By Nancy Collisson
Alfa glanced over the large posted bulletin board crowded with the usual messy hand-written ads announcing sales of used cars, pet kittens, and old stereos. Among them, one professionally printed one caught her eye with particular interest as it caused her to entertain an offer that she’d never before heard about. It read:
Limited Time Only! Two Vaults for the price of ONE!
Single – $7,000
Double – $7,000
Visit with Jerry Noble at the Golden Valley Mausoleum at 2210 Forest Hill Road
to snag this special offer and ensure that you take responsibility for the single most important decision of your life!
‘Larry,’ Alfa said, while setting out his dinner of Hamburger Helper, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, and Niblet’s early June peas when he returned from his classes on navigation and aerodynamics that evening.
‘Well, I was thinking,’ she started, sitting down beside him at the dining table, ‘that we need to make plans, for the future, you know?’
‘Alfa, that’s right! That’s great, that’s exactly what I want us to do, start thinking about the future! Alfa, I’d like for us to start a family!’
‘Right!’ he said. ‘Every day on my way to work, I drive past the day care center and I think about how cute all the kids are running around outside on their little playground, and I think it’d be nice to have one. We could have a lot of fun bringing up a child. You’re so sensible and all, you’d be a great mother, Alfa!’
‘The day care center?’ Alfa said, ‘But …’
‘Right, you know, that bright yellow building near the commissary, ‘why don’t you take a look at it, check it out?’ he said. ‘Heck! Why don’t you sign up to volunteer there, or something? That way you’ll see up close how cute the kids are and how much fun it can be to watch them grow and learn to do things!’
‘Well, okay, Larry. I guess that’s a nice thing to do.’ Alfa agreed. ‘I’ll guess I’ll go there tomorrow and see what I can do.’
The next afternoon as Alfa, dressed simply in a white blouse and jeans, walked up the pathway to the center, she noted the big bright yellow flower painted on its bright blue front door and thought about her own childhood, so much more a part of nature rather than images of it. Looking at the door made her feel a little queasy.
It didn’t help that she’d hardly ever been around babies and didn’t know much about how to take care of them. She’d hoped she wouldn’t have to change a diaper or anything, as she’d never done that before.
‘Volunteer? Oh terrific!’ announced the center’s director Lorraine, when Alfa explained why she’d stopped by. ‘How wonderful of you, my dear!’ she said, giving Alfa a hug, ‘Why darlin’, you are an absolute angel sent from heaven above!’
But, Alfa didn’t feel at all angelic as she watched in horror at how difficult it was to line twenty toddlers up to feed them apple sauce and graham crackers or to bring all the tiny ones over to the changing tables, one by one, for a diaper change. Story time followed by naps was rather pleasant, at least.
‘Well, how’s it going?’ Lorraine asked, after Alfa had just tossed into the trash her twenty-third diaper, scrubbed her hands soundly and gently set down into a crib and draped a yellow velour blanket over a chubby little boy wearing Oshkosh B’gosh overalls and a blue Carter’s snap-at-the-neck T-shirt.
‘Lorraine,’ Alfa responded, ‘Have you ever calculated just how much money it must cost a parent to keep a child in diapers?’
‘Oh yes,’ said Lorraine, ‘You know, it isn’t just the diapers, it’s everything that a baby needs: the powdered milk, the stimulating toys, the clothes, the vaccinations. They say that the first year alone of a baby’s life costs his folks about ten-thousand dollars.’
‘Ten thousand dollars?’ repeated Alfa, dumbfounded. She looked around at all the children wondering what she might best be able to do to help.
‘Lorraine, I don’t know much about taking care of kids, but I still would like to help out here. You know, I think that maybe I could run a collection for people to cut out and bring in coupons for diapers. In fact, I’d be happy to scout around town and find out where they’re sold the cheapest. I’ll even drive them over here if we can collect the funds. I’ll just make a sign and put it at the front door, asking parents to please bring in any extra coupons for diapers and – what the heck – wipes and all those sorts of things so that everyone can start saving some money here. How about that?’
