John Winstead drove to the grocery store at twilight with no inkling of what he was going to buy, knowing only that he needed to get out of his house.
A few cars were scattered throughout the parking lot at Sentry Foods, that last bastion of double-coupon shoppers throughout the city, as John pulled in: a couple of rust-ridden ones that belonged to people from the neighborhood, a fancier one that he knew was from out of town.
Mrs. Finkle, an eighty-year-old woman whose hair had hardened into the shape of her curlers many years ago, was walking into the store as John made his way to the entrance. She was leaning heavily on a cart that she’d pulled from the receptacle in the parking lot. A cane was hanging from its handle.
John, being twenty-seven years old and plagued by an issue he hadn’t quite grasped yet, wasn’t looking at or thinking of anyone except himself when he made his way through the automatic door. Naturally, he bumped right into poor Mrs. Finkle.
She tottered just a little but kept a tight grip on the cart and did not fall. Her cane, however, was jostled free of the cart handle and fell to the ground.
John apologized profusely, picked up Mrs. Finkle’s cane, and went about his way, still oblivious to most everything around him.
Mrs. Finkle began to walk again, slowly, and spoke quietly to herself.
John soon found himself in the bread section amid a myriad of possibilities. There was whole grain bread, white bread, cinnamon bread, Italian bread, bread with little chunks of blueberries embedded in each piece. The strangest one was a bread stuffed with other breads, rye inside wheat inside sourdough inside white.
The aisle stretched and stretched until it wrapped around John’s entire field of vision, the various breads encircling him, trapping him. But it wasn’t actually the breads, it was something else.
A voice from John’s right broke him from his bread trance before he could figure out exactly what it was.
“The store brand bread’s on the bottom there,” said the dark-haired, female store clerk who was re-stocking the bread stuffed with more bread from a box full of loaves. Her nametag read Beth. “They make us put it down there so you won’t find it.”
John blinked once, looked at her, blinked again. It probably seemed to her that he was inebriated.
“Thanks,” he said, “but I don’t think that’s what I’m looking for.”
“Well, take your time,” said Beth. “It’s not like the store closes in ten minutes or anything.”
“The store closes in ten minutes?”
“It does indeed.”
John considered this and considered Beth, who was now walking away from him down the aisle with an empty bread box in her right hand. Her hair fell behind her in a long, braided ponytail and swayed as she walked.
“Which bread do you buy?” asked John.
“Excuse me?” said Beth, turning back towards him.
“Which bread do you buy?”
“I don’t buy my bread here. I make my own on the weekends. It’s not great, but it’s better than most of this stuff.”
“Do you only make one kind of bread?”
“No, I make a lot of different kinds…” she said, fascinated by the question. “Listen, you should really decide what you’re getting. I’ve got places to be tonight.”
“A concert at the Main Street Pub. I play guitar.”
“What time does it start?”
“As soon as I get there,” said Beth.
“Well then, I’d better check-out, huh?” said John.
He grabbed the bread with the little blueberries and headed to the register, where Beth checked him out. Mrs. Finkle, the store’s other last customer, was standing in the other open check-out lane. The other clerk on duty had just finished ringing up her twenty or so items.
While John got his wallet out to pay for the bread, Beth wrote her name and number and on a small slip of paper she found on the register.
“Here,” she said, handing the paper to him with his bread. “Take this. For occasions when you need bread and can’t decide what to do. Also, if you’re out and about tonight, we can always use more groupies.”
John took the slip of paper and put it in his pocket with a slight smile.
“I’ll think about it,” he said.
After paying for the bread, John made his way back out to the parking lot, where he happened to actually notice Mrs. Finkle. She had already made her way out to her car – the parking lot went downhill – and was having difficulty getting her groceries out of her cart.
With the guilt from his earlier mishap hanging in his mind, John went over to the car to see what he could do to help.
“Can I grab those for you, Mrs. Finkle?” he asked, setting his bread on the ground.
“Why John,” she said, “I’d be delighted to have your assistance.”
As Mrs. Finkle opened the door, John hauled one of the heavy paper bags out of her cart and prepared to set it on the car seat.
“Don’t do what you’re doing,” said Mrs. Finkle.
“I’m sorry?” said John, beginning to put down the bag.
“Not that,” said Mrs. Finkle. “I do need my groceries to get in the car. I’m talking about that paper in your pocket and the ring on your finger. Which you seem to have forgotten about.”
John continued to load the groceries, but spared a glance at his wedding ring. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
“Please, John. I’m old, not senile,” said Mrs. Finkle. “Did you know that I cheated on my husband twenty years ago? Not a lot of people do. He traveled a lot for his job, and I felt that he was not truly appreciative of me.”
“Mrs. Finkle, I really –”
“I regret it now,” she continued. “He deserved to know how I felt and that he wasn’t behaving like a proper husband. But he didn’t deserve that. It broke the trust between us for a long time.”
“Mrs. Finkle, it’s not – ”
“You don’t need to say anything else to me about it,” said Mrs. Finkle. “I’m not looking to pry. I’m just giving you the benefit of my experience.”
In silence, John finished putting Mrs. Finkle’s groceries in her car and took her cart back to the receptacle she’d gotten it from. He then walked back to the car to see if she needed anymore help.
“No, John, I’m alright,” said Mrs. Finkle, from her car. “Be sure to say hi to Julie for me.”
She rolled the window up and started her car. John watched as she drove away.
He then picked up his bread, walked over to his car, proceeded to get in and start it up. As he shifted into gear, he thought about the best way to get to the Main Street Pub.