Thirteen Cents

Bonnie Thompson

Photo Credit: Harminder Dhesi/Flickr (CC-by-nd)

With tax, the Tampax will cost $4.33, Lorene calculates, leaving a dime and three pennies in the change pocket of her wallet. Her stomach clenches: that’s not a good number to carry around today. In Chinese, the word for four sounds the same as the word for death. And thirteen is one plus three, which equals four, which equals death.

“I thought it was on sale,” the girl in front of her is protesting. Blue barbed wire encircles her wrist.

“Only the vanilla,” says the clerk.

“What if I take one of the cans out?”

The man behind Lorene coughs. She shifts away from sour coffee.

“You can’t break up the six-pack.” The clerk pushes the girl’s bills back toward her. “Go ahead and switch it out. Aisle seven.”

“My mom only…” The girl blinks down at the cans of chocolate Ensure, then raises her head. “Maybe the penny dish?”

“Don’t have one. Besides,”—he glances at the restlessly twitching end of the line—“you’re not supposed to take all of them.”

“Just thirteen,” she mumbles.

“One-thirteen,” he says.

“Thirteen cents?” Lorene holds out the coins. After the clerk lets them fall into his cupped palm, she fishes out the bill, too.

The girl turns to thank Lorene, her face as blank as an egg.

“You sure, mmm…?” The clerk’s lips are pressed together like he was going to say “ma’am” but then took in Lorene’s baseball cap and flannel overshirt and, even though she’s small, wondered about “sir.”

Lorene shrugs, says something about how it’s just more efficient.

Plus, later on, she won’t be carrying around that thirteen, which equals four. In the clerk’s full register, it’s neutralized.


Lorene leaves work early. She has to get one of those tests you’re supposed to do when you hit forty but she didn’t. Eventually, she had to either schedule it or stop seeing the NP she goes to instead of the doctor.

Traffic snarls the 101, the city squeezed between ag fields and rugged hills. She kneads a cable of muscle in her neck and tries to relax into the song on the radio, only it seems off—as if someone has scrubbed all the bright points off Joni Mitchell. She hopes the delay will last forever.

Then the Kia’s short blue hood is pulling into a parking spot, sun blasting off hundreds of windshields like a fritzed-out solar farm, and she’s moving through the double glass doors, into a chilly room where two receptionists sit behind a cutout, the one on the phone skinny and dark as a stiletto heel, the other pale, with wide cheekbones, wearing a silk blouse the color of orange juice.

On the edge of a hard couch, Lorene extracts her reading glasses from her backpack and, using a pen with a big red daisy taped to one end, fills out a questionnaire that starts with the numbers that identify her and moves inward, to her vital organs. When she brings the clipboard back, the dish-faced receptionist reaches out her hand without looking up from the computer monitor.

The pages of a magazine pass before Lorene’s eyes: actresses with golden hair in silver dresses. She picks up another and, halfway through, realizes it’s the same issue.

“I should have told the girl four-thirty, I guess,” a woman with a wavery voice is saying. “Or quarter of five.”

“They had some emergencies today,” the receptionist in orange explains. “They’re trying to catch up.”

“I hope I make it,” the patient says, and as the technician calls Lorene in, she glimpses a liver-spotted hand on a black cane and fluffy shoulder-length yellow hair.


In the blue cotton gown, worn thin by the bodies of strangers, Lorene feels as cold as a corpse. The machine rears up in the middle of the room, white metal with a dinosaur skull and flat jaws. The tech murmurs softly as she uses its knobs and pedals to cajole it into position, and it obediently lowers and tilts its massive head, glinting at Lorene. She wraps the faded fabric tighter around herself, making a double layer in front.

The tech steps away, revealing a framed print on the wall: sunflowers sprawling in a vase. Lorene’s ankle rolls, and her hands grab at nothing. Her uncle had that painting in his basement.

“Ho-kay there,” the tech says. “Do you need to sit down?”

Lorene shakes her head.

The Pacific Ocean.

Blue waves against the pale sand.

The Pacific Ocean is blue, the Atlantic Ocean is green.

The Pacific Ocean is eighteen miles to the west. The Atlantic is three thousand miles to the east.

Blue waves on the pale sand. White spray flying off dark rocks.

“That’s good,” the tech says. “Focus on your breathing.”

She’s young, her hands soft and veinless, and her bronze hair is bobbed short in the back, leaving the nape of her neck exposed.

“No one likes having this done,” she reassures Lorene, pressing buttons that make the red numbers change. “But we try to make it as uncomfortable—I mean,” she laughs, “as un-uncomfortable—as possible. We can’t actually make it comfortable.”

