The following story is a guest post by author William Cass.
Mitsuru told his wife that he’d do the shopping for dinner. That was partly due to his wanting to share the chores, but mostly because of the way he’d found her the night before.
Esther hung the strap of her purse over her walker handle and began the slow, one block journey to the grocery store. The sun had dipped just below the treetops, the sky inky blue; it had been Bert’s favorite part of the day.
Todd checked on his mother one last time before riding his bike to his job bagging groceries. She’d fallen asleep again in her recliner, her chin on her chest. He took the burning cigarette from between her fingers and stubbed it out. He left the beer can in her hand, but used the remote to turn off the television before he left.
Mitsuru parked along the street in front of the grocery store. He got a cart inside and consulted the list she’d given him: all traditional bar-b-que items – hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad, corn on the cob, watermelon.
The night before, he’d found that she wasn’t in bed next to him about 3:00am. He followed the light to the end of the hall where she sat at the kitchen table. A bottle of white wine was on the table, and she held a juice glass full of it on her knee.
Softly, he said, “Hey.”
She turned, startled, and put a hand that clenched a tissue to her chest. Her eyes were wide, red-rimmed with tears.
“It’s only been a few weeks,” he said. “Nothing to worry about yet. He’s probably fine.”
Mitsuru was referring to their son who’d enlisted in the Marines with a buddy on a dare the day after they’d graduated from high school the year before. He’d been deployed in Helmand province in Afghanistan for the past five months. Except for the last month, he’d always found a way to call or send an email each week to let them know he was safe.
Esther made her way across the parking lot and through the back entrance of the store. She hung a black plastic basket on the opposite handle from her purse on the walker. Her path through the store was premeditated and methodical; she got lentil soup, instant coffee, nighttime pain reliever, and then fixings for strawberry shortcake. She was pleased to find the line short at the express lane and the nice boy bagging at the end of it.
Todd smiled and gave a little wave to Esther as she entered the line. Then he craned his neck again to see if the girl from his math class had rounded the end of the frozen food aisle.
She’d come in with her ditzy friend. They both wore bikini tops, cut-off jean shorts, and flip-flops. She was tall and long-legged, and her friend was squat. She’d asked him for help with a problem in class the week before and had smiled and thanked him when he’d finished doing that.
Her eyes were kind. He’d watched the girls giggle over some singing greeting cards before heading towards the frozen foods. If they’d noticed him, they gave no indication of it.
In the produce section, Mitsuru peeled back the husks on the corn a bit, twisted them into a plastic bag, and dropped them in the cart. They were his last items. He remembered suddenly his grandmother telling him as a boy how the other young girls and herself had tended a garden that included corn in their Japanese internment camp in central California during World War II. That was where his wife’s mother and his own had first met as children and had become lifelong friends. The truth was that, with their families’ histories, they were both reluctant about their son joining the military. Mitsuru thought that if his wife were pressed for truthfulness, she would say that she was opposed to it; in fact, full of regret and bitterness. Although he expressed nothing but pride publically about his son’s decision, if he were pressed himself, he didn’t know for sure how he would respond.
Esther knew the man checking her groceries well. He passed her items down to Todd after scanning them, and then told Esther the total. She rummaged through her purse until
she came upon her money clip. But, it clenched only a ten dollar bill and two ones. She gave those to the checker and mumbled, “Sorry.”
He held the bills between his fingers and smiled. “What do you want to start taking away today, Mrs. Meyers?”
“Well,” she said. “I can do without the whipped cream.”
He took the can, set it next to the cash register, and punched some keys. “All right. What next?”
“Well, I guess the strawberries will be fine by themselves.” She handed him the spongy cake cups in their cellophane.
He punched a few more keys, looked at her sheepishly and said, “Almost there.”
Esther was a short woman; her head didn’t come much higher than his key pad. She had to reach to get to the strawberries and hand them to him. He made the calculations, smiled at her, and said, “Okay, you’re fine now.”
A few coins slid down the mechanism that Esther collected and dropped in her purse.
Todd had her items ready in the plastic sack she favored.
“Do you need help out today, Mrs. Meyers?”
“No, dear,” she said. “I’ll be fine.”
Todd wrapped the sack over the free end of her walker handle. With only those few items, it was light. She patted his hand, smiled up at him, and said, “Thank you very much.”
