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Shaya and I bought the tickets a long time ago, right after the place opened. It’s a good thing, too, because Shaya saw on the website they cost $500 a pop now, and that’s more than we have left in a month after the mortgage and car insurance and utilities. Water bill’s doubled and it’s still full of crud.
       But we got the tickets, and today’s our date. Shaya’s up early, all chatty, and she’s done something to her hair. Some kind of little gold highlights that sparkle under the kitchen overhead as she flips pancakes on the stove. I pat her ass—still got its shape even after the kids—and sit down at the table. Bill Junior’s playing with those little metal cars he collects from the cereal boxes. Vroom, screech. But it’s DeeAnn who pipes up. That girl’s got a mouth on her that don’t know the meaning of silence.
       “I don’t see why I have to go with you,” she grumbles, grabbing the top two pancakes off the platter Shaya sets on the table. “All my friends are going to the beach.”
       “Beach is closed,” I remind her. “Oil slick’s back.”
       She rolls her eyes. “Not that crappy old beach. One up the coast. Monica’s mom is driving. They might camp out.”
       Junior knocks over the salt shaker. One of the cars makes a divot in the oilcloth table cover. That’s $20.99 down the crapper. I try to stay focused.
       “You’re going, Dee, ’cause we’re a family and families do things together. Family is what life’s about.” My fist bangs the table harder than I’d planned. The platter jumps a little and Junior looks up.
       “You might find that bedroom set you’ve been wanting,” Shaya points out.
       She’s good that way with the kids. They get on my nerves and I steam up, but she’s always angling for their interests. Make a great salesman, Shaya.
       “They might have that little canopy bed with the matching desk and dresser,” she adds. “The one with the gold leaf trim.”
       “Mom, that’s what I wanted when I was ten.” Another roll of the eyes. Don’t thirteen-year-old girls have any other reaction? But I can see the idea of finding something she does want is beginning to soften her up. “Monica just got that great bunker set, like the one in the movie Year 3000,” she says. “Monica’s mom let her board up the windows so her room looks just like the scene where the Lunar Lord tells the clone survivors there’s no life left above ground.”
       “We’re not boarding up any windows in this house,” I say.
       Shaya winks at Dee and smiles. “Well, maybe they’ll have that bunker set.”
       Junior pauses making his car noises. “I want the Zombie Robot Action Army. One-hundred, forty pieces. Twelve triple-A batteries required. Unbreakable plastic.”
       Nothing’s unbreakable, I think.       
We drive north on I-45. Consumer Planet’s just the other side of the city, where the Sam Houston National Forest used to be before it was bought up and developed. The day’s not too muggy so I roll down the windows.
       “Dad! Use the AC!”
       “Fresh air’s healthy.” I smile because, despite Dee’s grousing, the mood in the car is good. Junior’s making little electronic sounds, humming along to some techno pop tune on his iPod, and the length of Shaya’s thigh below her denim mini-skirt is smooth and tanned. We ought to do this more often. Get out of the house. We’re like Junior’s Zombie Robot Action Army without the action part. Four people who sit inside every night and all weekend, in four separate rooms, staring at four individual screens. But this—going somewhere, doing something—this is living. I crank up the old Chevy to eighty. Makes me feel young almost. 
       We pull off the highway at Exit 27 and there it is: Consumer Planet. We drive beneath the giant revolving globe, a glittering LED banner wrapped about its equator, promising Twenty Thousand Acres of Your Heart’s Desire. I pat Shaya’s bare knee. “We finally made it, babe.”
       “Dad, look at the lines,” Dee groans.
        Across an acre of asphalt, a half-dozen lines snake around the entrance booths like armies flanking a fortress. Must be five-hundred people and it’s still two minutes to opening time.
       A pink-haired kid in a Consumer Planet T-shirt waves us into a parking space and sticks his hand through the car window. “That’s a hundred dollars, sir.”
       “A hundred dollars!” I roll up the window, nearly snapping his arm off, and open the door. “For what?”   
       “All-day parking, sir.”  His shirt sports a big STAFF button and I see he’s got a truncheon tucked in his belt.
       “I got tickets,” I say, flashing him the four blue passes. “All paid.”
        “Parking’s separate, sir. Point number one in the terms of agreement.”
       “These tickets cost me eight hundred bucks, and now you want a hundred more for parking?” I feel Shaya’s hand on my arm, so I know I must be shouting.
       Unperturbed, the kid flips one of the passes over and runs an index finger under the pertinent line.  
       Mumbling words my scoutmaster didn’t teach me, I pull out my wallet and peel off two fifties. Half of the cash I brought. I’d wanted Shaya and the kids to have a nice meal at one of the fancy restaurants in the Hall of Merchandise. Jim Tucker from work brought his family last year, and he said the tables had real linen cloths and the food came on china plates, not those plastic trays.  
