Winter 2022 - Fiction

Liz Ulin

The Children’s Department

 

Twisting his head from side to side, Timmy smears a trail of mucus across the department store window. “Whoa, rockets.”

Dorothy checks the address scrawled on a scrap of paper in her hand, and pulls her son through the revolving door. “No toys today, Timmy. We’re here for school shirts, nothing else—not even for Mommy.”

“But I want one!”

“Sweetheart,” Dorothy navigates around the cosmetic counters, tucking a free Opium sample into her purse, “Mommy’s in a hurry.”

Timmy jabs at a tower of L’Oreal bath oil beads with his elbow and jumps back as thousands of the colored balls crash to the hardwood floor.

Three impeccably dressed cosmeticians drop to their hands and knees, crawling after the escaping merchandise. Dorothy steps aside.

Timmy snatches up a bead, crushing it in his fingers. “You’re mean! You never buy me anything.”

Dorothy kneels beside her son, taking hold of his arms. “Do you want a time-out? Because this is very inappropriate behavior.”

Timmy wipes his slippery fingers through his mother’s hair.

“Timmy!” She wrestles him into her lap.

He pummels her chest. “Let go! Let go!”

A uniformed guard makes his way through the forming crowd. “May I help you, Madam?”

Dorothy brushes aside the clumps of oily hair stuck to her forehead, and stands to face the guard. “Yes, I’m sorry, officer. We . . . we were looking for the Children’s Department.”

“I see.” The guard glances over at a prone cosmetician fishing bath oil beads out from under her counter. He fixes his stare on Timmy. “Is it for this fellow here?”

Timmy sticks out his tongue.

The guard’s lips curl. “Thirteenth floor,” he tells them.

“Thirteenth?”

He gestures to the elevators.

“Thank you,” Dorothy says, pulling Timmy up by the shirtsleeve.

They ride alone to their destination. The sliding doors open and close, open and close, open and close. Timmy has pressed all the buttons. Ladies’ Lingerie . . . Sportswear . . . Appliances . . . Toys . . .

“It’s not fair!” Timmy says.

Dorothy grabs her son’s face in her hands. “Listen to me, Mister—nothing’s fair. Do you hear me? Did I ruin all your shirts with red marker? Did I cut the collars off with scissors?” She shakes him aside. What the hell had happened to the sweet & sour newborn? The jolly toddler covering her in kisses?

Men’s Wear . . . Bedding . . . Electronics . . .

Timmy admires the abstract alien drawing on his breast pocket. “You never let me do anything.”

Kitchen supply… Kid’s Corner… Recreation & Pharmaceuticals….

Dorothy stares straight ahead at the button panel, as the numbers extinguish one by one. The doors finally open on the thirteenth floor. She holds them ajar with her foot and peers outside. There’s no children’s merchandise in sight, though a large sign in the lobby reads Children’s Department in baby blue letters. A receptionist sits behind a mahogany desk.

“Welcome,” the woman calls out to them.

“The Children’s Department?” Dorothy asks.

“Certainly. I’m Sandra. How can I help you?”

Stepping into the lobby, Dorothy drags Timmy along beside her. “I’m here for my son.”

“Wonderful! How old is he?”

Dorothy surveys the stark surroundings. “Five.”

“Five and three quarters!” Timmy corrects.

“Perfect!” Sandra says. “Someone will be with you in a minute. You can have a seat if you like.” She gestures to a comfy couch surrounded by a collection of toys and games.

Timmy runs to investigate. “Whoa! Look, Mom! Warrior Dogs!” Planting himself on the floor, he scoops up a handful of armored beasts.

Dorothy wraps the strap of her purse absently ‘round her wrist and approaches the desk. “Are you sure this is the Children’s Department?”

“Of course,” Sandra says.

Dorothy’s eyes dart around the room. Where are all the clothes? The clients? The registers?

“Good afternoon, Madam.” Slipping up behind her, a salesman in a dark suit extends his hand in greeting. “I’m Ronald. I see you’ve found our Children’s Department.”

His lightly scented skin and lingering handshake relax Dorothy for a moment. “Yes,” she says.