“No,” Lorene says.

“Just never do one during your period,” she advises. “Always more tender then.”

“That was my plan,” Lorene says. “Then: surprise!”

The tech looks at Lorene from under her bangs. “I can’t go any easier,” she says.

“Of course.”

“But you’re good to do it,” she goes on, peeling a little sticker off a sheet of slick paper and opening the gown to position it on Lorene’s left nipple. A marker for the X-ray, she explains. “Some women”—she deploys another pasty and applies it without touching Lorene—“they just bury their heads in the sand.”

“Is that an option?” Lorene jokes, her voice sounding like a tin can being opened.

“No!” The tech gives her a reprimanding look. “If you’ve got something, it’s much better to catch it early.”

She puts her hand on the small of Lorene’s back to coax her right next to the machine, and then she starts raising its lower jaw.

“It’s like they think they can undo it later. Like”—she uses both hands to shape Lorene’s breast on the plate, as if it’s bread dough—“like they can wait until they’ve already got a problem and then start exercising and eating organic.”

“And that will erase the whole thing,” Lorene says in her new clarinet-reed voice.

“That’s right!” The tech raises her eyes to Lorene’s, and Lorene notices that they’re large and gray, like her sister’s, when she says, “As if good actions can undo something bad that’s already happened.”

Lorene looks away.

The tech turns the dial, squeezing the glass plate down on Lorene’s breast, and after it’s already pressed flat, she keeps turning, until Lorene can’t breathe. Her flesh becomes a ghostly pancake, tipped by a fat lip, and then it’s all blurry.

Pacific Ocean. Blue waves with white caps. Scrub-jay blue near the shore. Sapphire farther out.

“Hold your breath,” the tech says. Her rubber soles pad away.

When she returns and releases the plate, Lorene inhales jaggedly.

“Good,” the tech says. Then: “I’ll get you a tissue.”


Lorene is almost out the door when the receptionist in the orange blouse calls her back, saying they don’t have her signature on the HIPAA forms.

“The privacy thingie,” she prompts in response to Lorene’s dazed look, rattling the clipboard at her.

Perched on a cold leatherette chair, Lorene grasps the pen with the big red flower, but the type seems to be Cyrillic. All she wants to do is go home, pull on her pajamas, and eat a bowl of macaroni and cheese on the couch, until the TV narcotizes her.

She paws through her backpack, searching for her reading glasses. The woman with the yellow hair comes out of the offices. She’s wearing glasses with black frames and black orthopedic shoes, and the pale receptionist makes a tepee of her eyebrows and tells her that she missed her ride. The van was here at four-fifteen, she says, and the driver came in and asked for her, but he had other passengers and couldn’t wait.

“Oh, Annie.” The woman’s weight goes against her cane, her wide fingers gripping hard to still the wobble. Her hair, Lorene notices, looks both dry and sticky, like fiberglass insulation.

The skinny receptionist glances up. “Where do you need to get to?”

“Hidden Hills,” she says, “in Roseland,” and the typist shakes her head and resumes clicking keys.

“I’m right near there,” volunteers Annie, “but I won’t be leaving till after six.”

“Oh, no,” says the older woman, squinting up at the clock. Behind her thick lenses, one eye drifts a little.

“I can take you.”

The cane clumps as she rotates to look at Lorene, who gets up to bring the clipboard back, her knapsack slithering into the crook of her elbow. Both receptionists are staring at her like a paused video.

“Well, where do you live?” the woman with the cane asks.

“Graton.” Dropping her off would just mean following the highway south, Lorene figures, instead of the flat farm road west.

“Well, that’s not near at all.”

Lorene looks at the clock. Hidden Hills is a mobile park, and the woman got here via the county van system. “It’s just about the same to go through Sebastopol,” she says.

There is a general outpouring of gratitude and praise. “There should be more people like you in this world,” gushes the dark receptionist. Lorene ducks her head and holds the door, standing back to allow room for the cane.

Outside, the heat off the asphalt slams into them; Lorene realizes she should have offered to bring her car around. The older woman halts. “Don’t tell me you don’t have AC,” she says, the cane shimmying under her hand.

“Oh no.” Lorene plucks her flannel shirt away from her tee. “You can’t live without air out here.”

“All right.” The other woman moves her heavy jaw side to side, then continues her tripod progress and introduces herself: Shelley.

A headache seizes Lorene’s right temple. “I had a cousin with that name—Michelle.”

“Oh yeah?” Shelley says. “Me, too. Only mine hated it. Sheldon.” She makes a sound like a small animal is racing up her throat.

