Warning: This is a story from my childhood. It’s been on my mind because, as i learn to listen to what my body wants to tell me about my past, i had a sudden realisation of why i’ve had occasional stabs of “phantom pain”, on the inside of my left thigh, right close to my genitals. I’m safe now. She’s long dead and her abuse ended with her. It’s just a story now, one that helps me understand and move on.
“Here, go to Red Rooster and get me a bag of potatoes.”
In Red Deer, Alberta, in 1974, Red Roosters are a chain of convenience stores, like a 7-Eleven or a Mac’s Milk. She presses a couple of paper bills into my hand and sends me off.
We live in a low-cost housing complex just off Gaetz Avenue, the main road through the city that connects everyone to anywhere they might wish to go. Some of the units are red, and some are that awful 70s olive green. This is our Canadian version of an inner city ghetto though (read: run down and dirty, but not at all dangerous), so the colours are washed out and drab. Still, i’d prefer the red to our 4yr-old’s-runny-nose green.
It’s spring, but being Alberta it’s still very cold, and being Red Deer, sitting in a valley, there’s still plenty of snow. I stuff my feet into boots that were too small in November, (Good god, girl! I can’t afford to buy new things for you every month – will you just slow down already? Maybe if you didn’t eat like a pig you wouldn’t be so big!) and head out to the store, which isn’t even 5 minutes away by addlebrained 7yr old girls’ timing. Convenience stores, with their obscene markups for the privilege of such, are always close to clusters of the poor.
I pass some younger children playing in the yard of a red unit along the way. They wave excitedly and say Hi! and i respond in kind. Children my own age have already pushed me out of their circles – they know something’s not right with me. I’m poor, yes, but some of them are too. That’s not the problem. There’s a wrongness deep inside me and they can smell it, like a herd of horses will shun a sick one. It’s the stink of the urine in their case, in mine it’s probably the words that come out of my mouth.
“Your daughter is one of the smartest children i’ve ever taught, but she has no friends. She doesn’t know how to play; she just stands on the playground and watches, or tries to tell the other children what to do.”
The younger kids in my neighbourhood don’t mind. I’m bossy, but i’m nice, and i let them play in my yard and play with my toys, and sometimes i perform for them, which they love. They’ll sit on the grass in the summertime and i’ll do a puppet show from inside the house. Our front window has no screen, so opening it is like pulling back a glass curtain, leaving me a couple of feet of stage.
Mother has an old record player and a stack of 45s and 78s that i’ll throw on and do animated lip syncs for them. They’re delighted by my performances and it’s my only source of joy. Their favourite is when i do Little Red Riding Hood, by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs.
After a quick exchange of hullos, i hurry off to the store. Mother brooks no dawdlers.
I walk in and the door has a bell that dutifully announces my entrance, just like in the movies. Stamping the slush off my boots on the front mat, i survey the area around the till.
It’s where all the chocolate is kept.
Rows and rows of it and Oh! so many different kinds. I see them advertised in magazines, on billboards, and between Saturday morning cartoons on the telly. They’re all right here, though. Lined up like candy soldiers, perfectly faced. I can smell them. I can smell the chocolate, and my stomach reacts enthusiastically.
It’s been a long time since i last ate anything.
When i came home from school the day before i was starving. I’d had a bowl of puffed wheat for breakfast, but we were out of sugar and there was only powdered milk. By the time i got home at around 4pm i would have eaten nearly anything. The fridge was empty, as was usually the way it stood. A monolith of hope, containing cold emptiness and the odd packet of ketchup from some fast food meal of which i’d almost certainly not partaken.
That day though, while rummaging through the cupboards i’d found half a sleeve of saltines, in the bowels of a shelf full of old herbs and dusty spice jars. I arranged them carefully on a plate and squirted a bit of the ketchup packets on each. I was then struck by pure genius and added a dollop of mustard as well, and finished them with a splash of Worcestershire sauce. I tried to make my fancy appetizers last as long as i could, but i was so hungry and they were so delicious.
There’d been nothing since.
My gut managed to cry out and cramp up at the same time, as the smell of convenience foods –CHOCOLATE!– filled my nose. I walked up to the till and hungrily perused all the choices. Were there dozens? I stared so long the man behind the counter finally asked me, “You gonna buy somethin’?”
Sweet Marie. My favourite.
He rang through the purchase and i handed him my crumpled bills. He only took 1 and he gave me back change, so i picked out another one and bought it, too. Rolos. Definitely a close second.
With 1 dollar and a few cents left, i stood over by the comics and ate the Rolos, barely finishing one before i popped the next into my mouth. They were fresh. The chocolate was soft and the caramel filling was too, and it oozed onto my tongue, but still had a bit of chew. Perfect. The cashier eyed me and warned, “You can’t touch those comics now, you’re eating candy!”
I stepped back and made sure he saw i was only looking at the titles. I had enough to buy a Hot Stuff or a Richie Rich or a Casper, or Wendy or Little Dot…
That’s when i saw the potatoes.
Bags of potatoes all stacked on top of each other.
I was supposed to buy potatoes.
“You gonna buy one of them comics, or not?”
He startled me, and the terrible realisation of what was waiting for me at home hit all at once, and i started peeing in my pants. Literally. I was mortified and i couldn’t stop it and the cashier was glowering at me and i tried to make it outside, but i only got as far as the mat in front of the door, where i stood, frozen, and emptied my bladder.
I don’t know if he knew. I don’t remember leaving the store.
I was walking home and the cold air froze the wet legs of my pants and made them stiff and chafe against my skin. I remember my friend coming to take my hand and walk me home. She said it was okay, she was brave and she’d talk to Mom and explain about how there were no potatoes and so we bought her a Sweet Marie instead. Her favourite.
I watched her lie to my Mom for me, and hold out the candy.
I watched my Mom’s face turn scary, so i quickly looked away and down and saw she was still wearing her fancy winter boots she used for work. They had pointy-toes.
I watched her kick my friend in the crotch with those pointy-toed boots.
I saw her kick my friend so hard that she stumbled back against the wall.
I didn’t see what happened to the chocolate.
I know i didn’t see any supper that night, but i could smell it – wafting up the stairs from the kitchen. Sneaking under the door to fill my nose as the chocolate had such a short time before.
Maybe tomorrow after school my friend would come again and help me look for some more crackers.