“Excuse me, miss.” A voice, elderly and male, spoke from behind my left shoulder.
I ignored it. I was halfway down the canned vegetable aisle, leaning forward onto the metal cart’s red plastic handle, intently peering at the shelves of beans. Kidney beans, dark red kidney beans, light red kidney beans, lima beans, navy beans, garbanzo beans, white beans and something called pinto beans. Organized by type and then brand name, store brand and generic brand container, there were so many cans that some were even stacked on the floor. What I couldn’t find though, was the green beans. The plain old, country cut style George preferred.
“Excuse me, miss,” the voice repeated.
Without glancing backwards, I automatically pulled my cart as close to the shelves as I could. I wasn’t far out in the aisle, but there should now be plenty room for him to pass.
Where were the damn green beans? I scanned the rows again. I hated grocery shopping. Hated it like I hated waiting for the bus in sub-zero Wisconsin winters. Hated it worse than looking through the classifieds to find a cheap apartment in February that wasn’t a shithole with deadhead neighbors. Grocery shopping also reminded me I hated cooking and like a slap in the face, I knew I was going to have to cook soon. The green bean casserole was one dish George loved that I could put together without screwing up too badly.
Damn green beans! My eyes traveled back up to the top shelf.
“Excuse me, miss.” The third time the voice was a bit louder and more persistent. Sighing, I finally turned to look.
Standing just behind me was an elderly man, maybe five foot five. He must have been well into his 80s. Under the unbuttoned, black, woolen pea coat, was a thin, fragile frame clothed in dark grey woolen trousers, brown galoshes covering his shoes and an off-white button down shirt. His thick, oily dark gray hair sprouted out from under the brown newsboy cap tilted jauntily toward the back of his head. His face was heavily wrinkled, and he hadn’t shaved that day. He stared at me intently, waiting for me to respond.
I sighed. Why couldn’t I just get in and out of the damn grocery store without having to conduct some Good Samaritan act for an old guy?
It occurred to me he might have mistaken me for a store employee. After all, the khaki pants and navy blue blouse I wore to work at the plant were generic enough to pass for a grocery market uniform, but I was also wearing my magenta down-filled car coat, so it would at least appear I was off shift. He didn’t need to bother me. “Can I help you?”
He smiled and I noticed several missing teeth. But it was a friendly smile that took time to build and hold. He raised his hand, as wrinkled and spotted as his face, and pointed to my cart. “I just happened to notice that you had an apple strudel in there, and I was wondering where you got it from. I didn’t see any in the bakery.” The finger shook as he held it extended.
I followed the direction of his finger. In my cart, an apple strudel lie on top of the small collection of items – bread, bologna, mustard, olives, bananas, and apples. I hadn’t yet made my way to the frozen aisles where I would stock up on Hungry Man dinners and pizzas. George liked the Salisbury steak and potatoes.
Where had I found the apple strudel? I had to think for a moment. “There was a display at the end of an aisle. On sale for $2.49.”
He retracted his hand, placing it back on the cart handle. “Oh, oh, very good!” he seemed delighted with the information. “My wife, Ella, favors the apple strudel. She particularly likes to have it with her coffee in the morning.”
I nodded once. I didn’t really care.
“We typically watch the morning news program together in the kitchen. Our son bought us one of those little television sets that we put on the counter top. Ella doesn’t like to eat in the living room, you know, which is where our other television set is.”
I again nodded, but my attention was waning. Green beans. I couldn’t forget about them. If I came home without the green beans for the casserole, George would be pissed.
“I usually like to pick up a nice treat for her. She doesn’t get out much. It’s been so long since she’s had apple strudel. A good apple strudel. Those frozen ones aren’t very good, you know. Have you ever had one? They tend to get a funny taste.” He became more animated as he spoke, as if he were gaining steam.
Panicking, I realized I might be stuck in an extended conversation. I picked up the strudel and put it in his cart, where there were only a few items. “Here, you can have this one. Doesn’t make sense for you to go all the way back there.”
“Oh, no, no. That isn’t right.” He leaned forward to return the baked goods.
I shook my finger at him, smirking a little. “Don’t argue with me. That wouldn’t be polite.”
Something about him reminded me of my grandfather, who had passed away 35 years earlier. Picking up an apple strudel for his wife because it was something she liked, is something my grandfather would have done. He treated my grandmother like a queen, always pulling out her chair and telling her how pretty she was. Why couldn’t all men be like that?
This old guy he deserved something better than a passing comment. “Just you take it and no more arguing, understand?”
His face broadened into a wide smile and he leaned back into his stance, holding tight to the cart to keep his balance. “Well thank you. Thank you very much.”
I could see that he was ready to burst into more conversation so I spoke before he could begin. “I’m sorry, but I’m in a rush to catch my bus, so I need to keep shopping. I hope Ella enjoys the strudel.” And with that, I pushed off and moved down the aisle. Five feet away, I spotted the elusive green beans and scooped up two cans without stopping.
When I reached the end of the aisle, I turned to watch him walk away but there was no one. He was gone. Confused, I stopped and sharply turned the cart on its bad front wheel, banging into the Townhouse cracker display. Two boxes tumbled down.
Gone? How the hell could he be gone so quickly? I thought as I picked up the boxes and put them back on the shelf. He wasn’t capable of accelerating to more than one-half mile an hour. I let go of the cart and walked over to the aisles on each side. There was a mother with a baby in the cart in one and a middle-aged woman in the other, but no sign of the elderly man. I shrugged, and then turned my cart away from the frozen section to backtrack to the bakery.
I needed to replace the baked goods. Maybe on Saturday morning, while George was still sleeping off his Friday night bender, I would have mug of coffee and a slice of apple strudel in front of the TV.