Sunday night. Late enough that we have to be quick. Cass has school tomorrow. We need to get back home by, more or less, now.
But Grossness takes time. Mostly because Cass will not be rushed. At Grossness, at anything. She is a consummate operator. Don’t be fooled by those wide whorls of pale green. Eyes like her mom’s. They advertise simplicity, but behind them work vast intricacies, quirking and stamping in perfect quiet like the latest machines. She revels — revels — in the spotlight that competition imparts. Is her voice the chirp of sweetest mornings? Sure. Yes. And that voice, please know, is how a conqueress throws opponents off their game.
All this means the opposite of quick.
It’s so late that it’s too dark to read the plaque outside. You wouldn’t even know there was a plaque outside. Since when do Shop Rites have plaques outside? The plaque says they built St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City with stone quarried from the site that is now the hole in which this supermarket sits. The store, for its part, is content to leave this unconfirmed and undenied. It merely shines like a god-baby, squat and lit up from within, contemplating the world with a calm cheer from inside its granite mandorla. It radiates the signature contradictory attitude of divine things: at once oblivious of all the trivial that is chaff, and highly, highly aware, with a pitying intelligence, of all the trivial that matters.
You can still see the walls of unquarried stone that loom behind the store. The gouges and jags visible up and down its face are lasting insults. No one bothered to smooth or polish, to put aright, after wresting what they wanted. These jags and gouges suggest a larger order of magnitude, like they were etched by a giant with the pointy end of a bridge. That’s the physical dynamic. That’s not the metaphysical dynamic. The metaphysical dynamic is that pieces of the thirteenth most famous religious building in the world were once pieces of the very cubic space composing this Shop Rite. Put differently, there is a one-to-one correspondence between each place where inside this refrigerated megabox you might reach for frozen spinach soufflé, say, or bump shopping carts with the travel-team soccer coach, and each place where earlier this morning, thirty-one miles away, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Fiftieth Street, you might have reached for a Bible and turned without knowing it to the Book of Obadiah or tried to ignore all the tourists knowing full well you were one of them.
You’d think these were facts that deserved a plaque with dedicated lighting.
The Shop Rite is near-empty. I know this from the parking lot. Also the deli counter. Mrs. Searles (nametag) stares from behind it. Usually she disdains eye contact altogether. She barks out “Next,” handles the provolones like they’re back from furlough with fancy ideas, asks if you want Boar’s Head or store brand, grunts. Mrs. Searles has been here for years, used to get into it with Cass’s mom because Norah never remembered to take a numbered ticket and would refuse to get skipped over and would let Mrs. Searles know she couldn’t pretend that they weren’t all just human beings. But tonight Mrs. Searles rests her head and face on her folded arms upon the counter and hovers her stare over whatever passes by. Her hands are still gloved in plastic. The gloves are both see-through and transparent: a show of readiness that says, Don’t blame me I got nothing to do. In fairness, Mrs. Searles doesn’t look like she plans on drooling. She looks like, were the prospect of drooling to occur to her, she’d be fully fine with it.
Cass, gone hunting for Grossness, stalks back toward me with her finds. She’s got both hands behind her back and all the breezy subtlety of tracked armor. Her lips are wrestling with each other. Either she’s fighting down a smile or she’s finding it a challenge to carry merchandise behind herself.
Bottle of yellow mustard. Cratelet of pre-cut watermelon.
“Nicely done,” I say.” “Mustard watermelon. Gross.”
“No. Chunks of watermelon in mustard soup.”
“Even grosser. That’ll be tough to top.”
“Yeah,” says Cass. She’s released herself to smile, showing off the twin gaps where incisors used to hang. “Darla Ippolito says girls’ brains make connections that boys’ brains don’t.”
“Like, their brains work faster?”
“No. They work better. Girls’ brains think more things than boys’ brains. And you’re a boy. So, dot dot dot.”
Fanglessness is a universal trait of her age group. Maybe it’s an evolutionary device, signaling to bigger specimens an eagerness to co-exist. I may be growing up and cuting down, those blank gums say, but with a bite like this I’m definitely not a threat.
“What’s dot dot dot?” I say.
“You know, like, when you don’t say what comes next, but you kinda know.”
“Does Darla say dot dot dot?”
