(flash fiction, 989 words)
My wife points out marriage should be a partnership. “This home is not, in fact, your castle,” she says. She thinks it best I start with an unskilled job. She gives me grocery shopping. There I am one day at the Safeway, studying the list she’d given me. I’m asking the cashier, “TP? She wrote TP. You know what that means?”
The cashier, pretty girl, blinks. Then I hear behind me this big, gravel voice: “That’s toilet paper, you dumb shit!” I look back and there’s old Tom Wilson with a full cart and his wife’s list too.
“Toilet paper. I should have thought of that. Where’s that going to be?” I ask the girl.
“Up your ass if you use it right,” Tom says. He’s laughing. The girl turns bright red – her cheeks, down her slender neck, even the pale skin of her chest peeking from the collar of her shirt. She smiles and points to aisle nine. I get out of the line and old Tom Wilson rolls up and starts emptying his cart. He’s got a handful of coupons.
“Tom,” I say, “You’re one efficient old gal. Your husband must be proud.”
The girl laughs. Tom flips me the bird.
“Let me know if you need any more help,” the girl says.
“I learned to drive a tank in the army. I think I can do this,” I say and I roll out toward aisle nine.
But it is harder than I thought it would be. There’s too much to choose from. I see the brand they put on TV all the time, but it’s pricey. Then there are the less-expensives, but I don’t know about the quality and my wife’s particular. Some of them have flowers printed on them and I’m not sure I want to go that route.
“Are you finding what you need?”
I look and there’s the cashier girl next to me. She has both hands up behind her head, refixing her blond hair into a ponytail, and that lifts her shirt up above the top of her skirt and I see her slim waist. She’s close and I smell a perfume on her skin, but it might be the smell of bread from the bakery. Either way it’s warm and soft.
“My wife didn’t say which one to get.”
“Well, this one’s on sale this week,” she says and she pulls down an eight-roll pack. “It’s usually the most expensive one.”
“Sold,” I say. I take the package and drop it into my cart. “What’s your name?”
“Samantha, maybe I need you to shop for me all the time.”
“I’m here every Wednesday through Sunday.” She reaches out and puts her hand on my forearm and smiles when she says that. She is sunshine and birdsong and then she’s walking away down the aisle, her ponytail swaying as she goes.
I volunteer to go to the supermarket after that. Two, three times a week I’m thinking of something we need.
“Hamburger? Let me run down to Safeway. No tinfoil? I don’t mind going. Ammonia? Mop head? Rutabaga? I’m on it.” I say hi to Samantha every time I’m there; she’s sweet to me and she smiles that smile and I always tell her I’m lost without her. We get to talking. She’s nineteen, starting at the college. She wants to be a forensic accountant. I don’t know what that is, but it sounds beautiful when she says it.
I know I should be questioning myself by this point. I’m nearly three times her age. But damn it, she smiles at me, she leaves what she’s doing when I come in, she goes with me around the store. And I am somebody with her. She sees me. Before Samantha, no one had seen me for years. I had been my wife’s husband, there beside her, turning gray, becoming invisible. Before Samantha saw me, I thought I was my wife’s imaginary friend.
I wasn’t looking, but we found each other. That’s how it is with love: it burns out one place, it will spark up somewhere else. You can’t predict; you can’t question. Just be grateful.
Then one day, after weeks of this, my wife wants to make a kielbasa stew. I have the shopping list. Stew ingredients and other things. I think I can make it with just a basket, but there’s so much vegetable my basket is full before I get to anything else. I need a cart. I go to the front of the store. I’m looking for Samantha as I go. She’s usually here, but I don’t see her.
I get to the carts, still looking for Samantha, when there’s a rumbling from the parking lot. I look through the big windows and there’s old Tom Wilson rolling up on his Harley Davidson. There’s a girl on the back and I know before Tom even stops that it’s Samantha. She swings off the back, pulls off her helmet and her blond hair plunges out. They’re talking, she laughs, he kisses her hand and she bounds toward the door while he shuts down his bike.
The door swishes open and in she comes still smiling and says “Hi, Charlie,” like nothing’s wrong.
I’m smacking my gums, standing there with my vegetables in a cart and my shopping list quivering in my hand.
“Are you finding everything you need? You look lost again.”
I look down at my list. I pick an item at random just to have something to say that isn’t about her and Tom Wilson and what might be going on between them.
“TV,” I say just as Tom Wilson struts in the door behind Samantha. “She wrote TV and I don’t know what that is.”
“Tender Vittles,” Tom says. “It’s cat food, asshole.”
“That’s it,” Samantha says. “Aisle 15. Do you want me to show you?”
“No,” I say. “I know where it is.”