“Orphans” (detail), oil on canvas, by Thomas Benjamin Kennington, 1885.

by Jill Jepson

It was noisy in the Mega-Mart, crammed with cranky shoppers, edgy to get home. Children crabbed, women fumbled for credit cards and pushed carts loaded with laundry detergent, kids’ jackets, jars of peanut butter, packets of men’s underwear. The odor of stale popcorn and hotdogs from the counter in the corner hung over the checkout lines.

My cart was full of cheap crap—school binders, bags of pens, boxes of cereal and cake mix. Mom’s had DVDs and jewelry, two radios, a DVD-player, and a set of headphones. She was cool as ice cream, and twice as smooth. She’d done this a thousand times. Me, a couple hundred.

“Did you find everything okay?” The clerk looked past us at a woman with a squalling baby in line behind us.

“Um,” Mom said. “These are together.” She pointed from my cart to hers.

“No problem.” The clerk picked four or five DVDs out of Mom’s cart and ran them across the scanner. Under the glary fluorescent lighting, she looked bleached, drained of blood. We’d picked the young one with bad skin because she kept sighing, and a couple of times had to call the manager with a question. You get to where you can see the distraction in their eyes. This one was thinking about getting home, but not happily. She had kids, probably, and a boyfriend who thought her boobs were too small. She’d work late then go home to make dinner in a greasy kitchen. I didn’t know if any of that was true, but I knew it was a struggle for her to smile. She had a red pin in the shape of a butterfly on her shirt, the only bright thing about her. She bleeped the items through.

“I’ll take care of both of these,” I told the clerk.

“Would you like some help with the bagging?” she asked Mom.

“No, that’s okay.” Mom pulled a big plastic bag out of a shelf under the counter and started sliding in the merchandise.

“Nice pin,” I said.

“Oh.” The clerk touched the red butterfly. “Thanks.” Her mouth relaxed at the corners. She pulled a binder out of my cart. A balding man with a beach ball-sized beer belly got in line. He was dangling a loaf of bread in each hand.

I waited until the clerk had gotten through the packages of pens, then I opened my purse and rummaged through it. “Dang it, where’s my wallet?” The clerk didn’t look at me, just kept scanning things. I made a show of checking my pockets, then I turned my purse upside down and dumped the contents onto the counter. Lipsticks, coins, scraps of paper, an old compact, a stubby pencil, two mascaras, and a tampon fell out. “Where the heck is it?” This time, I made it weepy.

The clerk glanced at the woman with the screamer behind me, the beer-bellied guy behind her, the two teenagers behind him.

“I had it earlier,” I said. “It must be in the car. It probably dropped out of my purse.”

“You want to go get it?”

“Could I? Do you mind?” I was stuffing the odds and ends back into my purse.

The woman behind me jostled her shrieking bundle of joy and stared from me to the clerk.

“Yeah, sure,” the clerk said. “Look, I’ll bag your stuff. When you come in, you won’t have to get in li…” But I was already heading for the door, weaving through the carts and strollers, the children and fat men, away from the glaring lights and the stench of cheap food out into the cool, breezy evening. I spun like a whirlwind among the cars, wondering when the clerk would look up from her bags and the register and the bleeping scanner and stare across the churning crowd and realize that Mom had left with a bag of merchandise I was supposed to pay for, and that I wasn’t coming back.

*

The job had gone fine, but Mom’s eyes were scanning the rear-view mirror, her hands gripping the steering wheel. Napo played with his Gameboy in the back seat. I turned on the radio. Mom turned it off. “Jenny Letts got nabbed.”

I stared at her profile. “That a fact?”

“Antonopoulos heard it. He always knows. She was at Computer World.”

“I’ll be damned.”

I turned to kneel on the seat and reached into the back to the bag of DVDs we’d just flogged. “Jenny Letts. You always did think she was an idiot.”

“Jenny Letts took too many chances. She hung around a place too long.”

“Computer World,” I said. “Huh.”

“You got to know when to leave. Number three rule, after don’t draw attention to yourself and never stop to buy cigarettes on the way out.”

“They’ll put her away for a while,” I said. “She’s got a record.” I fished a DVD out of the bag. “Hey—Mary J. Blige. I’m keeping this one.”

