The Solution Center was one of those places that sold everything–though solutions were its specialty. The checkout line went single file out the center, past the parking lot, past the highway. Everyone had questions like: how to sell weed or how to quit your job or how to rob a bank or how to get pregnant with twins or how to walk in high heels or how to swim or how to zest a lemon or how to write a love song or how to silence a shotgun or how to amputate an arm or how to dance in the club or how to give a cat a pill. I was in line to ask how to tie a tie.
Effie had an umbrella. She stood in front of me. I’d watch her shift her weight from foot to foot for days. When the sun was really out she called her umbrella a parasol and her shadow moved through me like a sundial. Sometimes she’d offer me her shelter. Even though she was a foot shorter she refused to let me hold the umbrella–she didn’t know me that well, so I’d duck for the shelter. She wanted to ask the Solution Center how to become a samurai. She took her shoes off in the spring. Barefoot on the blacktop. “I’ve been standing here so long,” she said, “my feet could survive the apocalypse.”
When we made it inside we introduced ourselves to the old man who’d been waiting in front of us–Arthur. He planned to ask The Solution Center how to live forever. He used to be the world’s strongest man in a traveling circus, but now it looked like he had a coat hanger for shoulders. “Don’t get old, it ain’t worth it,” he’d say. The fluorescents made him look almost see-through–like he’d disappear if the light hit him just right. The ceiling was a sky of cool white. He’d lose his balance when he tried to look up at the ceiling, so Effie let him use her umbrella as a cane. He reminded her of her grandfather. I put my jacket around him at night when the draft came in through the open doors where the line snaked out the exit.
Once Effie and I started dating she said she wasn’t sure if it was because she was experiencing Stockholm syndrome toward the long line or toward me. Arthur said, “both.” She and I thought about asking the solution specialist how to win the lottery so we’d be ready to start a family. Arthur said he wasn’t sure what they’d say, but he thought, “You’re never ready, or got enough money. You just make it work.”
The man behind us said he was gonna ask how to build a bomb if the line didn’t start moving faster and I laughed until I saw that he was serious.
Effie found a green dress on the rack at the side of the line and held it against herself. We couldn’t afford it. Arthur told us to throw it on his tab. She slipped it on but left the price tag hanging from her armpit. The dress covered her feet, just barely touching the floor. “Looks like you’re floating,” Arthur said.
We figured it was Christmas when employees threw fake snow around. Then it was Easter when we saw the man in the bunny suit cut the line to buy cigarettes. Everyone raised hell.
Arthur called Effie, Ellie. She didn’t have the heart to correct him. From time to time, we had to remind him why he was standing in line. He took her hand, which he did when he told us about Idaho or Cherry Island, and said, “Want to learn how to tear a phonebook in half?” His hands shook as he grabbed an invisible phonebook and when he tore it in two he collapsed.
A nurse shouted at us from way down the line, but no one let him cut to help. I made Arthur a pillow with my jacket. Effie remembered CPR from her lifeguard days. He looked up at the ceiling and said, “the sun’s melting.” But it was just the fluorescents tricking his old eyes. It felt like he could crush my hand in that moment just before the strength left his grip for good, and he slipped away with his hand in mine. Then the line moved and we had to step over Arthur or lose our place.
“Caskets in aisle nine,” the man behind us said–then he thanked Arthur for dying. This drove Effie boiling mad and she struck the guy in the throat with her umbrella. He fell hard. We moved up some more.
Fran from up the line could make shadow puppets. At night she’d make crows with her hands with a cheap flashlight off the rack. The kids that were close enough to watch laughed themselves to sleep, but after a while they were too pre-occupied with their own questions. Plus, Fran’s arthritis acted up.
Effie read the same paperback to me when we couldn’t sleep–Why I’ll Never Buy Another Peacock. After she read the part in the end where the woman, against her will, buys another peacock, I asked Effie to marry me, while everyone in line slept, talked, sang, prayed, sneezed, stretched, coughed, laughed–and I lifted up her dress and we made love on the tile. No one seemed to notice.
We honeymooned by the postcards.
Effie gave birth to little Arthur beneath one of the signs that said Solutions Worth The Wait–I was seconds away from cutting the whole line, I’d fight them all if I had to, to ask the specialist how to induce labor.
Workers tore the Solution Center down and rebuilt it around us while we waited.
Arthur was as tall as his mother when he asked questions like: how to get taller and how to fly a plane and how to live like a spy and how to undo a bra and how to say I love you and how to hold a guitar and how to become the President of the United States and how to dissolve a corporation. So we let him cut us in line. They all raised hell about that.
Once, when it was brighter than it’d ever been, I told Arthur that the sun felt good. He opened his mother’s umbrella above the three of us and put his arm around me tight like he was afraid I’d float off.
Effie stood on her toes to see how close we were. Her bare feet poked out from beneath her dress. I wondered what they’d look like if they did survive the apocalypse–two feet without a body, a shrine for the kids of our kids of our kids to visit and ask themselves what were they waiting for anyway?