My sister, Sophia went to visit my parents recently. She said that on the way home from the airport, my mom stopped at Wal-Mart. As they pulled into the parking lot, my mom said, “Everyone look around for that cheese.”
“What cheese?” Sophia asked.
‘Oh, I got a block of cheese at Wal-Mart a couple weeks ago and it smelled funny. I was going to return it, but it got lost before I got back there again. I’m pretty sure it’s somewhere in this van. Everybody look around – that was expensive cheese!”
This story did not surprise me. See I believe the universe is governed by laws; both physical and spiritual- the law of gravity, the law of the harvest, the law that decrees that some member of my family must be in a Wal-Mart at all times- day and night. Who made this law; I do not know. Maybe it’s not a law, but a curse. Did my father meet Sam Walton down at the cross roads at midnight and strike some awful bargain whereby my parents would receive their huge progeny, born healthy with all their fingers and toes, but at a terrible price?
My parents cannot pass a Wal-Mart. They are compelled to stop in and check for sales, compare the prices on black beans, butter, ground beef… whether they are in a funeral procession, bringing a baby home from the hospital, or on vacation. And even if they are on vacation, miles from home- if the prices are better- they will buy 10 cases of black beans and make the kids sit on them on the trip home.
It’s not just my parents though- my siblings and I must all spend hours walking the aisles, our legs aching, our minds numbing, as we put random objects in our carts and wait for the feeling – the feeling of release that means we can leave. The feeling that means somewhere, someone that shares our genes and our curse has just entered a Wal-Mart.
Sometimes I ignore the need, the nervous- can’t focus – can’t think of anything else need to go to Wal-Mart. I push it down, turn the music up loud, check my email, but it is persistent. I find myself heading for the door; keys in hand, but I stop- shut the door and call my sister. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing. What are you doing?”
“Nothing…I need to go to Wal-Mart.”
“Yeah, me too.”
‘I need to go to Wal-Mart.” I can’t talk to anyone in my family for long without hearing that phrase. Sometimes, when we both feel it, my sister and I will go together. This makes the universe happy. I can feel it. The more of us that are in a Wal-Mart at once – the happier the universe gets. The universe does not like it when I resist, when I stay home or worse when I pretend I’m headed to Wal-Mart but then go to Safeway instead or, worst of all, if I go the Natural Food Store instead. The universe will greatly punish my need for organic tofu and miso by making them cost as much as a Volkswagen bus.
Sometimes I can hold out…squash down the compulsion I feel until it passes suddenly, and I know that someone else in my family has succumbed and I feel bad for making them take my turn.
My mom goes to Wal-Mart more than any of us- several times a day. And when I’m at home I go with her. “Mom don’t forget to return that milk.” my sister Mary says as my mom and I head out the door for our third trip to Wal-Mart that day.
“Oh yeah, that’s right, I keep forgetting.” My mom says. I follow her out to the garage. On the deep freeze is a carton of milk- a swollen bloated, dangerous-looking carton of milk. The indented sides are popped out. It looks ready to burst. “ I think I’d better put it in a garbage bag just to be safe.” She says.
“You’re taking that to the store?” I ask.
“Yeah, I’m getting my money back. I’m sick and tired of getting spoiled milk from that store.”
“You couldn’t tell it was spoiled? I mean- did it look like that when you bought it?” I ask.
“No!” she says, “It looked fine. It’s just been out here for a while. I called two weeks ago and told them it was bad and they said to bring it in and they’d replace it.”
“It was three weeks.” My sister Mary interjects.
“Alright Ms. Memory- hand me that trash bag.” My mom says. Mary hands her the trash bag and I start to back as far away from the milk as I can. “Here…” my mom says to me, “Hold this bag open so I can put the milk in it.”
“I’m just going to watch.” I say moving behind a stack of boxes.
“Just hold the bag!” she insists, “Nothing is going to happen.”
“I think something is going to happen.” I say, “Just put the bag on the freezer and then put the milk in it.”
“That won’t work,” she says, “I need you to hold it for me. Just hold the bag!”
We’ve played this game a million times before. Three weeks ago when the milk was discovered to be sour (by my mother, of course) I know exactly what happened. She took a big sip and then gagged. She stared at the milk. “Are you ok mom?” someone asks. Starring hard at the milk she doesn’t answer, but takes another sip. “Ahhrg!” she says- almost retching. She braces herself against the doorway then sniffs the milk and quickly covers her nose and mouth- her eyes watering. “Oh man…” she says, “This is bad.” She holds it out to the kid nearest her. “Taste this.”
The kid backs away in horror. “Just taste it.” She says. She brings it to her nose again and almost throws up.
“But mom…” the kid whines.
“”Just taste it!” she says threateningly.
“Mom, I don’t want to.”
“Jesse!” my mom yells to my dad my who is hiding behind the newspaper.
“Taste the milk.” My dad says, knowing that if she can’t get a kid to taste it she’ll come for him next.
That kid didn’t have a choice. I used to be that kid, but not anymore. I’m an adult. I did my time tasting the rotten milk. I can say no. I’m not holding the bag. “Oh all right chicken,” my mom says, “Mary- hold this bag.” Mary glares at me, but doesn’t put up a fight and my mom, slowly and with the care you’d use to diffuse a bomb, wraps up the milk. The woman in Wal-Mart’s return department will be so happy to see her coming.
After visiting my family for a week, my sister Sophia rode back to the airport with my mom. While saying their goodbyes, my mom reached into her purse for something then let out a triumphant cry- “The cheese!” she exclaimed, holding the plastic wrapped, green mass high. She was still holding it as she hugged Sophia goodbye. “Girls,” she said to my sisters who’d come with her, “Get in the van. We’re going to Wal-Mart.”