“Oh no,” Lorene agrees. “Not as good.”

“No,” Shelley snorts, looking at her sidelong. “Not good.”

Shelley refuses help getting into the car, and when Lorene starts the engine, the radio blares. “I used to love this song!” Shelley exclaims, waving Lorene’s hand away from the volume knob. She raises both arms and jiggles in the seat as Ringo dreams about a garden beneath the sea.

Lorene cranks the AC, which makes a flapping sound like it’s caught a grasshopper, and follows the big white arrows painted on the ground. Shelley half-hums, half-sings about the place where all the children are happy and safe. The sealed car fills with a musty apricot smell, and as they merge into the clotted stream of the highway, McCartney’s bass thrums against the rear window like a repressed memory.

“With me, you can take it.” Shelley points with both index fingers, still bopping along. Once Lorene shifts over, they sail freely.

In the East, Lorene remembers, people said “H.O.V.”; in California, it’s the diamond lane. Like we’re all rich and lucky, she thinks.

The Beatles are followed by an electric guitar. Shelley twists the knob, reducing the plangent soul-searching to a muted whine, and asks Lorene what she was at the imaging center for.

“Just a mammogram,” Lorene says.

“Well, that’s a special kind of torture.” Shelley claps one palm against the other. “Like you put your boob in the open refrigerator and then they slam the door on it.”

A shaky laugh escapes Lorene, and she admits that this was her first. “How long before they tell you?” she asks. Until now it’s only been the procedure that has worried her, if she could go through with it.

Ahead, a silver convertible cuts out of the middle lane, slices along in theirs, then knifes back in. “Oh, he could come to regret that,” Shelley says. She reaches over and pats Lorene’s arm. “Not too long, honey. Like a week. Don’t fret about it.”

Shelley should know, Lorene learns, what with all the tests she’s been through. The cane, the shoes, and the kink in her back came courtesy of a car crash, she and her son flipped over on a country road by a teenager in a Suburban reaching for a bottle of Mountain Dew. “Both of us weeks in the hospital,” she says. “They put all the pieces back together, thank God. But I haven’t been able to work a day since.”

She’d been a housecleaner. She relates this fact wistfully—as if she actually liked the job, Lorene thinks. “I used to do the mayor’s place,” Shelley boasts, tapping the dashboard smartly. “Every floor and wall and window in his house, I washed it.” Warshed. Lorene’s eyelids flutter. She’s just a computer tech, IT school all she could manage on her own, after she had to leave.

Shelley returns to her injuries: the months of rehab, learning to walk again, the chronic pain.

“That sounds dicey,” Lorene says.

“Dicey?” Shelley looks away and looks back. “Dicey? You try having your bones cracked open and metal rods stuck in ’em.” She fixes Lorene with a glare she can feel from the side, holding it until Lorene glances over.

“Sorry,” Lorene says. “I didn’t mean—”

“No, it’s on me,” Shelley sighs, turning away. “I guess all the anxiety is working my temper.”

She explains why she was there today, which has nothing to do with the accident: for an MRI. She has MS, but sometimes the disease goes into remission, she says. “I feel fine,” she declares, tapping one fist against her knee. “I feel strong.”

It’s time to squeeze back into the crowded right lanes. On the radio, a muffled voice implores them to tune in again tomorrow.

“You’re going to be okay,” Shelley says suddenly. “The mammogram—it’ll be clean. Don’t you worry.”

Lorene’s mouth opens. The fan’s breeze raises Shelley’s hair in a contiguous swath, as if it really is insulation. Lorene wonders about her son, if he looks after her.

“Oh,” Shelley says once they’re on Route 12. “Oh.”

Lorene’s index finger is jabbing at the dashboard buttons; they’re speeding toward a huge cattle lot, and if she doesn’t close the vents, the stench will gag them. To her left, a throbbing Harley keeps fishtailing toward her.

“I shouldn’t even ask you,” Shelley says.

“Ask what?” Ahead, a Prius and a farm truck are caught in lockstep. When the sliver of space between them widens, the biker, with a heart-clenching blast, jackhammers through it. Lorene finds the button, and the apricot smell returns.

“You weren’t, by any chance,” Shelley says, “planning to stop by a drugstore?”

“Not really.” Lorene scratches at a new hormone pimple on her chin. Shelley goes on: she’s been sitting so much, what with her twisted back, that she’s got—well, she says, now she’s supposed to use a sitz bath.

“There’s one close?” Lorene asks, and Shelley makes finny gestures with one hand, giving her directions.