“Jenny Letts hasn’t got kids. No one’s going to suffer but her. That dude she hangs out with won’t even, Doug, Don, whatever.” She veered onto the exit for Southdale. At the first light, she said, “Tomorrow, we’re leaving for Florida.”

“What? We’re leaving?” Napo set his Game Boy down and leaned forward.

“All right! Florida will be cool.” I picked at the shrink wrap on the DVD.

“You’re not keeping that,” Mom said. “We need the money.” She snatched the DVD out of my hand and flung it into the back.

“We’re not going to Florida,” Napo said. “No way we’re moving.”

I got to my knees again, grabbed the DVD off the floor, slid down into my seat, and started peeling off the shrink wrap.

Mom glared at me.

“Florida won’t be so bad,” I said over my shoulder to Napo. “Do you remember when we were there last time? There was a beach a mile from our apartment. We went swimming every day.”

“What about Space Day?” Napo’s fourth-grade class had been planning a trip to the space museum in Hutchison. He’d been talking about it for a month.

“They got space stuff in Florida,” Mom said. “Anyway, if we hung around every time there was some school thing going on, we’d have been picked up ten years ago. Ask your sister. Did we ever stay around for you to go to some school thing?”

“No,” I said. I twisted around to face Napo. He was sunk down, his arms folded over his chest. Even mad, he was cute, skin smooth as a Corelle bowl, red-gold hair. Someday he’d be handsome as hell, I thought. A hit with the girls.

I reached over the seat and jostled his foot. “Cape Canaveral’s in Florida. You know what that is? It’s where they shoot up all the rockets.”

“I know what it is,” he said.

“I’ll take you there.”

“Everybody in my class will be at Space Day.” He kicked the back of my seat.

I didn’t get mad. I knew how hard it was moving when you’re a kid. But I also knew that, if we stayed in one place too long, we were asking to get caught. For years, we’d cut a triangle across the plains states—Wichita; Little Rock; Springfield, Illinois. In each city, Mom had contacts and could sell stuff in a snap. Once every couple years, she’d get the idea to go to Florida for what she called a vacation. She’d run scams there with a couple partners. We’d party with her friends in Tampa, and I’d take Napo swimming. A couple months later it’d be time to head back to Kansas. It was hard on a kid, but as Mom never failed to point out, moving was not as bad as her getting thrown in jail and us ending up in foster care. You couldn’t argue with that.

When I was Napo’s age, Mom would leave me in the car the way we did Napo now. I’d sing to my dolls, practice my high notes, dream of my great debut. I’d watch the people strolling by, moms and dads, teenagers, kids my age. All of them living lives that seemed like the flipside of mine. All of them like ghosts, strange and unknowable. And suddenly Mom would come barreling into the car with her tote bag heavy and her pockets full, and we’d take off.

“We made a killing this time, baby doll,” she’d say. Or, “That was a waste—not worth the effort.” But she was always laughing when she said it. On the way home, Mom would have me sing for her. She said I had a fabulous voice and that, when I grew up, I could go professional. “You’re better than anyone on TV,” she’d tell me. “You’re as good as Celine Dion.” I pictured myself swaying under the lights, belting out “Lady Marmalade.”

I was amazed the first time Mom took me to work a big box store at the mall in Springfield. I was eight. She didn’t explain anything to me—it was the way she did things: letting you figure out the details yourself. Our first stop was at the food court for a milkshake. I ordered chocolate. The shake was good, so thick I had to use a spoon. I was dipping in for the third time, when Mom said. “Don’t eat any more.”

“What?”

“Just bring it with you. Keep quiet.”

I was miffed—what a waste, buying a milkshake just to carry it around—but as we entered the store, I felt a nudge, like something thrilling was about to happen, and I shut up and did what she said.

Mom slowed her pace as we walked down the aisles. She glanced at this and that, sometimes stopped to read a label, working hard at being natural. We strolled over to the jewelry counter and stood looking at the display of glittery rings and bracelets. I peered through the glass at a pendant with a sparkling blue stone when, plop, there went a bracelet into my shake. In one swift motion, Mom had pulled it off the little rack on top of the counter. I stared down at the round, pink pearls floating in the ice-cream sea—and I got it. Without being told, I stirred the bracelet into the shake. I looked up at Mom. She didn’t smile or even meet my gaze, but I could tell she was pleased.

