Gold Star

A boy is perched on his Dad’s shoulder. Snap. The smiles are real and sealed, dithered and black on the back of a plastic card. We go shopping every weekend. It is the 90s and there are oversized cardboard shrink-wrapped worlds, video — no, computer games, stacked neatly on steel shelves. Every once in a while Dad lets me put one in our cart. In the car I tear off the plastic with my baby teeth. Mom gets a job there checking receipts. I love to visit.

Underneath red umbrellas we get parfaits on weekdays and pizza on weekends. These are cheap thrills for a withering grandmother and the rest of us. Mom lets her treat us every time. I tell her I worry about Grandma’s checking account. I am 10. Mom explains how this is what she has left.

I am so excited we bought the nice vacuum cleaner.

The boy on his father’s shoulder takes his place in line. Snap. Member since 2010. Gold Star, later Executive. And now three boys, friends, are left wandering the aisles on their own. Two of them are kind of into each other. We bring pizza home, watch funny videos and go to Denny’s at 1 AM where we are excellent at being young.

When I move from Phoenix to San Francisco I look towards its fortress for safety. I’d never seen one with underground parking before. Most of the time I’m alone, eyes-closed, engulfed in a hazy dream of the same layout — only warmer. Sometimes I bring friends. We look and laugh and that is enough for hours but I leave only with a tub of granola. I have to take it on the subway home.

I visit the day I receive my first real paycheck. I buy an Xbox and a small TV. I bring the most important person I’ve lost. Briefly, I wonder if they’re proud of me before watching them get picked up by someone else. Before we get to unpack the boxes. Years later I insist we go again together. It feels like a trick but they’re such a good sport. I call their name needlessly just to imagine how it could’ve sounded reverberating through the frozen food aisle.

Another new city. Pittsburgh. There’s water and bridges and I am exhausted. And then I am broken. It is warm inside this warehouse. I collect the dressings of a domestic dream to try and make things feel normal again. We buy six gigantic fuzzy blankets and wait for time to pass.

Then we become my parents, because his were Sam’s Club people.

And home again. We celebrate our survival with a Vitamix blender we later return when a new model comes out.

I turn 23 underneath its hotdog sign, surrounded by people who appreciate me. Co-workers pass out cake to strangers. A mysterious woman asks my boss if she’s going to finish that. I get its Signature carved on my body by a man who just wants to talk about the things he does in Las Vegas. He does a good job. I feel blessed.

The ink fades and it is the night after the election. Trump is going to be our president and a Vitamix flask is left growing mold in a small, damp apartment. I, too, am replaced. Raw and hurting, I can still taste the bile in my mouth from the night before. In the checkout line I stand with someone who should have not been there: my ex. But I’m not paying attention to him. I look around and all I see are families that I hope will be OK. I want them to know this. They are family. Then I start crying.

A woman in line comforts me. She knows. My ex rolls his eyes. Then he sees my sincerity. I can’t stop crying. And something changes in him. He finally notices that I am real. On the way out, he comforts me for the last time, for once in the way I’d always wanted.

A frumpy man now walks these hollowed aisles alone to keep his story straight. He barely buys anything. He is silent, communing with ghosts lined up loosely in order of electronics, then home goods — clothing, produce, liquor, frozen food, dry snacks, beauty products, and finally supplements. He checks out with a bag of grapefruit and some frozen meals. He smiles at the receipt checker and considers moving to a place that has never heard of Costco.

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