Speaking Politely

Speaking Politely

In Short Story by Helen Wurthmann

Speaking Politely

“I just don’t see why I should love her is all,” Halo said matter-of-factly, throwing hot cocoa mix into the shopping cart.
“Well, that’s because you’re a terrible human being,” said her brother Moe, matching her casual tone exactly. He’d arrived a half hour ago from college, only to be immediately sent to the supermarket to get some “much needed items” with his sister. Everyone knew the errand was to get Halo out of the house because if she was cooped up for too long she’d only pick fights with anyone she came across. This habit was especially dangerous since their Grandmother was in town for the holidays and she’d already been kicked out of the will once.
This particular supermarket was less obnoxious than other stores, with limited decorations and holiday promotions. Still, the same three Christmas jingles played over and over on the store’s speakers, as if different covers made them completely new songs. Moe and Halo walked slowly down each aisle to drag out this time away from the family. Perhaps their speed was for Moe’s benefit as well. He limped beside her with his “pimp cane” as he liked to call it while she pulled little items from the shelves: cream of mushroom soup, prunes, orange soda…
“If I’m a terrible person, what does that make Grandmother?” Halo asked. “Why should I love someone who is intentionally horrible to the people who love her?”
“Maybe she only seems horrible because she’s old and doesn’t care what others think of her anymore,” Moe suggested.
“Shouldn’t being old make her extra nice? It’s her last chance to get into heaven, after all.” A passing elderly woman, overhearing this conversation, looked at the siblings in disbelief. Halo ignored it. “I’m convinced she’d be nicer to me if we didn’t know each other.”
“That’s not true,” Moe insisted.
“Easy for you to say, Favorite, but she hates me. She thinks everything that comes out of my mouth is offensive and every offensive thing you say is a funny joke.”
“Saying ‘funny joke’ is redundant.” His three and a half years at college had made him sound pretentious. Like, all the time.
“Not all jokes are funny, especially yours,” Halo said dismissively. “And can you please tuck your shirt in? I don’t want to be seen in public with a slob.”
Moe tucked one shirt tail into his khakis. “Better?” he asked as Halo rolled her eyes. Moe laughed. “You and Grandma don’t get along because you’re too similar.” Moe stated this thesis as if he’d been formulating it for years.
Halo looked at Moe like she’d been slapped. “I’m nothing like her. We disagree about everything.”
“Let’s see,” he said, holding up a hand to count as he contemplated. “You verbally abuse people all the time—”
“Only when they deserve it. Grandmother does it for fun.”
“You’re too smart for your own good—”
“Well, that part’s true.”
“And you can’t control your temper—”
“Shut up!” Halo objected. Moe shrugged.
“I’m just saying: the two of you are butting heads constantly because you’re the same person separated by sixty years. The only difference is you aren’t rich enough to pay the consequences of your genetically bad habits.”
“We have things in common, sure,” Halo allowed, “but she hates me because I’m prettier than she is. She’s just old and jealous.”
Halo smiled and waved at a toddler sitting in his mother’s shopping cart. The duo belonged in a catalog, with their rosy cheeks, curly blonde hair, big blue eyes, and matching red and green sweaters. The little boy looked almost exactly like the baby pictures of Moe she’d seen in the family photo albums. When Halo was little, she knew her mom would dress her up in a miniature matching outfit of her own, but she’d never heard of this happening between mother and son. She’d have to ask her mom when she got home if there were any embarrassing pictures like this of Mom and Moe. The little boy began to smile back at Halo, but catching sight of Moe, abruptly shifted to an open-mouthed stare.
“I was Grandma’s favorite long before I was ugly,” Moe said, refusing to look away from the child.
Halo smiled at this comment despite his suddenly dark tone. Growing up, Halo had to listen to their Grandmother constantly praising Moe for looking so much like their Grandpa. The only person she’d ever compared Halo to was their mother, which was never meant as a compliment.
The mother of the toddler, noticing the siblings at last, jumped slightly, and looked wearily between Moe and her son. She opened her mouth as if to speak but before she could say anything Moe shuffled away as quickly as possible. Halo hurried after him, wondering why Moe was so embarrassed. The woman wasn’t that pretty.
