Here is Chapter 25 of Dreaming Out Loud, the book about my mother’s stroke.
She grows less maudlin as we drive toward the Monroe Super Wal-Mart. It is one of her favorite places to visit in Walton County.
Grim premonitions aside, we enter the parking lot on an upbeat, hopeful note. I slowly guide the Taurus up one row and down another until we find an unoccupied handicapped parking space. After I slip the gear into “park” and slide the hang-tag with the wheelchair graphic onto the rear view mirror, we are ready to rock and roll.
Before mom pulls herself up from the passenger seat, I trot inside the store to retrieve the electric scooter. The major attraction in grocery shopping is examining the hordes of food and contemplating potential purchases, but driving the electric scooter is a close second. For once, mom is liberated from being pushed through her environment. Without assistance from me or Paula or Shelby, she literally is in the driver’s seat. She can navigate with the handle bars as though she is piloting a four-wheeler through the Wyoming badlands with no obstructions on the horizon. With only a slight pressure exerted with her thumb, she can determine which way she wants to travel and how long she will tarry. The scooter sports a metal basket directly in front of the handle bars, so she can select the items she wants and toss them into the basket unencumbered by exasperated relatives. Her face brightens at the thought of controlling her own destiny, however briefly and under whatever limited circumstances it might occur. Perhaps it is just my imagination, but I believe my mother rides a little taller in the saddle when she pilots herself through the Wal-Mart aisles at the helm of the electric scooter.
I always dread my trot into the store while mom waits inside the car. I remember the time we arrived when all of the electric scooters were in use and I had to roll mom’s wheelchair through the aisles while I dragged a regular shopping cart behind us. Part of the time, she propelled herself in her wheelchair with her feet, but she moved so slowly and it was so tiring the trip left her exhausted for days. After trying this unsatisfactory procedure once, the next time I ran into the store and found the scooters occupied, we left. The next Wal-Mart we visited, 12 miles away in Loganville, also offered electric scooters to disabled patrons, but one was in use and one was broken. We ended up at Publix, a Florida-based supermarket chain. I much prefer Publix products, but the prices generally are higher than they are at Wal-Mart, and Publix doesn’t always carry the items we need.
Fortunately, today the Monroe Super Wal-Mart has an unoccupied, operating electric shopping scooter. I unplug it from the wall socket and drive it out to my Taurus. Mom watches my slow, steady progress out the front door and across the parking lot. After I pull to a stop and open the passenger’s door so she can step out of the car, she breaks into a grin.
“This one is good for your soul.”
“Yeah, mom. It’s very, very good for your soul.”
I help her rise up from the car, take two steps, pivot, swing her leg across the scooter, and sit down. When I am satisfied her fanny is parked in the middle of the seat, I step away from the scooter so I can cut the engine to the Taurus and close the passenger door.
Although mom has operated the electric scooter numerous times, she cannot always recall the proper procedure. Before I can remind her how the controls work, she pushes the lever with her thumb. Regrettably, she pushes it in the wrong direction. The scooter responds instantly, propelling itself, along with mom, backward. The side of the scooter connects with the side of my car and emits a strange, almost musical sound as the metal basket scrapes against the metal rear passenger’s door. The scooter also beeps, indicating it is backing up. Motorists and pedestrians would be well-advised to heed this warning, especially with my mother sitting at the controls.
Mom takes note of the beeping scooter. “Trash truck! Trash truck!”
Standing on the opposite side of my car as I lock the door with a remote control attached to my key ring, I am horrified. The scooter scrapes its way along the side of my car while it continues its backward ride. Mom’s eyes are wide with fear. She shrieks a long series of unintelligible gibberish I cannot understand. If she would simply release the button, the scooter would grind to a halt, but this important fact has eluded my panicked mother.
Worried that she will back herself into oncoming traffic in the parking lot, I give chase. “Let go of the button! Let go of the button!”
Hearing my frantic calls, Mom finally releases the button before she can propel herself into the cars, trucks, and SUVs swishing past us toward the store.
With the situation under control and her welfare no longer imperiled, she finds the whole adventure funny. She laughs out loud. “Trash truck! Trash truck!”
I am not amused. Examining the rear passenger’s door on my Taurus, I see a six-inch line where the paint has been scraped off as if someone has taken a potato peeler to it. It is a mini-racing stripe added to a car not designed for such adornments.
