I squint through the shrink wrap. The broccoli has that floppy look it gets when past its prime, but it’s not yellowing. Good enough for soup, anyway. If I boil tonight’s chicken carcass, there’s the stock, and cream’s on sale this week. Okay. Broccoli chowder tomorrow. Tossing the package into my cart, I burrow deeper into the discount produce rack. An elderly lady shoves her way into the narrow space, pointedly ignoring me, as if age gives her first dibs. And it does. I was brought up right. I let her snatch the last yellow peppers, even the shelled pecans. She doesn’t smile back as she hurries off. Poor thing. Maybe she’s ashamed to be rooting in the marked-down racks. I’m not. Deciding against a cracked carton of figs, I move on.
I look away as I pass the seafood department. It makes me sick to see the lobsters struggle, kidnapped and suffocating. I want to ransom them and drop their buggy bodies into the sea, one by one. But what good would it do? There’ll always be more to be saved.
Safely in the pasta aisle, I grab ten boxes of the buy-one-get-one-free ziti. I don’t use a list. I learned to shop watching my mother: like a peasant foraging in a capricious forest. When the basics go on sale– rice, frozen vegetables, butter, chop meat– I stock up. I navigate supermarket circulars like maps to cities of warmth and plenty. I know, within ten cents, the going price of tomato paste, tampons, lemon cookies.
I put the tuna back on the shelf. Even forty cents off, it’s more expensive than the store brand. I’ll wait for better. No rush, I have a couple dozen cans at home. My sister sneers at my crowded freezer and pantry. “You and Ma, you’re pathetic. Killing yourself for a nickel.” Faith’s never looked at a price tag in her life. Strip steak on weeknights, strawberries in January. When we were growing up, Mom always said she’d end up in the poor house, and I’d be a millionaire. Funny how things turn out. She married money. Kevin and I do okay, but she doesn’t ever have to worry. She can afford to let asparagus wither in her fridge.
I don’t recognize the cashier at the check-out. Will she pack the bags right, or just shove things in as they’re rung up? I unload potatoes and cans first, heavy stuff that won’t get crushed if it goes on the bottom. As she scans, I notice two girls wandering towards the registers. Their shoulders brush easily as they get in the express line. Sisters. No, roommates– they’re sharing a shopping basket. At our age. It’s sweet. I meet eyes with the taller one, and we smile. She’s really pretty. Nearly as pretty as Faye.
They fly through the check-out, buying only a head of Romaine and– what is that? I can’t see– a piece of fruit. At the foot of the lane, as her friend counts change, the shorter one reaches deep into their string bag, through the folds of lettuce peeping from the mesh. She offers the peach to the taller one. Instead of taking it, she cups her hand and takes a bite. Juice shines on her mouth and chin. Laughing, the shorter one runs a lazy finger over it, and brings it to her own lips.
Stop. Stop looking. I jerk open a paper bag. Onions, olives in glass . . .
The shorter one’s noticed me gawking. She nudges her friend. They whisper as they walk away.
Vinegar. Deli bread, cold cuts. Don’t look up. Bananas eggs tomatoes. Meat separate, in plastic so it won’t leak all over even though I hate plastic bags and how they stick to each other and you can’t get them open and–
I focus on the eye-rolling teenager behind the register. “Oh, sorry, yes?”
“One sixteen forty-eight. Cash, credit or debit?”
“Check. And may I have twenty back in cash, please?”
The cold air clears my head. Three-thirty, and the parking lot is the perpetual dim of December afternoon. The flurries they’ve predicted all week finally start as I shut the trunk.
The oldies station is playing a song I loved as a kid, and I turn it up. When my parents weren’t around, I’d sit with my head against those huge old speakers, electrified, that one note sending me flying like in one of my dreams. Even now it gives me a little shiver. Smiling to myself, I shift into reverse.
Halfway out of the parking space, I’m jerked in my seat. Hard. A silver Jeep looms huge in my rearview mirror. I’ve hit another car. But there was nothing there a second ago.
Taking a deep breath, I dig through the glove compartment and find the registration. The driver’s stooped over her bumper as I approach.
“I’m so sorry. I’ve never had anything like this happen before. Ever.”
She straightens and shrugs. “When your number’s up, your number’s up.”
She’s supermodel thin; her clothes hang on her. She’s the same color as the snow heavy sky. Her face is too young for her gray hair. Why doesn’t she color it?
We look at our cars. Mine’s fine except for a scrape on the rear fender. Light shines through a broad crack in her tail light.
