Here's the draft.
I drafted it in one sitting, this morning, working for maybe an hour-and-a-half or so. Mostly, I wanted to work all the way through to the end, to get a working draft, and to really try out my character's voice. I decided to go 1st person simply because the story was leaning that way, or the voice of it was.
Before I began writing, I heard the first line in my head, and followed it. I haven't yet edited a word.
No title yet:
I seen them come into the store. The mother, all buttoned-up beige and mauve lipstick, stick-straight hair, a woman wanting to look like she’s not a woman, like she’s trying to erase any distinguishing features, any clue. The older girl, dark-haired and fussy. Braces. Squeaky-voiced. And then, the little girl, her looking lost already, tagging along behind the other two. Clear from the start she wasn’t the reason for this shopping trip. The older one likely needed supplies for a school project. Or the mother needed malox or something. Pantyhose. I seen the three of them, and I thought: that girl’s in la-la land.
She looked like the kind of girl like my girl was, growing up. Saw a zippy pencil case on one of the front display tables, Back to School, all the signs proclaim, like pepsi and Jaclyn Smith brand curtains are back to school essentials, but this girl, seeing the pencil case, picking it up, and she’s not in this Morganton Kmart on this crummy muggy August afternoon in the year of our Lord 2009. No, she’s gone, she’s gone to no place, that’s where. Place doesn’t exist for her, not as we know it. Beyond the pencil case, there’s nothing. I could see it, looking at her. My daughter, my Talia, named for the newscaster who brought me reports of the Berlin wall coming down, was always like that, always dropping off into white space. Completely absorbed in a pencil case. Now, she’s twenty years old and she and her little girl live me with and Talia works at a daycare where they let her bring her little girl, my Brody Ann—that’s what she named her—for free. When I bring home a brochure for the local community college’s phlebotomy program or I write down the 800 numbers to the online schools for medical transcription, she says, Yeah, yeah, yeah, mama. She don’t see how good it is, she has me. She has me to help out with Brody Ann, me to tuck everyone in at night. Me to keep the grizzly bear away, I say, and she laughs. It’s our neighbor, a fat man, covered in hair, who walks with his head down, as if he don’t want to be seen, from his car to his door every evening when he comes home from work. He works for a plumber, which surprises me. That massive, dark-haired man, what kind of bathroom sink is he going to wiggle under? People come to their jobs for reasons that are foreign to me.
I make the joke about the big grizzly bear to break the tension, and then, the matter is forgotten. So it goes. Yeah, yeah, yeah, mama, she says about everything. I don’t like the name Brody Ann, and I told her so, back when she was pregnant. She instructs Brody Ann to call me Granny Lee-Lee because my name is LeeAnn, and I hate it. When I tell her this, she says, damn, mama. Who cares? I say, I want to be plain old Grandma.
But, anyway, back to The Family of the Lost Little Girl. I seen them come in. Seen the little girl stop, distracted, at the pencil cases, the pencils with oversized, sparkly erasers, seen the other one trudge along, behind her mother who is pushing the cart and steering hard left in front of the cosmetics: she’s a pro at this, the shopping game. She knows her aisles. Pauses a moment. Come on, she says. She says the little girl’s name, calls to her, but I don’t catch it. Already, my check-out’s full again. That’s the way it works most days, you have a minute or two to look around, to notice that your feet hurt or that the backs of your knees ache and that there’s an a rectangle of light far above, up there in the ceiling, going dim, blinking a little like they do when they’re almost out, and I’m pretty sure it will cause me a headache, and then you notice a few of the customers coming, just watch them, or the customers checking out at the other checkout—even on our busiest days, my manager only opens two check-outs, to keep from having to schedule too many checkers—and you think about what’s waiting for you at home, whether you have the makings for a western omelet in your refrigerator or not, if you should stop at the store, and then you think, maybe I should pick up a diet coke? And suddenly, just like that, there’s an old lady moving like one of those gargantuan dinosaurs who used to take a half-a-billion years to lift its reptile-head to the leaves at the top of the tree. She’s putting her items on the mini-conveyor belt, spearmint gum and Martha Stewart bath towels in peridot green, Special K breakfast bars. I can’t turn on the conveyor yet—she hasn’t reached the end—and there are three customers behind her, shifting their wait from foot to foot and going into that blank-waiting space, their faces gone distant, and they are impatient too, huffy, as if this act, this pronounced exhaling and eye-rolling, will encourage the old lady to move faster or as if, with that hint of displeasure, my manager will fly in, order up another check-out line.
