Fiction: Back to My Future
Contemporary short fiction. Originally published under the title “Once More to Walmart” in Voices de la Luna, a quarterly literature and arts magazine, in November 2020.
Early one Florida summer in the late 1980s, Mom packed us all up in the minivan and took us on a special mission to the retail heart of our small town, Walmart, to buy bottled water and other hurricane supplies. We had gone before, but this trip was memorable because of the tight-lipped way all the adults in the store managed their storm anxiety while the kids enjoyed the big adventure.
We all fought over who got to push the cart, and then the winner was sorry because Mom chose one with a crooked wheel that whinnied the whole time it pulled us down the aisles. But other than that, the trip was a success. Mom patiently explained the purpose of each item on the storm list: batteries for our flashlights; food that didn’t need to be cooked or kept cold; candles, matches, charcoal, and lighter fluid for the grill; a battery-operated weather radio.
We each got a pack of stickers and a hurricane book-I picked a Ramona Quimby book, Jenny probably got Babysitters Club, Greg surely picked something dumb, and I’m sure baby Corey got a coloring book, even though he wasn’t old enough to stay in the lines yet. In the parking lot we bravely loaded gallon jugs of water into the back of the minivan while I planned the shelter I would build for us under the dining room table should the big one hit. From then on, that annual Girl Scout motto-driven visit to Walmart meant summer to us, right up there with the last day of school.
Sometime in college I became a freecycling thrift store shopper, and the habit stuck with me these last few years since I got out and started trying to fend for myself. But sometimes the smell of the collective closet and the letdown of acquiring a half-empty box of paper straws leave me lacking. When it takes months to find a discarded, mismatched coffee table, I long for the ease of those childhood trips where everything you could want or need was right at your fingertips.
A few weeks ago, I went back home for Jenny’s wedding, and she happened to mention the Fruitz drinks we enjoyed every summer as children. The best thing we both remembered was that each bottle had little floating gel candies buoyed by the carbonation. The stinging, fizzing seltzer stung your nose, followed by the peach or apple taste and the chewy candies that made the brand famous.
After Jenny said it, I couldn’t stop craving the fizzy goodness. Who knows how long I’d have to wait for a mostly empty case to show up in my freecycling circles? My craving weighed more than my consumer’s guilt and I decided to retrace my family’s steps by driving to our neighborhood Walmart.
From the driver’s seat of my Camry (as opposed to the nosebleed section of the family minivan), facing the viciously narrow rows of spaces, I could now see that my mother had had the parking skills of a ninja. As with the doomsday hurricane forecasts of my childhood, I imagined the worst was ahead for me, a too-wide swing into the space, the sound of my bumper crushing and smearing against the side of the next car over. And as with the storms I remembered (at least in my town’s case), I rolled through unremarkably.
The building facing me was no longer the sparkling coquina palace I remembered but more of a sunbaked fortress with towering walls. I used to dance across the bold yellow lines of that crosswalk, following the Yellow Brick Road to all the world’s delights inside the store. But here in the stark sunlight, the dusty bands soaked into the asphalt. A mockingbird mimicked a car alarm as the surrounding scrub oaks threatened to take back their land.
Through the whirring doors, a familiar old woman wearing her deep-sea-blue apron greeted me and offered me a cart. She wouldn’t remember me, but I knew her because she always told Mom to give a sweet to her sweeties if they were good, and I knew the old woman meant us.
“No cart for me today, thank you, but could you point me to the drinks section?” Best get in and get out, escape the temptation to fill the cart with stuff. How else had our family always ended up with a mound of goods cresting the top of the cart, at times even kicking my little brother out of his coveted seat facing the handle of the basket?
“All the way back there,” she said, smiling and pointing to a distant corner of the store, “at the back of the grocery.”