“Looks like you got the bad end of that deal, ” I venture.
“Think so? You could have hidden damage. Ruin your alignment, wreck your bearings. It happens.” Her voice is a metallic growl over the rumble and thunder of trucks passing on the highway. She makes me nervous.
“I really am sorry. Hold on, I’ll give you my insurance information. And I can show you my license, if you want.”
“Don’t worry about it, okay?” She touches my cheek with a gaunt hand. “It’s a present.” She turns back to her Jeep.
The spot burns as if frostbitten. Flabbergasted, I grope in my purse. I should at least write her license plate number down. Isn’t that what people do?
The woman climbs into the driver’s seat, her gray coat flapping as if it were empty. I wave, and she grins at me, horribly, her face like that mask Van wore on Halloween. I look away; it’s not nice to stare. I’m glad when she pulls away.
“Kitty? Where are you?”
Dad. He never knocks. I jam the twenty dollar bill into the strong box and close my closet.
He brandishes half a Bundt cake in a battered Tupperware tote. “Your mother wanted me to bring this over.” He frowns at the bags on the counter. “Been shopping?”
“No, Dad, I just like taking the groceries out for a drive now and then.” I unpack. “I didn’t hear you pull up.”
Grunting, he drops into a chair. “I walked. You should walk more, stop driving everywhere. Good for you. Take some weight off.” He slaps his stomach.
I wince, but remind myself of my resolution not to be so sensitive. He only wants you to be healthy, Kitty. “Wish I had that kind of time. Work’s a lot farther than six blocks. So’s school, so’s the supermarket.” Supermarket. “That reminds me, have any blue touch-up paint stashed over there? I kind of backed into someone at Stop and Shop this afternoon.”
“You what?” He sits up at attention.
“No big deal. She didn’t even want my insurance.”
“Oh, Christ.” He’s across the kitchen. “She could claim she was hurt or you totaled her car or something later. Did you get her information, at least?”
“I got her license plate.”
The door to the garage bangs behind him.
I rifle through my handbag for her license plate number. I can’t find it. I dump everything, and the lipstick I lost last month rolls off the table under the sink. The paper’s disappeared. How can it have disappeared?
He stomps back in, smelling of gasoline.
“It’s nothing that won’t buff out.”
“So there’s no . . . no hidden damage or anything?”
“Hidden damage? Like what?”
“Oh, I don’t know, you just hear about things like that.”
He makes a face. “Not that I can see. So you said you got her tags?”
“I thought I did, but I didn’t.”
He sighs. “The last thing we need is something to come back and bite us in the shorts. People sue over nothing now. Be careful, Kitty.”
With the precision of a surgeon, Vanessa disembowels her slice of cake. “I have homework, ” she announces, and pushes away from the table.
Kevin spears the abandoned macaroon filling. “Your mother?” he asks, mouth full.
“Too good to be mine, huh?”
“Nuh uh. We don’t have a Bundt pan. And you’d remember Van hates coconut.”
“Smartypants. Dad was over.”
“At least he brought cake.” He cuts himself another chunk. “He have any news? Do you?”
“Not really.” I don’t bring up the fender bender. Dad’s ridiculous, it’s nothing. Besides, the whole thing kind of gives me the creeps, and I’d rather forget about it. “We’re hosting the Christmas party this year at work. But Vicky’s insisting the cookies have to be low-fat.”
“Librarians. Always living on the edge. Yow.”
“Yeah? Let’s hear you beat that, Mr. Edgy.”
“That kid we just hired waltzed in twenty minutes late again. I thought Dave was going to blow a blood vessel. Countdown until he cans him.”
“Start a pool.”
“Stewart already did.” Getting up, he yanks his head from side to side. His neck pops as loudly as ice in hot coffee. “I promised Nick that I’d burn some Spike Jones 78′s onto CD for his birthday. Heading to the Bat Cave.”
“And I have to finish reading for tonight. See you later.”
As he starts down the basement stairs, I call after him. “I’m going to talk to the professor about my paper after class. Don’t worry if I’m a little late.”
I stack the dishes in the sink for later and trudge to the bedroom. Homework at my age. But if I don’t finish school soon, I’ll lose my job. Never mind that I’ve done it with just a high school diploma for twelve years. Nobody needs a degree to read to kids. But new state requirements. At least the district helps with tuition.
Picking up Mrs. Dalloway, I settle into my faded, flowered chair.
It’s started. Lady Rosseter. Yes, who’s Lady Rosseter?