It’s Krista’s weekend with her daughter, and she has spent Friday afternoon drinking vodka and OJ in her classroom while grading papers and watching the snow. The snow started at 3:30, just as school was letting out, and she should’ve gone then, before the snow got worse, but she hadn’t. She’d wanted to get all her grades in so she could spend the whole weekend with Ella without being distracted by the fact she had to get all her grades in. Krista is notoriously late with grades.
Hal sends her a text: Do u wanna build a snowman?!
A picture comes next, Ella and Hal building a snowman that looks exactly like Olaf from Frozen. What fun! Krista’s certain they went inside afterwards and made organic s’mores and cuddled up under a hand-knit throw Hal bought off Etsy. Hal knows Krista won’t have the makings for s’mores. He knows she has limited res’mources. Ha-ha. He knows she hates to play in the snow. He knows just how to hurt her.
She marks up one more essay—you know what a comma splice is, so why do you keep doing it?!—and empties the last of her drink from her stainless travel mug. She’d better get going before things get worse.
The streets are slammed, everyone rushing to get home before the heavy stuff hits. Right now the snow doesn’t seem so bad: tufts of cotton, dandruff, frosted puffed rice. A city plow scrapes past her in the opposite direction, plunking her car with a spray of salt. Krista stops at McDonald’s, one of the big ones, twenty-four hours, a Playspace, clean restrooms. Ella’s love for McDonald’s started early, when Krista would bring her here on Saturdays on days like this in the dead of winter, the cheapest indoor playground in town. It was when the Happy Meals started, a way to get out of the cold and get some exercise, a contained space where Krista could let Ella play with no fear that she’d run away or run off. Plus, McDonald’s always has OJ.
Krista powers her window down at the drive thru. The snow chills her cheeks and swirls inside her car so fast a drift forms in the corner of the dash. A sign’s posted on the drive-thru speaker, the letters blended in perfect cursive, so perfect it takes her a minute to even form them into words: Come inside. She powers up the window, adjusts the heat from the floorboard to the vents, rubs her frigid hands in front of the coursing air.
Krista parks in the only open spot, one recently vacated by an RV whose massive chassis kept the space clear of snow, a black rectangle sunk in a border of white. A chocolate cake with white frosted edges. Krista’s always on the lookout for just the right metaphor. That’s what she tells her eighth graders. Be on the lookout for just the right metaphor. She never tells them why, but she knows why. Because it’s important to see things for what they are but also for what else they might be. Because it’s a subtle form of magic to lift the ordinary out of its ordinariness with language, to call attention to things through collision. Because sensory detail and juxtaposition and test scores.
She opens the center console under the armrest and fingers past the Kleenex and wet wipes and phone charger and batteries and Chapstick and Tic Tacs and discount card for Binny’s Beverage Depot—she’s been wondering where it had gone—to the vodka she keeps hidden inside a small plastic chocolate Milk Chug bottle. Who would ever think? She twists the cap off with her teeth and empties the bottle in her stainless travel mug.
Hal texts: Going out. Don’t be late.
Where’s Hal going in a blizzard? Probably somewhere he can walk smartly and safely, layered in flannel plaid like a lumberjack, fat snow boots and that trapper hat she bought him three Christmases ago. It was ugly then. It’s ugly now. In the minute she’s been in the parking lot the snow has already covered her windshield, blanketing the interior in blue light. She imagines Hal frozen in a hedge maze, the crystals stuck in the fur of his hat, his beard, snot tusks hanging from his nose.
Krista gets out of the car with her travel mug. The snow in the parking lot is thick. Ice cream. Shaving cream. Whipped cream. She hurries across the lot, her sensible shoes leaving uneven tread prints in the snow, and marches inside the McDonald’s, straight to the counter.
The girl behind the counter greets Krista with a bright smile between faintly painted lavender lips. Everything that’s not part of her official McDonald’s uniform is purple, great swaths of purple eye shadow, dangling purple earrings, deep purple nail polish, a tattoo of smudged purple flowers encircling her wrist. The girl really loves purple.
“Welcome to McDonald’s. Can I take your order?”
“May I take your order.”
“What would you like?”
“What’s wrong with the drive-thru?”
“Speaker’s busted. So’s the window.”
“Bad day for the window to break.”
“There’s no such thing as a bad day at McDonald’s.” The girl grins.
“Happy Meal and an OJ, please.”
“Boy or girl?”
“Excuse me?” Krista can’t remember ever having been asked this question.
“Boy or girl Happy Meal.”
“Are you kidding?”
“You’re upset you’re only given two choices, right? Gender is a social construct anyway, right? Well, whatevs, you still need to pick a Happy Meal.”
“Give me the girl,” she says.
Krista takes her OJ and the open Happy Meal box to a corner booth and sits down. She peels back the lid of her OJ and mixes it in her mug, stirs it all up with the straw. Licks the straw. Takes a drink.
