Dan A. Cardoza

Saying Goodbye Shouldn’t Hurt so Much

Pandemic Memories by Tamar Charney

She walks in the store wearing a tiny golden Jesus on a cross. The cross is hanging on her choker. She is gripping the crucifix tight between her thumb and index finger, just like the pin on hand grenade. There’ve been days she hasn’t wanted to be here, on earth I mean. The first thing I do is shoot her a smile she’s not going to buy.

About three weeks ago, she lost an unwanted baby to public works. Though I’m sad for her, if I’m being honest, she’s never looked so beautiful. Dignity at sixteen is nearly impossible to pull off, but with Marci it’s difficult to hide. I met Marci just before freshman year of high school. I noticed her because of all the junk in her trunk, but her intelligence is what stuck out the most.  She’s the exacting combination of lovely that gets bad boys like me in trouble.

We’ve rarely spoken, since, barely crashed eyes. The last time was when I warned her, “You’re too damned young for a child.” The tragedy was the worst way to prove my point.

Marci walks past me with her chin on her ample chest. She is bringing all the casual goodness she can. She heads toward candy and cards, aisle seven. She’s as somber as a funeral; that scent though?

R. Oppenheim, my science partner, schooled me about the aetiology and morbidity of postpartum depression. He says, “It wouldn’t be uncommon if someone flushed away a stillborn baby.” But I’m as thick as a butcher’s thumb, when I rub two nickels together in my head, I can barely get a dime. But there’s something about Marci that tells me she will deal with her loss.

I watch her from behind my register as she makes her way toward the cards: Sour Patch Kids, Sephora Cosmetics, Hallmark Greeting Cards.

In our neighborhood, I’m the mayor. I control everything from her, behind the cash register.  This includes which workers to trust and give the keys to, so they can unlock the thick plastic that covers the toothpaste, expensive nail polish, and Sudafed.

I love my regulars. They’re family, though peculiar as fuck.

Buddy, the tall unfiltered one, who’s not supposed to be behind me, loves his Camel cigarettes. And, see Jimmy over there, in pharmacy, he’s buying condoms he’s probably too short for, wasting his trash can recycling money.

I love making change for Quita. Quita’s only fifteen, but already pushing her tits up through the strata as high as the Pico de Orizabas. She always pays me in cash. She’s the hot Chiquita from Elmwood. Elmwood’s the hood in Philly too poor for a drug store. How Quita loves her exotics? I’m not supposed to sell her Jamaican rum and Tiparillo cigars. Before she leaves, she tells me, “Someday Ima let youz break my cereza.” We belly-laugh, ’cause we both know it’s already been done. Anyways, she’s too hot. I’d embarrass myself with a prematurely evacuate. “Gracious,” I say as she turns away, Quita says, “No es nada, and then she shakes her ass like an earthquake, all the way to the exit door which automatically opens for Queen Latina.

I know Marci well enough that she lets me cheat in algebra. Better yet, she keeps good secrets. All cousins and my friends think I’m a math honcho. Unlike most of them, Marci’s aware that I’m not the brightest 57 watt L.E.D. on the rack. I’m no good at numbers or fancy English. People skills is where I excel. And, I dabble in kindness. I’m told it’s rare these days. But I see it more often than you think for in here, at our local Walgreens, and on occasion near my home on Staub Street in Hunting Park where you survive if you act tough.

I knew you’d ask? The term Staub is railroad speak. A wooden staub is a term, a primitive tool now buried in vintage Columbia Railroad vernacular. The Columbia Railroad employed most of our grandfathers. Now the railroad is a memory, a beautiful graveyard filled with the burial bones of iron horses, and rusty decaying hash-tag tracks. Back in the day, sweaty, salted railroad workers in bleached white wife-beater shirts were tasked with throwing the thick wooden stakes, staubs,  into whirring cast-iron spokes, to lock up the wheels of runway, twentieth-century rail carts. The quick action was designed to stop the heavy planked carts from running away or crashing. In this day and age, in our neighborhood, we don’t stop for anything, one after the other, we are all running away from something, if only our past, ourselves.

Marci’s a good kid, like me, she has a big heart. Family is everything to us, even though she almost has none. She lives with her grand-papa, who is elderly, so she’s pretty much on her own really, except for a long-distance aunt in the good part of Boston.

In our local charter school, Marci gets straight A’s, but the suburban girls still shun her. Someday, she’ll get her head on straight, and go places, unlike me. Eventually, she’ll have the family she craves. But for now, she’s down. Missing a part of her, she’ll never see again.

When our eyes meet again at the register, she presents me with Bubblicious bubble gum, a pack of lime colored hairpins, and an expensive greeting card.

“Do you have your discount code?” I ask. “You can save seven cents you know.” In her cotton-candy voice, she softly apologizes, “Not on me, sorry.” Her smile pops my soda-cap like a shook-up can of Pepsi. It’s electric, the look in our eyes. At this very moment, there is nothing inside I can hide. More than usual, she inhales my smile.

“Could I borrow a pen,” she blushes as the line of domino customers standing behind her grows. I say, “Sure,” and quickly reach in the manager’s gun drawer under the counter. All the while I’m being taken underwater with emotion.

After scribbling something on the card, Marci, a someday Ivy League valedictorian, takes the Walgreens bag with her stuff, slowly walks out of my life through the sliding door. The store grows quiet for Walgreens.

Cable Johnny, the Xfinity guy just up the street cracks the ice with his sledge-hammer words, “I read the cover,” he says. “What the fuck is this, Gone with the Wind?”

It’s alright; Johnny is a good guy, he’s just a loudmouth. I make him wait anyway, take my time, his six pack of Bud can wait. ‘Here’s to new beginnings.” it says inside the cover. “I hope your heart blooms orchids whenever you think of me.’

Second-in-line Jessie, with Ben and Jerry, says they’re melting, “he can’t wait to get them home.” It’s then I read the handwritten note.

“Fidel, I’m leaving town tonight. I wish we could’ve gotten to know each other better. If you come up short in life, it won’t be from the lack of trying. Your kindness will never, ever be forgotten. When you said sorry, and it had nothing to do with you, I really felt it. Love, Marci.”

As I look up, Cable Johnny is stomping out the front door. He’s left his Chile Picante Corn Nuts, swinging tree car freshener, and Slim Jim jerky alone on the counter to squabble. Ole Johnny’s a drama queen. He’ll be back. Besides, we’re related, there’s nowhere else to go. It’s then my eyes well up, and from somewhere deep inside, I know that tomorrow is going to be good.

“Next?” I say as if I have any control.


About the writer:
Dan A. Cardoza’s poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in the 45th Parallel, BlazeVOX, Bull, California Quarterly, Cleaver, Door = Jar, Entropy, Gravel, New Flash Fiction Review, Poetry Northwest, Spelk and Your Impossible Voice.

Image: Pandemic Memories by Tamar Charney. Fine art photograph. No technical information specified. 2020. By permission. Tamar Charney is a journalist, writer, and photographer. She is currently a Managing Editor at NPR. She is known to many public radio listeners in Michigan from her time on-air at WEMU, WDET, and for nearly two decades at Michigan Radio. Her photography and creative writing have been published by Midwestern Gothic, Michigan Quarterly Review, Public Radio International, Equus Magazine, and other outlets. Her solo photography exhibition Through a Russian Lens was on view at the Argus Museum October 2019 through January 2020.