That evening, when Larry asked excitedly how her big day went, Alfa was elated to share her good news.
‘Larry, I have started a full-out campaign to help the center start cutting costs.’
Larry looked blankly across the table at her and set down his forkful of instant mashed potatoes. ‘Okay, that’s good. But, how did you like the kids? Was it fun? Weren’t they cute? What sort of things happened?’
‘Oh yeah, Larry. The kids are cute, that’s for sure. They look just like a bunch of rubber Kissie dolls when they’re all asleep. You should just see how cute their little faces look, all clean and sweet.’
‘Right, so? What did you do there?’
Alfa walked over to the stove and brought the pan of Salisbury steaks with mushroom sauce to the table. She scooped a heaving ladle onto Larry’s plate. ‘Well, I’m going to start a campaign to get folks on base to bring their diaper coupons to the center. I’m going to start helping these parents find ways to cut costs for the items they have to spend a lot of money on. Isn’t that great?’
Larry stared at her quietly.
‘And, now, Larry, the other thing that I really want to talk to you about, well, I guess I’ll just go ahead and bring it up now.’
Alfa sat across the table from him and began speaking animatedly.
‘Well, I know how busy you are and all, building up your career, so you don’t really have time to think about all the sorts of, well, really important things that might come up, down the line. I mean, I know you’re responsible and all, but when, you know, any of us gets busy, sometimes even the most serious things get left to chance. Do you know what I mean, Larry? So, I was thinking that I would take it upon myself to look after and make the final decision about this one particular thing.’
‘Wow! Okay. That’s good, Alfa. It’s good that you’re being pro-active. I’m glad to hear it! You have no idea what it means to me to see that you want to take charge like this, whatever it is! So, what do you have in mind?’
‘Well, it just seems to make sense to me … I mean, I know we’re still young and all, but it’s never too late to think about the big inevitable. So, I was thinking that because they’re running a good deal right now, at the Golden Valley, with a really amazing discount – I mean, it’s less than half price, what they’re offering – that we should take advantage of it. Because, even after we might ever have kids, well, it really wouldn’t be right to saddle them with the burden of figuring out what to do with us if anything ever happened.’
Nearly spitting out his gulp of Minute Maid orange juice plus calcium, Larry turned and looked sternly at Alfa. ‘Look, Alf, just what in the hell are you talking about?’ Golden Valley? What’s that?’
Frowning, Alfa continued.
‘You know, on the other side of town.’
‘The only Golden Valley I know of is a cemetery.’
‘Yes! That’s right. That’s what I’m talking about.’
‘What do you want us to do there?’
‘Well, I was thinking that we should get organized.’ She stood up and stepped toward the open roll-top desk.
‘See this ad?’ she asked, lifting the lid of her coupon system box and holding up the announcement that she had had the people at the residency office copy for her.
She set it beside his plate so he could study it while finishing his meal.
‘We should pick out our crypts – ground level or fourth level or whatever, decide which style of coffins we want, and ‘just pull down and close the drawer on the matter’ so to speak,’ she laughed, ‘and be finished with it. That way, we’re done! We’ll be through with that potential headache and we can carry on with our lives normally – we won’t ever have to trouble ourselves thinking about this kind of thing, again.’
‘But I never think about this kind of thing, Alfa. I never think about us dying.’ Larry shoved his half-full plate across the table. ‘I think about us living! I like to think about us doing things – things that we never did before. I work hard because I want us to get out of here and start having fun!
‘The only reason that day in and day out I just work and work and work and study and rack my brains is so that we can go places and do things. Don’t you ever think about us doing things, Alfa? Like, like surfing in Australia or jumping out of a plane somewhere over New Holstein or … I don’t know … sleeping in one of those tree houses in Africa and waking up when the giraffes poke their noses at us through the branches in the morning, like we saw on Animal Planet the other day. Man, Alfa, there’s so much for us to experience!’
