“Today, a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket” by Hilma Wolitzer

The trappings of domesticity and routine lead to a nervous breakdown in this short story from 1966.

A woman crying in the supermarker

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Woman crying in supermarket
Illustrated by Austin Briggs

Originally published on March 12 1966.

Even now, saying it aloud or, later, repeating that sentence to my husband, I will see that it is meant to amuse, to attract interest, to get attention. Of course, I am too sophisticated in things psychological (isn’t everyone today?) to think that one goes mad at a moment’s notice. There are insipid beginnings to a nervous breakdown. There is lonely crying in the bathroom, balanced on the edge of the tub, and in the kitchen, weeping into the dishwater, tears breaking the surface of the suds. There is forgetting, or wishing to forget, the names of the children, the way to the local bank, the reason for getting up in the morning. There is loss of vanity — toenails growing long and dirty into prehensile claws, hair uncombed, eyebrows unplucked. Yet, somehow there seems to me something very right about going mad in a supermarket: painted oranges, threatening to burst at the navel; formations of cans, armored with labels and prices and weights; cuts of meat, aggressively bloody; and crafty peaches and apples, showing only their glowing perfect faces, hiding the rot and soft spots on their undersides.

Nevertheless, this woman did not go trundling her cart through the ordered chaos. She stood transfixed, as if caught in some great thought. She was blocking the aisle.

“Excuse me,” I said tentatively, hesitant and self-protective as only a woman expecting her first child can be. “Pardon me, could I just get through?”

She turned slowly, and the two small children clinging to her skirt held on and tightened the cloth across her hips. Perhaps for the glory of the retelling, I might say that she was a great beauty, that her beauty was marred (or enhanced) only by her wild expression. In truth, she was pretty in a common sort of way, with conventional hair and eyes and nose. Only what she said then stopped me from clearing my throat and asking again if she would move and let me through.

She gripped the handle of her empty cart and said, “There is no end to it.” It was said so simply and undramatically, but with great honest conviction, that for a moment I thought she was referring to the aisle of the supermarket. Perhaps it was blocked ahead of us, and she could not move up farther. But then she said, “I have tried and I have tried, and there is no end to it. Ask Harold. Ask anybody, ask my mother.”

“Do you feel all right?” I asked. “Can I help you?”

Her knuckles were white and hard as she clung to the cart. She did not answer.

I looked around me self-consciously, and then I leaned toward her and said, “Would you like to go home?”

“You know,” she said severely, “that I can’t go there.”

Then a woman rattled her cart toward us from the other end of the aisle. “Excuse me,” she called out cheerfully. “Coming through!”

“Could you go the other way?” I asked her.

“Why should I go the other way?” she demanded.

“Because this aisle is blocked,” I answered, grimacing and rolling my eyes. She looked at me suspiciously and walked briskly back in the other direction. A chain of voices began in the back of the store. I heard the last one call, “Mr. A.! Mr. A.!”

Then for a few minutes we were alone, the woman and her children and myself. We stood in the supermarket as if primed for a television commercial in which the magical product would come winging from the shelves, where brand X would forever stay, unwanted and untried. The manager, Mr. A., came eagerly toward us. He is a kindly fellow with dull eyes, who perhaps could seem even kinder in a small, intimate grocery store. He will sprint off on a given signal and bring back the bread crumbs or the baking soda or the canned crab meat that you cannot seem to find anywhere. He rubbed his hands nervously.

“How can I bear it?” the woman cried in grief.

Mr. A. looked at her questioningly. “Can I get you some water?” he asked.

She did not answer him, but covered her mouth with her hand, so that all her anguish was concentrated in her eyes. I began to tremble, and I worried that my concern for her would somehow affect the child I was carrying. Didn’t I worry two aisles back, if, when the time came, I would choose the right baby food, that my milk would flow, that I would be a wise mother? All this time the two small children did not release their grip on their mother’s skirt.

“She’s very ill,” I told Mr. A.

“Shall I call the police?” he asked. The woman began to weep big flowing tears, and I thought then that all the priests and plumbers and policemen of the world could not stay them.

“No, no,” I said quickly, looking at the children. Bending at the knees, I leaned toward the taller child. “What’s your name?” I asked him. I was close enough to smell his milky breath and to see that his nose was running onto a crusty sore right under it. He turned his face away from mine and did not answer. Feeling balder, I took the handbag that was looped over the woman’s wrist, and she did not resist me. She did not seem to notice.

“There must be something, if only I could remember,” she said vaguely. The pocketbook creaked open, as if from long disuse, or like the mouth of a nervous child at the dentist’s. Mr. A. peered over my shoulder. There was a sweet, hair-tonic smell. The pocketbook was empty. We peered into it, unbelieving. It was the saddest thing I had ever seen, that empty pocketbook.

“Jeez,” Mr. A. whispered. But then he brightened. “Say,” he said, “say, if her pocketbook’s empty, then she doesn’t have any car keys. She must have walked here. If she walked here, then she can’t live too far.”

I looked at him coldly. “Maybe she left them in the car,” I said. “Or maybe she cleaned out her purse somewhere, or left home with it empty.”