As they step into a smell like freezer frost and plastic, Lorene feels a jolt of familiarity, like she’s reliving her lunch-hour errand. Shelley, saying she doesn’t want to put Lorene to any trouble, hobbles across the shiny floor toward the makeup aisle.

The pharmacy summons a customer, using only his first name. “But you’re his favorite niece,” Lorene’s mother had said.

When Lorene finds Shelley again, she and an employee with a long gray braid are commiserating about the construction on South Wright. “I don’t know why they had to dig it up to begin with,” Shelley complains.

Lorene carries the device out to her car, and Shelley guides her through the back route to Hidden Hills. The park’s cluster of trailers and single-wides stands out starkly on the flat expanse of Sebastopol Road.

“That’s it,” Shelley says, pointing. “Number four.”

Lorene leaves the car running; Shelley doesn’t move either, and after a while, Lorene cuts the engine and helps the older woman out of the Kia.

The wooden steps leading up to Shelley’s door have splintered, but the room they enter is airy and bright. “Well, then,” Lorene says, depositing the sitz appliance on a red vinyl kitchen chair and backing away.

Shelley’s face crumples.

Lorene’s hand squeezes the two keys, house and car. Beyond the living area, a dark corridor leads to three narrow closed doors. KIA, she thinks: a bad acronym, but you get what you can afford. She says, “So if you’re—”

“Would you,” Shelley interrupts. “Well, I shouldn’t. But with my ruined spine, I just can’t reach—” She wobbles on her cane, and Lorene’s eyes draw inward.

It turns out, though, that all Shelley needs is for her to change a light bulb. While Shelley roots in a drawer for a screwdriver, Lorene carries over the other kitchen chair. She thinks of the tech saying how those women tried to atone for something that wasn’t even their fault, that was just genetics, just family.

In the window above the sink, dangling bits of plasticky stained glass twirl on the breeze. Shelley’s counter is cluttered with boxes of cookies and cereal and raisins in clear produce bags, the gathered tops like drooping lilies. Pill bottles cover exactly half of a lazy Susan, and then there’s a neat, empty stretch before the toaster oven, its window burned caramel. The little paper reminders stuck to the freezer door herd together on the left side; there is nothing on the right.

Once Lorene is standing on the chair, reaching up to dismantle the ceiling fixture, Shelley keeps offering to help, to get her things or hold things for her. As Lorene extracts each screw, she drops it into the chest pocket of her flannel shirt, and then she climbs down with the dome of frosted glass.

The inside is dusty and filled with the small, dark bodies of moths and flies. Shelley’s gazing out the window, through the broken space between the jingling trinkets, so Lorene dumps the insects into the sink and dampens a paper towel to wipe out the glass. “That should give you a little more light,” she says, and she climbs up again to remove the useless bulb, its blunt nose the color of tobacco.

“If,” Shelley begins, still staring out the window. “If…”

The new bulb won’t screw in. Lorene tries turning it counterclockwise, to realign the threads.

“If,” Shelley says again, placing the old bulb on the Formica, where it rolls a dwindling pendulum. “If—”

Lorene’s hands freeze. Four ifs: that’s not good. Shelley should say it again.

“—my scan says I’m in remission, maybe Denny can come home.”

A muscle in Lorene’s neck spasms, and the tip enters the socket.

“The social worker pushed it.” Shelley passes Lorene the bowl. “She pushed it hard. Well, my illness had been barreling along there—the shakes, the blinding migraines. And so I really did think it would be better for both of us.” She goes on, and Lorene gathers that her son is mentally disabled—autistic or retarded, she can’t tell which. “But sometimes,” Shelley adds, swaying on her cane, “I miss him so terribly, and it’s just me here now, with no one to talk to.”

With her neck torqued to the side, Lorene slips the screws into place, tightening each manually, then reaches into her chest pocket for the screwdriver. It’s not there.

“Besides,” Shelley adds, with a laugh like fabric tearing, “even if I’m in remission, I’m won’t live forever. And he’ll have enough time in that place.”

“Do you get to see him much?” Lorene’s thigh trembles as she steps off the chair.

Shelley presses one finger to the tip of her nose. “Twice a week. The paratransit takes me.”

“That’s nice,” Lorene offers. The vinyl flooring has been made to look like interlocking bricks. She thinks about the bottle of Advil in her car, how she can take one once she’s back on Highway 12.

“Even though, really, he couldn’t do very much—could hardly help out at all. And at my age, too. Well, he could have changed that bulb,” Shelley says, jerking her chin toward the fixture. “But now I have to do every last thing myself, and it’s hard.”

