An Informal But Necessary Arrangement
by Shasta Grant
She uses stolen credit cards. Amex cards belonging to women named Janet and Linda, a Visa card embossed with Shirley King, Robert Scalan’s blue MasterCard (“my husband” she says even though there is no husband). She hands these cards over to cashiers, their feet aching, eyeing the clock for break time, lunch time, the end of the shift.
Her daughter sits in the red cart, the blue cart, the metal cart, depending on the store. She always brings her daughter, who spends most of the week at her grandmother’s house, an informal but necessary arrangement. They drive out of town to shop. She loads the red cart, the blue cart, the metal cart with cheap jewelry and makeup, sweaters and jeans, off-brand shoes. For her daughter, she takes flowered dresses, plastic dolls. Occasionally, she buys something big: a television, a microwave, a VCR. She sometimes offers these things to her mother, who wraps her arms around the big box, says thank you, says how generous you are but maybe you could help pay the rent or your daughter’s tap lessons instead.
Today the red cart is full of underwear, a satin robe, suntan lotion, a Cabbage Patch Kid with a pony. The cashier hands the card back, she does not turn it over, does not inspect Shirley’s slanted swirly capital S to make sure it matches the signature on the carbon receipts. What does that slanted S say about Shirley? Perhaps that she’s ambitious or introspective.
The cashier bags the underwear, the robe, the bottle of oil guaranteeing a faster, deeper tan. The daughter wants to hold the Cabbage Patch Kid with a pony so the cashier places a red “PAID” sticker on the yellow box.
The mother pushes the cart toward the door. Her heart rate does not quicken, her palms do not sweat. She has done this so many times, she knows she is good at it, knows that when she handed over the Visa card, she was Shirley King. She can be Shirley King for another day, two at the most. Shirley, who works in a dentist office, scraping plaque and weaving floss between teeth.
In the car, the daughter asks if she can open the box. “Of course, baby girl,” the mother says. The daughter knows the plastic cards her mother hands over do not belong to her. She knows strangers buy her these gifts. Her grandmother knows too. But they say nothing. Instead, the grandmother uses the microwave to cook Lean Cuisine dinners, rents movies from the shop on Main Street and watches them on the television with the VCR. At home, the daughter places the Cabbage Patch Kid with a pony next to all the others.
My stories usually start with a line or an image. This story started with both—I had the first couple of lines in my head, along with an image of a little girl in a red shopping cart at the checkout lane. After that, I was stuck. Nothing I wrote felt right. I had to let it sit for a month before returning to it. I wanted to include some information about those old credit card machines—the ones that made carbon copies of the front of your credit card. I spent a lot of time (too much time probably) researching them. They are called “zip zap” machines. I tried to work that name into the story but I was afraid nobody would know what it was.
Shasta Grant is the 2016 SmokeLong Quarterly Kathy Fish Fellow. Her stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Kenyon Review, cream city review, Outlook Springs, wigleaf, and elsewhere. She has been selected as the Spring 2017 Writer-in-Residence at the Kerouac House and her chapbook Gather Us Up and Bring Us Home is forthcoming from Split Lip Press.