       STAFF examines the bills like I might have made ’em in my basement this morning, then slaps a sticker on my windshield. “Gate 3, sir.”
       Guiding my brood through the maze of cars, we reach the far side and take up the wait. The morning cool has evaporated and my shirt sticks to me in damp patches.
       Junior fishes a CP catalog out of a trash bin and starts flipping through it to find the Little Shoppers section. His eyes widen. “Wow, they got the Zombie Robot Action Army! And they have the new expansion pack, too.”
       Dee wrinkles her nose. “Yuck, you took that from the garbage. It’s probably got people’s snot all over the pages.”
       “Lower your voice,” Shaya murmurs.
       Junior, undeterred by such girly squeamishness, continues to leaf with abandon.
       “Hey, they got Death Trogs, too, and the latest Medieval Torture game! That’s the coolest. Luke’s got that and you can see the people’s guts getting reamed out when they sit on that chair with the spike.”
       “You’re gross,” Dee says and grabs the catalog.
       “Mommm,” Junior wails as his sister whoops, “This is even more awesome than Monica’s bunker!” She flashes a double-spread of a bedroom done up like the sort of hooker establishment Dracula might have frequented. Her eyes sparkle. “It’s called Gothic Bad Girl. Look at all that black lace, the satin bedspread. And the mirrored ceiling is so TDF.”
       “To Die For,” Shaya translates for no one.
       “Hey! People behind you want to get in. Today.” The ticket lady glowers at us and I hand her our passes to punch.
       Inside the park, Shaya produces two fifties from her pocketbook and hands one to each kid. “Snacks and drinks,” she says. “Meet us here at six, and I mean six. You both got your phones in case you need us or we need you?” At Dee and Junior’s nods, she smiles and blows them a breezy kiss. “Off with you then. Have fun.”    
       Where did she get the fifties? I scraped the bottom of our account when I got the cash out yesterday. But before I can ask her, she slips a hand into my back pocket. “It’s just us, Billy-babe. Where to first?”
       I stare down the central concourse with its endless stretch of brightly-colored flags, each sporting the name of a popular retail brand.
       “Handcrafters Hardware,” I say. I’ve always wanted to set up a workshop in the basement. Work with wood. Make things. Things that have value and will last. I explain this to Mike, a burly guy with biceps the size of bowling balls, who greets us at the door.
       “So, what are we starting with, Bill?” At my blank look, he rephrases, “What tools do you already own?”
       I picture the rusty hammer in our garage, abandoned by the previous owners.
       “I’d like to start fresh,” I say. “Be up-to-date.”
       “We can do that for you.” Mike smiles. “We’ll start with a miter saw. You can get one for $70, but it doesn’t bevel.”
       I could learn to make cabinets. Cabinets last. “Definitely need to bevel.”
       Mike grins and claps me on the back. “I knew you were a serious craftsman. Right this way.” He takes me to the Virtuoso 1000 Miter Saw with dual-bevel glide. “Top-of-the-line precision tool at only $650.”  
       At my nod, Mike whistles. A minion appears with a huge trolley, and we load the Virtuoso 1000 into it. Next is a table saw. “You can start cheap for a couple a hundred, but personally I’d say a man doing the kind of detailed work you envision is only hurting himself if he goes cheap.”
       We add the Deluxe Boss table saw, $1,600, to the trolley. Then the drill press. (“Higher rpms on the $350 model, Bill.”) And a $600 planer with three-knife thickness which Mike says will deliver the sort of uniform boards I’ll need to produce high-end quality cabinetry.
       With Shaya commandeering a second trolley, we add a jointer, a band saw, a jigsaw, a circular saw, a speed square, a laser beam level, a power sander, and a mobile work station. Mike tosses in wrenches, hammers, and various drills as he explains how each of my choices will elevate the workmanship.
       At checkout, we take dozens of pictures. Me holding the drill press, me posing with the circular saw, and all the rest of it before Mike punches the ticket total:  $6,799.00.  He uploads the photos to my phone. “You’ll want to have these enlarged and framed for your workshop,” he says, and for a moment I can almost see it. Me, taking raw lumber, cutting, planing, sanding, beveling, at last standing back to admire this thing my hands have shaped.
       My stomach intrudes on the moment, rumbling loudly, and I see it’s noon already. Shaya’s pancakes are ancient history.
       We head for the Hall of Merchandise. I let Shaya pick from the three world-class restaurants on offer. She chooses a Paris-themed place called Chez Bleu.
       “Bonjour Madame et Monsieur! Bienvenue,” the maître d’ chirps as he snaps a checked cloth over our table before presenting us with menus and the wine list. I can see right away there won’t be any vin at this déjeuner. Bottles start at $75 and quickly jump to $600. The last three choices don’t even bother with price. If you have to ask …
       Shaya settles on coq au vin and I do some quick math to figure out what the cash in my pocket will cover.
