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The Multiplication of Use

The Multiplication of Use

Eliza Tudor

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Laura Beekman wrote it out in preparation for a police report:

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Laura looked back over the list as she waited on hold, wondering if she should have included trademark symbols. Everything about this list filled her with despair. Pampers, Ziploc, Band-Aids, a stolen $500 stroller with a cutesy name.

My little Muggaboo. That’s what her husband kept calling her. On the phone. Over text. His kind of joke, using the brand name of said stroller and the fact that it was stolen. Stolen! Right outside the coffee shop. That same coffee shop run by the lefty local uberchurch that seemed always to be filled with hugging, tattooed graphic designers and filmmakers and musicians who loved coffee and the Word. They hosted a weekly story hour with great lattes and a Sid Vicious version of “Old MacDonald.” Laura took the kids every week.

Every week, they left the stroller outside the coffee shop. It didn’t fit well inside and there were tons of strollers on Story Hour Day. (Why did Laura always want to call it Book Club?) Laura told the first Police Man that theirs wasn’t even the most expensive stroller waiting outside and probably was the only one purchased second-hand.

“I bought it second-hand.” It’s what Laura said when people asked. And they did ask. “How do you like your stroller?” Laura answered the same way every time, never wanting them to think she’d bought it new. But even then, she still paid $500 for a stroller. “It’s our second car,” she always answered.

“We have an old Volvo (of course we have an old Volvo)—my parents’ hand-me-down. My husband bikes into work. We just own this one stroller,” Laura told the second Police Man over the phone. “I use it every day. Multiple times a day, two kids; it’s that whole Multiplication of Use thing.” Laura thinks, just for a minute, about using a Chanel bag as an example, or a Burberry trench—things she’d only read about in fashion magazines—to explain that rationalization of buying the best. Buying only once, she self-corrects. But instead, she says, “Yes, I’ll hold again.”

“It’s not a double. It’s a single. (We had trouble having a second.) Our youngest can walk, but it’s easier if we put him in to go to town. The older one rides his scooter.” And then, “Yes, I’ll hold.”

“I know what this sounds like,” she says to the third Police Man on the phone. (Ask for his name. Write it down. You know you’re going to have to call again.) She stops from asking, Is there a Police Woman I can talk to? And instead, repeats: “It’s just I use it every single day.”

She stops from asking, Is there a Police Woman I can talk to? And instead, repeats: “It’s just I use it every single day.”

“Go ahead and put me on hold again. I’ll wait,” Laura said. “It’s Naptime now.” She said this as if it explained everything. Sitting in front of her monitor, she went to Safari and typed: stolen stroller. And began to read. She was not the first and it didn’t just happen here. Now Laura knew what to do. Craigslist. All lowercase: for sale. baby + kids.

Uppababy Vista Special Edition Stroller (brand new in box) - $630 (pic)

Not mine, Laura thought. It was the only stroller listed since the crime took place. Melissa & Doug, Rody, Plan Toys—it seemed their entire house was on Craigslist. Every kid in the neighborhood certainly had all the same toys, maybe every kid in the City, every kid in the State? No. Not every kid.

Laura kept looking. People were selling Overnite Diapers. Swim Pants. Girl’s Underpants, size 4. Maybe she should have alerted the police to that as well, for the creepy factor alone.

“So no police report for a stolen stroller?” Laura repeats this question too many times to note. But there is an equation. Written in her own hand:

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“I’m sorry, Ma’am.” That’s what the last Police Man said. The final word. No more waiting. No paperwork to file.

Laura checked her phone every few minutes that afternoon. She left Craigslist up on her computer screen and refreshed at least fifty times. Sometime after 1:00 a.m. it listed. Less than 24 hours from being their waiting stroller outside of Book Group/Story Hour to being a stolen stroller on Craigslist. There it was. (pic) pressed. Laura could almost see the Trader Joe’s sticker. She wished for a better camera angle. She might see Stud Muffin.

Laura woke her husband just before 1:30 a.m. “I found it! He posted it,” she whispered. He. Him. Only a man would ever think of taking someone else’s stroller. “Call the cops in the morning,” her husband said, rolling over. “Come to bed,” he said to the wall. Like other times, Laura recognized the thought as it faced her. Oh, yes. This, too, is my job.

Did it start then? Did it start at that moment or did it start before the Police Man even put Laura on hold the first time? Did it start before she became the woman who knew that there were articles about the Multiplication of Use in magazines? Did it start in Proper Caps or in the various possible trademark infringements visible in her handwritten lists? Did it start before? Buy better. Buy smarter.

