© by Lu Erickson 2014
© by Lu Erickson 2014
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Nobody likes an old lady.
That's what I'm thinking as I apologize for blocking the aisle with my grocery cart--I'd been lost in thought, trying to decide between the creamed corn and the unsalted fresh-cut kernels. The man in the baseball cap quickly covers his impatience with a flash of a smile that never reaches his eyes. He pushes his cart around me and, with a purposeful stride, heads toward the end of the aisle and disappears around the corner.
I turn back to the rows of tin cans. When did picking out dinner vegetables become so engrossing that I lose all sense of space and time? The other day I was looking at the fresh tomatoes--Roma, hot-house, cherry, vine-ripened (some still attached to their own little vines!)--and I got to thinking about all the choices I have now that I didn't have before, and how shopping was a lot less time consuming when there was only one kind of tomato, and I hear "Excuse me!" in a tone that makes me know this is not the first time the woman has said it. "Oh!" I say, as I look around and see my cart once again causing a traffic jam. "I'm so sorry," I say, placing my hand contritely over my heart. "No problem," she answers. There's nothing in her voice to give her away, but I sense her annoyance.
Creamed corn, I decide, taking the can and adding it to the other items confined to the child-seat compartment of my cart. When I had a husband to cook for and the girls were living at home, I would fill the entire cart up to the brim and then try to find creative ways to cram in the last few items. If Annie and Faith were with me, they would arrange the groceries like a jigsaw puzzle, lining up all the boxes of cereal and turning the egg carton on end to fill the hole between the soda crackers and the cookies. They'd push the cart for me while I'd scout ahead of them, consulting my grocery list. I'd look over my shoulder and see Annie's wide smile and little Faith's bright eyes barely showing above the cart's plastic yellow handle. I'd walk ahead, my fingers hooked over the wire lip of the basket, my arm braced to keep the girls from running over my heels.
Nowadays, the young mothers look tired and preoccupied as they shop with their young ones in tow. I imagine that the demands put upon them from working and caring for a family must take its toll. We women sure did throw the shells in with the eggs when we demanded all that opportunity, thinking we could have it all. I want to stop these poor women in the aisles, accost them like the crazy old lady that I am, and say, "Slow down, for heaven's sake! Don't you see how fast it all goes by?" But I know they wouldn't understand. I know because I didn't either when I was their age.
Darn it! I've forgotten the cheese, so I leave the cart in the detergent aisle and walk back over the area I've already covered. I always enter on the right side of the supermarket, begin at the bread aisle, and work my way across the store to the produce. I've been doing it this way for over fifty years and it's worked out pretty well; that is, unless I forget something in the process, which lately I seem to be doing more often than not.
As I pass the frozen food aisle, I wonder why they put the frozen foods in the middle of the store. It should be on one end or the other so that a person could make their sweep of the store, up one aisle and down the next, end up at frozen foods, then check out before their ice cream begins to melt. You'd think if an old woman like myself could figure this out that some efficiency expert somewhere ought to have taken care of it a long time ago.
The medium Tillamook is on sale. I take it from the shelf even though I like the sharp much better. But halfway back to the cart I decide I've got to have the sharp. After all, eating is about the only one of life's little pleasures I'm still able to enjoy--and thank God for that.
When I get back to the cart, I very carefully take stock of its contents. It's terribly embarrassing to be chased down by another shopper who says, trying hard not to sound accusatory, "I believe you've taken my cart." I know this from first-hand experience. I have personally made off with three carts in the past six months that did not belong to me. My friend, Catherine, told me the other day that some woman had walked off with her cart. "Can you imagine a body being so wrapped up in themselves that they didn't even notice they were pushing someone else's grocery cart around?" I scrunched up my forehead and nodded my concern. "Imagine that," I said.
But this is indeed my cart. Flour, baking powder, sliced sourdough bread, creamed corn, and now I add the cheddar cheese. Sharp cheddar cheese, thank you very much. Frank used to love a grilled cheese on sourdough. And one of my garlic dill pickles on the side. If I forgot to put a pickle on the plate, he'd frown and tease me, saying, "Where's the love?" And when I brought the pickle over to him at the table, he'd slip his arm around my waist, look up at me and smile that smile that never changed through the years. "You're a good wife, Bea."