I try to be patient with mom, but I feel my temper slipping. Despite my best efforts, I am white hot with anger.
“Trash truck!” She cackles, nervously trying to make light of a serious debacle. She must see the strained expression on my face.
“Jesus H. Christ! It’s not funny, mom. It’s really not. It’s gonna cost me good money to get that fixed.”
Still laughing, she explains her side of the story. “This one is a trash truck. A trash truck!”
“Just shut up. Please, for once, just shut the hell up!”
Mom’s mouth drops open and she looks at me, stunned at my outburst. After a few beats, she tries to speak, but nothing comes out of her mouth. Finally, abandoning her attempts in frustration, she gazes at her shoes.
I am stunned at my outburst as well. Rubbing the back of my neck, I stand and look around the parking lot. At least our little episode has not attracted undue attention. I know it was not mom’s desire to scratch up my car, but I feel highly aggravated and put upon. I am tempted to cancel this little soiree, pack mom back in the car, and return home. We can shop another day. Better yet — maybe I can just leave her ass here and Paula can pick her up. Or maybe mom can find her own damn way home.
Hold on, Mike. Hold on. Take a deep breath and get control of yourself.
Still rubbing the back of my neck, I inhale and exhale. I can indulge in a pity party every now and then, but this is neither the time nor the place. What kind of a person denigrates his stroke-addled mother for something she did not mean to do? To the outside world, I may be the good son, but I know better. Beneath the thin veneer of a long-suffering, saintly young man lurks a genuine Grade-A son of a bitch.
“Look, mom. I’m really sorry. I’m tired. I’m feeling kind of weak — I probably just need to eat something — and my temper snapped. I apologize.”
Still gazing at her shoes, she shrugs.
Looking at my car, I sigh. “What’s done is done. Let’s figure out how the controls work on the scooter and go on inside the store. I’ll deal with the car later.”
I kneel down and show her how to navigate forward and backward and how to turn left and right. I can tell her feelings are hurt; she is struggling not to cry. Inexplicably, I feel myself fighting not to cry as well. That is all we need — a mother-son weep-a-thon in the Wal-Mart parking lot.
“All right, then. Let’s go. Are you ready?”
Mom shrugs, but she pushes the scooter button and off we go.
She rolls and I walk through the automatic double doors into a brightly lit cornucopia of delight. A Super Wal-Mart store is a shopper’s paradise. Aside from acres of parking, the retailer features even more acres of merchandise inside the mammoth building. Where else can someone purchase a sweater, a chainsaw, a basketball needle, a quart of motor oil, a bag of rice, and a head of lettuce on the same premises? It is a one-stop shop.
Sure, throughout the years Wal-Mart has been criticized for the paltry sums it pays its employees and sharp business practices that drive mom-and-pop stores from rural communities, but it also meets a consumer need. Taking mom grocery shopping is a time-consuming, exhausting, expensive enterprise. While I might harbor philosophical reservations about the value of a Super Wal-Mart store, in practice I am pleased to find one outlet that provides everything she needs at prices that will not break my bank. This observation is hardly original, and it is not a testimonial suitable for commercial advertisements on television, but there it is. Wal-Mart meets our needs, and I appreciate anything that gets us through our day a little easier.
As soon as we step inside the double doors, suddenly — surprisingly — mom frowns. She seldom frowns inside Wal-Mart unless it is because she cannot read the small print or the price tag on a desired item.
“What’s wrong now?” I am still out of sorts.
“Oh, Michael, this one is a matter of fact since he divorced the bitch’s tight ass.”
Although I am accustomed to mom’s tortured pronouncements, I do not expect this expletive-filled non-sequitur. I cannot help but chuckle. “What? Do you have Tourette’s now?”
“The bitch’s tight ass! The bitch’s tight ass!”
I look around the Wal-Mart for a clue as to what she means. As usual, I see many asses, but none of them would I characterize as “tight.” “Drooping,” “sagging,” and “cellulite-rich,” perhaps, but none are properly designated as “tight.”
“I don’t understand what you mean, mom.”
I see the aggravation building, but I have no earthly idea what she is talking about.
“I want to see if he divorced the bitch’s tight ass.”
“You’ve got to stop listening to the gossip at Classic Cuts, mom.”
