Thursday, March 29, 2007

An Accident

The Acme supermarket placed its own generic products on the bottom shelves. The unbeatably low prices were sufficient to move the boxes of fake Raisin Bran and copied Cheerios. Ellen Winters was a smart shopper because she had to be. She fingered the federal food stamps in her pocket, pushed her cart down the aisle with one hand. She squatted and selected a box of Acme’s Shredded Wheat, stood up and put it in her cart. She studied her options. A box of Kellogg’s Fruit Loops sat at eye-level. She’d had a bowl just this morning, Sunday, while visiting with her neighbor Jane. Ellen’s kids — there were four of them — were always hollering for a cereal like Fruit Loops. They too ate Fruit Loops and Lucky Charms at their friends’ houses. They saw child actors smiling and lip-smacking and enjoying these cereals on TV. Sometimes they even hummed the jingles, repeated the slogans. Ellen recalled a talking toucan.

“Mmm, Shredded Wheat,” Jason, her oldest, would murmur with his newfound sense of irony as he perused the cereal selection.

Sometimes Ellen did buy Fruit Loops, or more likely, Honey Nut Cheerios. Ellen labeled these kinds of excessively sugary cereals Number Two’s. There was a rule: Whenever there was a Number Two in the house, one had to first eat a bowl of a Number One cereal — Shredded Wheat, Special K, Grape Nuts, and their generics — before enjoying a bowl of a Number Two. This was the best way to create healthy habits.

Ellen picked up the box and studied the ingredients. Sugar reigned supreme. Generally she didn’t like to buy any cereal if sugar was even in the top five. Moreover, this Friday night, she was to prepare dinner for her boyfriend, his two children, and her own kids. They were to celebrate her birthday together, all nine of them. So she wanted to splurge for a few extras today: walnuts for the salad, fancy cookies for dessert, sparkling grape juice for fun. Nevertheless, with the taste of the cereal near in her memory, and a spontaneous generosity in her heart, she placed the box of Fruit Loops in her cart. She smiled to herself.

At the checkout counter, she watched her total tab climb with each item. She wasn’t sure she was going to make it. She’d wanted to stay below one hundred dollars. As the box of Fruit Loops slid up the conveyer belt, Ellen almost set it aside. She thought choosing the cereal had been a mistake, a kind of minor accident. After all, there was no apparent reason behind the purchase. The kids didn’t need Fruit Loops. But she let it go. And the counter beeped as the checkout lady swept the box over the strange infrared machine.

Ellen thought maybe there was a little man inside there who could read barcodes and made this beeping noise all day long. She laughed to herself, just before she saw the total. About five dollars over her intended limit. Not bad. She paid the bill, wheeled the groceries to her Volkswagon van, loaded up and headed home.

Her two boys were playing football in the front yard with some other boys from the cul-de-sac. Ellen called her sons over to help her with the groceries, and after a timeout in the game, they came, begrudgingly. As Mark, the youngest, walked to the front door, he searched the contents of the brown bag in his hands. He saw the Fruit Loops and called out, “Awesome! Fruit Loops! Can I have some now, Mom?”

“No,” she said.

It ended there; Mark wasn’t even hungry.

There was a message on the answering machine. Ellen pushed the playback button, then went about putting away the milk and eggs. It was a woman from the local library, where her youngest daughter Molly, aged twelve, liked to spend Sunday afternoons looking at art books.

“Hello, Mrs. Winters. This is Alice from the William Franks Library. I’m sorry to be calling you, but we have a situation down here involving your daughter Molly. Please call us as soon as possible. It’s very urgent.”

The woman left a number. Very urgent, she had said. So before she even finished putting away the refrigerated goods, Ellen, with a quickly beating heart, dialed the number and asked for Alice.

Bags of groceries still sat on every chair in the kitchen. Ellen moved one to the floor and sat down. The wait on line was short, perhaps fifteen seconds, but it was enough time for Ellen to grow immensely nervous.

“Mrs. Winters?”

“Yes,” said Ellen.

“Thank you for calling,” said Alice. “Would it be possible for you to drive down to the library right now?”

“Of course. Is there a problem?”

“I’m afraid so,” said the librarian with resignation. “We have a situation.”

“Is Molly in some kind of trouble?” asked Ellen, irritated by the vagueness of the librarian’s words.

“I’m sorry, but I’d rather not discuss the issue with you over the phone. Please just come quickly. The police are also on their way.”

“The police!” shouted Ellen, stunned. “Are you serious?”

“I’m afraid so, Mrs. Winters,” said Alice. “Please come.”

“I’ll be there in five minutes.”

Ellen was shocked: Molly had always been a good girl, shy and inscrutable, but never misbehaving. As Ellen grabbed her keys off the counter and hustled out the door, her white Ked sneakers stuck to the kitchen floor, making a sticky sound. Outside, she called Jason over to the driveway and told him to finish putting the groceries away.

“And mop the kitchen floor before I get back,” she added. “It’s dirty.”

“Where are you going?” asked Jason.

