THE CHIPPED-TOOTHED HEART
By LaDonna Friesen   I pushed a button, and the rear van door beeped like a pulse. It felt hot enough inside it to be a heart. I loaded a couple cloth bags of organic groceries, one eye casually on the peripheral scene.

Behind me, a man with legs like a safari giraffe took one step for everyone else’s three. His long neck slanted forward, stretching for a fallen leaf from a tree, a dollar bill riding on the wind toward a pocket of his frayed jean shorts. He had nothing in his hands but his own fingers, long-thin and bent, swinging his stride across the parking lot.

An Amish-Mennonite family rounded the corner of the van, and I tensed in my sleeveless top and black knit capris. I had stopped by the store after running two miles at the university gym. Compared to their handmade long sleeves and dresses, my upper arms were bare as the moon.  At least my shirt was loose enough to let in some breeze. I slowly rolled my cart toward them with a gentle nod, and the wife pressed a quarter in my hand. We were at Aldi’s, the only place where money passes benignly in a grocery lot.

A rusty maroon van was parked right next to mine with the window open. I reached up to pull down the hatch of my van when a woman leaned out. “Can I ask you a question?”

She was still in the driver seat, and I was in the back of the van. I didn’t move. “What do you need?”

She shifted her body so that she could fully see me, and I saw an envelope with a list of tallied figures in one hand, a pencil in the other. Nothing to fear yet. In the window portrait, I could see the collar and rounded sleeves of a cotton dress with pastel flowers, the material soft-looking from too many washes. Her skin had sweated the folded collar a light brown.

“Well, I’m lookin’ at this list and trying to decide what I can cross off. If I had three more dollars, I think I could get the vegetable shortnin’ this man wants. Do you know if they sell only the big cans of vegetable shortning’? Do they sell the small cans? If they have the small cans, I think I’d have enough.”

Never in my life had I bought that stuff. Depending on the brand, shortening uses fully hydrogenated oils, nothing like the organic extra virgin olive oil in my van. 

I shook my head. Once when I was a child, my brother had given me a spoonful of white shortening and told me it was ice cream. It looked like a cloud on a spoon. Now, in the heat, I fumbled with the memory of spitting the stuff into the sink and using my tongue and saliva all night to un-coat my mouth. It was a rotten milky introduction to the other side of Eden.

The woman looked perplexed but not desperate. Her voice was an old melody, sweet and distantly familiar, almost motherly. “Well,” she said, “I’m gettin’ groceries for two shut-ins down Mt. Vernon way. One of ‘em is 92. He tells stories of livin’ on a can of beans for a week. He’s full of weeks like that.” She looked at her list again, some items with a line through them. “I just don’t know what more to cross out.”

I would rather people ask me for money than steal it, although she didn’t look like the crook-fingered way we imagine the stealing type. Her gray-brown hair was in a frosted cinnamon bun, and she had a half gallon, chipped-tooth smile. Still, I kept to the back of my van.

“I don’t think I have any cash, but I might have some change.”

She looked away from her list at me again. “I think most people are like that anymore…just plastic.”

I pulled my rectangular black wallet from my purse and unzipped it.

Her face jerked away. “I’m glad you didn’t pull a gun on me.”

My fingers stopped clinking coins, and I studied her, a little muddled. No one had said that to me before. Like averting shortening, I had never held a gun in my life. I can’t even play a character with a gun on Super Smash Bros. But looking down at the black rectangle, I could see how fear might turn a black wallet into a death piece. I had read an article about an officer who shot because he thought the victim’s phone was a shooter.          

Maybe if the woman had seen my organic groceries in the back of a white decade-old mini-van, she wouldn’t have suspected something. Or maybe I was just scaring everyone in my workout clothes.

My fingers scooped four quarters. “I have a dollar in change if it’ll help.”

She pressed the envelope into the steering wheel. “Well, it would sure be a blessing.”

I took one step and held my arm out like I was reaching for a fist bump. She stretched hers from the window, and here we met, two women with their arms lingering like Michelangelo’s God and Adam, bodies separated in vulnerable space, fingers curved by the gravity of trust. My fist opened just above her palm and freed itself of four heads and tails, four bits of nothing but a partial can of shortening. Another innocent change of money—no weeds, just dough.

“Thank ya. God bless ya.” Her eyes were like suns that found a few quarters to shine on. She smile-hummed her arm back into the van and turned to her ragged envelope of numbers.

I closed the hatch to her whisper, “I still gotta find two more dollars.”

I don’t know what she spent her dollar on, but I wish I’d had two more to give her. I only thought after that I could have gone with her in the store and paid for the shortening with a credit card, redeeming my brother’s trick and helping the 92-year-old. But my fingers had curved inward again, slouching to my core.

When I got home, the back van door re-opened its beeping heart. Mine echoed when I saw my neighbor pulling the cord of a silent mower. She wasn’t 92, but her lawn might be starting a new safari. Later, I leaned forward like a giraffe and pushed a mower until her grass shredded its life and stuck to my perspiring skin. I looked down at greened arms, more organic than olive oil.         About the Author:LaDonna FriesenI changed my major to English when a college professor helped me discover that writing and literature offer us layers of meaning about the human condition. Since then, I find stories and poems every day. I earned my M.A. in English and have served as a full-time English professor for 13 years, teaching literature and writing courses. Currently, I teach at Evangel University in Springfield, MO. You may click here if you wish to see publications and more information about me on the university’s site.

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