Justin sat in the car wash waiting room with his laptop and a half drunk soy latte. He had on a Cure t-shirt with the sleeves sewn back, a telltale sign he’d bought it at some hip fashion store and not a dingy punk rock store on Melrose Avenue. The stitching made it look new. It was new and he’d loved The Cure since the 8th grade, but the girlish cut and those goddamn sewn up sleeves made him look like a guy who didn’t love The Cure. He was sure someone would notice.
A pretty young Asian woman and her three little daughters sat on a couch to Justin’s left. It was a brand new couch. It wasn’t there the last time Justin had his car washed. The leather was soft and clean and looked like what people thought the ‘50s looked like, but didn’t. All chrome and leather and a mid-century “futuristic” design. The little girls ran around, screaming their heads off, making noise, calling for their mommy to pay attention to them. Justin stared at his laptop, unable to concentrate. No words were coming.
“Mommy! Look at me!” the oldest one said. She was no older than six.
“I’m looking,” Mom said, digging through a diaper bag with a purple pony on it.
The pony looked extraordinarily happy and Justin wondered where he could score some of whatever that pony had smoked. The pony, he thought, is having a better day than I am.
The oldest girl was clamoring for her mother’s attention, while the littlest one quietly sought her father’s approval. She would be quiet and well behaved and Daddy would have to notice. She would bide her time. Eventually, Daddy would notice her. The middle girl was mostly quiet until the older one got on her nerves and she started crying. Mom just sat there, digging through the diaper bag with calm resignation looking for coloring books to occupy the girls. She pulled out games and puzzles and dolls. An arsenal of entertainment for girls with the attention spans of goldfish. At long last she produced three coloring books and a fist full of brightly colored pencils.
The littlest one had on a cotton candy pink dress dotted with red roses and had frilly underskirts. She wore pristine patent leather shoes and had bows in her hair. It was Daddy’s favorite dress. At least, he’d once told her it was. The others were dressed in casual Saturday clothes, the kind of clothes you could get dirty in.
Behind Justin something went crash. He looked over his shoulder and the littlest one had knocked down a display shelf. A dozen cheap stuffed animals had toppled to the floor, scattered like a bomb had gone off. It was a fluffy genocide.
“I didn’t do it!” the girl moaned.
“You don’t say I didn’t do it,” Mom said. “You say, I didn’t mean to.”
“I didn’t do it!” she whined again.
“You don’t say that, you say you didn’t mean to do it.”
Dad came along. His foot was in a medical boot, but he could walk pretty good in it. He’d tell people he hurt his ankle surfing. His pale, once golden skin looked like it had been a long time since he’d ridden a wave. He had on thick black glasses and had thick wavy black and prematurely silver hair. He looked like the kind of guy who was probably pretty cool in his day. He probably liked cool music like Talking Heads and REM or whatever Alternative rock bands were popular when he went to college.
He’d met his wife in college and she was just the kind of sweet virgin he needed to help him get over the rock n’ roll Riot Girl who’d broken his heart Junior year. His wife hadn’t been a virgin, but she was close enough. He wanted a calm girl, a girl who didn’t do drugs or drink. He wanted someone his mother would like. Asian girls, he once thought, make good wives. When he got married, he sold his vinyl albums, put his guitar up on the wall and started making babies. One right after the other. The first one came as a pleasant surprise. A year later, the second one was an accident. The third was also an accident. All girls. None of them liked tossing around footballs or playing guitar. To his girls, REM and Talking Heads sounded like poo poo so he learned all the words to the Frozen Soundtrack. He liked the Frozen Soundtrack.
“But I didn’t do it!” the little girl cried again, mustering up some fake tears that just wouldn’t come no matter how hard she scrunched her face.
“You don’t say you didn’t do it. Never say that,” Dad said. He stepped over the bodies of the fallen stuffed animals.
“In Spanish, it’s pronounced limón,” Mom said to the middle girl. “Limón. Say it.”
