Outside, snow fell from the dark Midwestern sky and added to the gray street slush. Inside, men’s slippers filled our shopping cart, each shoe bound to the other with a strong, thin, white string so that when father tried them on for size, we saw that he was a prisoner. When mother was satisfied, she took the soul-less brown, vinyl shoes with the Scotch plaid lining, indicating a bedroom purpose, from his feet and threw them in the cart. She paused, her eyes shifted sideways to the left, remembering Grandfather and some uncle. She reached for two more pairs, tossed them in the cart, and then for good measure, tossed in another two. “Just $4.96 Each At Your Savings Store, Christmas 1974, Where Your Dollar Buys You More.” Richard Milhous Nixon was not a crook, but even so, Gerald Randolph Ford clumsily stepped in with the distracted burden of keeping too many people’s secrets.
Father hardly noticed. He was a dreaming man. “Daughter,” he said. “Imagine,” and his hands gestured, creating waves through the harsh blue, fluorescent light illuminating the expanse of what appeared as pirate’s booty. Kmart was a rich and exotic land with street after street of products inspired by organic polymers produced at a high molecular mass.
Father directed my attention to row after row. Men’s work boots, women’s dress shoes, children’s snow boots followed by steel rounders of turtlenecks spilling into more rounders of slippery polyester bathrobes and floral, flame-retardant flannels, found just three years later to be toxic. All on plastic hangers. I knew that farther back there was a wonderful world of toys. Just last Friday, allowance in hand, I shopped the shelves and purchased myself a Craftsmaker Paint By Numbers of an orange kitten playing with a big, red ball of yarn. Somewhere behind us God spoke and the drove chased a portable, blue police light set atop a wheeled cart. The light circled the attention of the Kmart Shoppers to the sporting goods department. In the news, Patty Hearst, toted an M1 Carbine and the Second Amendment Foundation was established to promote our legal right to bear arms. Kmart didn’t miss a beat.
Despite the blue light cattle call, Father had my attention. He had my full attention, like he was pulling rabbits out of a hat. He asked me to imagine that we were in the back of a semi-tractor trailer, just the two of us, and that this was all a movie. The slippers, my mother, my sisters, the Blue Light Special, all the Kmart Shoppers, the cold ham sandwiches with shaved lettuce in the deli cases. All of it, the coveted red, frozen, carbonated drinks known as ICEES piled richly in red, white, and blue paper cups, the smell of stale yellow popcorn, the international best selling Elton John’s Greatest Hits albums, the gold-tone electric ladies’ Timex watches, the talking Mrs. Beasly doll. The whole thing. Like Christine Chubbuck and Hank Aaron, he proposed something unbelievable.
“Girly, what do you think? This is all a movie.” His hands swept from front to back like he was swimming in lovely waters. “It’s just you and me in the back of a semi-tractor trailer and a big screen.” He looked me right in my eyes, the moment forever imprinted on my mind. He dared me to disobey. A greater question was asked. Had he trusted me with the secret truth of the universe or was he slipping under a great wheel and taking me with him? I looked around Kmart. I looked back to him. My eyes not seeing him, but imagining a nightly news story. He had a far away look. “Yep,” he said resigned, looking out as if there was no escaping the walls of Kmart. He walked ahead of me, preaching, to no one in particular. I picked up my pace. “Its all an illusion,” he shook his head, “and the only real thing is you and me and the tractor trailer.” His voice trailed off and he pointed to traces of trash on the floor. I struggled to make a tenuous connection between fact and fiction. Father walked off still prophesizing, walking away, stealing any sense of security I’d ever had. Kmart parted in his wake, like the Red Sea, troughs to his right filled with the likes of plastic baby bottles and Playtex 18-hour girdles and to his left the gutters had their fill of snow scrapers and Turtle Wax. In 1974 pigs were feeding everywhere.
Things went a blur in the watery waves of confusion. I think I staggered, or maybe just dodged a shopper, my sailor legs trying to keep up with Father. The distance between us growing. No perfunctory courtesy would bring us closer together. I knew there could be no deliberation. I swallowed my fear and cast out all doubt. Disciples don’t hesitate. One skip over, and I jumped forward, all my trust in that fifth wheel hitch. Adrenaline, a hormone often responsible for poor judgement, fueled my childish imagination and I saw Father as Sonny Pruitt.
Ahead a sign read, Double Cheeseburger, Onion Rings And A Coca Cola, All For Just 88 Cents. Father led us into the temptations of the K-Cafe and I thought I heard the hum of the big rig beneath the elevator music of Merle Haggard singing Movin’ On. And then, as we stowed our cart, wild and stubborn with a wheel going its own way, I was sure I felt the moveable tandem of the 18-wheeler adjust. Father stood right, aside Mother as she ordered, placing his hand just behind her left shoulder. My sisters missing the moment as they messed with the majestic, red, velvet rope that led us to the place we had always been heading.
I read a message inscribed across the bottom of the big menu board above the counter. The message from above read, Kmart Is The Saving Place. I felt sure it was a sign that I’d done the right thing, that it was all coming together, that my confidence could be fully restored. Then, someone shoved me from behind, knocking me hard and taking a bit of the wind out of my smooth ride. I looked to Father to make sense of it, but he’d taken a leave. His eyes weren’t anywhere near the road of redemption. It seemed he had completely abandoned me. Perhaps the earlier lurch was a large pot hole, smack dab in the middle of the road and he’d been knocked silly. His full attention was now with the red-faced boy in the aqua polyester uniform penciling our dinner order onto a small paper pad. When the order taker finished taking orders from Mother, Five Coca Colas, 3 hamburgers with pickles and mustard, a cheeseburger with tomato and lettuce, a double cheeseburger with the works, 3 orders of french fries and an order of onion rings, Father rejoiced, “That’s a big 10-4 good buddy.”
It was to be my last supper with Father in which there was a remnant – a mustard seed even – of pure, unadulterated trust. On recollection in the following days and with greater consideration over the coming years, I would learn that it was a very dangerous thing to completely trust an imprisoned man.