My timing couldn’t be worse. I must be a bit delusional, thinking I can just stop and buy a few groceries this crisp autumn morning. It’s Sunday morning, is the problem. It’s a poorly-kept secret that this is the only time guys shop. But I’m a guy, so here I am. And from the looks of things, there’s a big sporting event on television later. All the locals are loading carts full of sandwich trays, chips and dips of every ilk, and beer by the can, bottle, and boatload. There will be no quick about this stop.
My mind is whirling, plotting out the most efficient escape route possible. Even so, I can’t help but take note of the stories playing out all around me inside the grocery store. The old man, looking like a fish out of water in the produce department. I read it as a solo shopping trip, just enough to get him by until his wife is out of the hospital. He and I reach for the same bunch of bananas. I smilingly concede them to him, remembering my late father’s assertion just before he passed, “I don’t even buy green bananas anymore.” The man thanks me; his mouth smiles, but his eyes don’t.
I bypass the busy deli, saving myself a twenty-minute wait. There’s a woman in a business suit ordering a sandwich. I assign her the role of a real estate agent working her seventh ten-hour day straight. She’s celebrating her latest sale with thick slices of Boar’s Head ham and smoked rambol. In twenty minutes, she’ll be out in her car, checking her phone messages and emails, and leaving crumbs all over the front seat.
Aisle 6E: Breads and Cereal. I transfer a couple boxes of instant oatmeal from the shelf to my basket, dodge a cart being pushed by, I’m going to say, a dazed night-shift worker who needs to get home to bed, and soon. Just ahead, twin toddlers are standing up in the shopping cart supplicating in matching tenors. They’re both pointing desperately at brightly colored boxes, filled with high fructose corn syrup, red dye #40, and toy plastic choking hazards. It’s a precious moment, more heart-warming than heart-wrenching. The woman pushing the cart may not be thinking that; she looks tired. Grandma, I decide, she babysits while her daughter works. From the zombie-esque look of fatigue and resignation on her face, this isn’t her first day on the job. “Beautiful kids,” I tell her as I pass, briefly silencing them, and putting a smile on her face, for the moment.
I grab a gallon of milk from the dairy cooler. The young man stocking the section is stopped behind his lactose-laden cart, texting on his phone. He’s confirming his date tonight. No, I change my mind, it’s sooner, not later, a first date, a lunch date. I catch a whiff of Axe spray and nervousness.
The Frozen Foods aisle is amusingly inhabited solely by other males. Teenaged, middle-aged, and myself, falling somewhere in between. Each one of us flying solo with our baskets and carts. Could we possibly all share the same story? Single, lazy, horrible in the kitchen? I can’t do that to us. So, instead, we are busy altruists; we place very little emphasis on eating, and focus instead on saving the world.
Basket full, I make a break for it, dodging the shoppers with unfinished business, their stories coming in rapid staccato. Church-going couple, well-dressed, fought in the car. Off duty officer scanning for trouble out of habit. Kids buying candy to sneak into the nearby theater. And then, I’m at the line of registers. Pick a lane, any lane. They’re all backed up. I eyeball the Express Lane, but it’s gridlocked too. I’m not sure I qualify for “12 Items and Under,” anyway. Not if each banana counts.
“Patience is a virtue,” my long-gone father’s voice recites in my head, quickly followed by my own thought, Today you can add “virtuous” to your resume. While the line creeps forward at the speed of molten lava, I surreptitiously read the headlines of the tabloids. Here’s where one learns the real news of the world – which celebrity is pregnant and by whom, who is breaking hearts and breaking up in Hollywood, and what Elvis is up to now. Every few minutes, I shift the increasingly heavy basket from my right hand to my left. Might as well work out both biceps. After about the fifth rep, I feel a tug on my sleeve from behind me.
I turn in time to see the culprit returning to behind his shopping cart; the elderly man I’d encountered in Produce. “Put your basket in here,” he says, pointing to the empty front of his cart. “No thank you,” I begin to say, but he’s insistent, and it’s a pretty good idea. Oxygenated blood rushes into my grateful arms. We have a brief conversation as our newly formed convoy makes progress. This is his first time shopping alone since his wife of over fifty years passed, he reveals, eyes tearing up. The contents of his cart all but confirm that he’s shopping for one. Half gallon of milk, white bread, salami and assorted cold cuts, hot dogs, pickles, mayonnaise, bananas. “No Express Lane for you?” I ask, changing the subject. He gestures at the bananas. “There’s six of those,” he says, a shadow of a smile sweeping quickly across his face. Great minds.
