The size of that parking lot was the only reason Jerry got back to the drop off before they were in range.I heard their cars coming before I saw Jerry but their headlights didn’t pick him out until he reached the bottom of the drop off.Jerry spotted me and yelled “Viola” before he slung Hazard Pay up the slope toward me.Then he started pulling himself up the drop off wall, grabbing tree roots and rocks for support as those two cars got closer and closer.
Their first shot came when they were half way down the parking lot, and I don’t think it came anywhere near Jerry but it woke me up, even more than Jerry’s yell did. I sighted along the barrel of Jerry’s gun and pulled the trigger, aiming for a center spot between the closest pair of head lights. That 357 kicked back hard and the headlights swerved into a curve away from us. I fired over the headlights of the other car but I fired too high. It was pulling around toward the other car when I hear Jerry’s voice.
There was Jerry, the moon on his face. He was hanging from the drop off and grabbing at the grass clods near my feet. Hazard Pay was on the ground between us. I pulled the top of the strap over my wrist and slung the bag part back to him. “Grab” I said and leaned back.
Jerry’s grip onto the purse nearly unsteadied me but my heels were set deep in the mud. I threw myself backwards and pulled Jerry along with me. I heard the breath go out of him, “Whmmph!” as his body hit the grass. I heard another gun fire and Jerry yelled into the dirt. I rolled over and crawled so I was almost head to head with Jerry. He was still face down into the dirt and his legs were still kicking over the edge of the bluff. . “He’s going to have more dirt in his lungs than a farmer” I thought and grabbed him underneath the arms. “Jerry, pull yourself to me” I said “They can still see your legs!” Jerry got a knee under him and pushed his legs over the top while I pulled his shoulders toward me. The headlights below us went out.
For a minute we just lay there in the dirt and the dark, then Jerry said “Roll into the weeds, Viola, we’ve got to get away from this road. I’m glad he said roll since I couldn’t stand up without help. We rolled and fell into a bar ditch before I heard a car again, this time only one. I heard but didn’t see it drive up the hill and go crashing past us on the road. After about five more minutes of quiet Jerry said “Viola? Are you okay?
“I believe so” I said “Do you reckon they’ve gone?”
“I’m not sure,” he said and I could hear the pain in his voice. “Maybe they all hopped in the one car and left. Maybe some are still waiting below. But we’ve got to leave, Viola. I took a bullet in my foot and I need to stop this bleeding.”
We pushed and hauled ourselves out of the bar ditch and into a flat part of a field. Jerry wouldn’t let me take his boot off but the moonlight showed where the bullet went in through the boot heel. I could also see the shiny patches on the heel where fresh blood had run out.
“Hey, I’m lucky” Jerry said when he saw my face “If that bullet had hit anywhere else I’d be in lot worse shape. It had to get through two inches of rubber before it got to my foot. That slowed it down.”
I wanted to go back to the hotel on my own and bring help back to him but Jerry said no. “We can’t help each other if we’re separated.” he said “and if you didn’t get back, how could you bring me help?” I thought I could probably get back to the hotel and faster without him. Still the man had risked his life for me, basically a stranger, and he was right about what could happen to us in the dark. “Well, once we get up, can you lean on my shoulder?” I said.
Jerry and I walked on, not saying anything until we were where the road sloped down to the parking lot. I could hear men’s voices arguing at the far end of the big parking lot.
Jerry spoke extra soft. “Viola, will you listen to me?” I nodded. When I realized he couldn’t see me, I whispered “Yes.”
“Okay, we’re lucky that those boys are at the far end of the parking lot and your car is near this other.” he said quietly. “You’ve made good time keeping up with me but that road downhill is rough. Are you sure you can get down and up that thing in a hurry if you have to?”
“No, I might fall.” I said. There was something in his voice that made me tell the truth, even if it went against me. “And I might make a noise.”
Jerry nodded. “Okay, I’ve got another question: Can you shoot a gun, a 357?”
