We didn’t believe that Toys R Us would actually die, the sixty-five-year-old chain with eight-hundred stores across the United States. It was too abstract and strange to imagine. From bikes to trains to video games, it was the biggest toy store there is, as the infamous jingle sang. We were the kids who didn’t want to grow up. But in the end, we did, and for Toys R Us, it was terminal.
I promised to visit in the final weeks, to be there bedside and hold its hand. Together we watched daytime soaps on the fuzzy, muted hospital television, sipped ice water from plastic carafes, and got to know the nurses. Wendi with an i in the daytime. Shonda overnight. Wendi was just as fake friendly and chatty as the i at the end of her name implied. Shonda knew the patient was going to die and didn’t bother. At least, that’s how I internalized it. In reality, Shonda was just tired. Two kids, a stack of bills, the thing about her brother that’s eating her alive.
When Toys R Us drifted off into sleep and snored gently, I wandered the hospital halls, bathing in the fluorescent lighting, not a good source of Vitamin D. I walked down to the vending machine for a bag of Doritos, button D-5, not a good source of sustenance. The coffee promised in the lobby was never there. The God promised in the chapel was never there. A stray coffee pot with a burnt ring on the bottom and a bible were eventually found, like artifacts from a prior civilization where coffee and God existed once.
When Toys R Us awoke, we remembered the old times, like those Sunday outings with my grandmother driving to Toys R Us, where my sister and I could pick anything out. Hot Wheels, a Barbie, a Ninja Turtle, a Nintendo game, a Fifth Avenue candy bar. We were high, goozing Pop Rocks foam from our mouths. We had cartoon all-stars in our eyes and psychedelic pigtails in our hair. We floated though this giant store for children, full of dreams and dolls and crap we would soon discard for newer shinier crap. My grandmother dutifully pushed the shopping cart.
When telling the story to Toys U Us, I tactfully left out the details of the Last Time. While driving home the Last Time, my grandmother became dazzled by the bright sunlight. She couldn’t see, temporarily blinded. Unsure of what to do, and afraid to pull over on the highway, she began to pray. She cried. It was a high-pitched cry that was spare and wounded, not like the heavy wailing sound I would make when I fell and scraped a knee.
She begged me to be her eyes. I looked out the window blankly, unsure of what to look out for, not feeling fear or sadness, but instead a simple blankness. I clutched my bounty of toys and candy, coming down from my high, not really believing that we would crash or die or anything like that. It seemed too abstract and strange.
We made it home, somehow. My guess is she followed what she could make out of the lines on the road and the landmarks of the town she had lived in for forty years. Later, when our mother came to pick us up, she explained that “the angels guided us.” My mother tightened her lips and barely concealed her panic over having an aging parent and two small children in a car left to the fate of angels. My grandmother swore until the end of her life that it was angels. I don’t know. Maybe Toys R Us would have appreciated that story. I’ve never told it to anyone. You are the first one to hear it.
It’s like a yard sale piece of childhood. Certain pieces you hold closest to you, not really wanting to keep them, but not wanting to sell them either. So you sit perched on your lawn chair, lord of your junky yard sale, and if someone asks how much for the blind grandma story, you bark the price at them like an overprotective dog. And people sense your weirdness about it and leave you alone about it. Later you take your treasured junk back inside, feeling like you just survived a tornado.
Other things in life you’re a goddamn going-out-of-business-sale. You set up the flapping inflatable on the side of the road. Take everything. Fire sale. Buy one get two free. Overshare, you embarrass everyone around you. Of course, you are only generous with the least true things about yourself. Like your undying, unbridled, wholly unrequited love for Her. Whoever she is. You know who she is. And God knows you handed out every detail left in yourself over her. And none of it was real.
Not even she’s real: sun-kissed, vacillating, female animal. Reality is, in a decade you find out she’s the kind of person who eats a bag of Flaming Hot Cheetos at nine in the morning, which is horrifying. She carries two cans of Coke in her purse, everywhere, in case they only have water or worse, Pepsi. Her hands tremble constantly, but it’s not certain if that’s attributed to the sugar or the hangover, and anyway, she says it’s her thyroid.
The other great love — in a decade, she ends up as one of those annoying marathon runners. The mud run, The bubble run. The Christmas sweater run. Jesus. The bulbs on the sweater even light up. And her smile is one hundred watts in every photograph. But the worst detail is the face, that has a way of spreading out across the picture like pancake batter on a hot skillet.
The third love, the lesser, minor one that was easiest to get over, currently writes a blog about co-sleeping with her six kids — no clue where the husband sleeps, or when or where they have sex. At least with that one, the gawking passes the time. It’s free entertainment.
