This is my new story. Not so new, couple of months old. Inspired by Chekhov and the most amazing and horrible story ever from Flannery O’Connor:
The kid is crying and screaming so I get a headache just walking down the same aisle. There are two kids, and the mother is yelling at the other kid, the one who was just quiet and looking scared and not asking for anything. I gotta say, she doesn’t seem like the kind of mom who lets her children cry in a grocery store. She’s just normal, you know, American, speaking English, with a nice haircut. And sure, she’s wearing sweatpants, but the nice kind, with pockets, and not baggy or dirty.
Of course I’ve just come from church, so I’m dressed nice. Nothing too showy, just a slacks suit and a nice blouse. Lovely rose color. To tell the truth, I had some of that lemon cake that Helen Davis brought to church, you know, with the glaze frosting. And I don’t think it was too fresh, cause she’d already cut it up, like you know they do when they’re trying to pass off leftover cake as new. I had some of that coffee, too, like they have at church. So my belly is feeling a little bubbly, and my pants are feeling a little tight. What else too is that it’s very hot outside. It’s a glowering day, with the air heavy and wet, the kind of day that pushes you down. They have those screens on the big windows of the grocery store, the dark ones that seem to shimmer and make it always feel like a storm coming, so you’re surprised when you get outside to the full force of the summer sun. I cannot tell a lie, I’m a little damp, I’ve got trickles of sweat here and there, and the air conditioning feels good.
I stand for a spell in the cold foods aisle, enjoying the frosty misting air. I pretend to study the labels on some yogurt, because you don’t want to stand too long in one place with nothing do, because that can make a person look crazy. So I’m studying the yogurt, but to tell you the truth I can’t stand the stuff. An older lady—older than me, even—stands nearby staring in some sort of wonder at her shopping list. She’s wearing a house dress—faded, but clean and not too wrinkled, and some of those sturdy shoes you imagine they might sell in a hospital. She doesn’t know where she is. She doesn’t know why she’s there. Her hands are shaking and she drops her pen. I pick it up for her because that’s the kind of person I am. I believe in helping people.
I nearly bust my nice pants bending to get it, the waist cuts in something awful, but I get there in the end. Does she thank me? She does not. She just looks at me with lost streaming eyes. On the PA system some teenager sings about love, just like they always have. The light is looming in the window and that darn kid is screaming down the aisles, and I feel bothered by something. Something I heard, something I said, something I can’t quite remember. Maybe at church or on the car radio or walking into the grocery store; and now I feel worse trying to remember all of the ways I might feel bad. I turn away. I just turn away from her and get on with my shopping.
And what do I see but a woman in her pajamas! Not very nice pajamas, either, as if that would make a difference. Just dingy, terry-cloth pink pajamas, much too large for her, so that she keeps hoisting them up with the fist that’s not holding the cart. And she sniffles every time she does. Hoist…sniff…hoist…sniff. She’s wearing bedroom slippers, too, of course, the cheap kind with the plastic soles, which slap slap slap on the linoleum. She’s with a woman who could be her mother or could be the same age, it’s hard to tell. They both have the same slack expression on their face, like they aren’t curious about a thing in the world.
She stands scratching her belly and says, “Did you get the puddin’?”
“It’s in the cart.”
“The big puddin’?”
“It’s in the cart.”
“Oh, no, I meant the Jello.”
Pudding! There’s nothing wrong with it, of course. Honestly I prefer it to yogurt, doesn’t everyone? But adults don’t eat it. You can’t eat it when you’re an adult, even if you want to. From the look of their cart they don’t care. All chips and soda and frosted cakes. I look up from the cart and see that the young one is staring at me with a strange expression. I gotta say she’s almost pretty, almost delicate—small nose, high cheekbones, a light spattering of freckles. And the look she gives me! It’s, well it’s almost a look of pity. And I don’t know how that makes me feel, I really don’t. I just turn away again, and as I do I hear her saying, “Not the grape Jello, the lime Jello.”
The shimmery, stormy light of the windows bears down on me, and I’m sitting in a car, oh so long ago, with my husband, though he wasn’t my husband then, of course. We’re parked somewhere, I don’t remember now and I doubt I knew then. The windows are open though a storm is kicking up; the hot air bustling through the windows, the thunder louder and louder and louder and the rain just starting to spatter into the windows. But we didn’t care. I wasn’t as scared of the storm as I was of Russell. I knew what to expect from a storm, but Russell….