“Yes, I can.” I said. “That, I’m good at.” I wasn’t bragging. My daddy gave me my first shooting lessons and Ponder kept them up through our married life.
“Good.” Jerry said and handed me his gun. “This is loaded and odds are you won’t have to fire it but it would be good if you covered me.” He gave up a thin sort of smile. “Now where’s this bag my wife thinks is worth four days pay?”
“Front seat floor on the passenger side” I said. He nodded and stepped off the dirt edge of the bluff, turned around and started climbing down alongside that steep drop of a road. I watched Jerry move ever so slowly down the hill, placing his feet so his steps would be silent and holding on to tree roots coming out of the slope so he wouldn’t slide down the hill. The moonlight reflected off the silver covers of the roach coach and the metal door at the cavern’s mouth and I could see something moving near the mouth of the cave. Finally, down to my left, just past the bottom of the hill, I could see the shadow of a stand of trees and my old car parked beneath them. I was so scared. The cicadas, the crickets and the grasshoppers were shouting out their night sounds which, I guess, made us lucky. They covered the sound of Jerry’s boots on that chert-covered parking lot.
Jerry was smart; he stuck close to the shadows when he crossed the lot. I caught his outline moving amongst the trees but he was so quiet, I didn’t hear the clunk when the car door opening. It was the interior dome light going on that gave us away.
That stupid light went on and stood out in the black night. I heard a man holler “Hey!”, as Jerry leaned into my car to grab the purse. Jerry slammed the car door shut and the dome light went out but it was too late. Seconds later engines at other end of the parking lot started roaring and I saw headlights in the distance. They were on to us!
Well, the Dixons wanted to me to stay with them at their motel until morning. I didn’t want to, couldn’t afford it and didn’t mind saying so. But while I was arguing, Jerry was moving my plates and cups from the Mule to the back of their van and Gennine said they wouldn’t feel right leaving me here alone in the dark. I finally climbed in between the kids and we started up the hill leaving the Mule behind.
I know we weren’t on the road long. I’d smelled the paper mill when Casey said “Peyton stink”. I started to say that wasn’t Peyton but trees being turned into school tablets when Peyton threw up onto the back of her mama’s seat.
“Jerry, stop the car.” I said and he pulled the van half way into a ditch. When the car light came on, you could see the baby wasn’t well at all. Whatever fried snacks her sister had fed her were scattered over the backseat, me, and the edges of her mama’s hair. I felt Peyton’s forehead and that baby’s temperature was too high.
Gennine was looking for wipes and baby aspirin while I was looking through the bags on the floor for something I could use to clean up the mess. My brain was so tired I couldn’t figure out what else was wrong until Gennine reached around for the baby, Hazard Pay was gone!
“Let me out of this car” I mumbled, climbing over Casey.
“Where are you going?” Jerry said.
“Jerry, go take care of your kids. One of them is sick and my purse is back in the parking lot.”
It was bad after that. I needed to go back and Jerry swore he wasn’t going to let me out of the car. Gennine was trying to take care of Peyton and Casey was starting to blubber.
“Viola, that parking lot back there isn’t safe.” Jerry said. “Those old boys are probably still around the roach coach and what they’re selling now ain’t legal. Go back tomorrow in daylight. Your car won’t interest them – likely your purse is safe.”
“The car I can do without, Jerry, but I can’t leave Hazard Pay. That bag…it’s special.” Then I don’t know why but my throat closed up on me. I don’t believe in crying over things, just people, but I was fixing to cry right then “Those guys won’t bother an old woman like me.”
Gennine came to my rescue. “Jerry, why don’t you walk back with Viola?” she said. “I’ll take the kids along to the motel and you can meet us there.” When Jerry looked thunderous she said, “I don’t blame Viola. A Coach bag costs about four days’ pay and if those dealers see it, she’ll never get it back.” She turned to me. “But he’s right, Viola. Those guys are mean and they’d think nothing about beating up a woman. You take Jerry and his side-arm with you. You’ll be okay.” When we didn’t say anything, she looked impatient. “Come on, I have a sick baby to look after. Can you walk down there and then back to the motel?”