She shakes her head and smacks her lips, a sure sign her aphasia is frustrating her attempts at communication. Her left arm waves frantically. “Help me out here, Michael.”
I reach under my glasses and rub my eyes. “Are you trying to tell me about something you want to buy while we’re here at Wal-Mart?”
Her eyes grow wide. “Yes! Yes! Something you want to buy while we’re here at Wal-Mart.”
“Okay. We can do that. Do you know what it is? Can you describe it? And don’t tell me about divorcing the bitch’s tight ass again.”
Her left hand wags while she grimaces. “I can’t get that one or that one.”
“Okay, mom. I tell you what. You just think about it, and maybe we’ll come across the item you want, okay?”
She looks doubtful. “But I can’t get that one or that one.”
“I understand you’re worried we might forget it.”
“The problem is I can’t help you find the item when I don’t know what it is. If we see it while we’re inside the store, you point it out, and we can get it. Okay? You just point it out and we’ll get it. Otherwise, we’ll have to wait until sometime when you can tell me what you want. Okay?”
She shrugs. “Okay.” Her comment suggests she does not approve of my plan, but what can she do?
Taking a deep breath, I realize I am still pouting. Whatever else happens, though, I must control my infantile reactions. Plastering a fake smile on my face, I wave my finger around the store. “Where do you want to start?”
Where does she want to start? This is a question mom loves to contemplate. Her eyes sweep the vast expanse of the Super Wal-Mart. To her left and straight ahead lie aisle after aisle of groceries — fresh, dripping wet fruits and vegetables, whole wheat grains and breads, boxed casseroles, jars of aromatic Maxwell House coffee, canned fruit cocktail packed in heavy syrup, delicious assortments of candies and even cookies advertised by elves, and a long, cylindrical counter filled to the brim with freshly slaughtered flesh wrapped in plastic and polystyrene foam. In the middle of the store lie racks of inexpensively-priced clothing, sporting goods, books and magazines, and a plethora of consumer electronics. To the right lie toiletries, pain relievers and laxatives, Power Bars and Ensure, Boost, Sustacal, and Resource nutritional drinks for seniors, pet food, housewares, hardware, and gardening tools and accessories. She may be stroke-afflicted, but mom knows the layout intimately.
She points. “This one is this one.”
“You want to start in the grocery section?”
“Yes, Michael. Don’t you?”
“That’s fine. Let me grab a buggy.”
She leads the way. As per our usual arrangement, we start at the back of the store next to the soft drinks and dairy products and slowly, methodically work our way up one aisle and down the other.
With throngs of people clogging the path, we frequently stop and start as we position ourselves to maneuver through brief openings among and between the beefy thighs and expansive buttocks of the masses. Sometimes I have to call out to mom to watch where she is going so she won’t collide with people or the special, in-the-aisle displays of merchandise.
These special displays become the bane of our existence, especially the ones parked on the corners. When mom cuts the scooter wheels sharply to round the corner, she often comes within a whisker of taking down an entire cardboard display of pickles packed in glass jars. I envision myself working a second job so I can pay off mom’s overdue pickle bill after she breaks 100 jars. Move over, John Wise of ARS; another creditor gets in line.
Mom uses her time parked in the crowd to examine the colorful packaging and to eavesdrop on shoppers discussing their purchases. It is the best of all worlds for my mom, combining her love of shopping for groceries with her love of gossip. What could be better than listening to Wal-Mart customers argue and debate over whether they should buy a five-pound bag of rice or a one-pound bag of rice?
I watch her face and it reminds me of the way a child takes in the world. An infant is completely without guile, wide-eyed as he or she surveys the new and exciting stimuli life has to offer. It is delightful to watch a child’s head swing in a wide circle as the data spills in through the senses. So this is the world, and its sights, smells, tastes, and touches. How interesting!
Mom resembles a child as she struggles to process the data set before her. I remember Dr. Nazi Pajama’s long-ago analogy. Her brain is a 45-record that has been partially scratched. She can process some bits of information while other bits remain a mystery.
“Are you feeling okay, mom?”
She cuts her eyes at me, blinking, as if she is awakening from a great dream. Her pouting and sadness have dissolved away, receded as the water ebbs at low tide. “Hmm?”