“To pick up Molly from the library.”

“Why can’t she walk home?” asked Jason, looking back at his stalled football game.

“Just put the groceries away, Jason. I’ll be back soon,” Ellen said, before closing the door, starting the van, and backing out the driveway. Jason called his younger brother Mark over to help with the groceries and told the other boys they’d be back in two minutes. Not enough time to mop the floor.

At the library, Molly was sitting in the back office. Two Whitemarsh County police officers, Alice the head librarian, and a man in a tweed jacket were standing just outside the door to the room where Molly sat. One of the policemen introduced himself as Officer Johnson and told Ellen the story.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Mrs. Winters, but it appears your daughter Molly has stolen money from this gentleman, Mr. Whitmore.”

Ellen felt the fury rising up in her body, into her feet and through her stomach. She felt it in the red heat of her face. The man in tweed nodded apologetically to Ellen. The officer continued.

“Apparently Mr. Whitmore ran back to get a book he’d forgotten and he accidentally left his wallet at the front desk. That’s when your daughter grabbed the wallet, ran to the ladies room, and removed the cash inside. She then returned the wallet to the desk, thinking no one would be the wiser.”

The policeman paused, rubbed his neatly trimmed goatee. Ellen looked through the glass window at her daughter, who briefly made eye contact with her mother, then dropped her head over the desk.

“I’d like to speak with my daughter,” said Ellen.

“Of course,” said the librarian, opening the door to her office.

When Ellen walked into the room, Molly sat upright, looked courageously at her mother, faced the wrath. Ellen went to Molly, stood above her, and looked directly into her eyes.

Molly, unable any longer to face the severity of her mother’s gaze, dropped her head.

“Molly, look at me,” said Ellen. She hesitated with the question, disbelieving the situation. “Did you take this man’s money?”

At the word money, Molly wailed and threw her head down into her folded arms which rested upon the desk. She cried, threw a fit. No answer was forthcoming. Ellen’s head spun. As she turned to face the policeman, she felt the room breath.

Ellen got to the point, “Did anyone see my daughter do this?”

“Yes, Mrs. Winters,” Alice said solemnly. “I saw your daughter return the wallet to the front desk. Clear as day.”

Ellen’s heart dropped with the truth of the librarian’s witness. Her fingers curled into a fist, a fist she wanted to shake at God. If any doubt remained, it vanished when Molly reared up from the desk, her face wet with shame, and cried out, “I’m sorry, Mommy! I’m sorry!”

“Don’t tell me you’re sorry, young lady! Don’t tell me!” said Ellen, her anger now evident to all. “You apologize to this man.” Molly looked sheepishly toward Mr. Whitmore. “You apologize,” said her mother.

“I’m sorry I took your money,” said Molly, hardly getting the last word out before again breaking up.

“And you apologize to these policemen, here, Molly.”

“I’m sorry!” she wailed. “I’m sorry!”

“And you apologize to Alice,” said Ellen.

“I’m sorry!” cried Molly, utterly defeated. “I’m sorry!”

Ellen felt this last wail at the base of her spine.

The short ride home in the van was silent, steeped in an unspeakable outrage. The gentleman in tweed had kindly decided not to press charges, and considering Molly’s show of remorse, the officer too had let it lie. As Ellen saw it, the two men had merely passed the responsibility of punishment onto Ellen herself.

They drove through the neighborhood, suffered the silence. Husbands were out in force mowing lawns. Kids rode their bicycles alongside the van. A little girl at the corner of Barkley and Eagle had set up a lemonade stand. Sunday stretched lazily toward evening.

Ellen wasn’t only angry, she was touched with fear. This was not how her children, how God’s children, were to behave. Jason was the one who never studied his lessons for church. He was the one with pride and rebellion in his heart, just like his father. Molly on the other hand sang in the choir and could recite at least a dozen verses from the Gospel of Matthew. She certainly knew the Eighth Commandment. It didn’t make sense. That’s what caused the fear. The senselessness and confusion. To soothe her trembling, Ellen prayed to herself. And her prayers mingled with the sunlight cutting through the windshield.

When they pulled into the driveway at home after what seemed an eternity, Ellen turned to her daughter and asked the question.

“Why, Molly? Why did you take the man’s money?”

Molly sniffled. She wanted to get out of the car, to be released, to escape her mother. “I don’t know, Mom.”

“Think about it,” Ellen said sternly. “What happened? What were you thinking when you picked up the wallet? Why did you do it?”

Molly began to cry, “I don’t know, Mom!” She stammered, “It, it was like, it was like I didn’t mean to. It was an accident!”

This was unacceptable. “An accident, Molly? I don’t think so. It was a decision, a bad decision. You chose to take the wallet, then you chose to take the money. Why? What I don’t understand is why you think you needed the money. Why, Molly?”

“I don’t know, Mom!” Molly grew hysterical. “It was an accident! It just happened!”

Disappointed, Ellen shook her head no.

“I guess,” Molly offered at last, sniffling, whimpering. “I guess I wanted the money to buy you something for your birthday.”

