BY NANCY PAZNER
Copyright is held by the author.
CAROLYN PULLED into a parking space as close to the store as possible and tried to gather her resources. It was precisely 2:38 am on a cold and drizzly morning, and if there was someplace else she less rather be than here, she couldn’t bring it to mind.
It was just too pitiful. She was sitting outside MegaFoodMart at this godawful hour because there was nothing — absolutely nothing — to eat in her house. She was too hungry to sleep, and this was the only grocery store that she knew of that was open 24 hours. On the way here, the Golden Arches’ all-night drive-through had beckoned. However, the memory of the last time she ran out of food and made a midnight foray to McDonald’s, and the dreadful, sleep-destroying indigestion that had resulted, was still fresh.
Get a grip, she told herself. All you have to do is walk in there, grab a few basic, easy things, like instant noodles and canned soup, then you’re out of here. You can do a real shoo later, when you’re not so tired and hungry that you’re half nuts. Yeah, right, said a voice in the back of her mind. Like you’d ever set foot in a grocery store unless you were totally desperate.
She sighed deeply and got out of the car, determined to get things over with as quickly as possible. She wrestled a cart loose from the line in front of the store and pushed it through the automatic doors. She was quite unsurprised to find that the cart made a grating, squeaking sound, and that no matter in what direction she tried to push, it fought her. She briefly considered abandoning it and getting a different cart, but dismissed the idea. Any other cart she got would be just as bad, if not worse. She had the worst shopping cart karma of anybody she’d ever known. It was one of the many, many reasons she hated grocery shopping.
Inside the store she paused a moment to orient herself. A checker slumped behind the till, slowly paging through a magazine. The rest of the store was dim, almost shadowy. From somewhere in the back came a sound, which, after a while, she identified as a floor polishing machine. Made sense, they had to do the cleaning sometime.
What she really wanted now was something to eat. Her favourite sources of instant food, the Free Sample Ladies, were clearly not on duty. Maybe the bakery take-a-taste basket was still out. It was worth a try. Gritting her teeth, she shoved the cart in the direction of the bakery section, trying to anticipate its evasive manoeuvres and keep some forward momentum.
As she got close to the bakery counter, her heart gave a little flutter. The basket was there on the counter. She grabbed it and gobbled the one remaining, now stale bit of whatever pastry they were flogging. Then she carefully lifted the napkin that lined the basket and gently shook all the remaining crumbs onto the palm of her hand. She had just begun to lick them up when a voice behind her startled her so badly that she inhaled sharply, choked, and began coughing uncontrollably. A hand, presumably attached to the voice, started pounding her between the shoulder blades.
A wave of panic threatened to overwhelm her. She was trapped between the damned, immovable cart, and the unseen, hopefully well-meaning, back-thumper. She couldn’t mov. She couldn’t breathe. She was freaking out. Then, an extra-firm thump sent a large crumb flying out of her mouth, and suddenly air was moving into her lungs again.
Weak and trembling, she turned. Tears blurred her vision and ran down her face. The figure in front of her seemed to be saying something. It had probably been saying something all along. Why couldn’t he just shut up?
“Oh, God, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m so glad I didn’t have to do the Heimlich Maneuver. I mean, they made us all take the first aid course and practice it, but it’s no fun, and oh, my God, I’m so glad I didn’t have to…”
He stopped babbling with what appeared to be an effort, dug around in various pockets, and offered Caroline a battered plastic pack of tissues. She accepted it and wiped her face.
“What did you want to say to me?” she asked, with as much dignity as she could muster.
“You seemed to really like the cookies they had in the basket, and there’s only one box left, and it’s marked down to half-price, and I knew that because they’re my…fav…ourite…,” he started in a rush, then ran down. He took a package of cookies off the shelf and offered it, like a peace offering, or perhaps a shield.
She took the package, opened it, and gobbled two cookies. Sugar. Fat. Heaven. Having dealt with the most urgent matter, she took a closer look at her too-helpful assailant. He was a scrawny guy of indeterminate age, wearing rumpled work clothes. The MegaFoodMart logo was embroidered on his shirt pocket, and above it, the name “Charlie.” Rather belatedly, she noticed the floor polishing machine. Charlie must be one of the cleaning staff. The rush of relief she felt made her realize that she had been assuming the worst — a stalker, a molester, a crazy….
She helped herself to another cookie, then held one out. “Thank you, Charlie.” She placed the box in the cart. “Don’t worry. I’ll pay for them at the checkout.”
She dismissed Charlie from her mind, and began the tortuous process of turning the cart around. It emitted a piercing squeal and lunged in the general direction of the canned goods section. Caroline hurried to keep up with it.
The cart neatly avoided a pyramid of some sort of canned vegetable at the end of the aisle, and lurched forward. The light seemed even dimmer than it had in the bakery section, and Carolyn had to squint to make out the labels of the cans on the shelves.
