Age: 17, Grade: 12
School Name: Beacon School, New York, NY
Educator: Amy Dupcak Remland
Category: Short Story
Love in Store
Bounty, Charmin, Georgia-Pacific, Great Lakes, Up & Up. The fixer-upper, self-absorption, cheap veils exhibited on the steelshelves. He compares prices, absently holds Delilah’s hand. His wife is a shopping list he clears, rewrites, complicates. Today it is rash prescription for Delilah and paper towels, tubs of ice cream and a Christmas card for Mollie. Sunscreen for the beach, organic, devoid of oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, the cancer-bestowing chemicals. And she has cancer, he remembers briefly, the disease he did not want to name until the MRI scan returned, and the doctor prescribed her pills to purchase at the pharmacy. His wife is a shopping list. “Daddy, the transformer.” Delilah is pulling on the sleeve of his North Face jacket, the one his wife had bought him for Christmas. She waited hours for it in the cold on Black Friday, using the money she had taken from their savings for a new house to pay for it. All else was being put to her treatment, the chemo, the hospital bills, the futile payments. None of it matters anymore. His wife is expiring on the new mattress he had bought last year. It was advertised on television, adapted for personalized comfort, pressure-reducing, motion-isolating. Words such as hypoallergenic and nontoxic and handcrafted glowed on the flat screen TV. It is one of the many purchases he had made since the diagnosis, the new objects he believed could save them.
She’s in the hospital, he corrects himself, and he slept on the mattress alone. Now, their room was empty of her perfumes and dresses. On most nights, he doesn’t notice the emptiness beside him.
She asked him to buy tubs of ice cream. He knows she is sick of it by now, but won’t admit it. Perhaps he only kept silent because the television radiated blue on her face and for the first time in years he imagined her beautiful. He knows the brands she likes: Talenti, Ben & Jerry’s, Cold Stone Creamery. Before they got married, before they were engaged, he had loved to take her to a grocery and watch her eyes light up at the different brands, the endless arrangement of frozen goods and packaged meats. Her eyes would narrow as she inspected each label, looking for the words organic and grass-fed and low-fat, inspecting each cabbage as if a wrong choice could be fatal. Even now, she searched for a reason in the supermarket, wondering if her indulgence in cheaper cheese brands had been her downfall. She now made him go to the local Mason Kaiser to get more expensive bread and to artisanal cheese shops to get more authentic cheeses. She used coconut alternatives for all her ingredients, putting dollops of coconut oil into each meal. She switched from jasmine rice to basmati.
Their first week of marriage, they had bought so many tissue boxes they were still using them, and he hadn’t remembered this until now. He picks up four large packs of paper-towels, inspecting the plastic to make sure there are no tears or deformities. He puts it in the shopping cart, already burdened by its own, hungry weight.
He then turns to the freezer section, having to pass the array of fruits and vegetables. They are all bright and gleaming, swollen in size and stacked in a becoming fashion. There are six types of oranges and four types of apples, all in season, all beckoning to him in their orange netted cases.
The hallways, the lights, the foods that never seem to age and expire, the timelessness of the vegetables and milk, it is enough to deny your own mortality.
“Daddy, when can we go to the toy section?” Delilah asks again, and this time her voice is more forceful. He walks to the strawberry stalls, casually remembering they were nearly out at home. Buying three more containers couldn’t hurt. He holds a container now, remembering how it felt in his hands ten years ago. Now his face is more lined, his hair more white, the grip of his hands wearier, but the supermarket and these containers remain the same. He tries to decode the promises on its label, the locally-farmed and exotic. The two words are enough to make him put the containers in his shopping cart.
He turns now to the freezer section, passing the usual words of ceremony — thirty percent sale, last offer, buy-one-get-one-free. He loves to decipher, to revel in these familiar words. Everywhere is well-lit and white noise. Delilah talks to him, but her words fuse into the beautiful dissonance of tearful children and irritated customers, the crimson-cheeked man who wants to speak to the manager as customers look shamefully into their carts.
