I lose him at the corner of Ethnic and Kosher. He trails behind me, distracted by a colorful display of artificial chrysanthemums and carnations, votive candles, and sugar skulls—a mock shrine honoring the dead, all while selling taco shells and salsa.
“Mama, look!” he says, his baby voice partially obstructed by a layer of phlegm. When he coughs, it sounds like a tiny engine revving up, or a rusty motor trying to start. Johnny says I need to take him to the doctor, but if that’s the case, he should do it himself.
Johnny says a lot of things like, “You don’t care anymore,” and “What the fuck is wrong with you? You don’t do shit around the house.”
Because I don’t look like myself, he won’t touch me. Except, yesterday, he poked at a stain above my navel—his index finger digging into my skin, twisting itself around the cotton fabric until it reached sagging flesh.
From the opposite end of the aisle, I watch Danny reach for a jar. He leans forward with his fat little bow legs. The jar is too heavy for him, as is everything else. He wraps both hands around it and pulls it closer to the edge. It hits the floor and shatters, spilling brine and gefilte fish. My nose twitches from the pungent smell.
Danny falls too, shrieking. He cries, but the sound of his voice melds with the Christmas song playing in the background. His thin lips turn downward like a sad smile on a stick figure, and his little head swivels in every direction, looking for me. Besides us, there’s only a tall girl counting pennies at the register, young enough to have school the next day.
He puts both hands on the wet floor and pushes himself up. Just like I’ve taught him, he takes it one step at a time.
Maybe one day, a repressed memory will surface and he’ll see himself sitting in the middle of a grocery aisle, wearing a red wool shirt and denim overalls—an outfit someone other than me will hold on to for posterity.
As I turn the corner, he looks at me. When I hear him call out “mama,” I focus on the squeaking of the wheels and the skid marks they leave on the newly waxed floor. I leave the cart at the corner of Pasta and Cereals. I don’t want the applesauce, Pull-Ups, or Raisin Bran. I don’t want anything.
Toward the exit, the motion-sensing doors open and close, letting in a draft of cold wind that makes me shiver. This thing, this body, still feels.
One foot in front of the other, I tell myself. One foot in front of the other.