However, squinting didn’t help all that much. The labels were colourful — full of pictures of smiling faces and strange vegetables — but the text didn’t make sense. Maybe she had somehow gotten into the exotic foods section. No matter, canned soup was canned soup — the mainstay of her diet. All she had to do was to find a label that looked like a bowl full of something edible, no tentacles or…
She stopped dead, in spite of the cart’s momentum. Where did the idea of tentacles come from? She looked more closely at the shelf, and sure enough, there it was. A picture of a smiling woman offering up a steaming bowl of something from which emerged a veritable bouquet of waving tentacles. The text on the label was in an alphabet that looked like she should be able to read it, but couldn’t quite.
She closed her eyes, shuddered, and with a grunt of effort got the cart moving again. Predictably, although it had fought her when she wanted to stop, now it clearly had no intentions of moving again. She refused to accommodate it.
About half-way down the aisle, she carefully opened her eyes just enough to scan the shelves on either side. Spotting a display with the familiar half-red, half-white of good, old Campbell’s soup, she grabbed three or four cans at random and put them in the cart, being very careful not to look at them too carefully. Perhaps if she believed hard enough that they really were Campbell’s they would be.
At the end of the aisle the cart veered to the left with an ear-splitting screech. Carolyn didn’t have the energy to contest it, and in any case, couldn’t come up with a good reason to do so. When it became clear that this was the aisle with cookies, granola bars, and various other ready-to-eat treats, she cautiously congratulated herself on her good judgement.
As she approached the granola bar section, Carolyn tried to slow down, scanning for her favourite: peanut butter chocolate chip bars. The cart kept right on going. She leaned back hard on the cart handle, and found herself being dragged along. In desperation, she threw out a hand and grabbed a box as she slid on past, hoping against hope that it would be something she liked. Her relief at having actually gotten some food in the cart faded when she got a good look at the box. It really didn’t look like something with peanut butter or chocolate in it. In fact, it wasn’t even granola bars. It was a box of low-fat, whole wheat, raspberry bars. Pseudo-food fit only for self-righteous health nuts.
“What are you trying to do to me, you disgusting metallic bully?” she muttered.
The cart did a funny little waggle, making a hup-hup-hup sound, before jamming to a stop in front of the organic/gluten-free/fat-free/sugar-free/healthy/taste-free “snack” section. Carolyn surveyed the offerings without favour.
“I don’t want any,” Carolyn announced, giving the cart handle a shove.
The cart remained completely immobile, but seemed to project an air of expectancy.
“I said I don’t want any,” Carolyn said louder. She shoved the cart handle again, though this time without much hope. “If I get some ever-so-healthy, tastes-like-crap product, can we get on with things?”
The cart did its waggle and hup-hup routine, and Carolyn accepted defeat. She selected three packages at random and threw them into the cart with a good deal more force than was necessary. She silently resolved to leave them all on the impulse-buy rack at the checkout counter.
Having won the confrontation, the cart went back to its impersonation of a docile, inanimate object, waiting quietly for a push from Carolyn. Carolyn, feeling wary, obliged. The cart allowed her to pretend she was in charge until they got to the end of the aisle, at which point it veered sharply and determinedly toward the produce section, Carolyn trailing along behind it.
In the produce section, the cart made clear its preferences, which tended very strongly toward leafy greens. Carolyn put up a token resistance with the kale, but quickly buckled under the cart’s metallic insistence, and thereafter put one of each type of greens in the cart without waiting for prodding.
The only other minor confrontation occurred when Carolyn managed to grab a small bag of apples. When the cart hesitated somewhat threateningly, she announced loudly, “These apples are not only organic, but locally grown.” The cart seemed to consider the merits of the statement, and then, with a motion that could only be described as a shrug, continued on.
They made four full circuits of the produce section, the cart occasionally making happy little hup-hup noises. Finally, to Carolyn’s great relief, they moved on.
As they rolled down the breakfast cereal aisle, they encountered the first other shopper Carolyn had seen since entering MegaFoodMart. Or at least she assumed that there was a shopper behind the overladen cart, because it was moving in her general direction. And, look, a hand reached out and grabbed something, which was tossed deftly to the top of the pile, where it wobbled, started to slide off, and then, miraculously stayed put.
Carolyn’s cart chose this moment to suddenly exhibit a previously unseen aspect of its character. It slowed down and sidled over to the edge of the aisle, moving silently and almost furtively. Just before they drew abreast of the other cart, it suddenly shot ahead, passing it with heretofore unseen speed.
Letting her cart tow her, Carolyn twisted around to look at the other shopper. Behind the incredible pile of stuff was a tiny, ancient woman. She turned her head as Carolyn went by, pinning Carolyn with enormous pale blue eyes behind dusty spectacles.
“Do you know how to get out, dear? I believe I’ve forgotten the way,” she whispered hoarsely.
Her words seemed to spur Carolyn’s cart forward with extra speed. Carolyn continued to watch the woman, even as the cart dragged her around the corner to the next aisle. The woman continued talking, but her words were lost.
Once around the corner, the cart reverted to its totally unconvincing imitation of something without will or movement. Carolyn took advantage of its sham deference to slow down, grab a few items that she — not the cart — wanted, and think about things. The cart, either sated by the produce section binge, or still keeping a low profile, offered no commentary.