       “I’ll have the fish stew,” I tell the waiter, not bothering to Frenchify my choice. Shaya cocks an eyebrow in surprise. “Fish is healthy,” I say. 
       “It’s so exciting, you becoming a cabinet maker,” she says as we sip our water. “I never knew you wanted to build things.”
       My big knees don’t fit beneath the cute little café table and I make several awkward shifts before responding.
       “My granddad built little bookcases and end tables,” I explain. “His workshop always smelled of fresh wood shavings. I used to sweep the floor for him. Pick up the dropped nails and screws.” Even as I divulge this bit of nostalgia, I feel the dream slipping away. I’m a claims adjuster for an insurance company. I haven’t planed a board since seventh-grade shop class. Besides, everyone we know buys DIY prefab furniture by the room.
        “I can be your marketing director,” Shaya enthuses, digging into her meal. “You’ll need a good marketing plan to get your business off the ground.”   
        The bill comes to $99.50. The fish stew roils sourly in my gut as I lay the last two fifties on the table. “Let’s go shopping for you, babe,” I say, hoping to escape before our waiter realizes I stiffed him.
       Shaya tugs me along the concourse until we reach Shape Shifters: Personal gym designers to the stars.
       “You’re building a gym? What happened to being my marketing director?” I arch my eyebrows to show I’m kidding, but Shaya misses the joke.
       “I can handle the marketing stuff in the evenings,” she says, “but this could be a real opportunity. I’ve been reading about personal trainers. They make tons of money. Seventy, eighty thousand a year. I’ve got it all worked out. We screen in a section of the backyard. Get those glass panel inserts for the chilly weather.” 
       Build a gym off the house? Where does she imagine we’ll get the cash for that? We’re mortgaged up the yin-yang now. I’m about to remind her that this is all Cinderella, that when we leave here we both turn into pumpkins again, but my phone goes off.
       “Am I speaking to the parent of Bill, Junior?”
       When I affirm, the caller informs me that my son ordered a Pizza-Party special and lacks the cash to pay for it. “Put Junior on the line,” I tell him.
       “How did you run through fifty bucks for snacks already?” I demand, but of course I know. He’s nine years old and money is just paper with numbers printed on it. I settle up with the pizza guy, using the least maxed-out of my credit cards, fingers crossed the bank doesn’t turn it down. Miraculously, it goes through.
       “NO MORE STUFF,” I tell Junior. “Find your sister and don’t leave her side.” He grumbles about being forced to waste his day looking at girly junk, but I’m deaf to all pleas.
       I dial Dee and tell her to supervise her brother. “Daaad!” she wails. “I’m in the middle of trying on fifty different bustiers. How am I supposed to do that with a dumb kid tagging along?” I make a few threats about loss of privileges—no phone, no Monica, a 6:00 p.m. curfew—and hang up.
       I find Shaya in aisle 4. She and Chad—a muscular dead ringer for that Hunger Games hunk, Liam Hemsworth—are discussing the merits of various massage tables.
        “I’ve already chosen my treadmill, stationary bike, and rowing machine.” She hands me brochures for each. I can tell by the high gloss paper we’re talking big bucks.
       “Let’s check out the elliptical machines.” Chad guides my wife by the elbow like he’s escorting her to the prom.
       “Will I be able to get towels monogrammed with the name of my business?” she murmurs. Chad smiles and squeezes her arm. “Of course.”
       It’s closing in on five o’clock by the time Shaya has picked out her towels (“Pale gray with lapis monogramming always signals class,” Chad assures her, flexing a bicep and cracking his knuckles), selected the A-to-Z aromatic massage oil package, and been photographed with the whole kit and caboodle.
       “I’m sorry,” the cashier says. “But you’ve exceeded your limit by $1,995.”
       Shaya’s face falls as my blood pressure rises, “Exceeded her limit! What limit? We paid FULL price for these tickets.”
       “Yes, but you bought them three years ago. The terms have changed.”
       I flash my ticket and show him the terms of agreement: Unlimited Consumer Planet cash to spend at any participating retailer. “Those are the terms, buddy.”
       His hand hovers above the red security call button. “Those were the terms, sir, but if you check our website updates, you’ll see the terms changed in October of last year. All tickets sold prior to that date now have a spending limit of $10,000.”
       “But we weren’t given a choice to come before last October,” Shaya points out. “This is the first date they could give us.”
       He shrugs. “Demand is very high. I’m sorry, ma’am.”
       Shaya starts sorting through her stuff, trying to figure out what to put back. “I so much wanted it to be a world-class personal gym.”
       “If you have any remaining credit on your ticket …” The cashier nods at me.
