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The Tie That Binds
Deborah Grabien

Cat food, 6 oz, three for a dollar. House brand veggies, five for four dollars, save ten cents per can on a purchase of five. Coupon needed, one per family...

"Lily?" Tom's rummaging in the food cupboard. "Do we have any tea?"

"Second shelf." She doesn't look up from the paper. Ground chuck, 22% fat, 3.29 lb. Special, this week only, chicken drumsticks, .79 per pound. "Big round canister."

He puts the kettle on. She's not looking up. He made enough noise moving things around in there for her to know that he's made a mess and left it for her to clean up. The metaphor presents itself, a leering clown-face out of a kid's nightmare: his mess, your problem, sound familiar?

She pushes it away, reaches for the scissors, cuts out the coupon. She can get three meals out of one package of chicken, and the canned vegetables on sale will stretch things out even more. If Tom wants to bitch about having to eat the same thing three times in one week, he can starve.

Or get a job?

She ignores the little voice; the fact that it's saying what she's trying not to think is no surprise, and she knows she isn't being fair. She's got her own job to go to, after dinner. College education, cost her parents a fortune, and she's folding t-shirts in the warehouse for a chain store, graveyard shift, a buck an hour over minimum wage. It doesn't feed both of them; it doesn't pay the mortgage, either. The MA might as well be toilet paper in this economy. There's nothing out there.

Nothing much here at home, either.

She finally tells the little voice to shut the fuck up, and files a mental note: see what's on special for pasta or rice. Behind her, Tom's making himself a cup of tea. A year ago, an anniversary ago, a lifetime ago, he'd have asked her if she wanted a cup. That kind little impulse had gone, along with their mutual passion, their savings account, and their hopes for the future.

* * *

Sunday, late morning before the local football game, Tom heads off to church; he still goes occasionally. Lily's out doing something, groceries probably. He hasn't offered to go with her, not for awhile now. It's pretty obvious she'd rather go without him. In the days when they had day jobs, the house on Carmona Street was a sanctuary, a place of comfort. Home was where you went when you'd done your duty on someone else's corporate premises; home was where you could just sit and be. Open the front door and get a faint tang that said we live here, this is us: furniture polish, leather from the living room set, the beginnings of dinner simmering on the stove.

Tom drops his winter coat beside him, and settles in on the low-backed pew. He doesn't hear the sermon, because he's not listening; church, obscurely, has become the one place he feels comfortable thinking what he wants to, without self-censorship. The god he believes in already knows what he's thinking, so why worry? He closes his eyes, letting the thoughts come.

Maybe send some resumes out to other places around the country Lily won't like that oh hell she won't care and anyway there's nothing here she can have the house she can't bitch that I'm not trying I can always start new if she doesn't want to leave I wonder if maybe there's something over in Lexington...

The words circle and loop, a snake devouring itself, swallowing its own scorpion-barbed tail. The thoughts have become rote, every Sunday he spends under the vaulted church roof. Every time, he tells himself to buy a Lexington paper on the way home. Every time, the reality sets in: there is nothing he won't be one of a million potential candidates for, most of the others fresh out of college and with the prized degree in some discipline that didn't exist when he went to community college in their pocket. Every time, he goes home without the paper.

* * *

He'd guessed right about Lily's whereabouts: she's at the market, coupons in hand. She's parked the car at the far end of the nearly-full lot, with the twenty dollars budgeted for putting together a week's worth of dinners. There's a line of cars in the fast food drive-through, nose to tail, everyone looking for a cheap meal.

Battling a stiff winter breeze, her coat buttoned to her chin, she's distracted by a flutter of color. Someone's out there, sitting on a box, hunched over. All she can see are jeans and a dark green windbreaker. Whoever it is, he's probably on his cell phone, all hunched over.

She pushes the cart, aware of the dull pain in her right side. It's been there the better part of a month, showing no sign of going away. She'd thought she'd pulled something during one of her obsessive angry workouts in front of the TV, but surely a pulled muscle would have eased up by now.

House brand diet soda, twelve-pack for $3.19. Self-rising pizza dough, $4.89, save twenty cents. She finds this week's bargain on meal-stretching starch - penne pasta, one-pound package, buy one get one free!