I checked for a while, moved past the old lady, whom I noticed, when she was leaving, was wearing bedroom slippers, and then rang up four twelve-packs of Sundrop, on special. I got real busy and forgot about the little girl until something brushed up behind me, something come into the space behind the counter where the customers aren’t supposed to be. Something that didn’t smell like or have the twitchy-thin feel of my manager sneaking in behind me, checking something on my register, looking for the coupons we handed out to those who made a one-dollar contribution to the March of Dimes when they checked out. This was a small person, a flutter. I turned around, and there she was.
What's the matter, honey? I asked, kneeling down to her. She was crying, jagging on her breath the way little kids do, her hair stringier and blonder than I’d noticed before, her face crumpled up and wet from her tears, flushed pink. It took me a minute to connect her to the girl I’d seen come in earlier, and when I did, I said, Where’s your mom, honey? Where’s your sister?
She didn’t know, she was lost. She couldn’t say any of this, but only cried and nodded when I guessed the right thing, and my customers were piled up, but I just kept whispering to the little girl that it was going to be all right, and she was such a cute little girl, such pretty shoes! I’ve wondered since then, why I chose to remark on the little girl’s shoes to comfort her, but it’s something I know about little girls: they want us grown-ups to notice things like their shoes. The customers in line were losing their sympathy quickly—no one would say it, but they were wishing, I could tell, that I would hand the little girl over to someone else, some lost-child-authority they imagined we kept stored away somewhere, and there was a protocol for me to follow—I should get my manager—but in that second, I couldn’t tear myself away from that little girl. I thought, suddenly: I should quit my job.
In that moment, that little girl sobbing before me, keeping herself wrapped up, half-afraid of letting a stranger touch her, half wanting me too, I could tell, half wanting me to swoop her up and give her a minute to catch her breath, leaning her little head on my shoulder, but really, she was too old for that, and besides, she was mostly scared. I knew her mother was somewhere close by, scared half out of her mind, because it happens to every one of us, every mother knows how it feels to turn and find an empty spot in the supermarket where your own child was standing not a minute before, even later, when I found out the mother had actually left the building, was in the parking lot before either she or her older daughter realized they were missing the girl, even then I thought: look what she’s done to her mother. Look what she’s done to her. I felt that way, sorry for her, and irritated, too, what had she done, wandering off like that? And then, I thought: I will quit this job and take my own self to cooking school or else go in for a substitute-teacher’s job or a job as a receptionist at a dentist’s office and I would let the big grizzly bear get my baby. Yeah, yeah, yeah, Talia says. Yeah.
I was still trying to coax the little girl’s name out of her when the mother came. I had a thought I would announce it myself over the PA—fuck the manager—but here come the mama with the older girl looking properly shocked, her knowing better than the little, lost one what her mother had done, had left her little girl in the Kmart.
I tried to catch her mama’s eye when she come. After she’d stumbled forward in all that good, department-store beige, and swept up her little girl, who wasn’t really little at all, that I saw. I saw that the girl, maybe eight or nine years old, was too big to get lost, to wander away. That she was too big for her mama to do the next thing she done, which was to carry her out to the car, the other one walking, head down, beside her, quieted now. Shamed, a little. But, I was trying to catch this mama’s eye to pass on something of a comfort, a solace. I wanted her to know a thing she already knew: this mothering this is no picnic. She who had no thought, I guessed, about how things might be when the oldest turned twenty. If she’d be any less likely to leave one behind in the Kmart, or if there comes a time, when one wants to. When one simply wants to slough it off, all the mothering. Erase it all, begin again, solitary.
I think that little girl come to me and not the manager, standing at the customer service desk, and not the other checker, a young girl, even younger than my Talia, because I looked, to her, as near her mother as anyone. I could guess we’re near the same age, that we both have that settled-in motherly look about us, and the little girl saw this because she needed to. She didn’t know, I realized, not yet, that her mama was a boring dresser, that her hair was ugly. Or, it didn’t count.
It was the other checker later that I learned what the mother and the older girl had been shopping for, what they’d come to their Kmart today to purchase. Braziers. White cotton, no-padding ones, bralettes, they’re called. And then, I pictured the whole thing: how they come here, to the Kmart across town, probably, from where they lived, the two of them slinking away, little girl coming along either because she begged to, or because they had no place to put her, searching it out, the perfect 32-AA. It’s what we give our children, or try to: a license to grow up. Yeah, yeah, yeah, my Talia says. Yeah.
Come back tomorrow. We'll get started on crafting scene and deepening the conflict.