       I hand it over and he re-enters the transaction. “There. All set, and you’ve still got $1,206, sir.” Shaya wipes her eyes and smiles up at me.
       We’re back on the damned concourse, and I could really use some water but I don’t have the five bucks cash for a bottle.
       Shaya squeezes my hand. “Let’s not waste our last hour. Or the rest of your credit. You were so kind to help me out, let’s get you a new easy chair.”
       It takes a two-minute walk through The Better Things in Life Home Furnishings to discover $1,206 won’t buy you a pot to piss in, let alone a chair.
       “Maybe this little end table,” I say, turning over the tag. $1,195. “The price is right.”
       Shaya frowns. “It’s cheap-looking. Veneer over particle board.” She brightens. “With your new woodworking shop, you’ll make us something much nicer. All hardwood. Dovetailed joints.”   
        No I won’t. I’ll never do anything. Our day of dreams is almost up and we’re $300 cash poorer than we were this morning, and that’s without the gas and Junior’s pizza special on the credit card.
       Shaya must have read my mood because she pipes up, “Let’s get you something fabulous to wear instead. You’ve always admired Frank Blackwell’s suits.”
       “Blackwell is the director of our regional office,” I remind her. “Take my salary and quadruple it.”
       But Shaya is not to be dissuaded from her mission to cheer me up, so off we go to Man of the World Menswear. The display window is impressive—and depressing. Sharp lines, quality fabrics, trendy duds for the slim and stylish. I stopped thinking about clothes once the kids arrived and my gut ballooned.
       The store is packed with the young and the restless. Twentysomethings getting measured for suits a Wall Street banker wouldn’t be ashamed to sport. Buff dudes trying on flashy leather motorcycle jackets and $300 jeans so snug their package practically screams. All around me, guys are piling up the stuff without even glancing at the price tag. They must have bought the new tickets, the überexpensive ones that still get you everything. But jeezus, where do they get the money? I find a rack at the edge of the melee and start shifting hangers. Maybe $1,200 will get me one decent sports jacket.  
       “Five minutes to six,” Shaya says, making me jump. I look at the jacket in my hand. Ugly. A loud plaid in three-season wool. My skin itches just looking at it.
       Jonathan, my “personal consultant,” asks if I’d like it taken in at the shoulders. What’s the point? “No, just ring it up.”
       He snaps a photo of me wearing the thing and transfers it to my phone. “A memento of your day, sir.” I stare at the picture. Scowling out at me is a guy nipping at the heels of forty, hair thinning, shaped like a bowling pin.
       “That’s $1,195, sir.” The cashier gives me an oily smile. Outside the store, I delete the photo. Also the ones from Handcrafters Hardware. Shaya babbles on about her plans to build a loyal clientele for her gym.
       The kids are waiting by the exit gate. Dee has about a zillion photos of herself in thigh-high boots and vampirish lingerie, taken in something called the Gothic Love Chamber, and Junior has been immortalized in a rubberized Navy SEALS night stealth bodysuit.
       “I can’t wait to come back here next year!” he shouts, turning a bungled cartwheel.
       “The wait-list is eight years now,” I tell him. “You’ll be old enough to have your own kids by then.”
       He stumbles along the pavement like a drunken sailor, laughing to bust a gut. “Don’t be stupid, Dad. I’ll just be seventeen.”   
       At the exit, a man hands us a large plastic bag. “Your parting gifts, sir. On behalf of everyone at Consumer Planet, I want to thank you and your lovely family for visiting us today.”
       We walk across the parking lot, the kids trilling on and on about all the awesome stuff they saw. By the time we locate the car, their enthusiasm has acquired a sour edge.
       “Everyone else is way cooler than we are,” Dee snaps. “Some families have all this stuff for real, all the time.”
       Junior sighs. “Yeah, other people are lucky.” 
       “Everyone else’s life is sooo much better,” his sister agrees.
       I see someone’s backed into our car and cracked the headlight. I’ll probably get a ticket if we don’t make it home before dark.
       As the family gets into the car, I take a peek in the swag bag. A set of translucent orange picnic plates. Travel coffee mugs and drink coasters emblazoned with the names of retail giants. Neon pink Frisbees stamped with the Consumer Planet logo. All cheap plastic crud.
       Why does every dream turn to crap?
       I lower myself into the sweltering driver’s seat and turn the key in the ignition. Nothing happens.
       The engine’s dead.

© Amy Henry 2018

The Barcelona Review is a registered non-profit organization

Author Bio

Amy HenryAmy Henry is a writer of fiction long and short, as well as the author of numerous magazine, newspaper, and online articles from which she earns something resembling a living. “Consumer Planet (Caveat Emptor)” is her second short story to be published. She lives in Massachusetts with her übersupportive husband and two wayward cats. When not writing fiction, she blogs about the human condition on her website 
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