by Steve Gergley
Just after seven I’m cruising down 17 on my way home from the warehouse, headbanging to some Nile, when I get a text from Zoey telling me to pick up some baby formula at Target. Apparently our little Char-char has already sucked down the whole thing of that big-ass tub of Enfamil we got last month and now we need some more. Sliding into the right lane I think of my infant daughter and hope this isn’t a sign of things to come with her, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was, knowing my bottomless pit of a stomach. I know Zo would flip her shit if Char-char grew up to be a big old fat-ass like me, but as long as she’s happy and healthy I say who cares. Funny how all of a sudden it’s practically a crime these days to be a little bit bigger than everyone else. But if man isn’t supposed to eat all this so-called crap, then why does it all taste so good? Whatever the reason, it’s a hell of a lot better than the raw granola, gluten-free, open-range garbage Zo cooks at home.
From here I drop my phone onto the empty passenger seat beside me. Moments later I realize that I’ve already passed the last exit for Target and will now have to bite the bullet on price by getting the stuff somewhere else. So off goes my Nile and up goes my blood pressure and a few minutes later I pull into the parking lot of the CVS next to Eighteen Wheels, that trucker diner that’s always open no matter what time it is.
Inside the CVS, standing in the baby aisle, that tight little burning sensation crackling away in my chest, I suddenly realize that I don’t remember what kind of Enfamil I’m supposed to get. I know we need the infant category, but outside of that, I have no clue of which of the five choices in front of me is the right one. Worried about screwing things up again, I track down a shaggy-haired kid wearing a navy blue CVS polo and ask him. Before he can answer I look at the prices and realize I don’t have enough cash for any of them, because each one is at least ten dollars more expensive than it is at Target. Following this the kid mumbles something I can’t make out and points at the most expensive tub before trudging away, his shoulders slumped halfway down to his waist. Watching him walk away I cringe at the thought of working here, everyone always coming and going, zipping past on the highway, and then here you are, stuck in the same place all the time. Thinking about it like that it sounds just like my life at the warehouse: all that shipping and receiving, freight going in and out, nothing ever changing except that burning feeling in my chest getting hotter every day.
Now I lean forward and check the label on the tub the kid pointed at. Apparently this type of Enfamil is filled with all kinds of special chemicals that boost BRAIN BUILDING and IMMUNE HEALTH. Seeing this I read the label over and over, hoping the words will knock something loose in my head, some memory of having seen this label before, but nothing comes. After a minute of gaping I say fuck it. So I snap a picture of the tub, send it to Zo, and ask her if it’s the right one.
Just before I reach the candy aisle Zo responds with a series of impatient texts. Their lack of proper grammar tells me just how pissed off she is right now.
yea thats it
what in gods name is taking so long
get it here asap
char is flipping out
jesus thats expensive
why the hell are you not getting it in target like i said
The flame in my chest expands as I read her last text, and suddenly my entire face is slicked with cold sweat. Thinking about where I could’ve messed up, I realize that she must’ve seen the CVS label on the shelf at the bottom of the picture I sent her. To buy myself some time I type an excuse about Target being out of stock, and then I turn off my phone and stuff the giant thing into my back pocket, telling myself that I’ll deal with her later. First I have to find a way to get an extra ten dollars for this formula. With all our credit cards maxed out due to baby expenses, I’m going to have to get creative.
Moments later, as I walk out of CVS on my way back to the car, the flickering neon sign of the trucker diner next door catches my eye. Then, before I know what I’m doing, I’m suddenly walking through the door of the diner and sitting myself at the counter next to a big guy with a handlebar mustache, a camo-colored FORD baseball hat, and a black Metallica t-shirt. Sitting on the counter in front of him is a steaming cup of black coffee and a dinner plate. Half of an open-face tuna melt sits in the center of his plate, the slab of mayo-drenched tuna packed nearly two inches high, a partially melted slice of cheddar sweating on top. A single breath fills my nose with the hazelnut scent of his coffee, the toasted bread smell of his sandwich, the melted cheese aroma of the cheddar on top. Thinking of the tasteless garbage that awaits me at home, it takes all of my willpower to keep my hands away from his plate.
