“Those are peppers, Flan,” I said, with her three-year old legs dangling off my shoulders. “Green ones, yellow ones, red ones, orange.”
Side-stepping an elderly couple, I gripped Flannery’s right knee, steadying her. The woman held a bag while the husband dropped in broccoli crowns. Just off my shoulder I could see Flan’s pointing finger.
“You know what that is, Flan. It’s what you’re going to eat tonight and the next night and the next night and every night forever.”
“No, Da-Da. First I’m going to eat strawberry doughnuts then I’m going to eat marshmallows then I’m going to eat chocolate then I’m going to eat chocolate cereal then I’m going to eat cake then I’m going to eat cupcakes. That’s what I’ll eat forever and forever and forever ever ever ever.”
“Ok,” I said, pulling up in front of the apples. “We’ll run that by your mother. How about these first?”
“Are they Pink Ladies?”
“Not these. Those.”
“I want those, I want those, I want those. Can I hold the bag?”
Hunching down, I let her grab the loose plastic.
“Remember, pull hard when the little snake pokes through the hole.”
She yanked. The metal tab perforated where it was supposed to and the serrations gave where they were supposed to.
“I did it! I did it!”
“You sure did. Now open it up. We’ll count four Pink Ladies.”
Two days ago we abandoned our little green basket right here for someone else to clean up, a first. Flan’s older sister Shannon had been atop my shoulders with Flannery shuffling alongside. Shannon’s summer had been uncharacteristically tough for reasons neither Karen nor I could name, her specialists either. Six-year molars were a suspect, as was an uptick in her therapy’s difficulty, but nobody knew. The supermarket, though, was usually safe. Both kids love its square-cut pizza, and we’d been heading there after several stops, Flan’s apples being the last.
I held the bag, hooking one of Shannon’s ankles while squatting half-way. When the second apple dropped, Shan – who’d been making ominous verbal tics – flipped backward. Only that hooked ankle kept her from hitting the linoleum. An apple rolled off while I slipped a hand under her head, guiding her to the ground where she screamed, thrashed, and rolled. To date, her only self-injurious behavior involved making a fist and cupping it with the other hand, popping her chin in rapid succession. Occasionally her eyes lolled back as they did here before she flopped again. Stabilizing her with a hand to the lower back, I looked at Flan standing against an apple crate, chin to her chest and away. She pluralized Shan’s condition, but in most cases was unfazed by her sister’s ‘autisms’.
“Come on, bud,” I said. “Time to go.”
Grabbing Shan’s armpits, I hoisted her over a shoulder where she writhed like a poorly held snake. Flan I braced against the opposite hip.
“Hang on, darlin’.”
Though such public spectacles were rare, Shannon’s age and severe condition were enough now, and people had stopped shooting us looks long ago. The shoppers here shrank against fruit and vegetable displays, while out in the parking lot I wrestled Shan into her seat before running around to strap in Flan, who had let herself in. Fifteen minutes and many miles later it was over. Now, back without Shannon, it was hard to believe anything had happened.
Spinning the apple bag round, Flan tied a lousy knot before dropping it in the basket. Tugging my ears, she pointed, wagons-ho style.
“Square pizza! Square pizza!”
“How about a please?”
“Please! Please! Please!”
Rounding an aisle corner, I swiped a mini baguette without breaking stride.
“Mama’s bread,” Flan said.
“Yup. Mama’s bread.”
“Do fairies really make it in a hole in a tree in the deep, dark forest?”
“They sure do.”
“No they don’t, Da-Da.”
Shielded by glass, Flannery knew the pizza was off-limits until the nice man handed us the box and we went up front to hand the nice lady money. Seeing just two cheese, I requested both, noting the silence above. The server slid the spatula under each square then boxed them, turning for a price sticker.
“What’s on your mind, Flan?”
“Why did God give Shannon autisms and not me?”
The clerk slid the stickered box atop the counter.
“Right. Thank you.”
I turned, heading for the registers. I’d been a parent for five years and had only learned that I’d never be ready.
“I don’t know, Flan. I don’t know. I’m not sure even God knows.”
Like many markets, this one has a row of booths. Flan enjoys eating there, and through her two slices talked about the Butterfly Princess and the Dragon Queen and how she could almost swim like her sister but not yet and who might be her best friend and everything else three-year olds talk about without breathing, but it was there, I’d seen it, or at least heard it. In Moby Dick a sailor separates from the ship long enough to see “God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom,” spending the rest of the voyage walking the deck, mad. Watching Flan talk through her pizza, I lost track for a moment, only hoping that Karen and I could tinge her with enough light that she might make something beautiful out of all that dark wool.