They had a grocery now? In the time since I was little, this Walmart expanded into a “superstore,” and as I wandered onto its main avenue, I smelled not only plastic packaging but the fullness of the bakery. French fry aromas drifted from a McDonald’s positioned strategically close to the air vents. Anything I wanted, Walmart carried it.
On the way to the drinks section, I saw mothers pushing carts with squirming children attached, except these moms seemed more tired than mine had been, with deeper lines on their faces than I ever noticed on Mom when I was little. She probably was that tired. How could she not have been? Each of these wide-eyed kids could have been one of us, chattering or grabbing colorful, intriguing items off the shelves.
Passing through my all-time favorite toy section, I remembered forgetting all my worries at the first sight of the colorful boxes with the clear plastic windows. Jenny and I always looked for a certain line of pearly plastic horses with long rainbow hair, Hula-Hoops, pool toys, and giant inflated balls. We would stray just out of Mom’s reach and hula-hoop until we were found out, then scamper giggling back toward the sound of her warning. Now there were no horses or Hula-Hoops. Instead, unfamiliar toys stretched up to the ceiling, threatening to come crashing down with the slightest careless removal from below. How had Mom wrangled four of us while navigating this maze?
“How about a sticker book?” one broken-down mother suggested to her crying child. I guess that’s how. A child farther down the aisle had less luck.
“No! You can play with the one you have at home,” their mother said, returning the prize to a shelf stuffed with dolls. Anything kids wanted, Walmart carried it. But that did not mean they would get it.
Finally, I arrived at the grocery section. The rear aisles held mostly snack foods-countless kinds of crunchy, salty pretzels and potato chips or crispy, sugary cookies. I remembered Friday nights watching movies like Ghostbusters and Dirty Dancing on the VCR while munching on those treats with my best friend and drinking (of course) Fruitz. Remembering the reason I came, I began searching the orderly shelves, discarding one item after another looking for the familiar bottles. Having no success I went to the next crowded aisle, welcoming the juice boxes and other bottled drinks stacked there.
Then the sparkling water, and surely the Fruitz drinks. They had to be there, since Walmart had it all. I started at one end and examined each brand, pushing package after package aside. When I reached the end of the section without success, I studied the aisle once more.
It was the same aisle, still the same aisle. The shelves held the fizzing sodas, the diet sodas, the colas, the “un-colas,” the root beers, the bottled juices, the seltzers, and finally the sparkling waters. Walmart had it all. All except my Fruitz.
The drink section laughed at me. Bottles and cans glistened with satisfaction. A cart turned the corner and headed toward me, several children clinging to it and grasping with little fingers. I fled in the opposite direction to the customer service desk. Walmart had it all. Customer service could fix this.
Deep inside the recessed customer service area, I approached the clerk, a bored-looking guy about Jenny’s age.
“I’m looking for Fruitz. You know, the fizzy drink with the candy in it, but I didn’t see it in the drinks section.”
“Oh yeah, I remember those,” he said, smiling. “They don’t make them anymore.”
Fruitz were gone.
I wanted to climb back into Mom’s minivan with my siblings, but that was gone too. Up ahead were Mom’s shoes, waiting for Jenny to fill them, then maybe me. I walked slowly out of the customer service cave, across the dirty floor, dragging my feet past the mothers waiting in the long checkout lines, just like mine used to do. While they shuffled out the whirring doors to their worn minivans, I wavered in emptiness between my past and future.
P.J. Powell co-hosts the podcast “Write Away with Nat and P.J.” Her short fiction has been published in Across the Margin, Manawaker Studio’s Flash Fiction Podcast, Perceptions Magazine, Voices de la Luna, and Youth Imagination Magazine. A strategic communications consultant and writer, P.J. is also a staunch defender of the productivity-boosting benefits of short naps, long walks, and dance breaks. Follow her on Twitter @2PSays, and visit her blog at Creatorology.com.
This piece was originally published under the title “Once More to Walmart” in Voices de la Luna, a quarterly literature and arts magazine, in November 2020.