“People have different ways of showing love,” Moe dictated in monotone as they turned down the next aisle.
“Yeah. Grandmother shows her love by passive aggressively insulting Todd or sending Mom on a guilt trip over something she did as a teenager.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Moe said. They wandered into the liquor aisle to get Mom some much-needed wine. This was always the busiest part of the store during the Christmas season. The sentiment, “Who cares if we get our relatives’ gifts? We need to spike that eggnog!” could be seen in every customer’s eyes as they passed through rows of shiny bottles. Even though she was underage, Halo personally liked the liquor aisle better than the rest of the store because the interior designers always made it darker. Every other aisle had florescent lighting that reflected off the tiles into her eyes, which in addition to inducing headaches, completely washed out her complexion.
“Grandma pays for a lot of stuff,” Moe continued, “like Mom’s car insurance when she needs the extra push. Or sending me to college so I don’t get buried in debt.”
“Well, she never gives me any money. All I get for Christmas is hand-me-down costume jewelry.”
“She’ll pay for your college if you get in,” he teased, pointing to their mom’s favorite brand of affordable red wine. Halo, who was just as tall as her brother, could not reach it on the top shelf, despite her tip-toed attempt. At last a fellow customer helped her get the bottle down.
“Thanks,” Halo said, flipping her long black hair over her shoulder. The man gave her a crooked grin and continued on his way.
“What a creep,” Moe muttered while the man was most likely still in hearing distance.
“What would you do without creeps in this world to get things off the top shelf?” Halo rebutted.
“Don’t run into them much. They must keep to the liquor aisles,” Moe said. Halo knew Moe never drank.
“I can’t seem to get rid of them.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t smile. It only encourages them.”
The store was twice as bright as they exited the liquor aisle, reminding Halo why she was upset. “Maybe I can follow in your almighty footsteps and go to Montana State,” Halo said sarcastically. “Then Grandmother would definitely give me money, no questions asked.”
They did an awkward dance with another customer in a scooter-cart, typically reserved for the crippled and obese. The fat woman didn’t even wait for Moe to limp out of her way and nearly ran over him.
“We should get you one of those. Then the two of you could drag race around the supermarket. Build some street cred.” Halo glanced at the grocery list. “Do we have everything? Okay. Let’s go here.” She gestured to the checkout lane in front of them where the cute bag boy smiled at her from beyond the impulse-buy candy bars.
“What? No. We only have seven things,” Moe said, continuing towards the shorter Ten Items or Less line.
“Fine. We’ll race. Here.” She handed him the bottle of wine. “You go in that line. I’ll stay in this one.”
“But that doesn’t save any time.”
“We’re supposed to be wasting time, Moe-joe. That’s what holidays are all about.”
“But—”
“Ready, set, go!” Halo shouted, shooing him away with one hand.
Moe didn’t move at first, but gave her a slow glower before stating: “If I finish before you do, you’re walking home.”
Rather than watch her brother hobble to the next line, Halo made eye contact with the bag boy, who winked at her.
“My point is,” Moe continued from behind the rack of tabloids, “Grandmother shows people love by providing for them.”
“So I should love her because she has money?” Halo asked rhetorically.
“That’s one way of putting it,” Moe said, throwing a hand up in frustration.
They continued bickering as each made their way closer and closer to their respective cash registers. Moe’s line had been held up by a price check; Halo was winning.
“Paper or plastic?” asked the bag boy, who managed to make even this menial question sound seductive.
“I have my own bags. Saving the planet, you know?” Halo giggled and handed the boy a collapsible cloth bag from the cart. “Tommy’s a cute name,” she observed from his nametag.
“Thanks,” smiled Tommy.
“Can I see your ID?” the middle-aged cashier asked as the wine approached Moe’s register. Moe absentmindedly handed her his driver’s license.
“It wouldn’t hurt to be a little grateful once in awhile, Sis. Grandma may not always be around, you know.”