How long had that woman been in the store? For that matter, how long had Carolyn been in the store? She glanced at her watch and was astounded to see that it was almost 4:00 am. She’d been following this Cart from Hell for almost an hour and a half.
The next aisle had the candy and chocolate. Carolyn’s attention was immediately focused on the task of getting as much chocolate as possible into the cart. She managed three enormous bars of milk chocolate with almonds before the cart seemed to wake up. Even then, its reaction was relatively subdued, consisting of a strange little shimmy before it sped up and dragged her away from temptation.
Neither Carolyn or the cart were paying attention when they turned down the next aisle, and both were caught by surprise. That’s the only thing that could have accounted for the fact that they acted in complete unison — coming to a dead stop about half way down the aisle.
The way was blocked by what was probably the biggest person Carolyn had ever seen. He was tall and immensely broad. Certainly some of that breadth was fat, but it looked like there was an enormous amount of muscle underlying it. His cart was old, battered, and rusty. It was nearly filled, but not with groceries. Carolyn could identify a ragged sleeping bag, a kerosene lantern, and what looked like a furled beach umbrella amongst the clutter of other less-familiar things.
This probably wasn’t your standard grocery customer. Perhaps it was a homeless person with insomnia who found the MegaFoodMart to be a handy place to spend some time. As Carolyn stood staring, the individual turned, revealing eyes, nose, and mouth framed by a storm of wiry black and grey hair and beard.
There was a pause as both individuals considered each other. Then the man’s mouth, full of crooked, multi-coloured teeth, opened, and one huge hand extended in Carolyn’s direction. She gulped, broke out in a cold sweat, and froze.
Gradually, through the roaring in her ears, she realized that the man-mountain was saying something to her, probably for the second or third time.
She focused on the hand, noticing first the haze of fine black hairs across the back of it, and only then, that it was holding a slightly crumpled fan of what looked like store coupons.
“…don’t need them, so take as many as you want,” the voice was rumbling.
How could she refuse such a generous offer? She reached out to take the coupons and as she grasped them, one escaped and fluttered to the floor. Holding the remaining coupons in one hand, she removed her other hand from the cart handle. A corner of her mind registered that taking both hand off of the cart seemed to be a very difficult thing to do. She scrambled after the fallen coupon, which had drifted under Man Mountain’s cart, finally retrieving it.
When she stood up, she saw that her cart had somehow turned around, almost blocking the aisle, and had its handle angled toward her invitingly. Both hands, full of coupons, jerked toward the cart handle, but she could not, would not, let go of the coupons. Impelled by impulse, she squeezed between her cart and the shelf, bruising one hip on the cart and the other on whatever was on the shelf and, cartless, kept going, not running exactly, but at a more than the usual stroll-the-grocery-aisles pace.
She strained her ears, expecting to hear the screech or hup-hup of a pursuing cart. Instead, all she heard was a low-pitched rumbling from Man Mountain, something about enjoying the coupons. Good manners, deeply ingrained, almost prompted her to stop and thank her benefactor. Instead, the need to escape prevailed, and she compromised by squeaking “Thank you! You’re so kind!” as she scuttled away.
At the end of the aisle, panic almost overtook her as she tried to decide which way to turn, and then again, after she had finally turned to the left, when deciding whether to go down the next aisle. She took in a few deep breaths to calm herself, and decided to simply keep walking—at a pretty brisk clip—along the periphery of the store.
That decision began to look inspired when, after turning the second corner, the exit door appeared ahead of her. She marched out, staring straight ahead and not stopping until she arrived at her car. It was only when she had trouble fishing her keys out of her pocket that she realized that she was still holding, in both hands, the coupons from Man Mountain.
Once in the car, with all the doors locked and the engine running, she allowed herself to regret the box of cookies abandoned in the cart. Oh, well, there was always McDonald’s. She doubted she’d sleep tonight, and anyway, there really wasn’t much night left.
Caroline pulled into a parking space as close to the store as possible and gathered her resources. It was precisely 1:38 am on a clear, moonless night, and if there was someplace else she less rather be than here, she couldn’t bring it to mind.
She was back outside MegaFoodMart because there was nothing — absolutely nothing — to eat in her house, and she was too hungry to sleep. She heaved a deep sigh, exited the car, and pocketed her keys, patting the other pocket quickly to reassure herself that the talismanic coupons from Man Mountain — the coupons without which she would not enter a grocery store — were there.
She entered the store, carefully keeping her eyes forward, and neatly avoiding several carts that seemed to materialize in her path. Without hesitation, she went to the canned-food section, took down three cans of Campbell’s vegetable soup, and executed an about-face that would have done credit to a Prussian soldier. She paid without chit-chat, and was out of the store in less than three minutes, with only slightly elevated blood pressure and breathing. Once again she patted the pocket with the coupons.
She detoured slightly to go by the cart corral, and, without breaking stride, landed a vicious kick on the nearest cart, before limping triumphantly to her car. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but for now, it would do.