by Eric Aldrich
Veronica and Mother are in Wal-Mart. Veronica is perusing the kitty food in the pet section while Mother stocks up on paper plates in a different aisle. Veronica fusses her way past Friskies and Whiskers and 9 Lives. At the end of the aisle, she confronts a daunting omen: a wall of fish tanks, each one an aquatic mortuary for goldfish, angel fish, and guppies. Belly up they hover, suspended in murky green water. Veronica makes the sign of the Cross, thanks God for the warning. She selects only chicken kitty food, avoids tuna or salmon.
When they go to Walmart, Veronica tries to keep away from Mother as much as possible until it’s time to check out. Much to her frustration, Veronica looks just like Mother, though she’s 34 and Mother is 55. Like Mother, her six-foot frame bears only 127 pounds of woman. Her anxious metabolism incinerates calories, but Mother would never stop pointing it out of Veronica gained weight, so she staves off hunger mostly with rice cakes. Today the women have worn nearly identical outfits – blue jeans and kitty-cat sweaters and white Keds. Mother’s sweater shows kitties and yarn; Veronica’s sweater depicts kitties in a basket. Both Veronica and Mother have waist-length hair. Mother’s hair is red; Veronica’s, auburn.
Laden with kitty food, Veronica must return to the cart. As she passes the McDonalds, the smell of burgers makes her mouth water. A small boy at a yellow plastic table dips Mcnuggets into bbq sauce, sips a soft drink. The scene is lit like a manger display. What does it mean? As a girl, she and Grandmother would go to the Micky-D’s drive-thru and Veronica would always order a double cheeseburger and a large Sprite. Veronica considers sneaking in and cramming down a double cheeseburger, but if Mother smells onions on her breath she will know and endlessly repeat the grams of trans fat and sodium. Grandmother diabetes cost her two toe amputations and Mother would harp on that. Mother will have Wheat Thins in the cart. Veronica will eat some of those. She abandons the uninterpreted omen.
Veronica checks the paperback aisle in case Mother is there. She spots a priest holding a romance novel. The cover depicts Fabio cradling a swooning southern belle, his bare chest bursting through a blue Union uniform. Mother loves Fabio novels. To see a priest holding one is a sign of judgement, but Veronica won’t warn Mother. Veronica hides her oracular literacy. She fears that if people knew, they would exploit her. In particular, she worries about Mother demanding foreknowledge of soap opera plots and upcoming sales.
Veronica comes upon Mother in the personal care department, peering over her glasses at a cornered employee. His nametag says Stan, he looks in his twenties and about 5’4.” Goatee hairs sprout sparsely on his chin. Stocky in his blue employee vest, he cowers in Mother’s lanky shadow as she interrogates him: “Do you have the big squirt bottles of oatmeal lotion? Healing amino oatmeal lotion? My heels get so dry…”
“They’re right next to you, ma’am,” he points to a lower shelf.
Veronica moves closer to the cart and bumps into Stan. He looks over his shoulder at her, then back to Mother, then back to Veronica. His pupils expand. He moves aside and stutters, “Can I help you?”
Veronica replies, “Yes.”She’s not really in need of assistance, but he helped Mother, so he must help Veronica also. She orders the young man, “Take these cans and put them in the cart.” Stan awkwardly plucks cans from her elbows and transfers them into the cart alongside country apple potpourri, prune juice, Diet Pepsi, Metamucil, and paper plates. Mother, crouching like a resting mosquito to examine lotions, notices. Veronica sees Mother move the lavender bottles behind the peach ones.
“Excuse me, young man. Do you have any more of the lavender oatmeal lotion?” Mother interrupts. Veronica shakes her head; the aisle reeks of lavender.
Mother lies. For example, every Tuesday two Jehovah’s Witnesses stop by and try to convert them. One week, Veronica came downstairs from watching Rachel Ray just in time to see them drive off. “They weren’t here very long,” Mother said. Veronica wanted to tell the Jehovah’s Witnesses to be extra cautious on their evangelizing rounds. Someone had turned two religious greeting cards upside down at CVS, inverting the golden crosses on their covers, which was a clear warning. Luckily, the pair were naturally careful people and they were OK, but she had been worried about them. On their next visit, when Mother lured the Jehovah’s Witness man into the kitchen with coffee, the lady asked if Veronica’s yeast infection was better. “What yeast infection?” Veronica had asked at the outset of an awkward silence.
“I see some lavender behind the peach bottles, ma’am,” Stan points to the disorganized flasks of lotion. “Oh, I’m going blind,” Mother overemphasizes her chuckle.
Veronica suspects what Mother might pull next. Mother’s greatest joy is when they’re mistaken for sisters. Conversely, this is Veronica’s profoundest misery. Mother will try to get checkout clerks, mechanics, dentists, or anyone else to make that mistake. Sure enough, she stands up holding a lavender lotion and playfully asks Stan, “How do you think we are related?”
Stan goes red. He replies, softly, “She’s your daughter?”
Veronica, grinning, points at Mother with her knot-jointed finger. Mother lets out a venomous hiss, followed by a guffaw. She stands to her full height, pushes her chest out. Veronica does the same. Standing toe to toe, they look like a kitty attacking her own image in a mirror.
“I…I’m…sorry…” Stan stammers and shakes his head. “Are you her aunt?”
“No!” Mother throws the lotion into the cart and snarls. “You’re right. I’m her mother.”
For a moment, triumph smells like lavender. Veronica could hug the employee, but he is backing away. If he could read omens, identical women would be an sign to him. He flees the aisle, but Veronica suspects he doesn’t comprehend what the universe was trying to tell him. What was the message to Stan?
As she hurries away from Mother to go get Lean Cuisines, Veronica considers following Stan, questioning him about what she and Mother signify. But when she gets to the frozen section and sees her gaunt image in the glass door, she realizes the warning wasn’t for him. Veronica is the soothsayer, so the omen of identical women is meant for her. It has been staring her in the face her whole life, warning her, directing her to action. She selects seven Lean Cuisines for Mother and buys herself seven Hungry Man Dinners. They’re a thousand calories a piece. Veronica will have hips where Mother has bones, she will have smooth fingers with proportionate knuckles, her breasts will fill out, her inner thighs will grow together, she will dye her hair blond, she will wear glasses instead of contact lenses. Maybe she will adopt a puppy. She closes the freezer door and sees her smile reflected. It’s the harbinger of a new Veronica.
Eric Aldrich lives in Tucson, Arizona where he teaches writing and literature at Pima Community College. You can find his most recent fiction in Manifest West, The Worcester Review, Weber: The Contemporary West, and Hobart. He reviews books for Heavy Feather Review, Full Stop, Terrain.org, and Rain Taxi Review of Books. Follow @ericjamesaldrich on Instagram for new stories, reviews, sunsets, and coyotes.