When I see myself for what I am, what I see is an expressionless woman making dog treats in the middle of the afternoon as she waivers between whether she should go to Costco since she’s getting low on coffee or settle in for a double session of Swedish-language learning. The depth of her soul can be measured by how motivated she is to sit in the gas line at Costco versus her reliance on Google translate to gain Legendary status on Duolingo.
She dances in the privacy of her own kitchen to the likes of James McMurtry, singing “Canola Fields” in a weak match to McMurtry’s seductive tones. The song is perfect for her daydreams, and she wishes every time she hears it that he was singing to her. “Take my hand, Marie. Take a death grip on some part of me….”
She has been embarrassed today, Zoom-ragging on the pickleball craze as a corporate marketing ploy meant to drain seniors of their social security checks. She has imagined a three-act play that takes place in an ER packed with pickleball injuries. She has shrunken to the size of a pickleball when she learns that a woman she adores in the gallery of her writing group plays the game on the regular.
She has thought of the young lizard she found floating in the dogs’ water bowl on Tuesday morning. Has teared up at the telling of it. She was asked by another writing group gallery peer if she might be a little more sensitive than usual this month as the first anniversary of her partner’s death approaches. Yes, she replies. You’re right. Though she didn’t need reminding. It had become her reason for living these days, the obligation of memory.
Today I bring back a story, like the old times. After deciding to drive thirty minutes south in the weather only reaching the 90s today and which increased to 103 once I got to the Costco gas line, I marched into the store along with the rest of the human machines and with membership card in one hand and cart handle in the other, sped through the door with my list on my mind, trying not to be distracted by the marked-down pants and the aisle of cooling aids (turbo fans, air-conditioners, misting wands and air purifiers) to go straight to the slaughtered animals, the chicken all packaged by body part, cut and shrink wrapped to easily fit in the cooler, then the freezer, then the pan, then the mouth. I tried to stop myself from the mathematical madness that sometimes took hold of me there. If there’s a Costco in every city over 100,000 people across the continental U.S. of A., and this many people on average are in any given store at this moment, their cars in the parking lot, and they are all buying cuts of chicken, well, what’s the answer to that? Multiply it by coffee and toilet paper and everything else in the monthly savings circular and again, I must ask, what’s the answer to that?
I told myself I would have a solid five minutes to gather the remaining items on my list from the second store I had just parked near and knew like the back of my hand. I scanned the list and made a rough count — seven items, eight if I splurged. I grabbed the Trader Joe’s paper bag that had been among the camping things and slammed the car door behind me. Five minutes and you’re outta there, I reminded myself, thinking that the dogs had already been without me for more than an hour, and I didn’t want to make it two. Sweet potatoes (add peppers, add avocados) and red potatoes (add lemon, add salsa) and eggs (add olive, add hot dogs) and tortilla chips (add corn chips) and head for the check-out. Don’t think too long on the fact that the generally accepted online shopping check-out feature uses a tiny icon of a grocery cart. We are brain-washed to fill them up.
I stop at the line tended by a mature woman wearing a Hawaiian shirt with a flower at her ear, her long, black ponytail powerful behind her. I knew she was sending love to Maui. She was still helping two women customers older than either she or I. The exchange between them went on long enough for me to review the additional items I had grabbed and to wonder if I had missed anything, so many contradictions of terms.
Her name was Grace, her name tag blessedly heralded. Before I knew it, she had taken the flat paper bag out of my hand and cracked it into the air, commanding it to open. She peaked inside and pulled out what looked like a folded piece of white paper. “I’ll let you take this,” she said as she passed it into my left hand. “Maybe you should look inside.” And then she started channeling from beyond in a dreamy whisper, “Dear One, I’m writing from the ocean. The family is fine. I am not certain when I will return…” or something else as likely. I stood transfixed as she serenaded me with a sudden fiction, The paper had been pressed into eighths, I unfolded it to reveal a section filled with a grocery list made from small blocked-print letters, the unmistakable handwriting of someone I knew.
A guy arrived to pack the groceries in the bag that hadn’t been opened since it had been wedged between the camping containers who knows when. The sacker was at least six-foot four and three-hundred pounds, full beard, arms like giant sausage rolls. He belonged in a scene from Game of Thrones as one of the good guys.
Grace scanned the avocados and salsa as I said in a slow, calm voice, “This piece of paper is special. It’s a grocery list. In my partner’s handwriting. She died last August. And every day this month I have been thinking of all that led up to the day she died.”
“You gave me this today,” I told Grace as I waved the paper in front of her before tapping my debit card against the screen. Her eyes filled with tears. The sacker nodded as he looked straight at Grace and smiled. It was all so real.
“You keep an eye out,” Grace said. And I told her, “I will and I do.” She asked what I did in my life, and I told her I was a teacher. She said I was a good one, a kind one. I nodded that I was. She shifted my sense of place. Suddenly I was in the presence of the divine.
Even after the groceries had been bagged and the counter clear, Grace faced me full on. “I have a sign on my refrigerator that says The more you love, the more there is to lose.” I told her it was true and at that moment something released in me, and I knew that Grace was sent from beyond with her Hawaiian shirt and angel’s smile. The sacker, on cue, slid my groceries toward me. He had double-bagged the load.