“That’d be a relief,” Halo said, annoyed at this disruption in her flirting.
“Who are we kidding?” Moe chuckled. “The old lady will probably outlive us all—”
“This doesn’t look like you,” the cashier interrupted, handing back his license.
Moe stopped talking to Halo and turned to the woman behind his register. “Excuse me?” he spat.
“The picture. Doesn’t. Look. Like you,” the cashier repeated. Slowly. Like he was stupid. “I’m going to need another form of identification.”
Moe took a deep breath and smiled, but it looked like he was grimacing to anyone who didn’t know him. “Can’t you just ask me what my sign is or something?”
“If you don’t have another ID, I can’t sell you the wine,” said the cashier coldly.
Halo’s eyes darted nervously between the smock-wearing woman and her brother. His driver’s license photo had been taken a week before his motorcycle accident three years ago.
“So what’s your name?” asked Tommy the Bag Boy.
“Just a second, Tom,” Halo said dismissively, focusing on the scene behind her. Moe was glaring at the cashier until finally he began fishing around in his wallet.
“‘Another form of identification,’” Moe quoted disbelievingly.
“This is ridiculous,” Halo called from the next aisle. “He’s clearly over twenty-one.”
The cashier ignored her and waited patiently for Moe. She could not have made a worse mistake. Halo turned on Tommy. “Can I speak to a manager?”
“Uhh…” Tommy said awkwardly. “Why?”
“I have a complaint to make about that idiot over there,” she threw a thumb over her shoulder in the cashier’s general direction.
“There’s no need for attitude, ma’am,” said the cashier.
“Don’t talk at me like I’m your child to spank.” Half the store was now watching them. “Just because you’re old doesn’t make you better than me.”
“I don’t want to have to call security,” the cashier warned.
“Calm down, Halo,” Moe said through clenched teeth. Of all his IDs—his student card, his Sam’s employee card—the one he chose was the only ID without a photo: his permit to conceal and carry. Halo smirked at the cashier’s faltering high-and-mighty posture. Without another word, the cashier handed the permit back and scanned the wine. Halo grabbed her cloth bag as quickly as possible to catch Moe storming out of the store, wine bottle grasped in one hand, cane in the other.
Moe was silent as they walked to the car, Halo one step behind him. He was walking too fast and nearly slipped on the patches of ice littering the parking lot. Halo tensed each time, ready to catch him if gravity won.
“Do you want me to drive?” she asked hesitantly.
“I’ll drive,” Moe replied stiffly, lifting his left foot into the car. Halo got in the passenger seat and put the grocery bag on her lap. Moe quickly put the car into gear. They sped out of the parking lot, not sure if they were hurrying towards or away from something.
“Why don’t you just renew your license?” Halo asked. “Get a new picture?”
Moe didn’t answer right away, but Halo knew he had heard her. She was used to his silent treatment, especially when she asked harsh questions, but if she didn’t ask them, no one would. Besides, Moe never responded straightforwardly to subtlety. That’s why he was going to be a lawyer. Just like Grandmother wanted.
Halfway home, Moe took a deep breath. “I find it hard enough not to freak out when I look in the mirror,” he explained. “It’s just not how I see myself.”
When he offered no more explanation, Halo leaned her pulsing forehead against the cold window. In the side view mirror, her pressed reflection revealed a giant zit on her forehead that had not been there this morning. Even she found that jarring. She quickly pulled away, rearranging her bangs to hide the growth and as she did so, she jumped in horror at a premonition in the mirror: her grandmother’s face judging her. But when she blinked again, the wrinkles, brown spots and sagging skin disappeared, and there Halo was, young and beautiful behind the car’s passenger window. She leaned back and closed her eyes, afraid to look again. She could hear Moe’s quick breathing in time with the rumbling engine and searched for something to break the silence. Everything she thought she was supposed to say to Moe in this kind of situation sounded like a lie: no one cares what you look like, it’s the inside that counts, it’ll be okay.
“What a shallow bitch of a cashier,” Halo said at last, eyes still closed. Moe gave a snort-laugh of approval and they pretended to enjoy the rest of their quiet drive home.

About the Author

Helen Wurthmann

Helen Wurthmann is an internationally published poet and author.