Cecilia Kennedy taught English and Spanish courses in Ohio before moving to Washington state and publishing short stories in various magazines and anthologies. The Places We Haunt is her first short story collection. You can find her DIY humor blog and other adventures/achievements here and her Twitter @ckennedyhola.
Produce, in glaring shades of green, orange, and red, blur together as I push my wonky-wheeled cart along a streaked linoleum floor at 6:50 a.m. on a Saturday. A few of us scatter about the aisles at this time, on this day, avoiding the towering merchandise- transport carts, loaded with bread and sodas—and all of the boxes that block the aisles because this is also the hour when the shelves are stocked. The “customer-comes-first-rule” does not apply. “Can I help you with something?” is also followed up by a look that says “Do you really need to shop, right now while I’m stocking the shelves?”
I’ve trained my eyes to spot colors and shapes for items I need, since I’m still half-asleep, but sometimes I look up to see faces and human forms bundled up in jackets, shuffling about clumsily in the harsh light. Some of them become familiar. A man, in his 30s, in a light blue jacket, seems to be leaving every aisle I’m entering. Our carts nearly collide. We nod our heads at each other. And then, rushing past the pasta aisle, I see a long ribbon of carefully blown-out hair, with golden weaves of color mixing into the darker brown. She is absolutely striking. And I wonder. . . I wonder how long it will take until I consider grocery shopping, something other than a chore.
Sharp, staccato rings from the alarm pierce the dark edges between night and morning. It’s 6 a.m. on Saturday, and I must get to the store.
“You’re in a bit of a hurry today,” my husband says.
“I think something will happen.”
He looks confused, but he doesn’t ask me to explain.
Inside the grocery store, my eyes adjust to the light quickly this time. After picking through the produce and meat selections, I head down the frozen food aisle, and I see him—the man in blue. Then, I go down the cereal aisle, and I see her, but this arrangement will never do. They are so close, but so far away. The only thing they have in common is me. Since they’ve each run into me at least once, I now know what I must do: I follow her closely with my cart, right on her heels. She turns around and smiles politely, but I know she’s annoyed. (She’ll thank me later, I hope.) To stall for time, I back up, go down another aisle, and get in front of her. I’m cruising straight down the center of the aisle so that she can’t pass me. The wheels shake and squeal as I walk as fast as I can until. . . I see him, and I cut out of the way, just in time for their two carts to smash together. Then, I leave.
When I finish shopping, I see them together, by the check-out section. She flips her hair. He looks directly into Her eyes, and they go on like this—like they’ve known each other for years.
I’m fumbling for my keys at 6:15 a.m. on a Saturday, when my husband asks why I’m leaving even earlier than usual on shopping day.
“I need to know how the story ends,” I tell him.
“A love story. I’ve created a love story in the grocery store, and I need to follow it each week, to see how it goes.”
He just nods his head and kisses me goodbye, reminding me to take my list.
In the produce aisle, I see her. She’s looking for the perfect tomato, but her body is turned toward the door, and she keeps looking up. She’s waiting for that moment when he walks in. I stay just long enough to see that happen. He pushes his cart in through the door and looks right at Her. They meet by the tomatoes, and my stomach flutters. I can’t help but smile and hurry along to the meat section.
In the cereal aisle, they’re walking side-by-side, their carts only one-third of the way full. By the time I reach the dairy section, they’re standing next to each other. She lightly touches his arm. He gently pulls her closer.
They carry on like this for weeks—hardly shopping, just strolling along and talking, and I’m yearning for the day when I might see them near the jewelry counter next to the electronics department, or maybe near the home furnishings section by the seasonal items, but that doesn’t happen. Instead, their shopping carts drift further and further away from one another.
“Oh! It can’t last!” I tell my husband.
“What can’t last?”
“A supermarket-romance. I guess supermarket romances just don’t last, and I’ve lost my will to shop.”
“Pirate’s Booty Puffcorn is on sale,” he says. “You like Pirate’s Booty, right?”
“I do,” I say as I kiss him and take the coupon from his hand.
When I get to the store, “she” and “he” are not there at all. Instead, a taller man, with two smaller shopping carts tied together by a chain of produce bags enters the frozen food section and takes up the entire aisle. I don’t understand why he needs two shopping carts. He unchains one of them to angle it precisely in front of the freezer that holds the French fries, and I’m trapped. But then, at the end of the aisle, I see just the basket of another cart and a pair of shoes stepping out—just one pair of candy-colored leather pointed toes that could either belong to pumps or ostrich-print western boots. I don’t know which, but either way, they’re perfect. The wheels of the cart start to make a turn down the aisle and, if the timing is right, they’ll run straight into the cart of the man who is ransacking the French-fry supply. I hold my breath. My heart pounds. The sound of metal carts crashing is the sweetest I’ve ever heard.