The middle girl went on to something else, coloring or looking through the trash can. Justin didn’t see which.
“I didn’t do it,” the little girl said for the 10th time.
Justin wondered if perhaps she hadn’t. You heard about this sort of thing all the time. Kids getting blamed for doing bad things when it was really poltergeists or imaginary friends who liked to play pranks. Justin thought about the movie Drop Dead Fred and was convinced the little girl hadn’t knocked down the shelf. She’ll probably end up in a mental institution, he thought. Poor kid.
“Always take responsibility for your actions,” Dad said to the littlest girl.
“But I didn’t do it,” she said softly to herself.
She whimpered, but only Justin heard her. He went back to his laptop and his half drunk soy latte. He wanted a cigarette. The littlest girl’s sad face combined with the smooth jazz playing through the speaker system was like that feeling you get when someone is threatening to rake their nails across a chalkboard. The tension was too much. Why can’t this family just shut up and sit down like everyone else?
Dad sat down on the couch opposite of Mom and focused on his phone as if he were reading something really interesting. He was staring at the home screen, trying to figure out if he should check Twitter or Facebook. He’d recently found out one of his oldest friends was a Trump supporter and it really bummed him out. Facebook was upsetting and he didn’t fully understand Twitter. He clicked on the Twitter app, changed his mind and then clicked on the Facebook app.
Two of the little girls sat down on the casino-style carpet and started coloring quietly. The littlest one started wandering and Mom called her back. A few minutes later, someone from the car wash came in to inspect the stuffed animal killing fields. Dad got up and walked over with his black medical boot and his black framed glasses, trying to look more wounded than he was. He really exaggerated his limp.
“This is the second time this has happened,” he said, gathering a little courage. “These things are dangerous. Someone could get hurt,” he said reprimanding the worker.
Justin scoffed at the dad and the mom heard it and looked over at him. He pretended he was only reading something funny and scoffed again to make her think she’d heard wrong. He pretended to type, staring at the blank screen, typing nonsense to look busy. The expression on the worker’s face indicated he was no stranger to douche bags. He’d keep his mouth shut and collect his paycheck like he always did. He’d pay the electric bill, take his wife and kids out to a nice meal at Chili’s and then start it all over again. That night, he’d lay in bed not thinking about the condescending father and his entitled family, but rather, what he was going to wear to Church the next day. He had a nice blue button up shirt and a pair of black slacks that ran a little high, but were in good shape. Maybe he’d shine his shoes. He liked looking nice when he went to church. God liked it when you looked nice at church. It meant you gave a shit.
The dad then said something to the man in Spanish. The worker replied in Spanish, but it was clear Dad didn’t understand and had only been showing off. The worker went on and on talking in Spanish, knowing full well the Dad no entendio. He appreciated the little things in life as a smile almost flashed across his lips. Dad knew the jig was up and sat back down. He stared at his phone again. He read a post by his friend, the Trump supporter. “Unbelievable,” he said to himself.
Justin stared at his laptop and typed the words, “Get me the fuck out of here. I need a cigarette. A cigarette would be really great right now.”
The girls were quiet now. Justin and everyone else in the waiting room was relieved. They just wanted to read their newspapers or surf the internet on their phones in peace. They wanted to wait for their cars to get cleaned and get the hell out of there. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon and the sunshine begged them to go outside and breathe in the fresh air. There were only a few more temperate days left before it got unbearably hot. The oppressive heat always came two months before actual Summer and two weeks before anyone expected it. By the next week it would be 90 degrees and everyone could feel it coming. No one wanted to sit there with this family making noise, knocking down shelves, and blaming guys who didn’t get paid enough to take shit from hipsters. They wanted to be free. It was a goddamn beautiful day. Justin noticed the quiet and began to think about what he wanted to write.
“Do you want your coloring books?” Mom asked, breaking the silence.
“No,” the two older girls sang in unison.
“Mommy look, I fixed it,” the littlest one said. “Mommy look,” she said again. She had moved one of the stuffed animals to another hook and had arranged it just so. Proud of her work, she waited for her mother to acknowledge her grand achievement.