A headless plastic pup sails through the reception area. “It’s broken!” Timmy wails.

Dorothy leans heavily on the reception desk, glancing over at the decapitated dog beside her. “I’m here for my son.”

“Hmm, I can see that.” Ronald nods. “You were referred by someone?”

Dorothy picks up the damaged toy and moves toward the play area. “Yes, Timmy’s teacher said something about a sale . . .”

Ronald raises an eyebrow.

Replacing the animal’s mangled body on the couch, Dorothy reaches for her son’s arm to help him up. “I’m afraid he’s not too happy to be here.” She tugs on Timmy’s forearm. “Come on Tim-Tim.”

Timmy jerks away.

“Honey, the nice man’s going to show us around.”

“GRRRR!” Timmy gnaws on Malibu Barbie’s leg. “I’m a warrior dog.”

Dorothy brushes the top of her son’s head with her fingertips. Next stop: the dreaded haircut.

Ronald kneels to take Timmy’s hand. Timmy bares his teeth over Barbie’s calf.

“No biting now, Timmy,” Dorothy says. “You promised.”

The salesman gets up, straightening the crease in his jacket. “His teacher, you say?” He places a hand gently at the small of Dorothy’s back and leads her over to the reception desk. “Well, that’s certainly not unusual.”

Sandra slides a loose leaf binder across the desk to Ronald and he opens it to the first page. “Very well then, I’ll need some basic information. You mentioned Timmy is five?”

“Six in October,” Dorothy says.

“Six? Hmm . . . that is a bit old.”

“Old?” Dorothy is incredulous. “You don’t have anything for six-year-olds?”

“Well, yes, of course—something for everyone here. I only wish you’d brought him in a little earlier. It just limits our flexibility, that’s all.”

Turning to check on her son, Dorothy winces. Mr. Potato Head’s two arms protrude from Timmy’s nostrils. “Listen, can we get this moving? I’ve got a bunch of other errands and have to be at work in an hour.”

“Perhaps you’d like to come back another time,” Ronald says.

“No.” Dorothy swings around to face him. “We’ve come all the way over here, let’s just get on with it.”

“Yes, certainly.” The salesman clicks open his pen. “So what do you estimate he weighs?”

“What? I don’t know . . . 60 pounds . . . maybe. For god’s sake, what does that have to do with the sale?”

Ronald puts down his pen and takes a moment to compose himself. “Well, as you presumably know Mrs. . . . Ms. . . .”

“Miller.”

“Ms. Miller. Everything’s always calculated by weight here. I realize it doesn’t always seem fair, but that’s our policy.” He lifts his pen to start again.

“By weight?”

“As I’m sure Timothy’s teacher made you aware, Ms. Miller, the sale price is $10 per pound for every pound under one hundred pounds.”

“Under a hundred pounds? What are you talking about?” Dorothy says. She looks over at Sandra, who smiles brightly and places a calculator on the desk.

“We never deal with any child over a hundred pounds,” Ronald says. “Petite is our preference, we like to say. It generally rules out the overly “mature” and frankly the obese, which we have trouble with—as you might imagine. So now, you mentioned your son weighs . . . ?”

“Sixty pounds.”

Ronald picks up the calculator. “So if we subtract 60 pounds from our baseline of one hundred that gives us 40 pounds. And 40 pounds times $10 per pound gives us a price of $400.” He tilts the calculator to show her the number. “I know it seems complicated but it’s really quite straightforward.”

“Four hundred dollars? For what? Is this some kind of joke?”

Ronald plants his hands on his hips. “There’s no need to take that tone, Madam. Our Children’s Buying Department has been in the business long enough to know the market value of Canadian children.”

Dorothy’s eyes widen. “Buying department?”

“Ten dollars a pound below the baseline is all you’ll get anywhere,” Ronald insists.

“Ten dollars a pound?” Dorothy repeats, taking a step towards her son.

Perched on the arm of the couch, Timmy screeches down at a line of stuffed bunnies. “Prepare to die!!!”

Dorothy swallows hard.

