a short story

June 3, 2010

Her cart was filled with pillows.

I was shopping for groceries. I should go shopping once a week, but manage to put it off. I don’t know why. The shopping isn’t hard. I buy the same things every week. Milk, eggs, bread, peanut butter. The cashier is always friendly. All my food goes into a backpack; I don’t talk to the bagger. Once I’m there, in the aisles, it’s not so bad. I shop fast, running up and down the store, always taking the shortest path.

I guess I don’t hate shopping. I hate the obligation.

So it was Wednesday that I was shopping, though I’d needed food since Saturday. I charged into the aisle of hot cereals and coffees. I needed oatmeal. It was one o’clock, the hottest part of the day.

She didn’t see me coming. Her cart blocked the aisle, and she pretended to read from the nutrition facts of a box of cream of wheat. I ran into her, I think. My cart might have hit her. It should have hit her. Instead it just sort of slowed down, like there was molasses under the wheels.

I said pretended, up there. That’s because her eyes weren’t on the box she was holding. You might doubt me, what with the crashing cart, the pillows, and the rude interruption to my shopping routine. But I know. I’ve watched people’s eyes since I was a kid. Sort of a hobby, I guess. So I know. Her eyes weren’t on the box, but they weren’t out of focus, either. She wasn’t daydreaming. Her eyes were predatory. Locked on. She was stalking something.

I said pillows, up there. That’s because her shopping cart was filled with pillows. Stuffed. And not sleeping pillows, no, no. Nothing with utility. Throw pillows. Decorative, quilted throw pillows, of varying sizes. All in pastels. Very pretty. Very ‘Little House on the Prairie.’

I apologized for running into her. She didn’t say anything. Her eyes didn’t move. Her body was tense, wiry but young. She was wearing a turtleneck and jeans. Sensible clothes. Plain face. Nice rack. Her sleeves were rolled up, showing creamy white forearms.

I picked out my oatmeal from the bottom shelf, and put it in my cart.

Then I coughed. Her cart was in my path, the shortest path. I could have turned around, and gone down the next aisle. Instead, I coughed. A polite cough. Sometimes you have to remind people to be courteous.

She didn’t budge. I coughed again, a little louder. Nothing. “Excuse me, Miss?”

She lunged forward and her free hand flew into shelf, through the gap where the cream of wheat had been. She froze, knees bent, arms reaching, as if she had never been in motion. It was sudden, slick, and beautiful; like pouring water from a pitcher to a glass. That fast. Her eyes wandered for a moment, her attention entirely on her hand. Her shoulder twitched. Her eyes stopped wandering and locked on to mine.

They were black. Hers eyes, I mean, were black; or brown so deep it didn’t matter. Eyes on mine, she pulled her arm out of the shelf, pulling with it a small decorative throw pillow, patchwork-quilted in yellow and pale blue. It hadn’t been there before. I don’t think it had; what right does a decorative throw pillow have to be hiding behind cream of wheat?

She jammed it firmly into her already over-full cart, and pushed the cart, the pillows, and herself past me. Her delicate hand brushed mine as she passed.

I walked the rest of the way through my shopping. I was just very tired. I made one wrong turn, and forgot to stop the bagger before he put my food in plastic bags. I had never been tired like this before. Dull, aching tired. It felt like a cancer in my bones.

I always walk to the store and back; that’s why my purchases go in a backpack. It was the middle of the afternoon in the middle of summer, but I didn’t notice the heat. I was exhausted. I could barely keep my feet moving, one in front of the other. I passed a bus-stop bench, but I refused to stop. It felt like if I stopped I’d fall asleep and never wake up again. I’d suddenly be 300 years old, and crumble to dust, if I even stopped once. No choice but to keep going.

By the time I got to my door, I didn’t have the strength to turn the knob. I never lock my door; it’s a waste of time. There’s a window right beside it, if anyone wanted to break in. I panted, my hand on the knob, sweating and shivering and straining every muscle; turning my whole body, trying to get the weight of the groceries to help. The knob shifted. The door opened, and I fell inside. I let the backpack fall from my back; I had to close the door. Everything would be fine if I could get the door closed. Then I could sleep. If the door stayed open any longer — my body was already starting to crumble. I couldn’t raise my arms; they might have cracked and fallen off; I don’t remember. I must have leaned on the door. I must have gotten it closed.

I fell asleep there, at the door. I slept for 14 or 15 hours; I don’t know how long it took me to get home, so I can’t say how long I slept. I found out later that friends called, but I didn’t answer. I slept.

When I woke up, I felt refreshed. Better than I had in a long time. The milk had gone bad lying on the floor next to me, so I poured it out, rinsed and threw away the jug, and made myself a bowl of oatmeal. I also took a fresh trash bag, and turned it inside out. I used it as a glove, to pick up and throw away the three decorative throw pillows that had come with my second-hand couch. I got up early on Friday to watch the garbage-truck chauffeur them away.