“No. You don’t know what three dots mean?
“I do, but — Did you make that up?” I keep the cart moving and my eyes on the shelves. This will leaven the intensity of my curiosity, elicit maximum information. “Or do your friends say that?”
“I made it up.”
I think about coaster brakes and how strange it is to put your face against the other side of a window as it’s being washed and three movies with scarabs. That should make enough of a pause.
“But did you see somebody on YouTube say dot dot dot?” I continue. “Or maybe one of your classmates likes to say it.”
I look over. Too much. I have achieved the breezy subtlety of tracked armor.
“No, Daddy.” She’s standing on tiptoes, so keen is she to help me understand. “I said dot dot dot because I know what it means. Not because other people say it.”
The single-instance past tense — “said” — lends credibility. I stand down. It’s my own background worry. She shouldn’t have to deal with it. I worry that she’s roaming the internet too freely, that she’s spending too much time staring at screens. That when she’s not staring at screens she’s subjected to Taylor and Moraya, the mean girls in her class. They’re not mean like they carry knives, but they’re mean like they wage weird campaigns of social manipulation, inventing elaborate games that trap the other kids in a choice between obeying Tayaya’s every command (Tayaya being their own coinage, apparently; one wonders what depraved enticement Taylor offered Moraya to secure top billing) and conspicuously excluding themselves from the group. Also, they talk about other girls’ weight at age seven. I almost wish Tayaya carried knives. Could just give Cass and Darla Ippolito longer knives. Norah was able to draw Cass out just by putting her mouth a certain way, by keeping silent exactly the right number of moments. Everybody’s got a different style. I have my own style. My style is ponderous, forced. Many fathers lack a fundamental grace. Have you noticed this? Or maybe it’s just the single parents, trying so hard to keep things together that all people see is the trying and not the together.
The Sunday night regulars are the lords of the Shop Rite. There are so few of them, and all roughly the same age: past the middle years but short of superannuated. The way they move they’ve got a lot of nerve. Closer to death and yet less in a hurry — and by choice, because their bodies have not yet buckled and forced a structural slowness. The Shop Rite at night is their dominion. If you had your pick of dominions, could you do much better than the Shop Rite? Vast open lanes ahead and behind for the wandering. Small bright objecterie at both flanks for the palpating. Incandescence all around.
Tonight my daughter and I are the trespassers. The Sunday night supermarket is the realm of the non-elderly old. We are not yet that. Cassandra is seven. I am forty-eight. Shut up. Forty-eight is still, very fairly, in middle age. Forty-eight is not old. Seriously, shut up.
Mr. Donny (nametag) is stacking plastic-wrapped meats into the coolers. He resembles a gym-teacher impersonator. That is, he looks more like a gym teacher than most gym teachers. Body lean, clothing kempt, face good for burning indelible memories. This last is iconically strange, with ball-of-yarn eyebrows and a nose like a galleon’s prow. He works at speed, as if a crowd of shoppers surges behind him, shrieking his name, mad for the next London broil to drop. Next to him sits a special cart made of confusing polybutylene: bread-thick and round-cornered like it was engineered for day care, but in a foreboding gray. He plucks two bubbles of blood off the cart, faces us as he does so, turns and negotiates where these packages will cozy down for the night, then faces us again for two more packages. His movements are so brief and twitchy that when I follow them with my eyes and pretend in my head like I’m moving just as he’s moving, I get nauseous.
“Hiya,” says Mr. Donny, without looking, without stopping. And then he looks — at Cass, not me.
“Is Daddy behaving himself?” he says. “Is Daddy being a good helper?”
Cass smiles, shrugs.
“Okay,” he says. “Let me know if that changes. All right? All right.”
With that Mr. Donny dives back into his work. Cass looks up at me, still smiling, but now with eyes squinted in derisive confusion and a quizzical mouth slightly open. I shrug back.
“He’s got a time-out room back there,” I say, loud enough for Mr. Donny to hear. “It’s cold.”
Mr. Donny doesn’t react. To get Mr. Donny’s attention, it seems, one must be alive and young or dead and plastic-wrapped.
We mush the shopping cart across the sprawl of floor. This floor is hard for a reason: to hold up against the constant grind of cart wheels. This floor is white for a reason: to set off in starkest contrast the stain of beef blood and the spill of blueberry yogurt, thus spurring the worker to clean these and reassuring the customer that the likes of these have been cleaned.
