I’ve just set my Diet Coke on the counter, and am about to ask the cashier who doubles as the attendant and the mechanic, how far it is to Arnaudville, when a young woman comes up the aisle and stands behind me. She is small-boned as a meadowlark; pretty, with green eyes and sculpted lips. Her complexion is a silky brown, with the same red undertones of Louisiana clay as my own. She holds a package of diapers in one hand. A baby straddles her hip.
And before I can ask how old the baby is, whether it’s a boy or a girl, two more little kids—girls, I see—brush past her and kneel worshipfully before boxes of gum and candy arranged on the low shelves beneath the register. They run their fingers over shining bags of M&M’s and Skittles, caress slick packages of Starbursts, Sour Patch Kids and Reese’s Pieces. I smile to myself, thinking isn’t it just like little kids to be drawn, like honey bees, to bright colors and the promise of sweets.
After a few seconds of deliberation, each little girl selects a treat, holds it up in the florescent light, and the taller one says, “Mama, can we get these?”
“Y’all put that back and shut up!” the young woman snaps, like the girls have asked for diamond tiaras and not two measly bags of candy; her voice angular and brittle and not at all like the sultury afternoon that beckons just beyond the glass doors. She hikes the baby higher on her hip.
That’s when I look down and notice that she’s barefoot. So is the baby in her arms, and so are the little girls, their grimy toes like mini-Tootsie Rolls against the white floor tiles. I feel myself staring but I can’t look away. Outside, oil spots darken the cement around the gas pumps, broken glass and trash punctuate the weeds along the asphalt road leading up to this place. God knows what folks chuck from their car windows. The young woman notices me staring. She covers one bare foot with the other. Eventually, she slides the diapers onto a shelf already crammed with cereal boxes and Cup O’Noodles. She swings the baby around to her other hip, and walks out of the store, the little girls trailing behind her.
I pay for the Diet Coke and my gas. I buy a package of M&M’s and a package of Sour Patch Kids just in case I pass the little girls on the road.