The fries from the Happy Meal box smell too good, so she sneaks a fry, then another. The plastic from the prize pokes from underneath the apple slices. What a joke. What kid ever wants the apple slices? Krista wants to eat all the fries herself, but doesn’t want to leave Ella with nothing but apple slices and a cheeseburger. God only knows what shit Hal’s been feeding her. Celery sticks. Organic prunes. Beet salad. Homemade sunflower butter on brown rice cakes served with a harmonica. He probably made her juice cleanse. Over her weekend with Ella, Krista will ruin everything Hal’s done, just like she ruined their marriage. Ha-ha.
The prize is concealed in plastic and comes in a pink rectangular box. She can’t tell what it is, so she rips open the plastic and unclasps the pink box, which opens like a treasure chest or a casket, and inside is a two-dimensional girl, a refrigerator magnet princess—obviously, why would a boy want to play with a princess?—and she’s wearing pink underwear, and her face is all tarted up with those big anime eyes and long lashes like a blinking fawn, and of course she’s wearing a tiara. The princess comes with magnetic clothes and accessories, and they stick to her in any number of combinations. A pink ball gown, something like a tutu, a pink cape, butterfly wings, a kitten, and a stroller. No kidding. She is either a mom or a princess or a princess-mom or a butterfly-cat-veterinarian.
Krista’s phone vibrates. It’s Hal. Silence, Hal.
“Would you like some coffee, ma’am? Gratis?”
She looks up to see a man sitting across from her in the booth. He’s got impossibly red-orange hair, the color of bell peppers, and thick black glasses clinging to his grease-smeared nose. The man wears a McDonald’s uniform, but this one’s different from the purple girl. This one indicates power and rank, pinstripes and a collar, a front pocket with pens, a hard plastic name tag etched with his name. Melvin. Two coffees sit on the table between them, a half dozen creamer packets scattered about.
“No, thanks. I’ve got to go.”
“Wait till you see the boys’ prize?”
Melvin pulls out another plastic prize from underneath the table top and pushes it toward Krista. Different box; blue, of course. She opens it. The magnetic boy looks like a regular boy, not even a prince. No tiara. He has on light blue underwear, and he’s muscled beyond the natural muscles of a boy his age. His wardrobe and accessories consist of jeans, a basketball jersey, a basketball, a suit and tie, a backwards baseball hat, and a laptop.
Krista looks back and forth from the boy prize to the girl prize, from the girl prize to the boy prize.
“What are they supposed to be?” she asks.
Melvin shrugs. He unwraps the clothes from the plastic and starts to dress the boy. He puts the basketball jersey on the Happy Meal boy along with the jeans and the backwards baseball hat. Melvin flattens his right palm in the air and puts his left hand to his ear. “Now he’s a deejay,” Melvin says. “Whicka, whicka, whicka.” He pushes his right palm back and forth like he’s scratching a record. “Do you like hip-hop?”
Krista looks outside. The snow is coming even harder. Her car is covered. All the cars are covered. The snow blows in swirls, blotting out the city beyond the parking lot. What if this is it again, but worse? Snowpocalypse 2. Snowmageddon: the Return. She’ll be stuck here at McDonald’s. At least now they serve breakfast all day. She can survive on Egg McMuffins. How good is an Egg McMuffin? The best.
She takes a drink from her mug. “I’ve got to go,” she says.
“It’s a mess out there. Let’s have some fun. I’ll help you. We’ll switch all the clothes in all the prizes. Give the boys the stroller and the kitten. The girls can be the deejay. McDonald’s is the perfect place to affect change on a mass scale.”
“Are you patronizing me?”
“I get bored.”
Melvin switches the clothes on the dolls just like he’d said. The boy wears the pink ball gown and holds the kitten. The girl wears the suit and tie and holds a basketball. Melvin is here to help, but she really needs to get to Ella. She really needs to leave right now so that she stops letting people down. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not like this. She wasn’t supposed to end up here. It wasn’t even supposed to snow. Was it? Krista looks for the door, but the door isn’t where she left it.
“I’m supposed to pick up my daughter,” she says. “I’m her mom.”
“We all end up becoming something we never expect. You think my hair was this color before I started working here? You think Ashley up there always looked like Grimace?”
His hair is just simply unbelievable, a color orange Krista has never seen. “I thought you were wearing a wig.”
Melvin leans his head down as if he’s asking her to tug on his hair, which she does. It doesn’t budge.
“The real deal,” he says. “I used to dress up as Ronald McDonald. Didn’t need the wig so it made me more authentic.”
Hal sends back-to-back texts, her phone vibrating angrily on the table: Where are you?! Don’t do this to me again!
To him? Do this to him? Again? Who does him think he is? That’s right. This is something she’s done before. This is somewhere she’s been before. A pattern of behavior. His words. Always his words.
“I have to go.”
Melvin grabs her arm as she tries to leave the booth.
“But they shifted away from the live Ronald experience,” he says. “Took away all his friends, too. Hamburglar. Mayor McCheese. The Fry Kids. Officer Big Mac. They wanted Ronald to live in the real world. You remember? I mean, he’s still here. Ronald. Sort of. Stuck on a bench in the Playspace. Maybe if you kissed him he’d come back to life.”
“I need to go to the restroom?” she says.
“They’re very clean,” he says.
In the restroom Krista looks for a way out, but there’s no way out, not like in the movies. In the movies there are always windows in restrooms so people can climb out, but never in real life. In real life there are never windows where you need windows.
Krista sits in a stall, buries her head in her hands.
“Wanna drink?” She hears from the next stall over, a small, squeaky voice, like a French mouse.
“Sure,” Krista says, but nothing happens. She knocks on the stall wall and the stall wall knocks back. “Hello?”
“Who are you?”
“Just us friends.”
Krista peeks under the stall. Big red shoes, like clown shoes, and black and white striped stockings. The voice mumbles now, a low snicker. The Hamburglar.
Krista stands up quickly, bolts out of the stall and rattles the door of the stall next to her.
“Hey!” the voice shouts. “I’m on the phone!”
Krista splashes water over her face and neck. She’s got to get out of here. She grabs a wad of paper towels and stuffs all the drains, turns all the faucets on full blast, lets the water splatter all over the restroom before she runs out to tell Melvin there’s an emergency.
But there is no more Melvin. The place is empty. The snow has stopped. She sees the door but doesn’t run. Noises lure her to the Playspace, the sound of children playing, the voices of people she recognizes. Amy’s mom and Brook’s mom and Clara’s mom, their daughters, all of them in princess hats, cones with curls of crepe paper tumbling from their tips. Balloons are tied to the backs of chairs. A cake sits in the middle of a booth. How many candles? The flames burn too brightly to count. She walks past the group and they all wave to her. Clara’s mom puts a hat on Krista’s head, pops the elastic under her chin.
There’s Ronald, too, just like Melvin said, frozen in the Playspace, keeping an eye over the children. He sits on a bench with his arm stretched out over the backrest and one leg crossed over the other like he’s waiting for someone to come sit next to him, to snuggle up, to feel his warm and comforting clown embrace. Krista sits on the bench, lets him wrap her under that arm. She extends her right arm, holds her phone as far away as she can reach. She kisses Ronald while snapping a selfie. She sends it to Hal: I’m lovin’ it.
“Would you like to be my friend?” Ronald asks.
“I have to get my daughter.”
“Ella’s here,” Ronald says.
And Ronald’s right. Here she is. Ella wears a pink princess dress and a sparkling tiara that keeps falling off her head while she climbs and slides and jumps and dives in the Playspace. This is her party. Her birthday party. The party Krista has thrown for her at McDonald’s because holy crap does she love McDonald’s, and she’s such a good kid and doesn’t she deserve it? She’s talked about it for years, but Hal doesn’t want to do it at McDonald’s because there are so many things wrong with McDonald’s from the way they treat their chickens to the food they force down kids’ throats using a clown to get them hooked. Ronald McDonald is no different than Joe Camel, he says, but Krista tells him it’s fine because goddammit life is just too short to deny yourself so many pleasures, so many pleasures, and Krista wins, and so here they are. Ella shuffles out of the Playspace all polyester and taffeta, her energy spent, the tiara tilted atop her head. She climbs into her mom’s lap, “You are the best mom ever!” she says.
Krista’s phone vibrates. Hal has elevated his complaints to voicemail. The snow is falling again. When Krista looks back at Ronald he’s stone cold, all smiles, pretending he’s happy to be stuck in the real world.
He almost had her, but she would never let Ella wear a dress like that.
Krista is only forty-five minutes late to pick up her daughter. She knows Hal will be livid, so she doesn’t get out of the car, just sends him a text saying she’s here. He hurries out the front door in that ugly trapper hat and drags Ella by her mittened hand. Her whole face is wrapped in a pink scarf. The snow blows sideways, pelting Hal’s cheeks, freezing to his beard in white patches. Sometimes Mother Nature is on her side. He rushes Ella inside and slams the car door too hard without a word. Probably thinks he’s being gracious for not starting a fight. Ella pulls down her scarf and buckles herself in. She smells of hot chocolate and expensive candles. The snow is a cocoon.
“Got you a Happy Meal,” Krista says, and hands Ella the box. A smile blooms on her face. Krista eases the car into the unplowed street, careful to follow the slushy ruts of other tires. In the rearview, Ella’s smile drops as she searches through the box. Krista knows what’s coming. It’s a question she’s all too familiar with. “Mommy?” Ella says. “Where’s the prize?”