Flight Deck Algebra: A Grocery List

Mary Winsor

Solve: She wants to fly, your girl child who spends her free time reading old plane manuals and hanging around the county airfield. And you understand; you have known the desire to flee, to take wild flight. On hard days when you felt outmatched by marriage and motherhood, all that stood between you and the open highway were a set of nearly bald tires and a baby sleeping in the next room. But your girl, she wants the sky, the literal sky, and she wants it bad. So something must give, maybe a lot of somethings, in your calculations. You love stories, not story problems; you are better with words than you ever were at math (though no one has read the novel you wrote and stashed in a boot box in the closet). And now your daughter is depending on your algebra, your reductions and conversions, for the story you both want for her. Show your work in this Mead spiral you carry everywhere.

  1. Whole milk: one dollar fifty-nine cents per gallon at Wilbur’s Market where Wilbur himself computes, on the spot, the thirty percent markup on everything he sells, but your Holstein (the unbranded stray you rescued from a flashflood last spring, the same cow your kids now call the Unholy One when she bawls at 5AM and again at 5PM after she has had all day to knock down fences and explore the farthest reaches of the neighbor’s pastures) produces six gallons a day for the cost of baled alfalfa (don’t forget to order a ton and get it covered before the weather turns) plus some carrots and oats you haul from the train in your pickup, and city water (remember to pay this week or else Ernie will cut you off, he says, and he’s serious this time), and you need only one gallon of milk plus a little cream per day for the house, so you sell the other five gallons, and in three months you’ll have enough money to finish the roof on the barn, and then your husband comes home on the weekends from his welding job in the city and says, “Lookit, honey, at this character-building operation we got going here, this little dairy concern turning a profit, and best of all–hardly any labor.”

  2. Bread: fifty-three cents per (day old) loaf at Wilbur’s, or you can make your own, with fresh-cracked wheat and for less than twenty cents per loaf, seven loaves at a time, on Monday mornings when the kids are at school and the babies are napping, and this is your time, the bread time, so you skip the MoTab and turn on your Ray Charles records, volume low, while the flour flies and the dough rises, and you take the wall phone off the hook and throw it into the shoe basket by the front door and in case of an emergency the school nurse can kiss your ass.

  3. Plums: fifty-nine cents per pound even though they’re small and sour, a lot like Wilbur, and who could ever make jam with those things, but no matter because the baby trees you’ve planted behind the house–re-routing the irrigation to and from the garden–will reach fruit-bearing maturity in two summers, and in the meantime, Rosa Guerrero brings you a basketful from her twenty-year-old trees along the Little Colorado and even as she thanks you for helping her son Jude with his language arts essay, you lose all your own words and Rosa is dismayed as much by your silence as by your tears all over the dark and ripe, blue-tinged plums that are your favorite, how did she know.

  4. Pepsi: at the Safeway over in Concho, a dollar forty-four for the two-liter bottle that you think would look at once cheap and extravagant in your fridge beside the gallon jars of milk, and the tall horn of cheddar cheese, and the basket of eggs carefully washed by the small fingers of the Webber triplets and taken in trade for two gallons of milk every week, and anyway, drinking Pepsi by the single is more fun as you sip it on the porch after the kids are in bed, and Mateo Montoya doesn’t mind selling it to you one can at a time from the back door of his liquor store because he knows you don’t like getting your Cokes from the drugstore like all the other Mormon women.

  5. 80-octane aviation fuel (underlined and circled in Bic blue): two twenty-gallon tanks at four dollars per gallon every two weeks, or a month’s worth of potatoes and rice and plums and eggs and alfalfa, plus piano lessons and the water bill–damn that Ernie, you told him you won’t forget, divided by you don’t want your daughter going up there, and find the factor of but what can you do, it’s her life and it’s not a metaphor like the ones you were trying to explain to Jude, this flying thing–it’s the real deal, and multiply that times what happens if she runs out of gas at six thousand feet, so find the product of you’ve warned her to top off every time she goes up, if she must go up, and what you will tell her is it’s all arranged, minus what you won’t tell her is her dad hasn’t been home long enough to trade his labor at the airfield in over a month, so the aviation fuel is in jeopardy, and find the slope of is it fair to let the bill lapse because your own fears would keep her earthbound, plus how can you do that to a girl child who has inside jokes with the old vets at the airfield who have stopped calling her Sis and now call her Captain–equals. Equals…you will find a way. And not even Wilbur could do that math.

Mary Winsor was raised in the Southwest, the setting for most of her stories and essays. She is a graduate of the MFA program at George Mason University. Her writing can be found in Atticus Review, Blue Mesa Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere.