In the evenings, they go to the mall. Once a week or more. Sometimes they even leave the dinner dishes in the sink so they will have enough time to finish all the errands. The father never comes — he hates shopping, especially with his wife. Instead, he stays home to read the paper and putter around his study. To do things that the other dads must be doing in the evenings. To summon the sand to come rushing in and plug up his ears with its roaring silence.
Meanwhile, the mother arms herself with returns from the last trip. Her two young daughters forget games of flashlight tag or favorite TV shows and strap on tennis shoes and seatbelts: and they’re off. On summer nights, when it’s light until after the fireflies arrive, the air is heavy and moist. The daughters unroll their windows and stick the whole of their heads out into the slate blue sky, feeling full force the sweaty, honey suckle air. In the cold mall, their rubber soles squeak on shiny linoleum squares. The younger daughter tries not to step on any cracks. The older daughter keeps a straight-ahead gaze; her sullen eyes count down each errand as it’s done.
It is not until the third or, on a good night, the fourth errand that the trouble begins. The girls have wandered over to examine rainbow beach towels, perhaps, or some kind of pink ruffled bedspread. The mother’s voice finds them from a few aisles away. “What do you mean you won’t take it back?” “I don’t want to talk to you. Where’s your manager?”
Dinner squirms in the daughters’ stomachs. Now comes that what-if-I-threw-up-right-this-second? or where-is-a-rabbit-hole-for-me-to-fall-into? feeling that they get around this time of evening, at the mall. The older one shakes her ponytails at the younger one. Her blue eyes hiss the careful-don’t-cry warning, but the younger one’s cheeks only get redder. Toe by toe, the daughters edge towards housewares where they finger lace placemats or trace patterns in the store carpet with sneakered soles. The mother’s voice still finds them, shaking with rage. Finally, heels slapping in her sandals, she strides towards them and then keeps going. They follow, catching her word-trail, “Stupid people. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I HATE stupid people.” It’s the little skips between steps the younger one takes to keep up with her mother’s long, angry legs. It’s the car door slamming and the seat belt buckle yanked into place. It’s those things that tell the daughters how the next few hours will go.
In the car, the older one sighs and grinds her back teeth. The younger one feels her face get hotter and her eyes start to swell. She stares at an ice cream stain on the back of the front seat and sees a pony, a flower, and a fairy in that splash of chocolate mint chip. The mother begins on both at once. “And when we get home, if your shoes are still in the TV room, I’m throwing them out. Same for books. No more shit house. No more lazy, ungrateful kids.” And so on and so on through the black velvet sky and across the Hershey bar roads. On into the house with a slap or two. “You’ll be happy when I’m in my grave,” wails at them as they put on their nightgowns and brush their teeth. The older one sets a stone jaw and the younger one tries not to sob as she opens wide, engulfing her small hand and scrubbing each and every molar.
The father is not spared. The volcanic mother saves some up just for him. “Fucking lousy husband. Do-nothing father.” And on like that for an hour or so more. Then in the darkest part of the night, it’s bare feet and cool hands on a small sweaty forehead. Kisses and caresses and “sorry Mom got a little mad.” Promises for that pink ruffled bedspread or maybe a new stuffed animal. Long fingers rake through the younger one’s curls. “Tomorrow evening, we’ll get you some kind of treat. Right after dinner, we’ll go to the mall.”