The pain is another resentment, another silence, another thing she won't talk to Tom about. The kicker is, it isn't his fault, any more than it's hers, and she knows it. He'd been the local electronic firm's tech support guru, but that job was now being done elsewhere, for a lot less than what passes for even minimum wage anywhere near Carmona Street.

She checks the coupons. There's no limit listed on how many chicken drumsticks she can get, and she takes three bags. Five cans of veggies; she likes beans, dark and woody-tasting and fibrous, while Tom likes fat peas and corn. As honeymooners, she thought that was adorable, that they could be so different and yet so much the same. She can barely remember that time, now.

Why are you staying married, girlfriend?

Because we can't afford a divorce.

She rubs her side without realizing it. Maybe find a nice cheap clinic, close enough so that gas at three bucks a gallon to get her there and back won't eat the difference between the clinic and a real doctor visit.

Or inertia. Or exhaustion.

Heading slowly for the checkout line, something catches her eye: a flash of green, something fallen behind a plastic aisle bin full of specials. She sees it in her head clearly, the image of an unknown shopper, bending to get something from the bottom shelf, a bill fluttering loose, the shopper never noticing...

She picks it up, staring with her jaw slackened and the universe stilling momentarily around her.

It's a hundred-dollar bill. And it looks real.

Lily's fingers close hard around it, crumpling it, making it invisible. She closes her eyes as well; her head is spinning. A present from the cosmos. Maybe it's fake?

"Eighteen twenty six." The checkout girl looks about as tired and dispirited as Lily feels. Maybe it's the season, December bringing a chill that enervates body and mind. Or maybe she's just bored and broke and unhappy and trapped in a dead-end job that doesn't pay enough to escape from. The winter of my discontent, Lily thinks, and wonders why she can't remember where the quote comes from.

She holds out the hundred, the inexplicable green goody from the sky. The girl takes it, holds it up to the lights, runs a small electronic device over it. Lily holds her breath.

Fake. Of course it's fake. It's the cosmos fucking with you, Lily. Here comes the call for the manager, the not so polite request to step into his office for a moment, a cop cruiser...

The girl drops the bill under her cash drawer, and hands Lily the change from the hundred. "Have a nice day," she says, bored, uninterested. "You saved three dollars and seven cents by shopping with your coupons today. Thank you and come again."

Lily puts the money away, pushing the cart in front of her. The sense of vertigo hasn't eased, and outside the store, she understands why: she's still holding her breath. She lets it out, feeling the cold in her lungs, the pain in her side. Right then, she doesn't much care.

Slinging the groceries into the back seat, another flutter of green makes her lift her head, and focus. The kid is still there, jeans, windbreaker hood up. He doesn't seem to have moved since she first pulled in...

"Hey." She's standing in front of him, looking down, touching his shoulder lightly. "Are you okay?"

He looks up at her, not speaking. Jesus, she thinks, and swallows hard; he can't be more than thirteen, maybe younger. He's skinny as hell. His eyes are dull, empty of hope or joy. His face is bruised, old hurts, faint and yellow, but still there. Someone beat the shit out of him, not too long ago. Maybe he hasn't eaten since.

"I guess." The voice matches the eyes. This kid is too cold and too tired to be scared. "Yes. I'm okay."

He ducks his head back down, hunching over, hiding his face once more.

"Are you hungry?" She doesn't know where the question comes from, but it comes, and she asks it.

Looking up again, he seems to actually see her. His voice, this time, holds a trace of something. Maybe it's just desire for something basic.

"Yes," he tells her. "I'm hungry."

* * *

When she gets home, Tom is there, sitting at the kitchen table, reading. She looks down at him, just a glance, remembering the light in the kid's eyes, sitting opposite her at a table in the fast food place, taking careful bites of a double cheeseburger, sipping his milkshake, putting away the change from the twenty she's given him, for one more meal when he needs it.

"Hey." She bends suddenly and kisses the top of Tom's head. He looks up from the paper, and she's aware of a deep sadness in herself. When had a spontaneous kiss on the head become rare enough to surprise him? She kisses him again, and sees his eyes warm. "What are you doing?"

"Nothing much." He glances down, and so does she, seeing words in bold type: Lexington Examiner. "Just checking the want ads."