Then, before I can tear my gaze from his sandwich, the guy suddenly turns and looks at me.
‘You okay there, hoss?’ he says.
When I finally look up I see that his lips are cracked into a friendly, knowing smile. From the threads of gray in his mustache and the fine lines fanning out from the corners of his eyes, I can tell that he’s at least twenty years older than me.
‘You hungry?’ he says, gesturing with his head at the tuna melt on his plate. ‘Didn’t even touch that half. It’s yours if you want it.’
To hide my embarrassment of getting caught ogling his dinner, I ignore his offer and introduce myself. Then I tell him about Char-char, about the formula I have to get, and about the ten dollars I need in order to buy it.
He nods and grins in all the right places while listening to my story. Every now and then he takes a sip of his coffee. Once I finish talking, he introduces himself as Floyd. Then he leans back with a groan and reaches into his back pocket. His metal stool creaks under the pressure.
‘Well, that’s a pickle you’ve got there, Tom, but I don’t think it’ll be too tough for us to get you straightened out.’
Now he leans forward and smacks a pack of playing cards down on the counter between us.
‘Your daddy ever teach you how to play war?’
‘Sure, but I don’t really have time to—’ I start to say, shaking my head. My phone feels heavy and deadly in my back pocket, like a live grenade that could blow up at any moment.
‘One game. Winner gets the ten spot,’ he says, interrupting me. ‘And whatever he wants off the menu. A hard working family man such as yourself deserves a break every now and then, don’t you think? Or a nice, hearty meal at the very least. Work yourself too hard and you’re liable to drop dead one morning. And then where would your little girl be?’
As I listen to his words, my tired heart starts pounding. For the first time in as long as I can remember, the burning in my chest goes away. But then I remember Zo’s series of angry texts, and the burning comes back, hotter than before.
‘Thanks for the offer, but I really can’t. Like I said, Zo and my girl are waiting for me at home, and Zo is already pissed off as it is, so I’ll be lucky if they’re even still there when I get back.’
Floyd studies my face for a few seconds and then turns back to his coffee and shrugs.
‘Suit yourself, hoss,’ he says, taking a long sip from his mug. ‘I know it’s none of my business, but from where I’m sitting, it looks like some missing baby formula is the least of your problems.’
From here I turn around and look out the diner window. The sky behind the CVS blazes a brilliant neon pink, and the cars on the highway are now nothing more than pairs of yellow-brown dots crawling through the evening gloom. By the time I turn back to the counter, a ten dollar bill sits in the place where the playing cards used to be. I take the money and steal one last look at Floyd’s tuna melt before thanking him for his help and walking to the door.
‘Good luck to you,’ he says, as the door glides closed behind me.
Thirty minutes later I walk into my kitchen with the tub of Enfamil tucked under my arm. In an instant my head is enveloped by a gross smell worse than boiled cabbage mixed with rain-soaked shoes. Looking to my left I see that the kitchen table is all set and ready to go for dinner, and in the middle is a giant bowl filled with some ungodly concoction of steamed spinach, cubes of diced tofu, and red kidney beans. Zo sits at the head of the table with Char-char cradled in her arms.
From here Zo glares at me with a look of wrathful anger. Then, while Char-char is distracted by the tub of Enfamil under my arm, Zo mouths some words at me.
We. Need. To. Talk.
At this I smack the Enfamil down on the counter and take a deep breath. Slowly, the burning sensation in my chest fizzles out.
Now I turn around and face my wife.
‘Yes,’ I say, my voice calm and free of fear. ‘Yes we do.’
Steve Gergley is a writer and runner based in Warwick, New York. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in A-Minor, After the Pause, Barren Magazine, Maudlin House, Pithead Chapel, and others. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music.