(I wrote this in a flurry, without much regard for observed rules of writing. The moment described still lingers.)
I sometimes wonder.
Out and about in the twilight on a Saturday night, visiting a store I hadn’t been to in years. My quest was a simple one: to find a pecan pie, after having been denied in more than one stopping place. Sometimes, a dreadful, anticipatory feeling washes over me and I am certain that nothing good will come of the moment or that I have made a grave error in exiting the bed that morning. This was no different. The air felt heavy and optimism had made its escape. This place I chose had long since abandoned any pretense or expectation that good times would return.
Entering, the first person I met was sitting in an electric cart using a payphone. She haggardly looked up and I took a long moment to say “Hi.” She seemed ashamed to have made eye contact or that I had wished her a good evening. She was ageless, an example of a long, hard unrelenting life, one which had scarred her in every conceivable manner. I recognized another person in the scarce frailty of her eyes. The illusion that she was another person’s potential future pounced at the back of my mind and clawed there. It unnerved me. I almost turned to walk hastily back outside, with the intent to lie to my wife and drive away.
As I walked around the store, I couldn’t shake the sensation that I was adrift in a vast tomb, one which had been forgotten. No vibrancy touched its contents and the inhabitants seemed driven by no particular purpose. Surreal would be the best adjective to come to mind. I wasn’t sure if I was hallucinating.
I found the pie I had wanted in an interminable section of upright freezers and headed toward the empty register. As I neared, a solitary man followed by two murmuring younger women materialized in front of me to be attended to. All I wanted was to LEAVE and get out of the shroud of cold oddity I was feeling.
The ageless payphone lady shuffled past the sole open register and she mumbled toward the cashier. He didn’t pay her much direct attention, as if the routine of such a presence was normal. Nevertheless, he had deciphered every word she had said. I watched the woman’s eyes arc across all of us while avoiding further eye contact. I could feel her defeated pain as she limped the length of the wide, desolate store. It might as well have been midnight in that place. She picked up the phone at the deserted customer service desk and dialed out. I could tell by her body language that she was getting even worse news. I turned back to focus on getting out of there.
It occurred to me that just a very short walk or drive away, there were other stores filled with liveliness and the bright presence of both disposable money and no connection to the mausoleum of neglected commerce I had chosen. Springdale, like so many other places, is a handful of economic darts thrown lazily around an epicenter. The overlapping boundaries of affluence fight a silent war there.
I paid and made my way toward the exit. Magically, despite the distance and her anguished gait, I knew instinctively she was somehow behind me. If someone had told me that time had frozen to allow her to speed up behind me, I would have believed it.
She shuffled out behind me, her pained limp evident, the uncertainty of each step dragging against the pavement. I hesitated getting into the car, wanting to glimpse her face again and see if the glimmer of recognition would repeat. Her back stayed toward me and she headed away into the dusk. She was leaving, but both she and the flat aura of the store wouldn’t dissipate.
I got in the car to see my wife, concerned. My entire world was as different from that of the ageless lady as could be imagined.
I was both grateful and slightly broken from knowing it.
It was slightly short of indescribable to be a grown man with a strange, unmotivated sense of dread. It almost bested me.
I sometimes wonder.