Just Get What You Need
Peter A. Wright
She stood in the housewares section of the grocery store dazzled by the colorful displays of plastic and chrome and steel gadgets. Which ones should she get? Could they afford what she needed? She liked the avocado green egg timer but her phone had a clock so she put it back on the shelf. It was their first apartment. They needed so much. All they had were the cutting knives from the dollar store and one of the handles was broken.
He said, “Get what you need.” But everything was so expensive.
Dawn put her hand on her tummy again and felt her smile grow on her face. The miracle of life. She was showing now. She was too skinny to say she wasn’t pregnant, and it was impossible to hide the bulge even with a loose blouse like the one she wore. She shouldn’t have to hide it. It was a beautiful event that would be a miracle, if she thought about it.
That would be one of her arguments to keep the baby if she told her parents. She and Tommy were living together, for Chrissakes!
That’s okay, she reassured herself. They’d learn to love him, and the baby, too. She’d give them time. She just had to be strong.
She selected a red plastic spatula. It would soon stop being a utensil and become something he’d use to smack her fanny. Gently, playfully, at first then, after Rita was born – Rita, it would be a girl and they’d already named her, well he’d named her – he’d wield the red spatula like a scepter in their cramped one-bedroom fiefdom when he’d smack her or throw it at her if she took too long getting him a fresh beer.
“Just get what you need,” he’d said.
She set a small plastic juicer into her cart so she could make him fresh OJ every morning, then she put it back on the shelf. Oranges were expensive. The tips from her shifts at the restaurant barely covered rent. Later, after they’d won the lottery he was so sure they would, they could make orange juice from scratch. Until then, she’d make do with frozen concentrate. She’d make it work. That’s what girlfriends do. She looked at her left hand and imagined the hanging fluorescent light catching the diamond chip on her ring. That’s what fiancée’s do. See, she thought, she was smart. She’d tell him so that evening when he came home from work. She’d tell him if he came home in a good mood.
She selected the cheapest set of large plastic spoons and put them in her cart. With the spoons, she could try to recreate her mother’s secret spaghetti sauce for him. Maybe he’d like that better than the “crap she’d been serving him.”
Pasta spoons, measuring spoons, measuring cups. But only she’d be able to measure the escalating fights and shouting matches that would wake Rita from a sound sleep so often that her little girl would scream from within a nightmare at the same time every night.
By then, she’d have nowhere to go.
Her parents surprised her three months ago, before she knew. She buzzed them into the building then limped about the living and dining rooms and bedroom collecting ashtrays and empty beer cans and dumping them in the trash. They’d said “Surprise” when she opened the door and invited them in.
The biggest surprise of all was that Tommy had just left for the store.
Mom placed a warm, towel-wrapped casserole into her hands. Her father unscrewed the bottle of wine they’d brought. He started to ask for a glass then stopped.
“What happened to you?” he said.
Her hand covered her right eye and she looked down and away from her parents.
“Nothing,” she said.
Her father knocked her against the wall storming into the apartment. The casserole nearly plummeted to the floor, but she saved it with her mother’s help.
“Where is he? Where is that shit-heel gangbanger? I’ll turn him into meat paste for hurting my little girl!”
Mom followed him into the messy bedroom and attempted to calm him.
“He’s not here, sweetheart. Honey, please,” she said.
“She’s got a black eye!”
“I know, dear. I see it the same as you do and I’m not happy about it, either. Why don’t we call the police and file a report when the officer gets here? Tommy should be back by then, shouldn’t he?” her mother said, looking over her shoulder and through the bedroom door at her.
Dawn set the casserole on the glass dining room table and, looking her mother in the eye, she thought, “No.” She wasn’t doing that to Tommy. She loved him. They’d been through too much. She also didn’t know how angry he’d be if she called the cops on him again.
“Don’t tell me what to do!” her father said.
Her mother released his bicep. Her hands fell. Her mouth closed, and she looked down at the scuffed wood floor of the apartment when her father raised his hand.
“All right. We don’t have to do that here,” her mother whispered.
Untethered and without a victim, he hammered the side of his fist against the wall hard enough to crack the drywall.
“Nobody does that to my daughter, for Chrissakes,” he bellowed. “Not in my house!”
