 -- Dude! Nine-year-old tries on faded jeans and surfer T-shirt. Chilling thought: He looks like every drop-out on the boardwalk at Venice Beach.
1:45 -- We pass athletic shoe store. Nine-year-old wonders aloud about getting a pair of Reebok Pumps. I study price tag. Suddenly the room is swimming. I wonder aloud how many payments we'll miss before utility company shuts off electricity and sheriff's department drags me off to jail. Reeboks stay unbought.
2:00 -- Five-year-old wants this lace leggings get-up. Wife and I suggest something more demure, although I stay out of range of those powerful little legs. This denim skirt is hip, I say. She looks at me like I suggested Osh-kosh overalls. We settle on two pair of stirrups and Barbie T-shirt. For the fifth time today, I hand over my credit card to a vacant-eyed stranger behind a cash register.
2:30 -- Five-year-old needs sneakers. Sales clerk measures her feet. I give him a little friendly advice: "Do yourself a favor, pal, don't make her mad." Naturally she wants most expensive pair. But I look at it this way: She'll be doing a lot of walking, since the bank will probably re-possess my car any minute now. Our 3-month-old picks this time to go on extended crying jag. I feel like doing the same.
2:55 -- We begin long walk to car -- assuming it's still there and bank hasn't swung into action already. Excedrins wearing off now, time for another hit. Everyone's nerves are frayed.
I tell my wife: "We'll have to do this again real soon." She looks at me the way you would at a hair on your cheeseburger.
1% Just trying to make conversation.