The electric eye saw him and the doors slid open. The parking lot had been hot -- steamy -- the light rain quickly evaporating off the boiling asphalt and the bright fluorescent store, cool in the afternoon drew him in. The rain caught him half a block away and though stopping almost as soon as it started his shirt was wet with drops coalescing. The conditioned air, artificial, slightly mechanical, all too falsely tropical, chilled the damp and made him shiver. It was a delightful shiver as he stepped through the door, picked up a bright blue plastic shopping basket and walked past the coupons, past the circulars, past the tobacco set to one side so on one could actually touch it, and toward the fruit and vegetables.
He nodded at the young woman working the register. He did not know her name, but she had worked there for years. She started as a cashier and, he figured, must be very good at it now. Once she showed him her engagement ring but she no longer wore it. Perhaps it interfered with her work.
The fruits and vegetables were to the right at the front of the store. He paused to take it all in. One man was perusing the apples, otherwise he was alone. He walked to the bananas. They were few and all a deep dark green. He did not want to wait a week for them to ripen, if they did ripen, so he moved to the melons. He thumped a watermelon. He had no idea what sound a good watermelon made. He thumped another. It sounded more hollow, rang longer. He pushed the side, thumped it again, then moved on. The cantaloupes were different. He could smell them. He picked one up, felt it, hands ranging over the rough skin, fingers sliding along the longitudinal grooves toward the poles. They should be soft -- though not overly. He squeezed. Again. He returned the melon to the display and took another. He remembered once late at night watching a man impress his date by juggling cantaloupes. The man dropped all three -- his woman friend laughing with him as they crashed onto a loud metal plate. Still he wasn’t sure. Some that smelled perfect and felt perfect were too hard or too soft or too tasteless. He put back the cantaloupe, grabbed a third and without feeling placed it in his basket.
He loved head lettuce -- hated leaf lettuce. Hated especially the lectures about the darker leaves and their greater nutritional value. Leaf lettuce taste like grass, head was crisp, moist, succulent, though that was a word he never used. The head lettuce was in a sealed plastic bag, it crinkled when he picked it up, crinkled as he dropped it in his basket, crinkled again when encroached upon by the rolling cantaloupe as he stepped over toward the carrots.
As a boy he remembered bags of carrots, long orange carrots, sweet in their bags, washed at home and ready to eat. He hefted a bag of carrotettes. They were easier to eat, cleaned at the factory, no dirt, no fuss; a miracle of modern agra-business. They were not quiet as sweet, but he liked them none-the-less. The basket dug into his palm, he switched hands.
As he stood and looked at the turnips the store mister suddenly sprayed water on the vegetables. It startled him though he had seen it many times before. He reached out, touched a bound bunch of leaves, felt the beading water slid off onto the leaves below, onto his hand. He grasped the turnips, shook them -- water flying -- and when sufficiently dry dropped them into his basket. The mister sprayed again moistening, cooling the remaining vegetables.
He didn’t eat meat. He gave up chicken when he learned how filthy the factories were. He gave up veal when he learned how awful were the calves short lives. He gave up beef when he learned how so many were raised on drugs that caused cancer. Finally, he learned he didn’t have to kill anything to live. He still liked to stop by the coldcuts in the meat area and examine them. The olive loaf puzzled him, and the head cheese baffled him.
He heard voices nearby. A large family -- father, mother and two boys, probably twins -- stood in front of an upright cooler display of corn dogs. They were debating which size box to purchase. Watching out of the corner of his eye he poked around in the meats, touching the plastic covered remains, waiting. The father finally ended the discussion, opened the cooler door and loaded the economy family size box into their cart.
He drifted on to the frozen foods. The freezers were old, uncovered, the vegetables stacked in the frosty air. He was suddenly aware that his shirt was still damp as the unevaporated water cooled more quickly. He looked around, there were many types of frozen vegetables. There were peas and beans and leafy greens. There were different varieties of the same vegetable and they differed in price. The packages were bright, colorful, interesting. He liked to hold the frozen corn and feel it shift -- beanbag-like -- from one end of the bag to the other. He put down the basket and held a bag in each hand. They were very cold and burned as he held them. The corn squeezed from one side of the bag to the other. He put them both in his basket, blew on his hands to warm them, and picked up the basket and walked one aisle over to the chips.
He didn’t eat chips anymore. The doctor told him to stop. He had tried eating baked and saltless chips and decided not to. His favorite meal was rice, beans, Mexican seasonings and all of it scooped up with tortilla chips instead of a spoon. He tried the meal without chips but it was not the same. The bags drew him, closer. A stringy-haired woman with a pudgy four year old approached; the child was barefoot. The woman pulled an off brand package of cheap, greasy corn ships off the rack, tore open the bag and handed it to the boy. The boy reached in and shoveled a handful into his mouth. He watched them head around the corner, reconsidered the chips and walked toward the front of the store.
Two registers were open. He chose the one operated by his acquaintance. She was accurate and fast, friendly without wasting time. She smiled as he put his basket on the conveyor belt.
There were more problems with European royalty, there were more problems with Hollywood, there were more problems with Congress. Finally, there were more problems with space aliens. He heard beeps as she scanned his food. He always wanted to know what was going on with the royal family. He didn’t know why. He couldn’t understand why he cared. The tabloids used to be 35 cents, now they were more than a dollar. The royal family would have to suffer in solitude.
She bagged his groceries and smiled when he paid her.
The electric eye saw him and the doors slid open and he left behind the cool clean world and stepped out into the still steaming asphalt hell that was the parking lot. He shifted the bag in his arms and walked to the front of the lot, turned right, and sweating again, walked the half mile to his home.