Cashback, the magic word. Like wishing for more wishes.
In Paradise Pharmacy, you buy yourself a toffee, thirty-three cents, and then you ask for twenty back; those bloody bloody Andrew Jacksons. You swipe Mama’s card, that blue plastic genie, and the cashier simply gives you the cash. No questions asked.
It’s like stealing cajeta from a baby.
Every Sunday, you come back for more; Mentos gum and jelly nails and those fake eyelashes that fwip-fwip-fwip like butterfly wings. You keep wishing for more wishes till your pockets are stuffed and you’ve got lollipops sticking out your mouth, and you walk out of the store, happy as a clam till Mama comes up with her nostrils flaring…
“No más tarjeta para ti,” she snaps, swiping the blue genie right out of your fingers. “Not even food stamps.”
Ah well, it was fun while it lasted.
Next time, you go to Dollar General and try to look eighteen. You ask for a pack of Newports and the cashier simply raises his eyebrow, and then rings you up.
En serio. It’s really that easy.
Outside, you hold up the little yellow sticks and you wonder what to do with them. Too late, you realize, you should’ve bought a lighter, too, but now your courage is gone and you can’t screw it back to the sticking place.
Aw, screw it. You just stick the unlit cigarette between your teeth and walk down the street, thumbing your belt loops and trying to play it cool. Como los jets y los tiburones. Like a rumblefish, playing pool. All the while, you know you look stupid, but you don’t really care.
What were you thinking! Mama says, when you walk in the door. It is an exclamation, not a question. She snatches the cigarette from your lips and stamps it out on the floor, even though it wasn’t lit. You trying to kill me, huh? she says. Trying to break my poor heart?
All you can do is shake your head. The shame will catch up with you later.
The final time, you don’t even bother with the card. You just snatch the painkillers right off the shelf.
Mama is gone now; long gone, and she took her blue plastic genie with her. Her poor heart broke, just like she always predicted – though it was the cholesterol that killed her.
It wasn’t your fault. You know it wasn’t.
All that she left behind was the apartment with its peeling paint and the hole that you kicked in the wall. The apartment, and the car with the busted muffler, and the debts that she’d collected over the years, like stamps.
They are her debts, that’s what you like to think. Inherited. But sometimes you wonder if maybe they are your debts, too, from all those jelly nails you bought, all those Mentos. Maybe they are your debts, shaped by your grubby fingers, by your ravenous mouth.
You were all mouth as a kid; just a monster with braces and teeth. Like Charybdis, always gnashing and hungry. Sometimes you would open the fridge and find only milk inside. Sometimes you would find Mama crying outside the drugstore, gripping the Marlboros that she quit years ago. You would find her eating candy in the bathroom – at least it looked like candy – those pale-colored Mentos from the bottles on the sink.
Don’t you ever grow up, mija, she would say. Prometeme.
Once upon a time, you used to believe in genies, but now you just believe in bottles.
On the way out of Paradise Pharmacy, you walk past the liquor store and the security guard waves to you. You don’t wave back. On the way out, you pass Solo Shoes and the Taco Bell and the Shell station with its sickly yellow light. You take those painkillers down to the tunnel under the 8, rattling the pill bottles like maracas, as you go. Vamos a bailar, mijita. Tiempo de bailar.
You sit down, in the drifting tornado of litter, in the piles of pigeon shit, and you pop the pills one by one, but you stop at the recommended dosage – you always stop, because you don’t want to end up like Mama. Nah, you don’t want to roll off the deep end, ¿si? You just want to daydream for a little while. Maybe you will fly to an oasis in the Mojave Desert. Un oasis en el paraíso. Maybe you will sleep in the shade of the palm leaves. Maybe you will wake up to find a genie standing over you: Your wish is my command.
It is dark in the tunnel, and the cars scream overhead like a migraine.
When you hold out your hand, the pigeons flutter down to peck the pills from your palm. They cock their heads and shuffle sideways and they stare at you with goo-goo eyes as if to say, Carajo, this ain’t bread.
Closing your eyes, you try to imagine stoned pigeons flying over San Diego; they would wobble and bobble like drunken drones. Stumbling into skyscrapers. Careening into streetlamps. The thought, in itself, is enough to make you laugh.
“So this is it,” you say to the pigeons. “This is what paradise looks like.”
But the pigeons are gone now – too far gone to answer, and even if they weren’t, you’d be too far gone to listen. There’s nothing else left to do, so you give the pill bottle a little kick with your toes and you watch as it rolls away down the tunnel, a runaway maraca. Escucha el ritmo, mija. Que ritmo bonito…
It is almost funny – the frenetic way that it rolls – as if it can’t get away from you fast enough.
Julian Riccobon (he/him) is a writer, editor, and artist of Italian/Panamanian descent, and the Managing Director of Polyphony Lit, an international literary magazine for teen writers and editors. His work has been published in The Acentos Review, Rumble Fish Quarterly, and F(r)iction Lit, among other places, and his favorite genres to write are contemporary fiction, magical realism, and historical fiction. He is currently drafting a magical realism novel about a bunch of loco neighbors who live together in a row house in San Diego.