After that, I stuck close to her. Three rings, a pair of silver earrings, and a gold chain were dropped, one by one, into my cup, and I buried each one with a sweep of my spoon. Then we ambled out like nothing happened, and I walked alongside her, prouder of myself than I’d ever been, helping my mom, being her partner.

That night, she said I’d be working with her from then on. “We’re going to have to work hard. We’ll be needing a lot more money in a few months.” Then she told me I had a baby brother or sister on the way. It was a shock because she didn’t have a boyfriend at the time. I was a little kid, but I knew babies had fathers. She said she wasn’t sure if Napo’s father was a guy she’d met at a bar one night, or Antonopoulos, the dealer we sold stuff to, but when Napo came out all pink and white with blue eyes, she decided it had to be the bar guy because Antonopoulos was swarthy.

Napo was a cute baby, and you could tell Mom loved him just by the way she held him and called him Sweet Boy, but I was the one who took care of him most. We’d play peak-a-boo for an hour nonstop, and I’d sing to him, “This Old Man” or “Unbreak My Heart.” I learned quick how to change a diaper, make formula, jostle him when he cried. Mom was out when he took his first step, and I swear “Sue-Sue” was his first word, not “mama.”

When Napo started school, I was scared the kids would make fun of him, at least of his name. I thought it was stupid naming a little boy Napoleon, even if it was Mom’s grandpa’s name. But Napo didn’t get made fun of about anything. He liked school, and he got good grades, even with us moving all the time. Whenever he started in a new school, he made friends in a few days. I knew he’d be popular when he got older, not like me.

I spent my time in school trying hard as I could not to be noticed. I didn’t want the teachers calling on me, and I didn’t want any friends. I had nothing to say to those kids who lived in houses with hedges in front, whose parents left for work at 7:30 and came home at 6:00, who’d lived in the same town most of their lives. I imagined the girls’ rooms with pink bedspreads and stuffed animals, the boys with baseball trophies and pictures of bikini girls on motorcycles. I was sure they went to church on Sunday and prayed against people like Mom and me. Also, they had fathers. Even the ones who never saw their dads knew where they were—or, at least, who they were. The few times I was asked, I said my dad lived in California and that his name was Jack. Or sometimes Bruce.

The last couple times we’d moved, I hadn’t enrolled in school. I liked being able to stay home and watch TV or practice my singing. For my seventeenth birthday, Mom gave me a karaoke machine, and from then on, I practiced hours every day. That machine was the best present I ever got.

The night Mom announced we were going back to Florida, she made Napo’s favorite dinner—spaghetti and chocolate cream pie. But he just sat nudging his noodles with his fork, and when Mom asked if he wanted dessert, he shrugged. Mom and I exchanged glances.

“You want to go to a movie tomorrow?” I asked him. “We could see that one with the penguins.”

“No thanks.” He got up, leaving his food on his plate, went down the hall into his room, and shut the door.

Mom took the dirty plates to the sink and ran water. I cleared the table, and we stood together, Mom washing and me drying.

“Do we have to leave right away?” I asked. “Maybe we could wait just long enough for Space Day.”

She glowered at me, scrubbed furiously at a pot. “You want us to be split up for good? You know the odds if we hang around too long. Jenny Letts got picked up—that means the police have got their antennae up. I go to jail, you wind up in juvie, and Napo will be living with some mean bitch drunk foster mother. Or some pervert. They don’t screen those people, you know. It makes me sick to think of what could happen if he got into the hands of a perv.”

“Maybe we could leave him here with someone,” I said. “He’s got friends in school. Space Day’s in three weeks. There’s got to be someone who’d take him for that long. We could make up something. I know—tell them I’ve got cancer and you’ve got to take me to a special hospital in Tampa.”

Mom raised an eyebrow at me as if she thought I was losing it. “A story like that’d be a written invitation for someone to check up on us.” She reached into the brownish dishwater.

When I got up the next morning, Napo was sitting at the table in his pajamas, his hair rumpled. His face was swollen from crying, the skin so red it looked like a rash ringing his eyes.