Well, some folks are hard to argue with. Jerry pulled his gun from underneath the driver’s seat and stepped out of the car. Gennine slid over to take his place behind the wheel and took the cell phone while I fought my way out the side door. Once the doors slammed shut, Gennine stomped on the gas and took off, churning rocks up behind her.
Jerry and I started the long walk back, both of us too mad to talk. The bugs were out and the smell of that paper factory was making me sick but all I could think about was Hazard Pay. I stumbled in the dark and started to lose my balance but Jerry caught my elbow and steadied me. That took away my mad and started me talking.
“Jerry, why are you bothering with an old widow woman like me? I’m no kin to you.”
Jerry said, “Viola how long did you have your parents?”
I thought. “Mama made it past her 78th birthday and Daddy lived to 82.” I answered. “Why?”
“Well, my parents died when I was a little boy,” he said. “I don’t remember them much but my mama’s mama raised me. I had her until about three years ago. She was a lot like you, feisty and independent. Couldn’t tell her anything and wouldn’t let me do a thing for her.” He stopped a second and looked me dead in the face.
“I spend time with my girls because I know what I missed as a kid.” he said. “I’m helping you to say thanks to my Grandma.”
I looked up to see a child with a long pony-tails on each side of her head and her membership card hanging clear down to her shorts. “Do you need some help?” she said.
“I believe I’ll be all right once I can get on my feet. What’s your name, child?”
“I’m Casey” she said, pointing to her membership card. “Where’s your name card?”
“In my wallet, Casey, which is in Hazard Pay, which is underneath me. Sugar, can you get some help? I may need to be lifted some.”
She squeaked “My Daddy can help” and bolted back into the fried sample crowd, leaving me with Hazard Pay between me and the floor. I had enough time to call myself a few names before I heard Casey’s voice again and saw her with a man who must have been her father. They shared the same eye shape.
Casey said, “This lady’s card is in Hazard Pay.” and started to laugh like this was the funniest thing in the world. The poor man looked confused so I decided to take matters into my own hands.
“Mister, my name is Viola Sprayberry.” I said trying to sound as dignified as I could, slumped on the ground next to dishes. “Your little girl brought you over here because I told her I’d need some adult help getting back on my feet.”
“Are you all right?” he said. “I don’t want to move you if something’s broke.”
“Nothing hurt except my pride” I said. “Can you help?”
“Hang on” the man said. “My wife, Gennine, works in a nursing home and knows all about lifting folks.” He turned to his daughter. “Casey, stay here with Mrs. Sprayberry. I’ll get your mama and Peyton”
A dark-haired young woman came around the corner just then pushing a full cart with a child on board. She called “Jerry!” and the man looked up. She was his wife and they helped me get to my feet. I dusted off Hazard Pay and we got acquainted while Casey ran back and forth bringing us fried snack bits from the hot-plate lady.
They were the Dixons and it was easy to see they knew all about the Big Store. All of them were wearing their membership cards and Jerry and Gennine were each pushing a basket. Jerry said they lived half way across the state but their store membership meant they could get two months’ worth of shopping done in one night which was good since Gennine was starting her second year of nursing school.
“I’m going to get my R N license next.” she said “and work at the hospital instead of the nursing home. That’s when the money’s really going to start to flow.”
“We’re doing okay, Gennine.” Jerry said. He looked a little embarrassed.
“Okay is fine for now, Jerry, but I think we can do better.”Oh, she wore the pants in that family even if she was a foot shorter than him.“I want the girls to go to good schools and have quality things like Mrs. Sprayberry’s Coach bag there.” Gennine pointed at Hazard Pay.“There’s more in this world than the Big Store.”
“That may be, but this is my first visit and I’m lost” I joked. I thought it was funny that Gennine Dixon was aching to get out of the Big Store just as much as I had been aching to get in it. I turned to hook get that box for the dishes I’d seen earlier. Of course it was gone.