I don't put up pickles anymore--the ones on the shelf are good enough for me. Besides, it's not the same when there's no one to appreciate them. That's the hard part about living alone. I never realized how much satisfaction I got out of cooking for Frank until he was gone. In fact, when the girls were young and my life was full, I sometimes saw it as a burden. But there was something about watching a man with a hearty appetite go after a plate of my food that did my soul good--and in some elemental way, made me glad to be a woman.
I give my shopping list a once over. I find if I mark the items off as I go, I don't have to do so much running back and forth over the things I've forgotten. Now, if I were smart, I'd rewrite the list before I came, starting with items from the bread aisle and ending up with items from the produce section. But I admit, I've never been that organized. And to tell the truth, I think organization is highly overrated. Good Lord, some people are so darned organized, they miss the joy of stepping off the path once in a while. Living like they do with every aspect of their lives entered and accounted for in their cell phones. All I know is if a person has booked up every minute of their day, they surely don't have the opportunity to contemplate. And honestly, what's the point of living a life if you can't periodically take the time to think on it?
I push my cart around the corner, and what do I see but the wide hind end of my friend Catherine Helm as she bends over to reach for something on the bottom shelf. (I quickly glance down to make sure that I'm still pushing my own cart before I speak.)
"That's quite a view you're presenting to the world, neighbor."
Catherine slowly straightens up with a package of Depends in her hand and grins. "The size of my posterior and whom I present it to are the least of my worries," she says, waving the Depends at me. "I guess they don't see the irony of putting these things on the bottom shelf when nobody but stiff-jointed old people like myself buy them?"
I laugh with her. Now that's one of the good things about getting old. Not too much embarrasses us anymore. When you've lived through wars, births, deaths, and whatever else God decides to toss your way, who cares if you need a little protection between you and your underpants. Not that I do. But then, I've got my own problems.
"What are you doing out of the house at this hour?" I ask. "Isn't it time for your soap opera?" Catherine has made it quite clear to every one she knows that she is not to be disturbed between two and three o'clock, Monday through Friday.
"They've preempted it to show some tennis tournament," she says with disgust. "And today we were finally going to learn who has been behind all those shenanigans with Louise."
Catherine always talks about her soap opera is if I know what going on, even though she knows I never watch it.
"So what's new with the family? How's Annie?" she asks.
"Oh, she's doing fine," I answer, and even though it's been some time now, the loss swells within me. For thirty-two years, it was always, "How's Annie and Faith?" or "What's up with the girls?" Is doesn't seem right that they're no longer spoken of together, like its some kind of denial that Faith ever existed. I think of her all the harder to keep her in my world. Sometimes when I think hard enough, I feel her around me. But hardly anyone mentions Faith's name anymore.
"Margie's going on a trip to England," I offer, knowing that Catherine is a good enough friend to act interested. "All expenses paid by her company."
"Isn't that something. These young women nowadays have the world in the palm of their hand, don't they?"
"They sure do."
We both stand there for a moment shaking our heads.
"Well, I better be on my way," I say. "Tea on Saturday?"
"'Round three?" Catherine and I have a standing date for tea every Saturday and it's always three o'clock. But still she asks, and I always reply, "Perfect."
I give Catherine a little wave and wheel around her. Only one item left. Which is good because I'm starting to poop out. This is how I manage my day, in short little bursts of energy separated by periods of rest. But the important thing is that I do manage. Still no convalescent home in my sights, thank God. Those places make a heart attack look good. I was recently talking with a friend who said he was on a cholesterol diet. I said, "Oh, so you eat things low in cholesterol?" "Well," he answered, "only for the first 60 years. Then you chow down all the cholesterol you can lay your hands on, give yourself a quick heart attack, and adios." He was joking, of course, but the point is he didn't want to waste away in one of those homes. Well, who would?
