Elizabeth Wagner

People You Never Knew

On the way home they stopped at a grocery store to get something for dinner.
“What should we have?” Dodd asked her. “Something to celebrate.”
“Potatoes,” she said.
“Potatoes,” he said and looked at the parking lot, like there was some question out there.
“We could have potato salad and bratwurst and green beans.”
He looked at her with his mouth open. “That sounds amazing.”
He dropped her off at the store’s entrance and she went in, picking up a green shopping basket and tucking it into the crook of her arm like someone in a fairy tale. At this hour on a weekday there would be children weeping about pop tarts and mothers snapping out horrifying threats; there would be men in wrinkled suits buying cheap flowers and rotisserie chickens or cases of beer and cups of yogurt; there would be women muttering about apples and European butter or humming and looking at frozen pizzas and making jokes to no one about how much they hated dinner. But today was Saturday; the store was quiet and full of a strange, weightless peace. The overhead lights seemed to chill everything and everyone moved like they were pleasantly circling outside the Earth’s orbit. Like they never wanted to come back.
Andrea liked the way things looked in the produce section: the bright colors of the vegetables and the piles of fruit that were haphazard but not quite out of control. There were things here that seemed special and unfamiliar, things she might never have seen before: poblano peppers so green they were almost black, fennel bulbs with long fronds that seemed to be growing still. There were shiny purple cabbages and potatoes with smooth skin and not a trace of dirt. These things seemed very important to her now and she put them in her basket, thinking vaguely of recipes she’d seen in magazines. Somehow they were a key to participating in the world, to accessing the secret pleasures of being alive. She picked out a baguette and a heavy loaf of rye bread and a jar of jam that cost seven dollars on sale.
Soon her basket was full and she thought about going to get a cart, but she didn’t because Dodd was waiting outside in the car. She had to hurry. He wouldn’t know what had happened to her and he would begin to imagine terrible things. He never shut the car off when he waited in the parking lot, no matter how many times she asked him. Gas was being wasted and there was always the possibility that the battery might die. She panicked then and put the bread and the jam and the fennel back. It made her feel like she had when she was a kid, when things were bad and she and her brother would have to shop for groceries with whatever money they could steal from their mother’s purse. You had to keep a close estimate in your head as you shopped and it was a good idea to round all the prices up to the nearest half dollar. Joel would always insist that they put one thing back, even if they were sure that they had enough money. He would pretend to be older than she was and say cross things in an artificially strained voice, “Andrea, it isn’t worth it. Do you really want to have the checkout lady looking at you like that?” Maybe it was, she thought now. Maybe it was worth having the checkout lady look at you like that. Then at least there was a chance that you’d end up leaving with everything you wanted. She decided then that this thought had been the basic difference between them. But she stopped. She stopped herself. Whenever she thought of him she shook her head, to physically get him out of there, and she did it now. She’d let it go on a little too long. It was he who wanted to be away, after all, and when she tried to think of what his life was like now—his child and his wife and his house in Pennsylvania—nothing happened. Her mind seemed to drain away completely.
Now she went back through the aisles to get what they needed. Hotdog buns and that kind of grainy mustard Dodd liked so well. She also went down the soup aisle and got a couple of cans of Chicken and Stars because he liked that too, at least when he was sick, and sometimes they ran out of it. There were a number of things that seemed good to keep around and walking through the aisles she felt compelled to pick them up. That way they wouldn’t have to run to the store tomorrow. She got oatmeal and shredded cheese and a couple bottles of decent wine. Also there was this ice cream made from coconut milk; they didn’t sell it everywhere but this store had it and she went to figure out where it was. It was one of the most delicious things she had ever eaten.
The basket was very heavy and her free arm was also full. When she got to the ice cream freezers, a man in a leather jacket was standing in front of the one she wanted to get to. He saw her and said, “You’ve got a heavy load there.” He laughed.