In the end Gennine offered to put my coffee cups in her buggy if I could carry the plates and I’d check out right behind them. That suited me; it felt like I’d been in the Big Store for hours and I was glad to have company who’d get me out the door. They were a nice family. Not as rich as some of the families I sat for but money enough to shop here and stay at the motel afterwards. More important, they were decent folks who would help a neighbor. Their little girl Peyton didn’t say much, just gazed at me with her china blue eyes and put up three fingers to show me her age. Casey giggled and teased her folks but she was a good girl. I liked them.
We still didn’t get out of that store until almost closing time and I’d learned eight stoneware salad plates weigh a ton. The checkout girl gave me a cardboard box to put my dishes in and the handles on that were easier than carrying those plates in my arms but the cups evened out the score by weighing more. Jerry ended up carrying them to my car and putting them on the front seat while Casey and her mom loaded up their van. Little Peyton was already asleep in her car chair.
“Would y’all mind making sure I get up this hill before you take off?” I asked. We were about the only ones left in the parking lot except for a few men next to the Roach Coach. I didn’t want to be alone if the Mule turned balky. Jerry agreed and they waited for me to drive out but, wouldn’t you know it, the Mule wouldn’t start and it had a flat tire to boot? First, we tried jumping it off with jumper cables and mine but the engine just wouldn’t turn over. Then, Jerry tried to call a wrecker on his cell phone but he said we were out of range. That rotten car was dead and it looked like I’d have to stay there until I could get it towed to some mechanic who’d charge me more to fix it than the Mule was worth. I was beginning to think that visiting The Big Store was the worst idea I ever had.
Viola’s found her way to The Big Store at last. Is it what she hoped it would be?
Washing powders were my first problem.They was selling my brand by the bucket load for 7 cents an ounce!Problem is, I had no place to keep that bucket. Then I got to thinking: I can get a two pound box at the Dollar Store with a newspaper coupon which fits on my shelf and costs me (I had to do some figuring here) six and a half cents for the same ounce, and that didn’t even count the cost of the gas!Well, I learned Helen Riley couldn’t do math and washing powders weren’t cheaper at the Big Store.
Another thing was sheets.I needed some new top sheets for my bed, time and toe nails having worn out the others.The sheets they sold weren’t too expensive – if they had been willing to sell those a sheet at a time instead of in sets with two pillowcases!I nearly bought one set until I realized I would be paying fifty dollars a set to get just one new sheet.I’ve got too much of Ponder in my memory, I couldn’t do it.
It went on and on like that as I went through the store.Either they sold something I wanted for cheaper than usual but not cheap enough (like some Tiffany lamps) or their cheap stuff was something I didn’t want or the price turned out not to be a great buy after all, especially considering the amount I’d have to buy. (I ain’t got storage room for two years’ worth of toilet paper!)I got so crazy looking for bargains, I nearly bought a navy-blue eye-lining pencil for two ninety-eight.That was a good except I never wear makeup.
I was plumb discouraged by the time I got to the back of the store.That was where they kept their freezer cases and a lady with a hot plate was in front of them giving away fresh-cooked samples of a pizza snacks.It was the first real bargain I had seen but I wasn’t interested.First off, she was surrounded by the tattoo and tube top crowd.More important there was a bunch of cardboard cartons across the aisle from her with stacks of dishes on top of each box.Above the boxes was a sign that said “Clearance Stoneware – Every item $1.25.”Stoneware was something I wanted.
For years I ate my meals off of dishes Ponder dragged home from yard sales, flea-sales and Goodwill.I didn’t have a whole place setting of anything and every one of my plates had scars from when we’d sliced our knives across their surfaces.If the Big Store’s plates cost no more than ten bits apiece, I could have a matched set I wasn’t ashamed of.And I knew that stoneware was a solid strong dish that wouldn’t show scratches or stains.The plates for sale were real different, green on the food side and a dirt color on the back and they were square shaped but I could see how they’d make a pretty table setting.While everybody else was gathering around that lady with the hot plate, I squatted in front of the dish boxes and started picking out plates.