On Sunday nights, however, come superseding orders. The floor is hard for a different reason: to announce the presence and progress of intruders. Cass’s footsteps and mine sound like a tap-and-jazz recital at a bowling alley. The floor is white for a new and urgent reason: to set off in starkest contrast the progress of intruders. Cass and I are the beef blood — untoward, unwanted. The geniuses talk of paving the roads with solar cells. Shop Rite, uncelebrated, has managed to pave the ground with gory bell.
The organics aisle is the easiest for Grossness. The miscellany there of foods not otherwise found in proximity makes it easy to find two that pair revoltingly. Is the happenstance of my turn coinciding with the organics aisle a bit of an unfair advantage? Yes. Do I have a problem with that? Not especially. Do you like losing to seven-year-olds? That’s what I thought.
“Here you go,” I say, handing over my chosen items.
This is one of my secret strategies. I physically transfer the items rather than just show them. I figure there is a prestige to possession in this world of fleeting things. At a subconscious level, surely, a person is less likely to defame the worth of a thing she holds herself.
“Granola bars and salsa,” she says, unimpressed.
“Eh,” she says, staunch in her unimpressedness. Kids do not grow up gradually. Kids grow up suddenly, acutely, in those moments calculated by fate to make their parents feel most ridiculous.
“Come on,” I say, “that’s gross.”
“I’d eat it.”
My secret strategy is mostly just a secret.
“No, you wouldn’t.”
“On a desert island I would.”
“On a desert island I’d eat watermelon-crouton mustard soup.”
“No, you wouldn’t.”
“On a desert island I’d lick my coconut shell clean. I’d hide from every rescue boat if I had enough watermelon-crouton mustard soup.”
“Unless of course the boats were loaded with more mustard-melon soup. Yummers.”
“You’re a mustard-melon soup.”
That’s my girl. One moment she grows up. The next moment she regresses to her homuncula self, composed entirely of cartilage and silly sass.
We’re making good time. Only a few customers purl down the aisles. They’re obligated to complete the length of each before moving to the next. Unlike the newer stores, this one features no midway widthwise passage cutting the aisles in half. Old-school footprint, old-school commitment. Now and then the customers reach absently for the shelves. If you were to tie freshly wetted paintbrushes to their ankles, you’d never see a stripe. You’d see only spreading pools from the standstill sopping. Their desultory pace resembles nature. That’s how shoppers steal for themselves a sneaky dignity. They’re shoppers, they’re not scientists or clerics or presidents. Well, some of them may be, granted. But none of them in a supermarket is titrating suspensions or leading prayers or mulling fresh intel. They’re just shopping. Yet shoppers always manage to seem so measured and self-possessed. And that’s their secret. They ape nature. They mimic her regal and fated and incomprehensible processes. Consequently, they look like queens and kings. Mysterious. Inevitable. Some kinds of misbehavior are hardly punished.
If this store had a midway widthwise passage, it would coincide with the cathedral’s nave.
I hand her one item.
“Where’s the other thing?” she says.
“What do you mean?” I say.
“This is salt. Morton Salt, it says.”
“But you need two things.”
She doesn’t know what my second item is. She knows it won’t be salt. It was Norah who came up with the two-of-a-kind move. Two vats of vanilla pudding. Two family-size bags of Funyuns. It was a pleasing absurdity: the non-surprise surprise of an identical item, the notion of sheer excess being disgusting. We don’t play Norah’s move.
Both things are of her. The game as a whole, the two-of-a-kind move. She suffuses both things. One we play always, exactly because. The other we play never, exactly because. Why? I don’t know. I should probably just ask Cass. Better yet, don’t put the burden on her. Just tell her why I don’t do the move, without waiting for it to come up, after I figure out why I don’t. Such a small thing. It’ll sound casual, not a big deal. Communication, positivity, time. I remember the counselor at the hospital very well. Mostly his breath like a box left out in the damp. But also his condescension, his clearly well-intentioned condescension, which meant you couldn’t get fed up with him or maybe you could. His shtick about our three best tools. Those are your tools, he said. Use your tools. Well, time’s easy enough. Time happens. You can’t screw that up. But communication? Sure, there’s no downside to it when you just say it like that, the last syllable delivered with a knowing puff smelling of moldering cardboard. But communication in the moment. When you go to tuck her in and she’s desperate to hide that she’s been crying. When you want positivity so badly for her that the slightest risk that communication will ruin everything is abhorrent and so fuck communication. What about that?
