The day we became eligible for food stamps, we decided to have an early surprise birthday party for Bonnie’s daughter, Callie. Hand in hand, I walked with my girl out of the trailer park and down the side of the highway—through the wild sage, as cars whizzed by, kicking up dust and debris.
At the Food Universe, Bonnie loaded our cart with off-label pasta varieties, Bolognese sauce, Hamburger Helper, store brand soda in orange, wild cherry, grape. And, of course, cake mix and confetti frosting. I paid out of pocket for candles, balloons, a couple new coloring books, an imitation Barbie doll called a Becky doll, who was taller, had some nice accessories, a better body.
We moved to the meat aisle:
“Look at those steaks,” I said drooling.
“You can look, but you better not touch.”
Since it was over a hundred degrees out, we lingered a while by the frozen juice concentrate, pushing our faces down in the freezer chests. “The eskimos have the right idea.”
“That’s the rumor on certain days.”
Past the beer aisle, I adverted my gaze.
She shielded hers from the mascara, the junk tabloid magazines, the…Jesus, everything.
The checkout girl took our EBT card without flinching. We didn’t flinch either, but it definitely felt like a swift kick below the belt. She double-bagged with plastic without asking, which was fine, I liked to bring my lumberyard lunch in them.
On our way home, Bonnie was embarrassed as we pushed the shopping cart with its wild rollicking caster and advertisement for Bodacious Bail Bonds back toward Pine Manor. She hid her face all the way, letting her bleached hair whip in the wind, forming a shield of sorts.
“Baby, I’m sorry. I’m gonna fix the Trans Am somehow. You’ll never have to do this again.”
“I’d walk anywhere with you though,” she said. “Just please, don’t let anyone honk. I’ll die.”
Once home, the morning dissolved quickly. I cleaned up the junk around the house and front yard while Bonnie baked the cake, humming, smiling, peeking out the window at me behind the lawnmower. I kept glancing at my Casio watch. Kenny was gonna come by noon with Callie. I wasn’t looking forward to seeing him. He was a drunk, a former junkie (like myself), and a bad dad.
We’d had many fist fights over the years. I was missing a front tooth because of him. He walked with a limp because of me. I brushed pools of yellow pollen water from the tarp covering my car, wondering how I’d get to work on Monday morning. I’d ask Kenny, but I knew that was a mistake. Bonnie would weep.
In the trailer, I tore open the bag of chips, dumped them into a large sea green party bowl.
I couldn’t believe what I saw and had to call Bonnie over. “Look at this!”
“What?” she said, licking cake frosting from the corner of her mouth. “Tell me this potato chip doesn’t look like Elvis Presley…”
“Oh, wow. It really does.” Bonnie took the chip from the bowl, opened her mouth, bit off the King’s head. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“I hate his music.”
“Hate has nothing to do with it,” I said, then caught myself. I’d almost called her stupid. That wouldn’t have been wise. She’d kick my scrawny ass.
Playfully, she reached for another chip, “Ah look! A young Elizabeth Taylor! Cleopatra!”
I snatched the chip as she jokingly tried to munch off a shoulder. Potato chip Elizabeth Taylor’s legs cracked off.
“Dammit,” I said, grabbing the entire bag and fleeing.
“Bring those back,” she said, frowning, “the girls’ll be here in ten minutes.”
Peeking in the foil, there was Kurt Cobain, Bette Midler, whatever that chick’s name from Seinfeld was—Elaine.
I said, “Put out the cheese poofs and the pretzels, you’re not getting these. This is worth a fortune!”
“They’re her favorite!” Callie had a dangerous obsession with chips and bubbles.
“No,” I said flatly.
“Are you high? Tell me you’re not high!”
Bonnie was hot, pegged a plastic cup off my head. I guarded the bag, “Don’t break any more, you maniac!” I backed out of the trailer, laughing and dodging plastic cups as motherfucking Kenny pulled up across the street (just out of range of Bonnie’s restraining order) in his jacked up F-350.
