Kelly Magee — “Fair Trade”

The woman in front of me in line at the 24-hour Walmart, at midnight, has antifreeze and Nesquick in her cart alongside a child, who’s maybe three, dangling sequined shoes and dark ringlets.

My three-year-old back home would kill for those ringlets.

My child’s hair is blonde and fine and reluctant to perform like she wants it to. It won’t grow to her shoulders or submit to rubber bands; it defies curlers, refuses to even humor the clip-on braid. She reads Rapunzel stories like primers on poor self-esteem.

The cashier for our line—I want to give him warts and missing teeth, an off-center bald spot—scans the child in the cart in front of me and says to the mother, “I bet she has to beat men back like flies.”

In the silence that follows, I consider that the items in my cart, a princess blanket and matching plastic planters, reveal nothing about why I’m here, not home with my daughter who will, in a few days, pretend to let down her long hair from the balcony of her other mother’s new apartment. The lawyers have begun the process of quantifying my significance to arrive at the percentage of time I am owed: number of nights I nursed her to sleep vs. nights I spent elsewhere. Does it matter if I ditched her for a lover or a barstool or a line at Walmart if the takeaway is that I wanted something more than her? Rapunzel landed in the tower because her mother wanted rapunzel, an herb some versions swap for parsley, and though neither makes the list of cravings I’d trade my future to satisfy, I understand that cost is relative to the degree of hunger one has suffered, and for how long.

I have not entered this night to satisfy a craving. I am here to buy planters, though I won’t remember later what I was hoping to grow. The blanket, an impulse buy I’ll smooth across my daughter’s bed, thinking, It takes so much hair to make a princess. So much gender.

We are going to court because my partner claimed the signature line for mother and I refused to sign for father.

We are going to court because I rejected her terms regarding our children.

We are going to court because we are both mothers, and we are both ogres, and though the system is the clear villain, we have resorted to using it because no one here is a hero.

After court, I’ll make and remake my daughter’s bed, as if perfection will camouflage defeat.

Still, it’s the hours between now and then that must be filled with tasks like shopping, at midnight, because life is no longer a transaction I can comprehend, but a dollar is still a dollar, and will buy what can be sold, and anyway, no one in the 24-hour Walmart has had an easy night.

Maybe the cashier’s bet is a lapse in judgment I should overlook because I am here and not home, and because I have lost Rapunzel to tower, to appetite, and to the mother I’m not, but I want to say that it is no small thing, no simple thing, what he has thought, and thought to share, about this child.

But I say nothing, and the sale continues. And as if the mother’s failure to play along has made her currency suspect, the cashier holds her twenties up to the light.

Kelly Magee is the author of Body Language, winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Short Fiction, and The Neighborhood, as well as several collaborative works, including With Animal, co-written with Carol Guess. Her work has appeared in Granta, Kenyon Review, Crazyhorse, Hobart, Gulf Coast, and others. She can be found at