by Katelyn Wolfe
Even after nearly two years of this, Mary still couldn’t get used to the eyes of everyone in the store focused on her. It did not help that everyone was shopping for the upcoming Thanksgiving, crowding the aisles of the grocery store with more people that turned to look. Mary had spent her entire life avoiding this exact situation – she kept her head down, never wanting to draw any attention. After having her first child, Caleb, she found that her son did not share her inclination to remain under the radar.
No, at two years old, Caleb never failed to draw attention. Amid the aisles of the grocery store, something incomprehensible to Mary set him off. Maybe it was the fact that she had turned away for a few moments to grab the stuffing mix, leaving her two-year old without the security of his mother at his side. Maybe it was the strap that held him in the seat of the buggy – was it too tight? Was there something he wanted, something he was unable to communicate to her? Nevertheless, Caleb was screaming. The high-pitched wails that both tugged on her heartstrings and scratched away at her nerves at the same time. And now everyone was staring.
“Okay, okay,” she told him, and pushed their buggy into a different section of the store. Mary did not meet the eyes of the people watching them, but she could guess what she would find: pity. Pity for a young mother that couldn’t console her child. Mary couldn’t help but wonder what her mother would do in this situation but stopped herself before she thought about it too much. Instead, she remembered what had gotten her through some of her hardest times: God only gives you as much as you can handle. And this was only a bad trip to the grocery store; she could handle this.
Mary had pushed the cart aimlessly, and now lost track of what else she needed to buy. “I know, Caleb, it’s okay,” she told her son absentmindedly as she scanned one of the longest shopping lists that she had ever made. She needed everything for Thanksgiving dinner, the usual weekly groceries for her own family, as well as the groceries to get for her father, who could no longer shop for himself. They weren’t even half-way done.
With her last shreds of determination, Mary whizzed through the store, keeping tabs on the items left on her list, the weighted stares of strangers, and her son that fluctuated in and out of hysterics. She murmured words of condolence to him that had no effect as she ticked off each item on her list. Finally, she picked a checkout lane and tried to ignore the annoyed glances of the shoppers and cashiers. Something here set Caleb off again, and while Mary knew that it was useless, she tried to figure out what it could be as she mechanically unloaded the groceries onto the conveyor belt. Was it the beeping of the registers? Had Caleb preferred the movement through the aisles and was now upset that they had stopped? By the time the cashier was finished bagging her items, Mary had not come to any conclusion and Caleb continued screaming.
She lifted her purse out from the safety of the shopping cart and was careful to ensure no one could see its contents. Inside, Mary had several wads of cash – more money than she had ever carried on her at once. Mary thumbed through the stacks to determine which one to pay for the groceries with. Mary’s father had given her a couple hundred to spend on Christmas gifts. Another couple for her sister and her family that Mary was supposed to deliver later. Another stack for the endless bills she needed to pay. Mary was sure to only take out as much as she needed for the groceries, giving any strangers no hint that she was in possession of a lot of money.
Pushing the cart out of the main entrance and onto the pavement would have been a relief, but Mary knew better. The grocery store was not the only hardship that Caleb would face during this trip. Getting him into the car would be another source of distress. Mary made her way to the end of the parking lot to her old, run-down Buick – an ’86 model that Mary had bought for under one thousand dollars, replacing her newer ’92 model that she and her husband could no longer afford since she had stopped working. She was grateful that most of the shoppers were inside the store and that the parking lot was mostly empty, excluding the rows of lifeless cars. Despite the cool November day, Mary was sweating by the time she finished putting the bags into the trunk. Now it was time for the hard part.
As soon as Mary unbuckled the strap holding him in, Caleb broke down again. It felt cruel to pick him up as he tried to push her away with only a toddler’s strength. It didn’t make any sense – a mother’s embrace should have been the only thing a child needed to be calmed, but Caleb always fought her every step of the way. “There is nothing wrong with my son,” she had angrily told the doctors. And the nagging dispute from her own mind made another appearance: “Then there must be something wrong with me.”
Mary pulled the car door shut and grappled with her keys, wishing that her hands would stop shaking. Caleb’s incessant wails brought prickling tears to her eyes, but she blinked them away. There was no way she would be able to drive if they were both crying. Finally, she was able to get the key into the ignition after several tries and started the car. Just as Mary started to pull the gearshift, a rapid tap on her window startled her teary gaze from the wheel.
An older man eating a burger wrapped in yellow McDonald’s paper waited as Mary cranked the window down. He was wearing a blue ball-cap with a logo Mary didn’t recognize and a friendly expression, but Mary could not think of a reason he would be stopping her. Before she could inquire, he said, “Ma’am, you’ve left your purse on the back of your car.”
“Oh!” Mary exclaimed, sending her gaze to the dingy fabric of the passenger seat – where her purse should have already been placed – and found it vacant. The man politely stepped to the side as Mary opened her door and she retrieved the purse from where she had distractedly left it. The moment she pressed her foot on the gas, the purse would have fallen to the pavement, spilling her ID, her credit cards, her sister’s and her own money to the pavement. She would have drove Caleb all the way home, too immersed in her son’s distress to realize her mistake until the evidence of the empty passenger seat stared back at her in merciless candor.
Spinning back towards the front of the car, Mary began to thank the man for his generous interruption, but he was no longer standing by the driver’s door. In fact, he was nowhere to be found. The nearest cars were at least fifty feet away and showed no signs of movement. Mary blinked in disbelief – she had only turned away for a moment. She rounded the car, looking in all directions, but saw only disinterested shoppers loading their groceries into their cars closer to the store.
With nothing else to do, Mary returned to the driver’s seat and again pulled the door closed. She watched with certainty as she sat her purse on the grey seat beside her, almost expecting it to disappear as quickly as the man that stopped her. When it didn’t, she returned her gaze to the pavement ahead of her and put the car into drive. What would she have done if she had lost her purse, the money that was inside of it? She pulled out of the parking space, glancing back again for the man she hadn’t gotten to thank.
God only gives you as much as you can handle.
Kate Wolfe is a senior majoring in English Literature and Secondary Education. She is from Putnam County, WV and enjoys time outside in the warm weather. Kate spends the summer at a local farmers market working with flowers and produce before heading home to ride horses and care for her dogs. In the fall, Kate will be beginning the process of obtaining a Master’s degree in English Literature with a certificate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Florida Atlantic University.