“Leave that alone,” Mom said.
“Daddy, did you see? I fixed it,” she said. Her voice was now a little less enthusiastic.
“I saw honey. That was so good. You did such a good job. That’s amazing. You did so good.”
The girl’s face lit up. She’d pleased her Daddy and would spend the rest of her life doing things to please men. Seeking their attention and craving acknowledgment. Justin hoped someone would stop her before it was too late, teach her she didn’t need approval to feel special. Justin saw the glimmer in her eyes and suspected it was already too late.
The two older girls started bickering, pushing at each other’s shoulders with no real intent on hurting the other one. They were pretty weak pushes. Mom was reading a book on some gymnastics star.
“That book any good?” Dad asked.
“Yeah, but it doesn’t even go all the way up to the Rio Olympics,” Mom replied, half annoyed.
Dad smirked at the very idea of the book not going all the way up to the Rio Olympics. The older girls were still bickering. Dad shh’d them as if they were in church, but by this point, it was clear he couldn’t give a shit about anyone else in the waiting room.
Justin heard rattling behind him. He looked and the littlest girl was fiddling with the shelf. She picked up a yellow teddy bear. She hugged the bear and put it back. She grabbed the metal bar holding the shelf in and put her full weight on it. She climbed up on the lower shelf and stood there pulling on that metal bar. Justin felt bad for blaming a poltergeist or an imaginary friend. The littlest one was nothing more than a tiny, wide-eyed vandal disguised in a pretty pink dress.
“Honey, leave that alone. It’s not safe. It’s not made very well. It’s dangerous,” Dad said. The shelf was like any other shelf in any other store. It was just as sturdy and only dangerous if you fiddled with it.
“Who has to pee?” Dad asked, standing up.
Justin almost felt like raising his hand. The girls all whined and moaned and flung their little hands about. None of them wanted to pee. Even if they had to go, it was, as they saw it, a colossal waste of time.
“After this…” Dad announced. “…We’re going to another store. If you have to pee, go now.”
The two oldest girls wailed and moaned some more. The middle one almost started crying. The littlest one remained calm. She wanted to show her parents that she didn’t get upset as easily as the others. She was a good girl.
“I don’t have to pee,” she said, pleased with herself.
After some bellowing and whining, everyone went to pee. The family then got up and started gathering their things. The oldest girl crawled onto the couch and snatched a coloring book away from the littlest one and started coloring in it.
“No!” the little one yelled out yanking at her cotton candy pink dress. “That’s mine!” She balled her little hands into fists and her face turned red.
Dad was already gone and she didn’t have to hold back. Dad was outside, handing the attendant a few bucks tip for his now clean minivan. Family minivans always took longer. There were always so many crumbs in door cubbies and spilt milkshakes in the backseat. And they always smelled a little like dogs and rotten apple vomit. The bare minimum tip for a mini-van would be at least five bucks. Dad gave the man two dollars and complained the air conditioning vents were still dusty. Mom continued to pack the bag, ignoring her daughters as if she were showing everyone in the waiting room how it’s done.
“Mom!” the littlest one cried. “She’s coloring in my book!”
Mom hung the diaper bag on her shoulder and walked away. The girls followed in single file with their heads down. It was quiet again. Justin sighed with relief. The other people in the waiting room glanced up from their newspapers and laptops and their tight eyebrows finally softened.
Justin might be able to get some writing done now. He opened his web browser and scanned his Facebook newsfeed. And then his car was clean and it was time to go. As Justin got up to leave, his eyes locked with a yellow teddy bear haphazardly placed on the shelf, away from the fiddling hands of three year olds and poltergeists. The little bear, presiding over the car wash waiting room with its great big eyes, watching, judging. He’d survived The Great Stuffed Animal Massacre and lived to fight another day. Justin would return a month later when the Santa Anas covered his car in yellow and brown dust. The little bear would be gone.
© Kristen Simental 2017