This deflated him for only a moment. He looked thoughtful, then called to a stock boy who had been staring at us. Mr. A. sent him out into the parking lot and told him to look at the ignitions of all the cars.

“Pee-pee,” said the smaller child suddenly, tugging at his mother’s skirt.

“Oh,” I said. “He has to go to the bathroom.” I took his fist and tried to detach it from his mother’s skirt. He held fast with the tenacity of a tick in a dog’s coat.

Mama, pee-pee,” the child insisted.

“He only wants his mother to take him,” I told Mr. A., and he nodded as if I was translating from a foreign language. The child stuck his thumb into his mouth and sucked greedily. Then the stock boy came back and said that there was no car with a key in it.

A small group of women had gathered at the end of the aisle, curiosity drawing them close, fear keeping them distant. “Do any of you know this woman?” I shouted to them.

They mumbled among themselves, and then a tall, rawboned woman in a Girl Scout uniform walked closer. “ I don’t know her — “ she began, and from the rear someone called, “Why don’t you look in her pocketbook?”

“I don’t know her.” the tall woman repeated, “but I know who she is.” She ducked her head and then glanced up guiltily. “Her name is Shirley Lewis. Mrs. Harold Lewis,” she whispered, and then fell back into the crowd of women like a frightened informer.

“But where does she live?” I asked irritably.

“Oh-oh, pee-pee,” sighed the little boy, and a stream of urine, tentatively begun, ran down his leg.

“Never rush into anything,” his mother stated. And then nostalgically, “How nice it was to be children!”

“Where? Where?” I snapped at the woman in the Girl Scout uniform. I knew that I was vying with Mr. A. We were playing detective, savior, twenty questions, God. Who would win this terrible contest and solve the mystery and set things right again? I had a good lead. All-powerful, matriarchal, replete with swollen belly.

The woman came forward again. She mumbled an address and stepped back into the group of women. Mr. A. scribbled the information in a little notebook and went to the telephone in his office. One point for Mr. A.

“Where is Harold?” I asked slyly when Mr. A. had gone. Shirley Lewis looked at me with real interest. “Ha, ha,” she said, and smirked, squinting her eyes, as if I had said something vulgar but worth noting. The little boy stood, straddling his puddle, miserable with his public act. I looked into my shopping cart and saw that the frozen things had begun to sweat and thaw. I was very tired. My legs were singing with fatigue. I wanted to sit down. I wanted to go home and take a bath. The woman was tiresome, the game was tedious, the supermarket was boring.

“We sat at the table,” Shirley Lewis began. “My grandmother brought in the soup. It was so heavy, her hands trembled. Uncle Al brought everybody in the car. He had a Pontiac.”

Mr. A. came back. He was smiling. The game was over. “Her husband is home! He was sleeping; he didn’t even know she was out.”

“Ahhhhh,” moaned the crowd of women, like a Greek chorus.

Soon, the husband came. He had the car, after all. The children rushed from their mother to him. Fair-weather friends, I thought. He was tall and heavy. He was wearing work clothes, and his shoes were untied. There were sleep creases down the side of one cheek. He ignored everyone else, although we looked eagerly to him as we might to the comedy relief in a melodrama. Incredibly, he scolded the small boy for wetting his pants. To his wife, he said, “What’s the matter with you?”, and he took her arm. She went with him, and then it was all over. Several women broke away from the crowd and went to the window. They watched Harold and Shirley and the children get into the car.

I looked dully into my shopping cart. It was impossible to remember the other things I had wanted to buy. Shirley Lewis’s pocketbook lay gaping on top of my own. I wondered if it would be returned to her. I thought, whimsically, that we would not be hearing from her. Harold had not said thank you to anyone. I imagined, giddily, an engraved card coming in the mail: “Mr. Harold Lewis and family thank you for the kindness extended to Mrs. Lewis in her time of need.”

Mr. A. was extremely gracious. He guided me to an unopened check-out counter and personally rang up the few items in my cart. “Some fun,” he said, clucking his tone. “You were swell.” He was the master detective congratulating the cop on the beat. His glory knew no bounds. He offered to take my package to the car.

“No, no,” I said, yawning in his face. I left the pocketbook on his counter, sneakily, as one leaves a litter of kittens in a vacant lot. “

Good-bye,” some of the women called to me. I had proved myself after all, and someday they would ask me to join committees and PTA’s and protest groups. I went home. My matriarchal stature had changed to a pregnant waddle. When my husband came home from work, I was sitting in the bathtub and weeping.

“What — what is it?” he cried, primed for catastrophe.

“Everything,” I said, gesturing at the swelling that rose above the water level. “Everything. The human condition. The world.”

His face relaxed slightly, and he waited for me to go on.

I rose, the water spiraling from my belly. “A woman went mad in the supermarket today.”

He managed to look both compassionate and questioning. “What did you do?”

I waved the towel as if it were a banner, a piece of evidence. “There was nothing I could do. Nothing at all. I mean, I tried, but there was simply no way that I could help her.”

He took the towel and began to dry my back.

“I think I know how you feel,” he said, “but you can’t mother the whole world.”

“No,” I said. “I guess I can’t, can I?” I turned around and threw myself awkwardly into his arms, the only world, at that moment, that seemed safe for me and my child.

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