He has stood in those lines so many times, looking at tabloids and celebrities he knows through the saturated covers and daring headlines. Angelina Jolie looks stunning as she and her kids make a rare public appearance. Or: Lindsey Buckingham opens up about his departure from Fleetwood Mac, reporting on a shocking ultimatum. Or: 10 Shocking Foods You Should Never Eat Again — the seventh one will surprise you! Each headline gave him an adrenaline high, each cover outrageous and compelling. Each celebrity is under fire, each conspiracy revealed through his own private collusions to pay the extra dollar for a tabloid to put on the coffee table.
He turns to the freezer, only to stop, taking a step back as his fingers begin to tremble.
“Is anything wrong, sir?” an employee asks, putting down the cans she is organizing to peer at him with an innocuous smile. His throat constricts, and he turns to her with misty eyes.
“I was looking for ice cream,” he says. “Is there a reason why it isn’t here?” Her smile falters before tightening again, her eyes brightened by an unaccountable eagerness. In front of him is a darkened deep-freezer, the lights turned off and the shelves completely empty of food items. There is no bright light, but only a blackness that grins at him. His legs are brittle.
“I’m so sorry, sir! The freezer broke down two days ago, so we’re waiting to get it replaced! The ice cream was moved to the end of the aisle while we wait for the repairmen to come!” she says.
“That’s where the waffles are,” he says, his voice feeble to his own ears. He places a hand on the shelf to steady himself, looking fearfully at the customers around him. They, too, are disoriented in the change, stopping abruptly at certain aisles and blinking, now, as if they were seeing the supermarket for the first time. Some of them are wandering aimlessly in the halls, clutching onto their shopping carts and moving at slow paces, as if these halls aren’t a muscle memory.
And he doesn’t know if it is anger or fear that guides his next words, or if it is only grief. He pushes his shopping cart to obstruct the aisle, his nostrils flaring.
“There are people who go through traffic to get here,” he tells her. “After a hard day at work, the least you could do is make it easy for us to navigate. Is that too hard? Is it really too difficult for you?” Her smile disappears, and he notices, briefly, how large the uniform looks on her body.
The shoppers bow their heads and squeeze past him. Delilah is looking up at him, not quite understanding what is happening. She starts to tear up and he doesn’t know why.
“Don’t yell, Daddy. You’re scaring her.”
But his anger is keeping him afloat.
“I could get you fired for your lack of efficiency. I’ve shopped here for fifteen years, and not once have I seen a defective machine. I suppose the youth these days are not too keen on perfection, but what should I expect?”
“Sir, please keep your voice down.”
“Why should I? I’ve been here longer than you. I want to speak to your manager.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, sir. I would be happy to walk you to the new ice cream section. I can understand how this change can cause you to feel a bit lost,” she said. Her voice is softer, and he doesn’t quite know where he is anymore. These aisles look unfamiliar, the darkened freezer calling to him. He remembers who he is.
He nods and the earnest smile returns to her face. She steps in front of him and points him to the brightened freezer at the corner, the ice cream tubs arranged in the same order as he remembered. He exhales, a sense of calm returning to him briefly.
“Let me know if you need anything else, sir!” she says, before returning to the shelf she had been working on. He doesn’t respond, not knowing if he has enough air in his lungs. He remembers he and his wife here, she holding a self-conscious air as her eyes darted over brands and labels. She always shopped as if it were some sort of anxious event. He opens the freezer, relief washing over him as the knob feels identical to the one he formerly would turn. He buys Pistachio and Coffee, Rocky Road for Delilah, closing the freezer. Its closing eased him, ensuring the immortality of the tubs enclosed in its shell.
He looks at the tubs with an emotion so close to love.
“Daddy, I want to go to the toy section!” Delilah says, stamping her feet on the ground. Her face is red, just as his was a few minutes ago, and he sighs before pulling her down the hallway.
“Okay, but only one toy,” he warns. She groans, her mouth turning into a pout. He knew they would inevitably argue, and she would cry, and he would either cave and finance her demands or be met by a stony silence on the drive home, which reminded him too much of death these days.