“Besides,” Ronald continues, “that price doesn’t even take into consideration all the opportunity costs.” Flipping through the binder, he presents her with a sheet of calculations.

Dorothy briefly scans the page. “Opportunity costs?”

“All the opportunities you may be missing while raising your . . . Timothy,” Ronald says.

Running her hand through her hair, Dorothy picks out the remnants of a bath oil bead stuck to her scalp. “Look, I think there’s . . . You don’t understand. I’m interested in school clothes.”

“Well yes, the clothes!” Ronald says. “That’s a good place to start.” Sliding his index finger along the page, he stops halfway down. “Here we are. You see what it’s likely to cost in a year? We calculate upwards of five hundred dollars, and that’s conservative, believe me. And then of course there’s food, school fees, enrichment activities, birthdays, Christmas, holiday travel.”

Dorothy looks up. “We never travel.”

“Opportunity cost, Ms. Miller, is opportunity lost.”

She bites her lip.

Over in the waiting area, Timmy jumps up and down on the couch gripping his crotch. His bouncing gets higher and higher.

“Be careful Tim-Tim!”

“Do you have to use the bathroom, young man?” Ronald says.

Timmy yells, “No!”

Ronald lifts his chin towards Sandra. “Take him.”

Timmy kicks a cushion in Ronald’s direction.

“We have ice cream in the back.” Sandra says, dangling a key for Timmy to see. “One scoop or two?”

“Three!” Timmy lets go of his pants and scurries after her.

“But . . .” Dorothy stammers.

Ronald leans in to assure her. “Not to worry, Ms. Miller, he’ll be back, and of course we’ll deduct the weight of the scoops.”

Dorothy mouths, “The scoops?”

Setting his jaw, Ronald continues. “Now we haven’t even gotten to the costs of a specialized private school. I’m sure you’ve considered it for a boy of his . . . demeanor. You’re not going to get away with less than $8000 a year, times twelve years.” Punching numbers into the calculator, he hands the final tally to Dorothy. The screen reads $96,000.

“There’s no way I could ever afford that,” she says. “That’s enough for a down payment on a house.”

“Indeed.” Ronald says. “Decisions, decisions. But perhaps you’d like to discuss it more fully with Mr. Miller.”

Dorothy hands back the calculator. “There is no Mr. Miller,” she says, one eye twitching slightly.

“Yes, well, the boy’s father? I suspect he’ll want to be involved.”

“He was involved for exactly four minutes. Or maybe it was three.”

“I see,” the salesman says, then nods several times into the silence before proceeding. “And of course there’s university, even if he lives at home, which I don’t expect would be optimal, you can count on another $100,000 minimum.”

“Not if he gets a job,” Dorothy says.

“You know they don’t recommend that for serious students, Ms. Miller. After all that private schooling, you would hardly have him slave away at a burger joint.”

“What about scholarships?”

Ronald smiles. “Yes, of course, we should all live as optimists, shouldn’t we? But really . . . we’re the grownups here, aren’t we? And who among us hasn’t been failed by optimism? Sometimes very badly, indeed.”

Dorothy begins to pace.

“Oh and look here,” Ronald gestures to another item in his binder. “We don’t want to forget the likelihood of braces at $5000, and of course summer camp at a modest $400 annually, perhaps piano lessons at $600.” Touching Dorothy on the shoulder, Ronald meets her gaze. “And I wouldn’t rule out therapy—if we’re being honest, Ms. Miller. I believe $6000 a year would be a prudent guess.”

Dorothy presses a knuckle against her temple to subdue the throbbing. “So what are you saying?!”

Ronald holds up his hand in protest. “Let’s just have a look.” Flipping back and forth in the binder, he adds the numbers. “There we go, then. That’s a decent estimate.”

Peering over at the form in the binder, Dorothy reads the final tally. “$596,000?”

“Opportunity costs,” Ronald sighs. “They’re always surprising.”

Dorothy’s throat tightens. “So what do you do with the children? If they’re so expensive to raise, who would even want them?”