Mom was standing at the stove, making pancakes, but she was wearing her street clothes, and she was humming some 70s song. Her purse, keys, and good sweater were on the counter.

“You been out already?” I asked.

“Yep.” She was flipping the cakes like it was a game, placing them on plates in steaming stacks.

“What’re you so cheery about?” I opened the fridge to look for juice.

“Sing for us,” Mom said.

I frowned in at the milk and leftovers. “I don’t like singing in the morning. My throat’s all froggy.”

“I’ve heard you sing better getting right out of bed then most people do when they’re on stage. Come on, sing ‘Sweet Escape.’”

I couldn’t turn her down. I took a drink of water and cleared my throat and let loose with my personal interpretation of “All By Myself”—loud and brassy. I finished with a big flourish, doing all kinds of soulful acrobatics.

Mom danced to my singing as she flipped the pancakes. “Hoo babe, you’ve got that one down,” she said when I finished. She was placing two plates of cakes on the table. “I swear, you’re getting better and better. One of these days, you’re going to a talent agency.”

“Maybe next year,” I said. “I think I’ll be ready then.” I sat down at the table and dug into my pancakes, but nearly lost my appetite when I saw Napo’s expression. He was staring at his plate, drawing lazy designs in the maple syrup.

I looked over at Mom, but she didn’t seem to notice. She turned off the flame and headed down the hall. “Aren’t you going to eat?” I asked.

“Not right now. I’ve got something to do. You two just enjoy your pancakes, and when you’re finished, get ready to go.”

“We going on a job?” I called after her, but she disappeared into the bedroom, and I heard her lock the door.

*

I got my answer an hour later, when we pulled up at the mall on the edge of town. There was a sale at Bryson’s. The parking lot was jammed.

“I thought we were going to Antonopoulos’s,” I said. The trunk of the car was crammed full of stuff to unload on him. But Mom said she had a surprise first.

She pulled something out of her tote and handed it to Napo. A jacket.

A glint of surprise flickered over his face. It was a cool-looking jacket, black with lime-green trim. He took it and frowned.

“It’s a present,” Mom said.

“What for?”

“Just because.”

He surveyed the green trim, his expression switching from suspicion to pleasure. Then he said, “What the heck…” The lining of the jacket had a slit on either side, big enough for a fist. I didn’t have to look to know that Mom had put a layer of aluminum foil inside the lining. My mouth fell open. Napo looked at Mom in confusion.

“It’s time you learned what life is all about,” she said, beaming at Napo. “You go inside and pick out something you want. A toy, DVD, book, whatever. If you can fit it into this jacket without it making a bulge, it’s yours. The foil will keep the alarm from going off when you leave the store.”

I said, “Mom—”

“You’re sister’s going with you. You listen to her, okay? She’ll let you know when it’s safe.”

I was staring at her, my mouth open, choking when I tried to speak.

“Sue, you keep your eyes open. Move a lot. I mean your hands, arms. Pick stuff up and look at it. If anyone’s watching, they’ll be focused on you, drawn to your movement. They’re not going to suspect Napo for a minute.”

“What are you doing?”

“Steer clear of the—”

“We need to talk about this.”

“What we need to do is get this job done. Get going, you two.”

“What are you doing to Napo?”

“What am I doing? I’m teaching him about life is what I’m doing.”

I shook my head, trying to make sense of it. “He doesn’t have to do this. He’s got us to keep him fed. Why’s he got to starting jacking stuff?”

“He needs to know,” Mom said. “To understand. So when we have to pick up and leave, it makes sense to him. So that he gets what our life is all about. He should be a part of the family, anyway. Not kept separate, like he’s some kind of—”

“Kid. Some kind of kid. That’s what he is. And this…” I waved my arm at some invisible thing that seemed to have formed between us. “He doesn’t need this.”

“He needs it plenty.” Mom tilted her chin up. “This work is what puts food on his table, and clothes in his closet.”

“I mean he doesn’t need to do it. He’s too young, Mom. It’s not good for him to get started on this stuff so young.”

“It was good for you.”

“Like I had a choice,” I said. I remembered arriving at the store in Springfield, how she didn’t tell me anything. The way she’d done it today, too. Keeping me and Napo in the dark until we arrived at the store. How it gave you the feeling there was no way out.