She had built a kind of armor. A way to protect all of them. And now? Laura went back downstairs to her computer. She clicked on that blue line of words, that mix of Caps and lowercase, that Brand Name, that Muggaboo. Quite simply, she replied. Laura wished she had his real email address and not some long line of seller shit. I’ve got you now, Laura thought. It was 2:17 a.m. He emailed back almost immediately. 2:25 a.m. Laura was sweating, she was thirsty, she had to pee. She would not get up yet. They were both online in that same minute. Somewhere together.

Laura wished she had his real email address and not some long line of seller shit. I’ve got you now, Laura thought. It was 2:17 a.m. He emailed back almost immediately. 2:25 a.m. Laura was sweating, she was thirsty, she had to pee.

The scheduling was surprisingly easy. Right away, he suggested meeting Saturday morning in the parking lot of the elementary school closest to Laura. This was a little disappointing. Laura had already thought up ways to explain where she was going in the dark, after tuck-in. She planned how she would scope out the geography in advance, in daylight; Google Map it, street view it, maybe even drive there with the kids in the backseat the morning before, only to return alone, later, when the deal would take place. She thought about which Mom Friend she might call to go with her if her nerves started to show.

But it was too easy.

10 a.m., cash only. Elementary school parking lot.

She got there early. It was Dadurday after all. They thought she was on her way to yoga. A fair assumption. It’s what she did every Saturday morning. She was even dressed for yoga; wet hair. They all thought at home that she was just going to let it slide. That she would simply complain about the Man, about the Police, about Society. She’d let them think that. “I’m looking online for a deal,” that’s what Laura said. It was the truth, in a fashion.

Laura had a plan. She would take some photos with her phone. Of his license plate. Of him. Of everything. Documentation was key. She would say she needed to send the pictures to her sister in Oregon, that she was buying this for her. Laura had no sister, but it was a better lie. A sister’s approval is always better than a husband’s. Laura put her phone on mute so the snap of the picture wouldn’t sound.

Then she thought, what if it’s my husband? What if this was all some kind of joke? No. He was too tired to do something this elaborate. He was all talk, all Muggaboo; this was something else. This was smart. A part-time job. Maybe a Robin Hood in khaki pants. What if the guy was cute? What if he fell in love with her? What if he wasn’t some scary evil man but someone nice, like that guy who sold people shoes and gave an extra pair to kids in Africa.

Laura pulled into the Saturday-empty parking lot half an hour early to find the girl waiting. At first Laura thought there was some kind of mistake.

“Hi,” Laura said, getting out of her car. She wanted to say, I know you, but she stopped herself. “I—.” It sounded close enough to hi.

The girl was almost pretty, maybe twenty-five. Bad skin, too thin, with lacy black tattoos like doilies around each shoulder, cute glasses. Cut-off jeans, a kind of smock top, sandals. Her hair piled high on top of her head and wrapped into itself several times, one chopstick holding it all up. Certainly prettier than I was at that age, Laura thought.

The girl didn’t have a car. She’d walked there, pushing the stroller. Laura’s stroller. But empty. It sat between them in the school parking lot. The girl had taken off the Trader Joe’s sticker. She’d taken off the Stud Muffin pin. There was no zippered bag in the bottom full of kid supplies. But Laura knew, without a doubt, that it belonged to her.

Laura knew this girl.

Laura also knew that the girl didn’t recognize her. People often didn’t when she was on her own. Only then, alone, could she become someone else. This girl was used to seeing Laura with arms full, one hip jutting out carrying, holding too much, one hand forever out gripping something, someone. But now I’m empty, Laura thought. I could be anyone.

This girl was used to seeing Laura with arms full, one hip jutting out carrying, holding too much, one hand forever out gripping something, someone. But now I’m empty, Laura thought. I could be anyone.

Then Laura opened her mouth to say that this stroller was for her sister. “It looks good,” Laura said. She felt just that much more powerful because the girl was so young, so much shorter, so much more vulnerable than Laura was, hardly dressed for combat, whereas Laura could be a burglar, a street fighter certainly, someone fast, dressed all in black, her Nike barefoot running shoes ready to chase. Laura looked at the girl and smiled. Then she thought, I am stupid.

Stupid to say anything. Laura watched the recognition. The girl’s face grew flush. Her doily shoulders shifted, moved forward, lower. Laura could see the girl look at the street, first one way and the other, preparing for departure. Then the girl must have realized what Laura already knew, that she would have to do more than that—more than run—that she would have to change her entire life. I have her, Laura thought.