I stand in front of the bottles of wine. I love a good red wine. I've been drinking it all of my adult life. In moderation, of course. Papa always said that it calmed the nerves and was good for the blood. It must have been good for something because Papa lived for ninety-nine years and enjoyed every single one of them. I take a Merlot from the shelf. Good Lord! Six ninety-nine a bottle! And that's on sale. When Frank and I were starting out, we always bought the cheaper jug wine--the type that burns my throat and makes my eyes water now. But we didn't mind it back then. We'd gather up the girls and call on friends, who were just as poor as we were and thrilled to get our bitter offering. What fun we'd have, laughing and visiting and sipping our wine. The men growing more boisterous through the evening and the muted voices and laughter of the children playing in the back rooms warming the occasion. I'd watch Frank through the wine's rosy glow, my heart swelling with pride. Our eyes would meet and without words he'd speak to me.
I reach to the top shelf for the bottle of wine and see the smoke-blue veins tunneling through the skin on my hand. This testament to my age still catches me by surprise sometimes. Just as my reflection does in a bright light, the kind that offers no sympathy. It's funny how, even at this age, my vanity rears up once in while--some renegade electrical impulse in my brain left over from the days when I could still turn a man's head.
I take down a second bottle for good measure. No point in having to make a trip back to the store before the week's up.
I head for the checkout and look for Mitch. He's always here on Tuesdays, and I spot him in Lane 5. There's only one woman in front of me, but her cart is loaded to the top. While I wait, I glance at the magazine covers and the screaming headlines on the tabloids. World's Biggest Cat Eats Neighbor's Dog, Voodoo Priestess Stalks Letterman. Who reads this nonsense? I wonder as I flip recklessly through the pages. I never could understand the attraction of reading things you know can't be true. And yet I've seen these silly papers on the kitchen countertops of some of my most intelligent friends. Another one of life's great mysteries.
"How you doin', Bea?" Mitch asks when he finishes with the customer before me.
"Why, I'm doing just fine," I reply as I replace the Weekly World News on the rack and take up the Good Housekeeping instead. I hand the magazine to Mitch, and he smiles at me. It's funny how you can form a friendship over the years by piecing together scraps of time here and there. He's worked at this store for over thirty years, and now when we meet, we look at each other like co-conspirators. We've shared each other's news, both good and bad. I know that his son left his engineering job with the State to study eastern mysticism in India and that his graddaughter is on the honor roll at her high school. I know that his daughter Nancy recently got a promotion at her marketing job and now drives one of those fancy BMW cars. I know, too, that his wife hated to exercise and that she loved to do needlework (although what type, Mitch could never remember).
"What are you going to do with this flour and baking powder? Not planning on baking cookies, are you?"
I narrow my eyes. "And if I were, what type do you think would be best?" Sometimes I bring a plate of cookies to the store for Mitch. I started doing this a couple of years ago, after his wife died. I'd never met her, but I felt as if I'd lost a friend.
"Oatmeal-raisin, I think. The oatmeal lets me kid myself they're good for me."
"They are good for you--food for your soul, if not for your arteries," I say.
Mitch finishes ringing up my groceries, and the young man at the end of the counter puts them in the bag while I hand over my money.
Mitch smiles. "You have a good day, Bea."
"They're all good," I reply, wondering if I have enough raisins in my cupboard, or if I should stop at the little convenience store on the way home. I'm certainly not walking all the way to the back of the store now, and if I ask the courtesy clerk, Mitch will know I'm making the cookies. Of course, he already knows, but I like it when he acts surprised.
The young man who bagged my groceries follows me out to my car, making small talk about the weather. I know that the store management has instructed him to say these things, but I enjoy the conversation just the same. I open the passenger-side door and he sets the bag on the seat.
I thank him and wish him a good day before I circle the car and get in. I throw the lever into reverse and check my mirrors before pushing the gas pedal. The car doesn't move more than ten feet before I hear an angry horn. In my rearview mirror, a car has materialized out of nowhere, and as the driver impatiently maneuvers around me, I glance out the side window. A young woman in a red car mouths something foul about old ladies. I don't even have to retaliate--time will take care of that.