He is halfway down the hallway when he noticed the freezer again, the one which was supposed to have ice cream but didn’t.
It was here she had told him she was going to die. She was wearing a new wig, one that was the closest red to her old hair. You’re not going to die, he said back. Death happens to everyone else, not us.
Yeah, she said. I guess you’re right.
But don’t you think about it, ever? That one day we will die? Her voice was so soft he barely heard her question.
I think about it all the time. I’m so afraid. And now it is happening, and I don’t know what to say to you.
I’m going to look at the paper towels.
I don’t want to be alone.
Honey, please conceal it from me. Please hold me until I forget we are doomed.
He looks around, now, at this place which reminds him of life. He looks now at this moment he is experiencing, this mass amnesia he is a part of. He peers into the darkened shelves, at something he knew he shouldn’t have seen.
Delilah is pulling at his sleeve, threatening to cry. He remembers the things his wife used to whisper into his ear at night, as he sat by her bedside at the hospital. She was so thin now, and her eyes permanently warped from her constant tears: I don’t sleep anymore. It reminds me too much of death. I stay up so many nights just so I can feel alive. There is something terrible in my dreams and it grins at me.
And I can’t speak to you now without it being a goodbye. And I can’t tell you any more about love without it being about loss.
He presses his hands to the glass, wanting to see any bit of light in its darkened shell. The memories are old and he struggles to decipher the words he said to her, wanting, now, to find out what she had meant. His eyes focus from the freezer to his own hands, and he is repulsed at their lines and sun spots.
He has seen enough, turning to put extra items in the cart: lamb strips, squash, three gallons of milk. Each item is a claim of life — the food which he purchases to eat, the energy of each organism turning into his energy, bestowed onto his cells to perpetuate the pumping of his heart and the inflation of his lungs, to prompt his eyes to open and his mouth to function. Eating is an act of violence. The supermarket is a sanctuary for the hopelessness of the daily man, determined in his desire to deny his mortality.
He allows Delilah her choice of three toys, and she takes pains to choose the perfect ones. They join the line for the cashier, pushing the shopping cart peacefully. Each of them is of a conspirator in this denial of death, conversing to each other in this language of immortality. The cashiers are college students, wearing the same uniforms as ten years ago, donning the familiar cheek acne and smiles. He looks through a tabloid, at the timeless faces, wondering if he could, like these people, transcend.
The scanner runs over his food items, putting names to the parcels, stipulating prices. Neither the cashier nor he has any jurisdiction over these machines. He stands passively as he holds Delilah’s hand, the cashier scanning each item wordlessly and putting the containers into plastic bags. He knows he must be forgetting an item, but he doesn’t attempt to figure out what it is. The supermarket is always here. There will always be more time.
He and Delilah walk out of the supermarket and into the darkness. He returns the cart to an extended row in the front, afterward walking hesitantly out of the glow of the supermarket lights and to his car. This was always his least favorite part.
He stops in the middle of the parking lot, placing the grocery bags onto the floor. He turns from the darkness to the supermarket, bright and alive. It all went on as before, even in his absence.
A puddle has accumulated since he departed, signs of the evening rain. He looks into it, aware of his reflection that was distorted by the trembling water.
His eyes are puffy from no sleep, his hairline receding. White stubble is accumulated above his upper lip. He has aged too soon. The lines on his forehead were not there two years ago, he is certain, but he hasn’t looked into a proper mirror for a long time. The puddle trickles down the parking lot. He is everywhere.
Delilah is pulling on the car door before turning to him, her eyes gleaming in the dark.
“What’s the matter, Daddy?” she asks. He turns and opens his mouth, the din of the supermarket still ringing in his ears, being replaced by silence. Delilah’s body is disappearing into the dark, and he struggles to see the car or even the outline of the supermarket in front of him. Or perhaps he is going blind. Or perhaps he is dying.
“I’m so afraid,” he says. Delilah is staring up at him, her mouth opening slightly as he begins to cry. For the briefest of moments she blinks, and all is gone.