When I opened the front door, my mother handed me four cases of yogurt. All strawberry. She doesn't notice flavors. Coffee, vanilla, blueberry - they don't mean a thing. I asked her how much I owed her, and she told me that with the coupons, and how she used them on double-down day, that she actually made money off the purchase. I told her I didn't see how such a thing was possible, and she explained that the yogurts were a buck apiece and her coupons were for 75 cents. Doubled, that's $1.50.
"I make 50 cents off each one I buy," she said.
She was excited because she had a project for the two of us: a defective shirt that needed exchanging. She got it from a clothing store near my house that has been around for decades. When I was a kid, my mother would bring me there to try on bell-bottoms, making me undress right in the aisles.
"What's wrong with the shirt?" I asked.
It should be said that my father has left the house in far worse: green corduroy vests, T-shirts advertising aquarium supplies, ties intended for novelty use only. If it were handed to him as he was getting out of a shower, I'm sure my father would figure out a way to wear a bridge chair. I asked how a missing sleeve might have escaped her notice during the purchase. She didn't remember. She bought it a long time ago.
"How long ago?" I asked.
She didn't really get the question. Life for my mother wasn't exactly a chronological unraveling. She was coming to visit me. I was around the corner from the store. It was just a clever thing to return it now - killing two birds with one stone. She looked at the bag and thought for a moment.
"Five years," she said.
This kind of operation was what my mother lived for. It would be a challenge; a battle of wills - a game of chess, but with yelling. I remember as a kid watching her open three bottles of tahini, one after the other. She wasn't satisfied with the hermetic popping sound the caps made - it was too muted. She liked a pop that was more emphatic, a pop that cried, "I have not been sprinkled with hemlock." She returned all of them to a grocery store she chose not because she'd bought the tahini there, but because of its proximity to our house. The store didn't sell tahini. I'm not sure they even knew what it was.
To be honest, it isn't that my mother exerts Clarence Darrow-like powers of persuasion; it's that she has no shame. None at all. As an adult, I seem to have taken on the extra shame she has no use for. I don't like to draw attention to myself. If a waitress gets my order wrong, I keep my mouth shut. If a bus driver goes past my stop, I just get off at the next one. Scenes just aren't my thing. But even now, no matter where I go with my mother, there are always the inevitable spectacles. Just the thought of her getting all froth-mouthed about that one-armed shirt - it was enough to make me queasy.
At the store, my mother went to the cash register and pulled the article of clothing out of the crumpled plastic bag.
The saleswoman looked at it. Then she held it up and turned it around.
"It doesn't have sleeves," the saleswoman said. "It's a poncho."
"A pon-cho?" my mother repeated, as though it were a foreign word - which, in her defense, I suppose it sort of is.
You would think that would be the end of it, that confronted with reason, my mother would accept the fact that we live in a universe where such a thing as a poncho exists, and we would leave. But this was not to happen. Reason is of no concern in a staring contest. "I don't care what it is," she said evenly. "It's factory-defective. My husband can't wear it."
I thought of my father, a man very big on tucking in - sweaters, aquarium-supply T-shirts - packing the bottom of the poncho into his pants, belting up and heading out for an evening on the town looking like Fatty Arbuckle.
The saleswoman refused to give the money back, so my mother asked her to get the manager. She disappeared behind a row of suit jackets and as we waited for her return, I remained by my mother's side, standing there in this way I later realized I had developed as a kid. It was a posture that was meant to convey filial loyalty, peppered with a touch of what Vietnam vets call the thousand-yard stare. In the back room, I imagined the saleswoman conferring with the manager, a bedraggled, shiny-jowled man, as he stared at my mother through a security cam, watching with a look of recognition that quickly turned to panic.
When the saleswoman returned, she immediately started offering store credit. That was a mistake. Weakness. "Credit? So you can unload socks on us?" my mother asked. "We need more socks like we need rickets."
Desperate to defuse the situation, I grabbed a baseball cap off a nearby shelf and handed it to my mother. Reluctantly, she got it for me with her credit. "Lucky for you my boy needs a hat," she said. "Walk around in it. Make sure it isn't too tight around the temples."
As we left the store together, my new cap on my head, I felt about 10 years old. "I'll hold on to the receipt," my mother said. "Just in case."