Five quarters apiece doesn’t sound like much but when you figure all the pieces that go on a table including serving bowls, glasses, napkin rings and bread plates, one single place setting can set you back more than ten dollars.I planned to get service bowls and eight full settings but I could see that wasn’t happening. Instead, I pulled out six plates, saucers, bowls and and matching coffee cups.By that time, I had been in a squat so long that my knees were stiff.When I shifted to grab an empty box I fell right onto my purse and the floor.I felt like a fool!
“Are you okay, ma’am?” said a voice and I looked up. There was a child with long pony-tails on each side of her head and her membership card hanging clear down to her shorts.“Do you need some help?”
Of course, Eufaula is a good thirty five miles from my house and the Big Store is eight miles past that but a summer evening is a good time for a drive. Ponder and I always liked to drive with the windows down catching the smells from whatever grew beside the highway. That evening, the smell was mostly honeysuckle. I caught a stink of paper mill once or twice and a big whiff of skunk as I passed a motel, but mostly it was honeysuckle. It was honeysuckle when I turned toward onto the short road that ends in the Big Store parking lot.
Now, no one told me about that road. It was dirt and chert rock for half a mile before it dropped so steep, the chert rolled off the road. It drop was full of gullies from rainstorms and I had to shift down and ride the brakes to get to the bottom. I hated to think about how I’d get up on the way back. Once it bottomed out, the road just fanned out into a parking lot without any lights or pavement. I didn’t guess there would be so many cars! It looked like a Wal-Mart lot crammed with everything from clunkers to Hum-Vees. People still parked in rows like there were lines painted and I left the Big Mule next to a bunch of scrub trees at the back of the lot. Through the cars, a steady stream of people were all headed for what looked like a big cave opening with a lot of lights at the mouth.
I didn’t expect a Roach Coach to be at the Big Store but there was one, chrome gleaming in the car lights, next to the mouth of the opening. Lots of people were gathered around it, laughing and drinking sodas and eating what the girls had fried up inside. I’ve seen what goes into those Roach Coach burgers and I wasn’t about to spend my money there.
Instead, I walked straight to the entrance, where a man checked my membership card. There were red arrows painted on the concrete floor that pointed to the right and an empty place for shopping baskets. I thought I’d keep an eye out for an empty buggy somewhere in the store. On the left, was a line of cash registers with cashiers checking people out and customers lined up behind each register.
It wasn’t till I got past the entrance that I saw the Cavern part of the warehouse. The floor was smooth cement and the wooden walls went up about twenty feet but above that the walls and ceiling were limestone. The limestone was crisscrossed with electric cables fastened into the rock and florescent lights and mechanics lamps hung down every few feet or so. The aisles were made up of gigantic shelves stacked two levels high and from the back I could hear the toot of forklifts, probably carrying more goods around.
I figured the Big Store would be pretty and bright but I was wrong. For all of the hanging lamps it was dark on the inside, not well lit at all. The store lamps only created pools of light right beneath where they were hanging and in between those light circles it got plumb gloomy. I wasn’t expecting the clutter either. I knew the Big Store sold everything from the cradle to the grave but I didn’t expect all of the clothes would be folded into stacks 3 feet high or hung so many on a rack that you couldn’t really see what was there. I pulled at one stack of black dresses and found they all looked like tank tops with skirts sewed on to the bottoms. Hardly something I’d wear. At the end of one aisle was a bin of women’s sandals, one style but all different sizes, each pair tied together with a plastic cord. Women were tearing through those ugly things a mile a minute but it wasn’t worth the fight.
I never expected such a mix of people in the Big Store. Lots of them looked like the families I had worked for with the men in khakis and golf shirts and the women looking stylish. Some other folks were more like me, wearing clean jeans and t-shirts but a lot of people needed to be cleaned up before you could throw them in jail. Imagine, walking through The Big Store wearing tube tops and open shirts with stomach fat bulging over your jeans! One thing I did see: you could pick out the regulars easy cause they wore their membership cards around their necks, hanging from blue cords. I decided I‘d buy me one of those cords; it was a good idea.