Among the three, pick your poison, drink too much of it, overshare. Some people were into drugs, you were into unrequited love.
You woke up sweating again, last night. You had a nightmare you were eaten alive by a Snacktime Cabbage Patch Doll, the doll that was hysterically recalled from the shelves in the 1990s because kids got their hair caught in it. You fed the doll a plastic french fry. It churned it through its mechanical maw, and next it latched onto your finger. It got knuckle deep, and you started to cry for help. Next it grabbed your hair and gobbled it down like spaghetti. You were scalped. You were bald. You were broken. You were next to your six co-sleeping children lined up like nesting dolls.
I woke up sweating last night. Had that dream about my mom again, and she is still dead. The human body is designed to move forward in life, to muscle through, to harden outside, to store fat for the winter. It knows. The brain, on the other hand, never fully knows. The brain learns it anew and fresh, every single day. It’s been one day. It’s been one year. It’s been five years as of this writing. Ask me in a decade. In twenty. My brain will still be raw and shocked to find out. My mom died. She was young, fifty-six. I was young, thirty-one and getting ready to have our first child.
Those first few days after she died, the pain sat down in the middle of the living room. It seemed too abstract and strange to be a part of me, so it sat outside of me. It was a fat, slovenly houseguest, spreading out across the living room like a face in a photograph. No need to offer a seat, no need to scoot over on the couch. The pain was content to just sit here. Everywhere.
Death is an anaconda that swallows you whole. It unhinges its jaw and fits the elephant, the tiger, a whale, a zebra, some anteaters, baby sloths, and koala bears. Cute things, ugly things, it doesn’t discern. It gulps downs oceans, it throws them back like crisp lager beers in the summer, rocking casually on a porch chair. Death is chill. Death has all day, all summer, all eternity. Death digests. Death liquidates the warehouse and gives everything away on sale. Death churns everything through its mechanical maw.
And then Grief shows up at the door, ringing the doorbell over and over, total jackass, armed with an awful nightmare gift. It’s bushels and bushels of nasty, bitter fruit. You’re bewildered at first. No thanks, you don’t need this fruit, weird grim reaper stranger.
Too late. This fruit spills out everywhere, out of every window and door. It piles to the ceiling and cascades down the staircase. It weighs down the bed, crushes your mattress. Your memory foam will remember this forever. How will you ever eat all this fruit? What will you do with it? Where will you put it?
The fruit bowl is full. The pantry is packed. There’s no more room in the refrigerator. You guess you could juice it and choke it down. You guess you could freeze some to make pies thick as concrete. As for the rest, well for now, you’ll just try to clear a small spot off the bed and hope you can sleep.
The fruit never goes bad. Grief fruit never withers. There are no edges to its pain, no blemishes, no soft spots. It is infinitely round and smooth. It is a fruit so perfect that you can’t help but to study it from every angle. You just got to eat it, churn through the old maw.
So you have it straight for breakfast because the morning is always the hardest. Have it sliced for lunch. Snack on it between meals. For dinner, it’s served with a wine made from itself, a wine that never makes you feel warm, and only gives you a pounding headache instead.
Eventually you start giving it away. Fire sale on the fruit. Everyone gets a piece. Anyone who will listen. Anyone who asks if you need anything. Yes — yes you do need something — in fact, you need someone to help menu plan how you’re going to eat this fruit for the rest of your life. Some people like to grieve alone and keep all of the fruit for themselves. But you don’t care. It isn’t your heart you’re handing out. It’s only this fucking fruit.
After Toys R Us died, the experts wrote their thinkpieces and post-mortems. It was eaten alive by an anaconda in the Amazon. Maybe it was just the death of retail. Or maybe it was that the iPhone babies simply didn’t play with toys anymore, content to watch the adult babies play with the toys on YouTube instead.
At the funeral for Toys R Us, Ronald McDonald delivered the sermon, adorned in a black. He even changed his wig out to a black one, sleek and relaxed. Grimace was at his side. He had self-immolated, charring himself black for the occasion. It was fucked up, but it worked.
Robin Williams was there, and so was Bambi’s Mom before the gunshot. 1980s Budweiser mascot, Spuds Mackenzie trotted in with the pregnant version of Comet, the dog from Full House to pay their respects. Chuck Norris ducked into the back row. There was a young Steven Spielberg, my third grade teacher Ms. Harris, and the rest of the regurgitated, discombobulated pieces of childhood, all floating in the same place, at the crossroads of nostalgia. You wouldn’t believe who also showed — my grandmother and these angels. Turns out, they were real.