Ellen felt her fingers curl and her shoulders tense up. This was an unfair thing to say. She felt the space between her and her daughter harden. Her anger transformed into a more diffused, metaphysical anger.

“Go to your room,” she said flatly. “I’ll call you when dinner is ready.”

Molly hustled out of the van, free at last. She scurried into the house, down the hall and into her bedroom, where she would replay the day’s events over and over again in her mind for hours. Ellen sat in the van a minute, gathering herself. She let the setting sun beat down on her body, and she prayed. She closed her eyes, she breathed, and she prayed.

Back in the kitchen, her sneakers still stuck to the dirty floor.

There was a tradition in the Winters household that Sunday night dinner was breakfast. Pancakes, waffles, eggs and toast. Every Sunday night, it was morning again. This seemed to make the weekend last a little bit longer. Ellen had decided not to allow Molly’s troubles disturb the entire household, and so, a few hours after returning from the library, she and her older daughter Lucy were in the kitchen fixing fruit salad and scrambled eggs for the family.

Earlier, Ellen had visited Jane and told her the story. Jane had said, “The devil got into poor little Molly today. The devil’s damned clever.”

“What do you think I should do?” asked Ellen, debating the proper punishment.

“Search her room for more money,” said Jane.

Standing at the kitchen counter, Ellen cracked an egg against the side of a steel bowl. She watched the egg yoke drop into the bowl along with the others. With the whisker, she beat the eggs, rhythmically whipping the yokes into a smooth, blended whole. Lucy sat at the table, slicing apples and bananas, singing a pop song.

The boys barreled in the front door, rambunctious with physical energy. They were celebrating their victory on the gridiron. Ellen heard Mark talking about another boy from the neighborhood. “Danny sucks at defense,” Mark said, and the boys laughed, loudly and cruelly. They appeared at the kitchen door.

“Don’t use that word,” said Ellen, looking up from the cutting board, on which she was now slicing onions.

“What word?” said Mark.

“You know what word: the word you just said,” said Ellen. Mark rolled his eyes. “Now go wash up and tell your sister it’s time for dinner. She’s in her room.”

“Is Molly in trouble?” asked Jason.

“Tell her it’s time for dinner,” said Ellen.

The boys marched down the hallway of the rancher, screaming, “Mol-ly’s in trou-ble! Mol-ly’s in trou-ble!” They laughed and pushed each other against the walls. Mark bolted ahead and Jason threw the football to him. As Mark caught it, he crashed with self-conscious dramatics into the door of Molly’s bedroom. The door pushed open and Mark fell into the room and onto the floor, rattling the small table at his right shoulder. The things on the table — a collection of porcelain figurines of fairies, princesses and ballerinas — all shook and fell in upon one another. One pink, winged fairy dropped off the side, and Mark caught it with his left hand just before it hit the ground.

“Touchdown!” cried Jason, standing at the door. Then, to Molly, “Time for dinner.”

Molly rolled off her bed and stood up. She pulled her hair behind her head and fixed her scrunchie. She stepped over Mark and walked down the hallway without a word.

Ellen poured the eggs and onions into the Pam-sprayed frying pan. The wooden spoon was halfway across the kitchen, in the drawer beneath the dish drying rack. After fetching the spoon, she passed it through the eggs, scraping the cooked egg off the pan’s bottom. The kids liked the eggs just a touch moist, but not wet.

“Can I have a bowl of Fruit Loops?” cried Mark, as he and Jason stampeded back into the kitchen.

“Can you two please calm down?” said Ellen. “And no, Mark. Eat your eggs first, then, maybe.”

“Fruit Loops!” cried Jason. “Can I have a bowl too please, Mommy?” he said sarcastically, mocking his younger brother.

“I’m just going to pour a bowl, Mom, okay?” said Mark, stooping down to grab the box from the bottom cupboard. “Then I’ll eat it after I eat my eggs. Okay, Mom?”

Jason jostled with his brother. “Me too, okay, Mom?” he said whiningly, making fun of his brother.

Mark had the box already open, and he pulled out the plastic bag. Jason tried to grab the bag from Mark, and the box dropped to the floor. Mark elbowed his brother in the sternum and yelled, “Get off me!” Then Jason jabbed his brother in the gut, and as Ellen put the wooden spoon down and turned to reprimand her boys, Mark yanked at the plastic bag from both sides to open it, and he did so with such force that the bag split clean down the middle, and the cereal, every loop of it, poured out onto the floor.

“God, Jason!” cried Mark. “Now look what you made me do!”

“Shut up, idiot,” said Jason to his brother.

Ellen looked down at the mess, put her hand to her chest. Hopelessness descended, dressed as an angel, and touched her heart. The whole thing appeared to be an accident, but Ellen knew better. Smiling to herself, she went to the corner to get the dustpan and broom. She handed the broom to Mark and the dustpan to Jason. As the boys began to clean up, Ellen returned to the stove, where, for just a moment, the eggs were cooked just right.