I could also see that Big Store had some bargains. Close to the front was a jewelry counter, all lit up and showing engagement rings for less than a thousand dollars and one man was talking about a set of tires in the back he was getting “for half of what Goodyear charged”. I didn’t need rings or tires so Istarted down the aisle, looking for the things on my list.
I was working as night aide for Mr. Kenneth Riley when I heard the Big Store’s membership had opened up; night aides don’t hear as much as the day help but Mr. Riley’s Depends ran out early one week and his great niece, Helen, brought out a case complaining about the trip she’d made to get them.
“Can you get me a glass of tea, Viola?” she huffed.“I’m about to perish from this heat”
“I’ll bring it to you as soon as I get your Uncle Kenneth changed” I said.“He’s been going through those diapers fast and I don’t want him to get sores waiting for a fresh one.”
“Never mind, I’ll get it myself then” she said and made a face.When I came back from her uncle’s bedroom, Helen was sitting with her heels up on a kitchen chair, swilling iced tea like she was the Queen of Sheba.
“When did the Big Store start keeping late hours?” I asked her.
“Last year, I think,” she said.“Probably, when the credit-union people started going.”
I didn’t understand that.“The credit union?” I asked.“No credit union around here hires enough folks to make The Big Store change their hours.”
“Not their employees, their customers” Helen said.“Anyone with a credit union account gets a membership card to the Big Store, didn’t you know that?”
“No” I said and Mr. Riley bawled out “Viola, you got company?”Helen dropped her glass to the table.“Tell him no,” she hissed. “I’ll never get home if he wants to visit and Eddie Junior needs help with his math.”Like that would fool me.Helen Riley Biggs has a problem with soiled old men, not her son’s math homework.Still, she left me with something to think about besides a sink full of dishes.
Everyone knows it takes fifteen dollars to open an account at the Credit Union.Fifteen dollars, I could spare.If I shopped at the Big Store, I might find enough bargains to make up for that cost, and then I could start living nicer at home.I thought about my ratty old bedspread and the mismatched plates in my kitchen.I could replace everything a bit at a time and shop in the later hours since my work had me sleeping days.If I could get Cora McAuliffe to take my Saturday night shift some weekend, I could even visit the Big Store with my Friday wages in my pocket and rest enough on Sunday to go back to work.Pretty soon, I’d be living like I wanted.
I put more effort into my own life that next month than I had in the all the years since Ponder died.I cleaned the inside of my house down to the walls, and got rid of the three truckloads of garbage.Ponder’s collection of Confederate bills turned out to be as counterfeit as I figured but his coin collection got rolled and turned in to the credit union for eighty-seven dollars and forty-one cents, over and above the fifteen dollar opening charge.I carried Hazard Pay down to the credit union stuffed with those coin rolls (those Coach bags are tough as well as beautiful, the leather handle took the strain with no problem) and opened up my account.The credit union teller took my photograph and then gave me a laminated card with Cavern Warehouse Incorporated printed on the back and a picture of me and Hazard Pay on the front.I bought a cheap wallet to hold my cash, made a list of what to replace first in my house and looked for a body to take my weekend shift.
That part was nearly impossible.Seven dollars an hour wasn’t enough to make Cora leave her Saturday Night Bingo, I had to agree to sweeten the pot with twenty more out of my own pocket! (By then, I would have paid her thirty to take that shift.)
Finally, I gassed up the last car Ponder ever got me, a 1966 Ford that I call The Old Mule. Oh, that car is stubborn! It balks in front of hills and dies before it will go through any puddle big enough to draw mosquitoes. Still, I own it outright and Ponder set it up so it takes unleaded gas, so I keep on driving it, silly as that sounds. That Friday, the Old Mule felt like Cinderella’s coach, to me. It was taking me to the Big Store at last.