I produce the second item from behind my back with an extravagance generally reserved for objects bearing magic runes.
“A spoon,” she says.
“Yes, a spoon,” I say. “Salt, and a big plastic spoon to eat it all with.”
It’s a red plastic serving spoon. Eight or ten times the size of a tablespoon. The color and caricaturish size suggest the only way to eat a twenty-six ounce helping of salt is to fall upon it ravenously.
“That’s gross,” she says. “That’s extremely gross, Daddy. Daddy, I think you won.”
A hundred thousand items in this store. Two thousand humans in and out of it every day. None of them compares with this waist-high sprite bursting at the skull seams with tangled curls. She will concede defeat, even when victory means the world to her. With that heart of hers, so good, so obliviously and unquestioningly good, honesty and kindness are the same thing.
This is one of the thousand reasons I love her like an acetylene torch.
“I don’t know, girl. If anybody can beat me, it’s you.”
It’s quiet. I’ve knocked out all but four items on the shopping list. I find one of the four further up the aisle. If I double-back — Yep, there it is. I’m down to two. I’m feeling both calm and masterful. And that’s when I remember: danger signs. These are danger signs. No parent of a young child gets to feel calm and masterful. Cass. Where is she?
I motor down Aisle 11 with the cart, thinking maybe she’s behind the mac-and-cheese display that juts out from the shelves like a Huck Finn island. Nope. Nothing.
Behind me. I pull a U turn.
“Where’d you go?” I say. She’s dragging behind her a very large art pad.
“I thought the rule was you have to pick from the aisle you’re in.”
“Yeah,” she says. “But you said we had time for one more turn. So I thought I’d go quick to the next aisle.”
I feel a little bad. Aisle 12, the next aisle and also the second-to-last of all, is the ultimate slumgullion: hampers and seasonal items and plastic flowers and mousetraps, plus a cooler that wraps around from Aisle 13 with the start of the dairy items. She has her work cut out for her.
She reads my look of sympathy as a look of doubt.
“It’s got better stuff,” she says, as if this is so obvious I should be held accountable for making her point it out.
“All right,” I say. “Whatdya got?”
She leans the giant art pad against her hip so that she can hand me a quart of cottage cheese. She holds this with both hands far away from her, like a transplant nurse with an organ phobia.
“What’s this?” I say.
She pauses, steely.
“With no spoon.”
“Cottage cheese with no spoon. Okay.”
“And this.” She nudges her chin downward toward the giant pad.
“A drawing pad?”
She shakes her head. With one hand — deft, definitely breezy — she spins it around. It’s not an art pad. It’s a cheap tall mirror with a white chipboard backing. For door mounting.
“Yep,” she says.
“So how is this gross?”
“Cottage cheese with no spoon.”
“You have to eat it. With no spoon. In front of a mirror.”
“That is — ”
She watches me.
“That’s like — ” I say. “Damn!”
“Daddy!” She gets cross with me when I bite my nails. Also when I curse.
“Sorry. I mean — ”
“You can eat it with your hands or just with your mouth,” she says. “Supergross either way.”
I walk over to the mirror, size it up. I lean it against the mac-and-cheese. I stand both of us in front of it, side by side.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” I intone.
Long before anybody’s wrist is held at championship height, or thrust up, or even grasped, the mirror shows a reverse-vampire grin.
We’re on the tail end now. Momentum gathers, last aisle is breached. It’s empty, this last aisle. Not a single other shopper. Pure runway.
You know as well as I do that an opportunity like this cannot be wasted. I repeat: pure, unmitigated runway. Cass and I have to race. Open-air coolers on the left, glass-door freezers on the right. First to make it under the aisle sign dangling from the ceiling at the other end and reading “13” with a two-column mini-menu underneath
- Eggs Frozen Food
- Dairy Frozen Corn
- Juice Dessert
wins everything, which is to say, nothing, which is to say, a justification for both of us to prolong the giddiness of our championship moment, to laugh and laugh and lose it for a little longer, to get home way too late.