“Triple soy latte,” the girl said.

Laura nodded. For once, she didn’t say a thing.

“I can explain,” the girl started.

Those simple words, only three, made Laura almost hate her. That’s when Laura realized that she was going to let this girl get away with it. That if the girl hadn’t said those three words—tiny words—Laura might have even given her some money. She thought she had a five in the glove compartment.

Laura had been thinking about a better way. We could have been a team, Laura thought. I don’t hate you. She looked at the girl, at her cute glasses. This girl needed help. First of all, don’t meet the buyer in this neighborhood. Go online, Laura was thinking, find out every Story Hour, every Playgroup, every Moms-meeting in the City. Find a van. Put them on a Craigslist down south, drive that extra distance to avoid trouble. To avoid another woman like me.

I used to work in a coffee shop, Laura almost told her. I used to roll my eyes at women dressed in heels; dressed in too-expensive running gear; women who bought their kids $6 scones just so they could sit down for a few minutes. Who spends $17 dollars on scones and a cup of coffee? I do, Laura thought. Now.

“Can we sit down?” God, she sounded old.

The girl nodded. She knew this drill. She went to public school. Teacher, I’ll never do it again. A man walked towards them, his Golden Retriever on a leash. Laura and the girl beside each other, the man nodded. He thinks I’m her mother, Laura guessed. She’s been out all night and we’re talking about it; Dad’s mad. Laura waited until he passed them. He held a mug of coffee from home. The mug so faded, but it used to have black-and-white checks. Not anymore, too much dishwasher time, too much time in the top shelf. I used to have shoelaces like that, Laura almost said. Black-and-white checkerboard shoelaces she laced into Keds. Once, for a school trip, she’d traded them out for yellow ribbons. She bought the ribbons from a fabric store. They had to be very, very long to go through all the grommets and have enough left over to make a bow. Laura did remember, there was a girl who noticed the yellow ribbons and said, “Hey, Ronald McDonald.”

I can help you. I want to help you, Laura thought. I want to like you. The economy sucks.

The girl began. Laura listened.

I can help you. I want to help you, Laura thought. I want to like you. The economy sucks.

If this girl were a musician, an artist, a dancer even, or a poet certainly, it would be different, Laura thought. If this girl were saving up to travel, if she were a student, if she gave the money to someone else. If this girl were worthy, if she were doing something worthy. If there were a reason.

Laura listened to the story anyway. She let the girl talk awhile. Tell about her life, about her bills, her various credit cards. She said she’d only stolen once before and Laura believed her. Again, Laura found herself wanting to help. You’re doing it all wrong, Laura was about to say. But just as the words were coming out, the girl said:

“You can just buy another.”

The girl was almost right, but Laura wanted to tell her how she’d saved, how she’d budgeted, how she had searched out a good used model, how she’d researched the wheels, read review after review, finding the one that opened easily (“Just one hand!”), finding the one that would last, the one that would make it possible to only buy once. Laura figured: no coffees out for a month, packing lunches. She did it herself all while telling her mother-in-law the reason why she wasn’t buying something brand new. “This is better,” Laura said then. “I did the research,” she repeated.

But Laura explained nothing. She said instead: “Can I have the bag that was in the bottom?” The girl looked confused and then she became almost friendly, sniffing around the fact that Laura seemed to be folding.

“I don’t have it with me,” the girl said, half-smile. “I can leave it for you to pick up at the coffee shop.”

Sure you can, Laura thought. Then, she saw the pin, the Stud Muffin pin. The girl had attached it to the thin strap of her tiny purse.

This young woman gets to carry the smallest bag, Laura thought. No one needs her to carry their lives around for them.

And I was going to help with distribution. I was going to suggest a van, Laura thought. I could do your job better than you could ever imagine.

“I’ll pick up the bag on Monday,” Laura told the girl. “And I need that pin.” Laura held out her hand. The girl didn’t know what Laura was talking about and then she did. She took the pin off the tiny strap. It was easy.

The girl stood as Laura put one hand on the stroller’s handlebar. She watched as Laura folded it up with that one hand, so easily, in one fluid motion. See, Laura wanted to say, but instead she walked towards the back of her car, lifting the stroller beside her. Laura could lift a thousand Muggaboos. She shut the back of the car as the girl just stood there, hunched over further. Don’t be delicate, Laura wanted to yell. Instead, she said it quietly, thinking of all the strollers parked just outside the library right this minute. 10:17 a.m. There was no way she was going to yoga. She unmuted her phone.

All rights reserved to Eliza Tudor.

Illustrations by Bobby Rogers.

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