Callie popped out of the passenger side, sprinted over to hug my leg, “Hi, Mark!”
“Well, hello, special birthday girl!”
Kenny gave me the finger behind his steering wheel as he sipped a Big Gulp (that I knew was 3/4th full of bottom-shelf vodka.) In another life, we’d partied, we’d been close friends. That was another life, though.
Kenny set down his monster soda and gave me double middle fingers. The pink pony balloons tied to the mailbox shook in terror.
“Chips!” Callie said. I was trying to hide the bag behind my back, but it was no use.
Kenny began to pull away. “Wait!”
“What?!” he shouted out the window. “What do you want, you little fuck?”
“Hey, give me a ride.”
“Where—the hospital? Or you wanna skip that and go straight to the morgue?”
“The library,” I said.
“Take your bitch mobile,” Kenny said, meaning my Trans Am. It was purple, there was a dew-wet rose air-brushed on the hood, but that wouldn’t be there for long. I’d paint it if I could get it running again.
“Trans Am is outta comish. Engine blew last week.”
“Well, your face is about to blow up from my fist.” He kissed his hand. “This bad boy is like a nuclear bomb, you know that.”
I reached in my pocket, revealing a five-dollar bill. He snatched the money away. As I climbed into the truck, Bonnie was standing on the porch. “Where the hell are you going?”
“The library!” I said.
“The library?” Four little girls came running past the truck, up to the steps of the trailer. “Come back with the chips, you weirdo!”
I said, “I’m sorry baby, I’ll be back! Two hours!”
“If you’re going out to get messed up, don’t come back!”
“Library!” I shouted like I was on trial.
As soon as we pulled away, Kenny said, “So, first of all, what’s with the bag of chips?”
“Nothing,” I said, staring straight ahead. But in truth, I was nervous as hell that he was going to insist on being given a handful.
We drove through town. “That bitch got dumber and meaner every year, ya know,” he said.
“Did you, too?”
“Ah shit, maybe.”
“Turn on the air, man. It’s hot as hell out.”
“I like to sweat, wuss.”
“Doesn’t work, does it? Your AC is broke.”
“Ah, sure it works.” I reached over to flip it on. He slapped my hand away. I laughed. We were silent for the rest of the ride.
“Yeah, it’s broke,” he finally said.
At the library, he let me out. “You sure you don’t wanna go get fucked up? I know a guy sitting on some.”
“I’m sitting pretty,” I said as I slammed the door.
The girl at the information table said, “No food allowed in the library.”
“This isn’t food,” I said, “it’s a bag full of money.”
I sat down at one of the public computers and loaded eBay. I still had my account from when I sold my old NASCAR sets.
Bonnie didn’t realize it yet, but I’d snagged her digital camera (a Christmas gift from her rich bitch sister in Cherry Hill).
I set a random chip on the table that looked like John Candy, no mistaking it. Trains, Planes and Automobiles John Candy. Vintage. Classic John Candy.
I snapped the photo. It looked better with the flash off.
That one alone sold for $285. The next ones did even better. Chip by chip, I sold off the whole bag, astonished. There were countless bidding wars on my quick auctions. No one wanted to back down and admit their inherent human weakness.
When I came back to the trailer, it was long past dark. Callie and Bonnie were asleep on the living room couch, pretzeled together. There was still one slice of cake for me on the kitchen table. I had a set of car keys for Bonnie (a used ’03 Pontiac). We’d both have wheels. I’d made the cash to fix the Trans, and I’d paint it black as the night and do burnouts in the parking lot of Kenny’s motel, waking his ass up all hours.
Her car was fire engine red, had a CD player, had air conditioning. Beat that, Kenny.
Bud Smith is living in Washington Heights, NYC. When not writing, he’s probably listening to Nilsson Schmilsson or watching My Cousin Vinny. Generally, he writes funny stuff that’s not supposed to be funny or the other way around. He has a novel called Tollbooth out with a small press that he digs in New Jersey and a dog named Chainsaw that mostly eats dust bunnies and insects. He does some other stuff, but it changes a lot.