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, Michael. I okay.” She looks at me and shakes her head as if to say, why on earth did you ask me that? Why wouldn’t I be okay? Her hurt feelings have been forgotten.
We continue our slow progress through the twists and turns around the Wal-Mart crowd.
Halfway through the grocery section, I realize I have picked up a pack of cinnamon and raisin bagels, but I have forgotten the cream cheese. I do not want to retrace our steps; back-tracking together will take far too long.
“I forgot something, mom.” I look up at the overhead sign. “We’re on Aisle 9. Aisle 9, okay? I’ll be back in a second. Stay here on Aisle 9, and I’ll be back.”
She is struggling to read the minute information printed on a box of Quaker instant grits and cannot be bothered to respond verbally. While holding the box in her good hand and moving it around so she can find exactly the right spot to read the tiny print with her bifocals, she nods. It is almost imperceptible, but I take this as assent. Without another thought, I swing my shopping cart around and head toward the back of the store.
Traveling alone through the Wal-Mart aisles is far easier than helping mom fight her way through other shoppers. I cut in and out of traffic until I reach the dairy case. Shivering from the cold temperatures while I scan the items, I finally spot the cream cheese.
Turning the plastic container on its side, I scan the nutrition information. Damn, there are a lot more calories in this cream cheese than I thought.
A lady standing next to me points. “You should try the cream cheese light. It has a lot fewer calories than the regular and it doesn’t taste half bad.”
I nod at the woman with the beehive hairdo. “Thanks.” Did I actually say that stuff about regular cream cheese out loud or is this woman a mind reader? Maybe she looked at my waist line and decided low calorie products were the way to go.
Daylight’s burning, as the old saying goes. I grab a carton of cream cheese light and toss it into my buggy, turn on my heels, and head back to Aisle 9.
I arrive to find the crowd has thinned considerably. Unfortunately, as I search for an electric scooter, I realize that mom is one of the shoppers who departed in my absence.
“Mom? Mom? Miss Laura?”
She is a disabled old lady driving a scooter, and she has been out of my sight for about three minutes. Even with the pedal to the metal, the scooter has a top speed of about two miles an hour. She cannot have gotten far.
The problem that lodges in the back of my mind is that mom cannot communicate with people. Even if someone stops to ask if she is lost, what can she tell them? She will tell them her name is Maureen, of course, but she cannot tell them where she lives, her telephone number, or anything about how she got to Wal-Mart. I suppose a store employee could come on the intercom and announce, “Would the owner of the lost, elderly, incoherent lady driving the electric scooter in a reckless manner please claim her at the customer service desk? Please bring your checkbook to pay for the damages. Thank you.”
Not satisfied to wait for the announcement, I swing around to Aisle 10 expecting to see her. Much of the old crowd is there, but she is not among them.
I swing around to Aisle 8 fully expecting to see her again. For a moment, my eyes play a trick on me and I do see her. A few second later, I realize it is another lady in an electric scooter. It is not my mother.
She is gone.
“Shit.” I lift my glasses and rub my eyes. “Oh, shit.”
I am annoyed, no question about it, but even now I am not overly worried. She is not a small child who can be easily tricked by a serial pedophile into leaving the store for nefarious purposes. This is a hefty, argumentative, grown woman on a slow-moving electric scooter. She is somewhere on one of these aisles; I know it. When I find her, I will give her a piece of my mind — this is a red letter day for chastising my mother, I suppose — but I am not ready to alert store authorities or the media about her disappearance. Her face does not need to be plastered onto milk cartons or posted on the bulletin board at the Wal-Mart entrance. We need not call the Georgia Bureau of Investigation for a manhunt, complete with bloodhounds and the latest electronic tracking equipment.
The shopping cart is slowing down my search, so I park it next to a huge Lay’s Potato Chip display. I now can jog through the people and buggies with minimal disruption. I must travel light.
Up and down the aisles I go. Each time I round a corner, I expect to see my mom. Each time, she is not there.
After I have visited all of the grocery aisles, carefully scanning the crowd for the gray-haired old lady on the motorized scooter, I am still empty-handed. My mother has vanished from the Monroe Super Wal-Mart. I feel my heart galloping in my chest.
Kneeling with my hands on my thighs, I take a deep breath and assess the situation. I must not panic. She is somewhere inside the store; she has to be.