Larry stood up and threw his fifty-percent-off navy blue cotton Ikea napkin across the table. ‘What in the heck are you thinkin’ about dyin’ for?’ With that, he crushed the ad in a clenched fist and threw it at the TV set where Regis Philbin shouted ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?!’
Alfa sat down at the table and stared at Larry, dully wondering how he could possibly be crazy enough to believe that people could just do such fantastic things.
‘Sure Larry, and just maybe I should start buying lottery tickets, huh? Sheesh.’
‘Larry, please sit down.’ She decided to speak with the sensitivity and tone of psychologist talking to a psychotic patient. ‘You have to understand, sweetie. We have responsibilities! We can’t go on, day after day, having big dreams because, the fact is, we could end any minute. There is a limit to this life, Larry. A deadline.
‘I mean,’ she said, getting back up and carrying over to him her elaborate couponing system, ‘look at these. Each of these coupons represents each one of us. And just like real people, each one is different. Some – like this window cleaner – can make our world a brighter place, some – like these for contact lens solution – can improve our vision, and some, she rummaged about – like this one, for vacuum cleaner bags – keep our homes clean and healthy.’
Larry contorted his face in all the confusion and anger he had accumulated over the years in his gradual, painful realization that Alfa did not know how to live.
‘The thing is,’ Alfa prattled on, ‘is that each one of these has one thing in common – just like with people! They are all going to end sometime! Each one of these has an expiration date, Larry. We need to think about our expiration dates, Larry. We need to be ready! And besides, Larry, there’s a two-for-one deal going on right now!’
‘You have got to be kidding!’ he stammered, sliding his plate across and off the table and onto the floor causing the mashed potatoes and gravy to splatter against the desk. The plate didn’t smash because it was Melamine.
‘Alfa! Do you actually expect me to live as if I’m some sort of object – like a can of tuna that has a limited shelf life?! Only a lunatic would think like that! Alfa, you are nuts! Just absolutely out of your freakin’ gourd!’
Seizing the coupon-organizing box from Alfa’s hands, Larry opened and swung it wildly back and forth as he raced around the room, flinging its contents so hard that all the elements of life’s sustenance: Birds Eye frozen broccoli, Listerine mouthwash, Dove soap, and Entemann’s Heath Bar cookies floated from the ceiling filling the air and landing all over the sofa, end tables, and cotton area rugs from Marshall’s.
All the while Alfa screamed and sobbed and tried to stop him.
‘Larry! My system! Donnn’t!Tuna has a really long shelf life!’
As she frantically began gathering whatever coupons she could, Larry shouted, ‘Oh no you don’t!’ He opened the kitchen cabinet and hauled out the upright Oreck vacuum. He dragged it over to the living room, plugged it in and set its suction action on high.
Alfa watched helplessly as he crazily ran around the room madly waving the nozzle that sucked into it all of the coupons that had flitted about faster and further than she was able to chase around retrieving them. He even went up to her, pried open her clenched fist and pointed the nozzle into it at the Sara Lee pound cake coupons she’d been clutching fiercely.
Grimacing, she was forced to give up the fight and relented.
Then Larry stopped. He threw the vacuum attachment down against the floorboard with a clank. He grabbed the cord and yanked it from the wall, setting off a small spark at the outlet. He swung open and walked out the front door, strode over to their beige Ford Escort, got in and slammed the door.
‘Oh brother,’ Alfa said. She watched from the front window as he backed out the driveway and sped up the road past the blocks of all the other identical little red brick houses.
She dug the heels of her palms onto the sill of the front picture window and pressed her right cheek against the glass. Watching his red tail lights bend round the corner and head to the main gate she wondered whether the PX’s legal services were cheaper than fees for the divorce lawyers who ran ads in the Yellow Pages — where it was mentioned that the first hour of consultation was free.
The short story ‘Expiration Date’ is accessible for additional reading and is available for purchase in the collection ‘Expiration Date & Other Stories’ at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/106998