Fiction · 02/15/2017

Family Pack

I like to work when it’s dark. When the morning rush starts, half my day is over. From the ovens I glimpse customers’ tired bored faces as they wait in line to start their day.

At least I don’t have to deal with them. Too many customers have unrealistic expectations. My muffin isn’t golden enough, or this iced capp is watery, or something in this sandwich is off. Then they want free stuff.

Jing tells me about them every morning, when she helps me set up. Yesterday a customer complained that his bagel didn’t have as many seeds as the one on the screen.

“The problem is that people believe what they see on screens,” I say. I think of my daughter Sierra. I also think about how nobody would put me on a screen to sell something.

Jing is in her late forties like me, but slim and full of energy. At the cash register, she greets regulars with a wave. They smile, sometimes joke, then there’s the clink of the tip into the mug. The other cashier acts deaf, while Jing bounces around like a cheerleader. Sometimes it’s hard to believe she is for real.

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“Do you have kids?” I ask her one morning.

“Yes, one daughter.”

“How old is she?”

“Twenty-four.”

“Does she like Canada?”

“She in Chongqing. Assistant to lawyer. She always tired.”

“You’re never tired,” I say. Then I talk about Sierra, how she’s pursuing a career as a makeup artist. I don’t mention that we haven’t spoken in eight months, or that Sierra hasn’t responded to my emails. When Jing calls her Sarah, I say “No, it’s Sierra, like the mountains.”

I talk about Sierra partly because it’s weird that Jing’s daughter isn’t in Canada with her. I mean, between China and Canada, who wouldn’t choose Canada? But Jing is divorced, she did mention that, and I guess her daughter preferred her dad. Children are surprising in their preferences. Then the morning rush starts and we don’t talk anymore.

When my shift is over, I sit at the bus stop. Sometimes I’m so tired I just feel my ass sink into the bench and watch the cars, one after the other. Most hold only one person, each with the same facial expression, neither happy nor unhappy. There’s something very private about people’s faces when they drive alone. I’m not sure what the face expresses, exactly. Most days it says something like, life is serious and exhausting.

I said who wouldn’t choose Canada but sometimes I wonder why I stay here. It feels like every year Mississauga gets uglier. In the 70s it was mostly farmland and some bungalows. There’s still one farm nearby, surrounded by a housing development and a strip mall with a Red Lobster. A small brick two-storey farmhouse in a broad field, caught in some time warp. I can’t tell if anybody lives there — probably not, the porch sags — but sometimes I think I’d like to. One time I noticed a pear tree and, beneath it, a watchful rabbit. Across the road customers gobbled down their cheddar buns.

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I ask Jing why she came to Mississauga. Why not Vancouver? I hear Vancouver is beautiful, all those mountains circling the Tims.

“You don’t like Mississauga?” she asks. “Why you don’t leave? Canada big country.”

“Try this,” I tell Jing. It’s the new Strawberry Shortcake Cookie. On the screen, strawberries tumble onto a checked cloth. The background is hazy with fields and cows.

“What do you think?” I ask.

“Too sweet,” she says.

Some days Jing brings her own snack, something healthy like pistachios. She offers them to me, and even though I don’t like nuts, I take a few. “From Costco,” she says. “Very good quality.” The pebble in my mouth is the opposite of Tims food. My problem is that I eat too many of the broken cookies that we can’t sell. All the failed treats. The pistachio is tiny and unsatisfying. As I shell another Jing says, “Too much sugar make you sad.” Sometimes she says ridiculous things.

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I ask Jing whether her daughter visits her in Canada. “No, better I go to China. All family there.”

“She should visit you,” I say. “You’re her mother.”

Jing doesn’t look fazed. “She busy, already have to visit father, boyfriend, grandpa. Lots of work.” Jing smiles. “Man needs her. Man is more hard, more fragile.”