“I’m not in your house,” Dawn said.
She walked up to him, right up to him, and got in his face.
“Now look at what you’ve done. Who’s going to fix that? That’s right. Now I have to fix what you broke. How does that make you feel?”
Dawn was proud of herself. She crossed her arms over her chest and dared her father to raise his hand at her.
He laughed a mean laugh.
“You’re not pulling that on me,” he said. “You got to come up with your own bullshit if you want to be all grown up at seventeen. You can’t just steal your old man’s words.”
He went to laugh again but stopped.
Dawn looked at him with a desire she’d never felt before. She wanted him gone, but not just gone. Dead and gone where he couldn’t hurt anyone else again. A strength welled inside of her that surprised her but you wouldn’t have known it. All you’d’ve seen was a pretty, five-foot-three brunette young woman with the snarl and slit eyes of a Pitbull.
“Out,” she hissed. She went to point at the door but her arm, hand, and finger had already done their job. “I want you out of my house right now. You’re not welcome here. Get out. Now!”
Her father grabbed her mother’s wrist and dragged her out the door and down the worn, carpeted stairs to the ground floor, hollering the entire way that as long as she harbored a criminal, as long as she refused to report him to the police as an abuser, she wasn’t welcome in their lives. Not their lives, not their home, and not their family.
An older woman carrying a black shopping basket stopped beside her in the aisle and scanned the items in her cart.
“Pardon my nosiness, dear. But I remember when I was just starting out. The thing I needed most but kept forgetting to buy was tongs.”
The young girl’s eyes brimmed with tears. She wiped them away with her fingers.
“Goodness,” the woman said and laughed. “I can’t tell you the number of times I tried to flip a potato or a check a chicken’s doneness using two butter knives like dueling chopsticks.”
Dawn smiled when the nice lady pantomimed the clumsiness of peering beneath a cooking chicken with the wrong tools while leaning into an oven.
The woman couldn’t have been more than forty but her eyes were wary, like she’d seen enough to know better. Her demeanor, though she stood less than two feet from the girl, was standoffish. She withdrew her wallet from her heavy suede purse.
“If I were you,” she said. She plucked the most expensive pair of tongs off the rod and handed them to her. “I’d choose these.”
The price tag on the display bar read seventeen dollars. She looked at the tongs: two levers hinged together with a single rivet. How could something so simple cost so much?
“Let me pay for them, sweetheart.” She grasped Dawn’s hand and tucked a worn twenty into her palm.
She cried openly now. Maybe it was the kindness of strangers or maybe it was the prescience of knowing what pain those tongs would deliver and what bruises she’d be almost unable to hide, but grief wracked her shoulders and it was all she could do not to sob openly in the fluorescent aisle.
She finally got herself under control. She sniffled the last of her emotions back into her heart.
“How far along are you?” the woman asked.
“Thank you,” she said, warily.
“Honey,” the woman said. “Every night. Milk and honey. It’ll help the baby come out strong and healthy.”
“Thank you again, ma’am.” She placed the tongs into her cart.
“Claire,” the woman said. “My name is Claire.”
“Thank you, Claire,” she said, aware of how profusely she was thanking this wonderful stranger while simultaneously doing her best not to grab her in a deep bear hug and cry into her shoulder for a month.
“You’re very welcome,” Claire said. A troubled expression narrowed her eyes.
“If I may,” she said, wincing. “I’d recommend you spend more than you think you can afford on a good set of knives. They’re an investment. Don’t rely on a cheap set from some dollar store. Get the good ones. You don’t want the handle to break when you need them the most.”
She got what she needed when she hefted the most expensive set of knives off the shelf. A set of five knives with a solid plastic base to store them along with an accompanying sharpener. She’d never lack a sharp blade again.
As soon as they were in the cart, she felt better. As if she knew she possessed the weapon she’d need to protect both of them when he backed her and Rita into a corner of their bedroom and she killed him in self-defense.
The handle didn’t break.
Peter A. Wright is a graduate of the University of Chicago’s Graham School and Vermont College of Fine Arts. His prose can be found at past-ten.com and hackwriters.com. Links can be found on his website www.peterawright.com.