Andrea tried to smile but she didn’t want to talk to him. “Excuse me,” she said. She tried to get past him and in the process she dropped the oatmeal and the hot dog buns.
The man stooped to pick them up immediately. “You need a cart,” he said as he tried to balance the buns on top of the soup cans in the basket.
“I’m fine,” she said, avoiding his eyes, feeling like she was a child again. Where was Dodd? Why hadn’t he come in with her? The buns fell out of the basket again and the man reached for them, laughing harder this time. His hand brushed against hers when he stood back up. She didn’t look at him. “Thank you,” she said. “Thanks, I’m fine.” She wanted to say go away and she almost did. All that stopped her was that small thing inside her, the steady pulse reminding her all the time, telling her that everything was really fine, even when it seemed like it wasn’t. She turned away from the man, toward the ice cream, but the man didn’t go away.
“Is that stuff any good?” he asked.
She nodded and the buns fell again. She left them on the ground. She walked away as quickly as she could.
At the check-out counter, the woman gave her a strange look. “You doing okay today, ma’am?”
Andrea nodded. She slid her debit card through the reader too early.
“Hold on there,” the woman said. “You’re in a real rush. These machines run on their own clock, that’s for sure.”
Andrea looked down at her feet. The floor was dirty. The whole place was dingy and kind of disgusting. She tried to count backwards from ten, she tried to breathe. She couldn’t think now why she had bought all of this stuff. He would think she was ridiculous.
“Ma’am,” the woman called as Andrea was walking away. “Your receipt?”
Andrea did not turn around. She didn’t wave. She ran out of there like she’d stolen something, like she’d already been caught. There was a black car waiting outside but it wasn’t their car and she couldn’t see their car anywhere. Dodd had been here, hadn’t he?
It was like those moments when you forgot where you parked and you thought for a split second that your car had been stolen; suddenly you glimpsed the whole of that experience: how terrible it would be. Or when you tried to unlock the doors of a car that looked like yours but wasn’t. You panicked and panicked and thought unreasonable things: somebody changed the locks on me, somebody switch my keys with their own. And then you saw a car seat in the back and you remembered you were one row over. But even after you knew it was okay, you still couldn’t shake the feeling: how close they were, these disasters, just a hair’s breadth from being real.
There was a man in the black car. The man from the ice cream aisle. He was after her. Andrea turned away from him. She turned to face the store, pretending like she was waiting for someone to come out, her husband or her kid or somebody. Somebody who would help her carry all these bags. The black car pulled closer to her and a hand stretched out from the window and waved. The man spoke to her, and she stepped close to the automatic doors, so close that they opened. Dodd was gone. It was like a nightmare. She knew that the worst thing had happened. He had lost patience, really. He had gotten tired of waiting. He had left her. Dodd wouldn’t do that, that’s what you told yourself, but this was people and with people you never knew.
“Andrea,” the man said again and she turned around to scowl at him, to wave him away. Now he was out of the car. She thought of the things they tried to teach you about self defense. Scream, go for the eyes with your car keys, don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid. She looked at this man’s face and backed toward the doors of the store. Who was that? Someone. She felt a little bit like maybe she was dying.
“Andrea,” he said, loud this time, and he started coming closer to her. Something broke then, in the bottom of her stomach. It was Dodd.
She looked him in the eyes and knew that he knew everything. It didn’t matter, though, she didn’t want to talk about it. “I just realized that I forgot the brats. I was in there all this time and I totally forgot them. I forgot the green beans too.”
He came close to her and took one of the grocery bags. He put his free hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay,” he said. He was still looking at her. Probably the same way that Bill had looked at Mickie, after she’d puked all over the boat. So sorry for me it kind of broke my heart.
“I forgot we had a new car,” she said. She looked at him and she tried to tell him that she was sorry. That there was only a moment when she didn’t know him and that moment didn’t matter, didn’t hold any weight against all the other moments of all the other days. It was just a funny twitch in her brain and it didn’t mean anything. I do know you, she should have said. I do.



Elizabeth Wagner Photo
Elizabeth Wagner lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.