The radio is on, but it’s late at night, and they’re not playing much music, they’re taking calls, and they’re talking to some joker who says that grape popsicles are better than lime popsicles. He goes on about it longer than you’d think a person could. And Russell says, “I wouldn’t eat either,” and then he leans in and kisses me, and I thought I was melting like a popsicle. And then the storm really broke over us, rain dashing through the windows. Then the radio or maybe the rain started playing Everybody Plays the Fool, and I thought am I am I am I but I didn’t care.
Everywhere I go in the store, there she is with the screaming child. It’s like she is following me or playing some strange game of hide and seek down the aisles. The kid’s voice has to be getting tired but he just keeps getting louder and louder. Everywhere people are giving each other these looks, like, thank god that’s not my kid, and what the hell is wrong with that mom? And there’s another mom, going the other way, with so much noise, but her kids are laughing and chittering chattering in Spanish, I guess. So many kids she has, too, three or four, and they’re clambering all over the cart, riding inside or hanging on in front.
They’re coming towards each other at a great pace. The crying louder on one side, the laughing and chattering on the other. All the noise and the looming lights and the memories are making me feel ill. The bubbles in my belly are fizzing, my fingers are tingling, and the noise is suddenly blindingly loud. I have a premonition of great and terrible violence. I envision a sharp sudden attack and blood in the aisles, screams in the air. I can feel it as a chill. I can feel it as a blow. The lights flicker and I fall to the ground in the tolling darkness.
Pictures, memories, revelations, urgent and strange, speed through my brain, the most important, the most insistent, completely unforgettable. Everything is explained.
I open my eyes to silence and small staring faces. The screaming has stopped, the laughing has stopped, everything I understood a second ago is gone.
I have landed flat on my butt on the dusty floor. My nice rose slacks have split, I’m sure of it. I feel so tired, so strangely drained, that I almost don’t care about sitting on the floor in split pants, with these children staring and staring at me. I want Russell. I want Russell to come and pick me up off the floor, and put his jacket over my pants. I feel so suddenly all alone that, well, I start to cry. Not in a nice way, neither, in a blubbering, tears streaming down my face kind of a way.
And I think that I don’t care about these people staring at me, this mom who can’t get her stupid kid to stop crying. That mom who doesn’t even speak American in America for chrissake. I don’t care how I look around them, and thinking about this makes me bawl even louder.
And then the little girl, the one who doesn’t speak English, she comes up to me with the serious face and the big dark eyes, and she hands me her half-drunk juice bottle, and she says, “This will make you feel better.”
Well! I don’t like kids, to be honest, I think they’re gross and full of germs. Dirty creatures. But almost against my will, as if I’m watching myself from the outside, I take her juice, and I drink it. I drink it all. It’s sweet and a little thick, a little tart, like nothing I’ve ever tasted before. And I do feel better. And then the boy, the little boy who has been yelling his A-double-S off all over the store, he comes over all serious, with a face streaked with dirt and tears, and he hands me a toy he’s holding, a little spaceship with a broken wing, so heavy, so fragile. He’s not crying any more, and neither am I. I can tell he really wants it back. Sure, I’m going to give it back to him. But I hold onto it for now, because I really can’t let it go. And then the mothers, they each bend down and take an elbow, and they pull me to my feet. They don’t look like strong women, and I am not small, but they make easy work of it.
I stand swaying on my feet for a moment, and one woman gives me a tissue from her bag, which smells like all the things you need to keep children safe and happy. And the other asks if she can call anyone.
No no no no. I say. I say, “I’m fine.” I give back the spaceship, I give back the tissue, though I’ve already used it. I pull myself up and steady myself on the cart. And I walk away. I want to say thank you. I want to tell them that I love them all, because I do, I love them so much it hurts like when you press a bruise. Tender. But I don’t say anything else. I walk away.
I walk back to the pudding, and I put some in my cart. Everybody Plays the Fool comes on the PA system, and I feel like I’m floating on the sound. Everybody, everybody I pass is singing along, as they move through the aisles.
In the parking lot it’s stark staring sun flashing blinding off the cars. But on the drive home I see the storm clouds in my rear-view window, travelling faster than I am, they will catch me, I know it.