Jing wants to transfer to a different Tims, one closer to where she lives. But if she applied, our owner would call the other owner and tell him not to hire her. Some kind of gentleman’s agreement. That surprises me in a free country, but Jing doesn’t act bothered. Maybe she takes it for granted that the powerful will win, even in Canada. The owner is a big old guy whose son is a big middle-aged guy. When he stops by, you can tell he thinks he deserves his success, as people do, maybe because they think they worked hard or maybe just because they’re special like their mom told them. His dad took the risk that Canadians would love convenient, soft food that’s either salty or sweet, and now he’s reaping the reward. Risk and reward. I hate risks and think short term, which is why I haven’t bought a car to replace the one that died, and spend too much on early-morning taxis to work.

Jing tells me that the Tims job is better than the one she had, in a factory that made plastic bags. But her dream job is to work at Costco as a cashier. The pay is almost double, for similar work.

“Wouldn’t it be a lot of heavy lifting?” I ask her, “All those family packs?”

“Sierra works at Sephora,” I say. I don’t mention that I used to visit Sierra in the store, until she started treating me like a customer. “I’m busy right now. Let me direct you to my associate, Saachi/Maria/Tatijana,” she’d say. I told her she was beautiful. Finally over dinner she said she needed a break. “I have enough stress” is how she put it. I thought she meant no more visits to Sephora, but she meant no more visits at all. I need to deal with my moods so that I can see Sierra again.

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When I named Sierra, I liked the idea of soaring piles of stone, so different from Mississauga. “You’re named after the mountains, honey,” I used to tell her. The little girl with steady hazel eyes took it in when I told her, “You can do anything,” until one day, after she started wearing liquid eyeliner, she said, “Ok I get it. I’m named after mountains.”

When Sierra was born, the condos were really starting to go up. Then the mall added two wings. Sierra’s idea of adventure is a shopping spree at MAC. She has a makeup blog, where she uses words like dramatic and illuminating. When I visit her blog I marvel at how much she is her own person. In the comments thread, people thank her enthusiastically for her advice. One time I posted a comment. It was too long and ended with I’m so proud of you, honey. The next time I visited the blog the comment was gone.

I look up the Sierras on Google maps, and they’re still way down in California. When I scroll up I land in Banff. The photos are unbelievable, broad peaks around a lake so turquoise it’s like something out of Disney. I Google Mountains of Ontario. There aren’t many, and they aren’t very impressive, overgrown worn-down mounds.

One thing I like about the farmhouse is the porch. It runs around most of the house, a nice place for families to sit. Newer houses have just a little porch to walk over so you can rush inside to your flatscreen TV. If I had a porch, I’d sit on it and watch the birds and rabbits. Rabbits still show up around here, in the empty lots between strip malls and condos.

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The Peach Passion Swirl is out. When Jing tries it, I ask, “What do you think?”

“It’s ok.” On the screen above our heads, a danish levitates in an orchard.

“Once I visit Hangzhou. Holiday place with lake and flowers everywhere. Very beautiful peach there, big like this.” Her free hand cups the air wide.

“My daughter five years old. I give her half, she eat and eat.” Jing’s face is avid. “Other half I give my son. He very little, I still holding him, but he eat so fast. Not many teeth but he eat so fast.” And Jing is not in Mississauga anymore.

“Your son?” I say.

When Jing tells me about her son, I have a hard time following the details. What I understand is that he was the second child, so in China he did not officially exist. He didn’t have access to school and doctors.

Jing came to Canada for his sake. She helped him pack, but on the day of their flight to Canada, he refused to go. He had grown attached to his illegal life. His parents had divorced a few years earlier and he didn’t want another change. Jing made him promise to join her when he turned eighteen. She would set up a place in Canada for him. He promised, and she left.

He had health problems, something to do with his lungs. They got worse after she left — the air was bad — until one day things got so bad that he died.

When she speaks, her voice is matter of fact, her face neither happy nor sad. It is like the face of those solitary drivers. She is more emotional when she talks about donuts.