He watched her make her way towards the back door, and then turned his attention to the two girls who’d come up to the ice cream case. The one in his math class had taken out a Drumstick and was holding it wide-eyed at her friend. “I love these!” he heard her say.
Mitsuru had been two people behind Esther in the express line and had watched her exchange with the checker. When his turn came, he said, “Do you think it’s too late to add those things for that older woman to my bill?” He nodded at the strawberry shortcake items sitting next to the cash register. “Could you ring them quickly and catch her?”
The checker traded glances with Todd, then shrugged and said, “Well, she doesn’t move very fast, and she only lives up the block. Runs a dance studio that’s become a bed-and-breakfast. Or at least, that’s what it used to be. Todd, can you see if you can catch up to Mrs. Meyers if I run these things?”
“Sure,” the boy said. From the corner of his eye, he saw the two girls leave the store to the street without buying anything.
The checker scanned the items, and then Todd ran quickly out the back door with them.
He caught up to Esther as she was entering her front walk.
“Mrs. Meyers,” he said when he’d come up beside her, a little breathless. “A man bought you these. A man in line behind you.”
Todd held up the clear plastic carton of strawberries in one hand and the can of whipped cream and cake shells in the other. “Here,” he said more slowly and put them in the bag on her walker.
Esther’s frown of bewilderment and surprise softened into a smile. Her shoulders dropped, and she said, “Well, isn’t that something?”
“Yes,” Todd said. “It is.”
“How can I thank him?”
“I’m afraid he’s gone by now, Mrs. Meyers. I didn’t recognize him.”
“Well, isn’t that something? Isn’t that something grand?”
“Yeah, I guess it is.”
“It is, young man. And you’d better remember it. It’s something special, and it’s something grand. You don’t see something like that very often. It’s made my day, I can tell you that.” Todd nodded. He followed her to the front door, and held it open for her. He figured that she was about thirty years older than his mother. He hoped to attend community college once he was done with high school, and then the local university afterward so he could still take care of her. He didn’t know what would happen after that.
Mitsuru set places on the picnic table on the back porch for dinner while he bar-b-qued and his wife sent their son another email. They didn’t talk much over dinner. Afterwards, his wife went to take a bath, and he cleaned up slowly. He was aware of the falling light of evening, a time when he and his son often used to play catch in earlier years. He thought that Esther was probably about the same age as his mother would have been if she’d still been alive.
Esther ate her soup from the pot at her dining room table. As she did, she looked at some of the framed photos on the wall: she and Bert when they were in the same summer stock musical production after college in Connecticut; Bert, still a young man, sitting at the piano inone of the places he’d found work after they’d moved to San Diego; a few of her with her hair done-up long ago in dance ensembles on both coasts; a couple of him in later years in his garden outside; one of the two of them eating lobster with friends down in Puerto Nuevo a long time ago.
She’d left his gardening tools in the shed after he’d died. That back area was now mostly full of junk: discarded items from the dance studio, tools, broken furniture, a rusted hammock from better days. She hadn’t had a dance student in over twenty years, and only a few old time customers came to stay at the bed-and-breakfast anymore, perhaps a handful a year.
Todd stayed on a little after closing to stock shelves for another worker who’d gotten the night off for the holiday. The deli guy passed on some of the remaining fried chicken and potato wedges to him before he left that would otherwise be thrown away. Todd used a little of the tip money he’d been saving to buy a patriotic bouquet for his mom, as well as a Drumstick.
When he got home, Todd found her sleeping as he’d left her, but there were two new empty beer cans next to the recliner, and the television was on again. He tried to roust her for some dinner, but she waved him away and fell back asleep. He turned off the television again and put the flowers in a vase, arranging the tiny American flag it held so that it stood straight up in the middle. Then he ate chicken and potatoes from their paper sack on the front step while he thought about how to get the Drumstick to the girl at school the next day.
They all heard the fireworks begin at the same time: a special show across the bay at the stadium after the baseball game. Esther watched from her bedroom window. Mitsuru returned to the back porch; his wife had already gone off to bed. Todd stayed where he was on the front step.
It was a big show for the holiday and went on for some time. Pops in the distance preceded the draping sprays of colored lights high in the sky. When the fireworks ended, a vague cloud dissipated over the bay like the memory already had in their minds of the exchange at the grocery store. However, it would be something they would all think about from time to time, at odd moments; more often than they might have imagined. Each of them had different reasons for that, but the most important ones were the same.