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Debra Purdy Kong

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The Taste of Peppermint
By Debra Purdy Kong
Thursday, August 28, 2008

Rated "G" by the Author.

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A young girl watches helplessly as her parents' struggle with alcoholism. This story won 1st place in NeWest Review's 1998 annual writing competition and has since appeared in several publications.

1,124 Words

     “Push the wiper again, Shana.” Janice Dodd grips the steering wheel and strains to see through the rain-splattered windshield.
     For what feels like the hundredth time, her daughter rolls down the passenger’s window, extends her mittened hand into the rain and pushes the defective windshield wiper back into action. The blade stumbles across the window as if sand is glued to the glass. Shana isn’t sure which is worse in their old VW: the wipers, the broken heater, or the moldy stink that oozes from the floorboards when it rains. Bug is a good word for this car. It should be squashed.
     As Janice pulls into a spot in front of the Dell Hotel’s bar entrance, Shana removes a cellophane bag of peppermints from her coat pocket.
     “You want the mints, Mom?”
     “No.” She stares at the entrance. “I’ll get your bloody father, then you can give him one.”
     “Can I have another?”
     “Sure, honey, sure.” She pulls the key out of the ignition switch. “Lock your door. I’ll be back in a minute.”
When her mother disappears inside the bar, Shana unclips her seat belt then climbs into the back. Through her jeans, she feels the edges of torn vinyl. She removes her mitten to retrieve a smooth white mint. On a freezing night like this, she welcomes the sweet tingling burn in her mouth.
Shana rubs her eyes, then checks her watch. It’s just past one, already Saturday. When Mom woke her to say they needed to pick up Dad, Shana didn’t need to be told why. It was always the same. Taxis weren’t available and his friends had already left the bar. She hadn’t really wanted to go, but Mom needed help with the wipers. Besides, it’s not a school night this time, and she’s allowed to eat mints.
Shana shivers and rubs her arms. Blinking at the Christmas lights strung around the bar’s entrance, she wishes they’d hurry. She’s looking forward to Christmas, especially the school concert. Mom was so proud to hear about her lead in this year’s play she actually clapped her hands and smiled.
     The door flies open and Mom marches out, followed by Dad. Shana’s stomach tightens. Quickly, she unlocks both doors.
     “Hi there, Punkin!”
Chilly air envelopes Shana as her dad clambers into the passenger seat, leans his head back and belches. The smell of stale beer fills the car and Shana gags.
“Hi, Dad. Have a peppermint.”
     “Thanks.” Her dad takes the bag from her. “Hey, Janny, want one, sweety? Sweety sweety sweety pie?”
     Janice starts the car. From the middle of the back seat, Shana tries to read her expression, but it’s hard to see through Mom’s long hair and big square glasses.
     “Guess not.” Tony turns to Shana. “You help around the house today?”
Shana slides along the seat until she’s behind her mother. The smell of cigarette smoke in Dad’s hair is as bad as his beer breath. She wishes he’d put on his seat belt. Usually, Mom tells him to.
     “I’m still helping,” Shana says. “She said, like, I could carry the mints.”
     “I get it.” His head bobs up and down. “You want these back.”
As Tony reaches over his seat he drops the bag. Mints spill onto the floor.
     “Oh, sorry, Shana. Sorry, sorry.” In an attempt to pick up the bag, he wedges his head between the seats.
     “It’s okay, Dad. I’ve got it.”
     “The wiper, Tony,” Janice states.
     He frees himself, rolls down the window, then shoves the blade.
“So, Babe,” he plunks his hand on Janice’s shoulder, “aren’t you gonna ask how much I spent?”
     Her mother knocks his hand away. Shana crunches the dissolving mint as she watches the rain turn into wet snowflakes.
     “See, the question is, how much I won. Yeah!”
     Shana looks at him. Her mom picks up a rag to wipe the fog from her side window. When Dad’s in the car there’s always more fog.
“Fifty friggin’ bucks, man!” He slaps his knee. “I’m taking you guys out for supper tomorrow.” He belches again. “See a movie maybe.”
“No, we’ll pay some bills and¾” Janice stops.
     As Shana moves to escape a sharp edge of vinyl, she notices the way Mom grips the steering wheel. Under the streetlight, her knuckles look greenish white. Mom never argues in the car. But after they get home and they think she’s asleep . . . They always fight about money and people Shana doesn’t know.
     “No crapola about bills.” Tony waves his hand in the air. “The boss got a contract for a job downtown. Soon as the weather clears up, we start roofin’.” He clasps his hands behind his head. “Can’t remember where downtown. I think it’s . . . no, it’s, ah . . .” He smacks the palm of his hand against his forehead. “Think think think.”
     As her dad begins to mumble, Shana tries to count the number of mints left in the bag.
     “Shana, would you wipe the back window, please?” Janice asks in a shaky voice.
As Shana reaches for a dirty pink towel, her stomach starts to feel bad. It’s probably the beer and cigarette smells. Mom said she had a super-sensitive stomach. Could be all the mints.
     “See my tattoo?” Tony holds his hand in front of Janice’s face and she gasps.
     “Is that a snake?” Shana leans forward. “Eeuuu.”
     “Cobra, but don’t worry, it washes off.” He belches again. “A buddy bought some for his kid’s birthday tomorrow.”
A tear slips below Janice’s glasses. Tony blinks at her and tries to focus.
“So, what shift you workin’ at Burger King tomorrow, Janny?”
     Janice wipes her face. “Eleven to five.”
     “Hey, not bad, huh? More hours than usual.” He rests his head against the back of his seat. “We’re gonna make it, man.”
     Shana hates it when Mom stares straight ahead, as if she isn’t really looking at the road.
     “I got my report card today, Dad.” She glances at the mints on the floor. “Three A’s and four B’s.”
     His eyes close as he gives her a thumbs up. “You’re a lot smarter than I was in sixth grade.”
     Taking a deep breath, Shana exhales and watches her breath in the frigid air.
“Want another peppermint?”
     “Keep ‘em. You deserve ‘em.”
     Shana looks at her mom to see what she’ll say about it, but she’s busy turning left.
     “Shana, you’ll be a humongous success one day,” Tony murmurs. “Have a big time job, ton a money. Maybe you’ll even look after your poor old Mom and Dad.”
     The snowflakes have turned back to rain. Shana watches the windshield wiper quiver and slide slowly down the glass until, once again, it collapses.

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Reviewed by Felix Perry 8/29/2008
Very well done and tasteful considering such a subject. This plays out like a real life episode of a documentary on seeing alcohol abuse through a child's vision and what they are learning and feeling from that experience. Very well done Debra and kept my attention from begin to end with lots of feeling and even some symbolism, like the dropping of the mints by the father as a sign of failure perhaps) whether intended or not.


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