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When I sit at the bus stop and watch the solitary drivers, I think about how little the face reveals. The customers get the cheerleader face. But behind it, or before and after it, are the others. What if on the screen above Jing, instead of bagels and muffins, were Jing’s other faces, like a slide show? What if the screen showed photos of when Jing married (happy and beautiful), when she divorced (less happy and beautiful), when she flew to Canada without her son, when she learned of his death? When she fed him half a peach in the place with lakes and flowers. If you placed the faces one on top of the other, what would you get? In the lower half a dark blur, like an open mouth, like a scream.

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Sometimes I wonder whether Sierra has what I do, the moods, just a younger, angrier version. One time she said to me, “Stockholm syndrome is another word for family.”

“Really,” I said. I didn’t know what the term meant. It sounded prestigious. Then I looked it up.

At home I visit Sierra’s blog. There’s only an old post about something called highlighter. The bottle looks like whiteout, but it’s for your face. I wonder how Sierra’s doing. When she doesn’t post for a couple of weeks, I worry.

I visit craigslist and scan the ads for cars.

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When I hear Jing talk to customers, I think about her son. I expect her joy to sound fake now. “Have a beautiful day!” she waves to them. Except that she doesn’t sound fake but more joyous, more desperately joyous.

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It is the season of pumpkin everything. The customers eat it up, and I try to eat less. Jing’s pistachios help, and I have a week’s vacation soon, which also helps.

When it’s still dark Jing pops the muffins from the tray. She tells me she has a secret. I promise not to tell.

She got a job at Costco. She starts the week after I get back from vacation.

I tell her that’s great, but my face must say something else, because she asks if I have a member card and tells me I can use hers. We’ll go shopping at Costco together, she says.

Isn’t it all family packs? I ask

We can split them, she says, and I see us, two middle-aged single women, buying family packs of mixed nuts, green tea, oatmeal. We’ll see, I say, and think, no way.

Waiting for the bus, I imagine Jing alone among the family packs. Family packs of orange juice and brochettes and cheesecakes and socks. The solo drivers glide past with their serious faces. I finger the receipt with the number of the guy selling the Kia.

At home I check Sierra’s blog. There’s a new post about negative space. In the photo her lips are painted silver and stenciled with a star. Space is the place of freest expression, she writes. It’s where your beauty and personality can really shine. I doubt that a star on my lips would improve my face, but it is good to see part of Sierra’s.

I read about the mountains of Ontario. There’s a range near Lake Huron called the LaCloche, which Wikipedia says was once higher than the Rockies. They are some of the oldest mountains in the world. It’s too bad that old mountains are small. You’d think they’d be monumental after all those years, fat with experience, like people.

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The driver’s face settles onto my features as we pass the farmhouse, its roof gray with frost. Then we pass a strip mall with a banner promising NO TAX 4 U.

“Turn left,” Jing says. “This is it.”

I pull into the parking lot and let a couple with small kids pass. Behind them a Costco employee in a blue balaclava pushes a train of carts.

Inside it’s all TV screens at first, and on them, mountain peaks gusty with snow. It occurs to me that I have only ever seen mountains in photos, though I must have seen one in Ontario, but it was an old low-down one I never bothered to notice.

Soon we reach canyons of stuff — cookware sets and beer fridges and suitcases and toilets. By the time we get to the food, I need a break, though not before we stare at layer cakes the size of bath mats and salmon so dewy they might have leapt from Alaska straight into the freezer.

We sit on a porch swing that could hold a fat family of eight, as people crowd around a table with samples of single-origin-chocolate Fudgsicles. When they get their sample they wander around as they eat. One girl wears a down jacket with a cinched waist, like Sierra’s.

Space is the place of freest expression.

Jing asks me what I’ll do on vacation, and I tell her I’ll sleep in, maybe see a movie.

“You should go somewhere,” she says. “You have a car now.”

“Why? In a week I’ll be back here.”

“How do you know?” she says, and the words loop in my head. How do you know?

The customers look happy with their free food. As the swing rocks, I feel like Jing and I could be on that old farmhouse porch, fruit trees and rabbits in the distance. The pear tree is a yellow blaze now, but I haven’t seen any rabbits since summer. I wonder where they went.

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Michelle Syba’s work has been published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Atticus Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, and other publications. She lives in Montreal.