She sucked in air, like I’d punched her in the stomach. “You were ten times happier after you started working than before. Maybe you don’t remember, but it’s true. When you first started doing jobs, it was like you were princess for a day and I was your fairy godmother. You going to deny it?”

I shook my head. “There’s more, though. There’s more to life.” I meant to Napo’s life, the life he might have some day.

“Our life isn’t enough? Is that it? Are you saying I haven’t done all I could for you? Maybe you think it was easy, raising two children with no man. When you were a baby, I waitressed two shifts at a stretch and worked nights in a convenience store for wages that weren’t enough to keep you in diapers, let alone find someone to take care of you while I was working. I’d come home so tired I couldn’t stand. I’d fall asleep in my clothes on the couch and not wake up to even hear you crying in your crib.”

“I know. You did everything.”

“You know why I got started jacking? Because I could take you with me is why. I could push you in your stroller and make sure you were safe, and still make enough to put food on the table. And we’ve done okay, haven’t we? We’ve always had enough to eat. You’ve never worn second-hand clothes or slept in the car. I know a lot of people who can’t say the same thing.”

I was staring down at my sneakers, toeing the ratty carpet on the car floor. I kept blinking at the burn under my lids. I thought about the nights we played rummy and rented movies and danced to music on the radio. I was thinking of how we’d paint each other’s nails and make mai tais and of a couple times she got me into a bar with a fake I.D. Once we borrowed her friend’s convertible and drove all over Kansas City with the top down, whooping and hollering even though it was March and freezing.

And there was my singing. Mom was the only one who’d ever heard me sing, the only one who knew about my talent.

“Okay,” I said. “Okay, okay.”

Napo and I entered the mall too slowly, hesitant. If anyone noticed, it would look suspicious. Even though I knew the techniques, I felt awkward, not used to having Napo along. I looked down at him. His eyes were wide, staring at the people strolling past, at the merchandise gleaming under the lights, as if he were looking at the world in a new way. He was wearing the jacket unzipped in front as Mom had told him, but it seemed like an alien thing on him—like some foreign uniform that he hadn’t yet earned. It detracted from his handsomeness. I wanted to take it off him.

It was crowded in Bryson’s, but that doesn’t always mean a place is safe to jack. I walked with Napo, surveying the crowd carefully. We strolled too self-consciously toward electronics and stopped to look down one aisle.

A shopper was browsing nearby, looking at headphones. She glanced up at us, but soon as she saw me looking, turned back to the headphone rack. A store detective, disguised as a customer. I could recognize them fifty yards away.

I looked over at an aisle of video games.

“You want one?” I asked Napo, nodding toward them.

“I guess.” He fidgeted. He was nervous enough to set off any detective’s radar.

I leaned down and spoke into his ear. “You go over and pick something out. Put it in your jacket pocket. Pick a couple if you want. Take your time, no need to go fast. You think you can do that?” Above the video game aisle, a large mirror was angled. I glanced over at the detective.

Napo nodded. He looked scared and guilty. I said, “Go ahead, kiddo.” I watched him walk toward the games, his shoulders hunched, his eyes shifting. He adjusted the jacket—the handiwork of an accomplished shoplifter, as any cop would know. I thought of Mom, her car full of stolen merchandise. I thought of the security cameras that would lead them right to her. Mother, I thought. Mom. Christ. I saw the detective moving toward Napo, and I turned away and hurried out of the store.

I’d leave town that day, I’d decided. Get on a bus for some place we’d never been. I’d find my own contacts. I knew how. I’d see Mom do a half dozen times.

I passed a jewelry kiosk in the middle of the broad walkway. When I continued on down the walkway and out the mall, I had two pocketfuls of stuff to sell. Enough to get me a bus ticket and a place to stay. I’m good at stealing small things. Mom used to say I had a knack for sleight of hand. It’s what I do best. My one true talent.

carriage.2

Jill Jepson is a writer, linguist, world traveler, and professor. She is the author of numerous short works and three books, including Writing as a Sacred Path (Ten Speed Press). She teaches writing and linguistics at St. Catherine University and blogs at JillJepson.com.