I retrace my steps to Aisle 9 where I left her less than 10 minutes earlier. I see the box of Quaker instant grits she was reading when I foolishly embarked on my quest to procure cream cheese.
Standing approximately where she was parked when I left, I sweep my head back and forth trying to focus on the items that would have been in her line of sight. I even bend down so I can view the store from her vantage point. I have seen enough “Law & Order”-type television shows to know that good detectives try to “think like the perpetrator.”
Several passing shoppers glance at me and frown. One woman even admonishes her little girl to hurry along. She doesn’t say it, but I harbor little doubt she is fearful of the weirdo kneeling in the aisle, sweating profusely and mumbling that he must “find her before I can leave the store.” I haven’t seen this many mothers’ worried frowns aimed at me since I lived in an apartment complex a decade ago and owned six cats. When they learned of my many household pets, the children in the neighborhood would gleefully point and say, “look, mama, there’s the man who lives with all those cats!” The kids thought abundant feline ownership was a badge of honor, but their wide-eyed mothers assigned an infinitely more sinister meaning to this bit of trivia. “Stay away from the strange man, honey.”
Once again, I round the corner headed to Aisle 10. What do the cops on television call this — “recanvassing the area”? We have already shopped on Aisle 8, so my attempt to get inside mom’s head suggests that she would continue on our route even in my absence. Apparently, she did not hear me tell her to stay parked on Aisle 9 — or she chose to ignore it. In any case, she has strayed from the reservation.
As I duck-walk my way from Aisle 9 to Aisle 10, I spot a brightly colored display from the corner of my eye. In the clothing section of the Wal-Mart I see a variety of primary colors, a veritable sea of reds, blues, greens, and yellows mixed with browns and innumerable earth tones. The whole clothing section is awash with bright, inexpensively-priced feel-good garments. It is undoubtedly a mother magnet.
I stand to my full height and consider the possibilities. Perhaps — just perhaps — my mom got distracted during her grocery-shopping endeavors. Rejecting her quest for the perfect butter bean, perhaps she wandered over to revel in the wonderful world of color beckoning her just a few aisles away from the grocery section. What is a variant of the old saying? When you have searched everywhere she could possibly be and she is not there, you should search places where she could not possibly be. There you will find her.
I wait for a passing buggy to move out of my way and then I step across the floor onto carpeting.
In an instant, I am surrounded by racks of sweaters, shirts and blouses, jackets, and pants. I scan the racks. Although I am a short man — five feet six inches tall if I stand up straight in my shoes — I can see over the racks across the expanse of the clothing section. Unfortunately, mom rides low on her scooter. Even if she is motoring somewhere among the sea of garments, I cannot immediately find her.
The dressing rooms are located at the other end of the clothing section, so I march in that direction. As I stream through the racks, slapping my hands against the displays, I cut my head left and right in case mom is browsing on one of the cross streets. I see lots of people hidden in the clothing — children, old ladies sitting in chairs, adults examining price tags on bended knee — but my mother is nowhere to be found.
When I reach the dressing rooms and turn the corner, I spot two portly ladies wearing Wal-Mart uniforms. They are deeply engrossed in conversation. The women are picking up clothing that has fallen or been thrown on the floor and returning them to clothes hangers. Their animated discussion apparently distracts them from the mind-numbingly dull chore in which they are engaged.
Parked next to the women, enthralled by their conversation, who should I see? Mom laughs and bobs her head. Still sitting on the electric scooter, she holds a garment in her lap, although I cannot tell what it is from where I stand. The metal basket attached to the scooter is filled with groceries.
The women break off from their talk when they realize I am watching them. The older of the two addresses me in her pleasant, we-must-be-nice-to-the-customers-no-matter-how-annoying-they-are voice. “Can I help you, sir?”
I point. “I believe you have my mother there.”
She smiles. “Who? Shirley? What a sweet lady she is.”
I cut my eyes at mom. “You’re going by Shirley now? I thought your alias was Maureen.”
“We were wondering who she belonged to. Obviously, she can’t really tell us.”
“Listen, Shirley, I asked you to wait for me at Aisle 9 in the grocery section.”
Still smiling, mom holds up a bra. It must be the item she originally wanted to buy but could not tell me about. “Look, Michael! I have found a bustier!”