Sunday, January 09, 2005

Death at the Supermarket

He's dying, you know.

Yes, you do know. You could tell from the alarmed look on his face, the way his right hand flew to his chest as he started to lean forward. He'll topple any moment now, but the people around don't even seem to notice. He's having a heart attack, there in front of you, and all you can do is watch, appalled, fascinated. Look, even the clerk tallying the cost of his groceries hasn't noticed -- he's looking up the code for chard.

He walked to the store to buy chicken stock, chard, yeast, and apples. It's cold outside, and he felt like something warm and comforting for dinner: chard soup and bread with a baked apple for dessert. The apple is important. He eats two apples every day, one with his lunch and one with his dinner. He's maintained this habit for years, maybe decades now, without fail. But some days he's creative about how he eats his apples: he'll have a little apple sauce, or he'll bake an apple, or fry it with a little butter and bread it in a batter laced with sugar and cinnamon. This evening he decided to bake the apple. Now he'll never get the chance.

If you were behind him in line, you could save him. You're sure of it. But you're stuck. The man in front of you is slowly filling out a check for his groceries, and the woman behind you is trying to wrestle an improbably large bag of cat litter onto the conveyor belt. The bag has a larger-than-life photo of a cat on it, looking smug. You think the cat looks smug because it just put the litter to good use, but cat people know better. That cat only has four facial expressions: asleep, surprised, stalking, and smug. The woman bought that litter despite the advertising, not because of it; she knows the cat's owner uses a different brand of litter altogether, a more expensive brand with a special sort of deodorant. The bag of litter now stubbornly stuck in the woman's cart -- she's nearly lifting the cart now, the bag is so tightly jammed -- that bag of litter is a generic brand with no top-secret deodorants or scientifically determined grain sizes. It works, and she's partial to it despite the smug-looking cat picture.

You cannot go back; you cannot go forward. Could you get to the man, who is now bent nearly double, if you vaulted over the magazine rack? You look at the rack; staring back at you there is an old man with gardening tools; a woman in an impossibly tight dress, an actress whose name you've forgotten; and a cat who must be related to the one on the litter bag. You'll never make it that way, and you know it; if you try, the celebrities on the cover of Enquirer will look up and mock you. Now who's the fool, they'll say, me with my alien love child, or you with the leg you broke as you tried to save a dying man in the next lane?

You're stuck. You can't get to him. All you can do is stand, and watch, and maybe pray. You know that he went to a seminary, but left after he met the woman he was eventually to marry. He'd appreciate your prayers, if he were in any state to appreciate anything. So would his wife, for that matter. She's waiting for him to come home and make dinner now; she's hungry, and she's starting to get grouchy. In an hour, she'll be furious. He's a little absent-minded, and has gotten lost on the way home from the store before. Even after years in their home, just two blocks away from the store, he still sometimes gets confused. In two hours, she'll be worried, because he's never gotten that lost before.

So you watch, and you think that in those last moments you can see something of this man's history and character. His life flashes before your eyes. As a child, he wanted to be a physicist -- no, a dentist -- no, a fireman -- but then he got a bachelor's degree in history, and from there he went straight to the seminary. He could not tell you today why he thought he would be a good priest, but at one time he was convinced of it.

The man sighs a little and falls to his knees. Then he stands. In his hand he holds the keys to the car; he puts them into his pocket, thanks the clerk, and walks briskly from the store, carrying the chard and the yeast and the chicken stock. The clerk starts scanning the next customer's groceries, beginning with the bag of apples.