Not all trash is trash: that’s the first thing you’ve got to know.I’ve picked over, cleaned up and used other people’s trash all my life but I know the difference between a bargain and cheap.It’s all about quality and no Big Store can sell that off its underground shelves, no matter what you hear.You need to know how to shop. My name’s Viola; never mind how old I am, it’s probably older than you. I’m a widow woman and I’ve spent most of my life working for somebody else. I was serving on the breakfast line at the Piggly Wiggly when I met Ponder, the man I married. used to say he walked in for a sausage biscuit and walked out with me. Ponder picked trash for a living, buying a car or cabinet someone didn’t want, then mending and selling it to someone else for a little higher price. That kind of a job doesn’t bring in wages, not the kind you can show the government, so I stayed at the Pig, serving breakfast until the store shut down. After that I cleaned houses and sat with sick and old people for a day job. After Ponder died of a stroke, I started worked nights and weekends too. There wasn’t much to go home to, except the bills and Ponder’s bargains. I keep my people and their houses clean and that’s been my life these last five years.
Ponder used to make me so mad with his bargains. He’d come back from the junkyard with some invention that never worked or some stinky, stained stock papers on a business that bankrupted twenty years ago and say, “This will make us rich”. Ponder always figured he could fix the invention or the business would come back and then we’d be set for life. Of course it never happened. Instead, the contraptions filled up our yard and the stinky papers filled up the house. I’ve had trouble getting rid of the metal but I burnt those stock papers right after the Ponder’s funeral. That much I could do.
Oh, I love finding bargains as much as Ponder but he and I had different ideas about what a bargain was. I wanted to get something good for less than the other fella paid but Ponder wanted treasure from garbage. Maybe it came from my cleaning work, but I got so I loved a tidy house with storage space and nice things that haven’t been chewed on. Most people around here buy their new things from this cavern warehouse they call the Big Store.
I learned about the Big Store from my patients. While I took care of them and their houses, their families brought in the groceries. While somebody’s Aunt Virginia would be talking with half her kin in the front room, I’d be in the kitchen with the other half of them unpacking cardboard boxes with enough packaged dinners and washing powders to keep Aunt Virginia fat and tidy till Judgment Day. There weren’t any price tags on these boxes – people buy stuff by the case at the Big Store – but the families always said they were real good bargains. Buying in bulk, they call it. They told me you could even buy furniture and vacations at the Big Store. Lord, I wanted to see that Big Store and all those things. Problem is, only members of the Big Store can shop there and most people get memberships through their jobs. My jobs don’t even have health insurance so the closest I’d get to the Big Store was using the washing powders and dreaming about what I’d buy there if I could. Sometimes, when an Aunt Virginia finally passed on, her family would offer to bring me something from the Big Store as a bonus for taking care of her. That’s not the same as choosing something for yourself so I’d say “No, thank you kindly” and they’d give me some money or one of her old brooch pins and I’d go on to the next Aunt Virginia. And I’d think about that Store.
I will say, one family really did take care of me. Eula Mae Albritton was a sneaky, mean gossip when she was young but that Alzheimers turned her flat-out evil. I ought to know; I changed her adult diapers and ran herd on that old biddy for two years. Funny thing is her daughter, Alicia, is just the opposite. When Miss High-and-Mighty Albritton snuck out of the house and ran down the street, showing her underwear to the neighbors, Alicia told the police it wasn’t my fault. Instead, she gave me a good reference and a brand-new Coach bag while she put her mother in a home. It’s a designer bag and I know it cost plenty. Alicia said I deserved it from looking after her mother which is why I call it Hazard Pay. With Ponder gone, I guess Hazard Pay is what I love most, now. I clean it regular and carry to all my functions. I wore it to Ponder’s funeral and I planned to carry it to my own. Of course, having Hazard Pay didn’t stop me dreaming about the Big Store; it just meant that if I’d have the right bag to wear if I got the chance to go inside.