Lorene surveys the kitchen, trying to remember where she put the screwdriver. The mix of cluttered and empty, the gaps, suddenly falls into a pattern, and her eyebrows rise: that’s where all the son’s things were.

The garbage bin is under the sink, and when Lorene swings the cabinet door open to throw out the old bulb, she bangs it into the chair. “Did you see where I put the screwdriver?” she asks. Shelley points to her purse, a black nylon carryall with plastic studs on the bottom. “I might’ve laid it back there,” she says. Lorene picks the handbag up to look behind it, and there’s the little pot of flowers.

It’s not even a real pot, just a plastic margarine tub. In that bed of hardening mud, Lorene figures, the striped seeds must have been buried close together. They took hold and pushed their heads through, and now from thick, rough stems loll four shaggy golden disks, their spadelike leaves dull and hairy. Dwarf sunflowers, squat and brutish. Like the painting in the mammography room. Four sunflowers, one for each—

Pacific Ocean. The Pacific Ocean is eighteen miles away. Blue waves against the pale sand, white foam rippling to the shore, spindrift farther out, like galloping horses—

“…take that.”

Lorene hears vaguely under the blood pounding in her ears, and the purse is gone from her hands.

“He grew those for me. Dug the dirt out from a tree pit there,” Shelley adds, her eyes pink like a rabbit’s.

My handsome uncle, Lorene thinks. Four times.

Lorene finally recognizes the screwdriver next to the flowers and tentacles one hand out for it, her neck clenching again, then reaches for the chair and misses grasping its back. “Who’s going to take care of me now?” Shelley’s wailing as Lorene raises one foot onto the seat, the whole room tilting.

Shelley lunges at her, her big black cane raised. Lorene drops the screwdriver and turtles her head, but as the pain twists her neck, she sees those sunflowers again, their monstrous faces.

The other four flash through her mind then. How none of them—not her parents or her sister or her cousin Chellie, who’d been her best friend, believed her.

Instead of covering up, Lorene attacks.

Shelley’s forearms are strong, like a man’s, like the thick ropes that tie up large ships—from all her years of scouring floors, Lorene thinks. They grapple at each other, and the cane clatters to the floor.

Lorene’s splayed fingers thrust Shelley away, a snarl screeching up her throat. The older woman flails at the air, her big jaw flung back, her weak leg losing contact.

Lorene dives forward and clamps her around the neck and one arm, part lifeguard’s cross-chest carry, part chokehold, and staggers under Shelley’s dense weight until her hip hits the counter.

“I thought you were going to fall,” Shelley croaks.

There’s a clawing in Lorene’s chest, Shelley’s asbestos hair veiling her nose and mouth.

“It’s uneven.” Shelley points at the fake brickwork under the chair, where one rusty leg tips on a raised knot.

Lorene’s legs turn to water and she sinks, her body cushioning Shelley’s when they hit the floor. Shelley scrabbles away until she’s against the cabinets. “Sorry,” Lorene wheezes, her hands tingling with pinpricks, her arms as light as air.

“I can’t believe I let them take him away,” Shelley sobs, her chin trembling, like the awful thing Lorene has done doesn’t matter anymore. She tries to draw her legs in, but one won’t bend very far, and she gulps and pushes her glasses up to press her hands against her eyes. “Why did I do that,” she moans.

Lorene’s chest feels stamped flat, as if her whole body is vised in the mammography machine. “It’s not your fault,” she manages to rasp.

Shelley wipes her eyes. When she reseats her glasses and sees Lorene, she startles. “Don’t worry,” she says. “Your test will be clean.”

“It’s not your fault,” Lorene repeats, one thumbnail pushing a painful crescent into the mortar line of the vinyl brickwork, and Shelley again says, “Your test will be clean.” Then their eyes meet, and they both let out a crazy laugh.

“Your test will be clean,” Lorene tells Shelley, finally understanding that this is what she most wants to hear. Pulling herself to her feet, she steps over on shaky legs to help the older woman up.

“And it’s not your fault,” Shelley says, completing the reversal, one hand clutching the countertop. Then she frowns.

“Or maybe it is,” she considers, her walleye drifting to the side as if to see around Lorene, to whatever she’s hiding behind her back. “I don’t even know you.”

But now Lorene does. She slips off her flannel shirt, feeling the breeze on her arms, and her rib cage expands with air. It wasn’t her fault. And four doesn’t kill you. That was so many years ago, and look: she’s still here.


Bonnie Thompson is a freelance book editor. Her fiction has been published in a handful of literary magazines, including the South Dakota Review and the Elysian Fields Quarterly. Email:[at]

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