How could I have guessed that she’d fall?
With that slick floor, so hard, how could I not have guessed that she’d fall?
All fast and frantic, limbs flapping, that happy gaping face, an affront to supermarket calm, the opposite of nature and its placid inscrutability and infinite green and infinite eons: how could I have not guessed she’d be singled out for punishment?
I heard a sound when she fell.
The floor is hard for a reason: to make what’s happening keep happening, it can’t dissolve into anything else. To hold up against the wear of people running, crowding around, more than were in the store surely, where are they coming from? The supermarket manager on the phone. To announce their approach, to announce an error. To ape the surfaces of the world outside, unyielding, indifferent, it does nothing to help.
There’s never a reason.
A sickening sound when she fell.
The floor is white for a reason: to set off in contrast so that even Cass’s mother can see what’s happening, makes two people who don’t deserve this, she can see how grievously she’s been failed.
There are no reasons. Just one thing after another, one aisle and then the next, and the stories we tell ourselves to keep up. That’s the only reason. That’s always the reason.
One future day, long after this day of calamity, Cass and I will shop quietly, impeccably, congratulate each other as we fit bags into the trunk, heavy ones first and cold to the right, we’ve got a system, on how quickly we got in and out of the store.
One future day, long after her day of calamity, Cass will emerge from her bedroom, where she will have retreated in a fury after accusing me of willfully misunderstanding the scope of her math project at multiple points during an excruciating hour-long study session, and say, so cheerfully, as if none of that ever happened, as if math were tulle and tea ring cookies and life an endless sun-washed plain of delights, “Daddy, you ready to rock the Shop Rite?”
One future day, long after our day of calamity, Cass and I will walk through the parking lot to the store entrance and I’ll be holding her hand, even though she was the one who drove.
Mrs. Searles is here. Kneeling with me and helping. Mrs. Searles is here with us in the aisle. It would be the sanctuary, behind the altar. There’s not that kind of urgency. She didn’t need to come. It will be fine.
One future day, long after my day of calamity, I’ll take Cass’s son to Shop Rite. Just inside the entrance I’ll rest my hands gamely on the fronts of my thighs, doing my best impersonation of an amiable grandpa. Now remember, no running, I’ll say, and he’ll take off running. No running, I’ll yell, and that thirty-pound terrorist will keep running. Somehow I’ll catch up and get ahold of a warm moist doughy shoulder — like a turnover sweating out its butter — and turn his body around and say, as sternly as I can manage, DO NOT RUN.
I will ignore the wide whorls of green in that face. I will bend closer, and I will pause ominously — maybe like his mother I enjoy a spotlight — and I will shake my bald-but-for-the-bristle head and say, no-foolingly,
Boy child, what’s your favorite ice cream? Chocolate, is it? Well, let’s go buy some. Let’s go buy some right now. Because if you continue to run, then we will bring home a brick of the stuff, and I will sit on one side of the kitchen table and you on the other, and you will watch me eat all your chocolate ice cream, every bit of it, with a big red plastic spoon, and before each slow and sloppy spoonful I’ll say:
“This one’s because you ran.”
“And this one’s because you didn’t stop running even after I told you to.”
“And this one’s because you made me run just to catch you, even though there’s no running.”
“And this one’s because you have to learn your lesson about running.”
And then, when I dig up one more spoon of ice cream, I’ll say, “And what do you think this one’s for?” And you’ll say “Running?” And I’ll say, “Nope, not for running. It’s for — oh, wait a second, yes. Yes, it is. It is for running.”
And I’ll eat that spoonful and the next and the next, and I’ll keep eating till there’s no more chocolate ice cream in Shop Rite or the tri-state area or anywhere in the world. SO DON’T RUN.
And he’ll look up at me, pop-eyed, holding one hand with the other out in front of his body like he can’t decide between singing an aria and asking a question, and finally, opting for the latter, he’ll ask, in the manner of a tiny exchange student, Why not run?
Mrs. Searles is holding her, too. Mrs. Searles’ hands on my hands. Let me have her. The supermarket manager knows, he’s here, and Mr. Donny too . . .
Featured image: Shutterstock
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