I thank him again, as I take my basket out of his cart. As the cashier scans my groceries, I think about the man behind me, wondering how lonely his home, his life, might be. Impulsively, I lean in toward the cashier. The old gentleman is staring sadly into space as I asked her to please put his groceries on my bill. “Oh, that’s nice,” she says softly and conspiratorially. It almost feels like we’re tricking him, as she slips his few items across the scanner and then back onto the conveyor beside him. Lost in his thoughts, memories likely, he doesn’t catch on.
I’m not about to let him know what had transpired; I’ve cast myself as some mystery benefactor. I pay my bill, wish him good day, and hustle out the door, before the cashier can tell him that I’ve already paid. I can only hope it somehow takes some of the pain out of his experience, maybe even deepens the smile that he’d only hinted at earlier.
Concealed in my car, I think about my parents for a few moments. They’d been inseparable in life, I can only hope they’re together somewhere now. I blink away a tear, start my car, and look toward the storefront. The man who loaned me his cart is standing still while people hurry around him. He has a white-knuckled grip on his cart.
It’s not hard to read the confusion on his face. And, I can tell, it isn’t about who’d paid for his groceries. He wheels slowly through the crosswalk, looking left, then right, then back again. When he stops halfway down the aisle where I’m parked, I’m out of my car to meet him. “I lose my car all the time,” I tell him. “What color is yours?” He looks really confused now.
Turns out, I’m the confused one. “I’m looking for my daughter. She drove. She’s having her nails done.” Before I can reply, he adds. “And thank you for these,” gesturing at the bags in his cart. “You shouldn’t have done that.” “It was my pleasure, sir,” I say reaching out to shake his hand. His grip is as firm as mine. “Claude Barrow,” he introduces himself.
Again, my reply is cut off. A breezy voice practically sings, “Dad! Perfect timing!” We both turn to look, only my eyebrows are elevated exponentially higher than his. A construction crew on the left side of my chest starts up a jackhammer. She’s striking, and I am struck. My first impression is, she looks like a superhero. My assessment is no doubt influenced by my comic book collection, and the smidge of Lycra in her iridescent blue outfit. She’s athletic, a more mature voice corrects my inner geek. Her hair is a slick, dark raven’s wing, with a slight sheen of aubergine. She has skin the color of coffee, with just a splash of skim milk added. I like my coffee just like that. Black boots reinforces my first impression, yep, superhero for sure. My second impression is that she’s the perfect size to scoop up and carry over my shoulder. Where did that rogue thought come from? I suddenly realize that her dark eyes are laughing. Oh no. She’s a mind reader! I’m in deep, and we haven’t even been introduced.
Her father bails me out, seeing as I’ve been rendered mute. “This is…” “Brett,” I croak as much as answer, as he nods at me. “This fine young man bought my groceries,” Mr. Barrow volunteers. “He did, eh?” The young woman rewards me by looking me in the eyes and smiling. My face is burning. “It was just a few things,” I explain, trying to hold her eyes, “We bachelors have to stick together.” I congratulate myself for my subtle way of announcing my availability. “Well, Brett the Bachelor,” she laughs, “That was mighty nice of you.” So much for subtlety. I am falling, faster and faster.
Her eyes move to somewhere between myself and her father. “I just got..” “Wait, no, don’t tell us!” I say, with what I am sure is a goofy grin on my face. “You got your nails done!” “I did,” she says. Another smile, another win. She holds her right hand out to us for examination. “Blue-tiful Horizon,” she proclaims in a regal manner. “Wow,” I say, “Does the other hand match?”
She holds out the left for proof. I see the naked ring finger, and she sees that I see. I have a feeling that she is at least three paces ahead of me on my best day. “Well,” I say. “Well.” She apes my deep voice, but her dancing eyes are anything but mocking. I stare in her eyes for a couple seconds, or hours, it’s hard to tell. There are tiny glints of light, and hidden volumes in those deep dark pools. I know at this moment that I’ll read every page if it takes the rest of my life. “Where are my manners,” Claude Barrow bails me out of my speechlessness yet again. “This is my daughter, Brooke.”
The only smile bigger than the one on the old man’s face is my own. He takes his daughter’s hand and puts it in mine. Two months from the day that I asked for it. Perfect fit. I glance at Mr. Barrow’s cuffs, identical to my own. Then I look at the perfect hand in mine, and its naked finger, and my smile widens. It won’t be naked for much longer. I thank her father, and he heads back up the aisle.