Reaching for her hand, Ronald strokes it gently. “Oh, my dear, in this business demand’s always greater than supply. And acquiring Canadian—as you can imagine—is highly prestigious. From San Diego to Saudi Arabia, they can’t get enough of us. Just look at our testimonials.” He leads Dorothy over to a bulletin board hanging beside the desk. She scans the cards, letters and photographs.

____________________________________________________

Dear Ronald,

We don’t know what we’d do without our little Johnny. A million thanks!

____________________________________________________

Dear Sandra,

HERE IS A PICTRE OF MY new howse and MY GERMIN SEPPARD NAMED SANDY AFTAR YOU.

____________________________________________________

To Whom it May Concern:

Your Children’s Department was a lifesaver. We’ve realized a huge financial savings in only one year.   Now we can afford that Caribbean cruise and a headstone for my father’s grave.

____________________________________________________

“Something for everyone,” Ronald says, squeezing Dorothy’s hand.

Timmy and Sandra return to the lobby. Chocolate ice cream drips off Timmy’s chin. Sandra wipes at a brown streak above her right eye.

“So, I see you’ve had some ice cream,” Ronald says.

Timmy scowls. “It was a gross kind.”

“You’ve got it all over you, Tim- Tim,” Dorothy scolds, plucking a Kleenex from a box on the reception desk.

Thrusting his face into his mother’s legs, Timmy rubs his chin across her skirt.

“Jesus!” Dorothy pushes him away.

“Ha, ha now you do too! And it looks like poo!”

Ronald steps between them. “Perhaps a quick weigh-in? Just for fun. Shall we get out the scale?”

Dorothy glares down at the gooey grinning boy, then over at the testimonials. She passes her tongue along the tips of her front teeth and nods.

Behind the reception desk Sandra pulls back a black curtain to reveal a tall medical scale. “Ta da! It’s the kind they use to weigh the astronauts before sending them into space,” she tells Timmy.

Timmy advances towards the scale. “Wow.”

Sandra pats him on the back as he passes. “Better take off those shoes, Timmy.” She winks over at Dorothy. “The lighter the better in space.”

Gnawing her thumbnail, Dorothy looks away. Timmy wriggles off his sneakers, and raises his arms in the air, pretending to be a rocket. “To Mars!” he shouts, jumping on the scale. Sandra hugs the swaying equipment to steady it, then resets the digital display.   Ronald clicks his pen in and out, in and out, in and out. Timmy strains to read the numbers.

“Let’s see now,” Sandra says, “sixty-eight . . . sixty-seven . . . sixty-six . . .”

“Jesus, wait!” Dorothy says, throwing her arms around her son.

Timmy squirms in her grasp, grabbing the scale with both hands, “NOOOOO! I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!” and chomps down into her right arm. Dorothy screams and Timmy shakes his head from side to side like a pit bull.

Lunging forward, Sandra wrenches the boy’s head off Dorothy’s arm.

“Get away!” Dorothy hisses at Sandra, glancing down at the saliva-smeared red streaks on her flesh. “That’s enough.”

She turns to study Timmy’s bloody pout before plunging her fists deep into his pockets, and drawing out two bags of marbles. Getting to her feet, she presses out the idea of a smile. “The lighter the better, darling.”

Sandra turns to the scale, “Sixty-one,” she says and Ronald records the number.

Then Dorothy feels the lumpy bags slip through her fingers. Dozens of marbles crash to the hardwood floor and scatter at her feet.

“Hey!” Timmy says.

And Sandra drops to her hands and knees to round them up.

Dorothy grips her son by his sticky chin. “Shhh, Tim-Tim. It’s blast off time.” And planting a kiss on his forehead, she kicks a small glass ball out from under her shoe.

 


Liz Ulin was the winner of the Fresh Voices Screenplay Competition, and has been a finalist in several short prose & script competitions. In addition, she has had a number of short stories adapted and produced at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre. Her work has been published most recently in Flash Fiction Magazine, Short Circuit, and the feminist anthology Broad Knowledge. Despite her monstrous imagining of The Children's Department, she loves her own children.


 

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This project is partially supported by the Illinois Arts Council

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  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.